Chapter 21 - Peg Bowen Comes To Church
When those of us who are still left of that band of children who played long years ago in the old orchard and walked the golden road together in joyous companionship, foregather now and again in our busy lives and talk over the events of those many merry moons-- there are some of our adventures that gleam out more vividly in memory than the others, and are oftener discussed. The time we bought God's picture from Jerry Cowan--the time Dan ate the poison berries--the time we heard the ghostly bell ring--the bewitchment of Paddy--the visit of the Governor's wife--and the night we were lost in the storm--all awaken reminiscent jest and laughter; but none more than the recollection of the Sunday Peg Bowen came to church and sat in our pew. Though goodness knows, as Felicity would say, we did not think it any matter for laughter at the time--far from it.
It was one Sunday evening in July. Uncle Alec and Aunt Janet, having been out to the morning service, did not attend in the evening, and we small fry walked together down the long hill road, wearing Sunday attire and trying, more or less successfully, to wear Sunday faces also. Those walks to church, through the golden completeness of the summer evenings, were always very pleasant to us, and we never hurried, though, on the other hand, we were very careful not to be late.
This particular evening was particularly beautiful. It was cool after a hot day, and wheat fields all about us were ripening to their harvestry. The wind gossiped with the grasses along our way, and over them the buttercups danced, goldenly-glad. Waves of sinuous shadow went over the ripe hayfields, and plundering bees sang a freebooting lilt in wayside gardens.
"The world is so lovely tonight," said the Story Girl. "I just hate the thought of going into the church and shutting all the sunlight and music outside. I wish we could have the service outside in summer."
"I don't think that would be very religious," said Felicity.
"I'd feel ever so much more religious outside than in," retorted the Story Girl.
"If the service was outside we'd have to sit in the graveyard and that wouldn't be very cheerful," said Felix.
"Besides, the music isn't shut out," added Felicity. "The choir is inside."
"'Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,'" quoted Peter, who was getting into the habit of adorning his conversation with similar gems. "That's in one of Shakespeare's plays. I'm reading them now, since I got through with the Bible. They're great."
"I don't see when you get time to read them," said Felicity.
"Oh, I read them Sunday afternoons when I'm home."
"I don't believe they're fit to read on Sundays," exclaimed Felicity. "Mother says Valeria Montague's stories ain't."
"But Shakespeare's different from Valeria," protested Peter.
"I don't see in what way. He wrote a lot of things that weren't true, just like Valeria, and he wrote swear words too. Valeria never does that. Her characters all talk in a very refined fashion."
"Well, I always skip the swear words," said Peter. "And Mr. Marwood said once that the Bible and Shakespeare would furnish any library well. So you see he put them together, but I'm sure that he would never say that the Bible and Valeria would make a library."
"Well, all I know is, I shall never read Shakespeare on Sunday," said Felicity loftily.
"I wonder what kind of a preacher young Mr. Davidson is," speculated Cecily.
"Well, we'll know when we hear him tonight," said the Story Girl. "He ought to be good, for his uncle before him was a fine preacher, though a very absent-minded man. But Uncle Roger says the supply in Mr. Marwood's vacation never amounts to much. I know an awfully funny story about old Mr. Davidson. He used to be the minister in Baywater, you know, and he had a large family and his children were very mischievous. One day his wife was ironing and she ironed a great big nightcap with a frill round it. One of the children took it when she wasn't looking and hid it in his father's best beaver hat--the one he wore on Sundays. When Mr. Davidson went to church next Sunday he put the hat on without ever looking into the crown. He walked to church in a brown study and at the door he took off his hat. The nightcap just slipped down on his head, as if it had been put on, and the frill stood out around his face and the string hung down his back. But he never noticed it, because his thoughts were far away, and he walked up the church aisle and into the pulpit, like that. One of his elders had to tiptoe up and tell him what he had on his head. He plucked it off in a dazed fashion, held it up, and looked at it. 'Bless me, it is Sally's nightcap!' he exclaimed mildly. 'I do not know how I could have got it on.' Then he just stuffed it into his pocket calmly and went on with the service, and the long strings of the nightcap hung down out of his pocket all the time."
"It seems to me," said Peter, amid the laughter with which we greeted the tale, "that a funny story is funnier when it is about a minister than it is about any other man. I wonder why."
"Sometimes I don't think it is right to tell funny stories about ministers," said Felicity. "It certainly isn't respectful."
"A good story is a good story--no matter who it's about," said the Story Girl with ungrammatical relish.
