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   Chapter 4 THE SHORTHORN DEACON

The One Woman By Thomas Dixon Characters: 11046

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Gordon and Overman came into town on the four o'clock express. They sat down in opposite seats near the centre of the car.

Neither of them noticed Van Meter, who also lived at Babylon in the summer, board the train as it pulled out of the station. He was a pompous little man, short and red-faced, with gray side whiskers and bald head. His eyes were sharp and beady and shined like shoe-buttons. Piety and thrift were written all over him. As a deacon he passed the bread and wine at the Lord's Table on Sunday, with his black eyes half closed, dreaming of cornering the bread market of the world on Monday. For him New York was the centre of the universe, and the Stock Exchange was the centre of New York. The rest of this earth was provincial, tributary soil. He had gone abroad, but rarely ventured beyond Philadelphia or Coney Island on this side. He was the presiding officer of the Stock Exchange and the President of the Metropolitan Bible and Tract Society. He took himself very seriously.

As they got out of the car at Long Island City, Gordon said to him:

"Deacon, I wish to have a talk with you tomorrow. Shall I call at your home or office?"

"Come down to the office at two o'clock; I'll be out at night,"

Van Meter answered briskly.

The next day Gordon walked from the church down Fourth Avenue to Union Square and down Broadway to the Battery. It was a glorious day in early spring. The air had in it yet the cool breath of winter, but the electric thrill of coming life was in the soft breezes that came from the South, where flowers were already blooming and birds singing. The hucksters were selling sweet violets and the cry of the strawberry man echoed along the side streets.

Fourth Avenue was piled with builders' material. The old brick homes were crumbling and steel-ribbed monsters climbing into the sky from their sites.

"Progress everywhere but in the churches," muttered Gordon. "The

Church alone seems dead in New York."

Broadway was one vast river of humanity. As far as the eye could reach the throng engulfed the pavements and overflowed into the streets between the curbs, mingling with the mass of cars, cabs, trucks and wagons. On either side towered the interminable miles of business houses whose nerves and arteries reach to the limits of the known world, savage and civilised. Behind those fronts sat the engineers of industry with their hands on the throttles of the world's machinery, their keen eyes and ears alert to every sound of danger in the ceaseless roar around them.

Shadowy and far away seemed the Spirit world from those hurrying, rushing, cursing, struggling men. And yet the earth was quivering beneath them with the shock of spiritual forces. The age of miracles was only dawning.

He felt like climbing to the tower of one of those great temples of trade and shouting to the throng to lift up their heads from the stones below and beyond the line of towering steel and granite see the Glory of God. And as he thought how little that crowd would heed it if he did, he felt himself in the grip of Titanic forces of Nature sweeping through time and eternity, and that he was but an atom tossed by their fury.

As he passed the City Hall his eye rested on the towering castles of the metropolitan newspapers. He could feel in the air the throb of their presses, the whir of their wheels within wheels telling the story of a day's life, wet with tears of hope and love, or poisoned with slander and falsehood, their minarets and domes the flaming signs in the sky of a new power in history, a menace to the life of the ancient Church and its priesthood. Was this power a threat to human liberty, or the highest expression of its hope? Only the future would reveal. What silent forces crouched behind those towers with their throbbing cylinders the world could only guess as yet.

He walked past old Castle Garden where so many weary feet have landed and found hope.

His heart filled with patriotic pride. Far out in the harbour stood Liberty Enlightening the World, lifting her torch among the stars, her face calm and majestic, gazing serenely out to sea.

"Land of faith and hope-my country!" he exclaimed. "Here the commonest man has risen from the dust and proved himself a king. Home of the broken-hearted, the tyrant-cursed, the bruised, the oppressed, within thy magic gates the miracle of life has been renewed!"

He looked out on the great emerald harbour gleaming in the sunlight, its sky-line white with clouds and penciled with the pennant-tipped masts of a thousand ships flying the flags of every nation of the earth. His soul was flooded again with the sense of the city's imperial splendour, stretching out her hand to grasp the financial scepter of the world, already the second city of the earth, a kingdom mightier than Caesar ruled and richer than Croesus dreamed.

He came back to Wall Street, and, as he turned into the narrow lane, felt its power shadow his imagination.

"After all," he muttered, "Van Meter is not far wrong in his idea of the omnipotence of this street."

The Deacon's office was plainly furnished. He was seated at an old-fashioned mahogany desk, evidently a relic of his Knickerbocker past. Born in New York sixty years before, he was popularly reckoned a multimillionaire, though his wealth was overestimated. Compared to the big-brained, eagle-eyed men who had come from the West and mastered Wall Street, Van Meter was really a pygmy.

