Some Other Woman's Daughter
Wolves like Brad Wheeler were not welcome on Flemings' doorstep. And Cherry Anderson was wolf bait... but definitely!
MARGARET E. BARNARD
AS SHE mounted the veranda steps and heard the latest Crosby record quavering from the living room, Eleanor Fleming groaned. Not that there was anything so terrible or unusual in two 17-year-olds having a platter session, but when one of them was Cherry Anderson, and when this had been happening four or five times a week for the last month, it began to get you down.
“I don’t like it,” Eleanor had said to Jeff, her husband. “Cherry isn’t the kind of friend 1 want for Madge.”
“Madge’ll probably do her good,” he returned.
“It’s what she’ll probably do to Madge that bothers me,” said Eleanor.
“At least,” said Jeff, “she’s got our darling daughter to give up shirttails and pants. That’s something.”
Reluctantly Eleanor had to give Cherry credit for that.
“To tell the truth,” she went on, confessing her real worry, “it’s Vic who bothers me more than Madge.”
At his son’s name, Jeff almost visibly detached his mind from the editorial page.
“Surely, Jeff,” said Eleanor, shaking her head at him with fond exasperation, “you aren’t simple
enough to think that Madge is the attraction here.”
“I could be,” he chuckled. “Sometimes I really enjoy being simple for a change. Anyway, what if Vic is the magnet? Even you couldn’t blame any girl for being dazzled.”
“The girl can be dazzled as much as she likes,” said Eleanor. “But I do mind Vic being dazzled, especially by this particular one.”
“Any signs of it?”
“Well, not so far, but—”
“Oh,” Jeff had said, comfortably returning to his paper. “In that case, why worry?”
But when Eleanor poked her head into the living room on this particular afternoon it wasn’t easy to be lighthearted in the greeting she called above the tuneful bedlam.
“I did as much as I could toward dinner,” Madge told her. “The table’s all set—and I put an extra place for Cherry.”
Cherry, perched on the arm of a chair, vaguely tapped her cigarette in the general direction of an ash tray, and a small grey mound flecked Eleanor’s cherished green broadloom.
“I hope I’m not making a nuisance of myself,”
she said with the composure of one who could not imagine herself being anything of the kind. A wide, ripe smear of lipstick, a fringe of shining black hair across the forehead and a long, smooth cascade to her shoulders, an oblique glance fondly supposed to be of the quality described as smoldering—that was Cherry.
“Perhaps you’d like to telephone your mother that you’re staying,” suggested Eleanor.
“Oh, she won’t care,” Cherry said lightly. “I’ve no ties until 8.30. Then Brad Wheeler’s picking me up here.”
“ Here?” Eleanor echoed.
Brad Wheeler was one of the wrong kind of people Cherry ran around with, and Eleanor was
not at all pleased that he should be given the freedom of her doorbell, even for once.
“I told him if he didn’t find me at home I’d likely be here,” Cherry explained.
At dinner and afterward, Eleanor would have been amused at the personality promotion campaign Cherry put on for Vic’s benefit, if he had been anybody else’s son but hers. Jeff thoroughly enjoyed it, and once or twice raised his eyebrows gently at Eleanor as if to confirm what she had told him about it. Vic, from the lofty eminence of 19, was elaborately nonchalant, but afterward suffered himself to be shown some intricate jive steps of Cherry’s own invention.
The lesson was interrupted by a loud insistent honking. Brad Wheeler was the kind who would sit out at the curb and summon a girl like that, thought Eleanor—and Cherry was the kind who’d run when he did. Vic, watching as she went down the walk, said casually: “She’s a crazy little femme, but she’s darned cute about it sometimes.”
THE craziness was evident enough to Eleanor, but the cuteness was harder to see. She sighed. You brought your children up as carefully as you could. You struggled with spinach and schoolwork and manners, and contended with measles and chicken pox on the side. Then, just as you thought everything was set to run smoothly, along came the child of some other woman whose ideas were not yours, and your whole family was disrupted.
