"The wedding dresses as them girls is wearing these days is indecent, that's what," Miss Cornelia frothed after Nan and Rilla were blessedly out of hearing, "why, most of 'em is no better than a nightgown. Terrible thin, shapeless things. Anne dearie, I love your younguns and no doubt, but I don't see how I'll be able to even look at them during the ceremony."
Anne Blythe's three daughters were to be married soon - Rilla in three days' time, Nan in June and Di with the first frost of November. The former two had just finished parading their newly completed finery before their mother and her longtime friend Miss Cornelia – Mrs. Marshall Elliot, as she should properly be called – and skirled out of the parlor in a fine film of silk and lace.
Anne sighed, leaning her head wearily against the high back of the settee. "Oh, Miss Cornelia. A sad day has come to pass when my girls make even me feel old and curmudgeon-y, isn't it? These loose dresses seem to be all the rage, but I'm afraid I can't find anything… pretty in them. The designs are nothing like I'd dreamed and planned when they were wee things."
"Daughters rarely heed their mother's plans," Miss Cornelia said with a knowing, sorrowful shake of her white head, though she herself was childless, "but I certainly put my foot down on that headstrong bit of a Mary Vance. No girl under my roof was to be married in their nightie, no matter what vain puffery and scandalous doings that Miss Chanel is up to." Her expression said plainly what she felt could be done with the French damsel of daring couture.
Anne glanced down at the beaded white satin bag in her lap, sure to be finished by her faithful hands just in time for Rilla's nuptials. Her expression grew sober and thoughtful, and Miss Cornelia paused in her own sewing at the change. "I feel there is more in this than silly fashion," Anne said slowly, "or they would have been swayed by my counsel. You and I have sweet memories of girlhood, Miss Cornelia." here she smiled thinly at that grand lady's derisive snort, "I can't blame them for wishing to cast off the memories of their own. But oh, just the same, I wish they would be married in full skirts and bodices. Otherwise I'm not sure it will ever feel quite… done."
"I suppose I can understand wanting to be done with the last five years," Miss Cornelia said with the air of a great concession, "betimes I feel the same way myself. But those limp, shapeless veils are another thing altogether, Anne dearie."
The Blythe doings were nearly always guaranteed to cause a stir of some sort, but Rilla Blythe's marriage to Kenneth Ford was destined to be an event talked of for decades not only in Four Winds and Glen circles, but across the island. Newspapers as far away as Toronto and Kingsport printed an account of what followed.
The first hint came two days before Rilla's bridal afternoon. Ingleside was demure with the shy golden sweetness of a late spring morning, clear skies promising fine weather on Saturday to all the glad hearts that prayed it so. Dog Monday, now stiff and rheumatic with age, could most often be found at such a time in his makeshift bed on the Ingleside verandah. Of course he was inseparable from Jem, and when Jem and Faith made the long trip from Kingsport for the wedding there was no question - Dog Monday must come too. For the past week he gloried in haunts of auld lang syne, traipsing faithfully at his master's heel in spite of Dog Monday's growing infirmity. Left to his own devices in the cool mornings, Dog Monday preferred a lie-in beneath the swing until the sun poked up above the tree line to warm his old joints.
His loyal, years-long watch for Jem at the train station bestowed upon him a gilded perch of honor in the eyes of one Susan Baker - at least as much as any dog could earn. It must be said that she spoiled him frightfully, both then and now, and stepped out onto the verandah in the crispness of dawn to secret him a beef bone left over from the previous evening's roast. She generally slipped them on a chipped saucer quite close to his nest, saving his weary legs the exertion. Thus she was surprised to find bed empty and dog missing when she turned the corner.
For minutes Susan searched in vain. A chill fear crept into her breast, that perhaps the good little dog had at last answered the call and pitched his wee boat away from the shores of Time. But out in the new garden - rescued at last from its inglorious service as a potato field for the war effort - was the pale form of Dog Monday, still and rigidly upright, motionless even as her eyes rested upon him. Susan called out to him sternly.
"What business have you to be out in the yard at this hour, Dog Monday? Get you back on the verandah, before you catch a chill!"
