Authors: Emily Hahn
Off to London
The whole world was white, save for the road where they had parked. The moon had just set but the fields and hedges were still dim and greenish under the darkening sky. Snow covered the ground on either side of the car and made the trees soft and plump. The road was sharply black between the banks, and water, freezing again after a slight thaw, gleamed in puddles along the ruts.
Francie stared through the misty windshield and sighed. She cuddled her chin into the collar of her coat and spoke to the boy behind the wheel. “I hate to think of it, Glenn,” she said. “Months and months more of this.”
“What's wrong with this?” Glenn Stevens demanded. “Winter's swell; there isn't nearly so much doing in the summer. All the shows come out to Chicago soon. We'll get in for some of them. And we've had a lot of good skating already.”
“I just don't like cold weather. Some day,” said Francie dreamily, “I'll go and settle down in Florida, or some South Sea isle. That's better, come to think of itâTahiti. Wouldn't you like Tahiti, Glenn?”
“I like Jefferson in the wintertime,” said Glenn staunchly. “I guess I like the Middle West. Always been glad to get back after a trip away.”
“Lucky you, never yearning for what you can't have. How can you ever bring yourself to leave it, and go to State next fall?”
He chose to ignore the mockery in her voice; he answered simply. “That's easy;
going to State. The whole gang's going, almost. If it wasn't that I knew you'd be there, I wouldn't be so keen on college. Not that Dad would let me quit,” he added as an afterthought. “I've got to go somewhere, he says, and that's flat. But I'm not like you, Francie, I like Jefferson well enough to stay right hereâso long as you're here too.” He looked at her, peering in the dark and frowning at a thought which had assailed him. “You haven't told me finally about Prom, by the way,” he said.
“Haven't I?” Francie looked in the opposite direction and spoke with an artificial lightness.
“You know darn well you haven't. What about it? Are you coming?”
“Bill asked me yesterday,” she said very softly, so softly she nearly whispered. It was one of her most appealing, most unexpected little mannerisms.
The boy sat up straight and Francie stole a look at him in the faint light from the dashboard. Glenn wasn't the handsomest boy in her crowd, perhaps, but she liked the solid look of him. He was more grown up than any of the others, she decided, and for that very reason her baiting of him seemed more enticingly dangerous. She could never be quite sure that Glenn wouldn't slap her down one of these days. Figuratively speaking, of course.
If he noted her quick scrutiny he gave no sign and Francie spoke softly in answer to his question: “I said I'd go.”
“Oh, for gosh sakes!” He waited, breathing hard, before bursting out again. “Of all the low-down tricks. I ought to push you right out of this car and make you walk home, Francie Nelson.”
She opened her eyes wide, looking at him with a pathos that might possibly have been real. She was very pretty in this dim light; her dark blue eyes seemed enormous, and her brown hair held shadows in its soft curls. Her expression was placatory, but Glenn would not understand it; he started the car and steered it with exaggerated caution between the deep splashing ruts of water until they came to the high road. Then he turned toward town, wordlessly.
“Where are you going?” asked Francie, whose soft tones might be concealing trepidation.
“I'm taking you home, right now.”
She rather liked the reaction she was getting. They said nothing more as the car entered the outskirts of town. Francie pulled a vanity case out of her pocket and studied her face in the mirror, peering in snatches when they drove past the lamps of Main Street. Going by the jeweler's she noted the time was twelve-thirty. “Maybe Aunt Norah won't be sitting up,” she commented in lightly ironic tones. “Oh, no!”
Glenn didn't reply, and she glanced at his profile. He looked firm-lipped and stony. She felt she had gone too far; suddenly she reached out and took his arm.
“Don't,” said Glenn, keeping his eyes on the road. He shook off her hand.
“No, listen, Glenn. I was only kidding. I didn't tell him I'd go with him. I don't know who I'm going with yet, honestly. I just wanted to get a rise out of you.”
“Well, you did, all right,” said Glenn. He still sounded grim and unyielding. “Anyway, why don't you know yet who you're going with? Is it so hard to make up your mind as all that?”
