THE DAMNATION OF THERON WARE
by Harold Frederic
No such throng had ever before been seen in the building during all its eight years of existence. People were wedged together most uncomfortably upon the seats; they stood packed in the aisles and overflowed the galleries; at the back, in the shadows underneath these galleries, they formed broad, dense masses about the doors, through which it would be hopeless to attempt a passage.
The light, given out from numerous tin-lined circles of flaring gas-jets arranged on the ceiling, fell full upon a thousand uplifted faces—some framed in bonnets or juvenile curls, others bearded or crowned with shining baldness—but all alike under the spell of a dominant emotion which held features in abstracted suspense and focussed every eye upon a common objective point.
The excitement of expectancy reigned upon each row of countenances, was visible in every attitude—nay, seemed a part of the close, overheated atmosphere itself.
An observer, looking over these compact lines of faces and noting the uniform concentration of eagerness they exhibited, might have guessed that they were watching for either the jury's verdict in some peculiarly absorbing criminal trial, or the announcement of the lucky numbers in a great lottery. These two expressions seemed to alternate, and even to mingle vaguely, upon the upturned lineaments of the waiting throng—the hope of some unnamed stroke of fortune and the dread of some adverse decree.
But a glance forward at the object of this universal gaze would have sufficed to shatter both hypotheses. Here was neither a court of justice nor a tombola. It was instead the closing session of the annual Nedahma Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Bishop was about to read out the list of ministerial appointments for the coming year. This list was evidently written in a hand strange to him, and the slow, near-sighted old gentleman, having at last sufficiently rubbed the glasses of his spectacles, and then adjusted them over his nose with annoying deliberation, was now silently rehearsing his task to himself—the while the clergymen round about ground their teeth and restlessly shuffled their feet in impatience.
Upon a closer inspection of the assemblage, there were a great many of these clergymen. A dozen or more dignified, and for the most part elderly, brethren sat grouped about the Bishop in the pulpit. As many others, not quite so staid in mien, and indeed with here and there almost a suggestion of frivolity in their postures, were seated on the steps leading down from this platform. A score of their fellows sat facing the audience, on chairs tightly wedged into the space railed off round the pulpit; and then came five or six rows of pews, stretching across the whole breadth of the church, and almost solidly filled with preachers of the Word.
There were very old men among these—bent and decrepit veterans who had known Lorenzo Dow, and had been ordained by elders who remembered Francis Asbury and even Whitefield. They sat now in front places, leaning forward with trembling and misshapen hands behind their hairy ears, waiting to hear their names read out on the superannuated list, it might be for the last time.
The sight of these venerable Fathers in Israel was good to the eyes, conjuring up, as it did, pictures of a time when a plain and homely people had been served by a fervent and devoted clergy—by preachers who lacked in learning and polish, no doubt, but who gave their lives without dream of earthly reward to poverty and to the danger and wearing toil of itinerant missions through the rude frontier settlements. These pictures had for their primitive accessories log-huts, rough household implements, coarse clothes, and patched old saddles which told of weary years of journeying; but to even the least sympathetic vision there shone upon them the glorified light of the Cross and Crown. Reverend survivors of the heroic times, their very presence there—sitting meekly at the altar-rail to hear again the published record of their uselessness and of their dependence upon church charity—was in the nature of a benediction.
The large majority of those surrounding these patriarchs were middle-aged men, generally of a robust type, with burly shoulders, and bushing beards framing shaven upper lips, and who looked for the most part like honest and prosperous farmers attired in their Sunday clothes. As exceptions to this rule, there were scattered stray specimens of a more urban class, worthies with neatly trimmed whiskers, white neckcloths, and even indications of hair-oil—all eloquent of citified charges; and now and again the eye singled out a striking and scholarly face, at once strong and simple, and instinctively referred it to the faculty of one of the several theological seminaries belonging to the Conference.
The effect of these faces as a whole was toward goodness, candor, and imperturbable self-complacency rather than learning or mental astuteness; and curiously enough it wore its pleasantest aspect on the countenances of the older men. The impress of zeal and moral worth seemed to diminish by regular gradations as one passed to younger faces; and among the very beginners, who had been ordained only within the past day or two, this decline was peculiarly marked. It was almost a relief to note the relative smallness of their number, so plainly was it to be seen that they were not the men their forbears had been.
And if those aged, worn-out preachers facing the pulpit had gazed instead backward over the congregation, it may be that here too their old eyes would have detected a difference—what at least they would have deemed a decline.
But nothing was further from the minds of the members of the First M. E. Church of Tecumseh than the suggestion that they were not an improvement on those who had gone before them. They were undoubtedly the smartest and most important congregation within the limits of the Nedahma Conference, and this new church edifice of theirs represented alike a scale of outlay and a standard of progressive taste in devotional architecture unique in the Methodism of that whole section of the State. They had a right to be proud of themselves, too. They belonged to the substantial order of the community, with perhaps not so many very rich men as the Presbyterians had, but on the other hand with far fewer extremely poor folk than the Baptists were encumbered with. The pews in the first four rows of their church rented for one hundred dollars apiece—quite up to the Presbyterian highwater mark—and they now had almost abolished free pews altogether. The oyster suppers given by their Ladies' Aid Society in the basement of the church during the winter had established rank among the fashionable events in Tecumseh's social calendar.
A comprehensive and satisfied perception of these advantages was uppermost in the minds of this local audience, as they waited for the Bishop to begin his reading. They had entertained this Bishop and his Presiding Elders, and the rank and file of common preachers, in a style which could not have been remotely approached by any other congregation in the Conference. Where else, one would like to know, could the Bishop have been domiciled in a Methodist house where he might have a sitting-room all to himself, with his bedroom leading out of it? Every clergyman present had been provided for in a private residence—even down to the Licensed Exhorters, who were not really ministers at all when you came to think of it, and who might well thank their stars that the Conference had assembled among such open-handed people. There existed a dim feeling that these Licensed Exhorters—an uncouth crew, with country store-keepers and lumbermen and even a horse-doctor among their number—had taken rather too much for granted, and were not exhibiting quite the proper degree of gratitude over their reception.
But a more important issue hung now imminent in the balance—was Tecumseh to be fairly and honorably rewarded for her hospitality by being given the pastor of her choice?
All were agreed—at least among those who paid pew-rents—upon the great importance of a change in the pulpit of the First M. E. Church. A change in persons must of course take place, for their present pastor had exhausted the three-year maximum of the itinerant system, but there was needed much more than that. For a handsome and expensive church building like this, and with such a modern and go-ahead congregation, it was simply a vital necessity to secure an attractive and fashionable preacher. They had held their own against the Presbyterians these past few years only by the most strenuous efforts, and under the depressing disadvantage of a minister who preached dreary out-of-date sermons, and who lacked even the most rudimentary sense of social distinctions. The Presbyterians had captured the new cashier of the Adams County Bank, who had always gone to the Methodist Church in the town he came from, but now was lost solely because of this tiresome old fossil of theirs; and there were numerous other instances of the same sort, scarcely less grievous. That this state of things must be altered was clear.
The unusually large local attendance upon the sessions of the Conference had given some of the more guileless of visiting brethren a high notion of Tecumseh's piety; and perhaps even the most sophisticated stranger never quite realized how strictly it was to be explained by the anxiety to pick out a suitable champion for the fierce Presbyterian competition. Big gatherings assembled evening after evening to hear the sermons of those selected to preach, and the church had been almost impossibly crowded at each of the three Sunday services. Opinions had naturally differed a good deal during the earlier stages of this scrutiny, but after last night's sermon there could be but one feeling. The man for Tecumseh was the Reverend Theron Ware.
The choice was an admirable one, from points of view much more exalted than those of the local congregation.
You could see Mr. Ware sitting there at the end of the row inside the altar-rail—the tall, slender young man with the broad white brow, thoughtful eyes, and features moulded into that regularity of strength which used to characterize the American Senatorial type in those far-away days of clean-shaven faces and moderate incomes before the War. The bright-faced, comely, and vivacious young woman in the second side pew was his wife—and Tecumseh noted with approbation that she knew how to dress. There were really no two better or worthier people in the building than this young couple, who sat waiting along with the rest to hear their fate. But unhappily they had come to know of the effort being made to bring them to Tecumseh; and their simple pride in the triumph of the husband's fine sermon had become swallowed up in a terribly anxious conflict of hope and fear. Neither of them could maintain a satisfactory show of composure as the decisive moment approached. The vision of translation from poverty and obscurity to such a splendid post as this—truly it was too dazzling for tranquil nerves.
The tedious Bishop had at last begun to call his roll of names, and the good people of Tecumseh mentally ticked them off, one by one, as the list expanded. They felt that it was like this Bishop—an unimportant and commonplace figure in Methodism, not to be mentioned in the same breath with Simpson and Janes and Kingsley—that he should begin with the backwoods counties, and thrust all these remote and pitifully rustic stations ahead of their own metropolitan charge. To these they listened but listlessly—indifferent alike to the joy and to the dismay which he was scattering among the divines before him.
The announcements were being doled out with stumbling hesitation. After each one a little half-rustling movement through the crowded rows of clergymen passed mute judgment upon the cruel blow this brother had received, the reward justly given to this other, the favoritism by which a third had profited. The Presiding Elders, whose work all this was, stared with gloomy and impersonal abstraction down upon the rows of blackcoated humanity spread before them. The ministers returned this fixed and perfunctory gaze with pale, set faces, only feebly masking the emotions which each new name stirred somewhere among them. The Bishop droned on laboriously, mispronouncing words and repeating himself as if he were reading a catalogue of unfamiliar seeds.
