"That's just it," he agreed, "why don't we? Why can't we?"
"If more clergymen were like you, I think perhaps you might."
His tone, his expression, were revelations.
"I—!" he exclaimed sharply, and controlled himself. But in that moment Grace Larrabbee had a glimpse of the man who had come to arouse in her an intense curiosity. For an instant a tongue of the fires of Vulcan had shot forth, fires that she had suspected.
"Aren't you too ambitious?" she asked gently. And again, although she did not often blunder, she saw him wince. "I don't mean ambitious for yourself. But surely you have made a remarkable beginning at St. John's. Everybody admires and respects you, has confidence in you. You are so sure of yourself," she hesitated a moment, for she had never ventured to discuss religion with him, "of your faith. Clergymen ought not to be apologetic, and your conviction cannot fail, in the long run, to have its effect."
"Its effect,—on what?" he asked.
Mrs. Larrabbee was suddenly, at sea. And she prided herself on a lack of that vagueness generally attributed to her sex.
"On—on everything. On what we were talking about,—the carnival feeling, the levity, on the unbelief of the age. Isn't it because the control has been taken off?"
He saw an opportunity to slip into smoother waters.
"The engine has lost its governor?"
"Exactly!" cried Mrs. Larrabbee. "What a clever simile!"
"It is Mr. Pares," said Hodder. "Only he was speaking of other symptoms, Socialism, and its opposite, individualism,—not carnivalism."
"Poor man," said Mrs. Larrabbee, accepting the new ground as safer, yet with a baffled feeling that Hodder had evaded her once more, "he has had his share of individualism and carnivalism. His son Preston was here last month, and was taken out to the yacht every night in an unspeakable state. And Alison hasn't been what might be called a blessing."
"She must be unusual," said the rector, musingly.
"Oh, Alison is a Person. She has become quite the fashion, and has more work than she can possibly attend to. Very few women with her good looks could have done what she has without severe criticism, and something worse, perhaps. The most extraordinary thing about her is her contempt for what her father has gained, and for conventionalities. It always amuses me when I think that she might have been the wife of Gordon Atterbury. The Goddess of Liberty linked to—what?"
Hodder thought instinctively of the Church. But he remained silent.
"As a rule, men are such fools about the women they wish to marry," she continued. "She would have led him a dance for a year or two, and then calmly and inexorably left him. And there was her father, with all his ability and genius, couldn't see it either, but fondly imagined that Alison as Gordon Atterbury's wife, would magically become an Atterbury and a bourgeoise, see that the corners were dusted in the big house, sew underwear for the poor, and fast in Lent."
"And she is happy—where she is?" he inquired somewhat naively.
"She is self-sufficient," said Mrs. Larrabbee, with unusual feeling, "and that is just what most women are not, in these days. Oh, why has life become such a problem? Sometimes I think, with all that I have, I'm not, so well off as one of those salesgirls in Ferguson's, at home. I'm always searching for things to do—nothing is thrust on me. There are the charities—Galt House, and all that, but I never seem to get at anything, at the people I'd like to help. It's like sending money to China. There is no direct touch any more. It's like seeing one's opportunities through an iron grating."
Hodder started at the phrase, so exactly had she expressed his own case.
"Ah," he said, "the iron grating bars the path of the Church, too."
And just what was the iron grating?
They had many moments of intimacy during that fort night, though none in which the plumb of their conversation descended to such a depth. For he was, as she had said, always "putting her off." Was it because he couldn't satisfy her craving? give her the solution for which—he began to see—she thirsted? Why didn't that religion that she seemed outwardly to profess and accept without qualification—the religion he taught set her at rest? show her the path?
Down in his heart he knew that he feared to ask.
That Mrs. Larrabbee was still another revelation, that she was not at rest, was gradually revealed to him as the days passed. Her spirit, too, like his own, like 'Mrs Constable's, like Eldon Parr's, like Eleanor Goodrich's, was divided against itself; and this phenomenon in Mrs. Larrabbee was perhaps a greater shock to him, since he had always regarded her as essentially in equilibrium. One of his reasons, indeed, —in addition to the friendship that had grown up between them,—for coming to visit her had been to gain the effect of her poise on his own. Poise in a modern woman, leading a modern life. It was thus she attracted him. It was not that he ignored her frivolous side; it was nicely balanced by the other, and that other seemed growing. The social, she accepted at what appeared to be its own worth. Unlike Mrs. Plimpton, for instance, she was so innately a lady that she had met with no resistance in the Eastern watering places, and her sense of values had remained the truer for it.
He did not admire her the less now he had discovered that the poise was not so adjusted as he had thought it, but his feeling about her changed, grew more personal, more complicated. She was showing an alarming tendency to lean on him at a time when he was examining with some concern his own supports. She possessed intelligence and fascination, she was a woman whose attentions would have flattered and disturbed any man with a spark of virility, and Hodder had constantly before his eyes the spectacle of others paying her court. Here were danger-signals again!
Mrs. Plaice, a middle-aged English lady staying in the house, never appeared until noon. Breakfast was set out in the tiled and sheltered loggia, where they were fanned by the cool airs of a softly breathing ocean. The world, on these mornings, had a sparkling unreality, the cold, cobalt sea stretching to sun-lit isles, and beyond, the vividly painted shore,—the setting of luxury had never been so complete. And the woman who sat opposite him seemed, like one of her own nectarines, to be the fruit that crowned it all.
Why not yield to the enchantment? Why rebel, when nobody else complained? Were it not more simple to accept what life sent in its orderly course instead of striving for an impossible and shadowy ideal? Very shadowy indeed! And to what end were his labours in that smoky, western city, with its heedless Dalton Streets, which went their inevitable ways? For he had the choice.
To do him justice, he was slow in arriving at a realization that seemed to him so incredible, so preposterous. He was her rector! And he had accepted, all unconsciously, the worldly point of view as to Mrs. Larrabbee,—that she was reserved for a worldly match. A clergyman's wife! What would become of the clergyman? And yet other clergymen had married rich women, despite the warning of the needle's eye.
She drove him in her buckboard to Jordan's Pond, set, like a jewel in the hills, and even to the deep, cliff bordered inlet beyond North East, which reminded her, she said, of a Norway fiord. And sometimes they walked together through wooded paths that led them to beetling shores, and sat listening to the waves crashing far below. Silences and commonplaces became the rule instead of the eager discussions with which they had begun,—on such safer topics as the problem of the social work of modern churches. Her aromatic presence, and in this setting, continually disturbed him: nature's perfumes, more definable, —exhalations of the sea and spruce,—mingled with hers, anaesthetics compelling lethargy. He felt himself drowning, even wished to drown, —and yet strangely resisted.
"I must go to-morrow," he said.
"To-morrow—why? There is a dinner, you know, and Mrs. Waterman wished so particularly to meet you."
He did not look at her. The undisguised note of pain found an echo within him. And this was Mrs. Larrabbee!
"I am sorry, but I must," he told her, and she may not have suspected the extent to which the firmness was feigned.
"You have promised to make other visits? The Fergusons,—they said they expected you."
"I'm going west—home," he said, and the word sounded odd.
"At this season! But there is nobody in church, at least only a few, and Mr. McCrae can take care of those—he always does. He likes it."
Hodder smiled in spite of himself. He might have told her that those outside the church were troubling him. But he did not, since he had small confidence in being able to bring them in.
"I have been away too long, I am getting spoiled," he replied, with an attempt at lightness. He forced his eyes to meet hers, and she read in them an unalterable resolution.
"It is my opinion you are too conscientious, even for a clergyman," she said, and now it was her lightness that hurt. She protested no more. And as she led the way homeward through the narrow forest path, her head erect, still maintaining this lighter tone, he wondered how deeply she had read him; how far her intuition had carried her below the surface; whether she guessed the presence of that stifled thing in him which was crying feebly for life; whether it was that she had discovered, or something else? He must give it the chance it craved. He must get away—he must think. To surrender now would mean destruction. . .
Early the next morning, as he left the pier in the motor boat, he saw a pink scarf waving high above him from the loggia. And he flung up his hand in return. Mingled with a faint sense of freedom was intense sadness.
THE LINE OF LEAST RESISTANCE
From the vantage point of his rooms in the parish house, Hodder reviewed the situation. And despite the desires thronging after him in his flight he had the feeling of once who, in the dark, has been very near to annihilation. What had shaken him most was the revelation of an old enemy which, watching its chance, had beset him at the first opportunity; and at a time when the scheme of life, which he flattered himself to have solved forever, was threatening once more to resolve itself into fragments. He had, as if by a miracle, escaped destruction in some insidious form.
