"Ah, when you've been old and bed-rid as long as me you'll have more sympathy," whined Mrs. Gibson.
"Please don't think I'm lacking in sympathy, Mrs. Gibson," said Anne, who, after half an hour's vain effort, felt like wringing Mrs. Gibson's neck.
Nothing but poor Pauline's pleading eyes in the background kept her from giving up in despair and going home. "I assure you, you won't be lonely and neglected. I will be here all day and see that you lack nothing in any way."
"Oh, I know I'm of no use to any one," said Mrs. Gibson, apropos of nothing that had been said. "You don't need to rub that in, Miss Shirley. I'm ready to go any time … any time. Pauline can gad round all she wants to then. I won't be here to feel neglected. None of the young people of today have any sense.
Giddy … very giddy."
Anne didn't know whether it was Pauline or herself who was the giddy young person without sense, but she tried the last shot in her locker.
"Well, you know, Mrs. Gibson, people will talk so terribly if Pauline doesn't go to her cousin's silver wedding."
"Talk!" said Mrs. Gibson sharply. "What will they talk about?"
"Dear Mrs. Gibson … " ('May I be forgiven the adjective!' thought Anne) "in your long life you have learned, I know, just what idle tongues can say."
"You needn't be casting my age up to me," snapped Mrs. Gibson. "And I don't need to be told it's a censorious world. Too well … too well I know it. And I don't need to be told that this town is full of tattling toads neither. But I dunno's I fancy them jabbering about me … saying, I s'pose, that I'm an old tyrant. _I_ ain't stopping Pauline from going. Didn't I leave it to her conscience?"
"So few people will believe that," said Anne, carefully sorrowful.
Mrs. Gibson sucked a peppermint lozenge fiercely for a minute or two. Then she said,
"I hear there's mumps at White Sands."
"Ma, dear, you know I've had the mumps."
"There's folks as takes them twice. You'd be just the one to take them twice, Pauline. You always took everything that come round. The nights I've set up with you, not expecting you'd see the morning! Ah me, a mother's sacrifices ain't long remembered. Besides, how would you get to White Sands? You ain't been on a train for years. And there ain't any train back Saturday night."
"She could go on the Saturday morning train," said Anne. "And I'm sure Mr.
James Gregor will bring her back."
"I never liked Jim Gregor. His mother was a Tarbush."
"He is taking his double-seated buggy and going down Friday, or else he would take her down, too. But she'll be quite safe on the train, Mrs. Gibson. Just step on at Summerside … step off at White Sands … no changing."
"There's something behind all this," said Mrs. Gibson suspiciously. "Why are you so set on her going, Miss Shirley? Just tell me that."
Anne smiled into the beady-eyed face.
"Because I think Pauline is a good, kind daughter to you, Mrs. Gibson, and needs a day off now and then, just as everybody does."
Most people found it hard to resist Anne's smile. Either that, or the fear of gossip vanquished Mrs. Gibson.
"I s'pose it never occurs to any one _I'd_ like a day off from this wheel- chair if I could get it. But I can't … I just have to bear my affliction patiently. Well, if she must go she must. She's always been one to get her own way. If she catches mumps or gets poisoned by strange mosquitoes, don't blame me for it. I'll have to get along as best I can. Oh, I s'pose you'll be here, but you ain't used to my ways as Pauline is. I s'pose I can stand it for one day. If I can't … well, I've been living on borrowed time many's the year now so what's the difference?" Not a gracious assent by any means but still an assent. Anne in her relief and gratitude found herself doing something she could never have imagined herself doing … she bent over and kissed Mrs.
Gibson's leathery cheek. "Thank you," she said.
"Never mind your wheedling ways," said Mrs. Gibson. "Have a peppermint."
"How can I ever thank you, Miss Shirley?" said Pauline, as she went a little way down the street with Anne.
"By going to White Sands with a light heart and enjoying every minute of the time."
"Oh, I'll do that. You don't know what this means to me, Miss Shirley. It's not only Louisa I want to see. The old Luckley place next to her home is going to be sold and I did so want to see it once more before it passed into the hands of strangers. Mary Luckley … she's Mrs. Howard Flemming now and lives out west … was my dearest friend when I was a girl. We were like sisters. I used to be at the Luckley place so much and I loved it so. I've often dreamed of going back. Ma says I'm getting too old to dream. Do you think I am, Miss Shirley?"