"First church of Tecumseh—Brother Abram G. Tisdale!"
There was no doubt about it! These were actually the words that had been uttered. After all this outlay, all this lavish hospitality, all this sacrifice of time and patience in sitting through those sermons, to draw from the grab-bag nothing better than—a Tisdale!
A hum of outraged astonishment—half groan, half wrathful snort bounded along from pew to pew throughout the body of the church. An echo of it reached the Bishop, and so confused him that he haltingly repeated the obnoxious line. Every local eye turned as by intuition to where the calamitous Tisdale sat, and fastened malignantly upon him.
Could anything be worse? This Brother Tisdale was past fifty—a spindling, rickety, gaunt old man, with a long horse-like head and vacantly solemn face, who kept one or the other of his hands continually fumbling his bony jaw. He had been withdrawn from routine service for a number of years, doing a little insurance canvassing on his own account, and also travelling for the Book Concern. Now that he wished to return to parochial work, the richest prize in the whole list, Tecumseh, was given to him—to him who had never been asked to preach at a Conference, and whose archaic nasal singing of "Greenland's Icy Mountains" had made even the Licensed Exhorters grin! It was too intolerably dreadful to think of!
An embittered whisper to the effect that Tisdale was the Bishop's cousin ran round from pew to pew. This did not happen to be true, but indignant Tecumseh gave it entire credit. The throngs about the doors dwindled as by magic, and the aisles cleared. Local interest was dead; and even some of the pewholders rose and made their way out. One of these murmured audibly to his neighbors as he departed that HIS pew could be had now for sixty dollars.
So it happened that when, a little later on, the appointment of Theron Ware to Octavius was read out, none of the people of Tecumseh either noted or cared. They had been deeply interested in him so long as it seemed likely that he was to come to them—before their clearly expressed desire for him had been so monstrously ignored. But now what became of him was no earthly concern of theirs.
After the Doxology had been sung and the Conference formally declared ended, the Wares would fain have escaped from the flood of handshakings and boisterous farewells which spread over the front part of the church. But the clergymen were unusually insistent upon demonstrations of cordiality among themselves—the more, perhaps, because it was evident that the friendliness of their local hosts had suddenly evaporated—and, of all men in the world, the present incumbent of the Octavius pulpit now bore down upon them with noisy effusiveness, and defied evasion.
"Brother Ware—we have never been interduced—but let me clasp your hand! And—Sister Ware, I presume—yours too!"
He was a portly man, who held his head back so that his face seemed all jowl and mouth and sandy chin-whisker. He smiled broadly upon them with half-closed eyes, and shook hands again.
"I said to 'em," he went on with loud pretence of heartiness, "the minute I heerd your name called out for our dear Octavius, 'I must go over an' interduce myself.' It will be a heavy cross to part with those dear people, Brother Ware, but if anything could wean me to the notion, so to speak, it would be the knowledge that you are to take up my labors in their midst. Perhaps—ah—perhaps they ARE jest a trifle close in money matters, but they come out strong on revivals. They'll need a good deal o' stirrin' up about parsonage expenses, but, oh! such seasons of grace as we've experienced there together!" He shook his head, and closed his eyes altogether, as if transported by his memories.
Brother Ware smiled faintly in decorous response, and bowed in silence; but his wife resented the unctuous beaming of content on the other's wide countenance, and could not restrain her tongue.
"You seem to bear up tolerably well under this heavy cross, as you call it," she said sharply.
"The will o' the Lord, Sister Ware—the will o' the Lord!" he responded, disposed for the instant to put on his pompous manner with her, and then deciding to smile again as he moved off. The circumstance that he was to get an additional three hundred dollars yearly in his new place was not mentioned between them.
By a mutual impulse the young couple, when they had at last gained the cool open air, crossed the street to the side where over-hanging trees shaded the infrequent lamps, and they might be comparatively alone. The wife had taken her husband's arm, and pressed closely upon it as they walked. For a time no word passed, but finally he said, in a grave voice,—
"It is hard upon you, poor girl."
Then she stopped short, buried her face against his shoulder, and fell to sobbing.
He strove with gentle, whispered remonstrance to win her from this mood, and after a few moments she lifted her head and they resumed their walk, she wiping her eyes as they went.
"I couldn't keep it in a minute longer!" she said, catching her breath between phrases. "Oh, WHY do they behave so badly to us, Theron?"
He smiled down momentarily upon her as they moved along, and patted her hand.
"Somebody must have the poor places, Alice," he said consolingly. "I am a young man yet, remember. We must take our turn, and be patient. For 'we know that all things work together for good.'"
"And your sermon was so head-and-shoulders above all the others!" she went on breathlessly. "Everybody said so! And Mrs. Parshall heard it so DIRECT that you were to be sent here, and I know she told everybody how much I was lotting on it—I wish we could go right off tonight without going to her house—I shall be ashamed to look her in the face—and of course she knows we're poked off to that miserable Octavius.—Why, Theron, they tell me it's a worse place even than we've got now!"
"Oh, not at all," he put in reassuringly. "It has grown to be a large town—oh, quite twice the size of Tyre. It's a great Irish place, I've heard. Our own church seems to be a good deal run down there. We must build it up again; and the salary is better—a little."
But he too was depressed, and they walked on toward their temporary lodging in a silence full of mutual grief. It was not until they had come within sight of this goal that he prefaced by a little sigh of resignation these further words,—
"Come—let us make the best of it, my girl! After all, we are in the hands of the Lord."
"Oh, don't, Theron!" she said hastily. "Don't talk to me about the Lord tonight; I can't bear it!"
"Theron! Come out here! This is the funniest thing we have heard yet!"
Mrs. Ware stood on the platform of her new kitchen stoop. The bright flood of May-morning sunshine completely enveloped her girlish form, clad in a simple, fresh-starched calico gown, and shone in golden patches upon her light-brown hair. She had a smile on her face, as she looked down at the milk boy standing on the bottom step—a smile of a doubtful sort, stormily mirthful.
"Come out a minute, Theron!" she called again; and in obedience to the summons the tall lank figure of her husband appeared in the open doorway behind her. A long loose, open dressing-gown dangled to his knees, and his sallow, clean-shaven, thoughtful face wore a morning undress expression of youthful good-nature. He leaned against the door-sill, crossed his large carpet slippers, and looked up into the sky, drawing a long satisfied breath.
"What a beautiful morning!" he exclaimed. "The elms over there are full of robins. We must get up earlier these mornings, and take some walks."
His wife indicated the boy with the milk-pail on his arm, by a wave of her hand.
"Guess what he tells me!" she said. "It wasn't a mistake at all, our getting no milk yesterday or the Sunday before. It seems that that's the custom here, at least so far as the parsonage is concerned."
"What's the matter, boy?" asked the young minister, drawling his words a little, and putting a sense of placid irony into them. "Don't the cows give milk on Sunday, then?"
The boy was not going to be chaffed. "Oh, I'll bring you milk fast enough on Sundays, if you give me the word," he said with nonchalance. "Only it won't last long."
"How do you mean—'won't last long'?", asked Mrs. Ware, briskly.
The boy liked her—both for herself, and for the doughnuts fried with her own hands, which she gave him on his morning round. He dropped his half-defiant tone.
"The thing of it's this," he explained. "Every new minister starts in saying we can deliver to this house on Sundays, an' then gives us notice to stop before the month's out. It's the trustees that does it."
The Rev. Theron Ware uncrossed his feet and moved out on to the stoop beside his wife. "What's that you say?" he interjected. "Don't THEY take milk on Sundays?"
"Nope!" answered the boy.
The young couple looked each other in the face for a puzzled moment, then broke into a laugh.
"Well, we'll try it, anyway," said the preacher. "You can go on bringing it Sundays till—till—"
"Till you cave in an' tell me to stop," put in the boy. "All right!" and he was off on the instant, the dipper jangling loud incredulity in his pail as he went.
The Wares exchanged another glance as he disappeared round the corner of the house, and another mutual laugh seemed imminent. Then the wife's face clouded over, and she thrust her under-lip a trifle forward out of its place in the straight and gently firm profile.
"It's just what Wendell Phillips said," she declared. "'The Puritan's idea of hell is a place where everybody has to mind his own business.'"
The young minister stroked his chin thoughtfully, and let his gaze wander over the backyard in silence. The garden parts had not been spaded up, but lay, a useless stretch of muddy earth, broken only by last year's cabbage-stumps and the general litter of dead roots and vegetation. The door of the tenantless chicken-coop hung wide open. Before it was a great heap of ashes and cinders, soaked into grimy hardness by the recent spring rains, and nearer still an ancient chopping-block, round which were scattered old weather-beaten hardwood knots which had defied the axe, parts of broken barrels and packing-boxes, and a nameless debris of tin cans, clam-shells, and general rubbish. It was pleasanter to lift the eyes, and look across the neighbors' fences to the green, waving tops of the elms on the street beyond. How lofty and beautiful they were in the morning sunlight, and with what matchless charm came the song of the robins, freshly installed in their haunts among the new pale-green leaves! Above them, in the fresh, scented air, glowed the great blue dome, radiant with light and the purification of spring.
