Bright flows the river, p.20

Bright Flows the River, page 20


Bright Flows the River

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  Guy said, “I haven’t really thought of selling that property.”

  Mr. Daumbler’s smile became fixed. “You are planning to live on it yourself, Mr. Jerald?”

  “I’m already living on it.”

  The sandy eyebrows lifted. Why, the little bastard, thought Guy with cold amusement. He knows all about me. Something’s in the wind.

  Mr. Daumbler tapped his very white large teeth with the end of a pen.

  “I don’t think my client will go higher than four thousand dollars, Mr. Jerald. Even that is too much. But I might try to persuade him to offer you five hundred dollars more.”

  Guy said, “If it’s worth that much to him, it’s worth more to me.”

  Again, that elaborate shrug. “Suppose you think about it, Mr. Jerald. But we’d like to know as soon as possible.”

  Guy smiled. “What is the hurry?”

  “He has other properties in mind. I’m really afraid we’ll have to know in the next day or two.”

  “There’s no other farm for sale in my vicinity, Mr. Daumbler.”

  “There is plenty of land on the other side of the city, Mr. Jerald.”

  Guy made himself look bored. “Then, let him buy some there.”

  The bland façade had not changed, but the gray eyes had become shrewd and thoughtful on Jerald. “Then your answer is a definite no?”

  “I didn’t say that. I said I would think about it.” He could not help smiling again. “I might consider fifteen thousand,” he said, and stood up. Mr. Daumbler stared up at him. Guy added, “What’s his name?”

  “That’s impossible, Mr. Jerald. It really isn’t worth—” He stopped. “I can’t tell you his name. This is a confidential matter.”

  “Why doesn’t he deal with me direct? Why all this mystery?”

  “We never question our client’s motives, sir. We are only the negotiating party. Our client is a valuable one. If he wants to indulge a whim we can only advise him.”

  “And you told him you could get my land for him for four thousand dollars. What’s the bank’s interest?”

  Mr. Daumbler actually colored. “None, Mr. Jerald. We are only doing this for a good client.”

  “Now, that’s damn kind of you. When did a bank ever do a favor for a client that they didn’t get their cut? And banks don’t encourage valuable clients to buy worthless land. Now, do they?”

  “I don’t think you quite understand, Mr. Jerald.” Mr. Daumbler thought with dismay of Mr. William Lippincott, the president of the bank, and the owner in fact, to whose daughter, Lucy, he was engaged. Mr. Lippincott would not like this debacle in the least.

  “I may not understand all the details, Mr. Daumbler,” said Guy. “But do you know something? You interest me.”

  Mr. Daumbler became brighter. “Thank you,” he said. “But please let us know very soon. Very soon. I can’t promise you that our client won’t withdraw his offer, if you take too long to accept.”

  “Then I’ll cry about that later,” said Guy. He went toward the door, and then there was a knock on it and it opened and a young woman stood there, her face showing a very pretty smile. She was tall and blond and she wore a white mink coat and a white mink hat to match. Guy stopped. He felt dazed and shaken.

  Marlene, he thought. Yes, it surely was Marlene, grown a little older, but with the same large blue eyes, the same pale hair, the same gilt lashes and brows, the same vulnerable expression, the same delicately tinted cheeks and soft little chin, and the same pink lips. She began: “Eric, I came to see Daddy, and he’s busy, so I thought I’d come in to see you—” It was not exactly Marlene’s voice, but it was gentle and soft with an echo of a dead girl’s voice.

  Her voice faltered away, for she saw a strange tall young man before her who was staring at her with a fixed intensity, a man with a dark and aquiline face, black eyes and black hair, a man in a cheap suit and a cheap black overcoat, and hatless. He was not a handsome man, she thought vaguely, and was probably some nondescript moneyless person who was seeking a loan. But Eric did not usually interview such himself. Mr. Daumbler, rising with well-tailored agility, moved to her side. He said, “Miss Lippincott, Mr.—er—”

  “Jerald,” said Guy.

  “Sorry,” said Mr. Daumbler. “Lucy, Mr. Jerald is one of our depositors.”

