The Bright Star
By Dorothy S. Romney
Synopsis: Kathy Tracy, an orphan, who wishes to become an artist, lives with her Aunt Emerald Jewel Tracy in an old-fashioned house overlooking San Francisco Bay. In order to help with household expenses, Kathy has applied to a neighbor, Phineas Fenton, who owns a shipping line, for employment, and is promised a position in his San Francisco office building. In the meantime, however, Aunt Emerald has a partial stroke, and Kathy gives up the position she has been promised. Jim Parker, in love with Kathy, suggests an immediate marriage, but Kathy declines. During Aunt Em’s illness she mentions incoherently, something about money in a Chinese chest which they keep in Grandfather Tracy’s China house.
Kathy walked up the steep hill toward the Fenton mansion. The wind blew chill through the lightweight sweater she had hurriedly put on. The Fentons would be inside in front of the fire on this cold evening.
She rang the bell timidly, and was told by Tina, the maid, to go into the library. Old Phineas was dozing in front of an open fire, his pink-skinned cheeks lax. Kathy sat stiffly on the edge of the chair and waited. Suddenly the old man sat up straight and blinked his hard, blue eyes until he was awake. He looked at her with the round-eyed stare of an infant.
“Hmm,” he barked, “what do you want?”
“I don’t want anything,” Kathy replied. “I came to tell you I won’t be able to accept that job you offered me yesterday.”
“Job! Job! What job?”
“Why, the job you promised me in one of your office buildings in San Francisco,” she explained.
“Oh,” the old man grunted, and Kathy had a feeling his memory wasn’t as spry as he pretended it to be – that for all his past brilliant career and present riches, he was sinking down into a vague, unremembering, selfish childishness.
He scrutinized her closely. Kathy sat quietly and waited. Finally he spoke. “Now where did Old Em get a pretty girl like you? Did a good job when she picked you up.”
“I’m her brother’s daughter,” Kathy explained patiently. “He died before my mother did. She died when I was born.”
Old Phin threw his head back against the red leather of his easy chair and roared. “A likely story. Jon Tracy never had but one chick or child, and that one was Miss Emerald Jewel Tracy herself.”
Behind her, Kathy heard the soft voice of Grace Fenton. “Why, Father, what are you saying? Don’t pay any attention to him,” she whispered to the girl. “He’s getting so old he doesn’t remember things rightly.”
I was right, he is forgetful, and I’ll take Grace’s advice and not pay any attention, Kathy told herself firmly. She said her goodbyes and started for the front door.
As she walked down the path, Old Phineas’ words ran through her mind again. “She did a good job when she picked you up.” Just as though Aunt Em had walked up to a batch of new kittens and taken the pick of the basket.
Kathy was inclined to dismiss the whole thing, but still, this might explain many past incidents. Why Miss Em – Aunt Em, had always been evasive when Kathy asked to see pictures of her parents, or mementos of the past. “Please, Kathy, not now,” had been her unchanging answer.
Kathy searched the memories of her early childhood. No, there had never been anyone but Aunt Em who cared for her. Tears stung her eyes. She was remembering the countless number of times Aunt Em had sewed through the night so that she, Kathy, might have some luxury their meager budget couldn’t afford. And her graduation dress! The most beautiful dress in the high school class. She remembered how one of Jon Tracy’s precious chests disappeared a short time before Aunt Em bought the frosty, delicate lace that had taken days to make into the exquisite dress, explaining, “a Tracy must have the best.”
And now! Was it really possible that she wasn’t a Tracy at all, but a waif Aunt Em had picked up some place? The house was dark, and Kathy felt cold fear rushing at her. Where was Marta, the nurse Dr. Ransome had sent in to care for Aunt Em? She opened the door and went into the kitchen.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Marta whispered, so close to Kathy’s ear it startled her. “I didn’t turn on a light. We’ve had a prowler. He was poking around the China house.”
“Nonsense,” said Kathy, and immediately flooded the kitchen with light. “If it will make you feel any better, though, I’ll take Grandfather Tracy’s sea glasses and have a look around. It may not be too dark.”
