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Miss Becky's Pilgrimage
Sarah O. Jewett
[Except that the paragraphs are numbered, this is the text that appeared in The Independent (33:26-28) of 1 September 1881.]
1. Before her brother, the Rev. Mr. Parsons, died, Miss Becky and he had often talked about going back to Maine, to visit their old friends; but somehow the right time had never come, and now, when she thought of going all by herself, she felt as if it were her duty to carry out this cherished wish.
2. To be sure, it would be sad to go alone. They had often said there would be many changes, and they should find few persons who remembered them; and so it would not have been altogether cheerful, at any rate. The minister and his sister had had few relatives, and most of those were dead; but there was a cousin in Brookfield, whom they had heard from now and then, and, though they reminded each other of the changes that had taken place, they still instinctively thought of their native town as if it were very nearly the same as it used to be when they had last seen it, thirty or forty years before. Their father and mother had died when they were very young, and Miss Becky had lived with an old aunt. Her brother had early shown unmistakable proofs of his calling to the ministry, and had used most of his share of the small fortune on his education; and he had been settled in his first parish only two or three years when Miss Becky went to live with him, her aunt having suddenly died and Mr. Parsons being in distress for a housekeeper. It proved a most judicious arrangement, for neither of them ever married, and they were capitally suited to each other, having that difference of disposition and similarity of tastes which make it possible for two people to live together without being too often reminded of the fact that we are in this world for the sake of discipline, and not enjoyment. It was always said that Mr. Parsons had been disappointed in love while he was pursuing his studies at the theological school, and whether he took this for an indication that he would be more useful as a single man I do now know; but, at any rate, in spite of frequent good chances and the way to seize them being made easy for him by members of his parishes, he never fell in love again and seemed to grow better contented with life year by year. He was a handsome man, and Miss Becky was proud of him. He was to her not only the best of preachers and kindest of men, but the most admirable of gentlemen. She had a thoroughly English respect for the cloth, and she had been born in the days when, in her native New England town, the league of Church and state was powerful and prominent, and the believers in the Congregational mode of worship and church government were able to look down upon other sects as dissenters. She had left Brookfield with great regret. She had not known how dear the old place was to her until she came to leave it. She had never been very happy at her aunt's, for she never had liked her uncle very well, and his wife was a fretful, tiresome sort of woman, who made it so uncomfortable for every one, when she was not pleased, that her household became cowards in never daring to take their own way or to have minds of their own about even their own affairs; and it seemed a bright future to own, as she knew her brother's house would be, for she was to have all the good fortune of a minister's wife - the glory and honor and pride of it, with none of the responsibility of suiting herself to the parish, which in a country town is sometimes no light weight to carry.
3. It was a long journey to take, for Mr. Parsons had been called to a church in Western New York, which seemed to Miss Becky like a foreign country. It was known throughout Brookfield that she was to start one Monday morning, and on Sunday her departure was referred to in the long prayer before the morning sermon, and in the evening meeting both deacons and some other pillars of the church prayed devoutly that she might be kept from danger and peril on her journey and that she might help to scatter the good seed among the far-away people with whom she was to make her home. It was almost the same thing as if she were going to be a foreign missionary, and she was very solemn about it; but after she reached Alton it seemed as civilized and as home-like as Brookfield itself, and any sacrifice she had gloried in making proved to have been only in her imagination. Twice since then Mr. Parsons had accepted calls to other parishes, farther West, and for the last twenty-seven or twenty-eight years they had been in Devonport, which had started to be a rival to New York City itself. It had been disappointed and left at one side by the railroads, which presently put an end to the usefulness of a canal which had brought some business to the little town, and it had grown very dull and a good deal less important in its own mind. The minister and his sister had lived on year after year in comfortable fashion. The salary was small, but, fortunately, certain, and Miss Becky had a little income, which relieved her from any feeling of dependence or uncomfortable humility toward the parishioners. Her hand had been asked in marriage more than once; but she never had thought it best to change her situation, for in neither case had it appeared likely that she should better herself, and she felt that there could be no reproach attached to single-blessedness while she kept her brother's house and he was a minister of the Gospel. It gave her a position and duty for which one must have a vocation.
