My Bible danced on the seat beside me. I imagined the look of horror that would appear on stodgy Mrs. Tillman’s face should I drive into the churchyard at upwards of thirty miles per hour. Trapping the book with one hand, I slid it beneath my thigh. My grin fell away. As much as I loved the swiftness of the machine beneath me, I owned no desire for scandal. And an overheated engine wouldn’t get me to church on time, either.
Shifting gears, I pulled back on the gas. The world slowed, and the white steeple of Langston Memorial Church came into focus. By the time I pulled into the churchyard, the Packard was creeping along at the pace of a fast walk. The first deep note of the bell tolled across the quiet Indiana countryside.
A horse munching grass raised its head and stared until I set the brake and stopped the engine. The mare went back to her breakfast while I pushed my door open and stepped out among the few autos dotting the field beside the clapboard building.
I shrugged out of my linen duster before unwinding the swath of netting covering my head and face and fluffing the short brown curls that peeked out from under my small hat. Dirt marred the fingertips of my white gloves as I pushed the door shut, but few would notice the testament of my indulgence on the open road. The windscreen and top kept most of the dust and oil smoke from my clothes.
“Good morning, Miss Benson.” Mrs. Tillman’s purposeful stride carried her past me, her family struggling to keep up.
“It’s Alyce. Remember?” I tried to banish the disapproving picture of her I’d imagined and instead hurried to draw even.
She glanced in my direction. “Hmm. Yes.”
“I’ve been thinking about ways in which the Women’s Mission Auxiliary could raise funds to help with missionary efforts both at home and abroad. I wrote down some ideas.” I opened my handbag and withdrew my list as Mrs. Tillman halted at the bottom of the steps leading into the church.
Her eyes widened a bit as she studied my dress, my hat, my gloved hands. She tugged at her floor-length skirt and then at the high collar of her blouse before reaching for the paper I held out to her. My cheeks flamed with the realization that my exposed ankles and square neckline rendered me suspect in Mrs. Tillman’s eyes. What if she noticed the dirt on my gloves? I whipped my hands behind my back.
“Mrs. Swan said you had ideas.” She skimmed the piece of stationery in her hand, mumbling as she went. “Bake sale. Quilting bee. Picnic with games and concessions.” She folded the paper and tucked it inside her Bible. “Of course we can bring these up for a vote at the next meeting.”
“I would like that very much, Mrs. Tillman. I think we can—”
“Just remember that this isn’t Chicago, Miss Benson. It’s Langston, Indiana. We have humble means, though our hearts are large.”
I rocked forward on my toes in excitement. “Exactly. That’s why I thought—”
Mrs. Tillman’s lips pressed together, and her eyes narrowed. I straightened my shoulders, feeling altogether like a schoolgirl again.
Her daughter sidled up next to her. Mrs. Tillman laid a hand on the girl’s head, her expression softening just a bit. “I’ll put your ideas on the agenda. Next Sunday—a week from today.”
I wanted to throw my arms around her right then, but the pinched expression returned. I nodded instead, wondering if I ought to curtsy, as well. “Thank you, Mrs. Tillman. I’ll look forward to the meeting.”
Her gaze raked over my attire again. I swallowed down a fear that she’d change her mind.
She sniffed once. “Seven o’clock sharp, Miss Benson.” She pointed her fan at me to emphasize the point.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be there.”
Mrs. Tillman joined the others streaming into church, but I couldn’t move. Joy surged up from my toes, tingling all the way to the top of my head. Using my ideas, the women of Langston Memorial Church would do something great, something lasting for the kingdom of God. Pressing my hands together, I gazed into the cloudless sky and thanked the Lord for answering the prayer of my heart.
“I saved you a seat, Miss Benson.” A honey-colored mustache twitched a bit on the eager face of Father’s new bookkeeper.
“Thank you, Mr. Trotter.” I slid in next to him on the third pew from the front. An ache surged into my chest, a longing for Grandmother—the only person in my life who spanned the gap between my family and my church. Until Mr. Trotter’s arrival.
“How is your grandmother?”
“The same. Her painful joints and faded eyesight keep her in bed most days.”
“I could have picked you up this morning.” Mr. Trotter’s quiet words almost missed my ear among the surrounding chatter.
“That would have been quite inconvenient for you.” I straightened my skirt and crossed my ankles.
“It would’ve been no trouble between friends, Miss Alyce.”
My head jerked in his direction. Friends. I hadn’t imagined they would be such a scarce commodity when I’d returned to Langston after two years at the Chicago Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences. The friends I’d made growing up had moved away, gone to work, or caught a husband. Besides Father’s mechanic, Webster Little, I had no one my age to talk to. But perhaps that was changing. New people settled in Langston every day. Like this man who shared my faith.
