Seed to the Sower

IT was going to be risky, unusually risky. Sam Trimble admitted as much to himself, and there was little timidity about Sam. He even speculated as to his chances if they should get him before a country grand jury. They would be hostile, those small taxpayers. They always were. Hint to them of a slight juggling with the county funds, and they buzzed like a lot of hornets. You would think each felt a hand on his own pocketbook.

This affair concerned a new courthouse at Cedarton. It had been an unpopular project from the first, and now some of the Freeholders who had voted for it wanted to back out. They looked to Proutt and waited. Proutt was their chairman. He had been the one who had first suggested that the old building ought to go. But now Proutt was non-committal.

Trimble knew the game. Proutt was in the market. After to-day things would be different, for Proutt and Trimble were to meet. Incidental to the meeting would be a little business transaction. Snugly stowed within a long envelope in Trimble’s inside pocket were several yellowbacked banknotes of large denomination, — clean, uncreased banknotes, which rattled crisply as he pushed back his lapel to hunt for a cigar.

By to-morrow those crisp banknotes would have changed hands. Likewise Proutt’s manner would have altered. Tomorrow he would stand for progression, for enterprise, for civic pride. And the county would follow Proutt as sheep follow a bell-wether. Why not ? Chairman Proutt. owned much real estate, he had a crop of highly respectable white whiskers, he was deacon of a church.

Yet Proutt was in the market, and Trimble was there to buy. It was the particular kind of business m which Sam Trimble was expert. The judicious distribution of yellow-backed banknotes brought him in a living, a very comfortable, silk-lined, down-padded, goldmounted living. That his business manœuvres were often indictable troubled Sam Trimble not at all. It is one thing to do something indictable, and quite another to be indicted. As yet Mr. Trimble had never been indicted. He had skated over some very thin ice, to be sure. Twice he had “appeared;” but once the public prosecutor bad experienced a change of heart at the eleventh hour, and once the chief witness had been sent to Europe on a pleasure trip.

Not that the mere handing over to Chairman Proutt of that long envelope would be risky. That was only a preliminary. It would be the things which must inevitably follow that might stir the hornets’ nest, might bring that meddlesome grand jury on the scene.

If only that bridge job had been less recent. That had made the tax rate climb. The new courthouse would jump it up another peg or two. Would the taxpayers recognize in the methods of the Colonial Construction Company the methods of the Amalgamated Bridge Building Concern ? Mr. Trimble hoped they would not. Chairman Proutt had come through that affair without a blemish. He would be sanguine about this one. Well he might. Who would attempt to accuse Proutt in his own county ?

Besides, Proutt covered his tracks like a fox. No checks for him. Catch him putting his name to anything which would not stand the light of day. Why, even this very meeting with Trimble was cloaked by a quarterly church conference. He was there now, probably leading in prayer, while Mr. Trimble, with the crisp banknotes in his pocket, awaited his pleasure.

This would be Proutt’s programme throughout. If things went wrong, if some meddler stumbled on the irregularities which were scheduled to follow, who would be the first to take up the hue and cry ? Why, Proutt. Trimble, you see, knew the variety. But when it is your business to take chances, you take ’em.

Still, Trimble wished that for this once the grand jury possibility might be a trifle more remote. Ordinarily he would have faced the risk smilingly. Here, however, were outside complications. If, for instance, he should find himself mixed up with a grand jury at any time during the next three or four months it would be confoundedly awkward. Edith would n’t like it. He was going to marry Edith. Honeymooning under bail was not a cheerful prospect, even to the exuberant soul of Sam Trimble.

With this reflection there recurred to him an unanswered proposal which the morning’s mail had brought. Five years before he would have hailed it as manna from the sky, accepted it off-hand. But then he had not discovered the gentle art of raiding county treasuries through the medium of sub-let contracts. Now anything else would seem slow and tame to him. Even grand juries can lend a spice to life. What was ten thousand a year? Why, this courthouse job ought to be good for thirty, net. He and Edith would just about need that much, at the start; for Edith was quite used to the things which such sums could buy. Mr. Trimble was getting used to them, too. Yes, he must take the risk. He had set out to give Cedarton a brand new courthouse, and that was what Cedarton must have. The Colonial Construction Company needed the money. Mr. Trimble was positive about this, for he was the Company.

