Special thanks to Formerly Known as J for reminding me that there was much more scope-to-the-imagination left untapped among the girls of Swallowgate and Pieces of Lives than I had explored, and encouraging me to pick up the thread of their story again. I've missed these girls and it's good to be back. With any luck, you'll feel the same.
Love and gratitude as ever to L.M. Montgomery, whose characters and world I have generally run riot with. Any characters not hers are inspired by her, and I can lay claim only to the ideas.
MARRIED ON SATURDAY STOP WANTED YOU TO KNOW STOP. So said the telegram hand-delivered by the station master's boy to Ingleside as the last of the sun was sinking into the sea. Nan and Di missed its arrival; at the time, they were to be found walking barefoot along the bones of the rocks the ebbed tide uncovered, their marbled bellies glittering with the setting sun. They had called them the deadlands in girlhood, for their strange, liminal existence, Nan supposed, ever poised between two worlds.
She never expected to catch Ingleside like that, least of all on an evening so heavy with the autumnal spice of the season as this one was. Leaves circled in frenetic eddies along the red-paved roads and through the air, acorns, chestnuts and crab-apples crunched to their ruin underfoot and squirrels as red as the roads spooked and stood to attention at the least provocation. It was the ideal evening for one of Mother's poetry readings, the air crisp, and smoke curling from Ingleside's chimney, the smell of cedarwood and fire drifting like a lullaby down from the house and across the dell to the approaching twins. In spite of all these things, there the family sat in tableau as if changed to statues as she and Di came up the walk, shoes chaffing gently against their sea-salted feet; Mother staring fixedly at a slip of a thing held between thumb and middle finger, Dad leaning against the back of her chair, neck craned in unbelief, and Rilla, the lace she was meant to be working for her wedding dress lying forgotten in her lap, and not a word uttered between them. Only Susan went on placidly knitting, exempt from the spell of the moment; so there were three people sat staring like lemmings on her veranda. So nothing. Gertrude Grant's baby wasn't going to be short a christening shawl on that account.
Then Rilla blinked the sun out of her eyes, spotted them on the walkway and came flying down the lane to meet them as if Ate herself were at her heels.
'Have you heard?' she cried as she ran, 'have you heard?' forgetting that of course they couldn't have heard, traipsing along the shore like a pair of naiads. 'Have you heard' as she collided hard with Nan's chest. Nan put out a hand to brace them both and balance proving elusive, ended by pulling her sister into an impromptu reel. They fell among the mint, leaves, and the calceolarias, crushing them and filling the air with their rich, green perfume. Somehow Nan disentangled their limbs from the botany and installed Rilla and herself on the steps to the veranda. That done she turned to Rilla with expectation, 'Have we heard what, Spider?'
'I am not –'
'Only that Jem has gone and married Faith Meredith,' said Dad, cutting off his youngest daughter mid-protest and sounding much as if Nan had asked the weather forecast for the evening. He was grinning a grin worthy of a Cheshire Cat though, and Mother, now Nan could see her close up, was positively bristling with happiness. Nan couldn't remember the last time she'd seen her like that, and it would have hurt if she had stopped to think about it. As it was, she was too busy joining Di in clamouring for further details.
'Oh but there aren't any,' said Dad, utterly unfazed. Two pairs of eyebrows, one autumnal, the other chestnut, shot up in incredulity.
'What do you mean, you don't know any more than that?' This from Di. From the shadows of the Ingleside veranda Susan Baker sniffed her endorsement of this opinion.
'Anne darling, may I just…'deftly Dad extracted the telegram from between mother's fingers and handed it to Nan, whose dainty fingers closed upon it greedily.
MARRIED ON SATURDAY STOP WANTED YOU TO KNOW STOP. As the crickets hummed an evensong, Nan and Di squinted at the typeface of the letter as if further study would elicit more details.
'It's no good,' said Mother dreamily, 'I've made such a study of it as to have the words stamped on my brain, but I still can't take it in. Little Jem –my baby of the house of dreams –married. Can you believe it? Nanlet,' with sudden inspiration, 'did he say to you?'
'No,' said Nan, now turning the letter sideways for good measure, though without expectation of discovering anything. Nothing being forthcoming beyond the lingering smell of fresh ink, she restored it to the neat square of its origin and handed it over her shoulder to Dad.
'Saturday was…'began Rilla, then hesitated. Mother took up the thread, ticking events off on her fingers as she kept track. 'Ladies Aid was yesterday, and prayer meeting was on –no that's tonight, so it must be –'
'Thursday,' said Dad for all of them. 'I give the postal service a day to catch us up, so Jem must have sent it on Wednesday.'
