There was another milestone; it was morethan that, it was an "event;" an eventthat made a deep impression in severalquarters and left a wake of smaller events in itstrain. This was the coming to Riverboro of theReverend Amos Burch and wife, returned missionariesfrom Syria.
The Aid Society had called its meeting for acertain Wednesday in March of the year in whichRebecca ended her Riverboro school days andbegan her studies at Wareham. It was a raw,blustering day, snow on the ground and a look inthe sky of more to follow. Both Miranda and Janehad taken cold and decided that they could notleave the house in such weather, and this deflectionfrom the path of duty worried Miranda, since shewas an officer of the society. After making thebreakfast table sufficiently uncomfortable and wishingplaintively that Jane wouldn't always insist onbeing sick at the same time she was, she decidedthat Rebecca must go to the meeting in theirstead. "You'll be better than nobody, Rebecca,"she said flatteringly; "your aunt Jane shall writean excuse from afternoon school for you; you canwear your rubber boots and come home by theway of the meetin' house. This Mr. Burch, if Iremember right, used to know your grandfatherSawyer, and stayed here once when he wascandidatin'. He'll mebbe look for us there, and youmust just go and represent the family, an' give himour respects. Be careful how you behave. Bowyour head in prayer; sing all the hymns, but nottoo loud and bold; ask after Mis' Strout's boy;tell everybody what awful colds we've got; if yousee a good chance, take your pocket handkerchiefand wipe the dust off the melodeon before themeetin' begins, and get twenty-five cents out of thesittin' room match-box in case there should be acollection."Rebecca willingly assented. Anything interestedher, even a village missionary meeting, and the ideaof representing the family was rather intoxicating.
The service was held in the Sunday-school room,and although the Rev. Mr. Burch was on the platformwhen Rebecca entered, there were only adozen persons present. Feeling a little shy andconsiderably too young for this assemblage, Rebeccasought the shelter of a friendly face, and seeingMrs. Robinson in one of the side seats near thefront, she walked up the aisle and sat beside her.
"Both my aunts had bad colds," she said softly,"and sent me to represent the family.""That's Mrs. Burch on the platform with herhusband," whispered Mrs. Robinson. "She's awfultanned up, ain't she? If you're goin' to save soulsseems like you hev' to part with your complexion.
Eudoxy Morton ain't come yet; I hope to the landshe will, or Mis' Deacon Milliken'll pitch the tuneswhere we can't reach 'em with a ladder; can'tyou pitch, afore she gits her breath and clears herthroat?"Mrs. Burch was a slim, frail little woman withdark hair, a broad low forehead, and patient mouth.
She was dressed in a well-worn black silk, andlooked so tired that Rebecca's heart went out toher.
"They're poor as Job's turkey," whispered Mrs.
Robinson; "but if you give 'em anything they'dturn right round and give it to the heathen. Hiscongregation up to Parsonsfield clubbed togetherand give him that gold watch he carries; I s'posehe'd 'a' handed that over too, only heathens alwaystell time by the sun 'n' don't need watches. Eudoxyain't comin'; now for massy's sake, Rebecca, dogit ahead of Mis' Deacon Milliken and pitch reallow."The meeting began with prayer and then theRev. Mr. Burch announced, to the tune of Mendon:--"Church of our God I arise and shine,Bright with the beams of truth divine:
Then shall thy radiance stream afar,Wide as the heathen nations are.
"Gentiles and kings thy light shall view,And shall admire and love thee too;They come, like clouds across the sky,As doves that to their windows fly.""Is there any one present who will assist us atthe instrument?" he asked unexpectedly.
Everybody looked at everybody else, and nobodymoved; then there came a voice out of a far cornersaying informally, "Rebecca, why don't you?" Itwas Mrs. Cobb. Rebecca could have played Mendonin the dark, so she went to the melodeon anddid so without any ado, no member of her familybeing present to give her self-consciousness.
