The Next of Kin
Those who Wait and Wonder
Nellie L. McClung
Author of "Sowing Seeds in Denny," "The Second Chance," "The Black Creek Stopping House," and "In Times like These"
TORONTO THOMAS ALLEN BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY 1917
1917, BY NELLIE L. McCLUNG
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Published November 1917
Down through the ages, a picture has come of the woman who weepeth: Tears are her birthright, and sorrow and sadness her portion: Weeping endures for a night, and prolongeth its season Far in the day, with the will of God For a reason!
Such has the world long accepted, as fitting and real; Plentiful have been the causes of grief, without stinting; Patient and sad have the women accepted the ruling, Learning life's lessons, with hardly a word of complaint At the schooling.
But there's a limit to tears, even tears, and a new note is sounding: Hitherto they have wept without hope, never seeing an ending; Now hope has dawned in their poor lonely hearts, And a message they're sending Over the world to their sisters in weeping, a message is flashing, Flashing the brighter, for the skies are so dark And war thunders crashing! And this is the message the war-stricken women send out In their sorrow: "Yesterday and to-day have gone wrong, But we still have to-morrow!"
I. BEACH DAYS 22
II. WORKING IN! 35
III. LET'S PRETEND 46
IV. PICTURES 53
V. SAVING OUR SOULS 58
VI. SURPRISES 70
VII. CONSERVATION 92
VIII. "PERMISSION" 112
IX. THE SLACKER—IN UNIFORM 142
X. NATIONAL SERVICE—ONE WAY 154
XI. THE ORPHAN 171
XII. THE WAR-MOTHER 193
XIII. THE BELIEVING CHURCH 210
XIV. THE LAST RESERVES 227
XV. LIFE'S TRAGEDY 241
XVI. WAITING! 247
The Next of Kin
It was a bleak day in November, with a thick, gray sky, and a great, noisy, blustering wind that had a knack of facing you, no matter which way you were going; a wind that would be in ill-favor anywhere, but in northern Alberta, where the wind is not due to blow at all, it was what the really polite people call "impossible." Those who were not so polite called it something quite different, but the meaning is the same.
There are districts, not so very far from us, where the wind blows so constantly that the people grow accustomed to it; they depend on it; some say they like it; and when by a rare chance it goes down for a few hours, they become nervous, panicky, and apprehensive, always listening, expecting something to happen. But we of the windless North, with our sunlit spaces, our quiet days and nights, grow peevish, petulant, and full of grouch when the wind blows. We will stand anything but that. We resent wind; it is not in the bond; we will have none of it!
"You won't have many at the meeting to-day," said the station agent cheerfully, when I went into the small waiting-room to wait for the President of the Red Cross Society, who wanted to see me before the meeting. "No, you won't have many a day like this, although there are some who will come out, wind or no wind, to hear a woman speak—it's just idle curiosity, that's all it is."
"Oh, come," I said, "be generous; maybe they really think that she may have something to say!"
"Well, you see," said this amateur philosopher, as he dusted the gray-painted sill of the wicket with a large red-and-white handkerchief, "it is great to hear a woman speak in public, anyway, even if she does not do it very well. It's sorto' like seeing a pony walking on its hind legs; it's clever even if it's not natural. You will have some all right—I'm going over myself. There would have been a big crowd in if it hadn't been for the wind. You see, you've never been here before and that all helps."
Then the President of the Red Cross Society came and conducted me to the house quite near the station where I was to be entertained. My hostess, who came to the door herself in answer to our ring, was a sweet-faced, little Southern woman transplanted here in northern Canada, who with true Southern hospitality and thoughtfulness asked me if I would not like to step right upstairs and "handsome up a bit" before I went to the meeting,—"not but what you're looking right peart," she added quickly.
When I was shown upstairs to the spare room and was well into the business of "handsoming up," I heard a small voice at the door speaking my name. I opened the door and found there a small girl of about seven years of age, who timidly asked if she might come in. I told her that I was just dressing and would be glad to have her at some other time. But she quickly assured me that it was right now that she wished to come in, for she would like to see how I dressed. I thought the request a strange one and brought the small person in to hear more of it. She told me,
"I heard my mamma and some other ladies talking about you," she said, "and wondering what you would be like; and they said that women like you who go out making speeches never know how to dress themselves, and they said that they bet a cent that you just flung your clothes on,—and do you? Because I think it must be lovely to be able to fling your clothes on—and I wish I could! Don't you tell that I told you, will you?—but that is why I came over. I live over there,"—she pointed to a house across the street,—"and I often come to this house. I brought over a jar of cream this morning. My mamma sent it over to Mrs. Price, because she was having you stay here."
"That was very kind of your mamma," I said, much pleased with this evidence of her mother's good-will.
"Oh, yes," said my visitor. "My mamma says she always likes to help people out when they are in trouble. But no one knows that I am here but just you and me. I watched and watched for you, and when you came nobody was looking and I slipped out and came right in, and never knocked—nor nothin'."
I assured my small guest that mum was the word, and that I should be delighted to have her for a spectator while I went on with the process of making myself look as nice as nature would allow. But she was plainly disappointed when she found that I was not one bit quicker about dressing than plenty of others, even though she tried to speed me up a little.
Soon the President came for me and took me to the Municipal Hall, where the meeting was to be held.
I knew, just as soon as I went in, that it was going to be a good meeting. There was a distinct air of preparedness about everything—some one had scrubbed the floor and put flags on the wall and flowers in the windows; over in the corner there was a long, narrow table piled up with cups and saucers, with cake and sandwiches carefully covered from sight; but I knew what caused the lumpiness under the white cloth. Womanly instinct—which has been declared a safer guide than man's reasoning—told me that there were going to be refreshments, and the delightful odor of coffee, which escaped from the tightly closed boiler on the stove, confirmed my deductions. Then I noticed that a handbill on the wall spoke freely of it, and declared that every one was invited to stay, although there did not seem to be much need of this invitation—certainly there did not seem to be any climatic reason for any one's leaving any place of shelter; for now the wind, confirming our worst suspicions of it, began to drive frozen splinters of sleet against the windows.
By three o'clock the hall was full,—women mostly, for it was still the busy time for the men on the farms. Many of the women brought their children with them. Soon after I began to speak, the children fell asleep, tired out with struggling with wind and weather, and content to leave the affairs of state with any one who wanted them. But the women watched me with eager faces which seemed to speak back to me. The person who drives ten miles against a head wind over bad roads to hear a lecture is not generally disposed to slumber. The faces of these women were so bright and interested that, when it was over, it seemed to me that it had been a conversation where all had taken part.
The things that I said to them do not matter; they merely served as an introduction to what came after, when we sat around the stove and the young girls of the company brought us coffee and sandwiches, and mocha cake and home-made candy, and these women told me some of the things that are near their hearts.
