FICTION

Talked About

Judy said she was looking for a glowworm, but she found a drama of tangled loves

BERNICE BROWN October 15 1938
FICTION

Talked About

Judy said she was looking for a glowworm, but she found a drama of tangled loves

BERNICE BROWN October 15 1938

Talked About

Judy said she was looking for a glowworm, but she found a drama of tangled loves

BERNICE BROWN

WHEN I WAS a little girl, there was a cateress in the small city where we lived whose name was Fredericka. Presumably she had another name. But if she did, none of us children ever knew it. She was of German extraction, large-boned, swarthy, and with straight black hair that was drawn sharply back from her broad low forehead.

Theoretically, Fredericka was supposed not to like children. At any rate, every time my mother gave a dinner party my brother and I were given instructions not to go into the kitchen because it “bothered Fredericka.” Dinner parties in those days were an occasion. Invitations were issued at least two weeks in advance, and three or four days before the party Fredericka arrived, dressed in stiff black taffeta, to discuss the menu with my mother.

At those times, I remember, my mother used to receive her in a small, stuffy room, furnished in gilt and pink brocade, which was known as the “reception room.” All the houses on our street had a “reception room” and they looked much alike. There were Battenberg curtains at the windows, the edges of which were pinned secretly together to prevent us from ¡lulling them apart to look out. Most of the rooms contained a filigreed cabinet with a swollen glass behind which were displayed objects of art, many of which I fear were of doubtful taste, and all of which we were prevented from playing with because the cabinet in every home but the Benjamins’ was kept securely sanct by a lock.

In fact, none of the children in our neighborhood were supposed to go into their mothers’ reception rooms. The only intruder in my mother's precious sanctum was a rawboned setter puppy that had been given my brother and me by a hunting uncle. There, on more than one occasion during his undisciplined puppyhood, he had been found, stretched as nearly full length as the confines of the pink brocade settee would allow, his guilty head on a gold-cloth satin pillow.

It was in this room that my mother received “callers.” and it was here and never in the kitchen that my mother and Fredericka planned each time the impending dinner party.

I can still hear my mother say. “We will have fish the same as you prepared it last week at the Wrights’, in ramekins, and chicken as you did it for the Parrishes, and the same sherbet you used at the Benjamins’.” She paused. “What shall we have for dessert. Fredericka?”

Fredericka would knit her heavy brows in assumed perplexity, while the two or three of us secreted behind the ¡link plush portieres would silently pray, “Chocolate ice cream with marshmallow sauce and ‘snowballs’.” It mattered to us, because wherever Fredericka catered on our street about ten of us children foregathered on the kitchen steps at dessert time for a "handout.”

Dinners in those days were standardized affairs. My mother’s best linen tablecloth was long enough to allow for sixteen places at the table, and as my mother had two dozen of everything, including service plates, it was rarely that our family had to borrow. There weren’t sixteen dining-room chairs, however, and sometimes shabby straight-backed chairs had to lx* pressed into service from the bedrooms and even from the kitchen. There was always a bouquet of red carnations, heavily padded with maidenhair fern, in the middle of the table; and sometimes my mother made a design of ferns around the cut-glass vase that held the flowers, and down the slender length of the unnatural-looking extended table.

Fredericka’s dinners invariably had seven courses, and they were served with uneven elegance by the local incumbent of each family’s kitchen and by a cousin of Fredericka’s, called Netty, whom Fredericka insisted on having “assist” her.

Only three families in our town had wine with dinner; old Judge Merrick, because he was English, and the Carringtons. because they were Southerners, and the Benjamins. My mother, who had been brought up a teetotaller, disapproved of wine, although she had somewhat grudgingly explained to my brother and me that customs in regard to drinking differed in different countries. That, of course, accounted for Judge Merrick and the Carringtons. It did not, however, explain away the Benjamins.

T SUPPOSE I must have known, as far back as I can

remember, that my mother did not like Mrs. Benjamin. My mother, though it was not until much later that I was to discover it, was herself a beauty. But her beauty was the enduring beauty of bone conformation. Her hair was straight and black, her eyes were grey-green and her complexion, I believe, was always sallow.

