Chapter IX
 

The opinions on the part of Rev. Cameron's flock regarding the proposed reading room, were numerous and varied. Adam Goodrich, in his usual pompous manner, gave it as his judgment that Cameron would be running a free lodging house next, as though that were the greatest depth of infamy to which a poor preacher could sink, and Mrs. Goodrich declared that it would ruin the social influence of the church forever. Amy was heart and soul with the movement, but prudently refrained from discussing the matter in the presence of her parents; while Frank, though he attended all the meetings of the society and would not openly oppose their efforts for fear of being unpopular, lost no opportunity to secretly throw a stumbling block in their way, and made all manner of sneering allusions to the work when he thought it would not come to the ears of the young people.

When at last the room was finished and ready to be occupied, the committee appointed met to select a manager. The church, with the usual good judgment shown by churches in such matters, had named Elder Wicks and Deacon Wickham, and the young people had selected Charlie Bowen and two young ladies, to represent the Society. They met in the new rooms one evening and Deacon Wickham took the floor at once.

"I hope our young friends won't take offense at what I am about to say, but you know I am one of the kind who always say just what I think, for I believe that if a man has anything on his mind, it had better come out. This business ought to be in the hands of the church board; you young folks have no Scriptural rights to speak on the subject at all." The three young Christians looked at Uncle Bobbie, whose left eye remained closed for just the fraction of a second, and the speaker wondered at the confident smile with which his words were received. "There's not one of you that has the proper qualifications for an elder or a deacon," he continued. "You girls have no right to have the oversight of a congregation, anyway, and Charlie Bowen here is not even the husband of one wife."

"Give him time, Brother Wickham; give the boy time," broke in Uncle Bobbie, with a chuckle, much to the delight of the girls, and the confusion of Charlie. "You just wait; he may surprise you some day in his qualifications."

But the deacon continued with a frown at the interruption, "As far as that goes, the whole thing is unscriptural and I was opposed to it at the first, as Brother Wicks here can tell you." Uncle Bobbie nodded. "But you've gone ahead in spite of what I and the Scriptures teach, and you've got your reading rooms; and now I mean to see to it that you have a good Brother, who is eminently qualified to teach, at the head of the concern; a good man who is thoroughly grounded in the faith, and who has arrived at years of discretion; a workman that needeth not to be ashamed of his handiwork, rightly dividing the word of truth. Such a man could get the young Christians together evenings and lay out their Bible reading for them, spending an hour or two perhaps, each week, in explaining the more difficult passages. If I had time I would be glad to do the work myself, for there's nothing I like better than teaching. I don't know, I might possibly find time if the Brethren thought best for me to take the work. I am always ready to do what the Lord wants me to, and I promise you that I'd teach those young people the Scriptures, and make them interested, too. Why, when I was in Bear City, down in Oklahoma, I had a--"

"But, Brother Wickham," interrupted Uncle Bobbie, who knew from experience that if the good deacon ever got started on his work in Oklahoma they never would get to the business of the evening, "it strikes me you ain't got jist the right ide' of this. Tain't to be a Sunday School, ner a place to teach the Bible, as I understand it, though I reckon it's in line with the teachin' of Christ. It is--"

"Not to teach the Bible?" ejaculated the astonished deacon. "What on earth can you teach in the church except the Bible, and what kind of a reading room can you have in the Lord's house I'd like to know?"

"The ide', Brother Wickham," said the old elder, as gently as he could, "is to furnish some place where young men of the town can go and spend their time when they aint working. This room will be stocked with the latest books, magazines and papers; there will be tables with writin' material and sich stuff, if a feller wants to write to his girl, you know, and the room in there will be fixed with easy chairs and sofas for them that wants to talk er play games, er have a good time generally. Seems to me what we want fer a manager is some young man who's got good boss sense, and who could make things pleasant, even if he don't know so much Scripture."

"And it's to be free to every loafer who wants to come in and use the place?"

"Yes, just as free as Christ's invitation to come and be saved."

"But you'll fill the church with a lot of trash who don't know anything about the Bible, or the plan of salvation. How can you, when the Scriptures say, have no fellowship with such?"

