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THE UNPARDONABLE SIN
DURING the first week in May the old Squire and grandmother Ruth made a trip to Portland, and when they came back, they brought, among other presents to us young folks at home, a glass jar of goldfish for Ellen.
In Ellen's early home, before the Civil War and before she came to the old Squire's to live, there had always been a jar of goldfish in the window, and afterwards at the old farm the girl had often remarked that she missed it. Well I remember the cry of joy she gave that day when grandmother stepped down from the wagon at the farmhouse door and, turning, took a glass jar of goldfish from under the seat.
"O grandmother!" she cried and fairly flew to take it from the old lady's hands.
Ellen had eyes for nothing else that evening, and as it grew dark she went time and again with a lamp to look at the fish and to drop in crumbs of cracker.
During the four days the old folks were away we had run free; games and jokes had been in full swing. There was still mischief in us, for the next morning when we came down to do the chores before any one else was up, Addison said:
"Let's have some fun with Nell; she'll be down here pretty quick. Get some fish poles and strings and bend up some pins for hooks and we'll pretend to be fishing in the jar!"
In a few minutes we each had rigged up a semblance of fishing tackle and were ready. When Ellen opened the sitting-room door a little later the sight that met her astonished eyes took her breath away. Addison was calmly fishing in the jar!
"What are you doing?" she cried. "My goldfish!"
Addison fled out of the room with Ellen in hot pursuit; she finally caught him, seized the rod and broke it. But when she turned back to see what damages her adored fish had suffered, she beheld Halstead, perched over the jar, also fishing in it.
"My senses! You here, too!" she cried. "Can't a boy see a fish without wanting to catch it?"
When she hurried back in a flurry of anxiety after chasing him to the carriage house, she found me there, too, pretending to yank one out. But by this time she saw that it was a joke, and the box on the ear that she gave me was not a very hard one.
"Seems to me, young folks, I heard quite too much noise down here for Sunday morning," grandmother said severely when she appeared a little later. "Such racing and running! You really must have better regard for the day."
Preparations for breakfast went on in a subdued manner, and we were sitting at table rather quietly when a caller appeared at the door — Mrs. Rufus Sylvester, who lived about a mile from us. Her face wore a look of anxiety.
"Squire," she exclaimed, "I implore you to come over and say something to Rufus! He's terrible downcast this morning. He went out to the barn, but he hasn't milked, nor done his chores. He's settin' out there with his face in his hands, groanin'. I'm afraid, Squire, he may try to take his own life!"
The old Squire rose from the table and led Mrs. Sylvester into the sitting-room; grandmother followed them and carefully shut the door behind her. We heard them speaking in low tones for some moments; then they came out, and both the old Squire and grandmother Ruth set off with Mrs. Sylvester.
"Is he ill?" Theodora whispered to grandmother as the old lady passed her.
"No, child; he is melancholy this spring," the old lady replied. "He is afraid he has committed the unpardonable sin."
The old folks and our caller left us finishing our breakfast, and I recollect that for some time none of us spoke. Our recent unseemly hilarity had vanished.
"What do you suppose Sylvester's done?" Halstead asked at last, with a glance at Theodora; then, as she did not seem inclined to hazard conjectures on that subject, he addressed himself to Addison, who was trying to extract a second cup of coffee from the big coffeepot.
"You know everything, Addison, or think you do. What is this unpardonable sin?"
"Cousin Halstead," Addison replied, not relishing the manner in which he had put the question, "you are likely enough to find that out for yourself if you don't mend some of your bad ways here."
Halstead flamed up and muttered something about the self-righteousness of a certain member of the family; but Theodora then remarked tactfully that, as nearly as she could understand it, the unpardonable sin is something we do that can never be forgiven.
Some months before Elder Witham had preached a sermon in which he had set forth the doctrine of predestination and the unpardonable sin, but I have to confess that none of us could remember what he had said.
"I think it's in the Bible," Theodora added, and, going into the sitting-room, she fetched forth grandmother Ruth's concordance Bible and asked Addison to help her find the references. Turning first to one text, then to another, for some minutes they read the passages aloud, but did not find anything conclusive. The discussion had put me in a rather disturbed state of mind in regard to several things I had done at one time and another, and I suppose I looked sober, for I saw Addison regarding me curiously. He continued to glance at me, clearly with intention, and shook his head gloomily several times until Ellen noticed it and exclaimed in my behalf, "Well, I guess he stands as good a chance as you do!"
Two hours or so later the old Squire and grandmother returned, thoughtfully silent; they did not tell us what had occurred, and it was not until a good many years later, when Theodora, Halstead and Addison had left the old farm, that I learned what had happened that morning at the Sylvester place. The old Squire and I were driving home from the village when something brought the incident to his mind, and, since I was now old enough to understand, he related what had occurred.
