Gilbert Blythe is not a fellow given to his temper. He never has been; his father used to say their milk cow could trod on Gilbert’s foot and would only get a mild swat on the rump in response.
Be that as it may, he finds himself with shaking hands and red creeping in the edges of his vision as he grapples with the intense desire to punch one Moody Spurgeon right on the mouth.
Beneath the residual fear and lingering worry, he knows that is an extremely unfair reaction; it is hardly Moody’s fault he has the grace of a newborn foal. But for heaven’s sake, does the boy ever pay attention to his surroundings?
Their class is on yet another wildlife excursion through the Avonlea woods. At this particular point they are in a clearing, having been instructed by Miss Stacy to find specimens of certain leaves and flora. Moody, having thought he spotted an unusual species on the other side of a clump of bushes, moved a branch of bramble out of his way.
Unbeknownst to him, Anne had been close behind, and so when he released the thorny limb it lashed backwards – right into Anne’s face.
Her pained yelp is still ringing in Gilbert’s ears; he is thanking every angel in heaven that Anne instinctively threw her hand up to protect her eyes. Several broad, long thorns embedded themselves in her palm and fingers, but the damage done to her face was much less severe. Three sizable scratches on her cheekbone, and one thorn at the corner of her bottom lip.
Miss Stacy ushers everyone a little ways down the path, to give Gilbert room to work. His job here is two-fold: get the bleeding to stop, and determine if stitches are necessary.
First, though, he must get his patient to sit still.
He sits back on his heels and glares. “Anne, if you don’t quit squirming, so help me – “
“I’m fine,” Anne protests, even as she holds her hand away from her dress to avoid getting blood everywhere. She is perched on a fallen log, with Gilbert kneeling before her. It puts them almost at eye level, but for now all that means is that he can see the three deep scratches on her cheek all the clearer.
“You most certainly are not fine, you’re lucky it didn’t hit you in the eye,” Gilbert snaps. “And the sooner you stop fighting me, the sooner I’ll be done.”
She huffs, but extends her hand so that he can cradle it in his own. Diana returns, having been sent with a clean handkerchief to the nearby brook. Miss Stacy is not far behind her.
“Anything you need, Gilbert?”
He frowns down at the briars in Anne’s hand. His own fingers are just big enough that he would probably cause her more pain getting them out that way.
“I need something to get these out of her hand,” he says, half to himself. “Something small and precise enough that the thorns won’t be pushed further in before I get a grip on them.”
Miss Stacy rummages in her bag. “Will these do? They are part of the wildlife kit I brought along; originally I believe their purpose is for examining insects or plants.”
Brightening, Gilbert takes the forceps. “Perfect. Thank you.”
He moves to sit beside Anne on the log, and holds her hand on his knee. He gives her an apologetic glance.
“This is going to hurt, Anne. I’m sorry. I’ll be quick.”
Anne, having evidently resigned herself to her fate, merely nods graciously and fixes her eyes on the trees.
The first thorn pulls free with little fuss. He feels his mouth tighten at the corners when he notices that the thorn has a slight curve to it, along with tiny, fine jagged edges. Anne doesn’t even flinch.
There are five total, not counting the one on her lip, and by the time he gets the fifth one out Anne’s arm is as tense as iron. Gilbert wraps her hand in the damp handkerchief, swiping his thumb across her knuckles under the guise of tying the makeshift bandage securely. He can feel Anne looking at him, no doubt confused by the gesture.
Hand seen to, he resumes his kneeling position before her and raises one eyebrow.
Anne sighs again, and leans forward so he can reach her face.
Gilbert resolutely does not let himself be distracted by her freckles, or the wisps of fire-bright hair that have come free of her braids. He frowns at her marred cheek; Diana has gone to and returned from the stream with more clean handkerchiefs salvaged from the other girls. One is used to wipe the dried blood away. He is careful to keep his fingers off her skin, only touching her with the damp cloth.
The scratches themselves are not as deep as he first thought, and have in fact stopped bleeding already. Satisfied, Gilbert turns to his last item of business at playing doctor.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to get that big mean thorn out of her lip. He’s certain it hurts something dreadful. But there will be no way to remove it without being closer to Anne than he has been in months – in fact, not since she stood with him on a cold spring morning and let him cry the unfairness and sense of failure over Mary’s illness into the shoulder of her blue coat.
He pushes those thoughts away. Memories of how solid and real she felt in his arms, how she had smelled of flowers and fresh baked bread – of both adventure and home, all at once – how soft her cheek had felt pressed to his own….
Those memories didn’t surface until much later, after the funeral and the darkest clouds of sorrow had passed. But by then Anne had gone defensive over needing an escort to Charlottetown and then Gilbert sought to soothe his wounded pride with boring chit chat in tea rooms, and then they had that stupid dance practice and then Anne would hardly look at him at the fair and then Anne sent Billy Andrews running with his tail between his legs with her stupendous, inspired article (Gilbert still has a copy), and then Winnie informed Gilbert over their next tea as soon as he’d told her the story that he had no business courting her when he was going to talk about Anne like that.
And then, and then, and then. That’s all that ever seems to happen, even in the months since that afternoon Winnie left him alone in the tea shop.
Gilbert swallows, hard; he can feel the rest of the class staring at them and knows Anne will probably be humiliated by what he’s about to do. But it can’t be helped.
“Just be still, Anne,” he says softly. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Her storm-cloud eyes snap to his, surprised. “I know that, Gil.”
He puts the nickname down under topics to be discussed at a later time, and takes courage from the trust he can see in her expression. Carefully, he brings one hand up to cup her face.
One of his fingers is on the underside of her jaw; if Gilbert were any braver, he would believe it when he thinks he feels her pulse quicken. But he isn’t, and so he chalks it up to nerves and pain, and kicks himself to get a move on. Anne would probably like that thorn out of her lip sometime today.
The forceps make quick work of it, though it’s a more sensitive area than her hands and she can’t help a wince as it pulls free. He grimaces in sympathy and hands her another dampened handkerchief to staunch the bleeding.
“Easy,” he says, still softly. “Let me see.”
She obliges, and he lets one thumb carefully brush just beneath the wound. He feels her breath hitch, just a bit, over his bare hand. His eyes meet hers by law of nature, but before he can get lost in them, Miss Stacy appears at his shoulder.
“Well done, Gilbert.” She smiles kindly down at Anne. “Anne, I’m so sorry this happened. The day is nearly over, so let’s head back to the schoolhouse and I’ll dismiss everyone early.”
Wordlessly, Anne nods and pushes to her feet. Gilbert follows, feeling more than little light-headed. Anne slips away quickly, murmuring her own thanks and tucking her good hand into Diana’s arm as they trek back towards civilization.
“I’m really sorry, Anne.” Moody, good hearted lad that he is, is quick to offer Anne his assistance over the uneven ground. And Anne, in her typical kind manner, smiles and reassures him that it was an accident and no harm is done, all while taking his hand to cross over muddy puddles.
Once again Gilbert has to squash an unfair bolt of irritation. It was an accident, after all, and Moody clearly feels bad that Anne was hurt. But Gilbert has a fairly good idea of what would happen if he were to offer Anne his help; he suspects Anne is only humoring Moody so the boy doesn’t feel guilty.
It is a sad day indeed, when Gilbert is envious of Moody Spurgeon.
He sighs, and follows his classmates and Miss Stacy out of the woods as he tries not to think about how much further away Anne feels, now that he’s had her so close and within his reach.