A Protracted Meeting

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Housewife Vol. 6 No. 10 (February, 1891)

Part I.

The Reed family was getting ready for church. Joseph Reed was carefully brushing his hat, and his wife and daughter were tying on their bonnets at the sitting-room looking-glass. Jenny, the daughter, looked prettier in that style of bonnet than her mother did. The bonnets flared at the top, and left a large space above the forehead which was filled in with flowers. Mrs. Reed's was filled in with feathery green and white flowers, and Jenny's with fine, pink rosebuds. The bonnet of delicate green and white was not becoming to Mrs. Reed's florid, pleasant face, but Jenny, pink and white and dark-eyed, was charming with her top-knot of rosebuds.

It was her first bonnet anyway; she had always worn a hat, but now she was sixteen and thought herself entitled to the dignity of a bonnet. So the fancy braid was bought, trimmed with pink ribbons, and filled in with pink rosebuds, and Jenny was appearing out in it for the first time to-day. “Tie the strings in a square bow,” said her mother, out of the wisdom of her long experience in bonnet-strings. And Jenny jerked and pulled until the pink bow was quite square beneath her round chin. She wore a muslin dress, shirred at the waist, and a pink ribbon sash. When they were all ready and out in the street, she hoisted her parasol and tripped along with a crisp flutter of her fresh draperies, and a conscious lift of her bonneted head. She hoped that Ida Starr would see her. Ida had not got her summer head-gear yet, she was still wearing her brown spring hat, trimmed soberly with brown ribbon.

Ida Starr did come out of her own gate as the Reeds came up to it. She looked hesitatingly at Jenny, her face was all ready to break into smiles; she was a fair, slender little thing. But Jenny never looked at her. She passed along stiffly behind her father and mother. She and Ida had had a falling out over a trifling matter, but it seemed very serious to both of them.

Jenny had declared to several of her friends that she felt as if she didn't care if she never spoke to Ida Starr again. Ida had a strong sense of injury backed by a little resentment, but she did not say much. She was not so quick-tempered nor out-spoken as Jenny.

Jenny walked on to church and Ida followed several paces behind her. “There's Jenny,” remarked Ida's mother wonderingly. She thought Ida did not see her. She knew nothing of the trouble between the two girls.

“I knew it,” said Ida.

“Why don't you go and walk with her?”

“O, I guess I won't.”

Her mother looked at her sharply. There were tears in Ida's blue eyes, she could scarcely see the pink ribbons on Jenny's bonnet through them, but she walked on quietly.

The church was on the most uncomfortable site in town, nobody knew why it had been selected for it. It stood on the top of a sandy hill, cold and unsheltered in winter, and hot and sun-baked in summer. There were no houses near. The sexton lived in the nearest and that was a quarter of a mile away.

The village people toiled up the hill, keeping their parasols well toward the sun. Everybody here went to meeting and there was quite a large congregation for so small a town. The meeting-house was full of the odors of peppermint and caraway; there was a gentle breeze of fans. The sermon was long, then there was Sunday-school, another sermon in the afternoon and a prayer-meeting in the evening. The Reeds went all day as most people did. Jenny happily tied on her bonnet for the third time for the prayer-meeting. She put a little white shawl over her shoulders, for the night air was cool, and went with her father and mother down the moonlit street.

It happened again that Ida Starr came out of her gate as they went by, and Jenny's mother said, “Good evening, Ida,” but Jenny never turned her head. Ida sat near her in church and she usually sang, she had a very sweet voice; but to-night she was silent, Jenny missed her voice with an uneasy feeling. Ida and her parents were a little in advance of the Reeds going home from the prayer meeting, and Ida lingered by her gate until Jenny came up. She leaned over and looked up at Jenny, and her delicate face was very white and fair in the moonlight. “Good night, Jenny,” she said in a timid voice. But Jenny marched straight on and never replied. Her mother did not notice that Ida spoke, and she was glad of that. She let her father and mother pass into the house and she sat down on the porch.

“Why don't you come in, Jenny?” her mother called.

“I'm going to sit out here a little while, it's so pleasant,” answered Jenny.

