The Willoughbys

Page 10


He wanted desperately to go home.

17. An Auspicious Change

It was surprising to the Willoughby children—and to Nanny—how difficult it was to plan their own futures, now that they were parentless and soon to be homeless as well.

"I think this would be easier if we were modern children," Tim said, "but we are old-fashioned. So our choices are limited. Jane?"

"Yes?" Jane asked. She was on the floor, playing with the cat again.

"I think you must develop a lingering disease and waste away, eventually dying a slow and painless death. We will all gather around your deathbed and you can murmur your last words. Like Beth in Little Women"

Jane scowled. "I don't want to," she said.

Tim ignored that. "Nanny?"

She was at the sink, rinsing the plates on which she had served the soufflé. She turned, wiped her hands on her apron, and looked at Tim curiously. "Yes?"

"You must renounce the world and enter a cloistered convent. We will visit once a year and talk to you through a grill. All but Jane, of course, because she'll be tragically dead, cut off in the flower of her youth."

"I told you. I'm Presbyterian. We don't enter convents."

Tim thought. "Missionary work, then. Prepare to go to darkest Africa and convert heathens."

Nanny scowled and picked up a dishtowel.

"What about us?" the twins asked together.

"A and B: you must run away and join the circus. Toby Tyler did that. Remember we read that book?"

"Yes," said Barnaby A. "I liked it. It was very old-fashioned. Toby was an orphan, very worthy—"

"—and his pet monkey died," finished Barnaby B.

"But we don't like the circus," Barnaby A said, "except for occasional elephants."

"And we're allergic to hay," his brother pointed out.

"Old-fashioned children do not have allergies," Tim announced. "If you don't like the running-away-to-the-circus idea, then you can build a raft and sail down the Mississippi like Huckleberry Finn."

"We can't swim!" the twins wailed.

"That makes it even more of an old-fashioned adventure. Now, as for me—"

"Yes, what about you? We're all off dying of obsolete diseases and sneezing with allergies and drowning in whirlpools and getting lost in the jungle looking for heathens, and you're probably planning something wonderful for yourself!" Barnaby A said angrily.

"Not a bit. I'm going to have a typical old-fashioned-boy future. First of all, I'm going to pull myself up by my bootstraps, and—"

"What are bootstraps, exactly?" asked Jane, looking up from the floor, where she was tantalizing the cat with a piece of straw from the broom.

"Never mind. It's not important. I'm going to wear torn, patched clothing and sell newspapers on cold, windy street corners, saving every hard-won penny, in hopes that someday a well-to-do businessman, maybe with a beautiful daughter, will recognize my worthiness, like Ragged Dick in that book by what-was-his-name, Horatio Alger? Remember him? And—"

"A well-to-do businessman," repeated Nanny. "You mean a tycoon?"

"Yes, exactly. A wealthy industrialist."

"A benefactor?"

"Pollyanna had a benefactor!" Jane recalled. "Not till the end of the book, though"

"Yes," said Tim. "This will be like that. And he will—"

"I have an idea," Nanny said suddenly, untying her apron.

Tim scowled. "You're always interrupting, Nanny! And what do you mean, you have an idea? I've had a whole list of them!" he said.

"But we don't like your ideas," said Jane. She stood up; the cat, startled, scurried out of the kitchen, pretending that it had planned all along to leave. "What's your idea, Nanny?"

But Nanny had left the kitchen as well. She had retrieved her official dark blue nanny cape from the closet in the hall, had flung it around herself, and was opening the front door. "I'll be back in an hour, children," she called.

***

And so it happened that the entire Willoughby family, plus Nanny, and the cat, moved into the mansion. When Nanny, reminded of him by the mention of benefactors and tycoons, had described their plight to Commander Melanoff and volunteered to take on the role of caregiver for Baby Ruth, his eyes lit up with joy. A few days later, they pulled the wagon, containing packed boxes of undies and the cat in its carrier, to their new home, leaving everything else behind except what they were wearing, which included the beige sweater (it was Barnaby A's day for the sweater), because Commander Melanoff assured them that he would provide for all their needs.

They threw themselves on his mercy, as old-fashioned people tend to do. "We have no money," Tim explained nervously. "The real estate lady said that the buyer paid tons of money for our house. But she isn't giving us any. She's mailing it to our parents."

"And they are off climbing an alp," Jane added.

"Oh, please," Commander Melanoff said, clutching his handkerchief and dabbing at his eyes, "don't mention that word, if you don't mind."

"Climbing?" asked Jane, her eyes wide.

"No, the A word. It brings back sad memories. We'll change the subject. And we won't discuss money again. No need. I have oodles."

"However did you get oodles of money?" asked Tim with interest. "I'd like to do that someday. I've thought about standing on cold, windy street corners, selling—"

"No, no. You have to invent something. And you have to give it a wonderful name. I myself invented a kind of candy years ago—a long black spiral flavored with anise—and I named it Lickety Twist. It made me a billionaire."

