Because I had skipped two grades, I graduated from Mountain Gate High School when I was sixteen. Mother said she could do without me at the boardinghouse she ran in town. She wanted me to go to college. I had never taken a train. No one thought anything of my getting on the train by myself to go to Chandler, two hours and a half away. Frank had gone overseas to fight the Great War. What was a train ride to a town just twice the size of Mountain Gate, to a women's college with 500 students. But I didn’t want to go. I didn't want to leave Father and Aunt Della and Mr. Smith. I hardly noticed the trees as they flew by my window. I hardly noticed the well-dressed ladies and handsome gentlemen on their way to Richmond. The smell of oiled leather and the cool, shiny surfaces of polished metal reminded me that I was going to a place farther away than anyone knew.
Chandler was beautiful and yet not for me, I soon realized. I was assigned to share a room with Betty and Mary Alice, two other girls on work scholarships.
Mother had saved more than $500 for my first year's tuition. I had to earn the rest by waiting tables in the dining room. I soon learned that girls like Betty, Mary Alice, and me were never invited to the sorority galas or private teas. The girls from the families that Mother most cared about did not speak to us, except when necessary. "Here you are, Nettie," they'd say as I was picking up their plates. "Thank you, Nettie," as I poured water. "More sugar, please, Nettie," as they took their tea. It did not matter that I had won the praise of Mr. Huntington when I recited my Latin verses that morning. It did not matter when I scored the highest on the algebra test. All that mattered to them was my unstylish hair and my old-fashioned dresses and skirts. No one cared about me at Chandler except the girls like me. Everyone said Betty wouldn't last the term because she couldn't keep up. Mary Alice kept up and would probably make it. I excelled, but I was so miserable that I didn't want to stay. Then I met Sally.
Sally was in the best sorority and was one of the most popular girls on campus. I heard about her from Mary Alice, who served at her table. "Sally Tompkins is the only one of that lot I can stand." Sally never spoke rudely to any of the working girls. She didn’t ask us to do extra things just to show off her power. Once, Mary Alice dropped a tray full of dishes, and while the other girls laughed, Sally helped her pick them up.
Sally was a year ahead of me. I might never have drawn her attention, except for my secret.
I was so accustomed to rising before dawn to do my chores for Mother and to fix breakfast for the boarders that I was always up an hour before everyone else. I loved Chandler in the mornings before anyone else was up. That fall, although it was against the rules to leave the dormitory after midnight and before six a.m., I would lower myself out our window so as not to wake Betty and Mary Alice, and I would walk down to the branch. It wasn't much of a river, but it was something, at least, to remind me of home. There were willows and pines and oaks. I liked to sit and listen to the water. Sometimes I tossed pebbles, making a wish that Frank would come home safe. Sometimes I took off my clothes and waded into the chilly water. It was my special place. For a few minutes each morning, before I had to go and serve the other girls, I could pretend that I wasn't at Chandler, and that I was back home in River's Edge, before we moved to Mountain Gate. I could pretend that just up the path were Grandpa and Grandma Simon.
One morning in November when I decided it was too cold for a swim, I was tossing pebbles when I heard louder splashes, and saw a girl with long red hair swimming. She swam straight toward me and then stopped and stood up, her naked body white as a fish.
"Come on in," she called. "It's only cold for the first thirty seconds. After that, it's divine."
She turned and began swimming again.
I ran back to the dormitory.
At lunchtime, Mary Alice was sick and I took over her tables, including Sally's.
"You're not our regular girl," one of them said.
"N-nno," I managed, trying to balance five plates at once.
"What's your name?" another asked.
"Can't you see she's shy," Sally said. Then, to me: "You don't have to."
I found myself looking directly into her green eyes. It was as if the others had disappeared for a few long seconds. I said my name.
"Well," Sally announced, as if that had settled something. "Next time you see me, please don't run away, Nettie. How old are you?"
I wondered whether the others knew we had both violated curfew.
"Sixteen," I said. "I'll be seventeen in February." I finished serving them and started refilling their water glasses.
