L.M.M. never wrote about Marilla's death. It's mentioned in passing at the beginning of Rilla of Ingleside. I thought such a pivotal character deserved a better send off.
It was frustrating: for the past few weeks she had been slowing down, lacking the energy to do anything much. Just yesterday, she had caught herself napping on the parlour couch. Once upon a time she had been so active; nowadays Davy tended to the farm, for which she gave thanks. All that worry about who would help Matthew and who would inherit the farm had been resolved as Davy matured.
In the old days, she had rather liked milking: the comforting aromas of milk, cow manure and hay, the warmth of the flank, the sound of the cow chewing her cud. You could tell cows anything–they were non-judgmental sounding boards. She'd released a great deal of emotion over the years while she'd milked. It was the one chore she rather missed.
This morning, her strength failed her. She struggled to get out of bed, eventually giving up, lying back on her pillows feeling completely helpless.
Rachel was surprised to find Marilla not up and dressed by 7am. She trudged up the stairs to Marilla's bedroom, wondering how she had managed to get up them everyday. Rachel had noticed that Marilla had slowed down considerably of late; she'd been letting small chores go by the wayside, which was most unlike her. She hoped Marilla was well; at their age they had to be careful.
Upon entering Marilla's room, she was concerned to find her still lying in her bed. She looked particularly frail. "Oh Marilla are you ill?"
"I can't seem to get out of bed today, Rachel," said Marilla quietly. Rachel bent over and felt her forehead.
"You don't have a fever. I'll call Dr Tulloch."
"Oh there's no need, I'm sure I'll be fine in a moment or so," replied Marilla.
"Shall I bring you a cup of tea?"
"That would be lovely, thank you."
Back in the kitchen, Rachel was concerned as she put the kettle on. She picked up the phone and called the doctor. "It's about Marilla Cuthbert," she told him. "I'd like you to come and have a look at her." She took the tea up to Marilla, who had fallen back to sleep.
Rachel was loathe to worry Anne, but she felt Anne would rather know what was going on than not, so she dialed her number. The phone was answered by one of the boys–Walter perhaps?
"Hello. This is Mrs Lynde is your mother there?"
"MU – UMMM!" screamed Walter "THERE'S SOMEONE ON THE PHONE FOR YOU…."
Rachel had forgotten how boys behave on the phone, and hadn't held the earpiece away in anticipation. As a result, her ear was ringing when Anne picked up.
"Anne Blythe speaking. Who is calling?"
"It's Rachel, Anne. I'm concerned about Marilla. She couldn't get out of bed this morning." Anne's blood ran cold; nothing could happen to her darling Marilla.
"I'll come right away, on the midday train, Rachel. Perhaps Davy could pick me up from the station?"
An ashen Anne walked into Gilbert's study. He looked up, and strode quickly to her side as he saw the look on her face. "What's the matter?"
"That was Rachel on the phone. Marilla's ill." She shuddered, the tears springing to her eyes. "I have to go to her, Gil. Will you be alright with the children?"
He enveloped her in his arms. "Of course you have to go Anne. Go and pack. Susan and I can manage."
Rachel handed Davy a cup of tea when he came in with the milk, and told him about Marilla.
"I think she'd be better off in Matthew's room; it would make nursing her easier. Can you bring her down for me, please? I'll make the bed."
Davy entered Marilla's room. He hadn't been in her room for years, not since he was a little boy. He noticed that her hair, normally wrapped into a tight bun, was now lying in a braid across her shoulder. Had he ever seen it that way, he couldn't recall?
He bent down to touch Marilla's shoulder, she roused at his touch. He explained Rachel's plan. He gathered her up into his arms; she hardly weighed anything. It was rather disorienting being in his arms. She hadn't been carried since she was a little girl. She rather liked the idea of being in Matthew's room. It would be comforting, almost like being back in her brother's company. Davy carried her down the stairs and gently laid her into the freshly made bed. He lit the fire so the room would be warm.
Dr Tulloch duly arrived and went to examine Marilla. He took her temperature, took out his stethoscope to listen to her heart, and then took her blood pressure, which was quite low. Marilla hardly stirred throughout the examination.
The doctor determined that there was nothing out of the ordinary going on. Marilla was in her late eighties; it might just be her time. He said as much to Rachel. "I'd better call the minister; she'll want him here" she replied.
The minister, Mr McDonald, arrived. Rachel showed him into Matthew's room. He drew up a chair and sat beside Marilla.
She'd been a valued and much loved parishioner for many years. It was always a sad time when one of his flock was to depart this world for the next. Of course, he hoped they would end up in a better place, but they had to leave behind their families, and that was always a sorrowful experience.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.*
Marilla awoke at the words, and smiled at Mr. McDonald. "Do you think I'll see my family again?" She whispered.
