FF informs me that my last update to this story was in late August. That's almost six months ago! I had the best of intentions, even resolved to post at least one more chapter before the end of the year - and didn't. But I did enjoy the comments I got, many of which include something along the lines of, "This makes me like Walter and Una!" Well, I'm delighted, although I never thought Walter and Una to be an unconventional or unpopular pairing. They always seemed right in my head (this is what comes of reading books at a young age - they'll always retain that first, unshakeable opinion you had), and no one else would do for these two.
We'll see when I manage to turn out another of these - please, I welcome you to place bets! Who knows? It might be motivational :)
25 July, 1915
And before Walter knew it, his week's leave was almost over, with only a day left to it. It had been a beautiful week, full of poignant, unforgettable hours, long walks and talks and silences.* He had tried to divide his time evenly among his family, but Dad was usually out on a call, and the twins were occupied with Red Cross work with Faith Meredith during the day, so the majority of his daytime hours were spent with Mother and Rilla, while evenings belonged to Dad and the twins on the veranda. With Mother, their talks often took a reminiscent turn, with her talking about her life with Matthew and Marilla, or remembering some aspect of his childhood that had stayed with her to this day. It was during one of these talks that Walter learned the full story of his parents' courtship.
"You know," Mother said one morning when he was helping her and Susan drag the parlor furniture out for an airing, "I never thought this was what life - my life, that is - would look like."
Walter leaned a chair against the railings. "What did you think it would be - diamond sunbursts and marble halls?"
"You know, those were my very words," Mother smiled. "I was a tapestry of opposites then: either life would be diamond sunbursts and so on, or it would be the depths of despair. No in-betweens for little Anne Shirley, thank you very much!"
They struggled to lug the sofa out onto the grass, dropping it on the second step before depositing it on the lawn. At that point, Susan decided they'd earned a break, and bustled inside for lemonade and yesterday's shortbread. Mother reclined on the troublesome sofa, tipping her face towards the sun in defiance of the freckles they both knew would appear as a result of it.
"So you didn't picture yourself marrying Dad and living here?" Logically, Walter knew that one's life was rarely planned out from the start (exhibit A: the fact that he was in khaki), but couldn't imagine that there was a time his parents, clearly meant for one another, hadn't been together.
"What, dear? - oh, good heavens no!" Mother's laugh bubbled up from the sofa. "Never! Whenever I considered marriage, it was always to someone dark, handsome, and mysterious, with the money to support me in a style to which I'd surely become accustomed; certainly not the literal boy next door."
"Then why - how -" Walter trailed off, not entirely certain where to take his question.
"How did we get to this present moment? You and me lugging about furniture?" She was teasing him. "Well," her tone took a more serious turn, "one we'd stopped hating each other - or rather, once I'd stopped hating him - we discovered that we were tremendously well suited to one another, and became firm friends. I'd say bosom companions, except that I already had your Aunt Diana, and can't bear to take the moniker away from her.
"Note, also, that your father claims to have been madly in love with me from the word 'go', so it was more of a friendship overlaid with pining of which, I should add, I was unaware. As a result, your father sacrificed his teaching position for mine, and I realized that our friendship went far deeper than I'd previously thought - are you sure I haven't told you this story before?"
She had. Walter just liked hearing it.
"Let me think, now - we went to Redmond the same year, and continued what I thought was the most wonderful friendship between two chums, until he proposed - and I said no."
Now this was a development he hadn't been aware of. "You mean Dad proposed to you before he got sick?"
Mother's eyebrows rose towards her hairline. "You never heard? I'd have thought your Aunt Phil would have spilled the beans by now on one of your visits. But yes: during our sophomore year, your father proposed to me - and until then, I'd been blissfully oblivious to any feelings he might have had - so I told him he'd spoiled everything, ran away, and didn't speak to him for two years. If I can give you a bit of unsolicited advice, Walter - don't propose to anyone if they know nothing of your feelings. It's terribly unexpected, and won't go over too well."
