Anne always thought she liked to watch him go. Not because she was happy to see him leave, but because she always got the faint feeling that perhaps he would stay longer if he could. Or maybe it was that he wanted her to trail along with him.
Whatever the source of the longing in his eyes was, he would always stop at the end of the drive at Green Gables, look back at her, then head home. No wave, no last call goodbye, just a small, happy smile and a truth that he had yet to mutter aloud to anyone. Even himself.
So focused on the memory of him standing beside her, shoulders brushing and gazes lingering, Anne nearly missed the sound of voices coming from the parlor of her own home. She stopped in the doorway, instincts telling her to restrain the rambunctious girl who always greeted guests.
“You have to know that I don’t agree with them, Marilla!”
Rachel Lynde’s voice echoed across Green Gables like the fire siren it was, and suddenly Anne was glad she had held her tongue. Creeping like a mouse avoiding being caught, she maneuvered herself past the creaky door soundlessly and sat on the stairs.
“I just don’t understand why you think it matters,” Marilla replied. “If no one has heard for certain of his plans, then perhaps all the gossip is over nothing.”
“You and I both know it isn’t over nothing. Sooner or later Gilbert Blythe will propose to Anne and that fact is as true as the good Lord’s Holy Bible.”
Anne felt her entire spirit leap out of her body and settle back into her with a jolting force. She gripped on the edge of the stairs to keep from toppling over, lightheaded and confused. There was no way Gilbert was planning to propose to her. They were friends - equals in intellect, friendly rivals in school, companions who spoke the same language that could break through loneliness. Anne knew Gilbert well enough to know that he did not feel anything remotely romantical toward her, not even a little.
But, oh, how she wished for it sometimes. In the depths of her heart, she wished that the whispers could be true, and that she could hold his heart. It was the disappointment that kept her protected. Even if he thought he loved her, how genuine could it be with a girl so…plain?
“I just thought you should know what the ladies in town say about it,” Rachel concluded.
Something in Anne snapped, and with a fire in her that ignited without warning, she was marching into the parlor where Marilla and Rachel sat wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
“And just what do they say about it?” Anne demanded. Marilla met Rachel’s eyes, but the woman only shrugged off her friend’s warning and spoke in a gentle tone.
“Now listen here, child, I’m only telling you myself because I don’t want you to hear it from anyone else in town when you’re not expecting to,” Mrs Lynde started. Anne fought back the urge to tap her foot impatiently. “The ladies in town say that if you were to marry Gilbert Blythe, it would ruin his career as a doctor. If he’s to be the medical professional around here, he’ll need someone…sturdier, more level headed.”
Ruin his - what?
“Oh, don’t look like that, Anne,” Marilla comforted. “You know how cruel the Avonlea ladies are. Don’t put any stock in the things they say.”
But the Avonlea ladies made up the society that Gilbert would reign doctor over. If they spoke something as truth, perhaps they knew best of it, then.
“It doesn’t matter. Gilbert isn’t going to propose to me,” she heard herself saying. “I think I’m going to go upstairs to read a little.”
The book was open on her lap, but Anne only stared blankly down at the words.
It ached enough to know that she was too plain to catch Gilbert’s affection, but for the entire town to know she wasn’t sturdy enough to be his wife, and that she’d ruin his medical career was more than she was prepared to weather through. A stray tear slid down her cheek, dribbling at the edge of her chin before she swiped it away.
Was she really that hopeless of a girl?
“You know, I thought I might find you here. Marilla said you and Mrs. Lynde had a little bit of a spat yesterday.”
Anne looked up to see Gilbert standing before her, blocking the sun from shining in the small patch of earth next to the willow tree where she sat. Just the sight of him was a salve on her aching heart and another tight, twisting pain all at once. Relief and agony twisting her every which way, for once striping away her ability to speak. So instead, she patted the grass beside her. Gilbert sat with the same ease as he always did around her, pushing back a stray hair sticking up from her head as he settled against the tree.
“What’cha got there?” he asked, poking a finger down into Anne’s lap where she was weaving a huge collection of dandelions together into a crown.
“Diana wants me to make her a crown of flowers for her wedding,” Anne explained softly. “I’m practicing on something small first, so that it doesn’t fall apart atop her head when she’s at the altar with Jerry. One less thing for Mrs. Barry to add into her eventual temper outburst, I suppose.”
“I admire Diana for still marrying Jerry even though her parents disapprove,” he said in a strange voice. “She deserves to be the person she wants without judgement from everyone else.”
