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(Letter from Anne Shirley, B.A., Principal of Summerside High School, to Gilbert Blythe, medical student at Redmond College, Kingsport.)
S'side, P. E. I.,
Monday, September 12th.
Isn't that an address! Did you ever hear anything so delicious? Windy Poplars is the name of my new home and I love it. I also love Spook's Lane, which has no legal existence. It should be Trent Street but it is never called Trent Street except on the rare occasions when it is mentioned in the Weekly Courier...and then people look at each other and say, "Where on earth is that?" Spook's Lane it is...although for what reason I cannot tell you. I have already asked Rebecca Dew about it, but all she can say is that it has always been Spook's Lane and there was some old yarn years ago of its being haunted. But she has never seen anything worse-looking than herself in it.
However, I mustn't get ahead of my story. You don't know Rebecca Dew yet. But you will, oh, yes, you will. I foresee that Rebecca Dew will figure largely in my future correspondence.
It's dusk, dearest. (In passing, isn't "dusk" a lovely word? I like it better than twilight. It sounds so velvety and shadowy and...and...dusky.) In daylight I belong to the world...in the night to sleep and eternity. But in the dusk I'm free from both and belong only to myself...and you. So I'm going to keep this hour sacred to writing to you. Though this won't be a love-letter. I have a scratchy pen and I can't write love-letters with a scratchy pen...or a sharp pen...or a stub pen. So you'll only get that kind of letter from me when I have exactly the right kind of pen. Meanwhile, I'll tell you about my new domicile and its inhabitants. Gilbert, they're such dears.
I came up yesterday to look for a boarding-house. Mrs. Rachel Lynde came with me, ostensibly to do some shopping but really, I know, to choose a boarding-house for me. In spite of my Arts course and my B.A., Mrs. Lynde still thinks I am an inexperienced young thing who must be guided and directed and overseen.
We came by train and oh, Gilbert, I had the funniest adventure. You know I've always been one to whom adventures came unsought. I just seem to attract them, as it were.
It happened just as the train was coming to a stop at the station. I got up and, stooping to pick up Mrs. Lynde's suitcase (she was planning to spend Sunday with a friend in Summerside), I leaned my knuckles heavily on what I thought was the shiny arm of a seat. In a second I received a violent crack across them that nearly made me howl. Gilbert, what I had taken for the arm of a seat was a man's bald head. He was glaring fiercely at me and had evidently just waked up. I apologized abjectly and got off the train as quickly as possible. The last I saw of him he was still glaring. Mrs. Lynde was horrified and my knuckles are sore yet!
I did not expect to have much trouble in finding a boarding-house, for a certain Mrs. Tom Pringle has been boarding the various principals of the High School for the last fifteen years. But, for some unknown reason, she has grown suddenly tired of "being bothered" and wouldn't take me. Several other desirable places had some polite excuse. Several other places weren't desirable. We wandered about the town the whole afternoon and got hot and tired and blue and headachy...at least I did. I was ready to give up in despair...and then, Spook's Lane just happened!
We had dropped in to see Mrs. Braddock, an old crony of Mrs. Lynde's. And Mrs. Braddock said she thought "the widows" might take me in.
"I've heard they want a boarder to pay Rebecca Dew's wages. They can't afford to keep Rebecca any longer unless a little extra money comes in. And if Rebecca goes, who is to milk that old red cow?"
Mrs. Braddock fixed me with a stern eye as if she thought I ought to milk the red cow but wouldn't believe me on oath if I claimed I could.
"What widows are you talking about?" demanded Mrs. Lynde.
"Why, Aunt Kate and Aunt Chatty," said Mrs. Braddock, as if everybody, even an ignorant B.A., ought to know that. "Aunt Kate is Mrs. Amasa MacComber (she's the Captain's widow) and Aunt Chatty is Mrs. Lincoln MacLean, just a plain widow. But everyone calls them ‘aunt.' They live at the end of Spook's Lane."
Spook's Lane! That settled it. I knew I just had to board with the widows.
"Let's go and see them at once," I implored Mrs. Lynde. It seemed to me if we lost a moment Spook's Lane would vanish back into fairyland.
"You can see them but it'll be Rebecca who'll really decide whether they'll take you or not. Rebecca Dew rules the roost at Windy Poplars, I can tell you."
Windy Poplars! It couldn't be true...no it couldn't. I must be dreaming. And Mrs. Rachel Lynde was actually saying it was a funny name for a place.