4. But, as I have said, as years went on, Miss Becky's heart and thoughts were oftener and oftener turned toward Brookfield; and the minister himself, from hearing her say so much about it, came to have as great a wish as she to go back to New England. It is always home to all the people who go away from it to the westward. As they grow older, they love it better and better and it is a strong bond between the older settlers if in their youth they had some knowledge of each other's neighborhoods. The hearts of New England travelers are often touched at being asked to visit some old people, because they came from the Eastern States, and with all the Westerner's pride in his new country, his thoughts often turn fondly toward the rising sun. There is in this generation an instinctive homesickness that will probably be outgrown in the next. To any subject of the Queen England is always home, and a Canadian or a New Zealander is first of all and last of all an Englishman.
5. Miss Becky's brother, for some months before his death, had not seemed so strong as usual. He was several years older than she, and seemed very old in that part of the country where most of the people are young or, at furthest, middle-aged. He had never been in the habit of taking stated vacations (in fact, it had been a matter of pride and principle with him not to do so); but early in the Summer he had said he should take a rest of a month when September came, and then they would go to Brookfield. He wished to verify some dates and records, and, though there were few people he cared much to see, there were a good many tombstones, and the old town itself was dearer to him than he ever used to believe. He had been hardly more than a boy when he left it, and it was his long-lost boyhood that he hoped to find again. They would go to the seashore for a little while - he should like to get a whiff of salt air; and on their way home they would stop in New York, where there was to be a general meeting of the churches, that was of great interest to him.
6. They talked about their plans like two children; but they never carried them out, for, as I have said, the minister died. It was great shock to Miss Becky, who until the very last was sure that a change of air was all that her brother needed to make him well and strong again; but he only went on a last short journey instead, and all the clergy in that corner of the world assembled to follow him, and they preached about him, and wrote about him in the religious newspapers, and said how sadly he would be missed and what a pillar had fallen. And then the world went on very much the same as ever, except to Miss Becky, who felt as if it had come to an end.
7. She stayed on in Devonport for a while, until she began to be very unhappy. The parish was hearing candidates with a view to settling a successor to Mr. Parsons, and they seemed so unfit for his place (as, indeed, they were, being mostly young and puffed up with pride) that she listened to them with great impatience and distress, and she made up her mind, by little and little, that as soon as the Spring opened she would go to Brookfield and make a long visit. After all, there were a good many people in that place and its neighboring towns whom she wished to see, and whom she thought would be glad to see her; and, if she did not care to visit, she had it in her power to board for awhile, and the more she thought about it the more in a hurry she felt to be on the way. She was by no means a rich woman; but, if she lost nothing, she would have enough to live on comfortably, since she spent but little and had an uncommon faculty of making that little go a long way.
8. The journey to Boston was bewildering and tiresome to her, for the most part; but when she was fairly started one morning to take the last half-day's car-ride, she was much delighted, and looked out of the window eagerly, and examined the faces in the car, to see if there might not possibly be one that was familiar. The very names of the stations were delightful to her ears, and after a while she felt as if she were traveling in disguise and as if everybody would be overjoyed if she only told them who she was. "I haven't been here for forty years," she told the conductor, after he had answered some question she had put to him; and he looked at her curiously (as if to see whether she was an old acquaintance, she thought), and said that she must find things a good deal changed. She heard a gentleman in front call him Mr. Prescott, and, if he had not hurried on, she would have asked him if her were not one of the sons of an old schoolmate of hers, who had married a Prescott and gone to live in Portland. She was sure he had a look of Adaline Emery.
9. It was a great pleasure that at one of the stations a new comer took a seat beside her, the cars being full. She was a woman of about her own age, and evidently a journey was a matter of great importance to her. So Miss Becky felt a sympathy for her, and ventured to say that she had been in the cars for nearly two days and nights, after her companion had asked the name of one of the stations which she had failed to hear.
