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James Baldwin

The Angel of the Facin' Bench

T HE meetin'-house at Dry Forks was a long, low frame structure in the midst of a grove of sugar-maple trees. My father, Stephen Dudley, had been its chief architect, master builder and promoter, and there was no other house in the New Settlement—or in the whole world, for that matter—that stood more firmly upon its corner-stones or had a finer roof of shaved shingles above it. It was of that type of ecclesiastical architecture which prevailed extensively in the Friendly settlements of the West during the Middle Ages. The plainness of its exterior was indicative of the extreme plainness in person and soul of the worshipers for whose benefit it had been erected. On the side fronting the road there were two small windows and two broad doors; on each end there were one broad window and one small door; and in the whole arrangement and construction of the building there had been an eye for use, but certainly not for beauty.

The interior was divided into two rooms of exactly the same size, between which there was a movable partition (called "the shetters") that was always thrown wide open on First-days. The room on the right-hand side of the shetters was for the men and boys; that on the left was for the women and girls and babies. At the farther end of each room, three or four tiers of seats were raised, one above the other, as in a theater. These were called the "gallery benches" and were occupied by the "fathers in Israel," the ministers and elders of the meetin', who sat there overlooking the rest of the congregation. It was from this gallery also that the ministers—when moved by the promptings of the spirit—delivered their messages to the meetin' or addressed their supplications to the Throne.

The first, or lowermost, of the gallery seats was called the "facin' bench," probably because those who sat upon it were brought face to face with the occupants of the first bench for the unofficial members. It was upon this bench that marriage couples always sat during the tedious but simple ceremony which bound them in the bonds of wedlock. Here also sat the three overseers, the petit officers who looked after the morals and general behavior of the members whether young or old. The facin' bench, in short, was the business bench—whether it was on the men's side or the women's side—and for that reason it was usually the most interesting seat in the house. The boys and girls, the young men and young women, occupied, as a rule, the long benches that were nearest to the front entrances and at some distance from the gallery, while the newly married and the sedate middle-aged men and women sat on the benches nearer the middle of the room. Even when the shetters were thrown open, the two sexes were still separated by a strong wooden railing; and it would have been an act of the greatest impropriety for a man to set foot in the woman's apartment or a woman to wander by accident or design into the precincts reserved for her stronger partner in life. The rooms, although bare and comfortless, seemed sacred to plainness and silence, and the unpainted walls and long stiff-backed benches spoke audibly of self-denial and a holy disdain for things of the world, worldly.

Upon arriving at the meetin'-house, father drove the wagon to a favorite spot in the sugar-tree grove that had long been reserved for his exclusive use. With becoming dignity he leaped to the ground, and then, without looking round, proceeded to tie the horses to the swinging branch of a tree. The womenfolks rose from their seats on the straw and climbed out over the wheels as best they could. Once safely on the ground, they straightened their bonnets, brushed the straws from their clothing, and made ready to enter the house of worship.

"Come, Robert!" said father stiffly but not unkindly; and I leaped over the tail-board of the wagon and submissively stood beside him. "Robert," he continued, "I think thee is now quite big enough to take care of thyself in meetin', as other boys do. So thee may sit on one of the middle benches, not far from David and Jonathan; and I shall expect thee to conduct thyself properly and not fall asleep or make a noise."

I did not know what to say; but I grew half an inch taller in a moment. During the first two years of my life, I had sat with mother in the women's gallery; and during the remainder of my brief span, I had clung timidly to father's coat tail, shrinking unnoticed beside him, and feeling myself a mere atom among the ministers and elders on the top bench of the gallery. Now, I was at last to take care of myself—oh, what an honor!— I had been long hoping and looking forward to this time. To sit by one's self in meetin'! why, it was a mark of approaching big-boyhood, a recognition of merit, a promotion to a higher grade. I was so proud of it that I forgot all about Little William's clothes.

Everything being in readiness, we entered the meetin'-house—father at the men's door, mother and Aunt Rachel at the women's door, Cousin Mandy Jane at the left-hand front door, and I at the right-hand front door. Noiselessly and with trembling limbs, I glided down the narrow aisle between the rows of long benches. I feared to raise my eyes, for I felt that everybody was looking at me. I fancied that even the ministers and elders were passing judgment upon me, and that all the boys and girls were admiring my figured vest. At about the middle of the room there was a vacant seat, and I climbed hastily into it. I knew that David and Jonathan were a little way in front of me, and I fancied that they were nudging each other and smiling; but it was a long time before I had the courage to look at anybody or anything.