Eleanor could hardly wait to go up to the cottage, where there would be no Cherry underfoot, and time and separation would do their work. But in the interval she must be patient and careful. Cherry, for all her uninhibited career—perhaps because of it—was shrewd. Often Eleanor was aware of her eyes calculatingly upon her, especially after occasions when she had edged Madge into staying out too late, or neglecting information about movements and plans that might be upsetting to the household. It was as if Cherry were trying to see how far she could go before anything would be said or done. But Eleanor grimly held her peace. She’d continue to do so as long as the excursions showed no signs of reaching out to include Brad Wheeler or any of the haunts to which Cherry went when she was with him. One evening she thought the crisis was upon her when, after the inevitable jive tryout, Cherry said impatiently: “Oh, Vic, give! If you were at The Hot Platter now—” She stopped abruptly. “Well, why didn’t we think of it before? Let’s go out there—but immediately. The fun will be only starting. You’ll love it, Madgie.”
A strange silence fell. The Hot Platter was a roadhouse with a none too savory reputation, one of those places suspected to be a front for many doubtful trades. Rumor had it that Brad Wheeler’s expensive clothes, his'long flashy car, his well-filled wallet, came from there. Into the silence, to Eleanor’s utter relief, Vic barged.
“That’s no place for—” he began, then stopped abruptly.
Cherry folded her arms, stuck her chin up, and studied him for another awkward moment of silence. Then she said, “Your ears are red—and getting redder every minute!”
Vic tried to mumble something but she went on incisively. “You almost said it was the sort of place you wouldn’t for worlds see your sister in, didn’t you? Then Continued on pape 38
Continued on page 38
Some Other Woman's Daughter
Continued from page 16
you nearly bit your tongue off, didn’t you?” She smiled suddenly and gave him a poke with a long red-clawed fore-
finger. “That was sweet of you, Vic, to change gears for fear of taking a crack at me.”
More than ever after that, Eleanor longed for the day when she would have her two safely up at the cottage. It w'as a friendly colony there in the bay at the upper end of the lake. The young people swam together, occasion-
ally quarrelled, and as they grew up,, went dancing together at Cosentino’s on Fridays and Saturdays when the week-end crowd came up. Cosentino’s had a big, glittering juke box, and although at the foot of the lake, six miles away, a noisy rash of hot dog stands and a regular dance hall had appeared, Cosentino’s was still the place to go. When the young crowd stopped going there, Eleanor thought, the good old days would have departed as far as the cottagers in the bay were concerned.
The first time the cottage was mentioned, a quick look passed between Madge and Vic. Madge said, “Oh, mother, why don’t we go somewhere else for a change? Some place a little more lively—like a hotel or something.” “A spot with a bit of night life,” suggested Vic.
While Eleanor sat stricken with dismay, Madge hurried on persuasively. “You wouldn’t have to think up things to eat, Mum. And no dishes!”
“Huh!” Vic was derisive. “Six for mother and half a dozen for yourself.” “Think of the fun we’d have,” Madge went on undaunted. “Cherry says where they go—”
Eleanor might have known Cherry was behind all this. The happy summers of the past rushed at her in a flood of remembrance. Those days when the children were small . . . Madge paddling along in the shallows, Vic out near the end of the wharf on a pair of water wings, firmly convinced he was swimming . . . Jeff, dear Jeff, soaking in rest and good air and sunshine . . .
Why, the cottage had been a godsend. All their lives were bound up in it. And because of a person like Cherry Anderson, was the continuity to be broken? Once that happened in the life of a family the mischief was done. The old threads could never be picked up again.
“No,” said Eleanor, sharply now. “It’s out of the question.”
Hours, even days, made little difference to the gloom. Eleanor’s thoughts turned and twisted on themselves. Summer at the lake with two discontented young people was something she felt she could not face. Something must be done. But what? Even Jeff began to take it seriously.
“Apart from the cost,” he said, “two or three weeks of racketing around in one of these noisy hotels is a sheer waste of time for me. No rest in it. And yet we can’t expect our kids to go on doing something that doesn’t appeal to them. Next year, for a change, I suppose, we might give it a try. But it would be hard to shift mental gears this summer, especially when I’ve just lived through 49 weeks for the sake of the three I can have up there.”
