Sladen Morris is the boy next door. He has grown very tall now, and all the girls think he is wonderful. But I remember when he refused to comb his hair and to force him to wash his face. Of course, he remembers me too; whenever I appear in a new dress and special hair-do, he says, «Well, well, look at Betsy, she’s almost grown-up. But I remember her first party, when she was so excited that she dropped her ice-cream on her best dress, and she ran home crying.»
So when I say that Sladen Morris didn’t mean anything to me, I am quite serious. But I had known him so long that I felt I had to take care of him – just as I feel towards Jimmy, my little brother. That’s the only f eeling I had – neighbourly friendship – when I tried to save Sladen from Merry Ann Milburn.
Merry Ann – I’m sure her real name was simply Mary; but Mary wasn’t poetic enough for her. She came to Springdale to visit her aunt and uncle; her aunt brought her to our house f or tea. She looked wonderful – I always tell the truth – with her bright, blonde hair and big blue eyes. And she said many high, fine things. But as soon as her aunt and mother left the room, Merry Ann changed, as T. knew she would. «What do people do f or entertainment in this dead town?» That was the first thing she said. And then – «It’s so far from New York!»
«Oh!» I said, «we have dances at the Country Club every Saturday, and swimming and tennis and…»
She interrupted me: «Are there any interesting men?»
I had never before thought of them as «interesting,» or as «men» either. But I started naming all the boys in town. «There is Benny Graham,» I said, «and there is Carter Williams, and Dennis Brown, and Bill Freeman. All quite interesting.» That was a lie, but not a very big one. I did not name Sladen Morris, because I had already decided to save him from that terrible girl.
At that moment, Merry Ann looked out of our window, just as Sladen came across the grass towards our house – probably to invite me to play a game of tennis, as usual. He came in without asking for permission. «Ah!» he said, his eyes on blonde Merry Ann – he didn’t even notice me – «where did you come from, my beauty?»
«From New York,» she answered, «but I don’t want to go back there – not now!»
Not too clever, I think, but he seemed happy to hear it. «I don’t remember why I decided to come here,» he said. «But now I’m sure a good angel brought me.»
«And did the good angel push that tennis racket into your hand?» I asked.
«Oh, yes, my tennis racket,» he said, looking foolish. He still didn’t look at me. «Do you play tennis?» he asked Merry Ann.
“Very little”, Merry Ann said. “I will need help”.
“What about a game now?” Sladen asked.
«I’d love a game – but I’ll have to go home and change my clothes.»
«I’ll take you home and wait for you,» Sladen offered.
«Good-bye, Betsy,» Merry Ann said. «Please, tell your mother how much I enjoyed this afternoon at your house.»
«And please come often,» I said – and I thought to myself, I’d like to give you a cup of tea next time with a little poison in it.
Well, the result of this conversation was that suddenly I f elt very bad, and I ran to my bedroom and threw myself on my bed, and I cried. Mother can hear tears through three walls and soon I heard her voice at the door. «Betsy, dear,» she said, «May I come in?»
«Of course,» I answered. «But I’ve got a terrible headache.»
«I have an idea,» Mother began. «Perhaps you’d like to invite your friends to a party here?»
A party. For a whole year I had asked Mother to let me give a party, and she had always answered, «It will cost too much,» or «Wait until you are eighteen,» and a dozen other reasons; now she was suggesting a party herself.
Well, after that everywhere I went, there was Merry Ann with Sladen Morris behind her, like a big dog. I had always played tennis with Sladen whenever the weather wasn’t wet; now I had to look for a partner, and I had to watch him playing with Merry Ann. She was a terrible player: she didn’t even hold her racket correctly. But she wore those little white tennis dresses that cinema actresses wear in the pictures and, to tell the truth, she looked very nice.
I knew that the party would be a mistake with Merry Ann among the guests; but it was Mother’s favourite subject. So I invited all the «nice young people», as Mother calls them, to come to our house for dinner before the Country Club dance.
They all agreed to come – six boys who wanted a chance to be with Merry Ann, and five girls, including me, who came because they didn’t want anybody to think they were afraid of the Merry enemy.
