A Little Place in the Country
AN ATLANTIC STORY
by JOHN HARRIMAN
MY WIFE and I were having breakfast on the terrace one morning when the Cody family arrived. They came as they always did. Walter skidded as he turned the car in from the main road and threw a bucket or two of gravel onto the lawn, where it would lie in wait for lawn-mower blades. Martha put out a hand and waved when they were about a hundred feet from the house. And Kitty, just as the car passed the front door on its way around in back where Walter always left it, leaned out the front window, held her nose between her thumb and forefinger, and shrieked, “Pee — hew!” in a shrill but friendly voice.
“My God!” my wife said.
But they were already coming up the steps to the terrace and Martha was calling out, “What do you think! ” I was about to answer that neit her my wife nor I ever thought — this early in the morning. But she gave me no chance. “ We’ve just gotten the nicest letter from Mr. Farrington. And he’s arriving. He’s getting here before lunch today.”
Walter rocked on his heels, his hands in his trouser pockets, and beamed down on us. “Yep, getting here today.” Walter had a way of repeating Martha’s remarks, as if he thought they needed to be dignified by reissuance in his deep, male voice.
“He wrote us the nicest letter,” Martha was exclaiming. “He really must be a terribly nice man. We’ve never met him, you know. And we’re just crazy to. We’re going to insist that he visit us for at least two days.”
Walter was still beaming, and he snapped his fingers at Martha. “Show ‘em the letter.” While my wife was reading it, he winked at me. “Going to have a little talk with Mr. Farrington. Just a little talk with him.”
Farrington was the owner of a small house down the road which the Codys were renting. “Oh, yes,” X said. “About selling you his place, I suppose.”
Walter winked at me again. “But definitely!”
“I hope you get it,” I told him.
“Yep. Crazy about this country out here. No city life ever again for me!”
I regarded Walter enviously for a moment. He had, I knew, just come off a ten-hour night shift on the assembly line of an airplane factory which is about fifteen miles from where we live. Since getting home he had fed five hundred chickens, six pigs, two dogs, a bull calf, and the three cats which we had rather shamelessly pawned off on him the last time our cat had kittens. Yet here he was, throwing his ample chest out and gulping country air wit h enthusiasm, and looking forward to entering into negotiations with a man who called himself G. Preston Farrington, Esq.
Martha had fixed me with an eager eye. “You think we’ll be able to buy the place, don’t you? What I mean to say is — you think he’ll sell it to us, don’t you?”
I told her that I didn’t know — that I’d heard Farrington was fond of his place. But the six-yearold Kitty claimed my attention, having just hoisted herself into my lap.
It is one of my vanities that children usually like me. But with Kitty I was never sure. There was something just a little baffling about Kitty. She had a way of staring at me with a glance mutely brimming with affection, then hesitating while the shades of changing mood played over her face, and finally looking deliberately away from me as if what she’d seen had fallen far short of expectations.
“Tell me — ” Kitty began, sitting on my lap and watching me carefully. “Tell me — ” I nodded and waited, prepared for a question as to the workings of the physical universe. “Tell me — ” she repeated. Then she pointed at a rapidly chilling veal kidney on my breakfast plate, and said, “Pee — hew!” in an eloquently scornful voice.
Walter and Martha shouted simultaneously. They reprimanded Kitty, exhorted each other, and apologized to me, both talking at the same time and making almost identical gestures. Kitty got down from my lap and waited for them to finish.
“Thank you,” she said to me — I presume because she felt that I had exercised a commendable amount of restraint.
“Ha, they’re wonderful — kids — aren’t they!” Walter beamed. “You never know what they’re going to say next, do you? By golly, though, what’d we do without them? What’d we do without ‘em — that’s what I always say. Did you ever think of that?”
“Not until this minute,” I admitted, poking the kidney, for which Kitty had aroused in me a faint distaste.
