No one could say quite how it happened that the stranger went home from the camp-meeting with old David Gillespie and his girl. Many had come forward with hospitable offers, and the stranger had been affable with all; but he had slipped through the hands he shook and had parried the invitations made him. Gillespie had not seemed to invite him, and his shy daughter had shrunk aside when the chief citizens urged their claims; yet the stranger went with them to their outlying farm, and spent all the next day there alone in the tall woods that shut its corn fields in.
Sally Reverdy had failed to get any light from the Gillespie girl when she ran out from Squire Braile's cabin. The girl seemed still under the spell that had fallen upon many at the meeting, and it appeared to Sally that she did not want to talk; at any rate she did not talk to any satisfactory end. A squirrel hunter believed he had caught a glimpse of the stranger in the chestnut woods behind the Gillespie spring-house, but he was not a man whose oath was acceptable in the community and his belief was not generally shared. It was thought that the stranger would reappear at the last night of the camp-meeting, but the Gillespies came without him, and reported that they had expected he would come by himself.
The camp-meeting broke up after the Sunday morning service and most of the worshipers, sated with their devotional experience, went home, praising the Power in song as they rode away in the wagons laden with their camp furniture, and their children strewn over the bedding. But for others, the fire of the revival burned through the hot, long, August Sabbath day, and a devout congregation crowded the Temple.
The impulse of the week past held over to the night unabated. The spacious log-built house was packed from wall to wall; the men stood dense; the seats were filled with women; only a narrow path was left below the pulpit for those who might wish to rise and confess Christ before the congregation. The people waited in a silence broken by their deep breathing, their devout whispering, the scraping of their feet; now and then a babe, whose mother could not leave it at home, wailed pitifully or spitefully till it was coaxed or scolded still; now and then some one coughed. The air was thick; a bat scandalized the assemblage by flying in at the open door, and wavering round the tallow candles on the pulpit; one of the men beat it down with his hat, and then picked it up and crowded his way down the aisle, out into the night with it. When he came back it was as if he had found the stranger whom they were all consciously expecting, and had brought him in with David Gillespie and his girl. She was tall and straight, like her father, and her hair was red, like his; her eyes were gray blue, and the look in them was both wilful and dreamy.
The stranger smiled and took the hands stretched out to him in passing by several of the different sectarians who used the Temple. Gillespie seemed not to notice or to care for the greetings to his guest, and his girl wore her wonted look of vague aloofness.
Matthew Braile had been given a seat at the front, perhaps in deference to his age and dignity; perhaps in confusion at his presence. He glanced up at the stranger with a keen glint through his branching eyebrows, and made a guttural sound; his wife pushed him; and he said; "What?" and "Oh!" quite audibly; and she pushed him again for answer.
The Gillespies sat down with the stranger in the foremost bench. He wore the black broadcloth coat of the Friday night before; his long hair, combed back from his forehead, fell down his shoulders almost to his middle; the glances of his black eyes roved round the room, but were devoutly lowered at the prayer which opened the service. It was a Methodist who preached, but somehow to-night he had not the fervor of his sect; his sermon was cold, and addressed itself to the faith rather than the hope of his hearers. He spoke as from the hold of an oppressive spell; at times he was perplexed, and lost his place in his exhortation. In the close heat some drowsed, and the preacher was distracted by snoring from a corner near the door. He lifted his voice as if to rouse the sleeper, or to drown the noise; but he could not. He came to the blessing at last, and the disappointed congregation rose to go out. Suddenly the loud snort that had dismayed the camp-meeting sounded through the heavy air, and then there came the thrilling shout of "Salvation."
The people did not need to look where the stranger had been sitting; he had done what they hoped, what they expected, and he was now towering over those near him, with his head thrown back, and his hair tossed like a mane on his shoulders. The people stopped; some who had gone out crowded in again; no one knew quite what to do. The minister halted on the pulpit stairs; he had done his part for the night, and he did not apparently resent the action of the man who now took it on him to speak.
A tall, stout man among those who had lingered, spoke from the aisle. He was the owner of the largest farm in the neighborhood and he had one of the mills on the creek. In his quality of miller everybody knew him, and he had the authority of a public character. Now he said:
"We want to hear something more than a snort and a shout from our brother here. We heard them Friday night, and we've been talkin' about it ever since."
The appeal was half joking, half entreating. The minister was still hesitating on the pulpit stairs, and he looked at the stranger. "Will you come up, Brother—"
"Call me Dylks—for the present," the stranger answered with a full voice.
"Brother Dylks," the minister repeated, and he came down, and gave him the right hand of fellowship.
The Gillespies looked on with their different indifference. Dylks turned to them: "Shall I speak?"
"Speak!" the girl said, but her father said nothing.
Dylks ran quickly up the pulpit steps: "We will join in prayer!" he called out, and he held the congregation, now returned to their places, in the spell of a quick, short supplication. He ended it with the Lord's Prayer; then he said, "Let us sing," and line after line he gave out the hymn,
"Plunged in a gulf of dark despair
We wretched sinners lay."