Anne got the sinking feeling that Gilbert wasn’t just talking about Diana. Maybe Mrs. Lynde had been right. Maybe -
“There’s actually something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about, Anne,” Gilbert continued. He took the crown in her lap and placed it on her auburn hair. His eyes softened the way they sometimes did when he was thinking of something couldn’t see, the same way people look at stars and the sea. He sat on the back of his heels before her, hands slowing moving to hold hers. “I’d just rather you heard it from me than the ladies in town.”
“Gilbert-” Anne’s heart felt like it was clawing its way up her throat. How could she stop him from whatever he was going to say next?
“You’ve done all the talking in this friendship, Anne-girl. Just give me a few minutes to speak my peace before I lose my nerve.” His hands did take hers then, and Anne felt herself tighten her grip against her will. She felt if she let go, she’d widdle into nothingness and float into the wind - away from Gilbert somewhere where he couldn’t find her.
“What is it?” she said meekly. He opened his mouth, then closed it with a furrow in his brows. He tried again, only no sound would come out. Anne thought about what she’d heard Rachel Lynde saying, and fear twinged at her nerves.
Just as she was about to retract her touch from him, he said, “Anne, I care about you.”
“Well I care about you too, Gil, but-”
“Not just like a friend. I mean, I cherish you as a friend, as someone I can confide in and trust with anyone, but it’s more than that. I want- ” His voice cracked a little, and he swallowed. “I want to be with you, and I’ve spent a lot of time pretending that it wasn’t true, but I was just lying to myself and lying to you. I’m done lying, though.”
Anne fortified herself, wishing the tree wasn’t pressed against her back so she might flee.
“I love you, Anne. I can’t remember when it started, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love you.”
Anne felt the whole world crumbling around her. Goodness, she was so happy, though. Why was she so elated to hear those words from his mouth? And if she was so happy, why did it hurt so badly? Then she remembered with a start - she was poison for his future. If they were together like he wanted - like they both wanted - he’d only grow to resent her, to regret they’d ever done it.
But still, she wanted to leap into his arms and bury her face in his neck and accept him with all the feelings that she had contained in her heart for years. She wanted to laugh and cry and yell into the sunset sky about the endless days of pining and craving his attention. She wanted to analyze every meaningful stare he’d ever thrown her way, having burned every single one into her memory, never to be forgotten.
But she didn’t want him to hate her in the future, either. And he would. If she ruined his dream of becoming a successful doctor with her own outlandish ways, if she made it so no one would ever trust him because of her inadequacies, she’d never be able to forgive herself and neither would he.
Anne reached forward, caressing both of his cheeks in her tender hands. She bent his head toward her and pressed her lips to the spot where his dark curls danced along the soft skin of his forehead.
She lingered there for a second and said against his skin where he couldn’t see the pain on her face, “I’m so sorry, Gilbert. But I can’t.”
GIlbert tore away from her, shock evident on his face. Not just shock - the betrayal in his eyes was no different than it would have been if Anne had taken a blade and run him through. The effects of her rejection were immediate. He stood up and back away a few steps, the air between them burning like acid. His eyes were glassy.
“I thought…I was so sure that…” he mumbled out. Anne had to bite the inside of her cheek from yelling at him that he was right all along. That she did care for him the way that he cared for her.
But she couldn’t. And it was too late to change that. Not with things the way they were, not with his future hanging in the balance.
“I’m sorry,” she managed to say through her own lump of tears. She reached for one of his hands, but he jerked back as if he had touched fire.
“You don’t have to apologize.” His voice was rough, nails on a chalkboard to her ears. “I’d better…” He pointed behind him. “I’ll see you around.”
She waited until he was gone, dark hair and strong back lost in the colors of the sunset, before leaning against the tree and weeping out an entire friendship’s worth of tears. Maybe she was terrible for him, after all.
Oh, what had she done?
Gilbert had known many aches in his life. He’d known the startling loss of childhood pets, his first bouts of seasickness traveling the Atlantic, and the slow grief that consumed him when his father was finally laid to rest. There were burns on the ship, headaches from studying, and then this - this heartache that settled like poison in his blood. On his solemn walk home after seeing Anne, Gilbert tilted his head up and felt the suffering bloom in his chest like an open wound, red and burning.
Numb legs carried him closer and closer to home. He found Bash in the side yard, swinging an old axe into logs of wood to prepare for the upcoming winter. Gilbert forced a smile as he walked by, not in the mood to talk about it. To talk at all, really. But Bash knew him better than that.
