Chapter XXV. A Laborer and His Hire
 

"But it was a reaching out in the dark, a blind groping for something--Dan knew not exactly what: a restless but cautious feeling about for a place whereon to set his feet."

It was the Sunday evening following the incidents just related that Dan was challenged.

His sermon was on "Fellowship of Service," a theme very different from the subjects he had chosen at the beginning of his preaching in Corinth. The Doctor smiled as he listened, telling himself that the boy was already beginning to "reach out." As usual the Doctor was right. But it was a reaching out in the dark, a blind groping for something--Dan knew not exactly what: a restless but cautious feeling about for a place whereon to set his feet.

With the sublime confidence of the newly-graduated, this young shepherd had come from the denominational granary to feed his flock with a goodly armful of theological husks; and very good husks they were too. It should be remembered that--while Dan had been so raised under the teachings of his home that, to an unusual degree his ideals and ambitions were most truly Christian--he knew nothing of life other than the simple life of the country neighborhood where he was born; he knew as little of churches. So that--while it was natural and easy for him to accept the husks from his church teachers at their valuation, being wholly without the fixed prejudice that comes from family church traditions--it was just as natural and easy for him to discover quickly, when once he was face to face with his hungry flock, that the husks were husks.

From the charm of the historical glories of the church as pictured by the church historians, and from the equally captivating theories of speculative religion as presented by teachers of schools of theology, Dan had been brought suddenly in contact with actual conditions. In his experience of the past weeks there was no charm, no glory, no historical greatness, no theoretical perfection. There was meanness, shameful littleness--actual, repulsive, shocking. He was compelled to recognize the real need that his husks could not satisfy. It had been forced upon his attention by living arguments that refused to be put aside. And Big Dan was big enough to see that the husks did not suffice--consistent enough to cease giving them out. But the young minister felt pitifully empty handed.

The Doctor had foreseen that Dan would very soon reach the point in his ministerial journey where he was now standing--the point where he must decide which of the two courses open to him he should choose.

Before him, on the one hand, lay the easy, well-worn path of obedience to the traditions, policies and doctrines of Memorial Church and its denominational leaders. On the other hand lay the harder and less-frequented way of truthfulness to himself and his own convictions. Would he--lowering his individual standard of righteousness--wave the banner of his employers, preaching--not the things that he believed to be the teachings of Jesus--but the things that he knew would meet the approval of the church rulers? Or would he preach the things that his own prayerful judgment told him were needed if his church was to be, indeed, the temple of the spirit of Christ. In short Dan must now decide whether he would bow to the official board, that paid his salary, or to his God, as the supreme authority to whom he must look for an indorsement of his public teaching.

In Dan's case, it was the teaching of the four years of school against the teaching of his home. The home won. Being what he was by birth and training, this man could not do other than choose the harder way. The Doctor with a great amount of satisfaction saw him throwing down his husks, and awaited the outcome with interest.

That sermon was received by the Elders and ruling classes with silent, uneasy bewilderment. Others were puzzled no less by the new and unfamiliar note, but their faces expressed a kind of doubtful satisfaction. Thus it happened that, with one exception, not a person of the entire audience mentioned the sermon when they greeted their minister at the close of the service. The exception was a big, broad-shouldered young farmer whom Dan had never before met.

Elder Strong introduced him, "Brother Matthews, you must meet Brother John Gardner. This is the first time he has been to church for a long while."

The two young men shook hands, each measuring the other with admiring eyes.

The Judge continued, "Brother John used to be one of our most active workers, but for some reason he has dropped behind. I never could just exactly understand it." He finished with his pious, patronizing laugh, which somehow conveyed the thought that he did understand if only he chose to tell, and that the reason was anything but complimentary to Brother John.

The big farmer's face grew red at the Judge's words. He quickly faced about as if to retort, but checked himself, and, ignoring the Elder said directly to Dan, "Yes, and I may as well tell you that I wouldn't be here today, but I am caught late with my harvesting, and short of hands. I drove into town to see if I could pick up a man or two. I didn't find any so I waited over until church, thinking that I might run across someone here."