"I drove fourteen miles to-day," said one woman, "but those of us who live long on the prairie do not mind these things. We were two hundred miles from a railway when we went in first, and we only got our mail 'in the spring.' Now, when we have a station within fourteen miles and a post-office on the next farm, we feel we are right in the midst of things, and I suppose we do not really mind the inconveniences that would seem dreadful to some people. We have done without things all our lives, always hoping for better things to come, and able to bear things that were disagreeable by telling ourselves that the children would have things easier than we had had them. We have had frozen crops; we have had hail; we have had serious sickness; but we have not complained, for all these things seemed to be God's doings, and no one could help it. We took all this—face upwards; but with the war—it is different. The war is not God's doings at all. Nearly all the boys from our neighborhood are gone, and some are not coming back——"
She stopped abruptly, and a silence fell on the group of us. She fumbled for a moment in her large black purse, and then handed me an envelope, worn, battered. It was addressed to a soldier in France and it had not been opened. Across the corner, in red ink, was written the words, "Killed in action."
"My letters are coming back now," she said simply. "Alex was my eldest boy, and he went at the first call for men, and he was only eighteen—he came through Saint-Eloi and Festubert—But this happened in September."
The woman who sat beside her took up the theme. "We have talked a lot about this at our Red Cross meetings. What do the women of the world think of war? No woman ever wanted war, did she? No woman could bring a child into the world, suffering for it, caring for it, loving it, without learning the value of human life, could she? War comes about because human life is the cheapest thing in the world; it has been taken at man's estimate, and that is entirely too low. Now, we have been wondering what can be done when this war is over to form a league of women to enforce peace. There is enough sentiment in the world in favor of human life if we could bind it up some way."
I gazed at the eager faces before me—in astonishment. Did I ever hear high-browed ladies in distant cities talk of the need of education in the country districts?
"Well-kept homes and hand-knit socks will never save the world," said Alex's mother. "Look at Germany! The German women are kind, patient, industrious, frugal, hard-working, everything that a woman ought to be, but it did not save them, or their country, and it will not save us. We have allowed men to have control of the big things in life too long. While we worked—or played—they have ruled. My nearest neighbor is a German, and she and I have talked these things over. She feels just the same as we do, and she sews for our Red Cross. She says she could not knit socks for our soldiers, for they are enemies, but she makes bandages, for she says wounded men are not enemies, and she is willing to do anything for them. She wanted to come to-day to hear you, but her husband would not let her have a horse, because he says he does not believe in women speaking in public, anyway! I wanted her to come with us even if he did not like it, but she said that she dared not."
"Were you not afraid of making trouble?" I asked.
Alex's mother smiled. "A quick, sharp fight is the best and clears up things. I would rather be a rebel any time than a slave. But of course it is easy for me to talk! I have always been treated like a human being. Perhaps it is just as well that she did not come. Old Hans has long generations back of him to confirm him in his theory that women are intended to be men's bondservants and that is why they are made smaller; it will all take time—and other things. The trouble has been with all of us that we have expected time to work out all of our difficulties, and it won't; there is no curative quality in time! And what I am most afraid of is that we will settle down after the war, and slip right back into our old ways,—our old peaceful ways,—and let men go on ruling the world, and war will come again and again. Men have done their very best,—I am not feeling hard to them,—but I know, and the thoughtful men know, that men alone can never free the world from the blight of war; and if we go on, too gentle and sweet to assert ourselves, knitting, nursing, bringing children into the world, it will surely come to pass, when we are old, perhaps, and not able to do anything,—but suffer,—that war will come again, and we shall see our daughters' children or our granddaughters' children sent off to fight, and their heart-broken mothers will turn on us accusing eyes and say to us, 'You went through all this—you knew what this means—why didn't you do something?' That is my bad dream when I sit knitting, because I feel hard toward the women that are gone. They were a poor lot, many of them. I like now best of all Jennie Geddes who threw the stool at somebody's head. I forget what Jennie's grievance was, but it was the principle that counts—she had a conviction, and was willing to fight for it. I never said these things—until I got this." She still held the letter, with its red inscription, in her hand. "But now I feel that I have earned the right to speak out. I have made a heavy investment in the cause of Humanity and I am going to look after it. The only thing that makes it possible to give up Alex is the hope that Alex's death may help to make war impossible and so save other boys. But unless we do something his death will not help a bit; for this thing has always been—and that is the intolerable thought to me. I am willing to give my boy to die for others if I am sure that the others are going to be saved, but I am not willing that he should die in vain. You see what I mean, don't you?"
I told her that I did see, and that I believed that she had expressed the very thought that was in the mind of women everywhere.
"Well, then," she said quickly, "why don't you write it? We will forget this when it is all over and we will go back to our old pursuits and there will be nothing—I mean, no record of how we felt. Anyway, we will die and a new generation will take our places. Why don't you write it while your heart is hot?"
"But," I said, "perhaps what I should write would not truly represent what the women are thinking. They have diverse thoughts, and how can I hope to speak for them?"
"Write what you feel," she said sternly. "These are fundamental things. Ideas are epidemic—they go like the measles. If you are thinking a certain thing, you may be sure you have no monopoly of it; many others are thinking it too. That is my greatest comfort at this time. Write down what you feel, even if it is not what you think you ought to feel. Write it down for all of us!"
And that is how it happened. There in the Municipal Hall in the small town of Ripston, as we sat round the stove that cold November day, with the sleet sifting against the windows, I got my commission from these women, whom I had not seen until that day, to tell what we think and feel, to tell how it looks to us, who are the mothers of soldiers, and to whom even now the letter may be on its way with its curt inscription across the corner. I got my commission there to tell fearlessly and hopefully the story of the Next of Kin.
It will be written in many ways, by many people, for the brand of this war is not only on our foreheads, but deep in our hearts, and it will be reflected in all that our people write for many years to come. The trouble is that most of us feel too much to write well; for it is hard to write of the things which lie so heavy on our hearts; but the picture is not all dark—no picture can be. If it is all dark, it ceases to be a picture and becomes a blot. Belgium has its tradition of deathless glory, its imperishable memories of gallant bravery which lighten its darkness and make it shine like noonday. The one unlightened tragedy of the world to-day is Germany.
I thought of these things that night when I was being entertained at the Southern woman's hospitable home.
