It was lucky, he supposed, that he and Anne had mended their friendship after their first trip to Charlottetown together. Otherwise he would surely have no idea where to go; on the other hand, he realized upon turning into the drive of the stately mansion that he probably could have asked anybody where Miss Josephine Barry lived and they would have pointed him in the right direction.
He knew the Barry’s came from money, but this…
Gilbert shook himself a little, recalling himself to the matter at hand. Bash turning up bloody and bruised to Dr. Ward’s office certainly put a wrench in the whole day; Gilbert hoped he wasn’t cutting Anne’s excursion too short.
The doorknocker was an elaborate gold-plated affair that felt heavy in his hand. It echoed loudly within the house, and he took a moment to wipe his sweaty palm on his trousers. Dr. Ward had promised Bash would be looked after at the clinic until Gilbert returned with Anne. But all Gilbert could think about was the defeated, soulless look in Bash’s eyes as he’d slouched against the wall with a rag pressed to his brow.
The door opened to reveal a stately butler, who gave Gilbert a questioning but polite look.
“How may I help you, young man?”
“I’m sorry to intrude,” Gilbert said hurriedly, yanking his cap off when an elderly woman came into view behind the butler. “My name is Gilbert Blythe, and I’m a friend of – “
“Anne.” The woman spoke in a gentle, rich voice that confirmed Gilbert’s guess as to her identity. “Yes, she’s spoken of you often. You escorted her on the train from Avonlea?”
Wait. She’s spoken of me? Often? How often?
Gilbert cleared his throat. “Yes, ma’am. Originally we planned for her to meet me and my friend Bash at the train station at three o’clock this afternoon. But unfortunately Bash had an accident and needs to return home as soon as possible. Is Anne here?”
Miss Barry gave the butler a gentle knock on the shins with her elegant cane. “Rollings, you’re letting the poor boy stand out in the cold. Do come in, young Mr. Blythe. Anne is not here at present, but should return within the half hour. You are welcome to wait in the parlor.”
“Thank you,” Gilbert said, relieved to find that he’d evidently found favor in the eyes of yet another one of Anne’s kindred spirits. The butler looked more amused than anything, and didn’t bat an eye over the homespun cap and overcoat Gilbert handed him in the foyer.
He spun around to see a distantly familiar face on the stairs. “Cole. Hi.”
“Is something wrong?” Cole questioned, hurrying to join Gilbert on the way to the parlor.
Gilbert explained again while Miss Barry seated them both, and rang for tea. Their hostess inquired after Bash and how he came to be Gilbert’s adopted family; his respect for the woman only grew when she didn’t bat an eye over Bash’s origins, even going so far as to offer her hospitality should Bash not be well enough for the trip home.
“I think he will manage the train, but thank you.” Gilbert tried to remember what he’d learned at the tearoom with Winnie, holding the frustratingly tiny cup about its delicate handle.
“Anne shouldn’t be much longer,” Cole said, munching on a pastry. “Hopefully the disguise worked. She certainly looked the part, didn’t she Aunt Jo?”
Gilbert frowned. “Disguise?”
He was hardly going to start telling Anne what she could and could not do – even if he desired to he could all too well imagine how that conversation would go – but if her plans in Charlottetown were to verge anywhere near the dangerous (or what Anne would probably call adventurous), he felt it was quite reasonable to be concerned. After all, they were friends.
So were she and Cole, he suddenly realized, and Anne wasn’t foolish enough to not tell someone where she was going. The fact that the other boy knew of her plans and had let her go alone was a good sign that Anne was safe and sound. He forced himself to relax, though he noticed two knowing glances being aimed in his direction. He fought the urge to squirm.
“What did she need a disguise for?”
“Anne went to visit the church where her parents attended,” Cole explained. “The orphanage was a dead end, so she’s hoping to find some record of her parents there.”
“And…she had to disguise herself to enter a church?”
“Few people will grant a young girl the sort of aid Anne requires, dear.” Miss Barry shrugged. “A young woman, however, especially one who carries herself with the grace and maturity that our Anne does, should have no trouble at all with the pastor retrieving the necessary records for her.”
Something about the way Miss Barry said our Anne made the back of Gilbert’s neck go hot; he cleared his throat.
“So…Anne had to disguise herself as someone older?” He had a sudden image of all that red hair bound up in a tight knot like Miss Cuthbert’s. Something in him cringed at the thought.
“Old enough,” was Cole’s reply. Gilbert frowned at him again, not caring for the smirk on the other boy’s face in the least.
He had just opened his mouth to change the subject when the front door burst open.
“Aunt Jo! Cole! You won’t believe what I’ve discovered! My heart is soaring higher than the highest songbird, my soul is bathed in glorious golden sunshine, and I feel I could just – oh!”
Anne stopped short in the doorway, hat in hand, her eyes widening and lips parting in surprise over Gilbert’s presence.
Gilbert, for his part, was suddenly finding it rather hard to breathe. Or swallow. Or do anything besides sit and gawk at this…this vision, appearing in the sophisticated parlor like a woodland fairy stepped off the pages of a storybook. He did his best to keep his eyes in the proper places, but the fact remained that the elegant cream-and-moss-green suit accentuated things a great deal more than did the familiar school frocks of brown and blue calico. He could feel his neck flushing again when he realized that she was probably wearing a corset.
Perhaps most bewitching of all, though, was her hair. The severe style he’d been fearing was the furthest thing from reality; Anne’s whole head was a soft, lustrous pile of shimmering copper that caught the sunlight that filtered through the lace curtains. The effect was rather dazzling, and highlighted the shades of gold and even pink in her tresses that he’d often admired, and he could only be thankful that she never wore her braids with those little stray curls wisping about her face, otherwise he’d never get any of his school work done.