But Dog Monday would not be moved. The sun rose relentlessly, drying the crystal points of dew, warming a little dog's face and Ingleside's many windows, but still he sat rigidly facing east. Neither coax nor threat could inspire him. Only when Jem whistled did Dog Monday leave his self-appointed post, and then only with regret and uncertainty. Susan chose not to alert the rest of the family to his queer behavior, suspecting that perhaps some new beast in residence within the woods around Rainbow Valley had captured his curiosity, or aroused in him some territorial nature. Had Anne's children been the wandering, exhausting tads of years gone, she might have worried a bit more. But none of them seemed inclined to visit the woods but Rilla, and she only in the daytime.
"If he takes to shredding the laundry or digging holes in the lettuce beds, then I shall act. But he is a guest in this house, and I always hold that oddities in even the queerest guest must be overlooked." It was then that she remembered Aunt Martha, shuddered, and set about finding a comfortable way to revise that statement while she set the biscuits for the morning's breakfast.
The afternoon was rich with melting spring sunshine and the thin apple-green promise of leaves veiling the twining bare branches above the red road to Ingleside. Una Meredith arrived to assist with the wedding preparations, her older brother Jerry in the driver's seat of the old manse buggy. The pair of handsome bay mares hitched to the faded grayish affair were quite out of keeping with its careworn appearance; they belonged to Jerry, who agreed to loan them to Rilla and Kenneth for their honeymoon ride to the train station. He had plans to fix the old buggy, but as yet hadn't the time in between flying visits from college in Kingsport. He was engaged to Nan Blythe, and his decision to transport Una and her things to Ingleside was more than simply filial duty.
Rilla, Nan and Susan met the buggy when it came to a halt outside the back kitchen door, followed by a flurry of activity as luggage came down from the back and Una was installed in Rilla's bedroom for the duration. She was to be Rilla's maid of honor, and insisted upon being allowed to help with the meal and decorations. All of Susan's carefully constructed dishes must be packed into baskets on the eve of the wedding and driven to Four Winds, or assembled in Leslie's tiny kitchen in the old House of Dreams, for Rilla was not to be married in the home of her youth. Instead, she asked that they be married in the garden where Kenneth played as a boy – where Kenneth's mother and father made their own vows – where Anne Blythe laughed and loved as two more happy brides did before her.
The dream, however, was far simpler than the reality. Una's faithful hands were probably all that would keep Susan from her wit's end.
Rilla looked forward to Una's stay at Ingleside almost (though not quite, it must be said) as much as she looked forward to the wedding. The years since Walter Blythe's death had forged and strengthened their bond of friendship, and Rilla trusted in Una's sympathy and understanding as she did few others.
Alone with her journal for a few minutes that night, Rilla recorded what had happened once the household retired to bed. Una's breath was regular and slow at her side, a sure sign that the other young woman was truly asleep, and so Rilla felt free to write her thoughts as she would.
April 19, 1920
Una has told me a dreadful secret. This is nothing I could have suspected. Not in a thousand years. I wish she hadn't sworn me to secrecy – I would like nothing better than to run to Rainbow Valley right now and sob it out to Walter. Of course, that is silly and childish of me to wish for, but perhaps I have earned a few moments of childishness. Once I wrote here that I expected this journal to be in the hands of my descendants. Perhaps I'll tear out and burn these pages later.
Una is to be my maid of honor – that is far from a secret. Nan and Di are to be bridesmaids, as neither one is married yet and have not served as bridesmaids before, and thus I could not choose between them! Una has come over to Ingleside to stay until the wedding, and tonight we stayed up embroidering handkerchiefs and pillow shams and talking things over until quite a scandalous hour.
So we talked, as the Walrus said,
"of many things:
Of shoes, and ships, and sealing-wax,
Of cabbages and kings,"
And all the while I could tell there was something on Una's mind other than our current conversations. She seemed preoccupied and somewhat lonely, and even her laughter is gray and subdued. All at once I had an inkling of what it might be, and did a very foolish thing.
"How I wish Walter could be at the wedding," I said, and though I mean every word it was not the time, "He loved the little House of Dreams, and Kenneth too."
At this, Una seemed too big for the bed, bursting at the seams like those horrible German dirigibles. "Shirley has asked me to marry him," she blurted out.
I couldn't find anything to say to this. It was as if I'd asked Una if she took cream and sugar in her tea and she replied that France was beautiful in the spring, without batting an eyelash. I suppose it was obvious how shocked I was at this revelation… when Una saw I wasn't going to say anything, she looked worried and hurried to fill in the silence.