10. "I want to know if you have!" said she, looking at Miss Becky with respect. "Seems to me I couldn't stand it, noways; but then it ain't come in my lot to be much of a traveler. Was you ever this way before?"
11. "I was born and brought up down in Brookfield," answered Miss Becky; "but I have been away pretty near forty years. I wonder if you are acquainted about there any."
12. "Why, I was raised in Brookfield," said the woman, "and I've got a brother and sister living there. I'm just going to Brookfield now, to stop with them. I thought it was a great while since I was there; but you beat me. I was there nine years ago, and I expect I shall find a good many changes." And our two friends looked at each other searchingly, and in a minute a glimmer of satisfaction overspread Miss Becky's face. "I declare to my heart if you aren't Mahaly Robinson! I thought you looked sort of natural when I see you come into the cars. I s'pose you must have forgot all about Rebecca Parsons by this time." But her friend had not, and they grasped each other's hand and kissed each other at once, and the sudden outburst of affection was most amusing to the neighboring passengers.
13. "Why, I feel as if I had got home, seeing you," said Miss Becky, thinking how dreadfully old her friend looked, while the friend thought exactly the same thing of her, and each flattered herself that in her case Time had left but little trace of its flight. "I forget you married name?" inquired Miss Becky. ["]I did know it at the time. You know you wrote me just after I went out West; but I always think of you as Mahaly Robinson - same 's when we went to school together."
14. "I married first with a Sands; but I lost him when we had only been married three years," said Mahala, without any appearance of regret, "and then I married Joshua Parker, of Gloucester. I've been a widow now these fourteen years. He was a ship-master and used to sail out o' Salem when I first met with him; and after that he was master of the 'Fleetwing,' out o' Boston for a good many years. He was lost at sea. She was never heard from after they left Callao. I wan't left very well off. We'd had considerable sickness, and his father and mother and a foolish sister made it their home with us and was considerable expense. I always set a great deal by Father Parker, though. He was a real good man and he always did what he could. He got frost-bit down to the Banks, one winter, and his hands and feet were crippled. We had hard scratchin' one spell: but my boys and girls got so 's they could work, and then there wa'n't any more trouble. I've had a good deal to be thankful for; but I've seen the time I'd a-laid down and died, I was so discouraged. I live with my youngest daughter now, and she's got as handsome a little farm as you ever see and a good husband. He's doing well, too. They are always thinking o' things to please me, both of 'em. I ain't got a child I've been sorry for, and that's a good deal to say. There's a sight of risk in fetchin' up six of 'em. But I want to know how it's been with you. I see by The Congregationalist that your brother had been taken away."
15. "Yes," said Miss Becky, with a sigh. "He was a dreadful loss to me. We'd been together so many years, and there never was a man like Joseph, any way. He was known all through that part of the West. We'd talked about coming on, and it's real sad to come without him; but I feel 's if it was just what he'd want me to do, if he knew it. I hoped I should see him stand up and preach in the old meeting-house. Some of his sermons were thought a great deal of. I couldn't always understand the deeper thought in 'em," said Miss Becky, proudly. "We set a good many times to come on; and we did get as far as New York once, to the meetings of the American Board, and then somehow there was always some place we thought we must go to first, out West. It ain't that we've stayed right in the same place all these years," she explained. "My brother used to travel about a good deal. Seems to me, coming back this way, I miss him more than ever. I keep thinking o' things I ought to tell him when I get back to Devonport. It's been right hard to get reconciled."
16. "Then you're not coming back to settle?" asked Mrs. Parker. ["]I thought first that perhaps you was. There, we're a-getting into Portsmouth; but I don't suppose I should know my way round. I lived her 'long of my first husband, and I always liked the place." [']
17. "I remember coming, when I was a young girl, to stop with my aunt Dennett for a spell, over on the Kittery shore. We've got to go across the river, haven't we? I shouldn't wonder if you could see the house. My sakes alive! how good and fresh the salt water smells! Don't it? I declare, how it carries me back!" exclaimed Miss Becky.
