- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
"I'm too old for this."
A fine time to think of that. She was already on the windowsill, black smoke billowing out of the room behind her, catching at her throat, filling her nostrils, making her sick. Two stories below, a ring of black-coated firemen clutched the rim of the net. She could see their red, sweat-streaked faces under their yellow helmets, all grimly upturned. She could see the crowd behind the fire lines: adults with their fists clenched in fear, semihysterical youngsters shrieking, "Jump! Jump!"
She jumped. She landed. Properly. Nothing broken, nothing sprained. She bounced once. She settled back. She sat up and waved to the crowd. Everybody cheered. She was lowered carefully to the ground, helped to stand up. She shook hands with the chief, straightened her loden-colored Tyrolean hat, dusted off her olive green tweed knickerbockers, pulled down the skirt of her Norfolk jacket, waved again, and walked away behind the engines. The firemen took off their helmets, turned them upside down, and started working the crowd. They wouldn't have gone begging for themselves, but this was for Ladderman Bechley's widow.
It was nice of Mrs. Kelling to help out. But then, Emma Kelling always helped out. It was Emma who'd organized this whole affair, as soon as she'd found out that the insurance and the Firemen's Relief Fund weren't going to stretch far enough to cover a distraught wife with bad varicose veins, three half-grown kids, a crippled mother-in-law, and too big a mortgage.
The firemen had already given their hook-and-ladder demonstration. They'd blown up a disused henhouse. They'd put out a miniature forest fire: a pile of brush contributed by the park department and two once-graceful shade trees that had most regrettably succumbed to Dutch elm disease and would have had to be destroyed anyway.
The Pirates of Pleasaunce, who normally specialized in Gilbert and Sullivan, had sung a medley of golden oldies like "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire." Jenicot Tippleton, their premiere chanteuse, had belted out a couple of torch songs and a torrid—torrid for Jenicot, anyway—imitation of the late Rita Hayworth singing "Fire Down Below."
As a grand finale, the Pirates had staged a semi-impromptu minimusical based on that catchy ballad, "The Fireman's Bride." They'd all been dressed in red flannel, except Emma's three grandsons. Little Bed, as the firehouse dalmatian, had worn white with black spots. Wally and Jem had been the anterior and posterior halves, respectively, of a mettlesome coal black firehorse pulling a genuine antique hose cart that had belonged to their late grandfather. Beddoes Kelling had been a notable spark; Emma still kept his fire helmet hanging in his den.
Beddoes had also established his own orchestra years ago, mainly as an excuse to keep on playing the tuba he'd carried so proudly in the Harvard Band, as had his father before him. His son and namesake, Beddoes Kelling III, still called Young Bed by his family and friends, had carried on the tradition. Young Bed was perched right now on one of the fire trucks, accompanying his fellow musicians with right good oompah. Beddoes Kelling IV was already taking tuba lessons. Little Bed had dreamed as a boy of playing quarterback on the football team, but a Kelling knew where his duty lay.
What with one thing and another, this had been a perfectly splendid afternoon. Now it was all over but the eating. Emma broke free from a clutch of youngsters clamoring for her to autograph their bubble-gum wrappers and made a beeline for the refreshment tent. She'd earned her tea, and she was jolly well going to get it.
Of course every party in the tent begged Emma to join them, but she merely kept smiling and heading for the small table in the far corner where Marcia Pence's mother, dear old Adelaide Sabine, was sitting by herself.
Mrs. Sabine had on the deep-crowned, gray straw picture hat she'd bought for Ascot in 1927. The hat was still holding up nicely, Emma thought, which was more than could be said for poor Adelaide. She had a cup of tea and a plate of miniature fruit tarts in front of her but wasn't doing much about them. Emma pulled out a chair for herself and sat down. "Adelaide, how very nice to see you out and about. May I join you?"
"Oh, please do. I'm waiting for Marcia and Parker"—Marcia was Adelaide's daughter and Parker either her son-in-law or her grandson, depending on whether she meant Parker II or Parker III—"but from the sound of things, they're still playing. Your kind Mrs. Heatherstone brought me these lovely tarts. Won't you share them?"
"Thank you, but I need something more substantial first. Jumping out of windows is hungry work, you know. We did it quite spectacularly this time. One of the men set off a smoke bomb behind me. I expect I smell like a kipper."
"Not at all," the older woman replied politely. "I'm sorry I didn't get to watch, but I couldn't face the crowd. And of course I'd seen the demonstration you gave for the women's club during Fire Prevention Week. I really don't see how you do it. Aren't you scared stiff every time?"
"I suppose I might be if darling Bed were still alive. Now that he's gone, life and limb don't seem all that important." Emma could say such things to another elderly widow. It was the young ones who'd have had fits if they'd heard her.