“Yes,” said Francie with a burst of honesty. “Frankly it is. I'm not even sure I'll go at all, if Aunt Norah goes on holding out about the dress. If I can't have that dressâ”
“You never know what you want,” said Glenn. “One of these days you'll find you can't pick and choose the way you're used to, and boy, wouldn't I like to be there to see it.” Abruptly he braked the car at the side of the road, and turned and looked at her curiously.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
“I'm sort of summing you up,” he said. “You're neat, all right. You don't need me to tell you that. But I can't figure out how you get to be such a nuisance. You're no better-looking than a lot of the othersâeven if you probably will be Beauty Queen, just because you're popular. Now Mary, for instance; Mary can run rings around you. And Grettaâ”
“I know all about Gretta,” said Francie tartly. “It's too cold to sit here having a row, Glenn. If you wouldn't mind taking me home now, so Aunt Norah won't worryâ”
“In a minute, in a minute.” The boy settled down, leaning on the wheel as if he had all the time in the world. His tone was cool and detached; it made Francie uneasy. “You're reasonably good-looking, yes, but not as good as all that. I don't know. I just don't see
you're the most popular girl in school.”
“Well anyway, you admit I am. That's something.” Indignation sharpened her voice. “If I'm so horrible, why do you bother me so much? That's what I can never understand.”
“You're not horrible, exactly.”
“Thanks for that much. Now please take me home.”
“You're spoiled,” said Glenn as if to himself. “Just spoiled. I don't know what it is; maybe we all let you get away with murder because you were always sort of romantic. Coming into Jefferson the way you did, your Mother dead and everybody remembering what a swell guy your Dad was, and so you seemed way ahead of the other girls even thenâNew York clothes and all that. I remember how you started out right away, doing exactly what you liked with us, wrapping us round your little finger. And we all let you. We still let you.” He sat back, sighing, turned the key of the motor, and started the car again. Francie could think of nothing to say, which made her angrier than ever. “What's more, we'll go on the same way,” he said. “I can see it. You'll get away with murder up at State too. Sometimes I wonder what your old man thinks about it all. If he lived here all the time, he'd see.”
“Pop's satisfied, which evidently is a lot more than you are,” said Francie.
“He doesn't know you like I do. He only sees you once in a while. Francie, it would do you all the good in the world to have the tar whaled out of you.”
“Big he-man,” she said mockingly. “Want to try it, Humphrey Bogart?”
“Me? Oh, no. Count me out. But some day you're going to be reformed. You'll meet somebody who won't let you walk all over him. Wellâ” They drew up before a pleasant-looking house set back in a green lawn. “I was going to say I want to be there when it happens, but I don't,” said Glenn.
“Thanks for a wonderful time,” said Francie. She took hold of the door-handle, and Glenn moved suddenly, pulling her towards him with his arm around her neck.
“Francie! I'm sorry I bawled you out,” he muttered.
She was quiet. His kiss landed on the end of her nose. “Didn't you mean it all, then?” she asked.
“IâI don't know. I was so soreâCome on, Francie, give me a kiss and say you'll go to Prom with me.”
She pecked his cheek, and laughed, mollified. “I don't know about Prom, though. Let me go, Glenn; I've got to go, really. There's a light on; Aunt Norah's waiting up after all. Let go, Glenn,
“I'll see you tomorrow,” he said.
Francie stood at the door before using her latchkey, trying to peer in through the frosted glass. Aunt Norah was not, after all, lurking there. But the hall light was on, and so was the lamp in the sitting room. She sighed more in boredom than in fear at the prospect of one of her aunt's gentle reprimands; with a defiant scratching of metal on metal she unlocked the door. She stopped short when she looked into the living room.
Aunt Norah wasn't there at all; a man sat alone at the desk in the sitting room, his back to the door, writing.
“Pop!” she cried in surprise. “When did you arrive?”
Fred Nelson put down his pen and swung around. He was a stocky man, gray-haired, with a firm, good-humored face and a confident, quiet manner. He spoke in deliberate tones, a deep, drawling voice. “Hello, Frances. Quite a night-bird, aren't you? I thought I'd give you just half an hour more to get home, before I turned in. How are you? Come over here under the light and let's see.”
She kissed him and moved to a position under the light, where she turned in a slow circle like a fashion model, laughing.
“You look all right,” he said at last, having inspected her solemnly. “Not as tired as I expected from what your aunt said.”
“Oh, just that you're kind of tearing around â¦ I got here on the nine-twenty; I telegraphed this morning. Didn't you get my wire?”
“I guess it must have come all right, Pop, but I've been out since noon. I had a date. I do stay out a lot, these days.”
“You look all right,” he repeated.
