Authors: Emily Hahn
“Good morning, Mrs. Clark.” Francie spoke with a good imitation of cordiality. It was the first time she had seen the woman since that evening when her vexation with Chadbourne Fredericks was born, and it was only because of Chadbourne that she recognized her now. There were so many plain, gentle women like Anne Clark who came into the Birthday Box to sniff around at the drink thermometers, the baked tiles, and bronze lampshades, and to waste their little odd bits of money. But again, as before, Mrs. Clark did not live up to type. She finally bypassed all the clutter on the tables and picked out a plain, attractive set of paper tablecloth and napkins.
“I'll pay for them now. Don't bother with looking up my account,” she said as Francie reached for the ledger. “I know Mrs. Ryan isn't here today and you're on your own. You won't want any more responsibility.”
Francie said, “Oh, that would be all right, Mrs. Clark.”
“Never mind.” The woman smiled pleasantly and brought out her purse. As Francie made change, she asked, “Do you like working here?”
“It's nice now I'm catching on a little. There was a lot to learn at the beginningâbookkeeping and stock-taking and so on. And all these things to remember the prices of.” Francie looked around at the shop's contents.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Clark. She sighed and picked up her parcel and started for the door. “All these things,” she repeated. “Such hideous things, too! Well, good-by.”
She closed the door after her, leaving Francie very much ashamed of her early, lofty opinion. The sober, ordinary appearance of that woman had misled her badly. Here was a kindred soul, and she had never suspected.
The day was to bring another surprise. That afternoon Chadbourne Fredericks, wearing her work smock and sandals, came charging in on what Francie privately called one of her lightning raids. At first she seemed as taciturn and disagreeable as ever. Without more than a grunt of greeting she swooped on a colored mat that Francie had marked down mentally for the new window display she was planning, to prove to Florence Ryan that simplicity had “draw” for the public.
Francie hated to see the mat snatched away, but she knew her employer's policy: Fredericks & Worpels came first. She bit back all protest. She did even better and made a suggestion, giving away a prized idea. “That candlestick's color looks pretty good with the mat, don't you think? You might like to take it, too.”
Chadbourne pushed back her hair and regarded the candlestick, her head tilted sideways to show critical consideration. “Not bad,” she admitted. “Mummy's probably got something else in mind, but maybe I'd better take it along and see. Shall I?”
Her voice was amiable, and Francie hastened to fall in with the new tone. Certainly they could try out the candlestick; the Birthday Box would be delighted, she said. So Chadbourne picked it up. Francie expected her to make her usual self-important rush for the door; instead, she hesitated.
“It's rather fun fooling around with this sort of thing, don't you think?” she said.
Francie agreed. Chadbourne went on, “Didn't I hear that you've done something along these lines before? In Spain, or somewhere?”
With mounting wonder, Francie said, “Oh, I did a little textile designing, but you couldn't call me a professional.”
“Interesting,” said Chadbourne vaguely. There seemed to be something else on her mind. Both girls stood silent for a moment, and then she went on in a little rush. “Don't you find it, I mean, sort of quiet here in Jefferson? Did you ever think of trying to get something worth while started around here?” She paused again, and for a moment a vivid flush showed on her sallow skin. “The thing is, I've been talking it over with a friend of mine,” she said, “and he saysâhe's of the opinionâthat the town needs waking up. He thought I might get something started like a dramatic society or stuff. You know, put on plays of our own. And since I don't seem to know many people particularly clever at that sort of thing â¦ I mean, I don't know you very well, for that matter, but I've heard you're awfully clever, and they tell me you've been abroad and all that. So have I, but I didn't pick up much of what he's talking about, I guess. Anyway, we did put on plays at my boarding school. Did you at yours?”
She was obviously very shy: Francie was surprised to realize it. While delivering this long speech Chadbourne had stood on one foot and rubbed the toes of the other against the calf of her leg, like a child reciting a piece. Francie wondered at this complete change of front, and wasn't quite ready to trust it. She replied quietly, “We used to do the usual plays, I suppose, but of course it was years ago. And I was more interested in scene-painting than acting.”
