The Old Peabody Pew:
A Christmas Romance of a Country Church
by Kate Douglas Wiggin
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 deeds.”
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 visible source.
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 church.
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”
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 along!”
“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
“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 for.”
“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
“I think the word is Athanasian,” ventured the minister’s
“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
“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 manifested-by-the-usual-sign-and-no-contrary-minded-and-it-was-a-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 nowadays.”
“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 minister’s wife.
“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
“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 crêpe shawl and a palm-leaf
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
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
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 company.
“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
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 miniature fishes.
“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 ‘Bug
“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,
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 maiden joy.
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 chance.”
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
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
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
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 their names.
“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
“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 ’Zekiel.”
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
“Never mind!” smiled Nancy wearily. “Riverboro
folks never go to bed on Saturday nights without wondering what Edgewood
is thinking about them!”
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 ’Zekiel?”
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
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
She had indeed received a letter the day before, an unsigned communication,
consisting only of the words, “Second Epistle of John. Verse
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, she wondered?)
“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 verse.
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
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-house.
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 single!
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 muslin hat.
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
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 him over.
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 womanly heart!
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 awakened.
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 cushions.
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 church.
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
“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,
“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 stove!
“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
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 pay.”
“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
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 tears.
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
(“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 opening
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 notices.
“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.”