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- Elder Conklin and Other Stories - 20/33 -
in the morning with a sense of exhilaration. While driving to church Mr. Letgood's spirits rose. He chatted with his servant Pete, and even took the reins once for a few hundred yards. But when they neared the church his gaiety forsook him. He stopped talking, and appeared to be a little preoccupied. From time to time he courteously greeted one of his flock on the side-walk: but that was all. As he reached the church, the Partons drove up, and of course he had to speak to them. After the usual conventional remarks and shaking of hands, the minister turned up the sidewalk which led to the vestry. He had not taken more than four or five steps in this direction before he paused and looked up the street. He shrugged his shoulders, however, immediately at his own folly, and walked on: "Of course she couldn't send a messenger with a note. On Sundays the Deacon was with her."
As he opened the vestry door, and stepped into the little room, he stopped short. Mrs. Hooper was there, coming towards him with outstretched hand and radiant smile:
"Good mornin', Mr. Letgood, all the Deacons are here to meet you, and they let me come; because I was the first you told the news to, and because I'm sure you're not goin' to leave us. Besides, I wanted to come."
He could not help looking at her for a second as he took her hand and bowed:
"Thank you, Mrs. Hooper." Not trusting himself further, he began to shake hands with the assembled elders. In answer to one who expressed the hope that they would keep him, he said slowly and gravely:
"I always trust something to the inspiration of the moment, but I confess I am greatly moved to refuse this call."
"That's what I said," broke in Mr. Hooper triumphantly, "and I said, too, there were mighty few like you, and I meant it. But we don't want you to act against yourself, though we'd be mighty glad to hev you stay."
A chorus of "Yes, sir! Yes, indeed! That's so" went round the room in warm approval, and then, as the minister did not answer save with an abstracted, wintry smile, the Deacons began to file into the church. Curiously enough Mrs. Hooper having moved away from the door during this scene was now, necessarily it seemed, the last to leave the room. While she was passing him, Mr. Letgood bent towards her and in an eager tone whispered:
"And my answer?"
Mrs. Hooper paused, as if surprised.
"Oh! ain't you men stupid," she murmured and with a smile tossed the question over her shoulder: "What _did_ I come here for?"
That sermon of Mr. Letgood's is still remembered in Kansas City. It is not too much to say that the majority of his hearers believed him to be inspired. And, in truth, as an artistic performance his discourse was admirable. After standing for some moments with his hand upon the desk, apparently lost in thought, he began in the quietest tone to read the letter from the Deacons of the Second Baptist Church in Chicago. He then read his reply, begging them to give him time to consider their request. He had considered it--prayerfully. He would read the passage of Holy Scripture which had suggested the answer he was about to send to the call. He paused again. The rustling of frocks and the occasional coughings ceased--the audience straining to catch the decision--while in a higher key he recited the verse, "For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for My sake, shall find it."
As the violinist knows when his instrument is perfectly attuned, so Mr. Letgood knew when he repeated the text that his hearers had surrendered themselves to him to be played upon. It would be useless here to reproduce the sermon, which lasted for nearly an hour, and altogether impossible to give any account of the preacher's gestures or dramatic pauses, or of the modulations and inflections of his voice, which now seemed to be freighted with passionate earnestness, now quivered in pathetic appeal, and now grew musical in the dying fall of some poetic phrase. The effect was astonishing. While he was speaking simply of the text as embodying the very spirit of the Glad Tidings which Christ first delivered to the world, not a few women were quietly weeping. It was impossible, they felt, to listen unmoved to that voice.
But when he went on to show the necessity of renunciation as the first step towards the perfecting of character, even the hard, keen faces of the men before him began to relax and change expression. He dwelt, in turn, upon the startling novelty of Christ's teaching and its singular success. He spoke of the shortness of human life, the vanity of human effort, and the ultimate reward of those who sacrifice themselves for others, as Jesus did, and out of the same divine spirit of love. He thus came to the peroration. He began it in the manner of serious conversation.