Dan smiled. The husky fellow was so uncompromisingly honest and outspoken. It was like a breath of air from the minister's own home hills. It was so refreshing Dan wished for more, "And have you found anyone?" he asked abruptly.

At the matter-of-fact tone the other looked at the minister with a curious expression in his blue eyes. The question was evidently not what he had expected.

"No," he said, "I have not, but I'm glad I came anyway. Your sermon was mighty interesting to me, sir. I couldn't help thinking though, that these sentiments about work would come a heap more forceful from someone who actually knowed what a day's work was. My experience has been that the average preacher knows about as much about the lives of the laboring people as I do about theology."

"I think you are mistaken there," declared Dan. "The fact is, that the average preacher comes from the working classes."

"If he comes from them he takes mighty good care that he stays from them," retorted the other. "But I've got something else to do besides starting an argument now. I don't mind telling you, though, that if I could see you pitch wheat once in a while when crops are going to waste for want of help, I'd feel that we was close enough together for you to preach to me." So saying he turned abruptly and pushed his way through the crowd toward a group of working-men who stood near the door.

The Doctor had never commented to Dan on his sermons. But, that night as they walked home together, something made Dan feel that his friend was pleased. The encounter with the blunt young farmer had been so refreshing that he was not so depressed in spirit as he commonly was after the perfunctory, meaningless, formal compliments, and handshaking that usually closed his services. Perhaps because of this he--for the first time--sought an expression from his old friend.

"The people did not seem to like my sermon tonight?" he ventured.

The Doctor grunted a single word, "Stunned!"

"Do you think they will like it when they recover?" asked Dan with an embarrassed laugh.

But the old man was not to be led into discussing Dan's work.

"In my own practice," he said dryly, "I never prescribe medicine to suit a patient's taste, but to cure him."

Dan understood. He tried again.

"But how did you like my prescription, Doctor?"

For a while the Doctor did not answer; then he said, "Well you see, Dan, I always find more religion in your talks when you are not talking religiously."

Just then a team and buggy passed, and the voice of John Gardner hailed them cheerily.

"Good night, Doctor! Good night, Mr. Matthews!"

"Good night!" they answered, and the Doctor called after him, "Did you find your man, John?"

"No," shouted the other, "I did not. If you run across anyone send 'em out will you?"

"There goes a mighty fine fellow," commented the old physician.

"Seems to be," agreed Dan thoughtfully. "Where does he live?"

The Doctor told him, adding, "I wouldn't call until harvest is over, if I were you. He really wouldn't have time to give you and he'd probably tell you so." Which advice Dan received in silence.

The sun was just up the next morning when John Gardner was hitching his team to the big hay wagon. Already the smoke was coming from the stack of the threshing engine, that stood with the machine in the center of the field, and the crew was coming from the cook-wagon. Two hired men, with another team and wagon, were already gathering a load of sheaves to haul to the threshers.

The house dog barked fiercely and the farmer paused with a trace in his hand when he saw a big man turning into the barn lot from the road.

"Good morning!" called Dan cheerily, "I feared I was going to be late." He swung up to the young fellow who stood looking at him--too astonished to speak--the unhooked trace still in his hand.

"I understand that you need a hand," said Dan briefly. And the farmer noticed that the minister was dressed in a rough suit of clothes, a worn flannel shirt and an old slouch hat--Dan's fishing rig.

With a slow smile John turned, hooked his trace, and gathered his lines. "Do you mean to say that you walked out here from town this morning to work in the harvest field--a good eight miles?"

"That is exactly what I mean," returned the other.

"What for?" asked the farmer bluntly.

"For the regular wages, with one condition."

"And the condition?"

"That no one on the place shall be told that I am a preacher, and that--for today at least--I pitch against you. If, by tonight, you are not satisfied with my work you can discharge me," he added meaningly. As Dan spoke he faced the rugged farmer with a look that made him understand that his challenge of the night before was accepted.

