"Letter for you," said a young man, seated at a small desk in one corner of a small room, as another young man came briskly in and closed the door with a sharp swing, stopping it just in time to prevent it from banging.
With the same wide-awake, alert, but not noisy quickness, he stepped across the room and took the letter out of a pasteboard box nailed on a closet door, sat down at a table in the opposite corner of the room from where the other young man was seated, and opening the letter, read it, without any expression except that of continual and sustained wide-awakeness.
Looking up, at the end of the letter, he slowly turned and glanced over at the other young man and nodded as if in answer to a spoken question.
"Yes, another one from Red Hill. Looks as if they really wanted me out there."
"That makes three you have had, besides two from the Superintendent. It does look as if they were short of material. Have they ever heard you preach?"
"No. I've never been in Kansas. Never west of the Ohio. But I've about made up my mind to go."
"No!" The other young man suddenly rose and came over and sat down on one end of the table by which the speaker was seated. "You don't mean it, do you, Howard?"
"Yes, I do, Roy. I've always wanted to go west and begin my ministry out there. It's new and full of possibility. There has always been something fascinating and alluring about the west. There is more room than there is here."
"Yes, there's not much room in little old New York. I've about made up my mind to decline every call I get to any church between the Bowery and 375th Street. But you're cut out for a big church, Howard. And a city church. And here you are planning to go out to a little country town in Kansas and bury yourself in a place called Red Hill. `Red,' I suppose, because there never was any `red' there, and `Hill' because it's flatter than usual."
"I've never seen a picture of the spot, Roy. But I don't care about that. I've about made up my mind to go. And there's another reason----" His wide-awake, absolutely sleepless face grew just a shadow more thoughtful. "There's Rose. She needs a change. The doctor says the climate out there ought to be good for her. And she seems rather eager to go----"
"How is your sister?" his roommate asked gently, as if the question was an old one, the answer to which always conveyed a story of a home tragedy.
"She is some better. But since father's death she has been alone. We're the only ones left. She will be able to keep house for me out there."
"Howard, you ought to have a wife. You've promised to stay and see Kate and me married. I don't ever expect to get a call to any church. But I'm going to have a wife, anyhow. That much I'm sure of."
Howard Chase looked at his roommate and chum and smiled.
"I can see Kate and you settled over an ideal parish. She will straighten out your theology and your confused habits generally. But I've never seen any one I dare ask to be a ministers wife."
"You'll probably meet her at Red Hill," said Roy Lennox, laughing. They both laughed.
If they had been able to see five years into the future they would not have laughed. I wonder what they would have done? What would any of us do if we could raise the curtain on five years from now? It would be a look at divinely hidden scenes, mercifully shut out of our human history.
"How about this Red Hill, Howard? What sort of a place is it, anyhow?"
"The Superintendent has written quite fully. He says it's an average Kansas town. Seven hundred and fifty people. Mostly. American. A sprinkling of German, Swede and Norwegian farmers outside. One main street for business. A high school. A county court house. And four churches. Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregational."
"That simplifies matters some," said Lennox, gravely.
"What does? Simplifies what?"
"Why, there are only four churches. There might be five or six."
"I won't try to run but one, Roy. That will keep me busy."
"Four is in seven hundred one hundred and seventy-five times. If everybody in Red Hill should go to church on Sunday you would have a fair audience. I don't believe I could get that many people to come and hear me preach more than once."
"I'm not worrying over that," Howard replied. "If the other churches can get more people than ours it will be my fault."
"You haven't said anything about the salary. What will they pay?"
"Let's see." Howard looked over a pile of letters on the table and opened two or three. "O yes. Here it is. The Superintendent says they are willing to give $900 and use of parsonage. It seems the church has just gone to self-support and they find it rather hard to raise the amount. But he thinks they can do it if the right man is secured."
"How did the Superintendent happen to pick on you as the right man?"
"He was a classmate of my father in the seminary. In his letters, you remember, he says he has always taken a great interest in me, and thinks I would fit in at Red Hill. He says the people want a young man. I happen to fit that requirement. They also want a young man of energy. The last man they had lacked aggressiveness and lost out to the other churches. The Superintendent has assured them I am energetic and they are willing to take his word for it."
"I can give them a recommend along that line, Howard. You have the most wide-awake face I ever saw. You don't look sleepy at any time. I don't know what you sleep for, anyhow. I never saw you look tired."
