NO ONE in Swampsfield Hills had ever called Jenny Pratt a feminist. In fact it is doubtful whether anyone, among the four hundred and eight native inhabitants of the town, knew precisely what a feminist was. Certainly Jenny herself didn’t. But they called her a great many other things.
When she was a baby, they chuckled at her preference for trains and tops and hammers over dolls and china dishes, and said that that girl of Nat Pratt’s certainly had been meant to be a boy. She was about seven when they commenced referring to her as a Limb of Satan and a Young Hellion. That was the period when she was dividing her time between lying flat on her stomach on the floor of Eben Clapp’s blacksmith shop and hiking down the railroad tracks with Red Whittaker during school hours.
If she hadn’t grown up to be such a pretty girl, it is doubtful just what they might have said, after she entered her teens. But she was so pretty, with her flashing blue eyes and shock of chestnut curls, and so very-very-good, when she wanted to be, that they contented themselves with the statement that Jenny Pratt was a fine, highspirited filly, if a bit skittish, and that some young man was going to have his hands full when he took over the reins. And when they said that, they usually looked in the direction of Red Whittaker and winked knowingly.
Red, whose name really was William, but whose hair always flamed and whose temper often followed suit, lived on the farm adjoining the Pratts’. Friendship, or whatever the relationship between him and Jenny, in those early years, should be called, was established when he was four years old and Jenny two.
Mrs. Pratt had come across the stone wall to help Mrs. Whittaker with her grape jelly, and the children were sitting on the kitchen floor, glowering at one another. From time to time, Mrs. Whittaker cast-glances, half admiring, half uneasy, at her first-born.
“I don’t scarcely dare take my eyes off him,” she explained to her neighbor. “He's so rough—a real boy if there ever was one! You’d think he’d be nice with a little girl, but only last Sunday—sakes alive!”
The young redhead, with a baleful gleam in his eyes,
had reached a fat arm forward and fastened chubby fingers about a toy steam-engine which Jenny had brought with her.
“Mine!” pronounced Jenny, firmly, holding her end. “Mi-un!” And in spite of curls, which at that time were golden, and eyes which were like bits of a June sky, there was nothing cherubic about her expression.
“Mine!” roared Red Whittaker, crimson with anger.
Immature muscles swelled in baby arms, while two pairs of baby eyes exchanged the challenge of battle.
“Willie,” remonstrated his mother, gently, “you must be a nice little gentleman and let Jenny have it. She’s only a little girl and she’s younger than you. She— oh-h-hl”
The two mothers started forward from the steaming kettle that was perfuming the sunny kitchen with its pungence, but they were too late. Little Jenny, with her baby lips curved into a delicious smile, had gained unfair possession of the toy engine and, with a gurgle of triumph, had brought it crashing down against young Willie’s scowling forehead.
So was chivalry neither offered nor refused between them; so were handicaps of sex waived. At twenty-five, Red Whittaker still bore a scar where Dr. Mays had taken three stitches, just as he still bore towards Jenny a profound respect, mingled with a variety of other emotions.
Until he entered his teens, Red accepted Jenny as a chum, the one kid in Swampsfield Hills who would take any dare. But with dawning adolescence came the first precept of manhood, the first conscious pride of sex.
How could Jenny know that he didn’t really mean to include her in that statement, when he’d make it, standing with fists thrust deep in his trouser pockets, his lower
lip protruding, his hair flaming defiance? To her, it was rank injustice—-to her, who had taken his every dare, who had spent one entire summer secretively changing from her own dresses to an outgrown suit of his, so that she could caddy with him at the Swampsfield Golf Club, where girl caddies were taboo?
“Oh, they ain’t!” she would retort, passionately, blue eyes blazing at him. “I’d like to know, William Henry Whittaker, anything you can do that I can’t!”
And William Henry Whittaker vainly spent the first eighteen years of his life trying to find something. Jenny could swim and play baseball and fight with her fists. Out of doors from sunrise until sunset, she was, in the local phrase, not only hard-as-nails, but smart-as-a-whip and bright-as-a-dollar. Her brown arms, when she bent them, rippled with flexing muscles; when she tossed back that mop of reddish curls, she surveyed the world with eyes as fearless as they were lovely.
