The Falling Shackles
By Margery S. Stewart
Synopsis: The Tobler family, members of the Church from Europe, arrive in Salt Lake City, and, through the help of Mamma Tobler’s cousin Frederick, find a home. Papa Tobler, who had been a doctor, finds employment in a factory. Mamma Tobler quickly makes the old-fashioned house into a home, and Karen, the younger daughter, finds many problems of adjustment in her school work. Maria, the seventeen-year-old daughter, finds work assisting young Timothy Allred in his father’s drugstore. Phillip, the young son, makes many friends. Papa Tobler is greatly disturbed to find that Felix Dracken, who had been his enemy in a concentration camp, is a fellow employee at the factory. Maria is introduced to Timothy’s fiancee, Lisa Ballantine, but Maria realizes she is in love with Timothy and has been in love with him ever since the day she found Phillip in his store.
No one was downstairs. Maria found Karen sitting by the window in their room practicing the guitar. She was singing an American song, one familiar to Maria because of the radio the pharmacist kept on.
“Has Mamma been over at all?” She sat on the bed.
Karen looked up and laughed. “She is truly happy, Maria. She and Mrs. McKensie have so much in common. Mamma told me about it when she came over to get the mustard. I guess all the loneliness is over for her.”
“I am a stranger in paradise …” Karen sang.
Maria listened critically. “You make it sound like you are a stranger in a department store. There is no feeling.”
Karen stopped. “You show me, since you know so much.”
“I can’t sing,” said Maria. “I only know the person who wrote those words knew what he was talking about.”
Karen whistled. “Since this morning yet, Maria can give me lessons on love. What happened?”
“Nothing at all …” Maria denied. “I just suddenly know how a love song should be sung.”
Karen became humble. “Tell me then, Maria, because they have asked me to sing for the school assembly, and if I do it right, everything will be wonderful for me.”
Maria sat up straight. “For the school assembly? How did they know you sang?”
Karen had the grace to blush. “Mrs. McKensie’s daughter Linda, the one I said hated me … well, she has been listening to me sing, and she told the class president, and they had me try out. They said … Maria, they said I was cool.”
“You were what?”
“Cool, Maria, means more than wonderful.”
Maria sat back and looked at her sister. She saw how she had changed … not only in the way she wore her lovely hair, in the sweater that was her pride, the American shoes … but inside herself Karen was changed. In another year, Maria thought, there will be no difference at all, except the slightest of accents … all her thinking will be like theirs and the past will be an ugly, lost dream.
Maria was awakened again by the steady pacing of feet on the uncarpeted dining-room floor. Back and forth, back and forth, sixteen steps one way, sixteen steps another, hesitate, turn, and sixteen steps again. Maria put the pillow over her ears. But in her mind she heard them still.
The steps brought Felix Dracken vividly to her thoughts. The stooped, thick little clerk swam before her vision. She remembered his hands, stubby and seldom opened, but curled into gnarled balls, or rubbing each other over and over. When the mighty ones had come to their neighborhood, Felix had always been there to open a car door or chase a child out of the way, or berate someone for an infraction of a rule. He had been important then. His wife and daughter had lorded it over the others.
The pacing continued. Maria swung out of bed and reached for her robe and slippers.
Her father looked up when she came into the room. His face was gray with fatigue, circled with sleeplessness. “Maria? Did I awaken you?”
“No, Papa, I could not sleep. I thought I would make some hot milk for myself. You would like some?”
He nodded wearily, “Yes, I think so.” He came out in the kitchen and sat down heavily at the big table while Maria prepared the milk and cut generous slices of Mamma’s apple strudel.
“I have been thinking about Felix Dracken.”
Maria put her hand on his arm. “I hate him.”
Her father shook his head. “I wish I had not told you. Now, you worry, too. It is strange about parents. When the little ones come to them, they vow that they shall never know want nor fear nor sorrow, nothing that is unpleasant.” He laughed without mirth. “How helpless we are to keep it from them.”
She laid her cheek against his thinning hair. It was very quiet in the big house, the shadows seemed dark in the great kitchen, the clock on the stove made a little pool of busyness.
“Maybe you could not keep sorrow from me, Papa, but I have remembered always how you were, the day they took you away, so strong and brave, how you told us not to stop believing that all should yet be well.” She kissed him. “I always think of that when things go badly with me … I … I try to be like you were that day.”
A look of utter happiness washed rosily across her father’s gray face. “Now I am strong. Now I will tell you what I have decided to do about Felix.”
