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In Silence

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The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence.-Marianne Moore

 

 

Stars here feel strange, foreign. Shirley knows that they are the very same stars that shine over Ingleside, but somehow here they always seem to be in the wrong place. They don't seem to be so bright, either, although Shirley knows that the latter is only part of his imagination. It is hard to think the stars could keep sparkling so brightly as they do when numberless horrors and atrocities have taken place at their feet. Even the moon looks older and far away, as if she's worn out for the terrible things she is forced to see everyday.

Shirley himself has seen many of those horrors, even if he is so fortunate as to be able to serve his country on a plane instead of in a trench. However, mankind has not yet created a plane capable of flying far enough from Death and so Shirley finds himself surrounded by it. Only today the families of two boys from Toronto will know that their children will never return and Shirley, who can remember all too well their faces and smiles before getting on the plane that would become their coffin, can't help but shiver. Therefore Shirley, known to be a most sensible and collected boy, tries his best not to think of the stars and the bombs and the boys – barely older than school children – that die every day, within every passing second. He does not torture himself wondering if somebody he knows, somebody he loves, will be next, or whether he will share Walter's fate himself; he does not dwell in sinister thoughts of the German winning the war – instead, he thinks of Ingleside.

Ingleside must look beautiful at this time of the year – although he's never found his home anything but beautiful in any other season. Shirley closes his eyes, and he can almost smell Mother Susan's delicious cakes, he can almost hear his mother's silvery laugh and see the twinkle in his father's eyes. They are comfortably resting in their favourite seats, loyally guarded by the imperturbable Gog and Magog, whereas Susan has to be in the kitchen, torn between the preparation of a fantastic meal and her cursing of poor Doc.

Shirley smiles at the vision. However, when he wishes to picture his brothers and sisters, he can't do so in the quiet of Ingleside's living room. Instead he finds himself back at Rainbow Valley, which at nightfall looks truly enchanted, and looks around to see all of them reunited, just like when they were young and carefree, and the cold, heartless war belonged to dusty History books.

Shirley, who has always treasured quiet and peace, sits a little away from them all, which enables to watch them, undisturbed. Right now, Jem is retelling an amusing story from Redmond to Faith, who listens to him intently. Under a tree, a few meters away from them, Nan and Jerry gravely discuss some profound subject or another in whispers. Resting under the "White Lady" is Walter, whose book has slipped from his fingers as he drinks in the beauty of the breathtaking sunset. Di's at his side, sharing confidences in a soft voice. Looking somewhat annoyed at this fact, Rilla sits not far from Shirley but she focuses her attention on Una, who is like always patiently listening to the younger girl's never-ending ranting.

Shirley has always had a soft spot for his baby sister – even though he can't stop himself from calling her 'Spider'- but he'll never cease to amaze at the amount of long words and italics she can use, or at Una's sweet, endearing patience to endure Rilla's often hilarious confessions. Seems like Rilla unconsciously wishes to take revenge on Walter for sharing confidences with Di instead of her by spilling her soul to Una... in a tone loud enough for everyone to hear. Fortunately – or not – for her, nobody is paying any attention to her words, for even Carl is too engrossed in the study of the local insects, to the point he is only opening his mouth to make a comment or another about them... comments that nobody but Shirley listens to, either.

As he hears her melodramatic sighing, Shirley muses on Rilla's evident need of putting every feeling, every thought into words. It seems as if she just couldn't keep anything inside, as if things just burst out of her. He cannot fully get it, perhaps because he is so different. To him, it is much easier to keep his thoughts to himself. Shirley knows all too well that girls about Rilla's age are bound to express everything in italics, so it shows to the world how deeply they are capable of feeling. Probably those italics and sighs are all sincere and heart-felt – surely Rilla's are, because he knows his little sister is incapable of any sort of falsehood – but Shirley wonders if, in order to show true feelings, it is really necessary to make long poetic speeches, with flourished language and numberless sighs.

Perhaps because he's always been of a more quiet nature, but Shirley has never believed that words, not even Shakespeare's, are capable of expressing the depth of truly strong feelings. Somehow, even the most beautiful words sound empty in the face of action, even the most insignificant gesture can convey so much feeling that would make the most ardent piece of poetry pale in comparison. Many people would disagree with Shirley... but he's seen enough proof to be sure of his beliefs.