He expounded each stanza, as to the religious sense and the poetic meaning, before he led the singing. He gave out a passage of Scripture, as a sort of text, but he did not keep to it; he followed with other passages, and his discourse was a rehearsal of these rather than a sermon. His memory in them was unerring; women who knew their Bibles by heart sighed their satisfaction in his perfectness; they did not care for the relevance or irrelevance of the passages; all was Scripture, all was the one inseparable Word of God, dreadful, blissful, divine, promising heaven, threatening hell. Groans began to go up from the people held in the strong witchery of the man's voice. They did not know whether he spoke long or not. Before they knew, he was as if sweeping them to their feet with a repetition of his opening hymn, and they were singing with him:
"Plunged in a gulf of dark despair
We wretched sinners lay."
It ended, and he gave his wild brutish snort, and then his heart-shaking cry of "Salvation!"
Some of the chief men remained to speak with him, to contend for him as their guest; but old David Gillespie did not contend with them. "You can have him," he said to the miller, Peter Hingston, "if he wants to go with you." He was almost rude, and his daughter was not opener with the women who crowded about her trying to make her say something that would feed their hunger to know more. She remained hard and cold, almost dumb; it seemed to them that she was not worthy to have had him under her father's roof. As for her father, they had no patience with him for not putting in a word to claim the stranger while the others were pressing him to come home with them. In spite of the indifference of Gillespie and his girl, Dylks elected to remain with them, and when he could pull himself from the crowd he went away into the night between them.
When Matthew Braile made his escape with his wife from the crowd and began to walk home through the dim, hot night, he said, "Is Jane Gillespie any particular hand at fried chicken?"
"Now you stop, Matthew!" his wife said.
"Because that would account for it. I reckon it was fried chicken the ravens brought to Elijah. All men of God are fond of fried chicken."
His wife would not dispute directly with his perversity; she knew that in this mood of his it would be useless trying to make him partake the wonder she shared with her neighbors that the stranger had chosen David Gillespie again for his host out of the many leading men who had pressed their hospitality upon him, and that he should have preferred his apathy to their eagerness.
"I wish he had worn his yellow beaver hat in the pulpit," Braile went on. "It must have been a disappointment to Abe Reverdy, but perhaps he consoled himself with a full sight of the fellow's long hair. He ought to part it in the middle, like Thomas Jefferson, and do it up in a knot like a woman. Well, we can't have everything, even in a man of God; but maybe he isn't really a man of God. That would account for a good many things. But I think he shows taste in preferring old Gillespie to Peter Hingston; next to Abe Reverdy he's the biggest fool in Leatherwood. Maybe the prophet knew by instinct that there would be better fried chicken at Gillespie's."
His wife disdained to make a direct answer. "You may be sure they give him of their best, whatever it is. And the Gillespies may be poor, but when it comes to respectability and good works they've got a right to hold their heads up with the best in this settlement. That girl has done all the work of the house since her mother died, when she wasn't a little thing half grown; and old David has slaved off his mortgage till his farm's free and clear; and he don't owe anybody a cent."
"Oh, I don't say anything against Gillespie; all I say is that Brother
Dylks knows which side his bread is buttered on; inspired, probably."
"What makes you so bitter, to-night, Matthew?" his wife halted him a little, with her question.
"Well, the Temple always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I hate to see brethren agreeing together in unity. You oughtn't to have taken me, Martha."
"I'll never take you again!" she said.
"And that man's a rascal, if ever there was one. Real men of God don't wear their hair down to their waists and come snorting and shouting in black broadcloth to a settlement like this for the good of folks' souls."
"You've got no right to say that, Matthew. And if you go round talking that way you'll make yourself more unpopular than you are already."
"Oh, I'll be careful, Martha. I'll just think it, and perhaps put two or three of the leading intellects like Abe and Sally on their guard. But come, come, Martha! You know as well as I do, he's a rascal. Don't you believe it?"
"I believe in giving everybody a chance. Don't your own law books say a man's innocent till he's proved guilty?"
"Something like that. And I'm not trying Brother Dylks in open court at present. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt if he's ever brought before my judgment seat. But you've got to allow that his long hair and black broadcloth and his snort and shout are against him."
"I don't believe in them any more than you do," she owned. "But don't you persecute him because he's religious, Matthew."
"Oh, I don't object to him because he's religious, though I think there's more religion in Leatherwood already than any ten towns would know what to do with. He's got to do more than preach his brand of religion before I'd want to trouble him."
They were at the hewn log which formed the step to the porch between the rooms of their cabin. A lank hound rose from the floor, and pulled himself back from his forward-planted paws, and whimpered a welcome to them; a captive coon rattled his chain from his corner under the porch roof.
"Why don't you let that poor thing go, Matthew?" Mrs. Braile asked.
"Well, I will, some day. But the little chap that brought it to me was like our—"
He stopped; both were thinking the same thing and knew they were. "I saw the likeness from the first, too," the wife said.