A Remember WENN story
by Linda M. Young
It was, Betty Roberts decided, as if she had never been away. When she had first gone away to college, the tradition began that the family would spend her final night of the Christmas holidays before the fire, popping corn, talking, and savoring the few hours left. Of course she was no longer in school, and she was home from Pittsburgh for four days, not four weeks, but she had once again spent her Christmas holiday in the warm embrace of friends and relatives. Now, on Saturday night, once again they were in the back parlor savoring what hours remained, Dad shaking the wire corn popper over the fire, Mother sitting in her armchair placidly knitting something for Pat's upcoming baby, her brother, sister, and brother-in-law seated nearby, the radio softly playing dance music and Christmas tunes in the background.
Well, there were a few new wrinkles from the last time she had been home on Christmas break. Patty, who was seated on the davenport leaning back comfortably against her husband, was cuddling little Tim instead of nursing him, and had one hand resting on her gently swelling midriff. And, more astonishingly, brother George, suddenly nearly as tall and lank as Dad, was seated in Grandmother's antique love seat, moved from the front parlor for just this purpose, with pretty Helen Forrester next to him. Helen looked lovely, Betty thought, in a trim green velvet dress with a lace jabot and was glowing with pleasure as she looked over the old cabinet photo album that was stretched between them. George had his head tilted over Helen's shoulder as he paged through the family portraits with her.
Betty herself was curled up on the brick hearth with a soft plaid woolen blanket over her legs. She could glance over her right shoulder and smile at the brightly colored and glittering Christmas tree glowing in the front parlor beyond, through the double doors that were always open during the holidays. That too was cozily familiar and, as much as she loved it in Pittsburgh, the warmth of her family around her was tempting as well.
"Oh, how pretty!" Helen exclaimed as George turned yet another page of the album.
"You must have found the Chicago photos!" Betty's mother smiled, glancing up without missing a stitch.
"I don't think this is Chicago, Mrs. Roberts, unless you went there when you were very young. It's a hand-tinted photo, and looks like you and Mr. Roberts while you were in high school. You're wearing a sweet dark blue dress, silk, I think, and he's in what looks like his best suit. What a funny old-fashioned high collar! My grandpapa still wears them to the office."
Patty and Betty both laughed. "That's one of our favorite pictures," Pat explained, and Betty chimed in immediately, "It was Mother and Dad's first date."
Clare, her face a bit pinkish, amended, "It was a Christmas dance at the school. Papa would have never allowed me to go on what you youngsters call 'a date.'"
Betty hid a smile. She'd known her definition would make her mother blush, and certainly Clare's cheeks were turning more crimson by the moment.
George said mischievously, "Well, I can't fault Dad's taste, Mother. You were a stunner back then."
David Roberts finally looked up from the popcorn, his dark eyes warm behind his round, wire-framed glasses. "I beg your pardon, young man! She is still 'a stunner,' I'll have you know."
Clare blushed still harder, if that was now possible, and lowered her eyes to her knitting as her son regarded her thoughtfully and then grinned, "That she is, Dad."
"Tell Helen the story about the photo, Dad," Pat urged, gingerly shifting little Timmy around so that he stretched out on the sofa, his chubby legs stretched out on the patterned fabric.
"And how Cousin Cornelia played matchmaker," Betty chimed in.
"Heavens, the child doesn't want to hear that," was her mother's quick protest as her husband turned away from the fire, emptying the popper into a large green earthenware bowl, a smile spreading through his silver-shot beard. He was an inveterate storyteller, whether it was on paper or not.
George arched his dark eyebrows at the auburn-haired girl next to him, and her eyes danced as she responded, "Oh, I'd love to hear the story, Mr. Roberts, if you'd like to tell it."
"Wild horses couldn't keep me from telling it," he responded, settling back into his own armchair. Betty sat up straight, smothering another grin as she heard her mother mutter, "I wish a wild horse would keep you away now!" No one else gave any sign of having heard and David proceeded, "As you all know, I married the loveliest lady in the world..."
"...whom you first saw in high school," George continued.
"Not precisely high school," his father corrected. "It was at my brother's grammar school commencement. She'd moved to Elkhart the previous fall, but most of her classmates didn't know her that well..."
Clare explained quickly, "My goodness, you make it sound like I was a snob. Papa was a church deacon and very strict. He insisted George and I go home directly after school and do our chores, and we weren't allowed to attend most school functions."
He said mildly, "Now, Clare, did I say you were snobbish? I just said people didn't know you well. As for me, I was an earnest young bookworm..."
* * * * *"Mama sent me to fetch you," Richard Roberts said impatiently as he pushed open the door to his older brother's room. He was uncomfortable enough dressed in what the Roberts' boys privately called a "monkey suit," a new grey wool with long pants and a white dress shirt with its starched cambric collar, his feet encased in equally new high-topped black shoes buffed to a high gloss, but to have to fetch daydreaming David was more annoying still.
As his mother had suspected, David had paused in the middle of his toilet to read. He sat on the edge of his bed, oblivious to the mid-June heat and the hand-quilted spread his mother insisted the boys not sit on, right hand absently fastening a cufflink on his left sleeve, engrossed in the issue of Harper's that had arrived in last evening's post. Papa had warned them to keep him away from it, but someone's guard had evidently been down in the preparations for today's events.
"David!" Rick repeated. "If you don't get a move on, we're going to be late for my graduation!"
The older boy came out of his trance with a start, looked sheepishly at his half-dressed state, then down at the magazine. "Gosh, I'm sorry, Rick."
He shut the magazine and quickly finished dressing, only needing his brother to fasten the pearl stud that kept his starched collar in place. Once finished, he was quite presentable, thick dark hair parted in the middle and slicked down with hair oil, his dark suit smartly pressed.
