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   Chapter 2 No.2

The City of Fire By Grace Livingston Hill Characters: 19903

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Over in Sabbath Valley quiet sweetness brooded, broken now and again by the bell-like sound of childish laughter here and there. The birds were holding high carnival in the trees, and the bees humming drowsy little tunes to pretend they were not working.

Most of the men were away at work, some in Monopoly or Economy, whither they went in the early morning in their tin Lizzies to a little store or a country bank, or a dusty law office; some in the fields of the fertile valley; and others off behind the thick willow fringe where lurked the home industries of tanning and canning and knitting, with a plush mill higher up the slope behind a group of alders and beeches, its ugly stone chimneys picturesque against the mountain, but doing its best to spoil the little stream at its feet with all colors of the rainbow, at intervals dyeing its bright waters.

The minister sat in his study with his window open across the lawn between the parsonage and the church, a lovely velvet view with the old graveyard beyond and the wooded hill behind. He was faintly aware of the shouting of the birds in glad carnival in the trees, and the busy droning of the bees, as he wrote an article on Modern Atheism for a magazine in the distant world; but more keenly alive to the song on the lips of his child, but lately returned from college life in one of the great universities for women. He smiled as he wrote, and a light came in his deep thoughtful eyes. She had gone and come, and she was still unspoiled, mentally, physically, or spiritually. That was a great deal to have kept out of life in these days of unbelief. He had been almost afraid to hope that she would come back the same.

In the cool sitting-room his wife was moving about, putting the house in order for the day, and he knew that on her lips also was the smile of the same content as well as if he were looking at her beloved face.

On the front veranda Marilyn Severn swept the rugs and sang her happy song. She was glad, glad to be home again, and her soul bubbled over with the joy of it. There was happiness in the curve of her red lips, in the softly rounded freshness of her cheek and brow, in the eyes that held dancing lights like stars, and in every gleaming tendril of her wonderful bright hair that burst forth from under the naive little sweeping cap that sat on her head like a crown. She was small, lithe, graceful, and she vibrated joy, health, eagerness in every glance of her eye, every motion of her lovely hands.

Down the street suddenly sounded a car. Not the rattling, cheap affairs that were commonly used in those parts for hard work and dress affairs, with a tramp snuffle and bark as they bounced along beneath the maples like house dogs that knew their business and made as much noise about it as they could; but a car with a purr like a soft petted cat by the fire, yet a power behind the purr that might have belonged to a lion if the need for power arose. It stole down the street like a thing of the world, well oiled and perfect in its way, and not needing to make any clatter about its going. The very quietness of it made the minister look up, sent the minister's wife to raise the shade of the sitting-room window, and caused the girl to look up from her task.

The morning flooded her face, the song was stayed, a great light came into her eyes.

The man who was driving the car had the air of not expecting to stop at the parsonage. Even when he saw the girl on the porch he held to his way, and something hard and cold and infinitely sad settled down over his face. It even looked as though he did not intend to recognize her, or perhaps wasn't sure whether she would recognize him. There was a moment's breathless suspense and the car slid just the fraction past the gate in the hedge, without a sign of stopping, only a lifting of a correct looking straw hat that somehow seemed a bit out of place in Sabbath Valley. But Lynn left no doubt in his mind whether she would recognize him. She dropped her broom and sped down the path, and the car came to an abrupt halt, only a hair's breadth past the gate,-but still-that hair's breadth.

"Oh, Mark, I'm so glad to see you!" she cried genuinely with her hand out in welcome, "They said you were not at home."

The boy's voice-he had been a boy when she left him, though now he looked strangely hard and old like a man of the world-was husky as he answered gravely, swinging himself down on the walk beside her:

"I just got in late last night. How are you Lynn? You're looking fine."

