That evening, after they tired of singing, our grown-ups began talking of their youthful days and doings.
This was always a keen delight to us small fry. We listened avidly to the tales of our uncles and aunts in the days when they, too—hard fact to realize—had been children. Good and proper as they were now, once, so it seemed, they had gotten into mischief and even had their quarrels and disagreements. On this particular evening Uncle Roger told many stories of Uncle Edward, and one in which the said Edward had preached sermons at the mature age of ten from the Pulpit Stone fired, as the sequel will show, the Story Girl's imagination.
"Can't I just see him at it now," said Uncle Roger, "leaning over that old boulder, his cheeks red and his eyes burning with excitement, banging the top of it as he had seen the ministers do in church. It wasn't cushioned, however, and he always bruised his hands in his self-forgetful earnestness. We thought him a regular wonder. We loved to hear him preach, but we didn't like to hear him pray, because he always insisted on praying for each of us by name, and it made us feel wretchedly uncomfortable, somehow. Alec, do you remember how furious Julia was because Edward prayed one day that she might be preserved from vanity and conceit over her singing?"
"I should think I do," laughed Uncle Alec. "She was sitting right there where Cecily is now, and she got up at once and marched right out of the orchard, but at the gate she turned to call back indignantly, 'I guess you'd better wait till you've prayed the conceit out of yourself before you begin on me, Ned King. I never heard such stuck-up sermons as you preach.' Ned went on praying and never let on he heard her, but at the end of his prayer he wound up with 'Oh, God, I pray you to keep an eye on us all, but I pray you to pay particular attention to my sister Julia, for I think she needs it even more than the rest of us, world without end, Amen.'"
Our uncles roared with laughter over the recollection. We all laughed, indeed, especially over another tale in which Uncle Edward, leaning too far over the "pulpit" in his earnestness, lost his balance altogether and tumbled ingloriously into the grass below.
"He lit on a big Scotch thistle," said Uncle Roger, chuckling, "and besides that, he skinned his forehead on a stone. But he was determined to finish his sermon, and finish it he did. He climbed back into the pulpit, with the tears rolling over his cheeks, and preached for ten minutes longer, with sobs in his voice and drops of blood on his forehead. He was a plucky little beggar. No wonder he succeeded in life."
"And his sermons and prayers were always just about as outspoken as those Julia objected to," said Uncle Alec. "Well, we're all getting on in life and Edward is gray; but when I think of him I always see him a little, rosy, curly-headed chap, laying down the law to us from the Pulpit Stone. It seems like the other day that we were all here together, just as these children are, and now we are scattered everywhere. Julia in California, Edward in Halifax, Alan in South America, Felix and Felicity and Stephen gone to the land that is very far off."
There was a little space of silence; and then Uncle Alec began, in a low, impressive voice, to repeat the wonderful verses of the ninetieth Psalm—verses which were thenceforth bound up for us with the beauty of that night and the memories of our kindred. Very reverently we all listened to the majestic words.
"Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.... For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.... For all our days are passed away in thy wrath; we spend our years as a tale that is told. The days of our years are threescore and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years yet is their strength, labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away.... So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.... Oh, satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.... And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us; and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it."
The dusk crept into the orchard like a dim, bewitching personality. You could see her—feel her—hear her. She tiptoed softly from tree to tree, ever drawing nearer. Presently her filmy wings hovered over us and through them gleamed the early stars of the autumn night.
The grown-ups rose reluctantly and strolled away; but we children lingered for a moment to talk over an idea the Story Girl broached—a good idea, we thought enthusiastically, and one that promised to add considerable spice to life.
We were on the lookout for some new amusement. Dream books had begun to pall. We no longer wrote in them very regularly, and our dreams were not what they used to be before the mischance of the cucumber. So the Story Girl's suggestion came pat to the psychological moment.
'I've thought of a splendid plan," she said. "It just flashed into my mind when the uncles were talking about Uncle Edward. And the beauty of it is we can play it on Sundays, and you know there are so few things it is proper to play on Sundays. But this is a Christian game, so it will be all right."
"It isn't like the religious fruit basket game, is it?" asked Cecily anxiously.
We had good reason to hope that it wasn't. One desperate Sunday afternoon, when we had nothing to read and the time seemed endless, Felix had suggested that we have a game of fruit-basket; only instead of taking the names of fruits, we were to take the names of Bible characters. This, he argued, would make it quite lawful and proper to play on Sunday. We, too desirous of being convinced, also thought so; and for a merry hour Lazarus and Martha and Moses and Aaron and sundry other worthies of Holy Writ had a lively time of it in the King orchard. Peter having a Scriptural name of his own, did not want to take another; but we would not allow this, because it would give him an unfair advantage over the rest of us. It would be so much easier to call out your own name than fit your tongue to an unfamiliar one. So Peter retaliated by choosing Nebuchadnezzar, which no one could ever utter three times before Peter shrieked it out once.
In the midst of our hilarity, however, Uncle Alec and Aunt Janet came down upon us. It is best to draw a veil over what followed. Suffice it to say that the recollection gave point to Cecily's question.
"No, it isn't that sort of game at all," said the Story Girl. "It is this; each of you boys must preach a sermon, as Uncle Edward used to do. One of you next Sunday, and another the next, and so on. And whoever preaches the best sermon is to get a prize."
Dan promptly declared he wouldn't try to preach a sermon; but Peter, Felix and I thought the suggestion a very good one. Secretly, I believed I could cut quite a fine figure preaching a sermon.
"Who'll give the prize?" asked Felix.
"I will," said the Story Girl. "I'll give that picture father sent me last week."
As the said picture was an excellent copy of one of Landseer's stags, Felix and I were well pleased; but Peter averred that he would rather have the Madonna that looked like his Aunt Jane, and the Story Girl agreed that if his sermon was the best she would give him that.
"But who's to be the judge?" I said, "and what kind of a sermon would you call the best?"
"The one that makes the most impression," answered the Story Girl promptly. "And we girls must be the judges, because there's nobody else. Now, who is to preach next Sunday?"
It was decided that I should lead off, and I lay awake for an extra hour that night thinking what text I should take for the following Sunday. The next day I bought two sheets of foolscap from the schoolmaster, and after tea I betook myself to the granary, barred the door, and fell to writing my sermon. I did not find it as easy a task as I had anticipated; but I pegged grimly away at it, and by dint of severe labour for two evenings I eventually got my four pages of foolscap filled, although I had to pad the subject-matter not a little with verses of quotable hymns. I had decided to preach on missions, as being a topic more within my grasp than abstruse theological doctrines or evangelical discourses; and, mindful of the need of making an impression, I drew a harrowing picture of the miserable plight of the heathen who in their darkness bowed down to wood and stone. Then I urged our responsibility concerning them, and meant to wind up by reciting, in a very solemn and earnest voice, the verse beginning, "Can we whose souls are lighted." When I had completed my sermon I went over it very carefully again and wrote with red ink—Cecily made it for me out of an aniline dye—the word "thump" wherever I deemed it advisable to chastise the pulpit.
I have that sermon still, all its red thumps unfaded, lying beside my dream book; but I am not going to inflict it on my readers. I am not so proud of it as I once was. I was really puffed up with earthly vanity over it at that time. Felix, I thought, would be hard put to it to beat it. As for Peter, I did not consider him a rival to be feared. It was unsupposable that a hired boy, with little education and less experience of church-going, should be able to preach better than could I, in whose family there was a real minister.
The sermon written, the next thing was to learn it off by heart and then practise it, thumps included, until I was letter and gesture perfect. I preached it over several times in the granary with only Paddy, sitting immovably on a puncheon, for audience. Paddy stood the test fairly well. At least, he made an adorable listener, save at such times as imaginary rats distracted his attention.
Mr. Marwood had at least three absorbed listeners the next Sunday morning. Felix, Peter and I were all among the chiels who were taking mental notes on the art of preaching a sermon. Not a motion, or glance, or intonation escaped us. To be sure, none of us could remember the text when we got home; but we knew just how you should throw back your head and clutch the edge of the pulpit with both hands when you announced it.
In the afternoon we all repaired to the orchard, Bibles and hymn books in hand. We did not think it necessary to inform the grown-ups of what was in the wind. You could never tell what kink a grown-up would take. They might not think it proper to play any sort of a game on Sunday, not even a Christian game. Least said was soonest mended where grown-ups were concerned.
I mounted the pulpit steps, feeling rather nervous, and my audience sat gravely down on the grass before me. Our opening exercises consisted solely of singing and reading. We had agreed to omit prayer. Neither Felix, Peter nor I felt equal to praying in public. But we took up a collection. The proceeds were to go to missions. Dan passed the plate—Felicity's rosebud plate— looking as preternaturally solemn as Elder Frewen himself. Every one put a cent on it.
Well, I preached my sermon. And it fell horribly flat. I realized that, before I was half way through it. I think I preached it very well; and never a thump did I forget or misplace. But my audience was plainly bored. When I stepped down from the pulpit, after demanding passionately if we whose souls were lighted and so forth, I felt with secret humiliation that my sermon was a failure. It had made no impression at all. Felix would be sure to get the prize.
