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The Secret of Distance

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Sebastian had known from Gilbert’s first mentionings of college that he was going to miss the skinny boy he called brother, but it had always seemed so far away. Now Gilbert’s room had been empty for an entire week. Leaning against the doorframe peering into the room, Bash noticed noticed how Gil’s bed-frame and desk were already beginning to collect dust. Delly sat on his hip, sucking her thumb in comfort, her hair growing out so much like her mother’s that Bash’s heart clenched to touch it.

Bash hated change, as most people do when they have to leave behind the things they love most. But standing in Gilbert’s room, Bash couldn’t help but feel homesick for a time when Mary was alive, Delly was strapped to her back, Gilbert was only a few acres away at school, due to return home in the golden hour. Where had his family gone?  

So many miles lost in his own thoughts, he didn’t hear the front door squeak open.

“Sebastian, you’ve got letters from Gilbert!” Hazel’s voice echoed from downstairs.

Bash jolted, wrapping another arm around Delly as he hurried down the stairs and slid through the hallway toward the kitchen. Hazel was ready to receive the baby, handing him two cream letters once his hands were free with a smirk and a shake of her head. Her eyes stuck on Bash as he greedily read Gilbert’s scratch on the back of the envelope. 

“Bash - open this one first.”

“Well, what it say?” Hazel asked impatiently. 

“Give me a chance to read it and I’ll tell you!” Bash retorted. As his eyes skimmed over the slanted words, he relayed bits and pieces to his mother. “It says he’s settled into his new house, living with some fella Ron. Nervous about school and…”  Bash’s jaw dropped. 

“And?” 

“And he’s courting Anne,” Bash continued, a grin sneaking into his voice. “He stopped to see her before she left.” 

Hazel spun around from the stove, startled enough to let her ladle drip onto the floor. She considered the news, before a steady look of satisfaction graced her features.

“Finally that boy got his head on straight. I thought he’d always drag it around with him on a leash with the way things were going.” 

“You’re telling me,” Bash mumbled, continuing to read. “PS: Please take the other letter to the Cuthberts. I wanted to tell them in person, but with the timing, I wasn’t able to. Would you be my ambassador?” 

 He flipped the second envelope in his fingers and noticed the difference in address.

Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert
Attn: Sebastian Lecroix

“I’ve got to run to Green Gables. I’ll be back in time to help set the table for dinner,” Bash told his mother. He was halfway out the door when he froze and turned around. “Actually, do you mind if we have guests over for dinner? I want to celebrate.” 

*

He must have caught a glimpse of her through the thin autumn curtains, because the very second Anne lifted her hand to manse’s knocker, the entryway door swung open. Anne jumped back an inch, expecting to find the friendly, yet solemn face of Rollings, but instead found Cole. He wore a chestnut colored suit, but his sunny hair matched the elated smile on his cheeks, making his spirit recognizable even dressed in his resplendent clothes. Any of the neighbors peeking out their window would’ve seen the young man sweep Anne into his arms and lift her up off of her feet. 

“There’s my queen of Queens!” he said, voice straining through his laughter he held her up. Slipping out of his arms, Anne’s toes found the ground as she straightened this collar.

“I meant to come sooner, but I’ve been in so many meetings with professors and attending so many of the Freshman welcome events that I’ve barely had any time to myself. But I’m not just here to catch up. I’m here on business, as well,” Anne explained. She pulled a drawstring satchel from her purse and held it out before him. “Tell me, are these sufficient funds for a portrait commission?” 

Cole didn’t look inside the bag yet, fixing her with an expression of amusement and confusion. “A portrait of you?” 

“Yes,” Anne stated matter-of-factly, though she failed at hiding her budding excitement. 

“Anne, I have plenty of portraits of you in my portfolio. Why don’t you just take one of those?” 

Her new curls bounced as she shook her head. 

“I mean a real portrait. It’s going to be a gift, and since a photograph is beyond my allowance, I thought I’d offer you all that I could for the next best thing. Besides, a hand drawn portrait by you is better than any photograph I’ve ever seen. I merely stopped by to give my offer and payment, and see what time would be agreeable for you.” 

Cole considered this, vaguely wondering if the smell of violets was coming from the flowerbed or from Anne’s perfume. 

“I don’t like accepting your money. I know how hard you work to earn it,” he said honestly. Anne reached forward, moving his hands to cover the sack of coins, then pushed it toward him. 

