An Alabaster Box
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and Florence Morse Kingsley
Illustrated by Stockton Mulford
D. Appleton and Company
New York London
......There came a woman, having an alabaster box of ointment, very precious; and she broke the box.....
"We," said Mrs. Solomon Black with weighty emphasis, "are going to get up a church fair and raise that money, and we are going to pay your salary. We can't stand it another minute. We had better run in debt to the butcher and baker than to the Lord."
Wesley Elliot regarded her gloomily. "I never liked the idea of church fairs very well," he returned hesitatingly. "It has always seemed to me like sheer beggary."
"Then," said Mrs. Solomon Black, "we will beg."
Mrs. Solomon Black was a woman who had always had her way. There was not one line which denoted yielding in her large, still handsome face, set about with very elaborate water-waves which she had arranged so many years that her black hair needed scarcely any attention. It would almost seem as if Mrs. Solomon Black had been born with water waves.
She spoke firmly but she smiled, as his mother might have done, at the young man, who had preached his innocent best in Brookville for months without any emolument.
"Now don't you worry one mite about it," said she. "Church fairs may be begging, but they belong to the history of the United States of America, and I miss my guess if there would have been much preaching of the gospel in a good many places without them. I guess it ain't any worse to hold church fairs in this country than it is to have the outrageous goings on in the old country. I guess we can cheat a little with mats and cakes and things and not stand any more danger of hell-fire than all those men putting each other's eyes out and killing everybody they can hit, and spending the money for guns and awful exploding stuff that ought to go for the good of the world. I ain't worried one mite about church fairs when the world is where it is now. You just run right into your study, Mr. Elliot, and finish your sermon; and there's a pan of hot doughnuts on the kitchen table. You go through the kitchen and get some doughnuts. We had breakfast early and you hadn't ought to work too hard on an empty stomach. You run along. Don't you worry. All this is up to me and Maria Dodge and Abby Daggett and a few others. You haven't got one blessed thing to do with it. All you've got to do is to preach as well as you can, and keep us from a free fight. Almost always there is a fuss when women get up a fair. If you can preach the gospel so we are all on speaking terms when it is finished, you will earn your money twice over. Run along."
Wesley Elliot obeyed. He always obeyed, at least in the literal sense, when Mrs. Solomon Black ordered him. There was about her a fairly masterly maternity. She loved the young minister as firmly for his own good as if he had been her son. She chuckled happily when she heard him open the kitchen door. "He'll light into those hot doughnuts," she thought. She loved to pet the boy in the man.
Wesley Elliot in his study upstairs—a makeshift of a study—sat munching hot doughnuts and reflecting. He had only about one-third of his sermon written and it was Saturday, but that did not disturb him. He had a quick-moving mind. He sometimes wondered whether it did not move too quickly. Wesley was not a conceited man in one sense. He never had doubt of his power, but he had grave doubts of the merits of his productions. However, today he was glad of the high rate of speed of which he was capable, and did not worry as much as he sometimes did about his landing at the exact goal. He knew very well that he could finish his sermon, easily, eat his doughnuts, and sit reflecting as long as he chose. He chose to do so for a long time, although his reflections were not particularly happy ones. When he had left the theological seminary a year ago, he had had his life planned out so exactly that it did not seem possible to him that the plans could fail. He had graduated at the head of his class. He had had no doubt of a city church. One of the professors, a rich man with much influence, had practically promised him one. Wesley went home to his doting mother, and told her the news. Wesley's mother believed in much more than the city church. She believed her son to be capable of anything. "I shall have a large salary, mother," boasted Wesley, "and you shall have the best clothes money can buy, and the parsonage is sure to be beautiful."
"How will your old mother look in fine feathers, in such a beautiful home?" asked Wesley's mother, but she asked as a lovely, much-petted woman asks such a question. She had her little conscious smile all ready for the rejoinder which she knew her son would not fail to give. He was very proud of his mother.
"Why, mother," he said, "as far as that goes, I wouldn't balk at a throne for you as queen dowager."
"You are a silly boy," said Mrs. Elliot, but she stole a glance at herself in an opposite mirror, and smiled complacently. She did not look old enough to be the mother of her son. She was tall and slender, and fair-haired, and she knew how to dress well on her very small income. She was rosy, and carried herself with a sweet serenity. People said Wesley would not need a wife as long as he had such a mother. But he did not have her long. Only a month later she died, and while the boy was still striving to play the role of hero in that calamity, there came news of another. His professor friend had a son in the trenches. The son had been wounded, and the father had obeyed a hurried call, found his son dead, and himself died of the shock on the return voyage. Wesley, mourning the man who had been his stanch friend, was guiltily conscious of his thwarted ambition. "There goes my city church," he thought, and flung the thought back at himself in anger at his own self-seeking. He was forced into accepting the first opportunity which offered. His mother had an annuity, which he himself had insisted upon for her greater comfort. When she died, the son was nearly penniless, except for the house, which was old and in need of repair.
He rented that as soon as he received his call to Brookville, after preaching a humiliating number of trial sermons in other places. Wesley was of the lowly in mind, with no expectation of inheriting the earth, when he came to rest in the little village and began boarding at Mrs. Solomon Black's. But even then he did not know how bad the situation really was. He had rented his house, and the rent kept him in decent clothes, but not enough books. He had only a little shelf filled with the absolutely necessary volumes, most of them relics of his college course. He did not know that there was small chance of even his meager salary being paid until June, and he had been ordained in February. He had wondered why nobody said anything about his reimbursement. He had refrained from mentioning it, to even his deacons.
Mrs. Solomon Black had revealed the state of affairs, that morning. "You may as well know," said she. "There ain't a cent to pay you, and I said when you came that if we couldn't pay for gospel privileges we should all take to our closets and pray like Sam Hill, and no charge; but they wouldn't listen to me, though I spoke right out in conference meeting and it's seldom a woman does that, you know. Folks in this place have been hanging onto the ragged edge of nothing so long they don't seem to sense it. They thought the money for your salary was going to be brought down from heaven by a dove or something, when all the time, those wicked flying things are going round on the other side of the earth, and there don't seem as if there could be a dove left. Well, now that the time's come when you ought to be paid, if there's any decency left in the place, they comes to me and says, 'Oh, Mrs. Black, what shall we do?' I said, 'Why didn't you listen when I spoke out in meeting about our not being able to afford luxuries like gospel preaching?' and they said they thought matters would have improved by this time. Improved! How, I'd like to know? The whole world is sliding down hill faster and faster every minute, and folks in Brookville think matters are going to improve, when they are sliding right along with the Emperor of Germany and the King of England, and all the rest of the big bugs. I can't figure it out, but in some queer, outlandish way that war over there has made it so folks in Brookville can't pay their minister's salary. They didn't have much before, but such a one got a little for selling eggs and chickens that has had to eat them, and the street railway failed, and the chair factory, that was the only industry left here, failed, and folks that had a little to pay had to eat their payings. And here you are, and it's got to be the fair. Seems queer the war in Europe should be the means of getting up a fair in Brookville, but I guess it'll get up more'n that before they're through fighting."
All this had been the preliminary to the speech which sent Wesley forth for doughnuts, then to his study, ostensibly to finish his lovely sermon, but in reality to think thoughts which made his young forehead, of almost boyhood, frown, and his pleasant mouth droop, then inexplicably smooth and smile. It was a day which no man in the flush of youth could resist. That June day fairly rioted in through the open windows. Mrs. Black's muslin curtains danced in the June breeze like filmy-skirted nymphs. Wesley, whose imagination was active, seemed to see forced upon his eager, yet reluctant, eyes, radiant maidens, flinging their white draperies about, dancing a dance of the innocence which preludes the knowledge of love. Sweet scents came in through the windows, almond scents, honey scents, rose scents, all mingled into an ineffable bouquet of youth and the quest of youth.
Wesley rose stealthily; he got his hat; he tiptoed across the room. Heavens! how thankful he was for access to the back stairs. Mrs. Black was sweeping the parlor, and the rear of the house was deserted. Down the precipitous back stairs crept the young minister, listening to the sound of the broom on Mrs. Black's parlor carpet. As long as that regular swish continued he was safe. Through the kitchen he passed, feeling guilty as he smelled new peas cooking for his delectation on Mrs. Black's stove. Out of the kitchen door, under the green hood of the back porch, and he was afield, and the day had him fast. He did not belong any more to his aspirations, to his high and noble ambitions, to his steadfast purpose in life. He belonged to the spring of the planet from which his animal life had sprung. Young Wesley Elliot became one with June, with eternal youth, with joy which escapes care, with the present which has nothing to do with the past or the future, with that day sufficient unto itself, that day dangerous for those whose feet are held fast by the toils of the years.
