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At nine o'clock that night, feeling a little as if he were in some sort of familiar dream, Brown, wearing evening dress for the first time in more than a year, sat looking about him. He was at Mrs. Brainard's right hand, in the post of the guest of honour, for Mrs. Brainard was playing hostess for her bachelor friend, Webb Atchison, in the apartment of the princely up-town hotel which was his more or less permanent home.
About the great round table were gathered a goodly company--the company of Brown's old friends among the rich and eminent of the city. Not only men of great wealth, but men distinguished in their professions, noted for their achievements, and honoured for their public services, were among those hurriedly asked to do this man honour. They had all been more or less constant members of his congregation during the years when he was making a name as the most forceful and fearless young preacher who ever ventured to tell the people of aristocratic St. Timothy's what he thought of them.
And they were gathered to-night to tell him what they thought of him. They were sparing no pains to do so. More than once, while he parried their attacks upon his resolution to leave them permanently, parried them with a smiling face, with a resolute quiet voice, with the quickness of return thrust for which he was famous in debate, he was inwardly sending up one oft-repeated, pregnant petition: "Lord, help me through this--for Thy sake!"
They were not men alone who combined against him with every pressure of argument; there were women present who used upon him every art of persuasion. Not that of speech alone, but that subtler witchery of look and smile with which such women well know how to make their soft blows tell more surely than harder ones from other hands. Among these, all of whom were women of charm and distinction after one fashion or another, was one who alone, though she seemed to be making no direct attack, was waging the heaviest war of all against Donald Brown's determination.
Atchison, in arranging the places of his guests, had put Helena Forrest at Brown's right, at the sacrifice of his own pleasure, for by this concession she was farthest from himself. Whether or not he understood how peculiarly deadly was the weapon he thus used against his friend, he knew that Helena was capable of exerting a powerful influence upon any man--how should he himself not know it, who was at her feet? He had no compunction in bringing that influence to bear upon Brown at this moment, when the actual word of withdrawal had not yet been spoken.
Yet as from time to time Atchison looked toward these two of his guests he wondered if Helena were doing all she could in the cause in which he had enlisted her. She was saying little to Brown, he could see that; and Brown was saying even less to her. Each seemed more occupied with the neighbour upon the farther side than with the other. Just what this meant Atchison could not be sure.
The dinner, an affair of surprising magnificence considering the brief hours of its preparation, drew at length to its close. It seemed to Brown that he had been sitting at that table, in the midst of the old environment in which he had once been carelessly happy and assured, for hours upon end, before the signal came at last for the departure of the women. And even then he knew that after they had gone the worst was probably to come. It came. Left alone with him, the men of the party redoubled their attacks. With every argument, renewed and recast, they assaulted him. He withstood them, refusing at the last to argue, merely lifting his head with a characteristic gesture of determination, smiling wearily, and saying with unshaken purpose: "It's no use, gentlemen. I've made up my mind. I'm sorry you think I'm wrong, but I can't help that, since I believe I'm right."
They could not credit their own failure, these men of power, so accustomed to having things go their way that they were unable to understand even the possibility of being defeated. And they were being defeated by a man whom they had never admired more--and they had made him, as Sue Breckenridge had said, the idol of the great church--than now when he refused them. But they, quite naturally, did not show him that. They showed him disappointment, chagrin, cynicism, disbelief in his judgment, everything that could make his heart beat hard and painfully with the weight of their displeasure.
Suddenly he rose to his feet. A hush fell, for they thought he was going to speak to them. He was silent for a minute, looking down at these old friends who were so fond of him; then he opened his mouth. But not to speak--to sing.
It was a powerful asset of Donald Brown's, and it had never been more powerful than now, this voice which had been given him of heaven. They had often heard him before but now, under these strange circumstances, they listened with fresh amazement to the beauty of his tones. Every word fell clean-cut upon their ears, every note was rich with feeling, as Brown in this strange fashion made his plea, took his stand with George Matheson's deathless words of passionate loyalty:
"Make me a captive, Lord, And then I shall be free; Force me to render up my sword, And I shall conqueror be. I sink in life's alarms When by myself I stand; Imprison me within Thy arms, And strong shall be my hand."
When they looked up, these men, they saw that the women of the party had come back to the doors, drawn by an irresistible force.
In a strange silence, broken only by low-spoken words, the whole company returned to the living-rooms of the apartment. Here Brown himself broke the spell he had laid upon them.
Speaking in the ringing voice they knew of old, and with a gesture of both arms outflung as if he threw himself upon their friendship, he cried blithely:
"Ah, give me a good time now, dear people! Let me play I'm yours and you are mine again--just for to-night."
That settled it. Webb Atchison brought his hand down upon his victim's shoulder with a resounding friendly blow, calling:
"He's right. We've given him a bad two hours of it. Let's make it up to him, and let him have the right sort of send-off--since he will go. He will--there's no possible question of that. So let's part friends."
"I don't know," said Brown, smiling in the midst of the faces which now gave him back his smile, "but that if you are kind to me you'll test my endurance still more heavily. But--we'll risk it."
The scene now became a gay one--gay, at least, upon the surface. Brown was his old self again, the one they had known, and he was the centre of the good-fellowship which now reigned. So, for a time. Then came the supreme test of his life--as unexpectedly as such tests come, when a man thinks he has won through to the thin edge of the struggle.
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