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Rilla of Ingleside
It was a warm, golden-cloudy, lovable afternoon. In the big living room at Ingleside, Susan Baker sat down with a certain grim satisfaction hovering about her like an aura; it was four o’clock and Susan, who had been working incessantly since six that morning, felt that she had fairly earned an hour of repose and gossip. Susan just then was perfectly happy; everything had gone almost uncannily well in the kitchen that day. Dr. Jekyll had not been Mr. Hyde and so had not grated on her nerves; from where she sat she could see the pride of her heart—the bed of peonies of her own planting and culture, blooming as no other peony plot in Glen St. Mary ever did or could bloom, with peonies crimson, peonies silvery pink, peonies white as drifts of winter snow.
Susan had on a new black silk blouse, quite as elaborate as anything Mrs. Marshall Elliott ever wore, and a white starched apron, trimmed with complicated crocheted lace fully five inches wide, not to mention insertion to match. Therefore Susan had all the comfortable consciousness of a well-dressed woman as she opened her copy of the Daily Enterprise and prepared to read the Glen “Notes” which, as Miss Cornelia had just informed her, filled half a column of it and mentioned almost everybody at Ingleside. There was a big, black headline on the front page of the Enterprise, stating that some Archduke Ferdinand or other had been assassinated at a place bearing the weird name of Sarajevo, but Susan tarried not over uninteresting, immaterial stuff like that; she was in quest of something really vital. Oh, here it was—“Jottings from Glen St. Mary.” Susan settled down keenly, reading each one over aloud to extract all possible gratification from it.
Mrs. Blythe and her visitor, Miss Cornelia—alias Mrs. Marshall Elliott—were chatting together near the open door that led to the veranda, through which a cool, delicious breeze was blowing, bringing whiffs of phantom perfume from the garden, and charming gay echoes from the vine-hung corner where Rilla and Miss Oliver and Walter were laughing and talking. Wherever Rilla Blythe was, there was laughter.
There was another occupant of the living room, curled up on a couch, who must not be overlooked, since he was a creature of marked individuality, and, moreover, had the distinction of being the only living thing whom Susan really hated.
All cats are mysterious but Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde—“Doc” for short—was trebly so. He was a cat of double personality—or else, as Susan vowed, he was possessed by the devil. To begin with, there had been something uncanny about the very dawn of his existence. Four years previously Rilla Blythe had had a treasured darling of a kitten, white as snow, with a saucy black tip to its tail, which she called Jack Frost. Susan disliked Jack Frost, though she could not or would not give any valid reason therefor.
“Take my word for it, Mrs. Dr. dear,” she was wont to say ominously, “that cat will come to no good.”
“But why do you think so?” Mrs. Blythe would ask.
“I do not think—I know,” was all the answer Susan would vouchsafe.
With the rest of the Ingleside folk Jack Frost was a favorite; he was so very clean and well groomed, and never allowed a spot or stain to be seen on his beautiful white suit; he had endearing ways of purring and snuggling; he was scrupulously honest.
And then a domestic tragedy took place at Ingleside. Jack Frost had kittens!
It would be vain to try to picture Susan’s triumph. Had she not always insisted that that cat would turn out to be a delusion and a snare? Now they could see for themselves!
Rilla kept one of the kittens, a very pretty one, with peculiarly sleek glossy fur of a dark yellow crossed by orange stripes, and large, satiny, golden ears. She called it Goldie and the name seemed appropriate enough to the little frolicsome creature which, during its kittenhood, gave no indication of the sinister nature it really possessed. Susan, of course, warned the family that no good could be expected from any offspring of that diabolical Jack Frost; but Susan’s Cassandra-like croakings were unheeded.
The Blythes had been so accustomed to regard Jack Frost as a member of the male sex that they could not get out of the habit. So they continually used the masculine pronoun, although the result was ludicrous. Visitors used to be quite electrified when Rilla referred casually to “Jack and his kitten,” or told Goldie sternly, “Go to your mother and get him to wash your fur.”
“It is not decent, Mrs. Dr. dear,” poor Susan would say bitterly. She herself compromised by always referring to Jack as “it” or “the white beast,” and one heart at least did not ache when “it” was accidentally poisoned the following winter.
In a year’s time Goldie became so manifestly an inadequate name for the orange kitten that Walter, who was just then reading Stevenson’s story, changed it to Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde. In his Dr. Jekyll mood the cat was a drowsy, affectionate, domestic, cushion-loving puss, who liked petting and gloried in being nursed and patted. Especially did he love to lie on his back and have his sleek, cream-colored throat stroked gently while he purred in somnolent satisfaction. He was a notable purrer; never had there been an Ingleside cat who purred so constantly and so ecstatically.
