Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return.
He missed his dad.
It had been just over a month since Gilbert Blythe buried his father, and his grief was still so raw it festered within him like an open wound, infected and untended, tainting him from the inside out until he was sure his very soul was diseased. He’d thought leaving Avonlea would cure his strange virus, but his weeks in Charlottetown had done nothing to dull the hollow woe that at times was so consuming it frightened Gilbert. He worried that, if he didn’t do something soon, he would disappear into that anguished fog of uncharted misery and be lost forever.
So when he’d received the job offer to be a stoker on the S.S. Primrose earlier that day, Gilbert almost cried in relief. His hand had trembled as he’d signed his contract, committing to one year with the mid-sized steamer, agreeing to shovel coal day after day in return for a small salary, food and board, and a chance to see what else there was of the world beyond the boarders of the small village that had been his home for fifteen years.
Even as the thought flitted across his mind, Gilbert wasn’t so sure Avonlea was home, not without his father.
There had been very little guilt in his exodus.
After the funeral, the only time anyone deemed to talk to him was to ask what he intended to do with his land. The heartless inquiries had often sent Gilbert into a rage that only a long ride on his horse ever seemed to quell. How could his neighbours, his friends, total strangers, talk of the orchard and money when John Blythe was dead and gone and his son was going mad from the loss?! How was it so easy for everyone else to forget the man who grew sweet apples, and whistled while he cooked, and read Walt Whitman? How could everyone look at Gilbert and not see that part of him was missing, buried in the earth with his father, and what was left to roam the land was a husk of the robust and happy boy he’d once been?
No one really cared about Gilbert, only what he intended to do with his farm. When he understood that, it had been remarkably easy to close up the house, lock it, and walk away without a word to anyone in Avonlea of where he was going. In fact, part of him accepted his creeping off had been motivated by spite, believing the village would not bemoan his disappearance so much as they would the not knowing of what he would do with the orchard.
It was frightening how little Gilbert gave thought to Avonlea, but he’d purposefully kept himself distracted in the weeks since he’d left his farm. He’d been working two jobs in Charlottetown – at the docks and at a general store – and the landlady of his boarding-house was always after him to fix something or run an errand. Usually, Gilbert was bone tired by the time he crawled into bed, and so he slept like a rock, unmoving and undreaming, before waking with the sunrise to begin his new routine of blind busywork all over again.
This venture with the Primrose was exactly what the fifteen-year old needed to truly break away from everything that kept him caged on Prince Edward Island. When he was free on the open waters, he would finally be able to think about things other than how sad and lonely he was all the time. He could find wonder in being alive again, discover new cultures, be inspired to dream about his future, and perhaps find a new home out there in the wilderness of the world.
When he’d told the men he worked with on the docks that they’d only have him a few more days before he set sail, the reception of his news had been a mixture of well-wishes, solemn goodbyes, and shoulder shrugging indifference. Some of the dockhands that were only a few years older than Gilbert insisted his new job should be celebrated and, with a great deal of goading and teasing and roughhousing, that night Gilbert found himself in a tavern having his first beer.
The ale was bitter and balmy, but by his third pint Gilbert was starting to understand the charms of the amber alcohol. He felt warm, almost hot, which was a relief as the shabby tavern had a spiteful draft that seemed to target Gilbert viciously with its damp December cuddle. The smell of stale sweat from the men who surrounded him no longer seemed as offensive as when he’d first been jostled into the booth, and the off-key concertina tune was starting to grow on Gilbert as the hours passed.
When he washed down the last of his pint, his head going fuzzy like it was stuffed with cotton, his body thrumming with a comfortable warmth, and his thoughts blissfully free of memories of his father, Gilbert knew he wanted another. A barmaid with red hair had approached their table and was clearing away the empty glasses, her movements quick and industrious. She was so little that she was able to easily manoeuvre between the burly boys who paid her no mind as she slipped between their flailing arms, sharp grey eyes focused on her task. When she reached for Gilbert’s glass, he pulled it away, chuckling as if he were playing a game.
Feeling spirited, he smiled at her and winked.
The girl balked at his bold gesture and scowled before turning away to snatch at the empty tumblers from the shots of whiskey the older boys had done earlier.
“Miss?” Gilbert called after the girl, bemused when she didn’t even glance at him, only continued picking up the empty glasses of the others before moving on to the next table of revelers. “Excuse me?” Gilbert called again, rising from his seat and holding his cup above his head, giving the glass an enthusiastic shake to express his desire for more ale.
Still, she ignored him.
“You gonna let that ginger give you the cold shoulder?” one of the older boys teased.
“Must be hell’s frozen over for a girl to stick her nose up at your sweet looks, Blythe,“ another boy, Tony, harassed, reaching over and pinching Gilbert’s cheek, laughing like a demented monkey when Gilbert swatted him away and started sliding out of the booth.
“That’s right, git over there and tell Carrots what’s what,” another voice suggested, causing the whole posse to bust out in drunken laughter.
Gilbert shook his head at their antics, thinking he wouldn’t be sorry to say goodbye to the dock lads, although he had come to tolerate their boisterous presence. And it was kind, in their own way, for them to take him out for a celebration of his new job. Now, if he could just get another pint from the tiny redhead, he could continue enjoying his evening.
“Miss?” he called, coming up to her as she busied herself loading her tray with empty glasses from a nearby table. Gilbert stopped before the counter, swaying some and needing to reach out a hand to the edge of the table to regain his balance. As he badly tried to recover his composure, Gilbert finally got a proper look at the little barmaid.
Maid was certainly it.
Gilbert was sure the girl wasn’t yet sixteen. She was small, almost wan, and her body was all sharp edges and straight lines from the slope of her nose, to her matchstick-thin calves, to her severe red braids that draped over her shoulders without flounce or curl. There was no hint of curves, no blossoming swell of a youthful bosom, no cinched in waist suggesting she wore a corset beneath her plain brown dress and apron. Her hands were not a dainty ivory but rather dishwash-red from hard work and dotted with freckles along her knuckles and up to her wrists.
He wondered what circumstances had befallen the girl that she would be forced to work so hard in a shoddy tavern full of mess and smell and drunks, and he thought it would be cordial to ask her that question and more over a pint.
“Excuse me. I’d like another drink, please,” he requested in his most grown-up tone.
Gilbert wasn’t sure if he was more surprised that the girl finally spoke or by what she’d said. Either way, his head flinched back and his brow crinkled in confusion.
“No?” he parroted.
“Exactly. No,” she repeated primly, taking a damp cloth from her apron and starting to wipe down the table between them.
“And why?” he demanded, knowing he sounded condescending, but he was a paying customer, dammit, and he wanted another drink! Who did this bossy little girl think she was that she could deny him what he and his chums had paid good money for?
“Do you know you can’t stand straight?” the girl asked, eyes never leaving her task of cleaning the table. As to both confirm and deny her observation, Gilbert stopped listing against the table and, though he stumbled a bit, managed to stand upright with his hands in his pockets, flashing the little miss a challenging cock of his brow.
She continued to ignore him.
“Just fetch me another drink, please,” Gilbert groused. “I’m very thirsty.”
“And I’m very busy,” she countered. “I’m also done talking to you.”
She took her tray of empty glasses and started walking back towards the bar.
“Hey, Miss…what’s your name?” Gilbert called after her.
She continued to snub him, handing over the dirty glasses to the bartender in quick, clipped movements before turning around to make another round of the tavern. She jumped and gasped when she nearly collided into Gilbert’s chest. He had sidled up to her far more stealthily than he should have been able to, considering his tipsy condition, and hearing her charming little squeak made his ears burn hot. She looked rather adorable with her proud chin and defiant gaze, and Gilbert’s desire for a drink quickly changed to a desire for her voice.
“What? You can’t tell me your name?” he asked, not blocking her when she marched around him. He followed her figure with his gaze, blurry around the edges as it was, and it dawned on Gilbert that, for all that she wasn’t a ravishing beauty, the redhead was pretty, and after all, a cute girl was a cute girl. “Why won’t you talk to me?” he asked, taking slow, crooked steps towards her, more amused than irritated when she continued to pretend he didn’t exist.
“Blythe’s striking out!” Tony hollered from the booth. Looking over his shoulder, Gilbert saw his chums watching him with rapt attention, their displays of dramatic swoons and obnoxious kissing sounds expressing their delight in his failure to win over the little redhead. Feeling suddenly very like a child who wanted desperately to be taken seriously by his older peers, Gilbert turned back to the barmaid, a plan barely forming in his intoxicated mind.
Her back was to him as she rushed to place empty glasses on her tray. One of her long red braids was dangling over her shoulder, its wispy russet tail the target of Gilbert’s next action.
“Hey!” he called to her again, and when she didn’t even flinch in his direction, Gilbert reached out and caught the end of her braid between his fingers. “Carrots!” he exclaimed, pulling her braid as he said it, yanking harder than he meant to in his inebriated state.
The redhead’s neck snapped back and she cried out in shock and pain. The moment her grey eyes turned on him, already edged with humiliated tears, Gilbert felt instantaneous regret.
He could hear his father’s voice echoing in his ear, booming and hearty like when he’d been healthy. He was speaking plainly and deeply, expressing his total disappointment in his son’s actions, wondering where the gentleman he’d been raising had gone.
Shame hugged Gilbert like a scarf knotted too tight at his throat, and he lowered his head as he tried to focus his thoughts and get his mind to mute his father’s lecturing tone. He was feeling very dizzy and queasy and he knew he had to apologize before he was sick or passed out or both. Taking a deep breath, Gilbert raised his gaze to regard the girl just in time to see her rear her arms back before she smashed her tray viciously against his head.
Bar patrons’ breath hitched in horror and delight.
The girl gasped, as if astonished at her violent action.
And all Gilbert could hear was a stinging ring in his ears that made it feel as if his mind were going to split in two, the piercing drone drowning out the spectre of his father’s disappointed words and making his heart cry out for that familiar voice to return, even if only to scold him some more.
Instantly, Gilbert was both immediately sober and more drunk than he had been all evening. The tavern around him spun in a hazy mess of dull brown colours and unforgiving orange lamplight. For at least a full minute, Gilbert couldn’t tell up from down, floor from wall, or his feet from his hands.
When the world started to right itself from the severe keel of his addled and rattled brain, Gilbert could make out the cacophony of the dockhand lads roaring with laughter, their guffaws harsh and ugly, ripped from their pickled bowels as they reveled in his embarrassment. Gilbert didn’t dignify them with even a cursory glance. Instead, he struggled to focus on the girl who’d hit him.
He was surprised to find she was still standing before him.
Her eyes were large and limpid, tears and lamplight floating among the stormy grey, making her look like a rabbit trapped in a snare. She’d dropped the tray, the offensive weapon laying between them like a great gulf of disgrace. She was breathing fast, as if she couldn’t fill her lungs quick enough, and her shoulders trembled with dread as she watched Gilbert unblinkingly, ready to fly off at the first sign of his retaliation.
It made Gilbert realize that the little redhead was no stranger to violence, that she was anticipating it, and if only he could make his tongue work Gilbert wanted to assure her, she had no need to fear him. He wasn’t a violent person in the first place, but he certainly would never strike a girl, especially one who had only lashed out to defend herself from his intoxicated harassing. He wasn’t cross, he was remorseful, and he wanted to tell her that. He wanted her to not be afraid, but the ringing was still dulling his senses and for some reason his voice simply refused to work.
“Girl!” the bartender hollered, the mustachioed man slapping his fist on the bar top, yellow teeth gnashing as he curled a beefy finger and beckoned the redhead towards him.
Rather than face the wrath of the large man, the girl spun on her heel and ran.
She bolted, quick as a fox, for the swinging doors of the pub, dodging the unsteady drunk patrons who tried to block her escape, fleeing as though the fires of hell were nipping at her heels.
“Anne Shirley!” the bartender hollered, rushing from behind the bar in a feeble attempt to take chase of the girl, but it was no use. She was long gone, her red braids trailing behind her into the night like crimson vapours.
Ignoring the cajoling of the other boys, Gilbert stumbled out of the tavern and after the girl…after Anne. The cold air was like another slap to the face, making Gilbert’s breath hitch at the shock of it, especially as it caressed the warm red welt on his right cheek, the bruise still soring from his earlier attack. The winter wind helped hurry along Gilbert’s sober reclamation of his senses and he started walking, wide and a bit wobbly, down the wooden sidewalk in the direction he’d thought Anne had run.
He made it to the end of the block before he realized that there was no hope of catching Anne. Besides the fact his head was still spinning as if he were caught in a violent whirlpool, the night was moonless, and Charlottetown was too unfamiliar for him to dare go searching down narrow alleyways and unknown roads in the dark. Defeated, Gilbert stared at the muddy street, clenching his jaw to help hold back the tears he could feel stinging the corners of his eyes.
He couldn’t explain why he felt so terrible about losing sight of Anne. There was simply a weight of dread that had settled low in his gut, poisoning him like mercury. Suddenly, Gilbert was feeling nauseous and he barely had time to support himself against a closed store front before he was emptying the putrid contents of his stomach, bile and beer splashing on his boots. He held a hand over his heart as he retched, feeling the quick flutter of the overtaxed organ against his palm. When he spit the last vile slick of sick from his mouth, Gilbert lagged against the cool glass of the storefront’s window, breathing hard, feeling sore, and in agony over his deplorable actions.
His throat ached with the apology he wished he’d been able to offer the scared girl, and his heart burned with regret at having let her go off into the night, alone save for the cold and the darkness.
At least if he had found Anne, they could have been cold and alone together.
Hello all, and welcome to my next story!
I've been percolating on this fic for a while (pretty much since I saw AWAE Season One). You see, Gilbert Blythe is my favourite character on AWAE. I love his story arc and character development, especially in Season Two when they took Gilbert out of Avonlea and let him loose on the world in a journey of self-discovery. I think the way the writing and Lucas expresses Gilbert's steady and constant grief over his father's death is done very well and honestly, and that is what this story is going to be about.
Yes, Anne is here and she will be tagging along with Gilbert as he sails the seas, but the heart of the story is about Gilbert learning to cope with his grief, make peace with it, and carry on.
So, if that sounds like something you'd be interested in reading, please subscribe.
As always, a kudos, or comment, or bookmark go a long way in motivating these fingers to keep typing, so don't be shy!
Chapter 2: Halifax - Part I
It's Gilbert's first Christmas alone.
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents
The S.S. Primrose berthed in Halifax in the early hours of Christmas Eve. The crew were given leave for the day as the steamer would not set sail again until the day after Christmas. Gilbert had nowhere to go and no one to see, so he kept his own company, wandering up and down the piers, relishing the sweet achy stretch in his thighs, back, and shoulders with each step he took.
It was remarkable how sore his body was from just three days of coal pushing. Most of the other stokers were experienced, their bodies hard and bulging with muscles, skin baked brown from the furnace fires and nails caked black from the coal they heaved. Many of the men were in their twenties and thirties, but there was a small handful of boys near Gilbert’s age in the boiler room. They had been stoking together for a few years, forming their own gang of sorts, and Gilbert had thought he might be able to join their ranks. Within the first hour of starting his new job, however, the other boys made it quite clear that they had no use for a fresh-faced, soft island boy, and brutishly blackballed him. They snubbed his questions, withheld their assistance, and appeared to relish a cruel satisfaction in watching Gilbert struggle to learn, and endure, the work.
The isolation didn’t bother Gilbert as much as he thought it would.
After all, he hadn’t abandoned his farm to make friends. He wanted to see the world, get a taste of adventure, and try and quench the sorrow that threatened to drown him every hour. It was better he be left alone to work through his grief, he reasoned. He didn’t need the crutches of sympathy or support, he only needed his own willpower, and gumption, and the spirit of the open road to guide him out of the gloom.
So when he spent that long Christmas Eve afternoon wandering the piers, throwing stones into the ocean, meandering past closed market stalls, and making footprints in the snow that stood out as the only blemish in the white frost since everyone in the city had retreated to home and hearth hours ago, Gilbert would never admit that he was, truthfully, despairingly lonely.
Seeing only your footprints in the snow had the remarkable affect of making one realize just how alone they were. In fact, lost in the quiet that cocooned the busiest port in Canada, Gilbert felt as if he were the only person left in the world, the rest of civilization having been lulled into an enchanted hibernation. He was the last human in the world, cursed to wander the frozen tundra, alone and wretched, the only blemish in a winter wonderland.
He really missed his dad.
Sighing, the chilly air stinging his lungs, Gilbert stood at the end of one of the many long piers, hazel eyes locked on the far, hazy horizon where the ocean and sky bled together into an infinite silvery abyss. The colour made him think of the barmaid.
‘Anne’ his mind echoed, the name seeming to be underlined in his memory, as if it were something important he had to remember for one of Mr. Philips’s exams. But Gilbert could never forget Anne.
He was reminded of her constantly.
His first meal on the Primrose, two days after that horrible night in the tavern, had been chicken with boiled potatoes and seasoned carrots. Though he was offered the dish many times, Gilbert couldn’t bring himself to look at the orange vegetables, let alone eat them.
One of the younger stokers was named Shirley. The lad was tall, but as lanky and sharp-edged as Anne had been, and he was assigned to a boiler just three away from Gilbert’s. Because he wasn’t terribly disciplined, he was often being hollered at by their foreman to move faster, work harder, or stop lollygagging, the name ‘Shirley, Shirley, Shirley!’ being screamed into the bowels of the furnace room, pounding against the iron walls like a hammer in Gilbert’s head.
Then there had been the numerous times Gilbert was certain he had actually seen Anne on the Primrose.
She was like an apparition.
His first day on the steamer, Gilbert was certain he’d spotted a slight, skinny girl with red braids among the rest of the crew in the mess hall, receiving introductions from the captain and officers before being separated to their assigned divisions. He was whisked away with the other stokers before he could investigate the owner of those red braids, and he easily convinced himself it was just his guilty imagination playing tricks on him.
The day after, Gilbert saw the red braids again, disappearing through the crowd a the third-class corridor. But he’d had soot in his eyes and wondered if he’d simply hallucinated the image, because after he’d rubbed furiously at his face to clear his sight, the braids were long gone, perhaps having never been there at all.
He became certain his brain was set on haunting him with the visage of Anne when, the night before, he’d been walking along the deck after hours – sleep eluding him as it sometimes did since his father’s death – and he saw her sharp profile against the night sky, backlit by the light from a thin crescent moon. She was standing at the far end of the deck, her nose and chin as straight and elegant as he remembered. Her hair was falling out of her braids in places, and the breeze from the sea was lifting them about her face. A face Gilbert couldn’t make out in the darkness nor from the distance he was at, but he was certain that that silhouette could be belong to no one but Anne Shirley. Anxious, Gilbert had marched forward to see if the nymph was the girl from Charlottetown, but she’d startled at his heavy footsteps and dashed away inside, disappearing through the corridor like smoke and leaving Gilbert at a loss.
Was he really seeing Anne, or was he going crazy? Was it possible to turn mad from remorse?
Surely, he was just overtired. He should try and sleep while he could since the Primrose would only be docked one more day before setting sail for America. The cabin where two dozen of the boiler room workers slept in hammocks would be virtually empty, most of the other stokers having taken leave for the day to visit friends and family in the city, or to find a hole-in-the-wall to get drunk, or a prostitute to keep them company, or a church where they could confess and pray. Perhaps the emptiness and stillness would lull Gilbert into an almost peaceful sleep and, if he were lucky, a dreamless one.
Decision made, Gilbert bid the ocean farewell and headed back to the ship.
The S.S. Primrose was certainly not the grand steamship Gilbert imagined he’d find work on when he’d set out to leave Prince Edward Island. She wasn’t as big as the RMS Umbria, more tall than broad, but she was large enough to operate as a commercial liner and cargo ship. Upon their departure from Halifax the day after Christmas, the ship would be bursting with both passengers and a consignment of lumber destined for Maine. The wood would be stored below deck (a bit too close to the boiler room if you asked Gilbert) and the passengers would have their choice of first, second, or third-class cabins.
The only passengers Gilbert suspected he’d see was the third-class group since his own bunk was within their section. First and second-class passengers would be able to enjoy the upper decks, of which the Primrose had two, as well as a choice of four dining lounges and one tiny café that was full to bursting with plants – a trellis had been built the full span of one wall of which had grown a thick, apple green ivy – making it seem as if a piece of one’s garden had been packed along for the voyage.
The Primrose had two massive funnels that channeled the black smoke from the boilers that Gilbert stoked. From the top of the mast that housed the crow’s nest, the Canadian red ensign flag billowed proudly in the breeze. The decks were polished and abandoned, the need for deckchairs moot in the winter months, and the whitewashed, canvass covered lifeboats sat sentry in between their davits, hopefully never to be moved.
Crossing along the rope-railed gangplank and emerging on the lower deck, Gilbert took a moment to get his bearings, hazel eyes roaming first left then right, before he started making his way down the empty gangway. It wasn’t long before Gilbert realized he’d missed the door to the stairwell that led to his bunk, and he lowered his head in fatigued defeat before spinning on his heel to backtrack when he heard a commotion coming from the deck above.
Someone was shouting, quite viciously, too, and someone else was whimpering, hardly able to get a word out as the bellowing went on like one long drone from a foghorn. Being at the bottom of the staircase that led to the upper deck, Gilbert quietly took the steps two at a time and found himself witness to a rather heated argument between one of the ship’s stewards and a young girl.
The steward was an older man, perhaps in his fifties, with hair dyed black with shoe polish and slicked to the side in a fashion too young for his age. He was in his uniform, the white jacket dotted with clots of grape jelly and his gleaming galoshes covered in the fine dusting of flaky tart shells, the corpses of which were smudged in the deck’s polished planks.
And standing before the angry man, like a painting come to life, was his very own redheaded ghost.
Anne Shirley was there, on the S.S. Primrose, breathing, talking, and real. She was dressed in the long skirted, starched collared grey gowns of the Primrose’s housekeeping staff. Her red hair was free from the bonnet that all the maids wore, but it was plaited in those wonderful braids, the scarlet pair lolling down her back as she recoiled from the ship’s steward that was yelling at her with ferocious ire.
“—ook what you’ve done, you stupid girl! My jacket is ruined!”
“I’m sorry. I’ll wash it –”
“Washing won’t help! And what were you doing running with those tarts? Did you steal them?”
“No! Never! How dare you! Cook gave them to me,” Anne cried out, backing away from the raging man, shoulders tense and body curling in to defend itself should the brute lash out. Seeing Anne prepare for the worst spurred Gilbert to action.
“Anne! Hello. Is everything alright?” he asked, surprising himself as he fully ascended the staircase to interrupt the confrontation. He approached the pair with squared shoulders and straight back, almost convincing himself that he was a knight approaching a fire-breathing dragon in the name of saving a fair lady. Anne and the steward turned to survey Gilbert as he came closer, the redhead’s lips parting in a soundless gasp as she immediately recognized the young man who had come to her rescue.
“Go away,” the steward command, cutting Anne off before she could demand the same.
“Of course,” Gilbert agreed, playing at being congenial. “My friend and I will just be off, then.” Quick as a blink, Gilbert was at Anne’s side and looping one arm in hers, clutching at her elbow when she tried to escape his proximity, keeping his eyes trained on the steward whose icy blue eyes darted between the pair suspiciously.
“You’re one of the stokers, aren’t you?” the steward asked, lip curling in disgust.
“Yes sir. My name’s –”
“Piss off! I don’t give a fig about your name. Stokers aren’t permitted on deck with the passengers.”
“But there aren’t any passengers,” Gilbert countered, faking at being confused. He could feel Anne twitch beside him, the young girl ready to take flight from the abominable man and leave Gilbert behind in the snow.
“Are you contradicting me, boy?” the steward growled, raising an arm as if to backhand Gilbert with every atom of strength he possessed. Anne squeaked and stepped back, and Gilbert was right beside her.
“Not at all. Very sorry. We’ll be off now. Merry Christmas.”
And smooth as silk, Gilbert turned himself and Anne around and led the pair down the stairs back to the lower deck. He didn’t look to see if the steward followed them, only moved quickly, fingers latched at Anne’s elbow as he steered them to nowhere in particular. He was so thrilled they’d found each other, and so overwhelmed with that feeling that Gilbert was nearly thrown flat on his face when Anne tugged him hard through a doorway that led to a below deck stairwell. Catching himself on the handrail as Anne freed herself form his grip to slam the door shut, Gilbert was astonished by her strength, and wanted to compliment her, but all his shocked brain could concentrate on was one thing.
“Anne…” he sighed, her name sweet as apples. Gilbert couldn’t begin to explain how his heart suddenly felt at if it had been released from a vice, the overwhelming relief at seeing her safe and well making his knees quake. He’d been worried for her, agonizing over what had become of the redhead who smacked some sense into his immature skull. He’d guessed she wouldn’t go back to the tavern, and had his suspicions that she was a vagrant, perhaps not unlike himself; an orphan forced to wander the world in search of meaning.
He was glad she had found her way to the Primrose.
Anne, however, was not so glad to have been found.
“Are you really so cruel you would follow me to my new place of work just to see me humiliated and turned out?” she accused hotly, cheeks pink with fury and grey eyes cloudy with a storm all their own.
“What?,” Gilbert recoiled, smiling fading from his face as he was scrutinized by the angry Anne, the girl having come to stand before him toe-to-toe. “No! No, I –”
“Or would you rather see me marooned, was that your scheme? Tossed out at sea? Fed to sharks? Sold to pirates? I don’t know who you think you are –”
“Gilbert,” he said, managing to pause Anne’s temperamental – and dramatically imaginative – tirade long enough to remove his hat and hold his hand out to her like he should have at the tavern. “I’m Gilbert Blythe.”
Anne looked at his hand, perplexed by the gesture, as if no one had ever shown her the respect of a proper introduction.
“I don’t care,” she spat after a moment. Hands on her hips, Anne narrowed her grey gaze at Gilbert and puffed out her chest in a gesture meant to be intimidating, but that only made her seem rather precious to Gilbert. “Are you really a stoker on this ship?”
“Yes. I signed on for a year,” he told her, lowering his hand.
Anne’s scowl deepened and Gilbert realized that she must have also signed a year’s contract to the ship. The thought that he’d get to spend a whole year in the same place as Anne was rather invigorating to Gilbert, though it appeared that the redhead did not share his sentiments.
“Look here, Gilbert Blythe,” Anne suddenly said, voice stiff with an authority she was obviously not used to portraying. “Clearly, we’re both on the Primrose for a while. The good news, it’s a big ship. You’ll be in the boiler room and I’ll be attending to the second-class cabins. There’s no reason we should have to speak, or even see each other for the duration of this voyage. Goodbye.”
“Wait!” Gilbert cried out, and he nearly grabbed Anne’s retreating wrist, but pulled himself back when Anne did stop at his behest.
“What?” she groused, on edge. Her ferocity caught Gilbert off guard, and he found himself swallowing dryly several times, unable to make the words come. Anne quickly tired of waiting for him to speak if her grimace was any indication, and she moved to leave the stairwell again when Gilbert was finally able to say the truth he’d been avoiding all day.
“It’s my first Christmas alone,” he confessed, his voice cracking as he said the words, as if he’d only just realized how terrible it was that there would be a time when the number of Christmases he spent without his father would outnumber the ones that they’d had together. The thought was enough to make Gilbert sick, but he swallowed his misery down and rapidly blinked his tears back.
He stared down at Anne who stared up at him, and in the swirling mists of her grey eyes, Gilbert could see that Anne somehow understood the feelings he was unable to express. He realized that Anne had known more than one Christmas alone, and that understanding made him want to weep for the tragedy that a girl as interesting and impassioned as she should have no one. In fact, knowing Anne was as alone as he, made Gilbert wish he could bundle up all the lonely people in the world and clutch them in his arms, shielding them from the hollow ache that was infinitely stronger on this holy day.
Something in Anne’s expression changed as she regarded Gilbert after his painful admission. He wouldn’t say it was pity or even sympathy that flashed across her eyes, but rather compassion as she took in the boy standing before her, hearing his soul crying out to hers. In an act of the most genuine kindness, Anne reached out and took Gilbert’s hand.
Her fingers were long, slim, and cold. His were stout, brown, and still warm from his gloves. Their palms fit together naturally, their grip firm and not too hard, and when Anne stepped out of the stairwell Gilbert was compelled to follow or else lose the one tether to humanity he’d latched to. Blindly, he let Anne take him to the upper deck, staunchly avoiding the remains of the tarts that were still laying on the polished planks, a memorial to the spot where Gilbert and Anne had reunited.
She moved fast, just as she had in the tavern, and Gilbert suspected Anne was so quick because of necessity, having to serve others hastily, or dodge angry patrons, or simply do someone’s bidding as efficiently as possible. It was a shame that someone with so much spirit was confined to service on a ship when her energy would thrive with vibrancy on Prince Edward Island in the fields of lupins, or the red rock cliffs, or the yellow birch woods.
Though she was restricted to a much smaller, very industrial space, Anne still knew her way around the Primrose excellently, navigating the ship as freely as she might a meadow or beach. Gilbert didn’t ask questions, and he didn’t resist Anne’s tugging on his hand as she pulled him along. As they neared the large second-class dining lounge, the distinct notes of a choral psalm became clearer over the hum of the ocean and Gilbert remembered one of the officers saying a Christmas service would be held for the crew that day and all were welcomed to join.
The fifteen-year old stiffened, wondering if Anne intended to bring him into the mass and worried that this would be where their time together would end. Gilbert had no desire to listen to a minister preach of God’s mercy, and if it was Anne’s intention to request he join her with the congregation, he would, unhappily, have to refuse her invitation. But like before, Gilbert had underestimated Anne, for she bypassed the dining room and pulled him further along, taking him up a staircase that led to the weather deck and the first-class cabins. Then, with no warning, she stopped, Gilbert nearly running into her back.
They were standing next to a large vent and, without ceremony, Anne plopped herself down on the chilly deck floor, sitting cross-legged so that her skirts covered her legs, and she looked up at Gilbert expectantly, waiting for him to join her. Unsure but trusting, Gilbert sat next to Anne, the December air biting enough that he cuddled close to her side. Their knees bumped together, and they leaned on one another from wrist to shoulder as they sought warmth against the winter. Before them, the Atlantic Ocean spread out like a carpet of silver, the rippling waves making it seem as if diamonds were dancing along the surface. The horizon and the sky went on for eternity, promises of adventure, and knowledge, and life stitched in the line where the two kissed and became one, beckoning to his restless soul.
Leaning back, Gilbert realized that he could make out a man’s voice, the tone small and far away, like an echo caught in a seashell. The words he recognized immediately as the story of Christ’s birth, and he realized that the vent must lead directly to the second-class dining room where the Christmas service was being hosted.
“I enjoy the nativity story, but I’m not especially fond of churches,” Anne confessed, casual in her blasphemous admission. It made Gilbert feel brave enough to voice the terrible thoughts that had been rattling in his heart since John Blythe took his final breath.
“I’m not especially fond of God at the moment,” he said, voice gravely, as if choking on the tears he refused to cry. He wondered if Anne would judge him terribly for his anger at the Lord, but the young man couldn’t help how utterly furious he was with God.
First, the Almighty saw fit to take Gilbert’s mother, leaving him bereft of her for all but one hour of his life. And then, in His infinite wisdom, Gilbert was forced to endure the slow decay of his father, standing vigil for three years as John Blythe got sicker and weaker. When God cruelly snatching his father away, Gilbert was left a broken fifteen-year old lost in the world, and he bitterly wondered if that had been Providence’s design for him all along, unable to see the glory in the grand design. He’d refused to pray at the funeral, the minister’s dreary psalms and bleak devotions falling on deaf ears, and he hadn’t been to a Sunday service since, his blood going hot and cold with unintelligible fury whenever he heard he first lines of the Lord’s Prayer.
Listening to the familiar poetry of the Christmas story coming through the vent did not provide the comfort Gilbert sought. He wasn’t brimming with anger so much as he was near to bursting with sorrow, for his father had loved Christmas, and now this day marked his first one being gone, and Gilbert’s first one alone.
But he wasn’t completely alone.
Sitting alongside Anne, their knees, arms, and shoulders touching, did make him feel as if there was at least one person in the world capable of understanding his grief.
“Sometimes,” Anne started softly, not looking at Gilbert as she spoke, her words coming out slow and carefully, “when I just need to express myself, I go into the woods, or I find a garden ripe with a rainbow of wildflowers, or I come out here and stare at the vast, crystal-dotted waves of the ocean. I raise my head up to feel the sun, or the moon and stars, on my skin, I let the wind touch my face and ruffle my hair, and I let my heart expand so that every emotion is open to the wide world, and I just…say a prayer. I don’t always speak the words, often I let my heart do the talking, but I release the prayer all the same. I don’t know if God, or Mother Nature, or the fairies hear it, but I place it out there in the world and I let it and myself just be.”
Gilbert let her words sink around his body like a warm blanket. She spoke so honestly, her voice coloured with passion and truth, like a Shakespearean sonnet. It was Anne’s poetry, and not the gospel, that proved to be a true balm to his suffering soul, for he was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of peace that muted the despair that had been choking him for weeks.
It was a miracle.
And so, in that serene moment on the deck of the Primrose, with the ocean before him, and the winter air around him, and the moon just peeking down from her perch in the night sky, Gilbert opened his heart to the world, just for a second, and said a prayer of thanks for his Christmas Carrots.
I know this isn't the cheeriest chapter, but then, this isn't meant to be the cheeriest story.
The whole of this fic will be from Gilbert's POV, so sorry, we won't be getting any insight into Anne's feelings save for Gilbert's suppositions, and anything Anne outright proclaims. Mostly, this story is meant to be not just an exploration of Gilbert's grief, but a chronicling of his journey to understand himself, find himself, and learn how to go on without the person he loved most in the world by his side.
Anne is going to be encountering her own struggles as well, and without realizing it, Gilbert will be helping the redhead to persevere through her personal demons, too.
This is a story of self-discovery, for both Anne and Gilbert, and I hope you'll enjoy their adventure.
As always, I love comments, kudos, bookmarks and subscribers, but mostly I just love to know your thoughts on the story thus far. Don't be a stranger!
Chapter 3: Boston
Gilbert goes on shore leave and discovers the magic of Boston; he also discovers a thin redhead reading in the park.
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.
It was a month later before Gilbert was able to speak with Anne again.
The Primrose was berthed in Boston, and a more vivacious and lively city Gilbert was certain he had never seen. The Port of Boston was busy, with more naval traffic than even Halifax could boast. In order to secure some land time, Gilbert had volunteered to take the night shift in the boiler room as the Primrose was scheduled to depart Boston at ten o’clock that evening and was expected in Provincetown by the morning. As such, he had been given most of the daytime hours off, presumably to rest, but Gilbert was too eager to explore the bustling city to be bothered with slumber.
He wasn’t sleeping very well, anyway.
Sleep was too often filled with memories of his father, and whether they were good (picking apples in the orchard, riding the train to Alberta, tending to their horses) or bad (rubbing salve on dad’s chest after a coughing attack, cleaning blood from handkerchiefs, visits to Dr. Ward) didn’t matter because Gilbert didn’t want them. He wanted to be free of his father’s spirit. It was why he had left Avonlea. What was the point of seeing the world if his memories kept him tethered to that speck of a village? He needed to make new memories, have experiences that would supplant the past, and give him sweet dreams.
So, Gilbert Blythe took his first true steps onto the open road and lost himself in the metropolis of Boston, the city spread out before him as if opening its arms to welcome him into the fold of a convivial embrace.
He spent the first two hours of his afternoon wandering the fish market. A briny stench perfumed the whole of the harbour, flavours of salt and ice leaving a pickle tasting film in Gilbert’s mouth. He explored the salt-eaten wooden stalls, watching fishmongers wrap cod in day old newspapers, listening as vendors advertised their daily specials, and steering clear of the barrels that groaned with the putrid weight of fish guts and flies.
He made his way down the damp gravel road and found himself outside an oyster house where a pretty older girl with blond ringlets tucked neatly under a white cap enticed him inside. She smiled and flirted with him, commenting breathily on his deft hands as she showed him how to shuck an oyster and consume the plump flesh. The sample was decadent, and the company equally stimulating, but it was with a blithe smile and charming wink of his own that Gilbert left the oyster girl and continued his exploration.
Leaving the market and harbour behind, Gilbert’s boots touched on asphalt as he started following High Street, passing row after row of banks and money lending houses, the buildings made of white stone, posters and banners wallpapering windows with declarations that their interest rates were far superior to the competition’s across the lane. He was very nearly rundown by an impatient hansom driver when he stopped in the middle of the thoroughfare to gape at an electric trolley. Gilbert stayed rooted to the spot as his hazel eyes followed the path the magnificent machine took, having only ever seen one before in Montreal, and even then, only from a far distance as he and his father had been late to catch a train.
Shaking his head of the memory, ignoring his senses’ desperate need to recall the feel of his father’s hand in his and the sound of his laughter as he’d teased Gilbert for gawking, the fifteen-year old crossed the street, mindful of the tracks, and looked for his next path.
Inspired by his experience at the oyster house, Gilbert turned on Pearl Street and found himself walking among men, women and children dressed in fine velvets and rich tweed wools. The houses along Pearl Street were elegant structures, with steps swept clean of snow, and entrances enclosed with wrought iron gates, and bells with cords one had to pull to announce their arrival at a polished ebony door. Some of the houses had high walls, protecting precious gardens from prying eyes, while others boldly displayed their vast splendour.
Eventually, Pearl Street opened on a square filled with a mess of machinery and men sloughing away brick and wood from the buildings that had been demolished on either side of the little plaza. Wagons were being pulled in each direction, horses whinnying as they were urged to drag the heavy loads of rubble, and the constant clank of brick hitting brick as the workmen threw the dirty rocks into buggies was a symphony Gilbert did not care to hear, so he dashed across the square and turned down a new street.
This area seemed an old part of Boston, the cobblestones more aged and the buildings standing lofty but weary; the great-grandfathers of the city, their walls keepers of history. The aura emanating from the stone felt ancient and wise, enticing Gilbert to spend a great deal of time in the shadow of the Old South Meeting House before his wanderer’s spirit pushed him to leave the historic site.
On Washington Street, between the buildings as high as six storeys, Gilbert picked up pieces of conversation from huddled groups window shopping along the way, hearing words like ‘subway’ and ‘elevated railway’, and the idea of trains both above the streets and under them was too intriguing for the young man. Eager to see such a mechanical marvel, Gilbert headed for Tremont Street where a constable had told him a majority of the unground railway was already completed. Reaching the wide intersection, Gilbert was a bit disappointed to find that the particular section of Tremont he was at had already been worked. The dirt under his boots was pressed solid and flat, the smell of boiling tar stinging his nose as he spotted a road crew packing down asphalt about two blocks away, their voices carrying over the rest of the crowds as they sang ‘You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon’.
Humming the lively tune, Gilbert crossed the road and found himself facing the most magnificent sight he’d yet to come across in the city.
There was a forest, a beautiful snow covered, lantern lit, frost kissed actual forest in the middle of Boston. It was like finding a diamond among mountains of coal. Gilbert was astonished, his jaw falling open as he took tentative steps towards the expansive park, hazel eyes roving over the crystalline trees, bare but for the ice that outlined their twisting branches. Picking a path, Gilbert continued his walk, relishing the plush crunch of snow under his boots, buying pretty painted postcards from a huckster along the lane, and following the scent of something warm and creamy. The scrumptious smell brought Gilbert to a clearing that was home to a charming little pond that had frozen over hard and thick enough to be safe for ice skating.
There were several people already skating, their laughter filling the forest with such merriment that Gilbert could almost feel his own heart bubbling with the compulsion to join them, but his grumbling stomach reminded the fifteen-year old that a succulent bouquet had lured him to this place and he was determined to find out what mysterious cuisine could produce such a perfume.
The fragrance led Gilbert to a strange metal cart that was propped alongside the quaint shack where skates could be rented at a nickel a pair. The cart was painted red and had a canvass of yellow and blue stripes that stretched over what looked like a tiny steam-powered roaster that funnelled heat to a glass encasement where thousands of fluffy white puffs lay in wait for curious customers.
“Are you having some?” the vendor, a middle-aged man with a bushy salt and pepper beard, wondered.
“What is it?” Gilbert asked, intrigued.
“You’ve never heard of popcorn, kid?”
“This is corn?”
“Kind of,” the vendor said, smiling as he opened the encasement, overwhelming Gilbert with the scent of heat and butter. “Give it a try.”
The man shovelled some of the white puffs into a metal scoop and held them out for Gilbert to sample. Gently, Gilbert took one of the puffs between his thumb and forefinger, admiring the odd food as one might admire a snowflake. He sniffed it, picking up traces of salt and butter, and then he popped the piece into his mouth.
It was wonderfully surprising the joy something so small could produce.
“How much?” Gilbert asked, licking his lips clean of the butter, eager for more of the delicious snack.
