How fine it was of God to come to us in our awful need and put himself in harm’s way that we might be saved. Knowing our sins as only he can know them because of the infinite purity of his heart, still he came and put himself between them and us. In our bones we know there is nothing comparable to His holy love but when we see people who reflect Him in that way our souls rise to their feet to applaud the wonder of it all and we’re pleased to be in the company of the kind of people the Dragon Slayer gathers around Him.
Irving Bacheller told of such a person in his book, The Light in the Clearing. The parents of Barton Baynes had died of diphtheria so the eight-year-old lived with his Uncle Peabody and his sister Delia. They lived on a farm a long way from the big cities; in the open country, surrounded by forests, rivers and all the other marvelous things associated with the wilds.
He liked his hard-working aunt Deel but there was a forbidding side of her that the child couldn’t understand or warm to. He saw her as a great fixer of things, as one who knew what had to be done and got on with it, as one who knew about right and wrong, about hell-fire and who would go there. But chiefly he knew her as one who found it hard to put up with a child and his childish ways. He knew she loved him and her brother dearly but he wasn’t just sure how he knew it.
It was different with his Uncle Peabody. Bart worshiped him. Between them there was warmth, mutual acceptance, a healthy view of who each one was. They contributed to each other’s store of treasure and gladness. The boy loved his uncle’s imagination and the wonderful people who lived in it. It wasn’t at all unusual for him to end the night in his uncle’s lap in the big sprawling corner chair, hearing amazing stories until his body surrendered to the Sandman’s call.
Silas Wright, once senator for New York, came to visit Peabody and wanted to take a few days to fish. Wright who loved children, who was always and ever a friend to every child he met, had taken a great liking to Bart and Bart to him, so you can imagine the boy’s delight when the senator invited him to come with them.
“If it’s okay with your aunt Deel, it’s okay with me,” his uncle said. Thrilled to the heavens the boy floated into the kitchen, asked for approval and was refused. But just as his world was crumbling, in walked uncle Peabody to tell her that “the great man” was very keen to have the boy go. That being the case, aunt Deel changed her mind. Bart was beside himself with glee and ran on his tiptoes out of the house and threw himself down in the grass, rolling and tumbling with the joy of it all. This running on tiptoes and the sprawling and tumbling in the grass was Bart’s customary way to exult.
[I had a nephew who used to do that—run around on his tiptoes when something delighted him. With ease I can now see Billy grinning, jumping and running tiptoed around the house. I’d completely forgotten that until I came across Bart. What a lovely memory. jmcg]
Bill Seaver, a man Barton didn’t like, was going with them as a guide because he knew all the special places, and, besides, he could cook nearly as well as aunt Delia. The couple of days were like paradise; filled with drama, rivers, fighting brown trout, bending rods and hissing lines, noisy waterfalls, whispering trees and huge, delicious meals of fresh fish and bacon fried in its fat, boiled potatoes, flapjacks and loads of maple sugar!
Seaver was a rough and ready man who was always ready to swear, though he held it down to the less notorious kind in respect for Silas Wright. “It won’t harm me,” said Wright, “but there’s the boy to think of.”
While fishing, Wright slipped off the rock he was standing on and sank shoulder -deep in the water and Bart immediately ran toward him, his hand out and yelling, filled with fear. Peabody helped him out of there with his pole while Bart stood sobbing, tears flowing down his cheeks.
“What’s the matter?” his uncle demanded. “I was afraid—Mr. Wright—was goin’ to be drowned,” he managed to explain. The senator shook off some of the water, came over and knelt down in the front of the boy and took him in his arms and kissed him. “God bless the dear boy!” he said warmly, “It’s a long time since anyone cried for me. I love you Bart.”
After that, when Seaver swore the senator gave him a protesting look and hissed at him to put an end to it. The openness of the boy’s affection added to Wright’s care and affection for him. He and Bart went off on their own to a shallow area farther down the river and beyond the trees so the boy could catch some smaller fish of his own. This he did. It was beginning to get dark and on their way back Bart, admiring his fish, was whispering to himself, making plans to jump out on his uncle and scare him and then tell him how he had caught his fish.
He ran ahead of Mr. Wright and tip-toed into the rear of the camp. Suddenly his heart stood still when he heard his uncle use words that were wicked, even outrageous words; the kind you’d expect to hear only from the worst mouths. The kind of words that Uncle Peabody himself had taught him to despise. It was more than the immediate shock that filled Bart with dismay, his whole world was in danger.
His aunt Deel had told him that the Devil used bad language to tempt his victims into a lake of fire where they sizzled and smoked and yelled forever, every minute feeling worse than sitting on a hot griddle. What was running through Bart’s pained heart and mind was this question: “How am I to save my uncle?”
