A Time to Forget
By Fay Tarlock
Synopsis: Serena Abbe, who had lost her fiance in the war, goes to live on a walnut farm which sheinherited from her cousin Harriet Lester. There she meets Jeff Landeau, a widower who owns the adjoining acres, and who helps her in running her farm. Luis Trejeda, a Mexican, also assists in the work, and Serena is impressed by his wholesome and buoyant attitude towards life. Serena also makes friends with David, Jeff’s son, and, after the first harvest, she feels at home in the San Vincente Valley. Soon after Christmas Serena and Jeff are married, but, upon their return from a honeymoon in Mexico, they find that Delia, who is a cousin to Jeff’s first wife, has persuaded David to live with her instead of going home with Jeff and Serena. However, with much love and tact, Serena is successful in persuading young David to live at home. Serena’s friend, Mrs. Hale, takes her to a party at the home of Constance and Martha Bates, elderly sisters, who were friends of Jeff’s first wife.
Instantly the heavy door swung open. A thin elderly woman with tight lips and gray hair knotted fiercely on top of her head ushered them in.
“She’s the housekeeper, been with them forty years,” Mrs. Hale whispered.
Inside, Serena’s soft brown eyes opened wide. From the high, narrow hallway, with steep stairs, she saw two long, high-ceilinged rooms connected by an arch and filled with so much furniture from past centuries it might have been an antique shop.
In the front room were the women, seated fanwise. They were, as Jeff said, of mature age. Each face had been cut from its own mold, no city sameness in dress or visage. Here and there were younger matrons, daughters of the weathered ladies. Standing in the archway were the Bates sisters.
Nothing Jeff had said prepared Serena for the sisters. They were tall and thin and fragile, all in one tone of gray. They wore their thin gray hair twisted high on their patrician heads. Under their dark dresses one could almost see the black woolen petticoats that warmed their thin joints. Identical collars of Irish crochet lace outlined their high collars. Each wore a cameo brooch, and each had ruby and emerald rings on her knotted fingers. Their voices were thin wisps of sound, wisps that caused them an effort to make. From under the arch they came forward in short, arthritic steps to welcome her.
One wears a pince-nez, one has steel-rimmed glasses. Which is which? Serena’s thoughts raced desperately. One has a gold band. That’s Miss Constance – Mrs. Chadwick.
“Sister and I,” began Miss Constance, the wearer of the gold band. Her tired voice wavered, and she looked at Miss Martha.
“Sister and I,” said Miss Martha, in a firmer wisp, “are happy to welcome you.”
They extended stiff, cold hands. Picking up her pince-nez, Miss Constance looked long at Serena, then, turning to the waiting ladies, said, “Sister and I haven’t seen anyone so pretty in years.”
The ladies tittered in appreciation, and Serena’s face was warm.
“You tell Jeffery for me,” Miss Martha patted Serena’s firm arm with leaflike lightness, “that he’s done well by himself. Now come meet the ladies before Mrs. Hale takes you upstairs to remove your coat.”
With precision, they wheeled about, and Serena followed them into the room.
Carefully, Serena repeated each name, hoping she could remember them, and feeling so young it was hard not to curtsy. Almost at the end she was introduced to a tall, aging woman with a nervous, dissatisfied face, and smartly dressed in a new spring suit. The name was McKellar, that would be Alice McKellar, of special interest.
She put out her hand to the older woman in a quick, warm gesture, but abruptly she stopped. There was no outstretched hand. Mrs. McKellar nodded coldly and turned to the woman on her left.
Jeff had said she was erratic. Maybe she meant nothing by her rudeness. Later, if there was a chance Serena would try again – if the chance came easily.
She was enchanted with the house. She sat on a cherry rocker that was older than the Revolution, so Miss Martha said. And the linen cover on the small drop-leaf table near her was woven before the Boston Tea Party.
As she chatted with the ladies, feeling very much at home, and ate the luscious cakes, her eyes fell on an ancient etagere filled with porcelain and jade figurines. At odds with the dainty figurines, was a big Bible on the lowest shelf, bound in worn, faded leather. She placed her plate carefully on the table and dropped to her knees, the better to examine the book.
