The Argonauts of North LibertyBret Harte / History & Fiction
Produced by Donald Lainson
THE ARGONAUTS OF NORTH LIBERTY
By Bret Harte
The bell of the North Liberty Second Presbyterian Church had just ceasedringing. North Liberty, Connecticut, never on any day a cheerful town,was always bleaker and more cheerless on the seventh, when the Sabbathsun, after vainly trying to coax a smile of reciprocal kindliness fromthe drawn curtains and half-closed shutters of the austere dwellings andthe equally sealed and hard-set churchgoing faces of the people, at lastsettled down into a blank stare of stony astonishment. On this chillyMarch evening of the year 1850, that stare had kindled into an offendedsunset and an angry night that furiously spat sleet and hail in thefaces of the worshippers, and made them fight their way to the church,step by step, with bent heads and fiercely compressed lips, until theyseemed to be carrying its forbidding portals at the point of theirumbrellas.
Within that sacred but graceless edifice, the rigors of the hour andoccasion reached their climax. The shivering gas-jets lit up the austerepallor of the bare walls, and the hollow, shell-like sweep of colorlessvacuity behind the cold communion table. The chill of despair andhopeless renunciation was in the air, untempered by any glow fromthe sealed air-tight stove that seemed only to bring out a lukewarmexhalation of wet clothes and cheaply dyed umbrellas. Nor did thepresence of the worshippers themselves impart any life to the drearyapartment. Scattered throughout the white pews, in dull, shapeless,neutral blotches, rigidly separated from each other, they seemed onlyto accent the colorless church and the emptiness of all things. A fewchildren, who had huddled together for warmth in one of the backbenches and who had became glutinous and adherent through moisture, werelaboriously drawn out and painfully picked apart by a watchful deacon.
The dry, monotonous disturbance of the bell had given way to the strainof a bass viol, that had been apparently pitched to the key of the eastwind without, and the crude complaint of a new harmonium that seemed tobewail its limited prospect of ever becoming seasoned or mellowed in itsearthly tabernacle, and then the singing began. Here and there a humanvoice soared and struggled above the narrow text and the monotonouscadence with a cry of individual longing, but was borne down by thedull, trampling precision of the others' formal chant. This anda certain muffled raking of the stove by the sexton brought thetemperature down still lower. A sermon, in keeping with the previousperformance, in which the chill east wind of doctrine was not temperedto any shorn lamb within that dreary fold, followed. A spark of humanand vulgar interest was momentarily kindled by the collection and thesimultaneous movement of reluctant hands towards their owners' pockets;but the coins fell on the baize-covered plates with a dull thud, likeclods on a coffin, and the dreariness returned. Then there was anotherhymn and a prolonged moan from the harmonium, to which mysterioussuggestion the congregation rose and began slowly to file into theaisle. For a moment they mingled; there was the silent grasping of dampwoollen mittens and cold black gloves, and the whispered interchangeof each other's names with the prefix of Brother or Sister, andan utter absence of fraternal geniality, and then the meeting slowlydispersed.
The few who had waited until the minister had resumed his hat, overcoat,and overshoes, and accompanied him to the door, had already passed out;the sexton was turning out the flickering gas jets one by one, when thecold and austere silence was broken by a sound--the unmistakable echo ofa kiss of human passion.
As the horror-stricken official turned angrily, the figure of a manglided from the shadow of the stairs below the organ loft, and vanishedthrough the open door. Before the sexton could follow, the figure of awoman slipped out of the same portal and with a hurried glance after thefirst retreating figure, turned in the opposite direction and was lostin the darkness. By the time the indignant and scandalized custodian hadreached the portal, they had both melted in the troubled sea oftossing umbrellas already to the right and left of him, and pursuit andrecognition were hopeless.