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Mrs. Benson Takes a Hand: In Which Pastry Wins Over “Pothooks”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 27, 2011

Mrs. Benson — she of the pearl-handled revolver who took the crooked salesman hostage — returns in another story to meddle charmingly in the affairs of cousins.

From the Relief Society Magazine, August 1936 –

Mrs. Benson Takes a Hand

In Which Pastry Wins Over “Pothooks”

By Ivy W. Stone

Mr. Benson, affectionately known to his many friends as “the Judge” was still exploring the wilds of the Salmon River. As the children laughingly remarked he was enjoying a “wifeless honeymoon,” riding over rapids in a rubber boat, hunting beavers and bears with movie camera, and generally roughing it in the wild region. But though it left Mrs. Benson alone at nights, she vehemently rejected the suggestions of the children that she board around with them until their father’s return.

“Stuff and nonsense!” she cried indignantly. “Why should I be afraid to stay alone? Only guilty folks are afraid, and I have no troubled conscience. I shall enjoy the peace and quiet. Besides, I would have to come traipsing back to feed the canary, and water the plants and cover the chrysanthemums, and just what would poor old blind Samson do without me?” This last statement was a true climax to her argument; for the six Benson children, in spite of marriage and responsibility, loved “Old Samson” indulgently.

“Well, be sure to lock your doors as soon as it gets dark, and keep the windows latched and draw the blinds before you turn on the lights. No use in inviting trouble, and this depression has made people desperate. Paste all our telephone numbers on the wall, so if you are molested –”

“Yes, yes,” interrupted Mrs. Benson, chafing under the supervision of her too solicitous children. “I won’t eat pie after midnight, and I won’t go to the night club, and I’ll go to bed at nine and get up at five.”

Thus it happened that at seven o’clock on a dark, drizzling November night, Mrs. Benson stood at the window of her darkened parlor, with her hands cupped against the pane, and deliberately eavesdropped. She felt a sense of guilt, but reasoned that the cause justified the act. Out under the sturdy old oak tree that her Grandfather Pace had planted fully fifty years before, a young girl was waiting. Keen intuition told Mrs. Benson, that something was wrong with this trysting place. For several nights now, the girl had come first; later a man had appeared, and about nine o’clock they had gone their separate ways. But tonight, Mrs. Benson was filled with apprehension. The girl carried a small handbag, and that meant flight, with the all too frequent clandestine marriage with years of regret to follow. Why couldn’t young girls, like their older mothers, understand that men who meet girls secretly on dark, secluded corners mean only harm? Unashamed, Mrs. Benson kept her hands cupped at the window. The young girl paced nervously back and forth under the protection offered by the wide spreading boughs.

How could she stop the elopement? How could she save this girl? How could she expose this vulture? These questions raced through Mrs. Benson’s brain with lightning rapidity, and then the great inspiration came. “Keep the house in darkness until your blinds are drawn,” the children had admonished. Quickly she turned off the one light shining in the kitchen. Guided by a small flashlight, she ran to the basement meter box and pulled the switch. Retracing her steps she turned on every globe in the house, and set the radio at top volume. The bed lights, the sink lights, the little clusters over the fireplace, the six bridge lamps, even both porch drops were included. Every blind was rolled to the top. Again she found the meter box and pushed up the switch. Instantly the house was flooded with brilliancy. Quickly Mrs. Benson ran through the illuminated rooms, swung wide the front door, and cried out loudly to the night, the darkness, and the little slip of a girl waiting under the old oak tree.

“Help! Fire! Murder! Police! Burglars! Robbers! Murder!” She acted hysterical and ran straight to the astonished girl and grabbed her convulsively. “O come and help me – there are robbers in my home – I am a defenseless old woman – I dare not go in again – they will be alarmed when they see two of us! Hurry! My sterling silver! My diamond rings!” She literally grabbed the astonished girl and pulled her up the walk, up the steps, into the house, just as the headlights of a slowly cruising car turned down the street from the highway. Once in the house, the raucous tones of the rampant radio drowned the guarded honking of the car that had stopped opposite the old oak tree.