"That was a very good sermon for a first attempt," said the Story Girl graciously. "It sounded just like real sermons I have heard."
For a moment the charm of her voice made me feel that I had not done so badly after all; but the other girls, thinking it their duty to pay me some sort of a compliment also, quickly dispelled that pleasing delusion.
"Every word of it was true," said Cecily, her tone unconsciously implying that this was its sole merit.
"I often feel," said Felicity primly, "that we don't think enough about the heathens. We ought to think a great deal more."
Sara Ray put the finishing touch to my mortification.
"It was so nice and short," she said.
"What was the matter with my sermon?" I asked Dan that night. Since he was neither judge nor competitor I could discuss the matter with him.
"It was too much like a reg'lar sermon to be interesting," said Dan frankly.
"I should think the more like a regular sermon it was, the better," I said.
"Not if you want to make an impression," said Dan seriously. "You must have something sort of different for that. Peter, now, HE'LL have something different."
"Oh, Peter! I don't believe he can preach a sermon," I said.
"Maybe not, but you'll see he'll make an impression," said Dan.
Dan was neither the prophet nor the son of a prophet, but he had the second sight for once; Peter DID make an impression.
CHAPTER XXVI. PETER MAKES AN IMPRESSION
Peter's turn came next. He did not write his sermon out. That, he averred, was too hard work. Nor did he mean to take a text.
"Why, who ever heard of a sermon without a text?" asked Felix blankly.
"I am going to take a SUBJECT instead of a text," said Peter loftily. "I ain't going to tie myself down to a text. And I'm going to have heads in it—three heads. You hadn't a single head in yours," he added to me.
"Uncle Alec says that Uncle Edward says that heads are beginning to go out of fashion," I said defiantly—all the more defiantly that I felt I should have had heads in my sermon. It would doubtless have made a much deeper impression. But the truth was I had forgotten all about such things.
"Well, I'm going to have them, and I don't care if they are unfashionable," said Peter. "They're good things. Aunt Jane used to say if a man didn't have heads and stick to them he'd go wandering all over the Bible and never get anywhere in particular."
"What are you going to preach on?" asked Felix.
"You'll find out next Sunday," said Peter significantly.
The next Sunday was in October, and a lovely day it was, warm and bland as June. There was something in the fine, elusive air, that recalled beautiful, forgotten things and suggested delicate future hopes. The woods had wrapped fine-woven gossamers about them and the westering hill was crimson and gold.
We sat around the Pulpit Stone and waited for Peter and Sara Ray. It was the former's Sunday off and he had gone home the night before, but he assured us he would be back in time to preach his sermon. Presently he arrived and mounted the granite boulder as if to the manor born. He was dressed in his new suit and I, perceiving this, felt that he had the advantage of me. When I preached I had to wear my second best suit, for it was one of Aunt Janet's laws that we should take our good suits off when we came home from church. There were, I saw, compensations for being a hired boy.
Peter made quite a handsome little minister, in his navy blue coat, white collar, and neatly bowed tie. His black eyes shone, and his black curls were brushed up in quite a ministerial pompadour, but threatened to tumble over at the top in graceless ringlets.
It was decided that there was no use in waiting for Sara Ray, who might or might not come, according to the humour in which her mother was. Therefore Peter proceeded with the service.
He read the chapter and gave out the hymn with as much SANG FROID as if he had been doing it all his life. Mr. Marwood himself could not have bettered the way in which Peter said,
"We will sing the whole hymn, omitting the fourth stanza."
That was a fine touch which I had not thought of. I began to think that, after all, Peter might be a foeman worthy of my steel.
When Peter was ready to begin he thrust his hands into his pockets—a totally unorthodox thing. Then he plunged in without further ado, speaking in his ordinary conversational tone—another unorthodox thing. There was no shorthand reporter present to take that sermon down; but, if necessary, I could preach it over verbatim, and so, I doubt not, could everyone that heard it. It was not a forgettable kind of sermon.
"Dearly beloved," said Peter, "my sermon is about the bad place—in short, about hell."
An electric shock seemed to run through the audience. Everybody looked suddenly alert. Peter had, in one sentence, done what my whole sermon had failed to do. He had made an impression.
"I shall divide my sermon into three heads," pursued Peter. "The first head is, what you must not do if you don't want to go to the bad place. The second head is, what the bad place is like"—sensation in the audience—"and the third head is, how to escape going there.
"Now, there's a great many things you must not do, and it's very important to know what they are. You ought not to lose no time in finding out. In the first place you mustn't ever forget to mind what grown-up people tell you—that is, GOOD grown-up people."
"But how are you going to tell who are the good grown-up people?" asked Felix suddenly, forgetting that he was in church.
"Oh, that is easy," said Peter. "You can always just FEEL who is good and who isn't. And you mustn't tell lies and you mustn't murder any one. You must be specially careful not to murder any one. You might be forgiven for telling lies, if you was real sorry for them, but if you murdered any one it would be pretty hard to get forgiven, so you'd better be on the safe side. And you mustn't commit suicide, because if you did that you wouldn't have any chance of repenting it; and you mustn't forget to say your prayers and you mustn't quarrel with your sister."
At this point Felicity gave Dan a significant poke with her elbow, and Dan was up in arms at once.
"Don't you be preaching at me, Peter Craig," he cried out. "I won't stand it. I don't quarrel with my sister any oftener than she quarrels with me. You can just leave me alone."
"Who's touching you?" demanded Peter. "I didn't mention no names. A minister can say anything he likes in the pulpit, as long as he doesn't mention any names, and nobody can answer back."
"All right, but just you wait till to-morrow," growled Dan, subsiding reluctantly into silence under the reproachful looks of the girls.
"You must not play any games on Sunday," went on Peter, "that is, any week-day games—or whisper in church, or laugh in church—I did that once but I was awful sorry—and you mustn't take any notice of Paddy—I mean of the family cat at family prayers, not even if he climbs up on your back. And you mustn't call names or make faces."
"Amen," cried Felix, who had suffered many things because Felicity so often made faces at him.
Peter stopped and glared at him over the edge of the Pulpit Stone.
"You haven't any business to call out a thing like that right in the middle of a sermon," he said.
"They do it in the Methodist church at Markdale," protested Felix, somewhat abashed. "I heard them."
"I know they do. That's the Methodist way and it is all right for them. I haven't a word to say against Methodists. My Aunt Jane was one, and I might have been one myself if I hadn't been so scared of the Judgment Day. But you ain't a Methodist. You're a Presbyterian, ain't you?"
"Yes, of course. I was born that way."
"Very well then, you've got to do things the Presbyterian way. Don't let me hear any more of your amens or I'll amen you."
"Oh, don't anybody interrupt again," implored the Story Girl. "It isn't fair. How can any one preach a good sermon if he is always being interrupted? Nobody interrupted Beverley."
"Bev didn't get up there and pitch into us like that," muttered Dan.
"You mustn't fight," resumed Peter undauntedly. "That is, you mustn't fight for the fun of fighting, nor out of bad temper. You must not say bad words or swear. You mustn't get drunk—although of course you wouldn't be likely to do that before you grow up, and the girls never. There's prob'ly a good many other things you mustn't do, but these I've named are the most important. Of course, I'm not saying you'll go to the bad place for sure if you do them. I only say you're running a risk. The devil is looking out for the people who do these things and he'll be more likely to get after them than to waste time over the people who don't do them. And that's all about the first head of my sermon."
At this point Sara Ray arrived, somewhat out of breath. Peter looked at her reproachfully.
"You've missed my whole first head, Sara," he said. "that isn't fair, when you're to be one of the judges. I think I ought to preach it over again for you."
"That was really done once. I know a story about it," said the Story Girl.
"Who's interrupting now?" aid Dan slyly.
"Never mind, tell us the story," said the preacher himself, eagerly leaning over the pulpit.
"It was Mr. Scott who did it," said the Story Girl. "He was preaching somewhere in Nova Scotia, and when he was more than half way through his sermon—and you know sermons were VERY long in those days—a man walked in. Mr. Scott stopped until he had taken his seat. Then he said, 'My friend, you are very late for this service. I hope you won't be late for heaven. The congregation will excuse me if I recapitulate the sermon for our friend's benefit.' And then he just preached the sermon over again from the beginning. It is said that that particular man was never known to be late for church again."
"It served him right," said Dan, "but it was pretty hard lines on the rest of the congregation."
"Now, let's be quiet so Peter can go on with his sermon," said Cecily.
Peter squared his shoulders and took hold of the edge of the pulpit. Never a thump had he thumped, but I realized that his way of leaning forward and fixing this one or that one of his hearers with his eye was much more effective.
"I've come now to the second head of my sermon—what the bad place is like."
