The Old Peabody Pew
Kate Douglas Wiggin
This etext was prepared by David Price, email email@example.com
from the 1907 Archibald Constable and Co. edition.
The Old Peabody Pew: A Christmas Romance of a Country Church
To a certain handful of dear New England women of names unknown to
the world, dwelling in a certain quiet village, alike unknown:-
We have worked together to make our little corner of the great
universe a pleasanter place in which to live, and so we know, not
only one another's names, but something of one another's joys and
sorrows, cares and burdens, economies, hopes, and anxieties.
We all remember the dusty uphill road that leads to the green
church common. We remember the white spire pointing upward against
a background of blue sky and feathery elms. We remember the sound
of the bell that falls on the Sabbath morning stillness, calling us
across the daisy-sprinkled meadows of June, the golden hayfields of
July, or the dazzling whiteness and deep snowdrifts of December
days. The little cabinet-organ that plays the doxology, the hymn-
books from which we sing "Praise God from whom all blessings flow,"
the sweet freshness of the old meeting-house, within and without--
how we have toiled to secure and preserve these humble mercies for
ourselves and our children!
There really IS a Dorcas Society, as you and I well know, and one
not unlike that in these pages; and you and I have lived through
many discouraging, laughable, and beautiful experiences while we
emulated the Bible Dorcas, that woman "full of good works and alms
There never was a Peabody Pew in the Tory Hill Meeting-House, and
Nancy's love story and Justin's never happened within its century-
old walls; but I have imagined only one of the many romances that
have had their birth under the shadow of that steeple, did we but
As you have sat there on open-windowed Sundays, looking across
purple clover-fields to blue distant mountains, watching the palm-
leaf fans swaying to and fro in the warm stillness before sermon
time, did not the place seem full of memories, for has not the life
of two villages ebbed and flowed beneath that ancient roof? You
heard the hum of droning bees and followed the airy wings of
butterflies fluttering over the gravestones in the old churchyard,
and underneath almost every moss-grown tablet some humble romance
lies buried and all but forgotten.
If it had not been for you, I should never have written this story,
so I give it back to you tied with a sprig from Ophelia's nosegay;
a spring of "rosemary, that's for remembrance."
K. D. W.
Edgewood, like all the other villages along the banks of the Saco,
is full of sunny slopes and leafy hollows. There are little,
rounded, green-clad hillocks that might, like their scriptural
sisters, "skip with joy," and there are grand, rocky hills tufted
with gaunt pine trees--these leading the eye to the splendid
heights of a neighbour State, where snow-crowned peaks tower in the
blue distance, sweeping the horizon in a long line of majesty.
Tory Hill holds its own among the others for peaceful beauty and
fair prospect, and on its broad, level summit sits the white-
painted Orthodox Meeting-House. This faces a grassy common where
six roads meet, as if the early settlers had determined that no one
should lack salvation because of a difficulty in reaching its
The old church has had a dignified and fruitful past, dating from
that day in 1761 when young Paul Coffin received his call to preach
at a stipend of fifty pounds sterling a year; answering "that never
having heard of any Uneasiness among the people about his Doctrine
or manner of life, he declared himself pleased to Settle as Soon as
might be Judged Convenient."
But that was a hundred and fifty years ago, and much has happened
since those simple, strenuous old days. The chastening hand of
time has been laid somewhat heavily on the town as well as on the
church. Some of her sons have marched to the wars and died on the
field of honour; some, seeking better fortunes, have gone westward;
others, wearying of village life, the rocky soil, and rigours of
farm-work, have become entangled in the noise and competition, the
rush and strife, of cities. When the sexton rings the bell
nowadays, on a Sunday morning, it seems to have lost some of its
old-time militant strength, something of its hope and courage; but
it still rings, and although the Davids and Solomons, the Matthews,
Marks, and Pauls of former congregations have left few descendants
to perpetuate their labours, it will go on ringing as long as there
is a Tabitha, a Dorcas, a Lois, or a Eunice left in the community.
This sentiment had been maintained for a quarter of a century, but
it was now especially strong, as the old Tory Hill Meeting-House
had been undergoing for several years more or less extensive
repairs. In point of fact, the still stronger word,
"improvements," might be used with impunity; though whenever the
Dorcas Society, being female, and therefore possessed of notions
regarding comfort and beauty, suggested any serious changes, the
finance committees, which were inevitably male in their
composition, generally disapproved of making any impious
alterations in a tabernacle, chapel, temple, or any other building
used for purposes of worship. The majority in these august bodies
asserted that their ancestors had prayed and sung there for a
century and a quarter, and what was good enough for their ancestors
was entirely suitable for them. Besides, the community was
becoming less and less prosperous, and church-going was growing
more and more lamentably uncommon, so that even from a business
standpoint, any sums expended upon decoration by a poor and
struggling parish would be worse than wasted.
In the particular year under discussion in this story, the valiant
and progressive Mrs. Jeremiah Burbank was the president of the
Dorcas Society, and she remarked privately and publicly that if her
ancestors liked a smoky church, they had a perfect right to the
enjoyment of it, but that she didn't intend to sit through meeting
on winter Sundays, with her white ostrich feather turning grey and
her eyes smarting and watering, for the rest of her natural life.
Whereupon, this being in a business session, she then and there
proposed to her already hypnotized constituents ways of earning
enough money to build a new chimney on the other side of the
An awe-stricken community witnessed this beneficent act of
vandalism, and, finding that no thunderbolts of retribution
descended from the skies, greatly relished the change. If one or
two aged persons complained that they could not sleep as sweetly
during sermon-time in the now clear atmosphere of the church, and
that the parson's eye was keener than before, why, that was a mere
detail, and could not be avoided; what was the loss of a little
sleep compared with the discoloration of Mrs. Jere Burbank's white
ostrich feather and the smarting of Mrs. Jere Burbank's eyes?
A new furnace followed the new chimney, in due course, and as a
sense of comfort grew, there was opportunity to notice the lack of
beauty. Twice in sixty years had some well-to-do summer
parishioner painted the interior of the church at his own expense;
but although the roof had been many times reshingled, it had always
persisted in leaking, so that the ceiling and walls were disfigured
by unsightly spots and stains and streaks. The question of
shingling was tacitly felt to be outside the feminine domain, but
as there were five women to one man in the church membership, the
feminine domain was frequently obliged to extend its limits into
the hitherto unknown. Matters of tarring and water-proofing were
discussed in and out of season, and the very school-children
imbibed knowledge concerning lapping, overlapping, and cross-
lapping, and first and second quality of cedar shingles. Miss
Lobelia Brewster, who had a rooted distrust of anything done by
mere man, created strife by remarking that she could have stopped
the leak in the belfry tower with her red flannel petticoat better
than the Milltown man with his new-fangled rubber sheeting, and
that the last shingling could have been more thoroughly done by a
"female infant babe"; whereupon the person criticized retorted that
he wished Miss Lobelia Brewster had a few infant babes to "put on
the job--he'd like to see 'em try." Meantime several male members
of the congregation, who at one time or another had sat on the roof
during the hottest of the dog days to see that shingling operations
we're conscientiously and skilfully performed, were very
pessimistic as to any satisfactory result ever being achieved.
"The angle of the roof--what they call the 'pitch'--they say that
that's always been wrong," announced the secretary of the Dorcas in
a business session.
"Is it that kind of pitch that the Bible says you can't touch
without being defiled? If not, I vote that we unshingle the roof
and alter the pitch!" This proposal came from a sister named Maria
Sharp, who had valiantly offered the year before to move the smoky
chimney with her own hands, if the "men-folks" wouldn't.
But though the incendiary suggestion of altering the pitch was
received with applause at the moment, subsequent study of the
situation proved that such a proceeding was entirely beyond the
modest means of the society. Then there arose an ingenious and
militant carpenter in a neighbouring village, who asserted that he
would shingle the meeting-house roof for such and such a sum, and
agree to drink every drop of water that would leak in afterward.
