"Really, Diana, I thought you had stayed behind to work," Jane scolded them as soon as she and Ruby had come close enough to talk. "If you weren't going to change Anne's hairstyle at all, you could have as well come with us gather those flowers in the first place."
"Oh, don't make it sound as if your work had been so much of a trouble," Diana responded cheerfully, clearly not wanting to show any change of behaviour, regardless of the talk she and Anne had just had. "You did great on your own; we would only have been in your way. And I already know what I want Anne's hair to look like, so it will only take a few moments to get it done. You two can decorate the boat while I take care of it."
In a few minutes, Anne's auburn locks were down, a thin, loosely braided crown of plaits and flowers around her head keeping them in place. The flat was ready, too, adorned with wild flowers and leaves, fixed carefully on the dark shawl. Anne stopped short in awe.
"I positively adore mayflowers," she hummed with admiration, smiling softly at the sight, already imagining herself lying in the boat, motionless and quiet. "Oh, this really is too wonderful to be true! But I will say no more, or I will spoil the effect. Here I lie, then – Diana, please pass me the bouquet."
Lie down she did and silent she remained. The other girls leaned over, spreading more flowers on her now still, quiet body, and kissed her brows with perfect pathos, saying their farewells as they did. They pushed the boat on the lake right after – and watched it float, until they realised they needed to reach the other side of the pond before Anne did.
They broke into a run at once – leaving Anne to the mercy of the wind and the gentle waves below her.
"...and she herself in white
All but her face, and that clear-featured face
Was lovely, for she did not seem as dead,
But fast asleep, and lay as though she smiled."
Anne's smile was true and genuine as she recalled the fine verses, thinking intensively of the tragedy behind them. She was Elaine, for the first time not only imagining it, but playing the very part she loved and cherished so much, and for the first time in her fifteen year long life even the unwelcome thought of her reddish hair could not spoil it for her.
And that was when the boat began to leak.
She did not notice it at first, too caught up with her own, deep daydreaming. Even that was not intense enough, however, to leave her totally unfeeling, and even if it had been the case, the water of the Barry's pond was cold enough to stir the dead – with no regard to whether they were a heartbroken maiden in the days of Camelot or an old drunkard that was told to have drowned in Avonlea nearly a century before.
And it certainly was cold enough to make a very much alive Anne Shirley-Cuthbert come back to reality at once.
"No, no, no, no!" she exclaimed, sitting up a little too rapidly and thus making the boat wobble dangerously. "It can't be! Jane said they had checked the bottom carefully, and we only just rowed in this boat with Mr Barry last week! Oh, why do I always have to get into scrapes like this?"
Anne wanted to groan in exasperation, but realised it was of no use. She needed all of her energy if she was to somehow get herself out of this situation, and there was no time to waste on meaningless contemplation of her misery. She needed to come up with a plan; and she needed to do it quickly.
She scanned the boat with her eyes, easily concluding that it would stay afloat for no more than a few short minutes. Had she had any paddles – which as a deceased heroine she obviously did not – she might have tried to row at least a little closer to the shore, hoping it would last long enough for her to get there.
She had learnt how to swim, of course – but the whole distance was still too much for her, not to mention she doubted she could cross any distance in the dress and boots she was wearing.
Her gaze fell on the bridge, looming about a dozen yards before her.
There was only one thing she could do.
"Dear God, please let the boat come close enough to the pile and I promise I'll do the rest myself," she begged urgently, too distressed to come up with any sort of a flowery prayer. "Just make it drift towards it and I will be perfectly alright taking it from there."
Her plea was heard and answered, and soon Anne found herself reaching towards the old, gnarled trunk and climbing onto it as soon as she did. Her position was far from comfortable to be sure, but the uneven surface of the pole made it feel secure at least. She watched the boat float away, shoved with the push she had involuntarily given it – and sink in the chilly depths of the Lake of Shining Waters, never to be seen or touched again.
"Mr Barry will be overjoyed, no doubt about that," Anne muttered to herself before finally letting a long repressed sigh and resting her forehead against the decayed wooden pole. "Alright, dear God, I thank you for doing your part; I think I did mine quite well, too. Now all I need is enough strength and patience to wait for help to arrive so if that's not too much to ask in a quarter, I'll be most grateful if you can give me some."
Unsurprisingly, the girl had run out of her patience much more quickly than she had of her strength, leaving her vexed and miserable, convinced she would not care for any sort of romance after what it had caused her that day. There was nothing romantic in her position, after all – tried as she might, she could hardly imagine Princess Cordelia holding onto an old trunk under a bridge the way she did, not to mention that the heroine's rescue party surely wouldn't have taken so much time to come to her aid.
Just as soon as she thought that, a gentle, distant sound of rowing and soft whistling came to her ears, announcing the arrival of another, most assuredly not leaking boat.
Anne jerked her head towards the noise, a relieved expression reflecting on her tired countenance – the expression which dropped as soon as she had recognised the person that was nearing towards her.
Of all people in the world, she had to be found by no other but Gilbert Blythe himself.
