Even the lark

Anne was woken by hot snorts spattering her face. Before she could sit up she found herself tumbling into a dusty, cobwebby corner. She got to her knees, all ready to defend herself, and saw the massive head of a Shire horse eating her bed!

A frown creased her features, which were rumpled already. Going by the light showing through chinks in the clapboards the sun was up, yet the plough horse was still in his stable. Last night all the windows at the Blythe place were dimmed. This morning not a creature stirred. What had happened?

Her mind raced ahead, fuelled on the fear that…

No. She would know. It would be as obvious as her stiff limbs and matted hair. There was some other reason why John Blythe was not mucking out, or unpenning the ducks and geese, or doing one of the thousand other tasks a farmer must complete before breakfast.

But there could be no reason for that! Anne thought, as she pulled the barn door open once more and saw that every window at the Blythes was still shut tight. She tried to remember which window was Gilbert's. It was hard to do without recalling his face – his voice – his hands which had a habit of moving about as he talked…

"Window… window… window…" Anne said aloud, in an effort to stop any memory of him taking root and settling in her head.

He had an attic bedroom, didn't he? Wasn't there a particularly humid summer when he had taken to sleeping in a hammock in their orchard, because the air was so hot and close in his room? He wouldn't be there now. Mrs Blythe would have more sense, and if she didn't the nurse they hired certainly would. Yes, Gilbert would be somewhere on the ground floor. It was always easier to care for a patient when they were close by, and downstairs the atmosphere would be cooled by the broad eaves of the Blythe's famously wide veranda.

The sitting room, that's where he would be! Anne remembered it now, situated at the back of the house. The quilting table was often set up there because it had the best light. A covered porch had been built along the west wall, shading the room from the worst of the afternoon sun. Mrs Blythe grew tomatoes and peppers there, and the smell was fresh and wild…

Anne left the barn door open and marched toward the house, then thought better of it and returned to the barn to unpen the water fowl. They waddled close to her filthy skirts and did their best to trip her up. Her feet were heavy in wet leather boots and squelched with each step. Everything else was strangely silent, even the lark. As if –

No. She would know.

This was love, after all. And she loved Gilbert – had always loved him! She knew that now. She knew that she could no more cast him out of her life without agony than she could have cut off her right hand and cast it from her. Her heart lurched then as she caught sight of her hand. It looked as though she had tried to do just that!

A rusty smear of what could only be blood had dried on the back of her hand. She must have scratched it during that tangle with the branch last night. A water-butt was situated on the north side of the covered porch and Anne went to it and splashed last night's rain all over her face and neck. Her cheek felt hot and tender to the touch. She supposed that was also the work of the storm. Her dress too was festooned with straw, cobwebs, seed-heads and dirt. And here she was hoping to go to Gilbert's bedside.

Foolish, headstrong, impossible girl! Why had she left last night when she might have come this morning in a clean, starched apron and a basket of wholesome eats to tempt the patient? Mrs Blythe would certainly have let her inside; would have taken the basket from Anne's hands and thrown her arms around her.

Gilbert's mother was also known for her lively hands, though these were more likely to cup a child's cheek, or pull a cantankerous so-and-so close to her bosom and give them a heartening squeeze. Affectionate, demonstrative, that was Mrs Blythe. While Mr Blythe had a sense of humour as dry as the prairie winds.

Anne could have used such a wind now; her dress was heavy and damp and she longed to throw it off. She looked for any sign of life and noticed the chicken coop and the long bench where Mrs Blythe did most of her canning, had been overturned. And again, Anne gave into the impulse to set things to rights before she went to the Blythe's front door.

Inside the upturned coop was a quantity of water, and at the bottom, a few blue and brown eggs. Why hadn't anyone come for them, nor hunted out the chickens now rooting about in the vegetable beds? Anne decided she would do it, and give the Blythes more time to begin their day. Why hadn't they begun it when they had a trained nurse? Anne ignored the obvious answer. Such conclusions were a betrayal of her love. And this was a love so relentless and fierce; saturating her like so much rain. It would leak out her eyes if she didn't take care, so she turned all thoughts to the yard. The long bench was beyond her, but the chickens were corralled, the eggs collected and dried with care, the bean poles set into the earth, and the hammock rung out.

The last task proved too much for Anne, whose hands had begun to shake. It wasn't the heavy canvas that defeated her, she had been doing laundry since she was four. It was the silence of that shut-up house. It must be close to seven now. And where were the Blythes? The trembling crept up her arms, down into her chest and burrowed into her belly.

