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The Honorable Peter Wentworth was not a church-going man, and when he appeared at the prayer-meeting on that memorable Friday evening there was at once a most irreligious interest manifested by every one present, even to the tired little minister himself. The object of their amazed glances fortunately did not keep the good people long in suspense. After a timid prayer--slightly incoherent, but abounding in petitions for single-mindedness and worshipful reverence--from the minister's wife, the Honorable Peter Wentworth rose to his feet and loudly cleared his throat:
"Ahem! Ladies and gentlemen--er--ah--brethren," he corrected, hastily, faint memories of a godly youth prompting his now unaccustomed lips; "I--er--I understand that you are desirous of building a new church. A very laudable wish--very," with his eyes fixed on a zigzag crack in the wall across the room; "and I understand that your funds are--er--insufficient. I am, in fact, informed that you need two thousand dollars. Ahem! Ladies--er--brethren, I stand here to announce that on the first day of January I will place in your pastor's hands the sum of one thousand dollars, provided"--and he paused and put the tips of his forefingers together impressively--"provided you will raise an equal amount on your own part. The first day of next January, remember. You have nearly a year, you will notice, in which to raise the money. I--er--I hope you will be successful." And he sat down heavily.
The remainder of that meeting was not conspicuous for deep spirituality, and after the benediction the Honorable Peter Wentworth found himself surrounded by an excited crowd of grateful church members. The honorable gentleman was distinctly pleased. He had not given anything away before since--well, he had the same curious choking feeling in his throat now that he remembered to have felt when he gave the contents of his dinner pail to the boy across the aisle at the old red schoolhouse. After all, it was a rather pleasant sensation; he almost wished it had oftener been his.
It was not until the silent hours of the night brought a haunting premonition of evil to the Reverend John Grey that the little minister began to realize what the church had undertaken. One thousand dollars! The village was small and the church society smaller. The Honorable Peter Wentworth was the only man who by even the politest fiction could be called rich. Where, indeed, was the thousand to be found?
When morning came, the Reverend John Grey's kindly blue eyes were troubled, and his forehead drawn into unwonted lines of care; but his fathers had fought King George and the devil in years long past, and he was a worthy descendant of a noble race and had no intention of weakly succumbing, even though King George and the devil now masqueraded as a two-thousand-dollar debt.
By the end of the week an urgent appeal for money had entered the door of every house in Fairville. The minister had spent sleepless nights and weary days in composing this masterly letter. His faithful mimeograph had saved the expense of printing, and his youngest boy's willing feet had obviated the necessity of postage stamps. The First Congregational Church being the only religious organization in the town of Fairville, John Grey had no hesitation in asking aid from one and all alike.
This was in February, yet by the end of May there was only four hundred dollars in the fund treasury. The pastor sent out a second appeal, following it up with a house-to-house visit. The sum grew to six hundred dollars.
Then the ladies held a mass-meeting in the damp, ill-smelling vestry. The result was a series of entertainments varying from a strawberry festival to the "passion play" illustrated. The entertainers were indefatigable. They fed their guests with baked beans and "red flannel" hash, and acted charades from the Bible. They held innumerable guessing contests, where one might surmise as to the identity of a baby's photograph or conjecture as to the cook of a mince pie. These heroic efforts brought the fund up to eight hundred dollars. Two hundred yet to be found--and it was November!
With anxious faces and puckered brows, the ladies held another meeting in that cheerless vestry--then hastened home with new courage and a new plan.
Bits of silk and tissue-paper, gay-colored worsteds and knots of ribbon appeared as by magic in every cottage. Weary fingers fashioned impossible fancy articles of no earthly use to any one, and tired housewives sat up till midnight dressing dolls in flimsy muslin. The church was going to hold a fair! Everything and everybody succumbed graciously or ungraciously to the inevitable. The prayer-meetings were neglected, the missionary meetings postponed, the children went ragged to school, and the men sewed on their own buttons. In time, however, the men had to forego even that luxury, and were obliged to remain buttonless, for they themselves were dragged into the dizzy whirl and set to making patchwork squares.
The culminating feature of the fair was to be a silk crazy quilt, and in an evil moment Miss Wiggins, a spinster of uncertain age, had suggested that it would be "perfectly lovely" to have the gentlemen contribute a square each. The result would have made the craziest inmate of a lunatic asylum green with envy. The square made by old Deacon White, composed of pieces of blue, green, scarlet, and purple silk fastened together as one would sew the leather on a baseball, came next to the dainty square of the town milliner's covered with embroidered butterflies and startling cupids. Nor were the others found wanting in variety. It was indeed a wonderful quilt.
The fair and a blizzard began simultaneously the first day of December. The one lasted a week, and the other three days. The people conscientiously ploughed through the snow, attended the fair, and bought recklessly. The children made themselves sick with rich candies, and Deacon White lost his temper over a tin trumpet he drew in a grab bag. At the end of the week there were three cases of nervous prostration, one of pneumonia, two of grippe--and one hundred dollars and five cents in money.
The ladies drew a long breath and looked pleased; then their faces went suddenly white. Where was ninety-nine dollars and ninety-five cents to come from in the few days yet remaining? Silently and dejectedly they went home.
It was then that the Reverend John Grey rose to the occasion and shut himself in his study all night, struggling with a last appeal to be copied on his faithful mimeograph and delivered by his patient youngest born. That appeal was straight from the heart of an all but despairing man. Was two thousand dollars to be lost--and because of a paltry ninety-nine dollars and ninety-five cents?
