Two Little Pilgrims' Progress/There is a city beautiful

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 THE sun had set and the shadows were deepening in the big barn. The last red glow the very last bit which reached the corner the children called the Straw Parlour had died away, and Meg drew her knees up higher so as to bring the pages of her book nearer to her eyes as the twilight deepened and it became harder to read. It was her bitterest grievance that this was what always happened when she became most interested and excited the light began to fade away, and the shadows to fill all the corners and close in about her.

She frowned as it happened now a fierce little frown, which knitted her childish, black brows, as she pored over her book devouring the page with the determination to seize on as much as was possible. It was like running a desperate race with the darkness.

She was a determined child, and no one could have failed to guess as much who could have watched her for a few moments as she sat on her curious perch, her cheeks supported by her hands, her shock of straight black hair tumbled over her forehead.

The Straw Parlour was the top of a straw stack in Aunt Matilda's barn. Robin had discovered it one day by climbing a ladder which had been left leaning against the stack, and when he had found himself on the top of it he had been enchanted by the feeling it gave him of being so high above the world, and had called Meg up to share it with him.

She had been even more enchanted than he.

They both hated the world down below—Aunt Matilda's world, which seemed hideous and exasperating and sordid to them in its contrast to the world they had lived in before their father and mother had died and they had been sent to their sole relation, who did not want them, and only took them in from respect to public opinion. Three years they had been with Aunt Matilda, and each week had seemed more unpleasant than the last. Mrs. Matilda Jennings was a renowned female farmer of Illinois, and she was far too energetic a manager and business woman to have time to spend with children. She had an enormous farm, and managed it herself with a success and ability which made her celebrated in agricultural papers. If she had not given her dead brother's children a home they would have starved, or been sent to the poorhouse. Accordingly, she gave them food to eat and beds to sleep in, but she scarcely ever had time to notice them. If she had had time to talk to them, she had nothing to say. She cared for nothing but crops and new threshing-machines and fertilisers; and they knew nothing about such things.

"She never says anything but ‘Go to bed’, ‘Keep out of the way.’ She's not like a woman at all," Meg commented once; "she's like a man in woman's clothes."

Their father had been rather like a woman in man's clothes. He was a gentle, little, slender man, with a large head. He had always been poor, and Mrs. Matilda Jennings had regarded him as a contemptible failure. He had had no faculty for business or farming. He had taught school and married a schoolteacher. They had had a small house, but somehow it had been as cosy as it was tiny. They had managed to surround themselves with an atmosphere of books by buying the cheap ones they could afford, and borrowing the expensive ones from friends and circulating libraries. The twins—Meg and Robin—had heard stories and read books all the first years of their lives as they sat in their little seats by the small, warm fireside. In Aunt Matilda's bare, cold house there was not a book to be seen. A few agricultural papers were scattered about. Meals were hurried over as necessary evils. The few people who appeared on the scene were farmers who talked about agricultural implements and the wheat market.

"It's such a bare place," Robin used to say, and he would drive his hands into the depths of his pockets and set his square little jaw, and stare before him.

Both the twins had that square little jaw. Neither of them looked like their father and mother except that from their mother they inherited black hair. Robin's eyes were black, but Meg's were grey with thick black lashes. They were handsome little creatures, but their shocks of straight black hair, their straight black brows and square little jaws, made them look curiously unlike other children. They both remembered one winter evening when, as they sat on their seat by the fire, their father, after looking at them with a half smile for a moment or so, began to laugh.

"Margaret," he said to their mother, "do you know who those two are like? You have heard me speak of Matilda often enough."

"Oh, Robert!"she exclaimed,"surely they are not like Matilda.”

"Well, perhaps it is too much to say they are like her,” he answered,"but there is something in their faces that reminds me of her strongly. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it is there. It is a good thing, perhaps,” with a sad tone in his voice; “Matilda always did what she made up her mind to do. Matilda was a success. I was always a failure.”

"Oh no, Bob,” she said, "not a failure!"

She had put her hand on his shoulder, and he lifted it and pressed it against his thin cheek.

"Wasn’t I, Maggie?"he said gently. "Wasn’t I? Well, I think these two will be like Matilda in making up their minds and getting what they want.”

Before the winter was over, Robin and Meg were orphans, and were with Aunt Matilda; and there they had been ever since.

Until the day they found the Straw Parlour, it had seemed as if no corner on the earth belonged to them. Meg slept in a cot in a farm-servant’s room, Robin shared a room with someone else. Nobody took any notice of them.

"When anyone meets us,” Meg said, "they always look surprised. Dogs which are not allowed in the house are like us. The only difference is that they don't drive us out—but we are just as much in the way."

"I know," said Robin, "if it wasn't for you, Meg, I should run away."

"Where?" said Meg.

"Somewhere," said Robin, setting his jaw; "I'd find a place."

"If it wasn't for you," said Meg, "I should be so lonely that I should walk into the river. I wouldn't stand it."

It is worth noticing that she did not say, "I could not stand it."

But after the day they found the Straw Parlour they had an abiding-place. It was Meg who pre-empted it before she had been on the top of the stack five minutes. After she had stumbled around for a while looking about her, she stopped short and looked down into the barn.

"Robin," she said, "this is another world. We are miles and miles away from Aunt Matilda. Let us make this into our home—just yours and mine, and live here."

"We are in nobody's way—nobody will ever know where we are," said Robin; "nobody ever asks, you know. Meg, it will be just like our own. We will live here."

