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“ Theron! Come out here! This is the funniest thing we have heard yet!”
Mrs. Ware stood on the platform of her new kitchen stoop. The bright flood of May-morning sunshine completely enveloped her girlish form, clad in a simple, fresh-starched calico gown, and shone in golden patches upon her light-brown hair. She had a smile on her face, as she looked down at the milk boy standing on the bottom step—a smile of a doubtful sort, stormily mirthful.
“ Come out a minute, Theron!” she called again; and in obedience to the summons the tall lank figure of her husband appeared in the open doorway behind her. A long loose, open dressing-gown dangled to his knees, and his sallow, clean-shaven, thoughtful face wore a morning undress expression of youthful good-nature. He leaned against the door-sill, crossed his large carpet slippers, and looked up into the sky, drawing a long satisfied breath.
“ What a beautiful morning!” he exclaimed. “The elms over there are full of robins. We must get up earlier these mornings, and take some walks.”
His wife indicated the boy with the milk-pail on his arm, by a wave of her hand.
“ Guess what he tells me!” she said. “It wasn’t a mistake at all, our getting no milk yesterday or the Sunday before. It seems that that’s the custom here, at least so far as the parsonage is concerned.”
“ What’s the matter, boy?” asked the young minister, drawling his words a little, and putting a sense of placid irony into them. “Don’t the cows give milk on Sunday, then?”
The boy was not going to be chaffed. “Oh, I’ll bring you milk fast enough on Sundays, if you give me the word,” he said with nonchalance. “Only it won’t last long.”
“ How do you mean—‘won’t last long’?”, asked Mrs. Ware, briskly.
The boy liked her—both for herself, and for the doughnuts fried with her own hands, which she gave him on his morning round. He dropped his half-defiant tone.
“ The thing of it’s this,” he explained. “Every new minister starts in saying we can deliver to this house on Sundays, an’ then gives us notice to stop before the month’s out. It’s the trustees that does it.”
The Rev. Theron Ware uncrossed his feet and moved out on to the stoop beside his wife. “What’s that you say?” he interjected. “Don’t THEY take milk on Sundays?”
“ Nope!” answered the boy.
The young couple looked each other in the face for a puzzled moment, then broke into a laugh.
“ Well, we’ll try it, anyway,” said the preacher. “You can go on bringing it Sundays till—till—”
“ Till you cave in an’ tell me to stop,” put in the boy. “All right!” and he was off on the instant, the dipper jangling loud incredulity in his pail as he went.
The Wares exchanged another glance as he disappeared round the corner of the house, and another mutual laugh seemed imminent. Then the wife’s face clouded over, and she thrust her under-lip a trifle forward out of its place in the straight and gently firm profile.
“ It’s just what Wendell Phillips said,” she declared. “‘The Puritan’s idea of hell is a place where everybody has to mind his own business.’”
The young minister stroked his chin thoughtfully, and let his gaze wander over the backyard in silence. The garden parts had not been spaded up, but lay, a useless stretch of muddy earth, broken only by last year’s cabbage-stumps and the general litter of dead roots and vegetation. The door of the tenantless chicken-coop hung wide open. Before it was a great heap of ashes and cinders, soaked into grimy hardness by the recent spring rains, and nearer still an ancient chopping-block, round which were scattered old weather-beaten hardwood knots which had defied the axe, parts of broken barrels and packing-boxes, and a nameless debris of tin cans, clam-shells, and general rubbish. It was pleasanter to lift the eyes, and look across the neighbors’ fences to the green, waving tops of the elms on the street beyond. How lofty and beautiful they were in the morning sunlight, and with what matchless charm came the song of the robins, freshly installed in their haunts among the new pale-green leaves! Above them, in the fresh, scented air, glowed the great blue dome, radiant with light and the purification of spring.
Theron lifted his thin, long-fingered hand, and passed it in a slow arch of movement to comprehend this glorious upper picture.
“ What matter anyone’s ideas of hell,” he said, in soft, grave tones, “when we have that to look at, and listen to, and fill our lungs with? It seems to me that we never FEEL quite so sure of God’s goodness at other times as we do in these wonderful new mornings of spring.”
The wife followed his gesture, and her eyes rested for a brief moment, with pleased interest, upon the trees and the sky. Then they reverted, with a harsher scrutiny, to the immediate foreground.
“ Those Van Sizers ought to be downright ashamed of themselves,” she said, “to leave everything in such a muss as this. You MUST see about getting a man to clean up the yard, Theron. It’s no use your thinking of doing it yourself. In the first place, it wouldn’t look quite the thing, and, second, you’d never get at it in all your born days. Or if a man would cost too much, we might get a boy. I daresay Harvey would come around, after he’d finished with his milk-route in the forenoon. We could give him his dinner, you know, and I’d bake him some cookies. He’s got the greatest sweet-tooth you ever heard of. And then perhaps if we gave him a quarter, or say half a dollar, he’d be quite satisfied. I’ll speak to him in the morning. We can save a dollar or so that way.”