As always when her father came to Jefferson, Francie was conscious of an embarrassed lag in the conversation. It was hard to talk to one's father when he didn't live at home. She had been ten when her mother died and she had moved to Jefferson to live with Aunt Norah. More and more after the change her father had been away, following his work in distant parts of the world. The arrangement had been successful as far as Francie's health and happiness were concerned. But when father and daughter were together again, they found themselves strangers, searching awkwardly for topics of mutual interest. Francie sensed this, but she didn't know what to do about it, and evidently Pop didn't either.
“Aunt Norah went to bed, did she?” she said at last.
“Yes, though I tried to make her wait. I wanted to talk to you in front of your aunt.” Her father frowned slightly. “I particularly wanted a little family conference when you got in tonight, but she says she never knows when to expect you, and it's no use making plans. Now Francie, is that the truth? Do you mean to say you go cavorting all over the countryside at all hours of the night? If so, we'll have to have a change. I had no ideaâ”
“I don't know what you mean by cavorting,” she retorted, flushing. “I don't go hanging around juke joints, if that's what it means. All the kidsâ”
“Now wait a minute, Frances, just wait a minute. I don't believe your little friends do act quite like this, with all this liberty, staying up until one o'clock on a week night, with school waiting in the morning.”
“They're not âlittle friends',” said Francie. “They're grown up. Like me.”
they stay up until all hours?” insisted her father.
“Some do. After all, Pop, I'm past seventeen. Most of the girls I knowâ”
He made an impatient gesture. “Oh, skip it. I really don't know how they run things nowadays, and I didn't mean to sidetrack myself. That isn't what I want to talk about. Sit down, honey, and let's be serious.” Francie obeyed, somewhat apprehensively. He continued, “We've got to make a few plans, now you're graduating from high school. Did you have any sort of idea what you'd like to do next?”
Francie stared. “I thought that was all understood. I'm going up to State, aren't I? Like the rest of the crowd. We decided last time you were here, didn't we?”
“Yes, but things have changed a lot since then,” said Mr. Nelson. He looked at the window, exactly as if the shade weren't down, she thought, as if he were looking at something outside. “I've given this matter a good deal of thought,” he continued. “I had an idea sort of half-formed in my mind, and now the talk I've been having with your aunt has decided me. Francie, I've got to go back to Europe. For an indefinite period.” He paused and waited for comment.
“Oh, really? I'm sorry, Pop. Or do you like the idea?”
“It's all right,” said Fred Nelson. “I could have turned it down, but I didn't want to. They think things are going to open up in England in an important way â¦ But you're not interested in all that, and why should you be? The point is, it affects you too.”
“How?” asked Francie blankly. Never before had her father taken the trouble to talk very much of his affairs. He was always there in the background, kept away from Jefferson most of the year by his business, which was supremely uninteresting, as all adult businesses were to Francie and her friends. The other fathers would discuss these matters with Fred Nelson on his infrequent visits, but Francie never listened. She had never been expected to show any interest, and she simply accepted the world as she found it. It was an indulgent world, easy to live in. Her father supplied the money for her pretty clothes and all her little expenses; she had her allowance like the other girls, and never stopped to wonder seriously whether her father was well or badly off. She knew that the citizens of Jefferson, and even more important men in Chicago and New York respected his opinions and thought highly of him, but Glenn had given her a new glimpse of her parent tonight when he'd hinted that Fred Nelson contributed to her romantic background. Somehow she had liked to suppose that she was responsible for all the glamour herself, rather than having to give credit to a father who dropped in by plane now and then, to talk learnedly to the local businessmen about petroleum by-products.
“Are you going all over the world to sell petroleum?” she asked.
“I don't sell it, you little goose; I'm an executive. Did you think I carried it around in an oilcan?”
She giggled. “No, but honestly â¦ where are you going, Pop?”
“England at first, maybe the Near East later. We're expanding, following a plan we had under way before the war.”
“Oh. Anything to do with politics? In Industrial History yesterday Miss Whitcombe said I ought to ask you more questions about things.”
“Did she?” Pop looked surprised and pathetically gratified. “That was nice of her,” he said, “but never mind all that just now. The point is, I'll be away from this part of the world for a long time. I don't know how you feel about this arrangement we've had with your Aunt Norah; probably you've never had any particular idea one way or the other. But I'm getting dissatisfied. I've been worrying about it. Among other considerations it appears to me I might as well not have a daughter at all, for all the good we get out of each other. Did you ever think of that?”