He proceeded to describe the bad place. Later on we discovered that he had found his material in an illustrated translation of Dante's Inferno which had once been given to his Aunt Jane as a school prize. But at the time we supposed he must be drawing from Biblical sources. Peter had been reading the Bible steadily ever since what we always referred to as "the Judgment Sunday," and he was by now almost through it. None of the rest of us had ever read the Bible completely through, and we thought Peter must have found his description of the world of the lost in some portion with which we were not acquainted. Therefore, his utterances carried all the weight of inspiration, and we sat appalled before his lurid phrases. He used his own words to clothe the ideas he had found, and the result was a force and simplicity that struck home to our imaginations.
Suddenly Sara Ray sprang to her feet with a scream—a scream that changed into strange laughter. We all, preacher included, looked at her aghast. Cecily and Felicity sprang up and caught hold of her. Sara Ray was really in a bad fit of hysterics, but we knew nothing of such a thing in our experience, and we thought she had gone mad. She shrieked, cried, laughed, and flung herself about.
"She's gone clean crazy," said Peter, coming down out of his pulpit with a very pale face.
"You've frightened her crazy with your dreadful sermon," said Felicity indignantly.
She and Cecily each took Sara by an arm and, half leading, half carrying, got her out of the orchard and up to the house. The rest of us looked at each other in terrified questioning.
"You've made rather too much of an impression, Peter," said the Story Girl miserably.
"She needn't have got so scared. If she'd only waited for the third head I'd have showed her how easy it was to get clear of going to the bad place and go to heaven instead. But you girls are always in such a hurry," said Peter bitterly.
"Do you s'pose they'll have to take her to the asylum?" said Dan in a whisper.
"Hush, here's your father," said Felix.
Uncle Alec came striding down the orchard. We had never before seen Uncle Alec angry. But there was no doubt that he was very angry. His blue eyes fairly blazed at us as he said,
"What have you been doing to frighten Sara Ray into such a condition?"
"We—we were just having a sermon contest," explained the Story Girl tremulously. "And Peter preached about the bad place, and it frightened Sara. That is all, Uncle Alec."
"All! I don't know what the result will be to that nervous delicate child. She is shrieking in there and nothing will quiet her. What do you mean by playing such a game on Sunday, and making a jest of sacred things? No, not a word—" for the Story Girl had attempted to speak. "You and Peter march off home. And the next time I find you up to such doings on Sunday or any other day I'll give you cause to remember it to your latest hour."
The Story Girl and Peter went humbly home and we went with them.
"I CAN'T understand grown-up people," said Felix despairingly. "When Uncle Edward preached sermons it was all right, but when we do it it is 'making a jest of sacred things.' And I heard Uncle Alec tell a story once about being nearly frightened to death when he was a little boy, by a minister preaching on the end of the world; and he said, 'That was something like a sermon. You don't hear such sermons nowadays.' But when Peter preaches just such a sermon, it's a very different story."
"It's no wonder we can't understand the grown-ups," said the Story Girl indignantly, "because we've never been grown-up ourselves. But THEY have been children, and I don't see why they can't understand us. Of course, perhaps we shouldn't have had the contest on Sundays. But all the same I think it's mean of Uncle Alec to be so cross. Oh, I do hope poor Sara won't have to be taken to the asylum."
Poor Sara did not have to be. She was eventually quieted down, and was as well as usual the next day; and she humbly begged Peter's pardon for spoiling his sermon. Peter granted it rather grumpily, and I fear that he never really quite forgave Sara for her untimely outburst. Felix, too, felt resentment against her, because he had lost the chance of preaching his sermon.
"Of course I know I wouldn't have got the prize, for I couldn't have made such an impression as Peter," he said to us mournfully, "but I'd like to have had a chance to show what I could do. That's what comes of having those cry-baby girls mixed up in things. Cecily was just as scared as Sara Ray, but she'd more sense than to show it like that."
"Well, Sara couldn't help it," said the Story Girl charitably, "but it does seem as if we'd had dreadful luck in everything we've tried lately. I thought of a new game this morning, but I'm almost afraid to mention it, for I suppose something dreadful will come of it, too."
"Oh, tell us, what is it?" everybody entreated.
"Well, it's a trial by ordeal, and we're to see which of us can pass it. The ordeal is to eat one of the bitter apples in big mouthfuls without making a single face."
Dan made a face to begin with.
"I don't believe any of us can do that," he said.
"YOU can't, if you take bites big enough to fill your mouth," giggled Felicity, with cruelty and without provocation.
"Well, maybe you could," retorted Dan sarcastically. "You'd be so afraid of spoiling your looks that you'd rather die than make a face, I s'pose, no matter what you et."
"Felicity makes enough faces when there's nothing to make faces at," said Felix, who had been grimaced at over the breakfast table that morning and hadn't liked it.
"I think the bitter apples would be real good for Felix," said Felicity. "They say sour things make people thin."
"Let's go and get the bitter apples," said Cecily hastily, seeing that Felix, Felicity and Dan were on the verge of a quarrel more bitter than the apples.
We went to the seedling tree and got an apple apiece. The game was that every one must take a bite in turn, chew it up, and swallow it, without making a face. Peter again distinguished himself. He, and he alone, passed the ordeal, munching those dreadful mouthfuls without so much as a change of expression on his countenance, while the facial contortions the rest of us went through baffled description. In every subsequent trial it was the same. Peter never made a face, and no one else could help making them. It sent him up fifty per cent in Felicity's estimation.
"Peter is a real smart boy," she said to me. "It's such a pity he is a hired boy."
But, if we could not pass the ordeal, we got any amount of fun out of it, at least. Evening after evening the orchard re-echoed to our peals of laughter.
"Bless the children," said Uncle Alec, as he carried the milk pails across the yard. "Nothing can quench their spirits for long."
CHAPTER XXVII. THE ORDEAL OF BITTER APPLES
I could never understand why Felix took Peter's success in the Ordeal of Bitter Apples so much to heart. He had not felt very keenly over the matter of the sermons, and certainly the mere fact that Peter could eat sour apples without making faces did not cast any reflection on the honour or ability of the other competitors. But to Felix everything suddenly became flat, stale, and unprofitable, because Peter continued to hold the championship of bitter apples. It haunted his waking hours and obsessed his nights. I heard him talking in his sleep about it. If anything could have made him thin the way he worried over this matter would have done it.
For myself, I cared not a groat. I had wished to be successful in the sermon contest, and felt sore whenever I thought of my failure. But I had no burning desire to eat sour apples without grimacing, and I did not sympathize over and above with my brother. When, however, he took to praying about it, I realized how deeply he felt on the subject, and hoped he would be successful.
Felix prayed earnestly that he might be enabled to eat a bitter apple without making a face. And when he had prayed three nights after this manner, he contrived to eat a bitter apple without a grimace until he came to the last bite, which proved too much for him. But Felix was vastly encouraged.
"Another prayer or two, and I'll be able to eat a whole one," he said jubilantly.
But this devoutly desired consummation did not come to pass. In spite of prayers and heroic attempts, Felix could never get beyond that last bite. Not even faith and works in combination could avail. For a time he could not understand this. But he thought the mystery was solved when Cecily came to him one day and told him that Peter was praying against him.
"He's praying that you'll never be able to eat a bitter apple without making a face," she said. "He told Felicity and Felicity told me. She said she thought it was real cute of him. I think that is a dreadful way to talk about praying and I told her so. She wanted me to promise not to tell you, but I wouldn't promise, because I think it's fair for you to know what is going on."
Felix was very indignant—and aggrieved as well.
"I don't see why God should answer Peter's prayers instead of mine," he said bitterly. "I've gone to church and Sunday School all my life, and Peter never went till this summer. It isn't fair."
"Oh, Felix, don't talk like that," said Cecily, shocked. "God MUST be fair. I'll tell you what I believe is the reason. Peter prays three times a day regular—in the morning and at dinner time and at night—and besides that, any time through the day when he happens to think of it, he just prays, standing up. Did you ever hear of such goings-on?"
"Well, he's got to stop praying against me, anyhow," said Felix resolutely. "I won't put up with it, and I'll go and tell him so right off."
Felix marched over to Uncle Roger's, and we trailed after, scenting a scene. We found Peter shelling beans in the granary, and whistling cheerily, as with a conscience void of offence towards all men.
"Look here, Peter," said Felix ominously, "they tell me that you've been praying right along that I couldn't eat a bitter apple. Now, I tell you—"
"I never did!" exclaimed Peter indignantly. "I never mentioned your name. I never prayed that you couldn't eat a bitter apple. I just prayed that I'd be the only one that could."
"Well, that's the same thing," cried Felix. "You've just been praying for the opposite to me out of spite. And you've got to stop it, Peter Craig."
"Well, I just guess I won't," said Peter angrily. "I've just as good a right to pray for what I want as you, Felix King, even if you was brought up in Toronto. I s'pose you think a hired boy hasn't any business to pray for particular things, but I'll show you. I'll just pray for what I please, and I'd like to see you try and stop me."
"You'll have to fight me, if you keep on praying against me," said Felix.
