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Zanita: A Tale of the Yo-semite (1872) by Thérèse Yelverton


CHAPTER XII. BREACHES OF DECORUM.

But my chief and most formidable difficulties arose in respect of her religious training. She was lamentably deficient in the organ of veneration, and as she had never seen a church or perhaps never heard of one, until she came to Oakland, it was difficult to teach her any sort of reverence for the holy building.

“Why is it naughty to laugh in church, aunty?” she would say to my lecture on good behavior in the sacred edifice.

“Because it is the house of God, and you ought to behave respectfully in it.”

“Is God there?”

“Yes, He dwells therein.”

“Mamma told me no one had ever seen God. Why didn’t He have a house in the Valley?”

“No, no one has ever seen Him, for He is a Spirit, and invisible to human eyes. But He has promised that when even two or three assemble together in His name He will be amongst them.”

“O, then it’s for the people,” cried Zanita,—jumping at once at the Quaker principle of a meeting-house. “Why doesn’t God come here then when you and I, and the Professor and Martha, say our prayers?”

“He does.”

“Then I suppose,” she remarked, with a merry twinkle of her elfin eyes, “He wouldn’t like me to laugh here; but I must laugh somewhere; perhaps then in the stable would be best.”

She suddenly assumed a grave, anxious expression, as though she were really earnestly wishful to accommodate the Almighty. I could not keep my countenance, and was obliged to change the subject.

Not having been brought up to go to church, she could never be made to understand its importance and the gravity of the matter; and her keen and pertinent observations made it exceedingly difficult to inculcate the formalities of religion.

But a climax of all arrived shortly, when the clergyman himself was obliged to take her in hand.

There was a little boy, a neighbor’s child, with whom Zanita would take it into her head to play for a week together, and then drop him, and take up with a little girl on the other side of the street. He was a chubby, sturdy little fellow, with innocent blue eyes, that never knew a glint of mischief Being two years younger than Zanita, she made a complete cats-paw of him, compelling him to become the particeps criminis in all her mischief, and then, as with Cozy, made him the scapegoat. “Tommy did it,” was always her defense for every misdemeanor.

One Sunday morning—I shall never forget it, as it witnessed one of the most absurd mortifications of my life—I had made her quite neat, and succeeded in keeping her clean until church-time.

“O, aunty, Tommy and I want to walk to church together, and his mother says we may.”

“Very well,” I said; “take him by the hand and walk straight, and don’t touch anything by the way.”

She started off. She wore a scarlet merino dress handsomely braided and trimmed, and a soft white velvet hat with white feathers—she looked dazzlingly beautiful; and people could not help regarding her admiringly when she went out in this costume.

The Professor and myself walked on to church, which was not two hundred yards distant. Zanita was not there when we arrived. Presently the Dicksons, Tommy’s parents, came in. I had arranged the books, and found the Sunday of the month, when I became aware of a strange rustling, and something which sounded like a titter through the congregation. The minister had just entered, and fixed his large gray eyes on some object in questioning surprise. I hastily turned, and there were the children walking slowly down the aisle, hand in hand, as though duly impressed with the solemnity of the moment; but they had changed costumes. Tommy was arrayed in Zanita’s scarlet dress; and she in Tommy’s knickerbockers and jacket, covered with a formidable array of bright buttons; his little hat set jauntily on her hair, and the poor little fellow completely overpowered by the velvet and plumes.

Two such ridiculous little mummers never before tickled the fancy of a pious congregation. Tommy’s dress was much too long for him, and Zanita’s pants indecorously short. He walked on in good faith; but she was acting, splendidly, and no one could have told from her countenance that she was conscious of her grotesqueness.

The congregation had to bury their faces in their pews as at the first prayer. Mrs. Dickson and myself made a rush each to our metamorphosed brats, and bore them rapidly out of the church; Mrs. Dickson, who was a portly woman, becoming purple in the face with shame and horror, and the shaking of poor Tommy until he was the color of his dress. And both bid fair to have a stroke of apoplexy.

“Zanita!” I said severely, when we were outside the church, “I am ashamed of you.”

