It was the sort of cold that bit down into your very craw. The sort that made your eyes water and you wish they didn't for you fear the water will freeze. The sort that made your ears ache. The sort that made you wish you were at home drinking tea by the fire. The sort that makes you hurry home to escape it as soon as possible. Instead, Anne was stomping home the long way through deep unbroken snow after delivering Gilbert's lesson.
The first time Mr Phillips ordered her to do it she was angry; he'd called Gilbert his best student. The chore was ridiculous, but of course she did it anyway. Marilla had an unwarranted respect for teachers regardless of their merits and Anne was never allowed to disparage him out loud. So, she took the lousy lesson from him with ill grace and schlepped through the snow to the Blythe house. She felt guilty then when it took Mr Blythe so long to make it to the door. It was obvious the man was unwell, but he was so kind to her, even complimenting her awful hair of all things.
Gilbert arrived eventually, but perhaps in concern for his father or who knows what, after a bit of small talk he took the lesson and let her be on her way. Anne had to admit later that the warmth from the house was enticing on that cold day but there was no hint from either man that she might enter.
Green Gables was warm upon arrival. She could rely upon Matthew and Marilla in that regard. Though curiously Marilla's face twisted queerly when Anne delivered Mr Blythe's regards.
Marilla's wrought face swam before her eyes when she went to bed that night. Could they have been close, back in the day? Anne did the math in her head, but without knowing Mr Blythe's age it was impossible to tell.
The next day was the same, but she took Gilbert's lessons with more grace. The weather was just as awful, but she had more patience about the whole affair and hoped she could meet Mr Blythe again. However, Gilbert came to door, and she handed over the books without much conversation.
Eventually Gilbert told her just to leave the books by the front door if he didn't answer straightaway.
Over dinner one night she asked Marilla about the Blythes. "Did you once know Mr Blythe, Marilla?" she asked when Marilla's fork was halfway to her mouth.
The normally complacent Matthew shot Marilla a sudden telling glance and Anne waited until Marilla set down her forkful. Marilla sighed before saying, "it was all a long time ago." Anne waited, desperate to know more but somehow realising that something momentous was occurring.
Nothing further was said over dinner, nor as Marilla and Anne silently washed the dishes, but later around the fire Marilla answered Anne's query. "I suppose it's time I told you some of my story, Anne. I've been thinking on it since you've becoming better acquainted with the Gilbert." Hardly acquainted thought Anne remembering how she had dropped the books on his doorstep that afternoon. "Once upon a time I went to school with John Blythe. Folks said we were beaux."
"Marilla!" Anne's eyes fairly gleamed in the firelight. "Were you a woman scorned?"
"I was not," Marilla replied indignantly. "I had no choice; I was needed here."
"Well, that's just how it turned out. John had big ideas, he dreamed of big cities and wide horizons. I wish…" but she lapsed into silence much to Anne's disappointment. Still, it filled in a void. She had always wondered why a woman as handsome as Marilla had never married. Making her excuses Anne went to her bedroom, she had a great deal to think about.
Once her footsteps had faded away Matthew reached out his hand to Marilla who clutched it back and they sat there both lost in the mist of time ruminating on what might have beens. Eventually Matthew released his grip and Marilla took her hand back smiling ruefully at her brother, thank you she mouthed.
Matthew nodded, he had seen for himself how John's departure had upset his sister all those years ago and had always felt somewhat guilty for it. "Sorry," he said.
"For what?" Marilla asked sharply.
"You coulda gone if it weren't for me."
"Fiddlesticks! Oh, I can't say I wasn't tempted for a hot minute, but I made my choice and I stand by it. Wasn't anything you did. It was Mother and the whole," she waved her hand around, "situation." A log shifted in the fireplace sending up a cloud of sparks and they watched worried that it might roll out, but it settled quickly enough. Matthew settled back in his chair, "still."
"Still nothing, of course life didn't exactly turn out as I'd hoped Matthew. But we've had a comfortable time together, you and I, if not exactly exciting."
Matthew cocked an eyebrow upwards and smirked.
"Well, yes," Marilla smiled in return.
Marilla made out she was happy with her decision to spare Matthew's feelings, but there was no denying it when she was alone in her room. John's letters still lay in their box hidden at the back of her closet. It had been years, but Marilla still knew exactly where they were, and she scrabbled around to locate the box and pulled it out for a read knowing full well what her reaction would be. Please my love, won't you reconsider, I beseech you. The once familiar hand brought tears to her eyes, and she sobbed over that last letter questioning her choices and lamenting past lives and lost opportunities.
In bed her mind cast back to a kiss they'd shared under the apple grove, their love blossoming. But like flowers their love was fleeting, transitory and he had left her in the end without a backward glance. Marilla fell asleep with the memory of his lips on hers and woke up wonderingly in the night having dreamt he was in her bed.
One afternoon Anne finally gained admission. She had knocked and was surprised when Mr Blythe opened the door. "I feel awful, you've been so good to support Gilbert and we've let you deliver them day on day. Come in and share a cup of tea with me, Anne. Do you go by Cuthbert or?"
"Shirley Cuthbert," Anne replied, gladly walking down the warm hallway. The house was neat and tidy but without the usual nick knacks she saw in her friends' houses. It was apparent there were two men living there, it lacked a woman's touch. Still, she helped Mr Blythe to sit in his chair by the fire and at his insistence sat down opposite. "Oh, she jumped up, "let me get you some tea."
"I'm afraid I'm not much of a host," John said.
