Chapter Three

Anne's head pops up and bells ring out; church service is about to begin. Gilbert can't believe three hours have passed, yet Anne's appearance confirms it. Though the trapdoor obscures most of her, her face tells him everything. She has a light dusting of powder over her freckles and is wearing the little hat his mother planned to give her for Christmas. It looks like a something a confectioner might make. A brown velvet cap with twists of ribbon in green, cream, copper, and violet – though he would say it was closer to heliotrope.

Anne is all ready to ask him what is taking him so long, until she spies the look on his face. Her cheeks go pink beneath the powder; her hand goes to her hat.

'Don't you like it?'

Gilbert dips his hands in a basin of water and wipes them on his mother's apron.

'Yes,' he says, impishly, 'it brings out the colour of your hair.'

'You mean red,' Anne says, tucking a stray curl behind her ear.

'It's a shame to confine such a colour to one word,' says Gilbert.

He kneels down by the hatch Anne is standing in, and teases out the curl she had hidden away, twirling it round his finger.

'So many shades in one little strand… gold, amber, rose, ca –'

'If you say carrot –'

'Calendula. I was going to say calendula.'

'So am I, as it happens. Your mother asked me to fetch some calendula cream – and you.'

Gilbert drops Anne's hair reluctantly and goes to the tall dresser next to the fireplace and seeks out a pot.

'How is she this morning?' he says, collecting the lavender oil from the desk.

'I'm not sure,' Anne admits. 'At first I thought she was putting on a brave face, but I'm beginning to think the burn is worse than we thought. Her palm is still causing her a lot of pain, but her fingers… I don't think she has any sensation there at all.'

Gilbert keeps his back to Anne, tidying away a desk that does not need tidying – even the smallest calyx bud has been collected and squared away. He knew the burn was bad, his mother knew it too, or she would not be asking for an antiseptic agent. She wanted to prevent putrefaction because her fingers could not be saved.

He doesn't ask Anne her opinion, however, a more obvious question has sprung up.

'What made you come to the cottage by tunnel?'

'Because you locked us inside.'

Anne's grin is a teasing one, but there is tenderness too. Of course he would be preoccupied. It is a terrible thing watching someone you love suffer. Marilla endured agonising headaches for years and ended up losing her sight. True to the whims of Providence, however, she gained something wonderful too: a goodhearted husband who was devoted to her. What could Ro Blythe possibly gain, when it was a person, not Providence, who had carelessly taken so much away?

The bells ring out again. Service would be starting in one minute. It isn't far; the graveyard borders the Blythe property and the church lies on the other side. Still, it wouldn't do to be late. If Marilla and Martin are there they will have heard all about the incident by now and be looking for her arrival.

'Gil, I've got to go.'

Anne ducks her head and disappears down the narrow tunnel that runs between the cottage and the house. Gilbert throws off his apron and follows, his pockets clinking with glass and crocks. He has no lamp, and can scarcely make out the light Anne carries. He can smell her though: the sharp flavour of rosemary, the papery tang of witch hazel, and the musk-salt scent of her body.

When she gets to the trapdoor in the kitchen she lifts the hatch and turns. One knee is on the kitchen floor when she feels Gilbert's hands clasp her thighs. He presses his face into her skirts. Anne gasps with pleasure and surprise.

'What are you doing?' she whispers to the curly top of his head.

'Taking a keepsake,' is his muffled reply. He breathes her in and sighs. 'Ah Anne… you smell of summer.'

'Funny boy – oh your mother!' she hisses, pushing him down. 'H-hello, Mrs Blythe, I passed on your message. Gilbert said he was coming directly.'

'Thank you, dear,' says Ro. 'Best get yourself to church. Your new hat looks delightful on you. What was Gilbert's opinion?'

Ro is answered by a swift thud of her son's head striking the entrance of the tunnel.

'Hmmm, well… yes –' Anne blurts, 'I must go,' and leaps out awkwardly, pausing to kiss Mrs Blythe's cheek. 'I'll call on you before I leave for Charlottetown. We'll all call. Marilla, Martin, Dora certainly, Davy perhaps, and bring that extra beeswax you wanted. Happy Christmas, Mrs Blythe, and thank you – thank you – thank you for inviting me stay!'

Anne scurries to the backdoor and tries to work the handle. Mrs Blythe stands over the hatch and extends her left hand slowly.

'Gilbert Blythe,' she says, and taps her foot, 'I believe Anne requires the key.'

...

When the bells ring out two hours later Ro grabs her cloak from her closet.

'Button me up, old thing,' she calls from her bedroom, 'I can't manage with this bandage.'

Gilbert appears from the room opposite, a long box of matches in his hand.

'Where are you off to, I thought you said to warm the parlour for the company bound to call after church?'

'I decided I cannot face them. I know it's unchristian, I know they'll be concerned. But not today, Gilbert, not today.'