"Oh, Captain MacComber called it that. It was his house, you know. He planted all the poplars round it and was mighty proud of it, though he was seldom home and never stayed long. Aunt Kate used to say that was inconvenient, but we never got it figured out whether she meant his staying such a little time or his coming back at all. Well, Miss Shirley, I hope you'll get there. Rebecca Dew's a good cook and a genius with cold potatoes. If she takes a notion to you you'll be in clover. If she doesn't...well, she won't, that's all. I hear there's a new banker in town looking for a boarding-house and she may prefer him. It's kind of funny Mrs. Tom Pringle wouldn't take you. Summerside is full of Pringles and half Pringles. They're called "The Royal Family" and you'll have to get on their good side, Miss Shirley, or you'll never get along in Summerside High. They've always ruled the roost hereabouts...there's a street called after old Captain Abraham Pringle. There's a regular clan of them, but the two old ladies at Maplehurst boss the tribe. I did hear they were down on you."
"Why should they be?" I exclaimed. "I'm a total stranger to them."
"Well, a third cousin of theirs applied for the Principalship and they all think he should have got it. When your application was accepted the whole kit and boodle of them threw back their heads and howled. Well, people are like that. We have to take them as we find them, you know. They'll be as smooth as cream to you but they'll work against you every time. I'm not wanting to discourage you but forewarned is forearmed. I hope you'll make good just to spite them. If the widows take you, you won't mind eating with Rebecca Dew, will you? She isn't a servant, you know. She's a far-off cousin of the Captain's. She doesn't come to the table when there's company...she knows her place then...but if you were boarding there she wouldn't consider you company, of course."
I assured the anxious Mrs. Braddock that I'd love eating with Rebecca Dew and dragged Mrs. Lynde away. I must get ahead of the banker.
Mrs. Braddock followed us to the door.
"And don't hurt Aunt Chatty's feelings, will you? Her feelings are so easily hurt. She's so sensitive, poor thing. You see, she hasn't quite as much money as Aunt Kate...though Aunt Kate hasn't any too much either. And then Aunt Kate liked her husband real well...her own husband, I mean...but Aunt Chatty didn't...didn't like hers, I mean. Small wonder! Lincoln MacLean was an old crank...but she thinks people hold it against her. It's lucky this is Saturday. If it was Friday Aunt Chatty wouldn't even consider taking you. You'd think Aunt Kate would be the superstitious one, wouldn't you? Sailors are kind of like that. But it's Aunt Chatty...although her husband was a carpenter. She was very pretty in her day, poor thing."
I assured Mrs. Braddock that Aunt Chatty's feelings would be sacred to me, but she followed us down the walk.
"Kate and Chatty won't explore your belongings when you're out. They're very conscientious. Rebecca Dew may, but she won't tell on you. And I wouldn't go to the front door if I was you. They only use it for something real important. I don't think it's been opened since Amasa's funeral. Try the side door. They keep the key under the flowerpot on the windowsill, so if nobody's home just unlock the door and go in and wait. And whatever you do, don't praise the cat, because Rebecca Dew doesn't like him."
I promised I wouldn't praise the cat and we actually got away. Erelong we found ourselves in Spook's Lane. It is a very short side street, leading out to open country, and far away a blue hill makes a beautiful back-drop for it. On one side there are no houses at all and the land slopes down to the harbor. On the other side there are only three. The first one is just a house...nothing more to be said of it. The next one is a big, imposing, gloomy mansion of stone-trimmed red brick, with a mansard roof warty with dormer-windows, an iron railing around the flat top and so many spruces and firs crowding about it that you can hardly see the house. It must be frightfully dark inside. And the third and last is Windy Poplars right on the corner, with the grass-grown street on the front and a real country road, beautiful with tree shadows, on the other side.
I fell in love with it at once. You know there are houses which impress themselves upon you at first sight for some reason you can hardly define. Windy Poplars is like that. I may describe it to you as a white frame house...very white...with green shutters...very green...with a "tower" in the corner and a dormer-window on either side, a low stone wall dividing it from the street, with aspen poplars growing at intervals along it, and a big garden at the back where flowers and vegetables are delightfully jumbled up together...but all this can't convey its charm to you. In short, it is a house with a delightful personality and has something of the flavor of Green Gables about it.
"This is the spot for me...it's been foreordained," I said rapturously.
Mrs. Lynde looked as if she didn't quite trust foreordination.
"It'll be a long walk to school," she said dubiously.
"I don't mind that. It will be good exercise. Oh, look at that lovely birch and maple grove across the road."
Mrs. Lynde looked but all she said was, "I hope you won't be pestered with mosquitoes."
I hoped so, too. I detest mosquitoes. One mosquito can keep me "awaker" than a bad conscience.
