Chapter XXXI. The Reality
 

"'Faith,' said Deborah, who, in the kitchen, heard their merry talk and laughter. 'It must be the garden as does it.'"

"Who shall say that the Irishwoman had not the truth of the whole matter?"

The incident of Deborah's trouble brought Hope to a fuller dependence upon Dan than she had ever before known. The long ride alone in the hack, with her mind so filled with thoughts of her big friend, his greeting of her and his quick response to her appeal in Deborah's behalf, with the drive home in the night by his side, and the immediate success of his call upon the Judge had all led the young woman much nearer a full realization of herself and a complete understanding of her feeling for Dan than she knew. But one touch more was needed to make the possibility which she had long foreseen a reality.

The touch needed came early in the afternoon of the day following the Judge's call upon Elder Jordan. Miss Farwell, with Grace and Denny, was in the garden, making ready for the first early seed. At Dan's urgent request a much larger space had been prepared this year and they were all intensely interested in what was to be, they declared, the best and largest garden that Denny had ever grown.

Denny with his useless, twisted arm swinging at his side, and his poor, dragging leg, was marking off the beds and rows, the while he kept up a ceaseless, merry chatter with the two young women who assisted him by carrying the stakes and lines.

Any one would have thought they were the happiest people in all Corinth, and perhaps they were, though from all usual standards they had little enough to be joyous over. Denny with his poor, crippled body, forever barred from the life his whole soul craved, yearning for books and study with all his heart, but forced to give the last atom of his poor strength in digging in the soil for the bare necessities of life, denied even a pittance to spend for the volumes he loved; Grace Conner marred in spirit and mind, as was Denny in body, by the cruel, unjust treatment of those to whom she had a right to look first for sympathy and help; and the nurse, who was sacrificing a successful and remunerative career in the profession she loved, to carry the burden of this one, who in the eyes of the world, had no claim whatever upon her. What had they to be joyous over that sunny afternoon in the garden?

"Faith," said Deborah, who, in the kitchen, heard their merry talk and laughter. "It must be the garden as does it."

Who shall say that the Irishwoman had not the truth of the whole matter?

The three merry workers were expecting Dan. But Dan did not come. And it may have been because Hope turned her eyes so often toward the corner window, that she failed to see the young woman who turned in at their own gate. Then Deborah's voice called from the kitchen for Miss Hope, and the nurse went into the house.

"It's someone to see you," said the widow with an air of great mystery. "I tuck her into your room, where she's waitin' for you. Dear heart, but the day has brung the roses to your cheeks, and the sunshine is in your two eyes. Sure, I can't think what she'd be wantin'. I hope 'tis nothin' to make ye the less happy than ye are."

"Oh you, with your blarney!" returned the young woman playfully, and then, with a note of eagerness in her voice, "Who is it, do you know her?"

"Sure I do, and so will you when you see her. Go on in child; don't be standin' here, maybe it's the job you've been lookin' for come at last. I can't think that any of them would be sendin' for you, though the good Lord knows the poor creature herself looks to need a nurse or somethin'."

She pushed Hope from the kitchen, and a moment later the young woman entered her own room to find Miss Charity Jordan.

Hope Harwell was a beautiful woman--beautiful with the beauty of a womanhood unspoiled by vain idleness, empty pleasures or purposeless activity. Perhaps because of her interest and care for the girl, to whom she was filling the place of both mother and elder sister, perhaps because of something else that had come into her life--the past few months, in spite of her trials, had added much to that sweet atmosphere of womanliness that enveloped her always. The deep, gray eyes seemed deeper still and a light was in their depths that had not been there before. In her voice, too, there was a new note--a richer, fuller tone, and she moved and laughed as one whose soul was filled with the best joys of living.

Charity arose to her feet when Miss Farwell entered. The nurse greeted her, but the poor girl who had spent an almost sleepless night, stood regarding the woman before her with a kind of envying wonder. What right had this creature to be so happy while she a Christian was so miserable?

To Charity there were only two kinds of people--those who belonged to the church and those who belonged to the world. Those of the world were strangers--aliens. The life they lived, their pleasures, their ambitions, their loves, were all matters of conjecture to this daughter of the church. They were, to her, people to save--never people to be intimate with; nor were they to be regarded without grave suspicion until they were saved. She wondered, sometimes, what they were like if one were to really know them. As she had thought about it the night before in the dark, it was a monstrous thing that a woman of this other world should have ensnared their minister--her minister.

