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The Tale of a Dinner

From Ailenroc’s Book, by Cornelia Alexander

“Matilda,” said Mr. Sanders, putting his head in at the kitchen door, “Brother Grice and Brother Lee, from Bumbleton, are here, and will remain to dinner.”

Mr. Sanders was a preacher, who preached at Bumbleton once a month; Matilda was his wife.

“Mercy on me!” she said, staring at him; but in a moment her gaze wandered past him across the field—still farther. She was wondering what she would have for dinner.

“Well,” said Mr. Sanders, fidgeting about the door, “they are in the sitting room, and I must go back. It is ten o’clock, Matilda.”

“I know,” she said, trying to smile. “I’ll have dinner on time; never fear. Go back to your company.”

He looked back as he turned to go, saying, in a hesitating sort of way: “You—you can make out, Matilda.”

“I think so,” she answered. “Did I ever fail?”

When he was gone, Mrs. Sanders sat for a moment gazing into the tub of peaches by her side, and two very bright drops rolled down her thin cheeks; but, wiping them off with her checked apron, she went to the back door, and called, softly: “Nell.!”

“Here, mamma,” answered a cheery young voice; and a curly-haired girl of twelve made her appearance, with foamy soapsuds on her white arms.

“Nell., there are two gentlemen here for dinner—two brethren from Bumbleton—and we must give them something fit to eat. What will it be?”

“O, mamma! What can we have? We have no meat, the cow has gone dry, we are out of flour—out of everything.” There was absolute despair in the girl’s voice.

However, the mother said, bravely: “Never fear; we must have dinner. O, I do hope they have brought your papa some money, and very likely that is their business. Now, fix up a fire, and we will fly around. I’ve got about half a gallon of flour that I have saved for starch. It will answer nicely to make a chicken pie, and a peach pie, also.”

“A chicken pie, mamma? Where is the chicken?”

Mrs. Sanders answered, regretfully: “I’ll have to kill Bennie’s pet.”

“No, no, mamma! It would kill Bennie to come home and find his chicken gone.”

“Not so fast, daughter. People don’t die of broken hearts about a chicken. I regret it, but necessity compels me to kill it.”

“I can’t see him killed, or eat him, either,” said Nell., sobbing.

Mrs. Sanders took down a tin box and rattled it. “One quarter,” she said. “Here, Nell., take it and run over to Mrs. Smith’s; she makes butter to sell. Get one pound of butter—which will be twenty cents, I suppose—the rest in fresh eggs, and borrow a cup of coffee; and hurry.”

But Nell. had gone speeding across lots, bucket in hand. Mrs. Smith was generous. There was a large pound of golden butter in Nell.’s bucket and eight newly-laid eggs in her apron when she returned; and she asked no questions, though she missed Bennie’s pet from the doorstep, and a plate on the table held a fat cut-up chicken.

The pie was soon bubbling and sending forth savory odors; but when the pan was lined with puffy paste for the fruit, Nell. cried, in sudden alarm: “O, mamma, it will be ruined; we have no sugar!”

Mrs. Sanders had forgotten that alarming fact, but her face cleared after a moment’s thought, and she said: “Run into my room, Nell.; look in the closet on the top shelf, and bring me that little jar of honey.”

“But, mamma, that is for cough medicine.”

“No matter; perhaps I can get more. The pie must be made now.”

In a little while the dinner was on the table and looked appetizing enough for any one. A snowy cloth and napkins to match and a tall fruit dish of cut glass filled with flowers in the center of the table pleased the eye; then the chicken pie, with its flaky crusts and rich gravy; the peach pie, tempting and delicious; a dish of scrambled eggs, potato salad, honey, butter, corn bread, biscuits, and coffee which gave off an aroma delightful to coffee drinkers. The dinner was a success.

Nell. was in fine spirits. “Now, mamma,” she said, “run into your room and put on another dress. You must not sit down to this pretty table in that old ragged wrapper.”

“But, Nell., my good wrapper is in the wash.”

“I know it, but don’t let on that all the good calico you possess is in the suds; put on your Sunday dress. Poor mamma, to have but one dress, and that one so old that I don’t know how old it is! But it looks nice yet.”

Mrs. Sanders came back in a moment, attired in a black lawn, which showed signs of darning and remaking, and possibly dyeing. Her still glossy hair was brushed back, but she wore no collar.

“Will I do, Nell.?” she asked, smiling into the bright eyes.

