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Chapter 24 – The Great Gate Is Opened

Louisa May AlcottNov 05, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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The Browns were up and out so early next morning that Bab and Betty were
sure they had run away in the night. But on looking for them, they were
discovered in the coach-house criticising Lita, both with their hands in
their pockets, both chewing straws, and looking as much alike as a big
elephant and a small one.

"That’s as pretty a little span as I’ve seen for a long time," said the
elder Ben, as the children came trotting down the path hand in hand,
with the four blue bows at the ends of their braids bobbing briskly up
and down.

"The nigh one is my favorite, but the off one is the best goer, though
she’s dreadfully hard bitted," answered Ben the younger, with such a
comical assumption of a jockey’s important air that his father laughed
as he said in an undertone, –

"Come, boy, we must drop the old slang since we’ve given up the old
business. These good folks are making a gentleman of you, and I won’t be
the one to spoil their work. Hold on, my dears, and I’ll show you how
they say good-morning in California," he added, beckoning to the little
girls, who now came up rosy and smiling.

"Breakfast is ready, sir," said Betty, looking much relieved to find
them.

"We thought you’d run away from us," explained Bab, as both put out
their hands to shake those extended to them.

"That would be a mean trick. But I’m going to run away with you," and
Mr. Brown whisked a little girl to either shoulder before they knew what
had happened, while Ben, remembering the day, with difficulty restrained
himself from turning a series of triumphant somersaults before them all
the way to the door, where Mrs. Moss stood waiting for them.

After breakfast Ben disappeared for a short time, and returned in his
Sunday suit, looking so neat and fresh that his father surveyed him with
surprise and pride as he came in full of boyish satisfaction in his trim
array.

"Here’s a smart young chap! Did you take all that trouble just to go to
walk with old Daddy?" asked Mr. Brown, stroking the smooth head, for
they were alone just then, Mrs. Moss and the children being up stairs
preparing for church.

"I thought may be you’d like to go to meeting first," answered Ben,
looking up at him with such a happy face that it was hard to refuse any
thing. I’m too shabby, Sonny, else I’d go in a minute to please you."

"Miss Celia said God didn’t mind poor clothes, and she took me when I
looked worse than you do. I always go in the morning; she likes to have
me," said Ben, turning his hat about as if not quite sure what he ought
to do.

"Do you want to go?" asked his father in a tone of surprise.

"I want to please her, if you don’t mind. We could have our tramp this
afternoon."

"I haven’t been to meeting since mother died, and it don’t seem to come
easy, though I know I ought to, seeing I’m alive and here," and Mr.
Brown looked soberly out at the lovely autumn world as if glad to be in
it after his late danger and pain.

"Miss Celia said church was a good place to take our troubles, and to be
thankful in. I went when I thought you were dead, and now I’d love to go
when I’ve got my Daddy safe again,"

No one saw him, so Ben could not resist giving his father a sudden hug,
which was warmly returned as the man said earnestly, –

"I’ll go, and thank the Lord hearty for giving me back my boy better’n I
left him!"

For a minute nothing was heard but the loud tick of the old clock and a
mournful whine front Sancho, shut up in the shed lest he should go to
church without an invitation.

Then, as steps were heard on the stairs, Mr. Brown caught up his hat,
saying hastily, –

"I ain’t fit to go with them, you tell ‘m, and I’ll slip into a back
seat after folks are in. I know the way." And, before Ben could reply,
he was gone. Nothing was seen of him along the way, but he saw the
little party, and rejoiced again over his boy, changed in so many ways
for the better; for Ben was the one thing which had kept his heart soft
through all the trials and temptations of a rough life.

"I promised Mary I’d do my best for the poor baby she had to leave, and
I tried; but I guess a better friend than I am has been raised up for
him when he needed her most. It won’t hurt me to follow him in this
road," thought Mr. Brown, as he came out into the highway from his
stroll "across-lots," feeling that it would be good for him to stay in
this quiet place, for his own as well as his son’s sake.

The Bell had done ringing when he reached the green, but a single boy
sat on the steps and rail to meet him, saying, with a reproachful look,

"I wasn’t going to let you be alone, and have folks think I was ashamed
of my father. Come, Daddy, we’ll sit together."

So Ben led his father straight to the Squire’s pew, and sat beside him
with a face so full of innocent pride and joy, that people would have
suspected the truth if he had not already told many of them. Mr. Brown,
painfully conscious of his shabby coat, was rather "taken aback," as he
expressed it; but the Squire’s shake of the hand, and Mrs. Allen’s
gracious nod enabled him to face the eyes of the interested
congregation, the younger portion of which stared steadily at him all
sermon time, in spite of paternal frowns and maternal tweakings in the
rear.

