"LIFT up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in."
The glorious words rang through the beautiful church and sent a thrill of happy pain through at least one worship per there. This "Church of the Ascension," situated in one of the dreariest slums of East London, was keeping high festival, and being known far and wide for the beauty of its music and the preaching of its vicar, was thronged to its doors by a motley crowd, many of whom were respect able middle-class people, with a sprinkling among them of rich ladies from the West End. And away in the back row of all stood little Biddy O'Flanaghan, her flower-basket hanging by its strap from her neck, her short, untidy black curls bare, all her eager soul shining through her blue-black eyes as she drank in the thrilling words of the psalmist's invitation.
It was practically Biddy's first attendance at church, and it was chiefly curiosity that had brought her here. Business, for some reason, was slack, and seeing the congregation streaming in, she had followed and wedged herself between an aristocratic-looking West End lady and a grocer's wife whom she knew by sight. Both noticed her absolute absorption in the music and exchanged smiling glances over her tousled head. But Biddy saw nothing but the backs of the people before her and heard nothing but the clear boy-voices in the choir.
"Who is the King of Glory?"
She listened eagerly for the answer and presently it came with a triumphant shout.
"It is the Lord of Hosts; he is the King of Glory."
Presently she was to learn more, for when the sermon began, the preacher told in vivid language the story of the first Ascension Day, painting in such living, picturesque words the home-coming of the King of Heaven that little, ignorant Biddy could see it all as if it were happening before her very eyes. She saw, as he spoke, the multitude of angels thronging earthwards to meet their Lord, saw the billowy clouds of them stretching on all sides far as the eye could reach, all flashing and shimmering with a thousand delicate tints. She saw others waiting at the Heavenly Gates. She heard the escorting angels cry to them their glad challenge, and the answer--heard all together shout in triumphant, reverent love as they surged round their King in clouds of flashing, ever-changing light. She heard the shout taken up and re-echoed again and again within the Heavenly Gates.
Biddy's vivid imagination had never had anything so lovely to feed upon before, nothing, in fact, but what she could conjure up for herself, for though she had learnt to read at school, she had no books and her life was absolutely bare of all that makes for beauty--except her flowers. They, indeed, were a joy, but the joy was tinged sometimes with anxiety as to whether she would be able to sell them. For on the success of the day's work depended what Biddy should have for supper, whether, indeed, she should have any supper at all! And when one is only four teen supper is quite an important affair, and some times even after that age.
But on this Ascension Day morning she found herself swept completely off her feet, as it were, and whirled into a new and bewilderingly beautiful world. A world that contained just herself and that glowing absorbing picture the preacher was showing her.
And then suddenly his voice changed.
"Who is this King of Glory? What is He to us?... He is our Brother.. . yours--and yours--" his finger pointing round the church. "You are a brother of the King--you--" and his eyes seemed to search out Biddy on her back seat, "you are a little sister of the King?"
The rest of the sermon was lost on Biddy, for those six words echoed again and again in her ears and shut out all other sounds. "A little sister of the King--a little sister of the King!" Biddy O'Flanaghan, who sold flowers in the streets, who had no father or mother, brother or sister, no home but a corner of a bare, dirty room she shared with a bigger flower-girl--she a sister of the King of Kings, Whose glorious triumph day she had just heard of for the first time?
Out in the street again she came back to the everyday world, and suddenly stood still and laughed aloud as she realized how her imagination had carried her away and how she had taken the preacher literally at his word.
"Biddy O'Flanaghan, you're just daft!" she told herself. "My word! You'll be calling at Buckingham Palace next and inviting yerself to tea with the Queen and telling her you're her long-lost sister!" The fancy tickled her and she amused herself for some time with imaginary conversations with the Royal Family. Once she had reached her accustomed spot, however, her attention was fully taken up by her customers and by efforts to attract them. She sold her last bunch on her way home.
I say "home," because Biddy herself called it so, but it is an insult to that beautiful word, consisting, as it did, of a miserable back room in one of the dirtiest houses in the least respectable street of a neighbourhood not noted for respectability. Indeed, both street and house were well known to the police. Biddy's share of this delectable spot was the corner furthest from the window, fitted with a bundle of odds and ends of blanket and rags she called her "bed," and a box which contained a few treasured relics of her mother. It was not a cheerful place to come back to each evening, and there were times when she felt very lonely and mother-sick; but this little Irish flower-girl had two gifts which carried her over many a bad hour. One was a vivid imagination which would take her at times miles away from her squalid surroundings--the other a great love for her fellow- creatures, for any and all who might come her way. And though she met with many a snub from ungrateful people, she was always on the look-out for "lame dogs" to help over stiles.
On this Ascension Day she was expecting a favourite "lame dog" to tea. Bill (she did not know his surname) was about fifteen and shared a room in the same house with two rough men, and finding he was as friendless and homeless as herself (and far more helpless!) she had struck up a great friend ship with him. She washed his clothes for him occasionally (not too often, for what was the use? He would only make them dirty again directly). She cooked his dinner for him when the men were out of the way and there was anything to cook, and even wished wistfully at times that she could patch his clothes, though she was not by any means particular about her own.
The room did not boast a table so she sat down on her bed, and put out the cracked tea-pot and handleless cups on the floor, together with the bread and margarine and two penny buns she had bought on the way, then clasped her hands round her knees, rocking herself backwards and forwards as she waited for her guest.
"A little sister of the King!"
The words flashed into her mind again and her eyes shone with the wonder of them.
It was fine to be a King's sister!
