Chapter forty

Mr Oliver received his bills and a rollicking story from Anne – though not the one he was hoping for. Gone was any mention of the Glen St Mary kidnapping; replaced with an astonishing tale of the heroic Constable, Frederic Wright, being brought back from the brink of death by the village herbalist, Rowena Blythe. It was certainly a moving story, and hit all the right beats, but it needed another twist, one that Oliver had no compunction adding: the significant detail that Mrs Blythe was also known as Dr Lavendar.

Needless to say, the story was a sensation, and every day that August the Blythe homestead had a constant line of desperate pilgrims all the way down Newbridge Road. The hall became a hostel for the scruffy and the scrofulous. The more genteel visitor was offered respite in the Spare Room of Avonlea's finest families. And the Pyes, well used to putting on the most stylish parties with the best cakes and pastries, turned their well-appointed parlour into a tea rooms, all offering the famous Blythe herbal brews.

Ro could only shake her head in wonder, Gilbert was always laughing. And Anne? She is sleeping, right now, amid the poppies and cornflowers dancing in the long grass atop the Sunrise Garden.

In the house below is Fred, tearing down the lopsided porch Martin Rossi constructed, in readiness for the delivery to come. It's going to take two oxen to get it here, but needs must. Any house in Avonlea needs a proper sandstone step at the back door .

Gilbert delivers it, and is laughing still, as Sark makes another joke. The two men had made the journey to Nespe's land together, leaving Claudine on the shore weaving a wigwam from brush.

'Whatcha goin' to do with this ol caravan?' Sark asks, wiping his brow, the six foot slab of red sand stone finally levered into place.

'You want it?' Fred says, hopefully.

Diana thought it was charming, but all Fred sees is an eyesore squatting in the long grass growing around it, and taking up room.

'Diana wants to turn it into a chicken coop, but ah…' and he scratches the back of his head, 'I'm not sure about that.'

'You mean you're not sure how to say no to your beloved Deésse?' Gilbert grins.

'I'm sure you'd know all about that,' Fred winks, then he cocks his head to one side. 'Say, didn't Anne want to live in a caravan once, head out on adventures?'

Gilbert pats the curved walls, its paint in blisters of black and white. Inside are the two narrow beds, stripped and sagging, and the little iron stove between them. He remembers finding Anne here, how he had wrapped his arms around her middle and nuzzled into her thick red hair. And she had said that she couldn't think of anywhere she would rather live than in a little house like this, the open road before her.

He shrugs, scuffs his boots. There is no chance of that now.

'I better fetch her,' he says, buttoning up his waist coat. 'She still up there?'

Fred nods. 'Bring my fianceé down too,' he says, and takes a steadying breath. It still stuns him that he can do that, bid Diana come to him and know that she will come, with a serene smile on her face and a quick beat in her heart. 'Reckon they've forgotten the time. Party starts at seven. Your Ma can still make it, can't she, Gil? Celebratin' our engagement with our family and friends would be nothin' without Mrs Blythe.

'She'll be there, Tourt,' Gilbert replies jogging up the hill, 'not even an angry case of poison ivy can keep her away!'

Diana is approaching the crumbling brick wall when he reaches the summit, a plump finger pressed against her lips.

'I hope you haven't come up here to get her chopping dandelions. The poor girl needs a rest. She's exhausted, Gilbert,' Diana adds with a frown. 'Best you leave her sleeping, at least until the party tonight.'

'Don't worry, we'll be there,' Gilbert assures her, and after helping Diana over the wall, makes his way to the middle of the garden.

The satiny petals of a pale orange poppy are tickling against Anne's freckled cheek and she twitches and stirs and turns her head, nestling deeper into the fragrant grass.

He loves her like this, abandoned to the wilds around her; he knows this is where she belongs. Among the whispering trees and the nodding flowers, the seed heads that spangle her long loose hair, the bird that calls from the bough above.

A white bird. Gilbert knows this without looking, and he lets out a deep sigh.