“It’s payment for a service you’d be doing me. You’re a professional artist now, Cole. You deserve to be compensated as such, especially by friends,” she insisted. “Besides, I want you to accept the money now so  I can finally tell you what it’s for.” 

Biting his lip, Cole finally nodded. He grabbed her hand and tugged her into the house, sitting her down in the parlor. He was darting up the stairs to grab his supplies when he skidded to a stop. From the hallway, Anne heard Cole’s voice echo, “You’ve got time right now, don’t you?” 

“Yep! I have all afternoon free!” 

He reappeared moments later, large pads of paper in one hand and a leather case in the other. It was only when he began to situate himself directly before her that Anne realized he’d strategically placed her in a beam of bright sunlight. In the corner of her eyes, her hair looked like gilded thread, shining gold and warm. When she turned her gaze back to the artist, she found he had laid out his sketching pencils beside him, as well as the opened his wide assortment of paint pigments within reach. 

“Jo is out for the afternoon, but if you can, you must stay for dinner. If she discovers you were here without seeing her, she’ll never let you hear the end of it,” Cole explained, flipping open to a fresh new piece of paper. Then, with a keen energy of excitement and a pretense of professionalism, he straightened his shoulders. “Now, what did you have in mind for this portrait, Miss Shirley-Cuthbert?” 

Anne opened her mouth to answer, but pressed her lips together with a knowing smile. 

“Well,” she drawled finally, “As I mentioned, I’ll be giving this as a gift. I’d like to send it already framed to my new suitor. He requested something for his bedside table.” 

Cole slammed his pencil on his lap, nearly breaking the tip. The expression of delighted shock on his face nearly had Anne roaring with laughter, but she knew she had not yet delivered the best part. 

“Anne Shirley Cuthbert. You attend college for all of one week and you’ve already got a suitor! Finally, the young gentlemen of Prince Edward Island are realizing what a gem exists amongst their midst!” Cole praised. Then, his face became more masked, but his voice dropped to the floor, low with hesitance. “Does this mean that you...no longer care for Gilbert?” 

For a split second, Anne remembered the last thing she’d told Cole about Gilbert - about how she expected him to marry, and how she’d forever love him across an ocean of distance. She could remember with visceral perfectness the way she’d ached to let him go. Thus, it was with resounding joy that Anne allowed a cheek splitting grin to overcome her face as she spoke. 

“It’s for Gilbert.” 

Cole blinked. “It’s for Gilbert,” he repeated blankly. Then, nearly knocking over his things, he cried, “It’s for Gibert!?” 

This time, Anne did laugh, covering her blush with her hands. 

“Oh, Cole, I could burst just thinking about it! It’s a story right out of a fairy tale book.”  

The feather-haired blonde pointed the sharp edge of his pencil at Anne. 

“I told you so! Years ago!” he bragged. Anne nodded through her laughter, struggling to maintain a poised portrait pose. “Alright, I want to hear everything. Sit just like that. You talk, I’ll draw.”

*

Bash had no idea what the letters. All he knew was that the one in Marilla’s hand was the one he hand delivered from Gilbert, likely making her aware of his intentions, and the other one was from Anne, likely of a similar content. The Cuthberts read their respective letters with such severity that Bash feared for a moment Marilla would crumple up the correspondence and toss it in the oven. He fidgeted in his seat, scolding himself when he thought to himself, Wonder if I’ll read so slow when I get that old. 

Matthew was the first to finish, placing down the letter with tender fingers in front of Marilla. The woman in question hurried over the last lines of hers, then scanned over the entire paper once more, before handing it to Matthew. Bash bit back a groan. Couldn’t they just get to the celebrating? 

His patience broke sooner than he thought it would, and he leaned across the table as if to ask for a secret. 

“What’s it say, Marilla?” 

Marilla peered at Bash over the rim of her glasses and forced her smile from growing too noticeable. Beside her, Matthew blushed as he set down Gilbert’s letter and fisted his hands on the table to give his shaking fingers something to do. Taking a short inhale, Marilla began to read. 

Dearest Matthew and Marilla,

The view from my window reminds me ever so much of my own gable room. I find small hints of Avonlea everywhere I go - from the people I share my house with, to the billowing wildflowers in my neighbor’s gardens. Charlottetown people aren’t as rude as I had once surmised, and I expect that I will find a bouquet of kindred spirits as queens. You remain my most beloved kindred spirits, always. 

