The Calling of Dan Matthews by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter VII. From Deborah's Porch
"'With nothin' to think of all the time but the Blessed Jesus an' the Holy Mother; an' all the people so respectful, an' lookin' up to you. Sure 'tis a grand thing, Doctor, to be a priest.'"
Nathaniel Jordan's prediction proved true.
In the two days between Dan's arrival and his first Sunday in Corinth, the Ally was actively engaged in making known the identity of the big stranger, who had so skillfully punished the man from Windy Cove. Also the name and profession of the young woman who had gone to Denny's assistance were fully revealed.
The new minister of the Memorial Church was the sensation of the hour. The building could scarcely hold the crowd, while the rival churches were deserted, save only by the few faithful "pillars" who were held in their places by the deep conviction that heaven itself would fall should they fail to support their own particular faith. With the people who had attended the fair, the Ally journeyed far into the country, and the roads being good with promise of a moon to drive home by, the country folk for miles around came to worship God, and, incidentally, to see the preacher who had fought and vanquished the celebrated Jud. Many were there that day who had not been inside a church before for years. The Ally went also, but then the Ally, they say, is a regular attendant at all the services of every church.
Judge Strong, with an expression of pious satisfaction on his hard face, occupied his own particular corner. From another corner Elder Jordan watched for signs of false doctrine. Charity, except when busy at the organ, never took her adoring eyes from the preacher's face. At the last moment before the sermon, Dr. Harry slipped into the seat beside the Doctor. And many other earnest souls there were who depended upon the church as the only source of their life's inspiration and strength.
Facing this crowd that even in the small town of Corinth represented every class and kind, Dan felt it all; the vulgar curiosity, the craving for sensation, the admiration, the suspicion, the true welcome, the antagonism, the spiritual dependence. And the young man from the mountains and the schools, who had entered the ministry from the truest motives, with the highest ideals, shrank back and was afraid.
Dan was, literally, to this church and people a messenger from another world. It was not strange that many of the people thought, "How out of place this big fellow looks in the pulpit." Many of them felt dimly, too, that which the Doctor had always felt, that this man was somehow a revelation of something that might have been, that ought to be. But no one tried to search out the reason why.
The theme of the new minister's sermon was, "The Faith of the Fathers," and it must have been a good one, because Martha said the next day, that it was the finest thing she had ever heard; and she had it figured out somehow that the members of neighboring churches, who were there, got some straight gospel for once in their lives. Elder Jordan assured the Doctor in a confidential whisper, that it was a splendid effort. The Doctor knew that Dan was splendid, and he could see that the boy had fairly hypnotized the crowd, but he could not understand why it should have been much of an effort. He confided to Martha that "so far as he could see, the sermon might have been taken from the barrel of any one of the preachers that had served the Memorial Church since its establishment." But the sermon was new and fresh to Dan, and so gained something of interest and strength from the earnestness and personality of the speaker. "The boy had only to hold that gait," reflected the Doctor, "and he would, as Nathan had said, land at the very top of his profession."
In the evening, the Doctor slipped away from church as soon as the services were over, leaving Dan with those who always stay until the janitor begins turning out the lights. Martha would walk home with fellow workers in the Ladies' Aid, who lived a few doors beyond, and the Doctor wished to be alone.
Crossing the street to avoid the crowd, he walked slowly along under The big trees, trying to accustom himself to the thought of his boy dressed in the conventional minister's garb, delivering time worn conventionalities in a manner as conventional. It was to this strange thinking old man, almost as if he had seen Dan behind the grated doors of a prison cell.
Very slowly he went along, unmindful of aught but the thoughts that troubled him, until, coming to the Widow Mulhall's little cottage, where Deborah and Denny were sitting on the porch, he paused. Across the street in front of his own home, Martha and her friends were holding an animated conversation.
"Come in, come in, Doctor," called Deborah's cheery voice, "it's a fine evenin' it is and only beginnin'. I was just tellin' Denny that 'tis a shame folks have to waste such nights in sleep. Come right in, I'll fetch another chair--take the big rocker there, Doctor, that's right. And how are you? Denny? Oh the bye is all right again just as you said; sure the minister had him out in the garden that same afternoon. 'Twas the blessin' of God, though, that his Reverence was there to keep that devil from batin' the poor lad to death. I hope you'll not be forgettin' the way to our gate entirely now, Doctor, that you'll be crossin' the street so often to the house beyond the garden there."
In the Widow's voice there was a hint of her Irish ancestry, as, in her kind blue eyes, buxom figure and cordial manner, there was more than a hint of her warm-hearted, whole-souled nature.
"How do you like your new neighbor, Deborah?" asked the Doctor.
"Ah, Doctor, it's a fine big man he is, a danged fine man inside an' out. Denny and me are almighty proud, havin' him so close. He's that sociable, too, not at all like a priest. It's every blessed day since he's been here he's comin' over to Denny in the garden, and helpin' him with the things, a-talkin' away all the time. ''Tis the very exercise I need,' says he. 'And it's a real kindness for ye to let me work a bit now and then,' says he. But sure we kin see, 'tis the big heart of him, wishful to help the bye. But it's queer notioned he is fer a preacher."
"Didn't I see you and Denny at church this evening?" asked the Doctor.
