The Silver Leash
by Beatrice Rordame Parsons
Synopsis: LaRue Harding, an orphan, who has lived since childhood in California with an aunt, goes to Fivelakes, Arizona, after the death of her sister Amelia. She tries to help and encourage her brother-in-law Herbert Vetterly, who is confined to a wheelchair. His children gradually come to accept LaRue as a friend and as a member of the family. She meets Dr. Alan Rutherford, a surgeon at the Jonas Harding Hospital, and his fiancee Gladys Drew.
A week or so later, LaRue had the opportunity to speak to Herb about her plans for extending her vacation. “I’d like to wire the bank and ask for a little more time, Herb. That is, if you and the children can put up with me a little longer.” She felt herself flushing and took refuge in the Founding Festival, adding: “I’d like to stay for the celebration. Everyone’s talking about it.”
“Of course, stay,” said Herb, but he could not hide the questioning frown which crossed his forehead.
LaRue decided that she must be completely honest. “I didn’t mean to stay, Herb. I realize that Erma and Joel resent me. Connie has been offended ever since the day I corrected her …”
“The children are young,” said Herb, coming quickly to their defense. “I shall speak to them …”
“Please don’t,” said LaRue, stiffly. “Oh, I know that it seems to them that I came only for a vacation, that I didn’t want to come. But I had to come, Herb.”
Her voice failed. Silence stretched within the pretty room with its starched white curtains, its home-like furniture. There was a crystal bowl on a table. Amelia had loved it because it had been given to her by a good friend. Amelia had had so many friends. Everyone had liked her. Everybody LaRue met said kind, loving things about Amelia. And because they did, LaRue felt lonely.
Herb was speaking haltingly: “I have no right to ask you to stay, LaRue. Yet I need you. We all need you.”
It was good to be needed. Yet LaRue knew the limitations of that need. After Herb had gone to his room and closed his door, she thought about it. When she sat down to send a telegram to the bank, she felt doubtful. Once her hand paused, and she crumbled the paper, deciding not to stay.
Then she heard Connie going along the hall. She paused at her father’s door, called out to him: “Daddy, I’m going out to play with Janice and Atlast. If you need anything, just call me.”
Connie waited hopefully for an answer. When it did not come, she went slowly along the hall and outside.
LaRue felt anger rising hot in her throat. He might have answered, she thought, knowing the depth of a small child’s disappointment. She scribbled words on paper, and went to the phone and sent the message. Then she went into the kitchen. There were a few soiled dishes in the sink. She attacked them fiercely, then smiled at her own display of spleen. She scolded herself. Be fair to Herb. The accident which broke his body, broke his spirit, too. She knew that Amelia’s death had shattered the faith he had lived by all during his life. Amelia had been his other self. Without her love he was lost. Truth and knowledge had drifted away.
LaRue rinsed a shining glass and set it in the cupboard. She stared at it for a few moments seeing it filled with sparkling punch. I don’t know much about entertaining young folks, she thought dubiously, but maybe I could try. If Erma and Joel had a closer home life, they would not always be away from their home. If there was only something … Maybe a party. I could ask Erma. But she still felt a little frightened of Erma’s scorn. Anyway, she thought, relieved, I could ask Bob Powers to suggest something that would keep Joel more at home.
Even as she planned, she felt unsure about how to go about things. She decided to go for a walk. Maybe it would help her think. She changed her house-frock for a pink, sleeveless cotton. She shaded her gray-blue eyes with a large hat.
She had no particular destination in view. But when she came to the knoll rising up to Hillhigh House, she turned automatically and began the climb. The walk was steep and weed-grown. The lawn sloped towards the new highway.
She stood in an old brick patio gazing out upon a surprising panorama. Below the highway, under the onslaught of the road-building machines, stretched into the distance like an unwinding spool of dark thread. Vehicles moved along it like toys propelled by a childish hand, to disappear between molded pink cliffs. Far to the left, Blue Lake danced and sparkled, holding captive in its sapphire depths a great golden ball of sun.
She pulled off her hat and let the breeze ruffle her burnished curls, there in the shadow of an old willow tree. She was unaware, until she heard a voice, that anyone was near. Then she remembered that Connie had said that Grandie visited the old house daily. The voice was ancient, mellow. It said: “Matilda Harding!”
LaRue whirled, wondering how anyone had ever learned her middle name. She had never cared for it, although it had been her grandmother’s name. The old man was sitting on the steps of the high porch. His white hair was silver in the breeze. He smiled, and she saw that his eyes were dark, and very, very shrewd with the lessons of eighty-two years.