"What were you reading, anyway?" Rick asked, irritated, as David deftly tied his new dress shoes.
"An article about the Hearst papers," his brother responded eagerly, eyes coming alight. "Don't you think it's shocking what the yellow press gets away with? I don't understand why people would want to read that trash."
"Oh, Dave," was the exasperated reply. "Why can't you be interested in the local nine like everyone else? Come on."
The two boys clattered down the stairs where David faced his mother's mild wrath. She, his father, and his oldest brother Curt were already in the front seat of the family surrey as the two boys clambered into the back seat. Papa clucked to Barney and Buster and the matched bay geldings were soon trotting on the road to town. Papa had simply shaken his heads over his middle son as his mother had rebuked him.
"Wonder where he sprung from," his dad always laughed. "I don't know anyone in our family that's ever taken so to books. Anyone in yours, Bess?"
His mother would murmur something about an uncle of hers that had gone to an Ivy League college and studied "the classics," but she didn't like to mention him much. He had taken to drink in his thirties.
David was quite aware he was the odd one in his conventional family. Curt had finished with the grammar school at fourteen and joined his father in the care of the family farm. Rick wasn't cut out for farming, either, but the younger and intensely practical boy had already decided he wanted to be an accountant. That at least was a safe, sensible profession. But David's talents lay elsewhere. He'd been scribbling stories since he was old enough to write; somewhere his mother still had his first effort, a story about their old barn cat Tiger stalking a mouse. Oh, he worked at his farm chores as best he could, but his heart wasn't in them.
Still, he knew they were all proud of his grades, and the fact that next year he would be a senior in the high school and editor of the school paper. His teachers predicted that he would be valedictorian of the Class of 1908, and the Dean of Boys seemed to consider a career in journalism perfect for him. No one in the family had ever gone to college, but he was determined to go if it could be afforded.
The ride to the grammar school, where the horses and surrey were tethered next to an assortment of horse-drawn conveyances and the few motorcars bought by the up-and-coming town residents, was uneventful, and, up to the moment they paused in the big front hall with its festooned garlands in honor of the graduating class, waiting for the scholars to begin to file into their respective lines, David's thoughts had been with that Harper's article. And then he noticed two young ladies enter the school building and wiped all thoughts of William Randolph Hearst and yellow journalism straight out of his head. Mind, "bookworm" notwithstanding, David wasn't a loner. He was even friends with several female classmates who worked on the school paper, the Elkhart Horn, as the principal was the modern sort who believed in letting the young ladies of the school voice their opinions as well. But he wasn't the type that went to school dances, or found himself mooning over the prettiest girl in class-
The older girl who had just entered was definitely not in Rick's graduating class; he was conscious of having seen her in the halls of the high school, a tall, elegant young lady with fair hair kept in a Psyche knot and a self-assured air. In a few moments he had remembered her name as well: Cornelia Armstrong. She was a member of "The Cold-Water Army"the school's temperance leagueand last year on Junior Class Day she had been asked to lead the assembly in prayer. Otherwise he knew little else about her: she was a "townie" who ran with that crowd exclusively.
Her companion was a different matter, however. She was, he decided due to the strong facial resemblance, either a sister or some sort of family relation, and was in Rick's graduating class, because like all the graduating girls she wore a full-skirted white dress belted with a pale blue satin sash unlike the ubiquitous pinks and whites around her. Another pale blue satin ribbon drew her glossy light brown hair backit spilled down behind her almost to her knees like a bright, wavy taffy-colored waterfall. Like every other girl she was carrying a small bouquet of white rosebuds. But to his eyes she stood out as if she were a single rose in a field of commonplace daisies.
"Rick," he hissed to his brother, who was distracted in whispering a classmate and did not respond. He hissed again, "Ricky!"
That turned Rick quickly enough. "I told you not to call me that!"
"Then answer me. Who's that girl? The one in the blue sash standing next to Mrs. Malefant?"
Rick looked up diffidently. "Her? One of the Armstrong girls. Clare. And if you don't want your head bitten off, don't call her 'Clara,' even if it is her name."
David blinked at him. "Why not?"
"She doesn't like itthe same way I don't like 'Ricky,'" his brother answered pointedly. "Why do you want to know?"
At that moment he finally met the older boy's eyes, then laughed, for David seemed transfixed. "Davie?"
David blinked, pulled himself up. "Just asking. I know most of the others in your class, and I didn't know her."
In a moment a boy of about ten, in dark knickers and black jacket, wormed his way through the crowd. "Here, Neelie," he called, "I'll show you where we're sitting."
"Thank you, George," the older girl said to him, then whispered something to the younger and gave her a friendly kiss on the cheek. The vision with the blue sash gave her elder companion a kiss in return and joined the other graduating girls in queuing for the processional.
David hardly noticed Rick's disappearance into a line of male classmates on the opposite side of the school; instead he watched Clare Armstrong until she was out of sight, then followed his parents and brother in their seats.
* * * * *The summer before his senior year was the busiest of David's life. He had chores to do on the farm in the early morning, and at haying time was out in the field almost as long as his father and Curt. He grew another inch that summer, growing tanned and brown. In the afternoons he was working at the Elkhart Bugle as a copy boy and general dogsbody. The editor, rotund, elderly Albrecht Roebling, liked the tall serious boy. Occasionally he gave him small articles to write, routine items about birth or death or local events, partially as practice, partially to see the concentration in the boy's eyes as he worked on these projects, for he was neither cynical about nor tired of the pieces.