Theron lifted his thin, long-fingered hand, and passed it in a slow arch of movement to comprehend this glorious upper picture.
"What matter anyone's ideas of hell," he said, in soft, grave tones, "when we have that to look at, and listen to, and fill our lungs with? It seems to me that we never FEEL quite so sure of God's goodness at other times as we do in these wonderful new mornings of spring."
The wife followed his gesture, and her eyes rested for a brief moment, with pleased interest, upon the trees and the sky. Then they reverted, with a harsher scrutiny, to the immediate foreground.
"Those Van Sizers ought to be downright ashamed of themselves," she said, "to leave everything in such a muss as this. You MUST see about getting a man to clean up the yard, Theron. It's no use your thinking of doing it yourself. In the first place, it wouldn't look quite the thing, and, second, you'd never get at it in all your born days. Or if a man would cost too much, we might get a boy. I daresay Harvey would come around, after he'd finished with his milk-route in the forenoon. We could give him his dinner, you know, and I'd bake him some cookies. He's got the greatest sweet-tooth you ever heard of. And then perhaps if we gave him a quarter, or say half a dollar, he'd be quite satisfied. I'll speak to him in the morning. We can save a dollar or so that way."
"I suppose every little does help," commented Mr. Ware, with a doleful lack of conviction. Then his face brightened. "I tell you what let's do!" he exclaimed. "Get on your street dress, and we'll take a long walk, way out into the country. You've never seen the basin, where they float the log-rafts in, or the big sawmills. The hills beyond give you almost mountain effects, they are so steep; and they say there's a sulphur spring among the slate on the hill-side, somewhere, with trees all about it; and we could take some sandwiches with us—"
"You forget," put in Mrs. Ware,—"those trustees are coming at eleven."
"So they are!" assented the young minister, with something like a sigh. He cast another reluctant, lingering glance at the sunlit elm boughs, and, turning, went indoors.
He loitered for an aimless minute in the kitchen, where his wife, her sleeves rolled to the elbow, now resumed the interrupted washing of the breakfast dishes—perhaps with vague visions of that ever-receding time to come when they might have a hired girl to do such work. Then he wandered off into the room beyond, which served them alike as living-room and study, and let his eye run along the two rows of books that constituted his library. He saw nothing which he wanted to read. Finally he did take down "Paley's Evidences," and seated himself in the big armchair—that costly and oversized anomaly among his humble house-hold gods; but the book lay unopened on his knee, and his eyelids half closed themselves in sign of revery.
This was his third charge—this Octavius which they both knew they were going to dislike so much.
The first had been in the pleasant dairy and hop country many miles to the south, on another watershed and among a different kind of people. Perhaps, in truth, the grinding labor, the poverty of ideas, the systematic selfishness of later rural experience, had not been lacking there; but they played no part in the memories which now he passed in tender review. He recalled instead the warm sunshine on the fertile expanse of fields; the sleek, well-fed herds of "milkers" coming lowing down the road under the maples; the prosperous and hospitable farmhouses, with their orchards in blossom and their spacious red barns; the bountiful boiled dinners which cheery housewives served up with their own skilled hands. Of course, he admitted to himself, it would not be the same if he were to go back there again. He was conscious of having moved along—was it, after all, an advance?—to a point where it was unpleasant to sit at table with the unfragrant hired man, and still worse to encounter the bucolic confusion between the functions of knives and forks. But in those happy days—young, zealous, himself farm-bred—these trifles had been invisible to him, and life there among those kindly husbandmen had seemed, by contrast with the gaunt surroundings and gloomy rule of the theological seminary, luxuriously abundant and free.
It was there too that the crowning blessedness of his youth—nay, should he not say of all his days?—had come to him. There he had first seen Alice Hastings,—the bright-eyed, frank-faced, serenely self-reliant girl, who now, less than four years thereafter, could be heard washing the dishes out in the parsonage kitchen.
How wonderful she had seemed to him then! How beautiful and all-beneficent the miracle still appeared! Though herself the daughter of a farmer, her presence on a visit within the borders of his remote country charge had seemed to make everything, there a hundred times more countrified than it had ever been before. She was fresh from the refinements of a town seminary: she read books; it was known that she could play upon the piano. Her clothes, her manners, her way of speaking, the readiness of her thoughts and sprightly tongue—not least, perhaps, the imposing current understanding as to her father's wealth—placed her on a glorified pinnacle far away from the girls of the neighborhood. These honest and good-hearted creatures indeed called ceaseless attention to her superiority by their deference and open-mouthed admiration, and treated it as the most natural thing in the world that their young minister should be visibly "taken" with her.
Theron Ware, in truth, left this first pastorate of his the following spring, in a transfiguring halo of romance. His new appointment was to Tyre—a somewhat distant village of traditional local pride and substance—and he was to be married only a day or so before entering upon his pastoral duties there. The good people among whom he had begun his ministry took kindly credit to themselves that he had met his bride while she was "visiting round" their countryside. In part by jocose inquiries addressed to the expectant groom, in part by the confidences of the postmaster at the corners concerning the bulk and frequency of the correspondence passing between Theron and the now remote Alice—they had followed the progress of the courtship through the autumn and winter with friendly zest. When he returned from the Conference, to say good-bye and confess the happiness that awaited him, they gave him a "donation"—quite as if he were a married pastor with a home of his own, instead of a shy young bachelor, who received his guests and their contributions in the house where he boarded.
He went away with tears of mingled regret and proud joy in his eyes, thinking a good deal upon their predictions of a distinguished career before him, feeling infinitely strengthened and upborne by the hearty fervor of their God-speed, and taking with him nearly two wagon-loads of vegetables, apples, canned preserves, assorted furniture, glass dishes, cheeses, pieced bedquilts, honey, feathers, and kitchen utensils.
Of the three years' term in Tyre, it was pleasantest to dwell upon the beginning.
The young couple—after being married out at Alice's home in an adjoining county, under the depressing conditions of a hopelessly bedridden mother, and a father and brothers whose perceptions were obviously closed to the advantages of a matrimonial connection with Methodism—came straight to the house which their new congregation rented as a parsonage. The impulse of reaction from the rather grim cheerlessness of their wedding lent fresh gayety to their lighthearted, whimsical start at housekeeping. They had never laughed so much in all their lives as they did now in these first months—over their weird ignorance of domestic details; with its mishaps, mistakes, and entertaining discoveries; over the comical super-abundances and shortcomings of their "donation" outfit; over the thousand and one quaint experiences of their novel relation to each other, to the congregation, and to the world of Tyre at large.
Theron, indeed, might be said never to have laughed before. Up to that time no friendly student of his character, cataloguing his admirable qualities, would have thought of including among them a sense of humor, much less a bent toward levity. Neither his early strenuous battle to get away from the farm and achieve such education as should serve to open to him the gates of professional life, nor the later wave of religious enthusiasm which caught him up as he stood on the border-land of manhood, and swept him off into a veritable new world of views and aspirations, had been a likely school of merriment. People had prized him for his innocent candor and guileless mind, for his good heart, his pious zeal, his modesty about gifts notably above the average, but it had occurred to none to suspect in him a latent funny side.
But who could be solemn where Alice was?—Alice in a quandary over the complications of her cooking stove; Alice boiling her potatoes all day, and her eggs for half an hour; Alice ordering twenty pounds of steak and half a pound of sugar, and striving to extract a breakfast beverage from the unground coffee-bean? Clearly not so tenderly fond and sympathetic a husband as Theron. He began by laughing because she laughed, and grew by swift stages to comprehend, then frankly to share, her amusement. From this it seemed only a step to the development of a humor of his own, doubling, as it were, their sportive resources. He found himself discovering a new droll aspect in men and things; his phraseology took on a dryly playful form, fittingly to present conceits which danced up, unabashed, quite into the presence of lofty and majestic truths. He got from this nothing but satisfaction; it obviously involved increased claims to popularity among his parishioners, and consequently magnified powers of usefulness, and it made life so much more a joy and a thing to be thankful for. Often, in the midst of the exchange of merry quip and whimsical suggestion, bright blossoms on that tree of strength and knowledge which he felt expanding now with a mighty outward pushing in all directions, he would lapse into deep gravity, and ponder with a swelling heart the vast unspeakable marvel of his blessedness, in being thus enriched and humanized by daily communion with the most worshipful of womankind.
This happy and good young couple took the affections of Tyre by storm. The Methodist Church there had at no time held its head very high among the denominations, and for some years back had been in a deplorably sinking state, owing first to the secession of the Free Methodists and then to the incumbency of a pastor who scandalized the community by marrying a black man to a white woman. But the Wares changed all this. Within a month the report of Theron's charm and force in the pulpit was crowding the church building to its utmost capacity—and that, too, with some of Tyre's best people. Equally winning was the atmosphere of jollity and juvenile high spirits which pervaded the parsonage under these new conditions, and which Theron and Alice seemed to diffuse wherever they went.
Thus swimmingly their first year sped, amid universal acclaim. Mrs. Ware had a recognized social place, quite outside the restricted limits of Methodism, and shone in it with an unflagging brilliancy altogether beyond the traditions of Tyre. Delightful as she was in other people's houses, she was still more naively fascinating in her own quaint and somewhat harum-scarum domicile; and the drab, two-storied, tin-roofed little parsonage might well have rattled its clapboards to see if it was not in dreamland—so gay was the company, so light were the hearts, which it sheltered in these new days. As for Theron, the period was one of incredible fructification and output. He scarcely recognized for his own the mind which now was reaching out on all sides with the arms of an octopus, exploring unsuspected mines of thought, bringing in rich treasures of deduction, assimilating, building, propounding as if by some force quite independent of him. He could not look without blinking timidity at the radiance of the path stretched out before him, leading upward to dazzling heights of greatness.