Maria slid into her chair beside him. “You will ignore him?”
Her father put down his cup. “No. I cannot do that, much as I would like. It is like being always near a ruined building … like a feeling of walls crumbling over you. No. I have decided to look elsewhere for work, and Felix can have his place in peace.”
Maria started up in protest. “It isn’t fair! Why should you go? Let him go.” She shook her father’s arm. “If you tell the other men, they will make Felix Dracken go. They will hate him. Cousin Frederick tells us all the time how much the men admire and respect you. They will drive Felix Dracken out.” Her voice rose harshly.
“Hush!” Her father put his finger on her lip. “You will awaken the whole house.” He took a sip of his milk. “No,” he said, “that is what Felix fears I will do. But I cannot bring myself to such a thing. Then I should be one with all the forces rising up against us in those days.”
She looked at him questioningly.
“The destroying forces,” he said, “that would enter into us all, if they could, that would crush out every decent kindly feeling, that would make us like the … the beasts we have known.”
Maria shuddered. “But they could not enter into you, or me.”
Papa took her hand. “Remember Forsgren … no, no, you were too young. You didn’t know him when he was like others, kindly, laughing, full of fun. He listened to … to those others, and he believed them. He began to change.”
Maria watched the knuckles whiten on his hands.
“It was strange, the difference in him. Their words flowing into his ears and filling him up like poison in a glass, and then the poison beginning to pour out … first in words, arguments with us, who had known him so long.” Papa stared before him sadly. “Then in acts of violence … shameful things.” Papa’s fingers tightened on her hand. “That is why I say … keep the citadel of your heart, Maria. Keep it safe from the whispers of the evil one, from dark suggestions. Throw them out … for the whispers will grow into beliefs and the beliefs into acts. If you guard against the first, you cannot be overcome by the second.”
The doorbell rang. Maria jumped to her feet. “It is Mamma.”
But a young boy waited on the front porch when she opened the door. His bicycle lay against the steps. “This the Toblers’ residence?”
“Is Christopher Tobler here?”
Maria stood aside as her father came to the door, frowning in perplexity.
“Mr. Dracken sent you this note. He wants you to come right away. He needs a doctor bad.”
Papa reached reluctantly for the note the boy held out. He tore open the envelope and scanned the sprawled sentences on the page. He handed it to Maria. He said to the boy, “Tell Mr. Dracken to get another doctor. I cannot come.”
“He won’t get another doctor,” the boy protested. “We’ve been trying to get him to, but he told my Dad he’d die before he would have anyone but you.”
“Tell him,” said Chris Tobler, “that I will not come. He will consent to another doctor, goodnight.” He closed the door.
Maria’s eyes dropped to the page she was holding. “Dear Doctor Tobler: Please come. There is something I must tell you. Please come. Felix Dracken.”
She tore the note into little fragments.
Her father watched her. Suddenly he opened the door. He called to the boy, who was half way down the street, “Come back.”
“Papa!” Maria cried. “You won’t go to him … don’t go.”
“What is the address?” he asked the returning boy. When he had been told, he nodded. “I will be there in a little while.”
“But, Papa … you cannot practice medicine here.”
“I know.” He hurried toward the stairs. “But I can visit a man and talk to him and perhaps call a doctor for him if he has need of one.”
Maria turned towards the stairs. “Then I will go with you. You shall not go alone to his house. I will not let him trick you into some new evil.”
Felix Dracken’s apartment was the basement of a very old house. It was reached by an outside stairway that led to the cluttered bed-kitchen-living room. Felix Dracken lay, breathing heavily, in a rumpled heap of bedclothes on a couch.
Maria started when she saw the man. He was only a shadow of what he had been. The only familiar thing about him was the continual rubbing motion of his dry, curled hands.
Papa took his pulse and laid his ear against Felix Dracken’s chest. “Not even a stethoscope did I bring.”
After a time Papa sat straight, asked questions. He chewed his lower lip for a time, his eyes narrowed in thought. ‘I think tonight it is mostly nervousness. You are afraid, Felix.”
Felix Dracken cried out. He struggled to sit up. “What is it you plan to do, Christopher Tobler? To go to the men? Are you going to tell them about me?”
Maria turned away from the sight of his thin hand clawing at her father’s lapels.
