COMMON GROUND

In which Walter surrenders to truth; Una surrenders to feeling; and Anne surrenders to the inevitable

Sunday May 8th 1915, Glen St Mary Presbyterian Church

John Meredith strolled down the aisle after morning service seeking out stray hymnals, when he spied a lowered head in the Blythe pew. He removed himself to the porch to muse over the noticeboard (Sleepers Awake was cancelled due to a lack of tenors) when he was blindsided by Norman Douglas. The incorrigible man had been halfway to home, when, as it often happened, he decided to march right back to church in order to clarify some point in the sermon. For the dream that lay closest to his heart concerned catching out these men of the cloth, to whom the phrase 'do as I say, not as I do' fairly described most of them.

Not John Meredith, however. The man meant what he said, even to the sending of his own son to the horrors of Verdun. Word was Jerry had been knocked to kingdom come last week, and lay unconscious in no man's land for hours. Yet this morning his father stood at the pulpit straight and true, though an interrogating eye would have noticed how his black hair was becoming more silver by the week. For all that–and the fact that Norman was married to Rosemary's sister–he could not help but prod John every once and a while to check for any wobbles, spiritual or otherwise.

When he said his piece and the Minister responded to his satisfaction, Mr Douglas made his way home–but without his wife. Ellen Douglas knew that look in her husband's eye, but she had a leg of mutton to get in the oven and he was likely to go on for hours.

Just the one passed this particular Sunday before John returned to the porch, and was tugging at the iron latch that kept the doors open when he remembered someone was still inside.

He walked up to him and placed a reassuring hand upon the boy's shoulder.

"Walter? I am about to go on to the Manse, you are most welcome to join me... Of course you may remain here as long as you wish."

"Thank you, Mr Meredith. If it's all the same I would like to stay."

Walter had that look on his face that longed for help but didn't know how to ask for it. After this week's dreadful event John could well imagine what might be troubling the lad, but he decided to make a small joke first. Knowing from experience that when one is afraid to speak sometimes a laugh could usher out the words.

"You've not come to attack my sermon too, have you?" John said, his black eyes glinting, mildly.

Walter didn't even attempt a smile.

"I came here today hoping you would reveal to me why I should be here and not in a trench with Jem." He glanced at Mr Meredith, observing his surprise. "I know you all think I'm unfit, but the typhoid lost its grip on me long ago. I could pass any medical, but I could never let go of the sickening sense that I would be dead inside before I ever made it to battle... Until that U Boat sank the Lusitania–and all my reasons for not enlisting sank with it."

He shook his head in shame and John watched him sadly, wanting to stop the boy's bitter words, yet he knew he must let them come.

"And I turned to you," Walter continued, "I looked up at you in the pulpit this morning wanting to hear you say one word–" his voice caught and he rubbed his eyes roughly, "just one, that could justify my feelings. But you couldn't. No one could. Because I'm nothing but a coward, a slacker–"

At this John could no longer hold his tongue, he reached out to Walter and grasped his hand.

"And this is how you've been feeling this past year? You judge yourself more harshly than anyone else ever could."

"Why shouldn't I, it's the truth."

"Surely a coward is afraid of the truth. You bear it like a cross upon your shoulders."

"I should bear it. Others are bearing much worse... My brother... Your son. How can you comfort me after what happened to Jerry?" Walter wrenched his hand away and bent his head lower. "I despise myself for sitting here taking up your time. I prayed for the strength to walk out this morning. I know you are weighed down by the needs of so many."

John smiled at him, tenderly. There were few in his congregation who would think twice about adding to a Minister's lot. In fact he could only think of one, his black haired daughter. While Rosemary devoted herself to fatherless households and Faith to Red Cross meetings, Una was left to cater for them all from the sketchy remains of their pantry. Her blue eyes aglow, her small mouth set determinedly, as she pored over ancient, fly-spotted recipes, searching for things one could make from a sack of oats and a half-cup of molasses. Faith had teased her that the worse things got, the more Una seemed to like it.

