Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott
Chapter XXIV. The Great Gate is Opened
The Browns were up and out so early next morning that Bab and Betty were sure they had run away in the night. But on looking for them, they were discovered in the coach-house criticising Lita, both with their hands in their pockets, both chewing straws, and looking as much alike as a big elephant and a small one.
"That's as pretty a little span as I've seen for a long time," said the elder Ben, as the children came trotting down the path hand in hand, with the four blue bows at the ends of their braids bobbing briskly up and down.
"The nigh one is my favorite, but the off one is the best goer, though she's dreadfully hard bitted," answered Ben the younger, with such a comical assumption of a jockey's important air that his father laughed as he said in an undertone, --
"Come, boy, we must drop the old slang since we've given up the old business. These good folks are making a gentleman of you, and I won't be the one to spoil their work. Hold on, my dears, and I'll show you how they say good-morning in California," he added, beckoning to the little girls, who now came up rosy and smiling.
"Breakfast is ready, sir," said Betty, looking much relieved to find them.
"We thought you'd run away from us," explained Bab, as both put out their hands to shake those extended to them.
"That would be a mean trick. But I'm going to run away with you," and Mr. Brown whisked a little girl to either shoulder before they knew what had happened, while Ben, remembering the day, with difficulty restrained himself from turning a series of triumphant somersaults before them all the way to the door, where Mrs. Moss stood waiting for them.
After breakfast Ben disappeared for a short time, and returned in his Sunday suit, looking so neat and fresh that his father surveyed him with surprise and pride as he came in full of boyish satisfaction in his trim array.
"Here's a smart young chap! Did you take all that trouble just to go to walk with old Daddy?" asked Mr. Brown, stroking the smooth head, for they were alone just then, Mrs. Moss and the children being up stairs preparing for church.
"I thought may be you'd like to go to meeting first," answered Ben, looking up at him with such a happy face that it was hard to refuse any thing. I'm too shabby, Sonny, else I'd go in a minute to please you."
"Miss Celia said God didn't mind poor clothes, and she took me when I looked worse than you do. I always go in the morning; she likes to have me," said Ben, turning his hat about as if not quite sure what he ought to do.
"Do you want to go?" asked his father in a tone of surprise.
"I want to please her, if you don't mind. We could have our tramp this afternoon."
"I haven't been to meeting since mother died, and it don't seem to come easy, though I know I ought to, seeing I'm alive and here," and Mr. Brown looked soberly out at the lovely autumn world as if glad to be in it after his late danger and pain.
"Miss Celia said church was a good place to take our troubles, and to be thankful in. I went when I thought you were dead, and now I'd love to go when I've got my Daddy safe again,"
No one saw him, so Ben could not resist giving his father a sudden hug, which was warmly returned as the man said earnestly, --
"I'll go, and thank the Lord hearty for giving me back my boy better'n I left him!"
For a minute nothing was heard but the loud tick of the old clock and a mournful whine front Sancho, shut up in the shed lest he should go to church without an invitation.
Then, as steps were heard on the stairs, Mr. Brown caught up his hat, saying hastily, --
"I ain't fit to go with them, you tell 'm, and I'll slip into a back seat after folks are in. I know the way." And, before Ben could reply, he was gone. Nothing was seen of him along the way, but he saw the little party, and rejoiced again over his boy, changed in so many ways for the better; for Ben was the one thing which had kept his heart soft through all the trials and temptations of a rough life.
"I promised Mary I'd do my best for the poor baby she had to leave, and I tried; but I guess a better friend than I am has been raised up for him when he needed her most. It won't hurt me to follow him in this road," thought Mr. Brown, as he came out into the highway from his stroll "across-lots," feeling that it would be good for him to stay in this quiet place, for his own as well as his son's sake.
The Bell had done ringing when he reached the green, but a single boy sat on the steps and rail to meet him, saying, with a reproachful look, --
"I wasn't going to let you be alone, and have folks think I was ashamed of my father. Come, Daddy, we'll sit together."
So Ben led his father straight to the Squire's pew, and sat beside him with a face so full of innocent pride and joy, that people would have suspected the truth if he had not already told many of them. Mr. Brown, painfully conscious of his shabby coat, was rather "taken aback," as he expressed it; but the Squire's shake of the hand, and Mrs. Allen's gracious nod enabled him to face the eyes of the interested congregation, the younger portion of which stared steadily at him all sermon time, in spite of paternal frowns and maternal tweakings in the rear.
