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Authors: Norman Collins

I Shall Not Want

BOOK: I Shall Not Want
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“I SHALL NOT WANT”

by
NORMAN COLLINS

Contents

Book
I. The Fall

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II. John Marco, Elder

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III. Mary and the Child

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IV. John Marco, Limited

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V. Green Pastures

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VI. The Cracks Widen

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VII. John Marco Reaches Jordan

Book I
The Fall
Chapter I

The Amos Immersionist Tabernacle imposed itself upon the whole thoroughfare. There it stood, a defiant citadel of righteousness looming over the insignificant abodes of men: it dominated. Its façade of twin, stucco columns and chocolate-coloured pilasters dwarfed everything around it, making the terrace of inferior shops and shabby, old-fashioned villas on either side seem like so many dolls' houses set up against something serious and life-size.

Across the front of the Tabernacle ran a row of spiked, green-painted railings; and behind the railings there mounted a steep flight of steel-tread concrete steps. These steps, however, served another and more important purpose than to be walked up: they provided a high place from which to announce the Message. And in the twelve-inch letters, behind thick plate-glass, the Word was exhibited in a series of notice-boards. It was a strange, disjunctive Message which emerged: GOD IS LOVE the first board announced. Above it, in still larger letters, were the words I CAME NOT TO SEND PEACE, BUT A SWORD. Over to the right, a pasted notice, THE RIGHTEOUS SHALL REJOICE WHEN HE SEETH THE VENGEANCE: HE SHALL WASH HIS FEET IN THE BLOOD OF THE WICKED, caught the eye. And down almost on the pavement level was the printed advice, now a little soiled and yellow at the corners with age and exposure, SALUTE ONE ANOTHER WITH AN HOLY KISS.

Above all was another notice board, set back a little and lettered in gold. This gave the style and title of the chapel, the times of the services, and the name and address of the verger; and, in the second line from the top, bolder and more freshly gilded than the rest, were the words:
Prebend and Minister: the Reverend Eliud Tuke, B.D., Surrogate for Marriages.

To-night the Tabernacle was lit up in almost pagan splendour. Every gas-jet in the place was hissing and, through its four long windows, it glowed. There was, even for one of West London's leading fortresses of nonconformity, an unusual stir of activity. Ever since six o'clock the devout had been arriving. They had passed up the concrete steps in their multitudes, and in batch after batch the big Tabernacle had swallowed them. Behind those studded, panelled doors between five and six hundred people were now seated in their pews.

It was bleak enough outside, with a threat of sleet or snow in the air, but the heat inside was terrific. Eight steep steps up from the roadway it was tropical. Already, before the important business of the evening, the baptisms, had started, two of the sisterhood had fainted. With waxen frightened faces, on which the beads of sweat stood out like raindrops, they had been carried off to the vestry and been revived on the long benches that were used for Zenana soirées and Missionary Teas. On Baptism Nights a deaconess of the Order was permanently stationed in the vestry: it was her duty to revive the fragile, one after another, as they were brought in. Smelling salts, a bottle of lavender water and the tea-urn from the basement comprised the whole of her equipment. As soon as the women—and there were always some men among the fainters as well—were breathing again, they were packed off into the body of the chapel once more to see the sights and be edified.

There was certainly something tremendous to see. On these immersionist nights the Tabernacle resembled an arena more than a temple. Only the plain altar, the Table of the Lord, in the eastern wall broke the symmetry of the seats. And from the central dais where Mr. Tuke stood, it Was like being submerged in a vast well of gleaming faces, so that no matter in what direction he looked there were still those endless batteries of peering, fascinated eyes.
From Mr. Tuke's standpoint it was even more alarming when the congregation began a hymn; it was as though he were being swallowed. Those pink layers upon layers of faces would suddenly open, and what he would see would be not eyes but the dark cavities of six hundred throats. Then with the intoning of the Amen the whole hall would go pink again.

One point of variety in the encircling panorama of the Tabernacle was that the men were separated from the women. On the north side of the central aisle was a sea of bosoms and feather-boas and veiled faces; to the south, it was all beards and watch-chains and deep bass voices. To balance the altar, stood the organ. Controversy had raged round this instrument, and its erection had once been a matter not merely of vestry politics but of heresy; the unwitting donor, long since deceased, had been the cause of a schism which had divided the entire Synod of Amosite Elders. In the first place, it had been suggested that the foundations were not strong enough for such a monster. But objections of this kind were no more than subterfuge: the Amos Tabernacle was clearly strong enough for
anything.
Then the question of propriety had arisen and the real row had begun. On one side it was felt that the presence of a box of pipes of this nature was so dangerously High as to be almost Roman, and on the other there was an equally determined move not to deprive themselves of anything costing the colossal sum of nearly four hundred pounds. In the end, it was the acquisitive who won; and, after suitable safeguards had been laid down as to the nature of the music that was to be played, the gift had been accepted. It now stood against the west wall, a towering mass of cylindrical metal, with a little red velvet curtain in front of it, behind which the organist sat in his own private asylum of ivory keys, stops, swell-pedal and spy-mirror. The blower, a brother-in-law of the verger, had to stand right out in the passage, heaving away at the great wooden arm like a pump-handle during all the musical moments of divine service.

