The Wedding Present
Natica, the cynic, was sure it was a mis-marriage — but that was before the storm broke
MARGARET NYREN HOFFMAN
BETTINA and Steve got out of the elevator at the fifth floor. They were laughing, but their laughter gradually subsided as they approached the apartment that Bettina shared with her sister.
‘Tm scared,” whispered Bettina, fumbling in her bag for the key.
‘‘So am I,” admitted Steve slowly.
They stood there in the quiet amber twilight of the hall and looked anxiously at each other. A big young man wearing a topcoat, a grey hat clutched in his hands. And a slender, brown-eyed girl in a fur coat, the pompons on her small hat barely topping his shoulder.
Panicky! Steve? Bettina looked at the rusty hair springing back vigorously from his forehead, at his steadyblue eyes and the strong set of his jaw, and began to grin. His taut muscles relaxed. By the time she got the door open, they were both laughing again.
Bettina slipped off her coat, and Steve put it with his own on the bench.
“Home, Natica?” she called.
“Yes,” came a voice from the drawing-room.
A thousand times, entering that room, Bettina had thought it beautiful, but today the fantastic scarlet flamingos on the pale gold walls, the amber velvet furniture, deeply upholstered, and the black rug, seemed alien, theatrical. Possibly because she was seeing it all at once through Steve’s eyes.
Near the windows, at the far end of the room, sat Natica. She was wearing her favorite house coat, a long tight-fitting affair of old gold brocade, and her black hair was parted in the middle and drawn into a knot at the nape of her neck. The light falling on her in just that way picked up the shining surfaces of her hair and gown, so that she looked like a figurine done in polished metal, cold, hard, unyielding. Bettina curled her fingers about Steve’s reassuringly. “Natica—”
“Hello, darling! Aren’t you back too soon? I thought your house party was going to last four or five days. New Year’s Eve was—Thursday—and this is only Sunday. Did the ...”
Natica glanced up from the sketch she had been studying at arm’s length and saw the strange young man with Bettina.
“Natica, this is Steve,” said Bettina. “Stephen Laird.” She hesitated, smiled uncertainly. Then she extended her left hand so that Natica might see the plain gold band on her third finger.
“We were married yesterday afternoon,” explained Steve quietly.
MARRIED?” Natica’s eyebrows etched thin black crescents high upon her forehead.
Bettina nodded. “We came to town especially to tell you and to get some of my things. We have to go back tonight. You see, Steve has to feed the chickens.”
“Chickens !” Gasping, Natica got to her feet. She turned glittering dark eyes uoon Bettina. “I’m only ten years
older than you are, but at the moment, I feel practically senile. Would you mind going back to the very beginning ro that I can get the complete picture?”
“Of course not,” said Bettina tranquilly. "I'll tell you all about it while I pack.”
“If you have any odd jobs that I can amuse myself with in the meantime, just trot them out,” said Steve. “I'll take on anything from painting to carpenter work.”
Seeing the confounded expression on Natica’s face. Bettina explained proudly: "Steve’s terribly clever. He’s made the quaintest corner cupboard. And now he’s working on a carved chest. You really ought to put them on display in your shop, Natica, and take orders.”
“There seems to lx* no end to your versatility. Mr. Laird,” said Natica brightly. “Do you read too? If so, you might possibly find a magazine over there on the table to keep you occupied.” But I doubt it, her tone of voice clearly implied.
“You’d be surprised, I’m quite good at reading.” answered Steve gravely. “It’s writing that has me stumped. But I'm progressing.” He leaned toward her confidingly. “Believe it or not, I can write my name—with an X.”
Choking, Bettina fled into the bedroom. Natica followed her, her dark head held high.
“What do you mean bringing that overgrown hillbilly into my house?” she demanded of Bettina's heaving shoulders when the door had closed behind them. Bettina sobered instantly. She turned aroqnd.
“He’s my husband,” she reminded her gently. "And I had an idea that you’d like to meet him.”
"And where did you meet him? At the house party?”
"Heavens, no. The house party was a terrible flop. And I thought it would be such fun, being on an island.”
Bettina disappeared into the closet and came back with a suitcase and an armful of frocks. Natica arranged the wide golden skirts of her house coat on the coral chaise longue.