"I care about Shirley, Rilla… in his own way."
"Do you love him?" I asked. I don't think Una ever answered me precisely.
"He's a good man and we grew up together, and it makes good sense to both of us," Una went on in an ordered rush, as if she'd wound up all the words into a yarn ball and just had to unwind them now, "I don't want to leave my family and go far away somewhere like Faith did for Jem, and neither does Shirley, and this way we both know the other will never ask them to move away."
In all this explanation, I hadn't heard Una say one word as to whether she'd decided to go through with it or not. "What answer did you give to Shirley?" I asked, and felt as if I might faint with just the breath it took to say the words. My first response had been to say "Of course you told him no," but this is 1920. Anything might be possible these days, and as Una spoke she seemed hardly herself. There was a hot feverishness of desperation in her that worries me still.
"I haven't said either way," Una replied – in a very businesslike, un-Una-like fashion! "but I'm seriously considering saying yes to him."
At first I was very upset. This was not the friend I had come to care so dearly for. This was not the young woman with whom I have been 'keeping faith.' To me it seemed – and if I am honest, it seems so to me still a little – a breach of the promise we made. Since I am contemplating doing away with this entry when I have poured out my troubles, I might as well say so – I was disappointed, once my shock began to subside. Now, in the dark with only a candle for company, I realize that 'twas my silly romantic girlishness that made me feel so – the silly girlishness that sighs over Romeo and Juliet. I am glad and proud that I only gave in to my desire to say something – to scream! – a little.
"Think carefully," I encouraged, "I know to the bottom of my soul that Shirley is a good man, a good brother, and would make a splendid husband. But if happiness won't grow between you over the years, won't you wither with it?"
Una only smiled and patted my arm. Suddenly I felt extremely young and foolish again, twice over, realizing that I'd been putting on 'matronly airs' already! I tried to apologize, but Una squeezed my arm.
"Don't worry, it will all turn out," she said, and went back to the pillowcase she'd been embroidering. I was quite happy to follow suit, trying very hard to obtain control of my racing heart again and avoid asking impertinent questions. After a few quiet minutes, though, Una began to speak yet again.
"Rilla, I know I'll never be able to love Shirley." (!!) "When he asked me to marry him, I told him so. But you know him. He said that it was fine, as long as I liked him a little. And I do. But he knows. Is it cruel to marry him if he knows and wants to anyway?"
"No," I said, concentrating more on my finework than Una. My heart cried out a different word, but I held it silent.
"All this time, I have 'kept faith,'" Una went on, in a voice even quieter than before, "Rilla, that's a lonely torch to carry, and the way is often dark and cold." There she stopped, but her deep blue eyes were gently accusing when I looked up at her silence, feeling her gaze on me. You have Ken to help bear yours, her words said, though she did not speak them exactly. Even if she did not mean to say it, I heard it plainly, and I'm sure my cheeks turned a shade darker.
She made me feel a fool; a selfish child; a heartless and disloyal friend. What had happened to dear, gentle Una in these years, and how had I been absent from witnessing the change? This was a shadowed corner of her soul that she kept away from me – maybe to spare me the sadness of it, wrapped up as I have been (such a little fool I am!) in my own love affair. My compassionate and faithful friend is a strong woman, and I took her strength for granted. Poor Una!
"I only wish for your happiness," I said finally, after a few moments of uncomfortable silence and several slow breaths, "Una, I am certainly not going to judge your decisions. He-- He would want it--" Suddenly it felt wrong to mention Walter's name, as if saying it was casting up his death once again, and rubbing salt in her wounds.
"I know," Una said with a heretofore unseen firmness and resolve, "And anyway, I haven't given Shirley my decision yet. I told him I wanted to wait until after the wedding."
It seemed indelicate to tell her 'thank you,' even though I was secretly vastly relieved to hear that the news would remain a secret until afterward. Mother, Father and Susan are worried enough! Shirley is Mother's last son at home now. I know she was hoping for more time, as it hasn't been very long since he came home from war. Things seem very gray and exhausting just now, but that is only because I am tired and overwrought. Tomorrow morning should be fine, and anyhow, we'll all be so busy with the preparations that I doubt I'll have time to mope.