I didn’t think she was pretty, and I remember that for many years it came as a surprise to me when people remarked upon the exquisite modelling of her head, her fine straight nose, the smooth arch of her cheekbones and the perfection of the line from chin to ear. Once a sculptor had wanted to do a head of her, but my mother only laughed. I’m inclined to think she never knew she was beautiful. She was a serious woman, with no interest in dress outside of being outfitted “suitably.” and she liked men better than women, for the strange reason that they were less personal than women.

Mrs. Benjamin was everything that my mother was not. I can remember today, as distinctly as though it were yesterday, the first time I ever noticed her as a person. The Benjamins lived only a block up the street from us, and we children used to play there a great deal because, though their house was not large, they had a big side yard and an orchard behind the house where the trees were admirably adapted for climbing. Moreover, no one ever scolded us for eating all the plums and apples and cherries we wanted, or even for the wanton destruction of an occasional branch.

Despite our vandalism, however, the lawn and the garden, which Mr. Benjamin cared for himself, were exquisitely kept. All the places on our street were well cared for. At least, the grass was cut and the trees and bushes kept in order. But even at the age of seven I knew there was something different about the Benjamins’ place. Landscape gardening was then unknown in our town. But Mr. Benjamin had laid a flagstone terrace at the west of the house, two steps above the garden, and the garden, which was bisected by an exquisitely neat white gravel path, lay like a gorgeous carpet between the terrace and the orchard.

The day on which I first remember Mrs. Benjamin as a ¡x*rson the two Benjamin boys, Sid and Elliott, and my brother and I had been “helping” Mr. Benjamin prune the syringa bushes on the left of the house, and I had cut my hand on a rusty knife. For a while I kept it bound up in a dirty handkerchief, because I knew that upon its discovery I would be sent into the kitchen to Dora, the cook, to be washed and bandaged, and that the process would not only be painful but that before it was finished the delightful business of pruning would probably be over. I was found out. of course, and Mr. Benjamin, in his mild, high voice, sent me inside. Running, head down as children do, I raced the length of the side porch and into the living rcxim at the same moment that the screen door of the front porch closed with a minute click. Without seeing or even hearing him, I knew Major Dawson had one moment before stood outside that screen door and that, as Mrs. Benjamin turned, I was seeing on hér face, for one vanished half second, the same smile Major Dawson had seen.

In my dirty gingham dress, with the bloody handkerchief bound around my dirty fist, I stood as though all power of locomotion had left me. I suppose it was only a second

before Mrs. Benjamin smiled at me, another smile, and then she said, “For heaven's sake. Judy, what’s the matter? You look as though you’d never laid eyes on me before.” Then she saw my blood-stained handkerchief and came swiftly toward me. “What’s the matter? Let me look.”

But I wasn’t interested in my precious cut, even when she bent down and took off the handkerchief, exposing my hand with all its elegant blood and grime.

She must have noticed my face because she glanced at me sharply and said. "Does it hurt terribly? Why do you stare like that?”

There was a moment when I didn’t know what I was going to say. And then I heard myself saying, “I think you’ve got on the prettiest dress I ever saw.”

She stood up suddenly, and once again her smile flashed over me;> “For goodness sake, Judy. Think of your noticing.” And then, because she may have imagined she had hurt my feelings, she said, “Isn’t it pretty? It’s a new one. Mr. Benjamin brought it back for me as a present from the city.” Then, more to herself than to me. she said, “Mr. Benjamin likes to buy me things, much nicer things than I ever buy myself.”

I suopose Dora washed and bandaged my hand. I don’t

remember. I only remember Mrs. Benjamin. The room was small and cheaply furnished, not as nicely as the living room in my mother’s house. Perhaps because of the ugliness that surrounded her, she stood out like a gorgeous blazing poppy that had happened by chance in a field of cabbage. My mother was slim and dark and quiet, but Mrs. Benjamin was all color and light and swiftness. I knew suddenly it wasn’t her dress I had ro;iced at all. It was something mysterious and exciting about her. It was like music, or sunlight on beech trees when the wind tosses them about till their leaves flash like pieces of burnished metal. She seemed, even while she unbound the grubby handkerchief around my hand with her brows drawn tight together, to bej filled with inner excitement.

