"Candy – hey, Candy!"
Recognizing Jonathan's high-pitched voice, Candy halted her run abruptly.
She brushed away her tears, and made her way over to the car. Mrs. Coburn's – not Mum's.
"What's wrong?" Jonathan asked wide-eyed.
"Nothing." Once more she brushed at her tears, and got in the back of the car with him.
But he kept staring at her. "You've got paint all over your face."
"Are you alright, Candy dear?" Mrs. Coburn asked in the rearview mirror as she started the car.
"Yes, Mrs. Coburn," Candy murmured dutifully.
"Alright, then we better get going. Linda has a dentist appointment at four, so we're running late." Mrs. Coburn was always running late, or in a hurry, or on a tight schedule.
All during the ride home, Candy managed to stem the flow of her tears. Jonathan kept casting her odd looks, but he didn't ask anything, so Candy remained silent, too.
But the moment they entered Gull Cottage, the tears were back in a flood.
Coming out of the kitchen to greet them, Martha exclaimed, "Good heavens, Candy! What happened to you? You look like an Indian on the war path!"
"Where's Mum?" was all Candy blubbered in reply.
"Your mother is upstairs. But..."
Candy didn't wait for the rest. She stumbled up the stairs as fast as she could, and the moment she barged into her mother's room she howled, "I don't want to go back to school!"
"Candy!" Mrs. Muir was on her feet in an instant. "What happened?"
The girl already flung herself at her chest, and she was crying so violently now that Mrs. Muir understood it would be a while before she'd get a coherent story out of her daughter. She sat down again, pulling Candy onto her lap and putting her arms protectively around her. And Candy buried her paint-smeared face against her mother's neck and just cried and cried.
The Captain appeared, too, looking gruff and a little distressed. "What's that, Candy? No need to let things get you down that badly. Shape up, girl!"
But Mrs. Muir shook her head. "Please, Captain, not now. Let her cry it out first," she said quietly.
"But... oh, blast!" The Captain turned away. "I never could bear to see a woman cry." And he disappeared again.
Mrs. Muir rolled her eyes, and focused on her daughter again. The girl was beginning to calm down, and lovingly, Mrs. Muir rubbed her back.
"Now what's this all about," she inquired gently as the violent howling was finally reduced to sniffs and sobs.
"I don't want to go back to school," Candy hiccupped as she made a renewed attempt to dry her tears with her sleeve. It came off all smudged with paint of an indefinable colour.
"You already told me that. Why not? What happened?"
And interspersed with sniffs and hiccups, the whole story came out: about Alice and the notebook and Penelope reading it to everyone and the yellow dress... "And now Mrs. Henderson will be mad at me, and Penelope's Mum, too... And she's sure to tell the whole school that I'm a liar, and then nobody will ever want to be friends with me again, and..." A hiccup. "No one will ever believe me again when I say that my father is dead, even though it's true."
Mrs. Muir sighed and hugged her daughter tight. Candy's assessment of the consequences sounded all too accurate. Especially the part about no one wanting to be friends with her stung, for unlike Jonathan, Candy was still very much an outsider in her class. The new girl from the city. Tolerated in their midst, but not accepted as a member of the group.
"Mrs. Muir?" Martha's voice called from downstairs at that moment.
"Telephone for you. It's Mrs. Hassenhammer."
Candy shuddered involuntarily.
"Tell her to call back in an hour or so," Mrs. Muir called back.
"She says it's urgent," Martha warned.
"Well, I've got some urgent business of my own to take care of. Tell her I'll be happy to speak with her in an hour." She grimaced at Candy. "I don't think it's going to be a very happy conversation, but Mrs. Hassenhammer is my responsibility, okay? You need not bother yourself about her."
Candy heaved a sigh. She felt so tired all of a sudden. "But Penelope..."
"Yes, Penelope is your responsibility. But you two have had your disagreements before – and you survived those, didn't you?"
Candy sighed. "But do I have to apologize to her?"
"Well, what do you think?"
Candy pondered the question in silence, and finally she concluded, "I suppose I should, shouldn't I. Even though I don't feel even remotely sorry for what I did."
Mrs. Muir had a quiet laugh and kissed her daughter on the head. "Don't tell anyone, but I probably would have done the same thing in your place. But that doesn't make it right. It was wrong of Penelope to read your story to the other girls, especially after you told her not to. But that still doesn't give you the right to smear paint all over her dress."