At the end of this first year the Wares suddenly discovered that they were eight hundred dollars in debt.
The second year was spent in arriving, by slow stages and with a cruel wealth of pathetic detail, at a realization of what being eight hundred dollars in debt meant.
It was not in their elastic and buoyant natures to grasp the full significance of the thing at once, or easily. Their position in the social structure, too, was all against clear-sightedness in material matters. A general, for example, uniformed and in the saddle, advancing through the streets with his staff in the proud wake of his division's massed walls of bayonets, cannot be imagined as quailing at the glance thrown at him by his tailor on the sidewalk. Similarly, a man invested with sacerdotal authority, who baptizes, marries, and buries, who delivers judgments from the pulpit which may not be questioned in his hearing, and who receives from all his fellow-men a special deference of manner and speech, is in the nature of things prone to see the grocer's book and the butcher's bill through the little end of the telescope.
The Wares at the outset had thought it right to trade as exclusively as possible with members of their own church society. This loyalty became a principal element of martyrdom. Theron had his creditors seated in serried rows before him, Sunday after Sunday. Alice had her critics consolidated among those whom it was her chief duty to visit and profess friendship for. These situations now began, by regular gradations, to unfold their terrors. At the first intimation of discontent, the Wares made what seemed to them a sweeping reduction in expenditure. When they heard that Brother Potter had spoken of them as "poor pay," they dismissed their hired girl. A little later, Theron brought himself to drop a laboriously casual suggestion as to a possible increase of salary, and saw with sinking spirits the faces of the stewards freeze with dumb disapprobation. Then Alice paid a visit to her parents, only to find her brothers doggedly hostile to the notion of her being helped, and her father so much under their influence that the paltry sum he dared offer barely covered the expenses of her journey. With another turn of the screw, they sold the piano she had brought with her from home, and cut themselves down to the bare necessities of life, neither receiving company nor going out. They never laughed now, and even smiles grew rare.
By this time Theron's sermons, preached under that stony glare of people to whom he owed money, had degenerated to a pitiful level of commonplace. As a consequence, the attendance became once more confined to the insufficient membership of the church, and the trustees complained of grievously diminished receipts. When the Wares, grown desperate, ventured upon the experiment of trading outside the bounds of the congregation, the trustees complained again, this time peremptorily.
Thus the second year dragged itself miserably to an end. Nor was relief possible, because the Presiding Elder knew something of the circumstances, and felt it his duty to send Theron back for a third year, to pay his debts, and drain the cup of disciplinary medicine to its dregs.
The worst has been told. Beginning in utter blackness, this third year, in the second month, brought a change as welcome as it was unlooked for. An elderly and important citizen of Tyre, by name Abram Beekman, whom Theron knew slightly, and had on occasions seen sitting in one of the back pews near the door, called one morning at the parsonage, and electrified its inhabitants by expressing a desire to wipe off all their old scores for them, and give them a fresh start in life. As he put the suggestion, they could find no excuse for rejecting it. He had watched them, and heard a good deal about them, and took a fatherly sort of interest in them. He did not deprecate their regarding the aid he proffered them in the nature of a loan, but they were to make themselves perfectly easy about it, and never return it at all unless they could spare it sometime with entire convenience, and felt that they wanted to do so. As this amazing windfall finally took shape, it enabled the Wares to live respectably through the year, and to leave Tyre with something over one hundred dollars in hand.
It enabled them, too, to revive in a chastened form their old dream of ultimate success and distinction for Theron. He had demonstrated clearly enough to himself, during that brief season of unrestrained effulgence, that he had within him the making of a great pulpit orator. He set to work now, with resolute purpose, to puzzle out and master all the principles which underlie this art, and all the tricks that adorn its superstructure. He studied it, fastened his thoughts upon it, talked daily with Alice about it. In the pulpit, addressing those people who had so darkened his life and crushed the first happiness out of his home, he withheld himself from any oratorical display which could afford them gratification. He put aside, as well; the thought of attracting once more the non-Methodists of Tyre, whose early enthusiasm had spread such pitfalls for his unwary feet. He practised effects now by piecemeal, with an alert ear, and calculation in every tone. An ambition, at once embittered and tearfully solicitous, possessed him.
He reflected now, this morning, with a certain incredulous interest, upon that unworthy epoch in his life history, which seemed so far behind him, and yet had come to a close only a few weeks ago. The opportunity had been given him, there at the Tecumseh Conference, to reveal his quality. He had risen to its full limit of possibilities, and preached a great sermon in a manner which he at least knew was unapproachable. He had made his most powerful bid for the prize place, had trebly deserved success—and had been banished instead to Octavius!
The curious thing was that he did not resent his failure. Alice had taken it hard, but he himself was conscious of a sense of spiritual gain. The influence of the Conference, with its songs and seasons of prayer and high pressure of emotional excitement, was still strong upon him. It seemed years and years since the religious side of him had been so stirred into motion. He felt, as he lay back in the chair, and folded his hands over the book on his knee, that he had indeed come forth from the fire purified and strengthened. The ministry to souls diseased beckoned him with a new and urgent significance. He smiled to remember that Mr. Beekman, speaking in his shrewd and pointed way, had asked him whether, looking it all over, he didn't think it would be better for him to study law, with a view to sliding out of the ministry when a good chance offered. It amazed him now to recall that he had taken this hint seriously, and even gone to the length of finding out what books law-students began upon.
Thank God! all that was past and gone now. The Call sounded, resonant and imperative, in his ears, and there was no impulse of his heart, no fibre of his being, which did not stir in devout response. He closed his eyes, to be the more wholly alone with the Spirit, that moved him.
The jangling of a bell in the hallway broke sharply upon his meditations, and on the instant his wife thrust in her head from the kitchen.
"You'll have to go to the door, Theron!" she warned him, in a loud, swift whisper. "I'm not fit to be seen. It is the trustees."
"All right," he said, and rose slowly from sprawling recumbency to his feet. "I'll go."
"And don't forget," she added strenuously; "I believe in Levi Gorringe! I've seen him go past here with his rod and fish-basket twice in eight days, and that's a good sign. He's got a soft side somewhere. And just keep a stiff upper lip about the gas, and don't you let them jew you down a solitary cent on that sidewalk."
"All right," said Theron, again, and moved reluctantly toward the hall door.
When the three trustees had been shown in by the Rev. Mr. Ware, and had taken seats, an awkward little pause ensued. The young minister looked doubtingly from one face to another, the while they glanced with inquiring interest about the room, noting the pictures and appraising the furniture in their minds.
The obvious leader of the party, Loren Pierce, a rich quarryman, was an old man of medium size and mean attire, with a square, beardless face as hard and impassive in expression as one of his blocks of limestone. The irregular, thin-lipped mouth, slightly sunken, and shut with vice-like firmness, the short snub nose, and the little eyes squinting from half-closed lids beneath slightly marked brows, seemed scarcely to attain to the dignity of features, but evaded attention instead, as if feeling that they were only there at all from plain necessity, and ought not to be taken into account. Mr. Pierce's face did not know how to smile—what was the use of smiles?—but its whole surface radiated secretiveness. Portrayed on canvas by a master brush, with a ruff or a red robe for masquerade, generations of imaginative amateurs would have seen in it vast reaching plots, the skeletons of a dozen dynastic cupboards, the guarded mysteries of half a century's international diplomacy. The amateurs would have been wrong again. There was nothing behind Mr. Pierce's juiceless countenance more weighty than a general determination to exact seven per cent for his money, and some specific notions about capturing certain brickyards which were interfering with his quarry-sales. But Octavius watched him shamble along its sidewalks quite as the Vienna of dead and forgotten yesterday might have watched Metternich.
Erastus Winch was of a breezier sort—a florid, stout, and sandy man, who spent most of his life driving over evil country roads in a buggy, securing orders for dairy furniture and certain allied lines of farm utensils. This practice had given him a loud voice and a deceptively hearty manner, to which the other avocation of cheese-buyer, which he pursued at the Board of Trade meetings every Monday afternoon, had added a considerable command of persuasive yet non-committal language. To look at him, still more to hear him, one would have sworn he was a good fellow, a trifle rough and noisy, perhaps, but all right at bottom. But the County Clerk of Dearborn County could have told you of agriculturists who knew Erastus from long and unhappy experience, and who held him to be even a tighter man than Loren Pierce in the matter of a mortgage.
