“Well, Mother,” said the big man uneasily, turning his hat round and round in his hands.
“Well, George,” the old woman returned. Her voice was strong and brisk, but, for him, a little critical. She looked up at him from her wing chair by the sunny window and saw—her son, yes, but also a stranger, well into middle age, tall but stooped, with the pale skin and scratchy-looking clothes of an inland man of business. And she saw in him also what he had been: a happy, wild-haired boy running barefoot on the beach. The two were one and the same, no doubt, but she loved the man because she had loved the boy. For her, the boy had been much easier to love.
“So you’ve broken your ankle,” the man said.
“So it seems,” she answered. She looked down impatiently at her foot propped up on a hassock. It was thick with bandages and wooden splints, and beside it on the floor a crutch lay waiting. “It’s a nuisance, but there you are. Where’s my granddaughter? Where’s my namesake?”
“She’s out on the beach. She’s—well, she’s never seen the sea before, you know. I suppose she’s…interested in having a look.”
“Interested! Yes, I should imagine so.” The old woman smiled faintly.
The man took a deep breath. “Look here, Mother, you know we’ve always wanted you to come and live with us in Springfield. Now that you’re laid up and can’t take care of yourself, it’s a good time to leave this godforsaken place and come inland where we can look after you.”
The old woman shook her head. “It’s good of you, George, of course. But when I wrote to you, that wasn’t what I had in mind at all. You’ve brought Geneva down to stay with me, haven’t you? That was the plan, wasn’t it? My ankle will mend, and when it does, I’ll go on the same as I always have.”
“I just don’t understand it,” her son exploded then. “All by yourself here, year after year! The sea pounding, day and night, the dampness, this blasted sand everywhere. And the wind! It never stops! I can hardly bear it for five minutes, and you’ve been listening to it for thirty years!”
“Fifty, George. You’ve forgotten. Your father and I, we came here fifty years ago.”
“No, but I meant…”
“I know what you meant,” she said. “You’re thinking it’s thirty years since the day your father was drowned.”
The man gripped his hat more firmly. “All right, Mother, never mind that. Be sensible for once and come back with me. There’s plenty of room for three in the buggy, and we can send a wagon later for your things. Surely you can’t be so all-fired stubborn about it now, when you can scarcely hobble.”
His mother shook her head again. “I don’t need you, George. Not yet. It’s not time yet. I’ll come to you at Christmas, just as I’ve always done. But the rest of the year I belong right here. Geneva can take care of me till my ankle mends, and then you can come and fetch her.”
The old woman frowned at him and her eyes flashed. “George! Enough! We’ve had this argument a hundred times, and it bores me. You ran away from here a long time ago, and that’s all right for you. But I will not budge an inch, not one inch, until…” She paused and looked away. Her anger seemed to leave her all at once, and she sighed. “George. Send Geneva in to me and then—go away, George. We only make each other cross.”
At this the man seemed to sag a little. A look of pain crossed his face, and he turned half away from her, toward the door, though he watched her still. She was as handsome and vigorous as ever, her gray hair still streaked with red, her back straight as…a mast, he thought unwillingly, and then corrected it. Straight as a yardstick. A safer image.
She saw that he was watching her, and her face softened. “George. Dear boy, come and kiss me.”
He went to her at once and knelt, and she put her arms around him and pulled him close. For a moment, the last long thirty years dissolved. They were mother and child again, she newly widowed, he newly fatherless, and they clung to each other. Then she loosened her hold and pushed him away gently. “Tell me,” she said, smiling at him. “Geneva—what sort of child is she getting to be, do you think?”
“She’s exactly like you,” he said, sitting back on his heels.
The first Geneva Reade nodded and her eyes twinkled. “It’s a judgment on you, George. Well, send her in. And then go home to Springfield and leave me in peace.”
The big man kissed his mother’s cheek and stood up, putting on his hat. Then, at the door, he said carefully, “I should have thought, though, that you’d want to come away from this spot. I couldn’t stand it, looking out there every day, remembering. I’d have gone mad by now.”
“Mad?” said his mother. “Well, perhaps I am a little mad.”
“Mother,” he blurted then, turning back to her, “for the love of heaven, watch out for Jenny. She’s all we’ve got. Don’t let her—”
“Hang your clothes on a hickory limb, and don’t go near the water,” the old woman chanted, bobbing her head from side to side. And then she said, scornfully, “Don’t worry. I’ll keep her out of the sea. You weren’t such a faintheart before your father died.”
The man’s face closed. “I’ll be back in three weeks,” he told her flatly. “To fetch Jenny home. And if you’re not mended by then, you’ll come and stay with us till you are, whether you want to or not.”
“Goodbye, George,” said his mother, dismissing him. “Have a pleasant ride home. We’ll see you in a month or two.”
“Three weeks, Mother. Not a moment longer.”
“Goodbye, George,” said the first Geneva Reade.