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Mrs. Parker, for whose methods there was certainly something to be said, did not worry him about it, comfortably concluding that his appetite would be better in the morning, and the others were too much occupied in eating and talking to take much notice of him.
Walter wondered why the whole family shouted so at each other, ignorant of the fact that they had not yet had time to get out of the habit since the recent death of a very deaf and sensitive old grandmother. The noise made his head ache. Oh, at home now they would be eating supper, too. Mother would be smiling from the head of the table, Father would be joking with the twins, Susan would be pouring cream into Shirley’s mug of milk, Nan would be sneaking tidbits to the Shrimp.
Even Aunt Mary Maria, as part of the home circle, seemed suddenly invested with a soft, tender radiance. Who would have rung the Chinese gong for supper?
It was his week to do it and Jem was away. If he could only find a place to cry in!
But there seemed to be no place where you could indulge in tears at Lowbridge.41 Besides . . . there was Alice. Walter gulped down a whole glassful of ice-water and found that it helped.
“Our cat takes fits,” Andy said suddenly, kicking him under the table.
“So does ours,” said Walter. The Shrimp had had two fits. And he wasn’t going to have the Lowbridge cats rated higher than the Ingleside cats.
“I’ll bet our cat takes fittier fits than yours,” taunted Andy.
“I’ll bet she doesn’t,” retorted Walter.
“Now, now, don’t let’s have any arguments over your cats,” said Mrs. Parker, who wanted a quiet evening to write her Institute paper on “Misunderstood Children.”
“Run out and play. It won’t be long before your bedtime.”
Bedtime! Walter suddenly realized that he had to stay here all night . . . many nights . . . two weeks of nights. It was dreadful. He went out to the orchard with clenched fists, to find Bill and Andy in a furious clinch on the grass, kicking, clawing, yelling.
“You give me the wormy apple, Bill Parker!” Andy was howling. “I’ll teach you to give me wormy apples! I’ll bite off your ears!”
Fights of this sort were an everyday occurrence with the Parkers. Mrs. Parker held that it didn’t hurt boys to fight. She said they got a lot of devilment out of their systems that way and were as good friends as ever afterwards. But Walter had never seen anyone fighting before and was aghast.
Fred was cheering them on, Opal and Cora were laughing, but there were tears in Alice’s eyes. Walter could not endure that. He hurled himself between the combatants, who had drawn apart for a moment to snatch breath before joining battle again.
“You stop fighting,” said Walter. “You’re scaring Alice.”
Bill and Andy stared at him in amazement for a moment, until the funny side of this baby interfering in their fight struck them. Both burst into laughter and Bill slapped him on the back.
“It’s got spunk, kids,” he said. “It’s going to be a real boy sometime if you let it grow. Here’s an apple for it . . . and no worms either.”42
Alice wiped the tears away from her soft pink cheeks and looked so adoringly at Walter that Fred didn’t like it. Of course Alice was only a baby but even babies had no business to be looking adoringly at other boys when he, Fred Johnson of Montreal, was around. This must be dealt with. Fred had been into the house and had heard Aunt Jen, who had been talking over the telephone, say something to Uncle Dick.
“Your mother’s awful sick,” he told Walter.
“She . . . she isn’t!” cried Walter.
“She is, too. I heard Aunt Jen telling Uncle Dick . . .” Fred had heard his aunt say, “Anne Blythe is sick,” and it was fun to tack in the “awful.” “She’ll likely be dead before you get home.”
Walter looked around with tormented eyes. Again Alice ranged herself by him . . . and again the rest gathered around the standard of Fred. They felt something alien about this dark, handsome child . . . they felt an urge to tease him.
“If she is sick,” said Walter, “Father will cure her.”
He would . . . he must!
“I’m afraid that will be impossible,” said Fred, pulling a long face but winking at Andy.
“Nothing is impossible for Father,” insisted Walter loyally.
“Why, Russ Carter went to Charlottetown just for a day last summer and when he came home his mother was dead as a door-nail,” said Bill.
“And buried,” said Andy, thinking to add an extra dramatic touch–whether a fact or not didn’t matter. “Russ was awful mad he’d missed the funeral . . . funerals are so jolly.”
“And I’ve never seen a single funeral,” said Opal sadly.
“Well, there’ll be lots of chances for you yet,” said Andy. “But you see even Dad couldn’t keep Mrs. Carter alive and he’s a lot better doctor than your father.”
“He isn’t . . .”
“Yes, he is, and a lot better-looking, too . . .”43
“He isn’t . . .”
“Something always happens when you go away from home,” said Opal. “What will you feel like if you find Ingleside burned down when you go home?”
“If your mother dies, likely you children will all be sep’rated,” said Cora cheerfully. “Maybe you’ll come and live here.”
“Yes . . . do,” said Alice sweetly.
“Oh, his father would want to keep them,” said Bill. “He’d soon be marrying again. But maybe his father will die too. I heard Dad say Dr. Blythe was working himself to death. Look at him staring. You’ve got girls’ eyes, sonny . . . girls’ eyes . . . girls’ eyes.”
“Aw, shut up,” said Opal, suddenly tiring of the sport. “You ain’t fooling him. He knows you’re only teasing. Let’s go down to the Park and watch the baseball game. Walter and Alice can stay here. We can’t have kids tagging after us everywhere.”
Walter was not sorry to see them go. Neither apparently was Alice. They sat down on an apple log and looked shyly and contentedly at each other.
“I’ll show you how to play jackstones,” said Alice, “and lend you my plush kangaroo.”
When bedtime came Walter found himself put into the little hall bedroom alone.
Mrs. Parker considerately left a candle with him and a warm puff, for the July night was unreasonably cold as even a summer night in the Maritimes sometimes is. It almost seemed as if there might be a frost.
But Walter could not sleep, not even with Alice’s plush kangaroo cuddled to his cheek. Oh, if he were only home in his own room, where the big window looked out on the Glen and the little window, with a tiny roof all its own, looked out into the Scotch pine! Mother would come in and read poetry to him in her lovely voice . . .
“I’m a big boy . . . I won’t cry . . . I wo-o-o-n’t . . .” The tears came in spite of himself. What good were plush kangaroos? It seemed years since he had left home.44
Presently the other children came back from the Park and crowded amiably into the room to sit on the bed and eat apples.
“You’ve been crying, baby,” jeered Andy. “You’re nothing but a sweet little girl.
“Have a bite, kid,” said Bill proffering a half-gnawed apple. “And cheer up. I wouldn’t be surprised if your mother got better . . . if she’s got a constitution, that is. Dad says Mrs. Stephen Flagg would-a died years ago if she hadn’t a constitution. Has your mother got one?”
“Of course she has,” said Walter. He had no idea what a constitution was, but if Mrs. Stephen Flagg had one Mother must.
“Mrs. Ab Sawyer died last week and Sam Clark’s mother died the week before,”
“They died in the night,” said Cora. “Mother says people mostly die in the night.
I hope I won’t. Fancy going to Heaven in your nightdress!”
“Children! Children! Get off to your beds,” called Mrs. Parker.
The boys went, after pretending to smother Walter with a towel. After all, they rather liked the kid. Walter caught Opal’s hand as she turned away.
“Opal, it isn’t true Mother’s sick, is it?” he whispered imploringly. He could not face being left alone with his fear.
Opal was “not a bad-hearted child,” as Mrs. Parker said, but she could not resist the thrill one got out of telling bad news.
“She is sick. Aunt Jen says so . . . she said I wasn’t to tell you. But I think you ought to know. Maybe she has a cancer.”
“Does everybody have to die, Opal?” This was a new and dreadful idea to Walter, who had never thought about death before.
“Of course, silly. Only they don’t die really . . . they go to Heaven,” said Opal cheerfully.
“Not all of them,” said Andy . . . who was listening outside the door . . . in a pig’s whisper.45
“Is . . . is Heaven farther away than Charlottetown?” asked Walter.
Opal shrilled with laugher.
“Well, you are queer! Heaven’s millions of miles away. But I’ll tell you what to do. You pray. Praying’s good. I lost a dime once and I prayed and I found a quarter. That’s how I know.”
“Opal Johnson, did you hear what I said? And put out that candle in Walter’s room. I’m afraid of fire,” called Mrs. Parker from her room. “He should have been asleep long ago.”
Opal blew out the candle and flew. Aunt Jen was easy-going, but when she did get riled! Andy stuck his head in at the door for a good-night benediction.
“Likely them birds in the wallpaper will come alive and pick your eyes out,” he hissed.
After which everybody did really go to bed, feeling that it was the end of a perfect day and Walt Blythe wasn’t a bad little kid and they’d have some more fun teasing him tomorrow.
“Dear little souls,” thought Mrs. Parker sentimentally.
An unwonted quiet descended upon the Parker house and six miles away at Ingleside little Bertha Marilla Blythe was blinking round hazel eyes at the happy faces around her and the world into which she had been ushered on the coldest July night the Maritimes had experienced in eighty-seven years! 46 9 Walter, alone in the darkness, still found it impossible to sleep. He had never slept alone before in his short life. Always Jem or Ken near him, warm and comforting. The little room became dimly visible as the pale moonlight crept into it, but it was almost worse than darkness. A picture on the wall at the foot of his bed seemed to leer at him . . . pictures always looked so different by moonlight.