The two women looked at each other for the first time. To her astonishment, Mrs. Benson recognized young Frances Pace, the eighteen-year-old daughter of her cousin Francis Pace, whose wife had died when this only child was born. The beautiful, slight, ultra feminine girl, with her large, expressive brown eyes, stood self accused before the older woman. “Mercy, child!” Mrs. Benson raised her own voice to compete with the radio as she hastily drew the blinds. “The good Lord must have sent you this way tonight. I never was so frightened in my life.” Even above the radio, she caught the echo of a louder honking on that car.

“I’m running away, cousin Agnes,” little Frances spoke in the calm, even tones of a person who has burned all his bridges. “Father locked me in my room and said I couldn’t come out until I promised to learn shorthand and spelling and typewriting. He says I have to become a good court reporter. So I put some things into my bag, climbed out the window, and I’m to meet Mr. Howard under your oak tree.”

From a rare wisdom gained from rearing her own half dozen, Mrs. Benson did not scold or disapprove. She smiled encouragingly and Frances continued,

“Mr. Howard’s older than I am, but he’s going to take me to Kansas City to live with his sister until he gets his divorce, and then we can be married. I never could be a good reporter, Cousin Agnes, but I could be a wonderful cook!”

“Reporter! Fiddlesticks!” Mrs. Benson’s voice spoke her contempt for such a profession. “No normal girl wants to hang around a court house, taking the testimony of thieves and foreigners, and the airing of family linen, and the haranguing of lawyers and the evasions and lies and manipulations that make up the modern court room. The Judge gets fed up with it a-plenty. But cooking is different. A woman can take pride in a golden brown loaf of bread, and a beautiful salad is a joy forever.”

”Father says I have to be a reporter. He says it was disappointment enough to have his only child a girl, and that I must make amends for that shortcoming in every way possible. It’s his ambition to have the court reporter of Lesson county a member of the Pace family for generations to come. He says his father was a pioneering sheriff, his grandfather the first judge, and he’s been the court reporter for forty years. I have to carry on –”

“Reporters are becoming passe. Already they’re like a horse and surry on the city streets. The Judge says it’s only a matter of sentiment that keeps your father there now. They don’t want to hurt his feelings. Machines are taking the place of court reporters, and your father ought to be told.”

“Father is teaching me himself. The good old dependable system of logical phonetics. It was invented by Pittman & Howard, ‘p, b, t, d, ch, ja, k, f, v, ith, z, ish,’ she chanted in a listless monotone. ‘The same sign above the line, on the line, and under the line means three different words. If you make a mark heavy it’s one thing, and if it’s light it’s another. Half length is one word – full length another. There are just hundreds of vowels like ‘e, a, aw, awe, o, oo; we, wa, waw, way, wo, woo.’ it’s worse than Chinese and Russian and Hindu, all mixed together. I hate it and I hate a typewriter, but I love to cook! I don’t want to run away and get married, either, but it seemed the only thing to do.” She opened the old fashioned reticule that had belonged to her mother and dumped a toothbrush, wash cloth and her mother’s portrait onto the table. “I guess I didn’t bring much,” she finished lamely.

“Frances Elsie Pace,” Mrs. Benson faced the half defiant, half hysterical girl and spoke frankly. “If I will be a bulwark against your father; if I will make him let you be a normal girl, with ribbons and friends and parties; if you never have to write another one of those stupid pothooks; if he will promise to let you grow into a lovely womanly woman, instead of a poor makeshift for a son; will you, will you stay with me tonight, and forget the man you expected to meet?”

For answer the doorbell rang and the girl turned pallid. “O,” she cried, as the pent-up tears coursed down her cheeks; “O, don’t let him see me; don’t let him in; I don’t want to run away. I’d like to make a cake with pink icing and a lemon pie!”

