"It was a summer day, warm an' cheerful like this, only it was evenin', an' we was a-settin' out on her front garden walk. She was a-knittin', an' I was a-whippin' the groun' with a switch that I had brought along to touch Bess up with now an' then. I had hitched her out front, an' she kep' a-turnin' her eyes over the fence as ef she was as anxious as I was, an' that was mighty anxious. Fin'ly I got the question out, an' the girl went all red in a minute: she had been jest a purty pink before. Her knittin' fell in her lap. Fust she started to answer, then she stopped an' her eyes filled up. I seen she was a-weak'nin', so I thought I 'd push the matter. 'Come,' says I, gentle like, an' edgin' near up to her, 'give me my answer. I been waitin' a long time fur a yes.' With that she grabbed knittin', apron, an' all, an' put 'em to her eyes an' rushed into the house. I knowed she 'd gone in to have a good cry an' settle her nerves, fur that 's the way all women-folks does: so I knowed it was no use to bother her until it was done. So I walks out to the fence, an', throwin' an arm over old Bess's back, I told her all about it, jest as I 'm a-tellin' you, she a-lookin' at me with her big meltin' eyes an' whinnyin' soft like.
"After a little while the girl come out. She was herself ag'in, but there was a look in her face that turned my heart stone-cold. Her voice sounded kind o' sharp as she said, ''Liphalet, I 've been a-thinkin' over what you said. I 'm only a woman, an' I come purty near bein' a weak one; but I 'm all right now. I don't mind tellin' you that ef I was ever goin' to marry, you 'd be my choice, but I ain't a-goin' to have my father's sperrit a-thinkin' that I took advantage of his death to marry you. Good-bye, 'Liphalet.' She held out her hand to me, an' I took it. 'Come an' see me sometimes,' she said. I could n't answer, so I went out and got on old Bess an' we jogged away. It was an awful disappointment, but I thought I would wait an' let my girl come aroun', fur sometimes they do,—in fact mostly; but she has never give me a sign to make me think that she has. That was twenty years ago, an' I 've been waitin' faithful ever sence. But it seems like she was different from most women, an' 'specially good on holdin' out. People that was babies then have growed up an' married. An' now the old companion that has been with me through all this waitin' has left me. I know what it means. It means that I 'm old, that years have been wasted, that chances have been lost. But you have taught me my lesson, Bess. Dear old Bess, even in yore last hours you did me a service, an' you, Freddie, you have given me the stren'th that I had twenty years ago, an' I 'm a-goin' to try to save what remains of my life. I never felt how alone I was until now." He was greatly agitated. He rose and grasped the boy's arm. "Come, Freddie," he said; "come on. I 'm a-goin' ag'in to ask Miss Prime to be my wife."
"Miss Prime!" exclaimed Fred, aghast.
"Miss Prime was my sweetheart, Freddie, thirty years ago, jest like 'Lizabeth is yor'n now. Come along."
The two set out, Hodges stepping with impatient alacrity, and the boy too astounded to speak.
It was a beautiful morning at the end of June. The sense of spring's reviving influence had not yet given way to the full languor and sensuousness of summer. The wind was soft and warm and fragrant. The air was full of the song of birds and the low droning of early bees. The river that flowed between the green hills and down through Dexter was like a pane of wrinkled glass, letting light and joy even into the regions below. Over the streets and meadows and hills lay a half haze, like a veil over the too dazzling beauty of an Eastern princess. The hum of business—for in the passing years Dexter had grown busy—the roar of traffic in the streets, all melted into a confused and intoxicating murmur as the pedestrians passed into the residence portion of the town to the cottage where Miss Prime still lived. The garden was as prim as ever, the walks as straight and well kept. The inevitable white curtains were fluttering freshly from the window, over which a huge matrimony vine drooped lazily and rung its pink and white bells to invite the passing bees.
Eliphalet paused at the gate and heaved a deep sigh. So much depended upon the issue of his present visit. The stream of his life had been flowing so smoothly before. Now if its tranquillity were disturbed it never could be stilled again. Did he dare to risk so much upon so hazardous a chance? Were it not better to go back home, back to his old habits and his old ease, without knowing his fate? That would at least leave him the pleasure of speculating. He might delude himself with the hope that some day—He faltered. His hand was on the gate, but his face was turned back towards the way he had come. Should he enter, or should he go back? Fate decided for him, for at this juncture the door opened, and Miss Hester appeared in the doorway and called out, "Do come in, 'Liphalet. What air you a-standin' out there so long a-studyin' about, fur all the world like a bashful boy?"
The shot told. He was a bashful boy again, going fearfully, tremblingly, lovingly, to see the girl of his heart; but there was no old Bess to whinny encouragement to him from over the little fence. If he blushed, even the scrutinising eyes of Miss Prime did not see it, for the bronze laid on his face by summers and winters of exposure; but he felt the hot blood rush up to his face and neck, and the perspiration breaking out on his brow. He paused long enough to mop his face, and then, saying to Fred, in a low tone, "You stay in the garden, my boy, until it 's all over," he opened the gate and entered in the manner of one who leads a forlorn hope through forest aisles where an ambush is suspected. The door closed behind him. Interested, excited, wondering and fearing, doubting and hoping, Fred remained in the garden. There were but two thoughts in his head, and they were so new and large that his poor boy's cranium had room for no more. They ran in this wise: "Miss Prime is Uncle 'Liphalet's girl, and Elizabeth is mine."
Within, Miss Prime was talking on in her usual decided fashion, while the man sat upon the edge of his chair and wondered how he could break in upon the stream of her talk and say what was in his heart. At last the lady exclaimed, "I do declare, 'Liphalet, what kin be the matter with you? You 'ain't said ten words sence you 've been a-settin' there. I hope you 'ain't talked yoreself entirely out with Fred. It does beat all how you an' that boy seem to grow thicker an' thicker every day. One 'ud think fur all the world that you told him all yore secrets, an' was afeared he 'd tell 'em, by the way you stick by him; an' he 's jest as bad about you. It 's amazin'."
"Freddie 's a wonderful good boy, an' he 's smart, too. They ain't none of 'em a-goin' to throw dust in his eyes in the race of life."
"I 'm shore I 've tried to do my dooty by him the very best I could, an' ef he does amount to anything in this world it 'll be through hard labour an' mighty careful watchin'." Miss Hester gave a sigh that was meant to be full of solemnity, but that positively reeked with self-satisfaction.
"But as you say, 'Liphalet," she went on, "Fred ain't the worst boy in the world, nor the dumbest neither, ef I do say it myself. I ain't a-sayin', mind you, that he 's anything so great or wonderful; but I 've got to thinkin' that there 's somethin' in him besides original sin, an' I should feel that the Lord had been mighty favourin' to me ef I could manage to draw it out. The fact of it is, 'Liphalet, I 've took a notion in my head about Fred, an' I 'm a-goin' to tell you what it is. I 've decided to make a preacher out o' him."
"H'm—ah—well, Miss Hester, don't you think you 'd better let the Lord do that?"
"Nonsense, 'Liphalet! you 'ain't got no insight at all. I believe in people a-doin' their part an' not a-shovin' everything off on the Lord. The shiftless don't want nothin' better than to say that they will leave the Lord to take care o' things, an' then fold their arms an' set down an' let things go to the devil. Remember, Brother Hodges, I don't mean that in a perfane way. But then, because God made the sunlight an' the rain, it ain't no sign that we should n't prune the vine."
Miss Hester's face had flushed up with the animation of her talk, and her eyes were sparkling with excitement.
Eliphalet looked at her, and his heart leaped. He felt that the time had come to speak.
"Miss Hester," he began, and the hat in his hand went round and round nervously.
"'Liphalet, fur goodness' sake do lay yore hat on the table. You 'll ruin the band of it, an' you make me as nervous as a cat."
He felt a little dampened after this, but he laid down the offending hat and began again. "I 've been thinkin' some myself, Miss Hester, an' it 's been about you."
"About me? La, 'Liphalet, what have you been a-thinkin' now?" The "now" sounded as if his thoughts were usually rather irresponsible.
"It was about you an'—an'—old Bess."
"About me an' old Bess! Bless my soul, man, will you stop beatin' about the bush an' tell me what on airth I 've got to do with yore horse?"
"Old Bess is dead, Miss Hester; died last night o' colic."
"Well, I thought there was somethin' the matter with you. I 'm mighty sorry to hear about the poor old creatur; but she 'd served you a long while."
"That 's jest what set me a-thinkin': she has served me a long while, an' now she 's dead. Do you know what that means, Miss Hester? It means that we 're a-gittin' old, you an' me. Do you know when I got old Bess? It was nigh thirty years ago: I used to ride her up to this door an' tie her to that tree out there: it was a saplin' then. An' now she 's dead."
