Chapter XIII
 

The committee appointed by the Society called on Mr. Wicks at his office, and found him deep in a letter to an old lady, whose small business affairs he was trying to straighten out. He dropped the matter at once when they entered, and, after shaking hands, as though he had not seen them for years, said: "Now tell me all about it. To-be-sure, Charlie here has had some talk with me, but I want to get your ide's."

"Our brightest idea, I think," said the leader, with a smile, "is to get your help."

Uncle Bobbie laughed heartily. "I reckoned you'd be around," he said. "I'm generally kept posted by the young folks when there's anything to do. To-be-sure, I aint got much education, 'cept in money matters an' real estate, but I don't know--I reckon education is only the trimmings anyhow. It's the hoss sense what counts. I've seen some college fellers that was just like the pies a stingy old landlady of mine used t' make; they was all outside--To-be-sure, they looked mighty nice though. Now tell me what ye want."

When the young people had detailed to him Dick's plan, and he had questioned them on some points, the old gentleman leaned back in his chair and thoughtfully stroked his face. Then--"Now I tell ye what ye do. Mebbe I can handle the property end of this a little the best. To-be-sure, folks would talk with me when they might not listen to you; 'cause they'd be watchin' fer a chance to get me into a deal, you see; fer business is a sort of ketch-as-ketch-can anyhow you fix it. So jes' let me work that end an' ye get Charlie here and some more to help, and drum up the store-keepers to find out if they'll let ye have their barrels and boxes. An' then go fer the citizens and see how many will buy kindlin'-wood. Tell 'em about what it will cost--say ten cents a week fer one stove. To-be-sure, some will use more'n others, but give 'em an ide'. Then we'll all come together again and swap reports, an' see what we've got."

For the next few days, the young people went from store to store, and house to house, telling their plan, and asking the citizens to support it by their patronage. Some turned them away with rudeness; some listened and smiled at their childish folly; some said they couldn't afford it; and some gave them encouragement by entering heartily into the scheme. With but few exceptions, the merchants promised the greater part of their boxes and barrels, and one man even gave them the ruins of an old cow shed, which he said he would be glad to have cleared away.

Meanwhile, Uncle Bobbie interviewed the business men, members of the church, and those who were not Christians. He argued, threatened and plead, studied plans, consulted architects and contractors, figured and schemed, and, when besieged by the young people for results, only shook his head. "Jes' hold your hosses and wait till the meetin'. It don't pay to fire a gun before ye load it." And none but Charlie Bowen noticed that the old gentleman's face grew grim whenever the subject was introduced, and the young man guessed that the outlook was not so promising as Uncle Bobbie would like. Then one Wednesday night, the Society met again in the church. The weather was cold and stormy, but, as at the previous meeting, nearly every member was present. When the committee had made their report and it was known that the merchants and citizens would support the movement by their patronage and contributions, a wave of enthusiasm swept over the room while the call for Mr. Wicks was enforced by loud applause.

Uncle Bobbie, who had been sitting by Rev. Cameron's side, arose and came slowly forward. Turning, he faced the little company and his honest old eyes were wet as he said in a trembling voice: "I didn't want to come here tonight, young folks; I jes' tell ye I was ashamed to come; but I knew I ought to; and now I am ashamed that I didn't want to. I might have known better. Fer I can see right now as I look into your faces, that Brother Cameron is right, and that what I have to tell won't make no difference." An ominous hush fell upon the company. "To-be-sure, we may have to wait a bit, but God will show a way, and we'll conquer this old devil of indifference yet." He paused and drew a long breath. "Well, I found a big house that is for sale; jes' the thing we need; and it could be bought and fixed up in first-class shape fer about nine hundred dollars. I sold the property myself to Mr. Udell, fer fifteen hundred, 'bout a year ago; an' I want to tell you young folks, right now, that whether he's a Christian er not, George Udell is the whitest man in this city, and the fellow what says anythin' again him's got me to whip." The old gentleman paused and glared about him, without a thought of how his words sounded; but the young people, who knew him well, only answered with a clapping of hands, which was a tribute to Uncle Bobbie's heart and character, rather than to his unconscious recklessness of speech or love for the man whom he championed. But when he went on to say that of all the men he had interviewed, church members and all, only Udell had met him half way, and had agreed to give the lot if they would raise the money to pay for the house, they applauded with a vim, the generosity of the printer.