He told David that if it didn't affect his schoolwork and if his father agreed, he was free to come in on Saturdays to help out with the paper once the term began.
So his senior year was pretty much complete when he began to notice the younger Miss Armstrong in the halls. Since she was a freshman, they didn't have classes together, of course, but she soon joined some of the same activities as her cousin Cornelia (he had found out the relationship many weeks earlier by making discreet inquiries): the Cold Water Army, the Girls' Glee Club, the Junior Red Cross. As the editor of the school paper, he was supposed to leave interviewing to his subordinates, but he wondered if an interview or two wouldn't gain him an introduction to the delightful Clare.
"So what do you think of Mr. Snelling's announcement about the Christmas dance?" Dorothea Ransome asked him one day in mid- October as they worked in the small upstairs classroom that served as the school newspaper office. He was swimming in a sea of inky proofs and looked up at her quizzically.
"I hadn't given it much thought."
"David, there is social news of interest in this world that doesn't involve publication of a book," she teased him. She was a tall, angular girl with black hair and snapping blue eyes who wore sensible shirtwaists and skirts and kept her hair tidily in a French braid, and who didn't care about flirting, a definite advantage as far as David was concerned. Mr. Flemming, their faculty advisor, had already dismissed two more popular girls from the newspaper when it became evident that they had joined simply to meet boys. "The freshmen are particularly excited about it: there's never been a Christmas dance at Elkhart High before, just the Senior Prom and the Junior Frolic."
David cocked his head. "Freshmen?" He paused, then his eyes brightened. "You could do a story about their reactions to the announcement. Perhaps I'll do some interviews myself."
"You?" Thea's mouth parted in surprise, believing David was happiest tucked up in the newspaper office with his proofs and his editing pen. "Editors don't interview people."
David smiled at her as sincerely as possible, but there was an arch expression in his eye. "Not for a story, no. You do know some of the people on the school board think the dance is a bad idea. They think the school is already sponsoring too many frivolous events now that we have football and basketball competitions, Class Day, two spring events, and the Prom and Frolic. I was thinking of writing an editorial on the subject, but I wanted to solicit opinions from the students."
She looked at him with a perplexed expression, then shrugged. "I can't think of anyone in the school who'd be against it."
For form's sake he talked to the principal, the Dean of Boys and the Dean of Girls, and several of the seniors. While the Deans were both a bit ambivalent about the subject, the seniors were of course excited. That left the three other classes, including, of course, the freshmen.
* * * * *"Miss Ledoux is such a pill," Cornelia Armstrong said confidentially as they sat down to eat in one corner of the lunchroom.
Clare, unpacking her leather lunchbox carefully, extracted a small glass container of milk, a sandwich wrapped in waxed paper, and an apple. After a month, it was still difficult for her to get used to having her lunch at school. The grammar school didn't have a lunchroom and she was used to walking home for a hot meal with her younger brother George. "Is that because she expects you to learn your French verbs instead of flirting with the boy in the next seat?"
"I was not flirting with Ken Morrison!" Cornelia responded indignantly, then she lowered her voice and added, "Kathie and I were talking about the Christmas dance. I can't wait to go."
Clare asked innocently, "How do you know you are going, Neelie? You don't even have an escort yet!"
Cornelia lifted her head with a knowing smile, "Oh, but I will."
Mischievously, her cousin retorted, "Then you will have to talk under Miss Ledoux's nose instead of studying French verbs!"
Cornelia was too conscious of how it would look for an upperclassman to shy a dinner roll at a younger one to carry through with her initial impulse; by luck any retort was interrupted.
"Pardon me," asked a polite male voice behind Cornelia, "but did I hear you mention the Christmas dance?"
Clare looked up and Cornelia turned her head gracefully. A very tall, thin young man in a dark suit and tie, with his white shirt collarnot to mention his thick dark haira bit askew, was standing just behind Cornelia, making a polite gesture that might pass for a bow if he were outside and doffing a cap.
"I didn't mean to interrupt your luncheon," he continued politely, drawing a small note pad and a pencil from his pocket, "but I'm soliciting opinions about the Christmas dance. I've spoken to several of the seniors and was interested in getting the opinion of some of the freshmen. Miss-?"
Clare self-consciously covered her freshman pin and blushed. "I don't know, Mr.-"
"Oh, I'm sorry!" he said contritely. "I didn't mean to be rude. I'm-"
Cornelia smiled engagingly, unconsciously biting her lips to redden them, at the tall young man with his myopic eyes behind round-lensed spectacles. "You're David Roberts, aren't you? The editor of the Horn?"
"Yes," and he shook hands with her. "And you're Miss Cornelia Armstrong. You did the invocation at Junior Class Day last year."
She looked flattered. "Why, yes." Then she blushed slightly. "Oh, now it's my turn to apologize. Please forgive my bad manners. Clare, this is David Roberts, editor of the school paper. Mr. Roberts, this is my cousin, Clare Armstrong."
"Pleased to meet you," David said warmly, shaking the younger girl's hand. It was warm and dry with a firm grip. She met his eyes and was rewarded with a dazzling smile.
"So," he continued, eyes not leaving young Miss Armstrong's now sober face, "what do you think of the Christmas dance, Miss Armstrong?"
Clare looked doubtfully at her cousin, who was discreetly trying to attract David's attention, then responded primly, "I think it is not a bad idea, Mr. Roberts, but I believe Cornelia will be the only one attending of the two of us. I'm certain my papa will think I am too young for such an event."
"Several of the other freshmen girls have told me that." David said soberly. "Please do tell your father that this will be a supper dance, starting at 5 p.m. and will be chaperoned by teachers and several parents. Cake, sandwiches, and punch will be served. You can assure him the event will be quite wholesome. And it will be a subscription dance. The money raised will go to the Elkhart Orphans Home. It's a very good cause."