His color heightened.
I averted my eyes.
Deep organ notes resounded through the room. The congregation rose to sing.
“Number thirty-six,” Pastor Swan called out from the front platform.
Eyes shut tight, words of a new hymn rolled off my tongue. “ ‘Had I a thousand lives to live I’d live them all for Thee.’ ”A thousand lifetimes would never be enough to show my gratitude to my Savior.
We plunged into another song. And another. My spirit soared like when I let the spark plugs fire and the gas flow free.
I ducked my head lest such irreverent thoughts make themselves plain on my face. How dare I think of driving while in church? Yet perhaps the two experiences weren’t totally incongruous. In both cases, I submitted to the control of something so much more powerful than myself.
The music ended. Pastor Swan invited us to sit. “Brothers and sisters, we have some very special guests with us today.” His usually placid face grew animated, his step more buoyant. “John and Ava McConnell have spent the past five years living in a British colony called the Gold Coast in western Africa, sharing Christ with a people who have never heard His glorious name.”
My breath caught. My body tingled. Missionaries! I leaned forward, hungry for every word, ignoring the escalating wail of a child, thankful that it soon faded into the distance.
“Please welcome Mr. McConnell.”
A man stepped to the front of the church, his eyes downcast, his wrists extending beyond the cuffs of his jacket, a worn Bible grasped between his large hands.
Pastor Swan returned to the front pew and sat between his wife and the woman I assumed to be Mrs. McConnell. I couldn’t pull my gaze away from her. A faded dress hung on narrow shoulders. Her bones must have been as fragile as a sparrow’s. How did that kind of woman live five years in such a place as Africa? Had she trekked through a jungle? Encountered a witch doctor? Seen lives changed by the gospel?
What courage it took to board a ship for the unknown, to live among the natives of another land! What a thrill to be entrusted by God with such work! No matter what else happened this day, I knew I had to meet Ava McConnell.
My tongue whisked over my dry lips as I forced my attention back to her husband, his long fingers slowly turning the pages of his Bible.
“Mark, chapter six,” he announced.
A familiar passage—Jesus sending out the disciples by twos, without money belt or extra clothes. Grandmother and I had journeyed through the Bible together many times, her reading to me as a child, me reading to her when her eyesight faded to black. My toes pressed against the floor as Mr. McConnell read the verses and then began to speak about his mission.
“Mrs. McConnell and I felt the call of God to go to the Gold Coast even before our marriage.” He looked toward his wife. The love shining from his eyes twisted my heart. I’d yet to meet a man my parents and I both approved of, let alone one whose eyes reflected such adoration. Mrs. McConnell nodded sweetly. Her husband lifted his gaze to wander over the rest of us.
He talked of men and women mired in superstition and pagan rituals. Of punishment meted out to those who befriended the white strangers. One village chief fell ill after their arrival. The witch doctor blamed the McConnells for bringing bad spirits. My lungs refused to draw in air as he told how none of the witch doctor’s potions and charms brought relief to the chief. Then he and Mrs. McConnell had entered the hut and prayed. The chief recovered, and though he hadn’t yet embraced Jesus, he’d released his people to do so if they wished.
“Jesus has sent us to proclaim the gospel to the Ashanti people in Africa. We live trusting God to provide everything necessary to that work. Money. Food. Clothing. Even the words to speak in each moment.”
My heartbeat quickened. Oh, to be called to be such a vital part of God’s work! He wouldn’t even have to send me to Africa, though the thought sent a shiver of excitement down my spine. No, I’d be content to work for Him here in Indiana. I glimpsed Mrs. Tillman closer to the front. Her face reflected the same rapture that pulsed through my veins.
“Thanks to a friend who secured some photographic equipment, you can see some of those who are part of our work in Africa.” Mr. McConnell slipped several photographs from the pages of his Bible. He stepped to the front row and handed two to Pastor Swan and two to Mr. Tillman on the opposite end of the front pew.
“One picture shows the young man who came to help us the very first day we arrived. We call him William. He lives with us now, though he is almost a grown man. And the little children playing beneath the banyan tree are Mrs. McConnell’s students. She has learned enough of their language to teach them English. We hope one day they’ll be able to read and understand the Bible.”
My eyes followed the pictures as they passed from person to person. Would they disappear before I could hold them? My fingers refused to stay still. I clasped them together and pressed them to my lap. For a moment. Then they wandered again, worrying over the folds of my skirt, the fringe on my purse, the pages of my Bible.
Finally the photographs landed in my hands. Breathless, I studied the dark faces. A group of men sat in a semicircle. A length of cloth draped the shoulder or circled the waist of each, dangling into a wrapped skirtlike garment. My cheeks heated. I told myself to look away from the scantily clad men who faced the camera. But I couldn’t. The lack of hope in their steely eyes clawed at my heart.
