Chapter VII
 

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 figure.

"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, Nancy?"

"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 poor."

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?"

"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 drudge."

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.