I was glad we didn't have to go in by the front door. It looked so forbidding...a big, double-leaved, grained-wood affair, flanked by panels of red, flowered glass. It doesn't seem to belong to the house at all. The little green side door, which we reached by a darling path of thin, flat sandstones sunk at intervals in the grass, was much more friendly and inviting. The path was edged by very prim, well-ordered beds of ribbon grass and bleeding-heart and tiger lilies and sweet-William and southernwood and bride's bouquet and red-and-white daisies and what Mrs. Lynde calls "pinies." Of course they weren't all in bloom at this season, but you could see they had bloomed at the proper time and done it well. There was a rose plot in a far corner and between Windy Poplars and the gloomy house next a brick wall all overgrown with Virginia creeper, with an arched trellis above a faded green door in the middle of it. A vine ran right across it, so it was plain it hadn't been opened for some time. It was really only half a door, for its top half is merely an open oblong through which we could catch a glimpse of a jungly garden on the other side.
Just as we entered the gate of the garden of Windy Poplars I noticed a little clump of clover right by the path. Some impulse led me to stoop down and look at it. Would you believe it, Gilbert? There, right before my eyes, were three four-leafed clovers! Talk about omens! Even the Pringles can't contend against that. And I felt sure the banker hadn't an earthly chance.
The side door was open so it was evident somebody was at home and we didn't have to look under the flowerpot. We knocked and Rebecca Dew came to the door. We knew it was Rebecca Dew because it couldn't have been anyone else in the whole wide world. And she couldn't have had any other name.
Rebecca Dew is "around forty" and if a tomato had black hair racing away from its forehead, little twinkling black eyes, a tiny nose with a knobby end and a slit of a mouth, it would look exactly like her. Everything about her is a little too short...arms and legs and neck and nose...everything but her smile. It is long enough to reach from ear to ear.
But we didn't see her smile just then. She looked very grim when I asked if I could see Mrs. MacComber.
"You mean Mrs. Captain MacComber?" she said rebukingly, as if there were at least a dozen Mrs. MacCombers in the house.
"Yes," I said meekly. And we were forthwith ushered into the parlor and left there. It was rather a nice little room, a bit cluttered up with antimacassars but with a quiet, friendly atmosphere about it that I liked. Every bit of furniture had its own particular place which it had occupied for years. How that furniture shone! No bought polish ever produced that mirror-like gloss. I knew it was Rebecca Dew's elbow grease. There was a full-rigged ship in a bottle on the mantelpiece which interested Mrs. Lynde greatly. She couldn't imagine how it ever got into the bottle...but she thought it gave the room "a nautical air."
"The widows" came in. I liked them at once. Aunt Kate was tall and thin and gray, and a little austere...Marilla's type exactly; and Aunt Chatty was short and thin and gray, and a little wistful. She may have been very pretty once but nothing is now left of her beauty except her eyes. They are lovely...soft and big and brown.
I explained my errand and the widows looked at each other.
"We must consult Rebecca Dew," said Aunt Chatty.
"Undoubtedly," said Aunt Kate.
Rebecca Dew was accordingly summoned from the kitchen. The cat came in with her...a big fluffy Maltese, with a white breast and a white collar. I should have liked to stroke him, but, remembering Mrs. Braddock's warning, I ignored him.
Rebecca gazed at me without the glimmer of a smile.
"Rebecca," said Aunt Kate, who, I have discovered, does not waste words, "Miss Shirley wishes to board here. I don't think we can take her."
"Why not?" said Rebecca Dew.
"It would be too much trouble for you, I am afraid," said Aunt Chatty.
"I'm well used to trouble," said Rebecca Dew. You can't separate those names, Gilbert. It's impossible...though the widows do it. They call her Rebecca when they speak to her. I don't know how they manage it.
"We are rather old to have young people coming and going," persisted Aunt Chatty.
"Speak for yourself," retorted Rebecca Dew. "I'm only forty-five and I still have the use of my faculties. And I think it would be nice to have a young person sleeping in the house. A girl would be better than a boy any time. He'd be smoking day and night...burn us in our beds. If you must take a boarder, my advice would be to take her. But of course it's your house."
She said and vanished...as Homer was so fond of remarking. I knew the whole thing was settled but Aunt Chatty said I must go up and see if I was suited with my room.
"We will give you the tower room, dear. It's not quite as large as the spare room, but it has a stove-pipe hole for a stove in winter and a much nicer view. You can see the old graveyard from it."
