E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE FIRST SOPRANO
Author of One Christmas
Union Gospel Press Cleveland, Ohio
I IN THE CHURCH II THE HOUSE OF GRAY III THE CONFESSION IV ADELE V IS GOD DEMONSTRABLE? VI MR. FROTHINGHAM AND THE CHOIR REHEARSAL VII A NEW SUNDAY VIII "NOT OF THE WORLD" IX "TWO OF ME" X THE CHURCH SOCIAL XI MR. BOND'S LECTURE XII THE SOUL HEARS A CAUSE XIII EXPERIENCE XIV A "WITLESS, WORTHLESS LAMB" XV "SELL THAT YE HAVE" XVI THE MISSIONARY MEETING XVII LET THE DEAD BURY THEIR DEAD XVIII GOD, MY EXCEEDING JOY
IN THE CHURCH
It was Sunday morning in a church at New Laodicea. The bell had ceased pealing and the great organ began its prelude with deep bass notes that vibrated through the stately building. The members of the choir were all in their places in the rear gallery, and prepared in order their music in the racks before them. Below the worshipers poured in steady, quiet streams down the carpeted aisles to their places, and there was a gentle murmur of silk as ladies settled in their pews and bowed their heads for the conventional moment of prayer. Exquisitely stained windows challenged the too garish daylight, but permitted to enter subdued rays in azure, violet and crimson tints which fell athwart the eastern pews and garnished the marble font and the finely carved pulpit. They fell upon the silvering hair of the Reverend Doctor Schoolman as he pronounced the invocation and read the opening hymn, but they failed to reach the young stranger, seated behind, who accompanied him this morning.
Faultlessly in their usual current ran the services until the time for the anthem by the choir, and then the people settled themselves comfortably in their pews with expectant faces and ears slightly turned to catch every strain from the well-trained voices in the gallery behind. This time the selection was from Mendelssohn and a soprano voice began alone:
"Oh, for the wings, for the wings of a dove! Far away, far away would I rove!"
Clear, pure and true, the sweet voice floated through the church. With dramatic sympathy it yielded to the spirit of the melody and the pathos of the words. It touched hearts with a sense of undefined sorrow and longing. Madame Chapeau, the French milliner, who rented a sitting in the church of her patrons, sat with eyes filled with tears that threatened to plough pale furrows through the roses of her cheeks.
"In the wilderness build me a nest,"
suggested the sweet voice. Two weeks in a lonely country place had been far too long the summer before for Madame, and a wilderness was the last place she desired. But the plaintive song touched a sentimental chord and answered every purpose. Mr. Stockman, who sat midway of the center aisle, grasping his gold-headed cane, suffered the keen business lines of his face to relax and looked palpably pleased. He recalled the money contributed to the expense of the choir, and reflected that he would not withdraw a dollar of it. To be sure, he remembered that the services of this soprano, daughter of Robert Gray, the iron merchant and elder of the church, were gratuitous; but still he was glad to associate the thought of his money with the choir that could render such music. And presently the chorus joined in the song, and many voices added their harmony, to the increasing passion of the cry:
"In the wilderness build me a nest, And remain there forever at rest!"
Sensitive souls thrilled to the music, which unquestionably always added the capstone to the aesthetic enjoyment of this, the most elegant church at New Laodicea. The minister sat with a studied expression of approbation and subdued enjoyment. The young stranger at his side sat with eyes shaded by his hand.
The choir seated themselves with pleased relief, for there had been no noticeable flaw in the production. The leader's sensitive face looked as nearly satisfied as it ever became over any performance. The organist slid off his bench and dropped into his chair to listen to the sermon—or, perhaps not to listen. But he had done his part well, faithfully filling in all the interstices of time between numbers of the program, so that the congregation had been bored by no moments of silence nor thrust back upon the necessity of meditation.
There were a few words of introduction, and it was found that the stranger was to speak. He was just a trifle surprising in appearance, for his coat had no ministerial cut, and was even a bit more suggestive of business than of the profession of divinity. But he was soon forgiven this; for his voice was even and pleasant, and he looked at his congregation with a pair of frank blue eyes, while he spoke with the simplicity of a man who has somewhat to say to his fellowmen and says it honestly. His text excited no curiosity, for it was this: "The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth."
In the choir Miss Winifred Gray had composed herself to listen. Fortunately she was at the rear of her admiring hearers and had not to confront their faces as she sat down. She had enjoyed her part exceedingly. She loved her music, and the greater its pathos the keener her enjoyment in rendering it. There was a subtle sense of power, too, which she did not analyze, in moving a whole congregation to admiration and sympathy. With her whole heart she had entered into her musical work, in which the church divided attention with the drawing-room and an occasional concert. She sat now in pleased triumph and had no ears for the opening words of the young man's sermon. But it dawned upon her gradually that he was speaking from the words, "in spirit and in truth." He spoke of the former worship which dealt with externals of place and method—with "carnal ordinances imposed until a time of reformation"; and then of a new era of worship which Christ had brought in, wherein true worshipers draw nigh to God, not with sensuous offerings, but "in spirit and in truth."
Winifred could not follow all that he said, for it seemed a new and strange language for the most part, but she gathered this: that somehow Christ had opened the way for all believers into the very spiritual presence of God, into a holy place not made with hands (and the more real because it was not, being God-made and eternal), and that there worshipers stood before eyes of perfect discernment, unclothed by outward semblance, and offered "spiritual sacrifices" unto Him. It was a beautiful picture, but awful. Winifred shuddered as she thought of the august Presence that inhabited the Holiest of All that the minister spoke of, and wondered if she would dare approach it. To stand in naked spirit before eyes of flame and to be read through and through, daring to speak no unmeant word, but only that which the heart designed, in absolute sincerity! Was worship in spirit such a real thing as that? Was she a true worshiper? Why was she there that morning? She glanced about the building, with its arches and columns, its stained windows, and almost perfect arrangement of form and color. But the minister was saying:
"This material structure is not the house of God. No longer is God localized to our faith as in the days of symbol and shadow, when surely Jerusalem was 'the place where men ought to worship.' For the symbol has given place to the 'truth,' and in that, 'in spirit,' men worship. But while in every place, or, better still, without reference to place—'neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem'—true worshipers shall find Him, still His spiritual people form a temple for His manifestation, wherever they are gathered, and there is He. 'In the midst' He takes His rightful place, and that place we must accord Him—the center of our heart's attention and worship."
Winifred resumed her question. Why had she come? Was it to meet that One, to gaze in spirit upon His pierced hands and side, as the minister was saying, and to rejoice in Him as the risen Lord? She did not quite know what he meant. She went back over the morning's experience, beginning with her dressing-room, when before her mirror she donned her new and very pretty silk dress and arranged all her faultless toilet, adjusting the modish hat that became so well her own type of beauty, fitted on the fresh, dainty gloves that should clasp her beloved music when she should open her throat and sing like a glad bird, delighting in its song, however plaintive. And then she had gone. Had she thought of Him in all this? Winifred's honest soul said, No. But church? She had thought of "church," with all that it stood for of building, and congregation, and set order of things, and there had been a sort of subconscious satisfaction in the fact that going to church was a religious thing to do, and that to sing in the choir (especially for no pay, as she did) was very meritorious. But was it so?
The minister was saying:
"If worship is not sincere, it becomes, spiritually, an abomination. If, for instance, our singing, instead of being a true sacrifice of praise to God degenerates into the sensuous enjoyment of a 'concourse of sweet sounds,' it is no longer worship, and it is not even an innocent employment. However fine it may be as a musical entertainment, if offered as a substitute for worship it may be likened to the offering of 'strange fire,' which met such instant judgment in the time of Moses."
Winifred winced under the clear, bold words. There was a little well-bred stir in the congregation. Doctor Schoolman's disciplined countenance betrayed a startled moment and then relapsed into an expression of bland, but non-committal interest. Winifred glanced about to see how her neighbors were taking it. She looked first at George Frothingham, for he and she were unusually good friends. His handsome face showed only abstraction, and she knew he had not heard a word that was said. She glanced warily back toward the organ and saw the player in his chair, but he was indulging in a few winks of sleep. His duties at the theater the night before had illy prepared him for very wakeful attention to the sermon, and other influences were telling upon him, too, for the man of music knew the taste of wines. The leader of the choir was listening. His penetrating eyes were fixed upon the calm-faced man in the pulpit, and an unconscious scowl bent his dark brows. Yet it was not an angry frown, but simply intent. He looked half defensive, half convicted.
The minister went on:
"I fear that this is an unusual way of looking at it, and that we are all too accustomed to pass unchallenged our professed worship. Vice may be so habitual and under such common sanction as to be mistaken for virtue. But surely in the most vital matter of our intercourse with God we do well to let every act be tested by the truth. It shall be so tested eventually, whether we will or no; and even now in the midst of the churches the Son of Man is walking, still with eyes of flame, and still He is saying: 'I know thy works.'"
Winifred's next excursion in thought away from the sermon led her to review her part of the morning program, and she wondered if the minister thought of it too. The hymns?—she had forgotten what they were. But the anthem—was it unto the Lord she sang her part? Was there an atom of sincerity in the sentiment she sang? The words were from a Psalm, she thought, and she did not really understand what David meant. Had she any clearer ideas as to what Winifred Gray might mean? She surely did not wish the wings of a dove, literally, nor to fly away into the wilderness. She loved her home and many friends and had no desire to escape from them or her surroundings. If it meant to fly away to heaven—? Surely she did not wish that! The world and "the things that are in the world" were very attractive to the young soprano. She had no wish for heaven save as an alternative from hell. What did it mean? Was it a heart-rest that David longed for? But she had been conscious of no unrest—until just now. Honestly, the truth was that she had not meant anything! Was it worship? But her friends would tell her she sang it with feeling, she argued defensively, and then asked herself candidly, what sort of feeling? She had sung Mignon's song with equal sympathy the night before. She confessed the truth; it was dramatic instinct that led her in both songs, and the Spirit of God in neither.