“Not until this minute, eh? Ha, ha, that’s wonderful! Did you get that, Martha? Not until this minute. Well, we got to be running along, folks. Got to go to town. We’re going to see if we can pick Mr. Farrington up a nice thick steak.”
We watched them leave. As their car came past the terrace, I cupped my hands and shouted, “Hope you get the place!”
I glanced at my wife questioningly.
“It wasn’t at all a nice letter,” she said. “I want you to drop down there with me this morning. I have a feeling that Mr. Farrington isn’t going to be at all nice.”
WE ALWAYS felt that there was a certain pathos in the affairs of Walter and Martha. They were a happy and contented couple. They seemed to cope adequately with the business of living and to be successful as far as their aspirations went. Martha had taught piano in a girls’ school before her marriage, and done very well with it; while Walter, before he had gone into a defense plant, had run some kind of store in Philadelphia.
But it is our peculiarity that we find much of human dignity — and much that is touching — in those who feel deeply and intensely about ordinary, everyday things. We are happiest with people of limited objectives. To us there is something warming and human, and more than a little poignant, in a person who can say, as Walter had said to me on the first day we had called on them, “You know, this is what we always wanted, a place like this. But I’m going to take it very, very easy. A man doesn’t know right off what he wants to go in for, you see. It may be chickens. And I don’t know — I sort of like pigs.”
I think it was Walter’s energy that had defeated his determination to take it easy. The first draught of living in the country is often heady. At any rate, Walter’s efforts to discover what he wanted to go in for, sandwiched between a ten-hour shift at the factory and the bare minimum of sleep, had had startling effects on the “Small country property: stone house, barn, garage, tool shed, fifteen acres, five landscaped,” which belong to G. Preston Farrington, Esq.
Poor Farrington! I shuddered at the thought of his return.
The Farringtons were childless. They had loved gladioli, fine shrubbery, purebred springer spaniels, ping-pong, and badminton played gracefully of a summer evening on what the seed catalogues urge on you as a green velvet turf.
Martha Cody had strung the clothesline on the front lawn, because it took longer to get to the back yard in cold weather or in case of sudden rain. The bull calf occupied the space in the barn where the Farringtons had played ping-pong, and White Leghorns in various stages of maturity swarmed like maggots on earth that had once nourished the prize gladioli. The place hadn’t run down exactly. It had simply reverted to an earlier state, like a jungle clearing neglected. It looked now as it must have looked a hundred years ago when some Pennsylvania Dutch farmer had fought for his living in its none too fertile earth.
The Codys had not yet returned from town when my wife and I drove up that morning. For a moment or two we sat in the car.
“It’s really horrible,” my wife said. “I didn’t appreciate, somehow, just how bad.” She groaned and indicated the little enclosure which had been the badminton court. Now it was pocked and gouged. Between the two posts reared the huge hams of Walter’s pigs. “Of course the war makes everything difficult,” she went on, “and the Farringtons always went to the other extreme. And then poor Walter does have to work ten hours a night.”
“He doesn’t have to put pigs — ”
“And then of course having a child makes a difference, too.”
We got out of the car and walked slowly around the place. Everywhere was mute evidence of those minor crises which Walter had met so manfully and with such spirit: the raw earth of the mass grave of the two hundred pullets which had succumbed to the coccidiosis that swept and raged through Walter’s hen house like the Black Death; the discarded brooder which had selected two o’clock of a March morning to prove to Walter that brooders do not always work; the cindery-looking ground behind the house, the result of a helpful neighbor’s having told Walter that his kitchen-garden patch would be improved by being burned off. Walter had burned it, along with twenty-five acres of his other neighbor’s clover and ten acres of winter wheat.
There was something poignant about all this. Here were the ghosts of such fine enthusiasms and of so many minor disappointments. And I realized suddenly that Walter’s spirit had seized the place. Farrington’s tenure had passed. It was now entirely Walter’s, whether he owned it or not. Energetic, disorderly, enthusiastic Walter, who found himself hung up between an interest in poultry and an affection for pigs.