Francie reflected that there was something in what he said; she remembered having been jealous, in earlier years, because most of her friends had fathers to take them out on picnics during vacationtime, and she didn't; her father was always away. But she had got used to the situation long since. “It hasn't been so good,” she admitted thoughtfully. “I thought it was the way you wanted it, though.”
“I did want it for a while. There wasn't much else to do while you were a kid, now was there?” He stood up and walked across the room and back. She noticed for the hundredth time what a forceful person he seemed. “Francie, what would you say to leaving Jefferson?” he demanded suddenly.
“Leave Jefferson?” She was aghast. “Why, Pop, I couldn't right now. I just couldn't. I'm almost sure to be Beauty Queen this year. I mean, of course, I will leave when it's time to go to State, but if you mean right nowâ”
“I do mean right now, Francie.” He looked sorry for her agitation, but determined anyway. “I've gone over and over it in my mind and this is the best way.”
“You mean you want to take me with you to England?” she asked, as the horrid realization swept through her. Little as she knew her father in the everyday sense, she remembered of old how sudden and determined and unexpected he could be. She could recall one time when she'd been a little girl and Pop had made an abrupt decision about a vacation for all of them. It had been a trip her mother had not wanted to make, but once Pop had decided, there'd been no shaking him. He could be mild and indulgent and considerate for months on end, but when he really gripped a decision between his teeth, no one had ever been known to jar him free from it. Francie had a most unpleasant suspicion that this was going to be one of those times.
But it couldn'tâit mustn't be!
she said wildly. “You don't understand. I'm in my last term at school. The last term is
. I'm going to be Beauty Queen, very likely, if Amy Muller isn't electedâand I don't think she will be. And I've got to go to Prom. And examinations, and college, andâPop, you don't know what you're saying.” She paused, panting. She could think of nothing but what she was threatened with losing.
“I do know. I know how hard it is, but I've decided it's best.” That was his best bulldog manner. “You can make up your work in some school over there; I've asked the people at the office and they say you'll be way ahead of the others by the time we get back. The thing is, honey, I'll be in England close to a year. Possibly longer. You're growing up. Sooner or later we've got to get together; I want to see something of you before you run off and leave me; you'll be getting married before you know it. And you ought to see something of me, too. I know it's inconvenientâ”
“Inconvenient!” In spite of the tears that were choking her, Francie laughed. He was knocking away the props of her whole life, and he called it inconvenient! “Pop, have you thought what I'll do with myself in a new place like England? I'll simply hate it.” As she spoke she was convinced this was true.
“Well of course, if you make up your mind to hate it, that's that.” Fred Nelson looked at her squarely, standing in the middle of the carpet, his hands shoved into his pockets. “But I wouldn't advise it, Francie. You go to bed and sleep on the idea; it's not so terrible as it sounds. Most girls would welcome the new experience, I should think. By the time you've been there a few months you'll be surprised; you'llâ”
“I won't. I'll always hate it,” she said, weeping.
“I can hardly blame you for feeling this way at first,” said her father as if to himself. “You're used to a lot of attention, I understand. You queen it over the boys here in town. Well, all the better then to go away. Too much of that can't be good for you; you're an attractive girl if you
my daughter, but you needâI'll tell you what it is, Francie; you're spoiled.”
give me that too,” sniffled Francie into her handkerchief. “I've been listening to that all night.” She scrambled to her feet, the handkerchief held to her nose. “I'm going to bed,” she said. She ran out of the room, and her father watched her go, his face troubled but still determined.
“It does seem a shame.” Francie's best friend, Ruth, spoke absently. The news had given her a good deal to think about. Plans needed rearranging, if the hub of her world was going to leave the scene.
Francie sat in the window seat of Ruth's bedroom, looking down into the front yard. The room was a pretty one, though perhaps a bit overfussy with its organdy bedspread and curtains to match. There were built-in wardrobes and a little ironing board that opened out, and the latest thing in indirect lighting, as Ruth's father was fond of electrical appliances. The girls were drinking chocolate malts which they had just mixed down in the kitchen. For a girl whose life was ruined, Francie was looking very cheerful; after thinking it over she had begun to feel excited at the widening prospect of life.
“I suppose you'll change your mind now about going to State? You'll have to,” said Ruth.
“Pop said nearly a year. Maybe I can wangle it so as to get back home for State in the fall. Of course I may decide all over again not to go to college at all, though Pop blew his top over that last time I suggested it. Remember?”
