Read CHAPTER II - THE HOUSE OF GRAY of The First Soprano, free online book, by Mary Hitchcock, on ReadCentral.com.

The family gathered for dinner with its usual decorum. Winifred sat opposite the young minister, and Hubert was beside him. Mr. Robert Gray carved the turkey with his usual skill and the sharpest of knives. He began his anticipated discussion with the preacher:

“Your sermon fitted pretty closely to-day, Mr. Bond,” he said, as he separated a joint successfully.

“Did it really?” said Mr. Bond, with a smile that lit up a singularly pleasant face. “I am glad to hear it. That is what sermons are for, I believe?”

“Just so,” said Mr. Gray, and he added with a little chuckle of enjoyment, “I like it I like it. We need it, I assure you. There is no question about that. Why, Winnie, not a bit of the fowl? You are losing your appetite, child. Yes, sir, we need to be stirred up. If there is anything I believe in, it is sincerity. But now, don’t you think, Mr. Bond, that you put it just a little grain too stiff?”

“In what way, Mr. Gray?”

“Well, now, I say the Apostles’ Creed. I know it by heart. I don’t know how many hundreds of times I have said it. It says itself. Perhaps that is why I don’t always stop to think what it does say. But I do not suppose there is a word in it that I do not believe. Now if my mind happens to wander while I am, saying it if it happens, mind you ”

“Father, Julia is waiting for Mr. Bond’s plate,” interposed Mrs. Gray softly from the other end of the table.

“I beg your pardon.” Then, as the delinquent plate went to its destination, “If my mind happens to wander to some little matter of business, or something or other, while I say the Creed am I a hypocrite?”

The merchant propounded the question with a note of triumph, as though the bold-spoken minister were rather cornered now. Mr. Bond answered respectfully, but with subdued amusement:

“I think, Mr. Gray, that the Lord would recognize the absence of insincere intent, but that so far as worship goes, you might as well set some Tibetan prayer-wheels going.”

A gleam of enjoyment shot from Hubert’s eyes, and a laugh almost escaped him.

“Ah, just so just so!” said Mr. Gray, a little discomfited. “But would it be better not to say it?”

“It would be better to mean it,” said Mr. Bond.

“He parries well,” thought Hubert.

“Winifred,” said Mrs. Gray, off whose smooth nature these discussions rolled harmlessly, “the music was very fine this morning.”

Winifred, who would have preferred almost any subject to this, cast an appealing glance at her mother, but it was unheeded. She had hoped Mr. Bond would not recognize her as the singer.

Mrs. Gray went on: “Mrs. Butterworth, who sits just the other side of the partition from us, you know, was quite carried away. She looked volumes at me, but she just whispered ‘heavenly!’ She said after church she hoped you would come to her party next week and bring your songs. You have such a gift, she said.”

And Mrs. Gray herself sighed religiously at the thought of Winnie’s “gift.” Winnie could have sighed, too, but it was with torture.

Mrs. Gray was a comfortable lady, absorbed in the quiet machinery of a conventionally proper life. She loved her family, her church, and a moderate amount of society. She loved things. Quiet satisfaction beamed from the gentle eyes on the choice silver of the dining-room, on her blue antique china, on the costly, tasteful accessories of the drawing-room, and, indeed, on all the well chosen appointments of the quietly elegant home. Interest in her own person and its adornment had been gradually diverted toward Winifred, whose beauty, grace of manner, and accomplishments, were an unfailing joy. Now she sighed in quiet gratitude to the vague deity known as Providence for Winifred’s peculiarly sweet gift. As to the sermon of the morning, she was one of those hearers in whose mind a sermon and its application do not necessarily go together.

Winifred felt two pairs of eyes upon her from across the table as her mother talked to her in a voice not intended to interrupt the gentlemen in their conversation. There were Hubert’s eyes of darker brown than her own and very searching, and the preacher’s blue eyes that looked inquiringly through rimless eye-glasses. She could think of no answer to her mother, and so bent her eyes silently upon her plate, while a flush rose to her temples. Mrs. Butterworth’s rapturous “heavenly” was in strong contrast to the conviction of godless insincerity which filled her own heart.