18. "The wind must have come round into the east," said Mrs. Parker, wisely. "It was a little north of west when I started this morning, and I thought I should have a good day; but then we're going right back into the country. Who are you expecting to stop with?"
19. "I wrote to Cousin Sophy Annis. I've been in the habit of hearing from her every year, and one of her sons is living West and has stopped with us several times. I didn't get any answer, for I started off pretty sudden. I found I was going to have company as far as Syracuse. I can go to the tavern, if it don't seem to be convenient for Sophia. I don't know but it would be just as well, any way, for I feel as if I was almost a stranger. I shouldn't mind the expense," she added, with a good deal of satisfaction.
20. "I know they won't let you go to no tavern. Brookfield folks will have altered a good deal if they have come to that!" exclaimed Mrs. Parker, in a way that was gratifying. "You'll find more that is glad to see you than you've any idea of. If you don't find anybody a-waiting for you, you come right home with me to Sister Phebe's; and then they'll take you over to Sophy's, after tea or in the morning, just as you are a mind to. You know it's right on the way there, and Sophy won't think nothing of your stopping 'long of me, as we fell in with each other in the cars."
21. But it seemed very lonely to Miss Becky, who was tired with her long journey; and she became uncertain of her reception and almost wished she had not undertaken the pilgrimage. She began to understand how changed the place must be and how little it would be like the Brookfield she had left. And when Mrs. Parker remembered that she had spoken of her brother's preaching in the old meeting-house, and explained that it had been torn down, to make place for a new one, the year before, it was really a great sorrow to our friend. She felt that, if it were not for visiting the burying-ground, it would not have been worth while to go at all.
22. "I did think it would be so pleasant to set in the old pew again, where I used to set when I was a girl," she said, sadly. "I have thought just how it all looked so many times!" As they neared Brookfield, the country grew more and more familiar, and Miss Becky looked out of the car-window all the time and was again in high spirits. She told the names of the hills, and when she saw a farm-house that she remembered, not far from the railway, she was perfectly overjoyed, and hurriedly collected her carpet-bag, and her basket, and her big pasteboard box, that held some treasures which she had been afraid to trust to her trunk. "Do tell me if I look all right, Mahaly," she said, quickly passing her hand, in its loose black thread glove, over the front of her bonnet and her neat frisette. "I don't s'pose I am fit to look at. I've always had to keep myself looking nice, on Joseph's account, being a minister, and we were always subject to a good deal o' company," she remarked; but Widow Parker said she looked as if she had only traveled from the next town, and in a few minutes more they were standing on the platform of the Brookfield station.
23. There were only strangers waiting there, and they were mostly little boys, and Miss Becky felt a strange sense of desolation; but presently some one greeted Mrs. Parker (who was much flustered) with great cordiality, and she walked off, without giving a thought to her fellow-traveler, who stood still, looking anxiously at every face that passed, as if she hoped to find it familiar. She held the box and the bag and the basket, and suddenly wondered if her trunk had come, and looked down the platform the wrong way and distressed herself with the thought that it had not been put off the train, since it was not in sight. The little boys strolled away and the rest of the people began to disappear also, and Miss Becky remembered her companion, and wondered what could have become of Mrs. Parker, who had seemed so friendly; and just then some one came driving up to the platform. It was a young woman, and she jumped out quickly and came toward our friend.
24. "I wonder if you are Miss Parsons?" asked the girl, pleasantly.
25. "Why, yes, dear," said poor Miss Becky, who had been almost ready to cry.
26. "Grandmother said that I had better come round by the depot; but the rest of us were certain you wouldn't be here until to-morrow. How do you do?" and she kissed the old lady as if she really cared something about her. "We are all so pleased because you are coming. Now let me see to your baggage. We can take the trunk right into the back of the wagon."
