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. Kathy plans to accept a position in an office building in San Francisco owned by Phineas Fenton, a neighbor and friend of the family, but her aunt suffers a partial stroke and Kathy remains at home to care for her. During her illness Aunt Em mentions something about a sea chest in the China house and a Bright Star, which Kathy feels may reveal something of her parentage and her past. Her romance with Jim Parker gradually becomes of less importance to her and finally Jim introduces Kathy to Lina Carlson, his neighbor, in whom he is interested. In the meantime Marc Hale, a stranger, has rented the China house, and one day while visiting with Aunt Em and Kathy, he tells Kathy that the picture which she is painting for an art contest is very good. At the China house during Marc’s temporary absence Kathy finds the Bright Star, a richly embossed locket.
Kathy wandered into the living room, the solitude of the old gray house closing all around her. At times she liked this feeling of aloofness, but not today. The finished picture was on the living-room table. There were wrappings in the table drawer, and just enough daylight left to walk into the village, mail the picture, then see Mr. Rickson about that job. But she was afraid she wouldn’t accomplish this errand today.
She was cutting the string on the last knot of the package when Marta came quietly out of Miss Em’s bedroom. “She’s asleep,” she announced. “What was all the excitement about?”
“I don’t know,” Kathy answered.
“Mailing a package?” Marta asked.
“I wanted to – it’s my picture,” she explained, “but now …”
“Go ahead,” Marta offered generously. “Ed’s pickup truck is outside. That will get you there and back in a hurry. Here’s the key.” She handed Kathy a key-ring. “I’ll stay until you come back – fresh air’ll do you good.”
Kathy took the key with a grateful thanks, got her package, coin purse, and driver’s license, and hurried out to the pickup. She had learned to drive before Miss Em’s old car had fallen apart.
She made her way slowly along Pine Road, taking the sharp turns carefully. Suddenly she drove out of the fog into sunshine. She had begun to feel dank and droopy herself. It was good to be suddenly thrust into a golden, glimmery, faintly dusty world.
She stopped at the post office first, mailed her package, then walked to the souvenir shop. Her heart sank as she entered the shop. Mr. Rickson was nowhere in sight, and there was a young girl in charge. I’m too late, she thought, he’s already hired someone.
“Hi,” the girl said, “remember me? I’m Roni Rickson. I met you at a music festival in the village last year.”
Kathy nodded, and the girl explained, “Dad thinks I’m too young to be left here alone, but he had to go into the city on urgent business. He hasn’t been able to find anyone willing to work part time yet, and that’s all the help he can afford to hire,” Roni chattered on.
This was good news. Kathy made a small purchase out of the coin purse in her pocket, and bade Roni goodbye, thinking, I’ll be back first thing in the morning.
She remembered Aunt Em had wanted a certain book from the library. She turned her footsteps in that direction. Kathy found the book, and was returning to the street door, when the figure of Marc Hale caught her eye. She was close enough to him to see that he was looking over a file of yellowed newspapers, so absorbed he was apparently oblivious to all else. She wouldn’t disturb him.
She walked out to the pickup, and started along Pine Road. She tried to concentrate on other things, but her mind kept returning to Marc and his absorption in his task.
Marta greeted her. “Jim Parker was here. Seemed to have something on his mind. Said he’d come back later.”
“Hmm,” Kathy murmured, “I wonder …”
She thanked Marta and bade her goodnight, then settled herself in the living room. She’d learned to respect her moments of solitude and to use them wisely. There were a dozen or more mending jobs to be gotten out of the way. Then her hand slipped into her sweater pocket. Aunt Em’s Bright Star! She moved to a stool near the flickering flames of the fire Marta had built in the fireplace, and unwrapped the small package. She’d never have any peace of mind until she looked at it, she knew.
It was a large, expensive looking locket, diamonds sparkling from its entire star-shaped surface. Kathy took a deep breath, and pressed open the back. Inside was a tinted picture of a man and a woman. The woman had the exact shade of red hair as her own. “My father and mother,” she whispered, unable to mistake the resemblance. “Marie and Phineas Fenton, Jr.,” was engraved on the gold back of the locket.
“Phineas Fenton, Jr.,” she repeated again, so dazed to see her parents for the first time she didn’t stop to analyze fully what the name meant.
She examined their every feature, an ache in her heart to think that she had never known them. After a time, she walked to the corner of the room and opened the lid of the huge Chinese chest. For a moment she simply stood there, her eyes brooding on past memories. She could see herself sitting on Grandfather Tracy’s knee, his arm held lovingly about her, as he slowly unfolded his fascinating tales of far-away places. Places with names that rang like bells, bronze bells in ancient temples, silver ones on cornices of pagodas standing tall above rice swamps – China. Memories of herself and Aunt Em sitting in the eight-sided cupola patiently watching for Grandfather’s ship to round into the Golden Gate. Finally, the ship moving toward them out of the fog, phosphorescence round it making silvery fire, and each approaching swell gleaming soft and multicolored as opals. Then the blast of the horn as the ship passed through the “Gate,” signifying all was well.
Yes, memories that she treasured as much as she treasured Aunt Em’s love and devotion, she thought. In her heart she was a Tracy, and would be always, loving the old gray house, Aunt Em, and the things she had taught her – her values crystal clear, her loyalties true. Of these things she was sure.
