An Alabaster Box
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Florence Morse Kingsley
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 weare going to pay your salary. We can't stand it another minute. Wehad better run in debt to the butcher and baker than to theLord.”
Wesley Elliot regarded her gloomily. “I never liked the ideaof church fairs very well,” he returned hesitatingly. “Ithas always seemed to me like sheer beggary.”
“Then,” said Mrs. Solomon Black, “we willbeg.”
Mrs. Solomon Black was a woman who had always had her way. Therewas not one line which denoted yielding in her large, still handsomeface, set about with very elaborate water-waves which she hadarranged so many years that her black hair needed scarcely anyattention. It would almost seem as if Mrs. Solomon Black had beenborn with water waves.
She spoke firmly but she smiled, as his mother might have done, atthe young man, who had preached his innocent best in Brookville formonths 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 ofthe United States of America, and I miss my guess if there would havebeen 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 thanit is to have the outrageous goings on in the old country. I guess wecan cheat a little with mats and cakes and things and not stand anymore danger of hell-fire than all those men putting each other's eyesout and killing everybody they can hit, and spending the money forguns and awful exploding stuff that ought to go for the good of theworld. I ain't worried one mite about church fairs when the world iswhere it is now. You just run right into your study, Mr. Elliot, andfinish your sermon; and there's a pan of hot doughnuts on the kitchentable. You go through the kitchen and get some doughnuts. We hadbreakfast early and you hadn't ought to work too hard on an emptystomach. You run along. Don't you worry. All this is up to me andMaria Dodge and Abby Daggett and a few others. You haven't got oneblessed thing to do with it. All you've got to do is to preach aswell as you can, and keep us from a free fight. Almost always thereis a fuss when women get up a fair. If you can preach the gospel sowe are all on speaking terms when it is finished, you will earn yourmoney twice over. Run along.”
Wesley Elliot obeyed. He always obeyed, at least in the literalsense, when Mrs. Solomon Black ordered him. There was about her afairly masterly maternity. She loved the young minister as firmly forhis own good as if he had been her son. She chuckled happily when sheheard him open the kitchen door. “He'll light into those hotdoughnuts,” she thought. She loved to pet the boy in theman.
Wesley Elliot in his study upstairs—a makeshift of astudy—sat munching hot doughnuts and reflecting. He had onlyabout one-third of his sermon written and it was Saturday, but thatdid not disturb him. He had a quick-moving mind. He sometimeswondered whether it did not move too quickly. Wesley was not aconceited man in one sense. He never had doubt of his power, but hehad grave doubts of the merits of his productions. However, today hewas glad of the high rate of speed of which he was capable, and didnot worry as much as he sometimes did about his landing at the exactgoal. He knew very well that he could finish his sermon, easily, eathis doughnuts, and sit reflecting as long as he chose. He chose to doso for a long time, although his reflections were not particularlyhappy ones. When he had left the theological seminary a year ago, hehad had his life planned out so exactly that it did not seem possibleto him that the plans could fail. He had graduated at the head of hisclass. He had had no doubt of a city church. One of the professors, arich 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. Shebelieved her son to be capable of anything. “I shall have alarge salary, mother,” boasted Wesley, “and you shallhave the best clothes money can buy, and the parsonage is sure to bebeautiful.”
“How will your old mother look in fine feathers, in such abeautiful home?” asked Wesley's mother, but she asked as alovely, much-petted woman asks such a question. She had her littleconscious smile all ready for the rejoinder which she knew her sonwould not fail to give. He was very proud of his mother.
“Why, mother,” he said, “as far as that goes, Iwouldn't balk at a throne for you as queen dowager.”
“You are a silly boy,” said Mrs. Elliot, but she stolea 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 talland slender, and fair-haired, and she knew how to dress well on hervery small income. She was rosy, and carried herself with a sweetserenity. People said Wesley would not need a wife as long as he hadsuch a mother. But he did not have her long. Only a month later shedied, and while the boy was still striving to play the rôle ofhero in that calamity, there came news of another. His professorfriend had a son in the trenches. The son had been wounded, and thefather had obeyed a hurried call, found his son dead, and himselfdied of the shock on the return voyage. Wesley, mourning the man whohad been his stanch friend, was guiltily conscious of his thwartedambition. “There goes my city church,” he thought, andflung the thought back at himself in anger at his own self-seeking.He was forced into accepting the first opportunity which offered. Hismother had an annuity, which he himself had insisted upon for hergreater comfort. When she died, the son was nearly penniless, exceptfor 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 otherplaces. Wesley was of the lowly in mind, with no expectation ofinheriting the earth, when he came to rest in the little village andbegan boarding at Mrs. Solomon Black's. But even then he did not knowhow bad the situation really was. He had rented his house, and therent kept him in decent clothes, but not enough books. He had only alittle shelf filled with the absolutely necessary volumes, most ofthem relics of his college course. He did not know that there wassmall chance of even his meager salary being paid until June, and hehad been ordained in February. He had wondered why nobody saidanything about his reimbursement. He had refrained from mentioningit, to even his deacons.