You saw things in them you never suspected by daylight. The long lace curtains looked like tall thin women, one on each side of the window, weeping. There were noises about the house . . . creaks, sighs, whisperings. Suppose the birds in the wallpaper were coming to life and getting ready to pick out his eyes? A creepy fear suddenly possessed Walter . . . and then one great fear banished all the others. Mother was sick. He had to believe it since Opal had said it was true.
Perhaps Mother was dying! Perhaps mother was dead! There would be no Mother to go home to. Walter saw Ingleside without Mother!
Suddenly Walter knew he could not bear it. He must go home. Right away–at once. He must see Mother before she . . . before she . . . died. This was what Aunt Mary Maria had meant. She had known Mother was going to die. It was no use to think of waking anyone and asking to be taken home. They wouldn’t take him . . . they would only laugh at him. It was an awful long road home but he would walk all night.
Very quietly he slipped out of bed and put on his clothes. He took his shoes in his hand. He did not know where Mrs. Parker had put his cap, but that did not matter.
He must not make any noise . . . he must just escape and get to Mother. He was sorry he could not say good-bye to Alice . . . she would have understood.
Through the dark hall . . . down the stairs . . . step by step . . . hold your breath . . . was there no end to the steps? . . . the very furniture was listening . . . oh, oh!
Walter had dropped one of his shoes! Down the stairs it clattered, bumping from step to step, shot across the hall and brought up against the front door with what seemed to Walter a deafening crash.
Walter huddled in despair against the rail. Everybody must have heard that noise . . . they would come rushing out . . . he wouldn’t be let go home . . . a sob of despair choked in his throat.
It seemed hours before he dared believe that nobody had wakened up . . . before he dared resume his careful passage down the stairs. But it was accomplished at47 last; he found his shoe and cautiously turned the handle of the front door . . . doors were never locked at the Parker place. Mrs. Parker said they hadn’t anything worth stealing except children and nobody wanted them.
Walter was out . . . the door closed behind him. He slipped on his shoes and stole down the street: the house was on the edge of the village and he was soon on the open road. A moment of panic overwhelmed him. The fear of being caught and prevented was past and all his old fears of darkness and solitude returned. He had never been out alone in the night before. He was afraid of the world. It was such a huge world and he was so terribly small in it. Even the cold raw wind that was coming up from the east seemed blowing in his face as if to push him back.
Mother was going to die! Walter took a gulp and set his face towards home. On and on he went, fighting fear gallantly. It was moonlight but the moonlight let you see things . . . and nothing looked familiar. Once when he had been out with Dad he had thought he had never seen anything so pretty as a moonlit road crossed by tree shadows. But now the shadows were so black and sharp they might fly up at you. The fields had put on a strangeness. The trees were no longer friendly. They seemed to be watching him . . . crowding in before and behind him. Two blazing eyes looked out at him from the ditch and a black cat of unbelievable size ran across the road. Was it a cat? Or . . . ? The night was cold: he shivered in his thin blouse, but he would not mind the cold if he could only stop being afraid of everything . . . of the shadows and the furtive sounds and the nameless things that might be prowling in the strips of woodland he passed through. He wondered what it would be like not to be afraid of anything . . . like Jem.
“I’ll . . . I’ll just pretend I’m not afraid,” he said aloud . . . and then shuddered with terror over the lost sound of his own voice in the great night.
But he went on . . . one had to go on when Mother was going to die. Once he fell and bruised and skinned his knee badly on a stone. Once he heard a buggy coming along behind him and hid behind a tree till it passed, terrified lest Dr.
Parker had discovered he had gone and was coming after him. Once he stopped in sheer terror of something black and furry sitting on the side of the road. He could not pass it . . . he could not . . . but he did. It was a big black dog . . . Was it a dog? . . . but he was past it. He dared not run lest it chase him. He stole a desperate glance over his shoulder . . . it had got up and was loping away in the opposite direction. Walter put his little brown hand up to his face and found it wet with sweat.48
A star fell in the sky before him, scattering sparks of flame. Walter remembered hearing old Aunt Kitty say that when a star fell someone died. Was it mother? He had just been feeling that his legs would not carry him another step, but at the thought he marched on again. He was so cold now that he had almost ceased to feel afraid. Would he never get home? It must be hours and hours since he had left Lowbridge.
It was three hours. He had stolen out of the Parker house at eleven and it was now two. When Walter found himself on the road that dipped down into the Glen he gave a sob of relief. But as he stumbled through the village the sleeping houses seemed remote and far away. They had forgotten him. A cow suddenly bawled at him over a fence and Walter remembered that Mr. Joe Reese kept a savage bull. He broke into a run of sheer panic that carried him up the hill to the gate of Ingleside. He was home . . . oh, he was home!
Then he stopped short, trembling, overcome by a dreadful feeling of desolation.
He had been expecting to see the warm, friendly lights of home. And there was not a light at Ingleside!
There really was a light, if he could have seen it, in a back bedroom where the nurse slept with the baby’s basket beside her bed. But to all intents and purposes Ingleside was as dark as a deserted house and it broke Walter’s spirit. He had never seen, never imagined, Ingleside dark at night.
It meant that mother was dead!
Walter stumbled up the drive, across the grim black shadow of the house on the lawn, to the front door. It was locked. He gave a feeble knock . . . he could not reach to the knocker . . . but there was no response, nor did he expect any. He listened . . . there was not a sound of living in the house. He knew Mother was dead and everybody had gone away.
He was by now too chilled and exhausted to cry: but he crept around to the barn and climbed the ladder to the hay-mow. He was past being frightened; he only wanted to get somewhere out of that wind and lie down till morning. Perhaps somebody would come back then after they had buried Mother.
A sleek little tiger kitten someone had given the doctor purred up to him, smelling nicely of clover hay. Walter clutched it gladly . . . it was warm and alive. But it heard the little mice scampering over the floor and would not stay. The moon looked at him through the cobwebby window but there was no49 comfort in that far, cold, unsympathetic moon. A light burning in a house down in the Glen was more like a friend. As long as that light shone he could bear up.
He could not sleep. His knee hurt too much and he was cold . . . with such a funny feeling in his stomach. Perhaps he was dying, too. He hoped he was, since everyone else was dead or gone away. Did nights ever end? Other nights had always ended but maybe this one wouldn’t. He remembered a dreadful story he had heard to the effect that Captain Jack Flagg at the Harbour Mouth had said he wouldn’t let the sun come up some morning when he got real mad. Suppose Captain Jack had got real mad at last.
Then the Glen light went out . . . and he couldn’t bear it. But as the little cry of despair left his lips he realized that it was day.50
Walter climbed down the ladder and went out. Ingleside lay in the strange, timeless light of first dawn. The sky over the birches in the Hollow was showing a faint, silvery-pink radiance. Perhaps he could get in at the side door. Susan sometimes left it open for Dad.
The side door was unlocked. With a sob of thankfulness Walter slipped into the hall. It was still dark in the house and he began stealing softly upstairs. He would go to bed . . . his own bed . . . and if nobody ever came back he could die there and go to Heaven and find Mother. Only . . . Walter remembered what Opal had said . . . Heaven was millions of miles away. In the fresh wave of desolation that swept over him Walter forgot to step carefully and set his foot heavily down on the tail of the Shrimp, who was sleeping at the curve of the stairs. The Shrimp’s yowl of anguish resounded through the house.
Susan, just dropping off to sleep, was dragged back from slumber by the horrible sound. Susan had gone to bed at twelve, somewhat exhausted after her strenuous afternoon and evening, to which Mary Maria Blythe had contributed by taking “a stitch in her side” just when the tension was greatest. She had to have a hot-water bottle and a rub with liniment, and finished up with a wet cloth over her eyes because “one of her headaches” had come on.
Susan had wakened at three with a very strange feeling that somebody wanted her very badly. She had risen and tiptoed down the hall to the door of Mrs.
Blythe’s room. All was silence there . . . she could hear Anne’s soft regular breathing. Susan made the rounds of the house and returned to her bed, convinced that that strange feeling was only the hangover of a nightmare. But for the rest of her life Susan believed she had had what she had always scoffed at and what Abby Flagg, who “went in” for spiritualism, called “a physic experience.”
“Walter was calling me and I heard him,” she averred.
Susan got up and went out again, thinking that Ingleside was really possessed that night. She was attired only in a flannel nightdress, which had shrunk in repeated washing till it was well above her bony ankles: but she seemed the most beautiful thing in the world to the white-faced, trembling little creature whose frantic grey eyes stared up at her from the landing.
In two steps Susan had him in her arms . . . her strong, tender arms.
“Susan . . . is Mother dead?” said Walter.
In a very brief time everything had changed. Walter was in bed, warm, fed, comforted. Susan had whisked on a fire, got him a hot cup of milk, a slice of golden-brown toast and a big plateful of his favourite “monkey face” cookies, and then tucked him away with a hot-water bottle at his feet. She had kissed and anointed his little bruised knee. It was such a nice feeling to know that someone was looking after you . . . that someone wanted you . . . that you were important to someone.
