Margaret Sangster was known for her short stories.—Via Shepherdess International
Mr. Jones, the stout trustee from St. Luke's Church, settled himself gingerly in the farthest corner of the cushioned pew and thought of St. Luke's back in the city, with its deep carpets and velvet upholstery. His eyes took in the rude pine woodwork, and the choir loft with its folding camp chairs. Sighing gustily he told himself that never again would he feel called upon to attend Sunday services in an isolated village church.
All about him the congregation took its place—not the sort of silk-lined congregation that rustled though each aisle at St. Luke's but tired men with sun-crisped faces and work-hardened hands, weary women with children clinging to either hand. These people showed unmistakably and pitifully the mark of a poverty-stricken farming community. A young girl sat at the organ. The sunlight from one of the plain, high windows tangled itself in her uncovered, moon-gold hair. She played rather well, drawing a certain quaint sympathy from the rusty instrument. One could sense an undercurrent of reverence and knew that the congregation rested beneath that reverence.
At the side of the pulpit a door opened and a man came out. He was a young man, in a shabby serge suit, who looked thin and a trifle tired; his face also showed the mark of the out-of-doors. He was like his congregation, this minister. Not over them, not above them, common clay was he.
Again Mr. Jones sighed. Then all at once he was swept into the melody of the first hymn—so simple that they never sang it any more at St. Luke's. It surprised him that he knew the words and that he had joined lustily in the singing.
Then all at once, and for no reason that he could explain, Mr. Jones was glad he came; yet the realization didn't come until the thinpreacher knelt to pray. When he prayed, he was transformed into a glorified disciple with a golden message to give. Under the power and loveliness of that prayer, Mr. Jones found himself remembering many things—things that he had almost forgotten at St. Luke's. He had heard the greatest preachers of the times in the pulpit of St. Luke's—suave they were and polished, word-perfect and elegant. But of all of them, none had been able to make Mr. Jones remember the prayers thathe had learned at his mother's knee, nor the other prayers that he had said above her grave. These other sermons hadn't made his young ambitions wake.
He found himself staring into the keen, almost hungry face of the young minister trying to read there the secret of the fellow's eloquence and appeal. All at once, Mr. Jones discovered it, the sympathetic understanding of the need. This congregation, this pitiful over-worked congregation, needed loveliness. Through divine power, this young man, gave it to them.
"If only," Mr. Jones said to himself, "if only we had someone back in St. Luke's that could give this to us! We—we're just as tired and overworked as these people. We have money and luxury, but we haven't this sort of thing. Oh, what a man like this could do.
The minister paused and bent his head in a personal benediction while the girl in the choir loft answered it with a thin, sweet thread of music. Mr. Jones found himself filing out of the plain little church. He went away with his heart refreshed and his soul a living thing.
Six months later, the young minister received a letter upon the engraved stationery of St. Luke's. His face grew white with surprise, and his eyes darkened with unbelief! He started posthaste for the little cottage where the girl lived, the girl who had always, since he had entered the ministry shared his hopes and his ambitions and his dreams. Her eyes opened with surprise when she si-Av him on the threshold.
"Why Jamie, why dear! Shouldn't you be doing your midweek sermon? Has somethinng happened?"
"Read this! Read this! It's a call! It's more than a call! It's a great opportunity! From St. Luke's! On the Avenue! In the city! They want me!"
She read the letter. Her eyes too, widened and darkened. But her comment was almost irrelevant. "The Reverend James Lane Hall," that's how they address you At sounds so grand! And then all at once, the tears coursed down her cheeks. "I'm crying because I'm so proud of you. Because it's so wonderful—so utterly wonderful. Because we'll miss you terribly!"
"But of course you'll go, too, if Igo. If I decide that I should go."
And yet when he went to the city, for he decided to go, James Hall went alone. Not because he wanted to go alone, but because he and the girl had decided that for the present it would be best. Later if everything was as it should be, if he still wanted to stay at St. Luke's and if they wanted him, she would go to him in the spring. So James Hall left for the city, but not until he had pressed many hands in farewell, not until he had looked deep into many wistful eyes. He left with a battered suitcase in his hand and a great desire in his soul. And with, at the very last, a picture printed on the surface of his heart—the picture of a girl with moon-gold hair and red quivering lips.