Mrs. Solomon Black had revealed the state of affairs, thatmorning. “You may as well know,” said she. “Thereain't a cent to pay you, and I said when you came that if we couldn'tpay for gospel privileges we should all take to our closets and praylike Sam Hill, and no charge; but they wouldn't listen to me, thoughI spoke right out in conference meeting and it's seldom a woman doesthat, you know. Folks in this place have been hanging onto the raggededge of nothing so long they don't seem to sense it. They thought themoney for your salary was going to be brought down from heaven by adove or something, when all the time, those wicked flying things aregoing round on the other side of the earth, and there don't seem asif there could be a dove left. Well, now that the time's come whenyou ought to be paid, if there's any decency left in the place, theycomes to me and says, ‘Oh, Mrs. Black, what shall we do?’ I said, ‘Why didn't you listen when I spoke out in meetingabout our not being able to afford luxuries like gospelpreaching?’ and they said they thought matters would haveimproved by this time. Improved! How, I'd like to know? The wholeworld is sliding down hill faster and faster every minute, and folksin Brookville think matters are going to improve, when they aresliding right along with the Emperor of Germany and the King ofEngland, and all the rest of the big bugs. I can't figure it out, butin some queer, outlandish way that war over there has made it sofolks in Brookville can't pay their minister's salary. They didn'thave much before, but such a one got a little for selling eggs andchickens that has had to eat them, and the street railway failed, andthe chair factory, that was the only industry left here, failed, andfolks that had a little to pay had to eat their payings. And here youare, and it's got to be the fair. Seems queer the war in Europeshould be the means of getting up a fair in Brookville, but I guessit'll get up more'n that before they're through fighting.”
All this had been the preliminary to the speech which sent Wesleyforth for doughnuts, then to his study, ostensibly to finish hislovely sermon, but in reality to think thoughts which made his youngforehead, of almost boyhood, frown, and his pleasant mouth droop,then inexplicably smooth and smile. It was a day which no man in theflush of youth could resist. That June day fairly rioted in throughthe open windows. Mrs. Black's muslin curtains danced in the Junebreeze like filmy-skirted nymphs. Wesley, whose imagination wasactive, seemed to see forced upon his eager, yet reluctant, eyes,radiant maidens, flinging their white draperies about, dancing adance of the innocence which preludes the knowledge of love. Sweetscents came in through the windows, almond scents, honey scents, rosescents, all mingled into an ineffable bouquet of youth and the questof youth.
Wesley rose stealthily; he got his hat; he tiptoed across theroom. Heavens! how thankful he was for access to the back stairs.Mrs. Black was sweeping the parlor, and the rear of the house wasdeserted. Down the precipitous back stairs crept the young minister,listening to the sound of the broom on Mrs. Black's parlor carpet. Aslong as that regular swish continued he was safe. Through the kitchenhe passed, feeling guilty as he smelled new peas cooking for hisdelectation on Mrs. Black's stove. Out of the kitchen door, under thegreen hood of the back porch, and he was afield, and the day had himfast. He did not belong any more to his aspirations, to his high andnoble ambitions, to his steadfast purpose in life. He belonged to thespring of the planet from which his animal life had sprung. YoungWesley Elliot became one with June, with eternal youth, with joywhich escapes care, with the present which has nothing to do with thepast or the future, with that day sufficient unto itself, that daydangerous for those whose feet are held fast by the toils of theyears.
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 thoughtsleaped with irresponsive joy. He crossed a brook on rocky stones, asif he were crossing a song. A bird sang in perfect tune with hismood. He was bound for a place which had a romantic interest for him:the unoccupied parsonage, which he could occupy were he supplied witha salary and had a wife. He loved to sit on the back veranda anddream. Sometimes he had company. Brookville was a hot little village,with a long line of hills cutting off the south wind, but on thatback veranda of the old parsonage there was always a breeze.Sometimes it seemed mysterious to Wesley, that breeze. It neverfailed in