The Old Village Church
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856
Twenty years! Yes, twenty years had intervened since I left the pleasant village of Brookdale, and not once during all this period had I visited the dear old spot that was held more and more sacred by memory. A hundred times had I purposed to do so, yet not until the lapse of twenty years, was this purpose fulfilled. Then, sobered by disappointments, I went back on a pilgrimage, to the home of early days.
I was just twenty years old when I left Brookdale. My father's family moved at the same time, and this was the reason why I had not returned. The heart's strongest attractions were in another place. But the desire to go back revived, after a season of affliction and some painful defeats in the great battle of life. The memory of dear childhood grew so palpable, and produced such an earnest longing to revisit old scenes, that I was constrained to turn my face towards my early home.
It was late in the evening of a calm autumnal day, at the close of the week, when I arrived at Brookdale. The village inn where I stopped, and at which I engaged lodgings for a few days, was not the old village inn. That had passed away, and a newer and larger building stood in its place. Nor was the old landlord there. Why had I expected to see him? Twenty years before, he was bent with old age. His eyes were dim and his step faltered when last I saw him. It was but natural that he should pass away. Still, I felt a shade of disappointment when the truth came. He who filled his place was unknown to me; and, in all his household, not a familiar countenance was presented.
But I solaced myself for this with thoughts of the morrow, when my eyes would look upon long-remembered scenes and faces. The old homestead, with its garden and clambering vines — a picture which had grown more vivid in my thoughts every year — how earnest was my desire to look upon it again! There was the deep, pure spring, in which, as I bent to drink, I had so often looked upon my mirrored face; and the broad flat stone nearby, where I had sat so many times. I would sit there again, after tasting the sweet water, and think of the olden time! The dear old mill, too, with its murmuring wheel glistening in the bright sunshine; and the river, on whose bank I had gathered wild flowers and raspberries?
I could sleep but little for thinking of these things, and when morning broke, and the sun shone out, I went I forth impatient to see the real objects which had been so long pictured in my memory.
"Am I in Brookdale? No — it cannot be. There is some strange error. Yes — yes — it is Brookdale, for here is the old church. I cannot mistake that. Hark! Yes — yes — it is the early bell! I would know its sound amid a thousand!"
On I moved, passing the ancient building whose architect had long since been called to sleep with his fathers, and over whose walls and spire time had cast a duller hue. I was eager to reach the old homestead. The mill lay between — or, once it did. Only a shapeless ruin now remained. The broken wheel, the crumbling walls, and empty forebay were all that my eyes rested upon, and I paused sadly to mark the wreck which time had made. The place was dry, and overgrown with old and rank weeds. A quarter of a mile distant stood out sharply, against the clear sky, a large factory, newly built and there the stream in which I had once sailed my tiny boat, or dropped my line — had been turned, and the old mill left to silence and decay. Ah me! I cannot make words obedient to my thoughts in giving utterance to the disappointment I then felt. A brief space I stood, mourning over the ruins, and then moved on again, a painful presentiment fast arising in my heart that all would not be, as I had left, it in the white cottage I was seeking. The two great elms that stood bending together, as if instinct with a sense of protection, above that dear home — where were they? My eyes searched for them in vain.
"Where is the spring? Surely it welled up here, and this is the way the clear stream flowed!"
Alas! the spring was dried, and scarcely a trace of its former existence remained. The broad flat stone was broken. The shady alcove beneath which the waters came up so cool and clear, had been removed. All was naked and barren. Nearby stood an old deserted house. The door was half open, the windows were broken out, the chimney had fallen, and great patches of the roof had been torn away. Around, all was in keeping with this. The little garden was covered with weeds, the fence that once enclosed it was broken down, the old apple-tree that I had loved almost as tenderly as if it had been a human creature, was no more to be seen, and in the place where the grape-vine grew — was a deep pool of green and stagnant water.