“Yes, I do. What a row! Still, taking you away like this, he can hardly object if you don't want to come in later. That is, if you miss out on fall and have to come trailing behind the rest of us.
“I've given up Romance Languages, I think,” Ruth went on. “I'm going in for psychology instead. More future to it. As for you, I'm beginning to think maybe you ought to go back to your original plan and be an artist.”
This abrupt change of interest did not startle Francie; it was ordinary enough for the girls to make radical alterations in their life's ambition. They did it, on an average, weekly. Francie merely replied, “Oh well then, I think I'll do Political Science as a minor to Art. Pop says I'll have a good chance to look at practical Socialism; he says England's trying it out.”
“Yes, there's that of course. But Francie, coming down to serious matters, it's terrible about Prom. And Beauty Queen. You were sure to get that. It's just the limit. Have you told Glenn about it?”
“I haven't told anybody, except you,” said Francie. Her face grew doleful. “It is awful about Prom and all the rest. But Pop's got the bit between his teeth and there's not a bit of use making more fuss than I already have.”
“You'll probably end by loving it. I know I'd give anything for the chance of a year abroad.”
“Right now? I don't think you would,” Francie said. “This is the most perfectly terrible time to be snatched out of school. The best years of our lives, or anyway months, and I'm going to miss them all. I'll never get over it â¦ I wonder what English boys are like,” she added.
“Cute, I should think. Listen, Francie, since you're not going to be here, what about Gretta for Glenn? I mean to say, she's really okay, she could be cute if she ever had a chance, and she hasn't got a date for Prom. I know it's tactless, talking like this as soon as you've told me about England, but you don't mind, do you?”
“Oh no, I don't mind.” Francie went on studying the front yard, swinging her foot glumly. “I don't mind really,” she added. “I get a boot out of the idea of adventure, to tell the truth. And there's one bright spot about the whole thing; even if Glenn does take Gretta to Prom and falls for herâ”
“I don't mean he's likely to
for her,” interposed Ruth hastily. “It just seemed such a shame to waste himâ”
“Even if he does, I don't care. I forgot to tell you, Pop's at least promised to give me a fur coat my next birthday if I get through the year without too much trouble. That's better than Prom, isn't it?”
“You are lucky, Francie. Of course it's better.”
“Well, we'd better get downstairs to the phone and start in,” said Francie with a sigh. “I'll have to call up everybody. Oh dear. And if you don't mind a word of advice, Ruth, I wouldn't go too fast on that Gretta proposition. Let Glenn think he thinks of it himself.”
“You're telling me!” said Ruth. Laughing like young harpies, they went out of the room.
Fred Nelson put down the newspaper he had been trying to read for the last five minutes. He had no idea what was on the page. He said to his sister-in-law, peacefully knitting in her easy chair near the window, “Norah, what do you think about Francie?”
Aunt Norah took off her spectacles and blinked at him mildly. As she grew older she reminded him less and less of Francie's mother. But sometimes the trace of a smile that resembled her sister's crossed her face and he felt again the old pang of longing for someone lovely and gentle and lost. Francie was growing startlingly like her mother in appearance, though in a bolder, more spirited way.
“Think about Francie?” Aunt Norah repeated. “How can I think about her, Fred? She's too close. I try to keep her well-fed and happy, without interfering with her too much. Girls are so strong-willed these days.”
“You must have some opinion. You can tell me at least if she worries you much.” He pounced on her own phrase. “Strong-willed, you say? What do you mean by that? Is she one of these young girls who run away from home and are found a month later in Hollywood? Or is she likely to turn into one of these juvenile delinquents we hear so much about?”
“Dear me, Fred, what lurid notions you do get! Of course she won't do anything of the kind. She simply likes to have her own way, and I must say she usually manages to get it.”
He tried another tack, since he was getting nowhere with his first one. “Tell me, Norah, do all young girls use as much lipstick as Francie? She has a nice mouth underneath all that junk, but you'd never know it.”
“If you'll just look around you, you won't have to ask me,” said Aunt Norah. “I can't make Francie behave any different from the others.”
“And what goes on in her head?” continued Francie's father. “Judging from what I overhear on the telephoneâ”
“Oh, well,” began Aunt Norah, polishing her spectacles agitatedly, “you can't go by that, completely.”
“Boys, dates, and boys again,” said Mr. Nelson. “Parties and boys, boys and parties. Gossip. Do they ever have a serious thought? She's not quite a child any more, Norah, but she doesn't seem to realize it.”
