“Oh, Marilla, I’m so glad you’re here. I have the most sensational news!” exclaimed Rachel when Marilla came over for dinner. An invitation had arrived on Mrs. White’s good bone-ivory stationery:
Miss Marilla Cuthbert is cordially invited to dinner at the home of the White family this Tuesday at five o’clock in the evening. Marilla had never received a formal invitation before and found it terribly grown-up. Clara and Hugh had given their blessing, of course. Although Marilla was at the Whites’ house often, this would be her first tabled meal with the family. Quite an honor. They only hosted tabled meals for adult company.
Izzy helped her cinch her best gingham dress at the waist with a blue satin ribbon. The one modification transformed the entire ensemble, and Marilla thought she’d never seen herself look better. True, the cuff of one sleeve had a tear on the underside, and the collar had to be pinned to hold it evenly in place, but so long as Marilla kept her hands clasped before her and didn’t turn her shoulders, no one would be the wiser.
It proved a harder task than Marilla anticipated with Rachel pouncing on her from hello.
“Mother wants to tell you first, but I can’t stand to keep the secret!”
She pulled Marilla into the china pantry leading to the kitchen. Ella paid them no mind, continuing to take serving plates from the shelves above their heads.
“Now promise that when Mother tells you, you will act surprised. Can you act surprised even when you aren’t?”
Marilla frowned. She was not versed in theatrics, nor did she wish to be.
“It’s easy,” said Rachel.
She opened her eyes so wide that Marilla thought they might fall out and roll across the floor like marbles. Then she put a hand to her cheek. “Oh my word!”
When she was convinced that Marilla had assimilated the lesson, Rachel dropped her hand to her lap and her eyes recessed back into a natural countenance. “See how?”
Marilla nodded. “But you haven’t told me anything, so I haven’t anything to pretend to be surprised by.”
Rachel took both Marilla’s hands in hers and pulsed them with corresponding squeals. “We are to go to Hopetown together!”
“Hopetown? In Nova Scotia?”
Marilla had never left Prince Edward Island. Though Avonlea people traveled off the island every day, this would be her first time. Instead of feeling excited, she was overcome with a kind of landlocked seasickness, a roiling fret.
“I don’t know if I should go… with my mother about to have the baby and…”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” said Rachel. “Mother has it all worked out. She’s already spoken to your parents, and they’ve given their approval. After all, it’s not like we’re going alone. We’ll be with Mother and Father, and they plan to formally invite you during dinner—well, dessert. Ella has made the most delicious toffee puddings especially for the occasion!”
Marilla’s collar had popped up and the pin was sticking her in the neck. She put her thumb between it and the poke. “Hopetown is so far away. Such a big city.”
Rachel nodded. “Yes, we’ll be gone three days. Father has business there, and we are to help Mother deliver the Avonlea prayer shawls to the Hopetown orphanage.”
Three whole days. It seemed an eternity. She’d never been away from her family a night. Even when her parents were in Charlottetown, Matthew was with her on the farm. She didn’t own a carpetbag, or a traveling coat for that matter, though she assumed Izzy might lend hers. She’d have to patch up the soles of her boots first. They’d never do on cobblestone streets. And she’d certainly need a proper hat. No one went into the city without a hat.
“When are we to go?”
“The day after tomorrow!” Rachel clapped.
The collar pin slipped from Marilla’s hold and pricked her good. She pulled it out and left the piece to dangle off-kilter as it pleased.
“Rachel! Marilla!” Mrs. White called from the dining room.
“Where are you girls? It’s suppertime.”
“Come on.” Rachel took Marilla’s hand and led her to the dining room.
Just before entering, Marilla smoothed her collar straight as best she could. Rachel pinched her cheeks. It was habitual, Marilla had come to learn.
“Remember to act surprised,” Rachel whispered.
Then, hand in hand, they entered the Whites’ candelabra-lit dining room, with roasted guinea hens and spring bean succotash on the table. Marilla wished she could’ve enjoyed the dinner with Mr. and Mrs. White, but the whole time she was anticipating the toffee pudding and her role as surprised guest. When it finally arrived, she gave her best performance, but by the look of Mr. and Mrs. White, they sooner thought she was choking on her sponge cake.
Mrs. White stared with alarm. Mr. White lifted an eyebrow high. Rachel’s head tick-tocked around the table.
“Marilla is very surprised! Isn’t that right, Marilla?”
Marilla gave up the pretense with a quiet nod. “I’m grateful for the invitation—both to your table and to Nova Scotia.”
At that Mrs. White exhaled. “Well, good. We could use the extra set of hands with all of these shawls. Plus, of course, Rachel is besotted by your company.”
“Father has booked us rooms at the Majesty Inn right in the heart of the city,” Rachel continued, while spooning saucy pudding into her mouth. “It’s the most splendid place you ever dreamed!”
Marilla had never dreamed of what an inn might look like. The idea of not staying in a home with friends or family had never even crossed her mind before.
“It’s the most respectable establishment and equidistant between your father’s enterprises and the orphanage,” Mrs. White explained. “The Majesty Inn is practical, Rachel. But it just so happens to be splendid too.”
Mr. White cleared his throat as if to speak, but Mrs. White interceded.
“We’re very happy to have you along on the trip, Marilla. We’ll come Thursday morning to fetch you in our carriage. So make sure you’ve had your breakfast. The journey is not short, and once we get going I prefer not to stop until we’ve reached our destination.”
Two days later, Marilla said good-bye to her family wearing Izzy’s blue traveling cape and carrying a borrowed carpetbag.
“I wish I were going too,” Izzy cheered.