Having disposed of his momentary hesitation, Mr. Trimble leaned luxuriously back in a wide-armed wicker chair, lighted a cigar, and allowed his dark, audacious eyes to wander approvingly around the palm-decked sun room of the enormous hostelry in which he found himself a guest. It was the most expensive hotel in this most expensive of pinebelt winter resorts. For this reason he had chosen it. Mr. Trimble had a comfortable, if not an original theory that the best was none too good for him.

Looking at him casually you would have said that Mr. Trimble was entirely in harmony with his present surroundings. It was not simply that he was a wellgroomed, handsome fellow. He was more than decorative. To use a trite phrase, he had about him an air of distinction. Perhaps it was the liberal sprinkling of premature white in his otherwise black hair which added this last touch. Also, his figure was erect and his every pose was grace. His fresh - colored, clean - shaven face suggested wholesomeness. A very pleasant face it was.

Those dark, audacious eyes, however, were his strong point. They made the personality of Mr. Sam Trimble a complex problem. Women, seeing the gray hair above the youthful cheeks, concluded that he had known some great sorrow. After looking into his dark eyes they were certain that he had suffered some grave wrong. Feminine instinct led them to suspect their own sex. This won him much sympathy, too much. Mr. Trimble had been obliged to adopt the habit of declining to answer scented notes. The scores of embroidered things made for him he gave away or burned. He found life sufficiently complicated without avoidable entanglements. So it was not vanity which prompted the niceties of his apparel. These were indulgences to his well-developed sense of luxury.

Mr. Trimble was thinking of ordering a cocktail, — he had almost decided on a Manhattan, with a dash of absinthe in it , — when he became conscious that some one was looking intently at him from the door of the sun room. A moment later the person hesitatingly approached.

Trimble knew him at a glance. Yes, that pallid, ascetic face, the colorless hair, those big, eager, faintly blue eyes, could belong to none other than “Whitey” Wright. His name was Upshur, but at school the boys had called him “Whitey.” He was probably the Reverend Upshur by this time. His clothes indicated as much; at least, they would had they been new. They were somewhat rusty now.

Trimble puffed a little blue ring of cigar smoke up at the tinted ceiling, watching it absorbingly. Perhaps Upshur would not recognize him. No such luck. Timorously, as a new boy in a strange neighborhood, he had crossed the rug-strewn expanse of waxed parquetry, and now he was standing tentatively at his elbow.

Without enthusiasm Trimble regarded the prospect of a reunion with this halfforgotten schoolmate. As a youth, Upshur had been rather a tiresome little prig. He doubted if being a minister had much improved him. The company of a minister he did not in the least desire at that moment, for several obvious reasons, of which the inclination to order a cocktail was not the major.

However, there was no escaping Upshur. He was there. He might as well be accepted cheerfully. In that bright, friendly way of his, a winning smile on his handsome face, a quizzical look in his fascinating eyes, Trimble glanced up.

“It — it’s Mr. Trimble, isn’t it?” There was a note of repressed eagerness in the soft, rich-toned voice.

“No, just Sam,” said Trimble, with a laugh, his hand outstretched. “How are you, Upshur? Pull up a chair. You’re the Reverend Upshur now, I expect.”

A pleased flush flamed fitfully in the pale face. The faintly blue eyes lighted.

“Yes, I suppose I am. They call me Reverend. But I am most unworthy, Sam, most unworthy.”

Trimble grinned appreciatively at the conventional wail. Evidently Upshur was not of the new school. He thought it necessary to lug his canting phrases around with him. Trimble told himself that he might have known “Whitey” Wright would grow into that kind of a preacher.

Well, the only thing to do was to humor him.

