By Olive W. Burt
Helen decided to put into immediate effect her plan for curing May Turner of her bad habit of gossiping. For the next few days she kept the telephone as busy as ever May herself could have done. And by the time of the first sewing meeting of the P.T.A. bazaar committee, she had talked to every woman on that committee, excepting one.
Lettie had been enthusiastic, as she always was over Helen’s schemes whether for a neighborhood party, a money-making project, or just new ways to trim a kitchen apron.
“You’re absolutely marvelous!” she exclaimed, when Helen had outlined her proposed treatment. “Trust you to think up the only thing that will work and that we could do with dignity!” she went off into peals of laughter. “I just can’t wait to begin!”
“Now, Lettie,” Helen cautioned, “this isn’t any joke. It’s serious therapy, I hope. I’m serious, at least.”
“Oh, so am I,” Lettie agreed.
“And,” Helen went on firmly, “we mustn’t let May get the slightest hint of what we propose, or it will absolutely fail. And there’s another thing, Lettie. I’m counting on you to be tactful and generous, if it works.”
Tess Carlson was dubious. “I don’t know, Helen. Oh, I’m with you one hundred per cent, but it seems so simple – such an easy way of treating something as vicious as that gossiping. I think May Turner needs a dose of really bitter medicine.”
“This will be bitter enough, Tess,” Helen said gently, and a sudden comprehension of the full impact of her program struck her, and she was afraid – afraid of hurting May too much, of being the one to inflict hurt upon another human being.
Marge Lewis took it as a huge joke. “What a scream!” she giggled. “I know I’ll die laughing when I see her face.”
“I don’t think it will strike us as funny, Marge,” Helen told her. “I think we’ll find it pretty hard to do.”
“Maybe so,” Marge agreed, “but don’t go tender-hearted on us, Helen. I, for one, will relish seeing her face.” She stopped abruptly, and after a moment went on. “You didn’t know that I have reason to want to cure that gossiping, did you? Because we never pass around stories about our neighbors, I kept this to myself. But I’m going to tell you now.
“May Turner hurt my mother dreadfully last summer, when Mother was visiting me. You know what a friendly soul Mother is, and how she thought she’d do us younger women a good turn by babysitting for anyone who wanted an evening off. And she did it to be friendly, and wouldn’t take a cent of pay. Well, she offered to tend May’s two, and, of course, May snatched at the chance. But when Mother refused to take pay for doing a neighborly job like that, May couldn’t understand it, and she began hinting around that Mother was babysitting just to get a chance to snoop around the houses. And her hints grew and grew, as they always do. And, of course, Mother finally got to hear what May was saying. May intended her to hear it, too. It nearly broke Mother’s heart. I could have torn May’s hair out when I saw Mother’s face that day.”
Helen shook her head sadly. “I don’t think I’d have blamed you, either, marge. How awful for your mother. She is such a darling – my Jill adored her.”
“All the children did – and staying with them, tucking them into bed, and telling them stories made Mother so happy. And everyone excepting May was wonderful. You sent Mother flowers every day from your garden, and Lois Jensen made her three pretty aprons, and Lettie took her riding many an evening. Everyone made her happy but May – she had to spoil it all.”
“Well, then, you’ll help?” Helen asked, getting back to the subject about which she had called.
“Of course, I’ll help. And I know some of the women on the sewing committee have just as much reason to follow your lead as I do. I’m sure it’ll be unanimous.”
“I hope so,” Helen sighed. “It will be so much swifter and better if everyone co-operates.”
As the time for the first sewing meeting drew near, Helen began to have misgivings. To her gentle, friendly soul her plan seemed terribly harsh and brutal. She shuddered when she thought of what she had started, and sometimes thought she would have turned back the clock to pre-scheme days if she could.
And then she would remember Jill, round-eyed and casual, “When is Daddy going to jail, Mommy?” and she would see Tess Carlson’s tear-streaked face as she cried, “He said that to Jim – to my Jim!” And she would hear Marge’s voice breaking when she said, “I could have torn her hair out when I saw Mother’s face that day.” Then Helen would straighten her shoulders, stick out her chin, and resolve to go through with the plan. “Bitter or not, she must take her medicine!”
