THE TROUBLE WITH THE BLYTHES

In which a spider catches Kenneth; and Walter catches on

Ingleside, Glen St Mary ~ later that same day.

He might have laughed about it before, but Kenneth Ford was rather fond of the dimly lit house now. It cooled, and more importantly obscured, a hideously hot, red face. For that is what it had been. Hideous.

What exactly had come over him just now? Perhaps there had been something else in that lukewarm lemonade, though he doubted Susan had the imagination for such a thing. How then to explain that he, Captain of the Blues, editor of the Toronto Tatler, host of the notorious Artists and Muses Ball, and very much the scholar and the gentleman, had been ogling–it was a harsh description but if the cap fit–the Blythe baby!

He took a tentative look outside. Rilla was standing by Walter though he knew she'd been invited to sit, for he had offered her his own spot on the lawn before she had time to open her mouth. The expression on her face was the same too, with her bottom lip pinched and eyes wide.

Fire coloured eyes that burned straight into him though the gloom of the hallway must have kept him from sight. He hoped it did and retreated further only to collide with three umbrellas jutting out from the hall-stand. A sharp stab of pain went through his ankle, the sort that would always remind him of the rotten tackle that caused it. So how was it he wasn't thinking of his foot–least of all the damned game–but whether Rilla could still see him?

Ken could see her, even when turned away and made his way to the 'phone near Susan's kitchen. He said he would inquire about the room above the coach house, but when he picked up the receiver he half-wished to hear it was unavailable. It was likely Rilla would be invited to join them and that was the last thing he wanted.

When he last saw her two years ago she had asked him to fell an old birch for her treehouse. They had played tug-o-war with the saw, chopping down the trunk to make little wooden stools. Then he and Jem and one of the Merediths–was it Carl or Una, someone with dark blue eyes?–all sat down to tea. Rilla had steeped spearmint in the sweet water of the Valley stream, and jolly nice it was, too.

Ken hadn't looked twice at Rilla back then, and she hadn't changed all that much. She was certainly much taller with arms and legs all over the show–she looked a proper little spider. But her hair was the same wavy chestnut. Her face the same creamy oval. The same questioning stare from her long lashed, golden eyes...

But no, somehow not the same. Not the same at all.

Ken felt himself being stared at. Rilla was standing by the front door and he turned away and made a show of being busy on the 'phone. It was only when she had gone from sight that he trusted himself to speak, and he put a call through to the coach house.

"All set then, Ford?" Jem called to Ken, as he made his slow return to the lawn. "Don't think you have to stump up for this shin-dig tonight."

Jem knew the type who let Owen Ford's son pay for everything, and never meant to be one of them.

Ken looked at his friends in a dull sort of stupor. He felt as though they were all staring at him. His whole body pulsed, the throb in his foot and the one in his chest. It seemed impossible that no one noticed.

"You don't look right," said Walter. He had been cloud-gazing but when Ken returned he propped himself up on his elbow.

"It's this blasted ankle," Ken said. "I knocked it on the hall stand. I really shouldn't have been playing tennis."

"No, you shouldn't have," Nan said, kindly. "Come and sit by me, Ken dear."

Which he did, though he regretted it. Not for the look on Jerry's face, but because his position didn't provide a clear view of the house. Ken wanted to be prepared for when Rilla came back to join them.

"What time did you book the room for Ken, do you think I'll have time to pin my hair?"

Nan raised her hands to her hair to tease out the coronet Di had braided about her head. Jerry swallowed hard. His voice was thick when he told Nan that she looked perfect as she was.

The thrill Nan felt at his compliment would have shown itself had she not just hit upon an untimely tangle. She was smiling on the inside, however. Perhaps, she wouldn't go back on her swap after all. Then if she didn't have time to set her hair, she could wear Rilla's cap. Something would have to be done about Di, however.

"I know very well what you're thinking, Nan, I'll go and change in a mo'," Di laughed. "I wondered if I might try on that little number Persis sent you?"

