FICTION

THE Garden Gate

ISABELLE RAGSDALE June 1 1945
FICTION

THE Garden Gate

ISABELLE RAGSDALE June 1 1945

THE Garden Gate

ISABELLE RAGSDALE

Mother love can become a selfish tyranny . . . But the man in uniform has learned how to deal with tyrants

THIS MORNING I was in the garden helping Dan, my one-armed handy man, to plant the climbing rose by the garden gate between my house and Allie’s. I couldn’t stand any longer to see the hinges growing rusty in the fall rains, and I guess it’s just human to plant growing things on the graves of the dead. Friendship died out there.

A lot has happened since the afternoon last summer when Cannie came through the arch between their garden and mine. She threw herself into one of the yard chairs under the old elm. where l sat exhausted from the heat, drinking iced lemonade, and said in a tight voice:

“Will you help me, Maggie?”

I’ve known Catharine Tarrant since she was a skinny-legged girl of 10, with brown eyes and a timid mouth. Her black hair hung down her back in two braids, with a bow tied halfway down each braid, where it ended in a curl at her waistline.

I live in the house John Poston and I designed together in 1917 and I built alone when John did not come back from France and I realized I was a war widow. The Tarrants bought the house on the corner next to mine 15 years ago. They moved in one cold day in December and when it began to be dusk Cannie came knocking at my door to ask if I had two light bulbs to let them use, as the people who had moved out had taken every one with them, and no one had noticed it until now.

I took quite a fancy to Cannie Tarrant. She was about the age my daughter would have been had she lived longer than that one tragic week. She was a shy little thing, but when I met Allie Tarrant, her mother,

I didn’t wonder. The spirit of a dictator lived in Allie Tarrant’s frail body and she was possessed of a charm that was irresistible when she chose to use it. Even at 64 she could dominate a group of people, and I’ve seen her take a conversation that was dying on its feet, inject such animation into it that soon everyone was having a good time. But Allie Tarrant felt that having borne her at 39 and nursed her through a sickly childhood, Cannie should be her slave forever. And Clyde Tarrant, her husband, dying when Cannie was 15 didn’t help matters much. He left them a surprising amount of money but that didn’t release Cannie.

I tried to help her every way I could, and I have been furious enough at Allie to scratch her eyes out. When Cannie was in her sophomore year, the boys and girls of her high school class were a jolly crew and, as a rule, their fun was of a simple kind. They had wiener roasts and steak frys. They took hikes in the woods and they gathered at the different homes for candymaking, singing and dancing.

One winter evening when there was a blizzard raging, Susie, the little Scottish woman who is housekeeper and companion to me, made a huge pot of taffy. I made stacks of popcorn balls and asked Cannie’s particular crowd in. We built a fire in the fireplace in the living room and took up the Persian rug. Everything was set for a big evening, but Allie went to bed with a severe attack of colitis about dinner time, and Cannie couldn’t come. Several weeks later Cannie entertained the whole class at a dinner dance at the Country Club and, I heard afterward, every other dance was a waltz, and Allie, wearing a bright rose dress and with her thin cheeks rouged, danced every one.

One night when Cannie was about 16, and beginning to show signs of the real beauty that would develop later, she had one of the few dates I ever knew her to have. Allie asked me to come over in their garden and visit with her, as she did not like to be alone.

WHEN Cannie and Louis came in from the movies about 11 they joined us where we were sitting on the brick terrace. Quite obviously Louis was interested. He sat close to Cannie on the steps that led down to the lawn and flower beds, and watched the moonlight and shadows play across her attractive face.

In just about five minutes Allie began to be chilly, although she had remarked several times to*me during the evening about how warm it could be in Mapleton in June.

Cannie ran in to get a scarf for her mother, and not finding any downstairs, went upstairs to search for one. No sooner was she out of hearing than Allie began singing her praises, telling Louis there was no man on earth good enough for her Catharine. Then quite deftly and quite suddenly she was talking expertly about baseball, which proved to be such a popular subject with Louis that when the screen door slammed softly and Cannie came across the terrace to lay the silk scarf around her mother’s shoulders, Louis was sitting in a chair beside Allie and the dreamy look had gone out of his eyes.