“She's a good enough girl,” said Aunt Norah. She put on her spectacles and began again to knit. “She's not really grown up, you know. Let her enjoy life while she can.”
“But what about school? Don't these young things ever do any homework?”
“No more than they must,” admitted Francie's aunt, “but the school standards are high, and she keeps up. And she draws and paints a lot. She has her mother's talent for that. You'd be quite surprised if you knew how hard the child does work, sometimes. You wouldn't expect her to talk about
all the time to her friends, would you?”
“Well, maybe not.” He was silent for a while, and then blurted, “The real trouble is that I'm worried, I guess. Francie's pretty.”
“Oh yes, she's unusually pretty. Popular, too.”
“Well.â¦” His voice trailed off.
“Too much of a responsibility, is that it?” asked Aunt Norah with a flash of shrewdness. “She's an American girl, Fred. American girls know how to take care of themselves anywhere.”
they? That's just it. Do they?”
“Frances will be all right, Fred. She's a normal, high-spirited American girl, and she's pretty as a picture, and you're going to be proud of her. You have to make allowances for occasional moods, considering the way you're uprooting her from her established rounds.”
Still Mr. Nelson looked dubious. “Well, if you're not worried,” he said, inconclusively. “Do you think you can get her ready in two weeks? Don't stint yourself on her clothes; I understand there's not much to buy nowadays, over there.”
Francie had looked forward to being wretchedly unhappy all the time, or at least for a while every day, before they sailed, but somehow she never found the time. There was the prospect of farewell parties, with lots of the boys protesting they would miss her too much to enjoy themselves, at least for weeks; there was shopping; there was the prospect of several days in New York, with more shopping. She had to help Aunt Norah pack her glass and china for storage. Aunt Norah was intending to sublet the house and spend some months in Florida, now that she need not make a home for her niece.
“One good thing about all this,” Francie confided to her aunt as she wrapped silver fish-knives in flannel, “is that I'm finding out at last who are really my friends and who aren't. Some of the girls are being awfully cattyâtheir names would surprise you.”
“You'll forget all these little pinpricks by the time you're across the Atlantic,” said Aunt Norah cheerfully. “I must say it makes me marvel, the way young people change from generation to generation. To look at you, anybody would think you'd been condemned to a prison cell, instead of getting a real treat. What wouldn't I have given for your chance at your age!”
“Yes, Aunt Norah, but times aren't at all the same any more. I know people used to want more than anything to go to Europe. We had to read Henry James and all those for English. But don't forget, it's different nowadays. It's the War that did it. You just talk to some of the G.I.'s and you'll find out. I'd never have a better time anywhere else than here, honestly. I know that.”
“You know everything, of course,” sighed Francie's aunt. “It's not a bit of use my arguing. Well, I must say it's nice to think you like your own home so much.”
“Not that I want to be narrow-minded,” added Francie judiciously. “It's just that the time is inconvenient, but I'm perfectly willing to give England a
It was decided in Francie's crowd that her going-away should be marked, if not exactly celebrated, by a series of social gatherings. Movies, they felt, were not enough; everyone went to the movies whenever there was a new picture anyway. A dance in the high-school gym had already been scheduled for the week before and the crowd couldn't very well hold another one so soon again, just before the going-away day. Instead, a party at someone's house was indicated. But whose? Glenn, Ruth and Gretta, meeting at the Chocolate Shoppe by chance, argued about it.
have it,” begged Gretta. “It's my turn really, and I'd love to give Francie a going-away party.” Gretta was the doll-pretty type and everybody knew that if it wasn't for Francie she might go all out for Glenn.
“I know you would,” said Ruth with heavy meaning in her tone, “but after all I'm her closest friend and I do thinkâ”
“We could throw a good one at our place,” said Glenn, “if we give Mother enough notice.”
They had not settled the question by the time Francie appeared for her morning snack, and they turned to her for decision.
“Oh, it's got to be at our own house,” she said immediately. “Aunt Norah would be terribly hurt, you know she would, if I went anywhere else on my last night. It's nice of you all and I
appreciate it, but.â¦” Her voice grew tremulous; she broke off. The tactful Ruth changed the subject. They all gave in to the overpowering argument of Aunt Norah's feelings, and Francie won the day.
“They couldn't have argued,” said Francie, reporting on the arrangement when she went home for lunch. “I just told them that would be the way you wanted it, Aunt Norah.”
