That Printer of Udell's by Harold Bell Wright
November, with its whispered promises of winter fun, was past, and the Christmas month, with snow and ice, had been ushered in. Usually in the latitude of Boyd City, the weather remains clear and not very cold until the first of the new year; but this winter was one of those exceptions which are met with in every climate, and the first of December brought zero weather. Indeed, it had been unusually cold for several weeks. Then, to make matters worse, a genuine western blizzard came howling across the prairie, and whistled and screamed about the streets, from which it had driven everything that could find a place of shelter. The stores on Broadway were vacant, save a few shivering clerks. In the offices, men sat with their feet on the stove and called to mind the biggest storms they had ever known; while street cars stood motionless and railway trains, covered with ice and snow, came puffing into the stations three or four hours behind time. In spite of the awful weather, George Udell spent the evening at the Wilson home on the east side. He had not seen Clara for nearly two weeks and the hour was rather late when he arose to prepare for the long, cold walk to his boarding house. "And I must wait, Clara?" he asked again, as they stood in the hallway, and the girl answered rather sharply, "Yes, you must wait. I do wish you would be sensible, George." The printer made no reply, but paused for some time with his hand on the door-knob, as though reluctant to leave her in such a mood. Then with an "Alright, goodnight," he stepped out into the storm, his mind filled with bitter thoughts that had best be left unspoken. The man did not know how heavy was the heart of the girl who stood at the window watching long after his form had vanished into the night.
The wind was terrific and the snow cut the printer's face like tiny needles, while he was forced again and again to turn his back to the blast in order to breathe, and in spite of his heavy clothing was chilled to the bone before he had gone three blocks. On Broadway, he passed saloon after saloon, brilliant with glittering chandeliers and attractive with merry music, inviting all the world to share the good-fellowship and cheer within. He thought of his rooms, how cold and lonely they would be, and had half a mind to stop at the hotel for the night. For an instant he hesitated, then with a shake, "What folly," pushed on again. As he struggled along, fighting every inch of the way, with head down and body braced to the task, warm lights from the windows of many cozy homes fell across his path, and he seemed to feel the cold more keenly for the contrast. Then through the storm, he saw a church, dark, grim and forbidding, half-hidden in the swirling snow, the steps and entrance barricaded with heavy drifts. A smile of bitter sarcasm curled his lip as he muttered to himself: "How appropriate; what a fine monument to the religious activity of the followers of Christ," and he almost laughed aloud when he remembered that the sermon delivered there the Sunday before was from the text, "I was a stranger and ye took me not in." Suddenly he stopped and stood peering through the storm. In the light of an electric arc, which sizzled and sputtered on the corner, he saw a dark form half hidden in the snow piled about the doorway of the building. Stepping closer, he reached out and touched it with his foot, then bending down, he discovered to his horror that it was the body of a man.
George tried to arouse the fallen one and lift him to his feet, but his efforts only met with failure, and the other sank back again on his bed of snow. The printer studied a moment. What should he do? Then his eyes caught a gleam of light from a house near by. "Of course," he thought, "Uncle Bobbie Wicks lives there." Stooping again, he gathered the man in his arms, and with no little effort, slowly and painfully made his way across the street and along the sidewalk to Mr. Wicks's home.
Uncle Bobbie was sitting before the fire, dozing over his Sunday School quarterly, when he was aroused by the sound of heavy feet on the porch and a strange knock, as though someone was kicking at the door. Quickly he threw it open, and Udell, with his heavy burden, staggered into the room.
"Found him on the church steps," gasped the printer, out of breath, as he laid the stranger on a couch. "I'll go for a doctor," and he rushed out into the storm again, returning some thirty minutes later with Dr. James at his heels. They found Uncle Bobbie, who had done all that was possible, sitting beside the still form on the couch. "You're too late, Doc," he said. "The poor chap was dead before George left the house."
The physician made his examination. "You're right, Mr. Wicks," he answered, "we can do nothing here. Frozen to death. Must have died early in the evening."
The doctor returned to his home to get what sleep he could before another call should break his rest, and all that night the Christian and the infidel sat together, keeping watch over the dead body of the unknown man.
The next morning the coroner was summoned; the verdict was soon handed in, "Death by exposure." Or the body was found a church statement that there had been paid to the current expense fund, in the quarter ending August first, the sum of three dollars, but the name written with lead pencil was illegible. Besides this, was a prayer-meeting topic-card, soiled and worn, and a small testament, dog-eared, with much fingering, but no money. A cheap Christian Endeavor pin was fastened to the ragged vest. There was nothing to identify him, or furnish a clew as to where he was from. The face and form was that of a young man, and though thin and careworn, showed no mark of dissipation. The right hand was marked by a long scar across the back and the loss of the little finger. The clothing was very poor.
