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THE FIRST SUNDAY IN JUNE
Sarah Orne Jewett
Little Miss Lydia Bent was always early at church. She was very prompt by nature; but on Sunday morning there were so few things to do in her small neat house that she was always dressed in her best much too soon, and sat waiting impatiently by one of the front windows with her gloves and bonnet on, all ready to start the moment that the bell began to ring. Other members of the parish began to get themselves ready for church when they saw Miss Lydia pass, and still were not belated at the morning service. It made a great part of her Sunday pleasure to see her neighbors come up the aisles to their places; her own pew was one of the short pews at the side of the pulpit, and in the gradual decline of churchgoing in Dalton she was left quite alone in that part of the church, and had a remote and solitary look of which she was quite unconscious. She would have missed very much her fine opportunity of taking a good look at the dwindling company of her fellow-parishioners, and it never seemed to occur to her that, next to the minister, she was the most conspicuous person in church. Miss Lydia was far from being young, and in her earlier days it was a mark of great distinction to own a front pew; but of late the few newcomers to the parish seemed to get as near the doors as possible, and to hide their timid heads behind one another. There had been many deaths in the old First Parish, and the front pews all looked untenanted and lonely; but the church was all the family that Miss Lydia had, and all the week she looked forward to Sunday with affectionate expectation.
When Miss Lydia's father and mother had chosen that short pew by the window they had said to everybody that it was just the right size for their family of four; but now it was much too large for Miss Lydia's lonely family of one. Her head had a funny way of tipping back as she talked with you, which may have come from the difficulty of looking up at the tall minister as he stood in his high pulpit on Sundays. She was a person who had a great deal of reverence and regard for people and things that she believed to be above her. There she was, Sunday after Sunday, in her pew corner with her old-fashioned summer straw bonnet or her big velvet one if it were winter. Church-going was the most important thing in life; if she had been anything but the most consistent Protestant she would have gone to her church daily instead of weekly; but some persons could hardly understand why she had shown such unexpected and almost bitter feeling a few years before when the afternoon service was given up. The ministers always spoke of her as one of their most attentive hearers, indeed they would have missed that eager face in the side pew; as they varied their attitudes in preaching they never forgot to give a special look of recognition and to bestow some special sentence of the discourse in her direction. But with all these privileges and joys Miss Lydia sometimes felt sad and anxious at the way things seemed to be changing in the First Parish of Dalton; for, to tell the truth, except on the pleasantest of Sunday mornings, or at the change of seasons, there was apt to be but a poor sprinkling of a congregation in the large old church. It was a well-to-do parish; there was a comfortable fund which had been left in earlier days, by some devoted members, so that even now it was not impossible to pay the minister a fair salary. There were a great many persons who really belonged to the church and parish who were rarely seen in their places. The minister was a kind man, and he had unusual intellectual gifts. The people cared for him and were proud of his ability; but of late no one had felt as if there were danger of any real loss in missing a morning sermon. Once or twice a year, on some public occasion or special anniversary, he really exerted himself and preached from his heart like a believer in heavenly things and like a lover and helper of his people; but so little was asked of the Reverend Mr. Darley that after many eager attempts to provoke enthusiasm he ended by giving the little that appeared to be required. He was an industrious reader and kept himself busy and amused, with interesting books; it was harder and harder for him to set forth on an afternoon of parish visits - he was a pale, thin, light-haired little man with the eager eyes of a boy, but he began to look settled in age and vaguely disappointed.
Somehow fewer and fewer persons came to church that spring, tho the usual meetings and formalities were kept up. The distance between Miss Lydia Bent and the retreating front ranks grew wider and wider, and both she and the minister watched this process of shrinking with dismay. It appeared as if to most people church-going had come to be nothing more than a half-superstitious formality and a relic of the past. The minister's voice got a plaintive tone, he looked paler and older, and his study light was put out a little earlier. Now and then somebody said that the new people who came into town naturally gravitated to the other churches. Dalton was changing in many ways; many of the old and influential members of the First Parish were dying. It was quite true that Mr. Darley had a good many more funerals to attend in the course of the year than he had weddings and christenings; but, after all, the real trouble was with the indifferent stayers at home.