I slid the photo to the back of the stack. Two little girls squatted at the edge of a trickle of water, bodies scarcely covered, faces serious. And William between them—at least I assumed so, given the toothy grin, the life-filled eyes. I swiped my thumb across his face, wishing I could see his joy in person. Joy that wouldn’t be his if the McConnells hadn’t gone to Africa in the first place. I pushed out my breath, trying to release the tight band of emotion constricting my chest. But it cinched tighter, surging into my throat and threatening to spill out of my eyes.
Mr. Trotter nudged my arm. I held out the photos. The minute they left my hand, I yearned to hold them again.
Mr. Trotter gave them a cursory glance and passed them along.
My mouth dropped open before it pulled into a frown. How could he part with them so quickly? Didn’t he see what I saw? Didn’t he feel what I felt? I craned my neck to follow the progress of the photos, reading other faces to see if their reactions mirrored my own.
Compassion cloaked many faces. Others gave them only momentary attention.
I turned back to the front, tried to concentrate on Mr. McConnell’s stories of God’s faithfulness in their work. But my thoughts returned to the pictures, to the people. How could anyone remain unmoved?
Perhaps the images stirred some people so deeply they had to relinquish them quickly. Perhaps if they gave close attention to the faces, they’d be unable to mask their emotions. My spirit brightened. That had to be the explanation.
Satisfied, I settled back in my seat to listen.
“Will you pray for us as we are away from our work? It is difficult but necessary. And by the grace of God, we’ll return to Africa soon.” He bowed his head, as did the others around me.
But I couldn’t force my eyes shut. The earnestness that clenched his features as he talked to God held me fast—at least until my focus roamed to Mrs. McConnell. Clasped hands. Lips moving in silent supplication. Such obvious devotion. Such willing sacrifice. A lump rose in my throat as the pictures loomed again in my mind.
Pastor Swan stood before us again. I blinked my surprise. Had Mr. McConnell walked from the stage or been whisked back to his seat by the Spirit of God?
“What John will not tell you is that he and his wife are trusting the Lord to raise the money they need to return to their work among the Africans of the Gold Coast. They need money not only for their return passage but also to build a church for the new believers, to help educate the men who desire to lead the young congregation, and to feed and clothe those who have little resources of their own.”
His gaze swept over the entire church, front pew to back, one side to the other. “Will you commit to support them? Will you help the gospel go forth in word and in deed?”
My feet danced. My hands trembled. I squeezed my eyes shut, but African faces appeared before me, both the ones who needed Jesus and the one who had already found Him.
My eyes flew open. Money. I had money. Or rather, Father did. Why else would God have placed me in such a family if not to use its resources for His kingdom?
Like an automobile leaping into a full-throttled run, I sprang to my feet. My fingers clamped the back of the pew in front of me. “I can help, Pastor Swan.”
His face tinged pink as he looked at me. My stomach somersaulted, but my mouth refused to stop. “I’ll give three thousand dollars to Mr. McConnell’s mission.” I whirled to face the congregation. “Will you join me? Will each of you give something toward this important work of God? With our gifts together, we could present Mr. and Mrs. McConnell with a total of six thousand dollars to help bring Christ to the world.”
Gasps sounded from every corner of the room. Wide eyes stared back at me, no less startled than if I’d declared an intention to travel to Africa myself. My knees shook under the weight of my words.
Three thousand dollars? Six thousand dollars? I doubted any of these people could fathom such amounts, though three thousand dollars would represent little hardship to my father. He’d spent near that amount on my Packard and his Mercer. Certainly Mother spent at least that much in a year on clothes and charity events and travel to and from Chicago. I peeked down at Mr. Trotter, anxious for his encouragement. But his jaw hung open, glazed eyes peering into mine.
“Such a . . . generous offer, Miss Benson,” Pastor Swan stammered as I spun to face him again. Mrs. Tillman gaped back at me, her face seeming to reflect both admiration and concern. I brushed a cluster of curls from my face as I quashed momentary misgivings.
With a turn of my head, I found Ava McConnell’s shining black eyes fixed on mine. The gratitude in them weakened my knees, until a tug at my sleeve drew my attention.
Mr. Trotter cleared his throat, patted my place on the pew. I eased down, eager for the service to be dismissed. I needed to meet the McConnells and explain how much I admired and appreciated their service to the Lord.
“You’ve landed yourself in quite a quagmire, Miss Alyce.” Mr. Trotter’s whisper tickled my ear. “Have you forgotten that your father despises all things religious?”