Mercifully to her embarrassment her father began again:

“But do you not think, Mr. Bond, that we must take things as they are? Granted that there is a great deal of unreality in the church, what are we going to do about it? Can one man who sees the point work a revolution in the whole church? Must we not just take conditions as they are and make the best of them?”

“Perhaps we may not hope to revolutionize a whole church,” replied Mr. Bond, “but,” and his face grew stern with an expression that told of a battlefield already fought for and won, “he may refuse to add one unit to the aggregation of untrue worshipers, or to uphold an organized system of unreality. I sometimes fear, Mr. Gray,” and there was a ring of sadness in his voice, “that we too readily take conditions as they are, and make the worst of them!”

“Yes, I am afraid you are right you are right,” said the merchant slowly. Then he added, “but so far you have given us only a negative remedy. My son here could go so far with you. He washes his hands of the whole matter.”

Mr. Bond turned to Hubert inquiringly.

“Really?” he questioned.

“Yes,” said Hubert, thus thrust unwillingly into the discussion, “I am no worshiper at all.”

“And may I ask why?” queried Mr. Bond.

“Your book says that whoever comes to God must believe that He is, and that He rewards those who seek Him. I am not sure of either proposition, and so I do not pretend to come to Him.”

The frank eyes looked through the eyeglasses pleasantly. “Are you sure of the contrary?” he asked.

“No,” said Hubert honestly.

“Admitting the supposition that He is, and is a rewarder of them that seek Him, does it cover the ground of responsibility to ignore Him because you are not sure?”

“Perhaps not,” said Hubert. “But,” he added doggedly, “if He is, and wishes to be known and worshiped, He ought to be demonstrable.”

Mrs. Gray looked a little frightened. She never liked to hear Hubert talk about those things, and it was so mortifying to have him take such a stand against the church and everything everybody at least most respectable people believed. She was sure he was saying something dreadful now. Mr. Gray looked apprehensive, too. Winifred’s self-revelation of the morning made her feel like casting no stones at her brother.

Mr. Bond looked at Hubert mildly.

“I think you are quite right,” he said.

Here the discussion seemed to end. Hubert could make no reply to the man who agreed with him. An instinct to fight for his position had sprung up, but he was disarmed by Mr. Bond’s assent to his proposition. He was not accustomed to being met like that. His father’s loyal policy had been to protect his household from infidel talk, and he had not taken too much pains to ascertain his son’s point of view, and if possible, to lead him from it into light. Hubert had found some Christian people ready to argue with him who would admit no position he held, however logical, believing that every arrow from the sceptic’s quiver must be a poisoned one. He withdrew in bitterness from such encounters. To-day Mr. Bond’s honest sympathy with his outspoken conviction found a sensitive chord in the young man’s stout-seeming heart.

Conversation drifted to lesser things until the ample meal was finished, and the little company broke up. Mr. Gray was sure his guest would wish a little rest and quiet in preparation for the evening service, which assurance happily freed himself for the usual nap which his soul coveted after the Sunday early dinner. Mrs. Gray departed for her own pretty room, her dainty dressing gown, silk draperies, and gentle doze. Winifred went to her room to resume the battle that was on, Hubert betook himself to his accustomed walk.

Walking down the avenue graced by his own home, Hubert glanced across the street and saw, to his regret, the handsome figure and airy step of George Frothingham. He hoped that gentleman did not see him, for he disliked him and did not wish to be bored by a conversation. Hubert disliked Frothingham on two separate counts: first, because he was not the sterling quality of man Hubert thought he ought to be, and secondly because, being such a man as he was, he still dared raise his miserable eyes toward Winifred. More than any other object in the world Hubert loved his sister, and his grief was very hot and sore when it became apparent that she and George were “as good as engaged,” as all their circle of friends affirmed. They were not actually so, the “George” and “Winifred” terms resulting from an acquaintance since childhood, and had Hubert been a praying man he would have prayed that such a consummation might never occur. He voiced his sentiments unmistakably to Winifred, but on this point they could not agree.