MY WIFE and I had gone up a slope behind the house, and we stood watching the Codys drive up and start unloading their car. They waved at us, and Walter shouted something I didn’t catch and held up what must have been a huge steak. A moment later they were all coming up the hill towards us. Walter was puffing and blowing, but smiling broadly.
“Say, what do you think we found out in town?” he called to us when he was a good twenty feet away. “We found out why Mr. Farrington went to work in Washington ‘way back in the beginning of the war. It’s because he was born and brought up in China and speaks Chinese.” He chuckled, beside us now, his hands in his pockets, his eyes moving over the place. “You can see what that means, I guess.”
“Not precisely,” I admitted.
“Well, if he speaks Chinese, it means that he’ll probably be sent to China as soon as the war is over. They’re going to need men in China who speak Chinese. It may be years before he gets back. In view of that, I’m positive he’ll sell us the place.” “You really love it, don’t you, Walter?” my wife asked curiously.
“Say! We’re just crazy about it, Martha and I. We just love it, that’s all.”
At that moment I saw Farrington’s car. I recognized the long, shiny maroon body. It had stopped on top of a little hill about fifty yards up the road. He must have been following Walter and Martha down the country road that turned off the highway. And he’d stopped up on top of the hill so that he could get a view of his place.
“We’ve had the most terrible time,” Martha was saying, “trying to find out where Fernwald is. You see, in Mr. Farrington’s letter he said he was coming to Fernwald this morning. Walter and I thought it would be a very courteous thing to go over there and meet him. And we were going to; but we couldn’t find a soul who could tell us where Fernwald is. It’s so silly. But no one ever seems to have heard of it.”
“It’s a stop on the Reading, Martha,” Walter said importantly. “I know it is.”
“I don’t think so, Walter,” Martha contradicted. “I think it’s over on the Main Line. I used to teach piano to a girl once — they were lovely people too. And I’m sure the town they lived in was called Fernwald. Yes, I’m sure it was. That was it.”
I shook my head. I was fascinated by the way the maroon car was approaching. It was stopping and starting, being eased down the hill slowly, about ten feet at a time. “I think the Fernwald that Farrington was referring to is right here,” I explained. “It’s his name for this place.”
They broke into simultaneous “Good Lords!” and Walter slapped his forehead dramatically. Then he caught sight of the maroon car. He took a deep breath, cupped his hands, and shouted, “You the fellow I talked to yesterday about the sheep?” He chuckled and looked at me meaningfully. “We’re going to make sure we have some nice lamb this spring. We love it, don’t you?”
I nodded. “But that’s Farrington’s car,” I told him. “There’s your man.”
“No! Say, Martha, there’s Mr. Farrington.”
But Martha had already started down the slope, walking with a kind of lilt and calling out, “Hel-l-lo! Mr. Farrington! Welcome to Fernwald!” Walter followed her, his voice booming, “Hello, there! Thought you were the fellow who’s bringing us the sheep!”
Kitty, for some reason, had elected to remain with us. I felt her slip her fingers into my hand. Farrington didn’t turn in the drive, but left his car in the country lane. When he got out he stood hesitating for a moment. He wore a dark suit and high white collar, as he always did. His tall, slender figure remained motionless as Walter and Martha drew near.
“We shouldn’t have come. This is going to be terrible,” my wife said quickly.
“Yes. Let’s walk home across the fields. I’ll send for the car later,” I told her.
At that moment Kitty gave a whoop and began to jump up and down and wave her arms in the air. Then she charged down the slope. Her voice drifted back to us. “Pee — hew! Mr. Farrington, say something in Chinese so’s I can hear it, Mr. Farrington.” We looked at each other, my wife and I, and fled.
IT WAS my wife’s idea that we should stay away from the Codys until they looked us up. She was sure that Farrington had been disagreeable and that Walter and Martha had had their pride badly hurt. “They love that little place, you know, and I’m sure they don’t realize what they’re doing to it,” she said. “There’s something very defenseless about people like Walter and Martha — emotionally, I mean. They aren’t at all sure of themselves. When they want to see us, they’ll come over. I think it would be unkind to go near them until then.”