This was felt by all parties to be a promise attended by
extraordinary risks, but it was accepted nevertheless, Miss Lobelia
Brewster remarking that the rash carpenter, being already married,
could not marry a Dorcas anyway, and even if he died, he was not a
resident of Edgewood, and therefore could be more easily spared,
and that it would be rather exciting, just for a change, to see a
man drink himself to death with rain-water. The expected tragedy
never occurred, however, and the inspired shingler fulfilled his
promise to the letter, so that before many months the Dorcas
Society proceeded, with incredible exertion, to earn more money,
and the interior of the church was neatly painted and made as fresh
as a rose. With no smoke, no rain, no snow nor melting ice to
defile it, the good old landmark that had been pointing its finger
Heavenward for over a century would now be clean and fragrant for
years to come, and the weary sisters leaned back in their
respective rocking-chairs and drew deep breaths of satisfaction.
These breaths continued to be drawn throughout an unusually arduous
haying season; until, in fact, a visitor from a neighbouring city
was heard to remark that the Tory Hill Meeting-House would be one
of the best preserved and pleasantest churches in the whole State
of Maine, if only it were suitably carpeted.
This thought had secretly occurred to many a Dorcas in her hours of
pie-making, preserving, or cradle-rocking, but had been promptly
extinguished as flagrantly extravagant and altogether impossible.
Now that it had been openly mentioned, the contagion of the idea
spread, and in a month every sort of honest machinery for the
increase of funds had been set in motion: harvest suppers, pie
sociables, old folk's concerts, apron sales, and, as a last resort,
a subscription paper, for the church floor measured hundreds of
square yards, and the carpet committee announce that a good ingrain
could not be purchased, even with the church discount, for less
than ninety-seven cents a yard.
The Dorcases took out their pencils, and when they multiplied the
surface of the floor by the price of the carpet per yard, each
Dorcas attaining a result entirely different from all the others,
there was a shriek of dismay, especially from the secretary, who
had included in her mathematical operation certain figures in her
possession representing the cubical contents of the church and the
offending pitch of the roof, thereby obtaining a product that would
have dismayed a Croesus. Time sped and efforts increased, but the
Dorcases were at length obliged to clip the wings of their desire
and content themselves with carpeting the pulpit and pulpit steps,
the choir, and the two aisles, leaving the floor in the pews until
some future year.
How the women cut and contrived and matched that hardly-bought red
ingrain carpet, in the short December afternoons that ensued after
its purchase; so that, having failed to be ready for Thanksgiving,
it could be finished for the Christmas festivities!
They were sewing in the church, and as the last stitches were being
taken, Maria Sharp suddenly ejaculated in her impulsive fashion:-
"Wouldn't it have been just perfect if we could have had the pews
repainted before we laid the new carpet!"
"It would, indeed," the president answered; "but it will take us
all winter to pay for the present improvements, without any thought
of fresh paint. If only we had a few more men-folks to help
"Or else none at all!" was Lobelia Brewster's suggestion. "It's
havin' so few that keeps us all stirred up. If there wa'n't any
anywheres, we'd have women deacons and carpenters and painters, and
get along first rate; for somehow the supply o' women always holds
out, same as it does with caterpillars an' flies an' grasshoppers!"
Everybody laughed, although Maria Sharp asserted that she for one
was not willing to be called a caterpillar simply because there
were too many women in the universe.
"I never noticed before how shabby and scarred and dirty the pews
are," said the minister's wife as she looked at them reflectively.
"I've been thinking all the afternoon of the story about the poor
old woman and the lily," and Nancy Wentworth's clear voice broke
into the discussion. "Do you remember some one gave her a stalk of
Easter lilies and she set them in a glass pitcher on the kitchen
table? After looking at them for a few minutes, she got up from
her chair and washed the pitcher until the glass shone. Sitting
down again, she glanced at the little window. It would never do;
she had forgotten how dusty and blurred it was, and she took her
cloth and burnished the panes. Then she scoured the table, then
the floor, then blackened the stove before she sat down to her
knitting. And of course the lily had done it all, just by showing,
in its whiteness, how grimy everything else was."
The minister's wife who had been in Edgewood only a few months,
looked admiringly at Nancy's bright face, wondering that five-and-
thirty years of life, including ten of school-teaching, had done so
little to mar its serenity. "The lily story is as true as the
gospel!" she exclaimed, "and I can see how one thing has led you to
another in making the church comfortable. But my husband says that
two coats of paint on the pews would cost a considerable sum."
"How about cleaning them? I don't believe they've had a good hard
washing since the flood." The suggestion came from Deacon Miller's
wife to the president.
"They can't even be scrubbed for less than fifteen or twenty
dollars, for I thought of that and asked Mrs. Simpson yesterday,
and she said twenty cents a pew was the cheapest she could do it
"We've done everything else," said Nancy Wentworth, with a twitch
of her thread; "why don't we scrub the pews? There's nothing in
the orthodox creed to forbid, is there?"
"Speakin' o' creeds," and here old Mrs. Sargent paused in her work,
"Elder Ransom from Acreville stopped with us last night, an' he
tells me they recite the Euthanasian Creed every few Sundays in the
Episcopal Church. I didn't want him to know how ignorant I was,
but I looked up the word in the dictionary. It means easy death,
and I can't see any sense in that, though it's a terrible long
creed, the Elder says, an' if it's any longer 'n ourn, I should
think anybody MIGHT easy die learnin' it!"
"I think the word is Athanasian," ventured the minister's wife.
"Elder Ransom's always plumb full o' doctrine," asserted Miss
Brewster, pursuing the subject. "For my part, I'm glad he
preferred Acreville to our place. He was so busy bein' a minister,
he never got round to bein' a human creeter. When he used to come
to sociables and picnics, always lookin' kind o' like the potato
blight, I used to think how complete he'd be if he had a foldin'
pulpit under his coat tails; they make foldin' beds nowadays, an' I
s'pose they could make foldin' pulpits, if there was a call."
"Land sakes, I hope there won't be!" exclaimed Mrs. Sargent. "An'
the Elder never said much of anything either, though he was always
preachin'! Now your husband, Mis' Baxter, always has plenty to say
after you think he's all through. There's water in his well when
the others is all dry!"
"But how about the pews?" interrupted Mrs. Burbank. "I think
Nancy's idea is splendid, and I want to see it carried out. We
might make it a picnic, bring our luncheons, and work all together;
let every woman in the congregation come and scrub her own pew."
"Some are too old, others live at too great a distance," and the
minister's wife sighed a little; "indeed, most of those who once
owned the pews or sat in them seemed to be dead, or gone away to
live in busier places."
"I've no patience with 'em, gallivantin' over the earth," and here
Lobelia rose and shook the carpet threads from her lap. "I
shouldn't want to live in a livelier place than Edgewood, seem's
though! We wash and hang out Mondays, iron Tuesdays, cook
Wednesdays, clean house and mend Thursdays and Fridays, bake
Saturdays, and go to meetin' Sundays. I don't hardly see how they
can do any more 'n that in Chicago!"
"Never mind if we have lost members!" said the indomitable Mrs.
Burbank. "The members we still have left must work all the harder.
We'll each clean our own pew, then take a few of our neighbours',
and then hire Mrs. Simpson to do the wainscoting and floor. Can we
scrub Friday and lay the carpet Saturday? My husband and Deacon
Miller can help us at the end of the week. All in favour manifest
it by the usual sign. Contrary minded? It is a vote."
There never were any contrary minded when Mrs. Jere Burbank was in
the chair. Public sentiment in Edgewood was swayed by the Dorcas
Society, but Mrs. Burbank swayed the Dorcases themselves as the
wind sways the wheat.
The old Meeting House wore an animated aspect when the eventful
Friday came, a cold, brilliant, sparkling December day, with good
sleighing, and with energy in every breath that swept over the
dazzling snowfields. The sexton had built a fire in the furnace on
the way to his morning work--a fire so economically contrived that
it would last exactly the four or five necessary hours, and not a
second more. At eleven o'clock all the pillars of the society had
assembled, having finished their own household work and laid out on
their respective kitchen tables comfortable luncheons for the men
of the family, if they were fortunate enough to number any among
their luxuries. Water was heated upon oil-stoves set about here
and there, and there was a brave array of scrubbing-brushes,
cloths, soap, and even sand and soda, for it had been decided and
vote that the dirt was to come off, whether the paint came with it
or not. Each of the fifteen women present selected a block of
seats, preferably one in which her own was situated, and all fell
busily to work.
