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   Chapter 30 No.30

The City of Fire By Grace Livingston Hill Characters: 16519

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

It was a bright frosty morning in the edge of winter when at last they let Mark go to see the minister, and Billy took care that no hint of the Shafton car should reach his knowledge. Slowly, gravely he escorted Mark down the street and up the parsonage steps.

The minister was lying on a couch in the living room and there was a low chair drawn up near by with a book open at the place, and a bit of fluffy sewing on the low table beside it. Mark looked hungrily about for the owner of the gold thimble, but there was no sign of either Mrs. Severn or Marilyn about.

There was a bandage over the minister's eyes. They hadn't told Mark about that yet.

The minister held out a groping hand with his old sweet smile and hearty welcoming voice:

"Well, son, you've come at last! Beat me to it, didn't you? I'm glad. That was fair. Young blood you know."

Mark knelt down by the couch with his old friend's hand held fast: Billy had faded into the landscape out on the front steps somewhere, and was even now settling down for an extended wait. If this interview went well he might hope to get a little rest and catch up on sports sometime soon. It all depended on this.

Mark put up his other hand and touched the bandage:

"Father!" he said, "Father!" and broke down "Father, I have sinned-" he said brokenly.

The minister's arm went lovingly up across the young man's shoulders:

"Son, have you told your heavenly Father that?" he asked gently.

"I've tried," said Mark, "I'm not sure that He heard."

"Oh, He heard," said the minister with a ring of joy in his voice, "While you were a great way off He came to meet you, son."

"You don't know yet," said Mark lifting a white sad face-

"If you've told Him I'll trust you son. It's up to you whether you tell me or not."

"It is your right to know, sir. I want you to know. I cannot rest again until you do."

"Then tell." The minister's hand folded down tenderly over the boy's, and so kneeling beside the couch Mark told his story:

"I must begin by telling you that I have always loved Marilyn."

"I know," said the minister, with a pressure on the hand he covered.

"One day I heard someone telling Mrs. Severn that I was not good enough for her."

"I know," said the minister again.

"You know?" said Mark in surprise.

"Yes, go on."

"I went away and thought it over. I felt as if I would die. I was mad and hurt clear through, but after I thought it over I saw that all she had said was true. I wasn't good enough. There was a great deal of pride mixed with it all of course, I've seen that since, but I wasn't good enough. Nobody was. Lynn is,-wonderful-! But I was just a common, insignificant nobody, not fit to be her mate. I knew it! I could see just how things were going too. I saw you didn't realize it, you nor Mrs. Severn. I knew Marilyn cared, but I thought she didn't realize it either, and I saw it was up to me. If she wasn't to have to suffer by being parted from me when she grew older, I must teach her not to care before she knew she cared. For days I turned it over in my mind. Many nights I lay awake all night or walked out on the hills, threshing it all over again. And I saw another thing. I saw that if it was so hard for me then when I was not much more than a kid it would be harder for her if I let her grow up caring, and then we had to be parted, so I decided to make the break. The day I made the decision I went off in the hills and stayed all day thinking it out. And then I looked up in the sky and told God I was done with Him. I had prayed and prayed that He would make a way out of this trouble for me, and He hadn't done anything about it, and I felt that He was against me too. So when I had done that I felt utterly reckless. I didn't care what happened to me, and I decided to go to the bad as fast as I could. I felt it would be the best way too to make Marilyn get over being fond of me. So I went down to Monopoly that night and looked up a fellow that had been coaching the teams for a while and was put out by the association because he was rotten. He had always made a fuss over me, wanted to make a big player out of me, and I knew he would be glad to see me.

"He was. He took me out to supper that night and gave me liquor to drink. You know I had never touched a drop. Never had intended to as long as I lived. But when he offered it to me I took it down as if I had been used to it. I didn't care. I wanted to do all the wrong I could.

"I drank again and again, and I must have got pretty drunk. I remember the crowd laughed at me a great deal. And they brought some girls around. It makes me sick to think of it now. We went to a place and danced. I didn't know how, but I danced anyway. And there was more drinking. I don't remember things very distinctly. I did whatever the coach said, and he had been going a pretty good pace himself.-That night-!" His voice choked with shame and it seemed as though he could not go on-but the minister's clasp was steady and the boy gathered courage and went on-"That night-we-went-to a house of shame-!"

