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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Inside Of The Cup - Volume 2 - Chapter 8. The Line Of Least Resistance
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The Inside Of The Cup - Volume 2 - Chapter 8. The Line Of Least Resistance Post by :solidarity Category :Long Stories Author :Winston Churchill Date :May 2012 Read :792

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The Inside Of The Cup - Volume 2 - Chapter 8. The Line Of Least Resistance

VOLUME II CHAPTER VIII. THE LINE OF LEAST RESISTANCE

From the vantage point of his rooms in the parish house, Hodder reviewed the situation. And despite the desires thronging after him in his flight he had the feeling of once who, in the dark, has been very near to annihilation. What had shaken him most was the revelation of an old enemy which, watching its chance, had beset him at the first opportunity; and at a time when the scheme of life, which he flattered himself to have solved forever, was threatening once more to resolve itself into fragments. He had, as if by a miracle, escaped destruction in some insidious form.

He shrank instinctively from an analysis of the woman in regard to whom his feelings were, so complicated, and yet by no means lacking in tenderness. But as time went on, he recognized more and more that she had come into his life at a moment when he was peculiarly vulnerable. She had taken him off his guard. That the brilliant Mrs. Larrabbee should have desired him--or what she believed was him--was food enough for thought, was an indication of an idealism in her nature that he would not have suspected. From a worldly point of view, the marriage would have commended itself to none of her friends. Yet Hodder perceived clearly that he could not have given her what she desired, since the marriage would have killed it in him. She offered him the other thing. Once again he had managed somehow to cling to his dream of what the relationship between man and woman should be, and he saw more and more distinctly that he had coveted not only the jewel, but its setting. He could not see her out of it--she faded. Nor could he see himself in it.

Luxury,--of course,--that was what he had spurned. Luxury in contrast to Dalton Street, to the whirring factories near the church which discharged, at nightfall, their quotas of wan women and stunted children. And yet here he was catering to luxury, providing religion for it! Religion!

Early in November he heard that Mrs. Larrabbee had suddenly decided to go abroad without returning home....

That winter Hodder might have been likened to a Niagara for energy; an unharnessed Niagara--such would have been his own comment. He seemed to turn no wheels, or only a few at least, and feebly. And while the spectacle of their rector's zeal was no doubt an edifying one to his parishioners, they gave him to understand that they would have been satisfied with less. They admired, but chided him gently; and in February Mr. Parr offered to take him to Florida. He was tired, and it was largely because he dreaded the reflection inevitable in a period of rest, that he refused.... And throughout these months, the feeling recurred, with increased strength, that McCrae was still watching him,--the notion persisted that his assistant held to a theory of his own, if he could but be induced to reveal it. Hodder refrained from making the appeal. Sometimes he was on the point of losing patience with this enigmatic person.

Congratulations on the fact that his congregation was increasing brought him little comfort, since a cold analysis of the newcomers who were renting pews was in itself an indication of the lack of that thing he so vainly sought. The decorous families who were now allying themselves with St. John's did so at the expense of other churches either more radical or less fashionable. What was it he sought? What did he wish? To fill the church to overflowing with the poor and needy as well as the rich, and to enter into the lives of all. Yet at a certain point he met a resistance that was no less firm because it was baffling. The Word, on his lips at least, seemed to have lost it efficacy. The poor heeded it not, and he preached to the rich as from behind a glass. They went on with their carnival. Why this insatiate ambition on his part in an age of unbelief? Other clergymen, not half so fortunate, were apparently satisfied; or else--from his conversation with them--either oddly optimistic or resigned. Why not he?

It was strange, in spite of everything, that hope sprang up within him, a recurrent geyser.

Gradually, almost imperceptibly, he found himself turning more and more towards that line of least resistance which other churches were following, as the one Modern Solution,--institutional work. After all, in the rescuing of bodies some method might yet be discovered to revive the souls. And there were the children! Hodder might have been likened to an explorer, seeking a direct path when there was none--a royal road. And if this were oblique it offered, at least, a definite outlet for his energy.