There was as yet no one in the church when we reached it, so we took our accustomed ramble through the graveyard surrounding it. The Story Girl had brought flowers for her mother's grave as usual, and while she arranged them on it the rest of us read for the hundredth time the epitaph on Great-Grandfather King's tombstone, which had been composed by Great-Grandmother King. That epitaph was quite famous among the little family traditions that entwine every household with mingled mirth and sorrow, smiles and tears. It had a perennial fascination for us and we read it over every Sunday. Cut deeply in the upright slab of red Island sandstone, the epitaph ran as follows:--
SWEET DEPARTED SPIRIT
Do receive the vows a grateful widow pays, Each future day and night shall hear her speak her Isaac's praise. Though thy beloved form must in the grave decay Yet from her heart thy memory no time, no change shall steal away. Do thou from mansions of eternal bliss Remember thy distressed relict. Look on her with an angel's love-- Soothe her sad life and cheer her end Through this world's dangers and its griefs. Then meet her with thy well-known smiles and welcome At the last great day.
"Well, I can't make out what the old lady was driving at," said Dan.
"That's a nice way to speak of your great-grandmother," said Felicity severely.
"How does The Family Guide say you ought to speak of your great- grandma, sweet one?" asked Dan.
"There is one thing about it that puzzles me," remarked Cecily. "She calls herself a GRATEFUL widow. Now, what was she grateful for?"
"Because she was rid of him at last," said graceless Dan.
"Oh, it couldn't have been that," protested Cecily seriously. "I've always heard that Great-Grandfather and Great-Grandmother were very much attached to each other."
"Maybe, then, it means she was grateful that she'd had him as long as she did," suggested Peter.
"She was grateful to him because he had been so kind to her in life, I think," said Felicity.
"What is a 'distressed relict'?" asked Felix.
"'Relict' is a word I hate," said the Story Girl. "It sounds so much like relic. Relict means just the same as widow, only a man can be a relict, too."
"Great-Grandmother seemed to run short of rhymes at the last of the epitaph," commented Dan.
"Finding rhymes isn't as easy as you might think," avowed Peter, out of his own experience.
"I think Grandmother King intended the last of the epitaph to be in blank verse," said Felicity with dignity.
There was still only a sprinkling of people in the church when we went in and took our places in the old-fashioned, square King pew. We had just got comfortably settled when Felicity said in an agitated whisper, "Here is Peg Bowen!"
We all stared at Peg, who was pacing composedly up the aisle. We might be excused for so doing, for seldom were the decorous aisles of Carlisle church invaded by such a figure. Peg was dressed in her usual short drugget skirt, rather worn and frayed around the bottom, and a waist of brilliant turkey red calico. She wore no hat, and her grizzled black hair streamed in elf locks over her shoulders. Face, arms and feet were bare--and face, arms and feet were liberally powdered with FLOUR. Certainly no one who saw Peg that night could ever forget the apparition.
Peg's black eyes, in which shone a more than usually wild and fitful light, roved scrutinizingly over the church, then settled on our pew.
"She's coming here," whispered Felicity in horror. "Can't we spread out and make her think the pew is full?"
But the manoeuvre was too late. The only result was that Felicity and the Story Girl in moving over left a vacant space between them and Peg promptly plumped down in it.
"Well, I'm here," she remarked aloud. "I did say once I'd never darken the door of Carlisle church again, but what that boy there"--nodding at Peter--"said last winter set me thinking, and I concluded maybe I'd better come once in a while, to be on the safe side."
Those poor girls were in an agony. Everybody in the church was looking at our pew and smiling. We all felt that we were terribly disgraced; but we could do nothing. Peg was enjoying herself hugely, beyond all doubt. From where she sat she could see the whole church, including pulpit and gallery, and her black eyes darted over it with restless glances.
"Bless me, there's Sam Kinnaird," she exclaimed, still aloud. "He's the man that dunned Jacob Marr for four cents on the church steps one Sunday. I heard him. 'I think, Jacob, you owe me four cents on that cow you bought last fall. Rec'llect you couldn't make the change?' Well, you know, 'twould a-made a cat laugh. The Kinnairds were all mighty close, I can tell you. That's how they got rich."
What Sam Kinnaird felt or thought during this speech, which everyone in the church must have heard, I know not. Gossip had it that he changed colour. We wretched occupants of the King pew were concerned only with our own outraged feelings.
"And there's Melita Ross," went on Peg. "She's got the same bonnet on she had last time I was in Carlisle church six years ago. Some folks has the knack of making things last. But look at the style Mrs. Elmer Brewer wears, will yez? Yez wouldn't think her mother died in the poor-house, would yez, now?"
Poor Mrs. Brewer! From the tip of her smart kid shoes to the dainty cluster of ostrich tips in her bonnet--she was most immaculately and handsomely arrayed; but I venture to think she could have taken small pleasure in her fashionable attire that evening. Some of the unregenerate, including Dan, were shaking with suppressed laughter, but most of the people looked as if they were afraid to smile, lest their turn should come next.
"There's old Stephen Grant coming in," exclaimed Peg viciously, shaking her floury fist at him, "and looking as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. He may be an elder, but he's a scoundrel just the same. He set fire to his house to get the insurance and then blamed ME for doing it. But I got even with him for it. Oh, yes! He knows that, and so do I! He, he!"
Peg chuckled quite fiendishly and Stephen Grant tried to look as if nothing had been said.