In spite of her determination and her conviction that she was doing right, Helen found herself shaking as she dressed to go to the meeting. Her palms were wet with perspiration and her spine felt cold. She stood for a long moment before she opened the door to go out, wondering whether she would have the nerve to go through with her plan.
“But I have to,” she sighed. “I thought it up; I got the others into it.” Tears stung her eyelids. “But I feel sorry for May!”
She went early to the meeting, feeling that it was her responsibility to be there, to take upon her own shoulders the burden of the job ahead. But as she went into the school library, which had been turned over to them for these sewing sessions, she found a number of the women already there. They greeted Helen with cries of welcome, and Helen, looking at them, saw that they were as tense and worried as she.
She spoke to them quietly. “Let’s be as kind as we can.” Then, “Let’s get started on our work. We’re to make fiber corsages today, you know.”
She opened the big box of materials and began to distribute them. The women picked up the fiber and wire, the stems and leaves, and started to fashion the flowers they had learned to make during a winter craft class.
They had scarcely begun, however, when the door opened and May came bustling in, cheery and efficient, ready to do her full share of the task. Helen, seeing her this way, recalling what a good worker she was, felt her throat swell with pain at the thought of what lay ahead. Mercifully, though, she knew that May was unaware of their plan.
For perhaps half an hour everything went along smoothly and happily, the busy snip, snip, snip of the scissors making a pleasant staccato accompaniment for the buzz of conversation. The topics discussed were harmless enough: the bright sayings of the children, the efforts of the teachers to help a backward youngster, gardens, food, books. and then, as everyone knew it would, the gossip began.
May leaned closer to Marge Lewis, who happened to be sitting next to her, and said in a hissing whisper that could be heard all around the long table, “Oh, Marge, I just have to tell you. You know Miss Wilson, the third grade teacher? Well, what do you think? I was coming out of the drugstore last night – Teddy had a cough and I’d run down to pick up some cough medicine – and I saw her with …”
Her voice stopped suddenly, and a startled look came into her eyes as they rested on Marge’s face. Marge had very quietly laid down her work and placed her hands over both ears.
The blood came slowly into May’s face, dyeing it a painful red, and she turned quickly to see whether anyone had noticed Marge’s gesture. And as her eyes flew around the table, the red in her face and neck grew deeper, mottled, as if it would burst from the pores. For every woman there had her hands firmly over her eyes or her lips or her ears.
May Turner swallowed hard, ducked her head, and began to work furiously. The others took up their work where they had dropped it, and the buzz of conversation began again. But no one felt like smiling at May’s discomfiture. Every woman there felt as if it had been her own punishment, and the conversation was kept up with difficulty.
Helen felt her throat constricted with pain, but she made herself tell an anecdote about Jill and her guppies, and gradually the tension eased a little and things seemed almost normal again — for another half hour, and then May, who had kept determinedly out of the conversation, heard someone mention Clarice Hapgood, who had just announced her engagement.
This was too much for May. She looked up, evidently forgetting her recent discomfiture, and began, “That reminds me, girls! Clarice is just twenty, isn’t she? Well, you know I don’t believe she is really the Hapgoods’ child. Just twenty years ago Jane Hapgood …”
She stopped, gulped, and again the blood rushed to her face. All around the table the women sat, hands over eyes, ears, and lips.
May jumped to her feet, flinging down her work. “You awful women!” she cried. “You’re horrible! Horrible! I hate you all!” and she turned and ran from the room.
Helen got up quickly and followed her. Outside in the hall May stood leaning against the wall, her hands over her face, her shoulders shaking with sobs. Helen went swiftly to her.
“May!” she said gently.
“Go away! go away!” May cried. “I don’t want to talk to any of you! You all act so superior – you all pretend …” Her words were stopped by her crying.