The girls gasped; but Dan and I were jubilant, snuffing battle afar off.
"All right. I can fight as well as pray."
"Oh, don't fight," implored Cecily. "I think it would be dreadful. Surely you can arrange it some other way. Let's all give up the Ordeal, anyway. There isn't much fun in it. And then neither of you need pray about it."
"I don't want to give up the Ordeal," said Felix, "and I won't."
"Oh, well, surely you can settle it some way without fighting," persisted Cecily.
"I'm not wanting to fight," said Peter. "It's Felix. If he don't interfere with my prayers there's no need of fighting. But if he does there's no other way to settle it."
"But how will that settle it?" asked Cecily.
"Oh, whoever's licked will have to give in about the praying," said Peter. "That's fair enough. If I'm licked I won't pray for that particular thing any more."
"It's dreadful to fight about anything so religious as praying," sighed poor Cecily.
"Why, they were always fighting about religion in old times," said Felix. "The more religious anything was the more fighting there was about it."
"A fellow's got a right to pray as he pleases," said Peter, "and if anybody tries to stop him he's bound to fight. That's my way of looking at it."
"What would Miss Marwood say if she knew you were going to fight?" asked Felicity.
Miss Marwood was Felix' Sunday School teacher and he was very fond of her. But by this time Felix was quite reckless.
"I don't care what she would say," he retorted.
Felicity tried another tack.
"You'll be sure to get whipped if you fight with Peter," she said. "You're too fat to fight."
After that, no moral force on earth could have prevented Felix from fighting. He would have faced an army with banners.
"You might settle it by drawing lots," said Cecily desperately.
"Drawing lots is wickeder that fighting," said Dan. "It's a kind of gambling."
"What would Aunt Jane say if she knew you were going to fight?" Cecily demanded of Peter.
"Don't you drag my Aunt Jane into this affair," said Peter darkly.
"You said you were going to be a Presbyterian," persisted Cecily. "Good Presbyterians don't fight."
"Oh, don't they! I heard your Uncle Roger say that Presbyterians were the best for fighting in the world—or the worst, I forget which he said, but it means the same thing."
Cecily had but one more shot in her locker.
"I thought you said in your sermon, Master Peter, that people shouldn't fight."
"I said they oughtn't to fight for fun, or for bad temper," retorted Peter. "This is different. I know what I'm fighting for but I can't think of the word."
"I guess you mean principle," I suggested.
"Yes, that's it," agreed Peter. "It's all right to fight for principle. It's kind of praying with your fists."
"Oh, can't you do something to prevent them from fighting, Sara?" pleaded Cecily, turning to the Story Girl, who was sitting on a bin, swinging her shapely bare feet to and fro.
"It doesn't do to meddle in an affair of this kind between boys," said the Story Girl sagely.
I may be mistaken, but I do not believe the Story Girl wanted that fight stopped. And I am far from being sure that Felicity did either.
It was ultimately arranged that the combat should take place in the fir wood behind Uncle Roger's granary. It was a nice, remote, bosky place where no prowling grown-up would be likely to intrude. And thither we all resorted at sunset.
"I hope Felix will beat," said the Story Girl to me, "not only for the family honour, but because that was a mean, mean prayer of Peter's. Do you think he will?"
"I don't know," I confessed dubiously. "Felix is too fat. He'll get out of breath in no time. And Peter is such a cool customer, and he's a year older than Felix. But then Felix has had some practice. He has fought boys in Toronto. And this is Peter's first fight."
"Did you ever fight?" asked the Story Girl.
"Once," I said briefly, dreading the next question, which promptly came.
It is sometimes a bitter thing to tell the truth, especially to a young lady for whom you have a great admiration. I had a struggle with temptation in which I frankly confess I might have been worsted had it not been for a saving and timely remembrance of a certain resolution made on the day preceding Judgment Sunday.
"The other fellow," I said with reluctant honesty.
"Well," said the Story Girl, "I think it doesn't matter whether you get whipped or not so long as you fight a good, square fight."
Her potent voice made me feel that I was quite a hero after all, and the sting went out of my recollection of that old fight.
When we arrived behind the granary the others were all there. Cecily was very pale, and Felix and Peter were taking off their coats. There was a pure yellow sunset that evening, and the aisles of the fir wood were flooded with its radiance. A cool, autumnal wind was whistling among the dark boughs and scattering blood red leaves from the maple at the end of the granary.
"Now," said Dan, "I'll count, and when I say three you pitch in, and hammer each other until one of you has had enough. Cecily, keep quiet. Now, one—two—three!"
Peter and Felix "pitched in," with more zeal than discretion on both sides. As a result, Peter got what later developed into a black eye, and Felix's nose began to bleed. Cecily gave a shriek and ran out of the wood. We thought she had fled because she could not endure the sight of blood, and we were not sorry, for her manifest disapproval and anxiety were damping the excitement of the occasion.
Felix and Peter drew apart after that first onset, and circled about one another warily. Then, just as they had come to grips again, Uncle Alec walked around the corner of the granary, with Cecily behind him.
He was not angry. There was a quizzical look in his eyes. But he took the combatants by their shirt collars and dragged them apart.
"This stops right here, boys," he said. "You know I don't allow fighting."
"Oh, but Uncle Alec, it was this way," began Felix eagerly. "Peter—"
"No, I don't want to hear about it," said Uncle Alec sternly. "I don't care what you were fighting about, but you must settle your quarrels in a different fashion. Remember my commands, Felix. Peter, Roger is looking for you to wash his buggy. Be off."
Peter went off rather sullenly, and Felix, also sullenly, sat down and began to nurse his nose. He turned his back on Cecily.
Cecily "caught it" after Uncle Alec had gone. Dan called her a tell-tale and a baby, and sneered at her until Cecily began to cry.
"I couldn't stand by and watch Felix and Peter pound each other all to pieces," she sobbed. "They've been such friends, and it was dreadful to see them fighting."
"Uncle Roger would have let them fight it out," said the Story Girl discontentedly. "Uncle Roger believes in boys fighting. He says it's as harmless a way as any of working off their original sin. Peter and Felix wouldn't have been any worse friends after it. They'd have been better friends because the praying question would have been settled. And now it can't be—unless Felicity can coax Peter to give up praying against Felix."
For once in her life the Story Girl was not as tactful as her wont. Or—is it possible that she said it out of malice prepense? At all events, Felicity resented the imputation that she had more influence with Peter than any one else.
"I don't meddle with hired boys' prayers," she said haughtily.
"It was all nonsense fighting about such prayers, anyhow," said Dan, who probably thought that since all chance of a fight was over, he might as well avow his real sentiments as to its folly. "Just as much nonsense as praying about the bitter apples in the first place."
"Oh, Dan, don't you believe there is some good in praying?" said Cecily reproachfully.
"Yes, I believe there's some good in some kinds of praying, but not in that kind," said Dan sturdily. "I don't believe God cares whether anybody can eat an apple without making a face or not."
"I don't believe it's right to talk of God as if you were well acquainted with Him," said Felicity, who felt that it was a good chance to snub Dan.
"There's something wrong somewhere," said Cecily perplexedly. "We ought to pray for what we want, of that I'm sure—and Peter wanted to be the only one who could pass the Ordeal. It seems as if he must be right—and yet it doesn't seem so. I wish I could understand it."
"Peter's prayer was wrong because it was a selfish prayer, I guess," said the Story Girl thoughtfully. "Felix's prayer was all right, because it wouldn't have hurt any one else; but it was selfish of Peter to want to be the only one. We mustn't pray selfish prayers."
"Oh, I see through it now," said Cecily joyfully.
"Yes, but," said Dan triumphantly, "if you believe God answers prayers about particular things, it was Peter's prayer He answered. What do you make of that?"
"Oh!" the Story Girl shook her head impatiently. "There's no use trying to make such things out. We only get more mixed up all the time. Let's leave it alone and I'll tell you a story. Aunt Olivia had a letter today from a friend in Nova Scotia, who lives in Shubenacadie. When I said I thought it a funny name, she told me to go and look in her scrap book, and I would find a story about the origin of the name. And I did. Don't you want to hear it?"
Of course we did. We all sat down at the roots of the firs. Felix, having finally squared matters with his nose, turned around and listened also. He would not look at Cecily, but every one else had forgiven her.
The Story Girl leaned that brown head of hers against the fir trunk behind her, and looked up at the apple-green sky through the dark boughs above us. She wore, I remember, a dress of warm crimson, and she had wound around her head a string of waxberries, that looked like a fillet of pearls. Her cheeks were still flushed with the excitement of the evening. In the dim light she was beautiful, with a wild, mystic loveliness, a compelling charm that would not be denied.
"Many, many moons ago, an Indian tribe lived on the banks of a river in Nova Scotia. One of the young braves was named Accadee. He was the tallest and bravest and handsomest young man in the tribe—"
"Why is it they're always so handsome in stories?" asked Dan. "Why are there never no stories about ugly people?"
"Perhaps ugly people never have stories happen to them," suggested Felicity.