"Oh, will the minister never come?" moaned Felicity in my ear. "Surely she'll have to stop then."
But the minister did not come and Peg had no intention of stopping.
"There's Maria Dean." she resumed. "I haven't seen Maria for years. I never call there for she never seems to have anything to eat in the house. She was a Clayton and the Claytons never could cook. Maria sorter looks as if she'd shrunk in the wash, now, don't she? And there's Douglas Nicholson. His brother put rat poison in the family pancakes. Nice little trick that, wasn't it? They say it was by mistake. I hope it WAS a mistake. His wife is all rigged out in silk. Yez wouldn't think to look at her she was married in cotton--and mighty thankful to get married in anything, it's my opinion. There's Timothy Patterson. He's the meanest man alive--meaner'n Sam Kinnaird even. Timothy pays his children five cents apiece to go without their suppers, and then steals the cents out of their pockets after they've gone to bed. It's a fact. And when his old father died he wouldn't let his wife put his best shirt on him. He said his second best was plenty good to be buried in. That's another fact."
"I can't stand much more of this," wailed Felicity.
"See here, Miss Bowen, you really oughtn't to talk like that about people," expostulated Peter in a low tone, goaded thereto, despite his awe of Peg, by Felicity's anguish.
"Bless you, boy," said Peg good-humouredly, "the only difference between me and other folks is that I say these things out loud and they just think them. If I told yez all the things I know about the people in this congregation you'd be amazed. Have a peppermint?"
To our horror Peg produced a handful of peppermint lozenges from the pocket of her skirt and offered us one each. We did not dare refuse but we each held our lozenge very gingerly in our hands.
"Eat them," commanded Peg rather fiercely.
"Mother doesn't allow us to eat candy in church," faltered Felicity.
"Well, I've seen just as fine ladies as your ma give their children lozenges in church," said Peg loftily. She put a peppermint in her own mouth and sucked it with gusto. We were relieved, for she did not talk during the process; but our relief was of short duration. A bevy of three very smartly dressed young ladies, sweeping past our pew, started Peg off again.
"Yez needn't be so stuck up," she said, loudly and derisively. "Yez was all of yez rocked in a flour barrel. And there's old Henry Frewen, still above ground. I called my parrot after him because their noses were exactly alike. Look at Caroline Marr, will yez? That's a woman who'd like pretty well to get married, And there's Alexander Marr. He's a real Christian, anyhow, and so's his dog. I can always size up what a man's religion amounts to by the kind of dog he keeps. Alexander Marr is a good man."
It was a relief to hear Peg speak well of somebody; but that was the only exception she made.
"Look at Dave Fraser strutting in," she went on. "That man has thanked God so often that he isn't like other people that it's come to be true. He isn't! And there's Susan Frewen. She's jealous of everybody. She's even jealous of Old Man Rogers because he's buried in the best spot in the graveyard. Seth Erskine has the same look he was born with. They say the Lord made everybody but I believe the devil made all the Erskines."
"She's getting worse all the time. What WILL she say next?" whispered poor Felicity.
But her martyrdom was over at last. The minister appeared in the pulpit and Peg subsided into silence. She folded her bare, floury arms over her breast and fastened her black eyes on the young preacher. Her behaviour for the next half-hour was decorum itself, save that when the minister prayed that we might all be charitable in judgment Peg ejaculated "Amen" several times, loudly and forcibly, somewhat to the discomfiture of the Young man, to whom Peg was a stranger. He opened his eyes, glanced at our pew in a startled way, then collected himself and went on.
Peg listened to the sermon, silently and motionlessly, until Mr. Davidson was half through. Then she suddenly got on her feet.
"This is too dull for me," she exclaimed. "I want something more exciting."
Mr. Davidson stopped short and Peg marched down the aisle in the midst of complete silence. Half way down the aisle she turned around and faced the minister.
"There are so many hypocrites in this church that it isn't fit for decent people to come to," she said. "Rather than be such hypocrites as most of you are it would be better for you to go miles into the woods and commit suicide."
Wheeling about, she strode to the door. Then she turned for a Parthian shot.
"I've felt kind of worried for God sometimes, seeing He has so much to attend to," she said, "but I see I needn't be, so long's there's plenty of ministers to tell Him what to do."
With that Peg shook the dust of Carlisle church from her feet. Poor Mr. Davidson resumed his discourse. Old Elder Bayley, whose attention an earthquake could not have distracted from the sermon, afterwards declared that it was an excellent and edifying exhortation, but I doubt if anyone else in Carlisle church tasted it much or gained much good therefrom. Certainly we of the King household did not. We could not even remember the text when we reached home. Felicity was comfortless.
"Mr. Davidson would be sure to think she belonged to our family when she was in our pew," she said bitterly. "Oh, I feel as if I could never get over such a mortification! Peter, I do wish you wouldn't go telling people they ought to go to church. It's all your fault that this happened."
"Never mind, it will be a good story to tell sometime," remarked the Story Girl with relish.