Wesley sped across a field which was like a field of green glory. He saw a hollow like a nest, blue with violets, and all his thoughts leaped with irresponsive joy. He crossed a brook on rocky stones, as if he were crossing a song. A bird sang in perfect tune with his mood. He was bound for a place which had a romantic interest for him: the unoccupied parsonage, which he could occupy were he supplied with a salary and had a wife. He loved to sit on the back veranda and dream. Sometimes he had company. Brookville was a hot little village, with a long line of hills cutting off the south wind, but on that back veranda of the old parsonage there was always a breeze. Sometimes it seemed mysterious to Wesley, that breeze. It never failed in the hottest days. Now that the parsonage was vacant, women often came there with their needlework of an afternoon, and sat and sewed and chatted. Wesley knew of the custom, and had made them welcome. But sometimes of a morning a girl came. Wesley wondered if she would be there that morning. After he had left the field, he plunged knee-deep through the weedage of his predecessor's garden, and heart-deep into luxuriant ranks of dewy vegetables which he, in the intervals of his mental labors, should raise for his own table. Wesley had an inherent love of gardening which he had never been in a position to gratify. Wesley was, in fancy, eating his own green peas and squashes and things when he came in sight of the back veranda. It was vacant, and his fancy sank in his mind like a plummet of lead. However, he approached, and the breeze of blessing greeted him like a presence.
The parsonage was a gray old shadow of a building. Its walls were stained with past rains, the roof showed depressions, the veranda steps were unsteady, in fact one was gone. Wesley mounted and seated himself in one of the gnarled old rustic chairs which defied weather. From where he sat he could see a pink and white plumage of blossoms over an orchard; even the weedy garden showed lovely lights under the triumphant June sun. Butterflies skimmed over it, always in pairs, now and then a dew-light like a jewel gleamed out, and gave a delectable thrill of mystery. Wesley wished the girl were there. Then she came. He saw a flutter of blue in the garden, then a face like a rose overtopped the weeds. The sunlight glanced from a dark head, giving it high-lights of gold.
The girl approached. When she saw the minister, she started, but not as if with surprise; rather as if she had made ready to start. She stood at the foot of the steps, glowing with blushes, but still not confused. She smiled with friendly confidence. She was very pretty and she wore a delicious gown, if one were not a woman, to observe the lack of fashion and the faded streaks, and she carried a little silk work-bag.
Wesley rose. He also blushed, and looked more confused than the girl. "Good morning, Miss Dodge," he said. His hands twitched a little.
Fanny Dodge noted his confusion quite calmly. "Are you busy?" said she.
"You are laughing at me, Miss Dodge. What on earth am I busy about?"
"Oh," said the girl. "Of course I have eyes, and I can see that you are not writing; but I can't see your mind, or your thoughts. For all I know, they may be simply grinding out a sermon, and today is Saturday. I don't want to break up the meeting." She laughed.
"Come on up here," said Wesley with camaraderie. "You know I am not doing a blessed thing. I can finish my sermon in an hour after dinner. Come on up. The breeze is heavenly. What have you got in that bag?"
"I," stated Fanny Dodge, mounting the steps, "have my work in my bag. I am embroidering a center-piece which is to be sold for at least twice its value—for I can't embroider worth a cent—at the fair." She sat down beside him, and fished out of the bag a square of white linen and some colored silks.
"Mrs. Black has just told me about that fair," said Wesley. "Say, do you know, I loathe the idea of it?"
"Why? A fair is no end of fun. We always have them."
"Yes, it is. I might just as well put on some black glasses, get a little dog with a string, and a basket, and done with it."
The girl giggled. "I know what you mean," said she, "but your salary has to be paid, and folks have to be cajoled into handing out the money." Suddenly she looked troubled. "If there is any to hand," she added.
"I want you to tell me something and be quite frank about it."
Fanny shot a glance at him. Her lashes were long, and she could look through them with liquid fire of dark eyes.
"Well?" said she. She threaded a needle with pink silk.
"Is Brookville a very poor village?"
Fanny inserted her pink-threaded needle into the square of linen.
"What," she inquired with gravity, "is the past tense of bust?"
"I am in earnest."
"So am I. But I know a minister is never supposed to know about such a word as bust, even if he is bust two-thirds of is life. I'll tell you. First Brookville was bust, now it's busted."
Wesley stared at her.
"Fact," said Fanny, calmly, starting a rose on the linen in a career of bloom. "First, years ago, when I was nothing but a kid, Andrew Bolton—you have heard of Andrew Bolton?"
"I have heard him mentioned. I have never understood why everybody was so down on him, though he is serving a term in prison, I believe. Nobody seems to like to explain."
"The reason for that is plain enough," stated Fanny. "Nobody likes to admit he's been made a fool of. The man who takes the gold brick always tries to hide it if he can't blame it off on his wife or sister or aunt. Andrew Bolton must have made perfectly awful fools of everybody in Brookville. They must have thought of him as a little tin god on wheels till he wrecked the bank and the silk factory, and ran off with a lot of money belonging to his disciples, and got caught by the hand of the law, and landed in State's Prison. That's why they don't tell. Reckon my poor father, if he were alive, wouldn't tell. I didn't have anything to do with it, so I am telling. When Andrew Bolton embezzled the town went bust. Now the war in Europe, through the grinding of wheels which I can't comprehend, has bankrupted the street railway and the chair factory, and the town is busted."
"But, as you say, if there is no money, why a fair?" Wesley had paled a little.
"Oh," replied the girl, "there is always the hoarding instinct to be taken into account. There are still a lot of stockings and feather beds and teapots in Brookville. We still have faith that a fair can mine a little gold out of them for you. Of course we don't know, but this is a Yankee village, and Yankees never do spend the last cent. I admit you may get somebody's funeral expenses out of the teapot."
"Good Lord!" groaned Wesley.
"That," remarked the girl, "is almost swearing. I am surprised, and you a minister."
"But it is an awful state of things."
"Well," said Fanny, "Mrs. B. H. Slocum may come over from Grenoble. She used to live here, and has never lost her interest in Brookville. She is rich. She can buy a lot, and she is very good-natured about being cheated for the gospel's sake. Then, too, Brookville has never lost its guardian angels."
"What on earth do you mean?"
"What I say. The faith of the people here in guardian angels is a wonderful thing. Sometimes it seems to me as if all Brookville considered itself under special guardianship, sort of a hen-and-chicken arrangement, you know. Anyhow, they do go ahead and undertake the craziest things, and come out somehow."
"I think," said Wesley Elliot soberly, "that I ought to resign."
Then the girl paled, and bent closer over her work. "Resign!" she gasped.
"Yes, resign. I admit I haven't enough money to live without a salary, though I would like to stay here forever." Wesley spoke with fervor, his eyes on the girl.
"Oh, no, you wouldn't."
"I most certainly would, but I can't run in debt, and—I want to marry some day—like other young men—and I must earn."
The girl bent her head lower. "Why don't you resign and go away, and get—married, if you want to?"
He bent over her. His lips touched her hair. "You know," he began—then came a voice like the legendary sword which divides lovers for their best temporal and spiritual good.
"Dinner is ready and the peas are getting cold," said Mrs. Solomon Black.
Then it happened that Wesley Elliot, although a man and a clergyman, followed like a little boy the large woman with the water-waves through the weedage of the pastoral garden, and the girl sat weeping awhile from mixed emotions of anger and grief. Then she took a little puff from her bag, powdered her nose, straightened her hair and, also, went home, bag in hand, to her own noon dinner.
A church fair is one of the purely feminine functions which will be the last to disappear when the balance between the sexes is more evenly adjusted. It is almost a pity to assume that it will finally, in the nature of things, disappear, for it is charming; it is innocent with the innocence of very good, simple women; it is at the same time subtle with that inimitable subtlety which only such women can achieve. It is petty finance on such a moral height that even the sufferers by its code must look up to it. Before even woman, showing anything except a timid face of discovery at the sights of New York under male escort, invaded Wall Street, the church fair was in full tide, and the managers thereof might have put financiers to shame by the cunning, if not magnitude, of their operations. Good Christian women, mothers of families, would sell a tidy of no use except to wear to a frayed edge the masculine nerves, and hand-painted plates of such bad art that it verged on immorality, for prices so above all reason, that a broker would have been taken aback. And it was all for worthy objects, these pretty functions graced by girls and matrons in their best attire, with the products of their little hands offered, or even forced, upon the outsider who was held up for the ticket. They gambled shamelessly to buy a new carpet for the church. There was plain and brazen raffling for dreadful lamps and patent rockers and dolls which did not look fit to be owned by nice little girl-mothers, and all for the church organ, the minister's salary and such like. Of this description was the church fair held in Brookville to raise money to pay the Reverend Wesley Elliot. He came early, and haunted the place like a morbid spirit. He was both angry and shamed that such means must be employed to pay his just dues, but since it had to be he could not absent himself.