"My father always had the same look. It goes with all the Chase family. I can't help it."
"Don't try to. It is a great card with strangers. The first thing the people of Red Hill will say when they see you will be: `Well, he's a wide-awake looking young fellow. I'll bet he was born in Kansas, all right. He wasn't raised in New York or New Jersey.'" Howard Chase laughed. And when he laughed his expressive face fairly radiated life. It took on the glow of a good portrait suddenly illuminated by a beam of sunlight streaming into an old gallery through a rich stained glass window.
"What other qualifications do they want at Red Hill besides youth and energy? Any brains mentioned?"
"Yes. The Superintendent says they want a young man of keen intellectual grasp. Some one who is not afraid of study and can keep up with the best thought."
"All for $900," said Roy, gravely.
"And at the same time," Howard grinned. "They want a conservatively spiritually minded preacher who will not chase after every new fad in religion or run head on collisions in theology. Kansas people are progressive conservatives when it comes to religion."
"What are some of the other qualifications besides youth, energy, brains, and religion?"
"Why, according to the Superintendent, they want a college graduate, and if he can play the organ and lead the music it will be a great help, but the last isn't absolutely necessary."
"Lucky for you since you don't know the `Hallelujah Chorus' from `John Brown's Body.' What else do the friends in Red Hill like?"
"They want some one who is popular with young people and a good administrator, and if possible, some one who can keep up the finances."
"You can do that, all right. Any man who can board and clothe and room himself and get an education on three hundred dollars a year without any visible means of support like you during the time I've known you is a professional financier. You can qualify on that point."
"Yes," said Howard, grinning again with a sense of humor that was going to save him in moments of deepest tragedy. "They can borrow money off of me on nine hundred dollars a year if they really pay it. But the Superintendent mentions another thing that I'm not so sure of."
"He says any one who goes into that field will have to compete at present with three other men, all of whom are hustlers and fairly good preachers and administrators."
"I thought you said a minute ago that if the other churches got more people than yours it would be your fault."
"And it will. Maybe I can prevent it. But I don't feel sure on that point. Somehow it seems humiliating to go proselyting around among other ministers' folds in order to fill up your own. I don't believe I can do that. The only thing I can do is to make my church services and programme so interesting that the people will choose my church instead of the others."
"If you succeed, the result on the other churches will be the same as if you went into their folds and stole their pet lambs by night, won't it?"
"I suppose it will. But what would you have me do? Less than my level best? If I can get the people of Red Hill to come to the Congregational Church instead of the Methodist, Presbyterian or Baptist they won't lose anything. They will be getting progressively conservative religion. But I can't toady to people, and I won't ask anybody to come to my church instead of the others. I've got to make it more worth their while to come to me than to the others."
"I can see grass growing over the walks leading up to the M. E., Presbyterian and Baptist churches, already, Howard. There isn't one of those preachers can hold a candle to you on good looks and blarney generally. The young folks will come over to you in a body. The yellow-legged chickens will fall on their backs when you make your calls and are invited to stay to dinner. Flowers will adorn your pulpit. Slippers will grace your Christmas trees. And the local editor will print Monday morning extracts from your sermon. `See the conquering hero comes' will resound up and down the one business street of Red Hill when you make your daily triumphant pilgrimage up and down it from the corner grocery to the post office and back. And then, after a romantic marriage with the fair daughter of your senior deacon, who has fallen in love with you at sight, in a rosy cloud I see you buying a ticket to a metropolitan pulpit that has extended a call to----"
"Stop! I won't listen to your prophecies any longer. At the same time, I don't see how I'm to blame if I use any and every talent I possess to win the populace of Red Hill to my church. And yet, somehow, as I started to say when you interrupted with your blarney, I don't believe I can or will do some of the things the Red Hill people will probably want me to do in the matter of aggressiveness."
"No, you're such a mild, meek fellow! I'm sorry, though, for the other ministers in Red Hill. They will be ringing their tocsins after you have been there a month. Kate and I are going out to California for our wedding trip. I am tempted to stop over on our way back and visit Red Hill just to see the havoc you have wrought in the M. E., Presbyterian and Baptist fortifications."
"Ah! That's the only sensible thing you've said this morning. You're specially invited right now. I'll ask Rose to make one of your favourite three-story apple pies. And I'll take pleasure in introducing you to the fair daughter of the senior deacon whom you mentioned so flippantly a minute ago."
