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Abijah Flagg was driving over to Wareham on an errand for old Squire Winship, whose general chore-boy and farmer's assistant he had been for some years.
He passed Emma Jane Perkins's house slowly, as he always did. She was only a little girl of thirteen and he a boy of fifteen or sixteen, but somehow, for no particular reason, he liked to see the sun shine on her thick braids of reddish-brown hair. He admired her china-blue eyes too, and her amiable, friendly expression. He was quite alone in the world, and he always thought that if he had anybody belonging to him he would rather have a sister like Emma Jane Perkins than anything else within the power of Providence to bestow. When she herself suggested this relationship a few years later he cast it aside with scorn, having changed his mind in the interval--but that story belongs to another time and place.
Emma Jane was not to be seen in garden, field, or at the window, and Abijah turned his gaze to the large brick house that came next on the other side of the quiet village street. It might have been closed for a funeral. Neither Miss Miranda nor Miss Jane Sawyer sat at their respective windows knitting, nor was Rebecca Randall's gypsy face to be discerned. Ordinarily that will-o'-the wispish little person could be seen, heard, or felt wherever she was.
"The village must be abed, I guess," mused Abijah, as he neared the Robinsons' yellow cottage, where all the blinds were closed and no sign of life showed on porch or in shed. "No, 't aint, neither," he thought again, as his horse crept cautiously down the hill, for from the direction of the Robinsons' barn chamber there floated out into the air certain burning sentiments set to the tune of "Antioch." The words, to a lad brought up in the orthodox faith, were quite distinguishable:
"Daughter of Zion, from the dust,
Exalt thy fallen head!"
Even the most religious youth is stronger on first lines than others, but Abijah pulled up his horse and waited till he caught another familiar verse, beginning:
"Rebuild thy walls, thy bounds enlarge,
And send thy heralds forth."
"That's Rebecca carrying the air, and I can hear Emma Jane's alto."
"Say to the North,
Give up thy charge,
And hold not back, O South,
And hold not back, O South," etc.
"Land! ain't they smart, seesawin' up and down in that part they learnt in singin' school! I wonder what they're actin' out, singin' hymn-tunes up in the barn chamber? Some o' Rebecca's doins, I'll be bound! Git dap, Aleck!"
Aleck pursued his serene and steady trot up the hills on the Edgewood side of the river, till at length he approached the green Common where the old Tory Hill meeting-house stood, its white paint and green blinds showing fair and pleasant in the afternoon sun. Both doors were open, and as Abijah turned into the Wareham road the church melodeon pealed out the opening bars of the Missionary Hymn, and presently a score of voices sent the good old tune from the choir-loft out to the dusty road:
"Shall we whose souls are lighted
With Wisdom from on high,
Shall we to men benighted
The lamp of life deny?"
"Land!" exclaimed Abijah under his breath. "They're at it up here, too! That explains it all. There's a missionary meeting at the church, and the girls wa'n't allowed to come so they held one of their own, and I bate ye it's the liveliest of the two."
Abijah Flagg's shrewd Yankee guesses were not far from the truth, though he was not in possession of all the facts. It will be remembered by those who have been in the way of hearing Rebecca's experiences in Riverboro, that the Rev. and Mrs. Burch, returned missionaries from the Far East, together with some of their children, "all born under Syrian skies," as they always explained to interested inquirers, spent a day or two at the brick house, and gave parlor meetings in native costume.
These visitors, coming straight from foreign lands to the little Maine village, brought with them a nameless enchantment to the children, and especially to Rebecca, whose imagination always kindled easily. The romance of that visit had never died in her heart, and among the many careers that dazzled her youthful vision was that of converting such Syrian heathen as might continue in idol worship after the Burches' efforts in their behalf had ceased. She thought at the age of eighteen she might be suitably equipped for storming some minor citadel of Mohammedanism; and Mrs. Burch had encouraged her in the idea, not, it is to be feared, because Rebecca showed any surplus of virtue or Christian grace, but because her gift of language, her tact and sympathy, and her musical talent seemed to fit her for the work.
