"There was a concert in the hall one night, with a party at Abner Sloane's after it... Gilbert drove them to the hall. How like old times it was! Only Katherine was with her in place of Diana." Anne of Windy Willows: the second year
This story takes place in the winter preceding my story, The Uninvited Guest, where Anne and Gilbert attend the bonfire mentioned in that story and they both get a little hot under the collar...
with love and gratitude to L.M. Montgomery ~ everything is hers, only this idea is mine.
"Gilbert," Anne murmured, leaning close to his ear, "do you suppose Katherine will survive all those Gillis'? I think I may have agreed too quickly when they begged if she might go with them. What a squash it will be for her, while our own sleigh is half empty."
She glanced guiltily over her coat collar to the empty seat behind them, but she needn't have worried. To anyone not of the realm of Anne and Gilbert, it was plain there was no space for a third passenger. Tonight, the abundance of furtive caresses and secret glances the two gave each other, would have made even the most hard-nosed passenger wait for a less crowded ride. Anne did not dispel this notion now, as she nuzzled into Gilbert's shoulder.
Gilbert found he had even less to regret. The feel of Anne's hair that peeped from her cap and brushed against his cheek, warmed him as a fire, and he wished their speckled mare would not march them quite so quickly to their destination. But he also knew Anne would be thinking of Katherine, her very Anne-ish addition to the Christmas holiday.
When Anne wrote of her intention to invite her colleague to stay Gilbert was frank about his misgivings. What he had read about Miss Brook in previous letters frustrated as much as intrigued him. But the person he met in the Cuthbert's cheery parlour was not the poisonous schoolmarm he expected, and he hourly witnessed her icy exterior chip and flake away. Of course, Anne ascribed Katherine's transformation to the magic of Green Gables, but Gilbert knew – as all came to know of his wonderful girl – the true magic lay within Anne.
He leaned in closer; that the world around them was muffled in great drifts of snow was no reason for him not to make very sure his words should be well heard, and he brushed his lips over her cheek.
"I wouldn't worry, oh Anne-est of Annes. I'm sure Arty Gillis will take very good care of your friend."
Anne nudged him with enough vigour to ensure he felt it through his thick winter coverings.
"Gilbert Blythe, you'd make a terrible match-maker! Arty Gillis is an engaged man."
"He is not. I happen to know that went cold weeks ago."
"What, again? Poor old Arty –" Anne sighed.
"Poor old Arty? He seemed in fine spirits when he helped Katherine Brooke into their sleigh... tucking all those rugs around her." Gilbert knew exactly the look that would be on Anne's face.
"If his heart is broken it's scarcely common knowledge. I have spent part of every day with Rachel Lynde herself, and she has never mentioned it. So how is it you come to know such a secret piece of news?" she asked.
"That was not earned cheaply, I assure you. Arty's great-aunt, old Mrs Penhallow, told me all about it after she had me take a look at her crooked toes." A shiver not entirely caused by the freezing weather went through him.
"Oh dear, not even qualified and already half of Avonlea are quietly mentioning their aches and pains to you. Although..." Anne laughed again, "being a doctor will bring some benefits. I expect you shall be a great source for gossip when we are married."
Gilbert released the rein from one hand and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. "When we are married," he murmured, "I hope I shall be the source of so much more than that."
Gilbert's words fell like a snowy mantle upon them, silencing them as soundly as their surrounds. Neither spoke as neither could explain why their thoughts both turned now – with the same inevitability as their sleigh falling into the tracks of the one preceding them – to the visit they made two days ago to Mrs Wright's bedside, where they were introduced to her velvet haired daughter.
As exquisite as it was to gaze upon her little name-sake, Anne had a peculiar feeling that she and Gilbert were being gazed at themselves. How thankful they had been for Katherine's presence; her shushes and coos quietening the words written clearly on the faces of Diana and Fred: One day this will be you.