"Accepted. Get your best room ready. We'll wire you from Los Angeles. By the way, what railroad is Red Hill on?"
"On the main line of the Santa Fe."
"Then we can find it, all right. Be down to meet us, so we won't get lost in the population."
Lennox went back to his table and the two friends lapsed into the silence which perfect friends so happily understand. We will break that silence long enough to tell you a little about them.
Roy Lennox was that rara avis, a rich theologue. His father was a retired business man, living in New York, and Roy, after a college course at Yale, had chosen the ministry for his life work and gone on to Union Seminary.
Instead of living at home, he had preferred to be at the Seminary buildings, and there had met Howard Chase, who had entered the seminary the same year. They had gone in as roommates and during the three years' course had grown up one of those deep, lifelong attachments that are the glory of young men.
Roy Lennox had chosen the ministry. He had no liking for a business career which was a great disappointment to his father, who had never known anything else. He did not care for medicine, law, journalism, art, music, or science. His father's means were so ample and his father so indulgent towards him that he had never learned a trade or distinguished himself in college or anywhere else for anything in particular. He had taken the Seminary course in a perfunctory way, occasionally illuminated with exceptional spurts of enthusiasm pumped into him by his chum, but he was near the end of the course, as he himself had said, with no expectation of a call to any church that cared for him enough to ask him to be its pastor. He was going to marry, immediately after graduating, a young woman he had known ever since he was a boy, the daughter of one of his father's partners, a young woman born to luxury, but with more positive and clear cut definitions of life in general than Lennox himself ever had known, who if he had defined himself would have said:
"I am a young man of good habits, respectable parentage and an assured income which I have never earned, a lover of rather expensive and numerous things, willing to be the minister of any fairly well-to-do church where things are not too strenuous, in which I will do the regular work of a minister with no particular passion, but with perfect propriety, my wife gracing all necessary occasions with good looks, fine taste in dress and ability to preside at the necessary meetings and do the social deeds that go with her position. In other words, I am a harmless individual if I once break into the pastorate, and I have only one really great passion, and that is my admiration for and faith in my roommate and classmate, Howard Chase. He is a real minister, and I will do anything in my power, if he will let me, to back up any plans he has to work out for the reform of the world and the general amelioration of mankind."
In speaking thus of his classmate, Lennox unconsciously revealed the noblest trait he himself possessed. For the enthusiasm he acknowledged, he himself never felt for his own calling, so far as he was called, he did have for Howard Chase, whom he exalted into a position of almost semi-divinity worthy of more than deepest respect, rising at times into a feeling bordering on real worship.
It was the eternal story of attraction of opposites.
Howard Chase had every quality that Roy Lennox lacked. He was called to the ministry with a divine call that was absolutely unmistakable. It was a trumpet call to action, clear, ringing, insistent. It sounded in accents that were staccato, "woe is me if I preach not----" He never had a doubt as to the miraculous superhuman eternal person of Jesus Christ and the facts of his early story, and their application to daily life. He was ready to go anywhere and preach to anybody. The matter of salary was so minute an item that he never thought to mention it to Lennox when he received his first letter from the Kansas Superintendent, and actually had to refer to previous letters before he could recall the exact amount.
In physical person, Chase was a perfect animal, an athlete of renown in his own college where he had broken the record for the running broad jump, the 440-yard dash, the hurdles, the hammer throw and the quickest tennis player. He was always in training, lithe as a panther, with a profile like Antinous, or, better, like Apollo Belvidere.
With all this physical endowment he carried a finely strung spiritual sensitiveness, so keen and delicate, it seemed at times all feminine. And then, without any warning right across that delicate harp of prophet insight and vision would sweep a hand so primitive, so masculine, with almost coarse and egotistic assumption of power that all the finer things seemed to snap and go at ragged ends, and Lennox many a time gasped at the sight and wondered if his ideal of Chase was destroyed. But it never was, and the growing conviction of Lennox after three years intimate acquaintance only deepened his faith in Howard Chase as an absolutely true, pure, wonderfully endowed soul, something cleaved off of Divine beginnings, but never for one moment renouncing its earth born and earth limited birth.