I’m afraid I’m short on time this afternoon - the Freshettes have an orientation to attend within the hour.  A lengthier letter will follow this one once I have settled into my classes, fully denoting every delicious thing happening here. The purpose of this quick note, then, is to give you a delighted warning at something that I suspect will be arriving at Green Gables within the next few days. 

That is to say, if Gilbert Blythe writes to you both speaking of intentions and courting, please don’t be alarmed. I have given him my own ecstatic, wholehearted consent, but it would be so very like Gilbert to want to honor you both as well. I don’t know for sure, as he and I didn’t have very much time to detangle all of our many misunderstandings last we saw each other, but if on the off chance he chooses not to write, let me be the first to tell you: Gilbert and I are going to start courting. Oh, the last time something felt so beautifully perfect was when I came to live at Green Gables and when Mrs. Barry said Diana and I could be friends after all! Truly, my feet haven’t touched the ground! 

I hope all is well for you both. I miss you abundantly. Charlottetown will never truly be home, not when there’s a Green Gables and a White Way of Delight beckoning me. I give you both

All my love, 

Anne

(PS: Please tell the Lacroix’s I miss them. Bash looked so forlorn the last I saw him.) 

As silence fell back over the room, Bash remembered the last time he’d seen Anne. She’d been peering up with such a hopeful smile and a handful of Avonlea blossoms, but he hadn’t really thought much of it until after peace had settled over his household. By then, Gilbert was gone, and it occurred to him he never got a proper goodbye with Avonlea’s Anne with an E. 

“Well, she was right about him sending a letter,” Matthew concluded in a strange voice.

“I hope that boy gave you a good explanation for all his foolishness these last months,” Bash said finally.

“I do believe he has made a more than adequate case for himself, though you’re welcome to have a look for yourself,” Marilla replied. Bash lifted his brows as if to ask Are you sure? Marilla gave a stiff nod, but smiled, sliding Gilbert’s letter across the table for him to read. 

Dear Mr. and Miss Cuthbert, 

I’m sure that I am the last person you expected a letter from, especially after all the gossip about me that has made its rounds through Avonlea. However, the matter I wish to write to you about is of such importance that it could not wait until my next visit home. It’s times like these I wish I had Anne’s elegant command of language. Instead, all I can do is tell you that I adore your daughter and humbly request your blessing to begin courting her. 

Your immediate feelings must be some variation of confusion because of the public knowledge that I intended to marry a young woman in Charlottetown. The sole reason I had been contemplating this decision was because Miss Rose’s presence in my life would have granted me the opportunity to fulfill an academic dream of mine. It all seemed so providential that I assumed Miss Rose’s presence in my life was supposed to be providential as well.  This assumption was not only incorrect, but it also led to the pain of many people I care about. 

Still, I have been so relieved every day that I read my Book of Revelations when I did. All my confusion has been cleared away, it is so apparent to me that I was a complete fool to pretend I could ever move on from how much I care about Anne. I’ve decided I don’t want my life to be successful because of the people around me. I want those people to be part of my success and the blessings of life - blessings that I intend to earn all on my own merit. 

I tell you all these things so that you don’t assume Anne is my second choice. I hope you understand me when I tell you that Anne has always been and always will be my first, and only, choice. From the day I met her, I admired her intelligence, her passion, and the loveliness of her spirit. My dream isn’t just to be become a successful doctor - what good is that if can’t honor the people I love most? And I truly do love Anne, as well as your family. That is why I ended my courtship with Winifred. It would be unfair to lead on her heart when mine was so undeniably and permanently tied to someone else. 

It’s unlike me to lay my heart on my sleeve, but it’s because I believe this matter is important that I do. I anxiously await your response (In full disclosure, I am fully prepared to travel sixteen hours home to convince you in person if this letter isn’t enough.) 

It’s my genuine hope that you all are faring well. Enjoy the warm harvest weather! 

With Sincerity, 

Gilbert Blythe

When he was done, Bash folded the letter back up and pushed it to the middle of the table. His chest swelled with pride for his brother, who had finally grown into the man he’d been rushing to be all these months. Now, the lad had done it on his own volition and on his own merit. 

“Well, what’s it to be?” Bash asked carefully. Matthew and Marilla exchanged a look that only a pair of siblings would be able to decipher before the older woman took up her own pencil and a sheet of paper. For a moment, Bash worried that she would say, “ Sorry Bash, but he isn’t good enough for our Anne.” But then she sent a smile of genuine satisfaction across the table and he heaved a sigh of relief. 