It was very pleasant, the moonlight was very bright and the porch was covered with flickering shadows of vine-leaves. Jenny sat there a while, then bethought herself that she must go in. She arose, when she suddenly discovered that she had only one glove. She had drawn them both off in meeting and thought she had brought them home securely. She looked over the porch floor, then she went down the path to the gate and looked a little way down the road. They were new gloves, and kid gloves, and there had not been many kid gloves in Jenny's life. She stood still in dismay. She hated to go in to the house and tell her mother. Jenny's reputation for carefulness was not very good, she lost a great many things in the course of a year. She knew just what her mother would say.

She tried to recall all the circumstances of her taking off the gloves. She was more and more positive that she had done so in meeting, it had been very warm. Suddenly a thought struck her, “Why, I left it in the pew in church,” she said to herself. She hesitated a minute and looked back at the lighted sitting-room windows. The church was nearly a half a mile away, it might be locked up, still it might not be, the sexton was a slow-motioned, deaf old man. Jenny considered that, if she found the glove before telling her mother of its loss, it would not seem half so bad. She looked down the smooth, white road, with the shadows of the elm-branches waving over it, then she began running very swiftly and lightly. Jenny was a fast runner. She did not meet anybody, the village people went decorously into their homes after meeting on a Sunday night, except some few young couples, and they were strolling the other way.

When Jenny reached the church she thought, at first, that it was shut up, then she caught a faint, moving glimmer in the vestibule. It was the sexton's lantern. She rushed in past the sexton, the old man was straightening a mat in a corner and never saw her, and sped up the aisle to her pew. There was only a very faint light from that wavering lantern, but Jenny found the pew easily enough. She passed her hand over the cushions, then she got down on her hands and knees and fumbled on the floor. All at once she heard a door swing to, she knew what it was in a moment, the sexton was locking the door leading from the vestibule to that side of the audience room.

“Stop, stop, Mr. Flagg!” she screamed, “Stop, I'm in here! stop!”

For answer she heard the door on the other side close. She flew across the church and down the other aisle, calling out all the way, but she reached the audience-room door just in time to hear the outside one close with a heavy jar. Old Mr. Flagg had not heard a sound. Jenny rattled and banged at the door, but it was utterly useless. The old man was getting further and further off, and if he had not been he could not have heard. The minister had a loud voice, but old Mr. Flagg had sat all day and never heard a word of the sermon; there was a full choir, but all that old Mr. Flagg ever heard of the music was the jar of some of the gruffest bass chords. So he could not hear anything of poor Jenny Reed's weak, girlish treble, urging him to stop.

When Jenny realized that she was actually locked into the church, she leaned against the door and trembled. She was not a cowardly girl, but she was young and of a nervous temperament, and the thought of spending the night alone in the dark church was dreadful to her.

She looked wildly around, it seemed as if there must be some means of escape. She ran to the windows, but they were too high for her to reach. She fumbled up the pulpit stairs in the darkness and with a thrill of horror at her own temerity, brought down one of the pulpit chairs, and stood on the sacred red velvet cushions. She managed to slip one window up a little way, then she screamed until she was hoarse, but no one heard her. Old Mr. Flagg with his back toward the church, plodding toward home, was the only person out of doors within a quarter of a mile.

Finally Jenny gave it up, she crept across to her father's pew and sat down. She got close into the corner in her mother's place, somehow that seemed to comfort her a little. The church was quite dark except for the moonlight that streamed through the open blinds of the window she had raised, and it looked so large, and there seemed so much room for terrible shapes in those gloomy corners. Jenny did not cry, she was not much given to crying, but her hands were as cold as ice and she trembled in every limb. She kept telling herself over and over, that the church was a good place, that ever since it had been built, it had been filled with the prayers and praises of good people and that there could be nothing evil there to harm her. Still she was terribly afraid of the darkness and loneliness, and now that the first shock was over, she began to think of her parents. What would they think, what would they do? While she was sitting here, unable to make a sound or motion to relieve them, they would be nearly distracted.

