Chapter II

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 scrubbin', Nancy?"

"I believe so," Nancy answered, never pausing in her labours. "It's so long since anybody sat there, it's hard to remember."

"It is the Peabodys', I know it, because the aisle runs right up facin' it. I can see old Deacon Peabody settin' in this end same as if 'twas yesterday."

"He had died before Jere and I came back here to live," said Mrs. Burbank. "The first I remember, Justin Peabody sat in the end seat; the sister that died, next, and in the corner, against the wall, Mrs. Peabody, with a crepe shawl and a palmleaf fan. They were a handsome family. You used to sit with them sometimes, Nancy; Esther was great friends with you."

"Yes, she was," Nancy replied, lifting the tattered cushion from its place and brushing it; "and I with her.--What is the use of scrubbing and carpeting, when there are only twenty pew-cushions and six hassocks in the whole church, and most of them ragged? How can I ever mend this?"

"I shouldn't trouble myself to darn other people's cushions!"

This unchristian sentiment came in Mrs. Miller's ringing tones from the rear of the church.

"I don't know why," argued Maria Sharp. "I'm going to mend my Aunt Achsa's cushion, and we haven't spoken for years; but hers is the next pew to mine, and I'm going to have my part of the church look decent, even if she is too stingy to do her share. Besides, there aren't any Peabodys left to do their own darning, and Nancy was friends with Esther."

"Yes, it's nothing more than right," Nancy replied, with a note of relief in her voice, "considering Esther."

"Though he don't belong to the scrubbin' sex, there is one Peabody alive, as you know, if you stop to think, Maria; for Justin's alive, and livin' out West somewheres. At least, he's as much alive as ever he was; he was as good as dead when he was twenty- one, but his mother was always too soft-hearted to bury him."

There was considerable laughter over this sally of the outspoken Mrs. Sargent, whose keen wit was the delight of the neighbourhood.

"I know he's alive and doing business in Detroit, for I got his address a week or ten days ago, and wrote, asking him if he'd like to give a couple of dollars toward repairing the old church."

Everybody looked at Mrs. Burbank with interest.

"Hasn't he answered?" asked Maria Sharp.

Nancy Wentworth held her breath, turned her face to the wall, and silently wiped the paint of the wainscoting. The blood that had rushed into her cheeks at Mrs. Sargent's jeering reference to Justin Peabody still lingered there for any one who ran to read, but fortunately nobody ran; they were too busy scrubbing.

"Not yet. Folks don't hurry about answering when you ask them for a contribution," replied the president, with a cynicism common to persons who collect funds for charitable purposes. "George Wickham sent me twenty-five cents from Denver. When I wrote him a receipt, I said thank you same as Aunt Polly did when the neighbours brought her a piece of beef: 'Ever so much obleeged, but don't forget me when you come to kill a pig.'--Now, Mrs. Baxter, you shan't clean James Bruce's pew, or what was his before he turned Second Advent. I'll do that myself, for he used to be in my Sunday-school class."

"He's the backbone o' that congregation now," asserted Mrs. Sargent, "and they say he's goin' to marry Mrs. Sam Peters, who sings in their choir as soon as his year is up. They make a perfect fool of him in that church."

"You can't make a fool of a man that nature ain't begun with," argued Miss Brewster. "Jim Bruce never was very strong-minded, but I declare it seems to me that when men lose their wives, they lose their wits! I was sure Jim would marry Hannah Thompson that keeps house for him. I suspected she was lookin' out for a life job when she hired out with him."

"Hannah Thompson may keep Jim's house, but she'll never keep Jim, that's certain!" affirmed the president; "and I can't see that Mrs. Peters will better herself much."

"I don't blame her, for one!" came in no uncertain tones from the left-wing pews, and the Widow Buzzell rose from her knees and approached the group by the pulpit. "If there's anything duller than cookin' three meals a day for yourself, and settin' down and eatin' 'em by yourself, and then gettin' up and clearin' 'em away after yourself, I'd like to know it! I shouldn't want any good- lookin', pleasant-spoken man to offer himself to me without he expected to be snapped up, that's all! But if you've made out to get one husband in York County, you can thank the Lord and not expect any more favours. I used to think Tom was poor comp'ny and complain I couldn't have any conversation with him, but land, I could talk at him, and there's considerable comfort in that. And I could pick up after him! Now every room in my house is clean, and every closet and bureau drawer, too; I can't start drawin' in another rug, for I've got all the rugs I can step foot on. I dried so many apples last year I shan't need to cut up any this season. My jelly and preserves ain't out, and there I am; and there most of us are, in this village, without a man to take steps for and trot 'round after! There's just three husbands among the fifteen women scrubbin' here now, and the rest of us is all old maids and widders. No wonder the men-folks die, or move away like Justin Peabody; a place with such a mess o' women-folks ain't healthy to live in, whatever Lobelia Brewster may say."