By Margery S. Stewart
Synopsis: Joanna, who had married David Niels against the wishes of her family, is left a widow with four children to support and care for. Courageously, she takes inventory of her meager resources and plans for the future. A neighbor gives her a sack of navy beans and Joanna decides to make Boston-baked beans for sale. Another neighbor, Abigail Smith, offers to help with ideas and transportation. From as low and unpromising beginning, they build a profitable business. Joanna rears her children with love and devotion and, after years of careful saving, she plans to buy a house on a hill. A real estate salesman, Kent Taylor, takes Joanna to see a house he has for sale.
Joanna took a deep breath of the chill air. Everything seemed different. Not just another autumn, this had a secret exciting something in it, as if the days had something special to give her.
He turned up the hill that led toward the Capitol. “This is the best way to get to the house … the long way around.”
“But I’m so busy,” Joanna answered breathlessly, “besides, I have to be home by three-thirty. The children get out of school then, and you must have a lot of customers waiting.”
He said loftily, “They are Mother’s. Let ’em wait. Besides they are all very old, or fat, or … anyway, this is a lot more fun.”
Laughter began as low growing in Joanna, not the ready laughter she had for her children, or the neighborly laughter for Abigail’s tart comments, but a laughter from deep within, as when winter withdraws, foot by foot, and spring begins her tasks. It was like that, as though her heart had been enclosed in ice and was now breaking free.
The house was an old one, but well-built. It stood high up from the street, and was reached by climbing a flight of stairs. Lawns sloped sharply to the street. The porch was in need of paint, but it was wide and long, plenty of space for Sally and Michael and their friends. The living room was long, too. It boasted a window seat. Against the east wall was a brick fireplace, painted white to match the woodwork. The floors were hardwood, recently sanded and waxed. Joanna caught her breath when she saw the dining room. It had such possibilities. Stairs ran up the west wall to the second floor; under the high east windows were shelves. The paper was beautifully patterned, green leaves and traceries, giving the effect of summer sun and cheerful shade. Joanna touched the paper with gentle fingertips. She looked up to find Kent Taylor’s eyes on her and she blushed.
She went on tiptoe into the kitchen, because suddenly their footsteps seemed very loud in the deserted house. There was an electric range. She turned to Kent Taylor, who leaned against the door.
He nodded. “It goes with the house. There’s a stoker downstairs, you’ll never have to carry another bucket of coal.”
She looked down at her hands. They were gloved, but he must have noticed them this morning, the coal dust ground into the skin.
She looked out the back door. No blackened sheds, with coal dust marking a path to the door, but a white-painted garage and roses and lilac bushes around the green lawn, a peach and a cherry tree to give shade as well as fruit.
“I know it’s going to cost more than I can pay,” Joanna said.
There was a bedroom downstairs and three upstairs. Joanna wove her dreams. She would take the downstairs bedroom, share it with Sally. The big bedroom, upstairs, opened onto a little screened porch. Penny would love that. David could have the next larger bedroom, and Michael would like the small one with the sloping ceiling.
She turned to Kent Taylor. “But I have so little … not enough. Not nearly enough.”
He whistled regretfully. “They are asking quite a little down.” He helped her down the stairs. “But there is always a way to raise money.”
She said, wonderingly, “What on earth do you do for a living that would lead you to make a statement like that?”
He grinned. His hair was very red in the sun, and she could see the freckles spattering his skin. “I’m a writer … of articles. That’s how I know that something always turns up.”
“I won’t borrow for a down payment.”
He helped her into the car and slid under the wheel. “Somehow I knew you would say that. You’re different, Mrs. Niels. There’s something about you …”
He told her about himself on the drive home. He was thirty-six, her age. Joanna stole a look at the blunt profile. He seemed so much younger than she, and there was no difference in their years. He had been married. She had died of injuries suffered in an accident. Kent Taylor ran his hands around the steering wheel.
“I’ve never been able to tell anyone before, the horror of it. She was so young, so beautiful, so alive. It was strange to watch her die, the hot, quick life pouring out of her in the red flood they couldn’t stop. It made me know what an enemy life is. Not to be trusted. It makes me realize what an idiot a man can be to dream. Dreams, fragile as china, as easily broken.” He stared straight ahead. “Well, I’ve done a good job of keeping a hop, skip, and a jump ahead of life. I’m never giving it another chance to get at me.”
Joanna looked at her worn gloves and listened to him. He spoke of places he had been. The glamorous names slipped lightly from his tongue, and Joanna could see him moving among the fabulous people, his red hair like a bright banner, his easy laughter winning friends on every side, and always that secret armor to keep out those who would come too close.
She was sorry when they reached home. It was like stepping out of a brightly lighted world into a drab, familiar room. The little house seemed more battered than ever, smaller; the fence sagged. For the first time, Joanna knew a rebellion against closing the door and donning the flat, comfortable shoes, and sifting the endless flour into the great bowls, against carrying the heavy buckets of coal to feed the ever-hungry ranges.
The children poured out of the house to greet her. Penny, slim and eager, brought up the rear. “Did you find it, Mother? Did you find our house?”
“All yours?” Kent asked.
Joanna put her arms around Michael and Sally. “All mine.” She saw the cloud obscure, for a brief moment, his laughter.
“Crown jewels,” he said, and the twinkle was back. “I’m Connie’s Uncle Kent,” he said to Penny. He reached in his pocket for the keys and held them out to Joanna. “Just in case you want to run up and see it again.” He patted Michael absently on the head. “I’ll come tomorrow.”
“I can’t look for houses tomorrow. I’ll be too busy.”
“Work can wait,” he said. “But it’s a crime not to see more of these autumn days.”
