Oma Almona Davies was a regular contributor to The Saturday Evening Post throughout the 1920’s. For “A Ring With Rubies At”, we find her collaborating with the iconic post illustrator Tony Sarg to tell a story of romance, robbery, and danger, all centered around a magazine advertisement similar to those found in the Post at the time.
Published on May 10, 1924
Elisha Maice was on his way to kill the Hepple girl. His thoughts were as fiery as his hair, as deep as his blue, green-flecked eyes, as purposeful as the forward jut of his chin.
In amorphous hunch upon the seat of the top buggy, he pestered the horse’s rump with an ineffectual peach shoot while he passionately reviewed the previous half hour of his history. The galling thing was, of course, that he had been yanked upward by the neck scruff at the momentous instant in which he had decided his financial destiny.
For there he had been, a half hour before, with elbows taut upon the warm kitchen table, a 15-year-old man with twelve dollars and seventy-five cents banked in canvas bag upon his bosom, in travail as to whether he would become a cattle king or a hog baron. There had he been when he had rendered final decision in favor of the barony, the superior eagerness of the hog tribe to reproduce its own being the unanswerable argument in its favor. It had been at that climactic moment that Adam had leaped in, ox goad in fist, eyes wild.
“The bull’s outbusted the hind fence! You got to make me an errant. Make quick now!”
And as the potential baron, with hogs teeming by the thousand about him, had sat staring, he had been dragged from his chair, hoisted across the freezing ruts of the barnyard and dumped over the wheel into the top buggy.
“You got to git my girl from Schindler’s to Hoopstetter’s! Make hurry quick! And you fix a dates fur me — you tell her I’m a-settin’ up Saturday night agin!”
Oh, Elisha had protested at mention of the Hepple girl of course! He had started to kick out of the buggy. But Adam had plastered his eighteen-year spread of hand against Elisha’s middle and had pasted him against the seat again.
“Dast you! And you take good care to my girl or I’ll — ” And then, because he was Adam, and Elisha’s mother as well as his brother, he had grinned, rammed a huge paw into his pocket and had flung a dime upon the buggy seat. Then he had run, gripping his ox goad and hallooing to their father, who was already lunging toward the far end of the field.
In the clear flame of his anger against Adam, the bull and the Hepple girl, Elisha saw the problem of his life distinctly. His problem was to put into word and into action the fact that he was a man. Never before had he objected to being Adam’s younger brother — being anything to Adam had been enough. But now that he was being dragged into entangling alliances with Adam’s sticky girls, the relationship, as such, must cease
Here he was on his way — on Adam’s way — to the Hepple girl. He had to get her from her Schindler uncle in the village to her Hoopstetter uncle in the country. Why couldn’t Adam have let Schindler get her to Hoopstetter? And, back of all that, what did she want to come visiting around Buthouse County for anyway? If she was in a factory in the city, why didn’t she stay factor-ing then?
A groan escaped him as he beheld the red top of the Schindler house above its fir hedge.
From Schindlers of assorted sizes and sexes who swarmed into the side yard emerged finally the Hepple girl. She was supported toward the vehicle by a slender male Schindler with thin damp-looking hair. Supported is a carelessly chosen word, however; the young man’s legs seemed scarcely adequate to support his own frame — they gave the impression of being just on the point of swaying from beneath him. He nested his twiglike fingers about the girl’s elbow and she sprang lightly into the seat beside Elisha.
“This here’s Adam’s brother, ain’t? This here’s Elijah Maice, Herbie.”
The Herbie young man flicked an eyelash toward Elisha.
“Elijah, huh? Well, don’t let his ravens get you anyway! And don’t go forgetting your little city cousin while you’re out there among the hog raisers!”
“Oh, ain’t you awful?” giggled the Hepple girl. “Gid dup!” shouted Elisha. “Ain’t he awful yet?” The Hepple girl was the twitchy kind. She twitched at her glove, at a magazine, at the laprobe. “We ain’t relationed together. He just plagues me. He’s Uncle Jacob’s nephew, and I’m Aunt Mat’s niece.”
“Course he’s high educated that way. He’s got a decree, or whatever, at the law. He’s the leading and only lawyer at Heitwille a’ready.”
From the corner of his eye Elisha appraised that she was thin enough to be bounced out by a sizable rut. Suppose he maneuvered the wheels at just the right angle — she wouldn’t land hard, there wasn’t enough to her. Even if he did finally go back for her — if he did — the breath might be jolted out of her so that she’d be quiet anyway. He could see her sitting there by the side of the road.
What he really did see at that moment was another appraising eye. Upon him! A gray eye with an astonishingly black pupil. A pupil astonishingly penetrating!
He raised the reins high and slapped them down mercilessly. Old Bess flipped backward an outrages ear and lunged into a resentful canter. The Hepple girl bounced forward, then back—and settled closer to Elisha.
“Ain’t it kind o’ crispy though, now the sun’s gettin’ ready to set on us?”
Elisha heaved violently to his own corner. He felt the black pupils again turning toward him.
“It wonders me still,” pursued the Hepple girl, and her voice was soft now in meditation; “I thought Adam was sayin’ where he had a little brother. And here you’re a man a’ready. That does now make a supprise fur me.”
“Huh?” Elisha snorted, and was immediately sorry. He had made an iron resolution to suffer in silence his three miles of humiliation.
“Yes, I would guess anyhow! But mebbe he was playin’ off a joke on me. Or else, was you, mebbe, his big brother?”
“He ain’t got but one,” grunted Elisha. He surreptitiously glanced down the length of his arm, flexed its muscles. His secret shame had always been that he was not huge, like Adam!
“Now me, I’m so runty that way,” sighed his companion.
“You are that,” muttered Elisha.
“Course a body can’t help fur their size. But I guess that’s why I always take to big men mebbe.” Elisha shuddered. “Well, and women too. Aunt Mat always says, ‘My, I wisht if I wasn’t more’n two hunert, so I could be stylish like you,’ she says. But I say back always, ‘Well, what does it fetch to be stylish? Look oncet at Cousin Herbie. He might be stylish, but he’s awful skinny. Them kind don’t make nothing with me. I like fur to see ‘em heartier and more, now, comfortable lookin’,’ I says. ‘Comfort yet is what makes with me,’ I says.”
Elisha looked down distrustfully at an extremely pointed shoe slanted upward from beneath the robe. His companion immediately gave a wrenlike nod.
“I know. It looks some squinchy. But it ain’t. I’m just natured to that shape a’ready.”
Elisha again went sharply in search of his breath. What was this he had in the buggy with him anyway? He had never seen such swift reaction, such uncanny divination. He had always thought you had to tell a girl anything twice over before she got it. And here, almost before he had a thought, she was expressing it for him! And that foot now — was it possible that a woman’s foot really did grow into a point? Could it be that a girl did quicken into some strange new thing somewhere along? That she wasn’t just a meager edition of a man, weaker in both mind and body?
He squared heavily about and looked full at the Hepple girl. She twitched lightly about and looked full at him. Her eyelashes rayed out, very black and very long; their tips seemed caught together by twos and threes — caught together — caught — He gasped; his foot jerked heavily upward as though from some entanglement. The jerk pried loose his eyes.
He wouldn’t look at her again. What was the matter with him? A rein dropped from his demoralized fingers. He swooped after it. And as he came up, something slowly pushed his head around so that he looked at her again. Her eyes were still upon him. Her very soft, very red lips parted slowly, slowly curved.
He definitely clutched at anger. He grabbed the peach shoot and sliced blindly. It broke over the dashboard, dangled. He hurled it away and hissed wrathfully after it.
“What you intrusted in?” Should he answer her? “Poland Chinas,” he grudged. “Me too! I do now take to them Oriental things till it is somepun supprising. My, ain’t you up-to-the-minute though?”
“Pigs!” shouted Elisha. “Hogs! Boars!” She was a dopple after all! Didn’t even know Poland Chinas!
She considered. Then she gazed at him, gently forgiving.
“To be sure, pigs. Polish Chinas. But they come from China first off. And if they come from China, they’re what you call it Oriental, ain’t not?”
Each hair upon Elisha’s head rose in fiery curiosity. “China, still? From acrost the oceans over?”
The Hepple girl nodded decisively. “In such ships oncet.”
Elisha pondered this revelation of porcine genealogy. The girl gave a little sigh.
“But, anyways, what does it make? This here is what makes with me: Fur to find somebody where has the same intrusts like what I have a’ready. I do, now, take to such little pigs. I can’t otherwise help fur it. And I would bet, now, you’ve decided to go into pigs!”
Breath-taking! Elisha leaned back somewhat weakly.
“Well, anyway,” he admitted, “I took the prize for Juniors at the Grange two months back a’ready. Twohunert-and-sixty-pound shoat. Ten dollars.”
“Ten dollars still!” gasped his companion. “Since I am born a’ready, I ain’t hearing of nothing so intrusting!” She snuggled closer.
Elisha tipped his cap rakishly. He tossed off, “That ain’t nothing. I’ll git mebbe twenty, twenty-five, more on her yet. Till it comes next week, pop will be loadin’ stock fur the market onto a box car, and I’ll be a-fetchin’ off my share alongside the other — the other men.”
Then said the Hepple girl an amazing thing. “Before ever you was turnin’ in at Schindler’s, I seen it at you. Yes I seen it at you where you was one of the money men of Buthouse County a’ready.”
And she wasn’t joking! He swung upon her quickly to catch her. She was gazing up at him as innocently as a babe, and as helplessly, as helplessly. Her lips were parted as in breathless adoration, her eyes upturned deep pools, into which one might slip — or plunge —
“Whoa!” yelled Elisha, and subdued his steed from a gentle trot to a walk. “Whoa, anyway! What do youse want to make such hurry fur?”
His left side was growing very warm; oh, very! The girl looked bony, but she wasn’t. She flanked him closely, softly, like such a hot- water bottle; or, no, hotter, hotter, like one them mustard plasters now. His heart thump-thumped, thump-thumped. She lay against his heart! He had a sudden conviction, all pain, all pleasure, that he could not move if he tried! He was terrified, he was paralyzed; he had never been so desperately happy in his life.
As though soft veils had been laid over his ears, he heard her voice coming up, coming up, as though from far below: “Yes, well. I guess I would up and give it away if I would ever get such a ten dollars. Yes, I guess I would go to work and make some such inwestment at friendship, like I read off somewheres. And that would be awful silly, ain’t?”
“Yes,” agreed Elisha hoarsely.
Elisha, in fact, was in mood to agree with everybody. A half hour later when Mrs. Hoopstetter swam into the periphery of his bedazzled vision, he agreed with her. Mrs. Hoopstetter, with hairpin antenna emerging from the black coil upon the top of her head, her rounding form incased in black calico with red polka dots, bore an unmistakable resemblance to a potato bug as she ambled toward them from her kitchen door.
“Well, was this, now, Cory Hepple? Ain’t you growed though, since you was a baby a’ready? And if this here ain’t Elisha a-fetchin’ you! Come insides and set along fur supper, Elisha. The Wieners is all made and the coffee’s on the boil.”
Still later he agreed with Cora Hepple when she indicated that he was to sit down beside her upon the settee and to devour with her the magazine which she had carried from the Schindlers’.The name of the publication as it was emblazoned above a polychrome pirate rampant upon its cover was Up to the Minute; and its date was the month previous.
That Miss Hepple was a devotee of literature might have been inferred from the general indication of wear and tear upon the publication; but she disclaimed any tendencies in this direction when Elisha cast a gloomy eye upon it and gloomily shook his head in answer to her question.
“Nor me neither,” she confessed promptly. “I ain’t addicted to readin’ off just one word and then another. That there’s a waste of time, ain’t? But I do sometimes go to work and read what it makes at the adwertisements. Now, fur instinc’, it wouldn’t wonder me none if we was to run into some such pigs over behind.”
Fascinating as were pigs, however, they were not so fascinating to Elisha at that moment as the fingers which were flying in search of them. The lamplight coruscated over the nails which tipped them like they were—well, like they were freshly shellacked, now. He drew his brows as he gazed from them to his own, dull and spatulate, and finally queried bluntly: “What is it at them? Warnish or whatever?”
She looked up at him inquiringly, then laughed softly, tipping up one shoulder, then the other.
“Oh, I’m just natured that way at the nails. It’s fierce, ain’t not?”
“Yes,” breathed Elisha. Pointed feet — shining nails. He slid from her. And why not? It is an awesome experience to discover a new creation.
She uttered a sharp exclamation, laid the magazine flat upon her knees and placed five of her amazing finger nails upon her heart.
“Och, my! That there makes me dizzy at the head! Why, it’s just what I been always dreaming about!”
Elisha looked down at the page. He saw nothing remarkable. “It ain’t nothing but a ring,” he said.
“A ring!” gasped Miss Cora. “A ring with rubies at!” She thrust the publication into his hands. “Read it oncet!”
Above, below and surrounding a particularly angry-looking ring from the stone of which fiery rays darted to the bounds of the column were the words:
STARTLING GEM OFFER
Our exclusive MILLENNIUM RING, known to satisfied thousands. Blue-white stone, perfect cut, set in elegant white-gold cup, surrounded by
CHOICE OF EMERALDS OR RUBIES CREDIT TO OUR FRIENDS This means you!
at $29.50Simply enclose $10.00. Balance $2.50 per week. Our investment in friendship. We take all chances
LIMITED SUPPLY ORDER NOW
Elisha shook his head darkly and handed back the magazine.
“Say, now,” he warned, gazing down at the innocent little creature curled up beside him, “don’t go fallin’ ower this here! It might be some such trick in it. Them city sharpers — ”
But look who it is a’ready! The Old Honest Goldsmith, H. Chadwick, Inc. I’ve knew about Mr. Inc since I was born a’ready. But what does it make to talk?” She spread her ten tiny empty fingers in a gesture of resignation over the piercing rays of the ring. “It ain’t nobody where would go makin’ such expensive inwestments at friendship just ower me! Eut och, my! If anybody up and got me such a ring with rubies at I wouldn’t have eyes for nobody else, it would go that silly with me. I have afraid anyway — ”
But she was not so smitten with fear at that moment as was Elisha. He sprang up, kneecap cracking. His body slanted tensely toward the closed kitchen door, through which a voice was thundering:
“What does he mean by somepun like this anyhow? Lettin’ the cow to milk fur me! It should give a good thrashing fur that one!”
“Your pop!” gasped the girl with lightning intuition.
Elisha did not pause to identify his parent verbally. He was already wresting open a door on the opposite side of the room. He whizzed through the chill dank of a parlor, wrangled a huge brass key at the ceremonial front door and zoomed out into the blackness of a porch.
“I got to go. It’s gittin’ late on me,” he clattered back over his shoulder.
But he had not counted upon the celerity of his hostess. She was there beside him. Even as he landed upon the top step she thrust something beneath his arm.
“Take it along with! We ain’t looked fur them China pigs!”
Elisha had no need to urge upon old Bess that time was the essence of their contract; she had not yet had her supper. She legged off the mile and a quarter between the two farms with such impatience that Elisha had fed her and had bedded both her and himself before he heard a door slammed in paternal wrath beneath him. He lay quivering in the bed beside the sleep-drenched Adam until he heard his father’s footsteps clanking off to their own room; then he nested down with a great sigh.
It was long before the boy Elisha really slept. And yet, was it the boy Elisha who lay taut between the blankets that night, his forward jut of chin thrusting upward into the crisp air, his deep eyes matching the depth of shadow in the room? Had not the boy Elisha gone to sleep, beyond recall, two, three hours before? It was a naked soul, an elemental, at grips for the first time with the most powerful of the powers of the air. For assuredly it was not a man, this skinny thing which had finally much ado to keep from blubbering, from clutching at the big warm Adam and blubbering that he hadn’t meant to do it, he hadn’t meant to take Adam’s sweetheart from him; but she just would have him, she just would!
Between his tossings, as he lay still-eyed, came again and again a memory seemingly detached from all he was thinking and all he was feeling: A long, long time ago when he was six and Adam was nine, the two of them, stumbling down the hill, behind their father, from the new grave under the beeches — Adam clutching his fingers until they hurt and whispering thinly: “You got me anyway! You got me anyway!”
And this was the Adam the was hurting! This was the Adam he was robbing!
He awoke, as usual, to the vigorous rattling of the stove in the room below. Adam did everything, not quickly, but vigorously. No brighter pans than Adam’s in any kitchen of Buthouse County; no straighter furrow in any field. No better corn cakes turned for any table; no cleaner garden patch behind any house. It always had been rather fun to keep house with Adam; it had seemed no woman’s task as Adam had carried it on, with slashing broom and swishing brush.
But today it was no fun. Elisha slunk about, with eyes down. Oh, he was heartbreakingly sorry for Adam!
And yet his heart beat with terrific triumph. Triumph that took him spasmodically by the legs and flipped him into a handspring. Triumph that took him by the wrist and made him shy a hatful of duck eggs, one by one, against the corncrib.
But there was no compromise in him. The jut of his chin was thrust definitely toward manhood — manhood symbolized, curiously enough, by that girl a mile and a quarter distant. A mile and a quarter? A world distant! And time — this was Friday — tomorrow Saturday. Well, Saturday night, then.
Upon his shoulder fell a heavy hand.
“Now, what about Saturday night?” demanded Adam. “Was you tellin’ her a’ready I am keepin’ comp’ny with her Saturday night?”
Like a bronze frog Elisha squatted, motionless. The hand twisted impatiently. Elisha slowly reached for a weed, slowly plucked it.
“It’s somebody else — settin’ up, keepin’ comp’ny — Saturday night,” he brought out. The hand jerked him, dangling slantwise, to his feet.”Somebody else?” roared Adam. “Who else, then? Answer me up now! That sleazy Schindler?”
“She — ain’t sayin’.”
“She better not be sayin’!” gritted the terrific Adam. When he knotted his fist like that the wrist tendons whipped out like live cords. “He’ll git the right to git his neck twisted off fur him.” He stalked away, kicking the clods.
Elisha oozed down upon the ground. He gazed after Adam, then he knotted his own fist and stared down upon his wrist; there were no cords there! Well, maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t interfere with Adam, Saturday night. But at that moment between his young ribs began to creep and whimper an alien thing, a spawn of distemper which was finally to strangle—and strangle—his love for Adam.
Hot of eye, hot of heart, he watched Adam on Saturday night as he bathed in the zinc tub behind the kitchen stove, as he covered his long clean muscles with splendid raiment, as he carefully parted the bronze glow of his hair and carefully curled up the lopside of it over his finger, as he donned his hat with slow deference to this same curl that it might follow the upward tilt of the felt. Adam never knew that when he closed the door upon his festive person, a man with the ache to kill shot to his feet with clenching fist and kicked murderously the leg of the table with the brass toeguard of his shoe.
But — he couldn’t endure it! He cast a quick glance upon his father mumbling over the livestock quotations, raped his hat and coat from their nail and let himself out of the door. Down the lane crisped Adam’s wheels upon the frozen ground; down the lane sped Elisha. He caught the tail of the buggy at last, jerked along agonizedly with it for a moment, then with a mighty heave landed in a clutching heap upon its narrow tail.
Ignominious, of course, jolting along back to back with Adam, the tailboard bruising into his flesh with every rut. But he was going, at any rate; he was getting there!
He got there, and he crouched like a the Hoopsetter wagonshed while Adam blanketed old Bess. Like a mouse scurried to the window of the living room.
There, there she was—upon the settee just as he had held her in memory! The light from the hanging lamp made a nimbus of her dark curling hair. Her little feet, those pointed feet, were tipping gently this way and that. And her eyes, those wide innocent eyes, were also turning, first this way, then that. Upon whom? Upon the male Schindler and upon Adam, upon a disgruntled Schindler and upon a glum Adam with arms upright like stanchions upon his knees. There they sat, the three of them; and outside, loving, hating, Elisha. Outside, feasting, starving, Elisha.
Outside, that was it. Shivering’ for a quarter of an hour, there, outside. With a hard gulp he swung from that window at last. He had determined what he would do. He would do that which he had told himself for two days that he could not do.
He could not do it fast enough now. He lunged into a run, the aroused Hoopstetter hounds in full yelp behind him. The whole universe seemed in clamor. He liked it. It seemed right, considering the momentous thing he was about to undertake.
The house was dark, as he had expected, but he paused for an alert moment inside the door, his ear cocked cannily upward toward his father’s bedroom. Then he tiptoed into the parlor and abstracted from the paternal stock of stationery between the leaves of the family Bible an envelope, a sheet of paper and a stamp. There was no need to withdraw from the lair beneath his own mattress the phrenetic pirate guarding the Startling Gem Offer of H. Chadwick, Inc. Did he not know by heart every syllable of the Old Honest Goldsmith?
Under slowly weaving tongue Elisha composed his first business letter, which for brevity has probably never been excelled in all the annals of financial correspondence:
Heitville Rural F D
Dear sir Mr Inc I send you still ten dollars. You send me Milennium Ring A3035 as per
stricly confidential. With rubies at.
The letter was only the husk of renunciation, of course. He swallowed the bitter kernel when he gazed his last upon the ten-dollar bill which had lain so warmingly above his heart. It dimmed into twice, thrice its size as he bungled it into the narrow white casket of his hopes beside the letter to Mr. Inc.
Well, anyway, the little canvas bag was not empty; it still contained two dollars and seventy-five cents — no, eighty-five, with Adam’s dime. Two fifty for the first weekly payment, and something over. And within the week his father would be back from the stock market. It was all so safe, this investment in friendship in which Mr. Inc took all chances.
What really troubled him as he set out at once on a trot to the mail box at the crossroads — for had not Mr. Inc warned that he had but a Limited Supply? — what really troubled him on that half-mile trip was that he had not been able to accept the Old Honest Goldsmith’s Sacrifice to the Public as set forth upon another full page of the magazine: The Mammoth Complex Dinner Ring; a Constellation of Seven Large Diamonds: Only $49.50, $15.00 down, $5.00 weekly. But, anyway, she had said she liked rubies. He saw again her ten tiny empty fingers spread above the pictorial rays of his ring — her ring — their ring. How surprised she would be when she opened the Royal Purple Plush Gift Case!
He could keep his secret, Elisha could! But he kept it at fearful odds when he sat once more upon the settee and proffered the portentous magazine to its owner.
“And was you findin’ pigs at? Or, mebbe, somepun else intrusting?” she queried softly.
Elisha dug his heel into the carpet and shook his head. But she looked so concerned, so unutterably downcast that he found himself encouraging:
“Not anyways pigs. But I’m a-findin’ somepun else. I’m a-findin’ somepun else yet in that there book.”
She looked up at him quickly. Then she trilled into gratified laughter. “What, anyway?” she whispered. “Tell me oncet!” He could feel the little confiding heap of her against his elbow. He heaved chastely from her.
Entered Mr. Hoopstetter with rattling newspaper and clanking boot.
“Is Maice a-loadin’ his hogs Monday, then?” he queried grossly as he turned up the wick of the lamp. It reads here where the market goes draggy at the soft pigs. I ain’t a-lettin’ mine till the price stiffens at them, that I give you.”
Ominous words over which Elisha might well have felt apprehension, considering that his own financial solvency depended upon the prompt conveyance of his shoat to market! But all he was feeling for the moment was an intense dislike of the Hoopstetters; for Mr. Hoopstetter, who scraped his chair noisily underneath the hanging lamp; for Mrs. Hoopstetter, who ambled in with gingham apron overflowing with woolen socks, a darning needle stilettoed into her bosom.
They were always there, the Hoopstetters. It seemed as though Miss Cora Hepple was the only person in the world who recognized that he was a man.
“You ain’t gittin’ stuck after Cory, ain’t you?” Thus Mr. Hoopstetter with ponderous playfulness during that first week of Elisha’s daily visits.
Oh, yes, sometime during the day or during the evening Elisha managed to cover that mile and a quarter between the two farms. Sometimes he had only the two Hoopstetters to contend with; sometimes he had Adam, sometimes the damp-haired Schindler; sometimes he, Adam and Schindler sat in a jagged semicircle of hate beneath the hanging lamp. But Elisha gritted his teeth and held his place; he was openly in the running; he was shamelessly sure of his position with the lady. He knew that she simply endured the others because she was too gentle to rid herself of them.
If he was sure of the eternal bond between them during the first five days of their acquaintance, he was doubly sure after that. For on the fifth day appeared beneath the rusty tin flag on the Maice mail box, the ring. Be it said in honor of Elisha’s rare restraint that he had it in his possession, in a hot lump, in a cold lump, in the canvas bag upon his chest for a full hour and a quarter before he delivered it. It came in the morning; he would wait until night. But night was an eternity distant; anything might happen; they might both be stricken dead! And with night might come Schindler or Adam or both. He dropped his ax at the woodpile, sauntered slowly under Adam’s eye to the barn and through it, then tore across fields.