"Oh, yes," Cornelia interjected brightly. "One should do all one can to help the less fortunate!"
David nodded a polite farewell and continued to another table. He did not hear at that time what the cousins said to each other, but he later learned that a spirited conversation had taken place, prompted by Clare's laugh as she said, "Goodness knows, Cornelia, you must have an escort to the dance now just to support those poor orphans!" But it had taken an unexpected turn when Cornelia had exclaimed, "Clara! Didn't you notice he had his eyes on you the entire time? Wake up, child!"
Clare had protested something indistinct about his just being polite to a freshman, but she had colored visibly and could scarcely swallow her lunch before the bell called them back to class.
* * * * *His schoolwork and his newspaper work certainly didn't suffer, but the entire family eventually noticed that something "was up" with David. His scattershot dressing habits disappeared and once or twice Curt found him up early so he could use the washroom in peace without good-natured teasing from Rick. One morning they'd noticed a dark spot on his upper lip and within days it had become a smaller version of his father's more sizable moustache. His parents had glanced at each other, but all Elizabeth asked was, "David, you do intend to keep that growth over your lip neat? If not I insist you get rid of it."
"Yes, Mother," he had told her and, to his brothers' astonishment, because they knew she disliked facial hair on young men, she let it go. He kept his promise.
The capper came on assembly days when he was always asked to do one type of presentation or the other. The principal liked his comic essays and editorials and often had him read a new one aloud. Not to cause his mother any further work, he took to creeping downstairs after bedtime on the nights before assembly, repressing his shirts and putting quick creases in his suit pants. His mother discovered it only because he accidentally left one of the sadirons on the stove one night. Amused, she kept silent, but wondered whator rather whowas the cause.
* * * * *Principal Daniel Snelling silenced the clapping assembly with a nod, then requested that the students and faculty rise. The boys and girls already on the stage, including David, also rose, as the young people sang the school anthem, then disbursed for classes.
David, stepping carefully down the steps of the stage, his books gathered easily in his left arm, turned about as a female voice said politely, "I enjoyed your Christmas fairy tale, Mr. Roberts."
It was Cornelia Armstrong, looking fresh and bright as always. "Thank you, Miss Armstrong."
"It almost reminded me of something I read in a magazine. The style, I mean, of course, not the story."
"I was trying to emulate Mr. Stockton's old stories in St. Nicholas," he told her as they walked up the aisle together. He did not tell her that he was still quite fond of the magazine, despite the fact he would be eighteen in February. If the letters in the issues were any indication, he wasn't the only reader who felt that way; however, he was loathe to confess that to the elegant Miss Armstrong.
Cornelia made no more comment about the story, but asked, "I hope I will be seeing you at the Christmas dance? Ken Morrison asked if he could be my escort yesterday and that reminded me."
"I had planned to attend, in my capacity as Horn editor," he responded.
"And what lucky girl will you be escorting?" Cornelia smiled at him brightly.
David blinked at her. "I-" For the first time since he was in elementary school he almost stammered, then he caught himself. "I'm afraid it's too late for me to ask anyone now," he confessed, having already completely forgotten Cornelia mentioned she had been asked only the day before. "There are only two weeks until the dance. I know girls need enough time to buy a new party dress."
Cornelia did not smile, but something about her eyes told him this was exactly what she had expected him to say. And whatever he thought she might say next, what she did actually say rendered him speechless. "Since you don't have a prior engagement, you wouldn't mind doing me a favor, would you? My uncle is terribly strict, but since it's a supper dance for a good cause, he's allowing my cousin Clare to come along with me. Clare did want to go, but now that Ken Morrison will be escorting me, she feels as if she would be a bother. Would you mind terribly being Clare's partner for the evening? The only other boys I would trust are already escorting someone for the evening. You have such a good standing in class that Uncle George can't possibly object."
David felt as if he'd had the wind knocked from him. Somewhere his brain was telling him he must look like a beached fish with his mouth jarred open, but it took him several seconds, while Cornelia waited as if oblivious, until he could say, almost without his voice shaking, "I'd be pleased to escort your cousin to the dance, Miss Armstrong."
"If you're going to be escorting Clare to the dance, perhaps it should finally be 'Cornelia,'" she said, offering him her hand for a friendly shake. "I know Uncle George will want to take her to the school himself rather than having a young man pick her up. He's sure to say she's too young, you understand. So we'll meet you at the entrance to the school, if that's acceptable."
"Very acceptable," he answered, dazed.
Cornelia outstretched her hands. "You don't know what a weight this is from my mind. Thank you so much! I'm certain Clare will be delighted!" Then, above her, at the entrance to the auditorium, the bell rang so loudly they both started. "Oh, my goodness, I've made us both late for class. Thank you again, David!"
"Believe me, Miss- Cornelia...the pleasure is all mine."
* * * * *Curtis Roberts came stamping down the stairs and into the kitchen with the word that "David will be down in a minute." The room was warm and cozy from the heat of the cookstove and the soft glow of the Aladdin lamp over the kitchen table, filled with the appetizing scent of slowly baking chops, and he rubbed his chapped hands appreciatively over the stove.
Curt, at the sink helping his mother by peeling potatoes, only laughed. "But hasn't he said that twice already?"
"I'm glad the privy's in the yard," the elder man grumbled as he buttoned his shirt cuffs, "else most of us would have burst by now."
His wife wheeled disapprovingly, "That's barnyard talk, Curtis Roberts. If you want to make yourself useful, bring some wood in."
