Phil was engaged in disposing of the remains of a failed attempt at tea-staining an old dress. It had had coffee spilt on it, but she'd thought it could be sort of shabbily elegant if she could get it to an interesting faded sepia color. Alas, it had only come out blotchy, and so she'd sat herself down to tear the thing into rags. A dozen little splotched rolls surrounded her already, and she'd only just begun on the skirt of the thing. Economy was, she was discovering, a terribly trying mode of life.
The knock on the door was peremptory, and she gave voice to an unwelcoming growl; she was not in a temper to entertain, and besides was certain that she did not make a prepossessing picture, folded up on the floor with her back to the sofa in long-limbed disarray. The caller risked her further ire by letting themselves in – but then dissipated it like the shreds of a spent thunder-cloud, simply by virtue of being Gilbert Blythe.
He was bare-headed, and his hair, disarranged by the late autumn wind, fell about his face in a fetching tangle. Phil suppressed a feminine sigh; he was awfully good-looking, though she knew well enough that it was no use. “Hallo,” she said, attempting to rise politely but getting caught by a rag-roll.
Like the perfect gentleman he was, Gilbert Blythe held out his hand to help her up, only spoiling the chivalric effect a little bit by asking, “Going in for nursing, Miss Gordon?” with a politely raised eyebrow. She threw a half-done roll at him, but he warded it off, and it fell harmlessly to unspool on the carpet.
Gilbert smiled – that deliciously wicked-boy grin that he sometimes had, the one that made him look about fifteen and adorable – and bent to rewind the brown-blotched fabric. “Is Princess Ida at home?” he asked.
“Who?” Phil said, certain she'd missed something but not quite sure what.
But Anne saved her from her perplexity, sweeping down the stairs in something clingy and misty-grey that was, Phil was quite sure, not actually made of finest silk; things just looked more dreamy and cloudlike when Anne wore them. Phil would have given anything for the trick of it. “He means me, I suppose,” Anne said, her voice lilting and light and happy – as it so often was, Phil did not fail to observe, when Gilbert Blythe happened to be present. “He's showing off,” Anne accused, “trying to prove that he knows my Tennyson as well as I do.”
Gilbert raised an eyebrow. “Your Tennyson, Anne? I wasn't aware you had a personal connection with him.”
Anne laughed. “Weren't you? You witnessed the voyage of the unfortunate lily maid with your own two eyes, and you doubt my love for my best-beloved poet?”
“Ah, but you seem to have given up the practice of that sort of playacting – or ought I to go away, and only come back within these sacred confines once 'in maiden plumes I rustle,' so as not to ruin your performance?”
Phil watched the two of them, there in the bright front room of dear Patty's Place: Anne with her left hand still twining round the newel-post, Gilbert sparkling up at her like Phil had seen no man sparkle before. With an audible plonk she sat herself back down among her rag-rolls. “I'm blest if I can follow a single word you two moonstruck fool are saying,” she said. “What are you talking about?”
“A very long and lovely poem, dear Phil,” Anne said, coming to sit by her, the spell that had kept her standing on the stair seemingly broken by the chance to talk at someone about Tennyson. Phil did not roll her eyes; she was just as bad about mathematics, and with possibly less excuse, as mathematics was not nearly so easy to work into casual conversation as poetry was. “It's about a group of women from the time of knights and ladies, who run away to begin a college together. No men are admitted, on pain of death.”
“Until,” Gilbert put it, “her betrothed and his friends sneak in, disguised as girls. We read it for Fitzgerald last week, Anne, so you'll find I'm quite up on the poem's use of frame narrative.”
Stella leaned out of the little kitchen, a mixing bowl filled to the brim with cut apples and cinnamon still held to her side, to say, “I'm surprised you should like that poem, Anne, with how horrid Tennyson is about women's education.” Stella had a penchant for New Woman novels, and Phil foreboded that she would be a Radical by the end of her arts course.
“'Then, sir, awful odes she wrote'?” Anne quoted. “Well, yes, some of it is rather dreadful – and I always feel awful for poor Ida, and for the way those boys go trampling all over her school. But the school itself is just splendid. I always get chills all up and down when Ida says to those young women, 'O lift your natures up: embrace our aims: work out your freedom. Girls, knowledge is now no more a fountain sealed: drink deep.'”
“Hmph,” Stella said, and returned her attention to her half-made apple tarts.