But how strange to realize that she was really a Fenton. Was it possible that she was actually old Phin’s granddaughter? But why, she wondered, had he never acknowledged their relationship? Or was it because he had never known who she was? She remembered hearing, years ago, that Phineas had quarreled with his elder son over some trivial matter. Grandfather Tracy had declared that it was old Phin’s stubbornness that had caused the rift between the two. She remembered, too, allusions to a quarrel between Phineas and Grandfather Tracy because Grandfather had taken the son’s part in this matter – the only quarrel in a lifelong friendship. There had never been any mention of her being a relative of old Phin’s, however.
She looked at the locket closely, and thought of the many things she could buy if she sold it. It was undoubtedly extremely valuable. It would probably pay for continued nursing care for Aunt Em and that year in art school. For a moment she was tempted, but no, she’d bury the locket and her identity with it, deep down beneath the piles of silken kimonos and trinkets; these treasured gifts that she had long since outgrown, but could never bear to part with. If she was really Phineas Fenton’s granddaughter and he didn’t want to acknowledge her, she would do nothing to call his attention to their relationship.
“No one need ever know that I’ve found Aunt Em’s Bright Star!”
She had just closed the lid of the chest when the doorbell rang. Jim, she thought, as she went to answer it.
Kathy and Jim talked earnestly for a long time. He had come to offer to release Kathy from their engagement.
“I’d never give you up,” he said seriously, “but I’ve finally realized that you don’t really love me, and it’s foolish to hold you to your promise.”
Jim was right, of course, Kathy concluded. She was glad he had the courage to admit what he knew to be true. He was too honest a person to hold her to a bargain she didn’t want to keep.
“Your new neighbor, Jim,” she said, “tell me about her.”
“She’s a very fine girl,” he told her. “A recent convert from Sweden, and terribly lonesome, over here all alone.”
“I think she’s in love with you, Jim,” she said. “I think she’d make you a splendid wife.”
“She does need someone …” Jim said slowly, though thinking it over.
“Promise me one thing,” Kathy said, “whether you marry Lina or someone else – that you will never marry outside the temple.”
Jim gave her his solemn promise.
* * * * *
Bright and early one morning a few days later Marc Hale presented himself at the kitchen door. Kathy and Aunt Em had just sat down to their breakfast of hot muffins, honey, and milk.
“May I come in?” he asked. He looked so serious Kathy hoped he wouldn’t go upsetting Aunt Em with anything unpleasant. Besides, she wanted to get into the village soon, and had no time to visit this morning.
“Sit down and let Kathy bring you a hot muffin,” Aunt Em invited.
Kathy looked at her aunt sharply. She sensed somewhere behind the forced calm of her voice, a great anxiety, even a fear, carefully screened.
The young man sat down, accepted the muffin Kathy brought, and spread it lavishly with honey. He laid a folded newspaper on the table.
Aunt Em took the paper, started to read from the back page, then chuckled. “It’s Jim,” she said. “He’s going to marry his new neighbor, the young lady who raises chickens.”
Kathy had said nothing to her aunt about her talk with Jim, and the broken engagement, for fear of exciting her.
“Yes, I know,” Kathy said quietly.
Marc Hale looked first at Kathy and then at her aunt, utter astonishment written on his face. “I must say you’re taking it calmly,” he said.
“It’s all right,” Kathy said, almost thankfully. “Jim and I had a long talk the other night.” She was grateful that Jim had done the sensible thing, as usual.
Kathy commenced clearing the breakfast dishes. “Like to drive me into the village?’ she asked Marc. It would be a way of getting him out of the house to make sure he didn’t have any more surprises for Aunt Em.
“I’ll be glad to.”
“Fine. Now, would you mind putting some wood in the stove? Keep things nice and warm until we get back,” said Kathy. She walked to the hall closet and selected a jacket. The morning was cool, with a hint of rain.
She kissed her aunt’s cheek, and assured her they wouldn’t be gone too long. The sky was slate gray when they left the house, the ocean tumultuous, whitecaps breaking not fifteen feet from the China house.
Marc drove slowly along Pine Road. He gave Kathy a sidelong look. “That was clever of you to get me out of the house. However, I wasn’t going to say anything to excite Miss Em. It’s you I want to talk to.”
Kathy nodded her head in solemn agreement and waited for what Marc had to say.
“You must know by now that you’re not really Miss Em’s niece,” he stated bluntly. “Your father was Phineas Fenton, Jr., old Phin’s elder son. For some reason they quarreled …” His voice trailed off.
“Yes, I know who I am,” said Kathy. “I found Aunt Em’s Bright Star several days ago.”
“Aunt Em’s Bright Star?” Marc repeated.
“A star-shaped locket with my parents’ pictures and names,” Kathy explained. “I knew who they were the minute I looked at it.” There was no joy or emotion in her voice. “I’ll tell you about it later.”
They were entering the village, and Kathy directed Marc to the souvenir shop. “I’ll be just a little while,” she promised. But she remained in the shop almost half an hour, and when she finally came out and climbed into the coupe, her face was aglow. “Mission accomplished,” she said.
It had begun to rain, and the huge spatters flattened themselves furiously on the highway. Marc leaned over the wheel in his effort to see clearly through the stuttering windshield wiper. Finally, they reached the wooded area just beyond the gray house. The ocean came into view for the first time, and both Kathy and Marc caught their breath at the beauty of it: the rain – a fairy shower, with each huge separate droplet striking the water like a pearl.
Marc slowed the car. Suddenly he put his hand over Kathy’s warm fingers. “Your mother, Marie Fenton, was my mother’s best friend. I found the record of your birth in the newspaper files. With Old Phin away on his ships all the time, and Frank, Grace’s husband still a child, in care of a nurse, it’s not surprising that they knew nothing of your existence. I suppose you’ll want to claim your rightful place now.” Marc looked at Kathy searchingly.