The conversation, which had languished while there had been an occasional customer to sooth the nervous proprietor, suddenly became brisk. From chickens, it naturally drifted to poultry diseases, and thence to the uncertainty of life. That suggested religion to Tom Quirk; and religion, revivals; and 27 revivals, sinners. So, by an easy transition, the church choir came up for discussion.
Then it was that old Uncle Ezra, who had been silent through it all, unlimbered ponderously, as properly befitted a great gun of the village.
“Reckon I never told ye ’bout the time I was a bass singer?” he threw out.
A respectful chorus of “Noes,” and “Tell us about it, Uncle Ez,” answered him. Each member of the party settled back into his chair with a sigh of relief, and the unhappy Jenkins sat down on a cracker-box, for Uncle Ezra, as a man of wealth and position, was not to be interrupted nor hurried.
“Just twenty-five years ago, when I was in my prime,” he began, after a preparatory cough, “the Methodist Church was built, and John Tate undertook to organize the choir. They called him the ‘percenter,’ or something of that kind. ’Tany rate, they were stuck for a bass singer. Every one they invited to try for the position failed. At last some one mentioned my name, and John came to me and asked me to jine ’em. At first I stood out right and said ‘no,’ not flatterin’ myself that I could fill the bill ’tall. I knowed one tune from another, and I told him so; but 28 my voice was weak and anything but deep; besides at that time I had a little tech of asthma once in a while.
“None of you young fellers never knowed John Tate. He was killed by the Injuns after he went West, but he was the most convincin’ man I ’bout ever see, and he got me to come to church that night and try over some of the tunes. I remember I had a terrible cold that day; it was deep sot and my voice was below zero, so to speak.
“Well, seein’ as I had promised, I went down to the meetin’ house, as we called it in them days. Matilda Savory, now the widow Plunkett, was there, and George Delameter, who was to be the tenor, and Rachel Sliter, now deceased, and Susan Black, who I had a slinkin’ sweetness for. There was a few others I don’t just recollect this minute. We first attacked that hymn runnin’ —
“I put my whole soul into it, and all the wind I could muster. They was all surprised to find out I had such a good bass voice, and I laughed in my sleeve, because no one seemed to notice that I had a cold. We tried several 29 pieces, and after finishin,’ some one was sure to say to me, ‘Why Ez, I had no idee that you had such a splendid bass voice,’ and another would say to the one settin’ next, ‘We couldn’t get along without Ez; don’t his voice chord in nice?’
“You can believe I was honored, and what made me feel the best was the kinder suppressed look of pride on Susan’s face. For the time being’ I really thought I could sing like a-a- blackbird. Yes, that was the comparison I made to myself. You see, I was thinkin’ of Susan; her rear name was Black, as I mentioned afore.
“This was on a Monday night. John Tate told us to meet agin on Saturday evenin’ to practice, so’s we’d be able to make the new church ring with devout song on the followin’ day. On Tuesday, my cold was disappearin’, and my normal up-grade voice was comin’ back.
“I now had a chance to consider that I had made a mistake in joinin’ the choir, for when the time should come for me to make a public exhibition of myself my voice would be pitched entirely too high. Still I felt that this opportunity to become popular with the church folks was too good to be lost. I was 30 a young man, anxious to be a success in business and get some of the custom which went to Andrew Yates, who also kept a grocery. And so I made this resolve: that, if necessary, I would catch another cold on Saturday rather than resign or run the risk of singin’ in no set voice on the comin’ Sunday.
“Saturday mornin’ arrived, and I hadn’t even blowed my nose since Wednesday, just afore I went to bed. So I throwed off my coat and vest and scrambled down cellar, which was just the place to get what I wanted. I hired a little boy to tend store and I sot for nearly an hour on a hogshead of molasses, sneezin’ away, but determined not to give up until I’d caught a first-rate cold. When I came upstairs I called out to the boy, just to see how my vocal organs was fixed, and they but me in mind of a big bass drum that I’d heard once in a travelin’ circus.
“That night I was on hand punctual, and received many more compliments, and went home with Susan chipper as a butterfly. For fear I wouldn’t be hoarse the next mornin’, I sot in the open window of my chamber with my coat and vest off, gazin’ at the stars and thinkin’ of Susan while I grew hoarser every moment.31
“On Sunday mornin’ my voice was in good trim, and it was one of the most triumphant moments of my life as I stood up and let it swell out, while all the people down below looked up and watched us with admiration and envy. My throat was rather sore and my chest felt tight, but I paid no attention to them.
“The choir agin met on Monday night, and my voice held its own. During the rest of the week I laid in a stock of soothin’ syrup and camphor and other medicines, which I used pretty lavish, and with good results. But Saturday come, and I found myself hesitatin’ whether to go down cellar agin or sever my connection with the choir forever. I had observed that trade had picked up wonderfully within a few days, and the minister himself had dropped in and asked for credit on a pound of cheese, some clothespins, and one or two other articles — I don’t just recollect this minute. The superintendent of the Sabbath School also came in for the first time and bought a ham and a gallon of sperm oil. If this thing continues, thinks I to myself, I can afford to catch cold for a few weeks, until they can get a natural bass singer, and down cellar I went, leaving’ the same little boy to tend store.32
“Well a year went by, and I was still holdin’ forth in that Methodist choir. My business now was flourishin’, and although Mr. Yates was a Christian, the church people patronized me as much as they did him; for durin’ this time they had a tremendous revival down at Jericho Center, and I had experienced religion. By bein’ in the choir I had many chances to see Susan home, which would not have happened otherwise; and I valued this circumstance, for my regard for her had gradually deepened into a sincere and unmistakable affection.
“But then Susan up and married a young justice of the peace, who never attended church, and was a bigger sinner than I ever dreamed of bein’. This took Susan out of the choir and left me desolate. I vowed eternal celibacy, and I didn’t care who set the Methodist Church afire. That was the last of me as a bass singer. Why, reckon it up, and see how many times I exposed myself to diphtheria, bronchitis, and death, and not a livin’ soul was in the secret. I got so scientific about it that I could tell how many sneezes would make me hoarse enough to strike the lowest note in ‘Old Hundred’ without strainin’ for it.33
“But one thing’s been sorter botherin’ me all these years. Suppose Rachel Sliter should meet me in Heaven. The very first thing she’d say would be ‘Well, if here ain’t Ez Hix! Come here, Ezra. I want you to sing some of those good old hymns that we used to sing in the Slackville Methodist Church.’ That would be just like Rachel.”
“Well, Uncle Ez,” said Tom Quirk, who had been the old man’s most respectful auditor, “you could have ’em open the windows and put ice on you when you was dying, so that you could catch cold and take it along with you and sing for her.”
First published in the Philadephia Saturday Evening Post.