A while ago, long before nobody spoke of engagement and when the sound of ringing bells was too far away to be heard even by Mrs. Marshall Elliot, Shirley knew Faith and Jem would someday marry.

The clues weren't in the words they exchanged or what they said. True that both Faith and Jem enjoyed having long conversations, but Jem never said anything that he couldn't have told any of his sisters and Faith's words never conveyed more feeling than she could harbour for any other friend. However, there were details, small things, that spoke louder than the most scintillating pronouncements of love never voiced by Romeo or Juliet.

The anemones were a clear sign. It was a worldly known fact in Glen that the first mayflowers of Rainbow Valley would be picked by Jem Blythe, who would give them to Mrs. Blythe. Which almost nobody knew was that Jem always separated at least one flower that would appear on Faith's hat the following day. As a matter of fact, Faith Meredith's hat was the envy of half of Glen's girls as it was always adorned with the most beautiful and fragrant flowers... many of which only Jem Blythe knew where they blossomed.

There were other things as well. Even back when they were mere children, Jem always showed any discovery he made in the forest to Faith first, and if he found anything truly interesting in his searches, he would surely give it to her. Faith treasured all of Jem's presents – including the hideous old skin of a small snake that had made every girl in Glen's school shriek with terror – with the same care and gratitude as if they had been the most charming jewels ever crafted by men.

Jem, who had never been a talkative boy, always managed to come up with the funniest stories when Faith was around, and Shirley had noticed how much his brother's eloquence was improved and how much did he attempt to be amusing when the fair Faith was part of his audience. Shirley had also noticed that Faith's laugh always sounded brighter when it was caused by a joke made by Jem, or that she would not miss a single one of his words for anything in the world. Seeing how his gaze always seemed fixed on her, seeing how her cheeks suffused with red whenever he touched her, how her eyes sparkled like glittering gems when they talked, seeing Jem's dazzled look whenever she was close – Shirley is amazed that nobody figured it out sooner. By the time Faith turned fourteen, to Shirley it was a fact that he would have her as a sister.

But he guesses that most people need other kind of reassurances. The reassurances that only an announcement of their love for the whole world to hear, pretty, poetic words shouted out loud, can give.

Words can be so tricky, so deceiving, though. Often people say things they don't feel at all... and not only when they lie.

Shirley doesn't honestly think that Nan was lying when she claimed that Jerry and she were just close friends and that she could not imagine why anyone would think otherwise, given she considered him as another brother. Her body and eyes, though, often betrayed what her mouth said. Otherwise, it would have been very hard to explain indeed why, if she only thought of Jerry as a brother, she blushed every time she said so, or why she shivered when he gallantly put his coat over her shoulders on a chilly night, or how come her eyes always sought his in every meeting.

Jerry, on the other hand, never bothered to hide his feelings for her. True that he never said a word on the subject, for he didn't want to scare her away when she was so oblivious to her own feelings, but his attitude towards her spoke volumes. He had developed the rare gift of always managing to be as near of her as possible and to nonchalantly touch her at every given opportunity. It was never anything too obvious or improper, always the touch or caress a friend might have given her – but the look in his eyes was unmistakable. His tone, too, did nothing to veil his feelings. No matter whether they were talking about philosophy or the weather – there always was a note of loving caress in Jerry's voice that was impossible to miss. Jerry Meredith had certainly mastered the art of courting a girl without pronouncing one single word of poetry or love.

Even Walter, the poet of the family, the one that could conjure the most enchanting words ever heard and create wonderful spells with them, had to learn to love in silence. Unlike Miss Oliver, Shirley has never read the sonnets written to Rosamund, neither shared confidences with him like Di, but he saw Walter's wistful and dazzled look when Faith's silvery laugh echoed in Rainbow Valley, he saw Walter lovingly caressing the old ribbon she'd given to him so many years ago when she'd singled him out as her champion – and he knew it.

It is said that the better part of Valor is Discretion, and when Shirley saw that Walter not only restrained himself from showing any bitter feelings towards either Jem or Faith, but actually displayed true content at their happiness, he believed it. Only once had Shirley heard his brother speak with something akin regret in his voice, when he'd said to Di with a sigh:

'It is only natural – after all, every princess needs her knight in shinning armor, and doesn't the hero always get the girl?'

There was more resignation than bitterness in his voice, though, and Shirley, who had never really understood the dreamy Walter, thought that he had turned out to be the bravest of them all.