Chase and Lennox were also at opposite ends of the economic scale. Lennox had money and spent it freely. Chase counted every nickel and performed miracles of economy with his laundry, board, and books. Once, after only a few weeks of first acquaintance, Lennox offered to loan Chase a few dollars. He never made such an offer again. Something in Chase's refusal scared him so that when he found himself alone he felt of himself as if Chase had struck him somewhere. Chase earned money by giving athletic lessons in a Y. M. C. A. gymnasium down town. Once Lennox went with him to a night exhibition in which Chase did the giant swing, and in a boxing contest knocked a Y. M. C. A. member up against a parallel bar standard so hard that he fell down and fainted away.
Chase was kneeling over him in a flash, doing the first right thing, and when the young fellow came to and smiled faintly, Lennox heard Chase say: "I was an ass to hit you so hard." And the reply came faintly and Chase's familiar grin responded to it: "First time I was ever kicked by a mule."
The vivid impression of the evening that Lennox carried away was the impression of reserve, not expended power, a power that leaped and bounded uphill with leopard strides, relentless when it struck, but just as pitiful and sacrificial when the victim fell as if nothing would atone for the suffering but life itself.
A word about Chase's family life.
It had been nothing short of a succession of tragedies, beginning with the sudden death of his mother, when he was a child, succeeded by the crippling of an older brother through a fall, and his later death. Then came one of the saddest strokes of all to the family, when the young man to whom his sister, Rose, was engaged committed a business crime and was sentenced to a five-year term in the penitentiary.
The shock of it nearly unbalanced the girl's reason, and under the fiery branding of it she grew old, and, at one time, Howard was afraid she would become bitter and even lose her Christian faith. But they were both spared that trouble, and Rose had finally accepted her experience, as her brother had prayed she might, and turned her strong affectionate impulse towards the care of her father, who had gradually given way in health under this succession of troubles, and who had died only a few weeks before this history begins, leaving Howard and his sister the only survivors of a family that had once seemed to promise every hope of a long and happy history.
Roy Lennox came over again to his roommate's table. Howard had just finished a letter. He held it up as Lennox looked at him questioningly.
"Yes, it's done. I've written the Superintendent that I'll accept the call to Red Hill and begin work there in May, right after the general conference."
Lennox looked at him wistfully.
"I wish I had a field of some sort. Do you suppose they could keep two men busy? I'd be willing to go out as your assistant and work for nothing. Kate and I could help you undermine the M. E., Presbyterian and Baptist strongholds. I am not much of an underminer myself, but Kate is an expert. You can see what she has done to me."
"Roy, if the smallest church out west hasn't got enough for two men to do it hasn't got enough for one. That's one of my hobbies, you know. But you're mistaken if you think I'm going to undermine any one. I'm going to build up."
"But how can you build up without undermining? If there are only seven hundred souls in Red Hill divided among four churches, I don't understand how you can make your church stronger without making theirs weaker. Unless you draw your support from Kansas City or Topeka."
"Of course, I----" Howard began, and then stopped. His characteristic grin faded out. The lines of his mouth hardened into straighter meaning. His great eyes seemed to fill with black pigment that flowed over the surface like a colour actually applied by some force behind the screen.
"Roy, I'm going out to Red Hill to preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I'm going to get all the souls I can to preach to and work for. That is going to be my main business. If in doing it anything happens to the other religious organisations, I shall not feel responsible. Let them look after themselves. My programme is as clear as noon day sun."
"I know it is," said Lennox, for the first time that morning letting his real feeling for Chase appear.
"And when I said I wished I could be your assistant I wasn't talking lightly. I would count it the greatest thing in my life if I could be with you, and you know it."
"Of course I do." Howard got up and leaned over his table, putting his hands on Roy's shoulders. "And I don't know any one I would rather have. I've prayed every day for a year that the Lord would bless you by taking your money away. If you and Kate had to go into some needy missionary field and work for about nothing and board yourselves, it would be the making of you both. But even as it is, if I can persuade the trustees at Red Hill to take you on my recommendation----"
The old grin had come back and Roy understood what it meant. He smiled, put his hand on Howard's shoulder, and the two stood that way a moment. Then Howard sat down again and said cheerfully:
"We can look over the field when you and Kate make that visit. Stranger things have happened. This is not all fiction. At any rate, you know well enough what these three years have meant to me."
"I don't know that I do," was Lennox's reply. "I surely don't know what they have meant to me and won't know for a long time. If I ever amount to anything in the ministry it will be your fault. Can't you throw your mantle or something over me before you ascend Red Hill?"