Even Mrs. Sabine didn't take her seriously. "Nonsense, you've a long way to go yet. If I didn't know better, I'd take you for about fifty-five."
This was perhaps stretching it a bit. Anyone would have agreed that Emma Kelling was still a fine figure of a woman, had the expression been still in vogue. Her complexion was fresh, her carriage erect, her hair as blond as it had ever been and perhaps a trifle blonder. Even her wrinkles became her. She slipped off her tweed jacket, revealing a pale green silk shirt, long-sleeved because after sixty there's really not much anybody can do about elbows, and looked hopefully around for somebody to wait on her. "But you are feeling better, Adelaide?"
"Better than I was last winter, at any rate. I'm still a bit tottery, though. Marcia's quite insistent that I mustn't go to the island this summer, and the doctor agrees with her. He says he wants me where he can get at me."
"And how do you—oh, thank you, Mrs. Heatherstone."
Naturally Emma hadn't had to wait any longer than it took for word to get to the kitchen tent that Mrs. Kelling had arrived. Naturally the tea was Earl Grey and the sandwiches all Emma's favorite kinds. Naturally she'd been served by the head woman in charge of the tea tent. Mr. and Mrs. Heatherstone had been running Emma's household for the past thirty-seven years. They were pitching in capably and cheerfully as always, ready to go along with whatever new scheme Mrs. Kelling cooked up. They'd handled bigger crowds than this, sometimes on just a few hours' notice, without turning a hair. But they were taking the summer off. How would she ever get through it without them? Emma fought off momentary despair and turned back to the frail old woman across the table. "As I started to say, how do you yourself feel about not going?"
Mrs. Sabine picked up her fork and broke a tiny corner off a strawberry tart. "Frankly, Emma, I don't much care. I keep thinking I should; Pocapuk Island has been so much a part of my life for so many years. But it's a long way to travel and a great deal of work after one gets there. I'm beautifully taken care of at Marcia's, and it's so pleasant having friends like you nearby that I find myself bearing the prospect of staying here with equanimity. Only my not going will cause a good many problems, and I'm wondering how to cope. You know about the cottages, I expect?"
"Oh yes, Bed and I spent a night in one many years ago when we were cruising the Maine coast. I'm sure you don't remember our being there; you must have had hundreds of guests over the years. Had you already invited someone for this season?"
"A full complement, unfortunately. Nobody you'd know, I shouldn't think. Most of them I've never met myself. Over the years, George and I got into the habit of letting a few what we called worthies use our cottages as summer studios. Artists, writers, people who need a quiet place to work and don't have other resources to draw on."
That was a ladylike way of putting it. Emma knew all about the Sabines' featherless chicks. "Several of your protégés have gone on to do excellent work, I understand."
"Many of them had already done good work," Mrs. Sabine replied a bit stiffly. "Besides, they've been interesting company. Some more so than others, I have to admit. On the whole, though, it's been a rewarding experience. And they don't have to be coaxed to come. In recent years, particularly since George died, that's been something of a problem. The island's not a place one can enjoy too long all by one's self unless one's a hermit, which I'm certainly not. And life is different these days, as I surely don't have to tell you. Old friends are dying off or getting to be hopeless crocks like myself, and the younger generations have more interesting things to do than dawdle away their time listening to an old woman snore in her rocking chair or maunder on about the good old days."
"How well I know!" Emma murmured.
"Nonsense, you don't know at all. Wait another ten years. Anyway, what's happened is that in recent years it's been pretty much myself and the worthies. One passes the word to another, you know, and somebody writes a letter of recommendation and it's hard to say no. This year a friend of Parker's, or a friend of a friend, recommended a Russian poet who sounded respectable if a bit dreary. Then I was approached by a Professor Wont. He and a group of colleagues were hoping they might come to the island to work on a joint project, some kind of historical thing he wasn't too clear about. Anyway, he said he'd handle all the details, so I let him go ahead and fill up the rest of the cottages, refusing to let myself admit the possibility that I mightn't be there to look after them. Now it's time to open the house, and here I am still dithering."
"They couldn't just fend for themselves?"
"Pocapuk's not that sort of place. The cottages have no cooking facilities. The arrangement's always been that people wander up for a buffet breakfast anytime between half-past seven and half-past nine, collect picnic lunches at that time if they want them, then everyone assembles in the main house at six o'clock for drinks and an early dinner. George and I thought it only fair that guests should sing for their suppers"—Mrs. Sabine laughed a little—"and they seemed to find our company agreeable enough. So I've kept on the same way."
"I should hope so," said Emma. "They're lucky you don't make them help with the housework."