But the crowning glory of the day came after church, when the Squire said to Ben, and Sam heard him, --
"I've got a letter for you from Miss Celia. Come home with me, and bring your father. I want to talk to him."
The boy proudly escorted his parent to the old carry-all, and, tucking himself in behind with Mrs. Allen, had the satisfaction of seeing the slouched felt hat side by side with the Squire's Sunday beaver in front, as they drove off at such an unusually smart pace, it was evident that Duke knew there was a critical eye upon him. The interest taken in the father was owing to the son at first; but, by the time the story was told, old Ben had won friends for himself not only because of the misfortunes which he had evidently borne in a manly way, but because of his delight in the boy's improvement, and the desire he felt to turn his hand to any honest work, that he might keep Ben happy and contented in this good home.
"I'll give you a line to Towne. Smithers spoke well of you, and your own ability will be the best recommendation," said the Squire, as he parted from them at his door, having given Ben the letter.
Miss Celia had been gone a fortnight, and every one was longing to have her back. The first week brought Ben a newspaper, with a crinkly line drawn round the marriages to attract attention to that spot, and one was marked by a black frame with a large hand pointing at it from the margin. Thorny sent that; but the next week came a parcel for Mrs. Moss, and in it was discovered a box of wedding cake for every member of the family, including Sancho, who ate his at one gulp, and chewed up the lace paper which covered it. This was the third week; and, as if there could not be happiness enough crowded into it for Ben, the letter he read on his way home told him that his dear mistress was coming back on the following Saturday. One passage particularly pleased him, --
"I want the great gate opened, so that the new master may go in that way. Will you see that it is done, and all made neat afterward? Randa will give you the key, and you may have out all your flags if you like, for the old place cannot look too gay for this home-coming."
Sunday though it was, Ben could not help waving the letter over his head as he ran in to tell Mrs. Moss the glad news, and begin at once to plan the welcome they would give Miss Celia, for he never called her any thing else.
During their afternoon stroll in the mellow sunshine, Ben continued to talk of her, never tired of telling about his happy summer under her roof. And Mr. Brown was never weary of hearing, for every hour showed him more plainly what a lovely miracle her gentle words had wrought, and every hour increased his gratitude, his desire to return the kindness in some humble way. He had his wish, and did his part handsomely when he least expected to have a chance.
On Monday he saw Mr. Towne, and, thanks to the Squire's good word, was engaged for a month on trial, making himself so useful that it was soon evident he was the right man in the right place. He lived on the hill, but managed to get down to the little brown house in the evening for a word with Ben, who just now was as full of business as if the President and his Cabinet were coming.
Every thing was put in apple-pie order in and about the old house; the great gate, with much creaking of rusty hinges and some clearing away of rubbish, was set wide open, and the first creature who entered it was Sancho, solemnly dragging the dead mullein which long ago had grown above the keyhole. October frosts seemed to have spared some of the brightest leaves for this especial occasion; and on Saturday the arched gate-way was hung with gay wreaths, red and yellow sprays strewed the flags, and the porch was a blaze of color with the red woodbine, that was in its glory when the honeysuckle was leafless.
Fortunately it was a half-holiday, so the children could trim and chatter to their heart's content, and the little girls ran about sticking funny decorations where no one would ever think of looking for them. Ben was absorbed in his flags, which were sprinkled all down the avenue with a lavish display, suggesting several Fourth of Julys rolled into one. Mr. Brown had come to lend a hand, and did so most energetically, for the break-neck things he did with his son during the decoration fever would have terrified Mrs. Moss out of her wits, if she had not been in the house giving last touches to every room, while Randa and Katy set forth a sumptuous tea.
All was going well, and the train would be due in an hour, when luckless Bab nearly turned the rejoicing into mourning, the feast into ashes. She heard her mother say to Randa, "There ought to be a fire in every room, it looks so cheerful, and the air is chilly spite of the sunshine;" and, never waiting to hear the reply that some of the long-unused chimneys were not safe till cleaned, off went Bab with an apron full of old shingles, and made a roaring blaze in the front room fire-place, which was of all others the one to be let alone, as the flue was out of order.
