It was only when he was home alone after the last of the funeral guests had departed that Gilbert truly came to understand the depth of his loss. Until then he'd been busy with people dropping food by and offering their commiserations but now, he was alone. Completely alone with only the clock to keep him company. He stared blankly into the middle distance without really taking in the sight before him. The coolness of the room brought him to his senses sometime later and he came to with a start realising that he had at least to get some wood for the fire least he freeze. Once that had been completed his tummy rumbled and he turned to the pantry still thankfully groaning with food. Unable to contemplate cooking he bolted down a few mouthfuls of casserole straight from the dish. He wandered into his father's room and without thinking it through lay down on the bed wrapping himself in the blanket, his father's lingering aroma still there. It may have been a far cry from having John with him, but it was the best he could do.
A knock on the door the next morning surprised him. Anne stood on the doorstep holding her books lightly in one arm. "I don't know if you're ready for school yet," she said. "Or do you want me to bring your lessons home still?"
"Um, ah, I guess," Gilbert replied somewhat shocked that she would think of him still. "No need, I'll come to school tomorrow instead."
"Oh," said Anne, surprised. "Well that sounds excellent. I've missed you. I need the competition."
"No one up to my academic prowess?" Gilbert said, teasing.
Anne smiled, embarrassed to be caught out in her boastfulness, "well it's not that…"
"Nah, never mind." Gilbert got it. They never liked to say it out loud, but the truth was the pair of them were the most intelligent in class, including to some extent their teacher.
~ ~ ~
"As you'll recall, the square of the hypotenuse…" Mr Philip's voice faded into the background while Gilbert's mind wandered off to his father's bedside. "It's a big world out there, son," his father had said. "Don't forget to go see it. So pleased I got the chance before I settled down. Though I don't recommend the army."
The familiar sound of chalk squeaking on slate brought him round and he furtively looked across to see Anne staring at him and then pointedly at her slate. "Right, um yeah," he muttered to himself picking up his own chalk to commence whatever it was they were doing. Geometry he guessed based on the last words he'd heard Mr Phillips utter. Yes, there was the problem up the on the board. Thankfully Gilbert knew his way around Pythagoras, so it wasn't too much of an effort to finish the problem around the same time as Moody beside him.
Walking home deep in thought he barely noticed the boys chiacking around him. Moody punched his shoulder, "great to have you back, Gilbert. School's not the same without you around. We boys have to keep the girls in their place." Gilbert rolled his eyes, the annoying tones of the boys discussing the relative merits of their female counterparts disappearing into the distance when he turned for home. Thankfully Mrs Kincannon had been by so the house was warm and smelt of the dinner she had prepared and the loaf she had baked. She may not be caring for his father any longer, but she had not forgotten him. He sank to a chair and felt he had never been so alone in his life.
~ ~ ~
While they chopped the vegetables for that night's stew Marilla enquired after Gilbert, "how is he faring, Anne? He must be awful sad."
"What do I do to help him Marilla? He's hurting so, I know but he just shuts down when I try to speak to him."
"Just be there for him. What do you remember about Mr Blythe?"
"He was so kind to me, Marilla. Such a gentleman," she paused looking up at Marilla with gleaming eyes. "Do you regret the way things turned out?"
"Fiddlesticks child, I made peace with my decision years ago. You know," she said thoughtfully. "We could invite him for dinner. Yes," she added resolutely, "that's precisely what we should do. Fetch him for me, will you Anne. Tell him to come for dinner."
Anne grinned, "you make it sound like an order."
"I told John I'd look out for him. Might as well start now."
"Practically our last conversation."
"Don't you go leaping to conclusions, Anne. No impropriety occurred."
Anne was shocked, if Marilla mentioned impropriety, then obviously something was weighing on her conscience.
The sound of the door opening roused Gilbert, and he looked up at Anne in shock. "I did knock," she said apologetically but when you didn't answer, she gestured towards the door. "Anyway, Marilla wants you to come for dinner. Says its unchristian to leave you here on your own." Gilbert was about to argue, but the fight left him when he looked at Anne, there was just something about the way the light through the window caught her red hair. Honestly, the thought of eating with the Cuthberts appealed. "Grab your coat," Anne warned, "else face Marilla's wrath." Gilbert smiled remembering how parental nagging used to annoy him.
Anne led the way through the Green Gables back door and told him she'd be right back. "Come in Gilbert, come sit by the fire and get warm, given the cold blast you've brought in, I figure you need it," Marilla said.
"I'm not much company right now Miss Cuthbert," Gilbert said by way of apology.
"Of course not, however the handy thing about Anne is that she is perfectly content to talk and doesn't need much input from her audience. That's to say", Marilla said with a wry smile, "you won't be required to say much."