Of course, though, somebody had to interfere! Elisha dodging from one door to another of the Hoopstetter domicile, buffed full into Mrs. Hoopstetter as she ambled around the corner of the house.
“Bei meiner seele!” she gasped, rocking tumultuously. “It’s Elisha oncet! But you look some pale, bubbie. Ain’t you anything so well? Did you got a pain at your stummick or wherever?”
Was ever swain in travail to present a love token interrogated as to the condition of his internal organs? Elisha groaned.
Appeared in the window behind him a pink sunbonnet. He cast upon it a glance of despair.
“I see a’ready where I have overstepped myself,” chuckled Mrs. Hoopstetter with obscene mirth. “He has got it at the heart still. Not anyways at the stummick.”
By lover’s guile Elisha abstracted his lady to a position behind the barn, and ensconced her upon a wagon tongue. His fingers, numb with ecstasy, fumbled forth the plush case. The sliding door crashed open behind them. Mr. Hoopstetter strode triumphantly forth, girt with a pitchfork, and bearing a large conical trap in which a small rodent squeaked frenzy.
Elisha rose in stiff-legged rage and retired his companion, squealing delicately, from the arena of slaughter. The animal in his trap could not have felt more baited than did Elisha as he cast a hunted eye about him. The landscape proffered no inviolable shelter; the fields, the flat garden patch behind the house, the family orchard with its leafless trees Toward the orchard strode Elisha with the pink sunbonnet in wake.
Arrived to the rear of these puny trunks, Elisha again brought forth the Royal Purple Plush Gift Case. For five days he had been framing verbal sentiments appropriate for the occasion, but the untoward circumstances of th’ hour and his own overwhelming emotions of the moment choked the words at the thither end of his Adam’s apple. He silently extended the box and leaned back pallidly against an apple tree.
The moment was more satisfying, much more, than he had even anticipated. She gave a little cry, then a gasp, then another little cry. She plucked the ring quickly from the box and slipped it upon her finger. “A ring — with rubies at!” she breathed; and kissed it!
She flung toward him and reached up her arms. Elisha backed blindly. He took one of her hands and shook it earnestly. She looked up at him, puzzled, a red curl swirling up into her cheeks. She laughed, as though uncertain what to do next; and stood, turning the ring this way and that.
“Ain’t it is wonderful? And such a supprise on me! Och, my! Since I am born a’ready, I ain’t seeing such a grandness!”
Elisha said nothing. He merely looked, his hand at his throat. It was his moment. Nothing would ever take it from him. He would see it always as he saw it then: The trees with their limbs naked in their sleep, and beneath them the girl, vivid, quivering, a slender lance of life, twisting this way and that upon her pointed toes, her bright glance flashing from him to the red stones upon her finger.
“My, ain’t you the swell feller though! And the good guesser yet! I was wishing long a’ready fur a ring with rubies at. It will git me proud to my head, I have afraid, anyway!”
When at last Elisha found himself treading the impalpable air toward the rear of the house, he halted her abruptly at the garden gate.
“Look here,” he panted, his greenflecked eyes upon her, “you leave me be your steady friend. Youse won’t be leavin’ them other two set up by you no more, ain’t not?”
The girl went slowly through the gate and faced him across the pickets. “Well, this here is how it goes with me. I am softhearted that much that I can’t, just to say, go sassing them off. Herbie he’s my cousin — from — marriages that way; and Adam he’s your brother, ain’t not?”
“No!” shouted Elisha, and added with dizzy penitence: “Anyways if he is, he ain’t no more.” He plucked at her sleeve as she turned from him. “But pass me your promise, anyways, where you ain’t travelin’ with him to the Ewangelical picnic. Nor with Schindler neither. Pass me your word you’re goin’ with me and not nobody else. Till it comes Saturday a week?”
“Saturday a week?” she mused, chewing the string of her sunbonnet. Then she laughed suddenly. “That I will oncet. I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with and I’ll come home with. I pass you my promise on that!” She glanced over her shoulder, twisted off the ring and clapped it into her pocket. “There’s Uncle Willie!” she whispered. “And this here’s our secert! Just us both two together! Ain’t not?”
For, of course, a Hoopstetter had to churn across that ineffable moment. Mr. Hoopstetter, angrily sideswiping at the ends of his mustache with his side teeth, crossed the back yard toward the tool house. He was carrying the large glass bowl of the hanging lamp.
“Such a wear on the coal oil!” he groaned loudly. “Sooner I git it filled, sooner it goes empty on me agin! I will give them mealymouths dare fur to pack their own oil along, that I will oncet!”
“Sh-h-h!” pierced Mrs. Hoopstetter from the kitchen door.
Scratching exultant ribs, Elisha hurdled homeward. She was going with him to the great social event of the year, the Evangelical Sunday-school picnic! Arm in arm they would parade all day, to the bitter envy of Adam, Schindler and other desolated suitors! And after that, there would be no question as to whom she belonged to; she would be sealed to him and to him only! As he vaulted the last fence he saw Adam swinging his discarded ax. After all, good old Adam! Poor old Adam!
Adam spoiled it all. Leaning upon the ax handle he smiled under frowning brows. “I’m a-goin’ to work and thrash you one if you don’t stop pesterin’ my girl. Now mind it! And here’s somepun else: You got to stop follerin’ me nights or I’ll give you a shamed face in front of her, for I’ll go to work and lay youse ower my knee yet. What do you conceit you are, anyhow, carrot-top? A man a’ready?” Elisha’s eyes darkened from blue to black. His shoulders drew stiffly upward; he lowered his fiery young head like a young bullock and dived straight for his brother’s middle. A second later he was being held at arm’s length like a helpless manikin. He saw haze. He hissed and drooled.
“Why!” gasped Adam. “Why!” He dropped Elisha. “Poor little brat!” He stared at him in amazed comprehension.
Poor! Little! Brat! Each one an insult. All three, a triple insult.
“I hate you!” stifled Elisha. “I — hate you!”
He did. From that moment he hated Adam as fiercely as he had loved him. And he hated most the things he had loved most — Adam’s strength, his good looks, his kindness.
The hate swelled within him as the slow hours of that day passed until it seemed that it was all of him, that there was room for nothing else. But there was. There was room for active apprehension. It was his father who introduced the new agony.
Maice Senior was a stern, silent man. Silent Silas, the county called him. His tongue muscles might have grown flabby had he not exercised them nightly over the newspaper. He invariably read aloud, mumbling the news, droning the quotations. He read even the quotations which did not financially concern him, such as Drugs and Dyes, Metals, Hides and Leather, Turpentine and Oils. He usually fell asleep midway of Turpentine and Oils, awoke strangling, blew his nose and went off to bed.
This night Elisha, somberly hunched over the stove with his back toward the others, would have been oblivious of anything unusual, had not Adam suddenly clanked down the tools with which he was half-soling Elisha’s shoes and inquired in a strange voice: “What was that now? Was the hogs fell agin?”
Mr. Maice droned again: “‘Slow, mostly 25 to 50 cents lower. Packer top $6.10. Shipper top $6.00. Packing sows, fairly active, $5.25. Few fat pigs, steady, around $5.25.’”
Adam did not take up his tools. After a moment he ventured: “Then you wouldn’t, mebbe, be a-loadin’ them — this week?”
Mr. Maice snorted grimly and shook his thick grizzled thatch. He adjusted his paper and started upon Hides and Leather.
Still Adam’s tools remained silent. Elisha turned startled, bloodshot eyes toward his father and shrilly challenged forth his one remark of the evening: “My shoat’s Packer Top, $6.10!”
“Wet Salted Markets Finn,’” intoned his father. “‘Skins Stronger. Tallow Markets Easier. Take off of. Butcher Pelts steady —’”
Elisha slept little that night, not at all in the early hours. How could he, with insolvency pressing upon him, blacker than the night about him? Soon, horribly soon, his first weekly payment would be due. He clutched at the canvas bag beneath his nightshirt and tried to imagine that it still contained two dollars and eighty-five cents. But it did not. It contained one dollar and sixty cents. Yet he could not regret the red tie and the red-striped socks which had so devastated his hoard. Had she not said she liked red? He could even, in that sorry pass, have laughed aloud at Adam. Adam had recently purchased a green tie and a hat with a green band. Oh, yes, he was hating Adam as he lay there! He lay on the edge of the bed; he would not have touched Adam’s body for the world; he had even considered sleeping in the barn. He started at a voice in the darkness: “Say, give me the lend of that there ten dollars, wouldn’t you? Just till pop goes comin’ back from the hogs?” Elisha lay taut. “No,” he finally brought forth. Adam tossed restlessly. “Aw, now, say!
Leave me git the lend of them ten dollars and I’ll put a dollar or whatever to it.” Silence. I’ll swaller back what I said about my girl, all, if that’s what’s eatin’ you. I give you dare fur to tag me to Hoopstetter’s ower.”
His girl! Tag him! Elisha projected his outraged self perilously over the edge of the bed. “Take another guess if you think it!” he sliced. “I guess youse couldn’t git nothing off a poor little brat’!”
He lay in tremble. For a few moments he heard nothing, felt nothing, tasted nothing, but his own bitter words. He was tense for Adam to speak again. Adam did not. That hurt.
He was surprised that Adam, also, was in financial straits. But it was easily accounted for. Adaam had purchased the top buggy a week after the girl had twinkled into Buthouse County upon her amazing little feet. Adam had gotten the buggy for the girl; and now he had gotten the girl from Adam. After all, poor old Adam! He began to hate hating. Loving, now, you just couldn’t help; it just came. But hating tore you. And yet you couldn’t stop.
There he was; and the fun was all gone during the days that followed. And yet he had never been so fiercely happy in his life. Fiercely, that was it, when he was with the girl.” I do now take to you that much! she would say; and Elisha would shiver hotly down his back. But away from her, that was different; away from her, fumbling at the limp bag and speculating as to how long the unknown Mr. Inc would be willing to take all chances; away from her, harking with smitten ears to the evening reports of a dropping hog market; away from her with a strange alienated Adam stumping glumly about house and field. Gone the martial slash of broom and shovel and brush and ax; gone the banter with which Adam the resourceful had imparted a tang to life. “It’s time fur to milk the milk!” he was used to yodel as he swung the pail from its high hook and tossed it to Elisha. Now Elisha reached for it in silence, in silence filled it and in silence slopped with it to the spring house.
Once he slanted his tormented forehead against the rough red pelt of the cow, bruised it there, as he thought that he would give anything, even the girl, if he could only tack back to the old happy days with Adam. But that was a black thought, treacherous to the girl; he knew it that night when she took the ring from her pocket, slipped it on and murmured: “My, I do now set awful store by this tony ring! And mebbe I ain’t settin’ store by youse, too, Elisha!” The rapture of the moment was chilled for Elisha by a curious defection of his eyesight. Glancing down upon the jewels he saw them as green instead of red.
“Why, what is it at them?” he stammered.
Miss Hepple giggled, thrust her fingers into her pocket, twisted from him, and a moment later the rubies flashed before him. “Was you blind or whatever?” she twitted him.
Mr. Inc did not keep him long in suspense — or did he only deepen his suspense? The Old Honest Goldsmith began to use stationery recklessly. Elisha, cannily meeting the mail carrier a full quarter mile from the house, had delivered into his prescient fingers once, twice, thrice, typewritten statements and letters from which emanated a chill formality lacking in the initial correspondence between them.
Stumbling homeward with the latest of these documents, Elisha read and reread the ominous statement: “If the obligation is not paid forthwith, we will take such other and further steps as may be necessary to protect our interests in the matter.” How long was “forthwith”? What would be the “steps”? Elisha sagged down under some sumacs to consider these momentous questions.
He was presently distracted for a moment. At a point where the mail man’s circling detour rejoined the main road Elisha saw Adam striding forth to meet the gig.
He was handed something; he went slowly up the road, head down. Was Adam, too, hailing the mail man surreptitiously?
Elisha returned home by way of the Hoopstetters’. His sojourn under the sumacs had yielded a single forlorn possibility. If it failed, ruin was upon him. But if he could get possession of the ring and return it in hasty loan to the importunate Mr. Inc, would not the jeweler be appeased until such time as he could redeem it? If he could.
But he couldn’t. He saw that at once when Miss Cora Hepple clapped her hand over her pocket and backed from him. “I’m that fond fur it, I would up and die if I was to lend it away!” she informed him.
“Just till it comes next week!” Elisha pleaded desperately. He shifted heavily from one foot to the other, then made terrific compromise with Fate: “Give me it oncet, and I’ll change it off fur the Mammoth Complex Dinner Ring. Seven large diamonds. Forty-nine fifty still.”
This gave Miss Hepple pause. Her red little mouth quirked, considering. “I tell you,” she confided, “I give you dare fur to borrow it at the picnic. Or was you, mebbe, fergittin’ to remember I was keepin’ cornp’ny with just only youse that day?
Was he forgetting? But — the picnic was still six days distant!
Under the barn rafters that afternoon, upon the haymow, he composed another frantic letter to his creditor. Adam’s voice came from below.
“Say, pop, market’s up a quarter cent. And the agent at the freight says we could git a empty box car off the siding. I could go drivin”em in this after; and youse could start behind daylight tomorrow. He says. Where he’ll go hookin’ the car at the freighter where pulls through at four of the A.M. The market might go to work and fall on us agin if we go waitin’.”
Elisha stiffened with his held breath. But he could hear only a discouraging mumble. Ordinarily in the Maice family that would have ended it. “But,” Adam’s voice whanged nervously, “we’re just throwin’ good corn into them! We’re a-losin’ at them day after day. We could git — ruined over them!” This last held the crack of hysteria. There was silence.
Even hating Adam as he did, Elisha could not forbear a grudging admiration. No one had ever stood up to his father like that. But — ruin! And Adam didn’t know, and his father didn’t know, how closely the ugly word was hovering over the peak of the haymow at that moment. It all depended upon the time in which Mr. Inc would take those portentous steps as to whether Elisha would be crushed beneath them or not.
And yet he did not recognize the steps when he finally heard them approaching. They approached, in fact, upon wheels. Three afternoons later when he was cleaning the stalls, he heard an increasing roar, then a series of dying bangs. He ran to the door.
The male Schindler throned in the barnyard in his small automobile. Adam stood rigid, shovel in hand.
The visitor was exaggeratedly slow as he unbuttoned his overcoat, unbuttoned his coat, felt in one inside pocket and then the other, and finally pulled forth a long envelope. No judge upon tribunal ever looked down upon the docks with more implacability than did Mr. Schindler as his gaze swept from Adam to Elisha.
“I have here a certain legal dokiment which authorizes me to replevy two certain properties described as follows and to wit in this here letter which I hold at the present minute in this here hand.”
He paused and again surveyed his quarry with judicial omnipotence.
Adam shook his shovel. “Git it through, then! But speak it in English!”
The visitor stiffened and scowled. “The H. Chadwick Company, Inc., has up and constituted me their attorney-at-law and as such I hereby make demands upon you and each of you for delivery of the possession of said two rings for which you have failured to comply with the contracts you have entered into with said company a’ready. And as aforesaid I now make demands for the conveyance to me of those two certain properties known and described in said letter as rings.”
“Rings!” roared Adam. “I ain’t never bought no two rings! If your bum comp’ny goes a-tryin’ to git any two rings off me, they’ll git their heads busted off fur ‘em. I went and bought a ring, yes, that much I give you. But I ain’t got it by me and I can’t git it, and that’s all to it.”
“There’s two defendants in this here action,” intoned Schindler imperturbably, “and they’re specified in this here interment as Elisha James Maice and Adam Charles Maice. And if you failure to yield up said rings into my possessions herewith, I will require you and each of you to pay me a large attorney’s fee all of which is provided for in said contracts — ”
He stopped, mouth open, and gazed upon his disrupted audience. At mention of their respective names, Adam had whirled toward the pallid Elisha.
“Look here!” he said hoarsely. “You ain’t up and bought no ring! Answer me up now! You ain’t bought no ring!”
Elisha wriggled futilely under his stout hand. “I guess I had dare to buy it if I wanted to,” he said stubbornly.
Adam took his breath on a hissing intake. “You little dopple! Give it up, then!” He shook him. “Give it up! He’s got the right to lawyer it off you!”
Elisha’s throat was beginning to hurt. “I can’t,” he choked. His agonized glance flew involuntarily toward the Hoopstetters’.
“It ain’t — there?” demanded Adam. “She — she ain’t took — a ring — off you?”
Adam’s hand fell. He, too, gazed for a silent moment toward the Hoopstetters’; and in that moment faith, hope and even charity died from his face.
He walked slowly toward the machine. “We got the two rings all right,” he remarked heavily. “But we ain’t got ‘em by us. They’re ower by — Hoopstetter’s.”
The papers crackling ostentatiously between the legal fingers lowered suddenly. The legal person himself metamorphosed before their eyes from the leading and only lawyer in Heitville to a Herbie young man with weak, very damp-looking hair.
“You don’t mean —Hoopstetters’? “he fumbled. His incredulous eyes wavered from Adam to Elisha. “Why, it ain’t true! I know it ain’t true! Why, she told me she ain’t got but one—and you never give her that!” He clutched at dignity, at authority. “Get in here!” he commanded. “We will see oncet!”
In the Hoopstetter lane Mrs. Hoopstetter was ambling about a small, freshly started bonfire, prodding it with the handle of a defunct broom. As the equipage with its freight of young masculinity ground to a stop beside her she chastely thrust further within the wreckage a pair of pink stays.
“Was you comin’ from seein’ her off, then?” she greeted them.
“Off?” squeaked Herbie. “Off?” bellowed Adam. Elisha merely formed the 0. Mrs. Hoopstetter reared back in amazement. “To be sure, off. Back on the trainroad to Stutz City. But ain’t she tellin’ youse? She had got only leave or what you call it fur two months. So, when her off was all, back she had got to go to the fact’ry agin. But, my souls” — her jovial gaze swept from one to the other of the stricken faces in the car —”don’t do it to go takin’ it so hard now! I ain’t a-crying none, nor neither is mister yet.” Mrs. Hoopstetter leaned like an oracle upon her staff and thus cryptically spake: “There’s comp’ny, that I give you; and then agin, there’s other comp’ny. Some such you cry somepun ower; and then agin, some such others you ain’t.” She turned and jabbed at a phrenetic pirate, who, though the flames were licking about him, still breathed polychrome defiance toward the faces above him.
“But — she can’t be gone!” gibbered the demoralized Herbie. “Why, she was going to the picnic with me!”
Adam leaped from his seat. “With you? I guess anyhow not!” He jerked, glowering, toward Mrs. Hoopstetter: “When did
she went, then?”
“Well,” calculated Mrs. Hoopstetter,
“I guess it was, mebbe, ten minutes back a’ready, or either eleven. The hired man packed her to the water tank where you make that way with the flag. Yes, mebbe you could ketch it, Herbie, if you make hurry plenty. But it does now wonder me terrible why she ain’t — ”
What she wondered was lost in the startled whir of the engine. But one remark was made during the journey. “She’s takin’ on water,” Schindler gritted as they whirled through a covered bridge and caught sight of the water tank, and at its base a huge dun caterpillar in three segments. Schindler was once more the stern exponent of the law; his fragile machine fairly careened under the weight of his Jovian frown.
Elisha numbly shunted his legs from the car and numbly followed the others around the end of the train. His middle went limp when he saw her. He knew she could explain; he had not lost faith in her for a momerit. She was leaning out of an open window; her head was turned from them; she was talking animatedly to the conductor.
“I should guess I ain’t from these here jaky parts! To see that, I guess it wouldn’t take no dummy. And, say, mebbe youre think I ain’t glad to git back where it makes more lively.” She saw them, then; at least she saw two of them; Elisha could not drive his wretched self forward. He saw her clap smitten fingers to her face. He saw Schindler grab his papers from his pocket and wave them before her. He saw her red lip curl back over her teeth—but it was not the smile he knew. And after moments he heard her—or did he hear her? — those strident tones!
“The law on me yet! I never heard the likeness! For just only takin’ such presents that way! Ain’t you the smarties, though? Well, I ain’t givin”em back, and that’s flat enough plenty!”
A red flag of defiance shot through her cheeks; but her eyes blinked with fright. They flew desperately toward the engine.
The conductor laughed. Others began to laugh. Heads appeared in windows, projected out from the platforms. Elisha could not bear it. He sprang forward.
“Don’t fault her none!” he choked. “I give it her fur keeps!”
Adam swept him back with a powerful arm.
If she saw him she gave no sign. Her trapped eyes swept him impersonally as they darted this way and that. Her knuckles clenched stubbornly against the window ledge. Then with one of her swift gestures she stripped.a ring set with rubies over a burnished nail, stripped a ring set with emeralds over another burnished nail, and dropped them like hot coals into Schindler’s upturned palm.
The antiquated engine gave a snort, ending in a long sigh. The train shuddered. The conductor with a cry of warning sprang upon the step.
“Here, you!” yelled Herbie Schindler. “That ain’t all! You give up that there other! My ring!”
He sprang toward the steps. The conductor sternly shouted him back. He ran along by the side of the moving train, screaming incoherence. From a window waved a hand with shining nails, and upon it a Mammoth Complex Dinner Ring. Schindler backed toward the tank, staring vacantly.
“Forty-nine fifty! In a lump! Forty-nine fifty yet!’
They all stared vacantly at the train as it puffed angrily from them. No one moved. No one spoke. They scarcely breathed. The tension grew, and grew terrific.
Emotions wound and tangled — tighter — tighter.
Schindler rasped in with a grinding swing of his heel and a scratchy laugh: “The little feist! I’ll fetch her yet and twist her that ring off! The skinny little devil!”
Elisha turned glassy eyes upon him. He slowly swelled; he slowly hunched. He lunged toward the legal ribs, striking out with both fists.
Schindler staggered; then with a backswipe of his long arm cut Elisha to the ground. With a roar Adam was upon him. They went down in tight crash.
They clenched and rolled there below the water tank. Elisha wound his arms tautly about his body and danced round and round them. He plucked at them, at Adam and at Schindler; he ached to be wedged between them, battering and being battered.
It was over in a minute, of course. Schindler was no match for Adam. Adam got up and stared down at the other.
Schindler waved his arms like feeble antenna and swayed to his feet. He felt of his nose, of his forehead. His fingers cruised his pockets. Adam whipped out a bandanna. “Here, the,” he said.
Schindler took it and mopped his forehead. He smiled, and looked down. Adam smiled, and looked down. Without another word they turned toward the machine.
But Elisha had had no relief. He made little whimpering sounds like a small animal in pain. He walked crookedly and he walked past the car.
Adam grabbed him and hoisted him into the tonneau. The fields seemed to tip up on either side and to make a dim funnel through which they rushed.
But it seemed to him afterward that Adam had reached out and had clutched his fingers until they hurt. It seemed to him he had heard him whisper thinly: “You got me anyway! You got me anyway!”
They got out. But the machine hesitated. The legal gentleman, with a red lump hoisting his damp hair in the exact middle of his forehead, hesitated. He looked down earnestly at Elisha.
“You know, there’s a proviso in those contracts. It says you can return the goods and select anything else from their catalogue. That’s fair enough. There’s watches and pens and things, I might, mebbe, hold onto them rings for a few days
Elisha walked on into the barn. He turned round and round in an empty stall and looked at it as though he had never seen it before.
Yodeled a voice behind him: “It’s time fur to milk the milk!”
Elisha for the first time failed to catch the pail as Adam tossed it to him. But it rolled with such grotesque purposefulness to his very feet that he smiled — crookedly.
Featured image: “I have here a certain legal dokiment which authorizes me to replevy two certain properties.”
Illustrations by Tony Sarg
When Kelly’s Heroes hit theatres 50 years ago this week, it came amid a run of incredible success for its star, Clint Eastwood. While the film was not his biggest that year (that would be Two Mules for Sister Sara), it earned mostly positive reviews, recouped its budget, produced a Top 40 hit with the song “Burning Bridges,” and went on enjoy cult status and a place on many lists of the best war films. Most of the negative reviews focused on the uneasy balance between violence and comedy, but Arthur D. Murphy’s dismissal of the film as “preposterous” in Variety is ironic in hindsight. It certainly might seem that the idea of American soldiers in World War II teaming up with German locals to steal gold behind enemy lines is a flight of fancy; the shocking thing is that part is absolutely true.
