Chapter X. A Matter of Opinion
 

"'Who spoke of condemnation? Is that just the question? Are you not unfair?'"

Miss Farwell had heard much of the new pastor of the Memorial Church. Dr. Harry frequently urged her to attend services; Deborah, when Hope had seen her was eloquent in his praise. Mrs. Strong and the ladies who called at the house spoke of him often. But for the first two weeks of her stay at Judge Strong's the nurse had been confined so closely to the care of her patient that she had heard nothing to identify the preacher with the big stranger whom she had met at the depot the day of her arrival.

By the time Miss Farwell began hearing of the new preacher the interest occasioned by his defense of Denny had already died down, and it chanced that no one mentioned it in her presence when speaking of him, while each time he had called at the Strong home the nurse had been absent or busy. Thus it happened that so far as she knew, Miss Farwell had never met the minister about whom she had heard so much. But she had several times seen the big fellow, who had apologized at such length for running into her at the depot, and who had gone so quickly to the assistance of Denny. It was natural, under such conditions, that she should remember him. It was natural, too, that she never dreamed of connecting the young hero of the street fight with the Reverend Matthews of the Memorial Church.

Her patient had so far improved that the nurse was now able to leave her for an hour or two in the afternoon, and the young woman had gone for a walk just beyond the outskirts of the village. Coming to the top of the hill she had turned aside from the dusty highway, thinking to enjoy the view from the shade of a great oak that grew on a grassy knoll in the center of the school grounds.

Dan watched her as she made her way slowly across the yard, his eyes bright with admiration for her womanly grace as she stopped, here and there, to pick a wild flower from the tangle of grass and weeds. Reaching the tree she seated herself and, laying her parasol on the grass by her side, began arranging the blossoms she had gathered--pausing, now and then, to look over the rolling country of field and woods that, dotted by farm houses with their buildings and stacks, stretched away into the blue distance.

The young fellow at the window gazed at her with almost superstitious awe. That her face had come before him so vividly, as he sat dreaming in the old school-room, at the very moment when she was turning into the yard, moved him greatly. His blood tingled at the odd premonition that this woman was somehow to play a great part in his life. Nothing seemed more natural than that he should have come to this spot this afternoon. Neither was it at all strange that, in her walk, she too, should be attracted by the beauty of the place. But the feeling forced itself upon him nevertheless that this perfectly natural incident was a great event in his life. He knew that he would go to her presently. He was painfully aware that he ought not to be thus secretly watching her, but he hesitated as one about to take a step that could never be retraced.

She started when he appeared in the doorway of the building and half-arose from her place. Then recognizing him she dropped back on the grass; and there was a half-amused frown on her face, though her cheeks were red. She was indignant with herself that she should be blushing like a schoolgirl at the presence of this stranger whose name even she did not know.

"I beg your pardon, Miss Farwell, I fear that I startled you," he said, hat in hand. Already Dan had grown so accustomed to being greeted by strangers, that it never occurred to him that this lady did not know who he was.

She saw the sunlight on his shaggy red-brown hair, and the fine poise of the well-shaped head, as she answered shortly, "You did."

Woman-like she was making him feel her anger at herself; and also woman-like, when she saw his embarrassment at her blunt words and manner, she smiled.

"I am sorry," he said, but he did not offer to go on his way.

When she made no reply but began rearranging her handful of blossoms, he spoke again, remarking on the beauty of the view before them; and ventured to ask if the knoll was to her a favorite spot, adding that it was his first visit to the place.

"I have never been here before either," she answered. The brief silence that followed was broken by Dan.

"We seem to have made a discovery," he said, wondering why she should seem confused at his simple remark. "I know I ought to go," he continued. "I will if you say the word, but--" he paused.

"You were here first," she returned with a smile. Really, she thought, there was no reason why she should drive him away. He was so evidently a gentleman, and the place was on the public thoroughfare.

"Then I may stay?" He dropped on the grass at her feet with an exclamation of satisfaction and pleasure.

