By Deone R. Sutherland
Synopsis: Lillian and her friend Patricia are very much interested in the affairs of Pat’s three unmarried aunts: Agnes, Margaret, and Karen. The two older sisters are schoolteachers, and Karen was making preparations to follow the same profession – before John Alder came to Green Willows to direct the summer theater. Margaret had once been in love with her neighbor, Dr. Turner, before he married someone else. He is now a widower, with a young son, Philip, and he and Margaret become friends again.
The play was delightful beyond our expectations. It was like magic with the people acting right on the stage in front of you, making another world for us to laugh in and enjoy. It was better than all the movies we’d ever seen, we decided. I think Margaret and Dr. Turner enjoyed it, too, because they looked so happy all the time. After the play was over, we went back stage to see Karen and John Alder.
“Karen could ride home with us,” Pat suggested.
“Well, I think maybe John will want to take her home,” Dr. Turner said.
“It’s Karen’s birthday tomorrow,” Margaret said. “We’re having a small family dinner for her, so you must not let anything happen to anyone in Green Willows from seven until nine tomorrow evening, Mark.”
“I’ll do my best.” Dr. Turner smiled at Margaret.
Pat and I had bought handkerchiefs for Karen earlier in the week. Now we wished we had selected something more glamorous. Just then John Alder broke away from a number of people who were congratulating him and the stars of the play and made his way over to us.
“Karen’s downstairs helping some of the actors check in the costumes, since this is the last night for this play. She’s turning into something very indispensable around here.”
Margaret laughed. “She’s doing my work, I suppose. I feel terrible about flunking out so many evenings.”
“That’s all right,” John said. “We know how it is. You’ll just have to share your checks with Karen.” He smiled as he shook Dr. Turner’s hand.
We didn’t wait for Karen because John insisted he’d bring her home. It was very exciting to go backstage and see the actors after the play, but we finally had to go. We were getting sleepy, but not too sleepy to enjoy the malted milks Dr. Turner bought us on the way home.
Dr. Turner walked us to our front door leaving Phil curled up on the seat. “I’ll have to hurry or he’ll be asleep before I get back,” Dr. Turner said. He unlocked the front door of the Diffendorf house, and Pat and I stepped inside. There was a light burning in the hall.
“I must go right in,” we heard Margaret say. But after she was in, they stood looking at each other for a moment. “Goodnight,” Margaret whispered.
Pat and I went up the stairs, and, in a second, Margaret followed.
When we were in our pajamas and in bed, Margaret came in to say goodnight. We whispered about the play for a few minutes, laughing over the many funny situations. We hated Margaret to go. She looked like a real princess in her long robe, standing so slim in the moonlight from our windows.
“I really must go to bed,” Margaret said, “or I won’t be a bit of help tomorrow. We want to make Karen’s birthday a very nice one.”
A car sounded on the gravel in front of the gate below us. “There’s Karen now,” Margaret said.
We were still whispering and laughing about the play when Karen came up the stairs.
“Margaret,” Karen called softly outside our door. “Margaret?” Margaret went to the door.
“We’re in here, Karen, giggling over the play. The girls are just going to sleep.” Pat sat up in bed. “But I’m not a bit sleepy. Karen, what are you going to get for your birthday?”
“Lots of surprises, I expect,” said Margaret.
Karen took Margaret’s hand.
“Margaret, would you be surprised if I told you I know … I’ve had a preview of one present I’m going to accept tomorrow …”
“No,” said Margaret. “It’s no surprise, and Agnes will be as pleased as everyone.” She kissed Karen on both cheeks.
“Oh, I’m so relieved to have it out at last,” Karen said. “I was so afraid everyone would think I was unappreciative of all the family has done for me, especially Agnes. Of course, I’m going to teach this next year in order to pay back Agnes. I’ve already signed the contract, but in the spring …” She lifted her head and looked at Margaret. “Oh, Margaret, if it could only happen to you.”
“What?” Pat was saying, “What?”
Agnes called from down the hall. “What is going on in the middle of the night? Go to sleep, everyone, at once.”
