John Brent/Chapter IX
Sizzum and His Heretics
No sooner had this nomad town settled itself quietly for the night, than a town-meeting collected in the open of the amphitheatre.
“Now, brethren,” says Shamberlain to us, “ef you want to hear exhortin’ as runs without stoppin’, step up and listen to the Apossle of the Gentiles. Prehaps,” and here Jake winked perceptibly, “you’ll be teched, and want to jine, and prehaps you wont. Ef you’re docyle you’ll be teched, ef you’re bulls of Bashan you wont be teched.”
“How did you happen to be converted yourself, Jake?” Brent asked. “You’ve never told me.”
“Why, you see I was naturally of a religious nater, and I’ve tried ’em all, but I never fell foul of a religion that had real proved miracles, till I seed a man, born dumb, what was cured by the Prophet Joseph looking down his throat and tellin’ his palate to speak up, — and it did speak up, did that there palate, and went on talkin’ most oncommon. It’s onbeknown tongues it talks, suthin like gibberidge; but Joseph said that was how the tongues sounded in the Apossles’ time to them as hadn’t got the interruption of tongues. I struck my flag to that there miracle. I’d seen ’em gettin’ up the sham kind, when I was to the Italian convent, and I knowed the fourth-proof article. I may talk rough about this business, but Brother Brent knows I’m honest about it.”
Jake led us forward, and stationed us in posts of honor before the crowd of auditors.
Presently Sizzum appeared. He had taken time to tone down the pioneer and develop the deacon in his style, and a very sleek personage he had made of himself. He was clean shaved; clean shaving is a favorite coxcombry of the deacon class. His long black hair, growing rank from a muddy skin, was sleekly put behind his ears. A large white blossom of cravat expanded under his nude, beefy chin, and he wore a black dress-coat, creased with its recent packing. Except that his pantaloons were thrust into boots with the maker’s name (Abel Gushing, Lynn, Mass.) stamped in gold on a scarlet morocco shield in front, he was in correct go-to-meetin’ costume, — a Chadband of the plains.
He took his stand, and began to fulmine over the assemblage. His manner was coarse and overbearing, with intervals of oily persuasiveness. He was a big, powerful man, without one atom of delicacy in him, — a fellow who never could take a flower or a gentle heart into his without crushing it by a brutal instinct. A creature with such an amorphous beak of a nose, such a heavy-lipped mouth, and such wilderness of jaw, could never perceive the fine savor of any delicate thing. Coarse joys were the only joys for such a body; coarse emotions, the pleasures of force and domination, the only emotions crude enough for such a soul.
His voice was as repulsive as his mien and manner. That badly modelled nose had an important office in his oratory. Through it he hailed his auditors to open their hearts, as a canal-boatman hails the locks with a canal horn of bassoon calibre. But sometimes, when he wished to be seductive, his sentences took the channel of his mouth, and his great lips rolled the words over like fat morsels. Pah! how the recollection of the fellow disgusts me! And yet he had an unwholesome fascination, which compelled us to listen. I could easily understand how he might overbear feeble minds, and wheedle those that loved flattery. He had some education. Travel had polished his base metal, so that it shone well enough to deceive the vulgar or the credulous. He did not often allow himself the broad coarseness of his brother preachers in the church.
Shall I let him speak for himself? Does any one wish to hear the inspirations of the last faith humanity has chosen for its guide?
No. Such travesty of true religion is very sorry comedy, very tragical farce. Vulgar rant and cant, and a muddle of texts and dogmas, are disgusting to hear, and would be weariness to repeat.
Sizzum’s sermon suited his mixed character. He was Aaron and Joshua, high-priest and captain combined. He made his discourse bulletin for to-day, general orders for to-morrow. He warned against the perils of disobedience. He raved of the joys and privileges of Latter-Day Saintship on earth and in heaven. He heaped vindictive and truculent anathemas upon Gentiles. He gave his audience to understand that he held the keys of the kingdom; if they yielded to him without question, they were safe in life and eternity; if they murmured, they were cast into outer darkness. It was terrible to see the man’s despotism over his proselytes. A rumble of Amens from the crowd greeted alike every threat and every promise.
