As the 'bus accelerated once more, Betty leaned forward to better examine the set of huge wooden buildings that made a virtual "wall" to their right, hoping it would provide her with a clue to the boys' identities, but all she saw was that they were strolling through an arched entrance labeled "Newport Casino," laughing and joking with each other. To the left of the Casino was a row of fashionable shops with big display windows shaded by striped awnings. "Are they allowed in a casino at their age?" she wondered aloud.
"It's the Newport Tennis Club," Kit explained. "Stevie-" and when Cilla glared at her she swallowed and amended, "Steven Carlisle and Rory Madison play tennis there. All the boys and girls in their set do."
"While we're expected to kowtow to them because of their fortunes," Priscilla commented fiercely, "when they're not fit to black some people's boots."
Kit ceased chattering after that, which Betty found a partial relief. The bus made a wide right turn on a residential street lined thickly with stately old elmsthe street sign that flashed by said "Bath Road"which in a few minutes gave way to an open expanse of stunted trees and brush to their left, beach front to their right. She again drank in the glittering blue and green of the ocean, the slow, foaming surf, bathers splashing in the water or stretched on the golden sand, others strolling the promenade in street clothing. As they passed the big shower-bath building with its circular entryway, she glimpsed a sign that said "Easton's Beach," and then the structure had passed and she could once more feast her eyes upon the shore, lined with swaying wild grasses and strewn with rocks, dotted with the occasional weathered house or lopsided grey sheds which she would find out later were fishing shacks.
Presently the road twisted to the left, turning northward on West Main Road and thence east. The concrete pavement of the Bellevue Avenue area gave way to gravel again and the appearance of the countryside was now that of a rural lane. Sturdy clapboard cottages and Queen Anne homes alternated on the marshlike soil; sleek white seagulls turned in slow circles above.
"Our stop is next," Cilla said, suddenly composed and as cool as silk. "We had better start for the exit."
They made their way to the front of the 'bus as the vehicle jerked and swayed on the gravel foothold. Betty held fast to the metal bars at the top of the seats to keep from falling, then her father's comforting hand steadied her.
The driver now turned his attention to them; Betty had not noticed him earlier in concentrating on the sniggering boys. Now she noted the deeply-carved wrinkles in the man's leathery face that made him look like an old-fashioned ship's figureheadand the pinned-up sleeve that would have held his left arm.
To her surprise, a smile softened that tanned face as he began to banter in a friendly manner with Priscilla, and the girl relaxed as she had not since the untoward incident with the young men. She was attempting to dissuade him from taking them directly home, citing his schedule, and the driver protested strenuously.
In the end the 'bus delivered them directly to the worn garden gate of a three-story house of weathered clapboard with peeling blue trim. Its appearance was shabby compared to the ornate dwellings they had passed in Newport, but all its elements made Betty feel immediately at home: potted scarlet- and coral-colored geraniums nodding a cheerful greeting from their row on the porch railings, a patchwork blanket airing from an upper window, the cocked and weathered picket fence lined with wild flowers and surrounding a yard consisting of a clothesline crowded with sheets and towels, and brilliant old-fashioned flowers in a rainbow of color running riot under every window: hollyhocks, cabbage roses, peonies, pansies, tiger lilies.
They took care to wave farewell at the obliging Mr. Slocum as the 'bus bumped and jerked its way back up the oyster-shell paved lane to the road.
Kit found her tongue again. "Mr. Slocum's such a dear. He used to be a fisherman, but had his arm crushed in a gale. His wife takes boarders, too, and he drives the excursion 'bus. Once the tourists come, he'll be making tips as well."
Betty would hear that term much in the next week: "when the tourists come." She was only beginning to realize that this seashore town made much of its income from its summer visitors.
She was still consumed by curiosity about the two young men Cilla had snubbed, but her questions were required to wait. From the moment they arrived at Surf House (a misnomer, as they were fifteen minutes walk from the beach), she was kept too busy to do anything but react to the goings-on about her.
First Aunt Aurelia came hurrying out the back door to greet them. Unlike Betty's mother, Aunt Aurelia was short and stout, with merry gray eyes and silver-sheened blond hair, a veritable plump grandmotherly person who enfolded her father as well as herself into enthusiastic embrace. Next they must come inside, relax, have ginger waterwhich Aurelia referred to as "switchell"and a slice of pound cake warm from the oven, while her aunt encouraged them to talk about the trip. Cilla's envious expression and Kit's swift questions gave Betty to understand that her seashore cousins felt as eager to see other things as she had.
Before they knew it, it was time for supper. Betty offered to help out in the kitchen, but Aunt Aurelia and her Irish servant girl, Maureen, shooed all of them but Priscilla from the area. Kit had merely laughed. "Mother doesn't want me about when she makes dinner for the boarders. She says just as likely I'd salt the blueberries and upset the chowder just as it finished."
Thus Betty and her father decided to unpack what few things they had brought in their small grips. Because he had been ill, Aunt Aurelia assigned her father a small but breezy front room on the second floor where he could take in the salt air. "Best thing for those bad lungs," she counseled firmly.
