Eben Huckin’s Conversion

Eben Huckin’s father had been a United Presbyterian and his mother a
Methodist. Eben belonged to neither church, a fact which he ascribed to
his having been drawn toward both denominations by forces so exactly
equal that he had never become affiliated with either. Yet he prided
himself on being a man of profound religious convictions. How could it be
otherwise with one whose forefathers had for generations sung psalms and
slept through two-hour sermons on the hard, uncomfortable benches of the
bluest of blue-stocking Presbyterianism or prostrated themselves at the
mourners’ bench on every opportunity? The austerity of these ancestors
afforded him a reason for habitually absenting himself from Sunday
services in either of the two temples where his parents had so long and
faithfully worshiped. The church-folk in the valley were getting entirely
too liberal. He was a conservative.

“‘Hen the United Presbyter’ans hes to hev an organ to sing by an’ the
Methydists gits to hevin’ necktie parties an’ dancin’, it’s time for a
blue-stockin’ like me to set at home o’ Sundays an’ dewote himself to
readin’ Lamentations,” he was wont to explain to his cronies at the store.

Holding as he did such puritanical ideas, it is not to be wondered that
he viewed with bitter hostility the coming of an Episcopal clergyman to
West Salem. He had offered no objection when Samuel Marsden, who owned
nearly all the land surrounding the village, married a woman from the
city, but when that young autocrat turned the United Presbyterians out of
the building where they had worshiped for a century and had an Episcopal
minister come from down the river to hold weekly services there, the
blood of all the Huckins boiled and Eben felt called upon to protest.

At first these protests took the form of long discourses, delivered on
the store porch and touching on the evil of introducing “ceety notions
an’ new-fandangled idees” into the spiritual life of the community.
They continued in this strain until one fine April day when the sun was
shining with sufficient warmth to allow Eben and his cronies to move from
the darkness within the store to the old hacked bench without, where they
could bask in the cheering rays.

The green shoots on the tall maple by the hitching rail, the shouts of
the boys fishing in the creek below the rumbling mill, the faint “gee
haw” of the man who was plowing in the meadow across the stream, the
contented clucking of a trio of mother hens, wandering up and down the
village street with a score of piping children in their wake–these and
a hundred other things told that spring was at hand. After their long
winter of imprisonment the shoemaker, the squire and the blacksmith would
have been contented to enjoy themselves in silence, but Eben was in one
of his talkative moods. That very morning his niece had announced her
intention of forsaking the church in which her fathers had worshiped, and
becoming an Episcopalian. His cup of woe was overflowing. He had been
able to view with complacence such defections in other families. They had
afforded him splendid illustrations with which to enliven his discourses
on the weakness of the generality of mankind. He had set the Huckins
above the generality. It had seemed to him impossible that one could err
who boasted the blood of men who had gone to church with the Bible in one
hand and a gun in the other. He had always laid particular stress on that
point. He was a firm believer in heredity and had long contended that
the descendants of those who first settled the valley were blessed with
strong characters. Yet one of the blood had become an Episcopalian! And
he had met the rector!

“The first I knowd of it was this mornin’ at breakfast,” said Eben,
adjusting his steel-rimmed spectacles that he might look over their tops
so sternly as to check any hilarity on the part of his auditors. “Mary
sais to me, ‘Uncle, I wish you’d spruce up a leetle this afternoon ez the
rector’s comin’.’

“‘Mary,’ sais I, thinkin’ I’d cod her jest a leetle, ‘a miller runs a
mill, a tinner works in tin, a farmer farms, but what in the name of
common sense does a rector do?’

“‘I mean the preacher,’ she answers.

“‘Mary,’ I sais, ‘ef the parson heard you a callin’ him sech
new-fandangled names, he’d hev you up before the session.’

“She was quiet a piece, for she seen I was in a wery sewere turn o’ mind.
I didn’t pay no more attention tell I was jest about gittin’ up from the
table ’hen she spoke up agin.

“‘Uncle,’ she sais, ‘I hope you won’t mind, but that’s what we
Piscopaleens calls preachers–rectors. Mr. Dawson is a rector.’