The man's voice trembled, and his listener was strangely silent.
"You know on what errands the old horse used to bring me," he went on, "but it was n't to be,—then. Hester," he rose, went over to her, and looked down into her half-averted face, which went red and pale by turns,—"Hester, 'ain't we wasted time enough?"
There was a long pause before she lifted her face: he stood watching her with the light of a great eagerness in his eyes. At last she spoke. There was a catch in her voice; it was softer than usual.
"'Liphalet," she began, "I 'm right glad you remember those days. I 'ain't never furgot 'em myself. It 's true you 've been a good, loyal friend to me, an' I thank you fur it, but, after all these years—"
He broke in upon her with something like youthful impetuosity. "After all these years," he exclaimed, "an endurin' love ought to be rewarded. Hester, I ain't a-goin' to take 'no' fur an answer. I 've got lots o' years o' life in me yet,—we both have,—an' I ain't a-goin' on with an empty home an' an empty heart no longer."
"'Liphalet, you ain't a young man no more, an' I ain't a young woman, an' the Lord—"
"I don't care ef I ain't; an' I don't believe in shovin' everything off on the Lord."
"'Liphalet!" It was a reproach.
"Hester!" This was love. He put his arm around her and kissed her. "You 're a-goin' to say yes, ain't you? You ain't a-goin' to send me away miserable? You 're a-dyin' to say yes, but you 're a-tryin' to force yoreself not to. Don't." He lifted her face as a young lover might, and looked down into her eyes. "Is it yes?"
"Well, 'Liphalet it 'pears like you 're jest so pesterin' that I 've got to say yes. Yes, then." And she returned the quiet but jubilant kiss that he laid upon her lips.
"After all these years," he said. "Sorrow may last fur a night, but joy cometh in the mornin'. It was a long night, but, thank the Lord, mornin' 's broke." Then, rising, he went to the door and called joyously, "Freddie, come on in: it 's all over."
"'Liphalet, did that boy know what you was a-goin' to say?"
"Yes, o' course he did."
"Oh, my! oh, my! Well, I 've got a good mind to take it all back. Oh, my!" And when Fred came in, for the first time in her life Miss Prime was abashed and confused in his presence.
But Eliphalet had no thought of shame. He took her by the hand and said, "Freddie, Miss Hester's consented at last: after thirty years, she 's a-goin' to marry me."
But Miss Hester broke in, "'Liphalet, don't be a-puttin' notions in that boy's head. You go 'way, Fred, right away."
Fred went out, but he felt bolder. He went past Elizabeth's house whistling. He did n't care. He wondered if he would have to wait thirty years for her. He hoped not.
So great has been our absorption in the careers of Fred Brent, Miss Prime, and Eliphalet Hodges that we have sadly neglected some of the characters whose acquaintance we made at the beginning of our story. But nature and Time have been kinder,—or more cruel, if you will. They have neither passed over nor neglected them. They have combined with trouble and hard work to kill one of Fred's earliest friends. Melissa Davis is no more, and the oldest girl, Sophy, supplements her day's work of saleswoman in a dry-goods store by getting supper in the evening and making the younger Davises step around. Mrs. Warren, the sometime friend of Margaret Brent and enemy of Miss Prime, has moved farther out, into the suburbs, for Dexter has suburbs now, and boasts electric cars and amusement parks. Time has done much for the town. Its streets are paved, and the mean street that bore the tumble-down Brent cottage and its fellows has been built up and grown respectable. It and the street where Miss Prime's cottage frowned down have settled away into a quiet residential portion of the town, while around to the east, south, and west, and on both sides of the little river that divides the city, roars and surges the traffic of a characteristic middle-West town. Half-way up the hill, where the few aristocrats of the place formerly lived in almost royal luxuriance and seclusion, a busy sewing-machine factory has forced its way, and with its numerous chimneys and stacks literally smoked the occupants out; at their very gates it sits like the commander of a besieging army, and about it cluster the cottages of the workmen, in military regularity. Little and neat and trim, they flock there like the commander's obedient host, and such they are, for the sight of them offends the eyes of wealth. So, what with the smoke, and what with the proximity of the poorer classes, wealth capitulates, evacuates, and, with robes discreetly held aside, passes by to another quarter, and a new district is born where poverty dare not penetrate. Seated on a hill, where, as is their inclination, they may look down, literally and figuratively, upon the hurrying town, they are complacent again, and the new-comers to the town, the new-rich magnates and the half-rich strugglers who would be counted on the higher level, move up and swell their numbers at Dexter View.
Amid all this change, two alone of those we know remain unaltered and unalterable, true to their traditions. Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Martin, the two ancient gossips, still live side by side, spying and commenting on all that falls within their ken, much as they did on that day when 'Liphalet Hodges took Fred Brent for his first drive behind old Bess. Their windows still open out in the same old way, whence they can watch the happenings of the street. If there has been any change in them at all, it is that they have grown more absorbed and more keen in following and dissecting their neighbours' affairs.
It is to these two worthies, then, that we wish to reintroduce the reader on an early autumn evening some three months after the events narrated in the last chapter.
Mrs. Martin went to her back fence, which was the nearest point of communication between her and her neighbour. "Mis' Smith," she called, and her confederate came hurrying to the door, thimble on and a bit of sewing clutched precariously in her apron, just as she had caught it up when the significant call brought her to the back door.
"Oh, you 're busy as usual, I see," said Mrs. Martin.
"It ain't nothin' partic'ler, only a bit o' bastin' that I was doin'."
"You ain't a-workin' on the machine, then, so you might bring your sewin' over and take a cup o' tea with me."
"La! now that 's so kind o' you, Mis' Martin. I was jest thinkin' how good a cup o' tea would taste, but I did n't want to stop to make it. I 'll be over in a minute, jest as soon as I see if my front door is locked." And she disappeared within the house, while Mrs. Martin returned to her own sitting-room.
The invited knew very well what the invitation to tea meant. She knew that some fresh piece of news was to be related and discussed. The beverage of which she was invited to partake was but a pretext, but neither the one nor the other admitted as much. Each understood perfectly, as by a tacit agreement, and each tried to deceive herself and the other as to motives and objects.
There is some subtle tie between tea-drinking and gossip. It is over their dainty cups that women dissect us men and damn their sisters. Some of the quality of the lemon they take in their tea gets into their tongues. Tea is to talk what dew is to a plant, a gentle nourishing influence, which gives to its product much of its own quality. There are two acids in the tea which cultured women take. There is only one in the beverage brewed by commonplace people. But that is enough.
Mrs. Martin had taken her tray into the sitting-room, where a slight fire was burning in the prim "parlour cook," on which the hot water was striving to keep its quality when Mrs. Smith came in.
"La, Mis' Martin, you do manage to have everything so cosy. I 'm shore a little fire in a settin'-room don't feel bad these days."
"I jest thought I 'd have to have a fire," replied Mrs. Martin, "fur I was feelin' right down chilly, though goodness knows a person does burn enough coal in winter, without throwin' it away in these early fall days."
"Well, the Lord 's put it here fur our comfort, an' I think we 're a-doin' His will when we make use o' the good things He gives us."
"Ah, but Mis' Smith, there 's too many people that goes about the world thinkin' that they know jest what the Lord's will is; but I have my doubts about 'em, though, mind you, I ain't a-mentionin' no names: 'no name, no blame.'" Mrs. Martin pressed her lips and shook her head, a combination of gestures that was eloquent with meaning. It was too much for her companion. Her curiosity got the better of her caution.
"Dear me!" she exclaimed. "What is it now?"
"Oh, nothin' of any consequence at all. It ain't fur me to be a-judgin' my neighbours or a-talkin' about 'em. I jest thought I 'd have you over to tea, you 're sich good company."
Mrs. Smith was so impatient that she had forgotten her sewing and it lay neglected in her lap, but in no other way did she again betray her anxiety. She knew that there was something new to be told and that it would be told all in good time. But when gossip has become a fine art it must be conducted with dignity and precision.
"Let me see, I believe you take two lumps o' sugar an' no milk." Mrs. Martin knew perfectly what her friend took. "I don't know how this tea is. I got it from the new grocery over at the corner." She tasted it deliberately. "It might 'a' drawed a little more." Slowly she stirred it round and round, and then, as if she had drawn the truth from the depths of her cup, she observed, "This is a queer world, Mis' Smith."
Mrs. Smith sighed a sigh that was appreciative and questioning at once. "It is indeed," she echoed; "I 'm always a-sayin' to myself what a mighty cur'us world this is."
"Have you ever got any tea from that new grocery-man?" asked her companion, with tantalising irrelevance.
"No: I hain't never even been in there."
