‘I’m sorry, are you Gilbert Blythe?’
He turned round and stared into a pale freckle-powdered face with two enormous gray eyes, boring into his with intensity and framed by stray strands of vividly red hair.
‘Er- yes? Can I help you?’
The delicate brown eyelashes framing the eerie eyes fluttered uneasily. ‘Can we go somewhere quieter?’
Gilbert stared. The nervousness of the girl who stood before him was almost palpable. He looked down at her slender hands, which she was wringing in a piteously imploring gesture.
‘Yes, of course,’ he stuttered, looking round the crowded shopping mall aisle in which they were standing. ‘Come on.’
He moved in the direction of a nearby coffee shop, which was relatively empty. The girl kept close to his side, but when he turned towards her to give her a reassuring smile she met his eyes with a reserved, drawn expression.
They sat down in a far corner of the small room, and Gilbert ordered two coffees. Then he turned to his companion with a questioning gaze.
‘Wait till they bring the coffee,’ she said.
The coffee arrived presently, a strong-smelling inky brew. The girl stared into her cup fixedly for a moment, and then she raised her startling eyes to his.
‘Phil Gordon told me all about you. About your studies the financial trouble you’re having.’
Gilbert stared. ‘Yes?’ he managed, wondering whether this was some particularly convoluted practical joke.
‘I can help you if you agree to help me,’ the girl went on dispassionately. ‘It’s a business proposition.’
‘A-- a business proposition?’ repeated Gilbert, completely bewildered. He was beginning to have serious doubts as to the mental balance of his interlocutor. She was trembling with agitation, and yet she continued to speak in a perfectly matter-of-fact way.
‘Yes. And please, please promise to at least consider it before you refuse.’
For the first time, he caught the sprinklings of a foreign accent in her speech. He wondered idiotically whether she was a special agent employed by a secret service organisation to implicate him in some shady affair.
‘Do you promise?’ the girl prompted, and Gilbert realised that he had been staring.
‘Well-- I suppose I do.’
She sighed, looking down into her coffee cup.
‘I--‘ she swallowed, and met his eyes with a nervously twitching face. ‘I want you to marry me.’
‘Excuse me?’ he managed after a moment of dumbfounded gaping. ‘Are you-- is this some sort of joke?’
‘No, it isn’t,’ the girl replied quietly. ‘I need a husband with American citizenship and I need him quickly. You need money to complete your studies and you need it now. I’ll pay you twice the sum you need.’
Gilbert shook his head slowly. ‘I’m sorry, but--‘
The wide gray eyes flashed like steel.
‘Wait,’ she put in with more emotion than she had yet shown. ‘You’ve said you’d at least consider it. I know you probably think I’m an escaped lunatic,’ she added acidly, ‘and maybe I am. But, since I am not a homicidal maniac and I don’t propose to be the mother of your children, this should not concern you. All I ask is that you help me in return for help.’
‘What is your name?’ was all he managed in reply.
Some slight inflection of hesitation in her tone put him on the alert.
‘Is this your real name?’
Her face became even more tense. ‘Yes. Yes, it is.’
Gilbert was feeling more uncomfortable by the second. The girl was looking helpless enough, but at the same time there was some ferocious quality in her face - and especially in her eyes - that made him wonder just what she might be running away from.
‘Well then?’ Anne Shirley’s voice broke in upon his uneasy cogitations.
‘I’m-- I’m sorry. I don’t think I can do this,’ he blurted out. ‘I--‘
The girl waved one of her restless hands dismissively.
‘Don’t be sorry,’ she said calmly, even though her whole face was beginning to twitch nervously again. ‘I’ll simply have to find someone else. There’s probably men enough who’ll be happy to take my money in return for signing a piece of paper.’
The coolness with which she spoke, and which contrasted so oddly with her visibly high-strung state, made Gilbert’s heart give an unpleasant lurch.
‘Do you propose to just go around and present you offer to randomly chosen men?’ he asked with some exasperation.
‘Well, they may be more favourably inclined than you have been,’ she replied, getting up from the table. ‘I’m sorry I’ve taken up so much of your time.’ She gave him an unexpected, albeit weak smile. ‘Keep your fingers crossed for me.’
He watched her rejoin the crowd in the aisle outside with an odd feeling rising up in his chest. After a few more seconds, he got up, threw the required amount of money on the table beside their untouched coffee cups, and practically ran out of the shop.
He looked around, trying to spot that vivid head of red hair which he was sure should be easy enough to find in any crowd. After a moment of agitated scrutiny, he saw her some distance away, talking to a tall, haughty-looking man.
Cursing himself for his own stupidity, he rushed in their direction. The man to whom Anne Shirley was talking turned out to be, of all people, Royal Gardner. He was looking down at her with an expression on his face that Gilbert knew only too well the meaning of.