“Woah woah woah, boy.” Gilbert halted mid step and looked at his partner and friend. Bash’s eyebrows knit together, and he focused on the paleness of Gilbert’s cheeks. “You look like-”
It wasn’t that Gilbert wanted to keep it a secret from Bash. It was that he didn’t think he had the strength to open his mouth and articulate that Anne doesn’t love and she never will. A glassy film blurred his vision, and Gilbert bit the inside of his cheek.
“How about you take a break and let me cut wood for a change?” he offered instead.
“I’m perfectly capable of chopping wood,” Bash said, counteracting Gilbert’s deflection almost as soon as it left his lips. The younger boy rolled his eyes and turned to head toward the house, when Bash called out to him again. “Hey, hold on, Blythe. Why won’t you tell me what’s happened? It can’t be-”
“I told Anne that I’m in love with her,” Gilbert snapped back, feeling the sting of the confession with each word. “I told her what I’ve been dying to tell her for years and she made it clear that she didn’t...That she…”
The annoyance on Bash’s face drained away like dirt off of a window in spring rain, replaced by something that could only be true sympathetic sorrow. The man opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. What could he say to this growing boy who, due to the unfair balance of fate, had lost every person who ever loved him? What could he say to ease the mourning of a broken dream - a dream so beautiful that him and Mary all came to share it with Gilbert over the years. The dream of a beautiful red haired woman with a band of pearls on her finger and fading freckles. A little white house on a harbor somewhere with trees, a brook, a fence, the perfect little rainbow valley for their beloved children. A doctor’s life, happy with the keeper of his heart at his side.
There was nothing to be said. Instead, Bash held out the axe to Gilbert with one hand and placed his other hand on the boy’s shoulder. Then he left, leaving Gilbert alone with an empty yard, an axe, and a pile of logs.
The next hour passed in a blur as Gilbert lifted his father’s old axe over his head, and slammed it down as hard as he could ruthlessly on every piece of wood there was. He didn’t mind that his cheeks felt wet, because he could convince himself that it was just sweat. Sweat that made his eyes and throat burn from swallowing back a sob. He worked and worked and worked until his muscles ached just as much as his constricted heart, and there was nothing left to do but release the cry that he’d been holding in his lungs. It was quieter than he expected, like a whisper of a brokenhearted moan, but it came with two last tears and a final admission to exhaustion.
He tossed the axe aside and let his legs fold beneath him. Landing on his knees with a thud, Gilbert swiped the back of his hand over his cheeks and let the breeze dry the remaining streaks.
In the next days, Gilbert felt more tired than usual. His steps lagged in their usual stride, and his motivation drained from him completely. He didn’t have the energy t0 give thought to the rawness in his throat that developed one morning, or the fact that he wasn’t hungry for Mary’s shepherd's pie, even though it was one of his favorites. He thought he knew quite well what he was suffering.
Even he didn’t have to go to medical school to know the symptoms of heartbreak when he saw it.
“Anne, have you heard anything of Gilbert Blythe recently?” Marilla asked in an odd voice one afternoon, peeling potatoes with a thin knife. Anne sat at the table with her reading, her stomach lurching at the name no one had dared utter to her for the past few weeks.
“No, not very recently. He hasn’t been in school, but Charlie said he’s been helping Bash with the farm since he got so ahead in his studies,” she replied as neutrally as she could. As of yet, no one knew the truth behind why Anne had stopped talking to Gilbert. Many assumed they quarreled, and she almost wished that they had. It would’ve been so much easier to just bring him his books with one of her heartwarming apologies.
Marilla settled at the table across from Anne, who could tell something was wrong when the older woman pulled the book from her hand and set it aside.
“There is no easy way to tell you this,” Marilla began gently. “But Gilbert is very ill. He has been for about a week now. Sebastian came by earlier today to tell me. He thought you should know.” The color drained from Anne’s face and she felt the world chipping away like fragments of a broken vase. “The doctor expects that if he doesn’t improve soon, he hasn’t much longer than a day or two.”
Anne was silent for a few moments and she stared into nothingness, as if Marilla weren’t even there.
“Gilbert is...dying?” she said in a voice that was not hers.
“I’m so sorry, Anne,” Marilla said, reaching out to take the girl’s hand. But Anne snatched her entire self away, jolting up from the table and walking over to the counter. Shaky fingers clutched the edge, as she tried to reign coherence from her thoughts.
“Did you know,” Anne began in a small voice, “that I broke his heart? He handed it to me as humbly and as romantically as ever I wanted it, and I all but thrust it into the dirt and stomped on it. And for what? So that I wouldn’t ruin his future? All these weeks I’ve wondered if maybe he wouldn’t have minded if I ruined his future here, after all. You should’ve seen him, the way the light disappeared from him like I had killed his very soul. Now he’s -”
She couldn’t say it.