“Penny a bag,” the vendor said, already filling a paper bag with popcorn before Gilbert could dig his money out of his pocket. “Now, if I were you, kid,” the vendor said in a playful, conspiratorial way, “I’d take my popcorn and find a pretty girl out on the Common and see if she’d like to share. Who knows, could be you strike up a conversation with your future wife.”
“Yeah, and I’ll be sure to invite you to the wedding,” Gilbert retorted, making the man laugh heartily at his good-natured teasing. The pair waved goodbye and, though he had no intention of seeking a sweetheart – even if his brain had flashed, just for a moment, to the pretty oyster girl back at the docks – Gilbert did think he’d like to rest and enjoy his treat.
There were braziers crackling with fire to keep the area surrounding the frozen pond comfortable for those opting to sit on the many benches that dotted the clearing. Gilbert started walking slowly around, eyes drifting from skaters to the trees to the benches, seeking a place to sit, but not in so much of a hurry that he wasn’t going to enjoy the scenery. As he nearly finished making his way all around the pond, Gilbert spotted her.
Tucked a bit away from the rest of the crowd, perched all alone on one of the park benches, was Anne Shirley.
As always, the sight of Anne made Gilbert smile, his heart beating with a new warmth the moment he caught a glimpse of her red braids. They hadn’t spoken since Christmas, Anne only exchanging a polite nod in Gilbert’s direction if they happened to spot each other in the mess hall at dinner.
She was curled up on the bench, looking rather cozy in her coat and shawl, knees tucked up to her chest and a sheaf of papers, tied together with a string in the top corner, gripped in her hands as she devoured the words before her. Anne seemed quite focused on whatever she was reading, and though he didn’t want to disturb her, Gilbert thought he’d quite like to simply sit with Anne and eat his popcorn, in companionable silence if that’s what she wanted.
Decided, Gilbert made his way towards Anne, straightening his hat as he approached her bench. When she did not raise her head to greet him, Gilbert made himself comfortable beside her, sitting and waiting for Anne’s reaction, but even then, she did not look up from her reading. Gilbert relaxed, leaning back on the bench and munching leisurely at his popcorn, waiting until Anne noticed his presence.
He knew the moment she realized he was there when her spine stiffened and she breathed a bit too harshly through her nose. Keeping at ease. Gilbert kept his gaze on the skaters, but held out his bag of popcorn to Anne, silently offering her a share of the treat. The redhead did look at the intriguing morsel, even took a long, luxuriant sniff, but she did not accept his gift. Instead, Anne squared her shoulders, returned her grey gaze to her pages, and turned away from Gilbert as best she could on the bench.
His offering rejected, Gilbert decided to be more straightforward.
“Good afternoon, Anne,” he said, having to bite the inside of his cheek when she still refused to acknowledge him, amused at the girl’s stubborn behaviour. “Lovely day.”
“It would be, save for the company,” she muttered.
“I disagree. I think my company is most lovely,” he said, admiring Anne’s profile, not for the first time, and being rather awed at how striking the young girl was with her sharp jaw, full mouth, and straight nose.
“And I think my company is a liar,” Anne countered, finally turning to look Gilbert in the eye. “What do you want, Gilbert?”
“Just to talk,” he answered with a shrug of his shoulders. “Maybe share some popcorn. Have you ever tried it?”
“No,” she admitted, eyes drifting back to the brown paper bag that Gilbert gladly held out to her a second time.
“We’ll share, then,” he suggested.
“Because that’s what friends do.”
“We are not friends. I am not in the habit of befriending rude boys who call me ‘carrots’,” Anne said sternly, lifting her nose in the air before returning her attention to the pages in her lap.
“I am sorry about that,” Gilbert said sincerely, at last apologizing for the insult he’d made to her the first day they’d met. “And I’ll never call you car—that name again. So what do you say, Anne? Friends?”
“You hurt me atrociously. I think we could never be friends, Gilbert Blythe,” Anne stated gravely.
“Come on, are you really going to be mad for keeps?” he asked, both teasing and sincere. The thought of the cute redhead being cross with him forever was horrid, but then the many mischievous ways he could playfully vex her while she steadfastly pretended he didn’t exist was equally, if oppositely, rather amusing. But, he’d rather not have to bear the brunt of her impressively cold indifference if it could be helped.
“I thought indefinitely a rather fair length of time to despise you,” Anne answered glibly.
“Indefinitely. Good word. I-N-D-E-F-I-N-A—”
“Wrong!” Anne snapped, finally turning to glower at Gilbert as if he were a mosquito buzzing around her ear. “There’s no ‘a’ in indefinitely. You must have been in the bottom wrung at your school.”
“Actually, I was the top student in my class,” he bragged, heart panging with memories of Charlie and the rest of the boys, the smell of woodsmoke from the stove, the rhythmic scrape of chalk on a blackboard. With accurate efficiency, Gilbert immediately squelched those memories and the sensations they attempted to rouse in him, focusing instead on Anne and her storm cloud grey eyes. “And you? You seem to have quite the mind. Let’s put it to the test. Spell perpendicular.”
“No!” Anne exclaimed as if the challenge were utterly ridiculous.
“Too hard? That’s okay, spell –”
“P-E-R-P-E-N-D-I-C-U-L-A-R. Perpendicular,” Anne declared, punctuating her perfect spelling by sticking her tongue out childishly at the boy beside her. Gilbert almost laughed, delighted that Anne rose to the challenge. If the only way he could get her to talk to him was exploiting the competition she seemed to perceive existed between them, he was not so proud that he would ignore the only course of action he had available. Besides, he liked Anne, he couldn’t properly express why, and he felt she might like him too if she just let her guard down and talked to him like she had on Christmas Eve.
“Do you have a word for me to spell?” he asked, waiting patiently.
“Repugnant,” she said after a moment, and it was perfectly clear from the impish sparkle in her eyes that she was not only trying to test him but trying to insult him as well. Gilbert didn’t care, so long as she talked to him.
Anne scowled at Gilbert’s perfect spelling.
“Your turn. Splendiferous.”
And for the next hour, Anne and Gilbert lobbed words at each other like snowballs.
“What a perfectly ridiculous word! What does it mean?”
“Spell it, and I’ll tell you.”
“You forgot the ‘e’!” Anne exclaimed, helping herself to a handful of popcorn, eating only one puff at a time and chewing slowly as if she were savoring each piece like it was a rich chocolate truffle.
“Clever,” he challenged, tossing a piece of popcorn in the air and failing miserably at catching it in his mouth, but the flop made Anne chuckle and that was more satisfying than if he’d pulled off the trick.
“Are you trying to tell me something, Anne?”
“Any subtext you may read into my words is, I assure you, purely coincidental. Oh! That’s a better one. I’ve changed my mind. Spell coincidental.”
“Drat! I don’t like your rules.”
Anne hiccoughed on the chuckles she’d been letting escape for the last few words, struck silent as Gilbert moved to stand before her, taking his glove off so he could hold his hand out to her in a gesture of goodwill and naked vulnerability. He waited earnestly for Anne’s answer, and thought he might wait forever for it because he badly wanted to be this girl’s friend.
He couldn’t explain the strange magnetic attraction that drew him within Anne’s orbit, as if she were the sun and he a helpless planet, slave to her undeniable gravity. It was as if grander forces were determined to see Anne and Gilbert together, crossing their paths first in Charlottetown, then on the Primrose, and now again in the big crowded city of Boston. With so many signs pointing to the obvious desire of the universe to see Anne and Gilbert become friends, what was the point in resisting?
It was time to stop thwarting Destiny, and when a twinkle not unlike starlight sparked in Anne’s grey eyes, Gilbert knew that the redhead had decided to cease her own fiery defiance.
“T-R-U-C-E,” she spelled, each letter looping around her tongue with delicate care.
She took off her mitten and slapped her palm against Gilbert’s, uncaring that his fingers were dirty and calloused and peeling with new burns. Anne gripped Gilbert’s hand tightly and shook firmly. Suddenly, it was as if sunshine was bursting from his chest. Or perhaps the glow came from Anne’s smile, big and beautiful, a little laugh sneaking past her lips as they shook hands for far longer than was necessary to seal the deal on their newfound kinship.
“Friends, then,” Gilbert declared, and Anne nodded. She looked happy, even a bit disbelieving, and it made Gilbert wonder if Anne had ever had a friend before. The idea that this girl, as full of life as the city they were surrounded by, may have grown without family or friends troubled Gilbert’s very soul, and he decided that that terrible wrong was in need of instant correction.
The pair spent the rest of the afternoon together, spelling words, saying multiplication tables, and watching the skaters. As the sun began to set, they made an unhurried return to the Primrose. Gilbert led them, backtracking the way he’d come to the Common so he could show and tell Anne of all the delights he’d discovered. Anne was a wonderful audience, her face an expressive map of awe and curiosity as he showed her the Old South Meeting House, and the mansions on Pearl Street, and told her of the miraculous marvel called a subway. She proved to be as enthralled by Boston as he, and often interrupted their conversation with a poetic expression of her desire to return.
Back on the Primrose, he walked her to her room, a little third-class cabin she shared with five other housekeeping girls on the opposite end of the ship from his quarters. Before she went inside, Gilbert gave Anne the paper bag with what was left of the popcorn and wished her a goodnight. He couldn’t help his cheeky wink when she wished him the same.
And as he spent the long winter night shoveling coal into furnaces, his arms aching, back drenched with sweat, and eyes burning from the ashes, Gilbert caught himself whistling the song he’d heard the Boston roadcrew singing. The lively jingle made his heart radiate with an unfamiliar glee and his mind relax into a cheery state, making the long hours of his shift tolerable even if his foreman hissed at him to cease his jaunty melody more than once.
It wasn’t until the Primrose was in Provincetown and Gilbert was crawling into his hammock to get a well-deserved rest that he recognized that his jolly demeanour wasn’t a foreign sensation brought on by his newly christened friendship with Anne. Instead, the pleasant tingle, the undeniable compulsion to laugh at nothing, the absolute ease with which his heart and mind relaxed against the hum-drum duties of his job, all stemmed from a feeling Gilbert had believed lost to him forever. And yet, moored in the gentle rocking waters of Cape Cod Bay, Gilbert found himself enfolded in that familiar embrace of emotion, and the realization that he could still feel such elation nearly made him cry in relief.
For the first time in months, Gilbert Blythe was happy.
Yay! They're friends now.
Without the interference and peer pressure of Avonlea's exuberant youth, I do think that Gilbert and Anne would have become faster friends despite the horrendous carrots/slate incident. And in this story, because they are both alone in the world, they simply just need each other, atrocious names and head injuries or not.
Anne and Gilbert were never meant to be alone, and while Gilbert may think that loneliness is his current lot in life, he is finally remembering that he likes people, while Anne pounces on the opportunity for human connection like a person starved. They're still Anne and Gil in this fic, no question about that, they are simply much more eager to be friends and passionately embrace their fierce connection, despite the odd inkling that there may be more at play that a loyal kindred connection.
As always, I really hope you liked the chapter. I really wanted to capture the liveliness and forward motion that was happening in Boston at the turn of the century, and seeing as he is looking for momentum to his own life, Boston seemed the perfect port for Gilbert to explore at length.
Please, if you liked the chapter, drop a kudos or comment. Don't be shy about bookmarking or subscribing, and let me know your thoughts! I'd love to hear them.
Chapter 4: New York City
What wonders will the Big Apple have in store for a wandering soul and his redheaded companion?
The efflux of the soul is happiness, here is happiness,
I think it pervades the open air, waiting at all times,
Now it flows unto us, we are rightly charged.
New York City was a wonder.
When the Primrose had sailed into the harbour, Gilbert had snuck onto the upper deck to get a glimpse of the amazing metropolis and his breath had been taken away by the sight of the colossus Statue of Liberty. The fantastic copper leviathan very much made the fifteen-year old feel like he was a Lilliputian caught in the pages of Gulliver’s Travels, and he told Anne so when she commented that New York was a concrete forest made for giants. Gilbert was inclined to agree, for he’d never seen buildings so tall in all his life.
“They call them skyscrapers,” Anne said in hushed awe against the shell of his ear when they hopped a trolley from the harbour, their noses pressed against the window as they admired one massive brownstone after another on route to Times Square. The pair were spending the day together, lucky to have the same shore leave as their schedules had not aligned once since their afternoon in Boston.
Both adolescents had demanding jobs on the Primrose, and as they were among the youngest of the crew, they were often forced to do the more gruelling and loathed tasks demanded by their departments, leaving little time for joys like shore leave.
Gilbert had finally learned more about Anne’s duties over their few shared dinners in the mess hall, or the odd meeting on the lower deck after hours. Besides helping to clean the second-class cabins and rousing the passengers for breakfast (which is why Gilbert never saw Anne in the mornings as she was often already two hours into her shift), Anne’s primary duty was that of a laundress.
She was one of half-a-dozen girls responsible for collecting the soiled linens of the passengers, replacing the dirty with the fresh, and then sweating hours away in the laundry room. Much of her day was spent bent over tubs of hot water, scrubbing stains out of sheets, pressing embroidered hand towels, minding the linen stock, and attending to an endless pile of mending. Anne’s stitches were the neatest of all the laundry lasses, so she could often be found with a basket of fabric, hands skillfully minding a needle and thread. Though the work was laborious and monotonous, Anne did take pride in her sewing, once showing off her calloused fingertips to Gilbert, able to identify where and when she had received each pinprick scar on her pale hand. In turn, Gilbert had shown off his own growing collection of scars, his forearms littered with little healing burns and his palms scabbed over with blisters old and new.
Their hands were a testament not just to the hard work they were doing, but also to their characters, determined and strong, perhaps even a tad desperate; to continue living day after day through strife and sweat and grief. It was humbling to know there was another soul in the world who understood your motivations.
Besides their occupations, Gilbert and Anne had managed to learn a little more about the other personally, including a shared sense of humor, mutual voracious curiosity about the world, and complementary dispositions. So, when they’d discovered they had the same slot assigned for shore leave while in Manhattan, the pair had decided it was a fine idea to spend that time together.
Anne was adamant on seeing Central Park, proudly proclaiming that she was drawn to nature wherever she may find it, even in cities of glass and steel. Gilbert wanted to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art after a poster he’d spotted declared there was an exhibit on ‘Electricity ~ Inventions both Practical and Marvelous’ in the grand gallery.
For the sake of an adventure (Anne’s words) they’d decided to take a trolley part of the way, giggling as the electric car pulled them along, marveling at how quickly they overtook hansoms and pedestrians, and of course, remarking on the gargantuan skyscrapers. They got off at Times Square and started in the direction of Central Park, their steps clipped and quick as they found themselves walking against a bitter February wind.
Marching down Seventh Avenue, flanked by twelve storey apartments and lavish department stores with window displays dressed in scenes from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, made Gilbert feel suddenly very small in a world that was growing fast around him. Rather unexpectedly, he found himself yearning for the familiar bark and blossoms of his orchard, almost wishing that the tunnel of wonderous stone and steel was instead the open green space of his land lined with neat rows of apple trees, the branches dressed in their pretty pale flowers as far as he could see.
“Isn’t it breathtaking?” Anne gasped at his side, and for a moment Gilbert wondered if Anne was able to see his pastoral memory. But when she giggled and bounded away from him towards the snow-covered trees that loomed ahead, he realized they’d finally reached Central Park. Anne was immediately lost to her delight under the shade of a clump of yellow ash trees. Spreading her arms wide, she started twirling in the snow, hands lifting above her head to brush against the ash’s lower limbs. With unapologetic glee, Anne ceased her spinning and hugged the ash as if it were an old friend, sighing as she rested her cheek against the rough bark.
“Are you a dryad, Anne Shirley?” Gilbert asked, amused at the redhead’s display.
“I think I must be,” she answered, giving the ash tree another firm squeeze before making her way back to Gilbert. “I’m sure I would starve if I couldn’t be near nature, and especially trees. I’m so grateful that these grand cities have such lovely parks where flowers and grass can grow. It must be a comfort to those who live here, don’t you think? I know I would start to feel as grey as the stone and concrete all around me if there wasn’t some little patch of earth where I could see the green cloak of Mother Nature. Wouldn’t you, Gilbert?
“I suppose it would be dreary to not see any vegetation at all, even in a city as amazing as New York,” he conceded, imagining how Anne’s face might light up as spectacular as a star if he were able to show her Avonlea in summer.
If he closed his eyes, Gilbert could picture Anne there, dashing down the white blossom laden lane that led to the Cuthberts’ farm, or skipping stones across the Barrys’ pond, or laughing as she climbed the trees of his orchard. Anne was made for the beauty of Prince Edward Island, and thinking of her hugging trees there was the first time in many months that Gilbert recalled his village with fondness, his heart barely registering the resentment that had poisoned his feelings for Avonlea in the wake of his departure.
“Did you know we’re sailing for Ireland at the end of next month?” Anne asked, walking alongside Gilbert, the pair ambling down a shovelled path marked with arrowed posts directing them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“No,” Gilbert replied, heart hammering with excitement at the prospect at sailing across the Atlantic. “How did you find out?”
“My supervisor, Ms. Brule, told me. She and the Captain are…close friends. He tells her things sometimes that he might only tell the officers before the rest of us find out,” Anne supplied, the subtle flush of her cheeks suggesting she was perfectly aware of the intricacies the sort of close friendship between a man and woman may entail. Gilbert was impressed that Anne was able to remain composed when discussing something so delicate, and he expressed that admiration by not lingering on the subject of the Captain’s affair, instead focusing on the crux of the subject at hand.
“I didn’t think the Primrose ever took commissions across the Atlantic,” he said. When he’d signed up, he’d known the Primrose was primarily an east coast steamer, with occasional itineraries down past Florida and into the Caribbean Sea, but he never imagined he’d have the opportunity to travel to Europe. “That’s incredible.”
“I know!” Anne squealed, gripping his hand in hers for a jubilant squeeze before letting go. “Of course, Ms. Brule only told me so she could tease me terribly, saying I was likely returning to the land of my ancestors – and she only assumes I’m of Irish decent due to my horrid, hideous red hair – and I fairly had to bite my tongue in two to refrain from expressing my total rapture at the promise of setting foot in Ireland because I refused to give her the satisfaction of knowing that I truly have always wanted to see the land of the fairies –”
“Because you’re one of them,” Gilbert teased, chuckling when Anne cut off her vibrant outburst to scrunch her nose at him for interrupting her.
“Actually, I think Princess Cordelia has some fairy blood in her, passed down from an ancient Celtic ancestor.”
“I thought Princess Cordelia was a descendant of King Arthur,” Gilbert quipped, playing into Anne’s fantasy of a dark-haired royal beauty who went on adventures both grand and humble in her quest to become a noble ruler.
Anne had first introduced Gilbert to Princess Cordelia when he’d joined her one evening in the mess hall where she’d planted herself to complete her day’s mending. In order to entertain herself, Anne had taken to making up tales about the adventurous monarch and tended to mutter the stories under her breath. When Gilbert had asked her to share her stories with him, it was as if he’d presented her with a dress made of silk and lace, for she’d been both amazed at his genuine eagerness to hear her make-believe, and delighted to have an audience to react to her tales.
It wasn’t so much that Gilbert was especially fond of the many misadventures of Princess Cordelia, he just enjoyed listening to Anne talk. Whether she was spinning stories, or waxing poetical, or just speaking her thoughts aloud, he was content to be the one she shared her words with, her voice soothing to his mind, heart, and spirit.
“I wonder if I climbed that basswood if I’d seem as grand as Lady Liberty,” Anne mused aloud, chin pointing in the direction of a gargantuan tree so covered in snow it was as if the leaves had turned white rather than fallen from the sturdy limbs.
“What is it about you and trees, Anne-girl?” Gilbert asked, the nickname springing from his lips so easily it was as if he’d been calling Anne by the sweet moniker for years. He noticed Anne’s mouth pinch with a repressed grin, her freckles winking at him as if in pure delight over the sobriquet, and Gilbert knew he’d be calling the titian lass ‘Anne-girl’ all the time.
“I’m safe when I’m with them,” she answered brightly with a carefree shrug. Gilbert smiled, accepting the answer for the simple truth that it was.
The pair continued on their way to the museum, pointing out interesting sights along their path, bumping shoulders playfully, and eventually, as the crowd began to thicken the closer they got to their destination, Anne looped her arm in Gilbert’s, holding her body close to his so as not to get ripped away in the throng of people. It felt good to feel Anne nestled next to him, and he very nearly draped his arm over her shoulders, but that gesture was far too familiar and he was sure Anne would beat him with the nearest object if he dared tried something so bold.
Walking up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum was much like seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. The building was so much larger than he could have imagined that it was as if Gilbert was getting rapidly smaller the closer he approached, his breath constricting because his lungs couldn’t keep up with the new reality of his diminutive size. Anne seemed to feel the same way, for she gasped when they neared the entrance, her head pointing straight up as her eyes sought to take in every titanic detail, from the white pillars, to the ornate relief sculptures, to the spanning arches and perfectly symmetrical bowed windows.
They started their day at the museum in the wing that housed the ancient artifacts from Greece and Rome. Anne lamented poetically on the romance of broken things as she admired each marble statue, preferring the ones missing an arm or two and suggesting it offered more scope for the imagination if one had to try and envision the statue as a whole. Gilbert was quite taken with the collection of pottery, his hazel eyes roving over chipped painted pictures that told the myths of heroes of old. Both Gilbert and Anne were fascinated by the little exhibit that displayed pieces unearthed from the volcanic graveyard of Pompeii, and the pair would have likely lingered longer if not for the jewellery collection that featured bronze broches shaped to look like engorged phalluses. With red faces, awkward giggles, and blustering excuses, the two decided to leave the land of gods and monsters and made haste for the second floor.
They spent an unknowable number of hours admiring portraits and paintings from the great masters, consulting the guide that Gilbert had purchased from the main desk when they’d first arrived to learn more about the art that truly moved them. It wasn’t all seriousness and critique, however. Anne and Gilbert spent as much time laughing as they did discussing, the outlandish proportions in a few of the portraits of the blessed Mother and Child tickling their merriment. Their undignified snorts earned them acerbic glares from several other patrons, and Gilbert nearly burst with mirth when he overheard an older gentlemen grumble about the abhorrent behaviour of today’s youth.
Gilbert made sure that Anne saw the Hall of Armor, keeping himself reclined against a pillar as he watched Anne skip in between the exhibits of knights, eyes reflecting in the shimmering metals. No doubt, Anne was feeling the muse for her Princess Cornelia stories, and Gilbert found he was rather excited to learn what adventures Anne would craft for her favourite heroine now that she’d be able to draw upon inspiration facilitated by the ornate, heavy suits of armor.
Finally, the duo made their way to the travelling exhibit hall where the special presentation on new and exciting electrical inventions was set up. Along with an audience of nearly one hundred, Anne and Gilbert watched in jaw-opening awed amazement as the two fellows presenting the exhibit showed off all manner of technological wonders.
They watched as a contraption of wire and tubes transmitted a coded message sent from a warehouse in the Bronx. They were entranced by a bulky device that looked like a desk, but was furbished with dials and levers, that summarized complex mathematical data at a rapid pace. Anne gripped Gilbert’s arm in astonished joy when the room was suddenly illuminated with hundreds of glass light bulbs strung from the ceiling and mounted on shelves that lined the walls of the vast room.
But by far, the most exciting invention both young people witnessed that afternoon was a wonderous contraption called the telephone.
“We’ll need two volunteers,” the chubbier of the presenters announced while his partner pushed a tea trolley out onto the floor. On the cart was a device Gilbert had only ever seen pictures of in catalogues. The machine was shaped like a box, tall and thin, with a hand-sized crank on one side. Atop the box was a shiny silver cradle wherein rested an odd-looking handle that had one end curved in the shape of a horn. “Now, who among you ladies and gentlemen have ever seen a telephone?”
Only half a dozen hands went up, but there was a great deal of mumbling amongst the crowd as the onlookers appraised the machine.
“Have you ever?” Anne whispered to Gilbert, her breath tickling the curls that were growing long over his ears.
“Not in person,” he confessed. “Shall we throw our hats in the ring?”
Anne’s sparkling grey eyes were all the consent Gilbert needed before he hoisted his hand in the air and volunteered the pair of them for the demonstration. They were plucked up by the chubby man and, after a lengthy and sometimes hard to follow explanation of how a telephone worked, Anne remained before the crowd while Gilbert was ushered into a small office away from the exhibit hall with the slimmer of the presenters.
“Just pick it up and say something nice to your sweetheart,” the man instructed, pointing to an identical telephone that sat on a small table and giving Gilbert no time to protest the endearment before sitting himself in front of something he’d called a switchboard. Placing a strange headpiece over his ears, the man plugged and unplugged a variety of wires and, after reading some sort of message only he could decipher in the dials and lights, gave Gilbert a thumbs up to pick up the receiver.
It was a lot like holding a shell to one’s ear, only instead of the echoey knell of the sea, it was a buzzing static that he heard.
“Hello?” Gilbert said tentatively. “Anne? Are you there?”
Gilbert smiled at the delighted exclamation.
“Gilbert! I can hear you! At least, I think it must be you. Is it really?”
Her voice crackled some and did sound a little distant, but there was no doubt that the person on the other end of the line was Anne Shirley.
“Of course it’s me, you ninny,” he teased.
“How can I be sure? Tell me something only the Gilbert Blythe I know would know.”
“The night we met I called you carrots, pulled your hair, and you slapped me upside the head with a serving tray.” Gilbert watched as the man at the switchboard laughed silently, his shoulders rolling with mirth as he gave the fifteen-year old an amused shake of his head. For a long stretch of seconds, there was no sound that came over the receiver and Gilbert’s brow crinkled in confusion. “Anne? Are you there?”
“You must be my Gilbert,” she sighed at last, and Gilbert was too relieved to hear her voice that he never noticed the pretty possessive determiner she’d placed on his name. “Only he would so imprudent as to bring up that memory among the many more agreeable ones we’ve shared.”
“That’s an agreeable memory! It’s the first time we met,” Gilbert argued.
“You insulted me and you were dr—not in your better spirits,” Anne said smoothly, and Gilbert barked out a cackle at both Anne’s stilted recovery and her clever vocabulary.
“I have said I was sorry, and I’m sure you said you weren’t going to hold a grudge.”
“I made no such pledge,” Anne sniffed before her tone changed from indignant to delighted. “Oh Gilbert, I’m really speaking to you as if you were beside me. This machine is a marvel!”
“Well, we at least agree on that much, Anne-girl.”
Their conversation ended shortly after, and when Gilbert was escorted back to the main hall, he and Anne received a round of applause from the rest of the crowd before they returned to their spots amongst the onlookers, staying until the presentation was concluded. It was nearly another hour before the exhibition finished, and once they were released from the hall the two friends decided it was time they returned to the harbour.
“That was truly incredible!” Anne exclaimed, hopping down the museum’s steps.
“Absolutely remarkable!” Gilbert agreed, joining Anne as they started up Fifth Avenue, beginning their journey back to the Primrose. “I can’t believe how amazing science is, and how much progress we’ve made. Imagine, utilizing energy –”
“Electricity,” Gilbert agreed, “to not only send coded messages across the ocean, and to bring light virtually anywhere in the world, but to actually channel sound through wires so that you can hear a friend clear across the country as close as if they were right next to you!”
“The future truly will be a grand age,” Anne sighed.
“An age of illuminating possibilities,” Gilbert added.
“Why Gilbert, how very poetic of you to say!” Anne cheered, teasing the boy who just smiled and shook his head.
“The big cities are already reaping the benefits of this new science,” Gilbert breathed, looking up first at the towering hotels of Fifth Avenue on his left before appraising the forest finery of Central Park on his right. “It will be a wonder when such advancements make their way to the smaller communities. I can hardly imagine a telephone in Avonlea.”
Anne stopped in her tracks, and it took Gilbert several long strides before he realized she wasn’t beside him.
“Anne?” he asked, turning around and finding his friend staring at him with a wide-eyed, rather frightened, stare.
“Y-y-yo-you said Avonlea, why did you say that?” she asked all in one stuttering breath.
“It’s my ho…where I’m from,” he answered, confused. “Do you know it?”
Anne didn’t answer. Instead, she stared at Gilbert, grey eyes wide and glassy and not really seeing him at all. It was as if Anne was somewhere else, somewhere unpleasant, and Gilbert started to panic.
“Anne?” he said, first gently before he said her name again, harsher and louder. “Answer me, please. Are you alright?”
She started when he placed his hands on her shoulders, flinching out of his touch and taking a step back, a flash of fear streaking across her face. Before Gilbert could assure Anne he wouldn’t hurt her, the grimace transformed into pale dismay, and Anne now looked at Gilbert as if he were a stranger.
“You’re from Avonlea?” she questioned, eyes going rounder, if possible.
“Yes. I was born there. Grew up there, too,” he offered, perplexed and worried at his friend’s behaviour.
“Then you must…Do you know…I mean ar-are they…it’s just, I wondered if –no! No, never mind. Forget it. Forget I said anything. I’m being foolish, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Let’s just go back to the Primrose. I want to go.”
She sidestepped him, arms now crossed over her middle and her paces short but swift. It was as if a cloak of frost had come to cover Anne’s back, her soul impenetrable to Gilbert’s worry over the rapid change in her demeanour. He had to run to catch up to her, struggling to keep pace with the lithe little thing as she traversed across sidewalk and street, ignoring Gilbert’s suggestions that they take a trolley or a hansom back to the ship. She also refused to answer any questions he had with respect to her behaviour, health, or feelings. Resigned, Gilbert tucked his hands in his pockets and kept pace with the redhead, marching in stony silence all the way back to the Primrose.
Back on the ship, Anne walked in front of Gilbert, navigating the passageways with brilliant ease as she led them to the entrance of the mess hall.
“I’m not hungry,” she said gloomily just outside the doors. “Go on without me, Gilbert. I’m going to bed.”
“Anne wait!” the fifteen-year exclaimed, reaching for her, managing to wrap his fingers loosely about her slim wrist and ceasing her escape. “Please, tell me what’s wrong.”
“No,” she said firmly.
“But Anne –”
“I don’t have to tell you and I don’t want to!” Anne screeched, wrenching her wrist out of his hold, her ferocious outcry earning the pair several side-eyed stares. “Leave me alone.”
And just like the night in Charlottetown after she’d whacked him upside the head, Anne dashed away from Gilbert as if she was escaping some vile brute. Though he wanted desperately to go after her, Gilbert remained planted where he was in the hall, watching sullenly until he could no longer see Anne’s red braids.
He was at a loss as to how such a wonderful day had ended so deplorably, and all because he’d mentioned Avonlea. It was strange that Anne seemed to know the village, and even stranger that she seemed to echo his own complicated feelings for the little farm town. Gilbert wondered how Anne had come to know of Avonlea and what her history was with the community
Most of all, he wondered how he could make Anne trust him.
I love New York.
Seeing it through Anne and Gilbert's eyes, I hope you love it, too!
Oh Shirbert, it's always one step forward, five steps back with you two. But never fear, Anne and Gilbert will always find their way back to one another, even when they don't realize that what they feel for the best friend is something so much stronger than kinship and camaraderie.
A little info on my timeline for this fic: Chapters 1 and 2 take place in December, and the following chapters are all approximately one month later. The idea is for this voyage of discovery is to take our young, budding lovers on a one year journey before returning them to the beginning of their journey. I know that I like having a sense of time in the stories I read, so I thought it only polite to give you this helping hand.
Of course, I very much would like to know your thoughts about this chapter, so don't be shy about commenting, kudos-ing, bookmarking, and subscribing.
Thank you all!
Chapter 5: The Atlantic Ocean
How will Gilbert and Anne weather their first storm?
What has succeeded? yourself? your nation? Nature?
Now understand me well—it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success,
no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.
“Blythe, it’s done! Get out of there!”
“I’ve almost got it!” he shouted to his fellow stoker, a stocky, hay haired lad named Joe.
“The worst is past,” Joe insisted from his perch at the top of the stairs that led into one of the cargo bays. “The breech is contained.”
“We still have to get the water back in the ocean!” Gilbert roared, arms working furiously at the pump, lowering the water level one miserably slow inch at a time.
On route to Ireland, the Primrose had sailed into a tumultuous storm just after dinner.
Gilbert had been at his post at the time, having almost completed another monotonous drudge of shovelling coal into a great, fiery furnace when the ship quaked so violently he was knocked off his feet, striking hard against the iron floor. It had been a wave that had struck the ship with such force, and just as Gilbert had found his footing, another swell had slapped the steamer, sending the young man and many others flying in the air.
The foreman had ordered the closure and shut down of all boilers immediately and then demanded his crew seek out officers and see if they were needed elsewhere on the ship as the storm bombarded them without mercy. Gilbert had found himself under the supervision of the first officer, Lieutenant Bruce, and the man wasted no time in commanding his team into the bowels of the ship in search of possible breeches.
When they’d entered the cargo bay there was already a foot of water flooding the chamber.
One of the larger and heavier crates containing pig iron had shifted during the wave impact and struck the hull at just the right angle and with just the right amount of force to loosen several dozen rivets. The weakened plates gave way to the pressures of the storming ocean, and so the Primrose was taking on water. Lieutenant Bruce immediately barked orders for his team to manage the task of repairing the fissure and saving the ship. Gilbert had been assigned to the pumps, and for nearly seven hours, he hadn’t left his post.
It had been frightening in the cargo bay. No matter how frantically he pushed at the pump, the water continued to rise. The highest it reached was his waist, and as the dark water lapped around his hips, Gilbert wondered if they really would lose the Primrose. Though the shade of his father’s death had been a constant scarf draped across his shoulders, Gilbert had never given thought to his own mortality. The reality that, whenever the Almighty saw fit, He could snatch Gilbert up just as assuredly as He’d taken John Blythe, was as dazzling as it was horrifying.
Gilbert wasn’t sure he wanted to meet his maker. He wanted to be reunited with his father and mother more than anything, but if being returned to their loving embrace meant having to die in the freezing waters of the Atlantic ocean, thousands of miles away from the only home he’d ever known, and gasping for air as his lungs raged against the cold, Gilbert wasn’t so certain he was ready to step onto that final open road just yet.
So, he worked furiously at the pump, the only lad who didn’t take a break from the work as the night dragged on and the storm continued to rock the ship at a sickening pitch. When Lieutenant Bruce announced that the fissure had been repaired, it was all Gilbert could do to continue pumping the water out of ship when all he wanted was collapse in relief.
For another hour Gilbert worked the pump, his back burning and shoulders crying in agony at the rigorous strain he forced them to complete. Other lads tried to convince him to leave, but Gilbert refused all of them. Only when Lieutenant Bruce ordered him to go did Gilbert finally exit the cargo bay. His clothes were waterlogged, and it was difficult for the fifteen-year old to find his footing as he walked up the stairs, his body weighed down and his knees weak. At least the Primrose wasn’t swaying so violently anymore, the storm having passed and the waters ahead as calm as a pond. Every muscle in his body ached and screamed for rest, but Gilbert had one stop to make before throwing himself into his hammock.
He needed to see how Anne was.
It took Gilbert far longer than he would have liked to make his way to Anne’s cabin, the weight of the water in his clothes and the immeasurable fatigue that his body was feeling making each step feel as if he was pulling an elephant strapped to his shoulders. He did make it to Anne’s cabin eventually, knocking politely on the doorframe and trying to clean his face of sweat and saltwater with the back of his hand before the door opened and a lovely looking brunette stepped out into the hall.
“Good evening, Daisy,” Gilbert said, clearing his throat as he smiled and nodded at the pretty girl.
“Good morning, Gilbert,” she answered back coyly, pinning her maid’s bonnet to her curls, her joshing tone making Gilbert blush and go hot under the collar.
Daisy Sinclair was a curvaceous young woman two years older than Gilbert and the unofficial minder of the girls Anne shared a cabin with. She had thick chestnut curls that were always pinned in place to properly frame her cherubic face, her skin clear and creamy save for a titillating beauty mark just above the right corner of her mouth. Her lips were the colour of ripe apples and her eyes were as green as pine needles. To say he was immune to Daisy’s beauty would be a lie, for Gilbert had certainly caught himself staring at the pretty miss more than once, and he believed there may have been an occasion or two when she’d flirted with him, but now was not the time ruminate on the classical beauty and the possibility she might fancy him; Gilbert’s visit was strictly for Anne.
“It’s a surprise to see you before my shift,” Daisy continued. “What can I do for you?”
“I just came to check on Anne,” he said. “That storm was pretty dreadful –”
“And it looks like you were in the thick of it,” Daisy remarked with a teasing twinkle in her green eyes as she appraised his soaked trousers.
“Sorry,” the young man said bashfully, noting the little puddle he’d managed to drip just outside the door. “I only wanted to make sure Anne was alright.”
“I wouldn’t say so,” Daisy declared with an uncaring sigh. “She kept us girls up half the night fretting. We finally kicked her out about two hours ago. Told her to cool her head before coming back. Haven’t seen her since.”
“You just left her alone?” Gilbert asked, brow furrowed with worry and voice laced with warning.
“Honestly, Gilbert, that girl can be a handful.”
“She was probably scared.”
“Well she needed to get over it,” Daisy snipped. “Storms are something you ride out, and she needs to learn that if she’s going to finish out her contract.”
Gilbert felt as if he’d just been slapped across the face. All the months he’d known Daisy, the girl had been sweet, even flirtatious on occasion. He never would have suspected that the brunette could act so unfeeling towards someone under her care, especially someone as vulnerable as Anne.
“Do you know where she might have gone?” he asked.
“No,” Daisy answered, shrugging her shoulders. “But it’s not as if she can go far. We’re in the middle of the ocean.”
Gilbert wondered if Daisy believed her statement was meant to comfort him. It did anything but.
“See you,” he said, barely nodding in the young woman’s direction before turning away, his boots squelching with each quick step he took down the hall.
He needed to find Anne; he wouldn’t be able to rest until he knew she was alright. Through sheer force of will, Gilbert commanded his body to cooperate as he started his search. First, he did a thorough inspection of the third-class corridors, then he checked the mess hall and stairways, finally, Gilbert hoisted himself onto the lower deck, hoping to find some trace of his redheaded friend.
It was dark, the stars and moon still shining in the midnight blue sky, but on the horizon, a thin white line was starting to breach in the distance. Dawn was coming. Anne would have to be at her post soon, and there’d be no end of trouble if she missed her shift. All he needed was to find her, see her, just say a few words to her, then he’d know she was alright and he could finally rest.
Gilbert spent ten minutes hunting along the lower deck, trying to think of where Anne would go, what she might do, where her imagination would take her to help her brave the violent storm.
And then he remembered.
‘What is it with you and trees, Anne-girl?’
‘I’m safe when I’m with them.’
Anne would be wherever there was greenery, and on the Primrose, there was only one place she could go.
Taking the stairs to the weather deck two at a time, Gilbert nearly trotted to the Ivy Café, bypassing other crew who were hard at work taking inventory of the ship’s damage and rushing to put all back to order as much as possible before the passengers would demand their attention with the dawn of a new day. Approaching the Ivy Café, Gilbert was surprised to see the door was open, the bronze plated lock hacked with scratches around the keyhole as if someone had frantically picked at the latch. Stepping inside the little bistro, Gilbert didn’t have to search long before he spotted his quarry.
Anne was curled in on herself, her back pressed against the ivy tangled trellis wall as if she hoped the vines would enfold her in a tight embrace and make her one with their leafy elegance. Cautiously, Gilbert approached her, mindful of the chairs strewn about the room and broken china dotting the marble floor. He wasn’t sure if Anne knew he was there, so when he finally made it to her side, he lowered himself gently to the floor, grimacing as his body protested the slow descent. Leaning into the ivy, Gilbert waited. He almost dozed off when Anne finally spoke.
“You’re all wet,” she said, voice croaky with the tears she’d probably been crying for hours.
“I was working the pumps,” he answered, clicking the toes of his boots together, drops of seawater raining from the leather.
“Are we sinking?” the redhead wondered, afraid and trembling.
“No,” Gilbert said.
“Would you lie to me if we were?”
“I won’t lie to you, Anne,” Gilbert said sternly, hoping the hard tenor of his voice would make her believe him. “Not ever.”
“So…we’re not sinking.”
“No. And if we were, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. I’d hoist you over my shoulder and carry you to the nearest lifeboat.”
The oath made Anne chuckle, but the sound was mirthless, a hollow echo of the girl’s usual jovial laugh. Gilbert hated seeing Anne so listless and afraid. She was normally as fiery as her hair, as vibrant as a yellow flame, as bold and daring as the sun. But she was capable of being as morose as a moonless night, her emotions able to fall into dark shadows as easily as they may bathe in rays of sunshine. Anne was caught under one of those creeping shadows now, Gilbert could see that plainly, and like that day in New York, he didn’t know how to help her.
All he could do was hold out his hand, offering to pull her out of the eclipse, and wait for Anne to accept him.
“I was thinking,” he started, trying to keep his tone even, eyes trained ahead at the mess of the café rather than on the quivering girl at his side, “a ship saved from the very brink of sinking could make for a gallant and harrowing Princess Cordelia adventure.”