“Poor old Jeff,” said Eleanor. She went across and kissed him. “I’ll have to think up some way to reconcile them for this year at least.” Suddenly, from the dark spot where it had been lurking all this time, an idea shot to the surface. Eleanor stiffened, but there was no escape. “I think,” she said slowly, “I have the solution.”
“Out with it then,” Jeff said.
“It’s—it’s to ask Cherry to come up with us for a couple of weeks.”
“Consistency, thou art a jewel,” Jeff said, gaping at her. “I thought she gave you the jitters when the family was exposed to her for only an hour or two at a time. Sure you know what you’re doing?”
“Absolutely,” replied Eleanor. “It’s psychologically sound. Many a friendship has withered away because the people concerned have had to live together.”
“Your calculating wickedness staggers me,” said Jeff. “Only watch out,
lady. This psychology stuff will let you down one of these days.”
ELEANOR gave no hint of her decision to Aladge and Vic, but next time Cherry came she delivered the invitation. Madge, after one openmouthed stare of incredulity, flew to hug her mother in hard young arms.
“Oh, perfect!” she cried.
Vic, sorting through a pile of records, merely said, “Good stuff!” but there was satisfaction in the quick look he flashed at Cherry. Cherry herself seemed unaware of it. She, too, stared at Eleanor as if she could not grasp what had been said.
“Me?” she repeated, pointing at herself with an oddly childish gesture. “Do you mean me?” Half a minute later she drew her chosen role about her again like a cloak and said in her usual voice, “Oh, thank you, Airs. Fleming.”
“It’s very quiet up there,” said Eleanor doubtfully.
“Oh, that’s easily remedied,” replied j Cherry.
“I hope it won’t spoil any plans your mother may have made.”
Any hope that Cherry’s mother might have her own ideas about her daughter’s holiday was quickly j quenched.
“Oh, she won’t care,” said Cherry, ! “I never have to ask her if 1 want to do j anything. She’ll be glad to get rid of j me.”
And that, thought Eleanor, is what j makes parents like us look like jailers \ to our children.
Already she was repenting of her rashness, but short of illness, fire, flood or death there was no turning back now. At least, Madge and Vic were keen on going to the lake.
Jeff came up to help them get settled and to salvage what he could of the first week end. In the flurry and excitement of arrival and unpacking, Cherry’s language flowered. The first time, she looked at Eleanor as if expecting, almost hoping, that something would be said, but Eleanor refused to be drawn. She merely suggested that i the young people get their bathing suits j and try out the water while the day was ' still warm.
Vic was ready first, and by the time the two girls came out of their room he was perched on the veranda railing. At the sight of him Cherry opened her eyes wide, and murmured, “Oh, you great, big, beautiful man! What legs. What arms. Here—let me feel that muscle. Is it real?”
He shrugged her off good-naturedly, ; but, manlike, was not above appreciating a bit of flattery.
“And as if that were not enough,” sighed Eleanor to Jeff as they went on unpacking, “did you see her almost compel him to inspect practically everything that wasn’t covered by her few square inches of swim suit?”
“Nobody thinks twice nowadays about such little things as legs and arms and bare midriffs,” said Jeff. “At least, that’s what you told me last summer when I grumbled about Madge’s apology fora bathing suit. Remember?” “Oh, Jeff!” wailed Eleanor. “If only you’d help me instead of teasing me.” “I’m not teasing, sweetheart. I’m just as keen on Vic falling for the right girl as you are. But I look at it this way. If we’ve made a decent job of him—or think we have—then we’ve got to trust him to choose for himself. The same for Madge when her turn comes. Lord knows, I wish we could have everything set out for them—no blunders, no heartaches, everything fine and dandy. But darned if I think it would be good for them, or for us either.”