"Nobody is ever too old to dream. And dreams never grow old."
"I'm so glad to hear you say that. Oh, Miss Shirley, to think of seeing the gulf again. I haven't seen it for fifteen years. The harbor is beautiful, but it isn't the gulf. I feel as if I was walking on air. And I owe it all to you.
It was just because Ma likes you she let me go. You've made me happy … you are always making people happy. Why, whenever you come into a room, Miss Shirley, the people in it feel happier."
"That's the very nicest compliment I've ever had paid me, Pauline."
"There's just one thing, Miss Shirley … I've nothing to wear but my old black taffeta. It's too gloomy for a wedding, isn't it? And it's too big for me since I got thin. You see it's six years since I got it."
"We must try to induce your mother to let you have a new dress," said Anne hopefully.
But that proved to be beyond her powers. Mrs. Gibson was adamant. Pauline's black taffeta was plenty good for Louisa Hilton's wedding.
"I paid two dollars a yard for it six years ago and three to Jane Sharp for making it. Jane was a good dressmaker. Her mother was a Smiley. The idea of you wanting something 'light,' Pauline Gibson! She'd go dressed in scarlet from head to foot, that one, if she was let, Miss Shirley. She's just waiting till I'm dead to do it. Ah, well, you'll soon be shet of all the trouble I am to you, Pauline. Then you can dress as gay and giddy as you like, but as long as I'm alive you'll be decent. And what's the matter with your hat? It's time you wore a bonnet, anyhow."
Poor Pauline had a lively horror of having to wear a bonnet. She would wear her old hat for the rest of her life before she would do that.
"I'm just going to be glad inside and forget all about my clothes," she told Anne, when they went out to the garden to pick a bouquet of June lilies and bleeding-heart for the widows.
"I've a plan," said Anne, with a cautious glance to make sure Mrs. Gibson couldn't hear her, though she was watching from the sitting-room window. "You know that silver-gray poplin of mine? I'm going to lend you that for the wedding."
Pauline dropped the basket of flowers in her agitation, making a pool of pink and white sweetness at Anne's feet.
"Oh, my dear, I couldn't… . Ma wouldn't let me."
"She won't know a thing about it. Listen. Saturday morning you'll put it on under your black taffeta. I know it will fit you. It's a little long, but I'll run some tucks in it tomorrow … tucks are fashionable now. It's collarless, with elbow sleeves so no one will suspect. As soon as you get to Gull Cove, take off the taffeta. When the day is over you can leave the poplin at Gull Cove and I can get it the next week-end I'm home."
"But wouldn't it be too young for me?"
"Not a bit of it. Any age can wear gray."
"Do you think it would be … right … to deceive Ma?" faltered Pauline.
"In this case entirely right," said Anne shamelessly. "You know, Pauline, it would never do to wear a black dress to a wedding. It might bring the bride bad luck."
"Oh, I wouldn't do that for anything. And of course it won't hurt Ma. I do hope she'll get through Saturday all right. I'm afraid she won't eat a bite when I'm away … she didn't the time I went to Cousin Matilda's funeral. Miss Prouty told me she didn't… . Miss Prouty stayed with her. She was so provoked at Cousin Matilda for dying … Ma was, I mean."
"She'll eat… . I'll see to that."
"I know you've a great knack of managing her," conceded Pauline. "And you won't forget to give her her medicine at the regular times, will you, dear?
Oh, perhaps I oughtn't to go after all."
"You've been out there long enough to pick forty bokays," called Mrs. Gibson irately. "I dunno what the widows want of your flowers. They've plenty of their own. I'd go a long time without flowers if I waited for Rebecca Dew to send me any. I'm dying for a drink of water. But then I'm of no consequence."
Friday night Pauline telephoned Anne in terrible agitation. She had a sore throat and did Miss Shirley think it could possibly be the mumps? Anne ran down to reassure her, taking the gray poplin in a brown paper parcel. She hid it in the lilac bush and late that night Pauline, in a cold perspiration, managed to smuggle it upstairs to the little room where she kept her clothes and dressed, though she was never permitted to sleep there. Pauline was not quite easy about the dress. Perhaps her sore throat was a judgment on her for deception. But she couldn't go to Louisa's silver wedding in that dreadful old black taffeta … she simply couldn't.