And then, why I should have thought of it I don’t know, I remembered the tiny click of the latch of the front door, and the uncanny knowledge that it had been Major Dawson who had stood there and that the excitement I felt in her had been caused by him.

IT WAS several weeks after this before I said anything to my mother about Mrs. Benjamin. But I had thought about her a good deal, and about Mr. Benjamin, too. I saw

both of them almost every day, for the two Benjamin boys were my brother’s age and mine, and the Benjamin house and orchard were rallying points for the neighborhood. But I was seeing them now with eyes of curiosity and wonderment.

One day I had a cold and, since it was raining, my mother wouldn’t let me go out to play. She was darning stockings in her bedroom and I sat on the edge of her bed, irritatedly watching her. I knew the “club” was meeting in the Benjamins’ attic that afternoon, and I suppose that made me think of the Benjamins. Also, 1 was still annoyed with my mother. So I said, "Don’t you think Mrs. Benjamin is pretty?”

Without looking up, my mother nodded.

“She’s lots prettier than you,” I announced.

Again my mother nodded. But because my mother did not appear annoyed I pursued the subject. “1 think she’s the most beautiful woman in the world. I hope when I grow up I look just like her.”

My mother selected another stocking and ran an exploring hand down to the toe.

“I hope I have lots of men crazy about me. just like she has.” This was the first time I had thought of Mrs.

Benjamin as having lots of men crazy about her. I couldn’t have told why 1 had said that. Then 1 wondered about the soft click of the front porch door. Was that why? I wasn't angry with my mother any more. 1 was puzzled. Puzzled and a little frightened, and again l couldn't see why I should feel that way. There was something I suddenly knew 1 had to ask my mother, so I said it before 1 liad time to think it over. “Why do you think Mrs. Benjamin married Mr. Benjamin?”

I suppose it was my voice rather than my words that made my mother look at me so sharply. Then she looked back at the stocking. “Because she was in love with him, I expect.”

"But how could she be?” I was leaning way over the footboard of the bed in my intensity.

"Look out or you’ll fall.” said my mother.

“Now, listen, mother.”

My mother looked at me. “Why shouldn’t she fall in love with him?” she said. “Mr. Benjamin is a very nice man. One of the nicest and kindest men in town. He has certainly been an angel without wings to you children, letting you run wild all over his house and his lovely garden.”

I drew back from over the footboard to consider. Yes, I did like Mr. Benjamin. I liked him very much. I remembered the time I had broken one of his favorite dahlias and he had only said, “Well, that’s bad. I expect you’re as sorry as I am.” Of course I hadn’t been. But I had suddenly felt sorry for Mr. Benjamin. “It was an accident,” I’d cried. "Of course it was,” he said. I remembered the way he’d smiled at me. He had a nice smile.

Still I couldn’t see why Mrs. Benjamin had married him, Mrs. Benjamin who was so almost intolerably beautiful. I could see how she might have married Major Dawson. Major Dawson was big and handsome, and he rode a horse better than anytxxdy in the whole world.

“Mr. Benjamin is awfully homely,” I said solemnly.

But this time, without meaning to at all, 1 had irritated my mother. “You go into your room this minute and straighten out your bureau drawers,” she ordered. “You’re talking like a little ninny.”

At once I was angry too. “He is homely. He’s homely. He’s homely.” I was shouting it.

“And you may stay in your room until I tell you to come out,” finished my mother.

For as long as ten minutes I was furious with my mother, and in some way 1 was furious with Mr. Benjamin. II it hadn’t been for him I wouldn’t have to straighten out my bureau drawers. And then, though 1 fought stubbornly against it. 1 lx-gan to find a little ashamed of myself and a little sorry' for Mr. Benjamin. At last, I began to wonder why I thought Mrs. Benjamin didn’t love Mr. Benjamin. Perhaps she did. She never quarrelled with him and I had heard them laugh together lots of times. She used to come out into his garden and watch him while he worked, and she’d tell him how pretty it was and he used to opleased.