He shrank instinctively from an analysis of the woman in regard to whom his feelings were, so complicated, and yet by no means lacking in tenderness. But as time went on, he recognized more and more that she had come into his life at a moment when he was peculiarly vulnerable. She had taken him off his guard. That the brilliant Mrs. Larrabbee should have desired him—or what she believed was him—was food enough for thought, was an indication of an idealism in her nature that he would not have suspected. From a worldly point of view, the marriage would have commended itself to none of her friends. Yet Hodder perceived clearly that he could not have given her what she desired, since the marriage would have killed it in him. She offered him the other thing. Once again he had managed somehow to cling to his dream of what the relationship between man and woman should be, and he saw more and more distinctly that he had coveted not only the jewel, but its setting. He could not see her out of it—she faded. Nor could he see himself in it.
Luxury,—of course,—that was what he had spurned. Luxury in contrast to Dalton Street, to the whirring factories near the church which discharged, at nightfall, their quotas of wan women and stunted children. And yet here he was catering to luxury, providing religion for it! Religion!
Early in November he heard that Mrs. Larrabbee had suddenly decided to go abroad without returning home. . . .
That winter Hodder might have been likened to a Niagara for energy; an unharnessed Niagara—such would have been his own comment. He seemed to turn no wheels, or only a few at least, and feebly. And while the spectacle of their rector's zeal was no doubt an edifying one to his parishioners, they gave him to understand that they would have been satisfied with less. They admired, but chided him gently; and in February Mr. Parr offered to take him to Florida. He was tired, and it was largely because he dreaded the reflection inevitable in a period of rest, that he refused. . . . And throughout these months, the feeling recurred, with increased strength, that McCrae was still watching him, —the notion persisted that his assistant held to a theory of his own, if he could but be induced to reveal it. Hodder refrained from making the appeal. Sometimes he was on the point of losing patience with this enigmatic person.
Congratulations on the fact that his congregation was increasing brought him little comfort, since a cold analysis of the newcomers who were renting pews was in itself an indication of the lack of that thing he so vainly sought. The decorous families who were now allying themselves with St. John's did so at the expense of other churches either more radical or less fashionable. What was it he sought? What did he wish? To fill the church to overflowing with the poor and needy as well as the rich, and to enter into the lives of all. Yet at a certain point he met a resistance that was no less firm because it was baffling. The Word, on his lips at least, seemed to have lost it efficacy. The poor heeded it not, and he preached to the rich as from behind a glass. They went on with their carnival. Why this insatiate ambition on his part in an age of unbelief? Other clergymen, not half so fortunate, were apparently satisfied; or else—from his conversation with them—either oddly optimistic or resigned. Why not he?
It was strange, in spite of everything, that hope sprang up within him, a recurrent geyser.
Gradually, almost imperceptibly, he found himself turning more and more towards that line of least resistance which other churches were following, as the one Modern Solution,—institutional work. After all, in the rescuing of bodies some method might yet be discovered to revive the souls. And there were the children! Hodder might have been likened to an explorer, seeking a direct path when there was none—a royal road. And if this were oblique it offered, at least, a definite outlet for his energy.
Such was, approximately, the state of his mind early in March when Gordon Atterbury came back from a conference in New York on institutional work, and filled with enthusiasm. St. John's was incredibly behind the times, so he told Hodder, and later the vestry. Now that they had, in Mr. Hodder, a man of action and ability—ahem! there was no excuse for a parish as wealthy as St. John's, a parish with their opportunities, considering the proximity of Dalton Street neighbourhood, not enlarging and modernizing the parish house, not building a settlement house with kindergartens, schools, workshops, libraries, a dispensary and day nurseries. It would undoubtedly be an expense—and Mr. Atterbury looked at Mr. Parr, who drummed on the vestry table. They would need extra assistants, deaconesses, trained nurses, and all that. But there were other churches in the city that were ahead of St. John's—a reproach —ahem!
Mr. Parr replied that he had told the rector that he stood ready to contribute to such a scheme when he, the rector; should be ready to approve it. And he looked at Mr. Hodder.
Mr. Hodder said he had been considering the matter ever since his arrival. He had only one criticism of institutional work, that in his observation it did not bring the people whom it reached into the Church in any great numbers. Perhaps that were too much to ask, in these days. For his part he would willingly assume the extra burden, and he was far from denying the positive good such work accomplished through association and by the raising of standards.
Mr. Ferguson declared his readiness to help. Many of his salesgirls, he said, lived in this part of the city, and he would be glad to do anything in his power towards keeping them out of the dance-halls and such places.
A committee was finally appointed consisting of Mr. Parr, Mr. Atterbury, and the rector, to consult architects and to decide upon a site.
Hodder began a correspondence with experts in other cities, collected plans, pamphlets, statistics; spent hours with the great child-specialist, Dr. Jarvis, and with certain clergymen who believed in institutionalism as the hope of the future.
But McCrae was provokingly non-committal.
"Oh, they may try it," he assented somewhat grudgingly, one day when the rector had laid out for his inspection the architects' sketch for the settlement house. "No doubt it will help many poor bodies along."
"Is there anything else?" the rector asked, looking searchingly at his assistant.
"It may as well be that," replied McCrae.
The suspicion began to dawn on Hodder that the Scotch man's ideals were as high as his own. Both of them, secretly, regarded the new scheme as a compromise, a yielding to the inevitable . . . .
Mr. Ferguson's remark that an enlarged parish house and a new settlement house might help to keep some of the young women employed in his department store out of the dance-halls interested Hodder, who conceived the idea of a dance-hall of their own. For the rector, in the course of his bachelor shopping, often resorted to the emporium of his vestryman, to stand on the stairway which carried him upward without lifting his feet, to roam, fascinated, through the mazes of its aisles, where he invariably got lost, and was rescued by suave floor-walkers or pert young women in black gowns and white collars and cuffs. But they were not all pert—there were many characters, many types. And he often wondered whether they did not get tired standing on their feet all day long, hesitating to ask them; speculated on their lives—flung as most of them were on a heedless city, and left to shift for themselves. Why was it that the Church which cared for Mr. Ferguson's soul was unable to get in touch with, or make an appeal to, those of his thousand employees?
It might indeed have been said that Francis Ferguson cared for his own soul, as he cared for the rest of his property, and kept it carefully insured,—somewhat, perhaps, on the principle of Pascal's wager. That he had been a benefactor to his city no one would deny who had seen the facade that covered a whole block in the business district from Tower to Vine, surmounted by a red standard with the familiar motto, "When in doubt, go to Ferguson's." At Ferguson's you could buy anything from a pen-wiper to a piano or a Paris gown; sit in a cool restaurant in summer or in a palm garden in winter; leave your baby—if you had one—in charge of the most capable trained nurses; if your taste were literary, mull over the novels in the Book Department; if you were stout, you might be reduced in the Hygiene Department, unknown to your husband and intimate friends. In short, if there were any virtuous human wish in the power of genius to gratify, Ferguson's was the place. They, even taught you how to cook. It was a modern Aladdin's palace: and, like everything else modern, much more wonderful than the original. And the soda might be likened to the waters of Trevi,—to partake of which is to return.
"When in doubt, go to Ferguson!" Thus Mrs. Larrabbee and other ladies interested in good works had altered his motto. He was one of the supporters of Galt House, into which some of his own young saleswomen had occasionally strayed; and none, save Mr. Parr alone, had been so liberal in his gifts. Holder invariably found it difficult to reconcile the unassuming man, whose conversation was so commonplace, with the titanic genius who had created Ferguson's; nor indeed with the owner of the imposing marble mansion at Number 5, Park Street.
The rector occasionally dined there. He had acquired a real affection for Mrs. Ferguson, who resembled a burgomaster's wife in her evening gowns and jewels, and whose simple social ambitions had been gratified beyond her dreams. Her heart had not shrunken in the process, nor had she forgotten her somewhat heterogeneous acquaintances in the southern part of the city. And it was true that when Gertrude Constable had nearly died of appendicitis, it was on this lady's broad bosom that Mrs. Constable had wept. Mrs. Ferguson had haunted the house, regardless of criticism, and actually quivering with sympathy. Her more important dinner parties might have been likened to ill-matched fours-in-hand, and Holder had sometimes felt more of pity than of amusement as she sat with an expression of terror on her face, helplessly watching certain unruly individuals taking their bits in their teeth and galloping madly downhill. On one occasion, when he sat beside her, a young man, who shall be nameless, was suddenly heard to remark in the midst of an accidental lull:
"I never go to church. What's the use? I'm afraid most of us don't believe in hell any more."