When they reached the Sylvester farm that morning grandmother went indoors with Mrs. Sylvester, and the old Squire proceeded to the barn. All was very dark and still there, and it was some moments before he discovered Rufus; the man was sitting on a heckling block at the far dark end of the barn, huddled down, with his head bowed in his hands.
"Good morning, neighbor!" the old Squire said cheerily. "A fine Sabbath morning. Spring never looked more promising for us."
Rufus neither stirred nor answered. The old Squire drew near and laid his hand gently on his shoulder.
"Is it something you could tell me about?" he asked.
Rufus groaned and raised two dreary eyes from his hands. "Oh, I can't! I'm 'shamed. It's nothin' I can tell!" he cried out miserably and then burst into fearful sobs.
"Don't let me ask, then, unless you think it might do you good," the old Squire said.
"Nothin'll ever do me any good again!" Rufus cried. "I'm beyond it, Squire. I'm a lost soul. The door of mercy is closed on me, Squire. I've committed the unpardonable sin!"
The old Squire saw that no effort to cheer Rufus that did not go to the root of his misery would avail. Sitting down beside him, he said:
"A great many of us sometimes fear that we have committed the unpardonable sin. But there is one sure way of knowing whether a person has committed it or not. I once knew a man who in a drunken brawl had killed another. He was convicted of manslaughter, served his term in prison, then went back to his farm and worked hard and well for ten years. One spring that former crime began to weigh on his mind. He brooded on it and finally became convinced that he had committed the sin for which there can be no forgiveness. He wanted desperately to atone for what he had done, and the idea got possession of his mind that since he had taken a human life the only way for him was to take his own life — a life for a life. The next morning they found that he had hanged himself in his barn.
"The young minister who was asked to officiate at the funeral declined to do so on doctrinal grounds; and the burial was about to take place without even a prayer at the grave when a stranger hurriedly approached. He was a celebrated divine who had heard the circumstances of the man's death and who had journeyed a hundred miles to offer his services at the burial.
"'My good friends,' the stranger began, ' I have come to rectify a great mistake. This poor fellow mortal whose body you are committing to its last resting place mistook the full measure of God's compassion. He believed that he had committed that sin for which there is no forgiveness. In his extreme anxiety to atone for his former crime, he was led to commit another, for God requires no man to commit suicide, and his Word expressly forbids it. My friends, I am here to-day to tell you that there is only one sin for which there is no forgiveness, and that is the sin which we do not repent. That alone is the unpardonable sin. This man was sincerely sorry for his sin, and I am as certain that God has forgiven him as I am that I am standing here by his grave.'"
As the old Squire spoke, Rufus raised his head, and a ray of hope broke across his woebegone face.
"Now the question is," the old Squire continued, "are you sorry for what you did?"
"Oh, yes, Squire, yes! I'm terribly sorry!" he cried eagerly. "I do repent of it! I never in the world would do such a thing again!"
"Then what you have done was not the unpardonable sin at all!" the old Squire exclaimed confidently.
"Do you think so?" Rufus cried imploringly.
"I know so!" the old Squire declared authoritatively. "Now let's feed those cows and your horse. Then we will go out and take a look at the fields where you are going to put in a crop this spring."
When the old Squire and grandmother Ruth came away the shadows at the Sylvester farm had visibly lifted, and life was resuming its normal course there. They had proceeded only a short distance on their homeward way, however, when they heard footsteps behind, and saw Rufus hastening after them bareheaded.
"Tell me, Squire, what d'ye think I ought to do about that — what I done once?" he cried.
"Well, Rufus," the old Squire replied, "that is a matter you must settle with your own conscience. Since you ask me, I should say that, if the wrong you did can be righted in any way, you had better try to right it."
"I will. I can. That's what I will do!" he exclaimed.
"I feel sure you will," the old Squire said; and Rufus went back, looking much relieved.
"Did you ever find out just what it was that Sylvester had done?" I asked.
"Well, never exactly," the old Squire replied, smiling. "But I made certain surmises. Less than a fortnight after my talk with Rufus our neighbors, the Wilburs, were astonished one morning to find that during the night a full barrel of salt pork had been set on their porch by the kitchen door. Every mark had been carefully scraped off the barrel, but on the top head were the words, printed with a lead pencil, 'This is yourn and I am sorry.'
"Fourteen years before, the Wilburs had lost a large hog very mysteriously. At that time domestic animals were allowed to run about much more freely than at present, and they often strayed along the highway. Sylvester was always in poor circumstances; and I believe that Wilbur's hog came along the road by night and that Rufus was tempted to make way with it privately and to conceal all traces of the theft.
"In spite of the words on the head of the barrel, Mr. Wilbur was in some doubt what to do with the pork and asked my advice. I told him that if I were in his place I should keep it and say nothing. But I didn't tell him of my talk with Sylvester about the unpardonable sin," the old gentleman added, smiling. "That was hardly a proper subject for gossip."