“It would be made all the more trepidatious since Princess Cordelia doesn’t know how to swim,” Anne suggested, though it came out like a confession.
“Well, that just makes Princess Cordelia brave, doesn’t it?” Gilbert asked. “Putting herself in a dangerous situation despite her fears.”
“Some people would say it’s foolhardy. They might call her stupid, and troublesome, and worthless.”
“They might,” Gilbert agreed somberly, thinking of Daisy’s indifference to Anne’s anxieties, believing that Anne had probably been called such cruel words more than once, and likely before she’d ever set foot on the Primrose. “But would the thoughts of others really keep Princess Cordelia from doing what she needed to become a fair a just ruler?”
There was a silence that stretched between them after Gilbert spoke, but the young man knew it was only because Anne was really considering his words. He was rather eager to hear what her response would be.
“She wouldn’t let the simpleminded ignorance of anyone keep her from doing what was best for her kingdom,” Anne declared at last, some of her energized gumption returning with her words. “…and for herself. She might…well, I suppose she might even go so far as to lie about her age in order to secure passage on a ship bound for shores unknown, eager to see the world and all the possibilities it held for her.”
“That sounds like a fine ambition,” Gilbert agreed, turning to Anne at last, relieved to see she had raised her head from her knees and was now looking out at the damaged café. He knew she was telling him secrets about herself the only way she knew how and he needed to return that trust. “And if it made Princess Cordelia feel even a little less guilty, I’m sure there would be many others on the ship who had resorted to fibbing about their age to gain passage.”
Anne turned to smile at Gilbert then, catching on to his own hidden confession. In fact, recalling how he’d convinced the Primrose’s hiring officer that he was eighteen did give the young man a surge of delighted pride, for he’d been rather impressed with himself and how mature he must have seemed to so successfully trick the man. Looking over at Anne, her face so tiny and body so slim, the very essence of childhood as much a part of her as her braids and freckles, Gilbert found himself especially impressed, for Anne must be an excellent actor if she’d been able to persuade any adult with a drop of common sense that she was older than a girl barely begun to blossom.
“What adventures do you think Princess Cordelia would have on the high seas?” he asked, wanting to hear Anne talk, hoping for more hidden meanings and honest confessions. Mostly, though, he needed the terrified shadows in her grey-green eyes to vanish.
Licking her lips, Anne started weaving one scenario after another, creating a tapestry of adventure and intrigue, romance and tragedy, suspense and happy endings.
“She’d need a friend, of course,” Anne said. “Sadly, her loyal Gertrude would be landlocked back in the kingdom, and though they might write one another, letters would do little to suppress the loneliness Cordelia would feel pressing down on her like a grindstone on grain. I imagine she’d have to make a new friend on the ship.”
“Someone loyal and trustworthy,” Gilbert supplied.
“And kind,” Anne added, “at least, when he wasn’t teasing.”
“He?” Gilbert asked, quirking one dark eyebrow up, teasing her the way he knew she liked, playful and without contempt. “And what might his name be?”
“I should think…Rochester,” Anne decided. “And a finer sailor Princess Cordelia could never hope to find. He’d teach her all about life on a ship, how to navigate the sea –”
“I don’t know how to navigate the sea,” Gilbert interrupted.
“And who said Rochester was based on you?” Anne quipped back, nose up in the air.
“Oh, forgive me,” Gilbert said, smiling in such a way it brought out his dimples. “I just assumed you would draw inspiration from real life.”
“Do you think yourself a fine seaman?” Anne asked, mirroring Gilbert’s smile.
“Well, I did help save the ship from ruin just now,” he offered, and the reminder of their near sinking sobered the conversation immediately, forcing the two adolescents back to reality.
“I should go. I probably have to get to work soon,” Anne said quietly.
“Yes,” Gilbert agreed, struggling to stand up, his knees having gone stiff and his back positively on fire from the strain of the last several hours.
“You should get out of those wet things,” Anne commented. “And get some rest.”
Both ideas sounded genius to Gilbert, and he had every intention of carrying them out as soon as he saw Anne back to her cabin.
“Say Anne,” he drawled when they crossed the café’s threshold onto the weather deck. Anne stopped to look at Gilbert who was looking at the Ivy Café’s scratched keyhole. “I’m just curious, but does Princess Cordelia know anything about lock picking?”
Anne’s cheeks flushed pink and her lips pressed in a thin grimace. But her eyes, grey and crystal in the overcast dawn, sparkled with impish guilt.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Gilbert Blythe,” she scolded. “Why on earth would a princess have need for such a wicked skill?” And then she spun away from him so fast her braids whipped through the air, slapping against her shoulders with stinging force. Like always, Gilbert had to move quickly to keep up with Anne, following behind her for a few steps before finally catching up to the spirited girl.
“I’m sorry,” he said gravely as they walked downstairs and along corridors. “When we were in New York and I was insisting…you don’t owe me any explanations, Anne, for anything. But I’m your friend, and that means, if you did want to talk, I’ll listen.
“You, too,” she said softly as they descended to the third-class area. “I’ll listen to your troubles, too, Gilbert. If you’d want to share them with me.”
Her words stuck a cord with Gilbert, and he found it hard to swallow as he absorbed her promise and held it close to his heart. For a moment he thought he might confess everything to Anne, all of his confused thoughts and despairing emotions, his grief and anger and his stinging loneliness. He might confess everything, and then he might tell her that, since the moment she’d slapped him upside the head in Charlottetown, all of his woes and agony were slowly dissolving, almost changing him back into the boy he’d once been.
“When we get to Ireland, where to you want to go?” he asked, instead, veering away from subjects too close to the heart.
“I just want to find a glen where the fairies and pixies play,” Anne answered whimsically. “Maybe they’ll be having a spring ball and invite us to join them.”
“Promise to save me a place on your dance card?” he asked, meaning only to contribute to Anne’s flight of fancy. But for a split-second, Gilbert saw himself and Anne at a real dance (one of Avonlea’s church socials, or in the middle of one of the Primrose crew’s impromptu parties, or somewhere else, an elegant room glittering with diamond chandeliers and marble halls) where they were both dressed in their finest, and maybe Anne had her hair up and he was wearing a tie, and they were holding hands as they waltzed until the sun rose.
The vision was gone in a flash, but the impression it left on Gilbert had the young man’s cheeks warm all the way back to Anne’s room.
“Thank you, Gilbert,” Anne said, when they reached her door. “You’re a hero.”
“I didn’t –”
“This ship is still afloat when it could have ended up at the bottom of the ocean and all of us along with it,” Anne interrupted, chin and nose held high as she reprimanded his humility.
“I didn’t fix the breach,” he explained. “I only manned the pump, and I wasn’t the only one.”
“But you didn’t stop until you knew we were safe. Who’s to say that your efforts didn’t buy the men fixing the fissure some vital extra minutes? No, I’m afraid you’re a hero, Mr. Blythe.”
Gilbert felt his blush intensify under Anne’s praise. He didn’t know when (but he suspected it was from the very first moment of their meeting) the redhead’s good opinion of him started to matter so much, but he was glad to have it, and the racing heartbeat that came along with it.
“Would this hero be allowed to join you on your quest for a fairy glen?” he asked bashfully, one hand rising up to pat at his curls.
“Of course. It will be an adventure for the ages,” Anne declared.
And then, with her own pretty rosebud flush brightening her cheeks and spreading across her nose, Anne raised herself up on her tiptoes and hugged Gilbert. Careless of his wet clothes, Anne held Gilbert tight to her lithe frame, squeezing her arms around his neck, nose tucked under his jaw. Though it was painful to do so, Gilbert lifted his arms and hugged Anne back, allowing himself to feel the tender embrace of another person for the first time since his father’s final hours.
He hadn’t realized how starved he was for such tender contact. With his remaining strength, Gilbert pressed Anne closer, bending his head so that his nose brushed against her temple, inhaling the clean scent of soap that clung to her red hair. She was so small in his arms, and yet she fit perfectly against him, and the thought that he was always mean to have Anne enfolded in his embrace gave Gilbert a resounding sense of peace, the struggle and hardships of the long night dripping off him like the seawater that dripped from his trousers.
Gilbert wondered, not for the first time, if Anne could see into his soul, if she was able to see the battered and torn scrap of spirit left in him. He wondered if she could stitch him back together just as beautifully as she mended the Primrose’s linen.
He wondered, too, if her own soul was in need of mending as well, and if perhaps he might be able to help put it back together.
Now I know what you're all thinking: does Daisy have a thing for Gilbert? I think the real question you should be asking yourself is, who doesn't have a thing for Gilbert, am I right?!
I hope you all liked this chapter. I was going to wait to post but all that delicious new AWAE content just came out (SO. MUCH. SHIRBERT!!!!!!) simply inspired me to get through the edits at lightning speed.
As always, your comments, kudos, subscriptions and bookmarks keep me well fed; please continue to feed this voracious ginger dragon.
Chapter 6: Cork
Anne and Gilbert finally reach Ireland...sort of.
Allons! we must not stop here,
However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here,
However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here,
However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.
Gilbert was freezing from the inside out.
He was sure he was dying. He certainly felt like death, his body a lax lump of aching flesh that felt fiery to the touch and yet, to the young man in question, it was as if his inner organs were being held down in the icy Atlantic waters, frost surely lining his veins as his blood pumped the very essence of winter to all his extremities.
The Primrose’s physician said it was possibly pneumonia, likely brought on by Gilbert’s actions of a week ago when the ship had been damaged during the storm. The doctor’s suspicions were likely correct, since Gilbert had started feeling poorly not even a day after that long night. It had started as a cough, a hoarse bark that burned his lungs but was easily written off as a hazard of his job, tending the boilers and inhaling more than his fair share of heat and smoke. He’d started getting shivers the first night, but it was easy to attribute that to sleeping in the bowels of the ship, cocooned on all sides by cold, dark Atlantic waters. If he hadn’t fainted while in the middle of his shift, Gilbert may have gone days ignoring his illness, but when his foreman had hauled his limp body into the infirmary, there was no hope of denying the terrible truth.
Gilbert Blythe was very ill.
Dr. Carruthers wasn’t terribly kind to the sick lad, merely performing his duties to his Hippocratic oath by giving Gilbert medicine and refraining him from work once it was learned that Gilbert was running an incredibly high fever.
The fever explained the shivering, at least.
The young man’s body was wracked with the shakes, and his hair was constantly drenched in sweat, making sleep very uncomfortable, even more so than the fact the Primrose’s physician had stashed Gilbert on a hay-stuffed mattress in a dank cubby of the infirmary. Keeping him sequestered in the harsh little space was akin to unnecessary cruelty in Gilbert’s opinion. He wasn’t being locked away for fear he may be contagious, but rather because his sickly appearance might upset the delicate constitutions of the other patients, mostly passengers who bothered the doctor with mild ailments like dry skin and indigestion. Perhaps if he didn’t look like he was about to die at any moment, Gilbert might have been given one of the proper infirmary beds to convalesce.
Besides the poor accommodations, there was the fact that Gilbert’s pay would be docked for each day he was unable to work, and since Dr. Carruthers only checked in on Gilbert once a day, the odds of a quick and successful recovery were not in the fifteen-year old’s favour.
Still, if he could just get warm and dry, Gilbert was certain he’d make a turn for the better.
He was just so cold…
‘You’re having a terrible time of it, aren’t you son? ’
“Is this how you felt?” Gilbert asked, barely able to crack open his hazel eyes to find his father sitting at his bedside.
Gilbert wondered when he’d gotten back to his childhood bedroom in Avonlea. Everything was exactly as he’d left it, from the bookshelf bursting with texts and loose papers, to the pinstriped curtains Mrs. Kincannon had made when she’d first started attending to the Blythe homestead as nursemaid and housekeeper, to the little cameo frame on his bedside table that housed a picture of the mother he’d never known. He also wondered why his father looked so young, like he might have when Gilbert was barely out of swaddling clothes. The warmth of the sun was returned to his face and the hollow of his cheeks were filled out and dusted with stubble. There was the light of life back in his dark blue eyes and his hair, thick and lustrous, was curling around his head like a tawny halo.
‘Illness is different for everyone, Gil. I didn’t have fevers, remember? ’
“...yes. I think so,” Gilbert sighed, as if only just recalling that it was a respiratory disease that had killed his father, one that had crept up on him gradually over the years, debilitating John Blythe’s lungs little by little until a fever wasn’t necessary to finish the job because the damage had already been done . “Am I dying?” Gilbert thought to ask.
‘Everyone dies,’ his father answered.
“But am I? Is it my turn?” Gilbert stressed, fighting back the bitter tears, raging against the unfairness of being ripped from the world just as he was starting to enjoy it again.
‘It doesn’t do one well to question the Lord’s ways.’
“I can’t help it,” Gilbert confessed around a choked sob. “Why did God take you and mom away? Why wasn’t I allowed to know my mother? Why was I allowed to love you so much that when you died it would be an agony I carry with me forever? Why was I left alone? Why do I hurt so much?”
Shifting his focus, Gilbert saw Anne, and suddenly his Avonlea bedroom was transformed into the horrible Primrose cubby Dr. Carruthers had placed him in. It wasn’t so horrible with Anne present, and his father was still there, too, sitting opposite Anne, only now he was as he’d been in his last days alive, all hollow-cheeked and eyes creamy with illness.
“Dad, have you met Anne?” Gilbert asked, trying to raise a hand as he made the introduction, but finding his wrist felt as if a weight was anchoring it to his chest.
‘What wonderful red hair,’ John Blythe replied kindly, nodding in approval at his son’s choice in friend.
“Yes…” Gilbert agreed, smiling as he closed his eyes, humming when he felt a cold compress being laid gently against his fevered brow.
“You’ll be fine,” he heard Anne whisper, and her quiet promise lulled the fifteen-year old into deep sleep, one that brought him into dreams of his house in Avonlea, the homestead and orchard beyond as familiar as the back of his own hand, but vast and empty of the warmth they once held, leaving Gilbert lost in a lonely echo of memories that offered no sweet dreams, but rather despairing torment.
“Here, Gilbert. Try and drink this.”
Weak as a newborn kitten, Gilbert couldn’t resist as a dainty hand cradled his head, lifting him just inches off his threadbare pillow and holding a glass of cool water to his chapped lips. Gilbert slurped the liquid back, his parched throat burning with relief. Water had never tasted so sweet. When he finished the glass, his head was gently laid back down, and Gilbert forced his eyes to open so he could see who was tending to him so delicately.
He couldn’t help smiling when he saw it was Anne, the cute girl hovering over him like a titian angel.
“How did you get in my room? Did Mrs. Kincannon let you in?” he wondered, his own voice sounding strange in his head that felt plugged up with sludge.
“No,” Anne answered, grey eyes edged with concern. “The doctor –”
“Dr. Ward? I didn’t hear him arrive.”
“It was Dr. Carruthers Gilbert. Do you remember him?”
“Oh…I think I should, but it’s all a bit fuzzy. Dad’s seen so many doctors it’s hard to keep them straight. Is Dr. Carruthers with my dad now? I should go –”
“Dr. Carruthers is your doctor, Gil,” Anne said slowly, placing a steady hand on his chest when it seemed like Gilbert might try and get up. “You’re not…you’re not well.”
“Oh…” Gilbert sighed, and suddenly the rush of memories surrounding his illness returned to him in one sharp moment. “That’s right. I’m dying now.”
“You’re not!” Anne protested, tears escaping the corner of her eyes and leaving salty tracks down her freckled cheeks. “It’s just a fever, Gil. A very, very, very bad fever. But Dr. Carruthers says your temperature’s gone down three degrees today and if it keeps going down overnight then your recovery is assured. Please don’t give up.”
“Will you miss me when I’m gone?” Gilbert asked, foolishly glad at the thought that Anne might like him enough to mourn him once he died. Would she sing at his funeral, a haunting melody that would aid in carrying his soul to the great beyond? Or would she write him a eulogy, using her beautiful big words to preserve his memory, the memorial a novel-length speech of the life he should have lived, snatched up by the Grim Reaper far too soon? Hell, Anne Shirley was such a vivacious and dramatic little thing that she might very well throw herself into the sea after him once the crew disposed of his body. Gilbert wouldn’t put any of the possibilities past Anne. All he wanted to know was if she’d mourn him.
“Of course I will, you goose,” she promised as she urged him to take another drink.
“That’s good. There’s no one else, you know. All of them are gone, so you’d be all that’s left to miss me,” he muttered pitifully when he finished his second glorious glass of water.
“Preposterous,” the redhead argued gently, dabbing at the dribbles of water that leaked down his chin. “Surely the boys in the boiler room would miss you, and I imagine your foremen would grieve the loss of such a hard worker. Daisy would be sad you weren’t around for her to admire, as would most of the other girls on the ship – you do have so many female fans, Gilbert Blythe.”
“Not you,” he teased, managing to lift one side of his mouth in a quirky smirk.
“Nope, not me,” she agreed, playing into his teasing before gently caressing his fevered brow with a cool cloth. The touch was soft and kind and exactly what Gilbert needed. He moaned as Anne trailed the cloth down to his neck, the sensation one of the more pleasant ones he could remember receiving (and if he’d opened his eyes right then, he would have experienced a second trilling sensation because he would have witnessed Anne’s cheeks tint a lovely shade of pink at the deep, guttural sound that escaped his parted lips).
“You would miss me though, right?” he asked, eyes still closed, his body lax under Anne’s careful ministrations. He just wanted Anne to admit she liked him enough to be sad when he died.
“Of course, Gil,” she relented. “But you mustn’t concern yourself with my grief. All of Avonlea would go into a decade long mourning if you died. The White Way of Delight would turn black in despair, and the Lake of Shining Waters would freeze over for the loss of you. The church bell would refuse to chime, and all the crops would taste sour with sadness. Diana Barry would lead all the village girls in a caterwauling gruesome enough to frighten a banshee, and Mrs. Lynde would go silent with shock, and the Cuthberts…well…Dear, sweet Mathew wouldn’t say so, but he would miss you terribly, for I imagine that if you know him then you know he is a sensitive soul. As for Marilla…well, she means to be kind, I believe, and for someone as good as you, it’s possible her heart of stone might crack. Which would be just terrible, for she’d be overwhelmed with such tragic feeling that she’d spend the rest of her days trying to paste her broken heart back together, becoming colder and more recluse. So you see, Gil, you have to live. Avonlea will founder if you don’t.”
“I don’t care about Avonlea,” he said, and even to his own ears it sounded like a lie.
“That’s not true. Of course you care about your home,” Anne contracted, but there was no bite in her words, only soothing tenderness.
Feeling a wave of fatigue too strong to fight, Gilbert let the exhaustion overtake him, thinking the sensation of Anne’s thin fingers playing in his damp curls was really one of the most soothing touches he’d ever felt in his whole life.
He was back in his old bedroom.
It seemed Avonlea had called out to his soul and Gilbert had answered, returning to the place of his roots and encasing himself in the little corner of the world that had belonged to only him for all his life. He wanted to sit up in the bed, but his body felt so heavy. The room smelled strange, like damp and metal, rather than apple blossoms and sunshine, the perfume of his youth. It also seemed as if the room was swaying, his belongings sliding back and forth along the surfaces of bookshelves and chests and desks as if the whole house was attached to a giant swing.
He tried to get up so that he could look out the window and see if his house really had been plucked up from the orchard and cast out on the ocean, but he could barely lift his head, his neck straining under the effort. Dejected, Gilbert sunk into his pillow, flatter and coarser than he remembered.
Something was very wrong.
The room around him looked like his bedroom, but somehow it wasn’t. Desperate for an answer, Gilbert turned to his beside table where the cameo of his mother had sat all his life. The pretty portrait showed Jane Blythe as she had been shortly after her marriage, her round face creamy and clear, her dark hair twisted into thick curls that cascaded over her shoulder like a waterfall of ink, the ribbon that held the tresses back as white as a gull’s wing. She was in partial profile, as if the photographer caught her unawares at a task out of frame. Eyes that were thick lashed and as hazel as Gilbert’s (as his father had insisted they were) were glancing up at the camera, a smile circling in their rich bottomless depths.
And then she winked at him.
Gilbert started, nearly pushing himself out of his bed in surprise as he watched in silent panic as his mother’s photograph came to life, the little woman in the frame lifting her head and turning fully forward to face the sick, scared boy in the bed.
“Mom?” Gilbert asked, his voice weak.
The living woman in the photograph nodded, smiling prettily and bouncing with joy at being recognized.
“How’re you – and how am I – what’s hap— this isn’t real. It can’t be real,” Gilbert said, closing his eyes, trying to make sense of the world around him, seeking the truth of his curious reality. He knew if he couldn’t trust his mind, then surely he could trust his senses. His mind was telling him that he was in his bedroom in his house in Avonlea, but if that was so then why did the walls continue to bob back and forth? Why was the scent of the room wet and cold? Why were his mattress and pillow flat and stuffed with hay? Why were the sounds outside his window not the chirps of birds or the whinnying of horses, but rather the groaning pitch of metal in water and the garbled sound of a girl’s voice speaking unknowable words? “I’m…I’m not back in Avonlea, am I?”
He looked at his mother’s picture, the pretty woman shaking her head in confirmation.
“I’m on a ship…the Primrose?”
Jane Blythe’s visage nodded.
“And I’m very sick, aren’t I?”
Again, his mother nodded.
“You can’t talk to me?”
The living image’s expression transformed into something so sad Gilbert could feel the tears slipping from the corners of his eyes, crying in a way his photograph mother could not. Of course she had no voice. Gilbert had no memory of it. In fact, the only reason he even knew what she looked like was because of the cameo. Any thoughts Gilbert had of his mother were really just inherited memories handed down to him from his father. Jane Blythe had died in the same hour Gilbert had taken his first breath, and what was worse, it was Gilbert’s birth that had killed her.
“I’m sorry,” he cried, pleading with the photograph. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
“It’s okay, Gil. You’re going to be okay.”
The voice startled Gilbert, ringing out through his room like an echo. It was a girl’s voice, and he thought he should recognize it, but he couldn’t place a face. All he could think of was…
He huffed out a laugh that caused his lungs to burn, the chronic ache spreading across his chest slowly, like spilled ink. It felt as if he’d swallowed coal hot from the furnace and he was certain now – seeing his mother, hallucinating his old room, the stinging tingle that spread from his heart and weaved like roots throughout the rest of his body – that he was, indeed, dying.
“I guess it’s my turn now,” he lamented calmly, his tears continuing to fall down his cheeks.
‘You’ve got the right of it, son,’ John Blythe said. Gilbert looked to the foot of his bed to see his father standing there in his harvesting garb. He appeared as he had the way Gilbert hoped to remember him always, healthy and hearty, not too old or too young, not too fit or too sick. With a soft chuckle, John Blythe crossed his arms and appraised his sick child. ‘Your turn is here at last,” he said.
“I’ll get to be with you and mom again,” Gilbert stated, a little relieved that his trial was nearly done, but also inextricably sad to leave behind the wide wonderful world he’d just been starting to discover. And there was someone…a girl…her voice was still muffled in the walls of the room, or was she outside his window playing in the orchard? Gilbert was certain the reason for his sadness was that mysterious girl. He thought he would miss her terribly once he was dead, and there was a confusing flutter in his heart when he realized that he hoped she might care enough about him to miss him, too.
Gilbert looked at his father. John Blythe approached his side and sat on the bed, the mattress unmoving under the new weight that should have made it crunch and sag. His father smiled down at him, an odd combination of joy and sorrow contorting his expression as he lifted a hand and laid his large, cool palm to Gilbert’s brow.
‘Someday, my boy,’ he said, and a wash of warm relief, like plunging one’s body into a copper tub of clean water heated to the perfect temperature to chase away the chill and the aches, covered Gilbert from crown to heel. He languished in the pleasant waters, letting himself sink into the welcoming current so that he might be baptized into the next life, his entrance to the great beyond accompanied by the soothing tones of that girl’s voice…
“… I felt no fear of him, and but little shyness. Had he been a handsome, heroic- looking young gentleman, I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked. I had hardly ever seen a handsome youth; never in my life spoken to one. I had a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination; but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctivel—”
“What is that?”.
Anne dropped the well-worn pages she was reading and crawled from her place at the foot of Gilbert’s terrible hospital bed towards his head. She was barefoot and without stockings, and her braids were a loose mass, thick sections of red hair slipping from the plaits, making it seem as if Anne had made herself comfortable at Gilbert’s beside for days; his very own carrot sentry.
“Do you remember what happened?” she asked eagerly, hands fretting over his hair and face, her fingers moving to rest just under his jaw in a strange hold. It took Gilbert an embarrassingly long time to realize she was taking his pulse.
“Parts of it,” he said, using his shirt cuff to wipe away some of the sweat that had gathered along his brow. “I must look terrible.”
“No,” Anne replied, smiling wonderfully and looking at Gilbert as if he were something beautiful rather than the ragged mess he knew himself to be.
“I was really sick, wasn’t I?”
“Yes. It was the fever that nearly did you in. It just wouldn’t break, for days! But finally, earlier this morning, you took a turn. I blubbered all over Dr. Carruthers’ coat when he told me you’d live.”
“Sorry you’re alive?!” Anne exclaimed, and seemed ready to start an aggressive debate with him on the subject. So, with far more strength and speed than he’d be capable of at the peak of his illness, Gilbert took one of Anne’s dainty freckled hands in his and placed it over his heart. The action halted her diatribe before it could start, and as he spread his fingers over hers, laying his palm across her warm skin, he could feel the strong, steady beat of his heart against her palm.
“I’m sorry I scared you,” he clarified, his voice going deep, guttural, as if he were speaking from a well inside his soul.
“I wasn’t scared,” Anne argued, but there was no steam behind her words. It made Gilbert chuckle.
“Can we, please, not argue for once?” he requested, suddenly overcome with joy for the simple fact he would be able to go on arguing with Anne for days to come. The girl at his side huffed and rolled her eyes as if he were the most infuriating toddler under her care before dropping her head down on his chest, right beside their entangled hands.
“If you didn’t contradict me so much, we wouldn’t end up arguing as often,” Anne grumbled, making Gilbert laugh. Unable to help the surge of emotion coursing through his veins, Gilbert raised his other arm and looped it around Anne’s shoulders. He hugged her, knowing it was not appropriate that they were touching so familiarly, especially unsupervised in a dank supply closet with the door barely ajar and on top of a mattress, but he didn’t care.
He was alive!
Gilbert Blythe was alive, and he was thankful for it.
“I think I remember you taking care of me,” he whispered to Anne, still holding her close, comfortable with her in his arms and hoping she felt the same.
“Well, I’m no nurse, but I tried,” she whispered back.
“You gave me water, and a cold cloth for my head. You’ve been with me more than the doctor, haven’t you?”
“I’m sure it’s not because Dr. Carruthers was neglecting you purposefully,” Anne insisted, lifting her head, loosening Gilbert’s hold on her so that his arm thumped to his side. “He’s been very busy with other patients. You weren’t the only one who got sick the night of the storm, but you have been ill the longest.”
“Almost two weeks.”
“Two weeks!” Gilbert cried out, raising himself up and immediately regretting the action when he came over lightheaded. He caught himself on his elbows and Anne fussed to help keep him upright while he willed his head to stop spinning. “Where are we?” he managed to ask, eyes closed as he continued to battle the overwhelming dizziness.
“Berthed in the Port of Cork,” Anne answered.
“Cork?” Gilbert echoed, cracking open one eye so he could regard his friend. “Are you missing Ireland because of me?”
Anne just shrugged and smirked, as if she wasn’t devastated to be stuck on the ship with sad, sick Gilbert rather than out in the grey-green misty moors of the emerald isle.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it does! You’ve been waiting weeks for this itinerary. Have you even left this ship at all since I’ve been ill?”
“Really, Gilbert, I don’t mind –”
“And today is your off day, I see,” Gilbert continued, looking down at Anne’s plainclothes; if Anne had been on duty she’d be in her grey uniform. “You should be on shore exploring, looking for the vale of the fairies, singing songs with gnomes, and hunting leprechauns. Why waste your time cooped up with me?”
“Ireland seemed hardly worth it if I wasn’t going to see it with you,” Anne said, her voice choked with the tears ready to burst from her eyes.
Her sincerity, her too sweet to be real consideration, gave Gilbert pause.
He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten.
His father had been dead and gone for just five months, and already Gilbert had forgotten what it meant to have someone care about you.
He’d felt so isolated in Avonlea, so utterly alone in a world full of people that he had come to believe he was an island adrift in a vast blue ocean filled with nothing. But now, a castaway had washed up on his shores. A skinny, freckled girl with hair the colour of carrots had taken up residence on his island, kicking up the sands of his beaches, wandering in his jungle, exploring each crevice and cave. And rather than fearing what she might find lurking under rocks or in the dense brush, she cherished it.
And Gilbert cherished Anne, too. So much.
Gilbert wasn’t just alive. He was reborn.
“Should I go get the doctor? Or did you want me to read some more?” Anne wondered reaching for her sheaf of papers. Gilbert shook his head to both offers, but he did loosely grip some of Anne’s pinafore in his fist, indicating he wanted her to stay. She seemed to understand his unspoken message and moved to recline beside him on the squished, little bed, her head resting beside his on the pillow. “You were delirious almost the entire time,” she reported, eyes trained on the ceiling as she rolled her papers up into a scroll before unfurling them; a nervous habit. “You talked a lot.”
“To you?” Gilbert wondered.
“No,” she admitted, but the way she said that single word suggested she did know who he had talked to during his hallucinations, but she was allowing him the privacy of his fevered correspondence. For a moment, Gilbert considered not telling Anne anything, but then he thought of how worried she’d been, how diligent and caring, how much she would have sacrificed in order to be by his side as he convalesced and nearly died.
Anne Shirley was a good person.
More than that, she was Gilbert’s best friend, and a best friend deserved the truth.
“I think I was talking to my dad,” he admitted. “And my mom. They’re both dead.”
Anne nodded, silent but understanding.
“Well, I guess we can add ‘orphan’ to our growing list of things in common,” she suggested after a long beat of quiet, going for levity by missing the mark; it was impossible to make the word ‘orphan’ sound like anything other than what it was, sad and lonely. “Do you remember what you said to them? What they said to you?”
“Not really,” he admitted.
“That’s a shame,” Anne replied consolingly. It made Gilbert think of the many ‘I’m sorry for your loss’s’ and ‘our most sincere condolences’ he’d heard repeated to him over and over again at his father’s funeral. And thinking of that wretched day inevitably focused Gilbert’s mind on his forsaken village, all the people and the houses and nooks and crannies of nature that spread in-between each farm. He recalled it all…and he recalled something else.
“I do remember something,” he confessed, turning his head to look at her, waiting for her to do the same. “I remember you describing Avonlea,” he said carefully, watching for Anne’s reaction. “It was almost as if you’ve been there.”
“Almost,” she agreed, the word whispered in the air between them. It was the only confession she’d make to the young man, and Gilbert pressed his lips in a thin line, accepting her sole word. The pair stared at one another for minutes, days, years, until Anne couldn’t help herself from embracing Gilbert tightly, the tears she’d been bravely staving off finally falling free. “Oh Gil!” she exclaimed, pressing her face against his throat, “I was so worried for you! I thought I would lose my kindred spirit.”
“You’re my kindred spirit, Gilbert.”
“And what exactly is a kindred spirit?”
Anne raised her face up to regard the boy in her arms.
“Only the very best, the noblest, kindest, and most loyal of friends a wretched orphan girl could ask for,” she exclaimed passionately. Smiling, Gilbert raised a hand and brushed some wayward locks of red hair behind Anne’s ear.
“Don’t talk about my kindred spirit that way,” he teased. The words made Anne laugh, and hearing her pleased chuckles made Gilbert’s heart swell. Together, for they really couldn’t say who moved first, Anne and Gilbert leaned in until their brows were touching. The caress was simple , but monumentally intimate, perhaps even closer than lovers entwined on a bed of roses. It made Gilbert feel safe.
“I’m really glad you didn’t die,” Anne whispered, her breath sweet against his lips.
“Me too, Anne-girl,” he replied, nuzzling his brow along hers, the tips of their noses rubbing together in a tender caress. “Me too.”
So, this will be it for the quick updates for a few weeks. I am going on vacation and won't be able to write while I'm away. I really wanted to get this out to you guys since I'll be missing the Sept 22 premiere while I'm gone (but thank goodness for Tumblr, I'll at least stay in the loop) and because it has been the chapter I've enjoyed writing the most thus far.
For anyone who is curious, and because I must give credit where credit is due, Anne is reading from her beloved Jane Eyre. The passage Gilbert catches her reciting is the moment Jane and Rochester meet.
I really hope you like the direction the story is going and, if you were so inclined, you could tell me your thoughts directly by leaving a comment, kudos, bookmarking or subscribing to this story.
As always, I love you lots, and welcome at last Anne with an E Season Three!!!!!
Chapter 7: Portsmouth
In which Gilbert goes on a date and Anne encourages him
Toward the fluid and attaching character exudes the sweat of the love of young and old,
From it falls distill’d the charm that mocks beauty and attainments,
Toward it heaves the shuddering longing ache of contact
“Did you know that Portsmouth has a long and fascinating naval history? Actually, Virginia has just as enthralling a past as Massachusetts, so it really should be no surprise that this city would hold its fair share of intrigue, even if it might seem completely unlike Boston. From what I understand, it’s primarily a shipping town, and when I peeked out on deck there seemed to be an awful lot of mills and shipyards, but I could make out parts of a rather charming downtown and what I think was a waterfront park beyond the trainyard. Of course, it was difficult to tell through the coal smoke, but I’m sure I saw some greenery beyond.
“Oh! I would love to go and see the trees for myself. They’ll be budding so prettily now, and some will even be in the blush of full bloom! I’ve missed climbing them, and sitting under their shade, and smelling their fresh fragrant woodsy scent. May is such a wonderful month, don’t you think? It’s an absolute travesty that I’m being forced into an unjust confinement!
“Ms. Brule has placed me under a terribly unfair arrest. I didn’t mean to stray from my task, but when I was taking the laundry back up to second-class, I spotted the sunrise through a porthole and the colours shimmering along the river were too magnificent to trace with just a brief glance. They needed to be admired! Treasured! I was compelled by true beauty to stop and take in the natural poetry that was being gifted to me like a ring of pearls. And I don’t have a watch, so how was I to know that nearly an hour passed before I returned the linens to cabin twenty-two? I apologized most profusely and worked swiftly to correct my actions, and I thought the family were of a more forgiving nature, but it seems that I was a poor judge of character since they reported my tardiness rather than my efficient execution of my chores once I finally did arrive to their cabin.
“So, I’m forbidden from shore leave at this port.
“Of course, just because I can’t go doesn’t mean you should be deprived. Besides, you hardly set foot in Lisbon, though I’m sure the dry air did wonders for your health, but then you had to work all those extra shifts to make up for your illness, so you weren’t able to accompany me in Baltimore. Now I’ve gone and spoiled our chance to explore Portsmouth together! But just because I’m being punished doesn’t mean you should suffer as well. So, I see no reason why you shouldn’t accompany Daisy for the day.”
“I don’t want to,” Gilbert said, simple and to the point, which was rather comical in the face of Anne’s longwinded speech.
“But why not?” Anne demanded, slapping her hands on the table.
“I just don’t,” Gilbert answered, biting into his last piece of toast, the remains of his breakfast mere crumbs on the plate in front of him. He never imagined buttered toast would become a luxurious meal, but after having been on a diet of gruel for more weeks than he cared to remember in the wake of his illness, Gilbert was certain he’d never take bread for granted again. “If I can’t go with you, I’d rather go by myself. Or not at all.”
“But Daisy’s the prettiest girl on the ship!” Anne exclaimed, as if that simple statement should be all the encouragement Gilbert needed to agree to Anne’s suggestion.
“Maybe…” he countered hesitantly.
Anne wasn’t wrong about Daisy’s aesthetic traits. The girl really was a lovely thing, but Gilbert remembered how insensitive she’d been with regards to Anne’s anxieties during the storm on the crossing to Ireland back in March. That sort of thoughtlessness belied a coldness that Gilbert wasn’t so certain he could ignore. While an afternoon in Daisy’s company might prove pleasant, to what end could it possibly lead if his feelings for the girl were lukewarm at best?
Besides, he’d much rather spend the day with Anne, on shore or no.
She was just as pretty as Daisy, too.
“Do you really want me to take Daisy out into the city?” he asked.
“Yes. Very much,” Anne answered immediately.
Gilbert screwed his face into his most impressive ‘are-you-kidding-me’ expression, with crinkled dark brows and a mouth twisted in a crooked line.
“Fine!” Anne grumbled, crossing her arms. “Daisy said she’d speak with Ms. Brule on my behalf about reducing my punishment if I managed to convince you to take her out. And to be honest, I can’t believe I’m having to actually convince you. I thought you’d jump at the chance. Most boys would.”
“I’m not most boys,” he countered, smiling.
“Clearly,” Anne snorted, but she smiled, too. Then, with one of her famous dramatic sighs, Anne leaned across the table and placed her hands atop his. She squeezed her fingers around his, her long freckled digits contrasting as sharply as piano keys against Gilbert’s brown baked knuckles. “Please, Gil. Ms. Brule is a horrendous jailer. She has me cleaning the chamber pots in this horrible little cubby with no window.”
And wasn’t the image of Anne Shirley cooped up with rancid chamber pots in a windowless cell just the most pitiful thing in the world?
“Alright,” he relented, unable to help his chuckle as Anne clapped her hands and thanked him profusely as she rushed off to tell Daisy the good news.
Checking the time, Gilbert made his way to the latrine, figuring it was only good manners to make himself presentable for his afternoon with Daisy, even if he wasn’t particularly invested in the excursion. The young man washed his face, combed his curls into some semblance of order, scrubbed at his nails with furious fervor (nearly eliminating all the black coal dust that stained his fingertips) and even stole a few drops of cologne from one of the older lads.
By the time Gilbert was ready to meet up with Daisy, his apathetic attitude over the outing had changed slightly into something akin to eager.
After all, Daisy was the prettiest girl on the ship. Being seen with her would make the other lads more amenable, maybe even friendlier towards Gilbert. In the months since he’d become best friends with Anne, Gilbert had realized that he didn’t care to be lonely, that the lies he’d told himself about not wanting or needing friends when he’d first started on the Primrose were just that, big fat lies.
He’d always liked people, enjoyed the camaraderie and chaos of mingling with different personalities, joking and laughing with those who understood your struggles and strife, finding comfort and kinship with others who knew you as well as you knew them.
Gilbert had those joys with Anne, certainly, and he could even admit that he’d forged similar strong connections with neighbours and friends back in Avonlea. Remembering the times he’d climbed trees with Charlie, or goofed around in the rectory with Moody, chatted congenially with Mrs. Barry or Mrs. Lynde, and worked the fields alongside Mr. Cuthbert and Green Gables’ hired hand, Jerry Baynard, Gilbert could, at last, admit that Avonlea was his home for far more reasons than that he’d been born there.
Avonlea was the place where he had taken his first steps, planted apple trees, met his first friends, won spelling bees, caught fish, learned to swim, broke his wrist, was the top of his class. It was where Gilbert Blythe had become himself.
It was where his history lay, soaked in the earth of the Blythe orchard, and in the Barry’s pond, and the in the knell of the church bell, and in the fields and forests and pathways that connected every farm, every household. Avonlea was part of Gilbert Blythe and Gilbert Blythe was part of Avonlea. No matter where he went in the great wide world, that truth would remain constant.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to go back. He wasn’t even sure if the reason his heart had shifted its feelings for the village from hostile to fond was because he was truly homesick or if it was for another matter all together. What Gilbert did know was that he missed the rapport he used to have with the people from his home. And not just people from Avonlea, but people everywhere. Perhaps this outing with Daisy was a step in the right direction to finding the companionship Gilbert was just realizing he wanted.
Arriving on the lower deck, Gilbert spotted his shore leave company waiting near the gangplank, and quickly smoothed down his coat collar before approaching her.
Daisy looked lovely.
She was garbed in a long dress of navy cotton embroidered with white flowers. Her collar was trimmed in a black velvet that matched the ribbon tied tight around her waist, accentuating her mature feminine figure. Her hair was pinned away from her face, a few choice curls caressing her cheeks while the rest were set to fall in an artful chestnut cascade down her back. The boater she wore atop her head was made of a tan coloured felt and was embellished with another ribbon of black velvet, the tails caught in a blissful spring breeze
“Hello,” she said sweetly.
“Hello,” Gilbert greeted, remembering his manners and removing his hat as he nodded at Daisy. “Shall we?” He offered her his arm, and Daisy gladly took it, letting Gilbert lead her down the gangplank and onto the pier.
“So, where are you taking me?” Daisy wondered gaily.
“Oh! Well…I thought we might walk along the waterfront,” Gilbert suggested, thinking of the park Anne had mentioned. Checking up and down the tracks of the harbour train, Gilbert graciously ushered Daisy across.
“A walk?” Daisy echoed, sounding perplexed.