A silence followed: of the sort that chills. And the young man, glancing down the long board at the clergyman, became as red as the carnation in his buttonhole, and in his extremity gulped down more champagne.
"Things are in a dreadful state nowadays!" Mrs. Ferguson gasped to a paralyzed company, and turned an agonized face to Holder. "I'm so sorry," she said, "I don't know why I asked him to-night, except that I have to have a young man for Nan, and he's just come to the city, and I was sorry for him. He's very promising in a business way; he's in Mr. Plimpton's trust company."
"Please don't let it trouble you." Holder turned and smiled a little, and added whimsically: "We may as well face the truth."
"Oh, I should expect you to be good about it, but it was unpardonable," she cried . . . .
In the intervals when he gained her attention he strove, by talking lightly of other things, to take her mind off the incident, but somehow it had left him strangely and—he felt—disproportionately depressed, —although he had believed himself capable of facing more or less philosophically that condition which the speaker had so frankly expressed. Yet the remark, somehow, had had an illuminating effect like a flashlight, revealing to him the isolation of the Church as never before. And after dinner, as they were going to the smoking-room, the offender accosted him shamefacedly.
"I'm awfully sorry, Mr. Holder," he stammered.
That the tall rector's regard was kindly did not relieve his discomfort. Hodder laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Don't worry about it," he answered, "I have only one regret as to what you said—that it is true."
The other looked at him curiously.
"It's mighty decent of you to take it this way," he laid. Further speech failed him.
He was a nice-looking young man, with firm white teeth, and honesty was written all over his boyish face. And the palpable fact that his regret was more on the clergyman's account than for the social faux pas drew Holder the more, since it bespoke a genuineness of character.
He did not see the yearning in the rector's eyes as he turned away. . . Why was it they could not be standing side by side, fighting the same fight? The Church had lost him, and thousands like him, and she needed them; could not, indeed, do without them.
Where, indeed, were the young men? They did not bother their heads about spiritual matters any more. But were they not, he asked himself, franker than many of these others, the so-called pillars of the spiritual structure?
Mr. Plimpton accosted him. "I congratulate you upon the new plans, Mr. Hodder,—they're great," he said. "Mr. Parr and our host are coming down handsomely, eh? When we get the new settlement house we'll have a plant as up-to-date as any church in the country. When do you break ground?"
"Not until autumn, I believe," Hodder replied. "There are a good many details to decide upon yet."
"Well, I congratulate you."
Mr. Plimpton was forever congratulating.
"Up-to-date"—"plant"! More illuminating words, eloquent of Mr. Plimpton's ideals. St. John's down at the heels, to be brought up to the state of efficiency of Mr. Plimpton's trust company! It was by no means the first time he had heard modern attributes on Mr. Plimpton's lips applied to a sacred institution, but to-night they had a profoundly disquieting effect. To-night, a certain clairvoyance had been vouchsafed him, and he beheld these men, his associates and supporters, with a detachment never before achieved.
They settled in groups about the room, which was square and high, and panelled in Italian walnut, with fluted pilasters,—the capitals of which were elaborately carved. And Hodder found himself on a deep leather sofa in a corner engaged in a desultory and automatic conversation with Everett Constable. Mr. Plimpton, with a large cigar between his lips, was the radiating centre of one of the liveliest groups, and of him the rector had fallen into a consideration, piecing together bits of information that hitherto had floated meaninglessly in his mind. It was Mrs. Larrabbee who had given character to the career of the still comparatively youthful and unquestionably energetic president of the Chamber of Commerce by likening it to a great spiral, starting somewhere in outer regions of twilight, and gradually drawing nearer to the centre, from which he had never taken his eyes. At the centre were Eldon Parr and Charlotte Gore. Wallis Plimpton had made himself indispensable to both.
His campaign for the daughter of Thurston Gore had been comparable to one of the great sieges of history, for Mr. Plimpton was a laughing-stock when he sat down before that fortress. At the end of ten years, Charlotte had capitulated, with a sigh of relief, realizing at last her destiny. She had become slightly stout, revealing, as time went on, no wrinkles—a proof that the union was founded on something more enduring than poetry: Statesmanship—that was the secret! Step by step, slowly but surely, the memoranda in that matrimonial portfolio were growing into accomplished facts; all events, such as displacements of power, were foreseen; and the Plimptons, like Bismarck, had only to indicate, in case of sudden news, the pigeonhole where the plan of any particular campaign was filed.
Mrs. Larrabbee's temptation to be witty at the expense of those for whom she had no liking had led Hodder to discount the sketch. He had not disliked Mr. Plimpton, who had done him many little kindnesses. He was good-natured, never ruffled, widely tolerant, hail-fellow-well-met with everybody, and he had enlivened many a vestry meeting with his stories. It were hypercritical to accuse him of a lack of originality. And if by taking thought, he had arrived, from nowhere, at his present position of ease and eminence, success had not turned to ashes in his mouth. He fairly exhaled well-being, happiness, and good cheer. Life had gone well with him, he wished the same to others.
But to-night, from his corner, Hodder seemed to see Mr. Plimpton with new eyes. Not that he stood revealed a villain, which he was far from being; it was the air of sophistication, of good-natured if cynical acceptance of things as they were—and plenty good enough, too!—that jarred upon the rector in his new mood, and it was made manifest to him as never before why his appeals from the pulpit had lacked efficacy. Mr. Plimpton didn't want the world changed! And in this desire he represented the men in that room, and the majority of the congregation of St. John's. The rector had felt something of this before, and it seemed to him astonishing that the revelation had not come to him sooner. Did any one of them, in his heart, care anything for the ideals and aspirations of the Church?
As he gazed at them through the gathering smoke they had become strangers, receded all at once to a great distance. . . . Across the room he caught the name, Bedloe Hubbell, pronounced with peculiar bitterness by Mr. Ferguson. At his side Everett Constable was alert, listening.
"Ten years ago," said a stout Mr. Varnum, the President of the Third National Bank, "if you'd told me that that man was to become a demagogue and a reformer, I wouldn't have believed you. Why, his company used to take rebates from the L. & G., and the Southern—I know it." He emphasized the statement with a blow on the table that made the liqueur glasses dance. "And now, with his Municipal League, he's going to clean up the city, is he? Put in a reform mayor. Show up what he calls the Consolidated Tractions Company scandal. Pooh!"
"You got out all right, Varnum. You won't be locked up," said Mr. Plimpton, banteringly.
"So did you," retorted Varnum.
"So did Ferguson, so did Constable."
"So did Eldon Parr," remarked another man, amidst a climax of laughter.
"Langmaid handled that pretty well."
Hodder felt Everett Constable fidget.
"Bedloe's all right, but he's a dreamer," Mr. Plimpton volunteered.
"Then I wish he'd stop dreaming," said Mr. Ferguson, and there was more laughter, although he had spoken savagely.
"That's what he is, a dreamer," Varnum ejaculated. "Say, he told George Carter the other day that prostitution wasn't necessary, that in fifty years we'd have largely done away with it. Think of that, and it's as old as Sodom and Gomorrah!"
"If Hubbell had his way, he'd make this town look like a Connecticut hill village—he'd drive all the prosperity out of it. All the railroads would have to abandon their terminals—there'd be no more traffic, and you'd have to walk across the bridge to get a drink."
"Well," said Mr. Plimpton, "Tom Beatty's good enough for me, for a while."
Beatty, Hodder knew, was the "boss," of the city, with headquarters in a downtown saloon.
"Beatty's been maligned," Mr. Varnum declared. "I don't say he's a saint, but he's run the town pretty well, on the whole, and kept the vice where it belongs, out of sight. He's made his pile, but he's entitled to something we all are. You always know where you stand with Beatty. But say, if Hubbell and his crowd—"
"Don't worry about Bedloe,—he'll get called in, he'll come home to roost like the rest of them," said Mr. Plimpton, cheerfully. "The people can't govern themselves,—only Bedloe doesn't know it. Some day he'll find it out." . . .
The French window beside him was open, and Hodder slipped out, unnoticed, into the warm night and stood staring at the darkness. His one desire had been to get away, out of hearing, and he pressed forward over the tiled pavement until he stumbled against a stone balustrade that guarded a drop of five feet or so to the lawn below. At the same time he heard his name called.
"Is that you, Mr. Hodder?"