'I got the message, all right, you made your point…'

He lifts his arm to shoo it away.

'Who are you talking to?' Anne says, dozily, slowly opening her eyes.

Gilbert falls on his knees beside her, brings her hand to his lips.

'You smell like a meadow,' he tells her.

Anne rolls onto her side, stretching her body out lazily before resting her head on her arm.

'If I could capture this smell…' she smiles, her grey eyes blinking slowly.

'Don't tell Ma,' Gilbert quips, lying down next to her. 'She'll be working on that next.'

'Do you think she's forgiven me yet, for making her a household name?'

Gilbert ponders this a moment as he picks a stem of timothy and pokes it between his lips. Did his mother like being famous? Certainly she enjoyed the fascinating cases, the chance to help those beyond her small circle, the times Dr Spencer and Dr Blair had come to her for advice. And she liked getting paid, of course, liked knowing she and John could secure a permanent hired man to help with the farm when Gilbert returned to school. She relished working alongside her beloved Anne too, was grateful to know her knowledge would be passed on to someone with such a magical touch. But did she like becoming more famous than her alias, Dr Lavendar? Gilbert was not so sure about that.

The matter was taken out of her hands, however, with the introduction of Blythe's Best Balm. Apparently, Mr Eggers didn't give a hoot if Gilbert made a doctor of himself or not. The Blythe name was on everyone's lips now; Curlow was already planning on tripling their production. And now that Anne was part of the Blythe family too, the owners of the Echo were even more desperate to get her back.

Anne told Oliver she would think about it, though she never seemed to find the time. Not when her husband is kissing her like that, touching her like that, unbuttoning her like that…

Her chemise is up round her armpits, corset open like a book, his tongue darts into her bellybutton, then he rests his bearded cheek on it.

'Hello, hello?' he murmurs.

'Hello,' Anne answers back.

Gilbert lifts his head, his hazel eyes glinting in the low afternoon sun.

'No, I meant... that is, I was saying hello to –'

'I know who you were saying hello to, Blythe. Was that who you were talking to before?'

The question is a natural one, logical too. If he has questions who better to ask than his own child. Who needs him more, who is least likely to tell him only what he wants to hear? Even Anne does that now. He knows she doesn't want him to go, and make no mistake he is going, and in less than a week. But she doesn't try to stop him, nor do his parents, or his chums. He has to go back to Redmond in September, of course he must go.

He draws a finger along her bare skin, belly falling and rising, milky white.

'What's it like?'

'Are you asking me or the little pearl?'

He sidles up alongside her, weaves his fingers with hers.

'Seriously love, what is it like, growing our baby inside you?

What to say?

To the scientist she would say it is exhausting, she had never realised something so small could take so much of her stamina to grow. How her mouth could suddenly taste an odour, her nose could smell a sound. And her breasts, how they swelled, her skin so tight the blue of her veins showed through.

To the herbalist she would say mint was certainly her favoured herb, followed by fresh dug ginger root, eucalypt tinctures, lavender oil... The latter felt marvellous good on her nipples (as did Gilbert's insistent mouth.)

To the husband she would say she luxuriated in the sensation of her womb slowly stretching, her hair darkening, her senses deepening, and her dreams. That she revelled in the thought she would become heavy, round, sway backed, and ripe. Till her body all but burst out, I am love, I am love, I am love…

And to the twenty year old man who lies next to her, whose brow bears a scar that will never fade? To him she would say she is excited and scared. That the birth to come is all consuming, and other times the pregnancy is forgotten altogether, as she clambers up trees seeking lichens and moss, and forgets to sleep because the story she is writing will not let her go. That she is sad this pregnancy will be marred by gossip, raised eyebrows, and disappointed looks. And the next minute she is brimming with tears at the joy she feels to be given such a blessing.

It is this last answer she gives him.

The answer is like a balm. Nothing else could soothe Gilbert's fears; she anoints him like a king.

'Please,' he says hoarsely, 'I have to love you… let me love you now…'

'Oh but... mmm,' she utters, as he shifts himself between her legs and slowly grinds against her. 'You're making it impossible to say no...'

