A Time to Forget
By Fay Tarlock
Synopsis: Serena Abbe, who works in San Francisco as a secretary, lost her fiance, Jim Towers, in the war. Unexpectedly, she inherits from her cousin Harriet Lester a walnut farm in the San Vincente Valley. On her first visit to the property, she meets Jeff Landeau and his son David, who live on the adjoining ranch. Luis Trejeda, a Mexican, offers to help Serena with the farm work, and she gratefully accepts his offer, finally becoming very much interested in his wholesome and buoyant attitude toward life. Serena learns that Jeff’s wife, Beth Henley, a woman of wealth in her own right, has been dead for five years, and Jeff and David live with Beth’s cousin Delia. Becoming friendly with young David, Serena recognizes his need for guidance and companionship. The first harvest is followed by torrential rains which flood Serena’s land and her home. Luis and Jeff are helping her when a huge oak tree topples towards the house.
Serena screamed in horror, her eyes dark with fright. Jeff put his arms about her and held her as in a vise, as the tree crashed on the house. It came, not towards their window, but onto the screened porch to the left, and as it broke, Serena buried her face in the warmth of Jeff’s flannel shirt, expecting the roof to crash above her head, yet feeling safe in Jeff’s arms.
But the roof did not quiver. There was only the torn screen where the branches pushed through, and a broken awning.
Trembling, Serena raised her eyes to look. Jeff still held her, allowing her only freedom to lift her head. When she saw that the roof was safe, she swayed and would have fallen, save for Jeff. “I’m sorry,” she said weakly, her voice muffled by his closeness, “but the tree, after the trouble with the flood, was too much. I’ll be all right in a minute.”
Jeff said nothing, but pressed his cheek against hers. The weakness of fear left her body, her blood rippled with a new sensation of delight.
“We’ve been two foolish people, haven’t we?” he whispered in her ear. Then he let her go gently. Serena felt something more than the withdrawal of his arms. Jeff Landeau still felt some barrier.
He took her slim hands, warming them between his strong, work-hardened ones. “I guess I’ve been wanting to do that ever since the first time I saw you, though I wouldn’t admit it to myself for a long time.” He looked at her, searching her face. “You understand what I’m trying to tell you, don’t you? I’m so inept at it.”
“I think I do, Jeff.” Her brain was playing a topsy-turvy game, and her voice sounded to her as if it came from the ceiling. “I think I do, Jeff, because I had to forget, too.”
“What do you mean?” He asked it quickly, controlled fear in his voice.
“I didn’t have as much to forget as you, I know.” Her head felt more settled now. her voice was where it belonged. She sat down on the little chair and motioned Jeff to sit beside her on the divan while she told him about Jim and of her vow to keep him alone in her heart.
By now Jeff was kneeling beside her, holding her hands.
“I know something of how you feel, Jeff,” she explained. She was thinking, for each step we take towards tomorrow, there is a tug from the past, holding us back. We have to be strong to resist the tug. Together, it will be easier; we can keep the doors to the past locked.
But to Jeff she said, “I didn’t have the deep ties you had. Mine was only the promise of love, but I can understand. I’ll always respect that part of your life as you will mine.”
She looked at him, sensing there was still something holding him back. Releasing her hands, he rose and walked away. When he turned to her, there was both chagrin and resentment on his face.
“I’ve been a big fool,” he said, finally, seating himself in the big chair, facing her, “and I might as well come out with it.” He looked at her, begging her not to make him put it into words.
“You might as well come out with it, Jeff.”
“I guess I’ll have to, confound it.” He frowned. “It’s hard to put into sensible words, but Beth had a lot of property and considerable money. I didn’t have a thing except myself and my high school teacher’s salary.”
“It didn’t make any difference, as long as it was love on both sides, did it?”
“Not a bit. yet I had a hard time making myself see it that way. I finally had the common sense to understand. Beth was wonderful about it.” His eyes were looking across the room, remembering. The room was very still, only the crackle of the fire. Outside, even the wind was silent.
“From the day we were married until the last, she never once made me feel in any way that the land was hers, not ours.” Then his eyes clouded. “But the valley people didn’t feel the same way.” His face colored in embarrassment. “Oh, I’m used to it now, but I think if I live to be a hundred, the old-timers will still say it, every time my name is mentioned, that I got my land through marriage.”
“You’ve done well by the land.” Her reminder was gentle.
“We don’t get things in this world without sweat. I’ve worked hard with the land, and I’ve been rewarded. And yet some of the farmers can’t forgive me because I’ve been successful.”
“I know how people are.” Serena spoke with wisdom. “They respect you for treating the land well and being rewarded, but some of them can’t conquer their envy.” She rose lightly to her feet, looking up at him, her brown eyes soft. “But what has that to do with us?”