I turned in his direction. “Except for his daughter.” I kept my voice low as my lips curled into a smile. Mr. Trotter appeared unmoved. I shook away his concern. He handled Father’s accounts. Yet I knew my father far better than he did. Father supported Mother’s charitable causes without question. I couldn’t think of a reason he’d refuse to support mine.
Mr. Tillman crept up behind his wife, a mask of doubt covering his pasty face. When he tapped her on the arm, she hesitated, her mouth puckering with displeasure for a split second. Then it smoothed into a smile.
“If you’ll excuse me?” She nodded to each McConnell in turn. “Such a pleasure to meet you.”
I stepped forward before she’d finished her exit, extending my hand first to Mr. McConnell and then to his wife. “I’m pleased to meet you both.”
Mrs. McConnell’s plain features lit with joy as our eyes met again. Without hesitation, I threw my arms around her slight body. She chuckled as she pressed her small hands against my back. When I pulled away, Pastor Swan stood beside me.
My cheeks heated. “I never meant to disrupt the service. Will you forgive me?”
“No need to apologize, dear.” The pastor’s eyes wrinkled at the corners. “I see you’ve met John and Ava.”
We all answered yes.
“Good. Good.” His head bobbed a period at the end of each word. “Then I guess we ought to discuss the details of your generous offer toward their work.”
“Of course.” I glanced over my shoulder. Mr. Trotter hovered behind our group. I stepped aside, motioned him into our circle of conversation. “Mr. Trotter, please meet Mr. and Mrs. McConnell.”
While the men shook hands and exchanged greetings, I gave closer study to Ava McConnell’s face. Despite her sallow complexion, her eyes shone with energy and delight.
She inched closer to me. “I pray the Lord will richly bless you, Miss—”
“Alyce.” I grasped her thin hands as if she and I had already shared years of friendship. “Alyce Benson.”
“Alyce.” Her smile warmed me to my toes. “But surely you didn’t intend to offer such an exorbitant sum.”
I glanced at Pastor Swan, a grin playing at my lips. “Oh, but I did. How could I not after seeing those faces?” I pressed my hand over my heart.
Tears welled in Mrs. McConnell’s eyes. She reached for her husband’s Bible and slipped one of the photographs from its pages. She stared at it for a moment and then held it out to me. “These are three of my favorite children in the village.”
I smiled down at them, wishing I could wrap my arms around their little bodies. “They are beautiful.” I pushed the photo back in her direction.
She held out her palms. “No, please. Keep it. Pray for them—and for us.”
I dropped to the pew as my heart burst into a million pieces at such an extravagant gift. “Oh, Mrs. McConnell! Are you sure?”
She perched beside me, nodding. “I’m sure. I would only give those precious faces to someone I felt cared about them as I do. And please, call me Ava. We’re friends now.”
I pressed the photo to my chest, unable to voice my gratitude on both counts.
Her spindly fingers rested on my knee as she lowered her voice. “But Alyce, are you sure about the money?”
Laughter spilled out of my full heart. “Please don’t worry on that score, Ava. My father owns Benson Farm Machinery here in Langston. He’ll be happy to help with your work in Africa.”
Joy radiated from her face. “Then we must thank him personally.” She pushed up on her toes and stretched her neck to search the thinning crowd.
My stomach clenched as I rose. “My father doesn’t actually . . . attend church.”
Ava’s heels settled back onto the ground, but her smile never wavered. No pity sprang into her eyes. My twinge of anxiety fell away.
“Be assured, then, that I will pray for your father, Alyce. His generosity will accomplish much in our small corner of Africa. And I know the Lord will reward His faithful steward for sowing an abundance into the work of the Lord.”
My smile sagged into a frown. She didn’t understand. Father wasn’t a steward of the Lord. He didn’t yet recognize his need for a savior, let alone a Lord and master. I knew myself to be a servant of the Lord, but I had nothing of my own to give. Nothing but what I received from my father.
“How long will it take to arrange the transfer of money, Miss Benson?” Pastor Swan asked.
Mr. Trotter cleared his throat, gave me a pointed look. I tried to dismiss him, but he cleared his throat again. More loudly this time.
What if it took some special action to retrieve the money—something I didn’t understand? Was that what Mr. Trotter was trying to tell me? I certainly didn’t want to look foolish in front of these men. “I don’t know. I mean, it might take a little while.”
Mr. Trotter relaxed. There. I’d read him correctly. I’d speak with him to understand the details, and then we could move forward. I sucked in a breath, ready to excuse myself from the gathering to confer with Mr. Trotter.
Mr. McConnell waved one of his large hands. “I can provide you with our bank’s information. I assume there wouldn’t be a problem with a wire transfer.” His gaze landed on mine.
