13

August, 1919

After the rain the sky had the look of copper wiped clean.

'You could eat your dinner off it,' Rose said, nursing her cocoa on her knee. She swung her little legs over the porch, her bare feet grazing over the flower beds. It made her giggle, even when her cocoa dripped onto her nightgown, because Mama wasn't here to notice. Mama was on holiday for a whole week.

'That's not Mama, is it?' said Jean, tilting her head to see through a row of tiger-lilies that lined the drive.

There was a moment when Rose thought it might be, and grasped the skirt of her nightgown to suck on the stain. Their grandmother was leaning against a porch post and frowned into the morning sun.

'It's Aunty Anne!' said Cora. 'Where's she been so early in the morning? She's wearing the same dress she wore last night.'

The tea in Diana's cup went the same way as Rose's cocoa. It was the same dress. An inky silk affair that had disappeared into the shadows of the wood that bordered Lone Willow just as the band stopped playing last night. The white shirt of the man who followed her had been rather more conspicuous.

'That's not the same dress,' said Rose.

'Yes it is,' Jean insisted. 'I remember because I thought it was black and Dora Andrews said you can't wear black to a wedding. It's bad luck,' the little girl explained, as though bestowing some rare wisdom. 'But it turns out it's a really, really dark blue.'

'Her night without the stars dress,' Dido muttered, as she came out to the porch.

'That sounds like even more bad luck,' said Rose.

Dido left the two girls to their "Does not! Does too!" debate and walked swiftly up the drive. She met her mother by an old well adorned with the paper lanterns the girls had hung along its shingle roof for the wedding. Anne reached for one and sat upon the wall, the lantern in her lap like a pregnant belly. Her smile was tired but in her eyes were all the stars her dress could want for.

'Mamma, are you only now coming home–where on earth have you been?'

'Adventuring,' she answered. 'Your mother used to be an adventurer, did you know that?'

Anne cocked her head. Dido thought she looked like Rose when she is deciding which method of asking for another slice of cake would meet with the likeliest success.

'Come with me, darling.'

'Come where? Mamma, you're not making any sense.'

'Just come.'

Her mother did not seem to have noticed that Dido was wearing a nightgown tucked into a pair of Jack's overalls. She needed these to milk a disgruntled cow that had been waiting for almost an hour. Lone Willow had been slow to rise this morning. Except for Jack, of course. Dido woke to find him gone. Well, if famous Mrs Gardner didn't care if her daughter was dressed like a scarecrow, why should she?

'How far are we going?' Dido asked.

'Not far.'

They linked arms and passed Fred's saloon car parked under the willow tree. Anne cocked her head again. Dido was about to shake her.

'Actually darling, what say we drive?'

'Are you serious, Mamma, do you think we could?'

Dido laid her hand on the bonnet of Uncle Fred's prize automobile. She had dreamed of driving it. Her father and Lester never let her near the Daimler, and Jack was just as protective of his old truck. An eager, gleeful expression passed over Dido's face. The one she wore when her Papa went away on one of his "expeditions" and the women of Alderley forwent the formal dining room and picnicked in the garden.

Anne trotted over to the passenger side and scooted inside by way of an answer, cranking down the window and resting her elbow on it like Jack. Dido had them on the Newbridge Road before Diana could stop them. They headed north, the light from the rising sun falling onto their laps like a great warm arm. When Anne had Dido take a right, she asked her mother if they were headed to her beloved bit of old forest in Grafton. But all Anne would say was:

'In a way.'

Dido steered the car up an overgrown lane. The grass was so long Anne imagined it tickling the underside of the car as they passed over it. At the end was an old stone cottage. Really, it was ancient, perhaps one of the oldest homes on the Island. Buttery stonework winked under its coat of lush ivy; foxgloves and delphiniums grew up past the windows. There were roses in decadent droops of pink and white on either side of a stepping stone path. And the fragrance... It could only be seven, yet the scent the sun had extracted from them was heady and wild.

Dido put her nose to a dusty window pane and peered inside. 'Is this Echo Lodge?'

'Yes!' Anne said, clapping like a child. 'You remembered.'

She ducked past her daughter and opened the peeling front door. Dido was hit with a smell of smoke. Someone had recently tried to light a fire with wet wood.

'You were here... last night?'

'Right again,' Anne said.

She collected two cups that were sitting in an odd shaped alcove in the middle of the wall and retreated to the kitchen. Dido was still surveying the room when she was drawn by the sound of the pump being worked on an old stone bench.

'This place is mediaeval.'

Anne wiped her hands on her dress and folded her arms, looking about her with a dreamy smile. 'I'm thinking of buying it,' she said, 'and changing the name. What do you think of Fern Wood?'

There was such pure sounding pleasure in her voice Dido couldn't bear to question it. She found it hard to remember the last time her mother bought anything. It was always Papa who decided how they landscaped the garden, where they took their vacations, the type of car to buy. Even what they wore: her white silk dress now folded up in layers of tissue, torn and unwanted in her newly decorated room.

'I like it,' Dido agreed. She popped a kiss on her mother's pale brow and looked around some more. 'It looks like Mr Irving hasn't been here a while. Knowing how he dotes on you I bet you get this place for a song.'

Anne laughed, her bubbling brook-like laugh that she had before Dido went away. 'Not exactly. There's the matter of the eighteen acres of forest behind the house. I'm buying that too–it was the only way to save it,' she added, noting her daughter's frowning face. 'I couldn't stand by and watch it be sold off in lots, let those ancient trees be pulled up and chopped down. I can't fix everything but I must do this.'

'What about my home?' Dido cut in. 'All the wallpaper in the world can't disguise it, Mamma. Alderley is falling to pieces.'

Her voice betrayed the ever finer edge she was balanced on. If Anne noticed she gave no sign and gazed out to a garden view above the kitchen sink.

