FICTION

BUGGY RIDE

Rick's week end turned into a riot of quarrelling lovers, balky horses and exploding fire-crackers— even the ending was topsy-turvy

FRANCES SHIELDS October 1 1943
FICTION

BUGGY RIDE

Rick's week end turned into a riot of quarrelling lovers, balky horses and exploding fire-crackers— even the ending was topsy-turvy

FRANCES SHIELDS October 1 1943

RICK waited at the station for Meg to pick him up. The enforced wait didn’t improve his mood any. He waited 10 minutes, 15, and finally half an hour—ample time for the healthy feeling of grievance which had been in the making all day to reach full bloom. Numerous things had contributed. The lab equipment essential to his new work hadn’t arrived. He had had an argument with the chief about the explosive he was working out and the chief had proved himself in the right. Most of the day Rick had backtracked trying to find his error—and hadn’t. Then he had missed his usual train home. And now Meg wasn’t at the station to meet him.

At the end of half an hour of world-hating it occurred to him to call home and enquire if anything had happened to Meg. He was suddenly filled with poignant alarm at the very thought. Frantically he called from the phone in the deserted station and Albert answered at the other end. Albert was Meg’s nephew and a bone in Rick’s throat. Albert was lodging with them until his parents found suitable quarters in the defense town to which they’d gone. Albert was six, as red-haired as Meg, but with none of her charm.

“Aunt Meg’s gone out,” squealed Albert importantly.

“Where? Did she say?”

“I forgot.”

“You’re a big help,” Rick said. “Listen, Albert, see if you can remember to tell her if she comes in soon that I’ll wait at the station 10 more minutes and then I’ll take a cab home.”

“Okay,” said Albert. “You’ll take a cab home. I’ll tell her.”

“Just forget I ever said anything,” Rick said, hanging up. He went outside to find a cab but there was not one about and he decided, with a vicious pleasure in torturing himself, that he would walk the two and a half miles home. He trudged along the deserted highway and an unannounced shower came up and soaked him to the skin. Just as he arrived within sight of his white-shingled house, the shower stopped.

Albert was playing a solitary game of hopscotch on the kitchen linoleum.

“You’re cheating,” Rick told him. “Your heel’s on the line.”

Albert looked down at the heel of his shoe and, ignoring the ethics of hopscotch, carolled loudly: “Happy birthday, Uncle Rick!”

It was another blow to Rick to be so abruptly reminded that on this day he had turned 30. It is a shock at the best of times to come face to face with another decade.

He stared down at Albert’s pudgy form with distaste. Albert had signalized his coming to this house by unintentionally smashing Rick’s meerschaum pipe, then accidentally putting Rick’s typewriter out of commission, then, with no malice at all, spilling a bottle of indelible ink over Rick’s new grey suit.

Meg had, on those occasions, rescued Albert. “You can’t punish him, darling,” she pleaded with Rick. “He’s not our child.”

“If we can’t do better than Albert,” Rick had said churlishly, “let’s not have one.”

IT WAS growing really late and still no sign of Meg. He gnawed worriedly at a cold and dry leg of chicken and tried to think of the places she might be. Albert, who was looking out of the living room window, broke the tension.

“Here’s Aunt Meg with your birthday present.”

Rick’s heart warmed instantly. He forgave her immediately for the worry she had caused him. There was something sweet about the thought of her being delayed because she was buying his gift.

He waited, ready to welcome her, and nothing happened.

“You’ll have to go outside,” yelled Albert from the living room. “It won’t fit in the house.”

Rick hurried outside, fearful again. Meg, her face rosy and her hair excited, was sitting in a neatly painted four-seated buggy behind the sorriest-looking horse Rick had ever seen.

“Happy birthday, darling,” said Meg, stepping down sedately from the high seat. “Here it is. Your birthday present.”

Rick said unbelievingly: “But all I wanted was a new pair of suspenders.”

“Oh, darling, that’s not enough for a husband of your calibre. Besides I bought this outfit at a bargain price. Besides it won’t hurt the budget because we’ll save gas—which we can’t get much of anyhow—and then too, I bought this rig out of my own money. Say you like it.”

Wondering why a man’s money is his wife’s also, while a wife’s money belongs exclusively to her Rick said, “It certainly was a splendid idea.”

Albert, ever the realist, put his two cents in. “He’s got an awfully big stomach, hasn’t he?”