He was right, of course. But it was harder to believe when he had gone back to town and Eleanor was on her own. Knowing that small irritations precipitate a crisis quite as often as large ones, she determined to let none of them ruffle her. Cigarette butts strewing every spot that would hold one. Soppy bathing suits flung out on the veranda floor and forgotten as soon as they hit with a wet smack, blithe carelessness about a lot of little things, she ignored with determination. If only Cherry had not given the impression that some of them were done with the intention of piercing Eleanor’s guard, it would have been easier. Once when she was on the verge of making a protest, she caught herself just in time, and was thankful that she hadn’t when a gleam of expectation in Cherry’s eyes faded to disappointment. In addition to giving Cherry satisfaction over an outburst, Eleanor knew that if she slipped just once, if she should be goaded into showing one quarter of the antagonism she felt, the mischief would be done. The shining chivalry of youth toward its own would spring to Cherry’s defense, and it would be the younger generation against the older. If she had hoped that Cherry’s erratic ways, especially when some of their own plans were disarranged, would Irritate Madge and Vic, she soon discovered her mistake. If anything, her complete freedom from any feeling of compulsion fascinated them.
“How do you get that way?” asked Vic one afternoon when the four of them were lazing on the veranda after lunch.
He was on his favorite perch on the railing, Cherry was in a low cushioned chair near him, and Madge was sitting at the table, trying out a new kind of nail enamel. Eleanor had brought her writing pad out, intending to let Jeff know how things were going.
“By not having to do anything you don’t want to,” said Cherry pertly.
“Are you telling me,” said Vic, “that nobody ever told you there are some things you have to do, whether you want to or not?”
“Such ignorance!” jibed Cherry. “Haven’t you ever heard that bossing people, especially when they are very young, hurts their insides somewhere and crops up later to ruin their lives?”
“What about your teeth?” insisted Vic. “Somebody must have told you to brush them every day, or else.”
Cherry whipped out her compact and studied her face in the mirror, curling back her scarlet lips grotesquely. “Pretty good, aren’t they?” she admitted. “But if you have any sense you know it will spoil your looks if your teeth are bad.”
Madge spread her fingers fanwise to admire the new enamel. “No mother to guide her,” she said.
They were all startled when Cherry jumped to her feet so abruptly that her chair clattered over.
“I don’t need a mother to guide me,” she flashed. “I can make my own decisions without any help from anybody !”
Calmly Vic righted the chair while Madge went over to pat Cherry’s shoulder and say, “Now that’s off your mind. Where do we go from here?”
Eleanor should have been hopeful that this was the beginning of the breach, but later she realized that her only concern was lest the day should be spoiled for all of them. Five minutes afterward they went down to the boathouse to help Vic while he tinkered with Morning Glory, their disreputable old launch. The sound of their laughCer and talk came up to Eleanor, and some of her tenseness melted. It was a beautiful day, and soon Jeff would be here again. She settled down to her
letter, but almost immediately her attention was diverted by an arrival at the wharf below. Now who on the lake had a motor boat like that? Its glitter and streamlining made poor old Morning Glory look twice her age. Eleanor leaned over the railing, peering down to see the figure at the wheel. Brad Wheeler! So that was how Cherry intended to remedy the quietness of the lake. She’d known, of course, that Brad Wheeler would follow her up.
His stay was l?rief. When he left, heading down the lake, an instant suspicion rose to Eleanor’s mind. Because of Cherry there was now a link between the Fleming cottage and that doubtful clutter of hot spots at the foot of the lake.
When they came up to get ready for swimming, the talk was all of Brad Wheeler’s boat.
“If I could only get my hands on that wheel,” said Vic. “Oh, boy!”
“You can have the wheel,” said Madge. “Just let me drape myself on one of those chairs back by the flag and I’d die happy.”
“You’ll have to die unhappy as far as I’m concerned,” Eleanor could not help remarking. “If you’re ever asked into that particular boat, I hope you decline.”
“Oh, Mum!” protested Madge.
“What about me, Mrs. Fleming?” asked Cherry, and again that gleam of expectation in her eye made Eleanor wary.
“Whether you go or not rests entirely with you, Cherry,” she replied.
Cherry shrugged her shoulders ever so slightly. “That’s what my mother always says.”
SOMETHING about that shrug, some strange quality of tone disturbed Eleanor. Neither one was as rude as it seemed, judged superficially. She puzzled over it considerably and was even more puzzled next morning when the affair of the raspberries came up. Everyone suddenly was seized with a longing for raspberry pie. Eleanor reminded them that the only berries in those parts grew on bushes all over the hillsides, and would have to be picked first.
