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A Village Discussion

I had pulled up at the door of a village store and gone in to make a purchase. I was standing at the counter. It was a cold day, and there were a half-dozen men sitting around the stove. All were strangers to me, for the village was out of my regular course of driving. I would have gone out immediately after making my little purchase, but that a remark from one of the men to the surrounding group interested me. It was made by a man whose face was bright and intelligent, but whose tone and style of talking marked him at once as somewhat dogmatic and given to laying down the law among his neighbors. I found afterwards that he was a young medical man, who had been but two or three years in the village, studious in his profession and remarkably successful, but fond of collisions with the Freewill Baptist minister, whose church was the only one in the neighborhood. The Doctor was an "educated man;" that is, he was a college graduate, and a man of some reading. The Minister was not an educated man, and the Doctor was a thorn in his side. Many localities in the country are situated much as this was. But, on the whole, the good-sense of the average man is superior to illogical reasoning, however specious, in or out of the pulpit, and sound orthodox belief holds its own against unsound reason and imaginary theology.

They were talking about miracles, and the young Doctor said: "You know as well as I do, Stephen, that everything in this world moves in regular order. The laws of nature are what we all have to depend on, and they never change. It's certain that if you plant potatoes they won't come up pumpkins. Neither you nor any man here ever saw a miracle. You never heard of one in your life in these parts. You never heard of pumpkin vines growing from potatoes. It stands to reason and common-sense that when no man in this town ever saw anything happen that wasn't in the regular course of natural law, anything supernatural, it isn't likely such things are going to happen here."

I looked at Stephen, as the Doctor called him. He was an elderly man, hard featured and sunburned. There was a shrewd twinkle in his eye, but he looked at the stove and not at the Doctor, and there was silence for a moment while he pondered. Then he spoke in a mild, inquiring sort of way, which contrasted with the Doctor's somewhat self-opinionated tone.

"I don't know much about the laws of natur', but I suppose you mean something like this that when I let go that jack-knife it'll fall on the floor;" and he stretched out a long arm holding an open knife by the blade between his thumb and finger.

"Exactly," said the Doctor; "that's the law of gravitation."

"And it's sure to fall, and I can bet my money on it, and I needn't be afraid of a miracle? Look here, Doctor, where did the law that binds it to fall come from? What made that particular law?"

The Doctor was honest; that was evident from his reply. "The learned men who have investigated the laws of nature have not found the origin of the laws. They will in time. It's only in recent years that science has made its great discoveries in the laws themselves. Heat, light, color, electricity, all the great characteristics of the changing world and of matter itself, have never been understood as they are now."

"And you can't tell me what made the law that binds that jack-knife to fall down?"

"No, I can't. It's enough to know as certain that it will fall. Just let go, and you'll see the certainty."

"No chance of anything supernat'ral; any miracle?"

"Miracle be hanged. Let go the blade."

Stephen's thumb and finger separated and stood stretched out wide apart. The jack-knife was not on the floor. It was hanging to the wooden ceiling overhead, its blade buried a half-inch in the soft pine. For about ten seconds no one spoke. Stephen was looking at the Doctor.

"Suthin' supernat'ral happened, didn't it?" said Stephen.

"You jerked the knife up yourself."

"Well, that warn't nat'ral, war it?"

The Doctor hesitated. "Now see here, Doctor," said the old man, "just tell me how old is your law that the jack-knife's got to fall down."

"Millions of years old. Just as old as there has been anything to fall."

"And how old was the law that said that jackknife must go up there and stick its blade in that white-pine ceiling. Just three minutes and a half old by the clock. Now what I want to know is where did your law that it must go down come from. You say you don't know. Well, it stands to sense, then, and you can't deny that it may come from some one that makes it go down just as I made it go up. If your science is worth a sneeze it oughtn't to deny what it don't know nothing about. And if that's so, it's always just as like as not whoever made the thing go down will make it go up, without you or I or any one else knowing what made it go, any more than you know what made me jerk that knife up yonder. You tell me that if I plant potatoes they won't come up squashes, but you just tell me what plants potatoes, or what makes me plant 'em, anyhow. If I don't plant 'em there ain't going to be any potatoes nor squashes. It's according to reason that if potatoes come up because I planted potatoes, squashes don't come up from them, because some one else takes care of that part of the business. I don't believe in your argiments that laws always may be depended on, when you tell me yourself that you don't know where the laws come from and how long they're goin' to last. Your science is all right, Doctor, just as long as it talks about what it knows about. But when your science says a knife's bound to fall down, and don't take into account that something supernat'ral may interfere that science don't know nothing about, sich as my sudden making up my mind to jerk it up, why your science ain't wuth any more than a last year's almanac to tell a fellow what the weather's goin' to be."

By this time Stephen's tone and style had changed. He was no longer humble and inquiring, but decidedly aggressive. There were some strong words, not exactly profane, adjectively applied to science in the last sentence, which I have omitted. He talked rapidly and vehemently and with pointed logic. Is logic one of the distinguishing characteristics of humanity? There are men, exceptions, sometimes men of eminence, who do not seem to have any idea of logic, but by the vast majority of men, however uneducated, logical sequence seems instinctively appreciated, and the most illiterate are very sure to detect failure in argument.

As he talked he rose and stood up, six feet two a mighty frame, fit for tremendous work and he poured out a storm of plain and unanswerable philosophic truth, ending up in this wise: "No miracles, but only jest steady laws? Well, accordin' to law that jack-knife will stick there till the wood rots or the steel rusts. Make your prophecy if you dare. Say what it'll do. Is there any law that'll tell you what'll come of it? or whether Sam or Timmy won't have it down and pocket it as soon as I'm gone? You don't know. Well, I do. There's just such a law, and I made it;" and so saying he reached up his long arm, seized the knife, and strode out of the door, growling as he went.

"He's a cantankerous old cuss, but he's got a lot o' brains," remarked one of the group. The others signified assent. The Doctor said nothing, but stood looking at the spot in the ceiling where the knife had been. I followed the philosopher. As I drove up the road I overtook him and offered him a ride. He had not noticed me at the store. He discussed my horses, the merits of various styles of buck-board, the weather, the crops, and it was not until we approached a farm which he pointed out as his own that any allusion was made to the discussion. There was a field golden with huge pumpkins, which I think form the richest and most gorgeous-looking crop that is ever seen in the fields. "You didn't plant potatoes for that crop," I said. He looked puzzled, then broke into a hearty laugh. "You see the Doctor riled me a little, and I got mad. I tell you what it is, Mister, I never had an edication, and the Doctor had; and it makes me mad when a man like him talks to a store full o' people as if he knew all he's a-talking about, when he don't. He's been going on about miracles for the last three weeks, because the elder preached a sermon on 'em. I don't belong to the meetin', but my old mother did. Do you see that bunch o' spruces over yonder? She's there. She believed in miracles. And she knew a heap more than I do. Now I just ask you this: which is best wuth believin', my old mother when she told me the miracles was true because there's a God over the airth, or these consarned edicated fools that go around saying there never could a-been no miracles because they don't know how to work 'em."

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