The Willoughbys

Page 12


Asking for—

He groaned. The name! He still wasn't certain what the name should be.

But he had begun to feel that it should not be a name referring to any ingredients or to any body mechanics: no licking or chewing or munching references. No. It needed something unusual—something sweet—as a name.

He was actually thinking about naming the new candy bar after his child.

***

Downstairs in the mansion, Baby Ruth was playing, as she often did, in the front hall. She had just learned to walk. Still unsteady on her chubby legs, she toddled across the Oriental rug, trying to catch the cats, who twitched their tails mischievously to tease her but were adept at leaping just out of her reach as she approached.

The twins were playing a game of checkers in the parlor, and Tim was industriously putting together a model airplane out of balsa wood, being very careful not to sniff the glue. In the kitchen Jane was helping Nanny frost some cupcakes.

Commander Melanoff came down from the laboratory to announce the final perfection of the candy he'd been working on now for a month. He had a proud look, thinking of his candy; and when he stood on the lowest landing of the elegant staircase and saw his family busy with their happy enterprises, his look became fond, as well. Such a short time ago he had been a grieving, miserable, and messy—yes, he had to admit, messy—man who thought there was nothing left to look forward to. Now there were delicious odors wafting in from the kitchen. There were five children in residence who were old-fashioned, well behaved, clean, healthy, and bright. Twilight streamed in through the high windows, and the windows were clean and well polished. The floors gleamed with wax.

Commander Melanoff looked around and smiled with pride and satisfaction. The only thing within his sight that was slightly jarring—a little off-putting, a wee bit out of order—was the huge stack of crumpled and yellowing papers against the wall. It had been there so long that the cats no longer batted at it, and Baby Ruth had outgrown her interest in it now that she could walk and had other things to examine.

But the commander noticed it now, and thought briefly about what it represented of his sad past. He considered what he should do. Then he cleared his throat loudly, as if preparing to make an announcement.

Everyone looked up, even the cats.

Nanny emerged from the kitchen with a spatula in one hand and Jane by her side.

"I've made a decision," Commander Melanoff announced.

"You've chosen a name for the candy?" asked Tim.

The commander shook his head. "Oh, that. Yes, I think so. But that is not the topic of my decision."

Barnaby A surreptitiously made his move on the checkerboard, took one of his brother's men, and kinged himself.

"Dinner's almost ready. Chicken," Nanny pointed out. "Not to rush you."

"I'll be brief," the commander replied. "Gather round, everyone. Nanny. Baby Ruth. Willoughbys: Tim, A, B, and Jane." (He had become accustomed to the names A and B, but he thought again, as he often had, that there was something puzzlingly familiar about the name Willoughby.)

He smiled at all of them from the stairs when they had gathered curiously to hear his announcement.

"This house," he began, "has changed greatly in the past months. All because of you. Each one of you.

"Baby Ruth, of course, who appeared so mysteriously and soothed my grief." The toddler, recognizing her name, grinned and giggled. "One day, quite soon, a fabulous candy bar will be named for her.

"Tim." The commander looked at the boy fondly. "What can I say about a fine old-fashioned lad? Of course we all lament the regrettable and mysterious loss of your parents. But in the true spirit of orphanhood you have pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, and—"

"What are bootstraps, exactly?" whispered Jane loudly.

"Shhh," Tim told her.

The commander continued."—and one day in the future, I will send you to law school and you shall become 'of counsel' to Melanoff Industries"

"A and B?" Commander Melanoff looked benignly at the twins. It was a Tuesday, and Barnaby B was wearing the sweater. The overlong sleeves had made it difficult to move his checkers on the board. But the twins were accustomed to that obstacle. Tomorrow Barnaby A would wear the sweater and the handicap would be reversed.

"What can I say about these lovely boys? They remind me of—" He sniffed and wiped his eyes. "They are the age that—" He dabbed again with his hanky. "Well. I won't dwell on my own tragedy. I will only say that one day, when you come of age, I will select names for you so that you will no longer be labeled inadequately by letters. I will—"

"We have names," the twins said, in unison.

"Shhh," Tim told them.

"And dear Jane," the commander went on. "Such an adorable, self-assured little girl, who—"

"I'm hungry," Jane said loudly.

"Shhh," Tim told her.

The commander blew Jane a kiss.

"Finally, dear Nanny." Commander Melanoff fixed his eyes on Nanny with a lovesick gaze. "She has made my house a home. Once it was filthy; now it is clean. Once it was cold; now it is warm. Once it was quiet; now it rejoices. Once—"

"Commander," said Nanny in her no-nonsense voice, "it's not just chicken. It is chicken breasts cooked in a lemon-and-caper sauce, and it is congealing and will soon be inedible. Could we hurry this speech along?"

The commander chuckled. "I'm sorry. I do meander, conversationally. And all of this speechmaking was just preliminary to my announcement. We'll go and eat our dinner right away. The announcement was simply that I have decided to do away with The Stack!"

He gestured dramatically toward the immense pile of unopened letters and telegrams from Switzerland. "After dinner—is there dessert, by the way?"

