A Time to Forget
By Fay Tarlock
Synopsis: Serena Abbe, who lost her fiance in the war, goes to live on a walnut farm, which she inherited 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 with his wholesome and buoyant attitude towards life. Serena also makes friends with David, Jeff’s son, and, 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, Beth Henley, has persuaded David to live with her. Serena, however, persuades the boy to go home with his father, and she finally wins the friendship of Delia. Serena goes with her friend Mrs. Hale to a party at the home of Constance and Martha Bates, elderly sisters, who were friends of Beth Henley Landeau. Alice McKellar tries to persuade the women of Meadtown to refuse to admit Serena to their group, but the elderly sisters defend her.
Serena’s head was floating away from her, the women’s faces swirling before her, but she was thinking clearly. Should she stop upstairs to get her jacket with all the eyes watching her, or should she just walk out of the door?
“No, no!” the old lady shook her head with unwonted vigor. “Wait. Where is Martha? Will someone get Martha for me, quick.”
The sound of a dry cough came from the door Serena had so lately wrenched open. Martha stood there, the little bonnet of velvet roses tipped rakishly over one eye. The carved ivory fan dangling in her frail hand. Pushing her rheumatic joints hard, she came into the expectant room. Like Constance, every muscle in her face seemed a-quiver, but high on each wrinkled gray cheek was a spot of color. Her pale blue eyes under the steel-rimmed glasses burned with a steady flame.
“I heard you, Alice McKellar,” she accused, pointing the fan hard against the jewelled button on that lady’s modish blouse. “I know what you are trying to do. Fifty years ago, when you were going to school to me, you were always stirring up trouble because you couldn’t be the center of attention.”
She pushed the fan harder against the jewelled button. “And you need some discipline inflicted upon you, just as you did then.” Drawing back the fan and closing it with a little jerk of her wrist, she turned to the women. “I’m sorry I didn’t inflict more then. It might have saved a lot of trouble.”
Then, ignoring Mrs. McKellar, she gave the bonnet an upward push and moved to Serena, laying a hand on the girl’s arm.
“Don’t let us hear you talk about going.” She spoke with mock severity. “And don’t think a second time about what Alice said. Alice will come round.” From under the velvet roses, she looked at the women.
They all nodded as one. From most of them came sighs of relief.
Serena, who had been immobile, moved swiftly and helped Miss Martha into a Windsor chair. “Don’t say anything more, Miss Martha,” she pleaded. “Just sit here while I get you a drink.”
Before she was halfway across the room a glass of water was handed her by the housekeeper.
“It’s been too much for you,” Serena insisted, as Miss Martha sipped the water.
“Maybe it was.” She handed back the glass, the roses on the hat perilously close to her eyes. For a second, Serena was sure she saw a wicked glint behind the steel rims. “Maybe it was, but it was worth it.”
Perhaps the day would not end in disaster after all. Hiding her desire to smile, Serena looked speculatively at Miss Constance. That lady was pushing forward again. She linked her arm in Serena’s. “We all know Alice,” she said and looked squarely at Mrs. McKellar. “We know your bark is worse than your bite. I suggest that we forget what you’ve said today, really forget, and tell Mrs. Landeau how you feel.” Her hand on Serena’s arm was like a vise. “We want her to know how proud we are to have her join us.”
“That’s what I wanted to say to you, Alice,” Miss Martha cut in. “We can’t have this pretty child sorry she ever married and had to live by a nest of old hornets.”
Serena would gladly have gone through the floor. She watched her accuser come forward.
“I suppose it is too much, Mrs. Landeau, to ask you to forgive me.” Her voice was thick and the hand she held out was limp. “Maybe when you get to know me better, you can be tolerant of me.”
Impulsively, Serena took her hand and turned to the women. “I didn’t want to come today,” she said in her soft voice. “I told Jeff I was frightened to meet you. I know I’m a newcomer,” she hurried over the word, “and taking the place of someone you loved, but I’m glad I came, truly I am. I know you just a little bit and I’m not afraid of you any more.” Swift tears were coming, and she withdrew her hand to use her handkerchief.
“I’m such a fool.” Mrs. McKellar was using her handkerchief.
The women pressed forward. Some shook her hand. Others kissed her. It was good, they said, to have her.
In the confusion, Miss Constance made it to her feet. Standing very erect and holding her pince-nez, she compelled attention.
“Sister and I,” the fluty voice was so light that Serena leaned forward to hear it, “want you and Jeff to come to dinner tomorrow night. Isn’t that so, Sister?”
“Yes,” beamed Miss Martha, showing plainly that she thought Serena very special. “Sister and I want to tell him how fortunate he is.” She took off the bonnet and stroked the velvet roses. “So sad,” she murmured, “so sad if he had not remarried.”
Late afternoon shadows were darkening the valley when Mrs. Hale started her car. “My,” she sighed long and hard, “that was an afternoon I wouldn’t want to repeat.”
