By Margery S. Stewart
The house was very quiet in the days that followed. Penny went shopping with Joanna and struggled to be enthusiastic over clothes, but she was white-faced and heavy-eyed. Joanna, waking in the night, heard her muffled weeping. She covered her ears with the pillow. Someday Penny would thank her for this.
Michael was the only one who was delighted with the prospect of being released from school. He brought home armloads of maps and traced the routes they would follow. David went quietly about the business of learning all the things Joanna wanted him to know. He visited the shops with her, sat up until the small hours studying the rows of figures that had been Joanna’s portion.
Only Abigail was outspoken in her disapproval. She was in Joanna’s room the night before they would begin their trip, helping in the last minute packing, mending the rips and tears Michael always managed to leave in the newest of clothes.
Penny had gone out with Mark, for the last time, Joanna hoped. David was down at the office, catching up on some last minute questions he wanted to ask Joanna. Michael was asleep.
Abigail pulled the thread shortly through the sock she was mending. “I … hope you don’t regret this, Joanna. I tell you, I never felt so worried about anything in my life.”
Joanna paired hosiery and put them in the bottom drawer of the new wardrobe trunk. “Abigail, darling, you’ll see. This will be the finest thing that ever happened to Penny. A year from now she’ll smile when someone mentions Mark’s name.”
Abigail put the sock in her lap. “Do you smile, Joanna, when you hear the name of Kent Taylor?”
Joanna sucked in her breath. Pain roared through her. “Kent? Why … Why, oh, but it’s different.”
“Why is it?”
“Oh, Abigail, let’s not argue anymore. Penny is my daughter and I’m going to do everything in my power to keep her safe from every care.”
Suddenly Abigail was crying, tears falling unchecked down her wrinkled cheeks.
“Darling!” Joanna sprang to her. “What is it?”
“I’m … I’m crying for a girl I knew a right long time ago … beautiful and brave … and … and believing.”
The telephone rang. “I’ll answer it.” Joanna patted Abigail’s shoulder in passing.
She ran lightly down the stairs, glancing briefly around the living room, already sorry that she must leave it on the morrow, it looked so inviting with the fire low on the hearth, and the white lamp light bringing into display the lovely paintings on the wall and the exquisite figurines that decorated the low tables. The telephone was in the front hall. Again Joanna silently resolved to have an extension put in. She kept forgetting. She lifted the receiver. “Hello.”
“Mrs. Niels?” A strange man’s voice came over the wire.
“Mrs. Niels, this is Doctor Weldon. Your son David has been rather badly injured … automobile accident. Could you come at once?’
Joanna felt swift breath rush in her throat. “I’ll … I’ll come at once. What hospital?”
She called to Abigail and rushed back to her room, picking up her coat and bag.
It seemed to Joanna that it took her hours to reach the hospital. Even the moments of climbing the stairs, calling to Abigail, seemed to stretch interminably, and the three block drive to the hospital seemed an endless crawl. Then there was the long wait at the desk until the girl there could tell her in which room David lay. The elevator whined and inched to the fourth floor, until Joanna felt the scream that crouched in her would burst its bonds any moment.
The long corridor was silent and empty except for a man who conferred with a nurse at the far end. He looked up and saw Joanna and Abigail and came toward them. “Mrs. Niels?”
“Yes. How is he?”
He used a great many words to tell her that David was not expected to live, words like feathers to smother the pain. Always a hope, of course. A frail chance for recovery … “But it is best you remain here for a while, Mrs. Niels …” So close was he to death.
“May we see him?” She was aware of Abigail’s arm around her when they went into the small, green painted room with its white, high bed. David lay quietly under the stiff neatness of hospital sheets.
“He is not conscious,” Doctor Weldon said.
Joanna went over to the bed and looked down on her son. His head was bandaged and on his cheek was a long strip of plaster. His hands lay at his sides, ink was stained along one forefinger.
Doctor Weldon held a chair for her and Joanna sank into it, still holding David’s hand. She said to Abigail, “We forgot the children … it … I don’t want it to be too great a shock…”
Abigail nodded. “I know. I’ll go back and tell them.” She paused beside Joanna, opened her mouth to speak, and then turned and left … wordlessly.
The nurse came back into the room, bent over David. She and the doctor whispered together. Joanna did not hear them. She sat quietly, holding David’s hand. After the years of having so much of him, his laughter, and his presence, his clothes spilling over in his room, his scattered books, it seemed strange to be so humbly grateful for so small a thing as his breathing and his hand in hers.
The nurse and Doctor Weldon went away. Joanna did not notice. She remembered the day David was born, her first knowledge of anguish and terror. She remembered when the nurse had brought him to her and how David had looked, like a fighter, much the worse for wear. She remembered when he was three and she had tucked him in for the night, how he had lifted his brown eyes to hers and said, “I love you and I like you.” She remembered the day they had buried Big David … the neighbor’s bonfire and small David’s shadow, stretching long across the path. Once before in her life she had known this utter desolation and despair. Like a drowning woman clutching straws, she had gone to her room and knelt beside the little rocker.
Gently, she put his hand down on the sheet and rose and went over to the window. She stared, unseeing, down into the lights of the valley, remembering the day she had asked for help for her children. She had asked for bread. Bread? The very windows of heaven had opened and riches beyond her dreams and been her portion.