There was no parlor in the church, and not long after the infamous exit of Andrew Bolton the town hall had been destroyed by fire. Therefore all such functions were held in a place which otherwise was a source of sad humiliation to its owner: Mrs. Amos Whittle, the deacon's wife's unfurnished best parlor. It was a very large room, and poor Mrs. Whittle had always dreamed of a fine tapestry carpet, furniture upholstered with plush, a piano, and lace curtains.
Her dreams had never been realized. The old tragedy of the little village had cropped dreams, like a species of celestial foliage, close to their roots. Poor Mrs. Whittle, although she did not realize it, missed her dreams more than she would have missed the furniture of that best parlor, had she ever possessed and lost it. She had come to think of it as a room in one of the "many mansions," although she would have been horrified had she known that she did so. She was one who kept her religion and her daily life chemically differentiated. She endeavored to maintain her soul on a high level of orthodoxy, while her large, flat feet trod her round of household tasks. It was only when her best parlor, great empty room, was in demand for some social function like the church fair, that she felt her old dreams return and stimulate her as with some wine of youth.
The room was very prettily decorated with blossoming boughs, and Japanese lanterns, and set about with long tables covered with white, which contained the articles for sale. In the center of the room was the flower-booth, and that was lovely. It was a circle of green, with oval openings to frame young girl-faces, and on the circular shelf were heaped flowers in brilliant masses. At seven o'clock the fair was in full swing, as far as the wares and saleswomen were concerned. At the flower-booth were four pretty girls: Fanny Dodge, Ellen Dix, Joyce Fulsom and Ethel Mixter. Each stood looking out of her frame of green, and beamed with happiness in her own youth and beauty. They did not, could not share the anxiety of the older women. The more anxious gathered about the cake table. Four pathetically bedizened middle-aged creatures, three too stout, one too thin, put their heads together in conference. One woman was Mrs. Maria Dodge, Fanny's mother, one was Mrs. Amos Dix, one was Mrs. Deacon Whittle, and one was unmarried.
She was the stoutest of the four, tightly laced in an ancient silk, with frizzed hair standing erect from bulging temples. She was Lois Daggett, and a tragedy. She loved the young minister, Wesley Elliot, with all her heart and soul and strength. She had fastened, to attract his admiration, a little bunch of rose geranium leaves and heliotrope in her tightly frizzed hair. That little posy had, all unrecognized, a touching pathos. It was as the aigrette, the splendid curves of waving plumage which birds adopt in the desire for love. Lois had never had a lover. She had never been pretty, or attractive, but always in her heart had been the hunger for love. The young minister seemed the ideal of all the dreams of her life. He was as a god to her. She trembled under his occasional glances, his casual address caused vibrations in every nerve. She cherished no illusions. She knew he was not for her, but she loved and worshipped, and she tucked on an absurd little bow of ribbon, and she frizzed tightly her thin hair, and she wore little posies, following out the primitive instinct of her sex, even while her reason lagged behind. If once Wesley should look at that pitiful little floral ornament, should think it pretty, it would have meant as much to that starved virgin soul as a kiss—to do her justice, as a spiritual kiss. There was in reality only pathos and tragedy in her adoration. It was not in the least earthy, or ridiculous, but it needed a saint to understand that. Even while she conferred with her friends, she never lost sight of the young man, always hoped for that one fleeting glance of approbation.
When her sister-in-law, Mrs. Daggett, appeared, she restrained her wandering eyes. All four women conferred anxiously. They, with Mrs. Solomon Black, had engineered the fair. Mrs. Black had not yet appeared and they all wondered why. Abby Daggett, who had the expression of a saint—a fleshy saint, in old purple muslin—gazed about her with admiration.
"Don't it look perfectly lovely!" she exclaimed.
Mrs. Whittle fairly snapped at her, like an angry old dog. "Lovely!" said she with a fine edge of sarcasm in her tone, "perfectly lovely! Yes it does. But I think we are a set of fools, the whole of us. Here we've got a fair all ready, and worked our fingers to the bone (I don't know but I'll have a felon on account of that drawn-in rug there) and we've used up all our butter and eggs, and I don't see, for one, who is going to buy anything. I ain't got any money t' spend. I don't believe Mrs. Slocum will come over from Grenoble, and if she does, she can't buy everything."
"Well, what made us get up the fair?" asked Mrs. Dodge.
"I suppose we all thought somebody might have some money," ventured Abby Daggett.
"I'd like to know who? Not one of us four has, and I don't believe Mrs. Solomon Black has, unless she turns in her egg-money, and if she does I don't see how she is going to feed the minister. Where is Phoebe Black?"
"She is awfully late," said Lois. She looked at the door, and, so doing, got a chance to observe the minister, who was standing beside the flower-table talking to Ellen Dix. Fanny Dodge was busily arranging some flowers, with her face averted. Ellen Dix was very pretty, with an odd prettiness for a New England girl. Her pale olive skin was flawless and fine of texture. Her mouth was intensely red, and her eyes very dark and heavily shaded by long lashes. She wore at the throat of her white dress a beautiful coral brooch. It had been one of her mother's girlhood treasures. The Dix family had been really almost opulent once, before the Andrew Bolton cataclysm had involved the village, and there were still left in the family little reminiscences of former splendor. Mrs. Dix wore a superb old lace scarf over her ancient black silk, and a diamond sparkled at her throat. The other women considered the lace much too old and yellow to be worn, but Mrs. Dix was proud both of the lace and her own superior sense of values. If the lace had been admired she would not have cared so much for it.
Suddenly a little woman came hurrying up, her face sharp with news. "What do you think?" she said to the others. "What do you think?"
They stared at her. "What do you mean, Mrs. Fulsom?" asked Mrs. Whittle acidly.
The little woman tossed her head importantly. "Oh, nothing much," said she, "only I thought the rest of you might not know. Mrs. Solomon Black has got another boarder. That's what's making her late. She had to get something for her to eat."
"Another boarder!" said Mrs. Whittle.
"Yes," said the little woman, "a young lady, and Mrs. Solomon Black is on her way here now."
"With her?" gasped the others.
"Yes, she's coming, and she looks to me as if she might have money."
"Who is she?" asked Mrs. Whittle.
"How do I know? Mrs. Mixter's Tommy told my Sam, and he told me, and I saw Mrs. Black and the boarder coming out of her yard, when I went out of mine, and I hurried so's to get here first. Hush! Here they come now."
While the women were conferring many people had entered the room, although none had purchased the wares. Now there was stark silence and a concentrated fire of attention as Mrs. Black entered with a strange young woman. Mrs. Black looked doubtfully important. She, as a matter of fact, was far from sure of her wisdom in the course she was taking. She was even a little pale, and her lips moved nervously as she introduced the girl to one and another. "Miss Orr," she said; sometimes "Miss Lydia Orr."
As for the girl, she looked timid, yet determined. She was pretty, perhaps a beauty, had she made the most of her personal advantages instead of apparently ignoring them. Her beautiful fair hair, which had red-gold lights, should have shaded her forehead, which was too high. Instead it was drawn smoothly back, and fastened in a mat of compact flat braids at the back of her head. She was dressed very simply, in black, and her costume was not of the latest mode.
"I don't see anything about her to have made Mrs. Fulsom think she was rich," Mrs. Whittle whispered to Mrs. Daggett, who made an unexpectedly shrewd retort: "I can see. She don't look as if she cared what anybody thought of her clothes; as if she had so much she's never minded."
Mrs. Whittle failed to understand. She grunted non-assent. "I don't see," said she. "Her sleeves are way out of date."
For awhile there was a loud buzz of conversation all over the room. Then it ceased, for things were happening, amazing things. The strange young lady was buying and she was paying cash down. Some of the women examined the bank notes suspiciously and handed them to their husbands to verify. The girl saw, and flushed, but she continued. She went from table to table, and she bought everything, from quilts and hideous drawn-in rugs to frosted cakes. She bought in the midst of that ominous hush of suspicion. Once she even heard a woman hiss to another, "She's crazy. She got out of an insane asylum."
However nobody of all the stunned throng refused to sell. Her first failure came in the case of a young man. He was Jim Dodge, Fanny's brother. Jim Dodge was a sort of Ishmael in the village estimation, and yet he was liked. He was a handsome young fellow with a wild freedom of carriage. He had worked in the chair factory to support his mother and sister, before it closed. He haunted the woods, and made a little by selling skins. He had brought as his contribution to the fair a beautiful fox skin, and when the young woman essayed to buy that he strode forward. "That is not for sale," said he. "I beg you to accept that as a gift, Miss Orr."
