Chapter Five: THE HOWES

THE HOWES

August 9, 1930

 At the shrill ring of the doorbell, Myrtle’s hands jerked out of the wash water and nearly dropped a plate. Who could be calling? She’d made no appointments this evening. Looking out the kitchen window, she yelled to her husband kneeling in the vegetable garden. “Martin, the doorbell’s ringing.”

“Well, answer it,” he yelled back, without getting up.

She sniffed, giving her shoulders a shake. Of course she’d answer it. All she wanted was his speculation, a bit of chitchat. Ever since Gamma and Celeste departed for Europe three weeks ago, the house had been deadly silent. Martin seemed perfectly content reading and gardening when he wasn’t at the store. But after several weeks of his terse comments: “Good morning … nice meal … love some coffee … Good night,” Myrtle would have welcomed even Gamma’s silly prattle. Thank goodness her girl would be home in a week.

Wiping her hands on a striped linen towel, Myrtle removed her apron, laid it on the back of a chair and primped her hair as she walked to the front hallway. Taking a deep breath, she pushed back her shoulders and pulled open the door, ready to present her most chipper self – until she saw the telegram uniform, and her face dropped flat.

“What are you doing here?” She blurted, unable to conceal her upset. Telegrams were never good news. Telegrams were for deaths and tragedies. Her mind flew through a dozen ways her daughter could be in danger or harmed in a foreign land. Oh, why had she agreed to let her go? This must be a mistake. He’s come to the wrong address.

“Telegram for Mr. and Mrs. Howe,” the tall, clean-cut boy announced, holding out the yellow envelope and clipboard for her signature.

“No. You can’t mean us. Just a minute.” Myrtle halfway shut the door and called to the back of the house. “Martin, come this instant.” Her cry carried out to the garden and beyond.

Dropping his trowel, Martin huffed up the back steps, roughly pulling off his garden boots at the porch door, and called back: “What’s happened?”

She came to him, her eyes wide and cheeks white, looking ghostly through the screen. “It’s a telegram,” she whispered hoarsely.

Martin recognized his wife’s distress, but he was a practical man, a hardware merchant, anchored in the nuts and bolts of things; a man who dealt with facts as they came along. He softened his voice to calm her. “Well, where is it? What does it say?”

“I don’t know. I’m scared.”

“Awfff, Myrtle, I’m standing in my stocking feet and covered with dirt. Do you want me to track through the house?”

“No.”

“Then go get the telegram and bring it to me.”

The young man standing on the front porch listened to the Howe’s exchange. His summer job with the Hartford Telegram office had involved all sorts of reactions to his deliveries. In the wealthy homes, telegrams were a matter of course. His own mother used them as a primary means of communication, especially with her eldest son, who traveled the world on company business. It was a matter of convenience. At the Hartford Playhouse on opening night, telegrams poured in, were torn open on the spot and read aloud with joyous abandon while he waited for a signature. These well wishing messages always gave him a happy jolt, and the theater people were big tippers. But among the regular folk he’d noticed the fear a telegram could engender. More often than not, the news was good: a baby born or the time of someone’s arrival or word of an important discovery from far away. He’d seen all kinds of messages this summer. It was the most interesting job he’d ever had. But he didn’t like delivering bad news and wasn’t sure what was in the envelope he held.

Returning to the front door, Myrtle roughly pulled it open. She was not going to let Martin show her up silly. Snatching the yellow envelope, she slit it open with her fingernail and quickly scanned the page, steeled for a plunging knife to the heart.

“What?” She yelped. “They’re not coming home?”

Having brushed off his pants, Martin entered the living room.

Leaving the boy standing in the doorway, Myrtle turned to her husband. “I can’t believe this. What nerve your mother has!” She grasped the paper with both hands to read aloud. “All is well. Stop. Delayed return. Stop. Attending Castle Ball Wednesday. Stop. Sailing from Antwerp Aug 16. Stop. SS Belgenland. Stop. Arrive NYC Aug 22. Stop. Archduke Stephan Hotel Prague. Final stop.” Looking at her husband with reddened cheeks and angry eyes, Myrtle yelled. “WHO does SHE think she IS?!?!”

The sudden shout caused the boy to jump. Peeking around the open door he saw Mrs. Howe snapping the telegram in the air as she paced across the room.