“ I suppose every little does help,” commented Mr. Ware, with a doleful lack of conviction. Then his face brightened. “I tell you what let’s do!” he exclaimed. “Get on your street dress, and we’ll take a long walk, way out into the country. You’ve never seen the basin, where they float the log-rafts in, or the big sawmills. The hills beyond give you almost mountain effects, they are so steep; and they say there’s a sulphur spring among the slate on the hill-side, somewhere, with trees all about it; and we could take some sandwiches with us—”
“ You forget,” put in Mrs. Ware,—“those trustees are coming at eleven.”
“ So they are!” assented the young minister, with something like a sigh. He cast another reluctant, lingering glance at the sunlit elm boughs, and, turning, went indoors.
He loitered for an aimless minute in the kitchen, where his wife, her sleeves rolled to the elbow, now resumed the interrupted washing of the breakfast dishes—perhaps with vague visions of that ever-receding time to come when they might have a hired girl to do such work. Then he wandered off into the room beyond, which served them alike as living-room and study, and let his eye run along the two rows of books that constituted his library. He saw nothing which he wanted to read. Finally he did take down “Paley’s Evidences,” and seated himself in the big armchair—that costly and oversized anomaly among his humble house-hold gods; but the book lay unopened on his knee, and his eyelids half closed themselves in sign of revery.
This was his third charge—this Octavius which they both knew they were going to dislike so much.
The first had been in the pleasant dairy and hop country many miles to the south, on another watershed and among a different kind of people. Perhaps, in truth, the grinding labor, the poverty of ideas, the systematic selfishness of later rural experience, had not been lacking there; but they played no part in the memories which now he passed in tender review. He recalled instead the warm sunshine on the fertile expanse of fields; the sleek, well-fed herds of “milkers” coming lowing down the road under the maples; the prosperous and hospitable farmhouses, with their orchards in blossom and their spacious red barns; the bountiful boiled dinners which cheery housewives served up with their own skilled hands. Of course, he admitted to himself, it would not be the same if he were to go back there again. He was conscious of having moved along—was it, after all, an advance?—to a point where it was unpleasant to sit at table with the unfragrant hired man, and still worse to encounter the bucolic confusion between the functions of knives and forks. But in those happy days—young, zealous, himself farm-bred—these trifles had been invisible to him, and life there among those kindly husbandmen had seemed, by contrast with the gaunt surroundings and gloomy rule of the theological seminary, luxuriously abundant and free.
It was there too that the crowning blessedness of his youth—nay, should he not say of all his days?—had come to him. There he had first seen Alice Hastings,—the bright-eyed, frank-faced, serenely self-reliant girl, who now, less than four years thereafter, could be heard washing the dishes out in the parsonage kitchen.
How wonderful she had seemed to him then! How beautiful and all-beneficent the miracle still appeared! Though herself the daughter of a farmer, her presence on a visit within the borders of his remote country charge had seemed to make everything, there a hundred times more countrified than it had ever been before. She was fresh from the refinements of a town seminary: she read books; it was known that she could play upon the piano. Her clothes, her manners, her way of speaking, the readiness of her thoughts and sprightly tongue—not least, perhaps, the imposing current understanding as to her father’s wealth—placed her on a glorified pinnacle far away from the girls of the neighborhood. These honest and good-hearted creatures indeed called ceaseless attention to her superiority by their deference and open-mouthed admiration, and treated it as the most natural thing in the world that their young minister should be visibly “taken” with her.
Theron Ware, in truth, left this first pastorate of his the following spring, in a transfiguring halo of romance. His new appointment was to Tyre—a somewhat distant village of traditional local pride and substance—and he was to be married only a day or so before entering upon his pastoral duties there. The good people among whom he had begun his ministry took kindly credit to themselves that he had met his bride while she was “visiting round” their countryside. In part by jocose inquiries addressed to the expectant groom, in part by the confidences of the postmaster at the corners concerning the bulk and frequency of the correspondence passing between Theron and the now remote Alice—they had followed the progress of the courtship through the autumn and winter with friendly zest. When he returned from the Conference, to say good-bye and confess the happiness that awaited him, they gave him a “donation”—quite as if he were a married pastor with a home of his own, instead of a shy young bachelor, who received his guests and their contributions in the house where he boarded.
He went away with tears of mingled regret and proud joy in his eyes, thinking a good deal upon their predictions of a distinguished career before him, feeling infinitely strengthened and upborne by the hearty fervor of their God-speed, and taking with him nearly two wagon-loads of vegetables, apples, canned preserves, assorted furniture, glass dishes, cheeses, pieced bedquilts, honey, feathers, and kitchen utensils.
Of the three years’ term in Tyre, it was pleasantest to dwell upon the beginning.
