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XXV - An Avonlea Scandal
ONE BLITHE JUNE morning, a fortnight after Uncle Abe’s storm, Anne came slowly through the Green Gables yard from the garden, carrying in her hands two blighted stalks of white narcissus.
“Look, Marilla,” she said sorrowfully, holding up the flowers before the eyes of a grim lady, with her hair coifed in a green gingham apron, who was going into the house with a plucked chicken, “these are the only buds the storm spared…and even they are imperfect. I’m so sorry…I wanted some for Matthew’s grave. He was always so fond of June lilies.”
“I kind of miss them myself,” admitted Marilla, “though it doesn’t seem right to lament over them when so many worse things have happened…all the crops destroyed as well as the fruit.”
“But people have sown their oats over again,” said Anne comfortingly, “and Mr. Harrison says he thinks if we have a good summer they will come out all right though late. And my annuals are all coming up again…but oh, nothing can replace the June lilies. Poor little Hester Gray will have none either. I went all the way back to her garden last night but there wasn’t one. I’m sure she’ll miss them.”
“I don’t think it’s right for you to say such things, Anne, I really don’t,” said Marilla severely. “Hester Gray has been dead for thirty years and her spirit is in heaven…I hope.”
“Yes, but I believe she loves and remembers her garden here still,” said Anne. “I’m sure no matter how long I’d lived in heaven I’d like to look down and see somebody putting flowers on my grave. If I had had a garden here like Hester Gray’s it would take me more than thirty years, even in heaven, to forget being homesick for it by spells.”
“Well, don’t let the twins hear you talking like that,” was Marilla’s feeble protest, as she carried her chicken into the house.
Anne pinned her narcissi on her hair and went to the lane gate, where she stood for a while sunning herself in the June brightness before going in to attend to her Saturday morning duties. The world was growing lovely again; old Mother Nature was doing her best to remove the traces of the storm, and, though she was not to succeed fully for many a moon, she was really accomplishing wonders.
“I wish I could just be idle all day today,” Anne told a bluebird, who was singing and swinging on a willow bough, “but a schoolma’am, who is also helping to bring up twins, can’t indulge in laziness, birdie. How sweet you are singing, little bird. You are just putting the feelings of my heart into song ever so much better than I could myself. Why, who is coming?”
An express wagon was jolting up the lane, with two people on the front seat and a big trunk behind. When it drew near Anne recognized the driver as the son of the station agent at Bright River; but his companion was a stranger…a scrap of a woman who sprang nimbly down at the gate almost before the horse came to a standstill. She was a very pretty little person, evidently nearer fifty than forty, but with rosy cheeks, sparkling black eyes, and shining black hair, surmounted by a wonderful beflowered and beplumed bonnet. In spite of having driven eight miles over a dusty road she was as neat as if she had just stepped out of the proverbial bandbox.
“Is this where Mr. James A. Harrison lives?” she inquired briskly.
“No, Mr. Harrison lives over there,” said Anne, quite lost in astonishment.
“Well, I did think this place seemed too tidy…much too tidy for James A. to be living here, unless he has greatly changed since I knew him,” chirped the little lady. “Is it true that James A. is going to be married to some woman living in this settlement?”
“No, oh no,” cried Anne, flushing so guiltily that the stranger looked curiously at her, as if she half suspected her of matrimonial designs on Mr. Harrison.
“But I saw it in an Island paper,” persisted the Fair Unknown. “A friend sent a marked copy to me…friends are always so ready to do such things. James A.’s name was written in over ‘new citizen.’”
“Oh, that note was only meant as a joke,” gasped Anne. “Mr. Harrison has no intention of marrying anybody. I assure you he hasn’t.”
“I’m very glad to hear it,” said the rosy lady, climbing nimbly back to her seat in the wagon, “because he happens to be married already. I am his wife. Oh, you may well look surprised. I suppose he has been masquerading as a bachelor and breaking hearts right and left. Well, well, James A.,” nodding vigorously over the fields at the long white house, “your fun is over. I am here…though I wouldn’t have bothered coming if I hadn’t thought you were up to some mischief. I suppose,” turning to Anne, “that parrot of his is as profane as ever?”