Candy rested her head against her mother's shoulder. "And Mrs. Henderson is going to be so mad at me..."
"Yes, she probably will," her mother confirmed matter-of-factly. "She'll give you a good scolding, and make you do lines or detention work... And that's alright, because you deserve some punishment for what you did. But that's not going to last forever. Things will return to normal soon enough."
"And the other kids?" Candy asked in a small voice.
Her mother sighed. "Sweetheart, everyone commits a few big blunders in their life. The others might tease you with it for a while, yes, but then someone else makes a bad goof, and all kinds of other things happen... And before you know it, people will have forgotten all about you writing that your father is a seacaptain. That's the way things work."
Candy sighed. "It seemed such a good idea to write about the Captain instead. But it's brought me nothing but trouble."
Her mother smiled down on her. "It did come with one good side though – you've finally met the Captain."
The girl looked up. "Was he mad at me, too, when he was here just now?"
"No, he wasn't." Her mother chuckled a little. "He just doesn't know how to deal with a crying woman. It's not uncommon in men – believe me. But with us females being in the majority in this household, he'll just have to get used to it."
Candy made no reply. She just remained where she was, safely ensconced in her mother's arms. "I wish Dad were here," she said faintly at last.
Mrs. Muir closed her eyes as the all too familiar pain soared through her again. "Me too, sweetheart," she whispered. "Me too."
"Yes, Mrs. Hassenhammer... Yes, Mrs. Hassenhammer, Candy told me..." Mrs. Muir sensed the Captain behind her and made an exasperated face at him as Mrs. Hassenhammer's mincing voice went on and on about the havoc wreaked on her daughter's dress.
"And totally out of the blue! What ever has come over your daughter, Mrs. Muir? She's almost wild!"
"Well, I won't excuse what Candy did," Mrs. Muir countered. "But from what I understand, it wasn't entirely unprovoked."
A gasp. "Mrs. Muir, what on earth do you mean? My Penelope would never...!"
"I think you'd better ask Penelope," Mrs. Muir suggested sweetly. "After all, she was there."
There was a two second silence, but then Mrs. Hassenhammer took up her lament again. "But still, provoked or not – to ruin such a beautiful dress! It will never be the same again!"
"Balderdash," the Captain grumbled. "I just popped over there to have a look. There's nothing wrong with that frilly frock that a good wash won't fix."
"Mrs. Hassenhammer, have you tried giving the stains a good scrub with soap and water?" Mrs. Muir asked when she finally got a word in again. "Candy had a few paint-smears on her clothes as well, but I got them out fairly easily."
A horrified cry was her reply. "Soap and water? A good scrub? Mrs. Muir, what are you suggesting? My daughter doesn't go around in cheap Sears dresses!"
"Maybe she should," the Captain interjected, forcing Mrs. Muir to bite back a laugh.
But Mrs. Hassenhammer yammered, "Her father brought this dress especially for her from Paris. It's an authentic Dior! You don't just wash a Dior, Mrs. Muir. They're far too delicate – surely you are aware of that!"
"Quite." Mrs. Muir grimaced. "So how do you usually clean it? The dry-cleaner's perhaps?"
"I only need to air it out. Unlike some other girls, my daughter knows how to behave herself." The not so subtle superiority was dripping from her voice. "She never gets her clothes dirty."
"I would like to pop over there and..."
"Captain!" Mrs. Muir hissed as she saw the glint in his eye. But immediately she turned back to the dragonwoman on the other end of the line. "So what do you suggest, Mrs. Hassenhammer? Merely airing the dress out won't get those stains out."
"They'll never get out – it's ruined, absolutely ruined! And you're going to pay for a new dress."
"Now Mrs. Hassenhammer, let's be reasonable." Mrs. Muir's voice suddenly took on its most businesslike tone. "I'm certainly willing to compensate you for what Candy did if the damage turns out to be irreversible. But I refuse to discuss that until you've at least made a serious effort to remove those stains from the dress. Like the dry-cleaner's. Or even plain water and soap."
"But that will absolutely ruin it!" Mrs. Hassenhammer cried.
"Well, if you don't even try to clean it, it's ruined in any case. So what have you got to lose?" She caught the Captain's appreciative nod, and gave him a fleeting smile.