27. "I was just feeling afraid it hadn't come," said Miss Becky; but the station-master asked if that were not the one which he was just going to drag into the depot, and in a few minutes more they were in the wagon, driving away.
28. "I hope you won't be too tired," said the girl. "We shall have to ride three or four miles; but then it is nice and cool."
29. "I always liked to ride," said Miss Becky, "and it is so refreshing to get out of the cars. There! you don't know what a difference there is between the air here and out West; but now I want you to tell me who you are?"
30. "I forgot you didn't know," said the girl, laughing. "We have talked so much about you that I forgot you didn't know me just as well as I do you. I'm Annie Downs and my mother was Julia Annis."
31. "I can't believe Sophy Annis has got a grand-daughter as old as you!" exclaimed Miss Becky. "Why, I don't feel any older than ever I did, but she was four or five years older than I."
32. "I have a brother and sister older than I," said Annie; "but they're both married. We lived at Freeport; but I suppose you knew that father died some years ago, and Grandma was getting feeble, so she wanted Mother and me to break up and come to live with her. I have been keeping the town school for two years. It's very near, you know. Mother's brother carries on the farm - Uncle Daniel. He says he remembers you, and your coming to say good-by just before you went West; but Grandma says he was too young."
33. "I guess he does remember me," said Miss Becky, with a sudden affection for this relative of hers. ["]I know he was a dear little fellow, running round the kitchen. It was in cold weather, I know. I was going to kiss him, and he hid under the table." This was very pleasant and seemed to bring the strange relatives much nearer. "Your mother was the oldest and was quite a girl then. I remember hearing of your father's being taken away; but I always thought of you all as little bits of children."
34. "There, I did feel so lonesome to-day!" said Miss Becky to old Mrs. Annis and her daughter, that evening; "but I feel now as if I had got back among my own folks. I like out West; but somehow I never have felt at home there as I do here, and after Joseph's death I saw it was being with him that had kept me from feeling strange. And I don't know why it is, either, for there are a good many people in our place from New England and everybody is free and neighborly."
35. Nothing could have pleased Miss Becky more than the welcome she received from the townspeople. She said over and over again that she had no idea she should find so many people who remembered her, and the excitement her visit seemed to make was deeply gratifying. It was exactly the way her brother was treated when he went back to visit one of his old parishes, and she accepted invitations to spend the day or to make a week's visit after haying until she was entirely confused at the thought of her engagements. It was very pleasant; but sometimes when she was tired, the future suggested itself for her decision, and she wondered what she had better do when the visits were over, for there was all the rest of her life to be lived and she ought to be making some plans.
36. It would not be fair to withhold an account of the wretchedness of poor Mrs. Mahala Parker when she remembered, on the evening after her arrival at her sister's, that she had meant to bring with her another guest. Something happened to remind her of their conversation in the cars, and she suddenly looked gray for a minute, while a chill crept over her. "Oh! my good land o' compassion!" she groaned. "What have I been and done? I believe my mind's a-failing of me." And her amazed companions asked what could be the matter.
37. "I met Rebecca Parsons in the cars," said she, "coming on from the West. We happened to sit in the same seat; but I never should have known her if she hadn't called me by name and told me who she was. She said she had been gone forty years. I shouldn't have said it was more than thirty, if it was that; but time does go so fast! She didn't seem certain about anybody's coming to meet her, and I told her I'd fetch her along with me, and then you'd send her over to the Annises, where she expected to stop; and I come right off without ever even saying Good-by to her. I don't know what she will think. I never felt so in my life. I don't remember to have seen no other conveyance there, and she must ha' been real put to it to know what to do. I got sort of excited, it's so long since I went anywhere before. It must have looked just as if I wanted to get rid of her. There was something on my mind all the way here; but I kept thinking it was because I had left something in the cars."
38. "Well, right after breakfast one of the girls shall take you over to the Annises, Sister Mahaly," said Mrs. Littlefield. "You'd feel better to see her yourself than to send word. I suppose she will be there, or she may have stopped up to the tavern, and they ought to know it. And you may as well ask them all to come over and take tea to-morrow and spend a good long afternoon. I shan't have another chance for some time, on account of haying. I was calculating to ask our minister, any way; and when I got your letter I thought I would wait until you was here."
