FICTION

The Silent Stars Go By

The story of a soldier's wife who faced life's greatest crisis like a true soldier. . . and that way found contentment

MAUD MERRITT December 1 1943
FICTION

The Silent Stars Go By

The story of a soldier's wife who faced life's greatest crisis like a true soldier. . . and that way found contentment

MAUD MERRITT December 1 1943

THROUGH low casement windows the May sun streamed in a broad amber band. It gilded the red and white diamonds in the patchwork quilt and made a hard gold hill of the bump that was Patricia Raeburn’s small feet, crossed and still, under it.

Pretty soon, she thought, confusedly, I’ll begin to get some of this straightened out.

In the first place, Bill was here beside her after only five weeks, instead of the expected six, on manoeuvres. Bill was sitting on the edge of the bed, his big blond head screening the morning light, the pips on his shoulder studded by a sunbeam.

It was his kiss that had roused her from one of those late sleeps with which Della had been spoiling her recently. It was his voice, deep and rumbling, that shouted something about news he had for her.

In the second place, she had news herself. I, too, she thought, a little hysterically, have not been idle.

Desperately her grey eyes clung to Bill’s blue ones as she rode out a fresh wave of nausea. There were so many other hours of the day she’d have chosen to welcome him back! Until this minute she’d told herself she was lucky to have Bill stationed only 30 miles from his home town. But now she wasn’t sure.

She looked away from him. The room had begun to gyrate again, his face with it.

I hadn’t meant it to be this way, Bill. I was going to wait for you in the twilight, at the end of the garden. I was going to slip my hand in yours and make you understand that there was no reason why, this time, everything wouldn’t be wonderful.

“Wake up, honey!” Bill was shaking her. “I have to report by ten. Didn’t you hear? I’m going to be a Commando,” he chanted.

“Commando?” she echoed fuzzily, as if she’d never heard the word before.

“You know. ‘A dark and stormy night,’ ‘On tiptoe creeping.’ ” His second and third fingers became two long legs, infiltrating across the pillow.

Oh, why did Bill always pop things at her like a machine gun? Why couldn’t he ever lead up to anything?

“But, Bill,” she protested, feebly. “I thought you were badly needed—where you are.”

Bill grinned down at her, his special half-boy, half-man grin. “ ‘How tall was Alexander, Pa, that people call him Great?’ ”

“Just the same ...” she watched the sunbeam slide from the gold pips and play along his khaki tunic just above his heart. “Colonel Lynde told me you were one of his best officers; that the men trusted you and liked you.”

Bill kissed her. “Good old Colonel! What’s the matter, Pat? You don’t seem to be waving flags or anything.”

He’d always be this way. Now or never. All or nothing. On top of the wave, or sunk. For weeks, though, even before they left for manoeuvres, she’d sensed an increasing restlessness.

His brother, Peter, had been at Dieppe and was still in a British hospital. Looking back, his restlessness seemed to have begun then.

She managed a sick little laugh. “You’ve been married to me for nearly three years. Haven’t you learned yet that I never wave flags in the morning until I’ve had my coffee?”

“Up and at it then, Slacker, if you’re going to have breakfast with me.” He slipped both arms under her, drew her to him, burying his face in the soft copper cloud of her hair, freeing her to make an elaborate elocutionary gesture. “ ‘I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not honor more,’ and the Japs and Nazis less. It’s rather taken your wind, hasn’t it, Pat?”

She nodded. “Some.”

It wasn’t her wind. It was her mind. Stuck like the needle in a blister on a Victrola record: Commando . . . Commando . . . Commando . . . Over and over in the same spot.

“An order came around,” Bill was explaining, “asking for volunteers for a special Commando job. I know, Pat,” he went on gently, “that this means you, too. She also serves who only stays behind and worries. I’ll always know where I am, and how things are going. But you won’t know a darned thing.”

Perhaps, she thought a little sickly, I won’t want to know.

“It will be for you, sometimes,” Bill was saying, “the way it was for me la t year when they wouldn’t let me in your room at the hospital; when all the demons in purgatory sat on the walls and made faces at me. It’s the uncertainty that turns your backbone into a sieve, Pat.”

