It was the morning after the Big Storm in Red Hill and the Santa Fe Agent was standing out on the platform of the little station when the Expressman drove up.
"Some storm, no?" said the Agent trying to appear indifferent. But the Expressman saw through it as he noted the Agent sweeping glass off the platform on to the right of way and noted also the absence of all windows on the west side of the Agent's little ticket office.
"Well I should say! And have you heard about the church?"
"Mr. Chase's----" The Agent paused in his sweeping and looked interested. "You don't mean--I haven't been up town. Haven't been able to leave."
"Naw. The Methodist. The roof's down in the cellar an' the organ is on top o' the pulpit. Total wreck. I just drove by it."
"Well, I should call that providential."
"Maybe," said the Expressman slowly. "But I don't believe the Methodists look at it that way. What's providential for one party is somp'n else for the other party."
"You bet. No. 12 is six hours late. That's providential for me because I've got all this muss to clean up. But somehow I'm glad it wa'n't Mr. Chase's church."
"Same here," said the Expressman. "I didn't get to go to church last night. I don't guess nobody went. The corner of his platform got under the wind and the hull business blew away. They wa'n't even a nail left. Jest nothin' but standin' room only."
"It was some blow all right," said the Agent as he continued to shove the glass off the platform. "There haint a wire standing between here and Newton, and it'll take the gang all day to clear the drift wood out of the bridge up there. The creek rose ten feet in ten minutes. We hain't had such a breeze since ninety-four."
The people of Red Hill generally were greatly excited over the storm which has assumed in spots the character of a "twister."
Howard and Rose, Deacon Burton, Mrs. Burton, Agnes, Mrs. Wilson and little Miss Wilson and a group of church people were out in the Congregational Church yard, noting various freaks of the wind and excitedly exchanging experiences. Howard was looking over the limb strewn yard and calling Deacon Burton's attention to the fact that one lone electric lamp was hanging unbroken from a corner of the chimney, swinging by a bit of cord about six inches long. That was all that was left of the wiring Howard had run all over the front yard. But with the exception of the platform's complete disappearance, leaving, as the Expressman had said, "standing room only," the church had suffered no damage except the loss of a few window panes.
"I thought you said Kansas never had any cyclones, Deacon Burton," said Howard gravely as he and the deacon went into the church to look around. "What do you call the thing we had last night?"
Deacon Burton hesitated. "Well it came nearer being the real thing than Red Hill ever saw before, and I've been here ever since the Santa Fe came through. We got off pretty well. Of course you've heard about the Methodists."
"Yes," said Howard, "I understand their building is a total wreck."
"Just about. Nothing left but the foundation and that was visited in spots."
They came out of the church and joined the group outside.
"Nothing hurt here," said Deacon Burton cheerfully. "Only a few panes of glass gone and a little plaster wet. Not enough to mention."
"But our church is all gone, Mr. Burton," said Mrs. Wilson tearfully. "We are going over to look at it."
Little Miss Wilson had slipped up to Howard and her moist little hand had gone into his.
"Then if our church is gone we can be Congregestionalists, can't we, Mother?"
"You appear to be one now " said Mrs. Wilson. Deacon Burton hastily spoke up.
"Let's all go over. Maybe it's not so bad as they say."
The group moved out of the church yard, Agnes Burton walking along by Miss Wilson who hung close to Howard.
"It was a great disappointment to lose the service last night, wasn't it, Mr. Chase?" Agnes said. She was holding Miss Wilson's other hand as they walked along.
"Yes. Yes." He was in one of his absent moods for a moment. Then he suddenly came back again.
"Oh, I beg pardon, Miss Burton. The service? I was lotting,--that's the word, isn't it--on a great time last night. And it came, but not the way I expected. There was one while there just before the storm broke when I believe I was actually afraid."
"I didn't suppose you could ever be afraid of anything, Mr. Chase."