Mother bought me a new dress, with a very wide skirt: it was not the simple, girlish dress that my mother usually chooses for me. And my father bought me flowers to wear in my hair, which was combed up. Before the guests arrived, I looked forward to the dinner with more bravery than I had expected, because the new dress and the hair-do gave me strength. But that was before they arrived. When they came and I saw Merry Ann holding Sladen’s arm, my courage left me. My dress was nothing, compared with the clouds of red chiffon that hung on Merry Ann’s shoulders and swam around her.
«Well, well, look at Betsy,» Sladen started. «But I remember her when…»
«I remember also,» I interrupted coldly, «so you needn’t spend your time telling us about that incident a hundred years ago.»
Merry Ann monopolised the conversation, and she talked only with the boys – turning her big blue eyes first on one then another. «What’s the Country Club like?» she asked. «I have gone dancing only at New York clubs, so I don’t know much about small-town clubs.»
The dinner was as uninteresting as I had expected. When it was over, everybody went to the Country Club, feeling a little ashamed that it couldn’t compare with anything in New York.
All the boys danced with me – they had to, because they were my guests. The evening was very warm, and little by little everybody began to go outside to sit around the swimming pool. Dennis Brown and I went out too, and we walked up and down in front of their chairs.
It was just in front of Merry Ann that it happened. Perhaps it was an accident – I don’t say she did it on purpose – but I wasn’t so near her chair, and her foot was pushed out very far. Of course I couldn’t see her foot in the dark, and I fell over it and into the pool. As I sent down, I could hear Merry Ann laughing, and I hoped I would drown. But I knew that anybody who swam as well as I did couldn’t seriously hope for such an end to her suffering. I did not come up – I knew they were all standing there laughing – so I swam under water to the iron ladder at the other end of the pool. I planned to run up the ladder and then as fast as I could to the dressing-room. From there, I would go home.
When I found the ladder with my hand, I began to pull myself up. But then I discovered that my dress was caught in the ladder. I pulled and pulled (I was still under water) but I couldn’t free the dress. And then everything became black.
When I came to myself, I was lying on my face and Sladen was pumping the water out of me. At first I was too uncomfortable to notice anything; but then I began to take more interest in the scene. I saw that several of the boys had offered themselves as the hero of the incident; not only Sladen’s best suit was full of water; it was running from the suits and hands and faces of Dennis and Bill and Carter. Even Janet, who is an athlete like me, had jumped in to pull me out.
«I’m sorry,» I said, as soon as I could talk again. «It was my fault.»
«No, it wasn’t, but don’t talk, you little fool,» Sladen ordered angrily.
«Yes, keep quiet,» Merry Ann said. «Everybody was so worried about you. Why did you hide at the bottom of the pool?»
And then Sladen said something that showed he wasn’t a gentleman at all. But I shall love him for it as long as I live. «Hit her, Nora!» he said. «I am a gentleman, and besides, I’m busy.»
«Oh – you terrible people!» Merry Ann cried. «I won’t stay here another minute!»
«You boys can choose who is the unlucky one that takes her home,» Sladen said. «Perhaps Benny and Joe will both go in the car with her. She is too dangerous to be alone with the driver.»
He rose to his feet. «Get up, Betsy,» he ordered. «I think you will probably go through life all right, if you choose a more practical swimming costume in future.» The way Sladen said it made me feel comfortable and warm, which was foolish: there was nothing especially pleasant in is words.
All of us, the wet and the dry, got into the cars. Sladen put his coat around me and took me home.
«Listen you,» he said on the way. «I see that I’ll have to stay nearer to you – you simply can’t take care of yourself. Better not go out of the house unless I go with you. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?»
For the first time in my life, I felt my strength as a weak woman, though my hair-do was wet and ruined.
«Sladen, you saved my life. You are terribly strong and you always know what to do. And if you want me to be with you, I’ll be glad.» I looked at him with an expression that I thought might have an effect.
«You know, Betsy,» Sladen continued, very seriously, «it’s strange, sometimes you don’t see something that’s under your own nose. It has just come to my mind that you are the best girl I know, and I’ve lived next door to you for seventeen years.»
He stopped the car and kissed me. It wasn’t the best kind of a kiss, because we were both still wet. But for some reason it was very romantic, and sud- denly I felt beautiful and interesting. I sat there looking at Sladen Morris with new eyes, probably because he suddenly didn’t look at all like the boy next door.
- poison – яд;
- drown – тонуть;
- ladder – лестница;
- pump out – выкачивать.