If July was a grey day in autumn, September had the feeling of midsummer. Jem and Faith were on their way home and the breath we were holding could finally be let go.
We crammed on the Ingleside veranda and Di Blythe made a great wet sniff.
"Can you see anything, Nan?" she asked her sister, "My eyes are that fogged up."
Nan shook her head unable to speak, and Anne nestled against her bare shoulder. I remember when Nan was as soft and creamy as strawberry mousse. Now when she placed her arm around her mother I could see her muscles move under her skin.
"I've a feeling we'll hear them first, you wait," said Dr Blythe.
He was right. Jem and Faith's arrival was heralded by trumpeting honks as they motored up Glen Street in a Hudson Super Six. At first all I could see was Mrs Ford's hair, which is lighter and longer than Rosemary's, glowing behind the windscreen. She brought the automobile to a stop, and Jem's red head popped out, still cut like a soldier, shorn to nothing at the sides with a slicked back crest on top. He gave us a smile then dashed round to open the door for his wife, who clambered down in such a way that the first thing I noticed was her stomach.
"Here we are!" Faith said, brightly. "A ready made Blythe family."
"I've had some missions," Jem declared, "but that one I never want to repeat."
We flocked to them like pigeons to a war memorial, Jem's little dog circling madly as though he hoped to catch one. Handkerchiefs appeared and there were cries of "Come in!" and "Faith you must sit down!" Then Mrs Blythe took Jem's arm and Father took Faith's, and we went in pairs up the mint covered stairs, the doctor with Rosemary, Mrs Ford with Ken, Carl with Di, Rilla with Nan, which meant Mr Ford with myself.
"Would you like some help with the bags?" I asked him.
"Ah, the fringe dweller," he said. "I didn't recognise you."
I wasn't sure if he was making fun of me or not, because I couldn't see much of his face. He wore his homburg over his eye, and his beard sleek and thick as a beaver pelt.
"Did you want me for anything, Mr Ford?"
"Yes, as it happens. Why don't you take your wee self to the good Doctor's study and see of you can find me something stronger than tea on this teetotal Island. Miss Meredith, I need a drink."
I had only seen Dr Blythe's office from the doorway. It's the first room you come to as you enter the house. It smelled different to the plummy spice of Ingleside. Not of illness exactly, but urgency. This wasn't a room for contemplation or refuge, the way the Calling Room was. Here things were done in brisk, methodical fashion and then dipped in spirits afterwards. I realised that was what I could smell; the unrepentant trace of ether.
I could hear laughter coming from the living room on the other side of the hall and I thought of that great author, Owen Ford, drumming his fingers on the arm of the wingback chair as he waited for me. Where would Dr Blythe keep it? Father had a sticky bottle of port that he stored in a little cupboard by the door to the Calling Room. He used to have it by the fireplace but quickly discovered his visitors saw this as an invitation to settle in for the night. Whereas if they drank it by the door it seemed to bring about the words, "Well, Reverend, I'd best be going."
I tried to imagine where the Doctor would hide it. It would have to be a place where Susan wouldn't go. She cannot abide the Devil's Brew and has said more than once that, "Lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine." I knew then whatever contraband was in this room would have to be in the glass-fronted bookcase where the anatomy books were kept. There was a key in the door, worn to buttery softness. It turned easily and on the bottom shelf, concealed by the lower panels, was a tantalus. This had a key as well, but I had no idea what to do once I unlocked it, so I brought the whole contraption, bottles, tumblers and all, into the living room.
"Here, let me," said Faith.
"Let me," said Mrs Ford. She whisked the tantalus out my hands, while her other arm wound about Faith like an expensive silk scarf. "You should be sitting down, dear."
It was strange to see my headstrong sister comply so readily. She did roll her eyes – but only at me. No one, not even Faith, is brave enough to roll their eyes at Leslie Ford.
After all the toasts and the passing round of cakes and pastries, I perched in one of the inglenooks that Ingleside is named for. Where Faith is always being told to sit down, I am always being told to keep warm. A cup of cocoa was put in my hand, made by Susan this time. She is supposed to be retired but her people realised long ago that cutting her out of the kitchen would likely cut short her life.