"You forget, my boy, that my yoke is easy and my burden is light." St Matthew's words coming as naturally to John as the beat of his heart. "Don't misunderstand, this path I've chosen requires everything of me. Yet I walk it faithfully because I know it is right. The question is, Walter Blythe, what is right for you?"

"I–I don't know anymore."

John looked at him, disbelievingly. Walter shook his head with shame.

"Before the war I knew to my fingertips what I was meant to be. But ever since that night last August I have had this feeling gnawing at me, as though I didn't know myself."

"Or could it be that only then did you truly understand who you are?" John asked him. "You have withstood a lot this year, haven't you–from without and within. Una never says a word, of course, but even I have noticed how diligently she applies herself whenever she writes to you. I would hardly call her a careless girl, but it struck me she would not make such tremendous efforts unless she knew you needed especial cheer."

Walter blushed at this discovery. He had been surprised and heartened by Una's letters during term time at Redmond. Every envelope filled with quotes from books, famous opinions, and newsy delights that made him feel, if only for a while, that the world was a brighter place. He hadn't considered what work they had been for her.

"I must thank her," he said, dully.

"You shall have you chance in a moment. Una always comes to let me know when morning tea is ready. I'm sure she thinks I'll stay here till dinner if she doesn't collect me. She is trying a new recipe, her own invention. Sugarless cake! She means to test it out on me before our congregation."

"Because she knows you'll be kind, no doubt."

"I should hope that everyone counts on my kindness. I never saw the need for cruelty, even telling the truth does not excuse it–whatever certain Douglas' might avow," John chuckled. "I have always admired your gentler ways, Walter, and admired the way you stayed true to it. It takes courage to be gentle just as it takes courage to fight your corner. You have done both, I recall."

"If you think you can rally me by mentioning that one little scrap I had when I was a boy, I should tell you that Rilla has already said the same."

"Lucky man to have such angels about him," John winked. "But don't forget the girl whose life was made better by your 'little scrap'. Faith never forgot, you know. I think Jem and Jerry tried many times to teach Dan Reese a lesson. But it was when you decided to fight that he knew he was done for. Remember what I told you then? To not fight until you are certain you that ought to, and then put everything into it–"

"You think I have decided to fight?" Walter stood up abruptly and gripped the pew in front of him, worn smooth by hundreds of hands. "I can tell you I haven't, Mr Meredith. If I had I would have strutted out of this church with a bigger head than Mary Vance. But I cannot endure war, the violence, the pain–"

"You already are at war," John cut in, "it's only that you have made an enemy of yourself."

He stood up and placed his hand on Walter's shoulder as footsteps sounded in the porch. They glanced down the aisle to see a grave little face peering at them between long beams of light streaming through the clerestory. Walter turned away and felt John's hand press upon him.

"But now I wonder if you have surrendered to the truth."

"What truth?" Walter murmured.

"That there is a part of you that wants to fight." John turned toward Una and smiled at her warmly, "Hello Moonlight, is tea all ready? How did that cake come out?"

"Preserves, Father, sugarless preserves. And I think they are passable," Una replied–which meant they were certainly delicious. "But the tasting can wait if you and Walter are... That is, I hope I didn't disturb."

"Good morning, Una," Walter said, tucking his hymnal into the slot in the back of the pew. "Don't let your tea stew on my account, Mr Meredith. You have given me a lot to think on but I must be going as well."

John took Walter's hand and shook it vigorously.

"I am glad, Walter–I can't tell you how glad–to have seen you this morning."

The three of them walked out to the porch together. Their footsteps crunching on the white gravel path and birdsong singing them to the gate.

"Here," Una said, producing a small basket that was hidden by her side in the folds of her dark blue dress. "Some rhubarb preserves for your family. Susan mentioned she would like to try them. I was going to run across to Ingleside myself."

"Why don't you come with me?" Walter asked her, impulsively, "I'm sure Susan will have a dozen questions about the making of them."

A few more exchanges followed–whether Walter was absolutely sure it was fine for her to come, whether Una could truly spare the time–until both faces went as red as the contents of those boiled clean jars.