"Well, this here 's middlin' good; don't you think so?"
"Oh, it 's more than middlin', it 's downright good. I think I must go into that grocery some time, myself."
"I was in there to-day, and met Mis' Murphy: she says there 's great goin'-ons up at Miss Prime's—I never shall be able to call her Mis' Hodges."
"You don't tell me! She and Brother 'Liphalet 'ain't had a fallin' out already, have they? Though what more could you expect?"
"Oh, no, indeed. It ain't no fallin' out, nothin' o' the kind."
"Well, what then? What has Miss Hester—I mean Mis' Hodges been doin' now? Where will that woman stop? What 's she done?"
"Well, you see,—do have another cup of tea, an' help yoreself to that bread an' butter,—you see, Freddie Brent has finished at the high school, an' they 've been wonderin' what to make him."
"Well, what air they a-goin' to make him? His father was a good stone-mason, when he was anything."
"Humph! you don't suppose Miss Hester 's been sendin' a boy to school to learn Latin and Greek an' algebry an' sich, to be a stone-mason, do you? Huh uh! Said I to myself, as soon as I see her sendin' him from the common school to high school, says I, 'She 's got big notions in her head.' Oh, no; the father's trade was not good enough fur her boy: so thinks Mis' 'Liphalet Hodges."
"Well, what on airth is she goin' to make out of him, then?"
"Please pass me that sugar: thank you. You know Mr. Daniels offered him a place as clerk in the same store where Sophy Davis is. It was mighty kind o' Mr. Daniels, I think, to offer him the job."
"Well, did n't he take it?"
"Well, partly he did an' partly he did n't, ef you can understand that."
"Sally Martin, what do you mean? A body has to fairly pick a thing out o' you."
"I mean that she told Mr. Daniels he might work fur him half of every day."
"Half a day! An' what 's he goin' to do the other half?"
"He 's a-goin' to the Bible Seminary the other half-day. She 's a-goin' to make a preacher out o' him."
Mrs. Martin had slowly and tortuously worked up to her climax, and she shot forth the last sentence with a jubilant ring. She had well calculated its effects. Sitting back in her chair, she supped her tea complacently as she contemplated her companion's astonishment. Mrs. Smith had completely collapsed into her seat, folded her arms, and closed her eyes. "Laws a massy!" she exclaimed. "What next? Old Tom, drunken Tom, swearin' an' ravin' Tom Brent's boy a preacher!" Then suddenly she opened her eyes and sat up very erect and alert as she broke forth, "Sally Martin, what air you a-tellin' me? It ain't possible. It 's ag'in' nature. A panther's cub ain't a-goin' to be a lamb. It 's downright wicked, that 's what I say."
"An' so says I to Mis' Murphy, them same identical words; says I, 'Mis' Murphy, it 's downright wicked. It 's a-shamin' of the Lord's holy callin' o' the ministry.'"
"An' does the young scamp pertend to 'a' had a call?"
"No, indeed: he was mighty opposed to it, and so was her husband; but that woman was so set she would n't agree to nothin' else. He don't pertend to 'a' heerd no call, 'ceptin' Miss Hester's, an' that was a command. I know it 's all true, fur Mis' Murphy, while she was n't jest a-listenin', lives next door and heerd it all."
And so the two women fell to discussing the question, as they had heard it, pro and con. It was all true, as these gossips had it, that Miss Hester had put into execution her half-expressed determination to make a preacher of Fred. He had heard nothing of it until the day when he rushed in elated over the kindly offer of a place in Mr. Daniels's store. Then his guardian had firmly told him of her plan, and there was a scene.
"You kin jest tell Mr. Daniels that you kin work for him half a day every day, an' that you 're a-goin' to put in the rest of your time at the Bible Seminary. I 've made all the arrangements."
"But I don't want to be a preacher," the boy had retorted, with some heat. "I 'd a good deal rather learn business, and some day start out for myself."
"It ain't what some of us wants to do in this life; it 's what the Lord appoints us to; an' it 's wicked fur you to rebel."
"I don't know how you can know so much what the Lord means for me to do. I should think He would give His messages to those who are to do the work."
"That 's right, Freddie Brent, sass me, sass me. That 's what I 've struggled all the best days of my life to raise you fur."
"I 'm not sassing you, but—"
"Don't you think, Hester," broke in her husband, "that mebbe there 's some truth in what Freddie says? Don't you think the Lord kind o' whispers what He wants people to do in their own ears? Mebbe it was n't never intended fur Freddie to be a preacher: there 's other ways o' doin' good besides a-talkin' from the pulpit."
"I 'd be bound fur you, 'Liphalet: it 's a shame, you a-goin' ag'in' me, after all I 've done to make Freddie material fit for the Lord's use. Jest think what you 'll have to answer fur, a-helpin' this unruly boy to shirk his dooty."
"I ain't a-goin' ag'in' you, Hester. You 're my wife, an' I 'low 'at your jedgment 's purty sound on most things. I ain't a-goin' ag'in' you at all, but—but—I was jest a-wonderin'."
The old man brought out the last words slowly, meditatively. He was "jest a-wonderin'." His wife, though, never wondered.
"Mind you," she went on, "I say to you, Freddie, and to yore uncle 'Liphalet too, ef he upholds you, that it ain't me you 're a-rebellin' against. It 's yore dooty an' the will o' God that you 're a-fightin'. It 's easy enough to rebel against man; but do you know what you 're a-doin' when you set yourself up against the Almighty? Do you want to do that?"
"Yes," came the boy's answer like a flash. He was stung and irritated into revolt, and a torrent of words poured from his lips unrestrained. "I 'm tired of doing right. I 'm tired of being good. I 'm tired of obeying God—"
"Freddie!" But over the dam the water was flowing with irresistible force. The horror of his guardian's face and the terrible reproach in her voice could not check the boy.
"Everything," he continued, "that I have ever wanted to do since I can remember has been bad, or against my duty, or displeasing to God. Why does He frown on everything I want to do? Why do we always have to be killing our wishes on account of duty? I don't believe it. I hate duty. I hate obedience. I hate everything, and I won't obey—"
"Freddie, be keerful: don't say anything that 'll hurt after yore mad spell 's over. Don't blaspheme the Lord A'mighty."
'Liphalet Hodges' voice was cool and tender and persuasive. He laid his hand on the boy's shoulder, while his wife sat there motionless, white and rigid with horror.
The old man's words and his gentle touch had a wonderful effect on the boy; they checked his impassioned outburst; but his pent-up heart was too full. He burst into tears and rushed headlong from the house.
For a time he walked aimlessly on, his mind in a tumult of rage. Then he began to come to himself. He saw the people as they passed him. He had eyes again for the street, and he wondered where he was going. He felt an overwhelming desire to talk to some one and to get sympathy, consolation, and perhaps support. But whither should he turn? If 'Liphalet Hodges had been at the old house, his steps would naturally have bent in that direction; but this refuge was no longer his. Then his mind began going over the people whom he knew, and no name so stuck in his fancy as that of Elizabeth. It was a hard struggle. He was bashful. Any other time he would not have done it, but now his great need created in him an intense desperation that made him bold. He turned and retraced his steps toward the Simpson house.
Elizabeth was leaning over the gate. The autumn evening was cool: she had a thin shawl about her shoulders. She was humming a song as Fred came up. His own agitation made her seem irritatingly calm. She opened the gate and made room for him at her side.
"You seem dreadfully warm," she said, "and here I was getting ready to go in because it is so cool."
"I 've been walking very fast," he answered, hesitatingly.
"Don't you think you 'd better go in, so as not to take cold?"
"Oh, I don't care if I do take cold." The speech sounded rude. Elizabeth looked at him in surprise.
"What 's the matter with you?" she asked.
"I 'm mad; that 's what 's the matter."
"Oh, Fred, you should n't get mad: you know it 's wrong."
He put up his hand as if she had struck him. "Wrong! wrong! It seems I can't hear anything else but that word. Everything is wrong. Don't say any more about it. I don't want to hear the word again."
Elizabeth did not know what to make of his words, so she said nothing, and for a while they stood in strained silence. After a while he said, "Aunt Hester wants me to be a preacher."
"I am so glad to hear that," she returned. "I think you 'll make a good one."
"You too!" he exclaimed, resentfully. "Why should I make a good one? Why need I be one at all?"
"Oh, because you 're smart, and then you 've always been good."
The young man was suddenly filled with disdain. His anger returned. He felt how utterly out of accord he was with every one else. "Don't you think there is anything else required besides being 'smart' and 'good'?" He himself would have blushed at the tone in which he said this, could he have recognised it. "I 'm smart because I happened to pass all my examinations. I got through the high school at eighteen: nearly everyone does the same. I 'm good because I have never had a chance to be bad: I have never been out of Aunt Hester's sight long enough. Anybody could be good that way."
