The Triumphant Chariot
The rector told me the story as we stood in front of the church after morning service.
The church was almost hidden in a grove of maple-trees. It stood on the brow of a hill which overlooked one of the most lovely valleys on the sides of the Green Mountains. The road ran along the curve of the hill, in front of the church. The projection on which the church stood commanded a view both up and down as well as across the valley, which lay two or three hundred feet below. The mountain sloped upward, mostly forest-covered, behind the church. Across the valley was a similar mountain. The pasture lots went up, here and there, almost to the summit ridges. The head of the valley was only a half-mile above. Down from a ravine came a noble stream of water, and before it fairly reached the sloping valley-land it received two similar streams, the three alike falling over rocky beds with much noise and white confusion of waters before they came together into the comparatively peaceful river which flowed down through rich meadow-lands and away oceanward. For howsoever wild and vexed and unrestrained be the youthful flow of these our mountain streams, one and all alike are sure in time to reach the deep and solemn rest of the great sea.
Search the world over and you will find no landscape scenery to surpass these valleys which open away eastward and westward from the Green Mountains. The one we were in was like many others I had seen that spring, only these three grand cascades at the head gave it an individuality of its own.
On the lowland near the junction of the streams were a substantial stone house and a group of large and comfortable-looking barns and smaller buildings. This was the old home of a man whom the clergyman described as a noble specimen of that humanity of which, in country as in city, noble specimens are rare enough to be conspicuous.
"He feared God, but feared no man," was the summing-up sentence of the description. He was a man of wide influence, honored, respected, and loved, to whom for a half-century the old, and the young, too, had gone confidently for advice and help in joy and in trouble. For men and women need advice as often in one as in the other. It sometimes happens, in a community like this, that one man holds a commanding position. If he holds it steadily for a long time, so that he becomes the trusted counsellor and confidential friend of his neighbors, of all kinds, rich and poor, it is always certain that that man's life is governed by devout Christian principle. Others may be envied, imitated; others may win respect and admiration; but to become the confidential counsellor of all classes and ages, to be trusted with the troubles and invited into the happinesses of one's neighbors, it is essential to be loved as well as admired. And to be loved by all one must love all, not the good only, but the bad as well. And there never was, and never will be, a man who can love all classes of his neighbors and win their love in return, except that man have taken God for his example, whose spirit he has to some extent made part of his own. Reason, philosophy, experience, all affirm this. The idea that purity and peace, gentleness and affection, belong to what is called the religion of humanity, is disproved in the history of every nation, every city, every village and country community, among all peoples, civilized or savage, ancient or modern. There is no more exalted position among men than that which was held by this man, growing old among the people who loved and respected him, doing good and getting good in every year of his long life. The world in which he lived was small, but it was large enough to occupy the energies of any mind, however able. The patriarchal system has never been improved on by organizing men into nations. One man in a country town can be worth as much to his age and to future ages, working at home, as he could be in a statesman's chair. This man had been the friend and counsellor of statesmen. No one can measure the extent of his influence for good. Its limit was not geographical, for it extended far beyond the boundaries of this small globe.
Much the clergyman told me of the personal and direct influence his old parishioner had exerted in the town, county, and State. But mostly he dwelt on the extreme beauty of his personal character and life, the delight with which the young people met him, his great grace of manner and voice, his devout and always cheerful bearing, his love of nature, his keen insight into character, his marvellous breadth of information and reading; and lastly, for all else was prefatory to this, he told me of the picturesque death of his old parishioner, counsellor, father, and friend.
All Friday and Saturday a north-east storm had raged among the hills; but Sunday morning the clouds went away before a stiff westerly breeze and the sun poured gold into the valley. The church was far away from any house — one of the old sites chosen in early days for people to come to from various valleys and hill-sides.