Mr. Jones and two slimmer and lesser trustees met the young man at the station. They felt very radical as they saw his shabby suitcase and his thread-bare overcoat. They felt very poised and sophisticated as they heard his exclamation of the limousine in which they drove. They felt even more proud as they drove up the Avenue toward St. Luke's and saw the growing wonder on his keen young face. But when with him, they entered in through the great arched doors of the church, they knew satisfaction. The look in his lifted eyes held a swift radiance. They were proud of St Luke's, these men.
"If I could glorify God as greatly as this setting deserves! If . . . only that!"
He justified all that Mr. Jones had said of him. On his first Sunday in the pulpit at St Luke's, James Lane Hall preached a sermon unique in the history of the church. With black silk robes adequately covering his leanness and his shabbiness, the young minister told his new friends the miracle of miracles. He made them feel that they were his friends and told of the things that crowded his heart. He told them of his desire to help them, to serve them, to lead them.
At first his speech sounded a little awkward, a trifle halting and slow, but before long, the thrill of the moment caught and held him. He again addressed a group of farm folk who had come to him for beauty, There was no realization in his soul of the fact that he offered aid to men who controlled millions of dollars. He only knew that he reached out a hand of fellowship, a hand that, much to the congregation's own surprise, was swiftly accepted. It wasn't until they were dining at home, an hour after the benediction that any of the congregation had a desire to smile over his earnestness. And when the smile came, it was always a kindly, fatherly smile.
The people of St. Luke's came back the next Sunday to hear what James Lane Hall had to tell them., of his amazingly simple religion, and h.is amazingly personal God. And in a month or two, people had to stand in line for admission to St. Luke's commonplace services.
For James Lane Hall had a great deal to tell them. They loved him for his earnestness and inspiration—these were new to them. Eloquence and rhetoric they had known, but they had heard little of the church itself, and of their part in it, and of God's part in them.
Mr. Jones told him, "It's the way you put it over, you're wonderful!"
James Lane Hall, used to pouring out his soul to an articulate group, wondered indeed if he had a special gift. He had always held his audience in the hollow of his hand, but his audience had been unable to tell him so. Now he knew words of praise. He knew a crowded church and faultless gloved hands to clasp his own. Sometimes he found himself thinking as he wrote his sermons, "They'll be caught by this line," or "this will make them like me better." He never thought of sermons in the old days in quite this fashion.
Winter passed and with it went the shabby overcoat, the old traveling bag, and the shabby serge suit. Spring was born and the life of James Lane Hall went briskly successfully on according to schedule, except for one matter. The girl with the pale golden hair did not come to the city as the new pastor of St. Luke's was too busy when spring came. He wrote back to the village sincerely and loving in explanation.
"Darling," he wrote, "I want you more each day, but this business of adjustment is terrific. You'd be surprised with the work that goes with a big church. All the clubs, the social duties, and the demand upon one's time. I have four helpers but even so . ."
The girl read the letter and then with her hands in her lap, she sat silently for a long time looking at the waking work of spring. She saw across the rolling meadows a small wooden church with a gaunt grey steeple that pointed with a certain gallantry toward the sky. As she sat there, she thought of the man who had, not more than half a year ago, captained that little church. She thought of him and the other man who had grown to take his place, who despite four helpers could not adjust.
It is hard to place one's finger upon the time of change. It comes so quickly, so. subtly. This outline grows blurred and that another outline grows more distinct. Then all at once the change has taken place, and there is no denying it anymore than there was a chance to follow it. So it was with Jamie or James Lane Hall, after his first six months at St. Luke's. He least of all realized how he changed—his sermons had become studied instead of spontaneous. Still he fell to his knees in prayer and waited until the music from the organ pipes reached a certain height. His final pause followed his sudden, shy benediction sent people away with an urge to return. But the suddenness of that benediction climaxed after a particularly poignant sentence.
The congregation at St. Luke's and the outsiders who weekly besieged the church doors did not realize what had happened. They did not understand exactly what change had come. Morning service, evening service, young people's clubs, business men's clubs, the weekly radio talk—James Lane Hall, in immaculate broadcloth officiated them all. And his letters to the fair-haired girl became less and less.
During the second spring, after a triumphant sermon on the awakening of a rebirth, James Lane Hall went into his study and found her there. At first he did not recognize her. It took a moment for his gaze to focus to clarify. And then . . . he exclaimed, "My dear! My Dear! Why didn't you let me know you were coming? And how did you get in here?"
The girl looked at him queerly. Her moon-gold hair, escaping in little tendrils from. under her country hat made her seem very fragile and lovely. He had forgotten how dear she was, how desirable.