“By the way. what happened to lomee? Or didn’t you go with Lance?”
“Of course I did.” Bettina made a wry face. “Lance passed out toward morning. The last time I saw him he was sprawled under a table. The party turned out to be just like all the others, you see. Everybody drinking too much. And going off into corners. Holding you too tight when you danced. Breathing down your neck. I got sick of it and went to bed. When I came downstairs about noon the party was still going strong. Lights were blazing. And you could pick a quarrel right out of the air. I went out to look at the gardens. After a while I persuaded the caretaker to let me take one of the motorboats. The kind I learned to run a couple of summers ago. Two or three were tied to the dock because someone was always going over to the mainland and back.”
Bettina went on talking in the same matter-of-fact way, but underneath the flow of prosaic words she experienced again the ineffable magic of that ride.
The sky and the water had the look of scrubbed blue enamel, she remembered. And the air was mild, as it had been all fall and winter. In the south was the mountain emdash; a powdered, crystalline cone of beauty, like a white altar pointing to heaven. She headed the boat in that direction, losing the great blue-white cone momentarily around a wooded green curve, only to find it again around the next curve.
This unexpected game of hide-and-seek with the mountain was sheer joy until she became aware suddenly that the light was dimming, that she was lost and cold and horribly tired. Anxiously she began watching for the cottages that appeared now and then in small clearings in the woods. They were desolate looking, uninhabited. Finally, rounding the end of a long island, she saw a drift of smoke on the mainland to her right. It came from a weatherbeaten old house, standing on a strip of land between a green bluff and the sea.
Getting across to the mainland seemed to take an endless time, but at last she beached the boat and, scrambling over driftwood logs, reached the tall narrow house which was as unadorned as a child's first drawing. Dgt;ng heavy jxiles were propped against it on either side. Curiously she stared at them.
“They keep the house from blowing away.” a strange voice unexpectedly explained.
STARTLED, she turned and saw a big young man in slacks and blue flannel shirt coming around the corner of the house. His pipe released banners of smoke around his rusty head. A huge dog, trotting at his heels like a shadow, detached himself and came forward to sniff at her heels.
“The wind comes tearing around the jxgt;int like nobody's business.”
Bettina just stlt;xxl and stared. Suddenly aware of the man’s intent scrutiny, she told him about the house party and her ride. “I thought someone here might be able to tell me the way back.” she finished.
“You must be cold and tired.” exclaimed the man. “Better get the directions inside where it’s warm.”
A curiously mingled feeling of reluctance and eagerness stirred within her as she followed him. What would she find inside? A wife? Two or three little red-headed children?
The promised warmth came from an old-fashioned range. The lids were faintly outlined with red, and something cooking had a heavenly smell. Bettina, removing the bright peasant scarf from her head and unbuttoning her coat, snifftxl the air hungrily.
“It’s roast duck.” 11er host pulled a chair near the stove and motioned to her to sit down. “And my subconscious must have known you were coming because I threw in a couple of extra sweet jxttatoes to bake. You don’t know it. lady, but you’re something special. Five, six months of the year I’m loaded to the rafters with people. I have a few cabins that I rent to families and fishermen during the summer and fall. But during the winter time guests are few and far between.”
“You mean—you live here—alone?”
“I live alone and like it. And now I’m going to give you the lowdown. It’s tcxgt; dark for you to take a boat any distance tonight. And 1 can’t act as pilot because I haven’t the remotest idea where your island is. I have no telephone. But I do have a couple of friends up the line— Molly and Bill—who’ll take you in for the night. They’re the salt of the earth. We used to go to college together. I’ll drive you up there after supper. In the morning I'll take you back to the island. I’m sorry, but that’s the best 1 can do.”
Bettina sat very still and watched him trim the wick of
a lamp. Suddenly a golden pool formed on the table. Odd shadows lea|x*d into being on the walls. She pushed back fier chair.
"I'll set the table. Where do you keep your dishes?”
“Attagirl.” He saluted her gaily. “The dime-store china is over there on the shelf. But this being New Year's Day and a very special occasion, try the comer cupboard.”
“Spode! What a lovely pattern,” cried Bettina.
“Those dishes were my mother’s.”
“Was this her cupboard, too?” She rubbed her fingers over the satiny wood.