"I am a hypocrite," she cried within herself, "and no true worshiper!"
Then she thought of the positive side of her action. While there was no offering to God, she had received in her own heart the subtle incense of the people's praise. Enveloped in its cloud she had sat until the sermon disturbed her. She wished the young stranger had not come to preach. Doctor Schoolman's sermons were nice, and learned, and elevating, and never gave her such uncomfortable thoughts! Had he preached this morning all might have gone on as before so pleasantly.
And now?—should it not go on? Could she think for a moment of stopping it all? Impossible! But to go on with it was—"abomination!" That was what the preacher said. Perhaps he was wrong, or she misunderstood. Doctor Schoolman would know. But what said her own conscience? After all, she knew the battle must be fought out there. Was it not sin to take sacred words on her lips and not mean them? How many times had she taken God's name in vain, pouring out pretended invocation to Him, while her heart addressed only the congregation for their approval! But it had been so thoughtless! He would surely forgive. But now she had thought about it, and it could never be the same again.
By this time Winifred was thoroughly miserable. She pondered over and again what she should do, at times in imagination resigning her position in the choir; then saying:
"Impossible! It is absurd! Who ever heard of its being wicked to sing in the choir? How could I explain myself?"
Then she reflected that she would study to be earnest, that she would school herself to think of Him and sing to Him. She took her hymn-book and found the place of the last hymn, resolved to put sincerity in practice at once. It was chosen, without reference to the unexpected sermon, and was the well-known psalm of love and longing which earnest souls have sung for many years:
"For thee, O dear, dear country, Mine eyes their vigils keep; For very love, beholding Thy happy name they weep. The mention of Thy glory Is unction to the breast, And medicine in sickness, And love, and life, and rest."
"I cannot sing it!" Winifred almost sobbed to herself. "It is not true—to me."
Then she read on. Before, she would have been carried away with the rhythm and the graceful thought. But now as she read:
"Oh, sweet and blessed country That eager hearts expect!"
"It's not true—it's not true!" she thought. "I cannot sing these songs. I know nothing of their sentiment. I am not a true worshiper of the Father. I do not believe I know Him!"
Then Winifred covered her eyes with her hand. "'Thou desirest truth in the inward parts,'" the preacher was quoting.
The words sent a pang through her heart. "God has found no truth in me," she thought, "I have been a lie."
Then she sat in wretchedness, fighting back the tears that struggled to escape—tears of shame, remorse, wounded self-love, and grief that her favorite idol, a god whom she did know and had served well, was to be taken down from its niche in the house of the Lord and cast out. She heard little of the remainder of the sermon, and what she heard added to her misery; for it told of the joy of true worshipers when at last they should stand face to face with Him whom, having not seen, they love,—
"All rapture through and through In God's most holy sight."
The sense of isolation, of exclusion from it all, was very painful; and Winifred did not know that this very knowledge of exclusion, and its grief, were harbingers of eternally better things. She stood with the others as they sang the closing hymn, and her own silence was unobserved, as she did not always join the chorus. She had recovered her composure by the time the benediction was pronounced and the organ was yielding an unusually lively postlude to whose strains she and George Frothingham descended the stairs together.
"The old chap is almost waltzing us out to-day," that gentleman remarked, referring to the organist. "Winifred, you outdid yourself to-day on that lovely thing."
Winifred smiled faintly. "Did you hear the sermon to-day, George?" she asked.
"Did I hear it? Well, that's good. Do I hear sermons when I go to church? But I confess to a little absentmindedness; not to equal that of our friend at the organ, however," and George laughed. Then he caught sight of a group of people in the vestibule below and exclaimed:
"Hello! There's your father and the preacher! I believe he is going to take him home to dinner. Don't look for me under your hospitable roof to-day, Winifred."
"Why?" she began.
"I have no taste for parsons. He'll talk the backs off the chairs. See if he doesn't. Good-by." And the young man strode carelessly away.
Winifred joined her mother in the vestibule, and they held a whispered consultation as to the probabilities of the young minister's going home with them. It seemed evident that Mr. Gray had taken him captive.
"Take him in the carriage and let me walk, mother," Winifred said, "I would much rather." So she slipped away and did not meet the minister until dinner.
Hubert Gray, Winifred's only brother, had also been at church that morning. This was somewhat unusual, for Hubert was a sceptic, and he did not like to appear what he was not. But occasionally he went to hear what might be said and turn it over in his questioning brain. He was a young man of strong aversions, and one of his special dislikes happened to be the unfortunate Doctor Schoolman.
"I hate cant," he declared. "His very tones are studied and unnatural. His voice quavers to order, and if I should see tears on his face I should think he had pumped them up someway for effect. I don't like to be practiced on. I should like a man to believe something earnestly and say it honestly."
And so he stayed away for the most part, but like many a man who is a sceptic, found that the subject of the Christ would not down, and he could not let it alone. So after absences he would go again to hear, though it should be only to gain fresh occasion for his doubts or cynical criticisms. To-day he was the first to arrive at home and met Winifred in the hall as she came in.
"The spiritual priesthood did very well to-day, Winnie," he said, by way of greeting. "I hope you all sang 'with grace in your hearts unto the Lord.' I am sure Frothingham did. I saw him—eh, Winnie, what's the matter?"
For Winifred had turned a quivering face toward her brother.
"I didn't, Hubert," she said. "There was no grace in my heart." And then she hastened up the stairs to her room.
"Hm-m!" said Hubert reflectively, and repeated the observation at intervals until dinner was served.
THE HOUSE OF GRAY
The family gathered for dinner with its usual decorum. Winifred sat opposite the young minister, and Hubert was beside him. Mr. Robert Gray carved the turkey with his usual skill and the sharpest of knives. He began his anticipated discussion with the preacher:
"Your sermon fitted pretty closely to-day, Mr. Bond," he said, as he separated a joint successfully.
"Did it really?" said Mr. Bond, with a smile that lit up a singularly pleasant face. "I am glad to hear it. That is what sermons are for, I believe?"
"Just so," said Mr. Gray, and he added with a little chuckle of enjoyment, "I like it—I like it. We need it, I assure you. There is no question about that. Why, Winnie, not a bit of the fowl? You are losing your appetite, child. Yes, sir, we need to be stirred up. If there is anything I believe in, it is sincerity. But now, don't you think, Mr. Bond, that you put it just a little grain too stiff?"
"In what way, Mr. Gray?"
"Well, now, I say the Apostles' Creed. I know it by heart. I don't know how many hundreds of times I have said it. It says itself. Perhaps that is why I don't always stop to think what it does say. But I do not suppose there is a word in it that I do not believe. Now if my mind happens to wander while I am, saying it—if it happens, mind you—"
"Father, Julia is waiting for Mr. Bond's plate," interposed Mrs. Gray softly from the other end of the table.
"I beg your pardon." Then, as the delinquent plate went to its destination, "If my mind happens to wander to some little matter of business, or something or other, while I say the Creed—am I a hypocrite?"
The merchant propounded the question with a note of triumph, as though the bold-spoken minister were rather cornered now. Mr. Bond answered respectfully, but with subdued amusement:
"I think, Mr. Gray, that the Lord would recognize the absence of insincere intent, but that so far as worship goes, you might as well set some Tibetan prayer-wheels going."
A gleam of enjoyment shot from Hubert's eyes, and a laugh almost escaped him.
"Ah, just so—just so!" said Mr. Gray, a little discomfited. "But would it be better not to say it?"
"It would be better to mean it," said Mr. Bond.
"He parries well," thought Hubert.
"Winifred," said Mrs. Gray, off whose smooth nature these discussions rolled harmlessly, "the music was very fine this morning."
Winifred, who would have preferred almost any subject to this, cast an appealing glance at her mother, but it was unheeded. She had hoped Mr. Bond would not recognize her as the singer.
Mrs. Gray went on: "Mrs. Butterworth, who sits just the other side of the partition from us, you know, was quite carried away. She looked volumes at me, but she just whispered 'heavenly!' She said after church she hoped you would come to her party next week and bring your songs. You have such a gift, she said."
And Mrs. Gray herself sighed religiously at the thought of Winnie's "gift." Winnie could have sighed, too, but it was with torture.
Mrs. Gray was a comfortable lady, absorbed in the quiet machinery of a conventionally proper life. She loved her family, her church, and a moderate amount of society. She loved things. Quiet satisfaction beamed from the gentle eyes on the choice silver of the dining-room, on her blue antique china, on the costly, tasteful accessories of the drawing-room, and, indeed, on all the well chosen appointments of the quietly elegant home. Interest in her own person and its adornment had been gradually diverted toward Winifred, whose beauty, grace of manner, and accomplishments, were an unfailing joy. Now she sighed in quiet gratitude to the vague deity known as Providence for Winifred's peculiarly sweet gift. As to the sermon of the morning, she was one of those hearers in whose mind a sermon and its application do not necessarily go together.
Winifred felt two pairs of eyes upon her from across the table as her mother talked to her in a voice not intended to interrupt the gentlemen in their conversation. There were Hubert's eyes of darker brown than her own and very searching, and the preacher's blue eyes that looked inquiringly through rimless eye-glasses. She could think of no answer to her mother, and so bent her eyes silently upon her plate, while a flush rose to her temples. Mrs. Butterworth's rapturous "heavenly" was in strong contrast to the conviction of godless insincerity which filled her own heart.
Mercifully to her embarrassment her father began again:
"But do you not think, Mr. Bond, that we must take things as they are? Granted that there is a great deal of unreality in the church, what are we going to do about it? Can one man who sees the point work a revolution in the whole church? Must we not just take conditions as they are and make the best of them?"