“Let’s talk about pleasant things for a little while, shall we, Bill?” she pleaded.

He got up stiffly from the side of the bed. “Guess I’ll shave.” He took off his shirt, hung it over the back of a straight chair.

He was hurt by, what seemed to him, her lack of sympathy and understanding. Pat raised herself on one elbow and sank back on the pillow in another sea-green agony.

She could hear him in the bathroom, hear the whine of the electric razor over his face. He was going over his chin now, around his mouth.

“Pat,” he called out of the side of it, “did you know I had a magnificent set of teeth? Pride of the unit.”

“Have they really taken you, Bill?” she asked tensely.

The sound of the razor died. “What do you mean? Really taken me?” He was standing before ,the long mirror on the back of the bathroom door, big palms slapping his chest. “Not that it matters,” he admitted sheepishly, “but I’m to have a routine checkup before I start.”

“When do you start, Bill?”'

He reached for his shirt. “We aren’t to get our training for this job over here. We’re to embark from the east coast sometime within the next six weeks.” One arm paused in mid-air. “Look, Pat! I’ve got a swell idea! Come as far as Halifax with me, and stay at some hotel until I pull out.”

Shivering, she drew the patchwork quilt up tighter under her chin. Until, she thought, that night when I’m expecting you and you won’t come home. I’ll sit beside the telephone, my eyes on the door. I’ll go to the window and stare down into the street, watching, waiting until morning. Then and only then will I know you’ve gone.

As if in answer to her thoughts, Bill asked bluntly: “You can take it, can’t you?”

There was a lull in her feelings now. Hopping out of bed she reached the bureau and began to dress.

“Well,” Bill said. “What’s the answer?”

“You move so fast,” she complained, “I can’t keep up with you. You’re back from manoeuvres a week early. You’re going to be a Commando. You’re going to the east coast. I’m to go with you ...”

“Is there any reason why you can’t?”

She said to herself: “No reason, no reason at all, Bill, dearest, except that we’re going to have another baby; because this time I’m to take every precaution.” She could see Doctor Clayton’s face at the mere mention of a trip to the coast.

Pat reached for her lipstick. The line she made was jagged, but she evened it off with tissue and brightened her pale cheeks with the excess. Funny what a little color could do!

Luckily she was able to eat the breakfast Della carried out to the sun porch and served daintily on a small table covered with a rose linen cloth. Orange juice and coffee; toast, crisped and lightly buttered. The same for Bill with the addition of an omelet.

When he’d finished Bill came around to her side of the table, rested both palms on her slim, straight shoulders.

“I wish you’d talk to me about this, Pat. I wish I knew how you really felt.”

How she really felt? Oh, Bill, you don’t want to know, darling. I must be all the things you think I am—brave and unafraid, and unselfish. I can’t admit, even to myself, that I’m not.

She drew his face down to hers, pressed her cheek against it. “If it’s the thing for you, Bill, then it’s the thing for me, too. That’s the way it’s always been with us. That’s the way it has to be now.”

“You see, Pat,” he said soberly, “if I go, I must go with all my heart and soul and mind.”

I know, Bill. You mustn’t be worried about anything, for when people worry a big part of them stays with the person or thing they’re worried about. I couldn’t have that for you, darling.

“You’re with me all the way, Pat?”

She took a long breath, and shut her eyes. “All the way, Bill. You’ve been wanting to do something like this ever since Dieppe, haven’t you?”

He nodded mutely. “Don’t forget you’re coming as far as Halifax with me!”

He had to leave then. As the old car, which in the old peaceful day they called Jeeves, bore him off down the dusty road, she dropped down in her chair again, staring listlessly before her until Della padded out to clear the table.

“What Lieutenant Raeburn say when you tole him you has a lil’ baby up yo’ sleeve all dis time?” Della asked excitedly.

Pat lifted her head proudly. “I didn’t tell him, Della. He’s going away, far away to a special kind of war. Help me, Della. We mustn’t worry him.”

Della rocked back and forth on her heels. “Efn dere’s gwine be a baby, dere’s gwine be a baby. But,” she sighed, “de Lawd knows when I lies, I lies good.”