“Bring me back lots of stories about the city.” Clara kissed Marilla’s cheeks.
“Be mindful of the street carriages. They never look where they’re going,” warned Hugh.
“Just try to have some fun, old girl,” said Matthew.
Marilla’s heart was racing by the time the Whites arrived. Hugh, Matthew, and Izzy stood on the Gables’ front porch, waving them off. Marilla had to gulp down the urge to cry. She’d only been on the staying side of good-byes, never on the going side.
“We’ll take good care of her!” called Mrs. White. “Back by Saturday eve.”
While she’d been in a number of dories and fishing dinghies growing up, this was Marilla’s first voyage across Northumberland Strait. The ferryboat was as large as a whale and equally terrifying. Mrs. White heightened the girls’ anxiety by telling them of a whole family swept overboard by a rogue wave: “Drowned. All seven. Just like that.” She advised that they’d best keep to the passenger cabin and avoid the deck. So Marilla and Rachel remained indoors, anchored safely between Mr. and Mrs. White, as the ship cut through the thick morning fog. The crossing took less time than Marilla anticipated, and soon the purser cried, “Coming to port!” She’d hardly seen a ripple, let alone a perilous wave.
A carriage waited for them harborside, and one-two- three- four, they climbed aboard and began the daylong ride across Nova Scotia. The unending clip-clop of horses down muddy roads had Marilla lulled half asleep when suddenly Hopetown rose on the horizon.
Marilla had never seen anything like it: a thicket of buildings breathing tunnels of smoke. At a distance, there was a buzz like the drone of a hive. The closer they came the louder it grew, until it was not a symmetric hum but an erratic symphony of clanking, street vendors and newsboys shouting, whistles and hammers, while people and horses moved in every direction, the smell of leather, soot, and mud both close and far. Only when she brought Izzy’s cape to her nose and closed her eyes could Marilla find the peace of Avonlea again.
“Isn’t it wonderful!” Rachel shouted. “Father says they’re building a new bank over there. And an opera house over there. And oh! Look—there’s a man selling wafer candies. I just love wafer candies! Mother, can we have some wafer candies?”
“We aren’t stopping until we reach the Majesty Inn,” Mrs. White grumbled. “I’ve got a headache.”
Marilla had one too, but Rachel seemed energized by the chaos. She leaned halfway out the carriage window as the driver brought the horses to the inn’s side drive.
They checked in at the front desk, and the porter took Marilla’s carpetbag along with the Whites’ luggage up to their rooms. The lobby of the Majesty Inn was just as Rachel had claimed. Dark wooden walls were carved with floral branches and decorative loops like the feathered chain stitches Rachel had perfected. Jasmine incense burned in genie lamps so that as soon as Marilla stepped through the doors, she could almost imagine herself in a peculiar spring garden tamped into a perfume bottle. Bright candles winked at every turn; day or night, everything shimmered. Most notable was the grand ceiling painted like the heavens. Pink and blue cherubs flew through a vast span of celestial sunbursts. The lobby guests, gazing up at the fresco, bumped into each other without pardons.
And so Marilla didn’t notice when someone, hovering near, touched her elbow.
“It tricks the eye, doesn’t it?” came a familiar voice.
Turning too quickly, Marilla spilled sideways as her boot caught on the hem of her cape.
John caught her. Marilla’s chin rested against his chest, the comforting smell of Avonlea all around.
“Falling over yourself to see me again, Miss Cuthbert?” He winked and set her stable on two feet.
She threw the edge of the cape up around her shoulder so as not to be tripped again. “Mr. Blythe, what are you doing here?”
The Whites were busy at the front desk while Rachel asked if the kitchen might have a tin of sugar wafers for guests.
“I’m here with my father,” said John. “When I was at your house the other day, I think I mentioned—he and Mr. White are business colleagues.”
She nodded, vaguely recalling something about gunpowder.
“And you’re staying here too?”
John grinned. “The Majesty Inn is the only place that offers a bed without undesirable roommates—vermin,” he whispered close.
“But then, some might argue their traveling companions are pests enough.”
Mrs. White held her handkerchief to her head and moaned while climbing the stairs. Mr. White followed begrudgingly.
Marilla bit her bottom lip to keep off the laugh. “You’re wicked, John Blythe.”
“Marilla! Wafers!” came Rachel with a plate of treats. “Oh—hello, John Blythe.”
“Glad to see you too, Miss White.”
She delicately crunched the end of her cookie. “Well, there aren’t enough for three.”
John stood tall and spoke loudly. “I would never pillage a beautiful woman’s desserts on hello.”
Rachel nearly choked, then looked round to make sure none of the other guests had heard.“ John Blythe, you are villainously indecorous!” She grabbed Marilla’s hand and turned them sharply toward the stairs. “If you see us enjoying our supper in the dining room, be ever so kind as to leave us alone. The gall of that one,” she seethed to Marilla.
“Oh, but didn’t you know,” John called after them, “our families are to see quite a lot of each other on this trip. In fact, your father has just asked me to accompany you and your mother to the orphanage tomorrow.”
“Lawful heart,” Rachel hissed to Marilla, “that John drives me to sinful thought! And now we’ve got to have him around all day tomorrow?”
Marilla turned her face away from Rachel to hide her smile and caught eyes with John watching them from the bottom landing. He tipped his head at her and the bang of his hair fell above the pockmark at his temple. Marilla crossed her arms and pressed the scar at her elbow. She didn’t want to be disloyal to Rachel, but… she was glad he was here.
Reprinted with permission. © Marilla of Green Gables, by Sarah McCoy. October 2018, William Morrow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.