A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
She lowered her voice, reading the final portion slowly, deliberately.
"'This proved on closer inspection to be a sheet of paper attached to the door by pins. The captain tore it off and put it in his pocket, and, hastening back, stopped under the electric light over the cross-roads and drew it forth. It bore a great black cross marked in ink, and the one word, also in ink, very black, weak in spelling, owing probably to haste and darkness, but sinister and unmistakable in meaning:'
She paused for effect, rewarded with George's shrill, "Well, go on!"
Betty finished with a chill in her voice, "'"DOOMD!"'" then sat up straight from where she had been curled next to her mother's rocking chair and smiled, closing the magazine. "And that ends part one."
"That's it?" her little brother asked, scrambling to his feet. He'd been sitting cross-legged near the fireplace, munching the last kernels of popcorn from a big ceramic bowl set on the brick hearth, eyes fixed on his elder sister during the entire story. "Where's the December issue? Is it here yet? Read the next part!"
"Please lower your voice, George," Clare Roberts instructed patiently, glancing up. Her rocker sat under the reading lamp, where she had spent the evening listening to Betty read aloud while darning stockings. "Your father has the next issue. It came today, but if I know Betty, she'd have it under the table during Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow if we gave it to her now. You may have it on Friday."
Betty gave a small sigh, tilting her eyes up to her father, but David Roberts only smiled briefly at her over his glasses and winked. They had already discussed the fate of that December issue of St. Nicholas, and he'd promised her she could have it at bedtime next evening. In the meantime, she suspected Dad was pouring over it himself; she had all his old bound issues from when he was a subscriber. Besides, there were Christmas poems and stories in it, and they all knew how crazy Dad was about Christmas.
With his lower lip set, six-year-old George looked ready to rebel, but the chiming of the small, carved Swiss clock on the mantel silenced any further protests. When the eight strokes finished, Clare tidily set aside her sewing with a smooth movement, rising. "I've let you stay up later because tomorrow's a holiday, but now it's time for bed."
George scowled a little and kicked at the wing-backed armchair where Patty sat absorbed in a library book, a copy of Ivanhoe. She pushed at his head. "Go away, George."
"We'll read the next part of the story on Friday, I promise," Betty coaxed. She set the magazine on the end table beside her mother's wicker workbasket and rose to her knees, opening her arms to him. "Come give me a good night hug."
He made a face, then sighed and did. Already bathed and in his red woolen nightshirt, smelling of Ivory soap and shampoo, he was so unlike the grubby little boy of the early afternoon who had been helping the family's lanky adolescent collie excavate a gopher in the back yard. Right now he could be one of those advertisements for Ivory that occasionally graced the back cover of St. Nicholas.
Clare held out her hand. "Come along now, George. No more nonsense."
"Can't I say good night to Daddy?" he asked plaintively, and at that even Patty looked up from her book with a smile at the child's stalling tactics. After a hug and kiss good night, he vanished upstairs with his mother.
Betty made an odd, thoughtful face at her sister, seated in a prim manner in the worn armchair, ankles crossed, book half in front of her face. Then, stretching, the younger girl rose from her place on the braided rug, picked up the empty bowl of popcorn to take into the kitchen, then returned to stand in the doorway, trying to make a decision. She had left her writing tablet and pencil on top of the Victrolashould she work on the story she had begun with such enthusiasm this afternoon while she was supposed to be studying arithmetic? And there was that essay on "My School" she had begun for the St. Nicholas League...
But she was not quite ready to break the spell of that evening yetDad was too often working late at the newspaper office. So instead of "taking up her pen," she climbed on the sofa and leaned against her father, who was, even on this holiday eve, still reading copy for next week's publication. His right arm automatically reached around to embrace her, and she snuggled with her head against his chest, breathing in the lovely scent of paper and printer's ink, half reading the long galleys of newsprint, half drifting in reverie of four days off from school and the anticipation of new material to read.