Shirley, getting married? To Una Meredith? The whole thought seems so, so unfinished, somehow. As if the story has a secret 'but then--!' and we just haven't seen it yet 'round the bend in the road,' as mother would say.
From the incessant use of italics I have given myself over to, it is high time I closed this entry and betook myself to sleep."
In April, Four Winds Harbor had a translucent paleness. The winds could sometimes gust and howl, and the ocean's brow was often stormy and fitful. But a spring morning at the Four Winds Light was delicate and fragile as a slim naiad; the same soft pinks and ivories as the inside of a conch.
"The coral isle, the lion-coloured sand
Burst in upon the porcelain revery,"
The dark-haired stranger sighed over the poetry, a little sad. He hid himself in the massive rocks upon the coast, and watched the sun rise over the surrounding ocean. Folded in his hands, accordion-style, was the newspaper of Glen St. Mary. In it a certain article of interest to him had been published, and its contents led him down the brick-red roads to here. Here he had a confused sense of alien difference, and belonging. He had spent the summers of his youth here, and his family's roots were tied up with the white driftwood, dark rocks and the bright searchlight scissoring through the dark. But it was not his home. In his memories, he was always the beloved guest, but not the master.
The windows of the little house were dark; its garden beds embraced by quahog shells and full of narcissus, crocus and tulips. He'd ridden by it on his way to the shore, his horse soft-footed in the damp red earth, and watched it with hungry, soulful eyes for some small sign of life.
The time was not yet right to return home. He had been gone, but not so long that he had forgotten Susan Baker. The house would already be in an uproar, and it would be unkind to take away Rilla Blythe's well deserved attention. At the thought of her, he smiled tenderly, and turned his eyes back to the sea. He had so much to make amends for, and could not begin to explain his lengthy absence.
For Walter Blythe was not dead, after all.
His dark hair was liberally peppered with grey, and he wore the beginnings of a beard the same color. In spite of his youth he looked like a man in his thirties. His heart had stopped for a full ten seconds - long enough for his Captain to feel for his empty pulse and for Dog Monday to be jolted with the fullness of his death. Little dogs, after all, can only have tender dogs' hearts. Grief to Dog Monday was an all-consuming thing, and when Walter's heart began to beat once more, he was deaf to its spark of joy.
When the bullet plunged through his body, Walter knew death as a blink of dark, starless night followed by intense brightness for which there could be no description. The light had been fierce and blinding, like sun on hills of winter snow. Looking into it brought Walter none of the anticipated pain, and in his deepest soul he knew he mustn't look away.
Then he was tumbled into a thicket of dense, fragrant green undergrowth, different from the hellish plains of France by its very lush sense of peace. Walter felt none of the scratches when the branches scraped against his arms, only the cool pleasure of leaves on his skin. He got to his feet, felt the ground solid beneath his boots. Good air filled his lungs, clean of gun smoke and the stench of human and animal gore. The change was so abrupt and so total that he nearly wept for it. Without knowing for certain why he did so, Walter moved through the undergrowth, through the close trunks of oak and birch, until he reached a familiar stream, and a familiar little footbridge.
Rainbow Valley sprawled out before him, hung with dappled summer sunlight and steeped in ruby memories, and then Walter truly knew he was dead.
When he saw his mother's eyes, at first Walter thought he was dreaming - for his shattered heart knew he was trapped in the hells of Courcelette and his mother was safe, thousands of miles away. Then a face appeared, and the face was not his mother's but another, younger woman. Walter knew her and did not know her at once. Her sweet, gently curving cheek was like Rilla's, her hair soft and curling red. But she had her own sweetness, one that was unlike his younger sister's, and her mouth had Di's understanding smile upon its lips.
She was all of them, and none of them. She stood by the bridge at the bank of the stream, awaiting his understanding with an air of boundless patience.
"Joyce," he gasped, rooted to the spot.
"Walter," Joyce said, and her voice filled his heart and the emptiness around him with radiance, "I knew you would come today. I had to come, to see for myself how you have grown." Joyce stepped toward him, and with her motion broke the bindings that held Walter stunned. They embraced and Walter felt as if it had come from Rilla, Di and the others as surely as it was Joyce's arms about him. The empty cup within his soul felt brimful.
