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IN THE DAYS OF LANGEMARCK
“How can spring come and be beautiful in such a horror,” wrote Rilla in her diary. “When the sun shines and the fluffy yellow catkins are coming out on the willow-trees down by the brook, and the garden is beginning to be beautiful I can’t realize that such dreadful things are happening in Flanders. But they are!
“This past week has been terrible for us all, since the news came of the fighting around Ypres and the battles of Langemarck and St. Julien. Our Canadian boys have done splendidly–General French says they ‘saved the situation,’ when the Germans had all but broken through. But I can’t feel pride or exultation or anything but a gnawing anxiety over Jem and Jerry and Mr. Grant. The casualty lists are coming out in the papers every day–oh, there are so many of them. I can’t bear to read them for fear I’d find Jem’s name–for there have been cases where people have seen their boys’ names in the casualty lists before the official telegram came. As for the telephone, for a day or two I just refused to answer it, because I thought I could not endure the horrible moment that came between saying ‘Hello’ and hearing the response. That moment seemed a hundred years long, for I was always dreading to hear ‘There is a telegram for Dr. Blythe.’ Then, when I had shirked for a while, I was ashamed of leaving it all for mother or Susan, and now I make myself go. But it never gets any easier. Gertrude teaches school and reads compositions and sets examination papers just as she always has done, but I know her thoughts are over in Flanders all the time. Her eyes haunt me.
“And Kenneth is in khaki now, too. He has got a lieutenant’s commission and expects to go overseas in midsummer, so he wrote me. There wasn’t much else in the letter–he seemed to be thinking of nothing but going overseas. I shall not see him again before he goes–perhaps I will never see him again. Sometimes I ask myself if that evening at Four Winds was all a dream. It might as well be–it seems as if it happened in another life lived years ago–and everybody has forgotten it but me.
“Walter and Nan and Di came home last night from Redmond. When Walter stepped off the train Dog Monday rushed to meet him, frantic with joy. I suppose he thought Jem would be there, too. After the first moment, he paid no attention to Walter and his pats, but just stood there, wagging his tail nervously and looking past Walter at the other people coming out, with eyes that made me choke up, for I couldn’t help thinking that, for all we knew, Monday might never see Jem come off that train again. Then, when all the people were out, Monday looked up at Walter, gave his hand a little lick as if to say, ‘I know it isn’t your fault he didn’t come–excuse me for feeling disappointed,’ and then he trotted back to his shed, with that funny little sidelong waggle of his that always makes it seem that his hind legs are travelling directly away from the point at which his forelegs are aiming.
“We tried to coax him home with us–Di even got down and kissed him between the eyes and said, ‘Monday, old duck, won’t you come up with us just for the evening?’ And Monday said–he did!–‘I am very sorry but I can’t. I’ve got a date to meet Jem here, you know, and there’s a train goes through at eight.’
“It’s lovely to have Walter back again though he seems quiet and sad, just as he was at Christmas. But I’m going to love him hard and cheer him up and make him laugh as he used to. It seems to me that every day of my life Walter means more to me.
“The other evening Susan happened to say that the mayflowers were out in Rainbow Valley. I chanced to be looking at mother when Susan spoke. Her face changed and she gave a queer little choked cry. Most of the time mother is so spunky and gay you would never guess what she feels inside; but now and then some little thing is too much for her and we see under the surface. ‘Mayflowers!’ she said. ‘Jem brought me mayflowers last year!’ and she got up and went out of the room. I would have rushed off to Rainbow Valley and brought her an armful of mayflowers, but I knew that wasn’t what she wanted. And after Walter got home last night he slipped away to the valley and brought mother home all the mayflowers he could find. Nobody had said a word to him about it–he just remembered himself that Jem used to bring mother the first mayflowers and so he brought them in Jem’s place. It shows how tender and thoughtful he is. And yet there are people who send him cruel letters!
“It seems strange that we can go in with ordinary life just as if nothing were happening overseas that concerned us, just as if any day might not bring us awful news. But we can and do. Susan is putting in the garden, and mother and she are housecleaning, and we Junior Reds are getting up a concert in aid of the Belgians. We have been practising for a month and having no end of trouble and bother with cranky people. Miranda Pryor promised to help with a dialogue and when she had her part all learnt her father put his foot down and refused to allow her to help at all. I am not blaming Miranda exactly, but I do think she might have a little more spunk sometimes. If she put her foot down once in a while she might bring her father to terms, for she is all the housekeeper he has and what would he do if she ‘struck’? If I were in Miranda’s shoes I’d find some way of managing Whiskers-on-the-moon. I would horse-whip him, or bite him, if nothing else would serve. But Miranda is a meek and obedient daughter whose days should be long in the land.
“I couldn’t get anyone else to take the part, because nobody liked it, so finally I had to take it myself. Olive Kirk is on the concert committee and goes against me in every single thing. But I got my way in asking Mrs. Channing to come out from town and sing for us, anyhow. She is a beautiful singer and will draw such a crowd that we will make more than we will have to pay her. Olive Kirk thought our local talent good enough and Minnie Clow won’t sing at all now in the choruses because she would be so nervous before Mrs. Channing. And Minnie is the only good alto we have! There are times when I am so exasperated that I feel tempted to wash my hands of the whole affair; but after I dance round my room a few times in sheer rage I cool down and have another whack at it. Just at present I am racked with worry for fear the Isaac Reeses are taking whooping-cough. They have all got a dreadful cold and there are five of them who have important parts in the programme and if they go and develop whooping-cough what shall I do? Dick Reese’s violin solo is to be one of our titbits and Kit Reese is in every tableau and the three small girls have the cutest flag-drill. I’ve been toiling for weeks to train them in it, and now it seems likely that all my trouble will go for nothing.
