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Sister Weeden's Prayer by Katherine Sherwood Bonner McDowell

 

YES we had gethered at the river, as the song says, to see a sight as might have surprised the angels. Ther' wuz a crowd, sure. They had come from the four-mile, an' the six-mile, an' the nine-mile, an' from down in the timber, an' ther' wuz even a pretty smart sprinklin' o' town folks, kind of apart from the rest, with a plenty of artificial flowers in the'r hats, an' an air of gentility that differed 'em from the farmers' women, with the'r sun-bonnets an' babies. It wuz four o'clock of a Sunday afternoon, an' they wuz all assembled to see young Roland Selph baptized by Preacher Powell, who expounded the Word four times a year at Big Muddy meetin'- house.

It wuz a'most like a meracle. Roland wuz a hard case. My husband— who, bein' one o' the “swearin' Wallers,” as they wuz called in Grandpar Waller's day, had a sort of ancesterl talent for usin' strong words—an' better that than for usin' strong drink, says I, when twitted, for what is words but a slap-dash thrown together of letters? an' if a man chooses 'em hard, like goose-quills, instead o' soft, like goose-down, an' nobody's hurt, then where's the harm?—well, my husband he allays said that Roland wuz the “darnedest man to cuss on the prairie.” He never had had no bringin' up wuz the trouble. His father, a rele active, nice man, wuz killed in a mill six months before he wuz born, an' his mother she took on so that she didn't have no strength to git him even so far along as teethin'. So his grandmother she raised him on sheep's milk an' a peach-tree switch. Kicks an' cuffs wuz sandwiched between the poor child's meals, until the old woman died an' left him, kithless an' kinless in the land. A wild-lookin' lad he wuz, with a shock o' black hair that you couldn't 'a combed with a wool-card, an' big eyes bold as the hub of a wheel, an' clothed summer an' winter in rags! He wuz mightily in demand at harvest-time, for he wuz as strong as a horse, an' hadn't had a chill since his grandmother broke 'em on him at the age of fourteen with black pepper an' molasses an' santonine, an' a bag o' camphor at the pit of his stomach. But people wuz powerful shy of associatin' with him. He wuz druv to the saloons for company; an' they said he could drink a quart o' whiskey as if it wuz spring-water.

How it had come about nobody knew. Brother Powell never wuz counted to have much influence, an' he looked powerful little an' meachin'-like beside Roland, tall an' broad-chested, an' as handsome as anybody in a bran'-new suit o' brown jeans an' a white shirt clean as clean.

As he went down into the water the men took off the'r hats with a soft, loose sweep, an' the women hushed the'r babies at the'r breasts. The sun shone out broad an' mellow; everything seemed to listen, somehow, as the words wuz uttered over that wild, forsakened one that made him a member o' Christ's great family. Then what a crowdin' roun' an' a han'-shakin' as he came out drippin', an' castin' a glance round half beseechin' an' half a-darin'! It wuz wuth comin' a long way jest to see that poor sinner a-welcomed inter the fold.

But I noticed one curious thing. Mrs. Biscoe wuz there, with her two daughters, Leila an' Jenny—Rose an' Lily we used to call 'em, seein' as how one wuz a red beauty an' one a white. Jenny—she wuz the fair one—wuz the most help to her mother. Leila, for all her rosy cheeks an' black eyes, wuz a lazy little flitter-gibbet. Mrs. Biscoe she wuz a widow: a little, straight, dark woman, with plenty of snap to her, who took in sewin' for a livin', an' wuz much respected in the Baptist society. Well, she gave a quick little nod to'ards Roland jest before he wuz dipped, an' she said, in kind of an undertone, “They do look nice girls, don't they?” I studied quite a spell over this speech, but I couldn't exactly make out what she meant by it.

Some days after the baptizin', Mrs. Wysnicker of the four-mile invited all the society to a wool-pickin'. Ther' wuzn't any declinations, for Mrs. Wysnicker wuz a master-hand for dinners. Never did she sit you down to her table unless she had “fresh,” an' maybe a couple o' chickens besides; an' her pie-crust would break inter honest flakes if you so much as p'inted a knife at it. Furthermore, we wanted to see if her wool was so much finer than anybody else's. She had boasted considerable about it, an' we understood that she sheared fourteen pounds to a sheep. So it was candle-light breakfast all over the prairie, an' by seven o'clock we wuz mostly assembled in Mrs. Wysnicker's sittin'-room, ready for work. The wool wuz on a sheet in the middle of the floor, an' a powerful big pile it wuz: seemed as if it reached nearly to the ceilin'. We wuz all a-settin' round it, pretty prim, a-waitin' for the stiffness to wear off.