He returned with an armful of stove lengths. "Haven't ever seen a boy get so gussied up for a school dance."
Now she smiled, wiping her hands on her flowered apron as she took the bowl of peeled and sliced potatoes from her son and turned them into a pot of boiling water. "I recall that your mother told me you took your sweet time getting 'gussied up' when you were courting me, Curtis Allan Roberts."
"Well, that was differ..." A startled look crossed his face. Rick, seated at the long wooden table polishing the spots off the silverware, shouted with laughter and his older brother joined him. "Courting? David's not courting someone! For heaven's sake, the boy's only seventeen!"
His wife began to pull dishes from the sideboard, handing them to Rick to use to set the table, secretly smiling and humming "The Old Rugged Cross," and he knew he'd not get another word out of her at the moment. He glowered at his two convulsed sons, then wheeled as David's voice announced, "Mother, how do I look?"
Even his father was astonished. Earlier that week his mother had let out the last of the material at the cuffs of his dress suit trousers and ironed them until the crease was crisp. In his black suit and tie and shoes and white shirt with its stiff collar and pearl collar stud and gold cufflinks, his luxuriant dark hair tamed and parted, he more resembled a city dude on his way to college rather than gawky David Roberts of Elkhart, Indiana.
"Quite the image of startorial splendor," Rick finally said wryly, and David blushed and grinned, but for once did not correct his brother's faulty pronunciation.
"Hmmm," his father said. There was an odd look within the weatherbeaten creases of the older man's face, as if he had just lost something and found something simultaneously. "David, I've had a letter from your uncle."
The non-sequitur confused David, but he recovered enough to ask politely, "Yes, sir? How is the family?" His Uncle Philip, Aunt Sara, and cousins Ariadne, Jonathan, Marcella, Petra, and Harvey lived in Indianapolis and they saw them only every other Christmas. Jonathan was just his age and was as wild about country life as David was about books, a bit of a disappointment to his father, who wanted his son to follow him in the family storekeeping business.
"All doing well. The diphtheria outbreak passed them by, thank God. Your aunt says the younger children are growing like weeds." His father spoke so casually that David was tempted to sneak a surreptitious look at his watch. School had been dismissed early in honor of the supper dance and he'd preened so long before the washroom mirror that he was afraid he'd be late. "I told Brother Phil I'd be glad to have your cousin Jonathan join us in the summer after he finishes high school."
David nodded mechanically, not noticing his mother's sudden reaction to his father's story. She had turned away from the stove without caring if supper burned, a smile spreading across her entire face and eyes.
"Could be," his father added, "that Jon may stay on in the fall, since your brother and I will be short of help next year when you start college."
Both of his brothers gasped. David himself stood, stunned as if he were a deer caught in the beam of a bullseye lantern. Finally he stammered, "P-P-Papa?"
"If you're going out in the world to write professionally, you should be educated for it beforehand," his father said carelessly. "I won't have my son be one of those reporters you read about in the pulps, barely literate and wasting their lives smoking bad cigars and drinking whiskey. If the writing falls through, with a college education you might be at least able to earn a decent living teaching or somesuch."
"Papa!" David repeated, and then, despite his "startorial" splendor, threw his arms around his father. "But can we afford it?"
His father started to ruffle his son's carefully parted hair and then thought better of it. "Well, mind now, you're not going off to one of those Ivy League places. The state university's going to have to be enough. Your uncle says you might stay with them as a fair swap for Jonathan and take the cars to school and back."
"Papa, I don't know what to say."
"I didn't think you would." His father looked up at the eight-day clock serenely ticking over the kitchen table. "Aren't you going to be late to this school dance you've gotten all gussied up for?"
David came back to earth with a thump. "Yes, sir. Good night, sir!" And with a quick kiss to his mother's cheek he dashed from the room, with her calling after him, "David, don't you dare leave here without your overcoat! And put your overshoes on over those new shoes!"
As he fumbled for his warm overcoat on the coat tree in the front hall, he could hear his mother laugh, "Curtis, I thought you were going to wait until Christmas to give him that news."
"I was," and his father's voice sounded almost awed, "but I just couldn't help myself. Someone who looks so much like a college man ought to go there."
"College man!" David straightened his shoulders.
"Now, Bess, what's all this," came the plaintive question, "about David going courting?"
He ran nearly the entire way to school on feet winged with joy, finally halting a half mile out to catch his breath, rearrange his coat, and brush the dust off his shoes with his handkerchief, for, as his mother had predicted, he had indeed forgotten the overshoes in his rush. When he reached the school, he darted in a side door and into one of the restrooms, where he checked his hair, splashed some cold water on his scarlet face without wetting his shirtfront, then as nonchalantly as possible strolled up to the front door of the school at exactly five o'clock.
Other students were gathered in knots of three and four before the double wooden doors, chatting before going in. He nearly ran into Thea Ransome in his bemusement, hardly recognizing his sensible reporter in a ruffled pink dress swirling about her ankles, her usually bundled-up hair cascading down her back in charming curls. His more or less chum Avery Brandeis had Thea on his arm and looked satisfied with himself. A few feet away he could see Cornelia Armstrong earnestly talking with a tall, thin blond boy he recognized as Ken Morrison, who was on the school nine.
But where was-
"Good evening, Mr. Roberts," Clare said shyly, at his elbow.
Why was it so hard to breathe for a minute? Clare, with her light brown hair again tied back in a luxuriant bright blue satin bow, a grey wool coat covering most of her dress, wasn't really prettier than most of his female classmateswas she? But he thought she was.
"Since I'm escorting you to the dance," he smiled then, suddenly totally cool and collected, and mirroring Cornelia's question of a few weeks earlier, "shouldn't it be David?"
