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Authors: Emily Hahn

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BOOK: Francie Comes Home
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Aunt Norah went upstairs in her stately, cautious way, and Francie took off her apron and hung it up, muttering under her breath. In the next room Pop chuckled.

“Getting you down?” he called.

Francie walked over to the door and stood there. She spoke with careful calm. “I. know I ought to be flattered,” she said, “with so many invitations. But it's not much fun over at Cousin Biddy's.”

“I never thought it was,” said Pop. He yawned.

“It's like people fighting duels for my favors and then walking off and leaving me,” said Francie. “All this arguing about where I'm going to eat dinner Saturday night. And the way they allocate you and me, without so much as asking us! Go here. Go there. No, they can't, they've promised Adele to go with her.… Right in front of us, as if we were inanimate!”

“That's family solidarity, chicken,” said Pop. “Backbone of the nation.”

He turned the page of his newspaper and went on reading.

CHAPTER 3

Francte looked at the clock. In a house without children, she reflected, this cares-of-housekeeping racket can be much exaggerated. She was aware that she looked at the clock an abnormal number of times in the course of a day: yet what could she do to break this dismal habit or take its place? Repair her clothes? Well, there were nylons to wash, and probably hems to let down or take up. If she looked hard she might find a bit more mending. And then?

The house didn't answer. It was very quiet. Pop had gone downtown for a cigar or a dozen eggs or a magazine, and Aunt Norah was resting, her door closed. Except for a humming in the kitchen—the refrigerator or the heater or something like that—there wasn't a noise. It was a strain for a girl whose ears had become attuned to New York streets. She might turn on the radio; scraps of music heard that way sometimes comforted her. But at other times they just seemed to make it worse when they stopped and she realized where she was. Oh, duty could be dull.

She looked out of the window and saw two little boys industriously raking leaves on the lawn. In the street, where the gutter ran furiously in rainy weather, they had built a bonfire of their collection. The flames looked pale in the early afternoon light, yellowish-orange instead of the red you expected of fire, and under the leaves the dying grass glittered with moisture. Indoors the air was still and warm and sleepy. Out there the little boys' breath steamed, and they looked rosy and alive. Francie obeyed an impulse; she put on her coat and ran out to help with the leaves.

“We can do it all right ourselves,” said the bigger of the two, dubiously. “And there're only two rakes. We're being paid for this by the hour.”

Francie felt somewhat let down. “I tell you what I can do, then,” she said. “I'll get my broom and sweep the sidewalk. Okay?”

Evidently this would not impair their contract, and they consented. For a while everything went pleasantly enough: the autumn wind was crisp and refreshing as she had known it would be. Little by little, with the rhythmic swishing of the broom, she slipped into a nostalgic mood. It was on such a day as this that she would often start out, bundled in her winter clothes, to go to a football game with the gang. Even when it was this cold, even when it was colder, they liked to keep the top down and drive fast in the wind, with their silly flags fluttering alongside the car, and herself squeezed into the front seat behind the windshield, her Glenn driving and somebody else on her other side: possibly somebody in her lap as well. Squeals and giggles and shouted wisecracks were all lost in space as they speeded to the game. And then afterward they would all rush for the Chocolate Shoppe and eat waffles and drink hot cocoa until their toes were thawed out and their noses less red and runny.… Jefferson had been fun. But they were all grown up now. The girls wore hats and attended tea parties and talked like ladies. And the boys …

“Why, Francie!”

The voice was familiar, evoking a number of confused memories. Francie looked up and brushed hair out of her eyes, her fingers clumsy in their mittens.

“Mrs. Stevens!” she cried, and nearly blushed. She felt as if her thoughts might be visible on her face, for certainly in an indirect way she had been thinking of Mrs. Stevens,

Glenn had been Francie's special friend all through school. It wouldn't be accurate to call him her boy friend. The words together have a special connotation. Girls with boy friends are on the telephone with them at least once every day. They go out together on Saturday night, they may possibly do their lessons together, they have private dates whenever the boy can afford it, and they hold hands unabashed in company. Glenn and Francie weren't like that exactly.

