He was a strange party guest and not altogether welcome. In fact, the Rev. Dr. Palmerson thought of him as …
Mrs. Palmerson still insists it didn’t happen at all. She says that her husband’s nerves gave way for a while that evening, or that he dozed off for a minute and dreamed the whole thing. I don’t know; he’s more self-possessed than I am if he could go to sleep even for a minute in the midst of the crowd that filled their house that night. And it would take a mighty expandable minute for all the action he keeps describing.
Judy thinks maybe there actually was an uninvited visitor at the party—though not the way her dad interpreted it, you understand. Some young fellow who had his own purposes in mind. Maybe a student from the U. who was doing a sociology paper on the Palmersons’ social stratum.
Nobody else has much of any theory at all. We just sit by watching to see what the results will be and talking over our back fences about whether we would like to have that kind of a visitor, or, for that matter, whether we’d like to have his counterpart come stepping in from the other side of the calendar. That might be even more eerie.
One thing’s sure. Dr. Palmerson is absolutely convinced. Otherwise he’d have kept quiet about the whole thing. Actually, half the people in the church wonder why he didn’t keep quiet anyway. You should hear my mother and Aunt Clarinda on that topic. But if they had heard him talk about it as much as I have these last three weeks.… I could almost believe I was at the party myself, instead of writing an exam at the U. that night in my course on Renaissance history. Hard course. If Dr. Palmerson really does resign and I have to take on more responsibility in directing Christian education at the church, I’ll be glad I got that course finished first.
January the twenty-fourth was the big night. There wasn’t any particular reason for having a party, except that the Palmersons like to entertain in a big way. Judy’s coming-out party two years ago got them in practice, and their silver wedding anniversary last year made it a habit. Some hoop-te-do that party was. So this year they just decided to have a party. Confidentially, I think it did something for Dr. Palmerson’s ego, and even more for his wife’s, to think that they could give the flossiest party of the season, with all of Cedar City’s upper crust happy to accept. Most of the guest list came from our own Third Avenue Church, of course, but there were plenty of others. Doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief—you name it. But no one from yon side of the tracks, of course.
That last fact was Dr. Palmerson’s first clue, he says. The string ensemble he had imported from the city was stringing away, the candles were burning as genteel candles should, the room was full of the fragrance of cut flowers and perfumed people, silks were shimmering, diamonds were sparkling. In the midst of it all, Dr. P. was playing the affable host par excellence when he heard a cynical voice say, “And the poor have the Gospel preached to them.”
Well, Dr. P. jumped a little and looked around. He didn’t see any face to match the voice, though, so he kept on making elegant small talk and telling his guests to have more refreshments. All the time he was trying to place that caustic voice, and the phrase it had quoted from St. Matthew was beating a refrain at the back of his mind.
After a bit he had to give his full attention to Mrs. Grierson, who was telling him how much she had liked his last sermon. Ministers at Third Avenue always have to give their full attention to Mrs. Grierson. That’s one of the dreary facts of life here. Not that she’s painful to look at; she’s my idea of what a dowager duchess ought to look like, with her sleek, smart gowns and her incredible quantities of jewelry. But she’s firm. Very firm. Diplomatic, but very firm. And she’s made a hobby of instructing preachers in the way that they should go for more years than she would like to admit.
Well, as I said, Dr. P. was giving his full attention to Mrs. Grierson when he caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of this shabby fellow—“about nineteen or twenty,” says Dr. Palmerson, “slender, not bad looking, with a gleam in his eye as stern as though he were helping to preside at the Last Judgment.”
“So you were preaching to please her rather than to please God,” the boy said to Dr. Palmerson. Right then, says Dr. P., thirty years of success slid off his shoulders and his soul felt utterly naked. And it was the same voice he had heard before.
He turned to ask the boy who he was and what he wanted, but the boy had moved on and mixed in with the crowd. It bothered Dr. Palmerson quite a bit. For one thing, he isn’t used to caustic comments on his preaching, and besides that he had an uneasy feeling that he ought to recognize the intruder. He was pretty sure it was an intruder; he had worked with the guest list too much to have any doubt there. He wondered what the boy wanted and what would happen next.
