Read Blessings Online

Authors: Belva Plain

Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary

Blessings

The human heart has hidden treasures, In secret kept, in silence sealed;—

—
CHARLOTTE
BRONTE

Chapter
I

T
he day on which the sky cracked open over Jennie’s head had begun as gladly as any other day in that wonderful year. It had been the best year of her life until then.

At noon she had been standing with Jay on the lip of the hill that overlooked the wild land called, by the town to which it belonged, the Green Marsh. It was one of those Indian summer intervals, when, after two weeks of rain and premature gray cold, everything suddenly burns again; the distant air burns blue and the near oaks flare red; in the marsh, cattails and spreading juniper glisten darkly after the night’s rain. Canada geese come streaming, honking their long way to the south; and ducks, with a great flapping racket, splash into the pond.

“You see, it’s not all marsh,” Jay explained. “There’s meadow and forest at the other end. Over a thousand acres, all wild. Been here for Lord knows how many thousands of years, just as you see it, untouched. We’re trying to get the state to take it over as part of the wilderness system. That way it’ll be safe forever. But we’ve got to hurry before the New York builders put their bid through.”

“Do you suppose they’ll be able to?”

“God, I hope not. Imagine ruining all this!”

They stood for a little while listening to the silence. Totally at ease, accustomed as they were to quiet hours with each other, they felt no need for a continuous flow of speech.

A small sudden wind blew a dry shower of leaves, and at the bottom of the hill Jay’s children came into sight, running with the wind. They made themselves fall, the two girls rolling their little brother in the leaves. They shrieked; the dog barked; and the wind, carrying the sounds back up the hill, shattered the Sunday peace.

“Darling,” Jay said.

Turning to him, Jennie knew that he had been watching her while she watched his children.

“I’m happier than anyone has a right to be,” she murmured.

He searched her face with such intensity, such love, that she felt an ache in her throat.

“Oh, Jennie, I can’t tell you … You give me …” He threw out his arms to encompass the whole bright scene in one characteristic, generous gesture. “I never thought …” Not finishing, he put his arms around her shoulders and drew her close.

Into the curve of his arm she settled, feeling a perfect happiness. Memory ran backward to the beginning of this miracle. A year and a half before, when they had first met, Jay had been a widower for two years, his young wife having died most terribly of cancer. He had been left with two small girls and an infant son, a rather grand Upper East Side apartment, and a partnership in one of New York’s most prestigious law firms, a position not inherited as sometimes happens, but earned through merit and hard effort. One of the first things Jennie had observed about Jay had been a strained expression that might signify anxiety, overwork, loneliness, or all of these. Certainly if loneliness was a problem, the city had enough desirable young women to fill a man’s vacant hours, especially those of a tall young man with vivid eyes and a charming cleft in his chin. When she knew him better, she understood that he had been very, very careful about involvements because of his children. Some of his friends had asked her whether she didn’t find his devotion to the children a bore or a hindrance; on the contrary, she admired it, was glad of it, and would have thought less of him if he had not felt a loving, deep responsibility toward them.

She turned her face up now to see his. Yes, the look of strain was definitely gone, along with that nervous habit of pulling a strand of hair at his temple, and along with smoking too much and sleeping too little. Indeed, this last month he had stopped smoking altogether. Smiles came easily now, and certainly he looked much younger than thirty-eight.

“What are you staring at, woman?” “I like you in plaid shirts and jeans.” “Better than in my Brooks Brothers vest?” “I like you best in nothing at all, since you ask.” “Same to you. Listen, I was thinking just now, would you like to have a little summer place up around here? We could build something at the far end of my parents’ property, or somewhere else, or not at all. You choose.” “I can’t think. I’ve never had so many choices in my life!”

“It’s time you had some, then.” She had never been one who craved choices. In her mind she stripped things bare to the core, and the core now was just her pure need to be with Jay always and forever; houses, plans, things—all were unimportant beside that need.

“Have you decided where you want the wedding? Mother and Dad would be glad to have it at their apartment. Mother said she’s already told you.”

A woman was supposed to be married from her own house. But when the home consisted of two cramped rooms in a renovated walk-up tenement, even the simplest ceremony presented a problem. Obviously Jay’s mother understood that, although with kindest tact she had not referred to it.

“Yes. It was a lovely offer.” But in Jay’s apartment, Jennie thought, it would seem a little bit like her own home. “I’d like your place. Would that be all right? Since that’s where I’m going to be living?”

“I’d love it, darling. I was hoping you’d want to. So, now that’s settled. One thing more and we’ll be all settled. What about your office? Do you want to stay where you are or come to my firm’s building? There’s going to be some available space on the fifteenth floor.”

“Stay where I am, Jay. My clients would be intimidated, scared to death on Madison Avenue. All my poor, broken-down women with their miserable problems and their shabby clothes … It would be cruel. Besides, I couldn’t afford a move like that, anyway.”

Jay grinned and ruffled her hair. “Independent cuss, aren’t you?”

“When it comes to my law practice, yes,” she answered seriously.

She supposed that his practice must mean as much to him as hers did to her. After all, why else would he have chosen it and stayed in it? But she couldn’t imagine anyone, certainly not herself, caring as deeply about wills and trusts and litigation over money as about people, the battered wives, abused children, dispossessed families, and all the other pitiable souls who came asking for help. Yet no one could be more kind and caring than Jay. And money, after all, did grease the world’s wheels, didn’t it? Obviously, then, somebody had to take care of it.

At the foot of the hill they could see the setter’s tail waving above dead weeds. The children were now stooped over.

“What on earth are they doing?” Jay asked.

“Collecting leaves. I bought scrapbooks for Sue and Emily to take to science class.”