She said her prayers and tried to curl herself up in the corner and get a little sleep, but she could not. It was the longest night she had ever known, and the dawn was the strangest dawn. She watched the white walls of the church gradually clearing from the gloom, and she could hardly believe her senses.

She began to feel hungry and a new terror smote her, what should she do for food, she had not thought of that. As soon as it was light enough she made a tour of the church, and hunted about through the pews. A good many people brought their lunches and staid through the noon intermission and she thought there might be some stray bits left in the pews. But all she found was a little, crumpled paper bag containing a few cloves, some scattered sprigs of caraway and peppermint, and a handful of bread and cheese-crumbs in a pew where a number of children had sat. Jenny made the most of it, but it was a pitiful breakfast.

From The Housewife Vol. 6 No. 11 (March, 1891)

Part II.

As Jenny sat there chewing a clove she heard the report of a gun, then another, then the sharp far-away blast of a horn. She had a bewildered thought of the Fourth-of-July, although it was only the middle of May, then it suddenly flashed upon her what it meant. The village was out hunting for her and the guns and the horns were signals. She rushed to her window and raised her shrill cry again — “I'm here, I'm here! Jenny Reed is here!”

But the hunters were all in other directions, where the woods and mountains were. Nobody thought of looking for a lost girl in a church, on the top of a bare sandy hill, in the midst of an open stretch of sandy road. It was a place where nobody could be reasonably supposed to be lost.

Jenny went back to her own pew. Once in a while when the signals sounded nearer, she would rush again to the window, but she always came back more disheartened than ever. If she had not been in such distress, the affair would have had its comical features as she sat there in the pew, attired in her pretty muslin dress, pink sash and new bonnet, which she had not thought to remove, listening to the signals. She knew so very well herself where she was, that it seemed absurd for them to be informing each other by means of guns and horns, that they did not know.

She had by no means given up hope, it seemed to her that somebody must come and release her before night. Perhaps the Sexton would come to sweep the church. If she had only known it, old Mr. Flagg, who was never too arduous in the performance of his duties, never swept the church until Saturday. She watched the clock over the pulpit, it was a large, round clock with gilt rim. As the hours went on, it grew absolutely terrifying to her. When its staring face looked coldly at her through the gathering twilight, she gave way entirely. She knew she would have to spend another night in the church. All her bravery went, she took off her new bonnet, for even in her distress, she was careful of that, she flung herself down on the pew-cushions and sobbed as if her heart would break. As the darkness increased, it almost seemed to her that she never should get out of the church alive. She wondered, if she did not, how they would find her and what they would all say. She pictured her father and mother when they knew it, she thought of Ida Starr. She knew she would grieve for her too, they had loved each other ever since they were little children. She thought remorsefully how she had refused to answer Ida's good night, but she knew Ida would forgive her. Somehow the quarrel between them, that she had thought so serious, seemed a very small matter now, and she saw quite clearly that she, herself, was all to blame. She was getting very faint from hunger, but she resolved if she were not too faint in the morning and could find a pencil anywhere, she would write a little note on the fly-leaf of Ida's hymn-book and tell her how sorry she was, and how much she loved her. She lay there sobbing, thinking over all her little girlish joys and sorrows, as if to bid them farewell forever, and out of doors the signal guns and horns were sounding and the moon came slowly up.

The village was all astir, there was no rest at sunset, the search would be kept up all night. The Reed house was all lit up as if for a party; it was full of sympathizing women who had come in to comfort Mrs. Reed and assist her in any way that they could. They put the house in order so as to be in readiness for the worst, they cooked and swept and dusted, while Jenny's mother sat in her darkened bed-room and waited with what patience she could.

That afternoon Ida Starr had come over, her delicate little face was all red and swollen with weeping; she burst out sobbing when she entered. The women thought perhaps Mrs. Reed would like to see her, so they led her into the bed-room at once. Neither she nor Jenny's mother could speak for their sobs, but they held each other close. After a while Ida recovered herself a little and held out a little gray kid glove. “Is that hers?” she faltered.

Mrs. Reed snatched it — “Yes,” she groaned, “it's hers, it's my Jenny's little glove.”

“I found it on the sidewalk just beyond our house,” said Ida, tearfully. “I thought it was hers.”

