A Sandshore Wooing by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Fir Cottage, Plover Sands.
We arrived here late last night, and all day Aunt Martha has kept her room to rest. So I had to keep mine also, although I felt as fresh as a morning lark, and just in the mood for enjoyment.
My name is Marguerite Forrester--an absurdly long name for so small a girl. Aunt Martha always calls me Marguerite, with an accent of strong disapproval. She does not like my name, but she gives me the full benefit of it. Connie Shelmardine used to call me Rita. Connie was my roommate last year at the Seminary. We correspond occasionally, but Aunt Martha frowns on it.
I have always lived with Aunt Martha--my parents died when I was a baby. Aunt Martha says I am to be her heiress if I please her--which means--but, oh, you do not know what "pleasing" Aunt Martha means.
Aunt is a determined and inveterate man-hater. She has no particular love for women, indeed, and trusts nobody but Mrs. Saxby, her maid. I rather like Mrs. Saxby. She is not quite so far gone in petrifaction as Aunt, although she gets a little stonier every year. I expect the process will soon begin on me, but it hasn't yet. My flesh and blood are still unreasonably warm and pulsing and rebellious.
Aunt Martha would be in danger of taking a fit if she ever saw me talking to a man. She watches me jealously, firmly determined to guard me from any possible attack of a roaring and ravening lion in the disguise of nineteenth-century masculine attire. So I have to walk demurely and assume a virtue, if I have it not, while I pine after the untested flesh-pots of Egypt in secret.
We have come down to spend a few weeks at Fir Cottage. Our good landlady is a capacious, kindly-souled creature, and I think she has rather a liking for me. I have been chattering to her all day, for there are times when I absolutely must talk to someone or go mad.
This sort of life is decidedly dull. The program of every day is the same. I go to the sandshore with Aunt Martha and Mrs. Saxby in the morning, read to Aunt in the afternoons, and mope around by my disconsolate self in the evenings. Mrs. Blake has lent me, for shore use, a very fine spyglass which she owns. She says her "man" brought it home from "furrin' parts" before he died. While Aunt and Mrs. Saxby meander up and down the shore, leaving me free to a certain extent, I amuse myself by examining distant seas and coasts through it, thus getting a few peeps into a forbidden world. We see few people, although there is a large summer hotel about a mile up the beach. Our shore haunts do not seem to be popular with its guests. They prefer the rocks. This suits Aunt Martha admirably. I may also add that it doesn't suit her niece--but that is a matter of small importance.
The first morning I noticed a white object on the rocks, about half a mile away, and turned my glass on it. There--apparently within a stone's throw of me--was a young man. He was lounging on a rock, looking dreamily out to sea. There was something about his face that reminded me of someone I know, but I cannot remember whom.
Every morning he has reappeared on the same spot. He seems to be a solitary individual, given to prowling by himself. I wonder what Aunt would say if she knew what I am so earnestly watching through my glass at times.
I shall have to cease looking at the Unknown, I am afraid.
This morning I turned my glass, as usual, on his pet haunt. I nearly fell over in my astonishment, for he was also looking through a spyglass straight at me, too, it seemed. How foolish I felt! And yet my curiosity was so strong that a few minutes afterward I peeped back again, just to see what he was doing. Then he coolly laid down his glass, rose, lifted his cap and bowed politely to me--or, at least, in my direction. I dropped my glass and smiled in a mixture of dismay and amusement. Then I remembered that he was probably watching me again, and might imagine my smile was meant for him. I banished it immediately, shut my glass up and did not touch it again. Soon after we came home.
Something has happened at last. Today I went to the shore as usual, fully resolved not even to glance in the forbidden direction. But in the end I had to take a peep, and saw him on the rocks with his glass levelled at me. When he saw that I was looking he laid down the glass, held up his hands, and began to spell out something in the deaf-mute alphabet. Now, I know that same alphabet. Connie taught it to me last year, so that we might hold communication across the schoolroom. I gave one frantic glance at Aunt Martha's rigid back, and then watched him while he deftly spelled: "I am Francis Shelmardine. Are you not Miss Forrester, my sister's friend?"
Francis Shelmardine! Now I knew whom he resembled. And have I not heard endless dissertations from Connie on this wonderful brother of hers, Francis the clever, the handsome, the charming, until he has become the only hero of dreams I have ever had? It was too wonderful. I could only stare dazedly back through my glass.
"May we know each other?" he went on. "May I come over and introduce myself? Right hand, yes; left, no."
I gasped! Suppose he were to come? What would happen? I waved my left hand sorrowfully. He looked quite crestfallen and disappointed as he spelled out: "Why not? Would your friends disapprove?"