Yes, there had been moments when they assumed, and their world assumed with them, that they belonged together. Glenn's fraternity pin had been a case in point. That pin traveled a lot. Mostly Francie wore it. After a while she invariably gave it back, when she was in a fury about something Glenn had said about her hair or her manners; then they would make up and she would accept it again. And at other times, Glenn gave it to some other girl. Indeed, another girl had worn it for nearly a whole semester. (Did she herself have it now, by any chance, tucked away in her handkerchief box? Quite possibly. Suddenly she had outgrown that preoccupation with fraternity pins.)

Talking to Mrs. Stevens she hurriedly marshaled what she knew of Glenn now, from Ruth and Aunt Norah: it wouldn't please his mother if she wasn't up to date. Glenn had gone in for law while she was frittering away her time in Europe. Aloud she said, “What's the news of Glenn? I've owed him a letter, I'm afraid, ever since last Christmas-card days.”

Mrs. Stevens' face lit up the way mothers' faces do when their children are mentioned. “He loves San Francisco,” she said, “simply loves it. He's with his uncle there, you know. We hope he'll come back after he's finished his training. I'm sure he would have sent his love, Francie, if he'd known you were here. He was always devoted to you.”

“Oh, it was the other way around, Mrs. Stevens. I adored Glenn!”

And in a funny way, she realized as she spoke, that was terribly true. Glenn was a part of school, and Jefferson, and the smell of burning leaves and all that sort of thing. And more. She'd been thinking of him underneath the other thoughts whenever she saw a new generation of students rushing by happily in their open cars, or when she went past the Chocolate Shoppe and smelled that indescribable odor of ice-cream sodas and hot melted fudge. The country club with its dining room that was turned into a dance floor on Saturday night. The swimming pool. Halloween.… It had been fun, and Glenn had been a large part of the good times. All of a sudden she missed him a lot more than she'd been admitting to herself. She said good-by to Mrs. Stevens and stood for a minute on the pavement, holding the broom and watching the older woman as she went on down the street.

“Please, ma'am,” said the bigger little boy, “we've finished the fire; it's out.”

“I ought to be doing something useful,” said Francie. The family was at lunch. Her painting things had arrived that morning, and she'd set them up and then looked at a lot of the work she had done in the last few years.

“Useful?” Aunt Norah was surprised. “You've been useful all morning. Never stopped a minute as far as I could see.”

“Oh, that. I meant something outside. Like collecting funds for the deserving poor, the way these other girls are all doing, or painting posters for church bazaars. Surely there is a church bazaar in the making?” asked Francie half-seriously. “Maybe there's something I could do at the veterans' hospital. Such an enormous building! We drove past the other day. There must be so many—well, I guess I wouldn't be terribly good at reading to them. Or whatever.” She paused. “The thing is, I'm going over to Ruth's this afternoon and she makes me feel as if there ought to be more in my life than there is. I mean, she's so terribly busy about that baby!”

Aunt Norah laughed and said, “Young mothers! I've seen so many of them. They do tend to be self-righteous.”

Pop hadn't seemed to be listening to the women's chatter, but now he said, “Don't worry, chicken; you're all right.”

Francie didn't reply. She was afraid of giving concern to these two very kind, dear people. But the fact was, she did worry, and she wasn't all right. A letter from Penny that morning had made her more restless than ever. Penny, one of her closest friends, was an English girl she had met at school, now happily embarked on a career in New York, learning about stage managing. It was the kind of thing Francie had always expected to do. This life was her duty of course, but so unconstructive! She was neither fish nor fowl, neither career girl like Penny nor wife like Ruth.

She jumped to her feet and started changing the plates for dessert. Little by little Aunt Norah was permitting her to take over the routine tasks of the house, and that was all to the good. And other things, too, were all to the good. It was surprisingly pleasant, for instance, to feel safe on waking up in the morning. There was no sensation quite like that anywhere else in the world, though after all she had never lived a particularly dangerous or adventurous life: it was just that you knew all through your being when you were home. Francie recollected the gray mornings of England and the way her spirits had needed pumping up as soon as she realized where she was; she'd been like a limp balloon at first, but it was all right after a little while. You could manage; you could put yourself into a good mood if you tried, in England or anywhere else. But that wasn't the same as starting out in the right mood from the very beginning, in the morning, in your own bed, in your own room. Jefferson must be given credit for that.

