Early one morning at Dunnet Landing, as if it were still night, I waked, suddenly startled by a spirited conversation beneath my window. It was not one of Mrs. Todd’s morning soliloquies; she was not addressing her plants and flowers in words of either praise or blame. Her voice was declamatory though perfectly good-humored, while the second voice, a man’s, was of lower pitch and somewhat deprecating.
The sun was just above the sea, and struck straight across my room through a crack in the blind. It was a strange hour for the arrival of a guest, and still too soon for the general run of business, even in that tiny eastern haven where daybreak fisheries and early tides must often rule the day.
The man’s voice suddenly declared itself to my sleepy ears. It was Mr. William Blackett’s.
“Why, sister Almiry,” he protested gently, “I don’t need none o’ your nostrums!”
“Pick me a small han’ful,” she commanded. “No, no, a small han’ful, I said,–o’ them large pennyr’yal sprigs! I go to all the trouble an’ cossetin’ of ‘em just so as to have you ready to meet such occasions, an’ last year, you may remember, you never stopped here at all the day you went up country. An’ the frost come at last an’ blacked it. I never saw any herb that so objected to gardin ground; might as well try to flourish mayflowers in a common front yard. There, you can come in now, an’ set and eat what breakfast you ‘ve got patience for. I ‘ve found everything I want, an’ I ‘ll mash ‘em up an’ be all ready to put ‘em on.”
I heard such a pleading note of appeal as the speakers went round the corner of the house, and my curiosity was so demanding, that I dressed in haste, and joined my friends a little later, with two unnoticed excuses of the beauty of the morning, and the early mail boat. William’s breakfast had been slighted; he had taken his cup of tea and merely pushed back the rest on the kitchen table. He was now sitting in a helpless condition by the side window, with one of his sister’s purple calico aprons pinned close about his neck. Poor William was meekly submitting to being smeared, as to his countenance, with a most pungent and unattractive lotion of pennyroyal and other green herbs which had been hastily pounded and mixed with cream in the little white stone mortar.
I had to cast two or three straightforward looks at William to reassure myself that he really looked happy and expectant in spite of his melancholy circumstances, and was not being overtaken by retribution. The brother and sister seemed to be on delightful terms with each other for once, and there was something of cheerful anticipation in their morning talk. I was reminded of Medea’s anointing Jason before the great episode of the iron bulls, but to-day William really could not be going up country to see a railroad for the first time. I knew this to be one of his great schemes, but he was not fitted to appear in public, or to front an observing world of strangers. As I appeared he essayed to rise, but Mrs. Todd pushed him back into the chair.
“Set where you be till it dries on,” she insisted. “Land sakes, you’d think he’d get over bein’ a boy some time or ‘nother, gettin’ along in years as he is. An’ you ‘d think he ‘d seen full enough o’ fish, but once a year he has to break loose like this, an’ travel off way up back o’ the Bowden place–far out o’ my beat, ’tis–an’ go a trout fishin’!”
Her tone of amused scorn was so full of challenge that William changed color even under the green streaks.
“I want some change,” he said, looking at me and not at her. “‘T is the prettiest little shady brook you ever saw.”