"I think they're just as interesting as the handsome people," retorted Dan.
"Well, maybe they are in real life," said Cecily, "but in stories it's just as easy to make them handsome as not. I like them best that way. I just love to read a story where the heroine is beautiful as a dream."
"Pretty people are always conceited," said Felix, who was getting tired of holding his tongue.
"The heroes in stories are always nice," said Felicity, with apparent irrelevance. "They're always so tall and slender. Wouldn't it be awful funny if any one wrote a story about a fat hero—or about one with too big a mouth?"
"It doesn't matter what a man LOOKS like," I said, feeling that Felix and Dan were catching it rather too hotly. "He must be a good sort of chap and DO heaps of things. That's all that's necessary."
"Do any of you happen to want to hear the rest of my story?" asked the Story Girl in an ominously polite voice that recalled us to a sense of our bad manners. We apologized and promised to behave better; she went on, appeased:
"Accadee was all these things that I have mentioned, and he was the best hunter in the tribe besides. Never an arrow of his that did not go straight to the mark. Many and many a snow white moose he shot, and gave the beautiful skin to his sweetheart. Her name was Shuben and she was as lovely as the moon when it rises from the sea, and as pleasant as a summer twilight. Her eyes were dark and soft, her foot was as light as a breeze, and her voice sounded like a brook in the woods, or the wind that comes over the hills at night. She and Accadee were very much in love with each other, and often they hunted together, for Shuben was almost as skilful with her bow and arrow as Accadee himself. They had loved each other ever since they were small pappooses, and they had vowed to love each other as long as the river ran.
"One twilight, when Accadee was out hunting in the woods, he shot a snow white moose; and he took off its skin and wrapped it around him. Then he went on through the woods in the starlight; and he felt so happy and light of heart that he sometimes frisked and capered about just as a real moose would do. And he was doing this when Shuben, who was also out hunting, saw him from afar and thought he was a real moose. She stole cautiously through the woods until she came to the brink of a little valley. Below her stood the snow white moose. She drew her arrow to her eye—alas, she knew the art only too well!—and took careful aim. The next moment Accadee fell dead with her arrow in his heart."
The Story Girl paused—a dramatic pause. It was quite dark in the fir wood. We could see her face and eyes but dimly through the gloom. A silvery moon was looking down on us over the granary. The stars twinkled through the softly waving boughs. Beyond the wood we caught a glimpse of a moonlit world lying in the sharp frost of the October evening. The sky above it was chill and ethereal and mystical.
But all about us were shadows; and the weird little tale, told in a voice fraught with mystery and pathos, had peopled them for us with furtive folk in belt and wampum, and dark-tressed Indian maidens.
"What did Shuben do when she found out she had killed Accadee?" asked Felicity.
"She died of a broken heart before the spring, and she and Accadee were buried side by side on the bank of the river which has ever since borne their names—the river Shubenacadie," said the Story Girl.
The sharp wind blew around the granary and Cecily shivered. We heard Aunt Janet's voice calling "Children, children." Shaking off the spell of firs and moonlight and romantic tale, we scrambled to our feet and went homeward.
"I kind of wish I'd been born an Injun," said Dan. "It must have been a jolly life—nothing to do but hunt and fight."
"It wouldn't be so nice if they caught you and tortured you at the stake," said Felicity.
"No," said Dan reluctantly. "I suppose there'd be some drawback to everything, even being an Injun."
"Isn't it cold?" said Cecily, shivering again. "It will soon be winter. I wish summer could last forever. Felicity likes the winter, and so does the Story Girl, but I don't. It always seems so long till spring."
"Never mind, we've had a splendid summer," I said, slipping my arm about her to comfort some childish sorrow that breathed in her plaintive voice.
Truly, we had had a delectable summer; and, having had it, it was ours forever. "The gods themselves cannot recall their gifts." They may rob us of our future and embitter our present, but our past they may not touch. With all its laughter and delight and glamour it is our eternal possession.
Nevertheless, we all felt a little of the sadness of the waning year. There was a distinct weight on our spirits until Felicity took us into the pantry and stayed us with apple tarts and comforted us with cream. Then we brightened up. It was really a very decent world after all.
CHAPTER XXVIII. THE TALE OF THE RAINBOW BRIDGE
Felix, so far as my remembrance goes, never attained to success in the Ordeal of Bitter Apples. He gave up trying after awhile; and he also gave up praying about it, saying in bitterness of spirit that there was no use in praying when other fellows prayed against you out of spite. He and Peter remained on bad terms for some time, however.
We were all of us too tired those nights to do any special praying. Sometimes I fear our "regular" prayers were slurred over, or mumbled in anything but reverent haste. October was a busy month on the hill farms. The apples had to be picked, and this work fell mainly to us children. We stayed home from school to do it. It was pleasant work and there was a great deal of fun in it; but it was hard, too, and our arms and backs ached roundly at night. In the mornings it was very delightful; in the afternoons tolerable; but in the evenings we lagged, and the laughter and zest of fresher hours were lacking.
Some of the apples had to be picked very carefully. But with others it did not matter; we boys would climb the trees and shake the apples down until the girls shrieked for mercy. The days were crisp and mellow, with warm sunshine and a tang of frost in the air, mingled with the woodsy odours of the withering grasses. The hens and turkeys prowled about, pecking at windfalls, and Pat made mad rushes at them amid the fallen leaves. The world beyond the orchard was in a royal magnificence of colouring, under the vivid blue autumn sky. The big willow by the gate was a splendid golden dome, and the maples that were scattered through the spruce grove waved blood-red banners over the sombre cone-bearers. The Story Girl generally had her head garlanded with their leaves. They became her vastly. Neither Felicity nor Cecily could have worn them. Those two girls were of a domestic type that assorted ill with the wildfire in Nature's veins. But when the Story Girl wreathed her nut brown tresses with crimson leaves it seemed, as Peter said, that they grew on her—as if the gold and flame of her spirit had broken out in a coronal, as much a part of her as the pale halo seems a part of the Madonna it encircles.
What tales she told us on those far-away autumn days, peopling the russet arcades with folk of an elder world. Many a princess rode by us on her palfrey, many a swaggering gallant ruffled it bravely in velvet and plume adown Uncle Stephen's Walk, many a stately lady, silken clad, walked in that opulent orchard!
When we had filled our baskets they had to be carried to the granary loft, and the contents stored in bins or spread on the floor to ripen further. We ate a good many, of course, feeling that the labourer was worthy of his hire. The apples from our own birthday trees were stored in separate barrels inscribed with our names. We might dispose of them as we willed. Felicity sold hers to Uncle Alec's hired man—and was badly cheated to boot, for he levanted shortly afterwards, taking the apples with him, having paid her only half her rightful due. Felicity has not gotten over that to this day.
Cecily, dear heart, sent most of hers to the hospital in town, and no doubt gathered in therefrom dividends of gratitude and satisfaction of soul, such as can never be purchased by any mere process of bargain and sale. The rest of us ate our apples, or carried them to school where we bartered them for such treasures as our schoolmates possessed and we coveted.
There was a dusky, little, pear-shaped apple—from one of Uncle Stephen's trees—which was our favourite; and next to it a delicious, juicy yellow apple from Aunt Louisa's tree. We were also fond of the big sweet apples; we used to throw them up in the air and let them fall on the ground until they were bruised and battered to the bursting point. Then we sucked on the juice; sweeter was it than the nectar drunk by blissful gods on the Thessalian hill.
Sometimes we worked until the cold yellow sunsets faded out over the darkening distances, and the hunter's moon looked down on us through the sparkling air. The constellations of autumn scintillated above us. Peter and the Story Girl knew all about them, and imparted their knowledge to us generously. I recall Peter standing on the Pulpit Stone, one night ere moonrise, and pointing them out to us, occasionally having a difference of opinion with the Story Girl over the name of some particular star. Job's Coffin and the Northern Cross were to the west of us; south of us flamed Fomalhaut. The Great Square of Pegasus was over our heads. Cassiopeia sat enthroned in her beautiful chair in the north-east; and north of us the Dippers swung untiringly around the Pole Star. Cecily and Felix were the only ones who could distinguish the double star in the handle of the Big Dipper, and greatly did they plume themselves thereon. The Story Girl told us the myths and legends woven around these immemorial clusters, her very voice taking on a clear, remote, starry sound as she talked of them. When she ceased, we came back to earth, feeling as if we had been millions of miles away in the blue ether, and that all our old familiar surroundings were momentarily forgotten and strange.
That night when he pointed out the stars to us from the Pulpit Stone was the last time for several weeks that Peter shared our toil and pastime. The next day he complained of headache and sore throat, and seemed to prefer lying on Aunt Olivia's kitchen sofa to doing any work. As it was not in Peter to be a malingerer he was left in peace, while we picked apples. Felix alone, must unjustly and spitefully, declared that Peter was simply shirking.
"He's just lazy, that's what's the matter with him," he said.
