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Authors: Emily Hahn

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BOOK: Francie Comes Home
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“I'm ready whenever you are, Mrs. Ryan. Tell me, though—I can understand your point about making this shop a gathering place for friends, and all that, but—well, don't you get depressed sometimes, catering to people who like such awful stuff?” Francie's face was almost agonized in its earnestness, and Mrs. Ryan laughed.

“Deary me!” she said. “If I stopped to worry because we don't all like the same things, I wouldn't get very far in my work. Now then, here's where I keep the bigger things. There won't be much demand for these nesting trays, I think you'll find—”

It was the end of the day, after supper. Francie had relaxed in bedroom slippers and accepted an enjoyable amount of petting from her father and her aunt; now she was busy writing to Penny. She had several moods to choose from. She was proud of herself for having a job, and it was pleasant to think she was actually going to get a salary at the end of the week, but there were drawbacks to the affair, and she listed them in her letter.

The junk, my dear! The useless objects that are made, at who knows what expense
—
and, worse still, bought! Once or twice today I nearly spoiled one of Mrs. Ryan's sales by saying to the customer, “Oh, you can't be going to buy that, honestly!” Lucily I didn't, because I really do like the old girl, and it isn't all horrors by any means. Besides, outside of the Box her taste is surprisingly good. I could hardly believe my eyes, when after hours of looking at ugly brass and second-rate china and the most incredible gadgetry, she locked the shop door and took me around the corner a few blocks and into her little apartment for a cup of tea and a talk. The apartment is nice
—
bare to the point of austerity, and plain pretty colors. I couldn't help asking her why the difference, and she laughed and said she didn't try to impose her own notions on the public. I guess it's a reaction to all the frills and cutie-pie stuff she makes her living out of
.

Francie's pen which had been racing over the paper, slowed up and stopped while she thought. Then she dived back at the letter.

How starved these people are! Imagine getting your kicks out of ugly little statuettes and paper flowers. I'll have to take a few days off once in a while and go to Chicago and visit the Art Institute to get the taste out of my mouth
.

She folded the letter and addressed the envelope with a pleasant sensation of being superior to Jefferson. Yes, all Jefferson, and that went for Aunt Norah too. The china cabinet in their own living room, she suddenly realized, was full of objects of the most questionable beauty. Hadn't Aunt Norah expressed rash admiration for Mrs. Ryan's shop and all it typified?

“They don't know any better,” Francie decided. After all, how could anything better be expected of them? They hadn't had her advantages. Oh, it was lonely work, dwelling among these Philistines: there wasn't a soul in the place, she reflected, that she could conscientiously consider a civilized human being.

Her sorrowful mood was interrupted by the sound of the telephone ringing. Cousin Biddy, no doubt. Still, it had to be answered and she ran down to the front hall.

“This is Marty. Marty Jenner, that you saw at Ruth's. Do you remember me?” asked the voice at the other end rather breathlessly.

“Marty? Oh yes,” said Francie. “How are you?” It was that funny kid who had been so struck by her worldly experience.

“Fine, thanks. Listen, Francie.” The voice said her name with a sort of bravado, and Francie knew exactly what Marty was thinking that she just couldn't call her Miss Nelson after having known her as a child, but she'd like to. “I don't suppose you happen to be free tonight or anything? I suppose you're always terribly busy and all that.”

“Well …”

Francie's cautious hesitation doubtless called up visions of gay, abandoned evenings at the opera, because Marty sounded dejected when she continued, “I'm sure you've got much more interesting things to do, but my gang is going to see the new French picture at the Odeon, and just in case you hadn't seen it—I mean, I know your Aunt Norah doesn't go to the movies very much, and the kids are crazy to meet you. Honestly, they'd be so glad if you'd come.”

“Why—well, as a matter of fact, I don't see why I can't,” said Francie. There was a rapturous exclamation from Marty; arrangements were made, and Francie went back to her room. She was conscious of a slightly shamed sensation. Marty was years younger than she was, and no doubt the gang, too, was juvenile. Would people laugh at her for going out with kids of merely seventeen or so? Never mind, she told herself: it's something to do, and after all, why not let people laugh if they want to?

