"THAT'S WHERE SHE is," Robert Nye said. "As a matter of fact, she's always out there. Even when the weather's bad. Even in the rain."
"I see," his friend Lindquist said, nodding. The two of them pushed open the back door and stepped out onto the porch. The air was warm and fresh. They both stopped, taking a deep breath. Lindquist looked around. "Very nice-looking garden. It's really a garden, isn't it?" He shook his head. "I can understand her, now. Look at it!"
"Come along," Nye said, going down the steps onto the path. "She's probably sitting on the other side of the tree. There's an old seat in the form of a circle, like you used to see in the old days. She's probably sitting with Sir Francis."
"Sir Francis? Who's that?" Lindquist came along, hurrying behind him.
"Sir Francis is her pet duck. A big white duck." They turned down the path, past the lilac bushes, crowded over their great wooden frames. Rows of tulips in full bloom stretched out on both sides. A rose trellis stretched up the side of a small greenhouse. Lindquist stared in pleasure. Rose bushes, lilacs, endless shrubs and flowers. A wall of wisteria. A massive willow tree.
And sitting at the foot of the tree, gazing down at a white duck in the grass beside her, was Peggy.
Lindquist stood rooted to the spot, fascinated by Mrs. Nye's beauty. Peggy Nye was small, with soft dark hair and great warm eyes, eyes filled with a gentle, tolerant sadness. She was buttoned up in a little blue coat and suit, with sandals on her feet and flowers in her hair. Roses.
"Sweetheart," Nye said to her, "look who's here. You remember Tom Lindquist, don't you?"
Peggy looked up quickly. "Tommy Lindquist!" she exclaimed. "How are you? How nice it is to see you."
"Thanks." Lindquist shuffled a little in pleasure. "How have you been, Peg? I see you have a friend."
"Sir Francis. That's his name, isn't it?"
Peggy laughed. "Oh, Sir Francis." She reached down and smoothed the duck's feathers. Sir Francis went on searching out spiders from the grass. "Yes, he's a very good friend of mine. But won't you sit down? How long are you staying?"
"He won't be here very long," her husband said. "He's driving through to New York on some kind of business."
"That's right," Lindquist said. "Say, you certainly have a wonderful garden here, Peggy. I remember you always wanted a nice garden, with lots of birds and flowers."
"It is lovely," Peggy said. "We're out here all the time."
"Sir Francis and myself."
"They spend a lot of time together," Robert Nye said. "Cigarette?" He held out his pack to Lindquist. "No?" Nye lit one for himself. "Personally, I can't see anything in ducks, but I never was much on flowers and nature."
"Robert stays indoors and works on his articles," Peggy said. "Sit down, Tommy." She picked up the duck and put him on her lap. "Sit here, beside us."
"Oh, no," Lindquist said. "This is fine."
He became silent, looking down at Peggy and all the flowers, the grass, the silent duck. A faint breeze moved through the rows of iris behind the tree, purple and white iris. No one spoke. The garden was very cool and quiet. Lindquist sighed.
"What is it?" Peggy said.
"You know, all this reminds me of a poem." Lindquist rubbed his forehead. "Something by Yeats, I think."
"Yes, the garden is like that," Peggy said. "Very much like poetry."
Lindquist concentrated. "I know!" he said, laughing. "It's you and Sir Francis, of course. You and Sir Francis sitting there. 'Leda and the Swan'."
Peggy frowned. "Do I --"
"The swan was Zeus," Lindquist said. "Zeus took the shape of a swan to get near Leda while she was bathing. He -- uh -- made love to her in the shape of a swan. Helen of Troy was born -- because of that, you see. The daughter of Zeus and Leda. How does it go ... 'A sudden blow: the great wings beating still above the staggering girl' --"
He stopped. Peggy was staring up at him, her face blazing. Suddenly she leaped up, pushing the duck from her path. She was trembling with anger.
"What is it?" Robert said. "What's wrong?"
"How dare you!" Peggy said to Lindquist. She turned and walked off quickly.
Robert ran after her, catching hold of her arm. "But what's the matter? What's wrong? That's just poetry!"
She pulled away. "Let me go."
He had never seen her so angry. Her face had become like ivory, her eyes like two stones. "But Peg --"
She looked up at him. "Robert," she said, "I am going to have a baby."
She nodded. "I was going to tell you tonight. He knows." Her lips curled. "He knows. That's why he said it. Robert, make him leave! Please make him go!"
Nye nodded mechanically. "Sure, Peg. Sure. But -- it's true? Really true? You're really going to have a baby?" He put his arms around her. "But that's wonderful! Sweetheart, that's marvelous. I never heard anything so marvelous. My golly! For heaven's sake. It's the most marvelous thing I ever heard."
He led her back toward the seat, his arm around her. Suddenly his foot struck something soft, something that leaped and hissed in rage. Sir Francis waddled away, half-flying, his beak snapping in fury.
"Tom!" Robert shouted. "Listen to this. Listen to something. Can I tell him, Peg? Is it all right?"
