Brother Nehemiah Best occupied the seat of office behind a deal table on the small platform, under faded floral decorations left since last anniversary. Rumour declared that Brother Best was unable to write his own name, and whispered that he spent laborious nights learning the hymns by heart before he could give them out on Sunday, as witness the fact that he “read” with equal facility whether the book was straight, or end-ways, or upside down. Brother Best was thin-voiced, weak in wind, and resourceless and unconvincing in prayer. No wonder Brother Spence was disgusted. Brother Spence could write his own name with scarcely more effort than it cost him to swing the trucks at the Phoenix; his voice raised in prayer set the loose shingles fairly dancing on the old roof; and his recitation of “The Drunkard’s Doom” had been the chief attraction on Band of Hope nights for years past. Ernest Spence had not hesitated to express himself freely at Friday evening’s meeting:
“Ay, they Brother Best, he no more fit for pourin’ out the spirit, you, than a blin’ kitten. Look at the chest of en!”
“True for en, Ernie!” cried Brother Tresize.
“They old devil, you, he laugh at Best’s prayin’, sureli. Brother Spence some tuss, you.”
But Brother Spence had left the meeting in a state of righteous indignation. Yet here were Brothers Tresize, and Tregaskis, and Prator, and Pearce, and Eddy. True, they all looked grim and unchastened, and there was an uneasy, shifty feeling in the chapel that inspired boys and girls, young men and young women, teachers and choir, with great expectations. Brother Best, in his favourite attitude, with one arm behind him under his coat tails, his right hand holding the book a yard from his eyes, his right foot thrust well out, the toe touching the floor daintily, made his first official announcement:
“We will open they service this mornin’ by singing hymn won, nought, won.”
Then, in a nasal sing-song, swinging with a long sweep from toe to heel and heel to toe, he gave out the first verse and the chorus, ending unctuously with a smack of the lips at the line:
|Thou beautiful, beautiful Poley Star!|
Nehemiah was a dairyman, and had a fixed conviction that the poley star and a poley cow had much in common.
The hymn being sung, the superintendent engaged in prayer, speaking weakly, with a wearisome repetition of stock phrases, eked out with laboured groans and random cries.
Brother Tresize could not disguise his cynical disgust, and remained mute. A prayer to be successful amongst the Wesleans of Waddy must make the hearers squirm and wriggle upon their knees, and cry aloud. Brothers and sisters were all happy when moved to wild sobbing, to the utterance of moans, and groans, and hysterical appeals to heaven, and when impelled to sustain a sonorous volley by the vigorous use of pocket handkerchiefs; but that was a spiritual treat that came only once in a while, with the visit of a specialist, or when the spirit moved Brother Spence or Brother Tresize to unusual fervor.
The superintendent’s prayer did not raise a single qualm; and the boys of Class II. straggled openly over the forms, pinched each other, and passed such rubbish as they could collect to Dicky Haddon, the pale, saintly, ginger-headed boy at the top of the class, who was in honour bound to drop everything so sent him in amongst the mysteries of the old, yellow, guttural harmonium, through a convenient crack in the back.
Throughout the service Brother Best, proud of his new office, watched the scholars diligently, visiting little boys and girls with sudden sharp raps or twitches of the ear if they dared even to sneeze, but judiciously overlooking much that was injurious and unbecoming in the bigger boys of Class II., who had a vicious habit of sullenly kicking elderly shins when cuffed or wigged for their misdeeds.
The Bible reading, with wonderful, original expositions of the obscure passages by horny-handed miners, occupied about half an hour, and then the superintendent stilled the racket and clatter of stowing away the tattered books with an authoritative hand, and invited Brother Tresize to pray. If he was great he could be merciful.
Brother Tresize made his preparations with great deliberation, spreading a handkerchief large enough for a bed-cover to save the knees of his sacred black-cloth trousers, hitching up the latter to prevent bagging, and finally loosening his paper collar from the button in front to give free vent to his emotions—and preserve the collar. Then, the rattling of feet, the pushing and shoving, the coughing and whispering and sniffing having subsided, and all being on their knees, Brother Tresize began his prayer in a soft, low, reverent voice that speedily rose to a reverberant roar.
“Oh, Gwad, ah! look down upon we here, ah; let the light of Thy countenance ahluminate, ah, this little corner of Thy vineyard, ah. Oh, Gwad, ah! be merciful to they sinners what be assembled here, ah; pour down Thy speerit upon they, ah, make they whole, ah. Oh, Gwad, ah! Thoo knowest they be some here, ah, that be wallerin’ in sin, ah, some that be hippycrits, ah, some that be cheats, ah, some that be scoffers, an’ misbelievers, an’ heathens, oh, Gwad, ah! Have mercy on they people, oh, Gwad, ah! Show they Thy fires, ah, an’ turn they from the wrath, oh, Loord Gwad, ah!”