Gilbert's shirt is now half way over his head. His face pops out and he frowns.

'Now Mrs Blythe why would you want to say no?'

The shirt goes flying, landing in the branch of the maple tree laying dappled shade over their bodies. Then his hand is at the soft, bare skin above her stocking, and higher to her cotton drawers. Anne's hips rise to meet his deft, insistent touch and she scrunches her grey eyes tight.

'We shouldn't – we can't. What if Fred and Diana come looking for us?'

She receives a cheeky grin in response.

'I'm fairly confident in predicting that looking for us is the last thing Fred is wanting to do. As I recall,' he continues, unbuttoning his trousers, secretly pleased at the way Anne's eyes have suddenly widened as he frees himself, 'he was wanting Diana's opinion on what size bed she thought would fit in the master room.'

'Was he now?'

Anne loosens the ribbon at the her waist and so that Gilbert can peel down her drawers. The touch of cool grass kisses against her bottom.

'Oh Gilbert, hurry,' she moans, arching her back again.

Gilbert duly obliges, it's impossible not to when she feels like this, like a hot, slick vortex that grips him tight and sucks him further and further. Within two minutes he knows it is useless to fight it, within five he has to give in. It is bliss not to pull away anymore, feel the heels of her white feet kneading his buttocks and he makes one final thrust. To give this up, to go back to school, why was he doing that again; what possible reason could he have for leaving her loving arms?

He is still asking himself that at the party that evening, when he Anne arrives in Ephraim White's cart, in her a new white dress, pale as moonlight and fresh as a spring morning. The empurpled sky has already given way to a deep velvety blue. The four tier cake Mrs Wright made, and the five tier cake Mrs Barry had ordered, are down to crumbs on the plates.

Constable Wright is enjoying the exquisite pleasure of holding Miss Barry's dimpled hand on top of the table for all to see. He stands up now to shake the hand of the fine gentleman that approaches him. The fellow doffs his hat and thanks him for a splendid evening.

'I appreciate you comin', Mr Irving, sir, and especially you lettin' the Sunrise Garden to us. Apricots, peaches and cherries, that what my Diana wants to grow. Reckon they'll do well on that slope.'

'It will take some time to get such trees established,' Paul says, replacing his hat.

'I've got time,' Fred says, a little wistfully. 'Diana's goin' to get her first class licence and I'm taking the posting in Carmody. First time they've ever had a lawman. I'm lookin' forward to makin' my mark. By the time three years is up, I should have our little house ready for my wife, and we'll have the beginnings of a real fine harvest.'

'And a fine life, too, Constable Wright. Thank you for inviting me, I had forgotten the beauty of Avonlea.'

As he says this he glances about him, with a wide and searching stare, over trestle tables strewn with sticky glasses, and half drunk punch warm and syrupy in the bowls. His gentle blue eyes finally rest upon the curly haired matron in a light summer gown.

John Blythe fits his fiddle under his chin, and the first sonorous notes of the first slow dance of the night winds its way through the air.

''scuse me, won't you?' Fred says, grabbing Diana by the hand. 'Been waiting for Mr Blythe to play something like this all night. Gotta take your chances when they come.'

'Indeed,' says Paul, and he turns from Ro and gives the happy couple a smile.

Gilbert returns with Paul's horse and waits at the edge of the lawn.

'I shall watch your career with interest, young Blythe,' he tells him, before taking his mount. 'Whatever you set out to do, young man, I believe you will meet with success.'

Gilbert wishes he could ask him, just what he thought success was. The way this learned, wealthy, educated man was looking right now, anyone would think he was reluctant to leave this tiny village on the edge of a tiny Island.

He looks about him as Paul Irving trots off, at the Pyes arguing at one table and the Sloanes studying their pocket watches. The Andrews giving disapproving stares at the slow dancers dancing a little too closely, and the Wrights finishing off the last of the cake. Micah Sloane is dancing with Clarissa, Pamela Andrews with a gentleman who came to the cottage hoping to save his two front teeth. Diana is floating in her Fred's strong arms. He doesn't even limp now, and will be back at work in another week.