"Perhaps we may not hope to revolutionize a whole church," replied Mr. Bond, "but," and his face grew stern with an expression that told of a battlefield already fought for and won, "he may refuse to add one unit to the aggregation of untrue worshipers, or to uphold an organized system of unreality. I sometimes fear, Mr. Gray," and there was a ring of sadness in his voice, "that we too readily take conditions as they are, and make the worst of them!"
"Yes, I am afraid you are right—you are right," said the merchant slowly. Then he added, "but so far you have given us only a negative remedy. My son here could go so far with you. He washes his hands of the whole matter."
Mr. Bond turned to Hubert inquiringly.
"Really?" he questioned.
"Yes," said Hubert, thus thrust unwillingly into the discussion, "I am no worshiper at all."
"And may I ask why?" queried Mr. Bond.
"Your book says that whoever comes to God must believe that He is, and that He rewards those who seek Him. I am not sure of either proposition, and so I do not pretend to come to Him."
The frank eyes looked through the eyeglasses pleasantly. "Are you sure of the contrary?" he asked.
"No," said Hubert honestly.
"Admitting the supposition that He is, and is a rewarder of them that seek Him, does it cover the ground of responsibility to ignore Him because you are not sure?"
"Perhaps not," said Hubert. "But," he added doggedly, "if He is, and wishes to be known and worshiped, He ought to be demonstrable."
Mrs. Gray looked a little frightened. She never liked to hear Hubert talk about those things, and it was so mortifying to have him take such a stand against the church and everything everybody—at least most respectable people—believed. She was sure he was saying something dreadful now. Mr. Gray looked apprehensive, too. Winifred's self-revelation of the morning made her feel like casting no stones at her brother.
Mr. Bond looked at Hubert mildly.
"I think you are quite right," he said.
Here the discussion seemed to end. Hubert could make no reply to the man who agreed with him. An instinct to fight for his position had sprung up, but he was disarmed by Mr. Bond's assent to his proposition. He was not accustomed to being met like that. His father's loyal policy had been to protect his household from infidel talk, and he had not taken too much pains to ascertain his son's point of view, and if possible, to lead him from it into light. Hubert had found some Christian people ready to argue with him who would admit no position he held, however logical, believing that every arrow from the sceptic's quiver must be a poisoned one. He withdrew in bitterness from such encounters. To-day Mr. Bond's honest sympathy with his outspoken conviction found a sensitive chord in the young man's stout-seeming heart.
Conversation drifted to lesser things until the ample meal was finished, and the little company broke up. Mr. Gray was sure his guest would wish a little rest and quiet in preparation for the evening service, which assurance happily freed himself for the usual nap which his soul coveted after the Sunday early dinner. Mrs. Gray departed for her own pretty room, her dainty dressing gown, silk draperies, and gentle doze. Winifred went to her room to resume the battle that was on, Hubert betook himself to his accustomed walk.
Walking down the avenue graced by his own home, Hubert glanced across the street and saw, to his regret, the handsome figure and airy step of George Frothingham. He hoped that gentleman did not see him, for he disliked him and did not wish to be bored by a conversation. Hubert disliked Frothingham on two separate counts: first, because he was not the sterling quality of man Hubert thought he ought to be, and secondly because, being such a man as he was, he still dared raise his miserable eyes toward Winifred. More than any other object in the world Hubert loved his sister, and his grief was very hot and sore when it became apparent that she and George were "as good as engaged," as all their circle of friends affirmed. They were not actually so, the "George" and "Winifred" terms resulting from an acquaintance since childhood, and had Hubert been a praying man he would have prayed that such a consummation might never occur. He voiced his sentiments unmistakably to Winifred, but on this point they could not agree.
"It is one of your unreasonable dislikes," she said, and so they came perilously near a serious difference.
"He isn't genuine—he isn't manly," said Hubert, "there is nothing to him. His name ought to have stopped with the first syllable."
Winifred had looked her indignation, and mourned that Hubert could not see the charming qualities that made Frothingham popular with many.
Hubert's wish that the young man should not see him was unrealized, and he was speedily joined by him.
"Hello, Gray," said Mr. Frothingham, affably. He was always affable to Hubert for obvious reasons. "I wonder if you are going to hear the Reverend Professor Cutting's lecture on the Higher Criticism? That's rather in your line, isn't it? You know they have found that a good lot of the Bible is all rot."
"I think they are a pack of asses," said Hubert, savagely, his opinions accentuated by dislike of his questioner. "Indeed I am not going."
"Whew-w! You surprise me, Hubert. I thought you were a bit of a sceptic yourself?"
"So I am, but I am not proud of the fact. My doubts are quite enough for my own enjoyment without listening to Prof. Cutting's unbeliefs."
"But you know he talks from the Christian standpoint. He is not an unbeliever."
"Isn't he! That's just what I object to in those men. If they would confess themselves companions of the sceptical writers whom I have read and speak from a Free Thinkers' platform, I would have some respect for them. What do they believe that they did not? They respected the life and teachings of Jesus, but did not believe in His inerrant knowledge nor assumption of divinity. I do not see how any man can claim to be a Christian and not believe that what Jesus claimed for Himself was true. If not true, He was either a deluded man and so unfit to lead others into absolute truth, or He was a liar and morally unfit to teach. I wonder that these men can't see through a ladder, for all their learned research."
"You are pretty hard on them, Hubert."
"I am saying the simple truth. I tell you I have no respect for those men. To profess to be Christians and from within the fort batter down its fortifications isn't honest."
"That's right," said Frothingham, who, having no certain convictions of his own, was prepared to enjoy a racy tirade from either side.
"So you are wrong, you see," said Hubert, "in thinking Prof. Cutting's lecture in my line. When I get ready to open a broadside against the Christian religion, I'll not put on a ministerial coat and collar to do it in. You'd be shot in war if the enemy caught you in their clothes—and you'd deserve it!"
"That's right," laughed George again. "Tell me when you are going to deliver your broadside."
"It will not be very soon," said Hubert. "I do not find such comfort in my doubts as to give me a missionary call to spread them."
They came to a turn in the road and parted. Hubert had had a more animated conversation with his sister's friend than he remembered ever to have had before. He strode on alone through the park whither his steps had taken him, still pursuing the same line of thought.
"No," he reflected, "why should I seek to communicate my doubts? I never knew a man to be worse for believing in Jesus Christ. I believe some men have been better for it. Certainly I do not admire the company I am in."
His mind reviewed a company such as would be called together by an infidel cause, and he recoiled from it. He saw socialist faces of the baser type, ready but for the occasion to blossom into anarchism; he saw clever women whose bold loosening of the yoke of conventional religion had relaxed also the hold of conventional morals, and he was glad Winifred was not among them; he saw the face of Doctor Bossman, the leader of the cause, tall, massive-browed, handsome, with bold, full, outstanding eyes, a man of defiant words, of jovial popularity, and egregiously self-centered. Into the young man's mind, in contrast to the proud face, there flashed fragments of the words of the Nazarene: "Except ye be converted, and become as little children!" He saw other faces not so typical, and found himself seated amongst them, and abhorred the fraternity cemented by a common unbelief—a cold negation. He was unhappy. He found no territory on which to stand. He hated the cant and formalism that chilled him in the fashionable church. He hated the insolent creed of the deist, and the ignorance of the agnostic. He seemed to be hating almost all things with himself included. If he had been sure there was a God who heard mortals pray, he would have cried to Him to deliver him from so wretched a position. But he roused himself from his reverie and sought to throw to the winds his unhappy feelings. He walked back to the house endeavoring to think of to-morrow's business, and determining to give himself to an interesting book when he got there.
Winifred had a headache which was opportune. By it she excused herself from tea and from church that evening. Her father carried her apologies to the leader of the choir. Mr. Gray alone of the family listened to the evening discourse, and he listened well, for the young minister spoke again with truth and earnestness. The machinery of the meeting moved smoothly, and George Frothingham sang with much feeling, "If with all your hearts ye truly seek Him."
In Winifred's room the light burned late. The battle waged there saw many tears and the confirmation of the edict put forth in the morning service that the false god must be taken from its niche in the house of the Lord.
"I will not be a hypocrite," Winifred said to herself. "I will not go through a theatrical display, however refined and solemn, and call it worship. I am no true worshiper."
Then she burst into fresh tears, in which mingled grief that she was not a worshiper, and sorrow that she must leave an occupation and associations so dear. It seemed like taking out a good part of her life, for Winifred was young, and things loved were ardently loved.
There was one who contested the ground with her in her room that night, and told her she was no worse than others, that they were as thoughtless and insincere as she; that her course and theirs passed under the common sanction of churches everywhere, and that there was no reason why she should be singular amongst all others. Why should she be disturbed from the commonly accepted course by a single sermon preached by a stranger, and he a young man? Doctor Schoolman had never said such things. She might at least wait and talk it over with him or some wise person. He might be able to show her that God did not really care whether people quite meant what they said in singing, and that it was a meritorious thing, as she had always thought, to sing about Him to other people and to sing well. It might do people good. Some people had actually wept sometimes!
The last thought was very striking, for Winifred did not know well the Word which is able to discriminate between soul and spirit, and she mistook emotion for some sign of spirituality. These arguments pressed hard, and had in their favor the natural leaning of the heart that longed to go on with the loved employment. But there was another longing too, and it was to be honest. And underneath all was the true beginning of wisdom—the fear of God.
"The minister told the truth," she said. "And if everybody else goes on with the farce I will do as he said to father at dinner: 'refuse to add one unit to the aggregation of untrue worshipers.' I'll join Hubert outside of it all before I will go on!"
Then she wept afresh, for the vision of isolation "outside of it all" was too painful. The presence of God had grown awesome and the light of His eyes intolerable, but outside was darkness unbearable. She flung herself down beside the bed where many a time she had "said prayers" at night, and sobbed:
"O God, I am not a true worshiper, but I wish I were! I have drawn nigh to Thee with my lips while my heart was far from Thee. I have been a lie. Oh, make me true! make me true!"