Sir Francis hissed furiously after him, but in the excitement no one noticed him, not at all.
It was a boy, and they named him Stephen. Robert Nye drove slowly home from the hospital, deep in thought. Now that he actually had a son his thoughts returned to that day in the garden, that afternoon Tom Lindquist had stopped by. Stopped by and quoted the line of Yeats that had made Peg so angry. There had been an air of cold hostility between himself and Sir Francis, after that. He had never been able to look at Sir Francis quite the same again.
Robert parked the car in front of the house and walked up the stone steps. Actually, he and Sir Francis had never gotten along, not since the first day they had brought him back from the country. It was Peg's idea from the beginning. She had seen the sign by the farmhouse --
Robert paused at the porch steps. How angry she had been at poor Lindquist. Of course, it was a tactless line to quote, but still... He pondered, frowning. How stupid it all was! He and Peg had been married three years. There was no doubt that she loved him, that she was faithful to him. True, they did not have much in common. Peg loved to sit out in the garden, reading or meditating, or feeding the birds. Or playing with Sir Francis.
Robert went around the side of the house, into the back yard, into the garden. Of course she loved him! She loved him and she was loyal to him. It was absurd to think that she might even consider -- That Sir Francis might be --
He stopped. Sir Francis was at the far end of the garden, pulling up a worm. As he watched, the white duck gulped down the worm and went on, looking for insects in the grass, bugs and spiders. Suddenly the duck stopped, warily.
Robert crossed the garden. When Peg came back from the hospital she would be busy with little Stephen. This was the best time, all right. She would have her hands full. Sir Francis would be forgotten. With the baby and all --
"Come here," Robert said. He snatched up the duck. "That's the last worm for you from this garden."
Sir Francis squawked furiously, struggling to get away, pecking frantically. Robert carried him inside the house. He got a suitcase from the closet and put the duck into it. He snapped the lock closed and then wiped his face. What now? The farm? It was only a half hour's drive into the country. But could he find it again?
He could try. He took the suitcase out to the car and dropped it into the back seat. All the way, Sir Francis quacked loudly, first in rage, then later (as they drove along the highway) with growing misery and despair.
Robert said nothing.
Peggy said little about Sir Francis, once she understood that he was gone for good. She seemed to accept his absence, although she stayed unusually quiet for a week or so. But gradually she brightened up again, laughing and playing with little Stephen, taking him out in the sun to hold on her lap, running her fingers through his soft hair.
"It's just like down." Peggy said once. Robert nodded, jarred a little. Was it? More like corn silk, it seemed to him, but he said nothing.
Stephen grew, a healthy, happy baby, warmed by the sun, held in tender, loving arms hour after hour in the quiet garden, under the willow tree. After a few years he had grown into a sweet child, a child with large, dark eyes who played pretty much to himself, away from the other children, sometimes in the garden, sometimes in his room upstairs.
Stephen loved flowers. When the gardener was planting, Stephen went along with him, watching with great seriousness each handful of seeds as they went into the ground, or the poor little bits of plants wrapped in their moss, lowered gently into the warm soil.
He did not talk much. Sometimes Robert stopped his work and watched from the living room window, his hands in his pockets, smoking and studying the silent child playing by himself among the shrubs and grass. By the time he was five, Stephen was beginning to follow the stories in the great flat books that Peggy brought home to him. The two of them sat together in the garden, looking at the pictures, tracing the stories.
Robert watched them from the window, moody and silent. He was left out, deserted. How he hated to be on the outside of things! He had wanted a son for so long --
Suddenly doubt assailed him. Again he found himself thinking about Sir Francis and what Tom had said. Angrily, he pushed the thought aside. But the boy was so far from him! Wasn't there any way he could get across to him?
One warm fall morning Robert went outdoors and stood by the back porch, breathing the air and looking around him. Peggy had gone to the store to shop and have her hair set. She would not be home for a long time.
Stephen was sitting by himself, at the little low table they had given him for his birthday, coloring pictures with his crayons. He was intent on his work, his small face lined with concentration. Robert walked toward him slowly, across the wet grass.
Stephen looked up, putting down his crayons. He smiled shyly, friendlily, watching the man coming toward him. Robert approached the table and stopped, smiling down, a little uncertain and ill at ease.
"What is it?" Stephen said.
"Do you mind if I join you?"
Robert rubbed his jaw. "Say, what is it you're doing?" he asked presently.
"With the crayons."
"I'm drawing." Stephen held his picture up. It showed a great yellow shape, like a lemon. Stephen and he studied it together.
"What is it?" Robert said. "Still life?"
"It's the sun." Stephen put the picture back down and resumed his work. Robert watched him. How skillfully he worked! Now he was sketching in something green. Trees, probably. Maybe someday he would be a great painter. Like Grant Wood. Or Norman Rockwell. Pride stirred inside him.
"That looks good," he said.
"Do you want to be a painter when you grow up? I used to do some drawing, myself. I did cartooning for the school newspaper. And I designed the emblem for our frat."
