Jaron Summers © 2008
“France is as beautiful as you promised,” said Betty Graham, skipping down the gang plank of the great oceanliner that had just brought her from America.
“And autumn is the perfect season to meet her,” said Mademoiselle Ucret. During their Atlantic crossing, Mademoiselle Ucret had helped Betty brush up on her French by fueling her imagination with tales of bloody guillotines, splendid palaces and wild revolutions. Just before they docked at Le Havre, Mademoiselle Ucret announced that Betty needed absolutely no more help with her imagination but her French verbs required much work.
Customs and baggage inspection seemed to take forever but finally Betty and Mademoiselle Ucret were on the train to Paris. Betty stared out of the window of their clattering coach as the green countryside sped by. “You know what I find amazing?” asked Betty.
“That everyone speaks French.”
“What do you expect them to speak, Swahili?” asked her governess.
“No, French of course. But I just never thought it would be like this. And they talk so fast.”
“It will all come back to you,” said Mademoiselle Ucret. “You will see.”
Mademoiselle Ucret was probably right since French had been Betty’s first language. Her mother, Pauline Graham, had taught it to her along with English. Betty wondered if her mother had ever ridden on such a train as she was now on. Maybe, for Pauline Graham had been born a few miles away. What grand fun, thought Betty, if Mother were here to explain to me about France.
And then Betty gasped and caught her breath for she saw a huge airship gently moving across the sky. It bucked its way through the fluffy clouds.The lighter-than-air vessel was a dirigible, the kind her father had so many drawings of in his workshop and laboratory back in the States. Just a few days earlier, her father — Richard Graham — had flown across the Atlantic from America in such a dirigible. Betty had been heartbroken that she and Mademoiselle Ucret had not been allowed to travel in the dirigible with her father but he had felt it would be safer for them to take a ship.“Do you think Daddy is up there in that dirigible?” asked Betty.
“No,” said Mademoiselle Ucret.
“You see that swastika on its rudder?” asked Mademoiselle Ucret.
“Oh, right,” said Betty. “It’s a German airship. Daddy said he wasn’t going to sell them his invention. That’s good.”
“Why?” asked her governess.
“If he’s not up there, then maybe he’ll meet us at the train station in Paris.” Betty missed her father and was so looking forward to seeing him.
“I wouldn’t get my hopes up, Betty,” said Mademoiselle Ucret. “He’s very busy but I’m sure he’ll be at the school tomorrow to take you out for your birthday as he promised.”
“I bet he’ll be at the station,” said Betty.
“We’ll see,” said Mademoiselle Ucret, but she did not sound reassuring.
Betty stared at the rolling pastures. “The cows look the same as they do in America,” she said.
“Yes but here they don’t say ‘moo-moo.’”
“Do they bark?” giggled Betty.
“No,” said Mademoiselle Ucret. “French children think cows go, ‘me-me’ and dogs go, ‘are-are.’”
Betty remembered someone telling her that a long time ago. It must have been her mother. Yes.
Betty watched more of the green landscape flash by.
Finally the train arrived at the Gare d’Est in Paris.
Betty hurried ahead of Mademoiselle Ucret. A porter had to race to keep up as he brought their bags and luggage on a hand trolley.
A black French Citroen was parked at the curb. The driver held up a sign that said: “Betty Graham.” Betty thought the driver looked like a cheerful badger in his gray suit. She introduced herself and he said, “Welcome to Paris. I am Andrew, at your service.” He opened the rear door of the Citroen.
“Have you seen my Daddy?” asked Betty.
“Earlier this morning,” said the driver. “He said to tell you he was sorry he couldn’t be here. Now, if you ladies will excuse me, I’ll help the porter load your baggage. And by the way, Happy Birthday a day early, Betty.”
Betty and Mademoiselle Ucret climbed into the car’s rear compartment, a snug cocoon with the rich aroma of well-kept leather. Not unlike a giant catcher’s mitt, thought Betty.
“Wasn’t it thoughtful of your father to send a driver to take us to the school?” asked Mademoiselle Ucret, settling back in her seat.
“Yes, lovely.” Although Betty was excited to be in France, she was not enthusiastic about going to school in Paris. At least she would see her father. As far as Betty was concerned, he was the most perfect man in the world. Of course, she was disappointed he had not personally met their train. Never mind, he was busy with work. He was always up in the air — that was a little joke they made up about him working with dirigibles.