The young couple—after being married out at Alice’s home in an adjoining county, under the depressing conditions of a hopelessly bedridden mother, and a father and brothers whose perceptions were obviously closed to the advantages of a matrimonial connection with Methodism—came straight to the house which their new congregation rented as a parsonage. The impulse of reaction from the rather grim cheerlessness of their wedding lent fresh gayety to their lighthearted, whimsical start at housekeeping. They had never laughed so much in all their lives as they did now in these first months—over their weird ignorance of domestic details; with its mishaps, mistakes, and entertaining discoveries; over the comical super-abundances and shortcomings of their “donation” outfit; over the thousand and one quaint experiences of their novel relation to each other, to the congregation, and to the world of Tyre at large.
Theron, indeed, might be said never to have laughed before. Up to that time no friendly student of his character, cataloguing his admirable qualities, would have thought of including among them a sense of humor, much less a bent toward levity. Neither his early strenuous battle to get away from the farm and achieve such education as should serve to open to him the gates of professional life, nor the later wave of religious enthusiasm which caught him up as he stood on the border-land of manhood, and swept him off into a veritable new world of views and aspirations, had been a likely school of merriment. People had prized him for his innocent candor and guileless mind, for his good heart, his pious zeal, his modesty about gifts notably above the average, but it had occurred to none to suspect in him a latent funny side.
But who could be solemn where Alice was?—Alice in a quandary over the complications of her cooking stove; Alice boiling her potatoes all day, and her eggs for half an hour; Alice ordering twenty pounds of steak and half a pound of sugar, and striving to extract a breakfast beverage from the unground coffee-bean? Clearly not so tenderly fond and sympathetic a husband as Theron. He began by laughing because she laughed, and grew by swift stages to comprehend, then frankly to share, her amusement. From this it seemed only a step to the development of a humor of his own, doubling, as it were, their sportive resources. He found himself discovering a new droll aspect in men and things; his phraseology took on a dryly playful form, fittingly to present conceits which danced up, unabashed, quite into the presence of lofty and majestic truths. He got from this nothing but satisfaction; it obviously involved increased claims to popularity among his parishioners, and consequently magnified powers of usefulness, and it made life so much more a joy and a thing to be thankful for. Often, in the midst of the exchange of merry quip and whimsical suggestion, bright blossoms on that tree of strength and knowledge which he felt expanding now with a mighty outward pushing in all directions, he would lapse into deep gravity, and ponder with a swelling heart the vast unspeakable marvel of his blessedness, in being thus enriched and humanized by daily communion with the most worshipful of womankind.
This happy and good young couple took the affections of Tyre by storm. The Methodist Church there had at no time held its head very high among the denominations, and for some years back had been in a deplorably sinking state, owing first to the secession of the Free Methodists and then to the incumbency of a pastor who scandalized the community by marrying a black man to a white woman. But the Wares changed all this. Within a month the report of Theron’s charm and force in the pulpit was crowding the church building to its utmost capacity—and that, too, with some of Tyre’s best people. Equally winning was the atmosphere of jollity and juvenile high spirits which pervaded the parsonage under these new conditions, and which Theron and Alice seemed to diffuse wherever they went.
Thus swimmingly their first year sped, amid universal acclaim. Mrs. Ware had a recognized social place, quite outside the restricted limits of Methodism, and shone in it with an unflagging brilliancy altogether beyond the traditions of Tyre. Delightful as she was in other people’s houses, she was still more naively fascinating in her own quaint and somewhat harum-scarum domicile; and the drab, two-storied, tin-roofed little parsonage might well have rattled its clapboards to see if it was not in dreamland—so gay was the company, so light were the hearts, which it sheltered in these new days. As for Theron, the period was one of incredible fructification and output. He scarcely recognized for his own the mind which now was reaching out on all sides with the arms of an octopus, exploring unsuspected mines of thought, bringing in rich treasures of deduction, assimilating, building, propounding as if by some force quite independent of him. He could not look without blinking timidity at the radiance of the path stretched out before him, leading upward to dazzling heights of greatness.
At the end of this first year the Wares suddenly discovered that they were eight hundred dollars in debt.
The second year was spent in arriving, by slow stages and with a cruel wealth of pathetic detail, at a realization of what being eight hundred dollars in debt meant.
It was not in their elastic and buoyant natures to grasp the full significance of the thing at once, or easily. Their position in the social structure, too, was all against clear-sightedness in material matters. A general, for example, uniformed and in the saddle, advancing through the streets with his staff in the proud wake of his division’s massed walls of bayonets, cannot be imagined as quailing at the glance thrown at him by his tailor on the sidewalk. Similarly, a man invested with sacerdotal authority, who baptizes, marries, and buries, who delivers judgments from the pulpit which may not be questioned in his hearing, and who receives from all his fellow-men a special deference of manner and speech, is in the nature of things prone to see the grocer’s book and the butcher’s bill through the little end of the telescope.
