by Olive W. Burt
Synopsis: When her sister Elizabeth died, Carol Wilson, unmarried, felt a responsibility towards Elizabeth’s children. Several months later she left her work as an artist for a magazine edited by Brent Gibson, and returned to her sister’s home, hoping to comfort the children. However, she found them well cared for.
It was a hilariously happy group that piled out of the station wagon and romped into the big living room. Carol, coming back from her walk, paused at the edge of the yard to watch. Fred saw her standing there and shouted, “Come on in, Carol. Extend the welcoming hand!”
Carol came quickly, crossed the porch to the woman standing beside Fred. “Mrs. Graham! It’s wonderful to see you again!”
“Carol! You get lovelier every time I see you!” Dolly Graham regarded Carol with bright, friendly eyes. Then, “You’ve never met my brother, have you? I’m almost afraid to introduce him to such a lovely girl – he’s so impressionable. But then –” she laughed gaily. “Carol, this is Tony.” She turned to her brother. “Carol is Elizabeth’s sister.”
“And an added attraction to the Wyoming scene!” Tony laughed.
He was tall and slim, black-haired and keen-faced, very handsome and Carol thought, very young.
“You need have no fears for Tony,” Fred chuckled. “Carol’s a girl that sees nothing in men excepting as business associates.”
“Well,” Tony parried cheerfully, “I’ll be her business associate any day. What enterprise can we start, Carol? Anything you say goes.”
Carol had to laugh. She felt lighthearted and gay. In fact, the whole atmosphere of the ranch house seemed to have grown brighter with the advent of these two pleasant people.
Inside the house, Dolly ran to Mrs. Trent and gave her a swift, affectionate hug and kiss.
“Mother Trent!” she whispered gently. “I’ve thought of you so much! I so wished I could have been here when Elizabeth died. But I’m home now – and it is good! good!”
Mrs. Trent’s face was flushed with happiness. The frail hands clung to Dolly Graham’s arm. “I’m so glad, so very glad, Dolly!”
Then Mrs. Cartwright came bustling in and was introduced. And Dolly Graham, with the air of one who has a right to comment, said, “Fred tells me you’re a wonderful help, Mrs. Cartwright. And seeing the children and Mrs. Trent and the house – I know he’s right. I am so grateful they’ve had someone like you to look after them!”
Carol turned away, blinking smarting eyes. The housekeeper, the hired housekeeper, was praised for taking care of Elizabeth’s children! Well, in all fairness, she deserved praise. And what had Elizabeth’s sister done? Nothing – nothing but worry and wait.
“Aunt Dolly,” Trudy was tugging at the woman’s skirt, “Aunt Dolly, what did you bring me?”
“Trudy!” Mrs. Trent reprimanded, a little sharply. “We don’t ask questions like that!”
“I do, Grandma!” Trudy said stoutly. “I ask.”
Dolly Graham chuckled and lifted the child in her arms. “And Aunt Dolly will answer any question you ask her, Trudy, darling. But not right now. Let’s eat our good dinner first, shall we? You know Uncle Tony and Aunt Dolly are hungry.” She looked at the other children over Trudy’s golden curls. “We’ll have dinner and then we’ll all see what’s in the big present-box. How’s that?”
The dinner, as usual, was delicious, but the children were too excited and curious to do it justice. Tony, seated next to Carol, was attentive and charming, full of gay jokes and bright quips. Once she turned her blue eyes full upon his handsome, teasing face and asked, mischievously, “Whatever did you do with all your charm in the mission field?”
He sobered instantly and said quietly, “I used it to the best advantage – not for me, but for the Church.”
“Tell me some of your experiences,” Carol begged.
“Sometime I’d like to tell you all of them,” Tony said, a smile chasing away that serious look.
Trudy pushed aside her plate and said, “I’m through. It’s after dinner now, Aunt Dolly!”
Dolly Graham laughed good-naturedly. “I’ll bet you will want a big supper, but that will be all right. Tony, bring in the present-box, will you?”
Tony grinned assent and went out to the station wagon. Mrs. Cartwright set up a folding table in the middle of the room, and Tony placed a huge box upon it. The children crowded around, their eyes wide, their voices shrill with excitement.