'Your Papa is taking care of that.'

'This is about the The Life Book, isn't it?'

Anne's eyes remained on the trees outside. 'How much do you know?'

'I know that Papa wants me to come to France and that you are planning on living here.'

The last part was an educated guess. Dido said it in order to hear it denied; to have her mother laugh that same bubbling laugh of before and tell her what goose she was for even thinking such a thing.

It was the former remark that caught Anne off guard. 'Roy invited you to France? What about Will?'

'I don't need Will Blythe's permission, Mamma. This is 1919.'

Dido's pointed chin rose higher by the second. A strand of black hair came loose and her eyes were just as dark. There was just the finest ring of grey, the green bursts that surrounded her pupils were almost eclipsed. Anne knew this look. What she didn't understand was why her daughter was directing it at her.

'Well, I did think you wanted to marry him?'

'No Mamma. You wanted me to marry him.'

'What?' Anne uttered. She brought her hands in front of her, splaying her fingers like some sort of shield. 'I had no say in your courtship. You told me–in your letter–you said you were in love with him.'

'Never once did I say that.'

Whatever defences Anne had were no match for this admission. Her knees weakened and she slid down the wall she had backed into, wondering who on earth this girl was. Only minutes ago they had sung The Barnyard Blues with the windows down as they careened down the red dirt roads. Only moments ago the same girl dropped an encouraging kiss on her mother's brow. Now Dido stood upon the flagstone floor and declared she did not love Will Blythe. Had never loved Will Blythe. It couldn't be true–when he gave her that ribbon–followed her to the Island–was going to propose–everyone expected it...

Anne clapped her hand over her mouth not trusting herself to speak, because the feeling that overwhelmed now her wasn't shame for hoping Dido and Will could mend what she and Gilbert had broken, nor her disappointment in those hopes. It was one of heart-stopping relief. Not until she remembered to breathe could she meet her daughter's face. Anne opened her arms determined once and for all to bridge the distance between them; the one they had been pretending not to feel since Dido came home.

'Darling girl... will you sit by your foolish Mamma?'

Dido moved silently to her side. No, not quite silently. A far away sound came to the surface as she touched against her mother, then she fell into her arms and it all came out in a flood. She nestled in Anne's lap and wept for the three little girls who lost their father. For her half-brother Florian who went down in a U boat and never came up again. For Aunt Dorothy losing Uncle Max. For Merry-Hell and her surgeon. For Will who didn't know what to do, for Jack who had too much to do, for her mother and father who never loved each other the way Fred and Diana do. Then Dido cried for herself because she was a silly, spoiled brat who had been given everything and could not seem to love.

'I want to love him, Mamma, I want to love him madly. Will saved me when I thought I would drown. I don't just mean in The Soup, I mean every single day. I don't know how to be with him if my heart isn't beating a hundred miles an hour. But it's not anymore. I'm back on dry land and looking for reasons to need him the way he needs me–and I don't. Oh Mamma, I hate myself.'

'I know you do, sweetheart. I wish I could take it from you. But you know that hate is only love–'

'That has lost its way,' said Dido, numbly. 'I'm afraid the maxims of Owen Ford can't help this time. Real life is much harder.'

Anne clutched her daughter to her breast and pressed tiny kisses onto her head. 'Do you think of me as Owen Ford?'

'Sometimes...' Dido freed herself from her mother's hold and looked at her, plainly. 'Sometimes you don't feel real. You never give into bitterness, are always ready with the perfect piece of wisdom. I know you are a wonderful writer and I know you've given so much to the world, it's only that–'

'You wish I could be more like Diana?'

Dido swallowed hard in place of a nod, and Anne smoothed away another tear.

'For a long time I thought I had to choose between being a writer and having a child. I took a chance because I knew the life Diana had would never be enough for me. We really aren't the least alike.'

Anne paused, expecting her daughter to ask if there was anyone like Anne Shirley-Gardner. And Dido did ask, just not in the way she was expecting.

'Mamma, what made you stay out all night?'

'I could ask the same of you. It was me who tucked Jean and Rose into your bed. I expected you to sleep in mine, but you didn't know until this morning that I hadn't come home. So where were you?'

'Camping out with the best Island boy I know.'

Anne smiled and helped her daughter up. 'Sounds like something I would do. Come on, Uncle Fred has probably called the constabulary.'

When they strolled back to the car Anne placed her hand over Dido's just as she was about to pull on the shiny chrome handle.

'You know, I've always wanted to drive... What do you think, Diana Dorothy, could you give your Mamma a lesson?'

Dido laughed. 'What now?' She jogged round to the passenger's side and bounced onto the seat. 'Get in then!'

It was not like driving a buggy at all. For a start you needed two hands to steer. Then there were all pedals and gears to remember to pull on and press at the right time. But the noise! The engine sounded like Marilla wheezing behind her handkerchief when she tried not to laugh. And the speed! Trees and picket fences went by in a blur. A trip to Charlottetown would take less than two hours. Much less. It was possible, she could, she really could...

'Mamma! The gate!'

Anne over-corrected her steering, pressed the clutch instead of the brake and collided into the well. The immaculate black bonnet crumpled, the shingle roof tipped over and the last paper lantern touched down upon the car roof like a ball of fairy light.

They couldn't know this, the women inside, yet how else to explain their appearances when a red faced Fred found them rolling about with laughter and believed they were bewitched.

For the rest of the day and most of the night all he could manage was a shake of his head while he muttered, 'Shirley girls.'

'You'd better put an offer on Echo Lodge,' Dido said to her mother as she brushed her auburn hair that night. 'I think we might have outstayed our welcome.'

...

* 'Hate is only love that's lost its way' from Anne of Windy Willows (Poplars)