The Wares at the outset had thought it right to trade as exclusively as possible with members of their own church society. This loyalty became a principal element of martyrdom. Theron had his creditors seated in serried rows before him, Sunday after Sunday. Alice had her critics consolidated among those whom it was her chief duty to visit and profess friendship for. These situations now began, by regular gradations, to unfold their terrors. At the first intimation of discontent, the Wares made what seemed to them a sweeping reduction in expenditure. When they heard that Brother Potter had spoken of them as “poor pay,” they dismissed their hired girl. A little later, Theron brought himself to drop a laboriously casual suggestion as to a possible increase of salary, and saw with sinking spirits the faces of the stewards freeze with dumb disapprobation. Then Alice paid a visit to her parents, only to find her brothers doggedly hostile to the notion of her being helped, and her father so much under their influence that the paltry sum he dared offer barely covered the expenses of her journey. With another turn of the screw, they sold the piano she had brought with her from home, and cut themselves down to the bare necessities of life, neither receiving company nor going out. They never laughed now, and even smiles grew rare.
By this time Theron’s sermons, preached under that stony glare of people to whom he owed money, had degenerated to a pitiful level of commonplace. As a consequence, the attendance became once more confined to the insufficient membership of the church, and the trustees complained of grievously diminished receipts. When the Wares, grown desperate, ventured upon the experiment of trading outside the bounds of the congregation, the trustees complained again, this time peremptorily.
Thus the second year dragged itself miserably to an end. Nor was relief possible, because the Presiding Elder knew something of the circumstances, and felt it his duty to send Theron back for a third year, to pay his debts, and drain the cup of disciplinary medicine to its dregs.
The worst has been told. Beginning in utter blackness, this third year, in the second month, brought a change as welcome as it was unlooked for. An elderly and important citizen of Tyre, by name Abram Beekman, whom Theron knew slightly, and had on occasions seen sitting in one of the back pews near the door, called one morning at the parsonage, and electrified its inhabitants by expressing a desire to wipe off all their old scores for them, and give them a fresh start in life. As he put the suggestion, they could find no excuse for rejecting it. He had watched them, and heard a good deal about them, and took a fatherly sort of interest in them. He did not deprecate their regarding the aid he proffered them in the nature of a loan, but they were to make themselves perfectly easy about it, and never return it at all unless they could spare it sometime with entire convenience, and felt that they wanted to do so. As this amazing windfall finally took shape, it enabled the Wares to live respectably through the year, and to leave Tyre with something over one hundred dollars in hand.
It enabled them, too, to revive in a chastened form their old dream of ultimate success and distinction for Theron. He had demonstrated clearly enough to himself, during that brief season of unrestrained effulgence, that he had within him the making of a great pulpit orator. He set to work now, with resolute purpose, to puzzle out and master all the principles which underlie this art, and all the tricks that adorn its superstructure. He studied it, fastened his thoughts upon it, talked daily with Alice about it. In the pulpit, addressing those people who had so darkened his life and crushed the first happiness out of his home, he withheld himself from any oratorical display which could afford them gratification. He put aside, as well; the thought of attracting once more the non-Methodists of Tyre, whose early enthusiasm had spread such pitfalls for his unwary feet. He practised effects now by piecemeal, with an alert ear, and calculation in every tone. An ambition, at once embittered and tearfully solicitous, possessed him.
He reflected now, this morning, with a certain incredulous interest, upon that unworthy epoch in his life history, which seemed so far behind him, and yet had come to a close only a few weeks ago. The opportunity had been given him, there at the Tecumseh Conference, to reveal his quality. He had risen to its full limit of possibilities, and preached a great sermon in a manner which he at least knew was unapproachable. He had made his most powerful bid for the prize place, had trebly deserved success—and had been banished instead to Octavius!
The curious thing was that he did not resent his failure. Alice had taken it hard, but he himself was conscious of a sense of spiritual gain. The influence of the Conference, with its songs and seasons of prayer and high pressure of emotional excitement, was still strong upon him. It seemed years and years since the religious side of him had been so stirred into motion. He felt, as he lay back in the chair, and folded his hands over the book on his knee, that he had indeed come forth from the fire purified and strengthened. The ministry to souls diseased beckoned him with a new and urgent significance. He smiled to remember that Mr. Beekman, speaking in his shrewd and pointed way, had asked him whether, looking it all over, he didn’t think it would be better for him to study law, with a view to sliding out of the ministry when a good chance offered. It amazed him now to recall that he had taken this hint seriously, and even gone to the length of finding out what books law-students began upon.
Thank God! all that was past and gone now. The Call sounded, resonant and imperative, in his ears, and there was no impulse of his heart, no fibre of his being, which did not stir in devout response. He closed his eyes, to be the more wholly alone with the Spirit, that moved him.