But it was not at the organ that anyone was looking to-night; after seven years' installation it had become as orthodox and unexceptionable as the gas-lighting. It was the Jordan Tank which was the focus of everyone's attention. It stood, a great zinc bath more than six feet square, let into the very centre of the auditorium. Five wooden steps, which flattened out deceptively under the surface of the water, led down into the tank on one side and a duplicate set led out on the other. The heating apparatus ran right underneath it.

It was only twice yearly that the tank was used, and it was at these bi-annual immersions that Amosites declared their faith to the world. There was a kind of raucous majesty about the occasion. The adult choir, again divided into male and female, was augmented by choristers from other Amosite chapels; and there was a cornet player a strained, melancholy-looking little man—who brought his instrument all the way from Croydon. Nor was this all: a large banner ran right across the hall, and on this in giant, embroidered letters ran the words: WITH THE BAPTISM THAT I AM BAPTIZED WITHAL SHALL YE BE BAPTIZED.

Mr. Tuke, in the simple surplice of his Order, was standing right beneath his banner. The singing had just stopped and there was an atmosphere of impatient expectancy throughout the hall. But it was not yet time for the immersions. There was the psalm first and Mr. Tuke, holding his surplice up with one hand so that he should not trip, mounted the two steps to the lectern. He was a large man, so large in fact that he made the sprawling Bible on the shelf in front of him seem almost small and trivial. And his voice was powerful and resonant; it had a thousand rich modulations in it. He used words slowly and gloatingly as though he were fingering them.

His large pink face—he always looked as though he had just emerged from the hot towels of a barber—began to crease and fall in folds about his mouth as he swung the heavy volume back onto the marker. Already at the
thought of those words, his mouth was watering. He took a quick glance round the galleries (it was as though invisible wires of sympathy were radiating from him) and began.
“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”
The voice softened for a moment and it became like a woman speaking.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.”
The womanliness vanished and a hint of brass and kettle-drum crept in. “
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (pp.) I will fear no evil: for thou art with me (ff.) Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.”
Mr. Tuke's expression changed subtly, and he spread out his hands towards the congregation, as though thanking them.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou annointest my head with oil: my cup runneth over.”
Then his face changed again and he magically cast off forty years of his life and was a little boy again:
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

He became a mighty, all-powerful man again as he finished, a man capable of surviving without a tremor the ordeal of standing for over half-an-hour in lukewarm water up to his waist.

And the reading of the Psalm over, he offered up a prayer. It was the Amosite prayer which invoked God in the name of his servant Amos, to be present while these of the faithful dedicated themselves in His name. “. . . as in Jordan of old,” Mr. Tuke magnificently intoned, “so do we, Thy mean and wretched disciples, ask of Thee the abundant and glorious blessings which Thou alone canst give.”

With that he rose from his knees and walked towards the tank. His surplice, specially weighted at the edges to prevent it from billowing up round him like a parachute as he entered the water, hung round him in sullen, dejected folds. Behind him, in rows, sat the new disciples, the un-baptized. There were thirty-four of them in all; fourteen men and twenty women. They sat pale-faced and apprehensive,
like victims ready for sacrifice. Even their dress was sacrificial: it was white from head to foot, a long, white clinging garment that buttoned up at the back and was gathered in closely at the wrists. Beneath this dress the Amosite initiate could wear whatever he or she chose; the men, for the most part, wore very little else, and the women only sufficient to ensure that when they climbed up the steps again after the dipping the garment should not cling to them too revealingly. On the advice of the deaconess in the disrobing-room below, many of the women had wound a bath towel round themselves before putting on the vestment; and, in the result, they sat in muffled, mysterious shapes that disguised everything about them except the fact that they were women and that they had disguised themselves. They were really doubly disguised for they wore a close white handkerchief around their heads; the men of course were bare-headed.

Mr. Tuke shuddered as his left foot touched the water even though, under the surplice, he was wearing waders like a fisherman. It was ten degrees colder than it should have been, and the contact sent a shiver running along the length of his spine. He registered a decision to speak to the verger about it as soon as the service was over—he had told the man when he came in that his duty to-night lay down in the stoke-hold—and, pursing up his lips as the icy water took his breath away, he went resolutely down the steps. Once actually in the tank he felt a powerful desire to duck his head under and be done with it; but he controlled himself. Instead, holding his little slip of paper with the names of Baptists-elect in one hand and the silver cup with which he was to anoint their heads in the other, he stood waist-deep in the water and called out their names.

“Brother Freeman.”

A large man who moved importantly like a shop-walker, rose from the extreme right of the front bench and came forward. He stalked along as though intending to enter the water with dignity but, as soon as his ankle was covered,
he drew back and muttered an involuntary “Ah!” Mr. Tuke frowned at him: he had no patience with people who made a fuss over less than a minute of it while he, in his fifty-second year, would have to remain there in the bath for nearly three-quarters of an hour. Brother Freeman observed the rebuke. Holding his breath, he almost ran down the five steps and presented himself before his Minister and Baptist.

BOOK: I Shall Not Want
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