Then Kit led Betty up the narrow back stairs to a little attic bedroom directly across the hall from the more spacious accommodations she shared with her sister. It was small, whitewashed, and rather plain, with a narrow white iron bedstead, a three-drawer maple dresser with a rippled surface where it had warped from the damp topped with a mirror dotted with black aging spots, and a small white-painted table that served as night stand, with a little electric lamp with a faded parchment shade perched upon it. But the bed was covered with a gay blue-and-green quilt, the blue curtains that framed the outdoors wonderfully matched the quilt, and a hand-colored Currier and Ives farm print hung over the headboard of the bed.
"I thought that would make you feel more at home," Kit offered, indicating the print. "It was downstairs in Mr. Matthews' room and there was a terribly-done religious engraving up here. I put it in Mrs. Croix's room. She won't mind."
"Thank you," Betty said, for a moment feeling homesick as she saw the sprawling fields, powerful dray horses, and hard-working threshers. Then she bit her lip and smiled covertly. Imagine being homesick when you were over a thousand miles from the endless fields of Indiana, seeing the ocean for the first time!
It had occurred to her then that now that they were alone she should inquire about Cilla's peculiar behavior on the motorbus, but getting a word in edgewise with Kit seemed almost impossible. She rattled on so about Mrs. Croix, a fisherman's widow who now served as a Middletown grammar school teacher, and their other two boarders, Mr. Andrea and Mr. Matthews, fishermen, that Betty's head fairly ached after a few minutes and she was overjoyed to hear Aunt Aurelia clanging the old-fashioned dinner bell that was kept outside the rear entryway.
But, she told herself, you can be sure I'll ask about it later!
Dinner was a long, jolly affair. All three of the boarders were present and the two fishermen turned out to be boyish tradesmen in their mid-twenties, Pietro Andrea was Italian, short and dark-complected with flashing dark eyes, and Thaddeus Matthews was originally from New Bedford, lank, with shoulder-length brown hair kept tied back with twine. To Betty's surprise, tiny brown Anna Croix looked little older than a girl; she was, Kit informed her later, only twenty, having married at sixteen. Her young husband, then only twenty-one, had been killed in the selfsame gale that had lost Mr. Slocum his arm. Betty shivered, glad that no close family members worked on the ocean.
Aunt Aurelia had presided at the head of the table, while Maureen, only seventeen, but already sober and serious, her dark hair pinned up in a tidy bun, set big porcelain platters and tureens in the middle of the long oilcloth-covered table and everyone helped themselves. Betty silently rejoiced when her father took a second helping of the rich creamy clam chowder and bit hungrily into baked haddock swimming in butter. She had never eaten much seafood save at Christmas and Thanksgiving when her mother made oyster stew, and she tasted each new dish eagerly. She loved the chowder, liked the haddock, but enjoyed the most a dessert of fresh wild blueberries, dusted in powdered sugar, over more pound cake, served with fresh whipped cream.
By the time dishes were cleared and scrapedBetty and Kit being more welcome at this activityMr. Fontanini had arrived at Surf House to deliver their trunks. He was a stocky, greying little bear of a man who insisted on carrying both upstairs to their proper rooms before he would allow Maureen to take him into the kitchen for blueberries and cake while the family retired to the old-fashioned parlor with its straight-backed armchairs, horsehair chesterfield, pump organ, and gatelegged tables.
To Betty's astonishment, at 8:30, when the mantel clock softly chimed the half hour, Aunt Aurelia put aside her tatting, arose from her seat, and yawned, covering her mouth with the back of her hand. "Bedtime, girls."
Betty glanced quickly to her fatherwhy at home they were still reading and listening to their radio set at this time!but David Roberts simply stretched and yawned himself, rising as well. "I see you go to bed with the chickens around here, Aurelia."
"My boys are up early, David. No need for you to go up, though," his sister-in-law chuckled. "Clara warned me you're the night-owl still. But the girls and I have to be up at five and I believe in young 'uns getting a good night's sleep." She did not look at Betty.
But her father knew his manners as well as Betty did. "That's fine, Aurelia. I think both the chickadee and I could stand an early night after our long trip."
Betty blushed at the use of her nickname when Kit giggled, and Cilla gave her a push. "Can't you ever be still?" the older girl remonstrated.
"That's all right," Betty spoke up. "I need to wash my hair anyway, before the soot dirties the pillows."
"Oh, goodness, I wish you'd said something earlier," Aunt Aurelia fussed. "Let me catch Maureen before she goes up to sleep." When Betty looked puzzled, Cilla explained that while the well water used in the house was fine for bathing, it was not good to drinka man brought fresh water in bottled jugs every morning for cookingor for washing hair. After Betty had her bath, Kit carried up a pail of water that had been collected from the rain barrel and first heated over the stove and helped her cousin wash and rinse her hair.
It was only after Betty, in a light white seersucker nightgown, was seated cross-legged on the bed, her waist-length hair imprisoned in a towel and a book placed as always on her knees, that she could finally ask Kit the question burning in her mind.
In response, her cousin, in a similar nightgown of palest pink, stealthily closed and latched the bedroom door, then plumped herself on the opposite end of the bed.
"Well," she said in the most dramatic voice she could muster, "it all has to do with my sister being in love with a suspected thief!"
The Shell Pendant Mystery is ©2002 by Linda M. Young