He started. The voice had a wistful tremulousness, and might almost have been the echo of the leaves stirring in the night air. Then he perceived, in a shaft of light from one of the drawing-room windows near by, a girl standing beside the balustrade; and as she came towards him, with tentative steps, the light played conjurer, catching the silvery gauze of her dress and striking an aura through the film of her hair.
"It's Nan Ferguson," she said.
"Of course," he exclaimed, collecting himself. "How stupid of me not to have recognized you!"
"I'm so glad you came out," she went on impulsively, yet shyly, "I wanted to tell you how sorry I was that that thing happened at the table."
"I like that young man," he said.
"Do you?" she exclaimed, with unexpected gratitude. So do I. He really isn't—so bad as he must seem."
"I'm sure of it," said the rector, laughing.
"I was afraid you'd think him wicked," said Nan. "He works awfully hard, and he's sending a brother through college. He isn't a bit like—some others I know. He wants to make something of himself. And I feel responsible, because I had mother ask him to-night."
He read her secret. No doubt she meant him to do so.
"You know we're going away next week, for the summer—that is, mother and I," she continued. "Father comes later. And I do hope you'll make us a visit, Mr. Hodder—we were disappointed you couldn't come last year." Nan hesitated, and thrusting her hand into her gown drew forth an envelope and held it out to him. "I intended to give you this to-night, to use—for anything you thought best."
He took it gravely. She looked up at him.
"It seems so little—such a selfish way of discharging one's obligations, just to write out a cheque, when there is so much trouble in the world that demands human kindness as well as material help. I drove up Dalton Street yesterday, from downtown. You know how hot it was! And I couldn't help thinking how terrible it is that we who have everything are so heedless of all that misery. The thought of it took away all my pleasure.
"I'd do something more, something personal, if I could. Perhaps I shall be able to, next winter. Why is it so difficult for all of us to know what to do?"
"We have taken a step forward, at any rate, when we know that it is difficult," he said.
She gazed up at him fixedly, her attention caught by an indefinable something in his voice, in his smile, that thrilled and vaguely disturbed her. She remembered it long afterwards. It suddenly made her shy again; as if, in faring forth into the darkness, she had come to the threshold of a mystery, of a revelation withheld; and it brought back the sense of adventure, of the palpitating fear and daring with which she had come to meet him.
"It is something to know," she repeated, half comprehending. The scraping of chairs within alarmed her, and she stood ready to fly.
"But I haven't thanked you for this," he said, holding up the envelope. "It may be that I shall find some one in Dalton Street—"
"Oh, I hope so," she faltered, breathlessly, hesitating a moment. And then she was gone, into the house.
THE INSIDE OF THE CUP
By Winston Churchill
IX. THE DIVINE DISCONTENT X. THE MESSENGER IN THE CHURCH XI. THE LOST PARISHIONER XII. THE WOMAN OF THE SONG
THE DIVINE DISCONTENT
It was the last Sunday in May, and in another week the annual flight to the seashore and the mountains would have begun again. The breezes stealing into the church through the open casements wafted hither and thither the odours of the chancel flowers, and mingled with those fainter and subtler perfumes set free by the rustling of summer gowns.
As on this day he surveyed his decorous and fashionable congregation, Hodder had something of that sense of extremity which the great apostle to the Gentiles himself must have felt when he stood in the midst of the Areopagus and made his vain yet sublime appeal to Athenian indifference and luxury. "And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent." . . Some, indeed, stirred uneasily as the rector paused, lowering their eyes before the intensity of his glance, vaguely realizing that the man had flung the whole passion of his being into the appeal.
Heedlessness—that was God's accusation against them, against the age. Materialism, individualism! So absorbed were they in the pursuit of wealth, of distraction, so satisfied with the current philosophy, so intent on surrounding themselves with beautiful things and thus shutting out the sterner view, that they had grown heedless of the divine message. How few of them availed themselves of their spiritual birthright to renew their lives at the altar rail! And they had permitted their own children to wander away . . . . Repent!
There was a note of desperation in his appeal, like that of the hermit who stands on a mountain crag and warns the gay and thoughtless of the valley of the coming avalanche. Had they heard him at last? There were a few moments of tense silence, during which he stood gazing at them. Then he raised his arm in benediction, gathered up his surplice, descended the pulpit steps, and crossed swiftly the chancel . . . .
He had, as it were, turned on all the power in a supreme effort to reach them. What if he had failed again? Such was the misgiving that beset him, after the service, as he got out of his surplice, communicated by some occult telepathy . . . . Mr. Parr was awaiting him, and summoning his courage, hope battling against intuition, he opened the door into the now empty church and made his way toward the porch, where the sound of voices warned him that several persons were lingering. The nature of their congratulations confirmed his doubts. Mrs. Plimpton, resplendent and looking less robust than usual in one of her summer Paris gowns, greeted him effusively.
"Oh, Mr. Hodder, what a wonderful sermon!" she cried. "I can't express how it made me feel—so delinquent! Of course that is exactly the effect you wished. And I was just telling Wallis I was so glad I waited until Tuesday to go East, or I should have missed it. You surely must come on to Hampton and visit us, and preach it over again in our little stone church there, by the sea. Good-by and don't forget! I'll write you, setting the date, only we'd be glad to have you any time."
"One of the finest I ever heard—if not the finest," Mr. Plimpton declared, with a kind of serious 'empressement', squeezing his hand.
Others stopped him; Everett Constable, for one, and the austere Mrs. Atterbury. Hodder would have avoided the ever familiar figure of her son, Gordon, in the invariable black cutaway and checked trousers, but he was standing beside Mr. Parr.
"Ahem! Why, Mr. Hodder," he exclaimed, squinting off his glasses, "that was a magnificent effort. I was saying to Mr. Parr that it isn't often one hears a sermon nowadays as able as that, and as sound. Many clergymen refrain from preaching them, I sometimes think, because they are afraid people won't like them."
"I scarcely think it's that," the rector replied, a little shortly. "We're afraid people won't heed them."
He became aware, as he spoke, of a tall young woman, who had cast an enigmatic glance first at Gordon Atterbury, and then at himself.
"It was a good sermon," said Mr. Parr. "You're coming to lunch, Hodder?"
The rector nodded. "I'm ready when you are," he answered.
"The motor's waiting," said the banker, leading the way down the steps to the sidewalk, where he turned. "Alison, let me introduce Mr. Hodder. This is my daughter," he added simply.
This sudden disclosure of the young woman's identity had upon Hodder a certain electric effect, and with it came a realization of the extent to which—from behind the scenes, so to speak—she had gradually aroused him to a lively speculation. She seemed to have influenced, to a greater or less degree, so many lives with which he had come into touch! Compelled persons to make up their minds about her! And while he sympathized with Eldon Parr in his abandonment, he had never achieved the full condemnation which he felt—an impartial Christian morality would have meted out.
As he uttered the conventional phrase and took her hand, he asked himself whether her personality justified his interest. Her glance at Gordon Atterbury in the midst of that gentleman's felicitations on the sermon had been expressive, Hodder thought, of veiled amusement slightly tinctured with contempt; and he, Hodder, felt himself to have grown warm over it. He could not be sure that Alison Parr had not included, in her inner comment, the sermon likewise, on which he had so spent himself. What was she doing at church? As her eyes met his own, he seemed to read a challenge. He had never encountered a woman—he decided—who so successfully concealed her thought, and at the same time so incited curiosity about it.
The effect of her reappearance on Gordon Atterbury was painfully apparent, and Mrs. Larrabbee's remark, "that he had never got over it," recurred to Hodder. He possessed the virtue of being faithful, at least, in spite of the lady's apostasy, and he seemed to be galvanized into a tenfold nervousness as he hustled after them and handed her, with the elaborate attention little men are apt to bestow upon women, into the motor.
"Er—how long shall you be here, Alison?" he asked. "I don't know," she answered, not unkindly, but with a touch of indifference.
"You treat us shamefully," he informed her, "upon my word! But I'm coming to call."
"Do," said Alison. Hodder caught her eye again, and this time he was sure that she surprised in him a certain disdain of Mr. Atterbury's zeal. Her smile was faint, yet unmistakable.
He resented it. Indeed, it was with a well-defined feeling of antagonism that he took his seat, and this was enhanced as they flew westward, Mr. Parr wholly absorbed with the speaking trumpet, energetically rebuking at every bounce. In the back of the rector's mind lay a weight, which he identified, at intervals, with what he was now convinced was the failure of his sermon. . . Alison took no part in the casual conversation that began when they reached the boulevard and Mr. Parr abandoned the trumpet, but lay back in silence and apparently with entire comfort in a corner of the limousine.