Among those who viewed the body in the undertaking rooms where it lay for identification, was Dick, and Udell, who was with him, thought that he seemed strangely moved as he bent over the casket. George called his attention to the disfigured hand, but Dick only nodded. Then, as they drew back to make room for others, he asked in a whisper, "Did they search thoroughly for letters or papers? Sometimes people hide important documents in their clothing, you know."
"No, there was nothing," answered George. "We even ripped out the linings."
When they reached the open air Dick drew a long breath. "I must hurry back to the office," he said. "I suppose you'll not be down to-day."
"No, I must arrange for the funeral; you can get along I guess."
"Oh yes, don't worry about that," was the reply, and the young man started off down the street, but at the corner he turned, and walking rapidly, in a few moments reached the church where the body of the stranger was found.
The steps and walks had been carefully cleaned and the snow about the place was packed hard by the feet of the curious crowd who had visited the scene earlier in the morning.
Dick looked up and down the street. There was no one in sight. Stepping swiftly to the pile of snow which the janitor had made with his shovel and broom, he began kicking it about with his feet. Suddenly, with an exclamation, he stopped and again glanced quickly around. Then stooping, he picked up a long, leather pocketbook, and turning, walked hurriedly away to the office.
The body was held as long as possible, but when no word could be had as to the poor fellow's identity, he was laid away in a lot purchased by the printer, who also bore the funeral expenses. When Uncle Bobbie would have helped him in this, George answered: "No, this is my work. I found him. Let me do this for his mother's sake."
The funeral was held in the undertaking rooms. Dick Falkner, Uncle Bobbie and his wife, and Clara Wilson, with George, followed the hearse to the cemetery.
To-day, the visitor to Mt. Olive, will read with wonder, the inscription on a simple stone, bearing no name, but telling the story of the young man's death, and followed by these words, "I was a stranger and ye took me not in."
The church people protested loudly when it was known how the grave was to be marked, but George Udell answered that he wanted something from the Bible because the young man was evidently a Christian, and that the text he had selected was the only appropriate one he could find.
The evening after the funeral, Charlie Bowen and Dick sat alone in the reading room, for the hour was late and the others had all gone to their homes. Charlie was speaking of the burial. "I tell you," he said, "it looks mighty hard to see a man laid away by strangers who do not even know his name, and that too, after dying all alone in the snow like a poor dog. And to think that perhaps a mother is watching for him to come home; and the hardest part is that he is only one of many. In a cold snap like this, the amount of suffering among the poor and outcast is something terrible. If only the bad suffered, one might not feel so."
Dick made no reply, but sat staring moodily into the fire.
"I've studied on the matter a good bit lately," continued Charlie. "Why is it that people are so indifferent to the suffering about them? Is Udell right when he says that church members, by their own teaching, prove themselves to be the biggest frauds in the world?"
"He is, so far as the church goes," replied Dick; "but not as regards Christianity. This awful neglect and indifference comes from a lack of Christ's teaching, or rather from a lack of the application of Christ's teaching, and too much teaching of the church. The trouble is that people follow the church and not Christ; they become church members, but not Christians."
"Do you mean to say that the church ought to furnish a lodging place for every stranger who comes to town?" asked Charlie.
"I mean just this," answered Dick, rising to his feet and walking slowly back and forth across the room, "there is plenty of food in this world to give every man, woman and child enough to eat, and it is contrary to God's law that the helpless should go hungry. There is enough material to clothe every man, woman and child, and God never intended that the needy should go naked. There is enough wealth to house and warm every creature tonight, for God never meant that men should freeze in such weather as this; and Christ surely teaches, both by words and example, that the hungry should be fed, the naked clothed, and the homeless housed. Is it not the Christian's duty to carry out Christ's teaching? It is an awful comment on the policy of the church when a young man, bearing on his person the evidence of his Christianity and proof that he supported the institution, dies of cold and hunger at the locked door of the house of God. That, too, in a city where there are ten or twelve denominations, paying at least as many thousand dollars for preachers' salaries alone each year."
"But we couldn't do it."
"The lodges do. There is more than enough wealth spent in the churches in this city, for useless, gaudy display, and in trying to get ahead of some other denomination, than would be needed to clothe every naked child in warmth to-night. You claim to be God's stewards, but spend his goods on yourselves, while Christ, in the person of that boy in the cemetery, is crying for food and clothing. And then you wonder why George Udell and myself, who have suffered these things, don't unite with the church. The wonder to me is that such honest men as you and Mr. Wicks can remain connected with such an organization."
