It was what Susan called a streaky winter … all thaws and freezes that kep_ngleside decorated with fantastic fringes of icicles. The children fed seve_lue-jays who came regularly to the orchard for their rations and let Jem pic_hem up, though they flew from everybody else. Anne sat up o' nights to por_ver seed catalogues in January and February. Then the winds of March swirle_ver 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 t_ll the winds that blew.
They could have spared the "incitement" of Jem scratching his hand on a rust_ail and having a nasty time of it for some days, while Aunt Mary Maria tol_ll the stories of blood-poisoning she had ever heard. But that, Ann_eflected when the danger was over, was what you must expect with a small so_ho was always trying experiments.
And lo, it was April! With the laughter of April rain … the whisper of Apri_ain … the trickle, the sweep, the drive, the lash, the dance, the splash o_pril 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 wer_ussywillows in the marsh. Even the little twigs on the trees seemed all a_nce to have lost their clear cold quality and to have become soft an_anguorous. The first robin was an event; the Hollow was once more a plac_ull of wild free delight; Jem brought his mother the first mayflowers … rather to Aunt Mary Maria's offence, since she thought they should have bee_ffered to _her;_ Susan began sorting over the attic shelves, and Anne, wh_ad hardly had a minute to herself all winter, put on spring gladness as _arment and literally lived in her garden, while the Shrimp showed his sprin_aptures by writhing all over the paths.
"You care more for that garden than you do for your husband, Annie," said Aun_ary Maria.
"My garden is so kind to me," answered Anne dreamily … then, realizing th_mplications that might be taken out of her remark, began to laugh.
"You do say the most extraordinary things, Annie. Of course _I_ know you don'_ean that Gilbert isn't kind … but what if a stranger heard you say such _hing?"
"Dear Aunt Mary Maria," said Anne gaily, "I'm really not responsible for th_hings I say this time of the year. Everybody around here knows that. I'_lways a little mad in spring. But it's such a divine madness. Do you notic_hose mists over the dunes like dancing witches? And the daffodils? We'v_ever had such a show of daffodils at Ingleside before."
"I don't care much for daffodils. They are such flaunting things," said Aun_ary Maria, drawing her shawl around her and going indoors to protect he_ack.
"Do you know, Mrs. Dr. dear," said Susan ominously, "what has become of thos_ew irises you wanted to plant in that shady corner? _She_ planted them thi_fternoon 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, yo_emember, when I hinted that she shouldn't have pruned the spirea _before_looming."
"But sneering at our daffodils, Mrs. Dr. dear … and them famous all around th_arbour … "
"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 fu_hen you've given up hope of a thing to find it has suddenly popped up. I'_oing to have a little rose garden made in the southwest corner. The very nam_f rose garden thrills to my toes. Did you ever see such a _blue_ blueness o_ky before, Susan? And if you listen very carefully now at night you can hea_ll the little brooks of the countryside gossiping. I've half a notion t_leep in the Hollow tonight with a pillow of wild violets."
"You would find it very damp," said Susan patiently. Mrs. Dr. was always lik_his in the spring. It would pass.
"Susan," said Anne coaxingly, "I want to have a birthday party next week."
"Well, and why should you not?' asked Susan. To be sure, none of the famil_ad a birthday the last week in May, but if Mrs. Dr. wanted a birthday part_hy 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 bee_hinking."
"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 t_ive me a week's vacation whenever I felt I needed it. Perhaps I had bette_ake it next week! I will ask my niece Gladys to come and help you out. An_hen 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 her_orever. She has worried you … and henpecked the doctor … and made th_hildren's lives miserable. I say nothing about myself, for who am I? She ha_colded and nagged and insinuated and whined … and now you want to get up _irthday party for her! Well, all I can say is, if you want to do that … we'l_ust have to go ahead and have it!"
"Susan, you old duck!"
Plotting and planning followed. Susan, having yielded, was determined that fo_he honour of Ingleside the party must be something that even Mary Mari_lythe could not find fault with.
"I think we'll have a luncheon, Susan. Then they'll be away early enough fo_e to go to the concert at Lowbridge with the doctor. We'll keep it a secre_nd surprise her. She shan't know a thing about it till the last minute. I'l_nvite all the people in the Glen she likes… ."
"And who may _they_ be, Mrs. Dr. dear?"
"Well, tolerates, then. And her cousin, Adella Carey from Lowbridge, and som_eople from town. We'll have a big plummy birthday cake with fifty-fiv_andles 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. Everybod_as sworn not to give the secret away to Aunt Mary Maria. But Anne and Susa_ad reckoned without gossip. The night before the party Aunt Mary Maria cam_ome from a call in the Glen to find them sitting rather wearily in th_nlighted 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 an_ark and beautiful exceedingly is the offspring thereof," said Anne, more t_erself than anybody else.
"I suppose you know what you mean yourself, Annie. And so you're having _arty tomorrow?"
Anne suddenly sat bolt upright. Susan, already sitting so, could not sit an_prighter.
"Why … why … Aunty … "
"You always leave me to hear things from outsiders," said Aunt Mary Maria, bu_eemingly 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 depen_n the weather, Annie."
Anne drew a breath of relief. Evidently Aunt Mary Maria knew only that ther_as 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."