At the lunch-table Mr. Parr plunged into a discussion of some of the still undecided details of the new settlement house, in which, as the plan developed, he had become more and more interested. He had made himself responsible, from time to time, for additional sums, until the original estimate had been almost doubled. Most of his suggestions had come from Hodder, who had mastered the subject with a thoroughness that appealed to the financier: and he had gradually accepted the rector's idea of concentrating on the children. Thus he had purchased an adjoining piece of land that was to be a model playground, in connection with the gymnasium and swimming-pool. The hygienic department was to be all that modern science could desire.
"If we are going to do the thing," the banker would, remark, "we may as well do it thoroughly; we may as well be leaders and not followers."
So, little by little, the scheme had grown to proportions that sometimes appalled the rector when he realized how largely he had been responsible for the additions,—in spite of the lukewarmness with which he had begun. And yet it had occasionally been Mr. Parr who, with a sweep of his hand, had added thousands to a particular feature: thus the dance-hall had become, in prospect, a huge sun-parlour at the top of the building, where the children were to have their kindergartens and games in winter; and which might be shaded and opened up to the breezes in summer. What had reconciled Hodder to the enterprise most of all, however, was the chapel —in the plan a beautiful Gothic church—whereby he hoped to make the religious progress keep pace with the social. Mr. Parr was decidedly in sympathy with this intention, and referred to it now.
"I was much impressed by what you said in your sermon to-day as to the need of insisting upon authority in religious matters," he declared, "and I quite agree that we should have a chapel of some size at the settlement house for that reason. Those people need spiritual control. It's what the age needs. And when I think of some of the sermons printed in the newspapers to-day, and which are served up as Christianity, there is only one term to apply to them—they are criminally incendiary."
"But isn't true Christianity incendiary, in your meaning of the word?"
It was Alison who spoke, in a quiet and musical voice that was in striking contrast to the tone of Mr. Parr, which the rector had thought unusually emphatic. It was the first time she had shown an inclination to contribute to the talk. But since Hodder had sat down at the table her presence had disturbed him, and he had never been wholly free from an uncomfortable sense that he was being measured and weighed.
Once or twice he had stolen a glance at her as she sat, perfectly at ease, and asked himself whether she had beauty, and it dawned upon him little by little that the very proportion she possessed made for physical unobtrusiveness. She was really very tall for a woman. At first he would have said her nose was straight, when he perceived that it had a delicate hidden curve; her eyes were curiously set, her dark hair parted in the middle, brought down low on each side of the forehead and tied in a Grecian knot. Thus, in truth, he observed, were seemingly all the elements of the classic, even to the firm yet slender column of the neck. How had it eluded him?
Her remark, if it astonished Hodder, had a dynamic effect on Eldon Parr. And suddenly the rector comprehended that the banker had not so much been talking to him as through him; had been, as it were, courting opposition.
"What do you mean by Christianity being incendiary?" he demanded.
"Incendiary, from your point of view—I made, the qualification," Alison replied, apparently unmoved by his obvious irritation. "I don't pretend to be a Christian, as you know, but if there is one element in Christianity that distinguishes it, it is the brotherhood of man. That's pure nitroglycerin, though it's been mixed with so much sawdust. Incendiary is a mild epithet. I never read the sermons you refer to; I dare say they're crude, but they're probably attempts to release an explosive which would blow your comfortable social system and its authority into atoms."
Hodder, who had listened in amazement, glanced at the banker. He had never before heard him opposed, or seen him really angry.
"I've heard that doctrine," cried Mr. Parr. "Those who are dissatisfied with things as they are because they have been too stupid or too weak or self-indulgent to rise, find it easy to twist the principles of Christianity into revolutionary propaganda. It's a case of the devil quoting Scripture. The brotherhood of man! There has never been an age when philanthropy and organized charity were on such a scale as to-day."
A certain gallant, indomitable ring crept into Alison's voice; she did not seem in the least dismayed or overborne.
"But isn't that just where most so-called Christians make their mistake?" she asked. "Philanthropy and organized charity, as they exist to-day, have very little to do with the brotherhood of man. Mightn't it be you who are fooling yourselves instead of the incendiaries fooling themselves So long as you can make yourselves believe that this kind of charity is a logical carrying out of the Christian principles, so long are your consciences satisfied with the social system which your class, very naturally, finds so comfortable and edifying. The weak and idiotic ought to be absurdly grateful for what is flung to them, and heaven is gained in the throwing. In this way the rich inevitably become the elect, both here and hereafter, and the needle's eye is widened into a gap."
There was on Mr. Parr's lips a smile not wholly pleasant to see. Indeed, in the last few minutes there had been revealed to Hodder a side of the banker's character which had escaped him in the two years of their acquaintance.
"I suppose," said Mr. Parr, slowly, drumming on the table, "you would say that of the new settlement house of St. John's, whereby we hope to raise a whole neighbourhood."
"Yes, I should," replied Alison, with spirit. "The social system by which you thrive, and which politically and financially you strive to maintain, is diametrically opposed to your creed, which is supposed to be the brotherhood of man. But if that were really your creed, you would work for it politically and financially. You would see that your Church is trying to do infinitesimally what the government, but for your opposition, might do universally. Your true creed is the survival of the fittest. You grind these people down into what is really an economic slavery and dependence, and then you insult and degrade them by inviting them to exercise and read books and sing hymns in your settlement house, and give their children crackers and milk and kindergartens and sunlight! I don't blame them for not becoming Christians on that basis. Why, the very day I left New York a man over eighty, who had been swindled out of all he had, rather than go to one of those Christian institutions deliberately forged a check and demanded to be sent to the penitentiary. He said he could live and die there with some self-respect."
"I might have anticipated that you would ultimately become a Socialist, Alison," Mr. Parr remarked—but his voice trembled.
"I don't know whether I'm a Socialist or an Anarchist," she answered. Hodder thought be detected a note of hopelessness in her voice, and the spirit in it ebbed a little. Not only did she seem indifferent to her father's feeling—which incidentally added fuel to it—but her splendid disregard of him, as a clergyman, had made an oddly powerful appeal. And her argument! His feelings, as he listened to this tremendous arraignment of Eldon Parr by his daughter, are not easily to be described. To say that she had compelled him, the rector of St. John's, at last to look in the face many conditions which he had refused to recognize would be too definite a statement. Nevertheless, some such thing had occurred. Refutations sprang to his lips, and died there, though he had no notion of uttering them. He saw that to admit her contentions would be to behold crumble into ruins the structure that he had spent a life in rearing; and yet something within him responded to her words—they had the passionate, convincing ring of truth.
By no means the least of their disturbing effects was due to the fact that they came as a climax to, as a fulfilment of the revelation he had had at the Fergusons', when something of the true nature of Mr. Plimpton and others of his congregation had suddenly been laid bare. And now Hodder looked at Eldon Parr to behold another man from the one he had known, and in that moment realized that their relationship could never again be the same. . . Were his sympathies with the daughter?
"I don't know what I believe," said Alison, after a pause. "I've ceased trying to find out. What's the use!" She appeared now to be addressing no one in particular.
A servant entered with a card, and the banker's hand shook perceptibly as he put down his claret and adjusted his glasses.
"Show him into my office upstairs, and tell him I'll see him at once," he said, and glanced at the rector. But it was Alison whom he addressed. "I must leave Mr. Hodder to answer your arguments," he added, with an attempt at lightness; and then to the rector: "Perhaps you can convince her that the Church is more sinned against than sinning, and that Christians are not such terrible monsters after all. You'll excuse me?"
"Certainly." Hodder had risen.
"Shall we have coffee in the garden?" Alison asked. "It's much nicer outside this time of year."
For an instant he was at a loss to decide whether to accede, or to make an excuse and leave the house. Wisdom seemed to point to flight. But when he glanced at her he saw to his surprise that the mood of abstraction into which she had fallen still held her; that the discussion which had aroused Eldon Parr to such dramatic anger had left her serious and thoughtful. She betrayed no sense of triumph at having audaciously and successfully combated him, and she appeared now only partially to be aware of Hodder's presence. His interest, his curiosity mounted suddenly again, overwhelming once more the antagonism which he had felt come and go in waves; and once more his attempted classification of her was swept away. She had relapsed into an enigma.
"I like the open air," he answered, "and I have always wished to see the garden. I have admired it from the windows."