“No. I made that for myself. I’m making a chest now with carved panels.”
When everything was ready, the man seated her and pulled up a chair opposite. Her lips slightly parted, Bettina watched the meat of the duck fall into succulent dark slices beneath the gleaming thrust of his knife. Then, pinching the potatoes open, he dropped a square of butter into each mealy steaming heart.
When they had finished their coffee the man disappeared into the upper regions of the house and came back with some apples which he polished to a ruddy glow. They crackled coldly beneath their teeth.
Bettina sat back in the ancient Morris chair and wondered what there was about this homely scene to give her such an odd sense of completion. As if, for the first time in her life, she had come home.
Certainly it wasn’t the room itselfemdash;this combination living, dining and kitchen affair. The windows were curtainless, there was a red-checked oilcloth on the table with a border of green grapes and yellow plumsdntertwined. The innards of a homemade radio stood brazenly exposed on one of the deep window sills, a pile of books and magazines cluttered another. The dog lay on the floor near the stove, his head on his paws, his tawny body twitching.
“Baron is chasing rabbits,” said the man. and looked up and saw Bettina’s roving glance.
“Funny old place, isn't it?” Lazily he tamped tobacco into his pipe. “Some day I mean to build a log house. A low,
rambly affair with a great fireplace and shelves for all the books I have stored upstairs.” “I love log houses,” said Bettina. “But, tel' me, if you went to college why are you doingemdash;this sort of thing?”
TJTE LEANED back, his long legs crossed at the ankles, and blew a smoke ring.
“Ever hear of the forgotten generation? Well, I was one of them. I graduated from college into a jobless world. But I was more fortunate than most. I had this land. Thirtyfive acres of itemdash;orchard, timber, a good strip of beach and this house left me by my grandfather. I’ve been here five years now. I’m sound as a nut. I have no debts, no worries. I think I’m sitting pretty.”
Bettina closed her eyes so that she wouldn’t lose a single inflection of his voice. There were other sounds she liked too. The crackle of the fire, the slap-slap of the waves on the beach. They made a soothing rhythm in her mind. Nice voice, cheerful crackle, slap-slap . . . slap . . . slap . . . slap.
She was breathing deeply and quietly as a child breathes when it is asleep.
A crick in her neck brought her half awake. The room was oddly light and her head was cold. The rest of her felt snug and warm. She seemed to be lying in a narrow, cramped space and she was still dressed because there was her cherrycolored wool sleeve along the chair arm. Wide awake now, she discovered that someone had lowered the back of the Morris chair and covered her with a blanket and a silk throw. The throw was made of odd-sized pieces of bright silk, held together by fancy stitching. It smelled strongly of moth balls.
Suddenly she became aware that the door was opening, that a rusty head was poking itself carefully through the crack.
“Good morning,” she called. “Where did you get this old-fashioned patchwork quilt?”
The man came in and closed the door. “It was my grandmother’s,” he said, staring at her. He looked older in the morning light, and graver somehow in spite of his windtossed hair. "I've never shown it to anyone before.”
"My great-grandmother had one.” she told him. “Only my sister Natica sold it over my head. Great-grandmother and the quilt came west in a covered wagon.”
“I knew' it,” said the man. “There's something sturdy and defiant about you. But when you’re asleep you’re soft and helpless looking. I watched you sleep last night. It seemed as if you belonged to me. And it made me want to take care of you always. That’s why I covered you with the quilt. I couldn’t bear to wake you up and have you go away. I've been walking miles along the beach thinking about it. I still can’t bear to have you—go away.”
Bettina looked at him steadily out of wide dark eyes. “I won’t go away ever—if you don’t want me to.”
“But this house isn't good enough for you. There’s no parlor. Strange people are always underfoot in the summer time. It’ll mean lots of hard work, cooking and—”
“What makes your eyes so blue?” wondered Bettina softly.
“I’ve never told a girl that I loved her. But I'm telling you now. And I don’t even know your name. Mine is Stephen Laird.”
“My name is Bettina Garland. And I love you too— Steve.”