"There is nobody here to clean the right-wing pews," said Nancy
Wentworth, "so I will take those for my share."
"You're not making a very wise choice, Nancy," and the minister's
wife smiled as she spoke. "The infant class of the Sunday-school
sits there, you know, and I expect the paint has had extra wear and
tear. Families don't seem to occupy those pews regularly
"I can remember when every seat in the whole church was filled,
wings an' all," mused Mrs. Sargent, wringing out her wascloth in a
reminiscent mood. "The one in front o' you, Nancy, was always
called the 'deef pew' in the old times, and all the folks that was
hard o' hearin' used to congregate there."
"The next pew hasn't been occupied since I came here," said the
"No," answered Mrs. Sargent, glad of any opportunity to retail
neighbourhood news. "'Squire Bean's folks have moved to Portland
to be with the married daughter. Somebody has to stay with her,
and her husband won't. The 'Squire ain't a strong man, and he's
most too old to go to meetin' now. The youngest son has just died
in New York, so I hear."
"What ailed him?" inquired Maria Sharp.
"I guess he was completely wore out takin' care of his health,"
returned Mrs. Sargent. "He had a splendid constitution from a boy,
but he was always afraid it wouldn't last him.--The seat back o'
'Squire Bean's is the old Peabody pew--ain't that the Peabody pew
you're scrubbin', Nancy?"
"I believe so," Nancy answered, never pausing in her labours.
"It's so long since anybody sat there, it's hard to remember."
"It is the Peabodys', I know it, because the aisle runs right up
facin' it. I can see old Deacon Peabody settin' in this end same
as if 'twas yesterday."
"He had died before Jere and I came back here to live," said Mrs.
Burbank. "The first I remember, Justin Peabody sat in the end
seat; the sister that died, next, and in the corner, against the
wall, Mrs. Peabody, with a crepe shawl and a palmleaf fan. They
were a handsome family. You used to sit with them sometimes,
Nancy; Esther was great friends with you."
"Yes, she was," Nancy replied, lifting the tattered cushion from
its place and brushing it; "and I with her.--What is the use of
scrubbing and carpeting, when there are only twenty pew-cushions
and six hassocks in the whole church, and most of them ragged? How
can I ever mend this?"
"I shouldn't trouble myself to darn other people's cushions!"
This unchristian sentiment came in Mrs. Miller's ringing tones from
the rear of the church.
"I don't know why," argued Maria Sharp. "I'm going to mend my Aunt
Achsa's cushion, and we haven't spoken for years; but hers is the
next pew to mine, and I'm going to have my part of the church look
decent, even if she is too stingy to do her share. Besides, there
aren't any Peabodys left to do their own darning, and Nancy was
friends with Esther."
"Yes, it's nothing more than right," Nancy replied, with a note of
relief in her voice, "considering Esther."
"Though he don't belong to the scrubbin' sex, there is one Peabody
alive, as you know, if you stop to think, Maria; for Justin's
alive, and livin' out West somewheres. At least, he's as much
alive as ever he was; he was as good as dead when he was twenty-
one, but his mother was always too soft-hearted to bury him."
There was considerable laughter over this sally of the outspoken
Mrs. Sargent, whose keen wit was the delight of the neighbourhood.
"I know he's alive and doing business in Detroit, for I got his
address a week or ten days ago, and wrote, asking him if he'd like
to give a couple of dollars toward repairing the old church."
Everybody looked at Mrs. Burbank with interest.
"Hasn't he answered?" asked Maria Sharp.
Nancy Wentworth held her breath, turned her face to the wall, and
silently wiped the paint of the wainscoting. The blood that had
rushed into her cheeks at Mrs. Sargent's jeering reference to
Justin Peabody still lingered there for any one who ran to read,
but fortunately nobody ran; they were too busy scrubbing.
"Not yet. Folks don't hurry about answering when you ask them for
a contribution," replied the president, with a cynicism common to
persons who collect funds for charitable purposes. "George Wickham
sent me twenty-five cents from Denver. When I wrote him a receipt,
I said thank you same as Aunt Polly did when the neighbours brought
her a piece of beef: 'Ever so much obleeged, but don't forget me
when you come to kill a pig.'--Now, Mrs. Baxter, you shan't clean
James Bruce's pew, or what was his before he turned Second Advent.
I'll do that myself, for he used to be in my Sunday-school class."
"He's the backbone o' that congregation now," asserted Mrs.
Sargent, "and they say he's goin' to marry Mrs. Sam Peters, who
sings in their choir as soon as his year is up. They make a
perfect fool of him in that church."
"You can't make a fool of a man that nature ain't begun with,"
argued Miss Brewster. "Jim Bruce never was very strong-minded, but
I declare it seems to me that when men lose their wives, they lose
their wits! I was sure Jim would marry Hannah Thompson that keeps
house for him. I suspected she was lookin' out for a life job when
she hired out with him."
"Hannah Thompson may keep Jim's house, but she'll never keep Jim,
that's certain!" affirmed the president; "and I can't see that Mrs.
Peters will better herself much."
"I don't blame her, for one!" came in no uncertain tones from the
left-wing pews, and the Widow Buzzell rose from her knees and
approached the group by the pulpit. "If there's anything duller
than cookin' three meals a day FOR yourself, and settin' down and
eatin' 'em BY yourself, and then gettin' up and clearin' 'em away
AFTER yourself, I'd like to know it! I shouldn't want any good-
lookin', pleasant-spoken man to offer himself to me without he
expected to be snapped up, that's all! But if you've made out to
get one husband in York County, you can thank the Lord and not
expect any more favours. I used to think Tom was poor comp'ny and
complain I couldn't have any conversation with him, but land, I
could talk at him, and there's considerable comfort in that. And I
could pick up after him! Now every room in my house is clean, and
every closet and bureau drawer, too; I can't start drawin' in
another rug, for I've got all the rugs I can step foot on. I dried
so many apples last year I shan't need to cut up any this season.
My jelly and preserves ain't out, and there I am; and there most of
us are, in this village, without a man to take steps for and trot
'round after! There's just three husbands among the fifteen women
scrubbin' here now, and the rest of us is all old maids and
widders. No wonder the men-folks die, or move away like Justin
Peabody; a place with such a mess o' women-folks ain't healthy to
live in, whatever Lobelia Brewster may say."
Justin Peabody had once faithfully struggled with the practical
difficulties of life in Edgewood, or so he had thought, in those
old days of which Nancy Wentworth was thinking as she wiped the
paint of the Peabody pew. Work in the mills did not attract him;
he had no capital to invest in a stock of goods for store-keeping;
school-teaching offered him only a pittance; there remained then
only the farm, if he were to stay at home and keep his mother
"Justin don't seem to take no holt of things," said the neighbours.
"Good Heavens!" It seemed to him that there were no things to take
hold of! That was his first thought; later he grew to think that
the trouble all lay in himself, and both thoughts bred weakness.
The farm had somehow supported the family in the old Deacon's time,
but Justin seemed unable to coax a competence from the soil. He
could, and did, rise early and work late; till the earth, sow
crops; but he could not make the rain fall nor the sun shine at the
times he needed them, and the elements, however much they might
seem to favour his neighbours, seldom smiled on his enterprises.
The crows liked Justin's corn better than any other in Edgewood.
It had a richness peculiar to itself, a quality that appealed to
the most jaded palate, so that it was really worth while to fly
over a mile of intervening fields and pay it the delicate
compliment of preference.