"Because any man who could accept a call to a little country town church like ours when he might have a city church must be a brave man."
Howard Chase looked over the head of little Miss Wilson at Miss Burton in real astonishment.
"How do you know I could get a call to a city church?"
"Any one would know it after last Sunday."
Miss Burton spoke naturally and smiled as she spoke. But Howard Chase was looking straight ahead and when he spoke it was with a grave note as if ignoring Miss Burton's statement and all it implied.
"I accepted the first call I had, Miss Burton. But I would have come west anyway."
"Do you like the west, cyclones and all?"
Then the girl asked another question which astonished him more than anything she had yet said and he realised afterwards, he had not, so far, until now, during this short walk, spoken more than twenty words to her seriously.
"Why should you come into this overcrowded church town to break your heart over an impossible ecclesiastical situation, over a problem that never can be solved, at least, not in this generation?"
"Break my heart----" He had broken out over her statement, blurting out rudely the first thing that his astonished impulse impelled him to say, looking at her directly, noting the rising colour of her face, and for the first time the keen intellectual flash of her eye, but little Miss Wilson tugged at his hand, as he had stopped a second--
"Come, Mr. Chase. See! Where our church is gone!"
They had reached the Methodist Church yard and a large group of people had gathered to look at the ruin, for ruin it was that greeted the newcomers.
By some fantastic freak of the mysterious wind the four walls of the building had been blown entirely away. Parts of them were found afterwards miles away on the prairie, some of the windows intact. But the roof of the church had turned completely over and then twisted around and lay like a great funnel wedged in between the foundation walls. Parts of the organ lay scattered over the pulpit, one corner of which projected out from a section of the roof. Pieces of pews, chairs, rain soaked hymn books and two sections of furnace pipe lay about the church yard while branches of trees and pieces of lumber, and dishes from the church kitchen lay strewn over the entire wreckage.
The Rev. Alfred Noyes was there with his flock, eyeing the mixture of his church with grave concern.
"A total loss." Howard heard him say to Mrs. Wilson who had gone up to express her sympathy.
Howard and Deacon Burton each said a word, each in his own way.
"After all elder," said the deacon, "you ought to, be thankful you and your people weren't in it last night. It was providential no one was hurt or killed."
"Well, of course I am thankful for that," said Brother Noyes. "But we had no insurance against cyclones and our loss will be heavy. It's a great blow to my people."
And then Howard, acting on the impulse of the moment, thinking no farther than an honest thought for others, went up close to Noyes and said, "Brother Noyes, our people will be glad to have you use our church part of the time for services until----"
At that point he felt a pull on his coat sleeve and Deacon Burton was nodding to him.
Brother Noyes had started to say, "Why, I appreciate that----" when a new group of his parishioners came up excitedly to talk over the situation.
Deacon Burton drew his minister off to one side.
"Now, see here, Brother Chase, you can't go to inviting the Methodists into our church without consulting the members."
"Well, it hain't in order. Deacon Allen will oppose it and there's a number of others."
Howard controlled himself. Then he smiled at Deacon Burton one of those rare winsome smiles that made little children and rough grown-up men fall in love with him.
"All right, Brother Burton, we'll bring it up at the midweek service."
"Oh, I think the church will invite them all right," Deacon Burton said quickly. "But it ought to be voted on. Of course we want to do the right thing."
The church yard, that part of it not encumbered with the debris of the storm had filled up with Red Hill population. Practically the entire Methodist membership was present. The Rev. Alfred Noyes was the centre of a commiserating group. His people were walking over the ruins, pulling out pieces of lumber, the women seeking to save a few pieces of crockery from the wreckage of the kitchen when one of the church officers who had been working away at the pulpit shouted to Brother Noyes to come over.
"Look here!" one cried excitedly. "Look! The Bible is lying here open. Not a leaf torn!"