Charity was a judge of preachers. She saw in Dan the ability to go far. She felt that no position in the church was too high for him to reach, no honor too great for him to attain, if only he might be steadied and inspired and assisted by a competent helper--one thoroughly familiar with every detail of the denominational machinery, and acquainted with every denominational engineer.

Thus to be robbed of the high place in life for which she had fitted herself, and to which she had aspired for years, by an alien to the church was maddening--if only Charity had possessed the capacity for being maddened. What right had this creature who never entered a church--what right had she even to the friendship of a minister--a minister such as Dan? And to ruin his reputation! To cause him to be sent away from Corinth! To wreck his career! To deprive him of a companion so fitly qualified to help him realize to the full his splendid ambition! Small wonder that the daughter of the church had determined upon a desperate measure.

Left alone when Deborah had gone to call Miss Farwell, Charity had examined the nurse's room with interest and surprise. The apartment bore no testimony to an unholy life. Save that it was in every way a poorer place than any room in the Jordan house, it might have been Charity's own. There was even a Bible, well worn at that, lying on a table by which a chair was drawn as if the reader had but just laid the book aside.

And now this woman stood before her. This woman with the deep, kind eyes, the soft, calm voice, her cheeks glowing with healthful outdoor exercise, and her air of sweet womanliness.

The nurse spoke the second time.

"I am Miss Farwell. You are Miss Jordan, I believe. I see you pass the house frequently. Won't you be seated, please, you seem to be in trouble."

Poor Charity! Dropping weakly into a chair she burst into bitter tears. Then before Miss Farwell could recover from her surprise, the caller exclaimed, "I came to see you about our minister, Reverend Matthews."

The color in the nurse's cheeks deepened.

"But why should you come to me about Mr. Matthews? I know nothing of your church affairs, Miss Jordan."

"I know that you do not," the other returned bitterly. "You have never been to hear him preach. You know nothing--nothing of what it means to him--to me, to all of us, I mean. How could you know anything about it?"

This passionate outburst and the sight of Charity's crimson face and embarrassed manner caused the color to disappear from the nurse's cheeks. After a moment she said coolly, "Do you not think it would be well for you to explain clearly just what you mean and why you come to me?"

In her effort to explain Charity's words came tumbling recklessly, impetuously out, in all sorts of disorder. She charged the nurse with ruining the minister's work, with alienating him from his people, with injuring the Memorial Church and the cause of Christ in Corinth, with making him the talk of the town.

"What is he to you," she finished. "What can he ever be to you? You would not dare to think of marrying a minister of the gospel--you a woman of the world. He belongs to us, he does not belong to you, and you have no right to take him from us." Then she pleaded with her to--as she put it--let their pastor alone, to permit him to stay in Corinth and go on to the great future that she was so sure awaited him.

As the girl talked the other woman sat very still with downcast face, save now and then when Charity's disordered words seemed to carry a deeper meaning than appeared upon the surface. Then the gray eyes were lifted to study the speaker's face, doubtfully, wonderingly, questioningly.

In her painful excitement Charity was telling much more than she realized. And more, Charity was not only laying bare her own heart to the nurse, but she was revealing Hope Farwell to herself. That young woman was stirred as she had never been before.

When her visitor had talked herself out the nurse said quietly, "Miss Jordan, it is not at all necessary that I should reply to the things you have said, but you must answer me one question. Has Mr. Matthews ever, either by word or by his manner towards you, given you reason to feel that you, personally, have any right whatever to say these things to me?"

It was so frank, so direct, and withal so womanly and kind, and so unexpected--that Charity hung her head.

"Tell me please, Miss Jordan. After all that you have said, you must."

The answer came in a whisper. "No."

"Thank you." There was that in the nurse's voice that left the other's heart hopeless, and robbed her of power to say more. She rose and moved toward the door.

The nurse accompanied her to the porch. "Miss Jordan." Charity paused. "I am very sorry. I fear you will never understand how--how mistaken you are. I--I shall not harm either your church or--your minister. Believe me, I am very, very sorry."

Miss Farwell could not return to the garden. He would be there. She could not meet him just yet. She must be alone. She must go somewhere to think this thing out.

Stealing from the house, she slipped away down the street. Without her conscious will, her feet led her toward the open country, to Academy Hill, to the grassy knoll under the oak in the old Academy yard.

The possibility had become a reality, and all the pain that she had foreseen, was hers. But with the pain was a great gladness.

Miss Farwell need not have fled from meeting Dan in the garden that afternoon. Dan was not in the garden. While the nurse, in her room, was greeting Miss Charity, Elder Jordan, who had stopped on his way home from the post office was knocking at the door of the minister's study.