After this outburst of prayer she was calmer, but remained silently upon her knees by the bedside. Gradually there came to her memory the substance of other words the minister had said;
"Into the presence and unto the very heart of God there is a blood-bought way opened by our blessed Christ for the most wicked one who wishes to take it."
"Is there a way for me," she prayed, "a way to come to Thee just as I am?" And the sound of her own words brought back the memory of the old song, familiar since her childhood:
"Just as I am without one plea, But that Thy blood was shed for me, And that Thou bidst me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come!"
"O God," she cried, "I can sing that! I do come, just as I am—I do come!"
A sweet sense of rest, such as she had never known, stole into Winifred's heart. Some One seemed to be welcoming her with ineffable tenderness. She was not out in the dark, but was at home with God. The awful presence she had dreaded was infinitely sweet. At last she stood in the Holy Place, still foolish, weak, unworthy, but with the glory of Another's name covering her as with priestly robes, and she worshiped.
When Winifred awoke the nest morning it was to wonder if it were really true—if she had come to God and He had received her. A sweet rest still in her heart testified to a burden lifted. Her Bible lay open on the little table where she had found the minister's text while fighting her battle the day before. A leaf or two had blown over, and she looked down on the sixth chapter of John and read,
"Him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out."
Renewed assurance came with the words.
"I believe it," she said to herself. "I have been very false, but He is true. He says the truth. I believe it."
The thought of the choir scarcely entered her mind now in her new-found joy. The question, to sing or not to sing, had shifted to the deeper one of relationship to God, and the peace that came with its settlement overshadowed everything else. She went down to breakfast with a light heart and very cheerful countenance. Hubert looked at her in surprise from under gloomy brows. His own had been a restless night.
"Has your headache gone, dear?" asked her mother solicitously.
"Oh, long ago, Mother," said Winifred. She wanted to tell her mother the better news than of a headache gone, but did not know how to begin.
They talked of ordinary things until breakfast was nearly over. Then Mr. Gray said:
"Mr. Mercer was sorry to miss you from the choir last night, Winnie, and hoped you were not going to be ill."
"Thank you, Father. Mr. Mercer is always very kind."
"He hopes you will surely be at the rehearsal Friday night, as he expects to take up some specially fine music."
Winifred's heart heat violently as she summoned courage to say:
"I do not think I shall sing in the choir any more, Father."
"Why—what, Winnie? What's that you are saying? You not sing in the choir any more?"
"What are you saying, Winifred," added Mrs. Gray.
Winifred nerved herself for the statement. It might as well he said now as ever, while they were all together.
"Yes, Father," she said, "I do not think I can sing in the choir any longer. I saw very clearly yesterday that I had never been a true worshiper. I have never meant the words that I sang. I have scarcely thought about God while I sang words about Him or addressed to Him. Many of them I could not say honestly. It has all been for effect, and to—to please you all. So I—I concluded—I—couldn't go on any longer."
It had been a very difficult speech, and Winifred's voice sank at the end.
Mr. Gray looked very grave.
"You surprise me, Winnie," he said. "You surprise me very much. You should be conscientious, surely, but you will let me say I think you are taking the matter too seriously,"
Silent Hubert shot a reproachful glance at his father. In his estimation here was a case of downright honesty that called for applause, not repression.
"I think your father is right, Winifred," said Mrs. Gray faintly, and then she added, rather illogically, "but I do not understand just what you mean."
"Can I take the truth too seriously, Father?" asked Winifred, still speaking with an effort. It was an ingenuous question, but Robert Gray found it hard to answer.
"No," he said, after a moment's hesitation, "not truth itself, but we may get wrong ideas of it. But, Winnie," he added, with real sorrow in his voice, "I hope you do not mean to tell us that you will not hereafter try to worship God, since the past has been so unsatisfactory to you?"
"Oh, no, Father," said Winifred quickly, with rising courage as her experience of the night before came vividly to her. "I have more to tell. I was very unhappy about it all last night, and—I prayed—she blushed, for it was new to speak of such things—I prayed, and it came to me that there was a way to come to God just as I was, and He would make me a true worshiper; and I came."
Winifred's embarrassment could not quite cover her joy as she made her confession. The father looked relieved.
"I am thankful,—very thankful, Winnie," he said. "You did nobly. That was quite right—quite right. But now I do not see that you need give up your singing, but that you might go on sincerely where you have failed before."
He looked a little anxious, for her singing in the church was very dear to him.
Winifred's brow clouded. "I fear I cannot, Father. Not now, at least."
"No? Well, we'll talk about it later," he said kindly, and they left the breakfast table.
In the hall Hubert waited for Winifred with his own form of benediction:
"You're a brick, Winnie," he said, and planted a kiss upon her fair forehead.
She smiled and returned his kiss with an affectionate caress. Hubert's slangy praise was dearer to her than any polished compliment from another source.
Hubert did not understand why he hated the world and things a little less as he walked to business that morning, the stone walk answering to his usual sharp, decisive step. He did not know that it was a gleam of something pure and true, of a religion not in word but in deed, that had flashed across his path and mitigated its darkness.
Winifred had a long talk alone with her father in the library later in the day. She had thought out her reasons, and understood better, herself, the instinctive feeling that led her not to resume her place in the choir under the altered conditions.
"I am just beginning to worship, Father," she said, "and I feel I could do so better out of sight—for awhile, at least. You do not know the temptation it would be to fall back into the old way. I am afraid I could not stand it. I would rather just slip into the congregation beside you, Father, and sing to God when my heart sings, and keep still when it doesn't."
So her father yielded the point to her conscience.
"God bless you, Winnie," he said with glistening eyes, as he stroked her chestnut locks. "It may be I have been a bit of an idolater, myself."
Poor Mrs. Gray sighed, and quite gave up trying to understand Winifred's strange position. She hoped she would be able to give some suitable reason for withdrawing, and not set the whole church talking about her peculiar views. She remembered hopefully that her daughter had suffered from laryngitis not long ago, and she mentally nursed the almost vanished trouble into proportions that would forbid her singing much. She was sure Dr. Lansing would give an opinion to that effect now. But, dear me! as for herself, she did not know how she should ever sit in that church and hear anyone else sing in Winifred's place!
It was to be feared that there were many others who would find it difficult to sit in that church if their own natural wishes and tastes were not gratified there. What it was to be gathered "in My name," as the Lord Jesus had said,—into the name of Him whose flesh with its longing and loves had been carried pitilessly to the cross, that from its death there might spring forth for all His own life in the Spirit unto God—what this was, few at New Laodicea knew; nor what it was, so gathered, to behold Him in the midst. Oh, lonely heart without the door of His own house! He knocks patiently, not in the hope that the whole household will hear Him, but for "any man" who has ears to hear and will open to Him.
Winifred had another task before her that day, and she did it promptly. She did not know how really in her ready obedience she was walking in the steps of "the father of all them that believe," who, when Isaac was to be offered, rose early in the morning to go about the sacrifice. She went straight to Mr. Mercer, the leader of the choir, and told him of her withdrawal. She told her story with simplicity and dignity, and it commanded his respect.
"I honor your convictions, Miss Gray," he said. "We shall find it hard to fill your place, and I am very sorry you are going. But I would not for a moment urge you to remain. As I say, I honor your convictions. I only wish I had the courage of them myself."
His face grew heavy. He knew well the deity that led him to that place, and the anxious care that governed each Sunday's work. To bring his choir to the perfect standard of musical merit which his artist soul craved was his ambition. He knew pleasure as he approximated to that goal, and vexation almost to despair when he fell far short. He knew it was not before God but at another shrine he poured out his soul's libation.
"I know I am not a worshiper," he said. "I have never professed to be a Christian—oh, I am not a Mohammedan or a Hindu!—but I do not profess to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. I should not like," he said reflectively, "to add to a life indifferent to my Creator the insult of a mock worship."
He bent his brows heavily to consider if such a course were really his. "I would leave the whole thing to-day," he said vehemently, "as you are doing, Miss Gray, if I could. I would follow other lines in my profession, but I am in this now and it is my living. It means bread and butter to those dependent on me."
He paused, and Winifred said nothing but looked at him with strong sympathy. He went on:
"It will not excuse me, I suppose, but whose is the greater sin? Is it mine, or theirs who hired me? I thought of it professionally. If one honest man had met me with the question, 'Can you lead that part of our worship to God in spirit and in truth?' I should have known that I could not, and said so. Then I should have turned my attention to secular paths where secular men belong. But there's the rub! Not one of them thought of it, I suppose. What a farce it is! The minister yesterday talked of incense rising to God. It doesn't get beyond their nostrils, I think. You know that man—what's his name?—he's a stock broker, who sits down the right aisle? Well, you know there was a talk once of dismissing the quartette, and retaining only the chorus (under my direction) to reduce expenses. That man declared if the quartette were dismissed he would leave the church. He is not a member anyway, I think, but he pays! There is worship for you! I tell you, the people glut their own souls with good music, and go home thinking they have worshiped God. Oh, I wish there were reality in the world!"
Mr. Mercer threw his head back and ran his fingers nervously through his wavy locks. His eyes were burning and there was a bright red spot on either cheek.
Winifred spoke out impulsively:
"Oh, Mr. Mercer, there is reality! I know there is somewhere, and I—I am just beginning—but I mean to be a true worshiper, myself."
He looked at her, and the gleam in his dark eyes softened.
"Forgive me," he said, "I spoke too strongly. Yes, I believe there is reality—a little—somewhere," and he smiled. Something in her soft brown eyes as he looked in them carried him many years back, when eyes something like them looked down on him, while a voice sang sacred words which he knew the heart loved well. Yes, there was reality somewhere.
Winifred awoke Tuesday morning with melody in her heart. She moved about her room with the exhilaration of a fresh joy in living. She took her Bible, which still wore the genteel, unsullied dress of a stranger, and turned to the place she wished to read. She had not got beyond the text of Sunday:
"The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshiper shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth."