It chanced that the quarterly meeting of the Maine Missionary Society had been appointed just at the time when a letter from Mrs. Burch to Miss Jane Sawyer suggested that Rebecca should form a children's branch in Riverboro. Mrs. Burch's real idea was that the young people should save their pennies and divert a gentle stream of financial aid into the parent fund, thus learning early in life to be useful in such work, either at home or abroad.
The girls themselves, however, read into her letter no such modest participation in the conversion of the world, and wishing to effect an organization without delay, they chose an afternoon when every house in the village was vacant, and seized upon the Robinsons' barn chamber as the place of meeting.
Rebecca, Alice Robinson, Emma Jane Perkins, Candace Milliken, and Persis Watson, each with her hymn book, had climbed the ladder leading to the haymow a half hour before Abijah Flagg had heard the strains of "Daughters of Zion" floating out to the road. Rebecca, being an executive person, had carried, besides her hymn book, a silver call-bell and pencil and paper. An animated discussion regarding one of two names for the society, The Junior Heralds or The Daughters of Zion, had resulted in a unanimous vote for the latter, and Rebecca had been elected president at an early stage of the meeting. She had modestly suggested that Alice Robinson, as the granddaughter of a missionary to China, would be much more eligible.
"No," said Alice, with entire good nature, "whoever is elected president, you will be, Rebecca--you're that kind--so you might as well have the honor; I'd just as lieves be secretary, anyway."
"If you should want me to be treasurer, I could be, as well as not," said Persis Watson suggestively; "for you know my father keeps china banks at his store--ones that will hold as much as two dollars if you will let them. I think he'd give us one if I happen to be treasurer."
The three principal officers were thus elected at one fell swoop and with an entire absence of that red tape which commonly renders organization so tiresome, Candace Milliken suggesting that perhaps she'd better be vice-president, as Emma Jane Perkins was always so bashful.
"We ought to have more members," she reminded the other girls, "but if we had invited them the first day they'd have all wanted to be officers, especially Minnie Smellie, so it's just as well not to ask them till another time. Is Thirza Meserve too little to join?"
"I can't think why anybody named Meserve should have called a baby Thirza," said Rebecca, somewhat out of order, though the meeting was carried on with small recognition of parliamentary laws. "It always makes me want to say:
Heaven preserve her!
Do we deserve her?
She's little, but she's sweet, and absolutely without guile. I think we ought to have her."
"Is 'guile' the same as 'guilt?" inquired Emma Jane Perkins.
"Yes," the president answered; "exactly the same, except one is written and the other spoken language." (Rebecca was rather good at imbibing information, and a master hand at imparting it!) "Written language is for poems and graduations and occasions like this--kind of like a best Sunday-go-to-meeting dress that you wouldn't like to go blueberrying in for fear of getting it spotted."
"I'd just as 'lieves get 'guile' spotted as not," affirmed the unimaginative Emma Jane. "I think it's an awful foolish word; but now we're all named and our officers elected, what do we do first? It's easy enough for Mary and Martha Burch; they just play at missionarying because their folks work at it, same as Living and I used to make believe be blacksmiths when we were little."
"It must be nicer missionarying in those foreign places," said Persis, "because on 'Afric's shores and India's plains and other spots where Satan reigns' (that's father's favorite hymn) there's always a heathen bowing down to wood and stone. You can take away his idols if he'll let you and give him a bible and the beginning's all made. But who'll we begin on? Jethro Small?"
"Oh, he's entirely too dirty, and foolish besides!" exclaimed Candace. "Why not Ethan Hunt? He swears dreadfully."
"He lives on nuts and is a hermit, and it's a mile to his camp through the thick woods; my mother'll never let me go there," objected Alice. "There's Uncle Tut Judson."
"He's too old; he's most a hundred and deaf as a post," complained Emma Jane. "Besides, his married daughter is a Sabbath-school teacher--why doesn't she teach him to behave? I can't think of anybody just right to start on!"