Gilbert looks away from the silver fastenings of his mother's cloak and glances at her face. The sickly, ashen look she had earlier is gone. Ro had blamed this on the laudanum, not on her hand, and fumed at being given such a treatment – but it was only half meant. Had her husband been by her side last night she might have managed the pain a little better. He is still in Charlottetown with Mary Maria, who vowed never to visit Avonlea again after Ro poisoned her with some nasty concoction. Naturally, Ro had protested. If Mary Maria insisted on gorging herself on the fatty ends of roasted meat she could hardly blame a cup of peppermint tea (though Ro's additional dollop of Ipecac syrup might have had something to do with it.) John took his wife's part at first, but as the year wore on he became worn down with his cousin's letters complaining of the sad and lonely Christmas she would have to look forward to. She will be livid when the telegram arrives advising John's early return. He was originally due on New Year's Eve, and promised to be laden with the sorts of gifts that could only be bought in Charlottetown.

His wife was getting a new Willow Ware bowl to replace the one Dora chipped. Ro took her on as an apprentice last summer. She's a capable girl, and even has what Ro called 'a feel' for herbs. Nevertheless, Dora's heart isn't in it. She is far better suited to conventional work, a haberdasher's say, or domestic service, though in truth, it's her own home she longs to manage. Ro wonders how long it will be before she loses Dora Rossi to marriage. Fortunately, she does not have the same question about her stepsister. Now, there is a girl who cannot be tied down.

'I like seeing you smile,' says Gilbert, tucking a scarf round his mother's neck.

'I was thinking about our Anne.'

'Oh?' Gilbert utters, and bends to unbutton his newly polished boots.

He is decked out in his Christmas best: grey serge suit, blue silk tie – though not his high stiff collar. That went unaccountably missing this morning. Or was more likely stuffed into the bottom of his trunk, never to be seen until his return to Redmond in two weeks' time.

He kicks off his boots and slips into his work ones, the soft knee-length leather hugging his calves like a second skin.

'So,' he says, standing up, 'where are we off to?'

Gilbert already knows the answer to that, and jokes they ought to use the tunnel, then anyone turning up after service could not trace their tracks through the snow.

He needn't worry. None of those good people will dare venture as far as the cottage this morning. Not because they are afraid of the place; because no one in Avonlea wants to admit it exists. Dr Spencer was all very well, and Dr Blair in his turn. But those men were for eyestrains and broken arms and measles. A body went to Ro Blythe for more delicate matters: the itchy mites that sprang up round the nethers, or when a fellow's maypole refused to stand up. Others wanted to know how to get back one's chastity, or rid themselves of peculiar maladies: gamey, cheesy, fishy odours, amorous bedmates, or frigid ones; the wart that looked like a third nipple, the nipple that looked like a wart. Then there were the babies, so many babies; the accidental and the longed for; the milk that wouldn't come when needed and wouldn't stop when it was not…

Ro Blythe is party to all their secrets and if she is loved it because she never alluded to any of it, not even to press her advantage. Every churchgoer making their way to the Blythe place now did so out of true concern – and a satisfying conclusion to the tales being told about Murderous Margaret, of course!

That mystery is resolved just a few hours later with the arrival of Fred Wright and one of his brothers tapping on the pane of the cottage window. They had gone down after Christmas dinner to check on their muskrat traps and found Margaret at the bottom of a ravine with a broken ankle, huddled in the tattered coat their Granny used to dress their old scarecrow.

'She must've slept in our barn, she coulda killed us in our sleep!' Laurie squawks.

Fred rolls his eyes. As if a girl could end him – conveniently forgetting Diana Barry nearly did just that.

'I was glad I had my old boots on. Ma keeps needling me to break in my new ones, but you know how they squeak.'

Ro rolls her eyes this time; Gilbert simply nods.

'Then what happened?'

'Well I was mindful of sending down loads of snow with every step I took, so I signalled this runt –' and he scruffs Laurie's hair, 'to get in close –'

'I thought it was a bunch of old rags!'

'Button it,' Fred barks at his brother, 'who's tellin' this? So, I sent Laurie down to those boulders by the river bottom, in order to get a good look at her face. She looked just like the policeman said she did, when he made his announcement before service this morning. Said folks should be on the lookout –'

'He was there?' Ro splutters. 'At church? The poor girl; to be hunted like that, and on Christmas day!'

'Beg your pardon, Mrs Blythe,' Fred says, carefully, 'but she brought it on herself.'

'That Margaret is a She-Devil – ow!' Laurie yelps, as Fred pinches his ear. 'Well she is. Mrs Harmon Andrews says so.'

'You've been told not to say such things, specially on the Lord's birthday. Now where was I?'

'Laurie was hiding behind some rocks,' Gilbert urges.

'Then I sent out one of my whistles and he came back to tell me what he saw, her features, her size, how her foot stuck straight out. I knew then she must have broke it. There was no other reason for her to be sittin' like that.'

'Like what,' Ro demands, 'how did she look?'

Fred gives his little brother a nod.

'Oh, so now I can say my piece,' says Laurie.

He settles on the sofa on the other side of the fireplace and slowly clears his throat.

'As I recollect she looked sorta bored to me.'

