The crowd at Hingston's mill grew with the arrival of the unbelievers as well as the believers in Dylks. They came from all sides, sometimes singly and sometimes in groups, and the groups came disputing as often as agreeing among themselves. When a group was altogether believing they exchanged defiances with a party of those religious outcasts, the Hounds, disturbers of camp-meetings and baptisms, and notorious mockers, now, of the Leatherwood god in his services at the Temple. But the invitation given to see the promised miracle had been to all; the Hounds had felt in it the tenor of a challenge, and they had accepted it defiantly. They jeered at the believers as these arrived, sometimes hailing them by name; they neighed and whinnied, and shouted "Salvation!" and in the intervals of silence they burst out with the first lines of the Believers' hymn.
There were those who mocked, "I am God Almighty," "The Father and the Son are one, and I am both of 'em put together," and "Oh, Dylks, save us!" "Don't leave us, Dylks!" "Make the Devil jump, Joseph! Make him rattle his scales for us!" "Fetch on your miracle!" The believing women turned away; some of the younger tittered hysterically at a droll profanation of their idol's name, and then one of the ruffians applauded. "That's right, sisters! We like to have you enjoy yourselves. Promised to let anybody in particular see you home to-night?" The girls tried to control themselves, and laughed the more, and the Hound called, "Say, girls, let's have a dance—a dance before the Lord."
Jane Gillespie had come with her father in the family pride which forbade them to reject each other publicly. The girl stood a little apart from her father, and near her hung, wistfully, fearfully, the young farmer whom the neighborhood gossip had assigned her for an acceptable if not accepted lover. She looked steadfastly away from Hughey Blake, with her head lifted and her cheeks coldly flushed under the flame of her vivid hair: she was taller than the other girls, and showed above the young man.
"Say, Hughey," one of the Hounds spoke across the space they had left between them and the decent unbelievers, "Can't you gimme a light? Reach up!" He held out a cigar, in the joke of kindling it at the girl's hair.
Hughey Blake turned, and his helpless retort, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," redoubled the joy of the Hounds. The girl glanced quickly at him, with what meaning he could not have made out, and it might have been fear of her which kept him hesitating whether to cross over and fall upon his tormentor. He looked at her as if for a sign, but she made as if she had heard nothing; then while he still hesitated a slender, sinewy young fellow came down the open ground, with a soft jolt in his gait like that of a rangy young horse. He wore high boots with his trousers pushed carelessly into their tops, and for a sign of week-day indifference to the occasion, a checked shirt, of the sort called hickory; he struck up the brim of his platted straw hat in front with one hand, and with the other on his hip stood a figure of backwoods bravery, such as has descended to the romance of later times from the reality of the Indian-fighting pioneers.
"You fellows keep still!" he called out. "If you don't I'll make you."
Retorts of varied sense and nonsense came from the Hounds, but without malice in their note. One voice answered, "I'd like to see you try, Jim Redfield!"
The other jolted closer toward the line of the Hounds, and leaned over.
"Did I hear somebody speak?" he asked.
"I reckon not, Jim," the voice of his challenger returned. "Come to join the band?"
"I didn't come to worry helpless women," Redfield said.
"That's right, Jim. There's where we're with you. D'you reckon Apostle Hingston'll let us in to see the miracle if we'll keep the believers straight while the Almighty is at it?"
"I can't say for Mr. Hingston," Redfield returned. "But if I was in his place I'd want to keep my jug out of sight when you fellows were on duty."
Redfield passed the Gillespies as he lounged back to his place with a covert glance at the girl, who made no sign of seeing her champion.
The woman who was bringing the body of the miracle came round the corner of the mill, and showed herself in the open space with the bolt of cloth borne carefully in her arms.
"Why, it's a baby!" came from that merriest of the Hounds whom Redfield had turned from an enemy into a troublesome friend of the believers. "Reckon the women'll have something to say to that if he tries to turn e'er a baby into seamless raiment."
The fellow got the laugh he had tried for, and when Redfield looked toward him again he said, "All right, Jim. I'm keepin' 'em quiet the best I can. But the elect will make a noise, sometimes."