  So you know that, too, do you? thought Guy. And you probably know I’ve got five thousand dollars saved in your bank, Mr.—er—

  The girl extended a gloved hand. Guy took it. It was warm through the leather. It was warm as Marlene’s hand had been warm, though larger. “How nice to know you,” she said. She withdrew her hand and gleamed at Mr. Daumbler. “Busy, dear?”

  “Not really, Lucy. Well, Mr.—Jerald—you will let us know very soon, won’t you?”

  Guy was still dazed. He felt sick with longing for Marlene. I never forgot her, he thought, my little love. “I will think about it,” he muttered.

  The cold February sun had come out and it splintered whitely against Guy’s eyes, but he sat for a long time in his car thinking of the girl he had just met. He knew, from her name, that she was a daughter of the president of the bank. But—she was really Marlene, resurrected. He could feel Marlene in his arms, could feel her maiden’s kisses, could see the trust in her shy eyes. He confused Lucy’s blankess with that innocence and trust. He was too shaken for a time to drive away. He began to sweat with the ardent memories which came rushing in on him, the brief but poignant memories, the memories of young vows of devotion, of promise, of hope, of love.

  Then he was outraged, wildly, savagely, jealous. She had called that manicured vice-president “dear.” She had called him by his first name. The dampness on Guy’s face became cold drops which ran down his temples. He beat his fists on the steering wheel. “Marlene,” he said, aloud, and then louder, “Marlene!” His outrage choked him. He would not lose Marlene again! She belonged to him; he would have her this time.

  He drove home, and when Sal saw his face she said, with fear, “What’s wrong? Is there something wrong, Jerry?”

  “No,” he said, and he threw his coat on the hook in the kitchen. He said, abruptly, “The bank offered me four thousand five hundred dollars for this farm.”

  “Oh,” she said, with relief. Then she sat down and looked at him thoughtfully, rubbing her rosy cheek.

  “What do you mean, ‘Oh’?” said Guy, with great annoyance. “Don’t you think that is a lot?” He was exasperated with Sal, but knew this was ridiculous. His eyes were still filled with the face of the girl he had just met.

  “Who wants to buy the farm?” asked Sal.

  “The banker wouldn’t tell me. What does it matter?”

  But Sal said in a peculiar voice, “I wish I knew. The name, I mean. You see, there was something in today’s paper. Something about a Pittsburgh builder buying property around here, farms and suburban property. To build houses on. A big important builder. I wish I could remember his name. Here, wait. I think I still have the paper near the stove.”

  She jumped up like a girl and began to rummage feverishly in the pile of papers which was kept to light the stove when the fire went out. “Here it is!” she cried. “And here’s what it says here: ‘The Chandler Development Company of Pittsburgh is considering expanding its operations on a wide scale around Cranston! Mr. Howard Chandler is responsible for the famous housing development near Pittsburgh, where the slogan is “The coffeepot never stops bubbling in Chandlertown,” where homes can be bought for as little as three thousand dollars down, on an eighteen-thousand-dollar house. Mr. Chandler builds homes well within the range of what he calls the neglected majority’s income, small well-built homes on curving drives, mass-produced but comfortable and solid, with garden plots and a recreation center for children and adults.’ Why, there!” said Sal, with eagerness, looking up at the bemused young man near her. “I bet he wants to buy your farm! It’s the biggest piece of property outside Cranston!” She rushed to her feet and hugged Guy with glee.

  “And he wants to buy it for four thousand dollars,” said Guy, and he thought of Lucy Lippincott.

  “I think,” said Sal, who was no fool, “that it’s worth much more than that.”

  “I’ve got to think,” said Guy. “Good God, I’ve got to think.”

  But he was becoming more dazed every moment. He could hear his heart battering against his ears. The arteries throbbed in his neck. “I’ve got to think,” he said again. He thought of Marlene and such an excitement seized him that he almost choked, and his breath held in his throat.

  He said to Sal, “Does it say there that he’s already bought land around here?”

  Sal held the paper to the lamp she had just lit. “It just says he has bought ‘considerable promising development property in this vicinity.’”

  “I must think,” said Guy.