If she didn’t actually enjoy trapping skunks and squirrels, or baiting her fish-hooks with the fattest and squirmiest of the worms which they dug together behind her father’s barn, at least she never gave Red the satisfaction of knowing it. In the course of their experiences together, he had never once known that she was afraid. That time they were crossing the railroad trestle, when a freight rushed around the bend and they’d had to hang by their hands from the ties while it passed thunderously over their heads! Beneath their dangling young bodies, spread the slimy green of Jenkins Creek, which everyone said was so deep that it went straight through to China. He’d looked at her, whitely, before they swung themselves back to the bridge, and for answer, Jenny had released one grasping hand, taken her handkerchief from her pinafore pocket and blown her nose! He’d had to let go, too, just to show her that he dared . . . and he hadn’t wanted to.
Wasn’t she ever afraid? He didn’t know that in compensation for his superior boy-strength, nature had given Jenny powers of concealing emotion that were beyond his imagination.
“They’re both of ’em born to be hung!” Mrs. Pratt would say, shaking her head, on each occasion when some new dare had carried them each to the threshold of sudden and violent death. “I declare, I don’t think anything can kill ’em!”
Then Red graduated from high school, leaving Jenny behind. He commenced work immediately after graduation, and Jenny, alone and lonely, devoted her time and energy to growing up. She pinned up the chestnut curls —though no net ever inverted could keep them confined —and she lengthened her skirts over her slender legs, only to discover that she had to learn an entire new method of walking.
THE Whittakers, for generations, had been carpenters, and it was not many months before the summer people W’ere demanding ‘the read-headed boy . . . the one who did such good work on that kitchen cabinet of mine.’ Older carpenters pondered upon the progress which a natural skill made, even against years of experience, and the town’s one contractor raised Red’s pay and commenced figuring just what competition in his own field would cost him.
Jenny was coming home alone from school, one afternoon; Bert Matheson, who had offered to carry her books, was returning by a circuitous route upon which there should be no passers-by to inquire the reason of his one flaming cheek. Red, perched high on the ridge pole of the firehouse, where he was working, saw her and waved. His next glimpse of her was when her disordered curls, reddish and gold in the sunlight, appeared silhouetted against the sky, beside him.
“What are you doing up here?” he demanded, hammer poised in his hand.
Jenny grinned and pulled down those long, hampering skirts. “Thought I’d come up an’ talk to you.”
She had a new dress for school, a dress that was actually stylish, that made her look like a young woman, suddenly, and Red. surveyed her with an unwonted interest.
“You might fall off,” he said, finally.
“Me?” Jenny laughed. “You might fall off, yourself!” “Don’t be silly.” He drove a nail, expertly, paused ánd looked at her again. “You hadn’t ought to be up here, Jenny. People will think it’s awful funny.”
“Funny?” Those candid blue eyes of hers opened wide. “Why?”
Red found himself flushing and that made him angry. “You ought to be ashamed,” he said. “You’re too old to go climbing around like a kid.”
“Well, you’re up here, aren’t you?”
“That’s different,” said Red. “I’m a man.”
“You’re a boy,” corrected Jenny. “But what’s that got to do with it?”
Red’s dawning temper was fanned by her correction —what did she mean by saying he wasn’t a man?
“You haven’t got any sense at all, have you?” he demanded. “Gee, girls are silly! And you—Tfrhy, you—” He floundered, for an instant. “You don’t know anything!”
“I don’t?” Jenny’s temper responded quickly to his. “Gosh, I’d like to push you off this roof, Red Whittaker! I would, too, for two cents. And you think girls are silly! Why, boys—why, boys— why, do you know what Bert Matheson did this afternoon?” Her eyes glowered in recollection. “He tried to kiss me!”
“He did!” Red’s hammer went hurtling down the slope of the roof, as he swung about. “What did you do?” “What do you think I did? Hit him, of course!”
For a moment Red stared, his tanned young face turned toward her. Then, abruptly, he began to laugh.
“Gosh, I don’t know’s I blame him!” he said.
Jenny blushed to the roots of her chestnut hair, and, abruptly, without a word, she turned and slid down the incline of the roof, caught her fingers in the curve of the rain gutter and swung to the ground.
And that was the reason for the first occasion when Mrs. Whittaker asked Mrs. Pratt why Jenny and her Willie weren’t speaking.
U ROM then on, they quarrelled continuously, while Swampsfield Hills watched and approved. They’d make a fine couple, one of these days, Jenny Pratt, so spirited and flashing, and young Red Whittaker.
Just after Jenny’s graduation from high school, Red bought a car. No flight of imagination could describe it as high-powered, and it was third-hand into the bargain, but it was Red’s first car and he was only nineteen. For hours on end, he and Jenny explored the intricacies of its engine; they took it apart and put it together again, oiled, greased and polished it, until the even purring of its motor sounded to them like the song of a nightingale. “I’m goin’ to have a car some day,” said Jenny.