I wasn’t so sure about Walter’s being defenseless. However, I accepted my wife’s decision — after making guarded inquiries in the village and discovering that Farrington was still staying at the inn. I knew that he would be sure to come out and see me before he left, for I had two of his springers which I had agreed to take until he could find a home for them. I hadn’t wanted to take them, but they were nice little dogs and the poor man had sent me eloquent and imploring wires.
It was three days later and I was fussing with a disk harrow when he drove up. I called to him that I’d be there in a minute and to go on in the house and help himself to a drink. But he didn’t go in the house, and when I joined him he was walking around with a disconsolate air and staring glumly into the flower garden over the picket hedge.
“Hello,” he said without animation. “Your place looks pretty nice.”
I nodded, and led him towards the kennels. “You’re anxious to see your dogs, I expect.”
The dogs went mad when they caught sight of him, and he squatted on his heels and started to talk to them with his fingers through the wire fence.
“I say, you don’t keep them shut up all the time!”
I was a little nettled. Those spaniels of his had made damned nuisances of themselves, to say nothing of the expense. “I’ve had to keep them shut up,” I explained, indicating my wife’s Doberman, which was eying the spaniels contemptuously. “They’re subject to a delusion that they can chase my wife’s pet dog off the place.”
Farrington stared at the Doberman and I could see that he was wondering how on earth anyone could prefer that black and tan brute to his beautiful little springers. That was the trouble with Farrington; he had no interest in anything that wasn’t his.
“You haven’t,” I suggested, “by any chance found a home for them yet?”
He shook his head. He was, I saw, deeply worried over something. And a moment later it came out suddenly, all in a burst. “You know these tenants of mine, these Codys?”
I nodded and waited expectantly. He fidgeted for a second. “I thought you might — what I mean is, they’re quite difficult people and I thought you might speak to them for me.” He looked away, and his voice was pained. “Of course you’ve seen what they’ve done to my place! It’s — it’s dreadful, isn’t it?”
“It’s a little different from when you lived there,” I admitted.
“Thank God my wife didn’t come with me,” he said fervently. “She would never have got over it. I’m afraid,” he said, speaking slowly, as if he encountered an insuperable effort in articulating each word, “that I didn’t show the amount of tact that I might have the other morning. I was, I don’t mind admitting, a little rude. And I wrote them a rather hasty letter after I got back to the inn. But you must see how I felt. After all, there I was — and you know what the place looks like — and the three of them charging me and shouting to know if I was the man who was bringing the sheep and the child wanting me to talk Chinese — I wish you’d see them,” he finished on a plaintive note that struck me as strange on the lips of G. Preston Farrington, Esq. “Tell them that I — well, that I’m sorry for what happened the other morning, and that I really don’t mind if they want to keep a few animals if they’d just be willing to move the pigs!”
I suppose my face showed my amazement, for he glanced at me with a dry, bitter smile twisting his lips. “You’re very remote here, on your farm, aren’t you? Very remote. You ought to go away for a while and rent your farm. You’d learn a few things.” He gazed moodily at the tractor which was appearing from behind the corncrib. “You’ll talk to them, won’t you? And I’ll find a home for the springers, I promise, sometime this week.”
My curiosity was now so sharpened that I slipped over to Fernwald as soon as Farrington had left, without even telling my wife what he’d said.
Walter, a new Walter, stony-eyed, red-faced, officious, was leading what seemed like a group of sight-seeing clerks around the place. He was talking volubly, with appropriate gestures, while the others followed and took notes.
“I want you to meet some friends of mine.” He summoned me grandly. They were, it appeared, a Mr. So-and-so from one of those alphabetical agencies of the government, another Mr. So-and-so from some local housing commission that I’d never heard of, Walter’s personal attorney, and a representative from the factory where Walter worked. I soon saw that he had not stretched the truth when he’d called them friends. They all smelled faintly of whiskey and were very genial.
