The Minister’s Charge – William Dean Howells
With ‘The Minister’s Charge’ Mr. Howells has reached the point where his books are less interesting individually than as parts of a series, and one has the satisfaction with these later works of being able to read them by the light of the author’s own canons of criticism. These show that Mr. Howells cannot only preach a philosophy, but live up to it ; for the story of Lemuel Barker, so far as it is told, has the ” respect for probability, the fidelity to conditions, human and social, which,” he has told us, ” can alone justify the reading and writing of novels.” We say, “so far as it is told,” for Lemuel, with characteristic reticence, has taken most of his story back with him to Willoughby’s Pastures, and leaves us to make what we can of the little we know.
The Minister’s Charge.
Excerpt from the text:
On their way back to the farm-house where they were boarding, Sewell’s wife reproached him for what she called his recklessness. “You had no right,” she said, “to give the poor boy false hopes. You ought to have discouraged him—that would have been the most merciful way—if you knew the poetry was bad. Now, he will go on building all sorts of castles in the air on your praise, and sooner or later they will come tumbling about his ears—just to gratify your passion for saying pleasant things to people.”
“I wish you had a passion for saying pleasant things to me, my dear,” suggested her husband evasively.
“Oh, a nice time I should have!”
“I don’t know about your nice time, but I feel pretty certain of my own. How do you know—Oh, do get up, you implacable cripple!” he broke off to the lame mare he was driving, and pulled at the reins.
“Don’t saw her mouth!” cried Mrs. Sewell.
“Well, let her get up, then, and I won’t. I don’t like to saw her mouth; but I have to do something when you come down on me with your interminable consequences. I dare say the boy will never think of my praise again. And besides, as I was saying when this animal interrupted me with her ill-timed attempts at grazing, how do you know that I knew the poetry was bad?”
“How? By the sound of your voice. I could tell you were dishonest in the dark, David.”
“Perhaps the boy knew that I was dishonest too,” suggested Sewell.
“Oh no, he didn’t. I could see that he pinned his faith to every syllable.”
“He used a quantity of pins, then; for I was particularly profuse of syllables. I find that it requires no end of them to make the worse appear the better reason to a poet who reads his own verses to you. But come, now, Lucy, let me off a syllable or two. I—I have a conscience, you know well enough, and if I thought—But pshaw! I’ve merely cheered a lonely hour for the boy, and he’ll go back to hoeing potatoes to-morrow, and that will be the end of it.”
“I hope that will be the end of it,” said Mrs. Sewell, with the darkling reserve of ladies intimate with the designs of Providence.
“Well,” argued her husband, who was trying to keep the matter from being serious, “perhaps he may turn out a poet yet. You never can tell where the lightning is going to strike. He has some idea of rhyme, and some perception of reason, and—yes, some of the lines were musical. His general attitude reminded me of Piers Plowman. Didn’t he recall Piers Plowman to you?”
“I’m glad you can console yourself in that way, David,” said his wife relentlessly.
The mare stopped again, and Sewell looked over his shoulder at the house, now black in the twilight, on the crest of the low hill across the hollow behind them. “I declare,” he said, “the loneliness of that place almost broke my heart. There!” he added, as the faint sickle gleamed in the sky above the roof, “I’ve got the new moon right over my left shoulder for my pains. That’s what comes of having a sympathetic nature.”
The boy was looking at the new moon, across the broken gate which stopped the largest gap in the tumbled stone wall. He still gripped in his hand the manuscript which he had been reading to the minister.
“There, Lem,” called his mother’s voice from the house, “I guess you’ve seen the last of ’em for one while. I’m ‘fraid you’ll take cold out there ‘n the dew. Come in, child.”
The boy obeyed. “I was looking at the new moon, mother. I saw it over my right shoulder. Did you hear—hear him,” he asked, in a broken and husky voice,—“hear how he praised my poetry, mother?”
“Oh, do make her get up, David!” cried Mrs. Sewell. “These mosquitoes are eating me alive!”
“I will saw her mouth all to the finest sort of kindling-wood, if she doesn’t get up this very instant,” said Sewell, jerking the reins so wildly that the mare leaped into a galvanic canter, and continued without further urging for twenty paces. “Of course, Lucy,” he resumed, profiting by the opportunity for conversation which the mare’s temporary activity afforded, “I should feel myself greatly to blame if I thought I had gone beyond mere kindness in my treatment of the poor fellow. But at first I couldn’t realise that the stuff was so bad. Their saying that he read all the books he could get, and was writing every spare moment, gave me the idea that he must be some sort of literary genius in the germ, and I listened on and on, expecting every moment that he was coming to some passage with a little lift or life in it; and when he got to the end, and hadn’t come to it, I couldn’t quite pull myself together to say so. I had gone there so full of the wish to recognise and encourage, that I couldn’t turn about for the other thing. Well! I shall know another time how to value a rural neighbourhood report of the existence of a local poet. Usually there is some hardheaded cynic in the community with native perception enough to enlighten the rest as to the true value of the phenomenon; but there seems to have been none here. I ought to have come sooner to see him, and then I could have had a chance to go again and talk soberly and kindly with him, and show him gently how much he had mistaken himself. Oh, get up!” By this time the mare had lapsed again into her habitual absent-mindedness, and was limping along the dark road with a tendency to come to a full stop, from step to step. The remorse in the minister’s soul was so keen that he could not use her with the cruelty necessary to rouse her flagging energies; as he held the reins he flapped his elbows up toward his face, as if they were wings, and contrived to beat away a few of the mosquitoes with them; Mrs. Sewell, in silent exasperation, fought them from her with the bough which she had torn from an overhanging birch-tree.
