A Walk to the Store
Although Sunday was quiet, there was an unsettled quality about the day. They attended church, had their usual ice cream treat, played a quiet game of Hearts (for Aunt Aurelia was not against simple card games on the Lord's Day). Whatever was in the air simmered until Monday.
Betty couldn't have told you later on how the quarrel started. Perhaps it was the aftermath of the encounter at the Madisons, or even Kit's initial acceptance of the invitation. Or maybe it had been David Roberts' report after visiting the editor of the Newport Daily News that Steven's news about Dick was indeed true.
"Mr. McIllveray has sworn to the police that Dick did not pawn a shell pendant or any type of women's jewelry, but he won't give any more information than that, he says, unless subpoenaed. Dick has apparently begged him not to say anything. Since McIllveray apparently had some trouble with the police last year in accepting stolen goods in pawn, he's not entirely believed."
It might have even been long-simmering resentment between the sisters and not have anything to do with the recent situation at all. However, when Kit came to rouse Betty from her slumbers, she was already in a temper, and the sisters exchanged snipes across the breakfast table. Aunt Aurelia eyed her daughters with some misgivings but evidently hoped they would settle their own differences, but unfortunately, they chose not to. By the time they were sweeping and dusting the front parlor, Kit and Cilla were engaged in an active exchange of recriminations that delved back into early childhood. When their voices grew shrill, Aunt Aurelia put her foot down.
"Catherine Augusta! Priscilla Maria!" she said in a tight voice as she swept into the room like a dignified schooner, snapping her skirts like a mainsail in a strong wind. She pronounced the "Maria" of Cilla's name in the old-fashioned manner, "Mariah," with such angry crispness that even Betty stopped dusting the elaborate parlor organ and paid attention to her aunt. "You both sound like a pair of unmannerly street urchins, not mature girls. So, since neither of you seems adult enough to stop this childish quarrel, I shall. When you both finish your chores, I wish you to stay in this afternoon, including for luncheon."
Kit opened her mouth, closed it just as rapidly. "Catherine, you will sit in my room, and read your Bible. Priscilla, you will stay in your own room and read yours. For starting the quarrel this morning, Catherine, I will require you to memorize ten verses. While I put the biscuits in the oven I will choose which verses I want you to learn. Be assured they will be instructive. You will take your lunch in your respective rooms and you will do your own washing up afterwards. If I find out Maureen has done it for either of you, you will both have verses to memorize and the supper dishes to do tonight." Cilla took in a deep breath and her mother added, "Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes, ma'am," Cilla answered obediently, echoed a moment later by Kit's, "Yes, Mamma."
Aunt Aurelia had then turned to Betty and added gently, "I'm sorry to ruin your afternoon plans, dear. Perhaps you can find some other way to amuse yourself."
"Yes, Aunty," she answered respectfully, and the three girls finished their chores in silence, after which the now penitent sisters retreated to individual bedrooms with their afternoon meal.
Aunt Aurelia ate in the kitchen in order to plan the evening meal with Maureen, leaving Betty and her father to exchange glances over the dining room tabletop as they ate thick beef stew with jonnycake on the side. As Betty liberally buttered a piece of the latter, her father said invitingly, "How about a game of Chinese checkers when we finish?"
"Sure, Dad," she said, half-heartedly, and, although she enjoyed the ensuing game, the breeze and the scent of the ocean outside beckoned her. Ordinarily she could be counted on to be comfortable curled up with a book somewhere, but today she was restless and he sensed it. When she'd made her final move and won the game, he had leaned backwards in the ladder-backed chair and chuckled. "My daughter the Chinese checkers sharp! Say, chickadee-"
He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Your aunt makes a mean dessert, but I seem to have a craving for a different type of sweet. I don't supposed you'd walk down to the general store and indulge your old dad, would you?"
She brightened. "Might I, Dad?"
"I don't see why not. It's straight down the road and back and the traffic is minimal." He reached into his trouser pocket, jingled some coins, and withdrew one tight in his hand which he placed into the pocket of her playsuit skirt. Then he added in covert tones, "You might want to get Kit and Cilla a little treat as well."
Then he laid a kiss on her forehead. "You go on and be careful. Take your time, but don't be too long. If you're not back by supper, I'm calling out the entire Navy and a couple of Marines besides."
"Thanks, Daddy!" she said, impulsively giving him a hug, then skipped for the door. He smiled wistfully, for she hadn't called him "Daddy" in several years.
Then at the screen door she turned. "Dad?"
"Do I have to wear my shoes?"
"If you want to walk three miles down the edge of a gravel road barefooted, chickadee, I guess that's your call. Cuts and blisters, however, are your own fault."
"I'll risk it," she said cheerfully, and sure enough, several minutes later when he emerged from the house, he found her sturdy Oxfords seated next to the porch door, stockings neatly folded inside each one. He laughed and said to himself, "Oh, Clare, go easy on me when we get home," then took his book and resumed his reading from the settee, where he had a clear view of his daughter's form as she proceeded down the road.
Betty had snatched a wide-brimmed straw hat from the hat stand in the entryway to guard against the sunshe already had a spotting of freckles on her nose and cheeksand was aware as she picked her way among the rocks of the path to the gate that she looked like that little country girl she had resented resembling the day she had arrived. But today she couldn't care less. It was warm and sunny, perhaps even a little close despite the sea breeze, and it was lovely to be able to walk barefooted up the cool, sweet-smelling grass that formed the only sidewalk leading into the town square. Her feet were light and her arms were light; at the moment she could have danced on air.