“Tommy,” she began, assuming a scandalized air,—“Tommy wanted”—

“No,” I interrupted; “don’t attempt to put the blame on Tommy; you know perfectly well you alone are responsible for the whole.”

“Well, aunty,” she cried remonstratingly, shifting her tactics, “you know you said yourself that Tommy should have been a girl, and that it was a mistake that I was not a boy. So I told Tommy what you said, and he said ‘Yes,’ and then of course I had to put his clothes on when he had mine.”

“I’ll give him a right good spanking,” cried Mrs. Dickson.

Zanita laughed, and seemed in prospect to enjoy it. At Mr. Dickson’s house, which was fortunately quite near at hand, we changed the respective garments again.

“Aunty,” said Zanita, whose irrepressible temperament could never be subdued for a moment, “were not all the people naughty to-day in church?”

“Why?” I asked.

“O, they all laughed so much: wasn’t it shocking!”

I explained that the shocking part was the one who had made them laugh.

The following day I intended calling upon our minister, and making what explanation and apology I could. But he anticipated me, and came in during the morning.

He said that the child had an extraordinary sense of humor; but that it ought to be repressed, and that he would like to speak to her. I sent for her. She came in biting the end of her apron, hanging her head, and affecting the greatest shyness.

The minister eyed her approvingly; he thought his imposing presence had subdued her; but I had no such hope. He was a large heavy man, with dark hair and bilious complexion: the most prominent feature of his face was a decided hook-nose; his eyes, of an exceedingly neutral gray, were set in a pair of tortoise-shell spectacles, which gave him the look of some wonderful and rare bird, such as one sees in museums. If Zanita did not perceive the comic side of this countenance it would be a wonder.

We had some trouble in getting her to approach him; she seemed so fearfully ashamed, and she did it so well, that the thought flew through my mind that she might possibly feel a little overawed.

“My dear little girl,” said the minister, “I want to have a long talk with you. I want to show you what a wicked thing you did yesterday in church.”

Zanita answered never a word. She stood on one leg, and examined the nails on the sole of her boot.

“Zanita, stand straight,” I said.

She put down her foot and became rigid.

“Do you know, if you are naughty, where you will go when you die?” said the minister solemnly.

“When shall I die?” asked the child.

“I don’t know; that is in the hands of the Almighty.”

“Then I don’t know where I shall go; that is in the hands of the Almighty also,” returned Zanita. “Where will you go when you die?” she said, following up her advantage.

“To heaven, I hope,” said the clergyman decisively.

“Then I guess we’ll split tracks,” and she laughed right in his face.

“Zanita,” I interposed, “you must not laugh when you are speaking to the minister.”

“Aunty, I can’t help laughing; he is just like our jackdaw, and you always say you cannot help laughing at him, he looks so ridiculously wise.”

I began to see the minister would make no way with her.

“My dear little girl,” he resumed, “I came to talk entirely about your conduct yesterday. Do you know it is very wicked to assume male attire?”

“What’s that?” said Zanita eagerly, pretending she felt anxious to be enlightened.

“Men’s clothes, or boys’,” he added, lest she might find a loop-hole by his want of explicitness.

“O,” cried Zanita, “Nell Radd always wears her husband’s pants when she travels over the mountains. I’ve seen her in them many a time, and I know they are Radd’s.”

“I am afraid she cannot be a very proper person,” said the minister, evasively. The minister felt he could not pursue this question of “women wearing the breeks” much further, and being again out-flanked, said,—

“Well, I think the best thing you can do will be to learn your Catechism, and come to my Sunday class.”

Zanita had been sucking her thumb, and now brought it out with a pop. “That’s drawing a cork,” she said, “did you know it?”

“Say!” cried Zanita running to the door as I was politely bowing him out, “have you got any little girls?”

“Yes,” he replied, “I have three.”

“Have they got black rims around their eyes like you?” she asked with her elfish laugh.

I put my hand on her mouth, and pushed her behind me.

Our minister never wanted a second conversation with Zanita; but repeated, whenever we met,—

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”


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