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HOME > Classical Novels > Being a Boy > V THE BOY'S SUNDAY
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Sunday in the New England hill towns used to begin Saturday night at sundown; and the sun is lost to sight behind the hills there before it has set by the almanac. I remember that we used to go by the almanac Saturday night and by the visible disappearance Sunday night. On Saturday night we very slowly yielded to the influences of the holy time, which were settling down upon us, and submitted to the ablutions which were as inevitable as Sunday; but when the sun (and it never moved so slow) slid behind the hills Sunday night, the effect upon the watching boy was like a shock from a galvanic battery; something flashed through all his limbs and set them in motion, and no "play" ever seemed so sweet to him as that between sundown and dark Sunday night. This, however, [Pg 31] was on the supposition that he had conscientiously kept Sunday, and had not gone in swimming and got drowned. This keeping of Saturday night instead of Sunday night we did not very well understand; but it seemed, on the whole, a good thing that we should rest Saturday night when we were tired, and play Sunday night when we were rested. I supposed, however, that it was an arrangement made to suit the big boys who wanted to go "courting" Sunday night. Certainly they were not to be blamed, for Sunday was the day when pretty girls were most fascinating, and I have never since seen any so lovely as those who used to sit in the gallery and in the singers' seats in the bare old meeting-houses.

Sunday to the country farmer-boy was hardly the relief that it was to the other members of the family; for the same chores must be done that day as on others, and he could not divert his mind with whistling, hand-springs, or sending the dog into the river after sticks. He had to submit, in the first place, to the restraint of shoes [Pg 32] and stockings. He read in the Old Testament that when Moses came to holy ground he put off his shoes; but the boy was obliged to put his on, upon the holy day, not only to go to meeting, but while he sat at home. Only the emancipated country-boy, who is as agile on his bare feet as a young kid, and rejoices in the pressure of the warm soft earth, knows what a hardship it is to tie on stiff shoes. The monks who put peas in their shoes as a penance do not suffer more than the country-boy in his penitential Sunday shoes. I recall the celerity with which he used to kick them off at sundown.

Sunday morning was not an idle one for the farmer-boy. He must rise tolerably early, for the cows were to be milked and driven to pasture; family prayers were a little longer than on other days; there were the Sunday-school verses to be re-learned, for they did not stay in mind over night; perhaps the wagon was to be greased before the neighbors began to drive by; and the horse was to be caught out of the pasture, ridden home bareback, and harnessed.

[Pg 33]

This catching the horse, perhaps two of them, was very good fun usually, and would have broken the Sunday if the horse had not been wanted for taking the family to meeting. It was so peaceful and still in the pasture on Sunday morning; but the horses were never so playful, the colts never so frisky. Round and round the lot the boy went, calling, in an entreating Sunday voice, "Jock, jock, jock, jock," and shaking his salt-dish, while the horses, with heads erect, and shaking tails and flashing heels, dashed from corner to corner, and gave the boy a pretty good race before he could coax the nose of one of them into his dish. The boy got angry, and came very near saying "dum it," but he rather enjoyed the fun, after all.

The boy remembers how his mother's anxiety was divided between the set of his turn-over collar, the parting of his hair, and his memory of the Sunday-school verses; and what a wild confusion there was through the house in getting off for meeting, and how he was kept running hither and thither, to get the hymn-book, or a [Pg 34] palm-leaf fan, or the best whip, or to pick from the Sunday part of the garden the bunch of caraway seed. Already the deacon's mare, with a wagon load of the deacon's folks, had gone shambling past, head and tail drooping, clumsy hoofs kicking up clouds of dust, while the good deacon sat jerking the reins in an automatic way, and the "women-folks" patiently saw the dust settle upon their best summer finery. Wagon after wagon went along the sandy road, and when our boy's family started, they became part of a long procession, which sent up a mile of dust and a pungent if not pious smell of buffalo-robes. There were fiery horses in the train which had to be held in, for it was neither etiquette nor decent to pass anybody on Sunday. It was a great delight to the farmer-boy to see all this procession of horses, and to exchange sly winks with the other boys, who leaned over the wagon-seats for that purpose. Occasionally a boy rode behind, with his back to the family, and his pantomime was always something wonderful to see, and was considered very daring and wicked.

[Pg 35]

The meeting-house which our boy remembers was a high, square building, without a steeple. Within, it had a lofty pulpit, with doors underneath and closets where sacred things were kept, and where the tithing-men were supposed to imprison bad boys. The pews were square, with seats facing each other, those on one side low for the children, and all with hinges, so that they could be raised when the congregation stood up for prayers and leaned over the backs of the pews, as horses meet each other across a pasture fence. After prayers these seats used to be slammed down with a long-continued clatter, which seemed to the boys about the best part of the exercises. The galleries were very high, and the singers' seats, where the pretty girls sat, were the most conspicuous of all. To sit in the gallery, away from the family, was a privilege not often granted to the boy. The tithing-man, who carried a long rod and kept order in the house, and outdoors at noontime, sat in the gallery, and visited any boy who whispered or found curious passages in the Bible and showed them [Pg 36] to another boy. It was an awful moment when the bushy-headed tithing-man approached a boy in sermon-time. The eyes of the whole congregation were on him, and he could feel the guilt ooze out of his burning face.

At noon was Sunday-school, and after that, before the afternoon service, in summer, the boys had a little time to eat their luncheon together at the watering-trough, where some of the elders were likely to be gathered, talking very solemnly about cattle; or they went over to a neighboring barn to see the calves; or they slipped off down the roadside to a place where they could dig sassafras or the root of the sweet flag,—roots very fragrant in the mind of many a boy with religious associations to this day. There was often an odor of sassafras in the afternoon service. It used to stand in my mind as a substitute for the Old Testament incense of the Jews. Something in the same way the big bass-viol in the choir took the place of "David's harp of solemn sound."

The going home from meeting was more [Pg 37] cheerful and lively than the coming to it. There was all the bustle of getting the horses out of the sheds and bringing them round to the meeting-house steps. At noon the boys sometimes sat in the wagons and swung the whips without cracking them: now it was permitted to give them a little snap in order to bring the horses up in good style; and the boy was rather proud of the horse if it pranced a little while the timid "women-folks" were trying to get in. The boy had an eye for whatever life and stir there was in a New England Sunday. He liked to drive home fast. The old house and the farm looked pleasant to him. There was an extra dinner when they reached home, and a cheerful consciousness of duty performed made it a pleasant dinner. Long before sundown the Sunday-school book had been read, and the boy sat waiting in the house with great impatience the signal that the "day of rest" was over. A boy may not be very wicked, and yet not see the need of "rest." Neither his idea of rest nor work is that of older farmers.

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