Helen put her arms about the shaking woman. “I know it was awful,” she began, close to tears herself. “but we felt we had to do something …”
“You all hate me, you always have!” May went on hysterically. “I try to be one of you. I work hard at everything we have to do – I never shirk, never ask anyone to do my share. I want to be one of you – I did want to. But not any more. I hate you all!”
“No,” Helen said. “No, you don’t hate us – not the others, anyway. You can hate me if you must, May, because it was my idea. I talked the others into it.”
May’s hands dropped from her face and she stared at Helen in surprise. “You? You, the incomparable Helen Lund? You thought this up! Well, now I know you for what you are!”
“Yes,” Helen admitted sadly, “yes, you do. And I guess I’m not any better than I need be. But you see, May, your gossiping was hurting people. I don’t think you realize how much you were hurting us all. Did you know that Jim Carlson nearly lost his partnership because you told around that he’d been in a crooked uranium deal and made a lot of money at it?”
“I didn’t say that he had!” May objected belligerently. “I just said I wouldn’t be surprised …”
“And Jill was wondering when her Daddy was going to go to jail. Oh, May, you’ve said things about us all – things that weren’t true, that didn’t have a single basis in truth. And we just had to stop you.”
“But why me?” May wailed. “Why pick on me?”
Helen sat down on a bench there in the hall and drew May down beside her. Then, much as she had spoken to Jill a few days earlier, she said quietly, “Look at me, May. It’s because you are the one who starts these stories – every time.”
May sat still a moment and then said, sniffling a little, “Well, you have done what you wanted to do. You’ve showed me you don’t want me here. I’ll resign from the P.T.A., and if I can get Ted to move, we’ll move, and you won’t be bothered with me any more. You’ve never liked me.”
“We do like you, May. We like you so much that we were willing to go through this unpleasant scene in order to cure you of the one thing we can’t tolerate any longer. Don’t you ever think of what harm you are doing?”
May sat silent, wiping her eyes. Then she raised her head. “I guess I don’t think, really.” She began to cry again. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me – I don’t know why I do it! Sometimes, when you people have been extra nice to me, I make up my mind I’ll never breathe another word about you. And then something happens – and I feel left out. I want to be in with you, attract your attention – so I say something I know will startle you – anything. Lots of times I don’t even think what I am going to say – it just pops out.”
Helen looked at the woebegone face, and impulsively she gave May’s shoulders a friendly squeeze. “You sound just like a little girl – a contrite little girl!” she smiled gently. And then she went on firmly, “But you’re not a little girl, May. You’re a woman, and we want you to be one with us.”
May shook her head sadly. “But how can I? How can I ever speak to any of you again? I’ll always see those dreadful faces with their hands …” She choked on the words.
“I’ll tell you what to do, May. Come back into the room with me. Act as if nothing had happened. You’ll see. Everyone will be glad it is over.”
May made no move to rise. “Maybe it’s not over, Helen. Maybe I’ll forget and start gossiping again … Will they – are they going to …?”
“Yes, May. I think they will. I think they will keep on with this treatment until they cure you.”
“Then what can I do?”
“Take it in the spirit in which it is meant, May. It is bitter medicine, but it is given as medicine, just that. Swallow it – and if you need repeated doses, take them like the woman you are. You have plenty of courage, I know – plenty of spunk. Come on, then. Let’s make use of it.”
The word spunk seemed to do the trick. May’s shoulders straightened. She stood up. Her head raised.
“You’re right, Helen. I do have spunk – as much spunk, as any of them.” She managed a rueful smile. “And I guess it did take a good deal of gumption for you all to do this – I know you well enough to know that you didn’t particularly relish it – or you’d have done it long before this. Well, come on. Let’s go back into the room and face my doctors.” Her voice broke a little, but she walked purposefully toward the door.
Helen followed slowly. She knew she could count on the others to do the right thing – to act as if nothing unusual had taken place that afternoon. And she could count on May, too. She was a soldier – she was worth curing!