Dinner was delicious as Gilbert expected and as Marilla had consoled him his input was not required. Anne was happy to prattle on about school, their friends, and all manner of things. As relieved as he was Gilbert did wonder how Marilla and Matthew put up with it. Theirs had been a quiet house once upon a time.
Gilbert got up to help with the dishes only to firmly be put back in his place, as 'company' and afterwards they sat companionably in the parlour. Anne was quieter now as if she realised that perhaps she had gone too far earlier. Gilbert hadn't minded though, he felt as though he had nothing to say anymore and maybe never would.
When the grandfather clock timed the hour Marilla gathered her knitting together but when Gilbert got to his feet to find his coat she said, "I can't stand the thought of sending you out into the night. Stay won't you."
It was only later tucked up in the bed, a hot brick at his toes, that Gilbert realised Marilla had kept the bedding fresh for errant neighbours for nigh on fifty years. He wondered who else had slept in the bed in all that time.
~ ~ ~
While it had been a lovely evening, his dinner reminded Gilbert of what he had lost. The thought of returning to his empty house no longer appealed, not merely because his father had died there but because he was utterly alone. Can't rely on the Cuthberts every night, he thought. Got to plan. With his father's last words echoing in his mind, he slipped off to sleep to dream of far-off cities.
Walking home from school with Anne a week or so later he broached the subject. "Thinking of leaving."
"There's nothing holding me here. Dad wanted me to go out and seek my fortune. Reckon it's time I did just that."
"Yeah. Well sorry about that. But I'm just sorting out some things, packing, going to the bank that sort of thing. I figure I'll be gone in a few days."
Anne stared at him, for once speechless.
They parted then each to make their way to their respective homes, though Gilbert didn't regard his house as a home at that time. It was just a place he slept for now.
Packing was interesting, what did one need for an escape? Eventually he had a neat little knapsack and he draped sheets over the furniture against the day he planned to return. His last night his thoughts turn to Anne. He had to admit she was the only person he thought he'd miss. His conversation with Marilla echoed in his mind, his father had wanted her to go with him; would he have more luck with the daughter?
A ping on her window stirred Anne and the next woke her up, but it was not until the third that she made her way to the sill to peer out. "Gilbert?" she whispered through the eased open glass. "What on earth?"
"Anne, I just came to say goodbye."
"Goodbye? Oh Gilbert." Her heart lurched.
"Sorry, I must. I have to leave. I have to see the world."
"You're going to leave me?" Anne sounded more plaintive than Gilbert expected.
"Well," he answered. "You could come too."
"I can't Gil. I can't just up and leave. Matthew and Marilla need me. You can't expect me to desert them." Her words sounded resolute, but her mind was less so.
"You are allowed to live Anne. Come join the adventure. You're always dreaming of far-off places, start living there.
"I.." she stopped, feeling her resolve wane.
"You're the bravest girl I know Anne."
"I…" hesitantly she shook her head.
"Anne…," he pleaded.
She sighed. "It's just not that easy."
"It is that easy."
"I can't just walk out on them.
"I'm not saying that, leave them a note. Let them know you'll be safe with me.
"They need me."
"Anne, that's just what Marilla said. She told me she wanted to run away with Dad but had to stay to care for the family and look how that turned out. Don't you think she regrets that? I don't want you to live that life. You can be so much more."
"But school." Gilbert scoffed. Anne said ruefully, "I know, but he is teaching me something. I can't throw all that away."
"You'll learn so much, more than we can learn in that small classroom. You'll learn about people, about the world. There's so much more to life than what's here in Avonlea or some one-room school.
"Oh, I don't know."
"Stop nagging me, Gil. Let me think."
Gilbert thrust his hands in his pockets and turned to leave, pausing in case she changed her mind, but she did not look his way. Instead, he stumped down the snowy path wondering what he could do to change her mind.
He turned back for one last try calling up to her, "Dad always said there was a big world out there. Beyond this sleepy one-horse town. I want to see it, see the world, seek my fortune. Be a bit lonely on my own though, I'd love to share it all with you, Anne. You have such gumption. Be brave, join me."
Anne was in a quandary. His invitation did sound alluring. Much as she adored Avonlea, Matthew and Marilla and everyone who had helped her to grow, the outside world beckoned. Up until that moment she had silenced its insistent call, telling herself that it would wait, but then she'd never had anyone to explore it with. Here was Gilbert, for whom she was just realising she cared, proffering a steady arm and a chance.
She looked deeply into his eyes. He was silent, his arm still reaching out for her, saying all that had to be said. She glanced back towards the house's interior considering all that she would miss. "I…"