She stood, taking a carpet beater and handing him its twin. "You know the rest, I suppose. I spent the next two years in the company of one Royal Gardner - the epitome of tall, dark, handsome and wealthy, until I turned down his proposal after Convocation -"
Walter nearly dropped his beater. "Royal Gardner? You mean Professor Gardner? He proposed to you? I'll never be able to look at him the same way, now."
"Goodness, I suppose it is him," Mother gave a chair cushion a solid whack. "Well, after our senior year, your father nearly died of scarlet fever, and I came to my senses - especially since I had the previous proposal weighing on me. After an excruciating few months of being friends, he proposed again, and I very quickly said yes - and here we are."
With Rilla, he went on long walks all over Four Winds, often for hours at a time, sometimes speaking, but mostly basking in the comfortable silence of siblinghood. On his last evening at home they went together to Rainbow Valley and sat down on the bank of the brook, under the White Lady, where the gay revels of olden days had been held in the cloudless years. Rainbow Valley was roofed over with a sunset of unusual splendour that night; a wonderful grey dusk just touched with starlight followed it; and then came moonshine, hinting, hiding, revealing, lighting up little dells and hollows here, leaving others in dark, velvet shadow.
"When I am 'somewhere in France,'" said Walter, looking around him with eager eyes on all the beauty his soul loved, "I shall remember these still, dewy, moon-drenched places. The balsam of the fir-trees; the peace of those white pools of moonshine; the 'strength of the hills'—what a beautiful old Biblical phrase that is. Rilla! Look at those old hills around us—the hills we looked up at as children, wondering what lay for us in the great world beyond them. How calm and strong they are—how patient and changeless—like the heart of a good woman," he said, almost to himself, before realizing to whom he was saying these words, rather than of whom he was thinking,
Walter felt Rilla's small hand slip into his and press it harder than he would have given her credit for. He pressed it back, trying to give her some measure of comfort.
"And when I'm over there, Rilla, in that hell upon earth which men who have forgotten God have made, I know you'll be as plucky and patient as you have shown yourself to be this past year—I'm not afraid for you. I know that no matter what happens, you'll be Rilla-my-Rilla—no matter what happens."
He felt her shudder beside him, and Walter knew that he had said enough. After a moment of silence, he said, "Now we won't be sober any more. We'll look beyond the years—to the time when the war will be over and Jem and Jerry and I will come marching home and we'll all be happy again." He was lying valiantly, and he hoped she wouldn't notice. Why was it, he wondered, that he could share his presentiments about death and the Piper with Di, but not Rilla?
"We won't be—happy—in the same way," said Rilla, a little sob catching in her throat.
"No, not in the same way. Nobody whom this war has touched will ever be happy again in quite the same way." He felt a wave of protectiveness for the little fifteen-year-old beside him, wishing that she could remain unscathed by the war. Wrapping his free arm around her, he continued.
"But it will be a better happiness, I think, little sister—a happiness we've earned. We were very happy before the war, weren't we? With a home like Ingleside, and a father and mother like ours we couldn't help being happy. But that happiness was a gift from life and love; it wasn't really ours—life could take it back at any time."
He thought about Mother, whose happiness had already been taken back, and who had been keeping up a facade of good cheer for the past week - and probably for the last year, now that he thought of it. "Rilla, be awfully good to mother while I'm away. It must be a horrible thing to be a mother in this war—the mothers and sisters and wives and sweethearts have the hardest times." A spark of curiosity struck him, and to confirm his suspicion, he blurted out, "Rilla, you beautiful little thing, are you anybody's sweetheart? If you are, tell me before I go."
"No," said Rilla. "But if—Kenneth Ford—wanted me to be—"
"I see," said Walter, and he did - with heartbreaking clarity. "And Ken's in khaki, too. Poor little girlie, it's a bit hard for you all round."*
Rilla looked away, towards the Manse on the hill. He wondered if she suspected anything - after all, Di had insinuated that Walter had been the last to know his own heart. At the same time, he thought, she was fifteen - no, sixteen, he reminded himself - and rather preoccupied with Ken Ford.