Infuriated at such unfair competition I got up and walked through the arch to my own garden, not even saying goodnight; though I must admit my going was not noted by any one of the three.

Then there was the summer when my nephew came to visit me. Cannie was 22 and had just finished her last two years of college work at Queen’s University at Kingston, where Allie had gone also, taking an apartment and reigning, so I heard, like a dowager queen over the campus.

After missing several summers, Warren was going to be with me for a month. I knew the ways of girls in a small town when there is an eligible male visiting. You have to be quick if you want to catch him. I saw to it that he and Cannie renewed their acquaintance alone in my garden, under my elm tree, and I invented errands for them to run in my new sports coupé. Then, when I thought the situation was well in hand, I invited a crowd in for a picnic supper.

I was helping Susie make the sandwiches that morning when Cannie appeared in the kitchen door. Tears came in her eyes when she told me that her mother had been ill all night, and the doctor had just been there. He said she must get out of the heat at once, and they were leaving that afternoon for the Laurentians. I called Warren to come down to tell her good-by, and I watched with tears in my eyes the picture they made standing at my garden gate when Warren kissed her.

I could hardly stand it that night when I looked at Martha Devereaux openly baiting Warren, he apparently falling for it, and thought of Cannie speeding toward a lonely summer in the mountains at an old woman’s beck and call. But, I told myself, I was through. There was nothing more I could do against Allie Tarrant. She had all the heavy artillery on her side.

So for threeyears now we had been good friends and neighbors. We had come and gone through the garden gate. Sometimes on long winter evenings Susie and I had gone over for a game of bridge with the Tarrants. On beautiful fall days I had driven with Cannie and her mother to neighboring towns antique hunting and I had, like everyone else in Mapleton, begun to take Cannie’s lot for granted.

\ND NOW here was Cannie, the woman, sitting under my elm tree, asking me to help her. I poured lemonade from the glass pitcher into one of the tall green striped glasses and handed it to Cannie. “What is the trouble, Cannie?”

She twisted the glass about in its straw mat protector with fingers that were slim and graceful like Allie’s blue-veined hands. Her heavy hair was cut shorter now and smoothed into one of the hundred different styles they make up in beauty shops. Her brown eyes were brimming with feeling. I noticed for the first time that her mouth wasn’t timid any more, her lips moved firmly when she spoke.

For a long time she lay back against the green cushions of the white wicker chair, while I wondered what had come over her.

“You’re the only one I can talk to, Maggie, for

you’re the only one who ever tried to help me.” Her voice broke a little. “I’ve never mentioned it before, Maggie, somehow it didn’t seem loyal to mother, but I want you to know that I appreciated all the things you used to do for me. I used to try to tell myself that mother had a right to me, but when I looked around and saw the way other girls’ mothers treated them, and the way you were, it was hard.”

I only nodded my head, fearing to interrupt her.

She took a long drink of her lemonade and continued : “I guess I never cared enough to do anything about it before but I am desperate now, Maggie.”

The resentment I had felt for so many years came back as I looked at Cannie and realized she had not been taking things so complacently as I thought. She simply had been using perfect control over her emotions.

“Cannie, whatever it is you plan, you know that I will help you,” I promised her, glad to see her with a little spunk.

“Thank you, Maggie. I really have no right to afck it, and I hate to think what mother will say when she

finds it out. I know how she feels about you.”

“Forget that,” I said, already fired with enthusiasm over I knew not what. “It can’t be worse than things she has said before.”

“Do you remember hearing us speak about Cy

Bentley?”

“Yes. Your mother talked quite a bit about the Cyrus Bentley, Junior, of Winnipeg, that summer you came home from the Laurentians. I can’t recall you saying much about him.”

Cannie’s blood was good and red, and it mounted to her face. “It wasn’t because I wasn’t thinking of him,” she confessed.

“You didn’t get much of a chance,” I admitted, as I leaned forward to take her now empty glass. “Will you have some more lemonade, Cannie?”

“Please, Maggie. You always make the best drinks.”