“Unworthy!” exclaimed Trimble. “Nonsense! Absurdly modest, you mean. I ’ll bet there are mighty few wearing your cloth who are more of a credit to it.”

“No, no, Samuel! You don’t know.”

“I knew you as a boy, did n’t I ?” demanded Trimble.

“Yes, but”—

“Oh, I ’ll back you, Upshur, against the best of them.”

It was good fun for Trimble. Why, “ Whitey” was actually blushing. He was taking every word at its face value. What a gullible lot they were, these preachers! And how execrably they dressed! Trimble wondered if Upshur wore those trousers in the pulpit. It must have required years to bag them at the knees like that. Were frayed cuffs a part of the clerical outfit, too? Trimble was very near to feeling sorry for him when he saw those cuffs.

“How are you getting on, Upshur?” he asked.

He rose to this avidly. The eager, pale blue eyes beamed with gratitude and pleasure and kindred emotions, beamed on Mr. Trimble. He forgot to say how he was getting on, in his haste to voice his thankfulness. You might have thought Trimble had dragged him from a floating spar in mid-ocean.

Trimble hardly knew what to make of this gentle demonstration. It was a most unexpected response to his somewhat perfunctory show of interest. But then, Trimble never could quite account for the enthusiasm which he often inspired in his friends.

“Ah, Samuel!” sighed the Reverend Upshur, “you don’t know how good it seems to me to meet an old friend at such a time.”

“ Me too,” said Trimble easily. “ I was wondering only the other day what had become of you. Have you struck a rich church yet, or are they trying to starve you ? ”

“The very topic that is uppermost in my mind, the very one!” promptly responded the Reverend Upshur, emphasizing his words by reaching out a thin hand and gently lapping ’Trimble’s chairarm. " I have at last, as you put it, Sam, struck a rich church.”

“Why, that’s good! Congratulations, old man! Let’s— er — let’s shake on it. Got the deal all cinched — that is, the arrangements are all made, are they?”

The Reverend Upshur sadly waved away the proffered hand.

“No,” he sighed, “they are not.”

“There’s a hitch, eh?”

The Reverend Upshur smiled, just the ghost of a weak little smile, and nodded his head.

“It’s here,” he said, pressing his hand to his left side, and eclipsing a raw metal button that had once been cloth covered.

Trimble stared. Heart trouble ? That was bad.

“I wish I might tell you about it,” resumed the Reverend Upshur. “It’s a distressing situation, very distressing. I am at the forks of a road, and don’t know which way to turn. I must decide to-day, within an hour, almost at once.”

Then it was not heart trouble. Trimble felt relieved. Invalids were depressing.

“Wish I could be of some help to you,” he returned. Surely, it was a safe enough thing to say.

“Do you? Oh, but you can, Sam. I am sure you can. You will know exactly what I ought to do. May I tell you about it ? Do you mind if I do?”

Trimble was fairly caught. After what he had said, how could he refuse such a plea? He could not. He was in for it, that was plain. The grotesque irony of the situation appealed to his sense of humor. He had come down here to bribe a county official into winking at a crooked contract; he found himself asked to advise a minister.

Well, he had often thought he would like to give advice to some of them. Here was his chance. Mr. Trimble had his private opinion of clergymen. It was not flattering to them. Perhaps, after all, he could not spend a quarter of an hour more to his own satisfaction. So he settled himself comfortably in the big wicker chair, fixed his gaze on the lower branches of a pine tree just outside the sun room windows, and told the Reverend Upshur to blaze away.

The reverend gentleman did not do precisely that, but he came as near to it as he could. The recital was not one calculated to stir the blood. To Trimble it sounded petty and sordid. Briefly, Upshur had been called to a bigger church. He had been offered a salary three times as large as the one on which he had been trying to subsist ever since he had entered the ministry. The Change would mean a larger field, more congenial surroundings, many material advantages. It would be a step forward in his career. It would mean more, oh, ever so much more than he could express.

