The Good-Conduct Club had a special session the next morning before school. After various suggestions, it was decided that a fast day would be an appropriate punishment.
“We won’t eat a single thing for a whole day,” said Jerry. “I’m kind of curious to see what fasting is like, anyhow. This will be a good chance to find out.”
“What day will we choose for it?” asked Una, who thought it would he quite an easy punishment and rather wondered that Jerry and Faith had not devised something harder.
“Let’s pick Monday,” said Faith. “We mostly have a pretty FILLING dinner on Sundays, and Mondays meals never amount to much anyhow.”
“But that’s just the point,” exclaimed Jerry. “We mustn’t take the easiest day to fast, but the hardest—and that’s Sunday, because, as you say, we mostly have roast beef that day instead of cold ditto. It wouldn’t be much punishment to fast from ditto. Let’s take next Sunday. It will be a good day, for father is going to exchange for the morning service with the Upper Lowbridge minister. Father will be away till evening. If Aunt Martha wonders what’s got into us, we’ll tell her right up that we’re fasting for the good of our souls, and it is in the Bible and she is not to interfere, and I guess she won’t.”
Aunt Martha did not. She merely said in her fretful mumbling way, “What foolishness are you young rips up to now?” and thought no more about it. Mr. Meredith had gone away early in the morning before any one was up. He went without his breakfast, too, but that was, of course, of common occurrence. Half of the time he forgot it and there was no one to remind him of it. Breakfast—Aunt Martha’s breakfast—was not a hard meal to miss. Even the hungry “young rips” did not feel it any great deprivation to abstain from the “lumpy porridge and blue milk” which had aroused the scorn of Mary Vance. But it was different at dinner time. They were furiously hungry then, and the odor of roast beef which pervaded the manse, and which was wholly delightful in spite of the fact that the roast beef was badly underdone, was almost more than they could stand. In desperation they rushed to the graveyard where they couldn’t smell it. But Una could not keep her eyes from the dining room window, through which the Upper Lowbridge minister could be seen, placidly eating.
“If I could only have just a weeny, teeny piece,” she sighed.
“Now, you stop that,” commanded Jerry. “Of course it’s hard—but that’s the punishment of it. I could eat a graven image this very minute, but am I complaining? Let’s think of something else. We’ve just got to rise above our stomachs.”
At supper time they did not feel the pangs of hunger which they had suffered earlier in the day.
“I suppose we’re getting used to it,” said Faith. “I feel an awfully queer all-gone sort of feeling, but I can’t say I’m hungry.”
“My head is funny,” said Una. “It goes round and round sometimes.”
But she went gamely to church with the others. If Mr. Meredith had not been so wholly wrapped up in and carried away with his subject he might have noticed the pale little face and hollow eyes in the manse pew beneath. But he noticed nothing and his sermon was something longer than usual. Then, just before be gave out the final hymn, Una Meredith tumbled off the seat of the manse pew and lay in a dead faint on the floor.
Mrs. Elder Clow was the first to reach her. She caught the thin little body from the arms of white-faced, terrified Faith and carried it into the vestry. Mr. Meredith forgot the hymn and everything else and rushed madly after her. The congregation dismissed itself as best it could.
“Oh, Mrs. Clow,” gasped Faith, “is Una dead? Have we killed her?”
“What is the matter with my child?” demanded the pale father.
“She has just fainted, I think,” said Mrs. Clow. “Oh, here’s the doctor, thank goodness.”
Gilbert did not find it a very easy thing to bring Una back to consciousness. He worked over her for a long time before her eyes opened. Then he carried her over to the manse, followed by Faith, sobbing hysterically in her relief.
“She is just hungry, you know—she didn’t eat a thing to-day— none of us did—we were all fasting.”
“Fasting!” said Mr. Meredith, and “Fasting?” said the doctor.
“Yes—to punish ourselves for singing Polly Wolly in the graveyard,” said Faith.
“My child, I don’t want you to punish yourselves for that,” said Mr. Meredith in distress. “I gave you your little scolding—and you were all penitent—and I forgave you.”
“Yes, but we had to be punished,” explained Faith. “It’s our rule—in our Good-Conduct Club, you know—if we do anything wrong, or anything that is likely to hurt father in the congregation, we HAVE to punish ourselves. We are bringing ourselves up, you know, because there is nobody to do it.”
Mr. Meredith groaned, but the doctor got up from Una’s side with an air of relief.
“Then this child simply fainted from lack of food and all she needs is a good square meal,” he said. “Mrs. Clow, will you be kind enough to see she gets it? And I think from Faith’s story that they all would be the better for something to eat, or we shall have more faintings.”
“I suppose we shouldn’t have made Una fast,” said Faith remorsefully. “When I think of it, only Jerry and I should have been punished. WE got up the concert and we were the oldest.”
“I sang Polly Wolly just the same as the rest of you,” said Una’s weak little voice, “so I had to be punished, too.”
Mrs. Clow came with a glass of milk, Faith and Jerry and Carl sneaked off to the pantry, and John Meredith went into his study, where he sat in the darkness for a long time, alone with his bitter thoughts. So his children were bringing themselves up because there was “nobody to do it”—struggling along amid their little perplexities without a hand to guide or a voice to counsel. Faith’s innocently uttered phrase rankled in her father’s mind like a barbed shaft. There was “nobody” to look after them—to comfort their little souls and care for their little bodies. How frail Una had looked, lying there on the vestry sofa in that long faint! How thin were her tiny hands, how pallid her little face! She looked as if she might slip away from him in a breath—sweet little Una, of whom Cecilia had begged him to take such special care. Since his wife’s death he had not felt such an agony of dread as when he had hung over his little girl in her unconsciousness. He must do something—but what? Should he ask Elizabeth Kirk to marry him? She was a good woman—she would be kind to his children. He might bring himself to do it if it were not for his love for Rosemary West. But until he had crushed that out he could not seek another woman in marriage. And he could not crush it out—he had tried and he could not. Rosemary had been in church that evening, for the first time since her return from Kingsport. He had caught a glimpse of her face in the back of the crowded church, just as he had finished his sermon. His heart had given a fierce throb. He sat while the choir sang the “collection piece,” with his bent head and tingling pulses. He had not seen her since the evening upon which he had asked her to marry him. When he had risen to give out the hymn his hands were trembling and his pale face was flushed. Then Una’s fainting spell had banished everything from his mind for a time. Now, in the darkness and solitude of the study it rushed back. Rosemary was the only woman in the world for him. It was of no use for him to think of marrying any other. He could not commit such a sacrilege even for his children’s sake. He must take up his burden alone—he must try to be a better, a more watchful father—he must tell his children not to be afraid to come to him with all their little problems. Then he lighted his lamp and took up a bulky new book which was setting the theological world by the ears. He would read just one chapter to compose his mind. Five minutes later he was lost to the world and the troubles of the world.