"You will have the Baptism of the Spirit some day, Roy. But not through money or easy chairs or culture. I don't know how you will get it. I know it won't be anything of mine. Something far higher up."
Then silence came between them--a silence that Lennox filled in his own heart with something like the persuasive voices of abundant life. And that was the most affectionate silence the friends knew during the weeks that followed including the graduation week, the marriage of Lennox and the farewells as the young men separated.
A considerable part of Red Hill was down at the station the day Howard Chase and his sister arrived.
Deacon Burton, who had corresponded with Howard through the Superintendent, George Clark, the local editor, Bruce Carpenter, the High School principal, were the first to greet them and then introduce them to others.
Mrs. Burton, a woman of kindly bearing and attractive personality, invited Howard and Rose up to her house for the evening meal.
"I knew you would be tired with the long journey, but Mr. Burton and I thought you would not object to a meal with us, seeing it is so near evening, and then you can go right over to the parsonage as soon as you like. It's only one block."
Rose accepted for her brother and herself, while trunks and bundles were being secured and the little company moved away from the station, followed by a good many curious gazes. As Howard was giving his trunk checks to the local Expressman, he heard him say to the station Agent:
"Well, he's a wide awake looking young fellow. Bet he was born in Kansas. New York never raised him."
Howard turned to the man and grinned as he held out his hand.
"That's a prophecy come true. I'll explain it to you some time. Introduce me to the station Agent, won't you? And he'll introduce me to you."
Both men laughed at something in Howard's manner, and as he gripped their hands, he had them won to him in that immeasurable moment.
"Going to hear him preach next Sunday," said the Agent.
"Same here," said the Expressman.
Deacon Burton offered a word of apology as he walked up the street by Howard.
"I would have met you with the auto, but my daughter is using it this afternoon for a high school function. She is chaperoning the senior class at their annual gathering over at Maple Grove. But it's only a short distance to our house, and you don't look like an invalid."
"And I'm not one either. And if I was, the air out here is good enough to raise the dead. Your city hospital isn't crowded, is it?"
"I don't believe there's a dozen sick people in Red Hill," said Deacon Burton, with a pleased look. "We have two good doctors and they're always praying for an epidemic."
"And did you ever see anything like the view, Rose?"
Howard turned to his sister and Mrs. Burton, who were behind.
They had crossed over the one business street and gone one block through an avenue shaded with great elms and soft maples. Looking up the street parallel with the business street, there opened into view a rising swell of the prairie with what looked like a brown scar down one side, not a disfiguring brand, but rather a distinguishing mark in the landscape.
Beyond this rising mound, off in the soft afternoon sunshine that fairly flooded the prairie expanse, stretched the broad reaches of varied shades of spring colour dotted with rich farm land, wooden squares, showing through the young foliage comfortable farm houses and surrounding buildings, while herds of cattle streamed out over the prairie pastures, and wheat and alfalfa spread great stretches like velvet carpet between the different quarter sections, and earth's redundant life flowed into that street of Red Hill in a flood of richness that Chase and his sister had never known before.
"I never saw anything like it!" Rose exclaimed with delight.
"And that's Red Hill, I suppose," said Howard, waiving his hand out towards the mound with the scar.
"Yes," said Deacon Burton. "After a rain it changes colour. You can ask Professor Carpenter for the geological reason. We can leave your things in the parsonage as we go by, if you like. Save carrying them up to the house."
The parsonage was a neat, comfortable seven-room house, and Rose noted with woman's eye the evident preparation made by the church people. There were fresh prairie flowers in the sitting-room, and on the dining-room table a large vase of double lilac.
"Agnes took them from our bushes this morning. They were late in coming out. I hope the scent of them is not too strong," Mrs. Burton said to Rose, who was looking with approval over the simple, but comfortable, room furnishings.
"Our favourite flower," Howard answered, as he bent over to inhale a deep breath, and then, as he drew back, said, with his gravest manner:
"Did you say Agnes? She is your daughter? A teacher in the High School?"
"Yes." They were moving out of the house and the deacon had turned to ask Howard if he cared to look into the church as they went by.
"By all means. Let's see it. I want to get acquainted with my surroundings. The sooner the better."
They went in and Howard Chase paused at the end of the aisle and looked over the room where he was going to experience some of the strangest and most tragic events of his life.