"If you will call me Clare," she said seriously, eyes earnest.
"I would be happy to," he said, and taking her arm led her into the school. Cornelia and Ken were forgotten.
In the cloakroom that had been converted from a classroom he helped her off with her coat. He wasn't much on girls' fashions, but if he recalled the rotogravure section of the newspaper properly, she was dressed in the latest style, the dress made of a lovely soft dark blue silk that fell to mid-calf, a white lace collar framing her slim neck. Chairs had been left around the edges of the room, and once divested of her coat, she sat down to exchange her shoes for the dancing slippers she had carried with her in an aged satin reticule, soft leather pumps that she slipped on quickly.
He offered her his arm again and they entered the gymnasium together.
He had seen the transformed area before he left, but she gasped in surprise and pleasure. Although the entire school had been converted to electric lighting two years earlier, the old wrought iron gas sconces had remained in place and were being used that evening, their light lending a soft outline to everything. Safely mounted well below the sconces were swags of holly, mistletoe, and other Christmas greenery. Above doors and across windows the decorating committee had hung Yuletide mottoes, framed prettily with birch branches and more evergreen roping. At the far side of the "gym" tables had been set up to serve punch and small sandwiches, lighted with borrowed candelabras.
In an unobtrusive corner beyond the food tables was a large table with several women seated behind it. This is where the girls would get their dance cards. Any boy who wanted to dance with her had to "subscribe," ten cents a dance. There would be twenty dances.
"Oh, look," Clare said, indicated the opposite corner of the room, "Mr. Pickman is here."
In the far corner of the "gym," one of the local photographers was setting up his equipment. He was usually pressed into service for class photographs, but tonight he was drumming up business of another sort. Instead of using an ordinary flat placard background, the inventive decorating committee had created a lovely nook of holly and boxwood woven into wreaths, with "Merry Christmas" written in scrolled letters on the wall. Before the photography area was a neat placard announcing "souvenir photographs," and already several of the senior couples were already queuing to have a portrait taken.
"Shall we get your dance card before the line gets too long?" David asked, and they threaded their way through the growing crowd to the subscription desk. There were only a few couples there at the moment and soon smiling Miss Congdon, David's English teacher, handed Clare a dance card. Shyly, she handed the small rectangle of pale green cardboard with its red ribbon tie to David. "Of course you get first choice."
David regarded the card for a moment, gave a slow smile, then oddly turned away as he filled out the card. When he turned back, the card was tightly closed in his left hand, and he was handing Miss Congdon his money tucked in the palm of his right. She whisked it behind the open lid of the cash box with raised eyebrows as she counted out the coins, then smiled. "That's very generous of you, David. Both of you have a good time."
Clare assumed he had given the teacher some extra money for the orphans' benefit, but as they moved away from the table to allow the next couple their turn, she opened her dance card, and was owl-eyed with surprise. "But you've signed up for every dance!"
He'd wondered what she would have to say and had imagined a protest, still, it cut to the quick. "Do you mind?"
Her cheeks turned pink. "No, no, it's not that, but...well, no...but it's two dollars..."
"It's all right," he assured. "I was paid last weekend." Then his conscience pricked. Just because he'd agreed to be her escort, he had no right to monopolize her evening. He lowered his voice, coloring. "I'll get another card and take my name off some of the dances, if you like."
Her high color now matched his own, but her voice was strong. "Please, no..." And their eyes met. "I'd love to have all the dances with you."
Uncertain now, he asked her if she would like punch, and, subdued, they joined the line. The orchestra was tuning their instruments and the room was filling with the quiet babble of voices. Silently they had their glasses filled.
"Do you work after school?" Clare finally ventured after sipping the sweet citrus punch.
David shook his head. "No, Papa forbade it. He said my schoolwork and chores had to come first. I work on Saturday's, at the newspaper. That's what I plan to do for a living."
"Isn't that a rather rough profession?" she asked primly. "I would have thought you were fitting to be a schoolteacher, or perhaps a lawyer."
"Lawyer!" he scoffed, ruffled. "As if that's always an honest profession!" She had inadvertently struck his hobbyhorse, which he fiercely defended, "It's a perfectly proper profession if you choose to do it the right way! I for one don't intend to work for scandal sheets and write sensationalist stories. Being informed about all events, even national and international events, is important, as important as the local news. We need to know what is going on in our government as much as we need to know the price of corn and what the local mercantile is selling sugar for. And we need to know the truth, not the fabricated lies, like the sort of thing they sent back to us during the last war..."
She was staring at him so earnestly that he became aware he had raised his voice. Horrified, he swallowed, wondering what she was thinking of him. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to lecture. I just...feel strongly about it. I'm sorry."
To his surprise, she laughed. "It's all right! I'm just so used to the boys in my class. It seems the only things they can think about are baseball or football, or what sort of motorcar or horse their father will get them when they turn eighteen. I've never heard anyone so enthusiastic about what they wanted to do for a living before! So will you go to work full time after you graduate?"
He grinned then, relieved, an infectious, joyous smile. "Papa decided otherwise. Clare, I'm going to go to college in the fall! I found out tonight, before I left. You're the first to know."
"That's wonderful," and to his surprise, her voice faltered a little.
"Still," he apologized, "I shouldn't have raised my voice."
Now the orchestra began to play, a lively little waltz. She took a deep breath. "I believe that's your first dance, Mr. Roberts."
David held out one gloved hand to her. "If you still want to dance with someone who shouts at you, Miss Clare."
Her eyes sparkling, she took his hand and allowed him to lead her out on the dance floor. To his relief the four-year-old dancing lessons came back to him quickly. He and Clare fell in step easily.