“And you’re sure, Susan, that Mother isn’t dead?”
“Your mother is sound asleep and well and happy, my lamb.”
“And wasn’t she sick at all? Opal said . . .”
“Well, lamb, she did not feel very well for a while yesterday, but that is all over and she was never in any danger of dying this time. You just wait till you have had a sleep and you will see her . . . and something else. If I had hold of those young Satans at Lowbridge! I just cannot believe that you walked all the way home from Lowbridge. Six miles! On such a night!”
“I suffered awful agony of mind, Susan,” said Walter gravely. But it was all over; he was safe and happy; he was . . . home . . . he was . . .
He was asleep.
It was nearly midday before he woke, to see sunshine billowing in through his own windows, and limped in to see Mother. He had begun to think he had been very foolish and maybe Mother would not be pleased with him for running away from Lowbridge. But Mother only put an arm around him and drew him close to her. She had heard the whole story from Susan and had thought of a few things she intended to say to Jen Parker.
“Oh, Mummy, you’re not going to die . . . and you still love me, don’t you?”
“Darling, I’ve no notion of dying . . . and I love you so much it hurts. To think that you walked all the way from Lowbridge in the night!”
“And on an empty stomach,” shuddered Susan. “The wonder is he is alive to tell it. The days of miracles are not yet over and that you may tie to.”52 “A spunky little lad,” laughed Dad, who had come in with Shirley on his shoulder. He patted Walter’s head and Walter caught his hand and hugged it.
There was no one like Dad in the world. But nobody must ever know how scared he had really been.
“I needn’t ever go away from home again, need I, Mummy?”
“Not till you want to,” promised Mother.
“I’ll never,” began Walter . . . and then stopped. After all, he wouldn’t mind seeing Alice again.
“Look you here, lamb,” said Susan, ushering in a rosy young lady in a white apron and cap who carried a basket.
Walter looked. A baby! A plump, roly-poly baby, with silky damp curls all over her head and such tiny cunning hands.
“Is she not a beauty?” said Susan proudly. “Look at her eyelashes . . . never did I see such long eyelashes on a baby. And her pretty little ears. I always look at their ears first.”
“She’s sweet, Susan . . . oh, look at her darling little curly toes! . . . but . . . isn’t she rather small?”
“Eight pounds is not small, lamb. And she has begun to take notice already. That child was not an hour old when she raised her head and Looked at the doctor. I have never seen the like of it in all my life.”
“She’s going to have red hair,” said the doctor in a tone of satisfaction. “Lovely red-gold hair like her mother’s.”
“And hazel eyes like her father’s,” said the doctor’s wife jubilantly.
“I don’t see why one of us can’t have yellow hair,” said Walter dreamily, thinking of Alice.
“Yellow hair! Like the Drews!” said Susan in measureless contempt.53 “She looks so cunning when she is asleep,” crooned the nurse. “I never saw a baby that crinkled its eyes like that when it went to sleep.”
“She is a miracle. All our babies were sweet, Gilbert, but she is the sweetest of them all.”
“Lord love you,” said Aunt Mary Maria with a sniff, “there’s been a few babies in the world before, you know, Annie.”
“Our baby has never been in the world before, Aunt Mary Maria,” said Walter proudly. “Susan, may I kiss her . . . just once . . . please?”
“That you may,” said Susan, glaring after Aunt Mary Maria’s retreating back.
“And now I’m going down to make a cherry pie for dinner. Mary Maria Blythe made one yesterday afternoon . . . . I wish you could see it, Mrs. Dr. dear. It looks like something the cat dragged in. I shall eat as much of it myself as I can, rather than waste it, but such a pie shall never be set before the doctor as long as I have my health and strength and that you may tie to.”
“It isn’t everybody that has your knack with pastry, you know,” said Anne.
“Mummy,” said Walter, as the door closed behind a gratified Susan, “I think we are a very nice family, don’t you?”
A very nice family, Anne reflected happily as she lay in her bed, with the baby beside her. Soon she would be about with them again, light-footed as of yore, loving them, teaching them, comforting them. They would be coming to her with their little joys and sorrows, their budding hopes, their new fears, their little problems that seemed so big to them and their little heart-breaks that seemed so bitter. She would hold all the threads of the Ingleside life in her hands again to weave into a tapestry of beauty. And Aunt Mary Maria should have no cause to say, as Anne had heard her say two days ago, “You look dreadful tired, Gilbert.
Does anybody ever look after you?”
Downstairs Aunt Mary Maria was shaking her head despondently and saying, “All newborn infants’ legs are crooked, I know, but, Susan, that child’s legs are much too crooked. Of course we must not say so to poor Annie. Be sure you don’t mention it to Annie, Susan.”
Susan, for once, was beyond speech.54
By the end of August Anne was herself again, looking forward to a happy autumn. Small Bertha Marilla grew in beauty day by day and was a centre of worship to adoring brothers and sisters.
“I thought a baby would be something that yelled all the time,” said Jem, rapturously letting the tiny fingers cling around his. “Bertie Shakespeare Drew told me so.”
“I am not doubting that the Drew babies yell all the time, Jem dear,” said Susan.
“Yell at the thought of having to be Drews, I presume. But Bertha Marilla is an Ingleside baby, Jem dear.”
“I wish I had been born at Ingleside, Susan,” said Jem wistfully. He always felt sorry he hadn’t been. Di cast it up to him at times.
“Don’t you find life here rather dull?” an old Queen’s classmate from Charlottetown had asked Anne rather patronizingly one day.
Dull! Anne almost laughed in her caller’s face. Ingleside dull! With a delicious baby bringing new wonders every day . . . with visits from Diana and Little Elizabeth and Rebecca Dew to be planned for . . . with Mrs. Sam Ellison of the Upper Glen on Gilbert’s hands with a disease only three people in the world had ever been known to have before . . . with Walter starting to school . . . with Nan drinking a whole bottle of perfume from Mother’s dressing-table . . . they thought it would kill her but she was never a whit the worse . . . with a strange black cat having the unheard-of number of ten kittens in the back porch . . . with Shirley locking himself in the bathroom and forgetting how to unlock it . . . with the Shrimp getting rolled up in a sheet of fly-paper . . . with Aunt Mary Maria setting the curtains of her room on fire in the dead of night while prowling with a candle, and rousing the household with appalling screams. Life dull!
For Aunt Mary Maria was still at Ingleside. Occasionally she would say pathetically, “Whenever you are tired of me just let me know . . . I’m used to looking after myself.” There was only one thing to say to that and of course Gilbert always said it. Though he did not say it quite as heartily as at first. Even Gilbert’s “clannishness” was beginning to wear a little thin; he was realizing rather helplessly . . . “man-like” as Miss Cornelia sniffed . . . that Aunt Mary Maria was by way of becoming a bit of a problem in his household.55 He hadventured one day to give a slight hint as to how houses suffered if left too long without inhabitants; and Aunt Mary Maria agreed with him, calmly remarking that she was thinking of selling her Charlottetown house.
“Not a bad idea,” encouraged Gilbert. “And I know a very nice little cottage in town for sale . . . a friend of mine is going to California . . . it’s very like that one you admired so much where Mrs. Sarah Newman lives . . .”
“But lives alone,” sighed Aunt Mary Maria.
“She likes it,” said Anne hopefully.
“There’s something wrong with anyone who likes living alone, Anne,” said Aunt Mary Maria.
Susan repressed a groan with difficulty.
Diana came for a week in September. Then Little Elizabeth came . . . Little Elizabeth no longer . . . tall, slender, beautiful Elizabeth now. But still with the golden hair and wistful smile. Her father was returning to his office in Paris and Elizabeth was going with him to keep his house. She and Anne took long walks around the storied shores of the old harbour, coming home beneath silent, watchful autumn stars. They relived the old Windy Poplars life and retraced their steps in the map of fairyland which Elizabeth still had and meant to keep forever.
“Hanging on the wall of my room wherever I go,” she said.
One day a wind blew through the Ingleside garden . . . the first wind of autumn.
That night the rose of the sunset was a trifle austere. All at once the summer had grown old. The turn of the season had come.
“It’s early for fall,” said Aunt Mary Maria in a tone that implied the fall had insulted her.
But the fall was beautiful, too. There was the joy of winds blowing in from a darkly blue gulf and the splendour of harvest moons. There were lyric asters in the Hollow and children laughing in an apple-laden orchard, clear serene evenings on the high hill pastures of the Upper Glen and silvery mackerel skies with dank birds flying across them; and, as the days shortened, little grey mists stealing over the dunes and up the harbour.56
With the falling leaves Rebecca Dew came to Ingleside to make a visit promised for years. She came for a week but was prevailed upon to stay two . . . none being so urgent as Susan. Susan and Rebecca Dew seemed to discover at first sight that they were kindred spirits . . . perhaps because they both loved Anne . . . perhaps because they both hated Aunt Mary Maria.
There came an evening in the kitchen when, as the rain dripped down on the dead leaves outside and the wind cried around the eaves and corners of Ingleside, Susan poured out all her woes to sympathetic Rebecca Dew. The doctor and his wife had gone out to make a call, the small fry were all cosy in their beds, and Aunt Mary Maria fortunately out of the way with a headache . . . “just like a band of iron round my brain,” she had moaned.