The woman with her bundle passed through the open door of the house behind the mill. The public entrance was at the front where by day the bags of grain were lifted by rope and tackle to the upper story, and the farmers who brought them climbed up by the inner stairways. The believers had expected that they were to come in by way of the dwelling, but now the burly figure of the miller, with the light of a candle behind it, showed black in the doorway, and he spoke up, in his friendly voice: "Neighbors, we want you all to go round to the front of the mill and come in there. The miracle is going to be done on the bolting-cloth floor, where there will be room for all that wants to see. We don't mean to keep anybody out, whether they believe or don't believe. The only thing we want is for you all to be quiet, and not make trouble. And now, come in as quick as you can, so you can be sure we haven't had time to do anything to the cloth that the seamless raiment is going to be made out of."
"Hounds and everybody?" called that gayest voice among the outcasts.
"Hounds and everybody," the miller humorously assented, and his black bulk melted into the dark as the candle disappeared within.
The dim light from tin lanterns threw the pattern of their perforations on the walls and roofs of the interior, and showed the tracery of the floury cobwebs. The people could scarcely see their way to the stairs by the glimmer, and there was more talking with nervous laughter than there had been outside. One of the Hounds called out, "I don't want any of you girls to kiss me!" and gave the relief of indignation to the hysterical emotion of the believers; the more serious of the unbelievers found escape in their helpless laughter from their tense expectation of triumph in the failure of the promised miracle.
The wide space on the bolting-cloth floor, before the bins mounded high with new wheat, and the rows of millstones, motionless under their empty hoppers, was lighted by candles in tin sconces, but these were so few that they shone only on the foremost faces and left those behind a gleam of eyes or teeth. The familiar machinery had put on a grewsome strangeness which had its final touch from the roll lying on the table like something dead. A table had been set in front of the barrels under the bolting cloths, and the muslin funnels, empty of flour, hung down into the barrels with the effect of colossal legs standing in them. The air of the hot night was close within; a damp odor from the water flowing under the motionless mill wheels seemed to cool it, but did not; the perspiration shone on the faces where the light fell on them.
The miller and his family had places in the front line of the spectators, and with them was the woman who had given the cloth for the miracle; and who stood staring at the stuff, which she had known so intimately in every thread and fiber, with an air of estrangement.
When the stumbling feet of the last arrivals ceased on the stairs, the miller stood out facing the crowd, and told them that he expected the Good Old Man, now, any minute, together with the Apostle Paul, whom they all knew by his earthly name as their neighbor, Mr. Enraghty. He asked them to be as still as they could, and especially after the Good Old Man came, to be perfectly silent; not to whisper, and not to move if they could help it. There was nothing, though, he said, to hinder the believers from joining in their favorite hymn; and at once the wailing of it began to fill the place. When it ended, the deep-drawn breath of some wearied expectant made itself heard with the shifting of tired feet easing themselves. The minutes grew into an hour, with no sign of Dylks or Enraghty, and the miller was again forced to ask the patience of his neighbors. But there began to be murmurs from the unbelievers, and more articulate protests from the Hounds. Some children, whom the believers had brought with them to see the divine power manifest itself, whimpered, and were suffered to lie down at the feet of their fathers and mothers and forget their disappointment in sleep. A babe, too young to be left at home, woke and cried, and was suckled to rest again, with ironical applause from the Hounds.
At the end of two hours of waiting, relieved with pleas and promises from the miller, there was no word from Dylks and no token of his bodily presence. With the scoffing of the unbelievers, the prayers of the faithful rose. "Come soon, oh Lord!" "Send thy Power!" "Remember thy Little Flock!" Upon these at last broke falteringly, stragglingly, a familiar voice, the voice of Abel Reverdy, kindly and uncouth as himself, and expressive, like his presence, of an impartial interest in the feelings of both the faithful and the unfaithful. He was there in the company of his wife, who held a steadfast place among the believers, while Abel ranged freely from one party to the other, and could not well have known himself of either, though friendly with both. He was of a sort of disapproving friendship even with the Hounds, and now his voice said in impartial suggestion, "Why not somebody go and fetch him?"
