From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume IV, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 696-710.
IN A STATE OF SIN*
BY OWEN WISTER
Judge and Mrs. Henry, Molly Wood, and two strangers, a lady and a gentleman, were the party which had been driving in the large three-seated wagon. They had seemed a merry party. But as I came within hearing of their talk, it was a fragment of the minister’s sonority which reached me first:
“. . . . more opportunity for them to have the benefit of hearing frequent sermons,” was the sentence I heard him bring to completion.
“Yes, to be sure, sir,” Judge Henry gave me (it almost seemed) additional warmth of welcome for arriving to break up the present discourse. “Let me introduce you to the Rev. Dr. Alexander MacBride. Doctor, another guest we have been hoping for about this time,” was my host’s cordial explanation to him of me. There remained the gentleman with his wife from New York, and to these I made my final bows. But I had not broken up the discourse.
“We may be said to have met already.” Dr. MacBride had fixed upon me his full, mastering eye; and it occurred to me that if they had policemen in heaven, he would be at least a centurion in the force. But he did not mean to be unpleasant; it was only that in a mind full of matters less worldly, pleasure was left out. “I observed your friend was a skilful horseman,” he continued. “I was saying to Judge Henry that I could wish such skilful 697 horsemen might ride to a church upon the Sabbath. A church, that is, of right doctrine, where they would have opportunity to hear frequent sermons.”
“Yes,” said Judge Henry, “yes. It would be a good thing.
Mrs. Henry, with some murmur about the kitchen, here went into the house.
“I was informed,” Dr. MacBride held the rest of us, “before undertaking my journey that I should find a desolate and mainly godless country. But nobody gave me to understand that from Medicine Bow I was to drive three hundred miles and pass no church of any faith.”
The Judge explained that there had been a few a long way to the right and left of him. “Still,” he conceded, “you are quite right. But don’t forget that this is the newest part of a new world.”
“Judge,” said his wife, coming to the door, “how can you keep the standing in the dust with your talking?”
This most efficiently did break up the discourse. As our little party, with the smiles and the polite holdings back of new acquaintanceship, moved into the house, the Judge detained me behind all of them long enough to whisper dolorously, “He’s going to stay a whole week.”
I had hopes that he would not stay a whole week when I presently learned of the crowded arrangements which our hosts, with many hospitable apologies, disclosed to us. They were delighted to have us, but they hadn’t foreseen that we should all be simultaneous. The foreman’s house had been prepared for two of us, and did we mind? The two of us were Dr. MacBride and myself; and I expected him to mind. But I wronged him grossly. It would be much better, he assured Mrs. Henry, than straw in a stable, which he had tried several times, and was quite ready for. So I saw that though he kept his vigorous 698 body clean when he could, he cared nothing for it in the face of his mission. How the foreman and his wife relished being turned out during a week for a missionary and myself was not my concern, although while he and I made ready for supper over there, it struck me as hard on them. The room with its two cots and furniture was as nice as possible; and we closed the door upon the adjoining room, which, however, seemed also untenanted.
Mrs. Henry gave us a meal so good that I have remembered it, and her husband, the Judge, strove his best that we should eat it in merriment. He poured out his anecdotes like wine, and we should have quickly warmed to them; but Dr. MacBride sat among us, giving occasional heavy ha-ha’s, which produced, as Miss Molly Wood whispered to me, a “dreadfully cavernous effect.” Was it his sermon, we wondered, that he was thinking over? I told her of the copious sheaf of them I had seen him pull from his wallet over at the foreman’s. “Goodness!” said she. “Then are we to hear one every evening?” This I doubted; he had probably been picking one out suitable for the occasion. “Putting his best foot foremost,” was her comment; “I suppose they have best feet, like the rest of us.” Then she grew delightfully sharp. “Do you know, when I first hear him I thought his voice was hearty. But if you listen, you’ll find it’s merely militant. He never really meets you with it. He’s off on his hill watching the battle-field the whole time.”
“He will find a hardened pagan here.”
“Oh, no! The wild man you’re taming. He’s brought you Kenilworth safe back.”
She was smooth. “Oh, as for taming him! But don’t you find him intelligent?”