Miss Lydia sat and thought about this one Sunday morning late in May, as she sat alone in her pew. Her hymn-book was open on her knee; she looked approvingly at those acquaintances who were in their seats, and said something to herself half consciously as she glanced over her shoulder at each newcomer. "There's Mr. Craddock, he's come alone; Mrs. Craddock's cold must be worse. Widow Parker's stayed at home too; she must have thought best to let the little girls come, and remained to get their dinner. There! she works hard all the week, and I suppose she is tired; but nothing rests me like coming to meeting. "
The congregation looked thinner and more scattered than usual, altho the morning was so fine. Miss Lydia hoped until the last moment that there might be a group of belated young men who would fill up the pews and make the meeting-house look more cheerful; but nobody else came. The bell stopped tolling almost reluctantly overhead; the warm May air blew in at the open door; and the shady elms, just in full leaf, were swaying outside the great clear glass windows, and blurring their fresh color against the blue spring sky.
The minister was in his place, and Miss Lydia no longer sat corner-wise to survey the aisles, but faced him gravely, and watched with compassion as he leaned first one way and then the other to count his congregation. She saw him droop his head afterward and clasp his hands upon his knee. She could not help joining in the poor man's disappointment; he had hoped, with her, that the lovely weather would bring more of their friends and neighbors out to church.
"There are plenty who could come if they wanted to, " said Miss Lydia to herself, and felt her thin cheeks redden with shame. "I wish I were a hundred instead o' one, and I'd fill every one o' those front pews and make 'em fetch up the chapel settees into the aisles. I declare I don't see what's the matter with everybody! I'm goin' to " - but the first prayer was begun, and with the first sound of Mr. Darley's voice Miss Lydia was on her feet, and the disappointment of that day was accepted with a heavy sigh. Her old eyes could see the minister only through an unwonted dazzle of tears.
The next week was full of pleasant days, and several persons noticed that Miss Lydia Bent was out in the street a great deal and seemed hurried as she used when she was younger. Everybody knew the dear soul, and everybody felt a warm affection for her simple kindness, and power of serving those whom she loved, in times of sickness and sorrow. Perhaps she was trying to make some calls before the hot weather came; but several neighbors watched her come and go and wondered what made her so busy. She might be carrying round a subscription paper. She was out every day in her best bonnet and the shawl she wore to church, and was smiling and eager and made brisk little visits everywhere, being a person who always had something interesting to tell. But nobody thought to tell anybody else that before she went away she made a direct and touching appeal. "Don't you believe you can all get out to meeting next Sunday? " she would say. "I observed that Dr. Darley looked sad an' disappointed last Sabbath morning, there were so few of us there. I thought 'twould be lovely to have a good house for him next Sunday. There's lots of us finds it easier to stay at home than we used to, " she added, timidly; "but I don't enjoy half so much in meeting if those I love ain't there too; 'tis all going to meeting together that makes the best of it. "
There was something so affecting in Miss Lydia's earnestness that nobody took the least offense, or felt herself to be the subject of criticism. Sometimes the little old missionary touched a wistful remembrance of those who were gone, sometimes she waked a love of worship that had long slumbered, by an affectionate word, sometimes she asked a friend's presence as a favor to herself, and to some parishioners she spoke of the patient service of the minister who had his times of discouragement nowadays and of fearing that the children of his old friends were growing tired of him and his preaching; but wherever Miss Lydia went, and whatever words she spoke, she left people thinking about the old church and its minister and sometimes, gratefully too, about herself. It was a pity to get careless; everybody acknowledged that; and in the quiet little town a strong, new current of thought was set going; but Miss Lydia was so quiet and so unconvicting that her words fell like words of welcome truth into these separate hearts, and nobody knew that anybody else felt as they did.
The two Miss Bartons were very decided in their own ways and preferences, and Miss Lydia left her visit to them to the very last, not without a little timidity. She hardly knew whether she feared most their disapproval or their amusement, and it was not easy to make known to them the great Sunday project. She climbed the long flight of stone steps to the old General Barton house on the hill and stood at the top with a beating heart. Both the ladies were younger than she, and they were always very kind to her; their mother had been her schoolmate.
Miss Lydia did not save her errand until the last or let it come in accidentally; but she mustered all her bravery and spoke at once.