When he had gone the children besieged her with questions. Abigail came running over. “Where have you been? Orders have been pouring in.”
Joanna chuckled. “All right, I’m almost ready for the salt mines, but how about all of us getting in the truck and going up to see this house?” She looked at Abigail and added soberly, “I’d give anything to own it. It’s a … a home.”
She drove them up to the house. They shouted with joy at the mere sight of it. She went ahead of them, unlocking the door with a flourish. The children and Abigail spread over the rooms like ants. Joanna was hard put to keep up with their demands that she come here and there. She followed Penny up the stairs to the bedroom in the front.
“This would be for you,” Joanna said.
Penny went over to the door that opened on the little porch. her back stiffened. “Oh, Mother!” It was like a cry.
Joanna went to her. “What is it, Penny?”
Penny pointed silently below her where the city’s lights, like countless gems in a black velvet box, scattered from hill to hill. Southward the lights stretched, to the east they tumbled down the hills, and to the west they lost themselves on the black plains. The starry sky seemed to billow to meet the earth like a great curtain.
“It’s lovely,” Joanna said, and was aware that Penny was crying. “Why, child? What is it?”
Penny buried her face on Joanna’s shoulder. “It’s so beautiful!” she wept. “It hurts me inside. Makes me so full of … I don’t know what to call it.”
Joanna was silent, holding Penny in her arms. But the cry went up from her heart, from the very depths of the longing she had, to give her children happiness. Please, Joanna prayed silently, please, let us have this house … if it is thy will … I most humbly pray.
She stroked Penny’s hair. “If it’s right for you, we’ll have it.”
“But it is right,” Penny whispered. “I just know it is.”
The days fled by. Kent Taylor came daily to call for Joanna. There were many houses available, but none of them to give that feeling of arms held out in welcome.
Kent appeared not at all perturbed by her lack of interest in other houses, nor by the unwillingness of the owners to sell the house for such a small down payment. “We’ll find something, Joanna, and in the meantime I don’t know a better way to spend my afternoons until I have to go.”
“Go?” Joanna was frightened by the sudden quick beating of her heart. Why should it matter to her if Kent Taylor came or went?
“I’m due in Denver. I’m to interview some people for an article. By the way, has anyone been around asking about your products?”
Joanna laughed. “Should they? No one has. but my business is growing. If those people would just wait I would have their old down payment.”
“Two thousand dollars is a lot of money.”
“It will come,” Joanna said.
He turned to her, his hazel eyes probing her own. “Now, what makes you say that?”
“Something secret … and special.”
“You and your faith! Strange to find a saint in this day and generation. You ought to be wearing a sunbonnet and be pushing a handcart.”
Joanna was troubled. “I thought you were one.”
“Not me,” Kent Taylor said, “not since … not for a long while. “He came and took her hands. “When will you go out with me, Joanna?”
She pulled nervously away. “I’m much too busy for play. Right now, I’ve a thousand things to do.”
Only to Abigail did she confide the reason. “I’d look a fright, just that old gray suit, and that older dress. My hair is a fright.”
Abigail sniffed. “Why don’t you buy yourself something, instead of saving for that house you’re not going to get? Why don’t you get yourself something right glamorous?”
“But we are going to get the house,” Joanna said.
It was on Thursday that the man came. He knocked at the front door, and smiled meagerly when Joanna opened to him. He sniffed the air. “Boston-baked?”
“Yes.” Joanna smiled at him, he was such a nervous little man.
“May I come in, Mrs. Niels? I have something of the greatest importance …” He tapped his breast pocket significantly.
Joanna smothered her laughter. “Come right in. I”m afraid you’ll have to sit in the kitchen. I was just baking some cakes …”
He followed her in, moving lightly on his small, brilliantly shined shoes. He sat gingerly in the chair and put his hat under it.
Joanna sifted flour and baking powder. “Are you in the real estate business, Mr. …?”
“Parkinson, Harold Parkinson … No, I’m not, Mrs. Niels. I’m with the William Davidson Company. We package foods … different foods. You’ve heard of us?”
Joanna smiled. “Why, of course, on rare occasions, when I’ve been feeling wealthy I’ve bought some of your products… just to try.”
“Ah, indeed! Well, then you know that we are the makers of unusual things to eat …. or usual things with an unusual flavor.”
“I know,” Joanna nodded. “Your advertisements make your foods sound … romantic…as well as good, especially your Fresh-frozen Southern Barbecue. That was really good.” She wondered what the little man was selling.
“We would like to buy your recipe for Boston-baked beans, Mrs. Niels.”
Joanna slowly put the sifter on the table. “What did you say, Mr. Parkinson?”
“Recipe… for the Boston-baked beans. Of course, you couldn’t sell the beans anymore. But I think you would like the way we would put them out. Your name on the product, and a little history on the side of how you came to make it.”
“What do you mean, Mr. Parkinson?” She stood still, her eyes on his face.
Mr. Parkinson squirmed a little under the blue blaze of them. “Everybody knows how you came to sell them, Mrs. Niels, of how you were left … in poverty … and how a kindly neighbor brought you a sack of beans he had been given, and how you started your little business with his gift.”
Joanna laughed and rolled her hands in her apron. “Oh, no, Mr. Parkinson … I couldn’t do that.”
He chuckled with her. “I rather thought you would say that. But did you ever think of the women you could help …? A lot of women are left in straitened circumstances…”
Joanna stared over his head. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“We will give you five thousand dollars for the recipe…”
Joanna looked down at his face. “Did you say five thousand dollars?”
There was a burning in Joanna’s breast, an aching of tears ready to overflow, a wild, sweet song within her. Other people would call it “luck.” But always she would know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, who had sent this man to her, and why he had come.