But there was something else she could say. Something she should’ve said long ago. Something that wasn’t any less true even with the passage of time and the trials of their separation. She just had to make sure she said it in time.
Anne tore through the woods, a raging fire storm unleashed on the twiggy paths and whistling wind. She knew the way to the Blythe-Lacroix home as well as if there was a map in her soul that would direct her feet. Even if she were dropped in the wilderness, Anne felt in that moment, nothing could stop her from getting to Gilbert. Her knees practically caved from underneath her when the house came into sight.
Bash answered when she knocked. Though complete opposites in all things physical, Anne felt like she was looking a mirror. She and Bash shared matching paleness and baggy eyes. His shoulders were slumped the same way hers were, two pairs of glossy eyes gazing at each other with meaning neither had to utter.
“If it were up to me, I’d let you in,” Bash said finally. “But he doesn’t want to see anyone. He doesn’t want his fever to spread.”
“But it’s different because it’s me,” Anne asserted. “Ask him?...Please? There’s something I really need to talk to him about.”
Bash must have fallen prey to her gray blue eyes, because he opened the door a little wider and gestured for her to follow him. Mary was in the dining room, watching silently as Anne followed Bash up the creaky stairs to Gilbert’s shadowy door.
Standing outside Gilbert’s room, she could feel the same heavy aura she felt the day she’d met his father. It was the uncomfortable weight of a person’s fate standing in the room, getting ready to exit out the door into the cold night. She’d met death enough times throughout her life to recognize when it had entered a house as an uninvited visitor. Leaning stood barely a breath away from the door, listening as hard as she could for the sound of Gilbert’s voice. She needed an indication that he was still alive, but all she got was the unintelligible whispers of two soul brothers.
When Bash finally did come out, she caught a glance at the foot of Gilbert’s bed and the little peaks where his feet would be under the blankets.
“I’m sorry, Anne,” he said very quietly. “He just wants to rest a while.”
So this was how it was to be? The end of their glorious kindredship, torn apart by her own foolishness. Why wouldn’t he even allow her at his side a final time to say goodbye? Their last meeting couldn’t be their final words spoken to each other. She wouldn’t allow it.
Anne turned to the door and rested her fingers high on the wood as if Gilbert was standing on the other side and she could feel him through the barrier.
“Gilbert? Can you hear me?” She could barely manage to raise her voice above a choked utterance. From inside the room, she heard the squeaky of a bedspring, as if Gilbert had turned himself to face away from the door. But she had to speak to him, even if it was selfish of her to stand out here in the hallway and go against his wishes. She wouldn’t let him die thinking that he was unloved by her. Swallowing the stone in her throat, she continued. “I know I’m probably the last person you wanted to see. But I figure, you spent the first day we met trying to get me to speak with you, so I intend to fulfill that wish.”
A wracking cough came from the room, and Anne closed her eyes at the sound. She rested her forehead against the door.
“Gossip is truly a horrible thing, you know. It can bring out the worst of your fears and belittle you into believing even the cruelest of things. Imagine, then, my devastation when Mrs. Lynde told me that a match between you and I would be the ruination of your medical career. That no one would ever take you seriously if I was by your side. I know how much your dreams mean to you, Gilbert. I couldn’t be the one to take them away, no matter how badly I wanted to fill the space by your side.”
Another creak of the bed, this time accompanied by the sound of two feet touching the ground.
“And then the day after, you came to me and told me how much you loved me and I-” Anne’s voice broke, and she let a few tears trail to the corners of her chin. “I had to bite my tongue to keep from singing it right back to you with the happiness of ended misunderstandings. I lied to you that day when I told you that I couldn’t be with you. It is the bitterest of lies I have ever spoken.”
Finally feeling as if she could no longer hold herself upright, she glided to her knees and knelt in front of the door.
“Here is your well deserved truth, Gilbert Blythe. I love you. I have loved you and I will love you. I have read the book of revelation of my own life over and over, and you are there on every page. My sweetest dream and my dearest love.”
Silence fell over the house as Anne waited for a voice to rise from inside the room. Then, there was a sniffle, a subsequent cough, and one last shifting a body laying back down on his bed. Anne did not move, but somehow, she knew that she had made things right,
“Come Anne, you must go back to your own home and rest,” Bash said gently, placing a hand on her shoulder. The girl shook her head.
“I’m waiting right here until I hear that he’s going to be okay.”