“Anyone,” remarked Rebecca Dew, opening the oven door and depositing her feet comfortably in the oven, “who eats as much fried mackerel as that woman did for supperdeserves to have a headache. I do not deny I ate my share . . . for I will say, Miss Baker, I never knew anyone who could fry mackerel like you . . . but I did not eat four pieces.”
“Miss Dew dear,” said Susan earnestly, laying down her knitting and gazing imploringly into Rebecca’s little black eyes, “you have seen something of what Mary Maria Blythe is like in the time you have been here. But you do not know the half . . . no, nor yet the quarter. Miss Dew dear, I feel that I can trust you.
May I open my heart to you in strict confidence?”
“You may, Miss Baker.”
“That woman came here in June and it is my opinion she means to stay here the rest of her life. Everyone in this house detests her . . . even the doctor has no use for her now, hide it as he will and does. But he is clannish and says his father’s cousin must not be made to feel unwelcome in his house. I have begged,” said Susan, in a tone which seemed to imply she had done it on her knees, “I have begged Mrs. Dr. to put her foot down and say Mary Maria Blythe must go. But Mrs. Dr. is too softhearted . . . and so we are helpless, Miss Dew . . . completely helpless.”
“I wish I had the handling of her,” said Rebecca Dew, who had smarted considerably herself under some of Aunt Mary Maria’s remarks. “I know as well as anyone, Miss Baker, that we must not violate the sacred proprieties of hospitality, but I assure you, Miss Baker, that I would let her have it straight.”57 “I could handle her if I did not know my place, Miss Dew. I never forget that I am not mistress here. Sometimes, Miss Dew, I say solemnly to myself, ‘Susan Baker, are you or are you not a door-mat?’ But you know how my hands are tied.
I cannot desert Mrs. Dr. and I must not add to her troubles by fighting with Mary Maria Blythe. I shall continue to endeavour to do my duty. Because, Miss Dew dear,” said Susan solemnly, “I could cheerfully die for either the doctor or his wife. We were such a happy family before she came here, Miss Dew. But she is making our lives miserable and what is to be the outcome I cannot tell, being no prophetess, Miss Dew. Or rather, I can tell. We will all be driven into lunatic asylums. It is not any one thing, Miss Dew . . . it is scores of them, Miss Dew . . . hundreds of them, Miss Dew. You can endure one mosquito, Miss Dew . . . but think of millions of them!”
Rebecca Dew thought of them with a mournful shake of her head.
“She is always telling Mrs. Dr. how to run her house and what clothes she should wear. She is always watching me . . . and she says she never saw such quarrelsome children. Miss Dew dear, you have seen for yourself that our children never quarrel . . . well, hardly ever . . .”
“They are among the most admirable children I have ever seen, Miss Baker.”
“She snoops and pries . . .”
“I have caught her at it myself, Miss Baker.”
“She’s always getting offended and heart-broken over something but never offended enough to up and leave. She just sits around looking lonely and neglected until poor Mrs. Dr. is almost distracted. Nothing suits her. If a window is open she complains of draughts. If they are all shut she says she does like a little fresh air once in a while. She cannot bear onions . . . she cannot even bear the smell of them. She says they make her sick. So Mrs. Dr. says we must not use any. Now,” said Susan grandly, “it may be a common taste to like onions, Miss Dew dear, but we all plead guilty to it at Ingleside.”
“I am very partial to onions myself,” admitted Rebecca Dew.
“She cannot bear cats. She says cats give her the creeps. It does not make any difference whether she sees them or not. Just to know there is one about the place is enough for her. So that poor Shrimp hardly dare show his face in the house. I have never altogether liked cats myself, Miss Dew, but I maintain they have a right to wave their own tails. And it is, ‘Susan, never forget that I cannot eat eggs,58 please,’ or ‘Susan, how often must I tell you I cannot eat cold toast?’ or ‘Susan, some people may be able to drink stewed tea but I am not in that fortunate class.’ Stewed tea, Miss Dew! As if I ever offered anyone stewed tea!”
“Nobody could ever suppose it of you, Miss Baker.”
“If there is a question that should not be asked she will ask it. She is jealous because the doctor tells things to his wife before he tells them to her . . . and she is always trying to pick news out of him about his patients. Nothing aggravates him so much, Miss Dew. A doctor must know how to hold his tongue, as you are well aware. And her tantrums about fire! ‘Susan Baker,’ she says to me, ‘I hope you never light a fire with coal-oil. Or leave oily rags lying around, Susan. They have been known to cause spontaneous combustion in less than an hour. How would you like to stand and watch this house burn down, Susan, knowing it was your fault?’ Well, Miss Dew dear, I had my laugh on her over that. It was that very night she set her curtains on fire and the yells of her are ringing in my ears yet. And just when the poor doctor had got to sleep after having been up for two nights! What infuriates me most, Miss Dew, is that before she goes anywhere she goes into my pantry and counts the eggs. It takes all my philosophy to refrain from saying, ‘Why not count the spoons, too?’ Of course the children hate her.
Mrs. Dr. is just about worn out keeping them from showing it. She actually slapped Nan one day when the doctor and Mrs. Dr. were both away . . . slapped her . . . just because Nan called her ‘Mrs Mefusaleh’ . . . having heard that imp of a Ken Ford saying it.”
“I’d have slapped her,” said Rebecca Dew viciously.
“I told her if she ever did the like again I would slap her. ‘An occasional spanking we do have at Ingleside,’ I told her, ‘but slapping never, so put that in pickle.’ She was sulky and offended for a week but at least she has never dared to lay a finger on one of them since. She loves it when their parents punish them, though.
‘If I was your mother,’ she says to Little Jem one evening. ‘Oh ho, you won’t ever be anybody’s mother,’ said the poor child . . . driven to it, Miss Dew, absolutely driven to it. The doctor sent him to bed without his supper, but who would you suppose, Miss Dew, saw that some was smuggled up to him later on?”
“Ah, now, who?” chortled Rebecca Dew, entering into the spirit of the tale.
“It would have broken your heart, Miss Dew, to hear the prayer he put up afterwards . . . all off his own bat, ‘O God, please forgive me for being impertinent to Aunt Mary Maria. And O God, please help me to be always very polite to Aunt Mary Maria.’ It brought the tears into my eyes, the poor lamb. I59 do not hold with irreverence or impertinence from youth to age, Miss Dew dear, but I must admit that when Bertie Shakespeare Drew threw a spit-ball at her one day . . . it just missed her nose by an inch, Miss Dew . . . I waylaid him at the gate on his way home and gave him a bag of doughnuts. Of course I did not tell him why. He was tickled over it . . . for doughnuts do not grow on trees, Miss Dew, and Mrs. Second Skimmings never makes them. Nan and Di . . . I would not breathe this to a soul but you, Miss Dew . . . the doctor and his wife never dream of it or they would put a stop to it . . . Nan and Di have named their old china doll with the split head after Aunt Mary Maria and whenever she scolds them they go out and drown her . . . the doll I mean . . . in the rainwater hogshead. Many’s the jolly drowning we have had, I can assure you. But you could not believe what that woman did the other night, Miss Dew.”
“I’d believe anything of her, Miss Baker.”
“She would not eat a bite of supper because her feelings had been hurt over something, but she went into the pantry before she went to bed and ate up a lunch I had left for the poor doctor . . . every crumb, Miss Dew dear. I hope you will not think me an infidel, Miss Dew, but I cannot understand why the Good Lord does not get tired of some people.”
“You must not allow yourself to lose your sense of humour, Miss Baker,” said Rebecca Dew firmly.
“Oh, I am very well aware that there is a comical side to a toad under a harrow, Miss Dew. But the question is, does the toad see it? I am sorry to have bothered you with all this, Miss Dew dear, but it has been a great relief. I cannot say these things to Mrs. Dr. and I have been feeling lately that if I did not find an outlet I would burst.”
“How well I know that feeling, Miss Baker.”
“And now, Miss Dew dear,” said Susan, getting up briskly, “what do you say to a cup of tea before bed? And a cold chicken leg, Miss Dew?”
“I have never denied,” said Rebecca Dew, taking her well-baked feet out of the oven, “that while we should not forget the Higher Things of Life good food is a pleasant thing in moderation.”60
Gilbert had his two weeks’ snipe shooting in Nova Scotia . . . not even Anne could persuade him to take a month . . . and November closed in on Ingleside.
The dark hills, with the darker spruces marching over them, looked grim on early falling nights, but Ingleside bloomed with firelight and laughter, though the winds come in from the Atlantic singing of mournful things.
“Why isn’t the wind happy, Mummy?” asked Walter one night.
“Because it is remembering all the sorrow of the world since time began,”
“It is moaning just because there is so much dampness in the air,” sniffed Aunt Mary Maria, “and my back is killing me.”
But some days even the wind blew cheerfully through the silvery grey maple wood and some days there was no wind at all, only mellow Indian summer sunshine and the quiet shadows of the bare trees all over the lawn and frosty stillness at sunset.
“Look at that white evening star over the lombardy in the corner,” said Anne.
“Whenever I see anything like that I am minded to be just glad I am alive.”
