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James Baldwin

A Memorable Occasion

F OR a whole week, yes, for two sunny weeks in early autumn, the entire feminine portion of our household was busy making preparations for the approaching "quart'ly meetin'," which was to be held for three days in the Dry Forks meetin'-house. Scarcely anything else was talked about, and the air seemed full of prognostications of the coming event. For, our big-house being completed, we were prepared to accommodate a goodly number of visiting Friends; and the people of the Settlement were expecting a great inpouring of strangers and of traveling ministers from foreign parts. Indeed, it had been officially announced that, besides the usual contingents from Wayne and White Lick, we were to be favored with the presence of distinguished visitors from Carliny and even from far-away, fabulous England.

At the time of which I am writing, these quarterly gatherings were the four great festivals of the year. Not only the members of Our Society, but all the worldly people in the New Settlement looked forward to their recurrence with the keenest interest. Although of a strictly religious character, they brought with them a species of holiday recreation which everybody relished. The more modern assemblies for combined improvement and enjoyment; it antedated the country fair and the baseball game, neither of which had yet been dreamed of; and it attracted curiosity-seekers and pleasure-goers from the four corners of the earth.

My father's well-known hospitality, no less than the fact of his being a leader in the New Settlement, always insured for us a goodly number of distinguished and undistinguished guests. And in anticipation of this influx of Friends and strangers, making necessary the feeding and lodging of many people without money and without price, we began our preparation early and on a scale of considerable magnitude.

Three days before the opening of the meeting, the bustle at our house had reached fever heat. Early in the morning, Aunt Nancy and Cousin Sally arrived—it being their custom to come over on all such occasions to lend their help in providing for, and taking care of, the guests. Blithe, buxom Cousin Sally, with her red cheeks and bouncing figure, sized up the situation at once, put on her pink apron, rolled up her sleeves, and attacked everything in the shape of work that came within the range of her vision. But her mother, grown old and feeble, found her field of usefulness in the chimney corner opposite our Aunt Rachel; and it was a rare good picture to see the two old ancient dames, each with her long-stemmed pipe, sitting hour after hour in their cozy places and smoking and knitting and gossiping to their old hearts' content, while everybody else was so busy and so worried with many cares.

David and Jonathan now became butchers and purveyors. They slew the fatted calf and the milk-fed pig, and beheaded half a score of long-legged chickens. They skinned the calf and cut it up into charming roasts and chops and cutlets. They scalded the pig, and then falling upon it with long-bladed knives, converted it into spare-ribs and hams and pigs' feet and headcheese and links of sausage. The slain chickens, as being too small for grown-up young men to bother with, were turned over to the tender mercies of Cousin Sally, who was particularly expert in preparing fowls of whatever kind for the dinner table.

"Thee may come and help me, Robert," she said, as with a pail of boiling water in one hand, she gathered up the ten limp, lifeless little bodies and threw them in a heap by the wood-pile.

At first, I was inclined to excuse myself on the ground of having other duties to perform; but then, reflecting that Cousin Sally was always the best of company, I sat down beside her and held the pail while she dipped the chickens into the scalding fluid and deftly deprived them of their feathers. And all the while, there was a honey-flow of words from her mouth which held me entranced and charmed me in a way that I can never describe.

It was not the matter, but the manner, of her conversation that made it so exquisite—for, like you, my dear Leona, she seldom said anything that was worth treasuring away in one's memory. And then, to see those nimble fingers as they quickly reduced each feathery fowl to a state of shameless nakedness—to see ten headless chickens neatly dressed in twice ten minutes—it was a pleasure like that of witnessing some rare feat of magic, some trick of legerdemain.

When at length the task was finished and the nude, clammy, pitiable little bodies were laid side by side in a row at our feet, I ventured humbly to contribute my share to the morning's entertainment.

"Cousin Sally," I said, "does thee know that them chickens ain't dressed?"

"Ain't dressed?" she answered with some indignation. "What's thee talkin' about? Of course they're dressed, and dressed good, too."

"But I say they ain't  dressed, and I can prove it," I retorted. "What'll thee bet on it?"

"I won't bet on nothin'. It's wicked to bet, 'cause the Bible says so. But I tell thee what I will do. If thee can prove that them chickens ain't dressed, I'll give thee three hot doughnuts out of the skillet; and if thee cain't prove it, thee must carry in all the wood for the cookin', to-day and to-morrow."

"That's fair—I'll do it," I said eagerly. "Thee'd better get the doughnuts ready."

"But thee hain't proved it, and thee cain't," she whined.

"I'll prove it right now. Listen! When thee is stripped of all thy clothes, does thee say thee is dressed?"

"Oh, shame on thee, Robert! How does thee dare to talk that way?" And her red cheeks blushed to the deepest crimson.

"But really, Cousin Sally, would thee be dressed?"

"Well, no, I reckon I couldn't  be," and she turned to look the other way and hide the quivering smile that was broadening her ample mouth.

"Then why does thee say them chickens is dressed when they hain't got a stitch of clothes on, nor even so much as a feather? Does thee give it up?"

Cousin Sally made no reply, but quickly gathering up all the fowls—five slender legs in each hand—she ran trippingly into the house.