The Rev. Alfred Noyes examined it. The leaves were rain soaked but uninjured otherwise. He glanced down the page that was open until his eye fell on this passage: "For the Lord shall comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody." Isaiah 51:3.
He read it out loud to the group, and lifting his head looked around.
"It's a prophecy, a plain, providential sign to us. We will rebuild the walls of Zion and enlarge our borders. The people will rally to us in our distress. The Mission Board will help us with a loan. Let us not despair, my friends. Let us rally together around our beloved church and rebuild."
Mrs. Wilson, who had been crying, turned to one of the other women.
"Now isn't that wonderful. Talk about miracles. We can go ahead and build again. Remember how we worked over this building? We can put up a better one."
"I believe we can," said the other woman. "The Lord seems to be with us. After all, maybe this storm was providential."
Howard walked along to the main business street with Deacon Burton who had been due at his store for an hour.
"What do you call providential?" asked the deacon, glancing at the young minister as they went along.
Howard grinned as he returned the deacon's look. He was fast coming to have more than a liking for his senior deacon, it was growing into a feeling of real affection mingled with respect for his shrewd mental quickness.
"The word `providential' depends on the point of view, whether you're looking up or down."
"If the Methodists rebuild," said the Deacon slowly, "it will be a mistake, not a providence, as I see it. Years ago we made a proposition to them that we combine our forces, and if it hadn't been for one or two people higher up I think we would have put it through. And I couldn't help feeling--might as well confess--when I heard the storm had ruined their building that maybe now we could get together. But it doesn't look like it. Brother Noyes is great on the Bible. If he works that sentence on the people at the Mission Board he will get the thing going again, and this town is too small for four churches. We can't afford to support all of 'em."
"Why, you don't help support any but our own, do you?"
Deacon Burton stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, and looked at Howard gravely.
"How do you suppose four churches can live in a town of seven hundred and fifty people? If the Methodists rebuild the walls of Zion every merchant in Red Hill will be expected to contribute. For the last fifteen years I have been giving my quota to all the churches here. If it isn't in one shape it's in another. If it isn't a regular hold-up subscription, it's a fair, or a sale, or a clean up of some sort."
"I didn't know it was as bad as that."
"Or you wouldn't have come, maybe?"
"I don't say that. We have as much right here as the others, haven't we?"
"Sure. But we've got churches to burn and blow away. Only it looks like they won't stay blowed."
The deacon delivered himself of this with a grimace and a shrug, as he came to his store and Howard left him there.
"I think now I'm here, I'll step over and see Deacon Allen about letting the Methodists use the church. We've got to be decent even if we're not good Christians."
"All right." Deacon Burton grinned. "I don't know how Brother Allen will stand."
Howard crossed the street and Deacon Burton watched him go into Deacon Allen's place of business.
He was there about ten minutes. When he came out he started to cross the street and go into Deacon Burton's, but paused, seemed to change his mind and started back to the parsonage.
As he turned the corner going west from the main street he met Inez Clark.
He was going by with a bow and a "Good-morning, Miss Clark," but Inez stopped almost in front of him and said:
"Father wanted me to say if I saw you that, seeing as how the storm spoiled the outdoor meeting last night, he would strike off five hundred more dodgers for nothing if you wanted them for next Sunday."
"I appreciate that. Please tell your father so. But I don't know yet about the service. We may have a union meeting with the Methodists."
"Oh, I hope not!" Inez exclaimed. "Why should they spoil our plans?"
Howard did not say anything, only looked at the girl gravely.
"I don't like the Methodists," Inez said with blunt emphasis. Howard felt and looked amused. But he started on, simply saying, "Thank your father for his offer. If we have our service I'll bring the copy over in time."
She did not say anything in answer, but as he turned the next corner to go up to the parsonage he glanced back and saw Inez still standing where they had met. She was not looking in his direction, but she was standing perfectly still.