"Just think," said Uncle Bobbie, "that among all the church members in this city, I couldn't raise two hundred dollars fer such a cause. One of 'em said no, because he'd jes' bought a new span of carriage hosses. Huh! I told him he might ride to Hell behind fine bosses but he'd not feel any better when he got there. 'Nother said he'd jes' put five hundred dollars into the new lodge temple, and that he couldn't spend any more. I asked him if Jesus was a member of his lodge, and he said he reckoned not. I said, Well, we want to build a home for Christ, and you say you can't. Seems to me if I was you I wouldn't call Christ my redeemer in prayer meeting so much. 'Nother had just fixed his home. 'Nother had just put in a new stock of goods; and so with 'em all. They all had some excuse handy, and I don't know what to do. I'm up a stump this time fer sure. We've got the material to work up; we've got the people to buy the goods; we've got the lot; and there we're stuck, fer we can't get the house. I can't anyway. We're jes' like the feller that went fishin'; had a big basket to carry home his fish; a nice new jointed pole with a reel and fixin's, a good strong linen line, an' a nice bait box full of big fat worms, an' when he got to the river he didn't have no hook, and the fish just swum 'round under his nose an' laughed at him 'cause he couldn't touch 'em--and still I believe that God will show us the way yet, 'though mebbe not. Perhaps taint fer the best fer us to do this; to-be-sure though I thought it was, and so did Brother Cameron; and so did you. But I don't know--" And the old man took his seat.

After a long silence, one or two offered suggestions but could not help matters. Rev. Cameron was called for and tried to speak encouragingly, but it was hard work, and it seemed that the plans were coming to an inglorious end, when Clara Wilson sprang to her feet.

"I'm not a bit surprised at this," she said, while the young people, forgetting the praise they had just bestowed upon George Udell, thought that her rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes were caused by her excitement. "I don't wonder that the business men won't go into such a scheme. They haven't any faith in it. It isn't so much that they've not got the money or don't want to help, but it's because they don't trust the church. They have seen so many things started, and have supported so many, and still no real good comes of it, that they're all afraid. They put money into their lodges because they see the results there. I believe there has been more wealth put into the churches than has ever been put into lodges; but all we've got to show for it is fine organs, fine windows, and fine talk, while the lodges do practical work. We can't expect folks to take hold of our plan until we show what we are going to do. We are starting at the wrong end. We haven't done anything ourselves yet. I wish I was a man, I'd show you," with a snap of her black eyes.

"Yo're a pretty good feller if you ain't a man," chuckled Uncle Bobbie. This raised a laugh and made them all feel better.

"That's all right; you can laugh if you want to," said Clara, "but I tell you we can do it if we have a mind to. Why, there is enough jewelry here tonight to raise more than half the amount. Let's not give up now that we've gone so far. Let's have a big meeting of the Society, and have speeches, and tell what has been done, and see what we can raise. Just make the people believe we are going to have this thing anyway. Mr. President, I move you that we have an open meeting of the Society one week from next Sunday, and that a special committee be appointed to work up a good program."

Cameron jumped to his feet. "With all my heart, I second that motion." And before the president could speak, a storm of Ayes was followed by prolonged applause. Clara was promptly named chairman of the committee, and in a few minutes they were trooping from the building, out into the storm, but with warm hearts and merry voices.

George Udell had not been to call on Miss Wilson since the night he found the man frozen in the streets. Indeed, he had not even spoken to her since the funeral. He had seen her though, once when she had met him on the street with several friends, and several times when he had glanced up from his work by the window as she had passed the office. All this was strange to Clara. What could be the matter? George had never acted so before. She wanted to talk to him about the incident of that stormy night when they had parted so abruptly. She wanted him to know how proud she was that he had proven so kind in the matter of the funeral. "What a warm heart he has beneath all his harsh speeches," she thought; and could not help but contrast him, much to his credit, with many professed Christians she knew. And then, Mr. Wicks had spoken, in the business meeting, of his generosity, and had talked so strongly of his goodness; no wonder her cheeks burned with pride, while her heart whispered strange things.

When the young woman had said Good-night to her companions, after the meeting, and had shut herself in her room, she asked again and again, was she right in always saying No? Was she not unnecessarily cruel to the friend who had shown, and was showing himself, so worthy of her love? Oh why was he not a Christian? And when Mrs. Wilson crept into her daughter's room that night, to get an extra comfort from the closet, to put over the little boy's crib, she was much surprised to see a big tear, that glistened in the light of the lamp, roll from beneath the dark lashes, as her eldest child lay sobbing in her sleep.

The next morning the girl was strangely silent and went about her work without the usual cheery whistle--for Clara would whistle; it was her only musical accomplishment. But toward noon, after arousing from a prolonged spell of silent staring into the fire, during which her mother tried in vain to draw her into conversation, she suddenly became her own bright self again, and went about getting dinner in her usual manner. Then when the dishes were washed, she appeared in her street dress and hat.

"Land sakes alive, child, you aint going out to-day, be you?" said Mrs. Wilson, her hands on her hips, in her usual attitude of amazement or wrath.

"Yes mother, I've got a little business down-town that I can't put off. I won't be gone long. Is there anything that I can do for you?"

"But look how it's snowing; you'll be wet through and catch your death sure. I wish to goodness you'd have more sense and try to take some care of yourself."

"Not the first time I've been wet. The walk will do me good." And soon the determined young lady was pushing her way through the snow and wind toward the business part of the city.