  Two nights later Sal had more interesting news for Guy. The farm of the Geigers, adjacent to Guy’s north meadow, was owned by old Otto Geiger’s widow, who was childless. She was a woman nearly eighty years old, and infirm, and farm help, in these roaring days, was almost impossible to obtain. Most men were now in the “plants,” for had not Washington soothingly informed an alarmed citizenry—who were working in war factories—that they were not to be worried by the end of the war some four years ago, for there would “always be brushfire wars,” especially in the Far East, “to keep everybody busy indefinitely.” (“Let us all be thankful for a benign government who will invent wars for prosperity,” Tom had said when Mr. Truman’s office had appeasingly informed the nation that wars would continue.)

  So Mrs. Geiger, left almost completely alone except for the random help of a kind neighbor—occasionally—barely subsisted on the eggs and poultry she could raise within the limits of her strength. She had had to sell her cattle and other stock. It was Sal who weekly came to her aid with a loaf or two of fresh bread, butter, a duck or a goose, a new blanket or a fresh gingham dress or a sweater, gentle charity which was held in contempt by the other and far more solvent neighbors. (“Always trying to buy her way into God’s good graces,” one mean-spirited farmer said, who gave only to his evangelical church, and had made more than one overture to Sal and had had his chops soundly smacked in consequence.)

  Sal had gone to see the old lady with a basket of apples, onions, bacon, butter, and some of her canned goods two days after Guy’s interview with Mr. Daumbler. Mrs. Geiger was trembling with elation. “I’ve sold the farm!” she cried in glee to Sal, as she embraced her. “It never was much good, Sal, as you know, and it ain’t but ninety acres anyways, and I’ve sold it for two thousand dollars—two thousand dollars!”

  Sal came alert at once. It was true the farm was small but it had been quite productive in old Otto’s lifetime, and the soil was rich and fertile, unlike Tom’s farm. “Now, that’s grand,” said Sal, who did not think so. “Two thousand dollars. What are you going to do with that money?”

  “Well, I got a nice niece in Cincinnati, and she’s been asking me for a long time to go stay with her, even when I didn’t have any money.”

  “The Warners bought it?” The Warners owned the next, and rich, farm.

  “No, some nice man from Pittsburgh. Said he’d like a little farm for his kids on weekends and in the summer.”

  “Hum,” said Sal. She added, “Did you take the money?”

  “Yes, and I sent it to the bank and now I have two thousand five hundred dollars. God’s been good to me, Sal.”

  Sal did not say, “You should have kept it for a while.” She did not say, “I don’t know about God, Mrs. Geiger, but I think you got cheated, as good people usually do, with or without God.” She drank some tea which Mrs. Geiger brewed for her, and her manner was absent yet quietly excited. She, too, was thinking.

  “Remember the man’s name who bought the farm?”

  “Yes. He had a check, when I signed the papers. Mr. Prentice. Mr. John Prentice. From Pittsburgh.” Sal carefully recorded the name. She got into Tom’s old car, which still adequately performed if carefully coaxed, and she drove onto the dirt road, a mere two-wheel track, home to the Jerald farm. The Geiger farm was landbound, and had no other access to the macadam road that ran before Tom’s farmhouse except that track. Tom had good-naturedly permitted the Geigers to use the track even when it bisected his own property, for which old Otto had never expressed any gratitude, though without the use of the track the Geiger farm would have been totally isolated.

  Sal thought rapidly and concisely on the way home. She could scarcely keep herself from calling Guy at the sawmill at once. When he did arrive, five minutes late—it had begun to snow again, a cold sleety snow—she flew at him, crying, “Oh, God, Jerry, I thought I’d go out of my mind waiting for you all day, and here you are late!”

  “Calm down, old girl,” said Guy. “What’s wrong now?”

  Sal was so excited that she fell into exasperation. “You never ask, ‘Any good news?’ Jerry. It’s always ‘What’s wrong now?’ as if the whole world’s against you and there’s nothing good in it.”

  “Well, that’s my opinion, at any rate,” he said. He rarely smiled now, but he smiled at the sight of Sal’s fat red cheeks and jumping dark eyes. “Don’t tell me we have something good coming up—at last.”

  “You and Tommy all those years, and he was the best thing that ever happened to you, and maybe he’ll always be the best. Well, hang up your coat and I’ll tell you. I’m bursting.”