"Why don't you talk sense, if you must talk?" said Felicity. "There's no sense in calling Peter lazy. You might as well say I had black hair. Of course, Peter, being a Craig, has his faults, but he's a smart boy. His father was lazy but his mother hasn't a lazy bone in her body, and Peter takes after her."
"Uncle Roger says Peter's father wasn't exactly lazy," said the Story Girl. "The trouble was, there were so many other things he liked better than work."
"I wonder if he'll ever come back to his family," said Cecily. "Just think how dreadful it would be if OUR father had left us like that!"
"Our father is a King," said Felicity loftily, "and Peter's father was only a Craig. A member of our family COULDN'T behave like that."
"They say there must be a black sheep in every family," said the Story Girl.
"There isn't any in ours," said Cecily loyally.
"Why do white sheep eat more than black?" asked Felix.
"Is that a conundrum?" asked Cecily cautiously. "If it is I won't try to guess the reason. I never can guess conundrums."
"It isn't a conundrum," said Felix. "It's a fact. They do—and there's a good reason for it."
We stopped picking apples, sat down on the grass, and tried to reason it out—with the exception of Dan, who declared that he knew there was a catch somewhere and he wasn't going to be caught. The rest of us could not see where any catch could exist, since Felix solemnly vowed, 'cross his heart, white sheep did eat more than black. We argued over it seriously, but finally had to give it up.
"Well, what is the reason?" asked Felicity.
"Because there's more of them," said Felix, grinning.
I forget what we did to Felix.
A shower came up in the evening and we had to stop picking. After the shower there was a magnificent double rainbow. We watched it from the granary window, and the Story Girl told us an old legend, culled from one of Aunt Olivia's many scrapbooks.
"Long, long ago, in the Golden Age, when the gods used to visit the earth so often that it was nothing uncommon to see them, Odin made a pilgrimage over the world. Odin was the great god of the northland, you know. And wherever he went among men he taught them love and brotherhood, and skilful arts; and great cities sprang up where he had trodden, and every land through which he passed was blessed because one of the gods had come down to men. But many men and women followed Odin himself, giving up all their worldly possessions and ambitions; and to these he promised the gift of eternal life. All these people were good and noble and unselfish and kind; but the best and noblest of them all was a youth named Ving; and this youth was beloved by Odin above all others, for his beauty and strength and goodness. Always he walked on Odin's right hand, and always the first light of Odin's smile fell on him. Tall and straight was he as a young pine, and his long hair was the colour of ripe wheat in the sun; and his blue eyes were like the northland heavens on a starry night.
"In Odin's band was a beautiful maiden named Alin. She was as fair and delicate as a young birch tree in spring among the dark old pines and firs, and Ving loved her with all his heart. His soul thrilled with rapture at the thought that he and she together should drink from the fountain of immortality, as Odin had promised, and be one thereafter in eternal youth.
"At last they came to the very place where the rainbow touched the earth. And the rainbow was a great bridge, built of living colours, so dazzling and wonderful that beyond it the eye could see nothing, only far away a great, blinding, sparkling glory, where the fountain of life sprang up in a shower of diamond fire. But under the Rainbow Bridge rolled a terrible flood, deep and wide and violent, full of rocks and rapids and whirlpools.
"There was a Warder of the bridge, a god, dark and stern and sorrowful. And to him Odin gave command that he should open the gate and allow his followers to cross the Rainbow Bridge, that they might drink of the fountain of life beyond. And the Warder set open the gate.
"'Pass on and drink of the fountain,' he said. 'To all who taste of it shall immortality be given. But only to that one who shall drink of it first shall be permitted to walk at Odin's right hand forever.'
"Then the company passed through in great haste, all fired with a desire to be the first to drink of the fountain and win so marvellous a boon. Last of all came Ving. He had lingered behind to pluck a thorn from the foot of a beggar child he had met on the highway, and he had not heard the Warder's words. But when, eager, joyous, radiant, he set his foot on the rainbow, the stern, sorrowful Warder took him by the arm and drew him back.
"'Ving, strong, noble, and valiant,' he said, 'Rainbow Bridge is not for thee.'
"Very dark grew Ving's face. Hot rebellion rose in his heart and rushed over his pale lips.
"'Why dost thou keep back the draught of immortality from me?' he demanded passionately.
"The Warder pointed to the dark flood that rolled under the bridge.
"'The path of the rainbow is not for thee,' he said, 'but yonder way is open. Ford that flood. On the furthest bank is the fountain of life.'
"'Thou mockest me,' muttered Ving sullenly. 'No mortal could cross that flood. Oh, Master,' he prayed, turning beseechingly to Odin, 'thou didst promise to me eternal life as to the others. Wilt thou not keep that promise? Command the Warder to let me pass. He must obey thee.'
"But Odin stood silent, with his face turned from his beloved, and Ving's heart was filled with unspeakable bitterness and despair.
"'Thou mayest return to earth if thou fearest to essay the flood,' said the Warder.
"'Nay,' said Ving wildly, 'earthly life without Alin is more dreadful than the death which awaits me in yon dark river.'
"And he plunged fiercely in. He swam, and struggled, he buffetted the turmoil. The waves went over his head again and again, the whirlpools caught him and flung him on the cruel rocks. The wild, cold spray beat on his eyes and blinded him, so that he could see nothing, and the roar of the river deafened him so that he could hear nothing; but he felt keenly the wounds and bruises of the cruel rocks, and many a time he would have given up the struggle had not the thought of sweet Alin's loving eyes brought him the strength and desire to struggle as long as it was possible. Long, long, long, to him seemed that bitter and perilous passage; but at last he won through to the furthest side. Breathless and reeling, his vesture torn, his great wounds bleeding, he found himself on the shore where the fountain of immortality sprang up. He staggered to its brink and drank of its clear stream. Then all pain and weariness fell away from him, and he rose up, a god, beautiful with immortality. And as he did there came rushing over the Rainbow Bridge a great company—the band of fellow travellers. But all were too late to win the double boon. Ving had won to it through the danger and suffering of the dark river."
The rainbow had faded out, and the darkness of the October dusk was falling.
"I wonder," said Dan meditatively, as we went away from that redolent spot, "what it would be like to live for ever in this world."
"I expect we'd get tired of it after awhile," said the Story Girl. "But," she added, "I think it would be a goodly while before I would."
CHAPTER XXIX. THE SHADOW FEARED OF MAN
We were all up early the next morning, dressing by candlelight. But early as it was we found the Story Girl in the kitchen when we went down, sitting on Rachel Ward's blue chest and looking important.
"What do you think?" she exclaimed. "Peter has the measles! He was dreadfully sick all night, and Uncle Roger had to go for the doctor. He was quite light-headed, and didn't know any one. Of course he's far too sick to be taken home, so his mother has come up to wait on him, and I'm to live over here until he is better."
This was mingled bitter and sweet. We were sorry to hear that Peter had the measles; but it would be jolly to have the Story Girl living with us all the time. What orgies of story telling we should have!
"I suppose we'll all have the measles now," grumbled Felicity. "And October is such an inconvenient time for measles—there's so much to do."
"I don't believe any time is very convenient to have the measles," Cecily said.
"Oh, perhaps we won't have them," said the Story Girl cheerfully. "Peter caught them at Markdale, the last time he was home, his mother says."
"I don't want to catch the measles from Peter," said Felicity decidedly. "Fancy catching them from a hired boy!"
"Oh, Felicity, don't call Peter a hired boy when he's sick," protested Cecily.
During the next two days we were very busy—too busy to tell tales or listen to them. Only in the frosty dusk did we have time to wander afar in realms of gold with the Story Girl. She had recently been digging into a couple of old volumes of classic myths and northland folklore which she had found in Aunt Olivia's attic; and for us, god and goddess, laughing nymph and mocking satyr, norn and valkyrie, elf and troll, and "green folk" generally, were real creatures once again, inhabiting the orchards and woods and meadows around us, until it seemed as if the Golden Age had returned to earth.
Then, on the third day, the Story Girl came to us with a very white face. She had been over to Uncle Roger's yard to hear the latest bulletin from the sick room. Hitherto they had been of a non-committal nature; but now it was only too evident that she had bad news.
"Peter is very, very sick," she said miserably. "He has caught cold someway—and the measles have struck in—and—and—" the Story Girl wrung her brown hands together—"the doctor is afraid he—he—won't get better."
We all stood around, stricken, incredulous.
"Do you mean," said Felix, finding voice at length, "that Peter is going to die?"
The Story Girl nodded miserably.
"They're afraid so."
Cecily sat down by her half filled basket and began to cry. Felicity said violently that she didn't believe it.
"I can't pick another apple to-day and I ain't going to try," said Dan.
None of us could. We went to the grown-ups and told them so; and the grown-ups, with unaccustomed understanding and sympathy, told us that we need not. Then we roamed about in our wretchedness and tried to comfort one another. We avoided the orchard; it was for us too full of happy memories to accord with our bitterness of soul. Instead, we resorted to the spruce wood, where the hush and the sombre shadows and the soft, melancholy sighing of the wind in the branches over us did not jar harshly on our new sorrow.