The young fellow blushed a little before the girl's blue eyes, although he held himself proudly. "I won't have this sold to a young lady who is buying as much as you are," he continued.
The girl hesitated. Then she took the skin. "Thank you, it is beautiful," she said.
Jim's mother sidled close to him. "You did just right, Jim," she whispered. "I don't know who she is, but I feel ashamed of my life. She can't really want all that truck. She's buying to help. I feel as if we were a parcel of beggars."
"Well, she won't buy that fox skin to help!" Jim whispered back fiercely.
The whole did not take very long. Finally the girl talked in a low voice to Mrs. Black who then became her spokeswoman. Mrs. Black now looked confident, even triumphant. "Miss Orr says of course she can't possibly use all the cake and pies and jelly," she said, "and she wants you to take away all you care for. And she wants to know if Mrs. Whittle will let the other things stay here till she's got a place to put them in. I tell her there's no room in my house."
"I s'pose so," said Mrs. Whittle in a thick voice. She and many others looked fairly pale and shocked.
Mrs. Solomon Black, the girl and the minister went out.
The hush continued for a few seconds. Then Mrs. Whittle spoke. "There's something wrong about that girl," said she. Other women echoed her. The room seemed full of feminine snarls.
Jim Dodge turned on them, and his voice rang out. "You are a lot of cats," said he. "Come on home, mother and Fanny, I am mortal shamed for the whole of it. That girl's buying to help, when she can't want the things, and all you women turning on her for it!"
After the Dodges had gone there was another hush. Then it was broken by a man's voice, an old man's voice with a cackle of derision and shrewd amusement in it. "By gosh!" said this voice, resounding through the whole room, "that strange young woman has bought the whole church fair!"
"There's something wrong," said Mrs. Whittle again.
"Ain't you got the money?" queried the man's voice.
"Then for God's sake hang onto it!"
After Jim Dodge had taken his mother and sister home, he stole off by himself for a solitary walk. The night was wonderful, and the young man, who was in a whirl of undefined emotion, unconsciously felt the need of a lesson of eternal peace. The advent of the strange girl, and her unprecedented conduct had caused in him a sort of masculine vertigo over the whole situation. Why in the name of common sense was that girl in Brookville, and why should she have done such a thing? He admired her; he was angry with her; he was puzzled by her.
He did not like the minister. He did not wonder that Elliot should wish for emolument enough to pay his way, but he had a little contempt for him, for his assumption of such superior wisdom that he could teach his fellow men spiritual knowledge and claim from them financial reward. Aside from keeping those he loved in comfort, Jim had no wish for money. He had all the beauty of nature for the taking. He listened, as he strolled along, to the mysterious high notes of insects and night-birds; he saw the lovely shadows of the trees, and he honestly wondered within himself why Brookville people considered themselves so wronged by an occurrence of years ago, for which the perpetrator had paid so dearly. At the same time he experienced a sense of angry humiliation at the poverty of the place which had caused such an occurrence as that church fair.
When he reached Mrs. Solomon Black's house, he stared up at its glossy whiteness, reflecting the moonlight like something infinitely more precious than paint, and he seemed to perceive again a delicate, elusive fragrance which he had noticed about the girl's raiment when she thanked him for his fox skin.
"She smelled like a new kind of flower," Jim told himself as he swung down the road. The expression was not elegant, but it was sincere. He thought of the girl as he might have thought of an entirely new species of blossom, with a strictly individual fragrance which he had encountered in an expedition afield.
After he had left the Black house, there was only a half mile before he reached the old Andrew Bolton place. The house had been very pretentious in an ugly architectural period. There were truncated towers, a mansard roof, hideous dormers, and a reckless outbreak of perfectly useless bay windows. The house, which was large, stood aloof from the road, with a small plantation of evergreen trees before it. It had not been painted for years, and loomed up like the vaguest shadow of a dwelling even in the brilliant moonlight. Suddenly Jim caught sight of a tiny swinging gleam of light. It bobbed along at the height of a man's knee. It was a lantern, which seemed rather an odd article to be used on such a night. Then Jim came face to face with the man who carried the lantern, and saw who he was—Deacon Amos Whittle. To Jim's mind, the man resembled a fox, skulking along the road, although Deacon Amos Whittle was not predatory. He was a small, thin, wiry man with a queer swirl of white whisker, and hopping gait.
He seemed somewhat blinded by his lantern, for he ran full tilt into Jim, who stood the shock with such firmness that the older man staggered back, and danced uncertainly to recover his balance. Deacon Amos Whittle stuttered uncertain remarks, as was his wont when startled. "It is only Jim Dodge," said Jim. "Guess your lantern sort of blinded you, Deacon."
Then the lantern almost blinded Jim, for Whittle swung it higher until it came on a level with Jim's eyes. Over it peered Whittle's little keen ones, spectacled under a gray shag of eyebrows. "Oh it is you!" said the man with a somewhat contemptuous accent. He held Jim in slight esteem.
Jim laughed lightly. Unless he cared for people, their opinion of him always seemed a perfectly negligible matter, and he did not care at all for Amos Whittle.
Suddenly, to his amazement, Amos took hold of his coat. "Look a' here, Jim," said he.
"Do you know anything about that strange woman that's boardin' to Mis' Solomon Black's?"
"How in creation should I know anything about her?"
"Hev you seen her?"
"I saw her at the fair tonight."
"The fair at my house?"
"Don't know of any other fair."
"Well, what do you think of her?"
"Don't think of her."
Jim tried to pass, but the old man danced before him with his swinging lantern.
"I must be going along," said Jim.
"Wait a minute. Do you know she bought the whole fair?"
"Yes, I do. You are blinding me with that lantern, Deacon Whittle."
"And she paid good money down. I seen it."
"All right. I've got to get past you."
"Wait a minute. Do you s'pose that young woman is all right?"
"I don't see why not. Nothing against the law of the land for her to buy out a church fair, that I know of."
"Don't you think it looks sort of suspicious?"
"It's none of my business. I confess I don't see why it's suspicious, unless somebody wants to make her out a fool. I don't understand what any sane person wants with all that truck; but I don't pretend to understand women."
Whittle shook his head slowly. "I dunno," he said.
"Well, I don't know who does, or cares either. They've got the money. I suppose that was what they were after." Jim again tried to pass.
"Wait just a minute. Say, Jim, I'm going to tell you something. Don't you speak of it till it gets out."
"Fire away. I'm in a hurry."
"She wants to buy this old Bolton place here."
"You know the assignees of the Bolton estate had to take the house, and it's been running down all these years, and a lot of money has got to be spent on it or it'll tumble down. Now, this young woman has offered to pay a good round sum for it, and take it just as it is. S'pose it's all right?"
"How in creation should I know? If I held it, and wanted to sell it, I'd know darn well whether it was all right or not. I wouldn't go around asking other folks."
"But you see it don't seem natural. Folks don't do things like that. She's offering to pay more than the place is worth. She'll have to spend thousands on it to make it fit to live in. She says she'll pay cash, too."
"Well, I suppose you'll know cash when you see it. I've got to go."
"But cash! Lord A'mighty! We dunno what to do."
"I suppose you know whether you want to sell or not."
"Want to sell! If we didn't want to sell this old shebang we'd be dumb idiots."
"Then, why in the name of common sense don't you sell?"
"Because, somehow it don't look natural to me."
"Well, I must confess that to throw away much money on an old shell like that doesn't look any too natural to me."
"Come now, Jim, that was a real nice house when it was built."
Jim laughed sarcastically. "Running up your wares now, are you?"
"That house cost Andrew Bolton a pile of money. And now, if it's fixed up, it'll be the best house in Brookville."
"That isn't saying much. See here, you've got to let me pass. If you want to sell—I should think you would—I don't see what you are worrying about. I don't suppose you are worrying for fear you may cheat the girl."
"We ain't goin' to cheat the girl, but—I dunno." Whittle stood aside, shaking his head, and Jim passed on. He loitered along the shaggy hedge which bordered the old Bolton estate, and a little farther, then turned back. He had reached the house again when he started. In front of the gate stood a shadowy figure, a woman, by the outlines of the dress. Jim continued hesitatingly. He feared to startle her. But he did not. When he came abreast of her, she turned and looked full in his face, and he recognized Miss Orr. He took off his hat, but was so astonished he could scarcely utter a greeting. The girl was so shy that she stammered a little, but she laughed too, like a child caught in some mischief.
"Oh, I am so glad it is you!" she said.
"Well, taking all things into consideration, so am I," said Jim.
"I mean it is pretty late for you to be out alone, and I'm as good as a Sunday School picnic, with the superintendent and the minister thrown in, for you to meet. I'll see you home."
"Goodness! There's nothing to be afraid of in this little place," said the girl. "I have lived in New York."
"Where there are policemen."