Shirley would have liked to tell him that, especially when people started to speak ill of Walter because he hadn't gone to France yet, but he had never been good with words. Instead, the pacific Shirley Blythe glared menacingly to anyone who dared to call his brother a coward until they shut up, and he always defended Walter when Susan complained about his poetry.

Now that Shirley, in his imagination, looks around Rainbow Valley once more, he realises that, even though Rilla is quite an out-spoken girl and loves being in the spotlight, she doesn't put every feeling into words. Shirley is certain he's never heard her say a word about Kenneth Ford – but her eyes, always her eyes, betray her. Shirley does not know whether he returns her feelings, but he'd better, because Shirley won't let any man harm his 'Spider', even if he's the son of dear Aunt Leslie.

Thinking of Rilla's not-so-secret fancy for Kenneth makes Shirley think of the tender feelings a certain someone harbours in silence for Ingleside's poet. Even as she faithfully pays attention to Rilla's soliloquy, her blue gaze wanders every now and then towards the spot where Walter sits.

Shirley thinks that nobody else has noticed the way Una's eyes linger on the dark, handsome man's profile a little longer than necessary, nobody has noticed her cheeks suffused with pale pink when Walter whispers words of poetry and beauty, nobody has heard her sigh whenever his gaze drifts to Faith. And nobody will, because Una Meredith, like her beloved, is too brave and feels too deeply to stain her love with displays of bitterness or self-pity.

Instead, she waits patiently because, unlike unfortunate Walter, she still has the chance to hope... and even if those hopes are never fulfilled, she will be content with just the gift of his friendship. In the meantime, Una is happy enough with one of Walter's smiles to lighten up her day and, as sweet as a tea rose, she tries to embellish life for all around her in the same way the object of her love embellishes sheets of paper with wonderful verses.

She doesn't do it with pomp and splendour, she does it simply, quietly. Una doesn't possess Faith's beauty, Nan's imagination, Di's intelligence or Rilla's liveliness. She doesn't possess any striking qualities. She just makes everyone's lives easier, so tenderly, so modestly, that nobody notices.

Nobody would never say Una Meredith is special. Shirley, on the other hand, thinks she's extraordinary.

His vision blurs and the fantasy he has constructed drifts away, as once more the soft whimpers of a deeply injured brother-in-arms remind Shirley that the days of sweet Rainbow Valley are long gone, and the enchanted sunset of his memories has turned into the darkest night. The boys and girls that lighten up the Valley with their laughs and games have turned into men and women who no longer have time or strength to play.

Nan's fantasies of becoming a heroine have somehow come to pass now that she works hard at the Red Cross with Di in Kingsport, although her mind must be miles away, in the place where Jerry traded moonlight strolls and soft talks with his beloved for the rougher music of gunfire and the wet, muddy trenches. Jem and Faith are both in Europe, fulfilling their duty, but they are now miles away from each other and miles and eons away from the happy couple of Rainbow Valley. And the only insects Carl has been studying lately are those that dwell in trenches.

All of them have changed, even young Rilla, who the last time he saw her was so grown up and mature he nearly did not recognise her. Where is now their impulsive and self-centred 'Spider', who would laugh and sing from dawn to nightfall? Shirley suspects they might have lost her when she began to put aside her own life to help Mother and Susan with the house, or during a sleep-deprived night taking care of Jims, or perhaps it was in a meeting of the Junior Red Cross where 'Spider' stopped being a girl to become a leader in a time of need. Shirley fears, though, that they might have lost 'Spider' forever the night they found out about Walter's death.

Shirley closes his eyes in pain. The void left by Walter's death still aches too much to be put into empty words. To think that the world has lost such a bright, never faltering light to a mere cold bullet hurts too much.

Walter would have done so much good in the world after the war with his gift to bring beauty out of darkness. After all, hasn't his 'Piper' lit the spark of courage and hope in the hearts of thousands throughout the world? Even Shirley, who was never fond of poetry, has to admit that there was a magic in Walter's writing that managed to bring the light out of the most somber hour.

And now that light is gone, buried "somewhere in France", and the ache is too deep to be described.

Even more terrible than Walter's absence, if such a thing is possible, is the gloom that has descended upon them all. Shirley knows that Nan, Di and Jem must be hurting terribly, but Shirley thinks that the pain at Ingleside is more accute, perhaps because he's seen it first-hand.