As Andrew drove them through Paris, a gentle rain tumbled from the ice blue sky, washing the cobblestones clean and when they turned a corner, the Eiffel Tower leapt into view.
The rain paused.
Betty stared up at the metal webs of the Eiffel Tower, laced in silver sunlight. The muted colors of the city became music; an old man with a bushy beard wobbled by on a red bike with a bent wheel. He winked at Betty, then was gone, furiously peddling through rush hour traffic. She glimpsed a faded crest on his arm that proclaimed “Paris World Exposition.” It was from the previous year. Some of the pavilions had become world famous and Betty was looking forward to seeing several, especially the American one.
As dusk fell, the driver turned into a small estate dominated by a two-story building, its brick walls were almost hidden beneath tiny roses that had just started to wilt, giving them a soft red hue. Lace curtains, the color of vanilla ice cream, fluttered behind sparkling windows. Each window featured a freshly painted white shutter. “Welcome to L’Ecole des Jeune Filles,” said Mademoiselle Ucret. “Your new home.”
It might be kind of fun, thought Betty — until she saw, standing in the doorway, a woman who looked like, well…a giant bat. The woman wore a long, black dress that flapped when she moved. Her left arm was in a sling. To Betty the woman seemed eight feet tall. But when you’re only four foot-seven — most adults seem very tall.
Gulp! What has my Daddy gotten me into this time? Betty thought to herself.
Betty stared at the woman, whose ears seemed to curve forward — a pair of fleshy trumpets for scooping up sound, maybe even thoughts.
“I am Madame Proctor and you will find France much nicer than America. I will be your mother while you’re at my school, child.”
“I have a mother, thank you,” said Betty. (When Betty was little, her mother had mysteriously disappeared. Every night since that time Betty prayed that someday she would find her mother.)
“Child, your mother is with the angels. May she rest in peace,” said Madame Proctor, stroking her snow-white plaster cast, “I remember when she first came to this school. Why, I was younger than Mademoiselle Ucret.”
“You really remember my mother?” asked Betty.
“She had your boldness.”
“How do you know she’s with the angels?” asked Betty.
“People don’t just disappear,” said Madame Proctor. “Mademoiselle Ucret, take Betty to her room and issue her a school uniform.”
Mademoiselle Ucret said she would take care of it.
“And remember, Betty,” continued Madame Proctor, “it is your responsibility to make certain that your uniform is kept pressed and spotless. And you must always wear it.”
“Daddy is taking me out for my birthday tomorrow and he said I could wear the red dress he bought me.”
“Betty Graham, the purpose of our school is to teach little ladies something about manners and the importance of order in one’s life. As I always say, ‘you must plan your life, then live your plan.’”
“What if something happens that you didn’t plan for?”
“Then you haven’t made very good plans,” said Madame Proctor.
“I don’t know if it would be much fun to plan your life like that,” said Betty.
“Child, you will discover my way is the best way.”
“What am I supposed to do first?” asked Betty.
“First. Wear your uniform with pride. Is that clear?”
“Furthermore, I mostly certainly do not approve of parents taking my little ladies from my school during regular days. Your father has been informed.” Madame Proctor’s words felt like tomahawks rushing past Betty’s ears.
Fixing her green eyes on Mademoiselle Ucret, Madame Proctor continued, “I gave you permission, during your vacation, to accompany Betty on the ocean crossing and act as her temporary governess. However, I certainly did not give you permission to disregard your official uniform.”
“Yes, Madame Proctor,” said Mademoiselle Ucret. She stared at the ground.
Madame Proctor spun around, her black robes whirling around her like a wild windstorm.
Betty’s mouth fell open. This was going to be a lot worse than she had thought. Sure, her Daddy had wanted her to go to the same school as her mother. But this simply wasn’t going to work out.
“It’s all right,” said Mademoiselle Ucret. “Madame Proctor can be nice once you get to know her.”
“She looks like she eats little kids for breakfast.”
“Actually supper. Now, let me introduce you to the other girls.” Mademoiselle Ucret took Betty’s hand and the two continued into the school.
“What happened to her arm?” asked Betty.
“Broke it when she fell,” said Mademoiselle Ucret.
“A gypsy demanded a hand-out. She struck at the man. Apparently he had been a circus acrobat and executed a back flip to avoid the blow. I regret that Madame Proctor missed his head and instead fractured her arm on a marble sculpture by Rodin.”
“You don’t look like you regret it,” said Betty.