“Well, but it
a good idea, don't you think?” asked Chadbourne. “Wouldn't you be interested in helping if I could get something going? I thought we might have a meeting with some of my crowd and talk it over and start the club. My friend I was talking about, Mr. Munson, knows a bit about directing. I told him I'd scour round and stir up neighborhood interest if he'd promise to direct the plays.” She tittered. “It would give him something to do with his spare time, anyway. He says we don't have any community spirit.”
“Perhaps we haven't,” said Francie. “Is Mr. Munson planning on a long stay in Jefferson, then? I don't hink I've met him.”
If Chadbourne recognized malice in that speech she failed to show it. “He's with our firm. Assistant manager,” she said. Her eyes fixed on nothing in particular, as if she had forgotten Francie, until she came back to the world with a sudden start. “You will come, won't you?” she asked.
Francie hesitated. She had a strong impulse to refuse. It was a gesture that would give her a lot of pleasure, to show Chadbourne Fredericks that she couldn't just whistle, after having been so rude, to have people running to obey her latest whim. But mightn't that be exaggerating the original snub?
“Good,” said Chadbourne, taking her acceptance for granted. “The first meeting will be on Friday nightâearly so as not to interfere with datesâat my house, in the rumpus room. You know where the house is?”
Yes, said Francie, she did. Chadbourne said good-by, and hurried out.
“Well!” said Francie to the empty shop.
It annoyed her that she'd been so easily persuaded. On the other hand, there was nothing to prevent her calling it off at the last minute, and at least she had given herself time to think it over. After all, it would be silly to boycott a new experience like the club, which would give her something to do, anyway. And it would be a good chance to meet Mr. Bruce Munson face to face as well. Why she should be interested in Bruce she couldn't have explained. He struck her as different from the others she'd met. Different from Glenn somehow, she thought. Unless it was that Chadbourne had humiliated her in front of him and so made him seem more important. She wanted to wipe out the memory of that snub in his mind. It was true that he hadn't seemed to notice the exchange at all; he might not have seen her tentative smile from behind the windowâFrancie probably was agitating herself over nothing. But that didn't change the facts. Chadbourne had humiliated her, and Chadbourne at least must have known what she was doing. The situation called for somethingâFrancie didn't know exactly what, but she didn't want just to leave it alone. Had she been too easy to persuade, after all? In spite of her shyness, Chadbourne
been forceful in a queer way; it had been hard to think fast enough.
“Oh, for goodness' sake, I'll call her up from home tonight and say I can't get there after all,” decided Francie impatiently. She began to close up the shop, thinking carefully so that Mrs. Ryan wouldn't find anything to criticize when she got back. Certain objects were put away, certain others locked in the office safe; a clean cloth went over the counters and the big things that stayed where they were. Office door locked, back door locked, front door lockedâthere! Francie started home. Her mind went back to Chadbourne and the dramatic club. Should she let the arrangement stand? If she didn't go, she might possibly be missing fun in the future. An armed neutrality could be maintained, perhaps; she might be able to go and partake of the fun and yet show those rude, cliquey girls in Chadbourne's crowd that she was sufficient unto herself.
Somebody tooted a horn, and as she looked up a bright blue car swerved in toward the curb, coming toward her. Two people waved and smiledâChadbourne and Bruce Munson. She saw his white teeth. There was no mistakeâthey had both smiled, definitely. Francie waved and smiled back before she knew what she was doing, and then the car was gone.
She went on walking, with no more turmoil in her mind. The club itself might be fun, she reflected; it would be idiotic not to go. Something new in Jefferson!