It was a pleasant room, with a Sunday School annex on one side, which could open into the main audience. Capable of seating, the deacon said, two hundred and fifty people when it was all thrown together.
There was a plain pulpit on a platform only three steps above the pews. And an organ, with seats behind it, for eight people on one side of the pulpit and on the same platform.
The room had been freshly painted and papered and Howard noted with pleasure that the hymn books were new and the general appearance of the room spoke of care and pride in its keeping.
"We think our Church is the best building in town," said Deacon Burton. "The Ladies' Society have recently made some improvements. Mrs. Burton is president this year. She is responsible for the paint and paper."
"I got them both out of Mr. Burton's store," Mrs. Burton laughed. "At cost. I never knew before what profit he makes."
"I like the looks of this room," said Howard, with quiet enthusiasm. "I believe I can preach in here Do you have an organised choir?"
"Indeed we do!" Mrs. Burton spoke eagerly. "Agnes plays, and we have a double quartette of young people. You'll hear them on Sunday. They've been practising for a month getting ready for your arrival."
"Howard doesn't know one note from another. But he does know a discord when it's loud enough, and he can see it if it is visible in the choir."
"You won't see any, Mr. Chase. The young people are very eager to please you. I'm only afraid they may be too eager. But we have some fine young people."
They went out of the church and walked one block farther to the Burtons'.
"Shall we wait for Agnes?" Deacon Burton asked his wife, as she waited for the minister and his sister to wash off the stains of travel before going in to supper.
"No. She said she did not know when she would get back."
So Howard and Rose sat down to a bountiful meal with the deacon and his wife, and Howard Chase did not see Agnes Burton until he saw her Sunday morning seated at the little organ on the pulpit platform only a few feet away. And that first sight of her changed the current of his whole life. It had so far been unmoved by the woman. The coming of Agnes Burton into Howard Chase's life was an event so far reaching in its consequences, so deep in its influence that no measure can be made of it.
He had three days to prepare for the first Sunday in Red Hill. He spent them largely in helping Rose to get settled in their new home. There was not a great deal to do. The thoughtfulness of the Ladies' Society, headed by Mrs. Burton, had anticipated most of the needs of a well-furnished home.
During these three days Howard met the other ministers of Red Hill.
Rev. Alfred Noyes, of the Methodist church, met him in the post office and introduced himself. He was an elderly man, hearty of manner and gave Howard the first impression of rather positive assertion of ecclesiastical dignity, but altogether friendly and cordial.
Rev. George Harris, the Presbyterian minister, called on him Friday afternoon. He was a slim young man, only two years out of the Seminary, with a rather diffident, but pleasant, manner. Howard, with his overplus of vitality, sat looking at him all through his call, going over the possibility in the future of giving his Brother boxing lessons and straightening up the scholarly curve in his shoulders.
Rev. Henry Gray, of the Baptist Church, was a type entirely new to Chase. Deacon Burton introduced him to Howard as Howard had stepped into the deacon's store to make some inquiries about the church.
"Meet Brother Gray, of the Baptist Church, Mr. Chase, our new minister," Deacon Burton had said, and then had turned to a customer.
Gray shook hands and looked Howard over sharply.
"Glad to meet, you, Brother Chase. Hope you'll have a successful pastorate here. But the field is somewhat crowded."
"Who does most of it?" Howard said, with his customary grin.
The other man seemed all taken back at first. Then he laughed shortly and answered:
"Well, we all do, I guess. We have to in order to live at all. You'll probably get a good part of our congregations next Sunday. That's generally the case when a new man comes."
"How often does a new man come?"
"Well, I'm the oldest resident minister and I've been here seven years. The other churches have all changed pastors several times since I came."
There was rather an awkward pause.
"Is this a church-going community?" Howard asked, studying Brother Gray meanwhile.
"No. This town is given over to all sorts of organisations. We have to fight for our lives with everything you can imagine. We have a moving-picture show that keeps the people away from prayer meeting, and dancing and whist parties have killed the spiritual life of the people. They have no spiritual hunger. They are given up to amusement and moneymaking and gossip. It's the most gossippy town in the state, Brother Chase."
"Looks like a good town for a preacher to work in," said Howard. "Full of sinners. I'm glad I came."
Brother Gray stared and then laughed his short staccato laugh again.