“That’s really a museum Bible,” Miss Constance spoke proudly from across the table.
She pushed herself forward on her straight-backed chair. “We don’t usually show this Bible,” she said severely. “It’s much safer under glass.”
“Today we will show the Bible, sister,” Miss Martha’s wisp of a voice was authoritative. Her faded blue eyes, under the steel-rimmed glasses, beamed at Serena. “Sister always claimed the Bible was hers, because she is the oldest, but there’s no sense keeping it in a cabinet if someone wants to see it.” With shaking hands, she began turning the pages for Serena.
“If you will carry it into my rooms in the Horn wing, I will show it to you.” with determined and painful steps, she walked through the archway and dining room to her living room, a replica of the larger one.
Serena, treading a careful path through the clutter of furniture, followed her, bearing the Bible.
Miss Martha’s lips trembled, but she went on talking.
“Constance thinks everything should stay in the family, go to our niece, but I don’t,” Martha explained. “I think some of the things should be where school children can learn from them.”
She pointed to a spinning wheel in a crowded corner, and to a hand-woven, blue plaid tablecloth. A crafty look came into her face. Leaning forward she whispered to Serena, “I have it fixed so that the things I want will go to our schools here, and I’m leaving money for the cabinets to hold them.”
The look vanished; she glanced at Serena as appealingly as a child. “Do you think I’m doing right?” she asked tremulously.
“I think it is one of the nicest things you could possibly do,” Serena spoke sincerely.
Miss Martha closed the Bible and placed it on the table. “Would you like to see some of my pretties?”
“I would love to. This is a real treat for me.”
“Move your chair close to the chest.” She pointed to a huge oak chest, dark with age. “I think maybe you would like to see some of the dresses first.”
Serena pulled her rocker close to the chest. “It’s like opening Pandora’s box,” she said, her eyes bright.
“But no evil will come, only the rustle of memories.” Miss Martha slowly raised the heavy lid.
“You are a poet, aren’t you?” Serena asked.
“A frustrated poet,” Miss Martha sighed. She lifted the muslin covering to show the first dress. “We don’t have the entire collection.” She held up a full-skirted gown of heavy, blue twilled silk. “When Cousin Will came out to the ranch to live, he was the brother who stayed in Boston, you know, he gave most of the dresses away to a distant cousin. Of course, she had no right to them, but she has them. What I have dates only from the beginning of the nineteenth century.”
The next dress was a stiff yellow taffeta.
“My mother wore it to her first ball, the year before she came out to California to be married.” She stroked the silk before she spread it on a tapestry-covered love seat.
She held up a dress of golden brown silk. It had a tight bodice and an intricate bustle. She looked at it, then at Serena, with measuring eyes. “I think you could wear it,” she decided. “You’re very slight. When you have an occasion to wear a costume, you may have the loan of it.”
“I’d never dare,” Serena said in tender protest. “It’s much too precious.”
“Not so precious that it can’t be worn by the right person.” Her tone indicated that some people had not been right for the dress. “Now, you just hold this skirt up to you.” She handed the heavy folds of silk to Serena. “You must have the hat with the velvet roses. It goes with the dress. And the fan, you must see my China fan. Grandfather brought it home in a clipper ship. I’ll go right down the hallway to my bedroom and get them.” Talking excitedly to herself, she left the room by a rear door.
Serena held the dress in front of her, looking in a mirror above the chest. The golden brown was the color of her eyes. It would be fun to wear the dress. Jeff would have to have a costume, too.
Suddenly the door to the dining room, which Serena had not closed tightly, swung open, forced by a draft from the other room. Before she could close it she heard her name spoken. Hesitating, she stood with her hand on the doorknob.
Mrs. McKellar had just come into the dining room from the kitchen with another woman. “I don’t care what anyone thinks,” Serena heard her say in a high, agitated voice, “I’m not going to stay in this house with that woman. Mrs. Jeff Landeau,” she accented each syllable with malice. “She has no right to that name.”