Just as I was thinking this, I heard Dr Blythe say to his wife that it was time they hired a girl from Over Harbour girl to tackle the heavy jobs round the house. Mrs Blythe looked furious at the suggestion, which I suspect was Dr Blythe's point.
"Firstly, Gilbert Blythe," she said, "I am more than capable of tackling the heavy jobs. I was raising two sets of twins when you lolling about in trees!"
"You would too, Allwinds was famed for its apples –"
"Secondly," she said, pretending she hadn't heard him, "there's hardly any work that needs doing. When this lot leave, the house will be empty."
"About that," said Father, looking up from his book – it was a measure of how much he was loved, that was that he was left to read in peace. He placed his atlas next to one of the curious china dogs that sit by the fireplace and cleared his throat. "Have you given any more thought to Mrs Marshall Elliot?"
"We would have her in a moment," Anne said, while her husband gave her a look that meant, We would? "But not without Susan's say so."
No one needed further explanation. Mrs Cornelia Marshall's contempt for men was as well understood as Susan's wish for a husband, and it was deemed an unforgivable offence that one day twenty-five years ago, Miss Cornelia up and married without so much as a by your leave. She had since returned to her man-hating ways, and vowed to never forgive her husband for daring to die before her. Like Irene Howard, Martin West, Isaiah Crawford and Jessie O'Ryan – like Bruce, and a dozen more besides, Marshall Elliot is in the ground.
Mary Douglas - as was Vance – insisted that Cornelia come live with them above Carter Flagg's Store. 'Them' being herself and her husband, Miller Douglas – though I doubt Miller's opinion was actually sought. Mary was very proud of her little house on top, and declared Cornelia would be as "happy as a cat under a leaky cow" once the front room was partitioned off and a bed put up. Miss Cornelia was just as insistent that she would never leave her smart clapboard house on the road to Four Winds. But Dr Blythe told her she can no longer live alone since falling into her onion patch and dislocating her hip. It took her the best part of a day to crawl back to the house and another day passed before anyone missed her. Sometimes I think of her lying on her cabbage-rose carpet, thirsty, faint and in horrible pain and I wonder: Was she afraid to die alone? Or was she simply waiting to "join the choir invisible", as Walter used to say.
"How I've missed that," Faith said, pinching my nose to bring me back. "Missed my little Moon-face."
"Aren't you supposed to be sitting down?" I said. This is as close as I get to teasing, and I was pleased to get another eye roll.
"Ask me to go for a stroll, won't you, Una? They'll let me go if I go with you."
It was good to be needed again and even better to have a reason to slip away. Whenever we have people at the Manse I like to keep to the kitchen. And while I was glad to take my share of happiness this evening, I had to admit I was almost filled to bursting.
Before the war, Ingleside's garden was what Anne Blythe called a poem; what Susan called pretty enough; and what the Glen girls called unfair. Clouds of jasmine, clusters of violets and bursts of peony roses were said to flower longer, grow faster and smell more fragrant than anywhere else on the Island. It was also said that this was further proof of the Doctor's wife's unnatural powers – though the Doctor put it down to horse manure. Their daughters were never quite dressed without a last minute visit to the flower beds, and were never seen without a posy at their waist or a garland in their hair. I remember Jerry stalking our own patch some evenings, grubbing about in despair for something to give to Nan that wasn't a marigold or nasturtium. The only flowers we grew were the ones that helped the vegetables.
"Una, dear," Nan said to me once, "I think your brother is under the impression that my favourite colour is orange."
Jerry would have laughed if he'd been here tonight. All the flowers were orange. Except the roses. Mrs Blythe was afraid they wouldn't survive being transplanted, and now Bourbons, Noisettes, Hybrid Teas and China blooms bobbed about with the last of the green beans and tomatoes. I like to think it looked like an unfurled roll of Provençal cloth. I've never seen such a thing myself, but Jerry mentioned in one of his letters a Nurse Aide from Gordes, who wore a wonderfully patterned apron. If a merchant arrived right now with a hundred swatches of fabric in his bag, I would know exactly what pattern Mademoiselle Poulain wore just from Jerry's description.
