August 27, 2012

Ramifications, interlacements, entanglements

Henry Cuyler Bunner was involved with the editorship of the humor magazine Puck for parts of three decades. Among the many works he published in its pages was "The Two Churches of 'Quawket," released in the August 27, 1890 issue.

The story is set in a fictional New England town where the greatest public concern is the competing Congregational churches which "lived together in a spirit of perfect Christian unity, on Capulet and Montague terms." When the congregation grew too large for their original building, a new church was built on Main Street. Midway through construction, however, the congregants disagreed about the pipe organ. "It is quite unnecessary to detail how this quarrel over a handful of peas grew into a church war," Bunner wrote, "with ramifications and interlacements and entanglements and side-issues and under-currents and embroilments of all sorts and conditions." But, ultimately, the congregation split in two, leaving both churches but half full and struggling in debt.

Reverent Colton M. Pursly, however, plans to bring the churches back together with the building of a new parish house. He thinks to call for a sizable donation from the wealthy Joash Hitt, the oldest of the town's inhabitants. Hitt, however, asks the unusual favor that Rev. Pursly write and present his funeral oration while he is still alive to hear it. Pursly nervously agrees, hoping for the donation that would save the two churches. As Hitt listens to the oration, he gives an odd chuckle — "clk!" — which sounds a bit too much like a pistol. Pleased, Hitt implies that he will leave his fortune for the building of a parish house.

When Hitt dies shortly after (a strange smile spread across his face for eternity), Pursly presents the pre-approved sermon at his funeral:

Mr. Pursly read with his face immovably set on the line of the clock in the middle of the choir-gallery railing. He did not dare to look down at the sardonic smile in the coffin below him... And as he repeated each complimentary, obsequious, flattering platitude, a hideous, hysterical fear grew stronger and stronger within him that suddenly he would be struck dumb by the "clk!" of that mirthless chuckle that had sounded so much like a pistol-shot. His voice was hardly audible in the benediction.

Shortly after, Purlsy is surprised to learn that the competing church has, in fact, inherited Hitt's wealth specifically to build a parish house.

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