“I don’t know where you get your information, Alice,” a mild, elderly voice answered, “but according to mine she has every right – and you’d better keep your voice down or everyone in the living room will hear you.”
“I didn’t go to the wedding,” Mrs. McKellar’s voice rose higher, “and I wouldn’t be here today if I’d known she was coming.”
“I don’t see how you could help knowing,” the gentle voice persisted. “We all knew she was coming. We asked her to come. Harriet belonged, and Beth Landeau’s mother was one of the first presidents.”
“That’s just it!” Mrs. McKellar’s voice rose to a shriek. Abruptly the happy hum of conversation in the front room stopped. “Elizabeth Henley was one of the founders when I was only a child. What right, I’d like to know, has this fortune hunter to worm her way into this group? She got Jeff Landeau and the Henley money. That ought to satisfy her.”
Serena’s face was whiter than the muslin coverlet behind her. With trembling fingers, she put the yellow gown over the back of the love seat. Her mind was a whirlwind of confusion. Should she close the door before Miss Martha came back, to save that fragile lady from the ugly scene? Or should she confront the angry Mrs. McKellar? What would Jeff think? Would he feel she had been clumsy? It might be wiser to gently close the door and pretend she knew nothing. Would that be cowardice? She had a right to confront the woman.
A woman from the living room delayed her. “I think it is time these newcomers were put in their place,” the voice said. “I agree with Alice. She got Jeff Landeau, but we don’t have to accept her.”
The quiet room crackled with antagonism. Interest in the scene lessened Serena’s anger. If only she could throw the door wide open to see their faces.
The deep-toned woman laughed, not without sarcasm. “I’ve often wished that this subject would come right out in the open,” she chuckled, enjoying herself. “When I’d been living here five years, and that was more than twenty years ago, one of you women here – and don’t give yourself away by blushing – you were only a girl then and you’re much nicer now, gave some kind of a party, and I was one of the few women not invited. The reason was that I didn’t belong to the old families.” She laughed her throaty laugh again. “I felt a little hurt, my family was as old as anyone’s. But that girl grew up, and I thought the rest of us had, too.”
Taking advantage of the silent audience, the woman went on. “I’ve been here nearly thirty years, and even though my husband had to earn his money to buy his land instead of inheriting it, I feel as much a part of Meadtown as any of you. And what’s more,” she said to the women who still sat in shocked silence, “unless we change, unless we keep up with what’s happening to us here, we’ll soon be nothing more than a set of odd characters. People will drive their friends past our places to point us out. And I can’t say,” she added with impish humor, “that I’ll feel sorry for any of us.”
Serena’s hand dropped from the door. To go out now would be an anticlimax. Miss Martha, thank goodness, was having a time to find the velvet roses and the China fan. Poor Miss Constance was in the thick of it, but perhaps she couldn’t hear it all.
“You can do what you want, Lucy Carson.” Mrs. McKellar’s voice was the first one to speak after this honest exposure. “I’ll do the same.”
Nothing could mollify Mrs. McKellar. “I’ll repeat what I said,” she flung at them. “This is the last time you’ll ever see my face in this group if you take in Serena Landeau.”
Not knowing what she was going to do or say, Serena threw back the door and stepped into the dining room.
The golden April sunlight fell upon her fair brown hair, turning it into a deep gold. In the center of the room she stopped, young, angry, frightened, with her head high and facing a mass of open-mouthed faces, spread before her like a grotesque fan.
Not a sound came from the women. Even Myra Hale, who was rising in angry protest, was not able to speak.
Alice McKellar’s face dropped, fell apart. She was standing in the archway a few feet from Serena. Slowly the color drained from her fretful face. Something akin to shame was in her dark eyes.
Miss Constance, who was far back in the circle, moved her chair stiffly forward. Her nostrils quivered and her thin, faded lips moved, unable to make a sound.
To prolong the scene would be an awful thing for Miss Constance. It might even kill her. In quick contrition, Serena moved toward the old lady.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Chadwick,” she said, bending and taking the cold hands into her two hot ones. “I wouldn’t bring any unpleasantness into your home for anything in the world.” She put Miss Constance’s hands back into her lap. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go.”