“But you love picking wild raspberries, you know you do, Mum,” Madge coaxed.
“The whole crowd planned to go swimming at the Flats this morning,” was Vic’s excuse. He clinched it by remembering that he had promised to pick up the Murrays on the way. “Their boat’s on the blink,” he said.
Cherry looked from one to the other, took a long drink of coffee, then set her cup down firmly and turned to Eleanor. “I’ll go with you, Mrs. Fleming,” she said.
Eleanor had a brief, comical idea that her face was every bit as dismayed as her children’s. Immediately they found all sorts of loopholes for themselves, but Cherry flung their own arguments back at them, and they could not retreat. She was the only one who seemed to find any pleasure in the situation, when, furnished by Eleanor with a sun hat and a convenient pail for her berries, they set off.
What's behind it? The question repeated itself in Eleanor’s mind. “Does she think she’ll curry favor by doing something my own children wouldn’t do?”
She insulated herself behind the idea, even when, to her surprise, Cherry chattered away much as Madge might have done. If Eleanor had known nothing of her but this couple of hours in the sun, Cherry would have appeared no less likable than any other of Madge’s friends. But Eleanor had seen too much of Cherry’s shrewd manipulation of events to let herself be fooled by
seeming ingenuousness. As far as berries were concerned, Cherry’s help was practically nil. All she had to show for her labors were a few messy blobs in the bottom of her pail and an extra layer of tan on her arms. When the ju:cy pie was exclaimed over and finally eaten, Cherry never even claimed, as Eleanor had expected she would, a large share of the credit.
Brad Wheeler appeared several times during the week, never coming any farther than the wharf and apparently interested in no one but Cherry. To Eleanor’s surprise Vic showed no signs of jealousy. She would have been thankful, only she had an uneasy feeling that something was going on underneath the surface. The night before Jeff came, as the young people were coming up from the boathouse, Eleanor could not help hearing Cherry plead urgently, “You’ve just got to, Vic.”
“Don’t worry, kid,” he assured her. “I’ll do my darndest. We’ll think up some way—”
It fed Eleanor’s uneasiness and made the hours until Jeff’s arrival seem twice their natural length. When finally the train came in and the steady drone of Morning Glory’s motor bringing him from the station died down to a waning series of put-puts, Eleanor was waiting on the veranda. She braced herself as Jeff hurried up the path. Her worries mustn’t be allowed to pounce on him within his first five minutes. It had been sticky-hot in town, and the clear pine-fragrant air up here would be a wonderful change.
“Well?” he asked, nodding toward the wharf, where Vic was handing parcels from the boat to the girls.
“Pleasure first, business afterward,” she said. “You’ve time for a dip before supper if you hurry. And we’re having hot biscuits and maple syrup.”
Supper over, they left the dishes to the youngsters and went out in the canoe to get the best of the sunset.
“What’s the score?” Jeff asked presently. “Old man psychology working out?”
“Don’t ask me now,” Eleanor replied. Out here, with the woodsy smell from shore and the softened musical sound of voices creeping over the water, she could afford to forget. “Let’s take tonight just as it is.”
“Suits me,” agreed Jeff. “Gosh, this is like old times, isn’t it?”
Eleanor nodded. Words were unnecessary. Even when the light faded she still could see Jeff’s bulk against the sky, the angle of his pipe, the lazy thrust of the paddle. Over at Cosentino’s the juke box began its wailing, and boats began to converge toward the landing stage.
“Haven’t heard Morning Glory snorting her way along yet,” Jeff remarked.
“It’s only the very young and droopy drips that go early,” said Eleanor. “The quality arrives later.”
But when they turned homeward and slid around the point into the boathouse, Morning Glory was conspicuously not there.
“Queer,” said Jeff as he helped Eleanor out and tied up the canoe, “usually I can spot that pernickety sound of her engine, but tonight she just didn’t register. Hey—What’s that?”
It was a soft thud at the end of the wharf.
“Hi!” called a voice. “Vic! Madge!”
“Oh, it’s one of the Murrays,” said Eleanor. “Yes?”