Saturday morning Anne was at the Gibson house bright and early. Anne always looked her best on a sparkling summer morning such as this. She seemed to sparkle with it and she moved through the golden air like a slender figure on a Grecian urn. The dullest room sparkled, too … _lived …_ when she came into it.
"Walking as if you owned the earth," commented Mrs. Gibson sarcastically.
"So I do," said Anne gayly.
"Ah, you're very young," said Mrs. Gibson maddeningly.
"'I withhold not my heart from any joy,'" quoted Anne. "That is Bible authority for you, Mrs. Gibson."
"'Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.' That's in the Bible, too,"
retorted Mrs. Gibson. The fact that she had so neatly countered Miss Shirley, B.A., put her in comparatively good humor. "I never was one to flatter, Miss Shirley, but that chip hat of yours with the blue flower kind of sets you.
Your hair don't look so red under it, seems to me. Don't you admire a fresh young girl like this, Pauline? Wouldn't you like to be a fresh young girl yourself, Pauline?"
Pauline was too happy and excited to want to be any one but herself just then.
Anne went to the upstairs room with her to help her dress.
"It's so lovely to think of all the pleasant things that must happen today, Miss Shirley. My throat is quite well and Ma is in such a good humor. You mightn't think so, but I know she is because she is talking, even if she is sarcastic. If she was mad or riled she'd be sulking. I've peeled the potatoes and the steak is in the ice-box and Ma's blanc mange is down cellar. There's canned chicken for supper and a sponge cake in the pantry. I'm just on tenterhooks Ma'll change her mind yet. I couldn't bear it if she did. Oh, Miss Shirley, do you think I'd better wear that gray dress … really?"
"Put it on," said Anne in her best school-teacherish manner.
Pauline obeyed and emerged a transformed Pauline. The gray dress fitted her beautifully. It was collarless and had dainty lace ruffles in the elbow sleeves. When Anne had done her hair Pauline hardly knew herself.
"I hate to cover it up with that horrid old black taffeta, Miss Shirley."
But it had to be. The taffeta covered it very securely. The old hat went on … but it would be taken off, too, when she got to Louisa's … and Pauline had a new pair of shoes. Mrs. Gibson had actually allowed her to get a new pair of shoes, though she thought the heels "scandalous high." "I'll make quite a sensation going away on the train _alone._ I hope people won't think it's a death. I wouldn't want Louisa's silver wedding to be connected in any way with the thought of death. Oh, perfume, Miss Shirley! Apple-blossom! Isn't that lovely? Just a whiff … so lady-like, I always think. Ma won't let me buy any.
Oh, Miss Shirley, you won't forget to feed my dog, will you? I've left his bones in the pantry in the covered dish. I do hope" … dropping her voice to a shamed whisper … "that he won't … misbehave … in the house while you're here."
Pauline had to pass her mother's inspection before leaving. Excitement over her outing and guilt in regard to the hidden poplin combined to give her a very unusual flush. Mrs. Gibson gazed at her discontentedly.
"Oh me, oh my! Going to London to look at the Queen, are we? You've got too much color. People will think you're painted. Are you sure you ain't?"
"Oh, no, Ma … _no,"_ in shocked tones.
"Mind your manners now and when you set down, cross your ankles decently. Mind you don't set in a draught or talk too much."
"I won't, Ma," promised Pauline earnestly, with a nervous glance at the clock.
"I'm sending Louisa a bottle of my sarsaparilla wine to drink the toasts in. I never cared for Louisa, but her mother was a Tackaberry. Mind you bring back the bottle and don't let her give you a kitten. Louisa's always giving people kittens."
"I won't, Ma."
"You're sure you didn't leave the soap in the water?"
"Quite sure, Ma," with another anguished glance at the clock.
"Are your shoe-laces tied?"
"You don't smell respectable … drenched with scent."
"Oh, no, Ma dear … just a little … the tiniest bit … "
"I said drenched and I mean drenched. There isn't, a rip under your arm, is there?"
"Oh, no, Ma."