"Oh, yes, but one never counts on that. One never counts on anything in New York. You can't, you know. Its mathematics are as high as its buildings, too high to take chances. But here—why, I saw pretty near the whole village at that funny fair, didn't I?"
"Well, yes, but Brookville is not a walled town. People not so desirable as those you saw at the fair have free entrance and egress. It is pretty late."
"I am not in the least afraid," said the girl.
"You have no reason to be, now."
"You mean because you have happened along. Well, I am glad you did. I begun to think it was rather late myself for me to be prowling around, but you will simply have to leave me before I get to my boarding house. That Mrs. Black is as kind as can be, but she doesn't know what to make of me, and on the whole I think I would rather take my chances stealing in alone than to have her spy you."
"If you wanted to come out, why didn't you ask the minister to come with you?" Jim asked bluntly.
"The minister! Oh, I don't like ministers when they are young. They are much better when all the doctrines they have learned at their theological seminaries have settled in their minds, and have stopped bubbling. However, this minister here seems rather nice, very young, but he doesn't give the impression of taking himself so seriously that he is a nervous wreck on account of his convictions. I wouldn't have asked him for the world. In the first place, Mrs. Black would have thought it very queer, and in the second place he was so hopping mad about that fair, and having me buy it, that he wouldn't have been agreeable. I don't blame him. I would feel just so in his place. It must be frightful to be a poor minister."
"None too pleasant, anyway."
"You are right, it certainly is not. I have been poor myself, and I know. I went to my room, and looked out of the window, and it was so perfectly beautiful outdoors, and I did want to see how this place looked by moonlight, so I just went down the back stairs and came alone. I hope nobody will break in while I am gone. I left the door unlocked."
"No burglars live in Brookville," said Jim. "Mighty good reasons for none to come in, too."
"Not a blessed thing to burgle. Never has been for years."
There was a silence. The girl spoke in a hushed voice. "I—understand," said she, "that the people here hold the man who used to live in this house responsible for that."
"Why, yes, I suppose he was. Brookville never would have been a Tuxedo under any circumstances, but I reckon it would have fared a little better if Mr. Bolton hadn't failed to see the difference between mine and thine. I was nothing but a kid, but I have heard a good deal about it. Some of the older people are pretty bitter, and some of the younger ones have it in their veins. I suppose the poor man did start us down hill."
"You say 'poor man'; why?" asked the girl and her voice trembled.
"Lord, yes. I'm like a hound sneaking round back doors for bones, on account of Mr. Bolton, myself. My father lost more than 'most anybody, but I wouldn't change places with the man. Say, do you know he has been in State's Prison for years?"
"Of course any man who does wrong is a poor man, even if he doesn't get caught. I'm mighty glad I wasn't born bitter as some of the people here were. My sister Fanny isn't either. She doesn't have much, poor girl, but I've never heard her say one word, and mother never blames it on Mr. Bolton, either. Mother says he is getting his punishment, and it isn't for any of us to add to it."
"Your sister was that pretty girl at the flower table?"
"Yes—I suppose you would call her pretty. I don't really know. A fellow never does know, when the girl is his sister. She may look the best of the bunch to him, but he's never sure."
"She is lovely," said Lydia Orr. She pointed to the shadowy house. "That must have been a nice place once."
"Best in the village; show place. Say, what in the name of common sense do you want to buy it for?"
"Who told you?"
"Oh, I met old Whittle just before I met you. He told me. The place must be terribly run down. It will cost a mint of money to get it in shape."
"I have considerable money," stated the girl quite simply.
"Well, it's none of my business, but you will have to sink considerable in that place, and perhaps when you are through it won't be satisfactory."
"I have taken a notion to it," said the girl. She spoke very shyly. Her curiously timid, almost apologetic manner returned suddenly. "I suppose it does look strange," she added.
"Nobody's business how it looks," said Jim, "but I think you ought to know the truth about it, and I think I am more likely to give you information than Whittle. Of course he has an ax to grind. Perhaps if I had an ax to grind, you couldn't trust me."
"Yes, I could," returned the girl with conviction. "I knew that the minute I looked at you. I always know the people I can trust. I know I could not trust Deacon Whittle. I made allowances, the way one does for a clock that runs too fast or too slow. I think one always has to be doing addition or subtraction with people, to understand them."
"Well, you had better try a little subtraction with me."
"I don't have to. I didn't mean with everybody. Of course there are exceptions. That was a beautiful skin you gave me. I didn't half thank you."
"Nonsense. I was glad to give it."
"Do you hunt much?"
"About all I am good for except to run our little farm and do odd jobs. I used to work in the chair factory."
"I shouldn't think you would have liked that."
"Didn't; had to do what I could."
"What would you like to do?"
"Oh, I don't know. I never had any choice, so I never gave it any thought. Something that would keep me out of doors, I reckon."
"Do you know much about plants and trees?"
"I don't know whether I know much; I love them, that's all."
"You could do some landscape gardening for a place like this, I should think."
Jim stared at her, and drew himself up haughtily. "It really is late, Miss Orr," he said. "I think, if you will allow me, I will take you home."
"What are you angry about?"
"I am not angry."
"Yes, you are. You are angry because I said that about landscape gardening."
"I am not a beggar or a man who undertakes a job he is not competent to perform, if I am poor."
"Will you undertake setting those grounds to rights, if I buy the place?"
"Why don't you hire a regular landscape man if you have so much money?" asked Jim rudely.
"I would rather have you. I want somebody I can work with. I have my own ideas. I want to hire you to work with me. Will you?"
"Time enough to settle that when you've bought the place. You must go home now. Here, take my arm. This sidewalk is an apology for one."
Lydia took the young man's arm obediently, and they began walking.
"What on earth are you going to do with all that truck you bought?" asked Jim.
Lydia laughed. "To tell you the truth, I haven't the slightest idea," said she. "Pretty awful, most of it, isn't it?"
"I wouldn't give it house room."
"I won't either. I bought it, but I won't have it."
"You must take us for a pretty set of paupers, to throw away money like that."
"Now, don't you get mad again. I did want to buy it. I never wanted to buy things so much in my life."
"I never saw such a queer girl."
"You will know I am not queer some time, and I would tell you why now, but—"
"Don't you tell me a thing you don't want to."
"I think I had better wait just a little. But I don't know about all those things."
"Say, why don't you send them to missionaries out West?"
"Oh, could I?"
"Of course you can. What's to hinder?"
"When I buy that place will you help me?"
"Of course I will. Now you are talking! I'm glad to do anything like that. I think I'd be nutty if I had to live in the same house as that fair."
The girl burst into a lovely peal of laughter. "Exactly what I thought all the time," said she. "I wanted to buy them; you don't know how much; but it was like buying rabbits, and white elephants, and—oh, I don't know! a perfect menagerie of things I couldn't bear to live with, and I didn't see how I could give them away, and I couldn't think of a place to throw them away." She laughed again.
Jim stopped suddenly. "Say."
"Why, it will be an awful piece of work to pack off all those contraptions, and it strikes me it is pretty hard on the missionaries. There's a gravel pit down back of the Bolton place, and if you buy it—"
"Well, bury the fair there."
Lydia stopped short, and laughed till she cried. "You don't suppose they would ever find out?"
"Trust me. You just have the whole lot moved into the house, and we'll fix it up."
"Oh, I can't tell you how thankful I am to you," said Lydia fervently. "I felt like a nightmare with all those things. Some of them can be used of course, but some—oh, those picture throws, and those postage stamp plates!"
"They are funny, but sort of pitiful, too," said Jim. "Women are sort of pitiful, lots of them. I'm glad I am a man."
"I should think you would be," said the girl. She looked up in his face with an expression which he did not see. He was regarding women in the abstract; she was suddenly regarding men in the individual.
Elliot slept later than usual the morning after the fair. Generally he slept the beautiful, undisturbed sleep of the young and healthy; that night, for some reason, he did not. Possibly the strange break which the buying of the fair had made in the course of his everyday life caused one also between his conscious and unconscious state, which his brain refused to bridge readily. Wesley had not been brought face to face, many times in his life, with the unprecedented. He had been brought before it, although in a limited fashion, at the church fair. The unprecedented is more or less shattering, partaking of the nature of a spiritual bomb. Lydia Orr's mad purchase of that collection of things called a fair disturbed his sense of values. He asked himself over and over who was this girl? More earnestly he asked himself what her motives could be.