"My, such a young thing. I'm surprised your Mother let you go away to college.”
Sally turned to me again. "I think you need some looking after. Are you homesick, Nettie?"
I couldn't answer. Instead, I went to fill other glasses at other tables, tears making the world look as if it had gone underwater.
It was in the evening, three days later, after supper, when all the girls except us had gone back to their rooms or to study sessions or club meetings. After a few of us finished washing and drying the dishes, Mary Alice and I were setting up the tables for breakfast when the door to the dining room opened again, and Sally came in.
“Nettie,” she called. “I wonder if you can help me.”
I looked at Mary Alice. What could Sally Tompkins possibly need help with?
Before I could think of anything to say, Sally continued.
“They tell me you are a master of algebra. Is that true?”
“There’s nobody knows algebra better than Nettie, Miss,” Mary Alice answered for me.
“Good. I put off taking it until this year, and I’m lost, frankly, just lost. I abhor it more than I can say. But I simply must pass it, or my mother and father will be so displeased. Can you help me? Will you?”
I nodded. “Of course.” I could not imagine saying no to Sally Tompkins.
She came to our room then, and Betty and Mary Alice left for the library. I started by having her do simple problems in the first chapter. She did all right, but when we looked at the second chapter, she could not seem to grasp anything.
“It’s all these “x’s” that don’t refer to anything real in this world. Why should I care what x is?”
I tried to explain that mathematics is simple if you just follow the numbers in your head.
“But none of it is real, so why should I care?”
Because you don’t want to disappoint your mother and father, I thought of saying, but decided against it.
“It’s not real, like these,” she said, and she reached up and took my spectacles right off my face. “Let me see these a minute.” She tried them on, then quickly shook her head free and took them off. “Oh, I’m sorry, Nettie. These are really strong. I had no idea.” She handed them back to me, and I put them back on.
“I don’t see very well without them.”
“Then we must make sure you keep them on at all times, mustn’t we? Except when we go swimming, of course!”
I looked down then. My face felt hot, and I was sure Sally could see me blushing. Then I thought of it.
“Sally, that’s it. Algebra is like swimming. You know how when you enter the water it’s like you’re in a different world? It isn’t like being on land. You have to breathe differently. You can’t walk or run the way you do on land. You have to do everything differently.”
“Water has its own rules, and you have to follow them. You can’t be thinking about what’s on land when you’re in the water. And yet if you just accept water for what it is, you can swim in it and have a perfectly good time, can’t you?”
“Well, that’s algebra. You can’t worry about whether x is real or not. You can’t worry about real things when you’re doing it. You have to think only about algebra and its rules. Like water. Just don’t think of anything else.”
Sally began inviting me to her room two or three times a week to study together. She began to do better in algebra, but her sorority sisters did not like it that she missed some of their meetings. It was hard for anyone to be angry with Sally, though. She was always making people laugh or doing bold things that made you catch your breath. Sally liked to go home to Richmond on Saturday mornings, coming back on Sunday afternoon. She wanted to see me on Monday night, but I told her I couldn’t because I always prepared my Latin lesson that night.
“Well, what about Sunday then?”
Sundays after church I was busy in the dining hall and had to finish my other studies. And besides, she usually had her sorority tea on Sundays.
“Oh, to blazes with that sorority tea! And to blazes with you and that dining hall! Don’t you ever get a weekend to yourself!”
Somehow Mary Alice and Betty were able to trade shifts with me so that I could go with Sally to Richmond on the weekend before her big algebra test. Her father’s chauffeur came for her in their fine automobile. I had only been in an automobile of any kind a few times, and never in so fine a one as this. It was large and black and gleaming. Sally and I settled on the back seat together, and she wrapped her arm around me and said, “Oh, this will be such fun, to study together all weekend, Netts!”
I had never seen such a fine house either. Their house was set back from the road about a quarter acre. It was a large two-storey red brick house with ten white pillars across the front. A deep veranda went around the entire front and two sides. The furniture on their veranda was nicer than some of our inside furniture. There were thick green cushions on the settees and rocking chairs.