The jangling of a bell in the hallway broke sharply upon his meditations, and on the instant his wife thrust in her head from the kitchen.
“ You’ll have to go to the door, Theron!” she warned him, in a loud, swift whisper. “I’m not fit to be seen. It is the trustees.”
“ All right,” he said, and rose slowly from sprawling recumbency to his feet. “I’ll go.”
“ And don’t forget,” she added strenuously; “I believe in Levi Gorringe! I’ve seen him go past here with his rod and fish-basket twice in eight days, and that’s a good sign. He’s got a soft side somewhere. And just keep a stiff upper lip about the gas, and don’t you let them jew you down a solitary cent on that sidewalk.”
“ All right,” said Theron, again, and moved reluctantly toward the hall door.
When the three trustees had been shown in by the Rev. Mr. Ware, and had taken seats, an awkward little pause ensued. The young minister looked doubtingly from one face to another, the while they glanced with inquiring interest about the room, noting the pictures and appraising the furniture in their minds.
The obvious leader of the party, Loren Pierce, a rich quarryman, was an old man of medium size and mean attire, with a square, beardless face as hard and impassive in expression as one of his blocks of limestone. The irregular, thin-lipped mouth, slightly sunken, and shut with vice-like firmness, the short snub nose, and the little eyes squinting from half-closed lids beneath slightly marked brows, seemed scarcely to attain to the dignity of features, but evaded attention instead, as if feeling that they were only there at all from plain necessity, and ought not to be taken into account. Mr. Pierce’s face did not know how to smile—what was the use of smiles?—but its whole surface radiated secretiveness. Portrayed on canvas by a master brush, with a ruff or a red robe for masquerade, generations of imaginative amateurs would have seen in it vast reaching plots, the skeletons of a dozen dynastic cupboards, the guarded mysteries of half a century’s international diplomacy. The amateurs would have been wrong again. There was nothing behind Mr. Pierce’s juiceless countenance more weighty than a general determination to exact seven per cent for his money, and some specific notions about capturing certain brickyards which were interfering with his quarry-sales. But Octavius watched him shamble along its sidewalks quite as the Vienna of dead and forgotten yesterday might have watched Metternich.
Erastus Winch was of a breezier sort—a florid, stout, and sandy man, who spent most of his life driving over evil country roads in a buggy, securing orders for dairy furniture and certain allied lines of farm utensils. This practice had given him a loud voice and a deceptively hearty manner, to which the other avocation of cheese-buyer, which he pursued at the Board of Trade meetings every Monday afternoon, had added a considerable command of persuasive yet non-committal language. To look at him, still more to hear him, one would have sworn he was a good fellow, a trifle rough and noisy, perhaps, but all right at bottom. But the County Clerk of Dearborn County could have told you of agriculturists who knew Erastus from long and unhappy experience, and who held him to be even a tighter man than Loren Pierce in the matter of a mortgage.
The third trustee, Levi Gorringe, set one wondering at the very first glance what on earth he was doing in that company. Those who had known him longest had the least notion; but it may be added that no one knew him well. He was a lawyer, and had lived in Octavius for upwards of ten years; that is to say, since early manhood. He had an office on the main street, just under the principal photograph gallery. Doubtless he was sometimes in this office; but his fellow-townsmen saw him more often in the street doorway, with the stairs behind him, and the flaring show-cases of the photographer on either side, standing with his hands in his pockets and an unlighted cigar in his mouth, looking at nothing in particular. About every other day he went off after breakfast into the country roundabout, sometimes with a rod, sometimes with a gun, but always alone. He was a bachelor, and slept in a room at the back of his office, cooking some of his meals himself, getting others at a restaurant close by. Though he had little visible practice, he was understood to be well-to-do and even more, and people tacitly inferred that he “shaved notes.” The Methodists of Octavius looked upon him as a queer fish, and through nearly a dozen years had never quite outgrown their hebdomadal tendency to surprise at seeing him enter their church. He had never, it is true, professed religion, but they had elected him as a trustee now for a number of terms, all the same—partly because he was their only lawyer, partly because he, like both his colleagues, held a mortgage on the church edifice and lot. In person, Mr. Gorringe was a slender man, with a skin of a clear, uniform citron tint, black waving hair, and dark gray eyes, and a thin, high-featured face. He wore a mustache and pointed chin-tuft; and, though he was of New England parentage and had never been further south than Ocean Grove, he presented a general effect of old Mississippian traditions and tastes startlingly at variance with the standards of Dearborn County Methodism. Nothing could convince some of the elder sisters that he was not a drinking man.
The three visitors had completed their survey of the room now; and Loren Pierce emitted a dry, harsh little cough, as a signal that business was about to begin. At this sound, Winch drew up his feet, and Gorringe untied a parcel of account-books and papers that he held on his knee. Theron felt that his countenance must be exhibiting to the assembled brethren an unfortunate sense of helplessness in their hands. He tried to look more resolute, and forced his lips into a smile.