John Meredith observed them both with a barely contained smirk. When the two finally strolled away and he closed up the doors to the church, he allowed himself a loud guffaw.

And people said he was muddled!

"Una," Walter said, as the two of them cut through a stand of young birches and headed to the heart of the Valley, "may I also call you Moonlight? It's such a beautiful name, I wish I'd thought of it myself."

Una swung her basket a little higher, peeping up at Walter through a glossy sweep of hair that fell over her eyebrow.

"If you like. It's only a little pun. Faith used to call me Luna-Moon."

She used to call her Moonface as well, but there was no strict need for Walter to know that.

"It might have started as a pun but it stuck because it describes you to perfection," he said gallantly, deciding to return a measure of the cheer she had given to him in all those letters.

It would prove easier than he thought. As he walked by her side through the budding meadow he felt as though some burden was being lifted from him. A genuine smile bloomed on his lips as he began to recite, "The half moon shows a face of plaintive sweetness, Ready and poised to wax or wane–"

"A fire of pale desire in incompleteness, Tending to pleasure or to pain–Oh Walter! I'm sorry. I–I always seem to be interrupting," Una stammered, self consciously, upon seeing Walter's large grey eyes go larger still.

"No Una, I'm sorry–if I seem so amazed. I was worried you'd been spending what spare time you have digging about in books and journals trying to think of something to write to me. But in poetry it seems we have discovered common ground. I never knew..."

Una clutched at the handle of her basket, the clinking glass within it stilled.

"I hope I never gave the impression that I know much about it. It is only that particular poem I know so well."

Walter looked sidelong at her as they walked by the White Lady and pictured their days in the Valley. There was Jem and Jerry competing to see who could throw the most apples into Faith's apron, Carl and Shirley knee deep in the brook, Nan and Di teaching Rilla to weave garlands of cornflowers. And Una. Her eyes as blue as the crowns on his sisters' heads, peeping up from whatever book Walter was in a passion about as she watched him recite for them all.

"Hmmm," he said, playfully, "and if I said, A thing of beauty is a joy forever?"

"Its loveliness increases, it will never pass into nothingness," Una replied, steadily. "But that scarcely counts, Walter Blythe, everyone knows that."

"Well, dear Moonlight, what about..." and he played his fingers over his lips pretending to mull over something, then stopped mid-stride.

Una stopped, too. The jars clattered against the basket and she frowned briefly at the discordant sound breaking into the melody she found herself in; of Walter's voice sounding lighter than it had all year, his eyes looked as though they might sing.

"What about," he said once more, "I love you as one loves obscure things, Secretly, between the shadow and the soul, I love you as the plant that doesn't bloom, but carries–"

"The light of those flowers, hidden in itself," Una murmured, looking at her shoes.

It was for Faith he had written those words, of course it was. And yet didn't it speak exactly of her feelings for him? To have Walter recite them to her, to say aloud the words I love you... It was scarcely bearable.

They began to walk again over lush and lucent green, it was ten or twelve strides before Una dared to look up, only to see Walter's beautiful face beaming down at her.

Una turned away and clutched her basket close, saying lightly, "That poem doesn't count either. That was one of yours."

"Bully of you to memorise it, all the same. I don't think there's another person I could name who could do that." Lieutenants, especially, were too busy for poetry. "Aside from Mother, of course. But then she was at the birth of so many of my poems. She misses it dreadfully, writing with me."

"Yes, you mentioned something about it in your letters. You said you haven't written anything since war was declared. I am sorry about it, Walter."

"I can't seem to get beyond a few lines before it all dries up. But lately there's been a phrase–I can talk to you about this, I suppose, you being the poetry expert and all," he said, nudging against her. "But there is a phrase that has been haunting me ever since that dreadful sinking, describing a mother and child clasped together, drowning in a black abyss... Oh, Una, forgive me–I shouldn't speak to you of something so macabre."

"I don't mind."

