Anne was sitting with Ruby Gillis in the Gillis’ garden after the day had crept lingeringly through it and was gone. It had been a warm, smoky summer afternoon. The world was in a splendor of out-flowering. The idle valleys were full of hazes. The woodways were pranked with shadows and the fields with the purple of the asters.
Anne had given up a moonlight drive to the White Sands beach that she might spend the evening with Ruby. She had so spent many evenings that summer, although she often wondered what good it did any one, and sometimes went home deciding that she could not go again.
Ruby grew paler as the summer waned; the White Sands school was given up—”her father thought it better that she shouldn’t teach till New Year’s”—and the fancy work she loved oftener and oftener fell from hands grown too weary for it. But she was always gay, always hopeful, always chattering and whispering of her beaux, and their rivalries and despairs. It was this that made Anne’s visits hard for her. What had once been silly or amusing was gruesome, now; it was death peering through a wilful mask of life. Yet Ruby seemed to cling to her, and never let her go until she had promised to come again soon. Mrs. Lynde grumbled about Anne’s frequent visits, and declared she would catch consumption; even Marilla was dubious.
“Every time you go to see Ruby you come home looking tired out,” she said.
“It’s so very sad and dreadful,” said Anne in a low tone. “Ruby doesn’t seem to realize her condition in the least. And yet I somehow feel she needs help—craves it—and I want to give it to her and can’t. All the time I’m with her I feel as if I were watching her struggle with an invisible foe—trying to push it back with such feeble resistance as she has. That is why I come home tired.”
But tonight Anne did not feel this so keenly. Ruby was strangely quiet. She said not a word about parties and drives and dresses and “fellows.” She lay in the hammock, with her untouched work beside her, and a white shawl wrapped about her thin shoulders. Her long yellow braids of hair—how Anne had envied those beautiful braids in old schooldays!—lay on either side of her. She had taken the pins out—they made her head ache, she said. The hectic flush was gone for the time, leaving her pale and childlike.
The moon rose in the silvery sky, empearling the clouds around her. Below, the pond shimmered in its hazy radiance. Just beyond the Gillis homestead was the church, with the old graveyard beside it. The moonlight shone on the white stones, bringing them out in clear-cut relief against the dark trees behind.
“How strange the graveyard looks by moonlight!” said Ruby suddenly. “How ghostly!” she shuddered. “Anne, it won’t be long now before I’ll be lying over there. You and Diana and all the rest will be going about, full of life—and I’ll be there—in the old graveyard—dead!”
The surprise of it bewildered Anne. For a few moments she could not speak.
“You know it’s so, don’t you?” said Ruby insistently.
“Yes, I know,” answered Anne in a low tone. “Dear Ruby, I know.”
“Everybody knows it,” said Ruby bitterly. “I know it—I’ve known it all summer, though I wouldn’t give in. And, oh, Anne”—she reached out and caught Anne’s hand pleadingly, impulsively—”I don’t want to die. I’m AFRAID to die.”
“Why should you be afraid, Ruby?” asked Anne quietly.
“Because—because—oh, I’m not afraid but that I’ll go to heaven, Anne. I’m a church member. But—it’ll be all so different. I think—and think—and I get so frightened—and—and—homesick. Heaven must be very beautiful, of course, the Bible says so—but, Anne, IT WON’T BE WHAT I’VE BEEN USED TO.”
Through Anne’s mind drifted an intrusive recollection of a funny story she had heard Philippa Gordon tell—the story of some old man who had said very much the same thing about the world to come. It had sounded funny then—she remembered how she and Priscilla had laughed over it. But it did not seem in the least humorous now, coming from Ruby’s pale, trembling lips. It was sad, tragic—and true! Heaven could not be what Ruby had been used to. There had been nothing in her gay, frivolous life, her shallow ideals and aspirations, to fit her for that great change, or make the life to come seem to her anything but alien and unreal and undesirable. Anne wondered helplessly what she could say that would help her. Could she say anything? “I think, Ruby,” she began hesitatingly—for it was difficult for Anne to speak to any one of the deepest thoughts of her heart, or the new ideas that had vaguely begun to shape themselves in her mind, concerning the great mysteries of life here and hereafter, superseding her old childish conceptions, and it was hardest of all to speak of them to such as Ruby Gillis—”I think, perhaps, we have very mistaken ideas about heaven—what it is and what it holds for us. I don’t think it can be so very different from life here as most people seem to think. I believe we’ll just go on living, a good deal as we live here—and be OURSELVES just the same—only it will be easier to be good and to—follow the highest. All the hindrances and perplexities will be taken away, and we shall see clearly. Don’t be afraid, Ruby.”