I signalled: "Yes."
"Are you displeased at my boldness?" was his next question.
Where had all Aunt Martha's precepts flown to then? I blush to record that I lifted my left hand shyly and had just time to catch his pleased expression when Aunt Martha came up and said it was time to go home. So I picked myself meekly up, shook the sand from my dress, and followed my good aunt dutifully home.
When we went to the shore this morning I had to wait in spasms of remorse and anxiety until Aunt got tired of reading and set off along the shore with Mrs. Saxby. Then I reached for my glass.
Mr. Shelmardine and I had quite a conversation. Under the circumstances there could be no useless circumlocution in our exchange of ideas. It was religiously "boiled down," and ran something like this:
"You are not displeased with me?"
"No--but I should be."
"It is wrong to deceive Aunt."
"I am quite respectable."
"That is not the question."
"Cannot her prejudices be overcome?"
"Mrs. Allardyce, who is staying at the hotel, knows her well. Shall I bring her over to vouch for my character?"
"It would not do a bit of good."
"Then it is hopeless."
"Would you object to knowing me on your own account?"
"Do you ever come to the shore alone?"
"No. Aunt would not permit me."
"Must she know?"
"Yes. I would not come without her permission."
"You will not refuse to chat with me thus now and then?"
"I don't know. Perhaps not."
I had to go home then. As we went Mrs. Saxby complimented me on my good colour. Aunt Martha looked her disapproval. If I were really ill Aunt would spend her last cent in my behalf, but she would be just as well pleased to see me properly pale and subdued at all times, and not looking as if I were too well contented in this vale of tears.
I have "talked" a good deal with Mr. Shelmardine these past four days. He is to be at the beach for some weeks longer. This morning he signalled across from the rocks: "I mean to see you at last. Tomorrow I will walk over and pass you."
"You must not. Aunt will suspect."
"No danger. Don't be alarmed. I will do nothing rash."
I suppose he will. He seems to be very determined. Of course, I cannot prevent him from promenading on our beach all day if he chooses. But then if he did, Aunt would speedily leave him in sole possession of it.
I wonder what I had better wear tomorrow.
Yesterday morning Aunt Martha was serene and unsuspicious. It is dreadful of me to be deceiving her and I do feel guilty. I sat down on the sand and pretended to read the "Memoirs of a Missionary"--Aunt likes cheerful books like that--in an agony of anticipation. Presently Aunt said, majestically: "Marguerite, there is a man coming this way. We will move further down."
And we moved. Poor Aunt!
Mr. Shelmardine came bravely on. I felt my heart beating to my very finger tips. He halted by the fragment of an old stranded boat. Aunt had turned her back on him.
I ventured on a look. He lifted his hat with a twinkle in his eye. Just then Aunt said, icily: "We will go home, Marguerite. That creature evidently intends to persist in his intrusion."
Home we came accordingly.
This morning he signalled across: "Letter from Connie. Message for you. I mean to deliver it personally. Do you ever go to church?"
Now, I do go regularly to church at home. But Aunt Martha and Mrs. Saxby are both such rigid church people that they would not darken the doors of the Methodist church at Plover Sands for any consideration. Needless to say, I am not allowed to go either. But it was impossible to make this long explanation, so I merely replied: "Not here."
"Will you not go tomorrow morning?"
"Aunt will not let me."
"Coaxing never has any effect on her."
"Would she relent if Mrs. Allardyce were to call for you?"
Now, I have been cautiously sounding Aunt about Mrs. Allardyce, and I have discovered that she disapproves of her. So I said: "It would be useless. I will ask Aunt if I may go, but I feel almost sure that she will not consent."
This evening, when Aunt was in an unusually genial mood, I plucked up heart of grace and asked her.
"Marguerite," she said impressively, "you know that I do not attend church here."
"But, Aunt," I persisted, quakingly, "couldn't I go alone? It is not very far--and I will be very careful."
Aunt merely gave me a look that said about forty distinct and separate things, and I was turning away in despair when Mrs. Saxby--bless her heart--said: "I really think it would be no harm to let the child go."
As Aunt attaches great importance to Mrs. Saxby's opinion, she looked at me relentingly and said: "Well, I will think it over and let you know in the morning, Marguerite."
Now, everything depends on the sort of humour Aunt is in in the morning.
This morning was perfect, and after breakfast Aunt said, condescendingly: "I think you may attend church if you wish, Marguerite. Remember that I expect you to conduct yourself with becoming prudence and modesty."