“You do say such funny things, Annie. Stars are quite common in P. E. Island,”
said Aunt Mary Maria . . . and thought: “Stars indeed! As if no one ever saw a star before! Didn’t Annie know of the terrible waste that was going on in the kitchen every day? Didn’t she know of the reckless way Susan Baker threw eggs about and used lard where dripping would do quite as well? Or didn’t she care?
Poor Gilbert! No wonder he had to keep his nose to the grindstone!”
November went out in greys and browns: but by morning the snow had woven its old white spell and Jem shouted with delight as he rushed down to breakfast.
“Oh, Mummy, it will soon be Christmas now and Santa Claus will be coming!”
“You surely don’t believe in Santa Claus still?” said Aunt Mary Maria.
Anne shot a glance of alarm at Gilbert, who said gravely: “We want the children to possess their heritage of fairyland as long as they can, Aunty.”61 Luckily Jem had paid no attention to Aunt Mary Maria. He and Walter were too eager to get out into the new wonderful world to which winter had brought its own loveliness. Anne always hated to see the beauty of the untrodden snow marred by footprints; but that couldn’t be helped and there was still beauty and to spare at eventide when the west was aflame over all the whitened hollows in the violet hills and Anne was sitting in the living-room before a fire of rock maple.
Firelight, she thought, was always so lovely. It did such tricksy, unexpected things. Parts of the room flashed into being and then out again. Pictures came and went. Shadows lurked and sprang. Outside, through the big unshaded window, the whole scene was elvishly reflected on the lawn with Aunt Mary Maria apparently sitting stark upright . . . Aunt Mary Maria never allowed herself to “loll” . . . under the Scotch pine.
Gilbert was “lolling” on the couch, trying to forget that he had lost a patient from pneumonia that day. Small Rilla was trying to eat her pink fists in her basket; even the Shrimp, with his white paws curled in under his breast, was daring to purr on the hearth-rug, much to Aunt Mary Maria’s disapproval.
“Speaking of cats,” said Aunt Mary Maria pathetically . . . though nobody had been speaking of them . . . “do all the cats in the Glen visit us at night? How anyone could have slept through the caterwauling last night I really am at a loss to understand. Of course, my room being at the back I suppose I get the full benefit of the free concert.”
Before anyone had to reply Susan entered, saying that she had seen Mrs.
Marshall Elliott in Carter Flagg’s store and she was coming up when she had finished her shopping. Susan did not add that Mrs. Elliott had said anxiously, “What is the matter with Mrs. Blythe, Susan? I thought last Sunday in church she looked so tired and worried. I never saw her look like that before.”
“I can tell you what is the matter with Mrs. Blythe,” Susan had answered grimly.
“She had got a bad attack of Aunt Mary Maria. And the doctor cannot seem to see it, even though he does worship the ground she walks on.”
“Isn’t that like a man?” said Mrs. Elliott.
“I am glad,” said Anne, springing up to light a lamp. “I haven’t seen Miss Cornelia for so long. Now we’ll catch up with the news.”
“Won’t we!” said Gilbert dryly.
“That woman is an evil-minded gossip,” said Aunt Mary Maria severely.62 For the first time in her life, perhaps, Susan bristled up in defence of Miss Cornelia.
“That she is not, Miss Blythe, and Susan Baker will never stand by and hear her so miscalled. Evil-minded, indeed! Did you ever hear, Miss Blythe, of the pot calling the kettle black?”
“Susan . . . Susan,” said Anne imploringly.
“I beg your pardon, Mrs. Dr. dear. I admit I have forgotten my place. But there are some things not to be endured.”
Whereupon a door was banged as doors were seldom banged at Ingleside.
“You see, Annie?” said Aunt Mary Maria significantly. “But I suppose as long as you are willing to overlook that sort of thing in a servant there is nothing anyone can do.”
Gilbert got up and went to the library where a tired man might count on some peace. And Aunt Mary Maria, who didn’t like Miss Cornelia, betook herself to bed. So that when Miss Cornelia came in she found Anne alone, drooping rather limply over the baby’s basket. Miss Cornelia did not, as usual, start in unloading a budget of gossip. Instead, when she had laid aside her wraps, she sat down beside Anne and took her hand.
“Anne dearie, what is the matter? I know there’s something. Is that jolly old soul of a Mary Maria just tormenting you to death?”
Anne tried to smile.
“Oh, Miss Cornelia . . . I know I’m foolish to mind it so much . . . but this has been one of the days when it seems I just cannot go on enduring her. She . . . she’s simply poisoning our life here . . .”
“Why don’t you just tell her to go?”
“Oh, we can’t do that, Miss Cornelia. At least, I can’t and Gilbert won’t. He says he could never look himself in the face again if he turned his own flesh and blood out of doors.”
“Cat’s hindfoot!” said Miss Cornelia eloquently. “She’s got plenty of money and a good home of her own. How would it be turning her out of doors to tell her she’d better go and live in it?”63
“I know . . . but Gilbert . . . I don’t think he quite realises everything. He’s away so much . . . and really . . . everything is so little in itself . . . I’m ashamed . . .”
“I know, dearie. Just those little things that are horribly big. Of course a man wouldn’t understand. I know a woman in Charlottetown who knows her well. She says Mary Maria Blythe never had a friend in her life. She says her name should be Blight not Blythe. What you need, dearie, is just enough backbone to say you won’t put up with it any longer.”
“I feel as you do in dreams when you’re trying to run and can only drag your feet,” said Anne drearily. “If it were only now and then . . . but it’s every day.
Meal times are perfect horrors now. Gilbert says he can’t carve roasts any more.”
“He’d notice that,” sniffed Miss Cornelia.
“We can never have any real conversations at meals because she is sure to say something disagreeable every time anyone speaks. She corrects the children for their manners continually and always calls attention to their faults before company. We used to have such pleasant meals . . . and now! She resents laughter . . . and you know what we are for laughing. Somebody is always seeing a joke . . . or used to be. She can’t let anything pass. Today she said, ‘Gilbert, don’t sulk. Have you and Annie quarrelled?’ Just because we were quiet. You know Gilbert is always a little depressed when he loses a patient he thinks ought to have lived. And then she lectured us on our folly and warned us not to let the sun go down on our wrath. Oh, we laughed at it afterwards . . . but just at the time! She and Susan don’t get along. And we can’t keep Susan from muttering asides that are the reverse of polite. She more than muttered when Aunt Mary Maria told her she had never seen such a liar as Walter . . . because she heard him telling Di a long tale about meeting the man in the moon and what they said to each other. She wanted to scour his mouth out with soap and water. She and Susan had a battle royal that time. And she is filling the children’s minds with all sorts of gruesome ideas. She told Nan about a child who was naughty and died in its sleep and Nan is afraid to go to sleep now. She told Di that if she were always a good girl her parents would come to love her as well as they loved Nan, even if she did have red hair. Gilbert really was very angry when he heard that and spoke to her sharply. I couldn’t help hoping she’d take offence and go . . . even though I would hate to have anyone leave my home because she was offended. But she just let those big blue eyes of her fill with tears and said she didn’t mean any harm. She’d always heard that twins were never loved equally and she’d been thinking we favoured Nan and that poor Di felt it! She cried all night about it and Gilbert felt that he had been a brute . . . and apologized.”64 “He would!” said Miss Cornelia.
“Oh, I shouldn’t be talking like this, Miss Cornelia. When I ‘count my mercies’ I feel it’s very petty of me to mind these things . . . even if they do rub a little bloom off life. And she isn’t always hateful . . . she is quite nice by spells . . .”
“Do you tell me so?” said Miss Cornelia sarcastically.
“Yes . . . and kind. She heard me say I wanted an afternoon tea-set and she went to Toronto and got me one . . . by mail order! And, oh, Miss Cornelia, it’s so ugly!”
Anne gave a laugh that ended in a sob. Then she laughed again.
“Now we won’t talk of her any more . . . it doesn’t seem so bad now that I’ve blurted this all out . . . like a baby. Look at wee Rilla, Miss Cornelia. Aren’t her lashes darling when she is asleep? Now let’s have a good gab-fest.”
Anne was herself again by the time Miss Cornelia had gone. Nevertheless she sat thoughtfully before her fire for some time. She had not told Miss Cornelia all of it. She had never told Gilbert any of it. There were so many little things. . . . “So little I can’t complain of them,” thought Anne. “And yet . . . it’s the little things that fret the holes in life . . . like moths . . . and ruin it.”
Aunt Mary Maria with her trick of acting the hostess . . . Aunt Mary Maria inviting guests and never saying a word about it till they came. . . . “She makes me feel as if I didn’t belong in my own home.” Aunt Mary Maria moving the furniture around when Anne was out. “I hope you don’t mind, Annie; I thought we need the table so much more here than in the library.” Aunt Mary Maria’s insatiable childish curiosity about everything . . . her point-blank questions about intimate matters . . . “always coming into my room without knocking . . . always smelling smoke . . . always plumping up the cushions I’ve crushed . . . always implying that I gossip too much with Susan . . . always picking at the children . . . . We have to be at them all the time to make them behave and then we can’t manage it always.”