I knew t(x> that while she never scolded any of us, even when we made such a racket that she couldn’t take a nap in the afternoon, she didn’t like us as well as Mr. Benjamin did.

And then I thought of Major Dawson. He was Mr. Benjamin’s friend as well as hers. He used to talk to Mr. Benjamin about his garden and the three of them would laugh together. And lots of times the three of them in the late afternoon would have a glass of sherry on the terrace, or a drink in lovely tall clear glasses that made the ice tinkle like little chimes. 1 considered Major Dawson the most wonderful man in the world, for he had let me sit on his big horse and had led him. with me clutching fearfully to his mane, all around the I remember when at last he lifted me down to the driveway beide the Benjamins’ side porch, 1 had flung my arms around his neck and whispered, “I think you're the nicest man in the world.”

He had laughed and tugged at one long, straight hair. And Mrs. Benjamin, who was watching us. had laughed too. "I think you’re the nicest lady,” I finished boldly.

And then Mr. Benjamin appeared. And I was silent. On the way home, I wondered if Mr. Benjamin had heard what I had said to Major Dawson and if I’d hurt his feelings. I did like Mr. Benjamin very much.

I don’t know how it was that I found out Mrs. Benjamin was “being talked about.” Of course. 1 didn’t know for sure what “being talked about” meant. I asked my mother, but she had only told me to take off my rubbers at once before I tracked up the living room floor any worse. I had also asked Hilda, our cook, and Hilda, though keeping more to the subject than my mother, had left the situation little clearer. 1 only knew that “being talked about” was something mysterious and sort of awful, something that made you sad and frightened and sort of gladly excited all at the same time. I knew my mother wasn’t “talked about.” but then my mother never seemed to be having so gfxxj a time as Mrs. Benjamin and, for a few minutes, 1 felt a little sorry for my mother.

C,Jiilinucd on page 34

Continued from page 13—Starts on page 12

TT WAS a hot night late in August that

the Benjamins gave a dinner party. All of us children knew about it almost as soon as Mrs. Benjamin did, for we kept track of Fredericka’s dates with the same loving accuracy that we did our own birthdays. About ten of us planned to be there, on the back steps leading to the kitchen, for the usual “handout.” But those of us who played daily at the Benjamins smuggled ourselves in about five o’clock, to have a look at the table. I remember it didn’t look like my mother’s table. The Benjamin dining room was smaller than ours. But the table was, I discovered many years later, the first truly sophisticated dining-room table I ever saw. Instead of the red carnations, there were white roses. In fact, the whole table was white and crystal and silver. In front of each place was a tiny barricade of glasses and Elliott, who was three years older than I was, explained that one glass was for the wine used with the fish course, and another with the meat and a third was for champagne. I had never heard of champagne before. Neither, I think, had any of the others. But for some unknown reason we were silent with an unexplainable awe. Elliott said champagne was the most expensive drink there was and added that people in France drank it all the time. My brother said, “For breakfast?” and Elliott said he thought so. I wasn’t very sure what France was, but that only added to the general mystery and excitement.

My mother and father were going to the dinner, and I remember I watched my mother dress. She was wearing an applegreen silk dress with high neck and leg-ofmutton sleeves and a short train. I knew it had cost a hundred dollars and had come from Paris and that it was her best dress, but I thought it ugly. I remember my surprise when my father came in from the hall and said, “That suits you, Sybil.” His eyes looked at her strangely. “Funny, howT I forget in between times how beautiful you are.” I didn’t think my mother beautiful. I suppose she must have been about Mrs. Benjamin’s age. But I thought of my mother as an old woman, while Mrs. Benjamin didn’t look any older to me than my cousin, Dehlia, who was seventeen.

“There will be someone better looking than I am there tonight,” said my mother a little stiffly. Then, turning to me, “Now, Judy, I don’t want you disturbing Fredericka in the kitchen this evening. And I want you to come home just as soon as you’ve eaten your ice cream. Do you understand?”

I nodded briefly. I wanted to say, “I'll come home when I darn please.” But I had already learned it was better not to cross my mother.