I handed her the full glass. “Susie made this, but thanks just the same. I taught her how.”

“Cy is coming tonight.” Cannie said it simply.

“Here?” I asked dumbly, for it seemed to me I remembered something about Cyrus Bentley, Junior, enlisting in Montreal and soon being sent overseas.

“He arrives in Kingston at 6.30. He wired me to meet him. He must leave here in the morning for Toronto on his way home. Maggie, he told me beloved me that summer, but he went away without saying good-by. I was afraid he had forgotten; it has been three years. He didn’t write, and—well, a man fighting in a strange country is apt to forget. I really hadn’t much reason to hope. But he is back, after being wounded—and he is coming today.” All the emotion that had been pent up so long was in those last few words.

“I am happy for you, Cannie,” I said, still not seeing where my help would be needed.

“But, Maggie! It is three o’clock now, and mother’s going to bed with colitis.”

“Well!” I don’t swear but this time I wanted to.

“She was calling the doctor when I came over here. She said I could wire Cy on the train that she is ill, and he can come later. But I’rn not going to do it this time, Maggie.” Her voice was determined as she repeated it like an oath. “I’m not going to do it.”

“Of course you’re not,” I said, holding back the thousand suggestions that came to my mind, for this time I could see Cannie had ideas of her own.

“Elsie says she will stay with mother this evening while I’m gone. I stopped in the kitchen and asked her as I came out. Maggie, will you let Cy stay over here? I’ve called both hotels and they are filled. We’re usually up all night at home when mother has a spell like this, and—and—well, sometimes it isn’t so pleasant.”

“Indeed he may stay here, Cannie. And—” thinking I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb—“bring him here for supper, don’t stop in Kingston. You should be back by quarter to eight.”

“Thank you, Maggie.” She put her glass on the low table as she stood up, then she bent and hugged me hard. “You don’t know what this means to me, Maggie.”

“Have you enough gas to get to Kingston and back?” I asked her, holding close to my heart the warmth of her embrace. She turned back.

“Oh, no, I haven’t, and mother said I couldn’t have a coupon.”

I stood up. “Well, I got some this morning. Go bring your car to my garage and we’ll siphon it off.”

WE WORKED for about half an hour getting the gas from my tank to hers, neither one of us being very handy about the inner needs of a car.

Then Cannie left, and once more Susie and I organized for a battle that we had long since regarded as lost. It was a stifling summer afternoon, but Susie went to work with a will. She made a big bowl of vinegar-dressing potato salad, and some Italian spaghetti. She sliced the spiced baked ham and made water-cress sandwiches.

I went into the downstairs guest room to see that all was in order there, and connected an electric fan on the chest of drawers. I moved one of the small baskets of roses, fresh that morning, from the living room to the bedside table. Cy was going to have as royal a welcome as we on our side of the garden gate could give him.

When Cannie hoo-hooed at the kitchen door about 5.30 I came downstairs to find her standing, just inside the screen, talking to Susie, Continued on page 39

Continued on page 39

Continued from page 17

and I could see telltale signs of the things Allie must have said. She had her white pocketbook tucked under her arm and kept her eyes lowered as she drew on her gloves, but when I spoke she looked up quickly; and while I saw no weakening in her face, it was a study of mixed emotions.

“No wonder Cy is coming back to you. Cannie! you’re simply distracting in that green-and-white outfit.” I put plenty of emphasis on my words.

She appealed to me. “O Maggie!

Then you don’t think I am a fool, and perhaps he really means it?”

“I most certainly do!”

“You don’t think I imagine every man I see is crazy about me?”

How could Allie have been so cruel? “You do about as little imagining along that line as any girl I ever knew.” She seemed reassured then, and turned to go out the door.

“You’re good to me, Maggie.” She looked back through the screen. “If the train is late I’ll call you.” In a moment we heard her backing the car out of the garage.

It was still light when I sat down on the front porch to wait for Cannie and Cy. I glanced across the wide lawn toward the Tarrant place. The spray was still going on the front grass, where it was when Cannie left. The west awnings had not been raised. The house seemed silent and uncommunicative.