Kelly’s Heroes drew attention from the outset for the obvious reasons, like its cast. Eastwood’s star had been rising steadily for years, coming off of the Sergio Leone “Man with No Name” trilogy, WWII drama Where Eagles Dare, and other Westerns, while the following year would bring him The Beguiled, Play Misty for Me, and his most famous character in Dirty Harry. Kelly’s Heroes co-stars Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland had both been standouts in The Dirty Dozen; Sutherland had also made a war picture mark in M*A*S*H earlier in the year. Don Rickles was, well, Don Rickles, and Carroll O’Connor was a tireless and familiar character actor one year out from his iconic turn as Archie Bunker.
The plot of the film follows Private Kelly (Eastwood) who discovers the existence of a cache of German gold after capturing a Wehrmacht intelligence officer. He assembles a misfit crew (including Sutherland’s tank squad), and the group makes a sustained effort to find and capture the gold. After fighting their way through a German tank blockade, the soldiers end up making a deal with the last German tank crew to share the gold. The characters split nearly $900,000 apiece and go their separate ways before they’re caught. And yes, something very similar to that actually happened.
Writer Troy Kennedy Martin based the screenplay on an incident that he learned about from, of all places, The Guinness Book of World Records. “The Greatest Robbery on Record,” first listed in 1956 (and holding the spot until 2000), “was of the German National Gold Reserves in Bavaria by a combination of U.S. military personnel and German civilians in 1945.” MGM was so excited by the prospect that their head of production, Elliot Morgan, wrote Guinness for more information. Guinness’s understanding was that more details than that weren’t really available, possibly due to pieces of the story being classified. Martin used the entry as a starting point and wrote the screenplay.
However, the moviemakers weren’t the only intrigued parties. Ian Sayer is a British journalist, entrepreneur, and historian who has led an extremely colorful life. He founded a delivery service that helped pioneer overnight door-to-door delivery on the European continent. His work debunked fake Hitler diaries. And beginning in 1975, he started work on a book that would uncover the true story behind the gold heist.
Sayer’s book with Douglas Botting, Nazi Gold: The Story of the World’s Greatest Robbery – And Its Aftermath finally saw publication in 1984 (a second version, Nazi Gold: The Sensational Story of the World’s Greatest Robbery – And the Greatest Criminal Cover-Up, was published in 2012). The books detail that the U.S. Government covered up the theft of millions in Nazi gold from the German National Gold Reserve in Bavaria. The heist was executed by members of the U.S. military cooperating with former German officers, including one-time members of the Wehrmacht and SS. When Sayer sent his information to the U.S. State Department in 1978, it set the wheels turning for an investigation that began in the early 1980s. Eventually, the U.S. recovered two of the gold bars, identified by Nazi-stamped markings, and announced the finding in a press release in 1997. The two bars were valued at over $1 million and eventually found their way to the Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold, the body that recovers and redistributes the gold that was seized by the Nazis during the war.
There’s one final twist. In 1984, Sayer spoke to Members of Parliament in an effort to get information about Nazi gold held by the Bank of England. Jeff Rooker, an MP who he had spoken to on the matter, asked Sayer in 1988 to check out an aid fund to ensure that the money was getting to the veterans it was supposed to serve. It turned out that that the citizen who had asked Rooker about the aid fund had been a survivor of the Wormhoudt massacre, when 90 unarmed British troops were killed by the SS in 1940. The officer responsible for the slaughter was SS General Wilhelm Mohnke, who had also guarded Hitler’s bunker and disappeared after World War II. Amazingly, Sayer realized that he’d met Mohnke while researching Nazi Gold without realizing the man’s identity; Sayer informed the authorities, leading to investigations into Mohnke from multiple countries. He was never charged due to insufficient evidence, and lived until 2000.
Today, Kelly’s Heroes is regarded as a classic war film, noted for its ensemble, its humor, and its willingness to show the dark moments of war even among a more lighthearted story. But the story of the film rests atop a much more complex true story, elements of which still remain hidden from view. It’s a good reminder that even as much as we think we know about history, there are always some secrets, and maybe some gold, hidden somewhere.
Featured image: Shutterstock
Published on December 3, 1966
In the early daylight, Mrs. Margaret Bradley — divorcee, social worker — ignores small fears and makes her way through breakfast with competence. Her son must find a cleaner shirt; her daughter must hang up her nightgown, she may not wear high heels to school, she must try to look less sullen at the table. The eggs cook three minutes, the toaster clicks before it pops, the chrome coffeepot perks.
Mrs. Bradley is a tall woman whose face is open, kind-hearted, and discouraged. A good social worker, she now mulls dutifully over her pre-dawn dream. Was she the looming figure in the dark robe? Or was she the prisoner? Yes, the prisoner. That was Sandra Antonelli threatening her with the gavel, then breaking into laughter. That child, a mother … The toast pops up and Mrs. Bradley butters it. She herself is a mother. Is she doing a good job? One daughter in the State University (my God, I’m forty-five years old!); a thirteen-year-old girl, fascinated by high heels and cosmetics; a boy of eleven, now reading the cereal box. There is another child here. Herself. Margaret Marie Hunt — roller-skating through a summer dusk; at Epworth League, accepting a green pickle from a blue-and-white dish; alone before a closed door and afraid. Of what? Of whom? The hidden fears of childhood; we all have them. She claps eggshells into the garbage. “Hey, you kids, get going!” They go.
In her office that morning, for two hours, Mrs. Bradley complied with forms and regulations, drafted memos, dictated, conferred with her supervisor, and otherwise did her best. All the while, she was filled with concern, with a foreboding about the call she would make when the office work was done. At 11:15 she was on her way.
The car had county seals on the doors, so she parked a block away from the house. It was an orderly neighborhood of middle-class homes; Sandra’s brother’s bungalow was stucco like the rest. The bell sounded; the door swung open; there stood Sandra Antonelli, Ward of the Court.
After a moment, Sandra let her small smile vanish. She was a slight girl, with high shoulders and a flat chest. The scar tissue on the left side of her throat and cheek was still noticeable, even after three years.
“Did you get my note, Sandra?” Mrs. Bradley asked. The girl nodded.
“I have some things to talk over with you. May I come in?”
She followed Sandra through the living room. There were screaming abstract oils on the walls, rumpled bedclothes on the divan, an Army sleeping bag on the floor, high-fi components in orange crates, books, a sculpture of rusty iron, a Teddy bear, cigarette butts, dirty coffee cups, a vaporizer. Passing through the dining room, Mrs. Bradley noted a motion-picture film-splicing machine, loops and coils of film, metal canisters, a child’s stroller, more coffee cups, a pile of cinema quarterlies, alphabet blocks, a broken cuckoo clock, a clothes-drying rack.
In the kitchen, she sat down at a table covered with red-and-white oilcloth. Sandra stood at the sink. “Want coffee or anything?”
Mrs. Bradley asked for tea. Neither of them spoke as Sandra filled the kettle and placed it over a blue flame. The twang and thump of radio rock-and-roll came from the back porch, but Sandra seemed unaware of the noise. Staring at the kettle, the girl said, “Is there something wrong?”
“Continuation School reports that you haven’t been there for eight days —
“Is that all?”
“Well, your phone has been disconnected, and I’ve learned that your brother has been flagged by the Retail Credit Bureau. I — ”
“You snoop everywhere, don’t you?”
“Sandra, it’s the court’s responsibility to keep an eye on you, to help you.”
“Help I don’t need.”
“You’ve been getting it.”
“Money? That goes to Leonard. See Leonard about that.”
“I was hoping Leonard would be here. Did you show him my note?”
Sandra shrugged. She placed two cups on the table, dropped tea bags in them, and poured bubbling water over the bags.
“Sandra, we’re simply making sure that you’re getting along. After the car accident you begged not to be sent back to your aunt and uncle. So we put you in the Group Home.” Mrs. Bradley raised her eyebrows.
“You’re the only one who has ever thrown my baby in my face!” said Sandra with quiet ferocity. “The only one.”
“I’m not throwing the baby in your face, Sandra. You’ve said yourself, many times, that the baby was an accident, a mistake. If we had checked on you more carefully at the Group Home, we might have helped you to avoid that mistake.”
The girl was looking out the window. “You sure conned me out of the baby,” she said slowly. “I’m still thinking about that. Maybe you did me a bad wrong there.”
In silence they sipped tea. At last Mrs. Bradley said, “Sandra, do you remember at the hospital, how you begged to be allowed to live here with your brother’s family?” Sandra stared at her. “Do you realize I went out on a limb for you with my supervisor? That I entered an appeal with the Case Review Board?”
A scowl froze the girl’s plain face, making the scar-tissue seem ugly. Mrs. Bradley stopped herself. “Never mind all that. I gathered you people might be having trouble, so I came out to see if I could help. That’s all.”
“The only trouble we’ve got is you coming around to bug us,” Sandra muttered. She cracked a queer, one-sided smile.
“So? Why have you been out of school?”
“Aw, that’s nothing.” Sandra glanced at the alarm clock on the sill above the sink. “Hey listen! It’s quarter to twelve. I’ve got to go up and cross Caitlin at the boulevard.”
“My niece. One of Leonard and Fay’s kids.”
“Oh yes, of course. May I wait here?”
“Sure.” Sandra tucked the tail of her man’s shirt into her jeans. making herself look thinner and more boyish than ever. “Heat up more tea water if you want.” She walked straight out of the house.
Mrs. Bradley went through the rooms swiftly, her professional eye penetrating the disorder. Two small children sharing the back bedroom; a larger bedroom turned into a cluttered film workshop-and-storeroom filled with complicated-looking equipment; more film stuff in the dining room; Sandra’s brother and his wife sleeping in the living room; Sandra sleeping on the flimsy rear porch, her cot jammed against the laundry tubs. Mrs. Bradley noted the improvised clothes rod, the cheap mirror, the snapshot of a youth on an enormous motorcycle, the plastic radio, the opaque poster paint — orange, blue, green — on the windows instead of curtains. She estimated the square feet of living area, minus the space required for tubs and washing machine — about half the state minimum. And no heat. She looked into the refrigerator, nodding at grapes, carrots, frozen orange juice, frowning at frozen dinners and a bowl of leftover spaghetti. She saw two baskets crammed with unfolded laundry and sniffed them. The things were clean. A moment later, an open, twenty-five-pound sack of dried milk provoked her to say “Good” aloud.
When footsteps sounded on the front porch, Mrs. Bradley was at the kitchen table, pouring hot water over her tea bag. Sandra entered, followed by a five-year-old girl with large, unblinking eyes and a fistful of brightly colored papers. “Say hello to Mrs. Bradley,” Sandra commanded.
The child stared at Mrs. Bradley, at the same time allowing her fist to lay the kindergarten trophies slowly on the kitchen table.
“I expected Leonard home by now,” Sandra said. “You want some lunch?” Mrs. Bradley hesitated, and the girl opened a cupboard. “I’ll just make an extra can of vegetable — ”
Having calculated that she was building rapport with Sandra, that she should watch Sandra in action with her niece, that it would be wise to remain and see Leonard, Mrs. Bradley said casually, “I’d enjoy a little soup.”
At the stove, her back turned, Sandra said, “I’m not missing anything at that school anyway. They’re a bunch of apes over there.” Mrs. Bradley’s heart sank.
Four years earlier it had been simple truancy that started Sandra down a darkening road. Orphaned at thirteen when a highway accident killed her parents, she had been sent to live with a great-aunt and great-uncle, devout evangelicals, in an unimpeachably middle-class suburb. Three months later she was picked up in a stolen car with four boys, truants from a different school. Fishing for understanding, Mrs. Bradley — then recently divorced, recently trained, desperately earnest about this early case — got from the sullen girl only that her great-aunt was a “phony,” that school had always “bugged” her, and that she’d met the four boys “hangin’ around the Laundromat.” Soon after that, another joy ride in another stolen car ended against a telephone pole, and Sandra acquired scars she would never lose. Placed in a welfare agency’s “Group Home” (her great-aunt had declared her absolutely unmanageable), she again dropped out of school, and went farther down the dark road, this time with an older man — there had been a baby that she could not keep.
Now, because things had seemed finally to be working out, Sandra’s absence from school, her sarcasm about it, filled Mrs. Bradley with concern.
“Did I tell you what I’m planning to do?” Sandra asked. “I’m going to be a beautician.”
The girl’s off-center smile commanded a smile in return. Then Mrs. Bradley looked down and moved her cup on the red-and-white squares. “That’s an interesting idea. It might make a splendid long-term project.”
“Long-term nothing,” Sandra snapped. “I start in two weeks. I’m going to Mademoiselle Beauty College out on Listeri, do you know how much a beauty operator can make?”
“A trained, successful beauty operator can earn a good living, I’m sure, but — ”
“You’re against it, aren’t you? Kee-riced. I might have guessed.” The girl pushed her chair back from the table and flung out her thin legs. The child, Caitlin, lowered her eyes to her bowl, as if in modesty, and continued carefully to spoon her soup.
“I’m not against it. Sandra. But you haven’t finished high school. Beauty colleges require a high-school diploma.”
“I’ll go to beauty college in the daytime, see? And night school at night. Before the beauty college is over, I’ll have my diploma, so that’ll be all right.”
“Sandra, you’ll need the diploma before they’ll admit you to beauty college.”
“They’ve already admitted me. The manager is a girl that Leonard used to go with. Clarice. She had a part in one of his films. I’m in, all right.”
Mrs. Bradley covered her eyes with her left hand. She knew about beauty colleges; they figured often in the fantasies of girls with whom she worked. She looked up to find Sandra studying her.
“I get it,” Sandra said. “You think I wouldn’t be any good. You think all beauticians have to be beautiful.”
“I don’t think that.”
“It’s personality that counts. And skill. Mainly skill. I know I can do that work. Anyway, I asked Clarice about my face, whether it would hold me back. She says not if I’m a good technician. Who knows? It might even help in some spooky way.”
“How much is the tuition, Sandra?”
“Three hundred dollars. Leonard’s going to loan it to me.”
Caitlin said, “I want dessert now,” and Sandra told her to get some grapes. The child climbed down from her chair and went to the refrigerator.
“Does Leonard have three hundred dollars?” Mrs. Bradley asked.
“There’s such a thing as credit, you know.”
“Where’s your sister-in-law? You haven’t mentioned her.”
“Fay’s out looking for a job.”
“Is that why you dropped out of school? To take care of the children?”
“Why didn’t you tell the principal?”
“I’ll tell him when I go back.”
“But Sandra, if you’d made some arrangements, the principal wouldn’t have called me. Your teachers could have given you work to do at home.”
Sandra looked away. “Make arrangements, get permission. That’s too funky. Anyway, I thought I’d only be out a couple days. ‘
“You make things hard for yourself, Sandra. This idea about beauty college — it doesn’t help simply to drop out of school without a word.”
“Then you’re not against that beauty-college scene?”
Mrs. Bradley met the girl’s intent scrutiny. “Some beauty colleges are rackets, Sandra,” she said finally. “I wonder whether they’re being honest with you about your chances. Then there’s the tuition. Is Leonard working now?”
“On his films.”
Mrs. Bradley’s heart sank again. She had once attended a program of experimental films that included one by Leonard Antonelli. His, like the others, had struck her as beautiful, boring, and repulsive by turns. And disturbing. It was as if her own dreams and nightmares had been spliced into the dreams and nightmares of the people with whom she worked — the delinquent girls, the bureaucrats, the pot smokers, the policemen, school nurses, priests.
Mrs. Bradley remembered now that the admission receipts that night could hardly have paid the rental of the hall, let alone reimbursed the filmmakers. “Sandra, doesn’t Leonard spend more money on his films than he earns from them?” she asked.
“Now, sure. But he’s thinking about the future. He’s — ”
“Is he thinking about the future, Sandra? Leonard is the head of a family. Let’s forget art and the future, and talk about reality now.”
“Aw, you always end up spouting reality.”
“Surely you’re aware of the court’s reluctance to remand you to Leonard’s custody. This is a probationary arrangement
“That fink judge in Small-Claims Court wouldn’t listen. Just because Leonard wouldn’t — ”
Sandra nodded toward the front room. “Here he is. Talk to him.”
Leonard was short and slightly pudgy. A scraggly arc of reddish whiskers looped around his chin, and he wore a scarf inside his open collar. He had come into the kitchen with a three-year-old boy in short pants. The boy’s cheeks were flushed and his eyes looked feverish. Sandra nodded toward Mrs. Bradley and mumbled her name. “Hi.” Leonard said. To Sandra he said, “Infection in both ears. They gave him a shot of penicillin. It hurt, huh, John?”
The child’s mouth began to work, and when Sandra said, “Come here, John,” he rushed to her and pressed his face into her stomach. His sister, Caitlin, moved close, peering to see if he was crying. “Offer him a grape,” Sandra said. When the boy ignored the grape, Caitlin went to the back door and opened it. The radio on the porch blared loudly.
The noise, the sick child, the kindergarten pictures smeared with margarine. the alphabet noodles stranded in her soup bowl. Leonard’s soiled scarf — it all filled Mrs. Bradley with a sudden panic. She pressed her eyelids with her fingertips again.
Sandra warmed up soup for Leonard, they agreed that John should have only broth and crackers, and then Leonard began to berate himself for spending one of Sandra’s welfare checks to buy a better editing device. “I’ve kept track, though,” he whined, thinking it was this that Mrs. Bradley had come to discuss.
It was to this man, Mrs. Bradley thought, that she had implored the judge to award custody of Sandra. She had known that Leonard had been divorced at twenty-one, was suspected of a suicide attempt at twenty-two, had spent years in and out of colleges, had been jailed for an anti-war demonstration; she knew that he went on occasional drinking sprees, that he had been booked recently for brawling with a sculptor over whether a certain obscure poet had fascist tendencies. Now, watching him crush an aspirin with a spoon and mix it into the sick child’s applesauce, watching him lead his son to the bedroom for a nap. Mrs. Bradley remembered that there had been no other place to send Sandra except the detention home.
“Sandra, go and see your principal,” she said. “Right now. Get some assignments from your teachers. No matter what you want to do — beauty college or anything else — you can’t afford to lose this whole semester.”
Sandra changed into a skirt and went off cheerfully, taking Caitlin with her. Leonard, who had returned to the kitchen, sagged into a chair and demanded of Mrs. Bradley, “Remember that old tune When My Baby Smiles at Me?” He whistled several bars. “Well, old John smiled at me just now. The penicillin reached him. Man, we had a rough time around here last night. Fay and I must have gotten up with him about five times.”
“Leonard, I notice the phone’s been disconnected,” Mrs. Bradley said.
“Yeah. We have to go down to the gas station now. Try directing a film sometime without a telephone.”
“Sandra says you’ve been in Small-Claims Court.”
Leonard looked at her in momentary surprise, then concentrated on the soup and leftover bread on the table before him.
“What’s going on, Leonard?”
“It’s simple. We’re broke.” He stood up suddenly, went out to the back porch, and snapped off Sandra’s radio. Returning to the kitchen, he said, “I’ve got to audition a tape. Wait a minute.”
In the living room, he threaded a tape recorder. and a conglomeration of sounds followed him as he rejoined Mrs. Bradley — rising and falling whistles, clanks, rumblings, bells, humming.
“That’s an automated machine shop down on Seventh Street,” Leonard said. “Machines running other machines, correcting their own mistakes.”
“Weird,” said Mrs. Bradley.
Leonard looked pleased.
“Leonard, I do have some things to talk over with you.”
“That’s okay. I can talk and listen at the same time.” He ignored Mrs. Bradley’s wince. “If you want to know something, we’re worse than broke. We’re in the hole. That judgment was nothing. We’ve got a mess of other bills.”
Mrs. Bradley watched him quietly. Was he about to face facts?
“It’ll work out,” Leonard went on. “I’m finishing up a three-thousand-dollar commercial job this week, a sales- training film for Wentworth Pump. It’s finished now, only I’m not satisfied with the pace.”
“Will that clear up your bills?”
“Yeah, sure.” Leonard looked troubled. “Well, not exactly. See, I’m finishing up Part Three of Femur, and there’ve been a lot of processing charges. I promised it to the Association of Film Societies for showings in February. Did you see Parts One and Two of Femur?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t heard of Femur.”
Leonard sighed and stood up. “Let me show you something.”
In the bedroom that was also workshop, storeroom, and office, he showed her racks of prints of his films, booking schedules, and accounts that included back royalties of more than a thousand dollars due from film societies and cinema clubs. “I’ll never collect those,” he said, “but at least the films were seen.” When Mrs Bradley expressed gratification that he seemed organized in a fairly businesslike way, he said, “That’s Fay. She slaves at this stuff.” He showed her clippings and reviews, and she learned that Leonard’s films had won prizes at three film festivals, that he was one of a “handful of outstanding young producers, operating on a shoestring,” and that “foundations are interested in his work.” She asked Leonard about the foundations and he said nothing had happened. They returned to the kitchen.
“I do understand you better now,” Mrs. Bradley said. “Still, my responsibility is Sandra. Sandra has dropped out of school, and the real reason is your money troubles.”
Leonard took off his scarf. His neck looked very scrawny suddenly, and Mrs. Bradley saw in his flat eyes, his slackened facial muscles, his uncertain chin, a very deep fatigue. Nonetheless, she insisted that they lay out his situation in columns of arithmetic. After an hour, taking everything into account, they found that his indebtedness was seventeen hundred dollars. A final payment of four hundred dollars was due from Wentworth Pump, but that had already been attached. In the next two weeks his only certain receipts would be thirty-five dollars from a cinema club and Sandra’s eighty-six-dollar monthly welfare check. Even if Leonard’s wife, Fay, should get a job, most of her salary would have to go to a housekeeper. “Frankly, Leonard, it looks hopeless,” Mrs. Bradley said.
“What’s that? Is that any way for a social worker to talk?” Leonard grinned. “Hell, we’ve been in worse pickles than this. Anyway, let’s get fundamental. You’ve talked to Sandra. Is she sick? Is she underfed?”
Mrs. Bradley didn’t answer.
“Hell no, she isn’t. Sure, we’ve used her welfare check, but is she complaining? Is she?”
“Old Sandra’s making it, that’s why. She’s a real existential chick.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that was a mess of chaos she was in. But she kind of — well, made herself, right in the middle of those bad scenes. Now she really is.”
A knock sounded at the front door, and Leonard shouted, “Come in!” A youth in boots, jeans, and a leather jacket strode through the living room into the kitchen, a white cyclist’s helmet under his arm. He had a handsome, thin face and a troubled brow. “Sandra here?”
“Back in a while,” Leonard said.
“The machine’s fixed,” the young man said. He turned and left. From out front came the roar of a motorcycle starting up, then the blats of its violent departure.
Sandra returned, and Leonard excused himself to take a nap. Her teachers and the principal had been okay, Sandra said. They had told her that if she completed enough homework assignments she might yet receive her credits, even if she had to take care of Caitlin and John for the rest of the semester. Encouraged, Mrs. Bradley said she’d try to arrange a transfer to night school next semester. They were about to discuss the beauty college when the youth with the leather jacket and motorcycle helmet returned. His anxious brow seemed to smooth when he saw Sandra. “I got the sprocket.” he said.
“Too much, man,” Sandra said. Standing with her arms crossed before her, she looked down at Mrs. Bradley as if to announce that the interview was over.
Mrs. Bradley introduced herself, and the young man said, “I’m Mike. Pleased-ta-meetcha.”
“I have business to finish with Sandra, Mike. I’d appreciate it very much if you’d leave us in privacy for a few more minutes.”
The boy cringed as if expecting to be struck, a mocking gesture, and then he looked at Sandra, who nodded toward the front door. He clomped out.
“Why do you hate him?” Sandra raged as the door closed. “What’s he done to you?”
Mrs. Bradley stared in amazement.
“He’s not a punk, y’hear? He’s a warehouseman, a union warehouseman. He makes a hundred and eight dollars a week. You can’t tell me who to go out with! I’ll go out with anybody I damn please!”
“Sandra! Of course! I have nothing against that boy.”
How did I provoke that? Mrs. Bradley asked herself as the girl glared. It was true that Sandra’s baby had been fathered by a married, thirty-year-old motorcycle mechanic. (He had made her drunk, but she had insisted that the responsibility was hers.) Well, Sandra obviously didn’t blame it all on motorcycles, as Mrs. Bradley now realized she had done.
“Perhaps I do have a prejudice,” she said. “Motorcycles frighten me. The riders don’t seem interested in control.”
“You ever been on a motorcycle?”
Sandra shrugged. There was a long silence, then the girl sat down at the table again.
“Sandra, do you see a lot of Mike?”
“Enough. He wants to get married.”
What’s she got? thought Mrs. Bradley. Skinny, young, plain. And disfigured besides.
