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The Art Of Leaving Off
by [?]

It was a hot August Sunday, one of those days on which art itself must not be made too long lest it should shorten life. A little company of us had driven down from our hotel on the comparatively breezy hill to attend church in the village. The majority chose to pay their devotions at the big yellow meeting-house, where the preacher was reputed a man of eloquence; but my Uncle Peter drew me with him to the modest gray chapel, at the far end of the street, which was temporarily under the care of a student in the winter-school of theology, who was wisely spending his vacation in the summer-school of life. Some happy inspiration led the young man to select one of Lyman Abbott’s shortest and simplest sermons,–itself a type of the mercy which it commended,–and frankly read it to us instead of pronouncing a discourse of his own. The result of this was that we came out of chapel at a quarter past eleven in a truly grateful and religious frame of mind.

But our comrades were still detained in the yellow meeting-house; and while the stage-coach waited for them in the glaring fervour of noon, my Uncle Peter and I climbed down from our seats and took refuge on the grass, in the shadow of the roundhead maples that stood guard along the north wall of the Puritan sanctuary. The windows were open. We could see the rhythmic motion of the fan-drill in the pews. The pulpit was not visible; but from that unseen eminence a strident, persistent voice flowed steadily, expounding the necessity and uses of “a baptism of fire,” with a monotonous variety of application. Fire was needful for the young, for the middle-aged, for the old, and for those, if any, who occupied the intermediate positions. It was needful for the rich and for the poor, for the ignorant and for the learned, for church-members, for those who were “well-wishers” but not “professors,” and for hardened sinners,–for everybody in fact: and if any class or condition of human creatures were omitted in the exhaustive analysis, the preacher led us to apprehend that he was only holding them in reserve, and that presently he would include them in the warm and triumphant application of his subject. He was one of those preachers who say it all, and make no demands upon the intelligence of their hearers.

Meantime the brown-and-yellow grasshoppers crackled over the parched fields, and the locusts rasped their one-stringed fiddles in the trees, and the shrunken little river complained faintly in its bed, and all nature was sighing, not for fire, but for water and cool shade. But still the ardent voice continued its fuliginous exhortations, until the very fans grew limp, and the flowers in the hats of the village girls seemed to wilt with fervent heat.

My Uncle Peter and I were brought up in that old-fashioned school of manners which discouraged the audible criticism of religious exercises. But we could not help thinking.

“He has just passed ‘Secondly,'” said I, “and that leaves two more main heads, and a practical conclusion of either three or five points.”

My Uncle Peter said nothing in answer to this. After a while he remarked in an abstract, disconnected way: “I wonder why no school of divinity has ever established a professorship of the Art of Leaving Off.”

“The thing is too simple,” I replied; “theological seminaries do not concern themselves with the simplicities.”

“And yet,” said he, “the simplest things are often the most difficult and always the most important. The proverb says that ‘well begun is half done.’ But the other half is harder and more necessary,–to get a thing well ended. It is the final word that is most effective, and it is something quite different from the last word. Many a talker, in the heat of his discussion and his anxiety to have the last word, runs clear past the final word and never gets back to it again.”