Mlle Poulain taught me a new word today, U. You know how I am about collecting words, and this one is a beauty. Would you believe in Provence they have a name for 'a ray of sun shining through the clouds after rain' ? A single word. Isn't that marvellous?
I've forgotten it now, I think because I had no need of it. I already knew a name that meant the same thing.
"I'll never get used to it," Faith sighed. She's not the sort to sense someone's thoughts so I could comfortably ask her what she meant. I expected her to say 'being with child', or perhaps 'being a wife', instead she said, "This!" and gestured wildly. "All the lilies and fox gloves gone. It looks more like a market-garden than a home."
She held out her arm and I helped her sit down on the patch of lawn that Susan had spared from the hoe.
"Does our home look like home to you?" I asked, sitting next to her.
"You mean, do I wish I could stay in the Glen? Of course I do, Una. But it's simply not possible. I go where Jem goes."
And Jem is going to Toronto. When the two of them arrived at Kingsport harbour last night, the Fords were there to meet them because their son is marrying Rilla next week, and they were staying at Ingleside. Of course, they knew everything. Mrs Ford was with Anne the day that Jem was born. So when the question came of how Jem intended to support a wife and child and study to become a doctor, Leslie Ford had the answer.
"I've been thinking, Anne," she announced, just when I was about to tidy up some plates. "If you're getting my son, it's only fair that yours should come to me. Toronto could make just as good a doctor out of Jem as your beloved Redmond. And there's more than enough room for Faith and the baby at Ravenscroft – well, you know the size of the place."
"I believe the word is mausoleum," said Ken.
Leslie prodded her son with her cake fork. "Oh, you'll miss it soon enough, my laddie. You've only had summer vacations at the cottage, wait till winter sets in."
Anne laughed. "Take no notice of your mother's highfalutin ways, Ken dear. Gilbert and I were indecently happy in our House o' Dreams, and I'm sure you and Rilla will be just as snug."
"You don't need much when you've got love," said Di.
The empty glasses all chinked together as Ken kicked her under the coffee table.
"What do you say, Dads?" Jem asked him.
Di had told me Dr Blythe had been bending himself in knots trying to think of a way for Jem to return to medical school. Though what he mostly said was, "Of all the stupid things for him to do!" But all that worry was gone from his face once he heard Leslie's suggestion. "It's not me that wants consulting," he answered Jem, "Faith is your captain now."
All eyes then turned to Faith, who was about to take a drink.
"What?" she said. "Of course I agree. I'd live in a gutter if I had to." She reached for Jem's hand and they spoke to each other in a secret language that always made me want to study my shoes. "I never want to be parted from Jem ever, ever again."
"What really happened in England, Faith?" I asked her.
Faith lay back in the grass and stared up at the moon. A fine haze spread over the sky like a roll of gauze had been wrapped round the stars to stop them bleeding. It made Faith's face even paler, and her eyes looked tired.
"How much do you know?" she said
"They didn't want to worry me."
"Doesn't it ever bother you, Una? They treat you like a child. You're twenty-two years old!"
"Almost twenty-three, Rilla's getting married on my birthday."
"What do you mean?"
"Nothing. I'm being a brat. Do you suppose mothers are allowed to be horrible?"
"We know plenty who are," I said. I meant it as a joke but I'm not very good at them.
Faith wasn't laughing, she looked as if she wanted to cry.
"Sometimes I feel so afraid that... I'll turn out like that. One of those hard-faced women who like to say their children are a curse. When I thought I would lose the babies... Oh Una, it was a despicable, forsaken day. There was just Jem and me alone in that hovel of a boarding house – I had to pay my room-mate to leave, she wouldn't go unless I gave her the price of a cup of tea from the shop down the road. And Jem was holding my hand and saying, "We can do this Faith, we'll find a way," and I must have gone white because he fell to his knees and he hasn't done that for a long time. He kept saying my name and telling me all would be well, and all I could think of was how do I tell him I think I'm having a miscarriage? And then I thought... perhaps I wouldn't, perhaps I would send him away and let nature take its course. God forgive me, Una, but for a moment I was relieved."
I had been rubbing my thumb over her hand as she spoke and I kept doing it now, in little circles. I'd only been told that Faith and Jem were taking a short honeymoon in England before booking their passage back home. While I doubted they had the money for that, I had no idea my sister was in danger. But she knew all about me – and Bruce.