"It pretty near took a war to make these English women friendly to each other and to Americans. I lived here six months before any of them called on me, and then I had to go and dig them out; but I was not going to let them go on in such a mean way. They told me then that they were waiting to see what church I was going to; and then I rubbed it into them that they were a poor recommend for any church, with their mean, unneighborly ways; for if a church does not teach people to be friendly I think it ought to be burned down, don't you? I told them I could not take much stock in that hymn about 'We shall know each other there,' when they did not seem a bit anxious about knowing each other here, which is a heap more important; for in heaven we will all have angels to play with, but here we only have each other, and it is right lonesome when they won't come out and play! But I tell you things have changed for the better since the war, and now we knit and sew together, and forgive each other for being Methodists and Presbyterians; and, do you know? I made a speech one night, right out loud so everybody could hear me, in a Red Cross meeting, and that is what I thought that I could never do. But I got feeling so anxious about the prisoners of war in Germany that I couldn't help making an appeal for them; and I was so keen about it, and wanted every one of those dear boys to get a square meal, that I forgot all about little Mrs. Price, and I was not caring a cent whether she was doing herself proud or not. And when I got done the people were using their handkerchiefs, and I was sniffing pretty hard myself, but we raised eighty-five dollars then and there, and now I know I will never be scared again. I used to think it was so ladylike to be nervous about speaking, and now I know it is just a form of selfishness. I was simply scared that I would not do well, thinking all the time of myself. But now everything has changed and I am ready to do anything I can."
"Go on," I said; "tell me some more. Remember that you women to-day made me promise to write down how this war is hitting us, and I merely promised to write what I heard and saw. I am not going to make up anything, so you are all under obligation to tell me all you can. I am not to be the author of this book, but only the historian."
"It won't be hard," she said encouragingly. "There is so much happening every day that it will be harder to decide what to leave out than to find things to put in. In this time of excitement the lid is off, I tell you; the bars are down; we can see right into the hearts of people. It is like a fire or an earthquake when all the doors are open and the folks are carrying their dearest possessions into the street, and they are all real people now, and they have lost all their little mincing airs and all their lawdie-daw. But believe me, we have been some fiddlers! When I look around this house I see evidence of it everywhere; look at that abomination now"—She pointed to an elaborately beaded match-safe which hung on the wall.
It bore on it the word, "Matches," in ornate letters, all made of beads, but I noticed that its empty condition belied the inscription.
"Think of the hours of labor that some one has put on that," she went on scornfully, "and now it is such an aristocrat that it takes up all its time at that and has no time to be useful. I know now that it never really intended to hold matches, but simply lives to mock the honest seeker who really needs a match. I have been a real sinner myself," she went on after a pause; "I have been a fiddler, all right. I may as well make a clean breast of it,—I made that match-safe and nearly bored my eyes out doing it, and was so nervous and cross that I was not fit to live with."
"I can't believe that," I said.
"Well, I sure was some snappy. I have teased out towel ends, and made patterns on them; I've punched holes in linen and sewed them up again—there is no form of foolishness that I have not committed—and liked it! But now I have ceased to be a fiddler and have become a citizen, and I am going to try to be a real good spoke in the wheel of progress. I can't express it very well, but I am going to try to link up with the people next me and help them along. Perhaps you know what I mean—I think it is called team-play."
When the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa were burning, the main switch which controlled the lighting was turned off by mistake and the whole place was plunged into darkness, and this added greatly to the horror and danger. The switch was down a long passage through which the smoke was rolling, and it seemed impossible for any one to make the journey and return. Then the people who were there formed a chain, by holding each other's hands—a great human chain. So that the one who went ahead felt the sustaining power of the one who came behind him. If he stumbled and fell, the man behind him helped him to his feet and encouraged him to go on. In this way the switch was reached, the light was turned on, and many lives were saved.
Over the world to-day roll great billows of hatred and misunderstanding, which have darkened the whole face of the earth. We believe that there is a switch if we could get to it, but the smoke blinds us and we are choked with our tears. Perhaps if we join hands all of us will be able to do what a few of us could never do. This reaching-out of feeble human hands, this new compelling force which is going to bind us all together, this deep desire for cohesion which swells in our hearts and casts out all smallness and all self-seeking—this is what we mean when we speak of the Next of Kin. It is not a physical relationship, but the great spiritual bond which unites all those whose hearts have grown more tender by sorrow, and whose spiritual eyes are not dimmed, but washed clearer by their tears!
Sing a song of hearts grown tender, With the sorrow and the pain; Sorrow is a great old mender, Love can give,—and give again. Love's a prodigal old spender,— And the jolliest old lender, For he never turns away Any one who comes to borrow, If they say their stock is slender, And they're sorely pressed by sorrow! Never has been known to say,— "We are short ourselves to-day,— Can't you come again to-morrow?" That has never been Love's way! And he's rich beyond all telling, Love divine all love excelling!
When a soldier's watch, with its luminous face, Loses its light and grows dim and black, He holds it out in the sun a space And the radiance all comes back; And that is the reason I'm thinking to-day Of the glad days now long past; I am leaving my heart where the sunbeams play: I am trying to drive my fears away: I am charging my soul with a spirit gay, And hoping that it will last!
We were the usual beach crowd, with our sport suits, our silk sweaters, our Panama hats, our veranda teas and week-end guests, our long, lovely, lazy afternoons in hammocks beside the placid waters of Lake Winnipeg. Life was easy and pleasant, as we told ourselves life ought to be in July and August, when people work hard all year and then come away to the quiet greenness of the big woods, to forget the noise and dust of the big city.
We called our cottage "Kee-am," for that is the Cree word which means "Never mind"—"Forget it"—"I should worry!" and we liked the name. It had a romantic sound, redolent of the old days when the Indians roamed through these leafy aisles of the forest, and it seemed more fitting and dignified than "Rough House," where dwelt the quietest family on the beach, or "Dunwurkin" or "Neverdunfillin" or "Takitezi," or any of the other more or less home-made names. We liked our name so well that we made it, out of peeled poles, in wonderful rustic letters, and put it up in the trees next the road.
Looking back now, we wonder what we had to worry about! There was politics, of course; we had just had a campaign that warmed up our little province, and some of the beachites were not yet speaking to each other; but nobody had been hurt and nobody was in jail.
Religion was not troubling us: we went dutifully every Sunday to the green-and-white schoolhouse under the tall spruce trees, and heard a sermon preached by a young man from the college, who had a deep and intimate knowledge of Amos and Elisha and other great men long dead, and sometimes we wished he would tell us more about the people who are living now and leave the dead ones alone. But it is always safer to speak of things that have happened long ago, and aspersions may be cast with impunity on Ahab and Jezebel and Balak. There is no danger that they will have friends on the front seat, who will stop their subscriptions to the building fund because they do not believe in having politics introduced into the church.