The talk that ensued was much the usual sort ofthing. Mr. Burch made impassioned appeals for thespreading of the gospel, and added his entreatiesthat all who were prevented from visiting inperson the peoples who sat in darkness shouldcontribute liberally to the support of others who could.
But he did more than this. He was a pleasant,earnest speaker, and he interwove his discourse withstories of life in a foreign land,--of the manners,the customs, the speech, the point of view; evengiving glimpses of the daily round, the commontask, of his own household, the work of hisdevoted helpmate and their little group of children,all born under Syrian skies.
Rebecca sat entranced, having been given thekey of another world. Riverboro had faded; theSunday-school room, with Mrs. Robinson's red plaidshawl, and Deacon Milliken's wig, on crooked, thebare benches and torn hymn-books, the hangingtexts and maps, were no longer visible, and shesaw blue skies and burning stars, white turbansand gay colors; Mr. Burch had not said so, butperhaps there were mosques and temples and minaretsand date-palms. What stories they must know,those children born under Syrian skies! Thenshe was called upon to play "Jesus shall reignwhere'er the sun."The contribution box was passed and Mr. Burchprayed. As he opened his eyes and gave out thelast hymn he looked at the handful of people, at thescattered pennies and dimes in the contribution box,and reflected that his mission was not only to gatherfunds for the building of his church, but to keepalive, in all these remote and lonely neighborhoods,that love for the cause which was its only hope inthe years to come.
"If any of the sisters will provide entertainment,"he said, "Mrs. Burch and I will remain among youto-night and to-morrow. In that event we couldhold a parlor meeting. My wife and one of mychildren would wear the native costume, we woulddisplay some specimens of Syrian handiwork, andgive an account of our educational methods with thechildren. These informal parlor meetings, admittingof questions or conversation, are often the meansof interesting those not commonly found at churchservices so I repeat, if any member of the congregationdesires it and offers her hospitality, we willgladly stay and tell you more of the Lord's work."A pall of silence settled over the little assembly.
There was some cogent reason why every "sister"there was disinclined for company. Some had nospare room, some had a larder less well stocked thanusual, some had sickness in the family, some were"unequally yoked together with unbelievers" whodisliked strange ministers. Mrs. Burch's thin handsfingered her black silk nervously. "Would no onespeak!" thought Rebecca, her heart fluttering withsympathy. Mrs. Robinson leaned over and whisperedsignificantly, "The missionaries always usedto be entertained at the brick house; your grand-father never would let 'em sleep anywheres elsewhen he was alive." She meant this for a stab atMiss Miranda's parsimony, remembering the fourspare chambers, closed from January to December;but Rebecca thought it was intended as a suggestion.
If it had been a former custom, perhaps heraunts would want her to do the right thing; forwhat else was she representing the family? So,delighted that duty lay in so pleasant a direction,she rose from her seat and said in the pretty voiceand with the quaint manner that so separated herfrom all the other young people in the village, "Myaunts, Miss Miranda and Miss Jane Sawyer, wouldbe very happy to have you visit them at the brickhouse, as the ministers always used to do when theirfather was alive. They sent their respects by me."The "respects" might have been the freedom ofthe city, or an equestrian statue, when presented inthis way, and the aunts would have shuddered couldthey have foreseen the manner of delivery; but itwas vastly impressive to the audience, who concludedthat Mirandy Sawyer must be making herway uncommonly fast to mansions in the skies, elsewhat meant this abrupt change of heart?
Mr. Burch bowed courteously, accepted theinvitation "in the same spirit in which it was offered,"and asked Brother Milliken to lead in prayer.
If the Eternal Ear could ever tire it would haveceased long ere this to listen to Deacon Milliken,who had wafted to the throne of grace the sameprayer, with very slight variations, for forty years.
Mrs. Perkins followed; she had several petitionsat her command, good sincere ones too, but a littlecut and dried, made of scripture texts laboriouslywoven together. Rebecca wondered why she alwaysended, at the most peaceful seasons, with the form,"Do Thou be with us, God of Battles, while westrive onward like Christian soldiers marching asto war;" but everything sounded real to her to-day,she was in a devout mood, and many things Mr.