“You got that now?” Walter demanded. “Three places in the cellar that leak. The kitchen sink — there’s that trouble there. We never have hot water after ten o’clock at night. Cracks around the living-room windows — ”
“What’s this all about?” I asked.
The least appealing of the So-and-sos gave me an ingratiating smile. “Mr. Cody’s landlord has been trying to take advantage of him, I’m afraid.”
“Has he?” I asked. “In what way?”
I saw then what Farrington had meant when he’d said I was remote. It appeared that under war conditions the tenant had all the rights. Having rented the place, Walter could continue to live there or simply walk out. He could pay what rent he chose — or at least whatever rent he could persuade his friends to agree to as fair. (For the moment, they had all agreed, Walter was to stop paying rent as long as the leaks in the cellar, and so on, remained.) On the other hand, Farrington could not regain possession of his property even on the termination of his lease — unless he was going to occupy the premises himself; and even on this latter point there seemed to be some question.
“I was perfectly willing to be cooperative,” Walter began magnificently, but I cut him short.
“Farrington left my place not ten minutes ago. He asked me to tell you that he was sorry if he was rude the other morning. He says that he doesn’t mind what you do if you’ll just move the pigs out of his badminton court. I’m sure he meant it when he said he was sorry. You know damned well there’s nothing wrong with the house. Last week you’d have had anybody’s hide on the cellar door if he’d as much as suggested the house wasn’t in perfect condition. You don’t want to make trouble for a man just because — ”
“I was perfectly willing to coöperate —”
“In other words you do want to make trouble,” I cut in. I was angry and deliberately being unkind. But I liked Walter Cody. I liked him because of his poignant, clumsy, humorous warmheartedness, and for his generosity; and I hated to see him behave in a manner which seemed to me stupid and petty and mean. “Somebody’s insulted you, Walter, or at least you think he has. And you’re out to make trouble for him. It isn’t enough that you’ve about wrecked his place. You want to involve him with these — ” Rudely, for I have a dislike of officialdom, I indicated his three friends.
He received my remarks in a heavy, red-faced, gaping silence.
I left. My last sight of him that afternoon was of a rather portly figure in one of those white mechanics’ suits he wore to the factory, flanked by his surprised and indignant friends.
There was something lugubrious about Walter in his working clothes anyway. They fitted badly and the pants always hung down. Dressed for work, there was just one relieving note in his appearance. Over the badge which carried his name, number, and photograph, there was stitched an immense, flowing Walt in brilliant red. There was, I think, even an exclamation point following the Walt, but I may be wrong about that.
UNTIL then, busy on our farm, my wife and I had been able to keep the war at arm’s length. Now it closed with us. The farmer who had worked for me for ten years left to go to a big dairy plant. I lost another man to a war factory. I tried to do the work myself for a week or two, but found that I simply wasn’t up to it. Then a friend wrote me from Washington, asking me to go there and undertake certain specific work. There seemed to be nothing else to do. I put my farm up for lease.
I wrote to Farrington that we were renting the farm and that he’d have to come for his dogs. But when he stepped from his car he hung back and seemed reluctant to go around to the kennel. We stood talking for a minute or two. I thought he was looking at me rather queenly.
“I say,” he said abruptly, “I’m sorry to hear about your renting your place.”
I nodded. “It’s been taken. I think the man’s a Yugoslav, or a Czech — somebody connected with one of the refugee governments anyway. It was all done through an attorney, but apparently the man’s all right.”
“I’m putting my place on the market for sale,” Farrington said.
My wife came out at that minute and stood beside me. He glanced from one to the other of us. “It isn’t easy, is it? To give up a place where you and your wife have lived for years.”
“We know that,” my wife said.
“In our case — well, we have to sell. You see, we can’t afford to hold on to a place that we can’t live in and can’t rent for enough to carry it.”
“Has Cody been causing a great deal of trouble for you, Farrington?” I asked.
