A PICTURESQUE CHURCH—SOME REFLECTIONS UPON CHURCH MUSIC—BOB PARKER IN THE CHOIR—OUR UNDERTAKER—A GLOOMY MAN—OUR EXPERIENCE WITH THE HOT-AIR FURNACES—A SERIES OF ACCIDENTS—MR. COLLAMER'S VOCALISM—AN EXTRAORDINARY MISTAKE.
HERE are but few old villages in the United States that contain ancient churches so picturesque in situation and in appearance as that which stands in the centre of our town, the most conspicuous of its buildings. The churchyard is filled with graves, for the people still cling to that kindly usage which places the sacred dust of the departed in holy ground. And so here, beneath the trees, and close to the shadow of the sanctuary walls, villagers of all ages and generations lie reposing in their final slumber, while from among them the snow-white spire rises heavenward to point the way their souls have gone. There are many of us who were not born here, and who are, as it were, almost strangers in the town, who can wander down the narrow paths of the yard, to out-of-the-way corners, where the headstones are gray with age and sometimes covered with a film of moss, and read in the quaint characters with which the marble is inscribed our own family names. Here lies the mortal part of men and women who were dear to our grandsires; of little children too, sometimes, whose departure brought sorrow to the hearts of those who joined them in Paradise long, long before we began to play our parts in the drama of existence. The lives that ended in this quiet resting-place are full of deepest interest to us; they have a controlling influence upon our destiny, and yet they are very unreal to us. The figures which move by us as we try to summon up the panorama of that past are indistinct and obscure. They are shadows walking in the dusk, and we strive in vain to vest them with a semblance of the personality which once was theirs. They should seem very near to us their kindred, and yet, as we attempt to come closer to them, they appear so remote, so far away in the dead years, that we hardly dare to claim fellowship with them, or to speak of them as of our flesh and blood.
It makes no difference where the empty shell is cast when the spiritual man is gone, but I reverence that human instinct which induces a man to wish to be laid at the last by the side of his ancestors and near to those whom he has loved in life. It is at least a beautiful sentiment which demands that those who are with each other in immortality should not be separated here on earth, but together should await the morning of the resurrection.
I like this old church for its simplicity; not only for the absence of splendor in its adornment, but for the methods of worship of which it approves. The choir, from its station in the organ-loft, never hurls down upon the heads of the saints and sinners beneath any of those surprising sounds which rural choirs so often emit, with a conviction that they are achieving wonderful feats of vocalism, and no profane fingers compel the pipes of the microscopic organ to recall to the mind of the listener the music of the stage and the concert-room. From the instrument come only harmonies round, sweet and full, melting in solemn cadences from key to key and rolling down through the church, bringing the souls of the worshipers into full accord with the spirit of the place and the occasion, or else pouring forth some stately melody on which the voices of the singers are upborne. The choir fulfills its highest purpose by leading the people through the measures of those grand old tunes, simple in construction but sublime in spirit, which give to the language of the spiritual songs of the sanctuary a more eloquent beauty than their own. I would rather hear such music as may be found in "Federal Street," in "Old Hundred," in "Hursley" and in the "Adeste Fideles," sung by an entire assembly of people who are in earnest in their religion, than to listen to the most intricate fugue worked out by a city choir of hired singers, or the most brilliant anthem sung by a congregation of surpliced boys who quarrel with each other and play wicked games during the prayers. Such tunes as these are filled with solemn meaning which is revealed to him whose singing is really an act of worship. There is more genuine religious fervor in "Hursley" than in a library of ordinary oratorios. A church which permits its choir to do all the singing might as well adopt the Chinese fashion of employing a machine to do its praying. A congregation which sits still while a quartette of vocalists overhead utters all the praises, need not hesitate to offer its supplications by turning a brass wheel with a crank. Our people do their singing and their praying for themselves, and the choir merely takes care that the music is of a fitting kind.
Miss Magruder sits in the organ-loft now that she is at home, and I doubt not she contributes much to the sweetness of the strains which float from out that somewhat narrow enclosure. Her presence, I observe, ensures the regular attendance of young Mr. Parker at the church, and last Sunday he even ventured to sit with the choir and to help with the singing. I have never considered him a really good performer, although he cherishes a conviction that he has an admirable voice, and such acquaintance with the art of using it as would have given him eminence if he had chosen the career of a public singer. After service I had occasion to speak to the clergyman for a moment, and as soon as he saw me he said:
"Mr. Adeler, did you notice anything about the organ or the choir to-day that was peculiar?"
"No; I do not think I did."
"It is very odd; but it seemed to me when they were singing the two last hymns that something must be the matter with one of the pipes. There was a sort of a rough, buzzing, rasping sound which I have never observed before. The instrument must need repairing."
I think I know what it was," remarked Mr. Campbell, the basso, who stepped up at that moment.
"The valves a little worn, I suppose?" said the minister.
"Well, no," replied Campbell; "the fact is that extraordinary noise was produced by Mr. Parker, who was making a strenuous effort to sing bass. He seemed to be laboring under a strong conviction that the composers had made some mistakes in the tunes, which he proposed to correct as be went along. Parker's singing is like homoeopathic medicine—a very little of it is enough."