It was a relief to know that someone else had been haunted by the same image; Una often feeling it was her own self adrift in frozen waters while a helpless body clung to her for help.

"How many people say that and how few mean it," Walter said. He spied a dandelion ballooning with downy clocks and plucked it carefully. "But you mean it, don't you, Moonlight? I would like to write a poem for you one day. Of course, that might annoy your sweetheart," he teased.

"No, it wouldn't."

"Goodness, then he is a better fellow than most."

"You misunderstand. I don't have a sweetheart."

Una let the hair that had been tucked behind her ear fall across her face. If she had dared to look up in that moment she would have seen the boy walking next to her looking just as uncomfortable.

"Neither do I," Walter uttered quickly, as they passed by a chestnut tree. "Not that I want one. I don't think I would dare kiss a lass unless I was sure I was going to meet my death."

It was Una who stopped now and gave Walter a solemn stare.

"Whatever do you mean?" she asked, wondering if he wasn't mocking her.

Walter had taken several steps before he realised she was far behind him. As he turned a swollen breeze undressed the dandelion and dusted Una in fluffy seeds, dotting her dress like stars.

"Well..." he replied, trying to sound as though he had the slightest idea what he was talking about. "If I never kissed her she'd have something to wait for, wouldn't she? But if I did kiss her... well, then she would know."

"Know what?"

"That the boy she knew was never coming back."

Una Meredith had never not wanted to be kissed by Walter Blythe so much in her life. She began fussing about with the clocks clinging to her shoulder. Walter took her basket, tucking it into the crook of his arm, then looked ahead to the big scotch pine that bordered the grounds of Ingleside.

"By your logic half the Canadian army will never return," Una said, eyeing the basket and wishing she had it back.

"I don't think they will, Una. Even those that do will never come back as they were. Everyone will lose something in this war. Whether it be a limb, or a lover, or the ability to sleep without nightmares," he said, thinking of his latest letter from France. The boys sent him far more accurate accounts than any they sent to home. Walter then remembered it was Jerry's little sister he was saying this to and twitted her nose, playfully. "But by all means let us kiss them all if you think it might help."

His broad shoulder brushed past the new roses on the hedge that housed the tennis court. The green had been turned over to sugar beets. The net would not be put up again. Walter picked a tiny bud more green than gold, and as Una moved ahead, tucked it into the blue ribbon that held back half her hair.

"It's nice to see you smile again," Una said, thinking of the little drawer where this rosebud would end up. Brimful with all the ordinary keepsakes he had given her over the years.

"You can take the credit for that. All your kind words to me this past year–you can't imagine how much they meant. Promise me you'll always write, I should be able to face anything if I could count on that."

Una hardly hoped that anything she offered up to Walter Blythe–let alone her words–meant much to him at all. If he had said as much a year ago she was sure she would have been unable to stem a disastrous run of tears. But she too was made of sterner stuff now, and instead of choking back a sob said, almost calmly:

"Of course I will. You know you can always depend upon me, Walter."

"Yes, I do. I do know that, Moonlight."

Walter watched Una walk up to the veranda, her black hair throwing off beams of light, and he knew in his heart that should he ever see a moon 'somewhere in France' he would think of this girl.

"You'll come in, won't you? Susan will be drilling me all through morning tea about the making of your miraculous preserves if you don't."

All the usual protestations clamoured up inside her, because many people, not just the boy before her, depended on Una Meredith. It would be so easy to excuse herself and walk away, her heart thudding even faster than her feet. But the appealing look in his long lashed eyes, the way his hand stretched out to hers, Una was nodding before she knew what she had done.

On delivery of those preserves, and the eating of it with warm scones and cups of milky tea, Walter walked out with Una again. He trotted down the stone steps; the mint had begun to grow again, the pale tendrils and fresh smelling leaves basking in the heat of the sun-warmed slabs. Turning, he handed Una the basket now heavy with last of Susan's parsnip cake.

Una's eyes looked straight into his. Walter's chin tilted in such a way that for the oddest moment she thought he would kiss her. She ducked by him quickly, muttering goodbye, sure that a laugh was hiding inside his mouth.

