"And what did Paul the Apostle say? Did he own up that he was Paul?"
Reverdy halted in his tale. "Look here, Squire! I don't feel just right, havun' you say such things. It sounds—well, like profane swearun'."
"Any worse than Dylks or Enraghty? You go right ahead, Abel. I'll take the responsibility before the law."
"Well," Reverdy continued with a reluctance that passed as he went on, "what Dylks told him was that he would increase his faith, so't he could see the sights of his power, and glorify him among men, and then Enraghty he commenced to git warm ag'in, and Dylks he turned up his eyes and kep' still, and it was so bright all round him that it made the daylight like dusk, and Dylks made him hark if he didn't hear a kind of rush in the air, and Dylks said it was the adversary of souls, but he would conquer him. They came into a deep holler in the woods and there they see the devil standun' in their way, and Dylks he lights and hollers out, 'Fear not, Paul; this day my work is done,' and he went towards Satan and Satan he raised his burnun' wings and bristled his scales, and stuck out his forked tongue and dropped melted fire from it; and he rolled his eyes in his head, hissun' and bubblun' like sinners boilun' in hell's kittles. Then Dylks he got down on his knees and prayed, and got up and give his shout of Salvation, and the devil's wings fell, and he took in his tongue, and his eyes stood still, and Dylks he blowed his breath at him, and Satan he turned and jumped, and every jump he give the ground shook, and Dylks and the balance of 'em follered him till the devil come to Brother Mason's house, and then he jumped through the shut winder out of sight. They found Brother Mason's son David in bed sick, but he got up and took Dylks in his arms and called him his Savior, and everybody got down on their knees and prayed, and their faces was shinun' beautiful, and Dylks he walks round David Mason, and rubs his hands over him, and says, 'I bind the devil for a thousand years,' and he hugged David, and said, 'The work is done.' And he wouldn't stay to preach there, but told 'em they must come back with him to the Temple here in Leatherwood. On the way back he wouldn't talk at all, hardly, but just kep' sayun', 'The perfect work is done,' and he didn't give his shout any more; just snorted."
Braile's pipe had gone out, but he pulled at it two or three times, before he said, "Well, Abel, I don't wonder Sally is excited. I suppose you would be, if you believed a word of this yarn?"
"Well, it's poorty cur'ous doun's, Squire," Reverdy said, daunted between his natural bent and his wish to be of the Squire's thinking. "Don't you believe it?"
"Oh, yes, I believe it. But you know I believe anything. If Dylks did it, and Enraghty says he did it, why there we've got the gospel for it—right from St. Paul himself."
He said no more, and Reverdy lingered a moment in vague disappointment. Then he sighed out, "Well, I must be goun', I reckon," and thumped his bare heels into the claybank's ribs and rode away.
Day by day the faith in Dylks spread with circumstance which strengthened it in the converts; they accepted the differences which parted husband and wife, parent and child, and set strife between brothers and neighbors as proof of his divine authority to bring a sword; they knew by the hate and dissension which followed from his claim that it was of supernatural force, and when the pillars of the old spiritual temple fell one after another under his blows, they exalted in the ruin as the foundation of a new sanctuary. They drove the worshipers out of the material Temple, Methodists and Moravians and Baptists who had used it in common. They met to dedicate it solely to the doctrine of the prophet who came teaching that neither he nor they should ever die, but should enter in the flesh into the New Jerusalem which should come down to them at Leatherwood. His steps in passing from teacher to prophet and to Messiah were contested by a few with bitter and strenuous dissent, but on the night when Dylks proclaimed before the thronging assembly in the stolen Temple, "I am God and there is none else," they pressed round him, men and women and children, and worshiped him. "I am God and the Christ in one," he proclaimed. "In me, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are met. There is no salvation except by faith in me. They who put their faith in me shall never taste death, but shall be translated into the New Jerusalem, which I am going to bring down from Heaven." He snorted; the few unbelievers protested in abhorrence; but the Sisters in the faith shrieked and the Brothers shouted, "We shall never die!" Dylks came down from the pulpit among them, and Enraghty called out, "Behold our God!" and they fell on their knees before him. As it had been from the beginning, the wisest and best, the first in prayer and counsel, were foremost in the idolatry; and young girls, and wives and mothers joined in hailing Dylks as their Creator and Savior, and besought him to bless and keep them.
The believers were in such force that none of the Hounds, veteran disturbers of camp-meetings and revivals, who were there, dared molest them; the few members of the sects expelled from the Temple of their common worship held aloof from the tumult in dismay, and made no attempt to reclaim the sanctuary. One man, not of any church, but of standing in the community, tried to incite the sectarians to assert their rights, but found no following among them. They left the Temple together with certain others who had been trembling toward belief in Dylks, but whom the profanation repelled; when they were gone the tumult sank enough to let Enraghty announce another meeting a week hence, and then dismiss the congregation.
"An' afore that we're goin' to have a murricle," Sally Reverdy told Squire Braile, sitting early the next morning at the receipt of gossip on his cabin porch with his pipe between his teeth; her cow had not come up the night before, and Abel had not found her in the woods-pasture when he went to look. "An' I couldn't wait all day, an' I just slipped over to git some milk of Mis' Braile," she explained to the Squire as she paused with the bucket in her hand. "I told her I'd bring it back the first chance't I git at our cow; I reckon Abel will find her some time or 'nuther; and I 'lowed you had plenty."
Braile had already heard her explaining all this to his wife, but now he kept her for the full personal detail of the last night's event at the Temple. She ended an unsparing report of the wonders seen with a prophecy of wonders to come.
"Why," Braile said, "I don't see what you want of a miracle more than what you've had already. The fact that your cow didn't come up last night, and Abel couldn't find her in the woods-pasture this morning is miracle enough to prove that Dylks is God. Besides, didn't he say it himself, and didn't Enraghty say it?"
"Well, yes, they did," Sally assented, overborne for the moment by his logic.
"And didn't you all believe them?"
"Well, we all did," Sally said. "But look here, Squire Braile, what about them that didn't believe it?"
"Oh, then there were some there that didn't believe it! Well, I suppose nothing less than more miracles will do for them. Who were they?"
"Well, of course, there was Jim Redfield; he's been ag'inst him from the first; and there was old George Nixon, and there was Hughey Blake, and a passel of the Hounds that I don't count."
"Why, certainly not; the Hounds would doubt anything. But I'm surprised at Redfield and Nixon and Hughey Blake. What reason did they give for the faith that wasn't in them? When a man stood up and snorted like a horse and said he was God, why didn't they believe him? Or the other fellows that didn't snort, but said they knew it was God from a sound that he made?"
"Oh, pshaw, now, Squire Braile!" Sally gurgled. She did not yield quite with Abel's helplessness at a joke, but the Squire's blasphemous irony had its force with her too, though she felt it right to bring herself back to her religious conviction with the warning, "Some day you'll go too fur."
"Yes, I'm always expecting the lightning to strike in the wrong place. Didn't Nixon or Redfield or Hughey Blake say anything? Or did they just look ashamed of you, down there on your knees before a man that you worshiped for a God because he snorted like a horse? Didn't anybody in their senses say anything, or couldn't those that were out of their senses hear anything but their own ravings?"
The old man had pleased himself with his mockeries, but now he let the scorn which his irony had hidden blaze out. "Wasn't anybody ashamed of it all? Weren't you ashamed yourself, Sally?"
"Well, I dunno," Sally said, easing herself from one foot to another and shifting the milk-bucket from her right hand to her left. "Where everybody is goun' one way, you don't know what to think exactly. Jane Gillespie was there, and she went on as bad as the best."
"Yes. She come with me, and she was goun' to come home with me, as fur's the door, and she would ha' done it, if it hadn't ha' been for her father. He bruk through the believers and drug her up from the floor where she was kneelun' and stoopun' her forehead over to the ground, and pulled her out through the crowd. 'You come home with me!' says he, kind o' harsh like; and if it hadn't ha' been for Nancy Billuns's Joey I'd ha' had to git through the woods alone, and the dear knows I'm always skeered enough. But Joey and Benny Hingston they come with me, or I don't feel as if I'd been here to tell it."
"You'd have been safe from the devil, though; he stayed with Dylks. Didn't David say anything to the girl?"
"Just, 'You come home with me,' and he looked so black that Hughey Blake he kind o' started from where he was standun' with the unbelievers, and he says, 'Oh, don't, Mr. Gillespie!'—like that—and Jane she said, 'It's my father, Hugh,' and she went along with him, kind o' wild lookun', like she was walkun' in her sleep. I noticed it at the time."