“Well?” asked Trimble, faintly curious, “what stands in your way.”

“I don’t know,” said the Reverend Upshur wearily. “Sometimes I think it’s my conscience, sometimes I think it’s only my vanity. You would n’t imagine, Sam, that I had much to be vain about, would you ? It is my little church. I fear I’m tremendously conceited about that. You see, when I was first sent to the Junction, three years ago, the society had dwindled almost to nothing. There were only five names on the membership roll. How many do you suppose I preached to last Sunday morning?”

Trimble did not hazard an estimate,

“Thirty-nine! Christmas Sunday we had a congregation of forty-five, counting children and the sexton. That’s doing rather well at the Junction. And the church building looks different. It has been newly painted — I did most of that myself. It has a new roof — they gave me the shingles at the mill. Did you ever lay any shingles, Sam? It isn’t such hard work. It’s play compared to sawing cordwood for the stoves. That hurts my back. I must have a warm church, though. But the younger men are getting so that they help me a lot. They all help me, for that matter. They’re all my people. Perhaps they are a little crude in their ways, being section hands and folks from the Pine Barrens, but I have learned to look below the surface. I know every one of them now, almost as well as if I had always lived there: They have been good enough to share all their troubles, all their joys with me. I have christened their babies, said the last words over their old folks as they dropped off, sat at their bedsides when they were ill, at their tables when they made merry. Some of them I have joined in marriage. They — they seem to like me. They say they don’t want me to leave them just yet. They seem to feel that they need me. There are two or three young men who do need me, I am sure. They are just groping from darkness toward the light.

“I cannot help but think that if my place should be taken by a stranger, although he would probably be far abler than I, he might not get on so well with those young men. They understand me, and I understand them. We were a long time in getting acquainted. If I should leave them now, I fear they would slip back into darkness,”

Abruptly the Reverend Upshur ceased talking. He had clasped his thin hands, there was a far-away look in his eager eyes. Trimble regarded him curiously, indulgently, mentally casting about for some common ground. Having found it, he asked,—

“What does it pay, this little church of yours?”

“With outside aid counted in, four hundred.”

“A month?”

The Reverend Upshur gasped. “Four hundred a month! No, four hundred a year.”

Trimble did not gasp. He whistled. The frayed cuffs were explained.

“But you can’t live on that, Upshur!”

“I do, though. I have two nice little rooms. I have learned to cook fairly well, too.”

“To cook! You ’re not married, then ? ”

The Reverend Upshur blushed. “No — not yet.”

“Ah! You want to be?”

“We have agreed to put it off for two or three years more. You see, when this offer came, I could think of nothing but Grace. It seemed to put an end to our waiting. You remember Grace, Sam?”

Trimble did; the girl with the mass of brown hair and a face like St. Cecilia’s; one of the sweet, serious kind. Yes, he remembered Grace.

“I was planning to go on after her as soon as the matter was settled. I meant to bring her back as a bride to my installation. I had the letter all written to tell her of our good fortune, when— when I met one of my boys coming to see me. He wanted help. It was then that I realized what it would mean if a stranger should take my place. He would not have come if it had n’t been me.

“You can see, can’t, you, Sam, the things which make it difficult for me to decide? Which is the path of duty? Should I go to this new, this larger field where, as it has been urged, there will be more who need help just as badly; or should I let this opportunity pass and stand by the little band of good souls who would grieve to have me go?”

To say that Trimble was embarrassed hardly states the case accurately. His make-up did not allow such a sensation. He was surprised, perhaps perplexed. Why, in the name of all that was great, should Upshur Wright come to him with such a question? As if in answer to his question the Reverend Upshur immediately told why.

“You can see these things clearer than I, Samuel. You are a man of the highest moral standards, the nicest perceptions. I have only to look at you to know that. I should know it even if I did not remember what a manly, straightforward boy you were. You have followed the narrow path. Show it to me.”