With feelings akin to those of a presidential candidate who has stampeded a convention, or of a young rooster who has crowed louder than his rival, I climbed up on top of the gate-post, and sat there to watch for the coming of our earliest guests. In a little while I heard soft footsteps near me, and looking down, I was not at all surprised to see Cousin Sally. She tittered nervously as she handed me a neat little package done up in a plantain leaf.

"Here they are, Smarty," she said. "Eat 'em while they're hot; and then thee may go with me to the truck patch to git a nice yaller punkin for the punkin pies."

Thus the pleasurable excitement of preparation went on, with scarcely an interruption, until the eve of the day for the assembling of the quart'ly meetin'; and then, after due investigation, mother proudly announced that nothing remained undone—the work had been so carefully planned and executed that everything was in readiness for the entertainment of as many Friends as might present themselves.

And surely they waited for no urgent invitation. Immediately after the close of the first session of the meeting they began to arrive—indeed a few were on hand before. They came on foot, on horseback, in wagons,—singly, by twos, by families—and every one, no matter what his name or condition, was heartily welcomed and provided for. A long table, extemporized from some freshly-hewn puncheons, had been erected under the cherry trees, and a smaller one was spread in the settin'-room of the big-house. To the former were invited the rag-tag and bobtail, the humbler guests, the boys and girls and other individuals who were of no special consequence. The latter was the table of honor, the board around which the ministers and elders and the visitors from abroad assembled to partake of the feast.

And, oh! what a feast it was! No modern Thanksgiving dinner could compete with it in the variety and quantity of the viands that were freely offered to as many as came; and the poor people under the cherry trees were fed as liberally and with the same kind of food as the well-to-do quality folks in the big-house.

It was expected that the young women who came would kindly assist in waiting on the table and washing the dishes, and that the married women would attend to the making-up of the beds and the general care of the house. But further than this, the entertainment was as free as the air and as generous as old Mother Earth herself. My parents would have scorned the suggestion of compensation for their hospitality. "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers" was their motto; and they were conscious of more than one occasion when they believed they had entertained angels unawares.

Among the earlier arrivals were two or three ministers and distinguished persons from distant parts. As these drove up to our gate, father was there to welcome them, each with the same hearty handshake and the same kindly-spoken words.

"How's thee, Senith Hunt? I'm right glad to see thee. Walk in," he said to a stately woman Friend in a drab silk dress and black silk bonnet. She was a minister of renown who had come all the way from Carliny to preach love and duty to the erring ones in the New Settlement.

"How's thee, Barnabas? I'm right glad to see thee. Walk in!" The person addressed was a middle-aged man with a square face, and a small tuft of whiskers in front of each ear. He held his head up with a conscious air of superiority and was very precise and methodical in all his movements. I understood that he was the master of a "boardin' school in Wayne," and my heart swelled with pride at the thought of being in the presence of such a fountain of knowledge and storehouse of wisdom.

And then there came, slouching along on foot, a poor old reprobate from the remoter backwoods, ragged, unkempt—an offshoot of the white trash of the South, as worthless here as in his native hills. As he shambled through the gate, doubtful of his right to appear among respectable people, father, with outstretched hand, advanced to meet him. "How's thee, Joshua? I'm right glad to see thee. Walk in!"

Everybody knew that his words came straight from his heart. He welcomed even the dogs that came to eat the crumbs which fell from the table.

As I remember, it was late in the evening when the last and most honored of our guests—the Friend from England—made his tardy appearance. The name of this man had been on our tongues for many days, and we were all agog to see what manner of person he could be who had traveled so vast a distance to bring a message of peace and love to our favored community.

Father was standing at the gate, benign, dignified, self-possessed, as good a man as any Englishman that ever lived. He met the stranger as he alighted from his horse.

"How's thee, Benjamin Seafoam? I'm right glad to see thee. Walk in! Thee is too late to eat dinner with the rest of us; but come, and set down at the table, and thee shall be served."

Before he had been with us ten minutes, our hearts went out completely to the well-dressed, pleasant-spoken stranger from over the sea. There was something charming in his every action, his every word. His manners were wonderfully different from those of our own people, and yet they were not offensive, as they would have been if exploited by a person less natural and sincere. Nevertheless, to their own shame, there were some among the young men present who were disposed to ridicule him.

"Ain't he a queer old codger?" said David, after carrying the stranger's saddle-bags into the cabin. "Don't he comb his hair slick? I wonder where he gits the bear's grease to smear on it?"

"But did thee notice them fine clothes—all made outen broadcloth?" whispered Jonathan. "They must ha' cost a right smart sight of money."

"Did thee notice his boots, how shiny they are?" queried one of the younger guests.

"Anyway, he's mighty good-lookin', and I like him," said Cousin Sally, holding her breath. "He's jist as good as a picter to look at."

"Well, I declare, if he don't beat the juice!" exclaimed Cousin Mandy Jane as she ran into the cabin for a second cup of coffee for the stranger. "He's the most politest man I ever seen, and yit he does it all so pleasant like. I jist cain't wait till to-morrow, I want to hear him preach so bad."

"I've an idee he's an uncommon smart person," said Aunt Nancy from her corner of the chimney.

And Aunt Rachel, sitting opposite, nodded her head in acquiescence, and remarked, "That's nateral, for he was borned in England."