“ Brother Gorringe allus acts as Seckertary,” said Erastus Winch, beaming broadly upon the minister, as if the mere mention of the fact promoted jollity. “That’s it, Brother Gorringe,—take your seat at Brother Ware’s desk. Mind the Dominie’s pen don’t play tricks on you, an’ start off writin’ out sermons instid of figgers.” The humorist turned to Theron as the lawyer walked over to the desk at the window. “I allus have to caution him about that,” he remarked with great joviality. “An’ do YOU look out afterwards, Brother Ware, or else you’ll catch that pen o’ yours scribblin’ lawyer’s lingo in place o’ the Word.”
Theron felt bound to exhibit a grin in acknowledgment of this pleasantry. The lawyer’s change of position had involved some shifting of the others’ chairs, and the young minister found himself directly confronted by Brother Pierce’s hard and colorless old visage. Its little eyes were watching him, as through a mask, and under their influence the smile of politeness fled from his lips. The lawyer on his right, the cheese-buyer to the left, seemed to recede into distance as he for the moment returned the gaze of the quarryman. He waited now for him to speak, as if the others were of no importance.
“ We are a plain sort o’ folks up in these parts,” said Brother Pierce, after a slight further pause. His voice was as dry and rasping as his cough, and its intonations were those of authority. “We walk here,” he went on, eying the minister with a sour regard, “in a meek an’ humble spirit, in the straight an’ narrow way which leadeth unto life. We ain’t gone traipsin’ after strange gods, like some people that call themselves Methodists in other places. We stick by the Discipline an’ the ways of our fathers in Israel. No new-fangled notions can go down here. Your wife’d better take them flowers out of her bunnit afore next Sunday.”
Silence possessed the room for a few moments, the while Theron, pale-faced and with brows knit, studied the pattern of the ingrain carpet. Then he lifted his head, and nodded it in assent. “Yes,” he said; “we will do nothing by which our ‘brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.’”
Brother Pierce’s parchment face showed no sign of surprise or pleasure at this easy submission. “Another thing: We don’t want no book-learnin’ or dictionary words in our pulpit,” he went on coldly. “Some folks may stomach ‘em; we won’t. Them two sermons o’ yours, p’r’aps they’d do down in some city place; but they’re like your wife’s bunnit here, they’re too flowery to suit us. What we want to hear is the plain, old-fashioned Word of God, without any palaver or ‘hems and ha’s. They tell me there’s some parts where hell’s treated as played-out—where our ministers don’t like to talk much about it because people don’t want to hear about it. Such preachers ought to be put out. They ain’t Methodists at all. What we want here, sir, is straight-out, flat-footed hell—the burnin’ lake o’ fire an’ brim-stone. Pour it into ‘em, hot an’ strong. We can’t have too much of it. Work in them awful deathbeds of Voltaire an’ Tom Paine, with the Devil right there in the room, reachin’ for ‘em, an’ they yellin’ for fright; that’s what fills the anxious seat an’ brings in souls hand over fist.”
Theron’s tongue dallied for an instant with the temptation to comment upon these old-wife fables, which were so dear to the rural religious heart when he and I were boys. But it seemed wiser to only nod again, and let his mentor go on.
“ We ain’t had no trouble with the Free Methodists here,” continued Brother Pierce, “jest because we kept to the old paths, an’ seek for salvation in the good old way. Everybody can shout ‘Amen!’ as loud and as long as the Spirit moves him, with us. Some one was sayin’ you thought we ought to have a choir and an organ. No, sirree! No such tom-foolery for us! You’ll only stir up feelin’ agin yourself by hintin’ at such things. And then, too, our folks don’t take no stock in all that pack o’ nonsense about science, such as tellin’ the age of the earth by crackin’ up stones. I’ve b’en in the quarry line all my life, an’ I know it’s all humbug! Why, they say some folks are goin’ round now preachin’ that our grandfathers were all monkeys. That comes from departin’ from the ways of our forefathers, an puttin’ in organs an’ choirs, an’ deckin’ our women-folks out with gewgaws, an’ apin’ the fashions of the worldly. I shouldn’t wonder if them kind did have some monkey blood in ‘em. You’ll find we’re a different sort here.”
The young minister preserved silence for a little, until it became apparent that the old trustee had had his say out. Even then he raised his head slowly, and at last made answer in a hesitating and irresolute way.
“ You have been very frank,” he said. “I am obliged to you. A clergyman coming to a new charge cannot be better served than by having laid before him a clear statement of the views and—and spiritual tendencies—of his new flock, quite at the outset. I feel it to be of especial value in this case, because I am young in years and in my ministry, and am conscious of a great weakness of the flesh. I can see how daily contact with a people so attached to the old, simple, primitive Methodism of Wesley and Asbury may be a source of much strength to me. I may take it,” he added upon second thought, with an inquiring glance at Mr. Winch, “that Brother Pierce’s description of our charge, and its tastes and needs, meets with your approval?”