I turned to Mr. Trotter. His eyes stretched wide as red splotched his face. I stepped in front of him, blocking his agitation from my new friends. As I did, my mind whirled with other possibilities. A celebration of God’s provision. A way to expose others to the work of the gospel around the world. “I’d hoped we could present the money to you in person. Couldn’t you stay a few days longer?”
Mr. McConnell wagged his head. “I wish we could. I sincerely do. But we haven’t time to spare. We are expected at another church, in Illinois, this evening.” He pulled out his pocket watch. “We must catch the train in less than an hour.”
My excitement wilted. I didn’t want to send the money to a bank. Not when I’d felt such a connection to the McConnells and the people they served in the Gold Coast. I wanted to feel the transfer of funds from my hands to theirs.
Pastor Swan’s face brightened. “Perhaps you could stop by on your way back to New York, at the end of your visit to the States. That would allow my congregation time to meet Miss Benson’s challenge to match her generous offering. We could boast publicly of the Lord’s faithfulness and provision.”
Mr. McConnell’s deep laughter rumbled through the almost-empty room as warm breath spewed down the back of my neck. Fingers jerked my elbow. I turned my head just a bit, my voice low, my lips barely moving. “Thank you for your help, Mr. Trotter. I’m sure I can handle things from here.”
Mr. Trotter’s eyes narrowed as he stepped away, his shoes echoing up the aisle and out the door.
“I think that’s a fine plan.” Mr. McConnell slapped Pastor Swan on the back, nearly catapulting him into the front pew.
I fought back a giggle as the missionary pulled a diary and pencil from his pocket. “September twenty-fourth should work,” he said. “We hope to be on a ship back to Africa by the end of that month.”
“Lord willing,” Ava breathed.
September. I counted quickly. Seven weeks for the people of our church to raise three thousand dollars. Father would provide our part and then I’d help the others raise the rest. How providential that I’d just offered a list of ideas to Mrs. Tillman that very morning. Bubbles of joy tickled laughter from my mouth.
The Lord had obviously prepared me for this day and this day for me.
Now I just needed to speak with Father.
My heart soared as my foot pressed the pedal on the floor, urging the car homeward with small adjustments to the throttle and spark plugs. Moments later, I turned off the main road and motored down the brick drive running beneath the porte cochere of our Italianate home. The doors of the old carriage house stood open at the end of the path.
I motored inside. Father’s Mercer, silent and clean, sat to my right, beside a shell of a racing car Webster Little was building. I parked the Packard between the Mercer and the workbench attached to the wall. My engine fell silent. I gathered my things, banged the Packard’s door shut, and grimaced. Earth clung to the paint of my car, transforming its gleaming white to the color of my morning toast and muting the bright red trim. I latched the carriage-house doors shut with a grin. Webster would likely shake his head and ask how fast I’d traveled before scrubbing every inch of the motorcar and checking it for damage.
Handbag swinging from my wrist, I sauntered through the ornamental gardens at the back of the house. Velvety petals drew my nose to their sweet scent and reminded me again that a sacrifice of obedience such as I’d offered that morning rose as a pleasing fragrance before the Lord. I hurried up the steps and into the kitchen, grasped our cook around the waist, and spun a circle before letting her free.
Clarissa shook her wooden spoon at me, but I recognized the smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
“It’s a glorious day, Clarissa!” I dashed into the hall, up the curved staircase, and into Grandmother’s bedroom, my feet almost dancing.
I placed my Bible and handbag on a small table and leaned down to kiss Grandmother’s soft cheek before thudding into my usual chair beside her bed. She reached for me. I clasped her hand tight.
“I wish you could have been at church today, Grandmother. A missionary came and spoke about his work in Africa. He and his wife live in the Gold Coast. They teach the people about Jesus, as well as meet other needs in the remote villages. It was the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard.”
Releasing her hand, I fumbled through the pages of my Bible for the photograph. “I wish you could see this picture Ava gave me.” I leaned in, elbows sinking into the mattress. “Two little girls and a little boy, all sitting in front of a massive tree, its arms spread out over them, shielding them from the sun. Their faces are dark, but their eyes and teeth gleam white. There are grass huts in the background. Ava teaches them. She said these are some of her favorites.”
Grandmother’s mouth curved upward, as I knew it would.
“I’ve never heard such wonderful stories in all my life. And the photographs! There were several more. I feel so honored that they let me keep one. To remember.” With a sigh, I leaned against the back of the cane-seated chair, wishing I could loosen my stays and be more comfortable. But sharing my enjoyment of the photograph eased the pinch of my corset.
“I can just imagine those sweet children, Ally. But your enthusiasm over them worries me a bit.”
Laying aside the photo, I scooted my chair closer to the bed.
Her head tipped to one side as she stared unseeingly at me. “What have you done?”
I crossed my arms in a huff. “How do you know I’ve done anything at all?”