Ther' wuz one person I wuz surprised to see in the company, an' that wuz Florindy Daggett. 'Twan't often anybody sighted her at wool-pickin's or apple-parin's or rag-tackin's, for she set up for a genteel, an' always washed dishes with, a mop. She wuz a powerful dressy woman, too. Husband he allays said she wuz the kind that 'ud gin a man's pocket the swinney. But she loved talk beyond dress. It wuz joked around that old man Daggett told her once that he'd nuss her cheerful through a twenty-years' spell, if her disease jest happened to be paralysis of the tongue. Ther's apt to be mischief, too, in the tongues of these talkie' females. Thar she set, her mouth a-puckered up, three sand-colored curls a-hangin' as fur as her nose on each side, an', as a last dyin' touch, kid gloves. We didn't none of us take much notice of her, but we started out pickin' wool pretty pears. After a little, Florindy she sithed an' said, “Sister Wysnicker, what's the duty of one sister in the society when she's discovered another sister in the act o' backslidin'?”

“P'raps she might make her a present of Brother Throckmorton's 'Serious Review of Infant Sprinklers,' ” says Sister Wysnicker, who gits a laugh out of most things goin'.

“This is no matter for jokin',” says Florindy, solemn as Moses in the bulrushes.

Farmer Sweet's wife spoke up very excited: “Sister Daggett, you do surprise me all to pieces! “Hev you reely caught a backslider? A man, of course. Bad is the best of 'em. Do pray don't wait another minute. Tell us all about it.” She wuz a little, sharp woman, whose words tumbled out of her mouth fast as chopped straw out of a thrashin'-machine, an had jest about as much cash value.

“No man,” says Florindy: “it wuz a woman. An' what she wuz doin' is so ser'ous an' awful that reveal it I won't unless the sisters here think it is my duty.

Well, now, do you know, not one of us had the Christian charity to say, “Hold your tongue, Florindy.” Truth is, we wuz dyin' to hear what it wuz: so we jest edged our cheers a little closer together, an' sort of slacked in the wool-pickin'.

“Last Sunday, about noon,” says Florindy, speakin' slow an' impressive, “as I wuz a-returnin' home after visitin' my brother's sick child, my throat got so dry that I knew I must have a drink of water. So I stopped at a certain cottage on the four-mile, where there is an althea-bush a-growin' in the yard, an' an oleander in a tub by the steps—”

“The Biscoes!”

“I name no names. The front door wuz shut, an' the blind wuz drawn close, an' I mistrusted they wuz not at home. So I opened the slats very gently an' looked in—”

“An' what did ye see? Do, for goodness' sake, stop lookin' so mysterious.” An' Farmer Sweet's wife tore at a piece of wool quite reckless.

I saw the three of 'em—on the Lord's-day—in a room dark as iniquity—a-sewin' for dear life!

“Sewin' ” “Sewin'!” “Sewin'!” “Sewin'!” “Sewin'!”

You reely would have thought it wuz the hissin' of a ring of geese.

“I stood there for a minute,” says Florindy, “quite stagnated, as you may say, with surprise; an', besides, I wanted to see what they wuz sewin' on. But I couldn't make out, for the life o' me, an' I didn't dare to open the slats any wider.”

“That ain't the pint at all,” says Sister Sweet: “whether 'twas carpet-rags, or seed-bags, or satin robes for the rich, it's all one. The sin wuz in sewin' at all on the Lord's-day.”

“Unless it wuz for a corpse,” says Sister Wysnicker, “or funeral clothes for the family.”

“Well it ain't no question of a corpse this time. An' what's to be done about it?”

“I'm lookin' for Sister Biscoe every minute. She's a mighty good hand at wool, an' she promised to come. soon as ever she could git off.”

“All I have to say,” cries Florindy, “is that when she steps in I steps out. Hold countenance with sinners I won't. You can't touch pitch an' not be defiled. Ther's doctrine for it.”

Mrs. Wysnicker looked powerful bothered, jest as if she didn't know which way to turn. “We haven't heard from Sister Weeden yet,” says she: “perhaps she will give us a word in season.”

Sister Weeden wuz the impressivest female in the Baptist society. She wuz tall an' clean-cut, an' not a bend in her from neck to knee. What she said wuz said. She had high cheekbones, an' black eyes, an' a great twist of milk-white hair coiled on top of her head. “I have listened,” says she, “an' if what Sister Daggett charges shell be proven true, we must expel Dorothy Biscoe from the society an' leave her to the mercy of God.”