The congregations were small, particularly on the hot afternoons, for many of our people did not believe in going to church when the weather was not just right. Indeed, there had been a serious discussion in the synod of one of the largest churches on the question of abolishing prayers altogether in the hot weather; and I think that some one gave notice of a motion that would come up to this effect at the annual meeting. No; religion was not a live topic. There were evidently many who had said, as did one little girl who was leaving for her holidays, "Good-bye, God—we are going to the country."
One day a storm of excitement broke over us, and for a whole afternoon upset the calm of our existence. Four hardy woodmen came down the road with bright new axes, and began to cut down the beautiful trees which had taken so many years to grow and which made one of the greatest beauties of the beach. It was some minutes before the women sitting on their verandas realized what was happening; but no army ever mobilized quicker for home defense than they, and they came in droves demanding an explanation, of which there did not seem to be any.
"Big Boss him say cut down tree," the spokesman of the party said over and over again.
The women in plain and simple language expressed their unexpurgated opinion of Big Boss, and demanded that he be brought to them. The stolid Mikes and Peters were utterly at a loss to know what to do!
"Big Boss—no sense," one woman roared at them, hoping to supplement their scanty knowledge of English with volume of sound.
There was no mistaking what the gestures meant, and at last the wood-choppers prepared to depart, the smallest man of the party muttering something under his breath which sounded like an anti-suffrage speech. I think it was, "Woman's place is the home," or rather its Bukawinian equivalent. We heard nothing further from them, and indeed we thought no more of it, for the next day was August 4, 1914.
When the news of war came, we did not really believe it! War! That was over! There had been war, of course, but that had been long ago, in the dark ages, before the days of free schools and peace conferences and missionary conventions and labor unions! There might be a little fuss in Ireland once in a while. The Irish are privileged, and nobody should begrudge them a little liberty in this. But a big war—that was quite impossible! Christian nations could not go to war!
"Somebody should be made to pay dear for this," tearfully declared a doctor's wife. "This is very bad for nervous women."
The first news had come on the 9.40 train, and there was no more until the 6.20 train when the men came down from the city; but they could throw no light on it either. The only serious face that I saw was that of our French neighbor, who hurried away from the station without speaking to any one. When I spoke to him the next day, he answered me in French, and I knew his thoughts were far away.
The days that followed were days of anxious questioning. The men brought back stories of the great crowds that surged through the streets blocking the traffic in front of the newspaper offices reading the bulletins, while the bands played patriotic airs; of the misguided German who shouted, "Hoch der Kaiser!" and narrowly escaped the fury of the crowd.
We held a monster meeting one night at "Windwhistle Cottage," and we all made speeches, although none of us knew what to say. The general tone of the speeches was to hold steady,—not to be panicky,—Britannia rules the waves,—it would all be over soon,—Dr. Robertson Nicholl and Kitchener could settle anything!
The crowd around the dancing pavilion began to dwindle in the evenings—that is, of the older people. The children still danced, happily; fluffy-haired little girls, with "headache" bands around their pretty heads, did the fox-trot and the one-step with boys of their own age and older, but the older people talked together in excited groups.
Every night when the train came in the crowds waited in tense anxiety to get the papers, and when they were handed out, read them in silence, a silence which was ominous. Political news was relegated to the third page and was not read until we got back to the veranda. In these days nothing mattered; the baker came late; the breakfast dishes were not washed sometimes until they were needed for lunch, for the German maids and the English maids discussed the situation out under the trees. Mary, whose last name sounded like a tray of dishes falling, the fine-looking Polish woman who brought us vegetables every morning, arrived late and in tears, for she said, "This would be bad times for Poland—always it was bad times for Poland, and I will never see my mother again."
A shadow had fallen on us, a shadow that darkened the children's play. Now they made forts of sand, and bored holes in the ends of stove-wood to represent gaping cannon's mouths, and played that half the company were Germans; but before many days that game languished, for there were none who would take the German part: every boat that was built now was a battleship, and every kite was an aeroplane and loaded with bombs!
In less than a week we were collecting for a hospital ship to be the gift of Canadian women. The message was read out in church one afternoon, and volunteer collectors were asked for. So successful were these collectors all over Canada that in a few days word came to us that enough money had been raised, and that all moneys collected then could be given to the Belgian Relief Fund. The money had simply poured in—it was a relief to give!
Before the time came for school to begin, there were many closed cottages, for the happy careless freedom of the beach was gone; there is no happiness in floating across a placid lake in a flat-bottomed boat if you find yourself continually turning your head toward the shore, thinking that you hear some one shouting, "Extra."
There were many things that made it hard to leave the place where we had spent so many happy hours. There was the rustic seat we had made ourselves, which faced the lake, and on which we had sat and seen the storms gather on Blueberry Island. It was a comfortable seat with the right slant in its back, and I am still proud of having helped to make it. There was the breakwater of logs which were placed with such feats of strength, to prevent the erosion of the waves, and which withstood the big storm of September, 1912, when so many breakwaters were smashed to kindling-wood. We always had intended to make a long box along the top, to plant red geraniums in, but it had not been done. There was the dressing-tent where the boys ran after their numerous swims, and which had been the scene of many noisy quarrels over lost garments—garters generally, for they have an elusive quality all their own. There was also the black-poplar stump which a misguided relative of mine said "no woman could split." He made this remark after I had tried in vain to show him what was wrong with his method of attack. I said that I thought he would do better if he could manage to hit twice in the same place! And he said that he would like to see me do it, and went on to declare that he would bet me a five-dollar bill that I could not.
If it were not for the fatal curse of modesty I would tell how eagerly I grasped the axe and with what ease I hit, not twice, but half a dozen times in the same place—until the stump yielded. This victory was all the sweeter to me because it came right after our sports day when I had entered every available contest, from the nail-driving competition to the fat woman's race, and had never even been mentioned as among those present!
We closed our cottage on August 24. That day all nature conspired to make us feel sorry that we were leaving. A gentle breeze blew over the lake and rasped its surface into dancing ripples that glittered in the sun. Blueberry Island seemed to stand out clear and bold and beckoning. White-winged boats lay over against the horizon and the chug-chug of a motor-boat came at intervals in a lull of the breeze. The more tender varieties of the trees had begun to show a trace of autumn coloring, just a hint and a promise of the ripened beauty of the fall—if we would only stay!
Before the turn in the road hid it from sight we stopped and looked back at the "Kee-am Cottage"—my last recollection of it is of the boarded windows, which gave it the blinded look of a dead thing, and of the ferns which grandma had brought from the big woods beyond the railway track and planted all round it, and which had grown so quickly and so rank that they seemed to fill in all the space under the cottage, and with their pale-green, feathery fringe, to be trying to lift it up into the sunshine above the trees. Instinctively we felt that we had come to the end of a very pleasant chapter in our life as a family; something had disturbed the peaceful quiet of our lives; somewhere a drum was beating and a fife was calling!
