From the Improvement Era, January 1936 –
O Little Town
By Florence Hartman Townsend
Illustrated by Mary Roberts Warnock
“May I sit here?”
Dr. Wilson looked up quickly from the magazine she was reading. The girl was young, lovely, and beautifully dressed, but there was a look of fear in her wide eyes, and her lips were quivering ever so slightly.
“Certainly, my dear.” She made room in her compartment and the girl dropped thankfully into the seat beside her, while the porter piled her bags at her feet and in the rack at her head.
Dr. Wilson smiled at her reassuringly and the girl returned it with a feeble smile of her own.
“There were other compartments vacant, but you looked like such a safe, sensible person to sit by,” she explained.
Dr. Wilson laughed softly. “I hope I am that.”
She did, indeed, have the look of a safe, sensible person. Her plain face was one of character and strength, of kindliness and wisdom blended. Her dark hair was quite liberally sprinkled with grey – quite too liberally for her forty years. She was tall and strongly built; she had, surely, the look of a person to be relied upon.
Now she laid her strong white hand over the small, trembling gloved one of the girl as the train prepared to leave the great terminal, and spoke quietly, “I’m afraid you’re cold.”
“Not cold, just plain scared. I – I’ve run away.”
Dr. Wilson looked into the troubled blue eyes with quick concern.
“Not from home,. though,” she added smiling.
“I seem to have seen you before,” Dr. Wilson returned, studying the pretty face thoughtfully. “You’re not – it can’t be – Rita Opaque, the movie star?”
The girl nodded. “Rita Wright is my real name.”
“I am Dr. Molly Wilson. Are you running away from your stardom?”
“Yes. From a personal appearance in Chicago’s largest theatre in particular.”
“You don’t like personal appearances, then?”
“No. Not on Christmas Eve anyway. It seems such a heathenish way to celebrate Christmas – such a vain, conceited thing to do on Christmas. To parade and smirk before thousands of curious eyes –. Don’t you think so?”
“It isn’t quite my idea of an appropriate observance of the day, I admit. But what do you mean to do instead?”
The blue eyes grew misty, dreamy. “I’m going home.” It was almost a whisper. “Well, not really home, I guess. My home is in Hollywood. But my old home. Where I lived when I was a little girl. If you could see it you’d wonder why I want to go back. It is just one of those little towns – Indian, Illinois is the place – and we lived out on the Dump –.”
The doctor had started. Her hand clasped the girl’s more tightly.
“Indian, Illinois! Why, that’s where I’m going. That’s my home town too.”
“Not – not really! And you’re going home for Christmas?”
The doctor nodded.
“Then you understand, maybe, why I just had to go?”
“I’m sure I do. Is your family expecting you?”
The white face clouded. “There isn’t any family – now. that’s – that’s what makes it so strange – that I should want to go back – and running away like this when I know it may cost me my job.”
“I’m sorry, dear.”
“It’s all right. One would think there must be – someone – to draw one back to a place like Indian, but there isn’t. There’s not even a friend. You see, we lived on the Dump – you remember the Dump – and Dad dealt in charcoal and junk, and all the kids teased and taunted me. How I hated every one of them – all but Ted Tullus. He fought for me and carried my books and gave me candy and apples.” She paused and gave a delighted sigh of happy reminiscence. “He isn’t there any more,” she added regretfully.
“Mother always did the best she could for me at Christmas. Dad would bring in a little tree and mother would dress it with popcorn and cranberry strings and set it in front of the window. We were poor but we had a beautiful home life, and we were happy. I remember one Christmas Ted came in to see the tree and mother was baking cookies and he ate eleven. I would gladly have seen him eat them every one.” she laughed in remembrance.
The doctor smiled too. Perhaps she had memories of her own, but she did not speak.
“Ted is studying to be a doctor, and I guess he knows better than to eat so many cookies now. He always said he would be a doctor some day, and I was going to be a nurse – but you see –.”