Suddenly I somehow knew that she didn’t want to tame 699 him. But what did she want to do? The thought of her had made him blush this afternoon. No thought of him made her blush this evening.
A great laugh from the rest of the company made me aware that the Judge had consummated his tale of the “Sole Survivor.”
“And so,” he finished, “they all went off as mad as hops because it hadn’t been a massacre.” Mr. and Mrs. Ogden — they were the New Yorkers — gave this story much applause, and Dr. MacBride half a minute later laid his “ha-ha,” like a heavy stone, upon the gaiety.
“I’ll never be able to stand the sermons,” said Miss Wood to me.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Do you often have these visitations?” Ogden inquired of Judge Henry. Our host was giving us whisky in his office, and Dr. MacBride, while we smoked apart from the ladies, had repaired to his quarters in the foreman’s house previous to the service which he was shortly to hold.
The Judge laughed. “They come now and then through the year. I like the bishop to come. And the men always like it. But I fear our friend will scarcely please them so well.”
“You don’t mean they’ll —”
“Oh, no. They’ll keep quiet. The fact is, they have a good deal better manners than he has, if he only knew it. They’ll be able to bear him. But as for any good he’ll do —”
“I doubt if he knows a word of science,” said I, musing about the Doctor.
“Science! He doesn’t know what Christianity is yet. I’ve entertained many guests, but none — The whole secret,” broke off Judge Henry, “lies in the way you treat 700 people. As soon as you treat men as your brothers, they are ready to acknowledge you — if you deserve it — as their superior. That’s the whole bottom of Christianity, and that’s what our missionary will never know.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Thunder sat imminent upon the missionary’s brow. Many were to be at his mercy soon. But for us he had sunshine still. “I am truly sorry to be turning you upside down,” he said importantly. “But it seems the best place for my service.” He spoke of the table pushed back and the chairs gathered in the hall, where the storm would presently break upon the congregation. “Eight-thirty?” he inquired.
This was the hour appointed, and it was only twenty minutes off. We threw the unsmoked fractions of our cigars away, and returned to offer our services to the ladies. This amused the ladies. They had done without us. All was ready in the hall.
“We got the cook to help, us,” Mrs. Ogden told me, “so as not to disturb your cigars. In spite of the cowboys, I still recognize my own country.”
“In the cook?” I rather densely asked.
“Oh, no! I don’t have a Chinaman. It’s in the length of after-dinner cigars.”
“Had you been smoking,” I returned, “you would have found them short this evening.”
“You make it worse,” said the lady; “we have had nothing but Dr. MacBride.”
“We’ll share him with you now,” I exclaimed.
“Has he announced his text? I’ve got one for him,” said Molly Wood, joining us. She stood on tiptoe and spoke it comically in our ears. “ ‘I said in my haste, All men are liars.’ ” This made us merry as we stood among the chairs in the congested hall.701
I left the ladies, and sought the bunk house. I had heard the cheers, but I was curious also to see the men, and how they were taking it. There was but little for the eye. There was much noise in the room. They were getting ready to come to church, — brushing their hair, shaving, and making themselves clean, amid talk occasionally profane and continuously diverting.
“Well, I’m a Christian, anyway,” one declared.
“I’m a Mormon, I guess,” said another.
“I belong to the Knights of Pythias,” said a third.
“I’m a Mohammedist,” said a fourth; “I hope I ain’t goin’ to hear nothin’ to shock me.”
What with my feelings at Scipio’s discretion, and my human curiosity, I was not in that mood which best profits from a sermon. Yet even though my expectations had been cruelly left quivering in mid air, I was not sure how much I really wanted to “keep around.” You will therefore understand how Dr. MacBride was able to make a prayer and to read Scripture without my being conscious of a word that he had uttered. It was when I saw him opening the manuscript of his sermon that I suddenly remembered I was sitting, so to speak, in church, and began once more to think of the preacher and his congregation. Our chairs were in the front line, of course; but, being next the wall, I could easily see the cow-boys behind me. They were perfectly decorous. If Mrs. Ogden had looked for pistols, dare-devil attitudes, and so forth, she must have been greatly disappointed. Except for their weather-beaten cheeks and eyes, they were simply American young men with mustaches and without, and might have been sitting, say, in Danbury, Connecticut. Even Trampas merged quietly with the general placidity. The Virginian did not, to be sure, look like Danbury, and his frame and his features showed out 702 of the mass; but his eyes were upon Dr. MacBride with a creamlike propriety.
