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"Come," I said, leading her to the Rolls. Christina got out of the car. "Anne, this is Christina. Christina's mother was a very close friend of my father's. Christina, this is Anne; she's my special girl."
An instant warmth seemed to flow between them. They touched hands first, then impulsively kissed. "Is he all right?" Anne asked.
"He's fine," Christina smiled.
"Anne, look." I lifted the cover of the blanket and she saw the sleeping baby. "This is Danielle."
Anne's eyes were wide. "Whose baby is she? Where did she come from?"
''Mine now, I guess. You remember her father and mother. Jeb Stuart and Betty May?"
She nodded. "Yes. Where are they?"
It was hard saying the words. It was still too new. "They're dead." She looked puzzled. I could see more questions in her face. "I'll explain it later. Meanwhile, I was wondering if you could keep her in your house until after the wedding is over. I wouldn't like to mess up my mother's wedding if I don't have to."
"Of course." She turned to Christina. "We'll take her up to my room." She looked at me. "You better get over to your house. They have to be going crazy over there by now. The wedding's due to begin any minute and your mother told everybody that you had promised to be there."
I went over the fence as I always had. When I went up the steps of the back porch, I looked back. They were going into the house with the baby. I opened the kitchen door and went inside.
Mamie turned from the stove. For a moment I thought she would almost faint; her face went pale and gray. Then she ran to me and hugged me against her ample bosom. ''Jonathan, my baby. You come home. All grown up an' a big man jes' like your daddy!"
I kissed her, half laughing, half crying. "I don't know what all the fuss is about. I said I'd come home, didn't I?"
''Yoh mother will be so happy," she said. 'Til go fetch her."
"No. Let me go upstairs and wash up first. I don't want to scare h.e.l.l out of her."
"I pressed yoh blue suit for you," Mamie said.
I went up the back stairs to my room and managed to get inside without running into anyone. From downstairs came the hum of conversation and the clinking of gla.s.ses. I headed right for the bathroom and a shave and shower. In less than ten minutes I was dressing. I looked at myself in the mirror. Mamie was right. I was beginning to look more Hke my father than ever. Carefully I tied the knot in my tie, sHpped on my jacket and went down the hall to my mother's room and knocked at the door.
Mother's voice came from inside. "Who is it?"
"Your son," I said.
The wedding was at five o'clock promptly. By seven all the guests had gone and only the family and the closest friends were left. My brother, Daniel, and his wife, Sally; Moses Barrington; Judge Gitlin and his wife, Zelda, and Anne's parents, the Forbeses.
Daniel looked over at Moses. "Are you sure we can really spare him for three weeks? Seems to me that big court case is coming up next week."
Moses went along with the joke. "You may be right. We'll have to go over that."
Jack grinned. "Come on, fellas."
I got to my feet. "I'll be back in a minute." I left the room and went out the back door and over the fence. I went into Anne's house and up to her room.
The baby was lying on the bed, gurgling happily. Anne looked up at me. ''She's really beautiful."
Christina smiled. ''We were just talking. You may not get her back."
"Forget it," I said. "Wrap her up. We're going over to my house."
Anne held the baby while I backed the Rolls carefully out of the driveway and went around the block to my house. We went up on the front porch and rang the bell.
My mother opened the door. She stood there staring in astonishment. She looked down at Danielle in my arms, then up at me. For the first time in my life, she was speechless. I carried the baby into the room and everybody went crazy. The questions came at me from all sides. It was Judge Gitlin who finally got everyone to calm down.
I Hked him. In some ways he reminded me of my father. He always carried his own bottle of whiskey with him. In my father's case it had been bourbon, while the judge's drink was Scotch. And, Uke my father, once in a while he would forget himself and take a pull right from the bottle instead of pouring it into a gla.s.s while his wife, Zelda, yelled at him just as my mother had yelled at my father.
"Relax. Let the boy tell the story in his own way," he said, stroking thoughtfully at his iron-gray, neatly trimmed Van d.y.k.e-ish beard. "You know," he added, "I'm tingling."
"What's that got to do with it?" Zelda demanded.
"Nothing," he said. "But I thought it was interesting." He smiled at me. I knew just what he was doing. He was taking everybody off base. "All right, Jonathan."
I gave Danielle to my mother. She gurgled happily into my mother's face. "We've got disposable diapers out in the car if she should need them," I said.
''She's just fine," Mother said, looking down into Danielle's face. ''She has such beautiful blue eyes."
