Growing Up In Newport

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Even twenty-five dollars was a lot of money: it was as much as my father earned in a week. But it so happened that my mother had exactly twenty-five dollars in the house, an extra twenty-five dollars. It was, to be sure, earmarked. My Grandfather Townlcy had sent it to us to cover train fares for an imminent Kaster trip to his house in Haverhill, Massachusetts. But there was the accomplished lady, there was the fascinating sample book, and there were the two bright children to whom my mother would deny nothing she could help in this world. Her hesitation had a kind of fright about it. Then she went to her bedroom, returned with the money, gave it to the lady, who gave her a receipt and who then, in a skirmish of congratulations all around, quickly departed —the magic volume once more vanishing into the big fur muff.

My mother seemed abstracted as she came and went in the kitchen getting ready to make supper. It was late afternoon now, the early spring twilight beginning. Once or twice she spoke in complimentary fashion of what a nice lady the book agent was. Jeannette and I for a time hovered in front of the bookcase in the parlor trying to decide which outgrown books of our own we might remove to make room for the new set. We advocated, as an alternative, my father buying an extra shelf.

Then, just after six o’clock, as my mother was lighting the gaslights, we heard my father’s step on the backstairs and both ran to meet him, Jeannette yelling, “We’re gonna have The World Book! We’re gonna have The World Book!

In the kitchen, my father said, “What’s she talking about?”

“A lady came and Ma gave her some money and we’re gonna have a lot of books with lots of pictures,” Jeannette said.

“It’s a set,” I said. “It’s an encyclopedia.”

“Money?” said my father, still not looking at us but at my mother, busy over the sink.

“Now,” said my mother, “you youngsters keep quiet and I’ll tell your father all about it.” She proceeded to tell him. She paraphrased the sales talk. She laid special stress on the elegance of the lady who had. called on us. And so, she said, omitting the financial details, yes, it had seemed a good thing to get the books for the children’s sake.

But my father pressed for the financial details, which he was given more or less in the gentle way we had first received them.

“Twenty-five dollars!” he said. “But where did we get twenty-five dollars?”

My mother looked anxious.

“You know,” she said. “The money Papa sent me.”

“But that was for your train fares,” my father said.

My mother looked at him.

“Oh, Betty, Betty,” he said, “you’ve been taken in by a smooth-talking salesman. Whatever made you do it?”

“Well—”

“What’s this woman’s name?” he said. “Did she give you any receipt?”

“Oh, yes,” my mother said, brightening a little. “Of course I saw to it I got a receipt. It’s right on the mantle in the dining room.” She hurried in there and back again, holding out the little square of printed paper to my father.

He examined it, while we all waited.

“It’s all signed and everything,” my mother said.

“Signed?” Pa said. “You know what it’s signed? It’s signed ‘Mrs. K.’ That’s all. Why, you don’t even know the woman’s name. Do you? Did she give you her name?”

My mother stood stricken. “No, I guess she didn’t.”

“Why,” he said, “how are we even going to find this woman again?”

Then my mother turned away to the sink and began to cry.

“And how,” said my father, “are you and the children going to go to Haverhill, I’d like to know?”

My father seemed almost more flabbergasted than angry. Through him we saw that what had seemed a jolly occasion was in fact a disaster. New books, but no Haverhill. And how about the new books, even? Who was this woman of mystery, this Mrs. K.? My mother’s sniffles were loud in the room, and Jeannette and I stood there as though all the lights had gone out.

 

At once Mrs. K. became the most absorbing character in our lives. By the next morning, at least, my mother had been won over to my father’s point of view, and Mrs. K., in the process, had suffered a sea change. It was evident Mrs. K. was an oily, untrustworthy charlatan. The deliberate anonymity of her signature on the receipt was of a deeply suspicious nature. Why, the way she insinuated herself into the house before explaining her errand! Why, the way she concealed the sample book in her big fur muff! Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, my mother pointed out, as she recounted this amazing deception in several interviews with my Grandmother Scott, with Mrs. Sharwell and Til Peabody, with Essie Wilbar. It was as though, sweet-talked into the supposition we were in the presence of a grand lady, we had been unaware of an identity comparable with that of an international spy. Who had ever heard of The World Book ? Who could say there even was such an encyclopedia?