“Well, sirs, I was so took back, I jest set down an’ gasped. I thot I
was goin’ to hev a stroke. Here was one o’ my blood, my own brother’s
dotter, raised on the milk o’ Presbyter’anism, fergittin’ the precepts
o’ her youth, strayin’ out o’ the straight an’ narrow way an’ takin’ up
with the new-fandangled idees o’ the Piscopaleens. An’ why? Because she
liked the singin’! ’Hen I heard that I rose in my wrath an’ started down
here to cool off. On reachin’ the apple tree be the bend in the road,
I set down on the grassy bank to rest a leetle an’ look ’round. Pretty
soon I see a man comin’ over the medder, an’ ez he got close I knowd be
the cut o’ his coat an’ the flatness o’ his black slouch that it was the
preacher hisself. ’Hen he reached the creek he give a run an’ jump an’
went flyin’ over it in the most ondignifiedest way I ever seen. ‘It seems
like he thinks he’s an angel a’ready an’ is spreadin’ his wings,’ I sais
to meself. Then he puts both hands on the top o’ the six-rail fence an’
waults over it like a circus performer, landin’ almost at me feet.

“‘Hello,’ he sais.

“‘Hello,’ sais I, never liftin’ me eyes offen the wheat field acrosst the
road.

“‘Fine day,’ sais he.

“‘I was jest tryin’ to make up me mind whether it was or not,’ sais I.

“I thot that ’ud settle him, but I mistook me man. He were the thickest
headedest, forwardest felly I ever laid eyes on. He jest laughed. Now I
admits that ’hen he laughed he ’peared a tol’able pleasant enough sort o’
a leetle person, but I wasn’t in no frame o’ mind fer jollyin’.

“‘I was jest on me way up to your placet to see ye,’ he sais.

“‘Was ye?’ I answers. ‘Well–I heard ye was comin’. I’m jest on me way to
store.’

“It almost seemed I could see that gentle hint comin’ outen his one ear
after it hed gone in the other.

“‘So ye waited here fer me,’ sais he. ‘How nice of ye! We’ll jest stroll
down to the willage together.’

“‘Well,’ sais I, ‘I’ve changed me mind. I’m goin’ to stay where I am.’

“‘Ye couldn’t a picked a nicer placet,’ he sais.

“An’ with that he set right down be me side. Mad? Why, I was jest
bubblin’. An’ I hed a right to be, fixed ez I was with a Piscopaleen
preacher stickin’ to me closer then a burdock burr to a setter dog’s
tail. I didn’t say a word, but jest set there with me eyes on the
mo’ntain like he wasn’t about.

“By an’ by he speaks. ‘Mr. Huckin, that’s a nice mule you hev runnin’
’round the pasture adjoinin’ our church.’

“‘So,’ sais I.

“‘An’ mebbe you wouldn’t mind pasturin’ him in some other field a
Sunday,’ he went on. ‘Ye mind a few weeks ago I sent you a message askin’
that you keep your cattle out o’ that field on the Sabbath because they
disturbs our service. Ye mind it, don’t ye?’

“‘Dimly,’ I answers.

“‘Well,’ he went on, ‘I guesst it must ’a’ ben pretty dim, fer last week
ye forgot to take ’em out an’ added that nice mule to the flock. I like
that beast mighty well, but I objects to his puttin’ his head in the
chancery winder durin’ the most solemn part of our service, like he done
the other day.’

“‘Hen I pictured that ole mule attendin’ the ’Piscopaleen preachin’ I
wanted to laugh all over, but I didn’t dast fer it ’ud ’a’ give him an
openin’. I jest turned an’ looked at the preacher ez stern ez I could.

“‘Perhaps,’ I sais, ‘these new-fandangled, ceetyfied goin’s on o’ yourn
amused him.’

“He didn’t smile then–not a bit of it. He was riled–bad riled, an’
pinted his finger at me an’ cried, ‘See here, you old hardshell.’ That
was the wery name he called me. ‘See here,’ he sais. ‘Since I’ve ben a
missionary in this community I’ve tried to conduct meself in a proper an’
humble sperrit, but ef I hev to carry my missionary efforts on among the
mules, I’ll do it with a gun.’

“‘Hen I heard that I stood right up an’ glared at him. I didn’t mind his
shootin’. It wasn’t that what stirred me up. It wasn’t that what made me
shake me stick in the air like I was scotchin’ a chestnut tree. No, sirs.