She smiled, correcting him: “I am LaRue Harding, sir.”
“You’re Amelia’s sister.” he spoke complacently. “My grandson, Dr. Alan, said you were here. You’re very like your grandmother. We were children together, Matilda and I. She had that same red hair!”
LaRue hadn’t known. Amelia had known about her family, not LaRue. So her grandmother had had red hair! The knowledge warmed her, somehow.
Grandie was staring at her critically. “Like the old house, LaRue?” It was a friendly question, and when she nodded, he grinned happily. “I like it, too. Have since I was a kid. It was built by the Hardings, but my wife and I lived here, after I bought it, until my darling left me for a better place.” His eyes were sad, but he kept his smile. “Amelia loved this old house. She wanted to buy it. Fix it up. The attic’s filled with old furniture.” He broke off, shaking his head. “Young folks aren’t interested in old things,” he said tiredly.
LaRue found, suddenly, that she was more interested than she had thought. She said quickly: “Someday I’d like to bring Erma here and look the house over. Connie would love to come. Maybe, Joel …”
The old man waved his hand towards a garage that had once been a carriage house. “There’s a car in there. Built long before Joel was born. Hear he’s interested in cars.”
LaRue’s face was shining. “He’d love to see it, Grandie.” She said the name as if she had been saying it all her life, the way the others did. She cried excitedly, looking about: “This would be a lovely spot for a cookout. We could bring a portable grill and chairs, and …”
“The old house would like that,” cried Grandie, his old eyes bright with happiness. Quite solemnly he stated: “The house gets lonely, you know.”
There was something pathetic in the thought. LaRue had known loneliness. She asked: “Do houses really get lonely, Grandie?”
“Why not?” The question was eager. “People get lonely. Why not houses? This house is used to people. Crowds of people. It could be quite an attractive place if …” He glanced at the crooked FOR SALE sign nailed to one of the pillars of the porch, and confessed: “Guess I haven’t tried very hard to sell it. Guess I’m sentimental! Wouldn’t want to see the old house fall into the hands of someone who’d tear it down. Or abuse it.”
He talked about the house as though it were human. LaRue knew how he loved it. He saw her looking at him and said: “Gladys wants a fine, ranch-type house in Maple Park when she marries my grandson. She wants me to build him a fine office, too.”
LaRue nodded. “She told me about it once when she came with Dr. Alan to call on Herb.” she wrinkled her brows doubtfully. “But Dr. Alan told us of his plans for adding a children’s wing to the hospital. He tried to encourage Herb to draw the plans. But Herb didn’t seem interested.” She remembered how Dr. Alan had sketched what he wanted on the back of a rumpled envelope. “His face fairly shone when he talked about it,” she finished.
Grandie’s old face was still. “Alan’s dreamed of that wing ever since he started medical college. The hospital needs it. The children’s ward is too crowded. Sort of out-of-date.” He added, abruptly: “Gladys says he’d be wasting his life, staying on at the hospital when he could have a fine, brand new office, and a wealthy clientele.”
“Wasting his life!” LaRue echoed the phrase indignantly.
Grandie looked her straight in the eye. “I’ve already told Gladys I would give Alan the money for the home and office. She was very happy.”
LaRue stared at the old man. Just a second before he had been so sure that a children’s wing was what the hospital needed. Now he was making the way easy for Dr. Alan to lose his dream. LaRue’s voice was sharply critical. “Dr. Alan will be very unhappy in that brand new office.” There was scorn in her gray-blue eyes.
Grandie regarded her passively. “Well, well! So you seem to know my grandson pretty well. Better than his fiancee does!”
LaRue was furious with herself for blushing. But she met the old man’s eyes and said honestly: “I’ve only met him a few times. but I like him. he’s a fine man. I know he’s a kind, considerate doctor. I’ve heard him trying to convince Herb that an operation might help him. But Herb is afraid. Dr. Alan is letting Herb make up his own mind.” She rose to the doctor’s defense, saying seriously: “I think Dr. Alan should be allowed to make up his own mind about where he lives, where he builds his office, or whether he’d rather stay on at the hospital and build that new wing.”
The old man was grinning. Then he said quizzically: “Some people need a push in the wrong direction.” He chuckled softly. “Alan often prescribes nasty-tasting medicine for his patients. So nasty medicine is good for doctors, too. Especially when it’s forced down their throats.”
LaRue was confused. But the old man was through talking. He put on his hat and bowed low over her hand, telling her that he and the old house had enjoyed her visit. He waved his cane and walked slowly to his own red-brick cottage.