"It's been on my mind for some years," she replied, as she led the way down a flight of steps into the vine-covered pergola. "And I intend to change parts of it while I am out here. It was one of my first attempts, and I've learned more since."
"You must forgive my ignorant praise," he said, and smiled. "I have always thought it beautiful: But I can understand that an artist is never satisfied."
She turned to him, and suddenly their eyes met and held in a momentary, electric intensity that left him warm and agitated. There was nothing coquettish in the glance, but it was the first distinct manifestation that he was of consequence. She returned his smile, without levity.
"Is a clergyman ever satisfied?" she asked.
"He ought not to be," replied Hodder, wondering whether she had read him.
"Although you were so considerate, I suppose you must have thought it presumptuous of me to criticize your, profession, which is religion."
"Religion, I think, should be everybody's," he answered quietly.
She made no reply. And he entered, as into another world, the circular arbour in which the pergola ended, so complete in contrast was its atmosphere to that of the house. The mansion he had long since grown to recognize as an expression of the personality of its owner, but this classic bower was as remote from it as though it were in Greece. He was sensitive to beauty, yet the beauty of the place had a perplexing quality, which he felt in the perfect curves of the marble bench, in the marble basin brimming to the tip with clear water,—the surface of which, flecked with pink petals, mirrored the azure sky through the leafy network of the roof. In one green recess a slender Mercury hastily adjusted his sandal.
Was this, her art, the true expression of her baffling personality? As she had leaned back in the corner of the automobile she had given him the impression of a languor almost Oriental, but this had been startlingly dispelled at the lunch-table by the revelation of an animation and a vitality which had magically transformed her. But now, as under the spell of a new encompassment of her own weaving, she seemed to revert to her former self, sinking, relaxed, into a wicker lounge beside the basin, one long and shapely hand in the water, the other idle in her lap. Her eyes, he remarked, were the contradiction in her face. Had they been larger, and almond-shaped, the illusion might have been complete. They were neither opaque nor smouldering,—but Western eyes, amber-coloured, with delicately stencilled rays and long lashes. And as they gazed up at him now they seemed to reflect, without disclosing the flitting thoughts behind them. He felt antagonism and attraction in almost equal degree —the situation transcended his experience.
"You don't intend to change this?" he asked, with an expressive sweep of his hand.
"No," she said, "I've always liked it. Tell me what you feel about it."
"You resent it," she declared.
"Why do you say that?" he demanded quickly.
"I feel it," she answered calmly, but with a smile.
"'Resent' would scarcely be the proper word," he contended, returning her smile, yet hesitating again.
"You think it pagan," she told him.
"Perhaps I do," he answered simply, as though impressed by her felicitous discovery of the adjective.
"It's pagan because I'm pagan, I suppose."
"It's very beautiful—you have managed to get an extraordinary atmosphere," he continued, bent on doing himself an exact justice. But I should say, if you pressed me, that it represents to me the deification of beauty to the exclusion of all else. You have made beauty the Alpha and Omega."
"There is nothing else for me," she said.
The coffee-tray arrived and was deposited on a wicker table beside her. She raised herself on an elbow, filled his cup and handed it to him.
"And yet," he persisted, "from the manner in which you spoke at the table—"
"Oh, don't imagine I haven't thought? But thinking isn't—believing."
"No," he admitted, with a touch of sadness, "you are right. There were certain comments you made on the Christian religion—"
She interrupted him again.
"As to the political side of it, which is Socialism, so far as I can see. If there is any other side, I have never been able to discover it. It seems to me that if Christians were logical, they should be Socialists. The brotherhood of man, cooperation—all that is Socialism, isn't it? It's opposed to the principle of the survival of the fittest, which so many of these so-called Christians practise. I used to think, when I came back from Paris, that I was a Socialist, and I went to a lot of their meetings in New York, and to lectures. But after a while I saw there was something in Socialism that didn't appeal to me, something smothering,—a forced cooperation that did not leave one free. I wanted to be free, I've been striving all my life to be free," she exclaimed passionately, and was silent an instant, inspecting him. "Perhaps I owe you an apology for speaking as I did before a clergyman—especially before an honest one."
He passed over the qualification with a characteristic smile.
"Oh, if we are going to shut our ears to criticism we'd better give up being clergymen," he answered. "I'm afraid there is a great deal of truth in what you said."
"That's generous of you!" she exclaimed, and thrilled him with the tribute. Nor was the tribute wholly in the words: there had come spontaneously into her voice an exquisite, modulated note that haunted him long after it had died away . . . .
"I had to say what I thought," she continued earnestly; "I stood it as long as I could. Perhaps you didn't realize it, but my father was striking at me when he referred to your sermon, and spiritual control —and in other things he said when you were talking about the settlement-house. He reserves for himself the right to do as he pleases, but insists that those who surround him shall adopt the subserviency which he thinks proper for the rest of the world. If he were a Christian himself, I shouldn't mind it so much."
Hodder was silent. The thought struck him with the force of a great wind.
"He's a Pharisee," Alison went on, following the train of her thought. "I remember the first time I discovered that—it was when I was reading the New Testament carefully, in the hope of finding something in Christianity I might take hold of. And I was impressed particularly by the scorn with which Christ treated the Pharisees. My father, too, if he had lived in those days, would have thought Christ a seditious person, an impractical, fanatical idealist, and would have tried to trip him up with literal questions concerning the law. His real and primary interest—is in a social system that benefits himself and his kind, and because this is so, he, and men like him, would have it appear that Christianity is on the side of what they term law and order. I do not say that they are hypocritical, that they reason this out. They are elemental; and they feel intuitively that Christianity contains a vital spark which, if allowed to fly, would start a conflagration beyond their control. The theologians have helped them to cover the spark with ashes, and naturally they won't allow the ashes to be touched, if they can help it."
She lay very still.
The rector had listened to her, at first with amazement, then with more complicated sensations as she thus dispassionately discussed the foremost member of his congregation and the first layman of the diocese, who was incidentally her own father. In her masterly analysis of Eldon Parr, she had brought Hodder face to face with the naked truth, and compelled him to recognize it. How could he attempt to refute it, with honesty?
He remembered Mr. Parr's criticism of Alison. There had been hardness in that, though it were the cry of a lacerated paternal affection. In that, too, a lack of comprehension, an impotent anger at a visitation not understood, a punishment apparently unmerited. Hodder had pitied him then—he still pitied him. In the daughter's voice was no trace of resentment. No one, seemingly, could be farther removed from him (the rector of St. John's) in her opinions and views of life, than Allison Parr; and yet he felt in her an undercurrent, deep and strong, which moved him strangely, strongly, irresistibly; he recognized a passionate desire for the truth, and the courage to face it at any cost, and a capacity for tenderness, revealed in flashes.
"I have hurt you," she exclaimed. "I am sorry."
He collected himself.
"It is not you who have hurt me," he replied. "Reflections on the contradictions and imperfections of life are always painful. And since I have been here, I have seen a great deal of your father."
"You are fond of him!"
He hesitated. It was not an ordinary conversation they were dealing with realities, and he had a sense that vital issues were at stake. He had, in that moment, to make a revaluation of his sentiments for the financier—to weigh the effect of her indictment.
"Yes," he answered slowly, "I am fond of him. He has shown me a side of himself, perhaps, that other men have not seen,—and he is very lonely."
"You pity him." He started at her word. "I guessed that from an expression that crossed your face when we were at the table. But surely you must have observed the incongruity of his relationship with your Church! Surely, in preaching as you did this morning against materialism, individualism, absorption in the pursuit of wealth, you must have had my father in mind as the supreme example! And yet he listened to you as serenely as though he had never practised any of these things!
"Clergymen wonder why Christianity doesn't make more progress to-day; well, what strikes the impartial observer who thinks about the subject at all, as one reason, is the paralyzing inconsistency of an alliance between those who preach the brotherhood of man and those who are opposed to it. I've often wondered what clergymen would say about it, if they were frank—only I never see any clergymen."
He was strongly agitated. He did not stop—strangely enough—to reflect how far they had gone, to demand by what right she brought him to the bar, challenged the consistency of his life. For she had struck, with a ruthless precision, at the very core of his trouble, revealed it for what it was.
"Yes," he said, "I can see how we may be accused of inconsistency, and with much justice."
His refusal to excuse and vindicate himself impressed her as no attempt at extenuation could have done. Perhaps, in that moment, her quick instinct divined something of his case, something of the mental suffering he strove to conceal. Contrition shone in her eyes.
