Fair But Not Frail
GLADYS B. TABER
THE WORST of it is,” said Candace, “she’s my cousin. Mother says I’ve got to be nice to her.”
“Funny how many relatives there are in the world.” commented Ann. “Practically everybody has them.” “How old is she?” asked Gerry, thoughtfully skipping a stone.
“A mere child. Seventeen. She’s been to one of those old-fashioned prep, schools. They have to wear winter underwear.” Candace turned on her face and let the sun shine on her smooth back.
There was a shocked silence on the float.
“She sings,” added Candace with damning finality.
Gerry whooped himself off the float and came up with another stone. He flung a handful of water on Candace's exposed amber-gold back. Shaking her short coppery curls from her face, she dived after him. There was a wild thrashing of slim brown bodies in the clear lake water. The float rocked, and Hilary, stretched at the farther side, eyes closed, brown hands lax at his sides, suddenly leaped for the diving ladder and made a perfect curve into the water. He was bored. The gang annoyed him. Same old place, same old people. It was pretty terrible to be nineteen. You had got over liking to riot around like the rest. There wasn't any kick in things swimming and riding and dancing.
Of course as a man got older, things prob’ly looked different.
He swam back idly. He could see the dark green of the shore, the line of cottages and, farther on, the blunt nose of the old summer hotel where this cousin was staying. Just another girl; a kid. at that.
“You can count me out,” he told Ann as they swung across the sand in their wet bathing suits. "I’m not going to be dated up with a kid.”
"Don’t worry,” advised Ann. “After Candace has been nice to her, she'll wish she hadn’t been bom. You know how Candace is.”
“Yeah. I know.”
They went slowly toward their own cottage. Ann’s blue eyes inspecting the front verandahs as they passed. Hilary's eyes, dark and indifferent, fixed on the sand. Mrs. Prentis, their mother, sat on the porch checking items on a list.
“I’m glad you're home,” she murmured. “I'm just planning a little party for Saturday night.”
Her two children stopped and eyed her suspiciously.
"For what?” asked Ann.
"For Candace’s cousin, Jane Drew. You know she is at the hotel and the poor child is lonely. There isn't a soul her own age for her to— ”
“Her own age!” exclaimed Hilary. “I hope you don’t consider she belongs with our crowd.”
“Jane is seventeen.”
Ann took off her bathing cap and shook her hair.
“I can’t see why we have to give parties for her.”
Mrs. Prentis sighed.
“It really won’t hurt you to be decently polite Why you should object is beyond me.”
“She’s an outsider,” said Ann.
But next day they drove to the hotel to invite Jane to a dance Saturday night. Now and then, parents possessed a strange inflexibility. The four
friends piled in Gerry’s roadster, Candace driving as usual.
“The master mind at the wheel,” observed Ann.
Gerry and Hilary were correctly garbed for the call in their bathing suits. Candace wore bright blue slacks and a striped shirt. A beret tilted dow-n over her coppery hair. Her green blue eyes were sulky, her mouth scornful. She resented parental suggestions in any form. So her parents thought they could run her gang, did they? Shove a silly little alien into the precious intimacy of the summer crowd. She was outraged.
Ann, also in slacks, daffodil yellow', wore no beret. Her warm gold hair fell aver her face. She tossed it back constantly, narrowing her stormy eyes at the bright sun.
With a quick scraping of brakes, the car stopped by the hotel and the four fell out and untangled themselves. Their clear, scornful eyes raked the verandah.
“There she is,” murmured Candace. “The poor lonely child.”
With elaborate formality, Candace approached and presented the others.
“Mr. and Miss Prentis,” she said.
The poor lonely child looked coolly.
"So glad to see you,” she said, “even if I’m not dressed to receive callers.” Her eyes dw'elt for a moment on Hilary’s neat, rather
abbreviated bathing suit.
She was a soft looking little thing with light curly hair, fascinating eyes, and a briefly tilted nose. She wore a plain white linen dress open at the throat and belted smartly with scarlet leather.
Ann deli vered the invitation, making it sound like a challenge.
“Just our own particular crowd,” she finished with emphasis.
Jane’s eyes met hers in a long level gaze.