“Please … please don’t!” he stammered. “I have nothing but my job. Nothing. I have suffered always for what I did to you, Chris Tobler. But it was not for myself I did it. It was for them … for Matilda and Carol. I did everything for them. I thought that it would all be over soon and then I meant to tell the truth … I meant to tell the truth when the danger was over … you believe that?”
“Yes,” said Chris Tobler, “I believe that.”
Felix began to weep, a dry, dreadful sound. “I thought, if I took their part for a little while, we should all come through without harm.”
Papa said gently, “It is all over now, Felix. It is over. They were bad times for us all. Many of us did things we would never have done in times of peace …”
Felix Dracken turned away. “No,” he whispered, “many did not. I saw them standing fast … fast to all they believed. All but those like myself … who were afraid.”
There was a great silence in the little room. Maria bent to pick up fallen clothes. She folded them neatly and put them on the table.
“In the end,” Felix Dracken said suddenly and clearly, “they were killed. You knew that.”
“Who was killed?’ Papa asked. Maria drew closer.
“Mathilda and Carol … in the last great raid … the last bombing of all.” Felix sat up. “All that I had given up … all that I did that was terrible to do … was in vain. In a moment they were taken from me.”
Maria met her father’s eyes. They exchanged a long glance of understanding and compassion.
“I will call a doctor for you,” said Chris Tobler. “In a few days you will be all right. I think it was worry of what I would do that brought your sickness. I shall do nothing, Felix Dracken. Nothing.”
Maria and her father walked home. It was good to walk slowly, taking deep breaths of the sweet, chill air, to listen to the sounds of the night, cars hurrying past, a baby crying in a house they passed by, a party being ended at the doorway of another. They came at last to the corner where the drugstore stood.
Maria started and pulled at her father’s arm. “He is still there … Timothy Allred. Is something wrong with his father, do you suppose?” She knocked on the door.
Timothy Allred opened it and stood back in surprise. “Maria? I was just thinking of you.”
“Your father?” Maria asked. “Is he well? Is something wrong?”
“Come in, I’ll make you a malt. There’s not a thing in the world wrong. In fact, the world never looked better.”
Papa gently disengaged his arm. “Is late for talk for me, besides I must make a telephone call. But for Maria, there is plenty of time.”
“Papa!” She drew close to him in confusion.
Timothy gently held her back. “You heard what he said. We can’t have any disobedient children around here. Come on in, I want to ask your advice.”
Chris Tobler chuckled. “The words have a warm, familiar ring,” he said, “as if I might have spoken them myself, once, a long time ago.” The two men exchanged glances of friendly understanding.
Timothy Allred led Maria to the fountain. “Now you sit here, like a queen, and I’ll fix you the fanciest malt you ever tasted. You like ice cream, Maria?”
She blushed. “You know I do. Too well, perhaps.”
He considered her. “No. I would say you liked it just exactly enough.” He placed the glass before her, made one for himself, and came around to sit beside her. “You like this drugstore, Marie?”
She took a spoonful of the malt. “Very much.”
“I’ll bet if it were your store you’d make things hum.”
She nodded vigorously.
He leaned on his elbow and studied her. “I’ll bet you’d think it a fine idea to build more stores on either side, a food market for instance, and a cleaning shop, a barber shop and a beauty salon.”
Maria put down her spoon. “Are you going to do all those things, Timothy?”
He took her hand. “I thought I’d start planting my forty acres.”
“Your father will be so happy,” she paused, “but what about Miss Ballantine … she has plans also?”
He pushed the hair back from his forehead. “Maria, Lisa and I haven’t been in love with each other for months and months. We have both been in love with a handsome, dashing corporation lawyer … who didn’t exist.” He took a deep drink of his malt. “Would I sound fickle if I said I’d been falling in love hour by hour, day by day, with a beautiful, mysterious, dazzling stranger?”
“Oh, you …”
Suddenly, the laughter was fled from his eyes and a curious humbleness took its place. “It is true, Maria. I think I loved you from the moment you came here … but I didn’t know until tonight.”
Maria closed her eyes. What a beautiful world it was, splashed with stars, garlanded with flowers, shot through with splendor. She sat very still.
“You might at least tell me what you think … if you hate me … or something like that.”
Maria opened her eyes and looked into his. The room rocked gently around her. “There never was such love as I feel for you, Timothy … like stars bursting all around me.”
“It is like that with me,” said Timothy, “or like a passport to heaven.”
Maria sipped her malt. Because Timothy had made it, it was like ambrosia and nectar. She marveled at the gladness within her and the lightness of her being … as if chains had broken and she was free.