Howard Chase was in the habit of reading his scripture just before his sermon. And when he reached that place in the service on that memorable Sunday morning in Red Hill, he began to read from a modern version, so different from the version Red Hill people had always heard that they actually sat up and listened to it. A thing they had not done for years, as the Bible had been read in a listless perfunctory manner from the pulpit.
He announced that his text for his sermon was the entire passage he was going to read and simply stating the name of the author of the modern version he gave out the passage as found in James, third chapter, beginning at the second verse; and a passage from the fourth chapter, the eleventh verse.
As Howard began to read, Deacon Burton shot a side glance at Deacon Allen, who always sat in a particular pew, the second row from the pulpit, under one of the east windows.
His face was a study for the higher critic, to say nothing of a painter of church windows.
A strange conflict had been going on in Deacon Allen since the advent of the new minister into Red Hill. The deacon was a born conservative of the most conservative type. He had not had a new idea on religion for forty years. And he did not intend to have one for forty years more, if he could help it. He was an implement dealer in business and he was constantly buying and selling new and improved farm machinery. But his religious mind was still using the sickle and scythe and wooden plow and his soul recoiled with holy horror at the thought of a twine binder, a header or a traction plow in the religious field. The religion of Deacon Allen's mind had stood still in its tracks so long that it was incapable of movement or change, and his views of the Bible, of God, of Inspiration, of the Atonement and the Church were so defined for himself that he could no more break away from them and mark out a fresh and new road than the Chinese traveller over the century old ruts of the wooden wheel roads from Nanking to Shansi can get out of the twenty feet deep gullies made by the passage of millions of Chinamen for hundreds of years.
And yet the deacon was capable of personal affection of a real and positive sort, and it was this fact that was troubling and vexing him right now. From the first handclasp with this fiery, enthusiastic, unselfish, winsome, independent young preacher, something up in Deacon Allen's conservative mind and down in his affection stirred heart had gone out towards the minister like hunger after a meal. And yet it was a tug on the deacon's part between his intellect and his religion such as they were, and his emotions and his friendship such as they wanted to be, that disturbed him tremendously on this memorable occasion. And as Deacon Burton glanced at him he could hardly repress a grin even there in church at the sight of the inward struggle visible on the deacon's face.
When Howard announced the Scripture reading from James' epistle, Deacon Allen prepared his mind to hear the words and phrases he had always heard in church. But when Howard, with the abrupt and cheerful lack of apology which characterised his quick mind, made the statement that he was going to read from a modern version of the Bible that had just come out, Deacon Allen sat up with a start that jolted his whole body. If Howard had proposed to read a selection from Shakespeare or O. Henry, Deacon Allen could not have been more horrified than to hear his King James' Version calmly set aside and an uninspired set of words and phrases put in its place in the pulpit. For a moment Deacon Burton, as he looked at Deacon Allen, had a disturbed question on his mind, wondering if Deacon Allen would actually rise and enter a public protest against what he regarded as rank sacrilege. But no such thing occurred to interrupt Howard's even reading of the new version, only Deacon Allen's face grew sterner and more rigid in its decided disapproval, as the reading proceeded. And yet, if the deacon's heart had been able to register as plain a testimony as his face it would have been tremendously interesting to note that even with all this unheard of heresy on the part of the minister, the deacon's affection for the young man up there was pleading with his mental and religious convictions to wait and let events take their course, rather than utter the protest his life-long habits urged him to utter. He would, he said to himself, have it out with Brother Chase in private or make his protest in the mid-week service, or at a formal gathering of the Board of Trustees. For this departure from a time-honoured and sacred use of God's word was not to be tolerated. He should have conferred with his deacons before doing such a radical thing. This was a dangerous example to set the young people. This was the sort of thing Union Seminary stood for.
Deacon Allen's mind would not attempt to analyze the purpose of Brother Chase in giving this reading, and he did not try to excuse the act from any angle. He was too much disturbed mentally and religiously to analyse anything except his own disturbance. But after the first few sentences he did follow with painful attention the words ascribed to James the apostle, whom Deacon Allen had always vaguely thought of as the Apostle of King James and possibly a near and honoured relative.
