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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAn Alabaster Box - Chapter 15
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An Alabaster Box - Chapter 15 Post by :dwyersojahz Category :Long Stories Author :Mary E Wilkins Freeman Date :May 2012 Read :832

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An Alabaster Box - Chapter 15

Chapter XV

August was a month of drought and intense heat that year; by the first week in September the stream had dwindled to the merest silver thread, its wasted waters floating upward in clouds of impalpable mist at dawn and evening to be lost forever in the empty vault of heaven. Behind the closed shutters of the village houses, women fanned themselves in the intervals of labor over superheated cookstoves. Men consulted their thermometers with incredulous eyes. Springs reputed to be unfailing gradually ceased their cool trickle. Wells and cisterns yielded little save the hollow sound of the questing bucket. There was serious talk of a water famine in Brookville. At the old Bolton house, however, there was still water in abundance. In jubilant defiance of blazing heavens and parching earth the Red-Fox Spring--tapped years before by Andrew Bolton and piped a mile or more down the mountain side, that his household, garden and stock might never lack of pure cold water--gushed in undiminished volume, filling and overflowing the new cement reservoir, which had been one of Lydia Orr's cautious innovations in the old order of things.

The repairs on the house were by now finished, and the new-old mansion, shining white amid the chastened luxuriance of ancient trees, once more showed glimpses of snowy curtains behind polished windowpanes. Flowers, in a lavish prodigality of bloom the Bolton house of the past had never known, flanked the old stone walls, bordered the drives, climbed high on trellises and arbors, and blazed in serried ranks beyond the broad sweep of velvet turf, which repaid in emerald freshness its daily share of the friendly water.

Mrs. Abby Daggett gazed at the scene in rapt admiration through the clouds of dust which uprose from under Dolly's scuffling feet.

"Ain't that place han'some, now she's fixed it up?" she demanded of Mrs. Deacon Whittle, who sat bolt upright at her side, her best summer hat, sparsely decorated with purple flowers, protected from the suffocating clouds of dust by a voluminous brown veil. "I declare I'd like to stop in and see the house, now it's all furnished up--if only for a minute."

"We ain't got time, Abby," Mrs. Whittle pointed out. "There's work to cut out after we get to Mis' Dix's, and it was kind of late when we started."

Mrs. Daggett relinquished her random desire with her accustomed amiability. Life consisted mainly in giving up things, she had found; but being cheerful, withal, served to cast a mellow glow over the severest denials; in fact, it often turned them into something unexpectedly rare and beautiful.

"I guess that's so, Ann," she agreed. "Dolly got kind of fractious over his headstall when I was harnessin'. He don't seem to like his sun hat, and I dunno's I blame him. I guess if our ears stuck up through the top of our bunnits like his we wouldn't like it neither."

Mrs. Whittle surveyed the animal's grotesquely bonneted head with cold disfavor.

"What simple ideas you do get into your mind, Abby," said she, with the air of one conscious of superior intellect. "A horse ain't human, Abby. He ain't no idea he's wearing a hat.... The Deacon says their heads get hotter with them rediculous bunnits on. He favors a green branch."

"Well," said Mrs. Daggett, foiling a suspicious movement of Dolly's switching tail, "mebbe that's so; I feel some cooler without a hat. But 'tain't safe to let the sun beat right down, the way it does, without something between. Then, you see, Henry's got a lot o' these horse hats in the store to sell. So of course Dolly, he has to wear one."

Mrs. Whittle cautiously wiped the dust from her hard red cheeks.

"My! if it ain't hot," she observed. "You're so fleshy, Abby, I should think you'd feel it something terrible."

"Oh, I don't know," said Mrs. Daggett placidly. "Of course I'm fleshy, Ann; I ain't denying that; but so be you. You don't want to think about the heat so constant, Ann. Our thermometer fell down and got broke day before yesterday, and Henry says 'I'll bring you up another from the store this noon.' But he forgot all about it. I didn't say a word, and that afternoon I set out on the porch under the vines and felt real cool--not knowing it was so hot--when along comes Mrs. Fulsom, a-pantin' and fannin' herself. 'Good land, Abby!' says she; 'by the looks, a body'd think you didn't know the thermometer had risen to ninety-two since eleven o'clock this morning.' 'I didn't,' I says placid; 'our thermometer's broke.' 'Well, you'd better get another right off,' says she, wiping her face and groaning. 'It's an awful thing, weather like this, not to have a thermometer right where you can see it.' Henry brought a real nice one home from the store that very night; and I hung it out of sight behind the sitting room door; I told Henry I thought 'twould be safer there."

"That sounds exactly like you, Abby," commented Mrs. Whittle censoriously. "I should think Henry Daggett would be onto you, by now."

"Well, he ain't," said Mrs. Daggett, with mild triumph. "He thinks I'm real cute, an' like that. It does beat all, don't it? how simple menfolks are. I like 'em all the better for it, myself. If Henry'd been as smart an' penetrating as some folks, I don't know as we'd have made out so well together. Ain't it lucky for me he ain't?"

