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Authors: Emily Hahn

Francie

BOOK: Francie
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Francie

Off to London

Emily Hahn

CHAPTER 1

The whole world was white, save for the road where they had parked. The moon had just set but the fields and hedges were still dim and greenish under the darkening sky. Snow covered the ground on either side of the car and made the trees soft and plump. The road was sharply black between the banks, and water, freezing again after a slight thaw, gleamed in puddles along the ruts.

Francie stared through the misty windshield and sighed. She cuddled her chin into the collar of her coat and spoke to the boy behind the wheel. “I hate to think of it, Glenn,” she said. “Months and months more of this.”

“What's wrong with this?” Glenn Stevens demanded. “Winter's swell; there isn't nearly so much doing in the summer. All the shows come out to Chicago soon. We'll get in for some of them. And we've had a lot of good skating already.”

“I just don't like cold weather. Some day,” said Francie dreamily, “I'll go and settle down in Florida, or some South Sea isle. That's better, come to think of it—Tahiti. Wouldn't you like Tahiti, Glenn?”

“I like Jefferson in the wintertime,” said Glenn staunchly. “I guess I like the Middle West. Always been glad to get back after a trip away.”

“Lucky you, never yearning for what you can't have. How can you ever bring yourself to leave it, and go to State next fall?”

He chose to ignore the mockery in her voice; he answered simply. “That's easy;
you're
going to State. The whole gang's going, almost. If it wasn't that I knew you'd be there, I wouldn't be so keen on college. Not that Dad would let me quit,” he added as an afterthought. “I've got to go somewhere, he says, and that's flat. But I'm not like you, Francie, I like Jefferson well enough to stay right here—so long as you're here too.” He looked at her, peering in the dark and frowning at a thought which had assailed him. “You haven't told me finally about Prom, by the way,” he said.

“Haven't I?” Francie looked in the opposite direction and spoke with an artificial lightness.

“You know darn well you haven't. What about it? Are you coming?”

“Bill asked me yesterday,” she said very softly, so softly she nearly whispered. It was one of her most appealing, most unexpected little mannerisms.

The boy sat up straight and Francie stole a look at him in the faint light from the dashboard. Glenn wasn't the handsomest boy in her crowd, perhaps, but she liked the solid look of him. He was more grown up than any of the others, she decided, and for that very reason her baiting of him seemed more enticingly dangerous. She could never be quite sure that Glenn wouldn't slap her down one of these days. Figuratively speaking, of course.

If he noted her quick scrutiny he gave no sign and Francie spoke softly in answer to his question: “I said I'd go.”

“Oh, for gosh sakes!” He waited, breathing hard, before bursting out again. “Of all the low-down tricks. I ought to push you right out of this car and make you walk home, Francie Nelson.”

She opened her eyes wide, looking at him with a pathos that might possibly have been real. She was very pretty in this dim light; her dark blue eyes seemed enormous, and her brown hair held shadows in its soft curls. Her expression was placatory, but Glenn would not understand it; he started the car and steered it with exaggerated caution between the deep splashing ruts of water until they came to the high road. Then he turned toward town, wordlessly.

“Where are you going?” asked Francie, whose soft tones might be concealing trepidation.

“I'm taking you home, right now.”

She rather liked the reaction she was getting. They said nothing more as the car entered the outskirts of town. Francie pulled a vanity case out of her pocket and studied her face in the mirror, peering in snatches when they drove past the lamps of Main Street. Going by the jeweler's she noted the time was twelve-thirty. “Maybe Aunt Norah won't be sitting up,” she commented in lightly ironic tones. “Oh, no!”

Glenn didn't reply, and she glanced at his profile. He looked firm-lipped and stony. She felt she had gone too far; suddenly she reached out and took his arm.

“Don't,” said Glenn, keeping his eyes on the road. He shook off her hand.

“No, listen, Glenn. I was only kidding. I didn't tell him I'd go with him. I don't know who I'm going with yet, honestly. I just wanted to get a rise out of you.”

“Well, you did, all right,” said Glenn. He still sounded grim and unyielding. “Anyway, why don't you know yet who you're going with? Is it so hard to make up your mind as all that?”

“Yes,” said Francie with a burst of honesty. “Frankly it is. I'm not even sure I'll go at all, if Aunt Norah goes on holding out about the dress. If I can't have that dress—”

“You never know what you want,” said Glenn. “One of these days you'll find you can't pick and choose the way you're used to, and boy, wouldn't I like to be there to see it.” Abruptly he braked the car at the side of the road, and turned and looked at her curiously.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.

“I'm sort of summing you up,” he said. “You're neat, all right. You don't need me to tell you that. But I can't figure out how you get to be such a nuisance. You're no better-looking than a lot of the others—even if you probably will be Beauty Queen, just because you're popular. Now Mary, for instance; Mary can run rings around you. And Gretta—”

“I know all about Gretta,” said Francie tartly. “It's too cold to sit here having a row, Glenn. If you wouldn't mind taking me home now, so Aunt Norah won't worry—”

“In a minute, in a minute.” The boy settled down, leaning on the wheel as if he had all the time in the world. His tone was cool and detached; it made Francie uneasy. “You're reasonably good-looking, yes, but not as good as all that. I don't know. I just don't see
why
you're the most popular girl in school.”

“Well anyway, you admit I am. That's something.” Indignation sharpened her voice. “If I'm so horrible, why do you bother me so much? That's what I can never understand.”

“You're not horrible, exactly.”

“Thanks for that much. Now please take me home.”

