FICTION

Stardust

Luella Markley Mockett July 1 1947
FICTION

Stardust

Luella Markley Mockett July 1 1947

Stardust

Luella Markley Mockett

NOW THAT the war was over and one could actually move about again, Mrs. Ethel Redlick felt her interest in life renewing itself. Certainly she had worked as hard as anyone for committees and canteens, but looking back it all seemed so empty. What she really wanted was to be a force in the community; to bring the drama club back to life after its wartime debility; to give parties and luncheons and get out of the doldrums.

She began with a luncheon on the shining deck of her bayside home, which was part Spanish architecture and part yacht. She and Frazier made a point of calling attention to its mongrel breed, but it had cost them enough so that they could be quite proud of it, and certainly there wasn’t a better location in town.

“The Castle of Indolence,” said Beth Wilmer, lazily directing attention to the open door which revealed a vista of meticulousness. Beth laj stretched on a beach mat, long and golden, untidilj beautiful. “I like the haunted house next dooi for atmosphere,” she said, deliberately calling

attention to the only had feature of the neighborhood. “I think I’ll paint it.”

“It could use some paint,” retorted Ethel cleverly. What Beth could see in such an old ruin, when she had turned down chances to paint some of the best houses in town—and for a good price— she couldn’t imagine. “I call our cliff Little Telegraph Hill on account of it, and Frazier says we keep it there to remind us that all is vanity,” she said, making the whole thing quite amusing. “There’s no chance of getting it torn down because of a housing emergency or something, and anyway Jonas Harshburger owns it and you know what that means. But it’s so terrible not even a shipyard worker would have it.”

Beth lay inert, her chin in her hands, her grey eyes fathomless as she searched the bay with its mysterious winding trails of light and dark water and its islands of idle warships and tankers. “I’m like one of those ships,” she said, “worthless. I resign, so that makes you president. Maybe I’ll get a bag of apple seeds and start walking.”

“Nonsense,” said Ethel, “it’s just the reaction.” She had asked Beth to the luncheon purposely to talk drama in front of the others, who could contribute so much if they would, and now Beth treated the Players as if they were utterly inconsequential. And after she had had all the best parts for years. Ethel felt that she should have listened to Allie Duncan for once, because Allie had said Beth was going to pieces. It was on account of marrying that soldier no one knew anything about, and she was probably lucky he had got killed and she hadn’t had any children.

But if Beth really meant that she was dropping out—Ethel’s mind was quick to rearrange plans according to circumstances—there would be that much more chance for the rest of them. “I simply can’t wait, myself, to get started on something important,” she said. “I don’t mean just social things, though this is such fun for a change—”

It was a very successful luncheon and Ethel felt the bright mood still upon her the next morning. She and Cynthia simply must go for a scamper. They put on the matching flowered sunsuits which had taken such ages to make; Cynthia carried a blue wooden pail and a blunt harmless shovel, and Ethel armed herself with a notebook and pencil for making giiest lists or civic plans or an agenda for a Players’ Club meeting.

She hesitated by the telephone. Perhaps she should call Mrs. Kandy about Beth. She relished the opportunity to pity Beth, who had so much beauty and ability and who belonged to a family that was such social upper crust that they practically didn’t need any money. Well, it was her own fault if she felt lost and out of things, the way she went exactly where she pleased and stayed away from where she pleased, and picked up with the strangest people.

Just last. Sunday, at the shore party on the Kandy yacht, she had given a perfect demonstration of that sort of thing. Going from bad to worse—that’s

Some people don’t seem to know you can have fun without money. They just 9 ahead and are happy anywa

what Allie Duncan had called it. The members of the Waterfront Improvement Association were enjoying the sun in the beautified area of the harbor, in a delightful setting of mahogany and polished brass, and if the splintered houseboats in the adjacent undredged mud meant anything to them at all, it was that the Association existed for the very purpose of abolishing them. But when Beth Wilmer came aboard she went straight over and waved and called out greetings to a dark-visaged couple who sat drinking beer on their listing deck.

“Good heavens, Beth, do you know them?” asked Allie Duncan.

“Sure,” said Beth. “Mr. and Mrs.

Nick Vargas.” Nick waved a beer bottle and Mrs. Vargas shouted to come on over and have some fun. The straggly tawny-haired child who had been sitting at their feet, flattening beer bottle caps with a rusty iron, jumped up and down and screamed unintelligiWy.