“His parrot…is dead…I think,” gasped poor Anne, who couldn’t have felt sure of her own name at that precise moment.
“Dead! Everything will be all right then,” cried the rosy lady jubilantly. “I can manage James A. if that bird is out of the way.”
With which cryptic utterance she went joyfully on her way and Anne flew to the kitchen door to meet Marilla.
“Anne, who was that woman?”
“Marilla,” said Anne solemnly, but with dancing eyes, “do I look as if I were crazy?”
“Not more so than usual,” said Marilla, with no thought of being sarcastic.
“Well then, do you think I am awake?”
“Anne, what nonsense has got into you? Who was that woman, I say?”
“Marilla, if I’m not crazy and not asleep she can’t be such stuff as dreams are made of…she must be real. Anyway, I’m sure I couldn’t have imagined such a bonnet. She says she is Mr. Harrison’s wife, Marilla.”
Marilla stared in her turn.
“His wife! Anne Shirley! Then what has he been passing himself off as an unmarried man for?”
“I don’t suppose he did, really,” said Anne, trying to be just. “He never said he wasn’t married. People simply took it for granted. Oh Marilla, what will Mrs. Lynde say to this?”
They found out what Mrs. Lynde had to say when she came up that evening. Mrs. Lynde wasn’t surprised! Mrs. Lynde had always expected something of the sort! Mrs. Lynde had always known there was something about Mr. Harrison!
“To think of his deserting his wife!” she said indignantly. “It’s like something you’d read of in the States, but who would expect such a thing to happen right here in Avonlea?”
“But we don’t know that he deserted her,” protested Anne, determined to believe her friend innocent till he was proved guilty. “We don’t know the rights of it at all.”
“Well, we soon will. I’m going straight over there,” said Mrs. Lynde, who had never learned that there was such a word as delicacy in the dictionary. “I’m not supposed to know anything about her arrival, and Mr. Harrison was to bring some medicine for Thomas from Carmody today, so that will be a good excuse. I’ll find out the whole story and come in and tell you on the way back.”
Mrs. Lynde rushed in where Anne had feared to tread. Nothing would have induced the latter to go over to the Harrison place; but she had her natural and proper share of curiosity and she felt secretly glad that Mrs. Lynde was going to solve the mystery. She and Marilla waited expectantly for that good lady’s return, but waited in vain. Mrs. Lynde did not revisit Green Gables that night. Davy, arriving home at nine o’clock from the Boulter place, explained why.
“I met Mrs. Lynde and some strange woman in the Hollow,” he said, “and gracious, how they were talking both at once! Mrs. Lynde said to tell you she was sorry it was too late to call tonight. Anne, I’m awful hungry. We had tea at Milty’s at four and I think Mrs. Boulter is real mean. She didn’t give us any preserves or cake…and even the bread was skurce.”
“Davy, when you go visiting you must never criticize anything you are given to eat,” said Anne solemnly. “It is very bad manners.”
“All right…I’ll only think it,” said Davy cheerfully. “Do give a fellow some supper, Anne.”
Anne looked at Marilla, who followed her into the pantry and shut the door cautiously.
“You can give him some jam on his bread, Anne. I know what tea at Levi Boulter’s is apt to be.”
Davy took his slice of bread and jam with a sigh.
“It’s a kind of disappointing world after all,” he remarked. “Milty has a cat that takes fits…she’s took a fit regular every day for three weeks. Milty says it’s awful fun to watch her. I went down today on purpose to see her have one but the mean old thing wouldn’t take a fit and just kept healthy as healthy, though Milty and me hung round all the afternoon and waited. But never mind”…Davy brightened up as the insidious comfort of the plum jam stole into his soul…“maybe I’ll see her in one sometime yet. It doesn’t seem likely she’d stop having them all at once when she’s been so in the habit of it, does it? This jam is awful nice.”
Davy had no sorrows that plum jam could not cure.
Sunday proved so rainy that there was no stirring abroad; but by Monday everybody had heard some version of the Harrison story. The school buzzed with it and Davy came home full of information.