Another Baker sniff from the depths of the veranda. 'You do not mean to tell me, doctor dear,' in tones of indignation, 'that that dear boy waited a whole three days before telling us of this good news? Because that I will not believe.'
'Oh I don't know. If we'd had our way, Anne-girl, how many days would we have holed up in our house o'dreams?'
'Dad!' said all three girls at once. Behind them Susan's needles clicked agreement.
'Susan,' said Dad unperturbed, 'thinks I'm being most improper. And our children are horrified. Though why they should be by wedding talk when we're planning for so many at once I don't know.'
'Less one now,' said Di laughingly. 'And it isn't your wedding we mind hearing about –it's the afterward that doesn't feature Captain Jim, Miss Cornelia and the fireside we take exception to.'
'Quite right too,' said Susan. 'And there's Rosemary Meredith coming up the way as we speak. Perhaps Faith will have had the sense to write a decent letter if little Jem has not. We can but hope.' Reaching the end of a row, Susan carefully capped her needles, set her project down and went to ready a tea tray, and Nan hid a smile as effectually as was possible in the daisy chain she had been weaving. Whatever gossip came and went from Ingleside, no one was ever going to accuse it of incivility to its guests on Susan's watch.
'Have you heard?' called Rosemary Meredith, this apparently being the question of the hour. She was beaming to match Mother, and Nan couldn't remember having ever seen her so excited about anything. In her memory Mrs Meredith was a golden cloud of a woman, serenely floating from crisis to fete without missing a beat. This time everyone had heard, and shouts and exultations came off the veranda like sunbursts. The girls of Ingleside rose up as a unit the better to accommodate their guest, and betook themselves to the porch swing under the kitchen window, from whence drifted competing scents of cinnamon, cardamom and clove. Whatever Susan had in the oven was shaping up to be a confectionary masterpiece.
'Of course you have,' said Rosemary, more to herself than to them. Ignoring a re-emerging Susan's protestations of horror, she took up the place on the steps Nan had so lately vacated and clasped her arms around her ankles, and drank deeply the mingled smell of the crushed mint and calceolarias.
'Isn't it wonderful?'
'Marvellous,' said mother, joining her friend on the steps.
'I don't suppose,' said Dad, with the return of the Cheshire Cat grin, 'That you got, oh I don't know, anything like a more detailed account of the occasion than we did?'
'Where it happened, who took the service, guests, all that sort of thing?' said Rosemary, proffering a telegram from the sleeve of her blouse.
'Yes, something like that,' said Nan, exchanging the Ingleside telegram for the Manse's. This one ran: MARRIED SATURDAY STOP WANTED YOU FIRST TO KNOW STOP WILL VISIT AT WEEKEND STOP CAN TELL YOU MORE THEN STOP.
'Might have guessed,' said Di, the laughter inherent in her voice ticklishly warm against Nan's ear. 'Faith's letters were always short things. She never did quite grasp they were supposed to be full of news –except when writing to Mouse, of course.'
'Yes but that was because she knew Poppy would read them out,' Nan said, and laughed herself. 'I don't think she saw the point in writing four longish letters when they would only get passed around anyway.'
'Well she never thought Jem would fill in the gaps,' said Rilla, who had resumed her lace-making by the last of the light. Around them Susan's tea-tray clattered and chattered as she tried to cram a spread worthy of royalty onto the veranda's wicker table.
'Will you pour, or shall I, Mrs. Doctor dear?'
'Too late to be asking,' said Rosemary with a laugh as Di wove under Susan's elbow and took over the service.
'You know,' this as Mother accepted a rosebud teacup from Di, 'I can understand not wanting an occasion. But we wouldn't have made an occasion of it if we'd been there, would we Gilbert?'
There followed a profound coughing fit on their father's part, for which Di thumped him heartily on the back. This over and without looking at their mother, a red-faced, still breathless Dad said, 'Anne-girl, you wouldn't have had it anything less than an occasion. Both of you,' with a courteous nod at Mrs. Meredith.
'We-ell, only because we'd be glad for them.'
'Quite,' said Dad, before succumbing to another, strikingly deliberate coughing fit.
'Well I don't see,' said Susan, reclaiming her teapot, 'what the rush was about. Plans were coming very nicely together, I must say.'
'I don't suppose they wanted to wait,' said Rosemary indulgently. 'I can't say I blame them. Everyone had so much of waiting when the war was on.'
'That,' said Di, 'may be the understatement of the year.'
'I'll tell you who will blame them,' said Rilla, 'The Glen Notes. Ken says it's terribly important to get a story before it breaks, and of course they'll have to break this one after the fact.'
They all laughed undisguisedly at that, even Di, who had spent much of their earlier walk recounting the trials of convincing the paper to accept her picture submissions. Finally, the light grew too dim for Rilla's lace and she bundled her work under her arm to take indoors. Then, with a kiss for mother and an assurance to Susan that she wouldn't ruin her eyes working Venetian lace by candlelight, she had slipped through the screen door on fairy feet.
