The Calling of Dan Matthews by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XII. The Nurse Forgets
"He seemed so made for fine and strong things."
The affairs of Memorial Church were booming.
Or, in the more orthodox language of Elder Jordan, in an article to the official paper of the denomination, "the congregation had taken on new life, and the Lord's work was being pushed with a zeal and determination never before equalled. The audiences were steadily increasing. The interest was reviving in every department, and the world would soon see grand old Memorial Church taking first place in Corinth, if not in the state. Already Reverend Matthews had been asked to deliver a special sermon to the L. M. of J. B.'s, who would attend the service in a body, wearing the full regalia of the order. Surely God had abundantly blessed the brethren in sending them such an able preacher."
The week following Dan's talk with Miss Farwell in the old Academy yard, the ladies of the Aid Society assembled early, and in unusual numbers, for their meeting at the home of Judge Strong. As the announcement from the pulpit had it--there was business of great importance to transact; also there was work on hand that must be finished.
The business of importance was the planning of a great entertainment to be given in the opera house, by local talent, both in and out of the church, for the purpose of raising money that the church still owed their former pastor. The unfinished work was a quilt of a complicated wheel pattern. Every spoke of each wheel contained the name of some individual who had paid ten cents for the honor. The hubs cost twenty-five cents. When finished this "beautiful work of the Lord" (they said their work was the Lord's work) was to be sold to the highest bidder; thereby netting a sum of money for the pulpit furniture fund, nearly equal to the cost to anyone of the leading workers, for the society's entertainment, in a single afternoon or evening, for what would appear in the Sunday issue of the Daily Corinthian as a "social event."
It must not be understood that all the women enrolled as members of Dan's congregation belonged to the Ladies' Aid. Only the workers were active in that important part of the "Body of Christ." Many there were in the congregation, quiet, deeply--truly--religious souls, who had not the time for this service, but in the scheme of things as they are, those were not classed as active members. They were not of the inner circle on the inside. They were reckoned as counting only on the roll of membership. But it was the strength, the soul, the ruling power, the spirit of this Temple of God that assembled that afternoon at Judge Strong's big, brown house, on Strong Avenue, just beyond Strong Memorial Church.
The Ally came also. The Ally, it is said, never misses a Ladies' Aid meeting in Corinth.
Miss Farwell was there with her patient as she had promised, and Mrs. Strong took particular care that as fast as they arrived each one of her guests met the young woman. To some--women of the middle class--the trained nurse, in her blue dress with white cap and apron, was an object of unusual interest. They did not know whether to rank her with servants, stenographers, sales-ladies or teachers. But the leading ladies (see the Daily Corinthian) were very sure of themselves. This young woman worked for wages in the homes of people, waited on people; therefore she was a working girl--a servant.
No one wasted much time with the stranger. The introduction was acknowledged with a word or a cool nod and an unintelligible murmur of something that meant nothing, or--worse--with a patronizing air, a sham cordiality elaborately assumed, which said plainly "I acknowledge the introduction here, because this is the Lord's business. You will be sure please, that you make no mistake should we chance to meet again." And immediately the new arrival would produce the modern weapon of the Christian warfare, needle, thread and thimble; and--hurrying to the side of some valiant comrade of her own set--join bravely in the fray.
That quilt was attacked with a spirit that was worth at least a half column in the denominational weekly, while the sound of the conflict might almost have been heard as far as Widow Mulhall's garden where Denny was cheerily digging away, with his one good side, while the useless, crippled arm swung from the twisted shoulder.
To Miss Farwell sitting quietly--unobserved, but observing--there came a confused sound of many voices speaking at once, with now and then a sentence in a tone stronger than the common din.
"She said the Memorial Church didn't believe in the Spirit anyhow, and that all we wanted was to get 'em in ... I told them that Brother Matthews would surely be getting some of their folks before the year was out, if they kept on coming to our services ... I says, says I--'Brother Matthews never said that; you'd better read your Bible. If you can show me in the Book where you get your authority for it, I'll quit the Memorial Church right then and join yours' ... Yes, all their people were out ... Sure, he's their church clerk. I heard him say with my own ears that Brother Matthews was the biggest preacher that had ever been in Corinth ... I'll venture that sermon next Sunday on 'The Christian Ministry' will give them something to think about. The old Doctor never misses a service now. Wouldn't it be great if we was to get him? Wasn't that solo the sweetest thing? Wish he would join; we'd be sure of him then ... They would like mighty well to get him away from us if they could. He'll stay fast enough as long as Charity plays the organ!"