“Marilla, Mr. Harrison has a new wife…well, not ezackly new, but they’ve stopped being married for quite a spell, Milty says. I always s’posed people had to keep on being married once they’d begun, but Milty says no, there’s ways of stopping if you can’t agree. Milty says one way is just to start off and leave your wife, and that’s what Mr. Harrison did. Milty says Mr. Harrison left his wife because she throwed things at him…hard things…and Arty Sloane says it was because she wouldn’t let him smoke, and Ned Clay says it was ’cause she never let up scolding him. I wouldn’t leave my wife for anything like that. I’d just put my foot down and say, ‘Mrs. Davy, you’ve just got to do what’ll please me ’cause I’m a man.’ That’d settle her pretty quick I guess. But Annetta Clay says she left him because he wouldn’t scrape his boots at the door and she doesn’t blame her. I’m going right over to Mr. Harrison’s this minute to see what she’s like.”
Davy soon returned, somewhat cast down.
“Mrs. Harrison was away…she’s gone to Carmody with Mrs. Rachel Lynde to get new paper for the parlor. And Mr. Harrison said to tell Anne to go over and see him ’cause he wants to have a talk with her. And say, the floor is scrubbed, and Mr. Harrison is shaved, though there wasn’t any preaching yesterday.”
The Harrison kitchen wore a very unfamiliar look to Anne. The floor was indeed scrubbed to a wonderful pitch of purity and so was every article of furniture in the room; the stove was polished until she could see her face in it; the walls were whitewashed and the windowpanes sparkled in the sunlight. By the table sat Mr. Harrison in his working clothes, which on Friday had been noted for sundry rents and tatters but which were now neatly patched and brushed. He was sprucely shaved and what little hair he had was carefully trimmed.
“Sit down, Anne, sit down,” said Mr. Harrison in a tone but two degrees removed from that which Avonlea people used at funerals. “Emily’s gone over to Carmody with Rachel Lynde…she’s struck up a lifelong friendship already with Rachel Lynde. Beats all how contrary women are. Well, Anne, my easy times are over…all over. It’s neatness and tidiness for me for the rest of my natural life, I suppose.”
Mr. Harrison did his best to speak dolefully, but an irrepressible twinkle in his eye betrayed him.
“Mr. Harrison, you are glad your wife is come back,” cried Anne, shaking her finger at him. “You needn’t pretend you’re not, because I can see it plainly.”
Mr. Harrison relaxed into a sheepish smile.
“Well…well…I’m getting used to it,” he conceded. “I can’t say I was sorry to see Emily. A man really needs some protection in a community like this, where he can’t play a game of checkers with a neighbor without being accused of wanting to marry that neighbor’s sister and having it put in the paper.”
“Nobody would have supposed you went to see Isabella Andrews if you hadn’t pretended to be unmarried,” said Anne severely.
“I didn’t pretend I was. If anybody’d have asked me if I was married I’d have said I was. But they just took it for granted. I wasn’t anxious to talk about the matter…I was feeling too sore over it. It would have been nuts for Mrs. Rachel Lynde if she had known my wife had left me, wouldn’t it now?”
“But some people say that you left her.”
“She started it, Anne, she started it. I’m going to tell you the whole story, for I don’t want you to think worse of me than I deserve…nor of Emily neither. But let’s go out on the veranda. Everything is so fearful neat in here that it kind of makes me homesick. I suppose I’ll get used to it after a while, but it eases me up to look at the yard. Emily hasn’t had time to tidy it up yet.”
As soon as they were comfortably seated on the veranda, Mr. Harrison began his tale of woe.