We could not really believe that Peter was going to die—to DIE. Old people died. Grown-up people died. Even children of whom we had heard died. But that one of US—of our merry little band— should die was unbelievable. We could not believe it. And yet the possibility struck us in the face like a blow. We sat on the mossy stones under the dark old evergreens and gave ourselves up to wretchedness. We all, even Dan, cried, except the Story Girl.
"I don't see how you can be so unfeeling, Sara Stanley," said Felicity reproachfully. "You've always been such friends with Peter—and made out you thought so much of him—and now you ain't shedding a tear for him."
I looked at the Story Girl's dry, piteous eyes, and suddenly remembered that I had never seen her cry. When she told us sad tales, in a voice laden with all the tears that had ever been shed, she had never shed one of her own.
"I can't cry," she said drearily. "I wish I could. I've a dreadful feeling here—" she touched her slender throat—"and if I could cry I think it would make it better. But I can't."
"Maybe Peter will get better after all," said Dan, swallowing a sob. "I've heard of lots of people who went and got better after the doctor said they were going to die."
"While there's life there's hope, you know," said Felix. "We shouldn't cross bridges till we come to them."
"Those are only proverbs," said the Story Girl bitterly. "Proverbs are all very fine when there's nothing to worry you, but when you're in real trouble they're not a bit of help."
"Oh, I wish I'd never said Peter wasn't fit to associate with," moaned Felicity. "If he ever gets better I'll never say such a thing again—I'll never THINK it. He's just a lovely boy and twice as smart as lots that aren't hired out."
"He was always so polite and good-natured and obliging," sighed Cecily.
"He was just a real gentleman," said the Story Girl.
"There ain't many fellows as fair and square as Peter," said Dan.
"And such a worker," said Felix.
"Uncle Roger says he never had a boy he could depend on like Peter," I said.
"It's too late to be saying all these nice things about him now," said the Story Girl. "He won't ever know how much we thought of him. It's too late."
"If he gets better I'll tell him," said Cecily resolutely.
"I wish I hadn't boxed his ears that day he tried to kiss me," went on Felicity, who was evidently raking her conscience for past offences in regard to Peter. "Of course I couldn't be expected to let a hir—to let a boy kiss me. But I needn't have been so cross about it. I might have been more dignified. And I told him I just hated him. That wasn't true, but I s'pose he'll die thinking it is. Oh, dear me, what makes people say things they've got to be so sorry for afterwards?"
"I suppose if Peter d-d-dies he'll go to heaven anyhow," sobbed Cecily. "He's been real good all this summer, but he isn't a church member."
"He's a Presbyterian, you know," said Felicity reassuringly. Her tone expressed her conviction that that would carry Peter through if anything would. "We're none of us church members. But of course Peter couldn't be sent to the bad place. That would be ridiculous. What would they do with him there, when he's so good and polite and honest and kind?"
"Oh, I think he'll be all right, too," sighed Cecily, "but you know he never did go to church and Sunday School before this summer."
"Well, his father run away, and his mother was too busy earning a living to bring him up right," argued Felicity. "Don't you suppose that anybody, even God, would make allowances for that?"
"Of course Peter will go to heaven," said the Story Girl. "He's not grown up enough to go anywhere else. Children always go to heaven. But I don't want him to go there or anywhere else. I want him to stay right here. I know heaven must be a splendid place, but I'm sure Peter would rather be here, having fun with us."
"Sara Stanley," rebuked Felicity. "I should think you wouldn't say such things at such a solemn time. You're such a queer girl."
"Wouldn't you rather be here yourself than in heaven?" said the Story Girl bluntly. "Wouldn't you now, Felicity King? Tell the truth, 'cross your heart."
But Felicity took refuge from this inconvenient question in tears.
"If we could only DO something to help Peter!" I said desperately. "It seems dreadful not to be able to do a single thing."
"There's one thing we can do," said Cecily gently. "We can pray for him."
"So we can," I agreed.
"I'm going to pray like sixty," said Felix energetically.
"We'll have to be awful good, you know," warned Cecily. "There's no use praying if you're not good."
"That will be easy," sighed Felicity. "I don't feel a bit like being bad. If anything happens to Peter I feel sure I'll never be naughty again. I won't have the heart."
We did, indeed, pray most sincerely for Peter's recovery. We did not, as in the case of Paddy, "tack it on after more important things," but put it in the very forefront of our petitions. Even skeptical Dan prayed, his skepticism falling away from him like a discarded garment in this valley of the shadow, which sifts out hearts and tries souls, until we all, grown-up or children, realize our weakness, and, finding that our own puny strength is as a reed shaken in the wind, creep back humbly to the God we have vainly dreamed we could do without.
Peter was no better the next day. Aunt Olivia reported that his mother was broken-hearted. We did not again ask to be released from work. Instead, we went at it with feverish zeal. If we worked hard there was less time for grief and grievious thoughts. We picked apples and dragged them to the granary doggedly. In the afternoon Aunt Janet brought us a lunch of apple turnovers; but we could not eat them. Peter, as Felicity reminded us with a burst of tears, had been so fond of apple turnovers.
And, oh, how good we were! How angelically and unnaturally good! Never was there such a band of kind, sweet-tempered, unselfish children in any orchard. Even Felicity and Dan, for once in their lives, got through the day without any exchange of left-handed compliments. Cecily confided to me that she never meant to put her hair up in curlers on Saturday nights again, because it was pretending. She was so anxious to repent of something, sweet girl, and this was all she could think of.
During the afternoon Judy Pineau brought up a tear-blotted note from Sara Ray. Sara had not been allowed to visit the hill farm since Peter had developed measles. She was an unhappy little exile, and could only relieve her anguish of soul by daily letters to Cecily, which the faithful and obliging Judy Pineau brought up for her. These epistles were as gushingly underlined as if Sara had been a correspondent of early Victorian days.
Cecily did not write back, because Mrs. Ray had decreed that no letters must be taken down from the hill farm lest they carry infection. Cecily had offered to bake every epistle thoroughly in the oven before sending it; but Mrs. Ray was inexorable, and Cecily had to content herself by sending long verbal messages with Judy Pineau.
"My OWN DEAREST Cecily," ran Sara's letter. "I have just heard the sad news about POOR DEAR PETER. I can't describe MY FEELINGS. They are DREADFUL. I have been crying ALL THE AFTERNOON. I wish I could FLY to you, but ma will not let me. She is afraid I will catch the measles, but I would rather have the measles A DOZEN TIMES OVER than be sepparated from you all like this. But I have felt, ever since the Judgment Sunday that I MUST OBEY MA BETTER than I used to do. If ANYTHING HAPPENS to Peter and you are let see him BEFORE IT HAPPENS give him MY LOVE and tell him HOW SORRY I AM, and that I hope we will ALL meet in A BETTER WORLD Everything in school is about the same. The master is awful cross by spells. Jimmy Frewen walked home with Nellie Bowan last night from prayer-meeting and HER ONLY FOURTEEN. Don't you think it horrid BEGINNING SO YOUNG? YOU AND ME would NEVER do anything like that till we were GROWN UP, would we? Willy Fraser looks SO LONESOME in school these days. I must stop for ma says I waste FAR TOO MUCH TIME writing letters. Tell Judy ALL THE NEWS for me.
"Your OWN TRUE FRIEND, "SARA RAY.
"P.S. Oh I DO hope Peter will get better. Ma is going to get me a new brown dress for the winter. "S. R."
When evening came we went to our seats under the whispering, sighing fir trees. It was a beautiful night—clear, windless, frosty. Some one galloped down the road on horseback, lustily singing a comic song. How dared he? We felt that it was an insult to our wretchedness. If Peter were going to—going to—well, if anything happened to Peter, we felt so miserably sure that the music of life would be stilled for us for ever. How could any one in the world be happy when we were so unhappy?
Presently Aunt Olivia came down the long twilight arcade. Her bright hair was uncovered and she looked slim and queen-like in her light dress. We thought Aunt Olivia very pretty then. Looking back from a mature standpoint I realize that she must have been an unusually beautiful woman; and she looked her prettiest as she stood under the swaying boughs in the last faint light of the autumn dusk and smiled down at our woebegone faces.
"Dear, sorrowful little people, I bring you glad tidings of great joy," she said. "The doctor has just been here, and he finds Peter much better, and thinks he will pull through after all."
We gazed up at her in silence for a few moments. When we had heard the news of Paddy's recovery we had been noisy and jubilant; but we were very quiet now. We had been too near something dark and terrible and menacing; and though it was thus suddenly removed the chill and shadow of it were about us still. Presently the Story Girl, who had been standing up, leaning against a tall fir, slipped down to the ground in a huddled fashion and broke into a very passion of weeping. I had never heard any one cry so, with dreadful, rending sobs. I was used to hearing girls cry. It was as much Sara Ray's normal state as any other, and even Felicity and Cecily availed themselves occasionally of the privilege of sex. But I had never heard any girl cry like this. It gave me the same unpleasant sensation which I had felt one time when I had seen my father cry.
