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RHODORA AND THE PREACHER
When the fight begins within himself
A man's worth something.
The Skeptic brought up the letter with him as he came home to dinner; it had arrived in the last mail. The Philosopher happened to be dining with us that night, so we four were together when the news came upon us. As Hepatica read it aloud we stared at one another, astonished.
The letter was from Grandmother, inviting us to Rhodora's wedding, which was to take place under her roof. Rhodora herself had been practically under Grandmother's roof for four years now, except as she had been sent to a school of Grandmother's selection. Rhodora had no mother. Her father, an absorbed man of business, had, at Grandmother's suggestion, been glad to let her have the girl to bring up--or to finish bringing up--according to her own ideas. When we had first seen Rhodora there could be no question that she sadly needed bringing up by somebody. To that date she had, apparently, only come up by herself.
"I, for one, have never seen her since that none-too-short visit she made you, that summer," said the Skeptic reminiscently. "It has never occurred to me to long to see her again. She was a mere lusty infant then. And now she's to be married. How time gets on! What did you say was the name of the unfortunate chap?"
"'The Reverend Christopher Austen,'" re-read Hepatica from the letter.
"He will need all the fortitude the practice of his profession can have developed in him, if my recollections can be depended upon to furnish a basis for the present outlook," said the Skeptic gloomily.
"You don't know that he will, at all," I disputed. "Rhodora was only a girl when you saw her. She has been four years under Grandmother's influence since then. Can you imagine that has accomplished nothing?"
The Skeptic shook his head. "That would be like a dove attempting the education of a hawk. The girl has probably learned not to break into the conversation of her elders with an axe," he speculated, "nor to walk ahead of Grandmother when she comes into a room. Any girl learns those things--in time--unless she is an idiot. But there are other things to learn. You can't make fine china out of coarse clay."
"But you can make very, very beautiful pottery," cried Hepatica. "And the lump of clay that came into contact with Grandmother's wheel----"
She paused. Metaphors are sometimes difficult things to handle. The Philosopher, musing, did not notice that she had not finished.
"It's rather curious that I should be asked," he said. "I never saw either of them but once."
"You made a great conquest on that one occasion, though," said the Skeptic.
"Nonsense!" The Philosopher coloured like a boy. "That girl----"
"Not that girl," explained the Skeptic. "The Old Lady. She has never ceased to ask after you whenever we have seen her or heard from her. As I remember, you presented her with a bunch of garden flowers as big as your head, and looked at her as if she were eighteen and the beauty she undoubtedly once was.--Well, well--a preacher! What has Rhodora become that she has blinded the eyes of a preacher? Not that their eyes are not easily blinded!"
"Why do you say 'preacher?'" inquired his wife. "Grandmother's letter says a young clergyman."
"He's no clergyman," insisted the Skeptic. "He's not even a minister. He's just a preacher--a raw youth, just out of college--knows as much about women as a puppy about elephant training. Rhodora probably sang a hymn at one of his meetings and finished him. Well, well--I suppose this means another wedding present?" He looked dubiously at Hepatica.
"It does, of course," she admitted.
"Send her a cut-glass punch-bowl," he suggested, preparing savagely to carve a plump, young duck. "Anything less adapted to the use of a preacher's family I can't conceive. And that's the main object in buying wedding gifts, according to my observation."
The day of Rhodora's wedding arrived, and we went down together to Grandmother's lovely old country home--a stately house upon the banks of a wide, frozen river. Our train brought us there two hours before the one set for the ceremony, and we found not only Grandmother but Rhodora and the Preacher in the fine old-time drawing-room to greet us. The wedding was to be a quietly informal one, and such of the other guests as had already arrived were in the room also, having a cup of tea before they should go upstairs to dress.
Rhodora herself was pouring the tea, and the Preacher was helping hand the cups about. It was a beautiful opportunity to observe the pair before their marriage.
Grandmother gave us the welcome only Grandmother knows how to give. In her own home she looks like a fair, little, old queen, receiving everybody's homage, yet giving so much kindness in return that one can never feel one's self out of debt to her hospitality. Her greeting to the Philosopher was an especially cordial one.
"I ventured to ask you," she said to him, "because I have always wanted to see you again--not merely because I have heard of you in the world where you are making a name for yourself. And I wanted, too, in justice to my granddaughter, to have you see her again."
Before the Philosopher could formulate an appropriate reply, Rhodora herself, leaving her tea-table, and crossing the room with a swift and graceful tread, was giving us welcome.