“I gave your mother permission to take Celeste to Europe for a month. A month! Right in the middle of the social season! She promised to be back in time for the Regatta. The Regatta! The one event where everyone who’s anyone attends and a must to secure an invitation to the Cotillion.” Myrtle stopped and turned to her husband, nostrils flared. “But now Celeste is going to miss it for a ball at Prague Castle? What nonsense! And besides, if anyone should take Celeste to her first ball, it should be her own mother. Of all the nerve! I could just scream.”

Shifting nervously by the door, the boy waited for his clipboard to be signed, but the news brightened his face. This was Celeste’s home, the prettiest girl in town. Not that he knew her well. He’d only seen her once or twice since returning from boarding school. But they’d actually been introduced last June at the Presbyterian Tea. Recalling her shy smile and dancing eyes, he felt warmed. “Celeste is in Prague?” he asked, unable to stop himself and ignoring the rules of protocol. His boss had repeatedly warned him to remain detached, as telegrams can cause lethal reactions. But standing on Celeste’s doorstep compelled him. “My older brother’s in Prague right now, too!” he offered without thinking.

Myrtle was in such a stew she didn’t realize who was speaking. “I don’t care if the Pope is in Prague right now!” she addressed the air. “My daughter was supposed to be home next Friday and I …want …her …home …next …Friday! Martin? Do you hear me?”

The teakettle began whistling full blast from the kitchen, and Myrtle continued her tirade unabated as she stomped down the hall. Crossing to the front door, Martin silently reached for the clipboard and signed the confirmation line. Handing it back to the boy, he studied his face. “Are you a Meaden?” he asked. There were few people in town he didn’t recognize. Over three decades since opening the hardware store, he’d come to know all the families in town and the surrounding area. The Meadens were among the most prominent and their features distinctive: strong chins, high foreheads, narrow eyes, with thick locks of black hair. A family long established in the insurance trade and excellent customers of Howe Hardware and Goods.

“Yes sir,” the boy stood straighter. “Ron Meaden, sir. Pleased to meet you.”

They shook hands.

“I haven’t seen you at school functions. How do you know Celeste?”

“Oh, no sir. I attend St. Andrews in New Hampshire, but I met your daughter at the church Social Tea last June. We were both servers.”

Martin Howe nodded, reaching into his pocket. “Well, thank you for bringing the telegram. Sorry for the fuss.” He handed Ron a folded dollar bill, and the boy’s eyes widened. He started to protest.

“No,” Martin interrupted “For all your trouble.” He winked.

Ron slid the bill into his pants pocket, touched his cap and said goodnight.

Watching the boy stride down the walkway, Martin called after him. “Ah, by the way, which brother is in Prague?”

“James, sir. The eldest.”

Martin nodded, waved and closed the door.

~

By the time Ron arrived home that evening, supper was finished, but his mother kept a plate warm for him. Joining her son at the dining table, Estelle smoothed the tablecloth and gracefully lowered herself onto her chair at the end. She did not believe in the custom of sitting to her husband’s right. Born to wealth, she assumed an equal position on all matters of her household, taking the lead on most. Ron held the back of her chair as she rustled into place, adjusting her skirt and pearls. Then he sat to her right and began to eat.

A regal woman with gentle features, Estelle savored her youngest child’s gusto. There were so few days left to enjoy the mundane routine with him before he was gone again to school. She knew his future was better served by attending boarding school, but she missed him terribly. Not one of her four other sons or her daughter had been as attentive to her. Or perhaps it was she who had not been as attentive to them. But something about Ron tripped her heartstrings, like falling in love at first sight. “Not so fast, dear,” she mentioned quietly. “You’ll upset your stomach. Now,” she tapped the tips of her fingers together, “what happened today? Anything exciting?”

Ron’s eyes glowed as he finished chewing. “Celeste Howe is in Prague.”

His mother’s eyebrows rose slightly. “That pretty blond girl from tea?”

“That’s the one.” He could see Celeste’s rosy cheeks in his mind’s eye. “She’s there with her grandmother. They were supposed to return on Saturday, but they’re staying to attend a ball at Prague Castle.”

Estelle’s lips pursed as she nodded. “Of Howe Hardware, hmmm.” How curious to have Celeste’s name come up now, just when she’d been considering the list of potential debutantes for the coming season. She knew the Howes were excellent shopkeepers, but she had overlooked their young daughter. “How old is she now?”