Anne stared out to the darkness beyond the light from their sleigh, and went to her own House of Dreams. To think such a home was here somewhere, nestled in a cosy corner on the Island. That within those walls she would learn what it was to be a wife to Gilbert, and know how it felt to have him for her husband. This same little house might be blessed with darling little babies of all their own making. Anne shivered lightly and Gilbert pulled her closer to him, the sleigh spilling over with everything that can be said between lovers without a word being spoken.
Too soon he was brushing his warm lips over her hair and removing his arm from her shoulder to take full hold of the reins once more. Ahead of them in the beam of their lanterns another sled appeared, slowing its speed as it approached Abner Sloane's homestead. Behind them the jingles of bells and another party's chatter could just be heard. But for the present, the two inside this sleigh remained in a curious, intimate silence until the lights of the Sloane's house lit upon their faces.
"Thank you, but no," said Anne, breathlessly, "I might go for some air." She looked over her shoulder to the front door where Gilbert was standing, waiting.
Rob Wright, was also standing and waiting. His hand was pressed into Anne's, and she felt the slightest tug toward the floor where the next dance was about to begin.
"Going for some air! There'll be precious little air being got – not unless Blythe's going to blow some your way. Come on, Anne, what do you say? Dougal Barry says they'll play a jig next. You will be wanting some air after that, and then I will escort you myself."
"That's thoughtful of you, Robert –"
"Rob. But Gilbert is waiting for me –"
"And he can keep waiting."
"But I cannot. Robert." Anne withdrew her hand and gave a little shrug before turning toward the door.
"Going for some air... Putting on airs, I should say." Rob Wright was rather pleased with this, and went back into the throng to find someone to repeat it to.
Gilbert helped Anne with her coat. It was unpleasant to pile on more clothing. The soft woollen fabric and jaunty little cap felt tight and itchy, but outside the air was sweet and clear as melting ice, and Anne drank it in just as deeply. Others were congregating on the Sloane's porch, while the two continued quickly past; Gilbert tucking Anne's hand around his arm and leading her down the salt strewn steps .
A wide path had been dug through to the gate where it lead to a field of black tilled earth, the snow piped thick and white along it. In its midst was a massive shape, blackish-grey, snarled and torn. It was the fallen trunk of an ancient oak pulled up from the storm they'd had just after Christmas. The tree had such a girth, Abner Sloane had once despaired of ever digging it up. Now it lay like a gift from Providence itself, the hardest work being done, and needed nothing more than it's lifting and loading to the mill. Three large sections sat already cut and ready for the wagon. But the great oak's base, with its shock of roots spanning out like branches in their own right, could not be tamed by the saw, and lay cracked, dry, and ripe for a fire.
Like moths to that flame were half a dozen big-sized boys and a couple of girls besides, talking idly of turning this web of wood into a bonfire. At first they spoke as if the words themselves might ignite the tree. Now the talk was of who was going to risk Abner Sloane's temper, not to say their own parents, and do the deed. Gilbert and Anne listened in for a moment; all who were not Sloanes insisting Sloanes should be made to do it, and Sloanes being Sloanes, quite unable to. Anne thanked the stars above that Davy was not here.
"Pity Davy wasn't here," said Gilbert, "that stump would be charcoal by now."
Anne shot him a pert look. "Pity for you it's 1888 not 1878. Those boys remind me of you and Fred and Charlie and Cliff!"
"And those two girls?"
"Should be wearing their hats," Anne answered swiftly.
"You sound like a school-mistress," Gilbert teased, and plucked her cap from her head, holding it aloft and darting away from her. They ducked and dived around the grounds for some minutes, until panting and pink cheeked they stopped and stood before each other. Breathing in the little clouds the other had made, the hat quite forgot.
A peel of laughter erupted from Anne.
"What's so funny?" Gilbert asked.
"I don't really know why I'm laughing. It was something Rob Wright said to me. I just thought of it now."
"You didn't seem to find him funny when you were talking to him."
