Book 9 in the Mountain Women Series
I’d had no notice that the preacher was going to visit, but maybe that was best. If I’d known, I might have spent hours fretting about how to defend myself against what I figured he’d come to say.
He seemed a lot smaller, standing there on the boardinghouse porch in his limp black suit and tight collar, holding a dark felt hat in his hands, his white scalp glistening beneath thinning hair. He’d chosen the heat of the afternoon for his visit, a time when the slanting rays of sunlight trapped the air between the porch roof and the front of the house.
“Rev. Holland,” I said. “Good afternoon.”
Other than dinner at our house when he and his wife had first come to town, he’d not called on us like this. Those were nearly his first words. “I’ve not called on you before.”
I hadn’t felt slighted. “Please, come in where it’s cooler.” My invitation must have sounded cool as well, which would be right, because I did not feel welcoming. I was my own sharpest critic—I didn’t need him to scold me. Besides, I was tired, and he’d given me no warning.
He swiped his dusty shoes against the mat and opened the screen door. My animosity softened at the edges, because he reminded me of a beggar making his rounds in the dusty heat. He’d come on foot, owning not even a bicycle. Our preachers were poorly paid, partly because the congregation was poor, and partly due to the general belief that no one should be enriched, or even paid a living wage, working for God. Not that I believed Rev. Holland did a good job of it. When the church liked a preacher, the members tried to make up for his poor income with donations of food, invitations to Sunday dinner, and volunteer work on the parsonage, but very few members liked this one. He might be as worried about the decline of his congregation as I was when there were no guests in the boardinghouse.
He followed me to the parlor, where I invited him to sit in our most comfortable wing chair. I chose the wooden chair that belonged to the small writing desk, turning it around and sitting on its edge. Quite possibly he’d come to apologize. Whatever the reason, I’d have to be gracious even if I didn’t feel forgiving.
Except for the ticking of the grandfather clock, the house was quiet, for my children were asleep and our residents and staff were away on summer vacations.
I’d never confessed my dislike for this preacher to anyone but Barlow, but I was sure Rev. Holland was aware of my Sunday absences. Barlow, who attended trustee meetings and met him occasionally in the company store, said he was pleasant enough in person, meaning when he wasn’t pontificating at the front of the church. I didn’t know him in person. All I knew was he preached about sin like he was running for his life, chastising all who would not run with him. I’d felt personally attacked when he’d railed against women who did not restrict themselves to duties of household and family. In other words, women like me.
Barlow was in attendance most Sundays, but I hadn’t stepped into the church in many weeks, not since Rev. Holland had preached against dancing and establishments that admitted colored people along with white. The only place in Winkler that matched his condemnation was the Eat and Sleep, which we happened to own. Most residents of the Eat and Sleep were bachelor miners, but it was also the temporary home of a colored child and a young colored man, and at the time of the preacher’s tirade, it had been advertised as the site of a public dance. Rev. Holland had stopped short of naming Barlow and me as the ones providing young and old alike with a new opportunity to sin, but everybody knew his sermon was directed to us.
“We’ve missed you at services,” Rev. Holland said.
I tightened my hands in my lap. “Yes, there’s been sickness.” Weeks ago, an epidemic of measles. I wasn’t about to engage him with the truth.
“I hope all are well, now.”
“For the moment,” I said. “There are so many children’s diseases—in their tender years, I prefer to keep my children at home. How is Mrs. Holland?”
I nearly asked if his wife was feeling better, which would have been inappropriate, since to my knowledge no one had ever said she was unwell. She’d initially been the cause of much speculation because she no longer appeared in public, not even in church. The only reasonable excuse had to be some serious illness, for a preacher’s wife was expected to perform a number of duties in the church, teaching Sunday school to children, supporting if not leading every endeavor of the Ladies’ Aid, and playing the piano for hymns if there was no one else to do it. I tended to forget there was a Mrs. Holland and wasn’t sure I’d recognize her should she appear anywhere without her husband.
“She’s much the same, thank you for asking,” he said, giving no indication of whether that was good or bad. “And you are well at present?”
“At present,” I said. “It’s warm for June, don’t you think? Shall I fetch a pitcher of water?”
“That would be kind,” he said.
Barlow was right—away from church, the preacher seemed more like an ordinary person, though I wasn’t ready to say “personable.” I hurried away to the kitchen, no longer certain he’d come to chastise me, feeling a bit of sympathy for his wife, and wondering if I was about to discover the person in the preacher. When I returned, carrying a tray with a water pitcher and a glass, he held out a strand of rosary beads. “Yours?” He looked confused.