It was twilight when my brother and I arrived at the Benjamins’, and my brother

joined the other children who were playing Prisoners’ Base in the side yard. I knew no one wras w'atching me, so I crept up to the dining-room window's and looked in at the party. The windows were open and I could hear as well as see, but I wasn’t interested in what grown-up people talked about. Mrs. Benjamin sat at one end of the table and next to her was Major Dawson, and next to him, my mother. I noticed he and my mother were talking and that Mrs. Benjamin was talking to old Judge Merrick who sat on her other side. I remember thinking it was funny she could laugh and look so gay while she w'as talking to somebody so old and terrible as Judge Merrick, and I didn’t see, either, w'hy Major Dawson seemed to be having a good time talking to my mother.

My mother looked as though she were having a good time too. Mrs. Benjamin had on a dress of all white, and there were pearls in her hair and around her throat. She didn’t seem to realize Major Dawson was there at all. But once I saw her look at him a second, just a quick glance that seemed to see only his shoulder and the side of his head, he was talking to my mother, and I knew suddenly that because he was there was the reason why she was shining so beautifully while she talked to old Judge Merrick. It seemed funny, because Major Dawson hadn't known she looked at him, and yet her face had gone all lovely, the way it was that first time I had noticed her, the time I had cut my hand.

It was dark before Fredericka got around to giving us ice cream, on kitchen plates and eaten rapidly with odd-sized kitchen spoons. We made a good deal of noise, we dripped ice cream over the steps, spooning it viciously from each other’s plates. We finally secured a second helping all around from Fredericka. At last Elliott told us he’d seen the freezer and that there wasn’t any more.

I was supposed to go home then. My mother had told me to. and I saw my brother go off with the Parrish boys who lived just across the street from us. He had yelled at me. But I’d pretended I hadn’t heard him. Anyway, just because he was two years older than I, was that any reason why he should think he could boss me?

T DON’T know why it was I walked off -*■ by myself into the orchard. I don’t think it wras just to disobey my mother, or to prove to my brother I didn’t have to mind him. I knew that orchard well enough by day, every tree and stump in it. But it was different at night. It even smelt differently. It had been a dry summer and already the leaves were beginning to fall. They crackled deliciously under my feet as I walked, sending up a new strange fragrance I had never noticed in the Continued on page 36

Continued from page 34 daytime. The orchard made me lonely and excited, and I didn’t know why. I had a feeling something was going to happen, and I wished suddenly I’d gone home when my brother called me. I felt sorry at once I’d been mean so often to my brother. 1 was oppressed by an overwhelming sadness because I had straight black hair, and because I was almost fat, and because my mother wouldn’t let me have a blue silk dress with accordion pleats. The orchard became suddenly unbearably strange and hidden and portentous. I was ready to rush blindly back to the house when, on a leaf behind a blackened stump, I saw a glowworm.

1 stooped down to prod it with a blade of grass and that, I suppose, was the reason they didn’t see me. They must have thought I was another stump. Or perhaps they were too absorbed in themselves to think of anything at all.

“You shouldn’t have put me next to you at dinner tonight,” he said.

“But you’re going away tomorrow.” I had never heard a voice like that, even my mother’s when she thought my brother was dying of scarlet fever.

“Darling.”

They were standing in an open patch of moonlight, and in her white dress she looked like a slender candle.

“If you’d put me farther down the table,” he was saying, “I could at least have looked at you.”

She turned her face to his. “I wanted you there, where I could touch you. I didn’t touch you.” She gave a little gasp. “But I heard you breathe. All the time I was talking to Judge Merrick I heard you breathing. I think that was the only thing I did hear. I thought I couldn’t stand it, my own voice going on and on in a sort of awful silence. I knew I was talking and laughing, but I couldn’t hear anything.”

He caught her to him suddenly. “Don’t.” There was something queer about his voice, too. It wasn’t like the voice he used every day. It was more awful than anything I had ever heard. It sounded as though it were the last word he was ever going to speak.

“You don’t really have to go away from here, Jack, do you?” I could see her face very clearly as she looked at him.

“No.”

“But you’re going?”

I saw him nod. “I can’t stay any longer. I got them to transfer me.” He was talking rapidly, as though he had been running and had to force the words out while he still could.