“Oh,” Pat said hastily. “Let’s not call it a lie. Let’s call it, ‘making a virtue of necessity.’ ”

“Sounds nice and fancy,” Della chuckled. “But me, I don’t know what virtue is.”

PAT FLED to the garden. The lilacs were in bloom, and long-stemmed lilies of the valley, and the wood violets she and Bill had brought down from the lake after their honeymoon.

It was a lovely garden now. Quite different from the bare patches of cellar dirt with which they’d been confronted when they first bought this house.

Later there’d be iris and fringed petunias, splashing the beds with coral and crimson and yellow. Doctor Clayton said she wasn’t to do any weeding. He was, she could see already, going to be a terrible fuss about everything.

Once before she’d had this same news for Bill.

“Bill,” she’d asked quietly then, her heart pounding, “how would you like to be a father?”

He’d stood for a moment looking down at her, not touching her, doing none of the things men were supposed to say and do when they heard for the first time the whispering wings of their first-born.

“Hadn’t you better sit down somewhere, Bill, and run over our available assets?” She was trying to be funny, to keep the tears back. Fatherhood to Bill would mean something pretty special. “If,” she went on, “our son is to be supported in the manner to which he’s become accustomed.”

Either Bill didn’t understand, or he wasn’t entertained by her “Where did you come from, baby dear?” attitude. To him fatherhood would mean so very much more than a blessed event. Sometimes she was a little frightened at how much it would mean. If he’d just strike a happy medium!

He had never known his own father, and when he was three his mother had died, leaving Bill and his brother, Peter, aged five, to the heart and hand of their great-aunt Jennie. It was mostly hand, but no one could say Aunt Jennie didn’t do her solemn duty by the two little boys, for she did. She set for them a very high standard of personal conduct. If, at the gate of Heaven, St. Peter had asked Aunt Jennie to show him her conscience, Aunt Jennie must surely have handed him a clean bill of health.

Bill and Peter used to comfort themselves with dreams of their father, had he lived. In fact to his two orphaned sons he frequently did live. “He isn’t like the Judge,” Peter would say. “Well, he isn’t like the Bishop, who’s always coming to supper,” Bill would argue, “because he can run and climb trees. The Bishop’s too fat to do anything but roll on the grass.”

Their father knew all the answers and took time to give them out. Their father always found out what really had happened, before he sent them to bed without any supper. Aunt Jennie acted on the result, not the cause. Their father liked having them around.

To his own children Bill would be those dreams come true.

“Like every other guy who first gets the big news,” he was saying, his voice rough, and a little off pitch, strained, “I’m knocked for a loop. You wouldn’t believe what this does to me, Pat. The thought of all that responsibility.”

“Probably not,” she agreed meekly. “I’m only the mother.”

Bill stopped his mad pacing, stared soberly down at her. “That’s so.”

“It’s such a minor role,” she murmured. She must make him laugh. If she could just make him laugh he might forget that grim childhood of his. Perhaps in this new and beautiful experience leave it behind him forever.

Bill dropped down beside her. “Just a small item I seem to have overlooked. You do the work, and I hand out the cigars.”

“What do you hand out if it’s a girl? Cigarettes?” she asked, breathing more freely now that he’d begun to react normally.

“But the first one is to be a boy. Remember? We settled that before we were married.”

She brushed his cheek with her lips. It was so firm, so solid, so brimming with health. “You don’t really care, do you Bill?”

“What in heck would I want of another girl when I have you? Look! I’ve just thought of something. If it’s triplets, can three live as cheaply as one?”

“If it’s triplets, darling,” she laughed joyously, “you and I will go on a diet of vitamin tablets.”

It wasn’t triplets, but twins. A boy and a girl whom Bill promptly named Jack and Jill for the brief four days of their little lives. Before the tiny flame that held them here flickered out.

And Pat so very nearly followed them!

Bill lost 12 pounds in those anxious days. When she was finally out of danger the doctor warned them that without a major operation she’d not bear children again. An operation, he said brusquely, was still an operation, and they’d do better to adopt their family.