Margaret and Karen scurried out of our room and disappeared down the hall. Pat looked at me, and I looked back. The feather tick was wonderfully soft to sleep on. We promptly rolled toward the middle, sank almost out of sight, and fell asleep.
We woke in the morning to sunlight in our faces. for a minute we hardly knew where we were, and then we rolled to the sides of our bed and sat up.
“I don’t hear a sound,” said Pat. “Do you think everyone’s gone away?”
I slipped on my house slippers and robe. I couldn’t hear anything, either. We went down to the bathroom and washed our faces. Karen’s door was closed, but Margaret’s was open. Her bed had been neatly made and the room was empty. We dressed, made our bed, and went downstairs to breakfast. Agnes and Margaret, wearing big white aprons, were in the kitchen.
“Shshsh,” said Margaret. “It’s the birthday cake. All finished now except the final layer and the rest of the frosting and decorating.”
Agnes handed us a pan, and we scraped out the remains of the yellow filling. It was delicious.
“Your breakfast is all on the table. If the toast is too cold for you, you can make fresh. We had to get this cake taken care of before Karen came down. It wouldn’t do to have her working on her own birthday cake.”
Agnes smoothed the frosting quickly with a silver knife. Pat and I sat down to breakfast. We ate cold cereal, but the eggs were warm under cover, and the bacon still crisp. It was fun eating at the table, watching Agnes and Margaret make rosebuds around the top of Karen’s cake. Finally, the cake was called completed. Margaret climbed to the top of the stool where Agnes handed her the cake. She slid it up into the top of one of the big ivory-painted cupboards.
“It really looks lovely, Agnes,” Margaret remarked.
“You did as much on it as I,” Agnes said brusquely. “Anything else for you, girls?”
We said, “No, thank you,” and asked what we could do to help. Agnes got us each a dusting cloth, and we went to work on the three large front rooms downstairs. It was much more fun dusting this house, because the things were new to us. It’s no fun to dust at our homes where every stroke is so familiar that we could do it with our eyes shut. I followed the little carved arms of the green satin love seat. We argued about who was going to dust the upside-down glass that held imitation red roses and the ship in the library. Finally, we had to admit that we were through. Agnes came in to look things over and said that we had done a remarkable job. Then she insisted we go out to play.
Outside, the sun was hot for the middle of the morning. We stood by the front gate and looked toward Turner’s yard. Dr. Turner’s car was gone, and we could see no sign of Philip. We sat for a while together in the swing under the big tree. We pushed ourselves slowly back and forth.
When it was nearly noon, Karen came out and said that she was going downtown. “I’ll not be gone more than an hour. Is there anything I can bring you girls?”
“No, thank you,” we said. We watched her back the car slowly out of the long Diffendorf driveway and go down the hill.
Margaret leaned out of an upstairs window. She had a dustcap on her head. “Are you getting hungry, girls? I’ll start lunch in fifteen minutes if you’re not too starved.”
“We’re fine,” we said. Margaret pulled her head back in, and the lace curtain fell into place. A car stopped in front of the house. Pat and I stopped swinging. Jens Olesen, short of breath from struggling to get out of his car, opened the gate and came up the path. “Hello,” we said to the postmaster. He stopped short and looked at us disapprovingly.
“I’ve got a telegram here,” he said. “Come all the way myself. Ed’s looking after the postoffice alone.”
“Who’s the telegram for?” Pat asked.
“Karen,” said Jens walking up the path toward the house.
“She’s not home,” Pat called.
“Well, I’ll just leave it with Agnes then,” and he disappeared around the house. He was going around to the back door we decided. He reappeared in a few minutes. “I left it with Agnes,” he said. He got back in his car and turned the motor over several times before it started. We watched him turn around very slowly and go back down the hill. We went in to lunch.
“Did Mr. Olesen bring a telegram?” we asked Pat’s Aunt Agnes. “Has anything happened?”
“Of course not,” Agnes said. “Just congratulations on her birthday from some of her friends. I looked at it to make sure it wasn’t something I should try to locate her about downtown.”
Margaret was cutting sandwiches, and we went over to help. We all sat down together for lunch. Cold lemonade, salad, and sandwiches seemed delicious. We had cookies and jello for dessert.