"Don't talk like that, Emma Jane," and Rebecca's tone had a tinge of reproof in it. "We are a copperated body named the Daughters of Zion, and, of course, we've got to find something to do. Foreigners are the easiest; there's a Scotch family at North Riverboro, an English one in Edgewood, and one Cuban man at Millkin's Mills."
"Haven't foreigners got any religion of their own?" inquired Persis curiously.
"Ye-es, I s'pose so; kind of a one; but foreigners' religions are never right--ours is the only good one." This was from Candace, the deacon's daughter.
"I do think it must be dreadful, being born with a religion and growing up with it, and then finding out it's no use and all your time wasted!" Here Rebecca sighed, chewed a straw, and looked troubled.
"Well, that's your punishment for being a heathen," retorted Candace, who had been brought up strictly.
"But I can't for the life of me see how you can help being a heathen if you're born in Africa," persisted Persis, who was well named.
"You can't." Rebecca was clear on this point. "I had that all out with Mrs. Burch when she was visiting Aunt Miranda. She says they can't help being heathen, but if there's a single mission station in the whole of Africa, they're accountable if they don't go there and get saved."
"Are there plenty of stages and railroads?" asked Alice; "because there must be dreadfully long distances, and what if they couldn't pay the fare?"
"That part of it is so dreadfully puzzly we mustn't talk about it, please," said Rebecca, her sensitive face quivering with the force of the problem. Poor little soul! She did not realize that her superiors in age and intellect had spent many a sleepless night over that same "accountability of the heathen."
"It's too bad the Simpsons have moved away," said Candace. "It's so seldom you can find a real big wicked family like that to save, with only Clara Belle and Susan good in it."
"And numbers count for so much," continued Alice. "My grandmother says if missionaries can't convert about so many in a year the Board advises them to come back to America and take up some other work."
"I know," Rebecca corroborated; "and it's the same with revivalists. At the Centennial picnic at North Riverboro, a revivalist sat opposite to Mr. Ladd and Aunt Jane and me, and he was telling about his wonderful success in Bangor last winter. He'd converted a hundred and thirty in a month, he said, or about four and a third a day. I had just finished fractions, so I asked Mr. Ladd how the third of a man could be converted. He laughed and said it was just the other way; that the man was a third converted. Then he explained that if you were trying to convince a person of his sin on a Monday, and couldn't quite finish by sundown, perhaps you wouldn't want to sit up all night with him, and perhaps he wouldn't want you to; so you'd begin again on Tuesday, and you couldn't say just which day he was converted, because it would be two thirds on Monday and one third on Tuesday."
"Mr. Ladd is always making fun, and the Board couldn't expect any great things of us girls, new beginners," suggested Emma Jane, who was being constantly warned against tautology by her teacher. "I think it's awful rude, anyway, to go right out and try to convert your neighbors; but if you borrow a horse and go to Edgewood Lower Corner, or Milliken's Mills, I s'pose that makes it Foreign Missions."
"Would we each go alone or wait upon them with a committee, as they did when they asked Deacon Tuttle for a contribution for the new hearse?" asked Persis.
"Oh! We must go alone," decided Rebecca; "it would be much more refined and delicate. Aunt Miranda says that one man alone could never get a subscription from Deacon Tuttle, and that's the reason they sent a committee. But it seems to me Mrs. Burch couldn't mean for us to try and convert people when we're none of us even church members, except Candace. I think all we can do is to persuade them to go to meeting and Sabbath school, or give money for the hearse, or the new horse sheds. Now let's all think quietly for a minute or two who's the very most heathenish and reperrehensiblest person in Riverboro."
After a very brief period of silence the words "Jacob Moody" fell from all lips with entire accord.
"You are right," said the president tersely; "and after singing hymn number two hundred seventy four, to be found on the sixty-sixth page, we will take up the question of persuading Mr. Moody to attend divine service or the minister's Bible class, he not having been in the meeting-house for lo! these many years.