Mrs. Tompkins was a beautiful lady with a lovely lilac dress and long gloves. She had Sally’s same red hair and green eyes. But her hair was coiffed in a more restrained style.
“How are you, dear?” she said when Sally and I came into the parlor. She reached over and embraced her and gave her a peck on the cheek.
Sally introduced us.
“I’m so pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Nettie. Our Sally says that you are saving her skin in algebra.”
Then Sally’s brother, Gerald, came in.
“I see. Another pretty filly from Chandler.” And he bowed and kissed my hand.
After a gracious lunch in the sun room, I thought we should study, but Sally wanted to go horseback riding. I could not believe it when she took me to her room. The walls were covered in pretty floral wallpaper. Everything else was white. The bedspread, the sheets, the lace curtains, the doilies. Sally handed me some riding clothes to put on. We both changed and went to the stables. I could not believe they had horses just for riding. After she tucked her hair under her riding cap, Sally put me on an old horse named Tim. “He’s used to beginners, Netts. Don’t worry. Just let Tim lead the way.” Sally herself took Bolt, her own horse, and I soon learned how aptly named he was. After fifteen minutes of poking along with me to be polite, she gave in to her love of speed and they took off. I stayed on Tim. We rode on a lane that carried us past neighboring homes and stables. I lost sight of Sally. Eventually we came to a place where the lane curved in two directions, and Tim walked around in a circle and headed back the way we came. The next thing I knew, Sally and Bolt came galloping up behind us and passed us before she slowed him to a trot. Her cap had come off and her red hair was a mess. When Tim and I caught up to them, she motioned for us to ride alongside them. Despite the chill in the air, I could see sweat on Bolts haunches. Sally’s face was red and her eyes were glittering.
“Ah, there’s nothing better, is there, Netts?”
Later, we did study, and I made her do some tough algebra problems. When I had to correct them for her and explain where she was mistaken, she would look glum for a second or two and then would ask, “But are you very disappointed in me, teacher?” And I would laugh and say no, that I could never be disappointed in her.
There were six at supper. Sally, Gerald, her parents, and a young man named Baxter Williams, who seemed to consider himself, and to be considered by Judge and Mrs. Tompkins, Sally’s beau. Baxter asked me about my family, and I was pleased to see that neither he nor anyone else raised eyebrows when I told them about the farm at River’s Edge and the boarding house my mother ran in Mountain Gate. Baxter and Gerald were as polite as they could be to me. Perhaps they were used to Sally taking in strays. Baxter attended the University of Virginia. He was planning to study law. He talked about the law firms in Richmond and Washington and his plan to join one of them. Judge Tompkins seemed quite pleased with Baxter and his plans. Sally barely spoke a word to Baxter all night.
When we were back in her bedroom, Sally confided that she didn’t see herself marrying Baxter, although she knew her parents wanted her to.
“As soon as I finish at Chandler, they’ll have me walking down that aisle with him,” she said as she finished putting on her nightgown and got into bed and motioned to me to join her there.
I slipped in beside her. “What’s wrong with Baxter? He seems like a very nice young man, and with good prospects, too.” I was thinking of my mother and how she would approve of him, especially his ambition. “He’s probably going to be a judge like your father someday.”
“Oh, there’s nothing wrong with him, I suppose. I just don’t want to get married, is all.”
When she asked me what I wanted to become, I told her that I just wanted to go back home to River’s Edge, not Mountain Gate, and live there somehow. I didn’t know how. I hadn’t thought about marriage at all.
“Maybe you’ll teach,” Sally said brightly. “You’re an awfully good teacher, you know.”
“Maybe. But I wouldn’t like teaching all kinds of children, the way my mother used to. I think I just like teaching you.”
Later that night, after we had talked for hours, Sally turned to me and kissed me. She told me that she loved me and that she would rather have me than all the Baxter Williamses in the world, because I was sweet and innocent and smart, all at the same time, and because I was loyal to what I loved, and I didn’t want to be a judge. She kissed me again, and it was like going underwater and wanting never to come up.
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