The third trustee, Levi Gorringe, set one wondering at the very first glance what on earth he was doing in that company. Those who had known him longest had the least notion; but it may be added that no one knew him well. He was a lawyer, and had lived in Octavius for upwards of ten years; that is to say, since early manhood. He had an office on the main street, just under the principal photograph gallery. Doubtless he was sometimes in this office; but his fellow-townsmen saw him more often in the street doorway, with the stairs behind him, and the flaring show-cases of the photographer on either side, standing with his hands in his pockets and an unlighted cigar in his mouth, looking at nothing in particular. About every other day he went off after breakfast into the country roundabout, sometimes with a rod, sometimes with a gun, but always alone. He was a bachelor, and slept in a room at the back of his office, cooking some of his meals himself, getting others at a restaurant close by. Though he had little visible practice, he was understood to be well-to-do and even more, and people tacitly inferred that he "shaved notes." The Methodists of Octavius looked upon him as a queer fish, and through nearly a dozen years had never quite outgrown their hebdomadal tendency to surprise at seeing him enter their church. He had never, it is true, professed religion, but they had elected him as a trustee now for a number of terms, all the same—partly because he was their only lawyer, partly because he, like both his colleagues, held a mortgage on the church edifice and lot. In person, Mr. Gorringe was a slender man, with a skin of a clear, uniform citron tint, black waving hair, and dark gray eyes, and a thin, high-featured face. He wore a mustache and pointed chin-tuft; and, though he was of New England parentage and had never been further south than Ocean Grove, he presented a general effect of old Mississippian traditions and tastes startlingly at variance with the standards of Dearborn County Methodism. Nothing could convince some of the elder sisters that he was not a drinking man.
The three visitors had completed their survey of the room now; and Loren Pierce emitted a dry, harsh little cough, as a signal that business was about to begin. At this sound, Winch drew up his feet, and Gorringe untied a parcel of account-books and papers that he held on his knee. Theron felt that his countenance must be exhibiting to the assembled brethren an unfortunate sense of helplessness in their hands. He tried to look more resolute, and forced his lips into a smile.
"Brother Gorringe allus acts as Seckertary," said Erastus Winch, beaming broadly upon the minister, as if the mere mention of the fact promoted jollity. "That's it, Brother Gorringe,—take your seat at Brother Ware's desk. Mind the Dominie's pen don't play tricks on you, an' start off writin' out sermons instid of figgers." The humorist turned to Theron as the lawyer walked over to the desk at the window. "I allus have to caution him about that," he remarked with great joviality. "An' do YOU look out afterwards, Brother Ware, or else you'll catch that pen o' yours scribblin' lawyer's lingo in place o' the Word."
Theron felt bound to exhibit a grin in acknowledgment of this pleasantry. The lawyer's change of position had involved some shifting of the others' chairs, and the young minister found himself directly confronted by Brother Pierce's hard and colorless old visage. Its little eyes were watching him, as through a mask, and under their influence the smile of politeness fled from his lips. The lawyer on his right, the cheese-buyer to the left, seemed to recede into distance as he for the moment returned the gaze of the quarryman. He waited now for him to speak, as if the others were of no importance.
"We are a plain sort o' folks up in these parts," said Brother Pierce, after a slight further pause. His voice was as dry and rasping as his cough, and its intonations were those of authority. "We walk here," he went on, eying the minister with a sour regard, "in a meek an' humble spirit, in the straight an' narrow way which leadeth unto life. We ain't gone traipsin' after strange gods, like some people that call themselves Methodists in other places. We stick by the Discipline an' the ways of our fathers in Israel. No new-fangled notions can go down here. Your wife'd better take them flowers out of her bunnit afore next Sunday."
Silence possessed the room for a few moments, the while Theron, pale-faced and with brows knit, studied the pattern of the ingrain carpet. Then he lifted his head, and nodded it in assent. "Yes," he said; "we will do nothing by which our 'brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.'"
Brother Pierce's parchment face showed no sign of surprise or pleasure at this easy submission. "Another thing: We don't want no book-learnin' or dictionary words in our pulpit," he went on coldly. "Some folks may stomach 'em; we won't. Them two sermons o' yours, p'r'aps they'd do down in some city place; but they're like your wife's bunnit here, they're too flowery to suit us. What we want to hear is the plain, old-fashioned Word of God, without any palaver or 'hems and ha's. They tell me there's some parts where hell's treated as played-out—where our ministers don't like to talk much about it because people don't want to hear about it. Such preachers ought to be put out. They ain't Methodists at all. What we want here, sir, is straight-out, flat-footed hell—the burnin' lake o' fire an' brim-stone. Pour it into 'em, hot an' strong. We can't have too much of it. Work in them awful deathbeds of Voltaire an' Tom Paine, with the Devil right there in the room, reachin' for 'em, an' they yellin' for fright; that's what fills the anxious seat an' brings in souls hand over fist."
Theron's tongue dallied for an instant with the temptation to comment upon these old-wife fables, which were so dear to the rural religious heart when he and I were boys. But it seemed wiser to only nod again, and let his mentor go on.
"We ain't had no trouble with the Free Methodists here," continued Brother Pierce, "jest because we kept to the old paths, an' seek for salvation in the good old way. Everybody can shout 'Amen!' as loud and as long as the Spirit moves him, with us. Some one was sayin' you thought we ought to have a choir and an organ. No, sirree! No such tom-foolery for us! You'll only stir up feelin' agin yourself by hintin' at such things. And then, too, our folks don't take no stock in all that pack o' nonsense about science, such as tellin' the age of the earth by crackin' up stones. I've b'en in the quarry line all my life, an' I know it's all humbug! Why, they say some folks are goin' round now preachin' that our grandfathers were all monkeys. That comes from departin' from the ways of our forefathers, an puttin' in organs an' choirs, an' deckin' our women-folks out with gewgaws, an' apin' the fashions of the worldly. I shouldn't wonder if them kind did have some monkey blood in 'em. You'll find we're a different sort here."
The young minister preserved silence for a little, until it became apparent that the old trustee had had his say out. Even then he raised his head slowly, and at last made answer in a hesitating and irresolute way.
"You have been very frank," he said. "I am obliged to you. A clergyman coming to a new charge cannot be better served than by having laid before him a clear statement of the views and—and spiritual tendencies—of his new flock, quite at the outset. I feel it to be of especial value in this case, because I am young in years and in my ministry, and am conscious of a great weakness of the flesh. I can see how daily contact with a people so attached to the old, simple, primitive Methodism of Wesley and Asbury may be a source of much strength to me. I may take it," he added upon second thought, with an inquiring glance at Mr. Winch, "that Brother Pierce's description of our charge, and its tastes and needs, meets with your approval?"
Erastus Winch nodded his head and smiled expansively. "Whatever Brother Pierce says, goes!" he declared. The lawyer, sitting behind at the desk by the window, said nothing.
"The place is jest overrun with Irish," Brother Pierce began again. "They've got two Catholic churches here now to our one, and they do jest as they blamed please at the Charter elections. It'd be a good idee to pitch into Catholics in general whenever you can. You could make a hit that way. I say the State ought to make 'em pay taxes on their church property. They've no right to be exempted, because they ain't Christians at all. They're idolaters, that's what they are! I know 'em! I've had 'em in my quarries for years, an' they ain't got no idee of decency or fair dealin'. Every time the price of stone went up, every man of 'em would jine to screw more wages out o' me. Why, they used to keep account o' the amount o' business I done, an' figger up my profits, an' have the face to come an' talk to me about 'em, as if that had anything to do with wages. It's my belief their priests put 'em up to it. People don't begin to reelize—that church of idolatry 'll be the ruin o' this country, if it ain't checked in time. Jest you go at 'em hammer 'n' tongs! I've got Eyetalians in the quarries now. They're sensible fellows: they know when they're well off—a dollar a day, an' they're satisfied, an' everything goes smooth."
"But they're Catholics, the same as the Irish," suddenly interjected the lawyer, from his place by the window. Theron pricked up his ears at the sound of his voice. There was an anti-Pierce note in it, so to speak, which it did him good to hear. The consciousness of sympathy began on the instant to inspire him with courage.
"I know some people SAY they are," Brother Pierce guardedly retorted "but I've summered an' wintered both kinds, an' I hold to it they're different. I grant ye, the Eyetalians ARE some given to jabbin' knives into each other, but they never git up strikes, an' they don't grumble about wages. Why, look at the way they live—jest some weeds an' yarbs dug up on the roadside, an' stewed in a kettle with a piece o' fat the size o' your finger, an' a loaf o' bread, an' they're happy as a king. There's some sense in THAT; but the Irish, they've got to have meat an' potatoes an' butter jest as if—as if—"
"As if they'd b'en used to 'em at home," put in Mr. Winch, to help his colleague out.
The lawyer ostentatiously drew up his chair to the desk, and began turning over the leaves of his biggest book. "It's getting on toward noon, gentlemen," he said, in an impatient voice.
The business meeting which followed was for a considerable time confined to hearing extracts from the books and papers read in a swift and formal fashion by Mr. Gorringe. If this was intended to inform the new pastor of the exact financial situation in Octavius, it lamentably failed of its purpose. Theron had little knowledge of figures; and though he tried hard to listen, and to assume an air of comprehension, he did not understand much of what he heard. In a general way he gathered that the church property was put down at $12,000, on which there was a debt of $4,800. The annual expenses were $2,250, of which the principal items were $800 for his salary, $170 for the rent of the parsonage, and $319 for interest on the debt. It seemed that last year the receipts had fallen just under $2,000, and they now confronted the necessity of making good this deficit during the coming year, as well as increasing the regular revenues. Without much discussion, it was agreed that they should endeavor to secure the services of a celebrated "debt-raiser," early in the autumn, and utilize him in the closing days of a revival.
Theron knew this "debt-raiser," and had seen him at work—a burly, bustling, vulgar man who took possession of the pulpit as if it were an auctioneer's block, and pursued the task of exciting liberality in the bosoms of the congregation by alternating prayer, anecdote, song, and cheap buffoonery in a manner truly sickening. Would it not be preferable, he feebly suggested, to raise the money by a festival, or fair, or some other form of entertainment which the ladies could manage?
