It was a very small meeting, aunt Miranda,"began Rebecca, "and the missionary and hiswife are lovely people, and they are cominghere to stay all night and to-morrow with you. Ihope you won't mind.""Coming here!" exclaimed Miranda, letting herknitting fall in her lap, and taking her spectaclesoff, as she always did in moments of extremeexcitement. "Did they invite themselves?""No," Rebecca answered. "I had to invite themfor you; but I thought you'd like to have suchinteresting company. It was this way"--"Stop your explainin', and tell me first whenthey'll be here. Right away?""No, not for two hours--about half past five.""Then you can explain, if you can, who gave youany authority to invite a passel of strangers to stophere over night, when you know we ain't had anycompany for twenty years, and don't intend to haveany for another twenty,--or at any rate while I'mthe head of the house.""Don't blame her, Miranda, till you've heardher story," said Jane. "It was in my mind rightalong, if we went to the meeting, some such thingmight happen, on account of Mr. Burch knowingfather.""The meeting was a small one," began Rebecca"I gave all your messages, and everybody wasdisappointed you couldn't come, for the presidentwasn't there, and Mrs. Matthews took the chair, whichwas a pity, for the seat wasn't nearly big enough forher, and she reminded me of a line in a hymn wesang, `Wide as the heathen nations are,' and shewore that kind of a beaver garden-hat that alwaysgets on one side. And Mr. Burch talked beautifullyabout the Syrian heathen, and the singing wentreal well, and there looked to be about forty centsin the basket that was passed on our side. Andthat wouldn't save even a heathen baby, would it?
Then Mr. Burch said, if any sister would offerentertainment, they would pass the night, and havea parlor meeting in Riverboro to-morrow, with Mrs.
Burch in Syrian costume, and lovely foreign thingsto show. Then he waited and waited, and nobodysaid a word. I was so mortified I didn't know whatto do. And then he repeated what he said, anexplained why he wanted to stay, and you could seehe thought it was his duty. Just then Mrs.
Robinson whispered to me and said the missionariesalways used to go to the brick house whengrandfather was alive, and that he never would let themsleep anywhere else. I didn't know you had stoppedhaving them. because no traveling ministers havebeen here, except just for a Sunday morning, sinceI came to Riverboro. So I thought I ought toinvite them, as you weren't there to do it for yourself,and you told me to represent the family.""What did you do--go up and introduceyourself as folks was goin' out?""No; I stood right up in meeting. I had to, forMr. Burch's feelings were getting hurt at nobody'sspeaking. So I said, `My aunts, Miss Miranda andMiss Jane Sawyer would be happy to have youvisit at the brick house, just as the missionariesalways did when their father was alive, and theysent their respects by me.' Then I sat down; andMr. Burch prayed for grandfather, and called him aman of God, and thanked our Heavenly Father thathis spirit was still alive in his descendants (that wasyou), and that the good old house where so manyof the brethren had been cheered and helped, andfrom which so many had gone out strengthened forthe fight, was still hospitably open for the strangerand wayfarer."Sometimes, when the heavenly bodies are injust the right conjunction, nature seems to be themost perfect art. The word or the deed comingstraight from the heart, without any thought ofeffect, seems inspired.
A certain gateway in Miranda Sawyer's soul hadbeen closed for years; not all at once had it beendone, but gradually, and without her full knowledge.
If Rebecca had plotted for days, and with the utmostcunning, she could not have effected an entranceinto that forbidden country, and now, unknown toboth of them, the gate swung on its stiff and rustyhinges, and the favoring wind of opportunity openedit wider and wider as time went on. All things hadworked together amazingly for good. The memoryof old days had been evoked, and the daily lifeof a pious and venerated father called to mind;the Sawyer name had been publicly dignified andpraised; Rebecca had comported herself as thegranddaughter of Deacon Israel Sawyer should, andshowed conclusively that she was not "all Randall,"as had been supposed. Miranda was rathermollified by and pleased with the turn of events,although she did not intend to show it, or give anybodyany reason to expect that this expression ofhospitality was to serve for a precedent on anysubsequent occasion.
"Well, I see you did only what you was obligedto do, Rebecca," she said, "and you worded yourinvitation as nice as anybody could have done. Iwish your aunt Jane and me wasn't both so worthlesswith these colds; but it only shows the goodof havin' a clean house, with every room in order,whether open or shut, and enough victuals cookedso 't you can't be surprised and belittled byanybody, whatever happens. There was half a dozenthere that might have entertained the Burches aseasy as not, if they hadn't 'a' been too meanor lazy. Why didn't your missionaries come rightalong with you?""They had to go to the station for their valiseand their children.""Are there children?" groaned Miranda.
"Yes, aunt Miranda, all born under Syrianskies.""Syrian grandmother!" ejaculated Miranda (andit was not a fact). "How many?""I didn't think to ask; but I will get two roomsready, and if there are any over I'll take 'em intomy bed," said Rebecca, secretly hoping that thiswould be the case. "Now, as you're both half sick,couldn't you trust me just once to get ready for thecompany? You can come up when I call. Willyou?""I believe I will," sighed Miranda reluctantly.
