Chapter One: Melodramatic
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faerie's child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
-Keats, from La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Gilbert Blythe was glad to be going back to school.
The tall, dark thirteen-year-old boy had not walked to Avonlea School like this for four or five years. Since his father's illness Gilbert had not even set foot in Avonlea, until several months ago.
Mr. Blythe had taken his son with him to Alberta to have a go at the "prairie cure" for the father's bout of consumption; and, Gilbert was proud and glad to say, it had worked, and now John Blythe was as hale and hearty as Gilbert recalled him from childhood. Unfortunately in all this time Gilbert did not attend school.
Then the whole family had been in New Brunswick, visiting cousins, from July to middle-September; and now it was 24 September, 1877, and Gilbert was multitasking.
Not that walking to school and eavesdropping on people—girls, to be precise—who were talking about oneself, was ever a grand feat, but it was what Gilbert was doing. He walked carefully behind the two eleven-year-old sprites, far enough away so as not to be noticed, yet still in earshot.
"…he's aw'fly handsome, Anne," exclaimed Diana Barry, a girl of pretty complexion and black hair, with an earnestness that confused the "aw'fly handsome" boy. "And he teases the girls something terrible."
Which was true.
"He just torments our lives out," concluded Diana, although she seemed to rather look forward to being tormented to death.
The other girl, whose face Gilbert could not see, tossed a red braid scornfully over her shoulder. This was Anne Shirley, a newcomer to Avonlea, a girl who the Cuthberts over at Green Gables had adopted.
Gilbert had heard about Anne Shirley ever since his return from New Brunswick several weeks ago. She had arrived, an orphan, a stray waif, in June. The other girls said Anne was "different," with an air that indicated they rather liked the difference. The boys remarked upon her "queerness," which they would not elaborate upon, but which they seemed to be almost wary of. Little Jerry Buote, the Cuthberts' hired boy, claimed Anne Shirley was crazy and talked to herself; then again, Jerry Buote was not an altogether credible source, having only begun work at Green Gables several days before. Mrs. Rachel Lynde noted that she was "an odd, inquisitive little thing," but approvingly. To top it all off, Charlie Sloane, Gilbert's closest chum, had, in front of Mrs. Sloane herself, assured Gilbert that Anne was "the smartest girl in school"; coming from Charlie this meant "the prettiest."
"Gilbert Blythe?" Anne Shirley was saying. "Isn't it his name that's written up on the porch with Julia Bell's and a big 'Take Notice' over them?"
Gilbert stopped walking for several seconds. When had Julia Bell—or who ever had posted the "Take Notice", for that matter—contrived of such an unlikely thing? Gilbert liked Julia Bell rather little.
"Yes, but I'm sure he doesn't like Julia Bell so very much," said Diana doubtfully. (Gilbert silently thanked Diana.) "I've heard him say he studied the multiplication table by her freckles." (Gilbert revoked his gratitude hastily, as he could not remember ever having made such a statement, let alone having got close enough to Julia Bell to count her freckles.)
"Oh, don't speak about freckles to me!" cried Anne. "It isn't delicate when I've got so many! But," she went on, "I do think that writing take-notices up on the wall about boys and girls is the silliest ever. I should just like to see any body dare write my name up with a boy's!" She sighed. "Not, of course, that any body would."
"Nonsense!" chastised Diana. "It's only meant as a joke. And anyways, don't you be too sure you name won't ever be written up. Charlie Sloane is dead gone on you. He told Gilbert Blythe and Mrs. Sloane—Charlie's mother mind you—that you were the smartest girl in the whole school; that's much better than good-looking."
"No, it isn't!" wailed Anne. 'I'd rather be pretty than clever! And I positively despise Charlie Sloane; I can't bear a boy with goggle-eyes. If any one wrote my name up with his I'd never get over it, Diana Barry."
Gilbert had begun to think that Anne Shirley waxed a bit melodramatic.
"Though it is nice to keep head of your class," Anne conceded.
"You'll have Gilbert in you class after this, and he's used to being head of his class, I can tell you." Diana elaborated, telling the history of Gilbert's schooling—or lack thereof—for the past four or five years. "You won't find it so easy to keep head after this, Anne."
"I'm glad. I couldn't really feel proud of keeping head of little boys and girls of just nine or ten. I got up yesterday spelling 'ebullition'. Josie Pye was head and she peeped in her book. Mr. Phillips didn't see her; he was looking at Prissy Andrews, but I did. I just swept her a look of freezing scorn and she got red as a beet and spelled it wrong, after all." Anne nodded in satisfaction.
The two girls climbed over the fence of the main road, still talking, and Gilbert lost hearing of it. Oh, well. He should not have been listening so intently to their chatter in the first place.
Even if it was mostly about him.
"Class, I would be extremely gratified if you would sit down and stop talking," Mr. Phillips pleaded sarcastically.
Instantly the class subsided, hating the sarcastic inflection Theodore Phillips often utilized, like a whip cracked just over their heads.
He smiled obsequiously. "Thank you. Now if you are in the arithmetic class, please practise your long division, and fractions. French class, you may review your irregular verbs, and the difference between themselves and the regular verbs, while I listen to Priscilla Andrews' Latin."
While Mr. Andrews flirted shamelessly with Prissy Andrews in the back of the classroom where she was seated, Gilbert tried to study être, aller and avoir. But soon he was distracted, not only because he already spoke French fluently and was therefore reasonably bored, but because the long, silky golden braid of Ruby Gillis in front of him whisked about a little every time she put—well, slate pencil to slate.
Without moving his gaze from the end of the yellow plait, Gilbert rummaged about in his seemingly endless boy-pockets before a prick and a vehement exclamation from his own mouth reassured him that he was currently in possession of several straight pins. Sucking the injured index and middle fingers of his left hand, Gilbert directed his eyes this time to his filled pocket. Carefully he extricated from the chaos of string, broken glass, bits of wire, scraps of paper, glass beads, a brass knob, and other such useful objects, a paper full of straight pins. Gilbert slid one out, and began, surreptitiously, his breathing quiet and shallow, to fasten Ruby's braid to the back of her seat.
Soon Ruby, having just conquered her long-division exercise, began to stand to take her slate to Mr. Phillips for corrections; the pin caught her by the hair, of course, and she shrieked, collapsing into her seat again with a whump. All Avonlea School, including the teacher, stared so hard in startled inquiry that ruby promptly burst into tears; meanwhile, Gilbert had taken out his Canadian history and concealed the pin between Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain.
After a period of about forty seconds, as all was quiet again, he glared to glance around.
His hazel eyes met the quietly disdainful stare of Anne Shirley, seated directly across from himself. She regarded him dubiously, apparently displeased by the roguish humiliation of a girl who was, no doubt, one of her intimates.
Gilbert almost stared back. Anne was certainly not as homely as she claimed herself to be. Instead she was possessed of pale skin, with fewer freckles than she had led him to believe; grey eyes that seemed to sparkle with beauty, vivacity and imagination; and fiery red hair that rather enhanced her resemblance of an aerie sprite as opposed to the unfashionable colour red hair was generally considered. Also, she had a very nice nose.
In fact, she was rather pretty, despite the frown twisting her delicate features at present.
This last revelation was what caught Gilbert up short. He snapped back to life, gave the red-headed girl a wink and a grin, and returned to the French and Iroquois Wars.
Out of the corner of his eye he watched Anne Shirley sigh despondently, turn to Diana Barry next to her, and whisper furiously.
He shook his head. Melodramatic was right.