It was a warm July evening, and they were returning from the moving-picture show in Hamden. Jerny was driving, her hair blown back from her brown forehead, her slender hands lying gently on the wheel.
“What’s the matter with this one?” asked Red. “Nothing. But I mean a car of my own.” She smiled at him, and he felt resentment at the coolness of her.
“How could you ever get a car, Jenny Pratt?” he demanded. “Planning to marry some rich man?”
She scowled. “Some people are awful stupid,” she remarked. “Seem to think the only way a girl can get anything is to get married. You got a car, didn’t you?” Red was silent. There were times when he’d have liked to turn Jenny over his knee and spank her—and the certain knowledge that such a procedure would be no easy task didn’t make him want to do it any the less. She was so darned matter of fact about all his success. You’d think she might have been proud. But, no. When he’d first had his pay raised and had rushed to tell her, she’d merely said, calmly, “Sure. You’re worth it an’ I guess old man Coleman wants to keep friendly with you, anyway.”
“How do you mean—keep friendly?” he had demanded.
“You know what I mean,” she’d answered. “You need not ever be afraid of losing your job!”
He hadn’t really contemplated the possibility of working for himself, until then. And later, when Mrs. Tetherridge, at the summer colony by the lake, had asked him to build her garage—him, not Henry Coleman—Jenny had been so irritatingly unexcited.
“Sure, you’re a good carpenter, aren’t you?” she had asked him. “You get Bert Matheson and Dan Ginnis to help you—Mis’ Tetheridge pays you an’ you pay them. That’s the way.”
He knew, deep in his heart, that if Jenny hadn’t talked like that, he’d have turned the job over to old Coleman. It seemed a terrible responsibility, at first.
Oh, Jenny had nerve all right! He glanced at her, driving so calmly, avoiding the bad places in the road, manoeuvring the light little car so skilfully that, for all the bumps, they might almost have been in an eightcylinder limousine. She had too darned much nerve!
“Sure I got a car,” he retorted. “I earned the mone/ to pay for it, myself.”
“ ’Tisn’t paid for yet,” she reminded him.
“That hasn’t anything to do with it! I guess I’m the only fellow my age around here who has got a car!”
She laughed, mockingly. “You’re real smart, ain’t you?”
“Not so smart as you think you are!”
“No.” She accepted his taunt so calmly that the angry red in his cheeks deepened. “No, Red, I don’t know’s I do think you’re so smart as me.”
He glared at her, and if his mother could have seen him then, she would have been strongly reminded of a fat, redhaired baby of fifteen years ago.
“Why don’t you get a car of your own, then?” he demanded. “Seems to me you’re always hangin’ around, tryin’ to ride in mine!”
“Why, William Henry Whittaker!” To emphasize her indignation, Jenny’s finger trembled on the throttle lever, opening it wide, so that the little car shot shiveringly up the road.
“If you’re so smart!” he continued, sulkily. “You can do anything, you can! You make me sick!”
With an abrupt vehemence, Jenny stopped the car sho t, her blue eyes were dark with rage, and her red lips parted, so that they showed her even teeth.
“You think I couldn’t?”
“Sure, I think you couldn’t!” They glared at one another. “You think you’re not like other women, Jenny Pratt, but you’re wrong! A woman’s nothin’ but a woman, any way you look at it. You’re too old to be a tomboy any more. You’re a laughing-stock, that’s what you are! And until you stop being so darned red-headed and admit it, I wouldn’t marrry you if you were the last woman in the world!”
“Who asked you to?” demanded Jenny. “I don’t have to marry anyone! I can get a car and—-I can do anything you can!”
In the moonlight, her eyes seemed to take up her whole face, and against her teeth her lips were soft and crimson. Red stared at her; then, without any warning, he reached forward, pulled her into his arms, and kissed her squarely. For an instant her mouth rested against his; then, with the strength of a boy, she wrenched herself loose.
“Oh, I—I hate you, Red Whittaker!” she panted, and before he knew what she was about, she was out of the car and running, as fast as her legs would carry her, across the fields in the direction of the town.
IT IS one thing to make a statement, another to prove it —-and still another to be red-headed about it.
When Jenny stormed into the house that evening and slammed the outer door behind her, her mother and father awoke, mumbled sleepily that Jenny and Red had prob’ly had another fight, and went back to sleep.