Charmed with the brilliant light and the crackle of the tindery fuel, Miss Bab refilled her apron, and fed the fire till the chimney began to rumble ominously, sparks to fly out at the top, and soot and swallows' nests to come tumbling down upon the hearth. Then, scared at what she had done, the little mischief-maker hastily buried her fire, swept up the rubbish, and ran off, thinking no one would discover her prank if she never told.
Everybody was very busy, and the big chimney blazed and rumbled unnoticed till the cloud of smoke caught Ben's eye as he festooned his last effort in the flag line, part of an old sheet with the words "Father has come!" in red cambric letters half a foot long sewed upon it.
"Hullo! I do believe they've got up a bonfire. without asking my leave. Miss Celia never would let us, because the sheds and roofs are so old and dry; I must see about it. Catch me, Daddy, I'm coming down!" cried Ben, dropping out of the elm with no more thought of where he might light than a squirrel swinging from bough to bough.
His father caught him, and followed in haste as his nimble-footed son raced up the avenue, to stop in the gate-way, frightened at the prospect before him, for falling sparks had already kindled the roof here and there, and the chimney smoked and roared like a small volcano, while Katy's wails and Randa's cries for water came from within.
"Up there with wet blankets, while I get out the hose!" cried Mr. Brown, as he saw at a glance what the danger was.
Ben vanished; and, before his father got the garden hose rigged, he was on the roof with a dripping blanket over the worst spot. Mrs. Moss had her wits about her in a minute, and ran to put in the fireboard, and stop the draught. Then, stationing Randa to watch that the falling cinders did no harm inside, she hurried off to help Mr. Brown, who might not know where things were. But he had roughed it so long, that he was the man for emergencies, and seemed to lay his hand on whatever was needed, by a sort of instinct. Finding that the hose was too short to reach the upper part of the roof, he was on the roof in a jiffy with two pails of water, and quenched the most dangerous spots before much harm was done.
This he kept up till the chimney burned itself out, while Ben dodged about among the gables with a watering pot, lest some stray sparks should be over-looked, and break out afresh.
While they worked there, Betty ran to and fro with a dipper of water, trying to help; and Sancho barked violently, as if he objected to this sort of illumination. But where was Bab, who revelled in flurries? No one missed her till the fire was out, and the tired, sooty people met to talk over the danger just escaped.
"Poor Miss Celia wouldn't have had a roof over her head, if it hadn't been for you, Mr. Brown," said Mrs. Moss, sinking into a kitchen chair, pale with the excitement.
"It would have burnt lively, but I guess it's all right now. Keep an eye on the roof, Ben, and I'll step up garret and see if all's safe there. Didn't you know that chimney was foul, ma'am?" asked the man, as he wiped the perspiration off his grimy face.
"Randa said it was, and I 'in surprised she made a fire there," began Mrs. Moss, looking at the maid, who just then came in with a pan full of soot.
"Bless you, ma'am, I never thought of such a thing, nor Katy neither. That naughty Bab must have done it, and so don't dar'st to show herself," answered the irate Randa, whose nice room was in a mess.
"Where is the child?" asked her mother; and a hunt was immediately instituted by Betty and Sancho, while the elders cleared up.
Anxious Betty searched high and low, called and cried, but all in vain; and was about to sit down in despair, when Sancho made a bolt into his new kennel and brought out a shoe with a foot in it while a doleful squeal came from the straw within.
"Oh, Bab, how could you do it? Ma was frightened dreadfully," said Betty, gently tugging at the striped leg, as Sancho poked his head in for another shoe.
"Is it all burnt up?" demanded a smothered voice from the recesses of the kennel.
"Only pieces of the roof. Ben and his father put it out, and I helped," answered Betty, cheering up a little as she recalled her noble exertions.
"What do they do to folks who set houses afire?" asked the voice again.
"I don't know; but you needn't be afraid, there isn't much harm done, I guess, and Miss Celia will forgive you, she's so good."
"Thorny won't; he calls me a 'botheration,' and I guess I am," mourned the unseen culprit, with sincere contrition.
"I'll ask him; he is always good to me. They will be here pretty soon, so you'd better come out and be made tidy," suggested the comforter.
"I never can come out, for every one will hate me," sobbed Bab among the straw, as she pulled in her foot, as if retiring for ever from an outraged world.