“You’re too kind,” she murmured in her soft, husky voice. “Please tell your mother how much I appreciate her plan-
ning to include me.” She dwelt on the word “mother.”
“Hilary will call for you,” explained Ann.
“In a bathing suit?”
Hilary scowled, felt himself flush. Ann giggled and he sent a savage look at her. Prepared to be very high hat with this child, he found himself in a ridiculous position. He hated Jane Drew.
Driving home, Candace was thoughtful.
"She’s not so young.” she commented.
The plans for the dance gradually grew to include the younger married set. Old as they were, they still liked to dance, and it was agreed reluctantly that the boat-dub hall was large enough for a big group. In the end Candace took a sudden feverish interest in the dance when it appeared that Michael Storm was coming. Michael was a senior at Varsity, on the football team, and absolutely the answer to a maiden’s prayer, as Candace said.
Hilary was in a bitter mood as he drove after Jane. He was always the goat. He would be stuck with her all evening. Just because he didn’t have a girl, didn’t like women, he had to take the cousin. He wondered fretfully if she wore long sleeved dresses. I íe hat«! his enforced donning of a tuxedo. It strained across his broad shoulders and hung too loosely on his slim back. His rebellious brown hair refused to lie flat and slick. He had to k«*p a nervous hand smoothing it down.
He sat on the hotel porch a long time, waiting, gloomy and unreconciled. Then the door opened and Jane appeared, muffled to her small chin in a dark wrap. Haughtily she accepted his proffered hand and walked beside him through the soft summer darkness to the car.
“ ’S a nice night,” he said sullenly.
“Oh, is it?”
“You like Baywood?” he ventured a little later.
“No.” He thought she laughed. “It’s so provincial.”
“The water is too cold,” she said. “I like warm things.”
“What else do you like?” he asked curiously.
“What?” He turned to peer at her. “Do you feel that way. too?”
“W’hy? Do you?”
They turned in and he parked the car without answering. He felt a vague stirring of wonder. There was something about this girl . . .
THE ORCHESTRA was playing when they went in.
Silver and blue balloons floated like bubbles in the air. Soft cool air from the lake came in at the open casements. The floor was filled with butterfly colored dresses, accented by the sharp black of the tuxedos. Jane disappeared and came back. She wore a long, smoothly flowing flame dress, which brought out the clear color of her skin and the darkness of eyes and hair. Her soft young mouth was not covered by lipstick. She didn’t look like any other girl in the room.
Candace was dancing with Michael Storm, chattering rapidly. She paused to speak to Jane, and as she paused Michael broke away.
"Where did you drop from?” he demanded, taking Jane’s hand.
Jane lifted long lashes and gave him a smile.
“Hello, you big football player,” she said in her husky voice.
Candace checked her introduction.
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"You—know each other?” she asked blankly.
Hilary hovered, fretful, in the background. He was ignored, and furious.
"I visited Varsity once,” said Jane.
"And it hasn’t been the same since,” grinned Michael. "Save me every other dance, Janie, will you?”
"Delighted.” drawled Jane. "I have time on my hands tonight. You see, this dance is just their own particular crowd.”
"I’ll keep you from being a wallflower.”
Hilary began the first dance with her. As they swung across the floor, he wondered suddenly why he had thought dancing was boring. Jane’s blonde soft head was close to his shoulder; she moved as lightly as mist over the lake; her hand was little and soft in his. He moved dreamily, humming under his breath.
“How deep is the ocean,
How high is the sky ...”
Jane slanted a glance at him. She smiled. His face, eager and alight, smiled back at her. He felt good. 'Hie music changed. This was a woman w'ho didn’t talk a line at you while you danced. He didn’t have to think to talk back. He could just dance.
Now she hummed in that low husky softness that was her voice.
"And when you look at me,
1 know that you will be The one that I adore -You’re charming.”
The next thing he knew, Michael cut in. Jane went away without a backward look. The rest of the evening Hilary saw her floating across the floor, dancing with somebody else. And as the orchestra drifted into the last number, she came up to him. brighteyed and breathless on Michael’s arm.
"I know you’ll be pleased not to take me home,” she said sweetly. "And your mother won’t mind. Michael is going jiast the hotel.”