I felt useless and weak, and then I felt selfish for thinking of myself instead of Faith. Faith, who had been so afraid of ruining Jem's ambitions, of shaming her family, of being a rotten mother to her babies...
"Babies." I didn't realise I'd said it out loud.
"So you noticed that did you – why am I not surprised?"
"Is this something else I'm not supposed to know?"
"Nobody knows," Faith said.
I eyed her stomach which rose like the line of the hill to the west of the Glen. Lurking about the anatomy books is about as close as I am ever likely to get to an understanding in biology, but even I knew there was no way that Faith looked five months pregnant.
"Don't worry, Faith, I won't say anything."
"Jem said if one of them is a boy we could name him Bruce." Faith turned from the sky and caught my eye. "Don't worry, I told him he was very sweet, but that Bruce would have liked it best if we named our child for his own good self. Our little brother was devoted to Jem – and you were devoted to our little brother..."
She reached for my hair, what's left of it, her fingers running under the ends like the fringe of our best lamp. We had a ritual, Faith and I. I suppose I shouldn't call it that. A habit then, where she would brush my hair every night. My mother used to do it, and when she died my seven year old sister made a promise to continue brushing it in her place until the day the day she died. I used to pretend it was Mother's hands holding the silver brush. Now of course, I brush it myself and don't really think of anyone.
Faith moved her hand from my hair and placed it on her stomach. "I thought perhaps... Walter would be a good name."
"You could have both," I said, and this time she laughed.
She looked like Faith again, golden and glowing, her eyes especially. Walter used to say Faith's eyes looked like candle flames, and that her hair was the colour of sunlight through the merest maple shaving. To which Jem would reply that Faith had better not look at her hair then, or she might catch alight.
"Jem and Walter!" Faith exclaimed. "Heavens, if I did that everyone would expect me to have four more. I always liked Diana for a name, but I don't know if I could ever have a Shirley."
"I miss Shirley Blythe." I lay down next to her and a sound came out like a sigh. Not from missing him, but from saying the thing I didn't know I meant until I said it.
"Do you now?"
"Yes, I do. He makes me feel normal."
"You are normal, Una, it's the rest of us who are mad."
"You'll not tar me with that brush, I hope, Mrs Blythe."
Faith and I tilted our chins and looked back to see Susan marching upside-down toward us. Her absence from the welcoming party had been horribly conspicuous, and though she hadn't skimped on the welcome home feast, Jem had barely picked at it.
"Haul me up, Una," Faith said, grimly. "I don't think I can take this lying down."
Miss Baker stood above us. Her mouth appeared in a grim line as if it was stitched together, but her softly folded eyes were sad.
"I've come to say my piece," she said, "I shan't be long about it, I've already spoken to Jem and it never took more than a minute. To my way of thinking marriage comes first and children come after. You've robbed your folks of a much deserved wedding, caused 'em untold strain when they've had more than their share, and been the source of some very lewd gossip. And that's not counting what they must be sayin' of you up there –" Susan pointed heavenward, and I wondered if it wasn't a bandage over the sky but a handkerchief to mop up the tears. "I won't say I'm disappointed because you've made it right. There's the little one to think of now and I'm not having him come into a house divided. There's nothing worse for children than having to grow up tiptoeing round a dirty great hole. You've done what you should, so there's no need for me to speak of it again. I'll have Mrs Marshall Elliot to contend with soon enough. And if she should ever bend my ear about this business, I want to be able to say in good conscience, 'I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about.' Well, I'm off to have words with Rilla and little Ken. Though what good words do! If I could straighten my hands, I'd have a good mind to line you up and spank the lot of you."
She went to go and then turned on her heel and peered at me.
"I don't much hold with short hair but tell me, Una dear, you'd never do something like this, would you?"
"Never," I said, solemnly. "And that you may tie to."
* 'join the choir invisible' is from the poem by George Elliot (no relation ;o)
*in case you're interested the Provencal word is souleidao
Thank you for your reviews and favourites, it was an unexpected and lovely surprise. Anne-fans don't often come Glen-side, so for you to give this story a chance makes me especially happy.