When the finely dressed gentleman dancing with the gold haired girl decides to return to England no one seems to know. It is clear Herbert Spencer worships the ground Ruby walks on. But how does she feel about him?

After the slow dance finishes Gilbert taps his shoulder. Herbert bows out immediately, though his usually obliging smile is just a smidgeon less obliging.

'Gilbert Blythe,' Ruby simpers, 'I can't remember the last time you danced with me.'

'At Queens, wasn't it? You taught me the Two Bob two-step –'

'I taught you lots of things,' she quips.

Gilbert twirls her round the garden as his father starts up another melancholy tune. He had used up his repertoire of jigs and reels when the night was young and Mr Irving seemed determined to ask every woman to dance. It is simple coincidence, surely, that John starts in on the slow songs once that gentleman had gone.

'You did,' says Gilbert, pulling her close.

She is tiny in comparison to Anne, he has to bend down when he whispers. His breath flustering her carefully coiffed ringlets as he murmurs in her ear.

'Now I think it's my turn to give something to you.'

'Oh yes,' Ruby's eyebrows arch, 'and what would that be?'

'Just a bit of advice.' Ruby looks askance. 'That necklace,' says Gilbert, his gaze dropping to the little pink heart circling Ruby's throat, 'it doesn't suit you.'

Even in the low light of the lanterns dangling from the trees Gilbert can tell Ruby is blushing, and not in some becoming fashion, but furiously and hot.

'How – how dare you!' she hisses.

The glare is very Anne-like, but unlike Anne, Ruby does not try to get away. This is a village dance after all, folks might be watching, and Ruby is used to them watching her.

Gilbert guides her expertly between the other couples till they stop by the far edge of the garden.

'I dare because I want you to be happy, Ruby Gillis. I'm not going to go along with this stupid story anymore.'

'I don't know what you're talking about!'

'Davy didn't give you that token –'

'You don't know that!'

'Yes I do. And you know something else? Everyone at this dance knows it, too.'

Ruby, the golden girl, the princess, the performer, hangs her head in shame. Her body goes limp with the effort of all her pretending, even her pompadour wilts. Then she feels a hand at her chin, and she looks into his eyes. And he is smiling at her, her oldest chum, giving her his Gilbertiest smile.

'Don't you ever hang your head on his account, Ruby, just take that token off and –'

'What?' Ruby's blue eyes are wide with doubt and fear.

Would the rest of Avonlea still love her, accept her, if she admits she is not Davy's wife?

'What?' says Gilbert, incredulous that she is still pretending not to know.

He places his hands on Ruby's shoulders and turns her around to face the crowd. They're all dancing and laughing and feasting and gossiping, all of them but one. Herbert hasn't taken his eyes off the two of them, and he stands in the midst of the party now, his crisp white gloves curled up in two neat fists, as he watches the local Romeo make off with his Juliet.

Herbert's dark eyes lock on Ruby's as she spins around, while Gilbert removes the necklace from her neck. He drops it into his pocket and gives Ruby a little push, and she glides toward her destiny like a little boat to its harbour.

'I saw what you did just then,' Anne murmurs, coming up behind him, 'you set her free from Davy for good. How did you know the necklace wasn't from him?'

'It was from me,' Gilbert explains. 'I bought it for you, but I lost it somehow.'

'For me?' Anne slips her hand into his trouser pocket and regards the heart anew. 'Yes, this is definitely something you would give.'

'Do you want it?'

Anne shakes her head. 'I don't need a token,' she says, her grey eyes dark with love. 'You've already given me the most precious gift of all.'

That night he walks her the long way home, down the shadowy perfumed paths of old and up to the Rossi's big green door. Ephraim White can be heard from the west gable window humming the tune he danced to with Jane Andrews.

'I'd invite you in but...' Anne grins, her grey eyes cast above.

