The Sky Pilot in No Man's Land by Ralph Connor
Chapter IV. Rejected
The hour for the church service had not quite arrived, but already a number of wagons, buckboards and buggies had driven up and deposited their loads at the church door. The women had passed into the church, where the Sunday School was already in session; the men waited outside, driven by the heat of the July sun and the hotter July wind into the shade of the church building.
Through the church windows came the droning of voices, with now and then a staccato rapping out of commands heard above the droning.
"That's Hayes," said a sturdy young chap, brown as an Indian, lolling upon the grass. "He likes to be bossing something."
"That's so, Ewen," replied a smaller man, with a fish-like face, his mouth and nose running into a single feature.
"I guess he's doin' his best, Nathan Pilley," answered another man, stout and stocky, with bushy side whiskers flanking around a rubicund face, out of which stared two prominent blue eyes.
"Oh, I reckon he is, Mr. Boggs. I have no word agin Hayes," replied Nathan Pilley, a North Ontario man, who, abandoning a rocky farm in Muskoka, had strayed to this far west country in search of better fortune. "I have no word agin Mr. Hayes, Mr. Boggs," he reiterated. "In fact, I think he ought to be highly commended for his beneficent work."
"But he does like to hear himself giving out orders, all the same," persisted the young man addressed as Ewen.
"Yes, he seems to sorter enjoy that, too, Ewen," agreed Nathan, who was never known to oppose any man's opinion.
"He's doin' his best," insisted Mr. Boggs, rather sullenly.
"Yes, he is that, Mr. Boggs, he is that," said Nathan.
"But he likes to be the big toad in the puddle," said Ewen.
"Well, he certainly seems to, he does indeed, Ewen."
Clear over the droning there arose at this point another sound, a chorus of childish laughter.
"That's the preacher's class," said Boggs. "Quare sort o' Sunday School where the kids carry on like that."
"Seems rather peculiar," agreed Nathan, "peculiar in Sunday School, it does."
"What's the matter with young Pickles?" enquired Ewen.
The eyes of the company, following the pointing finger, fell upon young Pickles standing at the window of the little vestry to the church, and looking in. He was apparently convulsed with laughter, with his hand hard upon his mouth and nose as a kind of silencer.
"Do you know what's the matter with him, Pat?" continued Ewen.
Pat McCann, the faithful friend and shadow of young Pickles, after studying the attitude and motions of his friend, gave answer:
"It's the preacher, I guess. He's kiddin' the kids inside. He's some kidder, too," he said, moving to take his place beside his friend.
"What's he doing anyway?" said Ewen. "I'm going to see."
Gradually a little company gathered behind young Pickles and Pat McCann. The window commanded a view of the room, yet in such a way that the group were unobserved by the speaker.
"Say, you ought to seen him do the camel a minute ago," whispered Pickles.
In the little vestry room were packed some twenty children of all ages and sizes, with a number of grownups who had joined the class in charge of some of its younger members. There was, for instance, Mrs. Innes, with the two youngest of her numerous progeny pillowed against her yielding and billowy person; and Mrs. Stewart Duff, an infant of only a few weeks upon her knee accounting sufficiently for the paleness of her sweet face, and two or three other women with their small children filling the bench that ran along the wall.
"Say! look at Harry Hobbs," said Pat McCann to his friend.
Upon the stove, which in summer was relegated to the corner of the room, sat Harry Hobbs, a man of any age from his appearance, thin and wiry, with keen, darting eyes, which now, however, were fastened upon the preacher. All other eyes were, too. Even the smallest of the children seated on the front bench were gazing with mouths wide open, as if fascinated, upon the preacher who, moving up and down with quick, lithe steps, was telling them a story. A wonderful story, too, it seemed, the wonder of it apparent in the riveted eyes and fixed faces. It was the immortal story, matchless in the language, of Joseph, the Hebrew shepherd boy, who, sold into slavery by his brethren, became prime minister of the mighty empire of Egypt. The voice tone of the minister, now clear and high, now low and soft, vibrating like the deeper notes of the 'cello, was made for story telling. Changing with every changing emotion, it formed an exquisite medium to the hearts of the listeners for the exquisite music of the tale.