DETTINA folded and packed the last garment, then she shut the suitcases and snapped the locks. “That’s the story.” She turned to Natica. “Later Steve and I towed the motorboat back to the island. He said he’d wait for me an hour just in case I should change my mind, but I only stopped long enough to pack my bag and say good-by. Lance was lying under another table. Steve and I stopped at the nearest tow-n and got our license. Then in the afternoon after I had changed into my velvet dress and a lace hanky, we stopped by for Bill and Molly on the w'ay to the parsonage.”
She sat dowm on the edge of the bed and looked at Natica expectantly, her eyes like dark stars.
“And so you were married,” said Natica mockingly. “And I suppose you believe in the old fairy tales and expect to live happily forever after.”
Bettina nodded. Natica swung her gold skirts to the floor. “You make me sick,” she said. “Wasting yourself like that. Stephen Daird may be all right. But his environment is all wrong. Why, it sounds like a hangover from the Dark Ages. When I think of the money that has been spent on the right schools and clothes and travel so you could make a good marriage, it makes me—”
“You had all those things. You made a good marriage,” retorted Bettina, “and look what happened. You w'ere divorced
after two years. I’m sorry, Natica, but you deserve to be reminded of that. You’re not mincing words, so why should I?"
“At least I married a man who was wealthy enough to make an adequate settlement on me,” said Natica icily. “You won’t even have money to fall back on when your marriage ends in fiasco.”
“There won’t be any fiasco,” said Bettina steadily. “My poor deluded child, it’s inevitable. Marriage is tricky. The smallest, craziest thing can throw it off balance when things aren’t just right.” “But love ought to be a pretty good stabilizer. You can
alw'ays depend upon love.” Bettina’s voice w'as very soft. Natica looked pityingly at the bemused Bettina. After a moment she went on into the adjoining room and came back with a desk calendar. A brand-new calendar. On a page near the bottom she pencilled a notation.
"The name of the nice lawyer man who performs major operations on sick marriages and leaves no scars.” she explained. She handed the calendar to Bettina. “This is my wedding present to you,” she said.
"DETTINA sprang to her feet, angry words crowding against her lips. But she bit them back. After all it was only natural for Natica to go fussily maternal at a moment like this. She had been mother and father to her for too many years to act otherwise. Opening one of the bags. Bettina thrust the calendar inside and snapped the lock shut again. Then she glanced carefully about the room. The vanity and dressing table were stripped of her intimate possessions, the drawers gaped emptily. She looked at Natica w'ith swift compunction.
“There are only two things I’m sorry for. One is running out on you like this. But at least your expenses will be less. The other is not inviting you to our wedding. But when I knew' how things were between Steve and me.
I felt as if I had never lived before. And I wanted to begin living right away. Maybe I was afraid too.” she added honestly, "that you would try to stop me.” "I certainly should have.” Natica’s eyes glittered. "But don’t, worry about me. I'll get along. And don’t forget, the door latch is always outemdash;to you.”
They found Steve prowling restlessly about the living room.
“I’d just about decided to cook one of the pink birds on the wallpaper.” he said. “How about it, girls? I’ll take you to dinner anywhere you say."
"Thanks, I’m having dinner with friends later.” said Natica with abrupt finality. “But we’ll drink a toast.”
She left the room and came back carrying a tray. There were three thin glasses and a plate ol rich white fruit cake. Natica held up her glass.
“To this year and what it will inevitably bring forth.” Bettina's head jerked up. She llt;xgt;ked at Steve. "To us,” she said clearly, lifting her glass. “Here’s to you,” said Steve softly. The three glasses clinked noisily.
The next day Bettina unpacked her bags and hung her clothes in the wardrobe beside Steve’s. With the same ease she adapted herself to the simple routine of Steve’s life, so that by the end of the first month she felt as if she had lived with him always.
Cooking occupied most of her time at first, Steve teaching her. step by step, how to assemble a man-sized meal. The first pan of biscuits they actually could eat magically erased the memory of the dozens she had ruined, of burnt fingers and exasperated tears.
She made curtains for the tall narrow windows in the big room and the adjoining bedroom. She loved to sew and had often begged Natica to let her come down and sjiend a few hours a day in the workrooms back of the shop, but Natica wouldn’t, hear of it. Poor Natica! She’d lx* horrified could she see her and Steve blithely shopping for inexpensive curtain material in the village store. And stopping in the woods on the way home to pick silvery fat pussywillows to arrange artfully in Steve’s glazed brown bean |xgt;t.