My first impulse was to turn and flee from the place, under a painful revulsion of feeling. But I could not leave the spot thus. For some minutes I stood mournfully leaning on the broken garden gate, and then forced myself to enter beneath the roof where I was born, and where I grew up with loving and happy children, under the sunlight of a mother's smile. If there was ruin without — there was desolation added to ruin within — but neither ruin nor desolation could entirely obliterate the forms so well remembered. I passed from room to room, now pausing to recall an incident, and now hurrying on under a sense of pain at seeing a place, hallowed in my thoughts by the tenderest associations of my life, thus abandoned to the gnawing tooth of decay, and destined to certain and speedy destruction. When I came to my mother's room, emotion grew too powerful, and a gush of tears relieved the oppressive weight that lay upon my bosom. There I lingered long, with a kind of mournful pleasure in this scene of my days of innocence, and lived over years of the bygone times.
At last I turned with sad feelings from a spot which memory had held sacred for twenty years; but which, in its change, could be sacred no longer.
Material things are called substantial; but it is not so. Change and decay are ever at work upon them; they are unsubstantial. A real substance is the mind, with its thoughts and affections. Forms built there do not decay. How perfectly had I retained in memory the home of my childhood! Not a leaf had withered, not a flower had faded; nothing had fallen under the scythe of time. The greenness and perfection of all were as the mind had received them twenty years before. But the material things themselves had, in that brief space, passed almost wholly away! Yes; it is in the mind that we must seek for real substance.
Slowly and sadly I turned from the hallowed place, and went back towards the village inn. No interest for anything in Brookdale remained, and no surprise was created at the almost total obliteration of the old landmarks apparent on every hand. My purpose was to leave the place by the early stage that morning, and seek to forget that I had ever returned to the home of my childhood.
My way was past the old village church where, Sunday after Sunday, for nearly fifteen years, I had met with the worshipers; and as I drew nearer and nearer the sacred place, I was more and more impressed with the fact that, if change had been working busily all around — his hand had spared the holy edifice. That change had been there, was plainly to be seen — but he had lingered only a moment, laying his hand gently, as he paused, on the ancient edifice. New and tenderer feelings came over me. I could not pass the village church, and so I entered it once more, although it was yet too early for the worshipers to assemble. How familiar all! A year seemed not to have intervened since I had stood beneath that roof. The deep, arched windows, the antique pulpit and chancel, the old gallery and organ, the lofty roof — but most of all the broad tablet above the pulpit, and the words "Reverence my Sanctuary: I am the Lord," were as familiar as the face of a dear friend. There was change all around — but no change here in the house of God.
Seating myself in the old family pew, I gave my mind up to a flood of crowding associations; and there I sat, scarcely conscious of the passing time, until the bell sounded clear above me its weekly summons to the worshipers. And soon they began to assemble, one after another coming in, and silently taking their places. Conscious that I was intruding, I yet remained in the old family pew. It seemed as if I could not leave it — as if I must sit there and hearken once more to the words of life. And I was there when the rightful owners came. I arose to retire — but was beckoned to remain. So I resumed my seat, thankful for the privilege. Group after group entered — but faces of strangers were all around me. Presently a white-haired old man came slowly along the aisle, and, entering the chancel, ascended to the pulpit. I had not expected this. Our minister was far advanced in years when we left the village — yet here he was! How breathlessly did I lean forward to catch the sound of his voice when he arose to read the service! It was the same impressive voice, yet lower and somewhat broken. My heart trembled, and tears dimmed my eyes as the sound went echoing through the room. For a time I was a child again. I closed my eyes, and felt that my mother, my sister, and my brothers were with me.
I can never forget that morning. When the service closed, and the people moved away, I looked from countenance to countenance — but all were strange, except those of a few old men and women. Still lingering, I met the minister as he came slowly down the aisle towards the door. He did not know me, for his eyes were dim with age, and I had changed in twenty years. But, when I extended my hand and gave my name, he seized it with a quick energy, while a vivid light irradiated his countenance.
I will not weary the reader with a detail of the long interview held that day with the old minister in his own house. It was good for me that I met him before leaving Brookdale under the pressure of a first disappointment. His words of wisdom were yet in my ears.
"As you have found the old church the same," said he, while holding my hand in parting, "amid ruin and change everywhere around, so will you find the truths which are given for our salvation ever immutable, though mere human inventions of thought are set aside by every coming generation for new philosophies, and the finer imaginations of more brilliant intellects. Bible religion is built upon a rock — and the storms and floods of time cannot move it from its firm foundation."