Shirley Blythe had been born lucky.
It was almost a pun, a silly little joke, but while Mother had suffered all sorts of complications after his birth, and Dad said he wouldn't have lived with Susan's tender care, he'd nevertheless survived and thrived – it had taken months for Mother to recover fully. Some would have called his fate luck; Aunt Marilla said it was Providence and Susan proclaimed it a mercy. He knew vaguely of another child, a daughter of Mother and Dad's, who had been born before Jem and lived for only a day. Nobody would have dared to call her unlucky. Certainly Susan never told him he was lucky when she tucked him into bed at night – she rarely permitted Mother to do it – though she always called him 'that blessed boy'. Maybe there was more to that remark than anyone had supposed?
There was the time, of course, when he was two and had gone adventuring, as two-year-olds are apt to do. There was a frantic search over a growing radius, culminating in relief and horror when he was finally located in a stable, standing underneath one of the horses. 'Mrs Dr dear, never shall I be the same woman again,' declared Susan, who cradled Shirley to her chest as if anxious to keep from another such occurrence.
The next 'incident' happened not long afterwards. Susan had just put the baby to bed – two-month-old Rilla being the latest addition to the family – when Di tried to enter the bathroom and found it locked. An investigation by Mother and Susan, joined quickly by the other three, curiosity-ridden children, again proved this to be the case – a bizarre situation, as the door could only be locked from within.
While they stood about, at a collective loss for what to do, Di said, 'Where's Shirley?'
'Maybe he's inside,' said Nan blithely. Susan turned quite green and gave the handle a more forceful wrench than she otherwise would have dared to do.
'Surely not!' said Mother, feeling lightheaded and grasping the wooden doorjamb for support. Walter gravely noted the pun, and it was he who was later responsible for its enduring popularity in the Blythe household.
'I can pick the lock,' offered Jem, who had never picked a lock in his life, but was hopeful for a chance to prove his skills.
'This is what comes of letting children run about unsupervised,' said Aunt Mary Maria, coming up behind them. 'Now, I'll leave it up to you to tell Gilbert, Annie, but rest assured that such goings-on were not permitted in my day.'
Mother laughed to stop herself groaning aloud.
'He could be asleep,' said Jem, who had been industriously digging at the lock with one of Di's hairpins while Walter and the twins watched.
Mother looked doubtful.
'That child could fall asleep inside a hurricane, Mrs Dr dear,' reminded Susan gravely. Susan did not have a clear idea of exactly what a hurricane was, but had heard from the papers that it was something loud, messy and catastrophic.
'Oh … I suppose,' said Mother vaguely. Somehow, it did not occur to her to worry much about her youngest son. Shirley never caused trouble – at least not on the scale that the other Blythe children did.
'If any child ever fulfilled the obligation of being seen and not heard, this one certainly overdid it,' said Aunt Mary Maria, with the impression that she was making a witty remark. 'I've heard that such children are easier to manage; unless, of course, you lose complete track of them …'
Mother tried to regain some semblance of sanity.
'I'm sure Shirley's fine – Jem, would you pass that here, please?' She jiggled the hairpin in the lock. After several tense moments – during which Aunt Mary Maria tsk-tsked and Susan glared daggers – there was a faint click and the door sprang open. There was Shirley, Susan's 'little brown boy', curled up against the bath and fast asleep.
They never did find out why he'd been in the bathroom in the first place (Susan forbade rigorous lines of questioning), but it was eventually revealed that he'd locked the door and forgotten how to let himself out.
Dad laughed when he heard the story, and wondered out loud whether Shirley might be the adventurous one of the family after all. But something happened when he was about three that turned this notion into nothing but wishful thinking. Very suddenly and sadly, so swiftly they could not pinpoint exactly when it happened, Shirley stopped talking completely. There was no childish babbling, no lisped whispers that tickled Anne's ears as she listened to charming secrets. Sure, he had never been as gregarious as Jem or Di, but this silence was nevertheless unsettling.