"Let me see … " inexorably.
Pauline quaked. Suppose the skirt of the gray dress showed when she lifted her arms!
"Well, go, then." With a long sigh. "If I ain't here when you come back, remember that I want to be laid out in my lace shawl and my black satin slippers. And see that my hair is crimped."
"Do you feel any worse, Ma?" The poplin dress had made Pauline's conscience very sensitive. "If you do … I'll not go … "
"And waste the money for them shoes! 'Course you're going. And mind you don't slide down the banister."
But at this the worm turned.
"Ma! Do you think I would?"
"You did at Nancy Parker's wedding."
'Thirty-five years ago! Do you think I would do it now?"
"It's time you were off. What are you jabbering here for? Do you want to miss your train?"
Pauline hurried away and Anne sighed with relief. She had been afraid that old Mrs. Gibson had, at the last moment, been taken with a fiendish impulse to detain Pauline until the train was gone.
"Now for a little peace," said Mrs. Gibson. "This house is in an awful condition of untidiness, Miss Shirley. I hope you realize it ain't always so.
Pauline hasn't known which end of her was up these last few days. Will you please set that vase an inch to the left? No, move it back again. That lamp shade is crooked. Well, that's a _little_ straighter. But that blind is an inch lower than the other. I wish you'd fix it."
Anne unluckily gave the blind too energetic a twist; it escaped her fingers and went whizzing to the top.
"Ah, now you see," said Mrs. Gibson.
Anne didn't see but she adjusted the blind meticulously.
"And now wouldn't you like me to make you a nice cup of tea, Mrs. Gibson?"
"I _do_ need something… . I'm clean wore out with all this worry and fuss. My stomach seems to be dropping out of me," said Mrs. Gibson pathetically. "Kin you make a decent cup of tea? I'd as soon drink mud as the tea some folks make."
"Marilla Cuthbert taught me how to make tea. You'll see. But first I'm going to wheel you out to the porch so that you can enjoy the sunshine."
"I ain't been out on the porch for years," objected Mrs. Gibson.
"Oh, it's so lovely today, it can't hurt you. I want you to see the crab tree in bloom. You can't see it unless you go out. And the wind is south today, so you'll get the clover scent from Norman Johnson's field. I'll bring you your tea and we'll drink it together and then I'll get my embroidery and we'll sit there and criticize everybody who passes."
"I don't hold with criticizing people," said Mrs. Gibson virtuously. "It ain't Christian. Would you mind telling me if that is all your own hair?"
"Every bit," laughed Anne.
"Pity it's red. Though red hair seems to be gitting popular now. I sort of like your laugh. That nervous giggle of poor Pauline's always gits on my nerves. Well, if I've got to git out, I s'pose I've got to. I'll likely ketch my death of cold, but the responsibility is yours, Miss Shirley. Remember I'm eighty … every day of it, though I hear old Davy Ackham has been telling all around Summerside I'm only seventy-nine. His mother was a Watt. The Watts were always jealous."
Anne moved the wheel-chair deftly out, and proved that she had a knack of arranging pillows. Soon after she brought out the tea and Mrs. Gibson deigned approval.
"Yes, this is drinkable, Miss Shirley. Ah me, for one year I had to live entirely on liquids. They never thought I'd pull through. I often think it might have been better if I hadn't. Is that the crab tree you was raving about?"
"Yes … isn't it lovely … so white against that deep blue sky?"
"It ain't poetical," was Mrs. Gibson's sole comment. But she became rather mellow after two cups of tea and the forenoon wore away until it was time to think of dinner.
"I'll go and get it ready and then I'll bring it out here on a little table."
"No, you won't, miss. No crazy monkey-shines like that for me! People would think it awful queer, us eating out here in public. I ain't denying it's kind of nice out here … though the smell of clover always makes me kind of squalmish … and the forenoon's passed awful quick to what it mostly does, but I ain't eating my dinner out-of-doors for any one. I ain't a gypsy. Mind you wash your hands clean before you cook the dinner. My, Mrs. Storey must be expecting more company. She's got all the spare-room bed-clothes airing on the line. It ain't real hospitality … just a desire for sensation. Her mother was a Carey."
The dinner Anne produced pleased even Mrs. Gibson.