If she could not wait by his side and hold his head and wipe the sweat from his forehead, this would have to do. She’d lean against this door and listen to the impossibly quiet sound of his breathing until he came out of it. Bash could not find the strength to argue. He left her there, cheek and shoulder pressed up against the door, and there she stayed, even after Bash brought up one of Mary’s quilts and draped it over the sleeping Anne.
In the morning, the doctor came, jolting Anne awake. She wrapped herself in Mary’s motherly embrace and counted the minutes that the doctor had been attending Anne. The suited man said nothing when he finally exited Gilbert’s room, face just as neutral as it had been when he arrived. He left quietly, Bash trailing behind him.
The tired man looked at his wife and his dear friend, then smiled.
“He got the turn. He’s going to be okay.”
The last phase of Gilbert’s recovery went by, as far as Anne understood, much quicker than usual. He was still on bedrest for most of it, but Bash stopped over often to give the Cuthberts updates. He never spoke of what Anne had said or if he and Gilbert had ever even discussed it.
One day it was - “He finally got up today and walked around for the first time in weeks. Poor lad looked like he was getting his land legs all over again.” The next - “He’s eating and walking even better than the days leading up to his sickness. I wish I’d noticed how weak he was sooner.”
And finally - “The doctor cleared him to move at his leisure. He’s fit to return to school on Monday, but those interested will find him in the valley on Sunday evening.”
Those interested could only mean Anne. She took a sip of her tea to cover the smile that bloomed on her face like a field of wildflowers exploding to life all at once.
Anne wandered through the valley of Hestor Gray’s garden that Sunday evening, enjoying the last of the warm autumn days by keeping her eyes alert for a face she’d had sewn in the thought of her mind for days. Perhaps he hadn’t been feeling well enough to come and see her, after all, she thought when he was nowhere to be found. Maybe worse, he decided that he could not forgive Anne for being so foolish and had forgotten he ever loved her.
But then a tall figure moved in strong strides through the path in the tall grass and Anne spun around to face him completely. Heat surged through, alighting her heart with rapid beats, and giving her a tingling sensation to the tips of her toes.
There he was, looking more handsome in the September sunset than she remembered him ever being. Light shone gold on his dark curls, which were a little longer than he tended to keep it. She wondered if it would be soft to the touch, she wondered if he would let her touch it at all.
But then he got close enough that he count make out the freckles on her face and his intense gaze turned into a cheek splitting grin. Anne gave a shocked laugh of relief, tumbling forward. Gilbert stood still, opening his arms to intercept her when she barrelled into his embrace. Oh, it felt so sweet to be wrapped in the comfort of his warmth. How perfectly alive he was! His fingers grazed down her spine and she shivered.
“You have some nerve, Gilbert Blythe,” she murmured quietly into his neck. “But, oh, I will forgive you a thousand times over for nearly dying if you can forgive me too.”
His hold on her tightened.
“Did you really sit outside my door all night?” he replied, pulling back just enough that he might brush a few loose strands of hair from her eyes. Her cheeks turned rosy and she buried her forehead into his chest. But he took her cheeks in his hands and stroked over the constellations of freckles on her smile “It’s like I told you, Anne, there’s nothing to apologize for, nothing to forgive.”
“Then do you still…?” Anne couldn’t bring herself to say - love me? Gilbert’s smile softened in adorative reverence, and he took a shaky breath.
“Do I still love you? Yes. That is an immutable fact that you will just have to accept, Anne-girl.” It was his turn to look sheepish. “And did you mean all you said that day or did I just dream it in the haze of my fever?”
“I suppose I’ll just have to repeat myself now that you’re able bodied and coherent,” Anne said breathlessly. “I am scandalously in love with you.”
He kissed her then, the way he had always wanted to in the privacy of his own mind. It was perfect, from the way Anne met him halfway, her hands wrapping around his neck for anchor. He could feel her fingernails running through his hair, and he tightened his grip around her waist. They shared electricity with slow, deep kisses that tasted like fruit pies and a faint bitterness of medicine.
If Anne had been bitterly sad in days past, none of it mattered now. Gilbert was alive and she was wrapped in the enduring protection of his arms. Neither cared what the future would hold for them, as long as they had this - a safe embrace, the security of a true love. They’d discuss later the rumors of the Avonlea women - Gilbert intended to show Anne that he didn’t care in the slightest for all their rambling, he wanted her just the way she was - but for now, this was enough.
Anne would remember these kisses on her collarbone and neck with as many sparks as if it were happening for the first time all the days of her life. There would always be this sun shining down on them, a new hope on the morning of their happiness.
For it is said that when the sun goes to sleep, it shall always rise anew in the dawn.