"Didn't Dylks do anything—say anything?"
"Well, not that I seen or hearn. But some o' them that was standun' nigh him was talkun' about it when we all got out, and they was sayun' he said, 'Go with your earthly father; your heavenly father will keep you safe!' I don't know whether he did or not; but that's what they was sayun."
"And did Gillespie say anything back?"
"Not't anybody heared. Just give Dylks a look like he wanted to kill him, and then Dylks snorted, and yelled 'Salvation!' Squire," Sally broke off, "some of us believers was talkun' it over, when we started home, and wonderun' what ought we to call him. Jest Dylks don't sound quite right, and you can't say Almighty, to a body, exactly, and you can't say Lord. What should you think was the right way?"
Braile got back to his irony. "Well, that's an important question, Sally. I should call him Beelzebub, myself; but then I'm not a believer. That night when he first came, didn't he tell the people to call him just Dylks?"
"Yes, he did, but that was for the present, he said."
"Has he given himself any other name?"
"Then I should let it go at Dylks."
"Just plain Dylks? Mr. Dylks wouldn't do; or Brother Dylks, wouldn't. Father Dylks don't sound quite the thing—"
"Might try Uncle Dylks," Braile said, cackling round his pipe-stem, and now Sally perceived that it was in vain to attempt serious discussion of the point with him.
She said, "Oh, pshaw, Squire Braile," and lankly let herself down sidewise from the porch, and flopped away on the road. Then she stopped, and called back, "Say, Squire, what do you think of the Good Old Man?"
"What good old man?"
"Why, Dylks. For a name. That's what most of 'em wants to call him."
"Sounds like a good name for them that like a name like it."
"He calls us the Little Flock."
"Well, well! Geese or sheep?"
"Oh, pshaw, now! I wouldn't belong to the Herd of the Lost, anyway. That's what he calls the unbelievers."
"You don't tell me! Well, now I will be scared in the dark."
Failing of any retort, Sally now flopped definitively beyond calling back.
Braile watched her going with a sardonic smile, but when his wife, after waiting for her to be quite gone, came out to him, he was serious enough.
"Did that fool tell you of the goings on at the Temple last night?"
"As much as I would let her. I suppose it had to come to something like that. It seems as if the people had gone crazy."
"Yes," the Squire sighed heavily, "there's no doubt about that. And it's a pity. For such a religious community Leatherwood Creek used to be a very decent place to live in. They were a lot of zealots, but they got on well with one another; that Temple of theirs kept them together, and they didn't quarrel much about doctrine. Now with the Dylksites driving the old-fashioned believers out of the sanctuary and dedicating it to the exclusive worship of Dylks, the other denominations are going to fight among themselves; and there'll be no living with them. And that isn't the worst of it. This new deity isn't going to be satisfied with worship merely. Money, of course, he'll want and get, and he'll wear purple and fine linen, and feed upon fried chicken every day. Still the superstition might die out, and no great harm done, if the faith was confined to men. But you know what women are, Martha."
"They're what men make 'em," Mrs. Braile said sadly.
"It's six of one and half a dozen of another, I'm afraid. But this god of theirs is a handsome devil, and some poor fool of a girl, or some bigger fool of a married woman, is going to fall in love with him, and then—"
"Did you just think of that? Well, you can't help it by lettin' your coffee get cold."
Braile tilted his chair down and rose from its rebound to follow his wife stiffly indoors. "The question is, Who will it be? Which poor girl? Which bigger fool? And nothing can be done to prevent it! The Real God put it into human nature, and all Hell couldn't stop it. Well, I suppose it's for some wise purpose," he ended, in parody of the pious resignation prevailing on the tongues of the preachers.
David Gillespie woke later than his daughter, and when he had put away the shadows of his unhappy dreams he took up the burden of waking thoughts which weighed more heavily on him. The sight of his child groveling at the feet of that blasphemous impostor and adoring him as her God pitilessly realized itself to him as a thing shameful past experience and beyond credence, and yet as undeniable as his pulse, his breath, his seeing and hearing. The dread which a less primitive spirit would have forbidden itself as something too abominable, possessed him as wholly possible. He had lived righteously, and he had kept evil from those dear to him, both the dead and the quick, by the force of his strong unselfish will; now he had seen his will without power upon the one who was dearest, and whom he seemed to hold from evil only by the force of his right hand. But his hand could not be everywhere and at all times; and then?
The breakfast which the girl had got for him and left on the hearth was warm yet, when he put it on the table, and she could not have been gone more than a few minutes, but she had gone, he did not know where, without waiting to speak with him after the threats and defiances which they had slept upon. When he had poured the coffee after the mouthfuls he forced down, he acted on the only hope he had and crossed the woods-pasture to his sister's cabin.
She understood the glance he gave within from the threshold where he paused, and said, "She ain't here, David." Nancy had cleared her breakfast away and was ironing at the shelf where she had eaten; the baby was playing on the floor.
Gillespie looked down at it. "I didn't know but what she'd come over to dress it; she cares so much for it."
"It cares for her, too. But what brings you after her?"
"She's gone somewhere without her breakfast. We had high words last night after I brought her home."
"I'm afraid you'll have higher words, yet, David. Joey was at the Temple."
"Nancy, I don't know what to do about her."
"You knew what to do about me, David." She gave her stab, and then she pitied him, not for the pain she was willing he should feel from it, but for the pain he was feeling before. "I know it isn't like that. I'm sorry for you both. You haven't come to the end of your troubles."
"I can't understand the girl," he said desolately. "Up to a year ago she was like she had always been, as biddable as a child, and meek and yielding every way. All at once she's got stiff-necked and wilful."
"She couldn't tell you why, herself, David. We are all that way—good little girls—and then all of a sudden wilful women. I don't know what changes us. It's harder on us than it is on you. It came on me like a thief in the night and stole away my sense. It gave Joseph Dylks his chance over me; if it had been sooner or later I should have known he was a power of darkness as far as I could see him. But my eyes were holden by my self-conceit, and I thought he was an angel of light."
"He's got past being an angel now," Gillespie said, forcing himself to the real matter of his errand, far from the question of his daughter's estrangement from her old self. "Did Joey tell you about—last night?"
Nancy did not quit the psychological question at once. "Up to that time we think our fathers and brothers are something above the human; then we think they're not even up to the common run of men. We think other men are different because we don't know them. Yes," she returned to his question with a sigh, "Joey told me something about it—enough about it. I suppose it isn't right to let him be a spy on his father; but I have to. If I didn't he might want to go, from the talk of those fools, and get to believin' with them. He said there was boys and girls kneelin' with the rest—little children, almost, and shoutin' and prayin' to Joseph. Did you see 'em?"
"Yes; it was dreadful, Nancy. But it was worse to see the women, the grown-up girls, and the mothers of the children. It looked like they had been drinking. It fairly turned me sick. And my own daughter groveling on her knees with the worst! If I didn't know Dylks for the thing he is, without an idea beyond victuals and clothes, I might ha' thought he had thrown a spell on 'em, just for deviltry. But they done it all themselves; he just gave them the chance to play the fool."
Nancy resumed from her own more immediate interest, "Well, I let Joey go; and I don't know whether it helps or hurts to have him come home feelin' about him, and all the goings on, just like I would myself. He always says he's glad I wasn't there, and he pities the poor fool women more than he despises his father. Or I ortn't to say despise; Joey don't despise anybody; he's all good, through and through; I don't know where he gets it. He's like Laban, and yet he ain't any kin to Laban."
"It must be hard on you, Nancy. I don't know how you can bear up the way you do. It is like a living streak of fire in me."
"That's because there's some hope left in you. I can bear what I've got to because the feeling is all burnt out of me. It's like as if my soul was dead."
"You mustn't say that, Nancy."
"I say anything I please, now; anything I think. I'm not afraid any more; I hain't got anything left to be afraid of."
"Well, I have," David returned. "Something I'm ashamed to be afraid of it: his hold on Jane. I don't understand it. We've always thought alike and believed alike, and now to see her gone crazy after a thief and liar like that! It's enough to drive me mad the other way. I don't only want to kill him; I want to kill—"
"David!" she stopped him, and in his pause she added, "You're worse than what I ever was. Where is your religion?"
"Where is her religion? I raised her to fear God, the Bible God that I've prayed to for her since she was a little babe, but now since she's turned to this heathen image I begin to turn from Him. What's He been about if He's All Seeing and All Powerful, to let loose such a devil on a harmless settlement like this where we were all brethren and dwelt together in unity, no matter whether we believed in dipping or sprinkling? We loved one another—in the Scripture sense—and now look! Families broken up, brothers not speaking, wives and husbands parting, parents cursing the day their children were born, and children flying in the face of their parents. Did you hear about Christopher Mills, how he come crying to his father and mother and tried to make them believe in Dylks, and when his father said it was all a snare and a delusion, Christopher went away telling them their damnation was sealed?"