He took her offered hand, and clasped it for a brief instant in a warm strong pressure, but dropped it again and there was a quick cold withdrawing of his eyes that she did not understand. The old Mark Carter would never have looked at her coolly, impersonally like that. What was it, was he shy of her after the long separation? Four years was a long time, of course, but there had been occasional letters. He had always been away when she was at home, and she had been home very little between her school years. There had been summer sessions twice and once father and mother had come to her and they had taken a wonderful trip together. But always there had seemed to be Mark Carter, her old friend and playmate, in the background. Now, suddenly he seemed to be removed to indefinite distances. It was as if she were looking at a picture that purported to be her friend, yet seemed a travesty, like one wearing a mask. She stood in the sunlight looking at him, in her quaint little cap and a long white enveloping house apron, and she seemed to him like a haloed saint. Something like worship shone in his eyes, but he kept the mask down, and looked at her with the eyes of a stranger while he talked, and smiled a stiff conventional smile. But a look of anguish grew in his young face, like the sorrow of something primeval, such as a great rock in a desert.

The minister had forgotten his article and was watching them through the window, the tall handsome youth, his head bared with the glint of the sun on his short cropped gold curls making one think of a young prince, yet a prince bound under a spell and frozen in a block of ice. He was handsome as Adonis, every feature perfect, and striking in its manly beauty, yet there was nothing feminine about him. The minister was conscious of all this as he watched-this boy whom he had seen grow up, and this girl of his heart. A great still question came into the father's look as he watched.

The minister was conscious of Lynn's mother standing in the doorway just behind him, although she had made no noise in entering. And at once she knew he was aware of her presence.

"Isn't that Mark Carter?" she asked just above a breath.

He nodded.

"And she doesn't know! You haven't told her?"

The minister shook his head.

"He will tell her. See, he is telling her now!"

The mother drew a shade nearer.

"But how do you know? See, she is doing the talking. You think he will tell her? What will he tell her, Graham?"

"Oh, he will not tell her in words, but every atom of his being is telling her now. Can't you see? He is telling her that he is no longer worthy to be her equal. He is telling her that something has gone wrong."

"Graham, what do you think is the matter with him? Do you think he is-BAD?" She lifted frightened eyes to his as she dropped into her low chair that always stood conveniently near his desk.

A wordless sorrow overspread the minister's face, yet there was something valiant in his eyes.

"No, I can't think that. I must believe in him in spite of everything. It looks to me somehow as if he was trying to be bad and couldn't."

"Well, but-Graham, isn't that the same thing? If he wants to be?"

The minister shook his head.

"He doesn't want to be. But he has some purpose in it. He is doing it-perhaps-well-it might be for her sake you know."

The mother looked perplexed, and hesitated, then shook her head.

"That would be-preposterous! How could he hurt her so-if he cared. It must be-he does not care-!"

"He cares!" said the man.

"Then how do you explain it?"

"I don't explain it."

"Are you going to let it go on?"

"What can be done?"

"I'd do something."

"No, Mary. That's something he's got to work out himself. If he isn't big enough to get over his pride. His self-consciousness. His-whatever he calls it-If he isn't big enough-Then he isn't big enough-!" The man sighed with a faraway patient look. The woman stirred uneasily.

"Graham," she said suddenly lifting her eyes in troubled question, "When your cousin Eugenie was here, you remember, she talked about it one day. She said we had no right to let Lynn become so attached to a mere country boy who would grow up a boor. She said he had no education, no breeding, no family, and that Lynn had the right to the best social advantages to be had in the world. She said Lynn was a natural born aristocrat, and that we had a great responsibility bringing up a child with a face like hers, and a mind like hers, and an inheritance like hers, in this little antiquated country place. She said it was one thing for you with your culture and your fine education, and your years of travel and experience, to hide yourself here if you choose for a few years, pleasing yourself at playing with souls and uplifting a little corner of the universe while you were writing a great book; but it was quite another for us to allow our gifted young daughter to know no other life. And especially she harped on Lynn's friendship with Mark. She called him a hobbledehoy, said his mother was 'common', and that coming from a home like that, he would never amount to anything or have an education. He would always be common and loaferish, and it wouldn't make any difference if he did, he would never be cultured no matter how much education he had. He was not in her class. She kept saying that over. She s

aid a lot of things and always ended up with that. And finally she said that we were perfectly crazy, both of us. That she supposed Lynn thought she was christianizing the boy or something, but it was dangerous business, and we ought to be warned. And Graham, I'm afraid Mark heard it! He was just coming up on the porch as she finished and I'm almost sure he heard it!"

