Gilbert wakes to the knock of a cold leather boot against his shoulder. There's a face beyond the lantern-light that he cannot make out and he sits up with a jolt. Anne is no longer next to him. Her long, tapered foot has slipped out from the quilt on his parents' bed, and her hand is tangled in his mother's dark hair. She must have heard her calling for comfort in the night, and he had slept right through it.
'Gil – up.'
A man's voice, not his father's – was it Adam Wright's? Gilbert finds him in the kitchen, jamming wood into belly of the iron stove.
'Key's on the table,' he says, without turning around.
It is supposed to hang from the hook in the hall. Instead Gilbert pockets it, then busies himself with the coffee bean grinder while Adam unfastens his coat. He has a face like etched rock and hair the colour of pea-soup fog. If there's any light about him it comes from his startling white teeth, but he's in no mood to smile just yet. He got his sleigh within sixteen miles of Charlottetown and had to turn back at Banion's river. Running ice had knocked the bridge there clean away.
They talk on this while the water boils, then the best way to reach John Blythe. Finally, they settle on a telegram. Though John won't get it till the 26th, the post office is closed today.
'Happy Christmas, Mr Wright,' says Gilbert, settling Adam's coffee on the table.
'And to you, Gil.'
He slips off his sheepskin earflap cap and shakes it over the stove, snowflakes melting with a hiss. Gilbert flinches as he hears this, then disguises it with a yawn. Not that yawning's much better.
Adam Wright hasn't slept at all, nor is he likely to. Church service starts in three hours and his wife will be wanting him bathed and shaved before that. He rubs his hand over his bristly jaw, grim at the thought of wearing a stiff white collar; his wife nudging him to sing when he would rather sling his feet up on the pew in front of him and catch a quiet snooze. He takes a slug of coffee and pulls himself to his feet.
'Anne Shirley still here, I see.'
'Yessir,' says Gilbert, staring into his mug. 'Miss Cuth – sorry, Mrs Rossi – is expecting Anne this morning. She's joining her and Mr Rossi and the twins at church.'
He sits forward in his chair, one leg jiggling restlessly.
'I don't like it. Margaret could be hiding at Green Gables right this minute, waiting for Anne to show herself. If she could hurt Ma like that –'
'If Martin Rossi can tame Marilla he can handle a pregnant girl,' says Adam.
He rubs his jaw again and gives Gilbert a long hard stare. The boy's a handsome buck just like his Pa, except in one regard: everything came too easy to him – specially attention of the female kind.
'You sure Davy Rossi's responsible? Don't see how he could be when he's been training with the Navy. Constable said she came from White Sands. Weren't you teaching there?'
The coffee turns to sludge in Gilbert's throat, and he pounds the mug on the table.
'I would never dishonour a girl like that!'
Adam's hand twitches. He would have boxed his sons' ears for daring to speak so bold. That's what comes of having one child instead a good-sized brood. Children like that never learn their place. Adam has four boys. His eldest, Fred, is a great chum of Gil's, and was caught with his pants down last winter in the presence of the Barry's precious Diana. Adam is well acquainted with the appetites of youth, and he knows a guilty conscience when he sees one. Why would Gilbert respond with such heat unless he was also trying to convince himself? The boy was no liar however; all Avonlea could vouch for that. No coward either, given the way he stepped up to the rock face that was Adam Wright and planted his hands on his hips.
'Set down, young'un,' Adam says, 'I have a right to ask what I did and you know it.'
Five deep lines appear on his forehead as he raises his eyebrows and gestures to the doorway. Gilbert turns to see Anne standing in the hall, a scarlet quilt wrapped high round her shoulders, her pointed chin jutting out.
'I wondered what the noise was – two roosters crowing me up this morning,' she says, clearing away their half-drunk mugs and emptying them into the slop bucket. 'You should get home, Mr Wright, you don't want to keep your family waiting.'
Anne gives him her best schoolmarmish look; if she wore spectacles she would have peered over them. Gilbert can't help smirking, that is until she turns on him.
'And you, Gilbert Blythe, you should be in the stone cottage looking up remedies for your mother. The laudanum won't last forever. We need rosehips and balm, lots of balm, if we want to save her hand.'
Adam Wright's not one for changing his mind but he quickly revises his opinion now. A guilty conscience will be the least of Gil's battles if this is the girl he wants to win. He gives him an encouraging slap on the back then settles his cap on his head.