Their never faltering mother has succumbed to the darkest depression, all her strength crushed at the devastating news; their father looks many, many years older, as though this war has been going on centuries instead of years; Rilla's laughter rings fake and discordant to his ears, and even Mother Susan looks like a stranger to him.

But the worst part of it all is that the light is gone of Una's eyes, eyes that are still sweet and caring but that no longer shine. Shirley remembers a time when Una's eyes were the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen, not only because of its unique blue shade, as profound as the sea and as clear as a summer sky, but because Una's entire personality manifested in them. Her sweetness, her strength, her courage: all those things that most people couldn't glimpse under her shy manners were reflected in her eyes.

Those things are still there, within the blue – the spark, though, it's missing. And it kills Shirley to see it. Because Una might be able to lie with her smiles, might be able to lie through her teeth, she might deceive them all and make them believe she is fine – but her eyes can't conceal her heart. And her heart is broken.

Shirley thinks that perhaps he is the only one who knows just how amazingly brave Una Meredith is. Una does not dwell in her misery, she does not shed a tear in public. Una goes on with her life, being as sweet and caring as usual, not letting anybody know how much she is grieving.

As she doesn't let anybody know she's grieving, though, makes it impossible for anyone to try to comfort her – and Shirley worries. Because Mother has Dad and Mother Susan to take care of her, and the sympathy of an entire town, Jem's got his battle, the twins have each other and their work at Kingsport, and Rilla has Jims and the Red Cross... but Una is all alone.

Shirley does then the only thing left to do. He decides that he is the one who must take care of Una in her hour of need, and therefore starts spending more and more time at the parsonage.

Shirley doesn't give this much thought. He guesses a part of him is secretly relieved to leave Ingleside every now and then – since the grief clings to the walls like dark drapes, he has started to feel like a stranger in his own home – but most of all, he wants to see if she is all right.

Una is always glad to see him. She doesn't say a word, but Shirley knows it is a relief for her to be with someone in front of whom she doesn't have to pretend. They never say a word on the matter, though. Una just smiles – a true, if somewhat sad, smile - and welcomes him in. Her eyes don't sparkle; however, she seems, at least for a moment, content. Shirley sees this and makes the decision to keep coming.

Una and Shirley never talk much. Instead, every Sunday he escorts her back home after church, both of them enjoying the wind whistling in their ears, and on Saturday's afternoons they take long, silent strolls around Rainbow Valley, or spend hours at a time in front of the parsonage's fireplace, just drinking into the vanishing light of sunset that pours through the window.

They don't speak much when they are together. It isn't necessary. They both know they're grieving Walter's death, each one of them in their own way, and they both offer each other a constant if yet silent source of comfort, better than all the condolences and good-wishes in the world. He knows she worries over Jerry and Carl, both in the trenches, and over Faith and little Bruce, whose happiness depends on Jem's safe return home. She knows he worries over Jem, and Rilla and Nan and Di too. He knows that sometimes she is tired of trying to make things better for everyone in such dark times, when things are getting worse and worse with every passing day. She knows he feels useless at his own home, unable to help his parents or Rilla, and that while he's at Queen's he counts down the days for his eighteenth birthday.

Between them there are no masks, no false pretences: just a warm, steady friendship that helps them both go through their pain.

It is true that when he's at Queen's he's thinking about her more often than not and that his heart might skip a beat when she smiles at him, but Shirley, in spite of being so observant, is still more of a boy than a man and thinks nothing of it.

However, when his last night at Prince Edward Island arrives, he realises that the hardest thing of all – harder than telling his parents of his decision to go, harder than facing Susan, even harder than leaving – is to bid her farewell.

Una is not unaware of the reason of his last visit to the parsonage. She has known for a long time that this day would come and, true to her character, behaves sensibly, without any embarrassing displays of sorrow, whereas Shirley is as collected as always.

However, when he is about to take his leave she looks up at him, her eyes big and round, her lips trembling.

'Take care, Shirley.'

He hears her whispered plea and reads in her eyes another one: Please, come back to me.

Dark eyes sore into blue ones as he takes her delicate, white hands in his and answers to both of her pleas:

'I will.'

And then, without flourished words or ardent promises, he leaves.

Some people might think that Shirley hasn't said enough.

He, on the other hand, is afraid he has said too much.

There are silent depths in the ocean which storms that lash the surface into fury never reach.-Orison Swett Marden