It was snowing that day. Pat watched the white flakes break against the window of her hospital room like little lost souls. Bill, sitting by the bed—permitted in the room now and urged to come as often as he could get away—warmed one of her frail hands in both of his.

“I’m sorry, darling,” she whispered. “So terribly sorry, Bill. You have a right to children. Every man has, but you especially.”

He made her look at him. “I love you, Pat,” he said simply. “And we’ll have children, honey. The world will be full of little children just for people like us when this war is finished.”

“They won’t be ours,” she argued brokenly.

“Of course they’ll be ours. We’ll love them until they are. Never be sorry on my account, Pat. I’m not sure I could face this again. Having you will be enough for me for a long, long time. Just having you,” he ended huskily.

It didn’t seem possible that it was only last year!

She’d gone to another doctor this time. Doctor Clayton was a skilful obstetrician who’d been turned down by the Army because of a bad knee, left over from his football days. She’d thought at first she might be imagining things. All the other girls she knew, almost, were having babies now.

But it was true enough, Doctor Clayton said. And there was no reason for her to assume that history would repeat itself. The thing for her to do was to take for granted that it wouldn’t, but at the same time to leave nothing undone in the way of prenatal care. Frequent physical checks. As normal an emotional life as possible.

Normal, Pat moaned, going back into the house! How does he mean, normal?

BILL got home again for the week end. Pat had crowded the intervening days, that part of them that she was able, with her regular work at the Red Cross rooms. There was, Bill said, some question about his age, but not serious. And he hadn’t had his checkup, yet. That would come this Wednesday.

He left Monday morning, still ignorant of the fact that she wasn’t going East with him. All day Wednesday Pat prayed. One minute that he wouldn’t pass the medical examination. The next, just as passionately, that he would. Was it wrong to pray for such things? Even, perhaps, to pray that he might be kept safe while other men died? And yet God must understand such prayers!

The night he drove out with his final orders Pat knew that she couldn’t let him believe any longer that she was going with him. He had to leave in 48 hours. Already he had the bags down and was packing them exuberantly. Numbly, Pat stood by and watched him.

Suddenly Bill straightened up. “Your bags ready?”

Now! Now! Pat thought. The perfect opening. But her tongue was frozen fast to the roof of her mouth. Then the telephone rang and Bill plunged down the stairs to answer it.

When he comes back, Pat told herself, sternly, you’re going to get this over with. She could heard him now, two steps at a time, nearer and nearer.

“For you, Pat,” he said formally. “A gentleman wants ‘Mrs. Raeburn, please.’ ”

“But who is it?”

Bill shrugged. “He didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask. No voice I ever heard before. If he wants to sell you anything tell him you’ve just been sold on Halifax.”

“Hello,” Pat said coolly into the transmitter. People who had things to sell were doing this more and more.

“This is Doctor Clayton, Mrs. Raeburn. I have some more reports. Stop in the office tomorrow afternoon, will you?”

“Oh, thank you.” Her tone had warmed perceptibly. “I’ll be there.”

“And, Mrs. Raeburn. Have you said anything to your husband yet? About your condition?”

“Not yet.”

“I insist upon it, Mrs. Raeburn.”

“We’ll talk about that tomorrow, shall we?” Pat put the receiver back on the hook and stood for a moment staring at it. When you once started keeping something from somebody, how many other things got tangled up with it.

When she went back to Bill she could feel his unspoken question in his studious concern of something on the wall that wasn’t there.

“That was Doctor Clayton, Bill,” she said casually.

Bill turned toward her then. “Clayton? Who’s he?”

“A new doctor in town. Something to do with the Blood Donors Clinic. He has some reports for me.” What was the difference between this and a direct lie? Would she get like Della, and not know what “virtue is?”

Bill reached for her hands, swung her into his arms. “He can bally well give his reports to somebody else, can’t he?”

Pat pulled away from him and leaned heavily against the side of the bed. Oh, Bill, dearest! Just believe what I say. Don’t search for meanings under the words.

“Bill,” she heard herself saying, “do you really have to do this? Is there no other way . . .?”

“It depends,” he said slowly, “on what you mean by ‘have to.’ I can get out of it, Pat, even now. This is the sort of job that no one should undertake who wants to get out—even at the last minute.”