Nell., for answer, ran into the house and returned, out of breath, with an old lace fichu. “Let me fix you,” she said. “This old lace collar is more ‘holy’ than righteous; but when I gather it around the neck—so—and tuck the ends under—so—it looks real nice. Now, I’ll rattle the bell, and as my respectable dress is in the wash, I’ll go and stay with it while you all eat that lovely dinner. O, mamma,” a sudden seriousness coming over her voice and eyes, “I wish we could have such dinners every day!”

Her mother kissed her and she ran out, and in a moment Mr. Sanders and his visiting brethren came in. Mr. Grice and Mr. Lee were hearty, substantial men, and did justice to the good dinner set before them.

Mr. Sanders had been haunted by the lurking fear that his wife could not produce oil and meal from empty vessels; but the sight of the table revived his spirits, and he overflowed with good humor and hospitality. Mrs. Sanders, like the good, true woman that she was, waited on her guests to perfection, and made herself charming in a black lawn ten years old and an old fichu that had a hundred unnecessary holes in it.

Taken altogether, the dinner passed off well, and the brethren departed that evening expressing their satisfaction with Mr. Sanders as a preacher, and their pleasure in meeting his wife. As they rode homeward each seemed to be revolving some weighty subject in his mind, and finally Mr. Grice broke the silence.

“Well,” he said, “the parson is not as poor a man as I expected to find him.”

“Nothing like it, nothing like it,” replied Brother Lee, with great animation.

“She had a cracking good dinner to-day,” said Brother Grice. “I don’t know when I have tasted a better one.”

Brother Lee looked very solemn. Perhaps he was thinking of that chicken pie that suited him so well, or that third cup of coffee. “I hope,” he said—“I hope fervently that Sister Sanders is not wasteful. I think, of all men’s wives, a preacher’s wife should be saving.”

Brother Grice shook his head. “Ah, me!” he said. “I have been thinking, ever since we started home, that maybe she was. That pie, sweetened with honey, looked like it; I must confess that it did. Honey, Brother Lee, is worth twenty cents a pound, while sugar is but five cents. Being a merchant, I have a right to know.”

“Of course, Brother Grice—of course. Then there is another thing that kinder startles me: Sister Sanders, as you perhaps noticed, was dressed well—remarkably well, I might say, to be at home on a week day. I declare she looked better than my wife does on Sunday!”

Brother Grice turned his face off and coughed—out of delicacy, perhaps—for it was known that Brother Lee’s wife was the homeliest woman in Bumbleton.

“She was dressed well, indeed—fine lace around her neck! I think we got scared for nothing; put ourselves to the trouble of riding ten miles to see if they were really needy, and—lo!—they live better than we do at home. I did not ask him, for I saw for myself.”

“I didn’t, either,” said Brother Grice. “He can just wait until his year is out, and we will see that he is paid, as we agreed to do. I’ve no objection to Brother Sanders as a preacher or a man, but I do think that they ought not to get above their ability. If his wife can dress better at home than ours can when they go to meeting, he surely can get along. I think it is just as much his duty to preach as it is ours to hear him.”

“I think so, too. I don’t believe a preacher should be hired. He ought to preach for the love of the gospel. Paying preachers a big salary is just puffing them up with pride, anyway. If a man can preach, it is his duty to preach. That’s the way I look at it;” and Brother Lee, who owned five hundred acres of rich land and had everything else in proportion, hugged himself complacently.

“Brother Sanders does work, I suppose,” said Brother Grice. “He makes and mends shoes. He might make a good deal if he would try. He only loses Saturdays and Mondays at his regular appointments, tends four churches.”

That night, when Bennie had cried himself to sleep over the loss of his pet chicken, Mrs. Sanders went out on the porch where her husband was standing. She was a very weary-looking, pale woman, in her old, torn wrapper; but her husband knew she was beautiful.

“Well, dear,” he said, putting his arm around her and speaking very low, “we have been disappointed again. I did hope those wealthy brethren came to pay me something, but they did not. We will have to struggle on.”

His wife leaned her head on his shoulder, and the silent, unseen tears overflowed her patient eyes. It was hard. No more flour, or meat, or coffee, or sugar, or molasses, or milk; only a little meal, a remnant of butter, a few vegetables, and some fruit.

Poor patient, heroic preacher’s wife! With generous hospitality she gave them the best she had; and if they had come again, she would have made some other shift, some other sacrifice, to set a good meal before them. She was used to loneliness, used to privation; but she had a brave, hopeful spirit and a decent pride. Methinks if there is a brighter diadem than all others in heaven, the preacher’s wife will one day find it on her brow.

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