Such was, approximately, the state of his mind early in March when Gordon Atterbury came back from a conference in New York on institutional work, and filled with enthusiasm. St. John's was incredibly behind the times, so he told Hodder, and later the vestry. Now that they had, in Mr. Hodder, a man of action and ability--ahem! there was no excuse for a parish as wealthy as St. John's, a parish with their opportunities, considering the proximity of Dalton Street neighbourhood, not enlarging and modernizing the parish house, not building a settlement house with kindergartens, schools, workshops, libraries, a dispensary and day nurseries. It would undoubtedly be an expense--and Mr. Atterbury looked at Mr. Parr, who drummed on the vestry table. They would need extra assistants, deaconesses, trained nurses, and all that. But there were other churches in the city that were ahead of St. John's--a reproach--ahem!

Mr. Parr replied that he had told the rector that he stood ready to contribute to such a scheme when he, the rector; should be ready to approve it. And he looked at Mr. Hodder.

Mr. Hodder said he had been considering the matter ever since his arrival. He had only one criticism of institutional work, that in his observation it did not bring the people whom it reached into the Church in any great numbers. Perhaps that were too much to ask, in these days. For his part he would willingly assume the extra burden, and he was far from denying the positive good such work accomplished through association and by the raising of standards.

Mr. Ferguson declared his readiness to help. Many of his salesgirls, he said, lived in this part of the city, and he would be glad to do anything in his power towards keeping them out of the dance-halls and such places.

A committee was finally appointed consisting of Mr. Parr, Mr. Atterbury, and the rector, to consult architects and to decide upon a site.

Hodder began a correspondence with experts in other cities, collected plans, pamphlets, statistics; spent hours with the great child-specialist, Dr. Jarvis, and with certain clergymen who believed in institutionalism as the hope of the future.

But McCrae was provokingly non-committal.

"Oh, they may try it," he assented somewhat grudgingly, one day when the rector had laid out for his inspection the architects' sketch for the settlement house. "No doubt it will help many poor bodies along."

"Is there anything else?" the rector asked, looking searchingly at his assistant.

"It may as well be that," replied McCrae.

The suspicion began to dawn on Hodder that the Scotch man's ideals were as high as his own. Both of them, secretly, regarded the new scheme as a compromise, a yielding to the inevitable....

Mr. Ferguson's remark that an enlarged parish house and a new settlement house might help to keep some of the young women employed in his department store out of the dance-halls interested Hodder, who conceived the idea of a dance-hall of their own. For the rector, in the course of his bachelor shopping, often resorted to the emporium of his vestryman, to stand on the stairway which carried him upward without lifting his feet, to roam, fascinated, through the mazes of its aisles, where he invariably got lost, and was rescued by suave floor-walkers or pert young women in black gowns and white collars and cuffs. But they were not all pert--there were many characters, many types. And he often wondered whether they did not get tired standing on their feet all day long, hesitating to ask them; speculated on their lives--flung as most of them were on a heedless city, and left to shift for themselves. Why was it that the Church which cared for Mr. Ferguson's soul was unable to get in touch with, or make an appeal to, those of his thousand employees?

It might indeed have been said that Francis Ferguson cared for his own soul, as he cared for the rest of his property, and kept it carefully insured,--somewhat, perhaps, on the principle of Pascal's wager. That he had been a benefactor to his city no one would deny who had seen the facade that covered a whole block in the business district from Tower to Vine, surmounted by a red standard with the familiar motto, "When in doubt, go to Ferguson's." At Ferguson's you could buy anything from a pen-wiper to a piano or a Paris gown; sit in a cool restaurant in summer or in a palm garden in winter; leave your baby--if you had one--in charge of the most capable trained nurses; if your taste were literary, mull over the novels in the Book Department; if you were stout, you might be reduced in the Hygiene Department, unknown to your husband and intimate friends. In short, if there were any virtuous human wish in the power of genius to gratify, Ferguson's was the place. They, even taught you how to cook. It was a modern Aladdin's palace: and, like everything else modern, much more wonderful than the original. And the soda might be likened to the waters of Trevi,--to partake of which is to return.