“Shh, I’m already in enough trouble.”
Betty looked around the large room they had entered. Along one wall, next to a cracked brick furnace, coats and hats hung neatly and precisely from pegs. “So, where is everyone?” asked Betty.
“They are studying, upstairs in the dormitory. Come on,” said Mademoiselle Ucret.
The steps were well-worn oak and as Betty made her way up them, she found it easy to imagine her mother walking up the same stairs so many years ago. Angels. Could her mother really be with them?
From behind Betty, Madame Proctor called, “Young ladies caress banisters lightly. They do not grip them too firmly.”
“Why?” asked Betty.
“Because,” said Madame Proctor, “it is one of my rules. If you wish to become a productive part of society, then you have many things to learn.”
“Sure,” said Betty. There was an enormous wooden stove behind Madame Proctor. It was dark and cold and unmoving — much like Madame Proctor.
“‘Sure’ is not an acceptable response for a young lady. Use ‘yes’ or ‘pardon’ or ‘excuse me’ — never ‘sure’ — it is altogether too common.”
“But — ”
“Hush. In light of the fact arrangements have been made to see your father tomorrow, I will allow it. But there will be no parties outside our school.”
In her entire life Betty had never spent more than a few weeks away from her father. The Atlantic crossing seemed to take forever — during which time she realized, again and again, how much she missed her Daddy. “But that will make Daddy upset because — ”
“After your father receives my telegram, he will understand. You’ve had a long day, and it’s time to go to bed.”
“Yes,” said Betty. Bed? It’s hardly dark.
“There is one more thing, Betty,” said the great black bat. “It has been brought to my attention that you indulge in play games with imaginary friends and animals.”
“Never animals. I used to have a pretend friend that I made up,” said Betty.
“I am pleased you have put such nonsense in the past, Betty, for here at the school we have no time for little ladies who make up stories. Is that clear?”
A few minutes later, Mademoiselle Ucret took Betty into the dormitory. There were about twenty other girls — each studying at little desks. Mademoiselle Ucret said, “Girls, this is Betty.”
The girls all stared at her. Betty felt uncomfortable.
Mademoiselle Ucret instructed each girl to stand and say her name, then sit down. They responded like well-oiled little Swiss clocks.
Betty supposed she was expected to remember all the other names. Impossible. Even the faces of her new classmates were a blur in Betty’s mind. She felt the girls laughing at her, talking about her.
Mademoiselle Ucret helped Betty unpack and put her clothes in a small locker at the head of her cot.
A bell rang.
All the girls closed their books at the same time and Madame Proctor marched into the room.
There was a flurry of activity as the girls changed into gray night gowns. Mademoiselle Ucret helped Betty put hers on. It was scratchy. Then all the girls knelt by their beds and said their prayers. They seemed to do everything — from putting on night wear to praying — like a drill team. Betty found her new schoolmates’ actions frightening. They acted like little soldiers, participating in a well-practiced drill.
Betty climbed into her bed.
Madame Proctor told them how lucky they were to be enrolled at the school. She snapped off the lights and left, followed by Mademoiselle Ucret.
Betty huddled on her bed in the dark listening to faint giggles and whispers. In the dark her schoolmates acted a little bit more normal, but in the light of day they were much, much too regimented for Betty. None of the girls were like her friends at home in America.
Betty was hungry and tired and confused. A warm tear slipped down her cheek. What had her father done to her? Why hadn’t he met her at the train station? What an awful place this was. All the kids acted the same, couldn’t anyone think for herself? Plan your life and live your plan. Yikes. Betty thought about creeping out of bed and getting a chocolate bar out of her suitcase or maybe calling her Daddy.
She hoped everything was all right with her father’s work. Lighter-than-air ships were very dangerous because the hydrogen that lifted them was so explosive. She remembered the awful pictures of the Hindenberg — one of the world’s most famous airships — burning up. The passengers had perished, tumbling out of the sky in flames. As soon as the catastrophe happened, her father had started work on the invention of a new kind of lighter-than-air gas that would not ignite. Richard Graham had been working night and day for almost a year in his lab.
Betty was hungry and cold and lonely. There aren’t even enough covers on my dumb bed, she thought. Madame Proctor had said Pauline Graham was with the angels. That was just the old bat’s notion. Nothing more. The fact was: no one knew, really.