Mr. Trimble was undergoing a novel experience. He felt warmed and thrilled by a sudden inward glow. A subtle, soothing enthusiasm seemed to have arisen within him. It was new, unique, He had known the friendship of many men, had learned to cultivate it, had come to appraise his knack of making friends as a business asset.

But this was different. This was respect, esteem. Mr. Trimble could not recall having made a like impression on any one else. If he had done so it had not been acknowledged, Like a stray beggar in a banquet hall, he sniffed hungrily the unfamiliar incense.

For one precarious instant he poised exultingly on his pedestal before realizing that he could make no move without tumbling ignominiously off. It would be better to jump and land on one’s feet.

“Have n’t you drawn it a little strong, Upshur, about my high standards, and all that ? I don’t class myself as much of a moralist.”

“Of course you don’t, Sam. I can believe. that you are entirely unconscious of your own strong integrity. You are one of those noble souls whose eyes are firmly fixed on the path of honor. I can read it in your face, as all men must.”

Trimble winced. He cast a quick look of suspicion at the Reverend Upshur. No, he was sincere enough. He meant every word of it. There was that in the eyes which left no doubt of this.

In the rich-toned voice there was a little quaver as he continued: “It is a great privilege for me to meet you in this hour when I am so sadly in need of counsel. But do not allow me to importune you. Take your own good time, Samuel. I will wait until you have thoroughly considered my perplexity, for I have determined to abide by your decision.”

“Eh! You have!” Sam Trimble straightened himself in his chair and gazed at this slender, white-faced young minister who beamed upon him with such implicit, confidence. “You don’t mean that you’re going to put it all up to me to say whether you make the move or not ?”

“ Yes, Samuel,” said the Reverend Upshur, with complacent resignation. “You may think it mere chance which led me to wander in here and find you. I am convinced that my steps were directed by the great Intelligence. I shall rely absolutely on your advice.”

“But, great Scott, man, I can’t” —

With lifted hand the Reverend Upshur stilled his protest.

“I know, Samuel, I know. You hesitate to impose on another consequences which you yourself would so nobly face. But remember, I have prepared myself to pursue either course, cheerfully and gladly, so long as I know it to be the course of duty. Now I am going to leave you for half an hour, that alone you may fight out my battle in your own noble, generous way. Before I go, however, let me review for you, from my own selfish standpoint, the details of my perplexity. On the one hand is my little church, with the handful of loyal, struggling souls who cry out, that they need me and wish me to stay. On the other there is my dear, patient Grace, there are the larger opportunities, the material advantages, everything for which I have so longed. You must make the choice for me, Samuel. My future is in your keeping. God bless you!”

Before Trimble could stop him he had wrung his hand, patted him fondly on the shoulder, and, his eager blue eyes blurred by tears, had swiftly quitted the sun room. Too late Trimble leaped to his feet to detain him. He caught only a glimpse of a time-glazed black overcoat and a rusty black derby disappearing behind a palm.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” ejaculated Sam Trimble.

Instantly the words rang discordantly in his ears. What if he had let them slip a moment earlier! What would the Reverend Upshur Wright have thought of him if — Here Trimble laughed, a hard, cynical, mirthless little laugh. The Reverend Upshur, indeed! Why should he, Sam Trimble, bother his head with the absurd fantasies of this insignificant shabby, white-livered little Bible-pounder who could worry his picayune soul to a frazzle over such profitless hair-splitting ? Why had he allowed him to go on with all that drivel about his two-by-four church, his dear people, and his precious Gracie ? Why had n’t he told him plumply logo to the devil ?

With angry strides Trimble measured the ample length of the deserted sun room, trying to shake from his aristocratic shoulders the preposterous load which had been so unceremoniously dumped thereon. The effort was in vain. Try as he might, he could not blot out from his mental vision the insistent confidence of those pale blue eyes. Never had man looked at him in that way before. It was nothing less than implicit trust. It invested him with all the virtues, made him the repository of all honor, the censor of all morals. It was utterly ridiculous, but it was almost sublime.