Meg and Rick turned back to the horse. “I guess he was standing at attention when I bought him. He seems to have relaxed since,” Meg said.

“Sweetheart,” said Rick carefully, “I hate to mention this now but do we have a place to keep a horse? Of course, he can curl up at the foot of our bed.”

“He can come in my room,” said Albert graciously.

“Don’t be idiots,” Meg said. “We’ll build him a stall in the garage. It’s a big garage. I’ve figured it all out.”

That’s Meg for you, Rick thought. She always has things figured out.

“I figured out,” Meg went on, “that he’ll come in very handy. The man I bought him from told me he was trained to come home alone. The horse, I mean. Eventually you can drive him to the station mornings and he’ll come home by himself. It will save me time and I can get my work done earlier and put in more time at the Red Gross. Now what do you want to name him, Rick?”

Albert said, “Let’s call him Towser.”

“Towser is a dog’s name,” Rick said.

“Don’t be so hidebound,” Meg said. “Why shouldn’t a horse be called Towser or a dog Dobbin? Let’s call him Towser.”

“All right,” said Rick, escorting Towser to the garage to see if he and the buggy would fit in.

When he arrived back in the house Meg had amazingly produced a birthday dinner from the secret places into which a man would not think of looking. There was a roast and his favorite side dishes, and a birthday cake—evidence that Meg had done some figuring out with her ration coupons. Rick ate hugely and relaxed, feeling comforted, and after Albert had insultingly offered his aid in blowing out the candles, they all retired to the living room—Rick almost a new man. Meg leaned up against him on the sofa and Albert sat on the bottom step of the staircase, glutted by cake into a momentary silence.

“I wanted to get you something practical for the birthday,” Meg said, “Like you always get me.”

“The last thing I bought you was that set of black lace what-do-you-call-thems.”

“They’re practical. They make me feel like a femme fatale. Especially as they counteract the fact that I’m doing all my own housework.”

“What’s black lace what-do-you-call-thems?” demanded Albert.

“You go upstairs,” said Rick, “and go to bed. And black lace what-you-call-thems are none of your business yet.”

“Don’t speak to him that way,” said Meg automatically.

“If I weren’t so comfortable,” Rick muttered, “I’d have it out with that kid once and for all.”

I’M GLAD you’re comfortable, darling,” said Meg sitting up, "because I have something to tell you.” And in a rush, before he could stir, she said: “Your sister, Alethea, is coming here with Mark Thomas for the week end. I didn’t want to bother you with such trivia because you’ve seemed so exhausted and worried lately, so I told them to come.”

Comfort departed from Rick abruptly. His sister, Alethea, for whom he entertained an affection in inverse proportion to her distance from him, was a wonderful, talented and ambitious girl. Rick had been planning a quiet week end and with Alethea about a quiet anything was an impossibility.

“Here's her letter,” said Meg, going to the desk. “Don’t get up. I’ll read it to you. ‘Dear Rick and dearer Meg—if we bring our own food, may Mark Thomas and I come up for the week end? He’s leaving on Monday for that engineering thing in Alaska and he wants to marry me immediately. I’ve just been offered that radio job, singing the commercial for Toasted Whispies. I’ve waited years for a break like this, I can’t give it up. I can’t give Mark up either—but he has that now-or-never look. I’m all confused. It would be better if I weren’t alone with him in the city this week end. And don’t force him to the sticking point by being so lovely-dovey, you two.”

"What’s lovey dovey?” queried Albert, with his faculty for pulling the plums out of a conversational pudding.

"Don’t you want any surprises left when you grow up?” snapped Rick.

Meg held the letter absently before her. Rick recognized with a shudder the figuring-things-out look.

“Your sister is a wonderful girl, Rick, but she’s being very foolish about Mark Thomas. There aren’t many like him drifting about loose these days. If I didn’t have you, I’d make a play for him myself.”

“Is that so? Well, you keep out of their lives and stay in your own where you belong.”

“I was thinking,” said Albert. “Don’t horses eat?”

“This is a fine time for a course in natural history. Certainly, they eat.”

“Well,” Albert pointed out, “we had our dinner and Towser didn’t.”

Rick wasted his last two gallons of gas searching for a feed store and then, thoroughly disgruntled, went to bed, his sleep disturbed by thoughts of Alethea and by the novel clomp-clomp of Towser’s hoof against the garage wall.