It was amusing to see our two men look at Rhodora. Hepatica and I had been, in a way, prepared to see a transformation, having heard sundry rumours to that effect; but the Skeptic and the Philosopher, having classified Rhodora once and for all, had since received no impression sufficient to efface or modify the original one. I can say for them that to one who did not know them well their surprise would have been undiscoverable, yet to Hepatica and me it was perfectly evident that they considered a miracle had been wrought.
As to personal appearance, Rhodora had developed, as she had promised to do, into a remarkable beauty. If she had kept on as she had begun, she would have become one of those exuberant beauties who look as if they had but lately quitted the stage and must shortly return thither. Even yet, it would have taken but an error in dress, a reversion to a certain type of manner which too often goes with looks like these, to make of the girl that which it had seemed she must become. But, somehow, she had not become that thing.
Rhodora presently turned and beckoned to the Preacher, and putting down his teacups he came to her side. She presented him, and we saw that he was, indeed, no clergyman, no minister even--in the sense that the Skeptic had differentiated these terms--but a preacher--and an embryo one at that--a big, red-cheeked, honest-eyed boy, a straightforward, clean-hearted, large-purposed young fellow, who meant to do all the good in the world, in all the ways that he could bring about. He was but lately graduated from his seminary, had yet to preach his first sermon after the dignities of his ordination, but--one could not tell how--one began to believe in him at once.
"No, I haven't a bit of experience," he owned to me, as we stood talking together, getting acquainted. "Not a bit--except a little mission work a few of us went in for this last year. I'm as raw a recruit as ever put on a uniform and fell in with the rest of the company for his first drill. But--I mean to count one!"
"I'm sure you will," said I, regarding him with growing pleasure in the sight.
"And Rhodora will count two," said he, his eyes following her. "One and two, side by side, you know, stand for twelve."
"So they do," said I. "And seeing Rhodora as she looks now, I should think she would make an efficient comrade."
His face glowed. Together we observed Rhodora, standing close by Grandmother's side. The two, with Hepatica and our two men, made a group, of which not the bride-elect, but Grandmother, was the precise centre. The moment Rhodora had reached Grandmother's side she had put herself in the background. Although she towered above the little old lady she did not overwhelm her, and Grandmother herself had never seemed a more gently dominating figure than now, in her sweeping black gown with its rare laces, her white hair, in soft puffs, framing her delicate face. And as, at a turn in the conversation, Grandmother looked up at Rhodora, and Rhodora, bending a little, smiled back at her, answering in the most deferential way, it was clear to me that the most efficient element in the education of the girl had been her intercourse with this old-time gentlewoman.
"It was seeing those two together," said the Preacher rather shyly, in my ear, "that attracted me first. I never knew that Youth and Age could set each other off like that till I saw them. And I saw at once that a girl who could be such friends with an old lady must be very much worth while herself. They are great chums, you know--it's quite unusual, I think. And it's a mighty fine thing for any one to know Grandmother. I've learned more from Grandmother than from any one I ever knew."
"She's a very rare and adorable old lady," I agreed heartily. "We all worship her--we all feel that to be near her is a special fortune for any one. She has plainly grown very fond of Rhodora--she will miss her."
"No doubt of that," he agreed--but, quite naturally, more with triumph than with sympathy.
We went upstairs presently to make ready for the wedding. When we were dressed, we met, according to previous agreement, in the big, square, upper hall, with its spindled railing making a gallery about the quaint and stately staircase. It was a little too early to go down, and we drew some high-backed chairs together and sat down to look at one another in our wedding garments.
"I'd like to get married myself again to-night," declared the Skeptic, forcibly pulling on his gloves with a man's brutal disregard for the possible instability of seams. He eyed his wife possessively. "Tell me--will the Preacher's bride put her in the shade?"
"Don!" But Hepatica's falling lashes could not quite conceal her pleasure in his pride.
"Not for a minute." The Philosopher's benevolent gaze approved of his friend's wife from the top of her masses of shining hair to the tip of her white-shod foot. "At the same time, I don't feel quite such a dispirited compassion for the Preacher himself as I did on the way down. Can that possibly be the same girl who treated Grandmother as if she were an inconvenient, antique family relic, and the rest of us as if she endured but was horribly bored by us?"
"I have never supposed grandmothers," said the Skeptic thoughtfully, "to be particularly influential members of society. Evidently ours is different. But there must have been other elements in the metamorphosis of Rhodora."