Sizzum’s discourse lasted half an hour. He dismissed his audience with an Amen, and an injunction to keep closer to the train on the march to-morrow, and not be “rabbling off to catch grasshoppers because they were bigger and handsomer than the Lancashire kind.”
“And this is one of the religions of the nineteenth century, and such a man is its spokesman,” said Brent to me, as the meeting broke up, and we strolled off alone to inspect the camp.
“It is a shame to all churches that they have not trained men to judge of evidence, and so rendered such a delusion impossible.”
“But Christianity tolerates, and ever reveres, myths and mythic histories; and such toleration and reverence offer premiums on the invention of new mythologies like this.”
“We, in our churches, teach that phenomena can add authority to truth; we necessarily invite miracle-mongers, Joe Smiths, Pio Nonos, to produce miracles to sustain lies.”
“I suppose,” said Brent, “that superstition must be the handmaid of religion, except in minds very holy, or very brave and thorough in study. By and by, when mankind is educated to know that theology is a science, to be investigated and tested like a science, Mormonism and every like juggle will become forever impossible.”
“Certainly; false religions always pretend to a supernatural origin and a fresh batch of mysteries. Let Christianity discard its mysteries, and impostors will have no educated credulity to aid them.”
So Brent and I commented upon the Sizzum heresy and its mouthpiece. We abhorred the system, and were disgusted with its apostle, as a tempter and a knave. Yet we could not feel any close personal interest in the class he deluded. They seemed too ignorant and doltish to need purer spiritual food.
Bodily food had been prepared by the women while the men listened to Sizzum’s grace before meat. A fragrance of baking bread had pervaded the air. A thousand slices of fat pork sizzled in two hundred frying-pans, and water boiled for two hundred coffee or tea pots. Saints cannot solely live on sermons.
Brent and I walked about to survey the camp. We stopped wherever we found the emigrants sociable, and chatted with them. They were all eager to know how much length of journey remained.
“We’re comin’ to believe, some of us,” said an old crone, with a wrinkle for every grumble of her life, “that we’re to be forty year in the wilderness, like the old Izzerullites. I wouldn’t have come, Samwell, if I’d known what you was bringin’ me to.”
“There’s a many of us wouldn’t have come, mother,” rejoined “Samwell,” a cowed man of anxious look, “if we’d known as much as we do now.”
Samwell glanced sadly at his dirty, travel-worn children, at work at mud pies and dust vol-au-vents. His dowdy wife broke off the colloquy by announcing, in a tone that she must have learned from a rattlesnake, that the loaf was baked, the bacon was fried, and supper shouldn’t wait for anybody’s talking.
All the emigrants were English. Lancashire their accent and dialect announced, and Lancashire they told us was their home in the old step-mother country.
Step-mother, indeed, to these her children! No wonder that they had found life at home intolerable! They were the poorest class of towns-people from the great manufacturing towns, — penny tradesmen, indoor craftsmen, factory operatives, — a puny, withered set of beings; hardly men, if man means strength; hardly women, if woman means beauty. Their faces told of long years passed in the foul air of close shops, or work-rooms, or steamy, oily, flocculent mills. All work and no play had been their history. No holidays, no green grass, no flowers, no freshness, — nothing but hard, ill-paid drudgery, with starvation standing over the task and scourging them on. There were children among them already aged and wrinkled, ancient as the crone, Samwell’s mother, for any childish gayety they showed. Poor things! they had been for years their twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours at work in stifling mills, when they should have been tumbling in the hay, chasing butterflies, expanding to sunshine and open air.
“We have not seen,” said Brent, “one hearty John Bull, or buxom Betsy Bull, in the whole caravan.”