Nan very nearly rolled her eyes. What had she said to herself not an hour before? "Persis is clever and the gown really is the most glorious colour... but I think her idea of fashion is not quite the same as mine."

She gave a shy glance at Ken by way of an apology but he showed no sign of hearing her.

"That little lady go off then?" he asked.

"Miss Oliver, you mean?" Faith said. "You haven't been introduced yet, have you, Ken? You left so smartly when she arrived I almost thought you were avoiding her. Don't be deceived by my dear brother. Gertrude Oliver is race of Josephy through and through, isn't she, Di?"

"Through and through!" Di grinned. "We can't all be little rays of sunshine, you know," this said especially for Jerry's benefit who was looking like a black cloud, himself. "The world needs the other seasons too, don't forget. She's staying with us, in Rilla's room."

"The two of them are thick as thieves," said Nan. "It's so sweet the way they get on, though Miss Oliver is even older than you."

Ken pinched at a daisy and began to pluck out its petals. "Older than me?"

"Bruce is like that, too," Faith added, thinking of her father and Rosemary's son. "Your little shadow, isn't he, Jem? I suppose it comes from being the baby of the family. You become so used to everyone being older it no longer seems a barrier to friendship."

"Not that it rubs off on her," Jem said, tossing the remnants of their picnic into the hampers. "Rilla brings out the child in everyone."

Walter smiled. "I think that's one of the loveliest things you've ever said. Shame, Puss wasn't here to hear it."

"I'm not," said Jem, testily. When he agreed to Faith's bet that he put on the afternoon tea if she beat him in tennis, it never occurred to him that she meant the tidying up as well. "I can imagine her being quite offended and snubbing me for days... I am going on thixteen, you know!" he said, in a fair imitation of his littlest sister.

"You missed a cup!" Faith laughed.

"A lot younger than Miss Oliver," Ken muttered.

"The silly sausage just turned fifteen," said Di. "You and Persis sent her that outrageous silver cuff, didn't you?"

Ken, of course, had no idea. He hadn't even signed the card.

"She won't take it off," Di went on, "even though it dangles round her wrist like a manacle."

Kenneth Ford was not the son of an author for nothing and sighed inwardly at the a poetic justice of such a gift. He felt, Lord help him, he felt tied to her. It was as if he could sense Rilla move about the house upstairs, and the only way he could give relief to this feeling was by asking about the woman who was up there with her.

"And how long is she staying–Miss Oliver–will she come out tonight, do you think?"

Nan and Di shared such a look, a whole conversation the way only twins can: Are you thinking what I'm thinking? No! Yes! He can't stop talking about her! So I noticed! Pulling petals to boot! Noticed that, too! Ken likes Gertrude Oliver! No! Yes! And so it went on. It fell to Faith to answer him.

"No, poor soul, she had another head coming on so they came back early from the Howard's. Rilla's seeing to her–"

"So, she won't be coming tonight?" The poor flower in Ken's hand worried to nothing.

"Miss Oliver?" Faith asked him.

"Or..." Ken said.

"Or?" Faith repeated.

"Rilla."

How strange her name sounded when he said it aloud. Ken looked about with a wary eye, expecting his friends to point at him and shout, Hah! We knew it!

The rest of his friends were pointing and staring. But not at Kenneth Ford.

"Rilla!"

"Oh, Rilla!"

"Rilla, my dear, what have you come as?"

Ken turned back to look at the girl who stood before him and she was not as she was before. No longer in her white summer dress but in something else altogether. Something that had Persis Ford written all over it.

"That's one of my sister's," he exclaimed, of the butterfly sleeves and hobble skirt that was wearing Rilla Blythe.

Rilla bobbed about in the jade green sheath with an uninhibited glee. "I thought I'd wear it to the party tonight!"

Ken was looking at more of Rilla than he had ever seen before. There was something about that dress that seemed almost indecent. Her arms and legs were so exposed and there was such a lot of them. She looked like a shiny beetle and more spidery than ever. What on earth had he been thinking? This was Rilla, little Rilla! He laughed at his own stupidity and with sincere relief.