"Alright, alright, I'll take it to the dry-cleaner's tomorrow," Mrs. Hassenhammer wisely backpedaled. "But you're going to have to pay the bill, whether the stains come out or not!"
"Fine," Mrs. Muir agreed. "Then we'll talk again in a few days when we know the result."
"But they won't come out. I know it," Mrs. Hassenhammer pouted. "And the dry-cleaner's will just ruin that pretty dress even further. Oh, what is my Harry going to say when he sees this wilful destruction?"
Mrs. Muir rolled her eyes. "Sorry, Mrs. Hassenhammer. I have to go. I'll talk to you in a few days. Goodbye!" With a sigh she put down the phone and turned to face the Captain.
"You handled that poor excuse for a lady very well, madam," he complimented her.
"Thank you, Captain. But I want to make one thing crystal clear." She folded her arms across her chest. "I do not want you popping over to the Hassenhammers and making stains on all Penelope's clothes. Or even on only one of her garments. Is that understood? And that goes for Mrs. Hassenhammer's own wardrobe as well."
His face was a picture of innocence. "Madam, whatever gave you the idea that I would engage in such abominable activity?"
She shook her head. "I've known you long enough now to have gained some insight into your mind. But we really don't need any further complications in this matter. So please don't do anything foolish, like spilling wine over Mrs. Hassenhammer's best dress."
He proudly held up three fingers. "I promise I won't make any of the Hassenhammer's clothes dirty. Scout's honour."
"There were no scouts yet in your day," Mrs. Muir commented wryly.
"I'll give you my word as an officer and a gentleman then," he offered. "Can't break that, can I?"
She eyed him with distrust. "What are you up to? I can tell you are planning something."
"Nothing! Nothing at all!" He held out his hands to emphasize his innocence, but it didn't escape her notice that he quickly changed the subject. "But that Dior fellow... Fancy calling yourself a dressmaker, yet the clothes you make can't even be properly cleaned! And children's clothes no less – the frivolity! No common sense, those blasted Frogs..."
When Candy discovered after dinner that she had forgotten most of her homework at school, she sank down next to her Mum on the sofa and asked plaintively, "Can't you give me homeschooling, Mum? I'd really rather not go back to school."
"Homeschooling?" Jonathan looked up from his maths. "Yuck! Then you have to do homework all the time!"
Candy ignored him. "Can I please, Mum? You're a writer, so you must be good in English."
"Maybe, but I'm no teacher. Besides, if I have to work with you all the time, when am I supposed to work to put bread on the table? We'd all starve!"
"How about the Captain then?" Candy suggested. "He's got all the time in the world, and he knows an awful lot about history and geography. And I bet he's good in maths, too."
"I certainly am." No one was surprised when the Captain materialized in front of the fireplace. "And I would be happy to take over your education, Candy."
"Mine, too!" Jonathan shouted.
"And yours, too," the Captain nodded. "Those schoolteachers here are nothing but a bunch of silly old..."
Mrs. Muir quickly interrupted him. "Captain, will you please stay out of this?"
"But I want to study with the Captain!" Jonathan protested as he recognized the signs of his Mum's refusing a great idea. "He teaches me a lot more fun things than Mrs. Wilkins!"
"You can study with the Captain all you want – after school, and provided you do your homework properly," Mrs. Muir declared.
But Mrs. Muir was inexorable. "And that's final. Jonathan, you get back to your maths. Candy, you can at least write this week's essay, and..."
"No, I can't," Candy muttered. "I needed my history book for that."
"Well, then I suppose you have the night off tonight, and a double load tomorrow."
Candy heaved a sigh.
"But really, madam, I would be more than happy to..."
"Captain." Mrs. Muir raised her hand to forestall a continuation of the argument. "I'll be happy to discuss the subject with you some time – but not in front of the children."
Jonathan looked up. "So there's still a chance that we can get to study with the Captain all day long instead of going to school?"
"Technically yes, but the chances are negligible," was his mother's answer.
"What does 'negilible' mean?"
"It's 'negligible'," Candy corrected him gloomily. "And it means 'practically non-existent'. Zero. Not a chance."
"So what are you going to do first?"
Candy looked down at her hands. "Go in and tell Mrs. Henderson I'm sorry I ran away, and give her your note about my homework."
"Right. And what next?"