39. "Adaline sent to Boston by one of our neighbors, who is real tasty, and got me a beautiful cap, just before I came away," mentioned Mrs. Parker. "She said I'd be likely to want it, and those I had were getting a little past; but I told her I wished she hadn't. It will be just what I need, though. Won't it? Rebecca was dressed real plain; but everything seemed to be of good quality. I dare say she put on what was old and wouldn't hurt, she had so far to come."
40. Miss Becky had been a little angry at being deserted; but she took a grim satisfaction in thinking Mrs. Parker's mind was not what it used to be, and when she made her appearance in the morning, entirely penitent and armed with an invitation to tea, she was forgiven in full. The tea-party was a great success and Miss Becky was the center of attraction. There were so many questions to be asked and answered, wherever she went; the fates and fortunes of so many families had to be recounted for her satisfaction; and she made herself very agreeable by giving interesting reminiscences of her own life, and telling of the strange customs of some Westerners and the contrasts she noticed in the fashions of living East and West. She felt herself to be a person of great interest and consequence. You may be sure that she wore her best black silk, and that she succeeded in leaving an impression on the minister's mind of her being well posted on clerical and religious questions. She told the Annis family, complacently, as they drove home together in the two-seated wagon, after the tea-party was over, that she always felt at home with ministers and knew their ways better than she did anybody's.
41. Cousin Sophia was pleased at being the owner of such an attractive and satisfactory guest. "I don't think I ever saw Mr. Beacham appear to enjoy himself better," she said. "He isn't much of a talker, as a general thing; but you brought him out right off. I tell you, Rebeccy, you ought to set your cap for the parson. He is well off. We give him eight hundred dollars, and he's got means beside. I think he's been a widower long enough; but folks here has got tired setting their caps for him, 'less it's old Cynthy Rush, and she 'pears to think that while there's life there's hope."
42. "He seems to be an excellent Christian man," said Miss Becky, flushing a little; but it was too dark for anybody to notice it.
43. "I'm going to have him to our house to tea," said Mrs. Annis, giving her daughter a suggestive poke. "He always likes to come in strawberry time."
44. Annie Downs had been much amused that evening at the evident interest which Mr. Beacham and Miss Becky took in each other. It was a funny, sedate likeness of a mild flirtation between two young people. They were mindful of the respect due to their own advanced years and the proprieties of a tea-party; but they found each other very attractive. They were both fine-looking. Mr. Beacham would have been fairly imposing in even a gown and bands, and in a surplice he would have been magnificent. One longed to see him in a ruffled shirt and small-clothes, instead of his plain black garments; but his solemn countenance bore on it the stamp of ecclesiastical dignity. "Anybody would know he was a minister," said Miss Becky, decidedly, and she had had vast experience among the Western clergy.
45. The June days went by quickly, and Miss Parsons enjoyed her visit more and more, and felt less and less inclination to go back to her Devonport life. She had not supposed that people would be so glad to see her; but, having once welcomed her, they never were made sorry, for our friend was really a good and pleasant person to know. The young people found her full of sympathy and kind-heartedness, and she gave a great deal of pleasure wherever she went. It was easy to see that she did not think only of how her friends greeted her and what they did for her, for she was as anxious to help and to give, in her turn, and she could be as amusing as heart could wish. There was an unfaded girlishness about her yet, in spite of the fallen snows of so many winters. She was very happy in Brookfield, and there was a companionship to be had even in the cypress-grown burying-ground, which was dearer to her than she had dreamed it would be. The people in church on Sundays soon felt as if she were again their neighbor and friend, and Mr. Beacham found himself looking often toward the Annis pew, as he preached; and he selected his best sermon the very Sunday after he met Miss Parsons, and repeated it for her benefit, and was rewarded by her telling him, as he gravely shook hands with her on his way out of church, that it reminded her of one of her dear brother's on the same text, but he had expanded the subject much more fully. "You know how to make things very clear," Miss Becky said, with a sudden brightening of her eyes and a simple frankness, that he thought extremely desirable. "It is something to be most grateful for, if a word we speak reaches and helps another struggling soul," he said, and shook hands absently with a parishioner in the next pew.