Mrs. Benson pushed her into the bedroom, and stalked majestically toward the front door. Momentarily she longed for the little pearl handled pistol that had served so effectively a short while before. But whatever her inward fear, none of it was evident as she looked boldly at the man who waited on the porch.

“Good evening, Madam.” His manner was certainly suave. “I was expecting to meet a friend out under this tree, and she, that is, my friend, isn’t there. Did you, by any chance, see her?”

“Girls who meet men after dark are not in the habit of calling on me,” answered Mrs. Benson stiffly. The door closed, and she breathed a silent prayer that she had not actually lied. Again she cupped her hands against the pane and peered into the night, until she heard the welcome purr of the disappearing car.

They slept together, and Mrs. Benson got out the pink silk spread and the hand embroidered sheets. They talked far into the night of foolish, girlish pranks and ideals; of the latest fashions and the new popular color “honey dew”; Mrs. Benson quoted recipes for cookies and cakes; told of her first wifely failures. Finally, at two in the morning, the youthful Frances Elsie Pace fell asleep, her face pillowed against an old waxen doll that Mrs. Benson had resurrected. “I never had a beautiful big doll,” she admitted sleepily. “I guess it looks silly to you, but I’d love to take this doll and dress it. Father says dolls are silly, and he bought me a typewriter when I was ten. ‘a, s, d, f, g; h, j, k, l,’” she muttered, her slender fingers tapping against the pillow in the typist’s ritual until blessed relief came from the realms of Morpheus.

The next morning Mrs. Benson called upon her cousin Francis Pace at an extremely early hour. She had always resented his dogmatic manner of sweeping all obstacles aside to achieve a desired end, but this treatment of his daughter was just too much.

“I want to see your daughter Elsie,” she announced, purposely using the second name which had been her mother’s.

Francis Pace, known as the state’s finest, most accurate court stenographer, bowed deeply, and bid his cousin be seated.

“My daughter Frances is doing penance in her room. I locked her in last night, because she defied my orders. She refused to take her shorthand lesson.”

“You’d better see if she’s still there.” Mrs. Benson could hardly repress a smile. Francis deserved to suffer intensively, for a while. Something in her manner and voice told him that all was not right. He pulled a key from his pocket and with ramrod erectness walked sedately upstairs. Mrs. Benson heard his dignified tread over the carpeted floor to the unused bed, where the fleeing girl had pinned her brief note. Then came steps, hurried, tumbling, minus all dignity, as Francis, wildly waving the crumpled note, almost tumbled down the stairs.

“She’s gone!” he cried dramatically. “My daughter has run away! My reputation is ruined! My ambitions are blighted! My aspirations are foiled! My shame will be broadcast over the land!” He dropped into his office chair and laid his head upon his desk.

In wise silent Mrs. Benson let him suffer. Finally as his self pity waned slightly she asked:

“Now that you realize what will happen to you, suppose we decide what has happened to Elsie?”

“I’ll track the villain to the ends of the earth. I’ll contact the sheriffs in every state. I’ll have him brought back for trial under the Mann act. I’ll – ”

“And you can record the court proceedings for the entire case,” added Mrs. Benson, wickedly cruel.

When she felt he had suffered enough she went on: “Thanks to the good old oak tree planted by our mutual grandfather, and the good Lord making me a meddlesome woman, your daughter is in my kitchen at this very minute, making cakes and pies and candy. She’s probably burned her fingers, and forgotten the baking powder, and drowned her miller, and used every pot and pan in the cupboards, but she’s having a wonderful time learning to cook.”