Walter looked about him lingeringly and lovingly. This spot had always been so dear to him. What fun they all had had here lang syne. Phantoms of memory seemed to pace the dappled paths and peep merrily through the swinging boughs—Jem and Jerry, bare-legged, sunburned schoolboys, fishing in the brook and frying trout over the old stone fireplace; Nan and Di and Faith, in their dimpled, fresh-eyed childish beauty; Una the sweet and shy, Carl, poring over ants and bugs, little slangy, sharp-tongued, good-hearted Mary Vance—the old Walter that had been himself lying on the grass reading poetry or wandering through palaces of fancy. They were all there around him—he could see them almost as plainly as he saw Rilla—as plainly as he had once seen the Pied Piper piping down the valley in a vanished twilight. And suddenly they were real, and he was sitting with them - the sole adult in a gaggle of children - and they said to him, those gay little ghosts of other days, "We were the children of yesterday, Walter—fight a good fight for the children of to-day and to-morrow."* And above it all, he faint sound of pipes wrapped its tendrils around him, drawing him deeper into the scene, blurring the line between reality and the figments of his imagination. "The Piper is coming nearer," he said, "he is nearer than he was that evening I saw him before. His long, shadowy cloak is blowing around him. He pipes—he pipes—and we must follow—Jem and Carl and Jerry and I—round and round the world. Listen—listen—can't you hear his wild music?"**
"Where are you, Walter," cried Rilla, laughing a little. "Come back—come back."*
Walter came back to himself with a gasp, his heart pounding. He stood up and looked about him at the beautiful valley of moonlight, trying to capture the memory of the place, to hide it away until the day it would be needed—the great dark plumes of the firs against the silvery sky, the stately White Lady, the old magic of the dancing brook, the faithful Tree Lovers, the beckoning, tricksy paths.
"I shall see it so in my dreams," he said, as he turned away.*
Back at Ingleside, the family were assembled with the Manse folk: Reverend and Mrs. Meredith, as well as Una, Carl, and Faith. Miss Oliver was there too, having come from Lowbridge to say good-bye. Everybody was quite cheerful and bright, but nobody said much about the war being soon over, as they had said when Jem went away. At the end of the evening, they gathered around the piano, with Reverend Meredith leading them in "Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past."
"Oh God, our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come.
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home."
Then it was time for everyone to go. Following their guests to the door, Walter caught Miss Oliver speaking to the Reverend as she pinned her hat on,
"We all come back to God in these days of soul-sifting," she said. "There have been many days in the past when I didn't believe in God—not as God—only as the impersonal Great First Cause of the scientists. I believe in Him now—I have to—there's nothing else to fall back on but God—humbly, starkly, unconditionally."
"'Our help in ages past'—'the same yesterday, to-day and for ever,'" said the minister gently. "When we forget God—He remembers us."*
Slipping out the door, Walter joined the party tramping back into town. Joining Una, who was bringing up the rear, he tucked her hand into his and slowed his steps until the rest had disappeared around the bend up ahead, leaving them alone in the wavering shadows of the pines.
It was a warm night, and Una wore her white cotton lawn church dress with only a thin shawl over her arms. The entire effect was one of pale beauty, gauzy and ethereal in the waning moonlight. Walter felt a deep pang of longing, regret that he would be leaving her the next morning - and for what? The Piper? He knew which of the two he'd rather kiss in Rainbow Valley, that was for certain.
"Oh, Una," he sighed, "I'm so sorry."
"Why would you say that? You haven't done anything," she looked up at him with her usual shy smile.
"I don't know - for taking so long to tell you how I felt, I suppose. For not figuring it out sooner. We could have had this," he gestured around, at the deserted road, made silver by the moon, "so much sooner."