'No, of course, get some sleep, my girl,' says Gilbert.

He lays a kiss on her forehead, and another on the sash at her waist, then he stands with his hands in his pockets as she closes the door and walks upstairs.

An idea grips him for a moment, to go to the side of the house and climb the cherry tree that grows outside Anne's window; try to catch another glimpse of her as she closes the curtains for the night.

But he doesn't, he turns and strolls down the drive, so lost in his own happiness he doesn't hear the sound of another set of boots crunching along the drive. It's only when they sound like they are right behind him that he pivots round, the dreamy smile on his lips twisting into a frown.

'Davy?'

He ducks as a fist comes flying, then thinking quickly charges at Davy's gut with his shoulder, tipping him to the ground.

'You ever been in a fair fight?' Gilbert snarls, glowering above him.

'Fair!' Davy spits at him, 'when have you even been fair to me!'

He thinks about scrambling up again, but one look at Gilbert and he decides to stay where he is.

'Go on, put the boot in,' Davy whines, 'kick me when I'm down.'

'I'd rather step in pig manure than touch you,' says Gilbert, coldly.

It has just occurred to him that Davy came running from Green Gables, he must have been waiting for Anne to come home. The thought makes his blood run cold.

'What are you doing here, the Wrights will skin you alive if they catch you?'

Davy sits up and spits into the lilies that line the drive. His hair lays lank and greasy over his eyes, which look red and sore, even in the dim light of a crescent moon. Has he been crying?

'I came to fetch my wife!' he says, and gives Gilbert a piercing glare.

'Ruby's not your wife and you know it.'

'And Anne ain't yours, you hypocrite.'

Davy stands up slowly, as though his bones were made of chalk, hunching into his filthy sweater, reeking of sweat and rum.

'You think I care about your opinion of me – what are you doing here?' Gilbert repeats.

'Green Gables is my home too, you know. I got more right to be here than you. You took everything from me. My home, my best friend, my girl... my daughter –'

Gilbert had meant to keep a cool distance, but at the mention of May he takes a step closer.

'Don't you think about trying to take May again, you're lucky you're not in chains right now.'

The lilies receive another wad of spit. 'You can't stop me, Gilbert. A child needs her father –'

'Like you needed yours?' Gilbert retorts. 'Martin tried to give you everything and you threw it in his face. If you take May, if you hand her over to some shiftless nursemaid while you sail round the world, she'll grow up to hate you, and you know it.'

He takes another step toward him, his voice ragged and low.

'May is deaf, did you know that, that little girl can't hear. That's why I took her to the Glen, I was trying to help her.'

'And I haven't helped people?' Davy splutters, his eyes in narrow slits. 'I rowed out into a storm to save those men when no one else would dare. I risked my life!'

'And you broke everyone's heart. Your father's, your sister's, Ruby's, Anne's. Now you want to hurt May, take her away from the only family she's known so you can – what? Get your own back, like some spoiled child. Be a man, Davy, for the first time in your life think of someone other than yourself!'

'And how am I supposed to do that?' says Davy stubbornly.

'You don't know?' Gilbert shakes his head. Own up to your responsibilities, he wants to shout, show folks they can trust you again.

He doesn't say any of these things because Davy begins to cry. Hot tears of self pity paint clean lines down his grubby face. He rubs at his nose and sniffs.

'I get it, don't worry, I get it,' he croaks, 'you all just want me to leave...'

'Davy, that's not what I said.'

'You made it perfectly clear. I'm not welcome round here anymore.'

Davy stands there stooped and defeated, his infamous smile small and pleading. He is expecting Gilbert to take it back, insist that he stay, promise to smooth things over for him till things calm down again.

Gilbert had been blocking his way, and now he steps aside.

'Go then,' he says simply, 'don't let me get in your way.'

'Sorry, what?' says Davy, beads of sweat appear on his face and his brow crumples in confusion.

'Leave,' says Gilbert, and he opens the gate. 'That's what cowards do.'