'Daughter of Zion, the power that hath saved thee Extolled with the harp and the timbrel should be.'
"Sing without reading, if you please, omitting the second stanza. Hymn two seventy four, to be found on the sixty-sixth page of the new hymn book or on page thirty two of Emma Jane Perkins's old one."
It is doubtful if the Rev. Mr. Burch had ever found in Syria a person more difficult to persuade than the already "gospel-hardened" Jacob Moody of Riverboro.
Tall, gaunt, swarthy, black-bearded--his masses of grizzled, uncombed hair and the red scar across his nose and cheek added to his sinister appearance. His tumble-down house stood on a rocky bit of land back of the Sawyer pasture, and the acres of his farm stretched out on all sides of it. He lived alone, ate alone, plowed, planted, sowed, harvested alone, and was more than willing to die alone, "unwept, unhonored, and unsung." The road that bordered upon his fields was comparatively little used by any one, and notwithstanding the fact that it was thickly set with chokecherry trees and blackberry bushes it had been for years practically deserted by the children. Jacob's Red Astrakhan and Granny Garland trees hung thick with apples, but no Riverboro or Edgewood boy stole them; for terrifying accounts of the fate that had overtaken one urchin in times agone had been handed along from boy to boy, protecting the Moody fruit far better than any police patrol.
Perhaps no circumstances could have extenuated the old man's surly manners or his lack of all citizenly graces and virtues; but his neighbors commonly rebuked his present way of living and forgot the troubled past that had brought it about: the sharp-tongued wife, the unloving and disloyal sons, the daughter's hapless fate, and all the other sorry tricks that fortune had played upon him--at least that was the way in which he had always regarded his disappointments and griefs.
This, then, was the personage whose moral rehabilitation was to be accomplished by the Daughters of Zion. But how?
"Who will volunteer to visit Mr. Moody?" blandly asked the president.
Visit Mr. Moody! It was a wonder the roof of the barn chamber did not fall; it did, indeed echo the words and in some way make them sound more grim and satirical.
"Nobody'll volunteer, Rebecca Rowena Randall, and you know it," said Emma Jane.
"Why don't we draw lots, when none of us wants to speak to him and yet one of us must?"
This suggestion fell from Persis Watson, who had been pale and thoughtful ever since the first mention of Jacob Moody. (She was fond of Granny Garlands; she had once met Jacob; and, as to what befell, well, we all have our secret tragedies!)
"Wouldn't it be wicked to settle it that way?"
"It's gamblers that draw lots."
"People did it in the Bible ever so often."
"It doesn't seem nice for a missionary meeting."
These remarks fell all together upon the president's bewildered ear the while (as she always said in compositions)--"the while" she was trying to adjust the ethics of this unexpected and difficult dilemma.
"It is a very puzzly question," she said thoughtfully. "I could ask Aunt Jane if we had time, but I suppose we haven't. It doesn't seem nice to draw lots, and yet how can we settle it without? We know we mean right, and perhaps it will be. Alice, take this paper and tear off five narrow pieces, all different lengths."
At this moment a voice from a distance floated up to the haymow--a voice saying plaintively: "Will you let me play with you, girls? Huldah has gone to ride, and I'm all alone."
It was the voice of the absolutely-without-guile Thirza Meserve, and it came at an opportune moment.
"If she is going to be a member," said Persis, "why not let her come up and hold the lots? She'd be real honest and not favor anybody."
It seemed an excellent idea, and was followed up so quickly that scarcely three minutes ensued before the guileless one was holding the five scraps in her hot little palm, laboriously changing their places again and again until they looked exactly alike and all rather soiled and wilted.
"Come, girls, draw!" commanded the president. "Thirza, you mustn't chew gum at a missionary meeting, it isn't polite nor holy. Take it out and stick it somewhere till the exercises are over."