The blue eyes gleamed. "I'll take you," he said curtly. Calling to his wife, "Mary give this man his breakfast." Then to Dan, "When you get through come out to the machine." He sprang on his wagon and Dan turned toward the kitchen.

"Hold on a minute," John shouted, as the wagon began to move, "what'll I call you?"

The other answered over his shoulder, "My name is Dan."

All that day they worked, each grimly determined to handle more grain than the other. Before noon the spirit of the contest had infected the whole force. Every hand on the place worked as if on a wager. The threshing crew were all from distant parts of the country, and no one knew who it was that had so recklessly matched his strength and staying power against John Gardner, the acknowledged champion for miles around. Bets were freely laid; rough, but good natured chaff flew from mouth to mouth; and now and then a hearty yell echoed over the field, but the two men in the contest were silent; they scarcely exchanged a word.

In the afternoon the stranger slowly but surely forged ahead. John rallied every ounce of his strength but his giant opponent gained steadily. When the last load came in the farmer threw down his fork before the whole crowd and held out his hand to Dan.

"I'll give it up," he said heartily. "You're a better man than I am, stranger, wherever you come from." Dan took the offered hand while the men cheered lustily.

But the light of battle still shone in the minister's eyes.

"Perhaps," he said, "pitching is not your game. I'll match you now, tonight, for anything you want--wrestling, running, jumping, or I'll go you at any time for any work you can name."

John slowly looked him over and shook his head, "I know when I've got enough," he said laughing. "Perhaps some of the boys here--" He turned to the group.

The men grinned as they measured the stranger with admiring glances and one drawled, "We don't know where you come from, pardner, but we sure know what you can do. Ain't nobody in this outfit hankerin' to tackle the man that can work John Gardner down."

At the barn the farmer drew the minister to one side.

"Look here, Brother Matthews," he began.

But the other interrupted sharply. "My name is Dan, Mr. Gardner. Don't go back on the bargain."

"Well then, Dan, I won't. And please remember after this that my name is John. I started to ask if you really meant to stay out here and work for me this harvest?"

"That was the bargain, unless you are dissatisfied and want me to quit tonight."

The other rubbed his tired arms. "Oh I'm satisfied all right," he said grimly. "But I can't understand it, that's all."

"No," said the other, "and I can't explain. But perhaps if you were a preacher, and were met by men as men commonly meet preachers, you would understand clearly enough."

Tired as he was, the big farmer laughed until the tears came.

"And to think," he said, "all the way home last night I was wondering how you could stand it. I understand it all right. Come on in to supper." He led the way to the house.

For three days Dan fairly reveled in the companionship of those rough men, who gave him full fellowship in their order of workers. Then he went back to town.

John drove him in and the two chatted like the good comrades they had come to be, until within sight of the village. As they drew near the town silence fell upon them; their remarks grew formal and forced.

Dan felt as if he were leaving home to return to a strange land where he would always be an alien. At his door the farmer said awkwardly, "Well, goodbye, Brother Matthews, come out whenever you can."

The minister winced but did not protest. "Thank you," he returned, "I have enjoyed my visit more than I can say." And there was something so pathetic in the brown eyes of the stalwart fellow that the other strong man could make no reply. He drove quickly away without a word or a backward look.

In his room Dan sat down by the window, thinking of the morrow and what the church called his work, of the pastoral visits, the committee meetings, the Ladies' Aid. At last he stood up and stretched his great body to its full height with a sigh. Then drawing his wages from his pocket he placed the money on the study table and stood for a long time contemplating the pieces of silver as if they could answer his thoughts. Again he went to the window and looked down at Denny's garden that throughout the summer had yielded its strength to the touch of the crippled boy's hand. Then from the other window he gazed at the cast-iron monument on the corner--gazed until the grim figure seemed to threaten him with its uplifted arm.

Slowly he turned once more to the coins on the table. Gathering them, one by one, he placed them carefully in an envelope. Then, seating himself, he wrote on the little package, "The laborer is worthy of his hire."