Chapter IX. The Edge of the Battlefield

"But it was as if his superior officers had ordered him to mark time, while his whole soul was eager for the command to charge."

Dan was trying to prepare his evening sermon for the third Sunday of what the old Doctor called his Corinthian ministry. The afternoon was half gone, when he arose from his study table. All day he had been at it, and all day the devils of dissatisfaction had rioted in his soul--or wherever it is that such devils are supposed to riot.

The three weeks had not been idle weeks for Dan. He had made many pastoral calls at the homes of his congregation; he had attended numberless committee meetings. Already he was beginning to feel the tug of his people's need--the world old need of sympathy and inspiration, of courage and cheer; the need of the soldier for the battle-cry of his comrades, the need of the striving runner for the lusty shout of his friends, the need of the toiling servant for the "well-done" of his master.

Keenly sensitive to this great unvoiced cry of life, the young man answered in his heart, "Here am I, use me." Standing before his people he felt as one who, on the edge of a battlefield longs, with all his heart, to throw himself into the fight. But it was as if his superior officers had ordered him to mark time, while his whole soul was eager for the command to charge.

Why do people go to church? What do men ask of their religion? What have they the right to expect from those who assume to lead them in their worship? Already these questions were being shouted at him from the innermost depths of his consciousness. He felt the answer that his Master would give. But always between him and those to whom he would speak there came the thought of his employers. And he found himself, while speaking to the people, nervously watching the faces of the men by whose permission he spoke. So it came that he was not satisfied with his work that afternoon, and he tossed aside his sermon to leave his study for the fresh air and sunshine of the open fields. From his roses the Doctor hailed him as he went down the street, but the boy only answered with a greeting and a wave of his hand. Dan did not need the Doctor that day. Straight out into the country he went walking fast, down one hill--up another, across a creek, over fences, through a pasture into the woods. An hour of this at a good hard pace, and he felt better. The old familiar voices of hill and field and forest and stream soothed and calmed him. The physical exercise satisfied to some extent his instinct and passion for action.

Coming back through Old Town, and leisurely climbing the hill on the road that leads past the old Academy, he paused frequently to look back over the ever widening view, and to drink deep of the pure, sun-filled air. At the top of the hill, reluctant to go back to the town that lay beyond, he stood contemplating the ancient school building that held so bravely its commanding position, and looked so pitiful in its shabby old age. Then passing through a gap in the tumble-down fence, and crossing the weed-filled yard, he entered the building.

For a while he wandered curiously about the time-worn rooms, reading the names scratched on the plaster walls, cut in the desks and seats, on the window casing, and on the big square posts that, in the lower rooms, supported the ceiling. He laughed to himself, as he noticed how the sides of these posts facing away from the raised platform at the end of the room were most elaborately carved. It suggested so vividly the life that had once stirred within the old walls.

Several of the names were already familiar to him. He tried to imagine the venerable heads of families he knew, as they were in the days when they sat upon these worn benches. Did Judge Strong or Elder Jordan, perhaps, throw one of those spit-balls that stuck so hard and fast to the ceiling? And did some of the grandmothers he had met giggle and hide their faces at Nathaniel's cunning evasion of the teacher's quick effort to locate the successful marksman? Had those staid pillars of the church ever been swayed and bent by passions of young manhood and womanhood? Had their minds ever been stirred by the questions and doubts of youth? Had their hearts ever throbbed with eager longing to know--to feel life in its fullness?

Seating himself at one of the battered desks he tried to bring back the days that were gone, and to see about him the faces of those who once had filled the room with the strength and gladness of their youth. He felt strangely old in thus trying to feel a boy among those boys and girls of the days long gone.

Who among the boys would be his own particular chum? Elder Jordan? He smiled. And who, (the blood mounted to his cheek at the thought) who among the girls would be--Out of the mists of his revery came a face--a face that was strangely often in his mind since that day when he arrived in Corinth. Several times he had caught passing glimpses of her; once he had met her on the street and ventured to bow. And Dr. Harry, with whom he had already begun an enduring friendship, had told him much to add to his interest in her. But to dream about the stranger in this way--

"What nonsense!" he exclaimed aloud, and rising, strode to the window to clear his mind of those too strong fancies by a sight of the world in which he lived and to which he belonged.

The next moment he drew back with a start--a young woman in the uniform of a trained nurse was entering the yard.