“That was right, Francie,” Fred Nelson approved. He looked gratified at Aunt Norah's pleasure, and later when Francie had left the room he said to her, “She's not so self-centered as I was afraid she might be. That showed real sensibility.”
“Oh, Francie's got the right instincts,” said Aunt Norah indulgently. “Francie and I understand each other.”
“It will be fun to see a kid's party again,” said Pop, musing aloud. “I haven't seen one since I was a kid myself. I begin more and more to realize I've missed a good deal, one way and another, working so hard while Francie was growing up.”
Aunt Norah looked at him, opened her mouth, but then thought better of whatever she had been going to say.
The important last evening arrived finally. Pop sat in the living room, looking around with a tolerant smile at the preparations. Aunt Norah was in the kitchen in her good silk print with an apron over it, putting out glasses and depositing Coca-cola and ginger-ale bottles in the icebox, which had been cleared for the purpose. The doors between the dining room and living room were open; the dining-room table had been shoved back into a corner and the carpet was rolled up. The first guest's step was heard on the porch and a young girl walked into the hall without ringing.
“Hi!” she called up the stairs. “Francie? I'm here!”
When she saw Pop she hesitated a moment, then came forward to shake hands, rather shyly. Francie ran down the steps. A boy with a crew cut arrived; the party was under way. The young people perched on chair arms, curled up on sofas, or slumped almost on the backs of their necks in chairs. No one, Pop observed, seemed to use furniture in the more conventional manner to which he was accustomed.
They soon were talking animatedly about their own mysterious affairs, in a language Pop could not understand. Feeling very much out of it, he sought Aunt Norah in the kitchen.
“Are the children getting on all right?” she asked, taking off her apron and hanging it up on the door.
“Very well indeed. Very well. Fine-looking lot of youngsters,” said Pop. “Not that I can tell one from another, except Francie and little what's-her-nameâRuth. And Glenn, naturally. I'd know Glenn by this time, even if he didn't have all those freckles, he's been around so much.”
Aunt Norah said, “Well, if they're started off, I don't know that we've got any more duties to perform out here. Let's go.”
“Go? Why, where are we going?”
“Out,” said Aunt Norah.
“As for why,” said Aunt Norah hesitantly, “that's rather hard to answer. Francie likes to have the old folks out when she has a party, so I always leave them to themselves.”
Fred Nelson began, angrily, “Well, if that isn't the most outrageousâ” but Aunt Norah's gentle voice continued.
“As for where, it's for you to decide if you'd rather just drive around somewhereâor we could see the new picture at the Odeon, or go and call on the Tuckers. I know they're at home because I asked when I met Mrs. Tucker at the Stop and Shop.”
Pop stood squarely in front of his sister-in-law, so that she was forced to look at him. “Listen to me, Norah,” he said. “You know it's all wrong, as well as I do, to leave those children in charge of the house. It'sâit's unheard-of! It's unmannerly of them to expect it! Our mothers would turn in their graves if they knew. What's come over this country? What's the matter with all the parents to permit this sort of thing? Have they gone crazy, or what?”
“Why shouldn't the youngsters be left, Fred? Don't you trust them?”
He made an impatient gesture. “That's not the pointâthat's not at all the point. It's the
aspect that makes me sore. It's your house. Why should you be dispossessed of your house simply because a lot of selfish kids want to get together and have a party?”
“Oh Fred!” She laughed helplessly. “What a queer way to look at it! It's easy to see you haven't kept up. Children have it their own way nowadays. As for me, I don't see why not.”
“Why not? Why not? Do you mean to say you don't resent being kicked out to wander around all the evening because these young cubs haven't the mannersâ”
“If I'm not wanted here,” said Aunt Norah, “I don't want to
here. Now you just calm down a minute, Fred, and be reasonable. Of course we could perfectly well insist on staying here, and attend the party, and spoil their fun. If you insist on it, that's what we'll do. But it's Francie's last night andâ”
“But why should it spoil their fun if we did? What's the matter with you all? Why can't we all get along together, even if we
“Now that's a question,” said Aunt Norah, “that's too big for any one woman to answer. You can't fight Nature, and young people like to stick to their own kind. Do you want to embarrass poor Francie on her last night, and spoil her party, perhaps drive all her friends out somewhere else where they can feel they aren't being watched? They weren't brought up as we were, remember, with chaperones watching us every minute, and all that.”