'He'll talk when he's ready,' seemed to be the constant reassurance, both from Dad and others. And yet, it was strange, because Shirley had talked before – who could forget that dreadful day when he'd said distinctly said, 'Ugly old Aunt Maywia'? It was when Rilla turned one and began to eclipse him with her eager desperation to form words that anybody really suspected that anything might be wrong. Susan could have him in the kitchen with her – 'to keep an eye on him', she said – and he would sit in a corner for hours, so silent that sometimes even she forgot he was there. There was no return kiss when she tucked him into bed, no sleepy, 'Good night, Thuthan,' like she heard from Rilla. To kind Susan's heart, this spoke of grave trouble, and she resolved to pay even more attention to Shirley than she already did, in the hopes that he might one day respond.
There was an isolated incident, however, which served to reassure caring hearts at Ingleside, at least a little. Jem had brought Bertie Shakespeare Drew to Ingleside, later to spend a happy afternoon in Rainbow Valley, and they had entered the kitchen in search of Susan's 'apple crunch pie' when they spied four-year-old Shirley perched on a kitchen chair and staring into space.
'Oh, this is Shirley,' Jem said quickly, taking the apple crunch pie Susan had left out for them. On an impulse, he added, though he knew it would be worthless, 'Shirley, this is Bertie Shakespeare Drew.'
'Why won't he say anything?'
It was fortunate for Bertie that Susan had ducked out on an errand and was not in earshot, or he might have never tasted her pies again.
Shirley, meanwhile, stood up, brushed himself off carefully, faced Bertie and said distinctly, 'I'm not stupid.'
There was a stunned silence.
Jem burst into shaky laughter. 'You tell him, Shirley,' he said, half-hopefully, but already Shirley, unconcerned, had sat back down and reverted to his usual state, and only Jem and Bertie Shakespeare Drew were witness to the small miracle that had just taken place. Jem never told a lie, and was old enough to know when to embellish for a good story and when not to; nevertheless, the tale was difficult to believe that night at the supper table.
'You're certain he spoke?' repeated Mother, glancing at Shirley as if hoping to provoke him into another bout of relative talkativeness.
Jem nodded vigorously. Nan frowned. Di looked hopeful. Walter, who had been staring into space while composing a poem, snapped back to reality with an unpleasant jolt, trying vainly to remember scanty lines before they darted away, out of his memory.
'And he didn't – he didn't say anything else, did he?'
When this was answered in the negative, Mother felt pangs of fear and worry for the first time. 'You don't suppose that there could be something wrong with him, Gilbert?'
The doctor could not give her an answer.
'Surely not,' piped up Walter, having caught as much of his poem as he could (not much), and resorting to a pun instead. Nan giggled, but very softly, and then they were all upholding the traditional Ingleside laughter – even Susan, who did not quite understand what the fuss was about. All except Shirley.
Those were the first words said to seven-year-old Shirley upon his arrival at the Glen schoolhouse in September. Two older boys – his brother Walter's age, perhaps – who always spared a condescending glance for all the six- and seven-year-olds starting school, had alighted upon the youngest Blythe boy, being well acquainted with Jem, Walter, Nan and Di and therefore curious to find out what this fifth instalment was like.
Shirley looked up, frowning.
'Surely not!' they said together, then burst into sniggers.
No doubt if the schoolboys of the Glen had known the meaning of the word 'blithe', they would have taken every advantage of it. As it was, they thought they were being exceedingly funny.
'Anyway, Shirley's a sissy name,' said the first boy, still snorting.
Jem would have risen up and demanded a fair battle in defence of his honour; Walter would have blushed crimson and ducked his head. Shirley did neither. He was already turning away, unconcerned, when Jem actually did appear, surveyed the situation correctly, and cast a warning look in the boys' direction.
'You leave him alone!'
'We were only having fun,' said the second boy warily, nevertheless edging away from Shirley; Jem had a knack with his fists, and if his protection of his bookish and seen-to-be cowardly brother Walter was anything to go by, he would not take kindly to anyone bothering Shirley.
'Anyway, he's too quiet,' said the first boy, as an offhand parting remark, and even he would have felt guilty had he known how much it stung Jem to hear it. 'Why doesn't he talk? He should talk. It ain't normal. He doesn't even cry.'
'That's none of your business,' said Jem, with a lofty attitude that would have done credit to Nan. 'You leave him alone and he'll leave you alone.' And he made sure that Shirley was well settled in before giving any thought to finding his friends.