"But then older people know what is best for us, Fred."
"Why should they? They don't know what 's beating inside of us away down here." The boy struck his breast fiercely. "I don't believe they do know half the time what is best, and I don't believe that God intends them to know."
"I would n't talk about it, if I were you. I must go in. Won't you come in with me?"
"Not to-night," he replied. "I must be off."
"But papa might give you some advice."
"I 've had too much of it now. What I want is room to breathe in once."
"I don't understand you."
"I know you don't; nobody does, or tries to. Go in, Lizzie," he said more calmly. "I don't want you to catch cold, even if I do. Good-night." And he turned away.
The girl stood for a moment looking after him; her eye was moist. Then she pouted, "Fred 's real cross to-night," and went in.
It is one of the glaring sarcasms of life to see with what complacency a shallow woman skims the surface of tragedy and thinks that she has sounded the depths.
Fred continued his walk towards home. He was thinking. It ran in him that Elizabeth was a good deal of a fool; and then he felt horrified with himself for thinking it. It did not occur to him that the hard conditions through which he had come had made him mentally and spiritually older than the girl. He was thinking of his position, how perfectly alone he stood. Most of the people whom he knew would see only blind obstinacy in his refusal to be a minister. But were one's inclinations nothing? Was there really nothing in the "call" to preach? So he pondered as he walked, and more and more the hopelessness of his predicament became revealed to him. All his life had been moulded by this one woman's hands. Would not revolt now say to the world, "I am grown now; I do not need this woman who has toiled. I can disobey her with impunity; I will do so."
He went home, and before going in leaned his head long upon the gate and thought. A listless calm had succeeded his storm of passion. He went in and to bed.
At breakfast he seemed almost cheerful, while Mr. Hodges was subdued. His wife had taken refuge in an attitude of injured silence.
"Aunt Hester," said the young man, apparently without effort, "I was wrong yesterday; I am sorry. I will do whatever you say, even to being a preacher." Something came up in his throat and choked him as he saw a brightness come into the face and eyes of his beloved "Uncle 'Liph," but it grew hard and bitter there as Mrs. Hodges replied, "Well, I 'm glad the Lord has showed you the errors of your way an' brought you around to a sense o' your dooty to Him an' to me."
Poor, blind, conceited humanity! Interpreters of God, indeed! We reduce the Deity to vulgar fractions. We place our own little ambitions and inclinations before a shrine, and label them "divine messages." We set up our Delphian tripod, and we are the priest and oracles. We despise the plans of Nature's Ruler and substitute our own. With our short sight we affect to take a comprehensive view of eternity. Our horizon is the universe. We spy on the Divine and try to surprise His secrets, or to sneak into His confidence by stealth. We make God the eternal a puppet. We measure infinity with a foot-rule.
When Fate is fighting with all her might against a human soul, the greatest victory that the soul can win is to reconcile itself to the unpleasant, which is never quite so unpleasant afterwards. Upon this principle Frederick Brent acted instinctively. What with work and study and contact with his fellow-students, he found the seminary not so bad a place, after all. Indeed, he began to take a sort of pleasure in his pursuits. The spirit of healthy competition in the school whetted his mind and made him forgetful of many annoyances from without. When some fellow-salesman at the store gibed at him for being a parson, it hurt him; but the wound was healed and he was compensated when in debate he triumphed over the crack speaker of his class. It was a part of his training to do earnestly and thoroughly what he had to do, even though it was distasteful, and it was not long before he was spoken of as one of the most promising members of the school.
Notwithstanding its steady growth toward citydom, Dexter retained many of the traditions of its earlier and smaller days. Among them was that of making the church the centre of its social and public life. For this reason the young student came in for much attention on account of his standing in the religious college. Another cause which elicited the praise and congratulations of his friends was his extreme youth. That community which could send out a "boy preacher" always deemed itself particularly favoured by Providence. Dexter was no exception, and it had already begun to bestow the appellation upon young Brent, much to his disgust. He knew the species and detested it. It was mostly composed of ignorant and hypocritical young prigs, in whom their friends had seemed to see some especial merit and had forthwith hoisted them into a position that was as foolish as it was distasteful. They were hailed as youthful prodigies and exploited around the country like a patent medicine or a side-show. What is remarkable at eighteen is not so striking at twenty-eight. So when their extreme youth was no longer a cause for surprise, the boy preachers settled down into every-day dulness, with nothing except the memory of a flimsy fame to compensate the congregations they bored.
Against this Frederick Brent fought with all his strength. He refused invitation after invitation to "talk" or "exhort," on the plea that he wished to be fully prepared for his work before entering upon it.
But his success at school militated against him, for the fame of his oratorical powers was gradually but surely leaking out. The faculty recognised and commended it, so he could not hope long to hide behind his plea, although he dreaded the day when it would no longer serve his purpose.
Some of the "older heads" accused him of an unwarranted fear, of cowardice even, and an attempt to shirk his evident duty. The truth of it was that these same people wanted to hear him and then attack his manner or his doctrine. They could not, would not forget that he was the son of old Tom Brent, the drunkard, and of the terrible, the unspeakable Margaret, his wife. They could not forget that he was born and lived the first years of his life on the "mean" street, when it was a mean street; and when any obstinate old fossil was told of the youth's promise, he would shake his head, as who should say, "What good can come out of that Nazareth?"
But the young man went his way and heeded them not. He knew what they were saying. He knew what they were thinking, even when they held his hand and smiled upon him, and it filled him with a spirit of distrust and resentment, though it put him bravely on his mettle. While he was a man, and in the main manly, sometimes he was roused to an anger almost childish; then, although he did not want to be a preacher at all, he wished and even prayed to become a great one, just to convince the old fools who shook their heads over him. To his ears had crept, as such tales will creep, some of the stories of his parents' lives, and, while he pitied his mother, there was a great fierceness in his heart against his father.
But as in the old days when Miss Prime's discipline would have turned all within him to hardness and bitterness Eliphalet Hodges stood between him and despair, so now in this crucial time Elizabeth was a softening influence in his life.
As the days came and went, he had continued to go to see her ever since the night when he had stood with her at the gate and felt the bitterness of her lack of sympathy; but all that had passed now, and unconsciously they had grown nearer to each other. There had been a tacit understanding between them until just a few weeks before. It was on a warm spring evening: he had just passed through her gate and started towards the house, when the opening chords of the piano struck on his ear through the opened window and arrested him. Elizabeth had a pleasant little voice, with a good deal of natural pathos in it. As the minister's daughter, the scope of her songs was properly, according to Dexter, rather limited, but that evening she was singing softly to herself a love-song. The words were these:
If Death should claim me for her own to-day, And softly I should falter from your side, Oh, tell me, loved one, would my memory stay, And would my image in your heart abide? Or should I be as some forgotten dream, That lives its little space, then fades entire? Should Time send o'er you its relentless stream, To cool your heart, and quench for aye love's fire?
I would not for the world, love, give you pain, Or ever compass what would cause you grief; And oh, how well I know that tears are vain! But love is sweet, my dear, and life is brief; So, if some day before you I should go Beyond the sound and sight of song and sea, 'T would give my spirit stronger wings to know That you remembered still and wept for me.
She was alone in the room. The song was hardly finished when Brent stepped through the window and laid his hand over hers where they rested on the keys.
"Why do you sing like that, Elizabeth?" he said, tremulously.
She blushed and lowered her eyes beneath his gaze, as if she already knew the words that were on his lips, or feared that her soul lay too bare before him.
"Why do you think of death?" he asked again, imprisoning her hands.
"It was only my mood," she faltered. "I was thinking, and I thought of the song, and I just sang it."
"Were you thinking of any one in particular, Lizzie?"
Her head drooped lower until her face was hidden, but she did not answer. A strange boldness had come to him. He went on: "I listened as you were singing, and it seemed as if every word was meant for me, Lizzie. It may sound foolish, but I—I love you. Won't you look at me and tell me that I am right in thinking you love me?" She half raised her face to his and murmured one word. In it were volumes; he bent down and kissed her. It was the first time he had ever kissed a girl. He did it almost fearfully. It was a kiss in which reverence struggled with passion.
"You are to be my little sweetheart now, and I am to be in your thoughts hereafter when you sing; only we don't want any more such songs as this one. I don't want to 'remember still and weep for you,' I want to have you always by me and work for you. Won't you let me?"
Elizabeth found her tongue for a moment only, but that was enough for her lover. A happy light gleamed in his eyes: his face glowed. He was transfigured. Love does so much for a man.