Hilary glared at her. He couldn’t speak. He uttered a painful snort and flushed hotly.
"I really don’t want to be a burden to you.” said Jane as she departed with the Varsity idol.
It was t(K) much. At least he would never have to speak to her again. Candace felt the ;ame way. They had been absolutely scorned by this object of compassion.
"Well, we had it coming,” said Gerry. He was pleased. He had Candace safe from the charms of Michael and he was grateful. “I think we made it pretty obvious to her how we felt from the start."
"Shut up,” retorted Candace.
"It’s just what happens with relatives,” observed Ann. "If they don’t get in your way one way. they do another.”
Hilary said nothing. He hated the very mention of her name. He kept assuring himself he hated it. He woke up in the morning thinking how he hated it. and he went to bed at night thinking how he disliked girls with soft voices and slow smiles.
IT WAS FUNNY how he kept running into I her. He decided to swim at the hotel beach simply in order to use the high diving pier. He needed practice. There was no reason to suppose Jane would swim at the same time. 1 íe kept a sharp eye for her. I íe could always go away.
Then he saw her. He was too old to run away. She wasn’t that important. He would simply ignore her. So he swam to the float and sat on the edge, dangling his brown legs in the water. She came smoothly through the choppy waves with an easy stroke.
"Oh,” she said. "Are you using the float?”
He scowled darkly at her.
"I can leave if necessary.”
"Don’t bother.” She came up, dripping,
her hair shining and wet against the clear curve of cheek. Deliberately she turned her back and looked at the horizon. He ignored her. She was oblivious. He wished he could ignore her more obviously. He stele a look at her. In her brief bathing suit she looked like a small amber image against the jade of water and sky. She had a funny little mouth, sort of crooked.
She was such a little thing. But she certainly didn’t look like winter underwear. Nor did he find it easy to imagine her singing. He remembered the terrible Watkins girl. She sang. He could never stand Ireland after a whole summer spent listening to the Watkins’ Irish ballads.
"Are you still there?” asked Jane.
I le made a funny noise in his throat and splashed into the water. He had never met such a rude girl.
Meanwhile Michael had gone and Candace was restored to her usual good humor. She admitted to Hilary that she felt a little mean about things and she was asking Jane to a beach supper.
"What?” Hilary glared. “Do you mean you’re taking up with her?”
"1 don’t know why you dislike her so.”
“I don’t dislike her,” shouted Hilary. "I merely ignore her.”
"Can’t you ignore quietly?”
It was his duty to attend the beach supper. He would go and do his duty. He even went early and dragged logs for the driftwood fire. He helped Ann with the food. When Jane arrived, he was too busy to notice her. Jane sat down idly on one of the pieces of driftwood. She wore a woolly skirt and a short suede jacket buttoned high under her chin. A blue cap to match cocked over her soft hair.
“There’s a storm coming up.” said Ann.
“Why?” Jane stared at the dark still water.
"There always is when we have a beach party.”
Jane laughed. "What a quaint idea.”
I lilary stood in front of her.
"Pardon me.” he said stiffly. “I might use that log for the fire when you’ve finished with it.”
"Run along,” said Jane. "It’s my business to save brands from the burning.”
I lilary withdrew, furious. He would never, never be caught speaking to this insufferable creature again.
After the burned steak and charred rolls and smoky coffee were consumed, and the fire had reached the stage suitable for cooking and there was nothing left to cook, they sat in a circle watching the ruddy embers.
The sky was black, the water very still. Firelight fell on Candace’s dim copper head, on Gerry’s long lazy figure, on Ann’s moongold hair, on Jane’s face, an ivory oval. Hilary sulked in the shadows.
"Do they really wear winter underwear at your school?” asked Ann suddenly.
"Is that what you heard about my past? Well, in a way we do. It’s a silly old rule— we just cut up one suit and wear little pieces.”
"I suppose you don’t really sing either?” commented Candace.
Jane tilted her head back and gazed at the clouds scudding in the black sky. Then she began to snap her fingers in slow rhythm and to sing in a husky sweet voice.
"Who’s gw'ine bring yo’ chickens whin ah’m gone?