Presently her mother padded back downstairs and returned to her darning, and for fifteen more minutes quiet descended on the snug parlor. The flames rose and fell on the brick hearth, the crackling and popping of the applewood fire making Betty drowsy.
When the telephone bell in the hall shrilled, it truly was a rude awakening.
Clare nearly dropped her sewing as she started in her seat. "My word, who would be calling at this time of night? David-"
Betty sat up quickly; even Patty had lowered her book. David Roberts looked a bit anxious, but rose from the sofa easily. "It's probably Horace, already fussing about next week's issue. I'll get it."
"It could be your mother," Clare added anxiously. "She wasn't feeling well the last time she telephoned..."
"Don't borrow trouble, Clare!" he responded a bit testily as he vanished into the hall.
Betty strained to hear the quiet murmur of his voice from the hall, then relaxed as he chuckled. The phone call hadn't taken long, and when he returned, he was smiling through his dark beard. "The blame goes to you this time, Clare."
"What on earth-"
"Your brother's broken down on the road from Middleburyhad a puncture. I told him I'd go rescue him."
Betty couldn't tell if the well-schooled expression on her mother's face reflected relief or even more worry. Dad has only had the automobile for three months, and he didn't drive much at night. Truth be told, even though the Roberts lived at the outskirts of the city limits, Dad still walked the five miles to the newspaper office unless it was raining, rather than take the car. He said the walk helped clear his head in the morning and relax at night, but Betty suspected sometimes that he wasn't fond of driving.
"Mother," she piped up, "can I go with Daddy? Please?"
Flustered or no, Clare remained a mother first. "'May I,'" she corrected automatically, then continued severely, "Certainly not, Betty. Heaven knows where that scapegrace brother of mine is. By the time they get back it will be after your bedtime."
Betty said hopefully, "You let George stay up late because tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Shouldn't I be able to stay up a little later, too?"
Her father cocked his head at her, then vanished into the hall again, presumably to get his coat, leaving her to negotiations.
"And Mother," Betty added coaxingly, "you know you don't like Daddy going out alone at night in the car."
Clare pursed her lips, but arched an eyebrow at her second-born. "And do you suppose I'll worry less with both of you in that machine?"
"No, ma'am," was the earnest reply, "but I can keep him company. And it will be two pairs of eyes on the road instead of one."
Clare threw up her hands. "All right, then." Betty was already dashing out into the hall as she called after her, "Be sure to put your boots on! It's cold outside."
Betty hated her rubber boots, but to go out with her father on "an adventure," as she thought of it already, she would have worn even more restrictive clothing. She was so glad she had not taken her bath earlier and was still in school clothes; all she need do was pull on the boots over her sturdy school shoes, then slip on her thick woolen coat, knitted cap and mittens, and dash after her father, who was already tramping toward the old barn that served as their garage, the kerosene lantern he carried to light the way flashing swaying beams of light on the hard-packed yard between the two buildings.
Up to that summer the barn had still held a team of horses, like those of most of their neighbors, and they employed a hired man to care for them, but Dad had grown tired of the expense and the mares were growing stout from lack of exercise. In August he'd sold Daisy and Clover to his brother and bought a new Chevrolet, to the astonishment of the neighbors. Betty missed the horses, but they still had their own milk cow, SusanMother wanted nothing to do with that "tasteless, pasturized stuff" from the dairyand there was Edgar the collie; George was already clamoring for a pony and Dad had told him when he was old enough to care for it himself, he could have one.
Somewhere to her right, an owl hooted briefly, and Betty came to a stop. Taking a deep breath of the frigid November air, she turned her eyes up to the sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bird swooping overhead. The waning moon dangled over their woodlot, as if tempting the tree branches to reach up and try to catch it. Above clouds patched the dark sky, leaving gaps where the bright stars were illuminated gems against the blackness. Betty wondered if the clouds held snow; today at school they had sung "Over the River and Through the Woods"...
"Come on, chickadee," her father called. "We don't want Uncle George to take cold."