“Bill ...” she held both hands out to him. “Bill—I . . . I . . .”

This time it was the doorbell that rang, with Della plodding up the stairs, a yellow envelope in her hand.

“Don’t open it, don’t open it,” Della was muttering. “Hit’s bad luck. Dem things always bad luck.”

Bill took it from her, tore it open. Pat watched his face whiten and turn to a dull greyish tan.

“Peter,” he said, huskily. “Peter died this morning.”

With Pat’s arms around him, he reread the message. “I’m glad you’re going to Halifax with me, Pat. It will make this a little easier.”

“I wish I could go with you, Bill,” she said painfully, “but I can’t. Not this time.”

He turned on her in amazement. “But I thought—all along ...”

She shook her head. “I know. I’m sorry, Bill.”

“Can you tell me why?” A little muscle in his jaw went up and down, up and down.

“I guess,” she said, stonily, “I just can’t take it. Waiting and waiting for you to come back to the hotel ...”

He started to say something, thought better of it, and went back to his packing.

After that they talked of practical things—stocks and bonds and taxes. It was as if they were walking around puddles in their conversation, even when they spoke of Peter.

Later Bill went downtown on some last errands. The house became suffocating and Pat pulled a mat from the porch down to the flower beds. Dr. Clayton or no Doctor Clayton, she began to weed the first tender shoots of phlox. Just this once wouldn’t matter. There was something about the dark rich earth, and her nearness to it, that brought healing to her heart.

She remembered feeling suddenly dizzy, a little sick. And then Della was bending over her, bathing her temples, murmuring that Doctor Clayton would be right here.

Together they fixed her comfortably on the terrace.

“You’ve been under too great an emotional strain,” Doctor Clayton said. “I’m not at all in sympathy with your keeping this from your husband.”

“You don’t understand,” Pat moaned. “You’re not married. And you promised.”

“Just the same I’d feel better about it if we told him. He has a right to know.” He leaned down to listen to her heart again, and at that moment Bill , walked up in back of them, the thick turf silencing his step.

“Just a faint,” Doctor Clayton explained, obviously embarrassed. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Bill would have gone to the gate with him, but Pat pulled him back. “Stay with me, Bill. Doctor Clayton knows the way out.” She didn’t trust them alone together.

“Feeling better?” Bill asked gently. “How did it happen? You don’t usually go in for faints.”

“I was weeding the phlox. The sun must have been hotter than I realized.”

“Better get somebody to help you.”

“I’ve been trying to. All the gardeners have gone to war, too.”

“I didn’t know you’d changed doctors, Pat.”

“You mean Doctor Clayton? Della called him.”

“Seems like a good man.”

“Oh, he is,” she answered quickly, too quickly. “I mean he’s very popular.”

“Can’t keep a good man down,” Bill said.

Later she heard him out in the kitchen, questioning Della.

“How often has Mrs. Raeburn fainted lately, Della?”

“Not often. Honest, Mr. Raeburn, she don’t faint at all. She’s fine. Don’ you worry yourself none about Mrs. Raeburn.”

“But why, when she needed a doctor, did you call in a stranger?”

“Stranger! Lawsee, dat man ain’t no stranger. He’s here all de time. No sir, Doctor Clayton ain’t no stranger.”

That’s another one for the book, Pat giggled to herself. What a kick Bill would get out of remembering that someday!

BY EVENING the word about Peter had gotten around and people began dropping in to express their sympathy. It was midnight before Bill and she got to bed. For the first time Pat took one of the little white pills Doctor Clayton had given her and fell at once into a heavy slumber.

She woke with a start, felt for Bill in his place beside her, and found him gone. She became vaguely aware of cigarette smoke drifting, from the garden, through the open window.

Slipping into her mules, she tiptoed over and looked out. Bill was on his knees weeding the phlox. She could see him plainly in the last quarter of a moon that slashed the furrowed sky with a silver blade. Pat snatched a housecoat from the closet and took the stairs as noiselessly as possible, expecting any minute to be accosted by Della on the prowl for burglars.

But it was Bill who heard the screen door open and came toward her, wiping the dirt from his hands on his trousers.