But the crowning glory of the day came after church, when the Squire
said to Ben, and Sam heard him, –

"I’ve got a letter for you from Miss Celia. Come home with me, and bring
your father. I want to talk to him."

The boy proudly escorted his parent to the old carry-all, and, tucking
himself in behind with Mrs. Allen, had the satisfaction of seeing the
slouched felt hat side by side with the Squire’s Sunday beaver in front,
as they drove off at such an unusually smart pace, it was evident that
Duke knew there was a critical eye upon him. The interest taken in the
father was owing to the son at first; but, by the time the story was
told, old Ben had won friends for himself not only because of the
misfortunes which he had evidently borne in a manly way, but because of
his delight in the boy’s improvement, and the desire he felt to turn his
hand to any honest work, that he might keep Ben happy and contented in
this good home.

"I’ll give you a line to Towne. Smithers spoke well of you, and your
own ability will be the best recommendation," said the Squire, as he
parted from them at his door, having given Ben the letter.

Miss Celia had been gone a fortnight, and every one was longing to have
her back. The first week brought Ben a newspaper, with a crinkly line
drawn round the marriages to attract attention to that spot, and one was
marked by a black frame with a large hand pointing at it from the
margin. Thorny sent that; but the next week came a parcel for Mrs. Moss,
and in it was discovered a box of wedding cake for every member of the
family, including Sancho, who ate his at one gulp, and chewed up the
lace paper which covered it. This was the third week; and, as if there
could not be happiness enough crowded into it for Ben, the letter he
read on his way home told him that his dear mistress was coming back on
the following Saturday. One passage particularly pleased him, –

"I want the great gate opened, so that the new master may go in that
way. Will you see that it is done, and all made neat afterward? Randa
will give you the key, and you may have out all your flags if you like,
for the old place cannot look too gay for this home-coming."

Sunday though it was, Ben could not help waving the letter over his head
as he ran in to tell Mrs. Moss the glad news, and begin at once to plan
the welcome they would give Miss Celia, for he never called her any
thing else.

During their afternoon stroll in the mellow sunshine, Ben continued to
talk of her, never tired of telling about his happy summer under her
roof. And Mr. Brown was never weary of hearing, for every hour showed
him more plainly what a lovely miracle her gentle words had wrought, and
every hour increased his gratitude, his desire to return the kindness in
some humble way. He had his wish, and did his part handsomely when he
least expected to have a chance.

On Monday he saw Mr. Towne, and, thanks to the Squire’s good word, was
engaged for a month on trial, making himself so useful that it was soon
evident he was the right man in the right place. He lived on the hill,
but managed to get down to the little brown house in the evening for a
word with Ben, who just now was as full of business as if the President
and his Cabinet were coming.

Every thing was put in apple-pie order in and about the old house; the
great gate, with much creaking of rusty hinges and some clearing away of
rubbish, was set wide open, and the first creature who entered it was
Sancho, solemnly dragging the dead mullein which long ago had grown
above the keyhole. October frosts seemed to have spared some of the
brightest leaves for this especial occasion; and on Saturday the arched
gate-way was hung with gay wreaths, red and yellow sprays strewed the
flags, and the porch was a blaze of color with the red woodbine, that
was in its glory when the honeysuckle was leafless.

Fortunately it was a half-holiday, so the children could trim and
chatter to their heart’s content, and the little girls ran about
sticking funny decorations where no one would ever think of looking for
them. Ben was absorbed in his flags, which were sprinkled all down the
avenue with a lavish display, suggesting several Fourth of Julys rolled
into one. Mr. Brown had come to lend a hand, and did so most
energetically, for the break-neck things he did with his son during the
decoration fever would have terrified Mrs. Moss out of her wits, if she
had not been in the house giving last touches to every room, while Randa
and Katy set forth a sumptuous tea.

All was going well, and the train would be due in an hour, when luckless
Bab nearly turned the rejoicing into mourning, the feast into ashes. She
heard her mother say to Randa, "There ought to be a fire in every room,
it looks so cheerful, and the air is chilly spite of the sunshine;" and,
never waiting to hear the reply that some of the long-unused chimneys
were not safe till cleaned, off went Bab with an apron full of old
shingles, and made a roaring blaze in the front room fire-place, which
was of all others the one to be let alone, as the flue was out of order.

