Reuben of Uz

By Benjamin De Casseres

PASTOR REUBEN WILLIAMS, like Job, had feared God all the fifty-seven years of his life and had walked upright among men. For thirty years he had been not only the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the town of Uz, Maine, but had been the adviser, spiritual and worldly, of most of the inhabitants of that little town.

Tall, brawny and robust, but sweet and even elegant, of manner, Reuben Williams had had no trouble in finding a bride in his early twenties, good Mary Spofford, the grocer’s daughter. Their union had been blessed (I use the phraseology of the “best sellers” deliberately and for a purpose which has no unexposed kernel and not in the least to be satirical, as those who know my previous might suspect) by three children—two boys and a girl. No married couple had ever got along better. Reuben had besides his small salary as pastor quite a comfortable income from the estate of his father, deceased when he was a boy. Everything had been done in apple-pie order. The children had been well educated, had married, bred, and came from the three corners of the United States regularly once a year to see their parents.

As I said, nothing duller and more godlike than the life of Reuben Williams, the Poohbah of Uz. But even the goodly and the godly are subject to law.

And so, now, in the fifty-seventh year of his age it came time for Reuben to die. Pneumonia had taken hold of that big, strapping man and laid him low. All hope was gone. The family were at the bedside, Pastor Smith was below in the parlor to bid him bon voyage. Business in Uz was suspended and the dogs whined in the streets.

It was hinted to Reuben that his end was near. He asked for Pastor Smith. He wanted him to recite the Church’s death-prayers at the end.

Even if the doctor has not hinted at the important event about to supervene in Reuben’s life, the latter knew by instinct that the Important Thing was about to happen. His fever was high, but his brain seemed to him preternaturally clear. His consciousness was wide-awake, and from some abysmal depth vague memories, instincts and emotions began to upswirl into the brain and gleam in an unknown light.

With his eyes closed, breathing heavily, he could hear the soft weeping of his wife and children and the squeaky voice of Pastor Smith (summoned all the way from Portland) reciting a jargon which he knew so well, but which to him now, in this important impasse in his career, had very little meaning.

He opened his eyes (he felt they were glazing rapidly) and looked toward the door of the bedroom, half expectantly. He had been waiting for that Visitor all his life. He had thought of that rendezvous incessantly. He had read so much about Him. Would he fail him in this his last hour of life—he who had waited so patiently?

No! He heard a subtle, soft footstep in the corridor, the door opened silently, and a tall, smiling figure, dressed in green and red entered and sat on the side of the bed opposite Pastor Smith, who continued reading.

“Satan, real landlord of my soul,” whispered the dying Reuben, “I have desired your hand and wisdom all my life. I have lived in hell and have suffered for my uprightness and my social sanctimoniousness beyond my strength. Day by day my vital instinct to prey, to love, to transgress, to seek the dangerous precipices of flesh and wine have been strangled. What has it profited me to gain the regard and love of all my little world if I have lost my own soul?—my real soul. You have stood on the steps of your great Palace of Wisdom and beckoned to me a thousand times. Your eyes called me to the plenary indulgence of my flesh and the predatory life of adventure. You offered me the earth, the kingdom of this world, sunlight, wine, women, war—and I could not come to you, for the Other One was strong in my soul and I was a coward, a coward, a coward! I committed each day that I lived the unpardonable sin of denying my nature. I sinned against life from the beginning by rigidly repressing my blood and my love of war. In your sight, my Lord, I must be a great sinner. Forgive me for my cowardice!”

Reuben started up from his pillow wildly. Satan with an almost imperceptible motion  laid him back gently. The weeping in the room rose to wails. Pastor Smith kept reading the death-prayers in his high squeaky voice.

“You are forgiven, Reuben Williams,” said Satan, after he had looked point-blank at the naked soul of the [216] pastor of Uz. “You are forgiven because I know your penitence is real. You see I am not the enemy of man; but his greatest friend. Everyone comes to me at last, for each one hates himself secretly for what he is or has been. Each one believes in a heaven wherein he will come into his own; that is, wherein each instinct, each impulse, each dream, each ideal denied here on earth will be fulfilled in all its fullness.

“They who follow me on earth with courage and pride never repent. Remorse is a weakness. It is felt only by those who cannot stand the fulness of my glory. The god they believe in—the god of goodness, mercy and holiness—is a Moloch. On his alter there is a perpetual stench of flesh, and his heaven is a river of blood.

“There are only two crimes, Reuben, cowardice and conformity. Why did you not follow the words of your own wise man who lived right here in New England in your time and who said, ‘If I am the Devil’s child, I will live unto the Devil’? Men have cursed God in all ages; but who has really ever sincerely and whole-heartedly cursed me?

“It is I who whisper into the ears of children, men and women the way, the truth and the life: fulfill your nature if it takes you to the electric chair or the cross. Woe unto him who does not pay his respects to me! Woe unto him who denies me! Woe unto him who does not repent of his tartuffism. If That Other is the Hound of Heaven, I am the Hound of Earth. No one can escape me. You may dodge me all your life, but I’ll meet you at some Pharsalia as the ghost of Caesar promised the delirious Brutus.

“And I come, my Reuben, in strange guises sometimes, for salvation is nothing but a promise of wine and women and vengeance deferred. Pastor Smith yonder, who is squeaking away at your soul, Reuben, shall cry for me in his latter moment, though he will not know it. His prayer for redemption shall be a prayer for the indefinite prolongation of his secret pleasure-thoughts. His ‘resignation to the will of God’ will be his promise to be good if he gets an extension of his sensuous existence—merely a promise, mind you. And subconsciously, he will hope for a dip into all the forbidden vices and pleasures.”

“In your Presence I shed my godly, lying fifty-seven years like a filthy garment,” said Reuben. “You have opened all the windows of my soul, Satan, and let in the pure air of earth. I feel revivified. There is a glow of Life all about me, the only kingdom that is worth reigning over—the world, the flesh and the predatory life. What a stench of virtue, lies, and goodness there is in this room! Give me my happiness! Take me away with thee to a saner incarnation. Thy will be done, O Lord of my soul!”

The doctor’s head was on Reuben’s heart. It had stopped. The wailing changed to screams and moans. The maid drew down the blinds and left the room softly to the family.

Pastor Smith closed his book. Tears were in his eyes. He put his hand softly on the head of Mrs. Williams and murmured, “He died repentant of all his earthly sins and he is now with God.”

 

Source: The International, July 1914, Vol. VIII No. 7, pp. 215 – 216