"For we often stumble and fall----" Howard began, "all of us. If there is any one who never stumbles in speech, that man has reached maturity of character and is able to curb his whole nature. Remember that we put the horses' bits into their mouths to make them obey us, and so we turn their whole bodies around. So, too, with ships, great as they are, and often driven along by strong gales, yet they can be steered by a very small rudder in which ever direction the caprice of the man at the helm chooses. In the same way the tongue is an insignificant part of the body, but it is immensely boastful. Remember how a mere spark may set a forest in flames.
"And the tongue is a fire. That world of iniquity, the tongue, is placed within us spotting and soiling our whole nature, and setting the whole round of our lives on fire, being itself set on fire by Gehenna. For brute nature under all its forms--beasts and birds, reptiles and fishes--can be subjected and kept in subjection by human nature. But the tongue no man or woman is able to tame. It is an ever busy mischief, and is full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who are made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth there proceed blessing and cursing."
"My brethren, this ought not to be. In a fountain are fresh water and bitter sent forth from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my Brethren, yield olives, or a vine yield figs? No; and neither can salt water yield sweet."
"Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. The man who speaks evil of a brother man or judges his brother man speaks evil of the Law and judges the Law. But if you judge the Law you are no longer one who obeys the Law, but one who judges it. The only real Lawgiver and Judge is He who is able to save or to destroy. Who are you to sit in judgment on your fellowman?"
Those in the congregation who were noticing Howard's face most closely saw the tense gathering of the rigid lines that straightened his lips and, those near the pulpit caught the swift darkening of his eyes, as he began to preach.
It is doubtful if any large number of people in that audience that day could have reported that sermon in its make-up homiletically. But it is safe to say there was not a person ten years old who did not understand the meaning it had for Red Hill. Howard had not spoken two minutes before every one present understood perfectly that the fiery young preacher was preaching not simply to his audience, but to the whole town. Its besetting sin of gossip was getting the first and most thorough threshing it had ever had. There was something terrifying in the aspect of the speaker as he lashed out right and left at men and women who destroyed reputations with a sentence and blasted character with a word. And then gradually the audience became aware he was drawing the application down close to something strictly personal to himself. The story that had been going the rounds----He had used it all skillfully, marking out a supposable case, "suppose such a story were to get started and spread until people believed it and without being able to prove a single part of it in court, suppose the parties interested could not defend themselves except by a denial; suppose all this--what sort of a community must that be that would ruin a life or tear in pieces a reputation, cruelly denying to the parties concerned the only defence they had, and taking for granted that they were liars. The depth of such community depravity he did not attempt to measure. James put it as strong as language could put it when he said the tongue spotted and soiled the whole nature and set the whole round of life on fire, being set on fire itself by hell."
At this point he boldly abandoned the ground he had taken of an imaginary case, and with the voice and gesture and feeling of a young prophet he rebuked Red Hill collectively for its cruel and unchristian treatment of not himself, but Inez. And as he boldly uttered her name, it seemed to every one, including even Inez herself, that somehow he was defending not simply an individual, but a principle. Inez, sitting there in a tumult of feeling which she did not have sense enough to analyse, nevertheless seemed to be astonishingly free from personal embarrassment, as if he were speaking of some one else, and as he went on she found herself entertaining a feeling for Howard that was new to her, a feeling of great gratitude and almost awe at the bewildering thought that he was openly and without fear shielding her honour and defending her reputation as if he had met some wild beast on the streets of Red Hill just ready to spring at her and had seized it by the throat and was choking it to death. For the first time in her life the girl realised what her reputation--of which she had been ready to be careless--meant to her, and her heart beat a new note as she dimly began to feel the magnitude of the service Howard was rendering her.
And yet, after that great outburst of righteous wrath against the wicked judgment Red Hill had been eager to pass on the innocent, including Inez and himself, in the face of his direct and fiery denial of any guilt ascribed by the story that had gone the rounds, as Howard paused a second in his indignant denunciation, he caught in one sickening moment the effect of his sermon on his congregation.