How still the big room was! Why, I could almost hear my heart thump underneath that wonderful little vest. I knew that there were more than fifty persons seated around me, and yet the silence was so profound that I could easily imagine myself alone. Then, at length, Inviz came down the aisle and climbed up beside me.

"It's nice to be a good boy and sit very still in meetin', ain't it?" he said.

"Yes, I want to be good, and still I would rather be at home," I confessed.

"Well, it was very wicked for thee to throw that stick of kindling—"

Oh, that my invisible playmate, my dearest friend, should thus become my accusing angel!

Presently I distinguished a slight noise, like that of a gnawing mouse, somewhere on the other side of the aisle. I looked timidly in that direction, and saw that it was made by Little Enick, who was cutting his initials in the back of the bench before him. He was not looking at me, and the thought gave me courage. I raised my head and glanced toward the men's gallery. There sat my father, and Old Joel Sparker the minister, and Levi T. Jay and all the other pillars of Our Society, just as I had seen them sitting scores and scores of times before. Their hats were on their heads, their hands were folded on their knees, their eyes were directed downward or fixed on vacancy, their minds were occupied with heavenly things. My eyes fell a little, and I saw the three overseers on the facin' bench—saintly, self-conceited, bigoted creatures, who in other times and at other places would have been holy inquisitors or perhaps only second-rate modern detectives. And, then, just above these men of importance, I saw Old Enoch Fox, his piercing yellow eyes directed full upon me as though they would look me through and through. The shivers ran down my back, and had the Old Feller himself suddenly appeared in the midst of the meetin', I could not have been more disconcerted. I shuffled half-way round in my seat and directed my attention to the near-by floor and my ten bare toes.

"It was very wicked to throw that stick of kindling," said Inviz; "and now let us try to think of good things, so that we may grow to be good also and be prepared to go to the good place."

But try as I might, I could not center my mind on any particular subject. I thought of Little William's clothes, and wondered why they had not attracted more attention from the young people around me. I thought of my own growing self-importance, and wondered that no one else had discovered my peculiar greatness. I thought of my books, which I had read through and through until I could repeat whole pages from memory; and I wished—oh, how I wished!—that some good angel would now bring me a new one with pictures in it. I would have prayed for it, but I was not used to praying.

At length, the silence continuing and my courage reviving, I raised my eyes again and looked over into the women's end of the meetin'. Yes, there was mother, sitting on the top bench of the gallery, in the place that was best suited to one so good, so long-suffering and so kind. Her eyes were downcast, her face seemed care-worn and sad, and I wondered if she were really seeing visions and communing with the invisible angels. Next to her—yes, too close by half—sat Margot Duberry, that saintly woman who had once given me over to the Old Feller and thereby won my lasting antipathy. Coarse-featured, ignorant, claiming to be inspired from on high, the sight of her filled me with a feeling of disgust—but now she was looking at me, and I turned my eyes to another part of the room.

Far over, near the women's door, alone, sat good old Aunt Rachel, her sharp gray eyes funnily encircled by the big brass rims of her spectacles, and her thin lips seeming thinner than ever, being now deprived of the familiar pipe stem. No doubt she was thinking of good and holy things, just as every person ought to do in meetin'—

"Yes," whispered Inviz suddenly, "that's what every person ought to do, and so why don't thee do it? Why don't thee turn thy thoughts inward instead of allowing them to wander all about the meetin'-house?"

"Thee's right, Inviz," I answered; and I closed my eyes, and for a full minute tried with all my might to get some glimpse, however faint it might be, of the Inner Light that lighteneth every man.

Out-of-doors, everything was beautiful and cheering—the earth, the sky, the woods and farms, all were filled with life and joy. In the meetin'-house everything was dull and coarse and uncomfortable. I fancied that if I were free and alone in the open air, with the voices of nature singing in my ears, I should certainly be much nearer to the good place than was possible within these bare ugly walls. The spirit of rebellion was again rising hot within me, and my invisible playmate sympathized with me and stirred up evil thoughts in my mind.