"I would know, I would know," she said to herself, as she marched up to the covered porch.

Standing on an upside-down watering can, she peered through a window dirty with red dust, stray petals and the crumpled shell of an unlucky egg. It was difficult to see to the room beyond. She could make out a long low sofa, a cranberry glass lamp with prism drops, the small upright piano with the story of Gilbert's life in a parade of photographs lined up on top of it, and a cat – a ginger tom – lazily licking itself in the early morning sun.

The Apricat? What was he doing in the sick room?

Where was the nurse to shoo him out, where was the fire burning in the grate, where were the curtains being caught on the breeze fluttering through the open windows? It was all shut up, it was still shut up, though the storm had passed and the air was clear and clean. They couldn't still be hunkering down in the cellar surely?

A new sort of trembling overtook Anne, one that looked very close to rage. Too bad she was an unsightly mess; too bad she might have been more use righting a blown over garden; too bad Gilbert's folks were hardly going to welcome the girl who rejected their dear son's hand. This was unconscionable, keeping him in an airless house for what had surely been hours. Didn't this trained nurse know anything!

Anne sent loud knocks through the front door – too bad if she woke them, they should be awake! She didn't hear the footsteps on the stairs, nor see the handle turn. Her hand froze mid-knock as the grey face of Mrs Blythe peered around the door.

"Oh…" she muttered with a clear disappointment, "I thought it was John with the nurse. We're not at home to visitors, I thought you would have known."

She went to close the door again without so much as a goodbye. Anne stuck her foot in the door.

"Mrs Blythe, what did you mean 'John and the nurse', where are they, why aren't they here?"

Emma Blythe cocked her head, only now did she recognise the girl at her doorstep.

"Anne Shirley, what – what's happened to you, are you well? I'm afraid I can't help – I can't leave Gilbert and I can't invite you in –"

Her voice was raw with exhaustion, she had only just fallen asleep. On another day, Anne would have wrapped her in her arms and held her fast, but not this morning.

"I don't mean to intrude but I have to know, where is the nurse, why isn't she here?"

"Dr Spencer…" said Emma, she screwed her eyes tight, willing away the scratchy, blurred up, tilted sideways world she had been imprisoned in these last three weeks. "We sent for him last night, when Gilbert wasn't responding to – to the aconite. The doctor said to do that, he said to tell him straight away. And then –" she paused, trying to remember the correct sequence of events. "Then a young lad – I think he was Paul – came bashing on our door. There was a storm last night – the storm was last night, wasn't it? – and he found the doctor on the Grafton Road trapped beneath his buggy – the wind had knocked it clean over…"

This speech appeared to take Emma Blythe's last ounce of strength. She leaned her head against the door. Anne took her shoulder gently and guided her to the bench she knew was in the hall.

"So, Gilbert's father drove the nurse to Dr Spencer," Anne concluded.

Emma gave a limp nod. "I thought they'd be back by now – I tried my best, but the aconite's not working and Miss Price didn't tell me what else to do…"

Anne had been kneeling at Mrs Blythe's feet, and stood up now. The rage, the fear, it had gone. Replaced with a rock-solid knowing.

"Where is he, Mrs Blythe, where is Gilbert?"

"You can't – I can't allow it, Anne – I can't… I can't…"

"But I know what to do – I know how to care for your son."

At this announcement, Anne discovered Mrs Blythe had not quite used the last of her strength; that she saved for a deranged sounding chuckle.

"Oh Anne," she murmured wiping her eyes, "my son doesn't care for you anymore."

Anyone else would have bolted out the door. Anne stood there resolute. As if that mattered – of course that didn't matter! Why would she turn up looking like she had been turned inside out, if she had been hoping for... She hadn't been hoping for anything, except to find Gilbert alive.

"You have a washroom upstairs, don't you?" said Anne, as if the last minute had never happened.

Thankfully this response took the form of a half-hearted shrug. Emma slumped back on the worn oak bench, barely registering the light step of the girl flying up the stairs.

A goose waddled in through the open door, her breast feathers stained with red mud. After digging her bill into the shawl that had fallen by the umbrella stand, she squeezed out two white eggs.

Outside Emma saw the gander, set out on the front porch keeping watch.

"John…" she murmured, shaking her head. "Oh John, John, where are you?"