“Would Vic mind picking up a Forrest on his way over to Cosentino’s, and bring one of us back with your crowd afterward, Mrs. Fleming?”
“They’ve already gone,” said Eleanor.
“Oh—we must have passed them on our way. We’ve just come from Cosentino’s and they weren’t there when we left.”
There were sounds of pushing off. Eleanor clutched Jeff’s arm. “That’s why you didn’t hear the motor. If they didn’t go to Cosentino’s, where did they go?”
“They probably just made a detour to pick up some of the others. We’ll hear them racketing by before long.”
Bundled against the night chill, they sat on the veranda and waited. An hour passed, two hours, and still no Morning Glory proclaimed herself.
“Let’s paddle over to Cosentino’s just to make sure,” said Eleanor. “We could have missed hearing them.”
“And have them peeved because we made them look foolish in the eyes of their contemporaries?”
No, they must not commit that unforgivable sin. They could only wait. The night grew chillier. The Big Dipper swung a fraction of an arc lower. Eleanor’s uneasiness nagged at her. With Cherry Anderson in a family you could never be sure what was happening. Into the stillness, with growing volume, came the sound of motors and voices — Cosentino’s patrons going home. The crescendo died away to a creaking rowboat or two, an occasional paddle thudding softly against a stern, but no Morning Glory.
“We can’t just sit here like this,” Eleanor broke out. “We’ll have to do something, Jeff.”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “Do you hear what I hear?”
FROM far away came the faintest rhythm. In the clear air it could be heard with growing distinctness.
“It’s Morning Glory, all right,” said Jeff.
“From the foot of the lake,” added Eleanor bitterly. “From that cheap dance hall.” She might have known what Vic promised that girl he’d do his darnedest for. It was the thin edge of the wedge.
“Well, let’s not be caught shivering here in suspense,” said Jeff, and Eleanor began disentangling herself from the rugs.
“I’ll have some coffee ready,” she said.
She had brought it into the living room and was setting out cups when Morning Glory snorted herself into quietness down in the boathouse. A moment afterward footsteps came up the path and thumped along the veranda. To hang onto some semblance of control Eleanor picked up the coffeepot and began pouring. The door opened to admit Cherry, and after her, Vic. After Vic there was no one at all.
“Where’s Madge?” Eleanor asked quickly.
“Why—isn’t she here?” asked Vic. A look of consternation flashed from him to Cherry. Eleanor put the coffeepot down suddenly.
“What do you mean, isn’t she here?” said Jeff. “Wasn’t she with you?” “Well, yes, dad—she was. You see, we—er—thought we’d have a look at the doings down at the foot of the lake, and—well, you see—Madge left before we did.”
“Left!” Eleanor broke in. “How could she leave, except by boat?”
“Exactly,” replied Vic. “She did leave by boat.” He tried to appear casual, but he swallowed hard between phrases. “So, naturally, that’s why we thought she would be home ahead of us and make it all plain. After all, our old scow’s pretty slow compared with Brad Wheeler’s—”
Eleanor shut her eyes. She mustn’t let herself think of Madge out on the lake at this hour of night, alone with
Brad Wheeler who knew so well how to bait the trap for fledglings.
“1 can explain, Mrs. Fleming,” said Cherry quickly.
“You’d better keep out of this,” Jeff said bluntly.
“That’s just the trouble,” said Eleanor, with a steely hardness in her voice that none of them had ever heard before. “Unless Fm mistaken, we can’t keep Cherry out of this.”
“For heaven’s sake, mother—dad—” Vic exclaimed, “give the kid a chance. At least hear her explanation.”
Cherry tilted her head to give him the faintest of smiles. Right where she wants him, thought Eleanor bitterly, on her side, against his parents. Vic gripped Cherry’s arm and gave her a little shake.
“Go on, kid. Give,” he urged.
“Brad practically made me promise to go down to the end tonight,” Cherry began. Eleanor hardened her heart. Now began the old run-around of smooth excuses. “So Vic and Madge said they’d come with me to back me up,” Cherry went on. She bit her lip, looked anxiously from Eleanor to Jeff and back again, and continued. “Brad’s been getting too—too —fresh lately, and I was scared to—to come home alone with him, so we fooled him, and —it was Madge in his boat instead of me.”