She pondered the text. "Shall worship the Father," she mused. "Oh, how sweet! That august One whom I feared is 'the Father.' He loves me!"
She went with her book to the open window and stood, a fair priestess in her white morning dress, and looked out over a portion of her Father's wide domain. Oh, how warm and bright the sunlight that lit all things with glory! How fair were the distant hills beyond the city, with their varied dress of wood and meadow! In the garden below, how each group of flowers and the green sward answered with joy to the caress of the sun. How exultantly the lilies stood, and she could catch the incense from the bed of tiny clustering flowers nearest her window. She lifted her face toward the sky of melting summer blue, and sang softly:
"Holy, holy, holy; Lord God Almighty! All Thy works shall praise Thy name, in earth and sky and sea; Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty; God in three persons, blessed Trinity!"
She looked again at the words whose entrance had given light, and read farther: "For the Father seeketh such to worship Him."
"He has been seeking me!" she cried, and some glimmering apprehension of the great love of the Father which seeks the fellowship of sincere and simple children, made her bosom heave and her eyes fill with tears, "He loves me," she repeated as before, and her heart nestled itself in the great truth like a bird that has found its nest.
Presently she looked again from her window and saw Hubert walking in the garden.
"Dear Hubert!" she said to herself. "I wish he knew."
With an impulse she laid her book hastily down and ran down the stairs and into the garden. She flew noiselessly across the soft grass and surprised Hubert from behind, clasping his arm with a cheerful "Good morning!"
He looked down on her glowing face and kissed it.
"How bright you look," he said. "Were you up with the birds? I heard you singing your matins with them."
"Did you hear me?" said Winifred, with a blush at being overheard.
"Yes. What makes you so happy, Winnie?"
"Oh, Hubert," she cried, and she clasped his arm more tightly, "My heart is almost breaking with joy! I think I have begun—to know God!"
He looked at her with a surprised hunger in his dark eyes.
"And do you find the knowledge such a joy?" he asked, with deep sadness in his own voice.
"Oh, yes, Hubert," she said. "He is so good!"
Later in the day a small breeze swept in the front door of the Gray Mansion, past the maid, up the stairway, and to the door of Winifred's little sitting-room. It came with the person of Miss Adele Forrester.
"Hello," said a bright voice. "Anybody here?"
Winifred rose from her quaint little window-seat with an expression of pleasure.
"Oh, Adele! I am so glad to see you."
The two young ladies kissed each other and sat down to talk with the easy familiarity of old friends.
"Dear!" cried exclamatory Miss Forrester. "I am out of breath!—I have raced so! I left home an hour ago, but was beguiled by some fascinating bargains in Butterworth's windows. Do see that love of a thing for ninety-eight cents. Did you ever see such a bargain? I wouldn't let them send it for I wanted you to see it."
The fascinating trifle was admired, and then Miss Forrester flew at the chief matter of her visit enthusiastically.
"Do you know what is in the wind, Winifred? Professor Black, who leads the choir in the Linden Street church, is going to get up a comic opera with a cast from the various choirs, and I am invited. We are to go to Northville and give it in the little one-horse theater there. Won't it be gay? We shall astonish the natives of that small town! Have you had your invitation?"
Winifred shook her head.
"How calm you are. I am very much excited about it already. You know I like that sort of thing. It isn't decided what we shall give, but probably Pinafore, or Patience, or some old thing. They won't care at Northville. Do say what you think of it, Winifred? Don't be so unecstatic."
Winifred smiled, not very merrily. "I can't get ecstatic," she said. "I shall not be in it."
"You will not be in it!" Adele cried. "Oh, why not?"—coaxingly. "Doesn't your father approve of it?—or your mother?—of going off like that, I mean? It will be perfectly proper. We shall be chaperoned."
"Oh, that's not it," said Winifred. "I have left the choir."
Adele opened her bright eyes wide in astonishment.
"Left the choir!" she exclaimed under her breath, and then leaned back in her chair with a gesture of comical despair of expressing herself.
Winifred could not help laughing at her friend's dismay. She said nothing and Adele soon recovered herself.
"A little tiff with the leader or somebody?" she queried. "Such things are not unknown to us. I am prepared to take your part, Winnie, right or wrong. But you don't mean you've left for good? Oh, come and sing with us at St. John's—that would be lovely!"
Winifred girded herself mentally for her task. She and lively Miss Forrester had never discussed spiritual things together. They spoke freely of their choirs and of church, but that never seemed dissonant with the most frivolous social things. Now as Winifred thought of the real Holy Place and the worship there "in spirit and in truth," it seemed difficult to speak of it. She began bravely, and began at the beginning, with Mr. Bond's sermon. She rehearsed many of the things that he said, and told frankly of her own conviction of the truth and how it troubled her. Adele listened gravely and with a sympathetic moisture in her eyes as Winifred told, with little hitches in her voice and evident effort at self-control, of her determination to leave the theater of her unreal worship, and then of the way she had found into the real presence of God and of His forgiveness. She paused here, and Adele put her arms impulsively about her and kissed her.
"Winnie," she said, "you know I always loved you. I love you better than ever now."
Then they both cried, though they could not have explained to each other why. Adele was the first to recover herself.
"I am such a goose," she said. "I always cry. But now, Winnie," she added, "are you not going to keep on singing, only 'in spirit and in truth,' as you say?"
"I hope I shall keep on singing," said Winifred, slowly, "but I dare not trust myself, just now anyhow, to go on with the choir. I am so used to singing for applause"—and she blushed at the remembrance of such a motive in the house of the Lord—"or for music's sake, I am afraid I should find myself doing so still. I mean to worship God truly," and a look of determination settled the sensitive face into resolute lines; "and I shall try to do that which will help me most to that end. It seems to me now that that will be to join the others unobserved. Perhaps I shall see it differently some day, but now I feel it safer to put my poor, vain, little self as far out of sight as possible and try to think of God."
"You are a dear, honest little thing!" cried Adele affectionately. Then she added very seriously, "but it almost seems to me that if your objections are right they might apply to the whole system."
Winifred looked perplexed. She had dimly thought of that. The word "system" recalled Mr. Bond's phrase, "an organized system of unreality," which she had turned over in her mind a number of times. Would he call the choir that? She thought of the leader, who professed nothing as a Christian; of the organist, who, she must admit, was a drunkard; of George Frothingham with his careless indifference; and of herself of two days ago. Perhaps there were others—very likely there were—who sang with grace in their hearts unto the Lord, but it certainly looked as though that were no object in their selection. But she thought of Doctor Schoolman, who raised no objections and always sat with such an expression of bland repose while they sang. She thought of the elders—her own father among them—and, indeed, of common consent everywhere in all the churches; at least, all she knew. Who was she, who was only "just beginning to worship," that she should entertain ideas contrary to them all?
"I don't know," she said hesitatingly to Adele, "I hope you will not think my ideas revolutionary. I can't judge for others—others so much wiser than I. But, for myself, I think I see the way I ought to take." And so she settled the matter for herself, on her own convictions.
"Perhaps you are right," Adele said.
She could not speak further of the opera which seemed awkwardly out of place in the light of what Winifred had said. After a pause she said:
"I'm afraid we are all hypocrites more or less, but it is a wonder we had not thought of it before. But, do you know, I've sometimes thought it rather queer that Mr. Francis should sing in our choir? He is a confessed infidel. I do not believe our rector knows it. I do not think he would allow it. Mr. Francis just drifted into the choir when we needed a basso very much. But, when you think of it, isn't it blasphemy to take the name of the Lord, whom he professes not to believe in, so solemnly upon his lips in church?"
Winifred consented that so it seemed to her.
Then a sudden recollection amused Miss Forrester. "Speaking of worshipers," she said, "now there is my precious Cousin Dick. How do you think he occupied himself in the midst of Morning Prayer a couple of Sundays ago? The rogue! I certainly was keeping the run of the service, but it was edifying to see his head bowed so devoutly until he passed a slip of paper over to me. What do you think was on it? Not a suddenly inspired hymn, but some doggerel lines about
"'A certain young woman Who sang high soprano.'
"I looked daggers at him, but of course he saw I wanted to laugh. Then he looked such a picture of rapt piety! Oh, he is a case!" And Adele gave way to the laughter she had smothered in church.
Winifred smiled, too, as she thought of the irrepressibly merry youth. But her pleasure was not as unmixed as it would have been three days before. Henceforth, any jest to be quite enjoyed must be free from taint of irreverence toward holy things. She had "begun to know God," and the knowledge gave a sensitiveness to the honor of His name and the things of His house.
Adele recovered from her mirth and resumed the subject seriously.
"I am afraid we are sorry worshipers, when you come to look at it," she said. "If our office is really such a sacred one—and I see it must be, if we take it seriously—why, then, we ought to be pretty good people; earnest, and reverent, and all that, I mean. But it doesn't seem to be our distinguishing trait," and she smiled. "Not mine, at least. I ought not to generalize too much. I am sure there are persons in our choirs who live beautiful, devoted lives; but the lot I fraternize with mostly are not likely to go to the stake just yet for their piety. What awfully jolly dances the Emmanuel church choir gave last winter! I was invited two or three times and went. But you know it has struck me once or twice as a little odd that we church singers, as such, should go into that sort of thing. If some of us should stray into it individually it's nothing remarkable, I suppose. But isn't it a bit queer that, as a company, we should lead off in those things? I suppose," with a twinkle of malicious enjoyment in her eyes, "our Emmanuel church neighbors could not find vent for their joy in the Lord in Hosannas on Sunday, and had to work it off at their heels on week days."
Adele enjoyed her own satire, but Winifred was too repentant to laugh.
"Oh, Adele," she said, "it is dreadful that there has been no 'joy in the Lord' about it. At least, I never knew it in the choir. Christ was never the center of our thoughts" (she was thinking of Mr. Bond's sermon), "the object of devotion. If we worshiped anybody or anything outside of ourselves it was Music."