I set the tray on our round library table in the center of the room. “It’s Mrs. Fellows’s rosary. You know Mrs. Fellows of the bank? She’s one of our residents. She’s Catholic,” I added.
He held the rosary like he was afraid of it. “I sat on it. I’m sorry, it was partly wedged in the chair…I didn’t see…”
“That’s where she sits. She’ll be sorry to have forgotten it.”
“Oh.” He peered at the chair. “Should I put it back?”
I held out my hand. “I’ll put it somewhere safe.” I put the rosary on the library table and poured his water.
He drank steadily until the glass was half full. “Thank you. You’re not having any?”
“I’m not thirsty.”
He glanced behind him again, then sat carefully. Again I sat on the edge of the desk chair and waited for him to state the reason for his call. Something—perhaps the effort of getting here—had worn him down, for he slumped with his elbows on his knees, twisting the glass in both hands.
He looked up. “I know you’re not happy with me.”
His accusation was startling in its humility, like nothing I’d heard him say in church. I couldn’t think of a way to deny it.
He continued. “In fact, with the exception of Mr. Townsend, your entire house seems to be against me. One of your residents, in particular, has been writing to my district superintendent. She teaches in the school.”
I tried not to fidget. Miss Baldwin made no secret of her dissatisfaction, and she’d told me about her letters. “I think Miss Baldwin would like to hear an uplifting sermon now and again,” I said.
“She says I dwell too much on punishment. I suppose you agree.” He leaned forward in an earnest manner, brave, I thought, to confront me so openly, though certainly I was no one to fear. Perhaps he thought I’d join with him in denouncing Miss Baldwin. His manner seemed to urge it.
“I believe we all need hope and encouragement,” I said.
“You think I’m proud and unyielding, but I tell you, I am crushed by the sins of this town—adultery, desertion, cruelty to children, children who do not get enough to eat—so much of it due to alcohol and gambling.”
Everyone with eyes and ears knew these things. “Miss Baldwin is disturbed by all of that as well,” I said. “Life is hard, and not everyone is strong.”
“You make excuses for sin?”
“Sinners also need to be uplifted, given a light to shine in the midst of their darkness.” I imagined Miss Baldwin, in one of her dark dresses and the feathered hat she wore even in her classroom, sitting here with her best posture, paying heed to our conversation.
He sighed. “I know about darkness. I preach the Bible, and I don’t set myself up as better than anyone. ‘We all like sheep have gone astray.’” He’d straightened in the chair and his voice was firmer, without the touch of humility I’d heard a moment ago.
“Isaiah 53:6,” I said. My five-year-old Freddy could recite chapter and verse, having heard it so many Sundays. He liked the idea of being a sheep.
“Very good, Mrs. Townsend. And I’m first among them, the greatest of sinners. You’ve heard me say it.” Once again, he looked distressed. I was afraid he might cry.
I’d been sitting with my feet pressed closely together, and now the position felt cramped and intolerable. For relief, I crossed my ankles and smothered a sigh of hope that I wasn’t about to hear an enumeration of the preacher’s sins. To forestall any such confession, I offered my strongest conviction. “But some parts of the Bible are more uplifting. The New Testament, for example, is rich in forgiveness. It’s the main message, don’t you think?”
Rev. Holland did not appear to be following my thoughts. “The things people tell me—the burdens they lay on me—you’ve no idea. My yoke isn’t easy, my burden isn’t light.”
He was misquoting, and I could not resist a correction: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
Rev. Holland got very still, appearing to stare at the wall behind me, his mouth ajar.
Silences among friends were comfortable, but of course he and I weren’t friends, and this silence was different—something was wrong. As the moments went on, I thought about getting up and tapping him on the shoulder. Finally his jaw closed. I watched as he drank again from the glass. Then he said, “My wife…I’ve turned her against me. She says I make her feel bad.”
If he delivered sermons at home, I could well imagine her feelings.
“She’s very nervous. She has a nervous condition, the doctor says. She says I upset her.”
He stood to leave. “You don’t understand.” He held out his empty glass. “Pray for me.”
I took the glass, wanting to offer some comfort even though I was relieved he was going. Three new loaves of bread were cooling in the kitchen. “Please, wait just a moment.” I hurried away before he could answer.
In the kitchen I wrapped a warm loaf in butcher paper and grabbed a pint of raspberry preserves. He’d seemed so eager to go I was afraid he’d slip away, but he was waiting near the front door.
He looked surprised when I put the jam and bread in his hands.
“May I call again?” He had the earnest expression of one whose life depended on a favorable answer.
“Perhaps we can arrange a time when my husband can be present,” I said.
“Of course. I should have given notice of my visit. Please give Mr. Townsend my greetings. And Miss Baldwin. I hope she will join our conversation at a later date.”