"So you noticed."
"Yes. I noticed. Oh Anne – " he turned from her, a look of disbelief on his face, "I notice something else too."
Anne smelt it before her head was turned. The oak stump was on fire!
In the years to come the people of Avonlea would describe this occasion with great affection as the 'Night of the Bonfire.' Other details would be argued over: was it a New Year's or a Christmas party? Didn't Abner Sloane's nephew announce his engagement? No, to be sure it was Mr and Mrs Peter's thirtieth anniversary! Such arguments were chewed over for years to come, but no one would argue that the bonfire was a wonder not likely to be seen in Avonlea again.
This, of course, was much later. Expressions of wonder were the least of it when the fire whet its appetite on the gnarled and dried up tendrils at the base of the tree, and began to devour the solid trunk with a white hot roar. Anne and Gilbert's first thoughts were on the whereabouts of the children who had invoked the beast. On seeing their old school teachers they hastened over white faced, where heads and names were accounted for, while parents waded anxiously through the snow to find their mislaid children.
No one was marched back home, however. The blaze had them all in thrall. Cracks and sparks held everyone at bay, and noting the respectful distance they kept, the fire resolved to reform itself. The hissing and spitting became a merry sizzle and the flames like golden light. Gradually the entire party moved itself to the field and Anne and Gilbert found themselves amongst the very crowds they'd escaped from. Katherine, however, was a welcome sight, her amber eyes like little fires as she beheld the spectacle.
"I must go in, I promised Mr Boulter the next dance. But Anne, I feel almost entranced, as though the fire was communicating with me. Does that sound strange?"
"Yes, I'd say the first part of your words were very strange. I am confident Daniel Boulter can stand the wait, if he even needs to – isn't the man who plays the piano over there?" Anne said, gesturing to Em White's uncle. "But the latter part of what you say sounds very sensible to my ears. I believe that fire is talking to you. I imagine it thinks your eyes must make you some sort of kin!"
"Then it must be talking to you, too!" Katherine countered, looking directly at Anne's uncovered head; the flames of the fire made her hair almost writhe with colour.
"My cap!" Anne's hands flew up to where it should have been, then her eyes to the man who once had it in his keeping.
"It must be just beyond the gate. Anne, I won't be long."
Gilbert collided with another couple in his haste to retrieve it, and awkwardly manoeuvred around them, as they strutted through the crowd to get directly by the fire.
"Still got Gilbert Blythe at your beck and call, I see." Josie Pye said with a half-smile.
"He lost my hat," was Anne's response.
"Oh, you weren't wearing any hat, Anne! How can we admire you hair otherwise?" She turned to Katherine to explain her remark. "Anne always says she hates the colour of her hair, but I wonder if it wasn't some little trick to draw people's attention to it." This comment brought such a look to Katherine's face, Josie had to amend her words rather promptly. "But, of course why shouldn't she? I've even heard red hair is fashionable now." She turned to Anne again. "Speaking of fashion, if you were wanting us all to admire you, Anne, then I should tell you I was admiring your blue coat when we were at the Hall earlier. I had one very like it – about five years ago."
"Identical, I'd say," said the man next to her. "Didn't you go home and change from a coat just like that one?"
Anne shared a smirk with Katherine, then held out her hand to him. "We haven't been introduced, I think."
"This is Ronald Clay," Josie announced, as though introductions could hardly be necessary. "Ronald, this is Miss Shirley. A school teacher."
"Anne Shirley!" he said. "You won the Avery. Emily Clay is a cousin of mine."
The name brought back memories of old Queen's days. Ronald certainly had some of the Clay looks, being overly tall and ruddy faced, with shiny pale blue eyes.
"I've often wondered what became of Miss Clay!" Anne said. "This is Katherine Brook, Mr Clay, she was a Queen's girl too."