But there was no sleep for Jenny. For hours she lay, with clenched fists, wide awake in her bed, while reason and emotion and sheer red-headedness battled to the death within her.
He’d said she couldn’t get a car of her own, and she’d said that she could! She had to do it, now, some way! But how could she? Pa’d never been able. What with the farm and even occasionally working on the road and going out with the sprayers in gypsy-moth season, they barely had enough to get along comfortably.
But Jenny had to get a car. She’d said she could do
anything that he could—and then he’d kissed her. Gosh! She closed her eyes tightly. It would all be so much easier, if he hadn’t kissed her. She needed to put all her thoughts on the fulfilment of her boast, but somehow she kept remembering Red’s kiss and thinking of how they could be married, now. She’d never really thought of marriage, before. But she would be eighteen in three months, and with her to guide him, Red could start in business for himself, and—
She mustn’t think of that! She’d told him she could do anything he could, and if she didn’t somehow get a car, now, it would be backing down. She’d never once done that, in all their years together. Her mind flashed back crazily over those years—-the time they’d climbed Hamden Hill and broken the window of the haunted house, to enter. Red had cut his leg on the broken glass— they’d both thought/it was an artery!—-and he’d been afraid for her to look, because she was a girl. She’d bandaged it, and later Dr. May had congratulated her and said that she was a born nurse . . .
A born nurse! Jenny sat upright in her bed, lips pressed tightly together. Gosh, she hadn’t thought of that for years! It would take so long—she’d have to go away to study—But it was one way out! A nurse! She had to do it, somehow! Her eyes were wide open, resolute, as she considered it. She’d ask Dr. May in the morning . . .
“Oh, Red!” she wailed, suddenly, into the darkness. She fell back on her bed and buried her hot face in the pillow. The moonlight, wandering in through the small panes of her window, shone on those chestnut curls and made them look, against the white slip, surprisingly red.
JENNY was polishing the windshield of her car, and when she saw Red Whittaker striding toward her, along the path, she bent her head over her work and pretended that she didn’t see him. The windshield didn’t really need polishing; the little runabout, with its bright red cross and the fresh lettering which spelled out the two words, Visiting Nurse was immaculate, fresh as the uniform which so became the young woman who wore it.
Beneath the crisp blue blouse, she felt her heart do something quite different from anything she had learned about hearts in her three year training as a nurse; she lifted her eyes to him, and her cheeks glowed pink.
He was grinning, he held out his hand and they shook, solemnly.
“Well, you got it, didn’t you, Red Head?” he demanded, touching the side of the car.
Her flush deepened. After three of the hardest working years of her life, it seemed a little absurd to her that she had decided to become a nurse just to prove to this grinning young man that she could drive about in a car of her own!
But she nodded. “Yes. Oh, Red, it’s great to be home
again!” she said.
“Home—and triumphant!” he amended. “You’ve certainly got grit, Jenny Pratt!”
She didn’t answer. The car—her diploma as a nurse— her salary—-none of these things seemed really important. She was back in Swampsfield Hills to stay, and her happiness almost choked her. Gosh, she’d been homesick! And here was Red, brown and wiry as ever, standing beside her, almost as though she’d never been away at all!
“Looks kind of like I have to take back my remarks about girls not being able to do things, once they set their minds to it, don’t it, Jenny?’
“Looks that way,” said Jenny. But she didn’t care; she didn’t care a bit! She glanced at the car, and instead of the fulfilment of a rash boast, she saw only the three years of homesickness and hard work which it represented. She looked up at Red, who was still grinning, with admiration and amusement in his gray eyes.
“Well, I’ve got to be getting along,” he said, as she was silent. “See you later. So long.”
“So long,” repeated Jenny, and stood, disappointedly looking after him, as he retraced the path to the new garage he had built, behind his house.
Well, what had she expected him to do? She sighed» deeply, and her heart that had bounded so, when she first saw him, felt heavy within her.
Didn’t people ever want things, after they’d got them? “You know, you ought to’ve been a man, Jenny,” Red told her one evening when he had come across to her house, with the plans for the new high school building, on which he was making an estimate. “You’ve got a good brain—better’n any man I know.”
“Thanks,” said Jenny, shortly, and wondered why she wasn’t more pleased. Somehow . . . that wasn’t what she wanted to hear Red tell her!
Yet it wasn’t every girl who was treated with such respect by the man she loved. She ought to be proud! Red brought everything to her, all his business deals, all his troubles; nothing was too slight or too important for him to ask her advice. And yet . . .