“Yes. Unless you’d rather –”
“A walk sounds fine. Perhaps we can also stop for some tea? Downtown?” Daisy asked daintily.
“Oh! Of course,” Gilbert agreed. “Would you like to go there first?”
“That sounds perfectly lovely, Gilbert.”
Arm in arm, the pair walked briskly through the harbour and trainyard, impeded only a little while Daisy made a fuss of ensuring her skirt would not get dirty as they traversed the rough terrain. It amused Gilbert as he watched Daisy leap over puddles and sidestep muddy patches, making him imagine an urban ballerina pirouetting over gravel and asphalt. He couldn’t help thinking of Anne, the redhead too enthralled and enthusiastic by new sights, sounds, and the possibility of adventure to be bothered with ensuring her dress was kept clean as she embarked into an unknown city. She’d be splashing in puddles and kicking up mud around her stockings, dirtying herself good and proper long before they’d ever reach a park or teahouse.
And the thought of Anne, cooped up in a closet with dirty chamber pots rather than out in the sunshine enjoying the world, reminded Gilbert of why he was with Daisy in the first place. He had to show the girl a good time if he had any hope of helping Anne. So, he kept pace with Daisy, doing his best to steer her clear of puddles, even helping her cross the train tracks, their hands clasped tight together as they stepped over rails and planks.
Once they were on the wooden sidewalk and making their way up North Street, Daisy clung cozily to Gilbert’s side. She smelled divine, like a field of wildflowers, the perfume clinging to her skin and hair. Relaxing into her, Gilbert guided them through the crowds, enjoying the feeling of being out on the town with a pretty girl who was interested in him. As they walked, Gilbert did his best to be a respectable gentleman. He remarked on the history of Portsmouth (at least, everything he could remember Anne telling him), and Daisy nodded politely as he spoke. She never added to the conversation but did point out pretty things she saw in shop windows or remarked on the architecture of the downtown buildings they passed at a leisurely pace.
When they reached a charming teahouse, Gilbert remembered all of what was expected of him. He removed his hat, held out Daisy’s chair, allowed her to select the tea, and then thanked her for pouring it when the pot arrived.
“No sugar for me, Gilbert,” Daisy said when the fifteen-year old nearly plopped two cubes into her teacup. Blushing, he returned the sugar bowl to his side of the table, remembering that it was Anne who took two lumps in her tea. He would have to make a better effort to remember just who he was out with.
“So, Daisy…” he started slowly, looking for a topic. “You’re eighteen –”
“Oh! No, no, no,” the brunette tutted, dabbing at her chin where some tea had slipped after Gilbert had started speaking. “Ages, Gilbert, are not a proper course of conversation.”
“Sorry,” he apologized, brows knit together at his mistake.
“You’ve never done this before, have you?” Daisy asked sympathetically. “Taken a girl out to tea?”
“I’ve gone with –”
“Anne doesn’t count,” Daisy interrupted lightly, smiling soothingly when Gilbert closed his mouth and shrugged helplessly. “Very well. It seems I’ve some things to teach you.”
“I’m a good student,” he said, knowing it was cheeky, but feeling his bruised ego mend when Daisy giggled.
“Alright then, Master Blythe, take note. You have an excellent grasp on the social norms. You held my arm, you walk with a confident gait, you made safe – if a tad boring – small talk on the way here. You held out my chair, let me order, and you know you’ll be paying when we leave. All of that was done rather excellently.”
“Now, your conversation, well, it does require some instruction.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Well now, age is out of the question. As is politics, religion, and any prying personal facts, so no asking about my relationship with my parents or if I have any siblings, and definitely no questions about home.”
“Alright…” Gilbert replied, unsure of Daisy’s list. After all, a person’s past and their family surely had some determination on who they were. Gilbert couldn’t imagine what sort of person he might be without the gentle hand of his father guiding him along, nor could he say that the changes he’d personally endured in the last six months weren’t greatly influenced by his father’s death and his decision to leave Avonlea. If he wasn’t allowed to discuss such momentous turning points in his life, how was Daisy ever going to learn about him? “So then, what can we speak about?” he asked.
“The décor of this comely teahouse. The weather, a general – but certainly not too specific or detailed – opinion of the city. You can ask about my work, but not my wages or if I enjoy what I do, the tea, and, of course, you can always pay a compliment.”
“Ah! Well then, Daisy, may I say your hair –”
“Too familiar,” she corrected gently.
She scrunched her nose and gave a subtle shake of her head.
And now she smiled, bringing her teacup to her lips and taking a dainty sip.
“Go on,” she encouraged.
“I couldn’t help but notice that your dress is very pretty. Tell me, are the flowers embroidered in the material daisies?”
“How clever of you to notice, Gilbert!” Daisy praised, smiling charmingly at the boy, compelling him to smile back.
Under Daisy’s kind tutelage, Gilbert did a fine job of making his way through an hour of polite conversation. Though he didn’t learn much about the girl sitting across from him, he did learn what sort of weather she preferred, her favourite pattern of wallpaper, and that her favourite city was one akin to New York, filled with skyscrapers and trolleys and the busy hullaballoo of people and traffic.
She certainly wasn’t the cold, unfeeling girl he’d thought her to be during their Atlantic crossing, and Gilbert reminded himself that early impressions were often untrue. After all, if Anne had stuck to her first impression of him, they might not have spoken to one another for five years or more, never to become the best friends that they were. And Gilbert suspected that he and Daisy were well on their way to becoming very good friends, and for that he was glad.
He really did hope to make more friends as he continued traveling the world.
“I must say, you are a fine instructor, Daisy,” Gilbert complimented, relaxed and enjoying his time with the brunette. “Perhaps you should be a teacher.”
“I haven’t the temperament for children,” Daisy quipped, pouring herself the last of the tea. “But an instructor of young gentlemen in the art of teahouse conversation might be a vocation I would consider.”
“That sounds almost indecent,” Gilbert whispered, making Daisy laugh. “Best be careful, Miss Sinclair. You’re in danger of breaking your genteel rules.”
“Dear Gilbert, don’t you know,” Daisy started, slyly reaching for the saucer of cream and, as her fingers wrapped around the silver, her knuckles caressed the back of Gilbert’s hand, sending a pleasant shock up the young man’s arm, “part of the fun of the rules, is learning when it’s appropriate to be bold, and break them.”
Gilbert swallowed, his hazel eyes traversing the smooth porcelain perfection of Daisy’s face as she gifted him a knowing smile and batted her eyelashes before sipping her tea as proper as Queen Victoria. Gilbert couldn’t help being drawn to Daisy’s lips and he wondered what it would be like to kiss that pink mouth before he found himself blushing and looking away.
The thought lingered, though, flitting across Gilbert’s mind even as he and Daisy left the teahouse and made their way to the waterfront park.
Passing under the wrought iron arch that served as an entrance into the narrow park, Gilbert commented on the shoots of bluebells scattered along the curving pathway, expecting Daisy to make some remark about pixies creating bonnets of the delicate periwinkle petals. Instead, Daisy smiled and nodded, keeping her lips closed and her eyes trained with tranquil indifference on the flora surrounding them. As they continued to walk, Gilbert kept up with his comments on the little strip of nature they were meandering through, waiting for Daisy to say something, but his companion had no thought or word for the flowers, or the trees, or the clouds, or the water, or the birds, and Gilbert found himself feeling a tad disappointed at Daisy’s lack of imagination.
“There’s the naval hospital,” the young man remarked, coming to stand near the shore and barely able to make out the white granite building in the far distance. He hoped the hospital would provide some entertainment to Daisy. After all, she did have a lot to say about Portsmouth’s downtown architecture, and the décor in the teahouse, so he supposed those were topics that piqued her interest rather than nature. “It’s one of the oldest hospitals in the United States. I understand they had quite a time of it when yellow fever struck the city a few decades ago, but it seems the surgeons’ dedication was worth the effort since –”
“Aren’t you going to kiss me?” Daisy asked, exasperated. The fifteen-year old turned to the girl at his side with wide hazel eyes.
“D-do you want me to?” he asked, feeling his whole face heat up at his stammering answer. He couldn’t believe he would have to look back on the memory of his first kiss and have the moment tainted with his insufferable faltering.
A girl wanted to kiss him.
Why should he be nervous?
“Gilbert,” Daisy sighed, and the way she said his name, all breathless and teasing, had the young man’s throat going dry. The coy brunette stepped closer to him, one hand reaching out to rest as delicately as a feather on his wrist. Daisy’s fingers were cool and smooth, no hint of dry skin, and Gilbert wondered if the floral scent that seemed to radiate off the girl in comely waves was perhaps a cream she used to keep her skin so untarnished by her housekeeping work.
Gilbert focused on Daisy’s lips, his breath seizing in his lungs as he watched her bite her bottom lip, embarrassingly distracted by the pearlescent teeth and how marvellously they contrasted against her blush coloured mouth. Enraptured, Gilbert felt a surge of his usual boldness return to him and leaned in closer. His action must have pleased Daisy, for she smiled and slid her fingers up from his wrist to his bicep, squeezing the new muscles that were beginning to bulge against his jacket, the fabric almost too tight to allow his arms proper movement.
She leaned in close as well, her dark lashes lowering over emerald eyes. Gilbert felt his heart racing, unsure if he should move forward or run away. He knew Daisy was expecting a kiss, and if he were honest, Gilbert was curious. He’d played at kissing girls back in Avonlea, creeping up on them unawares to plant a peck on their cheeks before dashing off, but a kiss on the mouth (a proper kiss) was something very different.
It would mean something if he kissed Daisy Sinclair, his heart knew it.
And because his heart was very much involved in this kiss, Gilbert found himself suddenly wishing for red plaits instead of chestnut curls, grey eyes instead of green, and an ivory complexion scattered with freckles instead of the perfect porcelain face that was inching closer to his.
Just as he felt the sweet puff of her breath against his puckered lips, Gilbert was seized with a sudden and urgent spike of indecision, but before he could speak, Daisy’s lips landed on his.
The sensation was unexplainable.
Daisy was soft and she tasted like the vanilla she’d put in her tea. Her lips were neither firm nor lax against his. They were chaste, closed, and intriguingly warm. He wondered what Daisy thought of his lips, his taste and technique, for it was all Gilbert could do to return the caress as gently as possible, tentative in his inexperience and following her lead as she leaned her head first one way then the other, seeking greater purchase and passion before breaking the contact and taking a step back.
Gilbert opened his eyes, not sure when he’d closed them, and he watched as Daisy’s crystal green eyes scoured his face, seeking something. He huffed out a great breath, whether in defeat or relief he didn’t know, when her shoulders sagged and she smiled sadly.
“Oh bother,” she muttered before turning away and scuffling at a quick pace back to the harbour.
Gilbert was caught in a trance for a long moment. He was stunned at having received his first kiss (his first kiss!) and he was frantic to sort out how he felt about everything that had just happened. He was elated, of course, that Daisy liked him enough to gift him a kiss. Worried that he’d not been good at it. But thrilled to know that someone wanted him that way. And yet, disappointed that that someone wasn’t quite what he’d expected. Then confused because who was it that he did expect to be kissing?
Not a single one of Gilbert’s emotions could be sorted out as they raced across his mind and heart, because it came crashing down on the young man that Daisy had abandoned him in the park and was now walking back, unescorted, to the Primrose. Laying his feelings aside, Gilbert jogged after Daisy, catching her at the park gate and insisting on walking her back to the ship even though their outing was rather suddenly over. It seemed that there would be no further meetings outside of their professional obligations in their future, either, if Daisy’s serious expression and the fact she did not link her arm with his on the walk back to the harbour was any indication.
Silence and tension reigned between the two as they approached the Primrose and walked up the gangplank.
“Well, you’ve been a perfect gentleman,” Daisy commented once they were on deck, and she actually sounded disappointed by the proclamation. “Today was nice.”
“But not nice enough,” Gilbert added, aiding Daisy in her subtle rejection.
“Got it in one,” she replied good-naturedly, winking at the young man.
“Will that have any bearing on Anne’s sentence?” he wondered, realizing he didn’t know if a condition of Daisy’s bargain was that the outing end on a promising note.
“Anne?” Daisy asked.
“She said you’d be willing to speak with Ms. Brule about reducing her punishment,” Gilbert elaborated. “Will you still?”
“Ah,” the eighteen-year old said, a strange flash of disappointment and understanding crossing her face. “I will. I suspect by our next port of call Anne will be able to join you on shore leave.”
“Thank you,” Gilbert said sincerely.
“Sure. See you.”
“Daisy!” Gilbert called out before the brunette could disappear. She stopped and turned back, a flash of hope alighting in her eyes like a flower suddenly bursting into bloom, but the petals of anticipation quickly wilted at Gilbert’s next words. “Please don’t tell Anne.”
“But she’ll ask me. You know that,” Daisy replied. “I asked her to set us up, and she was nothing but a kettle full of questions when I was getting ready to meet you. She’ll insist on every last detail, knowing her. Do you want me to lie?”
“No, not lie, not really. Tell her about North Street, and the park, and the hospital, but…but if you could not mention—”
“You mean the kiss,” Daisy stated brazenly, making Gilbert flinch and blush.
“I suppose…yes. I mean the kiss. Tell her all the rest if she asks, but not that. Please.”
“Why?” Daisy asked.
“I just…I don’t…well, I’d rather she didn’t – and I can’t—"
Gilbert was absolutely astounded that he was so tongue tied.
He told Anne everything.
In fact, as he’d jogged after Daisy back to the Primrose, his first thought was that he’d seek out Anne and tell her all about the outing. But when he’d set his first step on the gangplank, Gilbert was suddenly overcome with a fierce shyness. If he spoke to Anne about his day with Daisy, she’d ask questions, and because she was a girl bursting with romantic notions, she would inevitably ask if he and Daisy kissed.
And Gilbert didn’t want Anne to know.
“I wouldn’t fret, Gilbert,” Daisy said, mercifully ending Gilbert’s terrible inability to put his true feelings into coherent sentences. Rather like a patronizing older sister, Daisy patted Gilbert on his cheek with a tender fondness, her lovely mouth turning up in a rueful smile. “I won’t tell,” she promised.
“Thank you,” he said, his body going painfully slack. Gilbert hadn’t realized how tense he’d become during their conversation.
“No problem. And you shouldn’t worry so much. In a few years, Anne will be old enough, and I’ve no doubt she’ll be thrilled to be kissed by you.”
“What?!” Gilbert cried, the tension that had faded away only moments ago returning with a sudden and fierce vengeance, his body feeling as if it were in a stranglehold. “Wh-W-Why would you say that?” he demanded, stuttering in his embarrassment. “She’s my best friend, that’s all. Just a friend.”
“Good grief,” the pretty brunette huffed, rolling her eyes and stepping away from the confused boy. “The young ones always are denser in matters of the heart,” she lamented. “I’ve got to remember that the next time a cute one comes along.”
And with that perplexing little declaration, Daisy bid Gilbert goodnight and left for her cabin.
It was a long while before Gilbert also retreated below deck, remaining on the lower deck for hours, missing his supper and watching the sun set over the Elizabeth River. His mind was hectic with racing thoughts, all of them jumbled like a tangled ball of string. He couldn’t seem to organize his feelings, and even when he finally turned in, he laid awake in his hammock most of the night.
His mind was too loud to allow for sleep.
All he kept replaying, over and over, was the kiss.
His first kiss!
While his first kiss hadn’t been perfect (certainly, the end result, more than the kiss itself, hadn’t been what he’d thought would happen) it had happened. Gilbert Blythe was a boy no longer, but a man, well and true. He’d left home, found work on his own, drank beer in a pub, talked over a telephone, saved a ship from sinking, was a world traveller, and now, he’d kissed a girl…
…and all he wanted to do, more than anything else, was share that news with someone.
His father. He wanted to tell his father everything.
But he couldn’t. There was no John Blythe to tell anything to, not anymore
And other milestones, other moments and memories, the day Gilbert would choose a vocation, when he turned sixteen, when he fell in love, when he married, when he would become a father himself, all of those future purposes and ambitions were lost to John Blythe forever.
Sharing the rest of his life’s events with his father was lost to Gilbert forever, too.
That connection was severed, well and true, and would never be mended.
Shutting his eyes against the terrible sting of tears, Gilbert shifted onto his side and willed his heart to abandon the grief that seized upon him, sucking away the joy of what should have been a glad moment in his maturing like a painful leech. But no matter how hard he tried, the sorrow stayed with the fifteen-year old all through the night, and not even the memory of Daisy’s kiss could quell the weight of Gilbert’s woe.
He really missed his dad.
And how about this Season Three so far, eh? Quite the emotional doozy, and in all those frustrating and amazing ways. Overall, though, I am very much enjoying the journey.
Funny story, but I outlined and wrote most of this chapter long before we ever met Miss Winifred Rose, and I must admit that I did borrow from her in order to flesh out my Daisy Sinclair character. I just feel, for this story at least, that part of Gilbert's growing and personal journey is learning what he wants romantically, including coming to realize that what he thought he wanted isn't what is right for him.
I'm getting back into a regular writing and posting schedule, so expect to see The World Before Me to be updated on Fridays at the least, with an option for quicker updates as I come closer to completing the final chapters.
I do hope that you enjoyed this little date, even if it wasn't between Gilbert and Anne. But fear not, they have many more moments in their future.
As always, a comment, kudos, or bookmark is always welcome and very much appreciated. I do love to know your thoughts.
Chapter 8: Charleston
Gilbert and Anne add one more member to their found family.
Allons! after the great Companions, and to belong to them!
They too are on the road—they are the swift and majestic men—they are the greatest women,
Enjoyers of calms of seas and storms of seas,
Sailors of many a ship, walkers of many a mile of land
“Gentlemen, read ‘em and weep.”
Proud as a peacock, Anne laid her cards face up, two jacks and three aces winking at the two other players.
“Unbelievable!” Bash exclaimed, laughing as he slapped his cards (a deplorable pair of sevens) on the table. Gilbert huffed in amusement as he flipped his own cards over to show an empty hand, conceding defeat to Anne.
“You win again,” he said.
“For the third time,” Bash added, watching with an amused twinkle in his dark eyes as Anne scooped the pot into her hands. “Blythe! You never told me your Anne was a shark disguised as a little girl.”
“I’m not little. I like to think I am simply unpredictable and inconspicuous,” Anne challenged, pocketing the pennies her full house had won her.
“Apologies, miss. You’re right, you’re no little girl, I’m sure of that,” Bash teased. “You’re a trickster. Anansi in human form.”
“What’s an Anansi?” Anne asked, grey eyes alighting with intrigue.
“A spirit from my island,” Bash explained, indulgent of Anne’s questions with the same ease and patience he’d exhibited since meeting the eager redhead five days ago. “A mischievous thing and the keeper of stories.”
“That does sound like it could be you,” Gilbert drawled, laughing when Anne kicked him under the table.
“I’m sorry, Bash, but unless your Anansi is spelled with an ‘e’, then I’m afraid I am just plain old Anne Shirley. Although, I thank you for comparing me to something so grand as the keeper of stories. That sounds like a noble title. Tell me, does Anansi have many worshipers?”
Bash chuckled and Gilbert joined him, munching on some boiled peanuts he’d purchased earlier that afternoon; their last day in Charleston. By morning, the Primrose would be back on open waters and, having discovered the salty treat a few days ago when the steamer had first berthed in South Carolina, Gilbert made sure he stocked up. He was especially covetous of his peanuts, making it his mission to keep them away from Anne, who was never subtle in her attempts at filching the food.
“How did you get so good at cards?” Gilbert asked, mesmerized as he watched Anne deftly shuffle the deck, her nimble fingers moving speedily.
“I learned in Charlottetown, mostly,” she replied. “At my last job.”
“Ah,” Gilbert acknowledged, another piece of the Anne Shirley puzzle falling into place.
“What’s this ‘ah’, mean? Did you know this mook before coming to the Primrose, Miss Anne?” Bash asked.
“Mook?” Anne echoed, her skillful hands never ceasing in their shuffling as she spoke with Bash, always fascinated by the unfamiliar words the Trinidadian used.
“This fool,” Bash explained, throwing an arm around Gilbert’s shoulders, the young man grinning at the jape around a mouthful of peanuts.
“Fool is certainly the exact moniker I would use to describe one Gilbert Blythe,” Anne joshed. “Do you know that when we first met, he pulled my hair and called me carrots?”
Bash turned swiftly on Gilbert and the fifteen-year old sheepishly nodded, confirming Anne’s words.
“On the contrary, Anne,” Bash said, shaking his head at the boy, “fool is too kind a word. Rascal might be more fitting for a mug too stupid to know you don’t get a pretty girl’s attention by insulting her hair.”
“I wasn’t trying to insult her!” Gilbert exclaimed, a tad exasperated that he was apologizing, again, for the deplorable misstep he’d taken that night in the tavern. “I think Anne’s hair is beautiful.”
“What sort of barn did you learn your manners in?” Bash continued to tease, managing to pilfer a handful of peanuts while Gilbert was mildly distressed over the accusations being hurled at him.
“A very nice one, actually,” Gilbert snarked back, shoving Bash for the theft.
“Ah, that’s right. You’re a farm boy.”
“Explorer,” Gilbert amended.
“Intrepid explorer,” Anne added, and for her admiring words, Gilbert gifted the girl some of his peanuts. Bash watched the exchange with a knowing twinkle in his eye, the look making Gilbert blush and avert his attention from Anne, instead focusing on finishing what remained of his snack before his companions managed to eat all the peanuts and leave nothing but shells behind.
Gilbert had the pleasure of meeting Sebastian Lacroix when they’d berthed in Charleston. The Primrose took on the dark, jovial, and hard-working man for a stoker after one of the other boiler room lads had gotten caught in flagrante with a passenger and was kicked off the ship once they’d reached the South Carolina port. Bash had been working in the Charleston dockyards, but his experience at sea spanned ten years, and he’d been eager to board a ship again after several months on land.
When Sebastian had been hired, Gilbert was tasked with the new man’s training. To be fair, there wasn’t much to be taught about feeding coal to a furnace, especially since Bash had worked as a stoker before, so the pair spent their training time sharing stories, cracking jokes, and learning about one another. It was amazing just how quickly the pair had hit it off, especially since Bash was twelve years Gilbert’s senior, but both were boys raised by single parents, who’d had to work from a young age, and who had left home to see the world with their own open hearts and wide eyes.
It was a wonder the two weren’t brothers for all that they were so alike in morals and manner.
It was no surprise that Anne and Bash hit it off as well, the redhead positively overflowing with enthusiasm when Gilbert had introduced them over dinner after his and Bash’s first shift in the boiler room. Anne had been nearly inappropriate in her eagerness, shaking Bash’s hand with vigorous energy, chattering with barely a breath over how delighted she was to not only meet a new friend of Gilbert’s, but to meet an experienced sailor of exotic origins.
Of course, Anne had insisted on Bash telling stories of his time at sea, the girl positively enthralled with the man’s accent and penchant for delivering a dramatic monologue. Dinners over the last few days were certainly filled with a great deal of questions and jokes and talking until their untouched food had gone cold.
Now they were playing cards long after the rest of the crew had left the mess hall for the evening. Surely, they must seem an odd trio, two men of varying ages, not to mention colour, and a redheaded girl sitting opposite them and absolutely trouncing them at poker. The perplexing combination was already the talk of the Primrose, and yet, Gilbert could not find it in his heart to care if he and his found family were the fodder for the ship’s gossips.
He had made a new friend, and the world was just a bit brighter. That was all that mattered.
“I’d love to learn more of your island, Bash,” Anne said as she dealt the next hand.
“You may well get your wish, Miss Anne. I believe the Primrose will be sailing in Caribbean waters soon enough,” Bash told her, rubbing his nose as he looked at his cards, a blatant tell that he was confident with his hand.
“When will that be?” Anne asked, excited.
“Oh, you’ll know it, I promise. The water is different in the Caribbean Sea.”
“How can water be different?” Gilbert asked.
“Shame on you!” Bash exclaimed. “What kind of sailor do you take yourself for, Blythe? Asking how water’s different is like asking how light is different from a lamp, or a fire, or the sun.”
Gilbert shook his head at Bash’s outburst, flashing Anne a crooked smile that she returned before the three friends resumed, with brutal intensity, their game of cards. Four games later, Gilbert had managed to win the pot only once, Anne the reigning victor while Bash was out his entire week’s pocket money.
“You distracted me,” Bash teased, eyeing Anne as the girl innocently packed the playing cards back in their tin box.
“And how did I do that?”
“By asking me about my home. You made my mind go back to my beautiful gem of an island so that I wouldn’t focus on my cards. Clever trick.”
“No trick. I really did want to know about Trinidad,” Anne said.
“And what of your home, Miss Anne?” Bash asked.
“What of it?” Anne countered, cryptic like she so often got when questions became too personal. “Where I’m from certainly isn’t comparable to Trinidad, and impossible of being more interesting besides.”
“But it’s your home,” Bash replied quietly, seeing how tense the girl had become from his simple line of questioning. The older man’s brow scrunched in sympathy when Anne shook her head at his words.
“It’s the place I lived once,” she reiterated, face paler than usual and lips pressed in a grim line. “Gilbert, you should tell Bash about Avonlea.”
The unsaid plea was as clear as glass. Anne needed Gilbert to divert Bash away from questions and memories that were obviously unpleasant for the redhead to linger on. Having mercy on his friend, Gilbert took a trepidatious step forward into territory he wasn’t entirely comfortable with, all for the sake of Anne.
“Avonlea isn’t a terribly large village,” he started. “Farms mostly. One schoolhouse, two churches, a very small town centre with a general store, butcher, post office, townhall, and blacksmith. There’s an old bandstand in the middle courtyard that’s used once a year on Dominion Day when anyone who can play an instrument gathers together to celebrate. Everyone knows everyone, and most families can trace their lineage back at least a century to ancestors who settled from Europe. The fields are vast, and the forests deep, there’s red sand shorelines and the constant rumble of the ocean. It can seem like all the world is contained in that little corner of the island…but it’s not.
“There’s so much more beyond Avonlea. I knew there was more, and I wanted to see it all. I felt so trapped there. Even though it’s the only home I’ve ever known, once my dad was gone…I needed to break free.”
“Won’t you ever go back?” Anne asked, voice soft as a breeze, her tone quivering as if she might cry for how forlorn Gilbert seemed when remembering Avonlea.
“I don’t know,” he answered honestly, eyes locking with Anne’s, emotions moving between their connected gazes with no words able to describe exactly what it was the adolescents were communicating to one another. Anne and Gilbert certainly wouldn’t be able to explain it and could only say that it was if they were looking at a reflection of their soul; the shade before them needing no illumination, because the understanding was absolute.
“Oh, you are just hopeless, Gil!” Anne huffed dramatically, rolling her eyes at him, breaking the moment and leaving the young man feeling terribly off kilter. “You simply do not have even a whisper of imagination in your whole body.”
“Excuse you!” he countered haughtily, crossing his arms, silently daring Anne to back up her claim. Mirroring his rigid stance, Anne rose to the challenge.
“You say you cannot fathom a reason that would see you return home, and yet I, who have never had a home, can dream up seven scenarios right on the spot.”
“Go on then,” Bash encouraged, entertained by the tension between the two.
“Well, certainly if I received word that my darling sweetheart had taken to their sickbed and that their only wish was to behold my face again, I would race so fast back to Prince Edward Island that I’m sure I would be mistaken for a falcon,” Anne started.
“No sweetheart pining for me back home,” Gilbert countered smugly.
“Really?” Anne asked, incredulous, but Gilbert just shook his head, making the girl purse her lips in genuine surprise. “Alright. Perhaps I might hear news that I was long-lost royalty of a most noble and wealthy house, and that the single condition of claiming my title was to return to my homeland,” was Anne’s second scenario.
“The Blythes have been humble apple farmers for three generations,” Gilbert stated. “And before that, potato farmers back in Ireland. I can assure you, there is not even a drop of blue blood in a Blythe.”
“I did say long-lost royalty. You wouldn’t know that you were really a prince.,” Anne sniffed. “But, never mind. What if your orchard was set afire and burned to smoldering ashes?”
“A tragedy, but I’m sure the insurance would provide some relief. I’d only have to go as far as Charlottetown to sign the papers with the lawyers –”
“Fine!” Anne exclaimed, clearly annoyed with all of Gilbert’s sassy answers to her wonderful imaginings. Seeing the redhead on the boarder of losing her temper was quite amusing, for both Gilbert and Bash, and the two men held their breath as they waited for Anne to speak again. “I think, that if you were to receive a letter from a trusted correspondent – not a sweetheart! – a kindly neighbour, or the minister, the schoolmaster, or a dear, darling bosom friend, and within the pages of such a letter it was revealed that there is gold buried deep under your land, then I’m sure you would return without hesitation to Avonlea.”
“Wrong again, Anne-girl,” Gilbert replied.
“You cannot mean that!” Bash cut in. “Are you saying that even gold could not tempt you back to your home? Truthfully?”
“Truthfully?” Gilbert echoed, to which Bash and Anne nodded rigorously. “Right now, I’m feeling that my return to Avonlea is indefinite. I’m not sure I’ll never go back, but I’m not sure I will. At least, not right now. And that’s without sweethearts, lost princes, fires, and gold.”
“What did I say, Bash? Hopeless,” Anne huffed, making Bash chuckle and Gilbert nudge the man hard in the side. “If there was even a single mote of hope of me being able to make a home on Prince Edward Island, I would jump off this steamer and start swimming back to Canada. Although I don’t imagine I would get far. If the sharks didn’t devour me first, there is the small complication of my not knowing how to swim.”
“Queen Anne, are you telling me that you’ve indentured yourself on this ship for a year and you wouldn’t be able to help yourself if we took on water?”
“Oh, dear Bash, it’s so kind of you to worry, but there’s truly no need. I wouldn’t drown,” Anne said surely, reaching across the table to pat the man’s hand. “Gilbert would save me.”
The total conviction in which Anne made the statement made Gilbert’s jaw drop in wonder. It was amazing to think his friend had such faith in him, that she was unafraid of something he knew terrified her, because she believed in him. More than that, she believed in his caring for her. He was humbled, and a little terrified. Anne relied on him, and he relied on her. So, of course he’d rescue her from the sea. Besides the fact that it wouldn’t do to let one’s best friend drown or be ripped to shreds by sharks, Gilbert wasn’t certain he knew what he would do without Anne, so rescuing her was just as much a necessity for him as it was for her.
“And anyway,” Anne continued matter-of-factly, “I don’t know how to conduct a train or drive a carriage, and I still got on those when it suited me to get from one place to another.”
The redhead jumped and spun in her seat, shoulders hitching and chin lowering as she found herself the focus of Daisy Sinclair’s stern scowl. The maid was standing in the entrance of the mess hall, her figure outlined in the harsh light. Her arms were crossed and one of her feet, ensconced in a pretty pink satin slipper, was tapping irritably.
“Good evening, Daisy,” Gilbert called out, hoping to ease the tense lines twisting around the brunette’s mouth. It didn’t work.
“Curfew,” Daisy said curtly, the word making Anne jump.
“Right! Sorry!” she said, turning briefly back to Gilbert and Bash. “Apologies gentlemen, I’ve lost track of the hour and it seems I am late for lights out.”
“Best get marching, then,” Bash encouraged. “Gilbert and I need to report for shift anyway.”
“Well, I wish you an affable and pleasant night, or at least as affable and pleasant a night one can have shoveling coal into several giant ovens.”
“Anne!” Daisy hollered.
“Yes, coming! Goodnight!”
And quick as a flash, Anne was gone. Gilbert and Bash chuckled as they watched the girl fly, adroitly ignoring Daisy’s rotten attitude and instead beginning to chatter of the political protest she had seen along the Charleston Battery earlier that day during her shore leave, her lilting voice carrying down the corridor away from the mess hall until it was hardly a hum along the iron walls.
“Your Anne is quite the girl,” Bash said, standing to stretch his back.
“You’re not wrong. Except that she’s not mine,” Gilbert said, following Bash’s example, giving his body a thorough stretch before they started making their way to the boiler room. “We’re best friends.”
“Is that what you call it on your island?” Bash goaded.
“The way you two look at each other, the only time I’ve seen best friends do that kind of staring is when there’s wedding bells in the air.”
“I’m too young to be hearing wedding bells anytime soon,” Gilbert said, though there was little heat to his words. He hadn’t actually given thought to things like marriage since before his father got sick, never mind in the time after his death. Ideas like weddings and wives seemed vague frothy futures he couldn’t hope to hold, at lease, not right now. Marriage would take its proper turn in due time. Presently, Gilbert wanted to keep exploring the world, having new experiences, and making new friends. Even if said new friends were irrepressible teasers like Bash.
“Be a man, Blythe,” Bash continued to taunt. “Miss Anne is a pretty thing. You wouldn’t want someone to whisk her away.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gilbert countered, ignoring how his heart pulled at the idea that Anne might be swayed away by someone else. While it was only natural that both of them should meet other people and forge new relationships, that didn’t mean they would be separated. Surely, the connection between them was strong enough to survive any number of disasters, because while Gilbert could say he had no clear imaginings of his future, he was confident that Anne was there.
“Not ridiculous. Just observant,” Bash said gently, his smile large as he regarded Gilbert with tender brown eyes, seemingly having enjoyed as his young friend contemplated his words.
“Well, better get your observing to work,” Gilbert goaded, pushing Bash by the shoulders towards the staircase that would take them deep into the belly of the Primrose, the heat from the boilers coating the hallway as they edged closer. Gilbert was sweating before he even picked up his shovel, but Bash smiled as if he missed the oppressive warmth of a steamship furnace.
For the rest of the night, the new friends shoveled coal, focused on their laborious job, yet finding time to share a story or two. And if the subject of a certain redheaded best friend was entirely avoided for the length of the shift, Gilbert wasn’t going to admit that he was relieved.
As one of my favourite original parts of AWAE, I am very happy that Bash is now part of The World Before Me.
I hope everyone's enjoyed this chapter. It's a nice fluffy piece before some stormy waters of angst start knocking our ship (in all senses of the word) back and forth.
As always, I love to know your thoughts, so don't be shy and leave a comment or kudos or bookmark.
Chapter 9: Jacksonville
In which Gilbert is angry and everything comes out wrong.
The stale cadaver blocks up the passage – the burial waits no longer
“Feed the lady, Trinidad! This ain’t no holiday,” the fireman, Samuel Ackerman, hollered at Bash.
“Right away, sir!” Bash answered, and Gilbert watched as his friend tucked his bandana back into his pocket, the sweat he’d been trying to swipe away along his brow continuing to pool and drip lazily down the sides of his face and into his beard.
It hadn’t escaped Gilbert’s notice that the chief fireman kept a particularly close eye on Bash, often reprimanding the man for simple gestures that the other stokers were free to get away with. There was no doubt that Bash was being singled out, and even less conjecture that this treatment was due to the colour of his skin.
Gilbert was not ignorant of the prejudices that slithered across the smiling faces of his fellow man. He knew all about the Bog in Charlottetown, the slum that was like a festering sore on the face of the comely city, where the unwanted, the unloved, and the undesirable pooled together, forgotten by their God-fearing neighbours who’d rather the shantytown and everyone in it just disappear. Then there were the Mi’kmaq of Prince Edward Island. There was a reservation near Avonlea, and the people there made wonderful hockey sticks, but because they were different it hardly mattered to most that the Mi’kmaq were peaceful and skilled craftsmen. Even Avonlea’s Acadian family, the Baynards, were excluded and ridiculed for being poor and unmannerly.
It made Gilbert ill to think of how cruel people could be towards those they didn’t understand. His father hadn’t been a man of such bigotry, but rather a champion of humanity, someone who greeted the world and all in it, no matter their creed, with an open hand extended in friendship. He’d passed that decency on to his son, and if that meant Gilbert was able to see the value of a person before all else, then he was glad for it.
He was also angry.
“Trinidad!” Samuel hollered, this time because he found Bash slacking in pushing a wheelbarrow of fresh coal towards the boilers.
“Yes sir!” the man replied, head down, eyes lowered.
“Bash –” Gilbert started, but snapped his lips shut when his friend flashed him a warning glance. It was a look that very clearly stated that he’d prefer Gilbert stay focused on his own task and leave his nose out of Bash’s business. The rebuff made Gilbert prickly, the muscles in his shoulders tensing and an uncomfortable sensation, not unlike an itch, started around his belly and slowly began to rise to his chest. It was as if pressure was building, and it became impossible for Gilbert to keep everything contained.
“Well when I was a little boy my mother often told me,” he bellowed, knowing he was loud, off-key, and that the chief fireman hated singing. He paused for a moment in the song until he caught Samuel’s eye, his glare as volatile as the flames he stoked. Gilbert felt nearly triumphant to be caught in that glower and boldly continued. “Way haul away, way haul away, way haul away Joe.”
“Does this look like a concert hall, Blythe?” Samuel yelled. Gilbert’s answer was to keep singing.
“And if I did not kiss the girls, my lips would grow all moldy.”
“Don’t make that man vex,” Bash hissed, sidling up beside the fifteen-year old. “Ain’t funny.”
“I’m not trying to be funny,” Gilbert hissed back, but the frown Bash flashed him had Gilbert’s faux innocence crumbling and he couldn’t help smiling like a mischievous imp. “Well, maybe a little,” he admitted.
“Maybe you boys want some different job? That it? That what you want?” Samuel hollered over the roar of the boilers and the other workers.
“Sorry sir!” Gilbert quickly replied, practically hopping to a wheelbarrow so he could start loading it with coal, ensuring his supervisor was watching how deftly he worked. “It’s just, sometimes the music in my soul needs to come out. We sing all the time working the fields back on Prince Edward Island. Makes the toil more pleasant, don’t you think?”
“I think you’re looking to court duty in the slit trench,” the older man sneered, his threat perfectly clear and more than ready to become Gilbert’s foul reality. “That suit you better, Blythe?”
“We’re fine sir. Everything is fine,” Bash interrupted, practically running with his wheelbarrow of coal and depositing the black rock in the fireman’s dwindling pile.
Gilbert watched the obedient action, observed how Bash kept his shoulders slumped, head down, and eyes cast away from the fireman who stood wide and tall, as if he had command over Bash like some sort of sweaty, curmudgeonly sovereign. The uncomfortable prickling started to hitch from Gilbert’s chest and worm its way across his shoulders and up the back of his neck until his skull seemed to throb with the sensation, every hair on his body standing on end.
“I suspect latrine duty would be especially repugnant,” Gilbert offered cheekily, depositing his load in front of Bash’s boiler, defiant in his course to show he would help the dark-skinned man regardless of how the fireman felt Bash should be treated.
“You want no job? That it?” Samuel threatened. “It can be arranged right now, if you like.”
Gilbert didn’t even realize he’d thrown down his shovel and had taken a dangerous step towards Samuel, fingers curled into fists at his sides and jaw clenched with pent up rage. The young man was keen for a fight, hungry for it, and he was ready to throw the first blow when suddenly Bash’s back was in his way and it felt as if Gilbert had had the wind knocked right out of him.
“We going real good sir,” Bash said quickly, complacently. “This work is a privilege. No one wants to be cast in the brig. We just want to do this good work.”
The tension looping around all three men was severe, the other stokers not even daring to take their eyes off their fires to watch the spectacle. As the seconds passed, Gilbert’s anger ebbed away like the tide, never quite leaving him, but retreating just enough that he was able to see the foolish mistake he’d nearly made. Catching Samuel’s eyes over Bash’s shoulder, Gilbert turned his gaze away and lowered his head in a contrite apology. It seemed the action was enough for Samuel.
“No more jawing,” he commanded, and then resumed his work, feeding coal one heavy shovel-full at a time into the blazing furnace. Gilbert returned to his own furnace as did Bash. The young man waited a moment, hoping to catch his friend’s eye and thank him for stopping him making a huge mistake, but when Bash’s dark eyes met Gilbert’s hazel ones, there was a clear warning to say nothing. Reeling back from the ferocity in that experienced gaze, Gilbert heeded the warning and set about doing his work.
For another six hours Gilbert shovelled, collected, and wheeled coal, keeping his furnace perfectly hot, his fire stoked beautifully and with care until the whistle announcing the shift change broke the drudgery and he and Bash were free to leave. Like always, they stopped at the water barrel, scooping ladles of crisp sweet water down their throats, banishing the smoke and ash that had coated both their outsides and insides for the many hours they’d toiled.
“Bash, he shouldn’t talk to you –”
“He shouldn’t but he can,” Bash interrupted bluntly, soaking his bandana in the water before running the sopping material along his neck. “Ain’t nothing saying he can’t. Ain’t nothing to stop him.”
“I tried –”
“And nearly got yourself tossed overboard for it!” Bash snapped. “You were stupid.”
“I’m sorry,” Gilbert expressed, his anger from earlier starting to stoke within his heart, only to explode in horrible vibrancy around his words. “I didn’t realize defending a friend would offend you so.”