"How tall you are," Joyce said fondly, the teasing in her voice so like Mother's that it pained him, "Why, I think you are even taller than Jem. It seems unfair – I am the oldest, by rights I should tower above you all."
Walter could find nothing to say. His poet's soul walked in rapture within the garden of this paradise, and felt no need to speak. It didn't seem to matter to Joyce, who had drawn back from him but still held his hands in hers. "Uncle Matthew and Aunt Marilla send their love. I wish that they could be here as well – but for the rules, of course. And I'm sure you know well how strictly Aunt Marilla adheres to the rules of the Almighty." Her voice lilted as if imparting secret, amused sympathy.
"The rules?" Walter croaked out at last, and "—Rainbow Valley is heaven?"
"Heaven looks however we imagined it," Joyce replied, a fierce glow of happiness touching her features with the smile she wore, "and how we imagine it must look even while we are here. Someday you shall see mine, as well. Aunt Marilla's is… a bit more conservative. Too much white for my taste. And Uncle Matthew's looks a lot like yours. But there are cows," Joyce added, gleefully.
Cows in heaven, Walter thought, and at the revelation began to laugh as he had not laughed in four years: like a man with no burdens to shoulder. Joyce joined him a moment later, and their voices filled the Valley with sweet echoes.
When the world fell quiet once more, Joyce squeezed Walter's hand to gather his attention. Her expression shifted, filled with sadness and regret. In her face Walter read his fate – that his cowardice lost him the right to heaven – and for a moment he panicked. Joyce gripped his fingers all the more fiercely, as if she sensed his fear, and hurried to speak. "As much as I would wish it, you cannot stay. You have a place here, Walter, never fear – but this is not the time. There are others who yet need you, and your work is left undone."
"What work?" Walter cried, and could not keep the quaver from his voice as the brilliance seemed to strip him of all pretenses. "Joyce, I don't want to go back. How can I face the world, live like the rest of the world, knowing what there is in it?"
"The world is filled with ugliness and suffering, it's true." Joyce shook her head. "And when the war ends – and it will Walter, very soon – there will be false expectations, and hope will crumple in a few years' time. We are such impatient creatures, never understanding that wounds and lands – our very way of life – needs time to heal." Walter found himself speaking along with her, and realized that his elder sister's words were less a revelation than a paragraph taken from his own heart.
"The world will heal eventually," Joyce went on, "as any wound does, no matter how often the scab is removed. But it will heal differently, wrongly, and the scar will be ugly and wide."
They stood together, looking at one another, as time passed without note or meaning. The Valley stirred with the passage of soft breezes, but was still warm, still green, summer afternoon. He had an inkling that the sun would not give way to dusk until he asked it to. "My work is to stop it," Walter said at last.
"Your poem brought the hearts of men and women to their feet – and not only for wartime," Joyce said, and in her voice there was love and joy for his accomplishment, "but they are on their feet still. They will be for years to come, worn out with it, footsore and bleeding, unless you show them how to rest again. You wrote them duty and courage, Walter Blythe, and now you must write them peace. It is only for this that heaven and earth may move for a single man."
"Do I have a choice?" Walter asked, and once again Joyce's gray eyes – Mother's eyes – flashed with Anne's familiar holy, womanly fire.
"Yes," Joyce said slowly, "of course. There is always a choice. But do you need it?"
Knowing now what lay across the bridge behind her for sure, Walter realized that he didn't.
He sucked in a lungful of smoky evening air and gagged, but there was nobody to hear him. The trench was abandoned, left behind as his regiment moved forward without him. The dead lay all around him, their faces bluely moist-looking and dark in the dim light. He struggled and pain electrified him, stiffening his body with as it radiated from his chest. The bullet clipped his lung, tore muscle and shattered his rib, narrowly missing his heart. By sheer miracle, he was not dead, but the pain of his injuries temporarily wiped the memory of Joyce from his mind and thus he could not fully appreciate what had taken place.
With difficulty, some hours later, Walter made it to his feet and thus began to walk in the direction his regiment had taken. When he was discovered eleven days later by a German patrol just outside of Morval, France, he was too delirious with pain and infection to much care. When the Armistice Treaty was signed a year and four days later, Walter had been a resident of a German Stalag in Czechoslovakia for ten months. Making his way home was a distant second to making his way back to himself, but in time he managed both. More or less.