“It is one of your unreasonable dislikes,” she said, and so they came perilously near a serious difference.

“He isn’t genuine he isn’t manly,” said Hubert, “there is nothing to him. His name ought to have stopped with the first syllable.”

Winifred had looked her indignation, and mourned that Hubert could not see the charming qualities that made Frothingham popular with many.

Hubert’s wish that the young man should not see him was unrealized, and he was speedily joined by him.

“Hello, Gray,” said Mr. Frothingham, affably. He was always affable to Hubert for obvious reasons. “I wonder if you are going to hear the Reverend Professor Cutting’s lecture on the Higher Criticism? That’s rather in your line, isn’t it? You know they have found that a good lot of the Bible is all rot.”

“I think they are a pack of asses,” said Hubert, savagely, his opinions accentuated by dislike of his questioner. “Indeed I am not going.”

“Whew-w! You surprise me, Hubert. I thought you were a bit of a sceptic yourself?”

“So I am, but I am not proud of the fact. My doubts are quite enough for my own enjoyment without listening to Prof. Cutting’s unbeliefs.”

“But you know he talks from the Christian standpoint. He is not an unbeliever.”

“Isn’t he! That’s just what I object to in those men. If they would confess themselves companions of the sceptical writers whom I have read and speak from a Free Thinkers’ platform, I would have some respect for them. What do they believe that they did not? They respected the life and teachings of Jesus, but did not believe in His inerrant knowledge nor assumption of divinity. I do not see how any man can claim to be a Christian and not believe that what Jesus claimed for Himself was true. If not true, He was either a deluded man and so unfit to lead others into absolute truth, or He was a liar and morally unfit to teach. I wonder that these men can’t see through a ladder, for all their learned research.”

“You are pretty hard on them, Hubert.”

“I am saying the simple truth. I tell you I have no respect for those men. To profess to be Christians and from within the fort batter down its fortifications isn’t honest.”

“That’s right,” said Frothingham, who, having no certain convictions of his own, was prepared to enjoy a racy tirade from either side.

“So you are wrong, you see,” said Hubert, “in thinking Prof. Cutting’s lecture in my line. When I get ready to open a broadside against the Christian religion, I’ll not put on a ministerial coat and collar to do it in. You’d be shot in war if the enemy caught you in their clothes and you’d deserve it!”

“That’s right,” laughed George again. “Tell me when you are going to deliver your broadside.”

“It will not be very soon,” said Hubert. “I do not find such comfort in my doubts as to give me a missionary call to spread them.”

They came to a turn in the road and parted. Hubert had had a more animated conversation with his sister’s friend than he remembered ever to have had before. He strode on alone through the park whither his steps had taken him, still pursuing the same line of thought.

“No,” he reflected, “why should I seek to communicate my doubts? I never knew a man to be worse for believing in Jesus Christ. I believe some men have been better for it. Certainly I do not admire the company I am in.”

His mind reviewed a company such as would be called together by an infidel cause, and he recoiled from it. He saw socialist faces of the baser type, ready but for the occasion to blossom into anarchism; he saw clever women whose bold loosening of the yoke of conventional religion had relaxed also the hold of conventional morals, and he was glad Winifred was not among them; he saw the face of Doctor Bossman, the leader of the cause, tall, massive-browed, handsome, with bold, full, outstanding eyes, a man of defiant words, of jovial popularity, and egregiously self-centered. Into the young man’s mind, in contrast to the proud face, there flashed fragments of the words of the Nazarene: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children!” He saw other faces not so typical, and found himself seated amongst them, and abhorred the fraternity cemented by a common unbelief a cold negation. He was unhappy. He found no territory on which to stand. He hated the cant and formalism that chilled him in the fashionable church. He hated the insolent creed of the deist, and the ignorance of the agnostic. He seemed to be hating almost all things with himself included. If he had been sure there was a God who heard mortals pray, he would have cried to Him to deliver him from so wretched a position. But he roused himself from his reverie and sought to throw to the winds his unhappy feelings. He walked back to the house endeavoring to think of to-morrow’s business, and determining to give himself to an interesting book when he got there.