Yes, there was no evading Upshur. In less than half an hour he would be back, fatuously beaming with gratitude, expecting the oracle to speak. Nervously Trimble consulted his watch. Upshur had been gone ten minutes.

Well, he could n’t tell him to go to the devil. Trimble could say hard things when necessary, but he was no boor. He shrunk from crushing this marvelous flower of faith, as he would have shrunk from planting his heel on a fresh-cut rose. No, he must play the part as best he could. He must tell the man something.

Examining Upshur’s imagined dilemma with so much sincerity as he could command, he attempted to see the affair as Upshur saw it. He found the task wholly beyond his power. Here the fellow was offered a living salary in exchange for a starving one; he was asked to leave his little dead-and-alive Junction for a town of some size where there were probably persons of intelligence and refinement, perhaps a library, more than one mail a day, and bathtubs. Then, too, there was the adorable Grace of the saintly face, — Grace, who counted time only by years as she waited.

There was all this, and Heavens only knew how much more; and yet the man backed and filled, hemmed and hawed, and got off rubbish about souls in darkness! He wanted him to decide, did he? That was easy enough. He would tell the Reverend Upshur to jump at the chance, to grab it before it slipped by, to get his offer in black and white. Then he could chuck up his two-by-four church, pack his grip, and send for Gracie.

But how would I Upshur take this? Would he expect any frills from the oracle? Trimble groaned. Of course he would. He would look for an ethical solution, for moral filigree. He would want to see just how the hair had been split by this marvel of uprightness, Samuel Trimble, whose eighteen-karat goodness was known of all men.

“Devil take the fellow!” muttered Trimble. “I’m no Solomon.”

Once more he tackled the job, pacing with quick, restless strides up and down, a smokeless cigar clenched between his white, even teeth.

No, that first solution would n’t do. It was too easy. Besides, it could n’t be explained. Whatever there was in that rubbish about souls slipping back into darkness, it was evidently very real to the Reverend Upshur Wright. It was more real to him than a decent salary, civilized comforts, books, friends, — than Gracie. It was the one important thing. Trimble could see that now.

It was the veriest bosh, of course; the distorted chimera of a religion-stuffed brain. But it was the thing. Upshur had as good as said so without knowing it.

Then he must give up Gracie, the decent salary, and all the rest. He must stick in the mud. He must cook and shingle and saw wood. He must stand by his two-by-four. It would be rather tough, especially on Gracie. It would be tough enough for Upshur, though. How he had wanted to take this new place! Why, he had trembled at the thought of it! But all the while, behind everything, was that unexplained, inexplicable maggot in his brain which would not let him.

Would it not, though ? How substantial, after all, were these bonds which chained him to the martyrdom of existence at this blessed Junction ? Would n’t they snap rottenly when the real strain came? Of course they would.

Then this grand pow-wow of his was simply the back wave of joy spending itself against the rock of his determination. Keep him from taking this new church, which meant Gracie and all the rest ? Why, you could n’t drive him from if with a club! What he really needed was to have the hypocrisy shaken out of him. It would do him good. Trimble thought he saw a way to do it.

“Well, Samuel?”

There he was. Trimble raised his eyes from the polished floor to find Upshur standing before him, a tense expectancy in his pallid face.

“You have made your decision, Sam! ” exclaimed the Reverend Upshur, a note of repressed excitement in his soft tones. “I can see it in your look, in your very manner. I am ready. What is it to be; go or stay, Grace or — or those needful ones ? ”

He stood on tiptoe to put both of his white hands on the elegant shoulders of Sam Trimble. His very soul seemed to be listening just back of those eager eyes, so earnest was his gaze.

Calmly, judicially, Trimble looked down at him; not coldly, nor severely, but with an air of sorrowful benevolence. His habitually pleasant mouth lines, and the gray-sprinkled hair framing the warmly tinted face, carried out the effect. Yet this was his thought: “Now for it. Now to hold up to this simple fellow his shallow pretenses. Now to make him squirm.”