Standing heart-sick with his hand over his mouth, he was terrified that his dear, careless uncle was in awful danger. The fear he had felt for Mr. Wright was nothing to compare with this. He walked away from the camp a little and sat down dejected, disappointed and fearful. Finally Wright came into view, noted the boy’s anguish and wanted to know what was wrong. Bart couldn’t tell him though he had thought of it. His pride in his uncle and his love for him wouldn’t allow him to spread his uncle’s shame. He’d have to bear the burden alone until he saw Aunt Deel. To make sure Peabody wouldn’t shame himself before Mr. Wright he made a loud remark as they approached the camp.
He lay down almost immediately, subdued and a little withdrawn from his uncle, but wondering as well if Bill Seaver was responsible for all this, wondering if he had done right to leave the defenseless uncle in the man’s company. But mostly he wondered if his beloved uncle were beyond hope and if he’d have to fry and smoke forever. His aunt Deel would know what to do and he could hardly wait to see her.
Peabody checked him out and found his face still wet with tears while he slept. Wright and he put two and two together and the uncle, deeply saddened, confessed he didn’t know how to behave himself when he got out in the woods. “I wouldn’t ’a’ had him hear that for a thousan’ dollars,” he said. Then, almost to himself he said, “If you’re goin’ to travel with a boy like that you’ve got to be good all the time—ye can’t take no rest or vacation at all whatever. You’ve got to be sound through and through or they’ll find it out.”
The next day they started back home after a marvelous big breakfast. They fished here and there along the river and finally reached the Seavers place where Peabody and Wright hitched up the team for the drive on home. As soon as they arrived and while Peabody was showing his sister the lovely trout Silas Wright hurriedly changed and headed off to an appointment. Bart had no time to waste and said to his aunt:
“I’ve got to tell you something.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“I heard him say naughty words.”
“I—I can’t say ’em. They’re wicked. I’m—I’m afraid he’s goin’ to get burnt up,” he stammered.
“It’s so. I said ’em,” his uncle confessed.
His aunt turned to Bart and said, “Bart, you go right down to the barn and bring me a strap—yes!—you bring me a strap—right away.”
He walked slowly to the barn feeling sorry for a moment that he’d told. Scalding tears started to flow down his cheeks. He sat down for a moment to collect his thoughts when he heard her call him to hurry up. He picked the smallest strap he could find and slowly made his way back but as he approached her he said with a tremble, “I—I don’t think he meant it.”
“He’ll have to be punished just the same—he will!”
They all went into the house together with Bart sniffling and Peabody meekly following his sister’s determined stride. The boy, curious to see what was going to happen, saw his uncle lie face down on the sofa and his aunt laying the strap on him. It was more than he could bear so he threw himself between his beloved friend and the strap and pleaded with sobs that she forgive him.
Uncle Peabody left the house in silence, looking very sober, and though he tried hard later, the boy could find him nowhere. Late in the afternoon when he was in the barn he saw his uncle coming down the lane with the cows and an ax on his shoulder. With joy in his heart as great as he’d ever known he ran out to greet him. The man greeted him cheerfully and leaned over and held him against his legs, then looked into his eyes and asked, “Are you willin’ to kiss me?” Bart did and the man said, “If ye ever hear me talk like that ag’in, I’ll let the strongest man in Ballybeen hit me with this ax.”
I love everything about Bacheller’s story and as it stands it has such power that I’m a bit uncertain about isolating some things in it; but maybe nothing will be lost if I do. But just in case, let me ask you to reread the incident before you’re finished with this piece.
I love the fact that senator Silas Wright whose reputation as a selfless and honorable person was ranked by Missouri senator, Thomas H. Benton, as right up there with Washington and Lincoln—I love it that he loved children and made a good friend of eight year old Bart. Can you imagine how wonderful it must have been for the boy when the senator took him off by himself for that special time? Isn’t it sheer joy to see older men making the world a safer and more joyful world for a child?
I love the boy. A boy who was sensitive enough that he could weep if he thought a friend was in danger. I love it that the boy would often fall asleep in the lap of his uncle, that he’d be allowed to prattle on and on to him, that he’d be shocked by bad language. Maybe above all, I love it that the boy’s first concern was that his beloved uncle not be lost or have to endure great loss.
I love it that the child wouldn’t spread the shame of his friend even to someone as fine as Silas Wright, keeping it to himself, bearing the burden of it alone. I love it that when he finally shared it, he did it only because he felt he must and that he shared it only with the one person he believed could save his friend. I love it that his little heart was hurt to see the punishment and that he threw himself in harm’s way to save the heart of his own heart.
When I’m thinking about this child and if I listen hard, from some great distance, from his secret lair where the Dragon prowls I imagine I can hear a long, angry screech of pain and sense his deep fear. A child can do this to him! One lovely, wholesome child foreshadows his doom. That’s a great thought to begin your day with or to go to sleep on.
We must do all we can do to nurture such children who shake the massive walls of Pandemonium (Satan’s capital city in Milton’s Paradise Lost).