When the Tarrants’ bulletnosed blue car turned into my drive, I felt I hardly knew this Cannie who came up the steps with shining eyes. No need to ask if the threads broken off several summers ago had been taken up again. I’d say considerable knitting had been done between Kingston and Mapleton.

Cy was a big fellow. Cannie barely reached his shoulder as he helped her up the steps. He had the reddest hair I had ever seen, and his fair skin was burned until his eyes seemed like pieces of a sunlit summer sky. He wore a captain’s pips on his shoulders, and he moved one leg stiffly.

“Maggie, this is Cy.” A new vibrance in Cannie’s voice did something to the homeliness of both our names. “Cy, this is Maggie. 1 want you two to like each other.” Cy took my hand in both of his.

“Hello, Maggie,” he looked me in the eye with an engaging smile.

“I know we’re going to like each other.” I nodded to Cannie. I could smell a pipe on him; Cy was a man’s man and I trust a man like that.

After a few moments small talk about the awful crowds on the trains and the hot weather, he went to get his bag from the car, while Cannie and I waited in the porch.

She said to me hurriedly: “He’s asked me to marry him right away, Maggie.”

My heart turned a flip-flop. “Are you sure you love him, Cannie?”

“I’ve never loved a man before.” Her eyes were on him as he lifted the lid of the trunk, in such a way that I felt it a sacrilege to intercept the look. “And I will never love anyone else as long as I live.”

“Then marry him, child,” I said, my mind going back to my hurried marriage to John and the glorious three weeks we had before he sailed—all that Fate had given me. “Tonight, if he wants.”

Cy came up then with his heavy bag and we could say no more. We went inside, where the rooms were cool and dim in the light of the hall lamp.

When I left Cannie and Cy a few moments later in the living room, to go tell Susie they had arrived, Cyrus was taking her in his arms and his shoulders bent in the ardor a man has when he has gone hungry for a long time for one woman’s kisses.

“Oh, dearest,” I heard him say,

. “you’re lovelier than I even dreamed you were those lonely nights when there was nothing but hell and death and screaming shells. I didn’t dare write you the things I felt and thought. You were so standoffish; your mother always came first, and you didn’t answer the letter 1 wrote you when I had to leave. If it hadn’t been for that night when we got lost from the crowd — I’ve lived two years on that one kiss.”

I HADN’T the heart to go right back, when I’d told Susie we were ready, so I delayed a bit, stirring the spaghetti that simmered on the stove, looking to see if Susie had taken out enough ice cubes, and generally getting in her way. I fooled along putting the lemon slices in the drinks I mixed, so I guess it must have been 15 minutes later when I came back into the room.

I was so dumbfounded at the scene that greeted me, I almost dropped the tray of drinks I was carrying. Cannie was standing close to Cy and, though his arm was still about her, there was a stricken look on her face. She looked cold, as if she’d been rubbed with ice. They were both staring toward the open arch that led into the hall. I looked there, too, and in the doorway stood Allie Tarrant. Her face was pale and drawn; her white hair, which was always carefully curled, was pulled straight and knotted at the back. Her thin hands held shut the gay silk scarf she had around her shoulders over her wrinkled pink dress, even on this hot evening. Her blue eyes were cold when she looked at Cannie.

“What do you mean, Catharine Tarrant, by going off and leaving your old sick mother alone?”

Cannie left Cy’s side and put her hand on her mother’s arm. “Mama, you shouldn’t have got up. Where’s Elsie?”

Allie shook her hand off. “She’s gone. I sent her home. If my own daughter won’t stay with me when I am sick, I won’t have a paid woman. If you have to have a man so bad that you would leave your poor sick mother to chase after him and then bring him to a neighbor’s house instead of your own home, you’re no daughter of mine.”

“Mama, don’t say such things, please.” Cannie begged.

“I will say such things and more. No man will think much of a girl who would treat her mother so. You’ve been a fool, Catharine. But you always were hardheaded; I could never tell you anything.”

I put the tray down on the coffee table and came forward.

“Allie, I think Cannie has a right—” I began.

