English Literature

The One Woman by Thomas Dixon

The One Woman by Thomas Dixon.jpg

CHAPTER I

THE MAN AND THE WOMAN

“Quick—a glass of water!” A man sprang to his feet, beckoning to an usher.

When he reached the seat, the woman had recovered by a supreme effort of will and sat erect, her face flushed with anger at her own weakness.

“Thank you, I am quite well now,” she said with dignity.

The man settled back and the usher returned to his place and stood watching her out of the corners of his eyes, fascinated by her beauty.

The church was packed that night with more than two thousand people. The air was hot and foul. The old brick building, jammed in the middle of a block, faced the street with its big bare gable. The ushers were so used to people fainting that they kept water and smelling-salts handy in the anterooms. The Reverend Frank Gordon no longer paused or noticed these interruptions. He had accepted the truth that, while God builds the churches, the devil gets the job to heat, light and ventilate them.

The preacher had not noticed this excitement under the gallery, but had gone steadily on in an even monotone very unusual to his fiery temperament.

A half-dozen reporters yawned and drummed on their fingers with their pencils. The rumour of a brewing church trouble had been published, but he had not referred to it in the morning, and evidently was not going to do so to-night.

Toward the close of his sermon he recovered from the stupor with which he had been struggling and ended with something of his usual fervour.

He was a man of powerful physique, wide chest and broad shoulders, a tall athlete, six feet four, of Viking mould, hair blond and waving, steel-gray eyes, a strong aquiline nose and frank, serious face.

He had been called from a town in southern Indiana to the Pilgrim Congregational Church in New York when, on its last legs, it was about to sell out and move uptown. He had created a sensation, and in six months the building could not hold the crowds which struggled to hear him.

His voice was one of great range and its direct personal tone put him in touch with every hearer. Before they knew it his accents quivered with emotion that swept the heart. Emotional thinking was his trait. He could thrill his crowd with a sudden burst of eloquence, but he loved to use the deep vibrant subtones of his voice so charged with feeling that he melted the people into tears. His face, flashing and trembling, smiling and clouding with hidden fires of passion, held every eye riveted. His gestures were few and seemed the resistless burst of enormous reserve power—an impression made stronger by his great hairy blue-veined hands and the way he stood on his big, broad feet. He spoke in impassioned moments with the rush of lightning, and yet each word fell clean-cut and penetrating.

An idealist and dreamer, in love with life, colour, form, music and beauty, he had the dash and brilliancy, the warmth and enthusiasm of a born leader of men. The impulsive champion of the people, the friend of the weak, he had become the patriot prophet of a larger democracy.

A passion for music, and a fad for precious stones, especially pearls and opals, which he carried in his pockets and handled with the tenderness of a lover, were his hobbies. He had in a marked degree the peculiar power of attracting children and animals, and all women liked him instinctively from the first.

But to-night he was not himself. After a brief prayer at the close of the sermon he dismissed the crowd with the announcement of an after-meeting for those personally interested in religion.

As the people poured out through the open doors the unceasing roar of the great city’s life swept in drowning the soft strains of the organ—the jar and whir of wheels, the wheeze of brakes, the tremor of machinery, the rumble of cab, the clatter of hoof-beat, the cry of child and hackman, the haunting murmur of millions like the moan of the sea borne on breezes winged with the odours of saloon and kitchen, stable and sewer—the crash of a storm of brute forces on the senses, tearing the nerves, crushing the spirit, bruising the soul, and strangling the memory of a sane life.

Gordon frowned and shivered as he sat waiting for the crowd to go, and a look of depression swept his face.

These after-meetings for personal appeal were a regular feature of his ministry. He held them every Sunday evening, no matter how tired he was or how hopeless the effort might seem. When the doors were closed about a hundred people had gathered in the centre of the church near the front.

He rose from his chair behind the altar-rail with an evident effort to throw off his weariness. He had laid aside his pulpit robe, a tribute to ritualism that this church had dragooned him into accepting.

“My friends,” he began slowly and softly, with his hands folded behind him, “first a few words of testimony from any who can witness to the miracle of the Spirit in our daily life. We are crushed sometimes with the brutal weight of matter, and yet over all the Spirit broods and gives light and life. Who can bear witness to this miracle?”

