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Women of the Country

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When I was a child I lived in a small sea-coast town, with wide, flat sands. The only beautiful thing in the place—a town of no distinction—were the sunsets over this vast, level expanse. I remember them at intervals, as one recalls things seen passing in a train through a solitary landscape. I seem to see myself, a child with a child's imagination, standing on those wet sands, looking out over their purple immensity to the glittering line of the tide on the horizon, and to see again the sun in such a wide heaven that it seemed to have the world to itself, and to watch the changes in the sky as it sank, drawing with it the light. These great sands were dangerous at times, shifting in whirling and irresistible rushes of water, and changing the course of the channel, which was unaltered by the tide and which always lay out a gleaming artery from the almost invisible sea.

It was Sunday morning—a day observed with such precision in that little town that I was almost alone out of doors. A string of cart-horses, their day of rest well-earned, were being led across the sands from the level tide. The sand, uncovered by the sea for weeks, was bleached to an intolerable whiteness, but there was no wind to lift it, and the sea was tranquil, its little waves all hastening in one direction, like a shoal of fish making for a haven. The sun was already changing its early glory to heat. All the erections for amusement on the shore looked a little foolish in that solitude. I returned to the town along the empty asphalt roads and went with my companions to church. It was a church whose pretensions were high and genteel. Nothing of a personal nature was ever heard from its well-bred pulpit. The hymns were discreetly chosen to avoid excitement, and a conversion would have given offence. The minister for that day was a young man from the poorer end of the town, and I remember, even as a child, being disturbed by the announcement of his first hymn, "Rock of Ages." Even the organ blundered as it played so common a tune as Rousseau's Dream, and I, who learning counterpoint, feared to be seen singing so ordinary a melody, lest it should set me down as unmusical for ever. But soon my concern was with the unfortunate young man, for he was, I felt sure, quite ignorant of the habits of such congregations as ours, and would certainly offend our best people. For after that we read the parable of the Prodigal Son and sang, "The Sands of Time are Sinking." Then I forgot even this curious lapse from our Sunday custom, so clearly did the tale now begun by the preacher bring again before my eyes those inhuman sands, that lonely sky, and the unstayed power of the sea.

He had chosen, so he said, for his service this morning the favourite hymns, Scripture, and text of an obscure member of the congregation taken from earth in a strange manner the day before. For more years than he could remember, there had come and gone in that congregation an old blind man. He had heard him spoken of from time to time in a kindly contemptuous, way as "Old Born Again," and it was by that nickname he would speak of him this morning, but he could find no place in his intelligence for contempt, for Old Born Again now saw and knew the things which prophets and kings desire to look into....