He dropped his head and groaned. The minister did not attempt to break the pause that followed. He knew the struggle that was going on in the bitterness of the young man's soul. He maintained that steady hand clasp:

"In the morning-when I came to myself-" he went on "I knew what I had done. I had cut myself off forever from all that made life worth while. I would never be worthy again to even speak to you all whom I loved so much. I would never be able to look myself in the face again even. I was ashamed. I had given up God and love, and everything worth while.

"That was when I went away to New York. Mother tried to stop me, but I would go. I tried when I got to New York to plunge into a wild life, but it didn't attract me. I had to force myself. Besides, I had resolved that whatever came, wherever I went I would not drink and I would keep clean. I thought that by so doing I might in time at least win back my self respect. Later I conceived the idea of trying to save others from a life of shame. I did succeed in helping some to better ways I think, both men and girls. But I only won a worse reputation at home for it, and I'm not sure I did much good. I only know I walked in hell from morning to night, and in time I came to dwell among lost souls. It seemed the only place that I belonged.

"You remember when you read us Dante 'Thou who through the City of Fire alive art passing'? You used to preach in church about beginning the eternal life now, and making a little heaven below, I'm sure that is as true of hell. I began my eternal life five years ago, but it was in hell, and I shall go on living in that fire of torture forever, apart from all I love. I tried to get out by doing good to others, but it was of no avail. I thought never to tell you this, but something made me, after you-you gave your life for me-!"

"And had you forgotten," said the minister tenderly, "That the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin? And that he said, 'Come now and let us reason together, Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow?'"

"I gave up all right to that when I gave up God on the mountain."

"But God did not give up you," said the minister. "Do you think a true father would cast out a child because it got angry and shook its fist in his face? You will find Him again when you search for Him with all your heart. You have told Him you were sorry, and He has promised to forgive. You can't save yourself, but He can save you. Now, son, go and tell Marilyn everything."

"Do you mean it,-Father?"

"I mean it-Son. The doctor is coming by and by to take off these bandages, and I want the first thing that my eyes rest upon after my dear wife's face, to be the faces of you two. My beloved children."

* * *

Sabbath Valley lay tucked warm and white beneath a blanket of snow. All the week it had been coming down, down, in great white flakes of especially sorted sizes, filling the air mightily with winter clean and deep. Here in the fastnesses of the hills it seemed that the treasure troves of the sky had been opened to make all beautiful and quiet while winter pass

ed that way. Lone Valley was almost obliterated, pierced with sharp pine trees in bunches here and there, like a flock of pins in a pincushion, and the hills rose gently on either side like a vast amphitheatre done in white and peopled thick with trees in heavy white furs.

The Highway was almost impassable for a day or two, but the state snow plow passed over as soon as the snow stopped falling, and left a white pavement with white walls either side. The tunnel through the mountains was only a black dot in the vast whiteness, and Pleasant View Station wore a heavy cap of snow dripping down in lavish fringes edged with icicles. The agent's little shanty up the mountain was buried out of sight behind a snow drift and had to be dug out from the back, and no Lake Train ran any more. The express was five hours late. Stark Mountain loomed white against the sky. And over in Sabbath Valley the night it stopped snowing all the villagers were out shovelling their walks and calling glad nothings back and forth as they flung the white star dust from their shovels, and little children came out with rubber boots and warm leggings and wallowed in the beauty. The milkman got out an old sleigh and strung a line of bells around his horse. The boys and girls hurried up the mountain to their slide with home made sleds and laughing voices, and the moon came up looking sweetly from a sudden clearing sky.

Over in the church the windows shone with light, and the bells were ringing out the old sweet songs the villagers loved. Marilyn was at the organ and Mark by her side. In the body of the church willing hands were working, setting up the tall hemlocks that Tom and Jim had brought in from the mountain, till the little church was fragrant and literally lined with lacey beauty, reminding one of ancient worship in the woods. Holly wreaths were hanging in the windows everywhere, and ropes of ground pine and laurel festooned from every pillar and corner and peak of roof.

Laurie Shafton had sent a great coffer of wonderful roses, and the country girls were handling them with awe, banking them round the pulpit, and trailing them over the rail of the little choir loft, wonderful roses from another world, the world that Marilyn Severn might have married into if she had chosen. And there sat Marilyn as indifferent as if they were dandelions, praising the trees that had been set up, delighting in their slender tops that rose like miniature spires all round the wall, drawing in the sweetness of their winter spicy breath, and never saying a word about the roses. "Roses? Oh, yes, they look all right, Girls, just put them wherever you fancy. I'll be suited. But aren't those trees too beautiful for words?"