"For man is man and master of his fate," she nearly spat with annoyance, marvelling at the irony of the situation. At the same time, she was becoming aware of other feelings that began to overcome her heart, creeping into her thoughts and poisoning her tender soul like an untimely drop of ink on a thin, blank sheet. The realisation didn't make her feel any better, only reminding her how much more difficult it was to fight a battle of this kind.
She had nothing against being vexed. She knew her anger well enough to control it, capable of suppressing it as well as letting it out in full might, depending on the situation she was in. She by no means had complete power over it – after all, emotions were something she'd been struggling with ever since she could recall – but it was enough to make her feel confident about her own dealing with it.
Yes, she could control her anger to a point; but she could not control her fear.
For a short moment Anne hoped that Gilbert would not notice her from the distance, and that it would stay the same as he neared to the bridge. She couldn't point out the grounds for such hopes, of course; Gilbert's sight was known to be excellent and there was no reason for her to think that anything had changed since she had last seen him. And he would have had to be utterly blind not to have noticed the unusual spot of white she currently represented.
Oh, he certainly made her feel ridiculous now.
Her forehead was pressed against the pole once more, as she pretended not to have seen him, silently praying he would ignore her the same way she did. That didn't happen, of course – as soon as she sent her request to the Heavens, she heard Gilbert's whistling stop, proving straight and clear that the Providence had different plans for her, and that Gilbert Blythe was very much a part of those plans.
Anne glanced towards the boy and saw him draw close to her position; she needed to use all that was left of her will not to groan.
"Anne Shirley-Cuthbert," he spoke to her a moment later, his tone a strange mixture of amusement and concern, as he finally reached the pole onto which the poor heroine was holding. "What on earth are you doing here?"
Anne did not deign him with an answer, restricting to giving him a most dignified, haughty glare before she fixed her eyes on the trunk before her again.
Gilbert rolled his eyes and let out a small, uncertain chuckle, but did not give up. "Seriously, Anne. What are you doing?"
"Minding my own business, thank you very much," she responded eventually, making sure he'd hear the pride hidden behind her words. "Just as you should be minding yours. In fact, I'd be much obliged if you did just that."
"And leave you hanging here for goodness knows how long? Well, I don't think so," he protested with another laugh and stirred his boat even closer to were she was. He grabbed one of the knots of the old trunk to stabilise it – and offered his free hand to the girl in front of him.
Anne hesitated, her gaze flickering between his hand and eyes, as if she'd been trying to determine whether his intentions were really as noble as they seemed to be. She didn't need his help; she was perfectly fine waiting for the rescue on her own, ready to hold on to her uncomfortable position regardless of the throbbing ache in her arms and legs, if only it would allow her to forget the unfortunate, humiliating encounter with the boy she had only just resolved to avoid.
Alas, it was another one of her wishes that was not to be granted that day. She glanced up at Gilbert's face again, hoping she'd see at least a little sign of impatience reflecting on it – anything that would let her believe that all he needed was another minute before he waved his hand and gave up on her – only to be met with his kind, hazel gaze and a smile widening ever so slightly at the contact.
Gilbert was many things, she remembered with dismay, but he certainly wasn't a quitter.
With a sigh, Anne decided to forget her pride for a moment and took the hand he had offered, allowing Gilbert to help her settle on the other side of the boat. She nodded with gratitude, but said nothing; her smile was nothing more than courtesy.
Gilbert wisely refrained from a comment, busying himself with the paddles and pushing their mean of transportation away from the pole, giving Anne nothing but a few furtive looks. Every time he was met with the same lofty expression, her pursed lips and lifted chin clearly indicating that she was not interested in starting a conversation, nor in participating in one he wanted to strike up.
Anne didn't want to talk to him; unluckily for her, it could not stop him for long.
"So you're really not going to tell me what all that was about? Even after I, once again, helped you out in the moment of distress?" he asked with a smile after a while.
Anne glared at him with annoyance. "We were trying to enact Lancelot and Elaine. The flat I was drifting in started to leak, so I climbed the pole; it was either that or meeting the bottom of the pond together with the boat. As for your assistance, it was not necessary in the slightest – I am sure the girls saw the flat sink and ran for help. They all must be on their way back as we speak."
"So that's what the screaming was about," Gilbert mused loudly in response. "I saw them when I was readying my own boat, but couldn't think of the reason why they would be this agitated. I suppose that's what seeing your friend drown does to you, though – either way, it might be a while before they get anywhere in such state. You would have spent quite a while holding onto that pole before they came back."
"And I would have been perfectly alright doing so, thank you."
Gilbert sighed with resignation, realising the red-headed girl in front of him was not going to give in to his attempts to defuse the tension that only seemed to increase. He still needed her to speak to him, however, even if in a different manner, about things far more important than leaking boats and not-quite-dead, freckled maidens. He needed to speak to her.
"Anne, I want to talk about yesterday," he tried once more, the grin he'd been wearing no longer tugging on his lips. Anne fixed her eyes on him then, surprised, but still determined not to show any of her whirling emotions to him.