His face was really crimson now. “I wish I didn’t have to say it.” His deep blue eyes pleaded with her to understand. “You’re an heiress yourself. Ever since you came, they’ve been hemming and hawing and intimating – heaven only knows what they’ll say when we marry.”
The color was receding from his face, showing his relief that he had spoken.
Serena’s laugh was short. “I’m a queer kind of heiress. My big worry has been how to afford this place.”
“I doubt if anyone else in Meadtown thinks of it in that light,” Jeff said dryly.
“It’s a lot of old woman talk,” she chided him, amused at his discomfiture. “I’m ashamed of you, Jeff Landeau.” She was close to his chair.
“You have every right to be.” He took the fingers of her right hand and pressed them against his cheek. “I’ll spend the rest of my life making it up to you, though you might as well know that for months when I’d want to come to see you or take you some place, I’d think of what people would say.” He looked very humble and ashamed. “I thought once was all I could stand.” She saw his dark look change. He stood up in quick decision.
“Couldn’t you give this place away?” The urgency in his voice was real.
“You don’t mean that, Jeff?”
“I really do. I want you and nothing else.”
“I’m glad you said that, Jeff.” Happiness made her warm all over. “But I’m not going to give my farm away, even for you. It’s been my very life, and I want our children to inherit it, too.”
She watched the slow smile spread across his face.
“I guess you’re right. They can talk all they want. I …”
“Don’t worry,” she interrupted. “I’ll make them like me and they won’t talk too much.”
She laughed in pure happiness. “It’s been my refuge and my home. Now it will be ours.” As she spoke the words, she knew her plan.
“You mean that you want us to live here.”
“Wouldn’t you rather?”
“Why not?” He laughed with the same happiness. “It’s newer, we’ll both like it better. Do you know I’ve never thought of this, even to myself, but the old house was never really mine. The land was, the house wasn’t mine.” There was wonder in his voice. “I kept looking forward to the time when I could build a new one. This one now,” enthusiasm was flowing through him, “I’ve always liked it. Maybe I was even a little envious when it was being built.”
His eyes took in the spacious room and traveled to the unseen corridor. “We can add another wing, one big enough to include a room for Luis.”
She nodded in agreement. Luis would always be part of the family.
“And if you don’t mind,” the idea was newly tumbled into his head, “we’ll just turn the old place over to Delia. I promised her when she came she could have a home as long as she lived. There’s an elderly cousin who will be glad to come and live with her.”
Smiling down at Serena in satisfaction, he said, “I guess that about settles everything.” He pulled Serena towards him. “Except one thing, when will it be?” There was tenderness in his voice.
Serena wrinkled her nose in the contentment of his arms. “I couldn’t decide anything until after Christmas,” she said lazily. “The house will be jammed with people. After Christmas we’ll talk about it.”
“We’re not putting anything off,” Jeff retorted, ruffling her short brown curls with his free hand, “we’ll talk about it now.”
“Can’t we wait until then? So much has happened today.”
“I know it has,” he said contritely. “I don’t want to upset you any more, but couldn’t we just decide on, say February? That will give time for a proper courtship and yet not be too long.”
“Oh, that’s far too soon.” She was alarmed. “I like May. It would be the anniversary of my coming.”
Jeff gave her a quick hug. “You’re marrying a farmer, Serena. The seasons don’t wait. What do you say again to February? That will give us time to go away for six weeks or so before the spring work begins.”
Serena capitulated, saying, “I suppose I could quit work then as well as later.” She could see Mr. Green’s astonished face when she told him, and smiled.
“What do you say to Mexico?” He asked, pressing his advantage. “I was there one summer when I was studying Spanish, and I’ve always wanted to go back. Would you like it?”
“It would be a dream come true.” She pressed her face against his arm.
“Serena, Serena,” he whispered the name softly. “Such an old-fashioned name.” He pulled her closer and in his kiss Serena knew there would be no more barriers.
“I’m going now,” he said later, “to give you a chance to get a little rest and to see what the storm’s doing to my place. We’ll fix that oak when it quits raining. Then I’m going to come back and start showing you off by taking you out to dinner.”
Serena walked with him to the door. The world outside was still dark with rain.
“When the sun came out again, I had intended to begin my quest for someone to share my home with me.” Her eyes twinkled. ‘I didn’t expect an applicant so soon.”
“There are two of us, you know.” His voice was serious.
“I’m glad that you have David to bring with you,” she replied quietly, “and Luis, of course, will always make his home with us.”
“Once you take tenants in, it’s difficult to get rid of them these days.” He was close to her in the doorway.
“I’m prepared to take the risk.” She pushed him gently with her finger-tips. “To make you hurry home so that you will be back soon,” she told him.
* * *
Serena was driving that bright afternoon in March when they left the main highway. She pulled the car off the road.