"You're not coming!" he burst out. "Grown-ups only, I'm afraid."

Rilla went white, then a nasty shade of red as she sent Walter an imploring look.

"We never promised you could come," Walter gave Rilla a sympathetic shrug, "but you know it's just as well. Susan would certainly say no."

"I didn't want to go anyway," Rilla declared, "I'd rather remain here and take care of a real friend!"

Ken looked away for the briefest moment before remembering that unlike Rilla he was not a child. "Don't be like that, my little spider–"

Rilla glared at him with eyes like bonfires. "I am not your... anything, Kenneth Ford, and I never, ever will be!"

...

There are parties and there are parties. Ones you attend with your feet dragging that you leave at dawn with your heels in your hand. And ones you can't wait to attend and then find yourself wondering that only an hour has passed. Unfortunately the Blythes, the Merediths, and Kenneth Ford were mired in the latter.

After all the toasts to Walter and to The Sun Rescinds, then to parents and friends and reviewers–let them be kind, lest Walter be sent to an untimely grave like that poor John Keats–no one had much of an appetite. They sat round the table picking and sipping as the conversation turned predictably to war because rightly or wrongly it was foremost on their minds. But also because other more prickly conversations must wait.

For instance, Nan wondered, did Jerry really have to leave before the cheese course so that he could help his father go over tomorrow's sermon?

"Some of us have work to do," he'd said darkly.

"But it's Sunday tomorrow!" said Ken, pouring a drink.

"I meant God's work."

And there was not one hint of that lopsided grin on his face, nor much of one on Jem's, when Jerry insisted Faith come home with him.

Nan hoped she might at least steal Di away to chat about this mad pash Ken Ford had for–of all people–Gertrude Oliver! She was ages older than he was, and more importantly had an understanding with a lawyer in Charlottetown. Who should be the one to tell Ken that Miss Oliver was soon to become Mrs Grant? But even though Nan had been staring at her twin in that 'we need to talk' sort of way, Di, it seemed would rather argue over the comparative merits of grubs versus winged insects. And didn't Carl Meredith have such a lot to say about that!

This all came of Jerry up and leaving so mysteriously. Only three days ago they had been debating on the veranda steps till ten o'clock! When Father met up with them on his way back from a chamber-pot vigil, waiting for Emlyn McAllister to pass a tiger's eye brooch (it looked like a caramel!) he gave Jerry a hearty clap on the back.

"Why ever did you do such a thing?" Nan had asked her father the next morning.

Gilbert chuckled. "I thought he needed some encouragement after parrying with you all night. I could hear you from a mile away, Nan Blythe. You went on so long I began to think you were talking to yourself. Then to find Jerry Meredith at my doorstep trying to get a word in edgewise. Let's just say I knew how the poor fellow felt."

Well, it wasn't everyday you had the chance to sink your teeth into some really meaningful conversation. Jerry had a way of making Nan want to declare a black thing white. Now she was stuck at this table, an unwilling audience to the kinds of conversations you might just as well have in your maiden aunt's sitting room.

"–libellula lydia?" Di asked.

"–an unending stalemate," Jem grumbled.

"–and then tie it in such a way..." Carl was explaining.

"–the Piper is drawing his breath!" said Walter, ominously.

And Kenneth Ford pouring himself another drink!

A moonlit stroll home on the arm of that black haired, black eyed boy would have been just the ticket. If only he had asked her. Why, pray tell, didn't someone want to talk about that?

"Nan, can I tempt you?" Ken asked her, sliding a tumbler across the table.

Nan fondled the glass for a moment, swirling the contents around. "I really shouldn't. Actually I won't, and neither should you, Kenneth Ford."

"You sound like Persis," Ken smiled.

"We see eye to eye on that, at least!" she laughed.

It was an uncommon talent of the Blythes: to be honest to the feeling within them in one moment then letting it go with the wind in the next.

"That dress not to your taste, I take it?" Ken's grey eyes twinkled.