The story was approaching its climactic denouement; the rapturous moment of the younger brother's revealing was at hand; Judah, the older brother, was now holding the centre of the stage and making that thrilling appeal, than which nothing more moving is to be found in our English speech. The preacher's voice was throbbing with all the pathos of the tale. Motionless, the little group hung hard upon the story-teller, when the door opened quickly, a red head appeared, a rasping voice broke in:
"Your class report, Mr. Dunbar, please. We're waiting for it."
A sigh of disappointment and regret swept the room.
"Oh, darn the little woodpecker!" said Ewen from the outside, in a disgusted tone. "That's the way with Hayes. He thinks he's the whole works, and that he never can get in wrong."
The spell was broken, never to be renewed. The story hurried to its close, but the great climax failed of its proper effect.
"He's a hummer, ain't he?" exclaimed young Pickles to his friend, Pat McCann.
"Some hummer, and then some!" replied Pat.
"I'm goin' in," said Pickles.
"Aw, what for? He ain't no good preachin' to them folks. By gum! I think he's scared of 'em."
But Pickles persisted, and followed with the men and boys who lounged lazily into the church, from which the Sunday School had now been dismissed.
It appeared that the judgment of Pat McCann upon the merits of the preacher would be echoed by the majority of the congregation present. While the service was conducted in proper form and in reverent spirit, the sermon was marked by that most unpardonable sin of which sermons can be guilty; it was dull. Solid enough in matter, thoughtful beyond the average, it was delivered in a style appallingly wooden, with an utter absence of that arresting, dramatic power that the preacher had shown in his children's class.
The appearance of the congregation was, as ever, a reflection of the sermon. The heat of the day, the reaction from the long week in the open air, the quiet monotony of the well modulated voice rising and falling in regular cadence in what is supposed by so many preachers to be the tone suitable for any sacred office, produced an overwhelmingly somnolent effect. Many of them slept, some frankly and openly, others under cover of shading hands, bowed heads, or other subterfuges. Others again spent the whole of the period of the sermon, except for some delicious moments of surreptitious sleep, in a painful but altogether commendable struggle against the insidious influence of the god of slumber.
Among the latter was Mrs. Innes, whose loyalty to her minister, which was as much a part of her as her breathing, contended in a vigorous fight against her much too solid flesh. It was a certain aid to wakefulness that her two children, deep in audible slumber, kept her in a state of active concern lest their inert and rotund little masses of slippery flesh should elude her grasp, and wreck the proprieties of the hour by flopping on the floor. There was also a further sleep deterrent in the fact that immediately before her sat Mr. McFettridge, whose usually erect form, yielding to the soporific influences of the environment, showed a tendency gradually to sag into an attitude, relaxed and formless, which suggested sleep. This, to the lady behind him, partook of the nature of an affront to her minister. Consequently she considered it her duty to arouse the snoozing McFettridge with a vigorous poke in the small of the back.
The effect was instantaneously apparent. As if her insistent finger had touched a button and released an electric current, Mr. McFettridge's sagging form shot convulsively into rigidity, and impinging violently upon the peacefully slumbering Mr. Boggs on the extreme end of the bench, toppled him over into the aisle.
The astonished Boggs, finding himself thus deposited upon the floor, and beholding the irate face of Mr. McFettridge glooming down upon him, and fancying him to be the cause of his present humiliating position, sprang to his feet, swung a violent blow upon Mr. Fettridge's ear, exclaiming sotto voce:
"Take that, will you! And mind your own business! You were sleeping yourself, anyway!"
Before the astonished and enraged Mr. McFettridge could gather his wits sufficiently for action, there rang over the astonished congregation a peal of boyish laughter. It was from the minister. A few irrepressible youngsters joined in the laugh; the rest of the congregation, however, were held rigid in the grip of a shocked amazement.