Early the next morning Betty dreamed that her father came into the dormitory with a big brass band and played “Happy Birthday” to her. It was a wonderful dream and she hated to open her eyes, but when she did—her father was standing beside her bed and behind him was a five-piece brass band. Madame Proctor, Mademoiselle Ucret and all of Betty’s new schoolmates were there. Betty could not help but beam as everyone sang “Happy Birthday” while the brass band played loudly.
Betty didn’t know if she should pinch herself or not.
Everyone finished singing at the same moment and then they all started to clap and yell, “Happy Birthday, Betty.”
Betty leapt out of bed and hurled herself into her father’s arms and hugged him tightly.
She idolized her father, Richard Graham. He was tall and strong and very understanding and if every little girl on earth had a father like hers, the world would be a much better place. Betty felt totally secure, totally safe.
“How are you doing, Pumpkin?” asked her daddy. “Pumpkin” was her daddy’s pet name for Betty.
As soon as she heard him say “pumpkin” she whispered in his ear, “had a wife and couldn’t keep her.” Their game was based on the first nursery rhyme Betty remembered her mother teaching her.
It was called, “Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater.” Every child in the world knew its four lines, which went:
“Peter, Peter pumpkin-eater,
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well.”
Just thinking about the words of the nursery rhyme made Betty feel warm.
Richard Graham gave Betty a huge present wrapped with blue and red paper. Inside was a toy circus with tiny clowns and animals and people. All the other girls “oohed” and “aahed” when they saw the brightly colored figures.
“Thank you, Daddy,” said Betty. “I’d almost forgotten that today was my birthday.”
“I know we planned to have lunch but there’s been a slight change in plans,” said her father, whispering in her ear.
Betty smiled and then said to the other girls. “My Daddy would like to take all of you for a party in his new dirigible.”
The girls cheered.
“That sounds like a wonderful idea but these airships are simply not safe,” said Madame Proctor.
“Not until last month,” said Betty, “that’s when my Daddy invented B-Z.”
“What’s that?” asked one of the girls.
“A new kind of lighter-than-air gas that can’t explode,” said Betty.
“It’s already been invented,” said one girl. “It’s called helium.”
“But you can only get it from America,” said another girl. “Is your father’s gas different?”
“Yes, and it’s also cheaper,” said Betty.
“That could change the course of aviation,” said Madame Proctor.
“Not only could it, but it will,” said Richard Graham. “Now, how about it? Can the girls go for a ride? I promise they will be absolutely safe.”
The girls cheered with enthusiasm. Madame Proctor frowned, thought hard and finally nodded her head.
While the girls were talking to her father, Betty quietly asked Madame Proctor if under the special circumstances it would be possible for her to wear the red dress. Madame Proctor frowned and said she supposed so, but only this one time. Betty had the feeling the old bat didn’t want to get into a showdown with her daddy.
An hour later, Madame Proctor, Mademoiselle Ucret, and all the girls from the school arrived at Orly Air Field in a large bus that Mr. Graham had chartered. Mr. Graham and Betty had driven ahead and were waiting at the entrance to a huge hangar, about one hundred meters away.
Inside the hangar, a great silver dirigible floated. Below it was a special enclosure with seating for 40 people. The enclosure—a gondola—contained a kitchen, luxurious chairs, and telescopes.
The girls stared at the dirigible as they walked toward it. It was doubtful that any one of them had ever seen such a marvelous flying machine up close.
“Oh, Daddy,” said Betty, holding onto his hand, “this is the best birthday present I could ever have. Thank you so much.”
“Glad you came to France now?”
“Yes, although I hate going to that school and being treated like a little soldier. You have to do everything one way.” She waved to the girls, signaling for them to hurry up.
Despite Madame Proctor’s admonitions to walk, the girls suddenly broke rank and raced to Betty at the bottom of the gondola stairs. Betty and the girls all bounded into the gondola.
Madame Proctor, who was out of breath, said to Mr. Graham, “You are certain it is safe for my girls?”
“Absolutely,” he said, taking her and Mademoiselle Ucret’s arms to escort them into the ship.
“And what kind of lighter-than-air gas is this B-Z?” asked Madame Proctor.
“It’s inert and safe. That’s about all I can tell you until we receive all our patents,” said Richard Graham.
“And you invented it?” asked Madame Proctor.
“With my partner, a man by the name of Rene Bartholdi.”
“Would he be of the same family as Frederic Bartholdi who had so much to do with the Eiffel Tower’s development?” asked Mademoiselle Ucret.