Ann Whittle sniffed suspiciously. She never felt quite sure of Abby Daggett: there was a lurking sparkle in her demure blue eyes and a suspicious dimple near the corner of her mouth which ruffled Mrs. Whittle's temper, already strained to the breaking point by the heat and dust of their midday journey.

"Well, I never should have thought of such a thing, as going to Ladies' Aid in all this heat, if you hadn't come after me, Abby," she said crossly. "I guess flannel petticoats for the heathen could have waited a spell."

"Mebbe they could, Ann," Mrs. Daggett said soothingly. "It's kind of hard to imagine a heathen wanting any sort of a petticoat this weather, and I guess they don't wear 'em before they're converted; but of course the missionaries try to teach 'em better. They go forth, so to say, with the Bible in one hand and a petticoat in the other."

"I should hope so!" said Mrs. Whittle, with vague fervor.

The sight of a toiling wagon supporting a huge barrel caused her to change the subject rather abruptly.

"That's Jacob Merrill's team," she said, craning her neck. "What on earth has he got in that hogs-head?"

"He's headed for Lydia Orr's spring, I shouldn't wonder," surmised Mrs. Daggett. "She told Henry to put up a notice in the post office that folks could get all the water they wanted from her spring. It's running, same as usual; but, most everybody else's has dried up."

"I think the minister ought to pray for rain regular from the pulpit on Sunday," Mrs. Whittle advanced. "I'm going to tell him so."

"She's going to do a lot better than that," said Mrs. Daggett.... "For the land sake, Dolly! I ain't urged you beyond your strength, and you know it; but if you don't g'long--"

A vigorous slap of the reins conveyed Mrs. Daggett's unuttered threat to the reluctant animal, with the result that both ladies were suddenly jerked backward by an unlooked for burst of speed.

"I think that horse is dangerous, Abby," remonstrated Mrs. Whittle, indignantly, as she settled her veil. "You ought to be more careful how you speak up to him."

"I'll risk him!" said Mrs. Daggett with spirit. "It don't help him none to stop walking altogether and stand stock still in the middle of the road, like he was a graven image. I'll take the whip to him, if he don't look out!"

Mrs. Whittle gathered her skirts about her, with an apprehensive glance at the dusty road.

"If you das' to touch that whip, Abby Daggett," said she, "I'll git right out o' this buggy and walk, so there!"

Mrs. Daggett's broad bosom shook with merriment.

"Fer pity sake, Ann, don't be scared," she exhorted her friend. "I ain't never touched Dolly with the whip; but he knows I mean what I say when I speak to him like that! ...I started in to tell you about the Red-Fox Spring, didn't I?"

Mrs. Whittle coughed dryly.

"I wish I had a drink of it right now," she said. "The idea of that Orr girl watering her flowers and grass, when everybody else in town is pretty near burnt up. Why, we ain't had water enough in our cistern to do the regular wash fer two weeks. I said to Joe and the Deacon today: 'You can wear them shirts another day, for I don't know where on earth you'll get clean ones.'"

"There ain't nothing selfish about Lydia Orr," proclaimed Mrs. Daggett joyfully. "What _do you think she's going to do now?"

"How should I know?"

Mrs. Whittle's tone implied a jaded indifference to the doings of any one outside of her own immediate family circle.

"She's going to have the Red-Fox piped down to the village," said Mrs. Daggett. "She's had a man from Boston to look at it; and he says there's water enough up there in the mountains to supply two or three towns the size of Brookville. She's going to have a reservoir: and anybody that's a mind to can pipe it right into their kitchens."

Mrs. Whittle turned her veiled head to stare incredulously at her companion.

"Well, I declare!" she said; "that girl certainly does like to make a show of her money; don't she? If 'tain't one thing it's another. How did a girl like her come by all that money, I'd like to know?"

"I don't see as that's any of our particular affairs," objected Mrs. Daggett warmly. "Think of havin' nice cool spring water, just by turning a faucet. We're going to have it in our house. And Henry says mebbe he'll put in a tap and a drain-pipe upstairs. It'd save a lot o' steps."

"Huh! like enough you'll be talkin' about a regular nickel-plated bathroom like hers, next," suspicioned Mrs. Whittle. "The Deacon says he did his best to talk her out of it; but she stuck right to it. And one wa'n't enough, at that. She's got three of 'em in that house. That's worse'n Andrew Bolton."

"Do you mean _worse_, Ann Whittle, or do you mean _better? A nice white bathtub is a means o' grace, I think!"

"I mean what I said, Abby; and you hadn't ought to talk like that. It's downright sinful. _Means o' grace! a bathtub! Well, I never!"

The ladies of the Aid Society were already convened in Mrs. Dix's front parlor, a large square room, filled with the cool green light from a yard full of trees, whose deep-thrust roots defied the drought. Ellen Dix had just brought in a glass pitcher, its frosted sides proclaiming its cool contents, when the late comers arrived.