Justin could explain the attitude of caterpillars, worms,
grasshoppers, and potato-bugs toward him only by assuming that he
attracted them as the magnet in the toy boxes attracts the
"Land of liberty! look at 'em congregate!" ejaculated Jabe Slocum,
when he was called in for consultation. "Now if you'd gone in for
breedin' insecks, you could be as proud as Cuffy an' exhibit 'em at
the County Fair! They'd give yer prizes for size an' numbers an'
speed, I guess! Why, say, they're real crowded for room--the
plants ain't give 'em enough leaves to roost on! Have you tried
"It acts like a tonic on them," said Justin gloomily.
"Sho! you don't say so! Now mine can't abide the sight nor smell
of it. What 'bout Paris green?"
"They thrive on it; it's as good as an appetizer."
"Well," said Jabe Slocum, revolving the quid of tobacco in his
mouth reflectively, "the bug that ain't got no objection to p'ison
is a bug that's got ways o' thinkin' an' feelin' an' reasonin' that
I ain't able to cope with! P'r'aps it's all a leadin' o'
Providence. Mebbe it shows you'd ought to quit farmin' crops an'
take to raisin' live stock!"
Justin did just that, as a matter of fact, a year or two later; but
stock that has within itself the power of being "live" has also
rare qualifications for being dead when occasion suits, and it
generally did suit Justin's stock. It proved prone not only to all
the general diseases that cattle-flesh is heir to, but was capable
even of suicide. At least, it is true that two valuable Jersey
calves, tied to stakes on the hillside, had flung themselves
violently down the bank and strangled themselves with their own
ropes in a manner which seemed to show that they found no pleasure
in existence, at all events on the Peabody farm.
These were some of the little tragedies that had sickened young
Justin Peabody with life in Edgewood, and Nancy Wentworth, even
then, realized some of them and sympathized without speaking, in a
girl's poor, helpless way.
Mrs. Simpson had washed the floor in the right wing of the church
and Nancy had cleaned all the paint. Now she sat in the old
Peabody pew darning the forlorn, faded cushion with grey carpet-
thread: thread as grey as her own life.
The scrubbing-party had moved to its labours in a far corner of the
church, and two of the women were beginning preparations for the
basket luncheons. Nancy's needle was no busier than her memory.
Long years ago she had often sat in the Peabody pew, sometimes at
first as a girl of sixteen when asked by Esther, and then, on
coming home from school at eighteen, "finished," she had been
invited now and again by Mrs. Peabody herself, on those Sundays
when her own invalid mother had not attended service.
Those were wonderful Sundays--Sundays of quiet, trembling peace and
Justin sat beside her, and she had been sure then, but had long
since grown to doubt the evidence of her senses, that he, too,
vibrated with pleasure at the nearness. Was there not a summer
morning when his hand touched her white lace mitt as they held the
hymn-book together, and the lines of the
Rise, my soul, and stretch thy wings,
Thy better portion trace,
became blurred on the page and melted into something
indistinguishable for a full minute or two afterward? Were there
not looks, and looks, and looks? Or had she some misleading trick
of vision in those days? Justin's dark, handsome profile rose
before her: the level brows and fine lashes; the well-cut nose and
lovable mouth--the Peabody mouth and chin, somewhat too sweet and
pliant for strength, perhaps. Then the eyes turned to hers in the
old way, just for a fleeting glance, as they had so often done at
prayer-meeting, or sociable, or Sunday service. Was it not a man's
heart she had seen in them? And oh, if she could only be sure that
her own woman's heart had not looked out from hers, drawn from its
maiden shelter in spite of all her wish to keep it hidden!
Then followed two dreary years of indecision and suspense, when
Justin's eyes met hers less freely; when his looks were always
gloomy and anxious; when affairs at the Peabody farm grew worse and
worse; when his mother followed her husband, the old Deacon, and
her daughter Esther to the burying-ground in the churchyard. Then
the end of all things came, the end of the world for Nancy:
Justin's departure for the West in a very frenzy of discouragement
over the narrowness and limitation and injustice of his lot; over
the rockiness and barrenness and unkindness of the New England
soil; over the general bitterness of fate and the "bludgeonings of
He was a failure, born of a family of failures. If the world owed
him a living, he had yet to find the method by which it could be
earned. All this he thought and uttered, and much more of the same
sort. In these days of humbled pride self was paramount, though it
was a self he despised. There was no time for love. Who was he
for a girl to lean upon?--he who could not stand erect himself!
He bade a stiff good-bye to his neighbours, and to Nancy he
vouchsafed little more. A handshake, with no thrill of love in it
such as might have furnished her palm, at least, some memories to
dwell upon; a few stilted words of leave-taking; a halting,
meaningless sentence or two about his "botch" of life--then he
walked away from the Wentworth doorstep. But half way down the
garden path, where the shrivelled hollyhocks stood like sentinels,
did a wave of something different sweep over him--a wave of the
boyish, irresponsible past when his heart had wings and could fly
without fear to its mate--a wave of the past that was rushing
through Nancy's mind, well-nigh burying her in its bitter-sweet
waters! For he lifted his head, and suddenly retracing his steps,
he came toward her, and, taking her hand again, said forlornly:
"You'll see me back when my luck turns, Nancy."
Nancy knew that the words might mean little or much, according to
the manner in which they were uttered, but to her hurt pride and
sore, shamed woman-instinct, they were a promise, simply because
there was a choking sound in Justin's voice and tears in Justin's
eyes. "You'll see me back when my luck turns, Nancy;" this was the
phrase upon which she had lived for more than ten years. Nancy had
once heard the old parson say, ages ago, that the whole purpose of
life was the growth of the soul; that we eat, sleep, clothe
ourselves, work, love, all to give the soul another day, month,
year, in which to develop. She used to wonder if her soul could be
growing in the monotonous round of her dull duties and her duller
pleasures. She did not confess it even to herself; nevertheless
she knew that she worked, ate, slept, to live until Justin's luck
turned. Her love had lain in her heart a bird without a song, year
after year. Her mother had dwelt by her side and never guessed;
her father too; and both were dead. The neighbours also, lynx-eyed
and curious, had never suspected. If she had suffered, no one in
Edgewood was any the wiser, for the maiden heart is not commonly
worn on the sleeve in New England. If she had been openly pledged
to Justin Peabody, she could have waited twice ten years with a
decent show of self-respect, for long engagements were viewed
rather as a matter of course in that neighbourhood. The endless
months had gone on since that grey November day when Justin had
said good-bye. It had been just before Thanksgiving, and she went
to church with an aching and ungrateful heart. The parson read
from the eighth chapter of St. Matthew, a most unexpected selection
for that holiday. "If you can't find anything else to be thankful
for," he cried, "go home and be thankful you are not a leper!"
Nancy took the drastic counsel away from the church with her, and
it was many a year before she could manage to add to this slender
store anything to increase her gratitude for mercies given, though
all the time she was outwardly busy, cheerful, and helpful.
Justin had once come back to Edgewood, and it was the bitterest
drop in her cup of bitterness that she was spending that winter in
Berwick (where, so the neighbours told him, she was a great
favourite in society, and was receiving much attention from
gentlemen), so that she had never heard of his visit until the
spring had come again. Parted friends did not keep up with one
another's affairs by means of epistolary communication, in those
days, in Edgewood; it was not the custom. Spoken words were
difficult enough to Justin Peabody, and written words were quite
impossible, especially if they were to be used to define his half-
conscious desires and his fluctuations of will, or to recount his
disappointments and discouragements and mistakes.
It was Saturday afternoon, the twenty-fourth of December, and the
weary sisters of the Dorcas band rose from their bruised knees and
removed their little stores of carpet-tacks from their mouths.
This was a feminine custom of long standing, and as no village
dressmaker had ever died of pins in the digestive organs, so were
no symptoms of carpet-tacks ever discovered in any Dorcas, living
or dead. Men wondered at the habit and reviled it, but stood
confounded in the presence of its indubitable harmlessness.
The red ingrain carpet was indeed very warm, beautiful, and
comforting to the eye, and the sisters were suitably grateful to
Providence, and devoutly thankful to themselves, that they had been
enabled to buy, sew, and lay so many yards of it. But as they
stood looking at their completed task, it was cruelly true that
there was much left to do.