I flew upstairs and pulled my prettiest dress out of my trunk. It is a delicate, shimmering grey stuff with pearly tints about it. Every time I get anything new, Aunt Martha and I have a battle royal over it. I verily believe that Aunt would like me to dress in the fashions in vogue in her youth. There is always a certain flavour of old-fashionedness about my gowns and hats. Connie used to say that it was delicious and gave me a piquant uniqueness--a certain unlikeness to other people that possessed a positive charm. That is only Connie's view of it, however.
But I had had my own way about this dress and it is really very becoming. I wore a little silvery-grey chip hat, trimmed with pale pink flowers, and I pinned at my belt the sweetest cluster of old-fashioned blush rosebuds from the garden. Then I borrowed a hymn book from Mrs. Blake and ran down to undergo Aunt Martha's scrutiny.
"Dear me, child," she said discontentedly, "you have gotten yourself up very frivolously, it seems to me."
"Why, Aunty," I protested, "I'm all in grey--every bit."
Aunt Martha sniffed. You don't know how much Aunt can express in a sniff. But I tripped to church like a bird.
The first person I saw there was Mr. Shelmardine. He was sitting right across from me and a smile glimmered in his eyes. I did not look at him again. Through the service I was subdued enough to have satisfied even Aunt Martha.
When church came out, he waited for me at the entrance to his pew. I pretended not to see him until he said "Good morning," in a voice vibrating and deep, which sounded as though it might become infinitely tender if its owner chose. When we went down the steps he took my hymnal, and we walked up the long, bowery country road.
"Thank you so much for coming today," he said--as if I went to oblige him.
"I had a hard time to get Aunt Martha's consent," I declared frankly. "I wouldn't have succeeded if Mrs. Saxby hadn't taken my part."
"Heaven bless Mrs. Saxby," he remarked fervently. "But is there any known way of overcoming your aunt's scruples? If so, I am ready to risk it."
"There is none. Aunt Martha is very good and kind to me, but she will never stop trying to bring me up. The process will be going on when I am fifty. And she hates men! I don't know what she would do if she saw me now."
Mr. Shelmardine frowned and switched the unoffending daisies viciously with his cane.
"Then there is no hope of my seeing you openly and above-board?"
"Not at present," I said faintly.
After a brief silence we began to talk of other things. He told me how he happened to see me first.
"I was curious to know who the people were who were always in the same place at the same time, so one day I took my telescope. I could see you plainly. You were reading and had your hat off. When I went back to the hotel I asked Mrs. Allardyce if she knew who the boarders at Fir Cottage were and she told me. I had heard Connie speak of you, and I determined to make your acquaintance."
When we reached the lane I held out my hand for the hymnal.
"You mustn't come any further, Mr. Shelmardine," I said hurriedly. "Aunt--Aunt might see you."
He took my hand and held it, looking at me seriously.
"Suppose I were to walk up to the cottage tomorrow and ask for you?"
I gasped. He looked so capable of doing anything he took it into his head to do.
"Oh, you wouldn't," I said piteously. "Aunt Martha would--you are not in earnest."
"I suppose not," he said regretfully. "Of course I would not do anything that would cause you unpleasantness. But this must not--shall not be our last meeting."
"Aunt will not let me come to church again," I said.
"Does she ever take a nap in the afternoon?" he queried.
I wriggled my parasol about in the dust uneasily.
"I shall be at the old boat tomorrow afternoon at two-thirty," he said.
I pulled my hand away.
"I couldn't--you know I couldn't," I cried--and then I blushed to my ears.
"Are you sure you couldn't?" bending a little nearer.
"Quite sure," I murmured.
He surrendered my hymnal at last.
"Will you give me a rose?"
I unpinned the whole cluster and handed it to him. He lifted it until it touched his lips. As for me, I scuttled up the lane in the most undignified fashion. At the turn I looked back. He was still standing there with his hat off.
On Monday afternoon I slipped away to the shore while Aunt Martha and Mrs. Saxby were taking their regular nap and I was supposed to be reading sermons in my room.
Mr. Shelmardine was leaning against the old boat, but he came swiftly across the sand to meet me.
"This is very kind of you," he said.
"I ought not to have come," I said repentantly. "But it is so lonely there--and one can't be interested in sermons and memoirs all the time."
Mr. Shelmardine laughed.
"Mr. and Mrs. Allardyce are on the other side of the boat. Will you come and meet them?"
How nice of him to bring them! I knew I should like Mrs. Allardyce, just because Aunt Martha didn't. We had a delightful stroll. I never thought of the time until Mr. Shelmardine said it was four o'clock.
"Oh, is it so late as that?" I cried. "I must go at once."
"I'm sorry we have kept you so long," remarked Mr. Shelmardine in a tone of concern. "If she should be awake, what will the consequences be?"