She didn't say anything. She only clung to him tighter. My heart was thumping so, I was sure that they must hear it. I knew suddenly she was crying. Then, at once, she looked up at him and smiled. “I can’t have you remember me like this, can I?”

Once more I saw him choke her to him. “Darling, darling.”

I shut my eyes. I had never felt like this before. I thought for a minute I must be very sick. Maybe I was going to have scarlet fever too.

“I ought to go back,” she said. “Someone will miss'us.”

But they didn’t move.

“Will you write to me?” she whispered.

I could see him hesitate. Then he said, “No.”

I DON’T know how long they stood there. It seemed to me it must he years. Every bone and muscle in my body ached like a sore tooth, with the strain of staying motionless. And then I heard something. Someone was coming. A twig snapped and there was the crunch of leaves. I wondered if I should cry out. Didn’t they know someone was coming? Couldn’t they hear too?

I didn’t give myself time to think. I don’t believe I even tried to. I remember only the sound of my feet as they pounded wildly through the leaves and brittle twigs

toward the thing I knew was coming in the darkness to find them. I was sobbing madly when at last I threw myself into the arms of Mr. Benjamin.

“Why, Judy,” he gasped, “what’s the matter?”

"Don’t go in there.” I was holding him with all the furious strength of my strong young body. “Don’t go in there.”

He shook me firmly. “What’s the matter with you? What’s happened? Stop crying and answer me.”

“There—there’s a bat in there.” I don’t know how I happened to hit on that particular lie. I had never seen a bat. But my brother had and he’d said it looked like a mouse with wings. All the time I was tugging at him to come with me toward the house.

“Look here, Judy,” he said sternly, “stop acting like a little fool. A bat won’t hurt you. What are you doing here this time of night anyway?” He was angry with me. But I didn’t care.

“I was looking for a glowworm.”

“Glowworm?” He stared down at me as though I were crazy.

“Yes,” I said staunchly. “Dick Parrish found one once. He put it in a bottle.”

“Judy.” He gave me a shake. “You go straight home.”

I knew I was being fresh but I didn’t care. I caught at his hand. “Walk with me, Mr. Benjamin. Walk with me as far as the corner.”

I thought for a minute he wasn’t going to. I thought he might go back to the orchard, where those two were. But of course they wouldn’t be there any longer. They must have heard me.

“Stop trembling, Judy,” said Mr. Benjamin.

He took my hand and I knew he was going to go with me. Without talking, we went around the house, down the front walk to the street. It was bright moonlight and I looked up into Mr. Benjamin’s face. I knew he wasn’t thinking about me. His face looked troubled and old. Without realizing it, he walked all the way home with me. But at the front steps he turned and stared at me. Somehow I knew what he was going to say.

“By the way, Judy, you didn’t happen to run across Major Dawson in the orchard did you?” I could feel his eyes watching me with a sort of awful dread.

“No.”

“All right. Run up to bed now and I won’t tell your mother you were out this late.” He gave me a light pat on the back as I dashed for the steps.

“Good night,” I called over my shoulder. I knew he was happier. But I didn’t want to see his face just then.

I WAS still awake when my mother and father came home that night. My door was open into the hall and I could hear them talking as they came up the stairs.

“Major Dawson is a very attractive man,” my mother said.

“And Mrs. Benjamin,” said my father, “is a beautiful woman.”

They had stopped almost in front of my door. “I don’t see why you need to couple their names,” said my mother. “It’s just a careless remark like that that gets a woman talked about.”

“Yes,” said my father. .

I knew he was pretending to be meek. Then I heard him laugh. “How would you like to be talked about, Sybil?”

“You’ll wake the children,” said my mother sharply.

But I heard my father chuckle. “All right. Sybil. You don’t have to answer.” I heard their door close. For a long time I lay there, staring at the ceiling. It was all very confusing. And I would never be able to talk it over with anyone. Even if there was someone that I could talk to, I knew I wouldn’t know how to put what I felt into words.

Before I fell asleep that night I remember wondering what Dick Parrish gave his glowworm to eat and how long a glowworm would live anyway in a bottle .