There was a laugh at this last from a group near the window and Miss Charity blushed as she answered, "I've worked hard enough to get him, and I certainly intend to keep him if I can! I've been urging all the girls to be particularly nice to him."
Someone nearer to Miss Farwell said, in low tone--"Of course there's nothing in it. Charity's just keeping him in the choir. She wouldn't think of anyone but the preacher. I tell you if Brother Matthews knows what's best for him, he won't miss that chance. I guess if the truth was known old Nathan's about the best fixed of anyone in Corinth."
Sometimes a group would put their heads closer together and by the quick glances in her direction the nurse felt that she was contributing her full share to the success of the meeting. On one of these occasions she turned her back on the company to speak a few words to her patient who was sitting in an easy chair a little apart from the circle.
The invalid's face was all aglow. "Isn't it fine!" she said. "I feel as if I had been out of the world. It's so kind of these dear sisters to have the meeting here today so that I could look on. It's so good of you too, dear, to stay so they could come." She laughed. "Do you know, I think they're all a little bit afraid of you."
The nurse smiled and was about to reply when there was a sudden hush in the room and her patient whispered excitedly, "He's come! Now you'll get to meet our minister!"
Mrs. Strong's voice in the hall could be heard greeting the new arrival, and answering her the deeper tones of a man's voice.
Miss Farwell started. Where had she heard that voice before? Then she felt him enter the room and heard the ladies greeting him. Something held her from turning and she remained with her back to the company, watching her patient's face, as the eyes of the invalid followed the minister about the room.
Charity alone was noting the young woman's too obvious lack of interest.
The hum had already commenced again when Mrs. Strong's hand was placed lightly on the nurse's arm.
"Miss Farwell, I want you to meet our minister, Reverend Matthews."
There was an amused smile on Dan's face as he held out his hand. "I believe Miss Farwell and I have met before."
But the young woman ignored the out-stretched hand, and her voice had an edge, as she answered, "It is possible sir. I am forced to meet so many strangers in my profession, you know, but I--I have forgotten you."
Charity was still watching suspiciously. At the minister's words she started and a touch of color came into her pale cheeks, while at Miss Farwell's answer the look of suspicion in her eyes deepened. What could it mean?
Dan's embarrassment was unmistakable. Before he could find words to reply, the sick woman exclaimed, "Why, how strange! Do tell us about it, Brother Matthews. Was it here in Corinth?"
In a flash the minister saw his predicament. If he said he had met the young lady in Corinth they would know that it was impossible that she should have literally forgotten him. He understood the meaning of her words. These women would give them a hundred meanings. If he admitted that he was wrong and that he had not met her, there was always the chance of the people learning of that hour spent on the Academy grounds.
Meanwhile the young woman made him understand that she realized the difficulties of his position, and all awaited his next words with interest. Looking straight into her eyes he said, "I seem to have made a mistake. I beg your pardon, Miss Farwell."
She smiled. It was almost as good as if he had deliberately lied, but it was the best he could do.
"Please do not mention it," she returned, with a meaning for him alone. "I am sorry that I will not be here next Sunday to hear your sermon on 'The Christian Ministry!' So many have urged me to attend. There is no doubt it will be interesting."
"You are leaving Corinth, then?" he asked.
At the same moment her patient and Mrs. Strong exclaimed, "Oh Miss Hope, we thought you had decided to stay. We can't let you go so soon."
She turned from the man to answer the invalid.
"Yes I must go. I did not know the last time we talked it over, but something has happened since that makes it necessary. I shall leave tomorrow. And now, if you will excuse me please, I will run away for a few moments to get my things together. You are doing so nicely, you really don't need me at all, and there is no reason why I should stay longer--now that I have met the minister." She bowed slightly to Dan and slipped from the room.