“‘Mission’ry!’ I sais. ‘Then all we is heathen,’ I sais. ‘Parson, folks
hev ben singin’ sams in this walley fer a hundred an’ fifty year. The
folks in this walley hes ben contributin’ to the support o’ mission’ries
in furrin lan’s fer the last cent’ry. There are more camp-meetin’s, an’
bush-meetin’s, an’ protracted meetin’s, an’ revivals an’ love-feasts in
this walley in a year than they are years in your life. Yit you calls
yourself a mission’ry. You complains about my cattle disturbin’ your
meetin’s. Ef they enjoy listenin’ to your mission’ry efforts in behalf o’
we heathen, I don’t think I otter stop it. You might do ’em some good.’

“With that I turned an’ walked down the road. I never looked ’round
tell I come to the edge o’ the peach orchard. Then I peeked back over
me shoulder. There was the preacher, still standin’ be the apple tree
lookin’ after me. He was smilin’. Mighty souls! Smilin’! I could ’a’
choked him.”

* * * * *

An oak tree, upturned, its roots stretched forth appealingly in the air,
its branches washing helplessly to and fro in the stream, a broken scow
lying high upon the beach, bottom up, a great crevasse in the side of the
canal through which could be seen an imprisoned and deserted canal-boat,
told of the spring flood. The Juniata had fallen again to its natural
courses, but it was still turbulent and the current was running strongly.
It was fast growing dark. Heavy clouds were rolling along the mountains
from the west whence sounded the low grumbling of the coming storm.

Eben Huckin, standing by his boat, looked anxiously up the river, and
then across to where the village had been lost in the fast gathering
blackness. By a hard pull to the opposite bank and a run up half a mile
of level road he might make the shelter of the mill before the clouds
broke. But this meant tremendous exertion and Eben, with the rust of
sixty years in his joints, preferred a drenching. So he tucked his basket
in the locker in the stern and fixed his oars as deliberately as though
the sun were smiling overhead. Then he began to push out into the stream.

The rattle of gravel flying before fast falling feet and a crashing of
laurel bushes along the towpath caused him to pause.

“Hold on there!” came a voice. “Take me over.”

A moment later a man emerged from among the trees and came tumbling down
the bank. It was Dawson. He stopped short and hesitated when he saw Eben,
and was about to turn back when the old man said brusquely, “Git in.”

Impelled by a flash of lightning on the mountain side and a crash of
thunder overhead, the rector scrambled into the stern of the boat. Eben
gave it a shove and climbed in after him. The river had seized the clumsy
craft and had swept it far out from the bank before the old man could fix
his oars and get it under control. Then with steady strokes he bore away
for the other side.

As Dawson sat watching the coming storm and felt the boat moving along
through the water, carrying him nearer and nearer to the lights of the
village, he forgot the incident of the mule and the quarrel of the
previous day and remembered only that his enemy was taking him from the
dark, forbidding mountains behind, where the very trees were thrashing
their limbs and straining to and fro as though they would break from
their imprisonment and run for shelter too.

“I can never thank you enough for rowing me over, Mr. Huckin,” he said.

There was no reply save a vicious creak of the row-locks. The old man
paused at the end of the stroke but kept his eyes fixed on the sky
overhead. It seemed as if he was about to answer and then thought better
of it, for, ignoring his companion completely, he leaned sharply forward,
caught the water with the blades and sent a shower splashing over the
stern. Dawson was wet through. He was a young man with a temper, and
while he could enjoy an intellectual combat with the rough old fellow
before him, he had no mind to be under dog in a physical encounter.

“See here, Eben Huckin,” he said quietly, but in a voice of
determination. “Just handle those oars a little more properly or I’ll
take command of this craft.”

There was another loud rattle of the row-locks, and the rector
involuntarily closed his eyes and ducked, thinking to catch the
oncoming wave on the top of his broad hat. The expected deluge did not
materialize, and he looked up in surprise to see Eben leaning over the
side of the boat grasping wildly at an oar which was now far out of his
reach and floating rapidly away.

“Oh, my Gawd!” cried the old man, throwing himself into the bottom of the
boat. “We’re loss, Parson, we’re loss!”