“I lived in Scottsford, New Brunswick, before I came here, Anne. My sister kept house for me and she suited me fine; she was just reasonably tidy and she let me alone and spoiled me…so Emily says. But three years ago she died. Before she died she worried a lot about what was to become of me and finally she got me to promise I’d get married. She advised me to take Emily Scott because Emily had money of her own and was a pattern housekeeper. I said, says I, ‘Emily Scott wouldn’t look at me.’ ‘You ask her and see,’ says my sister; and just to ease her mind I promised her I would…and I did. And Emily said she’d have me. Never was so surprised in my life, Anne…a smart pretty little woman like her and an old fellow like me. I tell you I thought at first I was in luck. Well, we were married and took a little wedding trip to St. John for a fortnight and then we went home. We got home at ten o’clock at night, and I give you my word, Anne, that in half an hour that woman was at work house-cleaning. Oh, I know you’re thinking my house needed it…you’ve got a very expressive face, Anne; your thoughts just come out on it like print…but it didn’t, not that bad. It had got pretty mixed up while I was keeping bachelor’s hall, I admit, but I’d got a woman to come in and clean it up before I was married and there’d been considerable painting and fixing done. I tell you if you took Emily into a brand-new white marble palace she’d be into the scrubbing as soon as she could get an old dress on. Well, she cleaned house till one o’clock that night and at four she was up and at it again. And she kept on that way…far’s I could see she never stopped. It was scour and sweep and dust everlasting, except on Sundays, and then she was just longing for Monday to begin again. But it was her way of amusing herself and I could have reconciled myself to it if she’d left me alone. But that she wouldn’t do. She’d set out to make me over but she hadn’t caught me young enough. I wasn’t allowed to come into the house unless I changed my boots for slippers at the door. I darsn’t smoke a pipe for my life unless I went to the barn. And I didn’t use good enough grammar. Emily’d been a schoolteacher in her early life and she’d never got over it. Then she hated to see me eating with my knife. Well, there it was, pick and nag everlasting. But I s’pose, Anne, to be fair, I was cantankerous, too. I didn’t try to improve as I might have done…I just got cranky and disagreeable when she found fault. I told her one day she hadn’t complained of my grammar when I proposed to her. It wasn’t an overly tactful thing to say. A woman would forgive a man for beating her sooner than for hinting she was too much pleased to get him. Well, we bickered along like that and it wasn’t exactly pleasant, but we might have got used to each other after a spell if it hadn’t been for Ginger. Ginger was the rock we split on at last. Emily didn’t like parrots and she couldn’t stand Ginger’s profane habits of speech. I was attached to the bird for my brother the sailor’s sake. My brother the sailor was a pet of mine when we were little tads and he’d sent Ginger to me when he was dying. I didn’t see any sense in getting worked up over his swearing. There’s nothing I hate worse’n profanity in a human being, but in a parrot, that’s just repeating what it’s heard with no more understanding of it than I’d have of Chinese, allowances might be made. But Emily couldn’t see it that way. Women ain’t logical. She tried to break Ginger of swearing but she hadn’t any better success than she had in trying to make me stop saying ‘I seen’ and ‘them things.’ Seemed as if the more she tried the worse Ginger got, same as me.
“Well, things went on like this, both of us getting raspier, till the climax came. Emily invited our minister and his wife to tea, and another minister and his wife that was visiting them. I’d promised to put Ginger away in some safe place where nobody would hear him…Emily wouldn’t touch his cage with a ten-foot pole…and I meant to do it, for I didn’t want the ministers to hear anything unpleasant in my house. But it slipped my mind…Emily was worrying me so much about clean collars and grammar that it wasn’t any wonder…and I never thought of that poor parrot till we sat down to tea. Just as minister number one was in the very middle of saying grace, Ginger, who was on the veranda outside the dining-room window, lifted up his voice. The gobbler had come into view in the yard and the sight of a gobbler always had an unwholesome effect on Ginger. He surpassed himself that time. You can smile, Anne, and I don’t deny I’ve chuckled some over it since, myself, but at the time I felt almost as much mortified as Emily. I went out and carried Ginger to the barn. I can’t say I enjoyed the meal. I knew by the look of Emily that there was trouble brewing for Ginger and James A. When the folks went away I started for the cow pasture and on the way I did some thinking. I felt sorry for Emily and kind of fancied I hadn’t been so thoughtful of her as I might; and besides, I wondered if the ministers would think that Ginger had learned his vocabulary from me. The long and short of it was, I decided that Ginger would have to be mercifully disposed of and when I’d druv the cows home I went in to tell Emily so. But there was no Emily and there was a letter on the table…just according to the rule in storybooks. Emily writ that I’d have to choose between her and Ginger; she’d gone back to her own house and there she would stay till I went and told her I’d got rid of that parrot.