“You're spoiled,” said Glenn as if to himself. “Just spoiled. I don't know what it is; maybe we all let you get away with murder because you were always sort of romantic. Coming into Jefferson the way you did, your Mother dead and everybody remembering what a swell guy your Dad was, and so you seemed way ahead of the other girls even then—New York clothes and all that. I remember how you started out right away, doing exactly what you liked with us, wrapping us round your little finger. And we all let you. We still let you.” He sat back, sighing, turned the key of the motor, and started the car again. Francie could think of nothing to say, which made her angrier than ever. “What's more, we'll go on the same way,” he said. “I can see it. You'll get away with murder up at State too. Sometimes I wonder what your old man thinks about it all. If he lived here all the time, he'd see.”

“Pop's satisfied, which evidently is a lot more than you are,” said Francie.

“He doesn't know you like I do. He only sees you once in a while. Francie, it would do you all the good in the world to have the tar whaled out of you.”

“Big he-man,” she said mockingly. “Want to try it, Humphrey Bogart?”

“Me? Oh, no. Count me out. But some day you're going to be reformed. You'll meet somebody who won't let you walk all over him. Well—” They drew up before a pleasant-looking house set back in a green lawn. “I was going to say I want to be there when it happens, but I don't,” said Glenn.

“Thanks for a wonderful time,” said Francie. She took hold of the door-handle, and Glenn moved suddenly, pulling her towards him with his arm around her neck.

“Francie! I'm sorry I bawled you out,” he muttered.

She was quiet. His kiss landed on the end of her nose. “Didn't you mean it all, then?” she asked.

“I—I don't know. I was so sore—Come on, Francie, give me a kiss and say you'll go to Prom with me.”

She pecked his cheek, and laughed, mollified. “I don't know about Prom, though. Let me go, Glenn; I've got to go, really. There's a light on; Aunt Norah's waiting up after all. Let go, Glenn,
please.”

“I'll see you tomorrow,” he said.

Francie stood at the door before using her latchkey, trying to peer in through the frosted glass. Aunt Norah was not, after all, lurking there. But the hall light was on, and so was the lamp in the sitting room. She sighed more in boredom than in fear at the prospect of one of her aunt's gentle reprimands; with a defiant scratching of metal on metal she unlocked the door. She stopped short when she looked into the living room.

Aunt Norah wasn't there at all; a man sat alone at the desk in the sitting room, his back to the door, writing.

“Pop!” she cried in surprise. “When did you arrive?”

Fred Nelson put down his pen and swung around. He was a stocky man, gray-haired, with a firm, good-humored face and a confident, quiet manner. He spoke in deliberate tones, a deep, drawling voice. “Hello, Frances. Quite a night-bird, aren't you? I thought I'd give you just half an hour more to get home, before I turned in. How are you? Come over here under the light and let's see.”

She kissed him and moved to a position under the light, where she turned in a slow circle like a fashion model, laughing.

“You look all right,” he said at last, having inspected her solemnly. “Not as tired as I expected from what your aunt said.”

“Why, what
did
she say?”

“Oh, just that you're kind of tearing around … I got here on the nine-twenty; I telegraphed this morning. Didn't you get my wire?”

“I guess it must have come all right, Pop, but I've been out since noon. I had a date. I do stay out a lot, these days.”

“You look all right,” he repeated.

As always when her father came to Jefferson, Francie was conscious of an embarrassed lag in the conversation. It was hard to talk to one's father when he didn't live at home. She had been ten when her mother died and she had moved to Jefferson to live with Aunt Norah. More and more after the change her father had been away, following his work in distant parts of the world. The arrangement had been successful as far as Francie's health and happiness were concerned. But when father and daughter were together again, they found themselves strangers, searching awkwardly for topics of mutual interest. Francie sensed this, but she didn't know what to do about it, and evidently Pop didn't either.

“Aunt Norah went to bed, did she?” she said at last.

“Yes, though I tried to make her wait. I wanted to talk to you in front of your aunt.” Her father frowned slightly. “I particularly wanted a little family conference when you got in tonight, but she says she never knows when to expect you, and it's no use making plans. Now Francie, is that the truth? Do you mean to say you go cavorting all over the countryside at all hours of the night? If so, we'll have to have a change. I had no idea—”

“I don't know what you mean by cavorting,” she retorted, flushing. “I don't go hanging around juke joints, if that's what it means. All the kids—”

“Now wait a minute, Frances, just wait a minute. I don't believe your little friends do act quite like this, with all this liberty, staying up until one o'clock on a week night, with school waiting in the morning.”

“They're not ‘little friends',” said Francie. “They're grown up. Like me.”

“Do
they stay up until all hours?” insisted her father.

“Some do. After all, Pop, I'm past seventeen. Most of the girls I know—”

He made an impatient gesture. “Oh, skip it. I really don't know how they run things nowadays, and I didn't mean to sidetrack myself. That isn't what I want to talk about. Sit down, honey, and let's be serious.” Francie obeyed, somewhat apprehensively. He continued, “We've got to make a few plans, now you're graduating from high school. Did you have any sort of idea what you'd like to do next?”

Francie stared. “I thought that was all understood. I'm going up to State, aren't I? Like the rest of the crowd. We decided last time you were here, didn't we?”

“Yes, but things have changed a lot since then,” said Mr. Nelson. He looked at the window, exactly as if the shade weren't down, she thought, as if he were looking at something outside. “I've given this matter a good deal of thought,” he continued. “I had an idea sort of half-formed in my mind, and now the talk I've been having with your aunt has decided me. Francie, I've got to go back to Europe. For an indefinite period.” He paused and waited for comment.

BOOK: Francie
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