She said after a few turns, "You dance very well, David."
"Thank you," he said, sheepish. "Mrs. Donaldson didn't seem to think so."
"Our dance teacher. She said Curt had two left feet and that I always managed to have my head in a book even on the dance floor! Rick was the only one of us who marginally pleased her."
"Those are your brothers? I know Rick, of course. He's..." She seemed to search for the words. "...a card."
David laughed. "Well, I suppose that's as good a description of Rick as any! Curt's the oldest of us; he's twenty two. He and Papa run the farm."
"And you have no sisters?"
David winced. When he finally responded he sounded slightly choked. "We...had a sister. She was two years younger than me. Her name was Elizabeth, after Mother. She...died when she was five. She had a weak heart."
"I'm sorry," she murmured and they spent the remainder of the dance in silence, then clapped politely when it finished. The orchestra immediately segued into a second tune, an instrumental version of the lately popular song, "Sunbonnet Sue." It had a slight ragtime beat to it and most of the students joined in enthusiastically.
As David guided her around the floor, his voice came out more naturally, "So what are your career ambitions, Clare?"
He was so much taller than her that she was staring into his stiff shirt collar, but she shyly glanced upward. "I- I'm embarrassed to say. I mean...I hope you don't think me a flibbertigibbet, but I don't have any real career ambitions. I might be a teacher if I wanted, but not a nurse or a stenographer or a telephone operator. Really, I just want to meet a nice fellow and have a family." She took his silence for disapproval and added hurriedly, "I don't mean I wish to be ignorant. I think it's very important to be educated and be able to speak your mind well, not to mention how to keep the household books. I'm not going to high school simply to giggle and join clubs and meet boys like some of the girls in my classes."
"Isn't raising a family a career, too?" David asked quizzically, to her surprise. "My mother, and I'm sure yours, does plenty of work. She's raised us boys, takes care of the dairy and the chickens, keeps the house clean, and cooks. She'd had four careers!"
"I don't suppose I've ever thought of it that way," Clare admitted. Their eyes locked again and she drew a breath and asked strongly, "David? Do you believe women should have the vote? My papa doesn't."
"Neither does mine, but I believe they're both wrong," he said firmly. "All women are citizens of this country as much as men, and today there's no reason for them not to be as educated as a man. And all educated citizens should vote. You deserve a word in our government as much as I do."
While Clare digested this, he asked, more covertly, "Speaking of your fatherI meant to ask youhow did you change your father's mind about your coming to this dance?"
Clare blushed, a very charming blush, he thought, and bit her lip. "My papa," she finally began, "is very strict, but...well, I had a sister a few years older than myself who died of the diphtheria when I was just ten. That's why I was so sorry I had asked about your sister. I miss mine terribly. And I have another sister, a half sister who doesn't live with us. So I'm the only girl left...and Papa sometimes can be very indulgent with me if I ask him for something in the proper way." She lowered her eyes and he laughed. "NeelieCorneliasays I can wrap Papa around my little finger if I try. I don't like to, but this time was different."
The word "different" made a thrill of excitement run down his spine. His eyes sparkled as he asked, "And does your papa know I'm your escort tonight?"
She lowered her head, blinking her lashes, biting her lip, then laughed. "No. Cornelia didn't mention that fact to him."
"Tsk-tsk," he clucked, but he was laughing, too. "Clare...may I ask you something I'm very curious about? I hope you don't mind but I understand you don't like the name 'Clara.' I was wondering why. I think it's a rather pretty name myself."
She made a face. "You wouldn't think it was pretty if you were named after her. She's Papa's grumpy, miserable old maiden aunt. He named me after her hoping she'd forgive him for 'past transgressions'Papa was a bit wild in his younger days. That's why he's so strict now. I can't help being afraid that if I'm named after her I might turn out to be like her."
He was tempted to touch her hair, kiss her, somehow reassure her, but any of those actions would have been too forward. Instead he said firmly, "There's no danger of that. Ever," and thought to himself that she would never be a "maiden aunt" if he could help it.
The rest of the evening passed delightfully. Between dances they talked to classmates and ate sandwiches and cake. David allowed a few other boys to cut into his dances, but not for long. His dreams of the evening had not even begun to equal what was actually happening.
After the next to last dance, Clare regretfully looked at the little gold watch pinned under her collar. "Papa will expect me on time. Perhaps I need to be getting my wraps now."
"Won't you have to wait for Cornelia?" David asked hopefully. He indicated over his shoulder, where her cousin and her escort were deep into conversation with a knot of seniors.
Clare answered sadly, "Papa is coming to pick me up in the machine."
He said gently, disappointed, "Then we should get your wraps."
She touched his arm. "You don't have to leave on account of me."
He wanted to say, "I'm only here on account of you," but was afraid of giving away too many of his feelings. "No, that's fine. I told my mother I would be home early. I have to work tomorrow."
They began weaving their way through the knots of boys and girls and chaperones, occasionally stopping to say farewell to a friend. In his decorated corner, Mr. Pickman was seated beside his big black camera, momentarily out of customers.
David stopped in front of the area. "Clare-"
"Let's have our photo taken. As a souvenir." Her expression was skeptical, so he urged, an impish grin on his face, "Oh, let's. It will be fun. It won't take but a minute."
It actually took five minutes, once Mr. Pickman had set them up to his artistic satisfaction in front of the intertwined holly and box. Just before he shot the photo, David reached for Clare's hand and her pleasure with his gesture was evident in her smile.
"That will be a dollar," Mr. Pickman told him when he was through. Clare had discreetly retreated while he handled the financial portion of the transaction and was talking to her cousin who had been attracted by the photography. "Or would you prefer it hand colored?"