"Pleased to meet you, Miss Brook." His hand engulfed Katherine's, as it had Anne's. "Emily is in Ottawa now, she's a secretary for a rail magnate."
"That sounds exciting –" Katherine began.
"Ronald is in banking," Josie piped in.
"Well, yes. I'm a teller in Charlottetown."
"Ronald's family felt it would be best for him to start his career from the ground up, get a real understanding of the banking business," Josie added.
"Oh," Anne said, with a wink, "I take it you are from one of those venerable Charlottetown families with all those secret handshakes and inscrutable Old Country traditions." He certainly didn't look it, his coat seemed rather thin, and his scarf though exquisitely knitted was an unfortunate shade of brown. Though Anne knew first hand from Summerside, that these old families could be rather eccentric.
"Well, now, no. Not at all. We're from a little place just out of Kingsport actually. My folks came here to try their hand at potatoes."
"Old Country indeed!" Josie huffed. "Anne Shirley! Rubbing shoulders with all those Pringles has certainly rubbed off on you. I'd have thought you'd be the first to call for new blood in this old rock. I remember you being quite the sensation at one time. Of course, you've got yourself attached to the Blythes now. I do hope they come to accept you, Anne dear. They can be awfully clannish, those old families."
"Yes, I suppose that's true," Anne said. "Some families will never give an outsider a chance. They make their mind up not to like a person and their minds will not be unmade. But I'm sure that won't be your experience, Mr Clay."
Josie simmered through Anne's reply. Somehow she had managed to make her beau an ally of Anne's! Wasn't it enough she had Gilbert Blythe on a little leash, now she wanted Ronny too! No wonder Diana Wright was always so busy – busy keeping Fred from Anne Shirley's path.
" – certainly hope not," Ronald was saying.
"I would hardly characterise Ronald as an outsider the way you were –" Josie stopped short as Gilbert joined their circle.
"Katherine, I'm glad you're still here," he said, "Daniel Boulter was asking after you. If you're free you might join him and Sophia on the porch." Katherine excused herself with pinkening cheeks, before Gilbert turned to Josie. "Now Josie, what were you saying, it couldn't have been about Anne?" He slipped in behind his girl and placed his arms about her waist. "You're Island to the core, aren't you, Anne-girl?" he said, brushing his cheek against her flaming hair. Anne felt as though she had the face to match it, the heat from the fire seemed to radiate all through her. "How are you, Clay? I haven't seen you since that fundraiser for the hospital. What have you been up to?" Gilbert continued.
"Well, let's see..." Ronald began.
"He's getting me a drink, aren't you Ronny?" Josie gave him the smallest push in the direction of the porch where refreshments had been set up. "And not that ghastly mulled wine either. All those cloves remind me of toothache!"
"I shall get something for you too, Anne."
Gilbert released her and walked swiftly in Ronald's direction before Anne could answer. The air around her felt like a furnace and she started to feel uncomfortably warm. She began to unbutton her coat and was reaching for her cap before remembering Gilbert hadn't returned it.
"Gilbert's still got my hat," Anne muttered, and wriggled out of the crowd before Josie could say another word.
Gilbert was waiting where the crowd had thinned, his hazel eyes twinkling.
"Couldn't get away fast enough, could you?" Anne gave him a grim little smile.
"The last place I wanted to find myself at midnight was next to Josie Pye! Besides, you made a speedy escape yourself."
"I was simply after my hat."
Gilbert gave it to her, but she didn't put it on – as Josie would have noted to her satisfaction. The two made their way back through the garden, its path through the snow considerably wider since they walked along it earlier this evening. They saw Katherine perched upon the porch railing with three or four others gathered round her, laughing and talking cheerfully. Gilbert looked down at Anne and gave her arm a little squeeze, knowing how happy such a scene must make her. He went to the small trestle table for two mugs of mulled wine, while Anne went to her friend.
"Anne!" Katherine said, "I hope you didn't mind my leaving you by the fire, I was afraid I might disgrace you and say something unpleasant."