"I have been wanting to ask you if you wouldn't come to meeting again, " said Miss Lydia to Miss Susan Barton and Miss Harriet. "You haven't been for a good while now, but I do miss you every Sunday. 'Forsake not assembling yourselves together,' " she went on timidly, "that's what the Bible says; 'tis good to hear preaching and all that, but we ought not to forget about worship, too. And Mr. Darley's so discouraged-looking when he sees so few there, and I let my own thoughts wander. I do miss all the friends I used to see there in their places, and I feel so lonesome that I can't listen to his good words as I ought. I thought if more would just promise to be there next Sunday we'd hearten him up with a little surprise, and we should all enjoy bein' together, a kind of church reunion " -
Miss Lydia had confessed all her plot at last; she was quite out of breath, and the two ladies stood listening with wonder to what she had to say. Miss Susan, the tallest and most serious of the ladies smiled and turned away; but Miss Harriet caught their guest by the hand and led her to a chair by the fireside and stooped to kiss Miss Lydia before she spoke.
"I myself thought of going only last Sunday, " she said; "but I hadn't been to church for so long that I felt awkward about it. It seemed to make one quite conspicuous to begin to go to church again "; and she laughed like a girl. "Is it so bad as you think? I supposed that everybody was there but my sister and me, and I have often thought that we were missing a great deal. "
"We were always very constant at church, as you know, " said Miss Susan, turning away from the window where she had been standing. "My mother wouldn't like our giving up going to church; I don't know why we let ourselves get into a bad habit; but I was ill so long and then we were away from Dalton so many winters, and I'm not very fond of preaching, tho we are so fond of Mr. and Mrs. Darley. Yes, of course Harriet and I can go, and what's more we will go. I like the quiet-day at home; but I have often thought how much less we know nowadays about many of our neighbors because we aren't sure of seeing them once a week at church. Now you must take off your bonnet, dear Miss Lydia, and stay to tea with my sister and me. "
Miss Lydia could hardly answer. It was Saturday night, and she had been busy and excited all the week; she was not so young and strong as she used to be, and the cheerful, great library with its open fire and the new books and old pictures, the excellent supper are the affectionate kindness of her old friend's daughters were all very comforting to her heart.
It happened on the next Sunday morning, the first Sunday in June, that Mrs. Darley, the minister's invalid wife, felt unusually well, and for the first time in many months announced that she meant to go to church. The minister showed almost boyish pleasure, then his face suddenly fell.
"I have been feeling so dull and down-hearted all the week that I haven't tried to write anything new, " he said, humbly. "I was afraid my own feelings would creep in. I meant to preach an old sermon. "
"Oh, I hoped that I was going to hear one of your best new sermons! " and Mrs. Darley looked across the breakfast-table and smiled; she did not even ask which old sermon it was, which the minister noticed.
"I am sorry that I have been so lazy; however, I have given more time than usual to my parish calls, " he said.
"I am sorry, too, " answered the good woman, bravely; she may have been conscious that it was one of the moments when she could say exactly what was in her heart, one of those moments of final truthfulness which come so seldom between us and those we love. "I am sorry, too, " she repeated, with more tenderness than before. "I remember that you always used to say that you believed in writing one sermon every week unless there was some absolute hindrance. I know that the parish may seem less interesting and stimulating than it used; but perhaps that's the very time to double one's diligence. And we are both growing older and all that; but I can't help feeling that we ought to have more sympathy for our neighbors and be more interested in them than ever, dear. I want you to go for a while to see some of your college friends and hear some good talk and find out what new things they are reading. You must put something into your preaching box or there'll be nothing to take out; if your sermons grow dull to you they'll grow dull to other people. I have been such poor company all this winter, Joe, now that I am better I do so want to help you to have a good summer. "
It came a little hard to the Rev. Mr. Darley to be openly argued to diligence by his pale wife; he was better used to urging others. But when she called him Joe, as she used when they were young, she always touched something very deep in his heart, and made him feel as if he could begin things all over again. He went to his study to prepare for church, and left her still sitting at the breakfast-table looking after him wistfully. "Poor dear Joe! " she said to herself. "I believe that no life needs more constant refreshing than a country minister's, and no life seems to get less. I wish something would break up the easy routine that lulls first a man's brain and then his conscience! I have seen it all so many times " - But a moment afterward the thought seemed most unjust in this special case; she had too quickly grown apprehensive