When t hey had been married t wo months, they celebrated by taking a boat, ride to Victoria. They couldn’t afford to stop at the swank hotel but they had tea there, and in the evening they went back for the dancing. Bettina had never danced with Steve, and now, wearing a swishv black moiré with practically no back at all, she fell in love with him all over again. He looked so handsome in dinner clothes, even though they did smell ever so faintly of moth balls. She had exposed them to the fresh blowing air for three whole days before coming away.
Another week-end they drove to Vancouver and shopped for linen and a white Hudson Bay blanket. Another time they visited the Indian reservation which adjoined their land on the south, and watched an old Indian carving a totem pole.
Bettina wrote to Natica in glowing terms about the trips. Natica wrote back scathingly: “Indians! At last I get the complete picture!”
Bettina started to read the letter to Steve, so that he could laugh too, but in the end she simply told him about it. There was a slightly acidulous tone to Natica's letter that would hardly escape him. And there was no point in exposing Steve to Natica’s fantastic reactions.
In April, for the first time, Bettina suddenly became aware of the orchard. For weeks it had been just a grove of gnarled old trees climbing the shallow hill in back of the house, but now a billowing froth of pink and white blossoms transformed it into a place of enchantment. On sunny days she packed their lunch in a basket and served it under the trees, and sometimes, chancing to look in a mirror when she got back to the house, she would find a tinted petal still clinging to her hair.
Early in May Steve removed the props from the house. There was no danger of it blowing down, now that the season for strong winds was over. He painted three of the rowboats, swept and aired the seven small cabins that hugged the lush green bluff as if it w'ere a mother's skirts. Together he and Bettina dragged the mattresses out into the sun, and washed the windows. They made a trip to the village for material. Red checked gingham this time, which she fashioned into curtains. And yards of bright patterned oilcloth for the tables.
The cabins looked like small gay doll houses when she was done. Enthusiastically she wrote Natica all about them.
Continued on page 30
Continued from page 7
7—Starts on page 5
“Please come and see us soon,” she finished. “The woods are wearing the newest thing in green. And a quick dip in the Sound and a whiff of our air will make you feel like a brand-new person. Please come.”
When Natica didn’t answer, Bettina felt curiously rebuffed.
"DOUR OF the cabins were occupied over Victoria Day. In June most of them were taken every week-end. When school let out, families arrived, signing up for the whole summer. Strange dogs sniffed at Baron and Baron looked down his nose at them. Children in sun suits played on the beach, their voices darting back and forth like small shrill birds.
One day at lunch time one of the mothers knocked on Bettina’s door. Did she happen to have an extra loaf of bread?
“I’m sorry, I haven’t a bit of bread,” said Bettina. There was a smudge of flour on her nose and her cheeks matched the pink of her dress. “Only some biscuits that I’ve just taken out of the oven.”
The mother eyed the perfectly browned biscuits and promptly decided to take two pans. When Steve came in for his lunch a few minutes later. Bettina was sitting limply in a chair, looking at her hand.
“What’s the matter? Bum yourself?” he asked anxiously.
Bettina extended her hand. On the open palm lay four dimes.
“Forty cents. Think of it, Steve. The first money I ever earned in my life. Natica never wanted me to work, you know. She only wanted me to be decorative, like— bric-a-brac. If she only knew how happy I am.”
“Are you happy, darling?” Steve took her hand and pushed the momentous dimes carefully aside. Very gently he kissed the callused place in the rosy palm.
“Terribly happy, Steve. And look, this bread business gave me an idea. Why can't you build a little place across the road and sell things like milk and bread and eggs and butter? Maybe coffee. And certainly candy bars. There should be a few dollars profit in an arrangement like that.”
Steve threw back his head and laughed. “I’ve snared a business woman and didn’t know it.”
There was no time for week-end trips now. The place hummed with activity. Steve hired an old man to saw up the logs and keep the wood piled high behind each cabin. On fine Sundays carloads of people paid twenty-five cents a car for the privilege of spreading their lunch on the tables under the big trees, fifty cents a night for camping privileges. The campers dug clams in the early morning, and Bettina smiled a little when she saw a woman’s bare feet in the squishy sea mud, her toenails lacquered a bright vermilion. Crabs boiled in a huge caldron on one of the outdoor stoves. And every night bonfires bloomed like strange, sparkling flowers along the beach.