"Or yours!" Nan bit back. "Poor Rilla. You were awfully hard on her, Ken."

He didn't need telling, he felt bad for the kid. "Not awfully, I hope. I never said anything I haven't said before."

"Yes, but she wasn't fifteen before!"

No, she wasn't.

"Nan!" Di called from across the table. Ken and her sister were looking very cosy. Nan's darling face and attentive nature; she little realised the long line of youths who had fallen under her spell. Not that someone so worldly-wise as Kenneth Ford would succumb to the charms of an Island girl, but still... "Time to go. Mother's rostered to do the flowers for the service tomorrow," Di reminded her, "and we promised to do them in her stead, so we'll have to be up extra early."

"Allow me," said Jem, holding out his elbow and inviting Carl to do the same. "Shall we escort you home, m'ladies?"

The room was left to Walter and Ken. They dragged a pair of armchairs that sat by the empty fireplace over to a large open window; the smell of salt, leaf and coal blowing softly through the room. Ken sat down opposite his friend and began to unlace his shoe. Walter grabbed his ankle gently and finished the job, then placed it on his knee.

"Sock not too ripe, I hope," Ken joked.

"I assumed that was why you sat by an open window," Walter replied. He leaned back and closed his eyes, cradling his head with his hands.

"So, old man," Ken said, after a while, "published at last."

Walter's eyes opened but they remained fixed on the ceiling. "Hardly at last, Mr Ford, they accepted me straight away thanks to you. If you hadn't got my foot in the door at your father's publishers–"

"Your foot in the door is all I got you, Walt. The rest you did yourself."

"And you really think it's good?" He stared at Ken and felt his cheeks redden. He hated to look as though he fished for a compliment, Ken's toast had been excruciating enough. But it mattered to Walter in a way he could not articulate that Kenneth Ford liked what he had written.

"Father almost wept," Ken said. Not for the first time he wondered if the literary genius that was Owen Ford wished his own son had written something even half so brilliant.

"But what about you?" Walter insisted.

What was it with these Blythes; was there something in the Glen water that caused their eyes to see into your very soul? Ken poked about in his pocket and pulled out a slim silver case. "There was an inexcusable split infinitive and I question the choice of type set, but other than that–"

"Ratbag!"

"I only know how to edit the stuff, I could never actually write it." Ken snapped a match in one slick stroke and fired the end of his cigarette. "Care for one?" he asked Walter, who shook his head emphatically.

"Are you planning to corrupt all the fine young Blythes while the Doctor is away? I saw you plying Nan with alcohol."

"I was being a good host."

"Is that what you call it?"

"I keep forgetting we're playing by the Island rules now. I suppose I shall read about our engagement in the Glen Notes tomorrow," Ken said, flicking a length of ash out the window.

"Not unless you fancy pistols at dawn with a certain minister's son," said Walter, raising his eyebrows. "But you can take your pick from the rest of my darling sisters. I, for one, would adore you for a brother."

Ken inhaled so hard he scorched the back of his throat, and made several hacks before he could catch his breath.

"I take it I'm not the first to try and marry off a sister," Walter said, handing his friend a drink.

Ken tossed the rest of his cigarette into the street below and took a short swig with a nod of thanks. "Your sisters are in need of no assistance. Jerry's eyes are firmly fixed–though whether Nan sees it is another matter. And Di, well... when it comes to Di you can be sure that she will do the choosing."

Walter smiled in agreement. He could comfortably offer Di's hand when he knew there was no danger of actually losing her. He wondered if she dared to risk her heart again. His youngest sister, however, clearly longed to offer hers.

"And Rilla-my-Rilla?"

Ken looked at Walter blankly and slid his foot to the floor. "Rilla-your-Rilla?"

"Is she?" Walter asked him. "Is she Rilla-your-Rilla?"

Those damnable Blythe eyes, always peering into things that shouldn't be looked upon.

"I should say not. Rilla is a child!"

"Aren't we all," was all Walter would say.