“Look at that child,” shuddered Agnes Furnald.

“That’s Seraphina—I’ve just done a painting of her,” said Beth bluntly.

“She’s fascinating.”

“Well, it would take more artistic temperament than I’ve got to see anything fascinating through that dirt,” said Mrs. Kandy complacently.

“They’re not dirty,” said Beth with some violence, and Allie raised a you-see-what-I-mean eyebrow. “They are just hearty.”

“Do you think the child really has possibilities?” asked Mrs. Furnald eagerly.

“I think,” said Beth, “if I had had a little girl —”

Mrs. Furnald never had time to wait, for the end of other people’s sentences. “Then we ought to get her into the co-operative nursery school where she can get some training.” Agnes was a tower of strength in the nursery. “After all, it’s open to anyone,” she said. “And we could arrange something about the fee—”

Beth shrugged. “I think you’d find they’d prefer to pay, if they’re interested,” she said. “I’m afraid I can’t stay, Mrs. Kandy. I just came by to say hello.” She dismissed the lot of them with a vague wave and strode up the gangplank and along the wide, solid pier without looking back. They watched her go, focusing on the long, beautiful legs, the careless attire which looked so expensive on her but wasn’t, the sweep of yellow hair which lifted in the breeze, until she was just out of hearing.

“Well, did you ever!” said Allie Duncan.

“I asked her less than two months ago to do an oil of Cynthia, and she said she wasn’t in the mood,” Ethel complained bitterly.

But. today’s luncheon had been a success, and the sunlit beach matched her mood.

“Come on, mamma,” begged Cynthia anxiously.

“All right, let’s go,” Ethel said, with a lift of her spirits. Cynthia looked so adorable in pink and ruffles, and she did love these excursions together. This was the way life should always be, she thought, out in the sunlight with one’s child. She momentarily rejected housekeeping, meetings, civic uplift — everything. It was a crime to squander so much time on being civilized.

It was only a few gay steps to the beach. At the top of the bluff Ethel stopped in shocked protest. The creature who squatted in a rocky niche, elbow on knee and chin in hand, her straight black hair hanging loose and wet, had a dreadful resemblance to a cave woman.

“Look, mamma, a little girl. She’s swimming,” squealed Cynthia.

There was a child ankle-deep in the water, clad only in a ragged scrap of panty, deftly snatching rock crabs into a rusty tin can. “She’s wading,” corrected Ethel, and went, ahead. She certainly wasn’t going to be put off her own beach. “Here’s some lovely sand for your little shovel.”

“I want to take off my shoes,” demanded Cynthia.

“We don’t play in the water,” said her mother. “It’s dirty. Some day we’ll have it all cleaned up so it will be nice and pure.”

Ethel recognized the intruders—Mrs. Vargas and that dreadful Seraphina. This was what came of people like Beth and Agnes Furnald showing an interest in them. Seraphina had lasted just two days in nursery school. “Honestly, Ethel, that child is a demon,” was Agnes’ verdict. “She is utterly undisciplined and unco-operative. I never hope to go through such an experience again. I can’t understand what Beth was thinking of. I mean, if we could have done anything for her—”

“She's playing in the water,” said Cynthia tearfully.

“Some little girls’ mothers don’t understand that the water is full of bacteria,” caid Ethel sharply. “You sit right down here and build a castle.” Of course it was a public beach and all that, hut the property owners had first rights. The only thing to do was to explain it, kindly but firmly. Continued on page 22

Continued on page 22

Stardust

Continued from page 17

Mrs. Vargas beat her to the greetings.

“Swell here, ain’t jt?” she boomed.

“Yes,” nodded Ethel.

“You goin’ swimmin’ in them clothes?” demanded Mrs. Vargas.

“No, I don’t swim here,” said Ethel very plainly, as if she were speaking to a foreigner. “The water has been condemned by the Board of Health.”

“Yeh?” enquired Mrs. Vargas. “It never hurt me none. I been in twice already. I always did want to live where I could swim whenever I felt like it. I says to Nick, ‘You bring the stuff; I’m goin’ up and swim till you get there.’ ”

“Oh, he’s bringing a—picnic?” asked Ethel with a feeling of revulsion.