Moments of beauty, adventure and novelty that were laced with harsher moments—her back aching from unaccustomed labor, one of the cabins burning, half the stock of their new store stolen— but all minimized into relative unimportance at the end of the day when Steve grinned cheerily at her across their supper table and askedhi»: ¡dcopeatr-voicc, “How’s it goin’, Sugar Baby?” notupf
“I've gainedrfñw.p¿M^ds,v^■imté Bettina to Natica im Aagufatn^And my îjtarse jingles with ther«»œaaw Rae m3<ie:*eiiing my biscuits. You'd be Surprised Vhat appetites some of these city fishermen have. I’d love to have you come and visit us, but we’re full up right now. Last night Steve and I slept in the orchard.”
Bettina got a prompt answer to that letter.
“Five pounds ! Whatever are you thinking about, Bettina? And why waste your time and energy making curtains and biscuits for fishermen? Please come and help me. I have just been commissioned to do a penthouse for a wealthy young bachelor. I’ll make it awfully worth your while ...”
Bettina stared incredulously at the words Natica had written. It was an extraordinary concession. A year ago nothing could have induced Natica to make her such an offer. She read on:
“Generally speaking, all any marriage means is sharing some man’s bed and board. But a bed in an orchard ! Bettina, Bettina, have you lost your pride as well as your figure?”
Bettina tore the letter into a thousand pieces.
That night in the orchard—she would remember it when she was an old woman. She had lain in Steve’s arms under the trees, which made shadowy embroidery against the star-pricked sky, and thought of the woman camper, heavy with child, who occupied her bed in the house. And all at once, in some mystical way, she had seemed to shed some young, heedless, irresponsible self and become wholly and completely an adult, a woman, a potential mother.
“I’d like three children, Steve. I’ve never thought of a family before but now— oh, Steve, I want them to look like you.”
“And I want them to look like you so that wherever I see one of them, there you will be.” His voice had been deep as an organ note.
Bettina wadded the torn bits of Natica’s letter into a tight ball. Natica couldn’t know about that night, of course. Even if she had, it wouldn’t have mattered. An hour of mystical beauty could never make up to her for the discomfort of sleeping on the ground, of having the bright morning glare in her eyes, of having an ant crawling over her hand.
Obviously Natica still believed that her marriage was foredoomed to failure. In every letter she pounced upon some trivial thing and held it up to the bright pitiless mirror of her mockery and scorn, magnifying and distorting it, until she had come to dread finding a letter from Natica in the mail.
There was only one thing to do. She must persuade Natica to visit her and Steve. So that she could see for herself how marvellous their life really was.
THE EXODUS to town began during the week-end preceding Labor Day, in a pouring rain, leaving most of the cabins empty. The rest of September was so beautiful that Bettina wrote to Natica again and again, urging her to come. The sky was a deep blue bowl curving over blue water. Michaelmas daisies grew in purple patches along the dusty roads, the berries on the mountain ash trees hung in bright scarlet clusters, russet apples weighted down the branches in the orchard.
Bettina washed her curtains and polished the windowpanes. She made up a bed in the upstairs storeroom for herself and Steve, so that Natica, if she came, might have the bedroom.
And then one day in October, while hanging clothes on the line, she heard a rich purring sound descending the bluff road. Shading her eyes against the sun, she saw the distinctive blue snout of Natica’s car turning into the beach road around the far bend.
“Natica!” she cried, when the car had stopped and a slender figure in a smart black suit and silver fox furs emerged. “Darling, it’s heavenly to see you.”
The sisters embraced each other warmly, then Natica pushed Bettina away and dabbed at the immaculate satin frills of her blouse. Seeing Natica’s faintly scowling glance travel appraisingly over her person, Bettina became acutely aware of a number of things. The front of her dress which always managed to get wet on washday. The nonprofessional wave in her
windblown hair, the lack of polish on her fingernails, the blackberry scratches on her bare sunbrowned legs.
“Exhibit A!” said Bettina with a disarming smile.