The man who had charge of the church had made a fire early in the morning before he recognized the fact that the cold storm was over. Heavy mists had rushed through the maples until nine or ten o'clock, and then the warm fresh, May air took their place. The interior of the church was not pleasant. The air was close. Perhaps for the first time in his eighty years of living, the Squire (as he was called, though he had never held an office) became sensible of physical suffering. So at least they supposed who saw him several times lift his hand to his head, and at length go to the side door and open it a little way and sit down near it. After a while, to the surprise of all, he noiselessly slipped out of the door and did not come back.
And now for the rest of the clergyman's story you will have to depend on imagination, or what we may intelligently believe who know and share the faith of the old man; for there was no one outside of the church to see him until all the people came out and saw him.
He sought the fresh air of the May morning. There was not enough of it among the maples; and perhaps he sought the sunshine with it. So he walked out of the grove towards the road-side, where his son-in-law, coming late and after the sheds were all occupied, had left his low carriage standing while he unhitched the traces and tied the horses in the grove. The empty carriage faced the south; it was on the open green, and sitting in it one could see a vast prospect up and down and across the valley. The sun shone in it and the wind blew over it. The old man took a seat in it, and before him lay the country in which he had lived and been loved, and far away yonder down the valley was a range of blue hills, beyond which was all the world and all the universe.
Thus far all this was a very simple and commonplace incident. Yes, but what seems the simple and commonplace may, by reason of what shall come next, be in reality the unintelligible and sublime. The old man had always lived close to another world. Many very dear ones had gone to it, and he had never ceased to regard them as living near him, nearer than if they lived in the flesh beyond those blue mountains. He never thought of doubting the reality of their life. He never argued about it, for his faith was above reason. Out of the church came the sound of the people's voices singing, and to him it seemed as if the people who were under the grass behind the church as well as they who were in the church were together praising God; for he was, whether he knew it or not, very near if not indeed on the ground where one may hear the voices of both worlds. So he leaned back and looked off and listened, and the wind played with his white hair; for he had left his hat in the church and sat bareheaded in the breeze and sunshine. Around him and above and in the valley and across on the other mountain-side began to gather appearances, if they were not realities. And who can say they were not realities? The white mists that were passing here and there among the trees near the summits, the snowy cataracts descending and shouting as they descended — were they water-falls and mountain-mists, or were they white garments? To your eye or mine they were the remains of last night's gloom and tempest; but what were they to his eyes, looking now through all things which stop our vision into the fathomless depths which lie beyond? To you or to me that tumultuous roar of the torrent was only the sound of many waters, the roar of streams filled full with heavy rains. So, perhaps, it was to him when he came out and climbed feebly into the carriage; but after a little there is small doubt that he heard the sounds of other waters falling from other hills into other valleys, the rivers with whose cadences our rivers keep some though faint and stammering harmonies. For all voices of winds and water-falls on earth — howsoever profane be the voices of men — all musical and melodious sounds of nature are part of the eternal song, and we should recognize it if we understood that music, as, perhaps, some time we may. Doubtless he heard, and though yet a man old and very feeble, began to understand the language in which the universe sounds its joy and praise. For the bright look that rested on his human face bore witness that before it became mere dead dust it had heard the sounds and seen the forms of another world. How long he sat there and looked and listened from the hill-side no one knows. Perhaps it was to the close of the service in the church. And when he heard the sound of the organ, and the voices of the people singing "Holy, holy, holy," the voices of the wind in the trees, and the voices of the waters thundering down the mountain, and the voices of the innumerable host whom we never hear except when, like him, we come to the entrance of the other existence, all together sounded through earth and heaven, and he heard them all; and hearing, joined in the anthem with them.
When the people came out of church they saw him sitting on the back seat of the carriage, his white hair fluttering in the wind, his hands folded on his lap, his eyes apparently looking across the valley at the opposite hill-side. A half-dozen people went to ask him if he was sick. They found him quite well; better than he had ever been. It was not a triumphal car, nor a chariot of fire; but he had gotten into it to go a short journey, and had gone, safely, happily.