She was still feeling unwontedly charitable toward Jefferson when the afternoon mail arrived—the Jefferson Rotarians and other boosters would have been aggrieved and alarmed if they had known that this mood was unusual in Francie Nelson. What was the matter with Jefferson, they might well have asked. It was an up-and-coming town with more than its fair share of natural beauty in the surroundings. It had good, modern housing. It had plenty of industry; the factories were properly built, well kept, and far from the residential districts. There was civic pride aplenty in Jefferson. Just outside the town the government had bult a skyscraper hospital, and doctors and nurses and many kinds of technicians and workers were settling in Jefferson. It had one of the best public-school systems in the Middle West, and a rapidly increasing population.… “Yes,” Francie would have retorted; “no doubt that's all true, but it isn't a big city; it isn't New York, and I feel out of place.” However, at the moment she was somewhat appeased.

Then the mail arrived and brought with it a painful reminder of that richer life of the past—a letter from dear Aunt Lolly Barclay. Laura Barclay was only an aunt by courtesy, which may have been one reason Francie loved her so much. For as long as the girl could remember Mrs. Barclay had played fairy godmother to her. She had been at school with Francie's mother, and though her husband's government post took her far afield, she never lost track of her adopted niece. It was Aunt Lolly who had been responsible for Francie's year in Portugal. Now she was in Paris, where her husband, Uncle Martin, was working. Francie had wanted very much to write about Pop's difficulties and her own, but had resisted the impulse to pour out the bad news as soon as it all happened. A much later and restrained version had gone to Paris after the Nelsons were settled in Jefferson, and this was Aunt Lolly's prompt reply.

You poor child, I'm so awfully sorry. Of course your father is sure to ride out of the storm in his usual capable way; I'm not a bit worried for him, but I'm afraid you're having an anxious period and a sad one. It was just what I would have expected of you, to stand by and held all you could. But dear, haven't you been just your course at Barnard and rush out to Aunt Norah's? You ought to have asked us to help, and I'm rather hurt that you didn't, though I know how independent you are. So now I think you owe it to me to change your mind, even though it's too late to go back to Barnard. Come to Paris. I've never given you that year in France that I promised, and Martin and I would be delighted
—
but you know that without being told, so I'll only add that we're having a very gay time and you'd make a lot of difference in this house, which is too quiet. Do let me send you the fare; if there's any chance of your agreeing, I'll telephone your father one of these nights and talk to him
.

She had added the underlined words,
I mean this
.

Yes, she meant it; Francie hadn't a doubt. But Aunt Lolly was too far away to understand all the complexities—the financial situation, by which their money was legally in Aunt Norah's hands and must stay there, and Pop's state of mind, and, for that matter, Francie's own. No doubt it would be all right, in a general manner of speaking, for her to go off and live comfortably and amusingly in Paris while Fred Nelson saw the crisis through. But it wouldn't be—Francie struggled to find the right word and failed—it just wouldn't be right. It wouldn't be fair or nice; it would look terribly selfish. Nor would she be so comfortable as all that, being conscious all the time that she was depending on the Barclays. On other occasions when she visited Aunt Lolly and Uncle Martin, she did so knowing that she could pay her own way. This time, it would all be depending on some future date when Pop could signal the all-clear. And yet—Paris! Exciting and unknown, a city of theaters and concerts and everything she was missing so much! And certainly Aunt Lolly meant it.…

“But—no,” said Francie. She sighed, and sat down to write a reply.

She managed to arrive at Ruth's house at just the right time, when little Bill was being settled in after his two o'clock feeding. Ruth was still in the baby's room arranging the crib for his nap. Francie watched from the sidelines as her friend drew the curtains, pinned the blue blankets down and placed everything ready for the bath later on. How deft Ruth had become at these tasks, which must have been totally unfamiliar to her a few months before.

BOOK: Francie Comes Home
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