“Exhibit A to Z, I should say,” retorted Natica dryly. Her roving glance came to a full stop when it encountered the house, but after a moment she added generously, “Nice scenery.”
“Very nice.’’ agreed Bettina. “Oh. Steve.” catching sight of him as he came around the corner of the house. “Surprise!”
“Well, I should say this is a surprise. Hello! How’s tricks?” He extended his hand. The sleeves of his blue shirt were rolled up to the elbows, the collar was open, revealing his brown throat. “Come in and make yourself at home.” He swung Natica’s bag to his shoulder as if it were filled with air.
Proudly Bettina ushered Natica into her bedroom. There was a yellow candlewick bedspread on the four-]x>ster mahogany bed that had belonged to Steve’s grandmother, a knot of late asters on the highboy.
“Your bedroom, I take it,” said Natica brightly, removing her hat. “Doesn’t the orchard get pretty chilly these fall nights?"
Maybe it had been a mistake to urge Natica to come, thought Bettina while preparing their early supper. Thank goodness, Steve was showing her around. Natica liked to take her bath at night, and the lack of quantities of hot water made her very unhappy. Hot water meant keeping the stove going full tilt. It made the big room seem like an oven, bringing the pink up into Bettina’s cheeks and plastering her honey-colored hair damply against her forehead. Natica liked air-conditioned houses.
After supper they bundled up and took a walk to the point. Then Steve built a roaring fire in a sheltered spot on the beach. He spread blankets for them to sit on and arranged a little nest of pillows about Natica. Finally he sat down, his back against a log. Bettina's hair made a pale gold halo against his blue shirt.
“I brought you an amusing new hat,” said Natica after an interval of quiet.
“One of those Leaning Tower of Pisa hats we see in the papers, I’ll bet,” said Steve, chuckling. “You’ll have to give a fashion show for the natives in the village, eh, Bettina?”
Bettina smiled. Natica changed the subject.
“We have a new night club in town. Club Esquire. I saw several of your friends there last week, Bettina. Lance, for one. He asked about you half a dozen times. Remember Lance? The man who took you to the house party? He comes into a paltry quarter million on his next birthday.”
Bettina felt Steve’s arms grow tense about her.
“Then he’ll be able to buy himself bigger and better tables to sleep under,” said Bettina lightly, and felt Steve’s arms slowly relax.
“You’ll have to come back with me for a visit, Bettina. Lots of excitement in town these days.”
“Lots of excitement other places too.” said Steve quietly. “Over there—” he stabbed westward with his pipe—“lies the ocean—and China. Bombs are falling out of the air. People are fleeing for their very lives and most of the time it doesn’t do them any good.”
“It makes this place seem like a small peaceful heaven,” said Bettina and burrowed her head into Steve’s hard shoulder. There was silence for a long moment, then Natica said there was smoke in her eyes and got to her feet.
“The wind is shifting,” said Steve, gathering up the pillows. “I guess we’re due for a change in the weather.”
A LL NIGHT and the next day the wind swept by on its hunt around the house. The sky was the oddest color, the water a poisonous greenish bronze. Listening to
the radio that evening, they heard a warning broadcast: “Watercraft make for the nearest jx>rt. A blow is coming.”
Quietly Steve pushed back his chair.
“Where are you going?” asked Bettina anxiously.
“To have a look at the sky.” He smiled at her reassuringly.
The clock struck ten, eleven. Natica went to bed, while Bettina stood at the windows, her hands cupped about her face, staring into the shrieking inky night. She didn't stir until the door opened and Steve came in.
“Where have you been? What have you been doing?” she whispered.
"Just lashing down the rowboats and getting the props ready for the house. I’ll have to rig a tackle in the morning and put them up.”
“The house has been shaking all evening. You don’t think . . ”
“Of course not. This old house has stood up against worse than this. Only, the winds usually come later in the year when we’re better prepared for them. Come now, lady. Up the stairs and to bed.”
It seemed to Bettina that she had barely closed her eyes when someone shook her awake. In the furry grey dawn she saw Steve’s lean height looming darkly against the sloping ceiling.
“You’re dressed. What’s wrong, Steve?”
“Nothing yet. But you and Natica had better move over to one of the cabins until 1 get the house braced.”
