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THE chapel of St. Spitz was crowded that fine Sunday morning, and the clang and thud of its bells came merrily through. the thin quick air to worshippers arriving in their luxurious motors. The amiable oddity of the lay reader's demeanour as priest had added a zest to churchgoing. The congregation were particularly pleased, on this occasion, to see Gissing appear in surplice and stole. They had felt that his attire on the previous Sundays had been a little too informal. And when, at the time usually allotted to the sermon, Gissing climbed the pulpit steps, unfurled a sheaf of manuscript, and gazed solemnly about, they settled back into the pew cushions in a comfortable, receptive mood. They had a subconscious feeling that if their souls were to be saved, it was better to have it done with all the proper formalities. They did not notice that he was rather pale, and that his nose twitched nervously.
"My friends," he said, "in this beautiful little chapel, on this airy hilltop, one might, if anywhere, speak with complete honesty. For you who gather here for worship are, in the main, people of great affairs; accustomed to looking at life with high spirit and with quick imagination. I will ask you then to be patient with me while I exhort you to carry into your religion the same enterprising and ambitious gusto that has made your worldly careers a success. You are accustomed to deal with great affairs. Let me talk to you about the Great Affairs of God."
Gissing had been far too agitated to be able to recognize any particular members of his audience. All the faces were fused into a common blur. Miss Airedale, he knew, was in the organ loft, but he had not seen her since his flight from Atlantic City, for he had removed from the Airedale mansion before her return, and had made himself a bed in the corner of the vestry-room. He feared she was angry: there had been a vigorous growling note in some of the bass pipes of the organ as she played the opening hymn. He had not seen a tall white-haired figure who came into the chapel rather late, after the service had begun, and took a seat at the back. Bishop Borzoi had seized the opportunity to drive out to Dalmatian Heights this morning to see how his protégé was getting on. When the Bishop saw his lay reader appear in surplice and scarlet hood, he was startled. But when the amateur parson actually ascended the pulpit, the Bishop's face was a study. The hair on the back of his neck bristled slightly.
"It is so easy," Gissing continued, "to let life go by us in its swift amusing course, that sometimes it hardly seems worth while to attempt any bold strokes for truth. Truth, of course, does not need our assistance; it can afford to ignore our errors. But in this quiet place, among the whisper of the trees, I seem to have heard a disconcerting sound. I have heard laughter, and I think it is the laughter of God."
The congregation stirred a little, with polite uneasiness. This was not quite the sort of thing to which they were accustomed.
"Why should God laugh? I think it is because He sees that very often, when we pretend to be worshipping Him, we are really worshipping and gratifying ourselves. I used the phrase `Great Affairs.' The point I want to make is that God deals with far greater affairs than we have realized. We have imagined Him on too petty a scale. If God is so great, we must approach Him in a spirit of greatness. He is not interested in trivialities — trivialities of ritual, of creed, of ceremony. We have imagined a vain thing — a God of our own species; merely adding to the conception, to gild and consecrate, a futile fuzbuz of supernaturalism. My friends, the God I imagine is something more than a formula on Sundays and an oath during the week."
Those sitting in the rear of the Chapel were startled to hear a low rumbling sound proceeding from the diaphragm of the Bishop, who half rose from his seat and then, by a great effort of will, contained himself. But Gissing, rapt in his honourable speculations, continued with growing happiness.
"I ask you, though probably in vain, to lay aside for the moment your inherited timidities and conventions. I ask you to lay aside pride, which is the devil itself and the cause of most unhappiness. I ask you to rise to the height of a great conception. To 'magnify' God is a common phrase in our observances. Then let us truly magnify Him — not minify, as the theologians do. If God is anything more than a social fetich, then He must be so much more that He includes and explains everything. It may sound inconceivable to you, it may sound sacrilegious, but I suggest to you that it is even possible God may be a biped —"
The Bishop could restrain himself no longer. He rose with flaming eyes and stood in the aisle. Mr. Airedale, Mr. Doberman-Pinscher, and several other prominent members of the Church burst into threatening growls. A wild bark and clamour broke from Mr. Towser, the Sunday School superintendent, and his pupils, who sat in the little gallery over the door. And then, to Gissing's horror and amazement, Mr. Poodle appeared from behind a pillar where he had been chafing unseen. In a fierce tenor voice shaken with indignation he cried:
"Heretic and hypocrite! Pay no attention to his abominable nonsense! He deserted his family to lead a life of pleasure!"
"Seize him!" cried the Bishop in a voice of thunder.
The church was now in an uproar. A shrill yapping sounded among the choir. Mrs. Airedale swooned; the Bishop's progress up the aisle was impeded by a number of ladies hastening for an exit. Old Mr. Dingo, the sexton, seized the bell-rope in the porch and set up a furious pealing. Cries of rage mingled with hysterical howls from the ladies. Gissing, trembling with horror, surveyed the atrocious hubbub. But it was high time to move, or his retreat would be cut off. He abandoned his manuscript and bounded down the pulpit stairs.
"Unfrock him!" yelled Mr. Poodle.
