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The Infidel Post by :contactsage Category :Essays Author :David Grayson Date :October 2011 Read :3652

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The Infidel

I find that we have an infidel in this community. I don't know that I should set down the fact here on good white paper; the walls, they say, have eyes, the stones have ears. But consider these words written in bated breath! The worst of it is--I gather from common report--this infidel is a Cheerful Infidel, whereas a true infidel should bear upon his face the living mark of his infamy. We are all tolerant enough of those who do not agree with us, provided only they are sufficiently miserable! I confess when I first heard of him--through Mrs. Horace (with shudders)--I was possessed of a consuming secret desire to see him. I even thought of climbing a tree somewhere along the public road--like Zaccheus, wasn't it?--and watching him go by. If by any chance he should look my way I could easily avoid discovery by crouching among the leaves. It shows how pleasant must be the paths of unrighteousness that we are tempted to climb trees to see those who walk therein. My imagination busied itself with the infidel. I pictured him as a sort of Moloch treading our pleasant countryside, flames and smoke proceeding from his nostrils, his feet striking fire, his voice like the sound of a great wind. At least that was the picture I formed of him from common report.

And yesterday afternoon I met the infidel and I must here set down a true account of the adventure. It is, surely, a little new door opened in the house of my understanding. I might travel a whole year in a city, brushing men's elbows, and not once have such an experience. In country spaces men develop sensitive surfaces, not calloused by too frequent contact, accepting the new impression vividly and keeping it bright to think upon.

I met the infidel as the result of a rather unexpected series of incidents. I don't think I have said before that we have for some time been expecting a great event on this farm. We have raised corn and buckwheat, we have a fertile asparagus bed and onions and pie-plant (enough to supply the entire population of this community) and I can't tell how many other vegetables. We have had plenty of chickens hatched out (I don't like chickens, especially hens, especially a certain gaunt and predatory hen named (so Harriet says) Evangeline, who belongs to a neighbour of ours) and we have had two litters of pigs, but until this bright moment of expectancy we never have had a calf.

Upon the advice of Horace, which I often lean upon as upon a staff, I have been keeping my young heifer shut up in the cow-yard now for a week or two. But yesterday, toward the middle of the afternoon, I found the fence broken down and the cow-yard empty. From what Harriet said, the brown cow must have been gone since early morning. I knew, of course, what that meant, and straightway I took a stout stick and set off over the hill, tracing the brown cow as far as I could by her tracks. She had made way toward a clump of trees near Horace's wood lot, where I confidently expected to find her. But as fate would have it, the pasture gate, which is rarely used, stood open and the tracks led outward into an old road. I followed rapidly, half pleased that I had not found her within the wood. It was a promise of new adventure which I came to with downright enjoyment (confidentially--I should have been cultivating corn!). I peered into every thicket as I passed: once I climbed an old fence and, standing on the top rail, intently surveyed my neighbour's pasture. No brown cow was to be seen. At the crossing of the brook I shouldered my way from the road down a path among the alders, thinking the brown cow might have gone that way to obscurity.

It is curious how, in spite of domestication and training, Nature in her great moments returns to the primitive and instinctive! My brown cow, never having had anything but the kindest treatment, is as gentle an animal as could be imagined, but she had followed the nameless, ages-old law of her breed: she had escaped in her great moment to the most secret place she knew. It did not matter that she would have been safer in my yard--both she and her calf--that she would have been surer of her food; she could only obey the old wild law. So turkeys will hide their nests. So the tame duck, tame for unnumbered generations, hearing from afar the shrill cry of the wild drake, will desert her quiet surroundings, spread her little-used wings and become for a time the wildest of the wild.

So we think--you and I--that we are civilised! But how often, how often, have we felt that old wildness which is our common heritage, scarce shackled, clamouring in our blood!