She broke from her reverie into a trot, so that she was able to help her father swing the wide barn door open to reveal the neat red car with its big brass headlamps and cream-colored rag roof. While Dad blew out the lantern and stowed it on a shelf for their return, Betty swung open the passenger side door of the car and hopped in, shivering as the cold leather penetrated her skirt and woolen stockings. Involuntarily her teeth chattered.
"If you're that cold, sweetheart, maybe you shouldn't go," her father said as he slipped behind the wheel.
Quickly she clenched her teeth to stop their noise, then said more normally, "That's okay, Daddy. It was only till I got used to it."
He swung a plaid-coated arm behind the seat and came up with the worn but still thick lap robe that had been in the sleigh now hung in the rafters. "Try that."
Betty made a sound of satisfaction as she tucked the familiar robe around her legs. Her father chuckled under his breath, switching on the ignition and then pressing the starter button in silence, his eyes on her. In the reflected light from the headlamps, he could see she was seated straight upright, her eyes wide, already enjoying her big adventure.
As he turned the car out of the barn, the headlamps cast a bright path that extended down the long dark driveway and into the paved road that passed by what used to be the old Roberts farm. Her uncle Curtis, the eldest of the Roberts' boys, had been the one slated to take over the farm when Grandpa retired, Betty knew. Patty claimed she remembered Uncle Curt a little, but Betty had been only two when the Spanish influenza had cut a swath through Elkhart and "taken," as Great-Aunt Dora put it, both Uncle Curt and her grandfather. Her dad had already been working at the newspaper and Uncle Rick lived in South Bend, employed by the Mercantile Bank of Indiana, so Dad had bought the house from Grandmother and leased the farmland to the Halls on the next farm over. It worked out well: she and Patty and now George could attend the smaller, district school, and enjoy living in the country while not having to endure the rigors of farm life.
It was a long time since she had ridden with Dad in the car by herself. Betty remembered that memorable Saturday when she had asked to go with him on an errand. It had been a beautiful September day and Dad had the top down, and she'd just set her face into the wind, her hair blowing in the breeze.
Tonight was certainly no night for having the top down, though!
Now the highway curved so that it paralleled the St. Joseph River and she craned her neck to her left to see if there were any boats working their way upriver toward South Bend and then north toward Chicago. Chicago was her idea of paradisethey had gone there over a year ago to attend a cousin's wedding and Betty had fallen in love with Michigan Avenue on the spot. Between the trees lining the riverbank she could see the glitter and glint of the water as well as the lanterns and electric lights of the few cargo boats steaming their way against the eastbound current.
"You know," her father mused after a while, "I don't recall ever seeing your sister so absorbed in a book before. I never considered Ivanhoe Patty's cup of tea."
It was probably due to daydreams of Chicago that Betty failed to hold her tongue as always. "It's not Ivanhoe," popped out of her outh before she could think. "Just the cover."
She ducked her head then because she had certainly gotten her father's attention. "Not Ivanhoe?"
Then she blurted out, "It's one of those romance books Mother didn't want her to read. Lenora Payne lent it to her." As added assurance, she concluded, "But it's not dreadful like Mother says they are...I peeked at it."
"Isn't it?" her father asked, his voice sober. In the dark, however, she could not see him bite off a smile.
"It's not wicked or anything. Mother said people in those books are li-cen-tious. All they are is swoony," Betty chattered on, scorn evident in parts of the tale. "It's called The Tender Heart and takes place in Philadelphia, during the Revolution. The main character is Isabelle, who's living away from home for the first time in her life, with her aunt and uncle. She's 'come out,' you see, in society. While she's going to all these dances, she meets two different gentlemen, and now both are in love with her. One edits a newspaper, like you, and the other used to be a pirate, but reformed and fights against the British, and she is in love with both of them...she moons over them, they moon over herabout her gorgeous eyes and how lovely she dances. Ick."