“The only thing I envy a cat is its purr,” remarked Dr. Blythe once, listening to Doc’s resonant melody. “It is the most contented sound in the world.”
Doc was very handsome; his every movement was grace; his poses magnificent. When he folded his long, dusky-ringed tail about his feet and sat him down on the veranda to gaze steadily into space for long intervals the Blythes felt that an Egyptian sphinx could not have made a more fitting Deity of the Portal.
When the Mr. Hyde mood came upon him—which it invariably did before rain, or wind—he was a wild thing with changed eyes. The transformation always came suddenly. He would spring fiercely from a reverie with a savage snarl and bite at any restraining or caressing hand. His fur seemed to grow darker and his eyes gleamed with a diabolical light. There was really an unearthly beauty about him. If the change happened in the twilight all the Ingleside folk felt a certain terror of him. At such times he was a fearsome beast and only Rilla defended him, asserting that he was “such a nice prowly cat.” Certainly he prowled.
Dr. Jekyll loved new milk; Mr. Hyde would not touch milk and growled over his meat. Dr. Jekyll came down the stairs so silently that no one could hear him. Mr. Hyde made his tread as heavy as a man’s. Several evenings, when Susan was alone in the house, he “scared her stiff,” as she declared, by doing this. He would sit in the middle of the kitchen floor, with his terrible eyes fixed unwinkingly upon hers for an hour at a time. This played havoc with her nerves, but poor Susan really held him in too much awe to try to drive him out. Once she had dared to throw a stick at him and he had promptly made a savage leap towards her. Susan rushed out of doors and never attempted to meddle with Mr. Hyde again—though she visited his misdeeds upon the innocent Dr. Jekyll, chasing him ignominiously out of her domain whenever he dared to poke his nose in and denying him certain savory tidbits for which he yearned.
“ ‘The many friends of Miss Faith Meredith, Gerald Meredith, and James Blythe,’ ” read Susan, rolling the names like sweet morsels under her tongue, “ ‘were very much pleased to welcome them home a few weeks ago from Redmond College. James Blythe, who was graduated in Arts in 1913, had just completed his first year in medicine.’ ”
“Faith Meredith has really got to be the most handsomest creature I ever saw,” commented Miss Cornelia above her filet crochet. “It’s amazing how those children came on after Rosemary West went to the manse. People have almost forgotten what imps of mischief they were once. Anne, dearie, will you ever forget the way they used to carry on? It’s really surprising how well Rosemary got on with them. She’s more like a chum than a step-mother. They all love her and Una adores her. As for that little Bruce, Una just makes a perfect slave of herself to him. Of course, he is a darling. But did you ever see any child look as much like an aunt as he looks like his Aunt Ellen? He’s just as dark and just as emphatic. I can’t see a feature of Rosemary in him. Norman Douglas always vows at the top of his voice that the stork meant Bruce for him and Ellen and took him to the manse by mistake.”
“Bruce adores Jem,” said Mrs. Blythe. “When he comes over here he follows Jem about silently like a faithful little dog, looking up at him from under his black brows. He would do anything for Jem, I verily believe.”
“Are Jem and Faith going to make a match of it?”
Mrs. Blythe smiled. It was well known that Miss Cornelia, who had been such a virulent man-hater at one time, had actually taken to match-making in her declining years.
“They are only good friends yet, Miss Cornelia.”
“Very good friends, believe me,” said Miss Cornelia emphatically. “I hear all about the doings of the young fry.”
“I have no doubt that Mary Vance sees that you do, Mrs. Marshall Elliott,” said Susan significantly, “but I think it is a shame to talk about children making matches.”
“Children! Jem is twenty-one and Faith is nineteen,” retorted Miss Cornelia. “You must not forget, Susan, that we old folks are not the only grown-up people in the world.”
Outraged Susan, who detested any reference to her age—not from vanity but from a haunting dread that people might come to think her too old to work—returned to her “Notes.”
“ ‘Carl Meredith and Shirley Blythe came home last Friday evening from Queen’s Academy. We understand that Carl will be in charge of the school at Harbour Head next year and we are sure he will be a popular and successful teacher.’ ”
“He will teach the children all there is to know about bugs, anyhow,” said Miss Cornelia. “He is through with Queen’s now and Mr. Meredith and Rosemary wanted him to go right on to Redmond in the fall, but Carl has a very independent streak in him and means to earn part of his own way through college. He’ll be all the better for it.”
“ ‘Walter Blythe, who has been teaching for the past two years at Lowbridge, has resigned,’ ” read Susan. “ ‘He intends going to Redmond this fall.’ ”
“Is Walter quite strong enough for Redmond yet?” queried Miss Cornelia anxiously.
“We hope that he will be by the fall,” said Mrs. Blythe. “An idle summer in the open air and sunshine will do a great deal for him.”