I stood listening among the alders, in the deep cool shade. Here and there a ray of sunshine came through the thick foliage: I could see it where it silvered the cobweb ladders of those moist spaces. Somewhere in the thicket I heard an unalarmed catbird trilling her exquisite song, a startled frog leaped with a splash into the water; faint odours of some blossoming growth, not distinguishable, filled the still air. It was one of those rare moments when one seems to have caught Nature unaware. I lingered a full minute, listening, looking; but my brown cow had not gone that way. So I turned and went up rapidly to the road, and there I found myself almost face to face with a ruddy little man whose countenance bore a look of round astonishment. We were both surprised. I recovered first.

"Have you seen a brown cow?" I asked.

He was still so astonished that he began to look around him; he thrust his hands nervously into his coat pockets and pulled them out again.

"I think you won't find her in there," I said, seeking to relieve his embarrassment.

But I didn't know, then, how very serious a person I had encountered.

"No--no," he stammered, "I haven't seen your cow."

So I explained to him with sobriety, and at some length, the problem I had to solve. He was greatly interested and inasmuch as he was going my way he offered at once to assist me in my search. So we set off together. He was rather stocky of build, and decidedly short of breath, so that I regulated my customary stride to suit his deliberation. At first, being filled with the spirit of my adventure, I was not altogether pleased with this arrangement. Our conversation ran something like this:

STRANGER: Has she any spots or marks on her?

MYSELF: No, she is plain brown.

STRANGER: How old a cow is she?

MYSELF: This is her first calf.

STRANGER: Valuable animal?

MYSELF: (fencing): I have never put a price on her; she is a promising young heifer.

STRANGER: Pure blood?

MYSELF: No, grade.

After a pause:

STRANGER: Live around here?

MYSELF: Yes, half a mile below here. Do you?

STRANGER: Yes, three miles above here. My name's Purdy.

MYSELF: Mine is Grayson.

He turned to me solemnly and held out his hand. "I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Grayson," he said. "And I'm glad," I said, "to meet you, Mr. Purdy."

I will not attempt to put down all we said: I couldn't. But by such devices is the truth in the country made manifest.

So we continued to walk and look. Occasionally I would unconsciously increase my pace until I was warned to desist by the puffing of Mr. Purdy. He gave an essential impression of genial timidity: and how he did love to talk!

We came at last to a rough bit of land grown up to scrubby oaks and hazel brush.

"This," said Mr. Purdy, "looks hopeful."

We followed the old road, examining every bare spot of earth for some evidence of the cow's tracks, but without finding so much as a sign. I was for pushing onward but Mr. Purdy insisted that this clump of woods was exactly such a place as a cow would like. He developed such a capacity for argumentation and seemed so sure of what he was talking about that I yielded, and we entered the wood.

"We'll part here," he said: "you keep over there about fifty yards and I'll go straight ahead. In that way we'll cover the ground. Keep a-shoutin'."

So we started and I kept a-shoutin'. He would answer from time to time: "Hulloo hulloo!"

It was a wild and beautiful bit of forest. The ground under the trees was thickly covered with enormous ferns or bracken, with here and there patches of light where the sun came through the foliage. The low spots were filled with the coarse green verdure of skunk cabbage. I was so sceptical about finding the cow in a wood where concealment was so easy that I confess I rather idled and enjoyed the surroundings. Suddenly, however, I heard Mr. Purdy's voice, with a new note in it:

"Hulloo, hulloo----"

"What luck?"

"Hulloo, hulloo----"

"I'm coming--" and I turned and ran as rapidly as I could through the trees, jumping over logs and dodging low branches, wondering what new thing my friend had discovered. So I came to his side.

"Have you got trace of her?" I questioned eagerly.

"Sh!" he said, "over there. Don't you see her?"

"Where, where?"

He pointed, but for a moment I could see nothing but the trees and the bracken. Then all at once, like the puzzle in a picture, I saw her plainly. She was standing perfectly motionless, her head lowered, and in such a peculiar clump of bushes and ferns that she was all but indistinguishable. It was wonderful, the perfection with which her instinct had led her to conceal herself.

All excitement, I started toward her at once. But Mr. Purdy put his hand on my arm.

"Wait," he said, "don't frighten her. She has her calf there."