"You...gathered all this from a peek?" David Roberts asked with tongue in cheek.
Betty found herself flushing, but finally stammered, "Y-Y-You know me, Dad. I read fast."
He merely chuckled. "Sweetheart, the day you don't try to read every book brought into the house, it will be a scorching day in February."
Betty found herself giggling.
"And there will probably come a time," he added with a grin, "that you won't find the subject matter so dull any longer."
Betty spared a thought or two to Patty sighing over Douglas Fairbanks at the picture show and fussing over her hair in the mirror, then took a deep breath. Talk about a fate worse than death! "I suppose."
"You have to admit," her father continued, "love stories are always popular. If you want to write for a living, you'll have to consider that genre."
"Yes," she answered thoughtfully, "I know that."
"If nothing else, your hero needs a heroine to spur him on. After all, at the movies, you don't expect your cowboy to end the reel kissing his horse."
"I don't see why not," Betty answered, a bit crossly. "The girl usually gets him into trouble and his horse usually gets him out of it."
Her dad laughed again, then chided gently, "Do me a favor, though, chickadee. Don't snoop in your sister's things. You don't like it when she does it to you."
Abashed, she answered, "Yes, sir," and was quiet.
In a few more minutes, her sharp eyes spied a glint of chrome at the side of the road. "Daddy! Is that Uncle George's car over there?"
David Roberts braked and slowed; sure enough, to their right at the edge of a stand of young maple trees, just off the pavement, sat George Armstrong's big Reo, grimy with the upflung mud of unpaved lanes, tilted upward at the right rear where it sat on a jack, the torn tire a mute testament to the blowout that had happened earlier. Her father shook his head. "George, if when you were flush you took the time to buy decent tires..."
Betty smiled to herself at his muttering. In the family group of strictly conventional Roberts' and Armstrongs, her uncle George was the maverick, a florid, brash, expansive man who favored checked suits and who, as Grandma Roberts said, "could talk the hindleg off a donkey." He was a traveling salesman for the Clean Sweep Vacuum Cleaner company, and spent most of the time on the road, where he was the happiest. But on holidays and at odd months of the year, he would turn up at his sister's home with pockets full of candy for the children, stories of funny sales and close shaves for all, and a few off-color tales for when the children went to bed and the men had retired to the front porch for a smoke. He amused his brother-in-law, scandalized his sister, and enchanted the children, especially his nine-year-old niece, who always eagerly awaited his stories.
The moment her father stopped the car, Betty unlatched the door and sprang from the passenger seat, calling her uncle's name. There was silence for a moment, then the gradually increasing sound of footsteps on gravel from further up the road. "Halloo, David? Betty, is that you?"
"Here, Uncle George," she said joyfully, running toward the sound of his voice. In a moment she was swung up in the air she emitted a squeal and then a laughand then hugged tight to the rough pebbly material of his overcoat. "Hi, Uncle George!"
"Hello, chickadee," he answered in his deep voice, using her father's nickname for her. "I didn't know I was getting a two- person rescue mission."
"Mother let me come," she explained excitedly.
"My sister must be turning into a softie," he answered with a laugh. By that time David Roberts had reached the pair, so he patted her shoulders, then placed her back on her feet so that he could shake hands with his brother-in-law. "Thanks for coming, Dave. I was sure surprised to find someone with a phone living out here in the wilderness. Just got back from calling you. Tarnation, but folks sure live way off the road here."
"No trouble." Her dad inclined a head toward the askew car. "No spare?"
"Got a spare, but she's flat. Was hoping you had a pump in that new flivver of yours."
He did, and Betty watched as her dad angled the car so that the headlights fell directly at the back of Uncle George's car, then went into the trunk for the tire pump and held down the spare while Uncle George pumped. The temperature dropped as they worked, and when Betty started to shift from one icy foot to the other and crossed her arms around herself and clapped her upper arms to keep warm, David Roberts brooked no more of her pleas to watch and sent her in the car to sit, whereupon Betty gratefully thawed toes and fingers under the lap robe while still mourning the fact she couldn't be outside.