Brother Pierce shook his head with contemptuous emphasis. "Our women-folks ain't that kind," he said. "They did try to hold a sociable once, but nobody came, and we didn't raise more 'n three or four dollars. It ain't their line. They lack the worldly arts. As the Discipline commands, they avoid the evil of putting on gold and costly apparel, and taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus."
"Well—of course—if you prefer the 'debt-raiser'—" Theron began, and took the itemized account from Gorringe's knee as an excuse for not finishing the hateful sentence.
He looked down the foolscap sheet, line by line, with no special sense of what it signified, until his eye caught upon this little section of the report, bracketed by itself in the Secretary's neat hand:
First mortgage (1873) .. $1,000 ... (E. Winch) @7.. $ 70 Second mortgage (1776).. 1,700 ... (L. Gorringe) @6.. 102 Third mortgage (1878)... 2,100 ... (L. Pierce) @7.. 147 ———- ——- $4,800 $319
It was no news to him that the three mortgages on the church property were held by the three trustees. But as he looked once more, another feature of the thing struck him as curious.
"I notice that the rates of interest vary," he remarked without thinking, and then wished the words unsaid, for the two trustees in view moved uneasily on their seats.
"Oh, that's nothing," exclaimed Erastus Winch, with a boisterous display of jollity. "It's only Brother Gorringe's pleasant little way of making a contribution to our funds. You will notice that, at the date of all these mortgages, the State rate of interest was seven per cent. Since then it's b'en lowered to six. Well, when that happened, you see, Brother Gorringe, not being a professin' member, and so not bound by our rules, he could just as well as not let his interest down a cent. But Brother Pierce an' me, we talked it over, an' we made up our minds we were tied hand an' foot by our contract. You know how strong the Discipline lays it down that we must be bound to the letter of our agreements. That bein' so, we seen it in the light of duty not to change what we'd set our hands to. That's how it is, Brother Ware."
"I understand," said Theron, with an effort at polite calmness of tone. "And—is there anything else?"
"There's this," broke in Brother Pierce: "we're commanded to be law-abiding people, an' seven per cent WAS the law an' would be now if them ragamuffins in the Legislation—"
"Surely we needn't go further into that," interrupted the minister, conscious of a growing stiffness in his moral spine. "Have we any other business before us?"
Brother Pierce's little eyes snapped, and the wrinkles in his forehead deepened angrily. "Business?" he demanded. "Yes, plenty of it. We've got to reduce expenses. We're nigh onto $300 behind-hand this minute. Besides your house-rent, you get $800 free an' clear—that is $15.38 every week, an' only you an' your wife to keep out of it. Why, when I was your age, young man, and after that too, I was glad to get $4 a week."
"I don't think my salary is under discussion, Mr. Pierce—"
"BROTHER Pierce!" suggested Winch, in a half-shuckling undertone.
"Brother Pierce, then!" echoed Theron, impatiently. "The Quarterly Conference and the Estimating Committee deal with that. The trustees have no more to do with it than the man in the moon."
"Come, come, Brother Ware," put in Erastus Winch, "we mustn't have no hard feelin's. Brotherly love is what we're all lookin' after. Brother Pierce's meanin' wasn't agin your drawin' your full salary, every cent of it, only—only there are certain little things connected with the parsonage here that we feel you ought to bear. F'r instance, there's the new sidewalk we had to lay in front of the house here only a month ago. Of course, if the treasury was flush we wouldn't say a word about it. An' then there's the gas bill here. Seein' as you get your rent for nothin', it don't seem much to ask that you should see to lightin' the place yourself."
"No, I don't think that either is a proper charge upon me," interposed Theron. "I decline to pay them."
"We can have the gas shut off," remarked Brother Pierce, coldly.
"As soon as you like," responded the minister, sitting erect and tapping the carpet nervously with his foot. "Only you must understand that I will take the whole matter to the Quarterly Conference in July. I already see a good many other interesting questions about the financial management of this church which might be appropriately discussed there."
"Oh, come, Brother Ware!" broke in Trustee Winch, with a somewhat agitated assumption of good-feeling. "Surely these are matters we ought to settle amongst ourselves. We never yet asked outsiders to meddle with our business here. It's our motto, Brother Ware. I say, if you've got a motto, stand by it."
"Well, my motto," said Theron, "is to be behaved decently to by those with whom I have to deal; and I also propose to stand by it."
Brother Pierce rose gingerly to his feet, with the hesitation of an old man not sure about his knees. When he had straightened himself, he put on his hat, and eyed the minister sternly from beneath its brim.
"The Lord gives us crosses grievous to our natur'," he said, "an' we're told to bear 'em cheerfully as long as they're on our backs; but there ain't nothin' said agin our unloadin' 'em in the ditch the minute we git the chance. I guess you won't last here more 'n a twelvemonth."
He pulled his soft and discolored old hat down over his brows with a significantly hostile nod, and, turning, stumped toward the hall-door without offering to shake hands.
The other trustees had risen likewise, in tacit recognition that the meeting was over. Winch clasped the minister's hand in his own broad, hard palm, and squeezed it in an exuberant grip. "Don't mind his little ways, Brother Ware," he urged in a loud, unctuous whisper, with a grinning backward nod: "he's a trifle skittish sometimes when you don't give him free rein; but he's all wool an' a yard wide when it comes to right-down hard-pan religion. My love to Sister Ware;" and he followed the senior trustee into the hall.
Mr. Gorringe had been tying up his books and papers. He came now with the bulky parcel under his arm, and his hat and stick in the other hand. He could give little but his thumb to Theron to shake. His face wore a grave expression, and not a line relaxed as, catching the minister's look, he slowly covered his left eye in a deliberate wink.
"Well?—and how did it go off?" asked Alice, from where she knelt by the oven door, a few minutes later.
For answer, Theron threw himself wearily into the big old farm rocking-chair on the other side of the stove, and shook his head with a lengthened sigh.
"If it wasn't for that man Gorringe of yours," he said dejectedly, "I think I should feel like going off—and learning a trade."
On the following Sunday, young Mrs. Ware sat alone in the preacher's pew through the morning service, and everybody noted that the roses had been taken from her bonnet. In the evening she was absent, and after the doxology and benediction several people, under the pretence of solicitude for her health, tried to pump her husband as to the reason. He answered their inquiries civilly enough, but with brevity: she had stayed at home because she did not feel like coming out—this and nothing more.
The congregation dispersed under a gossip-laden cloud of consciousness that there must be something queer about Sister Ware. There was a tolerably general agreement, however, that the two sermons of the day had been excellent. Not even Loren Pierce's railing commentary on the pastor's introduction of an outlandish word like "epitome"—clearly forbidden by the Discipline's injunction to plain language understood of the people—availed to sap the satisfaction of the majority.
Theron himself comprehended that he had pleased the bulk of his auditors; the knowledge left him curiously hot and cold. On the one hand, there was joy in the apparent prospect that the congregation would back him up in a stand against the trustees, if worst came to worst. But, on the other hand, the bonnet episode entered his soul. It had been a source of bitter humiliation to him to see his wife sitting there beneath the pulpit, shorn by despotic order of the adornments natural to her pretty head. But he had even greater pain in contemplating the effect it had produced on Alice herself. She had said not a word on the subject, but her every glance and gesture seemed to him eloquent of deep feeling about it. He made sure that she blamed him for having defended his own gas and sidewalk rights with successful vigor, but permitted the sacrifice of her poor little inoffensive roses without a protest. In this view of the matter, indeed, he blamed himself. Was it too late to make the error good? He ventured a hint on this Sunday evening, when he returned to the parsonage and found her reading an old weekly newspaper by the light of the kitchen lamp, to the effect that he fancied there would be no great danger in putting those roses back into her bonnet. Without lifting her eyes from the paper, she answered that she had no earthly desire to wear roses in her bonnet, and went on with her reading.
At breakfast the next morning Theron found himself in command of an unusual fund of humorous good spirits, and was at pains to make the most of it, passing whimsical comments on subjects which the opening day suggested, recalling quaint and comical memories of the past, and striving his best to force Alice into a laugh. Formerly her merry temper had always ignited at the merest spark of gayety. Now she gave his jokes only a dutiful half-smile, and uttered scarcely a word in response to his running fire of talk. When the meal was finished, she went silently to work to clear away the dishes.
Theron turned over in his mind the project of offering to help her, as he had done so often in those dear old days when they laughingly began life together. Something decided this project in the negative for him, and after lingering moments he put on his hat and went out for a walk.
Not even the most doleful and trying hour of his bitter experience in Tyre had depressed him like this. Looking back upon these past troubles, he persuaded himself that he had borne them all with a light and cheerful heart, simply because Alice had been one with him in every thought and emotion. How perfect, how ideally complete, their sympathy had always been! With what absolute unity of mind and soul they had trod that difficult path together! And now—henceforth—was it to be different? The mere suggestion of such a thing chilled his veins. He said aloud to himself as he walked that life would be an intolerable curse if Alice were to cease sharing it with him in every conceivable phase.