She shrugged her slim shoulders under their weight of rich fur.
“And why didn’t you become a nurse?”
“Dad was ill for so long after mother died, and I couldn’t leave him. We needed money terribly, and I entered the ‘Search for Beauty’ contest you remember perhaps, four years ago. There were cash prizes as well as contract awards. I got a contract two weeks after Dad went away. It seemed the logical thing to accept it. Ted wasn’t there to advise me and the town generally was gld to be rid of me. We had been objects of charity for months, and I was as glad to escape as they to see me go.”
There was silence for a while. The two stared at the sudden flurry of flakes in the gathering dusk outside.
“I don’t think I’d care to come back except at Christmas. The Dump wasn’t an attractive place, you know, but the snow always made everything beautiful at Christmas, and my sweetest memories are of Christmas time. Even our little shack was lovely, and Mother always did something special, like new cushion covers or curtains. I want to go out there and light a fire in the little old black heater and set a lamp at the window like Mother used to do, and make some cambric tea and cinnamon toast. That used to be my supper. On Saturday nights there was jam. It was a feast.”
“I’m sure it was. It is a splendid idea to have this hour alone with such beautiful Christmas memories.”
“Of course your people will be expecting you?”
“No, no one is expecting me. In fact, my sudden desire to revisit Indian is more unaccountable than your own. I did my running away twenty-two years ago. I have never been back. You see, I’ve no family either. I was on my way back to New York from a medical meeting in Omaha when I got this sudden, overwhelming desire to spend Christmas in Indian, and here I am – here we both are – answering the call of Christmas. Who knows? Perhaps the One who guides the stars in their courses is guiding you and me for some good purpose that at the moment we cannot guess.”
The girl nodded thoughtfully and was silent, and the doctor was evidently busy with her own thoughts. They were sober reflections. Her whole life had been a sober one. Orphaned at the age of eleven she had spent the following seven years in the home of an uncle and aunt,. They had been kind enough, but when at eighteen she had expressed an ambition to become a surgeon they were both horrified and dismayed. The neighbors, too, were shocked at so unmaidenly an ambition, and added their protests to their own. Only her cousin Sidney had sympathized, and he had not dared defend her openly, but they held secret counsel together and it was he who revealed to her that at eighteen she should become custodian of her own tiny estate, and that then she should be able to do as she pleased.
It had been Sidney who had helped her convert her small holdings into cash, had bought her ticket and arranged for her trunk to be sent. It was Sidney who had arranged everything, even to distracting his parents’ attention while Molly slipped quietly out to the station at nightfall to catch the train. It was Sidney who had sympathized and encouraged and believed in her.
She had felt many pangs of misgiving as she fared forth to the city alone. There had been hours of terror, hours of homesickness, hours of loneliness. They had passed as she entered upon her college course. friends had crept into her lonely life; friends whom she had kept through the years and who had enriched and made life worthwhile. There had followed medical school and an internship in a city hospital, and then further study in Europe in her special line of work. then a few years of practice and national recognition was hers – the glow of success. busy, happy, fruitful years.
her thoughts had turned homeward with less and less frequency as the years fled. it was only when she had occasional quiet moments alone that she grew a little pensive and wondered about the folk back in Indian. Sidney, of course, was the bright, particular star in her book of memories. She often wondered what he had been able to do for himself; whether he had followed his own inclination to be an architect, or had succumbed to his parents’ wishes and carried on the general merchandise store that was his father’s. Would she find Sidney behind the store’s musty counters, or would he have found the road to fulfilment and sped along its beckoning way?
The engine shrieked a warning and the two women glanced anxiously into the dusk. Even after years there was a familiar look to the landscape. They were approaching Indian!
“We’re almost there!” the girls aid with a little gasp of excitement. She pulled at her gloves and drew a deep, catching breath. Memories rushed upon her, overwhelmed her. Her older companion gave no outward sign, but she was acutely conscious of a heart that beat with accelerated velocity. Strange, these two, returning to keep Christmas with memories!
