Sometimes she dreamed there had been no war, no great tragedy to blight their lives.
There would still have been tragedies, but they would have been the small and ordinary type that happened when men and women loved and lived together – hard times, illness, death. More importantly, they would have been mixed with the domestic joys that also happened in life. There would not be this cloud that had blown over from Europe, a cloud that only rarely showed a silver lining. There would not be so many of these events that none of them could control, and there would not be so many men dying in strange lands, while women mourned them at home.
He would have finished his course at Redmond, and he would have taught young people to open themselves to the wonders of the world around them. The Piper he’d seen would remain one of those incidents that lived only in memories of Rainbow Valley, and would never have become so real that he played the music that carried their boys away. There would have been gentle teasing on the subject, and perhaps another poem would have put Walter Blythe’s name on lips across the Island.
He would have fallen in love with her, would have returned the love she had for him. They would have had a life together, including sensitive dark-haired children with blue-grey eyes who would be theirs. Those children, and their father, would be the joys of her life.
Sometimes, she dreamed that they were married in a truly double ceremony with Faith and Jem Blythe – two brothers marrying two sisters – and endured the teasing that accompanied their very entwined family trees. Other times, she dreamed that her father married them quietly in his study, with only the required witness, before the two of them walked to Rainbow Valley to truly pledge their troth.
Other times, she dreamed that even though the war had come (even in her dreams, she was reluctant to strip him of that unearthly moment when he’d glimpsed the future, to take away the poem that gave people chills), it had not taken him away forever.
Sometimes, their eyes met in that moment after he gave her the brotherly kiss at the station, when he realized how much love she carried in her heart for him. In the letters they sent each other, that love grew between them. When he kissed her next, it was not the warm salute of a brother, but the tender kiss of a lover. Sometimes, when she dreamed that dream, Rilla Blythe played matchmaker, and she was always forgiven for spilling the secret to her brother.
Sometimes – a very few sometimes, because it required a boldness that she simply could not summon, even in her dreams – she was brave enough to bare her soul to him before he left. They would meet and share a private moment in the beauty of a Rainbow Valley evening, and when he left, everyone would know that they loved each other. She would be waiting for him when he came home, and she would heal whatever hurts he had suffered. She would have the rights of a lover and a wife.
In her dreams, he always came home to her. Sometimes she dreamed that they had been told of his death at Courcelette, but it always turned out to be false. There had been a horrible mistake, the wrong set of parents had been identified, he had been captured – somehow, somehow, he was not dead. There was pain and sorrow, but it was not permanent. There was always a beautiful dawn after the darkest night, and joy was only sweeter for having experienced the bitter depths of pain.
Unfortunately, when Una Meredith woke, it was always to a world where Walter Blythe had been killed in action at Courcelette.
It was always a world where she only had the memory of his farewell kiss on her cheek – she had never seen him or touched him again. That memory, and the letter which Rilla had so generously given her, were her comforts. It was Walter’s last letter, the last one he would ever write.
He had written to her while he was in France, but there was nothing of the lover in his words, only friendship. They were nothing like the letters that her sister Faith read with a blush on her cheeks, before tucking them into a pocket, as if the nearness of the paper gave her hope that Jem Blythe would come home in one piece. Una had kept them anyway, tied neatly with a grey ribbon that reminded her of his eyes, tucked away where no one could come upon them without deliberately searching for them.
Even the letter that she held so dear had not been written solely for her, but for his sister. Walter had written that it was for both of them, calling them “dear, fine loyal girls”. It was a comfort, but it also caused her a moment of sad anger. It was clear from what he had written that he knew he would never write another letter, and yet he had not taken the time to write Una her own letter. He had written that her steadfast blue eyes were very plainly in his mind that evening. It caused her to wonder if maybe, maybe he had survived Courcelette, whether he would have come to care for her as more than a sister.
But he had not survived. Una knew there would never be another man who could make her care as Walter did. People might wonder and talk about the Meredith girl becoming a spinster, but none of them would know why. She had no right to grieve openly, and so she had not. She had done all that she could to support the Blythes during that period, and had tried to remain as Walter had last thought of her – steadfast.
Una tried to deal with the new world in the same steadfast manner. It was a world in which she studied Domestic Science, because the thought of that was less depressing than living as a spinster daughter and later the maiden aunt, a woman who was pitied because she had never married. In her case, only Rilla would know why Una never married. She thought perhaps her stepmother guessed but Rosemary Meredith said nothing aloud, and Una was grateful.
Una would never forget that evening in Rainbow Valley, or the look in Rilla’s eyes as she gave Una the greatest gift that was in her power. In her position, Una didn’t think she could have done the same, and she knew it had cost Rilla dearly.