The eyes of the minister gave a startled flicker and then grew comprehending. "I wondered why he gave up college after he had worked so hard to get in."

"But Graham! Surely, if he had heard he would have wanted to show her that she was wrong."

"No, Mary. He is not built that way. It's his one big fault. Always to be what he thinks people have labeled him, or to seem to be. To be that in defiance, knowing in his heart he really isn't that at all. It's a curious psychological study. It makes me think of nothing else but when the Prince of the Power of the Air wanted to be God. Mark wants to be a young God. When he finds he's not taken that way he makes himself look like the devil in defiance. Don't you remember, Mary, how when Bob Bliss broke that memorial window in the church and said it was Mark did it, how Mark stood looking, defiantly from one to another of us to see if we would believe it, and when he found the elders were all against him and had begun to get ready for punishment, he lifted his fine young shoulders, and folded his arms, and just bowed in acquiescence, as if to say yes, he had done it? Don't you remember, Mary? He nearly broke my heart that day, the hurt look in his eyes; the game, mistaken, little devil! He was only ten, and yet for four long months he bore the blame in the eyes of the whole village for breaking that window, till Bob told the truth and cleared him. Not because he wanted to save Bob Bliss, for everybody knew he was a little scamp, and needed punishment, but because he was hurt-hurt way down into the soul of him to think anybody had thought he would want to break the window we had all worked so hard to buy. And he actually broke three cellar windows in that vacant store by the post office, yes, and paid for them, just to keep up his character and give us some reason for our belief against him."

The wife with a cloud of anxiety in her eyes, and disapproval in her voice, answered slowly:

"That's a bad trait, Graham. I can't understand it. It is something wrong in his nature."

"Yes, Mary, it is sin, original sin, but it comes at him from a different direction from most of us, that's all. It comes through sensitiveness. It is his reaction to a deep and mortal hurt. Some men would be stimulated to finer action by criticism, he is stimulated to defy, and he does not know that he is trying to defy God and all the laws of the universe. Some day he will find it out, and know that only through humility can he make good."

"But he is letting all his opportunities go by."

"I'm not so sure. You can't tell what he may be doing out in the world where he is gone."

"But they say he is very wild."

"They were always saying things about him when he was here, and most of them were not true. You and I knew him, Mary. Was there ever a finer young soul on earth than he with his clear true eyes, his eager tender heart, his brave fearlessness and strength. I can not think he has sold his soul to sin-not yet. It may be. It may be that only in the Far Country will he realize it is God he wants and be ready to say, 'I have sinned' and 'I will arise.'"

"But Graham, I should think that just because you believe in him you could talk to him."

"No, Mary. I can't probe into the depths of that sensitive soul and dig out his confidence. He would never give it that way. It is a matter between himself and God."

"But Lynn-"

"Lynn has God too, my dear. We must not forget that. Life is not all for this world, either. Thank God Lynn believes that!"

The mother sighed with troubled eyes, and rose. The purring of the engine was heard. Lynn would be coming in. They watched the young man swing his car out into the road and glide away like a comet with a wild sophisticated snort of his engine that sent him so far away in a flash. They watched the girl standing where he had left her, a stricken look upon her face, and saw her turn slowly back to the house with eyes down-troubled. The mother moved away. The father bent his head upon his hand with closed eyes. The girl came back to her work, but the song on her lips had died. She worked silently with a far look in her eyes, trying to fathom it.

The eyes of her father and mother followed her tenderly all that day, and it was as if the souls of the three had clasped hands, and understood, so mistily they smiled at one another.