"Oh, I say! do forgive me, Mr. McFettridge!" cried the young man at the desk. "It was quite involuntary, I assure you." Then, quickly recovering himself, he added, "And now we shall conclude the service by singing the seventy-ninth hymn."
Before the last verse was sung he reminded the audience of the congregational meeting immediately following, and without further comment the service was brought to a close.
A number of the congregation, among them Barry's father, departed.
"Sit down, Neil," said Mrs. Innes to Neil Fraser. "You'll be wanted I doot." And Neil, protesting that he knew nothing about church business, sat down.
At the back of the church were gathered Harry Hobbs, young Pickles, and others of the less important attendants of the church, who had been induced to remain by the rumour of a "scrap."
By a fatal mischance, the pliant Nathan Pilley was elected chairman. This gentleman was obsessed by the notion that he possessed in a high degree the two qualities which he considered essential to the harmonious and expeditious conduct of a public meeting, namely, an invincible determination to agree with every speaker, and an equally invincible determination to get motions passed.
In a rambling and aimless speech, Mr. Pilley set forth in a somewhat general way the steps leading up to this meeting, and then called upon Mr. Innes, the chairman of the Board of Management, to state more specifically the object for which it was called.
Mr. Innes, who was incurably averse to voluble speech, whether public or private, arose and said, in rolling Doric:
"Weel, Mr. Chair-r-man, there's no much to be done. We're behind a few hundred dollars, but if some one will go about wi' a bit paper, nae doot the ar-rear-rs wad soon be made up, and everything wad be ar-richt."
"Exactly," said Mr. Pilley pleasantly. "Now will some one offer a motion?"
Thereupon Mr. Hayes was instantly upon his feet, and in a voice thin and rasping exclaimed:
"Mr. Chairman, there's business to be done, and we are here to do it, and we're not going to be rushed through in this way."
"Exactly, Mr. Hayes, exactly," said Mr. Pilley. "We must give these matters the fullest consideration."
Then followed a silence.
"Perhaps Mr. Hayes--" continued the chairman, looking appealingly at that gentleman.
"Well, Mr. Chairman," said Mr. Hayes, with an appeased but slightly injured air, "it is not my place to set forth the cause of this meeting being called. If the chairman of the board would do his duty"--here he glared at the unconscious Mr. Innes--"he would set before it the things that have made this meeting necessary, and that call for drastic action."
"Hear! Hear!" cried Mr. Boggs.
"Exactly so," acquiesced the chairman. "Please continue, Mr. Hayes."
Mr. Hayes continued: "The situation briefly is this: We are almost hopelessly in debt, and--"
"How much?" enquired Neil Fraser, briskly interrupting.
"Seven hundred dollars," replied Mr. Hayes, "and further--"
"Five hundred dollars," said Mr. Innes.
"I have examined the treasurer's books," said Mr. Hayes in the calmly triumphant tone of one sure of his position, "and I find the amount to be seven hundred dollars, and therefore--"
"Five hundred dollars," repeated Mr. Innes, gazing into space.
"Seven hundred dollars, I say," snapped Mr. Hayes.
"Five hundred dollars," reiterated Mr. Innes, without further comment.
"I say I have examined the books. The arrears are seven hundred dollars."
"Five hundred dollars," said Mr. Innes calmly.
The youngsters at the back snickered.
"Go to it!" said Harry Hobbs, under his breath.
Even the minister, who was sitting immediately behind Harry, could not restrain a smile.
"Mr. Chairman," cried Mr. Hayes, indignantly, "I appeal against this interruption. I assert--"
"Where's the treasurer?" said Neil Fraser. "What's the use of this chewin' the rag?"
"Ah! Exactly so," said the chairman, greatly relieved. "Mr. Boggs-- Perhaps Mr. Boggs will enlighten us."
Mr. Boggs arose with ponderous deliberation.
"Mr. Chairman," he said, "in one sense Mr. Hayes is right when he states the arrears to be seven hundred dollars--"
"Five hundred dollars A'm tellin' ye," said Mr. Innes with the first sign of feeling he had shown.