“Yes,” said Richard Graham.
From inside the gondola, Betty was watching through a window. She saw Mademoiselle Ucret laugh at something her father said.
“They look like they like each other,” said one of the other girls.
“I think they do,” said Betty, not sure if she was pleased or not.
A few minutes later, everyone was on board, the door closed and the steps were taken away.
A dozen men pulled the dirigible out of the hangar and there was much commotion and dashing about on the field as orders were given. Mooring ropes dropped to the ground and with a sudden whoosh, the great silver machine started to rise.
The girls all cheered as the dirigible climbed higher and higher.
The Seine curled out in the distance and the girls took turns pointing out the great sights of Paris. The Eiffel Tower. Notre Dame. The cathedrals. The Champs-Elysées. The Arc de Triomphe. “Look,” said Betty, “there’s our school.”
Sure enough, far below, L’Ecole des Jeune Filles glided by.
Then Richard Graham had all the girls sit in the big comfortable chairs while a waiter served them tea. They stared down at Paris as the glistening city seemed to float by.
Betty snuggled up next to her father. She was very proud of him.
“Penny for your thoughts, Pumpkin,” said Richard Graham.
Betty loved the way he said Pumpkin. “I was thinking how lucky I am to have a daddy like you.”
“I’m lucky to have a girl like you.”
“And I’m also thinking how unlucky I am that we can’t spend the next months together.”
“Pumpkin, that’s exactly why you came to Paris. Since I have to be in Europe we can see a lot of each other. We’ll have lots more days like this.”
“Madame Proctor said no more parties.”
“She is not your father. I am. And we will spend a great deal of time together.”
“Good. I don’t like being away from you, Daddy.”
“I understand,” said her father. “You realize I would never think of going anywhere without letting you know.”
“That makes me feel good, Daddy. Of course, I knew that’s how you felt. Did Mother really like the school I’m going to?”
“Yes, and it has a very good reputation. She often talked about how much fun it was to meet other girls her age there.”
“So far it’s been a little bit dreadful,” said Betty.
“You have to give it a chance,” said Richard Graham.
Betty nodded. “Do you think you’ll ever marry again, Daddy?” she asked, looking at Mademoiselle Ucret. Betty thought Mademoiselle Ucret might make an okay mother. But what would happen if her father married again and then her real mother came back? What a thing!
“I don’t know,” said her father. “It would be very hard to find anyone like your mother. I still miss her a lot. And before I thought of marriage we’d have to make sure about your mother.” He couldn’t bring himself to say she was dead.
“I know what you mean,” said Betty. “You know Madame Proctor said Mother was with the angels.”
“I’m going to have to have a long chat with that woman,” said Richard Graham. “Betty, I don’t want you to discuss this with anyone, but there is a chance we may find out what happened to your mother in the next little while.”
“M’gosh, Daddy, we might find her?”
“I didn’t say that, Princess, but don’t give up hope just yet.”
They continued to drift higher and higher, as the captain of the air ship guided the craft high above the Seine, following its winding course.
“We’ll see and do things in Europe you’ll remember all your life. France is quite a place, you know.”
“We’re doing things now I never dreamed of,” said Betty. “I bet every girl here wishes her father could be like you.”
“What am I like?” asked her father.
“I saw you kiss Mademoiselle Ucret before we left home.”
“She gave me a kiss on the cheek. It was friendship, that’s all,” said her father, the edges of his eyes wrinkling with smile lines.
“You think Mademoiselle Ucret is right when she says Paris is magic?” asked Betty.
“Adults use magic as a metaphor.”
“A metaphor is a way of talking about one thing and meaning another.” He nodded out the window. “Look down there. Doesn’t Paris have a magic quality?”
Below, the city did seem dream-like as the sun glistened on the Seine. People were only the size of ants. They reminded Betty of the toy figures her father had given her with the miniature circus. Betty was thinking about what her father had said about not giving up hope.
“We can say Paris is magic,” said her father. “But we don’t really mean magic, we mean it’s a beautiful city.”
“I understand. Just like I understand that people in movies are not really ‘real’ people. They’re just pretending. Like when I was a little kid and pretended to have Peter Pumpkin Eater as a friend.”
“I’m glad you got over that.”
“If I really believed in magic, I’d use it to bring Sally and Yvonne here from back home. We were going to do a whole bunch of fun things in Washington. They have some grit in them. Not like the kids at this school, doing everything one way.”