It had been soundly rebuked and sat cowed and beaten by it. The terrific blows Howard had dealt based on James' tongue lashing of the tongue, had gone home, and men and women sitting there recalling past instances in which they had sentenced the innocent, revealed on their faces a consciousness of shame.
But with that sure but intangible sense which a public speaker has of the attitude of his hearers, Howard caught the verdict of the people as clearly as if it had been shouted out loud.
"What you say about the gossiping habits of Red Hill may all be true and we feel rebuked and guilty and all that in a sullen and unrepentant spirit, but--your denial of guilt is the denial of a man who has not been in Red Hill a month, and it is unsupported by any other witness, and"--and at this point Howard felt the sting of public judgment--a sting that left a certain poison in his life that was destined to linger in it for a long time, even after that judgment was reversed--they were not believing him, they were still counting him guilty, they would go out from the service with their tongues in their cheeks and with the innuendo of an unconvinced mind, whisper to one another as they walked home, "he put up a great preach, but--well--you know how it is. And did you watch the girl--well----"
The whole horrible result of long years in Red Hill of allowing the gossip to pour its poison into the very life of the community was becoming plain to him as he paused in that second when he had looked for vindication and victory and realised he faced a sullen, whipped audience that still held wickedly to doubt and incredulity.
He had never been nearer disaster and despair in all his life than at that moment. It seemed to him in one sharp moment as if it was of no use to be good. He staggered on his feet and grasped the edge of his pulpit to steady himself. He felt as if in another moment he would be renouncing Red Hill, his ministry, the church, and possibly his own faith.
And at that moment, when his mind was on the very balancing edge of some tragic decision, Agnes Burton stood up in her place in the chorus.
She had been sitting there through the service, her mind and heart troubled over many things. From the moment of Howard's coming into the little town Agnes Burton had begun a new existence. She was intelligent, resourceful, attractive mentally and physically, happy in her work as a teacher, surrounded at home by comfort and affection, enthusiastic over her profession without being a faddist, a cultured reader and a cheerful observer, a favourite with her pupils and honoured and trusted by Red Hill, which felt proud of its High School teacher and gave her the rare tribute of perfect confidence.
Howard Chase came into the little town, bringing into it the one thing it lacked, an original, dominating personality, clean-minded, purposeful, happy, fiery and intensely religious without being sectarian. Not that Red Hill lacked educated men. There was more than one college and university man in Howard's congregation. But Agnes Burton had never met, except in fiction, any one like Howard, and it is not betraying any secret to say that she had already permitted the thought of him to occupy far more place in her heart than was good for the peace of mind of a high school teacher who is devoted to her profession of teaching.
And her mind was troubled. Why had the minister almost from that first day he had met, the Sunday morning after his first sermon, seemed to be on his guard in a peculiar way. He was courteous, a perfect gentleman, if sometimes absent-minded, he was delightfully humourous, he was simple as a child in his frankness, and yet, like some invisible cord that stretched between him and some possible better understanding, in the brief time he had been in Red Hill and an occasional visitor at her father's house, a barrier was gently but firmly raised.
Why had he not asked her to refute the story going around? Was it pride, or a sense of his own sufficiency? She did not know. But as he went on with his sermon she was swift to realise the incredulity of the congregation. She saw what he felt so keenly and knew in a moment that her testimony was the thing that could save his standing with the People. And she found herself facing the audience, the right word on her lips and the accent of absolute truth speaking with voice and eye and bodily movement.
Well was it for her and the future of Howard Chase that she occupied a unique place in the confidence of Red Hill. It had never once questioned her word, never once doubted, as her father had told Howard. And as she went on to say that she was with Rose on that particular evening from which the story had started and knew from personal knowledge that Inez had never been into the minister's study, the audience responded to her statement, and like an audible vote of confidence, Howard, as he still stood by the pulpit, saw the reversal of judgment the people had passed on his own denial.
He had not even turned his head in the direction of Agnes Burton while she was speaking. He had remained standing there sternly facing the people noting with keen sensitiveness its change of attitude, a blending of emotions stirring his whole being as she spoke. And when she sat down, he still stood there, the stern look softened a little, but the spirit of abstraction on his face, his eyes with a vision of other things in them, something the people could not read.