“If you give me just a moment, I’d like to write to Gilbert to tell him that he’s had our blessing long before Anne burst into our kitchen to say she was in love with him. Would you mail it for us once I’m finished?” 

“I’d be delighted to,” Bash replied warmly. He paused before adding, “Everyone knew except him, didn’t they?” 

“Seems so,” Matthew said bashfully. “She said it so loud, even the horses knew.” 

*

The perk of living with a philosophy major was that the house was almost always quiet. Silence suited the Sunset House - they’d begun to call it that without realizing it - and Gilbert couldn’t help but sometimes feel like he was sitting at his own desk back home. When he listened to the birdsong just outside his window or looked up at the printed skeleton models hanging above his desk, he could almost forget he was a thousand miles away from home. He shared the apartment’s study with Ron, but the man worked so soundlessly that the only sound Gilbert could ever make out was the gears turning in the man’s head.

School, as it turned out, was more tiring and more fulfilling than he could have prepared himself for. Two weeks into his classes, he’d collected an odd array of friends - mostly people Ron knew, which explained their peculiar nature. Yet, none of them were, as Anne would say, kindred spirits. Ron was either growing on him or he was merely becoming more accustomed to his nosy roommate’s antics. 

But when the day was over and Gilbert needed to share the intimacies of his heart with someone who belonged in his life, he’d add another page to his weekly letter to Anne and tell her everything that was on his mind. It paled in comparison to having her in person. 

On days like these when he was exhausted and homesick, he imagined what it would be like to rest his head on Anne’s chest while she held him and stroked his hair. Knowing she’d probably let him only made being away from PEI worse, but the quiet daydreams had a way of keeping him grounded. 

He was gazing out his window, picturing Anne dancing in ambered firelight, when Ron called up the stairs, “Gil? You’ve got mail.”

The legs of his chair screeched against the old wood floors and Gilbert pushed himself away from his desk and raced down the stairs. He found Ron shuffling through the various letters, peering with interest at a paper-wrapped parcel tied to one of the letters. 

“Let’s see. One from Sebastian Lacroix, one from the Cuthberts, and…” Ron wiggled his eyebrows and waved the package. “One from the ever-lovely, ever-red headed Anne Shirley-Cuthbert. My, you are popular!” 

“Give me those,” Gilbert chided, snatching away his mail and pulling it to his chest. For a second, he contemplated running back upstairs and locking his door behind him where Ron wouldn’t be able to follow, but the man would probably just pester him wherever he tried to hide. Shooting Ron a warning look, he sat down on the parlor couch and heaved a deep sigh. Where should he start? 

“The one from her parents is probably the most pressing,” he said aloud.

His fingers hovered over the flap of the envelope, trembling with hesitation. What if they said no? If he had a daughter and some schmuck like him came calling after her, he’d send the poor lad running. 

“Jesus Christ, Gilbert, just open the damn thing,” Ron cried, snapping Gilbert out of his thoughts. Tearing open the flap, Gilbert gently pulled the letter from inside. 

Dear Gilbert, 

Matthew and I have been anticipating this development for quite some time. Rest assured that you have proven yourself to be a most admirable young man. We all must learn the hard lessons of life at some time or another. I imagine you will discover more about the matters of the heart as you grow older - Matthew and I are still learning with Anne in our family - but it’s the best type of learning a person can undergo. Thank you for your transparency and your honesty. Anne has expressed to us that she has already given you her consent, and therefore, you have our blessing to court her. Though it does sadden us a little bit to see our young girl mature into a woman, we could not keep her from the desires of her heart. I hope you know we could not have asked for a better young man for Anne. Both Matthew and I wish you all the best in your studies. You make Avonlea proud.

Sincerely, 

Marilla Cuthbert

Gilbert’s relief must have been tangible because Ron whistled as he blew a cooling breath over his coffee. 

“Did you expect them to send you to the witch’s stake or something?” Ron asked. 

“For everything I’ve put Anne through? Yes. Absolutely,” Gilbert said, stunned. 

Unable to wait any longer, Gilbert took Anne’s parcel in his hands and smiled at the familiarity of her handwriting. There were two letters attached, one with a note on the envelope that said, “I wrote this before I received your letter. Open the present last.”  He was unsure whether that boded well for the contents inside, but decided to take the risk and finally read the letter he’d been waiting for all week. As his eyes skimmed the text, he fell back onto the couch and held the letter above his head. 

