"Shall we have our dessert in the parlor?" Mary Susan asked in the sweetest possible way, which nevertheless left little doubt that the suggestion would be followed. "We have tea and cookies, and introductions will be much easier there."
The atmosphere in the parlor after dinner is always just a bit uncomfortable for the first week of so of the fall semester. The students residing at Begley House haven't gotten to know each other yet, and do not know what they might have in common to discuss at tea, especially the newcomers.
But Mary Susan excels at polite introductions and the social graces in general. The parlor fire is small, as there is little need yet for heat in the evening, it being only mid September, but it is cheerful and does provide a focus point, which is its primary purpose. Tea and cookies are present and Mary Susan offers and serves each. This creates a certain atmosphere among the young ladies and gentlemen that they have a social obligation to perform. Mary Susan brings an aura of refinement and courtesy everywhere she goes, and truly enjoys her efforts at civilizing the young people in her care. Although she never attended finishing school herself, she thought it was a good idea for some of the goals of such an establishment to be included in a young persons college experience. She takes pride in her ability to establish an atmosphere and guide a conversation without saying very much.
This evening she introduced each of the new lodgers to each of the returning lodgers one by one, initiating conversations on mutually interesting subjects, and then immediately abandoning the new conversation to return to her tea and cookie service. It was a gift she had. It was very difficult, even for the young men, to utter or even think a vulgar thought with one of Mary Susan's fine china teacups in hand.
Constance Claire was a young lady of senior standing in English and journalism. She wished to become a journalist for a newspaper and travel on assignment to foreign countries. She loved writing and was on the staff of the college newspaper. She was full of energy and inspiration, a delight to converse with, and very pretty in an energetic sort of way. Constant motion was the closest constant to her name. She was known as a bright young thing from a well-to-do family, who's father gave her rather too much allowance for someone supposed to be learning responsibility.
Next in rotation was a new resident of Begley House, John Watson by name, who, rather stiffly, announced that he was a junior in pre-med, and had two years yet to complete at Holmes College before entering medical school. He had provisionally been accepted at one such, and was hoping for a few more offers. He intended to choose the most prestigious of them. He hoped to devote his professional career to research rather than private practice. This was his first year off campus and he was quite proud of being accepted as a Junior into Mary Susan Begley's small circle.
The handsome newcomer spoke next. His name was Robert Miller, he said confidently, and he was a senior political science major. He had transferred here from a much larger university somewhere on the East Coast. No one presumed to ask him why he had done that. Had he been asked, he would have said that it was a matter of finances. He was a very well-spoken gentleman with reddish hair and very sophisticated manners which he employed especially when speaking to the ladies.
His acceptance into Begley House was based primarily, if just a bit reluctantly, on an immediate cash payment for the remainder of the year. One of Mary Susan's young female students had not returned for classes after the summer break. Mary Susan had allowed her out of her contract on very short notice. She did not offer any explanation for the young lady's not returning to Proctor College to the others.
Begley House has eight bedrooms for let. Mary Susan needs to fill six of them to break even financially, and she insisted that men and women were to be accepted on an equal basis. This late opening after the normal time for the arrangements for off-campus living had put a serious strain on Mary Susan's financial plans.
Mr. Miller seemed polite enough, to be sure, and that was certainly a plus. No one locally could say anything at all about him. By his own statements he was a firm believer in all things of the political left, but Mary Susan wasn't at all sure that he had really given those ideas very much thought. She hoped that discussions with the more intellectual of her boarders would smooth out some of his "shoot first and sort it out later" attitude. She certainly wasn't prepared to sponsor a street movement from her home, no matter how popular those activities seemed to be these days. Her home was to be a haven for alternative thinking, not a hotbed of unsocial behavior.
She also hoped that young Robert would not attempt to prey on the women who lived here. His manor was suave, and he obviously thought quite a lot of himself. In Mary Susan's experience, that combination often led to trouble.
Erica spoke next, if you could call it that. She was thin to the point of being ethereal, very blond, and very serious. She had the rather startling blue eyes that go so well with that coloring and she would have been quite beautiful had she smiled more often. But life was much too serious to smile at it. Her blond beauty was cold and remote.
Although she looked like she hadn't eaten much for quite some time, and in fact rarely did, she did indulge herself with the smallest cookie and a cup of tea, graciously offered by Mary Susan. She told those who inquired that she was studying German with an emphasis in the great German philosophers. She spoke very quietly, and seemed quite unwilling to contribute in the smallest way to the general feeling of social well-being.