“Yes, it's hers, I'd known it anywhere.”

Ida's pitiful face took on a thoughtful look, “Do you know where the other one is?” she asked.

“Yes — we found it all folded nice on the chair on the porch, where she was sitting last night. Oh, dear!” the poor mother kissed the little glove.

“She must have lost it coming home from meeting,” Ida said reflectively. She had a grave, studying expression, that had come suddenly. Ida Starr, pretty, gentle-going girl that she was, had considerable acuteness of mind. She was the best scholar in the arithmetic class. She pondered over the glove all the rest of the day; she laid awake studying over it, after she went to bed. It was eleven o'clock and the moonlight was bright in her room, when she suddenly sat up — “I believe Jenny Reed went to hunt that glove up,” said she. “She was dreadfully afraid of losing 'em; she said when she first got 'em, she hoped she wouldn't lose those the way she did her brown ones.”

Ida sat still a few minutes, the moonlight shining on her fair head — “I believe she went back to the church to find it,” she said slowly. “I believe that's — where she is.”

Ida got up and dressed herself rapidly. She resolved that she would say nothing to anybody and raise a needless excitement, to be scolded for her folly if she were wrong. Her father was out searching, she stole softly down stairs without waking her mother, and ran out into the moonlight night. She sped over the road to the church, once she passed a mob of men so quickly, that they turned and looked after her, but could not tell who it was. Straight up the hill to the church she went, then she stood for a minute staring helplessly up at it. Suppose Jenny was locked in there, how could she attract her attention. “Jenny,” she called, “Jenny, Jenny, are you in there?” But Jenny just then was dozing painfully and did not hear the soft little voice.

Ida ran around to the church door and pounded and shook with all her small strength, she ran back to the window where the blind was open and with a reckless feeling that it was sacrilege, but she did not care, threw a stone plump through the glass. After the cry she listened. There certainly was a little cry of fright from the church.

“Jenny, Jenny, are you in there? It's Ida, Jenny, Jenny!”

“Oh, Ida!” Jenny called back with a sob of terror and joy. “Oh, I'm in here, I am. Go tell them to let me out, quick.”

“I'll be right straight back,” called Ida, with an answering sob. “It won't take me but a minute. Oh, Jenny I'm so glad!”

Ida ran, as she never had before, but it seemed to her that she never should reach the sexton's house, then as if she never would arouse him, and make him know what she wanted. She got the key at last and went on ahead with it, while old Mr. Flagg toddled along behind, she could not wait for him. On the way she met the mob of men, who had walked on, they belonged to the searching party. Ida did not stop, but she called out as she went by, “She's found, she's found!”

The men wheeled about swiftly.


“She's in the church, locked in. I'm going to let her out.”

The men set up a great shout and somehow a crowd suddenly gathered. When poor Jenny had emerged from her prison, she felt as if it were in the presence of the whole congregation, and more were coming, running down the road with loud shouts to each other. She met her father at the foot of the hill, everybody stood back and he took her up in his arms and carried her along as if she had been a baby, indeed she was too weak and exhausted to walk. The church bell clanged out with a jubilant peal; that was the signal agreed upon to notify the searching parties of success, and the kindly friends and neighbors walked on behind Jenny and her father in a straggling procession. Close to Jenny, keeping hold of one of her hands, came Ida. She carried with great care Jenny's new bonnet; she did not know how Jenny had meditated writing a repentant little note upon the fly-leaf of her hymn-book and asking her to accept this same bonnet as a parting token. But the next Sunday, Ida went to church and wore a bonnet just like it, only trimmed with blue ribbons instead of pink, and forget-me-nots instead of rosebuds. Jenny's mother had brought it over Saturday night and begged her to accept it as a present from Jenny.

Jenny went to church only half the day, she had hardly regained her strength. But she sat there in her pink bonnet and looked lovingly over at Ida in her blue bonnet with a great deal of thankfulness in her heart. For she had a great deal for which to be thankful, a girl could not live many days upon three or four cloves, one peppermint, a sprig of caraway and a handful of crumbs, and her pitiful imaginings might have been realized.