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Love and gratitude to you all, and to L.M.M. ~ everything is hers, only this idea is mine.
LIEUTENANT FORD GETS HIS COME-UPPANCE
In which Kenneth Ford falls in love with Rilla Blythe
Hollyhocks Over-Harbour, September 1915
Ken could hear her nervous breaths come through the receiver and hoped to God that Rilla–and that blasted Mim, and all those eavesdroppers on the party-line–didn't notice his own struggle to remain calm. He had never known a loveliness equal to the sound of her voice, but it was nothing to the relief he felt when he finally rang off. Long after the conversation was over was he standing before the hall mirror staring at himself.
He had that moony look again, Mim noted, as she busied herself next to him. My goodness, but didn't the dust collect at the front door, it really needed a thorough going over.
Ken barely noticed the worn brown hand working out an invisible bit of grime near his boots, he was so lost in surprise at how happy he looked. Nothing like the scrabbling, desperate fool he'd felt himself to be. His grey eyes gleamed with a confidence he hadn't seen before. Not the cock-sure swagger people thought of when they heard the name Ken Ford. This was a quieter knowing.
He hadn't been always been so sure. Those scented letters that he'd left to pile up on the brass tray at Ravenscroft came to wreak their revenge, containing things that caused Ken to stop writing to Rilla altogether. Well, not things exactly. Things, like Daphne breaking off her engagement, and Dimples Thorpe-Davis inviting him for tennis (and a rub down after) held not the slightest interest for him now. There was only one thing that had mattered. The letter from Ethel Reese.
It had been filled with all sorts of newsy natterings about the Glen. But as Ken read it he wondered if all those tidbits weren't really there to embellish the main thrust of her letter: that Rilla Blythe was walking out with the son of the new Methodist minister. Ken had no reason to believe it was true, except that it had an unshakeable ring of truth about it. For the road to Rilla was strewn with fears that someone else would get there before him. When he saw her that night at the Lighthouse surrounded by seeking eyes and hungry hands, the armour he wore–bespoke tuxedoed armour, no less–revealed its first chink. Rather than prove his worth to her, he stole her away from the competition. Maybe this time Kenneth Ford would not get the girl.
He told himself he was glad to be back in Toronto, glad to devote himself to Officer training, glad to let Rilla think he had forgotten her. But it was a strange sort of gladness. There was no joy in it, nothing to make him look forward to tomorrow. It wasn't until he came to Kingsport with the Third Regiment that a familiar wave went through him again. Because over the water lay the Island, and on that Island was Rilla.
He had stared out across the sea with Gulf sized regret in his chest. All those chances he had thrown away to spend long days in her company and hold her long letters in his hands. Now he would give anything for one more hour. No matter if babies and mothers and sweethearts were with her, all he wanted was to look into Rilla's eyes and see if more joy or more sorrow looked back.
When his Division was given leave, Ken felt as though he had been given wings–he could have galloped to Over-Harbour without the need of a horse! He was sure his heart beat just as loudly down the phone line, yet when he looked at himself in the mirror he saw and he felt an unexpected peace.
He left Mim to her cleaning and walked out the backdoor to the shore that had beckoned him every day this past year. He heard it call to him whenever he was alone, felt its white arm wrap around him when he slept.
His Lieutenant's cap was tossed upon a tuft of seagrass and he breathed in lungfuls of salty air before falling back into soft, yielding sand. Something white and fluttering caught his eye, but he did not turn. He cradled his head in his arms and sent a smile to the heavens.
Ken knew whoever it was, it wasn't Rilla. It was certainly improbable when they had just talked on the 'phone. But that was by-the-by, because when you know... you know.
He might have wished for a little less knowing when the girl in white sat herself beside him. Ken looked up and saw a pretty brunette giving him her most beguiling smile.
"I hope I'm not disturbing you," she declared, and picked up Ken's cap. An Officer. Hadn't he done well for himself!
Ken took it from her and sat himself up. "Not at all–Miss?"
"Howard. Irene Howard. And I believe that you are Kenneth Ford. Forgive me, Lieutenant Kenneth Ford. You're a cousin to the Blythes, aren't you? Rilla Blythe is my dearest friend."
Strange that Rilla had never mentioned her before. Stranger still that her dearest friend didn't know Ken wasn't a relation. His face went hot at the implication. Perhaps he was nothing more than a big brother to Rilla after all?
"I'm a friend of the family, Miss Howard, here on leave–"
"Does Rilla know you're coming?" she asked, with a terribly kind concern.
As if she didn't know that right at this moment Rilla would be tearing her closet apart searching for her most flattering gown. These party-lines proved a better source of information than Mary Vance!