"Yes," Mrs. Dix was saying, "Miss Orr sent over a big piece of ice this morning and she squeezed out juice of I don't know how many lemons. Jim Dodge brought 'em here in the auto; and she told him to go around and gather up all the ladies that didn't have conveyances of their own."

"And that's how I came to be here," said Mrs. Mixter. "Our horse has gone lame."

"Well now, wa'n't that lovely?" crowed Mrs. Daggett, cooling her flushed face with slow sweeps of the big turkey-feather fan Mrs. Dix handed her. "Ain't she just the sweetest girl--always thinking of other folks! I never see anything like her."

A subtle expression of reserve crept over the faces of the attentive women. Mrs. Mixter tasted the contents of her glass critically.

"I don't know," she said dryly, as if the lemonade had failed to cool her parched throat, "that depends on how you look at it."

Mrs. Whittle gave vent to a cackle of rather discordant laughter.

"That's just what I was telling Abby on the way over," she said. "Once in a while you do run across a person that's bound to make a show of their money."

Mrs. Solomon Black, in a green and white sprigged muslin dress, her water-waves unusually crisp and conspicuous, bit off a length of thread with a meditative air.

"Well," said she, "that girl lived in my house, off an' on, for more than two months. I can't say as I think she's the kind that wants to show off."

Fifteen needles paused in their busy activities, and twice as many eyes were focused upon Mrs. Solomon Black. That lady sustained the combined attack with studied calm. She even smiled, as she jerked her thread smartly through a breadth of red flannel.

"I s'pose you knew a lot more about her in the beginning than we did," said Mrs. Dodge, in a slightly offended tone.

"You must have known something about her, Phoebe," put in Mrs. Fulsom. "I don't care what anybody says to the contrary, there's something queer in a young girl, like her, coming to a strange place, like Brookville, and doing all the things she's done. It ain't natural: and that's what I told the Judge when he was considering the new waterworks. There's a great deal of money to be made on waterworks, the Judge says."

The eyes were now focused upon Mrs. Fulsom.

"Well, I can tell you, she ain't looking to make money out of Brookville," said Abby Daggett, laying down her fan and taking an unfinished red flannel petticoat from the basket on the table. "Henry knows all about her plans, and he says it's the grandest idea! The water's going to be piped down from the mountain right to our doors--an' it'll be just as free as the Water of Life to anybody that'll take it."

"Yes; but who's going to pay for digging up the streets and putting 'em back?" piped up an anxious voice from a corner.

"We'd ought to, if she does the rest," said Mrs. Daggett; "but Henry says--"

"You can be mighty sure there's a come-back in it somewhere," was Mrs. Whittle's opinion. "The Deacon says he don't know whether to vote for it or not. We'll have rain before long; and these droughts don't come every summer."

Ellen Dix and Fanny Dodge were sitting outside on the porch. Both girls were sewing heart-shaped pieces of white cloth upon squares of turkey-red calico.

"Isn't it funny nobody seems to like her?" murmured Ellen, tossing her head. "I shouldn't be surprised if they wouldn't let her bring the water in, for all she says she'll pay for everything except putting it in the houses."

Fanny gazed at the white heart in the middle of the red square.

"It's awfully hard to sew these hearts on without puckering," she said.

"Fan," said Ellen cautiously, "does the minister go there much now?"

Fanny compressed her lips.

"I'm sure I don't know," she replied, her eyes and fingers busy with an unruly heart, which declined to adjust itself to requirements. "What are they going to do with this silly patchwork, anyway?"

"Make an autograph quilt for the minister's birthday; didn't you know?"

Fanny dropped her unfinished work.

"I never heard of anything so silly!" she said sharply.

"Everybody is to write their names in pencil on these hearts," pursued Ellen mischievously; "then they're to be done in tracing stitch in red cotton. In the middle of the quilt is to be a big white square, with a large red heart in it; that's supposed to be Wesley Elliot's. It's to have his monogram in stuffed letters, in the middle of it. Lois Daggett's doing that now. I think it's a lovely idea--so romantic, you know."

Fanny did not appear to be listening; her pretty white forehead wore a frowning look.

"Ellen," she said abruptly, "do you ever see anything of Jim nowadays?"

"Oh! so you thought you'd pay me back, did you?" cried Ellen angrily. "I never said I cared a rap for Jim Dodge; but you told me a whole lot about Wesley Elliot: don't you remember that night we walked home from the fair, and you--"

Fanny suddenly put her hand over her friend's.

"Please don't talk so loud, Ellen; somebody will be sure to hear. I'd forgotten what you said--truly, I had. But Jim--"

"Well?" interrogated Ellen impatiently, arching her slender black brows.

"Let's walk down in the orchard," proposed Fanny. "Somebody else can work on these silly old hearts, if they want to. My needle sticks so I can't sew, anyway."

"I've got to help mother cut the cake, in a minute," objected Ellen.

But she stepped down on the parched grass and the two friends were soon strolling among the fallen fruit of a big sweet apple tree behind the house, their arms twined about each other's waists, their pretty heads bent close together.

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