“Are you quite sure that you ought to leave this thing to me, Wright ?” he asked.

“Yes, yes; quite sure.”

Trimble eyed him searchingly for a moment. “Let’s see,” he resumed, “you’re getting four hundred at the Junction. The other folks offer twelve, do they?”

“Yes, twelve hundred, and a parsonage, It is a very comfortable parsonage, too, — eight rooms, furnace-heated, gas. There’s a climbing rose over the front door, and a big syringa bush under the study window.” He repeated these details as glibly as a priest chanting a prayer.

Trimble smiled. “And you must take up the offer to-day or let it go?”

“Yes, I am to meet Mr. Proutt here, and ” —

“Proutt! Proutt of Cedarton?”

“ Yes, that is where I have been called, you know. Mr. Proutt is the president of the trustees. He is attending our quarterly conference, and I am to give my decision to him. Do you know Mr. Proutt ?”

“A little.” Trimble smiled again. “So Proutt is the man you’re dealing with, is he ? That’s nice. Proutt offers you twelve hundred and a parsonage thrown in. But they need you back at the Junction, don’t they ?”

“I fear they do, Sam.”

“Could n’t find anyone else who would do as much for them as you have, eh ?”

“Oh, yes; but not at once. They are such poor folks, and there are so few ministers who can afford or who are willing to take such a pulpit, that it might be a long time before” —

“I see,” said Trimble. “ But there are a good many more folks in Cedarton, eh?”

“Oh, many more.”

“I expect you could make some of them better, could n’t you?”

“ I hope I could, Sam.”

Once more Trimble paused. He seemed to be thinking intently.

“You have fully made up your mind to follow my advice, have you?”

“Absolutely.” There was a ring of fanatic courage in the Reverend Upshur’s voice as he said it.

“Then, Upshur,” Trimble spoke with the measured deliberation of a judge pronouncing sentence, “I guess I shall have to tell you to go back to the Junction.”

The tremor of the frail form before him Trimble felt on his shoulders. The eager look failed from the pale blue eyes.

The Reverend Upshur’s arms dropped limply to his side. For a moment he stood there with bowed head, a broken, forlorn, pathetic figure in rusty black; stood like one who has been turned away from a threshold, like one sent into exile.

Silently, impassively Trimble waited for the inevitable result, as a student of chemistry watches the working out of a miniature miracle in a test tube. The wait was a brief one. Bravely throwing back his head, revealing the trembling lip, the swimming eyes, the Reverend Upshur grasped Trimble’s hand.

“Thank you, Sam,” he said huskily. “Thank you, old friend. I — I had sinfully hoped that it might be otherwise. But it could n’t, could it ? You have kept me in the narrow path. I — I shall go back. God bless you and — and goodby.”

Then he was gone.

Suppose the litmus paper should turn vividly green instead of red in the acid ? Suppose the oxygen bubbles should cluster at the bottom of the tube instead of rising ? The chemistry student would stare. Sam Trimble stared. He even looked for him to turn at the door and come back to say that he could n’t give up Grace, that he could n’t return to the Junction.

But he did not come back. Gradually the full impertinence of his meddling dawned on Sam Trimble. The fellow meant to do it! He meant to throw away the chance for which he had waited years, for which he might wait other years before it would come again. And on whose word ?

Ugh! Trimble tossed his unlighted cigar carelessly at a palm tub, and sank into a chair. He brushed an impatient hand across his fine, dark eyes. They were no longer audacious eyes. They were watching a forlorn figure in rusty black, a figure that walked with bravely held head toward an unspeakably wretched Junction somewhere off in the dreary waste of sand and pines.

Many minutes he sat there. Then he got up, crossed to a writing desk, and busied himself with pen and paper.

Trimble was still at the desk when the keen, bead-like eyes of Jeremiah Proutt, shooting wary glances from under bristly white brows, discovered him. The forward thrust head bobbing between the stooped shoulders wagged a salute.