"He's never been frocked!" roared the Bishop. "Impostor!" cried Mr. Airedale. "Excommunicate him!" screamed Mr. Towser. "Take him before the consistory!" shouted Mr. Poodle.
Gissing started toward the vestry door, but was delayed by the mass of scuffing choir-puppies who had seized this uncomprehended diversion as a chance to settle some scores of their own. The clamour was maddening. The Bishop leapt the chancel rail and was about to seize him when Miss Airedale, loyal to the last, interposed. She flung herself upon the Bishop.
"Run, run!" she cried. "They'll kill you!"
Gissing profited by this assistance. He pushed over the lectern upon Mr. Poodle, who was clutching at his surplice. He checked Mr. Airedale by hurling little Tommy Bull, one of the choir, bodily at him. Tommy's teeth fastened automatically upon Mr. Airedale's ear. The surplice, which Mr. Poodle was still holding, parted with a rip, and Gissing was free. With a yell of defiance he tore through the vestry and round behind the chapel.
He could not help pausing a moment to scan the amazing scene, which had been all Sabbath calm a few moments before. From the long line of motor cars parked outside the chapel incredible chauffeurs were leaping, hurrying to see what had happened. The shady grove shook with the hideous clamour of the bell, still wildly tolled by the frantic sexton. Then sudden excitement had liberated private quarrels long decently repressed: in the porch Mrs. Retriever and Mrs. Doberman-Pinscher were locked in combat.
With a splintering crash one of the choir-pups came sailing through a stained-glass window, evidently thrown by some infuriated adult. He recognized the voice of Mr. Towser, raised in vigorous lamentation. To judge by the sound, Mr. Towser's pupils had turned upon him and were giving him a bad time. Above all he could hear the clear war-cry of Miss Airedale and the embittered yells of Mr. Poodle. Then from the quaking edifice burst Bishop Borzoi, foaming with wrath, his clothes much tattered, and followed by Mr. Poodle, Mr. Airedale, and several others. They cast about for a moment, and then the Bishop saw him. With a joint halloo they launched toward him.
There was no time to lose. He fled down the shady path between the trees, but with a hopeless horror in his heart. He could not long outdistance such a runner as the Bishop, whose tremendous strides would surely overhaul him in the end. If only he had known how to drive a car, he might have commandeered one of the long row waiting by the gate. But he was no motorist. Miss Airedale could have saved him, in her racing roadster, but she had not emerged from the melee in the chapel. Perhaps the Bishop had bitten her. His blood warmed with anger.
It happened that they had been mending the county highways, and a large steam roller stood a few hundred feet down the road, drawn up beside the ditch. Gissing knew that it was customary to leave these engines with the fire banked and a gentle pressure of steam simmering in the boiler. It was his only chance, and he seized it. But to his dismay, when he reached the machine, which lay just round a bend in the road, he found it shrouded with a huge tarpaulin. However, this suggested a desperate chance. He whipped nimbly inside the covering and hid in the coal-box. Lying there, he heard the chase go panting by.
As soon as he dared, he climbed out, stripped off the canvas, and gazed at the bulky engine. It was one of those very tall and impressive rollers with a canopy over the top. The machinery was not complicated, and the ingenuity of desperation spurred him on. Hurriedly he opened the draughts in the fire-box, shook up the coals, and saw the needle begin to quiver on the pressure-gauge. He experimented with one or two levers and handles. The first one he touched let off a loud scream from the whistle. Then he discovered the throttle. He opened it a few notches, cautiously. The ponderous machine, with a horrible clanking and grinding, began to move forward.
A steam roller gay seem the least helpful of all vehicles in which to conduct an urgent flight; but Gissing's reasoning was sound. In the first place, no one would expect to find a hunted fugitive in this lumbering, sluggish behemoth of the road. Secondly, sitting perched high up in the driving saddle, right under the canopy, he was not easily seen by the casual passer-by. And thirdly, if the pursuit came to close grips, he was still in a strategic position. For this, the most versatile of all land-machines except the military tank, can move across fields, crash through underbrush, and travel in a hundred places that would stall a motor car. He rumbled off down the road somewhat exhilarated. He found the scarlet stole twisted round his neck, and tied it to one of the stanchions of the canopy as a flag of defiance.
It was not long before he saw the posse of pursuit returning along the road, very hot and angry. He crunched along solemnly, busying himself to get up a strong head of steam. There they were, the Bishop, Mr. Poodle, Mr. Airedale, Mr. Dobermann-Pinscher, and Mr. Towser. Mr. Poodle was talking excitedly: the Bishop's tongue ran in and out over his gleaming teeth. He was not saying much, but his manner was full of deadly wrath. They paid no attention to the roller, and were about to pass it without even looking up, when Gissing, in a sudden fit of indignation, gave the wheel a quick twirl and turned his clumsy engine upon them. They escaped only by a hair's breadth from being flattened out like pastry. Then the Bishop, looking up, recognized the renegade. With a cry of anger they all leaped at the roller.