It was very still for several moments. Then he suddenly bowed his head and offered a prayer, so tender, so close to the Divine, that the quiet deepened and the people seemed moved by a real Presence from another world, a world made real by his own nearness to it. A period of several seconds after the prayer, he spoke the Benediction, but the people remained in their seats, not moving until Howard himself started to go down the pulpit steps.
He had taken one stride in his swift impulsive manner when a sudden commotion was seen in the choir seats. Agnes Burton was leaning over Inez, who had fainted. Mrs. Burton went up to the platform and others crowded up and Inez was finally carried out into the Sunday School room, and Miss Burton went home with Inez when she recovered. That was one reason why Howard did not see Agnes Burton until the evening service, when she presided at the organ with the outdoor chorus. And after the first moment of disappointment at his apparent lack of appreciation of what she had done, he was glad he would have time to think over more at his leisure the whole event.
When he went down from the platform the first to greet him were his chum, Roy Lennox, and his wife. Tears were on their faces as they grasped his hands. They did not understand all that had led up to the morning, but they could not fail to understand its great meaning to Howard.
The people greeted him as he moved down the aisle, with a mingling of shame and pride. Shame at their own conduct, pride that their minister was free from guilt. He was the centre of every look, the object of all talk in the church and outside.
The Expressman had managed to get into the vestibule, and as the crowd there was slowly going out, he rubbed against the Santa Fe Agent, who also had been able to leave his station for the service.
"I dunno just how you feel," said the Expressman, "but if there'd been a crack in the wagon small enough I'd a leaked through this morning."
"He give it to us straight all right," said the Agent very soberly. "He run a special and had the right o' way over even No. 3."
"It'll be some time, I reckon," said the Expressman as he reached the sidewalk, "before the women do any more talkin' about Mr. Chase."
"Yes, or the men either," said the Agent. "It seemed to me the order sent out by the Superintendent James applied to all the employees, male and female."
"You're right," the Expressman nodded. "When I get a chance I mean to let Mr. Chase know how I feel towards him."
"Better do it before you back your wagon up to take your own box off the express," said the Agent, whose literary efforts led him to use mixed metaphors and figures of speech. "You'll get a telephone call to come up or go down one of these days."
"Are you preachin' at me?" said the Expressman cautiously. "Because if you are, I don't mind sayin' I feel mighty mean right now and if I felt any meaner, I'd be afraid I was goin' to join a church or somethin'.
"Don't be afraid," said the Agent with the blunt frankness of perfect familiarity. "You're only feeling natural."
"I hope it isn't catchin'," said the Expressman. "But I gathered from your remarks that you wasn't feelin' overly good yourself after that sermon. And I been contagiously clost to you."
When Howard reached the parsonage he was met at the door by his sister who had not waited for him to come over.
She cried, as she put her arms about him. Roy and his wife were close behind him, joining her in her congratulations and happy if tearful emotion.
"Now then, folks," Howard was saying as he laughingly lifted his sister and put her on the dining-room table. "I'm awful hungry. Put something as good as this on the festive board and I'll eat it."
He was as happy as a boy, except for that inward memory of the people's lack of faith in his own word, but he could set that aside and did so, when the meal was ready and they were together at the table.
"It was wonderful, old man," Roy said, for the several times. "I knew you could preach, but had no idea you could give it to 'em so hard."
"Was it too hard?"
"No. Not if they deserved it. But I supposed, Kate and I both, that Red Hill was an ideal place. We had no----"
"It is an ideal place to preach in," said Howard interrupting cheerfully, "because the people need converting so bad. I never knew how bad until this morning."
"I feel specially interested in that girl in the choir," said Mrs. Lennox earnestly. "I have seen faces like hers in New York on Fifth Avenue. Why, she is a New York Chorus girl type! How queer she should be living out here in this little town!"
Howard and Rose looked at each other.
"We have noted that," said Rose. And she went on to give Kate some of Inez' history. Mrs. Lennox expressed more and more interest.