“Jims cut his first tooth today. I am very glad, for he is nearly nine months old and Mary Vance has been insinuating that he is awfully backward about cutting his teeth. He has begun to creep but doesn’t crawl as most babies do. He trots about on all fours and carries things in his mouth like a little dog. Nobody can say he isn’t up to schedule time in the matter of creeping anyway–away ahead of it indeed, since ten months is Morgan’s average for creeping. He is so cute, it will be a shame if his dad never sees him. His hair is coming on nicely too, and I am not without hope that it will be curly.
“Just for a few minutes, while I’ve been writing of Jims and the concert, I’ve forgotten Ypres and the poison gas and the casualty lists. Now it all rushes back, worse than ever. Oh, if we could just know that Jem is all right! I used to be so furious with Jem when he called me Spider. And now, if he would just come whistling through the hall and call out, ‘Hello, Spider,’ as he used to do, I would think it the loveliest name in the world.”
Rilla put away her diary and went out to the garden. The spring evening was very lovely. The long, green, seaward-looking glen was filled with dusk, and beyond it were meadows of sunset. The harbour was radiant, purple here, azure there, opal elsewhere. The maple grove was beginning to be misty green. Rilla looked about her with wistful eyes. Who said that spring was the joy of the year? It was the heart-break of the year. And the pale-purply mornings and the daffodil stars and the wind in the old pine were so many separate pangs of the heart-break. Would life ever be free from dread again?
“It’s good to see P.E.I. twilight once more,” said Walter, joining her. “I didn’t really remember that the sea was so blue and the roads so red and the wood nooks so wild and fairy haunted. Yes, the fairies still abide here. I vow I could find scores of them under the violets in Rainbow Valley.”
Rilla was momentarily happy. This sounded like the Walter of yore. She hoped he was forgetting certain things that had troubled him.
“And isn’t the sky blue over Rainbow Valley?” she said, responding to his mood. “Blue–blue–you’d have to say ‘blue’ a hundred times before you could express how blue it is.”
Susan wandered by, her head tied up with a shawl, her hands full of garden implements. Doc, stealthy and wild-eyed, was shadowing her steps among the spirea bushes.
“The sky may be blue,” said Susan, “but that cat has been Hyde all day so we will likely have rain tonight and by the same token I have rheumatism in my shoulder.”
“It may rain–but don’t think rheumatism, Susan–think violets,” said Walter gaily–rather too gaily, Rilla thought.
Susan considered him unsympathetic.
“Indeed, Walter dear, I do not know what you mean by thinking violets,” she responded stiffly, “and rheumatism is not a thing to be joked about, as you may some day realize for yourself. I hope I am not of the kind that is always complaining of their aches and pains, especially now when the news is so terrible. Rheumatism is bad enough but I realize, and none better, that it is not to be compared to being gassed by the Huns.”
“Oh, my God, no!” exclaimed Walter passionately. He turned and went back to the house.
Susan shook her head. She disapproved entirely of such ejaculations. “I hope he will not let his mother hear him talking like that,” she thought as she stacked the hoes and rake away.
Rilla was standing among the budding daffodils with tear-filled eyes. Her evening was spoiled; she detested Susan, who had somehow hurt Walter; and Jem–had Jem been gassed? Had he died in torture?
“I can’t endure this suspense any longer,” said Rilla desperately.
But she endured it as the others did for another week. Then a letter came from Jem. He was all right.
“I’ve come through without a scratch, dad. Don’t know how I or any of us did it. You’ll have seen all about it in the papers–I can’t write of it. But the Huns haven’t got through–they won’t get through. Jerry was knocked stiff by a shell one time, but it was only the shock. He was all right in a few days. Grant is safe, too.”
Nan had a letter from Jerry Meredith. “I came back to consciousness at dawn,” he wrote. “Couldn’t tell what had happened to me but thought that I was done for. I was all alone and afraid–terribly afraid. Dead men were all around me, lying on the horrible grey, slimy fields. I was woefully thirsty–and I thought of David and the Bethlehem water–and of the old spring in Rainbow Valley under the maples. I seemed to see it just before me–and you standing laughing on the other side of it–and I thought it was all over with me. And I didn’t care. Honestly, I didn’t care. I just felt a dreadful childish fear of loneliness and of those dead men around me, and a sort of wonder how this could have happened to me. Then they found me and carted me off and before long I discovered that there wasn’t really anything wrong with me. I’m going back to the trenches tomorrow. Every man is needed there that can be got.”
“Laughter is gone out of the world,” said Faith Meredith, who had come over to report on her letters. “I remember telling old Mrs. Taylor long ago that the world was a world of laughter. But it isn’t so any longer.”
“It’s a shriek of anguish,” said Gertrude Oliver.
“We must keep a little laughter, girls,” said Mrs. Blythe. “A good laugh is as good as a prayer sometimes–only sometimes,” she added under her breath. She had found it very hard to laugh during the three weeks she had just lived through–she, Anne Blythe, to whom laughter had always come so easily and freshly. And what hurt most was that Rilla’s laughter had grown so rare–Rilla whom she used to think laughed over-much. Was all the child’s girlhood to be so clouded? Yet how strong and clever and womanly she was growing! How patiently she knitted and sewed and manipulated those uncertain Junior Reds! And how wonderful she was with Jims.
“She really could not do better for that child than if she had raised a baker’s dozen, Mrs. Dr. dear,” Susan had avowed solemnly. “Little did I ever expect it of her on the day she landed here with that soup tureen.”
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