He covered his face with his hands and swung despairingly to and fro,
crying, “We’re loss–we’re loss!”

The boat had turned around and was being swept along stern foremost by
the swift current. Dawson saw this, but the peril of their position was
not yet clear to him.

“Pardon me,” he said quietly, “but I don’t understand just what has
happened.”

“Happened!” cried Eben. “Happened? Why, your talkin’ done it. I was
listenin’ to you, an’ an oar got caught in some brushwood an’ twisted
outen my hand. I jumped fer it, lettin’ go o’ the other. Now they’re both
gone.”

“But as far as I can see the only difference is we’re going in another
direction and a great deal faster,” said the rector calmly.

“We’re just goin’ right fer the canal dam,” groaned the old man. “It’s
only four mile straight away, an’ ’hen the river’s like this here, it’s a
reg’lar Niagry.”

“Hum!” Dawson glanced to his left anxiously. The mountains were now lost
in the darkness. He looked to the right to see the lights of the village
already far up the river.

“Eben,” he asked, “is there no way we can steer her into the shore?”

“All the rudders in the worl’, ef we had ’em, wouldn’t git us outen this
current.”

“Is there no island we are likely to run into?”

“Nawthin’ but Bass Rock, an’ ez it’s only ten feet square we mowt ez well
hope–no, no, it ain’t no uset.”

“We might swim.”

“I can’t swim.”

“I can–a little. If you could we would get out.”

Then the clouds broke and the rain came down in torrents. They were
enveloped in blackness and could no longer see one another.

To Dawson, sitting in the stern, his hands grasping the sides of the
boat, his head bowed against the storm, it seemed as though they had
suddenly been carried out on a great sea. Land was near, but it might as
well have been a thousand miles away. A plunge over the side and a few
strong strokes might take him to safety. But he could not desert the old
man–not till he felt the craft sinking beneath him and the water closing
over his head. The boat swung up and down in monotonous cadence, and he
felt himself being carried helplessly on and on.

There was a flash of lightning, a deafening crash overhead, and all was
dark again. It was but for an instant, and yet he saw clearly, hardly
a stone’s throw away, a small house on the river bank. A thin wreath
of smoke was fighting its way out of the chimney against the rain. In
one window there was a light, and in that light a man was standing,
complacently smoking a pipe and peering out through the narrow panes and
over the river, watching the play of the lightning along the Tuscaroras.

Huckin half rose to his feet.

“It’s ole Hen Andrews,” he cried. “I wonder ef he seen us.”

Thereupon he shouted lustily for help. He continued his unavailing cries
for some minutes, and then sank back to his seat.

“Parson,” he said, as if by a sudden thought, “Parson, kin you pray?”

“I’ve been praying all along, Eben,” was the quiet reply.

“Mebbe it’ll do some good,” Eben rejoined, “I hain’t never ben much on
it meself–not ez much ez I otter ’a’ ben, but my pap he was powerful in
prayer.”

He was silent a moment, and added regretfully, “Oh, don’t I wish he was
here now!”

“You are not afraid to die, are you?” asked Dawson.

“Most any other way, I’m not,” was the answer. “But I don’t like
drownin’, an’ I don’t make no bones about it. Our family hes allus gone
be apoplexy, an’ I had an idee I’d go that way, too. All this here comes
so sudden. Oh, Parson, it’s sech an onrastless, oncertain way o’ goin’,
a-washin’ roun’ like this fer hours. Ef it ’ud stop after we was gone, I
wouldn’t min’ so much, but to keep on a-washin’ an’ bobbin’ roun’ this
ole river–Parson, Parson, pray agin.”

The old man leaned forward and clasped his companion’s hand.

“Pray agin, Parson, pray agin!” he cried.

A flash of lightning lit up the river. Just ahead Dawson saw a broad
rock. As they were going they would sweep by it. He sprang forward over
the seats until he reached the bow. Then he leaped into the water, still
keeping a fast hold with one hand on the side of the boat. A few strong
strokes and the clumsy craft turned her head. The swimmer’s feet touched
the shelving stone, and he reached out blindly till he felt a jagged bit
of rock. The stern of the boat swung around and it tugged hard to release
itself from the firm grasp that had checked its wild career.

Eben Huckin tumbled into the water. Dawson seized him and dragged him
from the river, while the boat, now free, went whirling away down stream.