“I was all riled up, Anne, and I said she might stay till doomsday if she waited for that; and I stuck to it. I packed up her belongings and sent them after her. It made an awful lot of talk…Scottsford was pretty near as bad as Avonlea for gossip…and everybody sympathized with Emily. It kept me all cross and cantankerous and I saw I’d have to get out or I’d never have any peace. I concluded I’d come to the Island. I’d been here when I was a boy and I liked it; but Emily had always said she wouldn’t live in a place where folks were scared to walk out after dark for fear they’d fall off the edge. So, just to be contrary, I moved over here. And that’s all there is to it. I hadn’t ever heard a word from or about Emily till I come home from the back field Saturday and found her scrubbing the floor, but with the first decent dinner I’d had since she left me all ready on the table. She told me to eat it first and then we’d talk…by which I concluded that Emily had learned some lessons about getting along with a man. So she’s here and she’s going to stay…seeing that Ginger’s dead and the Island’s some bigger than she thought. There’s Mrs. Lynde and her now. No, don’t go, Anne. Stay and get acquainted with Emily. She took quite a notion to you Saturday…wanted to know who that handsome red-haired girl was at the next house.”
Mrs. Harrison welcomed Anne radiantly and insisted on her staying to tea.
“James A. has been telling me all about you and how kind you’ve been, making cakes and things for him,” she said. “I want to get acquainted with all my new neighbors just as soon as possible. Mrs. Lynde is a lovely woman, isn’t she? So friendly.”
When Anne went home in the sweet June dusk, Mrs. Harrison went with her across the fields where the fireflies were lighting their starry lamps.
“I suppose,” said Mrs. Harrison confidentially, “that James A. has told you our story?”
“Then I needn’t tell it, for James A. is a just man and he would tell the truth. The blame was far from being all on his side. I can see that now. I wasn’t back in my own house an hour before I wished I hadn’t been so hasty, but I wouldn’t give in. I see now that I expected too much of a man. And I was real foolish to mind his bad grammar. It doesn’t matter if a man does use bad grammar so long as he is a good provider and doesn’t go poking round the pantry to see how much sugar you’ve used in a week. I feel that James A. and I are going to be real happy now. I wish I knew who ‘Observer’ is, so that I could thank him. I owe him a real debt of gratitude.”
Anne kept her own counsel and Mrs. Harrison never knew that her gratitude found its way to its object. Anne felt rather bewildered over the far-reaching consequences of those foolish “notes.” They had reconciled a man to his wife and made the reputation of a prophet.
Mrs. Lynde was in the Green Gables kitchen. She had been telling the whole story to Marilla.
“Well, and how do you like Mrs. Harrison?” she asked Anne.
“Very much. I think she’s a real nice little woman.”
“That’s exactly what she is,” said Mrs. Rachel with emphasis, “and as I’ve just been sayin’ to Marilla, I think we ought all to overlook Mr. Harrison’s peculiarities for her sake and try to make her feel at home here, that’s what. Well, I must get back. Thomas’ll be wearying for me. I get out a little since Eliza came and he’s seemed a lot better these past few days, but I never like to be long away from him. I hear Gilbert Blythe has resigned from White Sands. He’ll be off to college in the fall, I suppose.”
Mrs. Rachel looked sharply at Anne, but Anne was bending over a sleepy Davy nodding on the sofa and nothing was to be read in her face. She carried Davy away, her oval girlish cheek pressed against his curly yellow head. As they went up the stairs Davy flung a tired arm about Anne’s neck and gave her a warm hug and a sticky kiss.
“You’re awful nice, Anne. Milty Boulter wrote on his slate today and showed it to Jennie Sloane,
‘Roses red and vi’lets blue,
Sugar’s sweet, and so are you,’
and that ’spresses my feelings for you ezackly, Anne.”
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