"No," the woman said with bitter pleasure in the mockery, "but I heard how our new Saint Paul Enraghty went over to his uncle's the other day, and said he should never see corruption, and should never die, and told his uncle he couldn't shoot him. Them that was there say the old man just reached for his rifle, and was going to shoot Saint Paul in the legs, and then Paul begged off and pretended that he was only in fun!"
She laughed, but David Gillespie looked sadly at her. "I don't believe I like to hear you laugh, Nancy."
"Why, are you turning believer too, David? It'll be time for me next," she mocked. "I couldn't laugh at Joseph, may be, but Saint Paul Enraghty is a bigger rascal or a bigger fool than he is. Some say that Joseph is just crazy, and some that he's after money, and that Enraghty's put him up to everything."
"Yes," David moodily assented to the general tenor of her talk. "The way they've roped in between 'em that poor fool Davis who'd been preaching for the United Brethren, and now preaches Dylks! First he wouldn't hardly go into the same house, and then he wouldn't leave it till he could come with Dylks. I don't know how they do it! Sometimes I think the decentest man left in the place is that red-mouthed infidel, Matthew Braile! Sometimes I'm a mind to go to his house and get him to tell me what Tom Paine would do in my place."
"You are pretty far gone, David. But I don't wonder at it; and I don't believe I think so badly of Matthew Braile, either. He may be an infidel, but he believes in some kind of a God that wants people to do right; he don't believe in mortal sin, and may be that's where he's out; and I hear tell he don't think there's going to be any raisin' of the body, or any Last Day, or any Hell; but he keeps it to himself unless folks pester him. I was afraid once to have Joey talk with him, before the plow went over me. But now I let Joey go to him all he wants to. He lets Joey come and pet the coon Joey give him because he heard that the Squire's little boy used to want one. From all I can make out they don't do much but talk about the little boy; he seems to take comfort in Joey because Joey's like him, or the Squire thinks so."
"If Jane had died when she was his little boy's age, I wouldn't feel as if I had lost her half as much as I do now."
Nancy lifted herself from her ironing-board and looked at her brother. "You told me what the duty of a woman was that found out she had two husbands. Don't you know what the duty of a man is that has a daughter turned idolater?"
"No, I don't, Nancy," David answered doggedly.
"Then, why don't you wrestle with the Lord in prayer? Perhaps He'd make you some sign."
"Oh, prayer! The thought of it makes me sick since I saw them fools wallowing round at Dylks's feet, and beseeching that heathen image to save them."
"Then if you hain't got any light of yourself, and you don't believe the Lord can give you any, what do you expect me to do for you?"
"I don't expect anything, Nancy. If she was a child I could whip it out of her, but when your child has got to be a woman you can't whip her."
They left the hopeless case, and began to talk of the things they had heard, especially the miracle which Dylks had promised to work. "He's appointed it for to-night," Gillespie said, "but I don't believe but what he'll put it off, if the coast ain't clear when the time comes. He always had the knack of leaving the back door open when he saw trouble coming up to the front gate."
"You can't tell me anything about Joseph Dylks," Nancy said. She was ironing, and at the last word she brought the iron down with the heavy thump that women give with it at an emphatic word in their talk. "What I wonder is that a man like you, David, could care what people in such a place as this would say if they found out that I was livin' with Laban when I knowed Dylks was alive. There wouldn't be any trouble with his followers, I reckon. He'd just tell 'em he never saw me in his life before, and that would do them."
"Nancy," her brother turned solemnly upon her, "as sure as I'm standing here I don't care for that any more. If you say the word, I'll go and tell Laban to come back to you."
"You're safe there, David. If you've parted with your conscience, I've got it from you. I wonder you don't go and follow after Joseph Dylks too. All the best and smartest men in the place believe in him. Just look at Mr. Enraghty! A man with more brains and book learnin' than all the rest put together; willin' to be the Apostle Paul because Joseph Dylks called him it, and gets up in the Temple where he used to preach Christ Jesus and Him crucified, and tells the people to behold their God in Joseph Dylks! There's just one excuse for him: he's crazy. If he ain't he's the wickedest man in Leatherwood, the wickedest man in the whole world; he's worse than Joseph Dylks, because he knows better. Joseph is such a liar that he could always make himself believe what he said. But it's no use your stayin' here, David!" She suddenly broke off to turn on her brother. "If you're a mind to let Jane come, I'll try what I can do with her."
The old man faltered at the door. "Are you going to tell her, Nancy?"
"I'm not going to tell you, whether I am or not, David!"
Her words began harshly, but ended with his name tenderly, pitifully uttered.
She called after him as he moved from her door, heavily, weakly, more like an old man than she had noted him yet, "I'll talk to Jane, and whatever I say will be for her good." She watched him out of sight from where she was working; then she went to the door, with some mind to call more kindly yet to him; but he was not to be seen, and she went back to her ironing, and ironed more swiftly than before, moving her lips in a sort of wrathful revery. From time to time she changed her iron for one at the hearth, which she touched with her wetted finger to test its heat, and returned to her table with an unconscious smile of satisfaction in its quick responsive hiss. In her movements to and fro she spoke to the baby, which babbled inarticulately up to her from the floor. Then she seemed to forget it, and it was in one of these moments of oblivion that she was startled by a sharp cry of terror from it. A man was looking in at the door.
The man stood with one foot on the log doorstep outside and the other planted on the threshold of the cabin.
Nancy came toward him with her iron held at arms' length before her. "What do you want?" she demanded fiercely.
"Give me to drink," he said, with a grin.
"Go round to the well," she answered.
The man bent his body a little forward, and looked in, but he did not venture to lift his other foot to the threshold. "Where is your husband?" he asked.
"I have no husband. What is it to you?"
"'Thou sayest well ... for him whom thou now hast, is not thy husband.' You don't look a bit older, and you're as handsome as ever, Nancy. I suppose that's his," he said, turning his eye towards the little one on the floor, lifted by her hands half upright, and peering at him, in conditional alarm.
"It's mine," she retorted.
"Oh, anybody could see that. It's the image of you. And so is our Joey. You don't let your young ones favor your husbands much, Nancy; and yet you was not always so set against me. What's your notion letting Joey come to the Temple?"
"To see for himself what you are."
"That's what I thought, maybe. Well, he don't seem to take to me much, if I can judge from his face when he looks my way. I hain't been able to give him all the attention I may later. But you needn't be troubled about him. I won't do anything to make you anxious. Nancy, I wish you could feel as friendly to me as I do to you. Will you let me have something to drink out of?"
"Go round," she said, "and I'll bring the gourd to you."
Dylks laughed, but he obeyed, and found his way to the well where he lowered the bucket at the end of the swoop, and stood waiting for Nancy to follow him with the dipper fashioned from a long-necked gourd, as the drinking cup oftenest was in the western country of those days. She held it out to him with her head turned and he carried it to his lips from the brimming bucket.
He drank it empty, and then turned it over with a long, deep "Ah—h—h!" of satisfaction. "That was good! Good as the buttermilk would have been that you didn't think to offer me. Well, I thank you for the water, anyway, you woman of Samaria." He held the gourd toward her but she did not take it, and he laughed again. "If you could have had your way without sin you'd have made it poison, I reckon. Don't you know I could drink poison the same as water?"
"You don't," she said, and as he swung the gourd in tacit question what to do with it since she did not offer to take it, she bade him, "Put it down."
He did so, and she set her foot on the thin bowl and crushed it like an egg shell. He laughed. "Is that the way you feel about me, Nancy? Pity for the gourd, but don't you believe that if I was to will it so, it would come good and whole again?"
"You don't believe it," she said.
"It's not for me to believe or to unbelieve," he answered. "I am that I am."
"Oh, yes," she taunted him, "you've tried saying such things, and you're not afraid because it ha'n't killed you yet. You think if you was just a man it would kill you."
"Who can tell what I think? Perhaps something like what you say has gone through my mind. Why, Nancy, if you would listen once, I could convince you of it, too. Come, now, look at it in this light! If God lets a man say and do what the man pleases—and He has to do it every now and then according to what the Book tells—why ain't the man equal with God? You believe, maybe, that you would be struck dead if you said the things that I do; but why ain't I struck dead? Why, either because it ain't so, at all, or because I'm God. It stands to reason, don't it? What is God, anyway? If He was so mighty and terrible, wouldn't He have ways of showing it in these times just as much as in those old times that we read about in the Book?