Through all the other stupefied thoughts jumbled about in his head, one shone through clearer than the others:
I can’t believe I called her carrots.
“ – bert?”
He jumped, so violently that the cup of tea in his hand sloshed over the sides. He bit back one of the unsavory words he’d learned at sea. “I’m so sorry, Miss Barry. That was very clumsy of me – “
“Don’t think on it a moment, dear boy.” Miss Barry pushed to her feet, elegant in all things even in her old age. “Rollings is a wonder with stains. It’ll be gone before dinner. Now, you young people get yourselves sorted out – Anne, there will be a maid upstairs to help you – and I’ll arrange for a carriage to take you to collect your Bash and then to the station.”
With that, she disappeared, Cole following in her wake with one last smirk shot over his shoulder.
“Gilbert, I thought we were supposed to meet at three?”
He swallowed hard, and risked another look just to see – nope. She was just as distracting even when he had a chance to prepare himself. He turned back to the mess he’d made, wiping away what he could off his trousers and the chair.
“Bash had an accident – well, I don’t think it was an accident, but he’s been injured and we need to take him home. I’m sorry, Anne. I hate to cut your trip short.”
Anne had made a distressed noise at the mention of Bash, moving forward into the room. Gilbert ducked his head under the pretense of wiping away more spilled tea; it was useless, even out of the corner of his eye he could see that she didn’t walk so much as glide, her longer skirt only emphasizing her natural poise.
“Please don’t apologize, Gilbert. Of course we must get Bash home, the poor thing. What a difficult day this has been for him.”
Gilbert had long since mopped up all traces of his mess, and so had nowhere to look but up into her freckled face. Unhelpfully, his brain pointed out that the shadows cast by the curly tendrils of her hair only made her freckles look even more enchanting than usual. Panic set in.
“Yeah, he’s had it rough.” Gilbert fought the urge to roll his eyes at himself. His best friend and brother, recently widowed and now sporting a concussion, and rough is the best he could come up with?
He decided sitting and staring up at Anne was probably not going to help him recover his wits; upon standing he discovered with no surprise that this vantage point was not much of an improvement. He took a deep breath, and promptly realized that Anne was wearing perfume.
Gilbert clenched his fist with such force that his nails bit into his palm painfully. And at last, something sensible came out of his mouth.
“I really am sorry to interrupt your quest. I know how important it is to you.”
Anne smiled then, so radiantly he felt sure the sun itself envied her. “But I found them! My parents, I mean. They did indeed pass when I was three months old, which in its own tragic way is such an enormous comfort to me. But Gilbert, you’ll never guess – they were from Scotland! I’m Scottish!”
He smiled back at her, helpless in the face of such pure, soul-deep joy. “I’m so pleased for you, Anne. And I’m proud of you for not giving up when you grew discouraged.”
This statement had a strange effect on Anne; her smile became less radiant but more tender, almost like a secret. A most becoming blush stole its way up her cheeks, and she glanced down at the floor before looking back up at him.
Gilbert had no earthly idea what he was supposed to do next. He had a list of things he wanted to do next, the most innocent of which was behavior only proper for engaged couples, but instead he shoved his hands into his pockets and cast about for something else to say.
They both whirled, the golden magic of the sunlit parlor broken by Cole’s appearance in the doorway. He quirked an eyebrow at them both. “The maid is waiting for you upstairs.”
Anne took a deep breath – it sounded vaguely shaky to Gilbert, which he refused to attribute to anything except the emotional day she’d had – and nodded. “Right.”
She turned back to face Gilbert, still a fiery-golden dream. “I’ll hurry.”
He could only nod in reply, and just like that she was gone, gliding smoothly up the staircase in a cascade of green and cream muslin.
He didn’t realize he was staring until a throat being cleared brought him crashing back down to earth.
Cole was smirking again. Gilbert scowled and began looking about for his cap. “What?”
“You do know she has a crush on you, right?”
Gilbert nearly choked on his own tongue; Cole’s smirk widened with every moment of Gilbert’s wide-eyed stammering.
Cole sighed. “Whatever. I’m not going to meddle in your lives, but I can tell you that if you look at her like that in Avonlea, people will expect you to propose next.”
Distantly, Gilbert thought that if Cole was trying to use a scare tactic, he was doing a very poor job of it. And in any case, how was he supposed to not look at Anne when she had the nerve to come in looking like that? He was only human, after all.
He and Cole spent an awkward fifteen minutes waiting in the foyer, during which he asked Cole about art school and Cole kindly pretended that he didn’t notice Gilbert looking towards the staircase expectantly every five seconds. Gilbert supposed the other boy’s tact was probably what drew Anne to him in the first place. It was certainly much appreciated at the moment.
Anne reappeared shortly, in her usual dress and braids, but for Gilbert the damage had been done. He could never look at her again without seeing soft coils of fire-bright hair curling around her ears; he could never un-see the elegant lines of her creamy neck, rising above the lace collar of her blouse. Her perfume haunted him, clinging to his coat.
People will expect you to propose next.
Gilbert made no claims to have an imagination as powerful as Anne’s, but it was all too easy to picture her coming down those stairs, clad in white lace with little ringlets of her hair peeking out from behind a frothy veil.
He took a deep breath, and gave Anne a hand into the carriage before glancing up at the front door. Miss Barry waved goodbye genially, but Gilbert caught Cole’s eye over her shoulder.
You do know she has a crush on you, right?
The other boy didn’t smirk again, only quirked a single brow as if daring Gilbert to prove him wrong.
Gilbert hid his own smirk as he climbed into the carriage. He, of course, had no intention of doing anything of the kind.