“He’s bringin’ the furniture,” said Mrs. Vargas. “Twon’t fill the house up, but there’s plenty to set on.”

“House?” said Ethel feebly.

“Sure,” beamed the dreadful woman. “We’ve bought it—the empty one. Ain’t that swell?”

“Mamma, mamma,” screamed Seraphina, “here’s an old crab that’s lost his claw.”

“Well, look out you don’t lose one of yours,” said Mrs. Vargas comfortably.

Ethel gathered up Cynthia, pail, shovel and notebook, and fled to the telephone. She called Jonas Harshburger who chuckled dryly and said, “Don’t know anybody’s got a better right to live there—they paid for it, cash on the line.” She called Frazier, who only swore. She went into the retirement of a sick headache, but the Vargas’ moving-in penetrated even a pillow over her head.

THERE was only one truckload of furniture but there might have been 10 from the clamor of hammering and bumping and directions screamed out of windows. Ethel arose to find the window sills blooming with plants potted in tin cans, the Vargas bedding put to air on the front balcony rail, and the Vargas dogs already using the Redlick azaleas, since nothing so tall and choice grew in their own yard.

She was tortured by the thought of the series of luncheons she had planned. The invitations for next week were out, and all to people who really mattered— Mrs. Kandy, and a Mrs. Rattish who had appeared recently on a new yacht, and a colonel’s wife. She had planned an arrangement of pink camellias and freesias beneath the glass-top table, and perfectly heavenly food.

Camellias and sweetbreads—and the Vargas’ would be hanging out their windows to eat bread and sausage, to carry on all intercommunication from floor to floor, and to scream at Seraphina—“You hear me? If you’re goin’ in the water you take off that there dress. I didn’t iron it for no bathin’ suit. Huh? Go in in your pants— ’twon’t be the first time they been wet.” Ethel longed to be called away; she considered pleading illness, but they had theatre tickets for the night of the luncheon, and they had waited a month for them, and everybody else had already been. She almost hoped Cynthia would get something catching.

A telephone call from Mr. Herman Kandy, reporting a rumor, saved her. Was it really true that Allbright Pictures was considering Realmar as a locale for filming “Bird on the Wing?” True or not, there was a gust of assorted activity in the town which blew all other problems out of the running.

“Yes, sir, it’s signs of progress like the new yacht harbor that draws big business to a little town,” declared Herman Kandy.

“And I may say,” replied Jonas Harshburger, “that they’re not coinin’ to take pictures of the yacht harbor. It’s a good thing some people didn’t get in there with a lot of the taxpayers’ money and tear up the scenery and those perfectly, good houseboats and put in a lot of flumdiddle.” Mr. Harshburger was an ardent protector of tax money, the owner of several of the inglorious dwellings, and president of the Businessmen’s Club which was very busy congratulating itself on having permitted the water front to remain natural and picturesque.

That meant that parts of it were disreputable enough to provide a setting for such a book as “Bird on the Wing.” Old schooners lay there in the mud, rotted and worm-eaten, awaiting the judgment day of ancient ships, and no set designer could have constructed anything more artistically dreary than the leaning houseboats.

Mr. Kandy snorted. “The city council ought to see to it that the town gets enough money out of the deal to clean up that plague spot,” he said, and went home to draw up a letter to that governing body.

The council members, who met timidly once a month in the hopes that they would not be asked to take startling action on anything, became as individually remote as possible. They knew that there would be a clamor from the radical elements to give Allbright Pictures the key to the city, and equally forceful exhortations from the reactionaries that such a picture, based on such a book, be banned from the shores of historic Realmar. The park petitioners would be stirred up again, and so would the curfew advocates. Already, though the thing was only a rumor, there were six letters on the clerk’s desk—three for and three against.

There was no mistaking the position of the Provincial Players’ Club. Ethel cancelled her luncheon and the ladies understood perfectly. “Miss Wilmer has resigned and I’ve simply got to carry on,” she explained.

She called an emergency meeting at

once. “Just think, girls,” she caroled— for the emergency took place in the afternoon and none of the boys could be present—“what it may mean for some of our local talent. They send out scouts, you know—they always do—and my opinion is that if we actually have a drama on the boards, somebody is going to be discovered. We’ve got to get started immediately.”