Not a word of this was spoken, but Jack suddenly put it all into words, for he turned to me and asked quickly, "Mother, when will I be eighteen?"
Gay, as the skater who blithely whirls To the place of the dangerous ice! Content, as the lamb who nibbles the grass While the butcher sets the price! So content and gay were the boys at play In the nations near and far, When munition kings and diplomats Cried, "War! War!! War!!!"
The day after we went to the city I got my first real glimpse of war! It was the white face of our French neighbor. His wife and two little girls had gone to France a month before the war broke out, and were visiting his family in a village on the Marne. Since the outbreak of war he had had no word from them, and his face worked pitifully when he told me this. "Not one word, though I cabled and got friends in London to wire aussi," he said. "But I will go myself and see."
"What about your house and motor?" he was asked.
He raised his shoulders and flung out his hands. "What difference?" he said; "I will not need them."
I saw him again the day he left. He came out of his house with a small Airedale pup which had been the merry playmate of Alette and Yvonne. He stood on the veranda holding the dog in his arms. Strangers were moving into the house and their boxes stood on the floor. I went over to say good-bye.
"I will not come back," he said simply; "it will be a long fight; we knew it would come, but we did not know when. If I can but find wife and children—but the Germans—they are devils—Boches—no one knows them as we do!"
He stood irresolute a moment, then handed me the dog and went quickly down the steps.
"It is for France!" he said.
I sat on the veranda railing and watched him go. The Airedale blinded his eyes looking after him, then looked at me, plainly asking for an explanation. But I had to tell him that I knew no more about it than he did. Then I tried to comfort him by telling him that many little dogs were much worse off than he, for they had lost their people and their good homes as well, and he still had his comfortable home and his good meals. But it was neither meals nor bed that his faithful little heart craved, and for many weeks a lonely little Airedale on Chestnut Street searched diligently for his merry little playmates and his kind master, but he found them not.
There was still a certain unreality about it all. Sometimes it has been said that the men who went first went for adventure. Perhaps they did, but it does not matter—they have since proved of what sort of stuff they were made.
When one of the first troop trains left Winnipeg, a handsome young giant belonging to the Seventy-ninth Highlanders said, as he swung himself up on the rear coach, "The only thing I am afraid of is that it will all be over before we get there." He was needlessly alarmed, poor lad! He was in time for everything; Festubert, Saint-Eloi, Ypres; for the gas attacks before the days of gas-masks, for trench-fever, for the D.C.M.; and now, with but one leg, and blind, he is one of the happy warriors at St. Dunstan's whose cheerfulness puts to shame those of us who are whole!
There were strange scenes at the station when those first trains went out. The Canadians went out with a flourish, with cheers, with songs, with rousing music from the bands. The serious men were the French and Belgian reservists, who, silently, carrying their bundles, passed through our city, with grim, determined faces. They knew, and our boys did not know, to what they were going. That is what made the difference in their manner.
The government of one of the provinces, in the early days of the war, shut down the public works, and, strange to say, left the bars open. Their impulse was right—but they shut down the wrong thing; it should have been the bars, of course. They knew something should be shut down. We are not blaming them; it was a panicky time. People often, when they hear the honk of an automobile horn, jump back instead of forward. And it all came right in time.
A moratorium was declared at once, which for the time being relieved people of their debts, for there was a strong feeling that the cup of sorrow was so full now that all movable trouble should be set off for another day!
The temperance people then asked, as a corresponding war measure, that the bars be closed. They urged that the hearts of our people were already so burdened that they should be relieved of the trouble and sorrow which the liquor traffic inevitably brings. "Perhaps," they said to the government, "when a happier season comes, we may be able to bear it better; but we have so many worries now, relieve us of this one, over which you have control."
Then the financial side of the liquor traffic began to pinch. Manitoba was spending thirteen million dollars over the bars every year. The whole Dominion's drink bill was one hundred millions. When the people began to rake and save to meet the patriotic needs, and to relieve the stress of unemployment, these great sums of money were thought of longingly—and with the longing which is akin to pain! The problem of unemployment was aggravated by the liquor evil and gave another argument for prohibition.
I heard a woman telling her troubles to a sympathetic friend one day, as we rode in an elevator.
"'E's all right when 'e's in work," she said; "but when 'e's hidle 'e's something fierce: 'e knocks me about crool. 'E guzzles all the time 'e's out of work."
It was easy to believe. Her face matched her story; she was a poor, miserable, bedraggled creature, with teeth out in front. She wore black cotton gloves such as undertakers supply for the pallbearers, and every finger was out. The liquor traffic would have a better chance if there were not so many arguments against it walking round.
About this time, too, the traffic suffered a great bereavement, for the personal liberty argument fell, mortally wounded. The war did that, too.
All down the ages there have been men who believed that personal liberty included the right to do what one wished to do, no matter who was hurt. So, if a man wished to drink, by the sacred rights for which his forefathers had bled and died he was at liberty to do so, and then go home and beat up his own wife and family if he wanted to; for if you can't beat your own wife, whom can you beat, I'd like to know? Any one who disputed this sacred right was counted a spoil-fun and a joy-killer!
But a change came over the world's thought in the early days of the war. Liberty grew to be a holy word, a sacred thing, when the blood of our brightest and best was being poured out in its defense, and never again will the old, selfish, miserable conception of liberty obtain favor. The Kaiser helped here, too, for he is such a striking example of the one who claims absolute liberty for himself, no matter who is hurt, that somehow we never hear it mentioned now. I believe it is gone, forever!
The first step in the curtailment of the liquor traffic was the closing of the bars at seven o'clock, and the beneficial effect was felt at once. Many a man got home early for the first time in his life, and took his whole family to the "movies."
The economy meetings brought out some quaint speeches. No wonder! People were taken unawares. We were unprepared for war, and the changes it had brought;—we were as unprepared as the woman who said, in speaking of unexpected callers, "I had not even time to turn my plants." There was much unintentional humor. One lady, whose home was one of the most beautiful in the city, and who entertained lavishly, told us, in her address on "Economy," that at the very outbreak of the war she reduced her cook's wages from thirty to twenty dollars, and gave the difference to the Patriotic Fund; that she had found a cheaper dressmaker who made her dresses now for fifteen dollars, where formerly she had paid twenty-five; and she added artlessly, "They are really nicer, and I do think we should all give in these practical ways; that's the sort of giving that I really enjoy!"