"No, no James I've come really to see you, not to renew something—something that isn't any more. I've come to tell you something instead. Jamie, you see, I've loved you and our whole village has loved you. And we've hated to see you go down!"
"Go Down?" James Lane Hall started. Was it possible that he had heard the right words? Why this very study was larger than the whole church back in the village. And his salary in a month was more than a year's salary back there. And his congregation
But the girl went on, "My dear, after you left, we missed you so dreadfully. The new mart, just a boy out of the seminary, couldn't begin to fill your place. We skimped and economized, all of us, and bought a radio and put it in the church so that just once a week we could have you with us. We, we noticed the difference in you. Jamie, we noticed it almost immediately! About a week ago, we took the radio out. We could hardly stand it anymore. And it was then that I decided to come to you."
The man was about to speak but she continued, "I do not think you realize what has happened or else you'd be so sorry that y4 a.t would n'tbe able to go on. But we, oh, we know . ."
"What . . . what do you know?"
"Why Jamie, we know that it's not you. It's the city and St. Luke's, the velvet and the grandeur. You are talking to it and about it. You aren't preaching God anymore. You're preaching about things. You are using the realness of you to make it sound real. And, for that reason there isn't any realness left. Do you understand? It's all become a clever trick! You, why Jamie, you're not honest anymore that's what we know . ."
She paused, "I came to the church early this morning so that there would be room enough for me to get into the lobby. I stood next to a man from a newspaper. We listened together and he took notes. Finally when you had nearly finished, he suddenly went outside. I followed him; he looked at me and laughed. 'Little Boy Blue,' he said, 'isn't he cunning? Only how long will it be before the sheep and the cows know that he is tucked away under the hay stack of importance? That he hasn't a horn to blow—not, not anymore!'
Her cheeks flushed. Her eyes were bright, and she rose to her feet. "ft was then that I walked around to the back of the church and found your study, James. I came inside and waited and listened to the organ. AU the time I was saying a nursery rhyme the stranger had put into my mind. Saying it and wishing that you might wake up, Jamie and shake off all the things that don't matter. Wishing that you might sound the bugle and call again for your flock to hear."
All at once she turned and left. She went so swiftly that all James Lane Hall saw was her shadow against the outer wall of the church, and a taxi hurrying away. An hour later when Mr. Jones came in search of him, James was still in front of his broad desk with his head lying upon his folded arms.
That night, at the evening service, the pastor of St. Luke's became Jamie Hall once more. He had not eaten his dinner and skipped his radio hour. But at evening service, he was early.
As he stood erect and tall behind the carved pulpit, some in the room noticed a change in him. Something humble appeared in his bearing, something almost pleaded in his eyes. As the old simple hymn played on an ancient organ, Jamie Hall started to talk.
"My friends, I am here tonight to say good-bye to you. Not because—not because I want to go away, for I love you and the church and the city. But because I have forgotten my job since I've been here. Friends, I guess, I guess I wasn't big enough to come to you here.
"Back in my home, I could preach a simple faith to simple people. But here, well, I don't exactly understand it myself, but here, I've gone to sleep. I've forgotten that a pastor's first duty is to sound a call, to keep sounding it—a call to duty, to ideals, to truth. I've been content to let that call go unsounded, to say pretty things, to pray pretty prayers tha t you expected me to. I—I started by giving you my concept of God. But lately that God has not been so clear in my heart.
"My only excuse is that, thought could crowd this church, I couldn't hold the attention of a little group of people who knew me and loved me and were my first audience. While you stood to listen, they turned off the radio that carried my voice to them across the miles and went sadly and silently away. They knew the real me and they wouldn't be fooled by any others.
I'm going home to them, to people who are farm folk, who see God in every tree and cloud andblade of grass. And when I'm able to satisfy them, then I'll know that lam awake. Then if you want me back again and they are willing, come to you and bring a wife with me. Will you let me pray with you once more, before I go?"
Suddenly he knelt and began to pray. All through the church, men and women bowed their heads and found that they were remembering things, things that they had remembered once when a young pastor, fresh from the country, preached his first sermons to them. As the prayer went on, they were caught up in the midst of the might-have beens and were brought back refreshed. When the prayer ended, they surged forward to touch their master's hand, but he had already gone through the little side door that led to his study and from there to the Avenue and down that road toward yesterday and tomorrow.