“Something modern with a very small cast,” said Beth Wilmer, who had come after all. “It will eliminate a lot of trouble with casting, costumes and scenery.”

Mrs. Redlick was prepared. “It’s not fair to limit such an opportunity to just a few members,” she said brightly. “After all, there are many of us who have worked hard to make the club what it is, and you can never tell just what type of character is being sought. Now I had thought of the possibilities of a historical pageant depicting the early days of Realmar. The costuming could fit right in with the period of ‘Bird on the Wing’—we may as well all admit that we’ve read it—” she interpolated archly, “and we could all be used for group scenes. That way even the children could take part.”

“Oh, Sweet Jupiter,” groaned Beth audibly. Everyone knew what she meant. She meant that Ethel Redlick was seeking to display the talents of her sweet little Cynthia again.

“We ought to see that the visiting celebrities are properly housed,” said Mrs. Herman Kandy, who had been waiting for the moment when an uncontroversial suggestion would be welcome. Mrs. Kandy was fat and could not act, but she adored theatre people and she had the biggest and emptiest house in town.

“You are absolutely right,” said Ethel with admirable poise. “I think you should head the committee, Mrs. Kandy, and choose your own workers, if that is agreeable with everyone. All in favor, girls?”

“We don’t even know that any celebrities are coming,” muttered Beth, but Ethel ignored her.

“Now that that important matter is

in such capable hands,” she went on, “the next step is a meeting tomorrow night to select a definite play or an idea —we can’t get started too soon, you know. And now, if there are no more suggestions—”

She got into her car in a glow of importance, though she was certainly annoyed with Beth. You’d think that a girl whose great-grandfather had owned the original rancho by the sea which had become Realmar would be interested in local history. But no, just because she had those legs and a husky voice and that mop of hair, she wanted to be the whole show as usual. Well, she had handled her all right, and she would write the pageant herself, and, of course, Cynthia should have a part.

She had to stop by the Furnalds for Cynthia. “I didn’t mind keeping her at all,” said Agnes. “She’s as good as gold, but I do think you should put her in nursery school, dear.”

“Well,” protested Ethel, “she catches cold so easily.” The truth was that she did not wish to add a weekly morning as a co-operating mother to her schedule, and she knew that Agnes knew it.

“I should think you’d be afraid she’d have trouble adjusting herself when she starts to school,” said Agnes with the tremendous authority of the onebook child psychologist.

“Oh, Cynthia is a very adjustable child,” Ethel retorted, out of the same book. “I almost always take her with me—I think that’s an important association”—this was a clever thrust against Agnes who was always organizing her own four children out of her life—“and she has her dancing lessons twice a week, and she’s done very well in two little theatre plays. And with this new one coming up—well, I think that when a child is talented she should be developed,” she said firmly, thus putting an end to the argument, for everyone knew that the lumpy, freckled Furnald children did not possess a talent between them.

THIS was the time to let routine go to pieces. Ethel was on the beach early the next morning, breathing deeply of atmosphere; her breakfast dishes piled in the sink, soaking, her creative being in full fervor. On a morning like this she could even ignore the existence of Mrs. Vargas and Seraphina who were there before her, two dark dots bobbing about far out in the germ-laden water.

Cynthia, resigned to a life of restraint, began still another castle, and Ethel sat and wondered whether she should get her a permanent. Braids were all the thing now, but Cynthia’s hair was so fine. That Garner child had done all right with straight hair, but she was quite a different type.

Seraphina mounted her mother’s back and came riding gleefully in to shore like a dolphin. There was a piece of seaweed in her tangled, glistening hair, and Ethel had a momentary, uncomfortable glimpse of a kind of beauty.

Mrs. Vargas shook herself free of her child and some excess water and walked up the sand, making neighborly conversation. “Sure the life o’ Riley,” she said.

“Yes,” answered Mrs. Redlick remotely.

“Mamma, I want to go down and watch the pictures,” clamored Seraphina.

Mrs. Vargas paused and laid a hand on the streaming mop of hair. “I’ve a notion to take a bowl to it,” she said. “Easier to cut off them snarls than comb ’em out.”

“Not now,” protested Seraphina. “I want to watch ’em make movies.” “Well, you wear a shirt on your

top,” admonished Mrs. Vargas. “And put on some dry pants,” she bellowed after the fleeing figure.

