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Chapter 6

The discourse of Dylks the second night was a chain of biblical passages, as it had been the first night. But an apparent intention, which had been wanting before, ran through the incoherent texts, leaping as it were from one to another, and there binding them in an intimation of a divine mission. He did not say that he had been sent of God, but he made the texts which he gave, swiftly and unerringly, say something like that for him to such as were prepared to believe it. Not all were prepared; many denied; the most doubted; but those who accepted that meaning of the inspired words were of the principal people, respected for their higher intelligence and their greater wealth.

He had come to the Temple with Peter Hingston and he went with him from it. Hingston's quarter section of the richest farmland in the bottom bordered his mill privilege, with barns and corncribs and tobacco sheds, and his brick house behind the mill was the largest and finest dwelling in the place. His flocks and herds abounded; his state was patriarchal; and in the neighborhood which loved and honored him, for some favor and kindness done nearly every man there: for money when the crops failed; for the storage of their wheat and corn in the deep bins of his mill when the yield was too great for their barns; for the use of his sheds in drying their tobacco before their own were ready. His growing sons and daughters, until they were grown men and women, obeyed his counsel as they had obeyed his will while children. But he was severe with no one; since his wife had died his natural gentleness was his manner as it had always been his make, and it tempered the piety, which in many was forbidding and compelling, to a wistful kindness. His faith admitted no misgiving, for himself, but his toleration of doubts and differences in others extended to the worst of skeptics. He believed that revelation had never ceased; he was of those who looked for a sign, because if God had ever given Himself in communion with His creatures it was not reasonable that he should afterwards always withhold Himself. A friendly humor looked from his dull eyes, and, in never quite coming to a formulated joke, stayed his utterance as if he were hopeful of some such event in time. He stood large in bulk as well as height, and drew his breath in slow, audible respirations.

The first people of the community tacitly recognized him as the first man in it, though none would have compared him in education with his nearest friend, Richard Enraghty, who had been the schoolmaster and was now the foremost of the United Brethren. He led their services in the Temple, and sometimes preached for them when it came their turn to occupy the house which they shared with the other sects. Hingston was a Methodist, but perhaps because their sects were so akin in doctrine and polity their difference made no division between the friends: Enraghty little and fierce and restless, Hingston large and kind and calm. What they joined in saying prevailed in questions of public interest; those who yielded to their wisdom liked to believe that Enraghty's opinion ruled with Hingston. Matthew Braile alone had the courage to disable their judgment which he liked to say was no more infallible than so much Scripture, but the hardy infidel, who knew so much law and was inexpugnable in his office, owned that he could not make head against their gospel. He could darken their counsel with citations from "Common Sense" and "The Age of Reason," but the piety of the community remained safe from his mockery.

The large charity of Hingston covered the multitude of the Squire's sins; he would have argued that he had not been understood perhaps in the worst things he said; but the fiercer godliness of Enraghty was proof against the talk of a man whose conversation was an exhalation from the Pit. He had bitterly opposed Matthew Braile's successive elections; he had made the pulpit of the Temple an engine of political warfare and had launched its terrors against the invulnerable heathen. He was like Hingston in looking for a sign; in that day of remoteness from any greater world the people of the backwoods longed to feel themselves near the greatest world of all, and well within the radius of its mysteries. They talked mostly of these when they met together, and in the solitude of their fields they dwelt upon them; on their week days and work days they turned over the threats and promises of the Sabbath and expected a light or a voice from on high which should burst their darkness and silence.

To most of them there was nothing sacrilegious in the pretensions which could be read into the closely scriptured discourse of Dylks when he preached the second time in the Temple. The affability which he used in descending from the pulpit among them, and shaking hands and hailing them Brother and Sister, and personally bidding each come to the mercy seat, convinced them of his authority; no common man would so fearlessly trust his dignity among those who had little of their own. They thronged upon him gladly, and the women, old and young alike, trembled before him with a strange joy.

"Where is your father, Sister Gillespie?" he demanded of the girl, who wavered in his strong voice like a plant in the wind.

"I don't know—he's at home," she said.

"See that he comes, another time. I send him my peace, and tell him that it will not return to me. Say that I said he needs me."

He went out between Enraghty and Hingston, and as they walked away, he sank his voice back in words of Scripture; farther away he began his hymn:

"Plunged in a gulf of dark despair,
We wretched sinners lay"—

and ended with his shout of "Salvation!"

William Dean Howells

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