"Don't you know that if there was anything besides you and me, here now, it would have sent the lightning out of this clear sky and blasted me when I said, I was God? Well, now we'll try it again. Listen! I am God, Jehovah, ruler of heaven and earth!" He stood a moment, smiling. "There you see! I'm safe and sound as ever. May be you think it would be worse if you said I was God. Lots have said it. Last night all Leatherwood was hanging to my arms and legs down there in the Temple worshiping me. If I hadn't been God it would have made me sick! No mere man could stand the praising God gets in the churches all the time. Why that proves I'm what I say I am, if nothing else does. I saw it from the first; I felt it; I knew it." He ended with his laugh.
She stayed herself by the trunk of the tree overhanging the well. "Yes, you've got all Leatherwood with you, or as good as all, and I don't wonder it's made you crazy. But don't you be so sure. Some day there's going to be a reckoning with you, and you're going to wake up from this dream of yours." She seemed to gather force as she faced him. "I could feel to be glad it was a dream; I could feel to pity you. But don't you believe but what it's going to turn against you. Some day, sooner or later, some man's going to show the people what you are; some woman—"
"There you've said it," he broke in. "That's what I've come for. You're the only woman that could hurt me, not because you think you know me the best, but because you're the bravest woman that ever was. That's why I've got to have you with me in my dispensation. Male and female created He them in His image. I can swing all Leatherwood by myself, but Leatherwood's nothing. If I had you with me we could swing the world! Nancy, why don't you come to me?" He flung his arms wide and bent his stalwart shape toward her. "Leatherwood's nothing, I tell you. Why, you ought to see the towns Over-the-Mountains; you ought to see Philadelphia, where I came from the last thing. Everywhere the people are waiting for a sign, just as they've always been, and we would come with a sign—plenty of signs: the perfect Godhead, male and female, for the greatest sign of all. Why, I wonder there's a Christian woman living, with the slur that the idea of just one male God throws on women! Don't you know that the Egyptians and the Greeks and the Romans, and everybody but the Hebrews, had a married God, and that the Godhead was husband and wife? If you had ever read anything at all you would know that."
The bad, vulgar beauty of his face, set in its flowing beard and hair, glowed on her.
"You needn't look that way at me, Joseph Dylks," she answered. "I don't want any book-l'arning to know what you are. You're what you always was, a lazy, good-for-nothing—Oh, I don't say you wasn't handsome; that was what done it for me when I made you my God; but I won't make you my God now, though you're as handsome as ever you was; handsomer, if that's any comfort to you."
"Nothing to what you're coming to me would be, Nancy."
"You'll have to do without, then. You think you can twist me round your finger, like you used to, if you willed it, but I've outlived you, you and your will. Now I want you to go, and not ever come near me again; or I'll have Laban here, the next time."
"Laban? Laban? Oh, the man who is not thy husband! I'm not afraid of your having Laban, here; let him come. I've converted worse sinners than Laban." He had remained, bent forward with his gaze still on her; now he lifted himself, and said, as if it were another word of his spell, "Come, Nancy!"
She answered, "If I thought there was any mercy in you—"
"Why, I'm All-merciful, as well as All-mighty, Nancy!" he jeered.
"No,"—as if concluding her thought, she said, "it's no use! You couldn't do a right thing if you wanted to; you can only do wrong things. I see that."
"What is right and what is wrong? When you stand by my side in your half of the godhead, you will know that there is no difference. Why, even a poor human being can make wrong right by wanting it enough, and with God there is nothing but one kind of thing, the thing that God allows. It don't matter whether it's letting the serpent tempt that fool woman in Eden, or Joseph's brethren selling him into Egypt, or Samuel hewing Agag in pieces, or the Israelites smiting the heathen, or David setting Uriah in the forefront of the battle, or Solomon having hundreds of wives; it's all right if God wills it. You'll say it's put right by what happens to them that do wrong. Be God yourself and the right and the wrong will take care of themselves. I want you to come and help me. Why, with the sister and daughter of old David Gillespie both following me—"
She suddenly shrank from the grandeur of judging of him, to the measure of her need of his forbearance. "Oh, why can't you let David alone? What's he ever done to you?"
"What have I ever done to him?" Dylks demanded, temporizing on her ground.
"Why can't you let Jane alone?"
He gave his equine snort, as if the sense of his power could best vent itself so. "Why can't she let me alone? That girl bothers me worse than all the other women in Leatherwood put together. She won't let me let her alone."
"She was all right before you came. Why can't you let her go back to Hughey Blake?"
"Hughey Blake? Oh! Then it wasn't—" A light of malign intelligence shone in his eyes. "Well, I haven't got anything against Hughey Blake."
"Oh, if you'd only let her go back to Hughey! If you'd only let her alone, I'd—"
"You'd what?" He bounded toward her, and at her recoil he laughed and said, "I didn't mean to scare you."
"I wasn't scared. You can't scare me, Joseph Dylks. It's past that, long ago, with you and me. But if I only knowed what you was up to —what you would really take to let David alone; to let her go back to Hughey Blake—But there ain't any pity in you!"
"Don't I tell you I'm full of pity? Look here, Nancy; I don't ask you to come with me, to be one with me, to go halves in the godhead, all at once. It's been step by step with me: first exhorter, then prophet, then disciple, then the Son, then the Father: but it's been as easy! You don't know how faith, the faith of the elect, helps along; and you would have that from the beginning; they would take you on my word, you wouldn't have to say or do anything. But that's not what I'm expecting now," he hurried to add, smiling at the cloud of refusal in her face. "I'm not fooling; all I ask now is to have you come and see me do a miracle at Brother Hingston's to-night. I'll do two miracles if you'll come, and one will be sending Jane Gillespie away from me and back to Hughey Blake. You'll want to see that, even if you don't want to see me turn a bolt of cloth into seamless raiment by the touch of my hand."
"You are a wicked man, Joseph Dylks," the woman solemnly answered. "And I'm sorry I asked you anything. You couldn't do good, if you tried." She pulled her sunbonnet across her face, as if to hide it for shame, and went back slowly toward the cabin.
"Salvation!" Dylks shouted after her, and gave his equine snort. He began to sing, as he took his way through the woods,
"Plunged in a gulf of dark despair We wretched sinners lay."
At first he sang boldly, filling the woods with the mocking of his hymn. But at the sound of footsteps crackling over the dry falling twigs toward him intermittently, as if they paused in question, and then resumed their course toward him, his voice fell, brokenly silencing itself till at the encounter of a man glimpsed through the trees, and pausing in a common arrest, it ceased altogether.
"Who are you?" Dylks demanded of the slight, workworn figure before him.
"Laban Billings," the man faltered.
"Well, then, Laban Billings, make way for the Lord thy God," Dylks powerfully returned, and as if he had borne the man down before him, he strode over the place where he had stood, and lost himself in the shadows beyond.
Laban hurried on, stumbling and looking back over his shoulder, till he found himself face to face with Nancy at the door of the shed behind the cabin. She was looking, too, in the direction Dylks had ceased from their sight in the woods. They started from each other in mutual fright.
"Nancy!" he entreated. "I didn't see you. I—I wasn't comin' to see you, indeed, indeed I wasn't. I just thought I might ketch sight of the baby —It's pretty hard to do without you both! And I was just passin'—Well, they've knocked off work at the Corners, so's to come to the miracle at Hingston's Mill to-night—But I'll go right away again, Nancy."
"You needn't, Laban. Come in and see the baby."
"Nancy!" he uttered joyfully. Then he faltered, "Do you think it will be right—"
"Oh, who knows what's right?" she retorted. Then at his stare, she demanded, "Didn't you run across anybody in the woods?"
"What did he look like?"
"Like what they tell the Leatherwood God looks like. They're half crazy about him at the Corners. They don't hardly talk about anything else."
"Did you think he looked like God?"
"More like Satan, I should say. He's handsome enough for Satan."
"It was Joseph Dylks."
"Yes, I s'picioned that."
"And he's been here, wanting me to go away with him—Over-the-Mountains."
Laban made a dry sound in his throat and it was by a succession of efforts that he could say, "And—and—and—"
"Oh, could you ask, Laban?" she lamented. "You're my husband, don't you know it?" At the sound of her lament a little voice of fear and hope answered from the cabin. The father-hunger came into the man's weak face, making it strong. "Come in and see our baby, Laban."
She put out her hand to him innocently like a little girl to a little boy, and he took it. "I know it's just for the baby; and I feel to thank you, Nancy," he said, and together they went into the cabin.