For once Mrs. Redlick spoke first to Mrs. Vargas. “What movies?” she begged.

“Them movie people,” said Mrs. Vargas casually. “They’re startin’ this morning.”

It could not possibly be true, yet it seemed that it was. Nick Vargas had learned it the night before from a fellow off a boat—he was a great one for finding things out—and he had a joh to help unload. Working during his vacation, he was.

Even Ethel Redlick could not rebuild her life immediately to include such catastrophic news. She lingered, accepting any kind of companionship while she readjusted. “Seraphina swims well for her age,” she said.

“Yep,” said Mrs. Vargas. “Nick threw her in when she was two and showed her how to get out again. It’s like he says, you either gotta sink or swim. Sure too bad you don’t swim.”

“I will, when we get chemical disposal,” Ethel said automatically. She felt as if she herself were struggling against drowning. “Well, I must go. Come, Cynthia dear.”

“Aw, mamma,” wailed Cynthia, “we just came.”

“I’ll keep an eye on her,” offered Mrs. Vargas, stretching herself like a seal on the sand.

“You’re very kind,” murmured Ethel.

“Kids don’t bother me none,” Mrs. Vargas said. “I’m going to have another, now we own a house. Workin’ in the shipyards, I kept losin’ ’em.”

At another time Ethel would have anticipated the fresh disaster of rows of grimy diapers flapping across the balcony, but now she was too desperate to think of it.

A solid hour of telephoning only proved what she already knew, and when Cynthia came home, with her white shoes slightly damp, her mother whisked her through lunch and a bath and into a pink dotted swiss, gave her straight hair a brushing and took her for a walk. To Cynthia’s delight they strolled along the forbidden part of the water front, but all they saw was a roped-off area and some men carrying lumber. The only interesting discovery was Seraphina Vargas, darting in and out in the midst of whatever was going on.

“Mamma,” said Cynthia, dragging at a protective hand, “there’s Seraphina. Can I go in too?”

“Certainly not,” said Mrs. Redlick. “Why?”

“She’s there because her father is a day laborer. Your father is vice-president of an insurance company.” The explanation seemed inadequate, but it was the best she could do.

Despite the fact that the thickening pile of letters in the clerk’s file had not been read to the council, that the Provincial Players had not decided on a play, that the curfew advocates had not secured more than six signatures on their petition, and that Mrs. Redlick had not been able to get an appointment for Cynthia’s hair, Allbright Pictures was shooting scenes of Realmar’s water front.

They went on shooting, and no scouts appeared demanding local talent; no celebrities rang doorbells looking for adequate accommodations. “But of course they’ll come later,” Ethel consoled herself in the midst of hectic historical research. “This is only the third day.” The doorbell rang and she leaped to admit—oh—at least a director.

It was only a tweedy-looking man who held Seraphina Vargas by the hand. Ethel stared. The child’s hair

was a halo, a gorgeous flyaway nimbus about her head, but her dress was as ragged and her face a little dirtier than usual.

“Pardon ine,” the man said, “I’m Link Matthews, and I’m looking for this child’s mother. She isn’t at home and I thought you might know where she is.”

A welfare worker, thought Ethel. Well, she wasn’t going to get mixed up in anything. “I haven’t the faintest . idea.” she said, but she couldn’t resist adding, “I suppose Seraphina has been ; into something?”

“I’ll say she has,” grinned the man.

! “She’s been into our picture up to her ears. Swam right into the show. I’ve got her father’s consent, but I must talk to her mother.”

“You mean — ’’ Mrs. Redlick j steadied herself against the door frame.

; “But she’s had no training.”

“She’s a natural,” said the man.

: “Independence. Absolute self-assur| ance and a face that photographs like ' one in a million. Well, sorry we bothj ered you—”

“Do come in,” insisted Mrs. Redlick. j “I’ll see if her mother’s out—out in the ; garden.”

“We ain’t got no garden,” said I Seraphina.

“Oh, Cyn-thia,” called Ethel, “here’s I Seraphina.”

Seraphina made for the sofa and bounced upon it as if it were something j she did every day, but Cynthia appeared from the hall, a round-eyed, ruffled darling, and asked wonderingly, “Can she come in?”