"Chicken salad was good enough for your wedding supper, Mrs. Doctor, dear, and for Jem and Faith's wedding, and a dozen others I might mention. This 'breast of chicken a la Rose' sounds very fancy indeed, but I do not think it will travel. And Leslie's kitchen will already be full with the bread and pies – 'Tis a blessing the Ford connection is so small or we'd need to rent out the whole Point."
"Indeed, Susan," Anne said with a smile of sympathy as she lowered the paper, "I have no intention of meddling with Rilla's menu at this late hour." It was late in the morning of the day before Rilla's wedding, and she had been reading the social columns to Susan during the construction of the aforementioned salad.
"Sissy and Reginald Davies had their frightfully expensive reception at the White Sands hotel, and neglected to include a two-hour hike in their wedding preparations. That hotel puts on far too many Yankee airs for their own good and shall see their own ruin for it, and that you may tie too. I may not be the sort of person the White Sands folk would like to see darkening the door of their fine establishment, but it seems to me that the menu is more French words than substance. Mrs. Doctor, dear, could you tell me if this," here she pointed over Anne's shoulder at an entry in the supper list from the article, 'Medallions of lamb chasseur,' "is pronounced 'chass-or,' 'chass-er,' or 'chase-yur'?"
"I believe it is pronounced 'sha-sor,' Susan," Anne replied with a noble effort to keep the amusement from her voice, "and it refers to the sauce used on the meat. But not being familiar with haute French cuisine, I'm afraid that's all I can say."
"They are our allies, Mrs. Doctor, dear," Susan said solemnly, going back to slicing chicken into cubes, "and as such you won't hear me say a word against them. But I find that the French seem good for rather little else than trying to impress someone. And they rarely say what they truly mean. Why not simply say 'Lamb with sauce?'"
"Blame the White Sands hotel and not the French, I think," Anne laughed, "after all, it's their menu! By the way, are we still planning those dear little fruit cups you suggested?"
"Indeed! In fact, Nan finished making up the marshmallows just today. I don't believe I've ever had marshmallow, but heavens, if the Waldorf Astoria is serving it…" Susan flung her gray head back and glanced at the ceiling, beseeching the heavens for an answer for what she saw as rampant silliness. "At any rate, we have the jars of peaches and pears from last autumn, and I thought we might use those cans of pineapple Jem brought with him." In some realms, bucking tradition was anathema to Susan. In the kitchen realm, however, she was an innovator, and had fallen wholly in love with the convenience of fruits and other foods available in tin cans. "And the gelatin mold should be quite firm enough for tomorrow."
"I wonder if someday everyone will be eating their suppers out of cans and boxes," Anne sighed, nostalgic for Marilla's plum puddings and caramel custards. The fruit cups with their marshmallows were adorable and proven tasty, but on the whole, this new gelatin concoction seemed rather… insubstantial. The cake's commanding presence in the pantry was a welcome relief from all the unusual new foods.
"I'm sure, Mrs. Doctor Dear," Susan replied pessimistically, "and then Doomsday will come shortly after. All that indigestion at once is likely to have some ill effect. And speaking of indigestion, have you noticed that Shirley is acting strangely of late? He hardly eats at dinner, and nine times of ten, the sweets I leave him while he is at his books go untasted." Appetite and lack thereof, in Susan Baker's opinion, was a sure gauge of health and emotional disposition.
"He certainly seems preoccupied," Anne agreed, sobering. In the past few days she'd noticed the distance in him that bespoke troubles or dreams outside her ken, and inquired in her gentle way as to what held his attention. "but with what, I can't tell. And he's of Matthew's race, Susan – quiet and deep as a still stream."
Susan held her peace for a minute, scraping sliced green onion and pickle into the bowl of chicken salad. "Well, I suppose he'll out with it someday. But that boy is thin as a lamppost already, Mrs. Doctor, dear. If he doesn't start tucking in again soon, he'll look like a bundle of knotted dunegrass."
"Gilbert will see to that," Anne said, and Susan paused, taking a deep breath and loosening her shoulders. She worked a bit longer, then turned to Anne. "Do you know, Mrs. Doctor, dear, sometimes I need to be reminded that I am not the only person invested in Shirley's well-being. It must be quite a burden, being a mother."