Anne and Gilbert wondered about how Shirley would cope with school, but they need not have worried, for there he seemed to find his passion. He was not brilliant at compositions – his efforts tended to be short, stiff and factual – but he adored arithmetic, and the teacher could give him countless problems that would keep him entertained for hours on end. During lunch and recess, he stayed indoors and continued to plough away at his work, oblivious to the shouts and cheers from without and his teacher's gentle questions of concern from within. One day, a brown-eyed schoolmate who liked Shirley for his quiet nature and good looks approached him, tapping her small fists on his desk.
'Why don't you talk in school?' she asked curiously.
Shirley did not hear her. He was busy filling up a corner of his slate with any amount of tiny numbers.
'Pick a number,' he said quietly.
He did not repeat his request, knowing that she had heard.
'All right, seven,' she said, humouring him.
He scratched more figures on the slate. His whole demeanour had changed – no longer introverted and reclusive, but bright and excited about what he had found out. 'Look,' he said. 'If you take the numbers on either side of it – six and eight in this case – and multiply them together, then the product is always going to be one away from the square of the original number.' He tilted his slate, now thick with scribbles – towards her. 'Forty-eight is one away from forty-nine, don't you see?'
'Yes, but …' Her voice trailed away as she realised that he wasn't talking to her so he could listen to what she had to say, but because he needed someone to share this wonderful discovery with. She couldn't even begin to understand how important this was to him.
'And I'm sure it'll work with any number you choose,' continued Shirley, oblivious to her thoughts. 'Let's go for twelve this time … all right, eleven times thirteen is one hundred and forty-three …'
He didn't even look up when she left, just kept scribbling number after number on the slate.
In those days, autism was unheard of, though of course it existed. Shirley was fortunate that that which we call a disorder nowadays did not have a negative effect on his schooling. His arithmetic was superb, if his social skills were lacking. He adored routine and was uncomfortable with physical contact, but at ease in the company of the equally quiet Una Meredith. When he left Ingleside for his first year at Queen's in 1913, it was with no grand ambitions of becoming a teacher or joining high society, but simply because he wanted to learn as much as he possibly could. He and Carl came home to the Glen for the weekends and Susan made his favourite dishes, occasionally wiping away an old maid's sentimental tears at how far he had come from the small silent boy who sat in the corner of the kitchen. 'I'm not stupid', indeed. He'd gone above and beyond the call of duty to prove his statement at the age of four.
Shirley was not old enough to enlist when the Great War reached Canada in July 1914, but he stood by stoically while Jem and Jerry bade the Glen goodbye for a higher, grander adventure. A boy's dream, maybe, but Shirley was no ordinary boy.
I never thought I'd like the letter-writing part of this beastly business, but if truth be told, I was so intimidated by the fat envelope you sent me that I felt I had to respond in kind. Ingleside sounds so inviting that I would be homesick if I only knew how. When I left, I wasn't worried I'd be homesick at all. Those years I spent at Queen's got me used to being away from Ingleside, but it's a little odd not being able to visit for weekends.
Scratch that part about not feeling homesick. When I went for my first solo flight last week, I was excited for it the way I've never been excited for anything before. But I was dreadfully disappointed when it actually happened. I expected to experience the sensation of soaring up from the earth like a bird – instead, I felt as though the earth were dropping away below me, leaving me adrift in space. It's one thing to be alone, Spider, and I've never minded being by myself, but it's another to be lonely. All I had was a wild desire to get back home, away from the nightmare and terrible loneliness. My next flights were not half so bad – I soon got used to it – but that first one was ghastly.
You wrote in your letter about an impetuous decision you made, which I couldn't stop mulling over last night before I went to sleep, because decisions without premeditation seemed such a foreign concept to me. I realised that I've always had to try and think what other people would do in order to predict what I'm supposed to do in any situation. It's such hard work, and I'm slowly coming to realise that not everybody has to go through this. Do you constantly wonder if you see the world differently, Spider? I know I do.
Tell Susan I miss her pies and her presence both. I would write to her tonight as well, but there isn't time, and I'm already sorry this isn't longer. You'll be all grown up when I return – you almost are already. I shall have to stop calling you 'Spider' soon, so enjoy this while it lasts.
Your brother, Shirley Blythe
One day the Piper came down the Glen …
Fate had a way of playing a cruel hand. Carl Meredith lost an eye; Miller Douglas lost a leg. Jem had been 'wounded and missing' for months, and Walter would never come home. And that wasn't counting the battered hearts of hundreds and thousands of brave girls and women who fought their own battles away from the front, 'keeping the faith' when all seemed lost.