MEG woke Rick early the following three mornings to allow time for Towser’s amble into town. Towser may have been bought at a bargain price but he was no bargain. No one could step on Towser’s accelerator. But Meg, in the chill mornings, was cheerful. “Now we can look at nature, which we seldom do from an automobile.”

Rick dozed as they travelled the empty roads and awoke at the station where he kissed Meg good-by and then stood off and watched her while she tried to train Towser to go home alone with reins dangling. But Towser, being no fool despite his appearance, merely dropped his head on his chest and slumbered. Meg smiled at Rick. “It’s too soon. He’ll learn in time. The man said he could go home alone with a little training.”

Rick comforted her. “Well, there’s one thing about Towser that pleases me. He’s safe. I won’t have to worry about his running away with you.”

On Thursday morning a car suddenly passed them on the road and backfired, and Towser, after a startled leap, galloped wildly across an open field, pulling Rick’s arms from their sockets before coming to a stop.

“Well!” said Meg, a bit pallid. “He does have some spirit left in him. That’s something.”

“Look!” said Rick rigidly, “I want you to return this horse to that man. I don’t want you with your lovely neck broken.”

“Darling, be logical. Consider the law of averages. How often will a car backfire at the precise moment it passes Towser? Don’t be such a noodle. And darling, today’s Thursday. Can’t you finish your work so you won’t have anything to do this week end?”

“I’ll try,” he promised.

On Saturday afternoon he arrived at the station loaded down with a bulging brief case. The results he had promised the chief for Monday were buried somewhere in a mass of error which he would have to unsnarl over the week end.

Meg drove up in the buggy, only 20 minutes late. She was accompanied by Mark Thomas. Rick watched them as they ambled toward him. It struck him that Meg was looking superlatively well.. She was wearing her precious new green suit and her hair was a mass of enthusiastic curls atop her head. She was talking animatedly to Mark Thomas, who, Rick noticed with a sudden keen perception, was quite a handsome fellow.

“Hello!” yelled Meg from a distance. “Did we keep you waiting? We’ve been admiring the scenery along the road. Did you know the daisies are out already? Look!”

Rick saw, as she came nearer, a sentimental little bouquet of daisies riding on Meg’s curls.

“Didn’t Alethea come?” he said hopefully, observing but the two of them.

“She’s at the house, rehearsing. Darling, is that brief case full of work or is it just laundry?”

Rick climbed in the buggy in the back seat. “I’ll clear it up tonight or this afternoon,” he said and leaned forward and kissed the back of Meg’s neck.

“No lovey-dovey,” said Meg cryptically.

Rick drew back rebuffed and maintained a puzzled silence all the way home. Of course he had forgotten Alethea’s letter.

ALETHEA was occupying the living room, accompanying herself on the piano. She greeted Rick enthusiastically.

“Hello, old curmudgeon,” she said.

“You’re looking very smart yourself,” Rick conceded, thinking that Alethea was pretty if you liked her dark-haired, pert-nosed type.

Amenities over, Meg suggested that Rick clear up his work immediately and that Alethea get her rehearsing done while Meg and Mark Thomas rode out to the farm and bought some eggs.

Rick settled down to unravelling his calculations and suppositions and had just got in the mood for work when Albert began to throw a ball against the side of the house.

Rick arose, pushed back his eye-shade and looked out.

“Go somewhere else,” he told Albert.

Albert objected. “Aunt Meg told me to play in the sun.”

“There’s sun over half the world at this moment.”

Albert retired moodily. Rick went back to his desk and Albert began to throw the ball a few feet farther down the wall. Rick rose again to plead for mercy when he suddenly became aware of Alethea singing in a lilting soprano in the living room. He stopped and listened, fascinated.

“Try Toasted Whispies

There’s nothing quite so crispy

For breakfasts, lunches and for suppers,

For babies, children, growing-uppers.

Oh, try Toasted Whispies.”

Alethea cleared her throat and plunged ahead.

“Toasted Whispies are the thing.

Roses to your cheeks they’ll bring.

Pep and strength and zest and zing

Whispies give you everything.

So-o-o-o try Toasted Whispies . . ”

“Good lord!” whispered Rick as she started the opus over again.

He sat in a horrified silence listening to the tenth repetition. Albert threw the ball, missed his aim and sent the ball through the dining room window. There was a tinkling of glass.

Rick looked out. Albert was backing away.