The boy in the printing office had gone out on an errand and George and Dick were both at the composing case, setting up a local politician's speech, which was to be issued in the form of a circular, when Clara walked in, stamping her feet and shaking the snow from her umbrella and skirt. Udell started forward.

"Great shade of the immortal Benjamin F!" he shouted. "What in the name of all that's decent are you doing here?" And he placed a chair near the stove with one hand as he captured the umbrella with the other.

"I'm going to get warm just now," Clara replied, with an odd little laugh, and Dick noticed that the wind, or cold, or something, had made her face very red. "Come here and sit down," she commanded. "I want to talk business to you. Don't stand there as though you had never seen me before."

"Well, it has been ages since I saw you," he declared, seating himself on the edge of the waste-box.

"Yes, all of twenty-four hours. I passed you yesterday and you looked me right in the face, and never even said 'Howdy.' If you were anyone else, George Udell, I'd make you wait awhile before you got another chance to do me that way."

George drummed on the edge of the box and whistled softly. Then looking anxiously toward Dick, said: "How are you getting along with that stuff, old man?"

"Almost through," answered Dick, with a never-to-be-forgotten wink. "But I believe I'll run off those dodgers on the big press, and let you finish the politics."

"All right, I reckon that'll be better," answered Udell; and soon the whir of the motor, and the stamp of the press filled the room.

"We are awfully busy now," said Udell, turning to Clara again. "I ought to be at work this minute."

"Why haven't you been to see me, George?" persisted the girl, a strange light coming into her eyes. "There are so many things I want to talk to you about."

"Thought I'd let you come and see me awhile; turn about is fair play. Besides, I don't think it would be safe in this cold weather. It's chilly enough business even in the summer time."

Clara held out manfully--or--womanly--"George Udell; you knew very well that I would come here if you staid away from my home; and it's real mean of you, when you knew how bad I wanted to see you, to make me come out in all this snow."

George looked troubled. "I'll take my death of cold, and then how'll you feel?--" George looked still more worried--"I've not felt very well lately anyway--" George looked frightened; "and I--came all the way--down here--just to see what was the matter." The printer looked happy. "And now you don't want me to stay, and I'll go home again." She moved toward her umbrella, Udell got it first. Whir--Whir--went the motor, and clank--clank--clank--sounded the press. Dick was feeding the machine and must necessarily keep his eyes on his work, while the noise prevented any stray bits of the conversation from reaching his ears. Besides this, Dick was just now full of sympathy. Clara let go her end of the umbrella, and George, with an exaggerated expression of rapture on his face, kissed the place where her hand had held it. The young lady tried to frown and look disgusted. Then for several moments neither spoke. At last Clara said, "I wanted to tell you how proud and glad I am of the things you have been doing. You are a good man, George, to take care of that poor dead boy the way you did."

"Why, you see I had a sort of fellow-feeling for him," muttered the printer. "I had just been frosted myself."

"And that Young People's Society business, it is just grand," went on Clara. "Only think, you have given more than all the church members even."

Udell grunted, "No danger of me losing on that offer. They'll never raise the rest."

"Oh yes we will. I'm chairman of the committee." And then she told him of the meeting, and how Uncle Bobbie had praised him.

Udell felt his heart thaw rapidly, and the two chatted away as though no chilly blast had ever come between them.

"And yet, Clara, with all your professed love for me, you won't allow me a single privilege of a lover, and I can have no hope of the future. It had better stop now."

"Very well, George; it can stop now if you like; but I never could have lived without talking it out with you and telling you how glad I am for your gift to the Society."

"Look here, don't you go and make any mistakes on that line. I'm giving nothing to the Society or the church. That bit of land goes to the poor, cold, hungry fellows, who are down on their luck, like Dick here was. I tell you what though, Clara, if you'll say yes, I'll add the house and enough to furnish it besides."

The girl hesitated for just a moment. Here was temptation added to temptation. Then she pulled on her rubbers and rose to go. "No, George, No, I cannot. You know you would not need to buy me if I felt it right to say yes."

"But I'm going to keep on asking you just the same," said George. "You won't get angry if I keep it up, will you?"

"I--guess--not. I feel rather badly when you don't. I don't like to say no; but I would feel awful if you didn't give me a chance to say it. Good-bye George."

"Good-bye dearest. You can't forbid me loving you anyway, and some day you'll take me for what I am."

Clara shook her head. "You know," she said.

As the door closed, Dick wheeled around from the press, holding out his ink-stained hand to George.

"What's the matter?" said the other wonderingly, but grasping the outstretched hand of his helper.

"I want to shake hands with a man, that's all," said Dick. "Why don't you join the church and win her?"

"Because if I did that I wouldn't be worthy of her," said George.

"You have strange ideas for this day and age."

"Yes, I know; but I can't help it; wish I could."

"You're a better man than half the church members."

George shook his head. "It won't do, Dickie, and you know it as well as I. That's too big a thing to go into for anything but itself. What is it mother used to say? No other Gods before me, or something like that."

And Dick said to himself as he turned back to the press, "I have indeed, shaken hands with a man."