By Thursday Francie had taken on that indefinable air that marks the person who works in a superior place. Gone was the timidity that made her voice soft and her expression appealing on her first working day. Once she had learned her way around the boxes in the back storeroom, once she knew how to read the cryptic private symbols on the price stickers, Francie began to feel at home. It was true, she realized, that she still had lots to learn. She still got mixed up sometimes in the middle of a transaction and had to call agitatedly for Mrs. Ryan. When people were rude to her—and a surprising lot of them were—she was confused and upset. Nor did she believe that she would ever be able to cope with the salesmen who dropped in at all hours, each with his own approach, each terribly persuasive in his cozening or fast-talking way: she was happy to hand them over to her employer as speedily as she could. (Watching Mrs. Ryan with the salesmen gave Francie respect for her.) Nevertheless, she began to feel her oats. Now she was a wage earner among wage earners; surely that put her on the right side of the fence! Surely that made her better than the rather silly women who didn't even know how to spend the money their husbands earned for them! She even talked back to Cousin Biddy when that excellent lady tried to show her, one day, how to do her job.

If she had developed as she showed signs of doing, Francie might have made a name for herself as that snippy girl Flo Ryan's taken on. But in the natural course of events she made the acquaintance of Fredericks & Worpels, the firm next door, and her conceit was soon forgotten.

Fredericks & Worpels was the sort of place that counted on reducing people to a pulp, that was its bread and butter; the firm was employed as consultant decorators. Until she went to work at the Birthday Box, Francie had never as much as slowed down while passing its display window. She was simply not decorator-conscious. The chaste display of one Italian Renaissance chair slightly off center had never lured her attention when she was a mere shopping customer, and though she had always cared for fabrics, she was interested only in modern patterns. Antique velvets such as those displayed by Fredericks & Worpels didn't seem to fit into the same category, and Francie didn't look at them. It happened, however, that the firm underwent a change shortly before Francie became a wage earner. Mr. Worpels, the old Mr. Worpels, that is, died, and the restraint of his influence was removed. The gloomy, ugly old house on one of Jefferson's few hills, where he had lived for sixty years, was closed up, and his partner, the late Mr. Fredericks's widowed daughter-in-law, now found herself able for the first time in her life to do with the firm just as she saw fit.

What this would be was a topic of intense speculation among her group of contemporaries, the richer element of the town, the handful of bankers and manufacturers and their wives who paid heavily for the upkeep of the country club and went away for the winter as a ceremonial duty. Lottie Fredericks was a character, they agreed; you never knew what she might do next. Where other matrons would have concentrated on conventional pursuits, such as marrying off in a proper manner such eligible children as they had (Lottie had one child, a daughter of twenty), she might well rebel against this time-worn routine.

“Mark my words,” said Betty Smedley, “Lottie will surprise all of you. Probably sell out and move to Rome or something.”

Instead, Mrs. Fredericks did just the opposite, and announced her intention of bringing European culture to the Middle West. When she spoke of European culture, however, she wasn't referring to the sort exemplified by Renaissance chairs. She had had enough of antiques—too much. She genuinely loved decorating and knew something about it; she had played with her own house, year after year, and now at last she saw the chance to expand and enjoy herself. Fredericks & Worpels, without suffering a change of name, was transformed. It sold only modern merchandise. The window next to the Birthday Box now sported a black-lacquered coffee table and a new, amusing wallpaper of blueprints.

Dimly Francie was aware that all was not as it had been in the past, but she didn't hear the story until one day in the middle of her second week at the Box, when a girl in a chartreuse smock, sandaled and bareheaded, ran into the shop.

“Mrs. Ryan—” she began in a high-pitched voice. Then she saw it was Francie behind the glass-topped counter; she paused with her mouth open, and said, “Eoh.” She had an expensive accent, Francie noticed. She was a thin girl with limp pale-red hair and a cluster of pimples on her forehead. “You're not Mrs. Ryan,” she said accusingly.

Francie agreed. “She's in the basement. I'll call her,” she said, and started to carry out her suggestion.