‘- if you could help me,’ he heard Anne say.
‘I’m sure it’ll be pure pleasure to--‘
‘Here you are, Anne!’ said Gilbert rather more loudly than was necessary, actuated by an impulse he could not control. ‘I’ve asked you to wait for me, love, haven’t I? It’s terribly easy to get lost here your first time around.’
Anne turned to him with a thunderous look in her eyes. He caught her hand in his and pulled her to his side. Roy Gardner was watching this exchange with raised eyebrows.
‘I assume you no longer need my help,’ he said with a charmingly mournful smile directed at Anne.
‘No, she doesn’t,’ shot back Gilbert before the girl could answer.
Roy transferred his eyes to him. ‘Your friend doesn’t look too happy to see you, Blythe,’ he observed with derision.
‘To the contrary,’ Anne spoke up in an unexpectedly assured tone. ‘I’m simply speechless with happiness. I’m sorry to have bothered you, Mr--‘
‘Come on, love,’ said Gilbert, tugging at her hand. ‘I’d like to get our shopping done as quickly as possible.’
‘See you, Roy,’ said Anne, giving him a smile over her shoulder.
Gilbert pulled her on until he was sure Gardner could no longer see them. Then, he let go of her hand and turned round, only to receive a very unexpected and very painful slap on the cheek.
‘You fool!’ the girl spat at him furiously. ‘How dare you! He would have helped me!’
‘Gardner?’ he asked angrily. ‘He’s a scum.’
‘I’m a scum as well, so we would have been well matched! He would have no problem accepting my scummy money in return for his services!’
She was fairly livid with anger.
‘Listen-- Anne,’ Gilbert said quietly, noticing that people were beginning to stare. ‘I’ll help you. You don’t want to get involved with people like Gardner.’
An acrid smile pulled up the corners of her lips. ‘And why should I want to get involved with people like you? I don’t need an over-scrupulous prig. I need someone who’s good at pretending.’
‘I thought you needed someone trustworthy,’ he countered hotly. ‘And Gardner isn’t.’
‘Are you?’ she demanded with a sneer. ‘Because you seem to change your mind rather often.’
‘Not once I’ve given my word.’
Anne gave him a wary look. ‘Will you marry me, then?’ she asked pointedly.
‘I need-- I need to ask you a question or two first,’ he said. And, seeing anger darken her face again, added quickly, ‘But not here. Let’s get out.’
He expected her to oppose him fiercely, but, to his surprise, she followed him more or less meekly out of the shopping mall and into the dark January street.
‘Listen, I’ve got no time to waste,’ said Anne curtly. ‘I don’t fancy the prospect of trailing around after dark on an evening like this, and I’ve left all my belongings at Phil’s.’
Despite her obvious impatience with him, Gilbert could see that she was even more nervous than when she had first approached him. Her eyes darted uneasily here and there, as though she was expecting danger to jump out at her from behind the nearest corner.
‘I live in a flat just around the block,’ he said matter-of-factly, even though the situation was feeling more unreal by the minute. ‘We can talk there without worrying about people overhearing.’
The short distance was traversed in silence. They went up the two steep flight of stairs and into the small one-room flat that Gilbert had been living in since the beginning of the semester.
He switched on the lamp.
‘It’s rather dingy,’ he said with an awkward laugh. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I’m not particularly well-off, as you seem to be aware.’
Anne merely nodded, to all appearances completely indifferent to her surroundings. Without taking off her outer clothing, she confronted Gilbert with her arms folded belligerently across her chest.
‘What do you want to know?’ she asked bluntly.
Gilbert flinched a little at her tone. He tossed his keys onto the table and took off his coat. Anne stood immobile, watching him.
‘How do you know Phil?’ he asked, selecting the question which he thought the least likely to offend her.
He was evidently wrong in that assumption, for Anne’s face instantly hardened. However, she responded with reasonable clam.
‘I met her when she was spending her summer vacation in Austria. It was long ago, when we were just girls.’
Gilbert couldn’t help smiling at that. ‘You make it sound as though that was a really long time ago.’
‘It was. I’m older than I look. I was just fifteen then. It seems a lifetime ago.’
That last comment was made in a tone into which a yearning note had crept, and Gilbert looked curiously at the girl standing before him.
As soon as she perceived his scrutiny, she shook herself out of her little lapse.
‘Anyway,’ she resumed crisply. ‘I’m twenty-four now, and we haven’t met in person for nine years. But Phil remembered me and helped me when I came to her like she had promised she would. Anything else?’
‘Well, I guess it’s only natural that I ask why you’re doing this.’
Anne’s face expressed nothing.
‘I told you. I need an American husband, so that they can’t make me go back to where I came from--‘
‘Where did you come from?’
The question slipped out of his mouth before he could stop it. Anne, however, didn’t flinch.