"Orpheus?" suggested Adele.
"Yes," said Winifred, "we were pagans, I suppose. But oh, Adele, God is so good to forgive! It seems as though He were not looking at it at all—as if it had never been."
Adele looked at her friend narrowly. "Winnie," she said at length, solemnly, "I know what has happened. You are converted."
Winifred opened her eyes in surprise. She had not thought to so define her new experience. Adele went on:
"We don't talk much about it in our church, you know. But I used to go sometimes with old Auntie Bloom—she was so blind she couldn't see the sidewalk—to a little Methodist church of some sort, Free, or Reformed, or something, and they made a great deal of that. Auntie Bloom used to get rather excited over it herself sometimes when she 'testified.' I used to duck my head when she waved her arms about. 'A new creature!' she used to shout. 'There's nothing like being a new creature!'" And Adele quoted the old lady with good-natured mimicry.
Winifred's face glowed. "No," she said, "there's nothing like it!—if that is what has happened to me."
Adele looked at the happy face covetously. "You look as though it were good, Winnie," she said, and added meditatively: "I think it is all true about it. But you know, Winnie, when I was confirmed I really meant to be good. It was so solemn, and I thought I never should forget that dear old bishop's hand on my head. But I haven't turned out much of a saint, you know, dear."
"I never thought you were wicked, Adele," said Winifred.
"Well, I never robbed a bank," said Adele, "but there's no question about my being 'this worldly' enough."
Winifred did not know just how to answer this. It seemed a charge that would cover both their previous lives. In a moment's silence a sweet-toned clock on the mantel softly struck a half hour.
"Oh, I must be gone!" cried Miss Forrester, "and we haven't talked about half—"
"Do stay to lunch," interrupted Winifred.
"Impossible, dear. I am due at home—half an hour ago!" and she laughed at the discrepancy between her appointment and appearance. "Good-by, Winnie." And she was off.
The two, very opposite in temperament, were very warm friends. Winifred saw beneath a light exterior a quantity of good, sound sense and a warm heart. She was a frequent guest at their house. Mrs. Gray liked her, though deploring her occasional indulgence in slang. Mr. Gray enjoyed her racy conversation, and Hubert professed a dislike of her volatile qualities. This last fact grieved Winifred, who liked her friend to be appreciated.
"She has a rather frivolous exterior," she once explained to Hubert, "but she is really very sensible."
"One would like to hear from the sensible interior occasionally," he replied, and Winifred withdrew from the defense. She was the more grieved by his indifference to her friend because, with her quick intuition, she had half guessed at a secret liking in Adele for her cynical brother.
To-day at luncheon Winifred ventured to offer him the information:
"Adele Forrester was in to see me this morning."
"I heard her giggle," he replied laconically, and Winifred subsided into silence.
IS GOD DEMONSTRABLE?
The scene of the morning in the garden haunted Hubert during the hours of business that day. Matters were attended to with his accustomed skill, but always an undercurrent of memory presented to him Winifred's beaming face and her announcement, "I think I have begun to know God."
"I wish I knew Him. I wish I knew the truth," he repeated to himself again and again.
Hubert had entered with heartiness into his father's business, and though still young had already attained a partnership in it. "Robert Gray & Son," read the clear, uncompromising sign, and the name of no firm in the city was more respected. Hubert's devotion to business, rather than to more scholarly pursuits, was a deep gratification to the father, who enjoyed his son's fellowship and found help in his fresh enterprise and keen foresight.
To-day Hubert was glad when the last matters were attended to and he was able to go home. At dinner he was abstracted and silent, and retired to his own apartments. Just off his sleeping room was a smaller one which constituted his laboratory, for Hubert was a man of science in his leisure hours. This room was the one discomfort of poor Mrs. Gray, who feared explosions or electric shocks, and sighed many a time as she heard the door close after the entering form of her son. To-night it closed firmly, and had not opened again before slumber muffled the ears of the apprehensive mother, nor had the light from the single gas burner ceased to throw out its yellow challenge to the mellow, midnight moonlight without. Could Mrs. Gray have looked within, she would have seen Hubert sunk in the depths of a leather covered chair, with his dark, frowning face leaning upon his hand. He was thinking.
Something like this was the matter of his thoughts:
In this little room questions had been asked and answered. From the standpoint of the known, or even from the conjectured, excursions into the unknown had been undertaken, and the explorer returned with trophies of ascertained fact. How had it come to pass? Obedience to the laws of force revealed had brought its recompense of further revelation. How humbly, with what child-likeness, he had followed those subtle laws propounded to him by others; laws whose deep mystery he could in no wise understand, but which he believed, and, believing, demonstrated. Were there such principles to be observed in the spiritual realm? Were there laws of the unseen kingdom, which, if obeyed, brought demonstration? He gave a little gesture of impatience as he thought of the unthinking assertion of some that they would believe nought they could not understand!
"Stupid!" he muttered, and remembered an effort of his own, when a school-boy, to illuminate the mind of the gardener with a few scientific facts, only to be met with a loud guffaw of unbelief. Surely science had never yielded her treasures to sneering unbelief, but to humble, patient faith. Must he so find out God?
Again he pondered: Could God, if there were a God, be expected to be less mysterious, less wonderful, less unsearchable than the subtle forces found in nature, and actually utilized, but never understood?
"What is electricity?" he asked himself. "I do not know, but I can use it. I know it is. So may not God be, invisible, uncomprehended, but real, and demonstrable to the man who applies himself to know Him?"
Hubert was very near a determination to thus apply himself. But should God be sought for as a force or as a personality? The old argument, hackneyed but true, spoke to him: The presence of design argues a designer. No blind force ever clasped the petals of a lily together, to say nothing of the arrangement of a universe. Had Hubert known it, there was a passage of Inspiration which read:
"The invisible things of him from the creation or the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his everlasting power and Godhead."
Now how to address himself to God—how to conduct this new experiment—was the question. He remembered the conditions of discipleship to science, and determined that he would follow them. First, there was child-likeness. A fragment of Scripture, words of Jesus Christ, came to him:
"Except ye . . . become as little children ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."
How simple the principle. No pride of supposed knowledge, no dogmatism of unbelief might be brought to the door of this mysterious kingdom by the man who would enter in. Then, he must follow the things revealed if he would know more. What did he know about God? Or what must be true of Him, granted that He is?
"If He is," thought Hubert, "and is my Creator, then He must know me altogether."
"Thou God seest me."
It was a text—he did not know its connection—learned years before in Sunday-school, before his independence of spirit had withdrawn his neck from an unloved yoke. Now it spoke to him clearly. Surely God (if He were) must see him, and surely He must hear him. He did not consciously remember the words, "he that planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall He not see?" But thoughts of like nature passed through his mind. A creator who could bestow such marvelous faculties must Himself possess them in infinite measure. And a God who had given to His creatures such powers of communication, must surely have means to make Himself understood.
"If He is," said Hubert, "then He is great! He is infinite. I cannot measure His power in any line. Surely He can reveal Himself to me if He will. Is He willing?"
In the contemplation of God the man grew less and less in his own esteem. Would God reveal Himself to such an atom in the wide universe as he? Did He care for him or about him?
"God is Love," whispered memory, from the Book, and the suggestion beat upon the unarmored heart of the seeker, and was not unwelcome.
"I will put it to the test," he said to himself. "I will ask Him."
He rose from his chair and thought to fall upon his knees, but was resisted. An unlooked for struggle arose within him.
He had said to Frothingham that he was not proud of his scepticism, but now his independent thought arose before him, an image not willing to be crucified. He saw the sneers of his fellow unbelievers, should he join the ranks of the religious. Suppose God should reveal Himself? Would he not be bound to serve Him? A vision of the Man who called Himself the Son of God arose dim and wraith-like, sorrowful, homeless, poor—crucified! If God revealed Himself, perhaps he must follow that Man! Was it worth it? Was it not better to go on as he was, rich, independent, self-governed? If he asked for light, was he ready to follow the light?
His hands clenched themselves in the struggle. The vision of self-abnegation was so real that it sickened him. Home, possessions, friendships, and his own life also, seemed demanded by the vision of that Man. But to turn back from the light that might be gained was to fall into a darkness more damnable and more desolate than before.
"Buy the truth and sell it not," urged a voice, and some glimmer of encouragement seemed in his imagination to smile from the face of the Man of Sorrows. In his decision the sweat broke from his brow and the veins stood in cords of agony. He fell upon his knees, and said aloud:
"O God, if Thou art, reveal Thyself to me, and I will serve Thee."
The solitary gas jet still flickered in the room, the moonlight shone without, the silent household slept. No voice answered the young man's prayer, nor sensible Presence wrapped him about; but a crisis was marked in one life that night and the result was to be light and peace.
Hubert had not imagined what sort of a response should be made to his request, and it was well he had not. But he felt a sense of relief at a decision gained after he had uttered his prayer to God, and soon retired to his bed. It was not to enjoy much sleep, however, for still the vision of the Man of Calvary haunted him, and with it a sense that it was in His footsteps he must tread, if the truth should really be revealed to him. In the slow hours of the night he counted the cost of the tower he should build, and wondered if he would be able to finish it. To him it was granted at the outset of the way to know something of the rugged terms of true discipleship.
* * * * * *
The next morning dawned murky and cool. A thin, struggling rain beat against the windows of Hubert's room when he woke. Things look different by the cold light of day, especially if the day be rainy, from the same things seen by gaslight. With Hubert's instant memory of the night before, came the temptation to dismiss its happenings as a dream and go back to his former way of living. But he could not do so in honesty. He had made a pledge to a supposed Being, whom he must now treat as a reality until the most honest experiment proved Him not to he, or to be inaccessible. Clearly a line of procedure formed itself in his mind. He must seek to know those laws, or principles, that governed the new realm which he sought to enter, and endeavor to adjust himself to them.