From that time forward, when he was harassed by cares and trouble, he sought out Elizabeth, and, even though he could seldom tell her all that was in his heart, he found relief in her presence. He did not often speak of his trials to her, for, in spite of his love for her, he felt that she could not understand; but the pleasure he found in her company put sweetness into his life and made his burdens easier to bear.
Only once had a little shadow come between them, and the fact that so little a thing could have made a shadow shows in what a narrow, constrained atmosphere the two young people lived. Young Brent still had his half-day position in the store, and when the employees of a rival establishment challenged Daniels's clerks to a game of baseball, he was duly chosen as one of the men to uphold the honour of their house upon the diamond.
The young man was not fossilised. He had strength and the capacity for enjoyment, so he accepted without a thought of wrong. The Saturday came, the game was played. Fred Brent took part, and thereby brought a hornets' nest about his ears. It would scarcely have been so bad, but the young man entered the game with all the zest and earnestness of his intense nature, and several times by brilliant playing saved his side from defeat. In consequence, his name was in the mouth of every one who had seen or heard of the contest. He was going home that evening, feeling pleased and satisfied with himself, when he thought he would drop in a moment on the way and see Elizabeth. He had hardly got into the house before he saw from her manner that something was wrong, and he wondered what it could be. He soon learned. It is only praise that is slow.
"Oh, Fred," said the girl, reproachfully, "is it true that you have been playing baseball?"
"Baseball, yes; what of it? What are you looking so horrified about?"
"Did you think it was right for you, in your position, to play?"
"If I had thought it was wrong I assuredly should not have played," the young man returned.
"Everybody is talking about it, and father says he thinks you have disgraced your calling."
"Disgraced my calling by playing an innocent game?"
"But father thinks it is a shame for a man who is preparing to do such work as yours to have people talking about him as a mere ball-player."
The blood mounted in hot surges to the young man's face. He felt like saying, "Your father be hanged," but he controlled his anger, and said, quietly, "Elizabeth, don't you ever think for yourself?"
"I suppose I do, Fred, but I have been brought up to respect what my elders think and say."
"Don't you think that they, as well as we, can be narrow and mistaken?"
"It is not for me to judge them. My part is to obey."
"You have learned an excellent lesson," he returned, bitterly. "That is just the thing: 'obey, obey.' Well, I will. I will be a stick, a dolt. I will be as unlike what God intended me to be as possible. I will be just what your father and Aunt Hester and you want me to be. I will let them think for me and save my soul. I am too much an imbecile to attempt to work out my own salvation. No, Elizabeth, I will not play ball any more. I can imagine the horrified commotion it caused among the angels when they looked down and saw me pitching. When I get back to school I shall look up the four Gospels' views on ball-playing."
"Fred, I don't like you when you talk that way."
"I won't do that any more, either." He rose abruptly. "Good-bye, Elizabeth. I am off." He was afraid to stay, lest more bitter words should come to his lips.
"Good-bye, Fred," she said. "I hope you understand."
The young man wondered as he walked homeward if the girl he had chosen was not a little bit prim. Then he thought of her father, and said to himself, even as people would have said of himself, "How can she help it, with such a father?"
All his brightness had been dashed. He was irritated because the thing was so small, so utterly absurd. It was like the sting of a miserable little insect,—just enough to smart, and not enough to need a strong remedy. The news of the game had also preceded him home, and his guardian's opinion of the propriety of his action did not tend to soothe his mind. Mrs. Hodges forcibly expressed herself as follows: "I put baseball-playin' right down with dancin' and sich like. It ain't no fittin' occupation for any one that 's a-goin' into the ministry. It 's idleness, to begin with; it 's a-wastin' the precious time that 's been given us for a better use. A young man that 's goin' to minister to people's souls ought to be consecrated to the work before he begins it. Who ever heerd tell of Jesus playin' baseball?"
Among a certain class of debaters such an argument is always supposed to be clinching, unanswerable, final. But Mr. Hodges raised his voice in protest. "I ain't a-goin' to keep still no longer. I don't believe the boy 's done a bit o' harm. There 's lots of things the Lord did n't do that He did n't forbid human bein's to do. We ain't none of us divine, but you mark my words, Freddie, an' I say it right here so 's yore aunt Hester can hear me too, you mark my words: ef you never do nothin' worse than what you 've been a-doin' to-day, it 'll be mighty easy for you to read yore title clear to mansions in the skies."
"Omph huh, 'Liphalet, there ain't nothin' so easy as talkin' when Satin 's a-promptin' you."
"There you go, Hester, there you go ag'in, a-pattin' the devil on the back. I 'low the Old Boy must be tickled to death with all the compliments Christian people give him."
"A body 'd about as well be complimentin' the devil as to be a-countenancin' his works, as you air."
The old man stopped with a piece half-way to his mouth. "Now jest listen at that! Hester Prime, ain't you ashamed of yoreself? Me a-countenancin' wrong! Sayin' that to me, an' me ol' enough to be—to be—well, I 'm your husband, anyway."
In times of excitement he was apt to forget this fact for the instant and give his wife her maiden name, as if all that was sharp in her belonged to that prenuptial period. But this storm relieved the atmosphere of its tension. Mrs. Hodges felt better for having spoken her mind, and Mr. Hodges for having answered, while the young man was relieved by the championship of his elder, and so the storm blew over. It was several days before Brent saw Elizabeth again; but, thanks to favouring winds, the sky had also cleared in that direction.
It was through such petty calms and storms that Fred passed the days and weeks of his first year at the seminary. Some of them were small annoyances, to be sure, but he felt them deeply, and the sting of them rankled. It is not to be supposed, because there was no specific outburst, that he was entirely at rest. Vesuvius had slumbered long before Pompeii's direful day. His mind was often in revolt, but he kept it to himself or confided it to only one friend. This friend was a fellow-student at the seminary, a man older than Fred by some years. He had first begun a literary career, but had renounced it for the ministry. Even to him Fred would not commit himself until, near the end of the year, Taylor declared his intention of now renouncing the study of theology for his old pursuits. Then Brent's longing to be free likewise drew his story from his lips.
Taylor listened to him with the air of one who had been through it all and could sympathise. Then he surprised his friend by saying, "Don't be a fool, Brent. It 's all very nice and easy to talk about striking out for one's self, and all that. I 've been through it all myself. My advice to you is, stay here, go through the academic discipline, and be a parson. Get into a rut if you will, for some ruts are safe. When we are buried deep, they keep us from toppling over. This may be a sort of weak philosophy I am trying to teach you, but it is the happiest. If I can save any man from self-delusion, I want to do it. I 'll tell you why. When I was at school some fool put it into my head that I could write. I hardly know how it came about. I began scribbling of my own accord and for my own amusement. Sometimes I showed the things to my friend, who was a fool: he bade me keep on, saying that I had talent. I did n't believe it at first. But when a fellow keeps dinging at another with one remark, after a while he grows to believe it, especially when it is pleasant. It is vastly easy to believe what we want to believe. So I came to think that I could write, and my soul was fired with the ambition to make a name for myself in literature. When I should have been turning Virgil into English for class-room, I was turning out more or less deformed verse of my own, or rapt in the contemplation of some plot for story or play. But somehow I got through school without a decided flunk. In the mean time some of my lines had found their way into print, and the little cheques I received for them had set my head buzzing with dreams of wealth to be made by my pen. If we could only pass the pitfalls of that dreaming age of youth, most of us would get along fairly well in this matter-of-fact old world. But we are likely to follow blindly the leadings of our dreams until we run our heads smack into a corner-post of reality. Then we awaken, but in most cases too late.
"I am glad to say that my father had the good sense to discourage my aspirations. He wanted me to take a profession. But, elated by the applause of my friends, I scorned the idea. What, mew my talents up in a courtroom or a hospital? Never! It makes me sick when I look back upon it and see what a fool I was. I settled down at home and began writing. Lots of things came back from periodicals to which I sent them; but I had been told that this was the common lot of all writers, and I plodded on. A few things sold, just enough to keep my hopes in a state of unstable equilibrium.
"Well, it 's no use to tell you how I went on in that way for four years, clinging and losing hold, standing and slipping, seeing the prize recede just as I seemed to grasp it. Then came the awakening. I saw that it would have been better just to go on and do the conventional thing. I found this out too late, and I came here to try to remedy it, but I can't. No one can. You get your mind into a condition where the ordinary routine of study is an impossibility, and you cannot go back and take up the train you have laid, so you keep struggling on wasting your energy, hoping against hope. Then suddenly you find out that you are and can be only third- or at best second-rate. God, what a discovery it is! How you try to fight it off until the last moment! But it comes upon you surely and crushingly, and, cut, bruised, wounded, you slip away from the face of the world. If you are a brave man, you say boldly to yourself, 'I will eke out an existence in some humble way,' and you go away to a life of longing and regret. If you are a coward, you either leap over the parapets of life to hell, or go creeping back and fall at the feet of the thing that has damned you, willing to be third-rate, anything; for you are stung with the poison that never leaves your blood. So it has been with me: even when I found that I must choose a calling, I chose the one that gave me most time to nurse the serpent that had stung me."