For a long time the two men lay in silence, face downward, on the stone.
Then the storm went by and the moon came climbing up the other side of
the mountain, and by its light they could make out the narrow confines
of their refuge. It was hardly ten feet in length and breadth, and was
divided down the middle by a crevice. They could see the river whirling
on all sides. To their right, over the stretch of water, rose the
Tuscaroras; to their other hand they looked into the blackness of the
woods which extended from the bank to the ridges miles away.

“Parson, do ye hear that rumblin’, that rumblin’ jest like the mill in
busy times, ’hen all the wheels is goin’?” Huckin was sitting up watching
Dawson wring the water from his felt hat. The rector strained his ears.

“That’s the dam, Parson. It’s jest a piece below here, an’ mighty near we
come to hearin’ that soun’ most onpleasant loud. Who’d ’a’ thot we’d ever
hit this here bit o’ rock?”

“Why, Eben, I rather had an idea all along that we might do so,” Dawson
laughed. “I was watching for it. I had no intention of letting myself get
drowned when you heathen in the valley needed a missionary so badly.”

“True, Parson, true,” said the old man fervently. “It ’ud ’a’ ben a hard
blow fer the walley to hed you tuk jest at this time.”

The rector smiled faintly. He gazed inquiringly at his companion. The
moon shining full on Eben’s countenance gave him a saintly appearance,
for the rougher features had disappeared in the half-light, and the long
white hair and beard, so unkempt in the full glare of day, now framed a
benevolent, serious face. Dawson was satisfied.

For a long time nothing passed between the two. Then Eben nudged the
rector gently and whispered, “D’ye believe in sperrits?”

“Why, of course not,” was the reply.

“Well, I’m glad you don’t.”

“Why did you ask?”

“Well, I thot ef ye did you’d like to know this here rock is sayd to have
a ha’nt.”

“To be haunted!” exclaimed Dawson, edging a little closer.

“Yes, be Bill Springle’s ghos’. I never put much stock in the story
meself, but that’s what folks sais. I know them ez claims to hev seen
it. I knows one man ez refused to sleep here all night fer a five-dollar
bill.”

“Goodness me!” said the rector. “I had no idea the people hereabouts were
so superstitious.”

“It ain’t jest superstition, Parson. It’s mostly seein’ an’ believin’.
Bill Springle’s ben dead these thirty year, an’ in that time, they sais,
many folks hes seen him.”

“Eben, the spirits of the dead have better things to do than to spend
their nights sitting on cold, damp rocks.”

“I know, Parson, I know; but the case o’ Springle was onusual. He lived
back along the other mo’ntain an’ one night killed a pedler fer his
money. The sheriff’s posse chased him clean acrosst the walley to the
river, an’ here they loss sight o’ him. Fer a whole week they beat up an’
down the bank an’ then give up the chase. A year after they foun’ all
that was left o’ Bill Springle wedged right in that crack ahint me.”

Dawson arose to his knees and peered over the prostrate body of his
companion into the interesting crevice. Then he fell back to his old
place, giving vent, as he did so, to a little laugh.

“He’d starved to death,” Eben continued, “an’ they sais that sometimes on
stormy nights he kin be seen settin’ here. I never put much faith in the
story meself, ez—-”

“I’m glad you don’t, Eben,” the rector interrupted. “But suppose we talk
of something more cheerful.”

A long silence followed.

“Parson,” the old man at length said, “why don’t ye sleep?”

“On this narrow rock? I’d roll into the river.”

“I’ll watch ye. D’ye see that lone pine tree standin’ out o’ that
charcoal clearin’ on top o’ the mo’ntain?” Huckin indicated the spot with
his hand, and Dawson nodded. “Well, ’hen the moon gits over that tree
I’ll wake ye up. Then I’ll sleep.”

The rector replied by rolling over on his back and watching the stars
until his eyes closed. Soon the old man heard a soft, contented purring
and he knew that for a time he was alone–at least till Bill Springle
joined him. For a long while he sat in deep thought with his eyes fixed
on the whirling waters below him. Suddenly he leaned over and peered into
the face of the man sleeping at his side.

“Parson,” he said softly, “I guesst ye needn’t mind no more about that
mule.”

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