“But of course, darling,” cooed Ethel. “Mr. Matthews, this is my daughter Cynthia. Now,” she pondered, “I do believe I know where Mrs. Vargas is. I’m sure I saw her go down to the beach a while ago. We’ll show you the way.” She took darling Cynthia and walked ahead so Mr. Matthews could get a good look at her.

MRS. VARGAS was walking barefoot up and down the beach on her great brown shapely feet, her massive figure, vast of hip and bosom, dressed with artless wisdom in full skirt and blouse. “She’s quite magnificent,” said Mr. Matthews appreciatively.

“Peasant type,” Ethel said glibly. Of course this didn’t amount to a thing— they just had to be so careful, legally.

Seraphina dashed ahead. “What you been doin’ to your hair?” demanded her mother.

“A man washed it,” said Seraphina. “Our make-up man,” explained Mr. Matthews, “just to see what it would be like.”

“Has she been botherin’ you?” enquired Mrs. Vargas. Mr. Matthews shook his head and explained his business, which amounted to a great deal. “Nick said I’d have to talk to you—said you were the boss.”

“But we can’t leave here,” said Mrs. Vargas numbly. “We got a house.” Ethel Redlick’s mind began to work things out with incredible speed. She saw Mr. and Mrs. Vargas in Hollywood attempting to accompany their daughter along the road to fame, and she pictured their utter inadequacy. They may have produced the child Seraphina, but they had reached their own zenith when they bought the old house. There they would live forever, filling it with children and dogs and silkfringed pillows and more plants in tin cans.

“I’d sure hate to spoil the kid’s chance if there’s anything in it,” said Mrs. Vargas uncertainly.

The Provincial Players could sponsor the child, thought Ethel—see that she had the things she needed. There were some very wealthy members. And she and Frazier—well, he could just as

well run his business from Los Angeles —and Cynthia and Seraphina could be like two little sisters—

A swift, slender figure came running down the beach path and Beth Wilmer caught up to the group, panting. “Nick just told me—downtown,” she said. “He asked me to come—to see if there was anything I could do. Oh, Mrs. Vargas, isn’t it wonderful for Seraphina?”

Mrs. Vargas turned to her with massive solemnity. “ ’Tain’t Seraphina I’m thinkin’ about,” she said. “It’s Nick. He’s proud to have bought himself a house. He’s proud to be workin’ regular and decent.”

Mrs. Redlick was appalled. “But don’t you know,” she explained impatiently, “that Seraphina will earn more than Mr. Vargas could ever make.”

“A man,” said Mrs. Vargas, “has got to make his own way. ’Twouldn’t take much to unsteady Vargas if he was cut loose from here. But if there’s all that money in it — Miss Wilmer” — she turned to Beth, begging a tremendous favor—“Would you think of goin’ along with her, if it paid enough and all?”

“Mrs. Vargas,” said Beth, “would you let me? It would be the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. It’s not the money—I’d take care of her—I wouldn’t let her get spoiled. Oh, Seraphina”—she was on her knees beside the child, her face hidden in the cloud of hair—“if I’d had a little girl I’d have wanted her to be just like you.”

“Could we go up to the house,” said Mr. Matthews briskly. “There are some papers to sign and arrangements to make. We’re leaving tomorrow.”

“Did you say—leaving?” gasped Ethel.

“Oh sure,” said Matthews. “We were just making some atmosphere shots.”

“Mamma, can 1 stay and swim?” asked Seraphina.

“Sure,” said Mrs. Vargas, “but take off that there dress. Here, give it to me. I better git it washed.”

Ethel Redlick dragged her protesting Cynthia homeward on an endless path. Life was a farce, that’s what it was. She had done all that work—for nothing. She had devoted her life to Cynthia’s training, and Mr. Matthews had not looked at her twice. She wasn’t even going to get rid of the Vargas.

Of course, it would be a little different now, having them next door. They would add a sort of touch. “My dears, they’re the parents of that charming child star—the one in ‘Bird on the Wing,’ ” she could hear herself saying. “So picturesque. Regular Bohemians. This is a real little Telegraph Hill, you know.”

She brightened and hurried her step a little. They needn’t rush about a play now. Beth was definitely out and that was all for the best. There was other talent in Realmar. Perhaps they really ought to do something with a small cast—something modern. it

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