"I'll lay down side o' Jane in our bedroom and seeif I can get strength to cook supper. It's half pastthree--don't you let me lay a minute past five. Ikep' a good fire in the kitchen stove. I don't know,I'm sure, why I should have baked a pot o' beansin the middle of the week, but they'll come inhandy. Father used to say there was nothing thatwent right to the spot with returned missionarieslike pork 'n' beans 'n' brown bread. Fix up the twosouth chambers, Rebecca."Rebecca, given a free hand for the only time in herlife, dashed upstairs like a whirlwind. Every roomin the brick house was as neat as wax, and she hadonly to pull up the shades, go over the floors witha whisk broom, and dust the furniture. The auntscould hear her scurrying to and fro, beating uppillows and feather beds, flapping towels, jinglingcrockery, singing meanwhile in her clear voice:--"In vain with lavish kindnessThe gifts of God are strown;The heathen in his blindnessBows down to wood and stone."She had grown to be a handy little creature, andtasks she was capable of doing at all she did likea flash, so that when she called her aunts at fiveo'clock to pass judgment, she had accomplishedwonders. There were fresh towels on bureaus andwashstands, the beds were fair and smooth, thepitchers were filled, and soap and matches werelaid out; newspaper, kindling, and wood were in theboxes, and a large stick burned slowly in each air-tight stove. "I thought I'd better just take thechill off," she explained, "as they're right fromSyria; and that reminds me, I must look it up inthe geography before they get here."There was nothing to disapprove, so the twosisters went downstairs to make some slight changesin their dress. As they passed the parlor doorMiranda thought she heard a crackle and looked in.
The shades were up, there was a cheerful blaze inthe open stove in the front parlor, and a fire laidon the hearth in the back room. Rebecca's ownlamp, her second Christmas present from Mr. Aladdin,stood on a marble-topped table in the corner,the light that came softly through its rose-coloredshade transforming the stiff and gloomy ugliness ofthe room into a place where one could sit and loveone's neighbor.
"For massy's sake, Rebecca," called MissMiranda up the stairs, "did you think we'd betteropen the parlor?"Rebecca came out on the landing braiding herhair.
"We did on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and Ithought this was about as great an occasion," shesaid. "I moved the wax flowers off the mantelpieceso they wouldn't melt, and put the shells, the coral,and the green stuffed bird on top of the what-not,so the children wouldn't ask to play with them.
Brother Milliken's coming over to see Mr. Burchabout business, and I shouldn't wonder if Brotherand Sister Cobb happened in. Don't go downcellar, I'll be there in a minute to do the running."Miranda and Jane exchanged glances.
"Ain't she the beatin'est creetur that ever wasborn int' the world!" exclaimed Miranda; "but shecan turn off work when she's got a mind to!"At quarter past five everything was ready, andthe neighbors, those at least who were within sightof the brick house (a prominent object in thelandscape when there were no leaves on the trees),were curious almost to desperation. Shades up inboth parlors! Shades up in the two south bedrooms!
And fires--if human vision was to be reliedon--fires in about every room. If it had notbeen for the kind offices of a lady who had been atthe meeting, and who charitably called in at one ortwo houses and explained the reason of all thispreparation, there would have been no sleep in manyfamilies.
The missionary party arrived promptly, and therewere but two children, seven or eight having beenleft with the brethren in Portland, to diminishtraveling expenses. Jane escorted them all upstairs,while Miranda watched the cooking of the supper;but Rebecca promptly took the two little girls awayfrom their mother, divested them of their wraps,smoothed their hair, and brought them down to thekitchen to smell the beans.
There was a bountiful supper, and the presenceof the young people robbed it of all possible stiffness.
Aunt Jane helped clear the table and putaway the food, while Miranda entertained in theparlor; but Rebecca and the infant Burches washedthe dishes and held high carnival in the kitchen,doing only trifling damage--breaking a cup andplate that had been cracked before, emptying a silverspoon with some dishwater out of the back door(an act never permitted at the brick house), andputting coffee grounds in the sink. All evidencesof crime having been removed by Rebecca, and damagesrepaired in all possible cases, the three enteredthe parlor, where Mr. and Mrs. Cobb and Deaconand Mrs. Milliken had already appeared.
It was such a pleasant evening! Occasionallythey left the heathen in his blindness bowing downto wood and stone, not for long, but just to givethemselves (and him) time enough to breathe, andthen the Burches told strange, beautiful, marvelousthings. The two smaller children sang together,and Rebecca, at the urgent request of Mrs. Burch,seated herself at the tinkling old piano and gave"Wild roved an Indian girl, bright Alfarata" withconsiderable spirit and style.
At eight o'clock she crossed the room, handed apalm-leaf fan to her aunt Miranda, ostensibly thatshe might shade her eyes from the lamplight; butit was a piece of strategy that gave her an opportunityto whisper, "How about cookies?""Do you think it's worth while?" sibilated MissMiranda in answer.
"The Perkinses always do.""All right. You know where they be."Rebecca moved quietly towards the door, and theyoung Burches cataracted after her as if they couldnot bear a second's separation. In five minutesthey returned, the little ones bearing plates of thincaraway wafers,--hearts, diamonds, and circlesdaintily sugared, and flecked with caraway seedraised in the garden behind the house. These werea specialty of Miss Jane's, and Rebecca carried atray with six tiny crystal glasses filled with dandelionwine, for which Miss Miranda had been famous inyears gone by. Old Deacon Israel had always hadit passed, and he had bought the glasses himselfin Boston. Miranda admired them greatly, not onlyfor their beauty but because they held so little.
Before their advent the dandelion wine had been servedin sherry glasses.
As soon as these refreshments--commonlycalled a "colation" in Riverboro--had been genteellypartaken of, Rebecca looked at the clock, rosefrom her chair in the children's corner, and saidcheerfully, "Come! time for little missionaries tobe in bed!"Everybody laughed at this, the big missionariesmost of all, as the young people shook hands anddisappeared with Rebecca.