‘That’s immaterial,’ she replied. ‘It has nothing to do with you.’
‘You’re running away from something - or someone - aren’t you?’ Now that he had put his foot in it, Gilbert considered he could as well press on. At the worst she would slap him again.
She clasped her hands together so tightly her knuckles went white.
‘If you want to know whether in marrying me you’re incurring the risk of being pursued by the tyrannical parents I ran away from, you may rest assured. I’m an orphan. My parents were both single children, and so am I. There isn’t any family to come looking for me here.’
‘Well. . . I’m sorry for that,’ he said awkwardly.
‘I’m not. Anything else?’
Gilbert ran a hand across his face. What was he to do? The girl was in some terrible trouble; so much was evident. If he rejected her offer, she’d go to Gardner or someone even less trustworthy. And the fact that she wasn’t exactly easy to deal with meant that she would not receive much sympathy from men of Gardner’s type after the attraction of her looks wore off.
‘Listen, Anne,’ he said, choosing his words carefully. ‘I don’t really like the idea of doing something like this for money. It simply doesn’t seem right.’
Her eyes went wide. ‘Phil didn’t exaggerate when she said you were the last extant gentleman, did she?’ She sighed impatiently, pushing stray hair away from her eyes. ‘You need that money, and I have more than I have any use for. If you agree to help me, you’re entitled to some kind of reward. Besides, I don’t believe you want to drop out of college.’
‘Of course I don’t. But--‘
‘Then either you take both me and the money or else I go out and find that handsome boy you scared off at the mall. He won’t have any scruples holding him back from accepting his due payment.’
‘He won’t have any scruples holding him back from taking advantage of the situation,’ Gilbert retorted crossly. ‘Don’t you know a crook when you see one?’
‘Do you?’ she asked quietly, and something in her tone, some raw vulnerability, made him look up sharply. She met his eyes defiantly.
‘I do,’ he replied in a gentler tone. ‘And I know you aren’t one. You’re just a person in a rather nasty corner who needs help.’
‘So are you.’
They looked at each other silently for a moment, each daring the other to look down first. Neither did.
‘Fine,’ said Gilbert finally, resigned. ‘I’ll do it.’
‘You’ll accept the money?’
He nodded, swallowing hard.
‘Shall we shake hands on it?’ she suggested, her manner unexpectedly playful.
Gilbert couldn’t help returning the shy smile she gave him.
‘Deal?’ He proffered his large, bony hand with an incipient grin.
‘Deal,’ Anne replied, slipping her slender fingers into his.
As he looked down at their connected hands he noticed that her skin was cracked from the cold.
‘You ought to remember to wear gloves,’ he remarked mechanically.
Anne snatched her hand away and hid it behind her back. ‘Thank you very much, Mr Doctor-to-Be,’ she remarked caustically.
There was a moment of awkward silence, and then, gulping, Gilbert asked,
‘Well then. . . when do you want to do it?’
His eyebrows shot up. Anne returned his stare unflinchingly, although there were spots of deep crimson on both her cheeks.
‘I told you I needed to do it quickly.’
‘Yes, but tomorrow? How--‘ he stopped, running his hands through his hair. ‘How do you propose to get everything ready?’
‘Get what ready?’ she countered with a sneer. ‘Phil will act as my witness. You get a reliable boy to act as yours. I’ve got the rings. You put on a suit, and we go to the nearest registry office. You lie that you will be with me for better and worse till death do us part, and then you never again have to consider giving up school because you’re short of money. It’s that easy,’ she finished with exasperated emphasis.
Gilbert felt extremely uncomfortable. You lie that you’ll be with me for better and worse till death do us part - the tone in which Anne had uttered these words had been deprecating, derisive even, and all his better judgement railed against making so light of something that ought to be a heartfelt, honest promise given to the person you love with the intention of doing everything in your power to carry it out.
Then he looked up and met Anne’s eyes. Those wide, starry, frightened, ferocious eyes.
‘All right,’ he heard himself say. ‘What time will you be here?’
‘About two in the afternoon. Can you find someone sensible to act as witness by then?’
‘Yes,’ he replied calmly, appalled at the prospect. ‘Yes, I will. You’ll bring Phil, right?’
‘Yes. I’m going over to her flat right now.’
He noticed the slight shiver that ran over her as she said those words, and said quickly, internally marvelling at his own matter-of-factness,
‘Come on then, I’ll walk you over. It’s gotten really late, and it’s easy to get lost if you don’t know the town too well.’
She accepted without demur, but also without any expressions of gratefulness. The way to the more expensive part of the town where the flat owned by Phil Gordon was located passed in silence charged with unasked questions.
Then, with a quiet ‘goodbye’, Anne was gone, and Gilbert was left with his brain reeling, his head aching, and his heart thumping in his chest.