"A girl like that ought to live in a big city. She will never develop in this little place. She will either marry some inferior young man and settle down to a frivolous petty existence or she will commit some serious fault and lose all possible future usefulness." Mrs. Lennox spoke with the keen sense of a woman of wide observation and her next remark revealed her deep interest in Inez as a human creature who had attracted her sympathy.
"Roy," she said, "why couldn't we take that girl back to New York with us and help her develop in her own atmosphere?"
"We could," said Roy, who admired his wife and respected her as well as loved her. "But how do you know she would come? You speak of it as if she was a sunflower we could pick, or a souvenir we could get at the drug store."
"No!" Rose spoke up eagerly, glancing at her brother. "There is a reasonable possibility that she would go. I tell you. Talk with Miss Burton about Inez. She knows her better than any one else. Poor girl. She hasn't any mother or sister. I don't know what her future will be here if she stays in Red Hill."
"Say," said Roy with sudden enthusiasm, "there's a schoolma'am for you. If I wasn't married already or was a Mormon--Howard, how are you going to tell the schoolma'am you are much obliged? I'd like to be present----"
For the first time since he had known him Roy Lennox felt an embarrassment in Howard's look as he sat there facing him across the table. He seemed uneasy, and did not reply even with a smile or his old, familiar grin, and Roy felt his wife's foot gently pressing against his under the table.
"I'll talk with Miss Burton and Miss Clark, too," Mrs. Lennox said. "I feel very certain we could, Roy and I, set that girl into the right place in New York and help her. She is one of the sort that cannot get through life without help, and somehow this morning as I sat looking at her lovely face up there, I seemed to feel like a big sister to her, and to know I could help her."
"It would be a great thing for her if you could," said Howard, and an inward sigh of relief from an invisible burden escaped him, a sigh that not even Rose suspected.
He spent the afternoon, following the Sunday School session, in getting ready for the evening service, a deepening feeling in his spirit that the results he was praying for were going to be manifest. But not even his own sanguine hopes had anticipated the reality.
The morning service had cleared the way for it. The Spirit had been moving all through that dramatic event. Howard himself had always believed in spiritual realities and lived in the happy, normal, healthy atmosphere of them himself. But as he came out of the parsonage that evening and started across the yard to be on hand to welcome the other ministers and the people he was startled to observe that the seats were already filled, although it was only seven o'clock.
He went up on the little platform and found that Miss Burton had already come over and her young people were present ready for the chorus.
It was no place for him to say what he wanted and she seemed to know all about it. She was as calm and undisturbed as she usually was, and in reply to his quiet, "Good-evening, Miss Burton," as he stopped to receive the hymn numbers she had selected, she smiled and answered his question about the chorus.
"Yes, we're all here. And more applicants than we can seat."
"How is Miss Clark?"
"I left her a little while ago. She is all right, I think."
There was not a word about the morning and it did not seem necessary.
He greeted Brother Gray who had just arrived.
Harris the Presbyterian man was to preach. The ministers as they came up met him with great heartiness. The atmosphere was vastly different from that of the Sunday evening before. And over all the place a quiet brooded that was new to Red Hill.
It had known the usual evangelistic campaigns and had grown more or less callous to protracted meetings and special revival services in the winter.
The idea that the Spirit of God might come and express his might without any advertising or printing or paid professional, had never dawned on the church members of Red Hill. They had always been taught that revivals were mostly man made, as if God were a hard being to please and had to be coaxed into a town or a church and enticed into a forgiving spirit before He would condescend to convert anybody or add to the church membership.
But to-night before the first hymn was sung, Howard, with his sensitive soul keen to divine motion, felt the stirring of power over the people.
The night was still. The sky was clear. The hearts of Red Hill had been rebuked for a gross sin. The different congregations and their pastors were, for the time at least, leaning in sympathy and good will towards one another.
And when Howard rose to pray, a breath from heaven seemed to flow over the place. And Red Hill began to say to itself for the first time in its history--as it sat there under the prairie stars--"What if God should show Himself to us in power this night?"