“Ugly old Aunt Maywia,” Shirley had said distinctly one dreadful day. Gilbert had been going to spank him for it, but Susan had risen up in outraged majesty and forbade it.65
“We’re cowed,” thought Anne. “This household is beginning to revolve around the question, ‘Will Aunt Mary Maria like it?’ We won’t admit it but it’s true.
Anything rather than have her wiping tears nobly away. It just can’t go on.”
Then Anne remembered what Miss Cornelia had said . . . that Mary Maria Blythe had never had a friend. How terrible! Out of her own richness of friendships Anne felt a sudden rush of compassion for this woman who had never had a friend . . . who had nothing before her but a lonely, restless old age with no one coming to her for shelter or healing, for hope and help, for warmth and love.
Surely they could have patience with her. These annoyances were only superficial, after all. They could not poison the deep springs of life.
“I’ve just had a terrible spasm of being sorry for myself, that’s all,” said Anne, picking Rilla out of her basket and thrilling to the little round satin cheek against hers. “It’s over now and I’m wholesomely ashamed of it.”66
“We never seem to have old-fashioned winters nowadays, do we, Mummy?” said Walter gloomily.
For the November snow had gone long ago and all through December Glen St.
Mary had been a black and sombre land, rimmed in by a grey gulf dotted with curling crests of ice-white foam. There had been only a few sunny days, when the harbour sparkled in the golden arms of the hills: the rest had been dour and hardbitten. In vain had the Ingleside folks hoped for snow for Christmas: but preparations went steadily on and as the last week drew to a close Ingleside was full of mystery and secrets and whispers and delicious smells. Now on the very day before Christmas everything was ready. The fir tree Walter and Jem had brought up from the Hollow was in the corner of the living-room, the doors and windows were hung with big green wreaths tied with huge bows of red ribbon.
The banisters were twined with creeping spruce and Susan’s pantry was crammed to overflowing. Then, late in the afternoon, when they all had resigned themselves to a dingy “green” Christmas somebody looked out of a window and saw white flakes as big as feathers falling thickly.
“Snow! Snow!! Snow!!!” shouted Jem. “A white Christmas after all, Mummy!”
The Ingleside children went to bed happy. It was so nice to snuggle down warm and cosy and listen to the storm howling outside through the grey snowy night.
Anne and Susan went to work to deck the Christmas tree . . . “acting like two children themselves,” thought Aunt Mary Maria scornfully. She did not approve of candles on a tree . . . “suppose the house caught fire from them.” She did not approve of coloured balls . . . “suppose the twins ate them.” But nobody paid any attention to her. They had learned that that was the only condition on which life with Aunt Mary Maria was livable.
“Finished!” cried Anne, as she fastened the great silver star to the top of the proud little fir. “And, oh, Susan, doesn’t it look pretty! Isn’t it nice we can all be children again at Christmas without being ashamed of it! I’m so glad the snow came . . . but I hope the storm won’t outlast the night.”
“It’s going to storm all day tomorrow,” said Aunt Mary Maria positively. “I can tell by my poor back.”67
Anne went through the hall, opened the big front door, and peered out. The world was lost in a white passion of snowstorm. The window-panes were grey with drifted snow. The Scotch pine was an enormous sheeted ghost.
“It doesn’t look very promising,” Anne admitted ruefully.
“God manages the weather yet, Mrs. Dr. dear, and not Miss Mary Maria Blythe,”
said Susan over her shoulder.
“I hope there won’t be a sick call tonight at least,” said Anne as she turned away.
Susan took one parting look into the gloom before she locked out the stormy night.
“Don’t you go and have a baby tonight,” she warned darkly in the direction of the Upper Glen where Mrs. George Drew was expecting her fourth.
In spite of Aunt Mary Maria’s back the storm spent itself in the night and morning filled the secret hollow of snow among the hills with the red wine of winter sunrise. All the small fry were up early, looking starry and expectant.
“Did Santa get through the storm, Mummy?”
“No. He was sick and didn’t dare try,” said Aunt Mary Maria, who was in a good humour . . . for her . . . and felt joky.
“Santa Claus got here all right,” said Susan before their eyes had time to blur, “and after you’ve had your breakfast you’ll see what he did to your tree.”
After breakfast Dad mysteriously disappeared, but nobody missed him because they were so taken up with the tree . . . the lively tree, all gold and silver bubbles and lighted candles in the still dark room, with parcels in all colours and tied with the loveliest ribbons piled about it. Then Santa appeared, a gorgeous Santa, all crimson and white fur, with a long white beard and such a jolly big stomach . . . Susan had stuffed three cushions into the red velveteen cassock Anne had made for Gilbert. Shirley screamed with terror at first, but refused to be taken out, for all that. Santa distributed all the gifts with a funny little speech for everyone in a voice that sounded oddly familiar even through the mask; and then just at the end his beard caught fire from a candle and Aunt Mary Maria had some slight satisfaction out of the incident though not enough to prevent her from sighing mournfully.68
“Ah me, Christmas isn’t what it was when I was a child.” She looked with disapproval at the present Little Elizabeth had sent Anne from Paris . . . a beautiful little bronze reproduction of Artemis of the Silver Bow.
“What shameless hussy is that?” she inquired sternly.
“The goddess Diana,” said Anne, exchanging a grin with Gilbert.
“Oh, a heathen! Well, that’s different, I suppose. But if I were you, Annie, I wouldn’t leave it where the children can see it. Sometimes I am beginning to think there is no such thing as modesty left in the world. My grandmother,”
concluded Aunt Mary Maria, with the delightful inconsequence that characterized so many of her remarks, “never wore less than three petticoats, winter and summer.”
Aunt Mary Maria had knitted “wristers” for all the children out of a dreadful shade of magenta yarn, also a sweater for Anne; Gilbert received a bilious necktie and Susan got a red flannel petticoat. Even Susan considered red flannel petticoats out of date, but she thanked Aunt Mary Maria gallantly.
“Some poor home missionary may be the better of it,” she thought. “Three petticoats, indeed! I flatter myself I am a decent woman and I like that Silver Bow person. She may not have much in the way of clothes on, but if I had a figure like that I do not know that I would want to hide it. But now to see about the turkey stuffing . . . not that it will amount to much with no onion in it.”
Ingleside was full of happiness that day, just plain, old-fashioned happiness, in spite of Aunt Mary Maria, who certainly did not like to see people too happy.
“White meat only, please. (James, eat your soup quietly.) Ah, you are not the carver your father was, Gilbert. He could give everyone the bit she liked best.
(Twins, older people would like a chance now and then to get a word in edgewise. I was brought up by the rule that children should be seen and not heard.) No, thank you, Gilbert, no salad for me. I don’t eat raw food. Yes, Annie, I’ll take a little pudding. Mince pies are entirely too indigestible.”
“Susan’s mince pies are poems, just as her apple pies are lyrics,” said the doctor.
“Give me a piece of both, Anne-girl.”
“Do you really like to be called ‘girl’ at your age, Annie? Walter, you haven’t eaten all your bread and butter. Plenty of poor children would be glad to have it.
James dear, blow your nose and have it over with, I cannot endure sniffling.”69 But it was a gay and lovely Christmas. Even Aunt Mary Maria thawed out a little after dinner, said almost graciously that the presents given her had been quite nice, and even endured the Shrimp with an air of patient martyrdom that made them all feel a little ashamed of loving him.
“I think our little folks have had a nice time,” said Anne happily that night, as she looked at the pattern of trees woven against the white hills and sunset sky, and the children out on the lawn busily scattering crumbs for birds over the snow.
The wind was sighing softly in the boughs, sending flurries over the lawn and promising more storm for the morrow, but Ingleside had had its day.
“I suppose they had,” agreed Aunt Mary Maria. “I’m sure they did enough squealing, anyhow. As for what they have eaten . . . ah well, you’re only young once and I suppose you have plenty of castor-oil in the house.”70 14
It was what Susan called a streaky winter . . . all thaws and freezes that kept Ingleside decorated with fantastic fringes of icicles. The children fed seven bluejays who came regularly to the orchard for their rations and let Jem pick them up, though they flew from everybody else. Anne sat up o’ nights to pore over seed catalogues in January and February. Then the winds of March swirled over the dunes and up the harbors and over the hills. Rabbits, said Susan, were laying Easter eggs.
“Isn’t March an INciting month, Mummy?” cried Jem, who was a little brother to all the winds that blew.
They could have spared the “incitement” of Jem scratching his hand on a rusty nail and having a nasty time of it for some days, while Aunt Mary Maria told all the stories of blood-poisoning she had ever heard. But that, Anne reflected when the danger was over, was what you must expect with a small son who was always trying experiments.
And lo, it was April! With the laughter of April rain . . . the whisper of April rain . . . the trickle, the sweep, the drive, the lash, the dance, the splash of April rain.
“Oh, Mummy, hasn’t the world got its face washed nice and clean?” cried Di, on the morning sunshine returned.
There were pale spring stars shining over fields of mist, there were pussywillows in the marsh. Even the little twigs on the trees seemed all at once to have lost their clear cold quality and to have become soft and languorous. The first robin was an event; the Hollow was once more a place full of wild free delight; Jem brought his mother the first mayflowers . . . rather to Aunt Mary Maria’s offence, since she thought they should have been offered to her; Susan began sorting over the attic shelves, and Anne, who had hardly had a minute to herself all winter, put on spring gladness as a garment and literally lived in her garden, while the Shrimp showed his spring raptures by writhing all over the paths.