"You did that, sir. You see not havin' no church of our own within reach of our legs, an' bein' real wishful to hear a bit of a prayer and a sermon like, Denny an' me slips into the protestant meetings now and then. After all there's no real harm in it now, do you think, Doctor?"
"Harm to you and Denny, or the church?" the Doctor asked.
"Aw, go on now, Doctor you do be always havin' your joke," she laughed. "Harm to neither or both or all, I mane, for, of course--well, let it go. I guess that while Denny and me do be sayin' our prayers in our little cabin on this side of the street, and you are a-sayin' yours in your fine house across the way, 'tis the same blessed Father of us all gets them both. I misdoubt if God had much to do wid layin' out the streets of Corinth anyhow. I've heard how 'twas the old Judge Strong did that."
"And what do you think of Mr. Matthews' sermon?"
"It's ashamed I am to say it, Doctor, but I niver heard him."
"Never heard him? But I thought you were there."
"And we was, sir, so we was. And Denny here can tell you the whole thing, but for myself I niver heard a blessed word, after the singin' and the preacher stood up."
"Why, what was the matter?"
"The preacher himself."
"Yes sir. 'Twas this way, Doctor, upon my soul I couldn't hear what he was a-sayin' for lookin' at the man himself. With him a-standin' up there so big an' strong an'--an' clean like through an' through an' the look on his face! It set me to thinkin' of all that I used to dream fer--fer my Denny here. Ye mind what a fine lookin' man poor Jack was, sir, tho' I do say it, and how Denny here, from a baby, was the very image of him. I always knowed he was a-goin' to grow up another Jack for strength an' looks. And you know yourself how our hearts was set on havin' him a priest, him havin' such a turn that way, bein' crazy on books and studyin' an' the likes--an' now--now here we are, sir. My man gone, an' my boy just able to drag his poor broken body around, an' good fer nothin' but to dig in the dirt. No sir, I couldn't hear the sermon fer lookin' at the preacher an' thinkin'."
Denny moved his twisted, misshapen body uneasily, "Oh, come now, mother," he said, "let's don't be spoilin' the fine night fer the Doctor with our troubles."
"Indade, that we will not," said Deborah cheerfully. "Don't you think Denny's garden's been doin' fine this summer, Doctor?"
"Fine," said the Doctor heartily. "But then it's always fine. There's lots of us would like to know how he makes it do so well."
Denny gave a pleased laugh.
"Aw now Doctor you're flatterin' me. They have been doin' pretty well though--pretty well fer me."
"I tell you what it is, Doctor," said Deborah, "the bye naturally loves them things into growin'. If people would be takin' as good care of their children as Denny does for his cabbage and truck it would be a blessin' to the world."
"It is funny, Doctor," put in Denny, "but do you know those things out there seem just like people to me. I tell mother it ain't so bad after all, not bein' a priest. The minister was a-sayin' yesterday, that the people needed more than their souls looked after. If I can't be tellin' people how to live, I can be growin' good things to keep them alive, and maybe that's not so bad as it might be."
"I don't know what we'd be doin' at all, if it wasn't fer that same garden," added Deborah, "with clothes, and wood and groceries to buy, to say nothin' of the interest that's always comin' due. We--"
"Whist," said Denny in a low tone as a light flashed up in the corner window of the house on the other side of the garden. "There's the minister come home."
Reverently they watched the light and the moving shadow in the room. The moon, through the branches of the trees along the street, threw waving patches of soft light over the dark green of the little lawn. Martha's friends had moved on. Martha herself had retired. The street was seemingly deserted and very still.
Leaning forward in her chair Deborah spoke in a whisper. "We can always tell when he's in of nights, and when he goes to bed. Ye see it's almost like we was livin' in the same house with him. An' a great comfort it is to us too, wid him such a good man, our havin' him so near. Poor bye I'll warrant he's tired tonight. But oh, it must be a grand thing, Doctor, to be doin' such holy work, an' a livin' with God Almighty like, with nothin' to think of all the time but the Blessed Jesus and the Holy Mother; an' all the people so respectful, an' lookin' up to you. Sure 'tis a grand thing, Doctor, to be a priest, savin' your presence sir, for I know how you've little truck wid churches, tho' the lady your wife does enough fer two."
The Doctor rose to go for he saw that the hour was late. As he stood on the steps ready to depart the steady flow of Deborah's talk continued, when Denny interrupted again, pointing toward a woman who was crossing to the other side of the street. She walked slowly, and, reaching the sidewalk in front of the Doctor's house, hesitated, in a troubled, undecided way. Approaching the gate, she paused, then drew back and moved on slowly up the street. Her movements and manner gave the impression that she was in trouble, perhaps in pain.
"There's something wrong there," said the Doctor. "Who is it? Can you see who it is, Denny?"
"Yes, sir," he answered, and Deborah broke in, "it's that poor girl of--of Jim Conner's, sir."
The Doctor, at once nervous and agitated, was not a little worried and could make no reply, knowing that it was Jim Conner who had killed Deborah's husband.
"Poor thing," murmured Deborah. "For the love of God, look at that now, Doctor!"
The girl had reached the corner, and had fallen or thrown herself in a crouching heap against the monument.
The widow was starting for the street, but Denny caught her arm: "No--no mother, you mustn't do that, you know how she's scared to death of you; let the Doctor go."
The physician was already on his way as fast as his old legs would take him.