The aisles had been painted dark brown on each side of the red
strips leading from the doors to the pulpit, but the rest of the
church floor was "a thing of shreds and patches." Each member of
the carpet committee had paid (as a matter of pride, however ill
she could afford it) three dollars and sixty-seven cents for
sufficient carpet to lay in her own pew; but these brilliant spots
of conscientious effort only made the stretches of bare, unpainted
floor more evident. And that was not all. Traces of former
spasmodic and individual efforts desecrated the present ideals.
The doctor's pew had a pink and blue Brussels on it; the lawyer's,
striped stair-carpeting; the Browns from Deerwander sported straw
matting and were not abashed; while the Greens, the Whites, the
Blacks and the Greys displayed floor coverings as dissimilar as
"I never noticed it before!" exclaimed Maria Sharp, "but it ain't
Christian, that floor! it's heathenish and ungodly!"
"For mercy's sake, don't swear, Maria," said Mrs. Miller nervously.
"We've done our best, and let's hope that folks will look up and
not down. It isn't as if they were going to set in the chandelier;
they'll have something else to think about when Nancy gets her
hemlock branches and white carnations in the pulpit vases. This
morning my Abner picked off two pinks from the plant I've been
nursing in my dining-room for weeks, trying to make it bloom for
Christmas. I slapped his hands good, and it's been haunting me
ever since to think I had to correct him the day before Christmas--
Come, Lobelia, we must be hurrying!"
"One thing comforts me," exclaimed the Widow Buzzell, as she took
her hammer and tacks preparatory to leaving; "and that is that the
Methodist meetin'-house ain't got any carpet at all."
"Mrs. Buzzell, Mrs. Buzzell!" interrupted the minister's wife, with
a smile that took the sting from her speech. "It will be like
punishing little Abner Miller; if we think those thoughts on
Christmas Eve, we shall surely be haunted afterward."
"And anyway," interjected Maria Sharp, who always saved the
situation, "you just wait and see if the Methodists don't say
they'd rather have no carpet at all than have one that don't go all
over the floor. I know 'em!" and she put on her hood and blanket-
shawl as she gave one last fond look at the improvements.
"I'm going home to get my supper, and come back afterward to lay
the carpet in my pew; my beans and brown bread will be just right
by now, and perhaps it will rest me a little; besides, I must feed
As Nancy Wentworth spoke, she sat in a corner of her own modest
rear seat, looking a little pale and tired. Her waving dark hair
had loosened and fallen over her cheeks, and her eyes gleamed from
under it wistfully. Nowadays Nancy's eyes never had the sparkle of
gazing into the future, but always the liquid softness that comes
from looking backward.
"The church will be real cold by then, Nancy," objected Mrs.
Burbank.--"Good-night, Mrs. Baxter."
"Oh, no! I shall be back by half-past six, and I shall not work
long. Do you know what I believe I'll do, Mrs. Burbank, just
through the holidays? Christmas and New Year's both coming on
Sunday this year, there'll be a great many out to church, not
counting the strangers that'll come to the special service to-
morrow. Instead of putting down my own pew carpet that'll never be
noticed here in the back, I'll lay it in the old Peabody pew, for
the red aisle-strip leads straight up to it; the ministers always
go up that side, and it does look forlorn."
"That's so! And all the more because my pew, that's exactly
opposite in the left wing, is new carpeted and cushioned," replied
the president. "I think it's real generous of you, Nancy, because
the Riverboro folks, knowing that you're a member of the carpet
committee, will be sure to notice, and think it's queer you haven't
made an effort to carpet your own pew."
"Never mind!" smiled Nancy wearily. "Riverboro folks never go to
bed on Saturday nights without wondering what Edgewood is thinking
The minister's wife stood at her window watching Nancy as she
passed the parsonage.
"How wasted! How wasted!" she sighed. "Going home to eat her
lonely supper and feed 'Zekiel . . . I can bear it for the others,
but not for Nancy . . . Now she has lighted her lamp, now she has
put fresh pine on the fire, for new smoke comes from the chimney.
Why should I sit down and serve my dear husband, and Nancy feed
There was some truth in Mrs. Baxter's feeling. Mrs. Buzzell, for
instance, had three sons; Maria Sharp was absorbed in her lame
father and her Sunday-school work; and Lobelia Brewster would not
have considered matrimony a blessing, even under the most
favourable conditions. But Nancy was framed and planned for other
things, and 'Zekiel was an insufficient channel for her soft,
womanly sympathy and her bright activity of mind and body.
'Zekiel had lost his tail in a mowing-machine; 'Zekiel had the
asthma, and the immersion of his nose in milk made him sneeze, so
he was wont to slip his paw in and out of the dish and lick it
patiently for five minutes together. Nancy often watched him
pityingly, giving him kind and gentle words to sustain his fainting
spirit, but to-night she paid no heed to him, although he sneezed
violently to attract her attention.
She had put her supper on the lighted table by the kitchen window
and was pouring out her cup of tea, when a boy rapped at the door.
"Here's a paper and a letter, Miss Wentworth," he said. "It's the
second this week, and they think over to the store that that
Berwick widower must be settin' up and takin' notice!"
She had indeed received a letter the day before, an unsigned
communication, consisting only of the words, "Second Epistle of
John. Verse 12."
She had taken her Bible to look out the reference and found it to
"Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper
and ink; but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that
our joy may be full."
The envelope was postmarked New York, and she smiled, thinking that
Mrs. Emerson, a charming lady who had spent the summer in Edgewood,
and had sung with her in the village choir, was coming back, as she
had promised, to have a sleigh ride and see Edgewood in its winter
dress. Nancy had almost forgotten the first letter in the
excitements of her busy day, and now here was another, from Boston
this time. She opened the envelope and found again only a single
sentence, printed, not written. (Lest she should guess the hand,
"Second Epistle of John. Verse 5."
"And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new
commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning,
that we love one another."
Was it Mrs. Emerson? Could it be--any one else? Was it -? No, it
might have been, years ago; but not now; not now!--And yet; he was
always so different from other people; and once, in church, he had
handed her the hymn-book with his finger pointing to a certain
She always fancied that her secret fidelity of heart rose from the
fact that Justin Peabody was "different." From the hour of their
first acquaintance, she was ever comparing him with his companions,
and always to his advantage. So long as a woman finds all men very
much alike (as Lobelia Brewster did, save that she allowed some to
be worse!), she is in no danger. But the moment in which she
perceives and discriminates subtle differences, marvelling that
there can be two opinions about a man's superiority, that moment
the miracle has happened.
"And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new
commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning,
that we love one another."
No, it could not be from Justin. She drank her tea, played with
her beans abstractedly, and nibbled her slice of steaming brown
"Not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee."
No, not a new one; twelve, fifteen years old, that commandment!
"That we love one another."
Who was speaking? Who had written these words? The first letter
sounded just like Mrs. Emerson, who had said she was a very poor
correspondent, but that she should just "drop down" on Nancy one of
these days; but this second letter never came from Mrs. Emerson.--
Well, there would be an explanation some time; a pleasant one; one
to smile over, and tell 'Zekiel and repeat to the neighbours; but
not an unexpected, sacred, beautiful explanation, such a one as the
heart of a woman could imagine, if she were young enough and happy
enough to hope.
She washed her cup and plate; replaced the uneaten beans in the
brown pot, and put them away with the round loaf, folded the cloth
(Lobelia Brewster said Nancy always "set out her meals as if she
was entertainin' company from Portland"), closed the stove dampers,
carried the lighted lamp to a safe corner shelf, and lifted 'Zekiel
to his cushion on the high-backed rocker, doing all with the nice
precision of long habit. Then she wrapped herself warmly, and
locking the lonely little house behind her, set out to finish her
work in the church.
At this precise moment Justin Peabody was eating his own beans and
brown bread (articles of diet of which his Detroit landlady was
lamentably ignorant) at the new tavern, not far from the meeting-
It would not be fair to him to say that Mrs. Burbank's letter had
brought him back to Edgewood, but it had certainly accelerated his
For the first six years after Justin Peabody left home, he had
drifted about from place to place, saving every possible dollar of
his uncertain earnings in the conscious hope that he could go back
to New England and ask Nancy Wentworth to marry him. The West was
prosperous and progressive, but how he yearned, in idle moments,
for the grimmer and more sterile soil that had given him birth!