Nanny nodded. "Crème caramel," she told him, "if it hasn't burned to a crisp."

"After dessert," he went on, "we will make a fire in the fireplace and we will burn The Stack, little by little."

"Shall we open everything first?" asked Tim. "It would take forever."

"No need," Commander Melanoff said. "It is simply repetitions of terrible news. I stopped opening them after the first year and a half. We will burn them unopened."

They began to move toward the dining room, where the table was set for dinner. Nanny picked up Baby Ruth and carried her to her mahogany high-chair.

"He's right," Jane said sweetly from her seat as she unfolded her linen napkin and laid it tidily on the lap of her ruffled frock. "I opened a lot of them. They were very boring."

"Did you, dear?" Nanny placed the platter of chicken in front of Commander Melanoff. "Were you practicing your reading, like a good girl?"

Jane nodded. "Yes. But it was just 'when are you coming to get us, when are you coming to get us' over and over."

"Who was supposed to come get who?"Tim asked. He began to pass the plates, each with its serving of chicken, around.

"Whom, dear," Nanny reminded him.

Commander Melanoff drizzled some of the lemon-and-caper sauce on his chicken. He tasted a bit and closed his eyes in delight. "Yummy, Nanny," he said. "As always."

"Who was supposed to come get whom, Jane?" Tim asked again, grammatically correct this time.

Jane shrugged. "I don't know. She never said. And then the next year, she was angry. The letters kept saying, 'I never liked you anyway, you old goat. You never picked up your dirty socks.'"

"Old goat is not a very pleasant phrase," Nanny told her. "Let's never use it ourselves."

"Would you pass me some of that broccoli, A?" Commander Melanoff said politely. "Help yourself first"

"She said worse than 'old goat,'" Jane pointed out.

"Who did, dear?" the commander asked. "Have you tried the broccoli? There's a smidgen of grated cheese on it, I think."

"I don't know who. She didn't ever say her name." Jane tasted the broccoli. "But that last letter, the one that came last month, the one you put on the very tippy-top of the stack? That one had a bad word in it."

Commander Melanoff sighed. "Those rescuers. It must have become so frustrating for them over the years. I should have told them to stop digging long ago. I'm sorry they used a bad word, Jane. Let's never think about it again."

"It wasn't a they," Jane told him. "It was a she. May I say the bad word?"

"Just once, and very softly." Nanny gave her permission.

A hush fell over the table as everyone waited for Jane, sweet Jane, to say a bad word. Jane scrunched up her face, remembering the letter exactly. Then she recited softly what she had read:

"'You old fart, your son is just like you; he never picks up after himself. My new husband and I have sent him off to make his own way in the world. Good riddance to you both.'"

Jane glanced at Nanny. "Riddance is a very bad word and I won't ever say it again."

But no one heard Jane. They heard only the crashing sound of Commander Melanoff's chair tipping over as he leaped to his feet, dashed to the hall, and began pawing through the stack of mail. They could hear him sobbing loudly and repeating the words "My son! My son!"

Next, still sitting there stunned by the turn of events, they heard the shrill ring of the doorbell. Nanny rose abruptly and ran forward, and all of the children followed except Baby Ruth, who, confined to her highchair, banged her spoon happily and chortled when the two cats jumped onto the table and began eating the chicken.

"Tell whoever it is to go away," sobbed Commander Melanoff. He was kneeling on the floor surrounded by envelopes, which he was tearing open one by one as he wept. "I can't face anyone now."

Nanny opened the door politely, prepared to follow his instructions. But she stepped back, startled, at the sight of a young boy, shivering in the chilly evening. His hair was uncut, shaggy, and down to his shoulders. His face was dirty. He was thin and unkempt, wearing an odd pair of short leather pants that were ragged and grease stained. His exposed knees were scraped and bruised, and his woolen socks were torn and sagging.

"It's Peter the goat-herd," murmured Tim in astonishment, "right out of Heidi! We can teach him to read and write, and then we'll all smile and hug and say religious things!"

"Shhh," Nanny scolded him. She stood aside and allowed the bedraggled boy to enter. He looked around at each of them in turn with no sign of recognition. But his face changed when he caught sight of the heavy man in the tweed jacket who was kneeling and weeping on the hall floor. His eyes lit up.

"Papa!" he said. "I've come home!"

Epilogue

Oh, what is there to say at the happy conclusion of an old-fashioned story?

There are details to be filled in and explained, of course, and reference made to future events.

How did Commander Melanoff's young son make his way halfway around the world, with only a silly feathered hat full of Swiss francs and no passport or other official documents? Well, he was an old-fashioned, enterprising lad. In Rotterdam, one of the major seaports of Europe, he stowed away on a vessel heading across the Atlantic with its cargo. He was discovered, of course, and put to work as a cabin boy: badly treated, overworked, never paid, and his clean underwear was stolen by brigands in the Azores. But he made it to his destination and was the better for it, having overcome hardships so successfully. He would go on eventually to become the president of his father's company and to maintain its reputation for the finest of confectionaries.

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