She would not be alone in this new world – there would be plenty of women who never married, because the men who would have someday been their husbands slept forever under the blood-stained soil of France. So they would attempt to do the jobs that these men would have done, or to take up the slack so that other might do so. At least here in at the school in Kingsport, Una did not feel as if she was the only one who was desperately unhappy and lonely. She did not grudge the happy couples – Faith and Jem, Jerry and Nan – their happiness. She only wished for some of her own.
It was a wish she knew would not be granted.
Late summer in Rainbow Valley was a gloriously beautiful time. Everything was lush and ripe and exploding with color, and it could even bring a smile to Una’s lips. She had slipped down here to be by herself when the crowd of people between Ingleside and the Manse became too much. There was so much happiness and noise and chatter that you might not notice someone was missing, if you didn’t know to look for him. However, she knew, and she could not stop looking for him. Una knew he was missing, and would always be missing for the rest of her days.
It was only here in Rainbow Valley that she felt close to him, could almost feel that he was alive again, if only she didn’t disturb the dream. So she sat in one of the private corners of the valley, leaning against a tree and looking at the flowers, and closed her eyes. Surely on this beautiful summer evening, Una thought, she would have dreams so beautiful that it hurt to wake up. She was willing to risk that pain to have even a little bit of happiness. Una drowsed in the warm sunlight, and drifted off to sleep amid the blossoms.
That was how he found her, sleeping in the sun.
He had walked from the mostly-empty train station without attracting attention, because he wore regular clothes rather than khakis. He knew he should go to the house and greet his family, but he knew he needed a few moments of peace and steadiness before he did so. Rainbow Valley had not always been a quiet place, but it had always brought him peace. Once he was home, he would have to tell his story over and over, would have to satisfy everyone’s curiosity about something that he did not entirely understand himself. He was pleased to be home, but at this last moment, he found himself shrinking back from being the center of attention.
She was so lovely, her dark hair and dress contrasted against the vivid blossoms, her pale skin warmed by the sun. This, surely, was an image for a man to carry with him wherever he went. He had carried the image of her at the station with him, had remembered not only that moment, but all the moments when Una had been part of the good times they had shared in Rainbow Valley when they were young and innocent. They were still young, but war had a way of stealing one’s innocence. He had never dared to dream of her like this, had always confined his dreams of her to a more proper mode.
Maybe he had no right, he though, but he knelt beside her and touched her hand, drawing it between his own.
Una opened her eyes and froze. She was afraid to move, afraid to disturb this beautiful dream. She surely must be dreaming that Walter knelt next to her holding her hand, that he was alive and well and here. It had to be a dream, she told herself, as the war was well over. Even her foolish dreams that somehow, somehow Walter lived had been spared, were just that – foolish dreams. The man leaned towards her, brushing his lips against her cheek.
It was just like her memory of the kiss at the station, but then he cupped her face between his hands and kissed her again, kissed her as a lover should. Una was not sure where this dream had come from – she had certainly never dreamed anything like this, having never been properly kissed – but she never wanted it to end as she kissed him back.
“Oh!” She murmured the word as he pulled away, and expected to wake up alone in the flowers – or worse, alone in the dark in her Kingsport boarding-house room.
He was still there, still kneeling next to her in the flowers. He kissed her again, and she kissed him, until they had lost all track of time. Surely this wasn’t a dream, Una thought. Perhaps I have died suddenly, of a broken heart, and this is heaven. It was probably not proper for the minister’s daughter to think of heaven as being like Rainbow Valley, but she thought that this might be all she asked of it.
“Walter, how can you be here?” She finally whispered, leaning against him, as his arms encircled her. “They told us you were killed at Courcelette.”
“There was some…confusion,” he said quietly. That was a mild understatement. He had been captured, and had suffered from memory loss. He had spent considerable time in a convent in France, being nursed back to health by kind women who had reminded him of ones he knew, in the life he had not been able to remember at first. There were still gaps that he found disturbing, but he was dealing with them. He had focused all his energy on returning home, and now he was here. Another man's family would have been told of the sad news by now, that it was actually their son who had died in France.
“I thought that everyone would already know. The official notification must have been delayed somehow.” Now, he was glad he had come to Rainbow Valley first, now that he knew he was not expected. Perhaps he should have written, but he had thought that the government would let his family know, and he had no idea how to put his experiences in a letter.
And he had wanted so badly to come home, to be with the people he loved, that he had traveled as fast as he could until this last delay.
She shook her head. “No, there’s been nothing.” She embraced him again, and Walter wondered why it had taken war and almost-death for him to realize what a treasure Una Meredith was. He clasped her hands between his.
“Will you walk to Ingleside with me?” He asked the question softly, uncertainly. They both knew that he wasn’t merely asking her to take this walk with him, but every one that followed after, until they slept next to each other in a field of stone.
“I will,” Una whispered, giving him a rare brilliant smile.
Her dreams had come true.
Walter had come home.