"There is nothing to talk about," she answered evenly, as if the topic really bore no meaning to her.
"Yes, there is," he protested and stopped rowing, as if he forgot it was the one thing he was expected to do. "You told Miss Stacy we were done with the assignment when we had just agreed we were not; you ignored my protests entirely; you snapped and left, disregarding my apologies, not to mention you never really explained what it was that had distressed you so much. You -"
"I am not to blame, Gilbert, so I'd appreciate it if you stopped making it sound as if I was," Anne retorted fiercely. "You insulted me, again, and you know it. Stop pretending that you don't know why I was 'distressed'."
Gilbert's jaw tightened.
"That's not what I meant," he said with emphasis. "Look, I am very, very sorry that I called you Carrots, because I assume that's what this is all about – but is that really a reason to hiss at me and storm out of the classroom like that?"
"You hurt my feelings excruciatingly."
"Oh, yes, and here are the big words again," Gilbert rolled his eyes, although this time it was obvious the gesture was not at all teasing, and clenched his fingers on the paddles, as he finally decided to take up the rowing again. For the first time that afternoon Anne could hear a hint of irritation – or was it mockery? - resonating it his voice and all at once, she felt all hope for a truce was gone.
He was jeering her, then and there, openly and mercilessly. Compared to this, his behaviour from the day before truly was nothing, for then she could have at least try to believe that his words, as silly and improper, had been said in good faith. Right now however... He only proved how little her feelings really meant to him.
"You don't know what it's like," was all she could muster to say. "You don't know anything."
Had she cared to look at him then, she would have seen his expression soften at her words, worry once again reflecting on his face as he shifted his gaze back to her.
"Then tell me," he urged her gently, and let go of one of the paddles, reaching out towards her and covering her clenched, trembling hand with his own. "Whatever you may think, I didn't want to hurt you. But I can't promise you I won't do it again if you don't help me understand what was wrong in what I did."
Again – if those words had been said a few moments earlier, Anne might have given up and shared her thoughts with him, explaining all the details concerning her state of mind and heart on the day prior; but now it was too late. That moment Anne was weary to the point of sickness, vexed beyond imagination and more unhappy than she had been in a long while. She was on the verge of tears, too, and that only made her unfortunate irritation grow.
Most of all, however – she did not trust him anymore.
She snatched her hand out of his grasp as if it had burnt her.
"There is no point," she said hotly. "I don't think I could explain it well enough to anyone, and certainly not without and of my big words, which you clearly find so absurd."
"Anne, stop niggling over my expressions and just tell me what it is all about. I don't want to fight with you."
She snorted. "You could have fooled me."
"For the last, time, Anne, I never meant to hurt you. I was teasing, joking, call it whatever you want to – but I didn't mean any harm. I never have."
"Then why would you call me the one thing you knew I couldn't bear? You know how much I hate my hair and you still chose to taunt me about it!"
"It was a joke! I thought we'd been friends long enough for you to see the difference!" Gilbert protested again, his voice beginning to echo with impatience at last.
"Friends do not behave like this," she responded fiercely, although she could hear her own voice crack with emotion. Tears were beginning to cloud her vision again, but she was not going to look away this time. "They think of what their actions may cause the others to feel and don't play with them so recklessly!"
"Oh, and I suppose you have never said or done anything that could hurt the people you care about?"
Gilbert's irritation was outright now, his voice trembling ever so slightly, a scornful frown forming on his high forehead. Anne was no longer surprised at the sight and even if she had been, her own exasperation would have surpassed the shock easily. She wanted to retort, tell him how her dealings with the people she loved were none of his business, when the boat wobbled, meeting with the hard line of the shore, and halted.
Anne was up in a second.
"Thank you kindly for your assistance, Mr Blythe, even though it was not necessary," she said with utmost civility, ignoring a scowl and a snort Gilbert gave her as she left the boat and stood right beside it. "Now excuse me, but I need to find my friends before they assume I have drowned for real – or before they share the information with anyone else."
"Oh, so you're just going to run away now?" Gilbert challenged her in the vain hope it would make her stay, if only to defend her honour once again.
"I'm not running away," she contradicted impassively. "I'm consciously choosing not to stay in your company any longer. Now excuse me – and have a wonderful day."
And with that she was gone, leaving him in shock and disbelief, while she ran towards Orchard Slope, trying not to think of everything that had just happened to her – and about the thousand emotions that twirled in her chest as she did.
She sincerely prayed she would not live to regret any of it.
Author's note: And here the first part of the story comes to an end. Originally, it was supposed to be the end of everything - but the longer I thought of it, the more convinced I became that it deserved a continuation, a sequel of some sorts. So, a continuation you will get and I hope it will come soon, although I'd much rather pause here and only start posting again when I have at least a few chapters written in advance, so then you don't have to wait for so long then. I hope it won't take too long for me to get there.
In the meantime, I'll be happy if you give my other stories a chance and take a look at them - those that are already there as well as those that are about to come soon.
Until next time, my dearest Kindred Spirits!