in thinking of one she loved. The sermon was one of a pile marked 1870 to 1880. Mr. Darley saved very few sermons from each year's crop, and these had been untouched on the top shelf of the study closet, until they were time-stained and dusty at the edges, and the ink looked a little faded. The evening before he had wished to look up a quotation, which was in a memorial sermon of one of those years, and as he turned over the pages something spirited in the sentences of this other sermon caught his eye. It was one that had been liked very much at the time, and he had preached it in exchanges more than once. This morning as he read it through carefully, with pen in hand to mend any weak phrases, he couldn't help thinking that it was full of sound argument and that all his incidents were very well managed; he even said to himself that he wrote better then than he could now, and that the sermon would do well enough for that, day. Yet somehow it made him feel as if he were trying to wear too tight a coat, as if the pages were the outgrown clothes of his mind; and conscience pricked him a little as he reached for his sermon-case. It was too late now to look up anything else, and he had to hurry and brush the fine gray dust of the sermon off his black coat when the church bell began to ring. He had sat there thinking a long time of what his wife said; it almost seemed as if he were a young minister again with the populous new parish for which the sermon had been written. He did not depend upon his stores of knowledge and habit then, but upon the living spring of love that was in his heart. Then this excitement faded from his mind and he sighed as he remembered the half-empty church, the indifferent faces, the air of relief with which most of the young people always saw him end his sermon. The text for this Sunday was, "I speak unto you as pilgrims and strangers, " but its leading idea was the isolation of man from man. What about sympathy and the common lot? Somehow, he felt dissatisfied as he went down the street.
It may have been the perfect weather, or the season for new bonnets that brought certain members of the congregation to their places that day; but before the bell began to toll Miss Lydia Bent saw, with something like apprehension, that a great many more persons than usual were coming into church. For the first time in her life she wished that she were sitting in a back pew. The people came and came until she wondered if one of the other village churches had been closed that day; but it was not so, they all belonged to the First Parish. There were smiles from pew to pew, now and then some one caught Miss Lydia's eye and nodded.
She saw old Captain Hanway come in with his two canes; he was an old friend of her father's, and when she told him that she missed seeing him in his place, he had looked pleased for a moment but said gruffly enough that he was too deaf to hear a single word and he hadn't been inside the meeting-house these five years. Perhaps it pleased him to think somebody else cared about his being there. He was looking round now and soberly acknowledging the greetings of friends in the next pew. And there was John Sanford with his wife and all his family; two of the boys were sitting across the aisle - they were famous for taking long drives on Sunday because Mr. Sanford could never be away from his business on other days.
There never were more than two or three out of that family of eight in church; and Mrs. Sanford, who was a constant churchgoer herself, looked so motherly and happy with all her brood about her. There was all the large Danforth family too; and Mr. Craddock and his wife; and the doctor, who hardly ever could get a free Sunday morning, with his handsome young son just home from college; they sat behind the ladies, the two Miss Bartons; the empty pews before the pulpit were no longer empty now. Some had come because Miss Lydia had asked them, some had dressed hastily and followed because they had seen so many persons go by and thought that there must be some special celebration. There were strangers staying at the old tavern across the church green, and they too came for lack of anything better to do. The church was bright with children's faces; the spirit of churchgoing seemed to have reached the heart of half the town of Dalton. The sun shone into the old meeting-house, the old mahogany pulpit shone back again as well as it could; the organist, who sometimes played with indifference, caught the sound of more and more feet coming up the aisles, and changed the slow drone of his music into a lovely chorus of Handel's that sang of hope and blessing, and remembrance of those who had gone to a better country and left the plain church sacred for their sakes.
The minister and Mrs. Darley were a little late, and as they came all the way up the aisle they could not think what was happening. Was it some anniversary that the minister had forgotten? As he helped his wife to her place, he saw the Miss Bartons just behind the parsonage pew. Mrs. Darley bowed to them in the pleasant old way; it seemed to her as if this were a Sunday twenty years ago, and she could not help feeling very happy; but the minister went up the pulpit stairs with a beating heart. He tried hard to appear composed and undisturbed; he found all his hymns, and the chapter that he meant to read, then he leaned back and began as usual to count his congregation.