Silvery laughter rang out from the young people ranged along the front row in the Fredericks's rumpus room.
means “metallic,” thought Francie, as well as light and pretty;
was the word.) The young people were seemingly enchanted with each other's company and wanted nothing else in the world. If you judged from the noise they were making, they were being terribly witty. Sitting several rows back of them with nobody in the chairs between, Francie hoped she was not looking as out of things as she felt. It would have been awful to be misunderstood and considered wistful.
didn't want any part of that gaiety. They were what she called to herself “Chadbourne's zoo,” a closed corporation made up of a girl or two from Eastern academies that Chadbourne had attended, now making enormously lengthy visits; a few young men who drove up from Chicago or Milwaukee for long weekends and the occasional evening in between; and there were a few geunine Jeffersonians as well, whose background, like Chadbourne's, had rendered them something more, or less, than just plain local. Her appearance seemed to bring them out of hiding and give them a new interest in life.
Why should they be called a zoo? Francie couldn't have explained the epithet, even to herself. When she looked at them, she thought vaguely of trained animals and of jumping through hoops and cracking whips. At close quarters, she decided, they weren't any more likable than they had seemed when she watched them running in and out of Fredericks & Worpels in what Chadbourne probably described as working hours. Bored and restless, they wereâand wasn't she becoming bored and restless, too? How does one manage to keep busy in such a town, to keep excited about happy, useful things?
She herself had arrived on the doorstep in timorous mood, hoping that someone might have got there before her and taken the frosty edge off the evening. But she was the first after-supper guest, though the zoo was already in the house, having been there since cocktail time along with a group of Mrs. Fredericks's contemporaries. The elders were still present, though they kept themselves out of the party, hovering about in the back of the room with their cigarette holders and elegant clothes, talking to each other in low tones. Francie had been brought in just as she had feared, alone and conspicuous in the wake of the maid. After a pause, Lottie Fredericks had drifted over to greet her and murmured something about Chadbourne.
“She ought to be coming in a minute. She's back of the platform, I think. If you'll just take one of those seats, dear.â¦”
Francie knew Mrs. Fredericks, having seen her several times when she had come into the Birthday Box. She was a slender, distracted woman who wore pearls in her ears and dressed so well, so carelessly, that you felt she never got any genuine fun out of her clothes. Francie knew from earlier days that it really isn't so much fun when you can spend all you like without thinking twice. Lottie Fredericks had a thin face and pointed chin; she fidgeted and chainsmoked.
“Awfully good of you to come,” she said. “Make yourself at home, won't you? You know all the others, I suppose.” She had waved toward the front row, toward those laughing girls and men, and then, without waiting for a reply, had gone back to her section of the party. She could hardly have been expected to understand the subtle difference and gradations of the young people's social setup. So there was Francie, stuck in the otherwise empty middle of the room, waiting with fierce longing and embarrassment for other people, anybody else, to come in and hide her. It was a nice room. Mrs. Fredericks had used a lot of her new knowledge, Francie supposed, in decorating it. It was nicely shaped, and there were big French windows that could be opened in hot weather, right onto a lawn and a big swimming pool. Somebody had turned on the television along the side wall, but nobody was watching it. Francie decided to walk over and pay attention to it herself, if nothing else happened soon, but before she could muster up courage to make such a conspicuous move, something did happen. Bruce Munson came into the room, walked straight to her row, and sat down next to her.
“Mind if I sit here?” he asked. Like Mrs. Fredericks, he didn't wait for a reply; after all, Francie could hardly have said anything unexpected to that. “Chadbourne's talked a lot about you.”
This seemed unlikely, but Francie was gratified just the same, and the relief was good. It didn't matter now that one or another of the girls in the front row kept glancing around to see what was going on, and then turning back with great vivacity to her former conversation. Somebody was talking to her at last, somebody was aware she existedâand it was Bruce Munson, at that.
“Tell me,” he was saying, “do you think this club has any kind of chance? Of course, in a place like this you just can't tell till you try, not if you come in from outside the way I've done. What's your honest opinion?”
“I don't see why it shouldn't go over,” said Francie. “I certainly hope it does, anyway. I should think they'd be glad to have a new interest.”