“Don’t bother throwing the ball back, Uncle Rick,” said Albert with constrained politeness. “I don’t feel like playing any more.”

Rick put his head in his hands and held onto his temper. And in the living room Alethea repeated her repulsively intriguing little song. Finally Rick went outside and fell asleep in the porch hammock.

Albert woke him. “Uncle Rick! Uncle Rick!” Albert yelled at about an inch from Rick’s ear. “Towser’s come home alone!”

Rick tumbled out of the hammock. As he raced toward the garage he had an agonizing vision of Meg lying white and crumpled in a roadside ditch. He was certain that Towser had run away and thrown his passengers. Towser was standing by the front curb, meditatively chewing at a young cornstalk.

“Try Toasted Whispies,” sang Alethea cheerily from the living room.

Rick piled into the car which he kept supplied with gas, despite Towser, and sped to the countryside, his heart in his throat. Four miles out he saw Meg and Mark strolling along the road swinging a small basket of eggs between them and looking like something off an Easter greeting card. Meg wagged her shapely leg at him.

“How about a lift, Mister?” she called.

The sudden recognition of her living presence unnerved Rick completely. “You’re all in one piece?” he said.

“Shouldn’t I be? Oh, darling, Towser fulfilled that promise and went home by himself. He must be familiar with this route. Mark and I were still dickering about the eggs and we turned around and Towser had gone home.”

Rick went limp with reaction after his fright. The contrast between his mad dash to rescue them and their leisurely stroll homeward struck him forcibly. There he was, disturbed in the midst of his important work. And there was Alethea warbling out her tonsils for her career—and here on the road were his wife and his friend a-Maying over the countryside.

“Albert broke the dining room window,” he informed Meg nastily.

“Well, to coin a phrase, ‘boys will be boys,’ ” Meg said blandly, and dropped the subject.

ALETHEA had abandoned for the while her musical future and was awaiting them, with Albert, on the porch. Her anxiety was veiled with nonchalance.

“Did you get the eggs?” she said thinly.

Mark was hearty. “Of course. You weren’t worried about the eggs, were you? Or about me?”

“No,” said Alethea shortly.

“That’s fine,” said Mark. “Then you go back to your practicing, and Rick, you take up where you left off. Meg and I will rustle up the dinner.”

It had been Rick’s custom to potter around with Meg on Saturday night dinners. There were some dishes he was convinced that he alone could turn out.

“Go on, darling,” Meg urged Rick, “go back to work. And you too, Alethea.”

Rick retreated, feeling shoved. He sat in the study listening to the gay laughter coming from the kitchen—and wondering.

Dinner was an extension of the growing camaraderie between Mark and Meg. Mark had made the salad which won Meg’s loud acclaim. Rick, who tossed a mean salad himself without winning wild applause, was nettled. He looked critically at Meg who avoided his eyes and then he looked at Alethea doggedly making inroads on the salad. Only Albert, who had been permitted to join the festive board, was acting normal—which in Rick’s opinion didn’t help matters.

“Why do I have to eat this salad?” Albert said. “I hate salad. It has no taste. You got to chew and chew.”

It seemed to Rick the most interminable and unpleasant dinner he had ever sat through. At last it was over and to his amazement he found himself once again pushed aside.

“Mark and I will do the dishes,” said Meg virtuously. “You and Alethea finish your work.”

“I’ve done enough,” said Alethea sullenly.

“No, you haven’t. You crack on that high ‘C.’ Go on,” said Mark, “practice makes perfect, and so on.”

“All right, but only until eight o’clock,” said Alethea.

At eight o’clock Alethea rapped at Rick’s door.

“They’re not in the house,” she said.

Rick found only Albert on the premises. Albert was squatted in front of the open refrigerator.

“I’m hungry again,” said Albert who should have been in bed. “Aunt Meg said I was to take a glass of milk. Oh, I forgot, Aunt Meg said I was to tell you they went out to look at the stars.”

“They what?” said Alethea a bit shrilly. “Did you hear that, Rick? Your wife and my—my—suitor are looking at the stars!”

Rick didn’t like the way her dark eyes had narrowed but he was forced to admit to himself that neither did he feel terribly jolly about Meg’s disappearance.

“Rick,” Alethea said, “I don’t like to get personal but I thought you and Meg were so happy together. Of course, if I weren’t fond of you in a small sort of way I wouldn’t worry but I never suspected Meg to be the sort of woman who ...”

“Who what?” said Rick huffily.