"I wait for Penelope to arrive and apologize to her, too." She sighed. "But she's the one who should do the apologizing – really!"
"I'm sure she will. But you've got some apologizing to do yourself, so you might as well go first and get it over and done with."
Candy heaved a sigh that seemed to come all the way from her toes, and reached for the doorhandle.
"And I'll wait here in the car a little longer in case you want to come and tell me how it went. Okay?" She pulled her daughter in for a hug. "And remember, apologizing may not be the most pleasant thing to do, but it tends to clear the air, and at least it's over quickly."
Candy granted her a feeble smile, and slowly got out of the car.
And Mrs. Muir followed her daughter with her eyes as she trudged up to the school's entrance. Her heart cried for her baby – only she was no baby anymore. In a few months she'd be ten years old. And a near ten-year-old should be able to handle a teacher's scolding without Mummy holding her hand and speaking up for her. It was all part of letting your children go as they grow up, and learning to withdraw as a parent and let them stand on their own two feet. But that didn't mean it was easy on her as a mother. Especially not with Candy looking so vulnerable as she went there...
"Good morning, Mrs. Muir. How are you today?"
Mrs. Muir started out of her reverie. "Oh! Hello, Mrs. Visser."
Mrs. Visser gave her a knowing look. "You are a dark horse, aren't you. I'd never have guessed..."
Mrs. Muir frowned. "I'm sorry... You'd never guessed what?"
"Come now, Mrs. Muir." Mrs. Visser clucked her tongue. "I'm sure it's all over town. No need to keep it a secret anymore now, is there?"
But Mrs. Muir didn't have a clue. "Excuse me – what are you talking about?"
Eyebrows were raised. "As if you wouldn't know..." With that, she walked on, leaving Mrs. Muir with a frustrated urge to yell that she didn't know indeed.
She frowned. What on earth was that all about? She racked her brains, but she wasn't aware of anything she'd said or done lately that could excite the local galah session.
Oh well... She had an irritated shrug. Sooner or later she was bound to find out on whose toes she'd stepped this time. That was definitely one of the downsides of living up here in Schooner Bay: everyone considered it their legitimate business to keep a close watch on everyone else's life, and discuss anything out of the ordinary in infinite length. It was certainly one of the reasons she didn't feel particularly inclined to join in the town's social life.
She was still pondering the little mystery when an excited Candy came running back to the car. "Mum, guess what!" Not again, please...
But Candy didn't give her a chance to guess. "The Captain must have fixed Penelope's dress overnight!"
"What?" That did sound slightly alarming! What had he done now?
"Yes! They had hung it in the bathroom to take it to the dry-cleaner's today, and this morning all the paint was gone! Just disappeared! How else could that have happened? It must have been the Captain!"
"Well, then I guess we'd better thank him for sparing us that dry-cleaner's bill," Mrs. Muir commented wryly.
"Her mother said it was 'a miracle from heaven bestowed upon the righteous'." Candy did a good imitation of Mrs. Hassenhammer's affected way of speaking, but then her face fell a bit. "And with this 'miracle' bestowed upon her, Penelope was more lordly than ever. And she didn't apologize for yesterday either."
"Oh dear." Mrs. Muir chuckled. "Perhaps I should have let the Captain have his way then."
Candy wasn't one to let such a teaser rest. "What? What did he want to do then?"
Another chuckle. "I believe he wanted to make stains on all Penelope's clothes. And on Mrs. Hassenhammer's, too, I suspect."
Candy giggled. "That would sure teach her!"
"Now don't get any ideas you!" her mother admonished. "You've had your share in the fun, and you've gotten into enough trouble over it. By the way, what did Mrs. Henderson say?"
Candy's face fell. "I have to stay after school and do lines today. And I'll get extra homework, too." She sighed. "Looks like I won't have any time left to play today."
"Cheer up," her mother said just as the school bell rang. "Martha or I will come and pick you up after school today, and at least tomorrow things will be back to normal."
And with a final hug goodbye, they went their separate ways.
But if Mrs. Muir could have been a fly on the wall at the Grover's place that morning, she would not have so happily predicted that things would be back to normal again tomorrow...
"Have you heard the news?" was the standard greeting phrase for Schooner Bay's sewing circle, for no member ever failed to bring along some fresh juicy gossip to help pass the tedious time sewing.