All over the United States the besetting sin of the people was the desire of wealth. He traced the effects of the ignoble struggle for gain in the degradation of character, in the debased tone of public and private life. The main current of existence being defiled, his duty was clear. Even more than other men he was pledged to resist the evil tendency of the time. In some ways, no doubt, he was as frail and faulty as the weakest of his hearers, but to fail in this respect would be, he thought, to prove himself unworthy of his position. That a servant of Christ in the nineteenth century should seek wealth, or allow it in any way to influence his conduct, appeared to him to be much the same unpardonable sin as cowardice in a soldier or dishonesty in a man of business. He could do but little to show what the words of his text meant to him, but one thing he could do and would do joyously. He would write to the good Deacons in Chicago to tell them that he intended to stay in Kansas City, and to labour on among the people whom he knew and loved, and some of whom, he believed, knew and loved him. He would not be tempted by the greater position offered to him or by the larger salary. _"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for My sake, shall find it."_
As his voice broke over the last words, there was scarcely a dry eye in the church. Many of the women were sobbing audibly, and Mrs. Hooper had long ago given up the attempt "to pull her tears down the back way." She expressed the general sentiment of her sex when she said afterwards, "It was just too lovely for anythin'." And the men were scarcely less affected, though they were better able to control their emotion. The joyous renunciation of five thousand dollars a year struck these hard men of business as something almost uncanny. They would have considered it the acme of folly in an ordinary man, but in a preacher they felt vaguely that it was admirable.
When Deacon Hooper met his brother Deacons before the platform where the collection-plates were kept, he whispered, "The meetin' is at my house at three o'clock. Be on time." His tone was decided, as were also the nods which accepted the invitation.
After the service Mr. Letgood withdrew quietly without going, as usual, amongst his congregation. This pleased even Mrs. Parton, whose husband was a judge of the Supreme Court. She said: "It was elegant of him."
* * * * *
Mr. Hooper received the twelve Deacons in his drawing-room, and when the latest comer was seated, began:
"There ain't no need for me to tell you, brethren, why I asked you all to come round here this afternoon. After that sermon this mornin' I guess we're all sot upon showin' our minister that we appreciate him. There are mighty few men with five thousand dollars a year who'd give up ten thousand. It seems to me a pretty good proof that a man's a Christian ef he'll do that. 'Tain't being merely a Christian: it's Christ-like. We must keep Mr. Letgood right here: he's the sort o' man we want. If they come from Chicago after him now, they'll be comin' from New York next, an' he oughtn't to be exposed to sich great temptation.
"I allow that we'll be able to raise the pew-rents from the first of January next, to bring in another two thousand five hundred dollars a year, and I propose that we Deacons should jest put our hands deep down in our pockets and give Mr. Letgood that much anyway for this year, and promise the same for the future. I'm willin', as senior Deacon, though not the richest, to start the list with three hundred dollars."
In five minutes the money was subscribed, and it was agreed that each man should pay in his contribution to the name of Mr. Hooper at the First National Bank next day; Mr. Hooper could then draw his cheque for the sum.
"Wall," said the Deacon, again getting up, "that's settled, but I've drawn that cheque already. Mrs. Hooper and me talked the thing over," he added half apologetically, and as if to explain his unbusinesslike rashness; "an' she thinks we oughter go right now to Mr. Letgood as a sort of surprise party an' tell him what we hev decided--that is, ef you're all agreed."
They were, although one or two objected to a "surprise party" being held on Sunday. But Deacon Hooper overruled the objection by saying that he could find no better _word_, though of course 'twas really not a "surprise party." After this explanation, some one proposed that Deacon Hooper should make the presentation, and that Mrs. Hooper should be asked to accompany them. When Mr. Hooper went into the dining-room to find his wife she was already dressed to go out, and when he expressed surprise and delivered himself of his mission, she said simply:
"Why, I only dressed to go and see Mrs. Jones, who's ill, but I guess I'll go along with you first."
* * * * *
The same afternoon Mr. Letgood was seated in his study considering a sermon for the evening--it would have to be very different from that of the morning, he felt, or else it would fall flat.
He still avoided thinking of his position. The die was cast now, and having struggled hard against the temptation he tried to believe that he was not chiefly responsible. In the back of his mind was the knowledge that his responsibility would become clear to him some time or other, but he confined it in the furthest chamber of his brain with repentance as the guardian.
He had just decided that his evening address must be doctrinal and argumentative, when he became aware of steps in the drawing-room. Opening the door he found himself face to face with his Deacons. Before he could speak, Deacon Hooper began:
"Mr. Letgood! We, the Deacons of your church, hev come to see you. We want to tell you how we appreciate your decision this mornin'. It was Christ-like! And we're all proud of you, an' glad you're goin' to stay with us. But we allow that it ain't fair or to be expected that you should refuse ten thousand dollars a year with only five. So we've made
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