"And Mr. Innes is also right," continued Mr. Boggs, ignoring the interruption, "when he makes the arrears five hundred dollars, the two hundred dollars difference being the quarterly revenue now due."
"Next week," said Mr. Innes, reverting to his wonted calm.
"Exactly so," said the chairman, rubbing his hands amiably; "so that the seven hundred dollars we now owe--"
This was too much even for the imperturbable Mr. Innes.
He arose in his place, moved out into the aisle, advanced toward the platform, and with arm outstretched, exclaimed in wrathful tones:
"Mon, did ye no hear me tellin' ye? I want nae mon to mak' me a le-ear."
At this point Mr. Stewart Duff, who had come to convey his wife home, and had got tired waiting for her outside, entered the church.
"Oh, get on with the business," said Neil Fraser, who, although enjoying the scene, was becoming anxious for his dinner. "The question what's to be done with the five hundred dollars' arrears. I say, let's make it up right here. I am willing to give--"
"No, Mr. Chairman," shouted Mr. Hayes, who was notoriously averse to parting with his money, and was especially fearful of a public subscription.
"There is something more than mere arrears--much more--"
"Ay, there is," emphatically declared Mr. McFettridge, rising straight and stiff. "I'm for plain speakin'. The finances is not the worst about this congregation. The congregation has fallen off. Other churches in this village has good congregations. Why shouldn't we? The truth is, Mr. Chairman,"--Mr. McFettridge's voice rolled deep and sonorous over the audience--"we want a popular preacher--a preacher that draws--a preacher with some pep."
"Hear! hear!" cried Mr. Boggs. "Pep's what we want. That's it-- pep."
"Pep," echoed the chairman. "Exactly so, pep."
"More than that," continued Mr. McFettridge, "we want a minister that's a good mixer--one that stands in with the boys."
"Hear! Hear!" cried Mr. Boggs again.
"A mixer! Exactly!" agreed the chairman. "A mixer!" nodding pleasantly at Mr. Boggs.
"And another thing I will say," continued Mr. McFettridge, "now that I am on my feet. We want a preacher that will stick to his job--that will preach the gospel and not go meddlin' with other matters--with politics and such like."
"Or prohibition," shouted Harry Hobbs from the rear, to the undiluted joy of the youngsters in his vicinity.
The minister shook his head at him.
"Yes, prohibition," answered Mr. McFettridge, facing toward the rear of the church defiantly. "Let him stick to his preaching the gospel; I believe the time has come for a change and I'm prepared to make a motion that we ask our minister to resign, and that motion I now make."
"Second the motion," cried Mr. Boggs promptly.
"You have heard the motion," said the chairman, with business-like promptitude. "Are you ready for the question?"
"Question," said Mr. Hayes, after a few moments' silence, broken by the shuffling of some members in their seats, and by the audible whispering of Mrs. Innes, evidently exhorting her husband to action.
"Then all those in favour of the motion will please--"
Then from behind the organ a little voice piped up, "Does this mean, Mr. Chairman, that we lose our minister?"
It was Miss Quigg, a lady whose years no gallantry could set below forty, for her appearance indicated that she was long past the bloom of her youth. She was thin, almost to the point of frailness, with sharp, delicately cut features; but the little chin was firm, and a flash of the brown eyes revealed a fiery soul within. Miss Quigg was the milliner and dressmaker of the village, and was herself a walking model of her own exquisite taste in clothes and hats. It was only her failing health that had driven her to abandon a much larger sphere than her present position offered, but even here her fame was such as to draw to her little shop customers from the villages round about for many miles.
"Does this mean, sir, that Mr. Dunbar will leave us?" she repeated.
"Well,--yes, madam--that is, Miss, I suppose, in a way--practically it would amount to that."
"Will you tell me yes or no, please," Miss Quigg's neat little figure was all a-quiver to the tips of her hat plumes.
"Well," said the chairman, squirming under the unpleasant experience of being forced to a definite answer, "I suppose,--yes."
Miss Quigg turned from the squirming and smiling Mr. Pilley in contempt.