'Where is she now – can I see her?' Ro asks, looking about for her cloak.

Gilbert places himself in front of the door.

'Ma, no. The constable will have her now – what was his name, Mackerson?'

'That wasn't it,' Fred cuts in, 'It was someone new. Sergeant Swan I think he was.'

'He had the honkingest moustache. A real twirler!' Laurie adds, his eyes wide with the memory of it.

Fred brings a finger to the bit of fuzz sprouting under his nose.

'It was impressive, I grant you. But he's your no-nonsense type for all that. The sergeant's sure to pay you a visit, Mrs Blythe, tell you just what happened.'

'He had better,' Ro says, wrapping her cloak around her.

She catches her bandaged hand as she does so and her face goes grey once more.

'Ma,' Gilbert pleads with her, 'you need to sit down.'

Ro doesn't need telling, she slumps down next to Laurie, who looks guiltily at Gilbert.

'We never meant to upset your mama, did we, Fred? We just wanted to let her know she was safe. And Anne too. And Davy Rossi. We're heading over there next, aren't we, Fred, we're going to Green Gables?'

Gilbert would dearly love to go with them; it's on the tip of his tongue to ask. He knows his mother is sure to agree, but he can't leave her alone. He can't.

'Then you best be going,' he says, soberly.

His hands ball into fists as that urgent feeling pumps through him again. Every man was doing what he could, while he was stuck at home. He knows he must do what is expected of him, and act in his father's stead. He just wanted Pa back, that was all, so that he might do his part.

The helpless feeling gets worse before it gets better. Fred's grandmother and Mrs Gillis come by after supper, aware that Ro is alone with her son and will need help preparing for bed.

Gilbert sits in the dining room attempting to work on a paper, his thoughts punctuated by the sound of soft groans as Ro is helped into her nightgown. She had refused to show Gilbert the least sign of pain. It made him feel proud to have such a mother. But it was pride tinged with shame, for she still believed he needed protecting. He was twenty years old, a head taller than she was. None of this made him a man in her eyes.

Luella Gillis bustles into the room, the chipped basin in her hands.

'She's asking for you, Gilbert dear – oh you haven't touched your Christmas cake. Aren't you hungry, great big boy like yourself?'

For a moment Gilbert thinks she might stuff a slice in his mouth, and he stands abruptly and shifts away from the table. This only encourages Luella.

'What's that you're working on?' she continues, eyeing a diagram he has sketched. 'Fructi – fructi –'

'Fructificatio. It means – well it means…'

'Something fruity, I expect,' she guesses, beaming up at him.

Ooh, he was the spit of John Blythe, though perhaps not quite so meaty… And she pictures John's great strapping thighs, his thick head of hair – and his chest! It still outsized his belly when he must be coming up sixty. Not like her Sam, these days he was paunchier than she was. Lucky old Ro… Luella thinks, then quickly remembers herself. Ro Blythe wasn't lucky at all. Poor Ro would never thread a needle again!

'Don't dawdle, dear. Your mother is very tired this evening. At least Fred caught that little vixen, that'll be a comfort to you.'

Gilbert finds his mother sleeping. Granny Giraud is not far behind, perched in the rocker she had taken from the covered porch, knitting needles limp in her blue-veined hands.

'She's insisting on staying,' Luella says in mock whisper, 'to dress Ro in the morning. Save her coming back tomorrow.'

Gilbert's hazel eyes light up.

'Of course, Mrs Gillis, that's a very kind offer. Would you like me to walk you home now?' he adds, knowing this to be the surest way to get a Gillis woman out the door.

Ten minutes later he has delivered Luella to her porch-step, and waves her goodbye before she has time to fetch her youngest daughter. Luella is not the sort squander a chance at matchmaking, and while Ruby has her eye on Davy Rossi, nothing's strictly settled yet.

Gilbert ponders Davy's connection to Margaret. Anne isn't the only one to think she had to be mistaken, Mrs Gillis thinks so too. But they have reasons not to believe it; Davy is a good prospect for Ruby, and the missing piece in Anne's new family. Gilbert had known him long before that. Knew him when he was thieving runaway who hid in a cave in the cliffs at White Sands. Back then he liked to make Gilbert blush with tales of his mighty exploits: said he lost his innocence when he was twelve and fathered five brats by the age of fifteen. Gilbert laughed it off at the time; all the same he had to admit there was an uncomfortable ring of truth to his boasts. Gilbert's mother frequently observed that orphans and strays often began their families when they were little more than children themselves. And she would know, she had delivered her share of them.

He looks over his shoulder. Light shines from the parlour window and the chimney sends up a curl of smoke.

There is no way Granny Giraud will leave now, he thinks, as a sharp breeze whips at his back.

He digs his hands into his pockets and tells himself Ma will be fine. Then squaring his shoulders against the wind, Gilbert walks on to Green Gables.

*Ipecac is the famous expectorant Anne gave Minnie May to make her vomit when she had croup

*Fructificatio is a Latin term to define the reproductive organs of a plant