Then came what seemed to him a brilliant chance for a lucky turn of
his savings, and he invested them in an enterprise which,
wonderfully as it promised, failed within six months and left him
penniless. At that moment he definitely gave up all hope, and for
the next few years he put Nancy as far as possible out of his mind,
in the full belief that he was acting an honourable part in
refusing to drag her into his tangled and fruitless way of life.
If she ever did care for him,--and he could not be sure, she was
always so shy,--she must have outgrown the feeling long since, and
be living happily, or at least contentedly, in her own way. He was
glad in spite of himself when he heard that she had never married;
but at least he hadn't it on his conscience that HE had kept her
On the seventeenth of December, Justin, his business day over, was
walking toward the dreary house in which he ate and slept. As he
turned the corner, he heard one woman say to another, as they
watched a man stumbling sorrowfully down the street: "Going home
will be the worst of all for him--to find nobody there!" That was
what going home had meant for him these ten years, but he afterward
felt it strange that this thought should have struck him so
forcibly on that particular day. Entering the boarding-house, he
found Mrs. Burbank's letter with its Edgewood postmark on the hall
table, and took it up to his room. He kindled a little fire in the
air-tight stove, watching the flame creep from shavings to
kindlings, from kindlings to small pine, and from small pine to the
round, hardwood sticks; then when the result seemed certain, he
closed the stove door and sat down to read the letter. Whereupon
all manner of strange things happened in his head and heart and
flesh and spirit as he sat there alone, his hands in his pockets,
his feet braced against the legs of the stove.
It was a cold winter night, and the snow and sleet beat against the
windows. He looked about the ugly room: at the washstand with its
square of oilcloth in front and its detestable bowl and pitcher; at
the rigours of his white iron bedstead, with the valley in the
middle of the lumpy mattress and the darns in the rumpled
pillowcases; at the dull photographs of the landlady's hideous
husband and children enshrined on the mantelshelf; looked at the
abomination of desolation surrounding him until his soul sickened
and cried out like a child's for something more like home. It was
as if a spring thaw had melted his ice-bound heart, and on the
crest of a wave it was drifting out into the milder waters of some
unknown sea. He could have laid his head in the kind lap of a
woman and cried: "Comfort me! Give me companionship or I die!"
The wind howled in the chimney and rattled the loose window-sashes;
the snow, freezing as it fell, dashed against the glass with hard,
cutting little blows; at least, that is the way in which the wind
and snow flattered themselves they were making existence
disagreeable to Justin Peabody when he read the letter; but never
were elements more mistaken.
It was a June Sunday in the boarding-house bedroom; and for that
matter it was not the boarding-house bedroom at all: it was the
old Orthodox church on Tory Hill in Edgewood.
The windows were wide open, and the smell of the purple clover and
the humming of the bees were drifting into the sweet, wide spaces
within. Justin was sitting in the end of the Peabody pew, and
Nancy Wentworth was beside him; Nancy, cool and restful in her
white dress; dark-haired Nancy under the shadow of her shirred
Rise, my soul, and stretch thy wings,
Thy better portion trace.
The melodeon gave the tune, and Nancy and he stood to sing, taking
the book between them. His hand touched hers, and as the music of
the hymn rose and fell, the future unrolled itself before his eyes;
a future in which Nancy was his wedded wife; and the happy years
stretched on and on in front of them until there was a row of
little heads in the old Peabody pew, and mother and father could
look proudly along the line at the young things they were bringing
into the house of the Lord.
The recalling of that vision worked like magic in Justin's blood.
His soul rose and stretched its wings and "traced its better
portion" vividly, as he sprang to his feet and walked up and down
the bedroom floor. He would get a few days' leave and go back to
Edgewood for Christmas, to join, with all the old neighbours, in
the service at the meeting-house; and in pursuance of this resolve,
he shook his fist in the face of the landlady's husband on the
mantelpiece and dared him to prevent.
He had a salary of fifty dollars a month, with some very slight
prospect of an increase after January. He did not see how two
persons could eat, and drink, and lodge, and dress on it in
Detroit, but he proposed to give Nancy Wentworth the refusal of
that magnificent future, that brilliant and tempting offer. He had
exactly one hundred dollars in the bank, and sixty or seventy of
them would be spent in the journeys, counting two happy, blessed
fares back from Edgewood to Detroit; and if he paid only his own
fare back, he would throw the price of the other into the pond
behind the Wentworth house. He would drop another ten dollars into
the plate on Christmas Day toward the repairs on the church; if he
starved, he would do that. He was a failure. Everything his hand
touched turned to naught. He looked himself full in the face,
recognizing his weakness, and in this supremest moment of
recognition he was a stronger man than he had been an hour before.
His drooping shoulders had straightened; the restless look had gone
from his eyes; his sombre face had something of repose in it, the
repose of a settled purpose. He was a failure, but perhaps if he
took the risks (and if Nancy would take them--but that was the
trouble, women were so unselfish, they were always willing to take
risks, and one ought not to let them!), perhaps he might do better
in trying to make a living for two than he had in working for
himself alone. He would go home, tell Nancy that he was an unlucky
good-for-naught, and ask her if she would try her hand at making
These were the reasons that had brought Justin Peabody to Edgewood
on the Saturday afternoon before Christmas, and had taken him to
the new tavern on Tory Hill, near the Meeting-House.
Nobody recognized him at the station or noticed him at the tavern,
and after his supper he put on his overcoat and started out for a
walk, aimlessly hoping that he might meet a friend, or failing
that, intending to call on some of his old neighbours, with the
view of hearing the village news and securing some information
which might help him to decide when he had better lay himself and
his misfortunes at Nancy Wentworth's feet. They were pretty feet!
He remembered that fact well enough under the magical influence of
familiar sights and sounds and odours. He was restless, miserable,
anxious, homesick--not for Detroit, but for some heretofore
unimagined good; yet, like Bunyan's shepherd boy in the Valley of
Humiliation, he carried "the herb called Hearts-ease in his bosom,"
for he was at last loving consciously.
How white the old church looked, and how green the blinds! It must
have been painted very lately: that meant that the parish was
fairly prosperous. There were new shutters in the belfry tower,
too; he remembered the former open space and the rusty bell, and he
liked the change. Did the chimney use to be in that corner? No;
but his father had always said it would have drawn better if it had
been put there in the beginning. New shingles within a year: that
was evident to a practised eye. He wondered if anything had been
done to the inside of the building, but he must wait until the
morrow to see, for, of course, the doors would be locked. No; the
one at the right side was ajar. He opened it softly and stepped
into the tiny square entry that he recalled so well--the one
through which the Sunday-school children ran out to the steps from
their catechism, apparently enjoying the sunshine after a spell of
orthodoxy; the little entry where the village girls congregated
while waiting for the last bell to ring--they made a soft blur of
pink and blue and buff, a little flutter of curls and braids and
fans and sunshades, in his mind's eye, as he closed the outer door
behind him and gently opened the inner one. The church was flooded
with moonlight and snowlight, and there was one lamp burning at the
back of the pulpit; a candle, too, on the pulpit steps. There was
the tip-tap-tip of a tack-hammer going on in a distant corner. Was
somebody hanging Christmas garlands? The new red carpet attracted
his notice, and as he grew accustomed to the dim light, it carried
his eye along the aisle he had trod so many years of Sundays, to
the old familiar pew. The sound of the hammer ceased and a woman
rose from her knees. A stranger was doing for the family honour
what he ought himself to have done. The woman turned to shake her
skirt, and it was Nancy Wentworth. He might have known it. Women
were always faithful; they always remembered old landmarks, old
days, old friends, old duties. His father and mother and Esther
were all gone; who but dear Nancy would have made the old Peabody
pew right and tidy for the Christmas festival? Bless her kind
She looked just the same to him as when he last saw her.