What happened next was pretty trivial, but it upset Dr. Palmerson more than ever. He was chatting with the Darcys and the Kramers, telling them about his last trip to Florida. “Well, I’d never been on water skis before,” he was saying, “but I thought I’d give it a try, just for the heck of it.…”
Well, he glanced up and saw the boy standing behind Mrs. Kramer, listening intently to what he was saying. When he got that far—“just for the heck of it”—the boy gave him a look of contempt and anger. “You have changed, oh, you have changed,” the boy said to him in a low voice, low but very cutting. “Thirty years ago you wouldn’t have said it that way for anything.”
Well, I guess Dr. P. just about had a coronary then and there, trying to decide in one split second how to put the impertinent boy in his place and protesting inside himself that “heck” isn’t such a bad word as all that and wondering how in the world that youngster felt qualified to talk about thirty years ago anyway and feeling mortified at being rebuked in front of his guests.
Then when he heard Mrs. Kramer saying solicitously, “Are you all right, Dr. Palmerson? You look a little ill,” he realized with some relief but with a growing uneasiness that the visitor must be a visitor only to him.
A few minutes later he saw the boy join a girl who was standing quietly and alone over by the fireplace, and the two of them started for the door. Dr. Palmerson is still wondering how things would have turned out if he had been content to leave well enough alone and had paid no attention to their departure. But he couldn’t, he says. He was pushed by an irresistible curiosity. He had more than halfway recognized the girl and had to find out.
She was about the same age as the boy, rather pretty, but as shabby as the boy and more out-of-date in her clothes. Her hair was faintly luminous and was done in a quaint style that gave Dr. Palmerson a half-conscious sensation of looking at an old photo album, he says. His wife had just stepped up to say something to him, but he muttered brusquely that he needed a breath of air and rushed to the front door just as the young couple were going out.
The girl’s face was even prettier than he had thought it from across the room; in fact, her attractiveness stirred him so oddly and so intensely that he says he should have caught on right then. The look on her face was one of indescribable sadness.
“We’re going,” she said, and Dr. P. groped like mad to try to place that voice. “You’re a bitter, bitter disappointment to us both.”
“To you? Who … what …”
“We wanted you to be a prophet and a reformer,” the boy cut in, and there was an ache in his voice that stopped Dr. Palmerson’s inquiry. “We wanted you to live by your conscience and do noble things and—and exemplify the Gospel. And instead you’re selfish and smug and materialistic.”
He bit his lip, shook his shoulders in an impetuous, indignant motion that Dr. Palmerson (startled beyond words) suddenly recognized, and started down the long stairway.
“Wait!” Dr. Palmerson’s voice was peremptory. “It’s all true,” he said slowly. “It’s all true, and more. But you can’t blame me entirely. After all, you made the decisions that started me on the road to where I am.”
Then the boy turned and came back to the top of the stairs and looked at Dr. Palmerson for a long, long moment. Dr. Palmerson says that for the first time he realized he was outside in the January night, but that the cold that chilled him was not just January cold.
“That was thirty years ago,” the boy said. “You can’t change it now, and neither can I. But you aren’t finished with your life yet. What about the man you’ll visit thirty years from now?”
Then, while Dr. Palmerson watched them, the two of them turned and walked down the long stairs, out to the street, and then down the street. He forgot to look to see whether they left any footprints on the snowy path. He says he doesn’t care.
Well, as I said, no one except Dr. Palmerson knows what to make of it, and you couldn’t really say that he knows either. But he is making it the business of his life to get ready for that rendezvous when he is eighty, I can tell you that for sure. No one knows yet just where his new quest is going to take him, but we can’t help envying him a little. He sort of makes me think of Schweitzer, or maybe John Wesley.
And, as I said before, it’s keeping our town busy in the back-fence forums, thinking about how we’d like that kind of a visitor.… Maybe I’d appreciate me a lot more twenty or twenty-five years from now if I do something more worthwhile myself than help pamper Mrs. Grierson. Maybe …
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