“Typhoid is a hard thing to get over,” said Miss Cornelia emphatically, “especially when one has had such a close shave as Walter had. I think he’d do well to stay out of college another year. But then he’s so ambitious. Are Di and Nan going too?”
“Yes. They both wanted to teach another year but Gilbert thinks they had better go to Redmond this fall.”
“I’m glad of that. They’ll keep an eye on Walter and see that he doesn’t study too hard. I suppose,” continued Miss Cornelia, with a side glance at Susan, “that after the snub I got a few minutes ago it will not be safe for me to suggest that Jerry Meredith is making sheep’s eyes at Nan.”
Susan ignored this and Mrs. Blythe laughed again.
“Dear Miss Cornelia, I have my hands full, haven’t I?—with all these boys and girls sweethearting around me? If I took it seriously it would quite crush me. But I don’t—it is too hard yet to realize that they’re grown up. When I look at those two tall sons of mine I wonder if they can possibly be the fat, sweet, dimpled babies I kissed and cuddled and sang to slumber the other day—only the other day, Miss Cornelia. Wasn’t Jem the dearest baby in the old House of Dreams? And now he’s a B.A. and accused of courting.”
“We’re all growing older,” sighed Miss Cornelia.
“The only part of me that feels old,” said Mrs. Blythe, “is the ankle I broke when Josie Pye dared me to walk the Barry ridge-pole in the Green Gables days. I have an ache in it when the wind is east. I won’t admit that it is rheumatism, but it does ache. As for the children, they and the Merediths are planning a gay summer before they have to go back to studies in the fall. They are such a fun-loving little crowd. They keep this house in a perpetual whirl of merriment.”
“Is Rilla going to Queen’s when Shirley goes back?”
“It isn’t decided yet. I rather fancy not. Her father thinks she is not quite strong enough—she has rather outgrown her strength—she’s really absurdly tall for a girl not yet fifteen. I am not anxious to have her go—why, it would be terrible not to have a single one of my babies home with me next winter. Susan and I would fall to fighting with each other to break the monotony.”
Susan smiled at this pleasantry. The idea of her fighting with “Mrs. Dr. dear”!
“Does Rilla herself want to go?” asked Miss Cornelia.
“No. The truth is, Rilla is the only one of my flock who isn’t ambitious. I really wish she had a little more ambition. She has no serious ideals at all—her sole aspiration seems to be to have a good time.”
“And why should she not have it, Mrs. Dr. dear?” cried Susan, who could not bear to hear a single word against any one of the Ingleside folk, even from one of themselves. “A young girl should have a good time, and that I will maintain. There will be time enough for her to think of Latin and Greek.”
“I should like to see a little sense of responsibility in her, Susan. And you know yourself that she is abominably vain.”
“She has something to be vain about,” retorted Susan. “She is the prettiest girl in Glen St. Mary. Do you think that all those over-harbor MacAllisters and Crawfords and Elliotts could scare up a skin like Rilla’s in four generations? They could not. No, Mrs. Dr. dear, I know my place but I cannot allow you to run down Rilla. Listen to this, Mrs. Marshall Elliott.”
Susan had found a chance to get square with Miss Cornelia for her digs at the children’s love affairs. She read the item with gusto.
“ ‘Miller Douglas has decided not to go West. He says old P.E.I. is good enough for him and he will continue to farm for his aunt, Mrs. Alec Davis.’ ”
Susan looked keenly at Miss Cornelia.
“I have heard, Mrs. Marshall Elliott, that Miller is courting Mary Vance.”
This shot pierced Miss Cornelia’s armor. Her sonsy face flushed.
“I won’t have Miller Douglas hanging round Mary,” she said crisply. “He comes of a low family. His father was a sort of outcast from the Douglases—they never really counted him in—and his mother was one of those terrible Dillons from the Harbour Head.”
“I think I have heard, Mrs. Marshall Elliott, that Mary Vance’s own parents were not what you could call aristocratic.”
“Mary Vance has had a good bringing up and she is a smart, clever, capable girl,” retorted Miss Cornelia. “She is not going to throw herself away on Miller Douglas, believe me! She knows my opinion on the matter and Mary has never disobeyed me yet.”
“Well, I do not think you need worry, Mrs. Marshall Elliott, for Mrs. Alec Davis is as much against it as you could be, and says no nephew of hers is ever going to marry a nameless nobody like Mary Vance.”
Susan returned to her mutton, feeling that she had got the best of it in this passage of arms, and read another “note.”
“ ‘We are pleased to hear that Miss Oliver has been engaged as teacher for another year. Miss Oliver will spend her well-earned vacation at her home in Lowbridge.’ ”
“I’m so glad Gertrude is going to stay,” said Mrs. Blythe. “We would miss her horribly. And she has an excellent influence over Rilla who worships her. They are chums, in spite of the difference in their ages.”