"I ought not to have said that," she exclaimed gently. "It is so easy for outsiders to criticize those who are sincere—and I am sure you are. We cannot know all the perplexities. But when we look at the Church, we are puzzled by that—which I have mentioned—and by other things."
"What other things?" he demanded.
She hesitated in her turn.
"I suppose you think it odd, my having gone to church, feeling as I do," she said. "But St. John's is now the only place vividly associated with my mother. She was never at home here, in this house. I always go at least once when I am out here. And I listened to your sermon intently."
"I wanted to tell you this: you interested me as I had not been interested since I was twenty, when I made a desperate attempt to become a Christian—and failed. Do you know how you struck me? It was as a man who actually had a great truth which he was desperately trying to impart, and could not. I have not been in a church more than a dozen times in the last eight years, but you impressed me as a man who felt something —whatever it is."
He did not speak.
"But why," she cried, "do you insist on what you cell authority? As a modern woman who has learned to use her own mind, I simply can't believe, if the God of the universe is the moral God you assert him to be, that he has established on earth an agency of the kind you infer, and delegated to it the power of life and death over human souls. Perhaps you do not go so far, but if you make the claim at all you must make it in its entirety. There is an idea of commercialism, of monopoly in that conception which is utterly repugnant to any one who tries to approach the subject with a fresh mind, and from an ideal point of view. And religion must be idealism—mustn't it?
"Your ancient monks and saints weren't satisfied until they had settled every detail of the invisible world, of the past and future. They mapped it out as if it were a region they had actually explored, like geographers. They used their reason, and what science they had, to make theories about it which the churches still proclaim as the catholic and final truth. You forbid us to use our reason. You declare, in order to become Christians, that we have to accept authoritative statements. Oh, can't you see that an authoritative statement is just what an ethical person doesn't want? Belief—faith doesn't consist in the mere acceptance of a statement, but in something much higher—if we can achieve it. Acceptance of authority is not faith, it is mere credulity, it is to shirk the real issue. We must believe, if we believe at all, without authority. If we knew, there would be no virtue in striving. If I choose a God," she added, after a pause, "I cannot take a consensus of opinion about him,—he must be my God."
Hodder did not speak immediately. Strange as it may seem, he had never heard the argument, and the strength of it, reenforced by the extraordinary vitality and earnestness of the woman who had uttered it, had a momentary stunning effect. He sat contemplating her as she lay back among the cushions, and suddenly he seemed to see in her the rebellious child of which her father had spoken. No wonder Eldon Parr had misunderstood her, had sought to crush her spirit! She was to be dealt with in no common way, nor was the consuming yearning he discerned in her to be lightly satisfied.
"The God of the individualist," he said at length—musingly, not accusingly.
"I am an individualist," she admitted simply. "But I am at least logical in that philosophy, and the individualists who attend the churches to-day are not. The inconsistency of their lives is what makes those of us who do not go to church doubt the efficacy of their creed, which seems to have no power to change them. The majority of people in St. John's are no more Christians than I am. They attend service once a week, and the rest of the time they are bent upon getting all they can of pleasure and profit for themselves. Do you wonder that those who consider this spectacle come inevitably to the conclusion that either Christianity is at fault, is outworn, or else that it is presented in the wrong way?"
The rector rose abruptly, walked to the entrance of the arbour, and stood staring out across the garden. Presently he turned and came back and stood over her.
"Since you ask me," he said slowly, "I do not wonder at it."
She raised her eyes swiftly.
"When you speak like that," she exclaimed with an enthusiasm that stirred him, despite the trouble of his mind, "I cannot think of you as a clergyman,—but as a man. Indeed," she added, in the surprise of her discovery, "I have never thought of you as a clergyman—even when I first saw you this morning. I could not account then for a sense of duality about you that puzzled me. Do you always preach as earnestly as that?"
"I felt as if you were throwing your whole soul into the effort-=oh, I felt it distinctly. You made some of them, temporarily, a little uncomfortable, but they do not understand you, and you didn't change them. It seemed to me you realized this when Gordon Atterbury spoke to you. I tried to analyze the effect on myself—if it had been in the slightest degree possible for my reason to accept what you said you might, through sheer personality, have compelled me to reconsider. As it was, I found myself resisting you."
With his hands clasped behind him, he paced across the arbour and back again.
"Have you ever definitely and sincerely tried to put what the Church teaches into practice?" he asked.
"Orthodox Christianity? penance, asceticism, self-abnegation—repression —falling on my knees and seeking a forgiveness out of all proportion to the trespass, and filled with a sense of total depravity? If I did that I should lose myself—the only valuable thing I've got."
Hodder, who had resumed his pacing, glanced at her involuntarily, and fought an inclination to agree with her.
"I see no one upon whom I can rely but myself," she went on with the extraordinary energy she was able to summon at will, "and I am convinced that self-sacrifice—at least, indiscriminate, unreasoning self-sacrifice—is worse than useless, and to teach it is criminal ignorance. None of the so-called Christian virtues appeals to me: I hate humility. You haven't it. The only happiness I can see in the world lies in self-expression, and I certainly shouldn't find that in sewing garments for the poor.
"The last thing that I could wish for would be immortality as orthodox Christianity depicts it! And suppose I had followed the advice of my Christian friends and remained here, where they insisted my duty was, what would have happened to me? In a senseless self-denial I should gradually have, withered into a meaningless old maid, with no opinions of my own, and no more definite purpose in life than to write checks for charities. Your Christianity commands that women shall stay at home, and declares that they are not entitled to seek their own salvation, to have any place in affairs, or to meddle with the realm of the intellect. Those forbidden gardens are reserved for the lordly sex. St. Paul, you say, put us in our proper place some twenty centuries ago, and we are to remain there for all time."
He felt sweeping through him the reverse current of hostility.
"And what I preach," he asked, "has tended to confirm you in such a mean conception of Christianity?"
Her eye travelled over the six feet of him—the kindling, reflecting eye of the artist; it rested for a moment on the protesting locks of his hair, which apparently could not be cut short enough to conform; on the hands, which were strong and sinewy; on the wide, tolerant mouth, with its rugged furrows, on the breadth and height of the forehead. She lay for a moment, inert, considering.
"What you preach—yes," she answered, bravely meeting his look. "What you are—no. You and your religion are as far apart as the poles. Oh, this old argument, the belief that has been handed down to the man, the authority with which he is clothed, and not the man himself! How can one be a factor in life unless one represents something which is the fruit of actual, personal experience? Your authority is for the weak, the timid, the credulous,—for those who do not care to trust themselves, who run for shelter from the storms of life to a 'papier-mache' fortress, made to look like rock. In order to preach that logically you should be a white ascetic, with a well-oiled manner, a downcast look lest you stumble in your pride; lest by chance you might do something original that sprang out of your own soul instead of being an imitation of the saints. And if your congregation took your doctrine literally, I can see a whole army of white, meek Christians. But you are not like that. Can't you see it for yourself?" she exclaimed.
"Can't you feel that you are an individual, a personality, a force that might be put to great uses? That will be because you are open-minded, because there is room in you for growth and change?"
He strove with all his might to quell the inner conflagration which she had fanned into leaping flames. Though he had listened before to doubt and criticism, this woman, with her strange shifting moods of calm and passion, with her bewildering faculty of changing from passive to active resistance, her beauty (once manifest, never to be forgotten), her unique individuality that now attracted, now repelled, seemed for the moment the very incarnation of the forces opposed to him and his religion. Holder, as he looked at her, had a flash of fierce resentment that now, of all times, she should suddenly have flung herself across his path. For she was to be reckoned with. Why did he not tell her she was an egoist? Why didn't he speak out, defend his faith, denounce her views as prejudiced and false?
"Have I made you angry?" he heard her say. "I am sorry."
It was the hint of reproach in her tone to which the man in him instantly responded. And what he saw now was his portrait she had painted. The thought came to him: was he indeed greater, more vital than the religion he professed? God forbid! Did he ring true, and it false?
She returned his gaze. And gradually, under her clear olive skin, he saw the crimson colour mounting higher . . . . She put forth her hand, simply, naturally, and pressed his own, as though they had been friends for a lifetime . . . .
THE MESSENGER IN THE CHURCH
The annual scourge of summer had descended pitilessly upon the city once more, enervating, depressing, stagnating, and people moved languidly in the penetrating heat that steamed from the pores of the surrounding river bottoms.