“Do you want to marry him?”
Sandra shook her head.
Sandra looked out the kitchen window, from which Caitlin could be seen playing hopscotch in the driveway next door. “Did you watch Leonard with the kids?” she said. “Those kids have changed him. He used to be a mess, a real kook. Now he works like crazy. You know what he told me? He said, ‘The main thing is, Fay and I wanted Caitlin and John, we tried to have them. So now we realize we’ve got to take care of them, and doing everything for kids makes you automatically sort of love ’em. And when you realize you love your kids, then you begin to like yourself more.’ It’s like church, Leonard says. If there’s anything at all in going to church, it’s because you spend a whole hour in there, and they set it up so you think good thoughts most of the time, and then you’re amazed you could do it, even just that long, and you feel better about everything.”
Mrs. Bradley, moved, was blinking away tears, but Sandra hadn’t noticed.
“It happens to me, even,” the girl said, “just puttering around the house here with those kids.”
Mrs. Bradley was silent for a moment, and then she smiled. “I think I know what your brother means,” she said. “But from what you’ve just told me, I should think you’d want to get married.”
Sandra shrugged. “Mike’s just a friend. We do things together, that’s all, and I like riding the bike. But I don’t want to get married, not until some guy really made me feel like rinsing diapers and all that.”
She stood up. “Fay’ll be home soon, all pooped out,” she said, and began carrying dirty dishes to the sink.
Mrs. Bradley opened the car door and sat for a moment on the end of the front seat, her feet on the pavement. Then she lifted her feet inside the car, and slammed the door. She sat quite still, conscious of the county seals on the car doors, of the official state license plates. I ought to feel secure, she thought, and tried to consider what she would report. The angry snarl of a motorcycle distracted her, and in the mirror she saw the machine slant from around the corner behind her. Accelerating smartly, it whipped past her and on down the block. Sandra, riding sidesaddle, clung to the goggled and helmeted rider. At the intersection, the motorcycle’s brake light glowed red for a few seconds; then the bike banked around the corner and was gone.
Automatically, Mrs. Bradley analyzed the depression that swept over her. She felt old and square, of course, and perhaps she feared secretly that her own children might never be as mature as Sandra Antonelli was right now. She sighed, remembering that she must report to her supervisor what she had seen and heard, what she had concluded. What had she concluded? An existential chick? Brother way out? Yes. And both of them quick to bug.
How did it happen? How did a child emerge so strong from so much ugliness? Stress toughens, Mrs. Bradley told herself. And, of course, E.H.E. Her supervisor was always talking about E.H.E. — Early Home Environment, the first five years. She tried to recall what she had learned about Sandra’s parents, but all she could remember was that the mother had been obese, that the father had been a compulsive golfer and a salesman of some kind.
Featured image: Illustration by Joe Cleary, ©SEPS
George Bradshaw wrote romances and mysteries for the Post and other popular magazines during his career that spanned more than 40 years. His last short story for this magazine, “The Privileged Class,” follows a curious mix of guests at a remote Mexican Inn and a romantic triangle that exposes the harsh truth about class differences and love.
Published on December 3, 1966
Civilization at the Hacienda Lucknow depended upon a gasoline engine. The gasoline engine made electricity, the electricity made ice, and the ice chilled the drinks which the guests at the hacienda so seriously needed.
The gasoline came by boat from Guaymas, a hundred miles across the gulf, and Doña Lucia, dubious of the winds and tides, always kept an excess supply at hand in drums sunk in the ground. Oh, there were occasional rumors of ice in the town of Las Rosas, but that was ten back-breaking miles around Santa Rosa Bay, and the rumors usually proved unfounded. As for ice beyond that — well, a road supposedly went west over the mountains to join the highway to La Paz, but no one had ever been found who soberly, truthfully, would say he had driven it. “Have more ice,” Doña Lucia would say. “There is plenty of gasoline.” On your first day at the Hacienda Lucknow you were not accustomed yet to think of ice as a triumph. But such it was.
I found Doña Lucia’s hotel by chance. You are not likely to hear of it, for it has only nineteen rooms, is never advertised, and can be reached only by plane or boat. I was staying in Guaymas when somebody told me about it. A young Mexican, Luis something, who had a converted C-47 which he used as a tramp, was flying over in a couple of days, and he agreed to take me. If I liked it, I could stay; if not, he would bring me back.
The trip was comfortable. Luis had equipped his plane with two ancient, overstuffed velvet chairs behind the cockpit. I had one of them; a young American girl, Helen Adams, had the other.
Miss Adams knew where she was going and why. In the forty-five minutes it took us to fly the Gulf of California, I learned something about this pretty girl.
Her room was reserved at the Hacienda Lucknow. She would stay a month. “I’m on a field trip,” she said. “I’m with the Hedges Oceanographic Institute. I’m a conchologist.”
I told her that was interesting.
“Of course, all this coastline has been hunted for shells,” she said, “but I still may be able to come up with something wonderful.”
“A golden cowrie?” I said.
She smiled tolerantly. “Golden cowries,” she said, “are found only in the South Pacific.”
I must be careful what I say about Hellie Adams. I could easily make her sound unattractive. She was not; she was only young. We often forget how learned the young are — certainly when I was twenty-two I knew five times what I know now. Hellie was a sharp reminder that knowledge can be pure, and opinions unshakable, and that to answer yes-and-no is a sure sign of age.
I never resented her; it was touching, rather, to see someone who had such faith in facts. And she was so pretty. That first day she had on a dark gray silk dress, an elegant cowhide pouch hung over her shoulder, and she carried a pair of smart, pale-blue sunglasses. Everything was right for her dark-brown hair and golden face; the figure hid the conchologist perfectly. Only her manner was scientific.
She said to me. “What do you do?” and when I explained, she seemed disappointed.
“I hoped, if you wrote, that you did articles,” she said. “I only like articles.”
I said to her, “Articles deal in truth, and truth is so subject to fashion that I find it unrewarding.”
She said, “You’re quite wrong.”
Suddenly Santa Rosa Bay and Baja California were beneath us, and we circled in for a landing.
Doña Lucia was Lucille Corbin, once of Urbana, Illinois. Almost sixty now, she had been for thirty years a self-satisfied exile from the rainy north. She had come in the beginning, I suppose, as a tourist, but then, falling in love with the country and needing to make a living, she had become an innkeeper, first in Taxco, then Acapulco, then Jalisco, and now on the far and inconvenient shores of Santa Rosa Bay.
She is a familiar figure. If you tramp around the world, you will see her in Bermuda, in Peru, in Mexico — the elderly American Bohemian, white hair bobbed, endless cigarettes dangling from her lips, native jewelry clanking. She has a Midwest prejudice against dirt, a merry disposition, and a fluent and incompetent command of the native language. She could have stayed at home and run a tearoom, but that would not have satisfied her wandering urge; she wanted the tearoom, all right, but it must have a romantic view, and a little foreign music in the air.
Doña Lucia had tiny, pretty feet, and she showed them vainly as she padded, barefoot, around her hotel. The Hacienda had been built by a German more than fifty years ago — there were stories of funny business with submarines during World War I — but Doña Lucia had so altered it and added to it that probably very little remained of the original structure. Now it was a cool maze of patios and loggias and fountains and pleasant views; flowers and shiny leaves exerted themselves in any possible corner, and everywhere there was a comfortable place to sit down.
I meant to work, but it is hard to start right away when you arrive in a new place. So for several days I explored the coves and beaches of Santa Rosa.
I either started out with or met Hellie. She was always up early, for like everything in nature, shells are idiosyncratic — some like dawn, some like dusk, some sun, some shade — and Hellie aimed to please them all. She collected basketfuls of beautiful, foul-smelling creatures. She told me their bothersome Latin names, and taught me to distinguish one from the other.
So Hellie and I became friends, but I am afraid nothing more. I won’t say she tolerated me — that is too strong a word. Rather, she treated me with the kindness one might use toward a bright child. I believe that she divided people into two categories: those engaged in the holy rites of science, and others. “Others” were often acceptable, but fundamentally they were unimportant. Of course, I am exaggerating this attitude slightly, but it was nevertheless sometimes strong enough to nettle Doña Lucia.
The three of us had our meals together. (There were other guests at the hotel, but they were waiting for the marlin to show up, and they don’t come into this story.) One day at lunch Doña Lucia said, “And what will you do, my dear, when earth’s last shell is catalogued? Get married?”
Hellie said, “Before that, maybe.”
“Well, then,” Doña Lucia said, “find a placid man, with plenty of money.”
“The money won’t matter.”
“Oh, come,” Doña Lucia said, “be sensible.”
“Or the placid either. I’m afraid I’ll have to have a man with a brain I can respect.” She looked at me. “One who isn’t afraid of the truth.”
“Ouch,” I said.
“Men are in various ways useful,” Doña Lucia said, “but whether they have brains or not is unimportant.”
So we might have gone on talking for a month, except that just then a waiter called and pointed, and as we looked out through the long windows, we saw a yacht slowly coming in to anchor off the hotel.
“It’s Foxie Benham!” Doña Lucia said.
Yes, it was Foxie Benham. With her yacht, her captain, her guests. and her husband, in that order.
Let’s take Foxie. The first thing to remember about her is that she was rich. Not new rich. Old rich: rich with the accumulation of four generations; rich to the point of quixotic stinginess; even rich enough to be a public benefactor. She must certainly have been in her forties, but when you saw her — which was never before noon, after she had been pounded and scrubbed and brushed — she looked a good twenty-eight. Her pale shining hair, her small, tanned face, her miraculous figure — all stood the test of the brightest sun. She swam and danced and drank and ate and laughed endlessly. I think one of the things we are apt to forget about rich people is what a good time they have. They take advantage of their advantages and enjoy themselves. Foxie had an energy that may have been compulsive but was certainly real. She talked in a quick, surprising way that passed for wit, and she had the appearance of constantly being busy. She was not busy, of course; she was simply making sure that she wouldn’t be bored.
Her guests on the boat were two other couples of her world — not so rich as she, and the women not quite so handsome — but gay and pleasant people who made every show of having a good time.
It’s hard to know what to say about Jerry Benham, her husband. He was her third. He had been married to her for nine years, and it was clear that he was not going to last much longer.
Poor Jerry. If things had been different — if he had never met Foxie, that is — he might have been a successful second-rate actor. He had been a moderately successful one, and had been on his way to a small notoriety when Foxie picked him up. It was still obvious that he had been a good-looking fellow ten years ago, but the ten years of idleness and alcohol had taken their toll: Jerry, at thirty-five, looked done for.
He was not a drunk; in fact, he drank rather less than the average, but alcohol went to his tongue. He didn’t stutter; there was simply a lag in his speech. He had to force the words out. Talking to him, you found yourself helping him, finishing sentences, nodding violent agreement with half-finished ones. It was tiring to talk to him, but also unrewarding, for Jerry really had little more to talk about than ten-year-old movie news.
Possibly it is condescension on my part to say I felt sorry for Jerry. He had made his bargain in marrying Foxie, yet somehow I believed he had expected something more.
Foxie was carrying on with the captain.
Oh, the captain.
Hellie gave the best description of him at dinner that first night after they all arrived. “He’s a beautiful specimen,” she said, and gave a frantic little laugh.
Doña Lucia looked at her coldly. “No need for hysteria,” she said. “Men have been handsome before this.”
“Not like the captain,” Hellie said.
“I thought that you wanted a man with brains.”
“I do. But as an example of what the race can produce … ”
“Hands off, now,” Doña Lucia said, “if you know what’s good for you.”
“I’m a scientist. I can appreciate a specimen, can’t I?”
“If you keep a scientific view, yes. But let me tell you, Foxie has the teeth of a wolf.”
“You don’t understand.” Hellie said.
“Yes, I do,” Doña Lucia said.
He was actually a very nice fellow, Bill Daniels. The Navy had given him a good education, and he loved boats, so this present job was a perfect one. And if Foxie went with it, he wasn’t averse.
I have found that extraordinarily handsome people are usually quite nice. They have no reason not to be. Everyone likes them on sight, they go everywhere, they are either given money or given a chance to earn it easily, they have none of those problems of making a place in the world for themselves, which seem to beset the rest of us. Enjoying life, they make life enjoyable for those around them.
At least, that is what Bill Daniels did for Hellie. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that is what he did in the morning; for the rest of the day, and the night, he was a hired hand. Hellie accepted this as natural.
They met early one morning by chance in a cove where Bill was swimming and she had gone to hunt for shells. They talked and swam and looked for shells until noon, when he had to leave. But they met the next morning. Then the next, and the next. When, however, they met at other times, they only smiled and nodded. Hellie said one day, “Don’t be silly. Bill’s told me all about it. Foxie’s husband is around every minute, isn’t he? It’s just that Foxie treats everyone like a servant, especially servants. She wants Bill on call.”
“Oh,” I said, “so that’s it.”
I’m sure it all started innocently enough. From Bill’s point of view, it was certainly more fun to go swimming with a pretty girl than not, and from Hellie’s — well, it was good to have a happy fellow dive to get shells for you.
Foxie either did not know about the meetings or had proof they meant nothing. Anyway, she took a liking to Hellie when she found out about her work.
“My word, shells,” she said one evening when all the yacht people were on shore for cocktails. “I know something about shells, you know. When I was a little girl my father used to bring me down here. He was very interested in the Hedges Institute. You know the collection there from Magdalena Bay?”
“Of course I do.” Hellie said. “They’re beautiful specimens.”
With a kind of childish pride, Foxie pointed to herself. “I collected a great many of them. They were my special thing.” She leaned toward Hellie, a string of sapphires rattling on her wrist. “Look here, you and I have a lot to talk about.”
And they did, for a good twenty minutes. “Oh,” Foxie said finally, “I’d love to go hunting again.”
“Why don’t you come?” Hellie said. “Some afternoon?”
“Tomorrow,” Foxie said. “I’ll do it.”
Jerry, who had been listening carefully to all this, looked at me and smiled. I smiled back at him and nodded wisely, hoping I told him I understood everything he was thinking.
I did not, of course. I did not know one thing Jerry was thinking. I spent too much time watching the situation as it developed.
For Hellie, despite all her talk and disclaimers, fell in love with Bill. It was one of those quick and awful things, groundless, and, so far as I could see, without hope, but hard and inescapable. It happens, I suppose, to everyone at least once in his life, and this was Hellie’s time.
In her eyes there was a new, distinguishable glow; she lost the thread of conversation, she walked differently, she seemed afraid that everyone was looking at her. I felt sorry for Hellie Adams.
For let’s be blunt about it: I could see, and I was also told quite plainly by one of Foxie’s guests, what was going on. Foxie had marked Bill for her next husband, and no sweet little girl who went around picking up seashells was going to upset the plan.
It was a recent thing with Foxie too, I was told. Bill had been hired as captain innocently enough — which would explain Jerry’s presence — and the change had taken place in the six weeks since the yacht had left Santa Barbara. As Hellie said, Bill Daniels was a healthy specimen.
There you have it — but with one thing to be added which might possibly be forgotten. I mean the intimacy of all concerned.
You remember what it was like in the old days when people traveled by ship instead of plane. At the end of six days going to Europe you felt that the people you had met the first day were old, old friends, that you had known them and everything about them for months or years. The same thing happened in the isolation of the Hacienda Lucknow. By the end of two weeks we had all been in each other’s pockets long enough to know the contents, and yet not be bored. We were all delighted new friends, in the happy way of a resort, which demands no responsibility. If some of us looked apprehensively at the spectacle of Foxie and Hellie and Captain Daniels, we were all very civilized, and did not talk about it — in public. We danced and drank and had suppers on the beach and swam in the moonlight. Everything was fine, and might have remained so.
But then the whales came. Of course, it is silly to suppose the whales had anything to do with it, but they marked the day.
Foxie had invited us all out fishing. We went in one of Doña Lucia’s powerful fishing boats. There had been rumors that marlin had been killed out of Guaymas, and since marlin were one of the main reasons Foxie was at Santa Rosa, off we went. By “we” I mean the yacht people and Hellie and me; Doña Lucia was invited, of course, but she had caught enough fish in her life.
It was one of those sharp blue days with an occasional flat-bottomed cloud to turn the pale water to ink. We went fast out into the Gulf and south. José, who ran the boat, was famous for knowing where fish liked to swim.
We had been gone three hours, the lines were out, and we were possibly twelve miles offshore when we saw the first whale. He was, José said, a couple of miles away when we saw him come up and blow.
I was standing next to José. He turned to me and shrugged. “There will be no marlin,” he said. “When the whales come, the marlin go.”
I said, “Whales don’t eat marlin?”
José made a face. “The marlin don’t take a chance.”
In a little while we saw another whale, or maybe it was the first one again. But then we saw three together.
There is no way to prepare yourself for the sight. Whales are monsters of an impossible size, awkwardly playful in a way that never seems quite under control. To me they are frightening. I watched dry-mouthed and helpless when one surfaced not two hundred yards from us, water streaming from his back; he eyed us incuriously, and dived again. José said they never attack small boats; but like the marlin. I did not want to take chances. I wanted to go home. We did, but it took us almost four hours. We saw twenty-one whales.
It was not a good day. Whatever spirits we had were sobered; for the most part, we watched silently. Foxie became irritable, and insisted to José he could drive the boat faster. We all had drinks, and left our lunch untouched.
I was sitting beside Jerry Benham. Poor Jerry, I think he hated the whales worse than any of us. At the time the nearest one surfaced, he let out a little strangled cry; the blood drained from his sunburned face and turned it yellow. His hand was like a claw clutching his whiskey and soda. When it was over, he said to me, in his halting way, “It’s the worst thing I ever saw. I-I — ”
“I know,” I said. Beside him I felt brave, and I was not brave. But Jerry was in pain.
I must add, here, that two of us were undisturbed: Bill and Hellie. They sat forward, over the cabin, fascinated, calling and pointing. Maybe they knew enough about whales to be confident. Anyway, they seemed to enjoy themselves. And it is just possible that it was their enjoyment, and not the speed of the boat, that made Foxie irritable.
Whales were not the only thing that happened that day. When we got home, tired and out of humor, Doña Lucia met us at the dock and said, “A tragedy has happened. The gasoline engine has broken. We have no ice.”
We had dinner on the yacht. We all had a swim first, and after it Foxie said, “Come have dinner with us. Maybe we can cheer up a little. We need to.” Doña Lucia came along, eagerly deserting her other guests. “Let them rough it,” she said.
On the rear deck of Foxie’s boat the chairs were long and low and comfortable. I sank into one and barely moved all evening. The wind was down and the sea was silent except for the occasional gentle slap of a wave against the hull. From somewhere, softly, came piano music on a phonograph. There was a sizable slice of moon, and the air was cool.
An ideal spot for a dinner, would you not think? — with the Mexican mountains rearing up gray and wild for a backdrop. Perhaps it was the drinks; everybody drank in the hope he would feel happy, but nobody did. Blame the whales, or the fear of them. It was an uneasy night.
Jerry drank too much — out of shame, maybe — and Hellie who wasn’t used to drinking at all, drank because her heart was broken.
For that was the night Foxie went out of her way to show whom Bill Daniels belonged to. It was no vulgar display, but by her tone, her requests, her intimacy, she left no doubt in Hellie’s mind about how things stood. Once — when Jerry was away for a moment, somewhere — Bill bent down to light her cigarette. She ran her hands through his hair and said, “O captain, my captain, you’re the most beautiful captain on the seven seas.” I will say for Bill that he seemed a little embarrassed, but also I will say he made no move to do anything that would displease Foxie.
I have no good way to describe the tension that mounted as the night went on. There was no overt act, but the whole atmosphere just turned nasty. Doña Lucia caught my eye once and made a face of disdain and disgust. I nodded. Rich people, I said to myself, are only good for poor people when they are happy. It seemed a bright thought at the time.
I saw Hellie get up and go forward, out of sight. I don’t know why she went — maybe because she couldn’t watch Foxie anymore, or maybe because she thought Bill would come to her. In any case, after a little while Jerry got up and went after her. It was about five minutes after that, I think, when I heard her scream.
It was a scream of rage, and it was followed by another, and then by some high, choked words we could not understand. Just as we turned our heads, Hellie came running along the deck to us. She was pulling at the shoulder of her dress with one hand, and running the other through her hair. “Doña Lucia,” she cried, “please get the boat. Please get me out of here.”
The old lady, shocked and I think frightened, half rose from her chair.
But Foxie said only, “What’s got into you?”
She had Bill sitting beside her, and one of her arms was draped over his bare shoulder.
“You know,” Hellie said, her breath coming almost as if she were crying. “You know very well what happened.”
“Relax,” Foxie said.
Hellie was holding her head with both hands now. “Relax!” she said. “Get me out of here!” And then she sobbed. “It was you!” she screamed at Foxie. “You put him up to it.”
“The girl’s drunk,” Foxie said, and leaned back. Hellie’s words were dangerous, for Jerry had come aft now and was standing listening.
“You belong under a microscope,” Hellie said. “You put your husband up to it to keep him quiet, to keep him satisfied while you and the captain … ”
Bill said, “Take it easy.”
Foxie said, “Shut up.”
“That’s what I said,” Hellie screamed, “while you and the captain … ”
Doña Lucia had her by one arm and I by the other, and together we got her down the side and into the little boat. She sobbed quietly all the way in to the dock. Doña Lucia led her to her room and put her to bed.
Later, when everyone else was asleep, the old lady and I had a rather shaky nightcap. We sat on the loggia looking out over the sea. The moon still shone too brightly; the water was motionless, and the night soundless, peaceful.
“The truth,” Doña Lucia said, “how dangerous it is. How it is to be avoided. Look at those people. Everyone knew the situation, but they managed to live together, and there could have been a solution. But not now. The truth has been said out loud. Now no one can look at anyone else.”
I said, “What morality!”
“No,” Doña Lucia said. “That’s not morality. Just a feeling for etiquette.”
When I finally got to bed that night, I slept like a rock till six, when Doña Lucia came into my room and shook me awake. “Get up, please,” she said. “Maybe you can help.”
In the night, Jerry Benham had got a gun, shot Foxie in the shoulder, Bill Daniels in the leg, and then, turning the gun on himself, had grazed an ear.
Poor, innocent Jerry. He had aimed for tragedy, but had only made a mess.
“A mess,” Doña Lucia said, sitting on my bed, and with trembling fingers, trying to light a cigarette. “A bloody mess.”
Luis’s plane. which brought the piece of machinery to repair the gasoline engine (which made the electricity which made the ice), took away Foxie and Jerry and, on a stretcher, Captain Bill Daniels. One of the men who had been Foxie’s guest went along. The other man and the two women flew off a couple of days later. The yacht stayed for a week, then somebody sent for it.
But the Hacienda Lucknow was, after all, a hotel. New people came, purposefully bent on enjoying themselves, unconcerned with the past. Some of them were quite amusing people, actually, whom I came to like very well. It wasn’t too long till nobody spoke of the yacht people and what happened to them.
I did not approve of this — this cutting off of a situation as with a pair of scissors. I like a little continuity to my days, even on vacation, but I didn’t see what I could do about it.
So you can imagine my pleasure when, three weeks after the Event, Hellie got a letter from Bill Daniels.
“This is more like it,” I said.
Doña Lucia was short with me. “You,” she said. “Always trying to dream up a happy ending.”
“What’s the matter with happy endings?”
“They only lead to trouble later.”
It was a newsy letter. Bill was out of the hospital, but had to walk with a cane. Foxie had fired him, and flown to New York — with Jerry, of all people. Finally, he hoped that when Hellie got back to Santa Barbara, she would let him know.
Hellie was bitter. “What kind of an insensitive creature can he be … ”
“Most unsuitable,” Doña Lucia said. “Most unsuitable.”
“Come off it,” I said. “Love isn’t suitable or unsuitable. Love is the curve of a neck or the sound of a step on the stairs.”
“God Almighty,” Doña Lucia said. She leaned back and closed her eyes. “You are an incorrigible nitwit.”
“Maybe,” I said, just to fill in the silence. I looked at Hellie. She was sitting quite still, with the letter in her hand, gazing out over the water. But she was not, it was plain, looking at that Mexican sea. Oh, no.
“Well,” I said, “let’s all keep in touch.”
Featured image: Illustrated by Neil Boyle. (©SEPS)
In 1918, Jesse Lynch Williams won the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play, Why Marry? The Princeton graduate wrote on the early century college experience — in fiction and nonfiction — and focused on conflict in families and relationships in his drama. His short story “Not Wanted,” an O. Henry Award finalist, follows a young man’s strained relationship with his father as he makes his way through boarding school.
