When we boys were little, we used to go to Mother’s room Sunday evenings, on our way upstairs to bed, and sit in a circle around her, while she told us a story from the Bible or talked to us about how good we ought to be and how much we ought to love God. She loved God herself as much as she dared to, and she deeply loved us, and she was especially tender and dear on those Sunday evenings. One of my brothers told me years afterward how much they had meant to him in those days, and how he had cherished the memory of them all his life.
I was a little older than my brothers, though, and my feelings were mixed. I loved Mother and hated to disappoint her, but I couldn’t respond as easily as the other boys to her gentle appeals. I never seemed to have the emotions that she waited for me to show. I wish now that I could have listened uncritically and have thought only of the look in her eyes. What difference need it have made to me whether we had the same ideas about God, or whether the stories Mother thought lovely seemed less so to me? But there I sat, staring uncomfortably at the carpet and trying to avoid answering questions.
One night she repeated the Twenty-third Psalm to us and asked us to learn it by heart. “The Lord is my shepherd,” she whispered, softly. “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.” She raised her eyes and went on bravely, although with a quiver of fear: “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” She had often felt the Lord’s rod.
I heard Father going by in the hall. He looked in at the doorway and smiled affectionately at us and at Mother. Then he went off, and I heard his firm step as he walked on toward his room.
He hadn’t meant to interfere with Mother’s teachings. He hadn’t spoken one word. But I found myself speculating, all of a sudden, on what his opinion would be of the Twenty-third Psalm.
I couldn’t imagine Father being comforted by the Lord’s rod and staff, or allowing anybody whatever to lead him to a pasture and get him to lie down somewhere in it. I could see him in my mind’s eye, in his tailed coat and top hat, refusing point-blank even to enter a pasture. He would as soon have thought of wearing overalls. In spite of my admiring him for this attitude, it seemed wicked of him. I felt resentful about it. It would have been so much easier for me to be properly reverent if he had not been around. My idea was that if Mother was too religious, Father wasn’t religious enough.
“Good night, Clarence,” I heard Mother saying. “You won’t forget, darling?”
I kissed her and went out, wondering what I was not to forget. Oh, yes–she had asked us to learn that psalm by heart.
Up in my bedroom, I got out my Bible. It was full of paper book-marks, to help me find texts that I’d had to memorize, and these book-marks in turn were full of pictures I had drawn of Biblical scenes. A picture of Adam looking doubtfully at the Tree of Knowledge in Eden, with a complete set of school books dangling heavily down from its boughs. A picture of Sarah “dealing hardly with Hagar,” driving her out with a broomstick. A picture of the sun, moon, and stars bowing politely to Joseph.
I sat down and added to the collection a picture of Job in pyjamas, weeping copiously as he endeavoured, on top of all his other trials, to learn the Twenty-third Psalm. I also drew his three unsatisfactory friends, sitting in a row staring at Job. Each friend wore a sardonic expression and had a large moustache and imperial like Napoleon the Third.
I got out another Bible that Mother had lent me. This one was in French, and it sometimes shocked me deeply to read it. As my belief was that when God had created the world He had said, “Let there be light,” it seemed to me highly irreverent to put French words in His mouth and have Him exclaim, “Que la lumière soit!” Imagine the Lord talking French! Aside from a few odd words in Hebrew, I took it completely for granted that God had never spoken anything but the most dignified English.
The French were notoriously godless, however. It made me laugh, though it frightened me, too, to see what liberties they had taken. In my English Bible, David was a fine Anglo-Saxon type, “a youth, ruddy and of a fair countenance.” In the French, he was a revolting little snip from the boulevards, “un enfant, blond, et d’une belle figure.” Where my Bible spoke of “leviathan,” the French said, “le crocodile,” which ruined the grandeur and mystery of that famous beast. And where mine said, “Behold now behemoth,” they said, “Voici l’hippopotame!”
Instead of the children of Israel fearing lest the Lord should be wroth, the French said, “les enfants d’Israel” were afraid lest “le Seigneur” should be “irrité.” This word “irrité” appeared everywhere in the French version. It wasn’t only the Lord. Cain was “très irrité.” Moïse (which seemed to me a very jaunty way of referring to Moses) was “irrité” again and again. Everybody was “irrité.” When my regular Bible, the real one, impressively described men as “wroth,” their anger seemed to have something stately and solemn about it. If they were full of mere irritation all the time, they were more like the Day family.
I turned at last to the Twenty-third Psalm. They had spoiled that, too. They had twisted it around until it read as though the scene were in Paris. “Green pastures” were changed into “parcs herbeux,” and “thy rod and thy staff” had become “ton bâton,” as though the Lord were leading David up and down the Bois de Boulogne like a drum-major.
I decided to go to bed and let that psalm wait for a day or two. But before putting the books back on my shelf, I hunted up the one place in the French Bible that I really liked. “Blessed are the meek,” my English Bible said, “for they shall inherit the earth.” I had always hated that verse. It made all religion so difficult. Uriah Heep typified the meek, to my mind. The meek were a snivelling, despicable, and uncomfortable lot. But in poring over the French Bible one evening, I had found to my delight that some daring Frenchman had altered this passage and had changed the Sermon on the Mount into something that a fellow could stand. “Heureux les débonnaires,” he had represented Jesus as saying, “car ils hériteront de la terre.”
The debonair! That was more like it! I cheerfully jumped into bed.