She took a flashlight and the glasses from the cupboard, and started up the stairs to the eight-sided cupola at the tip-top of the gray house. Night had spread its velvet mantle, but there was a full moon rising. Kathy directed her search toward the china house. There was no one there, she made sure of that, and was about to return to the kitchen when she saw a black object moving up Pine road. She trained her glasses on it. It was a small coupe.
It was then that Kathy remembered she’d left one of the chests in the China house unlocked when she’d gone down to search for the “bright star” yesterday to please Aunt Em. It had never before occurred to her that someone might be interested in the store of souvenirs and trinkets that Jon Tracy had brought from almost every foreign land during his years of piloting one of Phineas’ freighters. She decided to check tomorrow and see if anything had been disturbed.
* * * * *
The September sun flashed gold-red lights from Kathy’s lovely hair as her head nodded to the rhythm of the hoe. She had neglected the garden shamefully during the last few tension-filled weeks since Aunt Em had become ill. Besides, working in the fresh air might clear her mind and perhaps she could think of a plan whereby she might stay home and take care of Aunt Em, and earn a living at the same time. Marta was due to leave in a week’s time. Her own family needed her for a while.
She shivered slightly as a gust of wind blew around the corner of the China House, then she started hoeing faster. She’d be warm soon enough if she worked as fast as she should to rid the garden of its accumulation of weeds. She heard the drone of a motor up the slope, and hoped it wasn’t Jim – the garden needed weeding so desperately. She worked on, then stopped and looked up when she heard footsteps just beyond the berry patch at the end of the cabin platform.
She saw the tall figure of a man peering in the window of the China house.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded. “You’re probably that prowler Marta saw last night?”
“Probably,” he agreed, turning around.
Kathy was startled to see how pale and thin his face was. His eyes were shaded with a pair of dark glasses.
“I had decided the place was uninhabited, and I could move right in, as there were no lights anywhere last night. However,” he said, “I’m willing to pay rent.”
“To pay rent on what?” Kathy challenged.
He laughed briefly. “On this contraption,” he said, indicating the China house. “It’s exactly the spot I need to recuperate from an illness, and I need it right away.”
Kathy’s heart softened at the mention of his illness, but his request was out of the question. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but it would be impossible for us to rent you the China house.” She picked up her hoe and started working again.
“The China house, is it?” he pondered. “And just why isn’t it for rent? I’m prepared to pay far more than it is worth.”
Kathy was beginning to be annoyed at his persistence. “Because it’s sort of a shrine,” she explained. “My grandfather built it … it was his favorite spot, and he stored all of his treasures – relics in it.” What a difficult man, she thought, then could have bitten off her tongue when she blurted out: “And don’t you go bothering Aunt Em, she is far too ill.”
Apparently the information that Kathy was not the person in charge around here was exactly what he was looking for. he turned and made straight for the house, with Kathy trailing along after him as fast as she could.
She was right on his heels, protesting, when he rapped on the screen door of the kitchen. Marta, washing dishes at the sink, turned, startled. “You look like the prowler last night,” she spoke impulsively.
“I apologize for that,” he said, coming unbidden into the kitchen. “All I wanted was to look in the cabin. I want to rent the cabin down by the water. You’d think I was a highway robber the way this young lady has been treating me.” He laughed briefly.
Marta dried her hands. “You may as well go in,” she said, nodding towards Miss Em’s room. “She couldn’t have helped but hear, and the cabin belongs to Miss Em.”
The three of them trooped into Miss Em’s room, and Kathy explained the offer to her aunt. When she was through, she was astonished to see Aunt Em indicate that she’d take the offer.
As Kathy accepted the money for the rent, she gritted her teeth hard and felt the hot tears stinging her eyelids. Oh, she thought, surely life is hard enough right now without having a stranger under one’s very nose for goodness knows how long! Besides having to give up our China house!
“At least,” said Kathy to Miss Em, after Marta had ushered their new tenant, Marc Hale, out, “it’ll pay Marta’s wages,” and she noted that Miss Em looked grimly satisfied. She leaned over and impulsively kissed her aunt’s cheek. “I’m going back to the garden,” she said.