"But," said Charlie, with a troubled look on his face, "would not such work encourage crime and idleness?"
"Not if it were done according to God's law," answered Dick. "The present spasmodic, haphazard sentimental way of giving does. It takes away a man's self-respect; it encourages him to be shiftless and idle; or it fails to reach the worthy sufferers. Whichever way you fix it, it kills the man."
"But what is God's law?" asked the other.
"That those who do not work should not eat," replied Dick; "and that applies on the avenue as well as in the mines."
"How would you do all this, though? That has been the great problem of the church for years."
"I beg your pardon, but it has not been the problem of the church. If the ministry had spent one-half the time in studying this question and trying to fulfill the teaching of Christ, that they have wasted in quarreling over each other's opinions, or in tickling the ears of their wealthy members, this problem would have been solved long ago. Different localities would require different plans, but the purpose must always be the same. To make it possible for those in want to receive aid without compromising their self-respect, or making beggars of them, and to make it just as impossible for any unworthy person to get along without work."
For some minutes the silence in the room was only broken by the steady tramp, tramp, as the speaker marched up and down.
"Dick," said Charlie, "do you believe that anything could be done here?"
Dick started and looked sharply at his companion. "Of course it could, if only the church would go about it in a businesslike way."
Charlie shook his head. "That's hopeless. The church will never move in the matter. Brother Cameron has preached again and again on those subjects and they do nothing."
"But has your pastor presented any definite plan for work?" asked Dick. "It's one thing to preach about it, and another thing to present a plan that will meet the need. That's the great trouble. They're all the time preaching about Christianity and trying to live as they talk, in a sickly, sentimental fashion; when of all things in the world Christianity is the most practical, or it is nothing."
"The young folks would take it up, I am sure," said Charlie. "Say, will you suggest a plan to the Society?"
"I'm like the rest," said Dick, with a slight smile. "I'm preaching when I have no remedy," and he began locking up for the night. "But," as they stepped out into the street, he added, "I'll not go back on my statement though. I believe it can be done."
Nothing more was said on the subject so much in the hearts of the young men, until the Saturday before the regular monthly business meeting of the Young People's Society. Then Charlie broached the matter to Dick as together they walked down the street at the close of their day's work.
"No," said Dick, "I have not forgotten, and I believe I have a plan that would meet the needs of the case as it is in this city."
"Will you go before the Young People's Society at their meeting next Tuesday night, and explain your scheme?"
Dick hesitated. "I fear they would not listen to me, Charlie," he said at last. And then added, as he rested his hand affectionately on the other's shoulder, "You see, old man, people here don't look at me as you do. They can't, or won't forget the way I came to town, and I fear they would not attach much weight to my opinion, even should they consent to hear me."
"That's where you're wrong, Dick, all wrong. I know there are some who look at things in that light, but they wouldn't do anything if Paul himself were to teach them. But there are many who want only someone to lead the way. Take myself for instance. I realize what's needed, and I honestly want to do something, but I don't know how to go at it; and Dick, if this problem is ever solved, it will be through someone like you, who knows from actual experience; not from occasional slumming expeditions; whose heart is filled with love for men; who is absolutely free from ecclesiastical chains, and who is a follower of no creed but Christ, a believer in no particular denomination."
Dick smiled at his friend's manner. "You too, have been doing a little thinking," he said quietly. "But had this come to you, that the man must also be a Christian?"
"Yes, a Christian so far as he is a believer in the truths that Christ teaches; but not in the generally accepted use of that word; which is, that a man can't be a Christian without hitching himself up in some denominational harness."
"If you believe that, why do you wear the badge?" asked Dick, drily.
"Because I believe that while the man who takes the initiative must owe allegiance to no particular congregation, the work must be carried on by the church; there are many Christians who are thinking on these lines, and I hope that you will some day see that the church with all its shortcomings and mistakes, is of divine origin; and that she needs just such men as yourself to lead her back to the simplicity of Christ's life and teaching. But that's not the question," he continued, as he saw a slight shadow cross the face of his companion. "The question is: Will you go before the Young People's Society next Tuesday night and submit your plan as a suggested way to do Christ's work here in the city? You see, you'll not be going before the church, and I will give you such an introduction that there will be no danger of a mistaken notion as to your presence."
The two walked on in silence until they reached the door of Dick's restaurant. "Won't you come in and eat with me?" he said.
"Not unless you need more urging," answered Charlie, with a laugh, "for I have other fish to fry just now."
"Well," said Dick, "I'll go."