“And the prince does learn to value women for their intellect as well as their beauty,” Gilbert said. “Tennyson's not too much of a chauvinist in that respect.”
“It is romantic,” Anne replied. “How hard he tries to win her love. I think she'll be happier with him, in the end, than she was all alone with her studies.” Phil, looking up into Anne's face, saw her eyes go momentarily faraway.
“This house reminds me of that place,” Gilbert told Anne. “You girls are all always so busy. I wasn't entirely joking, before, about feeling as if I rather disturb this pretty picture of liberated womanhood and educational zeal, pulling you off to have frivolous fun.”
“If you came dressed as a girl, like the men in the poem, wouldn't you be contributing to the picture instead of disrupting it?” Phil wondered aloud in a tone of careful innocence.
Gilbert threw back his head and laughed. “I'm sure a Tennysonian gown would be an improvement over a calico bonnet; I'd be moving up in the world. Are you ready for that walk now, Anne-girl, or shall I call again later? It's plain that Phil, at least, thinks I'm intruding on your feminine sanctum.”
Phil, in closer proximity to Anne, saw clearly what he couldn't – namely, the very interesting effect his last remark was having on Anne's face. For first the eyes grew very wide and starry, and then a pink flush crept over the lightly-freckled cheekbones, and finally the soft lips parted in a silent expression of – what? Phil couldn't think of its name.
Anne's lashes swept down in one long blink, and then she gave a little shake of her shoulders and stood up, crossing to the door for her hat and scarf. “If I'm not back before dinner, make Stella save me a tart,” she said, blowing Phil a fairy kiss as she followed Gilbert Blythe out the door and into the gusty afternoon.
“I will,” Phil promised gallantly. “And see if I can't scratch some verses together for you about Gilbert coming to woo you in a frock, into the bargain.” Anne did not slam the door, although she certainly closed it with great decisiveness and power.
Phil went back to her fashion triage with a shake of her head and an exasperated laugh. What those two were was something beyond her kenning, and likely always would be. She'd have to remember to ask Anne about “the voyage of the unfortunate lily maid,” though; it sounded as though there might be a jolly joke there.
“The trouble with trying to play at Camelot in these degenerate days,” Anne said philosophically, “is that one can never really get things in period. For one thing, I'm sure Princess Ida's students didn't wear silk knickers.”
“Ah, but yours does, Queen Anne,” Gilbert laughed, “to match your own.”
“But I haven't any on at all; Ida wouldn't have worn knickers any more than her students would.”
“Anne,” he said, the single word falling heavily from his mouth, freighted with desire.
“Well; come here, darling, and let me lace you up.”
He sat, and she crawled into their bed to kneel behind him, and his remaining humor died away into anticipation. Her hands tugged at the strings, beginning in the middle and then working up and down, the bone and cloth of the corset forcing his waist into delicacy, flaring out again over his hips. His breath came quicker as she tightened the undergarment, causing his panting lungs to press against its constricting embrace. The flounced petticoat tangled around his knees, sensitizing every inch of flesh that it touched.
Anne finished lacing the corset, and reaching her hands up the broad planes of his back she curled herself close against him, pushing the lace strap of his chemise down his shoulder to leave it bare to her kisses, pressed one by one along the exposed line of his collarbone, and then down along the wing-curve of his shoulderblade.
“What is the lesson to be, Queen Anne?” he asked, voice husky with need and low with lust.
Anne smiled a radiant leopard-tamer's grin, and let her hand grow heavy on his shoulder, pulling him around as she let herself sink back onto the bed. Her other hand pushed up the hem of her own petticoats to reveal her bare legs, and then higher still to show the thatch of dark reddish curls shadowed between them. She wore no stays herself, although her chemise very nearly concealed the curve of her belly that contained the third baby, still no longer than a thumb but growing in the warm nurturant darkness of her womb. “A love-lesson today, I think,” she said, her breath coming faster too. “A test of the agility of your tongue, and the diligence of your application.”
“Yes, your majesty,” he said, going to his knees beside the bed like a suppliant, cushioned by soft cotton and whispering silk. He fell dutifully to his work, bending all his skill to the appointed task; he wanted nothing more in all the world than to please the lovely red-headed snippet of a teacher who lay spread out before him with as much grace and majesty as any real queen or princess might possess; and, after all, he had always been a good student, accustomed to receiving highest marks and honors.