"Miss Eleanor Lockwood's school," suggested Hepatica.
"You mention that with bated breath," said the Skeptic, "precisely as every one, including its graduates, mentions it. I admit that Miss Lockwood's school is a place where rich young savages are turned out polished members of society. But there's been more than that."
"The Preacher himself?" I suggested.
The Skeptic looked at me. "Do you mean to imply," said he, with raised eyebrows, "that any woman would admit the possibility of acquaintanceship with any particular man's having had a formative influence on her character? After school-days, I mean of course."
"Why not?" I inquired. "What influence could be greater?"
The Skeptic looked at the Philosopher, who returned his gaze calmly.
"Did you ever expect to hear that?" asked the Skeptic.
"I should not think of denying the influence of woman upon man," replied the Philosopher. "Why should not the rule work both ways?"
"I never heard it thus flatly formulated before," declared the Skeptic. "It does me good, that's all. So you think the Preacher has had a hand in the reformation?"
"You have seen the Preacher," said I. "You know the family from which he comes--he's of good stock. You've only to hear him speak to see that he's a man of purpose, of action, of training--boy as he looks. How could he fail to have a strong influence upon a girl who cared for him?"
The Skeptic looked at Hepatica. "Do you agree with her?" he inquired.
"Of course I agree with her," responded Hepatica, looking from him to me--and back again. "You are only pretending to doubt us both. It's very clever of you, but we know perfectly that you understand how far--very far--we are affected by your ideals, your judgments, your whole estimate of life. Therefore--you must be very careful how you use your influence with us!"
The Skeptic gave her back the look he saw in her eyes. "Ah, you two belong to the wise ones!" he said. "The wise ones, who, magnifying our hold on you, thus acquire a far more tremendous hold on us! Eh, Philo?"
The Philosopher smiled--inscrutably. Probably he felt that an inscrutable smile was his safest means of navigating waters like these.
We went down to the wedding. The Preacher stood up very straight while he was being married, and though his boyish cheek paled and reddened again as the ceremony proceeded, his responses were clear-cut. Rhodora made a bonny bride. The absurd vision I had had of her, ever since I had heard she was to be married, of her taking the officiating clergyman's book out of his hand and steering the service for herself, melted away before the vision of her serious young beauty as she made her vows, and turned from the clergyman's felicitations, at the conclusion of the service, to take Grandmother into a tender embrace.
"I owe it all to you," she said to Grandmother by and by, in my hearing, as we three happened to be for a little alone together. She turned to me. "I was a barbarian when she took me," she said. "A barbarian of barbarians. If it hadn't been for Grandmother I should be one yet, and he"--her glance went off for an instant toward her young husband--"would never have dreamed of looking at me."
"You were not very different, my dear," said Grandmother, in her gentle way, "from many girls of this day."
"Forgive me, dear," responded Rhodora, "but I was so much worse that only a grandmother like you could have shown me what I was."
"I never tried to show you what you were," said Grandmother. "Only what you could be. And now--I must lose you."
The Preacher came up, the Skeptic by his side. The Philosopher and Hepatica, seeing the old magic circle forming, promptly added themselves.
It fell out, presently, that the Philosopher and I, a step away from the others, were observing them as we talked together. The Philosopher had adjusted his eyeglasses, having carefully polished them. He seemed to want to see things clearly to-day.
"This is a scene I've witnessed a good many times, first and last," said he. "Each time it impresses me afresh with the daring of the participants. Brave young things, setting sail upon a mighty ocean, in a small boat, which may or may not be seaworthy--some of them, it seems, sometimes, with neither chart nor compass--certainly with little knowledge of the crew. It's a trite comparison, I suppose."
"You talk as if you stood safely on the shore," I ventured. "Is life no ocean to you, then--and do you never feel adrift upon it?"
The Philosopher stared curiously at me. It was, I admit, a strange speech for me to make to him, but I had not been thinking of him. I had been thinking of Lad, my big boy, now away at school, and of the day when he should reach this experience for himself, and I should have to give him up--my one near tie. I should surely feel adrift in that day--far adrift.
"Does it seem to you like that?" he asked, very gently, after a minute.
I looked up, and saw a new and quite strange expression in his kindly eyes. "No, no," I said hastily. "How could it--with so many and such good friends?"
I think he would have questioned me further, but the Skeptic at that moment turned my way, and I laid hold upon him--figuratively speaking--and did not let go again till all danger of a discussion with the Philosopher on the subject of my loneliness was past.
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