Cold shivers ran down our backs: it wuz jest as if she had said Selah.

At this minute I happened to look sideways through a crack in the door, an' what should I see but Leila Biscoe half stretched out on a lounge, with a picture-paper crumpled up in her hand! Her head wuz up, an' she wuz a-listenin' with all her ears, her face red as fire, an' her eyes sparklin', as lazy brown eyes will when they git fired up.

Up she jumped as she caught my eye an' ran out of the other door. I said nothin' to anybody, but I quietly slipped after the child, a-leavin' my bonnet behind. I mistrusted she wuz goin' to meet her mother; an', sure enough, Mrs. Biscoe an' Jenny wuz footin' it along the road, when Leila flew at 'em, raisin' the dust with a swirl around her. “Mother,” she cries, “dons go near 'em. Don't! the scandalous old cats!”

“Leily Biscoe! what under the blue sky air you talkin' about?” She took the child by the arm an' plumped her down into a fence-corner. “Now!” says she.

“Why, mammie, that horrid, sneakin', pryin', white-eyed—”

Leila!

“Well, then, the beautiful Mistress Florinda Daggett peeped into our windows last Sunday—”

“Oh!”

“An' saw us sewin'; an' they are havin' no end of a time about it, an' won't sit in the room with you, an' say you shall be expelled from the society—”

“So!”

I put in a word now, an' tried to smooth down matters; but, my stars! Sister Biscoe looked as if she could bite steel.

“Let's go home, mammie,” said Jenny, beginnin' to cry.

Home!” says she: “we're goin' to the wool-pickin'.”

“But I tell you,” cried Leila, “they won't have you; they will insult you.”

“You can go home if you want to.”

Leila felt, maybe, that she hadn't deserved sech a snub, so she tossed her head an' followed her mar. I could hardly keep up with 'em. I hadn't felt so warmed up an' excited not sence I brought Belle Burns through a congestive chill after the doctor had give her up.

My soul! them women jumped when they seen the widow an' her two daughters standin' at the door, as if the sheared sheep wuz a-chargin' in after the wool they'd been robbed of.

“I hear,” says Sister Biscoe, “that my friends an' neighbors have been makin' mighty free with my name.”

“Lor!” says Sister Wysnicker, in a quaverin' sort o' voice; “who's been a-bearin' any slanderous tale to you?”

“Slanderous, is it? Well, my daughter Leila is the bearer. I sent her on ahead of me this mornin', an' she wuzn't no farther from your talk than the next room.”

“Nobody's said nothin' that they ain't willin' to stand by,” snapped Florindy Daggett. “Women that use God's day for puttin' money in their pockets must be ready to face the consequences.”

Two red spots came out on the widow's cheeks; her eyes shot sparks like flints struck together. “I've nothin' to say to you,” she says, turnin' her back on Florindy, “but the rest of you shall hear what's behind the story she's told. It looks as if those that has known me all my life, watched me strugglin' with poverty, workin' to keep a roof over these two girls that wuz left babes on my hands, an' never heard so much as a breath against me or mine, might 'a waited a little before talkin' about expellin' me from the society.”

Everybody colored up, an' Farmer Sweet's wife she whimpered a little.

“I wish you'd take a cheer, Sister Biscoe,” said Sister Wysnicker, real entreatin'.

“I'll sit in no house nor break bread under no roof till my pardon has been asked by all that thought ill of me.”

Florindy sniffed, but no one j'ined in.

“Last Friday night a week ago,” says Sister Biscoe, “Roland Selph knocked with his ridin'-whip against my door. Jenny opened it, a-drawin' back when she saw who it wuz, for Roland has a kiss an' a joke for every girl who will let him come near enough. But he walked in very quiet, a-followin' her into the back room, where I sat sewin'.

“ 'Mrs. Biscoe,' says he, 'can you make me some decent clothes agin Sunday?'

“ 'Not agin Sunday, Roland,' says I, 'for it's Friday night now.'

“He set quite a while without sayin' anything, a-hittin' his boot with his whip, an' finally he said, in a loud, defiant sort of way, that he hed thought of bein' baptized Sunday, if he could git anything to put on his back, for he wuz perfectly ragged.

“ 'You baptized!' says Leila, pertly. 'Is the world comin' to an end?'

“ 'Mebbe,' says he, very sullen, an' got up as if he would go. But I found strength to stop him. 'Good gracious!' says I, 'don't fly off the let's talk it over.'