Billy Gaston, refreshed by a couple of chocolate fudge sundaes, a banana whip, and a lemon ice-cream soda, was seated on the bench with the heroes of the day at the Monopoly baseball grounds. He wore his most nonchalant air, chewed gum with his usual vigor, shouted himself hoarse at the proper places, and made casual grown-up responses to the condescension of the team, wrapping them tenderly in ancient sweaters when they were disabled, and watching every move of the game with a practised eye and an immobile countenance. But though to the eyes of the small fry on the grass at his feet he was as self-sufficient as ever, somehow he kept having strange qualms, and his mind kept reverting to the swart fat face of Pat at the Junction, as it ducked behind the cypress and talked into the crude telephone on the mountain. Somehow he couldn't forget the gloat in his eye as he spoke of the "rich guy." More and more uneasy he grew, more sure that the expedition to which he was pledged was not strictly "on the square."

Not that Billy Gaston was afraid. The thrill of excitement burned along his veins and filled him with a fine elation whenever he thought of the great adventure, and he gave his pocket a protective slap where the "ten bones" still reposed intact. He felt well pleased with himself to have made sure of those. Whatever happened he had that, and if the man wasn't on the square Pat deserved to lose that much. Not that Billy Gaston meant to turn "yellow" after promising, but there was no telling whether the rest of the twenty-five would be forthcoming or not. He fell to calculating its worth in terms of new sweaters and baseball bats. If worst came to worst he could threaten to expose Pat and his scheme.

During the first and second innings these reflections soothed his soul and made him sit immovable with jaws grinding in rythmic harmony with the day. But at the beginning of the third inning one of the boys from his Sunday-school class strolled by and flung himself full length on the grass at his feet where he could see his profile just as he had seen it on Sunday while he was listening to the story that the teacher always told to introduce the lesson. He could see the blue of Lynn Severn's eyes as she told it, and strangely enough portions of the tale came floating back in trailing mist across the dusty baseball diamond and obscured the sight of Sloppy Hedrick sliding to his base. It was a tale of one, Judas, who betrayed his best Friend with a kiss. It came with strange illogical persistence, and seemed curiously incongruous with the sweet air of summer blowing over the hard young faces and dusty diamond. What had Judas to do with a baseball game, or with Billy Gaston and what he meant to do on the mountain that night?-and earn good money-! Ah! That was it. Make good money! But who was he betraying he would like to know? Well if it wasn't on the square perhaps he was betraying that same One-Aw-Rats! He wasn't under anybody's thumb and Judas lived centuries ago. He wasn't doing any harm helping a man do something he wasn't supposed to know what. Hang it all! Where was Mark Carter anyway? Somehow Cart always seemed to set a fella straight. He was like Miss Lynn. He saw through things you hadn't even told him about. But this was a man's affair, not a woman's.

Of course there was another side to it. He could give some of the money to Aunt Saxon to buy coal-instead of the sweater-well, maybe it would do both. And he could give some to that fund for the Chinese Mission, Miss Lynn was getting up in the class. He would stop on the way back and give her a whole dollar. He sat, chin in hand, gazing out on the field, quite satisfied with himself, and suddenly some one back by the plate struck a fine clean ball with a click and threw the bat with a resounding ring on the hard ground as he made for a home run. Billy started and looked keenly at the bat, for somehow the ring of it as it fell sounded curiously like the tinkle of silver. Who said thirty pieces of silver? Billy threw a furtive look about and a cold perspiration broke out on his forehead. Queer that old Bible story had to stick itself in. He could see the grieving in the Master's eyes as Judas gave Him that kiss. She had made the story real. She could do that, and made the boy long somehow to make it up to that betrayed Master, and he couldn't get away from the feeling that he was falling short. Of course old Pat had said the man had money belonging to him, and you had to go mostly by what folks said, but it did look shady.

The game seemed slow after that. The two captains were wrangling over some point of rule, and the umpire was trying to pacify them both. Billy arose with well feigned languor and remarked, "Well, I gotta beat it. Guess we're gonta win all right. So long!" and lounged away to his wheel.

He purchased another soda at the drug store to get one of his fives changed into ones, one of which he stowed away in his breast pocket, while the remainder was stuffed in his trousers after the manner of a man. He bent low over his handle bars, chewing rythmically and pedaled away rapidly in the direction of Sabbath Valley.

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