“Now, children!” Mrs. Trent admonished, “try to act just a little bit civilized, won’t you?”
They didn’t seem to hear her. Carol stooped and picked up Trudy, intending to hold her high so she could see over the heads of the others. But the little girl squirmed out of her aunt’s arms and wriggled between Kathy and Steve to stand with her small dimpled chin just over the table’s edge. Tony, unwrapping the big box, leaned across and tweaked the little girl’s upturned nose, and Trudy giggled ecstatically.
Tony took care to leave the wrappings in such a position that the contents of the box could not be seen.
“The first shall be last and the last shall be first!” chanted Dolly Graham. “Is that okay with all concerned?”
“Yes! Yes!” cried the children, eager to be about the business of the day.
Dolly Graham drew out a beautifully wrapped box and handed it to Trudy. “For the darlingest four-year-old in Wyoming!” she said.
Trudy’s small fingers fumbled with the ribbons. Carol wanted to reach down and help her, but after the unconscious rebuff of a moment ago, she hesitated. Becky’s glance was swiveling from Trudy to the box, unwilling to miss Trudy’s gift, yet eager for her own.
“I have an idea,” Dolly Graham said. “Each one can open her gift and show it to the others before the next one is handed out. How will that be? Then we can all enjoy all of them.”
“Good idea!” Tony exclaimed. “Trudy, honey, let Aunt Carol help you with those strings.”
So Carol was drawn into it. She stooped and carefully slipped the ribbon from the box, thumbed up the cellophane tape that held the paper, and revealed a white box.
“You can open this yourself, Trudy,” she said, and handed the box to the child.
Trudy jerked off the lid and squealed with delight. Inside was a rosy, chubby, baby doll.
“That’s a sweet little Pupchen from Germany,” Dolly Graham said. “Do you like her, Trudy?”
“Oh, I love her! I love her!” And Trudy squeezed the doll to her heart.
One by one the children received their gifts: a French little-girl doll for Becky; a Queen Elizabeth doll for Kathy; a Spanish lace shawl for Mrs. Trent; a book of foreign recipes for Mrs. Cartwright; French perfume for Carol.
Carol knew, of course, that her present came from the extra gifts any wise traveler brings home for just such an emergency. Dolly Graham hadn’t known she would be here. But the perfume was presented with such an air of having been selected on purpose for its recipient, that Carol felt a warm glow of affection toward this woman, even though she, of all people, seemed the one who might take Carol’s place in the hearts of Elizabeth’s children.
They had saved Fred’s gift to the very last. Now Dolly handed it to him – a flat, rectangular package. They all watched as he unwrapped it to expose a book – an album of some sort. He opened it, and the expression of surprised delight was reward enough for the thought and care that had gone into its making.
He looked up at Dolly Graham. “Dolly!” Emotion choked him. “This is the very best, the most wonderful gift you could have brought me.”
The woman smiled happily. “Yes, we took time to visit your mission field in Virginia. The saints there still remember you with the greatest affection, Fred. They went all out to help Tony get the pictures.”
Fred held the album out to Carol. “Look, Carol! That’s Sister Hendry – the most wonderful woman! Look at her eyes!”
Carol looked at the photograph, a color print of an elderly, white-haired woman with the most remarkable blue eyes she had ever seen. The whole expression on the serene old face was one of benevolence and saintliness.
“It’s been fifteen years!” Fred breathed. “It was before I married Elizabeth. But she looks exactly the same as she did the day I baptized her.” He turned to Dolly Graham. “I’m not going to try to thank you, Dolly. Some things are beyond thanks.”
Carol walked slowly to the wide window and looked out at the towering peaks that always seemed to quiet her troubled thoughts. That was the perfect gift for Fred. It was something that she, Carol, would never have thought of. It showed, as did everything Dolly Graham did, a keen sensitivity to the needs of this family. Carol thought, I could have selected the children’s presents all right. I know what they like. But Fred’s – I would never, never have thought of that!
During the following week it seemed to Carol that Dolly Graham and her brother were constantly on hand. Either the Trents and Carol were all piled into the station wagon and driven over to the Graham ranch for dinner or a swim in the pool there, or Dolly and Tony came up in their own big convertible to spend an evening at the Trents’, or to carry Fred and Carol off to the neighboring village to a Church meeting or a picture show.