Miss Lydia Bent sat proudly in her pew below and saw him do it; she felt a little like crying, so did the minister. There was such a look of friendliness and kindness in all the faces. Everybody was thinking how pleasant it was to be there, and everybody looked expectant; but when the organ stopped the counting was only half done.
Then came the first prayer and the first hymn, not a very good hymn, but all the people sang and made the most of it. Then Mr. Darley read his psalm and a chapter from the New Testament, and felt more and more that the congregation was moved with some deep feeling; the fact of assembling themselves together was inspiration enough, they would respond to anything. And he had brought a sermon that was twenty years old, a sermon more ingenious than full of heart; the very text seemed, to say the least, ungracious!
"My dear people! " he said, straight out of his heart, "it does me good to see all your faces here again. I feel as if we were going to take hold of each other's hands afresh. We are all thinking of those who were once in their places here; perhaps they think of us this Sunday morning and wonder if we have tried as hard as we could to do our duty to the church we love, since they went away and left it. Dear friends, I want you to help me more than ever with your love and patience! There are many reasons why people go to church; there is very often one great reason why they stay away, and that is - that is, the minister! "
There was a moment of deep silence in the church; it is not often that so personal, so touching a moment comes into the formalities of preaching. Then many of the parishioners remembered how good Mr. Darley had been to them in times of trouble; how much better he had always preached than they had known how to listen or to practice. There was more thinking than listening all through the long prayer on the part of those who were in the pews; but when the minister had finished his prayer he sat down and wondered what he should do. They might all be pilgrims, but he could not call them strangers. It was impossible to preach the sermon in his pocket. He took it out hastily and pushed it down behind him into the back of the pulpit sofa.
It was a happy thing that Mr. Darley was not apt to be found wanting upon occasions, and that his occasional sermons, as every one said, were apt to be the best. His heart was full of love and pain, his eyes sought one and another of the older faces before him, and he saw the long row of eager children in the Danforth pew; then he glanced down at little Miss Lydia sitting alone at the pulpit side; even that day there was no one but herself in the little crosswise pews. She never knew that she gave him an eager, hopeful nod, and so helped him to get to his feet and to step forward into the pulpit. There came to him instantly a text which he had thought about one day as he came home from his parish calls and forgotten again. "And to our beloved Apphia, " he said, "and Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in thy house . . . "
There were some who thought that Mr. Darley preached that day as one of the Apostles might have preached when the Christian truth was new to him and all shining with light. When he ended the sermon there were tears in many eyes. Miss Lydia was so lifted up, so amazed with happiness, that she did not hear the number of the last hymn; and Mr. Darley forsook his custom and sat down without trying to read it through. "Oh yes, I know now, " she said to herself as the organist began to play a familiar tune -
"Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love.
The fellowship of kindred minds" -
"I can sing that without the book"; and so she stood up, forgetting everything else, and sang away heartily with the rest. It seemed to Miss Lydia and to everybody that it was the only hymn that could be sung that first Sunday in June.
"The First Sunday in June " first appeared in The Independent (49:1446-1447), November 4, 1897, and was reprinted by Richard Cary in Uncollected Stories, against which this text has been checked.
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Forsake not assembling yourselves together: See Hebrews 10:24.
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I speak unto you as pilgrims and strangers: Probably a reference to 1 Peter 2:11.
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chorus of Handel's that sang of hope and blessing, and remembrance of those who had gone to a better country and left the plain church sacred for their sakes: This chorus has not yet been identified. Assistance is welcome.
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And to our beloved Apphia … and Archippus our fellow soldier: See Philemon 1: 2. (Research: Gabe Heller).
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Blest be the tie that binds: This popular hymn by John Fawcett (1780-1817), with music by Hans G. Naegeli (1773-1836) goes:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like that to that above.
Before our Father's throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one
Our comforts and our cares.
We share each other's woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.
When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.
This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way;
While each in expectation lives,
And longs to see the day.
From sorrow, toil and pain,
And sin, we shall be free,
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.
(Research: Gabe Heller).
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
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