"No!" I exclaimed, for I could see nothing of it.

We went, cautiously, a few steps nearer. She threw up her head and looked at us so wildly for a moment that I should hardly have known her for my cow. She was, indeed, for the time being, a wild creature of the wood. She made a low sound and advanced a step threateningly.

"Steady," said Mr. Purdy, "this is her first calf. Stop a minute and keep quiet. She'll soon get used to us."

Moving to one side cautiously, we sat down on an old log. The brown heifer paused, every muscle tense, her eyes literally blazing, We sat perfectly still. After a minute or two she lowered her head, and with curious guttural sounds she began to lick her calf, which lay quite hidden in the bracken.

"She has chosen a perfect spot," I thought to myself, for it was the wildest bit of forest I had seen anywhere in this neighbourhood. At one side, not far off, rose a huge gray rock, partly covered on one side with moss, and round about were oaks and a few ash trees of a poor scrubby sort (else they would long ago have been cut out). The earth underneath was soft and springy with leaf mould.--

Mr. Purdy was one to whom silence was painful; he fidgeted about, evidently bursting with talk, and yet feeling compelled to follow his own injunction of silence. Presently he reached into his capacious pocket and handed me a little paper-covered booklet. I took it, curious, and read the title:

"Is There a Hell?"

It struck me humorously. In the country we are always--at least some of us are--more or less in a religious ferment, The city may distract itself to the point where faith is unnecessary; but in the country we must, perforce, have something to believe in. And we talk about it, too! I read the title aloud, but in a low voice:

"Is There a Hell?" Then I asked: "Do you really want to know?"

"The argument is all there," he replied.

"Well," I said, "I can tell you off-hand, out of my own experience, that there certainly is a hell----"

He turned toward me with evident astonishment, but I proceeded with tranquillity:

"Yes, sir, there's no doubt about it. I've been near enough myself several times to smell the smoke. It isn't around here," I said.

As he looked at me his china-blue eyes grew larger, if that were possible, and his serious, gentle face took on a look of pained surprise.

"Before you say such things," he said, "I beg you to read my book."

He took the tract from my hands and opened it on his knee.

"The Bible tells us," he said, "that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, He made the firmament and divided the waters. But does the Bible say that He created a hell or a devil? Does it?"

I shook my head.

"Well, then!" he said triumphantly, "and that isn't all, either. The historian Moses gives in detail a full account of what was made in six days. He tells how day and night were created, how the sun and the moon and the stars were made; he tells how God created the flowers of the field, and the insects, and the birds, and the great whales, and said, 'Be fruitful and multiply,' He accounts for every minute of the time in the entire six days--and of course God rested on the seventh--and there is not one word about hell. Is there?"

I shook my head.

"Well then--" exultantly, "where is it? I'd like to have any man, no matter how wise he is, answer that. Where is it?"

"That," I said, "has troubled me, too. We don't always know just where our hells are. If we did we might avoid them. We are not so sensitive to them as we should be--do you think?"

He looked at me intently: I went on before he could answer:

"Why, I've seen men in my time living from day to day in the very atmosphere of perpetual torment, and actually arguing that there was no hell. It is a strange sight, I assure you, and one that will trouble you afterwards. From what I know of hell, it is a place of very loose boundaries. Sometimes I've thought we couldn't be quite sure when we were in it and when we were not."

I did not tell my friend, but I was thinking of the remark of old Swedenborg: "The trouble with hell is we shall not know it when we arrive."

At this point Mr. Purdy burst out again, having opened his little book at another page.

"When Adam and Eve had sinned," he said, "and the God of Heaven walked in the garden in the cool of the evening and called for them and they had hidden themselves on account of their disobedience, did God say to them: Unless you repent of your sins and get forgiveness I will shut you up in yon dark and dismal hell and torment you (or have the devil do it) for ever and ever? Was there such a word?"

I shook my head.

"No, sir," he said vehemently, "there was not."

