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HOME > Classical Novels > Being a Boy > XVI JOHN'S REVIVAL
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The New England country boy of the last generation never heard of Christmas.

There was no such day in his calendar. If John ever came across it in his reading, he attached no meaning to the word.

If his curiosity had been aroused, and he had asked his elders about it, he might have got the dim impression that it was a kind of Popish holiday, the celebration of which was about as wicked as "card-playing," or being a "democrat." John knew a couple of desperately bad boys who were reported to play "seven-up" in a barn, on the hay-mow, and the enormity of this practice made him shudder. He had once seen a pack of greasy "playing-cards," and it seemed to him to contain the quintessence of sin. If he had desired to defy all Divine law and outrage all human society, he felt [Pg 135] that he could do it by shuffling them. And he was quite right. The two bad boys enjoyed in stealth their scandalous pastime, because they knew it was the most wicked thing they could do. If it had been as sinless as playing marbles, they wouldn't have cared for it. John sometimes drove past a brown, tumble-down farm-house, whose shiftless inhabitants, it was said, were card-playing people; and it is impossible to describe how wicked that house appeared to John. He almost expected to see its shingles stand on end. In the old New England, one could not in any other way so express his contempt of all holy and orderly life as by playing cards for amusement.

There was no element of Christmas in John's life, any more than there was of Easter, and probably nobody about him could have explained Easter; and he escaped all the demoralization attending Christmas gifts. Indeed, he never had any presents of any kind, either on his birthday or any other day. He expected nothing that he did not earn, or make in the way of "trade" [Pg 136] with another boy. He was taught to work for what he received. He even earned, as I said, the extra holidays of the day after the "Fourth" and the day after Thanksgiving. Of the free grace and gifts of Christmas he had no conception. The single and melancholy association he had with it was the quaking hymn which his grandfather used to sing in a cracked and quavering voice,—
"While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground."

The "glory" that "shone around" at the end of it—the doleful voice always repeating, "and glory shone around"—made John as miserable as "Hark! from the tombs." It was all one dreary expectation of something uncomfortable. It was, in short, "religion." You'd got to have it some time; that John believed. But it lay in his unthinking mind to put off the "Hark! from the tombs" enjoyment as long as possible. He experienced a kind of delightful wickedness in indulging his dislike of hymns and of Sunday.

John was not a model boy, but I cannot [Pg 137] exactly define in what his wickedness consisted. He had no inclination to steal, nor much to lie; and he despised "meanness" and stinginess, and had a chivalrous feeling toward little girls. Probably it never occurred to him that there was any virtue in not stealing and lying, for honesty and veracity were in the atmosphere about him. He hated work, and he "got mad" easily; but he did work, and he was always ashamed when he was over his fit of passion. In short, you couldn't find a much better wicked boy than John.

When the "revival" came, therefore, one summer, John was in a quandary. Sunday meeting and Sunday school he didn't mind; they were a part of regular life, and only temporarily interrupted a boy's pleasures. But when there began to be evening meetings at the different houses, a new element came into affairs. There was a kind of solemnity over the community, and a seriousness in all faces. At first these twilight assemblies offered a little relief to the monotony of farm-life; and John liked to meet the boys and girls, and [Pg 138] to watch the older people coming in, dressed in their second best. I think John's imagination was worked upon by the sweet and mournful hymns that were discordantly sung in the stiff old parlors. There was a suggestion of Sunday, and sanctity too, in the odor of caraway-seed that pervaded the room. The windows were wide open also, and the scent of June roses came in with all the languishing sounds of a summer night. All the little boys had a scared look, but the little girls were never so pretty and demure as in this their susceptible seriousness. If John saw a boy who did not come to the evening meeting, but was wandering off with his sling down the meadow, looking for frogs, maybe, that boy seemed to him a monster of wickedness.

After a time, as the meetings continued, John fell also under the general impression of fright and seriousness. All the talk was of "getting religion," and he heard over and over again that the probability was, if he did not get it now he never would. The chance did not come often, and, if this offer was not improved, John would be given [Pg 139] over to hardness of heart. His obstinacy would show that he was not one of the elect. John fancied that he could feel his heart hardening, and he began to look with a wistful anxiety into the faces of the Christians to see what were the visible signs of being one of the elect. John put on a good deal of a manner that he "didn't care," and he never admitted his disquiet by asking any questions or standing up in meeting to be prayed for. But he did care. He heard all the time that all he had to do was to repent and believe. But there was nothing that he doubted, and he was perfectly willing to repent if he could think of anything to repent of.

It was essential, he learned, that he should have a "conviction of sin." This he earnestly tried to have. Other people, no better than he, had it, and he wondered why he couldn't have it. Boys and girls whom he knew were "under conviction," and John began to feel not only panicky but lonesome. Cynthia Rudd had been anxious for days and days, and not able to sleep at night, but now she had given herself [Pg 140] up and found peace. There was a kind of radiance in her face that struck John with awe, and he felt that now there was a great gulf between him and Cynthia. Everybody was going away from him, and his heart was getting harder than ever. He couldn't feel wicked, all he could do. And there was Ed Bates, his intimate friend, though older than he, a "whaling," noisy kind of boy, who was under conviction and sure he was going to be lost. How John envied him! And, pretty soon, Ed "experienced religion." John anxiously watched the change in Ed's face when he became one of the elect. And a change there was. And John wondered about another thing. Ed Bates used to go trout-fishing, with a tremendously long pole, in a meadow-brook near the river; and when the trout didn't bite right off Ed would "get mad," and as soon as one took hold he would give an awful jerk, sending the fish more than three hundred feet into the air and landing it in the bushes the other side of the meadow, crying out, "Gul darn ye, I'll learn ye." And John wondered if Ed would take the little trout out any more gently now.

[Pg 141]

John felt more and more lonesome as one after another of his playmates came out and made a profession. Cynthia (she too was older than John) sat on Sunday in the singers' seat; her voice, which was going to be a contralto, had a wonderful pathos in it for him, and he heard it with a heartache. "There she is," thought John, "singing away like an angel in heaven, and I am left out." During all his after life a contralto voice was to John one of his most bitter and heart-wringing pleasures. It suggested the immaculate scornful, the melancholy unattainable.

If ever a boy honestly tried to work himself into a conviction of sin, John tried. And what made him miserable was that he couldn't feel miserable when everybody else was miserable. He even began to pretend to be so. He put on a serious and anxious look like the others. He pretended he didn't care for play; he refrained from chasing chipmunks and snaring suckers; the songs of birds and the bright vivacity [Pg ............
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