Looking away over the landscape where the clouds and shadows were racing, and the warm autumn light lay on the varying shades of green and brown, he remarked: "Do you know when I see a bit of out-doors like that, on such a day as this, or when I am out in the woods or up in the hills, I wonder what men build churches for, anyway. I fear I must be something of a pagan, for I often feel that I can worship God best in his own temple. Quite heathenish isn't it?" He laughed, but under the laugh there was a note of troubled seriousness.

She looked at him curiously. "And is it heathenish to worship God outside of a church? If it is I fear that I, too, am a heathen."

He noted the words "I, too," and saw instantly that she did not know him but had understood from his words that he was not a church man. He felt that he ought to correct her false impression, that he ought to tell her who and what he was, but he was possessed of a curious feeling of reluctance to declare his calling.

The truth is, Dan Matthews did not want to meet this woman as a priest, but as a man. He had already learned how the moment the preacher was announced the man was pushed into the background.

While he hesitated she watched him with increasing interest. His words had pleased her; she waited for him to speak again.

"I suppose your profession does keep you from anything like regular church attendance," he said.

"Yes," she answered, "I have found that sick people do not as a rule observe a one-day-in-seven religion. But it is not my professional duties that keep me from church."

"You are not then--"

"Decidedly I am not," she answered.

"Really, you surprise me. I thought of course you were a member of some church."

There was a touch of impatience in her quick reply. "You thought 'of course'? And why of course, please?"

He started to answer, but she went on quickly, "I know why; because I am a woman, the weaker sex!"

It is not possible to describe the fine touch in her voice when she said "the weaker sex." It was so delicately done, that it had none of the coarseness that commonly marks like expressions, when used by some women. Dan was surprised to feel that it emphasized the fineness of her character, as well as its strength.

"Because I am not a man must I be useless?" she continued. "Is a woman's life of so little influence in the world that she can spend it in make-believe living as little girls play at being grown up? Have I not as great a right to my paganism as you call it, as you have to yours?"

Again he saw his opportunity and realized that he ought to correct her mistake in assuming from his words that he was not a man of church affiliation, but again he passed it by saying slowly, instead: "I think your kind of paganism must be a very splendid thing; no one could think of one in that dress as useless."

"I did not mean--"

"I understand I think," he said earnestly, "but won't you tell me why you feel so about the church?"

She laughed as she returned, "One might think from your awful seriousness that you were a preacher. Father Confessor, if you please--" she began mockingly, then stopped--arrested by the expression of his face. "Oh I beg your pardon, have I been rude?"

With a forced laugh he answered, "Oh no, indeed, not at all. It is only that your views of the Christian religion surprise me."

"My views of the Christian religion," she repeated, very serious now. "I did not know that my views of Christianity were mentioned."

He was bewildered. "But the church! You were speaking of the church."

"And the church and Christianity are one and the same of course." Again with a touch of sarcasm, more pronounced, "You will tell me next, I suppose, that a minister really ministers."

Dan was astonished and hurt. He had learned much of the spirit of Christianity in his backwoods home, but he knew nothing of churches except that which the school had taught him. He had accepted the church to which he belonged at its own valuation, highly colored by biased historians. Such words as these were to his ears little less than sacrilege. He was shocked that they should come from one whose personality and evident character had impressed him so strongly. His voice was doubtful and perplexed as be said: "But is not that true church of Christ, which is composed of his true disciples, Christian? Surely, they can no more be separated than the sun can be separated from the sunshine; and is not the ministry a vital part of that church?"

Miss Farwell, seeing him so troubled, wondered whether she understood him. She felt that she was talking too freely to this stranger, but his questions drew her on, and she was curiously anxious that he should understand her.

"I was not thinking of that true church composed of the true disciples of Christ," she returned. "And that is just it, don't you see? This true church that is so inseparable from the religion of Christ is so far forgotten that it never enters into any thought of the church at all. The sun always shines, it is true, but we do not always have the sunshine. There are the dark and stormy days, you know, and sometimes there is an eclipse. To me these are the dark days, so dark that I wonder sometimes if it is not an eclipse." She paused then added deliberately, "This selfish, wasteful, cruel, heartless thing that men have built up around their opinions, and whims, and ambitions, has so come between the people and the Christianity of the Christ, that they are beginning to question if, indeed, there is anywhere such a thing as the true church."