"Ma won't, she's too busy cleaning up; so it's a good time to come. Let's run home, wash our hands, and be all nice when they see us. I'll love you, no matter what anybody else does," said Betty, consoling the poor little sinner, and proposing the sort of repentance most likely to find favor in the eyes of the agitated elders.
"P'raps I'd better go home, for Sanch will want his bed," and Bab gladly availed herself of that excuse to back out of her refuge, a very crumpled, dusty young lady, with a dejected face and much straw sticking in her hair.
Betty led her sadly away, for she still protested that she never should dare to meet the offended public again; but in fifteen minutes both appeared in fine order and good spirits, and naughty Bab escaped a lecture for the time being, as the train would soon be due.
At the first sound of the car whistle every one turned good-natured as if by magic, and flew to the gate smiling as if all mishaps were forgiven and forgotten. Mrs. Moss, however, slipped quietly away, and was the first to greet Mrs. Celia as the carriage stopped at the entrance of the avenue, so that the luggage might go in by way of the lodge.
"We will walk up and you shall tell us the news as we go, for I see you have some," said the young lady, in her friendly manner, when Mrs. Moss had given her welcome and paid her respects to the gentleman who shook hands in a way that convinced her he was indeed what Thorny called him, "regularly jolly," though he was a minister.
That being exactly what she came for, the good woman told her tidings as rapidly as possible, and the new-comers were so glad to hear of Ben's happiness they made very light of Bab's bonfire, though it had nearly burnt their house down.
"We won't say a word about it, for every one must be happy to-day," said Mr. George, so kindly that Mrs. Moss felt a load taken off her heart at once.
"Bab was always teasing me for fireworks, but I guess she has had enough for the present," laughed Thorny, who was gallantly escorting Bab's mother up the avenue.
"Every one is so kind! Teacher was out with the children to cheer us as we passed, and here you all are making things pretty for me," said Mrs. Celia, smiling with tears in her eyes, as they drew near the great gate, which certainly did present an animated if not an imposing appearance.
Randa and Katy stood on one side, all in their best, bobbing delighted courtesies; Mr. Brown, half hidden behind the gate on the other side, was keeping Sancho erect, so that he might present arms promptly when the bride appeared. As flowers were scarce, on either post stood a rosy little girl clapping her hands, while out from the thicket of red and yellow boughs, which made a grand bouquet in the lantern frame, came Ben's head and shoulders, as he waved his grandest flag with its gold paper "Welcome Home!" on a blue ground.
"Isn't it beautiful!" cried Mrs. Celia, throwing kisses to the children, shaking hands with her maids, and glancing brightly at the stranger who was keeping Sanch quiet.
"Most people adorn their gate-posts with stone balls, vases, or griffins; your living images are a great improvement, love, especially the happy boy in the middle," said Mr. George, eying Ben with interest, as he nearly tumbled overboard, top-heavy with his banner.
"You must finish what I have only begun," answered Celia, adding gayly as Sancho broke loose and came to offer both his paw and his congratulations. "Sanch, introduce your master, that I may thank him for coming back in time to save my old house."
"If I'd saved a dozen it wouldn't have half paid for all you've done for my boy, ma'am," answered Mr. Brown, bursting out from behind the gate quite red with gratitude and pleasure.
"I loved to do it, so please remember that this is still his home till you make one for him. Thank God, he is no longer fatherless!" and her sweet face said even more than her words as the white hand cordially shook the brown one with a burn across the back.
"Come on, sister. I see the tea-table all ready, and I'm awfully hungry," interrupted Thorny, who had not a ray of sentiment about him, though very glad Ben had got his father back again.
"Come over, by-and-by, little friends, and let me thank you for your pretty welcome, -- it certainly is a warm one;" and Mrs. Celia glanced merrily from the three bright faces above her to the old chimney, which still smoked sullenly.
"Oh, don't!" cried Bab, hiding her face.
"She didn't mean to," added Betty, pleadingly.
"Three cheers for the bride!" roared Ben, dipping his flag, as leaning on her husband's arm his dear mistress passed under the gay arch, along the leaf-strewn walk, over the threshold of the house which was to be her happy home for many years.
The closed gate where the lonely little wanderer once lay was always to stand open now, and the path where children played before was free to all comers, for a hospitable welcome henceforth awaited rich and poor, young and old, sad and gay, Under the Lilacs.