But the question which most agitated him was his relations with the girl, Fanny Dodge. He realized that recently he had approached the verge of an emotional crisis. If Mrs. Black whom he had at the time fairly cursed in his heart, in spite of his profession, had not appeared with her notice of dinner, he would be in a most unpleasant predicament. Only the girl's innate good sense could have served as a refuge, and he reflected with the utmost tenderness that he might confidently rely upon that. He was almost sure that the poor girl loved him. He was quite sure that he loved her. But he was also sure, with a strong sense of pride in her, that she would have refused him, not on mercenary grounds, for Fanny he knew would have shared a crust and hovel with the man she loved; but Fanny would love the man too well to consent to the crust and the hovel, on his own account. She would not have said in so many words, "What! marry you, a minister so poor that a begging fair has to be held to pay his salary?" She would have not refused him her love and sympathy, but she would have let him down so gently from the high prospect of matrimony that he would have suffered no jolt.
Elliot was a good fellow. It was on the girl's account that he suffered. He suffered, as a matter of course. He wanted Fanny badly, but he realized himself something of a cad. He discounted his own suffering; perhaps, as he told himself with sudden suspicion of self-conceit, he overestimated hers. Still, he was sure that the girl would suffer more than he wished. He blamed himself immeasurably. He tried to construct air castles which would not fall, even before the impact of his own thoughts, in which he could marry this girl and live with her happily ever after, but the man had too much common sense. He did not for a moment now consider the possibility of stepping, without influence, into a fat pastorate. He was sure that he could count confidently upon nothing better than this.
The next morning he looked about his room wearily, and a plan which he had often considered grew upon him. He got the keys of the unoccupied parsonage next door, from Mrs. Black, and went over the house after breakfast. It was rather a spacious house, old, but in tolerable preservation. There was a southeast room of one story in height, obviously an architectural afterthought, which immediately appealed to him. It was practically empty except for charming possibilities, but it contained a few essentials, and probably the former incumbent had used it as a study. There was a wood stove, a standing desk fixed to the wall, some shelves, an old table, and a couple of armchairs. Wesley at once resolved to carry out his plan. He would move his small store of books from his bedroom at Mrs. Black's, arrange them on the shelves, and set up his study there. He was reasonably sure of obtaining wood enough for a fire to heat the room when the weather was cold.
He returned and told Mrs. Black, who agreed with him that the plan was a good one. "A minister ought to have his study," said she, "and of course the parsonage is at your disposal. The parish can't rent it. That room used to be the study, and you will have offers of all the wood you want to heat it. There's plenty of cut wood that folks are glad to donate. They've always sent loads of wood to heat the minister's study. Maybe they thought they'd stand less chance of hell fire if they heated up the gospel in this life."
"Then I'll move my books and writing materials right over there," said Elliot with a most boyish glee.
Mrs. Black nodded approvingly. "So I would." She hesitated a moment, then she spoke again. "I was just a little bit doubtful about taking that young woman in yesterday," said she.
Elliot regarded her curiously. "Then you never had met her before?"
"No, she just landed here with her trunk. The garage man brought her, and she said he told her I took boarders, and she asked me to take her. I don't know but I was kind of weak to give in, but the poor little thing looked sort of nice, and her manners were pretty, so I took her. I thought I would ask you how you felt about it this morning, but there ain't any reason to, perhaps, for she ain't going to stay here very long, anyway. She says she's going to buy the old Bolton place and have it fixed up and settle down there as soon as she can. She told me after you had gone out. She's gone now to look at it. Mr. Whittle was going to meet her there. Queer, ain't it?"
"It does look extraordinary, rather," agreed Elliot, "but Miss Orr may be older than she looks."
"Oh, she ain't old, but she's of age. She told me that, and I guess she's got plenty of money."
"Well," said Elliot, "that is rather a fine old place. She may be connected with the Bolton family."
"That's exactly what I think, and if she was she wouldn't mention it, of course. I think she's getting the house in some sort of a business way. Andrew Bolton may have died in prison by this time, and she may be an heir. I think she is going to be married and have the house fixed up to live in."
"That sounds very probable."
"Yes, it does; but what gets me is her buying that fair. I own I felt a little scared, and wondered if she had all her buttons, but when she told me about the house I knew of course she could use the things for furnishing, all except the cake and candy, and I suppose if she's got a lot of money she thought she'd like to buy to help. I feel glad she's coming. She may be a real help in the church. Now don't color up. Ministers have to take help. It's part of their discipline."
Sometimes Mrs. Solomon Black said a wise and consoling thing. Elliot, moving his effects to the old parsonage, considered that she had done so then. "She is right. I have no business to be proud in the profession calling for the lowly-hearted of the whole world," he told himself.
After he had his books arranged he sat down in an armchair beside a front window, and felt rather happy and at home. He reproached himself for his content when he read the morning paper, and considered the horrors going on in Europe. Why should he, an able-bodied man, sit securely in a room and gaze out at a peaceful village street? he asked himself as he had scores of times before. Then the imperial individual, which obtrudes even when conscience cries out against it, occupied his mind. Pretty Fanny Dodge in her blue linen was passing. She never once glanced at the parsonage. Forgetting his own scruples and resolves, he thought unreasonably that she might at least glance up, if she had the day before at all in her mind. Suddenly the unwelcome reflection that he might not be as desirable as he had thought himself came over him.
He got up, put on his hat, and walked rapidly in the direction of the old Bolton house. Satisfying his curiosity might serve as a palliative to his sudden depression with regard to his love affair. It is very much more comfortable to consider oneself a cad, and acknowledge to oneself love for a girl, and be sure of her unfortunate love for you, than to consider oneself the dupe of the girl. Fanny had a keen sense of humor. Suppose she had been making fun of him. Suppose she had her own aspirations in other quarters. He walked on until he reached the old Bolton house. The door stood open, askew upon rusty hinges. Wesley Elliot entered and glanced about him with growing curiosity. The room was obviously a kitchen, one side being occupied by a huge brick chimney inclosing a built-in range half devoured with rust; wall cupboards, a sink and a decrepit table showed gray and ugly in the greenish light of two tall windows, completely blocked on the outside with over-grown shrubs. An indescribable odor of decaying plaster, chimney-soot and mildew hung in the heavy air.
A door to the right, also half open, led the investigator further. Here the floor shook ominously under foot, suggesting rotten beams and unsteady sills. The minister walked cautiously, noting in passing a portrait defaced with cobwebs over the marble mantelpiece and the great circular window opening upon an expanse of tangled grass and weeds, through which the sun streamed hot and yellow. Voices came from an adjoining room; he could hear Deacon Whittle's nasal tones upraised in fervid assertion.
"Yes, ma'am!" he was saying, "this house is a little out of repair, you can see that fer yourself; but it's well built; couldn't be better. A few hundred dollars expended here an' there'll make it as good as new; in fact, I'll say better'n new! They don't put no such material in houses nowadays. Why, this woodwork—doors, windows, floors and all—is clear, white pine. You can't buy it today for no price. Costs as much as m'hogany, come to figure it out. Yes, ma'am! the woodwork alone in this house is worth the price of one of them little new shacks a builder'll run up in a couple of months. And look at them mantelpieces, pure tombstone marble; and all carved like you see. Yes, ma'am! there's as many as seven of 'em in the house. Where'll you find anything like that, I'd like to know!"
"I—think the house might be made to look very pleasant, Mr. Whittle," Lydia replied, in a hesitating voice.
Wesley Elliot fancied he could detect a slight tremor in its even flow. He pushed open the door and walked boldly in.
"Good-morning, Miss Orr," he exclaimed, advancing with outstretched hand. "Good-morning, Deacon! ...Well, well! what a melancholy old ruin this is, to be sure. I never chanced to see the interior before."
Deacon Whittle regarded his pastor sourly from under puckered brows.
"Some s'prised to see you, dominie," said he. "Thought you was generally occupied at your desk of a Friday morning."
The minister included Lydia Orr in the genial warmth of his smile as he replied:
"I had a special call into the country this morning, and seeing your conveyance hitched to the trees outside, Deacon, I thought I'd step in. I'm not sure it's altogether safe for all of us to be standing in the middle of this big room, though. Sills pretty well rotted out—eh, Deacon?"
"Sound as an oak," snarled the Deacon. "As I was telling th' young lady, there ain't no better built house anywheres 'round than this one. Andrew Bolton didn't spare other folks' money when he built it—no, sir! It's good for a hundred years yet, with trifling repairs."
"Who owns the house now?" asked Lydia unexpectedly. She had walked over to one of the long windows opening on a rickety balcony and stood looking out.
"Who owns it?" echoed Deacon Whittle. "Well, now, we can give you a clear title, ma'am, when it comes to that; sound an' clear. You don't have to worry none about that. You see it was this way; dunno as anybody's mentioned it in your hearing since you come to Brookville; but we use to have a bank here in Brookville, about eighteen years ago, and—"
"Yes, Ellen Dix told me," interrupted Lydia Orr, without turning her head. "Has nobody lived here since?"
Deacon Whittle cast an impatient glance at Wesley Elliot, who stood with his eyes fixed broodingly on the dusty floor.