When the tire was finally changed and all the paraphernalia put away, Uncle George returned to his car. A great draft chilled Betty as her father returned to the driver's seat and she saw him shiver as he settled down.
"Too bad we can't swap places," she said as she laid a now- warm hand on his frigid forehead. "Dad, will you teach me to drive?"
He laughed, half of it accompanied by another shiver. "I think you're a little young right now."
She said impatiently, "I mean when I'm older."
The car roared to life as he flicked the ignition, then pressed the starter button. "By then you'll probably have someone more willing to teach you."
Betty's eyes turned wide as they backed and filled, turning the car around on the narrow highway. "Like who?"
He teased, "A beau."
"Beaus will take away from my writing," she said in dignified tones. "By the time I'm thirty, I plan to have a book on the best seller list. Or perhaps I'll be writing for the stage by then. You and Mother can come to Chicago and see my plays performed."
"If you're going to dream, chickadee, why not dream big? How about the Great White Way in New York City?"
Betty laughed, "Now that is something to dream about." She gave as big a sigh as George had earlier. "Mmmm...Broadway..."
For a few moments they drove along in companionable silence with Betty in a reverie of footlights and the Barrymores, the headlights of the Reo close behind them, and then her father said, conspiratorially, "I'll tell you a secret if you promise not to give it away."
Betty hooked her two pinky fingers together, then held her hands up to show her father. "You know I'm good at secrets, Daddy. Promise. Cross my heart."
"Uncle George has brought us a surprise gift."
She was dazzled. "Before Christmas? What is it?"
"What?" Then she scrambled up on her knees in the seat. "A real radio, not a crystal set? One like the Waterstons have? And the Lowells?"
"A real radio. One of Uncle George's customers said that she needed something to keep the house clean more than she needed a noisy box that got mostly staticthat it was some 'fool thing' her husband brought home. She swapped the radio for one of Uncle George's vacuum cleaners."
She was so excited her father had to sternly tell her, as if she was little brother's age, to sit back down and stop bouncing on the seat, which she did, even if she was unable to keep from wiggling the rest of the ride.
"But Dad, what will Mother say? I heard her tell Aunt Dora that she thought Reverend Lowell was sinful for having a radio. She said he should do more listening to God, and less listening to Rudy Vallee."
He laughed. "I don't think we have to worry. Your mother's never been able to refuse her 'little' brother for long. Of course you won't be able to listen to it all the time. Mother will probably want it off on Sundays unless there's church music on, and they'll be no radio until your homework is done. Understand?"
"I have heard that WSBT has all sorts of different things on the radio now. When I took your mother to South Bend a few years back and we saw one all they played were amateur contests and poetry recitations and novel readings. They have concerts now, string quartets. And I hear they're doing stories, too, like the Chicago stations, acted out like at the picture show, with comedians on Tuesday nights. I know they have some cowboy stories on Saturday evening."
Betty sat back, drumming her heels on the floor of the car. She wondered if her dad could see her grinning ear to ear. She loved cowboy storieswhere Patty went swoony over Doug Fairbanks she would rather watch William S. Hart and Tom Mix and maybe they'd have detective stories, too. And adventure serials like The Perils of Pauline. Now along with the St. Nicholas every month and what she took out of the library, she'd have riches of stories to listen to.
They were approaching the house now, just going down the last long lane before their driveway. She thought of the secret she had to keep and hugged herself in excitement. She couldn't wait until Uncle George broke the news to the rest of the family.
"Dad?" she asked, just before he made the turn into their driveway. "Do you think someday I might write stories for the radio?"
"I think, Elizabeth Ann Roberts, that you can do anything you set your mind to do," he answered.
In the warm light of the lantern her mother had set on the front porch to welcome them home, Betty and her father exchanged grins. Then she scampered from the car, calling for her mother, to tell her they were home.
About St. Nicholas
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