“You care more for that garden than you do for your husband, Annie,” said Aunt Mary Maria.
“My garden is so kind to me,” answered Anne dreamily . . . then, realizing the implications that might be taken out of her remark, began to laugh.71 “You do say the most extraordinary things, Annie. Of course I know you don’t mean that Gilbert isn’t kind . . . but what if a stranger heard you say such a thing?”
“Dear Aunt Mary Maria,” said Anne gaily, “I’m really not responsible for the things I say this time of the year. Everybody around here knows that. I’m always a little mad in spring. But it’s such a divine madness. Do you notice those mists over the dunes like dancing witches? And the daffodils? We’ve never had such a show of daffodils at Ingleside before.”
“I don’t care much for daffodils. They are such flaunting things,” said Aunt Mary Maria, drawing her shawl around her and going indoors to protect her back.
“Do you know, Mrs. Dr. dear,” said Susan ominously, “what has become of those new irises you wanted to plant in that shady corner? She planted them this afternoon when you were out right in the sunniest part of the back yard.”
“Oh, Susan! And we can’t move them because she’d be so hurt!”
“If you will just give me the word, Mrs. Dr. dear . . .”
“No, no, Susan, we’ll leave them there for the time being. She cried, you remember, when I hinted that she shouldn’t have pruned the
spirea before blooming.”
“But sneering at our daffodils, Mrs. Dr. dear . . . and them famous all around the harbour . . .”
“And deserve to be. Look at them laughing at you for minding Aunt Mary Maria.
Susan, the nasturtiums are coming up in this corner, after all. It’s such fun when you’ve given up hope of a thing to find it has suddenly popped up. I’m going to have a little rose garden made in the southwest corner. The very name of rose garden thrills to my toes. Did you ever see such a blue blueness of sky before, Susan? And if you listen very carefully now at night you can hear all the little brooks of the countryside gossiping. I’ve half a notion to sleep in the Hollow tonight with a pillow of wild violets.”
“You would find it very damp,” said Susan patiently. Mrs. Dr. was always like this in the spring. It would pass.
“Susan,” said Anne coaxingly, “I want to have a birthday party next week.”72 “Well, and why should you not?’ asked Susan. To be sure, none of the family had a birthday the last week in May, but if Mrs. Dr. wanted a birthday party why boggle over that?
“For Aunt Mary Maria,” went on Anne, as one determined to get the worst over.
“Her birthday is next week. Gilbert says she is fifty-five and I’ve been thinking.”
“Mrs. Dr. dear, do you really mean to get up a party for that . . .”
“Count a hundred, Susan . . . count a hundred, Susan dear. It would please her so.
What has she in life, after all?”
“That is her own fault . . .”
“Perhaps so. But, Susan, I really want to do this for her.”
“Mrs. Dr. dear,” said Susan ominously, “you have always been kind enough to give me a week’s vacation whenever I felt I needed it. Perhaps I had better take it next week! I will ask my niece Gladys to come and help you out. And then Miss Mary Maria Blythe can have a dozen birthday parties, for all of me.”
“If you feel like that about it, Susan, I’ll give up the idea, of course,” said Anne slowly.
“Mrs. Dr. dear, that woman has foisted herself upon you and means to stay here forever. She has worried you . . . and henpecked the doctor . . . and made the children’s lives miserable. I say nothing about myself, for who am I? She has scolded and nagged and insinuated and whined . . . and now you want to get up a birthday party for her! Well, all I can say is, if you want to do that . . . we’ll just have to go ahead and have it!”
“Susan, you old duck!”
Plotting and planning followed. Susan, having yielded, was determined that for the honour of Ingleside the party must be something that even Mary Maria Blythe could not find fault with.
“I think we’ll have a luncheon, Susan. Then they’ll be away early enough for me to go to the concert at Lowbridge with the doctor. We’ll keep it a secret and surprise her. She shan’t know a thing about it till the last minute. I’ll invite all the people in the Glen she likes. . . .”
“And who may they be, Mrs. Dr. dear?”73
“Well, tolerates, then. And her cousin, Adella Carey from Lowbridge, and some people from town. We’ll have a big plummy birthday cake with fifty-five candles on it . . .”
“Which I am to make, of course . . .”
“Susan, you know you make the best fruit-cake in P. E. Island . . .”
“I know that I am as wax in your hands, Mrs. Dr. dear.”
A mysterious week followed. An air of hush-hush pervaded Ingleside. Everybody was sworn not to give the secret away to Aunt Mary Maria. But Anne and Susan had reckoned without gossip. The night before the party Aunt Mary Maria came home from a call in the Glen to find them sitting rather wearily in the unlighted sun-room.
“All in the dark, Annie? It beats me how anyone can like sitting in the dark. It gives me the blues.”
“It isn’t dark . . . it’s twilight . . . there has been a love-match between light and dark and beautiful exceedingly is the offspring thereof,” said Anne, more to herself than anybody else.
“I suppose you know what you mean yourself, Annie. And so you’re having a party tomorrow?”
Anne suddenly sat bolt upright. Susan, already sitting so, could not sit any uprighter.
“Why . . . why . . . Aunty . . .”
“You always leave me to hear things from outsiders,” said Aunt Mary Maria, but seemingly more in sorrow than in anger.
“We . . . we meant it for a surprise, Aunty . . .”
“I don’t know what you want of a party this time of year when you can’t depend on the weather, Annie.”
Anne drew a breath of relief. Evidently Aunt Mary Maria knew only that there was to be a party, not that it had any connexion with her.
“I . . . I wanted to have it before the spring flowers were done, Aunty.”74 “I shall wear my garnet taffeta. I suppose, Annie, if I had not heard of this in the village I should have been caught by all your fine friends tomorrow in a cotton dress.”
“Oh, no, Aunty. We meant to tell you in time to dress, of course . . .”
“Well, if my advice means anything to you, Annie . . . and sometimes I am almost compelled to think it does not . . . I would say that in future it would be better for you not to bequite so secretive about things. By the way, are you aware that they are saying in the village that it was Jem who threw the stone through the window of the Methodist church?”
“He did not,” said Anne quietly. “He told me he did not.”
“Are you sure, Annie dear, that he was not fibbing?”
“Annie dear” still spoke quietly.
“Quite sure, Aunt Mary Maria. Jem has never told me an untruth in his life.”
“Well, I thought you ought to know what was being said.”
Aunt Mary Maria stalked off in her usual gracious manner, ostentatiously avoiding the Shrimp, who was lying on his back on the floor entreating someone to tickle his stomach.
Susan and Anne drew a long breath.
“I think I’ll go to bed, Susan. And I do hope it is going to be fine tomorrow. I don’t like the look of that dark cloud over the harbour.”
“It will be fine, Mrs. Dr. dear,” reassured Susan. “The almanack says so.”
Susan had an almanack which foretold the whole year’s weather and was right often enough to keep up its credit.
“Leave the side door unlocked for the doctor, Susan. He may be late getting home from town. He went in for the roses . . . fifty-five golden roses, Susan . . . I’ve heard Aunt Mary Maria say that yellow roses were the only flowers she liked.”
Half an hour later, Susan, reading her nightly chapter in her Bible, came across the verse, “Withdraw thy foot from thy neighbour’s house lest he weary of thee75 and hate thee.” She put a sprig of southernwood in it to mark the spot. “Even in those days,” she reflected.
Anne and Susan were both up early, desiring to complete certain last preparations before Aunt Mary Maria should be about. Anne always liked to get up early and catch that mystical half-hour before sunrise when the world belongs to the fairies and the old gods. She liked to see the morning sky of pale rose and gold behind the church spire, the thin, translucent glow of sunrise spreading over the dunes, the first violet spirals of smoke floating up from the village roofs.
“It’s as if we had had a day made to order, Mrs. Dr. dear,” said Susan complacently, as she feathered an orange-frosted cake with cocoanut. “I will try my hand at them new-fangled butterballs after breakfast and I will phone Carter Flagg every half-hour to make sure that he will not forget the ice-cream. And there will be time to scrub the verandah steps.”
“Is that necessary, Susan?”
“Mrs. Dr. dear, you have invited Mrs. Marshall Elliott, have you not? She shall not see our verandah steps otherwise than spotless. But you will see to the decorations, Mrs. Dr. dear? I was not born with the gift of arranging flowers.”
“Four cakes! Gee!” said Jem.
“When we give a party,” said Susan grandly, “we give a party.”
The guests came in due time and were received by Aunt Mary Maria in garnet taffeta and by Anne in biscuit-coloured voile. Anne thought of putting on her white muslin, for the day was summer-warm, but decided otherwise.
“Very sensible of you, Annie,” commented Aunt Mary Maria. “White, I always say, is only for the young.”