"You speak as if you aren't one, Susan," Anne laughed, and got up to fetch the jars of fruit from the pantry.
The wedding Saturday dawned golden and sweet, blessing Rilla and Kenneth with a promise of fair weather to come. Early in the morning, a procession of carts and carriages trundled along the shore roads that led to Four Winds Point. Past the beaches, Past the elegant line of poplars to the small House of Dreams, neat and white beneath spreading trees with their unfurling mist of new leaves.
Leslie met Rilla, Una and the rest of the Ingleside womenfolk with joy and warmth. Her beauty had only deepened and grown rich with the years, and now she was a mature flame of crimson and gold. She showed the girls to the upstairs bedroom where they were to dress for the wedding, and left them to prepare. Anne helped Rilla button up the back of the loose, waistless affair of gossamer-soft silk, then braided her thick red hair into an elegant coronet. Nan and Di both had cut their hair short and now wore it in the stiffly coiffed Marcel waves of their contemporaries, but had matching daffodils tucked behind their right ears. Their dresses were filmy green, soft and sleeveless, and the effect of the flowers against the soft spring color was fresh and sweet.
"What comfortable looking dresses," Mrs. Alec Davies said archly when she'd seen them a few weeks earlier. By this time, however, Nan, Di and Rilla were quite immune to the lefthanded compliments of that upper Glen matron, and only smiled politely.
In spite of Miss Cornelia's concern for appearances, Rilla and Kenneth accommodated for the number of guests with an outdoor wedding and picnic supper, spread out on borrowed tables. All of Susan's carefully baked and stewed concoctions arrived safely by sweat and prayer, and joined Leslie's pies with great ceremony. Mr. Meredith arrived in plenty of time to visit with the guests beforehand, and everyone – down to the youngest member of the party – was dressed impeccably.
Left alone for a moment in the upstairs room, Rilla stepped back from the window overlooking the garden and gazed at herself in Leslie's tall mirror. The lights had been turned low after Nan, Di and their mother went downstairs, lending the little space an air of warm, dusky secrecy. It felt like a place where magic might happen; blessings bestowed. Rilla's mother and father lived their first married years here, babies had been born here; love flourished, childhood memories formed. In the mirror stood a young woman Rilla was not entirely acquainted with. She knew the changes in her from the first days of the war were great, but without a reference to hold herself against, Rilla was not altogether aware of them. They simply were.
So much had happened, in what seemed a short span of years. The great love she held for Kenneth shone from her flushed face, but in those same eyes Rilla caught the tightness of grief that she could not always hide. Even now, years later, she sometimes found herself missing her sibling, his words, voice and manner, as if she'd lost him afresh. Walter should be there. What would have happened, had he come home from Courcelette? Perhaps with an eye missing, an arm crushed and useless? His soul singed and broken by the horrid pain and bloodiness of war, as he hinted in his final letter?
Carefully, Rilla folded away the old pain and tucked it inside once more. The war had given instruction on the ways of practicality, after all, and it would not do to be sobbing over Walter on her wedding day. There was a light knock on her door, and Rilla pressed down on the little combs holding her veil in place before she turned to answer it.
Walter would know, did know her happiness, she decided. One way or another.
The ceremony itself went off an initial success, all as planned with fair weather and no scandalous uprisings, as Miss Cornelia always feared. Una took the arm of Kenneth's best man with trepidation – he was a captain from Brightvale who had served with Kenneth's regiment – and let him lead her to the altar. Shirley followed close behind, leading Nan, and after her an old school chum of Kenneth's, escorting Di. Kenneth's smile was warm on Una as she took her place, but she could hardly appreciate it. A feeling of grief and guilt rushed upon her as she saw Shirley in his impeccable suit and thought of their possible wedding day. The wrongness of it overwhelmed her – it was as unfair to Shirley as it was to her – she could not love him, and perhaps it was only that he had yet to find a great love. Common sense had little place in a happy marriage. Una's eyes met Shirley's and she cast them down. It was no use. She would refuse him, as she had known she must since the first day.
A hush fell over the assembled audience, as Gilbert escorted a radiant Rilla up the aisle to meet Kenneth before Mr. Meredith and God, Una looked east, towards Leslie's old home, the rooftops, and the blue April sky. The warmth of her friends and folk surrounded her, and even though her soul longed namelessly for company that was not shared among so many, her heart was content.