"But does it say," I asked, "that Adam and Eve had not themselves been using their best wits in creating a hell? That point has occurred to me. In my experience I've known both Adams and Eves who were most adroit in their capacity for making places of torment--and afterwards of getting into them. Just watch yourself some day after you've sown a crop of desires and you'll see promising little hells starting up within you like pigweeds and pusley after a warm rain in your garden. And our heavens, too, for that matter--they grow to our own planting: and how sensitive they are too! How soon the hot wind of a passion withers them away! How surely the fires of selfishness blacken their perfection!"

I'd almost forgotten Mr. Purdy--and when I looked around, his face wore a peculiar puzzled expression not unmixed with alarm. He held up his little book eagerly almost in my face.

"If God had intended to create a hell," he said, "I assert without fear of successful contradiction that when God was there in the Garden of Eden it was the time for Him to have put Adam and Eve and all their posterity on notice that there was a place of everlasting torment. It would have been only a square deal for Him to do so. But did He?"

I shook my head.

"He did not. If He had mentioned hell on that occasion I should not now dispute its existence. But He did not. This is what He said to Adam--the very words: 'In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground: for out of it thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.' You see He did not say 'Unto hell shalt thou return.' He said, 'Unto dust.' That isn't hell, is it?"

"Well," I said, "there are in my experience a great many different kinds of hells. There are almost as many kinds of hells as there are men and women upon this earth. Now, your hell wouldn't terrify me in the least. My own makes me no end of trouble. Talk about burning pitch and brimstone: how futile were the imaginations of the old fellows who conjured up such puerile torments. Why, I can tell you of no end of hells that are worse--and not half try. Once I remember, when I was younger----"

I happened to glance around at my companion. He sat there looking at me with horror--fascinated horror.

"Well, I won't disturb your peace of mind by telling that story," I said.

"Do you believe that we shall go to hell?" he asked in a low voice.

"That depends," I said. "Let's leave out the question of 'we'; let's be more comfortably general in our discussion. I think we can safely say that some go and some do not. It's a curious and noteworthy thing," I said, "but I've known of cases--There are some people who aren't really worth good honest tormenting--let alone the rewards of heavenly bliss. They just haven't anything to torment! What is going to become of such folks? I confess I don't know. You remember when Dante began his journey into the infernal regions----"

"I don't believe a word of that Dante," he interrupted excitedly; "it's all a made up story. There isn't a word of truth in it; it is a blasphemous book. Let me read you what I say about it in here."

"I will agree with you without argument," I said, "that it is not all true. I merely wanted to speak of one of Dante's experiences as an illustration of the point I'm making. You remember that almost the first spirits he met on his journey were those who had never done anything in this life to merit either heaven or hell. That always struck me as being about the worst plight imaginable for a human being. Think of a creature not even worth good honest brimstone!"

Since I came home, I've looked up the passage; and it is a wonderful one. Dante heard wailings and groans and terrible things said in many tongues. Yet these were not the souls of the wicked. They were only those "who had lived without praise or blame, thinking of nothing but themselves." "Heaven would not dull its brightness with those, nor would lower hell receive them."

"And what is it," asked Dante, "that makes them so grievously suffer?"

"Hopelessness of death," said Virgil, "Their blind existence here, and immemorable former life, make them so wretched that they envy every other lot. Mercy and Justice alike disdain them. Let us speak of them no more. Look, and pass!"

But Mr. Purdy, in spite of his timidity, was a man of much persistence.

"They tell me," he said, "when they try to prove the reasonableness of hell, that unless you show sinners how they're goin' to be tormented, they'd never repent. Now, I say that if a man has to be scared into religion, his religion ain't much good."

"There," I said, "I agree with you completely."

His face lighted up, and he continued eagerly:

"And I tell 'em: You just go ahead and try for heaven; don't pay any attention to all this talk about everlasting punishment."

"Good advice!" I said.

It had begun to grow dark. The brown cow was quiet at last. We could hear small faint sounds from the calf. I started slowly through the bracken. Mr. Purdy hung at my elbow, stumbling sideways as he walked, but continuing to talk eagerly. So we came to the place where the calf lay. I spoke in a low voice:

"So boss, so boss."