I knew I would love the room...the very name, "tower room," thrilled me. I felt as if we were living in that old song we used to sing in Avonlea School about the maiden who "dwelt in a high tower beside a gray sea." It proved to be the dearest place. We ascended to it by a little flight of corner steps leading up from the stair-landing. It was rather small...but not nearly as small as that dreadful hall bedroom I had my first year at Redmond. It had two windows, a dormer one looking west and a gable one looking north, and in the corner formed by the tower another three-sided window with casements opening outward and shelves underneath for my books. The floor was covered with round, braided rugs, the big bed had a canopy top and a "wild-goose" quilt and looked so perfectly smooth and level that it seemed a shame to spoil it by sleeping in it. And, Gilbert, it is so high that I have to climb into it by a funny little movable set of steps which in daytime are stowed away under it. It seems Captain MacComber bought the whole contraption in some "foreign" place and brought it home.
There was a dear little corner cupboard with shelves trimmed with white scalloped paper and bouquets painted on its door. There was a round blue cushion on the window-seat...a cushion with a button deep in the center, making it look like a fat blue doughnut. And there was a sweet washstand with two shelves...the top one just big enough for a basin and jug of robin's-egg blue and the under one for a soap dish and hot water pitcher. It had a little brass-handled drawer full of towels and on a shelf over it a white china lady sat, with pink shoes and gilt sash and a red china rose in her golden china hair.
The whole place was engoldened by the light that came through the corn-colored curtains and there was the rarest tapestry on the whitewashed walls where the shadow patterns of the aspens outside fell...living tapestry, always changing and quivering. Somehow, it seemed such a happy room. I felt as if I were the richest girl in the world.
"You'll be safe there, that's what," said Mrs. Lynde, as we went away.
"I expect I'll find some things a bit cramping after the freedom of Patty's Place," I said, just to tease her.
"Freedom!" Mrs. Lynde sniffed. "Freedom! Don't talk like a Yankee, Anne."
I came up today, bag and baggage. Of course I hated to leave Green Gables. No matter how often and long I'm away from it, the minute a vacation comes I'm part of it again as if I had never been away, and my heart is torn over leaving it. But I know I'll like it here. And it likes me. I always know whether a house likes me or not.
The views from my windows are lovely...even the old graveyard, which is surrounded by a row of dark fir trees and reached by a winding, dyke-bordered lane. From my west window I can see all over the harbor to distant, misty shores, with the dear little sail-boats I love and the ships outward bound "for ports unknown"...fascinating phrase! Such "scope for imagination" in it! From the north window I can see into the grove of birch and maple across the road. You know I've always been a tree worshiper. When we studied Tennyson in our English course at Redmond I was always sorrowfully at one with poor Enone, mourning her ravished pines.
Beyond the grove and the graveyard is a lovable valley with the glossy red ribbon of a road winding through it and white houses dotted along it. Some valleys are lovable...you can't tell why. Just to look at them gives you pleasure. And beyond it again is my blue hill. I'm naming it Storm King...the ruling passion, etc.
I can be so alone up here when I want to be. You know it's lovely to be alone once in a while. The winds will be my friends. They'll wail and sigh and croon around my tower...the white winds of winter...the green winds of spring...the blue winds of summer...the crimson winds of autumn...and the wild winds of all seasons..."stormy wind fulfilling his word." How I've always thrilled to that Bible verse...as if each and every wind had a message for me. I've always envied the boy who flew with the north wind in that lovely old story of George MacDonald's. Some night, Gilbert, I'll open my tower casement and just step into the arms of the wind...and Rebecca Dew will never know why my bed wasn't slept in that night.
I hope when we find our "house of dreams," dearest, that there will be winds around it. I wonder where it is...that unknown house. Shall I love it best by moonlight or dawn? That home of the future where we will have love and friendship and work...and a few funny adventures to bring laughter in our old age. Old age! Can we ever be old, Gilbert? It seems impossible.
From the left window in the tower I can see the roofs of the town...this place where I am to live for at least a year. People are living in those houses who will be my friends, though I don't know them yet. And perhaps my enemies. For the ilk of Pye are found everywhere, under all kinds of names, and I understand the Pringles are to be reckoned with. School begins tomorrow. I shall have to teach geometry! Surely that can't be any worse than learning it. I pray heaven there are no mathematical geniuses among the Pringles.
I've been here only for half a day, but I feel as if I had known the widows and Rebecca Dew all my life. They've asked me to call them "aunt" already and I've asked them to call me Anne. I called Rebecca Dew "Miss Dew"...once.
"Miss What?" quoth she.
"Dew," I said meekly. "Isn't that your name?"
"Well, yes, it is, but I ain't been called Miss Dew for so long it gave me quite a turn. You'd better not do it any more, Miss Shirley, me not being used to it."
"I'll remember, Rebecca...Dew," I said, trying my hardest to leave off the Dew but not succeeding.