There seemed no words suitable to the occasion as they left the train for the snowy dusk outside. How still, how deserted, how familiar that snow-swept village scene! The rumble of the hand truck, the coal oil lamp in the ticket office of the grimy station, the scattered twinkling lights of the town — the dark, deserted shack on the Dump beyond.
The girl clutched a package to her breast, the pile of bags and hat-boxes ignored while the doctor from force of habit, gripped her surgeon’s case. Together, silently, they trudged through the snow, the girl’s eyes drawn to the dark little house on the hill, the doctor’s unwinkingly on the lighted windows of a house far down the street. With a doctor’s instinct she sensed trouble, sickness, anxiety behind those walls. As they approached she recognized a doctor’s emblem on the car parked at the curb. she laid a restraining hand on the girl’s arm.
“Would you mind very much coming in with me for a moment? I have a feeling we are needed here – both of us.”
There was an immediate response to their knock. The door swung open and a man’s face appeared – a grey, suffering, deep-lined face; a face aged beyond its years and just now dark with despair. it was her uncle.
“Uncle, it’s Molly.”
“Molly?” He repeated the name unintelligently, then recognition broke upon his drawn features.
“Molly! Why – Molly – come in.” He glanced anxiously at the room he had evidently just quitted.
“It’s Sidney,” he said in an agonized whisper as he gestured toward the closed door. ‘Doctor just got here. He says it’s ruptured appendix. Dr. Gregg is down sick. He phoned for another doctor, but he hasn’t come yet. He’s afraid to wait and he’s afraid to go ahead alone and he’s afraid to try to get him to the hospital. It’s – it’s awful, Molly.”
The poor old fellow paused, choking, tears flooding his eyes. Molly was throwing off her things. “Hurry, Rita. I may need you. Uncle, I’m going in. Maybe I can help.”
She entered the sick room, her surgeon’s bag in her hand. The young doctor, who was bent over his patient, evidently preparing him for the operation. Relief lighted his anxious face as he recognized the newcomer. “Dr. Wilson! Thank God! We can go ahead. ruptured appendix, doctor. He was tossing in acute pain when I arrived. Five minutes late he suddenly became perfectly easy. that was thirty minutes ago. will you please take the case in charge? I shall take directions from you with the greatest pleasure.”
Dr. Wilson nodded. She shook hands with Sidney, she greeted her aunt, her mind evidently occupied with nothing but the case before her. The young doctor had made preparations. There was an abundance of hot water, of sterile gloves, and instruments.
“What are the chances for getting him to the hospital?”
“There is no ambulance in Indian, and to get one from Springfield and back to the hospital through these drifts would take several hours. I had decided against it.”
“I guess you are right. We shall have to do the best we can right here. Rita, come sterilize your hands.”
Rita had been hovering in the shadows behind the old man near the door, eyes for no one but the young doctor. The doctor had not seen her. Now she stepped forward into the grimness of that picture, she was like something too lovely to be real. The doctor stared, speechless, until she spoke softly.
“Rita!” His hands caught both of hers. There was not another word spoken and Dr. Wilson turned her head so as not to see the looks that were never meant for other eyes – turned to find Sidney gazing at her wistfully. She smiled at him reassuringly.
“For such a long time I’ve been indebted to you, Sidney. Now I’ve a chance to pay that debt.”
“You pay me? If you ever owed me anything it was long since paid. If it hadn’t been for your example, your courage and ambition to inspire me I’d never have made the break, Molly. I was late making the start, but – I’m an architect now, Molly, and I’m so happy! I’m – specializing in hospitals. I’m just home for Christmas, you see –.”
Molly saw, in spite of a swift gush of happy tears. She gripped the lean hand. “Great! I’m staying over a few days. We’ll talk everything over.”