And when she arrived at the Manse, breathless and pink, she was equally sure that she heard it carried on the wild spring air.

Though Susan might sniff on account of it letting in bees and the smell of dung from the fresh tilled fields, Anne Blythe would have the front door wide open as soon as the weather allowed. This radiant May afternoon was no exception and fairly sang with devotion to its aptly named day.

From up the stairs came another sweet melody as little Jims was lulled for his afternoon nap. Anne listened to it with a wondering heart. To think it might have been herself cradling a new born babe. Perhaps two. As Gilbert observed, twins often came to older mothers, and they definitely ran in the family. Perhaps she might have struggled with their birth, perhaps she might have had to dig another tiny grave, perhaps she wasn't relieved that the baby she had foreseen–though the soup tureen went beyond even her imaginings–was not meant for her at all. But for Rilla! It was not a burden Anne would wish upon any young girl, and yet caring for Jims had also nourished her daughter's heart. For who could give into bitterness and dread when they sang into soft curls and breathed in the promise that was a small child?

Anne stood by the front door and looked out to the garden, remembering the first steps of her children dabbling down the lawns of Ingleside. She was thinking of Joy again. Would she have run with a steady gait like Shirley or in a zigzag like Di? The lively spring breeze began to whisper the answer when she saw a white bird flutter along the veranda. Anne peered out to follow it down to where the wicker furniture had been set out again since Susan declared the weather would allow it, and saw it was not a bird at all. But a piece of paper.

It was lodged in the butterfly leaves of Susan's rheumatism plant. Anne went to retrieve the page when she saw half a dozen more being whipped from their place next to a pair of Sunday best shoes that lay underneath the swing seat. Lying on it was her son, his floppy black hair wavering in the wind, his arm cradling his head and his ankles crossed.

As he rocked in the breeze Anne was minded of the ditty Rilla had been singing, 'when the bough breaks the cradle will fall, and down will come baby...' What a strange thing to sing to a child. When he was small, Walter insisted the rhyme was amended with 'straight into dear Mother's arms'. She glanced at the page and saw Walter's loopy hand scrawled all over it. It seemed to be about a mother and child, floating, falling, clinging to each other. The last lines reading–

Hold my hand, oh hold it fast–

I am changing–until at last

My hand in yours no more will change,

Though yours change on. You here, I there,

So hand in hand, twinned-leaf despair

I did not know death was so strange.

He was writing! Here were his words flowing freely, joyously. She knew it from the way the pencil flew across the page, knew the shape of his g's–though others would have only seen a loop–the way the a's and n's and the o's and u's ran into each other as though he could scarcely keep up with his thoughts. Oh, the wonder of him, the skill and the style. Anne might never know what it was to build a life from words alone, but her son would. And knowing that meant as much to her as it did to Walter. Probably more. Undoubtably more.

Of course, she loved all her children greedily, down to the tiniest hair on their littlest toe as she used to say–

'Oh Mother,' Nan would pout, 'must you bring to mind the idea that I have hairy toes!'

'Yes, why not ears? Ears have tiny hairs, you know,' declared Jem.

'But ears don't decrease in size, do they?' argued Di.

'Yeth, why not love uth to the itty bitty freckleth on our notheth?' asked Rilla.

'I don't have any freckles,' said Shirley.

'You are one big brown freckle!' laughed Walter.

But how could Anne help what she felt for Walter when he was the child that answered so much inside herself? They might have flitted about over other things but in their love of writing did their hearts and minds meet, like butterfly leaves.

She read over the poem again unable to stop herself scanning the lines for metre and rhythm. So ready–burstingly ready–to sit herself next to Walter and ask him all about it. The twinned-leaf–he would be thinking of the rheumatism plant. The hands clasping at each other as they went to their death–clearly a reference to the passengers of the Lusitania, all those mothers and children left to drown in the freezing Atlantic. But here was the mystery... One pair of hands will not not change, whilst another's will. Surely that meant only one was was going to their death while one would remain and grow old?