But as her eyes fell, following the red serpentine of shore road from the low hills, she saw the figure of a man standing outside the garden gate, one hand on the fence and the other on the reins of his horse.
If that figure had been whitehaired and bent with age, Una would have known him. If he had been missing both arms and his face burned and bandaged, she would not need to guess. Her breath caught in her throat, her thoughts blank, and her already delicate complexion faded to a ghastly white.
Rilla had a moment to see the roundness of Una's eyes and the whiteness of her skin before her own maid of honor dropped like a stone at her feet. She whirled and went to her knees before Una with a little shriek, until Kenneth's loud unguarded epithet pulled her attention away from her unconscious maid.
Rilla looked up in time to register the lean, graying form bounding toward her with the speed of a frightened horse before she was swept into a fierce, deep and boundless embrace. She was falling, falling, and heard her mother call out the much-missed name with a wild strength Rilla had never heard before. Dog Monday's voice covered it all, barking, barking, barking as if his heart might shatter into pieces from the passion of it. It was. It was--!
The world slipped quickly, silently away into darkness.
"That Meredith girl acted a shameless hussy, as I hear it," commented Mr. Robert Steward a week later. He was the new postmaster of Glen St. Mary and already a noted gossip, "Walter Blythe, good as dead for nigh on three years, and here he shows up at the youngest Blythe's wedding? I don't care how much my daughter grieved over a beau of hers, she certainly wouldn't have been allowed to make such a fuss over him. And his family standing right by!"
"I can't believe it," said Mrs. Neil McHenry, with a shake of her head. It was a sad day when the dead didn't see fit to stay in their place, "I simply can't."
Mrs. Patrick Alec, sister-in-law of the estimable Kitty Alec, never missed an occasion to jibe the Meredith family. Why none of the Church elders saw fit to remove that shiftless man and his scandalous children years ago, she never understood. "I've heard that she's gotten herself engaged to him. Already! Being a public hero and all, small wonder poor little Una would jump at him. The Meredith family is still rather notorious, after all."
Her statement was followed by a nasty silence. Mr. Steward and Mrs. Neil McHenry looked at Mrs. Patrick Alec as if she'd suddenly grown horns and a tail.
"Una might be a reckless thing, but she has her reasons, and the Merediths are good, upstanding folk," Mr. Steward said snappishly, as if he'd never called Una a 'shameless hussy.' "Jerry and Carl Meredith served during the war, and the oldest girl – Faith, isn't she? – went overseas to work with the Red Cross."
All three looked up, as just then Una Meredith entered the post office. She'd caught the last of Mr. Steward's sentence and her cheeks were burning with the knowledge that news of her family was – yet again – on someone's busy tongue. As she approached the counter to request the mail, Both Mrs. Neil McHenry and Mrs. Patrick Alec made surreptitious glances at her left ring finger, which was bare. Rings seemed inconsequential to Una Meredith just then, who glowed with the air of a loved woman, her somewhat lackluster and careworn appearance replaced by a golden gleam of joy and hope. No band of gold, no diamond chip was needed to give the secret away.
"Have you heard from Rilla and Kenneth Ford, Una?" Mrs. Neil McHenry asked with a little difficulty, as Una turned away from the counter with her thick pile of packages and letters. "Is it true they've gone abroad to Greece for their honeymoon?"
Una laughed, and shook her head. "A few minutes ago, someone asked me if they'd gone to Paris for their honeymoon. I suppose next it shall be the moon." At their shocked stares, she clutched her parcels a little closer to her breast and smiled. "Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Ford have gone to the States for a month, to stay with some friends of Kenneth's in Rhode Island." Her expression held such benign warmth that Mrs. Neil McHenry had the odd relief of feeling… forgiven for something, albeit what, precisely, she would never know. This was not the mouselike, gray and gentle young woman they all knew from childhood. Walter's homecoming had kindled a fire in her, a hope in the impossible, that no amount of darkness could quench.
When she left, Mrs. Patrick Alec sighed and made her way out. At the door, she paused and looked back. "You see what becomes of a person with such a shock. This can hardly have been good for her."
"Oh yes," Mr. Steward said with a chuckle when Mrs. Patrick Alec was safely out of earshot, "how dare that Walter Blythe not be dead after all."