“The long and the short of it is that I soon saw Roland wuz a-tremblin' between two worlds. He wuz that unregenerate that he wouldn't face the public at Big Muddy without the befittin' clothes, yet the Spirit wuz so workin' within him that he had set his heart on sealin' himself to God the comin' Sunday. I thought of suggestin' to him to wait until Brother Powell came round again; but, seein' as how he wuz just out of the devil's clutches by a needle's length, as you may say, I didn't dare to say 'put it off' to him. Would any sister here have done it?”

“NO!” says Sister Weeden, lettin' the word drop very ponderous.

“It might be then or never. To be the means of stoppin' him wuz more of a responsibility than I could shoulder. There wuz tears on Jenny's cheeks, an' she whispered to me, 'Say that you will, mammie.' An' even Leila nodded when I looked inquirin' at her. 'Roland,' says I, 'we'll do it. Come for your clothes Sunday noon. They'll be ready, and without money an' without price, for it's the Lord's work.'

“We got 'em cut out that night, an' we worked steady Saturday, an' Saturday night, an' Sunday mornin'. Yes, we did work on the Lord's-day, for mortal fingers couldn't 'a finished the job without.

“By luck an' plannin' we saved all the hand-sewin' till the last, so that the noise of a machine runnin' on Sunday shouldn't bring reproach on my house. For many a thing is all right if it's kept quiet that fools label wrong if it comes to their ears.

“That's about the whole story. You all saw Roland Selph baptized that afternoon, an' can bear witness to how modest an' handsome he looked in his clean new suit, with the light of the Gospel a-shinin' on his face. I won't speak of myself; but as for my two girls, who had gone without rest an' food, an' worked their fingers sore, to put him where he stood, I only hope that all of you said 'Amen' to Brother Powell's prayer with as clean a conscience as theirs. An' I will say for myself that, just as sure as my name is Dorothy Biscoe, I would do it all over again! An' it's a business between me an' my God.

She had swept us all along; and we wuz throwed into a confusion when she stopped short an' sudden, as if waitin' for some one to speak. Nobody knew jest how to lead off, an' it wuz a relief when Sister Weeden rose up an' says, “Let us pray!”

Down we all knelt promiscuous, the wool a-scatterin' from our laps, an' Sister Weeden, without stoppin' a minute to think up her words— for prayin' comes to her by nature—began: “O Father, our hearts is vile an' unclean as the wool we've been pickin' out this day; quick to catch at evil as sheep's backs to catch at brambles an' briers in pushin' through a thicket; clogged with meanness an' jealousies an' suspicions, till they're got no will nor power to beat harmonious with thy Spirit, which is love. O Lord, we'd give up, despairin', if it wuzn't that immortal patience can cleanse them of trash that defiles; if it wuzn't that Immanuel's blood can wash the blackness of blackness away; if it wuzn't that we knew forgiveness wuz held out free as long as breath held body an' soul together Every day Satan dangles some new temptation before us, an' we fall inter sin. Most especial to-day hev we failed in charity toward our sister here, condemnin' her without a hearin', an' never a-dreamin' that it wuz the Lord's work to which she give his day, as sinless as the act of Him who plucked the ears of corn an' wuz reproached by the lip-servin' Jews. Put it inter her heart, O Father, to pardon us without much more said about it. All for the dear sake of him who died for us. Amen.”

Then we said the Lord's Prayer all together, an' somehow a good, healthy shame laid hold of us an' made us humble in our own conceit for once.

We didn't exactly like to look Sister Biscoe in the eye when we got up. We didn't know but what she'd hold out till we had made apologies all 'round; an' how to do it wuz more than we knew.

But, dear sakes! Sister Wysnicker—she's such a comfortable woman— she says, quite natural, “Won't you take off your things, Sister Biscoe, an' help us out with this wool? It's a powerful sight worse 'n I looked for it to be.”

“To be sure,” says Sister Biscoe, a little hystericky, but very cheerful; “ain't that what I'm here for?”

So, pretty soon we wuz workin' like bees, an' chattin' by spells, as neighbors should, about the harvestin', an' the hard work, an' the aguey, an' the Republican rally, an' the thrivin' business of them wicked saloons when politics wuz flyin' all abroad, an' other subjects harmonious to the company.

Jenny she stood by her mother and helped; but as for Miss Leila, she tossed her head and walked off home, as unforgivin' a young one as ever listened to prayer with a stony heart.

 
 
 

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