But today, even Mrs. Hassenhammer's wondrous tale of the miraculous restoration of her daughter's Dior dress paled into insignificance by the whispered bombshell that Mrs. Miller provided. And it had to be true, for independently of each other, Mrs. Visser and Mrs. Jones arrived with the exact same story on their lips.
"Have you heard the news? Mrs. Muir is no widow at all – she's married to a seacaptain! How shocking!"
Mrs. Grover shook her head. "I never trusted that woman – never."
"So how did you find out?" an eager Mrs. O'Hara demanded.
"Her daughter Candy gave it away," Mrs. Jones said, quick to share the limelight. "Mrs. Henderson made the class write an essay about their father last week. My Sally got an A by the way. But instead of writing that her father was dead as the Muir kids usually tell everyone, Candy let slip this time that he's a seacaptain."
Mrs. Miller nodded quickly. "My Alice has seen it with her own eyes!"
"My Suzie says," Mrs. Visser cut in. "That Candy tried to stop Alice from reading it – as if she were afraid people would find out the truth. But then your Penelope," a nod to Penelope's mother, "Came along and read it out loud to everyone in the room."
"So that must be why Candy attacked my dear Penelope's beautiful dress!" Mrs. Hassenhammer exclaimed. "Really, that girl is almost wild!"
But with such a delightfully juicy tidbit of gossip on their hands, no one was interested in the fate of Penelope's dress.
"Those poor kids," Mrs. O'Hara mused. "Imagine being forced to tell everyone that your father is dead, even when you know all too well that he isn't. What kind of mother would do such a thing?"
"That's obvious – an artist who only by a mistake of nature became a mother," Mrs. Grover stated with deadly finality. "Artists only think of themselves, and they crave attention – everybody knows that. And Mrs. Muir is no exception." She shook her head. "Those city people... Really, they have no morals at all. To claim being a widow, just to get everyone's compassion no doubt! It's disgusting..."
"Abominable," Mrs. Keane agreed.
"Outrageous!" the other ladies chimed in one by one.
The sewing went on for a minute or two in silence, while the ladies turned these new facts over in their minds and adjusted their perception of Mrs. Muir.
"But I wonder – why would any woman do such a shameful thing?" Mrs. O'Hara inquired at last. "Yes, she's an artist and yes, she may be a bit odd – she'd have to be, living in that awful house. But I don't quite see her as the flighty type. I mean, it's not like she has lovers over by the handful."
"How do we know?" Mrs. Hassenhammer asked pointedly. "Living there in that ghostly shack all the way down Gregg Road, she could have dozens of visitors a day, and we'd never know."
There were stunned gasps around the room, but Mrs. Visser remarked, "She could not. At least not strangers. The town would know. There's no other way to get onto Gregg Road than through Schooner Bay, since the road there has no exit on the other end. So we'd have noticed if the traffic thither had suddenly intensified."
"But has that elusive husband of hers ever visited them?" Mrs. Keane wondered. "I mean, they've been living here for nearly a year now. You'd expect a husband and father to come and see how they're making out sometimes – even if he is a seacaptain. But I don't recall hearing about a captain coming to visit Gull Cottage. Several other people, yes, but not a seacaptain."
"Captain Gregg might pay them a visit now and then," Mrs. Visser joked bravely.
"And he doesn't have to come through town," Mrs. Jones added with a clear tremour in her voice. After all, the ghost of Captain Gregg was not mentioned lightly among the natives of Schooner Bay.
"Or perhaps her husband visits her incognito," Mrs. Keane put forward. "In civilian clothes, I mean. And if he's not in uniform when he comes here, how are we supposed to know he's a captain?"
"Or maybe..." Mrs. Jones began hesitantly. "Maybe he can't visit her. Because he's – you know – in jail..."
Mrs. Hassenhammer gasped, and Mrs. Grover turned her head away in abhorrence. "Abominable," she murmured.
"We all know the reputation seamen have," Mrs. Jones continued to her enraptured audience, conveniently forgetting that many of the men in their own respectable little fisherman's town would fall under that same header. "And it would explain Mrs. Muir's behaviour, wouldn't it?" She lowered her voice to a half whisper. "Of course she could not live down the disgrace of having her husband in the clink. So she leaves the city and moves up here, where nobody knows anything about her, and claims she's a widow in order to prevent us from finding out the truth...!"
To be continued...