Charmed with the brilliant light and the crackle of the tindery fuel,
Miss Bab refilled her apron, and fed the fire till the chimney began to
rumble ominously, sparks to fly out at the top, and soot and swallows’
nests to come tumbling down upon the hearth. Then, scared at what she
had done, the little mischief-maker hastily buried her fire, swept up
the rubbish, and ran off, thinking no one would discover her prank if
she never told.

Everybody was very busy, and the big chimney blazed and rumbled
unnoticed till the cloud of smoke caught Ben’s eye as he festooned his
last effort in the flag line, part of an old sheet with the words
"Father has come!" in red cambric letters half a foot long sewed upon
it.

"Hullo! I do believe they’ve got up a bonfire. without asking my leave.
Miss Celia never would let us, because the sheds and roofs are so old
and dry; I must see about it. Catch me, Daddy, I’m coming down!" cried
Ben, dropping out of the elm with no more thought of where he might
light than a squirrel swinging from bough to bough.

His father caught him, and followed in haste as his nimble-footed son
raced up the avenue, to stop in the gate-way, frightened at the prospect
before him, for falling sparks had already kindled the roof here and
there, and the chimney smoked and roared like a small volcano, while
Katy’s wails and Randa’s cries for water came from within.

"Up there with wet blankets, while I get out the hose!" cried Mr. Brown,
as he saw at a glance what the danger was.

Ben vanished; and, before his father got the garden hose rigged, he was
on the roof with a dripping blanket over the worst spot. Mrs. Moss had
her wits about her in a minute, and ran to put in the fireboard, and
stop the draught. Then, stationing Randa to watch that the falling
cinders did no harm inside, she hurried off to help Mr. Brown, who might
not know where things were. But he had roughed it so long, that he was
the man for emergencies, and seemed to lay his hand on whatever was
needed, by a sort of instinct. Finding that the hose was too short to
reach the upper part of the roof, he was on the roof in a jiffy with two
pails of water, and quenched the most dangerous spots before much harm
was done.

This he kept up till the chimney burned itself out, while Ben dodged
about among the gables with a watering pot, lest some stray sparks
should be over-looked, and break out afresh.

While they worked there, Betty ran to and fro with a dipper of water,
trying to help; and Sancho barked violently, as if he objected to this
sort of illumination. But where was Bab, who revelled in flurries? No
one missed her till the fire was out, and the tired, sooty people met to
talk over the danger just escaped.

"Poor Miss Celia wouldn’t have had a roof over her head, if it hadn’t
been for you, Mr. Brown," said Mrs. Moss, sinking into a kitchen chair,
pale with the excitement.

"It would have burnt lively, but I guess it’s all right now. Keep an eye
on the roof, Ben, and I’ll step up garret and see if all’s safe there.
Didn’t you know that chimney was foul, ma’am?" asked the man, as he
wiped the perspiration off his grimy face.

"Randa said it was, and I ‘in surprised she made a fire there," began
Mrs. Moss, looking at the maid, who just then came in with a pan full of
soot.

"Bless you, ma’am, I never thought of such a thing, nor Katy neither.
That naughty Bab must have done it, and so don’t dar’st to show
herself," answered the irate Randa, whose nice room was in a mess.

"Where is the child?" asked her mother; and a hunt was immediately
instituted by Betty and Sancho, while the elders cleared up.

Anxious Betty searched high and low, called and cried, but all in vain;
and was about to sit down in despair, when Sancho made a bolt into his
new kennel and brought out a shoe with a foot in it while a doleful
squeal came from the straw within.

"Oh, Bab, how could you do it? Ma was frightened dreadfully," said
Betty, gently tugging at the striped leg, as Sancho poked his head in
for another shoe.

"Is it all burnt up?" demanded a smothered voice from the recesses of
the kennel.

"Only pieces of the roof. Ben and his father put it out, and I helped,"
answered Betty, cheering up a little as she recalled her noble
exertions.

"What do they do to folks who set houses afire?" asked the voice again.

"I don’t know; but you needn’t be afraid, there isn’t much harm done, I
guess, and Miss Celia will forgive you, she’s so good."

"Thorny won’t; he calls me a ‘botheration,’ and I guess I am," mourned
the unseen culprit, with sincere contrition.

"I’ll ask him; he is always good to me. They will be here pretty soon,
so you’d better come out and be made tidy," suggested the comforter.

"I never can come out, for every one will hate me," sobbed Bab among the
straw, as she pulled in her foot, as if retiring for ever from an
outraged world.

