An Eventful Morning
"Oh, no," Kit pronounced with a moan, "you're not like Miss Perfect Priss, are you?"
Betty turned her head in surprise, having just finished slipping on her shoes. "Whatever is the matter, Kit?"
Kit had risen reluctantly, as always, with her mother and sister at five to help prepare breakfast, set and then clear the table, and finally help Maureen with the dishes. Once finished, the marplot had planned to creep into her cousin's room, fully expecting to find her abed and ripe for a fright after keeping such late hoursafter all, hadn't she been up at the unheard-of time of 10:30, Kit having seen Betty tiptoeing back to her bedroom, presumably from her father's room, as she returned from the lavatory off the kitchen.
But here she was already dressed in a fresh middy, her window braced opened to set the room to air, the bed already neatly made, her trunk pushed tidily in the corner and the contents presumably already put up!
She wailed that complaint to a perplexed Betty, who simply replied, "If I take care of it now, it doesn't have to be done later. Mother won't allow me read nor go out unless my room is put to rights and the bed made."
"But isn't it hard?" Kit answered dismally. "My room's usually a perfect ragbag until Mamma comes up and scolds and I must do it or else."
"But you still must do it," her cousin protested, "so why wait?"
In the end Kit wheedled Betty into keeping her company as she tidied her room. "Perhaps," she concluded mournfully, "it will even be a good influence on me."
To Kit's surprise, Betty showed her how to make her bed quickly and do other bedroom chores in a trice. She was awed at how rapidly Betty could wrest the sheets and pillows into shape as the Indiana girl explained proudly, "I can make a bed in exactly two minutes and eighteen seconds that will pass even Mother's inspectionhospital corners and all! She won't stand a wrinkle in the sheets nor in the bedspread and the pillows must be plumped and smoothed properly."
So it was that both girls were downstairs in time to have their breakfast along with Betty's father, Aunt Aurelia, and Priscilla. Aunt Aurelia and the latter looked frankly amazed at Kit's appearance in so short a time. When Kit explained the miracle wrought in her bedroom, Betty simply kept shy eyes fastened on her steaming plate of oatmeal, fresh scrambled eggs, and ham, but she could tell her father was covertly smiling.
Her breakfast eaten, Betty carried her plate and utensils into the kitchen and scraped the leavings into the scrap bucket. Kit was still rattling away in the dining room and Maureen silently seated in the pantry eating her own breakfast before returning to her chores, so that Betty was alone as someone rapped at the screen door.
Determined to be helpful to her aunt, she set the plate in the big soapstone sink and, wiping her hands, stepped into the rear entryway to look out the back. There was a slim young man at the foot of the steps, his head, completely covered by a black mariner's cap, bowed over a bushel basket of something grey. Then he looked upward at the sound of the door creaking, smiled, and announced in a hoarse, gravely voice, "Hullo, there, you're new, aren't you? Could you tell Mrs. Albright I've brought her quahogs?"
Betty simply gaped at the sight of his face. Both cheeks and forehead were unnaturally crimson, the skin raw and appearing to have been scraped away along the top of his cheeks, and the nose was swollen and reddened as well. His eyebrows were non-existent and he wore small, oval-shaped smoked glasses similar to those Betty had seen used by blind people back in Elkhart.
Next thing she knew he had dropped the bushel to the clamshell path that led to the back gate and scrambled up the steps. "Miss, you okay?"
She gave a deep breath, steadying her hammering heart and wobbling legs, and loosened her sudden grip on the door handle. "You...startled me."
He laughed then, revealing strong white teeth that nevertheless looked incongruous in the ghoulish face. "Don't worry, I know I look like something the cat dragged in. Why not fetch Mrs. Albright for me?"
"Yes," she said with a vigorous nod, and Betty escaped to the dining room breathlessly reporting to her aunt about "the queer- looking man outside."
Aunt Aurelia was unperturbed, patting her reassuringly. "That will be Artie with my quahogs for the chowder tonight. Don't worry, dear. He comes every other day with fresh clams. I'm lucky to have him this year." And she left the table without another bit of explanation, and Betty could hear Aunt Aurelia invite the young man into the kitchen.