The women looked significantly at one another, and the minister too came in for his full share of the curious glances. There was something in the incident that they could not understand and because Dan was a man they naturally felt that he was somehow to blame. It was not long until Charity, under the pretext of showing him a sacred song which she had found in one of Mrs. Strong's books, led him to another room, away from the curious crowd.
All the week Dan had looked forward to this meeting of the Ladies' Aid Society for he knew that he would see the nurse again. Charmed by the young woman's personality and mind, and filled with his purpose to win her to the church, he was determined, if chance did not bring it about, to seek another opportunity to talk with her. He had smiled often to himself, at what he thought would be a good joke between them, when she came to know of his calling. Like many such jokes it was not so funny after all. Instead of laughing with him she had given him to understand that the incident was closed, that there must be no attempt on his part to continue the acquaintance--that, indeed, she would not acknowledge that she had ever met him, and that she was so much in earnest that she was leaving Corinth the next day because of him.
"Really, Brother Matthews, if I have offended you in any way, I am very sorry." Dan awoke with a start. He and Charity were alone in the room. From the open door, came the busy hum of the workers in the Master's vineyard.
"I beg your pardon, what were you saying?" he murmured.
"I have asked you three times if you liked the music last Sunday."
Apologizingly he answered, "Really I am not fit company for anyone today."
"I noticed that you seemed troubled. Can I help you in any way? Is it the church?" she asked gently.
He laughed, "Oh no, it's nothing that anyone can help. It's myself. Please don't bother about it. I believe if you will excuse me, and make my excuses to the ladies in there, I will go. I really have some work to do."
She was watching his face so closely that she had not noticed the nurse who passed the window and entered the garden. Dan rose to his feet as he spoke.
"Why, Brother Matthews, the ladies expect you to stay for their business meeting, you know. This is very strange."
"Strange! There is nothing strange about it. I have more important matters that demand my attention--that is all. It is not necessary to interrupt them now, you can explain when the business meeting opens. They would excuse me I am sure, if they knew how important it was." And before poor Charity had time to fairly grasp the situation he was gone, slipping into the hall for his hat, and out by a side door.
Miss Farwell from meeting the minister, had gone directly to her room, but she could not go about her packing. Dropping into a chair by the window she sat staring into the tops of the big maples. She did not see the trees. She saw a vast stretch of rolling country, dotted with farm-buildings and stacks, across which the flying cloud-shadows raced, a weed-grown yard with a gap in the tumble-down fence, an old deserted school building, and a big clean-looking man standing, with the sun-light on his red-brown hair.
"And he--he was that." She had thought him something so fine and strong. He seemed so made for fine and strong things. And he had let her go on--leading her to talk as she would have talked only to intimate friends who would understand. She had so wanted him to understand. And then he had thought it all a joke! The gray eyes filled with angry tears, and the fine chin quivered. She sprang to her feet. "I won't!" she said aloud, "I won't!"
Why should she indeed think a second time of this stranger--this preacher? The room seemed close. She felt that she could not stay another minute in the house, with those people down stairs. Catching up a book, she crept down the back way and on out to a vine covered arbor that stood in a secluded corner of the garden.
Miss Farwell had been in her retreat but a few minutes when the sound of a step on the gravel walk startled her. Then the doorway was darkened by a tall, broad-shouldered figure, and a voice said, "May I come in?"
The gray eyes flashed once in his direction. Then she calmly opened her book, without a further glance, or a sign to betray her knowledge of his presence.
"May I come in?" he asked again.
She turned a page seeming not to hear.
Once more the man repeated the same words slowly--sadly.
The young woman turned another page of her book.
Then suddenly the doorway was empty. She rose quickly from her place and started forward. Then she stopped.
Charity met him on his way to the gate.
"Have you finished that important business so soon?" she asked sharply. Then with concern at the expression of his face she exclaimed, "Tell me, won't you, what is the matter!"
He tried to laugh and when he spoke, his voice was not his voice at all.
The daughter of the church turned to watch her minister as he passed through the gate, out of the yard and down the street. Then she went slowly down the path to the arbor, where she found a young woman crouched on the wooden bench weeping bitter tears;--a book on the floor at her feet.
Quickly Charity drew back. Very quietly she went down the walk again. And as she went, she seemed all at once to have grown whiter and thin and old.