Published on November 17, 1923
“And when at last they put his first-born in his strong arms and the little pink tendril-like fingers closed about his thumb a strange tenderness suffused the father’s frame,” and so on.
Phil had read it in a book. But life did not come true to literature. When they put his first-born in his arms a strange nausea suffused this father’s frame and he handed the warm little bundle back to his sister hastily, as if it were hot.
“Take it away,” he whispered to Mary. “I might break it.”
And he bolted out of the room, for the doctor said he could see Nell now. The only joy he felt was over a less vainglorious but more important matter than becoming a father. The beautiful brave mother was all right.
This young man had not wanted to become a father; not in the least. He and Junior’s mother had been happy together. Now they would have to be happy apart, if at all, for whole years at a time, until Junior was big enough to stand trips to the wilds of Alaska or Africa or wherever else mining engineers had to go. Nell had always gone along until this usurper spoiled their life together. So Junior was really doing a scandalous thing, coming between husband and wife. No wonder that Phil had not wanted him.
Well, Junior’s mother wanted him anyway. She wanted him terrifically, more than anything in the world except Junior’s father. And as her husband wanted her to have everything she desired, why, probably it was all right. There was not much else that she had lacked.
Junior did not seem to understand that he wasn’t wanted by his father, and took to Phil from the first. “All babies do,” said the jealous young aunt. “It’s a great gift and it’s wasted on a man.” Mary was a maiden, but she had hopes.
“He’s so big and so kind,” said the contented mother. “Children, dogs and old ladies always adore Phil.”
With Junior it was clearly a case of love at first sight, and he did not act as if he were a victim of unrequited affection. For example, unlike a woman scorned, he had no fury for his father at all except when Phil left the room. Then he howled. His father could soothe him when even his mother failed, and Junior would settle down into Phil’s arms with a sigh of voluptuous satisfaction, quite as if he belonged there; and, of course, he did. That was the dismaying part about it to his father, who scowled and looked bored. This made the young mother laugh; and that in turn made Junior laugh, too, and look down at her from the eminence of his father’s arms, as if trying to wink and say “Rather a joke on the old man.”
“I suppose I’ve got to do this all my life,” said Phil.
“All your life,” said Nell, rubbing it in; “but after a while you’ll like it.”
She had great faith in her son’s charm.
Junior was five years old when his father came back from the Alaska project. He could not remember having met this grown-up before, but he might have said “I have heard so much about you.” His mother had told him. For example, his father was the best and bravest man in the world. Also, according to the same reliable authority, he loved Junior and his mother enormously and equally. He was far away, getting bread and butter for them. A wonderful person, a great big man, six feet two inches “and well proportioned,” and such an honorable gentleman that — well, that was the only reason he was not coming home with a huge fortune, she explained. But at any rate he was coming home at last, and would be awfully glad to see what a big boy Junior had become.
He was, but Phil had always been rather shy with strangers, and he did not pay so much attention to his namesake as Junior had been led to expect. You see, everyone in this tyrant’s kingdom worshiped him, and Junior assumed that his father would follow conventions. For every night before he went to sleep his father’s name had invariably been mentioned first in the list of people and animals and playthings that loved him.
Junior, though quite small, was a great lover, and much given to kissing. On momentous occasions, such as the start for the picnic the day after his father’s arrival, Junior manifested his excitement by hugging and kissing everybody in sight, including the dogs. It was his earliest form of self-expression. His father, as it happened, was absorbed in packing the tea basket and had never been accustomed to being kissed while packing in camp. Besides, Junior had been helping his mother prepare the luncheon. That is, he had taken a hand in the distribution of guava jelly, and there was just one hardship in the life of this immaculate mining engineer he could never endure — sticky fingers. But Junior had not yet learned that, and so, taking advantage of his father’s kneeling posture, he tackled him around the neck and indulged in passionate osculation.
“Call your child off,” said Phil to Nell. She laughed.
“Come, precious, don’t bore your father.”
Junior did not know what that new word “bore” meant, but he released his father and transferred his demonstration to his mother. She never seemed to get too much and did not object to sweet fingers.
“Mamma,” said Junior as they started off in the car, “I don’t believe that man in front likes me.”
“He adores you, darling; he’s your father.”
Well, it sounded reasonable, but he remembered the new word. That evening when they came home the dogs, not having been allowed to go on the picnic, thought it was their turn and jumped up on Phil with muddy paws. Junior took command of the situation and of the new word.
“Down, Rex!” he said to the sentimental setter. “Don’t bore my father.” And he pulled Rex away by the tail.
At bedtime, when the nurse came to bear him off, he raised his arms to Phil.
“Can I bore you now?”
Phil laughed and kissed him good night.
“Funny little cuss, isn’t he?” said Phil.
“He’s a very unusual child,” said this very unusual mother.
“Unusually ugly, you mean.”
But he couldn’t get a rise out of Nell.
“Oh, you’ll learn to appreciate him yet.”
Shortly before Phil left for his next trip the paternal passion had its way with this reserved father, for once. Some little street boys, as they were technically classified by the nurse, had been ordered off the drive by Junior, who was playing out there alone. They did not like his aristocratic manner and rolled him in the mud. They were pommeling him in spite of his protests, when Phil heard the outcry and, getting a glimpse of the unequal contest from the library window, gave forth a shout that made the intruders take to their heels, the infuriated father after them.
As he raced down the drive he saw the wide-eyed animal terror on his child’s face and it aroused within him an animal emotion of another kind, one he had never felt before, though he had often seen it exhibited by wild beasts — usually the mothers. It was a lust to destroy those two little boys, to render them extinct. He might have done so too; but fortunately they had a good start, and by the time he caught up with them civilization caught up with him sufficiently to make him realize what century he was living in. So, with a few vigorous cuffs and an angry warning, he hastened back to his bleating offspring, recognizing with astonishment and some alarm how near blind parental rage can bring a man to murder.
Junior was not so much damaged as his white clothes were, but his childish terror was pitiful. He rushed into his father’s arms and clung, quivering. Phil held him close.
“There, there, it’s all right now. I won’t let anybody hurt you.”
Without realizing it, this fastidious father was kissing an extremely dirty face again and again. Junior, still sobbing convulsively, clung closer.
“You’ll always be on my side, won’t you, father?”
“You bet I will!” said Phil. “You’re my own darling little boy.”
He had had no intention of saying things quite like that, and didn’t know that he could; but it sounded all right to Junior. This moment was to be one of those vivid recollections that last through a lifetime.
With a final long-drawn sigh of complete and passionate comfort, the small boy looked up into the big man’s face and smiled.
“You love me now, don’t you, father?” he said.
“You bet I love you!”
The boy had got him at last. But perhaps Junior presumed upon this new privilege. The next morning, he awoke with a bad dream about those street boys, and as soon as the nurse permitted he rushed in to be reassured by his big father. Phil was preoccupied with shaving and did not know about the bad dream. Junior tried to climb up Phil’s legs.
“That will do,” said his father in imminent peril of cutting his chin; “get down. Get down, I tell you. Oh, Nell!” — she was in the next room — “make your child quit picking on me.”
“Come to me, dearest. Mustn’t bother father when he’s shaving.”
Junior wasn’t piqued but he was puzzled.
“But I thought he loved me; he told me he loved me,” he called out. “Didn’t you tell me you loved me, father?”
Phil laughed to cover his embarrassment. He had not reckoned on Junior’s giving him away to Nell, and knew that she was triumphing over him now, in silence.
“Your father never loves anybody before breakfast,” said Junior’s mother, smiling as she covered him with kisses.
Apparently fathers could never be like mothers.
Nell knew it was a risk, but she wanted to be with Phil as much as he wanted to be with her — the old life together they both loved. So they decided that Junior was big enough now to stand the trip to Mongolia. It was a great mistake. Before they had crossed Russia all of them regretted it — except Junior. He was having a grand time. At present he was working his way back from the door of the railway compartment to the window again, and for the third time was stepping upon his father’s feet. Phil had had a bad time with the custom officials, a bad time with the milk boxes and a bad night’s sleep. His temper broke under the strain.
“Oh, children are a damn nuisance,” he growled.
“Come, dear, look at these funny houses out of the window,” said Junior’s mother. “Aren’t they funny houses?”
That night when she was putting him to sleep with the recital of those who loved him, Junior inquired, “Mamma, what is a damn nuisance?”
“A damn nuisance,” said his mother, “is a perfect darling.”
All the same he had learned that he must avoid stepping on his father’s freshly polished boots. One more item added to the list. Mustn’t touch him with sticky hands, mustn’t play with his pipes, mustn’t make a noise when he takes his nap on the train — so many things to remember, such a small head to keep them all in.
There was no more milk. There was very little proper food of any kind for Junior in the camp, although Phil sent a small-sized expedition away over the divide for the purpose. The boy became ill. Phil ordered a special train to bring a famous physician. He even neglected his work on the boy’s account, something unprecedented for Phil. But this was no place for children. The boy would have to go home. That meant that his mother would too … All the beautiful dream of being together spoiled.
“I’m going back to America because I am a damn nuisance to my father,” Junior announced to Phil’s assistant.
Phil neglected his work again and went with them as far as the border. “But you do love him,” said Nell; “you know you do. You’d give up your life for him.”
“Naturally. All I object to is giving up my wife for him.”
But Phil’s last look was at the poor little sickly boy. He wondered if he would ever see him again. He did. But he never saw his wife again.
It was too late to do anything about it. His assistant, who had seen these married lovers together, marveled at the way his silent chief went about the day’s work until his responsibility to the syndicate was discharged. Then he marveled more when just as the opportunity of a professional lifetime came to Phil he threw up his job and started for home.
He meant to stay there. He would get into the office end of the work and devote the rest of his life to Nell’s boy. That was his job now. Previously he had left it to her — too much so. The brave girl! Never a whine in all the blessed years of their marriage. The child until now had seemed merely to belong to him, a luxury he did not particularly want. Now he belonged to the child, a necessity, and being needed made Phil want him. But the Great War postponed this plan.
So Junior continued to live with his devoted Aunt Mary. She cherished his belief in Phil’s perfection, but she could not understand why her busy brother never wrote to his adoring little son. But for that matter, Phil never wrote to his adoring little sister. He never wrote letters at all, except on business. He sent telegrams and cables — long expensive ones.
On the memorable day when father and son were reunited at last an unwelcome shyness came upon them and fastened itself there like a bad habit. Neither knew how to break it. Each looked at the other wistfully with eyes that were veiled.
Junior was more proud of his wonderful father now than ever. Phil had a scar on his chin. The boy was keen to hear all about it. His father did not seem inclined to talk of that, and Junior had a precocious fear of boring him. He had made up his mind never to be a damn nuisance to his father again. He had long since discovered the meaning of those words.
Phil soon became restless and discontented with office work. He had done the other thing too long and too well to enjoy civilization for more than a month or so at a time, and the financial crowd infuriated him. He was interested in mining problems. They were interested in mining profits.
Owing to changes wrought by the war another great opportunity had arisen in a part of the world Phil knew better than any other member of his profession. “It’s a man’s job,” they told him, “and you’re the only one who could swing it.”
Phil shook his head. “Not fair to the boy.”
“But with the contract we’re prepared to offer you, why, your boy will be on Easy Street all his life.”
That got him. “Just once more,” thought Phil. “I’ll clean up on this and then retire to the country — make a real home for him — dogs and horses. I’ll teach him to shoot and fish. That ought to bring us together.”
So Junior’s father was arranging to go away again. He told the boy about the plan for the future. And we’ll spend a lot of time in the woods together,” said Phil. “I’ll make a good camper of you. Your mother was a good camper.” This comforted the silent little fellow and he did not let the team come until after Phil’s back was turned.
Meanwhile Phil had been going into the school question with the same thoroughness he devoted to every other job he undertook.
And now the epochal time had come for Junior to go away to boarding school. He was rather young for it, but Aunt Mary, it seems, was going to be married at last.
She volunteered to accompany the boy on the journey and see him through the first day. His father was very busy, of course, with preparations for his much longer and more important journey. Junior had always been fond of Aunt Mary, had transferred to her a little of the passionate devotion that had belonged to his mother. Only a little. The rest was all for his father, though Phil did not know it, and sometimes watched these two together with hungry eyes, wondering how they laughed and loved so comfortably.
On the evening before the great day his father said, “I know several of the masters up there.” A little later he added, “One of the housemasters was a classmate of mine at college.” Then he said, “I’ve been thinking it over. Maybe I better go up there with you myself.”
“Oh, if you only would!” thought the little fellow. But he considered himself a big fellow now and had learned to repress such impulses, just as he and the dogs had learned not to jump up and kiss Phil’s face. So all Junior said was, “That’s awfully kind of you, but can you spare the time?” He always became self-conscious in his father’s presence.
“You’d rather have your Aunt Mary? Well, of course, that’s all right.”
“No, but” — Junior dropped his eyes and raised them again — “sure I won’t be a nuisance to you?”
Phil had forgotten the association of that word. All he saw was that the boy wanted him more than he did Mary and it pleased him tremendously. “Then that’s all fixed,” he said.
The housemaster was of the hearty pseudoslangy sort. He said to Junior’s father, “Skinny little cuss, isn’t he? Well, we’ll soon build him up.”
“Aleck, I want you to take good care of this fellow,” said Phil. “He’s all I’ve got, you know.”
“Oh, I’ll keep a strict eye on him, and if he gets fresh I’ll bat him over the head.”
Junior knew that he was supposed to smile at this and did so. He did not feel much like smiling. He discovered that he was to be in the housemaster’s house. He did not believe that he would ever like this Mr. Fielding, but he did in time.
As it came nearer and nearer his father’s train time the terrible sinking feeling became worse, and he was afraid that he might cry after all; and that would disgrace his father. They walked down to the station together. They walked slowly. They would not see each other again for a year — maybe two. Both were thinking about it, neither referring to it. “I suppose that’s the golf links over there?” said Junior.
“I suppose so,” said Phil. He hadn’t looked.
There were a number of fathers and a greater number of mothers saying goodbye. Some of the mothers were crying, all of them were kissing their boys. Even some of the fathers did that. Junior and Phil saw it. They glanced at each other and then away again, both wondering whether it would be done by them; each hoping so, yet fearing it wouldn’t be. Phil remembered how when he was a youngster he hated to be kissed before the other boys. He did not want to mortify the manly little fellow; and the boy knew better than to begin such things. (“Don’t bore your father.”)
“Well,” said Phil, looking at his watch, “I suppose I might as well get on the train.” Then he laughed as though that were funny. “Goodbye,” he said. “Work hard and you’ll have a good time here. Goodbye, Junior.” The father held out his hand.
The son shook it. “Goodbye, father. I’ll bet you have a great trip in the mountains.” And Junior laughed too. The train pulled out, and the forlorn little boy was alone now. Worse. Surrounded by strangers.
“Well, I didn’t mortify him, anyway,” said the father.
“Well, I didn’t cry before him, anyway,” said the son. But he was doing it now.
The veil between them was not yet lifted.
Junior had a roommate named Black. So he was called Blackie. Blackie had a nice mother who used to come to see him frequently.
Junior took considerable interest in mothers, observed them closely when even the most observant of them were quite unaware of it. He approved of his roommate’s mother, despite her telling Blackie not to forget his rubbers, dear. Blackie glanced at Junior to see if he was listening. Junior pretended that he wasn’t.
“Aren’t mothers queer?” said Blackie after she had gone.
“Sure,” said Junior.
“Always worrying about you. You know how it is.”
“I bet your mother’s the same way.”
Junior hesitated. “My mother’s dead,” he said. “Bet I can beat you to the gate.” They raced and Junior beat him.
But he soon perceived that he would never make an athlete, and so he was a nonentity all through the early part of his school career, one of the little fellows in the lower form, thin legs and squeaky voice.
The things on the walls of Junior’s room — spears, arrows, shields and an antelope head — first drew attention to Junior’s only distinction. That was why he had put them there.
“Oh, that’s nothing,” he said with some arrogance, after the expected admiration and curiosity had been elicited. “You just ought to see my father’s collection.” And this gave Junior his chance to tell about the collector. “These things — only some junk he didn’t want and sent to me.”
This was not strictly true. His father had not sent them. Junior had begged them from his aunt, and she was glad to get them out of her new house. They did not go in any of her rooms. It was soon spread about the school, as Junior knew it would be, that this skinny little fellow in the lower form had a father who was worthwhile, a dare-devil who led expeditions to distant and dangerous lands and seldom lived at home. He had killed his man, it seems, had nearly lost his life from an attack by a hostile tribe in Africa. He became a romantic, somewhat mythical figure.
“When my old man was in college,” said Smithy, also a lower-form boy and envious of Junior’s vicarious fame, “he made the football team.”
“My father was the captain of his eleven,” said Junior.
“My father was in the war,” said Smithy.
“Mine was wounded.”
But he soon observed that one could not boast too openly about one’s father. Smithy made that mistake about the family possessions — yachts and the like. He was squelched by an upper-form boy. Junior became subtle. He caused questions to be asked and answered them reluctantly, it seemed.
Many of the boys had photographs of fathers in khaki. Junior went them one better. After the Christmas holidays the crowded mantelpiece included an old faded kodak of Phil in a tropical explorer’s costume — white helmet, rifle, binoculars, cartridge belt. It had been taken as a joke by one of his engineer associates in Africa but it was taken seriously by Junior and his associates in school.
“Where is the scar from the African spear-thrust?” asked Smithy.
“It doesn’t show in the picture,” said Junior, “but he often lets me see it. He and I always go fishing together in the North Woods when he’s in this country. Long canoe trips. I enjoy camping with him because he’s had a pretty good deal of experience at that sort of thing.”
Junior established a very interesting personality for Phil.
“Gee! I wish my father was like that,” said one of the boys. “My old man always gives me hell.”
One day during the second year Blackie said, “June, why doesn’t your father ever come here to see you?”
“Oh, he’s so seldom in this country, and he’s terribly busy when he gets here. Barely has time to jump from one large undertaking to another.” He had heard Aunt Mary’s husband say “large undertaking.”
“Well, some of the fellows think you’re just bluffing about your father.”
“Huh! They’re jealous. Look at Smithy’s father. Nothing but money and fat. Huh!”
Then came the great day when a wireless arrived for Junior. Very few boys get messages from their fathers by wireless. “Land Friday,” it said. “Coming to see you Saturday.” Ah! That would show them!
Junior jumped into a sort of first-page prominence in the news of the day. He let some of his friends see the wireless. And now all of them would see his father on Saturday. That was the day of the game. Junior would have a chance to exhibit him before the whole school. “Six feet two and well proportioned.” “Captain of his team in college.” He planned it all out carefully. They would arrive late at the game and Junior would lead him down the line. But he would do it with a matter-of-fact manner as if used to going to games with his father.
On Friday he received a telegram. “Sorry can’t make it stop am wiring headmaster permission spend weekend with me stop meet at office lunch time stop go to ball game and theater in the evening.” It was a straight telegram at that, not a night letter. That would show the boys what kind of father he had.
“Hot dog!” they said. “But look here! You’ll miss the game.”
“The game” meant the great school game, of course, not the mere world-series event Junior was going to.
“Well, you see, he doesn’t have many chances to be with me. I’ll have to go.” A dutiful son.
But on Saturday morning he received another telegram. “Sorry must postpone our spree together letter follows.”
He was beginning to wonder if his father really wanted to see him. It was a great jolt to his pride. He had counted upon letting the boys know where they lunched, what play they saw together, and perhaps there might be a few hairbreadth escapes to relate.
“He can’t come,” said Junior to his roommate, tearing up the telegram.
“Why can’t he?” asked Blackie. Did Blackie suspect anything? His parents never let anything prevent their seeing Blackie.
“Invited to the White House,” said Junior, tossing the torn telegram into the fire. “The President wants to consult him about conditions in Siberia.”
“Gee!” This made a sensation and it would spread. “But aren’t you going to see him at all?”
“Of course. Going down next week probably, but you know an invitation to the White House is a command.”
“That’s so.” Junior’s father’s stock was soaring.
That evening Smithy dropped in. He had heard about the White House and the President.
“Huh! I don’t believe you’ve got a father,” said Smithy.
Junior only smiled and glanced at his roommate. Later Blackie told the others that Smithy was jealous. “His father has nothing but money and fat.” Junior was always too much for Smithy. But suppose the promised letter did not follow. It hardly seemed possible. He had received occasional cables, several telegrams and that one notable wireless, but never in all his life a letter from his father.
It came promptly. It was brief and it was dictated, but it was a letter all the same, and he was much impressed. He had a letter from his father, like other fellows. It explained that the writer had been called away to New Mexico by important business, but that he hoped to join his son during the summer. “It’s time we got acquainted. With much love, Your Father.”
“Well, we’re going to meet during the summer anyway,” thought Junior, folding up the letter. And his father had sent his love. To be sure, he sent it through his secretary. But he sent it all the same.
That evening Junior arranged to be found casually reading a letter when the gang dropped in.
“What have you got?” asked Smithy.
“Oh, just a letter from my father,” remarked Junior casually. “Wants to know if I won’t go out to the Canadian Rockies with him next summer.” He seemed to keep on reading. It was a bulky letter apparently. Junior had attached three blank sheets of paper of the same size as that on which the note was written.
“Gee! Your old man writes you long ones,” said Smithy. “What’s it all about?”
“Oh, he merely wanted to tell me about his conference with the President.”
“Hot dog! Read it aloud.”
“Sorry, Smithy, but it’s confidential.” Folded in such a way that its brevity was concealed, Junior carelessly exposed the first sheet bearing his father’s engraved letterhead. “Confidential” had been written by pen across the top. Junior had written it.
All this produced the calculated effect for his father, but it was cold comfort for the son.
Well, he did see his father at last, but it was during the summer vacation, and the boys would know nothing about it until the fall term opened. Junior was staying with Aunt Mary in the country, and came in for the day. Phil was dictating letters and jumped up with a loud “Hello, there, hello!” And this time he kissed his son, right in front of his secretary. She was the only one of the three not startled. Phil and Junior both blushed.
“Mrs. Allison, this is Junior,” said Phil. He seemed to be really glad to see the boy, and Junior’s heart was thumping. Mrs. Allison said “Pleased to meet you,” but Junior liked her all the same. She looked kind. And while her employer finished his dictation she glanced at Junior and smiled. The letter progressed slowly and had to be changed twice. Mrs. Allison knew why, and smiled again, at her pencil this time. She understood them both better than they understood each other.
“Thank you, Mrs. Allison,” Phil said; “that will be all today. I’m too tired.” She knew he never tired. “I’ll sign them after lunch and mail them myself.” Then he turned to Junior. “Now you and I are going out to have a grand old time together, eh what, old top?”
He slapped Junior on the back. Then Mrs. Allison left the room, and father and son were alone together. It frightened them.
Already the old clamping habit of reserve was trying to have its way with them, though each was determined to prevent it. Both of them laughed and said “Well, well!” hoping to bluff it off.
“First, let’s have a look at you,” said Phil; and he playfully dragged Junior toward the window. The boy’s laughter suddenly died, and Phil now had a disquieting sense of making an ass of himself in his son’s eyes. But that was not it. Junior dreaded the strong light of the window. With his changing voice had arrived a few not very conspicuous pimples; such little ones, but they distressed him enormously.
“Well, feel as if you could eat something?”
“Yes, thank you,” said Junior. He feared it sounded cold and formal. He couldn’t help it.
They went to a club on the top of a high office building. Junior’s name was written in the guest book, which awed him agreeably. A large, luxurious luncheon was outlined by Phil, beginning with a cantaloupe and ending with ice cream — a double portion for Junior. This was first submitted to Junior for approval. He had forgotten his facial blemishes.
“Golly! You bet I approve,” said Junior laughing. That was more like it.
Phil summoned a waiter and then sent for the head waiter. A great man, his father, not afraid even of head waiters. And he ordered with the air of one who knew. No wonder the waiters seemed honored to serve him. Only, how was one to “get this over” to the boys without seeming to boast?
“A little fish, sir, after the melon?”
“Yes, if you’ll bring some not on the menu.” That was puzzling. Phil explained. Fish which had arrived at the club after the menu had been printed was sure to be fresh.
“Oh, I see,” said Junior. This would make a hit with the boys.
There was no doubt about it, his handsome father was the most distinguished personage in the whole large roomful of important-looking people. Several of them gathered around to welcome Phil. Junior was presented. Their greetings to the son showed their warm affection, their high regard for the father. Junior wallowed in filial pride. If only Smithy could see him now! What a father! A citizen of the world who did big things and wore perfect-fitting clothes, cut by his Bond Street tailor in London — the finishing touch of greatness to a boy of Junior’s age — and he recalled what one of the engineers had said to Aunt Mary, “Even in camp he shaves every day.”