“I can!” cried a man, who rose trembling with deep feeling.

His high, well-moulded forehead showed the heritage of intellectual power. His eyes, soft and tender as a woman’s, had in their depths the record of a great sorrow.

Taking his watch out of his pocket, he looked at it a moment, and, as the tears began to steal down his face, spoke in a tremulous voice.

“Seven years, four months, three days and six hours ago the Spirit of God came to my poor lost soul and found it in a dirty saloon on the East Side. I was dead—dead to shame, dead to honour, dead to love, dead to the memory of life. I was so low I found scant welcome in hell’s own port, the saloon. They knew me and dreaded to see me. I had served time in prison, and when I drank I was an ugly customer for the bravest policeman to meet alone.

“Ragged, dirty, blear-eyed, besotted, I was seated on a whisky barrel wondering how I could beat the barkeeper out of a drink, when a sweet-faced boy came up and handed me a card of this church’s services.

“I don’t know how it happened, but all of a sudden it came over me—where I was, and what I was, and what I once had been—a boy with a face like that, with a Christian father and mother who loved me as their own life, and then how I had gone down, down in drink from ditch to ditch and gutter to gutter to the bottomless pit.

“I jumped down off that whisky barrel and washed my face. That night I found this church, and the Spirit of God, here in one of these after-meetings, led my soul to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. I looked up into His beautiful face—the fairest among ten thousand—the one altogether lovable, and I heard Him say, as to the thief of old, ‘This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.’

“From that day, hour and minute I’ve been a living man, a miracle of grace and love. I have not touched a drop of liquor since, and these hands, which had not earned an honest cent for years, have handled thousands of dollars of other people’s money and not one penny has ever stuck to them. I am the living witness that God’s spirit can raise man from the dead, and Jesus Christ keep him unto life!”

He sat down, crying.

Gordon lifted his hand and said, “Let us bow our heads a moment in silent prayer while every heart opens the door to the Spirit.”

At the close of the service he passed the man who had spoken and pressed his hand.

“Ah, Edwards, old boy, you knew I needed that to-night. God bless you!”

Jerry Edwards smiled and nodded.

“A lady wishes to speak to you in the study, sir,” the sexton said to him.

He looked around for his wife to tell her to wait, but she had gone.

His study opened immediately into the auditorium at the foot of the pulpit stairs. As he entered, a young woman of extraordinary beauty, elegantly and quietly dressed, advanced to meet him and shook his hand in a friendly, earnest way.

“Doctor, I’ve waited patiently to-night to see you,” she said. “I’ve been coming to hear you for six months, and yet I have never told you how much good you have done me; and I specially wish to tell you how sorry I am that my stupid weakness to-night interrupted you. I think I came near fainting. It was so close and hot—and, pardon me if I say it—I suddenly got the insane idea that you were about to faint in the pulpit.”

“Well, that is strange,” interrupted Gordon, looking at her with deepening interest. “You have the gift of the sympathetic listener. I noticed no disturbance, but I did come near fainting. I have had a hard day—one of fierce nerve-strain.”

She looked at him curiously.

“Then I don’t feel so badly, now that I know my idea was not incipient insanity,” she said, smiling. “I’ve quite made up my mind to send back to Kentucky for my forgotten church-letter. I’ve seen all fashionable society in New York can offer and I am weary of its vacuity. I’ve been disillusioned of a girl’s silly dreams, but there are some beautiful ones in my heart I’ve held. I can’t tell you how your church and work have thrilled and interested me. I have never heard such sermons and prayers as yours. You give to the old faiths new and beautiful meaning. Every word you have spoken has seemed to me a divine call.”

“And you cannot know how cheering such a message is to me to-night,” he thoughtfully replied, studying her carefully.

“I never could summon courage to come up and speak to you before, but your sermon this morning swept me off my feet. It was so simple, so heartfelt, so sincere, and yet so close in its touch of life, I felt that you had opened your very soul for me to see my own in its experiences. It will be a turning point in my life.”

She spoke with a quiet seriousness, and Gordon felt that he had never seen a face of such exquisite grace.

With a promise that he would call to see her within the week, she left.