So he took from its place on the shelves the Book that was most likely of all to give the suggestions he needed, because it dealt specifically with the matter in hand. Of all those who bore witness in the Book the most remarkable one was Jesus Christ. So he turned to the New Testament, and to the Gospels. He was none too familiar with their teachings, but he believed that of them all the Gospel of John contained the fullest statement of abstract principles. He would read it.
It was still early, and he settled himself for an hour's study. It occurred to him to invoke afresh that One whom he was seeking for light upon His own law. An impulse of pride almost deterred him, but he thought,
"If He is, and I am His creature, I can afford to be humble. Indeed, it is the only fitting thing."
So he bowed his head and said:
"O God, I am seeking Thee. Help me to understand the truth."
He found the Gospel of John, and began at the beginning. He read the sublime statements concerning the Word, and wondered if they were true. If true, it was the most wonderful fact in the world. If untrue—oh, what darkness lay in the shadow of so great light's negation! He read the twelfth verse, and the thirteenth, and pondered them in the light of the foregoing statement. If they were true, then He who was "with God," who "was God"—he paused to consider the mysterious relationship; mysterious, yet not thereby incredible; he would not repeat the folly of the gardener by too ready unbelief! If true, then God, that eternal Word, came down to man, and "as many as received Him," to them it was granted to become the sons of God! They were translated into the realm whence He came forth.
The stupendous fact—if fact?—glowed like a sun-lit prism and awoke an ardent longing that it might be so. Ah, to escape the limits of this petty life! How mean and small it seemed. Man at his best, his grandest, but to live out a brief day, and then go out into the uncertain darkness forever! If God had ordained a way into His own infinite realm, surely it was worth the finding.
But what was it to "receive" Him? In what sense did they in the days of His fleshly life receive Him? Was it in a more physical, tangible way than would he possible to man now? Evidently not; for of those among whom He moved in bodily presence, the majority "received Him not." Certainly His mission to the earth was not for that generation only, but for all men. Perhaps the receiving was explained by the companion statement, "even to them that believe on His name."
But to "believe" was not less difficult to Hubert than to "receive." He had boasted his inability to believe that which was unsupported by evidence, and had found bitter fault with evangelical doctrine, which, he supposed, put a high premium upon blind credulity,—an attitude of mind, he contended, which would render a man as open to receive the teachings of Buddha, or Mahomet if he happened to hear them, as those of Jesus Christ. He might have added, or the teachings of a Payne, or an Ingersoll, or, as a remoter example, of the serpent in Eden who beguiled a credulous woman.
Hubert's search had become so earnest that he did not now pause to nurse his rancor against the defenseless word "believe," and it even flashed into his thought that, should he study diligently its use, he might discover in it a further or different meaning than he had credited it with. At this point he wished for a Greek Testament, but there was none in the house. Later in the day, however, he surprised a book dealer by the purchase of one, and prepared himself for further studies in the "believes" of John's Gospel.
For the present he contented himself with reading on, striving to note all the story and its argument, passing over much, undoubtedly, that would have spoken volumes had he had ears to hear, but still finding much that spoke pointedly and clearly to him. He pondered the testimony of John the Baptist to "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world," and did not understand it. But a feeling almost of jealous envy stole into his heart toward the two disciples of the Baptist, who, hearing the witness, followed Jesus. His hungry soul echoed their "Where dwellest Thou?" in the mystical sense in which he instinctively read it, and he felt it would be joy indeed to hear that One say, "Come and see." Would he not come, indeed, if he were bidden!
Hubert read until the breakfast bell sounded, and then went down to pursue his study in Winifred's bright face, and wonder how much she really knew of the matter he was trying to search out.
"Winnie," he said to her after breakfast, "do you still think you have begun to know God?"
"Yes," she said placidly, "I am sure of it."
"How do you know?" said he. "How does He manifest Himself?"
"I don't know," she answered. "I can't explain it, but He seems very real."
"How did you find Him? What did you do?" he questioned further.
"Oh, I just came to Him," she answered. "And," as she reflected of that night's compact, "I gave myself up to Him."
So that was the way Winifred found Him. Was that the way to "believe"? But Winifred had none of his doubts about God. She believed that He was, and the mental assent led to the heart surrender. But if he should do her act of faith—? If a man with doubts should give himself up would he be received? With such reflections Hubert went out into his day's work.
Again he accomplished the day's business with faithfulness to all details, but with the consciousness every hour of a perplexity unsolved—a burden unlifted. Again he was glad when the office door closed behind him and he turned his face homeward, striding beneath his umbrella through the now settled rain, with the Greek Testament grasped in his hand.
An attractive wood fire burned in the drawing-room grate that evening, but Hubert resisted its invitation and retired to his "scientific den," as Winifred called it, to pursue his new studies. He set himself to read again in the Greek that which he had read in English. He was struck by the fact that the word translated "believe" was also rendered "commit" in a passage in the second chapter. That seemed somewhat more practical to his apprehension.
He lingered long on the interview with Nicodemus, and as the rain beat upon the roof and window pane he listened to the words uttered on a Judean night, so long ago, to a man who like himself sought the truth. In the first chapter of the Gospel, in its introduction, he had caught a glimpse of infinite stretches and light unapproachable, and it seemed no marvel that a man, if he would enter that kingdom, must be born into it! Marvel, indeed, it might be, that such a birth were possible, but not that it was needful. For how could he transgress the boundaries of the human sphere into which he had been born, and lift himself into the higher? It was impossible. No, that life must somehow come forth to him. He must be "born from above."
As he read on into the book, still bearing in mind the character ascribed to Jesus Christ in its beginning, he could not wonder that He spoke with such authority. Not "Thus saith the Lord," but "Verily, verily, I say unto you," the new Prophet declared. What wonder, if He were such a Being as described, that He should offer living water to the Samaritan woman, since "in Him was life," nor that "the work of God" for obtaining eternal life should be narrowed down to a belief in—a committal unto—Himself?
As he considered these things, the emphasis shifted from "believe" to the Person in whom to believe; and it seemed to him that the teaching must be not so much that faith was in itself a way of salvation, as that it was a simple necessity to the taking of the Way—the One sent forth from God; in short, that its own value was purely relative to the One believed in. This seemed to settle a very important question, and drew the sceptic's attention away from his own capabilities of belief to the claims of the proposed object of his faith. He read His words with an interest that was painfully intense, and almost groaned his prayerful longing to know if they were true.
"After all," thought he, "be a man credulous or doubting, absolute knowledge waits upon revelation—upon demonstration."
"O God," he cried finally, "if Thou art, and if Jesus Christ is, and is such an One as described here, give me evidence! Let me know Him and Thee."
He lifted his book again, and this time he read:
"If any man is willing to do his will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it be of God, or whether I speak from myself."
If a voice had spoken aloud the words it would not have conveyed the message more directly to his heart. He paused, as before a pivotal moment of destiny.
"'Willing to do His will!'"
His face whitened. The agony of the night before was upon him. The way of the cross—the picture of the Man who like no other had done the will of God, rose before him and demanded all things.
As drowning men are said to have pass in review the events of a lifetime before them, so in a moment's time the strategic elements of his life appeared before him, and the finger of God pressed the most sensitive points in his nature. He pointed to the counting room of the keen business man, and Hubert saw himself poor for the Kingdom of God's sake. He pointed to the beautiful home and its inmates, and he saw himself homeless, having "hated" father and mother and sister—ah, sharpest pang of all!—for the sake of discipleship to the sorrowful Son of Man. An invisible attraction drew him after Him, and with ashen lips but with fixed heart Hubert Gray took up his cross.
"I am willing to do Thy will," he said. "Only let me know the teaching."
The immediate result of Hubert's work of faith cannot be written. It is incommunicable. One may point to after effects in a life transformed, but of that supernatural witness which comes to men's souls, stamping the words of God as very truth indeed, no description can be given. As jealously guarded as the crown jewels in the Tower of London is the secret of the Lord which is revealed or hidden at His will. To the foolish one who "in his heart" says, "There is no God," no glorious revelation comes; and often even the patent fact of His divine creatorship is not observed. But, given a hungry soul, he shall be filled with good things. And the Spirit waits to charge with electric certainty the teaching of God's truth to the man who in meekness adjusts himself to it.
Cold and colorless glows the transparent prism in the shadow. But let the sun shine through it, and lo! it is alive with all the colors of glory and beauty. So the sunlight shone in the laboratory of Hubert Gray that night and lit up with many rays of refracted glory the doctrine of Jesus Christ. Light focused itself upon the Person, and Hubert saw, as years of painful study would not have taught him without that light, the mysterious merging of his own identity with His; saw mistily, what afterward he should discern more clearly, his own worthless, sinful life vanished in the dying of the One "lifted up"; saw radiantly his own triumph and everlasting life together with the living Christ. To the secret abode where lives are "hid with Christ in God," he came and saw. The unspeakable gladness of the revelation turned the rugged cross into a crown of glory.
The fragrance of a flower stole from his bedroom into the laboratory. He smiled as he recognized it.
"I have not seen the flower," he said, "but its undoubted witness is here. I do not see Thee, Jesus, my Lord and my God, but I believe Thee!—Thou art here." And he worshiped Him.
MR. FROTHINGHAM AND THE CHOIR REHEARSAL
Unsympathetic Nature was still in tears when the next morning broke upon Hubert's new-found joy. But so ardent was it that no weather could dampen it. His first waking thoughts were of the marvelous treasure he had found. A new life stretched out before him. He was a new man. He had entered into a new world whose center of gravity was in heaven, "where Christ is," and an indescribable, exultant gladness filled his soul. He had received Him, the divine Visitant from that other world, and his own soul was quickened with the life He brought. Henceforth he claimed kinship with Him and with the Father. A new motive power of living had entered into his being. He was not conscious of prayer, but it was in his heart, making response to the revelation which had come to him, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" The new realm must have its own laws of living, very contrary to those of this world, and he would know them.