"Wal," said he. "There'd have been plenty of folks glad enough to live here; but the house wa'n't really suited to our kind o' folks. It wa'n't a farm—there being only twenty acres going with it. And you see the house is different to what folks in moderate circumstances could handle. Nobody had the cash to buy it, an' ain't had, all these years. It's a pity to see a fine old property like this a-going down, all for the lack of a few hundreds. But if you was to buy it, ma'am, I could put it in shape fer you, equal to the best, and at a figure— Wall; I tell ye, it won't cost ye what some folks'd think."
"Didn't that man—the banker who stole—everybody's money, I mean—didn't he have any family?" asked Lydia, still without turning her head. "I suppose he—he died a long time ago?"
"I see the matter of th' title's worrying you, ma'am," said Deacon Whittle briskly. "I like to see a female cautious in a business way: I do, indeed. And 'tain't often you see it, neither. Now, I'll tell you—"
"Wouldn't it be well to show Miss Orr some more desirable property, Deacon?" interposed Wesley Elliot. "It seems to me—"
"Oh, I shall buy the house," said the girl at the window, quickly.
She turned and faced the two men, her delicate head thrown back, a clear color staining her pale cheeks.
"I shall buy it," she repeated. "I—I like it very much. It is just what I wanted—in—in every way."
Deacon Whittle gave vent to a snort of astonishment.
"There was another party looking at the place a spell back," he said, rubbing his dry old hands. "I dunno's I exac'ly give him an option on it; but I was sort of looking for him to turn up 'most any day. Course I'd have to give him the first chance, if it comes to a—"
"What is an option?" asked Lydia.
"An option is a—now, let me see if I can make a legal term plain to the female mind: An option, my dear young lady, is—"
The minister crossed the floor to where the girl was standing, a slight, delicate figure in her black dress, her small face under the shadowy brim of her wide had looking unnaturally pale in the greenish light from without.
"An option," he interposed hurriedly, "must be bought with money; should you change your mind later you lose whatever you have paid. Let me advise you—"
Deacon Whittle cleared his throat with an angry, rasping sound.
"Me an' this young lady came here this morning for the purpose of transacting a little business, mutually advantageous," he snarled. "If it was anybody but the dominie, I should say he was butting in without cause."
"Oh, don't, please!" begged the girl. "Mr. Elliot meant it kindly, I'm sure. I—I want an option, if you please. You'll let me have it, won't you? I want it—now."
Deacon Whittle blinked and drew back a pace or two, as if her eagerness actually frightened him.
"I—I guess I can accommodate ye," he stuttered; "but—there'll be some preliminaries—I wa'n't exactly prepared— There's the price of the property and the terms— S'pose likely you'll want a mortgage—eh?"
He rubbed his bristly chin dubiously.
"I want to buy the house," Lydia said. "I want to be sure—"
"Have you seen the rooms upstairs?" asked the minister, turning his back upon his senior deacon.
She shook her head.
"Well, then, why not—"
Wesley Elliot took a step or two toward the winding stair, dimly seen through the gloom of the hall.
"Hold on, dominie, them stairs ain't safe!" warned the Deacon. "They'll mebbe want a little shoring up, before— Say, I wish—"
"I don't care to go up now, really," protested the girl. "It—it's the location I like and—"
She glanced about the desolate place with a shiver. The air of the long-closed rooms was chilly, despite the warmth of the June day outside.
"I'll tell you what," said the deacon briskly. "You come right along down to the village with me, Miss Orr. It's kind of close in here; the house is built so tight, there can't no air git in. I tell you, them walls—"
He smote the one nearest him with a jocular palm. There followed the hollow sound of dropping plaster from behind the lath.
"Guess we'd better fix things up between us, so you won't be noways disappointed in case that other party—" he added, with a crafty glance at the minister. "You see, he might turn up 'most any day."
"Oh, yes!" exclaimed the girl, walking hurriedly to the door. "I—I should like to go at once."
She turned and held out her hand to the minister with a smile.
"Thank you for coming," she said. "I wanted you to see the house as it is now."
He looked down into her upturned face with its almost childish appeal of utter candor, frowning slightly.
"Have you no one—that is, no near relative to advise you in the matter?" he asked. "The purchase of a large property, such as this, ought to be carefully considered, I should say."
Deacon Whittle coughed in an exasperated manner.
"I guess we'd better be gitting along," said he, "if we want to catch Jedge Fulsom in his office before he goes to dinner."
Lydia turned obediently.
"I'm coming," she said.
Then to Elliot: "No; there is no one to—to advise me. I am obliged to decide for myself."
Wesley Elliot returned to Brookville and his unfinished sermon by a long detour which led him over the shoulder of a hill overlooking the valley. He did not choose to examine his motive for avoiding the road along which Fanny Dodge would presently return. But as the path, increasingly rough and stony as it climbed the steep ascent, led him at length to a point from whence he could look down upon a toy village, arranged in stiff rows about a toy church, with its tiny pointing steeple piercing the vivid green of many trees, he sat down with a sigh of relief and something very like gratitude.
As far back as he could remember Wesley Elliot had cherished a firm, though somewhat undefined, belief in a quasi-omnipotent power to be reckoned as either hostile or friendly to the purposes of man, showing now a smiling, now a frowning face. In short, that unquestioned, wholly uncontrollable influence outside of a man's life, which appears to rule his destiny. In this role "Providence," as he had been taught to call it, had heretofore smiled rather evasively upon Wesley Elliot. He had been permitted to make sure his sacred calling; but he had not secured the earnestly coveted city pulpit. On the other hand, he had just been saved—or so he told himself, as the fragrant June breeze fanned his heated forehead—by a distinct intervention of "Providence" from making a fool of himself. His subsequent musings, interrupted at length by the shrieking whistle of the noon train as it came to a standstill at the toy railway station, might be termed important, since they were to influence the immediate future of a number of persons, thus affording a fresh illustration of the mysterious workings of "Providence," sometimes called "Divine."
There existed in Brookville two separate and distinct forums for the discussion of topics of public and private interest. These were the barroom of the village tavern, known as the Brookville House, and Henry Daggett's General Store, located on the corner opposite the old Bolton Bank Building. Mr. Daggett, besides being Brookville's leading merchant, was also postmaster, and twice each day withdrew to the official privacy of the office for the transaction of United States business. The post office was conveniently located in one corner of Mr. Daggett's store and presented to the inquiring eye a small glass window, which could be raised and lowered at will by the person behind the partition, a few numbered boxes and a slit, marked "Letters."
In the evening of the day on which Miss Lydia Orr had visited the old Bolton house in company with Deacon Whittle, both forums were in full blast. The wagon-shed behind the Brookville House sheltered an unusual number of "rigs," whose owners, after partaking of liquid refreshment dispensed by the oily young man behind the bar, by common consent strolled out to the veranda where a row of battered wooden armchairs invited to reposeful consideration of the surprising events of the past few days.
The central chair supported the large presence of "Judge" Fulsom, who was dispensing both information and tobacco juice.
"The practice of the legal profession," said the Judge, after a brief period devoted to the ruminative processes, "is full of surprises."
Having spoken, Judge Fulsom folded his fat hands across the somewhat soiled expanse of his white waistcoat and relapsed into a weighty silence.
"They was sayin' over to the post office this evening that the young woman that cleaned up the church fair has bought the old Bolton place. How about it, Jedge?"
Judge Fulsom grunted, as he leveled a displeased stare upon the speaker, a young farmer with a bibulous eye and slight swagger of defiance. At the proper moment, with the right audience, the Judge was willing to impart information with lavish generosity. But any attempt to force his hand was looked upon as a distinct infringement of his privilege.
"You want to keep your face shut, Lute, till th' Jedge gets ready to talk," counseled a middle-aged man who sat tilted back in the next chair. "Set down, son, and cool off."
"Well, you see I got to hurry along," objected the young farmer impatiently, "and I wanted to know if there was anything in it. Our folks had money in the old bank, an' we'd give up getting anything more out the smash years ago. But if the Bolton place has actually been sold—"
He finished with a prolonged whistle.
The greatness in the middle chair emitted a grunt.
"Humph!" he muttered, and again, "Hr-m-m-ph!"
"It would be surprising," conceded the middle-aged man, "after all these years."
"Considerable many of th' creditors has died since," piped up a lean youth who was smoking a very large cigar. "I s'pose th' children of all such would come in for their share—eh, Judge?"
Judge Fulsom frowned and pursed his lips thoughtfully.
"The proceedings has not yet reached the point you mention, Henry," he said. "You're going a little too fast."
Nobody spoke, but the growing excitement took the form of a shuffling of feet. The Judge deliberately lighted his pipe, a token of mental relaxation. Then from out the haze of blue smoke, like the voice of an oracle from the seclusion of a shrine, issued the familiar recitative tone for which everybody had been waiting.