Another woman told of how much she had given up for the Patriotic Fund; that she had determined not to give one Christmas present, and had given up all the societies to which she had belonged, even the Missionary Society, and was giving it all to the Red Cross. "I will not even give a present to the boy who brings the paper," she declared with conviction. Whether or not the boy's present ever reached the Red Cross, I do not know. But ninety-five per cent of the giving was real, honest, hard, sacrificing giving. Elevator-boys, maids, stenographers gave a percentage of their earnings, and gave it joyously. They like to give, but they do not like to have it taken away from them by an employer, who thereby gets the credit of the gift. The Red Cross mite-boxes into which children put their candy money, while not enriching the Red Cross to any large extent, trained the children to take some share in the responsibility; and one enthusiastic young citizen, who had been operated on for appendicitis, proudly exhibited his separated appendix, preserved in alcohol, at so much per look, and presented the proceeds to the Red Cross.
The war came home to the finest of our people first. It has not reached them all yet, but it is working in, like the frost into the cellars when the thermometer shows forty degrees below zero. Many a cellar can stand a week of this—but look out for the second! Every day it comes to some one.
"I don't see why we are always asked to give," one woman said gloomily, when the collector asked her for a monthly subscription to the Red Cross. "Every letter that goes out of the house has a stamp on it—and we write a queer old lot of letters, and I guess we've done our share."
She is not a dull woman either or hard of heart. It has not got to her yet—that's all! I cannot be hard on her in my judgment, for it did not come to me all at once, either.
When I saw the first troops going away, I wondered how their mothers let them go, and I made up my mind that I would not let my boy go,—I was so glad he was only seventeen,—for hope was strong in our hearts that it might be over before he was of military age. It was the Lusitania that brought me to see the whole truth. Then I saw that we were waging war on the very Princes of Darkness, and I knew that morning when I read the papers, I knew that it would be better—a thousand times better—to be dead than to live under the rule of people whose hearts are so utterly black and whose process of reasoning is so oxlike—they are so stupidly brutal. I knew then that no man could die better than in defending civilization from this ghastly thing which threatened her!
Soon after that I knew, without a word being said, that my boy wanted to go—I saw the seriousness come into his face, and knew what it meant. It was when the news from the Dardanelles was heavy on our hearts, and the newspapers spoke gravely of the outlook.
One day he looked up quickly and said, "I want to go—I want to help the British Empire—while there is a British Empire!"
And then I realized that my boy, my boy, had suddenly become a man and had put away childish things forever.
I shall always be glad that the call came to him, not in the intoxication of victory, but in the dark hour of apparent defeat.
Let's pretend the skies are blue, Let's pretend the world is new, And the birds of hope are singing All the day!
Short of gladness—learn to fake it! Long on sadness—go and shake it! Life is only—what you make it, Anyway!
There is wisdom without end In the game of "Let's pretend!"
We played it to-day. We had to, for the boys went away, and we had to send our boys away with a smile! They will have heartaches and homesickness a-plenty, without going away with their memories charged with a picture of their mothers in tears, for that's what takes the heart out of a boy. They are so young, so brave, we felt that we must not fail them.
With such strong words as these did we admonish each other, when we met the last night, four of us, whose sons were among the boys who were going away. We talked hard and strong on this theme, not having a very good grip on it ourselves, I am afraid. We simply harangued each other on the idleness of tears at stations. Every one of us had something to say; and when we parted, it was with the tacit understanding that there was an Anti-Tear League formed—the boys were leaving on an early train in the morning!
* * * * *
The morning is a dismal time anyway, and teeth will chatter, no matter how brave you feel! It is a squeamish, sickly, choky time,—a winter morning before the sun is up; and you simply cannot eat breakfast when you look round the table and see every chair filled,—even the five-year-old fellow is on hand,—and know that a long, weary time is ahead of the one who sits next you before he comes again to his father's house. Even though the conversation is of the gayest, every one knows what every one else is thinking.
* * * * *
There is no use trying—I cannot write the story of that morning.... I will tell you of other troop-trains I have seen go. I will tell you of another boy who carried off all the good-byes with a high hand and great spirits, and said something to every one of the girls who brought him candy, telling one that he would remember her in his will, promising another that he would marry her when he got to be Admiral of the Swiss Navy, but who, when he came to say good-bye to his father, suddenly grew very white and very limp, and could only say, "Oh, dad! Good old dad!"
* * * * *
I will tell you of other troop-trains I have seen go out, with other boys waving to other women who strained their eyes and winked hard, hard, hard to keep back the tears, and stood still, quite still until the last car had disappeared around the bend, and the last whistle had torn the morning air into shreds and let loose a whole wild chorus of echoes through the quiet streets!
* * * * *
There was a mist in the air this morning, and a white frost covered the trees with beautiful white crystals that softened their leafless limbs. It made a soft and graceful drapery on the telegraph poles and wires. It carpeted the edges of the platform that had not been walked on, and even covered the black roofs of the station buildings and the flatcars which stood in the yard. It seemed like a beautiful white decoration for the occasion, a beautiful, heavy, elaborate mourning—for those who had gone—and white, of course—all white,—because they were so young!
* * * * *
Then we came home. It was near the opening time of the stores, and the girls were on their way to work, but their footfalls made no sound on the pavement. Even the street-cars seemed to glide quietly by. The city seemed grave and serious and sad, and disposed to go softly.... In the store windows the blinds were still down—ghastly, shirred white things which reminded me uncomfortably of the lining of a coffin! Over the hotel on the corner, the Calgary Beer Man, growing pale in the sickly dawn, still poured—and lifted—and drank—and poured—and lifted—and drank,—insatiable as the gods of war.
* * * * *
I wandered idly through the house—what a desolate thing a house can be when every corner of it holds a memory!—not a memory either, for that bears the thought of something past,—when every corner of it is full of a boyish presence!... I can hear him rushing down the stairs in the morning to get the paper, and shouting the headlines to me as he brings it up. I can hear him come in at the front door and thump his books down on the hall seat, and call "Mother!" I sit down and summon them all, for I know they will fade soon enough—the thin, sharp edge of everything wears mercifully blunt in time!
* * * * *
Then I gathered up his schoolbooks, and every dog-eared exercise-book, and his timetable, which I found pinned on his window curtain, and I carried them up to the storeroom in the attic, with his baseball mitt—and then, for the first time, as I made a pile of the books under the beams, I broke my anti-tear pledge. It was not for myself, or for my neighbor across the street whose only son had gone, or for the other mothers who were doing the same things all over the world; it was not for the young soldiers who had gone out that day; it was for the boys who had been cheated of their boyhood, and who had to assume men's burdens, although in years they were but children. The saddest places of all the world to-day are not the battle fields, or the hospitals, or the cross-marked hillsides where the brave ones are buried; the saddest places are the deserted campus and playgrounds where they should be playing; the empty seats in colleges, where they should be sitting; the spaces in the ranks of happy, boisterous schoolboys, from which the brave boys have gone,—these boys whose boyhood has been cut so pitifully short. I thought, too, of the little girls whose laughter will ring out no more in the careless, happy abandonment of girlhood, for the black shadow of anxiety and dread has fallen even on their young hearts; the tiny children, who, young as they are, know that some great sorrow has come to every one; the children of the war countries, with their terror-stricken eyes and pale faces; the unspeakable, unforgivable wrong that has been done to youth the world over.