Who’s gwine bring yo’ chickens, oh, ma honey,
Who’s gwine bring yo’chickens ...”
Hilary edged slowly around the circle. He stared. Then as he drew nearer he fell over the picnic hamper. There was a crash, he lunged forward, and landed in a mixture of thermos bottles and tin plates at Jane’s feet. Uttering a terrible exclamation, he picked himself up and leaped away into the darkness.
He could still hear them shrieking with mirth as he plunged down the beach toward home.
“THE NEXT MORNING he carefully I avoided Ann at breakfast. He went to the dock, untied his canoe, and paddled gloomily toward the little island at the entrance of the bay. It was choppy and he had some difficulty keeping a straight course, but he was bent on flight. He couldn’t face the crowd, or that girl. At least not today, lie had some sandwiches in a paper beside him and a heavy sweater. Also an old tomato can full of worms and a fish line. If it calmed down, he would fish at the end of the island, where the perch came. An old dock used by lumbermen extended underwater for some distance from the nose of the island. Perch lay under the old spiked timbers.
It would undoubtedly storm before night; it had been making up since the beach party. A three-day blow was not uncommon toward the end of August. Already he had difficulty keeping the canoe in its course. And when he rounded the point of land at the edge of the bay, a fresh sharp wind caught the bow of the canoe and nearly turned him back. But he was in no moed to change his plans. He made for the ncse of the island, the choppy waves slapping the canoe at every stroke.
The struggle with the tangible force of wind and water somehow made him feel better. When a big crest flung over him, he shook back his unruly brown hair and dug the paddle evenly in the water, pulled back strongly, surged ahead.
He was almost in the lee of the island now and, relaxing, he bent a worried brown eye on his can of worms, almost afloat. As he turned a rough wave slapped the canoe, lifted it high, and when it slid past Hilary fele a shock beneath him.
He swore. The canoe hung an instant on one of the submerged piles, then water poured in from a jagged rent near his feet. He grabbed the paddle, bent the whole weight of his young strength against the pile, and got the canoe clear.
But it was half full of water. Hilary uttered an anguished sound. He loved his canoe. He couldn’t let it go. He jumped recklessly in the water and struck out for shore, trying to drag the canoe behind him.
The waves struck his face, he couldn’t make it. Grimly he made a last desperate effort and found he could touch bottom.
So, bedraggled, fully clad, dragging the canoe behind him, he emerged at last upon the shore, and even as he came up from the surf he drew one hand across his eyes and stared.
Jane Drew sat comfortably on a large stone on the beach.
"Hello,” she said sweetly.
Hilary said nothing. He stood, keeping a hold on the canoe.
“What an odd creature you are,” mused Jane, inspecting him. "You wear a bathing suit on dry land and white flannels in the water.”
Hilary’s eyes, bright with fatigue and anger, gazed at her.
"Can’t I ever get away from you?” he cried.
"You might,” drawled Jane in her husky soft voice, “if you tried going in the opposite direction.” Her laughter rippled, sudden and delightful. “Anyway I shan’t move from this stone for at least twenty minutes. That will give you a good start.”
Hilary shook his head in a daze, looked at his useless canoe, inspected the water.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded. “Well, I was looking at the view until you got in the way.”
HILARY turned his back and dragged his canoe up past the water line, hid the paddle in some juniper bushes. The wind was loud in his ears, he knew the signs. He came back. Jane sat quietly, her chin tucked in the collar of her soft blue jacket.
“Look here,” he began savagely, "how did you get here?”
“In a boat,” answered Jane composedly. "In it. Not carrying it.”
“Do you want to stay here all night?”
"I hadn’t thought of it.” .
"It’s just beginning to blow. In an hour no small boat can get in at all.”
"I was hoping you’d see that.” Jane rose. "I hated to mention it. I’ve only a rowboat. Over there.”
She went ahead of him to the heavy rowboat. The surf broke high on the beach beside it. The trees behind them surged in the wind, making a surf of leaves.
“I wouldn’t have believed it could come up like this,” murmured Jane.
“The bay’s always treacherous.” Hilary was looking at the oarlocks. An extra pair of oars lay under the seats. He pushed the boat toward the water.
