The Message of the Bells, Part 3 of 5

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…Continued

The next morning after my interview, I hastily polished my story. It was publication day. We put the paper to bed at noon, my story nestling on the front page next to an old engraving of Mr. Velie, moustached and dapper in a portrait made years earlier. We okayed the proofs and took the afternoon off.

Mother was taking fragrant loaves from the oven. “Mmmmm,” she said, with an artist’s appreciation. “Not bad. I think I’ll take a loaf over to Uncle Loren, while it’s hot.”

“How can you make any money if you keep giving away the product?” I objected.

“I baked extra,” Mother said. “Loren hasn’t anything to look forward to but eating, since he retired….Listen!”

“I don’t hear anything.”

“I thought I heard those bells.”

I listened again.

“You heard the doorbell,” I said, and answered it.

It was Henry Velie.

This time he was impeccably groomed and had is valise, apparently ready for his trip back to New York. I glanced from him to Mother in the kitchen doorway, and wished I could have given her time to run upstairs and change. She was flushed from the heat of the stove and her apron had flour on the front.

“Well, henry.”

“Hullo, Lucille.”

“How long? I do declare, more than twenty years.”

“Twenty-two. I believe you’ve taken on a little weight, Lucille.”

“Drat your time, Henry Velie.”

“Now, Lucille. It’s wonderfully becoming.”

“Spoken like a gentleman. Well, come on in, Henry; I’m glad to see you. I’ve a fresh pie and some coffee; I’ll dare a few more calories if you’ll share them.”

“Delighted,” said Henry Velie.

I followed, and soon was absorbed in local color: Depression days in Corinth; the changes wrought by World War II. I heard my brother Jimmy at the door and went to prevent a galumphing interruption.

“Don’t come in hollering, for a change,” I greeted him. “Mother’s entertaining a millionaire in the kitchen.”

“A millionaire?

“Mr. Henry Velie.”

“Gee….Why in the kitchen? Haven’t we got a living room?”

“You know Mother.”

Jimmy made his manners, and went off to play ball. I tried to stay within earshot. Mr. Velie was telling about his life—how exciting and glamorous it sounded! The telephone rang. It was the mayor, wondering whether Henry was ready to be driven to the airport.

I went back in time to hear Mother say we were managing quite well, actually; her cheeks were more than ordinarily flushed. I guessed we had been offered a share of Mr. Velie’s abundance…maybe an offer to lend Jimmy money for college?

Anyway, my announcement cut the discussion short. Mr. Velie departed, genial and friendly. If Mother had rejected some kind offer, she had managed it without offense.

In my story, I had taken pains to play up Mr. Velie’s intriguing legend of the bells. Corinth picked it up and bandied it about. Mr. Flynt held that it was some of Henry’s nonsense, and why not? If Henry wanted to perpetrate a spoof on Corinth, he’d certainly earned the right. Mr. Schurtz, the sociology teacher, called it a piece of capitalistic arrogance. Dunc McGlasson, a dedicated tither, declared he knew exactly what Henry had in mind.

Meanwhile, Community Chest boosters changed their slogan from “Give ‘til it Hurts” to “Give ‘til the Bells Ring” and Mr. Velie’s legend was woven into the tapestry of our town.

Pete Slade came home for the holidays and gave me a little rush. It was a welcome break in routine, though Corinth offered few prospects for rushing. Pete was not as creative about this as Jeremy had been, I thought as we sat before the fire munching Mother’s cookies. Jeremy had found an aged sleigh in someone’s barn that last winter, starting a rage for sleighing.

“How’s Jeremy these days?” I dared to ask, carefully casual.

“I don’t see much of old Jerry,” Pete said. “He runs with a wealthy crowd; they’ve all got wheels and go places for weekends. I can’t keep up.”

“How’d you like to go to college with a car and fancy wardrobe and run with the smart set?” Mother asked me.

“You could dude me up out of all recognition, and I’d still not fit in with the smart set, “I said.

“At your age, you could probably adapt,” Mother said.

“Man, I’d make a heroic effort to adapt,” Pete said. We exchanged a grin. Neither of us was likely to have the problem.

Later I heard Mrs. Slade telling Mother some details Pete had loyally failed to mention. Jerry’s crowd had held a wild soiree at a ski lodge and very nearly wrecked the place. The parents had stepped in, paid for damages and persuaded the Dean to let the youths stay in school, on probation. Even before the scrape, Jerry had been under a cloud, with warning notices in two subjects. Clara and George Winter were frantic.

Jeremy had been a good student and I had admired him for it. The story took off some of the shine, which was just as well.

Our town settled in for the winter, smothered in snow, badgered by biting winds. I scrounged for news and dreamed of the day when I would work for a big city newspaper. A distant dream. Not that Mr. Flynt, with his connections, couldn’t get the job. He had promised as much. But Mother needed my board money, and would all the more with Jimmy in college.

March brought shocking news. Jeremy’s father had been killed in a freeway accident.