"Ma won’t, she’s too busy cleaning up; so it’s a good time to come.
Let’s run home, wash our hands, and be all nice when they see us. I’ll
love you, no matter what anybody else does," said Betty, consoling the
poor little sinner, and proposing the sort of repentance most likely to
find favor in the eyes of the agitated elders.

"P’raps I’d better go home, for Sanch will want his bed," and Bab gladly
availed herself of that excuse to back out of her refuge, a very
crumpled, dusty young lady, with a dejected face and much straw sticking
in her hair.

Betty led her sadly away, for she still protested that she never should
dare to meet the offended public again; but in fifteen minutes both
appeared in fine order and good spirits, and naughty Bab escaped a
lecture for the time being, as the train would soon be due.

At the first sound of the car whistle every one turned good-natured as
if by magic, and flew to the gate smiling as if all mishaps were
forgiven and forgotten. Mrs. Moss, however, slipped quietly away, and
was the first to greet Mrs. Celia as the carriage stopped at the
entrance of the avenue, so that the luggage might go in by way of the
lodge.

"We will walk up and you shall tell us the news as we go, for I see you
have some," said the young lady, in her friendly manner, when Mrs. Moss
had given her welcome and paid her respects to the gentleman who shook
hands in a way that convinced her he was indeed what Thorny called him,
"regularly jolly," though he was a minister.

That being exactly what she came for, the good woman told her tidings as
rapidly as possible, and the new-comers were so glad to hear of Ben’s
happiness they made very light of Bab’s bonfire, though it had nearly
burnt their house down.

"We won’t say a word about it, for every one must be happy to-day," said
Mr. George, so kindly that Mrs. Moss felt a load taken off her heart at
once.

"Bab was always teasing me for fireworks, but I guess she has had enough
for the present," laughed Thorny, who was gallantly escorting Bab’s
mother up the avenue.

"Every one is so kind! Teacher was out with the children to cheer us as
we passed, and here you all are making things pretty for me," said Mrs.
Celia, smiling with tears in her eyes, as they drew near the great gate,
which certainly did present an animated if not an imposing appearance.

Randa and Katy stood on one side, all in their best, bobbing delighted
courtesies; Mr. Brown, half hidden behind the gate on the other side,
was keeping Sancho erect, so that he might present arms promptly when
the bride appeared. As flowers were scarce, on either post stood a rosy
little girl clapping her hands, while out from the thicket of red and
yellow boughs, which made a grand bouquet in the lantern frame, came
Ben’s head and shoulders, as he waved his grandest flag with its gold
paper "Welcome Home!" on a blue ground.

"Isn’t it beautiful!" cried Mrs. Celia, throwing kisses to the children,
shaking hands with her maids, and glancing brightly at the stranger who
was keeping Sanch quiet.

"Most people adorn their gate-posts with stone balls, vases, or
griffins; your living images are a great improvement, love, especially
the happy boy in the middle," said Mr. George, eying Ben with interest,
as he nearly tumbled overboard, top-heavy with his banner.

"You must finish what I have only begun," answered Celia, adding gayly
as Sancho broke loose and came to offer both his paw and his
congratulations. "Sanch, introduce your master, that I may thank him for
coming back in time to save my old house."

"If I’d saved a dozen it wouldn’t have half paid for all you’ve done for
my boy, ma’am," answered Mr. Brown, bursting out from behind the gate
quite red with gratitude and pleasure.

"I loved to do it, so please remember that this is still his home till
you make one for him. Thank God, he is no longer fatherless!" and her
sweet face said even more than her words as the white hand cordially
shook the brown one with a burn across the back.

"Come on, sister. I see the tea-table all ready, and I’m awfully
hungry," interrupted Thorny, who had not a ray of sentiment about him,
though very glad Ben had got his father back again.

"Come over, by-and-by, little friends, and let me thank you for your
pretty welcome, – it certainly is a warm one;" and Mrs. Celia glanced
merrily from the three bright faces above her to the old chimney, which
still smoked sullenly.

"Oh, don’t!" cried Bab, hiding her face.

"She didn’t mean to," added Betty, pleadingly.

"Three cheers for the bride!" roared Ben, dipping his flag, as leaning
on her husband’s arm his dear mistress passed under the gay arch, along
the leaf-strewn walk, over the threshold of the house which was to be
her happy home for many years.

The closed gate where the lonely little wanderer once lay was always to
stand open now, and the path where children played before was free to
all comers, for a hospitable welcome henceforth awaited rich and poor,
young and old, sad and gay, Under the Lilacs.

 

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