Again Dan was startled at her words and by her passionate earnestness; the more so that, in the manner of her speaking as in her words, there was an impersonal touch very unusual to those who speak on religious topics. And there was a note of sadness in her voice as well. It was as if she spoke to him professionally of the sickness of some one dear to her and sought to keep her love for her patient from influencing her calm consideration of the case.

His next words were forced from him almost against his will. And his eyes had that wide questioning look so like that of his mother. "And the ministry," he said.

She answered, "You ask if the ministry is not a vital part of the church, and your very question expresses conditions clearly. What conception of Christianity is it that makes it possible for us to even think of the ministry as a part of the church? Why, the true church is a ministry! There can be no other reason for its existence. But don't you see how we have come to think of the ministry as we have come to think of the church? It is to us, as you say, a part of this great organization that men have created and control, and in this we are right, for this church has made the minister, and this minister has in turn made the church. They are indeed inseparable."

Dan caught up a flower that she had dropped and began picking it to pieces with trembling fingers.

"To me," he said slowly, "the minister is a servant of God. I believe, of course, that whatever work a man does in life he must do as his service to the race and in that sense he serves God. But the ministry--" he reached for another flower, choosing his words carefully, "the ministry is, to me, the highest service to which a man may be called."

She did not reply but looked away over the valley.

"Tell me," he said, "is it not so?"

"If you believe it, then to you it is so," she answered.

"But you--" he urged, "how do you look upon the minister?"

"Why should I tell you? What difference does it make what I think? You forget that we are strangers." She smiled. "Let us talk about the weather; that's a safe topic."

"I had forgotten that we are strangers," he said, with an answering smile. "But I am interested in what you have said because you--you have evidently thought much upon the matter, and your profession must certainly give you opportunities for observation. Tell me, how do you look upon the minister and his work?"

She studied him intently before she answered. Then--as if satisfied with what she found in his face, she said calmly: "To me he is the most useless creature in all the world. He is a man set apart from all those who live lives of service, who do the work of the world. And then that he should be distinguished from these world-workers, these servers, by this noblest of all titles--a minister, is the bitterest irony that the mind of the race ever conceived."

Her companion's face was white now as he answered quickly, "But surely a minister of the gospel is doing God's will and is therefore serving God."

She answered as quickly, "Man serves God only by serving men. There can be no ministry but the ministry of man to man."

"But the minister is a man."

"The world cannot accept him as such, because his individuality is lost in the church to which he belongs. Other institutions employ a man's time, the church employs his life; he has no existence outside his profession. There is no outside the church for him. The world cannot know him as a man, for he is all preacher."

"But the church employs him to minister to the world?"

"I cannot see that it does so at all. On the contrary a church employs a pastor to serve itself. To the churches Christianity has become a question of fidelity to a church and creed and not to the spirit of Christ. The minister's standing and success in his calling, the amount of his salary, even, depends upon his devotion to the particular views of the church that calls him and his ability to please those who pay him for pleasing them. His service to the world does not enter into the transaction any more than when you buy the latest novel of your favorite author, or purchase a picture that pleases you, or buy a ticket to hear your favorite musician. We do not pretend, when we do these things that we are ministering to the world, or that we are moved to spend our money thus to serve God, even though there may be in the book, the picture, or the music, many things that will make the world better."

The big fellow moved uneasily.

"But" he urged, eagerly, "the church is a sacred institution. It is not to be compared to the institutions of men. Its very purpose is so holy, so different from other organizations."

"Which of the hundreds of different sects with their different creeds do you mean by the church?" she asked quickly. "Or do you mean all? And if all are equally sacred, with the same holy purpose, why are they at such variance with each other and why is there such useless competition between them? How are these institutions--organized and controlled, as they are, by men, different from other institutions, organized and controlled by the same men? Surely you are aware that there are thousands of institutions and organizations in the world with aims as distinctly Christian as the professed object of the church. Why are these not as holy and sacred?"