“In what world are you living, Gilbert?!” Bash demanded, his own hackles rising. The need for a fight returned and Gilbert didn’t have time to be troubled that he was actually eager to have a brawl with the man that, in just over seven weeks, had become like an older brother to him. Nothing, not reason, not logic, not even love could steer the young man away from his irrationally compulsive desire to rage and yell and brawl with someone.
Had he been in his right mind, Gilbert would have been horrified and ashamed at his behaviour.
As it was, in the moment, he didn’t care.
“I was just joking around,” he insisted as he and Bash started walking to their sleeping quarters.
“Well don’t,” Bash sniffed.
“What’s eating you?” Gilbert snapped, having to take a step back when Bash rounded on him, forcing Gilbert to press against the cold iron wall while the other men passed, intent on ignoring the disagreement between their fellow stokers for the promised relief of drink, dreams, and sleep.
“I been a stoker for ten years,” Bash started, his voice slow and low, like a whispered threat. “This is all I have. This is it. I can’t move up. I can’t be equal with Sir; the one who yells at me in there,” and Bash jutted his chin in the direction of the boiler room, “and the one who says he’s my friend,” and he nodded solemnly at Gilbert.
“I am your friend!” Gilbert insisted.
“You’re a tourist,” Bash said sadly. “You got options I never have or will. Maybe it’s you’re young you don’t understand, but the world is black and white, no matter how you choose to see it.”
“I see you,” Gilbert raged, feeling tears burn at the corners of his eyes as he tried to absorb the hard truth Bash was delivering. “I see you’re a good man, hardworking, loyal, and deserving, especially of respect. You do your work the same as Samuel, as me, as all the rest of us pushing coal. There’s no reason for you to have to…to grovel like you deserve the treatment you’re getting! It’s not fair.”
“Only children think the world is fair.”
“I’m not a child!” Gilbert hollered, his cry making Bash flinch back. “I just…I want…I know it’s not…but it should be. The things we can control, they should be fair. And if I don’t take a stand and at least try –”
“But I need this,” Bash said, gentle and precise as he laid a heavy hand on Gilbert’s shoulder and squeezed. The gesture nearly did the fifteen-year old in, his angry salty tears ready to come streaming down his cheeks. But with a few shuddering breaths, Gilbert was able to rein them in. “I like the way you want the world to be, Blythe. And maybe, everyone will catch up to you someday. In the meantime, you need to see things as they are: black and white. And you are a white boy. This ship ain’t the end for you. For me…well, nothing on dry land for me. So, don’t lose this work for me. Understand? Remember, some of us ain’t have an Avonlea to go back to someday.”
Feeling crushed, Gilbert sagged under Bash’s hand before bringing his head forward to rest his crown on his friend’s chest. Bash’s hand moved to cup the back of Gilbert’s neck, giving the dirty skin several strong pats.
“I know,” Bash said, accepting the young man’s apology. The pair remained supporting one another for a few minutes more before Gilbert finally broke away. Bash smiled at his chum and mussed up Gilbert’s sweaty curls. “Right. Time to rest,” he announced, starting back down the hall. “And just so you know, you can’t sing worth a damn!”
“Says you!” Gilbert retorted, nearly laughing at Bash’s teasing, the remark letting Gilbert know that he and Bash were back on good terms. He watched his friend disappear around the corner to their quarters, but he couldn’t bring himself to follow.
There was still an adrenaline, a hot, hyper ire that had come to life under his skin, and Gilbert knew he was too riled up for rest. He decided to go out on the lower deck, the muggy air slapping him in the face as if he’d just opened one of the furnaces in the boiler room. It was terribly stifling, even for an evening, but Gilbert knew he needed the open air, sticky as it was, to help cool his hot head.
For a while, he walked up and down the deck, watching as the day became nothing more than a thin white line of light on the horizon, the night pinching all brightness out of the sky. It was hard to tell if there were stars, for the hotels and palm trees of Jacksonville had been trussed up in strings of yellow lanterns, the sallow illumination shedding light along the bare, dirt packed streets. It was impossible to believe that the city was once a vibrant vacationing resort, especially when it seemed so barren now, the promises of cheap delights not nearly enough to entice the traffic that had once flourished in the picturesque town.
Seeing the crumbling beauty of Jacksonville put Gilbert in mind of Miss Havisham, Dickens’ eccentric recluse of Great Expectations, and how she tried to mask the deterioration caused by age and neglect by dressing in her wedding gown, desperate in her hope that the garment of virtuous youth might somehow keep her vital and beautiful, even as her face sagged and her heart grew cold. In the end, there was no hope for Miss Havisham, and Gilbert wondered if there was any hope for Jacksonville.
He wondered if there was any hope for him.
He really missed his dad.
He didn’t know why.
Startled out of his musings, Gilbert turned away from the city skyline to find Anne had creeped up on him. She was still in her grey uniform, but likely off duty. Her pale face was awash in the mustard light of the Primrose’s lanterns, making her freckles all but disappear and her red hair seem more orange than a carrot. Her eyes were still grey, though, and they reflected with concern over him, making Gilbert glance away, wishing he could hide from her and her worry.
“I missed you at dinner,” she said, digging a checkered cloth out of her pocket. “But I managed to sneak some cheese buns for you.”
“I’m not hungry,” Gilbert clipped bluntly.
“Oh. Well, you can save them for when you are,” she suggested, offering a kind smile. “Is everything alright?”
“What did Bash tell you?” Gilbert asked, suspecting his friend had probably revealed the whole of their disagreement to Anne over the evening meal, like the gossips of Avonlea converging across the pews at church, delighted in sharing the tales of scandal and misfortune of their neighbours and friends. The memory made Gilbert feel ill.
“He didn’t say anything,” Anne admitted. “He was worried when you didn’t go to your quarters or come to dinner.”
“If he’s so worried why isn’t he looking for me?”
“Because I told him I’d find you,” Anne replied.
“Well, so you have. Good on you,” Gilbert grumbled, crossing his arms over the railing and training his eyes on the dark water below.
“Won’t you tell me what’s the matter?” Anne asked, her tone gentle. “I know I’m prone to carry on whole conversations by myself, but I think in the months of our friendship I have not only grown used to having someone to talk to, but I have proven to be just as ardent a listener as a keen orator. I will listen to you, Gilbert, if you want to tell me.”
But that was the thing. Gilbert wasn’t so certain he wanted to tell anyone, let alone Anne. But then she was just standing beside him, grey eyes impossibly large and imploring, pushing him into speaking words he didn’t think he wanted to say.
“I told you my dad died,” he started, struggling to get each word past his lips. “I left Avonlea almost immediately after his funeral. Shut my house up, left the farm, and took off for Charlottetown. I wanted to get as far away from everything as I could. I wanted to see what else was out there. I wanted to get to know the world and have it get to know me. I didn’t want to be trapped.
“And I’ve seen wonderous things. But I’ve seen terrible things, too. The world holds marvels and monstrosities in equal measure; that’s what I’ve learned. And I still don’t know where it is I belong, or what I’m supposed to do, or what I’m supposed to want. That’s what joining the Primrose was supposed to help me do, but it hasn’t. It was my dad who I’d always ask…who I thought I could always ask.
“…all I want to do is talk to him.”
Gilbert hadn’t realized that Anne was running her hand up and down his arm, her fingers snuggling in the groove of his elbow when he finished speaking. Much as he wanted to take comfort in Anne’s touch, there was something poison that was seeping through his body, something that made him recoil from his friend and turn his back to her, unable to bear seeing her face.
“Oh Gilbert,” she sighed, and the young man flinched at the pity he was sure he heard in her voice. “I won’t lie, being an orphan has its challenges. Everything you’re feeling right now, that’s one of the hardest parts. Passing by days you would have spent with to those you’ve lost were they still here will always be difficult, but I think it’s so amazing that you have those days in which to be melancholy over!”
Anne’s impassioned, and hurtful, words had Gilbert going cold in the Florida heat.
“You’re much better off than me, you see,” she went on, unaware that it was unwise to continue her poor attempt at cheering her friend up. “I know it may sound strange for me to say I envy your sadness, but it’s the truth. My parents died when I was a baby, so I couldn’t fend for myself the way you can. And I was so young that I don’t have a single memory of them. What they looked like, their voices, their touch, all that is lost to me forever. But you’ll always be able to remember your father; you had him so long.”
“I had him for fifteen years. And the last three of them he was dying,” Gilbert said vehemently, furious when Anne didn’t heed the warning in his tone and pressed on with her incessant words!
“Fifteen years!” she exclaimed. “How lucky!”
That was the last straw.
The terrible prickling discomfort that had been plaguing him the whole day suddenly enveloped Gilbert, filling the young man with such bitterness he could hardly stand himself when he turned on Anne and pinned her with an expression that screamed of utter betrayal.
“You think I’m lucky?” he asked, incredulous that his friend, his kindred spirit, would be so ignorant as to suggest such an unfathomable thing. Anne didn’t shy away from Gilbert’s intense and hurt stare, though her brow did crinkle, as if she were confused as to why he might look at her so.
“Yes,” she confessed simply. “Compared to me.”
“And why is this about you?”
Those words seemed to do the trick. The moment Gilbert uttered them, Anne’s demeanour shifted from confusion to belated understanding to remorse.
“It’s not,” she insisted frantically. “You know I never meant it like that. I was just trying to –”
“I said I’ll see you,” he repeated, blunt, guttural, as if he were pulling the words from deep within a furnace inside his own chest, the remark as blistering as any flame.
He marched away from Anne, letting his anger at her, at injustice, at death, at everything in his miserable little world consume him like a plague of locusts might ravage a bountiful crop. He did not want comfort or kindness. He didn’t want sympathy, sweet condolences, or any of the hateful niceties that people felt compelled to shower on one who was sad. All Gilbert wanted was his sorrow and bitterness and for the rest of the world to leave him alone.
For Anne to leave him alone.
And so it was, that Gilbert Blythe walked away from Anne Shirley, never looking back and never seeing the heartbreak that cracked across her face as she watched him leave. If he had, he might have been able to prevent the weeks of despondency and loneliness that lay on his horizon. As it was, he had set his course, and rough waters or no, he was determined to sail forth and meet the storm.
And in that moment, he wasn’t sure he wanted to come out on the other side.
This chapter's coming out a whole day early!
The angst is back, y'all. But when your protagonist is a sad and handsome teenager grieving the loss of his only parent while at the same time running away from his feelings and also trying to make sense of the world, himself, and his place in the world, what else can we really expect.
Much like Jane Austen, my characters will only suffer for a short time before all is put to rights, so don't fret for Gilbert and Anne too much; they will make amends soon.
As always, I love to know your thoughts on my work, so please feel free to comment, kudos, subscribe or bookmark. These little gestures mean the world!
Chapter 10: Havana
Will it be too late for Gilbert to tell Anne he's sorry?
Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied—he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love—if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them
Gilbert hadn’t spoken to Anne for six weeks and three days.
When the Primrose sailed close along Florida’s east coast, passing magnificent waterfront plantations with mansions as white as ivory and gardens thick with ferns, as if plucked from the midst of an African jungle, he didn’t share in the vast picture of luxurious wealth with Anne.
When the Primrose made its first brave motions into the Caribbean Sea, the waters so turquoise it was like looking at a gemstone, with dolphins breaking through the crystalline surface as if to grant the steamship good fortune on its voyage, he didn’t whisper into Anne’s ear made-up tales of the underwater kingdom where the graceful creatures lived.
When the Primrose berthed in Congo Town, Gilbert explored the markets of the little port village in the Bahamas on his own, eating stewed conch and rum cake without anyone to share it with, doing his best to not think of what Anne would say around each mouthful of the exotic delicacies.
When the Primrose sailed down the Canal de Entrada and Gilbert dashed from port to starboard, excitedly taking in the impressive sun-tanned fortresses of Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana and Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, he’d reached out as if to take Anne’s hand in his and pull her along from side to side, but his fingers only closed around air.
And now, Gilbert was trekking alone through the heart of Old Havana, his boots clipping along the uneven cobblestone streets, passing by the city walls that were crumbling with age, the remains of whole sections having deteriorated into chalky piles of rubble. The partitions of wall that remained intact were splendid, behemoths of a begotten time of colonials and pirates, some of the battlements still armed with cannons and the echoes of Spanish conquistadors trapped within the cracks of the weathered stone. It made for a fascinating and chilling ambiance to imagine that the ghosts that haunted Havana’s walls were doomed to an eternal loop of pugnacity, their swords clashing as loudly as the waves crashing upon the shores.
Perhaps it was the several hundred posters pasted in chaotic overlapping mosaics along most of Havana’s buildings that lent a sense of danger to the bustling, and blisteringly hot, city. Havana was a capital poised on the cusp of revolution, at least, that’s what the people whispered in harried Spanish and broken English to one another, and the several guards armed with rifles that patrolled the streets with steely eyed suspicion wouldn’t allow for Gilbert to feel completely at ease as he explored.
There was a discomfort coating the atmosphere, as palatable as the bouquet of cumin and garlic that wafted from the food stalls scattered along every road and alley. The humidity also exacerbated the undeniable tension that seemed so thick it could be a spring wound tight in a clock, the pressure twisting so harshly that it was only a matter of time before an eruption was sure to propel the whole island into a future fraught with bedlam.
Gilbert wondered if the heat wasn’t getting to his head.
The memories certainly were.
Wandering past cathedrals with bell towers tall as skyscrapers, ambling through neighbourhoods where the apartments and shops were painted in canary, coral and cyan, and dashing across vast open plazas with tiled stone patterns and white rock fountains, Gilbert couldn’t help but recall that the reason he was all alone in Havana was because he was, to quote Daisy Sinclair, ‘a silly boy whose pride was proving disgustingly obstinate in favour of compassion and forgiveness’. She’d said that to him when they’d accompanied each other for shore leave in Key West. The young woman had been determined to understand why Gilbert refused to speak to Anne, trying (and succeeding, though she didn’t know it) to make him feel guilty by going into great detail about how melancholy Anne had been, moping and crying at the oddest of times, and only ever saying that she’d ruined the most beautiful thing she’d ever had when the other girls asked her what was wrong.
While his imagination tormented him with visions of Anne sobbing, curled up on herself in dank corners of the Primrose, Gilbert stubbornly insisted that he wasn’t wrong to be cross with the redhead, nor was it asinine of him to believe she should apologize first. That particular sentiment had earned him a well-deserved glass of lemonade in the face, with Daisy entreating that Anne was a fool to be heartbroken over a cad like Gilbert Blythe, and the brunette hadn’t spoken a word to him since.
In fact, the only friend still speaking to Gilbert at all was Bash, and he wasn’t so sure he could count on that relationship to last much longer, not as long as Bash was constantly after him to ‘get your head on right about that girl’.
Gilbert had his head on perfectly when it came to Anne.
She’d insulted him, disrespected the memory of his father, and it wasn’t wrong for him to be cross with her or to expect that she initiate the apologies.
At least, that’s what Gilbert had thought for the first two weeks.
Half-way through the third week, the young man decided that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he approached Anne first, but when he’d tried, finding Anne in one of her favourite corners on the lower deck, the moment she’d caught his eye she’d glowered so ferally that Gilbert was certain she’d bite him if he took one step closer. As it was, she’d only uprooted herself and marched away with her nose in the air.
The fourth week saw Gilbert stewing with renewed bitterness, his once logical mind having gone mad when it came to the sore subject of Anne Shirley.
Remorse set in with anchoring weight in week five, and by week six Gilbert realized that he was so desperately lonely without Anne that it was as if the colour had been drained from the world. But rather than feel contrite, Gilbert continued to stew in his misery, Bash exclaiming that the boy was a Blythe with no blithe, and the Trinidadian wasn’t far off the mark.
‘There’s an easy way to fix this,’ Bash had told Gilbert just three nights ago while they took a break away from the boilers. ‘Tell her you’re sorry.’
A task that was easier said than done.
It wasn’t that Gilbert didn’t want to apologize to Anne. In fact, he found himself conjuring up all manner of impassioned speeches surrounding his regret, knowing the redhead had a soft spot for all things melodramatic and poetical. Those daydreams always ended with Anne accepting him back into her graces, enfolding the wretched boy in a hug so close and tight it was as if they were one spirit.
But the truth of the matter was, Gilbert wasn’t certain he wanted to be forgiven.
He’d been unnecessarily cruel to Anne in their days apart. At first, it had been his biting words that caused a small rift in their friendship. It would only take different words to mend the fissure, but instead, Gilbert had taken one devastating action after another, ignoring Anne, turning away from her, refusing to meet her eye, to ensure that there was now a gulf that separated them, with little hope of a bridge ever being built across it to unite them once more.
A sick concoction of guilt, anger and shame had been simmering within Gilbert’s soul since the night in Jacksonville. He’d petulantly insisted he was right to feel the way he had towards Anne. After all, she had been thoughtless to compare her heartache to his, making Gilbert’s feelings inconsequential. But as time allowed for Gilbert to reflect on the moment, he knew that Anne hadn’t been intentional or malicious in her poor attempt to console him.
She was just young, and trying her best, and for it, Gilbert had rejected her.
And he was so very, very sorry.
It would serve him right if Anne never spoke to him again, but his day in Havana, watching jugglers perform for pennies, eating empanadas and maduros, drinking strong, sweet coffee from little china cups painted to look like seashells, and reading the propaganda of the Cuba Libre movement, had Gilbert understanding just how empty each new life experience was when there was no Anne to share them with.
He had to find a way to move on past his acrimonious feelings and make amends with the best friend he knew he’d ever have in the whole world.
Walking along the picturesque Alameda de Paula, Gilbert let his mind wander as his imagination took flight with all manner of possible outcomes to his apology to Anne, most of them not ending in his favour or forgiveness. He truly hoped that their friendship was strong enough to endure his stubbornness. If nothing else, he wanted Anne to know that she was precious to him; that he truly did care, even when they fought.
Passing an old woman who had laid out an embroidered tablecloth under the shade of a marvelous water ash tree, Gilbert was struck with a heart clenching longing. He could practically see Anne making a home among the apex of the clustered trunks, her bare feet tickling the bark as she whispered a Princess Cordelia story to the leaves that brushed her cheeks when moved by the sea breeze. She loved trees more than anything, and Gilbert was starving for the familiarity of Anne’s passion. He really did need to set things aright.
Startled, Gilbert turned to the old woman who was smiling at him and waving him over. She held several strands of beads in her leather-like brown hands, speaking in hurried Spanish while gesturing at the jewelry. Curious, Gilbert stepped closer and realized that the brightly coloured necklaces the woman was selling were actually made of food.
Strings of wild rice, jaboncilla seeds, black beans, cardamom pods, red beans, cornilla seeds, watermelon seeds and shells were polished and knotted securely on dyed twine, the deckles making a lovely chime as they tapped together while the old woman displayed her wares.
“Bonita,” the old woman said with a cracked tooth smile, eyeing her jewelry. Since she seemed pleased with the word, Gilbert agreed, nodding. “Tu compras.”
Helplessly, Gilbert shrugged, unable to understand the woman’s meaning, but when she gestured moving the beads from her hands to his, he suspected she was trying to entice him to purchase. The young man was about to refuse, when something on the tablecloth caught his eye. A bracelet made of mahogany coffee beans practically shone against the starched white surface of the embroidered sheet. Picking the piece up, Gilbert ran the pad of his thumb over each bean, realizing they’d been waxed in order to shine so, and separating each elliptical oval was a tiny circlet of silver, the dividers so thin Gilbert could easily damage one simply by crushing it between his thumb and forefinger.
“How much?” he asked, holding the bracelet out for the woman to see. He could already imagine the pretty circlet around Anne’s delicate wrist, the colour of the coffee beans reminding him of her freckles. Perhaps going into his apology with a peace offering would help smooth the awkward, but necessary, conversation he knew had to come.
The old woman appraised the bracelet with her dark eyes and quickly told Gilbert what she wanted for the piece, but as Gilbert couldn’t understand her, he opted to hold up two fingers, suggesting two pesos was his opening offer. The old woman scoffed and held up five gnarled fingers, stretching them out as far as her arthritis would allow. Shaking his head, Gilbert countered with three fingers, and with a theatrical sigh, the woman accepted his offer.
With the bracelet tucked away in the pocket of his waistcoat, Gilbert started back for the Primrose, each step helping to fortify his confidence as he did his best to believe that he could mend his and Anne’s broken friendship.
Approaching that Atarés harbour where the Primrose was berthed, Gilbert was surprised at the number of people crowding the docks. True, the harbour, like many others around the world, was a naturally busy centre, but the bustling bodies and pushing crowds was very unusual. It seemed just as many people were rushing towards the end of the dock as were trying to run away from it, women crying as they lifted their skirts to dash far from the water while men were yelling in Spanish and scrambling in a strange panic, the mob nearly stampeding on the dock, making the wood groan under the frenzied weight.
And then Gilbert smelled the smoke.
Looking up, the young man’s heart dropped into his knees as he saw the vast blue quilt of the sky was stained with an ugly black cloud cutting across the azure expanse like a slash that could only mean one thing.
And the smoke was coming from the pier where the Primrose was docked.
Gilbert hadn’t even realized he’d started running until he reached the edge of the pier, his hazel eyes taking in the chaos with unblinking fright.
The Primrose’s top deck windows were billowing with smoke, the thicker clouds wafting from the rear cabins. There were people hastening down the gangplank, children cradled by their mothers, some women being carried heroically by their lovers, while others seemed to hold odd priorities by dragging heavy trunks behind them or arguing with stewards tasked with managing the evacuation that they would tip them graciously if they’d only help shift their luggage off the ship.
Ladders were being hoisted from the main deck to the weather deck, and crewmembers started a bucket chain, hefting tins of water up to the brave souls balanced on the ladders. These men would toss the water into the windows where the smoke was billowing, then drop the buckets back down to the others, and the chain would start all over again.
Suddenly, the Primrose’s whistle shattered over the madness and several people alongside Gilbert at the pier’s edge began to back away as the ropes tethering the steamship to the dock were loosened and the gangplank was being pulled away. Realizing the ship was going out to sea, Gilbert acted on instinct and leaped across the gap, catching his boot on the gangplank before it could be pulled back and hoisting himself onto the damaged ship, never hearing the curses the crewmen threw at him as he ran towards the stern.
The smoke was not as thick on the lower deck, though it was acrid and made Gilbert’s eyes water. Pushing through the crowd, Gilbert felt a sharp stab of relief when he spotted a familiar face among those in the bucket chain.
“Bash!” he called out, joining his friend in the line, not hesitating to pitch in and pass water back and forth. “What happened?”
“No one knows!” Bash exclaimed. “Could be someone got careless with a cigar, could be one of these crazy Cuban radicals wanted to cause trouble.”
“Why are we leaving the pier?”
“Gotta get away from everything else can catch fire,” Bash answered. “We’ll go to open water then set up the pump and move water onto the flames like a firehose. The lads on the ladder will do that.”
“Right. I’m going to go help them,” Gilbert decided, breaking away from the chain.
“Blythe, no!” Bash cried out. “It’s too dangerous!”
“I’ve done it before,” Gilbert assured, remembering how he’d scaled to the top of the ladder when Ruby Gillis’s house had caught fire last October. It had taken hours to douse the flames, but Gilbert had never left his roost on the second floor of the house, tossing bucket after bucket of water into the gable room even when the flames started encroaching so close that the shingles under his boots had started to smoke.
It didn’t take much to convince the officer in charge of the ladders that he was the best man for the job. Besides relating his recent experience, Gilbert was also one of the lighter lads, which would be handy when having to balance at the very top of the ladder and direct a hose filled with pressurized seawater. Chucking his satchel and waistcoat aside, Gilbert scaled the ladder as nimbly as if he were a monkey, the heavy leather hose draped like a snake over one shoulder. When he reached the top and had his footing, Gilbert gave a signal that the men below could start the pump.
The pressure that the first few pumps of water ejected from the hose was so strong that Gilbert had to grab for the weather deck’s railing to keep his balance, his fingers stinging as they gripped the hot metal. He’d likely burned his palm and would have to be examined by Dr. Caruthers later. Gritting his teeth, Gilbert set about dousing the deck planks in water, saving the wood from much more than an intense scalding. There was no further damage to the boards, so Gilbert hoisted himself over the railing and onto the deck, marching for the open window of one of the first-class cabins where a monstrous wall of flame was bent on destroying everything in its wake. Keeping the nozzle aimed down, Gilbert began the arduous and dangerous task of coating the carpeted floor in warm sea water, the smoke stinging his throat, leaving the fifteen-year old retching as he tried to catch his breath and keep focused on the task at hand.
Just as Gilbert was starting to make a little progress with the fire, something utterly unexpected caught his eye.
A figure suddenly appeared at the cabin’s open door, grasping for the knob. The shape was short, slight, and covered in a jacket too big for their little frame. Their hair was pulled back and seemed black as coal, and the lower half of their face was covered in a scarf pulled tight about their nose and mouth. It was but a break in the smoke and the violent illumination offered by the crackling flames that allowed Gilbert to clearly make out the eyes of the insane person rushing for the fire rather than away.
He would know those grey eyes anywhere.
“ANNE!” Gilbert cried out, terrified at just how scared he sounded in his own ears as he stared at the girl across the wall of fire. Anne looked back at him, eyes wide and shiny with tears, but also edged with steely determination, and with only a narrowed scowl of her brow, Anne grabbed the doorknob with a towel-covered hand and slammed it shut, disappearing from sight. “Anne?! Anne!” Gilbert cried out, but he couldn’t take chase. All he could do was continue guiding the water spewing from the hose, more determined than ever to see the flames extinguished.
As he concentrated on his task, Gilbert could hear the distinct echo of other doors slamming shut, first near the fire and then further away. He couldn’t help imagining Anne trapped in the halls opaque with smoke, her eyes hurting and throat raw from the ashes, her red braids burning black like charcoal as her hair singed in the flames.
“Faster!” he commanded, needing the task to be over so he could find Anne.
But then something strange happened.
The flames started diminishing on their own.
They weren’t extinguishing spontaneously, the water was still needed for that, but they were losing their volume, the licking tongues of orange fire shrivelling mysteriously. Gilbert could tell it was more than the water that was dousing the fire, but what else it was he wasn’t certain. Still, it never did to stick one’s nose up at a miracle.
Once the fire in the first cabin was extinguished, Gilbert moved onto the second, and then the third, flabbergasted that the flames seemed less violent. It still took nearly an hour to fully eradicate the last smoldering ember, but when the job was done the Primrose was still afloat, the only unsalvageable victims of the blaze the six first-class cabins at the stern and some section of hallway that was blackened with smoke damage, the panelling blistered and the wallpaper curling in charred loops. It did not escape Gilbert’s notice that every door in the ship’s first-class section had been closed and linen shoved tight against the space between the frame and floor, as if someone had tried to plug up any crack that the fire and smoke may escape through.
“Gilbert!” Bash cried out when the fifteen-year old returned to the lower deck. “My God, your hand.”
“I have to find Anne,” Gilbert said.
“You have to go to the infirmary,” Bash corrected, steering the boy by his shoulders towards the sickbay. “We’ll have Dr. Caruthers look at that.”
“No! I have to find Anne!” Gilbert insisted, struggling in vain against Bash. “She was up there.”
“Smoke got in your eyes and you were seeing things,” Bash excused. “Anne ain’t daft. She’d have left the ship with the other girls and passengers.”
“She’s not daft, but she’s hardly sensible either!” Gilbert insisted. “Bash, I’m telling you I saw her.”
“Alright, you saw her,” Bash placated, though his dark eyes did betray a sliver of worry, “but I’m telling you that hand needs attention. Let’s get you to the doctor and I’ll go look for Anne.”
Knowing Bash was a man of his word was the only reason Gilbert relented and let himself be led to the sickbay. When they reached the chamber, it was a whole different kind of pandemonium to that of the fire. People in various layers of soot were wandering two-and-fro, holding injured limbs, or reeking of ointment applied to burns, or begging Doctor Caruthers for whiskey to numb their pain. Gilbert and Bash took in the scene, distraught and disappointed at how disorganized it all was, and at how callous the doctor seemed as he treated his patients.
Knowing he didn’t have a hope of speaking with Doctor Caruthers any time soon, Gilbert searched for a place to wait, eager to get Bash on his way so he could look for Anne, but when his hazel eyes alighted on the far right side of the infirmary, he froze.
Bash wouldn’t have to search for Anne, after all.
She was there, looking so little and helpless, laying as still as a statue on a cot tucked away in the corner of the infirmary. For one terrible minute, Gilbert was transported back to his parlour in Avonlea, seeing his father’s coffin propped under the large bay windows that looked out over the orchard, the white, lifeless shell that was John Blythe’s body cushioned perfectly in the polished oak, as if he were a missing puzzle piece come to rest in his rightful place.
Bash would later relate that the agonized cry that was ripped out of Gilbert’s throat was so shattering that it brought the entire sickbay to a standstill. People watched the young man with wide eyed fright as he dashed to the redhead, worried that his very soul had been crushed as he leaned over the girl’s body and shook her helplessly.
“Anne!” Gilbert barked, so afraid that she wouldn’t answer that he never noticed that the moment he’d started shaking her, her grey eyes had blinked open. All he could see was how white her skin seemed under the soot, her red braids burned all the way past her shoulders, her lips black from ash. It was his worst fear turned ugly reality. “Don’t be dead,” he begged, having to force the hateful word over his tongue. “Not you. Please, not you. I never said…I care about you so much! You’re my best friend, Anne, so please don’t be dead. Please! I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“Gilbert stop!” Bash commanded, pulling on the boy’s shoulder. “You’ll rattle poor Anne’s brain right outta her skull, you mook. Look. She’s awake.”
Drinking in deep gulps of air and blinking his hazel eyes rapidly, Gilbert finally focused on the present, and his heart absolutely collapsed when he found himself looking down into watery grey eyes.
“Anne!” he groaned, the tears pouring down his cheeks as if his eyes were storm clouds unleashing their fierce deluge. Though he tried to stop, Gilbert couldn’t seem to catch his breath long enough to get control of his crying, and so he continued to sob over his dear friend, shuddering when she raised a precious freckled hand to his cheek, accepting his tears against her skin, her fingers rubbing soothing circles against his damp curls.
“I’m sorry,” he interrupted, voice cracking and broken. “I’ve been an idiot. I never should have—”
“No, you shouldn’t,” Anne agreed, firm in her remark despite the little cough that caught in her throat. “I didn’t understand why –”
“I know,” he gasped. “But I’ll tell you. I should have told you from the start. I was just too angry…too confused.”
Her hand continued to play in his curls and across his cheek, letting Gilbert know she was alive and going to be fine, and that he could cry all he wanted, let all his feelings out before daring to try and explain everything. It was euphoric to be with someone who understood him so well, faults and all.
“Queen Anne,” Bash whispered kindly, patting Anne’s free hand. “What on earth goes on in that fool red head of yours? Why’re you still here? Why didn’t you leave with Daisy and the other girls?”
“Because the officers wouldn’t listen,” Anne insisted passionately. “I told them to shut the cabins’ doors and windows to starve the fire, but they did just the opposite.”
“So you ran back into hell to correct their mistake? What were you thinking?”
“Fire needs oxygen to grow, you know, so if you cut off the oxygen you cripple the flames.”
“And how would you be knowing such things?” Bash wondered.
“For a long time, all there was to read at the orphanage was the fire manual,” Anne answered simply, her uncomplicated response making Gilbert bark out a wet laugh. He adored Anne’s sassy quips and fascinating intelligence.
“I missed you so much,” he confessed, drawing the girl’s attention back to him, grey and hazel meeting over a space clustered with confusion, anger, and grief, “All these weeks I’ve been missing you,” Gilbert went on, “and I was almost too late to…too late. And Anne I’m sor—”
“I missed you, too,” Anne interrupted desperately. “So much! And I think I understand now, why you were so cross. What I said was harsh and insensitive.”
“The way I acted was deplorable.”
“But I should have thought before I spoke.”
“I shouldn’t have stayed mad for so long.”
“I could’ve tried to talk to you, but I was so furious.”
“I was blaming you unfairly.”
“I was holding a grudge.”
“How ‘bout you’re both chumps and you forgive each other?” Bash suggested, smiling through his own exasperated tears over the two adolescents and their competitive play at forgiveness.
Without breaking their gaze, both friends chuckled weakly at Bash’s suggestion. When Anne managed to nod her agreement with Bash’s perfect assessment, Gilbert turned his head so he could lay a soft kiss against Anne’s palm, heedless of how prettily she blushed at his action, instead focused only on his joy that she was alive and had found him worthy of her forgiveness.
It was as if the whole world had opened up to him in a way it never had before; as if the full potential of the unexplored earth was being offered to the young man on a platter of gold. Anne Shirley had forgiven him! Though he’d been unsure if he’d wanted such grace only hours before, finally having it made Gilbert realize that he’d been starving for it since the night he’d walked away from her. Now, with Anne’s faith in him so unquestionably tying them together like her perfect stitches, Gilbert Blythe was sure he could do anything.
“I’m sorry I almost ruined this,” he confessed, shaking his head when Anne opened her mouth as if to comment, and smiling when she listened and pressed her lips together. He didn’t need her critique or compassion just now.
He just needed her.
Exhausted and humbled and so happy, Gilbert lowered his head until his brow was resting against Anne’s, just like they had done in that same infirmary months ago when his fever had broken. Connected in that simple way, the boy and girl relished the moment, reeling in the reality that they were alive and returned to one another. It wouldn’t be their final fight (though it would be their longest), and as their friendship would bloom into something more textured and complex as the years passed, Anne and Gilbert would often look back on that wonderful, terrible day aboard the Primrose and be grateful that they had weathered the storm and won.
But those ruminations were many years away.
In the glorious present, Anne and Gilbert held one another, their hearts touching as surely as their brows, their tears mingling along the freckles of Anne’s cheeks, baptizing them into a new beginning filled with possibilities.
And they're back together!
And with the near death experience in the wake of their cataclysmic fight, they'll be stronger now than they ever were before. Does that mean they'll realize they're made for each other...remains to be seen, dear reader ;)
Of course, I'd love to hear your thoughts about the chapter. Please leave a comment, kudos, bookmark or subscribe and let me know. I can't believe we're two-thirds of the way through this beast! What else could possibly happen in five more chapters?
(...a lot. The answer is, a lot)
Chapter 11: Trinidad
Gilbert finally figures out what he wants to do.
Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth
“Your waters have broken,” Gilbert gasped, staring in slack-jawed shock at the moisture that creeped down the front of the crying woman’s skirt.
“We have to get help!” Bash gasped.
“No time,” Anne answered practically before scuttling out of the humid hut. Gilbert silently agreed with Anne’s assessment and stepped further into the ramshackle shelter.
“You stay away!” the woman cried, backing up until her heaving frame was braced against the rickety wall, her knees trembling under the pain of her contractions.
“I’m sorry, but your baby is coming,” Gilbert said, trying to keep his tone as level as possible despite the tension of the unexpected situation. Still, there was no one around to help this woman save for the three vagabond friends, and as long as he was able, Gilbert would always help his fellow man. Throwing his satchel off his shoulder, Gilbert removed his hat and started working the buttons of his waistcoat loose. “Bash, give me your rum.”
“Why?” Bash asked, almost numb as he took his flask from his back pocket, dark eyes trained with sympathetic fright on the pregnant woman shivering before them.
“I need to sterilize,” was Gilbert’s immediate answer as he grabbed for the flask.
“You crazy?!” Bash roared, making the woman groan and flinch away, her face turned so that one cheek rested against the dirty wall. Had he not been entirely focused on his young friend, Bash might have had the wherewithal to apologize for spooking the woman. “You ain’t delivering that baby!” the Trinidadian insisted, gripping tight to his flask of rum, refusing to let Gilbert snatch it from his hand.
“I’ve done it before!” Gilbert assured.
“Me too,” Anne followed, returning to the shack with an armful of stolen linen. Without a pause, Anne laid the cloth down and then started preparing a comfortable nest of quilts on the floor for the woman to see out her labour. “I’m sorry, but it’s all I could find,” she said sweetly to the upset woman. “May I ask your name?”
“…Ruth,” she said brokenly, barely looking at Anne as she spoke, clutching her belly and gritting her teeth as another painful contraction swept through her body. Anne cringed in sympathy and worked faster to prepare the space.
“Ruth,” Anne said kindly, “we’re going to help you. Everything will be fine.” Then she turned to Gilbert and Bash. “I have a pot of water set for boiling on a fire outside,” she instructed, laying out layers of blankets over the mud and straw laden floor. “We’ll need to sterilize an instrument to cut the cord when the baby comes. Do either of you have a knife?”
“Enough!” Bash demanded, staring with crazed panic between the boy and girl. “You two are only babes yourselves; you can’t be delivering babies.”
“I told you I’ve delivered babies before,” Gilbert insisted.
“On a farm! Cows. Horses. Pigs. This is different.”
“Not particularly,” Anne argued calmly, rolling her sleeves up past her elbows and adjusting the ribbon tied round her head, keeping her hair, shorn short after being singed in the Primrose’s fire several weeks ago, out of her eyes. “And I’ve assisted in delivering seven human babies, with two sets of twins in that number. You have to trust us, Bash.”
That revelation shocked both men, and Gilbert couldn’t deny that the new knowledge left him feeling rather in awe of the lithe girl that was his best friend.
“Anne –” Bash started, but he clamped his lips shut when Gilbert placed a hand on Bash’s shoulder and spoke.
“I know this isn’t ideal. I’m very certain that Ruth wishes she had better help, but as it is, we are the only option,” he said solemnly. “Anne and I are going to help. You can either go find a doctor, or you can stay with us.”
Gilbert watched as Bash took a few seconds to take in their reality and nearly pulled the man into a fierce hug when he released his hold on the flask and removed his jacket so he could start rolling up his own shirt sleeves. Gilbert uncorked the liquor and poured a generous amount over his fingers, hands and forearms, before doing the same for Anne and Bash.
“Right,” the fifteen-year old said, steeling himself for the terrifying challenge he was about to face. “Ruth,” he started, turning towards the woman and taking slow, careful steps towards her. “I know you must be scared—”
“You stay away from me!” Ruth demanded, pointing an accusing finger at Gilbert as she pressed tighter against the wall. The feral horror that flashed in Ruth’s brown eyes as she stared at Gilbert had the young man battling a wave a nausea as he realized why she was frightened by his approach. It made him wonder if the baby Ruth was about to birth was one conceived by choice, and from the way Ruth’s lip trembled and her body curled away as if in preparation to deflect an attack, Gilbert was certain he knew the answer, and it made his heart pinch in painful commiseration.
“Ruth,” Anne said, coming to stand beside Gilbert, keeping her hands open before her, within Ruth’s sight, “your baby’s coming now. I’m sorry, I know it’s terribly inconvenient, and painful, and scary, but we can help you.”
Ruth blinked rapidly, focus shifting between the boy and girl with mistrustful urgency.
“You,” she said finally, jutting her chin at Anne. “Just you. Keep the white man away from me.”
“Keep him back!” Ruth hollered, over Anne’s pleading.
“Miss?’ Bash said, stepping forward, removing his hat and nodding respectfully. Ruth stared at Bash, but did not let down her guard, even as she gave the man her attention. “I know what you must be thinking. This pasty fella trying to come at you? Can’t blame you for shying away, and I wasn’t sure when I first met him, neither. But I know him now. He’s a good man, with a good heart, good intentions, and he knows birthing. He’s my brother, and I trust him.”
Ruth sobbed, her body starting to sag down the wall, the woman becoming far too overwhelmed with everything happening within and without her body. Seeing her so distraught left Gilbert clenching his fists, his instinct urging him to go to this human in need and assist, but Anne’s hand gripping his wrist kept him anchored. She seemed to have faith in Bash’s approach, and Gilbert knew he’d have to trust in his friends.
“Alright, Ruth. You’re the Mama-to-be, so you call the shots. I can go for the doctor –”
“No!” Ruth begged, reaching for Bash and curling her fingers around the cuff of his trousers. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no…stay here.”
“We will,” Bash assured. “All of us. We’re here for you, in truth, if you’ll have us.”
With a final frightened assessment of her three saviours, Ruth at last nodded her consent, although the fear did not leave her eyes, it merely battled with the pain.
“Thank you,” Gilbert said as Anne instantly went to the woman’s side and took her hand.
“Let’s lay you down,” she urged. Bash quickly moved to support Ruth’s other side, and together he and Anne urged the woman onto the nest of blankets as Gilbert took in the scene, organizing his thoughts and planning out his actions for the tasks that needed to be followed for a safe delivery.
“Get behind her, Bash,” Anne instructed and was met with a curious look from the man.
“To support her,” Gilbert added, nodding when Bash did as he was instructed, looking to the two young adolescents for guidance. “That’s good.”
“What now?” Bash wondered, bracing his bent legs around Ruth’s body, taking on her weight and pressing his thighs into her hips.
“Dilation,” Anne replied, looking to Gilbert for a confirming nod.
“What’s that?” Ruth cried.