Brother Tresize was evidently in fine form this morning; already the windows were vibrating before the concussions of his tremendous voice, and the floor bounded under the great blows that punctuated his sentences. As he went on, the air became electrical, and the spirit moved amongst the flock. The women felt it first.
“Oh, Gwad, ah!” interjected Mrs. Eddy from her corner.
“Throw up the windies, an’ let the speerit in!” sobbed Mrs. Eddy.
Brother Prator blew his nose with a loud report, a touching and helpful manifestation.
Brother Tresize prayed with every atom of energy he possessed. His opinion was on record:
“A good prayer Sunday mornin’, you, takes it out of en more’n a hard shift in a hot drive, you.”
When his proper momentum was attained he oscillated to and fro between the floor and the form, swaying back over his heels till his head almost touched the boards—a gymnastic feat that was the envy of all the brethren—he shook his clenched fist at the rafters and reached his highest note. The plunge forward was accompanied by falling tones, and ended with a blow on the form that made every article of furniture in the building jump. The perspiration ran in streams down his face and neck; dry sobs broke from his labouring chest; long strands of his moist, well-oiled, red hair separated themselves from the flattened mass and stood out like feelers, to the wild, ungodly delight of Class II.; and whilst he prayed the brethren and “sistern” kept up a continuous fire of interjections and heartrending groans.
“They be people here, ah! what is careless of Thy grace; chasten ’em with fire an’ brimstone—chasten ’em, oh, Lord, ah! They be those of uz what go to be Thy servants, oh, Gwad, ah! an’ to do Thy work here below, ah, what is tried an’ found wantin’, ah—some do water they milk, oh, Gwad, ah! an’ some do be misleadin’ they neighbors’ hens to lay away. Smite they people for Thy glory, oh, Loord, ah!”
A great moaning filled the chapel, and all heads turned towards Brother Nehemiah Best, kneeling at his chair, with his face buried in his hands, trembling violently. Nehemiah, two years earlier, had been fined for watering the milk sold to his town customers; quite recently he had been thrown into the Phoenix slurry by an unregenerate trucker, who accused him of beguiling his hens to lay from home. Brother Tresize was wrestling with the superintendent in prayer, and the excitement rose instantly to fever heat.
“They what do not as they wad be done by, pursue ’em, ah; smite they with Thy right hand, oh, Lord Gwad, ah! so they may be turned from they wickedness, ah. They what have better food to they table for theyselves than for they children or they wives, ah, they what be filled with vanity, ah, they what havin’ no book-learnin’ do deceive Thy people, an’ fill the seats o’ the learned, ah, deal with such, oh, Gwad, ah!”
Brother Tresize was now almost frantic with the ecstasy of his zeal. His exhortation was continued in this strain, and every word was a lance to prick the cowering superintendent. The women sniffed and sobbed, the men groaned and cried “Ahmen, ah!” It was a great time for grace.
But suddenly a new voice broke in—a shrill, thin voice, splitting into that of Brother Tresize like a steam-whistle. Brother Best had assumed the defensive.
“Oh, Lord, ah!” he cried, “give no ear to they what bears false witness against they neighbors, to they what backbite, ah, an’ slander, ah, an’ bear malice, ah; heed they not, oh, Lord, ah!”
Abel Tresize rose to the occasion. It was a battle. His voice swelled till it rivalled the roar of the ravening lion; he no longer selected his words or cared to make himself understood of the people; it was necessary only to smother Brother Best, to pray him down, and Abel prayed as no man had ever prayed before at Waddy. A curious crowd—the Irish children, Dan the Drover, an old shepherd, and a few cattlemen from the Red Cow—attracted by the great commotion, had assembled in the porch, and were gazing in open-mouthed, delighted.
Tresize persevered, but Best’s shrill, penetrating voice rang out distinctly above all. Brother Best was transformed, inspired; under the influence of his great wrath he had waxed eloquent; he smote his enemy hip and thigh, he heaped coals of fire upon his head, and marshalled St. Peter and all the angels against him.
The severity of his exertions was telling heavily upon Abel Tresize; he was dreadfully hoarse, his great hands fell upon the form without emphasis, he was almost winded, and his legs wobbled under him. He pulled himself together for another effort, and the cry that he uttered thrilled every heart, but it quite exhausted him, and he went over backwards, striking his head upon the floor, and lay in the aisle convulsed in a fit.
Instantly the chapel became a babel. The teachers ran to Brother Tresize, and bore him into the open air, the wondering children crowding after, and left the new superintendent sobbing on his table like a broken-hearted boy.