They brought Mr. Winter to Corinth for burial. Mrs. Winter said they had lived in Corinth longer than in any place since their marriage, and it seemed like home.

Jeremy came for the service, shaken and sober. Impulsively, I went up to him, remembering how it had been when we lost Daddy.

“I’m so sorry, Jerry. I know how you feel….”

“You couldn’t possibly,” he said harshly.

I turned quickly away. A snub from Jeremy could still hurt.

He left the same day. And of all things, Mother brought Mrs. Winter home to stay with us.

She was in a terrible state, bitter and frightened at the prospect of assuming the responsibilities of widowhood. There would be financial pressure…they had let their children go through their savings. The insurance and company annuities wouldn’t begin to support the standard of living they had back East. Not that she wanted to go back. She dreaded the impersonal neighborhood, the empty house….

So Mrs. Winter stayed on, leaving financial arrangements to her lawyer and the closing of her home in the East to a married daughter.

“A small town is better for a widow,” Mother approved.

I couldn’t help thinking of the expense.

“Now, Susan,” Mother reproved. “We have the room and plenty to eat, by the grace of God. Who else could help Clara through this first awful adjustment period? Takes somebody who’s been over the road.”

She cocked her head, with a listening air.

“That crazy Henry and his bells,” she added obscurely.

In a few weeks, Mrs. Winter’s tenants found another house. She sent for her furniture, and moved in. As time passed Mother and the other good women of Corinth drew Mrs. Winter into the Ladies Aid, the Literary Society and the Wednesday Card Club. She needed the diversion, for Jeremy did not come home that summer.

“He has a job. He can make more back there,” Mrs. Winter said grimly. “A good thing, too. Things have changed for us.”

Jimmy’s preparations for college made me more restless than ever. I tried not to show it, but I sometimes felt Mother’s gaze and realized I’d been uncharacteristically snappish.

“You could go to college, too,” she said one day.

“How, in heaven’s name” We just barely get by as it is.”

“Mr. Velie would send you. Lend you the money, or whatever.”

“So that was it. Well, I don’t want to be sent, or lent money by a perfect stranger. Don’t you know what I really want? I want to work for a newspaper in Minneapolis. As soon as Jimmy’s through college, I mean to shake the dust of Corinth from my feet.”

“Four years,” Mother sighed. “Susan, I guess I’ve done the wrong thing.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well…Henry asked me to marry him.”

I stared at her.

“I refused,” she said quietly.

“Henry Velie? Proposed? You mean…when he was here?”

“No…he thought it over, and wrote. Oh, Susan. Can you picture me presiding in elegant idleness over a rich man’s penthouse? Hobnobbing with celebrities? I don’t mean I’d feel inferior. No, indeed! But to fit into that kind of life, you’d need to start younger. So I said no. And now I find I’m a burden to my daughter.”

“I didn’t say that, I didn’t mean that, and I’m sorry I opened my mouth! I’m only twenty; it won’t hurt me to wait…Anyway, you shouldn’t marry someone you don’t love, under any circumstances.”

Mother looked past me; her eyes full of memories.

“I used to fancy myself in love with Henry, long ago,” she said. “Not that he took it all that seriously then. Your daddy, thought, never looked to right nor left after he set his heart on me.”

Suddenly I remembered Mr. Velie reminiscing at the office. “Mother,” I breathed. “Could you be the girl who didn’t wait?”

The big gray eyes snapped back to the present.

“What do you mean? Did Henry tell you that?”

I summoned the exact words.

Mother sat for some time in unaccustomed idleness, wearing a look of gentle wonder. Finally she said with a sigh, “Even so, it just wouldn’t do.”

Some time later, I came across an item in the state paper we scanned daily at the Citizen to avoid the expense of a wire serve. Mr. Henry Velie had turned active management of his corporation over to Mr. So-and-so. He would continue as chairman of the board….

This news was hardly cold before Mr. Henry Velie arrived, rented a suite at the Corinth Hotel and laid siege to our house.

Mother said there was no use getting in a dither; nothing could come of it. Nevertheless, she rolled her hair nightly and put on girdle and hose the first thing each morning, which for Mother was a considerable dither.

Henry Velie sat in our kitchen puffing his pipe and watching Mother do her daily baking. He discussed his plans.

He could see to everything quite well from Corinth, he said, with only an occasional flying trip East. He had intended to retire here; why wait until he was a doddering old man? He had made up his mind to relax and enjoy life.

“I’ve had about everything this world offers, Miss Susan,” he said, for Mother’s ears. “Everything except a real home. That’s what your mother could give me. No other woman on earth could.”

Mother turned from the stove with a face like a prairie sunrise.

“Henry,” she said faintly, “I do believe I hear them.”

“You should have, all along.”

“I didn’t think I had that much to offer.”

“You have everything,” said Henry Velie.

He was on his feet; Mother opened her arms. I left, but nobody noticed….

To Be Continued…

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