Bob attributes the criticism of Campbell to professional jealousy, but he will probably sit downstairs after this. He prefers not to waste his talents upon provincial people who cannot appreciate genuine art. He will content himself with walking home with the fair Magruder after service.
There is one thing about the church with which I must find fault. I have never been able to comprehend why it is customary throughout this country, even in the large cities, to permit undertakers to decorate the exteriors of churches with their advertisements, as ours is decorated by our undertaker. In old times, when the sexton was the grave-digger and general public functionary, it was well enough to give publicity to his residence by posting its whereabouts in a public place. There were oftentimes little offices which he had to perform for the congregation and for the neighborhood, and it was necessary that he should be found quickly. But the present fashion, which allows an undertaker—who has no other connection with the church than that he sits in a pew occasionally and goes to sleep during the sermon—to nail a tin sign, bearing a picture of a gilt coffin, right by the church door, so that no man, woman or child can enter that sanctuary without thinking of the grave, is monstrous.
It is very proper that the minds of the people should be turned to contemplation of the certainty of death whenever they go to church. But it is hardly necessary to disturb a man's reflections upon the necessity of preparing for the grave by confronting him with an advertisement which compels him to remember how much it is going to cost his relations to put him there. Besides this, it makes the undertakers covetous, and fills their gloomy souls with murderous wishes.
I have seen ours standing against the wall in the churchyard on a Sunday morning with his hands in his pockets, glowering at the congregation as they go in, eyeing and criticising the members, and muttering to himself, "Splendid fit he'd make in that mahogany coffin I've got at home!" "There goes a man who ought to have died five years ago if I'd been treated right!" "I'll souse that Thompson underground some of these fine days!" "Those Mulligan girls certainly can't give the old man anything less than a fourhundred-dollar funeral when he dies!" "Healthiest looking congregation of its size I ever saw!" etc., etc.
If I were in authority in the church, I would suppress that gilded advertisement and try to convert the owner of it.
No man should be permitted to waste his Sabbaths in vain longings for the interment of his fellow-men.
They are very busy now at the church putting in new furnaces in order to be prepared for the cold weather. New ones were introduced last winter, I am told, but they were not entirely successful in operation. The first time the fire was put in them was on Saturday morning, and on Sunday the smoke was so dense in the church that nobody could see the clergyman. The workman had put the stove-pipe into the hot-air flue. Next Saturday night the fires were lighted, but on Sunday morning only the air immediately under the roof was warm, and the congregation nearly froze to death. The sexton was then instructed to make the fire on Thursday, in order to give the church a chance to become thoroughly heated. He did so, and early Sunday morning the furnaces were so choked up with ashes that the fires went out, and again the thermometer in the front pew marked zero.
Then the sexton received orders to make that fire on Thursday, and to watch it carefully until church-time on the following Sabbath. He did so, and both furnaces were in full blast at the appointed hour. That was the only warm Sunday we had last winter. The mercury was up to eighty degrees out of doors, while in the church everybody was in a profuse perspiration, and the bellows-blower at the organ fainted twice. The next Sunday the sexton tried to keep the fires low by pushing in the dampers, and consequently the church was filled with coal-gas, and the choir couldn't sing, nor could the minister preach without coughing between his sentences.
Subsequently the sexton removed one of the cast-iron registers in the floor for the purpose of examining the hot air flue. He left the hole open while he went into the cellar for a moment, and just then old Mr. Collamer came in to hunt for his gloves, which he thought he had left in his pew. Of course he walked directly into the opening, and was dragged out in a condition of asphyxia. That very day one of the furnaces burst and nearly fired the church. The demand for heaters of another kind seemed to be imperative.
Old Collamer, by the way, is singularly unfortunate in his experiences in the sanctuary. He is extremely deaf, and a few Sundays ago he made a fearful blunder during the sermon. The clergyman had occasion to introduce a quotation, and as it was quite long, he brought the volume with him; and when the time came, he picked up the book and began to read from it. We always sing the Old Hundred doxology after sermon at our church, and Mr. Collamer, seeing the pastor with the book, thought the time had come, so while the minister was reading he opened his hymn-book at the place. Just as the clergyman laid the volume down the man sitting next to Mr. Collamer began to yawn, and Mr Collamer, thinking he was about to sing, immediately broke out into Old Hundred, and roared it at the top of his voice. As the clergyman was just beginning "secondly," and as there was of course perfect silence in the church, the effect of Mr. Collamer's vociferation was very startling. But the good old man failed to notice that anything was the matter, so he kept right on and sang the verse through.
When he had finished, he observed that everybody else seemed to be quiet, excepting a few who were laughing, so he leaned over and said out loud to the man who yawned,
"What's the matter with this congregation, anyhow? Why don't they go home?"
The man turned scarlet, and the perspiration broke out all over him, for he felt that the eyes of the congregation were upon him, and he knew that he would have to yell to make Mr. Collamer hear. So he touched his lips with his fingers as a sign for the old man to keep quiet. But Mr. Collamer misunderstood the motion:
"Goin' to sing another hymn, hey? All right."
And he began to fumble his hymn-book again. Then the sexton hurried up the aisle, and explained matters out loud to Mr. Collamer, and that gentleman subsided, while the minister proceeded with his discourse. The clergyman has written Mr. Collamer a note requesting him in the future not to join in the sacred harmony. The effect is too appalling upon the ribald boys in the back pews.