“I’m sure you’ll find a friend or two as mischievous as you,” said her father.
“I’m not mischievous.”
“If I did know how to use magic I’d find Mother.”
“So would I.”
“You’ve got something cooking, haven’t you?” asked Betty.
“For now all I can tell you is that we came here for more than just government meetings.” It was one of the few times Betty had seen her father so concerned and it worried her. “Pumpkin,” he said, and she could tell he was choosing his words carefully, “sometimes countries, like people, don’t agree. Sometimes they argue—”
“—and fight,” said Betty. “And that’s how wars start.”
“Well, there are some countries in Europe that are arguing now.”
“Germany is going to go to war, right?” asked Betty. She leaned back and watched Paris creep past in soft blurs and then she felt the airship turn and they headed back to Orly.
A chef walked into the midst of the girls with a huge cake with marshmallow frosting and birthday candles on it. Betty blew them out. The girls squealed with delight and again sang “Happy Birthday” to Betty.
By the time the girls had finished the cake (they ate every crumb—finishing at the same instant), the airship’s docking moor and hangar were in sight at Orly.
Richard Graham bent down and said to Betty, “You were talking about Germany going to war. Where in the world did you come up with that?”
“Remember when Uncle Fred came to our house in Washington and you talked in our back yard?” Fred Brown was not really her uncle but ever since Betty could remember, she had always called him that. In many ways he was better than a real uncle because he always remembered to send her lovely presents at Christmas and on her birthday. He worked for the government.
“I bet you don’t know what we talked about in our back yard,” said her father as the waiter arrived with wine and milk.
“Can I taste your wine, Daddy?”
“Kids in Paris are allowed to drink wine.”
“Not my kid,” said her father, pouring her some milk from a crystal carafe.
“I’m not really a kid anymore. It is my birthday.”
“Good point and I suppose it won’t be long before you’re all grown up and boys are coming to court.”
“I’m not ready for boys and I don’t think they’re ready for me, Daddy.”
“Good,” said Richard Graham. “But getting back to Uncle Fred. Remember what I said to him about Germany?”
“I was in my playhouse and I honestly didn’t mean to listen.”
“Exactly what did you hear, Betty?”
“Uncle Fred said the Germans wanted the formula for your lighter-than-air gas you invented—”
“Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”
“I thought you might think I was being too nosy, Daddy. Please don’t be angry with me.”
“I’m not. But, Pumpkin, I want you to forget everything we said that day.” Her father paused. “But before you forget it, do you remember anything else?”
“You both thought it would be a bad idea to give your secret to the Germans because there might be a war and they would use their airships to hurt people.”
“That’s right,” said Richard Graham. “And just for the record, you know I didn’t invent B-Z by myself. I only invented half of it. Rene Bartholdi invented the other half.”
“Right. And you each make up a batch, then you combine it,” said Betty. “Well, I bet your half of the formula is more important than Bartholdi’s.”
“Not really. We need each other.”
“It sounds like a funny relationship,” said Betty.
“Some of the best relationships in the world are when each person has something the other wants.”
One of the girls pointed to the hangar below and screamed, “It’s on fire! It’s on fire!”
Betty looked out of the window. Oh-my-gosh! Flames spat out of the hangar below. Betty felt the dirigible shudder. She could sense the heat from the fire below.
“Daddy, are you sure this gas won’t explode?”
“I’m pretty sure,” he said, “but it’s never been subjected to this much heat.”
Betty prayed that they would be able to climb high enough so that nothing bad would happen. The flames licked higher—the air ship started to fall toward the snapping red flames that reached up at them!
The girls screamed as the dirigible plunged toward the flames. Betty could feel the searing heat all the way through the thick glass windows. Out of the corner of her eye she saw her Daddy stumble toward the cockpit door. The sudden drop must have knocked out the pilot for he was slumped against the wheel.
The great silver airship was in free fall. The girls were screaming and Madame Proctor had turned stone white, gripping the arm of her chair. Betty thought of calling out that real ladies only caress arm chairs. But there was no time for that.
Richard Graham grabbed the controls and pulled back hard. Betty rushed to help him.
The airship continued sinking toward the earth. The gondola swayed wildly back and forth and some of the ropes holding it to the dirigible snapped.
“You push on that control, I’ll pull on this one,” said Richard Graham. Betty pushed with all of her might.