Erastus Winch nodded his head and smiled expansively. “Whatever Brother Pierce says, goes!” he declared. The lawyer, sitting behind at the desk by the window, said nothing.
“ The place is jest overrun with Irish,” Brother Pierce began again. “They’ve got two Catholic churches here now to our one, and they do jest as they blamed please at the Charter elections. It’d be a good idee to pitch into Catholics in general whenever you can. You could make a hit that way. I say the State ought to make ‘em pay taxes on their church property. They’ve no right to be exempted, because they ain’t Christians at all. They’re idolaters, that’s what they are! I know ‘em! I’ve had ‘em in my quarries for years, an’ they ain’t got no idee of decency or fair dealin’. Every time the price of stone went up, every man of ‘em would jine to screw more wages out o’ me. Why, they used to keep account o’ the amount o’ business I done, an’ figger up my profits, an’ have the face to come an’ talk to me about ‘em, as if that had anything to do with wages. It’s my belief their priests put ‘em up to it. People don’t begin to reelize—that church of idolatry ‘ll be the ruin o’ this country, if it ain’t checked in time. Jest you go at ‘em hammer ‘n’ tongs! I’ve got Eyetalians in the quarries now. They’re sensible fellows: they know when they’re well off—a dollar a day, an’ they’re satisfied, an’ everything goes smooth.”
“ But they’re Catholics, the same as the Irish,” suddenly interjected the lawyer, from his place by the window. Theron pricked up his ears at the sound of his voice. There was an anti-Pierce note in it, so to speak, which it did him good to hear. The consciousness of sympathy began on the instant to inspire him with courage.
“ I know some people SAY they are,” Brother Pierce guardedly retorted “but I’ve summered an’ wintered both kinds, an’ I hold to it they’re different. I grant ye, the Eyetalians ARE some given to jabbin’ knives into each other, but they never git up strikes, an’ they don’t grumble about wages. Why, look at the way they live—jest some weeds an’ yarbs dug up on the roadside, an’ stewed in a kettle with a piece o’ fat the size o’ your finger, an’ a loaf o’ bread, an’ they’re happy as a king. There’s some sense in THAT; but the Irish, they’ve got to have meat an’ potatoes an’ butter jest as if—as if—”
“ As if they’d b’en used to ‘em at home,” put in Mr. Winch, to help his colleague out.
The lawyer ostentatiously drew up his chair to the desk, and began turning over the leaves of his biggest book. “It’s getting on toward noon, gentlemen,” he said, in an impatient voice.
The business meeting which followed was for a considerable time confined to hearing extracts from the books and papers read in a swift and formal fashion by Mr. Gorringe. If this was intended to inform the new pastor of the exact financial situation in Octavius, it lamentably failed of its purpose. Theron had little knowledge of figures; and though he tried hard to listen, and to assume an air of comprehension, he did not understand much of what he heard. In a general way he gathered that the church property was put down at $12,000, on which there was a debt of $4,800. The annual expenses were $2,250, of which the principal items were $800 for his salary, $170 for the rent of the parsonage, and $319 for interest on the debt. It seemed that last year the receipts had fallen just under $2,000, and they now confronted the necessity of making good this deficit during the coming year, as well as increasing the regular revenues. Without much discussion, it was agreed that they should endeavor to secure the services of a celebrated “debt-raiser,” early in the autumn, and utilize him in the closing days of a revival.
Theron knew this “debt-raiser,” and had seen him at work—a burly, bustling, vulgar man who took possession of the pulpit as if it were an auctioneer’s block, and pursued the task of exciting liberality in the bosoms of the congregation by alternating prayer, anecdote, song, and cheap buffoonery in a manner truly sickening. Would it not be preferable, he feebly suggested, to raise the money by a festival, or fair, or some other form of entertainment which the ladies could manage?
Brother Pierce shook his head with contemptuous emphasis. “Our women-folks ain’t that kind,” he said. “They did try to hold a sociable once, but nobody came, and we didn’t raise more ‘n three or four dollars. It ain’t their line. They lack the worldly arts. As the Discipline commands, they avoid the evil of putting on gold and costly apparel, and taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
“ Well—of course—if you prefer the ‘debt-raiser’—” Theron began, and took the itemized account from Gorringe’s knee as an excuse for not finishing the hateful sentence.
He looked down the foolscap sheet, line by line, with no special sense of what it signified, until his eye caught upon this little section of the report, bracketed by itself in the Secretary’s neat hand:
INTEREST CHARGE. First mortgage (1873) .. $1,000 ... (E. Winch) @7.. $ 70 Second mortgage (1776).. 1,700 ... (L. Gorringe) @6.. 102 Third mortgage (1878)... 2,100 ... (L. Pierce) @7.. 147 ———- ——- $4,800 $319
It was no news to him that the three mortgages on the church property were held by the three trustees. But as he looked once more, another feature of the thing struck him as curious.