Unfortunately for her, Constance Claire heard her, and furthermore was paying attention at that precise instant. Her entering the conversation caused quite a stir.
The Great War had been over for almost two years now, but events in Europe were still on student's minds. Many Americans had been fearful of a German invasion of the United States and were now fearful of a Bolshevik takeover. When Erica confessed, reluctantly, that she had spent the entire previous year actually in Germany, interest swelled. Did she really speak German? How had she learned it? What was it like in Germany? What was the University of Berlin like? Constance Claire was especially insistent, using her rudimentary interviewing techniques on the reticent Erica.
Erica answered some of the questions briefly and some of them not at all. She spoke German from her childhood, her family was German. English was her second language, but being truly bilingual, she spoke it without any accent.
She had visited the part of her family that still lived in Germany and spent the past academic year abroad. Foreign language students normally spent their junior year as exchange students. With her bilingualism in German, she asked for and obtained permission to spend her second year rather than her third in Germany. The University of Berlin was a very large university. She ignored all questions about current politics in Germany. Robert in particular asked her uncomfortable questions on her political beliefs, which she evaded by simply ignoring the question. When he asked her if she thought there would be a socialist revolution in Germany or the United States she stopped talking completely.
Mary Susan rescued the suddenly impossible situation by calling on Louis to introduce himself.
Louis was quite willing to do so. He was a pre-lawyer, and would finish his undergraduate work this spring. He had applied to a few law schools but had not yet been formally accepted. He was comfortable around people and would enjoy practicing general law in a not-very-large city. He might even get into politics, on the left side of the spectrum, he quickly added. He had essentially no firm beliefs of his own, which would surely make him an excellent politician.
The reception was over by common consent at half past eight, several of the students begging to be excused to read and study in their rooms.
Over time, the interest in Erica gradually quieted down. She rarely spoke either at dinner or at tea and then only when directly spoken to. The others took her to be quite serious sometimes, and at other times found her aloof and snobbish. Who did she think she was, just because she had spent a year in Europe, to look down her nose at the others? Even Robert Miller with his dark references to a world wide workers revolution rarely brought any response from Erica, although she sometimes watched Robert and the responders rather more closely than she might ordinarily have done, taking her focus off the fire to look slowly from one to the other around the room.
One evening in late October, Erica was even quieter and more somber than usual. She seemed quite morose, in fact, and responded in monosyllables to every social overture. This dampened the conversation and the others became quite irritated with her, finally giving up trying to talk to her at all. She soon left the gathering without a word to anyone and went up to her room. Everyone seemed relieved.
Mary Susan Begley seldom joined in her guests's conversations directly. She preferred to listen and took pleasure in making sure that everyone had tea and biscuits and was comfortable. She cleared as necessary, poked the fire, and overheard quite a bit without being obvious about it. She too wondered what new depressing bit of philosophy was troubling the frail and introverted Erica.
When the others left the parlor for their evening's activities, she went quietly up to Erica's room and tapped on the door. She said her name and was invited in. Erica was sitting on the straight chair staring at a textbook opened on the small desk in front of her. She offered Mary Susan the only other chair.
She seemed in no better mood than earlier, but also seemed, strangely, not to want Mary Susan to leave. She clumsily offered tea, saying that she was just going to make some for herself and a second cup would be no trouble at all.
Mary Susan is a very perceptive woman, and it seemed to her that this was not the time for vague polite conversation. She got straight to the point.
"Erica, what's wrong? I don't want to pry, but if I can help at all, even by just listening, I want to do that."
There was a very long silence, during which the women looked at each other with quiet expressions. Then, as though she had thought it over carefully, and decided that she would, indeed, speak, Erica said, "I can't tell you. At least, I can't tell you here. It's a long story, and I do mean a long story, and the walls have ears here."
"Can it wait until this weekend?" Mary Susan asked, "My father owns a small get-away cabin not terribly far from here. It is my occasional duty to see about the place, and I must go there this week-end to make sure it is safe and secure for the winter. It is a rather cozy place, deep in the woods and far from the nearest neighbor. We can surely talk there. Would you like to come with me? We can stay overnight in the cabin and have all the time in the world to talk."
"Yes, it can wait until the weekend," Erica said, and seemed somewhat brightened by the prospect. They would leave Saturday morning, spend the night in the cabin, and return on Sunday evening. There really wasn't much to do at the cabin, and Erica wouldn't get behind at all in her studies. It seemed a good arrangement, and both women would surely benefit from it. Meals were less formal at Begley House on the weekends and the cook could manage the boarding house while Mary Susan was out.