Hardly had her feet touched the floor when Steve began rolling up the bedclothes. When he came upstairs again a few moments later, he grabbed the half-filled sacks of sugar and flour.
“Anything else up here we'll need?”
Some strange urgency in his voice made Bettina glance at him searchingly. She said no, calmly, only her fingers hurried a little faster. Jerking her dress over her bright head, she followed him downstairs. The creaking house was shaking gently beneath her feet. Through the front windows she could see the waveslean greyhounds with greedy foam-flecked lipsleap at it snarlinglv.
She roused Natica and told her about the move as gently as possible. Natica sat up in bed, her pale sati>j gown slipping down over one sm<x>th white shoulder, and looked at Bettina with glittering eyes.
“I’m not moving into any cabin. I’m going back to town. And you’re coming with me. I should think you would have had quite enough of this ridiculous setup by now.”
“Steve just told me that three trees fell across the road last night,” said Bettina quietly. “It’ll take him a day or two to saw through them.”
Natica thoroughly damned the wind, their isolation, the fact that she was related to them at all, and got out of bed. Bettina rolled up the warm bedclothes and. opening the door, handed them to Steve. Then she swooped up the clothes in the closet and put them on top of the silk patchwork quilt in the clothesbasket. Between the folds of cloth she packed the precious Spode.
Steve and Bettina carried the basket between them to the nearest cabin. It wasn’t so bad with the wind at their backs like a huge broom, but coming back the wind bent them double and pummelled them. The tall young poplar back of the house bowed to the ground, the bluff was one surging mass of green. Shingles sailed above their heads.
They passed Natica coming back. She carried a bar of soap in one hand, her hat in the other, a jar of rosy bath salts under one arm. Her face was white and stony.
XT ATICA remained at the cabin while Steve and Bettina made several trips back to the house. After the fourth trip she enquired icily:
“Does the stove serve any utilitarian purpose or is it merely decorative?”
Bettina glanced at the old range in the corner, then at Steve. Relaxing a little from their labors, they grinned at each other. .Suddenly the expressions on their faces sharpened into listening alertness, into alarm. They rushed to the window.
Where their house had stood was nothing but a pile of debris and a wide-open view across agitated waters.
“Your books . . . ” sobbed Bettina, leaning back against Steve.
“We’ll salvage ’em. They can’t he damaged much.”
“The corner cupboard ...”
“I’ll make you another one.”
“The four-poster bed ...”
“We’ll buy our great-grandchildren a new one. And some day, when I can afford it, I’ll build you a new house.” His arms
closed around her as they stared out upon the desolate scene.
Bettina wiped her eyes, blew her nose. Turning her head, she looked up at Steve and smiled shakily.
“I loved those things—because they belonged to you. But houses and things— aren’t important really—so long as I have —you.”
“That goes double for me, honey.” He held her tight for a minute before he let her go. “I think I'd better go out and take a look around.”
When he had gone, Natica, an indolent fashionable figure in the midst of chaos, shook her head helplessly.
“So you're holing in here for the winter —and liking it. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen your faces just now, heard your voices. I was going to take you back to town with me, give you a job in the shop, even offer you a partnership, but I know when I’m#wasting my breath. Whatever are you looking for, Bettina?”
“Paper. To start a fire.”
“Here.” Natica crossed the room and picked a calendar from the jumble of household goods. Tearing off the pages she crumpled them and threw them into the stove. Bettina laid kindling criss and cross, began searching for matches. With an ironical smile, Natica touched the tiny llame of her cigarette lighter to the paper.
The fire was crackling cheerfully when Bettina glanced down at the thing in Natica’s hand. A metal hack—all that was left of the desk calendar. Her eyes lifted swiftly, questioningly, to Natica’s. Natica smiled oddly.
“You didn’t need this calendar. Nor any special notation about lawyers. It was a very useless wedding present. But I’ll make up for it. I’ll—”
The door opened and Steve came in carrying an armful of wood. He was whistling. Natica looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. After a moment her eyes shifted to the wood. She stared at it thoughtfully.
“Oh, Steve,” she said suddenly, “how about carving a chest or two and some chairs for my shop this winter? With a new house to build . . . ”
Bettina, measuring coffee, making toast, beating eggs into a yellow foam, listened to their voices, a smile deepening upon her face.