"I can't imagine it would have been anything I wasn't thinking myself," Anne grimaced.
"I see now how you survived all my barbs for so long, having cut your teeth on that cat!" Katherine's cheeks reddened prettily, to the appreciation of one or two in her circle.
The difference, Anne reflected, was that Katherine had needed her love. Josie never wanted anything from Anne – except her swift departure back to Nova Scotia!
Gilbert approached, his hands brimming with fragrant brews. "Katherine, will you have one?" he offered.
"I can get you one if you'd like?" said Tommy Sloane boldly.
Daniel Boulter had the look of one who wished he'd thought of such a thing.
The mulled wine was deliciously quaffable. The aromas and tastes infused within Anne, building its own merry blaze. She tucked her cap into the deep pocket of her coat. She wouldn't be needing that for a while, and Katherine, it seemed had no great need of her either. Gilbert on the other hand was staring at Anne intently, with eyes that said Shall we?
Quietly, secretly they melted away.
He pulled her along, faster and faster, his fingers slipping in and out of her hand as they ran down to the field. The heat hit them almost before the light; the bonfire like a golden sun, encircled by people drifting round it like little moons. He led her toward the crowd, then led her out again, weaving her between bodies and twirling her around. Anne felt dazzled and daunted with every pull of her wrist. There she was, halted in front of Mrs Harmon Andrews and before she could even bid apology for treading on the latter's voluminous skirts, was wrenched along behind the generous sized person of Mr Andrew Bell, where Gilbert stole a sharp little kiss. Anne could scarcely respond before they were off again.
Presently they found themselves breathless and bright-eyed on the far side of the bonfire where the other courting couples had drifted. Gilbert pressed in behind Anne again, he touched his cheek against hers and she felt his hot breath tickle her eyelashes. His hands slid their way to her waist again and down into her coat pockets. She felt his fingers pressing against the silken lining of her coat and drawing circles through her skirts. Little fires burst throughout her body.
"I'm sorry to interrupt your hands," Anne murmured into his neck, "but I'm going to have to remove my coat. The fire is stifling."
"I'm sorry too." Though he was hardly surprised, as she pulled away he could still feel her heat upon his body. "Shall we go and see what else this ol' tree can do?"
They walked along the west boundary where the remaining logs from the giant tree were lined up to be driven away. Here the light of the fire competed with the stars above, and the only warmth to be had came from each other. The cold air was sweet in their mouths and they breathed deeply as if to slake a violent thirst. At the last log they stopped. Gilbert removed his coat and lay it across a deep indentation where the trunk had begun to burst into branches. Then his hands were at Anne's waist again and he lifted her the short distance to her seat. Anne did not alight as gracefully as she might have wished, and lurched awkwardly into the cleft between the branches' stumps.
"Let's try that again, shall we?" Gilbert said, helping her down. He slipped her coat from her shoulders, then rolled and pressed it into her seat. When he went to lift Anne a second time his hands missed her waist and slid up to her armpits. He could feel the unmistakable swell of her breasts. The jolt that went through him caused him to lift her higher than he intended. He yanked his hands away as if she had burned him and she landed with a plop.
"Are you warm enough?" Gilbert asked for want of something to say.
Anne had the feeling she soon would not be, yet nodded that she was.
"And you?" she thought to ask him after a moment.
He was not – and thought how glad he would be to warm himself upon her now.
From across the field faint strains of Auld Lang Syne could be heard. The year was new once more. Gilbert took a step closer to Anne, she sat at equal height to him, and placed a chaste kiss upon her brow.
"Happy..." he murmured and kissed her nose, "new..."
Gilbert paused again, his lips parted slowly and he began teasing the corners of Anne's mouth and tugging at her bottom lip. The sensation was maddening, yet slowly Anne pulled away, her eyes hot and hard as she dared him to move even closer. Gilbert took that step, his thighs butting against her knees, and felt the merest touch of her mouth brushing his cheek.