“What are you doing up, Pat?”

“What are you?”

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“Neither could I. Are you grieving about Peter, Bill?”

He nodded painfully. “I was thinking about you, too, Pat.” He took a robe from the swing, wrapped her in it, and sat down beside her. “I hope you’ll take care of yourself while I’m gone. Incidentally, it’s only fair to warn you that I’m not apt to be an Enoch Arden.”

Enoch Arden! Wasn’t he the man in the poem who went away and came back to find his wife married to somebody else, and just went away again? But why should Bill think ... ?

In a flash she knew. Doctor Clayton! Bill was thinking things about Doctor Clayton. Doctor Clayton on the telephone. Doctor Clayton summoned by Della, when she fainted. Della’s precious lie about Doctor Clayton being here all the time. She wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. It was so silly.

“Bill,” she asked gently, “you’re not thinking things about Doctor Clayton, are you?”

“Am I?” he asked flatly. “It isn’t like you not to go with me when I ask you. It isn’t like you to say, I can’t take it.’ Clayton calls up and you make an excuse about reports. You faint and Della calls Clayton. Then I find out he’s no stranger; that he’s hanging around here all the time. And when a busy, popular doctor takes time off to visit a well woman ...”

She hadn’t dreamed it would look like this to him! And with his grief about Peter, it had all swung somehow out of balance. And he’d be off in the war, imagining her here with Doctor Clayton. Jealousy for anyone of Bill’s temperament could be a frightful, devastating thing.

“You can’t possibly believe there’s anyone but you, Bill,” she said softly.

He leaned back in the swing, his eyes straight ahead of him. “I don’t want to. I’d never want to. You can’t always control these things, Pat.”

Both hands were in his pockets. Pat pulled the nearest one out and wrapped both of hers around it. “I wasn’t going to tell you, Bill, because I didn’t want you to worry. But I guess I’d rather have you worry because I loved you too much, than because you thought I loved you too little.”

She paused, and Bill said, after a moment. “Isn’t there more to it than that, Pat?”

What I say now, she was thinking, I can never unsay. “Doctor Clayton is the best obstetrician around here. Our old doctor was mistaken, Bill. We are going to have another baby.”

He was on his feet, glaring down at her. “Does he know what he’s talking about?”

“He knows,” Pat said patiently. “He also says there’s nothing to worry about.”

“That's what we thought the last time.”

She caught her breath. “Don’t you think if I were frightened about it, I’d be begging you to stay here with me?"

He dropped down in the swing again, held her in his arms. He plied her with questions, dozens of questions, all of which she tried to answer, satisfactorily, from the information Doctor Clayton had given her.

“When is it?” Bill asked at last.

“If I tell you,” Pat bargained, “will you promise not to go AWL or anything?”

“Commandos are always more or less AWL, but I’ll do my best.”

“Then . . . how would you like Valentine’s Day, Lieutenant Raeburn? If it can be arranged.”

Bill drew a long, deep breath. “Why, the whole darned war may be over by that time.”

“Of course! That’s what I keep telling myself.” The clock in the hall chimed the hour. “Bill, that’s three o’clock and you must get some sleep.” She drew him with her through the still dark rooms, up the stairs.

“Even if the war isn’t over,” he said, hopefully, climbing into bed, “I may be able to get leave. Pat, I was just thinking . Could we call him Peter?” His voice broke. “Pete and I always planned how we’d treat our kids, if we ever had any. I’ll have to do it now for both of us.”

Silently Pat let her fingers wind through his.

In a few minutes he was asleep. But Pat didn’t sleep. As dawn broke she raised herself on one elbow and looked down upon the bright blond head beside her. Quietly she bent down and, with a lump in her throat, pressed her lips to the smooth cool forehead.

Valentine’s Day was how many weeks after Christmas? Christmas, when the night sky would be black velvet above a white earth; when, perhaps, lying in her hospital bed with Bill’s baby at her breast she’d hear carollers under her window singing:

“Oh, little town of Bethlehem How still I see thee lie,

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,

The silent stars go by . . . ”

By Valentine’s Day little Peter should be nearly two months old.