I don't often write fiction to post here, but something struck me today in my Bible reading, and it made a story come to mind. Please indulge me by reading this quickly-penned little narrative and, if you like, you can speculate in the comment section about why I might have written it. Tomorrow I'll post an entry that will unpack the point of the story in my usual devotional format.
The Gilded Box
Amelia sat on the hard, wooden pew, trying to pretend she cared about the minister's droning words. The sun shone hot through her window, a fly buzzed past her ear, and Mr. Thorpe snored annoyingly a few rows over.
But none of that bothered her as much as what she saw across the aisle.
Prissy Waldrop was sitting beside him. Beside Charles Westfield, the handsomest young man in all of Kansas territory. The man Amelia would have given anything to sit beside.
Not that she ever would have admitted it.
He keeps glancing my way. I wonder why? Amelia kept her own nose pointed straight towards the minister, and occasionally nodded a little to keep up an appearance of attentiveness. But her eyes strained themselves rightward, keeping Charles the Desirable and Prissy the Interloper in sight.
How dare she?
Charles glanced at her again, and Amelia quickly turned her eyes away. Mustn't let him see me looking! She kept her spine ramrod stiff. He must know I'm too good for him…or at least, he must think I am, if he's ever to covet me as his own.
The pastor finally made his last point, whatever that might have been, and the congregation dutifully stood to sing the closing hymn. Amelia didn't need to look at the hymnal to join in, which was a good thing, since her eyes had a far more interesting subject to stare at.
If Prissy tries to keep him all to herself at the picnic, I will be scandalized, simply scandalized! And I'll make sure she knows it, too!
The church picnic featured plenty of delicious food, but it might as well have been platefuls of Kansas dirt for all the enjoyment Amelia got out of it. Charles and Prissy sat together for the whole event.
But she must have noticed how often Charles looked towards me. Amelia had at least that one consolation.
"Time to go, Amelia." Her father extended a hand to help her up from the blanket.
She smiled and accepted the help, but inwardly she fretted. I'm seventeen years old. How much longer am I going to have only Father to extend a hand to me? When will Charles come to his senses and realize he should be helping me up instead?
She made certain never to let Charles see her interest, so she did not look back as she walked to the wagon. But as soon as she had seated herself, she heard the last thing she expected to hear.
She turned to see Charles just a few steps from the wagon. For a moment she almost smiled, but she thought better of it. He doesn't deserve me, and he needs to know it.
"Amelia, there's something I need to give you." Charles fished something out of his pocket, while glancing around as if afraid someone would see.
Amelia tried not to be too obvious about scanning the area for signs of her rival. I don't see her anywhere…
Excitement and triumph threatened to erase her carefully cultivated composure, so she reminded herself that, whatever Charles might want to give her, it would probably be less than she deserved.
She reached a gloved hand to receive the gift, making sure her "Thank you" sounded properly distant.
Charles turned without another word and walked away.
Amelia didn't even look at what she held until they had rounded a corner out of sight of the church yard.
The gift lay in a little velvet bag with a cinch-top. She opened it and withdrew a small gilded box, intricate in detail.
Her gasp made her father turn. "What do you have there, dear?"
"Why…it's a gift from Charles Westfield. A lovely keepsake box…quite exquisite. I wouldn't have expected him to have such refined taste."
"Well, isn't that nice?"
Amelia could not stop staring at the box. It spoke to her of the young man's esteem in ever more pleasing ways. He does realize how much I deserve, doesn't he?
As soon as she got home, she removed an heirloom knickknack from her favorite display shelf and put Charles' box in its place. By this time, it fairly shouted to her of his love.
Now all I must do is await his proposal. She planned out all the details…how surprised she would pretend to be when he came to call, how long she would keep him in agony before accepting, and how her demeanor should emphasize how very fortunate he was that she had done so.
He did not call later that day, nor even later that week. The next Sunday Amelia wore her best dress in anticipation of his proposal, but Charles did nothing more than favor her with an unusual number of glances during the sermon. She made sure he never knew she noticed.
On Tuesday next, her friend Emily Harrier arrived at Amelia's house with something less than acceptable formality.
"Amelia, Amelia, have you heard?" The girl nearly shouted her question as soon as she entered the house.
"Heard? Heard what?"
"Why…heard about Charles and Prissy, of course! He has asked for her hand, and she has accepted it!"
Amelia managed to maintain her dignity until she could be alone at last to sob out her grief. How could they? How could they?
The gilded box went into another, much plainer box, tucked away in a drawer…too painful to look at, but too precious to throw away. It remained in that drawer while Amelia pined at Charles' wedding. It rested while she stewed over the gossip about the Westfields' beautiful home in St. Louis. It reposed while she resigned herself to spinsterhood. Untouched, it languished as she did through the years that saw her bury her father beside her mother; the years that faded her beauty, grayed her hair, knotted her joints and bent her spine.
She never spoke of it, or of him. Not until the day her friends and neighbors began to gather by her bedside, and their hushed conversations with the doctor told her what their private words must have said.
Even then, she waited until only her old friend Emily stood beside her.
"Emily, go into that drawer there…do you see the box in the back corner?"
"Yes dear, I see it."
"Open it up and let me see what's inside it. I haven't seen it for so long…"
Emily opened the wooden box and gasped. "Why…it's beautiful! Whatever made you hide it away like this?"
"Let me see it." Amelia reached out a trembling hand and took it. Sixty years seemed to fall away when she felt it in her hand again. "Oh, it really is beautiful, isn't it?"
"What's in it, dear?" Emily's voice brought Amelia back to the present.
"Oh, nothing. I never used it. I just…well…it's just a decorative box.
Emily took it gently from her hands and lifted the lid. "Why…there's a note inside it!"
"What?" Amelia's surprise gave her the strength to raise herself up off the bed a little bit.
"It's very faded…shall I read it to you?" Emily unfolded it in anticipation of the answer.
"Yes…by all means do." Amelia felt dread rising up from somewhere deep inside of her, and the weight of it made her sink back onto her pillow.
"It says, 'My dearest Amelia, I think you must know by now of my great affection for you, though I fear that you do not return it. But as the poet says, 'Hope Springs Eternal,' and I feel I must declare my devotion and hear your reply at once. If you would do me the honor of giving me your hand in marriage, please give me some sort of sign at church on Sunday. A single smile from you will be enough to keep hope alive. If you will not have me, please keep the box as an eternal token of my love. If you refuse me, please know that I shall not trouble you further with my unwanted affections, and will ask the hand of another, though she will always be second to you in my heart. Ardently, Charles Westfield.'"
Amelia could only stare, wide-eyed at the ceiling.
"Why, Amelia…I never knew Charles had such feelings for you…oh dear, you're so pale…I should get the doctor."
Amelia scarcely noticed her friend's hasty departure. All she could do was whisper, over and over again.
"I never opened the box. I never opened the box."