"I’ll do the best I can,” he said, "to get the hotel launch to come for you. Give me a push, will you?”
Jane looked at him strangely.
"Isn’t it dangerous?”
He shrugged. “Shove off.” He used an oar to push the boat forward.
Jane gave a hard push, the boat leaped to meet the surf, and Hilary saw Jane scramble in as the boat left shore.
“Get out. Go back. It’s dangerous!” he shouted.
But Jane was already in the seat, reaching for oars.
In another moment they met the ragged waves and two pair of oars bit down into the teeth of the surf. The boat was clumsy, a lumbering old thing, but thick and sturdy. Hilary felt the bow slap the waves behind him. Before him, he saw Jane’s small back bent bravely over the oars.
She knew how to row. She pulled easily and in rhythm. Her hands were almost too small to reach around the thick oars, her feet were braced, but she kept stroke by stroke with him.
NOW THEY were out in the open bay.
The wind increased, the waves loomed large and green, the boat strained under the impact. Hilary knew they would be lucky to make it. It was worse than it looked from the island, but it was too late to turn back. He set his mouth grimly and rowed.
Jane’s hair was drenched with spray. She looked over her shoulder, her eyes smiling at him.
"Great,” he said.
A wave broke over the bow, hissed past like a green snake, fell away. The boat shuddered, plunged ahead. A black wall of cloud, which the island had hidden, came
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into view. The under edge was yellow. Hilary sucked in his breath. If he had known but it was too late. They were gradually nearing the mainland. They should have stayed on the island.
But everyone would think they were drowned then. It was certainly a three-day blow. He could feel cold sweat on his forehead.
The wind blew Jane’s voice back to him. In time to her stroke, she was singing.
‘‘Who's gwine bring yo’ chickens— whin ah'm —gone?”
His throat felt dry and hot; he kept his gaze rivetted to the back of that small gay head.
The sharp lash of cold rain told him the real storm was breaking and suddenly it was on them.
The wind and water tore at them, the boat began to stagger, there was a constant
upward lift, followed by a terrible lunge into the trough of the breakers. But the shore was near. Surely they could get through now. Hilary leaned against his oars and strained against the pull of the water, then suddenly was thrown backward. One of his oars, snapped half across, flung into the bay.
The boat shook itself, turned, righted itself as Jane instantly leaned forward and sent an even pull forward.
Hilary groaned. It was all over. He couldn’t move in the rocking boat to get Jane’s oars, he could only sit and wait for the end. And they were so near .
But Jane didn’t give up. The boat lumbered along but nosed ahead always. She dipped the oars always at the precise instant to save them from being swamped. They moved ahead almost inch by inch. Hilary clenched his hands until the knuckles were white.
Another five minutes; a century of rising
and falling, lurching and tripping. Waves half over them, wind whipping their faces with spray. Then a monster roller bearing down on them like a green wall.
It rushed, closed on the boat, and Jane with a last desperate effort laid the nose of the boat straight into it. Hilary felt the water licking at his knees. The boat staggered. Jane leaned on the oars. The roller passed.
Ten minutes later they climbed out of the boat and felt the wet beach under them. They sank down, wet and exhausted.
Jane unclenched her fingers. Her hands were blistered. Her wrists were rubbed raw. Her hair fell across her face and her jacket clung to her, limp and soaked. But her eyes, in the white tired face, smiled at Hilary as she turned to look at him.
"Do you like rowing?”
Hilary grinned back at her.
‘ ‘Sure, ” he said. ‘ ‘Swell sport. ”
Jane stood up and shook back her wet hair. She shivered in the wind.
"But I don’t like cold things,” she said softly. “The water is too cold. I like warm things.”
Hilary felt a swift strange feeling, not like anything he had ever felt. Suddenly he came close to her and caught the little hands in his.
"What else do you like?” he asked in a queer husky voice.
Jane’s eyes were on his, her mouth very soft and very close.
"Do you—hate me—so much?” she said in a whisper.
Hilary’s arms closed round her and suddenly his mouth found hers.
“I—I’m crazy about you. Are you always going to make fun of me?”
Jane stood on tiptoes and put her mouth close to his ear.
"Always,” she said. “I mean—always.”