46. "Did you see poor Mary Ann Dean at church, to-day?" some one asked, as they drove home after meeting. And Mrs. Annis answered that she doubted if the poor soul ever got out to church again. "I haven't told you about her, have I, R'becky? She was a daughter of Susan Beckett, who used to be at your aunt's a good deal; but it may have been after you went West. She has had about the hardest time of anybody I know. Their house burnt down, and they lost most everything; and four of the family died within sixteen months. Mary Ann was left all alone, with one brother that drank like a fish, and she had to earn what she could and bear the brunt of everything. She was a good deal younger than the rest of the children. She has been failing this good while; but she wouldn't give up. She's always reminded me of a flower in the road that every wheel went over. There ain't a better young woman anywhere in Brookfield. I set everything by Mary Ann."
47. "I do feel sorry," said Miss Becky. "I had it on my mind in meeting to ask you if any of Susan's folks were about here; and I noticed that poor, sick-looking girl. I'll go to see her the first of the week, if she don't live too far off, on her mother's account, if nothing else."
48. "It is only a little way," said Annie Downs. "I'll go with you to-morrow afternoon, if you will come along to the school-house after school, Cousin Becky."
49. Miss Becky was very kind to this new friend, who soon grew more ill and quite dependent upon the kindness of her neighbors, and our heroine, having no family cares, was with her a good deal for the next fortnight. Haying had begun, and it was lucky that so good a nurse was for the most of the time at leisure, since the other women were all so busy, and, indeed, at any time had their hands full with their own work.
50. It happened that two or three times Mr. Beacham came to visit his sick parishioner; and it must be confessed that Miss Becky did not show her usual composure in the presence of the clergy, and that she began to feel uncomfortably self-conscious and to insist upon it to herself that she took no interest in the man whatever. She openly said (feeling all the time that she might be sorry for it) that she did not consider him gifted in prayer; but even this bold treason did not keep her heart from fluttering at the mention of his name. The Brookfield people quickly caught at the first hint, which was given by a suspicious parishioner, and one Sunday Miss Becky was joked a little by the people who knew her best, which was very discomposing.
51. So one day, late in the afternoon, the Annis family were not surprised to see the minister and Miss Becky come walking up the road together. She had been away for two or three days; but had been left at Mary Ann Dean's, to spend an hour or two, on her way home, and Mrs. Annis's first thought was that the sick woman had suddenly died and that they were coming together to consult about making some arrangements. But Annie Downs was quicker witted. "I shouldn't wonder if Cousin Becky had made up her mind to settle down in Brookfield," said she, with a little laugh.
52. Mrs. Annis hurried to the door. "Poor Mary Ann ain't gone, I hope?" she asked, anxiously; and Mr. Beacham looked confused, and answered that she seemed as comfortable as usual. "Miss Parsons and I were speaking of some theological points to which her brother gave much attention," he apologized, and everybody felt a little awkward, until Mrs. Annis bethought herself to take refuge in her duty as hostess. "I want you to stop to tea with us, now you're here, Mr. Beacham," she said, eagerly. "We've been thinking of sending for you. I had some thoughts of naming Thursday. You always like our strawberries, you know."
53. The minister looked very pleased. "I do not know why I cannot accept your hospitality, Mrs. Annis. My housekeeper said she should be absent to-night, though she, doubtless, made some provision for my supper. And on Thursday I have engaged to be away."
54. It was nearly tea-time already; at least, there was hardly time enough to make sure that the feast would be appropriate for the guest. Mrs. Annis and Mrs. Downs and Annie all scurried to the kitchen at once, and when Mr. Daniel Annis came in from the field he was told who was there, and went at once to array himself in his Sunday clothes.