The five Daughters of Zion approached the spot so charged with fate, and extended their trembling hands one by one. Then after a moment's silent clutch of their papers they drew nearer to one another and compared them.
Emma Jane Perkins had drawn the short one, becoming thus the destined instrument for Jacob Moody's conversion to a more seemly manner of life!
She looked about her despairingly, as if to seek some painless and respectable method of self-destruction.
"Do let's draw over again," she pleaded. "I'm the worst of all of us. I'm sure to make a mess of it till I kind o' get trained in."
Rebecca's heart sank at this frank confession, which only corroborated her own fears.
"I'm sorry, Emmy, dear," she said, "but our only excuse for drawing lots at all would be to have it sacred. We must think of it as a kind of a sign, almost like God speaking to Moses in the burning bush."
"Oh, I wish there was a burning bush right here!" cried the distracted and recalcitrant missionary. "How quick I'd step into it without even stopping to take off my garnet ring!"
"Don't be such a scare-cat, Emma Jane!" exclaimed Candace bracingly. "Jacob Moody can't kill you, even if he has an awful temper. Trot right along now before you get more frightened. Shall we go cross lots with her, Rebecca, and wait at the pasture gate? Then whatever happens Alice can put it down in the minutes of the meeting."
In these terrible crises of life time gallops with such incredible velocity that it seemed to Emma Jane only a breath before she was being dragged through the fields by the other Daughters of Zion, the guileless little Thirza panting in the rear.
At the entrance to the pasture Rebecca gave her an impassioned embrace, and whispering, "Whatever you do, be careful how you lead up," lifted off the top rail and pushed her through the bars. Then the girls turned their backs reluctantly on the pathetic figure, and each sought a tree under whose friendly shade she could watch, and perhaps pray, until the missionary should return from her field of labor.
Alice Robinson, whose compositions were always marked 96 or 97,--100 symbolizing such perfection as could be attained in the mortal world of Riverboro,--Alice, not only Daughter, but Scribe of Zion, sharpened her pencil and wrote a few well-chosen words of introduction, to be used when the records of the afternoon had been made by Emma Jane Perkins and Jacob Moody.
Rebecca's heart beat tumultuously under her gingham dress. She felt that a drama was being enacted, and though unfortunately she was not the central figure, she had at least a modest part in it. The short lot had not fallen to the properest Daughter, that she quite realized; yet would any one of them succeed in winning Jacob Moody's attention, in engaging him in pleasant conversation, and finally in bringing him to a realization of his mistaken way of life? She doubted, but at the same moment her spirits rose at the thought of the difficulties involved in the undertaking.
Difficulties always spurred Rebecca on, but they daunted poor Emma Jane, who had no little thrills of excitement and wonder and fear and longing to sustain her lagging soul. That her interview was to be entered as "minutes" by a secretary seemed to her the last straw. Her blue eyes looked lighter than usual and had the glaze of china saucers; her usually pink cheeks were pale, but she pressed on, determined to be a faithful Daughter of Zion, and above all to be worthy of Rebecca's admiration and respect.
"Rebecca can do anything," she thought, with enthusiastic loyalty, "and I mustn't be any stupider than I can help, or she'll choose one of the other girls for her most intimate friend." So, mustering all her courage, she turned into Jacob Moody's dooryard, where he was chopping wood.
"It's a pleasant afternoon, Mr. Moody," she said in a polite but hoarse whisper, Rebecca's words, "Lead up! Lead up! ringing in clarion tones through her brain.
Jacob Moody looked at her curiously. "Good enough, I guess," he growled; "but I don't never have time to look at afternoons."
Emma Jane seated herself timorously on the end of a large log near the chopping block, supposing that Jacob, like other hosts, would pause in his tasks and chat.
"The block is kind of like an idol," she thought; "I wish I could take it away from him, and then perhaps he'd talk."
At this moment Jacob raised his axe and came down on the block with such a stunning blow that Emma Jane fairly leaped into the air.
