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Chapter 23

Late in the long twilight of the early spring day a stranger who was traveling in the old fashion on horseback, with his legs swathed in green baize against the mud of the streaming roads, and with his spattered saddle-bags hung over the pommel before him, was riding into Leatherwood. He paused in a puddle of the lane that left the turnpike not far off, and curved between the new-plowed fields in front of a double log cabin, which had the air of being one of the best habitations of its time though its time was long past; the logs it was built of were squared; the chimneys at either end were of stone masonry instead of notched sticks laid in clay. Against the wall of the porch between the two rooms of the cabin an old man sat tilted back in his chair, smoking a pipe which he took from his mouth at sight of the stranger's arrest.

"Can you tell me, please, which is my way to the tavern, or some place where I can find a night's lodging?"

The old man dropped his chair forward, and got somewhat painfully out of it to toddle to the edge of his porch. "Why, there isn't a tavern, rightly speaking, in Leatherwood, now, though for the backwoods we had a very passable one, once. I wish," he said after a moment, "that we could offer you a lodging here; but if you'll light and throw your horse's rein over the peg in this post, I would be pleased to have you stay to supper with us. My wife is just getting it."

"Why, thank you, thank you," the stranger said. "I mustn't think of troubling you. I dare say I can get something to eat at your tavern. I've often been over night in worse places, no doubt. I've been traveling through your State, and I've turned a little out of my way to stop at Leatherwood, because I've been interested in a peculiar incident of your local history."

The two men perceived from something in each other's parlance, though one spoke with the neat accent of the countries beyond the Alleghanies, and the other with the soft slurring Ohio River utterance, that they were in the presence of men different by thinking if not by learning from most men in the belated region of a new country.

"Oh, yes," the old man said with instant intelligence, "the Leatherwood God."

"Yes," the other eagerly assented. "I was told, at your county seat, that I could learn all about it if I asked for Squire Braile, here."

"I am Matthew Braile," the old man said with dignity, and the stranger returned with a certain apology in his laugh:

"I must confess that I suspected as much, and I'm ashamed not to have frankly asked at once."

"Better 'light,"—the Squire condoned whatever offense there might have been in the uncandor. "I don't often get the chance to talk of our famous imposture, and I can't let one slip through my fingers. You must come in to supper, and if you smoke I can give you a pipe of our yellow tobacco, afterwards, and we can talk—"

"But I should tire you with my questions. In the morning—"

"We old men sometimes have a trick of not living till morning. You'd better take me while you can get me."

"Well, if you put it in that way," the stranger said, and he slipped down from his saddle.

The old man called out, "Here, Abel!" and the figure of what seemed an elderly boy came lurching and paddling round the corner of the cabin, and ducked his gray head hospitably toward the stranger. "Give this horse a feed while we're taking ours."

"All right, Squire. Jest helpin' Sally put the turkey-chicks to bed out o' the cold, or I'd 'a' been round at the first splashin' in the road."

"And now come in," the Squire said, reaching a hand of welcome from the edge of the porch to the stranger as he mounted the steps. "Old neighbors of ours," he explained Abel and the unseen Sally. "We've known them, boy and girl, from the beginning, and when their old cabin fell down in the tail-end of a tornado a few years back, we got them here in a new one behind ours, to take care of them, and let them take care of us. They don't eat with us," he added, setting open the kitchen door, and ushering the stranger into the warm glow and smell of the interior. "Mis' Braile," he said for introduction to his wife, and explained to her, "A friend that I caught on the wing. I don't know that I did get your name?"

"Mandeville—T. J. Mandeville; I'm from Cambridge."

"Thomas Jefferson, I suppose. Cambridge, Ohio—back here?"

"Massachusetts."

"Well, you didn't sound like Ohio. I always like to make sure. Well, you must pull up. Mother, have you got anything fit to eat, this evening?"

"You might try and see," Mrs. Braile responded in what seemed their habitual banter.

"Well, don't brag," the Squire returned, and between them they welcomed the stranger to a meal that he said he had not tasted the like of in all his Western travel.

It seemed that their guest did not smoke, and the Squire alone lighted his pipe. Then he joked his wife. "Mother, will you let us stay by the fire here—it's a little chilly outdoors, and those young frogs do take the heart of you with their peeping—if we don't mind your bothering round? Mr. Mandeville wants to hear all about our Leatherwood God."

