Chapter XXI. The Warning
 

"From God's sunny hillside pastures to the gloom and stench of the slaughter pens."

It happened two weeks to the day after Dan and Miss Farwell met in Denny's garden.

The Ally had been busy to some purpose. The Ladies' Aid, having reached the point of declaring that something must be done, did something. The Elders of Memorial Church, in their official capacity, called on their pastor.

Dan was in the garden when the Elders came. The Doctor's wife declared that Dan spent most of his time in the garden now, and that, when there, he did nothing because that nurse was always helping him. Good Martha has the fatal gift of telling a bit of news so vividly that it gains much in the telling.

Miss Farwell was in the garden that afternoon with the minister and so was Denny, while Grace Conner and Deborah were sitting on the front porch of the little cottage when the two church fathers passed. Though neither of the men turned their heads, neither of them failed to see the two women on the porch and the three friends in the garden.

"For the love of Heaven, look there!" exclaimed Deborah in an excited whisper. "They're turnin' in at the minister's gate, an' him out there in the 'taters in his shirt, a-diggin' in the ground an' a-gassin' wid Denny an' Miss Hope. I misdoubt there's somethin' stirrin' to take thim to his door the day. I must run an' give him the word."

But Dan had seen and was already on his way to the front gate, drawing on his coat as he went. From the other side of the street the Doctor waved his hand to Dan encouragingly as the young man walked hastily down the sidewalk to overtake the church officials at the front door.

Truly in this denominational hippodrome, odd yoke-fellows are sometimes set to run together; the efforts of the children of light to equal in wisdom the children of darkness leading the church to clap its ecclesiastical harness upon anything that--by flattery, bribes or intimidation, can be led, coaxed or driven to pull at the particular congregational chariot to which the tugs are fast! When the people of Corinth speak of Judge Strong's religion, or his relation to the Memorial Church they wink--if the Judge is not looking. When Elder Jordan is mentioned their voices always have a note of respect and true regard. Elder Strong is always called "The Judge"; Nathaniel Jordan was known far and wide as "Elder Jordan." Thus does the community, as communities have a way of doing, touch the heart of the whole matter.

Dan recognized instinctively the difference in the characters of these two men, yet he had found them always of one mind in all matters of the church. He felt the subtle antagonism of Judge Strong, though he did not realize that the reason for it lay in the cunning instinct of a creature that recognized a natural enemy in all such spirits as his. He felt, too, the regard and growing appreciation of Elder Jordan. Yet the two churchmen were in perfect accord in their "brotherly administration."

When the officials met in Dan's study that day, their characters were unmistakable. That they were both in harness was also clear. The minister's favorite chair creaked in dismay as the Judge settled his heavy body, and twisted this way and that in an open effort to inspect every corner of the apartment with his narrow, suspicious eyes; while the older churchman sat by the window, studiously observing something outside. Dan experienced that strange feeling of uneasiness familiar to every schoolboy when called upon unexpectedly for the private interview with the teacher. The Elders had never visited him before. It was too evident that they had come now upon matters of painful importance.

At last Judge Strong's wandering eye came to rest upon Dan's favorite fishing-rod, that stood in a corner behind a book-case. The young man's face grew red in spite of him. It was impossible not to feel guilty of something in the presence of Judge Strong. Even Elder Jordan started as his brother official's metallic voice rang out, "I see that you follow in the footsteps of the early disciples in one thing, at least, Brother Matthews. You go fishing." He gave forth a shrill, cold laugh that--more than anything else--betrayed the real spirit he laughed to hide.

This remark was characteristic of Judge Strong. On the surface it was the mild jest of a churchman, whose mind dwelt so habitually on the sacred Book, that even in his lightest vein he could not but express himself in terms and allusions of religious significance. Beneath the surface, his words carried an accusation, a condemnation, a sneer. His manner was the eager, expectant, self-congratulatory manner of a dog that has treed something. The Judge's method was skillfully chosen to give him this advantage: it made his meaning clear while it gave no possible opening for a reply to the real idea his words conveyed, and forced his listener to an embarrassed silence of self-condemnation, that secured the Judge in his assumed position of pious superiority.

Dan forced a smile. He felt that the Judge's laugh demanded it. "Yes," he said, "I am scriptural when it comes to fishing. Dr. Oldham and I had a fine day at Gordon's Mills."

"So I understand," said the other meaningly. "I suppose you and the old Doctor have some interesting talks on religion?"

It was impossible not to feel the sneering accusation under the words. It was as impossible to answer. Again Dan's face flushed as he said, "No, we do not discuss the church very often."

"No?" said the Judge. "I should think you would find him a good subject to practice on. Perhaps, though, he practices on you, heh?" Again he laughed.

"Ahem, ahem!" Elder Jordan gave his usual warning. Dan turned to the good old man with a feeling of relief. At least Nathaniel Jordan's words would bear their face value. "Perhaps, Brother Strong, we had better tell Brother Matthews the object of our call."

The Judge leaned back in his chair with the air of one about to be pleasantly entertained. He waved his hand with a gesture that said as plainly as words, "All right, Nathaniel, go ahead. I'm here if you need me, so don't be uneasy! If you find yourself unequal to the task, depend upon me to help you out."

The minister waited with an expectant air.

"Ahem, ahem! You must not think, Brother Matthews, that there is anything really wrong because we called. But we, ahem--we thought best to give you a brotherly warning. I'm sure you will take it in the spirit in which it is meant."