"Happy..." she whispered, and moved to his other cheek, "new..." the word more breath than sound.
She stopped by his mouth, and her lips and knees began to widen. He slowly slid between her thighs, his lips quivering against hers. So close now, pressing into each other with a shy fervour. Closer, closer, closer... He felt the softness of her thighs, she felt the firmness of his hips; their eyes burning into each other, open, searching, asking...
It was Gilbert who laughed this time.
"What – what is it Gilbert?"
"I don't know. I suppose I'm just happy."
"I mean I don't know why I'm laughing. It's just we're here and I love you and I spend so much of my time not being here and loving you and it makes me happy."
"Exactly how happy are you?"
"Anne, don't you feel how happy I am?"
Anne certainly felt something; though his hard, lean body – the way it fit and felt against her – gave her a feeling more akin to bliss. So this was happiness! Could she ever utter the word again without blushing?
"Do you feel how happy I am?" she asked, quietly.
She felt hot and supple, open and yet... unknowable. Gilbert inched himself away, the cool air between them electrifying them both. He grasped her hands, their fingers intertwining tightly.
"I know a nice way to find out."
He kissed her now and all the passion she had felt in his body was pressed into this kiss. She had the inexplicable desire to entwine their legs as they did their hands. How could it be that as one part of her was kissed, another part longed for kisses too? He seemed to magnify rather than satisfy her desire, and she couldn't keep her body from shivering.
When their lips finally parted their brows met, and their eyes continued the kiss for another long while. Gilbert seemed to see into her and it was frightening and wonderful.
"You can't hide it any longer, Anne..."
Unconsciously she drew her knees a little closer, a prickle of embarrassment – or was it just the night air – made her shiver once again.
"...you are freezing."
"Well, your nose is red!"
"Your lips are blue!"
"Then they'll match my coat."
"I'm not so sure, let me get it for you and we'll see."
Gilbert helped her down once more. Anne was brought back to earth, and it was frozen beneath her feet.
They made their way back to the bonfire and saw the parents and children and lovers were gone. Only those big-sized children remained, teasing sparks and cracks from the charred remains, then jumping back with squeals as if this well-tamed fire might come for them after all.
On the porch two or three others had retrieved potatoes from the cellar to set among the embers for a feast at dawn. Ronald Clay was proclaiming the perfections of one of Abner Sloane's King Edwards to Josie, who listened with rapt attention as though he held a diamond in his hands. Katherine had a basket at her hip and was waiting while Victor Bell chased some fallen potatoes that were rolling around her feet. She and Anne shared a look that said neither wanted to go. Gilbert's face, if they had seen it in that instant, showed he didn't dare stay. He was thinking, he was forcing himself think, upon the work he would do with his father and uncle in the next two days, before he must make his way back to Kingsport. He would not see Anne again until perhaps the spring. Until then all he would have of her were the letters she wrote and the memories they made; and the ache this gave him, and the longing...
He ached for her now, missing the feel of her lips murmuring against his ear on the ride home. She had been tucked up behind him – with as much attention as any Arty Gillis might give – with Katherine, and the two were chatting dozily under the covers.
The porch at Green Gables burned brightly, and Katherine made a brief goodbye to Gilbert before she disappeared indoors. Anne stood on the threshold of the sleigh, not quite willing to touch down. Her shining grey eyes seemed to look straight into him, and he wished she might stay there and become a part of himself.
She leaned forward and kissed him softly.
"Year," she said.
"Year?" he answered back. A fresh little breeze swirled round the two and whispered across their faces.
"We never wished each other the year, Gilbert. Our happy new year..."
He was remembering now, and knew he would recall the feel of her pressed tightly about him every single day of it.
"And all our happy new years to come," Anne continued. "Years..." she kissed him, "years..." then another, "years..." and her lips were upon his once more.
"Years," he whispered, "years and years and years and years and years..."