On Friday afternoon, there was a double wedding at the Glen St. Mary Presbyterian manse. Norman Douglas, fiery red and glowing with good humor, had wed Ellen West, who insisted on wearing a sensible suit of navy blue, not one of these white silk fripperies, if you please. Ellen's sister, Rosemary, had donned just such a dress: a concoction of white silk and lacy veil fit for a princess. Thus attired, she had married John Meredith, who, for all his dreamy forgetfulness, managed to focus all his earthly attention on his resplendent bride.
All the Ingleside folk were there to celebrate, of course, along with Mrs. Bryant and her husband and Mary Vance. Some of the West and Douglas connections were also in attendance, eager to witness this improbable event, if only so that they could tell the tale of it later. The manse dining room was scarcely big enough to hold them all, a problem that was solved by setting up a separate table for the children in the sitting room.
Aunt Martha and Susan Baker had tussled over the wedding feast, with the result that Susan was permitted to make the wedding cake, but Aunt Martha maintained control over the supper itself. No Ditto, not today. Such an occasion demanded a festive dish. Aunt Martha had excavated an ancient recipe box from the recesses of her abode and thumbed through the cards, some of them disintegrating into dust under her very fingers. At last, she had found the one she wanted, copied in elaborate script on a powder-blue placard trimmed in paper lace. It had been a great favorite of Queen Victoria, or so she had heard in her girlhood, and was served at all the most fashionable entertainments of the 1850s.
And that is how the Blythe and Meredith children, in company with Mary Vance, came to be seated together at a long table, all of them staring perplexedly at plates heaped with spitched eels. The long, oily fish had been killed and cleaned, their gray-green skins peeled away with pliers like wet, slimy stockings. Then they had been split lengthwise and grilled, served up in long fillets with bits of the papery gray under-skin still clinging to one side.
"Spitched eels?" asked Jem, red brows ascending even as he stifled the laughter that threatened to explode from his chest.
"Spitched?" Jerry asked, looking to Walter for assistance with this lexical enigma.
"I . . . I . . ." Walter, ever eager to add a new word to his vocabulary, succeeded only in turning a shade reminiscent of the elegant anguilliformes on his plate.
"Even Ditto would be better than this," Faith scowled, prodding the grilled fish with her fork as if she half expected it to rise from the dead.
At this juncture, Aunt Martha hobbled into the sitting-room, her very best black silk dress swishing as she approached the table.
"Now be sure to eat your eels," she scolded vaguely toward the table at large. "Or there will be no wedding cake for you." Aunt Martha vanished whence she had come, leaving eleven pairs of eyes trained longingly on the table in the hall where Susan's fabulous confection of plums and sugar icing towered in all its glory. It was a spectacular treat — the Dessert of Dreams. But was it worth . . . spitched eels?
Jem decided that it was. A few bites would make quick work of this monstrosity, and then on to more pleasant things. Besides, no matter how vile it tasted, Jem was sure that he would savor this story for many years to come.
Around the table, the others complied after a fashion. Faith set her jaw, flaked a forkful of eel off the fillet, and swallowed it with grim determination. Jerry, Carl, Di, and Mary Vance followed suit. Una, looking quite as green as Walter, managed one bite on the strength of Faith's encouraging nod. Nan and Rilla touched their utensils to the eels, scraping off tiny slivers so small as to be barely visible, and washing them down with long, quiet sips of water. Walter quavered, regarding the eels with dread deliberation and turning paler with every passing moment as he contemplated their unknown gustatory possibilities.
"You know, it's eels got you into this stepmother business in the first place," Mary Vance observed.
"How do you figure that, Mary?" Jerry asked.
"It's Carl's fault," Mary said comfortably.
"Me?" Carl squeaked.
"'Course you," replied Mary. "It was you that put the eel in Mrs. Carr's buggy, see? And that was awful naughty of you, so your Pa had to whip you. Only he couldn't because he hadn't any practice with bringing you up. And he felt so bad that Una heard him talking to himself about Miss West and ran up to tattle, and that's how come you're gettin' a new stepmother!"
"Oh, Mary!" admonished Faith, reaching over to squeeze Una's hand before she could begin to cry. "It isn't anybody's fault! And besides, we love Miss West. She won't be a stepmother to us. She'll be a friend!"
"Well, I don't see how she can be that," Mary answered, turning up her nose. "But I guess maybe she won't be quite like other stepmothers."
"She won't," said Jerry stoutly. "You leave off bothering Una, Mary Vance. And Carl, too. It isn't his fault about the eel in Mrs. Carr's buggy. He thought it was dead!"
"I did," Carl averred. "It was the biggest eel you ever saw. But it was so still lying at the bottom of Link Drew's basket that I thought it was dead for sure."
"Didn't you check?" Jem asked through a mouthful of eel.
"Well, I guess it isn't so easy to tell with eels," Carl shrugged. "They're awfully interesting creatures, though. Did you know that they live most of their lives in rivers, but when they're ready to spawn, they swim far out to sea, to a special meeting place with all the other eels, and they thrash about together and lay their eggs in the water, and then the male eels fertilize the eggs and then they all die! But the larvae hatch and turn into little elvers that look like noodles made of clear jelly and they swim back to the rivers and grow into great big eels like these!"
At this triumphant conclusion, Carl gestured to the eel on his own plate.
Several forks clattered to the table at once. Walter pushed back in his chair and hung his head between his knees, taking slow, deliberate breaths. Even Jem seemed less enthusiastic, the last bite of eel on his plate going uneaten.
After a moment of stunned silence, the muffled sound of a stifled chortle rose from the seat across from Carl. A snort, a snicker, and then a peal of merry, childish laughter, crystalline in its clarity.
Carl cocked his head, noticing Shirley Blythe for the first time. That was curious enough — Shirley was only a year or two younger than Carl, but for some reason he had not figured into the annals of Rainbow Valley at all to this point. Now, he was unmistakable, if only because he was the only one taking delight in Carl's zoological explications.
Shirley caught Carl's eye and redoubled his mirth, shaking now with irrepressible laughter. Carl found the sound quite contagious, and soon he too had dissolved into giggles. From there, the uproar spread to Jem and Jerry, with Mary Vance's shout adding a hectic note to the chorus. Di and Faith joined in, and even Nan and Rilla, though if pressed, they could not have said why. Una smiled indulgently, but Walter was not yet recovered enough to participate in the merriment.
They laughed long and loud, until their breath gave out and they settled back into their chairs, replete with hilarity.
Shirley swabbed a tear from his eye with the heel of his hand. "Where did you catch the eels?" he asked Carl.
"On the bridge," Carl answered. "Have you never fished for eels before?"
Shirley shook his head.
"Do you like to fish?" Carl asked.
"I suppose so," Shirley answered. "No one's ever taken me before."
"Well, I'll show you how, if you like," Carl offered. "Tomorrow?"
"Alright," Shirley said, brown eyes bright with excitement.
"Where are you going, love?" asked Susan, who had just that moment appeared in the doorway.
"Fishing," Shirley answered.
Susan nodded. "That sounds like fun. Now, would anyone here like a piece of cake?"
"We . . . we . . ." Rilla began, seemingly on the verge of tears. "We haven't finished our thpitched eelth."
"Oh, never mind that," Susan said, beginning to gather up the plates. "Spitched eels indeed! You'll all have enough cake to fill your bellies and forget about eels."