Then came another thought. What would the King think of his little sister?
She flushed to the roots of her hair as she looked round the room, then down at her frock with its disregarded rents and her hands which had not been washed at all that day.
Bill was a long time coming, and while Biddy waited for him she realized that from henceforth she must look at life from a different point of view. She did not reason it out systematically--she didn't know how to--but she saw herself linked in some real way with a wonderful Being the preacher had called "the King," and she saw equally clearly that she must try to live up to the honour.
At last the boy came.
"Well, you're a nice one to keep a lady waiting s'long!"
A grunt was the only answer as Bill flung himself on the floor beside her and began operations on the bread and margarine. Biddy was used to his surly ways which never annoyed her, for did he not some times throw them off and show himself the pleasant boy he was? And when he liked he could be very nice indeed.
Tea was nearly over and he had said nothing since he came in.
"What's up, Billy? Been failing out with Long Sam?" "Long Sam" being one of the men whose room Bill shared.
"Oh, shut up, Biddy, can't yer? and leave a feller alone!"
Bill finished his tea as he spoke and, lurching awkwardly to his feet, turned to go, but at the door looked back to say in a friendlier tone: "Say, Biddy, have plenty of primroses in yer basket to-morrer if yer can get them, and yer orter do a roarin' trade. They say they're the Prince's fav'rite flower. Tell all the folks so and they'll buy 'em up as soon as look at yer!"
The Prince! To think she had forgotten the grand doings of the morrow, and the record business she meant to do among the crowd of holiday-makers! For one of the great ones of the earth was coming to open a much-needed hospital near by and all the neighbourhood was agog to see him.
"I know now why Bill's so extra glum to-day," she told herself as she put away the remains of the tea. "Guess Long Sam and his mate are making him help them in the crowd to-mower, and he don't half like it. He ain't half a bad boy--ain't my Bill!"
Long Sam and his mate belonged to a gang of pickpockets and Biddy had long suspected that they were trying to make Bill their tool.
Bill a common thief! That's what it came to, and the thought made her shiver. She hadn't minded much when she thought about it before, but now--
Could the King's sister be friends with a common thief? This was the problem that frightened her.
She was no longer merely Biddy O'Flanaghan, the little flower-girl whom nobody cared about, and who could therefore be as dirty and disreputable as she liked, but--"a little sister of the King!"
The hot tears rushed to her eyes at the idea of scorning poor Bill's friendship, and she almost thought she'd rather be plain Biddy O'Flanaghan again.
And then she nearly shouted aloud with relief.
"What a silly I am!" she cried. "Why, if I'm the King's sister, Bill must be His brother, and I'd better just help him all I can--not turn my back on him!"
She chuckled to herself--she really couldn't help it--for it was too funny to think of herself and Bill in such close relationship to so exalted a personage as a King. But all the same she was quite serious in her thoughts of helping the boy.
But how? How could she show him the idea that had taken such complete possession of her? He would only laugh at her. Besides, he wouldn't dare to break with Long Sam and his mate unless he had some strong friend to back him. They had him completely in their power. She saw quite clearly that it would need some outside power to lift the boy right out of his surroundings, and she knew no one she could apply to for help.
There was a puzzled frown on her face as she counted out her money, planning what she could buy at the market in the morning. Primroses? "Wonder if they are the Prince's favourites really?"
The colour rushed over her face as a daring thought flashed to her mind.
The Prince himself should help Bill!
All the inhabitants of Allen's Lane and many another byway had thronged into the main street, which was packed from end to end with a rough and dirty crowd. The police had much ado to keep the people back on the path, for though for the most part they were a good-natured mob and had no wish to make any disturbance, yet their curiosity was of the keenest, and they were bent on making the most of this rare opportunity of seeing one of the very greatest of the land. So they pushed and jostled and shoved, and a big policeman was not at all surprised when a little flower-girl, with her basket full of primroses hung round her neck, elbowed her way past him to the very front. She was off the path, but, once there, she stood quite still, so he left her alone.
As the outriders passed, the crowd surged forward again, and Biddy was pushed a step further into the road.
Then a hoarse shout went up as an open carriage drew near and the Prince was seen bowing quietly right and left, but the shout turned quickly to a cry of horror.
Nobody quite knew how it happened. A little figure was seen to spring forward as the Prince approached--something was flung into the carriage--the horses reared in fright . . . then the fat policeman was bending over something lying in the road.
The Royal inquiries answered and Biddy being borne away to the hospital, the carriage moved on as the Prince stooped to pick up the bunch of primroses fallen at his feet and found a slip of paper attached to it. He unfolded it and read:
"Please help Bill. I'll tell you all about him. He's not a bad boy really.
The Prince smiled a little as he read, but some thing behind the smile boded well for both Bill and Biddy, if the latter were not beyond his reach.
But Biddy did not die. She was well taken care of, and kind friends seemed to spring up on every side, due partly, no doubt, to the Prince's interest in her, but partly, at least, to her own lovable nature and quick wits. And the fact that Bill was also being well cared for, far away from Allen's Lane, did much towards helping her recovery.
She has never seen Allen's Lane since the day of the Prince's visit, but nevertheless, she is looking for ward to the day when she will be able to return there. For she has learnt more, much more, of the love of the King of Heaven, her Brother, the story of Whose triumph day fired her childish imagination, and the more she learns, the more she loves, for His sake, all His poor and suffering brothers and sisters. And so some day she will go back to them to tell them what she has learnt herself, of their glorious Brother and their home in Heaven.