At sight of him the baby crowed recognition. "She knowed you in a minute," the mother said, and she straightened the skirt of the little one which the father had deranged in lifting the child from the floor. "I don't believe she'll ever forget you; I reckon she won't if I have any say in it. Me and Joey talks about you every night when we're gettin' her to sleep." She gurgled out a half-sob, half-laugh, as the little one pulled and pushed at his face, which he twisted this way and that, to get her hand in his mouth. "She always cared more for you than she did for me. I'll set you a piece, Laban; I was just going to get me a bite of something; I don't take my meals very regular, with you not here."
"Well, I am a little hungry with the walk from the Corners, after such an early breakfast."
"Well, you just keep her."
"Oh, I'll keep her," he exulted.
She hustled about the hearth, getting the simple meal, which she made more than she had meant, and they had a joyous strange time together at the leaf she stayed from the well.
He kept the baby in his lap while he ate. Then he walked the floor till she fell asleep in his arms. When he lifted himself from laying her in the rough cradle which he had himself made for her, he said, without looking at the mother, "Now, I must be going, Nancy."
"Don't go on account of me, Laban," she said with the same fierce courage she had shown in driving him from her before. "If it's for me—"
"Nancy, I've thought it all out since I been away. And I reckon I ain't your husband, in the sight of God. You was right about that; and I won't ever come back again till—as long as—" He glanced wistfully at the little one in the cradle, and then he turned to go out of the door. "And— and—good-by, Nancy."
She followed him to the door. "Kiss me, Laban!"
He put away the arms she lifted toward him. "No," he said, "I reckon it wouldn't be right," and he turned and walked swiftly away, without looking back.
The woman stood watching the man, as long as she could see him, and long after, with her left hand lifted to the jamb of the door, higher than her head. Then from the distance where he passed from sight over the brow of the hill, another figure of a man appeared, and slowly made its way down to the cabin. As she knew while he was still far off, it was Matthew Braile who, as long as he sat in the seat of the scorner, with his chair tilted against the wall, seemed a strong middle-aged man; but when he descended from his habitual place, with the crook of his stick, worn smooth by use, in his hard palm, one saw that he was elderly and stiff almost to lameness. He carried himself with a forward droop, and his gaze bent ponderingly on the ground, as if he were not meaning to look her way, and would pass without seeing her.
"Squire Braile!" she called to him, and as he straightened himself and turned round toward her, she besought him, "Do you believe there's any God?"
"Oh!" he answered, and he smiled at the challenge from the somewhat lonely elevation which he knew the thoughts of his neighbors kept, aloof from the sordid levels of politics and business. "Why, Nancy, haven't we got one, right here in Leatherwood?"
"That's what makes me think there ain't any, Squire Braile. If you're not in too much of a hurry, I wish you'd stop and talk to me a minute. I'm in trouble."
"Most women are; or men, for the matter of that. What is it, Nancy? I'm rather stronger on law than gospel; but if I can be any help, why you know your Joey's an old friend of mine, and I'll be glad to help you."
He came toward her where she had stepped from the threshold and sat crouched on the hewn log, and stood looking down at her before he sank at her side.
"You may think it's pretty strange, my asking you for help. Won't you set? I can't let you come inside because the baby's just got to sleep."
"Well," he assented, "if you're not afraid to be seen with such an infidel in the full light of day," he jested, confronting her from the log where he sank. "What would Brother Gillespie say?"
She ignored his kindly mockery, and again she began, "What makes you believe there's a God? You don't believe in the Bible?"
"Not altogether, Nancy."
"Do you believe in the Bible God?"
"As much as the Bible'll let me."
"Then, do you believe in the miracles?"
"What are you after, Nancy Billings?"
"If you saw a miracle, would you believe it?"
"That would depend on who did it. Now, I want you to let me do a little of the catechizing. I've liked you and Laban ever since you came to Leatherwood, and you know how your Joey has all but brought my boy back to me. Well, do you believe in God?"
"Why don't you?"
"A God that would let Joseph Dylks claim to be Him, and let them poor fools kneel down to him and worship him? Would an all-wise and all-powerful God do that?"
"What makes you say all-powerful? Haven't you seen time and time again when good didn't prevail against evil, and don't you suppose He'd have helped it if He could? And why do you call Him all-wise? Is it because men are no-wise? That wouldn't prove it, would it? And about the miracles, what does a miracle prove? Does it prove that the person who does it is of God, or just that faith is stronger than reason in those who think it's happened?"
"But sin: do you think there's such a thing?" Nancy pursued.
"There you are, catechizing me again! Yes, I think there's sin, because I've known it in myself, if I haven't in others."
"And what is it—sin?"
"Well, Nancy, it seems to vary according to the time and place. But I should say it was going against what you knew was right at the time being."
"And do you always know?"
"Always!" the old man answered solemnly. "I never was mistaken in my life, whether I went for or against it, and I've done both."
The woman drew a hapless sigh. "Yes, I reckon it's so."
Braile was putting out his stick to help himself in rising, after the silence she let follow. She came from it, and reached a staying hand toward him. "And supposin'—supposin'—there was a woman—that there was a woman, and her husband left her, and he kept away years and years, till she thought he was dead, and she married somebody else, and then he come back, would it be a sin for her to keep on with the other one when she knowed the first one was alive?"
"I reckon that's what would be called a sin, Nancy. Not that I'd be very quick to condemn her—"
"And supposin' that the first one hadn't claimed her yet, and she'd made the other one leave her, and then the first one come and wanted her to join him in the wickedest thing that ever was, and she wasn't as strong as she had been, and she felt to need the protection-like of the other one: would it be a sin for her to take him back?"
Braile made again as if to rise. "I reckon you'd better talk to Mis' Braile about a thing like that. You see, a man—"
She stayed him again with a beseeching gesture.
"Squire Braile, do you believe that God is good?"
"Ah, now, I'm more at home in a question like that. You might say that if He lets evil prevail, it's either because He can't help it, or because He don't care, or even because He thinks it's best for mankind to let them have their swing when they choose to do evil. I incline to think that's my idea. He's made man, we'll say, made him in His own image, and He's put him here in a world of his own, to do the best or the worst with it. The way I look at it, He doesn't want to keep interfering with man, but lets him play the fool or play the devil just as he's a mind to. But every now and then He sends him word. If we're going to take what the Book says, He sent him Word made flesh, once, and I reckon He sends him Word made Spirit whenever there's a human creature comes into the world, all loving and all unselfish—like your Joey, or—my—my Jimmy—"
The old man's voice died in his throat, and the woman laid her hand on his knee. He trembled to his feet, now. "When I think of such Spirits coming into this world, I'm not afraid of all the devils out of hell Dylksing round."
He walked on down the road, and Nancy went indoors and went about her household work. She cleaned the dishes and trimmed the hearth; she spun the flax which tufted her wheel; then she took the rags of some garments past repair, and in the afternoon shadow of her threshold she cut them into ribbons and sewed them end to end and wound them into balls, for weaving into carpets.
People, as the evening drew on, went by, singly, in twos, in groups, silent for the most part, but some talking seriously. These looked at Nancy without speaking, but some asked, "Ain't you goin' to the Miracle?" and she shook her head for answer.
She had brushed her hair and put it up neatly after her indoors work was done, but she was in what she would have called her every-day clothes, and the passers had on their Sunday clothes; the girls wore their newest plaids of linsey-woolsy, and the young men wore tall beaver hats, and long high-collared coats, with tight pantaloons, which some pretenders to the latest fashions had strapped under their boots. They had on their Sunday faces, too; some severe, some sly, some simple and kind, but all with an effect of condition for whatever might be going to happen. They went as the people of Leatherwood went to the Temple on the Sabbaths before their meetings had been turned from the orderly worship of the Most High to the riot of emotions raised by the strange man who proclaimed himself God. In their expectations of the Sign which he had promised to give them, both those who believed and those who denied him found themselves in a sort of truce. They were as if remanded to the peace of the time before the difference which had rent the community into warring fragments. In this truce brothers were speaking who had not spoken since they accepted or refused the new God; families walked together in the harmony which he had lately counseled; children honored their believing or disbelieving parents; fathers and mothers ceased to abhor their children as limbs of Satan, according to their faith or unfaith. "Let everybody come to the Sign," he had exhorted them when he promised them the miracle, "just as if they had never seen or heard me before, and let His creatures judge their Creator with love for one another in their hearts."