“Never mind,” said the girl, “I see just what I want,” and she walked over to a large black earthenware object which Francie had lately learned to call a “planter,” that is, an object in which plants can be grown. To Francie's surprise the girl picked this up and, embracing it, went straight to the door. No mention was made of price of payment.

“Excuse me,” said Francie. “Are—I mean, aren't you—”

“Give me a hand with this door, will you?” asked the girl.

“But—who are you?” asked Francie. “Does Mrs. Ryan know about this?”

The girl stared at her coldly over the irregular rotundities of the pot. “Fredericks and Worpels,” she snapped.

“No doubt,” said Francie. “What I meant was … oh, here's Mrs. Ryan.”

She retreated to the background and waited. Evidently it was all right; Mrs. Ryan said, “Good morning, Chadbourne. Is that what you wanted?” and the girl said, “I don't know, but we'll let Mummy have a look.” She staggered out, and Francie asked questions and found out all about the new deal next door. Chadbourne, it seemed, was Mrs. Fredericks's child, giving Mummy a hand with the business until she should tire of it.

“She doesn't seem a very pleasant girl,” said Francie tentatively. “Chadbourne! Gosh, what a name!”

Mrs. Ryan sighed. “No, she's not awfully attractive, but then the poor child's never had a chance. Chadbourne was her mother's maiden name—Lottie Chadbourne. The child's always been delicate, and anyway Lottie's peculiar, we might as well face it; she's restless, that's what she is; restless. One year it was music, and the year after that, painting. She dragged little Chadbourne out to Santa Barbara for a whole summer; sometimes she wouldn't be parted from the child, and at others she plumped her into boarding school and then went away and forgot all about her, as far as I can make out. Lottie goes in for fads.… We have an arrangement, by the way. I should have warned you. Sometimes they need some little something they haven't got in the shop, and then they come over here and pick it up if they can find it in my jungle. And now and then, if something they've bought doesn't seem to move, they ask me to put it here and sell it to my clientele if I can. It's a different set, you see; quite often I have luck like that. Just little things. I wouldn't undertake a piano, even an upright.”

Her own joke pleased her; she chuckled heartily as she went back to the basement.

Left to herself, Francie continued thinking about the bad tempered Chadbourne Fredericks. It was not strange that they had never met at dancing school or anywhere when she herself was living in Jefferson, because the other girl obviously belonged to that small group of nonresidents who used the town merely as a place to send things to or spend Christmas and Thanksgiving in; they were people who be longed to Jefferson because their parents had lived there and their business interests were local. Every town has a few of these. Francie's own life might have approximated Chadbourne's, she reflected, if her mother had lived and if Pop had not gone broke. She wouldn't have been subjected to such a lot of maternal whims, of course, or swapped around from school to convent to institute, but she wouldn't have grown up in Jefferson without interruption. As it was, for years she
had
done so. She'd been Aunt Norah's little girl. And here she was, working in the Birthday Box, being snooted by red-haired Chadbourne Fredericks.…

“What am I so depressed about?” she suddenly asked herself angrily. A thought she'd been hiding popped up—Glenn hadn't written since he'd gone back to San Francisco. But then they never wrote much, she argued with herself. She would not be depressed: she would not start repining. As proof of this, she set to work on the window, dusting all the objects and removing a few that seemed to her more cluttery than attention-getting. Little by little by little, she hoped to reform Mrs. Ryan's arrangements.

It was a deep window and she soon found that she couldn't reach the front from where she stood leaning over. She couldn't come within six inches of that elephant-in-bed card, and she particularly wanted to put it in, out of sight. It had been there a long time, and it looked dusty and fly-specked. If Mrs
.
Ryan insisted on having a whimsical greeting card in her window, she might at least have a fresh one, Francie thought.

She kicked off her heels, climbed bodily into the window, and started briskly to work. After all, it was closing time; why shouldn't she?

A car drove up and slowed down in front of the Birthday Box. Francie stopped dusting to look up; who was coming in at this late hour? It was a long, low, blue car of rakish cut, not the sort that usually brought customers to the Box, and a moment later Francie realized it wasn't there because of the Box anyway. The young man who was driving it climbed out and walked past her without a glance, over toward Fredericks & Worpels.

BOOK: Francie Comes Home
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