Propellers turning slowly, the great sliver machine seemed to creak, then slowly, ever so slowly moved out of the path of the flame and settled several hundred meters from the hangar on a grass field. A miracle.
Fire engines and police cars were everywhere. A group of mechanics managed to tether the dirigible to a water truck. Richard Graham opened the gondola door as men pushed a walkway in place. Mademoiselle Ucret, Madame Proctor and the girls scrambled out of the dirigible onto the ground. They were safe. Everyone was safe.
As Richard Graham carried the pilot out of the gondola, the girls were talking about how Betty and her father had saved their lives. When the dirigible was turning, it struck an air pocket and tossed the pilot backward. He had bumped his head and lost consciousness.
The hangar they had left a few hours earlier was a sheet of flames and despite the efforts of firemen and airport officials the massive building was soon only a shell of black twisted debris.
Everyone from the school climbed onto a bus. Richard Graham helped his daughter aboard. “Get these girls out of here. I’ll see you tonight, Betty.”
“What happened, Daddy?”
“I don’t know,” said her father.
“I don’t want to leave you now, Daddy.”
“Please go with Madame Proctor,” said her father as the last girl got on the bus and he closed the door. The bus roared off. From it, Betty watched the smoke rising from the charred ruins of the airship hangar.
For the rest of the day the girls at the school treated Betty as though she were very special. They were all impressed with the way Betty and her father had saved the airship and of course, them. Richard Graham was a hero and Betty was so proud of him. Everyone was proud of Richard Graham.
Everyone but Madame Proctor, who took Betty aside and said that her father was not only irresponsible but had risked the lives of all of the children plus the staff so he could show off his lighter-than-air gas. Madame Proctor said that there would be absolutely no more escapades such as dirigible excursions.
Mademoiselle Ucret made certain that Betty was wearing a properly pressed school uniform when her daddy picked her up for dinner.
Betty wrinkled her nose and made a face at herself in the mirror. “I look like a little soldier in this uniform.”
“No, you don’t,” said Mademoiselle Ucret. “Your father will tell you, you look lovely—”
“You like him, don’t you?” asked Betty.
“I’m sure everyone likes your father,” said Mademoiselle Ucret.
Betty adjusted her school hat and smiled coyly at Mademoiselle Ucret who was watching her in the mirror. Betty had noticed that a great many women found her father… attractive. “I saw the way you and Daddy were talking in New York. And I saw you kiss him on his cheek.”
“Oh, my goodness,” said Mademoiselle Ucret, blushing. “It was just a harmless goodbye.”
“You seemed very interested in him when he took your arm this morning,” said Betty.
“He was simply being courteous to Madame Proctor and myself.”
Betty was going to disagree when through the window she saw a black Citroen glide into the circular driveway below. Betty turned, and raced out of the room, down the stairs and out the enormous front door.
Betty dashed across the cobblestone driveway and into the open rear door of the limo. She hurled herself into her father’s arms and hugged him before he could get out of the car.
Richard Graham gave Betty a warm squeeze, pulled the door shut and the limo sped away.
“How are you doing, Pumpkin?” asked her Daddy.
“Had a wife and couldn’t keep her.” And then she said in the same breath, “Daddy, was it sabotage? Is that what destroyed the hangar?”
“The authorities are investigating, but it does not look good,” said Richard Graham. “We’ll have a nice dinner and we’ll talk about other things.”
She said nothing.
“Penny for your thoughts, Pumpkin,” said Richard Graham.
“All the other girls loved you for what you did this morning but the bat lady said you couldn’t take me and the other girls on any more parties.”
“Bat lady?” Her father frowned.
“Madame Proctor. She looks like a giant bat.”
“Pumpkin, go easy on that imagination of yours. She’s just concerned. Not a bat. Although with that outfit, she almost looks like she could flap across the sky. Please, don’t tell her I said that.”
“I know, but I still wouldn’t be surprised if under her black robe she had big flappy wings. She said she was going to stop you from taking us anywhere.”
“She’s a strange bird, but she’s not going to stop us from seeing a lot of each other.”
Betty smiled. “So even though Madame Proctor doesn’t want us to have adventures, we still will?”
“Absolutely,” said Richard Graham. “I promised you this morning we’d see and do things in Europe you’ll remember all your life.”
Fifteen minutes later their driver stopped in front of an old building at 15 Quai de la Tournelle. Located there was the oldest restaurant in Paris, Restaurant de La Tour-d’Argent.
