“They say that if you don’t go down, they will come up.”
“Who says?” was the stern query.
“The Second Reader and the Secretary. I think you had better see them; they both look worried. Really I do, Miss Allie.”
“Very well, Ellen; but you must stay here, and if Holiest Mother makes the slightest move, touch the bell. I’ll not be gone five minutes.”
Without arranging her hair or dress, Aline opened the folding doors of the drawing-room. Only the centre lamp was lighted, but she recognized the two men. They were sitting together, and arose as she entered. The burly Second Reader wore a dismayed countenance. His cheeks were flabby, his eyes red. The other was a timid little man who never had anything to say.
“How is Holiest Mother?” asked the Reader.
“Oh, Sister Aline! Why such a blunt way of putting it? She may be exchanging her earthly garb for a celestial one—but die! We do not acknowledge death in the Church of the New Faith.” He paused and blandly stroked his huge left hand, covered with red down.
“Holiest Mother, my aunt, has not an hour to live,” was the cool response of the girl. “If you have no further question, I must ask you to excuse me; I am needed above.” She stepped to the door.
“Wait a moment, sister! Not so fast. The situation is serious. Hundreds of thousands of the faithful depend on our report of this—of this sad event. We may tell them that the female pope of our great religion”—he bent his big neck reverently—“was wafted to her heavenly abode by the angels. But there are the officers of the law, the undertaker, the cemetery people, to be considered. Shall we acknowledge that our founder has died like any other human—in bed, of a fever? And who is to be her successor? Has she left a will?”
“Poor Aunt Mary!” muttered the girl.
“It must be a woman, will or no will,” continued the Second Reader, in the tone of a conqueror making terms with a stricken foe. “Now Aline, sister, you are the nearest of kin. You are a fervent healer. You are the Woman.”
“How can you stand there heartlessly plotting such things and a dying woman in the house?” Aline’s voice was metallic with passion. “You care only for the money and power in our church. I refuse to join with you in any such scheme. Aunt Mary will die. She will name her successor. Then it will be time to act. Have you forgotten her last words to the faithful?” She pointed to a marble tablet above the fireplace, which bore this astounding phrase: “My first and forever message is one and eternal.” Nothing more,—but the men cowered before the sublime wisdom uttered by a frail woman, wisdom that had started the emotional machinery of two continents.
“But, great God! Miss Aline, you mustn’t go off and leave us in this fix.” Drops of water stood on the forehead of the Second Reader. His hands dropped to his side with a gesture of despair. His companion kept to the corner, a scared being.