“Well, tell me how everything is going at school,” said the father, who did not dream that he was being hero-worshiped.
But Junior could not be easy and natural, as with Aunt Mary. He blushed as in the presence of a stranger. He heard his own raucous voice and hated it. He took unnecessary sips of water.
He felt better and bolder after the delicious food arrived. Phil looked on with amusement, amazement at the amount the youngster consumed.
“Next year I hope you can find time to come down to see us at school,” Junior ventured with his double portion of ice cream. “All the fellows want to meet you.”
“I want to meet them,” said his father. “This fall on the way back, maybe.”
“Oh, you’re going away again?”
“Next week I’m going up into the woods with Billy Norton on a long canoe trip. Some new country I want to show him. Trout streams never yet fished by a white man.”
“Gosh! That’ll be great,” said Junior.
“Someday I’ll take you up there. It’s time you learned that game. Fly casting, like swinging a golf club, should begin before your muscles are set. Would you care to go on a camping trip with me?”
Care to! Of course it was the very thing he was doing all the time in his daydreams, but he could not say that to his father. He said “Yes, thanks,” and paused for another sip of water. “You wouldn’t — no, of course, you wouldn’t want me to go along this time.”
“Not this time. You see, I promised Billy. Someday though — you and I alone. Much better, don’t you think?”
“Don’t call me sir! Makes me feel like a master. I’m your father.” They laughed at that and went back to the office. “Only take me a second to sign these letters,” said Phil. Junior looked at the neat pile of them, again impressed by his father’s importance.
“That’s awfully nice paper,” he said, coveting the engraved letterhead with his father’s name on it, which was also his name.
“If you like it, take some,” said Phil as he rapidly signed that name. “Help yourself, all you want. Wait, I’ll get you a whole box.” He touched a bell and a boy came in. “Get a box of my stationery and ship it to this address.” He turned to his letters again. “Then you won’t have to pack it all the afternoon.” Pack it? Oh, yes, out of doors men said “pack” instead of “carry.” He would say it hereafter.
On the way from the elevator, as they passed through the arcade, Junior stopped to gaze with admiration at a camera in a shop window.
“Like one of those?” asked Phil. He led the way in. “Take your pick,” he said. And then, “Ship it to this address.”
It was the only way this shy father knew how to express his affection. It was not easy to say much to this boy. He seemed keen and critical under his quiet manner.
Before the baseball game was over — a dull, unimportant game — they were both talked out, each wondering what was the matter. “I suppose I bore him,” said Phil to himself, and soon began thinking about his business. When their grand old time together was finished each felt a horrible sense of relief, though neither would acknowledge it to himself.
“Poor little cuss!” thought Phil. “I’d like to be a good father to him, but I don’t know how.”
And the boy: “I’m afraid he’s disappointed in me. I’m so skinny and have pimples.” If he were only a big, good-looking fellow like Smithy, who played on the football team, his father would be proud of him. Smithy’s parents saw him almost every week in term time and took him abroad every summer. They were having his portrait painted.
“What kind of a time did you have with your father in town?” asked his Aunt Mary. Junior felt rather in the way at times, now that she had a husband.
“Bully! Great!” and he made an attractive picture of it. “Father and I are so congenial, now that I’m old. Next summer we’re going to the woods together.”
“How do you talk to your kids?” Phil asked Bill Norton by the camp fire.
“I don’t talk to them. They aren’t interested in me except as a source of supply. New generation!”
“I’m crazy about my boy,” said Phil, “but I have an idea that he considers the old man a well-meaning ass. Funny thing; that little fellow is the only person in the world I’m afraid of.”
“No father really knows his own son,” said Billy. “Some of them think they do, but they don’t. It’s a psychological impossibility.”
Back at school again. A quick, scudding year. Summer vacation approaching already!
“We’d be so pleased if you would spend the month of August with us in Maine,” wrote Blackie’s mother. She had grown fond of the boy and was sorry for him. Motherless — fatherless, too, for practical, for parental purposes.
Junior, with his preternatural quickness, knew she was sorry for him and appreciated her kindness, but he was not to be pitied and his father was not to be criticized. “That’s awfully good of you,” he replied, “but father is counting upon my going up to the North Woods with him on a long canoe trip. Some new country where no other white man has ever been.”
He went to the woods, but not with his father. It was the school camp — not the wild country his father penetrated; but there was trout fishing all the same, and he loved it. Like many boys who are not proficient at athletics, he took to camp life like a savage and developed more expertness at casting and cooking and canoeing than did certain stars of the football field or track. He had natural savvy. The guides said so. Besides, he had an incentive to excel. He was not going to be a nuisance to his father on the trip they would take together some day. And though he reverted to a state of savagery in the woods, he kept his tent and his outfit scrupulously neat and won first prize in this department by a vote of the counselors. For excellent reasons he did not shave every day in camp, but he would someday.
He learned a great deal about the ways of birds while he was in the woods, and back at school he persuaded Blackie to help organize The Naturalists Club, despite the jeers of the athlete idolaters. He took many bird pictures with the camera and he prepared a bird census of the township. This was published in the school magazine, and so Junior decided that when he got through college he would be a writer.
He had not seen his father for two years. South America this time — in the Andes. The canoe trip was no longer mentioned. Junior went to the school camp regularly now. He was acknowledged the best all-round camper in school. He won first prize in fly casting and the second in canoeing. He was getting big and strong, and became a good swimmer.
He spent his Christmas vacation with Aunt Mary, and while there Mrs. Fielding, the wife of the housemaster, in town for the holidays, dropped in for tea one day with Aunt Mary. They did not know that Junior was in the adjoining room, reading Stewart Edward White.
“But it’s criminal the way Phil neglects that darling boy,” said Aunt Mary.
“And he’s developing in such a fine way too,” said Mrs. Fielding. “He’s one of the best liked boys in school.”
“I can’t understand my brother. Of course he’s terribly engrossed with his career, now that he has won success, but he might at least send a picture post card occasionally.”
“You mean to say he never writes to his own son!” Mrs. Fielding was shocked and indignant. And then came this tragic revelation to Junior:
“Well, you see,” said Aunt Mary, “Phil never wanted children, and he’s not really interested in the boy.”
“You don’t tell me so! Why, Aleck always speaks of your brother as if he were so generous and warm-hearted.”
“Yes, that’s what makes it so pathetic. He is kind and tries to make up for his lack of affection by giving Junior a larger allowance than is good for him. But he never takes the trouble to send him a Christmas present.”
So that explained it all. “He’s not interested in me. I wasn’t wanted.” And after that he had his first experience with a sleepless night.
A few days later Junior remarked, “By the way, Aunt Mary, did I show you the binoculars father sent me for Christmas?” He handed them to her for inspection. They looked secondhand. They were. He had picked them up that morning in a pawnshop. “These are the very ones that father carried all through the war. He knew I’d like them better than new ones. Just like father to think of that. You remember his showing them to us when he got back?”
Aunt Mary did not remember such things — he knew she wouldn’t — but she rejoiced to hear it.
“He has sent me a typewriter too; only he ordered it shipped directly to school.”
“That was nice of him, wasn’t it?” said Aunt Mary.
“That’s the way he does with most of the presents he sends me. You remember the camera?”
She did remember the camera.
The typewriter had been ordered on the installment plan. Junior hadn’t saved enough money from his allowance to buy it outright.
“He’s not going to get me a radio set until he finds out which is the best make on the market, he says.”
“Oh, has he written to you?” Aunt Mary was still more surprised.
“Every week,” said Junior.
“Oh, Junior! I’m so glad. But why haven’t you ever told me, dear?”
Junior smiled. “I didn’t want to make you jealous. He never writes to you.”
“But didn’t you know how I would want to hear all his news?”
“You are so terribly engrossed in Uncle Robert’s career, I thought maybe you weren’t interested in father.”
At school the binoculars made a hit with the boys because they showed the scars of war, but no one thought much of typewriters as Christmas presents except Junior. He knew what he was doing.
A few days later, when Blackie entered the room he found his roommate engrossed in reading a letter and so said nothing until Junior emitted an absent-minded chuckle.
“What’s the joke?”
“Oh, nothing; just a letter from my father.”
“From your father? I thought he never wrote to you.”
“What do you know about it?”
“Well, I never see any envelopes with foreign stamps.”
“He always incloses mine in letters to my aunt.”
“But you never mentioned them, all the same,” said Blackie, “except the one about the White House.”
“They are confidential, mostly.” Junior returned to the absorbing letter. Presently he laughed outright.
“What does he say that’s so funny?”
“Oh, hell! Read it yourself.” Junior seemed irritated and tossed the bulky letter across to his roommate.
It had taken the boy some time to compose this letter to himself, for it required more than the possession of a typewriter and his father’s engraved stationery to create a convincing illusion of a letter from a father. Junior had seen so few, except for those Blackie had allowed him to read, that he had no working model for long, interesting letters worthy of a great man like his father.
The first draft had begun “My darling boy,” but he changed that — it sounded too much like Blackie’s mother. He made it “My dearest son.” He rather fancied that, but finally played safe and addressed himself simply as “Dear Junior.”
My work here is going fine. I have three thousand natives at work under me not to speak of a hundred engineers on my staff doing the technikal work. I am terribly busy but of course won’t let that interfere with my regular weekly letter to you.
Junior was watching Blackie’s face.
I often think of the last canoe trip with you in Canada and can hardly wait until I take another canoe trip with you in Canada. Rember that time you hooked a four-pounder with your three ounce rod? You were a little fellow then, that was before you went away to school. Rember how you yelled to me for help to land same?
Business men always said “same,” but Junior didn’t like it, and besides, his father was a professional man, so he changed “same” to “him.”
Of course it wasn’t much of a trick for me to land that four pound trout on a three ounce rod, because I am probly the best fisherman in any of the dozen or more fishing clubs I belong to.
Junior revised that to read:
Because I happen to have quite a little experience landing trout and salmon in some of the most important streams in the world, from the high Sierras to the Ural Mountains.
It would never do to make his father guilty of blowing — the unforgivable sin.
He thought that was all right for a beginning, but did not know how to follow it up. He wanted to put in something about the Andes, with a few stories of wild adventure and hairbreadth escapes, but although he read up on the Andes in the encyclopedia, as he did on all his father’s temporary habitats, he did not feel that the encyclopedia’s style suited his father’s vivid personality. In an old copy of the National Geographic Magazine he found a traveler’s description of adventures in that part of the world, and simply copied a page or two. It had to do with an amusing though extremely dangerous adventure with a python, which had treed one of the writer’s gun bearers — a narrow escape told as a joke — quite his father’s sort of thing; and no one would ever accuse Junior of inventing such a well-written narrative with such circumstantial local color.
Blackie was properly impressed by the three thousand natives and one hundred experts, and he, too, laughed aloud at the antics of the gun bearer. He told the other boys about it, as Junior meant him to do, and some of them wanted to read it too. They dropped in after study hour.
Junior, it seems, required urging, like an amateur vocalist who nevertheless has brought her music.
“Oh, shoot!” he said. “It doesn’t amount to anything. Just a letter from my father.”
“Why don’t you read it aloud?” suggested Blackie.
Junior seemed bored, but soon submitted. Like vocalists, he was afraid that they might stop urging him.
“Oh, very well,” he said. He skimmed lightly over the opening personal paragraph with the parenthetical voice people use when leading up to the important part of a letter, though this was a very important part for Junior, to get it over. Then, with the manner of saying “Ah, here we are,” he began reading in a louder and more deliberate tone, but not without realistic hesitation here and there, as if unfamiliar with the text. He read not only the amusing adventure with the python, but an authoritative paragraph on the mineral deposits of the mountains. So his audience never doubted that he had a real letter from a real mining expert who signed himself “Your affectionate friend and father.”
Junior carelessly tossed the letter upon the table. “Someday I’ll read you one of his interesting ones,” he said.
“Do it now,” said one of his admirers. “It’s great stuff.”
“No, I never keep letters,” said Junior and, to prove it, tore up the carefully prepared document and tossed it in the fire.
“I’ll let you know when I get a good one.”
This was so successful that he did it again. There were plenty of other quotable pages in the same magazine article, and Junior had a whole box of his father’s stationery. But at the beginning and end of each letter Junior always insinuated a few paternal touches, suggesting a rich past of intimacy and affection, though just to make it a little more convincing he would occasionally insert something like this, “But I must tell you frankly, as man to man, that you spent entirely too much money last term,” and interrupted his reading to say, “Gee! I didn’t mean to read you fellows that part.” And they all laughed. A touch of parental nature that made all the boys akin.
The fame of these letters spread from the boys’ end of the dinner table to the master’s. Mrs. Fielding said to Junior one day, “I’m so glad your father has been writing to you lately.”
“Lately? Why, he always writes to me. But don’t tell my Aunt Mary. Might make her jealous.”
Junior smiled as if he had a great joke on his Aunt Mary. There, he got that over too! Neither of these ladies would dare criticize his father again.
“Is your Aunt Mary so fond of him as all that?”
“Why, of course!”
“Well, I’m glad you’re hearing from him, anyway. I so seldom see letters addressed to you on the hall table.”
“I have a lock box at the post office.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Fielding.
So that explained it all. It was true about the lock box. Junior exhibited the key while he was speaking, and he was seen at the post office frequently to make the matter more plausible. He even opened the box if anyone was around to watch him, though he never found any letters there except those he put in and pulled out again by sleight of hand, whistling carelessly as he did so.
Mr. Fielding had asked Junior to step into the office a moment. “What do you hear from your father?” he said.
“Oh, he’s quite well, thank you, sir. He’ll be starting for home soon. He says he’s not going to let anything interfere with our canoe trip this year. It’s the funniest thing how something has always happened every summer to prevent it. Father says we’re going to break the hoodoo this time.”
“I see,” said Mr. Fielding.
Junior had heard Mr. Fielding say “I see” before, and he had been in school too long now to undervalue its significance. He would have to be on guard. He knew he had told conflicting stories.
“Do you hear from him regularly?”
“Oh, no; the mails are so irregular from that part of the world.”
“Well,” said Junior, with his engaging smile, “not so often as I’d like, of course. But then he’s a very busy man.”
“That story about the python — it sounded like a corker as Blackie told it secondhand. Mind letting me read that letter?”
“Sorry, sir. I destroyed it.” Blackie would vouch for that, if necessary.
“I see.” The head master looked at Junior in silence, then he said with a not unkind smile, “Junior, I’m very fond of your father. He’s one of the finest fellows that ever lived.”
“Sure,” said Junior.
“I’ve known him longer than you have. I don’t think he ever did anything dishonorable in his life.”
“Of course not.”
What was coming? He must keep his head now.
“You know how your father would feel if I couldn’t honestly say the same thing about you?”
“Why, what do you mean, Mr. Fielding? “
“Just tell me the truth, Junior, and it needn’t ever go out of this room. Does your father ever write to you at all?”
“Why, sir, you don’t think my father is the sort who wouldn’t write to his own son, do you?” Then the boy added desperately, “I don’t see why you all want to make him out a piker.”
“Did your father write the letter describing the fight with the python?”
“Look here, Mr. Fielding, you people don’t understand. I’m better friends with my father than most boys. You see, my mother’s dead and all that. So — well, don’t you see, he sort of takes it out in writing me long letters. He thought that stuff about the python would amuse me.”
He was a loyal little liar and the headmaster admired him for it. But it wouldn’t do. Mr. Fielding opened a drawer of his desk and took out an old magazine.
“Does your father take the National Geographic?”
Junior crumpled up.
“I don’t know, sir.” He was in for it now — caught. Mr. Fielding opened the magazine and pointed out a marked page to Junior.
“Junior, I know you won’t accuse an honorable gentleman like your father of stealing another man’s writings, passing them off as his own. There’s an ugly name for that. It’s called plagiarism.”
He had tried to defend his father, and look at the result!
“I wrote those letters, Mr. Fielding.”
“I knew that,” said Mr. Fielding gently. “You won’t do it again, though, will you, Junior?”
“That’s all. You may go now.”
Junior turned at the door. He knew that this was not all. He was being let down too easily.
“Mr. Fielding — ” he began, and hesitated. “It won’t be necessary for you to tell my father, will it?”
“I won’t tell him, but you will.”
“No, sir, I could never do that.”
“Well, we’ll see. Good night, Junior.”
So he could write no more letters to exhibit to the boys. He explained that his father had gone on a long expedition inland. No chance for mail for months. They made no comment, but the whole house knew that he had been summoned “to the office.” They suspected something, but they would never discover the truth from him. He would bluff it out to the end.
But now, more than ever, he wanted letters from father, even if written by himself. He had formed the habit. They somehow did him good. They made him feel that his father was interested in him.
So, once in a while, just for his own eyes, when Blackie was not around he opened the typewriter and said all the things he wanted his father to say to him. As no one would ever see these letters, he could go as far as he liked. He went quite far. He even said things that only mothers said:
My darling son: Don’t you care what he thinks about you; I understand and I forgive you. You meant it all right and I like you just the same, even if you are not an athlete and have got pimples. When I get back we’ll go off to the West together and live down this disgrace. Your devoted father and friend.
Sometimes he laughed a little, or tried to, when he realized how these letters would bore his distinguished parent. But while writing them his father seemed not only fond of him but actually proud of him. A writer can invent anything:
I was so pleased to hear your poem about the meadow lark was accepted by the magazine. Your article about Birds in Our Woods was very interesting and very well written. I believe you will make a great writer someday, and think how proud I will be when you are a great writer, and people point to your picture in the newspapers! I’ll say, “That’s my son; I’m his father.” Of course, I was disappointed that you did not become a great athlete like me, but intellectual destinction is good if you cant get athletic destinction, and it may be more useful for a career.
He got a good deal of comfort out of being a father to himself, and sometimes the letters ran into considerable length, unless Blackie butted in. His father, it seemed, even consulted him about his own affairs:
I am glad you aprove of my taking on the San Miguel project. I think a great deal of your business judgment and it is great to have a son who has good business judgment even though he cannot make the team. In that respect it is better than making the team, because you can help me in my problems away off here just as I help you with your problems up there at school.
He enjoyed writing that one, but when he became the reader of it, that last sentence made him cry. And the worst of it was, at that point Blackie came in.
“What are you writing?”
“Just some stuff for the mag.”
“You’re always writing for the mag. Get your racket and come on.”
“Oh, get out of here and quit interrupting my literary work.” Junior had not dared to turn his tell-tale face towards his roommate.
The school year was closing, and Junior was packing to leave the next day. The last time he had gone to town he learned at the office that his father was returning soon. They did not know which steamer. They never did. The secret letters had all been kept carefully locked in his trunk, and now Junior was taking them out to put neatly folded trousers in the bottom. Blackie was playing tennis. None of the boys had learned the truth, though in secret Blackie felt pretty sure of it now, but was so loyal that he had a fight with Smithy for daring to say in public that Junior’s letters were a damn fake.
Mr. Fielding came in. He did not notice the letters lying there on the table, and he seemed very friendly. The housemaster knew how fine and sensitive this boy was and that the only way to handle him was by encouragement. We are all much pleased with your classroom work, Junior; but as for the mag, you’re a rotten speller, but a good writer, and I don’t mind telling you a secret: You have been elected to be one of the editors next year.”
“Oh, Mr. Fielding! Are you sure?” This had been his ambition for a year. That settled it for life. A great writer like W.H. Hudson, who loved both nature and art, but nature more.
“Of course your appointment has to be confirmed by the faculty, but there’ll be no trouble with a boy of your standing. All you have to do is straighten out that little matter with your father. Naturally, an editor has got to have a clean literary record.”
This was not meant entirely as punishment for Junior. The master thought it would be salutary for Phil to know. It might wake him up.
“You mean, I can’t make the mag unless I tell him what I did?”
“Do you want me to tell him?”
“If you do I’ll run away and I’ll never come back.”
“Can’t you get up your courage to do it, Junior? I know you didn’t mean to do wrong. Your father will, too, when he understands.”
Junior was shaking his head.
“It isn’t a matter of courage,” he said, straightening up. “He’d think I was knocking him out for not writing to me.”
“Well, if you won’t talk to him about it I must. He’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“A few minutes! Here? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“He landed yesterday. The papers ran an interview with him this morning. I telegraphed him to come at once.” Mr. Fielding looked at his watch. “Why, his train must be coming in now. Excuse me. I said I’d meet him at the station.”
A mental earthquake turned Junior’s universe upside down. His father was coming at last! Why? His offense must have been pretty serious to bring his father. Why, of course! Mr. Fielding had sent for him. The most honorable gentleman in the world was going to find out in a few minutes that his own son and namesake was a liar, a plagiarist and a forger. Junior could not face it. He rushed from the room and out by the back stairs. His father was coming, the thing he planned and longed for ever since he had been a member of the school, and he was running away from him.
He went out into the woods by the river, where he had spent so many happy hours with Blackie and the birds. He could never face Blackie again, nor the school, no, nor his father. Life was empty and horrible. “Why not end it all in the river?” He had read that phrase, but the impulse was genuine.
“The hell of it is,” he heard himself saying, “I’m such a good swimmer.” But he could load his coat with stones and bind his feet with his trousers. He began picking out the stones.
“Well, what is it?” said Phil to the housemaster, trying to hide his paternal eagerness. The boy was in trouble, the old man would get him out. Good! Needed at last. “Has my young hopeful been getting tight?”
“Oh, nothing as serious as that. He’s a finely organized, highly evolved youngster, and so he has a rather vivid imagination.”
“Speak up, Aleck! You haven’t caught him in a lie? That’s a good deal more serious than getting tight.”
“Well, it’s a likable lie.”
“It’s a lie all the same, and I’ll give him the devil.”
“Oh no, you won’t. The kid lied for you, old man; perjured himself like a gentleman. Now you go and get it out of him. It’ll do you both good.” They had arrived at the house.
“Where is the little cuss?” Phil was trying without success to seem calm and casual.
“He’s no longer little. You won’t know him. He’s come into his heritage of good looks at last.”
“For God’s sake, shut up and tell me where to find him.”
Fielding laughed. “Upstairs, second door on the left. I won’t butt in on this business. It’s up to you now.” But Phil did not wait to hear all that.
Not finding his namesake and glancing about at the intimate possessions of his little-known son, Phil was surprised to see a sheath of letters on the table, bearing his own engraved stamp at the top.
“That’s odd,” he thought. “Who’s been writing to him on my paper?” He had forgotten the presentation box of stationery. His eye was caught by these words neatly typed, “My beloved son.” At the bottom of the page he saw, “Your faithful friend and father.” He picked the letter up and read it.
As I told you in my last, I am counting the days until we get together again and go up to Canada on another canoe trip, just you and I alone this time without any guide. You have become such a good camper now that we don’t want any greasy Indian guides around. I am glad that you are a good camper. I don’t care what you say, I’d rather go to the woods with you than Billy Norton or anybody because you and I are not like ordinary father and sons; we are congenial friends. Of course you are pretty young to be a friend of mine and you may be an ugly and unattractive kid, but you are mine all the same, and I’m just crazy about you. They say I neglect you, but you know better. All these letters prove it. Your faithful friend and father.
Junior’s father picked up the rest of the letters and, with the strangest sensations a father ever had, read them all.
Perhaps it was telepathy. Junior suddenly remembered that he had left the letters exposed upon the table. His father would go upstairs after the talk with Mr. Fielding, to disown him. He would find those incriminating letters. Then when they found his body his father would know that his son was not only a liar and a forger but a coward and a quitter. In all his life his father had never been afraid of anything. If his father were in his place what would he do?
That saved him. He dumped out the stones and ran. back to the room. He would face it.
Phil was aware that a tall slender youth with a quick elastic stride had entered the room and had stopped abruptly by the door, staring at him. There were reasons why he preferred not to raise his face at present, but this boy’s figure was unrecognizably tall and strong, and Phil was in no mood to let a young stranger come in upon him now.
“What do you want?” he asked gruffly, still seated, still holding the letters.
There was no answer. Junior had never seen a father disown a son, but he guessed that was the way it was done. He saw the letters in his father’s hands. Certainly, this was being disowned.
The boy took a step forward. “Well, anyway,” he said, maintaining a defiant dignity in his disgrace, “no one else has seen those letters, so you won’t be compromised, father.” The boy was a great reader, and had often heard of compromising letters.
Phil sprang up from his chair, dropped the letters and gazed into the fine sensitive face, a beautiful face, it seemed to him now, quivering, but held bravely up to meet his sentence like a soldier.