"You'd better look out, Sissy, or you'll git chips in the eye!" said Moody, grimly going on with his work.
The Daughter of Zion sent up a silent prayer for inspiration, but none came, and she sat silent, giving nervous jumps in spite of herself whenever the axe fell upon the log Jacob was cutting.
Finally, the host became tired of his dumb visitor, and leaning on his axe he said, "Look here, Sis, what have you come for? What's your errant? Do you want apples? Or cider? Or what? Speak out, or git out, one or t'other."
Emma Jane, who had wrung her handkerchief into a clammy ball, gave it a last despairing wrench, and faltered: "Wouldn't you like--hadn't you better--don't you think you'd ought to be more constant at meeting and Sabbath school?"
Jacob's axe almost dropped from his nerveless hand, and he regarded the Daughter of Zion with unspeakable rage and disdain. Then, the blood mounting in his face, he gathered himself together, and shouted: "You take yourself off that log and out o' this dooryard double-quick, you imperdent sanct'omus young one! You just let me ketch Bill Perkins' child trying to teach me where I shall go, at my age! Scuttle, I tell ye! And if I see your pious cantin' little mug inside my fence ag'in on sech a business I'll chase ye down the hill or set the dog on ye! Scoot, I tell ye!"
Emma Jane obeyed orders summarily, taking herself off the log, out the dooryard, and otherwise scuttling and scooting down the hill at a pace never contemplated even by Jacob Moody, who stood regarding her flying heels with a sardonic grin.
Down she stumbled, the tears coursing over her cheeks and mingling with the dust of her flight; blighted hope, shame, fear, rage, all tearing her bosom in turn, till with a hysterical shriek she fell over the bars and into Rebecca's arms outstretched to receive her. The other Daughters wiped her eyes and supported her almost fainting form, while Thirza, thoroughly frightened, burst into sympathetic tears, and refused to be comforted.
No questions were asked, for it was felt by all parties that Emma Jane's demeanor was answering them before they could be framed.
"He threatened to set the dog on me!" she wailed presently, when, as they neared the Sawyer pasture, she was able to control her voice. "He called me a pious, cantin' young one, and said he'd chase me out o' the dooryard if I ever came again! And he'll tell my father--I know he will, for he hates him like poison."
All at once the adult point of view dawned upon Rebecca. She never saw it until it was too obvious to be ignored. Had they done wrong in interviewing Jacob Moody? Would Aunt Miranda be angry, as well as Mr. Perkins?
"Why was he so dreadful, Emmy?" she questioned tenderly. "What did you say first? How did you lead up to it?"
Emma Jane sobbed more convulsively, and wiped her nose and eyes impartially as she tried to think.
"I guess I never led up at all; not a mite. I didn't know what you meant. I was sent on an errant, and I went and done it the best I could! (Emma Jane's grammar always lapsed in moments of excitement.) And then Jake roared at me like Squire Winship's bull. . . . And he called my face a mug. . . . You shut up that secretary book, Alice Robinson! If you write down a single word I'll never speak to you again. . . . And I don't want to be a member' another minute for fear of drawing another short lot. I've got enough of the Daughters or Zion to last me the rest o' my life! I don't care who goes to meetin' and who don't."
The girls were at the Perkins's gate by this time, and Emma Jane went sadly into the empty house to remove all traces of the tragedy from her person before her mother should come home from the church.
The others wended their way slowly down the street, feeling that their promising missionary branch had died almost as soon as it had budded.
"Goodby," said Rebecca, swallowing lumps of disappointment and chagrin as she saw the whole inspiring plan break and vanish into thin air like an iridescent bubble. "It's all over and we won't ever try it again. I'm going in to do overcasting as hard as I can, because I hate that the worst. Aunt Jane must write to Mrs. Burch that we don't want to be home missionaries. Perhaps we're not big enough, anyway. I'm perfectly certain it's nicer to convert people when they're yellow or brown or any color but white; and I believe it must be easier to save their souls than it is to make them go to meeting."
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