He hesitated, then smiled, his teeth flashing, and for the first time since I’d known him I liked him — liked him a lot. “Well, a little trouble, yes.”
“And he will buy it, of course.”
“He may have bought it already,” Farrington said. “I left the matter to my broker and now I can’t quite bring myself to go in and ask.”
“Do you think he caused the trouble with the idea of making you sell?”
“I’m sure he didn’t, although for a while I thought he might be doing that. No, I don’t think Cody is tricky or dishonest. He’s just — well — ”
“Not very bright,” I suggested.
Farrington nodded. “And he’s angry with me. I’m going to remember after this that if you’re going to make a man angry with you, it’s a good thing to be sure that he’s an intelligent man.”
I laughed. “I did speak to him after you were here before,” I told him. “Do you think it would help any if I spoke to him again?”
He shook his head. “No, Fernwald is gone. My wife and I have made up our minds to that. It — well, it went, for us, when we had to give up the dogs and the garden. You know. I’m sure you understand.” He looked at me closely, curiously, for a second. “I have myself to thank for what’s happened. If I’d understood Cody, seen the best side of him, the way you two do, I would never have offended him, of course. But somehow I didn’t. To me he just seemed vulgar and gauche and thick, and of course he could guess what I thought —” He shrugged, then laughed. “If I’d only been able to talk Chinese to that child!”
“You don’t talk Chinese, then?”
“Of course not,” he said. “Oh, I’ll take the dogs along with me. I can’t thank you enough for keeping them.” He looked around the clump of box to where the springers ranged up and down the fence like little rampant lions. “Well, I guess I might just as well take them.”
But I didn’t like the look on his face. “Look here, Farrington, I’ve got a friend who has a kennel of springers. He’ll keep them for you, unless you’ve got a really nice home picked out for them.” His face was something to see.
“Really? A kennel? Well, then, that’s awfully nice of you. Perhaps that would be best.” He held out his hand. “Good-bye and good luck. It’s too bad that we never knew each other well, isn’t it? I mean when we all lived right here.”
“It is,” I said.
“Just who’s your big friend with the kennel of springers?” my wife asked as we stood watching his car disappear down the road.
“He didn’t have a home for them. Dogs are too hard to feed nowadays and nobody wants them. He was going to have them destroyed.”
My wife was silent for a minute; then she said a very nice thing. “You know, there are times when I’m terribly glad I married you.” The phone rang and she went inside. “It’s the Codys. They want us for dinner tomorrow night. Walter has the night off from work and they want us to help celebrate something.”
“They’ve bought the place?”
“I guess so. Martha didn’t say.”
“Are we going?”
“I told her we would. After all, they’re still the Codys. They’re still warmhearted and generous and amusing — What’s the matter?” she asked sharply.
“It has just occurred to me that we’ve been insufferable about the Codys. We tell ourselves that we like them because of this and that, but actually we like them because we think they’re a couple of clowns and they make us laugh. I think Farrington’s attitude towards them is preferable.”
“Yes,” she said slowly, “I think you’re right.”
I DRANK a good deal at the dinner the following night. I kept thinking of Washington and the things I’d heard about it in wartime and contrasting that with the peace and quiet on our farm.
Walter also drank a good deal, with a curious effect. He seemed possessed of some huge, private amusement. Sitting with his knees spread, his head bent slightly towards the floor, he kept chuckling and smiting his thigh with a loud clap.
“Tell me something,” he broke out. “You remember what you said that morning? About my letting this place go to the devil? Did you mean it?” “No.”
“I knew you didn’t!” I was slapped on the back.
“What’s a place in the country for,” I demanded, “if not to keep livestock?”
“But definitely! You might as well live in the suburbs.”
“Walter, have you made the decision?”
“Whether it’s to be chickens or pigs?”
He smiled at me through half-closed eyes. “Pigs.”
“Good.” I raised my glass. “To the pigs.”
“To the pigs.”
I encountered my wife’s eyes at that moment. She gave me a barely perceptible shake of the head.