“Who is coming for dinner?” Pat asked her Aunt Margaret.
“Well, it started out to be just us at home, but we decided to call your mother and father, Pat …”
“Oh, will they make us go back with them tonight?” Pat moaned.
“No,” Margaret laughed. “You can stay until tomorrow, though it must be dull for you here.”
“No, it isn’t, not a bit,” we assured Margaret.
“And John Alder is coming and Dr. Turner and the leading actor and actress from the play that’s current at the summer theater – Aleta Nicholes and Tony Gilbert.”
“Really?” we breathed.
“Oh, they won’t be able to stay very long. Their schedule is very rigorous, you know. They have to go into a play with just a few days’ rehearsal, and then they have other commitments.” Margaret began clearing the plates.
“In a little while you can come in and begin setting the table,” Agnes said. “The roast is already in, and we’ve just got the vegetables and salad to do this afternoon. You have to do the dressing for the salad, Margaret, since you’re the expert there.”
Margaret nodded. “I guess I’d better leave some of these things on the table for Karen. She’ll probably be starved when she gets back. I wonder what’s keeping her?”
“She was going to get her hair done,” Agnes said, “and pick up nuts for me and one or two other things. She’ll be along. You girls can put the presents on the table after you get it set. The candles are on the sideboard.”
We could hardly contain our excitement. The afternoon passed all too slowly and then speeded up all too quickly. Karen came back and raced through her bath. Margaret seemed to take forever dressing, because we were waiting for her to help us place the presents. Margaret’s hair was soft and light-colored. She wore a yellow linen dress and sandals. Karen’s hair was darker, and she wore a blue cotton dress with a full skirt that swirled when she walked. Her arms looked very brown. No actresses could look any prettier than Margaret and Karen did, we thought. Agnes came down in a brown seersucker suit and the same shoes she wore winter or summer.
“This is an unusual summer, girls,” Agnes said. She smiled at us. “You did a fine job with the table and the presents.”
“I like this house,” I said. The lightest of breezes stirred the curtains.
“I’m glad you do,” Agnes said. “It is a house to appreciate. From its windows you can see most all of Green Willows stretching out to the mountains, and there’s Highway Six threading away to Orchard City. There’s the white porches of our church just beyond Center Street and Patterson’s garage beyond that. Green Willows to me is a positive approach to life …” She stopped abruptly. Absent-mindedly she tested for dust on the top of a huge seashell on the whatnot shelf. “You girls have a good attitude,” she said turning on her heel and going after the dust cloth. “We must always keep cheerful,” she flung over her shoulder.
The birthday dinner for Karen was wonderful. Meeting a real actress from Broadway was wonderful also. Aleta Nicholes wore her black hair perfectly straight. “How quaint,” she said about everything, or, “I love that, I really do!” But Pat and I hung on every syllable, and thought Tony Gilbert wonderful, too, though he was older than we had thought. Karen set her presents on the sideboard to open later. After Miss Nicholes and Mr. Gilbert had rushed away to a rehearsal, she opened them one by one, thanking us with hugs and smiles.
“I’d better open yours,” she said to John. “You don’t want to miss too much of the rehearsal.”
“They understand about my delay tonight.” John smiled. “This really isn’t a surprise for Karen. I gave her a preview last night, but it may be a little surprise to some of you.”
Karen opened the satin and velvet lined box that held the diamond engagement ring. John slipped it on her finger and kissed her very lightly on the nose. Agnes stood up and came very slowly to Karen and kissed her gently on both cheeks, and so did Margaret. We hugged her, and Dr. Turner kissed her on the forehead. Then John had to go. Karen went hand in hand with him to the front door.
Pat sat down on the sofa in the parlor. “I feel terrible,” she said to me.
“You do?” I asked in astonishment.
“Physically, I mean. It hurts to swallow. My neck hurts.”
“Does it hurt there?” I touched just below her ears on both sides of her head.
“Ow,” she yelped. We looked at each other. Pat began to groan.
Her mother and father helped me pack our things. We went home without even waiting to help with the dishes.