"Good for you, Abel!" came from the Hound who was oftenest spokesman for the others. "Why don't you go yourself, Abel?"
Other voices applauded, and Abel was beginning to share a general confidence in his fitness for the mission, when his wife spoke up, "'Deed and 'deed, I can tell you he ain't agoun' to do no such a thing, not if we stay here all night, murricle or no murricle. I ain't agoun' to have him put his head into the Lion of Judah's mouth, and have it bit off, like as not. I can't tell from one minute to another whether he's a believer or not, and if anybody is to go for the Good Old Man it's got to be a studdy believer, and not a turncoat of many colors like Abel."
If Sally had satisfied her need of chastizing her husband for his variableness, and found a comfort in her scriptural language, not qualified by its wandering application, Abel loyally accepted her open criticism. "That's so, Sally, I ain't the one to send. I misdoubted it myself, or I'd 'a' gone without sayin' nothin' in the first place. But, as Sally says," he addressed the crowd, "it ought to be a believer."
"Then why not Sally?" a scorner suggested. She did not refuse, and there was a whispering between her and those next her in debate of the question. But it was closed by the loud, austere voice of one of the believing matrons in the apostolic mandate, "Let your women keep silence in the churches." The text was not closely apt; it was not a precept obeyed in the revivals of any of the sects in Leatherwood; it was especially ignored in the meetings of the Dylks believers; but its proclamation now satisfied the yearning always rife in them to affiliate their dispensation with the scriptural tradition.
"Well, that settles it, Sister Coombs," Sally promptly assented, "I wasn't agoun' to, anyway, and I ain't agoun' to now, if I stay here all night, or the Good Old Man don't ever come."
"Why not Jim Redfield?" a Hound demanded, and the miller tried to be stern in calling out, "No trifling!" but lost effect by gently adding, "Friends." The unbelievers laughed, but the miller's retreat from the bold stand he had taken was covered by Redfield's threat that if those fellows kept on he would give them something to laugh about.
As he stepped into the neutral space between the friends and enemies of Dylks, he had a sort of double fearfulness for the women, because he was not only not of their faith, but because he was of no religious sect in a community where every one but an open infidel like Matthew Braile was of some profession. He came to the Baptist services with his mother, but he had not been baptized, and he was not seen at the house to house prayer meetings, where the young people came with the old, or at the frolics where dancing was forbidden, but not kissing in their games or in their walks home through the woods. He was not supposed to be in love with any one, and he lived alone on a rich bottom-land farm with his mother, in a house which his father had built where his grandfather's log cabin had stood. He was of a tradition which held him closer to the wilderness than most of the people of Leatherwood; in the two generations before him the Redfields had won and held their lands against the Indians, and had fought them in the duels, from tree to tree, which the pioneers taught the savages, or learned from them, risking their lives and scalps in the same chances. He was of the sort of standing which old family gives, even where all families are new, and he was now making his way politically, in spite of his irreligion; he meant to go to the legislature, eventually, and in a leisurely sort he was reading law, and reciting his Blackstone to Matthew Braile. As he came and went from the old infidel's house, he was apt to stop at the tavern porch, where the few citizens who could detach their minds from the things of another world gave them in cloudy conjecture to the political affairs of this, or to scrutiny of the real motives actuating the occasional travelers who apparently arrived for a meal's victuals or a night's lodging. With these Redfield had scarcely a social life, but he could talk with them almost to the point of haranguing them, for they were men; at the store, where his mother's errands sometimes took him, he shrank from the women as timid as they when they dismounted from their saddles or wagons, and slipped in with their butter and eggs, and passed out again deeply obscured in their sunbonnets.