“Oh, you know. Don’t be so naive ...”

Rick felt unaccountably hollow. He trusted Meg as he trusted himself—and maybe more. “How about a game of backgammon?” he suggested heartily.

“Uncle Rick,” said Albert, “can I have a piece of pie to go with the milk?”

“Oh, go to sleep!” said Rick

“One piece,” said Albert. “Just one little piece?”

“Eat the whole thing for all I care,” mumbled Rick, setting up the backgammon board.

Backgammon had probably never been played before with so little interest on the part of the players. Every half hour the clock in the hallway struck dismally and at 11 o’clock Alethea arose, swept the backgammon pieces to the floor with an irate hand and departed upstairs in a silent thundercloud.

LYING in bed, stiff and sore, he heard Meg and Mark come into the house. He began preparing his little speech to be delivered more in sorrow than in anger. In it he would express his grieved surprise that a wife of his could act with so little kindness and discretion; he would tell her that it was not he himself he cared about but Alethea. He would imply that she had broken his faith in her. He would charge her with neglecting Albert—a neat thought. In a delicate way he would call her a double-barrelled homewrecker. He wanted her to suffer.

Meg came into the room, humming. “Why aren’t you asleep, darling?” she said casually.

For a moment he was so startled at her wifely casualness that he said nothing. Meg sat down at her dressing table and began to brush her hair.

“I hope it doesn’t rain for our picnic tomorrow,” Meg said conversationally.

Rick found his tongue. He spluttered. The noble and hurt speech eluded him. “I hope it pours!” he said.

Meg stared at him. “What a childish thing to say, Rick! Are you angry at something?”

“Angry! Who, me? Why should I be angry? My wife and my friend disappear into a dark night and break my sister’s heart, not to mention causing me some uneasiness. I’m not angry. It’s the most natural thing in the world to go stargazing with the male half of a visiting couple, isn’t it? It’s according to Hoyle to leave one’s sister and husband and nephew thinking all sort of things ...”

Meg’s lips set strangely. “Go on,” she said quietly, “you were thinking all sorts of things?”

Rick tried with difficulty to recall the speech but the best he could do was deliver an assortment of strange and undignified sounds.

“Rick,” said Meg with a curious calm that froze him, “if you were thinking the things I think you were thinking you are not the husband I thought you were. I am disappointed in you. I expected you to understand what 1 was trying to do but instead you act like a jealous boy.”

“Jealous! Who’s jealous?” demanded Rick unconvincingly. He had not quite followed the steps in the argument which had brought him to the defensive this way. His masculine pride suffered. Also, he was aware suddenly that this was the first time he and Meg had quarrelled. He fought the cold feeling which filled him.

“Haven’t you a word in your own defense?” he said, trying to be fair.

“My defense? Rick, if you can’t see what I was trying to do, I’m not going to explain ...”

There was a rap at the door. Rick went rigid. “Meg!” he bellowed. “Are you expecting company here too?”

“I’ll never forgive you for that last crack,” said Meg, going to the door. Albert stood outside, holding his stomach, his eyes tearful.

“I hurt,” said Albert.

Meg dropped to her knees before him.

“Uncle Rick told me to eat the whole pie,” said Albert by way of explanation.

Rick turned his face to the wall and clenched his teeth. Much as he did not care for Albert, he still had a vestigial notion that too much profanity is not good for children. He heard Meg croon softly to Albert and then lead him away to minister to his ailment. He lay still a while, revamping a more coherent argument against Meg’s return, and then to his great astonishment he fell asleep.

A BRIGHTER sun never shone on four abused hearts than the one which lit up the surly breakfast party. Alethea had her bags packed and rather ostentatiously placed in the hall and was sitting at the table not even pretending to eat. Meg served them with unnecessary clatter, and Mark, looking in a puzzled way every once in a while at Alethea, ate mechanically because it was a habit. Albert was in bed, a wan-faced victim of Rick’s spleen. Nobody was speaking to anybody.

Alethea arose first. “If you’re quite finished, Rick, I’d like you to drive me to the station.”

“I’m going too,” said Mark.

“Not with me,” said Alethea.

Meg was cool. “You’re acting like babies, all of you. But if you insist, I’ll drive Mark in the buggy and Rick can drive you in the car.”

“Same old arrangement, eh?” said Rick.

“I’m not speaking to you,” Meg reminded him. “Please hitch Towser up.”