And so they did. On fine days when they were tired of playing, they climbed the ladder to rest on the heaps of yellow straw; on wet days they lay and told each other stories, or built caves, or read their old favourite books over again. The stack was a very high one, and the roof seemed like a sort of big tent above their heads, and the barn floor a wonderful, exaggeratedly long distance below. The birds which had nests on the rafters became accustomed to them, and one of the children's chief entertainments was to lie and watch the mothers and fathers carry on their domestic arrangements, feeding their young ones, and quarrelling a little sometimes about the way to bring them up. The twins invented a weird little cry with which they called each other if one was in the Straw Parlour and the other one entered the barn, to find out whether it was occupied or not. They never mounted to the Straw Parlour or descended from it if anyone was within sight. This was their secret. They wanted to feel that it was very high and far away from Aunt Matilda's world, and if anyone had known where they were, or had spoken to them from below, the charm would have been broken.

This afternoon, as Meg pored over her book, she was waiting for Robin. He had been away all day. At twelve years old Robin was not of a light mind. When he had been only six years old he had had serious plans. He had decided that he would be a great inventor. He had also decided—a little later—that he would not be poor like his father, but would be very rich. He had begun by having a savings bank into which he put rigorously every penny that was given to him. He had been so quaintly systematic about it that people were amused and gave him pennies instead of candy and toys. He kept a little banking-book of his own. If he had been stingy he would have been a very unpleasant little boy, but he was only strict with himself. He was capable of taking from his capital to do the gentlemanly thing by Meg at Christmas.

"He has the spirit of the financier, that is all," said his father.

Since he had been with Aunt Matilda he had found opportunities to earn a trifle now and then. On the big place there were small troublesome duties the farm hands found he could be relied on to do, which they were willing to pay for. They found out that he never failed them.

"Smart little chap," they said. "Always up to time when he undertakes a thing."

To-day he had been steadily at work under the head man. Aunt Matilda had no objection to his odd jobs.

"He has his living to earn, and he may as well begin," she said.

So Meg had been alone since morning. She had only one duty to perform and then she was free. The first Spring they had been with Aunt Matilda Robin had invested in a few chickens, and their rigorous care of them had resulted in such success that the chickens had become a sort of centre of_ existence to them. They could always build any dreams of the future upon the fortune to be gained by chickens. You could calculate on bits of paper about chickens and eggs until your head whirled at the magnitude of your prospects. Meg's duty was to feed them and show them scrupulous attention when Robin was away.

After she had attended to them she went to the barn and, finding it empty, climbed up to the Straw Parlour with an old Pilgrim's Progress to spend the day.

She was particularly fond of the Pilgrim's Progress, and she had made Rob fond of it. She used to read it aloud to him as they lay on the straw. She was a child with an imagination, and she used to invent new adventures for Christian as he toiled up the Hill of Difficulty. Robin thought her incidents more exciting than John Bunyan's. She had a realistic way of relating them. But her great addition to the story was her description of the City on the Hill, which she always followed Christian into, and which she called the City Beautiful. She had invented a City Beautiful of her own. In it there were all the things she and Robin wanted and all the joys they yearned for. Their father and mother were there, and she and Robin lived with them in a sort of fairy palace, which it was her delight to add to the plan and contents of, every time she told the story and they wanted a new possession. It was so rapturous to be able to say—

"And on one floor of the house there was a corner room full of little machines and everything to work them and mend them—and there were shelves and shelves—full of books about inventions, and bottles of chemicals—that was for you, Rob."

"Electric motors?" Rob would put in eagerly.

"All kinds of motors," she would answer with deliberation—"all kinds. You could work anything and have any number of horse-power you liked, because there were new inventions there that have not been made yet."

When Robin was low-spirited she always described this room and added to its contents. When he was in a happier state of mind and the day was beautiful, she would lead him through the streets of the City Beautiful in a different mood—a dreamy sort of mood.

"There were tall trees covered with white lilies," she would say. "They were on each side of the streets—and they swayed and the lilies swung like great white bells—and the sweetness shook out of them and was in all the air the people breathed, and there was a strange golden light—like the light in the morning—and the houses were as white as snow, and had slender pillars and archways, and courts with flowers and fountains. And you could see lovely people in delicate, soft-floating robes—not all white robes, but pale flower colours—and everybody had a little smile, and a look as if their eyes were stars." She would dream on in this way sometimes for a long time, and her own eyes would grow large and sometimes shine so that Robin knew that in a little while the brightness would fill them and brim over and fall in two large splendid drops on to the straw, which they would both pretend not to see.

This afternoon, when the light began to redden and then to die away, she and Christian were very near the gates. She longed so to go in with him, and was yearning towards him with breathless eagerness, when she heard Robin's cry below coming up from the barn floor.

She sprang up with a start, feeling bewildered a second, before she answered. The City Beautiful was such millions—such millions of miles away from Aunt Matilda's barn. She found herself breathing quickly and rubbing her eyes as she heard Robin hurrying up the ladder.

Somehow she felt as if he was rather in a hurry, and when his small, black shock head and wide awake, black eyes appeared above the straw, she had a vague feeling that he was excited and that he had come from another world. He clambered on to the stack, and made his way to her and threw himself full length on the straw at her side.

"Meg!" he said. "Hello! you look as if you were in a dream! Wake up! Jones and Jerry are coming to the barn. I hurried to get here before them. They're talking about something I want you to hear—something new! Wake up! "

"Oh, Robin!" said Meg, clutching her book and coming back to earth with a sigh. "I don't want to hear Jones and Jerry. I don't want to hear any of the people down there; I've been reading the Pilgrim's Progress, and I do wish—I do so wish there was a City Beautiful."

Robin gave a queer little laugh. He really was excited.

Burnett - Two Little Pilgrims' Progress A Story of the City Beautiful.djvu 020.jpg

‘She heard Robin hurrying up the ladder.’

"There is going to be one," he said. "Jones and Jerry don't really know it—but it is something like that they are talking about—a City Beautiful—a real one—on this earth, and only two hundred miles away. Let's get near the edge and listen."