He stood for a moment gazing at her name, “Miss Kate Ransom,” on the card she gave him, his mind aglow with the consciousness of her remarkable beauty, the famous Kentucky type, and yet a distinct variation.

Her figure was full and magnificent in the ripe glory of youth, a delicate face, the blonde’s colour, thick, waving auburn hair that seemed brown till the light blazed through its deep red tints, violet-blue eyes, cordial and smiling, at once mysterious, magic, friendly, gravely candid. Her skin was smooth as a babe’s, with the delicate creamy satin of the blonde flashing the scarlet tints of every emotion. Her lips were cherry-red, and as she listened they half parted with a lazy suggestion of tenderness and love; while the face was one of refined mentality, as unconscious as a child’s of its splendid beauty.

Her gait was proud and careless, telling of perfect health and stores of untouched vital powers, a movement of the body at once strong, luxurious, insolently languid, rhythmic and full of dumb music. It was when she moved that she expressed the consciousness of power, a gleam of cruelty, a challenge that was to man an added charm.

“What a woman!” he exclaimed aloud, as he drew on his coat. “The kind of a woman who enraptures the senses, drugs the brain and conscience of the man who responds to her call—the woman about whom men have never been able to compromise, but have always killed one another!”

His wife opened the door for him in silence.

“Who was that woman, Frank?” she asked at length, her long, dark lashes blinking rapidly.

“What woman, Ruth?”

“The beauty I saw glide softly into your study.”

Gordon smiled as he sank into a chair in the library.

“Miss Kate Ransom, a stranger I never met before.”

“You seem a magnet for strange women, and your church their Mecca.”

“Yes, and strange men. God knows New York, with its dead and deserted churches, needs such a Mecca.”

“You promised to call, of course?”

“Certainly; it’s my business. The Church needs every friend and every dollar to be had on Manhattan Island.”

“And the distinguished young pastor of the Pilgrim Church needs the smiles of all beautiful women. His wife is a little faded with worry and care for his children, while crowds hang on his eloquence and silly women sigh into his handsome face. Ah, Frank, before we came to New York you had eyes only for me. The city, the crowd and the flattery of fools have turned your head. You are letting go of all things you once held. Now the Bible is ‘literature.’ You are sighing for the freedom of a ‘larger life.’ Where will it end? I wonder if you have weighed marriage in the balances and found it wanting?”

Gordon rose with a sigh, walked slowly to the window and looked down on the city lying below. Their little home was perched on the cliffs of Washington Heights.

The smile had died from his handsome face and his tall figure was stooped with exhaustion. He raised one hand and brushed back a stray lock from his forehead, across which a frown had slowly settled.

“By all means keep your hair adjusted,” his wife continued sarcastically. “The women are all in love with that blond hair. And it is so effective in the pulpit. If you were not six feet four it might be effeminate, but I assure you it is the secret of your strength. I trust you will be wiser than Samson.”

Gordon smiled.

“You have quit the old faiths,” she continued rapidly, “and gone to preaching Christian Socialism. You have driven the best members of the church away, and made the press your enemy. That mob which hails you a god will turn and curse you. You will never build your marble dream out of such stuff. Both your sermons to-day will make your trustees more hostile. There was no Bible in them—only personalities and rank Socialism. I saw that woman in front of me drinking it all in as the inspired gospel.”

Gordon winced and his brow clouded.

“I gave up everything for you—home, talents, friends,” she went on. “Now that I am thirty-one, it is the new face that charms.”

“You did give up a very particular friend for me,” Gordon remarked teasingly. “I only learned recently that you were once engaged to Mr. Morris King, your faithful attorney, and that you threw him over for an athletic parson with blond hair and a smile, yet I have never chided you about this little secret. Mr. King is still a romantic bachelor. He has not been initiated into the joys of a Sunday sermon at 10 P. M., with his wife in the pulpit. He has much to live for.”

Her lips quivered and her eyes grew dim.

“Come, come, my dear; you know that I love you and that I am faithful to you. But such words and scenes as these may destroy the tenderest love at last. Words, even, are deeds.”

“How philosophical! Quite like one of the epigrams of your chum, Mark Overman, of whose cruel tongue you’re so fond. I wonder you don’t make Mr. Overman a deacon in the new order of your church.”

