THE SERMON THAT WAS NEVER PREACHED
A little party of men and women on bicycles were pushing their machines up the steep ascent which formed the one street of Feldwick village. It was a Sunday morning, and the place was curiously empty. Their little scraps of gay conversation and laughter—they were men and women of the smart world—seemed to strike almost a pagan note in a deep Sabbatical stillness. They passed the wide open doors of a red brick chapel, and several of the worshippers within turned their heads. As the last two of the party went by, the wheezings of a harmonium ceased, and a man’s voice came travelling out to them. The lady rested her hand upon her host’s arm. “Listen,” she whispered.
Her host, Lord of the Manor, Lord Lieutenant of the County, and tenth Earl of Cumberland, paused readily enough and leaned his machine against a kerbstone. Bicycling was by no means a favourite pursuit of his, and the morning for the time of year was warm.
“Dear lady,” he murmured, “shall we go a little nearer and listen to the words of grace? Anything for a short rest.”
She leaned her own bicycle against the wall. From where she was she could catch a sideway glimpse of a tall, slight figure standing up before the handful of people.
“I should like to go inside,” she said, indifferently. “Would they think it an intrusion?”
“Certainly not,” he answered, with visions of a chair before him. “As a matter of fact, I have a special invitation to become a member of that flock—temporarily, at any rate.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“The land here” he answered, “is not entailed, and they are very anxious to buy this little bit and own their chapel. I had a letter from a worthy farmer and elder, Gideon Strong, on the matter yesterday. He wound up by expressing a wish that I might join them in their service one morning. This is their service, and here we are. Come!”
They crossed the street, and, to the obvious amazement of the little congregation, stood in the doorway. A gaunt shepherd, with weather-marked face and knotted fingers, handed them clumsily a couple of chairs. Some of the small farmers rose and made a clumsy obeisance to their temporal lord. Gideon Strong, six feet four, with great unbent shoulders, and face as hard and rugged as iron, frowned them down, and showed no signs of noticing his presence. Elsewhere he would have been one of the first, proud man though he was, to stand bareheaded before the owner of his farm and half a county, but in the house of God, humble little building though it was, he reckoned all men equal.
Praying silently before them, on the eve of his first sermon, a young man was kneeling. He had seen nothing of these newcomers, but of a sudden as he knelt there, his thoughts and sensations in strange confusion, himself half in revolt against what lay before him, there floated up the little aisle an exquisite perfume of crushed violets, and he heard the soft rustling of a gown which was surely worn by none of those who were gathered together to listen to him. He opened his eyes involuntarily, and met the steady gaze of the lady whose whim it had been to enter the place.