“You want to know something?” Walter leaned towards me affectionately. “You want to know what that fellow Farrington said? He had the nerve to come by here one day and ask me to put coal ashes on his delphinium. Coal ashes on his delphinium! Can you beat that?”
“It’s good for them. We always do it,” I said.
“But you don’t get the point. We bum oil here. Where was I to get coal ashes?”
“I don’t know. Where were you?”
“Besides, who gives a damn about delphinium!”
“No one,” I agreed. “Here’s to the pigs.”
“Do you want to know something else? Do you want to know what else Farrington said?” Walter’s face became sly. He chuckled. I saw that the important part of what I was going to hear was not what Mr. Farrington had said but what Walter had replied. “Well, after he said that thing about the delphinium, he said, ‘I don’t want you to think that I’m overparticular.’ You can imagine what I had to say to that!”
“Walter told him that he thought he was overparticular,” Martha put in.
“No!” I said.
Martha nodded brightly, eagerly. “Yes, he did.”
“I didn’t say anything of the kind, Martha. I just looked at him.” Walter’s hand came down on his thigh again. “And then he had the colossal nerve to say to me, ‘Of course I realize that you’re very busy at the factory, and that having a child complicates life, but I do wish that — ‘ But I stopped him right there.”
“What did you say, Walter?” I leaned forward. “Did you say, ‘Stop, Farrington! Stop right there!’”
“I did. But definitely! I said, ‘Mr. Farrington, I’ve always been led to believe that having a child was life, instead of being something that complicates life.’ Yes, sir!” Walter leaned forward, his hands on his knees, and glanced at me sideways. “What do you think of that?”
“Good,” I said. “Wonderful. Very good.”
My wife stood up angrily. “I’m going home. I don’t think either of you — ”
“Wait a minute!” Walter held up his hand. “Got something to tell you yet.”
Martha took a deep breath. “You see, Walter thinks that a man who doesn’t have any children can never understand the problems of living when one does have children! Because of course having children makes everything so different. Don’t you think it does?” Her bright, eager eyes fixed mine, and I had an absurd picture of her on that first morning, swinging down the slope and crying out, “Hel-I-lo, Mr. Farrington! Welcome to Fernwald!”
I nodded to her and held up my glass. “And now you have Fernwald.”
Walter once more raised his hand. “But we haven’t.”
“You didn’t buy this place?”
“Nope.” He burst again into laughter. “You said so — I didn’t.”
“What are you going to do? Go on renting it?”
“Nope.” Walter’s head was on one side and he was watching me with a sly grin.
“Have you found another place?”
“I hope your new landlord is easier for you to get on with than Farrington apparently was.”
“Best fellow in this part of the country!” Walter had a sly grin on his face. He was nodding and smiling through half-closed eyes.
My wife caught on quicker than I. She was standing beside me and I felt her hand close on my shoulder. “You mean— ” I said, with a chill on my heart like death.
“Yep. Thought we’d surprise you folks. Did it through an attorney so’s you wouldn’t guess.”
“You see,” Martha broke in, “we knew how delighted you’d be to have friends — I mean by that, people you know well — because of course we know how dreadful it is to have strangers. After all — Look at them, Walter! They’re simply flabbergasted! And when I think of how you used to tell us about a Yugo something or other — Honestly, Walter! Did you ever see — ”
It was Kitty who interrupted, a Kitty who had been allowed to stay up to view real surprise. She catapulted herself from a hiding place at the head of the stairs. “Pee — hew! But weren’t they surprised! Weren’t they just terribly surprised though? I just love to see people surprised like that.”
I have said that I took a little too much to drink that night, which is probably the reason my wife and I have never been able to agree on what happened after that. Whenever during the past six unpleasant months in Washington we have been able to discuss that evening, I have always maintained that I simply put my face in my hands. My wife says that I cursed at Kitty and shouted at her in make-believe Chinese. But that is ridiculous. I have never talked make-believe Chinese in my life.