"Oh, help has never been a problem. There are always college students looking for summer jobs, and I have a wonderfully capable man who acts as caretaker and general factotum. Vincent, his name is. He has a friend who cooks, and between them they round me up a staff of sorts every year. But you know how it is with temporary and usually untrained servants and a houseful of company. One's time seems to be wholly taken up with explaining what needs doing and making sure it gets done. I simply can't handle that sort of thing these days, and I don't suppose I ever shall again. It's rather restful being on the shelf, once one adjusts to the idea. But that's enough of my tale of woe. What's yours, or don't you have one?"
"Don't I ever! The Heatherstones are deserting me for the next two months. Their son and his family are in England and they've invited the parents to join them. It's a perfectly splendid chance and I wouldn't have them miss it for anything, but the housekeeping's going to be a problem, I'm afraid. My son Walter and his family have moved in with me for the summer. They had a fire in their wiring, nothing serious, but you can imagine the mess from the smoke and water. So they decided they might as well redecorate the whole place at once and get it over with."
"Then you won't be lonesome." Mrs. Sabine took another nibble of her tart. Emma ate a shrimp sandwich and sighed.
"No, I'm not wanting for company. Young Wally and Little Em have scads of friends, and of course their cousins adore having them so near. Dearly as I love them all, I'm thinking seriously of booking a cruise to the Galápagos Islands. Or possibly Antarctica. I'd hoped to bag my niece Sarah's guest house, but—Adelaide, I've just had a glorious thought! Why don't I go to your island?"
"Emma, surely you don't mean that?"
"Why not? It would be a change. Unless of course you'd rather I didn't?"
Mrs. Sabine put down her fork and reached across the table for Mrs. Kelling's hand. "Emma, my dear, how could I not want you to go? It would be the answer to everything. But are you quite sure?"
"Adelaide, consider my position. My daughter-in-law Kippy, Kristina, you know, went to school in Switzerland. I think it's charming that Kippy learned to yodel there; she yodels rather sweetly. I found it perfectly natural that she taught Walter to yodel, too. When their children came along, I could hardly wait to hear the little dears chirping their first o-le-ayhoos. But nowadays when the lot of them get to yodeling back and forth at each other before I've even had my morning coffee, I have to say I find it a bit much."
"Good heavens! Do they really?"
"That's just the tip of the iceberg," Emma replied grimly. "Their four pet cockatoos yodel, too. Their bloodhound keeps trying to and can't. Shall I go on?"
"No, please, I can't stand it!" Mrs. Sabine was already having to dab at her eyes with a beautiful, white cambric handkerchief that smelled faintly of lavender. "I can see that your need is even greater than mine. Oh, listen, they're singing again."
The fire truck was parked directly outside the refreshment tent. The Pirates of Pleasaunce were all aboard, singing a last chorus about the fireman's bride who wouldn't stay home by her fireside.
"Bed used to insist that song was written about me," Emma admitted. "I can imagine what he'd say if he'd watched me jumping out that window today. But she came to no good end, as I recall."
Mrs. Sabine was still smiling. "You're never naughty, Emma."
"At my age, when would I get the chance?" Emma stood up and put on her jacket. "Then I'd better go home and pack, hadn't I? When will it be convenient for me to stop by and pick up your keys?"CHAPTER 2
With the yodelers already in residence, getting away had been no great problem. Household arrangements could be left to Kippy and the cockatoos. Packing for so extended a stay had been easy enough; Emma was well organized and knew pretty much what sort of weather she could expect on the island, even in high summer. Warm cardigans, loose skirts of velour or corduroy, practical long-sleeved shirts went in with the summery cottons. No dinner dresses, she wouldn't need them. Her jewels could stay in the safe. Those clunky, arty pieces Emma's namesake granddaughter liked to pick out for her at craft shows would be just right for a congeries of artists.
Artists in the general sense, she meant; in fact, only two of them were involved with the visual arts, according to the list Adelaide Sabine had given her. Lisbet Quainley painted and Joris Groot illustrated. That probably meant Emma would be able to see what Groot's work was getting at and would have to guess about Miss Quainley. Then again, it might be the other way around. One never knew, these days.
It was the historian who'd organized Adelaide's guest list for her. He was supposed to be doing research, though Emma couldn't think why he'd chosen Pocapuk Island to do it on. Everard Wont, his name was; he sounded like a character out of Barbara Pym. There was also a mystery writer who'd sit and look inscrutable, she supposed, while Wont did the talking. Historians always talked; Emma had known lots of them, both professional and amateur. She'd never met a mystery writer before, though. She'd assumed they were all middle-aged women who wore odd clothes and lived in out-of-the-way places with a great many cats, but Black John Sendick sounded male as anything.
Excerpted from The Gladstone Bag by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1989 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.