  “So you seem,” said Guy. It was still utterly incredible to him that his father was not present in the old armchair, with his pipe and his books. He still could not believe that Tom was no longer in this world. Sometimes he was so incredulous that he would say aloud, even when alone, “Pa? Pa? Where are you, Pa?” And he would find himself listening for Tom’s answer. While Sal would lay out the dinner he would wander into Tom’s bedroom, more than half expecting to see his father there, or in the little dark sitting room with all the books on random shelves or on the floor. Small though the farmhouse was, it seemed enormous and empty and desolate without Tom’s presence. Sal would make no comment on Guy’s sorrowful wanderings, his peering into corners, his air of waiting, listening. She understood. She never let Guy see her own grief, her own loneliness, her own despondency, her own waiting, and expecting, her own longing for a voice she would never hear again. Her bright and antic joy had vanished and she was not reconciled.

  “Well,” said Guy, as he sat down in his father’s chair and drank some of the cold beer Sal had poured for him. “What happy news do you have?”

  “You know that offer you got from the bank, Jerry?”

  “I’ve never forgotten it. I still can’t figure it all out, though I’ve had a small idea since you showed me the paper about the Chandler Development Company. I haven’t given the bank my answer. I’m waiting.”

  Sal stood before him, her hands clasped tightly over her round belly, her eyes sparkling, and she told him of her visit to Mrs. Geiger’s farm. Guy listened; he forgot to drink his beer; the cigarette smoked away in his fingers. “Your nine hundred acres, Jerry, and right on the road! And Mr. Prentice has no way to reach the road ’cept down that dirt track that’s all mud in the winter, and ruts in the summer, and belongs to you anyways. If Mr. Prentice is the company man, he knows that, too. That Geiger land ain’t no good to them without yours.”

  “Yes. Yes,” said Guy, and his heart was jumping as fast as Sal’s fervid eyes. He stood up. He walked about the kitchen distractedly. He stared through the windows; he snapped his fingers. He lit another cigarette and stared at the wooden wall, where Sal’s pots and pans hung. The kerosene lamp made a warm yellow splash about the old kitchen; a kettle of corned beef and cabbage simmered on the stove. The late-February night had come, sulky and rebellious that the world was inclining to spring.

  “But they haven’t called me,” he said.

  “Why, sure not. They’re waiting you out. Then they think you’ll call them and they’ll offer you less than what th
ey did.”

  Guy had always known Sal was shrewd, but it always surprised him the way the sharp knife of her mind struck to the bone of any subject.

  “Still, it’s only three days.”

  “They’ll get after you, Jerry, sooner or later. You’ll see.”

  “Pretty clever fellas, having the bank talk to me, and having that John Prentice get after old Mrs. Geiger. Never showing the real hand. I can be as clever. I can wait better than Mrs. Geiger could. Now, why the hell wasn’t I smart enough to buy her land myself?”

  Sal laughed. “Because you didn’t have a crystal ball, Jerry. And no one read your palm. Jerry, that’s how some men get very rich. They never let their—well, their faces be seen if they want something. They get somebody else to do it for them, somebody—somebody—”

  “Anonymous,” said Guy. He was both amused and vexed. “And they thought I was a lumpen proletarian farmer. An ignorant foreman in a sawmill. I began to suspect something that day in the bank, but what it was, I hadn’t the faintest idea. I just knew there was something.”

  Sal admired him with her eyes and her smile. “Tommy always said you were a real smart kid, Jerry, and I knew that, too. You get hunches. Tommy called them—now what did he call them?”

  “A mixture of common sense, extrasensory perception, and intuition.” His own elation was increasing. But when would they move? His younger wildness and impatience roared back in him, making him sweat, making his muscles jerk. He had no time to waste. The telephone rang, and both he and Sal ran for the wall where it hung, and they collided, and then Sal stepped back, breathing hard. The telephone rarely rang in this house.

  It was Mary Jerald. She hardly heard Guy’s voice when she screamed, in hysterical joy, “You’ll never guess, son, you’ll never guess!” Her voice was torn and raucous with her emotion. “The most wonderful thing ever happened to us! You’ll never guess.”

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