"The Blythes are ever so busy these days," Irene went on. "Rilla is a mother now, you know, and so utterly devoted to her little Red Cross. I don't know how she finds time for poor Fred."
"Yes," Ken said, brushing down his khaki trousers in a show of being about to leave. " I understand she's kept very busy with the–who?"
"Oh yes!" Irene crowed. "I barely see her at all these days, but somehow she always finds time for Fred Arnold. It just goes to show how close they are," she went on, noting Ken's face had gone white to the lips. "Rilla's always going on about what a poet he is, and you know how she just adores Walter. Not that Fred's even half so handsome, but still–they really are perfect for each other."
"I suppose they would be," Ken muttered.
"Then of course he's the same age as her, or about the same age," Irene continued, forgetting that Ken's age should have been an irrelevance when she wasn't supposed to know his intentions. But the girl was on a roll now and she leaned back complacently and licked her lips. "When Fred enlists in a few months time, Rilla will be crushed. It's quite unfeeling of him, really."
"To get her hopes so high when he knows he will have to leave!" Irene explained. She sidled closer to that strong, khaki clad arm, its Officer insignia blazing upon it handsomely. "Nothing but the deepest love could persuade me to risk my heart like that. I just know I would never recover."
"Then you had better not risk it, Miss Howard," Ken said, and stood up quickly. Leaving Miss Howard to find her own way home.
He slunk in through the back door and into his chair. Though Martin and Frank never saw it–Lieutenants never had black moods, surely, the Army wouldn't allow it–Mim felt the change in him immediately. Little Ken had as little appetite as the last time he sat at their table. She would not waste her creamed peas on him this time, and asked if perhaps he wasn't up to a visit to Ingleside after all?
"I can't just sit here," Ken replied, looking about the table. He then saw the care and expense the Wests had gone to to give him this farewell meal. "What I mean is I must enjoy this beauty while I may. You know, Mim," he said, "while I am very fond our little House of Dreams, the more I come to Hollyhocks the more I love this side of the harbour."
Mim reached over and squeezed his hand. He was such a thoughtful lad now. When Ken had bowled through the door of Hollyhocks last night he had such a smile on his face. That happiness had been short lived, however. Usually the sandbar could revive him when nothing else would but he had come back so quiet. Was there nothing that might cheer him? Mim decided she would try, starting with that call to Ingleside.
"There are a great many draws to the Glen, to be sure. Young Rilla Blythe, fer one. When that wee angel took the Anderson child–well it near made a Presbeeterian of me."
"There's a new Methodist minister, I hear," Ken said, poking at his potatoes.
"And it looks like the last laugh is on us," said Martin. "We Methodists thought Mr Meredith as woolly-headed as they come. Then along comes this Mr Arnold, as mild as a lamb when we was countin' on a lion–"
"Tush, Martin West! D'yer want our lad repeating that from here to Four Winds?" Mim admonished, gesturing to their son with the carrot that was fixed to her fork.
"I don't think much of his boy, either," Frank added. "Least before we had some bully stories at Sunday school. Daniel and Samson and David..." he said longingly, savouring the blood and carnage of those Old Testament favourites. "But Fred Arnold had us chewin' over the Sermon on the Mount for weeks! Blessed are the meek!"
"Now, now, Francis, Fred is a good lad. You'll miss him, no doubt, when he goes off to the Front."
"Wish I could go off to the Front," Frank said, eyeing Ken's cap on the sideboard. "This summer was dull as dull."
Ken smiled at him fondly, remembering how only a year ago that he had wished the same thing. If he had his chance again... forgetting that Rilla was only fifteen then and spent most of the summer hating him. Now she was older and probably wise to the likes of cads like him. If Rilla loved this Arnold boy he could hardly blame her.
He walked along the red dirt road that evening not as quickly as he once imagined he would. The long shadow cast by the setting sun made him feel as though Fred Arnold crept beside him. But on arriving at the gate he looked over the prospect with a military eye and liked what he saw. For as much as any poet would have admired the way the pear tree's leaves reflected the rising moon and flickered like a forest of stars, what Ken saw was surely as promising. The house wasn't lit from every window which meant there should only be a few people at home. This was corroborated by three sets of fresh footprints and the tracks of a horse and buggy leading to the gate, and none except his own heading toward the house.
Better and better, Ken thought, concluding that perhaps only Miss Oliver–and Shirley, of course–might be lurking about. And he credited both with a horror of playing the gooseberry.