Burch had said had moved her strangely. As shelifted her head the minister looked directly at herand said, "Will our young sister close the serviceby leading us in prayer?"Every drop of blood in Rebecca's body seemed tostand still, and her heart almost stopped beating.
Mrs. Cobb's excited breathing could be heard distinctlyin the silence. There was nothing extraordinaryin Mr. Burch's request. In his journeyingsamong country congregations he was constantlyin the habit of meeting young members who had"experienced religion" and joined the church whennine or ten years old. Rebecca was now thirteen;she had played the melodeon, led the singing,delivered her aunts' invitation with an air of greatworldly wisdom, and he, concluding that she mustbe a youthful pillar of the church, called upon herwith the utmost simplicity.
Rebecca's plight was pathetic. How could sherefuse; how could she explain she was not a"member;" how could she pray before all those elderlywomen! John Rogers at the stake hardly sufferedmore than this poor child for the moment as sherose to her feet, forgetting that ladies prayedsitting, while deacons stood in prayer. Her mind wasa maze of pictures that the Rev. Mr. Burch hadflung on the screen. She knew the conventionalphraseology, of course; what New England child,accustomed to Wednesday evening meetings, doesnot? But her own secret prayers were different.
However, she began slowly and tremulously:--"Our Father who art in Heaven, . . . Thou artGod in Syria just the same as in Maine; . . . overthere to-day are blue skies and yellow stars andburning suns . . . the great trees are waving in thewarm air, while here the snow lies thick under ourfeet, . . . but no distance is too far for God to traveland so He is with us here as He is with themthere, . . . and our thoughts rise to Him `as dovesthat to their windows fly.'. . .
"We cannot all be missionaries, teaching peopleto be good, . . . some of us have not learned yethow to be good ourselves, but if thy kingdom isto come and thy will is to be done on earth as itis in heaven, everybody must try and everybodymust help, . . . those who are old and tired andthose who are young and strong. . . . The littlechildren of whom we have heard, those born underSyrian skies, have strange and interesting work todo for Thee, and some of us would like to travelin far lands and do wonderful brave things for theheathen and gently take away their idols of woodand stone. But perhaps we have to stay at homeand do what is given us to do . . . sometimes eventhings we dislike, . . . but that must be what itmeans in the hymn we sang, when it talked aboutthe sweet perfume that rises with every morningsacrifice. . . . This is the way that God teaches usto be meek and patient, and the thought that Hehas willed it so should rob us of our fears and helpus bear the years. Amen."Poor little ignorant, fantastic child! Her petitionwas simply a succession of lines from the varioushymns, and images the minister had used in hissermon, but she had her own way of recombiningand applying these things, even of using them in anew connection, so that they had a curious effectof belonging to her. The words of some peoplemight generally be written with a minus sign afterthem, the minus meaning that the personality ofthe speaker subtracted from, rather than added to,their weight; but Rebecca's words might alwayshave borne the plus sign.
The "Amen" said, she sat down, or presumedshe sat down, on what she believed to be a bench,and there was a benediction. In a moment or two,when the room ceased spinning, she went up toMrs. Burch, who kissed her affectionately and said,"My dear, how glad I am that we are going to staywith you. Will half past five be too late for us tocome? It is three now, and we have to go to thestation for our valise and for our children. We leftthem there, being uncertain whether we should goback or stop here."Rebecca said that half past five was their supperhour, and then accepted an invitation to drive homewith Mrs. Cobb. Her face was flushed and her lipquivered in a way that aunt Sarah had learned toknow, so the homeward drive was taken almost insilence. The bleak wind and aunt Sarah's quietingpresence brought her back to herself, however, andshe entered the brick house cheerily. Being toofull of news to wait in the side entry to take off herrubber boots, she carefully lifted a braided rug intothe sitting-room and stood on that while she openedher budget.
"There are your shoes warming by the fire,"said aunt Jane. "Slip them right on while you talk."