"He hath made every thing beautiful in His time...so that no man may know the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.*** And this last week has been beautiful, hasn't it, Walter?"
He moved so that he stood opposite her, barely a hairsbreadth apart. "It has," he said, a small smile kicking up the corner of his mouth. "Thank you, Emzara." Leaning down, he pressed a soft kiss to her lips.
"This is good-bye, I suppose," Una said sadly. "I'll be at the station tomorrow, of course, but I don't think we want an audience."
"We'd scandalize half of Glen St. Mary, and confirm any rumors for the other half," Walter chuckled, tapering off into a wistful sigh. "Would it really be so bad, though?"
Even in the darkness, the look she sent him was clear. "Fair enough," he said. "Couldn't have them seeing this…" And with that, he swept her into an embrace that would have had half of Four Winds scrambling for their smelling salts.
"I'll write," he blurted out, his forehead resting lightly on hers. "I don't know what I'll write yet, but I will. I've never written love letters before…"
"And you think I have? We'll muddle through, I'm sure."
They had started walking again, since Walter had pointed out that her absence would by now have been noted at the Manse. They strolled silently down the road, until the warm light from the Merediths' windows beckoned to them. And so, with a quick kiss over the Manse gate, Walter's last day home was over.
"Good night, Una."
There was no crowd at the Glen Station the next morning to see Walter off. It was becoming a commonplace for a khaki clad boy to board that early morning train after his last leave. Besides his own, only the Manse folk were there, and Mary Vance.* No one cried, although certainly no one other than Mary Vance was smiling. Mother wrapped him in her arms, squeezing him tight before letting go and stepping back. Dad shook his hand, his hazel eyes reminding him of his words the day he'd enlisted. Carl and Shirley shook his hand, and Dog Monday came out of his shipping-shed to thump his tail and stare wistfully up at him. Hugs and kisses from Nan and Di, although the latter muttered, "Just kiss her in front of us all and be done with it."
When it was her turn, Una proffered her hand, expecting nothing more than the warm handshake he'd given her mother. But Walter bent his handsome black head in its khaki cap and kissed her with the warm intensity of an eternal good-bye. And for a fleeting moment, Una's face betrayed her, if anyone noticed. But nobody did; the conductor was shouting "all aboard"; everybody was trying to look very cheerful.*
Walter turned to Rilla, who held out her hands and gave him a sweet smile. "Good-bye." On her lips it lost all the bitterness it had won through the ages of parting and bore instead all the sweetness of the old loves of all the women who had ever loved and prayed for the beloved.*
Once again, Walter felt a wash of protective tenderness for the woman-child in front of him. "God bless you, Rilla-my-Rilla," he said softly and tenderly.* Then the train whistle blew, his last warning to get aboard. Bags were hoisted, the final passengers scrambled on, and Walter stood on the rear platform, watching Una and Rilla, the two girls who loved him most*, wave good-bye to him until the train rounded the curve of the wooded hill, and he could see them no longer.
*Rilla of Ingleside
This chapter's title is taken from the song "Send Me Away With a Smile," (lyrics by Louis Weslyn, music by Al Piantadosi, 1917).
I haven't got much by way of author's notes this time. This is what happens when you write a chapter five months ago, send it to your beta reader, receive edits, forget about the existence of said chapter (or possibly don't feel like sitting down to re-write said chapter), and then decide to re-write and post after four months of procrastination: you don't remember much of anything about your research!
On second thought (and I say this while performing a final proof-read): airing out furniture. Is that anything so-called "normal" people do anymore? I do; I have to, since bringing furniture outside and beating the dickens out of it helps keep it dust-free, but I don't often see others attacking their sofas with rug beaters. But I highly recommend the practice - sunlight will act as a sort of disinfectant and antifungal, but it's the walloping that's the true fun. One afternoon of stress-relief, if you please!
And to those of you who've stuck with this tale for what's quickly coming up on three years - thank you. Your patience is far greater than mine would be in this situation, and for that I am truly thankful.