The rector of St. John's realized that a crisis had come in his life, —a crisis he had tried to stave off in vain. And yet there was a period during which he pursued his shrunken duties as though nothing had happened to him; as a man who has been struck in battle keeps on, loath to examine, to acknowledge the gravity of his wound; fearing to, perhaps. Sometimes, as his mind went back to the merciless conflict of his past, his experience at the law school, it was the unchaining of that other man he dreaded, the man he believed himself to have finally subdued. But night and day he was haunted by the sorrowful and reproachful face of Truth.
Had he the courage, now, to submit the beliefs which had sustained him all these years to Truth's inexorable inspection? Did he dare to turn and open those books which she had inspired,—the new philosophies, the historical criticisms which he had neglected and condemned, which he had flattered himself he could do without,—and read of the fruit of Knowledge? Twice, thrice he had hesitated on the steps of the big library, and turned away with a wildly beating heart.
Day by day the storm increased, until from a cloud on the horizon it grew into a soul-shaking tempest. Profoundly moved Parr's he had been on that Sunday afternoon, in Eldon Parr's garden, he had resolutely resolved to thrust the woman and the incident from his mind, to defer the consideration of the questions she had raised—grave though they were—to a calmer period. For now he was unable to separate her, to eliminate the emotion—he was forced to acknowledge—the thought of her aroused, from the problems themselves. Who was she? At moments he seemed to see her shining, accusing, as Truth herself, and again as a Circe who had drawn him by subtle arts from his wanderings, luring him to his death; or, at other times, as the mutinous daughter of revolt. But when he felt, in memory, the warm touch of her hand, the old wildness of his nature responded, he ceased to speculate or care, and he longed only to crush and subdue her by the brute power of the man in him. For good or bad, she had woven her spell.
Here was the old, elemental, twofold contest, carnal and spiritual, thoroughly revived! . . .
He recalled, in his musings, the little theological school surrounded by southern woods and fields, where he had sometime walked under autumn foliage with the elderly gentleman who had had such an influence on his life—the dean. Mild-mannered and frail, patient in ordinary converse, —a lion for the faith. He would have died for it as cheerfully as any martyr in history. By the marvels of that faith Holder had beheld, from his pew in the chapel, the little man transformed. He knew young men, their perplexities and temptations, and he dealt with them personally, like a father. Holder's doubts were stilled, he had gained power of his temptations and peace for his soul, and he had gone forth inspired by the reminder that there was no student of whom the dean expected better things. Where now were the thousands of which he had dreamed, and which he was to have brought into the Church? . . .
Now, he asked himself, was it the dean, or the dean's theology through which his regeneration had come? Might not the inherent goodness of the dean be one thing, and his theology quite another? Personality again! He recalled one of the many things which Alison Parr had branded on his memory,—"the belief, the authority in which the man is clothed, and not the man!" The dean's God had remained silent on the subject of personality. Or, at the best, he had not encouraged it; and there were —Hodder could not but perceive—certain contradictions in his character, which were an anomalistic blending of that of the jealous God of Moses and of the God of Christ. There must be continuity—God could not change. Therefore the God of infinite love must retain the wrath which visited sins of the fathers on the children, which demanded sacrifice, atonement,—an exact propitiation for his anger against mankind. An innocent life of sorrow and suffering!
And again, "You and your religion are as far apart as the poles!" Had he, Hodder, outgrown the dean's religion, or had it ever been his own? Was there, after all, such a thing as religion? Might it not be merely a figment of the fertile imagination of man? He did not escape the terror of this thought when he paused to consider his labour of the past two years and the vanity of its results. And little by little the feeling grew upon him, such being the state of his mind, that he ought not to continue, for the present at least, to conduct the services. Should he resign, or go away for a while to some quiet place before he made such a momentous decision? There was no one to whom he could turn; no layman, and no clergyman; not even the old bishop, whom he had more than once mentally accused of being, too broad and too tolerant! No, he did not wish a clergyman's solution. The significance of this thought flashed through him—that the world itself was no longer seeking clergymen's solutions. He must go off alone, and submit his faith to the impartial test.
It was in a vigil of the night, when he lay in the hot darkness, unable to sleep, that he came at length to this resolve. And now that he had cut the knot he was too just to blame Alison Parr for having pointed out —with what often had seemed a pitiless cruelty—something of which he had had a constantly growing perception yet had continually sought to evade. And he reviewed, as the church bells recorded the silent hours, how, little by little, his confidence had crumbled before the shocks of the successive revelations—some of them so slight that they had passed unnoticed: comparisons, inevitably compelled; Dalton Street; the confessions of Eleanor Goodrich and Mrs. Constable; Mr. Plimpton and his views of life—Eldon Parr! Even the slamming of the carriage doors in Burton Street had had a significance!
Might it not prove that this woman had let fall into the turbid waters of his soul the drop that was to clear them forever? He would go away. He would not see her again.
Over the sleeping city, unapprehended, stole the dawn.
He arose, but instead of falling on his knees he went to the window and lifted his face to the whitening sky . . . . Slowly out of the obscurity of the earth's shadow emerged the vague outlines of familiar things until they stood sharply material, in a silence as of death. A sparrow twittered, and suddenly the familiar, soot-grimed roofs were bathed in light, and by a touch made beautiful . . . .
Some hours later the city was wide awake. And Hodder, bathed and dressed, stood staring down from his study window into the street below, full now of young men and girls; some with set faces, hurrying, intent, others romping and laughing as they dodged the trucks and trolley cars; all on their way to the great shoe factory around the corner, the huge funnels of which were belching forth smoke into the morning air. The street emptied, a bell rang, a whistle blew, the hum of distant machinery began . . . .
Later that morning Hodder sat in his study. The shutters were closed, and the intensity of the tropical glare without was softened and diffused by the slanting green slats. His eye wandered over the long and comfortable room which had been his sanctuary in the feverish days of his ministry, resting affectionately on the hospitable chairs, the wide fireplace before which he had been wont to settle himself on winter nights, and even on the green matting—a cooling note in summer. And there, in the low cases along the walls, were the rows of his precious books,—his one hobby and extravagance. He had grown to love the room. Would he ever come back to it?
A step sounded in the hall, a knock, and the well-known gaunt form and spectacled face of McCrae appeared in the doorway.
"Ye wished to see me?" he asked.
"McCrae," said the rector, "I am going off for a while."
His assistant regarded him a moment in silence. Although Hodder had no intention of explaining his reasons, he had a curious conviction that it were superfluous to do so, that McCrae had guessed them.
"Why shouldn't ye? There's but a handful left to preach to in this weather."
"I wouldn't go, in this sudden way, if it were not imperative," Hodder added, trying to speak calmly.
"Why shouldn't ye?" McCrae repeated, almost fiercely.
Hodder smiled in spite of himself.
"There's no reason," he said, "except the added work put on you without warning, and in this heat."
"Ye'll not need to worry," his assistant assured him, "the heat's nothing to me." McCrae hesitated, and then demanded abruptly, "Ye'll not be visiting?"
The question took Hodder by surprise.
"No," he answered quickly, and not quite steadily, and hesitated in his turn, "I shan't be visiting."
"It's a rest ye need, I've been wanting to say it." McCrae took a step forward, and for a moment it seemed as though he were at last about to break the bonds of his reserve. Perhaps he detected an instinctive shrinking on the rector's part. At any rate, there was another instant of silence, in which the two men faced each other across the desk, and McCrae held out his hand. "Good luck to ye," he said, as Hodder took it, "and don't have the pariah on your mind. Stay till ye're rested, and come back to us."
He left the room abruptly. Hodder remained motionless, looking after him, and then, moved apparently by a sudden impulse, started toward the door,—only to halt and turn before he got to it. Almost he had opened his lips to call his assistant back. He could not do it—the moment had come and fled when it might have been possible. Did this man hide, under his brusqueness and brevity of speech, the fund of wisdom and the wider sympathy and understanding he suspected? Hodder could have vouched for it, and yet he had kept his own counsel. And he was struck suddenly by the significance of the fact, often remarked, that McCrae in his brief and common-sense and by no means enlivening sermons had never once referred in any way to doctrine or dogma!
He spent half an hour in collecting and bestowing in two large valises such articles as his simple needs would demand, and then set out for a railroad office in the business portion of the city, where he bought his ticket and berth. Then, after a moment of irresolution on the threshold of the place, he turned to the right, thrusting his way through the sluggish crowds on Tower Street until he came to the large bookstore where he had been want to spend, from time to time, some of his leisure moments. A clerk recognized him, and was about to lead the way to the rear, where the precious editions were kept, when Hodder stopped him.