Howard went on to the parsonage and into his little study. As he sat down to his desk he struck it a blow with a hard fist. Then he put his elbows on the desk and stared open eyed and grave at a picture on top of the desk and in the middle of it.
It was a picture Roy Lennox had given him after a trip abroad.
It was a picture of Christ in the desert. On a brightly illuminated high tableland in the background marched a profession of kings, emperors, warriors, the high and mighty and strong of the earth and behind them a gloriously apparelled group of artists, musicians, scholars and scientists. Then followed a group of laughing girls and in the centre, drawing all others to her, was an alluring figure, representing woman, in all her blending of mysterious good and evil, holding out a jewelled hand beckoning the one who looked at her to come and walk with her.
The artist had so arranged this line of figures in the world procession that this woman focussed all attention on herself at first.
But as one looked closer at the picture he saw crowding up around Jesus, beseeching faces and pitiful outstretched hands, the hands of disease and want and despair. The whole world for all time to come was there, clinging to his garments, stretching out agonising arms like drowning people, and one fair woman, oh, so wondrous fair, was kissing the Master's feet, her streaming hair covered with dust and the trace of a hideous human foot on her neck.
Christ himself in this picture, up at which Howard was now looking, was gazing neither at the world greatness and allurement on the table-land, nor at the world sorrow below but his face was lifted above a dark circle towards an opening in a cloud out of which one line of light fell straight down until it rested on the face of the woman who lay at Jesus' feet. And the effect of the picture was finally to leave the spectator doing what the artist had planned--leaving him with his gaze absolutely on the face of Christ obliterating all other figures, even those of the alluring woman above and the sinful woman below.
Howard could hear his sister in the dining room at work on something. He sat at his desk a few minutes then he went over and quietly closed the door, stood a moment in the middle of the room and then suddenly knelt at his chair and flung his head upon his hands with a muffled cry.
But in a moment he was on his feet again and going out into the other room began to tell his sister about his plans for the coming Sunday.
"I asked Brother Noyes to use our church for services. Deacon Burton objected and said I ought to consult our members."
"I should think so, Howard, you will get into trouble. You are not a pope here."
"I'd like to be for a while. Do 'em good. Some one has got to lead."
"Or drive," said Rose who admired her brother immensely, but had great common sense and was not afraid of using it for his benefit.
"People don't like to be driven, Howard. Coax 'em."
"But how about those who can't be coaxed?"
"People who can't be coaxed are the kind that can't be driven."
"Well, I tell you, sister, first the minister has to go in front and pull and then he has to go behind and shove."
"The good shepherd is generally in front," said Rose quietly.
"Well, I guess you're right, sister. But I got in front of Deacon Allen this morning and for a while I was afraid he was going to run over me. But he finally came along like--like--a little lamb, to use the figure we've started with."
"What did you do? I'm a little afraid of Deacon Allen. But isn't Deacon Burton lovely? And Agnes?"
"Yes, I think the deacon is great. But Deacon Allen--well--he's the great objector, I find. He's good--Oh, he good, but he's awful good. He'll want his heavenly crown sent up on approval and have it taken in at the bottom or the pearls reset. But I think I understand him pretty well. I finally got his consent on conditions."
"Consent to what? You haven't told me."
"Why, consent to invite the Methodists to use our church a part of the time for their services. When I looked at their ruin this morning it didn't seem to me anything less than common decency to offer it."
"But it will spoil your plans for services, won't it, if you----"
"Yes, of course it will. But I'll have to work all the harder in between Sundays. A minister's main work is done during the week."
"Maybe the other churches will offer the use of their buildings part of the time. It seems too bad for you to give up your plan for the Sunday evening."
"Perhaps we can unite in some way. But I am hungry to preach. I don't want to listen to Brother Noyes. I want to preach myself."