"Oh, don't, Sara, don't," I said gently, patting her convulsed shoulder.
"You ARE a queer girl," said Felicity—more tolerantly than usual however—"you never cried a speck when you thought Peter was going to die—and now when he is going to get better you cry like that."
"Sara, child, come with me," said Aunt Olivia, bending over her. The Story Girl got up and went away, with Aunt Olivia's arms around her. The sound of her crying died away under the firs, and with it seemed to go the dread and grief that had been our portion for hours. In the reaction our spirits rose with a bound.
"Oh, ain't it great that Peter's going to be all right?" said Dan, springing up.
"I never was so glad of anything in my whole life," declared Felicity in shameless rapture.
"Can't we send word somehow to Sara Ray to-night?" asked Cecily, the ever-thoughtful. "She's feeling so bad—and she'll have to feel that way till to-morrow if we can't."
"Let's all go down to the Ray gate and holler to Judy Pineau till she comes out," suggested Felix.
Accordingly, we went and "hollered," with a right good will. We were much taken aback to find that Mrs. Ray came to the gate instead of Judy, and rather sourly demanded what we were yelling about. When she heard our news, however, she had the decency to say she was glad, and to promise she would convey the good tidings to Sara—"who is already in bed, where all children of her age should be," added Mrs. Ray severely.
WE had no intention of going to bed for a good two hours yet. Instead, after devoutly thanking goodness that our grown-ups, in spite of some imperfections, were not of the Mrs. Ray type, we betook ourselves to the granary, lighted a huge lantern which Dan had made out of a turnip, and proceeded to devour all the apples we might have eaten through the day but had not. We were a blithe little crew, sitting there in the light of our goblin lantern. We had in very truth been given beauty for ashes and the oil of joy for mourning. Life was as a red rose once more.
"I'm going to make a big batch of patty-pans, first thing in the morning," said Felicity jubilantly. "Isn't it queer? Last night I felt just like praying, and tonight I feel just like cooking."
"We mustn't forget to thank God for making Peter better," said Cecily, as we finally went to the house.
"Do you s'pose Peter wouldn't have got better anyway?" said Dan.
"Oh, Dan, what makes you ask such questions?" exclaimed Cecily in real distress.
"I dunno," said Dan. "They just kind of come into my head, like. But of course I mean to thank God when I say my prayers to-night. That's only decent."
CHAPTER XXX. A COMPOUND LETTER
Once Peter was out of danger he recovered rapidly, but he found his convalescence rather tedious; and Aunt Olivia suggested to us one day that we write a "compound letter" to amuse him, until he could come to the window and talk to us from a safe distance. The idea appealed to us; and, the day being Saturday and the apples all picked, we betook ourselves to the orchard to compose our epistles, Cecily having first sent word by a convenient caller to Sara Ray, that she, too, might have a letter ready. Later, I, having at that time a mania for preserving all documents relating to our life in Carlisle, copied those letters in the blank pages at the back of my dream book. Hence I can reproduce them verbatim, with the bouquet they have retained through all the long years since they were penned in that autumnal orchard on the hill, with its fading leaves and frosted grasses, and the "mild, delightsome melancholy" of the late October day enfolding.
"DEAR PETER:—I am so very glad and thankful that you are going to get better. We were so afraid you would not last Tuesday, and we felt dreadful, even Felicity. We all prayed for you. I think the others have stopped now, but I keep it up every night still, for fear you might have a relaps. (I don't know if that is spelled right. I haven't the dixonary handy, and if I ask the others Felicity will laugh at me, though she cannot spell lots of words herself.) I am saving some of the Honourable Mr. Whalen's pears for you. I've got them hid where nobody can find them. There's only a dozen because Dan et all the rest, but I guess you will like them. We have got all the apples picked, and are all ready to take the measles now, if we have to, but I hope we won't. If we have to, though, I'd rather catch them from you than from any one else, because we are acquainted with you. If I do take the measles and anything happens to me Felicity is to have my cherry vase. I'd rather give it to the Story Girl, but Dan says it ought to be kept in the family, even if Felicity is a crank. I haven't anything else valuable, since I gave Sara Ray my forget-me-not jug, but if you would like anything I've got let me know and I'll leave instructions for you to have it. The Story Girl has told us some splendid stories lately. I wish I was clever like her. Ma says it doesn't matter if you're not clever as long as you are good, but I am not even very good.
"I think this is all my news, except that I want to tell you how much we all think of you, Peter. When we heard you were sick we all said nice things about you, but we were afraid it was too late, and I said if you got better I'd tell you. It is easier to write it than to tell it out to your face. We think you are smart and polite and obliging and a great worker and a gentleman.
"Your true friend, "CECILY KING.
"P.S. If you answer my letter don't say anything about the pears, because I don't want Dan to find out there's any left. C. K."
"DEAR PETER:—Aunt Olivia says for us all to write a compound letter to cheer you up. We are all awful glad you are getting better. It gave us an awful scare when we heard you were going to die. But you will soon be all right and able to get out again. Be careful you don't catch cold. I am going to bake some nice things for you and send them over, now that the doctor says you can eat them. And I'll send you my rosebud plate to eat off of. I'm only lending it, you know, not giving it. I let very few people use it because it is my greatest treasure. Mind you don't break it. Aunt Olivia must always wash it, not your mother.
"I do hope the rest of us won't catch the measles. It must look horrid to have red spots all over your face. We all feel pretty well yet. The Story Girl says as many queer things as ever. Felix thinks he is getting thin, but he is fatter than ever, and no wonder, with all the apples he eats. He has give up trying to eat the bitter apples at last. Beverley has grown half an inch since July, by the mark on the hall door, and he is awful pleased about it. I told him I guessed the magic seed was taking effect at last, and he got mad. He never gets mad at anything the Story Girl says, and yet she is so sarkastic by times. Dan is pretty hard to get along with as usul, but I try to bear pashently with him. Cecily is well and says she isn't going to curl her hair any more. She is so conscienshus. I am glad my hair curls of itself, ain't you?
"We haven't seen Sara Ray since you got sick. She is awful lonesome, and Judy says she cries nearly all the time but that is nothing new. I'm awful sorry for Sara but I'm glad I'm not her. She is going to write you a letter too. You'll let me see what she puts in it, won't you? You'd better take some Mexican Tea now. It's a great blood purifyer.
"I am going to get a lovely dark blue dress for the winter. It is ever so much prettier than Sara Ray's brown one. Sara Ray's mother has no taste. The Story Girl's father is sending her a new red dress, and a red velvet cap from Paris. She is so fond of red. I can't bear it, it looks so common. Mother says I can get a velvet hood too. Cecily says she doesn't believe it's right to wear velvet when it's so expensive and the heathen are crying for the gospel. She got that idea from a Sunday School paper but I am going to get my hood all the same.
"Well, Peter, I have no more news so I will close for this time.
"hoping you will soon be quite well, I remain "yours sincerely, "FELICITY KING.
"P.S. The Story Girl peeked over my shoulder and says I ought to have signed it 'yours affeckshunately,' but I know better, because the Family Guide has told lots of times how you should sign yourself when you are writing to a young man who is only a friend. F. K."
"DEAR PETER:—I am awful glad you are getting better. We all felt bad when we thought you wouldn't, but I felt worse than the others because we hadn't been on very good terms lately and I had said mean things about you. I'm sorry and, Peter, you can pray for anything you like and I won't ever object again. I'm glad Uncle Alec interfered and stopped the fight. If I had licked you and you had died of the measles it would have been a dreadful thing.
"We have all the apples in and haven't much to do just now and we are having lots of fun but we wish you were here to join in. I'm a lot thinner than I was. I guess working so hard picking apples is a good thing to make you thin. The girls are all well. Felicity puts on as many airs as ever, but she makes great things to eat. I have had some splendid dreams since we gave up writing them down. That is always the way. We ain't going to school till we're sure we are not going to have the measles. This is all I can think of, so I will draw to a close. Remember, you can pray for anything you like. FELIX KING."
SARA RAY'S LETTER
"DEAR PETER:—I never wrote to A BOY before, so PLEASE excuse ALL mistakes. I am SO glad you are getting better. We were SO afraid you were GOING TO DIE. I CRIED ALL NIGHT about it. But now that you are OUT OF DANGER will you tell me WHAT IT REALLY FEELS LIKE to think you are going to die? Does it FEEL QUEER? Were you VERY badly frightened?
"Ma won't let me go up the hill AT ALL now. I would DIE if it was not for Judy Pinno. (The French names are SO HARD TO SPELL.) JUDY IS VERY OBLIGING and I feel that she SIMPATHISES WITH ME. In my LONELY HOURS I read my dream book and Cecily's old letters and they are SUCH A COMFORT to me. I have been reading one of the school library books too. I is PRETTY GOOD but I wish they had got more LOVE STORIES because they are so exciting. But the master would not let them.