55. "You go in and talk to him, Daniel, and Annie or I will be in pretty quick," said Mrs. Downs. And her brother manfully tried to do his duty; but after his first greeting and report of the crops he did not know what else to say. Miss Parsons had looked much embarrassed as he entered, and soon went out to the dining-room, leaving the host and his guest to entertain each other; and Daniel wished that some of the women would come back. He thought of the unfailing resource of all farmers and longed to ask the minister to come out and have a look at the hogs; but, being a minister, he feared it might not be the proper thing.
56. Happily, Mr. Beacham himself suggested that they should take a walk down to the bee-hives, and presently they fell into easy discourse together on some parish matters. And after a little Miss Becky reappeared, and mentioned that some one wished to see Daniel at the barn, about pressing the hay; and while he hurried back to the house our friend and the minister strolled along together slowly.
57. It was a pleasant old garden, and in the middle path there was a long, ricketty arbor, covered thick with grape-vines. The sun was getting low; but, for all that, the shade was pleasant, and Mr. Beacham stopped for a minute, but Miss Becky was uneasy and wished he would go on.
58. "Since I laid away my dear companion, now seven years ago," he said, in a tone that made Miss Becky's heart thump dreadfully, "I have had no desire to fill her place in my home, solitary though it has been; but I find that I am no longer contented with my situation, and that you possess all the qualifications to make me happy. We are not young; but the Lord may continue our lives for many years yet and I believe we should enjoy a united home. You already know the responsibilities and cares of a minister's life, and it seems to me unwise that you should return to the West permanently, though I do not doubt you have formed many associations which are dear to you and which it will be hard to sever. Permit me to say that you have already become very dear to me and that I can assure you of a most heartfelt and enduring affection. I hope you will take the matter, as I have, into serious and prayerful consideration."
59. Miss Parsons felt for her handkerchief; but she mistook the way to her pocket, and fumbled at her dress without finding it, while the tears were ready to fall from her eyes, and Mr. Beacham and the grape-leaves and a red hollyhock that had pushed through the trellis were all in a dazzle together. She had somehow expected to have the solemn little speech followed by the benediction; but the minister stood there as if he expected her to say something. So she put out her left hand toward him, and covered her face with the other and the handkerchief, which was found, at last, just in time. And Annie Downs, who was in the strawberry-bed, not a dozen feet away, hardly daring to breathe, lest they should notice her, heard a resounding kiss, and then stole softly away among the pear trees, and told her mother, she need not be worried any more because supper would be so late.
60. They went on a wedding journey to Devonport, where Miss Becky was so much older than most people in town that her returning to them a bride caused great fun and astonishment; but everybody was very glad. She seem[ed] so happy herself and she did not look a day over fifty-five. She carried back to the East some household goods that were dear to her, and she gave away the rest most generously.
61. But she felt very sad when she paid a last visit to her brother's grave, and as she came away she noticed some trees he had planted and tended with great care, and she felt as if she were taking a sad farewell of all her happy life with him. She was very contented in Brookfield and was looked up to by the whole parish, and she made Mr. Beacham an excellent wife; but she thought, with all her admiration for him, that, although an uncommon writer, he never could quite equal her brother's great sermon on Faith and Works. Dear Miss Becky! She often thought that her life had been most wonderfully ordered. Everything had happened just right, and she did not see how it was that all the events of life, other people's affairs, and things that seemed to have no connection with her, all matched her needs and fitted in at just the right time. If she had come to Brookfield the year before she was sure that she should have had no temptation to stay there, though she and Mr. Beacham did seem to have been made for each other. Mr. Beacham would have said that it was the unfailing wisdom of Providence; but she wondered at it none the less and was very grateful. Perhaps her life would seem dull, and not in the least conspicuous or interesting to most people; but for the dullest life how much machinery is put in motion and how much provision is made, while to its possible success the whole world will minister and be laid under tribute.
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