Winifred had a headache which was opportune. By it she excused herself from tea and from church that evening. Her father carried her apologies to the leader of the choir. Mr. Gray alone of the family listened to the evening discourse, and he listened well, for the young minister spoke again with truth and earnestness. The machinery of the meeting moved smoothly, and George Frothingham sang with much feeling, “If with all your hearts ye truly seek Him.”

In Winifred’s room the light burned late. The battle waged there saw many tears and the confirmation of the edict put forth in the morning service that the false god must be taken from its niche in the house of the Lord.

“I will not be a hypocrite,” Winifred said to herself. “I will not go through a theatrical display, however refined and solemn, and call it worship. I am no true worshiper.”

Then she burst into fresh tears, in which mingled grief that she was not a worshiper, and sorrow that she must leave an occupation and associations so dear. It seemed like taking out a good part of her life, for Winifred was young, and things loved were ardently loved.

There was one who contested the ground with her in her room that night, and told her she was no worse than others, that they were as thoughtless and insincere as she; that her course and theirs passed under the common sanction of churches everywhere, and that there was no reason why she should be singular amongst all others. Why should she be disturbed from the commonly accepted course by a single sermon preached by a stranger, and he a young man? Doctor Schoolman had never said such things. She might at least wait and talk it over with him or some wise person. He might be able to show her that God did not really care whether people quite meant what they said in singing, and that it was a meritorious thing, as she had always thought, to sing about Him to other people and to sing well. It might do people good. Some people had actually wept sometimes!

The last thought was very striking, for Winifred did not know well the Word which is able to discriminate between soul and spirit, and she mistook emotion for some sign of spirituality. These arguments pressed hard, and had in their favor the natural leaning of the heart that longed to go on with the loved employment. But there was another longing too, and it was to be honest. And underneath all was the true beginning of wisdom the fear of God.

“The minister told the truth,” she said. “And if everybody else goes on with the farce I will do as he said to father at dinner: ’refuse to add one unit to the aggregation of untrue worshipers.’ I’ll join Hubert outside of it all before I will go on!”

Then she wept afresh, for the vision of isolation “outside of it all” was too painful. The presence of God had grown awesome and the light of His eyes intolerable, but outside was darkness unbearable. She flung herself down beside the bed where many a time she had “said prayers” at night, and sobbed:

“O God, I am not a true worshiper, but I wish I were! I have drawn nigh to Thee with my lips while my heart was far from Thee. I have been a lie. Oh, make me true! make me true!”

After this outburst of prayer she was calmer, but remained silently upon her knees by the bedside. Gradually there came to her memory the substance of other words the minister had said;

“Into the presence and unto the very heart of God there is a blood-bought way opened by our blessed Christ for the most wicked one who wishes to take it.”

“Is there a way for me,” she prayed, “a way to come to Thee just as I am?” And the sound of her own words brought back the memory of the old song, familiar since her childhood:

“Just as I am without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come!”

“O God,” she cried, “I can sing that! I do come, just as I am I do come!”

A sweet sense of rest, such as she had never known, stole into Winifred’s heart. Some One seemed to be welcoming her with ineffable tenderness. She was not out in the dark, but was at home with God. The awful presence she had dreaded was infinitely sweet. At last she stood in the Holy Place, still foolish, weak, unworthy, but with the glory of Another’s name covering her as with priestly robes, and she worshiped.