But he was so high above them, they had no chance. He seized the coal-scoop and whanged Mr. Poodle across the skull. The Bishop came dangerously near reaching him, but Gissing released a jet of scalding steam from an exhaust-cock, which gave the impetuous prelate much cause for grief. A lump of coal, accurately thrown, discouraged Mr. Airedale. Mr. Towser, attacking on the other side of "the engine, managed to scramble up so high that he carried away the embroidered stole, but otherwise the fugitive had all the best of it. Mr. Dobermann-Pinscher burned his feet trying to climb up the side of the boiler. From the summit of his uncouth vehicle Gissing looked down undismayed.
"Miserable freethinker!" said Borzoi. "You shall be tried by the assembly of bishops."
"In a mere lay reader," quoted Gissing, "a slight laxity is allowable. You had better go back and calm down the congregation, or they'll tear the chapel to bits. This kind of thing will have a very bad influence on church discipline."
They shouted additional menace, but Gissing had already started his deafening machinery and could not hear what was said. He left them bickering by the roadside.
For fear of further pursuit, he turned off the highway a little beyond, and rumbled noisily down a rustic lane between high banks and hedges where sumac was turning red. Strangely enough, there was something very comforting about his enormous crawling contraption. It was docile and reliable, like an elephant. The crashing clangour of its movement was soon forgotten — became, in fact, an actual stimulus to thought. For the mere pleasure of novelty, he steered through a copse, and took joy in seeing the monster thrash its way through thickets and brambles, and then across a field of crackling stubble. Steering toward the lonelier regions of that farming country, presently he halted in a dingle of birches beside a small pond. He spent some time very happily, carefully studying the machinery. He found some waste and an oilcan in the tool-chest, and polished until the metal shone. The water looked rather low in the gauge, and he replenished it from the pool.
It was while grooming the roller that it struck him his own appearance was unusual for a highway mechanic. He was still wearing the famous floorwalker suit, which he had punctiliously donned every Sunday for chapel. But he had had to flee without a hat — even without his luggage, which was neatly packed in a bag in the vestry. That, he felt sure, Mr. Poodle had already burst open for evidences of heresy and schism. The pearly trousers were stained with oil and coal-dust; the neat cutaway coat bore smears of engine-grease. As long as he stuck to the roller and the telltale garments, pursuit and identification would of course be easy enough. But he had taken a fancy to the machine: he decided not to abandon it yet.
Obviously it was better to keep to the roads, where the engine would at any rate be less surprisingly conspicuous, and where it would leave no trail. So he made a long circuit across meadows and pastures, carrying a devilish clamour into the quiet Sunday afternoon. Regaining a macadam surface, he set off at random, causing considerable annoyance to the motoring public. Finding that his cutaway coat caused jeers and merriment, he removed it; and when any one showed a disposition to inquire, he explained that he was doing penance for an ill-judged wager. His oscillating perch above the boiler was extraordinarily warm, and he bought a gallon jug of cider from a farmer by the way. Cheering himself with this, and reviewing in his mind the queer experiences of the past months, he went thundering mildly on.
At first he had feared a furious pursuit on the part of the Bishop, or even a whole college of bishops, quickly mobilized for the event. He had imagined them speeding after him in a huge motor-bus, and himself keeping them at bay with lumps of coal. But gradually he realized that the Bishop would not further jeopardize his dignity, or run the risk of making himself ridiculous. Mr. Poodle would undoubtedly set the township road commissioner on his trail, and he would be liable to seizure for the theft of a steam roller. But that could hardly happen so quickly. In the meantime, a plan had been forming in his mind, but it would require darkness for its execution.
Darkness did not delay in coming. As he jolted cheerfully from road to road, holding up long strings of motors at every corner while he jovially held out his arm as a sign that he was going to turn, dark purple clouds were massing and piling up. Foreseeing a storm, he bought some provisions at a roadhouse, and turned into a field, where he camped in the lee of a forest of birches. He cooked himself an excellent supper, toasting bread and frankfurters in the firebox of the roller. With boiling water from a steam-cock he brewed a panikin of tea; and sat placidly admiring the fawn-pink light on wide pampas of bronze grasses, tawny as a panther's hide. A strong wind began to draw from the southeast. He lit the lantern at the rear of the machine and by the time the rain came hissing upon the hot boiler, he was ready. Luckily he had saved the tarpaulin. He spread this on the ground underneath the roller, and curled up in it. The glow from the firebox kept him warm and dry.
"Summer is over," he said to himself, as he heard the clash and spouting of rain all about him. He lay for some time, not sleepy, thinking theology, and enjoying the close tumult of wind and weather.
People who have had an arm or a leg amputated, he reflected, say they can still feel pains in the absent member. Well, there's an analogy in that. Modern skepticism has amputated God from the heart; but there is still a twinge where the arteries were sewn up.
He slept peacefully until about two in the morning, except when a red-hot coal, slipping through the grate-bars, burned a lamentable hole in his trousers. When he woke, the night still dripped, but was clear aloft. He started the engine and drove cautiously, along black slippery roads, to Mr. Poodle's house. In spite of the unavoidable racket, no one stirred: he surmised that the curate slept soundly after the crises of the day. He left the engine by the doorstep, pinning a note to the steering-wheel. It said:
REV. J. ROVER POODLE
this useful steam-roller
as a symbol of the theological mind