"Don't thee hate this dry silent meetin'?" he asked.

"It's awful, awful tiresome," I answered; "and yet I like this silence better than the noise of some people trying to preach."

"Well, the hour is nearly gone," said Inviz, "and I guess nobody will try it to-day. But it was very wicked of thee to throw that stick of kindling wood."

Suddenly I was roused from my rambling thoughts by hearing a rustling of garments in the women's gallery closely followed by a shuffling of feet in all parts of the house. I looked up. Yes, there was Margot Duberry on her knees, her eyes tightly closed, her hands clasped and raised toward Heaven. I knew at once that she had been moved to offer supplication. The men and women and young people had all risen to their feet, as was their custom, and were turning their faces away from the place where the supplicatress was kneeling.

I slipped quickly down from my high seat, and reverently followed the example of my elders. Why was it that we must always stand when some one prayed? Why must we refrain from even looking toward the person who was addressing the Throne of Grace? My infantile mind had long ago solved these perplexing questions. We stood up in order to show our reverence to the great Unseen Power who was being invoked; and we turned our faces away lest, seeing the angel who had come down to receive the petition, we might be committing an unpardonable sin.

With bowed head and humble heart, I stood and listened while Margot Duberry, in singsong falsetto tones, offered much information and advice to the Almighty. All my dislike of the woman was for the moment forgotten. Then, as she proceeded, I began to wonder why it was a sin to look at the angel. Did Margot herself see him? Or was she simply conscious of his presence, just as I was often conscious of the presence of Inviz? In the Bible I had read many stories of angels making themselves visible, and many persons had looked into their faces without suffering any disastrous results. Why, therefore, might not these heavenly messengers show themselves also to us of the Dry Forks meetin' in the New Settlement? I wondered if I might turn my head just a little—just enough to see the tip of one white wing as it hovered over the women's gallery. Would I be stricken with blindness?

"I think thee might risk it," whispered Inviz. "It won't be very wicked."

It was a fearful moment. I felt that I was being tempted to commit a sin, and yet the desire to see an angel was overpowering. But just as I had made up my mind to take a sly peep, no matter what the consequences, the voice of the supplicatress suddenly dropped, and she uttered the concluding formula, assuring the Almighty that if He would only grant what we asked, He would be rewarded by receiving "the glory, the honor, and the praise forever, amen." The prayer was ended, there was another shuffling of feet, another rustling of homespun garments and all the meetin' sat down again. The angel had flown to Heaven with the message. I had been too late by half a second, and the delay had probably saved my soul!

I climbed up and readjusted myself on the comfortless bench. I looked at father; he was wrapped in deepest meditation. I look at mother; she seemed not in the least affected, although the angel must have been very close to her. Then something at the foot of the women's gallery attracted my notice, and as I turned my eyes I was so astounded that I almost fell from my seat.

There, on the women's facin' bench, in plain sight of everybody, sat the angel!

At any rate, if it was not an angel it was something very much like one. The face was that of a little girl, only a thousand times prettier and sweeter than anybody could tell or even so much as think about. And around that face there was a framework of brownish golden curls that reminded me of the sunlight when it streams through the smoke-filled air of an Indian summer day. Above these curls, resting lightly on the angelic head, was something in the shape of a hat—a white straw hat of wonderful workmanship and most delicate texture. It was partly covered with ribbons, gaily colored; and on one side of it were two great feathers, larger by half than the biggest turkey feather I had ever seen.

I gazed and wondered. In all my short and circumscribed life, I had never known a girl or woman to wear a hat. It seemed impossible. Every girl in my little world wore a calico sunbonnet, made very plain, and sometimes pink, sometimes blue, or sometimes brown, as her mother might choose. Did angels wear hats? Certainly no person but an angel could possess a head-dress so perfectly magnificent as that which was now claiming my admiration.

I was fascinated, entranced, enraptured. My gaze dwelt upon the shoulders, the arms, the hands of the mysterious creature. How white were those hands, how delicate, how small! And surely the sunlight was beaming from one of the fingers.