"O you'll have plenty to do that way. And a new broom--you know. But people don't go to church here. After a few weeks, when they get used to you, you'll be preaching to empty pews like the rest of us."
"Not on your life I won't!" Howard exclaimed, with so much emphasis that Brother Gray started back and his face grew red. "If you think I have come here to preach to empty pews you have another guess coming."
Gray looked at him more closely, and a new look came into his face.
"You'll forgive me, my young Brother, won't you, for speaking as I did about the people. But I get discouraged at times and can't help talking out. And the people do appear so indifferent and so lacking in spiritual response. I don't want to discourage you. Go ahead! If you can get a hearing I hope you will."
Howard detected a hint of a tear in the man's eye and he said to him:
"Perhaps I'm going to take to Brother Gray after all."
He went out of the store and back to his little study in the parsonage, meditating on the things Brother Gray had said and his way of saying them.
And many times, shutting himself into that little room, and last of all, late on the Saturday night, he prayed, on his knees, for the power of the Spirit in his Sunday services, as he should face his first Red Hill congregation.
It was somewhat different from his mental picture of it. Somehow Red Hill, in the three days that had elapsed since Howard's arrival, seemed to be unusually attracted to the new young preacher of the Congregational Church, and when Howard began the service on that memorable Sunday morning, he faced a real crowd, the biggest crowd, Deacon Burton proudly said at dinner, that ever went to church in Red Hill.
"Did you notice the Baptist and M. E. and Presbyterian folks this morning?" he had said exultantly to his wife and daughter as they eagerly discussed the service. "I saw at least forty from Gray's membership and thirty from the M. E., and more than a score from Harris'. I don't believe they had more than a handful at all their churches."
As a matter of fact, by actual count, as Red Hill knew before the day was over, less than one hundred and twenty-five people all told were in attendance at the three other churches.
The little annex was open and every chair occupied. One row of extra chairs was put down the main aisle. Chairs were brought over from the parsonage and put in the front part of the little vestibule. And a crowd of men and boys stood up along the walls, and at Howard's suggestion, before he went forward to the platform, some of the older boys were asked to sit on the platform itself, a thing unheard of in the history of the church.
As he went up to the pulpit, he knew that Red Hill collectively was taking critical account of him, of his bearing, his clothes, his general appearance. But as he put his foot on the first step, there was not a tremour in his heart, not a nervous thrill, nothing but a great hunger to get at his message to the people. It was not egotism, it was simply the hunger to preach, the longing of the prophet to say "thus saith the Lord."
He had taken his seat and the girl at the organ had begun playing when he noticed on the inner side of the pulpit, lying close up against the raised part that held the big Bible, a spray of double lilac blossoms. It had evidently been placed there. The sight of them swept his memory back to Union Seminary and Roy Lennox's whimsical statement "flowers will adorn your pulpit"--and at the thought of it he caught himself grinning and then stopped--as he turned his head and saw, for the first time, the girl at the organ, Agnes Burton.
She had been away with a friend and had not returned home until late Saturday, and so he had not met her on his visit to the deacon's where he had gone three or four times to consult about church matters.
She seemed at first wholly intent on her music, but as Howard turned in that brief moment her face seemed to convey to him a knowledge of his look that for one second struck him almost like a blow.
Could such a face--could it be possible the flowers were--it was a thought that had less than lightning's vision--and it was gone. He had arisen, they were singing the Doxology, he was being swept along in the fervour of the service and naught else was of value--Woman? She might have her place but not now--all the world contained for the next hour only one matter of supreme importance, and he was carried away with it.
He stood up when the sermon was reached, his whole splendid animal beauty intensified by his fiery consecration, and absorbing purpose to get at the real lives before him. The people of Red Hill had never seen anything like it. His text was "In the Unity of the Spirit," and a plea for that oneness of personal and community life that should transform the individual and the town into a new life in Christ Jesus his Lord.
The girl at the organ sat with clasped hands and burning cheeks, and eyes that never drooped but once, and that was when he turned to include the young people in the choir with a passionate plea, the people in the pews leaned forward as one person, the men in the back part of the vestibule stood with hands on one another's shoulders, the rich beauty of the May splendour of the spring prairie floated into the open windows and a quiet hush like that one feels at a Benediction when the Spirit has filled the house fell on all hearts, as that notable ministry of Howard Chase began at Red Hill.