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Christmas at Ingleside

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The winter of 1920 was decidedly more cheerful than those that had come before, but no less busy. Susan Baker was, if her own words can be believed, “nearly run clear off my feet, Mrs. Dr. dear, and that’s the truth,” though she glowed with satisfaction as she said it. Anne Blythe smiled quietly and continued to shell peas with a deftness that belied her much-lamented new growth of gray hair at the temples.

Susan’s emphatic declaration was overstated, but not wildly so. After all, everyone was going to be home for Christmas for the first time in five years, and the Merediths were all coming for Christmas dinner as well, and the Fords, and there were baby things to knit for Mrs. Miller Douglas and for Mrs. Joe Milgrave, and everyone’s favorite treats to make now that the prime minister had finally ceased interfering with Susan’s pantry. She smiled fondly as she set the best china on the table and gave the silverware one last quick polish. There would be nothing here for Cousin Sophia to find fault with, try though she might! Ingleside would be full to bursting in a few short hours, and Susan’s heart was glad to see it so filled with life and happiness again, especially now that little Jims was gone—and Rilla, too.

For Rilla was married now—Mrs. Kenneth Ford, as of September 4th—and she and Kenneth had set up their household in Toronto, much to the dismay of all the Blythes. Kenneth was hard at work making a name for himself, but had been able to take the holiday off and bring Rilla back to Glen St. Mary for Christmas.


 

Gilbert had taken the car to meet Rilla and Kenneth at the station. It was odd, he thought, to see his youngest, the girl who had once been so flighty, married and running her own household. But she and Kenneth looked right together—his face seemed to have softened into something like his boyish self again, and he was more recognizable now than when he’d arrived unannounced on that evening in April. His scar had faded somewhat into his returning tan, and if Gilbert did not miss his guess, Rilla had been putting her baking lessons to good use, for Kenneth seemed to have filled out again. Marriage seemed to suit Rilla as well—she had regained some of her youthful buoyancy, and her laughter sprang forth gaily, if not quite as readily as it had when she was younger.

Rilla was full of tales of their honeymoon in America, but Kenneth seemed quite content to bask in her presence in a way that reminded Gilbert of his days courting Anne. Kenneth only roused from his attitude of admiring silence when Rilla launched into a detailed account of Kenneth’s work successes.

“That’s nothing compared to what we all did in the war,” he said. “But you should have seen my Rilla here manage those cantankerous old busybodies at the church. Mother’s been after them to organize a benefit for years, and nothing ever happened, but Rilla had the thing planned and carried off in two months.”

Their gaze of mutual admiration and pride was both heartwarming and disconcerting, for no parent lets go without a pang, especially of a youngest child. His youngest daughter, the first to leave the nest! But Gilbert was glad to suffer these particular pangs in silence, for Kenneth was a sensible lad and Rilla had turned out to be quite a sensible young woman herself.


 

A few hours later, there was a Blythe-Meredith-Ford-Oliver reunion of spectacular proportions at the train station, as everyone had arrived within such a short span of time there had been no point in making multiple trips. Gilbert had manfully forborne to point out the ultimate futility of his driving Rilla and Kenneth to the house at 11:00 only to drive them back at 1:30 to greet everyone, for he knew that such remonstrations would have been soundly defeated by his wife, who was currently exclaiming loudly over the joy of having everyone under one roof again.

“Anne, my dear, they are not actually under the roof just yet.”

“Oh Gilbert,” she said, laughing, “how tiresomely right you are. And I’m sure poor Susan is fretting like anything at home, but she wouldn’t hear of leaving the roast with Cousin Sophia. Well, come along, everyone, we’ve got a car and two buggies here with varying amounts of space. Everybody pile in and we’ll sort out the bags later!”

With all persons and bags more-or-less-safely stowed, the odd, noisy cavalcade set off for Ingleside, and nothing was lost along the way, though Nan’s scarf very nearly escaped the buggy (but was rescued, with a flourish, by Jerry).


Susan greeted them all fondly, but Shirley received a special greeting, for she still had not recovered from his going off to college so soon after returning from the war. He bore her effusive greetings stoically, but no amount of stoicism could have erased the look of joy on Susan’s face when, in a rare show of affection, he stooped to kiss her cheek and wish her a merry Christmas. Her enthusiasm was barely diminished even when he made a bee-line for the fudge (his favorite) and she had to stop him from devouring it all before supper.  

Cousin Sophia looked on disapprovingly, twisting her pale, wrinkled hands in her lap as the young’uns laughed (Rilla), shouted (Faith), cut impromptu capers with Dog Monday (Jem and Jerry), scared the girls with a humongous beetle (Carl), and otherwise made Ingleside louder than it had been in years. Susan took great joy in burdening the table with enough food to feed all of Glen St. Mary, and Gertrude Oliver (soon to be Grant) quickly jumped in to help, while Cousin Sophia tutted about how too much food “wasn’t good for the digestion,” and “isn’t pore Jem looking awful peaky lately?”

“Sophia Crawford,” said Susan, in her sternest tone, “it is Christmas, everyone is home from the war, and the Canadian government has seen fit to grant me the use of butter, sugar, and flour again. The children may have as much food as they can eat, bless them. We’ve had enough of skimping for a lifetime, and there’ll not be any more of it in this household as long as I draw breath—that you may tie to.”