They drifted away by degrees after that, Nan to write a letter, Di to answer one, Gilbert to minister to the Drew twins' measles, Susan to wash up the tea things. Anne and Rosemary lingered until the first star sparkled into being, a winking piece of celestial lace against the blue of the sky. The midges were out by then, droning gentle counterpoint to the crickets and dancing along bare arms and exposed necks. There were promises on both sides to meet soon and take the whole episode to pieces again, and take a mutual brace against the tide of Glen gossip, and then one by one the lights of Ingleside went out for the night.
The weekend found the Glen St. Mary station's arrivals platform packed with people as it had not been since the war ended. Everyone had turned out in expectation of welcoming the newlyweds home; they wanted only Shirley, who was still fighting a battle in red tape to come home. Nan and Di stood craning their necks for sight of the train while little Bruce ran from one end of the platform to the other keeping a lookout and reporting back to the massed Merediths and Blythes at intervals. 'The 14:02 from Kincardine is due in six minutes. Will they be on that one?' Meeting with a negative he was off again, bobbing up seconds later to announce 'The 14:06 from Plymouth is running late –they aren't on that one, are they?'
'No darling,' said Rosemary, and reassured he was off again towards the far end of the platform.
'They won't be on the incoming Bright River train either' Gilbert called after him through cupped hands. On his arm, Anne, verily bouncing on the balls of her feet, such was her excitement, gave his elbow a reproving tug.
'You'll spoil his fun, dearest.'
'An upcoming conductor like that? Not a chance,' said Gilbert, leaving Bruce to wonder why everyone was laughing when he came back to tell them that the 14:10 was expected early and was therefore being held outside the station and how did that make sense? There was more laughter from the adults, to Bruce's further bemusement. It was left to the Rev. Meredith, recovering first, to confirm that Jem and Faith would be on that train, all going well.
All did go well, and as Anne afterwards remembered it, time seemed to stretch taut as Jem helped Faith from the train and she ran towards them. Rosemary was running to, everyone was, and all around family jostled and tugged and pulled, determined to bestow hugs and handshakes on the happy travellers.
'Do let them breathe,' said Gilbert very dry, from somewhere behind Anne's shoulder. 'Much easier to answer questions that way.'
Anne, looking up at little Jem –when had he got so big –just caught the grin he gave his father over Nan's glossy head. But hadn't they questions to ask!
'We thought,' someone –Di perhaps? –was saying, 'you'd arranged for a summer wedding.'
'What and detract from Spider's ceremony?' this as Jem leaned across Di to pull on a stray curl nesting on Rilla's forehead.
'I am not –' began poor Rilla, and Jem seemingly took pity on her.
' 'Course you're not a spider, much too grown now, what shall I call you instead? Cricket? Ladybird? One of those –Faith what are those long-legged water thingummies Carl hunts along the river for?'
Rilla meanwhile had done a credible reproduction of the Baker sniff and stalked keep Bruce company by the framed train timetable.
'Are Carl and Una with you?' this from Rosemary.
'No, Carl's wrangling a paper on the life cycle of something unpronounceable and Una stayed on to help him.'
'I don't recall Una much caring for unpronounceable insects,' said Gilbert for everyone.
'She doesn't,' said Faith. 'She doesn't trust Carl to remember to eat though, left to his own devices, and she does care about Carl. And no, mother Anne, I can see you thinking it, no sweethearting on anyone's part. They're both entirely to taken up with studying.'
'I never said a word!' said Anne in vain.
'You were about to,' said Gilbert and kissed her ear. This occasioned squeals from the children, even the ones now married as they made shows of covering their eyes.
'Where did it happen? – Was anyone there to see it? – Did you have good music? –What about afterwards –was there much of a celebration?' all flew in rapid succession from the amassed Blythes and Merediths. Seeing the couple unsure which part of this flurry to start on, Rev. Meredith began shepherding his family towards the car.
'I'm afraid we rather promised Susan we wouldn't be long collecting you,' he said over his shoulder as he made a concerted effort to prise Bruce away from the train timetable.
'She's laying a luncheon on purpose for you. I do hope you weren't swayed by the dining car. I know I always used to find it rather fascinating myself –Bruce, love that really isn't going anywhere.'
Faith and Jem were quick to reassure the minister that in fact the train in question had been without a dining-car due to insufficient staff, which detracted nicely from the amusement provoked by Bruce's reluctance to depart the station.