"When in doubt, go to Ferguson!" Thus Mrs. Larrabbee and other ladies interested in good works had altered his motto. He was one of the supporters of Galt House, into which some of his own young saleswomen had occasionally strayed; and none, save Mr. Parr alone, had been so liberal in his gifts. Holder invariably found it difficult to reconcile the unassuming man, whose conversation was so commonplace, with the titanic genius who had created Ferguson's; nor indeed with the owner of the imposing marble mansion at Number 5, Park Street.

The rector occasionally dined there. He had acquired a real affection for Mrs. Ferguson, who resembled a burgomaster's wife in her evening gowns and jewels, and whose simple social ambitions had been gratified beyond her dreams. Her heart had not shrunken in the process, nor had she forgotten her somewhat heterogeneous acquaintances in the southern part of the city. And it was true that when Gertrude Constable had nearly died of appendicitis, it was on this lady's broad bosom that Mrs. Constable had wept. Mrs. Ferguson had haunted the house, regardless of criticism, and actually quivering with sympathy. Her more important dinner parties might have been likened to ill-matched fours-in-hand, and Holder had sometimes felt more of pity than of amusement as she sat with an expression of terror on her face, helplessly watching certain unruly individuals taking their bits in their teeth and galloping madly downhill. On one occasion, when he sat beside her, a young man, who shall be nameless, was suddenly heard to remark in the midst of an accidental lull:

"I never go to church. What's the use? I'm afraid most of us don't believe in hell any more."

A silence followed: of the sort that chills. And the young man, glancing down the long board at the clergyman, became as red as the carnation in his buttonhole, and in his extremity gulped down more champagne.

"Things are in a dreadful state nowadays!" Mrs. Ferguson gasped to a paralyzed company, and turned an agonized face to Holder. "I'm so sorry," she said, "I don't know why I asked him to-night, except that I have to have a young man for Nan, and he's just come to the city, and I was sorry for him. He's very promising in a business way; he's in Mr. Plimpton's trust company."

"Please don't let it trouble you." Holder turned and smiled a little, and added whimsically: "We may as well face the truth."

"Oh, I should expect you to be good about it, but it was unpardonable," she cried....

In the intervals when he gained her attention he strove, by talking lightly of other things, to take her mind off the incident, but somehow it had left him strangely and--he felt--disproportionately depressed,--although he had believed himself capable of facing more or less philosophically that condition which the speaker had so frankly expressed. Yet the remark, somehow, had had an illuminating effect like a flashlight, revealing to him the isolation of the Church as never before. And after dinner, as they were going to the smoking-room, the offender accosted him shamefacedly.

"I'm awfully sorry, Mr. Holder," he stammered.

That the tall rector's regard was kindly did not relieve his discomfort. Hodder laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Don't worry about it," he answered, "I have only one regret as to what you said--that it is true."

The other looked at him curiously.

"It's mighty decent of you to take it this way," he laid. Further speech failed him.

He was a nice-looking young man, with firm white teeth, and honesty was written all over his boyish face. And the palpable fact that his regret was more on the clergyman's account than for the social faux pas drew Holder the more, since it bespoke a genuineness of character.

He did not see the yearning in the rector's eyes as he turned away... Why was it they could not be standing side by side, fighting the same fight? The Church had lost him, and thousands like him, and she needed them; could not, indeed, do without them.

Where, indeed, were the young men? They did not bother their heads about spiritual matters any more. But were they not, he asked himself, franker than many of these others, the so-called pillars of the spiritual structure?

Mr. Plimpton accosted him. "I congratulate you upon the new plans, Mr. Hodder,--they're great," he said. "Mr. Parr and our host are coming down handsomely, eh? When we get the new settlement house we'll have a plant as up-to-date as any church in the country. When do you break ground?"

"Not until autumn, I believe," Hodder replied. "There are a good many details to decide upon yet."

"Well, I congratulate you."

Mr. Plimpton was forever congratulating.

"Up-to-date"--"plant"! More illuminating words, eloquent of Mr. Plimpton's ideals. St. John's down at the heels, to be brought up to the state of efficiency of Mr. Plimpton's trust company! It was by no means the first time he had heard modern attributes on Mr. Plimpton's lips applied to a sacred institution, but to-night they had a profoundly disquieting effect. To-night, a certain clairvoyance had been vouchsafed him, and he beheld these men, his associates and supporters, with a detachment never before achieved.