"You invented Lickety Twist? We love Lickety Twist!" the twins exclaimed.

"Nanny won't let us have it, though," Jane pointed out.

"No, we have to sneak it. She says it's bad for our teeth." Barnaby A opened his mouth wide. "I have a cavity," he said. "See?"

"Oh, it's terrible for your teeth," Commander Melanoff agreed. "I never eat it myself, and when Ruth is old enough to chew well, I'll see that she has only apples and an occasional ginger cookie. Never will she have Lickety Twist."

"But what about all the poor children who do eat it and rot their teeth?" Jane asked sadly.

The commander sighed. "Ah," he said, "that is how we billionaires exist, I am sad to say. Caveat emptor. We profit on the misfortune of others."

"But you do good," Jane reassured him sweetly, patting his hand. "You adopt babies."

"And you also take in needy children," said Barnaby A.

"And hire homeless nannies," added Barnaby B.

"I do like Nanny," the commander said, his face brightening. "She's a handsome, competent woman. She takes my mind off my sorrows. Where is she, by the way?" He looked around.

"Tending Ruth and making dinner," Tim told him. "A minute ago she did the laundry and scrubbed the bathtubs."

"What a wonder she is," murmured the commander.

"She plans to wax the floors later."

"An absolute wonder. Does she, ah, have a husb—well, what I mean is, is she a married woman?"

"Oh, no, she's an old-fashioned person. A spinster of little means," Tim explained. "Well educated and of good reputation, but forced to go into domestic service because her father died in debt and left her penniless."

Commander Melanoff sighed. "A familiar story. Like Jane Eyre. Well," he said, "let us hope that like most old-fashioned stories, this one will have a happy ending."

18. A Walking Tour Is Suggested

"You're getting thin, dear" the postmaster's new wife commented one morning to her boy. "Have some more cream on your muesli."

"I'm sorry, Mother, but I despise muesli," he said.

"Deutsch, please," the postmaster told him. He wanted very much for the boy's German to improve. He thought he might like the boy better if his German were better.

"Mein muesli ist dischgusting." The boy poked his spoon into the bowl lethargically. "It makesch me vant to womit."

"He eats practically nothing," his mother told her husband.

"He is lacking in self-discipline. Does he do his knee bends each morning along with his deep-breathing exercises? Does he read a chapter of the Bible every day? Does he pick up his toys?"

"No. He spends hours arranging his little army men in battle positions on his toy table and then at bedtime he leaves them there. I've told him again and again that they must be put away in their boxes every evening, but he pays no attention. And his room is untidy. I've organized his clothing alphabetically, but then I go in and I find that he has hung his shirts next to his pajamas though I have repeatedly told him that shirts belong beside shorts and shoes. And the corners of his bed are not tucked in properly."

The postmaster shook his head and looked at the boy with disappointment. Then he looked at his watch. "I am almost two minutes behind schedule," he announced, and folded his napkin carefully into thirds.

His new wife smiled at him. "Lunch will be at twelve twenty-seven p.m.," she said.

"Good," he replied, precisely adjusting the lapels of his uniform jacket and removing a piece of lint from his sleeve. He leaned over and kissed her on her forehead. "You have a hair out of place, beloved one," he told her affectionately. "There, on the top."

"I'll rebraid," she promised him.

"Perhaps," he added as he was going through the door, "the boy would benefit from a walking tour? A few weeks of hiking might toughen him up."

After his stepfather was gone, the boy looked up from his uneaten museli. "Did he mean I would go all alone?" he asked his mother.

"Yes, dear. It's the way that old-fashioned boys become robust and mature. Especially ones who have become wasted and weak, like you, and pathetic and disorganized."

"Would you give me a map?"

"Oh, yes. And some vitamins and cough drops in your backpack."

"But I would be on my own?"

"Don't be frightened, dear. Many old-fashioned boys have done it, and most have survived."

"Could I choose my own route, or would you plan it all out for me in your meticulous way?"

His mother sighed. "I would like to do that, dear. But it is customary for the solitary hiker to find his own way. You would be following your dream. It would be your quest." She hummed a few bars of "Dream the Impossible Dream" and went to wind the cuckoo clock that hung on the kitchen wall.

Without noticing the dry, medicinal taste of the muesli, the boy began to eat his breakfast in hurried gulps. He was thinking now of his own quest, his own dreams, his vague memories of his papa. "How soon could I leave?" he asked.

His mother finished winding the clock, and checked the time against her own Swiss watch. "In about an hour?" she suggested. It was time now, the time immediately after breakfast, for his knee bends and Bible reading. But her son ignored those things. Excitedly he went to his room to pack.

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.