The man's face had seemed to age a dozen years in the last twelve months. Little streaks of gray showed above his temples, and his cheeks had pitiful hollows in them. The minister's family had meat but twice a week now. The money that might have bought it for the other five days had gone to add its tiny weight to the minister's contribution to the fund.
The pressure was severe and became crushing as the holidays approached. The tree for the Sunday-School had long since been given up, but Christmas Eve a forlorn group of wistful-eyed children gathered in the church and spoke Christmas pieces and sang Christmas carols, with longing gaze fixed on the empty corner where was wont to be the shining tree.
It was on Christmas Day that the widow Blake fought the good fight in her little six-by-nine room. On the bed lay a black cashmere gown, faded and rusty and carefully darned; on the table lay a little heap of bills and silver. The woman gathered the money in her two hands and dropped it into her lap; then she smoothed the bills neatly one upon another, and built little pyramids of the dimes and quarters. Fifteen dollars! It must be five years now that she had been saving that money, and she did so need a new dress! She needed it to be--why--even decent!--looking sourly at the frayed folds on the bed.
It was on Christmas Day, too, that the little cripple who lived across the bridge received a five-dollar gold piece by registered mail. Donald's eyes shone and his thin fingers clutched the yellow gold greedily. Now he could have those books!--his eyes rested on an open letter on the floor by his chair; a mimeograph letter signed "John W. Grey." Gradually his fingers relaxed; the bit of money slipped from the imprisoning clasp, fell to the floor, and rolled in flashing, gleaming circles round and round the letter, ending in a glistening disk, like a seal, just at the left of the signature. The lad looked at the yellow, whirling thing with frightened eyes, then covered his face with his hands, and burst into a storm of sobs.
On the 26th of December, the Reverend John Grey entered on his list: "Mrs. Blake, $15.00; Donald Marsh, $5.00."
The little minister's face grew pale and drawn. The money came in bit by bit, but it wanted twenty dollars and ninety-five cents yet to complete the needed thousand. On the 27th the teacher of the infant class brought a dollar, the gift of her young pupils. On the 28th, nothing came; on the 29th, five cents from a small boy who rang the bell with a peal that brought the Reverend John Grey to the door with a startled hope in his eyes. He took the five pennies from the small dirty fingers and opened his mouth to speak his thanks, but his dry lips refused to frame the words.
The morning of the 30th dawned raw and cloudy. The little minister neither ate nor slept now. The doorbell rang at brief intervals throughout the day, and stray quarters, dimes, and nickels, with an occasional dollar, were added to the precious store until it amounted to nine hundred and eighty-nine dollars and eighty-five cents.
When the Reverend John Grey looked out of his bedroom window on the last day of that weary year, he found a snow-white world, and the feathery flakes still falling. Five times that day he swept his steps and shoveled his path--mute invitations to possible donors; but the path remained white and smooth in untrodden purity, and the doorbell was ominously silent.
He tried to read, to write, to pray; but he haunted the windows like a maiden awaiting her lover, and he opened the door and looked up and down the street every fifteen minutes. The poor man had exhausted all his resources. He himself had given far more than he could afford, and he had begged of every man, woman and child in the place. And yet--must two thousand dollars be lost, all for the lack of ten dollars and fifteen cents? Mechanically he thrust his hands into his pockets and fingered the few coins therein.
It was nearly midnight when there came a gentle tap at the study door. Without waiting for permission the minister's wife turned the knob and entered the room. Her husband sat with bowed head resting on his outstretched arms on the desk, and her eyes filled with tears at the picture of despair before her.
"John, I suppose we can take this," said she, in a low voice, reluctantly laying a little pile of silver on the desk; "there's just ten dollars there." Then she recoiled in terror, so wildly did her husband clutch the money.
"Where did you get this?" he gasped.
"I--I saved it from time to time out of the household money. I meant you should take it and go out to Cousin Frank's for a rest and vacation after this was over," said she doggedly.
"Vacation! Mary--vacation!" he exclaimed, with unutterable scorn. Then he fumbled in his pocket and brought out a little change. With trembling fingers he picked out ten pennies and a five-cent piece, putting a lone quarter back in his empty pocket.
"Thank God, Mary, we've done it!" and the man's voice broke, and a big tear rolled down his cheek and splashed on a dingy nickel.
New Year's night there was a jubilee meeting in the town hall. The Reverend John Grey hurried through his bread-and-milk supper in some excitement. He was to preside, and must not be late.
The hall was full to overflowing. On the platform with the minister sat the deacons of the First Congregational Church--and the Honorable Peter Wentworth. The well-fed, well-groomed, honorable gentleman himself looked about with a complacent smile--this was indeed a most delightful occasion.
The Reverend John Grey's address was an eloquent tribute to the great generosity of their distinguished fellow-townsman. The minister's voice trembled affectingly, and his thin cheeks flushed with emotion. The First Congregational Church was deeply indebted to the Honorable Peter Wentworth, and would fain express its gratitude.
The minister's wife listened with a far-away look on her face, and little Donald Marsh gazed with round eyes of awe at the great man who had been so very generous; while over in an obscure corner of the hall a pale little woman stealthily rearranged the folds of her gown, that she might hide from inquisitive eyes the great darn on the front breadth of her worn black cashmere.
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