In all there was an air of release, and the young people looked as if they were going to one of the social gatherings they would have called a frolic, in the backwoods phrase. Nancy heard a girl titter in response to her companion's daring whisper, "Wonder if Mis' Hingston's going to pass round the apples and cider." They walked in couples, openly or demurely glad of being together for the time; and as if the miracle before them were the wonder of coming home through the woods with their arms around each other, whether the miracle of the seamless raiment was wrought or not.
It was their elders who were more singly set upon the fulfilment of the sign, and who went with a more passionate expectation in the doubt or the faith which differenced them; children were more bent upon the affair of the evening than the young girls and the young men. They had been privileged in being allowed to go with their fathers and mothers when they had not been punished in being left at home and they subdued themselves as they could to the terms of keeping step beside them with the bare feet that felt winged and ached to fly. Old and young they passed Nancy's cabin thinly or at intervals, but sometimes in close groups; they glanced kindly or unkindly askance at her when they did not question her, and very possibly they read in her sitting there boldly aloof from them a defiance of the question which had begun to gather about her in the common mind since Laban had left her for his work at the Cross Roads, with none of those Saturday night returns which it had at first expected. It was known that Laban was of the same opposition to Dylks as Nancy and her brother, and it could not be that Dylks had caused the break between her and Laban which no one would have noticed if it had been an effect of religion. It could only be that Laban had left her, or that her temper had driven him away.
With the last came a crowd of boys, whose lagging she understood when her own boy jumped down from the cabin door beside her.
"Did I scare you, mother?" he asked, at her start.
"No; I was expecting you, and you always come in at the back. You'll want your supper, I'll be bound. What made you so late, and all out of breath, so?"
"I been running. We just got the last of the tobacco in, this evening, and Mis' Hingston made me stay and eat with Benny; she said she'd excuse me to you. I just left the other boys up over the hill, and run through the woods to get here in time and ask you."
"To ask me what, Joey dear?" She put her arms fondly round the boy's knees, and pulled him down to her.
"The boys said you let me go to the Temple all I want to; but I told them the Miracle was different, and I'd have to ask you first. I told Mis' Hingston, and I told the boys. Me 'n' Benny got them to come round. Kin I, mother? Mis' Hingston thought may be—may be—you might come yourself. But I told her I didn't believe you would."
"No, I won't go, Joey. What makes you want to go?"
"Oh, I don't know. All the boys are goin'. And I never seen a miracle yet."
"Do you believe he can do a miracle?"
"Well, it would be some fun to see what he would do if he didn't. I'd like to hear what he'd say."
"And what would you think if he did do it? That he was—God?"
"Oh, no, mother! He couldn't be. Mr. Dylks couldn't. I ain't ever thought for a minute that he was that."
"And if he failed—if he tried, and put himself to shame before everybody, how would you feel?"
"Well, mother, nobody as't him to." Nancy was silent for so long that the boy said discouragedly, "But if you don't want me to go—"
Her face hardened from the pity of her inward vision of the man's humiliation, as if his own son had judged him justly. "Yes, you can go, Joey. But be careful, be careful! And don't stay too late. And if anything happens—"
"Oh, surely, mother, nothing will happen," he exulted, and he broke from her hold and ran down the road where the group of boys had waited for him, and as he ran he leaped into the air, and called to them, "She's let me; she's let me!" and the boys leaped up in response, and called back, "Hurrah, hurrah!" and when he had come up with them, they all tried to get their arms round him, and trod on his heels and toes in pushing one another from him.
In the August twilight which now began to pale the hot sunset glow, as if she had waited to come alone, in her pride or in her shame, the woman who was bearing the body of the miracle to the place where the wonder was to be wrought came last of all to pass Nancy where she sat at her door. She was that strong believer who in her utter trust, when she heard that cloth would be needed for the seamless raiment of his miracle, had offered to provide it; and now, neither in pride nor in shame, but in defiance of her unbelieving husband, she was bearing away from her house the bolt of linsey-woolsey newly home from the weaver, which was to have been cut into the winter's clothing of her children. She had spun the threads herself and dyed them, and they had become as if they were of her own flesh and blood. She carried the bolt wrapped about with her shawl, bearing it tenderly in her arms, as if it were indeed her flesh and blood, her babe which she was going to lay upon an altar of sacrifice.
The crowd at Hingston's mill grew with the arrival of the unbelievers as well as the believers in Dylks. They came from all sides, sometimes singly and sometimes in groups, and the groups came disputing as often as agreeing among themselves. When a group was altogether believing they exchanged defiances with a party of those religious outcasts, the Hounds, disturbers of camp-meetings and baptisms, and notorious mockers, now, of the Leatherwood god in his services at the Temple. But the invitation given to see the promised miracle had been to all; the Hounds had felt in it the tenor of a challenge, and they had accepted it defiantly. They jeered at the believers as these arrived, sometimes hailing them by name; they neighed and whinnied, and shouted "Salvation!" and in the intervals of silence they burst out with the first lines of the Believers' hymn.
There were those who mocked, "I am God Almighty," "The Father and the Son are one, and I am both of 'em put together," and "Oh, Dylks, save us!" "Don't leave us, Dylks!" "Make the Devil jump, Joseph! Make him rattle his scales for us!" "Fetch on your miracle!" The believing women turned away; some of the younger tittered hysterically at a droll profanation of their idol's name, and then one of the ruffians applauded. "That's right, sisters! We like to have you enjoy yourselves. Promised to let anybody in particular see you home to-night?" The girls tried to control themselves, and laughed the more, and the Hound called, "Say, girls, let's have a dance—a dance before the Lord."
Jane Gillespie had come with her father in the family pride which forbade them to reject each other publicly. The girl stood a little apart from her father, and near her hung, wistfully, fearfully, the young farmer whom the neighborhood gossip had assigned her for an acceptable if not accepted lover. She looked steadfastly away from Hughey Blake, with her head lifted and her cheeks coldly flushed under the flame of her vivid hair: she was taller than the other girls, and showed above the young man.
"Say, Hughey," one of the Hounds spoke across the space they had left between them and the decent unbelievers, "Can't you gimme a light? Reach up!" He held out a cigar, in the joke of kindling it at the girl's hair.
Hughey Blake turned, and his helpless retort, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," redoubled the joy of the Hounds. The girl glanced quickly at him, with what meaning he could not have made out, and it might have been fear of her which kept him hesitating whether to cross over and fall upon his tormentor. He looked at her as if for a sign, but she made as if she had heard nothing; then while he still hesitated a slender, sinewy young fellow came down the open ground, with a soft jolt in his gait like that of a rangy young horse. He wore high boots with his trousers pushed carelessly into their tops, and for a sign of week-day indifference to the occasion, a checked shirt, of the sort called hickory; he struck up the brim of his platted straw hat in front with one hand, and with the other on his hip stood a figure of backwoods bravery, such as has descended to the romance of later times from the reality of the Indian-fighting pioneers.
"You fellows keep still!" he called out. "If you don't I'll make you."
Retorts of varied sense and nonsense came from the Hounds, but without malice in their note. One voice answered, "I'd like to see you try, Jim Redfield!"
The other jolted closer toward the line of the Hounds, and leaned over. "Did I hear somebody speak?" he asked.
"I reckon not, Jim," the voice of his challenger returned. "Come to join the band?"
"I didn't come to worry helpless women," Redfield said.
"That's right, Jim. There's where we're with you. D'you reckon Apostle Hingston'll let us in to see the miracle if we'll keep the believers straight while the Almighty is at it?"
"I can't say for Mr. Hingston," Redfield returned. "But if I was in his place I'd want to keep my jug out of sight when you fellows were on duty."
Redfield passed the Gillespies as he lounged back to his place with a covert glance at the girl, who made no sign of seeing her champion.
The woman who was bringing the body of the miracle came round the corner of the mill, and showed herself in the open space with the bolt of cloth borne carefully in her arms.
"Why, it's a baby!" came from that merriest of the Hounds whom Redfield had turned from an enemy into a troublesome friend of the believers. "Reckon the women'll have something to say to that if he tries to turn e'er a baby into seamless raiment."
The fellow got the laugh he had tried for, and when Redfield looked toward him again he said, "All right, Jim. I'm keepin' 'em quiet the best I can. But the elect will make a noise, sometimes."
The woman with her bundle passed through the open door of the house behind the mill. The public entrance was at the front where by day the bags of grain were lifted by rope and tackle to the upper story, and the farmers who brought them climbed up by the inner stairways. The believers had expected that they were to come in by way of the dwelling, but now the burly figure of the miller, with the light of a candle behind it, showed black in the doorway, and he spoke up, in his friendly voice: "Neighbors, we want you all to go round to the front of the mill and come in there. The miracle is going to be done on the bolting-cloth floor, where there will be room for all that wants to see. We don't mean to keep anybody out, whether they believe or don't believe. The only thing we want is for you all to be quiet, and not make trouble. And now, come in as quick as you can, so you can be sure we haven't had time to do anything to the cloth that the seamless raiment is going to be made out of."