She giggled, her wrinkled face transforming into an expression of childlike wonder. “Because you’ve been on a desperate search for adventure ever since you were a tiny thing. Remember when we had to get the fire wagon’s long ladder to help you down from the old oak by the creek?” She shook her head. “No one ever imagined you’d climb up so high.”
I smiled in spite of myself. Mother had swooned right there under the tree.
“And when you put yourself between those two ducks, one wing in each hand, and jumped out of the old hayloft? That time you were certainly old enough to know better!”
The doctor had shaken his head, too, as he fastened a harness around my arm to keep it still while the bones healed. But those few minutes in the air had been worth all the pain. “Scoot over, Granny. I’ll tell you everything.”
Grandmother felt her way to the far edge of the bed. I sat beside her, feather pillows propping us upright, her head not quite reaching my shoulder.
“As I said, Mr. McConnell explained to us about his and his wife’s work in western Africa. Such splendid work. Then he passed around photographs of the people there, and my heart cracked like an old mirror. I knew I had to help.”
Grandmother sucked in a sharp breath. “Tell me you aren’t going to Africa, child.”
My heart leapt. Would the Lord see fit to bring me a missionary man some day? We might sail far across the ocean, to lands I knew only as a spot on the globe. Closing my eyes, I could almost feel the hot breeze of Africa, smell the loamy jungle.
I rested my cheek against the top of Grandmother’s head. “I wish God did have some exciting work for me to do. But no, I’m not going to Africa. Though it does sound . . .”
A lump in my throat halted the words. Tears stung my eyes as I felt her nod. We sat in silence, as we so often had, neither of us needing to speak. Grandmother read my heart like no one else. She’d understand what I’d done. I drew in as deep a breath as my clothing would allow. “Pastor Swan asked if our congregation would give to the McConnells’ African mission.”
Mr. Trotter’s face appeared in my mind, suddenly leaving me wary and desperate for air. Grandmother’s tiny hand lay near mine. I laced my fingers through hers. “I told them I’d give three thousand dollars.”
Grandmother bolted upright, head knocking my chin, hands groping until they held my cheeks between them. “Three thousand dollars?”
“Ally, honey. Where are you going to get that kind of money?”
I pulled away. “I’m going to ask Father, of course.”
“Your father?” Her hands released my face and kneaded into each other.
I tilted my head, fingers raking through the curls that bobbed above my shoulders. Grandmother had great faith. Always. For everything. Most of all, she had faith that her son and daughter-in-law would do the impossible—see their need of Christ before their days on earth ended. So why did she not have the faith that Father would give me the money?
I hiked up my skirt and folded my legs beneath me. “The Lord will soften Father’s heart. I know He will. After all, this is for His work.”
Her face didn’t change. Her hands didn’t stop. “I don’t know, Alyce. I’m not sure—” Her voice faded as I climbed from the bed. Touching the photograph now lying atop my Bible, I sighed. “I might as well tell you the rest.”
“There’s more?” Her voice trilled higher, like the treble keys on the piano in the drawing room downstairs.
“I asked the church members to match my contribution.”
Grandmother fell back into the pillows behind her, her unseeing eyes staring at the ceiling. “Three thousand dollars? Most of those people can barely provide for their own families, Ally.”
A smidgen of doubt wiggled in my belly. “Some will be able to do more than others. And I know the Women’s Mission Auxiliary will take this on as their special project. God will provide. I know He will.”
But even I recognized the lack of conviction in my voice. Three thousand dollars. Most of the families couldn’t afford the three hundred dollars that would buy them a Model T. What had I been thinking?
Trembling hands pressed against my souring stomach. I’d done what the Lord had desired me to do. I knew I had.
Or at least I believed I had.
Good thing, too. For I’d opened my eyes at dawn and reached for the photograph of the African children. Sitting up in bed, I’d pulled my knees nearer to my chest as their young eyes pierced my very soul.
“Draw them to Yourself, O Lord. Bring light into their darkness. The fields are white unto harvest and Your workers are willing.” A tide of emotion shut my lips. I knew John and Ava McConnell would strive to meet these children’s physical and spiritual needs. But they needed money to aid their endeavors. And I could provide that. Had Father ever denied me anything I’d asked?
But the timing hadn’t seemed right yesterday, during our customary Sunday drive. So I rehearsed my speech as I dressed. I hurried downstairs, met Father in the foyer. His hand tapped the banister. The minute he saw me, a grin covered his entire face.
I kissed his cheek. “Good morning, Father. Ready for Clarissa’s good breakfast?”
His sniff of the air in the dining room as we entered told me all I needed to know.
“I imagine she’ll be down soon.” He took his place at the head of the table while I filled a plate for him from the sideboard before filling my own.