There was silence. Did Stephen get his ability from him? He watched the boy, studying his face. He did not look much like him; not at all. Again doubt filled his mind. Could it really be that -- But Peg would never --
"Robert?" the boy said suddenly.
"Who was Sir Francis?"
Robert staggered. "What? What do you mean! Why do you ask that?"
"I just wondered."
"What do you know about him? Where did you hear the name?"
Stephen went on working for a while. "I don't know. I think mother mentioned him. Who is he?"
"He's dead," Robert said. "He's been dead for some time. Your mother told you about him?"
"Perhaps it was you," Stephen said. "Somebody mentioned him."
"It wasn't me!"
"Then," Stephen said thoughtfully, "perhaps I dreamed about him. I think perhaps he came to be in a dream and spoke to me. That was it. I saw him in a dream."
"What did he look like?" Robert said, licking his lip nervously, unhappily.
"Like this," Stephen said. He held the picture up, the picture of the sun.
"How do you mean? Yellow?"
"No, he was white. Like the sun is, at noon. A terribly big white shape in the sky."
"In the sky?"
"He was flying across the sky. Like the sun at noon. All ablaze. In the dream, I mean."
Robert's face twisted, torn by misery and uncertainty. Had she told the child about him? Had she painted a picture for him, an idealized picture? The Duck God. The Great Duck in the Sky, descending all ablaze. Then perhaps it was so. Perhaps he was not really the boy's father. Perhaps -- It was too much to bear.
"Well, I won't bother you any more." Robert said. He turned away, toward the house.
"Robert?" Stephen said.
"Yes?" He turned quickly.
"Robert, what are you going to do?"
Robert hesitated. "How do you mean, Stephen?"
The boy looked up from his work. His small face was calm and expressionless. "Are you going inside the house?"
"Robert, in a few minutes I'm going to do something secret. No one knows about it. Not even mother." Stephen hesitated, slyly studying the man's face. "Would -- would you want to do it with me?"
"What is it?"
"I'm going to have a party in the garden here. A secret party. For myself alone."
"You want me to come?"
The boy nodded.
Wild happiness filled up Robert. "You want me to come to your party? It's a secret party? I won't tell anyone. Not even your mother! Of course I'll come." He rubbed his hands together, smiling in a flood of relief. "I'd be glad to come. Do you want me to bring something? Cookies? Cake? Milk? What do you want me to bring?"
"No." Stephen shook his head. "Go inside and wash your hands and I'll make the party ready." He stood up, putting the crayons away in the box. "But you can't tell anyone about it."
"I won't tell anyone," Robert said. "I'll go wash my hands. Thanks, Stephen. Thanks a lot. I'll be right back."
He hurried toward the house, his heart thumping with happiness. Maybe the boy was his after all! A secret party, a private, secret party. And not even Peg knew about it. It was his boy, all right! There was no doubt of that. From now on he would spend time with Stephen whenever Peg left the house. Tell him stories. How he was in North Africa during the war. Stephen would be interested in that. How he had seen Field Marshal Montgomery, once. And the German pistol he had picked up. And his photographs.
Robert went inside the house. Peg never let him do that, tell stories to the boy. But he would, by golly! He went to the sink and washed his hands. He grinned. It was his kid, all right.
There was a sound. Peg came into the kitchen with her arms full of groceries. She set them on the table with a sigh. "Hello, Robert," she said. "What are you doing?"
His heart sank. "Home?" he murmured. "So soon? I thought you were going to get your hair fixed."
Peggy smiled, small and pretty in her green dress and hat and high heeled shoes. "I have to go back. I just wanted to bring the groceries home first."
"Then you're leaving again?"
She nodded. "Why? You look so excited. Is something going on? What is it?"
"Nothing," Robert said. He dried his hands. "Nothing at all." He grinned foolishly.
"I'll see you later today," Peggy said. She went back into the living room. "Have a good time while I'm gone. Don't let Stephen stay in the garden too long."
"No. No, I won't." Robert waited, listening until he heard the sound of the front door closing. Then he hurried back out onto the porch and down the steps, into the garden. He hurried through the flowers.
Stephen had cleared off the little low table. The crayons and paper were gone, and in their place were two bowls, each on a plate. A chair was pulled up for him. Stephen watched him come across the grass and toward the table.
"What took you so long?" Stephen said impatiently. "I've already started." He went on eating avidly, his eyes gleaming. "I couldn't wait."
"That's all right," Robert said. "I'm glad you went ahead." He sat down on the little chair eagerly. "Is it good? What is it? Something extra nice?"
Stephen nodded, his mouth full. He went on, helping himself rapidly from his bowl with his hands. Robert looked down at his own plate, grinning.
His grin died. Sickened misery filled his heart. He opened his mouth, but no words came. He pushed his chair back, standing up.
"I don't think I want any," he murmured. He turned away. "I think maybe I'll go back in."
"Why?" Stephen said, surprised, stopping a moment.
"I -- never cared for worms and spiders," Robert said. He went slowly back, into the house again.