They settled in groups about the room, which was square and high, and panelled in Italian walnut, with fluted pilasters,--the capitals of which were elaborately carved. And Hodder found himself on a deep leather sofa in a corner engaged in a desultory and automatic conversation with Everett Constable. Mr. Plimpton, with a large cigar between his lips, was the radiating centre of one of the liveliest groups, and of him the rector had fallen into a consideration, piecing together bits of information that hitherto had floated meaninglessly in his mind. It was Mrs. Larrabbee who had given character to the career of the still comparatively youthful and unquestionably energetic president of the Chamber of Commerce by likening it to a great spiral, starting somewhere in outer regions of twilight, and gradually drawing nearer to the centre, from which he had never taken his eyes. At the centre were Eldon Parr and Charlotte Gore. Wallis Plimpton had made himself indispensable to both.

His campaign for the daughter of Thurston Gore had been comparable to one of the great sieges of history, for Mr. Plimpton was a laughing-stock when he sat down before that fortress. At the end of ten years, Charlotte had capitulated, with a sigh of relief, realizing at last her destiny. She had become slightly stout, revealing, as time went on, no wrinkles--a proof that the union was founded on something more enduring than poetry: Statesmanship--that was the secret! Step by step, slowly but surely, the memoranda in that matrimonial portfolio were growing into accomplished facts; all events, such as displacements of power, were foreseen; and the Plimptons, like Bismarck, had only to indicate, in case of sudden news, the pigeonhole where the plan of any particular campaign was filed.

Mrs. Larrabbee's temptation to be witty at the expense of those for whom she had no liking had led Hodder to discount the sketch. He had not disliked Mr. Plimpton, who had done him many little kindnesses. He was good-natured, never ruffled, widely tolerant, hail-fellow-well-met with everybody, and he had enlivened many a vestry meeting with his stories. It were hypercritical to accuse him of a lack of originality. And if by taking thought, he had arrived, from nowhere, at his present position of ease and eminence, success had not turned to ashes in his mouth. He fairly exhaled well-being, happiness, and good cheer. Life had gone well with him, he wished the same to others.

But to-night, from his corner, Hodder seemed to see Mr. Plimpton with new eyes. Not that he stood revealed a villain, which he was far from being; it was the air of sophistication, of good-natured if cynical acceptance of things as they were--and plenty good enough, too!--that jarred upon the rector in his new mood, and it was made manifest to him as never before why his appeals from the pulpit had lacked efficacy. Mr. Plimpton didn't want the world changed! And in this desire he represented the men in that room, and the majority of the congregation of St. John's. The rector had felt something of this before, and it seemed to him astonishing that the revelation had not come to him sooner. Did any one of them, in his heart, care anything for the ideals and aspirations of the Church?

As he gazed at them through the gathering smoke they had become strangers, receded all at once to a great distance.... Across the room he caught the name, Bedloe Hubbell, pronounced with peculiar bitterness by Mr. Ferguson. At his side Everett Constable was alert, listening.

"Ten years ago," said a stout Mr. Varnum, the President of the Third National Bank, "if you'd told me that that man was to become a demagogue and a reformer, I wouldn't have believed you. Why, his company used to take rebates from the L. & G., and the Southern--I know it." He emphasized the statement with a blow on the table that made the liqueur glasses dance. "And now, with his Municipal League, he's going to clean up the city, is he? Put in a reform mayor. Show up what he calls the Consolidated Tractions Company scandal. Pooh!"

"You got out all right, Varnum. You won't be locked up," said Mr. Plimpton, banteringly.

"So did you," retorted Varnum.

"So did Ferguson, so did Constable."

"So did Eldon Parr," remarked another man, amidst a climax of laughter.

"Langmaid handled that pretty well."

Hodder felt Everett Constable fidget.

"Bedloe's all right, but he's a dreamer," Mr. Plimpton volunteered.

"Then I wish he'd stop dreaming," said Mr. Ferguson, and there was more laughter, although he had spoken savagely.