I would have laid my hand on her neck but she started back with a wild toss of her horns. It was a beautiful calf! I looked at it with a peculiar feeling of exultation, pride, ownership. It was red-brown, with a round curly pate and one white leg. As it lay curled there among the ferns, it was really beautiful to look at. When we approached, it did not so much as stir. I lifted it to its legs, upon which the cow uttered a strange half-wild cry and ran a few steps off, her head thrown in the air. The calf fell back as though it had no legs.

"She is telling it not to stand up," said Mr. Purdy.

I had been afraid at first that something was the matter!

"Some are like that," he said. "Some call their calves to run. Others won't let you come near 'em at all; and I've even known of a case where a cow gored its calf to death rather than let anyone touch it."

I looked at Mr. Purdy not without a feeling of admiration. This was a thing he knew: a language not taught in the universities. How well it became him to know it; how simply he expressed it! I thought to myself: There are not many men in this world, after all, that it will not pay us to go to school to--for something or other.

I should never have been able, indeed, to get the cow and calf home, last night at least, if it had not been for my chance friend. He knew exactly what to do and how to do it. He wore a stout coat of denim, rather long in the skirts. This he slipped off, while I looked on in some astonishment, and spread it out on the ground. He placed my staff under one side of it and found another stick nearly the same size for the other side. These he wound into the coat until he had made a sort of stretcher. Upon this we placed the unresisting calf. What a fine one it was! Then, he in front and I behind, we carried the stretcher and its burden out of the wood. The cow followed, sometimes threatening, sometimes bellowing, sometimes starting off wildly, head and tail in the air, only to rush back and, venturing up with trembling muscles, touch her tongue to the calf, uttering low maternal sounds.

"Keep steady," said Mr. Purdy, "and everything'll be all right."

When we came to the brook we stopped to rest. I think my companion would have liked to start his argument again, but he was too short of breath.

It was a prime spring evening! The frogs were tuning up. I heard a drowsy cowbell somewhere over the hills in the pasture. The brown cow, with eager, outstretched neck, was licking her calf as it lay there on the improvised stretcher. I looked up at the sky, a blue avenue of heaven between the tree tops; I felt the peculiar sense of mystery which nature so commonly conveys.

"I have been too sure!" I said. "What do we know after all! Why may there not be future heavens and hells--'other heavens for other earths'? We do not know--we do not know--"

So, carrying the calf, in the cool of the evening, we came at last to my yard. We had no sooner put the calf down than it jumped nimbly to its feet and ran, wobbling absurdly, to meet its mother.

"The rascal," I said, "after all our work."

"It's the nature of the animal," said Mr. Purdy, as he put on his coat.

I could not thank him enough. I invited him to stay with us to supper, but he said he must hurry home.

"Then come down soon to see me," I said, "and we will settle this question as to the existence of a hell."

He stepped up close to me and said, with an appealing note in his voice:

"You do not really believe in a hell, do you?"

How human nature loves collusiveness: nothing short of the categorical will satisfy us! What I said to Mr. Purdy evidently appeased him, for he seized my hand and shook and shook.

"We haven't understood each other," he said eagerly. "You don't believe in eternal damnation any more than I do." Then he added, as though some new uncertainty puzzled him, "Do you?"

At supper I was telling Harriet with gusto of my experiences. Suddenly she broke out:

"What was his name?"

"Purdy."

"Why, he's the infidel that Mrs. Horace tells about!"

"Is that possible?" I said, and I dropped my knife and fork. The strangest sensation came over me.

"Why," I said, "then I'm an infidel too!"

So I laughed and I've been laughing gloriously ever since--at myself, at the infidel, at the entire neighbourhood. I recalled that delightful character in "The Vicar of Wakefield" (my friend the Scotch Preacher loves to tell about him), who seasons error by crying out "Fudge!"

"Fudge!" I said.

We're all poor sinners!


(The end)
David Grayson's essay: Infidel

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