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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 18

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Sam Haymond, D.D., gathering together his belongings, as the train whistled for the village, fancied that he could visualize with a fair accuracy the gentleman who had written, "You will be met at the station." Eben Tollman used, in his correspondence, a stilted formality which conjured up the portrait of one somewhat staid and humorless.

Conscience and her husband had, on the other hand, formed no mental portrait of the visiting minister, save that his reputation and accomplishment would indicate mature years.

When the train stopped, and only one stranger emerged upon the crushed-stone platform, Conscience thought that their guest had missed his train. Sam Haymond, D.D., in turn, seeing no elderly gentleman of sober visage, inferred that his host had failed to meet him. There was only a young woman standing alone by a baggage truck and for an instant the thoughts of the minister were fully occupied with the consideration of her arrestingly vivid beauty: a beauty of youth and slender litheness and exquisite color.

Then their glances met and the girl moved forward. It flashed simultaneously upon both of them that faulty preconceptions had caused a failure of recognition.

The tall, young man, whose breadth of shoulder and elasticity of step might have been a boy's, spoke first with an amused riffle in his eyes.

"My name is Sam Haymond. Are you, by any chance, Mr. Tollman's daughter?"

Under the challenge of his humorous twinkle, a sudden mischief flashed into Conscience's face. She was tempted to announce herself as William Williams' daughter and let it go at that, but with a swift reconsideration she laughed and told the whole truth.

"I am Mr. Tollman's wife."

The minister raised his brows in surprise. "Now I don't know why I pictured Mrs. Tollman as a delightful but maternal lady with a gift for mince pies--yet I did."

"I'm afraid I'm below par on my mince pies," she confessed with a mockery of humiliation. He could not, of course, know that the youth in her was leaping up to his bait of spontaneity as a trout leaps to the fly when flies are few. Conscience went on: "But you're below par, too--on ecclesiastical solemnity. I expected a grave-faced parson--"

Sam Haymond's laughter pealed out with a heartiness which seemed gauged to outdoor spaces rather than to confining walls.

"I haven't always been a minister," he acknowledged as he put down his suit-case. There was in his whole appearance an impression of physical confidence and fitness, which made Conscience's thoughts revert to Stuart Farquaharson.

"Once I preached a very bad sermon in a log meeting-house in the Cumberland mountains," he went on. "It is a country chiefly notable for feuds and moon-shining. I was introduced by a gentleman whose avocations were varied. He explained them to me in these words, 'I farms some; I jails some an' I gospels some.' Perhaps I'm cut to a similar pattern."

For both of them the drive proved short. Like a brook which has been running in the darkness of an underground channel, and which livens with sparkle and song as it breaks again into the sun--Conscience found herself in holiday mood and her companion was responsive and frankly delightful.

Haymond was, she understood, a preacher who could move men, but just now he was only a splendidly alive companion. If she thought of him as a preacher at all it was a preacher whose conception was rather that of a knight serving a divinely royal master than a prosecutor thinking in terms of dogma.

As an experiment in psychology, the luncheon was interesting because of the riffles and undercurrents that passed below the conversation's even tenor. The white-haired minister and his bronze-faced junior joined no issues of conflicting opinion and each saw only the admirable in the other--although two men so unlike in every quality except a common zeal might more easily have found points of disagreement than concord.

Tollman was rather the listener than the talker, but when his eyes met those of the visitor, Conscience fancied she detected an instinct of vague hostility in those of the host and a dubiousness in those of the guest. It was as if the waving antennae of their minds had touched and established a sense of antagonism.

Sam Haymond knew types as a good buyer knows his line of wares. Here, he told himself, was a nature cramped and bigoted. Such men had smirched the history of religion with inquisitions and tortures--and had retarded the progress of human thought.

Tollman's impression was less distinct. He fancied that in the penetrating quality of the other's gaze was an impertinence of prying.

Had the visiting clergyman carried his analysis far enough to discover that both men were bigots, he would still have drawn this distinction: the lion and the jackal have the same general motive in life, yet the jackal is hardly a lion.

Possibly it was a feeling of disquiet under silent observation which caused Tollman, after luncheon, to turn his guest over to his wife for entertainment, and Haymond acquiesced with enthusiasm to Conscience's suggestion that they go for a sail to the greater bay.

To Conscience this was all retrieving from monotony a little scrap of the life for which she had so eagerly yearned: the life of progress, stimulus and breadth.

And then they were in the tilting boat, racing before a wind which bellied the taut mains'l and drummed upon its canvas. She and Eben had, once or twice, taken this same sail, but he had endured in patience rather than enjoyed it.

On those occasions Ira had revealed a surly personality, which now expanded and mellowed into conversation as Haymond asked questions about the setting of eel traps and lobster pots and the management of fish weirs.

The wind toyed so persistently with Conscience's dark hair that she took it down from its coils and let it hang in heavy braids. The color rose in her cheeks and the gleam to her eyes making them starry, and a lilt sang in her voice.

There was a wealth of sapphire and purple in the water; there were thin shore lines of vivid green and dazzling sand. Sails bronzed and reddened in the sun and the distance. Gulls quarreled and screamed as they fished--and everything was young.

"Them's mackerel gulls," volunteered Ira as he pointed to two birds perched on a precariously buffeted buoy. "There's a sayin' that 'When the whippoorwills begin to call, the mackerel begins to run'--then the gulls come, too."

But as the sailboat drew near its landing stage again and the sunset was fading into twilight, the fires died slowly, too, in the eyes of Conscience Tollman and she felt that a vacation had ended.