“I don’t care to hear anything you have to say—Margaret. You’ve always been jealous of me with Catharine, though goodness knows why. You’ve done your best to turn her from me. Don’t think I haven’t known it. But you can’t do it; I am her mother.”

Cannie then interposed, miserably: “Mother, Cy is here.”

“I saw him. Are you coming home now, Catharine? I am sick and I want to go to bed.” Her fingers were a little shaky but her voice was steady and hard. I’d seen Allie Tarrant fight before but never so desperately and never so openly.

“Mrs. Tarrant.” Cy had been so quiet I’d almost forgotten he was there until he began to speak. “I’ve learned a lot of things tonight I wish to heaven I’d known three years ago. I see why Cannie treated me the way she did and why she didn’t answer my letter. She never received it, and now I think I know why. You’re holding onto her with all your strength in any way you can.”

Allie looked at Cannie. “That’s not true, is it Catharine?”

My heart ached as I looked at Cannie and saw the radiant woman Cy had kissed to fife fighting against the colorless, dutiful daughter.

“Answer me, Catharine. Have I ever stood in your way when I was not ill? And haven’t I urged you to go even when I lay in bed? It is not my fault that men have never liked you and you

preferred to stay at home. I could not drag them in for you. Tell them, Catharine. Don’t make a poor, sick woman stand here and defend herself. Do I he, Catharine?”

The child stood silent in her humiliation and if ever I hated another human being I hated Allie Tarrant then.

Susie looked in from the kitchen just then to see if she should put supper on. Subconsciously I heard her gasp and close the kitchen door.

“Do I lie, Catharine?” Allie repeated her question.

“No,” Cannie said in a low voice. “You do not lie. Let’s go home now, mother. You should be in bed.”

“Cannie! You can’t do this.” Cy’s words stopped her as she started to take her mother’s arm. “Nothing is settled.”

Oh, I thought, if he would only take herinhis arms, that would hold her. But he didn’t, he stood there, a slightly incredulous look in his blue eyes and a paleness showing underneath his tan.

“You know I have to leave in the morning. Come with me, dearest. You love me, don’t you?”

But Allie’s words had hold of her. The sudden blaze of confidence had burned out in Cannie; the glow of a man’s desired had dimmed to imperceptibility.

“If she had not cared for me as a baby I would never have lived.”

“What’s that got to do with it?” Cy asked. “Lots of women do that.” “I cannot leave her now. I have been a fool, Cy.” She was becoming as remote to him as though ten thbusand years of history separated them. She put her arm around Aide’s shoulder and together they started to my front door.

“Where I’ve been the past two years, when we had an objective we took it.” Quickly Cy seized Cannie by the arm and swung her around so close to him that the attraction between them sparked. I saw the blood mount again in Cannie’s cheeks. Allie turned, too, but she was too late.

“Answer me, Cannie,” Cy demanded. “Do you love me?”

Involuntarily she pressed closer to him. “I do love you, Cy, but—” “That’s all 1 want to know.”

Now, I thought, he will take her in his arms, but he didn’t, he grabbed her by the hand and pulled her into the bedroom. He set her hat on her head at a rakish angle and thrust her bag and gloves into her other hand, then he put on his own cap and took his bag, still holding her hand firmly. As they were going to the door they stopped in the archway.

“We’re catching the next train to Toronto,” Cy said.

“There’s one at 10 o’clock,” I interrupted breathlessly.

“Then we’ll be in Winnipeg day after tomorrow. You’ll find your car parked at the station, Mrs. Tarrant, if the police don’t pick it up before you get there. I have 30 days’ leave. We’ll be back before the time is up, but we’ll already be married and it will only be for a visit. I can see you’ve needed someone like me around for some time. See you soon. Good-by, Maggie.” And he yanked Cannie out the door before Allie could recover from her surprise.

Of course Allie hasn’t spoken to me since. Cy and Cannie came back in about three weeks, on their way to his base depot in Montreal. They came over to see me one day and they were gloriously happy. Allie gave a dinner party for them while they were here, and, the crowd told me afterward, she talked all evening about “My son, Cyrus, this; my son, Cyrus, that.”