The Little Sister
Viv, a much more experienced pilot, only smiled as she banked left and glided down the fairway as it descended from green to tee. Liz was a little nervous. With the throttle back and the propeller making fluttery noises they didn’t have a very wide margin of safety. However, after a glance at Viv, calm and confident, she relaxed.
There were four men on the tee, about to drive. In suburban Boston in the summer of 1938, the members of a prestigious country club were mostly business or professional men who had made a lot of money despite the ongoing depression. They tended to feel rather good about themselves. They could see their way through most things, but they might not have been prepared for Viv’s mostly silent approach in a little yellow seaplane. One man in a white floppy hat, caught teeing up his ball, recoiled humorously with one foot in the air as they swooped close above him.
Viv then did another descending left turn, following a steep widening ravine full of dense green foliage. If it came to a crash, it would be a soft one as crashes went.
The lake, bright and placid in the midday heat, appeared suddenly. Viv leveled off, and Liz heard and felt the twin floats hit the water simultaneously. Viv remarked, “I keep forgetting how quickly a seaplane stops when it hits the water.”
“I wish they started as quickly in taking off.”
After they had taxied up to the wooden dock belonging to their family and tied up, they ducked into the little hut to put on their bathing suits. Liz, tall and angular, noticed that Viv was as compact and muscular as ever. Liz was supposed to be more graceful, and had better form in tennis and golf. However, Viv was remarkably quick and strong, almost dangerously so, and had always played football, and even boxed, with the boys.
As before, Viv seemed entirely comfortable to be naked. Where Liz tended to dart glances to make sure that she wasn’t visible to the world before undressing, Viv seemed hardly to care.
Since Viv hadn’t been home for over a year, Liz reviewed the swimming conventions. They had both been competitive swimmers in college, and, if there was no agreement, they raced to a point on the other side of the lake. However, one or the other might not feel up to the effort on any particular occasion. In that case, Viv, who was three years older, would lead, setting a relaxed pace. Liz, following, only occasionally grabbed her sister’s foot.
This time, Viv led across to the eighth hole of the golf course, whose green, on a little peninsula, banked right up to the water. Standing in the shallows, their heads just above the level of the meticulously maintained grass, they surveyed another foursome. Since golfers were always too busy lining up putts to look around, they could watch without being observed. Liz was quite good at frog imitations, and she made a loud one as a gentleman in plaid Royal Stuart pants was putting. With their heads ducked down, they heard a quite satisfactory curse before breast-stroking quietly away.
When they got back, Viv vaulted up on the dock without using the ladder. Liz climbed meditatively up it, and lay down beside Viv on the large towel she had spread out. Viv said casually, “This marriage proposal you’ve received may just be a straight business proposition.”
“Yes. I wonder why I’m even considering taking it.”
“Not in any unpleasant way.”
“In order not to have to do anything dangerous?”
“I suppose so. It seems dishonorable.”
“Not if you manage to make it dangerous after all.”
“Would you come along?”
“If David didn’t mind being encumbered with a sister-in-law.”
“If I do marry, I’ll make it a condition.”
As usual, Henry, having watched from the house up above, came down to the dock with a tray of refreshments. Tall and slim with sandy hair and little round glasses, he looked like an athletic professor. He had, indeed, been a professor of European history at a small liberal arts college until the depression, hitting bottom in 1933, had wiped out his college. Now, five years later, he was something between a butler and secretary. He sometimes told people that he was fortunate to be employed by a family so rich that money hardly mattered.
While Henry looked younger than his forty years, and also had the vigor of a younger man, he gave the impression of having had fifty or sixty years of experience. As such, he could relate to the young ladies in an avuncular way. Liz, having graduated from Wellesley just over a year previously, was in the habit of asking him questions about such events as the recent Nazi takeover of Austria.
After thanking Henry and grabbing items off the tray set down between them, Liz and Viv went back to their previous conversation. The proposal, from a member of an impoverished but aristocratic English family, could hardly have been made in ignorance of the disparity in wealth. Liz went on, “Of course, it’s the oldest story in the world, and everyone would recognize it as such.”
“Sure. One shouldn’t pretend anything else.”
“No romantic foolishness at the wedding, if there should be one.”
“You’ve only met him that once, haven’t you, Viv?”
“I was only with him and yourself for about ten minutes. A young and attractive Royal Navy officer. On a cruiser showing the British flag here in Boston.”
“I haven’t been alone with him very much myself, but I believe that he’s probably fairly honest.”
“It would be an awful boor if he isn’t.”
“If it’s any assurance, our fathers know one another through aviation.”
“David’s father was a British fighter ace in the last war. Afterwards, he went around the world testing planes, including ours.”
“Publicity photos with him standing next to our honored father, one of our aircraft in the backgorund?”
“That sort of thing. You must have been away at college, Viv. Anyhow, it was David’s father who had him look us up when he got to Boston.”
“Nothing wrong there. But David may be killed in the coming war.”
“A cruiser isn’t the most dangerous place to be.”
“Nor the safest. Dive bombers.”
Liz grimaced slightly as she imagined bombs dropping on ships, but, spotting the bright side in her usual way, she replied, “Anyhow, in England, we’d be closer to the action.”
“The amusing thing is that David’s social set of landed gentry would look down on our family. Mere merchants.”
Viv cocked her head ambiguously and replied, “You could have fun shocking them.”
“I could cultivate some low Brooklyn accent for use on formal occasions.”
“Why not? I take it that you aren’t in love.”
“Is it actually possible to fall in love?”
Viv, an avid reader of books on psychology, replied, “A follower of Freud has defined falling in love as a ‘sudden reduction in barriers to intimacy.’ I rather like that.”
“If I were to suddenly undress in front of David, that would dismantle some barriers, wouldn’t it?”
“So, you’d thereby fall in love.”
“Odd. The implication would be that one wouldn’t do it unless motivated by something which we might as well call love.”
“Too philosophical. More to the point, Liz, you could respond to David’s proposal by taking it all off in a suitably private place.”
“An honest answer, I should think. Of course, not everyone can deal with honesty.”
“A very stodgy man might run away in horror.”
“A good test in its way. If David and I should marry, I could continue my studies in England. Perhaps better than here.”
“Your mathematics is likely to stand you in better stead than a man in the long run.”
“It may never lead to any official position, but I do publish my little papers in the journals.”
“One of very few women to do so.”
“Your nursing gives you an admired place in society.”
“I’m necessary, but so are the people who work in sewers. Of course, I’m under suspicion of communism because of my Spanish Civil War sojourn.”
“Time to get away, Viv.”
“Would David really be comfortable with me as an extra in the marriage?”
“He’d be away at sea a lot.”
“I think there is an English precedent for the sister who’s close and always there. She even lends respectability to the situation.”
“The implication being that the wife has her sister instead of a male substitute?”
“I’d certainly prefer you to a male substitute.”
“In that case, we could continue our sporting activities.”
“If we could get hold of an airplane, we could continue flying.”
“Just a matter of money, surely?”
“When does the cruiser leave?”
“In five days.”
“David’s coming to the house for dinner tomorrow night.”
“I can probably distract the others if you decide to take action, Liz.”
“I’ll manage to give you some sort of yes or no signal.”