"It's no bother," replied Anne.
John directed her around the kitchen, informing her where Mrs Kincannon kept the cookies and the whereabouts of the teapot and cups. When it was all done Anne sat back down and they paused as they waited for the tea to draw. "Gilbert's said nice things about you," John said into the silence.
Anne smiled somewhat guiltily; she had not always been so complimentary about Gilbert. "Tell me about Marilla, how is she? Still as feisty as ever, I hope?"
"She's keeping well, thank you Mr Blythe."
"And Matthew? I haven't seen them for years. I was delighted to hear they'd taken you in. Gilbert told me all about it of course, but I'd love to hear what you have to say on the matter, Anne. Do you like living at Green Gables?"
John watched the interplay of emotions on Anne's face as she described how she came to be living with the Cuthberts. "Of course, I was tragically overwhelmed when I arrived at Green Gables and found out they didn't want me because I wasn't a boy, you can't imagine Mr Blythe. I was in the depths of despair. Marilla had prepared ever such a delicious dinner. I hadn't seen much meat in my life up until that point, and I was so upset when I couldn't choke down a single mouthful. I was almost as mournful about that as I was to learn I would be sent back the next day."
"I understand. But in the end, they let you stay?"
"Marilla nearly did give me away," Anne explained. "But she said she couldn't leave me with Mrs Blewett and I must say I was terribly relieved. I'd spent many years tending to small children, and I just didn't think my soul could take another family like that. Not when I'd seen Green Gables and knew there was alternative." John sipped his tea listening between the lines to her tragic tale. The Marilla he knew might have been an overly practical woman, but she was never mean spirited.
"Well, I'm pleased. I can imagine you've brought a bit of colour into their lives." Anne touched her braid. "In more ways than one," John said, smiling.
"Dad!" Gilbert burst into the kitchen. "You should been in bed. He gets tired," Gilbert explained.
"Now, now son, Miss Shirley Cuthbert and I have just been getting acquainted, it's nice to get out of the bedroom for a spell. I get terribly bored in there." Still, he let his son take his arm and Anne watched as they made their way out of the kitchen.
"Sorry about that," Gilbert said as he reappeared. "He's been wanting to meet you for a while, but I worry."
"It's no bother," Anne replied. "I should go anyways Marilla will be vexed."
"Say Anne," Gilbert started to her departing back.
"I was a bit stuck on that last lesson. Could you, um could you explain it to me. Mr Philip's instructions were a bit confusing."
"Oh. Sure." Anne turned back into the warmth and pulled her own books out of their strap. Together they sat at the table, their backs warmed by the fire while Anne explained the lesson to Gilbert and together, they worked on it making suggestions to each other as they went. The light was fading by the time they'd finished, and Anne looked up to see the last of the afternoon's sun dipping below the tree line. "I had better go. Marilla will be upset if I don't get home before dark."
"Will you be all right? Do you want me to escort you?"
"No, I'll be fine."
"Thank you for the lesson. That was helpful. I get a bit lonely doing them all by myself."
Anne found herself saying that she was happy to help anytime. She berated herself on the way home, reminding herself, you are not a Gilbert Blythe fan.
Marilla was peering out the kitchen window impatiently and though she was loath to admit it she had been worried. "Finally," she said with some relief. Fear making her waspish, she said "you're late," when Anne entered the back door.
"Sorry," replied Anne as she took off her outer things and hung them by the door. "I was helping Gilbert with his lessons."
"Did, ah, did you meet Mr Blythe?" Marilla tried to keep her voice calm, but she was curious.
"We had tea." Anne turned around to warm her front by the fire, her hands held out to thaw.
"And, um, how is he?"
"He seems quite frail. Gilbert cares for him very tenderly."
Marilla sat down heedless of her dinner preparations, "is he? Poor man."
"Tell me more Marilla, you were close?"
Marilla nodded her face directed towards the fire not trusting herself to look Annewards. Until almost dispassionately she said, "we were in love. I thought I would marry him."
"Oh Marilla," Anne pulled her chair closer, but her mother got to her feet unable to share her burden.
"It was all a long time ago. I was just a girl."
"But still it hurts," Anne said with maddening acuity.
"I … must get on with dinner. Wash up first then you can give me a hand."
Anne realised the moment was lost and did as Marilla asked.
"She seems nice, son," John said over his dinner tray that night.
"Awful good of her to help you with your lessons."
"Clever, is she?"
"She keeps me on my toes."
"Good, I was a bit worried bringing you back here that you'd suffer in a one room school. You need someone to push you son. You have high aspirations, don't you?"
Gilbert gazed across at his father, pallid grey against his pillows. He had a terrible feeling John would not see him graduate. Gilbert nodded, "I don't know what I want to study, but I want to go to Queens at least."
"Yes, I can see a life on the land is not for you."
"Don't take it the wrong way Dad."
"I don't. Don't do anything just for me, son. You must live your own life. I can't see where you'll wind up, but I do think you'll do marvellous things. You've got a nimble mind Gilbert. You'll go far." He paused having run out of breath and panted for a bit to get it back. Gilbert set down his dinner and helped John by rubbing his back. John whispered, "enough talking. Read."
Gilbert picked up a well-thumbed tome and started reciting his father's favourite. Glancing up now and again to see his John's chest calming as his breaths came slower and deeper. Barely had he started the second poem than he heard a quiet snore and he smiled knowing John was asleep. Gilbert tip-toed out with the dinner tray and set it by the sink for Mrs Kincannon in the morning.