Chapter XXIX. A Matter of Business
 

"'You say, sir, that some things are inevitable. You are right.'"

At the church prayer meeting, that evening, Judge Strong prayed with a fervor unusual even for him, and in church circles the Elder was rated mighty in prayer. In fact the Judge's religious capital was mostly invested in good, safe, public petitions to the Almighty--such investments being rightly considered by the Judge as "gilt-edged," for--whatever the returns--it was all profit.

Theoretically the Judge's God noted "even the sparrow's fall," and in all of his public religious exercises, the Judge stated that fact with clearness and force. Making practical application of his favorite text the Judge never killed sparrows. His everyday energies were spent in collecting mortgages, acquiring real estate, and in like harmless pursuits, that were--so far as he had observed--not mentioned in the Word, and presumably, therefore, were passed over by the God of the sparrow.

So the Judge prayed that night, with pious intonations asking his God for everything he could think of for himself, his church, his town and the whole world. And when he could think of no more blessings, he unblushingly asked God to think of them for him, and to give them all abundantly--more than they could ask or desire. Reminding God of his care for the sparrow, he pleaded with him to watch over their beloved pastor, "who is absent from his flock in search of--ah, enjoying--ah, the beauties of Nature--ah, and bring him speedily back to his needy people, that they may all grow strong in the Lord."

Supplementing his prayer with a few solemn reflections, as was expected from an Elder of the church, the Judge commented on the smallness of the company present; lamented the decline of spirituality in the churches; declared the need for the old Jerusalem gospel, and the preaching of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus; scored roundly those who were absent, seeking their own pleasure, neglecting their duties while the world was perishing; and finished with a plea to the faithful to assist their worthy pastor--who, unfortunately, was not present with them that evening--in every way possible. Then the Judge went home to occupy the rest of the evening with some matters of business.

In the Strong mansion the room known as the library is on the ground floor in a wing of the main building. As rooms have a way of doing, it expresses unmistakably the character of its tenant. There is a book-case, with a few spick-and-span books standing in prim, cold rows behind the glass doors--which are always locked. The key is somewhere, no doubt. There are no pictures on the walls, save a fancy calendar--presented with the compliments of the Judge's banker, a crayon portrait of the Judge's father--in a cheap gilt frame, and another calendar, compliments of the Judge's grocer.

The furniture and appointments are in harmony; a table, with a teachers' Bible and a Sunday school quarterly, a big safe wherein the Judge kept his various mortgages and papers of value, and the Judge's desk, being most conspicuous. It is a significant comment on the Elder's business methods that, in the top right-hand drawer of his desk, he keeps a weapon ready for instant use, and that the window shades are always drawn when the lamps are lighted.

Sitting at his desk the Judge heard the front doorbell ring and his wife direct someone to the library. A moment later he looked up from his papers to see Dan standing before him.

The Judge was startled. He had thought the young man far away. Then, too, the Judge had never seen the minister dressed in rough trousers, belted at the waist; a flannel shirt under a torn and mud-stained coat; and mud-spattered boots that came nearly to his hips. The slouch hat in the visitor's hand completed the picture. Dan looked big in any garb. As the Judge saw him that night he seemed a giant, and this giant had the look of one come in haste on business of moment.

What was it that made the Judge reach out impulsively toward that top right-hand drawer.

Forcing his usual dry, mirthless laugh, he greeted Dan with forced effusiveness, urging him to take a chair, declaring that he hardly knew him, that he thought he was at Gordon's Mills fishing. Then he entered at once into a glowing description of the splendid prayer meeting they had held that evening, in the minister's absence.

Ignoring the invitation to be seated, Dan walked slowly to the center of the room, and standing by the table, looked intently at the man at the desk. The patter of the Judge's talk died away. The presence of the man by the table seemed to fill the whole room. The very furniture became suddenly cheap and small. The Judge himself seemed to shrink, and he had a sense of something about to happen. Swiftly he reviewed in his mind several recent deals. What was it?

"Well," he said at last, when Dan did not speak, "won't you sit down?"