Mercifully he seemed to have held in remembrance all these years
not so much her youthful bloom as her general qualities of mind and
heart: her cheeriness, her spirit, her unflagging zeal, her bright
womanliness. Her grey dress was turned up in front over a crimson
moreen petticoat. She had on a cosy jacket, a fur turban of some
sort with a redbreast in it, and her cheeks were flushed from
exertion. "Sweet records, and promises as sweet," had always met
in Nancy's face, and either he had forgotten how pretty she was, or
else she had absolutely grown prettier during his absence.
Nancy would have chosen the supreme moment of meeting very
differently, but she might well have chosen worse. She unpinned
her skirt and brushed the threads off, smoothed the pew cushions
carefully, and took a last stitch in the ragged hassock. She then
lifted the Bible and the hymn-book from the rack, and putting down
a bit of flannel on the pulpit steps, took a flatiron from an oil-
stove, and opening the ancient books, pressed out the well-thumbed
leaves one by one with infinite care. After replacing the volumes
in their accustomed place, she first extinguished the flame of her
stove, which she tucked out of sight, and then blew out the lamp
and the candle. The church was still light enough for objects to
be seen in a shadowy way, like the objects in a dream, and Justin
did not realize that he was a man in the flesh, looking at a woman;
spying, it might be, upon her privacy. He was one part of a dream
and she another, and he stood as if waiting, and fearing, to be
Nancy, having done all, came out of the pew, and standing in the
aisle, looked back at the scene of her labours with pride and
content. And as she looked, some desire to stay a little longer in
the dear old place must have come over her, or some dread of going
back to her lonely cottage, for she sat down in Justin's corner of
the pew with folded hands, her eyes fixed dreamily on the pulpit
and her ears hearing: "Not as though I wrote a new commandment
unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning."
Justin's grasp on the latch tightened as he prepared to close the
door and leave the place, but his instinct did not warn him quickly
enough, after all, for, obeying some uncontrollable impulse, Nancy
suddenly fell on her knees in the pew and buried her face in the
The dream broke, and in an instant Justin was a man--worse than
that, he was an eavesdropper, ashamed of his unsuspected presence.
He felt himself standing, with covered head and feet shod, in the
holy temple of a woman's heart.
But his involuntary irreverence brought abundant grace with it.
The glimpse and the revelation wrought their miracles silently and
irresistibly, not by the slow processes of growth which Nature
demands for her enterprises, but with the sudden swiftness of the
spirit. In an instant changes had taken place in Justin's soul
which his so-called "experiencing religion" twenty-five years back
had been powerless to effect. He had indeed been baptized then,
but the recording angel could have borne witness that this second
baptism fructified the first, and became the real herald of the new
birth and the new creature.
Justin Peabody silently closed the inner door, and stood in the
entry with his head bent and his heart in a whirl until he should
hear Nancy rise to her feet. He must take this Heaven-sent chance
of telling her all, but how do it without alarming her?
A moment, and her step sounded in the stillness of the empty
Obeying the first impulse, he passed through the outer door, and
standing on the step, knocked once, twice, three times; then,
opening it a little and speaking through the chink, he called, "Is
Miss Nancy Wentworth here?"
"I'm here!" in a moment came Nancy's answer, and then, with a
little wondering tremor in her voice, as if a hint of the truth had
already dawned: "What's wanted?"
"You're wanted, Nancy, wanted badly, by Justin Peabody, come back
from the West."
The door opened wide, and Justin faced Nancy standing half-way down
the aisle, her eyes brilliant, her lips parted. A week ago
Justin's apparition confronting her in the empty Meeting-House
after nightfall, even had she been prepared for it as now, by his
voice, would have terrified her beyond measure. Now it seemed
almost natural and inevitable. She had spent these last days in
the church where both of them had been young and happy together;
the two letters had brought him vividly to mind, and her labour in
the old Peabody pew had been one long excursion into the past in
which he was the most prominent and the best-loved figure.
"I said I'd come back to you when my luck turned, Nancy."
These were so precisely the words she expected him to say, should
she ever see him again face to face, that for an additional moment
they but heightened her sense of unreality.
"Well, the luck hasn't turned, after all, but I couldn't wait any
longer. Have you given a thought to me all these years, Nancy?"
"More than one, Justin"; for the very look upon his face, the
tenderness of his voice, the attitude of his body, outran his words
and told her what he had come home to say, told her that her years
of waiting were over at last.
"You ought to despise me for coming back again with only myself and
my empty hands to offer you."
How easy it was to speak his heart out in this dim and quiet place!
How tongue-tied he would have been, sitting on the black haircloth
sofa in the Wentworth parlour and gazing at the open soapstone
"Oh, men are such fools!" cried Nancy, smiles and tears struggling
together in her speech, as she sat down suddenly in her own pew and
put her hands over her face.
"They are," agreed Justin humbly, "but I've never stopped loving
you, whenever I've had time for thinking or loving. And I wasn't
sure that you really cared anything about me; and how could I have
asked you when I hadn't a dollar in the world?"
"There are other things to give a woman besides dollars, Justin."
"Are there? Well, you shall have them all, every one of them,
Nancy, if you can make up your mind to do without the dollars; for
dollars seem to be just what I can't manage."
Her hand was in his by this time, and they were sitting side by
side in the cushionless, carpetless Wentworth pew. The door stood
open; the winter moon shone in upon them. That it was beginning to
grow cold in the church passed unnoticed. The grasp of the woman's
hand seemed to give the man new hope and courage, and Justin's
warm, confiding, pleading pressure brought balm to Nancy, balm and
healing for the wounds her pride had suffered; joy, too, half-
conscious still, that her life need not be lived to the end in
unfruitful solitude. She had waited, "as some grey lake lies, full
and smooth, awaiting the star below the twilight." Justin Peabody
might have been no other woman's star, but he was Nancy's!
"Just you sitting beside me here makes me feel as if I'd been
asleep or dead all these years, and just born over again," said
Justin. "I've led a respectable, hard-working, honest life,
Nancy," he continued, "and I don't owe any man a cent; the trouble
is that no man owes me one. I've got enough money to pay two fares
back to Detroit on Monday, although I was terribly afraid you
wouldn't let me do it. It'll need a good deal of thinking and
planning, Nancy, for we shall be very poor."
Nancy had been storing up fidelity and affection deep, deep in the
hive of her heart all these years, and now the honey of her
helpfulness stood ready to be gathered.
"Could I keep hens in Detroit?" she asked. "I can always make them
"Hens--in three rooms, Nancy?"
Her face fell. "And no yard?"
A moment's pause, and then the smile came. "Oh, well, I've had
yards and hens for thirty-five years. Doing without them will be a
change. I can take in sewing."
"No, you can't, Nancy. I need your backbone and wits and pluck and
ingenuity, but if I can't ask you to sit with your hands folded for
the rest of your life, as I'd like to, you shan't use them for
other people. You're marrying me to make a man of me, but I'm not
marrying you to make you a drudge."
His voice rang clear and true in the silence, and Nancy's heart
vibrated at the sound.
"Oh, Justin, Justin!" she whispered. "There's something wrong
somewhere, but we'll find it out together, you and I, and make it
right. You're not like a failure. You don't even LOOK poor,
Justin; there isn't a man in Edgewood to compare with you, or I
should be washing his dishes and darning his stockings this minute.
And I am not a pauper! There'll be the rent of my little house and
a carload of my furniture, so you can put the three-room idea out
of your mind, and your firm will offer you a larger salary when you
tell them you have a wife to take care of. Oh, I see it all, and
it is as easy and bright and happy as can be!"
Justin put his arm around her and drew her close, with such a throb
of gratitude for her belief and trust that it moved him almost to
There was a long pause: then he said:-
"Now I shall call for you to-morrow morning after the last bell has
stopped ringing, and we will walk up the aisle together and sit in
the old Peabody pew. We shall be a nine-days' wonder anyway, but
this will be equal to an announcement, especially if you take my
arm. We don't either of us like to be stared at, but this will
show without a word what we think of each other and what we've
promised to be to each other, and it's the only thing that will
make me feel sure of you and settled in my mind after all these
mistaken years. Have you got the courage, Nancy?"