Mrs. Braddock was quite right in saying Aunt Chatty was sensitive. I discovered that at suppertime. Aunt Kate had said something about "Chatty's sixty-sixth birthday." Happening to glance at Aunt Chatty I saw that she had...no, not burst into tears. That is entirely too explosive a term for her performance. She just overflowed. The tears welled up in her big brown eyes and brimmed over, effortlessly and silently.
"What's the matter now, Chatty?" asked Aunt Kate rather dourly.
"It...it was only my sixty-fifth birthday," said Aunt Chatty.
"I beg your pardon, Charlotte," said Aunt Kate...and all was sunshine again.
The cat is a lovely big Tommy-cat with golden eyes, an elegant coat of dusty Maltese and irreproachable linen. Aunts Kate and Chatty call him Dusty Miller, because that is his name, and Rebecca Dew calls him That Cat because she resents him and resents the fact that she has to give him a square inch of liver every morning and evening, clean his hairs off the parlor arm-chair seat with an old toothbrush whenever he has sneaked in and hunt him up if he is out late at night.
"Rebecca Dew has always hated cats," Aunt Chatty tells me, "and she hates Dusty especially. Old Mrs. Campbell's dog...she kept a dog then...brought him here two years ago in his mouth. I suppose he thought it was no use to take him to Mrs. Campbell. Such a poor miserable little kitten, all wet and cold, with its poor little bones almost sticking through its skin. A heart of stone couldn't have refused it shelter. So Kate and I adopted it, but Rebecca Dew has never really forgiven us. We were not diplomatic that time. We should have refused to take it in. I don't know if you've noticed..." Aunt Chatty looked cautiously around at the door between the dining-room and kitchen..."how we manage Rebecca Dew."
I had noticed it...and it was beautiful to behold. Summerside and Rebecca Dew may think she rules the roost but the widows know differently.
"We didn't want to take the banker...a young man would have been so unsettling and we would have had to worry so much if he didn't go to church regularly. But we pretended we did and Rebecca Dew simply wouldn't hear of it. I'm so glad we have you, dear. I feel sure you'll be a very nice person to cook for. I hope you'll like us all. Rebecca Dew has some very fine qualities. She was not so tidy when she came fifteen years ago as she is now. Once Kate had to write her name...‘Rebecca Dew'...right across the parlor mirror to show the dust. But she never had to do it again. Rebecca Dew can take a hint. I hope you'll find your room comfortable, dear. You may have the window open at night. Kate does not approve of night air but she knows boarders must have privileges. She and I sleep together and we have arranged it so that one night the window is shut for her and the next it is open for me. One can always work out little problems like that, don't you think? Where there is a will there is always a way. Don't be alarmed if you hear Rebecca prowling a good deal in the night. She is always hearing noises and getting up to investigate them. I think that is why she didn't want the banker. She was afraid she might run into him in her nightgown. I hope you won't mind Kate not talking much. It's just her way. And she must have so many things to talk of...she was all over the world with Amasa MacComber in her young days. I wish I had the subjects for conversation she has, but I've never been off P. E. Island. I've often wondered why things should be arranged so...me loving to talk and with nothing to talk about and Kate with everything and hating to talk. But I suppose Providence knows best."
Although Aunt Chatty is a talker all right, she didn't say all this without a break. I interjected remarks at suitable intervals, but they were of no importance.
They keep a cow which is pastured at Mr. James Hamilton's up the road and Rebecca Dew goes there to milk her. There is any amount of cream and every morning and evening I understand Rebecca Dew passes a glass of new milk through the opening in the wall gate to Mrs. Campbell's "Woman." It is for "little Elizabeth," who must have it under doctor's orders. Who the Woman is, or who little Elizabeth is, I have yet to discover. Mrs. Campbell is the inhabitant and owner of the fortress next door...which is called The Evergreens.
I don't expect to sleep tonight...I never do sleep my first night in a strange bed and this is the very strangest bed I've ever seen. But I won't mind. I've always loved the night and I'll like lying awake and thinking over everything in life, past, present and to come. Especially to come.
This is a merciless letter, Gilbert. I won't inflict such a long one on you again. But I wanted to tell you everything, so that you could picture my new surroundings for yourself. It has come to an end now, for far up the harbor the moon is "sinking into shadow-land." I must write a letter to Marilla yet. It will reach Green Gables the day after tomorrow and Davy will bring it home from the post-office, and he and Dora will crowd around Marilla while she opens it and Mrs. Lynde will have both ears open... Ow...w...w! That has made me homesick. Good-night, dearest, from one who is now and ever will be,