“ I notice that the rates of interest vary,” he remarked without thinking, and then wished the words unsaid, for the two trustees in view moved uneasily on their seats.
“ Oh, that’s nothing,” exclaimed Erastus Winch, with a boisterous display of jollity. “It’s only Brother Gorringe’s pleasant little way of making a contribution to our funds. You will notice that, at the date of all these mortgages, the State rate of interest was seven per cent. Since then it’s b’en lowered to six. Well, when that happened, you see, Brother Gorringe, not being a professin’ member, and so not bound by our rules, he could just as well as not let his interest down a cent. But Brother Pierce an’ me, we talked it over, an’ we made up our minds we were tied hand an’ foot by our contract. You know how strong the Discipline lays it down that we must be bound to the letter of our agreements. That bein’ so, we seen it in the light of duty not to change what we’d set our hands to. That’s how it is, Brother Ware.”
“ I understand,” said Theron, with an effort at polite calmness of tone. “And—is there anything else?”
“ There’s this,” broke in Brother Pierce: “we’re commanded to be law-abiding people, an’ seven per cent WAS the law an’ would be now if them ragamuffins in the Legislation—”
“ Surely we needn’t go further into that,” interrupted the minister, conscious of a growing stiffness in his moral spine. “Have we any other business before us?”
Brother Pierce’s little eyes snapped, and the wrinkles in his forehead deepened angrily. “Business?” he demanded. “Yes, plenty of it. We’ve got to reduce expenses. We’re nigh onto $300 behind-hand this minute. Besides your house-rent, you get $800 free an’ clear—that is $15.38 every week, an’ only you an’ your wife to keep out of it. Why, when I was your age, young man, and after that too, I was glad to get $4 a week.”
“ I don’t think my salary is under discussion, Mr. Pierce—”
“ BROTHER Pierce!” suggested Winch, in a half-shuckling undertone.
“ Brother Pierce, then!” echoed Theron, impatiently. “The Quarterly Conference and the Estimating Committee deal with that. The trustees have no more to do with it than the man in the moon.”
“ Come, come, Brother Ware,” put in Erastus Winch, “we mustn’t have no hard feelin’s. Brotherly love is what we’re all lookin’ after. Brother Pierce’s meanin’ wasn’t agin your drawin’ your full salary, every cent of it, only—only there are certain little things connected with the parsonage here that we feel you ought to bear. F’r instance, there’s the new sidewalk we had to lay in front of the house here only a month ago. Of course, if the treasury was flush we wouldn’t say a word about it. An’ then there’s the gas bill here. Seein’ as you get your rent for nothin’, it don’t seem much to ask that you should see to lightin’ the place yourself.”
“ No, I don’t think that either is a proper charge upon me,” interposed Theron. “I decline to pay them.”
“ We can have the gas shut off,” remarked Brother Pierce, coldly.
“ As soon as you like,” responded the minister, sitting erect and tapping the carpet nervously with his foot. “Only you must understand that I will take the whole matter to the Quarterly Conference in July. I already see a good many other interesting questions about the financial management of this church which might be appropriately discussed there.”
“ Oh, come, Brother Ware!” broke in Trustee Winch, with a somewhat agitated assumption of good-feeling. “Surely these are matters we ought to settle amongst ourselves. We never yet asked outsiders to meddle with our business here. It’s our motto, Brother Ware. I say, if you’ve got a motto, stand by it.”
“ Well, my motto,” said Theron, “is to be behaved decently to by those with whom I have to deal; and I also propose to stand by it.”
Brother Pierce rose gingerly to his feet, with the hesitation of an old man not sure about his knees. When he had straightened himself, he put on his hat, and eyed the minister sternly from beneath its brim.
“ The Lord gives us crosses grievous to our natur’,” he said, “an’ we’re told to bear ‘em cheerfully as long as they’re on our backs; but there ain’t nothin’ said agin our unloadin’ ‘em in the ditch the minute we git the chance. I guess you won’t last here more ‘n a twelvemonth.”
He pulled his soft and discolored old hat down over his brows with a significantly hostile nod, and, turning, stumped toward the hall-door without offering to shake hands.
The other trustees had risen likewise, in tacit recognition that the meeting was over. Winch clasped the minister’s hand in his own broad, hard palm, and squeezed it in an exuberant grip. “Don’t mind his little ways, Brother Ware,” he urged in a loud, unctuous whisper, with a grinning backward nod: “he’s a trifle skittish sometimes when you don’t give him free rein; but he’s all wool an’ a yard wide when it comes to right-down hard-pan religion. My love to Sister Ware;” and he followed the senior trustee into the hall.