Judge Gitlin smiled at me. He knew what I was doing. "Take your time, Jonathan. Start from the beginning."
I looked around the room. I chose my words carefully. I was not looking to hurt anyone's feelings. "It all began at Father's funeral. How much did any of us really know about him? Somehow all of us saw him differently. Because each of us in our own way saw only what we wanted to see in him. And each of us was right. He was all those things. But he was something more. More than any of us saw. He was himself."
I had to be talking a long time. I began with the morning that Anne and I had picked up the truck on U.S. 1 and finished with what had happened this morning. The clock in the foyer chimed ten as I finished.
I looked around at them. "They had never given the baby a name, so I did. Danielle, after Father. Now I want to keep her. She has no one else, no family. She hasn't even got a birth certificate. Jeb Stuart had never gone down to Fitchville to record her birth. They planned to do it when they went down to have her baptized. But it never happened."
Judge Gitlin nodded thoughtfully and took a pull at the bottle of Scotch. This time Zelda didn't yell at him. "It's not as easy as you make it sound, Jonathan," he said quietly. "First of all, you are a minor yourself and ^ there is no court in the land that would give you the custody of an infant child."
"Why not?" I asked. "All I have to do is file a birth certificate that I'm her father."
"You can't do that," the judge said. "There are many legal problems to surmount. A search would have to be conducted for any possible relatives or family. Then if there are any, consents would have to be obtained, and if not, she would be made a ward of the state until her disposition was settled."
^That's stupid," I said. "What's to stop me from just going off with her?"
"You know better than that, Jonathan." He looked at me thoughtfully. "But there might be a way to keep her close to you with much less of a problem. However, it would take the a.s.sistance of Jack and your mother."
"What's that?" I asked.
*'If they were willing to adopt her, I could find ways to expedite things." He paused for a moment. "But that is a decision they would have to make for themselves. It's something we can't urge on them."
I turned to my mother. She was looking down at Danielle and crying. Jack went over to her and knelt by her side. He looked up into her face, down at Danielle, then up at Mother again.
He cleared his throat. "I always wanted a little girl."
There was one more task to be done. The following month, two days before Thanksgiving, my brother, Daniel, and I took my father home. The first winter chill had frozen the ground, and while the grave was bemg dug, I walked Daniel up the hill to where the still had been.
There was nothing there but a black hole in the ground and a ma.s.s of tortured tubing burned and melted black with the earth. I stood there for a moment, then turned away. It seemed as if only yesterday I had been there, but yesterday was forever.
We walked back down to the cabin. It was already falling apart. The curtains Betty May had been so proud of were nothing but tatters, and the new paint was already peeling off the wood. Most of the windows were broken and the cold air blew through the room.
Daniel looked at me. "So this is where it all began. I never knew."
*'No one ever knew/' I said. "I wouldn't have known if he hadn't shown me. And it was here I began to learn about the goodness of him and how much I really loved him."
We went back up the knoll to the cemetery. The grave was almost ready. Fmally the two gravediggers climbed out and placed the two-by-fours across the open grave. They laid the heavy canvas straps across the planks, then went down the knoll to where the hea.r.s.e was waiting.
We watched as they were jomed by the driver and his a.s.sistant and took the coffin out of the hea.r.s.e. Slowly, carefully, they made their way up the knoll. Despite the cold, I could see the sweat standing on their faces as they walked past us to place the coffin on the two-by-fours. They stepped back, each man taking up an end of the canvas strap, and looked at us expectantly.
I turned to Daniel. He and I had agreed that we did not want a minister. He nodded. The man pulled on the straps, raising the coffin slightly. I kicked one two-by-four out of the way; Daniel kicked the other. Slowly, the men lowered the coffin into the grave. Just as it settled to the bottom they snapped the canvas straps loose and brought them up.
Daniel and I bent down and each of us picked up a handful of earth and threw it into the grave on top of the coffin. Quickly the two men began to shovel back the earth. At first, it rattled hollowly against the wood, but gradually the sound grew m.u.f.fled. At last they were finished, and giving the earth a few final pats with their spades, they went down the knoll, leaving the twoof us alone.
Daniel looked at me. I nodded. He turned back to the grave. His voice husky and low.
'*Here he lies where he longed to be; Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home fi-om the hill."
I looked and saw the tears running down Daniel's cheeks. I reached for my brother's hand and held it tightly. ''If you listen, Daniel, you can hear him."
It was like a whisper on the breeze.
**ThankyoUy my sons/'
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