Only one was going to their death...

Anne dropped the page as though it was made of fire, and it flew from her hands and out to the garden. She wished it might never land, that she had never read what he had written. Wishing with a raw and wounded heart that Walter was still ravaged by fever. That she had all those days to care for him before her. All those mornings to bathe his body and dress him, those afternoons to read to him, those nights listening to his tortured dreams. She would have that back, she would have that back in a second, she would have him weak and hollowed out forever before she could let him go.

Anne bent over him, breathing in the promise that was her child. Her son, her own. But not for the keeping–only for the giving. She could not do it, she could not, she could not! Jem's going had already stretched her so thin. If Walter followed him what would be left of her to hold onto to–

Oh hold my hand, oh hold it fast...

Her pale fingers reached for her son. How frightened she had been to feel the fever burning him, parching his lips, dulling his eyes, withering his body. Now he felt so cool and supple, brimming with strength and life. She caressed his cheek shaven smooth for a Sunday, and clasped at his hand.

"Mother?"

"Shhhh..." Anne whispered, knowing she said this as much to herself as to Walter.

"Mother, I'm writing again."

"Yes–" she paused, struggling to control her voice. "You messy pup, there are pages all over the veranda. We shall have to catch them quick or Susan will sweep them up and feed them to the stove."

"Makes no odds to me–"

For a moment Anne thought she would hear that Walter had no care for what he had written, that he never meant it and never meant to go.

"It's all in here," he said, pressing his hand, and Anne's, against his heart. "No one can take it from me now."

But they can! she wanted to cry. One small ball of iron fired from the enemy's rifle and the beauty of Walter Blythe would be lost forever. Instead she managed to say, "I'll have a listen, shall I?" and lay her ear against Walter's chest, turning away so he wouldn't see her tears.

If Walter wondered whether his mother cried he never asked, though the way he smoothed his hands along her hair told Anne that he knew. She felt like a child in his arms and remembered Matthew as her every breath bore the silent plea:

Don't go, don't go, don't go...

Anne did not say it. Not when Walter went to enlist in Charlottetown, or set off for the training camp in Kingsport, or waited for the train to take him to war. Anne never said it. Nor would she show it in her eyes, or let him feel it in the way she held him one last time.

She walked home numbly, climbing the stairs without seeing them, and fell into the chair overlooking the cherry tree they planted when they first came to Ingleside. The pale blossoms that spangled the branches were lost to the wind, and she berated herself for clinging to things that cannot be made to stay.

One thing remained eternal. Her husband came to her quietly and knelt before her, pleading entry into Anne's heart. She remembered sitting at her gable window all those years ago trying to imagine a world without Gilbert Blythe. Knowing that as she tended to Walter in his illness, a part of her was giving into the longing she had to have been at Gilbert's side. And here he was now at her feet, her living 'Book of Revelation'.

Hers to keep and hold onto.

That night Anne stroked her daughter's chestnut hair in the calm way that her husband had.

"Your brother can never leave you," she said, and pressed her hand upon Rilla's heart. "He's in here. You are bound to each other."

Rilla hugged at her mother and held her tight. Coming to know without quite understanding that the ties that bind are both tenuous and tenacious.

Made from tiny rosebuds and chestnut trees, broken shells and lanolin, brown sweaters and empty chairs, tossed socks and extra gravy, cups of tea and second helpings of blueberry pie...

And something more prosaic still. Made of copper, tin and lead. Running down the line that Rilla clung to, straining to hear above a bustling kitchen, a bawling baby and her own beating heart, as a voice came through the 'phone that she hadn't heard for a year.

"Hello, is that Ingleside?"

fragment from 'The half moon shows a face of plaintive sweetness' by Christina Rossetti

fragment from 'One Hundred Love Sonnets, XVII' by Pablo Neruda

fragment from 'Endymion' by John Keats

fragment from 'The Dying Child' by Edmund Muir

last line from chapter 16, Realism and Romance, Rilla of Ingleside