“I’m not in a peace conference with you either,” Rick retorted, but nevertheless went off to the garage to do her bidding. He felt gone all over.

Albert had come downstairs while Rick had been in the garage.

“I came down for the picnic,” said Albert. “Are we going to have hot dogs?”

The four ignored him. They stood about in an aggrieved, embarrassed group. Meg looked worried.

“I think,” she said tentatively, “that for adults we’re acting like a bunch of dopes.”

“You may be,” said Alethea, “but I’m not.”

“I’m not either,” said Rick.

“Well, that leaves Meg and me,” said Mark. “Come on, Meg, I’ll stow my luggage in the buggy. We’ll start out first because it’ll take us longer.”

“Can I go?” said Albert. “And why aren’t we having a picnic?”

“No,” Rick said. “And because.”

“Don’t speak to him that way, darl—” began Meg automatically. She stopped abruptly and looked down at Albert. She took Albert’s hand and walked off with him into the kitchen. Albert came back with a handful of cookies and an assuaged expression on his face.

Alethea and Rick stood on the porch watching Mark put his luggage in the buggy.

“There’s the man who couldn’t wait to marry me,” Alethea remarked bitterly.

“Well,” said Rick, “if he’s a philanderer, you don’t want him.”

“He never philandered before he met your wife,” Alethea pointed out.

“My wife never was tempted to philander before,” said Rick shortly.

“It’s funny how you can love a man for a long time and then it’s over, just like that.” Alethea snapped her finger.

Albert nuzzled up against Rick. “Today’s not the twenty-fourth of May, is it?” he asked.

“No.”

“Can I pretend it is?” said Albert. “Aunt Meg asked me to ask you if I can pretend it’s the twenty-fourth of May.”

“Go ahead, pretend. Pretend your head off.”

“Okay,” said Albert stepping forward. He raised his right arm and with a shout of wild happiness flung a small object toward the buggy. The object exploded with an ear-splitting crack.

Towser’s sensitive nerves responded instantly. In a mad leap forward he dashed down the street. Rick saw Meg hanging on to the reins with all her frail might and Mark Thomas was trying to stand up and grab them from her. They careened around a corner and disappeared.

“Oh!” said Alethea.

“That was some loud firecracker,” Albert shrieked.

RICK was paralyzed with fright for a moment until Alethea gave him a violent shove. “Get in the car!” she screamed. “Hurry up. He’ll be killed!” Rick raced her down the path. “I was thinking of Meg!” he yelled.

They caught up with Towser, because Towser had abruptly stopped after entangling the buggy shafts around a tree. Meg was still sitting in the buggy. Her eyes looked glazed. Mark Thomas was stretched out in the green grass, a smile on his sleeping face.

“He’s dead!” said Alethea. “Look at him, Rick! He’s dead. My darling is dead. Oh, talk to me, Mark. Talk to me! I love you so. I’ll do anything you ask me to—even marry you today. Only say something.”

“Will you marry me?” said Mark, opening his eyes.

Meg smiled suddenly at Rick. “I forgive you for all your nasty suspicions,” she said nobly.

“You forgive me?” Rick said. “You forgive me for the way you behaved?” “Haven’t you gotten it into your head yet that I was trying to make Alethea anxious?”

“You were trying to make Alethea anxious?” he said, still hot. “Didn’t you give me a thought?”

“Of course I did. But I thought you, being my husband, would be bright enough to understand without my drawing you a map.”

“Well, that’s fine,” he assured her rather tautly. “You had everything figured out so well that if Albert hadn’t thrown that firecracker . . " He stopped and fire shone in his eyes . . . “Why, that brat!” he exclaimed. “That unmitigated brat! He might have killed you!”

He broke into a lope toward the house. Albert was still admiring a remnant of the explosion. He caught sight of Rick’s face and made a beeline toward the back of the house. Rick pursued him and caught him. Rick raised his good right arm and felt his soul untie itself from the knot it was in.

In time, before Albert had a chance for his first astounded yell, Meg burst upon them.

“Don’t punish him, darling, he’s not our child,” she panted.

“That’s no longer a reason. He might have killed you.”

“Rick,” said Meg earnestly. “You can’t hit him, because he’s not ours. And besides,” she toyed modestly with her skirt hem, “I told him to throw that firecracker.” She rose daintily, stepped away and said: “I was just figuring things out. Rick, take that look off your face!”