"Hounds and everybody?" called that gayest voice among the outcasts.
"Hounds and everybody," the miller humorously assented, and his black bulk melted into the dark as the candle disappeared within.
The dim light from tin lanterns threw the pattern of their perforations on the walls and roofs of the interior, and showed the tracery of the floury cobwebs. The people could scarcely see their way to the stairs by the glimmer, and there was more talking with nervous laughter than there had been outside. One of the Hounds called out, "I don't want any of you girls to kiss me!" and gave the relief of indignation to the hysterical emotion of the believers; the more serious of the unbelievers found escape in their helpless laughter from their tense expectation of triumph in the failure of the promised miracle.
The wide space on the bolting-cloth floor, before the bins mounded high with new wheat, and the rows of millstones, motionless under their empty hoppers, was lighted by candles in tin sconces, but these were so few that they shone only on the foremost faces and left those behind a gleam of eyes or teeth. The familiar machinery had put on a grewsome strangeness which had its final touch from the roll lying on the table like something dead. A table had been set in front of the barrels under the bolting cloths, and the muslin funnels, empty of flour, hung down into the barrels with the effect of colossal legs standing in them. The air of the hot night was close within; a damp odor from the water flowing under the motionless mill wheels seemed to cool it, but did not; the perspiration shone on the faces where the light fell on them.
The miller and his family had places in the front line of the spectators, and with them was the woman who had given the cloth for the miracle; and who stood staring at the stuff, which she had known so intimately in every thread and fiber, with an air of estrangement.
When the stumbling feet of the last arrivals ceased on the stairs, the miller stood out facing the crowd, and told them that he expected the Good Old Man, now, any minute, together with the Apostle Paul, whom they all knew by his earthly name as their neighbor, Mr. Enraghty. He asked them to be as still as they could, and especially after the Good Old Man came, to be perfectly silent; not to whisper, and not to move if they could help it. There was nothing, though, he said, to hinder the believers from joining in their favorite hymn; and at once the wailing of it began to fill the place. When it ended, the deep-drawn breath of some wearied expectant made itself heard with the shifting of tired feet easing themselves. The minutes grew into an hour, with no sign of Dylks or Enraghty, and the miller was again forced to ask the patience of his neighbors. But there began to be murmurs from the unbelievers, and more articulate protests from the Hounds. Some children, whom the believers had brought with them to see the divine power manifest itself, whimpered, and were suffered to lie down at the feet of their fathers and mothers and forget their disappointment in sleep. A babe, too young to be left at home, woke and cried, and was suckled to rest again, with ironical applause from the Hounds.
At the end of two hours of waiting, relieved with pleas and promises from the miller, there was no word from Dylks and no token of his bodily presence. With the scoffing of the unbelievers, the prayers of the faithful rose. "Come soon, oh Lord!" "Send thy Power!" "Remember thy Little Flock!" Upon these at last broke falteringly, stragglingly, a familiar voice, the voice of Abel Reverdy, kindly and uncouth as himself, and expressive, like his presence, of an impartial interest in the feelings of both the faithful and the unfaithful. He was there in the company of his wife, who held a steadfast place among the believers, while Abel ranged freely from one party to the other, and could not well have known himself of either, though friendly with both. He was of a sort of disapproving friendship even with the Hounds, and now his voice said in impartial suggestion, "Why not somebody go and fetch him?"
"Good for you, Abel!" came from the Hound who was oftenest spokesman for the others. "Why don't you go yourself, Abel?"
Other voices applauded, and Abel was beginning to share a general confidence in his fitness for the mission, when his wife spoke up, "'Deed and 'deed, I can tell you he ain't agoun' to do no such a thing, not if we stay here all night, murricle or no murricle. I ain't agoun' to have him put his head into the Lion of Judah's mouth, and have it bit off, like as not. I can't tell from one minute to another whether he's a believer or not, and if anybody is to go for the Good Old Man it's got to be a studdy believer, and not a turncoat of many colors like Abel."
If Sally had satisfied her need of chastizing her husband for his variableness, and found a comfort in her scriptural language, not qualified by its wandering application, Abel loyally accepted her open criticism. "That's so, Sally, I ain't the one to send. I misdoubted it myself, or I'd 'a' gone without sayin' nothin' in the first place. But, as Sally says," he addressed the crowd, "it ought to be a believer."
"Then why not Sally?" a scorner suggested. She did not refuse, and there was a whispering between her and those next her in debate of the question. But it was closed by the loud, austere voice of one of the believing matrons in the apostolic mandate, "Let your women keep silence in the churches." The text was not closely apt; it was not a precept obeyed in the revivals of any of the sects in Leatherwood; it was especially ignored in the meetings of the Dylks believers; but its proclamation now satisfied the yearning always rife in them to affiliate their dispensation with the scriptural tradition.
"Well, that settles it, Sister Coombs," Sally promptly assented, "I wasn't agoun' to, anyway, and I ain't agoun' to now, if I stay here all night, or the Good Old Man don't ever come."
"Why not Jim Redfield?" a Hound demanded, and the miller tried to be stern in calling out, "No trifling!" but lost effect by gently adding, "Friends." The unbelievers laughed, but the miller's retreat from the bold stand he had taken was covered by Redfield's threat that if those fellows kept on he would give them something to laugh about.
As he stepped into the neutral space between the friends and enemies of Dylks, he had a sort of double fearfulness for the women, because he was not only not of their faith, but because he was of no religious sect in a community where every one but an open infidel like Matthew Braile was of some profession. He came to the Baptist services with his mother, but he had not been baptized, and he was not seen at the house to house prayer meetings, where the young people came with the old, or at the frolics where dancing was forbidden, but not kissing in their games or in their walks home through the woods. He was not supposed to be in love with any one, and he lived alone on a rich bottom-land farm with his mother, in a house which his father had built where his grandfather's log cabin had stood. He was of a tradition which held him closer to the wilderness than most of the people of Leatherwood; in the two generations before him the Redfields had won and held their lands against the Indians, and had fought them in the duels, from tree to tree, which the pioneers taught the savages, or learned from them, risking their lives and scalps in the same chances. He was of the sort of standing which old family gives, even where all families are new, and he was now making his way politically, in spite of his irreligion; he meant to go to the legislature, eventually, and in a leisurely sort he was reading law, and reciting his Blackstone to Matthew Braile. As he came and went from the old infidel's house, he was apt to stop at the tavern porch, where the few citizens who could detach their minds from the things of another world gave them in cloudy conjecture to the political affairs of this, or to scrutiny of the real motives actuating the occasional travelers who apparently arrived for a meal's victuals or a night's lodging. With these Redfield had scarcely a social life, but he could talk with them almost to the point of haranguing them, for they were men; at the store, where his mother's errands sometimes took him, he shrank from the women as timid as they when they dismounted from their saddles or wagons, and slipped in with their butter and eggs, and passed out again deeply obscured in their sunbonnets.
They were mostly women past the time of life when men look at them curiously, but once Redfield was startled by meeting a young girl, as he was trying to go out, and began losing himself with her in that hopeless encounter of people who try to give way to each other and keep passing to the same side at once. Her face and her red hair burned one fire, but at last she stopped stone still, and let him go by, with a sort of angry challenge in her blue eyes. He knew that it was Jane Gillespie without knowing her to speak with, as he would have said, and he knew that against her father's will she was one of the followers of Dylks. The idolatry was not yet open and scandalous, but since then he had heard his mother denouncing her as a worthless hussy with the other women who had worshiped Dylks in that frenzy at the Temple. He walked up and down, passing near where she stood with her father and Hughey Blake, and lost his breath at each approach and caught it again at each remove. It so vividly seemed that he must speak to her, though he did not know what he wished to say, that it was as if he really had done so, when he heard one of the Hounds saying, "Well, and what are you goin' to do about it, Jim?"
Then he heard himself boasting, "I'm going after Dylks myself; and if he'll come peaceably, and do his miracle I'll take him for my god, and if he won't, God have mercy on him!"
He was answering his jeering questioner in his words, but his eyes were on the girl; her own eyes were lowered after a glance at her father and Hughey Blake, and his vow remained in his ears a foolish vaunt. While he stood unable to return to his place, a voice which no one knew, came from the darkness outside.