Our missionary did not choose Miss Wood’s text. He made his selection from another of the Psalms; and when it came, I did not dare to look at anybody; I was much nearer unseemly conduct than the cow-boys. Dr. MacBride gave us his text sonorously, “ ‘They are altogether become filthy; There is none of them that doeth good, no, not one.’ ” His eye showed us plainly that present company was not excepted from this. He repeated the text once more, then, launching upon his discourse, gave none of us a ray of hope.
I had heard it all often before; but preached to cow-boys it took on a new glare of untimeliness, of grotesque obsoleteness — as if some one should say, “Let me persuade you to admire woman,” and forthwith hold out her bleached bones to you. The cow-boys were told that not only they could do no good, but that if they did contrive to, it would not help them. Nay, more: not only honest deeds availed them nothing, but even if they accepted this especial creed which was being explained to them as necessary for salvation, still it might not save them. Their sin was indeed the cause of their damnation, yet, keeping from sin, they might nevertheless be lost. It had all been settled for them not only before they were born, but before Adam was shaped. Having told them this, he invited them to glorify the Creator of the scheme. Even if damned, they must praise the person who had made them expressly for damnation. That is what I heard him prove by logic to these cow-boys. Stone upon stone he built the black cellar of his theology, leaving out its beautiful park and the sunshine of its garden. He did not tell them the splendor of its past, the noble fortress for good that it had been, how its tonic had strengthened generations 703 of their fathers. No; wrath he spoke of, and never once of love. It was the bishop’s way, I knew well, to hold cow-boys by homely talk of their special hardships and temptations. And when they fell he spoke to them of forgiveness and brought them encouragement. But Dr. MacBride never thought once of the lives of these waifs. Like himself, like all mankind, they were invisible dots in creation; like him, they were to feel as nothing, to be swept up in the potent heat of his faith. So he thrust out to them none of the sweet but all the bitter of his creed, naked and stern as iron. Dogma was his all in all, and poor humanity was nothing but flesh for his canons.
Thus to kill what chance he had for being of use seemed to me more deplorable than it did evidently to them. Their attention merely wandered. Three hundred years ago they would have been frightened; but not in this electric day. I saw Scipio stifling a smile when it came to the doctrine of original sin. “We know of its truth,” said Dr. MacBride, “from the severe troubles and distresses to which infants are liable, and from death passing upon them before they are capable of sinning.” Yet I knew he was a good man; and I also knew that if a missionary is to be tactless, he might almost as well be bad.
I said their attention wandered, but I forgot the Virginian. At first his attitude might have been mere propriety. One can look respectfully at a preacher and be internally breaking all the commandments. But even with the text I saw real attention light in the Virginian’s eye. And keeping track of the concentration that grew on him with each minute made the sermon short for me. He missed nothing. Before the end his gaze at the preacher had become swerveless. Was he convert or critic? Convert was incredible. Thus was an hour passed before I had thought of time.704
When it was over, we took it variously. The preacher was genial and spoke of having now broken ground for the lessons that he hoped to instil. He discoursed for a while about trout-fishing and about the rumored uneasiness of the Indians northward where he was going. It was plain that his personal safety never gave him a thought. He soon bade us good night. The Ogdens shrugged their shoulders and were amused. That was their way of taking it. Dr. MacBride sat too heavily on the Judge’s shoulders for him to shrug them. As a leading citizen in the Territory he kept open house for all comers. Policy and good nature made him bid welcome a wide variety of travelers. The cow-boy out of employment found bed and a meal for himself and his horse, and missionaries had before now been well received at Sunk Creek Ranch.
“I’ll suppose I’ll have to take him fishing” said the Judge ruefully.
“Yes, my dear,” said his wife, “you will. And I shall have to make his tea for six days.”
“Otherwise,” Ogden suggested, “it might be reported that you were enemies of religion.”
“That’s about it,” said the Judge. “I can get on with most people. But elephants depress me.”
So we named the Doctor “Jumbo,” and I departed to my quarters.
