Read Sincerely, Willis Wayde Online

Authors: John P. Marquand

Sincerely, Willis Wayde

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Sincerely, Willis Wayde

A Novel

John P. Marquand

Experts in the belting industry may feel that I have not given a full or fair description of this line of endeavor. I have refrained from too complete a study for several reasons, the chief of which is that good fiction is seldom achieved if it follows life too carefully. Thus this interpretation of the belting industry is a figment of my own imagination and the same is true of the characters in this book. They are none of them modeled after or intended to represent any persons living or dead. If a name given one belongs to any individual who reads this book, it is pure coincidence.

I

Willis Wayde, before he went to sleep, could shut his eyes and see every detail of the Harcourt place. He had never owned it and had never coveted it, but as his father might have said in engineering language, it did serve as a base of reference. In engineering when you set out to make a map, you started running your line and reading off from some fixed mark, and in life too everyone possessed some solid starting point. The Harcourt place and everything around it was like this for Willis, and whether he liked the idea or not, it meant more to him than any place he had ever owned or rented.

Though it was customary for people in Clyde, Massachusetts, to think of the Harcourt Mill and the Harcourt place as a part of Clyde, this was inaccurate. The Harcourt place and the mill were three miles up-river in a community by themselves known as Mill Village. The mill buildings were on the riverbank. The house itself stood on higher ground overlooking the small community, a typical picture of early industrial New England. It was not an old place, as places went in Clyde, yet Willis could never get over his illusion that the Harcourt place was old. There are some early illusions that you can never evade, however incorrect.

Willis first saw the Harcourt place late one afternoon in August, 1922, when he was fifteen and when all of New England was an unknown country. He and his mother had arrived in Boston from Chicago in the morning. As long as they were in Boston, his mother said, they might as well spend a few hours seeing the sights, because it was a very historic city. There was a train for Clyde at three o'clock in the afternoon, leaving the North Station. They would send their trunks across the city by baggage transfer, and they would check their two suitcases in the parcel room of the South Station. Meanwhile his mother would buy a map of Boston at the newsstand and she would go to the restaurant and order breakfast while Willis arranged about the transfer company and carried the bags to the parcel checkroom. Willis was big enough to carry the bags, instead of tipping a porter—as long as they weren't traveling with “your father”—and looking after the suitcases and the trunks would be an experience for him. And one thing more, now that Willis was growing up. After getting the parcel room checks he could go to the telegraph office and send a telegram himself to “your father,” saying in ten words that they were arriving in Clyde at four-sixteen and please meet them at the station.

“A map of Boston won't cost as much as giving something to a porter,” his mother said. “We'll really be getting the map for nothing.”

Even at half past nine in the morning it was very hot in the old South Station, and the heat covered his face with a sheet of moisture that dripped from his nose; and his hair, under the old Stetson hat his father had passed on to him, became wringing wet. The restaurant was not cool either, even with the big fans on the ceiling stirring up a smell of overripe muskmelon and boiling coffee.

“Heaven sakes, Willis,” she said, “you are dripping with perspiration. Get out your handkerchief and mop your face.”

“I wouldn't sweat so,” Willis said, “if I was to have a haircut.”

“If you
were,
” his mother said, “and you don't need one yet. You ought to be a girl, the way your hair grows.”

Actually it had taken Willis years to realize that a well-groomed man should have his hair trimmed once a week.

His mother's map of Boston with a list of historic spots was spread on the table in front of her. She had opened her bag, pulled out a blue pencil, and was now circling points of interest.

“This is a real opportunity, Willis,” she said. “We're going to see Faneuil Hall with the grasshopper weathervane, and the Old North Church, where they put the lantern aloft in the belfry. Then we shall see the site of the Boston Massacre and then the old State House and then the Common. We shall also see the new State House, built by the famous architect Bulfinch. We shall then pass through the Public Gardens, and we shall visit the Boston Public Library. That ought to be enough to hold us for the morning, if we walk. It will do us good to stretch our legs after the train.”