"And you ought to, Howard. I don't believe you realise what a gift you have that way. A week ago Sunday, the first Sunday, I saw people listening to your sermon who I am sure don't generally care for sermons. There was one girl in the chorus, that Inez Clark, who seemed to be just completely absorbed in what you were saying. She isn't the kind of a girl, I am sure, that usually cares for preaching. She is a pretty girl, but it's a magazine cover kind, and by the way, Agnes Burton dropped a word this morning about her that interested me. She said Inez Clark was going crazy over the moving picture shows and wondered if we could do anything to get her interested in something else."
Howard had been moving over towards his study door. He stopped with his back to his sister.
"What did Miss Burton say?"
"Why, she said the girl was going to the show every night and was in danger of several things. She said she was a romantic, highly imaginative thing, had been all through high school course, and she feels deeply interested in her."
"I don't see what----" Howard began. Then after a pause--"I'll talk with Miss Burton about it." He went into his study leaving the door open. He sat down to his desk and began to plan out his programme for the week. He had been at work about an hour when his sister came in.
"I'm going over to the church, Howard, to rehearse with Miss Burton. You know I'm to sing a solo next Sunday, and she is going to play for me. I haven't sung in a long time. But I--I--want to do all I can to help you. It's the only way I can keep from----"
"Dear girl----" said Howard. "I know. I know. You're the bravest woman I know." The tear was in his eye as he kissed her.
She went out and he resumed his work.
Then he found he had left his hymn book over in the church and he needed it to make some selections.
He went out, crossed the yard and went in. The door and windows were open and Rose and Miss Burton were up on the platform. Rose was singing "My Redeemer," by Dudley Buck, and her voice sounded sweet to Howard. It was not strong nor specially good in any technical way, but she sang with feeling and while he knew nothing of music and could not sing a note himself he did know enough about it to detect the difference between what was decently good and atrociously bad.
He went up to the pulpit to get his own copy and Rose stopped and said, "How does it sound?"
"Sounds all right to me. You know, Miss Burton, my sister is safe in asking me that. She knows I couldn't give her but one answer."
"She sings truly, Mr. Chase. Most people can't sing this solo without spoiling this part--`scourged and mocked and crucified'."
Rose looked pleased.
"Oh, that makes me think. I have another selection that I wanted you to try. I'll run over to the house and get it. Won't be gone but a minute." She ran out, and Howard, after a second of hesitation, went over to the organ and stood there looking earnestly at Miss Burton. She had gone on playing when Rose left but when Howard came up, she stopped as he said:
"Excuse me, Miss Burton, but I want to ask you about Miss Clark. My sister says you have been talking to her about the girl."
"Yes. Inez is one of my high school girls. She graduated two years ago. Since then she has been helping her father in his office. The girl has great possibilities for either good or bad."
"Rose says you told her the girl was crazy over the moving picture shows. Can't her father regulate that?"
"Mr. Clark does not seem to know or care what Inez does outside the office. He is trying to invent a new typesetting machine. He is wholly absorbed in it at night. Often, Inez has told me, he does not get home until one or two o'clock."
"What kind of shows do they have here?"
"All kinds. But mostly they are cheap sensational films dealing with highly coloured, romantic episodes in the lives of girls who have abnormal experiences."
"Do you ever go to the shows?"
Miss Burton coloured and then laughed. But when she answered her tone was suddenly all serious.
"I made a special study, psychological, I mean, of the whole film business when I was in the University. In fact it was the theme of my essay in the sociological department. That meant I had to go to a good many of the shows at Lawrence and study them. I found the majority of them were--were--well--wrong in their views of life and I can easily see what will happen to Inez if she accepts the film view of life for the true thing."
Howard was getting more and more interested. He was on the point of asking more questions when Rose came in. As she came up the aisle her brother said:
"Rose, Miss Burton and I have been talking about Miss Clark. I wish you would ask Miss Burton more about the matter. I must go back to my study. We want to do what we can. I think it is more a case for you women than for----"
He abruptly went down the aisle and out of the church, swinging along in his quick but not noisy habit and once back in his little study, sat staring at the Christ on his desk.