"Behold," it said, "I am the Presence of the Most High, and I come to you with my Peace. The miracle that ye wait to see has been wrought already unseen of you. The cloth before you has been touched by my Power, and turned into the seamless raiment which ye seek as a sign. But it shall not be shown to you now. Ye shall see it seven days and seven nights hence on the eighth night at the Temple. Till then, have patience, have faith. Thus saith the Lord."
The voice died from the medley of scriptural phrase and a shiver of awe passed over those who had heard. One of the believing women called out, "Praise ye the Lord!" Then a yell of mockery broke from the Hounds and some one shouted, "Let's have a look!" and the crowd rushed upon the roll of cloth which lay on the table, where the woman who had brought it in her arms had put it, and had stood patiently, anxiously, trustfully waiting.
She spread her arms out over it, with a piteous gesture, like a mother trying to keep her child from harm. "Oh, don't! Oh, don't!" she implored. "It's my cloth! I spun it, I wove it, every thread! It's all we've got for our clothes this winter! Don't touch it, don't tear it!"
Her prayer was like a signal for its denial. One of the Hounds pushed her away and caught the cloth up. "We won't hurt it, Sister Bladen. We just want to see what a seamless garment looks like, anyway. Maybe it'll fit some of us. Here, boys, take a hold!"
He held by the outer edge of the cloth, and flung the bolt unfurling itself toward his fellows over the heads of the believing men who had crowded forward to save it from the desecration, while the woman tried to seize it from him, beseeching, imploring, "Oh, don't hurt it, Bill Murray! Oh, be careful! Don't let it drop! Oh, don't, don't, don't!"
"We can't do it any hurt, Sister Bladen, if it's got a miracle inside of it," one of the ruffians mocked. "You tell her we wont hurt it, Jim Redfield! She'll trust you!"
The women believers were sobbing; the men gathered themselves for a struggle with the surprise sprung upon them, but held back as if in a superstitious hope of help from the god whom the women seemed not to trust in his failure of them.
"Here, you fellows!" Redfield shouted over the tossing heads before him. "What do you want to spoil her cloth for?"
His look and voice had their effect with the angry, pushing, shuffling, elbowing, wailing, weeping crowd, in a pause like the arrest of curiosity.
"Let go that cloth, Bill," he said, not with authority, but in a tone of good fellowship.
The miller interposed with his friendly voice, and it seemed as if the unbelievers would give way in pity of the poor woman who had brought the cloth. Suddenly the bolt of stuff which Murray had conditionally yielded was twitched from Redfield in boisterous fun, and then in the frenzy more of mischief than malice it was seized by the Hounds, and torn into shreds. "Find the seamless raiment!" they yelled to one another. The unbelievers stood aside; the believers did nothing, in a palsy of amaze; the poor woman, to whom her toil and pride in it had hallowed the stuff, sank down staying herself on her hands from the floor, in hapless despair. Her moaning and sobbing filled the place after the tumult of destruction had been stricken silent. "Oh, I don't care for the miracle," she kept lamenting, "but what are my children going to wear this winter? Oh, what will he say to me!" It was her husband she meant.
The riot in Hingston's Mill, after the failure of Dylks to appear personally and work the promised miracle, left the question of his divinity where it had been. With no evident change in their numbers on either side, the believers assented, the unbelievers denied. The faithful held that the miracle had been wrought and the seamless raiment torn to pieces by the mob; some declared that they had seen the garments, and tried to keep them from the sacrilege but had been overpowered. The unfaithful laughed at the pretense, and defied the faithful to show any scrap of the cloth having the form of clothing. The pieces remained with the poor woman who had brought the cloth for the miracle; she carried them weeping home, and she and her husband remained like the rest, believing and unbelieving as before; but at every chance she scanned the dishonored fragments in secret, and pieced them together, trying to follow the lines of imaginary garments in them.
Throughout the week the excitement raged, silently for the most part, in the breasts of the two parties, but sometimes breaking out in furious affirmation and denial at such points of common meeting as the store, the tavern, and the postoffice. There the unbelievers outnumbered the believers, who met for mutual support and comfort at one another's houses, but appeared nowhere in force until the Sunday night following; then they came three to one of the enemy, and filled the Temple to overflowing. Dylks was expected to meet them from the concealment or the absence in which he had passed the days; the unbelievers said that he was hiding in fear and shame; the believers that he was preaching to the heathen in other neighborhoods, and would come in power and glory with a great multitude of the converted following him. But the meeting in the Temple was opened by Enraghty, who, in front of the pulpit, rose saying, "The Good Old Man will not be here, to-night, but I will fill his place." A thrill of exultation and disappointment ran through the congregation according as they believed or denied, but they all waited patiently.
Among the many families which had come in internecine enmity, Gillespie and his daughter strained in the unlove which was like hate up to the door of the Temple. He had taunted her with Dylks's failure to work the miracle and with his absence during the week. "If I could get my hands on him, I would pull him out of his hole, and make him face the people he's deceived. I would show him whether he was God or not."
"If you touched him, your hands would be withered," she said in an ecstasy of faith. "If you will bring me a single hair of his head I will deny him."
"I'll remember that," he threatened bitterly, and in the loss of all the dignity of their relation as parent and child he cast a look of contemptuous triumph on her when Enraghty rose and said that he would take the place of Dylks for the night.
"Bring me one hair of his head," she said again.
The people of both sides had supposed that Dylks was sitting behind the pulpit, as his habit was, with his head out of sight bowed in meditation. But when Enraghty, after a few words, sat down to await the coming of the Spirit, suddenly the minister whose turn to preach would have come that night, sprang to his full height in the pulpit and denounced Enraghty's pretense. The believers rose shouting to their feet, and crying, "He is my God!" stormed out of the Temple in the night, where their voices were heard repeating, "He is my God!" till they swelled together in the hymn which was their confession of Dylks. A few of the unbelievers remained in the Temple, amazed, but the greater part followed the believers into the night.
They had the courage of their triumph through Dylks's failure to work the miracle he had promised, and then his failure to show himself in the Temple; but they pushed on with no definite purpose except perhaps to break up some meeting of his followers, when one of the Hounds, yelping and baying in acceptance of their nickname, broke upon them from the woods they were passing with word that they had found Dylks in Enraghty's house, where the believers were already gathering.
"We've treed him," he said, "The whole pack's round the place, and there's no limb in reach for him to jump to. I reckon it'll be the best coon hunt we've ever had in Leatherwood, yit."
Redfield put himself in touch rather than in sight amidst the darkness which the disembodied voices broke upon. "Enraghty's house? Then we've got him. Come on!"
The women of the unbelievers had fallen behind and finally gone home, but all the believers, the women as well as the men, had followed their apostle, and now their voices, in praying and singing, came from the house still hidden by a strip of woodland. In the bewilderment which had fallen upon David Gillespie amid the tumultuous rush from the Temple, he had been parted from his daughter; now he fumbled forward on the feet of an old man, and found himself beside Redfield. "I want you to let me at him first, Jim. I just want one hair of his head."
"Why, don't you know it's death to touch him?" Redfield jeered.
"I know that," Gillespie assented in the same mood. "But I'll risk dying for that one hair."
"What do you want with one hair? I'll get you a handful," Redfield said.
"One'll do to work the miracle I'm after."
"What miracle? None o' your seamless raiment, is it?"
"It's bringing a crazy girl to her senses. She's said if I fetched her a single hair of his she'd renounce him."
"Oh!" Redfield said with respectful understanding. Then he added, "I'll get you the hair."
The unbelievers crowded to the house in the light from the uncurtained windows. One of them stood tiptoe peering in while the others waited. "It's chuck full," he reported. "No room for sinners, I reckon."
"Oh, if Dylks is in there he'll work one of his miracles and make room," another of the Hounds answered. Redfield stood trying the door. "Locked? Hammer on it! Break it in! Here! Give him a shoulder!"
The mob surged forward, laughing and shouting, and crushed Redfield against the door. The panel cracked and groaned; Redfield called to the crowd to hold back, but suddenly the door opened, and the fanatical face of Enraghty showed itself above Redfield's back.
"What do you want?" he demanded. "This is the Lord's house."
"Then it's as much ourn as what it is yourn," some one shouted back.
"We want to see the Lord," another called. "Just one look, just one lick."
The old schoolmaster lost his self-control. "There are some of you out there that I've licked before now for your mischief."
"Yes, we know that," came back. "You didn't lick us enough. We'd like to have you give us some more."
The hindmost of the Hounds surged against those in front, and the whole mob fell forward upon Redfield; he staggered over the threshold to save himself, and struck Enraghty backward in his helpless plunge.