"Too terrible to think of," I answered seriously. "I'm sorry, Mr. Shelmardine, but you mustn't come any further."
"We will be here tomorrow afternoon," he said.
"Mr. Shelmardine!" I protested. "I wish you wouldn't put such ideas into my head. They won't come out--no, not if I read a whole volume of sermons right through."
We looked at each other for a second. Then he began to smile, and we both went off into a peal of laughter.
"At least let me know if Miss Fiske rampages," he called after me as I fled.
But Aunt Martha was not awake--and I have been to the shore three afternoons since then. I was there today, and I'm going tomorrow for a boat sail with Mr. Shelmardine and the Allardyces. But I am afraid the former will do something rash soon. This afternoon he said: "I don't think I can stand this much longer."
"Stand what?" I asked.
"You know very well," he answered recklessly. "Meeting you in this clandestine manner, and thereby causing that poor little conscience of yours such misery. If your aunt were not so--unreasonable, I should never have stooped to it."
"It is all my fault," I said contritely.
"Well, I hardly meant that," he said grimly. "But hadn't I better go frankly to your aunt and lay the whole case before her?"
"You would never see me again if you did that," I said hastily--and then wished I hadn't.
"That is the worst threat you could make," he said.
It is all over, and I am the most miserable girl in the world. Of course this means that Aunt Martha has discovered everything and the deserved punishment of my sins has overtaken me.
I slipped away again this afternoon and went for that boat sail. We had a lovely time but were rather late getting in, and I hurried home with many misgivings. Aunt Martha met me at the door.
My dress was draggled, my hat had slipped back, and the kinks and curls of my obstreperous hair were something awful. I know I looked very disreputable and also, no doubt, very guilty and conscience-stricken. Aunt gave me an unutterable look and then followed me up to my room in grim silence.
"Marguerite, what does this mean?"
I have lots of faults, but untruthfulness isn't one of them. I confessed everything--at least, almost everything. I didn't tell about the telescopes and deaf-mute alphabet, and Aunt was too horror-stricken to think of asking how I first made Mr. Shelmardine's acquaintance. She listened in stony silence. I had expected a terrible scolding, but I suppose my crimes simply seemed to her too enormous for words.
When I had sobbed out my last word she rose, swept me one glance of withering contempt, and left the room. Presently Mrs. Saxby came up, looking concerned.
"My dear child, what have you been doing? Your aunt says that we are to go home on the afternoon train tomorrow. She is terribly upset."
I just curled up on the bed and cried, while Mrs. Saxby packed my trunk. I will have no chance to explain matters to Mr. Shelmardine. And I will never see him again, for Aunt is quite capable of whisking me off to Africa. He will just think me a feather-brained flirt. Oh, I am so unhappy!
I am the happiest girl in the world! That is quite a different strain from yesterday. We leave Fir Cottage in an hour, but that doesn't matter now.
I did not sleep a wink last night and crawled miserably down to breakfast. Aunt took not the slightest notice of me, but to my surprise she told Mrs. Saxby that she intended taking a farewell walk to the shore. I knew I would be taken, too, to be kept out of mischief, and my heart gave a great bound of hope. Perhaps I would have a chance to send word to Francis, since Aunt did not know of the part my spyglass had played in my bad behaviour.
I meekly followed my grim guardians to the shore and sat dejectedly on my rug while they paced the sand. Francis was on the rocks. As soon as Aunt Martha and Mrs. Saxby were at a safe distance, I began my message: "All discovered. Aunt is very angry. We go home today."
Then I snatched my glass. His face expressed the direst consternation and dismay. He signalled: "I must see you before you go."
"Impossible. Aunt will never forgive me. Good-bye."
I saw a look of desperate determination cross his face. If forty Aunt Marthas had swooped down upon me, I could not have torn my eyes from that glass.
"I love you. You know it. Do you care for me? I must have my answer now."
What a situation! No time or chance for any maidenly hesitation or softening aureole of words. Aunt and Mrs. Saxby had almost reached the point where they invariably turned. I had barely time to spell out a plain, blunt "yes" and read his answer.
"I shall go home at once, get Mother and Connie, follow you, and demand possession of my property. I shall win the day. Have no fear. Till then, good-bye, my darling."
"Marguerite," said Mrs. Saxby at my elbow, "it is time to go."
I got up obediently. Aunt Martha was as grim and uncompromising as ever, and Mrs. Saxby looked like a chief mourner, but do you suppose I cared? I dropped behind them just once before we left the shore. I knew he was watching me and I waved my hand.
I suppose I am really engaged to Francis Shelmardine. But was there ever such a funny wooing? And what will Aunt Martha say?