First of all there was a simple, straightforward task before him and he was eager to discharge it. So after a hasty toilet he went down to the library where he rightly surmised he should find his father—also an early riser—and presented himself at the other side of the table before him.
"Eh! Good morning, Hubert," said Mr. Gray, as he looked up from his reading.
"Good morning, father," said Hubert. And he added, "I have something to tell you."
"Really? I hope there is no ill news?" Mr. Gray's first thought was of business, but a second glance at Hubert's face showed there was no unpleasant message to communicate. And there was a strange expression on his son's face. He had never seen it before—not, at least, since Hubert was a boy. No, not even then. What was it?
Hubert answered his father's questions of word and searching look.
"No, father," he said, "it is far from ill news. It is this: I am no longer a sceptic. I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ."
"Eh? What? Hubert!"
The older man's face passed in lightning changes from stages of wonder to joy, and he sprang from his chair. He grasped his son's hand across the table.
"Hubert!" he repeated, "my dear boy!"
His voice choked on the last word. A certain strain of Scottish blood forbade a warmer demonstration, but the two men's hand-clasp was eloquent. Presently Mr. Gray asked Hubert to be seated and tell him all about it, wondering much meanwhile at the change very often sighed for but seldom expected.
Hubert told his story as directly as possible, but minus many details of his heart struggle of which his reserved nature made it impossible to speak. But, bare of all embellishment, the story gave great joy to his father. His own example as a Christian had not been a brilliant one. His principles were just, as men count equity, and his life irreproachable by their standards. But the business man seemed often to hold the ascendency over the disciple of Jesus Christ, and Hubert had sometimes wondered cynically wherein his father differed from himself except in his attendance upon outward religious forms. But the spark of life, dull and smoldering, answered to the breath of Hubert's good news of salvation, and he was unfeignedly glad.
They started together for the dining-room when the bell rang, but met Winifred in the hall. She had just come in from the garden, clad in rain-coat and cap, roses glowing in her cheeks from the keen, damp air, and a big bouquet of flame-colored flowers in her hands.
"We shall have sunshine without the sun," she cried to Hubert. "These flowers have caught his color."
"That is a parable," he answered quickly.
"Expound it please," she said.
Mr. Gray went on into the dining-room, and Hubert explained to Winifred her mystic text.
"These flowers," he said, "give indisputable evidence of the sun's existence, even though we cannot see it. They could not have their color without it. There is a sweet soul in this house who caught the beams of the Sun before I quite knew that He was, and she testified of Him, reflecting His glory when I was in great darkness. It helped me to suppose that He existed and to try to find out for myself."
Winifred looked deeply in Hubert's dark eyes and saw the hunger gone from them. He smiled on her.
"Hubert," she said, "have you found Him?"
"Yes," he said.
Her flowers fell to the floor. She threw her arms about his neck with a sob of joy.
"Oh, Hubert, I am so glad!" she cried. "I prayed—" and her voice broke.
Breakfast waited in the dining-room, but Mr. Gray improved the time by trying to explain to his wife the great change that had come to their son. She could not understand the phenomenon, and the process that led to it was exceedingly misty, but she was glad if Hubert had come to see things differently, and hoped he would join the church at once, and the reproach of his sceptical views be wiped out forever. She felt a little nervous and excited at the announcement, and wondered just what acknowledgment of it she should make. A pink flush had stolen into her fair face by the time Hubert and Winifred entered. He walked straight across the room to where she was standing and took her soft, white hand in both his.
"Has father told you my news, mother?" he asked.
"Yes, dear Hubert," she said, and kissed him. "I am very glad. It has been a grief—" and she hesitated. She thought to say, "that you have not been with us," but he finished the sentence for her.
"That I have not been a Christian? I know it must have been. Forgive me for all the pain it has given you. I have been wrong and blind."
The maid peered in, and Mrs. Gray was glad of the interruption and to propose that they sit down at once. She was glad of breakfast, too. She saw no reason why the coffee should spoil, even though the son and heir of the house had just now come into an inheritance exceeding the most fabulous fortunes of earth.
The blessing was asked less formally than usual, and Mr. Gray thanked the Lord also for the Bread of Life which had visited them. Later in the course of conversation he remarked:
"By the way, you will all be interested to hear that Mr. Bond, who preached for us last Sunday, is to give a series of Bible Lectures in the Y.M.C.A. Hall, beginning in about a fortnight. Mr. Selton is bringing it about. It was through him that we had the privilege of hearing Mr. Bond last Sunday."
"Then it was not upon Doctor Schoolman's invitation?" queried Hubert.
"Oh, he invited him, of course, but it was at Mr. Selton's wish. He is very influential, you know. He heard Mr. Bond when he was in New York last winter and was much interested in his teaching. So he suggested having him here for a Sunday, and himself undertook the expense."
Fortunately for this instance Mr. Selton possessed the two qualifications, so often united in church life, of influence and wealth.
"Later," went on Mr. Gray, "he spoke with several men, including myself, about the advisability of the Bible Lectures, having secured Mr. Bond's consent before he left on Monday. We saw no objection. I think, myself, that we need a little stirring up now and then."
"And the lectures are to be in the Y.M.C.A. Hall?" asked Hubert, with interest.
"Yes, that is a central point, and we wish to make them union meetings."
"I am very glad to hear about it," said Hubert.
The rainy day passed, its somberness meanwhile lightened by a greater glow than that of Winifred's flame-colored flowers, and Friday came, radiant with sunshine. It was passed without special incident until evening, which was the time of the weekly choir rehearsal. Then Mr. George Frothingham called, as had become his wont, to escort Winifred to the church. That had once been Hubert's task, and bitterly he had resented it when gradually the change came about. Now he need have no fear, for his sister was not going. She had not seen Frothingham since Sunday, and during the day had looked forward with a little unpleasant dread to the interview that must be. She imagined various ways in which she should break to him the news that she had left the choir, but none seemed satisfactory. All her little speeches left her as the time drew near.
He found her at the piano, where improvised melodies had been working off her nervous apprehension.
"Not ready?" he asked, after the usual salutations.
"I am not going."
"Really? You are not ill, I hope?"
"Oh, no! I never was better," confessed Winifred.
"You should go above all things to-night," he said. "Mr. Mercer is going to give us parts of the Redemption."
The music was certainly alluring.
"I have left the choir," said Winifred faintly.
Mr. Frothingham never lost his easy self-poise over anything which this jestingly tolerated world offered him, but he allowed himself to be surprised now.
"You are surely not in earnest?" he said. "You of all persons! I thought you were devoted to the choir. You are not going to desert us for some other field of conquest?"
"Oh, no!" said Winifred.
"Have you quarreled with Mercer?" he persisted. "He is cranky sometimes. Shall I fight him?"
Winifred had to laugh at the thought of the handsome, immaculate young man before her in a pugilistic encounter with Mr. Mercer.
"No, you needn't do that," she said; and added, "you would get the worst of it, I think."
"Oh, really! Thanks very much! Perhaps you do not know my prowess in those lines? But on the whole I should prefer a smaller man than Mercer. He shall be spared if you say so."
"You relieve me," said Winifred, laughing.
But how was she to explain the truth to Frothingham? It was easier to jest with him than to speak earnestly, and Winifred had an instinctive feeling, not definitely acknowledged, that to make him understand a spiritual idea would be impossible.
"But really, Winifred," he went on, "if it is not rude to ask, I should like to know what great reason makes you desert us now in the very height of your success, and, I should think, enjoyment?"
Smiles left her face, and a flush of embarrassment deepened in her cheeks. It was very hard to speak to him of these things—harder than it had been to any other.
"That is just it," she said slowly. "It has been a success for me, artistically, and a great enjoyment. But there has been nothing in it for—for—Christ." She hesitated before the sacred name. Why was it so hard to speak it before him?
He was silent. They were already by the simple mention of that name in deeper water, conversationally, than he was accustomed to. She had to go on.
"I have been convinced," she said, "that it has all been very wrong. I have been offering to God a pretended worship, when it has really been the worship of our Art. That must be idolatry, I think. I can't go on with it."
Winifred stopped decisively, and Frothingham found words to reply with just a tinge of irony:
"I am afraid you are a bit too metaphysical for me, Winifred. I don't quite understand you. Do you mean to say singing in the choir is wrong? If it is, it is a pretty common sin and quite generally approved of."
"No, it isn't wrong," said Winifred desperately; "at least, it would be the loveliest thing in the world, I think, if we were all true worshipers, and meant what we sang, and sang to God. But you know it hasn't been anything of the sort. We have sung for our own pleasure and the applause of the people."
"And the money, some of us," asserted Frothingham with indifferent candor. "But I don't see why we should be troubled about it. It's a part of the machine. It goes to make up the church worship, and a considerable part of it. I suppose they offer it to the Lord—or whatever you call it—whether we individual performers mean anything or not."
Winifred thought of the prayer-wheels. Did the church turn the machine and grind out praises by proxy? How much merit did they accumulate thereby in the eyes of God who is a Spirit, and would be worshiped "in spirit and in truth"? It was very perplexing. She could not argue it all out with him, but she said:
"If the individual worshipers are insincere, I should think the total result" (she had a little of her father's business logic) "would be insincerity."
He smiled at her reasoning. "Let the clergy thrash that out," he said. "When they or the church find fault it will be time enough for my conscience to twinge."
"I think one of the clergy did find fault in the sermon Sunday morning," ventured Winifred.
"Oh, that young fellow?" said Frothingham carelessly. "I didn't find out what he was getting at. Doctor Schoolman always looks beatific when we sing. While he continues to beam I shall still consider that singing in the choir is about the most pious act I do."
Mr. Frothingham was rather vain of the brevity of his list of pious deeds.
"Oh, come on, Winifred," he continued, grasping her hand coaxingly, "don't bother your head about such mystical things. Come on and sing. Think of the Redemption."