"Well, boys, I'll tell you how 'twas: Along about ten minutes of twelve I had my hat on my head, and was just drawing on my linen duster with the idea of going home to dinner, when I happened to look out of my office window, and there was Deacon Whittle—and the girl, just coming up th' steps. In five minutes more I'd have been gone, most likely for the day."
"Gosh!" breathed the excitable young farmer.
The middle-aged man sternly motioned him to keep silence.
"I s'pose most of you boys saw her at the fair last night," proceeded the Judge, ignoring the interruption. "She's a nice appearing young female; but nobody'd think to look at her—"
He paused to ram down the tobacco in the glowing bowl of his pipe.
"Well, as I was saying, she'd been over to the Bolton house with the Deacon. Guess we'll have to set the Deacon down for a right smart real-estate boomer. We didn't none of us give him credit for it. He'd got the girl all worked up to th' point of bein' afraid another party'd be right along to buy the place. She wanted an option on it."
"Shucks!" again interrupted the young farmer disgustedly. "Them options ain't no good. I had one once on five acres of timber, and—"
"Shut up, Lute!" came in low chorus from the spell-bound audience.
"Wanted an option," repeated Judge Fulsom loudly, "just till I could fix up the paper. 'And, if you please,' said she, 'I'd like t' pay five thousand dollars for the option, then I'd feel more sure.' And before I had a chance to open my mouth, she whips out a check-book."
"Gr-reat jumping Judas!" cried the irrepressible Lute, whose other name was Parsons. "Five thousand dollars! Why, the old place ain't worth no five thousand dollars!"
Judge Fulsom removed his pipe from his mouth, knocked out the half-burned tobacco, blew through the stem, then proceeded to fill and light it again. From the resultant haze issued his voice once more, bland, authoritative, reminiscent.
"Well, now, son, that depends on how you look at it. Time was when Andrew Bolton wouldn't have parted with the place for three times that amount. It was rated, I remember, at eighteen thousand, including live stock, conveyances an' furniture, when it was deeded over to the assignees. We sold out the furniture and stock at auction for about half what they were worth. But there weren't any bidders worth mentioning for the house and land. So it was held by the assignees—Cephas Dix, Deacon Whittle and myself—for private sale. We could have sold it on easy terms the next year for six thousand; but in process of trying to jack up our customer to seven, we lost out on the deal. But now—"
Judge Fulsom arose, brushed the tobacco from his waistcoat front and cleared his throat.
"Guess I'll have to be getting along," said he; "important papers to look over, and—"
"A female woman, like her, is likely to change her mind before tomorrow morning," said the middle-aged man dubiously. "And I heard Mrs. Solomon Black had offered to sell her place to the young woman for twenty-nine hundred—all in good repair and neat as wax. She might take it into her head to buy it."
"Right in the village, too," growled Lute Parsons. "Say, Jedge, did you give her that option she was looking for? Because if you did she can't get out of it so easy."
Judge Fulsom twinkled pleasantly over his bulging cheeks.
"I sure did accommodate the young lady with the option, as aforesaid," he vouchsafed. "And what's more, I telephoned to the Grenoble Bank to see if her check for five thousand dollars was O. K.... Well; so long, boys!"
He stepped ponderously down from the piazza and turned his broad back on the row of excited faces.
"Hold on, Jedge!" the middle-aged man called after him. "Was her check any good? You didn't tell us!"
The Judge did not reply. He merely waved his hand.
"He's going over to the post office," surmised the lean youth, shifting the stub of his cigar to the corner of his mouth in a knowing manner.
He lowered his heels to the floor with a thud and prepared to follow. Five minutes later the bartender, not hearing the familiar hum of voices from the piazza, thrust his head out of the door.
"Say!" he called out to the hatchet-faced woman who was writing down sundry items in a ledger at a high desk. "The boys has all cleared out. What's up, I wonder?"
"They'll be back," said the woman imperturbably, "an' more with 'em. You want t' git your glasses all washed up, Gus; an' you may as well fetch up another demijohn out the cellar."
Was it foreknowledge, or merely coincidence which at this same hour led Mrs. Solomon Black, frugally inspecting her supplies for tomorrow morning's breakfast, to discover that her baking-powder can was empty?
"I'll have to roll out a few biscuits for their breakfast," she decided, "or else I'll run short of bread for dinner."
Her two boarders, Lydia Orr and the minister, were sitting on the piazza, engaged in what appeared to be a most interesting conversation, when Mrs. Black unlatched the front gate and emerged upon the street, her second-best hat carefully disposed upon her water-waves.
"I won't be gone a minute," she paused to assure them; "I just got to step down to the grocery."
A sudden hush fell upon a loud and excited conversation when Mrs. Solomon Black, very erect as to her spinal column and noticeably composed and dignified in her manner, entered Henry Daggett's store. She walked straight past the group of men who stood about the door to the counter, where Mr. Daggett was wrapping in brown paper two large dill pickles dripping sourness for a small girl with straw-colored pig-tails.
Mr. Daggett beamed cordially upon Mrs. Black, as he dropped two copper pennies in his cash-drawer.
"Good evening, ma'am," said he. "What can I do for you?"
"A ten-cent can of baking-powder, if you please," replied the lady primly.
"Must take a lot of victuals to feed them two boarders o' yourn," hazarded Mr. Daggett, still cordially, and with a dash of confidential sympathy in his voice.
Mr. Daggett had, by virtue of long association with his wife, acquired something of her spontaneous warm-heartedness. He had found it useful in his business.
"Oh, they ain't neither of 'em so hearty," said Mrs. Black, searching in her pocket-book with the air of one who is in haste.
"We was just speakin' about the young woman that's stopping at your house," murmured Mr. Daggett. "Let me see; I disremember which kind of bakin'-powder you use, Mis' Black."
"The Golden Rule brand, if you please, Mr. Daggett."
"H'm; let me see if I've got one of them Golden Rules left," mused Mr. Daggett.... "I told the boys I guessed she was some relation of th' Grenoble Orrs, an' mebbe—"
"Well; she ain't," denied Mrs. Black crisply.
"M-m-m?" interrogated Mr. Daggett, intent upon a careful search among the various canned products on his shelf. "How'd she happen to come to Brookville?"
Mrs. Black tossed her head.
"Of course it ain't for me to say," she returned, with a dignity which made her appear taller than she really was. "But folks has heard of the table I set, 'way to Boston."
"You don't say!" exclaimed Mr. Daggett. "So she come from Boston, did she? I thought she seemed kind of—"
"I don't know as there's any secret about where she come from," returned Mrs. Black aggressively. "I never s'posed there was. Folks ain't had time to git acquainted with her yit."
"That's so," agreed Mr. Daggett, as if the idea was a new and valuable one. "Yes, ma'am; you're right! we ain't none of us had time to git acquainted."
He beamed cordially upon Mrs. Black over the tops of his spectacles. "Looks like we're going to git a chance to know her," he went on. "It seems the young woman has made up her mind to settle amongst us. Yes, ma'am; we've been hearing she's on the point of buying property and settling right down here in Brookville."
An excited buzz of comment in the front of the store broke in upon this confidential conversation. Mrs. Black appeared to become aware for the first time of the score of masculine eyes fixed upon her.
"Ain't you got any of the Golden Rule?" she demanded sharply. "That looks like it to me—over in behind them cans of tomatoes. It's got a blue label."
"Why, yes; here 'tis, sure enough," admitted Mr. Daggett. "I guess I must be losing my eyesight.... It's going to be quite a chore to fix up the old Bolton house," he added, as he inserted the blue labeled can of reputation in a red and yellow striped paper bag.
"That ain't decided," snapped Mrs. Black. "She could do better than to buy that tumble-down old shack."
"So she could; so she could," soothed the postmaster. "But it's going to be a good thing for the creditors, if she can swing it. Let me see, you wa'n't a loser in the Bolton Bank; was you, Mis' Black?"
"No; I wa'n't; my late departed husband had too much horse-sense."
And having thus impugned less fortunate persons, Mrs. Solomon Black departed, a little stiffer as to her back-bone than when she entered. She had imparted information; she had also acquired it. When she had returned rather later than usual from selling her strawberries in Grenoble she had hurried her vegetables on to boil and set the table for dinner. She could hear the minister pacing up and down his room in the restless way which Mrs. Black secretly resented, since it would necessitate changing the side breadths of matting to the middle of the floor long before this should be done. But of Lydia Orr there was no sign. The minister came promptly down stairs at sound of the belated dinner-bell. But to Mrs. Black's voluble explanations for the unwonted hour he returned the briefest of perfunctory replies. He seemed hungry and ate heartily of the cold boiled beef and vegetables.