Junior could now see that his father’s strong face was also quivering, but misunderstood the reason for his emotion. There was a silence while Phil gained control of his voice. Then he said, still gazing at the boy, “But how did you know I felt that way about you?”
“Those letters. I’ve read them. I wish to God I’d written them.”
Junior, usually so quick, still could not get it right. “You mean you’re going to forgive me for lying about you?”
“Lying about me! Why, boy, you’ve told the truth about me. I didn’t know how. Can you forgive me for that?”
Now Junior was getting it. His face was lighting up. “Why, father,” he began, and faltered. “Why, father — why, father — you really like me!”
Junior felt strong hands gripping his shoulders and once more the vivid recollection of the street boys and the big man who comforted him. “You know what one of those letters says, Junior — I’m just crazy about you.”
“Oh, father, why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“Well, what’s the use of having a great writer in the family anyway!”
They laughed and looked at each other and found that the strange thing that kept them apart was gone forever. In the future they might differ, quarrel even, but the veil between them was torn asunder at last.
The rest of the boys had finished dinner when Junior came down, leading in his tall bronzed father with the perfectly fitting clothes and the romantic scar on his handsome face.
“Say, fellows, wait a minute. I want you to know my father.” He did it quite as if accustomed to it, but Mrs. Fielding down at the end of the table could see that father and son both were reeking with pride. “He’s my son; I’m his father.”
“So this is Blackie?” said Phil. “Did you give him that message in my last letter?” Even his father could lie when he wanted to.
“Sorry, I forgot.”
Phil turned and gave his old classmate a shameless wink. “I can’t really blame the kid. I write him such awfully long letters.”
“Father just landed from South America yesterday,” Junior was explaining to Smithy. “So he hurried right up here.”
“You see we’re starting for the Canadian Rockies tomorrow,” said Phil. “This fellow’s got an impudent idea that he can out-cast the old man now, but I’ll show him his place.”
Mr. Fielding took the floor. “Junior ought to get some good material for the magazine up there,” he said. “Boys, he’s going to be one of the editors next year.”
Frances Ensign Greene wrote several short stories for Redbook and The Saturday Evening Post. His short story Breakup reflects the life of a young woman who makes countless sacrifices for her family and career.
Published on October 27, 1956. Want even more classic fiction? Subscribe to the magazine for access to our complete archives, including fiction, cartoons, art, inspiring stories, humor, and in-depth reporting.
Although this is the story of a successful and happy woman, it has a strange ending, one that disturbs and delights me by turns. Actually, of course, nobody’s story can be over until his life is over, and Mary Jordan, by her own admission, is just thirty-four. I never heard of anybody doing just what she did, and probably that’s what disturbs me, but there is an undeniable pleasure in seeing someone slip out of the neat little pattern of expected behavior in order to be true to himself, and that’s what delights me. But I’d like to know what you think of the debt she incurred, and the rare way she paid it.
I first met Mary Jordan at a cocktail party, one of those deadly ones from five to seven where people come at eight and stay until eleven, milling around with drinks in their hands and being veddy, veddy smart and a little hysterical.
There was the usual count, who asked to be called Gigi because, after all, this was a democratic country; the wife of a very great actor and her mother; an overblown torch singer fast making a fool of herself; a couple of television writers and several producers; a portrait painter of great charm. And there were about twenty others, all of whom were somebody too.
There was also a very beautiful woman sitting on a couch talking to the painter. I recognized her at once — so would you have. She is as far up as she can go in her profession, which may account for the little shadow around her eyes; unless you remain static when you get to the top the only possible movement is down. But her beauty is legendary, and she has probably made a fortune, so there was no occasion for sympathy.
She had on a black-and-white creation that made her look like a gorgeous, gentle Cossack. I went over and spoke to the painter, who introduced us and then went in search of another drink, so I sat down beside the beautiful Mary Jordan and we began to talk, and it was as simple as that. I liked her suddenly — you know how it is. You meet someone you have never seen before, realize that you are in tune with each other, and a fully matured liking springs from you like Minerva from Jupiter’s head. Other people came and went, but doggedly we kept on.
After a bit, she said, “Straight ginger ale on an empty stomach is beginning to get me. I could do with some food, couldn’t you?”
We found our hostess, and there was something of a struggle with words — she’d wanted Mary Jordan to sing for the people, but while Miss Jordan was charming about it, she was definite. My heart warmed to her.
There was a restaurant just around the corner, and we went in and ordered scrambled eggs. I sat there beaming; it was fun being with someone who was as easily recognized as a movie star. As a matter of fact, she’s made several pictures, been in television for the last five years, and, heaven knows, her photographs have been in the papers often enough. People nudged one another and stared, but she seemed unconscious of it.
She leaned forward, her gray eyes slanting. “You have amazing bits of information,” she said. “I read something of yours once in which you said the best maple sap came from trees that had a layer of slate under them. How did you know that?”
“Oh, I probably heard it years ago and dragged it out of my subconscious. Just a whiff of a thought.” I was almost shocked that she remembered careless words I’d written and had forgotten myself.
“I see. You assimilate things and file them away for future use — everything you hear and see. But that’s such a load. Aren’t you awfully tired?”
I smiled at her. “Thanks for understanding that. But it’s not a conscious tiredness. It’s just a cageful of mice scurrying about in the noodle. I know smatterings about a lot of things, and I can’t add up a column of figures — and why did you remember that about the maple trees?”
“Because I came from Vermont. We had a stand of maples with slate under it, just as you said in your story. I always helped in the bush during the sugaring, along with the rest of the family. If you’ve never dipped a ladle into boiling syrup in the sugar bush, poured some onto fresh snow and popped it into your mouth while it was still warm and waxy — then, my friend, you haven’t lived.”
I’d about exhausted my own sketchy knowledge of the maple industry, SO I said, “I’d supposed you were a velvet child who wintered at Cap d’Antibes. That voice must have been mellowed by Mediterranean warmth, surely. And now you tell me Vermont, of all places. Deep snow, stags bounding on the hillsides, wood-burning stoves and grim, hard-bitten people — ”
A curious change came over her face, and it stopped me. “You do know smatterings, don’t you? The thumb-nail sketch was hardly accurate. For example, the least hard-bitten person I’ve ever known still lives there, the woman I love in a very special way, and the one I’ve tried to repay — and not just with money, but with — Will you let me tell you about it sometime? I need to talk to someone.” And in that moment I realized that Mary Jordan was lonely.
Two weeks later I called her and she asked me to come to see her. She had a smart apartment in the Sixties — all the things you’d expect, gray walls, a fireplace, good paintings, low squatty chairs, and a grand piano. We sat down opposite each other, and after a little while Mary Jordan began to tell me the story that she knew I had come for.
Mabel Kelsey was a large, handsome woman who rarely sat down from sunup to sundown, except on Sundays. Righteous and proudly God-fearing, she had married Carl Kelsey to reform him, so she said. She seemed to have succeeded in her project, for Carl Kelsey turned into a morose man who seldom talked. They produced two sons, Matt and Joel, two years apart, and then in her fortieth year, Mabel gave birth to a girl child — a feat of which she was always slightly ashamed.
The boys, then ten and twelve, were given the privilege of naming the infant, and they called her Ramona, after the sword swallower they’d seen at the county fair. Ramona Kelsey.
All through her childhood, the boys kept up their proprietary interest in Mona, teasing her, loving and coddling her, and disciplining her by turns, so that she was in a perpetual state of confusion. She loved her brothers more than anything else on earth. The silent Carl and the indifferent Mabel were dim shadows on the screen of her youthful development. Only the boys were real. She loved the smell of their room up under the eaves, the wild gaminess of it, the ghost of forbidden smoke, old corduroy and water-soaked leather that had dried there. Often she’d go into their room on Sunday mornings when they were allowed to sleep a little longer, and crawl into bed between them.
Joel would open one blue eye and look fierce. “Hey you, Matt. That thing got in again. What’ll we do with it?” “Heave it outside.”
So they’d get up, and one would take her feet and the other her arms, and they’d swing her, and just as they seemed bent on pitching her through the open window, one of them would stop to scratch his ankle, and she’d light into them, punching into their rock-ribbed stomachs, knowing she could never hurt them, and they’d all capsize on the floor in a laughing, crazy heap. They were a wonderful pair of brothers for a little girl to own.
And then, when she was nine, the tragedy had happened. The boys had gone up the mountain after a marauding bear, and Joel slipped and fell from a rock ledge, a drop of forty feet. He said he wasn’t hurt, and they believed him, but the next morning when Mona got into bed with them, Joel’s eyes were already open and he was cold against her body. She was never to forget Matt’s scream when she woke him, or the dreadful contortions of his face. Matt was never quite the same after Joel’s death or, for that matter, neither was Mona.
Matt worked the farm alone, studying his agriculture bulletins under the hanging kerosene lamp, going up to his lonely room at night to remember Joel’s laughter. The household was silent, sullen. It worked and ate and slept, and that was all. But it was about this time that Mona, alone and under the open sky, began to sing as a protest against the weighing hush that surrounded her.
One autumn day Matt went into St. Johnsbury and brought home a bride. His mother met them at the door, her eyes blazing at Matt and ignoring the girl. Only the anger leaped between them in place of words, for Matt had nothing to say, either, no explanations and no apologies. His wife was a little thing, frail and ash blond, with blue eyes and beautiful narrow hands, and a sweetness in her face. Mona’s heart opened wide with that first beseeching smile. She wanted to protect her, and, more importantly, she wanted to do something to make her happy. That desire never left her.
The next day Mabel Kelsey cornered Matt in the kitchen. “Well, now, this is a pretty thing you’ve done,” she said tauntingly. “If you had to bring a woman here, why didn’t you pick a fit one to help in the house and bear you some children? Look at you! Six foot two and shoulders on you like an ox! Why, a young’un of yours’d kill this scrawny whiffet you’ve drug in!”
A flush spread over his face as he laid down his fork. “I love her, ma. If you can’t be decent to her, don’t talk.”
“You leave her alone, ma.” Mona was standing with her feet planted wide apart, defying her mother for the first time in her life. “She don’t have to help in the house — I’ll do it for her. We’ll take care of her, Matt and me!”
Rosalie spoke from the doorway before they knew she was there, and she smiled in quiet friendship at the little girl. “Thank you, Mona. As long as I have you and Matt, I won’t care about anything else — too much.”
And then she crossed the room and sat down in her rightful place beside her husband at the kitchen table. From that time on, she and Mabel never spoke directly to each other. For twelve years they lived in the same house and never found the need for words together until a grave wonder united them.
Mabel’s prophecy came true; there were no children. Once it seemed as if there might be, but Rosalie caught her foot in the torn drugget and fell down the steep stairs that led from the room up under the eaves. Sure enough, Matt’s child almost killed her, and there followed a long period of invalidism, with Mona waiting on her, and Mona alone hearing the heartbroken weeping when the doctor told her there would never be a child now. She had wanted a baby more than anything else in the world.
By this time the ineffectual Carl Kelsey was dead, making little difference in the lives of any of them. Mona was fourteen, a strong, straight girl blooming into sudden beauty. Rosalie taught her many things, but most of all she gave her an appreciation of herself. It was Rosalie who made her sing a song over and over again until the tightness went out of her throat and the clear rich soprano came free and sweet, and it was also Rosalie who told her that her singing was a very special gift which might become an art if she worked at it.
As the years went by, Mona Kelsey grew locally famous. Folks said something ought to be done about that beautiful voice, but they didn’t suggest what — or how.
On a Sunday afternoon in May when the apple orchard was deep in bloom, the girls sat under one of the flowering trees with Matt sprawled beside them. That was the time when Rosalie chose to speak to her husband about the dream she and Mona had shared. “There’s a man in Dorset,” she told him, “who will see to it that Mona gets a scholarship to a fine music school in New York City if we can manage the rest of it, Matt. He says she has a remarkable voice and it ought to be trained.”
Matt looked off to the green hills in the distance. Then he asked heavily, “How much would it cost?”
“The way we figure, she ought to have twenty-five dollars a week. I could make some clothes for her this summer, but she’d need other things, and carfare and stamp money and odds and ends — ”
“Honey, you might as well ask for the moon. That’s plain crazy, and you know it. Twenty-five dollars — holy Hannah!”
Mona stiffened. “Ma’s got that thirty- acre piece that’s just lying there, and the Sandersons want it. Couldn’t she sell it and give me the money? I’d pay it back. I’m not asking this just for myself, but this man who comes to Dorset summers, this Mr. Caldwell, says God gave me my voice, and I’ve got a debt to Him!”
“God or no God, ma wouldn’t give up her thirty acres to educate any girl, and I don’t know as I’d blame her. You’d get married, and the money spent on you’d be just wasted.”
“I wouldn’t either get married! Not for years, not till I’d done what the Lord intended me to do. Matt, I’ve got to amount to something! I can’t just stay here and — Rosy, you tell him.”
“The money would never be wasted, Matt. She’d feel her obligation.”
“Obligation, hell. What woman thinks of obligation when she meets some fellow she wants to tie up with? Look at you. Your folks scrimped to send you to normal school, and what good did it do you? You married me and buried yourself alive.” Then Matt, the kind and gentle man, said the cruel thing out of his deep shame and frustration. “It might have been different if we’d had kids — being educated, you’d know how to tend them better, teach them things. But as it is, you’re just wasted, Rosy. Your life don’t mean a thing.”
Rosalie turned as white as the dress she wore, as white as the snow that had lain over her heart since she lost her child.
When she could speak again, she said softly, “I suppose you’re right. But there’s a way to change that.”
After she had gone to the house, Mona looked full at her brother. She was too young to find the words that would have smashed him and shamed him. They were all in her eyes, and her eyes only bewildered him.
He said, “Well, I’ll speak to ma, anyway. It won’t do any harm, I guess.”
“You’ve done the harm. There isn’t any more to do.”
He was a male creature, and to him the ways of females would be forever mysterious, so he was never to know that his crudeness marked the turning point in the lives of two women.
Mona received the scholarship in July, and in the middle of August, Rosalie went to work in the post office. Already the clothes Mona would need had been made, and twenty of the twenty-five dollars had been assured. Rosalie was a woman fired now by a high purpose, and her fading face showed it.
Mabel Kelsey had nothing but scorn. What Mona did about her fool singing was no concern of hers, and if a dim- witted woman wanted to walk two miles to a job and back again, and waste her money to boot, let her. But Matt pledged ten dollars to add to his wife’s twenty, and so Mona was cared for.
It was a year before Mona came home again, but in the meantime there were the letters that meant so much to Rosalie. Vicariously, this was her own training, since she was in a measure responsible for it, and she followed the pruning of Mona’s voice through her letters. Her vocal coach was Gerald Chapman, and he told her that she showed more promise than any student he’d had in the last five years. “Think of that, Rosy! I wouldn’t tell you, except that you’re the only one in the world who cares, and I think maybe you’ll be a little bit proud.”
The tales that Mona wrote home were not precisely true. She was doing well in all her studies, and her voice was growing more facile by the day, but there were times when even Chapman’s pat of approbation couldn’t lift the fog she groped in. She was homesick for the hills she knew, for Rosalie and Matt; she was lonely to the point of illness and she was afraid.
That first year she ate her Christmas dinner at a midtown restaurant with a young artist named Philip Garfield, who was just getting over a bout with pneumonia and seemed as homeless as she was. Though he was strangely attractive, he was unlike any man she had ever known, and so she resented him; he seemed to her the embodiment of all her griefs and frustrations of the moment.
Two years later she had married him with no thought of her obligation to Rosalie or her own ambitions. She had married him because she couldn’t do anything else.
It was a magic thing that had burgeoned within her when spring came that year. Constantly she sang of love, and she was surrounded by the foreign coaches who spoke lustily and warmly. By that time, she was studying with the famous old diva, Maria Campagni, and madame often told her, “You will not really be a singer, my little pet, until you live a little, love very much, and suffer some because you love. You need a man to take you in his arms and make you forget that cold Vair-mont you come from.”
And Mona, thinking of the little man who had enriched madame’s emotions and had thus been responsible for her glorious years at La Scala, would giggle. But they weren’t all like little bandy-legged Luigi Campagni. She began to wonder how it would be to have Philip Garfield make love to her. She was young, and he was so very much in love with her, and this new, strange thing she couldn’t understand was flowering within her.
Philip was a painter, and a good one, his friends told her. He would have real significance someday, if he got the breaks.
Sometimes madame would rap sharply before she could get Mona’s attention. Finally, a light broke over the huge face. “Aa-hanh! Now I know. You are in love. At last it has happened to my little frozen chicken, and she is thawing and it is very painful, no? It is, of course, the beautiful young man who paints? Oh, I am not so glad about anything in years! Now you will sing!”
“Will I, madame?” That seemed of small importance to her at the moment. “But what will I do about Philip?”
Madame cast her eyes up to the ceiling. “The child asks me what she should do! You will marry him, of course. You will have the wedding right here in this room, as soon as this law they have allow you.”
So that was the way it happened. She was married in madame’s living room, with madame sobbing all through the ceremony in huge abandon. Philip had been living in a state of shock since the night she had told him she’d marry him, and now his nerves were telling; he was almost ill. The welling tenderness rose in her and she knew that he was her whole world. Nothing else mattered. She was a woman grandly in love, and the wonder of it stripped her of logic.
More than a week passed before she wrote to Matt and Rosalie, but the letter, laced through as it was with guilt, seemed inadequate and she tore it up. She told herself that it was better to wait until she saw them. Besides, she still needed the money they sent. Philip made very little from the occasional sale of a picture, and he was as poor as she was. Oh, but someday it would all be different. In the meantime, her mail could still come to madame.
The weeks slipped by, the happiest she had ever known. Then gradually Philip began to talk of Taos, in New Mexico, where the air was clear and dry and the sunlight intense. It was a mecca for people like him, he said, and New York was a mess, all noise and polluted air. He wanted to live close to the earth, do his work and bake in the sun.
She laughed, playing with him as she supposed he was playing with her. “And what am I doing in this Utopia?”
“You can sing there as well as here.”
“Of course, darling. I could even give a weekly concert to the Indians and they could pay me with beads.”
He talked more and more of Taos, however, and at last she was forced to realize that he was serious. “But I have a career to follow, too; I have a destiny! Maybe my voice isn’t important to you, but it is to me and a few others who have invested in me. I can’t just chuck the whole business and go off with you to gratify a whim.”
But it was no use, and steadily but surely the precious thing they’d shared was leaving them. Sometimes she’d wake in the night and see him standing by the window, breathing heavily, and she’d know that he was wanting to be gone, if not with her, then without her. She had no choice but to go with him, and yet fighting to hold him, she hated him a little too.
He met her at the train when she came home from Vermont, and she thought he looked stricken, as though he had somehow been with her in spirit. Her words were almost unnecessary. “My mother sat there and laughed her head off. And Matt stared at me as if he hated me. And Rosalie — Rosy was stunned. She kept saying it was all right, she wanted me to be happy, but there she sat with her empty hands and her empty life, her faded face, and her shoulders stooping a little now from working for me. And then Matt told me how she’d walked four miles a day, sometimes through the snow when he couldn’t get the truck out, how she’d worked to send every cent to me as if it were a holy duty, and oh, heaven, Phil — ”
“I see,” he said gently. “So you’re not going.”
“No. I have a debt to pay.”
That was the end of their life together, because he left her and went alone, as she had known he would. For a time, she moved through a period of indifference to his leaving, since his act of selfishness numbed the love she had for him.
She went to madame and finally found the relief of tears on that capacious bosom.
“The peeg!” madame snarled. “Oh, if I could get these two hands upon him! But look — I tell you. Your heart is now broken; it is sometimes good for a woman who is an artiste to have a broken heart. Loving Philippe has done you no harm, even though he was a bad one.”
“Hasn’t done me any harm? Madame, I’m going to have a baby!”
The big woman’s reaction was one of horror, quickly followed by rich delight. “Then you will be complete at last! Then you will sing as you never sang before. Ah, Madonna, what a miracle this is! It is what I have prayed for!” Her eyes narrowed speculatively. “Does he know, that Philippe?”
“No. I didn’t want to keep him that way.”
“Aa-hahh. Then we still do not tell him. You are to remain with me, with the little Luigino and me, and we will go on with the lessons, and when the baby is born — ”
When the baby was born in December, it was a fine boy — the most beautiful baby in the world, according to madame. To Mona, the little face bore no resemblance to its father, but in its infant newness, the mark of its appearance in years to come, it was a miniature of the beloved lost brother.
She went home in February when the snow lay white on the mountains. The family was at early supper in the lamplight. She came in quietly, so as not to break the old silence in the house.
They looked at her as if she were an apparition. Matt jumped up and his chair fell over with a great crash, breaking the spell that bound them. He came over to her and lifted back the blanket that covered the baby’s face. They saw his own face whiten as he looked down upon the child’s, and they all heard him breathe, “Oh, my God!”
“I know,” Mona said gently. “That’s why I’ve named him Joel.”
She put her son into his arms, and suddenly the big man began to shake, hiding his face in the blanket, straining the child to him, and his sobs were all around them, filling the room. Rosalie, in her great compassion, went to him and touched his bent head, and then she, too, looked down into the baby’s face. She hadn’t known Joel, but she hadn’t needed to — this was a baby, a thing to be tended and served and loved. She took it from Matt with hungry arms.
In spite of the grief that was in her heart, and the new beauty, too, Mona said, “He’s yours, Rosalie. Yours and Matt’s. I’ve brought him to you, and I’ll never take him away, I promise you.”
Then Rosalie, with her face transfigured, did the beautiful thing that they were to remember all their lives. She took the baby and laid it in the old woman’s lap, passing the first words with her in more than twelve years. “Here, ma. Here’s your grandson. They say he looks like your boy, Joel.”
Mary Jordan was to know many exalted moments in her life, but there was never one to equal that. Anything was possible for her, remembering it. Alone now, she went back to Campagni, who told her that at last she was ready. Her voice was as perfect as one of her years could expect. But she must change her name. The sound, said madame, had to be right on the ears.
At first there were small engagements at clubs, then at hotels and the better night spots. People began to notice her for more than her voice. She dressed well and cultivated a reserve that was deadly in its effectiveness. Her beauty ripened; her figure was svelte, disciplined. In the third year, she had the lead in a Broadway musical, then went into radio. She made two pictures in Hollywood, both of them rather lavish and corny, to her way of thinking; then came back to radio as star on an oil company’s program that paid her a fantastic salary. Now Mary Jordan found her special medium in television. The combination of her face, figure, voice and personality had succeeded in crystallizing her dream; and the work, the sacrifice and the heartbreak had all been worth it. She was where she wanted to be. She was at the top.
Often she went home to see her family and young Joel, to be called Mona again, to find a deeper peace. The boy had made over the lives of the three lonely people, and he himself was happy. Happier and stronger than she could have made him, with a succession of nurses and boarding schools. If you could see them all — Matt following Joel with his eyes so proudly, teaching him to milk the cows and tap the maple trees, to hunt and to fish with him; Rosalie forever smiling now, stooping to drop a light kiss on the tanned young forehead; her mother softened, laughing over some nonsense of the boy who looked and acted so much like her own son — then you’d know she had done the right thing in giving up her child, no matter what the cost. It was a debt she’d had to pay.
I came to with a start, realizing that for some time I had been lost in a painting on the opposite wall; I had a sense of having been in it. It was a wonderful thing — a pueblo, with the twilight streaking the sand, and one giant cactus standing lonely and strong in the foreground.
I said, “So Philip Garfield was your husband. And that, I am sure, must be one of his best.”
“I bought it at the Ducheyne Galleries two years ago. I’m glad you like it. You see, it’s all I have of him.”
That was it. That was the part in her story that hadn’t satisfied me. “You never divorced him, so that must mean that you never wanted to marry anyone else. And I’ve heard, somewhere, that he doesn’t come East, even for his exhibitions. He never leaves the desert.” Had I really heard that or was I just imagining it? With all the talk that goes on, a person hears so many things that he stores away.
“I really don’t know. He hasn’t tried to contact me in all these years.” Mary Jordan’s beautiful mouth was suddenly vulnerable. “But even though he left me as he did, I couldn’t stop being his wife. I loved him, and I always shall.”
“But there’s no sunlight in the picture!” She turned her startled eyes upon me. “I — don’t understand.”
“You thought he left you to paint sunlight, but this is twilight and evening shadows. Look at the deepened purple on that butte in the distance. Where is the sun in this or a dozen others? I’m sure you’ve seen them.”
She was sitting up straighter now, following my thought. “I go to the Galleries. Please go on.”