'We'll talk more after service. I'm sure we'll know more by then. Nothin' spreads news – nor gossip come to that – like comin' together for church.'
'I'm obliged to you, sir.'
Adam waves his thanks away.
'I'll send one of my boys to the post office tomorrow; don't want you leaving your Ma. Happy Christmas, Anne,' he says, tugging his cap. 'Tell Marilla I'll come by after supper this evening, I'm sure she'll have questions. Better make sure young Davy's there, too. And if he won't stay then make him.'
Anne pictures her stepbrother in his scarlet jacket and pillbox hat. She still bears his finger-marks when he flung her round the parlour as they danced at the wedding three nights ago.
'How am I to manage that?' she asks, clutching her quilt to her chest.
Adam watches Gilbert tugging on his boots for the short walk to the stone cottage.
'I'm sure you can handle him,' he says.
The cottage lies east of the orchard at the back of the Blythe place. It was said to be the first dwelling built in Avonlea, made from blocks of red sandstone that had been cut from the eastern shores. This was the work of Ro's grandfather, Saul Gillaley, and it was on these shores that he first met his wife.
He was trading sugar for fox furs, and asked the hunter about the woman with unbound hair sweeping the campsite with a juniper switch. What the hunter told him was that she was taking care of the wigwam while the others were away.
What he said was, 'Nespe.'
She was the reason Saul built a house of stone; it was the only way he could see her. Other settlers made their homes from timber; building from rock with your own two hands was a slow process that demanded skill, patience, fortitude and the ability to stand much mocking. The shore people liked what they saw. When Saul came for the last piece of sandstone – a massive slab that needed an ox to drag it – Nespe went with him, her unbound hair flying out behind her.
When Gilbert's father married his neighbour's youngest daughter, she came with ten acres of orchard and the crumbling cottage. What Ro got was a mixed crop farm, and a neat little house with a pretty latticed porch and a new picket fence.
No one had lived in the stone cottage for a generation. It was too small to hold a growing family and had become a refuge for farm equipment and nests of birds and mice. Ro began restoring it as a way to tame her grief. In the weeks after her daughter drowned she learned that if she exhausted herself she did not have strength for tears. Or dreams of little Lottie in her big blue bows sinking into the dark weeds of Barry's pond.
John had been in Alberta then, Gilbert by his side. He left an observant boy of ten with a father wracked with consumption and a mother wracked with guilt. He returned three years later with an easy knowledge of knives and guns, the ballads of woodsmen, and bawdy songs from the garrison. He could skin a rabbit in eight seconds; gut it in three. While it was roasting he prized apart their eyeballs and dissected the ticks on their pelts. He wasn't fit for a prim grey schoolhouse in Avonlea. Leastways not one run by a Master whose idea of teaching was to keep his pupils writing out sums and copying poems while he wooed the sixteen-year old at the back of the class. It looked like a sweaty business. All that swooning, fanning, teetering, blushing. And for what – the chance to share a bench with her during geometry lesson?
Young Gilbert was having none of that. He mocked the girls without mercy and what's more was rewarded. Not only with tossed braids and indignant looks, but jam tarts, coloured pencils, marbles, spruce chews, gruesome tales cut from their mama's magazines, and their papa's best fishing hooks. Now that was worth a fellow's time – and there was a lot of it to fill. He could finish a morning's worth of arithmetic problems in an hour; commit an ode to memory while he strolled to the outhouse. He wouldn't have minded coaching others along but the Master demanded silence from his pupils.
What he got was a low hum, interspersed with shrieks, slaps and the singing of crickets as they raced between the desks. The cane's whistle was a diverting sound, Susie's Gillis' throaty giggle, Ephraim White's snore. The best sound of all was the bell signalling the end of the day. Gilbert couldn't wait to leave.
Anne Shirley changed his mind about that. With her witchy looks and strange opinions and singular ability for bearing grudges, Gilbert couldn't make her out. It was the first time he had come to a problem that he couldn't get around or work through. Apologies didn't work, nor sentimental gestures. He tried roping in her bosom friend, fraternising with her enemy, ignoring her, singling her out. The only thing that got any result was competing with her. At first, he wanted to win for pride's sake, for what thirteen-year old boy could stand to lose to an eleven-year old girl? He was eighteen before he figured out something she hadn't: that none of what they ended up achieving – topping the Entrance, winning medals at Queens – would have been possible without the other. She needed him, he was certain of it. And he was sure as the sun that he needed her.