His mother was tireless in those days and very light on her feet. She looked cool in her cotton print dress and undisturbed at being a public spectacle, as she held her map in front of her. All that Willis could do was to try to walk two paces behind her, pretending that he did not know her—not a successful device, because she called to him imperiously at intervals, telling him that they did not have all day. Consequently the sights he saw were lost in a blur of twisted, crowded streets that shimmered beneath the August sun. All that morning and afternoon must have been a series of stolen minutes forming a hiatus that took his mother's mind from the immediate future, preventing her from giving a thought to “your father,” or how long “your father” would keep this new position.

“Your father, Willis,” his mother had said on the train, “is so much more brilliant than most people that it's hard for him to stay satisfied, which explains why he moves from place to place.”

As they moved along the torrid streets she might have been teaching American history again, as she had once in Topeka, Kansas. Willis never forgot her expression when she saw the Book of Common Prayer in the Old North Church with the name of the King erased from it. It appealed to her imagination in a way that it never would to his. He could never share that sort of intellectual enthusiasm which could endow the pages of an ordinary old book with life and voice, or a bare room of a stuffy house, like the house of Paul Revere, with vanished people. Willis could only be pleased that he had not lived in an epoch that was completely devoid of automobiles and electricity.

“Now pay attention, Willis,” his mother said. “There's the grasshopper on Faneuil Hall, and it really is a grasshopper.”

She knew better than Willis did that few things were what you really thought they were going to be, and perhaps the grasshopper had looked just the way that she imagined it when she had read about it as a pretty girl on her family's farm near Topeka.

When they finally reached the North Station, and after Willis had seen about the trunk checks and had put the suitcases in the rack above them in the day coach, his mother told him that it had been a delightful day in Boston, a real holiday and something for him always to remember, but now it was time to put first things first, and she pulled “your father's” letter out of her handbag.

“I wonder what it will be like this time,” she said. “Your father always starts by being enthusiastic, and he's enthusiastic now about this Mr. Harcourt. I must say, it's very generous of Mr. Harcourt to let us have a house to live in right on his place. Now, Willis, I want you to be polite. I don't want people to think you're a crude Western boy. Have you lost your pocket comb?”

“No, Mom,” Willis answered.

“Then get it out and comb your hair. You look as hot as a boiled beet. Aren't you feeling well?”

“I'm feeling all right,” Willis answered, “but I wish I could go for a swim.”

“You can't,” his mother said. “Are your shoes tight?”

“Yes,” Willis said, “awful tight.”

“Well, you can take them off and rest your feet if you want to. No one will see you. Why do you always look ashamed when I make a suggestion, Willis?”

“Couldn't I take my coat off instead, Mom?” Willis asked.

“No,” she said, “not in the train, Willis.”

The train was five minutes late. At least it was four-twenty-one by Willis's Ingersoll watch when they got to Clyde.

Eventually everybody knew about everyone else in Clyde, because most Clyde citizens were endowed with deep human interest, not kindly perhaps, but indefatigable. It was only natural that an authority should eventually appear who could describe the first minutes of the arrival of Willis Wayde in Clyde. This was Bert Barker, who for thirty years ran the baggage room at the Boston & Maine Railroad station, and the older Mr. Barker grew the more clearly he could remember the incident.

Not many people ever got off the four-sixteen, and the four-sixteen was late because they were repairing the track down near Culver Crossing where the roadbed had softened up after a northeast storm. At four-ten exactly the Harcourts' old Locomobile, with Patrick Flynn driving it, pulled up at the station and parked in the place reserved for taxis, just as though the Harcourts owned the whole Boston & Maine. Mr. Barker was just getting ready to wheel out two crates of chickens on the truck, when he saw there was someone else in the Locomobile with Mr. Henry Harcourt's chauffeur. It was that new man working at the Harcourt Mill whose name he hadn't caught yet, a kind of a big-barreled fellow with bushy eyebrows and baggy pants. He remembered the incident perfectly, because this fellow had called him partner and asked if the four-sixteen train was on time, and Mr. Barker had said it was bound to be late because of the soft place on the roadbed. The fellow had said it was a hell of a roadbed all the way from Boston, and Mr. Barker had asked who the Locomobile was going to meet, seeing Mr. Harcourt had not gone to Boston that morning. It could not be waiting for Mr. Bryson Harcourt or Mrs. Bryson Harcourt either, or their two kids, because they would have used their own automobile. The fellow had said that his wife and son were expected on the four-sixteen and that they had been traveling quite a piece. They had been coming all the way from Colorado.

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