"It's Artie Dale," Cilla elaborated before Kit could begin. "I understand he's from Montaukthat's on Long Island, Uncle Davidbut is working for the Madisons this summer. He goes quahogging every morning to earn extra money." She tossed her short curls scornfully. "I shouldn't be surprised if he must just to be able to eat. I'm sure the Madisons are paying him a pittance. They have so much money precisely because they are so stingy."
"Funny that they give so much money to charity, then," Kit responded sourly.
"They only do that because it makes them look magnanimous," Cilla sniffed.
David Roberts said warningly, "Now, girls..."
Betty began, "But-" She lowered her voice lest the young man in the kitchen should overhear, not wishing to embarrass him. "What on earth is wrong with his face?"
"He told Addie Maloneyshe's the Hansons' cookthat he was working a fishing trawler when the boiler exploded. He was in the engine room when it happened. That's why he keeps his head covered so-" Kit gave a breathless pause. "-his hair and eyebrows were all burnt away!"
"My goodness!" Betty declared. "Mr. Slocum, Mr. Croix, Mr. Dale...I never knew fishing was all that dangerous!"
"Not if you're doing it with a rod and reel at the edge of the shore," Cilla said softly, her face haunted by something Betty did not understand. "The men who go out to sea every morning face all sorts of dangers: storms, sharks, drowning, infections from fishhooks and scaling knives."
"Elly, dearest," Aunt Aurelia called from the kitchen, "please come here for a moment."
Betty cast a puzzled look from her father to her cousins, then returned to the sunny kitchen with its tall narrow windows bordered in freshly-starched green gingham curtains. The basket of clams had been upended into an enormous enamel pot on the big black gas-converted range and the young man, his cap still jammed down upon his ears, was dangling the bushel by one of its wire handles with his left hand. With his right hand, he civilly touched the bill of the cap.
"I asked your aunt," he said politely, still in his peculiar hoarse voice, "if I could apologize for frightening you."
"I should be the person apologizing," Betty responded, abashed. "My mother's warned me about judging people by their appearances."
"I've been told my face would scare a goblin, Miss," he said with a wry smile. "I had an accident in a boiler room, and this is the result. I haven't removed my cap for that reason; it wouldn't be fair to go about frightening you ladies."
"And your voice?" Betty asked, in awe.
"Smoke damage to my throat. Diesel engines make pretty oily fires." He offered her his right hand, which was coarse and chapped but fairly clean, if still smelling of fresh clams. "I'm sorry not to have introduced myself before inflicting my face on you. Artie Dale. And your aunt tells me you're Elly."
Betty shook his hand gravely. "There's nothing to apologize for, Mr. Dale," she said in her most grown-up voice.
He flashed a smile at her once more, and Betty suspected he might be good-looking when his burns healed. Then he turned to Aunt Aurelia. "I'll bring you another bushel on Wednesday, Mrs. Albright. And thanks for the tonic."
After this unexpected encounter, Betty might have thought the excitement for the day had ended, but as she reentered the dining room, she discovered it had just begun, for Priscilla and Kit were discussing a new subject with her father.
"...simply too warm during the day for Elly to wear those flannel middies, Uncle David. Kit and I shop at a very smart but inexpensive dress shop, the Bon Ton. Might we take her shopping this morning for at least one light frock? Please?"
So on her first full day at the seashore, instead of strolling the sands or helping her aunt and Maureen with the laundry, Betty found herself flitting from shop to shop in the convoluted downtown streets of Newport, astonishingly in possession of five one-dollar bills from her father's worn wallet. When they arrived at the smart little shop just off Thames Street, they discovered that they were in luck: the proper frocks were available at a generous discount, and Betty rapturously came into possession of not one but two light cotton dresses, knee length, with a low waist and pleated skirt, just the latest fashion. She found she had enough money left over to purchase a new one-piece woolen bathing suit as well, and, since she had brought along three of her carefully hoarded silver dollars, she spent one on something the girls called a "playsuit" a combination blouse and skirt, in Woolworths, another on a pair of sandals, and the third on light cotton stockings with matching garters.
Secretly she wondered if her cousins or Aunt Aurelia might be persuaded into convincing her father to get the much-coveted hair bob!
The Shell Pendant Mystery is ©2002 by Linda M. Young