“I can’t help it,” said Ruby pitifully. “Even if what you say about heaven is true—and you can’t be sure—it may be only that imagination of yours—it won’t be JUST the same. It CAN’T be. I want to go on living HERE. I’m so young, Anne. I haven’t had my life. I’ve fought so hard to live—and it isn’t any use—I have to die—and leave EVERYTHING I care for.” Anne sat in a pain that was almost intolerable. She could not tell comforting falsehoods; and all that Ruby said was so horribly true. She WAS leaving everything she cared for. She had laid up her treasures on earth only; she had lived solely for the little things of life—the things that pass—forgetting the great things that go onward into eternity, bridging the gulf between the two lives and making of death a mere passing from one dwelling to the other—from twilight to unclouded day. God would take care of her there—Anne believed—she would learn—but now it was no wonder her soul clung, in blind helplessness, to the only things she knew and loved.
Ruby raised herself on her arm and lifted up her bright, beautiful blue eyes to the moonlit skies.
“I want to live,” she said, in a trembling voice. “I want to live like other girls. I—I want to be married, Anne—and—and—have little children. You know I always loved babies, Anne. I couldn’t say this to any one but you. I know you understand. And then poor Herb—he—he loves me and I love him, Anne. The others meant nothing to me, but HE does—and if I could live I would be his wife and be so happy. Oh, Anne, it’s hard.”
Ruby sank back on her pillows and sobbed convulsively. Anne pressed her hand in an agony of sympathy—silent sympathy, which perhaps helped Ruby more than broken, imperfect words could have done; for presently she grew calmer and her sobs ceased.
“I’m glad I’ve told you this, Anne,” she whispered. “It has helped me just to say it all out. I’ve wanted to all summer—every time you came. I wanted to talk it over with you—but I COULDN’T. It seemed as if it would make death so SURE if I SAID I was going to die, or if any one else said it or hinted it. I wouldn’t say it, or even think it. In the daytime, when people were around me and everything was cheerful, it wasn’t so hard to keep from thinking of it. But in the night, when I couldn’t sleep—it was so dreadful, Anne. I couldn’t get away from it then. Death just came and stared me in the face, until I got so frightened I could have screamed.
“But you won’t be frightened any more, Ruby, will you? You’ll be brave, and believe that all is going to be well with you.”
“I’ll try. I’ll think over what you have said, and try to believe it. And you’ll come up as often as you can, won’t you, Anne?”
“It—it won’t be very long now, Anne. I feel sure of that. And I’d rather have you than any one else. I always liked you best of all the girls I went to school with. You were never jealous, or mean, like some of them were. Poor Em White was up to see me yesterday. You remember Em and I were such chums for three years when we went to school? And then we quarrelled the time of the school concert. We’ve never spoken to each other since. Wasn’t it silly? Anything like that seems silly NOW. But Em and I made up the old quarrel yesterday. She said she’d have spoken years ago, only she thought I wouldn’t. And I never spoke to her because I was sure she wouldn’t speak to me. Isn’t it strange how people misunderstand each other, Anne?”
“Most of the trouble in life comes from misunderstanding, I think,” said Anne. “I must go now, Ruby. It’s getting late—and you shouldn’t be out in the damp.”
“You’ll come up soon again.”
“Yes, very soon. And if there’s anything I can do to help you I’ll be so glad.”
“I know. You HAVE helped me already. Nothing seems quite so dreadful now. Good night, Anne.”