“So you didn’t mind sacrificing Madge,” said Eleanor, her anger mounting.
“Oh, we knew she’d be all right,” Cherry said quickly. “Brad doesn’t— that is—he said once—”
“Thank heaven it doesn’t sound very complimentary,” said Jeff. He turned to Vic, “Now, young man, you get busy. Get the boat out and begin hunting your sister. When she’s home we’ll decide what all this adds up to.”
“As far as Fm concerned,” said Eleanor, “it’s already decided. The best way to avoid any more such happenings is for Cherry to take the noon train back to town tomorrow.”
Vic stared at his mother with stunned incredulity. Cherry’s eyes, too, were wide with unbelief. A moment later she half closed them in the old sultry way, and tried to speak with unruffled languor.
“I thought it wouldn’t last,” she said. Then, suddenly, she was not the Cherry Anderson they thought they knew. The too-red mouth quivered and a surprising tear slid down one cheek. In spite of the betrayal she struggled valiantly to go on in character, but couldn’t. “Oh, don’t,” she cried. “Don’t make me go home. I hate it there! Nobody wants me there, and now you don’t want me here. N-nobody ever wants me b-but louses like Brad—” She fished for a handkerchief, and Vic, without embarrassment, put an arm around her shoulders. Cherry ignored it and appealed to Eleanor. “Don’t make me go, Mrs. Fleming,” she begged. “It wasn’t Vic or Madge I began hanging around your house for. It was you.”
All Eleanor’s steely determination deserted her. Her knees went rubbery.
» She reached for a chair and dropped into it.
I “B-but you hardly knew I existed,” wept Cherry, now entirely broken up.
? “N-no matter what I did to get you to tell me off the way you do Madge, you wouldn’t. You d-didn’t think I was worth it. Nobody ever told me what to do. Nobody ever thought I was w-worth anything-—”
Jeff cleared his throat, and Vic tightened his arm. “I do, Cherry,” he said.
His voice was not that of a boy, but of a man who knows whom and what manner of person he loves. A hard lump filled Eleanor’s throat and made speech impossible. She was struggling to find her voice when Jeff said: “Listen!”
They heard the humming of a powerful engine that grew louder and louder and finally stopped down by the wharf. Not two minutes later Madge burst in, saying breathlessly: “We
got caught in one of those pockets of fog—” She checked herself at sight of the four tense faces, closing the door to lean against it apprehensively. Then she saw the coffeepot, still faintly steaming on the table. “Oh,” she said with relief. “It’s all right then. Gee, Cherry, was Brad ever furious. And did I tell him off, him and his darned old boat!” Once more she checked herself, aware now of the tears on Cherry’s face. “You poor kid. It was the least we could do, Mum,” she said apologetically.
Eleanor felt herself turning inside out. Jeff stood watching her as intently as the children. He was not going to commit himself until he knew her attitude. No matter how illogical she might be, he would never reproach her nor show in front of the children that he thought she was mistaken. And here she had been so fiercely on guard for her own that she couldn’t see the greater need of another. She ought to have guessed why Cherry seemed to be goading her to speech all those times, why she shrugged her shoulders when Eleanor would not include her in the ban on Brad Wheeler’s boat.
And the berrypicking! With all her glib talk about psychology, Eleanor ought to have known that Cherry was nothing but a bewildered child trying to find her way through a difficult maze. She reached out a hand to Cherry and drew her nearer. With her came Vic.
“You’re right, Madge,” said Eleanor. “It was the least you and Vic could do, and Fm proud of you. Cherry, Fm afraid I’ve been a bit stupid. We’ll forget about trains and keep you with us. Meantime, we’ll convince Mr. Brad Wheeler that wolves aren’t welcome on your doorstep.”
“Oh, Mrs. Fleming!” breathed Cherry.
“Hear, hear!” Jeff said approvingly.
“See?” said Vic to Cherry, and Eleanor felt repaid beyond her desserts. “I told you my people were a couple of regular guys when they got the hang of things.”
“Speaking of wolves,” Jeff reminded her, “Fm hungry. How about some support for this coffee?”