"But the church is of divine origin."

"So is this tree; so is the material in that old building; so are those farms yonder. To me it is only the spirit of God in a thing that can make it holy or sacred. Surely there is as much of God manifest in a field of grain as in any of these churches; why, then, is not a corn field a holy institution and why not the farmer who tends the field, a minister of God?"

"You would condemn then everyone in the church?" he asked bitterly. "I cannot think that--I know--" he paused.

"Condemn?" she answered questioningly, "I condemn?" Those deep gray eyes were turned full upon him, and he saw her face grow tender and sad, while the sweet voice trembled with emotion. "Who spoke of condemnation? Is that just the question? Are you not unfair? In my--" she spoke the words solemnly, "my ministry, I have stood at the bedside of too many heroes and heroines not to know that the church is filled with the truest and bravest. And that--Oh! don't you see--that is the awful pity of it all. That those true, brave, noble lives should be the--the cloud that hides the sun? As for the ministry, one in my profession could scarcely help knowing the grand lives that are hidden in this useless class set apart by the church to push its interests. The ministers are useless only because they are not free. They cannot help themselves. They are slaves, not servants. Their first duty is, not service to the soul-sick world that so much needs their ministry, but obedience to the whims of this hideous monster that they have created and now must obey or--" she paused.

"Or what?" he said.

She continued as if she had not heard: "They are valued for their fidelity to other men's standards, never for the worth of their own lives. They are hired to give always the opinions of others, and they are denied the only thing that can make any life of worth--freedom of self-expression. The surest road to failure for them is to hold or express opinions of their own. They are held, not as necessities, but as a luxury, like heaven itself, for which if men have the means to spare, they pay. They can have no real fellowship with the servants of the race, for they are set apart by the church not to a ministry but from it. Their very personal influence is less than the influence of other good men because the world accepts it as professional. It is the way they earn their living."

"But do you think that the ministers themselves wish to be so set apart?" asked Dan. "I--I am sure they must all crave that fellowship with the workers."

"I think that is true," she answered. "I am sure it is of the many grand, good men in the ministry whom I have known."

"Oh," he said quickly, "then there are good men in the ministry?"

"Yes," she retorted, "just as there are gold and precious stones ornamenting heathen gods and pagan temples, and their goodness is as useless. For whether they wish it or not the facts remain that their masters set them apart and that they are separated, and I notice that most of them accept gracefully the special privileges, and wear the title and all the marks of their calling that emphasize the distinction between them and their fellow men."

"Yet you wear a distinguishing dress," he said. "I knew your calling the first time I saw you."

She laughed merrily.

"Well what amuses you?" he demanded, smiling himself at her merriment.

"Oh, it's so funny to see such a big man so helpless. Really couldn't you find an argument of more weight? Besides you didn't know my profession the first time you saw me. I only wear these clothes when I am at work, just as a mechanic wears his overalls--and they are just as necessary, as you know. The first time you--you bumped into me, I dressed like other people and I had paid full fare, too. Nurses don't get clergy credentials from the railroad."

With this she sprang to her feet. "Look how long the shadows are! I must go right back to my patient this minute."

As she spoke she was all at once painfully conscious again that this man was a stranger. What must he think of her? How could she explain that it was not her habit to talk thus freely to men whom she did not know? She wished that he would tell her his name at least.

Slowly--silently they walked together across the weed-grown yard. As they passed through the gap in the tumble-down fence, Dan turned to look back. It seemed to him ages since he had entered the yard.

"What's the matter, have you lost something?" she asked.

"No--that is--I--perhaps I have. But never mind, it is of no great importance, and anyway I could not find it. I think I will say good-bye now," he added. "I'm not going to town just yet."

Again she wondered at his face, it was so troubled.

He watched her down the street until her blue dress, with its white trimming became a blur in the shadows. Then he struck out once more for the open country.