"Then," she said, "I say no. And I believe there are many here who would say no--and men, too." The wealth of indignation and contemptuous scorn infused into the word by which the difference in sex of the human species was indicated, made those unhappy individuals glance shamefacedly at each other--"only they are too timid, the creatures! or too indifferent."
Again there was an exchange of furtive glances and smiles and an uneasy shifting of position on the part of "the creatures."
"But if you give them time, Mr. Chairman, I believe they will perhaps get up courage enough to speak."
Miss Quigg sat down in her place behind the organ, disappearing quite from view except for the tips of her plumes, whose rapid and rhythmic vibrations were eloquent of the beating of her gallant little heart.
"Exactly so," said the chairman, in confused but hearty acquiescence. "Perhaps some one will say something."
Then Mr. Innes, forced to a change of position by the physical discomfort caused by his wife's prodding, rose and said,
"I dinna see the need o' any change. Mr. Dunbar is no a great preacher, but Ah doot he does his best. And the bairns all like him."
Then the congregation had a thrill. In the back seat rose Harry Hobbs.
"I'm near forty years old," he cried, in a high nasal tone that indicated a state of extreme nervous tension, "and I never spoke in meetin' before. I ain't had no use for churches and preachers, and I guess they hadn't no use for me. You folks all know me. I've been in this burg for near eight years, and I was a drinkin', swearin', fightin' cuss. This preacher came into the barn one day when I was freezin' to death after a big spree. He tuk me home with him and kep' me there for two weeks, settin' up nights with me, too. Let me be," he said impatiently to Barry, who was trying to pull him down to his seat. "I'm agoin' to speak this time if it kills me. Many a time I done him dirt sence then, but he stuck to me, and never quit till he got me turned 'round. I was goin' straight to hell; he says I'm goin' to heaven now." Here he laughed with a touch of scorn. "I dunno. But, by gum! if you fire him and do him dirt, I don't know what'll become of me, but I guess I'll go straight to hell again."
"No, Harry, no you won't. You'll keep right on, Harry, straight to heaven." It was the preacher's voice, full of cheery confidence.
Mrs. Innes was audibly sniffling; Mrs. Stewart Duff wiping her eyes. It was doubtless this sight that brought her husband to his feet.
"I don't quite know what the trouble is here," he said. "I understand there are arrears. I heard some criticism of the minister's preaching. I can't say I care much for it myself, but I want to say right here that there are other things wanted in a minister, and this young fellow has got some of them. If he stays, he gets my money; if he doesn't, no one else does. I'll make you gentlemen who are kicking about finances a sporting proposition. I'm willing to double my subscription, if any other ten men will cover my ante."
"I'll call you," said Neil Fraser, "and I'll raise you one."
"I'm willing to meet Mr. Duff and Mr. Fraser," said Miss Quigg, rising from behind her organ with a triumphant smile on her face.
"I ain't got much money," said Harry Hobbs, "but I'll go you just half what I earn if you'll meet me on that proposition."
"Ah may say," said Mr. Innes, yielding to his wife's vigorous vocal and physical incitations, "A'm prepair-r-ed to mak' a substantial increase in my subscreeption--that is, if necessary," he added cautiously.
Then Barry came forward from the back of the church and stood before the platform. After looking them over for a few moments in silence, he said, in a voice clear, quiet, but with a ring in it that made it echo in every heart:
"Had it not been for these last speeches, it would have been unnecessary to allow the motion to go before you. I could not have remained where I am not wanted. But now I am puzzled, I confess, I am really puzzled to know what to do. I am not a great preacher, I know, but then there are worse. I don't, at least I think I don't, talk nonsense. And I am not what Mr. McFettridge calls a 'good mixer.' On the other hand, I think Mr. Innes is right when he says the bairns like me; at least, it would break"--he paused, his lip quivering, then he went on quietly--"it would be very hard to think they didn't."
"They do that, then," said Mrs. Innes, emphatically.
"So you see, it is really very difficult to know what to do. I would hate to go away, but it might be right to go away. I suggest you let me have a week to think it over. Can you wait that long?"