"He'll hear more about him than he wants to if he listens to all you tell, Matthew," Mrs. Braile retorted.

"Oh, no; oh, no," the stranger protested, and the Squire laughed.

"You wanted to know," he said, well after the beginning of their talk, "whether there were many of the Little Flock left. Well, some; and to answer your other question, they're as strong in the faith as ever. The dead died in the faith; the living that were young in it in the late eighteen-twenties are old in it now in the first of the fifties. It's rather curious," the Squire said, with a long sigh of satisfaction in the anomaly, "but after the arrest of Dylks, and his trial and acquittal before this court," the Squire smiled, "when he came out of the tall timber, and had his scalp mended, and got into a whole suit of Saint Peter's clothes, he didn't find the Little Flock fallen off a great deal. They were a good deal scared, and so was he. That was the worst of the lookout for Dylks; his habit of being afraid; it was about the best thing, too; kept him from playing the very devil. There's no telling how far he might have gone if he hadn't been afraid: I mean, gone in personal mischief."

"Yes," the stranger assented. "And his failure in all his miracles had no effect on his followers?"

The Squire laughed, with a rattling of loose teeth on his pipe-stem. "Why, he didn't fail according to the Little Flock; it was only the unbelievers that disbelieved in the miracles. Even those that went with him Over-the-Mountains to see the New Jerusalem come down got to having seen it as time went on, though some had their doubts when they first came back. Before they died, they'd all seen him go up in a chariot of fire with two black horses and no driver. Nobody but those two purblind ignorant boys that tried to keep him from drowning, when he fell into the river, could be got to say that the heavenly city didn't come down and suck him up. Why, seven or eight years after he left there was a preacher who was one of his followers came back here, and preached in the Dylks Temple—the old Temple burned down, long ago and was never rebuilt —preached the divinity of Dylks, and said there was no true religion that didn't recognize him as God. As for Christianity, he said it was just a hotch-potch of Judaism and heathenism. He saw the Good Old Man go right up into heaven, and said he was going to come back to earth before long and set up his kingdom here. He's never done it, and that slick preacher never came back, either, after the first. He was very well dressed and looked as if he had been living on the fat of the land, somewhere, among the faithful Over-the-Mountains, I reckon. Knew where the fried chickens roosted. Excuse me, mother. She's heard that joke before," he explained to their guest.

"I've heard it too often to mind it," Mrs. Braile mocked back.

"Well, it seems to be new to our friend here."

Mr. Mandeville was laughing, but he controlled himself to ask, "And had the fellow no progressive doctrine, no steps of belief, no logical formulation of his claims? He couldn't have been merely a dunder-headed, impudent charlatan, who expected to convince by the miracles he didn't do?"

"Oh, no; oh, no. I didn't mean to imply that," the Squire explained. "He was a cunning rascal in his way, and he had the sort of brain that has served the purpose of the imposter in all ages. He had a plan of belief, as you may call it, which he must have thought out before he came here, if he hadn't begged, borrowed, or stolen it from somebody else. At first he called himself a humble teacher of Christianity, but it wasn't a great while before he pretended to be Jesus Christ who died on Calvary. That didn't satisfy him long, though. When he had convinced some that he was Christ, he began to teach that the Christ who was crucified, though he was a real Messiah, was not a perfect Messiah, because he had died and been buried, and death had had power over him just as it has over any mortal. But the real Messiah would never taste death, and he was that Messiah. Dylks would never taste death, and as the real Messiah, he would be one with God, and in fact he was the one and only God. These were the steps, and the way to belief in the godhead was clear to the meanest understanding. The meaner the understanding, the clearer," the Squire summed up, with another tattoo on his pipe-stem. "You see," he resumed after a moment, "life is hard in a new country, and anybody that promises salvation on easy terms has got a strong hold at the very start. People will accept anything from him. Somewhere, tucked away in us, is the longing to know whether we'll live again, and the hope that we'll live happy. I've got fun out of that fact in a community where I've had the reputation of an infidel for fifty years; but all along I've felt it in myself. We want to be good, and we want to be safe, even if we are not good; and the first fellow that comes along and tells us to have faith in him, and he'll make it all right, why we have faith in him, that's all."