Gordon sank back into the chair and thoughtfully shaded his brow with his hand, his face drawn into deep lines of weariness.

When she saw the look of pain in his face her eyes softened.

“What I fear of you, Frank, is not your intention, but your performance.
You mean well, but you never could resist a pretty woman.”

“In a sense, no. If I could, I never would have married.”

The faintest suggestion of a smile played about her eyes and then faded.

“I wonder what pretty speeches you said to the stranger to-night?
You have such charming manners with a woman.”

He looked at her appealingly and she stared at him without reply.

“For God’s sake, Ruth, end this scene. If you only knew how tired I am to-night—tired in body, in heart and soul. I think the past week has been the most trying of my whole life. It opened with a newspaper attack on me inspired by Van Meter. You know how sensitive I am to such criticism.

“Saturday came without a moment for preparation for the great crowds I knew would be present to-day after that attack on me. Instead of work yesterday, a procession of people, hungry and suffering, were at the door from morning until night. All their burdens they poured out to me; All their wrongs and grievances against God and man became mine.

“On Saturday night the trustee meeting was held to discuss our building project. Van Meter led the opposition with skill. When I poured out my soul’s dream to them of a great temple of marble, a flaming centre of Christian Democracy instead of the old brick barn we call a church—a temple that would flash its glory from the sky above the sordid materialism that is crushing the lives and hearts of men, telling in marble song of God, of immortality, of faith and hope and love—they stared at me in contempt until I felt the blood freeze in my veins. When I drew a picture of its great auditorium thronged with thousands of eager faces, Van Meter coolly interrupted me with the remark:

“‘We don’t want such trash elbowing our old parishioners out of their pews. We’ve had too much of it already. With all your mob, the pew-rents have fallen off.’

“My first impulse was that of Christ when he took a whip in the temple. I wanted to knock him down. Instead, I rushed out of the house and left him victorious.

“I waked this morning with the burden of all this week’s horror choking me, waked to the consciousness that in a few hours thousands of faces would be looking up to me with hungry souls to be fed. Well, I had nothing to give them except my own heart’s blood, and so to-day I tore my heart open for them to devour it. True, I didn’t preach the Bible except as its truth had passed into my own soul’s experiences. When I preach such sermons I always quit with the sense of utter helplessness, exhaustion and failure. Could my bitterest enemy read my heart in that hour he would cry out for pity.

“I never so felt the crushing burden of all that crowd of people as to-day. I’ve heard so much of their sorrows and struggles the past week. I felt that the city was a great beast in some vast arena of time, that I was alone, naked and unarmed, on the sands, struggling with it for the life of the people, while my enemies looked on. As never before, I heard the rush of its half-crazed millions, its crash and roar, saw its fierce brutality, its lust, its cruelty, its senseless scramble for pleasure, its indifference to truth, its millions of to-day but a symbol of the millions gone before and the trampling millions to come, and I felt I was a failure. I felt that I was pitching straws against a hurricane, only to find them blown back into my face. I came down out of that pulpit with the weariness of a thousand years crushing my tired body and soul, feeling that I could never speak again, or struggle against the tide any more—that I was broken, bruised and done for all time, and I came home feeling so—”

He paused a moment and a sigh caught his voice. His wife’s face had softened and a tear was quivering on her long eyelashes.

“I came home thus worn out to-night hoping for a word of cheer, yet knowing it would be days before I could recover from the sheer nerve-agony I had endured. What a reception you have given me! And for what? A beautiful woman stopped to tell me my message had not been in vain, that it had made for her a light on life’s way, and that the prayers in which I had tried to realise as my own, the people’s thoughts and hopes and fears had been a revelation to her, and because I smiled—”

His wife was again staring at him with the glitter of jealousy. He saw it and ceased to speak.

He suddenly sprang to his feet and walked to the door. Taking down his hat and light overcoat from the rack, he said, as though to himself:

“We will spend the night under different roofs.”

As he passed toward the door there was a faint cry fiom within scarcely louder than a whisper, tense with agony and pitiful in its pleading accents;

“Frank, dear, please come back!”

But when she summoned strength to rush to the door, crying with terror she had never known before “Frank! Frank!” he had turned the corner and disappeared.

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