“I want you to drive the rest of the way, Jeff,” she said, slipping from the driver’s seat. She was thinking that this was her valley, her home, its walls, the hills in their soft spring green, its floor, the carpet of trapped sunshine that was the mustard in bloom. Akin to carrying her over the threshold was Jeff’s driving.
His deep blue eyes, tender with love, smiled at her as he took the wheel. “Glad to be back?” he asked.
Nodding, she pressed her shoulder against his. “Glad, but part of me is still in Mexico.”
Memories of the past six weeks were with her, like mosaics, sharp cut and brilliant in color. There was the green water of the jungle rivers, the orchids hanging high in the giant trees along the highway. Cathedral spires floated in the golden light. In a rose-red hill village she saw light brown women in long, colored skirts, with eyes bright as forest berries. And interlacing the whole pattern was the love between her and Jeff.
No longer quietly pretty, Serena had a beauty that was almost startling. Her eyes, her skin, and even her hair had a luminous quality. Her face, that for so long had been sad in repose, was now truly lovely.
The voices of the Southland still tinkled their music in Serena’s ears. She was glad that Luis would be waiting, a link between her enchanted weeks and he new life. She wondered if he would like the brown serape and the bowls of pottery she had brought him from his native Michoacan.
And Delia? There was a small wrinkle on Serena’s forehead. She hoped Delia would be happy with her silver earrings and combs, for so little in Mexico had seemed to be suitable for Delia. David, oh, David, he would be the happy one. She relaxed again. everything was right between her and David. They understood each other. Her mind raced ahead of the engine, anticipating his delight in his gifts.
“Delia wasn’t happy at her wedding.” The words had been on top of her mind for a long time, but she had not said them before.
Jeff, his lean brown hands steady on the wheel, did not turn. “Only brides are happy at weddings. Other women cry.”
“Delia wasn’t crying. I thought until the day of the wedding that she liked me a little, maybe tolerated is a better word. I knew that day she didn’t.”
“I didn’t know you had such morbid thoughts. Poor old Delia was only mourning her lost and wasted youth.”
“She liked ruling the Landeau household, didn’t she?” She was smiling now. “We’ll have to make her happy now as mistress there.”
“Don’t let us ask for a miracle.” Jeff’s eyes twinkled. “Delia was not born to be happy.”
The resentment went deeper than Jeff’s diagnosis. Delia had expensive new clothes, provided by Jeff’s liberality, willing to be affable in a patronizing way to the unknown office girl and her friends. Clutching David by the arm, she had stood there in hauteur to tell the guests that she represented David’s family of the old and vast acres. She would be affable, but no more.
If my friends had been shabby or mediocre, I believe she would have accepted me, thinking Beth’s place unusurped, Serena told herself, recalling the lovely reception given her by Mr. and Mrs. Green in their beautiful home. But that was being morbid. She gave herself over to the joy of homecoming.
They were turning into the lane now, past the Hale house where Mr. Hale was dozing in the sun.
“Let’s unload our things here at our house before we go to Delia,” Jeff suggested. “She won’t be expecting us so early.” He was ready to swing the car into the curved driveway, gay with daffodils.
“Shouldn’t we go to her first, just as we are? She might like it better.”
“I’d like to go to our own place first, wouldn’t you? Besides, I want a shower and a change.” He swung the car into the driveway, his eyes appreciating the riot of gold. “We’re not going to start pampering Delia,” he added. “I’ve done that long enough.”
Serena had been married six weeks. She smiled in agreement. Luis had cut the lawns, but the earth was still too soaked for spring planting. As they stopped the car in the side driveway they saw that work had started on the new wing. Cement was poured, the framing begun.
“We’ll be in it before summer.” Jeff’s voice was elated. They walked around the framework, Jeff lingering while Serena went to the car.
“Here, take it easy,” he called when he saw her taking out some boxes. “That’s my work.”
No longer a novice, Serena set out his towels and farm browns, as clean and smartly tailored as when she had first seen them. Now he was Jeff the farmer.
Later, when they drove to the Landeau place, Delia, in her silk print dress and enveloping white apron, was waiting for them in her kitchen, odorous with baking chicken. She seemed pleased enough with the silver trinkets, letting Serena arrange the combs in her graying hair. She stuck the earrings through her long-pierced ears.
“My land, you didn’t have to go to all that bother for me,” she protested, at the same time admiring her profile in the mirror.
Through the mirror Serena saw the clock. “David’s bus is the last one. If you go right now, you can catch him.”
“You come along, too.” Jeff took her arm.
She wanted to go, but she said, “You go alone this time. I think David will like it better the first time.”
She saw Delia looking at her and was surprised by the fleeting look of triumph that passed over the older woman’s face.