Andrew, the driver, opened their door. Richard Graham and Betty stepped out and hurried into the building. Andrew told Richard Graham how sorry he was about Rene Bartholdi.
A man in a tuxedo bowed to her father and took them upstairs to a table at the front of a room where a dozen diners were eating. Waiters and bus boys scurried everywhere and the tinkle of crystal and bone china sounded like an off-key xylophone.
Betty looked out through the main window and saw the great cathedral of Notre Dame bathed in soft lights across the Seine. It was spectacular. She couldn’t help but stare.
Her father ordered for them. When the waiter left, Betty said, “I bet this place costs lots of money, Daddy.”
“You’re worth every penny,” said her father. “You were a very brave girl today, helping me bring the airship down.”
“Why did the driver tell you he was sorry about Rene Bartholdi?”
“You’ve got pretty good ears,” said her father.
“What happened to him?”
“He was killed in the fire.”
“No,” said Betty, wondering if her father’s partner had a girl like her.
“There is a massive police investigation going on,” said Richard Graham. “I’m sorry that they may even have to ask questions at the school.”
“That’s all right,” said Betty. “Who has Mr. Bartholdi’s half of the formula now?”
“It seems to have disappeared.”
Betty was going to say something when the waiter arrived with the most delicious smelling food Betty had ever seen.
“Pressed duck. It’s quite good,” said her father.
“What do they press?”
“The juice out of the bones.”
She made a face.
Betty, famished, took a bite. Her daddy took one too and they both smiled together. “Good, huh?” asked her father.
Before her father could reply, Andrew, the driver, walked to their table and whispered something in Richard Graham’s ear about being wanted on the phone.
“Betty, I’ll be right back,” said her father, “I have to take this phone call.” He got up. “What I told you about the formula, tell no one. No matter what. This is our little secret—between you and me. I don’t want you to talk to anyone, not even your little friend.”
“Sure, Daddy.” She knew exactly who her father was referring to when he said “little friend”—that was her imaginary companion, Peter Pumpkin Eater.
As she watched Richard Graham follow Andrew into the foyer, Betty vowed that she would never discuss the secret with anyone, especially silly old Peter.
Betty waited for her father to return—how she hated the phone always stealing her father from her. Their food was getting cold. Betty polished off her pressed duck and her dessert—apple pie smothered in whipped cream and cinnamon. Her father’s uneaten food was still untouched.
The waiter arrived with the bill. He left it on a silver tray that had small angels frolicking on it. Betty ordered some ice cream, hoping her father would return before the waiter started asking questions.
Finally Betty walked into the foyer. Her father was no where in sight but there was a telephone in an alcove. Its black receiver was off the hook.
Betty described her father to the hostess behind a desk and the lady said she had seen no one matching Richard Graham’s description. The hostess wore a silk dress and turban. In the center of the turban was what appeared to be a diamond, the size of a hen’s egg. Maybe an ostrich’s egg. The diamond had to be fake. The lady also wore beads and about a dozen colorful scarves. Betty had seen women with beads like that dancing the Charleston. They waved their arms and legs like they were on fire. Adults sure had some funny ways of having fun.
The waiter came into the foyer and asked Betty where her father was. Betty said she didn’t know.
“I’m sure,” said the waiter, “Mr. Graham will be back in a few minutes.” The waiter left.
Betty picked up the phone and listened. The line was dead. “Hello,” she said. No answer. Betty hung up the phone and sat down on a red velvet chair.
Betty watched a dozen more people come and go.They looked rich and sleek and they were talking about coming from the theater. No one paid any attention to her. They will, she thought, when I’m arrested for not paying the bill.She could see herself being hauled off by a swarm of gendarmes. That, she could deal with. What worried her was the disappearance of her father.
In one corner of the room, a radio with an illuminated art deco dial bubbled music. Betty listened as someone sang, “Five foot two, eyes of blue,” over the airwaves. Betty wondered when she would be that tall, she supposed someday and wished it were now. She was really worried about her daddy—it was certainly not like him to leave her in the middle of a dinner. As a matter of fact, it was not like her father to ever suddenly leave her without explanation, as he had just done. Here she was in Paris, almost alone, and her father had vanished.No good. No good at all.
Trying to make herself as inconspicuous as possible, Betty sat very still on the red scratchy velvet chair and waited and waited.Surely, her father would return.
He must! After all, he had promised never to leave her without telling her where he was going and he would not forget something like that.
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