Shirley was one of the last of the Glen boys to arrive home, and he did it unscathed. He would not learn until much later how lucky – again with that word! – he had really been. In 1917, the life expectancy for a British pilot on the western front was a mere six weeks.
When he stepped onto the platform at the Glen stop, the station was deserted – like Jem, Shirley had taken the afternoon train, which was seldom used by passengers to Glen St Mary. The train, while not particularly crowded, had been busy enough to make him crave seclusion once more. Yes, being in the flying-corps had meant solo flights, but that had been different. That was a warzone, whereas Rainbow Valley could not have changed. Could it?
It had been two years since he'd visited. As he avoided the street that led to Ingleside and cut through the woods towards Rainbow Valley instead, he felt an insatiable urge to whistle. The war was over – he was home – he hoped to go to Redmond in September – he certainly felt more cheerful than he had in months. But when he burst into the familiar clearing, the would-be song died before it reached his lips.
He was not alone. A figure in a blue dress lay under the silver birch-tree that the Walter of long ago had named the White Lady. Shirley realised she was Una Meredith and relaxed. She was a year older than he was, and although he did not know her overly well, he liked her company because she was sensitive and never tried to make small talk or speak to him in lieu of listening to what he might have to say. For a moment, he hesitated – she had her back to him and seemed to be reading something. He knew firsthand how irritating it was to be interrupted while reading, and considered just going on up to Ingleside after all.
Something, however, must have alerted her to his presence; at any rate, she sat up, tucking a letter into her dress as she looked up and met his eyes: sweet, shy, Una Meredith – no longer the ten-year-old of the Rainbow Valley days, but slender and blue-eyed and beautiful, with her long black hair pinned up.
The letter dropped from her nerveless fingers, and she scrambled to retrieve it.
'Shirley Blythe!' Una's eyes were round and astonished. 'We weren't expecting you until next month!'
'I had a stroke of luck.' Too late, he remembered that he should have said 'hello' first. Was a handshake appropriate in this case? Was a hug too intimate?
'Have you been up to Ingleside?'
'Not yet,' was the laconic answer.
'You … you didn't send a telegram?'
'I didn't want a fuss,' he said honestly. He had spent one and a half years fighting a war – he had nothing on any of the other boys, many of whom had been injured or lost their lives. And he had never been charismatic or particularly inspiring, just the quiet boy who spent hours multiplying numbers on his slate in school and poring over aviation literature at home. 'England expects that every man will do his duty' … in a way, he still felt that that was all there was to it, and was slightly uncomfortable with his ever-present impression that he was missing out on a vital piece of the puzzle of humanity.
'Of course you know – Rilla would have written to you – but Little Dog Monday was over the moon when Jem came home.'
Shirley nodded, remembering a long-ago day in 1914 when he had unsuccessfully tried to convince Monday to come home to Ingleside after Jem's train had gone. 'Guess Monday has made up his mind to wait there 'til Jem comes back,' he'd said, with a feeble attempt at a light-hearted tone. Of course, he hadn't known then how true his words were.
They were silent for a long while, neither of them feeling the urge to speak. The shadows were lengthening and Shirley was just thinking he ought to be getting up to Ingleside when Una spoke what was on his mind. So instead he proffered his arm, the way he had done on a July night at the Four Winds lighthouse almost five years ago.
'Will you walk with me?'
But Una shook her head. 'I must tell the others the news.' Impulsively, she gave him a hug, then left in the direction of the manse, the letter secure in her hand.
Shirley watched her go without any sentimental feelings, then made his own departure. The sun was setting by the time he passed the Glen pond and rounded the brook, stepping past its origin in the maple grove and up the hill to Ingleside. The big front lawn had been ploughed up while he'd been away, only now allowed to return to its former glory. He made his way to the back door next to the kitchen, where he was sure he would find Susan – the half angel and half good cook that she was.
When he opened the door and she saw him, she dropped the plate she had been holding. The look on her face was one he would never forget. He was the apple of her eye, more hers than any of his brothers and sisters – and she was such a brick. People grew and changed and still looked at him askance, but she had always treated him the same, and he loved her for it the way he appreciated no one else on earth. He opened his mouth and said the words he'd been rehearsing in his head on the walk from Rainbow Valley.
'Mother Susan, I've come home.'