Taylor ceased speaking, and looked a little ashamed of his vehemence.
"This is your story," said Brent; "but men differ and conditions differ. I will accept all the misery, all the pain and defeat you have suffered, to be free to choose my own course."
Taylor threw up his hands with a deprecatory gesture. "There," he said; "it is always so. I might as well have talked to the wind."
So the fitful calms and Elizabeth's love had not cured Frederick Brent's heart of its one eating disease, the desire for freedom.
It was not until early in Brent's second year at the Bible Seminary that he was compelled to go through the ordeal he so much dreaded, that of filling a city pulpit. The Dexterites had been wont to complain that since the advent among them of the theological school their churches had been turned into recitation-rooms for the raw students; but of "old Tom Brent's boy," as they still called him, they could never make this complaint. So, as humanity loves to grumble, the congregations began to find fault because he did not do as his fellows did.
The rumours of his prowess in the class-room and his eloquence in the society hall had not abated, and the curiosity of his fellow-townsmen had been whetted to a point where endurance was no longer possible. Indeed, it is open to question whether it was not by connivance of the minister himself, backed by his trustees on one side and the college authorities on the other, that Brent was finally deputed to supply the place of the Rev. Mr. Simpson, who was affected by an indisposition, fancied, pretended, or otherwise.
The news struck the young man like a thunderbolt, albeit he had been expecting it. He attempted to make his usual excuse, but the kindly old professor who had notified him smiled into his face, and, patting his shoulder, said, "It 's no use, Brent. I 'd go and make the best of it; they 're bound to have you. I understand your diffidence in the matter, and, knowing how well you stand in class, it does credit to your modesty."
The old man passed on. He said he understood, but in his heart the young student standing there helpless, hopeless, knew that he did not understand, that he could not. Only he himself could perceive it in all the trying horror of its details. Only he himself knew fully or could know what the event involved,—that when he arose to preach, to nine-tenths of the congregation he would not be Frederick Brent, student, but "old Tom Brent's boy." He recoiled from the thought.
Many a fireside saint has said, "Why did not Savonarola tempt the hot ploughshares? God would not have let them burn him." Faith is a beautiful thing. But Savonarola had the ploughshares at his feet. The children of Israel stepped into the Red Sea before the waters parted, but then Moses was with them, and, what was more, Pharaoh was behind them.
At home, the intelligence of what Brent was to do was received in different manner by Mrs. Hodges and her husband. The good lady launched immediately into a lecture on the duty that was placed in his hands; but Eliphalet was silent as they sat at the table. He said nothing until after supper was over, and then he whispered to his young friend as he started to his room, "I know jest how you feel, Freddie. It seems that I ought n't to call you that now; but I 'low you 'll allus be 'Freddie' to me."
"Don't ever call me anything else, if you please, Uncle 'Liph," said the young man, pressing Eliphalet's hand.
"I think I kin understand you better than most people," Mr. Hodges went on; "an' I know it ain't no easy task that you 've got before you."
"You 've always understood me better than any one, and—and I wish you knew what it has meant to me, and that I could thank you somehow."
"'Sh, my boy. It 's thanks enough to hear them words from you. Now you jest calm yoreself, an' when Sunday comes—I don't know as I 'd ought to say it this way, but I mean it all in a Christian sperrit—when Sunday comes, Freddie, my boy, you jest go in an' give 'em fits."
The two parted with another pressure of the hand, and it must be confessed that the old man looked a little bit sheepish when his wife hoped he had been giving Fred good advice.
"You don't reckon, Hester, that I 'd give him any other kind, do you?"
"Not intentionally, 'Liphalet; but when it comes to advice, there 's p'ints o' view." Mrs. Hodges seemed suspicious of her husband's capabilities as an adviser.
"There 's some times when people 'd a good deal ruther have sympathy than advice."
"An' I reckon, 'cordin' to yore way o' thinkin' this is one o' them. Well, I intend to try to do my dooty in this matter, as I 've tried to do it all along."
"Hester, yore dooty 'll kill you yit. It 's a wonder you don't git tired a-lookin' it in the face."
"I ain't a-goin' to shirk it, jest to live in pleasure an' ease."
"No need o' shirkin', Hester, no need o' shirkin'; but they 's some people that would n't be content without rowin' down stream."
"An' then, mind you, 'Liphalet, I ain't a-exchangin' words with you, fur that 's idleness, but there 's others, that would n't row up stream, but 'ud wait an' hope fur a wind to push 'em." These impersonalities were as near "spatting" as Mr. and Mrs. Hodges ever got.
Through all the community that clustered about Mr. Simpson's church and drew its thoughts, ideas, and subjects of gossip therefrom, ran like wildfire the news that at last they were to have a chance to judge of young Brent's merits for themselves. It caused a stir among old and young, and in the days preceding the memorable Sunday little else was talked of.
When it reached the ears of old Dan'l Hastings, who limped around now upon two canes, but was as acrimonious as ever, he exclaimed, tapping the ground with one of his sticks for emphasis, "What! that young Brent preachin' in our church, in our minister's pulpit! It 's a shame,—an' he the born son of old Tom Brent, that all the town knows was the worst sinner hereabouts. I ain't a-goin' to go; I ain't a-goin' to go."
"Don't you be afeared to go, Dan'l: there ain't no danger that his docterns air a-goin' to be as strong as his father's whisky," said his old enemy.
"Oh, it 's fur the likes o' you, Thomas Donaldson, to be a-talkin' o' docterns an' whisky in the same breath. You never did have no reverence," said the old man, testily.
"An' yet, Dan'l, I 've found docterns an' whisky give out by the same breath."
Mr. Hastings did not think it necessary to notice this remark. He went on with his tirade against the prospective "supply:" "Why can't Elder Simpson preach hisself, I 'd like to know, instead o' puttin' up that young upstart to talk to his betters? Why, I mind the time that that boy had to be took out o' church by the hand fur laffin' at me,—at me, mind you," the old man repeated, shaking his stick; "laffin' at me when I was expoundin' the word."
"That 's ter'ble, Dan'l; fur, as fur as I kin ricollec', when you 're a-expoundin' the word it ain't no laffin' matter."
"I tell you, Thomas Donaldson, the world 's a-goin' down hill fast: but I ain't a-goin' to help it along. I ain't a-goin' to hear that Brent boy preach."
This declaration, however, did not prevent the venerable Dan'l from being early in his seat on the following Sunday morning, sternly, uncompromisingly critical.
As might have been expected, the church was crowded. Friends, enemies, and the merely curious filled the seats and blocked the aisles. The chapel had been greatly enlarged to accommodate its growing congregation, but on this day it was totally inadequate to hold the people who flocked to its doors.
The Rev. Mr. Simpson was so far recovered from his indisposition as to be able to be present and assist at the service. Elizabeth was there, looking proud and happy and anxious. Mrs. Hodges was in her accustomed place on the ladies' side of the pulpit. She had put new strings to her bonnet in honour of the occasion. Her face wore a look of great severity. An unregenerate wag in the back part of the church pointed her out to his companions and remarked that she looked as if she 'd spank the preacher if he did n't do well. "Poor fellow, if he sees that face he 'll break down, sure." Opposite, in the "amen corner," the countenance of the good Eliphalet was a study in changing expressions. It was alternately possessed by fear, doubt, anxiety, and exultation.
Sophy Davis sat in a front seat, spick and span in a new dress, which might have been made for the occasion. People said that she was making eyes at her young fellow-salesman, though she was older than he. Mrs. Martin and her friend whispered together a little farther back.
A short time before the service began, Brent entered by a side door near the pulpit and ascended to his place. His entrance caused a marked sensation. His appearance was impressive. The youthful face was white and almost rigid in its lines. "Scared to death," was the mental note of a good many who saw him. But his step was firm. As Elizabeth looked at him, she felt proud that such a man loved her. He was not handsome. His features were irregular, but his eyes were clear and fearless. If a certain cowardice had held him back from this ordeal, it was surely not because he trembled for himself. The life he had lived and the battles he had fought had given a compression to his lips that corrected a natural tendency to weakness in his mouth. His head was set squarely on his broad shoulders. He was above medium height, but not loosely framed. He looked the embodiment of strength.
"He ain't a bit like his father," said some one.
"He 's like his father was in his best days," replied another.
"He don't look like he 's over-pleased with the business. They say he did n't want to come."
