Read CHAPTER XVIII of The Devil's Garden, free online book, by W. B. Maxwell, on ReadCentral.com.

On the evening of the next Sunday Dale was quietly going out of the house when Mavis offered to accompany him.

“Off for a stroll, Will? If you can wait ten minutes, I’ll come with you.”

But he excused himself from waiting, and further confessed that he preferred to be alone. He said he was in a thoughtful rather than a talkative mood to-night.

“You understand, old girl?”

“Yes, dear, I understand. You want to put on your considering cap about something.”

“That’s just it, Mav. The considering cap. Ta-ta.”

Outside in the roadway Mr. Creech, a farmer, hindered him for a few minutes. Between him and Mr. Creech there were certain business arrangements now under negotiation, and it was impossible to avoid speaking of them. Dale, however, cut their chat as short as possible, and directly he had shaken off Mr. Creech he walked away briskly toward Rodchurch.

He had intended to arrive at the Baptist Chapel before the evening service began, but now he was late. The congregation were all on their knees, and the pastor, standing in his desk or pulpit above a raised platform, had begun to pray aloud. Dale paused just inside the door, looking at his strange surroundings, and feeling the awkwardness of a person who enters a place that he has never seen before, and finds himself among a lot of people who have their own customs and usages, all of which are unknown to him. Then he noticed that a man was smiling at him and beckoning, and he bowed gravely and followed the hand. He was led up the little building to some empty chairs on a level with the platform, at right angles to the rows of benches, and close to a harmonium. Mr. Osborn, the pastor, had stopped praying, and he did not go on again until Dale was seated. No one else had looked up or seemed to be aware of the interruption caused by his entrance.

He assumed a duly reverent attitude, not kneeling, but bending his body forward, and observed everything with great interest. There were many differences between the arrangements of this chapel and those of an ordinary church. The absence of an altar struck him as very remarkable. The large platform, with its balustrade and central perch, seemed to be altar, pulpit, and lectern all rolled into one and choir too, since it was occupied by several men and a dozen girls and young women, who were all now on their knees while Mr. Osborn, looking very odd in purely civilian clothes, prayed loudly over their heads.

He glanced at the high bare walls and narrow windows, and observed that, except for some stenciled texts, there was not the slightest attempt at decoration. Outside, the light was rapidly waning, and inside the building the general tone had a grayness and dimness that obliterated all the bright colors of the girls’ dresses and hats. The circumstance that not a single face was visible produced a curious impression on one’s mind. It made Dale feel for a moment as though he were improperly prying, behind people’s backs, at matters that did not in the least concern him; and next moment he thought that all the gray stooping forms were exactly like those of ghosts. Then, in another moment, noticing with what rigid immobility they held themselves, he thought of them as being dead and waiting for some tremendous signal that should bring them to life again.

“Now,” said Mr. Osborn, “let us praise God by singing the hundred and twenty-sixth hymn.”

Then all the faces showed. It was like a flash of pallid light running to and fro along the benches as everybody changed the kneeling to the sitting posture; and Dale immediately felt that he had been placed in an uncomfortably conspicuous position. Far from being situated so that he could pry on the private affairs of others, he was where everybody could study him. He was alone, opposite to the entire crowd, instead of being comfortably absorbed in its mass.

“Oh, thank you. Much obliged.”

Mr. Osborn, speaking from the pulpit, had said something to one of his young women, and she was leaning over the balustrade, smilingly offering Dale an open hymn-book.

“I am afraid,” she said, “that it’s very small print; but I dare say you have good eyes.”

She spoke in the most friendly natural manner, exactly as one speaks to a visitor when one is anxious to make him feel welcome and at home. Dale, startled by this style of address in such a place, made a dignified bow.

“Give him this,” said Mr. Osborn, handing a book out of the pulpit. “It’s a larger character ’long primer,’ as I believe the printers call it. We’ll have the lamps directly; but we are all of us rather partial to blind man’s holiday not to mention that oil is oil, and that Brother Spiers doesn’t give it away. We know he couldn’t afford to do that. But there it is Take care of the pence.”

To Dale’s astonishment, he heard a distinct chuckle here and there among the congregation. Then the same young woman, having found the correct page, handed him the large-type book. Then the man at the harmonium struck up, and the whole congregation burst into song.

They sang with a fervent strength that he had never heard equaled. For a moment the powerful chorus seemed to shake the walls, to fill every cubic foot of air that the building contained, and then to go straight up, splitting the ugly roof, and out into the sky. Otherwise this hymn would have left one no space to breathe in. Dale felt a sudden rush of blood to the head, as if the pressure of vocal sound were about to produce suffocation; and at the same time he had the fantastic but almost irresistible idea that the whole congregation were singing solely at him, that they and their pastor had together planned to set him alone in this high place where he must bear the full brunt of the hymn while they all watched its effect upon him, and that the hymn itself had been specially and artfully chosen with a view to him and to nobody else.

“Hail, sov’reign love, that first began
The scheme to rescue fallen man!
Hail, matchless, free, eternal grace,
That gave my soul a hiding-place.”

With his face turned as much as possible from the singers, he stood very stiff and erect, staring at the printed page. Loudly as they had sung the first verse they seemed to sing the second verse more loudly.