“I am late, Mr. Trimble. I hope you have n’t been waiting long. His words came with gurgling smoothness. He held forth a claw-like hand, which Trimble failed to see.

“You are late,” said Trimble dryly.

“ I was delayed by — er — a very foolish person.” Proutt drew a chair to the side of the desk.

“Not a preacher ?” suggested Trimble.

“ Yes, a preacher.” He made a gesture of impatience. “They have no head for business, Trimble.”

“Ah! I suppose they have n’t.” Trimble’s gaze was seeking the wary eyes under the white brows. “You have had a lot of experience with all kinds of men, Proutt,” he said abruptly. “What is your private opinion of me? Come now, out with it.”

The forward thrust head ducked sinuously, and the beady little eyes snapped a swift glance of inquiry across the desk lid.

“Why — er — why, Mr. Trimble,” gurgled Proutt oilily, “you don’t need to ask that. I am sure we understand each other by this time. I think pretty well of you, of course.”

“ Do you ? Then you ’re a mighty poor judge, Proutt. I ’m a scoundrel, a meanspirited, miserable scoundrel. I’ve just found it out too.”

Proutt responded only with another disturbed, darting glance.

“Do you know what I’ve been doing as I waited here for you?” continued Trimble. “I’ve been having sport, Proutt; having sport,” he repeated bitterly, relentlessly, “with a human being. I did n’t know that he was really human until afterwards. I thought he was just an imitation, a mannikin; a slimpsy, bloodless thing with no backbone and only half a mind. I played with him, Proutt, as a cub bear would play with a rag doll, — tossed him up, clawed him, trampled him under foot. And after all, Proutt, he was a man; a man with blood in his veins, with a brain in his head, with a heart under his ribs, and, somewhere about him, a something else, — a soul, I suppose it’s called. I haven’t one. But he has. I had a glimpse of it. Yet I played with him, and he a real man, ten times, yes, a hundred times more of a man than I ever was or will be. Now, Proutt, what do you think of that?”

Under the stern glitter of Trimble’s dark eyes Mr. Proutt’s head ducked and bobbed uneasily.

“Er — ahem!” The lean fingers of Proutt’s clasped hands were working in and out like yellow shuttles. “It is — er — very interesting, this — er — parable of yours, Mr. Trimble. Quite entertaining. But really, my time is limited, and there is that — er — little matter of business, you know. Could n’t we” —

“Business, eh? Oh, yes.” Trimble seemed to rouse himself as if waking from a dream. “Business, to be sure.” He pushed aside some of the desk furnishings, and tapped with his finger a long envelope which lay there. “What do you imagine is in that envelope, Proutt ?”

Proutt chuckled. “A donation, perhaps ?”

“Excellent! It is a donation. Could n’t guess the amount, could you ?”

The little eyes glistened greedily. “ Fifteen hundred?”

“Right again! All of which goes to prove that I am several kinds of a scoundrel. You know why I brought that down here, don’t you, Proutt? I ought to be ashamed. You’re a nice, respectable old gentleman. You’ve just come from a church conference. Arid here I am trying to bribe you— Oh, you needn’t look frightened; no one’s paying any attention to us — trying to bribe you, I say, into a scheme to plunder the public funds. And you ’re willing to be bribed. Proutt, you’re something of a scoundrel yourself.”

Mr. Proutt’s sinuous neck stiffened. His little eyes stared stonily. “ Mr. Trimble!” he protested.

Trimble waved a careless hand at him. “Oh, that’s all right, Proutt. I’ll save you. You shall not be corrupted this time. I have decided to send that fifteen hundred to the Reverend Upshur Wright as a wedding present. See?” — and he turned over the envelope to show the address.

“Why — er — why, Mr. Trimble, I don’t think I understand.”

“Don’t you?” said Trimble, rising and placing the envelope in his pocket. “Never mind; neither do I — quite. I am going to send it to him, though.”

“But our — er — our little business arrangement ?”

“It’s off,” said Trimble briskly. “ I ’m taking up a new line.”