"Well, I guess it 's purty resky work gittin' up to speak before all these people that 's knowed him all his life, an' know where an' what he come from."
"They say, too, that he 's some pumpkins out at the college."
"I 'ain't much faith in these school-made preachers; but we' ll soon see what he kin do in the pulpit. We 've heerd preachers, an' we kin compare."
"That 's so: we 've heerd some preachers in our day. He must toe the mark. He may be all right at college, but he 's in a pulpit now that has held preachers fur shore. A pebble 's all right among pebbles, but it looks mighty small 'longside o' boulders. He 's preachin' before people now. Why, Brother Simpson himself never would 'a' got a special dispensation to hold the church all these years, ef it had n't been fur the people backin' him up an' Conference was afraid they 'd leave the connection."
"Well, ef this boy is anything, Lord only knows where he gets it, fur everybody knows—"
The buzz which had attended the young speaker's entrance subsided as Mr. Simpson rose and gave out the hymn. That finished, he ran his eyes over the front seats of the assembly and then said, "Brother Hastings, lead us in prayer."
The old man paused for an instant as if surprised, and then got slowly to his knees. It was a strange selection, but we have seen that this particular parson was capable of doing strange things. In the course of a supplication of some fifteen minutes' duration, Brother Hastings managed to vent his spleen upon the people and to pay the Lord a few clumsy compliments. During the usual special blessing which is asked upon the preacher of the hour, he prayed, "O Lord, let not the rarin' horses of his youth run away with Thy chariot of eternal truth. Lord, cool his head and warm his heart and settle him firm. Grant that he may fully realise where he 's a-standin' at, an' who he 's a-speakin' to. Do Thou not let him speak, but speak through him, that Thy gospel may be preached to-day as Thy prophets of old preached it."
Throughout the prayer, but one thought was running through Frederick Brent's mind, and his heart was crying in its anguish, "Oh, my God, my God, why do they hound me so?"
It is a terrible thing, this first effort before the home people, especially when home has not been kind.
When he arose to meet the people's eyes, his face was haggard and he felt weak. But unflinchingly he swept his eyes over the crowd, and that instant's glance brought before him all the panorama of the past years. There before him was the sneaking Billy Tompkins, now grown to the maturity of being called "Bill." Then there was Dan'l Hastings. Oh, that night, years ago, when he had been marched up the aisle with crimson face! In one brief second he lived it all over again, the shame, the disgrace, the misery of it. There, severe, critical, expectant, sat his guardian, the master-hand who had manipulated all the machinery of his life. All this passed through his mind in a flash, as he stood there facing the people. His face changed. The haggard look passed away. His eyes kindled, his cheeks mantled. Even in the pulpit, even in the house of God, about to speak His word, the blood sped hotly through his veins, and anger burned at his heart. But he crushed down his feelings for the moment, and began in a clear ringing voice, "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged, and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." The lesson he drew from the words was God's recognition of the fallibility of human judgment, and the self-condemnation brought about by ignoring the prohibition in the text. By an effort, he spoke deliberately at first, but the fire in his heart came out more and more in his words as he progressed. "Blinded by our own prejudices," he said, "circumscribed by our own ignorance, we dare to set ourselves up as censors of our fellow-men. Unable to see the whole chain of life which God has forged, we take a single link and say that it is faulty. Too narrow to see His broad plan, we take a patch of it and say, 'This is not good.' There is One who works even through evil that good may come, but we take the sin of our brother, and, without seeing or knowing what went before it or shall come after, condemn him. What false, blind, petty judges we are! You women who are condemning your fallen sisters, you men who are execrating your sinful brothers, if Christ to-day were to command, 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,' look into your own hearts and answer me, how many of you would dare to lift a hand? How many of you have taken the beam out of your own eye before attempting to pluck the mote out of your brother's? O ye pharisaical ones, who stand in the public places and thank God that you are not as other men, beware, beware. The condemnation that surely and inevitably shall fall upon you is not the judgment of Jesus Christ. It is not the sentence of the Father. It is your own self-condemnation, without charity, without forbearance, without love; 'for with what judgment ye judge ye shall be judged.'
"Stand by the wayside if you will. Draw aside your skirts in the vainglory of self-righteousness from the passing multitude. Say to each other, if you will, 'This woman is a sinner: this man is a criminal.' Close your eyes against their acts of repentance, harden your hearts against their pleas for forgiveness, withhold mercy and pardon and charity; but I tell you of One who has exalted charity into the highest and best of virtues. I bring you the message of One whose judgment is tempered by divine love. He is seeing you. He is hearing you. Over the parapets of high heaven the gentle Father leans waiting to take into His soul any breath of human love or charity which floats up to Him from this sin-parched world. What have you done to merit His approval? Have you been kind, or have you been hard? Have you been gentle, or have you been harsh? Have you been charitable, or have you hunted out all the evil and closed your eyes to all the good? You have forgotten, O ye of little faith, you have forgotten, you without charity in your hearts, and you who claim to follow Christ and yet have no love for your fellows,—you have forgotten that God is a God of wrath as well as of love; that Christ hath anger as well as pity; that He who holds the hyssop of divine mercy holds also the scourge of divine indignation. You have forgotten that the lash you so love to wield over your brother's back shall be laid upon your own by Him who whipped the money-changers from His temple. Listen! The day shall come when the condemnation you are accumulating against yourselves shall overwhelm you. Stop trying to steal the prerogative of heaven. Judge not. God only is just!"
The silence throughout the sermon was intense. During the closing words which have been quoted, it was like a presence in the chapel. The voice of the preacher rang out like a clarion. His eyes looked before him as if he saw into the future. His hand was uplifted as if he would call down upon them the very judgment which he predicted.
Without more words he sat down. No one moved or spoke for an instant. Dan'l Hastings let his cane fall upon the floor. It echoed through the silent place with a crash. Some of the women started and half cried out; but the spell was now partly broken. Mr. Simpson suddenly remembered to pray, and the gossips forgot to whisper when their heads were bowed. There were some pale faces in the crowd, and some which the galling of tears had made red. There was in the atmosphere something of the same tense silence that follows a terrific thunder-clap. And so the service ended, and the people filed out of church silent still. Some few remained behind to shake the preacher's hand, but as soon as the benediction was over he hurried out the side door, and, before any one could intercept him, was on his way home. But he left a willing substitute. Mrs. Hodges accepted all his congratulations with complacent condescension.
"Dan'l," said Thomas Donaldson, as he helped the old man down the church steps, "I was mistaken about the docterns an' the whisky. It was stronger an' better, because it was the pure stuff."
"I 'ain't got a word to say," said Dan'l, "'ceptin' that a good deal of it was jest sass." But he kept mumbling to himself as he hobbled along, "Jedge not, fur you 're a-pilin' up sentences on yoreself. I never thought of it that way before; no, I never."
Brent did not come out of his room to dinner that afternoon. Mrs. Hodges was for calling him, but the old man objected. "No, Hester," he said, "Freddie jest wants to be let alone. He 's a-feelin' now."
"But, 'Liphalet, he ought to know how nice people talked about his sermon. I tell you that was my kind o' doctern. It 's wonderful how a child will learn."
Notwithstanding his belief that his young friend wanted to be left alone, the old man slipped into his room later on with a cup of tea. The young man sat before the table, his head buried in his hands. Eliphalet set the cup and saucer down and turned to go, but he paused at the door and said, "Thank the Lord fur the way you give it to 'em, Freddie. It was worth a dollar." He would have hurried out, but the young man sprang up and seized his hand, exclaiming, "It was wrong, Uncle 'Liph, it was wrong of me. I saw them sitting about me like jackals waiting for their prey; I remembered all that I had been and all that I was; I knew what they were thinking, and I was angry, angry. God forgive me! That sermon was preached from as hot a heart as ever did murder."
The old man stroked the young one's hair as he would a child's. "Never mind," he said. "It don't matter what you felt. That 's between you an' Him. I only know what you said, an' that 's all I care about. Did n't you speak about the Lord a-whippin' the money-changers from the temple? Ain't lots o' them worse than the money-changers? Was n't Christ divine? Ain't you human? Would a body expect you to feel less'n He did? Huh! jest don't you worry; remember that you did n't hit a head that was n't in striking distance." And the old man pressed the boy back into his chair and slipped out.
Beside an absolute refusal again to supply, Brent made no sign of the rebellion which was in him, and his second year slipped quickly and uneventfully away. He went to and from his duties silent and self-contained. He did not confide in Mr. Hodges, because his guardian seemed to grow more and more jealous of their friendship. He could not confide in Elizabeth, on account of a growing conviction that she did not fully sympathise with him. But his real feelings may be gathered from a letter which he wrote to his friend Taylor some two months after the events recorded in the last chapter.