LaRue stared after him, trying to puzzle him out, trying to understand just what he had meant about “nasty medicine.” As she strolled home she put his words down to an old man’s wandering memory. She knew she shouldn’t, but she asked Connie questions. “Doesn’t Grandie like Gladys Drew?”
Connie smiled. “Oh, he likes her all right. But most people don’t think she’s really in love with Alan. Some people think that she still likes Earl. But Grandie promised her a beautiful house, and a lot of nice things, and …”
LaRue stopped her, ashamed of herself for wanting to share Connie’s gossip. At dinner, she told Herb and the others about her visit to the old house. Connie, as usual, bubbled over with words.
“Mommy used to visit Grandie, too. She loved his house. If Daddy hadn’t got hurt she wanted to buy it.” The flash of pain in Herb’s face made LaRue interrupt, quickly.
“It’s very nice up there on the knoll. Cool, lovely. I’ve been wondering if we all couldn’t go there. Have a sort of cook-out …?”
The look of derision in Erma’s face made her falter. But Joel leaned across the table, interest in his young face.
“Maybe Grandie would let me see that old car.”
LaRue smiled. “He told me he would,” she assured him quickly. Then, with a side glance at Erma, “He promised to show us the old furniture. I thought it might be fun.”
Erma did not answer, though there was a stirring of interest in her pretty face.
Herb spoke quietly. “When I was a kid, Hillhigh House used to be the show place of the valley. There were always parties. Surreys and fine horses climbed the sloping drive. There were roses along the walks. Their red, pink, and yellow petals made a sort of carpet …”
He was lost in memories.
Connie laughed a little, and cried: “Oh, Daddy, that was in the good old days.”
For a long moment there was silence. Then Joel spoke loudly: “Could we have fried chicken, Aunt LaRue?”
It was the first time he had ever made a request. A faint glow burned in LaRue’s heart.
“Fried chicken, Joel,” she promised, “and a lot of other good things.”
Connie bounced. “We’ll invite Grandie. And Dr. Alan and Gladys,” and with a glance at Erma, she added, “Bob Powers.”
Erma flushed hotly, but she didn’t speak angrily to her sister.
“Maybe Ed’d like to see that old Lizzie,” stated Joel, hesitantly.
His eyes turned to his father, as though expecting reproof for such a suggestion, but LaRue spoke hurriedly. “Surely, invite Eddie! All boys like fried chicken.” She thought, but did not add: Eddie needs a little help. No boy’s all bad.
Connie’s eyes were shining. “I just love Grandie,” she cried. “Don’t you, Aunt LaRue?”
LaRue had liked the old man. Even though she hadn’t understood his double-talk about nasty medicine. She smiled at Connie, then braced herself to face Herb. She held her voice tight so it would not waver.
“You’re also invited,” she said.
For an instant Herb’s hands clenched on the wheels of his chair. His face drained of color.
LaRue heard the quiet breathing of the children as they waited politely for their father to speak. By their faces, she knew that they expected their father’s customary rejection.
LaRue’s clear eyes forced Herb’s dark ones to meet her look. She knew how much courage it was taking for him to speak. When he did, it was smilingly.
“I’m very happy to accept.”
LaRue heard the great sigh which escaped in unison from the children’s lips. She knew they were fighting to keep from showing their surprise. But gratitude shone in their faces. They began to make plans about what should go into the lunch basket. They talked in low tones, as though they were almost afraid to believe what they had heard their father say. But they could not hide the happy smiles which raced into their faces.
LaRue’s eyes met Herb’s with an approving smile. She knew that he had understood what she was trying to do and had wanted to help her. There was an unuttered “Thank you,” in Herb’s face as he slowly turned his chair towards his room.
As soon as his door had closed, the children broke into excited conversation.
“I’ll ask Bob to pick out the freshest vegetables for our salad,” said Erma happily.
“I’ll go tell Eddie what’s up,” cried Joel, and went away, whistling brightly.
Connie spoke soberly. “I’ll ask Janice to come. And Atlast. He loves picnics, though he can’t have any chicken bones. I’ll take his leash so’s he won’t get into mischief when Janice and I make a playhouse and play with our dolls.”
“What else shall we have to eat?” asked LaRue, poising her pencil above her notebook.
They planned the menu. When Joel came back they set the day, and the time. Joel said he’d get out the folding aluminum chairs. They’d take a table, and grill, and first thing in the morning he and Eddie would …
LaRue didn’t really listen to what they all said. She felt warm and happy, closer to Amelia’s children than she had felt since she arrived.
She wondered how she had ever doubted them!
After all, she reminded herself tremulously, they are part of their dear mother …