“I need to see that your body’s prepared,” Gilbert answered, hazel eyes going wide when it occurred to him exactly what he’d have to do. Knelling between Ruth’s spread knees, Gilbert took a breath to compose himself. Then, unconsciously, he looked over at Anne, his eyes almost seeking her approval to continue. The girl gave a nod, and with a breath, Gilbert pressed forward. “Begging your pardon, miss,” he said kindly, waiting for Ruth to give her consent before he lifted her skirts.
If the situation wasn’t so panicked, Gilbert might have had the grace to be bashful. After all, it was his first time seeing the mystery of what lay under a woman’s dress, a subject the lads at school were just starting to become curious about when Gilbert had left Avonlea. He’d been curious, too, but the burgeoning interest in girls and their bodies had been swiftly eclipsed by his father’s illness. In fact, it wasn’t really until his kiss with Daisy that Gilbert even acknowledged that he was beginning to wonder about the fairer sex again, but he certainly never could have imagined that the first time he’d behold one of life’s greatest mysteries, it would be in the middle of a shanty town at the edge of the world.
Trinidad was spectacular.
The gem of an island was all that Bash promised it would be.
The water was turquoise, a colour so rich and vibrant that Gilbert was sure he’d never seen anything so pretty, except maybe when he’d noticed the hue seemed to magically change Anne’s eyes from grey to green, making him think of the marbles his classmates would play with, all so smooth and shiny with swirling colours.
The colour of the water was barely a proper preview of the exotic beauty that awaited Gilbert once his feet finally made their first daring step on Trinidadian soil. The Port of Spain was magnificent, with palm trees taller than most mansions Gilbert had seen, and wagons being bustled back and forth, their flats groaning with goods, and people of every creed wandering amongst stalls, selling or buying or spying or thieving.
There was an ivory stone custom’s office that rose above the chaos of the harbour, like a skinny lighthouse beckoning weary sailors to its shores, promising refuge and rest.
Gilbert remembered taking a breath then, trying to get his bearings, and his senses had been so overwhelmed with the spice in the air (salt, thyme, curry, coriander, heat) that his eyes had welled up as his brain tried to process everything that was attacking his olfactory system. His mouth had watered instantly, and he was quickly after Bash to show him where they could find a tropical dish to whet the appetite. When Anne threw her voice into the mix, Bash had no choice but to bring the pair to a nearby market.
Gilbert recalled how entranced Anne was watching Bash haggle, giggling as the man gestured wildly and used words neither adolescent understood with the stubborn stall huckster. While Bash bartered, they kept themselves entertained in the market by pointing out old women carrying buckets of crab, tracing their fingertips along light cotton fabrics, and watching children play a game of football while their parents worked the stalls. They came across one vendor who was shilling polished seashells and might have made a sale save for the fact that the man had ridiculed the coffee bean bracelet Anne was wearing, suggesting she trade in the dirty piece for one of his more refined accessories.
The verbal thrashing the man had received from Anne was so entertaining Gilbert was determined to write every detail down when he returned to the Primrose so the memory would live on in posterity. Anne had been fanatical in her poetic defence of her bracelet, declaring it more valuable than any crown, more polished than any gemstone, and more sentimental than any troth ring in creation. Gilbert had blushed a bit at the last comparison, but his bashfulness was equal parts humility and pride.
He’d certainly had had no intention of interrupting Anne as she’d reprimanded the vendor, so it was rather lucky that Bash had eventually come along with some mangos and cups of strong black coffee to distract the riled-up girl and save the unsuspecting jewelry-maker.
Mangos were, by far, Gilbert’s favourite part of Trinidad.
The flesh had been moist and so sweet, the flavour unlike anything Gilbert had tried. Anne had likened it to taking a bite of sunshine with none of the heat, only the delicious pleasantness that coursed through your body as it absorbed the joy of a happy yellow ray.
It was a perfectly poetic way of describing the foreign taste, and Gilbert had been sure he could hear his father chuckling in approval over the metaphor in the back of his mind.
Other fascinating experiences in Trinidad had included listening to a three-man street band play several catchy melodies that Bash had told them was Calypso music. They also observed part of a play, all spoken in French and performed in a shallow cavity of dirt with the ledge of the hollow the only place for spectators to sit and watch the actors who were disguised in masks adorned with feathers. They strolled past hotels grand and modest, stopping for Bash to explain the history of a building, or for Anne to admire a basket of flowers hanging along verandas, or for Gilbert to pet a tethered horse and remember, with great fondness, his own champagne mare back in Prince Edward Island.
They’d walked the long straight drive to a grand mansion and had met Bash’s mother, ate her spectacular bush-medicine soup, and Anne and Gilbert had comforted their friend as best they could when Bash had revealed the pain of being raised by a woman whose time was spent mothering other children rather than her own.
As their afternoon had waned, the trio had found themselves in another market, off to visit a friend of Bash’s who was a net-maker when they’d stumbled across Ruth. She’d been begging for sanctuary in the whorehouse that had been her only home until she’d become pregnant, and in her fear and humiliation, the woman had retreated to the terrible shanty they were all in now, waters broken, skirt hoisted up her thighs, and three strangers, none of which were doctors, her only aid.
Gilbert wished there was time to truly absorb the moment and how radical it all was.
He was just one month shy of turning sixteen, a world traveller, someone who had seen exotic ports, explored foreign shores, someone who had saved a ship from water and fire, who battled illness, talked on a telephone, kissed a girl, and stoked the engine of a ship. And now, he was beholding a woman’s most private part for the first time and was about to assist in delivering a baby.
If only Avonlea could see him now.
If only his father could see him now.
Ruth was certainly dilated, probably nearly open enough to start pushing. The baby wasn’t yet crowning, though, so Gilbert would have to inspect her progress. Gently, Gilbert guided his hand, still damp from Bash’s rum, to the woman’s vaginal opening, two fingers trembling as they slipped inside, seeking confirmation that the baby was on its way, but when his fingertips traced against something that did not feel like the moist, soft downy crown of a little human head, his brows pinched and his lips twisted into a frown.
Something was wrong.
“Gilbert? What is it?” Anne asked. Looking to his friend, Gilbert gestured for Anne to join him, holding up Ruth’s skirts for Anne to see before guiding her fingers to feel what he had. When Anne’s grey eyes widened in concern, he knew his suspicion had been right.
“What? What’s wrong?” Ruth asked through grit teeth.
“The baby’s breech,” Gilbert said
“What does that mean?” Ruth demanded, hands clamped like vices over Bash’s knees.
“The baby’s facing the wrong way,” Anne explained.
“It’s not in a deliverable position,” Gilbert added. “Anne do you –”
“No,” she said with a panicked shake of her head. “It’s never happened to me before,” she admitted. Ruth let out another pain choked screech then, her head falling back on Bash’s shoulder as the man remained as steady as possible, keeping the woman supported but at a complete loss over what else he might do.
Gilbert knew he had to act quickly.
“Ruth? Ruth, I need you to listen,” he implored as patiently as possible, letting the woman’s next contract ebb before continuing. “Your baby is facing the wrong way. You can’t start pushing just now. We need the baby to move.”
Ruth wailed, nodding her head, the only way she was able to give consent as the pain overwhelmed her.
Rising to his knees, Gilbert leaned over Ruth and started cupping her protruding belly, pressing hard as he felt for the baby’s position. When he thought he found the head, he grabbed Anne’s hand and had her do the same, wanting her confirmation before taking his next steps.
The baby’s head, at least, was pointing in the right direction, it just seemed that its foot had managed to breech the birth canal first. If Gilbert could manage to dislodge the foot and encourage the baby’s head to slide into position, then there was a chance. Placing one hand strategically, Gilbert pushed hard.
“Stop!” Ruth cried out, begging and trembling.
“Blythe!” Bash roared, afraid as the woman he cradled was filled with excruciating pain.
“Keep going,” Anne encouraged, her voice the only steady strength in this terrible storm. Gilbert did push again, thinking he felt the baby’s foot shift. Next, he’d have to encourage the head, but as he repositioned himself to Ruth’s other side so he could concentrate, he noticed the woman was gasping with fear, skin clammy and lips chapped and eyes filled with exhaustion.
“I can’t,” she told him weakly, her sobs having lost their potency as she sagged against Bash’s chest in a defeated slump.
“Ruth? Hey, hey, Ruth, look at me,” Gilbert requested, desperate to not see the light in the woman’s dark eyes go out. He wanted to help her, wanted her to see her baby, wanted the baby to be born and live. But Ruth was so tired and afraid, Gilbert knew she needed some single strand of hope to hold on to; something that would keep her going, just a little bit longer. Without even realizing it, Gilbert opened his mouth and spoke a truth he hadn’t given voice to since he was six years old. “Do you wanna know something?” he asked, words rapid and desperate. “I was a breech baby, too. I swear it, I was, and look! I lived to tell the tale.”
Anne and Bash were both as startled by the revelation as Ruth, their eyes wide as they looked to their friend. Gilbert paid them no mind, his complete focus on the mother-to-be.
“If my mother could do it, you can, too!”
“He’s right,” Anne agreed, dabbing Ruth’s brow with a clean strip of linen.
“Yes,” Bash added, speaking calmly in the woman’s ear. “See him? He was in his mother, just like your baby is in you now. He got stuck but that didn’t stop him. He came out, strong, strapping lad, kinda skinny, but healthy. He was born to help you, Ruth.”
Ruth swallowed great gulps of air as if she were drinking water, and once her lungs were full she nodded her head for Gilbert to continue to correct the breech. Relieved, Gilbert did just that, instructing Anne to help him as the pair pushed against Ruth’s belly, feeling the baby squirm in the womb.
“Hold on,” Gilbert said to Anne, pressing a hand over hers in the place he wanted it along Ruth’s belly before he returned to the woman’s open knees and checked the baby’s progress. When he looked under her skirts that time, Gilbert almost sobbed when he saw the tell-tale signs of a crowning head.
“Its moved,” he announced victoriously, smiling at Ruth who didn’t smile back. “The baby’s ready.”
“You’ll have to start pushing now,” Anne instructed, shifting her own position so that she could support one of Ruth’s legs, keeping it wide and raised for the labour to follow.
“It hurts,” Ruth wept. “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can!” Gilbert and Anne declared together.
“On the next contraction you push!” Anne said, holding Ruth’s hand when the next wave of pain did come, the woman doing as she was told and pushing with all her might. Anne counted to ten as Ruth pushed, telling the woman to cease once the countdown was over and take a few, well-earned deep breaths.
The pushing went on for another hour.
There were moments Gilbert was certain Ruth would pass out from the exertion, and certainly there was blood and other mess secreting from her, but Anne had assured Gilbert it was all very normal and nothing for them to worry about just yet.
“You’re doing so well,” Anne had said kindly as she dabbed a cool cloth against Ruth’s neck. “Only a few more pushes and your baby will be in your arms.”
“Are you ready?” Gilbert asked. He’d laid out several pieces of linen under Ruth, has hands now cupping the baby’s nearly fully exposed head. One or two more hard pushes should release the rest of the head and the shoulders, and then the rest of the baby should slip out as easy as anything. “Push!”
“Come on, Ruth!” Anne encouraged.
“You can do it!” Bash added, steadfast and firm behind the woman throughout her labour.
“Almost there,” Gilbert exclaimed when the baby’s head was finally free of its mother, their little face scrunched up with closed eyes and mouth. “One more. You’ve got this!”
And with a ferocious roar, Ruth diverted all of her strength into that final push, her scream raucous enough to shake the wobbly foundations of the flimsy shack they were cooped up in, the yell only eclipsed by the ear-splitting bawl that rose up from between the woman’s legs.
Gilbert held his breath when the baby came out, his hands cupping the new life with a tender firmness.
“You did it!” Anne exclaimed, moving towards Gilbert and doing her best to swath the baby in clean linen while the tiny thing cried and cried. Gilbert hadn’t realized it, but he was crying, too, tears trailing down his cheeks, into the grooves of his dimples and off the edge of his chin. He was smiling so wide it felt as if his face might split, but none of that mattered because there was a living, breathing, crying baby wriggling in his hold.
He was holding a miracle in the palm of his hands, and Gilbert had never felt more in awe of the Almighty, or more humble that he’d somehow been an instrument of His will.
“It’s a girl,” he said to Ruth, carefully placing the baby on the woman’s chest, her arms rising up to cup her child with instinctual maternal tenderness. Gilbert beheld the tableau like the shepherds must have observed the nativity, his very being overcome with reverence, the kind of which he hadn’t been able to feel for the mysteries of life and God since his father had died in his arms.
In a strange way, Gilbert had forgotten that God was just as responsible for life as He was death. The two were integral to the human experience and having exposed Gilbert so thoroughly to one part of the grand design, Gilbert was overwhelmingly grateful that He had seen fit to show Gilbert that there was more to the mortal coil than illness and demise.
There was life, new, and untouched, and innocent.
And he could be part of that, be there for the start of a cycle rather than at the end, and with that understanding, a seed was planted in Gilbert’s soul, the young roots latching good and tight, and the first sprig of something wonderful began to bloom.
While Ruth counted her daughter’s fingers and toes, and Bash looked on with slack-jawed stupefaction, Anne showed Gilbert how to cut and bind the umbilical cord. They helped talk Ruth through delivering the afterbirth, and Anne disposed of the mess as efficiently as possible while Gilbert did his best to clean Ruth and try not to stare too much with genuine curiosity as she brought the baby to her breast for a feeding.
The trio escorted Ruth to a convent, the sisters welcoming the single mother and her child with a poised gentleness that Gilbert hoped would continue once they left. Ruth had thanked them, even said she’d call the baby ‘Anne’, but changed her mind to ‘Cordelia’ when Anne pleaded with the woman not to saddle her darling daughter with such an ordinary name.
After parting ways, the trio found themselves sitting on a crooked dock just as the sun was setting.
The wood was warm under their legs, the water cool on their feet as they rested their toes in the sea, waiting with lethargic ease for the dinghy to return from the Primrose and ferry them to the ship. The sky was a painting of reds and oranges, the rays of sunlight dancing off the water’s surface and creating sapphire sparkles for miles. It made Gilbert realize for the first time how truly far away from home he was.
“Wouldn’t mind having one of those,” Bash said, tipping his head back and letting his face be kissed by the rays of the lowering sun. “A struggling, wailing little fella. Could be nice.”
“I could see that for you,” Gilbert said, not even flinching when Anne suddenly laid her head against his shoulder and snuggled into his side. She was warm and comfortable beside him, as if that was her reserved place to cozy up. It felt good.
“It’s just a thought,” Bash shrugged, ignoring the pair’s odd show of affection, having grown very used to it in the last several weeks. “But I think I’d like it. Throw the ball with a little Bash. Teach ‘im knots, and cards –”
“I’ll teach them cards,” Anne insisted. “They might stand a chance of winning, then.”
“Maybe I’ll bouff ‘im when he backchats,” Bash sassed back.
“Oh no!” Anne pleaded, leaning across Gilbert so Bash could see the seriousness of her expression. “Give them extra chores, or make them recite Bible verses, or have them do a whole chapter of geometry, but don’t hit them. It’s so horrendous when children are struck, and I know you’d never be that kind of parent.”
“Just a cuff ‘round the ears if he curses, maybe,” Bash countered, startled by how serious Anne took his jovial imaginings of a future family.
“Not even that,” she insisted, and Gilbert could suddenly feel his friend quaking against him. Gently, he raised an arm and laid it heavily across Anne’s back, his hand cupping her shoulder as his thumb rubbed firm circles at the base of her neck to soothe her tremors.
It was painful to know that there was only one reason Anne could be so impassioned on the subject of beating children. It wasn’t the first time Gilbert had wondered if Anne had been abused. There were little scars on her arms that she never explained, and sometimes when someone yelled in anger, even if it wasn’t at her, she would flinch or go terribly stiff, as if waiting to leap out of the way of an attack. She also had a habit of observing a room every time she entered, taking note of each door and window, and often sitting with her front facing a noticeable exit. It was clear if one took the time to think about it, that Anne was someone who knew cruelty, and worse than that, had been conditioned to expect it. It made the fact she was so kind and optimistic that much more of a miracle.
It made Gilbert want to be a better person.
“Forgive me, Anne,” Bash said sincerely, bowing at the girl. “You’re right. I wouldn’t have it in me to raise a finger to any child of mine. You needn’t worry. ‘Sides, got no way to raise him up right anyhow, so there’s little hope of seeing young Bashs running around. Need land for that. Structure. Roots.”
“Home,” Gilbert added without meaning to, feeling his companions stare in surprise at his stoic expression.
“And just what sort of strange child were you, hmm, Blythe?”
“I wasn’t!” Gilbert defended.
“Why did you know about your breech birth?” Anne asked, moving out of Gilbert’s hold and pinning him with her large, curious grey-green eyes.
“Exactly! What fool needs to know how he came into this world?” Bash added.
“I didn’t want to know about my birth,” Gilbert explained, a resigned peacefulness coming over him. “I wanted to know about my mother. So, I asked my father, and he told me all about how hard she laboured bringing me here, and how she saw me and named me just before she died, only an hour after I was born.”
“Gil…” Anne gasped, arms reaching around him without restraint to hug him tight.
“Sorry, Blythe. My brain is slow,” Bash apologized awkwardly, patting a heavy hand against Gilbert’s back.
“It’s alright,” Gilbert said sincerely, hugging Anne back with one hand while slapping Bash’s knee with the other. “It was a long time ago. I’ve made my peace with it.”
“Probably best you didn’t tell Ruth that bit,” Anne said, trying to bring some levity to the solemn moment, and managing to succeed in part when both Bash and Gilbert gave her crooked grins. Letting go of her friend, but still keeping close enough that their shoulders brushed, Anne closed her eyes and let out a long, unrestrained sigh. “Today has been…a most miraculous day.”
Bash and Gilbert couldn’t agree more.
And as he stared at the tangerine sky, the young man felt as if he was looking at the horizon of his future, his destiny calling out to him from somewhere past the edge of the sea and sky, beckoning him to return, promising that the way forward was the way back.
And in that serene moment of calm and clarity, Gilbert Blythe finally knew what he wanted to do.
The famous Trinidad/birth scene!
Not sure if any of you saw it coming, but here it is! Of course, I had to write this scene because it is this moment when Gilbert finally figures out what he wants to do with his life. Helping with the birth of this baby is literally the first step he takes on his journey to becoming a doctor, and not only was this harrowing to write from his perspective, but to have Anne there this time...it didn't really change things, but it certainly gave them some additional layers.
So, now that Gilbert knows he wants to be a doctor, the long journey home will start.
Please, if you felt so inclined, leave your thoughts via comment, kudos, bookmark or subscription to this story. I can't believe we're in the last quarter of this fic and steadily making our way towards the end. Pretty soon, we'll all be back in Avonlea, readers! Just a few more ports of call and then we'll be safely home.
Chapter 12: San Juan
Gilbert's made up his mind, now he just has to convince Bash and Anne.
Of the progress of the souls of men and women along the grand roads of the universe, all other progress is the needed emblem and sustenance
“It will take two years, but that works out perfectly since it will take me at least that long to catch up on what I’ve missed in school and be able to perform well on the entrance exams and compete for a spot in college.
“My dad taught me all about farming; my grandfather even published a leaflet on fertilizer over sixty years ago that most of the town still refers to as a reliable resource. I can teach you all the Blythe family farming secrets, make you my partner and my brother. We’ll work the land, bring it back to life so that you’ll have something that’s yours…something you can share with a family of your own someday; maybe even some little Bashs biting at your ankles. There’s legacy at the orchard, and security, sustainability, consistency, roots. It’s all for the taking.
“I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else. We’ll do it together. Fair and square.
“So, what do you say?”
Gilbert bit his bottom lip as he waited for Bash’s answer, his hands nervously rubbing together atop the table.
Admittedly, his speech hadn’t been as polished as he’d hoped. He’d rehearsed it in his head many times, even presented it to Anne hoping she’d inject some of her impassioned poetry into his reasoning, giving him a bit of rhetorical panache so that he could woo Bash to agree to his scheme. Strangely, Anne hadn’t offered up any enthusiastic criticism. Instead, she’d simply told Gilbert that she had no doubt Bash would agree to the plan, then insisted she had chores to finish (Anne never put the priority of chores over anything else) and had left the boy alone and confused in their usual corner on the lower deck.
Gilbert would confront Anne about her strange behaviour eventually, having learned that the girl often needed time to process her feelings long before she was ever ready to talk about them, even to a kindred spirit. And so, the sixteen-year old had gone ahead and invited Bash out for a drink when they docked in San Juan. Insisting on paying for the first round, Gilbert had waited until they were on their second before positing his idea.
“I’ve been thinking about it ever since Trinidad,” he continued when Bash remained silent. “I know I’ve been fickle about Avonlea and what I want to do with my life. Remember when you called me a tourist? You said I have options, and you’re right. I’ve made up my mind. I don’t want to be a tourist. And I don’t want to be a farmer. “
“You’ve said that before,” Bash commented, the first words he’d uttered since Gilbert sprung his scheme on him. “You know what you want now?”
“Yes,” Gilbert said, conviction shining with blinding clarity from his hazel eyes.
“And you’re sure what you want is back in Avonlea?”
Gilbert knew he’d been harsh about his hometown and was embarrassed that it had taken him such a ridiculously long time to forgive what had felt, in the moment, like reprehensible transgressions by his neighbours and friends. In those first dark days after his father’s death, Gilbert had only been able to see callous and selfish motivations behind the actions of the townspeople. His ten months at sea, and the wealth of experiences he’d had in that time, gifted Gilbert with a completely different and wonderful perspective.
Where once the minister had been morbid and cold during his father’s funeral, Gilbert now saw a man who was afflicted with the burden of overseeing the death of members of his congregation over and over again, perhaps seeking to protect his own heart from breaking by keeping a pious distance and encouraging trust in the word of God rather than fumble with his own words at attempts to comfort.
Where once Charlie, Moody and Billy had been crass and thoughtless in their efforts at goading Gilbert into games of hockey just two days after the funeral, Gilbert now recognized that his friends were mere boys, the same as he, only they’d been blessed with innocent ignorance to the trauma of illness and death, and in their immature blundering they’d just been trying to cheer up a friend in mourning the only way they knew how.
Where once Mrs. Lynde was a nosy old gossip trying to pry personal information from Gilbert at every opportunity, Gilbert now recognized a kindly neighbour who’d been concerned for his health, bringing dish after dish of food for nearly a fortnight, insisting the boy eat while she tidied the house, talking the whole while not because she was seeking scandal, but because talking was simply what Rachel Lynde did.
Where once Diana and Ruby said with wooden insincerity that they were sorry for his loss, Gilbert saw two of the prettiest girls in school doing their best to express their honest sympathy as prim and properly as their mothers would have expected of them.
Where once the Barrys and the Pyes and the Sloans asked about the possibility of his selling his land, Gilbert now understood that, in their own economical way, the heads of those households were trying to make life a little easier on the now orphan Blythe by offering money to help smooth his way down a path that was certain to be difficult, especially without a father to guide him.
And where once Mathew Cuthbert had offered with stuttering awkwardness to help Gilbert with his orchard, Gilbert now realized how very arduous that proposal must have been for the shy man, which could only mean that he truly did have the boy’s best interests at heart.
Avonlea was community, and home, and the past, and now Gilbert could see it was the very place he needed to be to start his future.
“Yes,” he said, the word a clear and ringing truth.
“Guess your island’s calling out to you, eh, Doc?”
Gilbert smiled back at his friend, feeling silly for being surprised that Bash had hit the nail on the head.
“I need to finish school first, and get into college, then medical school, but I’m sure I can do it,” Gilbert said, staring into his pint of ale. “When we helped Ruth…Bash it was incredible.”
“If you say so,” Bash joked, taking a swig of his tumbler of rum. “I only remember being scared half outta my wits.”
“Good thing you weren’t looking at things from where I was sitting,” Gilbert joked back, laughing heartily when Bash visibly paled for imagining the gruesome sight of childbirth.
“And that’s why mooks like me aren’t made to be doctors,” he replied.
“But what of farmers?” Gilbert asked, sincere and eager to know his friend’s answer.
“I won’t abandon you,” the sixteen-year old said earnestly, “not until you’ve got a good enough grasp of it on your own. The orchard has always been profitable. You won’t live like a king, or even a like a wealthy landowner, but you’ll be comfortable. It’s hard work, but I know you aren’t afraid of that. The apples are so sweet, they always sell, and I’ll help with the sowing and harvest and export even when I’m away at college. The house will be our home, a place for us and your wife when you manage to meet her and trick her into marriage someday. So, do you think that’s something you’d want?”
“I must admit, its sounds nice,” Bash sighed, seeming as if he was envisioning all of Gilbert’s pretty promises. “Never saw myself as a farmer before.”
“But…the idea is tempting.”
“Have I convinced you, then?” Gilbert asked, on the edge of excitement but not daring to leap off the cliff until he had Bash’s absolute consent. “The Blythe-Lacroix Orchard has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”
Bash was quiet for a long while, sipping at his rum and examining Gilbert’s sincere expression. Gilbert managed to keep patient, reminding himself that he was asking Bash to risk everything on the promises of a boy he’d known barely four months. The leap of faith Gilbert was requesting was huge, and he did not fault Bash for being wary.
So, when the Trinidadian smiled and held his open palm out to Gilbert over the table, Gilbert was certain his heart had exploded in his chest.
“You make a convincing argument, Blythe,” Bash complimented. “I think this farming thing could be one of the better ideas you’ve had.”
Gilbert took Bash’s hand in his and shook it vigorously, laughing all the while.
“You won’t regret this, Bash,” he vowed.
“Of that I’m not so sure. But this body’s tired of the sea and wouldn’t mind takin’ up roots someplace with a house and land and family. Be nice to have a home…a brother.”
Gilbert nodded, agreeing with Bash wholeheartedly. Filled with joy, the young man raised his glass and waited for Bash to do the same.
“To our new adventure,” Gilbert said.
“To Avonlea,” Bash countered, clinking their glasses together before they finished off their booze. “Speaking of adventure, have you talked to Anne about all this?”
“A bit,” Gilbert said with a shrug. “She doesn’t seem to want to talk about it, to be honest.”
“She sad?” Bash wondered, ordering another rum.
“No?” Gilbert guessed. “I mean, she might be, she never lets me talk about it long enough to find out.”
“You need to make things right with your girl.”
“It’s not like that,” Gilbert said, his tone no longer carrying the heat it used to when correcting Bash on his relationship with Anne. “She’s my best friend.”
“No more of that,” Bash admonished. “You’re making grown-up dealings now, so it’s time you act the part in everything. Be a man, Blythe.”
“Only a boy can’t admit when he’s gone over a lady. You want Anne to come back with you to Avonlea, then you better be able to tell her how you feel when she asks why.”
Gilbert had no quick comeback for that sage advice. Instead, he, too, ordered another drink and spent the next hour reviewing farming terms and seasonal deadlines with Bash. The conversation was light-hearted but energized with the promise of a shared future filled with fruitful possibilities.
It was twilight when the pair sauntered out of the pub, Gilbert only lightly buzzed while Bash was certainly flying a bit higher, his body having gone lax and flexible, like a marionette.
“Think you can make your way back to the ship?” Gilbert joked when he had to steady Bash after he’d tripped over a stone along the Calle Tiburcio Reyes.
The Pearl was certainly a beguiling name for the slum Gilbert and Bash had found themselves in, the derelict flats cobbled together with wood and stone that looked as if it had been pilfered from the seashore, everything salt-weathered and cracked. The ocean was nearly lapping at their toes, its constant rumble and crash a hypnotizing drone that covered the neighbourhood like a fog. Though most of the crooked, cramped houses of The Pearl were painted in vibrant shades evocative of the most perfect rainbow, there was a darkness that permeated the area.
Twice Gilbert caught sight of prostitutes pleasuring clients against narrow alley walls, the women down on their knees while the men would grunt and thrust, nary a care that they were copulating for anyone to see. Then there was the strange smell that wafted from more than one doorway. When Gilbert wanted to know what the perplexing perfume was and why the men and women who exited those buildings all had eyes dark as midnight and expressions of numb bliss, Bash was quick to steer him across the road or drag him rapidly away.
They continued walking west out of The Pearl, following the street until they came upon a long white stone enclosure illuminated by the fluttery flame of lamplights. Reading a sign, Gilbert reported to his companion that this was the place where they were to meet up with Anne. Taking a moment to gaze over the stockade, Gilbert paused, flabbergasted, both amazed and creeped out by what he saw.
The cemetery that stretched out before him was like an art gallery.
Crypts of smooth ivory stone, graceful statues of angels drooping over tombs in anguished grief, and cenotaphs with crucifixes tipped in gold were scattered along the land. There were flowers at every grave, some planted in the narrow lines of grass the grew between the rows, others sitting in clay pots on nearby benches, and even more strung together in fanciful crowns that were then draped with graceful artistry across plaques or outlining the edges of a sarcophagus. Then there were the candles! It seemed there were a million winking little flames, each grave home to a family of dripping wax tapers, casting the white rock in a moving shade of orange as twilight eased into night. It was as if the cemetery itself was alive and warm with the spirits ensconced in its earth and stone.
Gilbert remembered Daisy saying the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery was rumored to be unlike any resting place in the world. It was not a place of dread and death, nothing so solemn and humble as the Blythe family graveyard, but rather a corner of the world that seemed to have a foot in both the realm of the living and the Great Beyond; a living burial ground.
Witnessing this majestic oxymoron had been the outing Daisy, Anne, and many of the other girls had elected to take during the evening’s shore leave. Anne had reported to Gilbert and Bash that, amongst the housekeeping lasses, there was a sudden craze for anything to do with the macabre and supernatural. Though Gilbert hadn’t been able to wrap his mind around such a perplexing fixation, as he crossed under the yellow and white arched gateway that guarded the cemetery’s entrance, the sixteen year old thought he might at last have an inkling of why people were so drawn to such a morbid place.
Dying was ghastly. It was your body withering, your mind flickering, and your soul heaving for merciful release from a world of tragedy and pain.
But death…it could be devastatingly beautiful.
Death could be carved in marble. It could tell a story, or a lie, and it could be shaped into something monumental or sobering. It could be painted in colour or cast in lonely shadows. As Anne might say, it could be tragically romantical, and for the first time, Gilbert thought he could truly see that gloomy allure.
Looking behind him, Gilbert spotted Bash taking a seat upon a bare bench, stretching out his legs and crossing his ankles as if he might lounge and take a short nap sitting up while he waited for Gilbert to finish his lollygagging.
“Just come back for me when you find Anne, eh?” the man requested, eyes closed, yet intuitively knowing what was going on in Gilbert’s mind. Shaking his head, Gilbert started walking down the gravel path.
The cemetery was just as populated with the living as it was with the dead, whole families of dozens gathering around graves to mourn, or celebrate, tend to flowers, light candles, or even just talk. Gilbert remembered the last time he spoke to his father’s grave, having forced himself to say goodbye to the grey headstone and hoping John Blythe’s spirit might hear him.
Gilbert didn’t have to look for long before he spotted the Primrose’s gaggle of laundry lasses and maids. They were gathered around a very animated looking fellow who seemed to be eagerly telling the group the history of whichever famous personage was buried in the mausoleum behind him. His English wasn’t the best, but his passion and engaging story-telling more than made up for his stilted vocabulary.
As Gilbert approached the group, it didn’t escape his notice that Anne was not nestled in the thick of things. Curious, he stood back and waited until he could catch Daisy’s eye, flashing the brunette a questioning tilt of his head, knowing she’d understand what he was asking.
‘Have you seen Anne?’
Releasing an overly exaggerated exasperated sigh, Daisy rolled her eyes playfully before jutting her chin forward, instructing Gilbert to look past the crypt towards the edge of the cemetery.
‘Over there you idiot.’
And standing amongst tombs twice her size, Gilbert finally spotted Anne. Her back was to the group, her total attention captured by the astounding vista of ocean and sky, the horizon having changed into a fantastic shade of vibrant blue that was quickly setting into a violet at the very edge of the distant horizon.
Nodding his thanks to Daisy, Gilbert made his way towards his dear friend.
Anne’s braids, for her hair had grown long enough she could plait them again, although the tips barely brushed her shoulders, were barely swaying in the wind in time with each soothing crash of the sea against the shore. It occurred to Gilbert that he’d never noticed how much Anne had grown in the last year. She was taller and not as rail thin as the barmaid he’d met in Charlottetown last December. Her shoulders were dainty and her waist trim, the way her pinafore was tied certainly displaying the hips that had just started to fill out, and her back was a strong, softly curved silhouette, tempting Gilbert to reach out and trace his fingers up her sweeping spine.
It was the first, and it would not be the last, time Gilbert thought Anne the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. Maturity was making the redhead something even more ethereal than a dryad, and in the brief, sublime moment where it was a breath away from night, Gilbert let himself admit that he might like Anne beyond the scope of friendship.
But then the last ray of sunlight was blinked away, and both Gilbert and Anne were awash in an indigo light that would ease towards a star-speckled darkness before long.
“Anne?” he said softly, only placing a hand on her elbow when she turned away from the sea to look at him. The moment her grey eyes locked with his hazel ones, Gilbert couldn’t contain himself. “Bash agreed!” he exclaimed, his expression matching his tone for all the joy he felt at being able to share his good news. “He’ll come back to Avonlea and help on the farm. We’re going to be partners.”
“Gilbert! That’s so wonderful,” Anne replied, hugging him instantly, tucking her head under his chin and pressing her cheek over his heart. Gilbert returned the embrace, nearly laughing for how happy he was when he noticed that Anne was holding him rather tightly, her skinny arms like a vice around his waist as she squeezed him desperately. “I’m happy for you both, truly,” she whispered, but she didn’t let go, wouldn’t let him move to see her face.
“But you sound glum,” he said, still holding her, feeling she needed that. He ran one hand back and forth between her shoulder blades while the other moved to cup her head, his blunt fingertips circling lazily in her hair.
“I don’t mean to be,” she answered. “It’s just…well, this all seems so tragically appropriate.”
“Eh?” Gilbert stuttered, more than a little confused.
“Well, I’ve always said my life is but a vast graveyard of buried hopes. And now I find myself in the most sublimely beautiful graveyard in the world right when I’m being told that I’m to lose my best friend. It’s all rather like destiny when you think about it…almost makes it bearable.”
“But Anne…” Gilbert said, and he really did struggle to loosen her hold on him so he could look the girl in the eye. “Why should you lose me?”
“You’re going back to Avonlea with Bash to revitalize your orchard and become a doctor,” she answered, managing to sound both proud and miserable.
“Yes, but I’m still not following—”
“But I won’t be going with you!” Anne hollered, pushing Gilbert back, her temper flaring as dangerously as it had the night they first met. “Are you really so obtuse, or are you just cruel? There was never any place for me in your big plans, was there?”
“I won’t!” Gilbert bellowed back, making Anne flinch and take a step away from him. “If you’d just let me get a word in, I’d be happy to tell you all about where you fit into my plan!” Gilbert released a great huff at his outcry, shoulders slumping as he looked at his friend who was near trembling before him, her little body positively vibrating with trepidation. “Come with me,” he implored softly, placing a heavy meaning on each word, beseeching Anne to understand him.
“Gilbert?” she questioned, her own voice having changed into something as fragile as a snowflake.
“Come with me,” he repeated, more confident, more entreating. “Back to Avonlea. Come with me and Bash. Come back to my farm, my home. I know that something happened, something between you and the village. I don’t know what it was or why it scared you off, but Anne, we can conquer it, whatever it was, together. You’re my kindred spirit and I’m yours. I don’t think we should be parted, and I refuse to believe there is no conflict we can’t overcome together. So, return to Avonlea with me, please. I really want you to go with me.”
For a few of the longest heartbeats of his life, Gilbert waited for Anne’s answer, the rushing crash of the sea all he could hear until her sweet voice shattered the air between them.
“Truly?” she asked, grey eyes searching his for the sincerity he promised. Gilbert did not waiver under Anne’s gaze and merely nodded, willing her to understand.
When she smiled with trembling lips, Gilbert could feel his eyes stinging with tears, a few managing to ease down his cheeks when Anne raised a freckled hand to cup his face, caressing his warm skin with her fingertips.
“Do you demand an answer now?” she asked.
“Why?” he countered, leaning into her touch, reluctant to see them parted.
“I need time to think about it,” she confessed, keeping her words even, not daring to allow herself to be overwhelmed with emotion. “I don’t want to hurt you by making a promise and then, when the moment of truth arrives, I won’t be able to follow through.”
“Whatever happened between you and Avonlea…I don’t care, Anne!” Gilbert vowed fervently, raising a hand to hers, keeping her palm pressed snug against his cheek.
“But Avonlea will care,” Anne replied wisely, her young mind understanding the long memory of small towns.
“Then tell me what happened,” he begged, not for the first time. “Help me understand.”
“If I promise I’ll tell you before we are back in Canada, will that satisfy you for now?” Anne compromised. “I really do need time to think about it…to prepare myself for the possibility of you despising me once I unearth each and every skeleton in my closet.”
“Never! After all this time, everything we’ve been through, do you really think I’m capable of scorning you?”
“Experience has proven me correct in this matter,” Anne confessed sadly, dumbfounding Gilbert with how she could speak so clinically about an act that was truly heinous to the sixteen-year old. He wondered what had happened to Anne that, on this subject alone, she was so jaded. “I want to believe you’ll still want me even after I tell you the whole woeful tale, but I…I need to build up the courage to accept your disdain –”
“IF it happens,” she said, humoring him, but Gilbert would take whatever crumb she was willing to drop. “I just need to prepare my heart, Gil. Can you give me time to do that?”
Gilbert didn’t really need the five minutes he took to answer Anne. He knew his response the moment the redhead asked her question. What he needed the five minutes for was to count the seven freckles on her nose, and to trace the length of each ginger eyelash, and admire how perfectly peach her mouth was, especially when she smiled at him.
He wanted to remember what it meant to have Anne in his arms; to be two best friends alone in the wide world, seeking adventure and truth with open minds and open hearts.
“Whatever you need, Anne-girl. As long as you need,” he vowed.
When Anne moved to hug Gilbert again, it was with less fearsome desperation than their previous hold. Instead, her embrace was tender, happy, and for that Gilbert was glad to return Anne’s hug and hope that, within the circle of his arms, she might, one day, feel safe enough to tell him all her secrets.
OH. MY. GOD.
I don't know if I'm more overwhelmed that this story is nearly over, or that, in just a few hours, Season Three of AWAE will be over....so many feelings right now.
Anyway, I am very happy to announce that I am working on the final chapter of 'The World Before Me' and, fingers crossed, will have the whole of it completed and posted by next week.
As for this chapter, I really hope you enjoyed it and I would love to know your thoughts. Feel free to leave a comment, kudos, bookmark or subscription.
Thank you so much you lovely, lovely people!
Chapter 13: New Orleans
Gilbert learns the truth at last
The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first, Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on, there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell
“Dance with me, Gilbert.”
“You swore you’d never dance with me again. Said I trod on your toes half the night when we had that party for your birthday.”
“But that was months ago! I bet you’ve improved since then.”
Gilbert smiled broadly as Daisy took his hand and led him into the throng of revellers. The band was playing a vivacious jig with such an uproarious beat that it was easy to clap, bounce, or tap along with the melody. As it was, Daisy was determined to have her dance. So, keeping an eye on where his feet landed, Gilbert looped his arm with the brunette’s and started swinging her around in a boisterous circle, laughing as the energy of the moment carried him away as if he were a feather caught in a zealous breeze.
New Orleans was a magic city.
From the second the marvellous port was in sight along the winding shoreline of the Mississippi, Gilbert had had a churning, delighted feeling that tickled throughout his body. He just knew exciting things awaited him on that shore, the sound of brass bands calling out to him as he’d been forced back into the belly of the Primrose and punished with latrine duty for having snuck aboard deck during his shift.
It seemed everyone on the Primrose shared Gilbert’s enthusiasm to explore this intriguing gem of Louisiana. Many of the men were rather obnoxious in announcing that they intended to lose themselves in the pleasures of Storyville and see if the district was every salacious, scandalous, and sensual promise decried in the papers. Most of the officers had made plans to find a riverboat rumoured to be a casino dressed as a respectable ferry that took tourists on trips up and down the Mississippi. As for the girls, they were all atwitter to wander the French Quarter and shop and be generally entertained by the sounds and flavours of the city.
Bash’s leave did not, unfortunately, coincide with Gilbert’s, but Anne’s did, and when she announced she planned on joining Daisy and the other girls for an evening of revelry, Gilbert had been jostled into tagging along as their escort and protector.
He didn’t mind.
Spending any amount of time in Anne’s company was always how Gilbert preferred to occupy his shore leave, and if he had to act the part of chaperone to a dozen other girls who seemed to find a bauble, or trinket, or souvenir they simply had to have at every shop and huckster cart they encountered, it hardly mattered because Anne was laughing, and whistling, and overall was just happy.
It seemed like ages since Gilbert had seen any other expression on her face than one of deep contemplation.