“You think of everything! They’re going to love you, Jennie. They do already.” He looked at his watch. “Hey, we’d better call them. My mother’s having an early lunch, so we can get back to the city by their bedtime.”

The two-lane blacktop road passed dairy farms and apple growers’ wide, level spreads: little old houses with battered swings on front porches stood close to big red barns; horses in their shabby winter coats drooped their heads over wire fences; here and there a glossy white-painted house at the end of a gravel drive bordered with rhododendrons and azaleas proclaimed ownership by some local banker or, more likely still, by some city family who enjoyed its two or three summer months of rural peace.

“I can’t believe my noisy little rooms in New York are only hours away,” Jennie said.

When the winter-brown fields gave way to the town, they entered the main street. Here chain stores, gas stations, a bowling alley, a pizza parlor, a redbrick consolidated high school, a Ford dealership, a dingy movie theater, and three or four new, low office buildings reflected modern times, while a saddlery, a volunteer fire department, and a feed store with a sign above the front entry—
FOUNDED
1868—spoke of a life that had been and was now changing.

“As I remember it, the town was half this size when Dad bought our place,” Jay remarked.

“Do you think of this as your true home?”

“Not yet. Maybe someday when I’m my parents’ age. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were to give up their New York apartment and stay here all year, now that Dad’s selling the factory and retiring.”

Mrs. Wolfe was spreading compost over a rose bed at the side of the house when they drove up. She straightened, took off her gardening gloves, and spread her arms to the little boy, who ran into them.

“Did you have a good ride, Donny? Did you see the horses?”

The girls interrupted. “We went to the academy, but Donny didn’t want to get on the pony.”

“Daddy promised us chocolate bars, but the stores were all closed.”

“A good thing, too, or you wouldn’t eat any lunch. And we’ve a beautiful chocolate cake for dessert.” The grandmother smiled at Jennie. “I hope we haven’t tired you out this weekend.”

“No, Mrs. Wolfe, I could walk ten miles a day through these hills.”

“Well, I’m sure Jay will take you up on that sometime. Let’s go in, shall we?”

Jennie stepped aside to let the other woman precede her into the house. She must be careful to remember every little nicety… .

It was only natural to feel unease in the presence of one’s future husband’s parents, wasn’t it? Especially when this was her first visit after only two previous meetings, and those in the impersonal setting of a restaurant. Enid Wolfe, for all her welcoming manner, possessed an elegance that easily could be daunting. Even in her gingham shirt and denim skirt, she had it without trying.

The whole house had it. Its very simplicity told the story of people who were above any effort to impress. Through a white-paneled door one entered into a low-ceilinged hall; people were shorter two hundred years ago, so Jay had explained, when this farmhouse was built. Now worn old Oriental scatter rugs lay on the wood-pegged floors. Mixed fragrances of pine logs, furniture wax, and flowers hung in the air. On the coffee table in the living room lay a mound of splendid, blood-red roses —the last of the year, someone said. A pair of chintz-covered sofas faced each other in front of the fireplace. The cabinets looked antique, and there was a handsome baby grand piano at the far end of the long room. Two small paintings of blurry skies above a river stood on the pine mantel. They looked like the Turners Jennie had seen in the museum, but knowing so little about art and fearful of making a foolish mistake, she refrained from saying so. Really, she must make an effort to learn more about these things, for Jay knew and cared about them.

She suspected that the taste here was faultless, and undoubtedly expensive. Yet the room, the whole house, said: “I don’t pretend, I am who I am.” Fat, homemade needlepoint pillows lay about. Books stood in piles on tables, with a tumbling stack on the floor. Photographs cluttered another large round table: there was a 1920s bride in a short skirt and a long train; there were children and a graduation picture and one of a pug dog. Tennis rackets were propped against a wall in a corner. A tortoise cat had wrapped itself in an afghan on one of the easy chairs, and now the setter came bounding in to flop in front of the fire.

Jay’s father got up from the wing chair in which he had been sitting with a drink in hand. He was craggy,

with a beaky, aristocratic nose, and taller than his tall wife. Jay would look like him someday.

“Come on in. Daisy is just about to put things on the table. WhereVe you people been all this time?” he inquired as they went to the dining room.

“Oh, around,” Jay said. “I wanted to show Jennie the neighborhood. We finished at the Green Marsh. What’s new with the situation since I talked to you?”

Arthur Wolfe gave the table a startling thump. “They’ve been up from New York, thick as thieves all over town these past weeks. Made a big offer, four and a half million.” He made a grim mouth. “It’ll tear the town apart, I predict, before we’re through.”

“What’s happening with the state? The park negotiations?”

“Oh, politicians! Red tape! Who knows when they’ll get around to it in the legislature? In the meantime the developers are on the move, and fast. I’m disgusted.”

Jay frowned. “So what are you doing about it?”

“Well, we’ve got a committee together, Horace Ferguson and I. He’s doing most of the work. I’m too old to do much—”

“Arthur Wolfe, you are not old!” his wife protested.

“Okay, let’s say I’m doing enough. I’ve been talking to the people who’ll be sure to see it the right way, especially on the planning board.” The old man took a spoonful of soup, then laid the spoon down and exploded again. “Good God, the whole nation will be paved over before you know it, with nothing green left alive!”

“Hmm,” Jay reflected, “that marsh is an aquifer. They’ll wreck the water table if they start to tinker with it. It’ll affect every town in the area, and all the farms. Don’t they know that?”

“Don’t who know it? Developers? What do they care? Come up from the city, pollute the place, make a bundle, and leave.”

“Arthur, eat your dinner,” his wife said gently. “The soup’s getting cold. We’re all very conservation-minded in our family,” she explained, turning to Jennie. “But you’ve probably noticed.”

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