Serena gave a backward glance at the big white house with the Horn wing. “I didn’t think it would be like that … inside.”
Mrs. Hale smiled in understanding. After she had joined the speeding cars on the main highway, she spoke. “If you wanted to talk about what happened today, I couldn’t blame you, but a lot of trouble and heartaches could come if you did. I’ve forgotten what happened. I hope you can.”
Serena knew her decision was made. She would not tell Jeff, there were so many things that might hurt him. And no one else had the right to know. She could see a time, down through the years, when it might make a good story, but not now.
“I’ve forgotten already,” she said.
She would always remember that Saturday afternoon in September.
All summer had been on the cool side. Now the fog hung in a translucent pearl mist over the valley in early morning, floating away later in the warm brightness of the sun. In response, the walnuts burst from their hulls and popped onto the ground like so many firecrackers.
She and David were clearing the nuts along the driveway. The sky, through the green of the leaves, was a deep blue and freshly washed. Back in the redwood grove a bird was trilling. Serena’s mind was as tranquil as the morning – save for one slight perturbation. The potluck dinner to open scout season was only as far away as Monday.
“I just can’t understand, David, why you don’t want to be a boy scout.” Stooping, she picked up a handful of nuts and tossed them into her basket. “You’ve been evading me all summer.”
“Well … gee …” He twisted a nut in his hand, his blue eyes evading her. “It’s like I tell you, Mom … gee, I got nothing against the scouts, I just don’t want to be one.”
Serena bit her lips, then ashamed for showing so much concern, she smiled up at him. “Your father’s going to be awfully disappointed. He thinks scouting is important.” She popped another nut into the basket.
“Well, gee.” David was wriggling inside and out. “I can learn to do anything a scout can do, can’t I?” He seemed very sure.
“It’s not quite the same.” She rested on her heels, cracked a nut, and admired the sound white meat so different from the sunburned nuts of last year. “If you’ll only tell me why you don’t want to join, I’ll understand and not be puzzled all the time.”
It was David’s turn to bite his lips.
“I think you ought to tell me.” She scooped up another handful of the golden-tinged nuts. “Then, if you have a good reason, we can forget the subject, I promise.”
“I don’t think you will think it’s a good reason.” David accented the you. “But it is.”
“You might try me and see.”
“Will you promise not to get angry?” He looked straight into her eyes.
“I’ll try not to show it if I do … It is something to do with Johnny Talbot, isn’t it?”
David nodded, his face tight. “Johnny’s my best friend.”
“I know, and I like Johnny; so I’m sure there’s a good reason.”
Planting his feet firmly on the gravel and thrusting his hands into his pockets, he searched her face. “Both you and dad have told me not to tell tales out of school.” He said it with stern deliberation.
“That’s right.” Her heart gave a quick jump. Here was something more difficult than she had imagined. She sat on the gravel, hugging her knees and meeting his stern look.
“Well, this is Johnny’s business.” He was manlike and firm.
“Seems to me you’ve made it your business.” Her eyes were intent on his. “And in this family we all like to share.”
David frowned. “John didn’t want me to tell, but I didn’t promise I wouldn’t.”
Serena was silent, looking at him.
David wriggled his feet in the gravel, his eyes down. “There’s a man in scouting that Johnny’s dad doesn’t like.”
“And what?” She was firm, but not eager.
There was hesitation, even a look of pain on his fresh, young face. “Johnny doesn’t like this man,” he said at last, asking her to understand something he did not quite understand himself.
“But that shouldn’t keep you and Johnny out of scouting.”
Now David had something he could explain. “He’s something on the scout committee, and Johnny says he won’t go to meetings because the man will be there … and I won’t go either. I promised.”
So that was it. Not as bad as her unknown fears.
“I couldn’t say until I know something more about it, but from what you’ve told me, maybe John can’t be blamed.” She was carefully impersonal.
“You see how it is, and I hope you can get Dad to understand.” David was smiling at his easy victory.
“Oh, your father will understand, but it still leaves you out of scouting, doesn’t it?” She arose, lifting the basket with her. “Get along, and feed your pigeons,” she dismissed him gaily, knowing she would get no more help from him this morning.
She also needed to be alone. Jeff could force him to join the scouts, but she doubted if Jeff would take that course. She carried her basket to a drying tray in the rear. Jeff, a length of rope in his hand, came out of the barn. She told him the story.
Jeff’s eyes widened. “So that’s it. I know the man,” he said cheerfully. “It was a mistake putting him in scouting – the new people don’t know their way around yet – though he’s a good man in his work.” Thoughtfully, he coiled the rope. “I admire David’s sticking with Johnny. We can’t do anything about that.”
“No, it wouldn’t be wise.”
With the rope neatly coiled, he turned to go, mischief in his blue eyes. “There’s a neat problem for you. Find the solution for getting Johnny in the scouts and you’ll have David also. I leave it in your capable hands.”