About a mile down the road she slid her hand into her pocket to touch the dime she was certain was there and discovered that her father had given her an entire quarter dollar instead. She gazed at it, wide-eyed, then dropped it back into her pocket and gave a joyous whirl right out there on the Middletown main street before continuing in a more decorous manner the remainder of the way to Grady's Grocery and Dry Goods.
The big whitewashed store, its sides dotted with painted and tin advertisements for various products, had a wide front porch and big barnlike delivery doors at the rear. It was one of several stores that clustered around a rather dusty "town green" centered with a granite, obelisk-shaped monument to the Civil War dead. At the far edge of the square there was a small, quaint livery stable left over from the last century, redolent of horse and grain, and then the stolid brick First Methodist Church (it was here they went on Sunday), a folksy feed-and-grain store where girls still went for flour sack material for aprons and dresses, a combination milliner/seamstress shop that catered to older women (the younger set being instead devoted to the trendier establishments in Newport and Providence), and a butcher shop shared the green area with Grady's. Further up the street was the Georgian-styled Town Hall and across the street from that edifice was the Middletown Funeral Home, and peeking from a grove of elms and maples beyond were the white spires of the First Baptist Church.
Betty mounted the worn board steps with anticipation, nodding politely at the two elderly men who seemed to always be on the porch rocking in the chairs provided. It was inevitable that one of them was squinting at the sky and commenting that they could use some rain and she smiled to herself. Two similar men occupied the rockers in front of the Elkhart General Store as well, with similar conversation; she wondered if it were so all over the country.
Inside the store was a welcome respite from the sun's glare, for the broad green-and-white striped window awnings and shade from the surrounding maple trees kept out much of the summer light. The interior was cluttered with merchandise ranging from canned goods to woolen bloomers to fishermen's supplies. Barrels of sugar, wheat flour, cornmeal, potatoes, and other bulk foodstuffs stood in one corner, next to the counter, and overhead from the tall rafters dangled fishing poles, lobster traps, oilskin bags, nets.
Although the pot-bellied stove in the center of the room was presently inactive, two men sat to either side of it. One, an unfamiliar balding older man with a "bay window," sat whittling bobbers that the men would use for fishing, while the younger manBetty knew he was Jim Ellis, a tall, lank young fisherman who had been crippled after a fall from a trawler mastmended nets. They had a well-worn checker board set on the stove between them, and between strokes of the knife and movements of Ellis' mending hook, they would regard the board and move a piece.
Two well-dressed women were sorting through dress goods in the far corner and Betty cast a brief, reluctant glance at her rather dusty self, then shrugged, pushed her hat back so it dangled by its strings, and approached the counter.
Grady's glass-topped candy counter resembled the one in the Elkhart General Store and for a moment Betty was overwhelmed by the wealth of sweets spread before herHershey bars, Clark bars, nut rolls, Milky Ways, Charleston Chews, Baby Ruths, Mars bars, Oh Henrys. Mr. Grady also kept a copious assortment of penny candy and she debated whether it would be better to get a handful of these at two for a penny, but more than likely forgo the rich taste of chocolate. Her eyes traveled from jar to jar of salt-water taffy, "red hot" dollars, jelly beans, Mary Janes, Bit'o'Honeys, and Squirrel Nut caramels. There were always Hershey kisses, of course-
"Hello, dear," said Mrs. Grady with a friendly smile. She was a small, stout, affable woman with grizzled dark hair who perpetually wore vertically-striped dresses to make her look taller and slimmer, although the effect was never as good as she hoped. Today her red-striped frock made Betty think of candy canes and her gaze wandered to the pink glass jar full of red-and-white peppermint sticks. "Aren't you Aurelia Albright's little niece? Elly, isn't it? Here alone?"
"Yes'm," Betty said politely. "Priscilla and Kit are busy." That certainly was not a lie!
"How's your cousin Cilla doing?" Mrs. Grady asked with some concern. "I mean, with the news out about young Dick."
Betty felt her stomach tighten. She had forgotten when coming on this welcome errand that Grady's was also a gossip clearing-house and that someone might ask her that particular question.
"For heaven's sake, Martha," Jim Ellis spoke up, and Betty turned her head to see him narrowing his eyes and frowning at Mrs. Grady. "Ain't poor Dick Burrows been persecuted enough? The boy says he was on a personal errand and old McIllveray says he didn't pawn any necklace...pendant...whatever that hoity-toity Aletha Carlisle calls it. If the City of Newport elected their chiefs of police honestly instead o' by the spoils system, we might have some honest lawmen out there. The way it stands now, all they're going to do is stick up for the rich 'uns who slip 'em money behind their backs."
"Listen to you," clucked the balding man, "the police don't arrest the way you want 'em to and immediately it's graft. Poor people do crimes, too."
Betty said hotly, "Not Dick!" and she felt tears coming to her eyes. Mrs. Grady must have noticed it, for she clucked something about being an old gossip and asked Betty if she could help her.
Concentrating on the mouth-watering treats, Betty chose her father's first, a big five-cent Charleston Chew. For herself, she picked a variety of penny candy, including one precious Hershey's kiss, then bought a nut roll for Kit and, because she knew Cilla was "watching her figure," a pair of two-for-a-nickel peppermint sticks.
"That'll be two bits, dearie," Mrs. Grady said cheerfully, scooping the various candies in a small paper bag. Just as she took Betty's quarter, the bell on the screen door rang and into the store walked a familiar figure with hat crammed down on his head and dark glasses on his face.
The Shell Pendant Mystery is ©2002 by Linda M. Young