“Must be seventeen, like me,” he replied. “She’ll be a senior this fall so, geez … I wish …” His mother waited for him to complete his sentence, but he chewed in silence, knowing his wish was ungrantable.

Estelle’s eyes softened as she appraised her tall son, still a bit gangly with stringy limbs, though his face was filling out. She most loved the thick fringe of lashes curling around his green eyes. Most unusual for a boy and as a baby he’d often been mistaken for a girl. “I wish you could stay home, too,” Estelle answered for her son. “I ache when you are away, wondering what you do each day.” Reaching over, she petted his arm. “And I long to hear your adventures first hand. But …” she pulled back, folding her hands together on the table. “Your father and brothers were well-served by attending St. Andrew’s, for both Yale and business.”

Ron nodded, having heard the explanation repeatedly from his parents, uncles and grandparents.

“And with your squash abilities …” His mother added before her voice trailed off, thinking of the hundreds of spirited squash matches she’d watched over the years. All of her children, even Beatrice, were mad about the game, but none was as gifted as Ron. As a pipsqueak he’d demonstrated a natural grace and unswerving deftness in smashing an unreturnable ball. First, Beatrice taught him what she knew, and when Ron was seven and big enough to play his brothers, he beat them handily. Soon he was the undisputed champ in local tournaments. St. Andrew’s, which had spawned quite a few squash champions, was the very best place for boys who loved the game. As she silently mused, she saw Ron looking down at his plate, chewing small bites of pot roast with slumped shoulders. Normally, she would correct his posture, but tonight she wanted a bit of cheer. “Let’s play the game,” she offered. “If you didn’t have to go away to school, what would you do instead?”

Ron sat up. “Make friends with Celeste Howe.”

“You like her that much from just one meeting?”

Ron nodded. “Mother, I think she’s the kindest girl I’ve ever met.”

“And what is she doing in Prague?”

“I don’t know. Her grandmother sent a telegram about attending a ball and taking a later ship.” Ron repeated, purposefully leaving out Mrs. Howe’s upset. “Isn’t James there now?”

Estelle nodded. “Do you know the Grandmother’s name?”

“No, but she’s Mr. Howe’s mother.” Of that he was sure.

Estelle nodded again. It should be easy enough to find out.

Clearing his dishes to the kitchen, Ron washed his plate and cup, setting them in the drying rack. Although his mother repeatedly told him to leave it for the day maid, he didn’t like adding to Maize’s work. As the only child left in the house, he had made friends with the maids, and learned a lot from them about the town and life and housekeeping things. ‘The muck gets stuck,’ Maize chided him one morning about dishes in the sink. Had Estelle known about these talks she would have fired her instantly. Maids may be seen but not noticed.

As it was still light outside, Ron decided to head over to the park. Sometimes he’d join a ball game or find an old friend hanging around the tennis courts or swings. Since going away to prep school, he’d found it hard keeping up with town friends. But every now and again, he’d meet one who’d introduce him to someone new. That’s what he always hoped for, the chance to make new friends.

Kissing Ron’s forehead before he left, Estelle went to her writing desk in the parlor. She felt a tingle inside, but wasn’t sure from what. All she knew was she wanted her eldest son to come home from his world travels and settle down, and perhaps tonight’s news could help that wish come true. Picking up a pen and sliding a piece of creamy white paper from her desk drawer, she sat down to compose. Once satisfied with her choice of words, she picked up the telephone at the edge of her desk and waited for the operator.

“Yes, Mrs. Meaden?” A dry voice inquired on the other end of the line.

“Hello Gertrude? Yes, Hello. I was wondering, could you tell me the name of Mr. Howe’s mother? Yes, of Howe Hardware. Bertra? Ahh, Bertra Howe. Lovely. Thank you. Now, would you kindly connect me with the telegraph office?” While waiting for the connection, Estelle lightly tapped her cheek with the end of her pearled pen. “Ahh yes, hello. This is Estelle Meaden. … Ron’s mother, yes. … Very well, thank you. I’d like to send a telegram. Yes. To Hotel Archduke Stephan in Prague. Yes. To Mr. James Austin Meaden II. Yes. The message is: Neighbors Bertra Howe and granddaughter Celeste attending Prague Ball. Full Stop. No, that is all. He’ll know what to do. Yes, thank you.” Replacing the telephone receiver, Estelle tapped her fingertips on the polished burled wood, smiling, staring off into the cooling evening air.

¤

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