He walked up to Ingleside with a happier heart than the one that had walked out of Hollyhocks. If only it hadn't lodged in his throat when he saw Rilla Blythe coming to meet him on the veranda. He nearly broke the other ankle walking up the mint smothered steps. Rilla was certainly dressed as though she was expecting someone important to her. Ken brushed his hands down his khaki jacket, self-consciously, feeling for the first time that his well cut uniform wasn't rather commonplace compared to the vision before him. Rilla was shining with a beauty both radiant and mysterious. A little candle aglow in the dark.
He walked down the length of the veranda. Two wicker chairs had been pulled close together and he knew then no one else would be joining them. They were surrounded by towers of blooms, from purest white to a lusty scarlet, though what Ken noticed was the smell of the sea. He breathed it in remembering the last time they were alone, remembering the push and pull of the tide–and in himself. That pull was even stronger now, Rilla had grown so much in his absence it was easy to forget how young she still was.
"This is better luck than I hoped for," said Ken, leaning back in his chair and looking at her with very unconcealed admiration. "I was sure someone would be hanging about and it was just you I wanted to see, Rilla-my-Rilla."
He had not intended to call her that again, it was Walter's name not his. But he forgot everything as she sat by him in her delicate organdie gown. To think there might have been many evenings, many hours, he could have spent with her, instead of just this one. It hurt all the more when he saw the look on Rilla's face.
Her large gold eyes misted with sadness as if remembering her brother, and she said, "There aren't–so many of us–to poke around as there used to be."
"No, that's so," said Ken, gently. "Jem and Walter and the girls away–it makes a big blank, doesn't it?"
Walter's absence had already left its mark on Ken, what must it be like for his sister? Of course Rilla would long for people like her brother. People like Fred Arnold, perhaps. Ken leaned forward until his dark curls almost brushed her hair. He had to know before he said another word, whether he was the only one she wore that dress for.
Rilla was about to answer when a wail filled the air. Ken drew back in bewilderment before realising this must be the baby; this was Rilla's little boy! The laughing, lighthearted girl of last summer, what sort of mother did she make?
A brief look passed over Rilla's face that hinted at things unlawful before she gave Ken an apologetic smile, explaining that Jims had probably had a nightmare. She left Ken on the veranda, wondering as she climbed the stairs why her entire family had to choose this night to abandon her, then someone else could have silenced the brat. That was until she saw the forlorn look on the little boy's face, and knew hers were the only arms he cried for.
Ken stood leaning over the banister watching moon-shadow dance on the lawn. He heard crickets sing and then Rilla's voice from the open window, humming the tune to the Hesitation Waltz. His hands clenched tight as he heard it, remembering the feel of Rilla in his arms. Her hair had brushed against his lips, her breast pressed into his own, and it was all he could do to count out the beat lest he lead her into the harbour.
She had grown even taller. If he danced with her now he would have felt her lashes flutter over his jaw, felt the way her waist had begun to flare, how even more of her pressed into his chest. Perhaps when she returned–the humming had stopped, the baby must have fallen to sleep–he would ask to play a tune on the gramophone. He might take her in his arms, he might waltz her about the dimly lit sitting room, he might...
Her footsteps sounded on the stairs and it struck him that Rilla had never answered his question. He returned to his chair determined to know, but on sight of her he changed his mind. The reason the baby had become so quiet was because the little lad was still in Rilla's arms. She sat by Ken, cradling Jims, with the sweetest look of embarrassment on her face. For this little cupid had no thought of bringing two lovers together, but of meddling to such vexing degrees Rilla began to wish soup tureens had never been invented.
Jims, however, was a picture of happiness, dimpled, golden and nuzzling into Rilla's creamy throat. He no longer looked like some scrappy foundling but a child who had had come to trust in this girl's devotion. Ken could not think of any young woman in his acquaintance who could have done what this sixteen year old girl had done. Persis would have hired a nanny, Daphne would have left the poor brat to cry. Yet here was Rilla in her sweet white dress, a length of pearls in her chestnut hair, a posy of roses at her waist; looking for all the world as though she was expecting an evening with her best young man, and she had given it away in a moment for this war baby.
The vision of maternal devotion was slightly marred by Rilla's expression but it did not linger long. It was at this moment that Jims Anderson decided to speak, gazing into the girl's face and saying his first ever word.
Ken might have been invisible at that moment and he leaned back in his chair, gazing raptly as Rilla bestowed the baby boy with tender kisses. She had no thought for Ken, no care for how he might perceive her. There was nothing calculating about Rilla Blythe. She was her own dear self; cross one moment, adoring the next. So beautiful to Ken, so courageous and true, that whatever strong fancy he once felt seemed an empty, selfish offering compared to his feelings now.