"I shall wear my garnet taffeta. I suppose, Annie, if I had not heard of thi_n the village I should have been caught by all your fine friends tomorrow i_ 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 almos_ompelled to think it does not … I would say that in future it would be bette_or you not to be _quite so secretive_ about things. By the way, are you awar_hat they are saying in the village that it was Jem who threw the ston_hrough 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, ostentatiousl_voiding the Shrimp, who was lying on his back on the floor entreating someon_o 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 righ_ften enough to keep up its credit.
"Leave the side door unlocked for the doctor, Susan. He may be late gettin_ome 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 sh_iked."
Half an hour later, Susan, reading her nightly chapter in her Bible, cam_cross the verse, "Withdraw thy foot from thy neighbour's house lest he wear_f thee and hate thee." She put a sprig of southernwood in it to mark th_pot. "Even in those days," she reflected.
Anne and Susan were both up early, desiring to complete certain las_reparations before Aunt Mary Maria should be about. Anne always liked to ge_p early and catch that mystical half-hour before sunrise when the worl_elongs to the fairies and the old gods. She liked to see the morning sky o_ale rose and gold behind the church spire, the thin, translucent glow o_unrise spreading over the dunes, the first violet spirals of smoke floatin_p from the village roofs.
"It's as if we had had a day made to order, Mrs. Dr. dear," said Susa_omplacently, as she feathered an orange-frosted cake with cocoanut. "I wil_ry my hand at them new-fangled butterballs after breakfast and I will phon_arter 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_hall not see _our_ verandah steps otherwise than spotless. But you will se_o the decorations, Mrs. Dr. dear? I was not born with the gift of arrangin_lowers."
"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 garne_affeta and by Anne in biscuit-coloured voile. Anne thought of putting on he_hite muslin, for the day was summer-warm, but decided otherwise.
"Very sensible of you, Annie," commented Aunt Mary Maria. "White, I alway_ay, is only for the young."
Everything went according to schedule. The table looked beautiful with Anne'_rettiest dishes and the exotic beauty of white and purple iris. Susan'_utterballs made a sensation, nothing like them having been seen in the Gle_efore; her cream soup was the last word in soups; the chicken salad had bee_ade of Ingleside "chickens that _are_ chickens"; the badgered Carter Flag_ent up the ice-cream on the tick of the dot. Finally Susan, bearing th_irthday cake with its fifty-five lighted candles as if it were the Baptist'_ead on a charger, marched in and set it down before Aunt Mary Maria.
Anne, outwardly the smiling serene hostess, had been feeling ver_ncomfortable for some time. In spite of all outward smoothness she had a_ver-deepening conviction that something had gone terribly wrong. On th_uests' arrival she had been too much occupied to notice the change that cam_ver Aunt Mary Maria's face when Mrs. Marshall Elliott cordially wished he_any happy returns of the day. But when they were all finally seated aroun_he table Anne wakened up to the fact that Aunt Mary Maria was lookin_nything 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 t_emarks addressed to her. She took only two spoonfuls of soup and thre_outhfuls of salad; as for the ice-cream, she behaved to it as if it wasn'_here.
When Susan set the birthday cake, with its flickering candles, down befor_er, Aunt Mary Maria gave a fearful gulp which was not quite successful i_wallowing 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_ a_yself."
At this auspicious moment the twins popped in, carrying between them th_asketful 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 no_oin in it.
"The … the twins will blow out the candles for you, Aunty," faltered Ann_ervously, "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 th_nife down.
"And now perhaps I may be excused, Annie. _Such an old woman_ as I am need_est after so much excitement."
Swish went Aunt Mary Maria's taffeta skirt. Crash went the basket of roses a_he swept past it. Click went Aunt Mary Maria's high heels up the stairs. Ban_ent Aunt Mary Maria's door in the distance.
The dumfounded guests ate their slices of birthday cake with such appetite a_hey could muster, in a strained silence broken only by a story Mrs. Amo_artin told desperately of a doctor in Nova Scotia who had poisoned severa_atients by injecting diphtheria germs into them. The others, feeling tha_his 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 Adell_arey here … to have her find out how old I am … she's been dying to know fo_ears!"
"Aunty, we meant … we meant … "
"I don't know what your purpose was, Annie. That there is something back o_ll this I know very well … oh, I can read your mind, dear Annie … but I shal_ot 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'_readfully 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 _eliberate 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 spiri_ho can bear?'"
Anne went to the concert with Gilbert that night, but it could not be said sh_njoyed it. Gilbert took the whole matter "just like a man," as Miss Corneli_ight 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'_ry to stop her" … and refrained through clannishness from adding "goo_iddance!"
"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 al_ntentional insult. I never minded her having secrets from me … though to _ensitive mind like mine … but in spite of everything I've always liked poo_nnie" … this with the air of one confessing a weakness. "But Susan Baker is _at of another colour. My last word to you, Gilbert, is … put Susan Baker i_er place and keep her there."
Nobody could believe in their good luck at first. Then they woke up to th_act that Aunt Mary Maria had really gone … that it was possible to laug_gain without hurting anyone's feelings … open all the windows without anyon_omplaining of draughts … eat a meal without anyone telling you that somethin_ou 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 wa_ome 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. Doe_t not seem strange to be able to draw a free breath again? When I think tha_ did all that in me lay to prevent you giving that party, Mrs. Dr. dear, _ealize 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 stea_oday?"