The problem was that needing a person came far too close to love, and there was no way Gilbert could afford to do that. To exchange long conversations about the nature of language, the efficacy of dandelion roots, the perfection of the golden ratio for swooning, fanning, teetering, blushing was nonsensical to him. No matter how he lay out the problem it refused to add up.
It took him a year to comprehend that what he was trying to solve wasn't arithmetic; it was geometry. He and Anne didn't add up. They fit together.
His hands tremble as he unlocks the cottage, and he rests his forehead on the blue painted door. He is remembering last night when he lay with Anne on Nespe's blanket in their little house of snow. Their lanterns stood outside and had long since burned out; the fire in the doorway had died. He had unbuttoned his coat and she loosened her cloak and pressed against his chest; her leg weaving around his, the way she did when they kissed at the stream. He was acutely aware of what wasn't between them; her thick woollen skirts, her petticoats, her bustle cage. The memory of her unfastening the buttons of her trousers played over in his mind, and he had checked to see if they were still unfastened. They were. His hands plucked her blouse from the waistband and roamed over her the soft silk of her corset, finding and then squeezing the tips of her breasts as they slipped from the collar of her chemise.
'Kiss them,' she said, 'kiss them the way you kissed my thumb.'
And Gilbert had moaned and pushed her sweater and blouse up round her throat, while his hands slid under her waistband. Her thighs widened, her hips rose, then suddenly she was still as still.
'What is it?' he had said to her.
'I want to savour every moment,' she told him. 'I want to remember this.'
He hadn't asked what this meant. Once the word was said they would have all but admitted what they were doing and have to stop. And he was going to, of course he was. But not yet. Not when she was returning to Green Gables tomorrow, and leaving for Charlottetown in a few short days. She was set to become a journalist; he was six months into seven years at Redmond College. They had built a snow cave in memory of their night by the frozen stream, and exchanged Christmas presents – they had both given knives. He had this idea they could make blood oaths to each other and they both made cuts in their thumbs. It was one of those strange, almost mystical notions that only made sense when he was with Anne.
Then the fire went out. He offered her the heat of his body. What he missed was the light.
'I want to see you,' he said.
'We could make another fire,' she said.
Between them they decided to it was time to head back, and when they reached the orchard there was light all around. Light that fell on her face as she took his cut thumb in her mouth and he thought he would never make it to the cottage…
That's where they were heading: his mother's cottage. What had he been thinking – what is he thinking? He is supposed to be looking up remedies for badly burned skin not indulging in fancies about Anne.
He returns the key to the hollow beneath the huge stone slab at the entrance to the door. Cold seeps into his bones as he enters and he looks at the empty fireplace, longingly. The rug by the bookcase has been pulled back revealing the old trapdoor. That would have been the constable. He had asked about any places Margaret might hide. Ro tried to stop him, wary of some lawman poking around in her potions and herbs, so the Reverend offered to tag along. He must have waited outside however, for Mr Allan was the sort who put things back where he found them.
Gilbert kicks the rug into place, then reaches for the great book that lies on the topmost shelf. Ignoring the index, he heads straight for the L section. Anne mentioned rosehips and balm but his mother's wounds need more lavender first. They had used up every drop of that oil last night, and he seeks out the dried flower heads that hang from the beams and sets up the burner. He would not have enough time to leave them to sit in the oil, so it will require a gentle heat. It's this he needs the book for, in order to know how to warm it just so. Too little heat and he would not extract enough of the properties required to soothe and calm the skin. Too much heat and it would be ruined.
He takes a safety match from its box and strikes it hard, then touches it to the wick of the burner. A fine blue flame lights up his palm as he shelters it from the icy draft that comes in under the window.
Gripping the heavy stone pestle, he pounds the flower heads inside the mortar. The room fills with the smell of spirits and herbs. His hands finally stop trembling.
* I got the name Nespe from the website 20 000 Names from around the World. It's what's called holophrastic, where a single word (in this case, Nespe) stands in for a sentence (which is, staying behind to mind the wigwam) in Mi'qmaq.