"That's what he is, a dreamer," Varnum ejaculated. "Say, he told George Carter the other day that prostitution wasn't necessary, that in fifty years we'd have largely done away with it. Think of that, and it's as old as Sodom and Gomorrah!"

"If Hubbell had his way, he'd make this town look like a Connecticut hill village--he'd drive all the prosperity out of it. All the railroads would have to abandon their terminals--there'd be no more traffic, and you'd have to walk across the bridge to get a drink."

"Well," said Mr. Plimpton, "Tom Beatty's good enough for me, for a while."

Beatty, Hodder knew, was the "boss," of the city, with headquarters in a downtown saloon.

"Beatty's been maligned," Mr. Varnum declared. "I don't say he's a saint, but he's run the town pretty well, on the whole, and kept the vice where it belongs, out of sight. He's made his pile, but he's entitled to something we all are. You always know where you stand with Beatty. But say, if Hubbell and his crowd--"

"Don't worry about Bedloe,--he'll get called in, he'll come home to roost like the rest of them," said Mr. Plimpton, cheerfully. "The people can't govern themselves,--only Bedloe doesn't know it. Some day he'll find it out."...

The French window beside him was open, and Hodder slipped out, unnoticed, into the warm night and stood staring at the darkness. His one desire had been to get away, out of hearing, and he pressed forward over the tiled pavement until he stumbled against a stone balustrade that guarded a drop of five feet or so to the lawn below. At the same time he heard his name called.

"Is that you, Mr. Hodder?"

He started. The voice had a wistful tremulousness, and might almost have been the echo of the leaves stirring in the night air. Then he perceived, in a shaft of light from one of the drawing-room windows near by, a girl standing beside the balustrade; and as she came towards him, with tentative steps, the light played conjurer, catching the silvery gauze of her dress and striking an aura through the film of her hair.

"It's Nan Ferguson," she said.

"Of course," he exclaimed, collecting himself. "How stupid of me not to have recognized you!"

"I'm so glad you came out," she went on impulsively, yet shyly, "I wanted to tell you how sorry I was that that thing happened at the table."

"I like that young man," he said.

"Do you?" she exclaimed, with unexpected gratitude. "So do I. He really isn't--so bad as he must seem."

"I'm sure of it," said the rector, laughing.

"I was afraid you'd think him wicked," said Nan. "He works awfully hard, and he's sending a brother through college. He isn't a bit like--some others I know. He wants to make something of himself. And I feel responsible, because I had mother ask him to-night."

He read her secret. No doubt she meant him to do so.

"You know we're going away next week, for the summer--that is, mother and I," she continued. "Father comes later. And I do hope you'll make us a visit, Mr. Hodder--we were disappointed you couldn't come last year." Nan hesitated, and thrusting her hand into her gown drew forth an envelope and held it out to him. "I intended to give you this to-night, to use--for anything you thought best."

He took it gravely. She looked up at him.

"It seems so little--such a selfish way of discharging one's obligations, just to write out a cheque, when there is so much trouble in the world that demands human kindness as well as material help. I drove up Dalton Street yesterday, from downtown. You know how hot it was! And I couldn't help thinking how terrible it is that we who have everything are so heedless of all that misery. The thought of it took away all my pleasure.

"I'd do something more, something personal, if I could. Perhaps I shall be able to, next winter. Why is it so difficult for all of us to know what to do?"

"We have taken a step forward, at any rate, when we know that it is difficult," he said.

She gazed up at him fixedly, her attention caught by an indefinable something in his voice, in his smile, that thrilled and vaguely disturbed her. She remembered it long afterwards. It suddenly made her shy again; as if, in faring forth into the darkness, she had come to the threshold of a mystery, of a revelation withheld; and it brought back the sense of adventure, of the palpitating fear and daring with which she had come to meet him.

"It is something to know," she repeated, half comprehending. The scraping of chairs within alarmed her, and she stood ready to fly.

"But I haven't thanked you for this," he said, holding up the envelope. "It may be that I shall find some one in Dalton Street--"

"Oh, I hope so," she faltered, breathlessly, hesitating a moment. And then she was gone, into the house.

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