Outside the station was a sea of carriages and automobiles all pressed up one against another. This was further exacerbated by the Manse people having travelled one way and the Inglesidians another. It being clear they would never all fit into the Ingleside automobile for the return journey, Gilbert slipped Faith's arm through his vacant one and said turning to her, 'I think you'd much better come with us. I ought to warn you…'
Whatever he said was lost to the carriage party, though it must have been about Jem because Faith's silvery laughter drifted back over her shoulder, gossamer-light.
'Much too late for that,' she said when she had caught her breath, 'that horse has well and truly bolted.'
Susan had promised a roast chicken for the occasion, and a roast chicken there was laid out on the sideboard when the party filed into Ingleside. It was a beautiful white and gold marble, smartly trussed in twine and crammed with more onion, sage and thyme than any chicken had a right to reasonably expect. It was further augmented by tender and buttery spears of asparagus, glazed carrots, and the remnants of yesterday's ham. As for the table, it was decked out in its best Sunday linen, what the children had called 'wedding linen' in the old days, and groaning under the weight of dishes of roasted potatoes, nutmeg-infused swedes, cabbage shavings laced with bacon, pigs in blankets a thumblegnth long, and born triumphally to the head of the table as people filed into the dining room, a cheese soufflé worthy of any cookery book.
'Susan,' said Jem with affection as he snared her into a reluctant hug, 'did you set out to feed the five thousand or what?'
'Don't tease,' said Nan, 'give her this one chance to make up for that pick-up supper we were in the middle of the evening you arrived home, won't you?'
'Well I don't know about that, Nan dear,' said Susan with as much austerity as she could muster under the circumstances, 'but that cheese soufflé won't last forever, and that you may tie to.'
It was of no consequence; though portioned out with due diligence no one gave the cheese soufflé much mind. Everyone was too taken up with quizzing the happy couple on wedding details to think of eating. Asparagus stalks grew cool and potatoes softened as people talked over, round and in places –or so it seemed –on top of one another.
'It wasn't that we didn't want to wait, exactly,' said Faith when finally she managed to get a word in edgewise, 'more that we couldn't. Life seemed to stall for so long –and then suddenly it was moving again and we wanted to catch those years up and…'here she shrugged, adequate words eluding her.
'This seemed the best way to do it,' said Jem. 'You don't mind?'
'Mind?' said Anne. 'Of course not darling, if you felt like that about it of course that was the only way it could happen. We quite see that.'
'The only thing I'm sorry about,' said Gilbert, 'is that the Glen has lost a fine surgeon in the process.' He sounded only half serious. Even so, Jem tilted his head in inquiry and said, 'I expect I can still do both, if it comes to that.'
'I didn't mean you,' said Gilbert, and in the pantry connecting kitchen to dining room Susan stood, poised with an apple pie, ready to avert a crisis with lattice pastry should it be required of her. None came. Faith laughed that warm, silvery laugh again and said, 'Jem can have the position if it's going begging and welcome. I did more than my share of cutting people open over in Europe, thanks all the same.'
And somehow, Anne thought, watching Faith thread her fingers through Jem's, there was no arguing with that. Susan brought out the pie, and the gingerbread with whipped cream, and a generous dish of rhubarb crumble, and the current of conversation ran swiftly on to such mundane details as houses (a long, squat affair called Larkrise with a proliferation of William Morris wallpapers –too much for Faith's taste but with reasonable rent), who else had been in on the secret (no one, though they did startle Mara by turning up on her doorstep afterwards and begging a floor to sleep on while they sorted out a house), and the how and where (a special license and the Presbyterian church on New Water Street in Halifax) it had happened.
Anne watched them in the retelling, the shared glances and entwined fingers, and felt gladness for her children flare up in her like a candle flame. This was, after all, what she had dreamed for them for years, love in all its changeable moods. That she hadn't born witness to its official sanction hardly seemed to matter. She had known the truth of this particular love-story in her heart for years as it was. She drank in details greedily as they were outpoured and thought how odd it was that this, of all the things in the world, should make her feel old.
What was it Faith had said minutes ago about wanting to catch the years of the war up? They had done that and more –that was obvious. All the children were, really, reaching for life with both hands and clutching their burdens close. And they did it with such dizzying speed that it left her breathless. Was this, perhaps, how Marilla had felt when Avonlea was rocked by the introduction of a telephone line? It seemed absurd to wonder, because the war felt a much bigger cosmic shift than the telephone line ever had. Or did she only feel that way because then, as the telephone marched its way into the haven of Avonlea she had stood poised on the brink of her own new adventures, her life held tight in her hands? Then Gilbert threaded an arm around her and was raising a glass with the other to toast the bridal pair, and the earth seemed to steady itself. This was a brave new world that changed by the heartbeat, but they would be going into it faces to the sun and so many united fronts – Jem and Faith were only the beginning. She could wish nothing more for her children than that.