The Judge stirred uneasily in his chair, bending upon Dan such a look as--had he been a real judge--he might have cast upon a convicted criminal. Dan already felt guilty. He signified his assent to the Elder's statement and Nathaniel proceeded:

"You are a young man, Brother Matthews; I may say a very talented young man, and we are jealous for your success in this community and, ahem--for the standing of Memorial Church. Some of our ladies feel--I may say that we feel that you have been a little, ah--careless about some things of late. Elder Strong and I know from past experience that a preacher--a young unmarried preacher cannot be too careful. Not that we have the least idea that you mean any harm, you know--not the least in the world. But people will talk and--ahem, ahem!"

Dan's face was a study. He was so clearly mystified by the Elder's remarks that the good man found his duty even more embarrassing than he had anticipated.

Then Judge Strong threw a flood of light upon the situation in a characteristic manner. "That young woman, Grace Conner, has a mighty bad name in this town; and the other one, her friend the nurse, is a stranger. She was in my house for a month and--well, some things about her look mighty queer to me. She hasn't been inside a church since she came to Corinth. I would be the last man in the world to cast a suspicion on anyone but--" he finished with a shake of his head, and an expression of pious doubt on his crafty face that said he could, if he wished, tell many dark secrets of Miss Farwell's life.

Dan was on his feet instantly, his face flaming and his eyes gleaming with indignation. "I--" then he checked himself, confused, as--in a flash--he remembered who these men were and his relation to them in the church. "I beg your pardon," he finished slowly, and dropped back into his chair, biting his lips and clenching his big hands in an effort at self-control.

Elder Jordan broke in nervously. "Ahem, ahem! You understand, Brother Matthews, that the sisters--that we do not think that you mean any harm, but your standing in the community, you know, is such that we must shun every appearance of evil. We, ahem--we felt it our duty to call."

Big Dan, who had never met that spirit, the Ally, knew not how to answer his masters in the church. He tried to feel that their mission to him was of grave importance. He was tempted to laugh; their ponderous dignity seemed so ridiculous.

"Thank you, sir," he at last managed to say, gravely, "I think it is hardly necessary for me to attempt any explanation." He was still fighting for self-control and chose his words carefully. "I will consider this matter." Then he turned the conversation skillfully into other channels.

When the overseers of the church were gone the young pastor walked the floor of the room trying to grasp the true significance of the situation. Gradually the real meaning of the Elders' visit grew upon him. Because his own life was so big, so broad, because his ideals and ambitions were so high, so true to the spirit of the Christ whose service he thought he had entered, he could not believe his senses.

He might have found some shadow of reason, perhaps, for their fears regarding his friendship for the girl with the bad reputation, had the circumstances been other than they were, and had he not known who it was gave Grace Conner her bad name. But that his friendship for Miss Farwell, whose beautiful ministry was such an example of the spirit of the Christian religion; and that her care for the poor girl should be so quickly construed into something evil--his mind positively refused to entertain the thought. He felt that the visit of his church fathers was unreal. He was as one dazed by an unpleasant dream.

To come from the pure, wholesome atmosphere of his home and the inspiring study of the history of the Christian religion, to such a twisted, distorted, hideous corruption of the church policy and spirit, was, to Dan, like coming from God's sunny hillside pastures to the gloom and stench of the slaughter pens. He was stunned by the littleness, the meanness that had prompted the "kindly warning" of these leaders of the church.

Slowly he began to see what that spirit might mean to him.

No man of ordinary intelligence could long be in Memorial Church, without learning that it was ruled by a ring, as truly as any body politic was ever so ruled. Dan Matthews understood too clearly that his position in Memorial Church depended upon the "bosses" then in control. And he saw farther--saw, indeed, that his final success or failure in his chosen calling depended upon the standing that should be given him by this, his first charge; depended at the last upon these two men who had shown themselves, each in his own way, so easily influenced by the low, vicious tales of a few idle-minded town gossips.

As one in the dark--stepping without warning into a boggy hole--Dan groped for firmer ground.

As one standing alone in a wide plain sees on the distant horizon the threat of a gathering storm, and--watching, shudders at the shadow of a passing cloud, Dan stood--a feeling of loneliness and dread heavy upon him.

He longed for companionship, for someone to whom he could speak his heart. But to whom in Corinth could he go? These men who had just "advised him" were, theoretically, his intimate counselors; to them he was supposed, and had expected, to look--in his inexperience, for advice and help. These men, old in the service of the church--how would they answer his troubled thoughts? He shrugged his shoulders and smiled grimly. The Doctor? He smiled again.

Dan little dreamed how much that keen old fisherman already knew, from a skillful baiting of Martha, about the visit of the Elders that afternoon; while his knowledge of Dan's character from childhood, enabled the physician to guess more than a little of the thoughts that occupied the young man pacing the floor of his room. But the Doctor would not do for the young man that day.

Dan went to the window overlooking the garden. The nurse was still there, helping crippled Denny with his work. The minister's hoe was leaning against the big rock, as he had left it when he had caught up his coat. Should he go down? What would she say if he were to tell her of the Elders' mission?

Something caused Miss Farwell to look up just then and she saw him. She beckoned to him playfully, guardedly, like a schoolgirl. Smiling, he shook his head. He could not go.

More than ever, then, he felt very much alone.