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Authors: Emily Hahn

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BOOK: Francie Comes Home
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“Oh, that's the way you feel about Jefferson, is it?” His voice sounded amused, and he turned his head and looked square at her. He had deep eyes with good lashes, she noticed. “You think they need a new interest in Jefferson,” he added.

“I didn't mean—that is to say, doesn't everybody need a change sometimes?” she said. Before he could reply, Chadbourne came through a door onto the slightly raised platform, and the buzz of conversation, both from the front row and the elders at the back, abruptly halted. At the same time a few more people came in and sat near Francie: they looked as ill at ease as she had felt at first. Chadbourne glanced around in a hunted way; she swallowed hard and stood on one foot in her particular way. She opened her mouth and said something, but it was drowned in the noise made by the television.

“Bruce,” said Lottie Fredericks from the back of the room, “go and turn that off, will you?”

He did so, and when he was finished he took another seat, nearer the platform.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” began Chadbourne in a thin, high voice, “I am glad to see you all here tonight.” She paused and swallowed hard. “I think you all know,” she went on, “that my idea—our idea—was to get something started, like a sort of club or something, to put on plays. I asked around and you agreed, as you'll remember. Well—” Her voice faded out. She looked frantically straight at Francie, and Francie had an odd sensation. Until then she had been sitting tensely, feeling as appalled, as one does when a child forgets his lines in a recitation, but now it was as if Chadbourne had sent her a message calling for help. She couldn't resist it—nobody could. She sat up and nodded, and smiled encouragingly at Chadbourne. That poor kid!

It wasn't much, but it worked. Chadbourne found her voice again and spoke more naturally about plans and the prospects of getting a theater when they had rehearsed enough to need one. When it came to practical matters, the discussion of ticket-selling and other mechanics, she showed an unexpected streak of common sense. It was in the other branch of the project, plans for the play-acting and rehearsing, that she obviously wasn't at home.

“So if any of you have suggestions, let's hear them,” she finished. There was a silence; she wet her lips and looked frightened again, and suddenly appearled toward the back of the room. “Mummy, you had lots of ideas this morning.”

With an apologetic little laugh, Mrs. Fredericks detached herself and came forward a little. “Now, Chadbourne, you know you're supposed to be running this affair tonight.” She turned toward the audience. “But if I'm to be dragged into it like this, I'm willing to say that I'm sure all of us, your parents, will stand ready to help you children any time; we'll be interested to see what you do. Speaking for myself, I can hardly wait for your first night.”

Chadbourne was watching her mother nervously, visibly holding her breath in anguished expectation of something. Of what, for heaven's sake? Not having any memories of her own mother, Francie could never understand the embarrassment her friends seemed to feel when their parents made themselves conspicuous.

“Now if you'll excuse us oldsters,” Lottie was saying, “we'll withdraw and leave you to—”

“No, Mummy, not yet,” said Chadbourne. “You haven't said yet about using the rumpus room.”

Mrs. Fredericks looked a little cross and said snappishly, “But of course you can use it, that goes without saying. Really, darling, can't you speak up for yourself?”

It was an awkwardly intimate exchange, considering how many strangers were there, and Francie was surprised. Lottie Fredericks caught herself, however, smoothed over the minute with a gracious smile, and wafted her friends through the door. The young people were left alone. As the door closed behind her mother's slender figure, Chadbourne took on stature. She said again, in a much firmer voice, “Has anybody any suggestions? I don't want to do all the talking tonight.” Her eye wandered around the silent group and halted on Bruce Munson. “Lucky, you must have ideas,” she said.

“Hundreds,” said Bruce, “but I'm keeping them back till you get the ball rolling.” He turned and scanned the seats. “Come on, you,” he exhorted the others. “Don't be shy!”

In the front row, girls were giggling together and urging each other on. At last one raised her hand like a child at school. “Yes, Ellen?” said Chadbourne.