"I'm sure you will." He reassured her.
Anne thought that the train ride had never been so slow. Previously, she had experienced happy anticipation on the journey. Dear Green Gables may no longer be home, but it would always hold a special place in her heart, as would its most precious inhabitants.
She reflected on what she had been like as a little girl: how her hair worried her. At twelve, she had considered it the bane of her existence. Over time, it had faded to a nice auburn, and she kept it swept up into a loose bun. Perhaps she had grown into her hair; she rather thought it was one of her best features these days.
Davy was there to meet her as expected. It was good to see him; he had grown into a fine young man. She greeted him warmly and asked after Marilla. "She has grown old lately, Anne. I hope she'll be alright."
Thankfully, the last part of the journey was soon over, and Anne was rushing into the house. She put a foot on the stairs and was pointed towards Matthew's room. "We moved her downstairs to make nursing her easier," said Rachel. "My old knees can't cope with too many trips up those stairs." It made perfect sense; Matthew's room was nice and cozy.
Upon entering the room, Anne saw what looked like a smaller version of Marilla lying in the bed. She was asleep. Mr. McDonald was sitting in a corner near the fire; Anne hadn't realized that it was so serious. She looked back at Rachel, questioningly.
"The doctor thinks it might be her time, Anne. She is getting on. She's been sleeping on and off all day; she'll probably wake soon."
Anne drew up a chair and sat beside her, taking her thin, beloved hand. At the touch, Marilla roused and glanced over to Anne. She smiled at the sight of her. "My girl, my beautiful girl." she murmured.
"Do you want a drink?" Anne offered. Marilla nodded. Anne reached for the cup of water on the bedside table and held her head up with one hand and the cup with the other. Marilla took a couple of small sips. Anne gently lowered her head back down and Marilla closed her eyes again.
"Does Dora know?" asked Anne.
"Yes, she's coming over shortly," replied Rachel. "Do you want a cup of tea? You might want to wash up after the journey."
Anne looked over at the gently sleeping Marilla and determined that it would be safe to leave her for a few minutes. "I'll bring your tea in here and you can sit with her, if you like."
Anne went to wash up and took her bag up to her old room. The Snow Queen, the old cherry tree, was still outside the window, although it was bare at this time of year. She always noticed it, as she had on her first night in Green Gables, covered in blossom. She pulled a couple of books out of her bag, thinking she might need some old friends in the next few days.
So began a sort of vigil. Davy, Dora, Rachel and Anne took turns sitting with Marilla, who dozed intermittently at first, but then for increasingly longer periods. When she awoke, she would see them smiling at her. She knew she was dying, and was not afraid. She'd had a good honest life, and knew she was beloved by many. She hoped she would be reunited with her parents, Matthew and little Joyce. She would miss her earthbound family, but at least she could look down on them and follow their lives from above.
On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro' the field the road runs by
To many-tower'd Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.**
Later, Anne was on her own, reading out loud just in case Marilla could hear her. She glanced up and saw Marilla smiling at her, her blue eyes as loving as ever.
"Mother." Marilla smiled at that.***
"Daughter." It was barely audible; just a breath really. It would be the last word she spoke.
After that, they all sat around the bed. Marilla was breathing very slowly, maybe a breath a minute. With each breath, they'd think it would be her last, and then she'd take another.****
Dr Tulloch came by again and said this could go on for a day or so. Anne phoned Gil and told him to bring the children, that it wouldn't be long now.
When Gil and the children arrived, they filed into the room. Little Rilla whispered to Gil, "Is Aunt Marilla alive?"
"Yes, sweetie, she's still breathing, but I don't think it will be long now." He hugged Anne, as she leant into his chest.
Breath – stillness – breath - stillness. On and on it went. Rather than weep, the family told stories about Marilla. Her astonishment at finding Anne on her doorstep, her wonderful cooking–her pies and preserves were amongst Avonlea's finest, the time Anne dyed her hair green, how Davy and Dora livened up Green Gables, how sad she had been when Matthew died, how happy Gil and Anne and their family made her, what might have been if she had married John Blythe. If that had happened, none of them would have been sitting there in that room.
They laughed and cried; it was a fitting elegy to a life well lived. At one point, they all stopped and listened to the silence, waiting for the next breath. It never came. Gil stood up, took her wrist in his hand and felt for a pulse….
* Psalm 23
** The Lady of Shalott, Tennyson
*** elizasky Glen Notes - Not Ever
**** This is what my aunt did on her deathbed; she lasted 48 hours.