I looked at her dress. It was a marvel of beauty, surpassing the finest linsey-woolsey that had ever been woven on mother's loom. It was of many rare colors, and I fancied that I could hear it rustle like the silken strings on mother's First-day bonnet. But, ah me! the goods must have been very, very costly; for the dress was cut scandalously short. All the girls in the New Settlement, little or big, wore dresses which came to their ankles; and I blushed when I observed that this angel's dress reached only a little way below her knees.

This was not so bad, however, as it might have been; for the creature wore the whitest and stiffest pantalettes that you ever saw, and she had on shoes and stockings—yes, real shoes and stockings, although the weather was so warm. The shoes were laced high up, and they shone as if newly greased; and the stockings were of a beautiful color, harmonizing with the angel's dress.

And then my gaze wandered back to that heavenly face, and I thought that I should never see enough of it.

Although my mind inclined to accept everything, believe everything, yet my better judgment told me that this wonderful creature was really not an angel, but a child, a little girl from some remote part of the world—perhaps from ungodly Nopplis or the distant 'Hio Country—where people dressed differently from the plain folks in our settlement. Perhaps she was a princess, the daughter of a king; or maybe she was the child of some very worldly person who had been miraculously directed to our meetin', to the salvation of her soul. I had read of such things.

Timidly, but persistently, I gazed at her angel-like features, and then reluctantly turned my eyes away only to glance at her again and again and again, to make sure that she had not flown away. I forgot the hardness of the bench upon which I was sitting, I forgot Little William's gorgeous clothes, I forgot everything save that beautiful vision and the wonder and delight that filled my boyish heart.

How long I sat there, entranced, motionless, I can not tell; but it seemed only a few minutes until I was brought to my senses by a general movement of the boys and young men in my immediate vicinity. I looked up. Father, in his seat at the head of the meetin', was shaking hands with Levi T. Jay, who sat next to him on the top bench of the men's gallery. Others of the ministers and elders were also shaking hands. It was thus that the meetin' was "broke"—that is, the hour of silent waiting was brought to an end and the congregation was dismissed.

The men and women rose silently and with one accord, and began to pass out through their respective doors of exit, greeting one another with nods and handshakes on the way. The boys clattered noisily along the aisle to the front door, grinning at me as they passed—some in a friendly manner, some derisively. Certain of the older people also gazed curiously in my direction, attracted no doubt by the clothes which I wore. Then Jonathan, seeing me linger, held out his hand as he passed, and whispered, "Come, Towhead, the meetin's broke! It's time to go home."

As I climbed off the seat, I cast a last lingering glance toward the women's facin' bench. Ah! I was right, and the angel was only a little girl, after all. All the young women and several of the older ones were gazing at some object that was just passing out through the western door. It was my angel, and she was being led by an elderly woman Friend whom I had seen many times before. The next moment she had disappeared, and the world seemed suddenly empty. With downcast eyes, lest some one should speak to me, I glided out of the house and through the throng of men and boys, and hastened to the place where our wagon was standing.

I climbed up and sat in my place on the straw, anxiously waiting for father and the womenfolks. They were a long time coming, for they must needs linger about the doors to exchange friendly greetings with all their acquaintances. This after-meetin' hour was the time of times for pleasant social intercourse, and there were few who did not avail themselves of the opportunities which it offered.

The middle-aged men talked about their corn-planting and the miserable state of the weather, the price of pigs and of seed potatoes, and the general wickedness and shiftlessness of their neighbors. The elders had weightier matters upon their minds. They talked of the slavery troubles, of the means whereby to maintain a "monthly-meetin' school," and of the dangerous tendencies of the times; and they specially deplored the increasing influx into the Settlement of worldly people and persons not in unity with Our Society.

The women, likewise, had many interesting things to discuss in their own brief and simple way. With many warm greetings and handshakings, they gathered in small groups and gave themselves up to gossip of a sort that would now seem very strange to their great-great-granddaughters. They talked about their spinning and weaving and sewing, their success in raising chickens and in making butter and soft soap, and the prospects for a sickly summer and a fat graveyard. They admired severally and individually the many babies that were present, and discussed the various ailments to which childhood is so unfortunately prone. They exchanged recipes for cough sirup, extolled the efficacy of goose grease in cases of croup, and slyly whispered in one another's ears the latest savory bit of neighborhood scandal. Such was the dessert which followed the substantial meal of an hour's silent waiting in meetin'— and everybody enjoyed it.