“She’ll be here when the school year begins.” Two months from now. I might need to warn her that Rev. Holland was more sensitive in person than when he spoke to the congregation, though I wondered if he’d speak so candidly with an audience of more than one. He was bold to include Miss Baldwin in a future visit, though maybe he had no idea how much she loved a hearty debate.
As for the preacher’s unnamed problem, I didn’t see how I could help. Still, he’d shared his burden with me and now I couldn’t get it off my mind. I wanted the relief of confiding it to someone else, but Barlow wouldn’t be home for hours and Luzanna was in Pennsylvania with her new husband, visiting his sister. Since marrying Truman Cunningham, she’d worked at the boardinghouse less and less. I was tempted to telephone her, but long-distance calls were expensive, and if I called, she’d be sure someone had died.
That evening, Barlow paused in the kitchen on his way to the cooler air of the back yard, and seeing me perspiring over the sink of warm dishwater, rolled up his sleeves. “I’ll dry,” he said. “Where’s a towel?”
Surprised, I nodded toward the towel rack. He held the towel and turned a platter with both hands, wiping and endeavoring not to drop it. If there was an art to drying dishes, Barlow hadn’t learned it, but I didn’t care if he was slow and clumsy. This was the first time he’d offered.
It was one thing to sit for breakfast in a stuffy kitchen and another to work near the stove on a hot day. “Whew,” he said. “Mother had a small wood and coal-burning stove outside. A summer cookhouse.”
I’d considered a cookhouse, but we didn’t use our stove quite as much in hot weather. Still, we had to make coffee and bread, and this summer I’d been bothered more than usual by heat. “A cookhouse would require a lot of running back and forth,” I said. “I could let this fire go out, some days. I don’t suppose you and Glory would give up coffee while the weather’s hot? We could buy bread from the Eat and Sleep.”
“Umm,” he said. “Or we might close in the back porch. Putting a stove there would keep heat out of the rest of the house.”
I didn’t want to lose the porch. “It’s a place for the children to play outside where I can see them,” I said. “And Smitty sits there and smokes of an evening.”
“Smitty.” Barlow carefully set the platter on the worktable. “Do you think he’ll be back?”
“He didn’t say one way or the other, and he didn’t say he wanted to work for us again if he came back. I don’t think he’d decided.”
Our resident watchman had quit the mine and gone to spend the summer with his mother in Kentucky. He’d been friendly with Minnie, manager of the Eat and Sleep, and I’d often thought his next move might be to live there and work for her, something I’d prefer to losing him altogether. Smitty had certainly earned his keep, fixing and fetching, shoveling snow and cutting grass, turning away anyone drunk or disorderly. I didn’t like the prospect of replacing him.
With nothing more to be said on that issue, Barlow and I went on to share highlights of our day. “Earlier you mentioned that Rev. Holland had called,” he said. “Did he have a special reason?”
“Later,” I said, shaking my head, aware of how Freddy picked up on anything not meant for his ears. He and Hettie were on the porch, playing a game of his devising that involved tossing a ball into the yard and seeing who could get to it first. As yet, Hettie had no feelings about always being last; she was just happy to be included.
I helped Barlow put away the dishes, then we sat on the iron bench in the yard, refreshed by a sudden drop in temperature, watching the children and keeping an eye on the sky. Black clouds raced toward us from the west, signaling an end to a hot day, and if we were lucky, an end to weeks with little rain.
“Rev. Holland’s visit was strange,” I said. I wasn’t sure, now, about my earlier impressions. Maybe, since he’d surprised me, I’d missed the purpose of his visit.
“For him as well. I expected him to scold me for my Sunday absences, but he talked mostly about himself. He mentioned Miss Baldwin’s letters to the district superintendent, but in a matter-of-fact way. He said he’d like to talk with her.”
Barlow smiled, shaking his head. “Anyone who criticizes as much as he does should be able to handle what blows back, though it doesn’t always follow.”
“He seemed concerned about his wife.”
Freddy tossed the ball close to our bench and Barlow got up and tossed it back. “His wife? Is she sick, then?”
“He said she has a nervous condition.”
Barlow sat again and stretched out his legs. “I can’t remember what Mrs. Holland looks like. I don’t believe she comes to the store. He leaves a list and a clerk delivers their order to the parsonage.”
“He’s hard on himself,” I said.
Barlow smiled. “So now he has your approval? You’ll be attending church again?”
I didn’t have to answer, because a distant lightning bolt and a rumble of thunder hurried us all toward the house. We reached the porch just as wind whipped open the screen door. Sadly, it was a dry storm.