"I shouldn't wonder! I guess if I've had courage enough to wait
for you, I've got courage enough to walk up the aisle with you and
marry you besides!" said Nancy.--"Now it is too late for us to stay
here any longer, and you must see me only as far as my gate, for
perhaps you haven't forgotten yet how interested the Brewsters are
in their neighbours."
They stood at the little Wentworth gate for a moment, hand close
clasped in hand. The night was clear, the air was cold and
sparkling, but with nothing of bitterness in it; the sky was steely
blue and the evening star glowed and burned like a tiny sun. Nancy
remembered the shepherd's song she had taught the Sunday-school
children, and repeated softly:-
For I my sheep was watching
Beneath the silent skies,
When sudden, far to eastward,
I saw a star arise;
Then all the peaceful heavens
With sweetest music rang,
And glory, glory, glory!
The happy angels sang.
So I this night am joyful,
Though I can scarce tell why,
It seemeth me that glory
Hath met us very nigh;
And we, though poor and humble,
Have part in heavenly plan,
For, born to-night, the Prince of Peace
Shall rule the heart of man.
Justin's heart melted within him like wax to the woman's vision and
the woman's touch.
"Oh, Nancy, Nancy!" he whispered. "If I had brought my bad luck to
you long, long ago, would you have taken me then, and have I lost
years of such happiness as this?"
"There are some things it is not best for a man to be certain
about," said Nancy, with a wise smile and a last good-night.
"Ring out, sweet bells,
O'er woods and dells
Your lovely strains repeat,
While happy throngs
With joyous songs
Each accent gladly greet."
Christmas morning in the old Tory Hill Meeting-House was felt by
all of the persons who were present in that particular year to be a
most exciting and memorable occasion.
The old sexton quite outdid himself, for although he had rung the
bell for more than thirty years, he had never felt greater pride or
joy in his task. Was not his son John home for Christmas, and
John's wife, and a grandchild newly named Nathaniel for himself?
Were there not spareribs and turkeys and cranberries and mince pies
on the pantry shelves, and barrels of rosy Baldwins in the cellar
and bottles of mother's root beer just waiting to give a holiday
pop? The bell itself forgot its age and the suspicion of a crack
that dulled its voice on a damp day, and, inspired by the bright,
frosty air, the sexton's inspiring pull, and the Christmas spirit,
gave out nothing but joyous tones.
Ding-dong! Ding-dong! It fired the ambitions of star scholars
about to recite hymns and sing solos. It thrilled little girls
expecting dolls before night. It excited beyond bearing dozens of
little boys being buttoned into refractory overcoats. Ding-dong!
Ding-dong! Mothers' fingers trembled when they heard it, and
mothers' voices cried: "If that is the second bell, the children
will never be ready in time! Where are the overshoes? Where are
the mittens? Hurry, Jack! Hurry, Jennie!" Ding-dong! Ding-dong!
"Where's Sally's muff? Where's father's fur cap? Is the sleigh at
the door? Are the hot soapstones in? Have all of you your money
for the contribution box?"
Ding-dong! Ding-dong! It was a blithe bell, a sweet, true bell, a
holy bell, and to Justin, pacing his tavern room, as to Nancy,
trembling in her maiden chamber, it rang a Christmas message:-
Awake, glad heart! Arise and sing;
It is the birthday of thy King!
The congregation filled every seat in the old Meeting-House.
As Maria Sharp had prophesied, there was one ill-natured spinster
from a rival village who declared that the church floor looked like
Joseph's coat laid out smooth; but in the general chorus of
admiration, approval, and good will, this envious speech, though
repeated from mouth to mouth, left no sting.
Another item of interest long recalled was the fact that on that
august and unapproachable day the pulpit vases stood erect and
empty, though Nancy Wentworth had filled them every Sunday since
any one could remember. This instance, though felt at the time to
be of mysterious significance if the cause were ever revealed,
paled into nothingness when, after the ringing of the last bell,
Nancy Wentworth walked up the aisle on Justin Peabody's arm, and
they took their seats side by side in the old family pew.
("And consid'able close, too, though there was plenty o' room!")
("And no one that I ever heard of so much as suspicioned that they
had ever kept company!")
("And do you s'pose she knew Justin was expected back when she
scrubbed his pew a-Friday?")
("And this explains the empty pulpit vases!")
("And I always said that Nancy would make a real handsome couple if
she ever got anybody to couple with!")
During the unexpected and solemn procession of the two up the aisle
the soprano of the village choir stopped short in the middle of the
Doxology, and the three other voices carried it to the end without
any treble. Also, among those present there were some who could
not remember afterward the precise petitions wafted upward in the
And could it be explained otherwise than by cheerfully
acknowledging the bounty of an overruling Providence that Nancy
Wentworth should have had a new winter dress for the first time in
five years--a winter dress of dark brown cloth to match her beaver
muff and victorine? The existence of this toilette had been known
and discussed in Edgewood for a month past, and it was thought to
be nothing more than a proper token of respect from a member of the
carpet committee to the general magnificence of the church on the
occasion of its reopening after repairs. Indeed, you could have
identified every member of the Dorcas Society that Sunday morning
by the freshness of her apparel. The brown dress, then, was
generally expected; but why the white cashmere waist with collar
and cuffs of point lace, devised only and suitable only for the
minister's wedding, where it first saw the light?
"The white waist can only be explained as showing distinct hope!"
whispered the minister's wife during the reading of the church
"To me it shows more than hope; I am very sure that Nancy would
never take any wear out of that lace for hope; it means certainty!"
answered Maria, who was always strong in the prophetic line.
By sermon time Justin's identity had dawned upon most of the
congregation. A stranger to all but one or two at first, his
presence in the Peabody pew brought his face and figure back,
little by little, to the minds of the old parishioners.
When the contribution plate was passed, the sexton always began at
the right-wing pews, as all the sextons before him had done for a
hundred years. Every eye in the church was already turned upon
Justin and Nancy, and it was with almost a gasp that those in the
vicinity saw a ten dollar bill fall in the plate. The sexton
reeled, or, if that is too intemperate a word for a pillar of the
church, the good man tottered, but caught hold of the pew rail with
one hand, and, putting the thumb of his other over the bill,
proceeded quickly to the next pew, lest the stranger should think
better of his gift, or demand change, as had occasionally been done
in the olden time.
Nancy never fluttered an eyelash, but sat quietly by Justin's side
with her bosom rising and falling under the beaver fur and her cold
hands clasped tight in the little brown muff. Far from grudging
this appreciable part of their slender resources, she thrilled with
pride to see Justin's offering fall in the plate.
Justin was too absorbed in his own thoughts to notice anything, but
his munificent contribution had a most unexpected effect upon his
reputation, after all; for on that day, and on many another later
one, when his sudden marriage and departure with Nancy Wentworth
were under discussion, the neighbours said to one another:-
"Justin must be making money fast out West! He put ten dollars in
the contribution plate a-Sunday, and paid the minister ten more
next day for marryin' him to Nancy; so the Peabody luck has turned
at last!" which, as a matter of fact, it had.
"And all the time," said the chairman of the carpet committee to
the treasurer of the Dorcas Society--"all the time, little as she
realized it, Nancy was laying the carpet in her own pew. Now she's
married to Justin she'll be the makin' of him, or I miss my guess.
You can't do a thing with men folks without they're right alongside
where you can keep your eye and hand on 'em. Justin's handsome and
good and stiddy; all he need is some nice woman to put starch into
him. The Edgewood Peabodys never had a mite o' stiffenin' in 'em,-
-limp as dishrags, every blessed one! Nancy Wentworth fairly
rustles with starch. Justin hadn't been engaged to her but a few
hours when they walked up the aisle together, but did you notice
the way he carried his head? I declare I thought 't would fall off
behind! I shouldn't wonder a mite but they prospered and come back
every summer to set in the old Peabody Pew."
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