“Gee, Jenny, you’re like iron!” he marvelled, on the day when Dan Morris, who had been working with the Continued on page 68 Red-Headed
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construction gang on the state road, stumbled and tipped half the contents of a kettle of hot tar over his leg. Red had helped carry him home, had stood by while Jenny, deft and professional, obeyed Dr. May’s orders, like a good soldier. “Honest, I never saw a woman like you!”
“That’s nothing,” said Jenny—and that night, for no real reason at all, she cried herself to sleep.
The summer days went on and the sun, which used to set behind Matheson’s red barn, travelled slowly along the horizon until twilight saw it dropping behind the delicate spire of the Unitarian church. Jenny went through the routine of her days, sick babies, new babies, a whole month of scarlet-fever epidemic. Red was given the high school contract and had seven carpenters working under him. Swampsfield Hills was prosperous and at peace—yet every one of these summer nights, before she fell asleep, Jenny Pratt wept into her pillow!
THE noon sun was showering its light into the Pratt kitchen, catching lustrously on the red geraniums which blossomed in orderly rows of tin cans, on the window sills. The table was covered with a red cloth, and Jenny and her parents were eating their dinner in a peaceful silence.
There was something panicky in the sound of the hurried footsteps which approached the kitchen door; Nat Pratt got up to open it; Jenny and her mother turned their heads.
“Oh, Jenny! Jenny!”
It was Mrs. Whittaker, white and weeping, and there was blood on her gingham apron.
Jenny sprang to her feet and ran over to her. “What is it, Mis’ Whittaker?”
“ ’Tain’t me,” Mrs. Whittaker panted, hysterically. “It’s Willie! I can’t find Dr. May anywheres and oh, Jenny, I think he’s goin’ to bleed to death right ’fore my eyes! Bert just brought him home—he lost his balance, doin’ the roof up to the high school, an’ fell with all his weight on a piece of roofin’ tin. His hand—
Jenny seized her bag from the floor; as she flew across the path that wound between her kitchen door and the Whittakers’, her hair tumbled from its pins; the skirt of her trim uniform caught on the fence and ripped, jaggedly.
Red was sitting beside the kitchen table, his right hand wound tightly in a towel, where a red stain was growing visibly larger. He looked up, as she flew in the door, and grinned.
“Nat Pratt’s red-headed hellion!” he
greeted her. “Jenny, you look about ten years old!”
She brushed past Bert Matheson as though he had not been there at all, and sank, on her knees, to the floor beside Red.
“Oh, I guess I’ll live,” he drawled. “After this, I’ll try leanin’ on something with a round edge.”
“Oh, Red!” With experienced fingers, she was unwrapping the towel, conscious of his eyes intent on her face.
“I declare, Jenny, you’re real excited!” he said, and there was a surprised satisfaction in his voice.
Jenny looked at him curiously. “Why, R«d—” she faltered, and became suddenly silent, thoughtful.
“Your hands are trembling, Jenny,” said Red, in a soft, unfamiliar voice.
She nodded, while strange thoughts chased madly through her head.
“I’ve got Dr. May!” Mrs. Whittaker called, from the telephone in the other room. “He’s cornin’ right over. Jenny! Jenny Pratt!” She paused, rooted in a doorway.
Jenny had removed the last bit of the towel from Red’s hand; with a practised, professional eye, she looked upon the cut, saw that it was clean, and not too deep.
“Oh . . . Red!” said Jenny Pratt— and crumpled forward upon the floor, in a dead faint.
In the confusion that followed, it was Red, with his wounded hand, who picked Jenny up, murmuring softly into her red hair that lay against his lips; it was Red who carried her to the bed in the spare room, who held a glass of water to her mouth.
“Jenny, my darling—you baby! Why, Jenny, it isn’t anything at all!” His lips brushed across hers, as though that must revive her, and slowly, in answer, her blue eyes fluttered open. “Jenny, you’re nothing but a silly little girl, after all! And you thought you were so strong—like a man!” His voice was tender, but there was a triumph in it, an exultance. “Jenny, darling, it’s nothing, I tell you—nothine at all!”
Her lashes dropped again over her eyes, but one of her arms crept about his neck and held him close.
Everyone always said that that girl of Nat Pratt’s had been meant to be a boy. Certainly she was like a boy in her directness, her blunt honesty and facing of facts, yet in all the years that Jenny and Red Whittaker spent so happily together, she never once confessed to him that that demonstration of weak womanhood, that faint in the kitchen of the Whittaker house, the day they became engaged, was not a real faint, at all!