Since the night in San Juan when he’d boldly invited Anne to return to Canada with him, the redhead had been especially pensive, her expression so often one of smooth concentration that Gilbert was starting to forget what Anne looked like when she smiled. It made his heart swell when she not only smiled, but started to laugh in utter delight when their group intruded on a street party of a sort, people clamouring into Jackson Square from every corner of the Quarter. When a ten piece brass band set up along the north-west corner of the park and started playing, the carousers yelled out songs they wished to hear, clapping in time with the beat and quickly clearing a space for dancing.
That’s when most of the gaggle of Primrose girls dispersed, seeking partners, or wandering along the square’s paved walkways to admire chalk drawings, or letting themselves be taken in by vendors claiming they could read the future in tarot cards and tea dregs. In fact, Anne was quiet excited to listen to the fortunes being read, and so was idling by those particular stalls which left Gilbert vulnerable to Daisy’s dancing invitation.
Not that Gilbert minded.
Though he certainly wasn’t a polished dancer, he did enjoy it, and was feeling especially lively as he and Daisy twirled and swayed with the music. Gilbert wasn’t certain he’d ever felt so light before. Definitely, the sort of freedom and joy he was experiencing was a delight that had been lost to him three years ago when his father had been first diagnosed with his illness, not to mention when he’d passed away. It had taken time, but Gilbert no longer felt guilty that he was happy.
He’d always miss his father, always wish that John Blythe could share in his son’s life, but the reality was that such a hope could never be. Gilbert had finally accepted that, and though it pained him and still made him lament at the unfairness of it all and wonder why God could inflict such misery, he had accepted that he could continue to live, continue to have dreams and hopes, continue to grow, and continue to love others as much as he had loved his father.
It wasn’t an insult to his father’s memory, nor a blight against Gilbert’s character, if the young man found others in which to take up space in his life in the place that had once been so full of John Blythe. No one could ever replace him, but that didn’t mean Gilbert couldn’t welcome others into his heart. Over the course of his journey, Gilbert had discovered there was room enough inside his soul for a great many things, and places, and people. It didn’t mean he loved his father less, but that he loved him enough to not let the shadow of death ruin him for all the good things the world had to offer.
Things like adventure, and friendship, undiscovered ports, new flavours, and exotic scents…
…brothers in persons who grew up on the other end of the world, and kisses from pretty older girls, and red hair caught on a sea-salt breeze.
When his partner insisted on sitting out for a moment to catch her breath, Gilbert joined her, the two reclining against the comforting cold stone pedestal of the statue of Andrew Jackson in the center of the square.
“I heard the Primrose is losing her most handsome stoker,” Daisy commented, her tone teasing, but her eyes sharp and seeking. Having no reason to lie, Gilbert nodded.
“You’ve heard right,” he said. “My contract’s nearly up and I’ve decided not to renew. Halifax will be my last port.”
“And then you’re set on taking the world of medicine by storm!”
“You sound like Anne.”
“Because that’s exactly how she phrased it,” Daisy confessed. “She’s so proud of you, insisting we all commit ‘Doctor Blythe’ to memory because surely we’ll be hearing all about him in the near future. He’ll be saving lives, finding cures, pioneering advanced medicine, and perhaps breaking a heart or two while he’s at it.”
“She didn’t say that,” Gilbert checked, feeling a blush heat his ears, bashful to believe that Anne was bragging about him with such complete confidence.
“I might have embellished at the end a little,” Daisy admitted, bumping shoulders with the young man and basking in their content teasing. “But she truly does think the world of you.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Gilbert sighed, looking up at the sky. The moon was wonderfully full and seemed so close that its illumination alone could have been enough to light up the whole city and never mind the gaslights. All of New Orleans awash in moonshine; it’s something Anne would find infinitely romantic.
“I think I can,” Daisy sighed, sounding just a tad wistful, almost as if she wished Fate had deemed fit to link her heart and Gilbert’s together. While there most certainly was a connection there (one Gilbert intended to nurture with letters and visits over the years) it was not of a passionate nature. There was affection, to be sure, but nothing that would bloom into sweet ardour. Gilbert knew that, and so did Daisy, and perhaps that was why they were able to be such comfortable friends. “It’ll be quiet on the ship without you and Anne causing trouble.”
“Anne hasn’t said she’ll come with me,” Gilbert admitted, unable to keep from sounding too worried about it.
“But she will,” Daisy assured. “Wherever there’s Gilbert there’s Anne, and wherever there’s Anne there’s Gilbert. It’s a universal truth.”
“I wouldn’t’ go that far,” Gilbert mumbled, though he’d be lying if he said that Anne always by his side was something he didn’t’ want. He wanted it very much, in fact, and it was nearly pulling him to pieces having to wait for her make a decision.
Speaking of the infuriatingly indecisive redhead, Gilbert could see Anne starting to make her way towards him, weaving in and out of the crowd with her usual lithe grace. She caught his eye as she spun out of the way of a very enthusiastic dancing couple, and made a comical expression that had Gilbert huffing out a fond chuckle.
“Don’t break her heart,” Daisy pleaded, but it could just as easily have been a warning. Before Gilbert could ask the brunette what she meant, Daisy sashayed away just as Anne reached Gilbert’s side. Resting a hand in the crook of his elbow, she stood on her tiptoes so she could speak in his ear.
“Come with me.”
And without question or argument, Gilbert let Anne lead him away.
They had to weave through the crowd, avoid getting caught up in a line of dancers, or sidetracked by artists offering to draw their likeness for a nickel. There was a huddle of men betting on dice against the shade of some boxwood shrubs, which seemed a deliciously sinful game to play so close to Saint Louis’ Cathedral, and once Anne and Gilbert had passed them they were able to better walk side-by-side along Decatur Street.
“Where are we going?” Gilbert asked.
“Just there,” Anne said, pointing to a nearby building. “I want to tell you something.”
“Can’t you tell me now?” Gilbert wondered, watching for passing streetcars before starting to step across the road.
“This sort of something requires hot drinks, sweet treats, and every drop of courage I have,” Anne announced, the slightest tremor in her voice giving Gilbert pause, but before he could ask for clarity, she beat him to the punch. “I’m going to tell you everything.”
Snapping his mouth shut, Gilbert reached for Anne’s hand in the crook of his elbow and squeezed her fingers, hoping the gesture communicated his gratitude and his admiration of her resolute mettle. When Anne didn’t pull away, he believed she understood his meaning.
Crossing the street, the redhead brought Gilbert up to the entrance of a bustling teashop called the Café du Monde. The pretty bistro was decked in lightbulbs that hung along the eaves. There was a striped canopy that protected the outdoor seating area from the elements and each table on the covered veranda was dressed in a white cloth with a cranberry coloured votive in the centre that housed a delicate little lit candle, the petit flame dancing merrily in its pink encasement. Friends, families, couples and singles occupied the wrought iron chairs, all resting and regaling under the golden electrical light and enjoying a cup of coffee, or a scone, or some sort of decadent dessert drenched in chocolate and cream. Anne took Gilbert inside the café, bringing him to a corner table that was partly obscured by a thick potted fern, and ordered drinks and some pastries before settling herself in her chair, taking a deep breath…and going silent.
Anne didn’t speak.
She didn’t blink, didn’t sigh, didn’t nervously prattle, didn’t breathe.
The mounting tension was troubling, but Gilbert could see that Anne was determined to push through her nerves and pursue the conversation she’d been putting off for weeks. He’d be lying if he tried to tell her it didn’t matter. While he knew that, whatever Anne’s sordid past with Avonlea was, he would never look at her differently, he really did want to know what had happened between his best friend and his hometown. He wanted to fix it, and he could only hope to do that if Anne finally admitted the truth.
So, he sat across from her, and waited.
As the minutes passed and their café au laits and beignets were delivered, Anne started fidgeting, her knees bouncing so badly they made the table tremor, and she kept running her fingers over the coffee bean bracelet that never left her wrist since Gilbert had presented it to her back in August.
He’d given Anne the trinket the day after the Primrose’s fire; the same day Daisy had declared Anne’s hair would have to be cut, most of the tresses burned beyond repair. Gilbert remembered how Anne had wailed the entire time Daisy went about sheering the singed strands and nothing would comfort the distraught fourteen-year old when she saw herself for the first time without the fiery cascade of her hair framing her thin face. Anne had refused to leave her room, saying it was a kindness to not subject her hideousness on the passengers, until Daisy had to arrange for Gilbert to sneak into their cabin, pleading with him to make Anne see reason before she was marooned in a foreign port for not doing her job.
Though she’d cowered in a corner with a blanket over her head for the better part of an hour, when Anne finally did reveal herself, Gilbert could not say that the girl was any less than she had been before. She was still freckled, her eyes still grey, and her hair, what was left, was still that wonderful red.
‘It will grow back, Anne-girl,’ he’d said as he’d tied the bracelet around her dainty wrist, hoping the gift might cheer her up.
‘I shall never say a terrible word about my hair again,’ she’d vowed. ‘For so long I’d wanted lustrous black curls, but not like that. When I saw what I looked like after the fire I was horrified. My reflection was a pale, freckled, ebony frizzed monster. I should be grateful it was only charred. It could have been so much worse! It could have turned green!’
‘Why do you want to change it so much?’ Gilbert had wondered, having wanted to know for ages what Anne so loathed about her hair.
‘Everyone knows red hair is hideous; the sign of the Devil. What girl in her right mind would delight to have braids the colour of carrots? It makes me seem wretched and wicked and I am none of those things,’ Anne had recited, as if she were speaking against the cruel words of people from the past. ‘I know I’m not pretty, never have been or will be, but I think if I just had prettier hair maybe others wouldn’t think so terribly of me, at least not at first sight.’
‘You are pretty,’ Gilbert had insisted then, his fingers tickling the ends of her short hair, cut to just the tip of her earlobe. ‘I think your hair is wonderful, short or long, but red; it should always be red, because that’s who you are, Anne-girl.’
‘The homely orphan with awful hair?’ she’d scoffed.
‘The girl with hair so beautiful it is only outshone by her big heart,’ he’d corrected sweetly, managing to make Anne blush. She’d agreed to go back to her job then, if only to save Gilbert the crime of perjuring himself further with talk of pretty hair and prettier hearts.
Gilbert hoped one day he’d be able to make Anne love her hair as much as he did. He thought he might be well on his way when he’d started noticing her fiddling with it whenever she thought he wasn’t looking, smoothing the short strands, or adjusting how they looked tied back in a ribbon or scarf. Now she was finally able to braid it again, Anne fiddled with the tresses even more and for a moment, Gilbert thought about leaning across the table and tugging on one of the braids, hopefully to make Anne laugh, reminding her of the night they met, but before he could make a move, Anne sucked in a large, deep breath, and spoke at last.
“I’m ready to tell you, and by ‘ready’ I mean I abhor having to tell you at all, and it wounds me to even recount the whole terrible affair, so I ask that you just listen. Be quiet and listen, and then I’ll only have to say everything once and then we’ll never speak of this again. Those are my conditions.”
Gilbert stared at Anne, his hazel eyes wide and unblinking.
“Well?” Anne asked, impatient.
“…I thought you didn’t want me to speak,” Gilbert said with a shrug.
“Gilbert!” Anne admonished, irked, but Gilbert thought he spotted a bit of mirth trying to creep out of the corner of her grey eyes. “Fine. This is the only time I permit you to speak. Tell me, do you agree to my conditions or not?”
“I agree,” he said, taking a gulp of his coffee before leaning back in his chair and waiting for Anne to begin.
“I’m sure you’ve surmised that I’ve been to Avonlea before,” she started. Gilbert nodded, keeping his lips pressed firmly into an unbreakable line. “It was a little over a year ago, just after harvest time.
“It’s every orphan’s most ardent and life-long dream to find a home…a family. I’ve been let out to dozens of families my whole life. Some kept me for weeks, or months. One kept me for a whole year and I was so sure they’d move forward and adopt me, even if they only really kept me because I cost less than a maid and there was no worry of the master of the house being swayed into unfaithfulness with a girl so ugly as me, but still, I was given back to the orphanage over and over again.
“Then one day, I was told another family wanted a child. It was a brother and sister, older than most people seeking to adopt, but they were farmers, both unmarried and childless, and wanted someone to help with the chores. They were from Avonlea.”
“The Cuthberts,” Gilbert realized, having wondered for so long why Anne had mentioned them so specifically when he’d been sick back in the spring. He quickly snapped his lips shut when Anne shot him a peeved expression, and he hoped his slip wouldn’t dissuade her from finishing.
“The Cuthberts,” she confirmed after a moment. “But there was a mistake. Or should I say, I was the mistake. They did want an orphan, but they wanted a boy. Poor sweet Mathew, I think he hardly knew what to do when he arrived at Bright River to collect me. I was so tremendously happy that I kept pinching my arm the whole ride back to Avonlea; Marilla – Ms. Cuthbert – called me foolish when she saw the bruise I’d left on myself, only everything felt like this perfect dream awash in white blossoms and green gables.
“And it was. A perfect dream, I mean, and I’d so wrapped up every last hope in my heart into this beautiful idea of finally being part of a family. But, like so many of my hopes and dreams, everything crumbled around me almost from the start.
“It was soul shattering to be told I wasn’t wanted again, but when Ms. Cuthbert relented to allow me to stay just one night I was determined to make myself so useful in those few precious hours that she would be loathe to send me away. It didn’t matter if the Cuthberts saw me as a helping-hand, or a scullery maid, or even a necessary nuisance that could do housework as well as farm work, so long as they kept me. And then after, when we met with Mrs. Spencer and Ms. Cuthbert decided not to leave me with that wretched Blewett woman, and I’d gotten to meet my first true friend, my dearest, most cherished and treasured Diana Barry, I was so sure Green Gables was mine.
“Avonlea would have been my first home, Gil. My first real home…”
Anne stopped talking for several minutes, eyes focused yet unfocused on her cup of coffee, grey irises tracing the creamy froth that was slowly seeping into the caramel liquid. The steam had left the drink long ago, and Gilbert thought he might ask Anne if she’d like him to order something fresh before she continued, but then he noticed that the worry lines around her eyes and mouth seemed to deepen the longer she stared at her cold cup of coffee.
But she wasn’t really staring at her coffee.
Instead, Anne was reliving every wretched second of the events she’d just recounted, her mind taking her back to that tumultuous day of joy and sadness, belonging and exodus. For the first time, Gilbert understood how much it hurt Anne to remember those hours in Avonlea. Like a physical wound that left behind an ugly scar, so too did the memories of Green Gables cut into Anne, their injury as deep as any blade and their scar something that may never mend.
It made Gilbert wish his spirit really could touch Anne’s. Perhaps then, he might be able to truly heal this fierce girl.
“They think I’m a thief,” Anne blurted out at last, eyes scrunched closed as she spoke, as if she needed to rip the dreadful truth away as quickly as possible so as to avoid too harsh a sting. Gilbert was saddened that Anne couldn’t seem to bear looking at him as she unveiled her shameful secret, and he wanted desperately to let her know that, no matter what anyone thought of her, no matter what was truth or falsehood, he was not someone she should ever fear revealing herself to.
Without hesitation, he reached across the table and placed a hand atop Anne’s, squeezing just a bit before he let his blunt fingertips rove across the coffee been bracelet, trying to remind Anne that he cared for her, that there was nothing that would turn him away from her, and that he would support her through to the end of this tragic tale.
“She said I stole the brooch; a Cuthbert family heirloom.”
“But you didn’t,” Gilbert said, firm in his conviction. He knew Anne Shirley as well as he knew his own soul, and she did not need to defend her innocence to him. For that blind faith, Anne nearly smiled, but her coral lips soon twisted into an ashamed frown.
“But I said I did,” she elaborated forlornly. “Only, Ms. Cuthbert said she’d not be cross or send me away if I told her what I’d done with the brooch, so I fibbed and said I’d dropped it down the well. But she didn’t believe me. She said I took it. She was so sure I had that I nearly believed it myself. The matron always said I was wicked, so maybe it’s true.”
“It’s not! It never will be.”
Anne rubbed her dripping nose with the back of her hand, not bothering to look at Gilbert, almost as if she were afraid to see the truth reflected in his sincere hazel eyes. Instead, she pressed on, desperate to reach the end of her woeful tale.
“The next morning, I was packed up and placed on the first wagon headed for the train station. I travelled all the way back to Nova Scotia on my own, but the moment I was at the gate of the orphanage I couldn’t make myself return. It’s such a dark and sad place, and I’d thought myself free of it so many times that I worried I’d go mad if I crossed the threshold. So, I didn’t. I just…well, a truant officer would say I ran away, but I choose to think I liberated my soul from a bleak bondage. It was rather easy to convince the milkman to allow me to join him on his rounds and drop me off at the harbour.
“I loved the island, you see, I always have. I decided, if this was the moment I was truly stepping out into the world as my own person, making my own choices, designing my own destiny, then I would choose where my home was. I would be a child of Prince Edward Island, with the sea as my father and the red sand as my mother, with all the trees and flowers as my many millions of brothers and sisters. I could be content, I was sure of it. So, it was off on the ferry and back to Charlottetown.”
“How did you survive?” Gilbert wondered, both in awe of Anne’s courageous fortitude and devastated that she’d been so alone. The ache in his heart brought him back to when they’d met, when he’d lost her in the streets of Charlottetown and wished he’d been able to catch her so that they might face the night together. But, he supposed, he’d gotten his wish in a way. It wasn’t the night he and Anne had conquered side-by-side, but rather the world. They’d stepped down uncharted brown paths, uncovered curiosities, tasted exquisite delights, were witness to colossal discoveries, had conquered disasters, and made friends in every port. He knew they were strong together, but it hadn’t really struck him just how resilient and fierce Anne was on her own.
“You saw,” Anne said, tearing off a corner of beignet pastry and nibbling on the sweet dough. “I worked. Most places are quite happy to take on a child – we’re so cheap – and as long as you keep your head down, you can certainly get by, even more so if you’re not too picky.
“There was a woman, Mary. She’s the one who taught me to sew and do laundry – she works in a laundry herself, you see. Often, she’d let me board in her spare room in the Bog, but I never felt right about it the times I couldn’t pay, even when she insisted she didn’t care about my money, so I’d find an alley or trench where I could sleep. Sometimes I’d even make a little nest for myself under the bar at the tavern, at least, when the bartender was feeling kind, which wasn’t too often, but it was enough.”
“Anne,” Gilbert sighed, reaching out to her with his other hand, clasping their fingers together and squeezing tight, hoping the gesture would convey how much he meant his next few words. “Come back with me to Avonlea.”
The plea was an echo from that night in San Juan and carried just as much earnestness and conviction.
When Anne smiled, Gilbert smiled, too.
“And where would I live if I did that?” she asked.
“We me and Bash!” Gilbert replied passionately. “You can have my mother’s room. You’ll love it. The window faces the east, so you’ll get the morning sun to wake you every day. The wallpaper is yellow with pink roses etched from top to bottom in the different stages of bloom. There’s a desk where you can write and a bookshelf desperate for new novels. It would be your own little corner of Avonlea, Anne, just yours.
“And we’d get to be together! We’d go to school, and study, and cook and clean, and I can teach you all about farming the orchard, too! It’d be you and me and Bash and we’d be a family there just as much as we are on the ship, only with less coal and mending.”
Anne chuckled at Gilbert’s quip, squeezing his hands back as she stared into his eyes.
“Gil…it’s a beautiful dream,” she sighed. “I think all your dreams are beautiful, but it’s not practical, or proper for that matter.”
“Since when do you care about proper?” Gilbert teased, but he could feel a terrified tension starting to pinch at the base of his neck.
“Since you said you want to become a doctor. Who would take you seriously if you started off your noble aspirations by inviting an accused orphan thief into your home?”
“But you didn’t –”
“But no one believes I didn’t,” Anne interrupted. “No one but you.”
“I don’t care –“
“People will care!” Anne insisted, letting go of Gilbert’s hands and crossing her arms, huffing in disgruntlement at finding herself being the mature one in this particular disagreement. “I’d hate to be the reason your reputation was marred before it’s even begun.”
“So, you won’t come back with me,” he stated, feeling his throat tighten with devastation.
“I won’t go back to Avonlea with you,” Anne explained. “But I will go back to Canada…to Prince Edward Island.”
“It’s the best I can do!” Anne insisted. “You have to trust me, Gil.”
“I don’t want us to be separated…I don’t want to lose you,” Gilbert confessed, feeling selfish as he said it because Anne’s life wasn’t his to command nor was it made to orbit his comfort. But the thought of days bereft of Anne Shirley were so lonely, made all the more palatable as he still recalled the emptiness when he’d gone weeks not speaking to her over the summer. It was almost terrifying to think that in just a short year Anne had become a person so important to Gilbert that the idea of not having her in his life was akin to thinking of how to manoeuvre without a limb; survivable to be sure, but impossible to conceive.
“It wasn’t so hard finding work in Charlottetown before,” Anne said, breaking into his gloomy thoughts. “I could stay there, find something in one of the mills, or a seamstress’ shop, maybe at the laundry Mary works at. I’ve enough saved away to be able to afford room and board with her for a little while, if she’ll have me. And you could come and visit me! I wouldn’t ask you to come every weekend, you’ll be working so hard preparing your orchard with Bash, but maybe every once in a while, if the two of you were able, it would be nice.”
Gilbert listened as Anne laid out several possibilities, watching as her expression lit up as she speculated on any number of adventures they could have together on the island, becoming more and more optimistic at how their lives could be. Gilbert’s heart longed for Anne’s own dreams of golden coloured Octobers, and crisp crashing oceans along sandy shores, and birch trees tall as mountains. He wanted those and so much more for her, and the only way any of it could be possible was to accept that Anne’s plan was the best plan.
She was right; she could never live with Gilbert and Bash. It wouldn’t be proper, no matter that Gilbert didn’t give a fig about propriety, and if Avonlea believed her a thief then there was even less hope of having Anne so close.
It was all so very confusing.
Gilbert knew the Cuthberts, had helped Mathew on his farm and received the same courtesy, and Marilla had been very kind in sending along fresh bread and plum puffs to the house when Gilbert and his father had first returned from Alberta. Though he didn’t know the siblings well, he did know them to be charitable, and his father only ever had tender respect whenever the pair came up in conversation. Surely, they would be willing to listen to reason and see the mistake they had made in accusing Anne.
If he could just talk to them…maybe…
But for now, there was no maybe.
“I wish it could be different,” Gilbert said sadly, conceding defeat.
“If wishes were horses then beggars would ride,” Anne quoted, sounding much wiser than her age would suggest. “But we’re not beggars, you and I. We’re adventurers, and our triumphant return to Prince Edward Island is just the next escapade we face together, yeah? You and me…and Bash, too, of course.”
And with that confident declaration, Anne held up her right hand with her pinky finger extended. Smirking, Gilbert linked his own finger with Anne’s and squeezed.
“You, me and Bash,” he repeated, feeling like he was making a life-long vow. From the way Anne was staring at him, wide-eyed and sober, he thought she might have felt the power of the moment, too. “Anyway…” he sighed, his voice as low as a rumbling brook.
“Anyway,” Anne echoed, never tearing her gaze away from Gilbert until a raucous laugh from a lady at a nearby table shattered the beautiful tension.
The matter settled, the two friends ordered a fresh round of café au laits and properly dug into their beignets, seeking comfort in the tasty pastry and hoping to make a soothing memory of the evening despite the heavy conversation that had dominated their time together. Soon, jokes were passing between them, as well as dramatic tellings of the misadventures that followed them on their last shifts, and speculations about the gold rush in the Yukon.
It was late when they finally left Café du Monde, the street party having almost cleared out of Jackson Square, Daisy and the others nowhere in sight. Anne and Gilbert were very likely to miss curfew and would be given detestable tasks the next morning for the slight, but with a plan in place and only a month before they were back in Canada, it was difficult to be too perturbed.
“I’ve always wanted to know,” Anne started, almost shy as she spoke. They were walking side-by-side down Peters Street, heading south towards the harbour. Anne was trying to appear nonplussed as she broached a subject that she clearly believed was tender, and Gilbert humoured her by keeping his focus on the street before them. “That night in Charlottetown, why did you want to talk to me so badly? I mean, I know now you’re nothing like the neanderthal that pulled my hair and called me an odious name – which will not be repeated! – but if I hadn’t gotten to know you this last year, I’m sure I’d be refusing to acknowledge your existence. So I’ve been curious…why did you try and speak with me at all?”
Gilbert ran a hand through his curls and sighed, hoping he looked properly chagrined.
“I could be a cad and blame it on the beer and the goading of my chums, and I that’s definitely why I approached you the way I did. But, even if the situation had been a little less spirited, I think I still would have tried to get you to talk to me.”
“Because I wanted to get to know you. A lot. Because…I don’t know, something told me this girl and I could be really good friends if we’d only meet.
“Think about it, Anne. We just barely missed each other in Avonlea. If the Cutherberts had kept you, then we would have met when my dad and I came back from Alberta. We’d have run into each other at school, or maybe in the woods on the way there. But you were gone by the time I came home, so there was no new girl for me to tease. And then my dad died, and I ran away and our paths crossed in Charlottetown, and then again on the Primrose! Maybe that night in the tavern I was just trying to put to rights what Destiny had planned for us all along. Because you and me…we’re meant to friends –”
“Kindred spirits!” Anne stressed.
“Kindred spirits,” Gilbert agreed. “And that’s how it’s supposed to be, don’t you think?”
Anne took a moment before answering, her freckles shining like constellations on her cheeks under the effervescent moonshine.
“Gilbert Blythe, I’m awfully glad you pulled my hair and called me carrots,” she said sincerely, and if Gilbert could have looked at her properly and seen the way her passion lit up her grey eyes, he might have come to the realization that he was falling in love with Anne much sooner than when that particular revelation struck him as hard as Anne had that long ago night.
As it was, in the moment, under the moonshine in the middle of the magical city of New Orleans, Gilbert reached out and took Anne’s hand in his, linking their fingers as if he were stitching them to each other forever.
“Anne-girl, so am I.”
Let me just say, I am SO glad I finished writing this fic BEFORE episode 10 and then the heartbreaking cancellation news that came after. I'm not sure I would have had the morale to write, at least not for a few days. Whew!
That being said, yes, you read right, 'The World Before Me' is complete and I'm just doing the final edits, so expect to see this fic posted in its finished form by the end of this week. It has been such a joy to write and I'm so happy with the final product. I can't wait for you to read it!
As always, comments, kudos, subscriptions and bookmarks fed me, so please be generous.
Take care and remember I love you!
Chapter 14: Halifax - Part II
Gilbert gets some very good news
Forever alive, forever forward
“Farewell you iron maiden! Thank you for your stable and unwavering service. We will remember you always in our hearts, even when your hull has evaporated to rust. You have been a true and steady vessel that has brought us from one edge of the world and back again. May your cabins always be filled with bold explorers –“
“And not fires!”
“…and not fires…or seawater…in fact, I wish you a long and happy life ferrying travellers to ports around the globe. Safe journey, friend!”
And with a parting kiss blown from the tips of her fingers towards the docked Primrose, Anne turned towards Gilbert and Bash with a very content smile.
“Said your goodbyes, then?” Bash checked, amused at the girl’s dramatic send-off.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” she lamented, adjusting her hold on her well-worn carpet bag before addressing Gilbert. “Where to?”
“A boarding house,” the sixteen-year old answered, pointing his thumb over his shoulder. “There won’t be a ship sailing for Charlottetown until after Christmas, so it’s a few nights in Halifax and then back to Prince Edward Island.”
“Lead the way, Doc, and the sooner the better; my bones are going into shock from this cold,” Bash commanded, making Gilbert roll his eyes at his light jesting.
“It’s actually quite mild,” he teased back, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing when Bash admonished him through chattering teeth.
Marching away from Virginia’s Warf, Gilbert said his own silent farewell to the Primrose, thankful for the last year she had given him, and surprisingly not sad to leave her behind. In years to come, tales of the S.S. Primrose would become whole chapters of Gilbert Blythe’s life, but at this moment, the sixteen-year old had firmly turned the page and was looking forward to the story ahead of him, never mind the part he'd just finished.
The trio made haste as they walked into Halifax’s bursting downtown. People, it seemed, were creeping out of every crack and crevice the city had. It was jarring to Gilbert who, the last time he’d found himself in Nova Scotia’s capital, was surrounded by streets that had been as still and silent as a churchyard.
As they made their way through the slum on Jacob’s Street, Gilbert was sure to keep Anne close to his side, not trusting the rough seeming men who crowded around small street corner fires made from any loose rubbish they could find. The men eyed the three strangers with eager malice, and it gave Gilbert a sour taste in the back of his throat as he urged his friends forward, Bash keeping tight behind them.
Once the sweeping snowy mound of Citadel Hill and Fort George were in view, Gilbert started to relax some, but he still made sure Anne was within an easy arm’s reach. Walking west down Cogswell Street, the three friends found themselves surrounded by rowhouses. The line of perfectly identical brick homes seemed to go on for miles, making Halifax feel like an overwhelming maze of brown and grey. It was with an immense relief that, upon reaching the intersection at North Park Street, Gilbert spotted a tram stop. Though there was a bit of drama when the driver tried to claim there was not enough room for all in their party to board (clearly eying Bash as if to say that the Trinidadian would have to stay behind in the cold), after Anne slipped the bitter conductor fifty cents he relented and told all three of them to stand at the back. When the tram reached South Park and Morris, Gilbert pulled the bell and the trio disembarked, Bash absolutely shuttering at being back in the chilly December air.
“Are we there yet?” the man grumbled, blowing into his cupped hands.
“Nearly,” Gilbert promised, leading his friends away from the hospital grounds towards a collection of tightly packed buildings. After trekking about a block and a half, they reached Letsons Lane and, at the end of the short drive, their lodgings for the Christmas season.
The boarding house was not a pretty picture. It was four stories, thin but long, with few windows all made of defective glass that had gone foggy, as if there were milk curdling in the panes. The house itself was all wood planks spotted with chipped paint. Some of the roof’s shingles were missing and one of the chimney’s looked as if it might collapse at any moment, but otherwise everything seemed structurally sound.
Taking the lead once again, Gilbert marched Anne and Bash into he house and approached a shabby looking desk that was off to the left of the foyer, the grey wood surface bare save for months of caked dust, a sign-in book and a perturbed looking man who only bothered to raise one bored bushy eyebrow in greeting.
“Good afternoon,” Gilbert said, nodding to the clerk. “Rooms for Gilbert Blythe?”
The clerk stared at Gilbert over the rim of his copper wire spectacles, hard blue eyes making stern silent judgement not just of the boy, but of his unorthodox companions. Gilbert positively bristled when the clerk gave Anne a rancid once over.
“This here’s a God-fearing Christian establishment, young lady. Don’t be bringing any business under this roof, understand? And that includes with these two, I don’t care what they’ve promised you. Keep to your room. Alone.”
Anne’s expression shifted into one of mortified insult, but Gilbert was near to exploding with rage.
“That’s not necessary,” he told the clerk, shifting so that he was blocking his friend from the stranger’s horrid scrutiny.
“I have your word, boyo?”
“You shouldn’t have to, but yes,” Gilbert vowed through grit teeth. “Can I have the keys, please?”
Two brass keys were slapped on the table and the clerk instructed Gilbert to sign the ledger as well as make partial payment upfront. Passing the keys off to Anne and Bash with a promise of seeing them soon, Gilbert completed the few business tasks required before forcing himself to wish the cranky codger a nice day just as he was turning to leave the foyer.
Gilbert turned around, irritated that he had to give the rude man more of his attention.
“Gilbert Blythe, right?”
Gilbert simply nodded, his exasperation showing on his face.
“This came for ‘ya.”
All disgruntled thoughts of the clerk vanished the moment Gilbert eyed the envelope the vile man held out to him. He’d been so distracted by the clerk’s behaviour that he’d completely forgotten about the hope he’d been carrying in his heart for weeks that this precious correspondence might be waiting for him in Halifax. Eagerly, Gilbert snapped the paper from the man’s hand, his hazel eyes dancing over the postmark.
He felt his heart shudder when he saw who the note was from.
“Thank you,” he said, pocketing the letter and hurrying away. Taking the stairs two at a time, Gilbert leaped up to the fourth floor and practically dove into his room.
“Close the door Blythe! You’re letting the cold in!” Bash admonished sharply. He was standing before the small fireplace in his long underwear, wool socks pulled up along his calves and a quilt draped over his shoulders as if he were a Trinidadian prince. Had Gilbert not been so eager to read his letter he would have taken the opportunity to tease Bash mercilessly. As it was, Gilbert barely gave his friend a glance before dropping onto his bed and tearing into the envelope.
It was almost an hour before Gilbert lifted his hazel gaze from the paper in his hand, having read the words over and over again. The sixteen-year old couldn’t stop smiling as he folded the pages and placed them carefully back in the envelope.
He needed to see Anne.
“I’m going to go for a walk,” he announced, startled when he looked to the hearth and didn’t see Bash there, but a quick scan of the room found the man tucked into his bed, blankets pulled up over his head. “Did you want to come?” he asked the heaping pile.
“I ain’t leaving this cocoon ‘til summer,” came the disgruntled rumble from deep under the quilts. Gilbert shook his head in amusement.
“I’ll bring you back some dinner,” he promised, pulling his coat collar up around his neck before heading down to the second floor where Anne’s room was. He barely finished knocking before she opened it. “Hi,” Gilbert greeted, eyes squinting as he tried, and failed, to conceal how truly glad he was to see her. “I was going to go for a walk. Join me?”
“Yes!” the girl exclaimed, and Gilbert promised to wait for her in the foyer, making sure the sour clerk saw, with his condemning blue eyes, the respectable display of manners and chivalry when Anne met him. Gilbert did not reach for Anne, nor she him, and when they left Gilbert held the door open for her, making sure she did not brush against him as she passed under the lintel. Once they were out of the man’s sight and on the slush covered pavement, Gilbert looked over at Anne and grinned.
“Shall we?” he gestured comically, offering Anne his arm, which she took with a laugh.
The pair were happy to leave Letsons Lane behind and started up Dresden Row. It was another long avenue of rowhouses and apartments, nicer than others they’d seen, many with wood shingle cladding and large windows with clear glass nestled in white painted panes. There were a few shops that dotted their way up the street: a haberdashery with a splendid Christmas bonnet on display in the front window that Anne had to stop and admire it for several long minutes, a teashop that the pair considered stopping in but decided against, a moneylender’s office, and a tailors.
By far the strangest thing Anne and Gilbert came across was a back garden that was stocked with evergreen trees, all cut at the base and their lush branches tied up in twine. A sign declared the Christmas trees to be on sale for one dollar and from the look the people coming and going, business was very good.
“I don’t understand,” Anne said, watching as a father allowed his children to dash about the lot in search of the best tree, “why don’t they just go cut down their own?”
“I suppose that’s not so easy in the city,” Gilbert surmised, though he, too, was struggling with the idea that someone could make a profit over selling trees. He supposed he’d grown up rather blessed to be so surrounded by nature that the idea of paying for its floral beauty, even at Christmas, had never occurred to him.
“You know, I’ve never thought about it before, and it seems strange to think since there’s so much to see and do – wonders upon wonders, really – but I’ve just realized that city folk must have their own unfortunate disadvantages as well as anyone else,” Anne mused. “Buying a Christmas tree? Can you imagine anything more depressing?!”
Gilbert was inclined to agree, so he and Anne moved away from the tree lot and exited Dresden Row at Sackville Street.
“Oh! Look, Gil!”
Gilbert did, and saw that Anne was pointing to a simple iron archway with large gold-plated lettering that declared the land beyond was the Halifax Public Gardens.
“Longing for home, Madame Dryad?” he teased, but started steering them for the park.
“Don’t tease. You miss the trees, too – at least, ones that are situated properly in the earth where they belong,” she goaded, and Gilbert couldn’t deny her claim. Much as he had the call of the traveller within his soul, there was still a Gilbert Blythe that was a dear friend to nature, and thick forests, babbling brooks, open spaces and fields as far as the eye could see would always be as much a part of his spirit as the sea was now. He would never be quite the wild sprite that Anne was, but she had enough boundless love for nature to make up for his shortcomings.
He couldn’t wait to see her let loose on the pastoral beauty of the island.
Passing under the arch, the two friends found themselves walking along the quaintest path shaded by several oak trees, their bare branches cast in silver gloves of frost and ice. Children laughed and rushed through the park’s open spaces, their boots crunching in the fresh fallen snow as they raced to make snowmen and forts. Before they could get caught in the middle of a snowball fight, Anne and Gilbert followed the path to a festively decorated bandstand. The octogen shaped platform was decked in holly laurels, its eight white pillars dressed in red ribbon making them look like peppermint sticks, and sleigh bells that had been tied along the banisters jingled merrily in the gentle breeze.
The two friends made a turn around the bandstand, admiring its décor, with Gilbert happy to let Anne prattle on about whatever thought invaded her mind. He loved these moments, when it was just the two of them and all was right in the world and there was nothing to do but talk about anything at all.
And there was something very important Gilbert needed to share with Anne before they returned to Letsons Lane.
When Anne exclaimed with glee over a frozen pond she spotted on the other side of the bandstand, the little rink host to a bevy of skaters, the redhead all but dragged Gilbert in that direction, deciding it would be perfectly ideal to watch the skaters and admire the romance of the moment as a sweet fall of snow started to descend over the park. Standing near the edge of the pond with Anne nestled closely to his side, Gilbert couldn’t help feeling that this was the right moment to share his news with her.
“I think you’ll have to send me all your school notes,” Anne carried on contently, completely unaware of the surprise Gilbert was about to spring on her. “I won’t be able to go to school myself, so I’ll have to live vicariously though you, Gil. Send me copies of every lesson. Oh! Or you could send me your notebooks once you’ve filled them near to bursting with all your fascinating lectures. Then when you come and visit me, we can quiz each other. I confess, maths isn’t my strongest subject, but I’ve always had a penchant for literature. I could proof your essays, or we could go to the library and – what’s this?”
Knowing he’d never be able to get a word in edgewise, Gilbert had decided his best course of action was to simply shove the letter under Anne’s nose as a means of diverting the conversation. Taking the envelope, Anne’s grey-green eyes skimmed across the manila surface, her complexion going paler than it usually was and her fingers trembling as her brain comprehended the neat, uniform cursive making out the return address across the left-hand corner of the paper.
Green Gables, Avonlea
Prince Edward Island
Dominion of Canada
“It’s from Marilla,” she gasped, almost throwing the envelope back at Gilbert. “Why is she writing to you?”
“Because I wrote to her.”
“You wrote to her?! Why would you do that? Are you after some reward on my head for a brooch I never stole? You said you believed me, and now this? You are a blackguard, Gilbert Blythe! A deceitful, unfeeling, unmerciful, despicable villain! I hate you!”
“You do not and why would you assume I’d ever do that?!” Gilbert hollered back, exasperated and amused. “There can’t be a bounty if there hasn’t been a crime. Besides, I’m not sure any reward is spectacular enough to ever make me betray you to the police, thorn in my side that you often are.”
“I’d like to add ‘rude’ to my list of your many obnoxious faults,” Anne sniffed, crossing her arms.
“Stop being a ninny and read it,” he griped, mirroring her stance and holding his own, even as Anne tried to intimidate him with her monstrous glower and mounting temper. The standoff seemed to go on for hours, but eventually Anne’s toes started getting cold from standing still in the snow, so with a frustrated growl, the girl stomped to the nearest bench and sat down. It didn’t escape Gilbert’s notice that she sat in the middle of the bench, not leaving him much room on either side to join her, but being just as stubborn as his redheaded companion, Gilbert squeezed himself against Anne’s left side, twisting his expression into one of tenacious resolve.
Rolling her eyes, Anne didn’t press the matter, though she did shove her shoulder hard against his before taking the letter out of the opened envelope and, after a single deep breath, turned her attention to the paper in her hands.
Anne did not recite the letter, but then again, she needn’t since Gilbert had managed to memorize every word, having read it himself at least a dozen times. So instead, the sixteen-year old watched his friend, able to interpret the exact sentence she was at simply by noting a quirk of her lips, or tremble of her chin, or gleam in her limpid dove-grey eyes.
The letter read as thus:
It was such an odd, but nonetheless astonishing, thing to receive your letter from Louisiana. I confess, myself, my brother, and indeed the rest of Avonlea, had thought you gone from us forever. Rachel Lynde was in a state fit to be tied when she hurried to Green Gables from your orchard claiming the house was locked up and you were nowhere to be found, and with no notice of your whereabouts besides. We’d thought you injured or worse! It wasn’t until Mr. Barry had made inquires to his business connections in Charlottetown that it was confirmed that a boy of your description had found work with a steamer that the worry finally settled.
You’ll have a great many people to answer to when you return, young man. Mrs. Lynde especially deserves an apology for how you made her fret. But I know you are a good boy, John would have raised nothing less, so I trust you to make things right.
I cannot begin to express just how right you have already made things in writing to us about Anne.