For the next hour few words were spoken save the quiet commands of Dr. Wilson and the responses of her assistants. Rita administered the anesthetic like a veteran, happier than she had ever been. Helped clear away when it was over, the liveliest, sweetest singing in her heart, the most wonderful exalted feeling permeating her being. It was such a marvelous thing to help save a human life, and though the part she played had been small indeed she had reveled in it – and in her nearness to Ted and the skilled Dr. Wilson.
Ted and Dr. Wilson talked quietly for a while then she said, “I think he’s going to be all right, but of course I’ll stay by. You and Rita may get some rest. And don’t forget it’s Christmas.”
But Rita had slipped away unseen. Dr. Wilson whispered something to Ted and he threw on his overcoat and let himself out into the snow.
It was a long time since Ted had been out to the Dump. Now as he neared the snow-blanketed cabin he saw a strip of light under the drawn shade. He did not wish to intrude; just to know that she was safe. For some minutes he tramped back and forth in front of the little house, then knocked and called softly. The door was immediately opened.
“Ted, I’m so glad you’ve come. No one else would have fitted into the picture tonight, and into my dreams. Come in.”
There was already a bright fire started in the small black stove, and they hovered over it with outstretched hands while the heat slowly filled the tiny room.
“How I used to love to come here, Rita. It was such a homey little house. Your mother kept it so clean and bright.”
“I know. And do you remember the tree I always had at Christmas? And do you remember eating eleven cookies once?”
“Do I?” he placed an expressive hand over the region of his stomach. Rita laughed too. “Sit down. It’s growing warm now. I do believe the oven’s hot. I’m going to do things while you rest.”
“Mayn’t I help?”
“No. I’m sure you need a bit of rest after your trying ordeal. And what I’m going to do is very simple. I want to tell you something and I can talk best when I’m busy with my hands. I’ve been thinking, Ted, of a fitting memorial to Mother and Dad. I want to give Indian something and I thought of a hospital. Indian needs the hospital, just a small one, of course, as tonight’s near-tragedy testifies. You will be chief surgeon, and –”
Ted had jumped to his feet, had covered the narrow space between them at a stride and had gently taken a can-opener from the small white fingers. “Rita, you wonderful girl!”
“Nothing of the kind. it’s just that the Christmas spirit has sort of mellowed my heart. I haven’t always loved Indian, Ted, but tonight –.”
Rita retrieved the can-opener and continued the simple operations she had begun. Ted sat swinging a leg from the corner of the table and devoured the lovely girl with wistful eyes.
“After all, Ted, this town kept Dad and me from starving for several months. I’ve never done anything that I know of to express my gratitude. Do you really like the idea of the hospital?”
“It’s fabulous! Why –”
He brought up so abruptly that Rita looked up from the cambric tea she was brewing. He had a rapt look on his face.
“If you won’t think me presumptuous, Rita –.”
“Let Sidney Wilson draw the plans! he’s a good scout and he’s had a tough time. He’d get well on the thought of it alone.”
“Ted, that’s a gorgeous idea! That makes everything just perfect, doesn’t it?”
“As hospitals go, I’d say this is going to be a honey!” he grinned.
Cinnamon toast came out of the oven, golden and crunchy. with a stack of it between them and with a thick white ironstone cup of steaming cambric before each, they sat down at the table drawn close to the now glowing stove.
“There’s one thing we overlooked, Ted.”
“What is that?”
“Nurses. You know I always meant to be one. Do you think I could learn while the hospital’s being built?”
Ted was staring amazed. “You’re not – why, are you – going to quit the screen?”
“You don’t think I’m going back to Hollywood when there are so many wonderful things to do here, do you?”
Ted exhaled a long, wondering breath and reached across the table.
“Rita, would you – could you – do you suppose you could possibly find anything wonderful in being married to me?”
“That would be the most wonderful thing of all!” she said softly.