“Good night, dear.”
Anne walked home very slowly in the moonlight. The evening had changed something for her. Life held a different meaning, a deeper purpose. On the surface it would go on just the same; but the deeps had been stirred. It must not be with her as with poor butterfly Ruby. When she came to the end of one life it must not be to face the next with the shrinking terror of something wholly different—something for which accustomed thought and ideal and aspiration had unfitted her. The little things of life, sweet and excellent in their place, must not be the things lived for; the highest must be sought and followed; the life of heaven must be begun here on earth.
That good night in the garden was for all time. Anne never saw Ruby in life again. The next night the A.V.I.S. gave a farewell party to Jane Andrews before her departure for the West. And, while light feet danced and bright eyes laughed and merry tongues chattered, there came a summons to a soul in Avonlea that might not be disregarded or evaded. The next morning the word went from house to house that Ruby Gillis was dead. She had died in her sleep, painlessly and calmly, and on her face was a smile—as if, after all, death had come as a kindly friend to lead her over the threshold, instead of the grisly phantom she had dreaded.
Mrs. Rachel Lynde said emphatically after the funeral that Ruby Gillis was the handsomest corpse she ever laid eyes on. Her loveliness, as she lay, white-clad, among the delicate flowers that Anne had placed about her, was remembered and talked of for years in Avonlea. Ruby had always been beautiful; but her beauty had been of the earth, earthy; it had had a certain insolent quality in it, as if it flaunted itself in the beholder’s eye; spirit had never shone through it, intellect had never refined it. But death had touched it and consecrated it, bringing out delicate modelings and purity of outline never seen before—doing what life and love and great sorrow and deep womanhood joys might have done for Ruby. Anne, looking down through a mist of tears, at her old playfellow, thought she saw the face God had meant Ruby to have, and remembered it so always.
Mrs. Gillis called Anne aside into a vacant room before the funeral procession left the house, and gave her a small packet.
“I want you to have this,” she sobbed. “Ruby would have liked you to have it. It’s the embroidered centerpiece she was working at. It isn’t quite finished—the needle is sticking in it just where her poor little fingers put it the last time she laid it down, the afternoon before she died.”
“There’s always a piece of unfinished work left,” said Mrs. Lynde, with tears in her eyes. “But I suppose there’s always some one to finish it.”
“How difficult it is to realize that one we have always known can really be dead,” said Anne, as she and Diana walked home. “Ruby is the first of our schoolmates to go. One by one, sooner or later, all the rest of us must follow.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Diana uncomfortably. She did not want to talk of that. She would have preferred to have discussed the details of the funeral—the splendid white velvet casket Mr. Gillis had insisted on having for Ruby—”the Gillises must always make a splurge, even at funerals,” quoth Mrs. Rachel Lynde—Herb Spencer’s sad face, the uncontrolled, hysteric grief of one of Ruby’s sisters—but Anne would not talk of these things. She seemed wrapped in a reverie in which Diana felt lonesomely that she had neither lot nor part.
“Ruby Gillis was a great girl to laugh,” said Davy suddenly. “Will she laugh as much in heaven as she did in Avonlea, Anne? I want to know.”
“Yes, I think she will,” said Anne.
“Oh, Anne,” protested Diana, with a rather shocked smile.
“Well, why not, Diana?” asked Anne seriously. “Do you think we’ll never laugh in heaven?”
“Oh—I—I don’t know” floundered Diana. “It doesn’t seem just right, somehow. You know it’s rather dreadful to laugh in church.”
“But heaven won’t be like church—all the time,” said Anne.
“I hope it ain’t,” said Davy emphatically. “If it is I don’t want to go. Church is awful dull. Anyway, I don’t mean to go for ever so long. I mean to live to be a hundred years old, like Mr. Thomas Blewett of White Sands. He says he’s lived so long ’cause he always smoked tobacco and it killed all the germs. Can I smoke tobacco pretty soon, Anne?”
“No, Davy, I hope you’ll never use tobacco,” said Anne absently.
“What’ll you feel like if the germs kill me then?” demanded Davy.