Reading your letter detailing her health and adventures in this past year has been like a balm to mine and Mathew’s souls. Everything, it seems, has been wrong since she left Green Gables…or I should say, since I sent her away from Green Gables.
I have never been more sorry for any one decision in my entire life.
When you speak to Anne, if she’d be willing to listen, please convey my most sincere apology for doubting her honesty. I was wrong to accuse her, and it was unfeeling of me to send the child back to that hateful asylum. Mathew went there the next day, hoping to fetch Anne and return her to Green Gables, but when we learned she’d never gone back we feared she was lost forever.
My brother and I have been heartbroken ever since.
It was cruel of me to place value on a bauble, no matter its sentiment, over that of an innocent child who only lied because I told her to, and then was unjustly punished. Anne did not steal my brooch, nor did she lose it, and if I had only been kind I would have seen the truth. My anger and prejudice blinded me, and I know I hurt Anne terribly. I do not know if she will ever forgive me, nor do I dare expect her to, but I would like her to know that I want to make things right.
Mathew and I would love to have Anne back at Green Gables.
We want to make her part of our family, as she should have been, and in ways has been, since that day she came to us last September.
Green Gables will always be her home, whether or not she chooses to claim it.
And, if she would be gracious enough to allow it, I would dearly love to be like a mother to Anne, just as Mathew wishes to be her father. She is our daughter, and has been for all this time, and we want very much to welcome her home.
I cannot express how grateful I am to the Almighty that you managed to find her, Gilbert. It does this old spinster’s heart good to think that two young souls have been able to tend and protect one another in the vast, unknown world beyond the Island. I am truly in awe of what you both have surely experienced, but I do believe any future adventures can wait until you’re a little older.
Please come back to Avonlea, both of you.
Gilbert knew Anne had finished the letter when she let out a pained wail, weeping with ugly ferocity as she clasped the paper tightly against her chest. Gilbert’s arms were around Anne in seconds, his strong, sturdy frame exactly the support she needed to sag against as she unleashed tears of anger, relief, and pain. Gilbert even wondered if there might not be some tears of joy mixed in the salty deluge, for when Anne finally lifted her head from his shoulder she was smiling.
“She wants me to go back,” the fourteen-year old sputtered.
“She does,” Gilbert confirmed.
“And to make Green Gables my home! She wants to be my mother…no one has ever – and Mathew, too! He went back for me…Gilbert, they wanted me from the start.”
“Of course they did,” he soothed, offering Anne a handkerchief to wipe her tears and blow her nose.
“She says she made a mistake, that she’s sorry, that she wants my forgiveness…she has it! Of course she has it. Gilbert! What did you say to her when you wrote?”
“Just that you and I had met on the Primrose, that we were coming back to the island and I wondered if she and Mathew might want to let you stay with them,” Gilbert replied.
Of course, his message hadn’t been as simple as that. There had been some apologies of his own, some delicate wording about false accusations and innocent girls, and polite requests to let bygones be bygones, maybe even a plea or two.
He’d gotten the idea to write to the Cuthberts the same night that Anne had confessed her short, complicated history with Avonlea. He’d spent the dark hours awake in his hammock, thinking of a million ways to bring Anne to Avonlea that wouldn’t be improper, or scandalous, or sully her reputation, minute as it was. When he realized that sleep simply wouldn’t come, not so long as his brain stubbornly refused to stop seeking a solution, he’d decided to walk along the lower deck, thinking the movement and the fresh air might help. The young man had trekked one lap after another, hoping something would inspire him towards an answer.
When he’d looked out to the horizon just as the earliest blush of dawn was creeping up along the line where the sky and river meet, Gilbert was struck as soundly as if Anne had slapped him upside the head all over again. He’d even rubbed the temple that had borne the brunt of that strike as he watched the sun make its way into the sky.
For a brief moment, mere seconds, the vibrancy of the sun’s core was so yellow it had made Gilbert’s hazel eyes shine like gold. All around that dazzling hot butter heart of the sun was a ring of brilliant fire, the color of carrots fresh from the garden. Then, suddenly, only at that far away line at the edge of the horizon, where the yellow and orange were their brightest, the Mississippi turned green.
And Gilbert had his answer.
He would write to Green Gables.
More specifically, he would write to the Cuthberts and plead Anne’s case.
He knew the address of the boarding house he’d be at in Halifax come December, so he would ask the Cuthberts to send their reply there and hope for the best. He never dared to imagine it was possible to get so amazing a response, and from prickly Marilla Cuthbert, no less! But then, his father had always said that Marilla was a gentle woman underneath her sharpness, and seeing how truly repentant she was over how terribly everything went with Anne last autumn, Gilbert finally understood what John Blythe had seen in the serious spinster all along.
“I’m really going back to Green Gables,” Anne said in hushed awe.
“You are,” Gilbert confirmed. “We’ll be neighbours.”
“Gil!” the redhead cried, throwing her arms around his neck, headless of the people that were shooting them narrow-eyed glances of disdain at the inappropriate display of affection. Gilbert didn’t care what strangers in the crowd thought, and just held Anne tighter, his soul fairly singing as he hugged her, rejoicing that he’d been able to play a small part in making her smile.
“You’re happy?” he asked when she pulled back.
“Happy? Gil, I’m rapturous! What you’ve done for me…no one has ever been so kind. I swear, I could just kiss yo—” Anne stopped herself from finishing the thought and for a single glorious, petrified moment, Gilbert wondered if Anne might just follow through with the action of the word she’d stopped herself from saying.
But she didn’t.
Instead, Anne blushed prettily and held out the letter, offering to return it. Gilbert shook his head and told her to keep it, which she did, tucking it into her pocket with a stunning smile.
“Do you want to skate?” he asked, nodding his head at the frozen pond.
“I don’t know how,” she confessed shyly.
“I’ll show you,” he promised.
Though she bit her bottom lip nervously, Anne agreed, and with the adorable enthusiasm of an overexcited puppy, Gilbert rented he and Anne a pair of skates (the best dime he would ever spend in his lifetime), showed her how to tie them on her feet, and led the redhead out on Griffin’s Pond.
Much like a newborn foal, Anne was unsteady on the ice, clutching fiercely to Gilbert’s hands as she tried to find her balance and straighten her back instead of having to be gently pulled along while being bent over. She giggled as she kept her eyes trained on her feet, trying to copy Gilbert’s easy movements, but not quite succeeding.
For his part, Gilbert would have been happy dragging Anne across the pond right though Christmas. He liked holding her. In fact, the pressure of Anne’s weight leaning on him was probably one of Gilbert’s favourite feelings. It grounded him, made him feel both the supporter and supported. And it didn’t hurt that, while Anne was so near and very much occupied with her feet, Gilbert was able to take the opportunity to catch a trace of the fragrance that was so often lingering about his best friend’s skin and hair. It was a fresh, clean scent, one that made Gilbert think of laundry soap with just a touch of lavender.
“You’re going to be a wonderful doctor,” Anne said suddenly, making Gilbert fumble his footing. He caught himself before he tumbled them both to the ice, making Anne laugh, which was wonderful since it distracted her from noticing the blush creeping across Gilbert’s nose.
“You really think so?” he asked, straightening his back and glancing down at his feet. When he noticed Anne had stopped attempting to follow him, he raised his gaze and found himself caught in the tender attention of her grey eyes. She was smiling at him as if he hung the moon, and again, Gilbert found it difficult to swallow.
“I know so,” she said confidently.
“How?” he wondered, voice hoarse with feeling.
“Because you are the kindest person I know, Gilbert Blythe,” she replied. “And compassion will always be the cornerstone of the makings of a great doctor.”
Staring into Anne’s joyful grey eyes, her hands clasped trustingly in his as the world skated past them and little spots of snowy lace fell down from the sky, Gilbert was certain he would achieve his dream and become the kind of doctor that touched as many lives as he saved.
Because Anne Shirley believed in him, and with her faith as his support, Gilbert knew that anything – everything! – was possible.
Oh my gosh, the penultimate chapter!
And finally, we are back in Canada. Of course, that means there is one more leg left of this journey, and I certainly hope we all know where we'll be ending ;)
For anyone wondering, writing Marilla's letter was truly a delight. I don't always have the easiest time finding her voice, but when I was drafting her letter to Gilbert it all just came so smoothly that I was ready to forgive her as readily as Anne did.
Please let me know your thoughts on this chapter, and I promise the conclusion to this winding road will be posted soon.
Love you all!
Chapter 15: Avonlea
Gilbert finds his way back home
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
“I think I could make a grand home for myself in that cherry tree,” Anne said, pointing out the grey sapling to Bash. Gilbert approached the pair quietly, enjoying the scene.
“You’ll be dying of cold here on the ground just as fast as you’d freeze to death in a naked tree with no leaves for warmth,” Bash countered, teeth chattering even when bundled under two heavy coats, a wool scarf and hat.
“We warned you about Canadian winters,” Anne chided fondly. “And it’s not nearly that cold. Look! The sun’s out.”
“That is no sun, Queen Anne,” Bash admonished, pointing above them with betrayed accusation. “That is a false sun; a big lantern in the sky that gives off no heat. You and Gilbert did not warn me about that.”
“We did, you just didn’t listen very well,” Gilbert piped up, clapping his brother hard on the shoulder, making Bash wince and whinge. “Come on. I’ve got us a sled.”
“Oh! Just like the song!” Anne exclaimed eagerly before starting to sing. “Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh…”
Gilbert joined Anne, humming the melody as he led her and Bash to Bright River’s stables, just on the west side of the station, where a stall-hand had already hitched a low, shallow wagon bed to a stunning shire colt.
“She’s a beauty,” Anne sighed, her song cutting off immediately as she looked in awe at the horse. Dropping her carpet bag in the bed, Anne approached the gentle giant with earnest delight, brushing her hands along the animal’s flank before making her way to the front so she could admire the horse’s big black eyes. “What’s her name?”
“His name is Midnight,” Gilbert said, so enchanted watching Anne commune with the horse that he didn’t even hear Bash grumble as he settled into the wagon bed, squeezing his large body down as low as it would go and covering himself in both luggage and blankets.
“What a perfectly perfect name,” Anne sighed, petting the horse’s muzzle. “Thank you kindly, Midnight, for taking us to Avonlea. My name is Anne and it’s a true pleasure to meet you. I’m sorry our acquaintanceship will be short, but I’ve no doubt it will be lovely all the same.”
“You could come and visit him, if you wanted,” Gilbert suggested, a bit shy. “I bought him, so he’ll be living at the Blythe-Lacroix orchard.”
“That sounds nice,” Anne said, just as shy to accept the offer as Gilbert had been making it. With a final friendly pat, Anne left Midnight and hoisted herself up on the front seat, Gilbert joining her.
“All set?” he asked as he took the reins.
“I think I’ve made a terrible mistake,” Bash grumbled.
“Oh hush,” Anne teased, turning back to look at the shivering, disgruntled man. “We gave your island a try, fair and square. Now it’s your turn to try ours.”
Gilbert didn’t allow himself to let out a barking laugh when he caught the Spanish curse Bash muttered, and he wondered if Anne had even an inkling of what their friend had insinuated about where their island could shove it.
“Do you want to give it a go?” he asked, holding out the reins to Anne, knowing she was always keen to try new things. For a moment, her grey eyes lit up and her gloved fingers reached eagerly for the leather straps, but they paused in the air, as if suddenly frozen, before Anne laid her hands back down in her lap.
“Not this time,” she said. “I’m too distracted to pay any attention so I’ll probably drive us into a ditch.”
The joke was weak, and underneath it Gilbert could detect a hint of petrifying fright. He knew Anne was a wreck over being reunited with the Cuthberts confessing on the train from Charlottetown that she both loathed and longed for the moment to come. He was at a loss over how to quell her nerves, so instead, Gilbert kept Midnight at a steady pace on the path to Green Gables, not too fast or too slow, and he let Anne be as she sorted through her knotted emotions.
“Oh! It’s the Lake of Shining Waters,” she exclaimed, tapping Bash’s head so the man might look up and admire the scenery. “I do love that it hasn’t frozen over. A glistening lake in the middle of a winter wonderland is so magical. I suppose…well, I suppose I’ll be able to see Diana, too, if the Cuthberts still –”
“They want you, Anne,” Gilbert said. “Do I need to recite the letter to you again?”
“I don’t know that I’ll really believe it until it’s all for certain,” she supposed.
“And when would that be?” Gilbert asked.
“I’ll know the moment when it comes,” she answered back, trying to sound confident, but unable to keep the unsure tremor from her voice. “Oh look!” she exclaimed, happy to divert the subject. “It’s the White Way of Delight! I saw it in full bloom last September, but I never imagined it would retain its astonishing beauty even in winter. Look at the snow along each branch. Doesn’t it make you think of a bridal veil, all lacy and glowing with jewels and pearls?”
“What will your imagination dream up next?” Bash sighed, mesmerized by the way Anne spoke of the boughs that canopied over them.
The rest of the ride was made in silence that started out comfortable, but was soon overwrought with Anne’s anticipation, especially when the familiar silhouette of Green Gables came into view. She sat ramrod straight beside Gilbert as Midnight drew them closer, and for a moment Gilbert thought he could see a shade of that eager thirteen-year old Anne who must have been so jubilant to see Green Gables for the first time only to have her hope massacred before she’d even breeched the threshold of the farmhouse. Now it was a fourteen-year old Anne returning to the scene of her dashed dreams, bravely, if not a bit apprehensively, seeking again the acceptance she’d been denied from the same people who had cast her out.
She really was the most courageous person he’d ever met.
As they made their way up the drive, Gilbert saw that the gate was already open, left ajar in expectation of their arrival, a good sign he thought. He directed Midnight towards the house, but before he could get very close, the side door of Green Gables was flung open and a grey-haired man in boots and a heavy coat hobbled outside, rushing for the sled as fast as his age and health would allow, an older woman tailing behind him.
Hearing Mathew Cuthbert call out her name, Anne could no longer contain the wild emotions that had been twisting throughout her spirit like a cyclone since the moment she’d read the letter from Marilla two weeks ago. Slipping off her seat before the sled came to a full stop, Anne ran as fast as a jackrabbit towards the siblings who were rushing down the lane to her as well.
Mathew reached Anne first, his arms coming around the girl as fiercely protective as any father’s. Anne flung herself into the embrace, her shoulders heaving as she cried long and hard against Mathew’s chest. Marilla hung back, but the desperate look on her face to reach for the sobbing girl was practically ravenous.
“It’s alright,” Mathew said in his gentle way, trying to sooth the crying girl.
“You went back for me!” Anne hollered. “I didn’t know! If I had I wouldn’t have run away. I would have waited for you. I wanted to come back. I wanted to call Green Gables my home and you my family.”
“It is your home!” Marilla exclaimed, surprising herself with the emotional outburst. Anne turned towards the stern woman, eyes glassy and rimmed red with tears, asking a question she was desperate for Marilla to answer. “And we’re your family, Anne Shirley, if you’ll have us.”
Sniffing, Anne stepped out of Mathew’s hold and took slow, even steps towards Marilla. The older woman kept her expression composed, but it seemed that she was just as anxious as the redhead who stood before her.
“I rather like the way Anne Shirley-Cuthbert sounds,” Anne confessed, her voice a warbling mess. “It’s a name full of scope for the imagination, don’t you think?”
And before Marilla could completely nod her head to agree, Anne flung herself against the woman, holding tight to her waist and crying all over again. Awkwardly, Marilla wrapped her arms over Anne’s shoulders, eventually settling into the embrace as naturally as any mother.
“Thank you for finding her,” Mathew said, approaching the sled to shake Gilbert’s hand.
“She sort of found me,” Gilbert replied, nodding his head towards Bash who also took a turn at shaking Mathew’s hand.
“She found both of us,” the Trinidadian said.
“S’good,” Mathew muttered. “She wasn’t alone. I was always so…worried that she was alone.”
“Won’t you come in for some tea?” Marilla asked, having joined the men at the sled, her arm around Anne’s shoulders, the girl in question wrapped in the shawl Marilla had been wearing when she’d rushed out to greet them. Seeing Anne so happy, her face a blotchy mess, skin still damp with tears, but her lips turned up in a smile overflowing with joy, Gilbert knew that his friend’s incandescent moment of belief and acceptance in her new reality as a wanted child had been realized, and couldn’t bear to intrude on the new family a minute longer.
“We’ve got to head back to the orchard, make sure the house is still standing,” he said, ignoring Bash’s grimace at being denied a hot cup of tea. “But thank you.”
“The house is fine,” Mathew said. “Me and some of the other men…we made sure it kept.”
“That’s very kind. I…I don’t know what to say,” Gilbert answered, nearly choking on his own overwhelming appreciation.
“It’s good to see you back, Gilbert,” Marilla said.
“Take care of yourself,” Anne added, bounding up on the sled so she could give Gilbert an intense hug, mindless of the borderline scandalized expressions that crossed the faces of the Cuthbert siblings. Gilbert was also blind to the way Marilla and Mathew gaped at the pair’s open regard. He was too caught up in the embrace himself, squeezing Anne tight to his chest and laying his cheek along the side of her head, catching another hint of her hair’s clean perfume before having to let her go.
The two friends took a moment to stare at one another, the silent gaze filled with a dictionary of unspoken words. There was experience, and understanding, affection, and yearning in that frozen look under the shadow of Green Gables. Rather desperately, Gilbert felt he needed to memorize Anne thoroughly, trying to commit her face to memory, but he kept being drawn back into her grey eyes, the irises absolutely crystalline in the Avonlea winter.
“Stay out of trouble, Queen Anne,” Bash joked sweetly, placing a hand over the girl’s and giving her freckled fingers a squeeze. The gesture broke the moment, and Anne gave Bash his own fierce hug.
“Impossible,” the girl quipped, giving an impish smile before snatching her carpetbag and leaping off the sled. “See you,” she said.
Nodding, Gilbert clicked his tongue and urged Midnight onward.
“See you, Carrots!” he called over his shoulder, laughing as Anne raged at him for using her hateful nickname. It made him feel like things would be alright between them, even though he couldn’t help feeling that he was, in a way, letting her go.
Anne would be occupied with her new family, learning what it meant to be a Cuthbert, reconnecting with Diana, and figuring out how to help run the farm. She’d have little time for him before the winter break was through and school was running again, and who knew what school would be like. Mr. Phillips was never a generous man, too pompous and proud, so he likely wouldn’t have much forgiveness for Anne or Gilbert when it came to catching up with their peers on the coursework. Perhaps that would be their opportunity to remain connected; helping each other out with school.
He'd have to wait and see if that would be the case.
The ride to the newly christened Blythe-Lacroix orchard was quiet save for Bash’s odd grumbles about never knowing warmth again. When he finally saw his stone farmhouse, Gilbert started to feel a great anxious typhoon churning through his insides, much the same as Anne had when they’d approached Green Gables.
Only, there wasn’t a family of single senior siblings waiting for Gilbert.
There was nothing on the other side of the door save for the memories he’d tried to lock away in the house a year ago when he’d left, and the thought of having to face them again, so obvious and unavoidable now he was here, was just a tad daunting. Still, Gilbert had made his mind up about his life, and he wasn’t going to back down now. So, taking a page from Anne’s book and spooling every last fiber of bravery into his soul, Gilbert urged Midnight forward and faced his ghosts.
“Welcome home, Sebastian,” he said, gesturing with a sweeping arm at the little farmhouse and all the land beyond. His friend, who had knelt up in the wagon bed when they started up the drive to the house, smiled and clapped Gilbert on the back.
“Welcome home to you, too,” he said.
They made quick work of unhitching the sled and getting Midnight settled in a stall in the barn for the evening. Then, with a bit of bated breath, Gilbert unlocked his front door and walked into the house he’d once believed he was leaving forever.
It was cold, that was expected, so his first course of action was to get a fire started both in the stove and in the parlour hearth. Luckily, there was still some wood left in the woodpile, though the family of mice that had made a cozy nest among the old pine logs weren’t terribly pleased when Gilbert uprooted their home. With two fires started and a kettle of hot water waiting to boil, Gilbert’s next course of action was to find Bash something warm to wrap himself in before the man rattled himself to death.
The only thing Gilbert could think of that would offer immediate relief was one of his father’s old sweaters. They’d been made from mohair by Mrs. Kincannon when they’d first come back from Alberta, and John Blythe had worn one every day until his last.
Entering his father’s room, Gilbert was nearly blown back by the raw, sad air that hung in the chamber like a curtain. Everything was where he’d left it, from the evening hat atop the wardrobe, to the army medal on the nightstand, to the book, Leaves of Grass, placed delicately in the centre of the bed, a bookmark keeping place of John Blythe’s favourite poem, Song of the Open Road. If he listened closely, Gilbert was certain he might hear the echo of his own voice, a year younger and so changed to how he sounded now, reciting the verses, the phantom of his father sitting up in the bed and hanging on to every word.
“Alright?” Bash asked, having creeped up behind Gilbert, startling the sixteen-year old out of his melancholy daydream.
“Yeah. Just a moment,” he said, going to the chest at the foot of the bed and retrieving a lush grey mohair sweater. “Here, that should keep you warm until the fires do the rest.”
“Thanks,” Bash said, pulling the sweater over his head and smoothing the warm fabric over his chest. “You sure you’re alright?”
“I will be,” Gilbert answered honestly. “I just never expected it to be so…the same. It’s like I never left.”
“Maybe you never did,” Bash offered. “Not really.”
“Maybe,” Gilbert conceded, leading the way out of his father’s bedroom and heading for the kitchen where the water in the kettle was starting to boil. He worked with mechanical proficiency making the tea, using the good china so that their first cup of tea together in their shared home would be just a tad decorated. “To home,” Gilbert toasted, to which Bash agreed with a big smile.
“Now, don’t be sulking around all heartbroken ‘cuz the girl you love isn’t here,” the older man teased with a serious tone when they finished their tea.
“Fine, fine, the girl you’re mad over,” he pestered.
“I’m not –”
“Alright! The girl you have a massive crush on,” he goaded.
“Bash!” Gilbert blustered, making the man laugh heartily. “You know what, for that, you get to clean up,” Gilbert announced, stepping away from the table and putting on his boots and jacket.
“Running back to Green Gables so soon?” Bash joked, dodging the hat Gilbert threw his way. “Careful! Don’t want to break the china, now. What would you serve Anne tea in when she comes to visit?”
“I’ll just be outside if you need me,” Gilbert said, rolling his eyes as Bash continued to chuckle. “Feel free to roam around, get to know the place. It’s your home, too.”
And before Bash could make another crack at Gilbert’s expense, the young man retreated outdoors.
He stood on the porch for a moment, taking in the fields of snow and sucking in a deep breath of the harsh winter air, the biting chill seeming to shock his body with the sudden realization that he was back home.
The reality of it hadn’t quite hit him until this moment.
Knowing what he had to do immediately, Gilbert started walking through the snow, his footprints the first to break the pure white drifts. He trudged through the neglected field to the little graveyard situated peacefully under the bare maple, a strong sentry presiding over the souls of three generations of Blythes. With no hat to remove, Gilbert simply bowed his head before taking a seat on the cold stone bench just outside the low iron enclosure, and addressed the headstone that was freshest in the plot, its smooth grey surface as pristine as the day it had been placed, the lettering stark and deep with little inclination to erode away like the names and dates on some of the other stones already had.
”Hi Dad,” Gilbert began, as nervous to be speaking to his father’s stone as if he were speaking to the man himself. But he was addressing his spirit, so in all the ways that mattered, he really was talking to his father, and he could practically hear John Blythe scolding him for not keeping in touch for so long. “It’s been…well, it’s been a really incredible year and I’m going to tell you all about it. I guess I should start with Charlottetown. I was there for about a month after you died. I worked at the docks and got a room in a boarding house in the city, right downtown in the middle of the traffic and shops; where all the action is, just like you used to say whenever we went someplace together. Then I got a commission on the Primrose, a real steam ship, and she took me all over the world, but before I left, on my last night in Charlottetown I met this girl. Anne – with an ‘E’ – red hair, fiery temper…I’m going to tell you all about her.”
And so he did.
For hours, Gilbert talked to his father’s grave, speaking to the stone as plainly as if he were speaking to the man. He told him about every port, of the world wonders he’d seen, the people he’d met, the strangers he’d helped, the family he’d found again.
He told his dad about his first kiss, and his new brother, and mostly, he told his dad all about Anne.
And when he was through and there was no voice echoing in his head the response he imagined John Blythe might make to the amazing tale his son had just told him, Gilbert sighed, a broken, warbling little noise, and he wiped away the tears he could feel ready to fall before they had a chance.
“Not sure what you’d think of me wanting to be a doctor. I can’t even imagine what you’d say, what your face would look like when I broke the news…Anne would be able to; imagine it, I mean...
“Dad…I wish you were here.”
Gilbert would always wish John Blythe had lived.
He missed his dad. That was a feeling that would never truly go away. It would sit within his heart like a weight, not so heavy as to drag him down, but palatable enough that, if he searched for it, Gilbert would easily detect its presence. The ache of missing his father was part of him, now, and would remain so for the rest of his days.
And that was okay.
Gilbert’s grief was okay, his sadness was okay, his bitterness was okay, just as much as his rediscovered love of life, his zeal for adventure, his affection for new friends and family was okay.
He was okay.
And was going to keep being okay, from one day to the next.
That was something John Blythe would be proud of, Gilbert was certain, and it was with that surety that the young man left his family plot with the promise to return soon, and made his way back to his house where his new family, his future, was waiting.
The first day of school after the winter break, Gilbert was up with the dawn, feeding the pigs, setting Midnight out to pasture, milking the cow, and getting breakfast on for Bash while trying to review the notes Charlie had lent him after their last hockey game.
The boys had come by the house a few days after Gilbert’s return, bearing dishes of homemade meals from their mothers and sisters, awkward as they asked if it was true that a negro was living with Gilbert and then being positively moronic when they finally met Bash and stared at the man in sputtering awe and trepidation.
It only took one serving of Bash’s crab callaloo (and a sneaky nip of his rum) for most of the fellas to take a shine to Gilbert’s new brother. They seemed to enjoy Bash’s penchant for telling an exciting story of life at sea (he always was the better storyteller) and when the Trinidadian joined the boys in some good-natured ribbing over their mutual friend, Gilbert was certain his chums had somehow found it in their hearts to forgive his cold departure of a year ago.
When they’d invited him to play a game of hockey, he knew they had…
It was New Year’s Day.
The sun was out, there was a fresh sheet of snow draped over every field on the island, and the air was positively artic. A perfect day for hockey.
The young sons of Avonlea were eager to join up and start their game. With brooms borrowed from home, the younger boys set about sweeping the snow off the pond behind the Sloane’s property while the older lads shoveled the sleet onto the banks. Once their rink was clear, skates were strapped on, sticks were grabbed, and teams were chosen. Charlie picked Gilbert first.
“Hope you know the difference between your sea legs and your skate legs,” he joked, and Gilbert took the teasing in good stride, even making a point of commenting that his legs seemed to know themselves perfectly well when he scored the first goal of the game.
For the rest of the afternoon, the boys played, and Gilbert lost himself in the sport. It wasn’t until he was rushing neck-in-neck with Billy for the ball, this pivotal move the one that would win or lose his team the game, that Gilbert found himself filled with such a weight of gratitude that he stumbled, the tip of his blade catching on the ice and making him wobble. Billy, ever the cad, saw the blunder and took immediate advantage, shoving Gilbert in the side to topple him into a snowbank while he managed to take the ball and score the final goal. Regaining his balance and brushing the snow off his trousers, Gilbert couldn’t find it in himself to care about the check or the loss, even as Charlie started railing against Billy for the unnecessary contact and calling foul on the point.
It didn’t matter.
Gilbert was playing hockey on the same pond he’d played hockey on most winters with the same group of boys he’d been playing hockey with since he’d learned to skate. He was an orphan, caught somewhere between being a boy and man, a sixteen year old with a black brother and business partner and dreams of being a doctor all because he’d run away from home and helped a desperate prostitute give birth in a hot, humid shack on an island that was so very different from his own.
There was so much life that Gilbert had lived, leagues more than his friends, and sometimes that deeper knowledge was isolating. He still sometimes felt as if he didn’t belong, but then there were moments like this, when he was with his friends just playing hockey and being kids and it was as glorious as it was strange.
It made Gilbert wonder if he would ever get used to growing up.
“Hey Gilbert!” Moody called out, waving him over to the fire they’d built before starting the game. Most of the lads had shed their skates and were huddled around the flames. There was a pot of Mrs. Sloane’s soup bubbling over the blaze, and Charlie was proudly ladling the hot broth into tin cups for the eager bunch, declaring his mother’s chicken noodle soup to be the best cuisine in all of Avonlea.
“Not as good as Ms. Cuthbert’s plum puffs,” Paul (was it Paul McLean or Paul Edwards, Gilbert wasn’t sure) challenged, and many of the boys expressed their agreement.
“Speaking of that old spinster,” Billy snorted, “did you hear she and her kooky brother adopted an orphan?”
“Really? Why?” Moody asked.
“Probably to help on their farm. I mean, it’s not as if they can afford that Acadian boy forever,” Charlie surmised.
“Well, they adopted a girl so I don’t think she’ll be doing much farm work,” Billy said. “But I heard she’s a dog, so who knows, maybe they’ll let her loose to hunt ducks and rabbits in the wild!”
That horrid jape got all the fellas laughing and Gilbert couldn’t help stumbling into Billy so hard the snobby boy upended his cup of soup all over the front of his trousers.
“Blythe!” he hollered, shoveling snow onto his heated, and painful, groin. “What the hell, bud?”
“Guess I tripped,” Gilbert said, not sounding the least contrite. “And serves your right, anyway. What do you know about the Cuthberts’ daughter? Give her a chance before you go making accusations.”
“Right. Like I’m even going to talk to that orphan trash,” Billy scoffed.
“Well, you’re talking to this orphan trash, so I don’t know why you think you’re so above it,” Gilbert replied, and the whole group went deathly silent, waiting to see and hear what Billy would do next.
When the bitter blond just clenched his jaw and added another pile of snow to his soring crotch, Gilbert felt his point had been made. He didn’t linger long after that, collecting his stick and skates and wishing the gang a nice evening before he started for his home.
It was Moody and Charlie, their faces bright as radishes as they jogged through the snow to catch up.
“Hey,” Gilbert greeted.
“Billy’s just an ass,” Moody managed to huff out before Charlie could speak. “We don’t think that about you.”
“Thanks,” Gilbert said, “but no one should think that about anyone. It’s not easy being an orphan. It’s really lonely most of the time.”
“Then why did you leave?” Charlie asked, forlorn and barely managing to disguise his hurt.
The realization was cutting as, for the first time, Gilbert could see how much he’d hurt his friends by vanishing without so much as a goodbye. But that was the thing about grief: it has the strength to change a person, make them selfish, a slave to their own pain with no way of seeing the cracks in the hearts of others. Perhaps Charlie and Moody weren’t as devastated by John Blythe’s passing as Gilbert had been, but they had been despairing, only it was for the well-being of their friend and then, later, the betrayal that friend had visited upon them with his unannounced departure. Understanding how much he had wounded his mates made Gilbert realize how much more thankful he needed to be that they were willing to welcome him back into the fold.
He’d have to make it up to them, over and over if necessary. He could start by trying to explain himself.
“It doesn’t make sense anymore, the reasons I left,” Gilbert started, ashamed. “It was like…I was feeling too much at once when all I wanted was to feel nothing. Leaving here, it seemed like the fastest and easiest way to do that.”
“We would have helped you,” Charlie said. “Whatever you’d needed we would have tried.”
“That’s the thing, I didn’t even know what I needed. I didn’t know for a really long time.”
“And now you do?” Moody wondered.
“I’m starting to,” Gilbert confessed. “So, don’t be mean to the new girl, eh? Being an orphan is already hard by itself, never mind having to be the new kid in class, too.”
“But she came from the orphan’s asylum in Nova Scotia,” Charlie lamented.
“No she didn’t,” Gilbert said with plain confidence. “She came from all over the world. And if you’re nice to her, maybe she’ll tell you all about it.”
“You know her?” Moody asked.
“I do,” Gilbert confessed, smiling at the memory of Anne, wondering what she was doing back at Green Gables. Helping Marilla in the kitchen, or in the barn with Mathew, maybe pestering the Baynard boy or telling fairy tales to the chickens. She could be climbing trees, or taking tea with Diana Barry, or making an army of snowmen to line the Green Gables drive. Maybe she was in her bedroom, painting the walls with murals of their time at sea, or maybe she was writing their adventures in a notebook, chronicling their seafaring days in volumes that would be published for all the island to read.
Or maybe she was staring out her gable window and looking out over the vast wintry fields that separated her farm and his orchard and she was thinking of him, wondering what he was doing right that moment.
“Is she cute?” Moody asked, his inquiry cutting across Gilbert’s imaginings.
Unable to hold back his bashful smile, Gilbert decided it was time to take his leave of his friends, but not before answering Moody’s question with complete honesty.
“She’s a dryad.”
And with that proclamation, Gilbert waved farewell to his chums and headed back for home…
Gilbert rushed to get the bacon out of the frying pan and onto a plate. A quick look at the table told him everything was set for Bash to have a very nice breakfast, his first on his own since coming to Avonlea a week ago.
Wondering if he should put the kettle on or leave that up to Bash, Gilbert’s musings were broken by an eager rapping on his side-door. Curious, Gilbert marched to the door off his kitchen, opened it, and had the wind knocked right out of his lungs.
She stood on his porch as prim and proper as he had ever seen her. Her coat was new, made of wool and dyed blue to match the cap on her head that was pulled low to shield her ears from winter’s fierce breath. There was a burgundy scarf he suspected was Mr. Cuthbert’s folded tightly against her neck, the fringe sticking out like thick little hairs around the collar. Her cheeks were kissed rosy from the biting cold air and there was a trace of snowflakes melting on her eyelashes.
Gilbert felt his heart give a curious ‘bu-bump!’ at the sight of her, and he had to swallow hard before speaking.
“G-good morning,” he stuttered, wanting to crawl in a hole for how flabbergasted he sounded.
“Good morning,” Anne parroted, smiling and glowing with glee. When she said no more, and Gilbert could not think of what to say further, he cleared his throat and flicked his gaze to either side of Anne, hoping she’d continue. “School,” was all she said, as if he should be able to follow her meaning. When he only flashed her a quizzical look, Anne jutted her chin over her shoulder and threw Gilbert a meaningful expression.
He still didn’t understand and shrugged to tell her so.
Anne rolled her eyes and grumbled.
“Are you ready to go to school?” she groused, her tone scolding, as if he were the most hopeless case in all of Prince Edward Island. “Do you even have your books? Your slate?”
“I do,” Gilbert retorted. “Just…uh, give me minute.”
Forgetting his manners completely Gilbert left the door ajar and abandoned Anne on the porch as he dashed away, stampeding up the stairs to his room so he could collect his school things.
“Who’s that at the door?” Bash asked, poking his head into Gilbert’s room, a pair of small trimming scissors in his hand and a toque pulled low over his ears. Apparently, his morning beard grooming had been interrupted.
“It’s Anne. She wants to go to school together,” Gilbert explained, fumbling to throw his books and slate into his satchel. He was so thrilled that she hadn’t forgotten him, that she wanted him to walk to school with her, that he didn’t even dignify Bash’s knowing smirk with a practiced denial.
“Have a lovely day!” the Trinidadian called after Gilbert as he rushed downstairs, and Gilbert silently congratulated himself for not being goaded by the teasing tone of his friend’s farewell.
Anne was standing in the doorway, watching with mirth as Gilbert went about packing Charlie’s notes in his bag, gulping back the last of his morning coffee, then rushing to put on his boots, coat, scarf, gloves and hat before joining the redhead.
“Let’s go!” he exclaimed, happy to be away from Bash’s joking and happier still to be in Anne’s company.
Anne smiled and led the way, beginning to chatter immediately as the pair ambled through the knee-high snow towards the woods and on the path to school. She started regaling Gilbert with her many mini-adventures in their week apart, beginning by saying she was sorry for not being able to see him beforehand, only the Cuthberts were so eager to get her settled in Green Gables, and truthfully, she was very keen herself to understand what it meant to have the daily routine of parents.
There were chores to learn, and animals to name, and a whole farm to discover. Marilla was fairly eager to teach Anne how to cook, and in the last seven days of practice the fourteen-year old was confident she could make a decent (and tasty) scone, of which Gilbert and Bash could be the judges if they accepted Marilla’s invitation to Saturday tea.
She lamented the too cheerful swagger of Jerry Baynard, and the prying questions of Rachel Lynde. But those minor annoyances were outshone by the joy of riding a horse with Mathew and walking alongside the Lake of Shining Waters with Diana and running an errand at the general store for Marilla. And of course, there was nothing that could compare to going to sleep every night in a bed that belonged to her, in a room all her own, in a house that was her home that she shared with people she called family.
Anne was happy, and to hear it, Gilbert was just as elated.
“Did you know? There’s a new teacher,” the redhead reported excitedly, jumping into a new topic.
“I didn’t know that,” Gilbert answered, wondering why Charlie nor Moody had thought to mention it.
“Seems your Mr. Phillips made a hasty leave for Toronto after he was jilted at the alter by someone named Prissy Andrews. It sounds like a positively delightful tale of tragical romance. Diana didn’t know as much as I had hoped, so I’ll need to make fast friends with the rest of the girls to get the whole of the story since Marilla doesn’t believe in gossip. Oh, Gil! I’m simply euphoric to be reunited with my Diana. She is so glorious with her dark hair and dark eyes and a most exquisite smile. She and I have renewed our pledge to be best friends for the duration of time –”
“I thought I was your best friend,” Gilbert quipped.
“You are my kindred spirit,” Anne corrected.
“What’s the difference?”
“Do I really need to explain it to you?”
She really didn’t, and his lopsided smile told her as much.
“Come on,” he said, showing Anne the way through the woods. “You don’t want to make a bad first impression on day one.”
Anne chuckled as she followed him, keeping up to his long gait by fairly bouncing like a rabbit through the snow. She continued to chatter away, telling him of Marilla’s laundry list of rules when it came to using the stove, and Mathew’s stealthy sneaking of sweets to her each night before bed, and how Jerry’s singing positively infuriated her to the point she was considering taking up old habits of striking boys over the head with the nearest object.
The closer they got to the schoolhouse, however, the quieter Anne became, until they were standing at the bottom of the stairs of the white-washed building and she had totally clamed up and was rooted to the spot. Once, her looming silence would have worried Gilbert, even frightened him, but over the last year Gilbert had become the best reader of Anne Shirley. He understood her better than he understood himself, and Gilbert knew that when Anne was nervous, she couldn’t stop herself from talking, but when she was scared, the very opposite would happen.
And being the new kid at a school where the other students had known each other since they were in nappies, was certainly a frightening situation to step in to, perhaps even more terrifying than boarding a strange ship to explore unknown corners of the earth and sea.
Change was always scary. It could be daunting, and lonely, and leave you doubting all you knew about everything, even yourself. But if there was one thing Gilbert had learned in his year away, it was that fear, and doubt, and loneliness and all the challenges that came with them, could be faced with courage and determination, and that it was made all the easier if one had a kindred spirit at their side to lean on in the moments when the world seemed an immovable obstacle.
Gilbert sprinted ahead and up the stairs to the schoolhouse, opening the door and gesturing for Anne to pass inside. He watched her take a deep breath and square her shoulders before ascending the stairs. But when she got to the threshold, she stopped.
Anne looked at him and smiled, her coral lips chapped from the winter air, her cheeks flush from their walk, her eyes sputtering with terrified excitement as if alight with a firecracker, and her hair tied back in those wonderful braids that would always make him think of carrots. In that second she looked so beautiful that Gilbert wondered if maybe he really did have a crush on his best friend.
But those were feelings to be stored and examined another day. For now, there were more important confrontations to face.
Smiling back, Gilbert gestured for Anne to cross the threshold. Instead. She took his hand in hers and squeezed.
“Come on, Doctor Blythe. You’ll never make it to medical school if you can’t even be on time for your first day of class!”
And when Anne marched into the Avonlea schoolhouse, head held high and braids catching in the sunlight, Gilbert was right beside her.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
And just like that, The World Before Me has come to its natural conclusion.
Oh, I'm going to miss this story! It was such a treat to write and knowing its been loved by so many wonderful people and getting to read your thoughts chapter by chapter has been like my own wonderful journey around the world.
But let's not think too much of this being the end, but rather a fresh start, much like Anne and Gilbert's. There are many more Shirbert stories rattling around in this ol' author's brain, and I am eager to share them all with you in due time. With the new year there will be a new adventure to enjoy, and maybe (if I'm lucky) a few holiday treats along the way to quench our massive Shirbert needs.
I want to thank everyone so much for making this story not only the success it is, but for making me smile, or laugh, or ponder, or become inspired by your attention. When I posted Chapter One I extended a hand and asked you give me yourself and join me on this adventure, and you returned the gesture with grace and such trust. It's been an honor to be by your side through this journey and I hope, when I invite you out again, you will join me down a new path.
Love you all!