"Well, then," the stranger said, holding him to the logic of the facts, as he leaned toward him from his side of the fireplace, and fixed him with an eager eye, "I can't see why he didn't establish his superstition in universal acceptance, as, say, Mahomet did."

"I'm glad you came to that," the Squire blandly submitted. "For one thing, and the main thing, because he was a coward. He had plently of audacity but mighty little courage, and his courage gave out just when he needed it the most. And perhaps he hadn't perfect faith in himself; he was a fool, but he wasn't a crazy fool. Then again, my idea is that the scale was too small, or the scene, or the field, or whatever you call it. The backwoods, as Leatherwood was then, was not the right starting point for a world-wide imposture. Then again, as I said, Dylks was timid. He was not ready to shed blood for his lie, neither other people's nor his own; and when it came to fighting for his doctrine, he was afraid; he wanted to run. And, in fact, he did run, first and last. No liar ever had such a hold on them that believed his lie; they'd have followed him any lengths; but he hadn't the heart to lead them. When Redfield and I got hold of him, after he had tasted the fear of death, there that week in the tall timber, he was willing to promise anything we said. And he kept his promise; he wouldn't if he could have helped it, but he knew Jim Redfield would hold him to it, if he squeezed his life out doing it."

The stranger was silent, but not apparently convinced, and meanwhile he took up another point of interest in the story which he heard from the Squire. "And whatever became of his wife, and her 'true' husband?"

"Oh, they lived on together. Not very long, though. They died within a week of each other, about. Didn't they, mother?"

"Just a week," Mrs. Braile said, animated by the human touch in the discussion. "They lived mighty happy together, and it was as good a death as a body could want to die. It was that summer when the fever mowed the people down so. They took their little girl with them," she sighed from a source of hidden sorrow. "They all went together."

Braile took his pipe out and gulped before he could answer the stranger's next question. "And the boy? Dylks's son, is he living?"

"Oh, yes." At the pleasant thought of the boy, the Squire began to smile. "He and Hingston's son took over the mill from Hingston, after he got too old for it, and carried it on together. Hingston wasn't one that hung on to the faith in Dylks, but he never made any fuss about giving it up. Just staid away from the Temple that the Little Flock built for themselves."

"And is young Dylks still carrying on the milling business?"

"Who? Joey? Oh, yes. He married Benny Hingston's sister. Benny's wife died, and he lives with them."

"And there ain't a better man in the whole of Leatherwood than Joey Billin's, as we always call him," Mrs. Braile put in. "He was the best boy anywhere, and he's the best man."

"Well, it's likely to come out that way, sometimes," the Squire said with tender irony.

"And you can't say," Mrs. Braile continued with a certain note of indignation as for unjust neglect of the pair, "but what James Redfield and Jane has got along very well together."

"Oh, yes, they've got along," the Squire assented. "He's got along with her, and she's got along with the children—plenty of them. I reckon she's what he wanted, and they're what she did."

The stranger looked a little puzzled.

"That instinct of maternity," the Squire explained. "You may have noticed it in women—some of them."

"Oh! Oh, yes," Mr. Mandeville assented. He did not seem greatly interested.

"She's always been just crazy about 'em," Mrs. Braile explained. "Beginnin' with Nancy Billin's's little girl. Well!"

"Yes," the Squire amplified. "It was the best thing, or at least the strongest thing in Jane. I don't say anything against it, mother," he said tenderly to his wife. "Jane was a good girl, especially after she got over her faith in Dylks, and she's a good woman. At least, Jim thinks so."

Mrs. Braile contented herself as she could with his ironical concession.

The stranger looked at his watch; he jumped to his feet. "Nine o'clock! Mrs. Braile, I'm ashamed. But you must blame your husband, partly. Good night, ma'am; good—Why, look here, Squire Braile!" he arrested himself in offering his hand. "How about the obscurity of the scene where Joe Smith founded his superstition, which bids fair to live right along with the other false religions? Was Leatherwood, Ohio, a narrower stage than Manchester, New York? And in point of time the two cults were only four years apart."

"Well, that's a thing that's occurred to me since we've been talking. Suppose we look into it to-morrow? Come round to breakfast—about six o'clock. One point, though: Joe Smith only claimed to be a prophet, and Dylks claimed to be a god. That made it harder, maybe for his superstition."

THE END.

William Dean Howells

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