"MY DEAR TAYLOR," it ran, "time and again I have told myself that I would write you a line, keeping you in touch, as I promised, with my progress. Many times have I thought of our last talk together, and still I think as I thought then—that, in spite of all your disadvantages and your defeats, you have the best of it. When you fail, it is your own failure, and you bear down with you only your own hopes and struggles and ideals. If I fail, there falls with me all the framework of pride and anxiety that has so long pushed me forward and held me up. For my own failure I should not sorrow: my concern would be for the one who has so carefully shaped me after a pattern of her own. However else one may feel, one must be fair to the ambitions of others, even though one is the mere material that is heated and beaten into form on the anvil of another's will. But I am ripe for revolt. The devil is in me,—a restrained, quiet, well-appearing devil, but all the more terrible for that.
"I have at last supplied one of the pulpits here, that of my own church. The Rev. Mr. Simpson was afflicted with a convenient and adaptable indisposition which would not allow him to preach, and I was deputed to fill his place. I knew what a trial it would be, and had carefully written out my sermon, but I am afraid I did not adhere very strictly to the manuscript. I think I lost my head. I know I lost my temper. But the sermon was a nine days' wonder, and I have had to refuse a dozen subsequent offers to supply. It is all very sordid and sickening and theatrical. The good old Lowry tried to show me that it was my duty and for my good, but I have set my foot down not to supply again, and so they let me alone now.
"It seems to me that that one sermon forged a chain which holds me in a position that I hate. It is a public declaration that I am or mean to be a preacher, and I must either adhere to it or break desperately away. Do you know, I feel myself to be an arrant coward. If I had half the strength that you have, I should have been out of it long ago; but the habit of obedience grows strong upon a man.
"There is but one crowning act to be added to this drama of deceit and infamy,—my ordination. I know how all the other fellows are looking forward to it, and how, according to all the prescribed canons, I should view the momentous day; but I am I. Have you ever had one of those dreams where a huge octopus approaches you slowly but certainly, enfolding you in his arms and twining his horrid tentacles about your helpless form? What an agony of dread you feel! You try to move or cry out, but you cannot, and the arms begin to embrace you and draw you towards the great body. Just so I feel about the day of the ceremony that shall take me into the body of which I was never destined to be a member.
"Are you living in a garret? Are you subsisting on a crust? Happy, happy fellow! But, thank God, the ordination does not take place until next year, and perhaps in that time I may find some means of escape. If I do not, I know that I shall have your sympathy; but don't express it. Ever sincerely yours, BRENT."
But the year was passing, and nothing happened to release him. He found himself being pushed forward at the next term with unusual rapidity, but he did not mind it; the work rather gave him relief from more unpleasant thoughts. He went at it with eagerness and mastered it with ease. His fellow-students looked on him with envy, but he went on his way unheeding and worked for the very love of being active, until one day he understood.
It was nearing the end of the term when a fellow-student remarked to him, "Well, Brent, it is n't every man that could have done it, but you 'll get your reward in a month or so now."
"What do you mean?" asked Brent. "Done what?"
"Now don't be modest," rejoined the other; "I am really glad to see you do it. I have no envy."
"Really, Barker, I don't understand you."
"Why, I mean you are finishing two years in one."
"Oh, pshaw! it will hardly amount to that."
"Oh, well, you will get in with the senior class men."
"Get in with the senior class!"
"It will be kind of nice, a year before your time, to be standing in the way of any appointive plums that may happen to fall; and then you don't have to go miles away from home before you can be made a full-fledged shepherd. Well, here is my hand on it anyway."
Brent took the proffered hand in an almost dazed condition. It had all suddenly flashed across his mind, the reason for his haste and his added work. What a blind fool he had been!
The Church Conference met at Dexter that year, and they had hurried him through in order that he might be ready for ordination thereat.
Alleging illness as an excuse, he did not appear at recitation that day. The shock had come too suddenly for him. Was he thus to be entrapped? Could he do nothing? He felt that ordination would bind him for ever to the distasteful work. He had only a month in which to prevent it. He would do it. From that day he tried to fall gradually back in his work; but it was too late; the good record which he had unwittingly piled up carried him through, nolens volens.
The week before Conference met, Frederick Brent, residing at Dexter, by special request of the faculty, was presented as a candidate for ordination. Even his enemies in the community said, "Surely there is something in that boy."
Mrs. Hester Hodges was delighted. She presented him with his ordination suit, and altogether displayed a pride and pleasure that almost reconciled the young man to his fate. In the days immediately preceding the event she was almost tender with him, and if he had been strong enough to make a resolve inimical to her hopes, the disappointment which he knew failure would bring to her would have greatly weakened it.
Now, Conference is a great event in the circles of that sect of which Cory Chapel was a star congregation, and the town where it convenes, or "sets," as the popular phrase goes, is an honoured place. It takes upon itself an air of unusual bustle. There is a great deal of house-cleaning, hanging of curtains, and laying of carpets, just prior to the time. People from the rural parts about come into town and settle for the week. Ministers and lay delegates from all the churches in the district, comprising perhaps half of a large State or parts of two, come and are quartered upon the local members of the connection. For two weeks beforehand the general question that passes from one housewife to another is, "How many and whom are you going to take?" Many are the heartburnings and jealousies aroused by the disposition of some popular preacher whom a dozen members of the flock desire to entertain, while the less distinguished visitors must bide their time and be stuck in when and where they may. The "big guns" of the Church are all present, and all the "little guns" are scattered about them, popping and snapping every time a "big gun" booms.
But of all the days of commotion and excitement, the climax is ordination day, when candidates for the ministry, college students, and local preachers are examined and either rejected or admitted to the company of the elect. It is common on that day for some old dignitary of the church, seldom a less person than the president of the Conference himself, to preach the sermon. Then, if the fatted calf is not killed, at least the fatted fowls are, and feasting and rejoicing rule the occasion.
This ordination day was no exception. A class of ten stood up before the examining committee and answered the questions put to them. Among them stood Frederick Brent. He wished, he tried, to fail in his answers and be rejected, even though it meant disgrace; but, try as he would, he could not. Force of habit was too strong for him; or was it that some unseen and relentless power was carrying him on and on against his will? He clinched his hands; the beads of perspiration broke out on his brow; but ever as the essential questions came to him his tongue seemed to move of its own volition, without command from the brain, and the murmurs of approval told him that he was answering aright. Never did man struggle harder for brilliant success than this one for ignominious failure. Then some whisper in his consciousness told him that it was over. He felt the laying of hands upon his head. He heard the old minister saying, "Behold, even from the lowliest God taketh His workers," and he felt a flash of resentment, but it was only momentary. He was benumbed. Something seemed to be saying in his mind, "Will the old fool never have done?" But it did not appear to be himself. It was afar off and apart from him. The next he knew, a wet cheek was laid against his own. It was Aunt Hester. She was crying and holding his hand. Afterwards people were shaking hands with him and offering their congratulations; but he answered them in a helpless, mechanical way, as he had answered the questions.
He sat through the sermon and heard it not. But some interest revived in him as the appointments were being read. He heard the president say, "It gives me pain to announce the resignation of one who has so long served in the Master's vineyard, but our dear brother Simpson has decided that he is too old for active work, and has asked to be retired. While we do this with pain and sorrow for the loss—though we do not wholly lose him—of so able a man, we feel that we cannot do better than appoint as his successor in this charge the young man whom you have all seen so brilliantly enter into the ranks of consecrated workers, the Rev. Frederick Brent."
A murmur of approval went round the assembly, and a few open "amens" broke forth as the unctuous old ecclesiastic sat down. It sounded to the ears of the young preacher like the breaking of waves on a far-off shore; and then the meaning of all that had happened sifted through his benumbed intellect, and he strove to rise. He would refuse to act. He would protest. He would tell them that he did not want to preach. But something held him down. He could not rise. The light went blue and green and purple before him. The church, with its sea of faces, spun round and round; his head fell forward.
"He has fainted," said some one.
"The excitement has been too much for him."
"Poor young man, he has been studying too hard, working for this."
They carried him out and took him home, and one of the elders offered a special prayer for his speedy recovery, and that, being recovered, he might bear his new responsibilities with becoming meekness.
When the young minister came to himself, he was lying on the bed in his own room, and Mrs. Hodges, Eliphalet, and a doctor were bending over him.
"He 's coming round all right now," said the medical man. "You won't need me any longer." And he departed.
"How are you now, Fred?" asked Mrs. Hodges.
The young man closed his eyes again and did not answer. He had awakened to a full realisation of his position, and a dull misery lay at his heart. He wished that he could die then and there, for death seemed the only escape from his bondage. He was bound, irrevocably bound.