They were mostly women past the time of life when men look at them curiously, but once Redfield was startled by meeting a young girl, as he was trying to go out, and began losing himself with her in that hopeless encounter of people who try to give way to each other and keep passing to the same side at once. Her face and her red hair burned one fire, but at last she stopped stone still, and let him go by, with a sort of angry challenge in her blue eyes. He knew that it was Jane Gillespie without knowing her to speak with, as he would have said, and he knew that against her father's will she was one of the followers of Dylks. The idolatry was not yet open and scandalous, but since then he had heard his mother denouncing her as a worthless hussy with the other women who had worshiped Dylks in that frenzy at the Temple. He walked up and down, passing near where she stood with her father and Hughey Blake, and lost his breath at each approach and caught it again at each remove. It so vividly seemed that he must speak to her, though he did not know what he wished to say, that it was as if he really had done so, when he heard one of the Hounds saying, "Well, and what are you goin' to do about it, Jim?"
Then he heard himself boasting, "I'm going after Dylks myself; and if he'll come peaceably, and do his miracle I'll take him for my god, and if he won't, God have mercy on him!"
He was answering his jeering questioner in his words, but his eyes were on the girl; her own eyes were lowered after a glance at her father and Hughey Blake, and his vow remained in his ears a foolish vaunt. While he stood unable to return to his place, a voice which no one knew, came from the darkness outside.
"Behold," it said, "I am the Presence of the Most High, and I come to you with my Peace. The miracle that ye wait to see has been wrought already unseen of you. The cloth before you has been touched by my Power, and turned into the seamless raiment which ye seek as a sign. But it shall not be shown to you now. Ye shall see it seven days and seven nights hence on the eighth night at the Temple. Till then, have patience, have faith. Thus saith the Lord."
The voice died from the medley of scriptural phrase and a shiver of awe passed over those who had heard. One of the believing women called out, "Praise ye the Lord!" Then a yell of mockery broke from the Hounds and some one shouted, "Let's have a look!" and the crowd rushed upon the roll of cloth which lay on the table, where the woman who had brought it in her arms had put it, and had stood patiently, anxiously, trustfully waiting.
She spread her arms out over it, with a piteous gesture, like a mother trying to keep her child from harm. "Oh, don't! Oh, don't!" she implored. "It's my cloth! I spun it, I wove it, every thread! It's all we've got for our clothes this winter! Don't touch it, don't tear it!"
Her prayer was like a signal for its denial. One of the Hounds pushed her away and caught the cloth up. "We won't hurt it, Sister Bladen. We just want to see what a seamless garment looks like, anyway. Maybe it'll fit some of us. Here, boys, take a hold!"
He held by the outer edge of the cloth, and flung the bolt unfurling itself toward his fellows over the heads of the believing men who had crowded forward to save it from the desecration, while the woman tried to seize it from him, beseeching, imploring, "Oh, don't hurt it, Bill Murray! Oh, be careful! Don't let it drop! Oh, don't, don't, don't!"
"We can't do it any hurt, Sister Bladen, if it's got a miracle inside of it," one of the ruffians mocked. "You tell her we wont hurt it, Jim Redfield! She'll trust you!"
The women believers were sobbing; the men gathered themselves for a struggle with the surprise sprung upon them, but held back as if in a superstitious hope of help from the god whom the women seemed not to trust in his failure of them.
"Here, you fellows!" Redfield shouted over the tossing heads before him.
"What do you want to spoil her cloth for?"
His look and voice had their effect with the angry, pushing, shuffling, elbowing, wailing, weeping crowd, in a pause like the arrest of curiosity.
"Let go that cloth, Bill," he said, not with authority, but in a tone of good fellowship.
The miller interposed with his friendly voice, and it seemed as if the unbelievers would give way in pity of the poor woman who had brought the cloth. Suddenly the bolt of stuff which Murray had conditionally yielded was twitched from Redfield in boisterous fun, and then in the frenzy more of mischief than malice it was seized by the Hounds, and torn into shreds. "Find the seamless raiment!" they yelled to one another. The unbelievers stood aside; the believers did nothing, in a palsy of amaze; the poor woman, to whom her toil and pride in it had hallowed the stuff, sank down staying herself on her hands from the floor, in hapless despair. Her moaning and sobbing filled the place after the tumult of destruction had been stricken silent. "Oh, I don't care for the miracle," she kept lamenting, "but what are my children going to wear this winter? Oh, what will he say to me!" It was her husband she meant.