"Thank you, no," answered Dan. "I can stop only a minute. I called to see you about that mortgage on Widow Mulhall's home."

"Ah! Well?"

"I want to ask you, sir, if it is not possible for you to reconsider the matter and grant her a little more time."

The man at the desk answered curtly, "Possibly, sir, but it would not be business. Do you--ah, consider this matter as coming under the head of your--ah, pastoral duties?"

Dan ignored the question, as he earnestly replied, "I will undertake to see that the mortgage is paid, sir, if you will give me a little time."

To which the other answered coldly, "My experience with ministers' promises to pay has not been reassuring, and, as an Elder in the church, I may say that we do not employ you to undertake the payment of other people's debts. The people might not understand your interest in the Widow's affairs."

Again Dan ignored the other's answer, though his face went white, and his big hands crushed the slouch hat with a mighty grip. He urged what it would mean to Deborah and her crippled son to lose their little home and the garden--almost their only means of support. But the face of the Judge expressed no kindly feeling. He was acting in a manner that was fully legitimate. He had considered it carefully. As for the hardship, some things in connection with business were inevitable.

As the Elder answered Dan's arguments and pleadings, the minister's face grew very sad, and his low, slow voice trembled at times. When the uselessness of his efforts were too evident for him to continue the conversation he turned sadly toward the door.

Something caused the Judge to say, "Don't go yet, Brother Matthews. You see, being a minister, there are some things that you don't understand. You are making a mistake in--" He caught his breath. Instead of leaving the room, Dan was closing and locking the door.

He came back in three quick strides. This time he placed his hat on the table. When he spoke his voice was still low--intense--shaken with feeling.

"You say, sir, that some things are inevitable. You are right."

There was that in his manner now that made the man in the chair tremble. He started to speak, but Dan silenced him.

"You have said quite enough, sir. Don't think that I have not fully considered this matter. I have. It is inevitable. Turn to your desk there and write a letter to Mrs. Mulhall granting her another year of time."

The Judge tried to laugh, but his dry lips made a strange sound. With a quick movement he jerked open the top right-hand drawer, but before he could lay hand on the weapon, Dan leaped to within easy striking distance.

"Shut that drawer!"

The Judge obeyed.

"Now write!"

"I'll have the law on you! I'll put you out of the Christian ministry! I'll have you arrested if you assault me. I'll--"

"I have considered all that, too," said Dan. "Try it, and you will stir up such a feeling that the people of this community will drive you out of the country. You can't do it and live in Corinth, Judge Strong. You have too much at stake in this town to risk it. You won't have me arrested for this; you can't afford it, sir. Write that letter and no one but you and I will ever know of this incident. Refuse, or fail to keep the promise of your letter, and no power on earth shall prevent me from administering justice! You who would rob that crippled boy of his garden--"

The man shuddered. Suddenly he opened his mouth to call. But Dan, reading his purpose in his eyes, had him by the throat before he could utter a sound.

This was enough.

With the letter in his pocket Dan stood silently regarding his now cowering victim, and his deep voice was full of pain as he said, in that slow way, "I regret this incident, Brother Strong, more than I can say. I have no apology to make. It was inevitable. You have my word that no one shall know, from me, what has occurred here this evening. When you think it all over you will not carry the matter further. You cannot afford it. You will see that you cannot afford it."

When the Judge lifted his head he was alone.

"Did I keep you waiting too long?" asked Dan, when he had again taken his place by Miss Farwell's side.

"Oh no! But tell me: is it all right?"

"Yes, it's all right. Judge Strong has kindly granted our friends another year. That will give us time to do something."

Arriving at the house he gave Hope the letter for Deborah. "And here," he said, "is something for you." From under the buggy seat he drew the big bass.

When Dan returned to Gordon's Mills with the team the next morning, he gave back the Doctor's check, saying simply, "The Judge listened to reason and decided that he would not press the case." And that was all the explanation he ever made though it was by no means the end of the matter.

Dan himself did not realize what he had done. He did not realize how potent were the arguments that he had used to convince the Judge.

The young minister had at last furnished the motive for which the Ally waited!