When the work was done they trooped out noisily into the moonlight, bright like day only with a beauty that was almost unearthly in its radiance. The others went on down the street calling gay words back and forth, but Mark and Marilyn lingered, bearing a wreath of laurel, and stepping deep into the whiteness went over to the white piled mound where they had laid Mrs. Carter's body to rest and Mark stooped down and pressed the wreath down into the snow upon the top:

"Dear little mother," he said brokenly, "She loved pretty things and I meant to give her so many of them sometime to make up-"

"But she'll be glad-" said Marilyn softly, "We loved each other very much-!"

"Yes, she'll be glad!" he answered. "She often tried to find out why I never went to the parsonage any more. Poor little mother! That was her deepest disappointment-! Yes, she'll be glad-!"

* * *

When morning came it seemed as though the very glory of God was spread forth on Sabbath Valley for display. There it lay, a shining gem of a little white town, in the white velvet cup of the Valley, dazzling and resplendent, the hills rising round about reflecting more brightness and etched with fringes of fine branches each burdened with a line of heavy furry white. Against the clear blue sky the bell tower rose, and from its arches the bells rang forth a wedding song. Marilyn in her white robes, with a long white veil of rare old lace handed down through the generations, falling down the back and fastened about her forehead, and with a slim little rope of pearls, also an heirloom, was ringing her own wedding bells, with Mark by her side, while the villagers gathered outside the door waiting for the wedding march to begin before they came in.

The minister and his wife stood back in his little study behind the pulpit, watching their two with loving eyes, and down by the front door stood Billy in a new suit with his hair very wet and licked back from an almost crimson countenance, waiting the word to fling open the door and let the congregation in.

"Tum, diddydum-Diddydum-diddydum-Diddydum-diddydum- Diddydum-dum-dum-Dum-Dum-Dum!" began the organ and Billy flung the portals wide and stood aside on the steps to let the throng pass in, his eyes shining as if they would say, "Aw Gee! Ain't this great?"

And just at that moment, wallowing through the snow, with the air of having come from the North Pole there arrived a great car and drew up to the door, and Laurie Shafton jumped anxiously out and flung open the door for his passengers.

"Aw Gee! That Fish! Whadde wantta come here for? The great chump! Don't he know he ain't in it?"

Billy watched in lofty scorn from his high step and decided to hurry in and not have to show any honors to that sissy-guy.

Then out from the car issued Opal, done in furs from brow to shoe and looking eagerly about her, and following her a big handsome sporty man almost twice her age, looking curiously interested, as if he had come to a shrine to worship, Opal's husband. Billy stared, and then remembering that the wedding march was almost over and that he might be missing something:

"Aw, Gee! Whadduw I care? He ain't little apples now, anyhow. He couldn'ta bought her with barrels of roses, an' he knows it too, the poor stiff. He must be a pretty good scout after all, takin' his medicine straight!"

Then Billy slid in and the quiet little ceremony began.

The organ hushed into nothing. Marilyn arose, took Mark's arm, and together they stepped down and stood in front of the minister, who had come down the steps of the pulpit and was awaiting them, with Marilyn's mother sitting only a step away on the front seat.

It was all so quiet and homey, without fuss or marching or any such thing, and when the ceremony was over the bride and groom turned about in front of the bank of hemlock and roses and their friends swarmed up to congratulate them. Then everybody went into the parsonage, where the ladies of the church had prepared a real country wedding breakfast with Christmas turkey and fixings for a foundation and going on from that. It wasn't every day in the year that Sabbath Valley got its minister's daughter married, and what if the parsonage was small and only fifty could sit down at once, everybody was patient, and it was all the more fun!

The three guests from out of town, self imposed, looked on with wonder and interest. It was a revelation. Marilyn looked up and found big Ed Verrons frankly staring at her, a puzzled pleased expression on his large coarse face. She was half annoyed and wondered why they had come to spoil this perfect day. Then suddenly the big man stepped across the little living room and spoke:

"Mrs. Carter, we came over to-day because Opal said you had something that would help us begin over again and make life more of a success. I want to thank you for having this chance to see a little bit of heaven on earth before I die."

Later, when the city guests were fed and comforted perhaps, and had climbed back into the big car, Billy stood on the front porch with a third helping of ice cream and watched them back, and turn, and wallow away into the deep white world, and his heart was touched with pity:

"Aw, Gee! The poor fish! I'spose it is hard lines! And then it was sorta my faultchu know," and he turned with a joyful sigh that they were gone, and went in to look again at Mary Louise Little, and see what it was about her in that new blue challis that made her look so sorta nice to-day.

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