His handsome, boyish face, alight with a fine glow of earnestness and sincerity, made irresistible appeal to all but those who for personal reasons were opposed to him.
"You see," he continued, in a tone of voice deliberative and quite detached, "there are a number of things to think about. Those arrears, for instance, are hardly my fault--at least, not altogether. I was looking over the treasurer's books the other day, and I was surprised to find how many had apparently quite forgotten to pay their church subscription. It is no doubt just an oversight. For instance," he added, in the confidential tone of one imparting interesting and valuable information, "you will be surprised to learn, Mr. Duff, that you are twenty-five dollars behind in your payments."
At this Neil Fraser threw back his head with a loud laugh. "Touche!" he said, in a joyous undertone.
The minister looked at him in surprise, and went on, "And while Mr. Innes and Miss Quigg are both paid up in full, Mr. Hayes has apparently neglected to pay his last quarter."
"Hit him again," murmured Harry Hobbs, while Mr. Hayes rose in virtuous indignation.
"I protest, Mr. Chairman!" he cried, "against these personalities."
"Oh, you quite mistake me, Mr. Hayes," said the preacher, "these are not personalities. I am simply showing how easy it is for arrears to arise, and that it may not be my fault at all. Of course, it may be right for me to resign. I don't know about that yet, but I want to be very sure. It would be easier to resign, but I don't want to be a quitter."
"I move we adjourn," said Neil Fraser.
"I second the motion," said Stewart Duff. The motion was carried, and the meeting adjourned.
At the door the minister stood shaking hands with all as they passed out, making no distinction in the heartiness with which he greeted all his parishioners. To Miss Quigg, however, he said, "Thank you. You were splendidly plucky."
"Nonsense!" cried the little lady, the colour flaming in her faded cheeks. "But," she added hastily, "you did that beautifully, and he deserved it, the little beast!"
"Solar plexus!" said Neil Fraser, who was immediately behind Miss Quigg.
The minister glanced from one to the other in perplexity, as they passed out of the door.
"But, you know, I was only--"
"Oh, yes, we know," cried Miss Quigg. "But if those men would only take hold! Oh, those men!" She turned upon Neil Fraser and shook her head at him violently.
"I know, Miss Quigg. We are a hopeless and helpless lot. But we're going to reform."
"You need to, badly," she said. "But you need some one to reform you. Look at Mr. Duff there, how vastly improved he is," and she waved her hand to that gentleman, who was driving away with his wife in their buckboard.
"He is a perfect dear," sighed Mrs. Duff, as she bowed to the minister. "And you, too, Stewart," she added, giving his arm a little squeeze, "you said just the right thing when those horrid people were going to turn him out."
"Say! Your preacher isn't so bad after all," said her husband. "Wasn't that a neat one for old Hayes?"
"He rather got you, though, Stewart."
"Yes, he did, by Jove! Not the first time, either, he's done it. But I must look after that. Say, he's the limit for freshness though. Or is it freshness? I'm not quite sure."
"Will he stay with us?" said his wife. "I really do hope he will."
"Guess he'll stay all right. He won't give up his job," said her husband.
But next week proved Mr. Duff a poor prophet, for the minister after the service informed his people that he had come to the conclusion that another man might get better results as minister of the congregation; he had therefore handed in his resignation to the Presbytery.
It was a shock to them all, but he adhered to his resolution in spite of tearful lamentations from the women, wide-eyed amazement and dismay from the bairns of the congregation, and indignation, loudly expressed, from Neil Fraser and Stewart Duff, and others of their kind.
"Well," said Miss Quigg, struggling with indignant tears, as she was passing out of the church, "you won't see Harry Hobbs in this church again, nor me, either."
"Oh, yes, Miss Quigg, Harry has promised me that he will stick by the church, and that he will be there every Sunday. And so will you, dear Miss Quigg. I know you. You will do what is right."
But that little lady, with her head very erect and a red spot burning in each faded cheek, passed out of the church saying nothing, the plumes on her jaunty little hat quivering defiance and wrath against "those men, who had so little spunk as to allow a little beast like Hayes to run them."