David had been looking at Clare as the photographer asked, and to his embarrassment, he had to ask the man to repeat the question. "Hand colored?"
"Yes, I have an excellent hand colorist," Pickman said, shrewdly observing David's glances at his attractive dancing partner. "You could almost swear I was using color plates. The fee for that is three dollars, howeverbut I could make you two prints for that amount."
There were exactly four worn dollar bills left from his paycheck in David's wallet and he had already planned a use for three of them: to renew his subscription to his beloved St. Nicholas.
He looked from Clare to Pickman and back again. Her head was in profile and he traced the outline of her face and neck with pleasure, wondering how she might look some day in a long white dress and veil.
And then he smiled to himself. He figured a fellow who was looking at a girl with thoughts of marriage in his mind was probably too old for St. Nicholas after all.
"Yes," he said, "I'd like it hand colored."
* * * * *He arrived home a few minutes after 8:30, neatly hanging his coat in the closet, folding his pearl grey gloves back into their glove case. Growing sleepy now, his eyes heavy, he wandered into the front parlor. He liked to remember his family as he'd seen them that night, and the scene stood out to him as clearly thirty-two years later as it had that evening. The fire had been popping merrily in the fireplace, and his mother was sitting at its right with her knitting, making another in a line of endless wool stockings that kept their feet warm during the long Indiana winters. His father was in the armchair at the fire's left, smoking a pipe. He could see every outline of Curtis Roberts' thinning hair, the silver shot into his big walrus moustache, the blue smoke curling from the pipe.
In one corner, on a bench left there especially for repair chores, Curt was fixing the bridle for one of the draught horses. The brasses glimmered as he turned the supple leather in his already callused fingers. Half asleep, his dark hair turned down his forehead and almost into his eyes, Rick was curled up on the couch with one of David's St. Nicholases falling out of his hand.
His mother looked up, head tilted curiously at his silence. "Have a good time?"
He collapsed to the couch, smiling gently. Usually one of his parents told him to sit properly when he relaxed in that position, but tonight seemed special. "A very good time, thank you."
"Those dance lessons your mother insisted on do you any good?" his father asked, since he had complained about money foolishly spent.
"Very much, Papa," he said, still with the bemused smile.
"You danced?" Curtis joked, surprised, laying the bridle down.
"All twenty dancesno, nineteen. Miss Armstrong needed to leave."
Awakened when David sat down, Rick tossed the St. Nicholas carelessly on the upholstery between them and teased, "With Clare Armstrong every single time?"
Without looking at Rick, he picked up the magazine, smoothing its covers and pages, then setting it down as if somehow bidding it farewell. "Yes."
"Nineteen dances with the same girl?" His father was looking, not at him, but at his mother. She had a self-satisfied expression on her face, like a cat that had swallowed the cream.
"Yes, sir." And then he gave a deep, happy sigh. "The girl I'm going to marry."
* * * * *"And you did!" Helen said with a delighted clap of her hands. "How romantic!"
David took a handful of the popcorn, now down to the bottom of the green earthenware bowl. "Well, the course of true love didn't exactly run smooth. By spring several other young men had noticed the girl of my dreams. That's when I decided I had to take the college course in two years. It took me a month to get permission, but I managed it."
Helen asked, puzzled, "To do what?"
"I don't believe they allow it any longer," he said, settling back into his seat. "Back then if you were outstanding academically and wanted to resign yourself to twenty-four months with no social life, you could take twice the number of classes and go to summer school, and complete the four years in two. I once interviewed Lowell Thomas when he in was South Bend, doing one of his presentations about Lawrence of Arabia. We got to chatting and it turned out he had done the same program."
"You finished college in two years?" Helen repeated, aghast.
Clare, who after all those years had remained the serious, non-demonstrative girl she had been in school, put her knitting down and rose, crossing to kiss her surprised husband on the forehead. "And with all that classwork wrote to me twice a week besides, pages and pages of letters. Three times a week after he came home for Christmas during the second year and heard that Jimmy Klingerman was apparently squiring me around town."
He smiled up at her, holding her hands. "A few sleepless nights were worth not having my best girl get away."
Her eyes twinkled as she turned to her son and his companion on the loveseat. "If truth be told, I think I was in love with him the moment he started lecturing me on our rights to have a free press. How could Jimmy Klingerman and his red Oldsmobile hold a candle to that? Helen, dear, would you like some coffee before you leave?"
"Yes, ma'am, I'd love some."
Betty remained seated against the warm hearthstones as the others rose and drifted into the kitchen, her mind far away. She smiled to herself in remembrance of Victor's speech about radio, the same way she imagined her father had spoken to her mother about writing. How could you not fall in love with enthusiasm like that indeed?
"Betty, dear, are you coming?"
"Yes, Mother," she said, rising, arranging her skirt, then carefully folded the blanket. The radio was still playing softly, and she recognized Gloria Redmond's voice singing "You Make It Christmas." It took her back four days, to the dimmed lights of the Green Room and Miss Redmond singing that songand Scott Sherwood and Gertie and Mr. Eldridge presenting her with a way home to Elkhart, a deal engineered by the ever puzzling Mr. Sherwood.
She could have bet her last dime that day he arrived, prattling about barnacles and know-how that he wouldn't have stuck around long. Funny, he seemed to be becoming as enthusiastic about radio as the rest of them, trying his darnest every week to make yet another end meet. Perhaps there was more behind the slick speech than she gave him credit for.
With a smile, she wondered if he could dance.
Probably she would never know.
I thought of Clare and David when I saw these Relyea drawings in St. Nicholas.
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