The young men, among whom were our David and Jonathan, assembled in a small group on the shady side of a log heap, and discussed the last general coon hunt and probable depth of the water in the old swimmin' hole. Most of the smaller boys hung close to their fathers' coat tails, looking sheepishly at one another and saying not a word. A few of the bolder ones, however—gawky, shoeless, unmannerly fellows of my own age—came together under one of the trees, where they chewed slippery elm, and swapped knives, and talked about their sisters' fellers.

And these sisters, where were they? They were circulating among the older women, joining in the gossip, and modestly repeating the latest rumors of marriage and giving in marriage. (My dear Leona, 'twas ever thus since the days of Eve; 'twill continue thus till the last trumpet shall announce the futility of maidenly hopes, the end of earth's desires."

The little girls, of whom there were several, stood in close proximity to their respective mothers, silently admiring one another, and ready at the slightest provocation to hang their heads in bashfulness and fear. How I hated the sight of them with their long coarse gowns, their ugly little sunbonnets, their fat red hands, and their bare and brier-scratched feet!

But just as Inviz and I were whispering our feelings of disgust, lo! my Angel of the Facin' Bench flitted for one brief moment within the sphere of my vision. She was seated in a brightly-colored wagon with her elderly companion and a strange man whom I had not seen before; and so swiftly was the wagon being driven away from the place, that I had scarcely time to notice its occupants ere it had disappeared among the trees at the forks of the road.

I thought of Elijah's "chariot of Israel and the horse-man thereof," and I fancied that my angel was riding back to Heaven in a cloud of glory. But while I was in the midst of my dreaming, our womenfolks arrived and climbed into the wagon beside me; and father also coming quite soon, the ride homeward was begun.

That evening as I was helping Cousin Mandy Jane with the milking, I felt that I could not live another hour without unburdening my mind and taking some one into my confidence. So I boldly broached the matter, and said:

"Cousin Mandy Jane, did thee ever see an angel?"

"Shucks, no! what a silly question!" she answered. "Thee knows that nobody don't see angels, nowadays. 'Twas only in the Bible that they showed themselves."

"Well I don't care," I said; "but I seen an angel to-day—a real live angel. I seen it at meetin'!"

"Sakes alive, Robert! Thee's up to thy fibbin' ag'in. I'll tell mother, and she'll give thee another trouncin'."

"I'm telling the truth, Cousin Mandy Jane. I seen an angel just as plain as I'm seeing thee now; and I wasn't in a dream, either."

"Robert, I tell thee what, thee cain't stuff me with sich truck as that. But if thee raally thinks that way, tell me what the angel looked like."

I fancied that she was beginning to understand, and I answered bravely but briefly:

"Well, she was kind of smallish; and there was something on her head that looked like a hat; and she wore a streaked and striped dress; and she had shoes and stockings on her feet; and her hair was so long that it hung clean down her back, all fluffy like."

"Where was she when thee seen her?" asked Cousin Mandy Jane, milking very fast.

"On the women's facin' bench!"

Cousin Mandy Jane laughed till the tears stood in her eyes.

"And so thee thought that was a angel, did thee?" she cried. "Oh, what a ninny thee is! Why, that was Esther Wilson's little granddaughter. An angel?—Sakes alive, no!"

What's her name? Does thee know?"

"Oh, it's a queer-soundin' name that I never heerd afore. 'Tain't no Scripter name. Sounds like the garden that Adam was in—Eden; but it ain't 'zactly that."

I hazarded a guess: "Edith?"

"Yes, that's it. Edith—Edith Meredith. Ain't that a funny name?"

" 'Tis kind of funny," I answered. "Edith Mer-edith! It ought to be Edith Merry Edith. I wonder where she came from?"

"Well, now, they do say that her father is rich, and that they've jist come from some big town, way off, and he's goin' to start a store over to Dashville. Oh, everybody was talkin' about it at meetin'."

"I wonder if she belongs to meetin'," I said; a great fear taking hold of my heart.

"Well, I don't reckon so," answered Mandy Jane. "She wouldn't belong to our meetin' very long with all them there feathers and furbelows and silks and satins stuck on to her. It's my 'pinion that her father's a mighty worldly man and her mother ain't much better."

I kept on with my milking, and the subject was dropped.