At the bunk house, the comments were similar but more highly salted. The men were going to bed. In spite of their outward decorum at the service, they had not liked to be told that they were “altogether become filthy.” It was easy to call names; they could do that themselves. And they appealed to me, several speaking at once, like a concerted piece at the opera: “Say, do you believe babies go to hell?” — “Ah, of course he don’t.” — “There 705 ain’t no hereafter, anyway.” — “Ain’t there?” — “Who told y’u?” — “Same man as told the preacher we were all a sifted set of sons-of-guns.” — “Well, I’m going to stay a Mormon.” — “Well, I’m going to quit fleeing from temptation.” — “That’s so! Better get it in the neck after a good time than a poor one.” And so forth. Their wit was not extreme, yet I should like Dr. MacBride to heave heard it. One fellow put his natural soul pretty well into words, “If I happened to learn what they had predestinated me to do, I’d do the other thing, just to show ’em!”
And Trampas? And the Virginian? They were out of it. The Virginian had gone straight to his new abode. Trampas lay in his bed, not asleep, and sullen as ever.
“He ain’t got religion this trip,” said Scipio to me.
“Did his new foreman get it?” I asked.
“Huh! It would spoil him. You keep around, that’s all. Keep around.”
Scipio was not to be probed; and I went, still baffled, to my repose.
No light burned in the cabin as I approached its door.
The Virginian’s room was quite and dark; and that Dr. MacBride slumbered was plainly audible to me, even before I entered. Go fishing with him! I thought, as I undressed. And I selfishly decided that the Judge might have this privilege entirely to himself. Sleep came to me fairly soon, in spite of the Doctor. I was wakened from it by my bed’s being jolted — not a pleasant thing that night. I must have started. And it was the quiet voice of the Virginian that told me he was sorry to have accidentally disturbed me. This disturbed me a good deal more. But his steps did not go to the bunk house, as my sensational mind had suggested. He was not wearing much, and in the dimness he seemed taller than common. 706 I next made out that he was bending over Dr. MacBride. The divine at last sprang upright.
“I am armed,” he said. “Take care. Who are you?”
“You can lay down your gun, seh. I feel like my spirit was going to bear witness. I feel like I might get an enlightening.”
He was using some of the missionary’s own language. The baffling I had been treated to by Scipio melted to nothing in this. Did living men petrify, I should have changed to mineral between the sheets. The Doctor got out of bed, lighted his lamp, and found a book; and the two retired into the Virginian’s room, where I could hear the exhortations as I lay amazed. In time the Doctor returned, blew out his lamp, and settled himself. I had been very much awake, but was nearly gone to sleep again, when the door creaked and the Virginian stood by the Doctor’s side.
“Are you awake, seh?”
“What? What’s that? What is it?”
“Excuse me, seh. The enemy is winning on me. I’m feeling less inward opposition to sin.”
The lamp was lighted, and I listened to some further exhortations. They must have taken half an hour. When the Doctor was in bed again, I thought that I heard him sigh. This upset my composure in the dark; but I lay face downward in the pillow, and the Doctor was soon again snoring. I envied him for a while his faculty of easy sleep. But I must have dropped off myself; for it was the lamp in my eyes that now waked me as he came back for the third time from the Virginian’s room. Before blowing the light out he looked at his watch, and thereupon I inquired the hour of him.
“Three,” said he.
I could not sleep any more now, and I lay watching he darkness. 707
“I’m afeard to be alone!” said the Virginian’s voice presently in the next room. “I’m afeard.” There was a short pause, and then he shouted very loud, “I’m losin’ my desire afteh the sincere milk of the Word!”
“What? What’s that? What?” The Doctor’s cot gave a great crack as he started up listening, and I put my face deep in the pillow.
“I’m afeard! I’m afeard! Sin has quit being bitter in my belly.”
“Courage, my good man.” The Doctor was out of bed with his lamp again, and the door shut behind him. Between them they made it long this time. I saw the window become gray; then the corners of the furniture grow visible; and outside, the dry chorus of the blackbirds began to fill the dawn. To these the sounds of chickens and impatient hoofs in the stable were added, and some cow wandered by loudly calling for her calf. Next, some one whistling passed near and grew distant. But although the cold hue that I lay staring at through the window warmed and changed, the Doctor continued working hard over his patient in the next room. Only a word here and there was distinct; but it was plain from the Virginian’s fewer remarks that the sin in his belly was alarming him less. Yes, they made this time long. But it proved, indeed, the last one. And though some sort of catastrophe was bound to fall upon us, it was myself who precipitated the thing that did happen.