He tucked a napkin beneath his chin and then sawed off a piece of steak, stabbed it with his fork, and raised it to his mouth. His eyes closed as he chewed and then swallowed.
“Clarissa!” His voice echoed through the room, shaking the crystal droplets on the wedding-cake chandelier above the table. Clarissa charged in from the butler’s pantry, her freckled face blazing as red as her hair.
“Somethin’ the matter, Mr. Benson?” Her slight Irish lilt made her words seem polite, though I recognized her irritation.
“A fine breakfast.” He chuckled, his ample stomach shaking.
She pursed her lips, bobbed a curtsy, and returned to the kitchen.
Nothing more than their usual morning interaction. As a child I’d cried when he shouted her name. But over the years I noticed that in spite of the abruptness of his tone, not once did he criticize her cooking. In fact, several times he’d upped her pay on the spot.
I slipped into the chair on Father’s right. My mouth watered at the sight of the fluffy scrambled eggs and strips of crisp fried bacon on my plate. I bit into a biscuit and let my napkin catch the butter dripping down my chin.
“Alyce, did you learn nothing at that school?” Mother seemed to float into the chair at the opposite end of the table from Father with a grace I could never manage for myself. She sighed as I reached for the coffeepot and filled her cup. “And what in heaven’s name areyou wearing?”
I shrugged. “I picked it up in Chicago.”
“Really, Alyce. Where on earth did you find a frock so drab?”
“It’s quite the fashion, Mother.” I smoothed my skirt over my legs. White crepe with sprigs of pink flowers, a pink sash at the waist, and pink shell buttons up the bibbed front. I liked this dress, liked how I felt . . . normal in it. At least as normal as the daughter of the wealthiest man in town could feel.
Mother’s manicured eyebrows seemed to rise as high as the ornate ceiling above our heads. “Fashionable with your churchpeople, I suppose. I can’t imagine your classmates succumbing to such an ordinary costume.” She rested her elbows on the table, her chin alighting on her clasped hands. The Venetian lace at her wrists fluttered like butterfly wings before settling on the sleeves of her silk dress.
I fought the downward tug on my lips. What she’d paid for her dress might feed a Gold Coast village for a month. A dress she didn’t even deem worthy of a public wearing. And yet she constantly devoted her time to the charitable efforts of her ladies’ club, so I had to believe she cared about someone besides herself. She’d had nothing when she became Father’s wife. Couldn’t I excuse a bit of self-indulgence?
“Leave her be, Winifred.” Father spoke from behind Saturday’s edition of the Indianapolis Star. He reached for his coffee, took a long draught, and returned the cup to its place on the table. “We don’t want to run her off after we’ve just got her home again.”
Mother opened her mouth to reply.
“Anything interesting in the paper?” I jumped into the silence as I watched Mother from the corner of my eye. Then I popped a bite of scrambled eggs into my mouth.
“War in Europe. Presidential election. The usual.” He turned another page. “Oh—here’s something you’ll like. They held an automobile race in Tacoma, Washington, on Saturday.”
I ceased to notice the food I forked into my mouth. Instead, images of speeding motorcars and swirling smoke filled my head and quickened my pulse. “Who drove?”
“Rickenbacker. De Palma. A few others.”
“Board track or dirt?” I gulped down half of my tepid coffee in excitement.
“Board. Cracks filled with gravel instead of left open.”
“Wonder if that was to Rick’s disadvantage.”
Father snorted and turned another page. “Doubt it. Eddie Rickenbacker’s a natural. Guess the results will be in the paper today.”
Thanks to the interurban, the Indianapolis Star arrived in Langston just a few short hours after the ink dried.
“Alyce.” Mother sighed my name.
My stomach tumbled, regretting its desire for food. Why did her disapproval affect me so?
She turned her irritation on Father. “Really, Harry. Do you think it proper for a girl of her age and station to converse about such things? It’s bad enough that you allow her to drive. And then keep us in this backwater town with no eligible men to court her. Must you fill her head with auto racing, as well?”
I couldn’t quell my grin. I felt sure merriment twinkled in my eyes, too. So I kept my gaze pinned on Father.
He chuckled. “Say what you will, Winifred, but if her attention to racing keeps your Chicago dandies away from her, all the better.”
My silent mirth gave way to heated cheeks. I pressed my linen napkin to my mouth. Oh, to escape the conversation that replayed like a phonograph record in my head. It had started the day of my thirteenth birthday, Mother insisting I learn feminine accomplishments and leave off diving from haylofts and climbing trees—and driving my own motorcar and talking about auto races. Those things, she insisted, invited scandal, not suitors. Without Father’s indulgence all these years, I imagine I would have suffocated long ago.