He had made his way out of town, and tramped along the country hill-road for a considerable distance, before a merciful light began to lessen the shadows in the picture of gloom with which his mind tortured itself. All at once he stopped short, lifted his head, and looked about him. The broad valley lay warm and tranquil in the May sunshine at his feet. In the thicket up the side-hill above him a gray squirrel was chattering shrilly, and the birds sang in a tireless choral confusion. Theron smiled, and drew a long breath. The gay clamor of the woodland songsters, the placid radiance of the landscape, were suddenly taken in and made a part of his new mood. He listened, smiled once more, and then started in a leisurely way back toward Octavius.
How could he have been so ridiculous as to fancy that Alice—his Alice—had been changed into someone else? He marvelled now at his own perverse folly. She was overworked—tired out—that was all. The task of moving in, of setting the new household to rights, had been too much for her. She must have a rest. They must get in a hired girl.
Once this decision about a servant fixed itself in the young minister's mind, it drove out the last vestage of discomfort. He strode along now in great content, revolving idly a dozen different plans for gilding and beautifying this new life of leisure into which his sanguine thoughts projected Alice. One of these particularly pleased him, and waxed in definiteness as he turned it over and over. He would get another piano for her, in place of that which had been sacrificed in Tyre. That beneficient modern invention, the instalment plan, made this quite feasible—so easy, in fact, that it almost seemed as if he should find his wife playing on the new instrument when he got home. He would stop in at the music store and see about it that very day.
Of course, now that these important resolutions had been taken, it would be a good thing if he could do something to bring in some extra money. This was by no means a new notion. He had mused over the possibility in a formless way ever since that memorable discovery of indebtedness in Tyre, and had long ago recognized the hopelessness of endeavor in every channel save that of literature. Latterly his fancy had been stimulated by reading an account of the profits which Canon Farrar had derived from his "Life of Christ." If such a book could command such a bewildering multitude of readers, Theron felt there ought to be a chance for him. So clear did constant rumination render this assumption that the young pastor in time had come to regard this prospective book of his as a substantial asset, which could be realized without trouble whenever he got around to it.
He had not, it is true, gone to the length of seriously considering what should be the subject of his book. That had not seemed to him to matter much, so long as it was scriptural. Familiarity with the process of extracting a fixed amount of spiritual and intellectual meat from any casual text, week after week, had given him an idea that any one of many subjects would do, when the time came for him to make a choice. He realized now that the time for a selection had arrived, and almost simultaneously found himself with a ready-made decision in his mind. The book should be about Abraham!
Theron Ware was extremely interested in the mechanism of his own brain, and followed its workings with a lively curiosity. Nothing could be more remarkable, he thought, than to thus discover that, on the instant of his formulating a desire to know what he should write upon, lo, and behold! there his mind, quite on its own initiative, had the answer waiting for him! When he had gone a little further, and the powerful range of possibilities in the son's revolt against the idolatry of his father, the image-maker, in the exodus from the unholy city of Ur, and in the influence of the new nomadic life upon the little deistic family group, had begun to unfold itself before him, he felt that the hand of Providence was plainly discernible in the matter. The book was to be blessed from its very inception.
Walking homeward briskly now, with his eyes on the sidewalk and his mind all aglow with crowding suggestions for the new work, and impatience to be at it, he came abruptly upon a group of men and boys who occupied the whole path, and were moving forward so noiselessly that he had not heard them coming. He almost ran into the leader of this little procession, and began a stammering apology, the final words of which were left unspoken, so solemnly heedless of him and his talk were all the faces he saw.
In the centre of the group were four working-men, bearing between them an extemporized litter of two poles and a blanket hastily secured across them with spikes. Most of what this litter held was covered by another blanket, rounded in coarse folds over a shapeless bulk. From beneath its farther end protruded a big broom-like black beard, thrown upward at such an angle as to hide everything beyond to those in front. The tall young minister, stepping aside and standing tip-toe, could see sloping downward behind this hedge of beard a pinched and chalk-like face, with wide-open, staring eyes. Its lips, of a dull lilac hue, were moving ceaselessly, and made a dry, clicking sound.
Theron instinctively joined himself to those who followed the litter—a motley dozen of street idlers, chiefly boys. One of these in whispers explained to him that the man was one of Jerry Madden's workmen in the wagon-shops, who had been deployed to trim an elm-tree in front of his employer's house, and, being unused to such work, had fallen from the top and broken all his bones. They would have cared for him at Madden's house, but he had insisted upon being taken home. His name was MacEvoy, and he was Joey MacEvoy's father, and likewise Jim's and Hughey's and Martin's. After a pause the lad, a bright-eyed, freckled, barefooted wee Irishman, volunteered the further information that his big brother had run to bring "Father Forbess," on the chance that he might be in time to administer "extry munction."
The way of the silent little procession led through back streets—where women hanging up clothes in the yards hurried to the gates, their aprons full of clothes-pins, to stare open-mouthed at the passers-by—and came to a halt at last in an irregular and muddy lane, before one of a half dozen shanties reared among the ash-heaps and debris of the town's most bedraggled outskirts.
A stout, middle-aged, red-armed woman, already warned by some messenger of calamity, stood waiting on the roadside bank. There were whimpering children clinging to her skirts, and a surrounding cluster of women of the neighborhood, some of the more elderly of whom, shrivelled little crones in tidy caps, and with their aprons to their eyes, were beginning in a low-murmured minor the wail which presently should rise into the keen of death. Mrs. MacEvoy herself made no moan, and her broad ruddy face was stern in expression rather than sorrowful. When the litter stopped beside her, she laid a hand for an instant on her husband's wet brow, and looked—one could have sworn impassively—into his staring eyes. Then, still without a word, she waved the bearers toward the door, and led the way herself.
Theron, somewhat wonderingly, found himself, a minute later, inside a dark and ill-smelling room, the air of which was humid with the steam from a boiler of clothes on the stove, and not in other ways improved by the presence of a jostling score of women, all straining their gaze upon the open door of the only other apartment—the bed-chamber. Through this they could see the workmen laying MacEvoy on the bed, and standing awkwardly about thereafter, getting in the way of the wife and old Maggie Quirk as they strove to remove the garments from his crushed limbs. As the neighbors watched what could be seen of these proceedings, they whispered among themselves eulogies of the injured man's industry and good temper, his habit of bringing his money home to his wife, and the way he kept his Father Mathew pledge and attended to his religious duties. They admitted freely that, by the light of his example, their own husbands and sons left much to be desired, and from this wandered easily off into domestic digressions of their own. But all the while their eyes were bent upon the bedroom door; and Theron made out, after he had grown accustomed to the gloom and the smell, that many of them were telling their beads even while they kept the muttered conversation alive. None of them paid any attention to him, or seemed to regard his presence there as unusual.
Presently he saw enter through the sunlit street doorway a person of a different class. The bright light shone for a passing instant upon a fashionable, flowered hat, and upon some remarkably brilliant shade of red hair beneath it. In another moment there had edged along through the throng, to almost within touch of him, a tall young woman, the owner of this hat and wonderful hair. She was clad in light and pleasing spring attire, and carried a parasol with a long oxidized silver handle of a quaint pattern. She looked at him, and he saw that her face was of a lengthened oval, with a luminous rose-tinted skin, full red lips, and big brown, frank eyes with heavy auburn lashes. She made a grave little inclination of her head toward him, and he bowed in response. Since her arrival, he noted, the chattering of the others had entirely ceased.
"I followed the others in, in the hope that I might be of some assistance," he ventured to explain to her in a low murmur, feeling that at last here was some one to whom an explanation of his presence in this Romish house was due. "I hope they won't feel that I have intruded."
She nodded her head as if she quite understood. "They'll take the will for the deed," she whispered back. "Father Forbes will be here in a minute. Do you know is it too late?"
Even as she spoke, the outer doorway was darkened by the commanding bulk of a newcomer's figure. The flash of a silk hat, and the deferential way in which the assembled neighbors fell back to clear a passage, made his identity clear. Theron felt his blood tingle in an unaccustomed way as this priest of a strange church advanced across the room—a broad-shouldered, portly man of more than middle height, with a shapely, strong-lined face of almost waxen pallor, and a firm, commanding tread. He carried in his hands, besides his hat, a small leather-bound case. To this and to him the women courtesied and bowed their heads as he passed.
"Come with me," whispered the tall girl with the parasol to Theron; and he found himself pushing along in her wake until they intercepted the priest just outside the bedroom door. She touched Father Forbes on the arm.
"Just to tell you that I am here," she said. The priest nodded with a grave face, and passed into the other room. In a minute or two the workmen, Mrs. MacEvoy, and her helper came out, and the door was shut behind them.
"He is making his confession," explained the young lady. "Stay here for a minute."
She moved over to where the woman of the house stood, glum-faced and tearless, and whispered something to her. A confused movement among the crowd followed, and out of it presently resulted a small table, covered with a white cloth, and bearing on it two unlighted candles, a basin of water, and a spoon, which was brought forward and placed in readiness before the closed door. Some of those nearest this cleared space were kneeling now, and murmuring a low buzz of prayer to the click of beads on their rosaries.
The door opened, and Theron saw the priest standing in the doorway with an uplifted hand. He wore now a surplice, with a purple band over his shoulders, and on his pale face there shone a tranquil and tender light.