He greeted Gordon politely.

"De

lighted to welcome you, Doctor, to my office. This is the first call you have ever honoured me with downtown."

"I've been to your home often, Deacon."

"But somehow you've always been shy of Wall Street," said Van Meter, expansively. "I suppose you look on us down here somewhat as the old-time preacher regarded the saloon-keeper. You should know us better. This alley is the jugular vein of the nation, and the Stock Exchange its heart. We have a President and Congress at Washington, and some very handsome buildings there. It is supposed to be the capital of the republic. A political myth! Here is the capital. The money centre is the seat of government. The Southern Confederacy failed, not for lack of soldiers or generals of military genius, but because it had no money."

Van Meter's stature grew taller and his eyes larger as Gordon felt the truth of his words.

"Well, Deacon, I wish to know you better. I'm afraid I've not always been fair to you as the senior officer of the church and one of its oldest members."

"I haven't worried over it," he replied quickly.

"I know you in your home life," Gordon continued. "You are a faithful and tender husband and father. If you were to die to-morrow, your servants would stand sobbing at the doorway when I entered. You are one of the kindest men in your individual life."

"Thanks. I hardly thought you would say so much."

"Then you have misjudged me. The only criticism I've ever made of you has been as a part of our social and economic order. This is a question, it seems to me, we might differ about and still be friends. Now, I wish you to tell me honestly, face to face, why you object to me as the pastor of your church?"

"You wish me to be perfectly frank?" he asked, with his black eyes twinkling.

"Perfectly so. You couldn't say anything that would anger me. I am too much in earnest."

"Well, to begin with, you don't preach the simple gospel."

"No; but I do preach the gospel of Christ."

"Your reference to the strike amongst the women shirt-makers in

New York drove one of the richest men out of our church."

"Yes; I saw him jump up and go out during the service. The women were making shirts for his house at thirty-five cents a dozen, finding their own thread and using their own machines. I said if I found one of those shirts in my house I'd put it in the fire with a pair of tongs, and I would. I'd be afraid to touch a seam lest I felt the throb of a woman's bruised fingers in it."

The Deacon softly stroked his whiskers.

"It was an unfortunate remark. He contributed $500 a year to the church. He has gone where the simple gospel of Christ is preached."

"Yes, so simple that he can sleep through it and know that it will never touch his life," Gordon said with a sneer. "What's the use to talk about mustard plaster? I say apply it to the place that hurts."

"You preach Evolution. I don't like the idea that man is descended from a monkey."

"The weight of scholarship sustains the theory."

"Well, my idea is, if it's true, the less said about it the better.

And then you lack dignity out of the pulpit."

"Even so, Deacon, the most dignified man I ever saw was a dead man-a dead New Yorker. What we need in the church is life."

"But you have departed from the faith of our fathers."

"Perhaps," Gordon said, with a twinkle in his eye, "if you mean our famous fathers who 'landed first on their knees and then on the aborigines.'"

Van Meter ignored the remark.

"You said one day that in America we had but two classes, the masses and the asses. That sentence cost the church a thousand dollars in pew-rents. I think such assertions blasphemous."

"Well, it's true."

"I don't think so; and if it were, it don't pay to say such things."

"Am I only to preach the truths that pay?"

"We hired you to preach the simple gospel of Christ."

"Pardon me, Deacon; I am not your hired man. I chose this church as the instrument through which I could best give my message to the world. I answer to God, not to you. The salary you pay me is not the wage of a hireling. My support comes from the free offerings laid on God's altar."

"We call them pew-rents. You are trying to abolish this system, as old as our life, and allow a mob of strangers to push and crowd our old members out of their pews."

"I believe the system of renting pews un-Christian and immoral-a mark of social caste."

"And that's why I think you're a little crazy. Even your best friends say you're daft on some things."

"So did Christ's."

The Deacon's face clouded and his black eyes flashed.

"From denouncing private pews you have begun to denounce private property. Our church is becoming a Socialist rendezvous and you a firebrand." "Deacon, you have allowed your commercial habits to master your thinking, your religion and your character. In your home, you are a good man. In Wall Street," he smiled, "pardon me, you are a highwayman, and you carry the ideals and methods of the Street into your duties as a churchman."

"Pretty far apart for a pastor and deacon, then, don't you think?"

"You ran the preacher away who preceded me, too," mused Gordon.

The Deacon's eyes danced at this acknowledgment of his power.

"He was a little slow for New York. You are rather swift."

Gordon rose and looked down good-naturedly on the shining bald head as he took his leave.

"I suppose we will have to fight it out?"

"It looks that way. My kindest regards to Mrs. Gordon."

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