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|Old Man Lowry.
I had marked his expressive physiognomy among my hearers in the little church in Sonora for some weeks before he made himself known to me. As I learned afterward, he was weighing the young preacher in his critical balances. He had a shrewd Scotch face, in which there was a mingling of keenness, benignity, and humor. His age might be sixty, or it might be more. He was an old bachelor, and wide guesses are sometimes made as to the ages of that class of men. They may not live longer than married men, but they do not show the effects of life's wear and tear so early. He came to see us one evening. He fell in love with the mistress of the parsonage, just as he ought to have done, and we were charmed with the quaint old bachelor. There was a piquancy, a sharp flavor, in his talk that was delightful. His aphorisms often crystallized a neglected truth in a form all his own. He was an original character. There was nothing commonplace about him. He had his own way of saying and doing every thing.
Society in the mines was limited in that day, and we felt that we had found a real thesaurus in this old man of unique mold. His visits were refreshing to us, and his plain-spoken criticisms were helpful to me.
He had left the Church because he did not agree with the preachers on some points of Christian ethics, and because they used tobacco. But he was unhappy on the outside, and finding that my views and habits did not happen to cross his peculiar notions, he came back. His religious experience was out of the common order. Bred a Calvinist, of the good old Scotch-Presbyterian type, he had swung away from that faith, and was in danger of rushing into Universalism, or infidelity. That once famous and much-read little book, "John Nelson's Journal," fell into his hands, and changed his whole life. It led him to Christ, and to the Methodists. He was a true spiritual child of the unflinching Yorkshire stone-cutter. Like him he despised half-way measures, and like him he was aggressive in thought and action. What he liked he loved, what he disliked he hated. Calvinism he abhorred, and he let no occasion pass for pouring into it the hot shot of his scorn and wrath. One night I preached from the text, Should it be according to thy mind?
"The first part of your sermon," he said to me as we passed out of the church, "distressed me greatly. For a full half hour you preached straight out Calvinism, and I thought you had ruined every thing; but you had left a little slip-gap, and crawled out at the last."
His ideal of a minister of the gospel was Dr. Keener, whom he knew at New Orleans before coming to California. He was the first man I ever heard mention Dr. Keener's name for the episcopacy. There was much in common between them. If my eccentric California bachelor friend did not have as strong and cool a head, he had as brave and true a heart as the incisive and chivalrous Louisiana preacher, upon whose head the miter was placed by the suffrage of his brethren at Memphis in 1870.
He became very active as a worker in the Church. I made him class-leader, and there have been few in that office who brought to its sacred duties as much spiritual insight, candor, and tenderness. At times his words flashed like diamonds, showing what the Bible can reveal to a solitary thinker who makes it his chief study day and night. When needful, he could apply caustic that burned to the very core of an error of opinion or of practice. He took a class in the Sunday-school, and his freshness, acuteness, humor, and deep knowledge of the Scriptures, made him far more than an ordinary teacher. A fine pocket Bible was offered as a prize to the scholar who should, in three months, memorize the greatest number of Scripture verses. The wisdom of such a contest is questionable to me now, but it was the fashion then, and I was too young and self-distrustful to set myself against the current in such matters. The contest was an exciting one - two boys, Robert A - and Jonathan R -, and one girl, Annie P - , leading all the school. Jonathan suddenly fell behind, and was soon distanced by his two competitors. Lowry, who was his teacher, asked him what was the reason of his sudden breakdown. The boy blushed, and stammered out:
"I didn't want to beat Annie."
Robert won the prize, and the day came for its presentation. The house was full, and everybody was in a pleasant mood. After the prize had been presented in due form and with a little flourish, Lowry arose, and producing a costly Bible, in a few words telling how magnanimously and gallantly Jonathan had retired from the contest, presented it to the pleased and blushing boy. The boys and girls applauded California fashion, and the old man's face glowed with satisfaction. He had in him curiously mingled the elements of the Puritan and the Cavalier - the uncompromising persistency of the one, and the chivalrous impulse and openhandedness of the other.
The old man had too many crotchets and too much combativeness to be popular. He spared no opinion or habit he did not like. He struck every angle within reach of him. In the state of society then existing in the mines there were many things to vex his soul, and keep him on the warpath. The miners looked upon him as a brave, good man, just a little daft. He worked a mining-claim on Wood's Creek, north of town, and lived alone in a tiny cabin on the hill above. That was the smallest of cabins, looking like a mere box from the trail which wound through the flat below. Two little scrub-oaks stood near it, under which he sat and read his Bible in leisure moments. There, above the world, he could commune with his own heart and with God undisturbed, and look down upon a race he half pitied and half despised. From the spot the eye took in a vast sweep of hill and dale: Bald Mountain, the most striking object in the near background, and beyond its dark, rugged mass the snowy summits of the Sierras, rising one above another, like gigantic stair-steps, leading up to the throne of the Eternal. This lonely height suited Lowry's strangely compounded nature. As a cynic, he looked down with contempt upon the petty life that seethed and frothed in the camps below; as a saint, he looked forth upon the wonders of God's handiwork around and above him.
There was an intensity in all that he did. Passing his mining-claim on horseback one day, I paused to look at him in his work. Clad in a blue flannel mining-suit, he was digging as for life. The embankment of red dirt and gravel melted away rapidly before his vigorous strokes, and he seemed to feel a sort of fierce delight in his work. Pausing a moment, he looked up and saw me.
"You dig as if you were in a hurry," I said.
"Yes, I have been digging here three years. I have a notion that I have just so much of the earth to turn over before I am turned under," he replied with a sort of grim humor.
He was still there when we visited Sonora in 1857. He invited us out to dinner, and we went. By skillful circling around the hill, we reached the little cabin on the summit with horse and buggy. The old man had made preparations for his expected guests. The floor of the cabin had been swept, and its scanty store of furniture put to rights, and a dinner was cooking in and on the little stove. His lady-guest insisted on helping in the preparation of the dinner, but was allowed to do nothing further than to arrange the dishes on the primitive table, which was set out under one of the little oaks in the yard. It was a miner's feast - can-fruits, can-vegetables, can-oysters, can-pickles, can-every thing nearly, with tea distilled from the Asiatic leaf by a receipt of his own. It was a hot day, and from the cloudless heavens the sun flooded the earth with his glory, and the shimmer of the sunshine was in the still air. We tried to be cheerful, but there was a pathos about the affair that touched us. He felt it too. More than once there was a tear in his eye. At parting, he kissed little Paul, and gave us his hand in silence. As we drove down the hill, he stood gazing after us with a look fixed and sad. The picture is till before me the lonely old man standing sad and silent, the little cabin, the rude dinner-service under the oak, and the overarching sky. That was our last meeting. The next will be on the Other Side.