"We'll save a few young men who are startin' fer Hell by way of the saloons and bawdy houses."

"No you won't. The Gospel and the Gospel alone, is the power of God unto salvation. God never ordained that men should be saved by reading rooms and such."

"I believe I know just the man we want," said Uncle Bobbie, turning to the young people, when the deacon had at last subsided into an attitude of sullen protest.

"Who?" asked one of the young ladies, with the hint of a laugh in her eyes, as she looked at their stand-by.

"That printer of Udell's. He's a clean, strong young feller, and I believe would be glad of some sech place to spend his evenin's. Of course he aint a Christian, but--"

"Not a Christian," cried Wickham, starting to his feet again; "not a Christian? And you propose to let an alien take charge of the Lord's work? I wash my hands of the whole matter."

"Are you sure he will be all right?" asked the other girl on the committee.

"Sure," replied Wicks, "if he will take it, and I think we can get Charlie here to see to that."

Charlie nodded. "It will be a splendid thing for him," he said; and then he told them how Dick spent his evenings alone in the office, rather than go to the only places open to him.

"Well," said Uncle Bobbie, "let's fix it that way. Brother Wickham, we have decided to ask Richard Falkner to take charge of the rooms."

"I've got nothing to say about it, sir," answered the good deacon. "I don't know anything about it. I wash my hands of the whole matter."

And so the work at the Jerusalem Church was established. It took no little power of persuasion on the part of Charlie Bowen, to bring his friend to the point of accepting the committee's offer, even when it was endorsed by the entire Young People's Society, and a large part of the congregation. But his arguments finally prevailed and Dick consented to be at the rooms between the hours of seven and eleven every evening, the time when a strong, tactful man in authority would be most needed.

The rooms were furnished by friends of the cause and were cheery, comfortable, homelike apartments, where everyone was made welcome. Many a poor fellow, wandering on the streets, tired of his lonely boarding house, and sorely tempted by the air of cheerfulness and comfort of the saloons, was led there, where he found good books and good company; and at last, for what was more natural, became a regular attendant at the only church in the city which did not close its doors to him during the week.

Dick enjoyed the work, and in a short time had many friends among the young men. He treated everybody in the same kindly, courteous manner, and was always ready to recommend a book, to introduce an acquaintance, or to enter into conversation with a stranger. Indeed he soon grew so popular among the young folks that George Udell told Miss Wilson it seemed as though he had always lived in Boyd City, he knew so many people, and so many knew him. And of course Clara answered, "I told you so." What woman could resist such an opportunity? "Didn't I say that he was no common tramp? You needn't tell me I don't know a man when I see him."

The two were driving in the evening, on the road that leads south from town, down a hill, across a bridge, and along the bank of a good-sized creek, where the trees bend far over to dip the tips of their branches in the water, and the flowers growing rank and wild along the edges, nod lazily at their own faces reflected in the quiet pools and eddies.

"You may know a man when you see him," replied George, letting the horse take his own time beneath the overhanging boughs, "but you take precious good care that you don't see too much of one that I could name."

"Who do you mean; Mr. Falkner?" replied Clara, with a provoking smile, as she tried in vain to catch one of the tall weeds that grew close to the side of the road.

"Hang Mr. Falkner," returned Udell impatiently. "You know what I mean, Clara. What's the use of you and me pretending? Haven't I told you ever since I was ten years old that I loved you, and would have no one else to be my wife? And haven't you always understood it that way, and by your manners toward me given assent?"

The girl looked straight ahead at the horse's ears as she answered slowly, "If my manner has led you to have false hopes it is very easy to change it, and if accepting your company gives assent to all the foolish things you may have said when you were ten years old, you'd better seek less dangerous society."

"Forgive me dear, I spoke hastily," said George, in a much softer tone. "But it's mighty hard to have you always just within reach and yet always just beyond."