“I thought I heard she was going to be married?”
“I believe it was talked of but I understand it is postponed for a year.”
“Who is the young man?”
“Robert Grant. He is a young lawyer in Charlottetown. I hope Gertrude will be happy. She has had a sad life, with much bitterness in it, and she feels things with a terrible keenness. Her first youth is gone and she is practically alone in the world. This new love that has come into her life seems such a wonderful thing to her that I think she hardly dares believe in its permanence. When her marriage had to be put off she was quite in despair—though it certainly wasn’t Mr. Grant’s fault. There were complications in the settlement of his father’s estate—his father died last winter—and he could not marry till the tangles were unraveled. But I think Gertrude felt it was a bad omen and that her happiness would somehow elude her yet.”
“It does not do, Mrs. Dr. dear, to set your affections too much on a man,” remarked Susan solemnly.
“Mr. Grant is quite as much in love with Gertrude as she is with him, Susan. It is not he whom she distrusts—it is fate. She has a little mystic streak in her—I suppose some people would call her superstitious. She has an odd belief in dreams and we have not been able to laugh it out of her. I must own, too, that some of her dreams—but there, it would not do to let Gilbert hear me hinting such heresy. What have you found of much interest, Susan?”
Susan had given an exclamation.
“Listen to this, Mrs. Dr. dear. ‘Mrs. Sophia Crawford has given up her house at Lowbridge and will make her home in future with her niece, Mrs. Albert Crawford.’ Why, that is my own cousin Sophia, Mrs. Dr. dear. We quarreled when we were children over who should get a Sunday-school card with the words ‘God is Love,’ wreathed in rosebuds, on it, and have never spoken to each other since. And now she is coming to live right across the road from us.”
“You will have to make up the old quarrel, Susan. It will never do to be at outs with your neighbors.”
“Cousin Sophia began the quarrel, so she can begin the making up also, Mrs. Dr. dear,” said Susan loftily. “If she does I hope I am a good enough Christian to meet her half way. She is not a cheerful person and has been a wet blanket all her life. The last time I saw her, her face had a thousand wrinkles—maybe more, maybe less—from worrying and foreboding. She howled dreadful at her first husband’s funeral but she married again in less than a year. The next note, I see, describes the special service in our church last Sunday night and says the decorations were very beautiful.”
“Speaking of that reminds me that Mr. Pryor strongly disapproves of flowers in church,” said Miss Cornelia. “I always said there would be trouble when that man moved here from Lowbridge. He should never have been put in as elder—it was a mistake and we shall live to rue it, believe me! I have heard that he has said that if the girls continue to ‘mess up the pulpit with weeds’ that he will not go to church.”
“The church got on very well before old Whiskers-on-the-moon came to the Glen and it is my opinion it will get on without him after he is gone,” said Susan.
“Who in the world ever gave him that ridiculous nickname?” asked Mrs. Blythe.
“Why, the Lowbridge boys have called him that ever since I can remember, Mrs. Dr. dear—I suppose because his face is so round and red, with that fringe of sandy whisker about it. It does not do for anyone to call him that in his hearing, though, and that you may tie to. But worse than his whiskers, Mrs. Dr. dear, he is a very unreasonable man and has a great many queer ideas. He is an elder now and they say he is very religious; but I can well remember the time, Mrs. Dr. dear, twenty years ago, when he was caught pasturing his cow in the Lowbridge graveyard. Yes, indeed, I have not forgotten that, and I always think of it when he is praying in meeting. Well, that is all the notes and there is not much else in the paper of any importance. I never take much interest in foreign parts. Who is this Archduke man who has been murdered?”
“What does it matter to us?” asked Miss Cornelia, unaware of the hideous answer to her question which destiny was even then preparing. “Somebody is always murdering or being murdered in those Balkan States. It’s their normal condition and I don’t really think that our papers ought to print such shocking things. The Enterprise is getting far too sensational with its big headlines. Well, I must be getting home. No, Anne dearie, it’s no use asking me to stay to supper. Marshall has got to thinking that if I’m not home for a meal it’s not worth eating—just like a man. So off I go. Merciful goodness, Anne dearie, what is the matter with that cat? Is he having a fit?”—this, as Doc suddenly bounded to the rug at Miss Cornelia’s feet, laid back his ears, swore at her, and then disappeared with one fierce leap through the window.
“Oh, no. He’s merely turning into Mr. Hyde—which means that we shall have rain or high wind before morning. Doc is as good as a barometer.”
“Well, I am thankful he has gone on the rampage outside this time and not into my kitchen,” said Susan. “And I am going out to see about supper. With such a crowd as we have at Ingleside now it behooves us to think about our meals betimes.”