“Against the God that rules the sky,
I fought with hand uplifted high;
Despised His rich abounding grace,
Too proud to seek a hiding-place.”

Dale braced himself, squared his shoulders and stood more erect than ever as they struck into the third verse.

They sang louder than before: it seemed to him that they were screaming.

“But thus th’ eternal counsel ran,
Almighty love, arrest that man!’”

Dale closed the hymn-book, held it behind his back, and stared at the cross-beams of the roof until the hymn was over.

After the hymn Mr. Osborn read a couple of chapters from the Bible, and Dale, seated again, understood how utterly unfounded had been his recent notion that these people were devoting any particular attention to him. He looked at them carefully. Obviously they had not a thought of him. The eyes of those near to him and far from him were alike fixed upon the pastor’s face.

But as soon as they sang again he experienced the same sensations again, felt a conviction that the hymn was aimed directly at him.

“Lord, when Thy Spirit deigns to show
The badness of our hearts,
Astonished at the amazing view,
The Soul with horror starts.

“Our staggering faith gives way to doubt,
Our courage yields to fear;
Shocked at the sight, we straight cry out,
‘Can ever God dwell here?’

“None less than God’s Almighty Son
Can move such loads of sin;
The water from his side must run,
To wash this dungeon clean.”

“Now, I think,” said Mr. Osborn, “it is fairly lighting-up time, and that no one can accuse us of being extravagant if we call for the match-boxes. Brother Maghull, please get to work. And, yes, you too, Brother Hartley, if you will. You’re always a dab at regulating them.”

Then the lamps were lighted; two or three men going round to do the work, the congregation generally assisting as much as they were able, while the pastor, watching all operations, made genial comments.

“Thank you. Now we begin to see who’s who, and what’s what. I say, that’s on the smoke, isn’t it? I seem to smell something, or is it imagination? If the wicks are as badly trimmed as they were three Sundays ago, I shall be tempted to copy the procedure of the House of Commons, and name a member.” Then he smiled. “Yes, I shall name a certain young sister who must have turned clumsy-fingered because she was thinking of her fal-lals and her chignon, or her new hat, when she ought to have been thinking of her duty to our lamps.”

A ripple of gentle laughter, like a lightly dancing wave on a deep calm sea, passed from the platform to the outer door; the lamplighters went back to their seats; and the pastor with a change of voice said solemnly: “Friends, let us pray.”

Dale observed his manner of holding his hand to his forehead as if seeking inspiration, the almost spasmodic movements of his mouth, the sort of plaintive groan that started the prayer, and the steadily accumulating earnestness with which it went on.

“O merciful and divine Father, supreme and omnipotent lord of Thy created universe, vouchsafe unto this little knot of Thy lowly creatures ...”

It was a long prayer; and Dale, surmising it to be an extempore composition, admired Mr. Osborn’s flow of language, command of erudite words, and success in bringing some very intricate sentences to an appropriate period.

During the sermon Mr. Osborn several times aroused laughter by little homely jokes coming unexpectedly in the midst of his serious discourse; but Dale no longer felt surprise. He thought that he had caught their point of view, got the hang of the main scheme. These people were genuine believers, and entirely free from any affectation or pretense. They possessed no church-manner: thus, when they spoke to one another here, they did so as naturally as when they were speaking in the fields or on the highroads. Only when they spoke to God, could you hear the vibration and the thrill, the effort and the strain.

And all at once his own self-consciousness vanished. He felt comfortable, quite at ease, and extraordinarily glad that he had dedicated an hour to the purpose of coming here.

The lamplight enormously improved the appearance of the chapel; the genial yellow glow was surrounded by fine dark shadows that draped the ugly walls as if with soft curtains; there were golden glittering bands on the roof beams, and above them all had become black, impenetrable, mysterious. When one glanced up one might have had the night sky over one’s head, for all one could see of the roof. The light shone bright on crooked backs, slightly distorted limbs, the pallor of sickness, the stains of rough weather; on girls meekly folding hands that daily scrub and scour; on laboring men stooping the shoulders that habitually carry weights; on spectacled old women with eyes worn out by incessantly peering at the tiny stitches of their untiring needles; but one would have looked in vain for any types even approximately similar to the stalwart well-balanced youths, the smooth-cheeked game-playing maidens, the prosperously healthful fathers and mothers of the established faith. Dale did not look for them, did not miss them, would not have wished them here.

It might be said that there was not a single person of the whole gathering on whom there was not plainly printed, in one shape or another, the stamp of toil. That fact perhaps formed the root of the difference between this and a Church of England congregation. To Dale’s mind, however, there was something else of a saliently differentiating character. Once again he was struck by the expression of all the faces. He thought how calm, how trustful, how quietly joyous these people must be feeling, in order to shine back at the lamps as steadily and clearly as the lamps were shining on them.

“Friends, let us praise God by singing the hundred and tenth hymn before we separate.”

They all rose and began to sing their final song; and Dale observed that here and there, as the loud chorus swelled and flowed, singers would sink down upon their knees as though of a sudden impelled to silence and prayer.

“There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.

“The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, as vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.”

Dale abruptly sat down, leaned forward, and then knelt upon the boarded floor, hiding his face in his hands. He did not get up until the pastor had given the blessing and the people were moving out.