"I didn't think any one who wrote for the papers could cook. But of course Marilla Cuthbert brought you up. Her mother was a Johnson. I s'pose Pauline will eat herself sick at that wedding. She don't know when she's had enough … just like her father. I've seen him gorge on strawberries when he knew he'd be doubled up with pain an hour afterwards. Did I ever show you his picture, Miss Shirley? Well, go to the spare-room and bring it down. You'll find it under the bed. Mind you don't go prying into the drawers while you're up there. But take a peep and see if there's any dust curls under the bureau. I don't trust Pauline… . Ah, yes, that's him. His mother was a Walker. There's no men like that nowadays. This is a degenerate age, Miss Shirley."
"Homer said the same thing eight hundred years, B.C.," smiled Anne.
"Some of them Old Testament writers was always croaking," said Mrs. Gibson. "I daresay you're shocked to hear me say so, Miss Shirley, but my husband was very broad in his views. I hear you're engaged … to a medical student. Medical students mostly drink, I believe … have to, to stand the dissecting-room.
Never marry a man who drinks, Miss Shirley. Nor one who ain't a good provider.
Thistledown and moonshine ain't much to live on, I kin tell you. Mind you clean the sink and rinse the dish-towels. I can't abide greasy dish-towels. I s'pose you'll have to feed the dog. He's too fat now, but Pauline just stuffs him. Sometimes I think I'll have to get rid of him."
"Oh, I wouldn't do that, Mrs. Gibson. There are always burglaries, you know … and your house is lonely, off here by itself. You really do need protection."
"Oh, well, have it your own way. I'd ruther do anything than argue with people, 'specially when I've such a queer throbbing in the back of my neck. I s'pose it means I'm going to have a stroke."
"You need your nap. When you've had it you'll feel better. I'll tuck you up and lower your chair. Would you like to go out on the porch for your nap?"
"Sleeping in public! That'd be worse than eating. You do have the queerest ideas. You just fix me up right here in the sitting-room and draw the blinds down and shut the door to keep the flies out. I daresay you'd like a quiet spell yourself … your tongue's been going pretty steady."
Mrs. Gibson had a good long nap, but woke up in a bad humor. She would not let Anne wheel her out to the porch again.
"Want me to ketch my death in the night air, I s'pose," she grumbled, although it was only five o'clock. Nothing suited her. The drink Anne brought her was too cold … the next one wasn't cold enough … of course _anything_ would do for _her._ Where was the dog? Misbehaving, no doubt. Her back ached … her knees ached … her head ached … her breastbone ached. Nobody sympathized with her … nobody knew what she went through. Her chair was too high … her chair was too low… . She wanted a shawl for her shoulders and an afghan for her knees and a cushion for her feet. And _would_ Miss Shirley see where that awful draught was coming from? She could do with a cup of tea, but she didn't want to be a trouble to any one and she would soon be at rest in her grave. Maybe they might appreciate her when she was gone.
"Be the day short or be the day long, at last it weareth to evening song."
There were moments when Anne thought it never would, but it did. Sunset came and Mrs. Gibson began to wonder why Pauline wasn't coming. Twilight came … still no Pauline. Night and moonshine and no Pauline.
"I knew it," said Mrs. Gibson cryptically.
"You know she can't come till Mr. Gregor comes and he's generally the last dog hung," soothed Anne. "Won't you let me put you to bed, Mrs. Gibson? You're tired … I know it's a bit of a strain having a stranger round instead of some one you're accustomed to."
The little puckery lines about Mrs. Gibson's mouth deepened obstinately.
"I'm not going to bed till that girl comes home. But if you're so anxious to be gone, _go. I_ can stay alone … or die alone."
At half past nine Mrs. Gibson decided that Jim Gregor was not coming home till Monday.
"Nobody could ever depend on Jim Gregor to stay in the same mind twenty-four hours. And he thinks it's wrong to travel on Sunday even to come home. He's on your school board, ain't he? What do you really think of him and his opinions on eddication?"
Anne went wicked. After all, she had endured a good deal at Mrs. Gibson's hands that day.
"I think he's a psychological anachronism," she answered gravely.
Mrs. Gibson did not bat an eyelash.
"I agree with you," she said. But she pretended to go to sleep after that.