“Why, no, Iâ”
“Do you really think you ought to go in and sit down there, and try to talk to a lot of kids who have nothing to say to you?”
“Of course not! It's just that the system's all wrong,” said Pop, “but I'm just as glad I'm getting Francie out of this for a little while. Maybe in another sort of civilization she'll realize that parents have some rights too!”
Aunt Norah shook her head and sighed.
“Well, come on. If we've got to go, we've got to go,” said Pop, “unless we feel we ought to go upstairs instead and skulk in our own rooms. I guess the other way
less awkward. I suppose that's why you long-suffering older generation evolved it.”
He looked in at the party as he and Aunt Norah paused, coated and hatted, on their way to the front door. With difficulty he refrained from glowering. A few couplesâFrancie was among themâwere dancing to the radio which was turned up to deafening volume. Others were in groups, animatedly discussing things which Pop either did not understand or thought they did not understand, and doing it at the top of their lungs to be heard above the music. He noticed several couples holding hands not at all self-consciously.
“We're off, children,” called Aunt Norah.
Francie waved, hesitated, and then on a sudden warm impulse ran over to kiss them both. She looked flushed, happy, and very pretty. Out on the front porch, Pop blew his nose. “She's not so bad,” he said. “Spoiledâall of them are spoiledâbut she's a nice kid.”
“I'm glad you're beginning to realize that!” said Aunt Norah.
“Well, come on then,” Pop said, as he led the way to the car. “If we're to go into exile for the whole evening, let's get going!”
Time flew by faster than Francie had ever known it to go. Before she could catch her breath, before she had really accepted this uprooting deep down inside her, the parting time had come and she and Pop were on the train rushing east.
However dizzy and breathless she felt, she found New York absolutely heavenly. She was in a hurry to write Ruth about it, and yet in a hurry to do more running around outside the hotel: two theaters in one day, the stores, “21” and the Stork Club for lunch with Pop, the stores again, the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, which nearly knocked the stores out of her mind and made her dig her sketchbook out of the bottom of her suitcase; then a hairdresser's and again the stores.
Two whole hours one afternoon she spent wandering the plazas and corridors of Radio City, trying to satisfy her urge to capture these crowded impressions in sketches on paper. Her rough drawings did not please her, but Pop seemed astonished and impressed.
“That's a big chunk of talent you have, Francie. You're better than your mother already, and she was pretty good.”
She found herself thinking often of her mother in New York. She knew her mother had loved the city, and Francie, feeling closer to her than she had for a long while, loved it too.
“I'm nearly dead,” she wrote at last, in a quiet space forced on her by the time of day, when nothing was open for shopping. “Oh Ruth, I've had the most divine time with the paintings. There are lots to be seen in small galleries, I just found out, and I'm so excited I can hardly wait to get back to work. I've done some sketching here, of course, but I mean seriously back to work. I wonder sometimes if it wouldn't be a complete waste of time, going to State. Art is after all my only
interest.” She added another line under “true” and paused, nibbling at her pen, to look into the hotel mirror. It was a pity she hadn't waited to buy all her sweaters and things here, she mused. They had a better look, somehow. If Ruth could only see the yellow twin set she had on right now.â¦
“â¦ my only
interest.â¦” She smiled at the words. Her head was such a tumble of interests at the moment.
“Pop has given me my head in the way of last-minute clothes and I've gone mad, so it's just as well you and I decided against that blue tweed coat. I did much better here at Saks'. Pop's being absolutely sweet about everything, and sometimes I think I've never done him justice. He isn't just a businessman at all, though he seems to be pretty good at that by the wayâit might sound like boasting if I told you how they treat him at his office. But he isn't as difficult as I've always thought. For one thing, he didn't mind my getting a hair-do at Antoine's. Also, anybody less understanding would probably make me trail along to Central Park Zoo. Of course, I wasn't above doing some of the touristy things, like Radio City and going to the top of the Empire State Building, and I loved thatâbut I kept thinking of Doris the time her father showed her around New York and treated her like a baby. Pop at least lets me pick out my own clothes, and he orders my meals as if I were grown up. (I wouldn't know what to pick, anyway.) I'm waiting in the hotel room now because he had to go to the office to wind up a lot of things, but I'll phone down soon for a coke and start dressing. Tonight we're going to the theater again, and tomorrow we actually
. I'm feeling much better about England and everything. If Pop's going to be as decent as this all the time I haven't got a thing to worry about.”