Everything went according to schedule. The table looked beautiful with Anne’s prettiest dishes and the exotic beauty of white and purple iris. Susan’s butterballs made a sensation, nothing like them having been seen in the Glen before; her cream soup was the last word in soups; the chicken salad had been made of Ingleside “chickens that are chickens”; the badgered Carter Flagg sent up the ice76 cream on the tick of the dot. Finally Susan, bearing the birthday cake with its fifty-five lighted candles as if it were the Baptist’s head on a charger, marched in and set it down before Aunt Mary Maria.
Anne, outwardly the smiling serene hostess, had been feeling very uncomfortable for some time. In spite of all outward smoothness she had an ever-deepening conviction that something had gone terribly wrong. On the guests’ arrival she had been too much occupied to notice the change that came over Aunt Mary Maria’s face when Mrs. Marshall Elliott cordially wished her many happy returns of the day. But when they were all finally seated around the table Anne wakened up to the fact that Aunt Mary Maria was looking anything but pleased. She was actually white . . . it couldn’t be with fury! . . . and not one word did she say as the meal progressed, save curt replies to remarks addressed to her. She took only two spoonfuls of soup and three mouthfuls of salad; as for the ice-cream, she behaved to it as if it wasn’t there.
When Susan set the birthday cake, with its flickering candles, down before her, Aunt Mary Maria gave a fearful gulp which was not quite successful in swallowing a sob and consequently issued as a strangled whoop.
“Aunty, aren’t you feeling well?” cried Anne.
Aunt Mary Maria stared at her icily.
“Quite well, Annie. Remarkably well, indeed, for such an aged person as myself.”
At this auspicious moment the twins popped in, carrying between them the basketful of fifty-five yellow roses, and, amid a suddenly frozen silence, presented it to Aunt Mary Maria, with lisped congratulations and good wishes. A chorus of admiration went up from the table, but Aunt Mary Maria did not join in it.
“The . . . the twins will blow out the candles for you, Aunty,” faltered Anne nervously, “and then . . . will you cut the birthday cake?”
“Not being quite senile . . . yet . . . Annie, I can blow the candles out myself.”
Aunt Mary Maria proceeded to blow them out, painstakingly and deliberately.
With equal painstaking and deliberation she cut the cake. Then she laid the knife down.77
“And now perhaps I may be excused, Annie. Such an old woman as I am needs rest after so much excitement.”
Swish went Aunt Mary Maria’s taffeta skirt. Crash went the basket of roses as she swept past it. Click went Aunt Mary Maria’s high heels up the stairs. Bang went Aunt Mary Maria’s door in the distance.
The dumfounded guests ate their slices of birthday cake with such appetite as they could muster, in a strained silence broken only by a story Mrs. Amos Martin told desperately of a doctor in Nova Scotia who had poisoned several patients by injecting diphtheria germs into them. The others, feeling that this might not be in the best of taste, did not back up her laudable effort to “liven things up” and all went away as soon as they decently could.
A distracted Anne rushed to Aunt Mary Maria’s room.
“Aunty, what is the matter? . . .”
“Was it necessary to advertise my age in public, Annie? And to ask Adella Carey here . . . to have her find out how old I am . . . she’s been dying to know for years!”
“Aunty, we meant . . . we meant . . .”
“I don’t know what your purpose was, Annie. That there is something back of all this I know very well . . . oh, I can read your mind, dear Annie . . . but I shall not try to ferret it out . . . I shall leave it between you and your conscience.”
“Aunt Mary Maria, my only intention was to give you a happy birthday. I’m dreadfully sorry. . . .”
Aunt Mary Maria put her handkerchief to her eyes and smiled bravely.
“Of course I forgive you, Annie. But you must realize that after such a deliberate attempt to injure my feelings I cannot stay here any longer.”
“Amity, won’t you believe . . .”
Aunt Mary Maria lifted a long, thin, knobby hand.
“Don’t let us discuss it, Annie. I want peace . . . just peace. ‘A wounded spirit who can bear?’“78
Anne went to the concert with Gilbert that night, but it could not be said she enjoyed it. Gilbert took the whole matter “just like a man,” as Miss Cornelia might have said.
“I remember she was always a little touchy about her age. Dad used to rag her. I should have warned you . . . but it had slipped my memory. If she goes, don’t try to stop her” . . . and refrained through clannishness from adding “good riddance!”
“She will not go. No such good luck, Mrs. Dr. dear,” said Susan incredulously.
But for once Susan was wrong. Aunt Mary Maria went away the very next day, forgiving everybody with her parting breath.
“Don’t blame Annie, Gilbert,” she said magnanimously. “I acquit her of all intentional insult. I never minded her having secrets from me . . . though to a sensitive mind like mine . . . but in spite of everything I’ve always liked poor Annie” . . . this with the air of one confessing a weakness. “But Susan Baker is a cat of another colour. My last word to you, Gilbert, is . . . put Susan Baker in her place and keep her there.”
Nobody could believe in their good luck at first. Then they woke up to the fact that Aunt Mary Maria had really gone . . . that it was possible to laugh again without hurting anyone’s feelings . . . open all the windows without anyone complaining of draughts . . . eat a meal without anyone telling you that something you specially liked was liable to produce cancer of the stomach.
“I’ve never sped a parting guest so willingly,” thought Anne, half guiltily.
“It is nice to call your soul your own again.”
The Shrimp groomed himself meticulously, feeling that, after all, there was some fun in being a cat. The first peony burst into bloom in the garden.
“The world is just full of poetry, isn’t it, Mummy?” said Walter.
“It is going to be a real nice June,” foretold Susan. “The almanack says so. There are going to be a few brides and most likely at least two funerals. Does it not seem strange to be able to draw a free breath again? When I think that I did all that in me lay to prevent you giving that party, Mrs. Dr. dear, I realize afresh that there is an overruling Providence. And don’t you think, Mrs. Dr. dear, that the doctor would relish some onions with his fried steak today?”79 15
“I felt I had to come up, dearie,” said Miss Cornelia, “and explain about that telephone. It was all a mistake . . . I’m so sorry . . . Cousin Sarah isn’t dead, after all.” Anne, smothering a smile, offered Miss Cornelia a chair on the verandah, and Susan, looking up from the collar of Irish-crochet lace she was making for her niece Gladys, uttered a scrupulously polite, “Good-evening, Mrs. Marshall Elliott.”
“The word came out from the hospital this morning that she had passed away in the night, and I felt I ought to inform you, since she was the doctor’s patient. But it was another Sarah Chase and Cousin Sarah is living and likely to live, I’m thankful to say. It’s real nice and cool here, Anne. I always say if there’s a breeze to be had anywhere it’s at Ingleside.”
“Susan and I have been enjoying the charm of this starlit evening,” said Anne, laying aside the dress of pink, smocked muslin she was making for Nan and clasping her hands over her knees. An excuse to be idle for a little while was not unwelcome. Neither she nor Susan had many idle moments nowadays.
There was going to be a moonrise and the prophecy of it was even lovelier than the moonrise itself would be. Tiger lilies were “burning bright” along the walk and whiffs of honeysuckle went and came on the wings of the dreaming wind.
“Look at that wave of poppies breaking against the garden wall, Miss Cornelia.
Susan and I are very proud of our poppies this year, though we hadn’t a single thing to do with them. Walter spilt a packet of seed there by accident in the spring and this is the result. Every year we have some delightful surprise like that.”
“I’m partial to poppies,” said Miss Cornelia, “though they don’t last long.”
“They have only a day to live,” admitted Anne, “but how imperially, how gorgeous they live it! Isn’t that better than being a stiff horrible zinnia that lasts practically for ever? We have no zinnias at Ingleside. They’re the only flowers we are not friends with. Susan won’t even speak to them.”
“Anybody being murdered in the Hollow?” asked Miss Cornelia. Indeed, the sounds that came drifting up would seem to indicate that someone was being80 burned at the stake. But Anne and Susan were too accustomed to that to be disturbed.
“Persis and Kenneth have been here all day and they wound up by a banquet in the Hollow. As for Mrs. Chase, Gilbert went to town this morning, so he would know the truth about her. I am glad for everyone’s sake she is doing so well . . . the other doctors did not agree with Gilbert’s diagnosis and he was a little worried.”
“Sarah warned us when she went to the hospital that we were not to bury her unless we were sure she was dead,” said Miss Cornelia, fanning herself majestically and wondering how the doctor’s wife always managed to look so cool. “You see, we were always a little afraid her husband was buried alive . . . he looked so life-like. But nobody thought of it until it was too late. He was a brother of this Richard Chase who bought the old Moorside farm and moved there from Lowbridge in the spring. He’s a card. Said he came to the country to get some peace . . . he had to spend all his time in Lowbridge dodging widows” . . . “and old maids,” Miss Cornelia might have added but did not, out of regard for Susan’s feelings.
“I’ve met his daughter Stella . . . she comes to choir practice. We’ve taken quite a fancy to each other.”
“Stella is a sweet girl . . . one of the few girls left that can blush. I’ve always loved her. Her mother and I used to be great cronies. Poor Lisette!”
“She died young?”
“Yes, when Stella was only eight. Richard brought Stella up himself. And him an infidel if he’s anything! He says women are only important biologically . . . whatever that may mean. He’s always shooting off some big talk like that.”
“He doesn’t seem to have made such a bad job of bringing her up,” said Anne, who thought Stella Chase one of the most charming girls she had ever met.
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