There seemed to be in the sunlight of the following morning a tempered and Sabbath stillness.

Perhaps the sun itself remained pagan, but if so it only lent contrast to the slumberous restfulness where the shadows fell.

Over the countryside brooded the calm peacefulness of the day and when the church bell gave its first call, its notes floated out across silences disturbed by no noisier interruptions than bird notes and the distant voice of the surf.

When her father had expressed his determination of going, for the first time since he had been stricken, to the church where he had so long preached, Conscience had demurred without avail. She had been, at first, alarmed, lest the associations dwelling between those walls might excite him beyond his strength. He must feel that he was going back, broken, to a place where, in strength, he had been a mentor and potter whose clay was human thought. But he would listen to no objections and when the congregation gathered, his invalid's chair stood at the head of the center aisle and he looked directly up at the pulpit from which, since his youth, he had thundered the damnation of sinners.

When the tall young man took his place in the pulpit, the aged minister swung his finely shaped head around with something of pride as though he would say, "Here is my successor, in whom I am well pleased."

It was the revered elder who first engaged the interest of the congregation, but when Sam Haymond had announced his text: "Let him who is without sin amongst you cast the first stone," there came a shifting of attention. Here was a man gifted with that quality of voice without which there can be no oratory; endowed with that magic of force under which human emotion is a keyboard responsive to the touch; commanding that power which can sway its hearers at will between smile and tear. His reputation was already known to them, but within five minutes after his voice sounded reputation had become a pallid label for something flamingly real: something under which their feeling stirred; something that made their pulses leap like a bugle call; something that soothed them like sleep after weariness--and above all something so convincing that questioning was stilled as by the voice of a prophet who comes direct from the presence of God.

The Reverend William Williams had held their loyalty by virtue of vehemence and fire, and in that the visitor matched and surpassed him. The intensity was there, but much besides--and yet in all else this was a man as opposite to the aged veteran of the pulpit as east is far across from west. In all the fire of his words was no mention of the fires of hell. He seemed to know nothing of the avenging God, whose name had rung terribly from that rostrum for half a century: a God swift of anger and mighty to punish: an omnipotently jealous God. The Deity he served was one of infinite charity to whose forgiveness nothing was unforgivable--except unforgiveness.

He was expounding a doctrine of joy and aspiration: a splendid and uplifting message from a God of the onward and upward march. No suspicion came to him that, in effect, he was assailing the life work of the old man below him, whom he deeply revered, yet he breathed a conception of religion not only unlike, but contradictory to the set and riveted dogma of his listening predecessor.

Minds that had unquestioningly accepted the old and hard gospel of righteousness by duress of brimstone awoke to a new insurgency and eyes little given to the light of thought kindled to this new postulate of brotherhood and the service of brotherhood.

Conscience sat with her eyes hypnotically fixed on the face of the speaker. Yesterday afternoon he had gone sailing with her; to-day he was voicing her own beliefs from the pulpit whose former incumbent had strangled and throttled them with his tyranny of weakness.

Of her father and the influence this sermon might have on him she did not just then think at all. She like the others was being swept on a tide of rapt attention--and she had forgotten that William Williams was not at home in his study. But as that discourse progressed one might have followed the ebb and flow of a man's life-battle, had he watched only the face of the old man, in the wheel chair, crowned with a white mane.

First there was the expression of exaltation which mutely proclaimed: "A prophet is risen among us," but after it came swift doubt and foreboding. The eagle eyes, deep-set in the thin face, were clouded and hurt. Tho talon-like fingers clutched at their chair arms. Must he sit here constrained to silence, while another confounded his teachings?

After doubt came certainty under which the sunken eyes of the paralyzed man smouldered fiercely and his face blanched to the deadness of parchment. This was all a passionate and revolutionary appeal for liberality--or--by his interpretation--for license. It mounted into an indictment against the cramping evils of intolerance, it scathingly denounced the goodness of the strait-jacket until the old minister saw every effort of his life assailed and vilified. His mind, distorted by suffering and brooding, beheld a prophet indeed, but a prophet who carried Satan's commission and who dared to serve it in the house of God.

Would God himself remain silent and unavenging under such insult? He at least, the lifelong servant, would not sit voiceless while his Master was libeled. He who had spoken here many hundreds of times before would speak once more and his last message would be one of scourging from the temple desecrators more evil than money-changers.

But he shook with so palsied a fury that for a time he could only surrender to his physical weakness. With a mighty effort he braced his withered body and pulled himself forward. He knew he was killing himself, but he would fall at his sentry post, challenging the enemy.

Sam Haymond, himself oblivious until now to all but his own earnestness, brought his gaze back to the chair just below him--and suddenly the resonance of his swelling voice fell silent--snapped by astonishment with a word half spoken.

Of the tragedy which was acting itself before him he realized little. He saw only a venerable colleague stricken by some sudden and terrible ailment.

Then William Williams raised his thin arms above his head. Out of his eyes rained challenge, denunciation, anathema! Mutely he was hurling the curse of God's church. With the last ounce of his attenuated strength he was struggling for the voice which at this moment of supreme need had failed him. Over the body of the congregation, as the preacher halted, fell a deadly stillness.

From the throat of the old man came a strangled groan, which had sought to be a command for silence, and he crumpled forward. Life had gone out of him, and Sam Haymond, lifting both hands, spoke in a voice of hushed awe, "My brethren, the hand of God has fallen here." _

Read next: Chapter 19

Read previous: Chapter 17

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