* * * * *
There, as I sat on the floor of the storeroom, my soul wandered down a long, dark, silent valley, and met the souls of the mothers of all countries, who had come there, like me, to mourn ... and our tears were very hot, and very bitter ... for we knew that it was the Valley of Lost Childhood!
Nothing is lost that our memories hold, Nothing forgotten that once we knew; And to-day a boy with curls of gold Is running my fond heart through and through— In and out and round and round— And I find myself laughing without a sound At the funny things he said that time When life was one glad nursery rhyme.
It should not be so hard for mothers to give up their children. We should grow accustomed to it, for we are always losing them. I once had a curly-haired baby with eyes like blue forget-me-nots, who had a sweet way of saying his words, and who coined many phrases which are still in use in my family. Who is there who cannot see that "a-ging-a-wah" has a much more refreshing sound than "a drink of water"? And I am sure that nobody could think of a nicer name for the hammer and nails than a "num and a peedaw." At an incredibly early age this baby could tell you how the birdies fly and what the kitty says.
All mothers who have had really wonderful children—and this takes us all in—will understand how hard it is to set these things down in cold print or even to tell them; for even our best friends are sometimes dull of heart and slow of understanding when we tell them perfectly wonderful things that our children did or said. We all know that horrible moment of suspense when we have told something real funny that our baby said, and our friends look at us with a dull is-that-all expression in their faces, and we are forced to supplement our recital by saying that it was not so much what he said as the way he said it!
Soon I lost the blue-eyed baby, and there came in his place a sturdy little freckle-faced chap, with a distinct dislike for water as a cleansing agent, who stoutly declared that washing his hands was a great waste of time, for they were sure to get dirty again; which seems to be reasonable, and it is a wonder that people have not taken this fact into account more when dealing with the griminess of youth. Who objected to going to church twice a day on the ground that he "might get too fond of it." Who, having once received five cents as recompense for finding his wayward sister, who had a certain proclivity for getting lost, afterwards deliberately mislaid the same sister and claimed the usual rates for finding her, and in this manner did a thriving "Lost and Found" business for days, until his unsuspecting parent overheard him giving his sister full directions for losing herself—he had grown tired of having to go with her each time, and claimed that as she always got half of the treat she should do her share of the work. Who once thrashed a boy who said that his sister had a dirty face,—which was quite true, but people do not need to say everything they know, do they? Who went swimming in the gravel pit long before the 24th of May, which marks the beginning of swimming and barefoot time in all proper families, and would have got away with it, too, only, in his haste to get a ride home, he and his friend changed shirts by mistake, and it all came to light at bedtime.
Then I lost him, too. There came in his place a tall youth with a distinct fondness for fine clothes, stiff collars, tan boots, and bright ties; a dignified young man who was pained and shocked at the disreputable appearance of a younger brother who was at that time passing through the wash-never period of his life and who insisted upon claiming relationship even in public places. Who hung his room with flags and pennants and photographs. Who had for his friends many young fellows with high pompadours, whom he called by their surnames and disputed with noisily and abusively, but, unlike the famous quarrel of Fox and Burke, "with no loss of friendship." Who went in his holidays as "mule-skinner" on a construction gang in the North Country, and helped to build the railway into "The Crossing," and came home all brown and tanned, with muscles as hard as iron and a luscious growth of whiskers. Who then went back to college and really began to work, for he had learned a few things about the value of an education as he drove the mules over the dump, which can be learned only when the muscles ache and the hands have blisters.
Then came the call! And again I lost him! But there is a private in the "Princess Pats" who carries my picture in his cap and who reads my letter over again just before "going in."
SAVING OUR SOULS
O work—thrice blessed of the gods— Abundant may you be! To hold us steady, when our hearts Grow cold and panicky!
I cannot fret—and drive the plough,— Nor weep—and ply the spade; O blessed work—I need you now To keep me unafraid!
No terrors can invade the place Where honest green things thrive; Come blisters—backache—sunburnt face— And save my soul alive!
No wonder that increased production has become a popular cry. Every one wants to work in a garden—a garden is so comforting and reassuring. Everything else has changed, but seedtime and harvest still remain. Rain still falls, seeds sprout, buds break into leaves, and blossoms are replaced by fruit.
We are forced back to the elemental things. Horses and cattle look better to me every day. Read the war news—which to-day tells of the destruction of French villages—and then look at the cattle grazing peacefully on the grass which clothes the hillside, and see how good they look! They look like sanctified Christians to me!
Ever since the war I have envied them. They are not suspicious or jealous; they are not worried, hurried, troubled, or afraid; they are oblivious of public opinion; they have no debts to pay; they do not weary you with explanations; they are not sorry for anything they have ever done; they are not blaming God for anything! On every count the cattle seem to have the best of us!
It is a quiet evening here in northern Alberta, and the evening light is glinting on the frozen ponds. I can see far up the valley as I write, and one by one the lights begin to glimmer in the farmhouses; and I like to think that supper is being prepared there for hungry children. The thought of supper appeals to me because there is no dining-car on the train, and every minute I am growing hungrier. The western sky burns red with the sunset, and throws a sullen glow on the banks of clouds in the east. It is a quiet, peaceful evening, and I find it hard to believe that somewhere men are killing each other and whole villages are burning.... The light on the ponds grows dimmer, with less of rose and more of a luminous gray.... I grow hungrier still, and I know it is just because I cannot get anything. I eat apples and nut-bars, but they do not satisfy me; it is roast beef, brown gravy, potatoes, and turnips that I want. Is it possible that I refused lemon pie—last night—at Carmangay? Well—well—let this be a lesson to you!
The sunset is gone now, and there is only a brightness in the western sky, and a big staring moon stands above the valley, shining down on the patches of snow which seem to run together like the wolves we used to see on the prairies of Manitoba long ago. The farmhouses we pass are bright with lights, and I know the children are gathered around the table to "do" their lessons. The North Country, with its long, snowy winters, develops the love of home in the hearts of our people, and drives the children indoors to find their comfort around the fire. Solomon knew this when he said that the perfect woman "is not afraid of the snow for her household." Indeed, no; she knows that the snow is a home-developing agency, and that no one knows the joy and comfort of home like those of us who have battled with cold and storm and drifted roads all day, and at nightfall come safely to this blessed place where warmth and companionship await us! Life has its compensations.