The sun had gone down behind the ridge. The timbers of an old mining shaft, and the limbs and twigs of a leafless tree showed black against the tinted sky. A faint breath of air rustled the dry leaves of the big sycamores and paw-paw bushes, and the birds called sleepily to each other as they settled themselves for the coming night. A sparrow-hawk darted past on silent wings, a rabbit hopped across the road, while far away, the evening train on the "Frisco" whistled for a crossing; and nearer, a farm boy called to his cattle. After a long silence, George spoke again, with a note of manly dignity in his voice, which made his fair companion's heart beat quicker. "Clara, look at me; I want to see your eyes," he insisted. She turned her face toward him. "Clara, if you can say, I do not love you as a woman ought to love her husband, I will promise you, on my honor, never to mention the subject to you again. Can you say it?"

She tried to turn her head and to hide the tell-tale color in her cheeks, but he would not permit it. "Answer me," he insisted. "Say you do not love me and I will never bother you again."

At last the eyes were lifted, and in their light George read his answer. "All right," he said, picking up the whip, "I knew you could not lie; you do love me, and I'll never stop asking you to be my wife." He turned the horse's head toward the city.

That same evening, Adam Goodrich, with his family and two or three neighbors, sat on the veranda of the Goodrich home, enjoying the beauties of the hour, and passing the evening in social chat. In the course of the conversation, someone mentioned the rooms at the Jerusalem Church. Adam grunted. "What a splendid thing it is for the young men," said one of the lady callers. "I don't see why more of the churches don't adopt the plan. I wish ours would."

"Yes," chimed in another, "and isn't that Mr. Falkner, who has charge of the rooms in the evening, a splendid fellow? My brother speaks of him so highly, and all the young men seem to think so much of him."

"Where is he from; St. Louis, is it?" asked the first lady.

"Kansas City," said Frank. "At least that's what he says. He bummed his way into town last spring and got a job in that infidel Udell's printing office. That's all anybody knows of him."

"Except that he has never shown himself to be anything but a perfect gentleman," added his sister.

"Amy," said Mrs. Goodrich, a note of warning in her voice.

"I don't care, mamma, it's the truth. What if he was out of money and hungry and ragged when he came to town? He was willing to work, and Mr. Udell says that he is a splendid workman, and--" But her father interrupted her. "Well, what of it? No one knows anything about his family or how he lived before he came here. He's only a tramp, and you can't make anything else out of him. Some folks are never satisfied unless they are trying to make gentlemen out of gutter snipes. If we let such fellows get a foothold, there won't be any respectable society after a while; it will be all stable boys and boot-blacks."

Later, when the visitors had said good-night and Amy and her mother had entered the house, Frank said, "Father, I'll tell you one thing about that man Falkner, you've got to watch him."

"What do you mean?" asked Adam.

"I mean Amy," replied the other, moving his chair nearer the old gentleman and speaking in a guarded tone. "He takes every chance he can to talk with her, and she is altogether too willing to listen."

"Pshaw," grunted the older man, "she never sees him."

"That's where you are mistaken, father. They met first last spring in the printing office; and afterwards, when he had gotten in with that soft fool, Charlie Bowen, they met again at the Young People's social. He was all dressed up in a new suit of clothes and of course Amy didn't know him. They were together all that evening, and since then, though she has found out who he is, she talks with him at every opportunity. They meet at the Society, at church, at picnics and parties, and sometimes in the printing office. I tell you you'd better watch him. He's doing his level best to get in with her, and just look how he's working everybody else. Half the town is crazy over him."

Low spoken as were Frank's words, Amy heard every one, for she had not retired as her brother supposed, but was lying on a couch just inside the doorway of the darkened parlor. With burning cheeks, she rose cautiously and tiptoed out of the silent room. Making her way upstairs and entering her own chamber, she closed and bolted the door, and then, throwing herself on the floor by the low seat of an open window, rested her head on her arm while she looked up at the stars now shining clear and bright. Once she started impatiently and her eyes filled with angry tears. Then she grew calm again, and soon the girlish face was worthy of a master's brush as she gazed reverently into the beautiful heavens, her lips moving in a whispered prayer; a softly whispered prayer for Dick. And as she prayed, in the shadow of the Catalpa trees, unseen by her, a man walked slowly down the street. Reaching the corner, he turned and slowly passed the house again; crossing the street, he passed once more on the opposite side, paused a moment at the corner, and then started hurriedly away toward the business portion of the city.