“Mary — Mona, didn’t you ever wonder why a man like Philip Garfield would leave the woman he’d loved for four years and chase after a will-o’-the-wisp of sunlight in order to paint it? He could have painted anywhere — sunlight falls on city streets — city streets —
“New Mexico. You know what I think, Mona? I think Philip Garfield had to leave you. I think he was a sick man. You said he’d had pneumonia; you spoke about his heavy breathing — ”
“Oh, but that was emotional, when he was distressed or nervous — at least I thought that was it. He wasn’t ill — was he?”
“Probably. He said he wanted to go where the air was hot and dry, to bake in the sun; and to him, the atmosphere here was ‘polluted.’ Not to you and me, but to him. I think he had some respiratory weakness or an allergy to smoke and gases, and he knew it, and knew that it was getting him. Maybe some doctor had even told him that he wouldn’t live very long unless he went to the desert.”
“Oh, no!” She gave a little cry that had pain somewhere in it. “He knew I’d have gone with him if that had been it — anywhere — oh, anywhere on earth! I’d have given up everything!”
“Exactly. I’m beginning to like your Philip more and more. He understood you better than you think he did, Mona Kelsey — but he knew about Mary Jordan too. In ten years you’ve accomplished a lot, and it’s all turned out just as it was meant to. God had a pretty wonderful plan laid out for you, Mona. But now that you’ve taken care of your special debt to Him and to Rosalie, I think there’s one more He expects you to pay.”
“If I can,” she said. “If I still can — and I must find out.”
At the door, she took my hand and her lovely gray eyes were misted. “Whether you’re right or wrong,” she said, “God bless you. How — do you know so much?”
“I don’t. I only know smatterings, as I said. And people have to be in character. I think people are the most wonderful things there are.”
I left for the Coast the next day, so I didn’t see Mary Jordan again, and when 1 got back, it was too late. By that time, I was slapped by the backwash of all the rumors that had been spread about her dropping out of sight at the peak of her career. She’d had her contracts canceled because she was an alcoholic, a heroin addict, in trouble with the Government, her nerves had snapped and her voice had cracked. The last report was that she was in a mental institution up in Connecticut somewhere. I still think people are remarkable.
My heart leaped when I saw the card, because sometimes smatterings aren’t enough; there are occasions when you ought to know what you’re talking about. It was a colored picture of two little Navajos holding hands and squinting in the sun. On the back was a single message. “My life is just beginning — ”
It wasn’t signed. It didn’t have to be.
Featured image: Illustration by Coby Whitmore, © SEPS
Published on June 23, 1951
He came home early because he was worried about his wife, but, on reaching the house, found himself reluctant to go in. All that awaited him was a dispirited greeting, an apathetic glance. He decided to work in the yard until supper. Ethel would see him from the window. If she wanted him she could call. But he knew she would not call. She would not want him. All she wanted was to be left alone.
When he climbed out of the car a cocker spaniel started to whine and strain at its leash. He stroked the silky ears and the young dog wriggled with ecstasy from nose to tail. Rags had spent a miserable day, tethered to his kennel by two yards of rope, with no human voice to comfort him, no human touch to gladden him; but in an instant his woes were forgotten in the joy of his master’s homecoming.
“Poor little chap,” said John Morgan. “Not much of a life, is it?”
He unsnapped the catch that fastened the squirming spaniel, and Rags loped wildly round and round, giving tongue to his delight at being free.
Morgan glanced about the yard, hoping some task would suggest itself. But he had pruned each shrub and bush within an inch of its life, and raked and swept the lawn, borders and path until he could not pretend there was any more to be done. The garage? No, he had spent several afternoons putting it in order. Well, there was always the car. He had washed it earlier in the week, but a rainfall next day had left streaks. If he went over them with a dry rag he ought to be able to spin the job out for a couple of hours.
Hanging coat and vest on a hook in the garage, he took down his overalls. As he slipped into them, his eyes fell on a bicycle standing close to a wall and he felt a dull ache within him. It was the right size for a well-grown boy of eight, but no boy had ever swung a carefree leg across it. Not a scratch on the gleaming chromium and bright red paint. The tires had the unworn factory tread. It stood there as shiny and new as when he first saw it in a shop.
He came out of the garage with an armful of soft dry cloths, and the spaniel ran to him, wagging his tail, wagging his whole young body, casting hopeful glances at the street and whining an appeal.
“Not now,” said John Morgan. “Later.” The spaniel’s eloquent stare said he failed to see why this was not the best possible time for a good long walk.
The man cast a glance almost of trepidation at the house. Comely, well-kept, inviting; designed for easeful living. He and his wife had put more than money and time into it, they had put something of themselves. Nothing forbidding about the fieldstone and clapboards, but he could not help feeling uneasy until he turned his eyes away.
He began to rub the hood of the car, his breath hissing through his teeth as he warmed to the work. In his fiftieth year, he had a well-muscled body and an air of self-reliance. Until lately, most people had warmed to him quickly because of his frank, good-natured expression. During the past months he had begun to wear a harassed frown and his shoulders were often slumped with discouragement.
District manager of a large industrial concern, he enjoyed his work and was good at it. When the time came to retire, he expected to enjoy his leisure. No financial cares. A lot of fishing, hunting and loafing to catch up on. Lately, his plans for the future had dwindled to nothingness. It was all he could do to get through each day without thinking of the next.
The spaniel scampered down the drive to look wistfully at the tree-lined street. He stood stock-still, watching a boy kicking a can along the sidewalk. A grubby little fellow in a ragged sweater and torn blue jeans. When he looked up, the dog wagged his stumpy tail ingratiatingly. The boy went down on his knees, holding out grimy hands and making encouraging sounds with his tongue and teeth.
“Hey,” he protested happily, as Rags romped over him, licking his nose and chin and ears. “Hey! Whatcha think ya doin’, huh?”
In a tangle, they rolled across the gravel. The spaniel tore loose and raced up the drive, yelping an invitation to follow. The boy pursued warily, keeping a watchful eye on the man bent over the car. Each step he took was tentative, his toes ready to turn the other way if need should arise. The spaniel raced to and fro between car and boy, with ears flopping, his whole being proclaiming that this encounter was a piece of wonderful luck and they must make the most of it.
Morgan looked up to find the child staring at him. A tow-headed urchin, skinnier than any boy should be. Sharp-eyed as a sparrow, and poised for flight. All one had to say was “Get!” and he’d be gone.
After one look, which the boy’s eyes met guardedly, Morgan grunted and returned his attention to the car.
He could hear the boy murmuring to the dog, talking to him without words, in broken sounds which Rags found entirely comprehensible. The boy was on his knees again and Rags was all over him. They sprawled in front of the car, alongside the car, behind it. They rolled over and over in the garage doorway.
“Holy gee,” said the boy, and Morgan raised his head.
The youngster was gaping at the bicycle, his puny frame tense with awe. He put out a trembling hand and almost, but not quite, touched the gleaming handle bars.
“Golly!” he stammered. “Some . . . bike!”
The man did not answer. The boy backed away a piece.
“I won’t touch it, mister. Honest.”
Beyond a tightening of the mouth, the man gave no sign that he had heard.
The boy licked his lips. “Swell pooch you’ve got, mister. What’s his name?”
“Rags,” said Morgan. His tone was harsh, but he atoned for it by adding, “What’s yours?”
“Ted, but the kids call me Runty. I’m going on ten, but I guess I’m pretty small.”
“It isn’t size that counts, it’s what you’re made of. Touch the bike if you like. I won’t mind.”
The boy drew a deep breath. His hands fondled the bright red frame as tenderly as if it were infinitely precious and fragile. The wonder of it brought him close to tears.
“Not a mark,” he said huskily. “I — I guess your kid takes awful good care of it.”
Morgan’s lips contracted again. “Rags seems to have taken a shine to you. What about taking him for a walk?”
“Gee, could I?”
“You’d be doing me a favor.”
“Maybe he won’t come.”
“He’ll go if I tell him it’s all right.” Morgan stopped and patted Rags. “Go with Ted, old boy. At-a-boy, good boy; go with Ted.”
“Here, boy,” said Ted, snapping his fingers. “Come on, boy. Let’s go for a walk.”
“Walk” was the spaniel’s favorite word, dearer even than “dinner.” He trotted after his new friend. Turned to look back inquiringly. Morgan waved him on and, his doubts resolved, he sprinted out to the street with a jubilant bark. Watching them go, Morgan thought that nothing in the world made better sense than a boy and a dog.
While they were gone, he put his back into his work. The monotony of it offered a sort of mental ease. When he straightened up and glanced at his watch more than an hour had passed since he drove home from the office.
The boy and the dog returned in gleeful spirits while he was washing his hands under the garage faucet. Ted told him an involved yarn about a squirrel that had been only a split second too quick, and Rags sat back with his tongue hanging out, blinking fondly from one to the other. Drying his hands, Morgan dug into his pocket for a quarter. Ted looked at the coin, but made no move to take it.
“It’s yours. You’ve earned it.”
“It was fun taking Rags out. I don’t want to be paid.”
“Take it. You did me a good turn.”
The boy’s eyes shifted to the bicycle. “I don’t want your money, mister . . . but I sure would like a ride on that bike.” Aware of the cloud that had come over the man’s face, he went on quickly, earnestly, humbly, “I wouldn’t go far. Only round the block. I’d take care, honest I would. Your kid won’t mind.”
About to refuse, Morgan realized the depth of yearning behind the appeal. And a bicycle is made to be ridden, not to stand in a sacrosanct place, a monument to frustration. It was not possible to deny the plea. It was too small a thing, and too big.
“Only round the block?”
“Cross my heart.”
“All right. Go ahead.”
The boy almost choked with happiness. He wheeled out the bicycle, handling it with care. He swung a leg over the saddle; shot a radiant glance over his shoulder.
When he reached the house, the side door opened and Ethel appeared in frantic haste. Her mouth was open as if to scream, but no sound came out. She grasped the handle bars and shook them, throwing the boy off. He lay in a heap on the ground, staring up in consternation at her pale, contorted face. Stumbling to his feet, he ran shakily down the drive without looking back.
After a moment of shock, Morgan went forward limply and grasped the bicycle. At first it seemed his wife would not let it go. Her grip was so tight that her knuckles shone through the skin. He tried to speak to her, but was physically incapable of uttering a word.
“How could you?” she cried. “Oh, how could you? Timothy’s bicycle! My Timothy’s bicycle! How could you let another child touch it?”
Wheeling it back to its place, he sat on a packing case with his head on his hands. He sat motionless in the gathering dusk, and the spaniel shivered and whined at his feet. At last he led the little dog to his kennel and refastened the long leash. A reproachful whimpering followed him up the path to the house.
In the deserted kitchen, saucepans simmered on the stove. He paused for a drink of water before going through the dining room to the hall. The table was set for supper, but Ethel was not there. He knew where to find her. In the gaily papered room at the head of the stairs; that was where she would be. The room papered with sailboats and soaring gulls, with bright chintz at the windows and a gay spread on the half-size bed.
Climbing the stairs heavily, he stopped at the open door. Ethel was standing by the window, looking out, but he knew she was blind to the darkening street, the leafless maples, the rooftops above the hedges. What she saw, standing there, was in the recesses of her own mind. She was in control of herself now. Her rigid control was unnerving.
Many toys were arrayed on shelves around the room. The bed was neatly made, in readiness for an occupant. A Teddy bear lolled against the footboard. In the bathroom, a row of toy boats and buoyant playthings waited on the rim of the tub. All very tidy, much tidier than a small boy would have kept it. Waiting for small hands to disarrange, to grasp right and left and reduce it to a livable confusion. There was even a small suit of freshly laundered pajamas laid out on the speckless coverlet.
Morgan cleared his throat. “Ethel, let’s get rid of all this. Send it to an orphanage. Send it anywhere, but get it out of the house. There must thousands of children who — ”
“Yes,” she said, “the world is full of children. Thousands of them. Millions. And I hate them all — every last one — because they are alive and my little boy is dead.”
The nurse said crisply, “You may go in.” John Morgan put down an out-ofdate magazine and went through the door she indicated. The doctor, a forceful-looking man in the thirties, glanced up with a frown of recognition.
“Surely we’ve met.”
“When you talked to the Men’s Club. Your speech impressed me. It made sense. That’s why I’m here.”
“Take a seat. Offhand, I’d say you look pretty fit.”
“I’ve come about my wife.”
“Oh? Then, perhaps, she ought to be the one sitting in that chair.”
“She wouldn’t come. She won’t see a doctor. All she wants is to be left alone.”
“And you’re worried?”
“Worried as hell.”
The doctor filled his pipe. He slid his tobacco pouch across the desk.
Morgan said, “Thanks.”
“I can give you the best part of an hour,” said the doctor, leaning back and puffing contentedly. “Since coming to town I haven’t been overburdened with patients. Take your time. Just relax and tell me what’s bothering you.”
“I’ll be fifty next month,” said Morgan, charging his pipe methodically. “My wife is a year or so younger. We were in love when we married and somehow managed to keep our love — well, perhaps not exciting, but alive. We’ve always been in comfortable circumstances and our tastes are pretty much the same. The only snag was, we couldn’t seem to have a child.”
“A pretty big snag, if you want one badly enough.”
“Yes. It came to be an ache in both of us. We didn’t talk about it. In married life you mostly talk about the little things. On her fortieth birthday, Ethel turned to me and said, ‘Well, I guess it’s always going to be just the two of us.’ I kissed her . . . and put my heart into it.
“We had more sense than to sour our lives pining for what we couldn’t have. It was there, the emptiness, but we made the most of what we had. And then, after we’d given up hoping, our family doctor told Ethel she was pregnant. I don’t think either of us quite believed it, just at first. It was . . . too good to be true.”
Taking a creased snapshot from his wallet, he passed it across the desk. It was of a small boy in shorts and T shirt. Seven or eight years old, with sturdy legs and a winning smile.
“Timothy,” said Morgan, his tongue dwelling on the syllables.
“Fine little chap,” said the doctor.
His own wife was going to have their first child in less than a month. He certainly would not grumble if they got one like this.
“We were the most indulgent parents ever,” said Morgan, “but you couldn’t spoil a nature like his. He was all boy. Into everything. On the go. Never clean for five minutes at a stretch. When he was home you’d hear him all over the house. But he had another side. Sometimes he’d drop everything, run to his mother and throw his arms about her. In his own way, he sensed how much she needed his love.”
He chuckled. There was a faraway look in his eyes.
“I’ll never forget the day he learned that grownups have birthdays. He was four or five. I guess he thought grownups were ageless until he saw me giving his mother a diamond ring for her fortyfifth birthday. When we called him for supper, there was no answering shout. We hunted high and low. No Timothy. I was on the phone, calling the police, when he trotted into the yard. His face shone as if it were lit up inside . . . and in his hands he held a huge bunch of violets. They quite took the shine out of my three-carat diamond.
“Well, we knew he’d only had a nickel. And that was a mighty big bunch. Not the kind you find in the woods. The large-petaled, deep-colored sort the florists sell. Worth fifty cents, maybe a dollar. After Timothy was in bed, I took a run down to the neighborhood florist. He said, sure he sold violets to Master Timothy Morgan. A big bunch for a nickel. I offered to pay the balance, but the florist only laughed. He said, ‘One day, maybe fifteen years from now, Master Timothy will be coming in for orchids or gardenias, and then I’ll nick him but good.’
“After that, two or three times a year, Timothy bought flowers for his mother. Her birthday, Christmas. Any special occasion. Violets, if he could get them. A big bunch for a nickel, a dime whatever he had. Ethel kept them a long, long time and always saved one to press in a book.”
He was silent for a while, and the doctor sat in silence, waiting for him to go on, letting him take his time. Suddenly, Morgan started and seemed to come back from a far-off place. He blinked at the other man:
“You were telling me about Timothy,” said the doctor.
Morgan said, “There was a polio epidemic shortly before you came to town.”
“I heard about it.”
“A good many children were stricken. Some of them went quickly. Timothy lasted just twenty-four hours from the time he complained of a sore throat. He was trying to smile when they took him away in the ambulance, trying to tell us not to worry, he’d be all right. Ethel and I sat in a waiting room all night and all the next day, except for a few minutes at a time, when I coaxed her out for a breath of air. On one of those short outings we saw a bicycle in a window and went right in and bought it. For Timothy. To come home to. Maybe we thought he’d be sure to get well if we acted as though nothing else was possible.”
The palm of his hand started to hit the arm of the chair with a monotonous beat.
“She didn’t cry when they told us. Her insides seemed to collapse, but she didn’t cry. It’s nearly six months now, but she’s never shed a tear. Doctor, it isn’t good for a woman not to cry when she’s hurt.”
“Now we are strangers, leading empty lives in an empty house. No, it isn’t empty. It’s still full of Timothy. His toys. His clothes. His picture books. His puppy, shivering at the end of a leash. The pictures he cut out of maga- zines on rainy days. His clothes are laid out, waiting for him to jump out of bed and throw them on. We’re living in a museum, a memorial to a dead child. She sits in the room that is waiting for Timothy, and it cuts her to pieces, but she doesn’t cry.”
“I’d better remind you, I’m not a psychiatrist.”
“I know that. But I feel you understand people. For God’s sake, tell me what to do.”
“Sorrow is part of human experience,” said the younger man slowly, “but this isn’t sorrow, it’s despair. Out of sorrow we grow in stature and find resources we never knew we had, but despair can only destroy.”
“It’s destroying her. What am I to do?”
“Have you thought of adopting a child? That might be the answer.”
“She won’t hear of it.”
“Then move away. Your present home is a constant reminder. Take her away and make a new start.”
“My firm offered to transfer me to California. But as long as Ethel lives, she’ll never leave Timothy’s home.”
“From what you tell me, she’s beyond deciding for herself. The first thing for you to do is to get rid of the child’s belongings. Give them away, burn them, destroy them, but get rid of them.”
“How shall I do it? Shall I wrench his things out of her hands?”
“You’ve heard of Restmore, the sanitarium on the other side of town? Wait, I know what you’re going to say . . . but it isn’t the average mental home. They’ll make your wife comfortable, there’s no reason to shrink from the idea. The superintendent is a good chap; he’ll study her sympathetically. After a few weeks, restful weeks, he’ll have an idea what treatment to suggest. In the meantime, you can clean house. Get rid of every possible reminder of your child.”
The nurse put her head into the room. “Your office is on the phone, Mr. Morgan. Your wife has been trying to reach you. She wants you to come home right away.”
He drove faster than ever before. On reaching the house, he jammed on the brakes and jumped out, leaving the engine running. He took the front steps two at a time. “Ethel!” he called as he opened the door. His voice echoed through the empty house. Shouting again, he heard an answering call from the yard.
Ethel was standing by the kennel.
“John, he’s been stolen!” she said distractedly. “Rags has been stolen!”
Morgan stooped to examine the frayed rope. “Nonsense. He’s run away. He’ll come home when he’s hungry.”
“I don’t believe you. Someone has stolen hint.”
“Ethel, look for yourself. The rope has been chewed, not cut. You can see the marks of his teeth.”
“Why should he run away? He never has before. I know he’s been stolen. The boy who was here yesterday — ”
Rising, he took his wife by the arm, doing his best to be patient. “Put on your coat and hat. We’ll take the car and look for him.”
Ethel said, “He’s tied up in some filthy outhouse”; but she went into the house for her things.
He felt his heart thumping. On the drive home he had been tormented by the dread of what he would find. He had imagined nothing so normal as a lonely pup running off to seek companionship. He knew that Rags himself meant nothing to Ethel. In their early married life she had never had a dog, never felt the need for one. She valued him only as a symbol. He had belonged to Timothy, and all Timothy’s belongings must stay in their place.
They drove slowly through the quiet neighborhood, peering right and left at every intersection, scrutinizing every hedge and driveway. They questioned a mailman, a delivery man, a boy bouncing a ball. No one had seen Rags. Several times Morgan got out and whistled, but no familiar bark answered.
“I knew we wouldn’t find him. I told you he was stolen. That boy — ”
Morgan headed the car away from the middle-class suburb toward the meaner streets that fringed the sawmill. Row upon row of narrow frame dwellings standing so close that an arm reached out of one could touch the wall of the next. All sadly in need of paint.
A group of youngsters lounged at a corner. He put his head out and asked if they knew a boy named Ted.
“Ted?” said a freckle-faced boy with a jaunty cowlick. “Naw. No kid called Ted in this street.”
“They call him Runty.”
“Oh, sure,” said the lad, grinning widely, “sure, I know Runty. Two blocks down, brown house onna corner. His old man got hisself killed in the war. His ma takes in washin’. Can’t miss it, mister; you’ll see alla clothes onna line.”
Tossing the lad a quarter, Morgan drove on. He stopped at a house more rundown than the rest. The yard was crisscrossed by lines sagging under the weight of damp garments.
“You’d better wait,” he said, opening the car door.
“I’m coming with you,” said Ethel, reaching for the handle on her side. “If that boy stole Rags, I mean to give him a piece of my mind.”
“Wait,” he repeated flatly, and she sank back.
Morgan went up a chipped walk. His knock was answered by a woman drying her hands on her apron. Of decent stock, and determinedly respectable, but careworn and overworked.
She listened to him apprehensively and broke in before he finished speaking, “Yes, sir, the little dog showed up this morning. He had a bit of chewed rope tied to his collar. I told Ted to take him right back where he came from.”
A little girl in a shabby but spotless frock, with a ribbon in her straight blond hair, stuck her head through under her mother’s arm.
“He wasn’t at school, ma. He played hooky. I bet he went hiking in the woods with the puppy.”
“My Ted is crazy for a dog,” said the woman apologetically, “but he’ll bring it back. He’s a good boy.”
“I know he is,” said Morgan warmly. “Please don’t let it worry you.”
He went back to the car. Ethel was sitting stiffly erect, staring straight in front of her.
“It’s all right,” he said, climbing in. “Rags came looking for company and the boy took him for a walk. They’ll be back when they’re tired.”
He reached for the key, but hesitated before turning it. “Decent, hard-working woman,” he said. “Worth helping out. We could do a lot for people like that. I guess the kids need just about everything.”
Through tight lips, Ethel said, “Drive to the police station.”
He stared at her. “Why?”
“That boy stole Timothy’s dog. He’s got to be reported.”
“Ethel, that’s crazy talk.”
“I intend to report him. If you won’t come, let me out of this car.”
“We’re going home,” he said firmly. Ethel was silent all the way, and went into the house without looking at him.
It was not quite dark when they heard a timid rap on the back door. Morgan opened it to find Ted and Rags bunched timorously on the steps. They both looked thoroughly cowed. A strand of dry fern clung to one of the spaniel’s floppy ears.
“He — he wanted to go after rabbits,” stammered the skinny little boy. “He wanted to go after rabbits awful bad.”
“I guess he did,” said John Morgan. “Looks like he’s had quite a day. My wife was worried — she isn’t well — but I guess everything’s all right now.”
“You ain’t sore?”
“No, I’m not sore. When my wife gets over her fright, she’ll understand.”
The boy’s eyes flickered in sudden panic over the man’s shoulder. Morgan sensed the ominous presence of his wife directly behind him.
“You’re a little thief !” said Ethel fiercely. “If I had my way, you’d be locked up!”
The boy cringed; the little dog cowered. Morgan picked up Rags and tucked him under his arm.
“Go home, Ted. Run on home.”
He shut the door. Ethel turned her face away as he passed. In the morning he would call the doctor and make arrangements about the sanitarium. He could not see that there was anything else to be done.
He tried to read his paper, but was utterly unable to concentrate. He had loved his wife for twenty years. He would have said there could never be a problem too great for them to see through together. Now he felt baffled, beaten.
Ethel, too, was restless. She prowled from room to room, unable to settle.
At about eight the back-door bell rang. Morgan ros., immediately, but when he reached the ball Ethel was opening the door. Ted stood there humbly in his blue jeans and ragged sweater. The pinched little face wore an anxious appeal.
“I — I’m awful sorry I worried you, lady,” he said. And he held up a large bunch of violets.
Morgan saw his wife’s back stiffening and held his breath in dismay. Violets. Was there any way to hurt her more?
“Who told you to bring those here?” she cried in a terrible voice.
The little boy started to weep. Between great gulping sobs, he gasped, “Please, lady, I — I only had a dime!”
Ethel knelt and put her arms about the forlorn figure. She was crying, the tears were streaming down her cheeks, but they were not the sort of tears to frighten a child.
Morgan’s trembling limbs failed him and he leaned against a wall for support. He felt as if every drop of blood had been drained from his body and every nerve anesthetized.
But he knew — beyond all doubt he knew — that from now on everything was going to be all right.
Featured image: Illustrated by Thornton Utz.