“Learning to cook!” mocked Francis Pace, feeling his dignity being trampled in the dust by designing women. “Any moron can learn to cook. My child shall be a famous court reporter; she will learn to transcribe the testimony of aliens; she will attain a world record for typing; she will carry the name of Pace to glory –”

“Then you shouldn’t have married a pretty, little clinging vine type of woman who breathed femininity. I fear you know more about law than you do about eugenics, Francis,’ she admonished. “Now I want your check for two hundred dollars,” she added nonchalantly. “Elsie and I are going shopping this afternoon. She is to have a formal gown with gold slippers; a complete tennis outfit from balls to the swankiest suit the town boasts; we will look up a music teacher, and you can unlock the piano and have it tuned; she is to have an ivory bedroom suite, with pink silk drapes and bedspread, and a rose-colored rug, and she is to go to a co-0educational college this next year. You’ve tampered with Nature long enough, Francis Pace. The good Lord meant her to be a woman, or He wouldn’t have created her as one. Court reporter!” Mrs. Benson waved her hangs to show her contempt.

“And if I refuse your foolish request,” began Francis the capable, who had never been crossed.

“She’d do better at her second attempt to run away,” warned Mrs. Benson. “This gloomy old house, with your antique mahogany and horsehair furniture is enough to turn any girl away from home. I believe you got it out of the ark! Elsie’ll be the light of this home if you’ll only let her; she’ll be sunshine and moonbeams, and rippling laughter and happiness and youth; she’ll keep you young and open the door to true living for you both. I gave her my word, she’d never have to write another pothook, and a Pace, you know, Francis, never breaks his word.”

“Are you sure the two hundred dollars will be enough?” meekly asked Francis. He would show this assertive, dominating cousin of his that he could be a good loser.

“While we’re shopping you can box up her typewriter until she goes away to college; and incidentally, Francis, ‘Pittman’s Compendium of Phonetic Symbols’ would make an excellent blaze in your parlor grate this evening. It’s rather cool.”

That night Mrs. Benson did not need the admonition of her children to draw the blinds and retire early. Her feet ached; she had visited every smart shop and every furniture store in the entire town. She had even tried out the tennis racket in her own back yard. Mentally happy, she was physically exhausted, and was well tucked in bed when her daughters arrived.

“I’m tired because I was up most of the night with a burglar,” was the enigmatic information she grudgingly gave to their solicitous questionings.



8 Comments »

  1. a beautiful salad is a joy forever

    I’m glad that Mrs. Benson stood up for the girl, so she could follow her interests instead of trying to escape into marriage.

    Comment by HokieKate — May 27, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

  2. Tremendously entertaining! I hope there is more of Mrs. Benson to come, Ardis. She rocks.

    Comment by Alison — May 27, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

  3. HokieKate, your comment turns my head inside out, something like an M.C. Escher print.

    Alison, there’s one more Mrs. Benson tale in the queue (and always the possibility that there are more lying around to be discovered in the Magazine — there are a few hints in this story that seem to refer to earlier chapters; we recognize that her wishing she had her pearl-handled revolver points to the first story posted but some other phrases seem just as loaded to me).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 27, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

  4. Ah, Mrs. Benson. You put so many meddlers to shame, especially Mary Worth.

    Comment by Ellen — May 27, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

  5. If only I had a Mrs. Benson to meddle in my life and demand large sums of money from my parents (in the middle of the Great Depression, no less!) so that someone could buy me gold slippers and an ivory bedroom suit…alas. But seriously, Mrs. Benson, get in my life!

    Comment by LAT — May 27, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

  6. I LOVE this! Why don’t they print interesting stories like this in the Ensign anymore?

    Comment by Amy — May 28, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

  7. Aren’t they fun?

    You know, only 1 in 10 of Keepa’s regular readers even opens these stories. I can understand why the Ensign needs to devote its space to what its editors think will do the greatest good for the greatest number. I’m grateful to live in a time with the resources to supplement the Ensign — which seldom speaks to my needs, I admit — with materials like this that are just plain fun and that I know my sisters from decades ago also enjoyed.

    I’m really glad that you one in ten do like these stories.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 28, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

  8. I would love to see some of these stories in the Ensign. It is too bad that we had the Relief Society Magazine taken from us. I also do not like the new format of the Ensign. All it has now is short snippets of things–nothing of substance anymore.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — May 31, 2011 @ 12:17 am

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