In the morning they returned to Boston, and Sewell’s parish duties began again; he was rather faithfuller and busier in these than he might have been if he had not laid so much stress upon duties of all sorts, and so little upon beliefs. He declared that he envied the ministers of the good old times who had only to teach their people that they would be lost if they did not do right; it was much simpler than to make them understand that they were often to be good for reasons not immediately connected with their present or future comfort, and that they could not confidently expect to be lost for any given transgression, or even to be lost at all. He found it necessary to do his work largely in a personal way, by meeting and talking with people, and this took up a great deal of his time, especially after the summer vacation, when he had to get into relations with them anew, and to help them recover themselves from the moral lassitude into which people fall during that season of physical recuperation.
He was occupied with these matters one morning late in October when a letter came addressed in a handwriting of copybook carefulness, but showing in every painstaking stroke the writer’s want of training, which, when he read it, filled Sewell with dismay. It was a letter from Lemuel Barker, whom Sewell remembered, with a pang of self-upbraiding, as the poor fellow he had visited with his wife the evening before they left Willoughby Pastures; and it enclosed passages of a long poem which Barker said he had written since he got the fall work done. The passages were not submitted for Sewell’s criticism, but were offered as examples of the character of the whole poem, for which the author wished to find a publisher. They were not without ideas of a didactic and satirical sort, but they seemed so wanting in literary art beyond a mechanical facility of versification, that Sewell wondered how the writer should have mastered the notion of anything so literary as publication, till he came to that part of the letter in which Barker spoke of their having had so much sickness in the family that he thought he would try to do something to help along. The avowal of this meritorious ambition inflicted another wound upon Sewell’s guilty consciousness; but what made his blood run cold was Barker’s proposal to come down to Boston, if Sewell advised, and find a publisher with Sewell’s assistance.
This would never do, and the minister went to his desk with the intention of despatching a note of prompt and total discouragement. But in crossing the room from the chair into which he had sunk, with a cheerful curiosity, to read the letter, he could not help some natural rebellion against the punishment visited upon him. He could not deny that he deserved punishment, but he thought that this, to say the least, was very ill-timed. He had often warned other sinners who came to him in like resentment that it was this very quality of inopportuneness that was perhaps the most sanative and divine property of retribution; the eternal justice fell upon us, he said, at the very moment when we were least able to bear it, or thought ourselves so; but now in his own case the clear-sighted prophet cried out and revolted in his heart. It was Saturday morning, when every minute was precious to him for his sermon, and it would take him fully an hour to write that letter; it must be done with the greatest sympathy; he had seen that this poor foolish boy was very sensitive, and yet it must be done with such thoroughness as to cut off all hope of anything like literary achievement for him.
At the moment Sewell reached his desk, with a spirit disciplined to the sacrifice required of it, he heard his wife’s step outside his study door, and he had just time to pull open a drawer, throw the letter into it, and shut it again before she entered. He did not mean finally to conceal it from her, but he was willing to give himself breath before he faced her with the fact that he had received such a letter. Nothing in its way was more terrible to this good man than the righteousness of that good woman. In their case, as in that of most other couples who cherish an ideal of dutiful living, she was the custodian of their potential virtue, and he was the instrument, often faltering and imperfect, of its application to circumstances; and without wishing to spare himself too much, he was sometimes aware that she did not spare him enough. She worked his moral forces as mercilessly as a woman uses the physical strength of a man when it is placed at her direction.
“What is the matter, David?” she asked, with a keen glance at the face he turned upon her over his shoulder.
“Nothing that I wish to talk of at present, my dear,” answered Sewell, with a boldness that he knew would not avail him if she persisted in knowing.
“Well, there would be no time if you did,” said his wife. “I’m dreadfully sorry for you, David, but it’s really a case you can’t refuse. Their own minister is taken sick, and it’s appointed for this afternoon at two o’clock, and the poor thing has set her heart upon having you, and you must go. In fact, I promised you would. I’ll see that you’re not disturbed this morning, so that you’ll have the whole forenoon to yourself. But I thought I’d better tell you at once. It’s only a child—a little boy. You won’t have to say much.”
“Oh, of course I must go,” answered Sewell, with impatient resignation; and when his wife left the room, which she did after praising him and pitying him in a way that was always very sweet to him, he saw that he must begin his sermon at once, if he meant to get through with it in time, and must put off all hope of replying to Lemuel Barker till Monday at least. But he chose quite a different theme from that on which he had intended to preach. By an immediate inspiration he wrote a sermon on the text, “The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel,” in which he taught how great harm could be done by the habit of saying what are called kind things. He showed that this habit arose not from goodness of heart, or from the desire to make others happy, but from the wish to spare one’s-self the troublesome duty of formulating the truth so that it would perform its heavenly office without wounding those whom it was intended to heal. He warned his hearers that the kind things spoken from this motive were so many sins committed against the soul of the flatterer and the soul of him they were intended to flatter; they were deceits, lies; and he besought all within the sound of his voice to try to practise with one another an affectionate sincerity, which was compatible not only with the brotherliness of Christianity, but the politeness of the world. He enforced his points with many apt illustrations, and he treated the whole subject with so much fulness and fervour, that he fell into the error of the literary temperament, and almost felt that he had atoned for his wrongdoing by the force with which he had portrayed it.
Mrs. Sewell, who did not always go to her husband’s sermons, was at church that day, and joined him when some ladies who had lingered to thank him for the excellent lesson he had given them at last left him to her.