The girl stood up. Francie recognized her as one of Chadbourne's most faithful followers. “I think it's a simple fabulous idea,” she said, “and it would be fabulous to put on our own plays, and you're fabulous to think of it, and I just wondered if it wouldn't be fabulous to act something by Noel Coward. I think he's just fabulous.”

There was a rustle of agreement in the front row. Chadbourne looked expectantly at Bruce for guidance; he did not disappoint her. “I think you'll find he's not so easy to act. Later, maybe, but we'd better try something easier for the first experiment,” he said. “These drawing-room comedies look simple to do, but they aren't.”

A spectacled boy, one of the late-comers, surprised everybody by saying, “I think we ought to try something intellectual like Shaw or like that.”

“Shaw might be too expensive in royalties,” said Chadbourne. Her eye lit on Francie and again there was that strange message, as if she were expecting something especially good. Francie astonished herself by speaking. Certainly she hadn't intended to; she had meant to stay very quiet at this first meeting.

“I think we're in danger if we aim too high,” she said. “Why don't we start off with a couple of one-act plays? There are plenty written just for amateurs like us; we could get a few books from the library and make a selection, and little by little we might work our way up to Coward, or Shaw, or anybody else we feel like.”

“That makes sense,” said Bruce Munson quickly. His and Francie's sentiments were not popular: Ellen made a face, and the spectacled boy looked contemptuous, and somebody else groaned softly and muttered, “Kid stuff.”

But Chadbourne spoke in slightly louder tones than she had used hitherto. “Lucky is absolutely right; we ought to work up gradually to drawing-room comedy.” It wasn't Lucky who had said it, actually, but nobody remembered that. At least nobody pointed it out. Without more argument, the thesis was accepted, and Chadbourne delegated one of the girls to go right off to the library in the morning and look up possible one-act plays.

There was a lot of conversation about the stage where the actors might ultimately appear. Bruce explained—he really did appear to know something about producing, Francie observed—that though the preliminary rehearsals would be quite all right in the rumpus room or anywhere else that the cast might suggest, in time they would have to learn their way around a proper stage. There was the country club, the high-school auditorium, and a kind of shabby, spacious theater in the Town Hall. Which would be the best? At this point somebody made the inevitable proposal that a committee be formed, and with a good deal of vigor they all threw themselves into the task of nominating this committee. Chadbourne herself was the first one named. She sighed and said, “Oh dear, must I?” but that, of course, were mere formality. Lucky Munson was next. A girl and a boy from the zoo were selected, and then just as the majority was about to declare that they had enough members, Chadbourne's glance fell on Francie, and she remembered.

“I nominate Francie Nelson,” she said. “She knows all about scenery and costumes and things like that.”

The zoo looked surprised; some of them regarded Francie as if for the first time. But nobody was against the idea. Then, with the virtuous expressions of people who have done a good job of work, everybody settled down to ordinary pursuits again. Chadbourne went through the little ceremony of declaring the meeting closed.

“Well, I think we'll all agree that we've accomplished quite a lot,” she said in the tones of an older woman, just as she must have heard Lottie speak a hundred times. “Let's have some refreshments now, shall we?”

The maid, aided by Mrs. Fredericks's imposing inspection from the background, brought in coffee and cake. The television set was switched on again. Somebody turned on a radio: somebody else brought out a table-tennis set and started a game. In a few minutes the zoo had turned the meeting into a party. Francie saw the spectacled boy and other townspeople slipping off in the uneasy groups in which they had arrived, making their adieus to Lottie in the hall as they left. She, too, must be going: everybody but the inner circle seemed to be expected to leave. She looked around for her handbag, found it, and went over to Chadbourne.

“I'll be going now, Miss Fredericks,” she said. “Thanks very much.”

Chadbourne said, “Going already? Oh no, please don't.”

“It's getting sort of late, isn't it?” said Francie.

“No, no, it's hardly ten o'clock. Listen,” said Chadbourne, and took Francie's arm and led her out of the hearing of any of the zoo. “I thought we might have a good talk tonight, only there's such a crowd.… Honestly, I'm awfully glad you came. You do think we can get something going, don't you?” She looked earnest and imploring. “I mean, all these kids. They need somebody to tell them what to do, that's the trouble; they haven't got much push, have they? I don't know what's the matter with this gang. It's like living in a cemetery.”