“… And I have forgotten. For a long time I’ve thought, allowed myself to think, that I did it all myself. I didn’t want to be humble anymore or grateful. I wanted to be what people said I was, rich, successful, and marvelously clever.” She leaned her forehead against the cold window. How can I go to him now? How can I think he will hear me?
“Please,” she whispered, “I, who would not come to you with my riches, now come in my want. There is no one else to help me, there never has been, only I was too proud and blind to admit and remember. Please … he is so young … boys like him are needed … so many have been lost.”
She bowed her head in her hands and fought silently against the completion of the prayer … after a long moment she said, “Nevertheless … not my will, but thine, because thine is always the right and perfect way.”
The reassurance came instantly, the beautiful joy that she remembered at once, though it had been many years since she had experienced it. The joy that was peace and love and the sweet assurance that all would be well … that David would recover.
It was as though she had groped for years in a room of shadows, stumbling over things, not being able to see, when all the while the key had been in her hands.
She went back and sat beside David and leaned her wet face upon his hand.
Doctor Weldon and the nurse came back. They examined David again, their faces grave and quiet. The nurse gave Joanna a swift look shot with pity and foreknowledge.
Joanna smiled. “He is going to get well,” she said.
The doctor and the nurse exchanged glances. “There is always a chance,” they said with forced heartiness and unbelief.
David stirred and mumbled. They bent over to him, the three of them. He opened his eyes, staring blindly at the ceiling. “Mom?” Not knowing she was there, the word pushed up from the disordered fragments of thought.
Joanna smoothed his cheek. “I’m here, David,” she said, though she knew he could not hear. “Get well quickly, you are going to England, remember? On a mission.”
The nurse looked at her curiously. They still think he will die, Joanna thought, but he will be well in no time at all.
It was the sixth of October. Joanna sat on the low wall that surrounded the pond of the Seagull Monument and tried to listen to the sermon, broadcast over the loud speaker. But try as she would, her thoughts kept moving to the people around her, wondering about them. They drifted past her, or stood quietly, their faces listening and rapt. Beautiful people, she thought, something so clean and fresh about them. Children played around the pool coatless, their bare arms silken smooth in the warm gold of the October sun. Girls went by in groups, like blown flowers, or walked sedately by the side of their young men, their faces lifted and rapturous, oblivious of those, like herself, who stared. Penny and Mark would be along any moment. They had promised to meet her. Joanna was impatient for their coming. It had been a week since she had seen Penny. She wondered how long before she would grow accustomed to Penny in her new role of wife.
A man came through the crowds, walking slowly, looking all around.
Joanna stared at him for several moments before she could believe her eyes. Kent! Kent, with his bright, arrogant head, tall above the throng. Kent, with his face incredibly lined and sunbeaten, walking through the conference crowds on an October afternoon. Joanna put her hands to her forehead and closed her eyes. When she opened them again he would be gone.
But when she lifted her lashes he was standing before her. “What an amazing bit of luck … to find you here. You … I just stepped off the train.” He sat beside her. His eyes scrutinized her hungrily.
Joanna wet her lips. She sat still under his gaze, wryly aware of the white wings of hair showing under her smart hat.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
She had no wish to tear old wounds open. “I’ve been reading about you for years and years. Welcome home.”
He took a deep breath, looking all around him. “If I had a spoon I would gobble up all this sunshine. I saw the mountains coming in … I had forgotten how breath-taking.”
“You’ve seen a great many beautiful places, to judge from your descriptions.”
“Home,” he said, as though he had not heard. “Home. My place and my people, my streets and my hills, my earth …: After a moment he turned to her. “I forgot, how are the youngsters?’
She smiled. “David is in England still. He wrote me that he had lunch with you in London … thrilled him to pieces, lunching with a world-famous war correspondent.”
“He’s the salt of the earth, that boy. Penny is married?”
“Yes. Sally and Michael and Abigail and I are the only ones at home.” She added lightly, “I did manage to bring them up, after all, in spite of all the alarms and excursions.”
His eyes went slowly over her face. “I’ve thought about you day and night for months … especially since I saw David. I wanted to see you … tell you … how wonderful you are, and how right … and just look at you and be glad that you are the kind of person you are.”
“Kent, you’re so wrong.”
He took her hand and looked down on it. “I wish … no … I’m glad you haven’t seen the children I’ve seen… the lost and the lonely and the terrified. I’m glad you haven’t had to know the many women I’ve met and heard about … whose children are tossed into the storm of the world, the poor because of poverty, the wealthy in ignorance and callousness.”
“Whenever I saw a half-starved youngster, I thought of you and the first day I met you, the way your kitchen shone and the sweet smell of bread baking. I was selfish and without knowledge when I went away. I thought you should have dropped everything to come with me. But I’ve met so many girls … Penny’s age … and I guess I’ve gotten down on my knees more than once in simple gratitude that I knew someone like you.”
Joanna said, “That was the hardest thing I ever did.”
She reached blindly in her bag for a handkerchief. “I haven’t been so wonderful … if you only knew. For a long time I got completely off the track … went around thinking I was doing everything by myself. It’s good, not to be lost.”
“I know,” Kent said. He looked about him. “Multitudes, multitudes in the Valley of Decision … Joanna, it would amaze you to know how many people are in that valley, right now. Something reaching out to all of us, making us wonder and think … and pray.”
“Kent … I’m so glad you are home.”
“May I stay? Always?”