Father folded the newspaper and set it aside. “I don’t intend to give my girl to just any young swell that comes along. And I won’t let you foist on her a man who’s only interested in her inheritance.”
Money. Africa. I folded my napkin and stared into my lap, preparing to make my request. Father had championed me once this morning—would he do so again? I shot a quick prayer heavenward before addressing him.
“Yes, my girl?” He hummed a bit of a tune as he finished his breakfast.
I took a deep breath. “I need some money.”
“Money?” He reached inside his jacket, pulled out his wallet, and tossed a bill on the table. “Will that do you for a few pretties?”
President Grover Cleveland’s face stared up at me, Twenty Dollars inscribed beneath his name. “Actually, I need a bit more than that.”
He chuckled and wagged his index finger at me. “I knew you’d catch on to your mother’s schemes one of these days.”
Mother rolled her eyes and excused herself from the room as he picked up the money, slipped it back into his wallet, and returned the wallet to his pocket. “Just charge what you need. I’ll cover the bill.”
I jumped from my seat, my hand restraining Mother’s exit. “Wait, Mother. You should hear this, too.”
She stopped, returned to her chair, and pushed her half-empty plate toward the center of the table.
I clasped my hands behind me. “It isn’t clothes, Father. Or anything like that.”
His left eyebrow rose, giving his face a lopsided look. “Not tired of the Packard already, are you?”
I shook my head.
His eyebrows sank into a deep V. “Smashed it up, did you?”
“Alyce!” Mother bolted upright.
Father shook his head. “I always knew you would one day. Can’t drive as fast as you like to without losing control at some point.”
“My Packard is fine. It’s just that I need . . .” My throat constricted around the largeness of the number. “I need three thousand dollars.”
“Three thousand dollars?” Father pulled the square of linen from its place in his collar. “What in heaven’s name for?”
“Wait here. I’ll show you.” Before either could protest, I dashed up the stairs, grabbed the picture from my Bible, and scurried back to the dining room.
I slapped it to the table. “There.”
Both of my parents moved closer, peered down into the faces that lived vivid in my memory.
“Why, they’re children.” Concern etched itself around Mother’s painted lips.
“What does this mean, Ally?” Father’s grumble stirred the breakfast in my stomach once again.
“A man and his wife who work in Africa came to our church yesterday. They live among the people in a place called the Gold Coast. In Africa. People with little to wear, little to eat.” I held my tongue before mentioning their need for Jesus. “I want to give three thousand dollars to help advance their work.”
Mother dropped back into her chair. Father paced in front of the tall windows.
“That charlatan Swan put you up to this.” Tight words, portending a storm of great force.
I flinched but didn’t retreat. “No, sir. This was my idea.”
He stopped pacing and faced me. “Well, it was a blame-fool one. I hear what you’re not saying, Ally. They’re over there touting religion to those unsuspecting people. I won’t be a party to it.” He stalked toward the door.
I hurried after him. “But, Father, everyone’s expecting it.”
He froze, then turned. “What do you mean everyone’s expecting it? Who thinks you have that kind of money?”
“Everyone at church.” I moistened my lips. “I told them I’d give three thousand dollars to help fund the work.”
“You did what?” His face turned the color of a ripe strawberry as his voice rose, the full fury of the storm lashing out. “Let me tell you, missy, not one cent of my hard-earned money is going toward this foolishness. Do you hear? If you’re so all-fired determined to participate in this scheme, you’ll have to scavenge for that money yourself. And don’t even think about wheedling it from your mother!”
My mouth dropped open as he charged out of the room. Not since the day when Grandmother told him of my walk down the aisle at church had I seen him so angry.
The front door slammed shut, tinkling the chandelier overhead. I sank back into my chair and groaned as Mother swished from the room after throwing me a disapproving look, but whether she resented my request or my making Father angry, I couldn’t tell.
The silence made my thoughts loud. Where in the world would I find three thousand dollars? And how would I ever face my church again if I didn’t?
The swinging door creaked open.
“You can come in now, Clarissa.” I slumped a bit toward the table, my chin resting in my upturned hands like Mother’s had not long ago.
Clarissa bustled into the room, shaking her head and tsking under her breath. “You barely ate a thing.” She whisked my plate from the table and set it atop my father’s empty one.
“I’ll work up an appetite for lunch. I promise. Maybe Grandmother will even feel up to coming to the table with me.”
Silverware clinked against china. “Don’t you worry, Miss Alyce. The Lord will provide, especially once your grandmother gets wind to pray.” A broad grin lit Clarissa’s freckled face as she pushed her backside against the door into the pantry, hands piled high with dirty dishes.
Grandmother’s prayers. Normally a comforting thought. But even Grandmother didn’t have the faith to believe the Lord would change my father’s heart this time.