“What’s it say?” Ron queried.

Shhh !” Gilbert shot, pulling the letter closer to his face. He read and read and read. When he was finished with the first letter, he found he had a lovesick grin plastered across his face and a glimmering light in his eyes. With a voice as gentle as wind, Gilbert breathed, “She says she loves me.”

“I thought you knew that already,” Ron replied. 

“Not for sure. When I asked her if she did, she kissed me. I was fairly convinced then, but to have the words written out is much more certain,” Gilbert explained, already opening the second letter. He could barely bring himself to care that he sounded like an absolute romantic fool in front of his roommate. Anne loved him! 

My dearest Gil, 

It’s finally autumn! She’s officially arrived with her cold air and hints of dusky colors on the leaves. It makes me wonder if all those miles away, you’re seeing any hints of autumn as well. I was so pleased to hear that you’re doing well and settling in to your new home. I can just picture your apartment on North Sunset street! Tell me, is your home made of bricks the same color as the PEI roads? Does your window overlook anything spectacular? In truth, my window has a lovely view over Charlottetown, but I find myself preferring to reread your letter than look out over the city. 

Do you truly love me, Gilbert? Oh, I know you do, but I think I’d like to see you say it over and over and over - that is, if it isn’t too much trouble. It’s just so breathtakingly wonderful to see it written in your handwriting. You have my full permission to be bold and assume that I love you to equal measure. So much so, that I’m tempted to write you of little else. Perhaps one day I shall tell you how I adore you, in every way my imagination can conjure. For now, I will answer your questions. 

You asked me when I began to have feelings for you. In truth, I pondered this myself because once I realized what the feelings were, I couldn’t remember a time when they weren’t there. I trace them farther and farther back, and there I am, looking upon a very dashing young man asking me if there are any dragons in need of slaying. It seemed at times, I wasn’t only jealous and spiteful of your kindness and intelligence, but I seemed to desire it too.  Perhaps that accounts for my lengthy bout of confusion. Once we became friends, every day I grew closer to realizing that my admiration was equal parts attraction. 

As for when I realized that I cared for you. It was after dance practice that I realized I wanted to be the object of your warm gazes and soft touches for the rest of eternity. But it was after that night at the ruins that I realized I loved you. I didn’t want to be the one thing holding you back. Love was what prepared me to let you go, and be grateful that you’d be happy, even if it meant without me. I am a thousand times more grateful that we intend to be happy together, not apart.

As for the letter you wrote me, I am utterly ashamed to admit that I tore it to pieces before reading it. I hadn’t really allowed myself to be angry and hurt until that moment, but as soon as my anger expressed itself, it was gone. I tried to piece together the torn fragments, but came up with a message in which you said you didn’t love me and intended to marry Winifred. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away though. They’re in an envelope in my bureau at Green Gables. Do you think you could piece them together for me during Christmas break? 

Phew! With all that out in the open, I can tell you that I am doing wonderfully here at Queens! I do occasionally get homesick, especially for you, but I do love my curriculum and the people in my classes. In my free time, when I’m not writing you or my family, I plan to write some short stories for publication. Hopefully, I can earn enough to come visit you soon. Would Ron mind? 

My hand is cramping, so I will conclude here for tonight. Think of me in the golden hours of the morning and afternoon, and I won’t be terribly far away at all. 

Unabashedly yours, 

Anne 

(PS: I tried out that new nickname. How did you like it?) 

(PPS: I’ve included something for you, per your request. Is it vain to say that Cole did a magnificent job?) 

Gilbert did not waste time, pulling parcel from his lap and tearing off the brown paper. Immediately the breath was knocked from his chest as he gazed upon a small painted portrait of Anne, signed at the bottom by Cole Mackenzie. She was depicted with her face angled toward the sun, with a rose blush on her cheeks and cherry color to her lips. Cole had paid amazing detail to her freckles, capturing them in each perfect location. She’d worn her hair and dress exactly as she had the last time he’d seen her, freezing that moment in the timeless artistic existence. Her smile was as he remembered it, so realistic that he could vividly hear her laughter as if she were in the room. 

He must’ve been staring at the portrait for so long that Ron rose from his chair and peered over Gilbert’s shoulder. 

“You weren’t kidding about the red hair,” he commented. Gilbert glanced up, before returning his gaze to the picture. “Not too far off from the color of carrots.”

Gilbert snorted, an affectionate smile turning his face to sunlight. “Don’t let her hear you say that.”