“They look as if husks and slops had been their meat and drink, instead of beef and beer.”
“Beef and beer belong to fellows that have red in their cheeks and guffaws in their throats, not to these lean, pale, dreary wretches.”
“The saints’ robes seem as sorry as their persons,” said I. “No watchman on the hill-tops of their Sion will hail, ‘Who are these in bright array?’ when they heave in sight!”
“They have a right to be way-worn, after their summer of plodding over these dusty wastes.”
“Here comes a group in gayer trim. See! — actually flounces and parasols!”
Several young women of the Blowsalind order, dressed in very incongruous toggery of stained and faded silks, passed us. They seemed to be on a round of evening visits, and sheltered their tanned faces against the October sunshine with ancient fringed parasols. Their costume had a queer effect in the camp of a Mormon caravan at Fort Bridger. They were in good spirits, and went into little panics when they saw Brent in his Indian rig, and then into “Lor me!” and “Bless us!” when the supposed Pawnee was discovered to be a handsome pale-face.
“Perhaps we waste sympathy,” said Brent, “on these people. Why are not they better off here, and likely to be more comfortable in Utah than in the slums of Manchester?”
“Drudgery for drudgery, slavery for slavery, barren as the Salt Lake country is, and rough the lot of pioneers, I have no doubt they will be. But then the religion!”
“I do not defend that; but what has England’s done for them to make them regret it? Of what use to these poor proletaires have the cathedrals been, or the sweet country churches, or the quiet cloisters of Oxford and Cambridge? I cannot wonder that they have given an easy belief to Mormonism, — an energetic, unscrupulous propagandism, offering escape from poverty and social depression, offering acres for the mere trouble of occupying; promising high thrones in heaven, and on earth also, if the saints will only gather, march back, and take possession of their old estates in Illinois and Missouri.”
We had by this time approached the upper end of the ellipse. Sizzum, as quartermaster, had done his duty well. The great blue land-arks, each roofed with its hood of white canvas stretched on hoops, were in stout, serviceable order, wheels, axles, and bodies.
Within these nomad cottages order or chaos reigned, according to the tenants. Some people seem only to know the value of rubbish. They guard old shoes, old hats, cracked mugs, battered tins, as articles of virtu. Some of the wagons were crowded with such cherished trash. Some had been lightened of such burdens by the way-side, and so were snug and orderly nestling-places; but the rat’s-nests quite outnumbered the wren’s-nests.
A small, neat wagon stood near the head of the train. We might have merely glanced at it, and passed by, as we had done elsewhere along the line; but, as we approached, our attention was caught by Murker and Larrap. They were nosing about, prying into the wagon, from a little distance. When they caught sight of us, they turned and skulked away.
“What are those vermin about?” said Brent.
“Selecting, perhaps, a Mormoness to kidnap to-night, or planning a burglary.”
“I hate to loathe any one as I loathe those fellows. I have known brutes enough in my life to have become hardened or indifferent by this time, but these freshen my disgust every time I see them.”
“I thought we had come to a crisis with them this afternoon, when you collared Larrap.”
“You remember my presentiments about them the night they joined us. I am afraid they will yet serve us a shabby trick. Their ‘dixonary,’ as Shamberlain called it, of rascality is an unabridged edition.”
“Such carrion creatures should not be allowed about such a pretty cage.”
“It is, indeed, a pretty cage. Some neater-handed Phyllis than we have seen has had the arranging of the household gear within.”
“Yes; the mistress of this rolling mansion has not lost her domestic ambition. This is quite the model wagon of the train. Refinement does not disdain Sizzum’s pilgrims; as ecce signum here!”
“The pretty cage has its bird, — pretty too, perhaps. See! there is some one behind that shawl screen at the back of the wagon.”
“The bird has divined Murker and Larrap, and is hiding, probably.”
“Come; we have stared long enough; let us walk on.”