Day was wholly come. I looked at my own watch, and it was six. I had been about seven hours in my bed, and the Doctor had been about seven hours out of his. The door opened, and he came in with his book and lamp. He seemed to be shivering a little, and I saw him cast a longing eye at this couch. But the Virginian followed him even as he blew out the now quite superfluous light. They 708 made a noticeable couple in their underclothes; the Virginian with his lean racehorse shanks running to a point at his ankle, and the Doctor with his stomach and his fat sedentary calves.
“You’ll be going to breakfast and the ladies, seh, pretty soon,” said the Virginian, with a chastened voice. “But I’ll worry through the day somehow without y’u. And to-night you can turn your wolf loose on me again.”
Once more it was no use. My face was deep in the pillow, but I made sounds as of a hen who has laid an egg. It broke on the doctor with a total instantaneous smash, quite like an egg.
He tried to speak calmly. “This is a disgrace. An infamous disgrace. Never in my life have I —” Words forsook him, and his face grew redder. “Never in my life —” He stopped again, because, at the sight of him being dignified in his red drawers, I was making the noise of a dozen hens. It was suddenly too much for the Virginian. He hastened into his room, and there sank on the floor with his head in his hands. The Doctor immediately slammed the door upon him, and this rendered me easily fit for a lunatic asylum. I cried into my pillow, and wondered if the Doctor would come and kill me. But he took no notice of me whatever. I could hear the Virginian’s convulsions through the door, and also the doctor furiously making his toilet within three feet of my head; and I lay quite still with my face the other way, for I was really afraid to look at him. When I heard him walk to the door in his boots, I ventured to peep; and there he was, going out with his bag in his hand. As I still continued to lie, weak and sore, and with a mind that had ceased all operation, the Virginian’s door opened. He was clean and dressed and decent, but the devil still sported in his eye. I have never seen a creature more irresistibly handsome.709
Then my mind worked again. “You’ve gone and done it,” said I. “He’s packed his valise. He’ll not sleep here.”
The Virginian looked quickly out of the door. “Why, he’s leavin’ us!” he exclaimed. “Drivin’ away right now in his little old buggy!” He turned to me, and our eyes met solemnly over this large fact. I thought that I perceived the faintest tincture of dismay in the features of Judge Henry’s new, responsible, trusty foreman. This was the first act of his administration. Once again he looked out at the departing missionary. “Well,” he vindictively stated, “I cert’nly ain’t goin’ to run afteh him.” And he looked at me again.
“Do you suppose the Judge knows?” I inquired.
He shook his head. “The windo’ shades is all down still oveh yondeh.” He paused. “I don’t care,” he stated, quite as if he had been ten years old. Then he grinned guiltily. “I was mighty respectful to him all night.”
“Oh, yes, respectful! Especially when you invited him to turn his wolf loose.”
The Virginian gave a joyous gulp. He now came and sat down on the edge of my bed. “I spoke awful good English to him most of the time,” said he. “I can, y’u know, when I cinch my attention tight on to it. Yes, I cert’nly spoke a lot o’ good English. I didn’t understand some of it myself!”
He was now growing frankly pleased with his exploit. He had builded so much better than he new. He got up and looked out across the crystal world of light. “The Doctor is at one-mile crossing,” he said. “He’ll get breakfast at the N-lazy-Y.” Then he returned and sat again on my bed, and began to give me his real heart. “I never set up for being better than others. Not even to myself. My thoughts ain’t apt to travel around making comparisons. And I shouldn’t wonder if my memory took as much notice 70 of the meannesses I have done as of — as of the other actions. But to have to sit like a dumb lamb and let a stranger tell y’u for an hour that yu’re a hawg and a swine, just after you have acted in a way which them that know the facts would call pretty near white —”
* Reprinted from Mr. Owen Wister’s “The Virginian.” Copyright, 1902-1904, by The Macmillan Company.