Jims' eyes closed as Rilla held him, and Ken thought of the painting in his mother's study, of the Madonna and Child. He had stared up at that beloved image ever since he was a little boy. Even at such young an age he knew that what he looked at, what he felt, was love. Love that lived inside him and would also light his way.
That tide came in now. Such a swell of feeling as he had never known. Pulled by the need to be there for Rilla... to protect her... to fight for her. To love her. He loved her–couldn't speak nor move for the love he had for her.
Rilla knew nothing of this and lay Jims down in the sitting room, as Ken sat in silence. He couldn't talk, knowing if he tried the words would gush from his mouth with such force, that Rilla would likely draw back. This was a feeling unnavigable, wild, and wondrous. He almost wanted to laugh. He did laugh, to himself at least, when Susan Baker came stomping up the steps.
There was more laughter to come, painful rolls that he kept inside for the sake of the girl next to him. Her face in agony as Susan rambled on–and on–about the naughty children Rilla and Ken had once been. The debonair, sophisticated idea of himself was laid to rest that evening. The way Susan showed him for the ridiculous child that he was; the way Rilla looked as if she wished the floor would open up and swallow her. How he wanted to take her freckled little face in his hands and tell her none of that mattered now. He was as much a little fool as she was, and he was glad she knew.
Ken stood up abruptly, those feelings threatening to engulf him, and he walked to the end of the veranda. He went down the stone steps, turning to see if Rilla would follow, and found himself face to face with her. A year ago she would have lowered her lashes–of course she would have, with him looming over her.
Now they stood together. Heart to heart. Eye to eye... Those fire coloured eyes–of light and dark, joy and sorrow–speaking of all the longing he felt inside himself.
"Rilla," he said in a sudden, intense whisper, "you are the sweetest thing."
Her hazel eyes burned with a vivid gold. Her cheek once so pale flushed hotly. He was so close he felt the warmth of her skin like the little candle she was. And there was nothing else. No baby waiting for Rilla. No war waiting for Ken. Just a light in the dark; just the two of them.
His mouth pressed urgently against hers. Lingering on that kissable little dent on her top lip, so ripely soft–so this is what it felt like, the thought had taunted him for more than a year. Yet to touch her now, feel her breathe mingle with his own, it was as if he had never kissed a girl before. And as he drew back he knew he never wanted to kiss another girl again.
There was no question of her loving anyone else, the moment he kissed her he knew. He felt it in the way her gasp gave way to excitement, the way her body moved into his, how much she wanted to return that kiss. But the world would intrude. In the shadows lay Susan and Jims, over the water lay war. Everything laid claim on them–everything but time. The was no time left, this kiss must last them for as long as they must be parted. And in their sweet and foolish hearts they believed that it might be enough.
Ken did not seek another kiss, but something more important. He sought a promise.
"Rilla-my-Rilla," he said, "will you promise me that you won't let anyone else kiss you until I come back?"
He saw the answer in her eyes before one word was uttered. Not for her the games, the tears, or the planting of doubt. She loved him wholly; the love struck boy and the brave Lieutenant who let her go and said goodbye.
He had to drag himself away, every step he took hurt more than any broken bone. But Rilla could not ignore the feelings inside her. She stood on the steps trying to catch her breath before realising that she never would. Something new and wonderful had lodged inside her breast. She would never breathe easily until the day she saw Ken walking towards her again.
His steps soon joined all the others who had walked away from Ingleside. He looked up at a glowing moon and remembered that stroll on the sand, wanting nothing more than to grab her now and whisk her away. Yet he kept walking, listening out above the chirrup of insects and the beats of his heart for any sign that Rilla was still with him. He knew she would have gone. Gone into the house, to her baby, her work and her woes. She had gone from him–yet still he listened.
As the road rounded a corner, he stopped. Something inside Ken wanted to make her a promise of his own: that he would return to her. He would return. He would come back to the Island and back to her door if he turned right now and saw her. Of course, he knew she wouldn't be there, but all at once her being there was all that came between him and annihilation.
If he saw her at this bend in the road, he would come back to her.
If he turned now and she was there, he would live.
He brought his face to his shoulder, felt the wool of his khaki uniform graze against his jaw. If she was there... if she waited for him... If she stood here at this bend in the road–
Ken looked. And saw her standing amid the tall white lilies by the gate. He waved his hand–she waved hers–he was gone around the turn.
* Some sentences taken directly from chapter 16, Realism and Romance, Rilla of Ingleside. I hope I have managed to place them without it feeling too obvious a change in style.
Thank you all so much for reading this story. It will always have a special place in my heart. I hoped you enjoyed reading it as much as I loved writing it. Take care, k.