Cousin Sophia subsided (not without a muttered “delicate constitution, mark my words”), and Kenneth, who had been carving the roast during Susan’s speech, twinkled madly at Rilla as they stifled their laughter.


 

The seating became a solemn affair when everyone realized that the empty chair had been set out, as promised, for Walter, whose poem had become an international symbol of the horror of war and the nobility of the fight. But for all those gathered at Ingleside, he was missed as a son, a friend, or a brother. Mr. Meredith gave a fine speech in memory of the fallen and then a brief prayer of thanks and joy for all those who had returned and for the season of peace. All bowed their heads in a minute of silent remembrance.

Dinner started off quietly after that sobering beginning, but soon Nan had managed to liven things up with a few stories of a hapless student, and then Di had outdone her with stories of an even more outrageously unlucky pupil, and then Jem chimed in with an anecdote about a classmate from medical school, and the conversation was off again.

After supper, everyone was either in raptures over Susan’s desserts or in agony from having consumed too many (or both at once). Jem made everyone laugh when he seized the plate of monkey faces off the table, placed it on his lap, and growled at all who approached, but Faith, who knew how much supper he had already eaten, swiped one from him with an impudent grin, and he relaxed his scowl to match.


 

Jem found Shirley out in the maple grove that night, staring into the distance as the smoke curled from a cigarette in his hand.

“You too?” he asked, nodding to the cigarette. “I saw a bunch of chaps in my unit take up smoking just for something to do in the trenches, but I didn’t know it was the same with the air force.”

Shirley just nodded.

Jem didn’t mind. Shirley had always been laconic, and war tended to make a man more quiet, not less.

Jem shifted his feet slightly in the snow, trying to ease the ache in his leg. The cold aggravated his old injury, but he sensed that Shirley had something important to say.

Their breath puffed into the air and swirled away. Puff. Swirl. Puff. Swirl. Jem had learned to wait in much worse conditions than these. He could be patient.

A few minutes later, Shirley finally spoke.

“I understand now,” he said, “why Walter was scared to sign up. I didn’t understand until I got to see a battlefield, but now I know. He was the only one of us who had any idea what he was signing up for, and he still went.”

Jem swallowed roughly and nodded. “He knew exactly what he was signing up for, Shir. He could see it. He was the bravest of all of us.”

He pulled out a small flask, took a swig, and offered it to Shirley. “To Walter,” he said.

“To Walter,” Shirley echoed, and he drank.

They stood side by side for many minutes more, until the moon had risen high above the maple grove, and they did not speak.


 

In the morning, after an obscenely huge breakfast (“Are you trying to make up for all the rationing in 24 hours?” Gilbert had asked Susan in bemusement), Nan finally managed to find a moment to herself.

She walked to Rainbow Valley slowly, determined to savor the bittersweetness of every recollection on that storied walk, but when she arrived, she found that, cold as it was, the valley was not deserted.

Una Meredith was standing near the icy brook, clutching a well-creased letter, with silent tears running down her pale face.

Her head jerked up when she heard the crunch of snow under Nan’s boots. “Oh!” she said, wiping at her cheeks. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone would be here today.”

 “I was just reminiscing,” said Nan. “Is everything all right?”

Una sniffled, seemed to hesitate a moment, and handed over the letter.

Nan recognized the handwriting immediately, but she let out a sharp gasp when she realized when the letter had been written. “Walter’s last letter!”

Una nodded miserably.

Nan frowned. “But it’s addressed to Rilla.”

Una stared at Nan wordlessly, her dark blue eyes asking for understanding, and Nan finally made the connection.

“And that’s why you’re taking the course in Household Science.”

Una nodded again and collapsed into Nan’s arms, sobbing.

“You poor dear!” Nan’s tender heart was breaking for poor Una, who had born up so well all summer and fall, but had finally collapsed under the weight of her secret sorrow. “You needn’t bear this alone, you know. I won’t tell anyone, but I think you could tell your family, at least. ‘Shared grief is half the sorrow’ and all that.”

Una sniffled a quiet acknowledgment against Nan’s shoulder.

They stayed until Una had cried herself out—Nan shed a few tears herself—and another few minutes for the girls to compose themselves (and make use of Nan’s handkerchief, which she had miraculously remembered to bring with her).

As they approached the house, they met Jerry coming down the walk to meet them. “There you are!” he greeted merrily, but he quickly sobered as he saw the signs of recent tears on their faces. “What’s wrong?” he asked, and Nan bit her tongue to keep the words from escaping.

“Let her tell you in her own time,” she said, and she saw Una’s face relax.

Jerry looked between the two of them for a moment, uncharacteristically serious, and gave a brief, sharp nod. “In her own time it is, then. But for now…” he trailed off and spread his arms dramatically as he walked backward around the corner of the house.

The girls followed, confused, only to be greeted with facefuls of snow.

“Snowball fight!” Jerry and the others yelled gleefully, pelting them with stockpiled snowballs as Dog Monday barked his support.

Nan joined in with vigor, and soon even Una had shed her mournful mood, though the shadow of their missing companion touched all of the snow-fight’s participants.

They trooped inside together an hour later, pink-cheeked and breathless with laughter and absolutely dripping with melted snow.

Ingleside was full of love and life at Christmas again, and for every year after that.