One of the workmen fetched from the stove a brand, lighted the two candles, and bore the table with its contents into the bedroom. The young woman plucked Theron's sleeve, and he dumbly followed her into the chamber of death, making one of the group of a dozen, headed by Mrs. MacEvoy and her children, which filled the little room, and overflowed now outward to the street door. He found himself bowing with the others to receive the sprinkled holy water from the priest's white fingers; kneeling with the others for the prayers; following in impressed silence with the others the strange ceremonial by which the priest traced crosses of holy oil with his thumb upon the eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands, and feet of the dying man, wiping off the oil with a piece of cotton-batting each time after he had repeated the invocation to forgiveness for that particular sense. But most of all he was moved by the rich, novel sound of the Latin as the priest rolled it forth in the ASPERGES ME, DOMINE, and MISEREATUR VESTRI OMNIPOTENS DEUS, with its soft Continental vowels and liquid R's. It seemed to him that he had never really heard Latin before. Then the astonishing young woman with the red hair declaimed the CONFITEOR, vigorously and with a resonant distinctness of enunciation. It was a different Latin, harsher and more sonorous; and while it still dominated the murmured undertone of the other's prayers, the last moment came.
Theron had stood face to face with death at many other bedsides; no other final scene had stirred him like this. It must have been the girl's Latin chant, with its clanging reiteration of the great names—BEATUM MICHAELEM ARCHANGELUM, BEATUM JOANNEM BAPTISTAM, SANCTOS APOSTOLOS PETRUM ET PAULUM—invoked with such proud confidence in this squalid little shanty, which so strangely affected him.
He came out with the others at last—the candles and the folded hands over the crucifix left behind—and walked as one in a dream. Even by the time that he had gained the outer doorway, and stood blinking at the bright light and filling his lungs with honest air once more, it had begun to seem incredible to him that he had seen and done all this.
While Mr. Ware stood thus on the doorstep, through a minute of formless musing, the priest and the girl came out, and, somewhat to his confusion, made him one of their party. He felt himself flushing under the idea that they would think he had waited for them—was thrusting himself upon them. The notion prompted him to bow frigidly in response to Father Forbes' pleasant "I am glad to meet you, sir," and his outstretched hand.
"I dropped in by the—the merest accident," Theron said. "I met them bringing the poor man home, and—and quite without thinking, I obeyed the impulse to follow them in, and didn't realize—"
He stopped short, annoyed by the reflection that this was his second apology. The girl smiled placidly at him, the while she put up her parasol.
"It did me good to see you there," she said, quite as if she had known him all her life. "And so it did the rest of us."
Father Forbes permitted himself a soft little chuckle, approving rather than mirthful, and patted her on the shoulder with the air of being fifty years her senior instead of fifteen. To the minister's relief, he changed the subject as the three started together toward the road.
"Then, again, no doctor was sent for!" he exclaimed, as if resuming a familiar subject with the girl. Then he turned to Theron. "I dare-say you have no such trouble; but with our poorer people it is very vexing. They will not call in a physician, but hurry off first for the clergyman. I don't know that it is altogether to avoid doctor's bills, but it amounts to that in effect. Of course in this case it made no difference; but I have had to make it a rule not to go out at night unless they bring me a physician's card with his assurance that it is a genuine affair. Why, only last winter, I was routed up after midnight, and brought off in the mud and pelting rain up one of the new streets on the hillside there, simply because a factory girl who was laced too tight had fainted at a dance. I slipped and fell into a puddle in the darkness, ruined a new overcoat, and got drenched to the skin; and when I arrived the girl had recovered and was dancing away again, thirteen to the dozen. It was then that I made the rule. I hope, Mr. Ware, that Octavius is producing a pleasant impression upon you so far?"
"I scarcely know yet," answered Theron. The genial talk of the priest, with its whimsical anecdote, had in truth passed over his head. His mind still had room for nothing but that novel death-bed scene, with the winged captain of the angelic host, the Baptist, the glorified Fisherman and the Preacher, all being summoned down in the pomp of liturgical Latin to help MacEvoy to die. "If you don't mind my saying so," he added hesitatingly, "what I have just seen in there DID make a very powerful impression upon me."
"It is a very ancient ceremony," said the priest; "probably Persian, like the baptismal form, although, for that matter, we can never dig deep enough for the roots of these things. They all turn up Turanian if we probe far enough. Our ways separate here, I'm afraid. I am delighted to have made your acquaintance, Mr. Ware. Pray look in upon me, if you can as well as not. We are near neighbors, you know."
Father Forbes had shaken hands, and moved off up another street some distance, before the voice of the girl recalled Theron to himself.
"Of course you knew HIM by name," she was saying, "and he knew you by sight, and had talked of you; but MY poor inferior sex has to be introduced. I am Celia Madden. My father has the wagon-shops, and I—I play the organ at the church."
"I—I am delighted to make your acquaintance," said Theron, conscious as he spoke that he had slavishly echoed the formula of the priest. He could think of nothing better to add than, "Unfortunately, we have no organ in our church."
The girl laughed, as they resumed their walk down the street. "I'm afraid I couldn't undertake two," she said, and laughed again. Then she spoke more seriously. "That ceremony must have interested you a good deal, never having seen it before. I saw that it was all new to you, and so I made bold to take you under my wing, so to speak."
"You were very kind," said the young minister. "It was really a great experience for me. May—may I ask, is it a part of your functions, in the church, I mean, to attend these last rites?"
"Mercy, no!" replied the girl, spinning the parasol on her shoulder and smiling at the thought. "No; it was only because MacEvoy was one of our workmen, and really came by his death through father sending him up to trim a tree. Ann MacEvoy will never forgive us that, the longest day she lives. Did you notice her? She wouldn't speak to me. After you came out, I tried to tell her that we would look out for her and the children; but all she would say to me was: 'An' fwat would a wheelwright, an' him the father of a family, be doin' up a tree?'"
They had come now upon the main street of the village, with its flagstone sidewalk overhung by a lofty canopy of elm-boughs. Here, for the space of a block, was concentrated such fashionable elegance of mansions and ornamental lawns as Octavius had to offer; and it was presented with the irregularity so characteristic of our restless civilization. Two or three of the houses survived untouched from the earlier days—prim, decorous structures, each with its gabled centre and lower wings, each with its row of fluted columns supporting the classical roof of a piazza across its whole front, each vying with the others in the whiteness of those wooden walls enveloping its bright green blinds. One had to look over picket fences to see these houses, and in doing so caught the notion that they thus railed themselves off in pride at being able to remember before the railroad came to the village, or the wagon-works were thought of.
Before the neighboring properties the fences had been swept away, so that one might stroll from the sidewalk straight across the well-trimmed sward to any one of a dozen elaborately modern doorways. Some of the residences, thus frankly proffering friendship to the passer-by, were of wood painted in drabs and dusky reds, with bulging windows which marked the native yearning for the mediaeval, and shingles that strove to be accounted tiles. Others—a prouder, less pretentious sort—were of brick or stone, with terra-cotta mouldings set into the walls, and with real slates covering the riot of turrets and peaks and dormer peepholes overhead.
Celia Madden stopped in front of the largest and most important-looking of these new edifices, and said, holding out her hand: "Here I am, once more. Good-morning, Mr. Ware."
Theron hoped that his manner did not betray the flash of surprise he felt in discovering that his new acquaintance lived in the biggest house in Octavius. He remembered now that some one had pointed it out as the abode of the owner of the wagon factories; but it had not occurred to him before to associate this girl with that village magnate. It was stupid of him, of course, because she had herself mentioned her father. He looked at her again with an awkward smile, as he formally shook the gloved hand she gave him, and lifted his soft hat. The strong noon sunlight, forcing its way down between the elms, and beating upon her parasol of lace-edged, creamy silk, made a halo about her hair and face at once brilliant and tender. He had not seen before how beautiful she was. She nodded in recognition of his salute, and moved up the lawn walk, spinning the sunshade on her shoulder.
Though the parsonage was only three blocks away, the young minister had time to think about a good many things before he reached home.
First of all, he had to revise in part the arrangement of his notions about the Irish. Save for an occasional isolated and taciturn figure among the nomadic portion of the hired help in the farm country, Theron had scarcely ever spoken to a person of this curiously alien race before. He remembered now that there had been some dozen or more Irish families in Tyre, quartered in the outskirts among the brickyards, but he had never come in contact with any of them, or given to their existence even a passing thought. So far as personal acquaintance went, the Irish had been to him only a name.
But what a sinister and repellent name! His views on this general subject were merely those common to his communion and his environment. He took it for granted, for example, that in the large cities most of the poverty and all the drunkenness, crime, and political corruption were due to the perverse qualities of this foreign people—qualities accentuated and emphasized in every evil direction by the baleful influence of a false and idolatrous religion. It is hardly too much to say that he had never encountered a dissenting opinion on this point. His boyhood had been spent in those bitter days when social, political, and blood prejudices were fused at white heat in the public crucible together. When he went to the Church Seminary, it was a matter of course that every member of the faculty was a Republican, and that every one of his classmates had come from a Republican household. When, later on, he entered the ministry, the rule was still incredulous of exceptions. One might as well have looked in the Nedahma Conference for a divergence of opinion on the Trinity as for a difference in political conviction. Indeed, even among the laity, Theron could not feel sure that he had ever known a Democrat; that is, at all closely. He understood very little about politics, it is true. If he had been driven into a corner, and forced to attempt an explanation of this tremendous partisan unity in which he had a share, he would probably have first mentioned the War—the last shots of which were fired while he was still in petticoats. Certainly his second reason, however, would have been that the Irish were on the other side.