Tony never gave Carol a chance to feel out of things. He was constantly at her side, attentive, gay, admiring. Sometimes Carol wondered whether this was simply a maneuver to give Fred and Dolly a chance to be together, or whether Tony really cared as much for her as he appeared to. But when such doubts disturbed her, one look into the frank brown eyes dispelled them. Tony Muir did like her, and was beginning to more than like her. Carol couldn’t help seeing that.
On Friday evening Dolly and Tony had dinner at Fred’s. Afterward the whole crowd, including even Mrs. Trent and Mrs. Cartwright, were playing a new marble game Tony had brought from the East. It was simple enough for Trudy to hold her own, yet exciting enough to send them all off into gales of laughter or shouts of warning. The hilarity was at its height when the telephone rang.
Fred answered, and turned to Carol. “It’s for you.”
She went to the phone and felt her heart leap as she heard Brent Gibson’s calm, steady voice. “Hi, there, Carol. How’s everything?”
“Fine! Fine and dandy!” She didn’t try to keep the trill of happiness out of her voice. Brent had telephoned at last! In that instant, Carol knew that she had been waiting two weeks for this call.
“You coming home this weekend?” The man’s voice was casual.
“Well …” Carol wanted to go now, but she didn’t like to say so. She let the one word hang in the air, unsupported.
“I just wondered what you’d decided,” Brent went on. “You see – well, how are your brother-in-law and the children? Are you having a good time? Did you … did you …”
“Everyone’s just fine. Yes, I’m having a good time. Why did you call, Brent?”
“Well, to tell the truth, I was getting worried. Afraid you might be deciding to stay, and that – right at this moment – would put me in a spot.”
Carol felt a dampening of her first bright joy. “Why?” she asked coldly.
“Well, to tell you the facts, I got a new serial the other day – a marvelous story – and I thought you might like to illustrate it.”
“Turn it over to Lew Zane – he can do it!” Carol’s voice was sharp.
“It’s not that simple. You see, this story was written by Maybelle Ray.”
“Maybelle Ray!” Carol almost shouted the words. “Why, she’s – she’s – ”
“World famous. Yes, I know. And it was just a mighty wonderful stroke of luck that we got the story. That stroke of luck being one Carol Wilson, artist. Fact is, Maybelle wants you and only you to do the illustrations.”
The instant thrill of excitement melted the chill of Carol’s thought that Brent wouldn’t have called if he hadn’t had to. But this was a chance she couldn’t miss – to illustrate the work of such a famous author – and to be demanded!
“I’ll come down,” Carol said into the receiver, “and do Maybelle’s job. I’ll leave in the morning.”
“Good girl!” Brent sounded relieved. “I’ll meet you as usual.”
Carol replaced the receiver and turned away. Good girl! Good girl! Come home and get to work! Forget Elizabeth’s children! Forget Tony Muir! Forget everything but your paint and brushes … Oh, Brent!
She went slowly back to the game, but it wasn’t fun any longer.
As Tony told her goodnight, he held her hand and looked down at her. “Did I happen to overhear you sway you were going to leave tomorrow?”
Carol nodded. “Yes, that was my boss. He has a special job for me to do.”
“Why don’t you forget those special jobs, Carol – and all jobs? Why don’t you take a long, long vacation – two or three months? You don’t know how fascinating this country can be – with an expert to show you around. Tell your boss to get another artist, and spend the summer here!”
His eyes, his voice were eager, compelling. So different from Brent Gibson’s casual tone. Carol hesitated. “I don’t know, Tony. But I’ll have to go down and do this one job.”
“Come back, then, as soon as it’s done!”
“Maybe. I’ll see.”
“It’s a promise?”
“Just a sort of promise, Tony – but a promise of sorts!”
He laughed down at her. “I’ll count the days. And I’ll phone often to remind you.”
Carol watched him as he ran across the porch and actually leaped into the convertible. He was so young! In spite of his successful mission, he wasn’t much more than a boy.
She turned slowly and went up to her room. She crossed to the mirror and studied her face. It’s not a bad face, she thought. And it looks young, too. How strange, when I feel old enough to be the mother of Elizabeth’s four! But I’m not, really! she frowned and turned away from the disturbing glass.