You wouldn't have talked that way, thought Francie wisely, before you met Mr. Lucky Munson. He's been giving you ideas.

“But they'll get going if they're led,” went on Chadbourne, “and that's where you come in. You've got such a lot of character.”

Francie laughed. “You're awfully nice to say so, but I don't think you're much of a judge if you really think it. I'm not by any means a born leader.”

“Well,
I
think you are,” said Chadbourne stubbornly. “Mummy's been telling me about you, how you went to school in England when you were just a kid, and started to earn your own living in Portugal. That's what I'd like to do—earn my own living. I'd give just anything if only Mummy would let me try.… And look at you working now at the Birthday Box; no, honestly I think you've got a very strong character.”

“Well,” said Francie. There wasn't anything else to say. She was pleased in spite of herself.

“So you will help us, won't you?”

She gave in. “All right, Miss Fredericks, if you're really sure I'll be any use, but—”

“Don't call me Miss Fredericks,” said Chadbourne. “It sounds so formal. Why don't you call me Chad?”

Francie didn't want to reply, however much the words crowded to her tongue, that it was very difficult indeed to call Chadbourne Fredericks Chad. It would have been hard for anybody, she reflected, but worst of all for herself, who had until that evening entertained the most unpleasant thoughts about the girl. It was all very funny the way things were turning out, and there was no doubt that she had begun to have strange feelings about Chadbourne, positively protective feelings. She felt like a big sister to this pathetic girl; at any rate, she supposed it was how big sisters felt. Poor Chadbourne. Chad indeed! She could at least make the effort.

“All right, Miss—I mean, Chad,” said Francie. It certainly did come hard. “You'd better call me Francie in that case,” she added.

“I've always wanted somebody to call me Chad,” said Chadbourne. “I can't understand why they won't. Let's have some more coffee.”

They sat against the wall with their cups, idly watching the others disport themselves, and all the while Chadbourne talked. She had been stage-struck, she confessed, ever since a term two years ago when her mother had taken her to New York on a sudden whim and put her into dramatic school while Lottie herself set about learning the rudiments of interior decorating.

“Mummy's awfully clever and quick, and she's not much affected by things, so she didn't expect me to be too much impressed,” explained Chadbourne. “But I was. Goodness knows the teachers didn't encourage me to go on trying to act. I haven't got the voice for it for one thing—or any talent, for another. But there's something fascinating about it and I can't quite give up. You know? Only I used to think there'd never be a chance to play around with the stage as long as Mummy's had her heart set on running the firm here. It isn't as if any decent professional productions came here. In New York I saw everything going. It was fabulous.”

“Yes,” said Francie in a dim, faraway tone, “it was wonderful.”

Both girls sighed deeply and were silent for a little.

“Of course there's television, but it isn't the same,” said Chadbourne. “I don't know … I don't know if I could have stood it if Bruce Munson hadn't come along just when I was going crazy; honestly, he knows a lot about the stage, and to tell you the truth the new club was really his idea. I'd never have had the nerve.”

She talked about Bruce at considerable length; how clever he was, and how well he knew the East—“He comes from New England, you know”—and how much Mummy was beginning to depend on his judgment in the shop. Her eyes glowed while she talked and she looked more alive than Francie would have believed possible, but it was a question whether she was excited over Lucky Munson personally or just over the things he represented—the world of New York and Broadway and everything that Jefferson wasn't.

“Goodness!” said Francie as her eyes fell on her wrist watch. “I've really got to go. Aunt Norah will be sending out the State Patrol if I don't get home, especially as I said I'd be back early. I thought your meeting would last only an hour or so.”

Chadbourne stood up with her. “You want somebody to call up and say you're on the way?” she asked.

“No thanks, that's not necessary, but I'll have to run.”

BOOK: Francie Comes Home
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