Chapter XVII. The Tragedy
 

"Now, for the first time, he was face to face with existing conditions. Not the theory but the practice confronted him now. Not the traditional, but the actual. It was, indeed, a tragedy."

Dan went heavily up the path between the roses, while the Doctor observed him closely. The young minister did not sit down.

"Well?" said the Doctor.

Dan's voice was strained and unnatural. "Will you come over to my room?"

Without a word the old man followed him.

In the privacy of his little study the boy said, "Doctor, you had a reason for telling me to ask Miss Farwell if the church could do anything for--for that poor girl. And the nurse told me to ask you about the case. I want you to tell me about her--all about her. Why is she living in that wretched place with those negroes? Why did she attempt to kill herself? I want to know about this girl as you know her--as Miss Farwell knows."

The old physician made no reply but sat silent--studying the young man who paced up and down the room. When his friend did not speak Dan said again, "Doctor you must tell me! I'm not a child. What is this thing that you should so hesitate to talk to me freely? I must know and you must tell me now."

"I guess you are right, boy," returned the other slowly.

To Big Dan, born with the passion for service in his very blood and reared amid the simple surroundings of his mountain home, where the religion and teaching of the old Shepherd had been felt for a generation, where every soul was held a neighbor--with a neighbor's right to the assistance of the community, and where no one--not even the nameless "wood's colt"--was made to suffer for the accident of birth or family, but stood and was judged upon his own life and living, the story of Grace Conner was a revelation almost too hideous in its injustice to be believed.

When the Doctor finished there was a tense silence in the minister's little study. It was as though the two men were witnessing a grim tragedy.

Trained under the influence of his parents and from them receiving the highest ideals of life and his duty to the race, Dan had been drawn irresistibly by the theoretical self-sacrificing heroism and traditionally glorious ministry of the church. Now, for the first time, he was face to face with existing conditions. Not the theory but the practice confronted him now. Not the traditional, but the actual.

It was, indeed, a tragedy.

The boy's face was drawn and white. His eyes--wide with that questioning look--burned with a light that his old friend had not seen in them before--the light of suffering--of agonizing doubt.

In his professional duties the Doctor had been forced to school himself to watch the keenest suffering unmoved, lest his emotions bias his judgment--upon the accuracy of which depended the life of his patient. He had been taught to cause the cruelest pain with unshaken nerve by the fact that a human life under his knife depended upon the steadiness of his hand. But his sympathy had never been dulled--only controlled and hidden. So, long years of contact with what might be called a disease of society, had accustomed him to the sight of conditions--the revelation of which came with such a shock to the younger man. But the Doctor could still appreciate what the revelation meant to the boy. Knowing Dan from his childhood, familiar with his home-training, and watching his growth and development with personal, loving interest, the old physician had realized how singularly susceptible his character was to the beautiful beliefs of the church. He had foreseen, too, something of the boy's suffering when he should be brought face to face with the raw, naked truths of life. And Dan, as he sat now searching the rugged, but kindly face of his friend, realized faintly why the Doctor had shrunk from talking to him of the sick girl.

Slowly the minister rose from his chair. Aimlessly--as one in perplexing, troubled thought--he went to the window and, standing there, looked out with unseeing eyes upon the cast-iron monument on the opposite corner of the street. Then he moved restlessly to the other window, and, with eyes still unseeing, looked down into the little garden of the crippled boy--the garden with the big moss and vine-grown rock in its center. Then he went to his study table and stood idly moving the books and papers about. His eye mechanically followed the closely written lines on the sheets of paper that were lying as he had left them that morning. He started. The next moment, with quick impatient movement, he crushed the pages of the manuscript in his powerful hands and threw them into the waste basket. He faced the Doctor with a grim smile.

"My sermon on 'The Christian Ministry.'"