What was this girl to him? One of his flock. Why had she thus suddenly come into his problems to complicate and perhaps seriously embarrass them? A magazine cover type. A chorus girl type in this little Kansas town. A girl with romantic dreams, with abnormal desires, who had already boldly if not unmaidenly shown her feelings--he shuddered at a new peril hitherto unknown to his knightly soul and for a moment he felt real fear. Then he smiled. And said "No!" as he looked up at the Christ. Here was only one of the flock, of his flock, in peril of something. He had only one duty, to rescue, to save. Was not that what he was there for? Yea, verily. There was no such thing as a woman in the case, only a soul in danger of eternal loss. And he--simply a means to save. He would find out more about it from his sister's talk with Miss Burton. And he would go himself and see the shows and protect the others of his flock from their influence if it was as bad as Miss Burton said.
When Rose came back to the house, she gave Howard the result of her talk with Miss Burton. There was not much more than she had already revealed. Only she thought from some word Inez had dropped at a chorus rehearsal that she had an ambition to be a film actress.
"She's just the kind you see in the pictures. Of course if she succeeded as many of them do, it might not be bad for her. If she has talent that way, why not encourage it?"
Howard spoke on the impulse of the moment just what he thought, and his sister, although accustomed to his abrupt expression of his real thought was startled by it.
"Miss Burton spoke of that. But she said Inez was not the kind of a girl who could stand the test of that kind of life. She is quite positive it would be not the making of her but the ruin of her."
There was quite a silence in the little study.
Then Howard said:
"I'm going in to see what the shows are in this town."
"Do you think you ought to do that?"
"Yes. And I'm going to. Looks like a necessary thing to me. How can I guard my young people against a thing I don't know. I want to see it for myself."
Rose did not answer. Then Howard smiled his rare smile as he said:
"I feel as jealous of my flock as if I were a real shepherd, defending it from real wolves. You wouldn't have me run at the first howl, would you, sister?"
"No," said Rose with a sigh. "But sometimes I'm afraid for you. You need--you need--well you know Howard, there are so many delicate and embarrassing things in the ministry--you need a wife. There!"
"When I have you?"
"It is not the same."
To this he said nothing and Rose after viewing him gravely went out to her work.
He discovered that the principal nights for the best shows were Wednesday and Saturday. And when Wednesday night came he went down on the business street and stopped out in front of the little hall where the shows were given.
It was a white painted front with a profusion of electric lights; he noted as he looked up and down the street it was the one brilliant spot. The usual highly coloured posters were on the boards out in front and he stopped to look at them.
One represented a young man leaping a chasm about five thousand feet deep, holding a girl in his arms, and pursued by a gang of ruffians on horseback. In the near distance an airship could be seen approaching.
The other poster depicted a drunken man trying to climb a church steeple. A policeman was after him, but making slow progress on account of a heavy bulldog clinging to his coat-tails. This was supposed to be the comic film of the evening.
He bought his nickel slip and went in.
The hall was not large, it had once been a billiard hall, but it had opera chairs and looked fairly clean and had electric fans going.
It was about half filled and people were coming in quite steadily. More than half the audience was boys and girls under fifteen. They were laughing, giggling and eating peanuts and candy. There was a pianola at the curtain end of the room and five minutes before the films began, a girl went down the aisle, took her place at the instrument and began to unroll the "Overture to William Tell."
Howard had taken a seat in the last row almost under the booth that contained the film and it had started its click and buzz when a girl seated four rows ahead of him turned and looked up at the little square hole in the booth.
It was light enough in the room to distinguish faces, and as the girl was about to turn around and face the curtain she lowered her gaze and Howard recognised Inez. He could not tell as she turned around whether she had seen him or not. But within the next ten minutes an event so unexpected took place that even the presence of Inez and the reason for his own presence there was forgotten.