Across the aisle from me two women are knitting—not in a neighborly, gossipy way, chatting meanwhile, but silently, swiftly, nervously. There is a psychological reason for women knitting just now, beyond the need of socks. I know how these women feel! I, even I, have begun to crochet! I do it for the same reason that the old toper in time of stress takes to his glass. It keeps me from thinking; it atrophies the brain; and now I know why the women of the East are so slow about getting the franchise. They crochet and work in wool instead of thinking. You can't do both! When the casualty lists are long, and letters from the Front far apart—I crochet.
Once, when I was in great pain, the doctor gave me chloroform, and it seemed to me that a great black wall arose between me and pain! The pain was there all right, but it could not get to me on account of the friendly wall which held it back—and I was grateful! Now I am grateful to have a crochet-needle and a ball of silcotton. It is a sort of mental chloroform. This is for the real dark moments, when the waves go over our heads.... We all have them, but of course they do not last.
More and more am I impressed with the wonderful comeback of the human soul. We are like those Chinese toys, which, no matter how they are buffeted, will come back to an upright position. It takes a little longer with us—that is all; but given half a chance—or less—people will rise victorious over sin and sorrow, defeat and failure, and prove thereby the divinity which is in all of us!
As the light dimmed outside, I had time to observe my two traveling companions more closely. Though at first sight they came under the same general description of "middle-aged women, possibly grandmothers, industriously knitting," there was a wide difference between them as I observed them further. One had a face which bore traces of many disappointments, and had now settled down into a state of sadness that was hopeless and final. She had been a fine-looking woman once, too, and from her high forehead and well-shaped mouth I should take her to be a woman of considerable mental power, but there had been too much sorrow; she had belonged to a house of too much trouble, and it had dried up the fountains of her heart. I could only describe her by one word, "winter-killed"! She was like a tree which had burst into bud at the coaxing of the soft spring zephyrs again and again, only to be caught each time by the frost, and at last, when spring really came, it could win no answering thrill, for the heart of the tree was "winter-killed." The frost had come too often!
The other woman was older, more wrinkled, more weather-beaten, but there was a childlike eagerness about her that greatly attracted me. She used her hands when she spoke, and smiled often. This childish enthusiasm contrasted strangely with her old face, and seemed like the spirit of youth fluttering still around the grave of one whom it loved!
I soon found myself talking to them; the old lady was glad to talk to me, for she was not making much headway with her companion, on whom all her arguments were beating in vain.
"I tell her she has no call to be feeling so bad about the war!" she began, getting right into the heart of the subject; "we didn't start it! Let the Kings and Kaisers and Czars who make the trouble do the fretting. Thank God, none of them are any blood-relation of mine, anyway. I won't fret over any one's sins, only my own, and maybe I don't fret half enough over them, either!"
"What do you know about sins?" the other woman said; "you couldn't sin if you tried——"
"That's all you know about it," said the old lady with what was intended for a dark and mysterious look; "but I never could see what good it does to worry, anyway, and bother other people by feeling sorry. Now, here she is worrying night and day because her boy is in the army and will have to go to France pretty soon. She has two others at home, too young to go. Harry is still safe in England—he may never have to go: the war may be over—the Kaiser may fall and break his neck—there's lots of ways peace may come. Even if Harry does go, he may not get killed. He may only get his toe off, or his little finger, and come home, or he may escape everything. Some do. Even if he is killed—every one has to die, and no one can die a better way; and Harry is ready—good and ready! So why does she fret? I know she's had trouble—lots of it—Lord, haven't we all? My three boys went—two have been killed; but I am not complaining—I am still hoping the last boy may come through safe. Anyway, we couldn't help it. It is not our fault; we have to keep on doing what we can....
"I remember a hen I used to have when we lived on the farm, and she had more sense than lots of people—she was a little no-breed hen, and so small that nobody ever paid much attention to her. But she had a big heart, and was the greatest mother of any hen I had, and stayed with her chickens until they were as big as she was and refused to be gathered under wings any longer. She never could see that they were grown up. One time she adopted a whole family that belonged to a stuck-up Plymouth Rock that deserted them when they weren't much more than feathered. Biddy stepped right in and raised them, with thirteen of her own. Hers were well grown—Biddy always got down to business early in the spring, she was so forehanded. She raised the Plymouth Rocks fine, too! She was a born stepmother. Well, she got shut out one night, and froze her feet, and lost some good claws, too; but I knew she'd manage some way, and of course I did not let her set, because she could not scratch with these stumpy feet of hers. But she found a job all right! She stole chickens from the other hens. I often wondered what she promised them, but she got them someway, and only took those that were big enough to scratch, for Biddy knew her limitations. She was leading around twenty-two chickens of different sizes that summer.
"You see she had personality—that hen: you couldn't keep her down; she never went in when it rained, and she could cackle louder than any hen on the ground; and above all, she took things as they came. I always admired her. I liked the way she died, too. Of course I let her live as long as she could—she wouldn't have been any good to eat, anyway, for she was all brains, and I never could bear to make soup out of a philosopher like what she was. Well, she was getting pretty stiff—I could see that; and sometimes she had to try two or three times before she could get on the roost. But this night she made it on the first try, and when I went to shut the door, she sat there all ruffled up. I reached out to feel her, she looked so humped-up, and the minute I touched her, she fell off the roost; and when I picked her up, she was dead! You see, she got herself balanced so she would stay on the roost, and then died—bluffed it out to the last, and died standing up! That's what we should all try to do!" she concluded; "go down with a smile—I say—hustling and cheerful to the last!"
I commended her philosophy, but the other woman sat silent, and her knitting lay idle on her knee.
After all, the biggest thing in life is the mental attitude!
This was the third time a boy on a wheel Had come to her gate With the small yellow slip, with its few curt words, To tell her the fate Of the boys she had given to fight For the right to be free! I thought I must go as a neighbor and friend And stand by her side; At least I could tell her how sorry I was That a brave man had died.
She sat in a chair when I entered the room, With the thing in her hand, And the look on her face had a light and a bloom I could not understand. Then she showed me the message and said, With a sigh of respite,— "My last boy is dead. I can sleep. I can sleep Without dreaming to-night."
When all the evidence is in— When all the good—and all the sin— The Impulses—without—within Are catalogued—with reasons showing— What great surprises will await The small, the near-great and the great Who thought they knew how things were going!
Stories crowd in upon me as I write. Let no one ever say that this is a dull world! It is anything but dull! It is a pitiful, heartbreaking world, full of injustice, misunderstandings, false standards, and selfishness, but it is never dull. Neither is it a lost world, for the darkest corners of it are illuminated here and there by heroic deeds and noble aspirations. Men who hilariously sold their vote and influence prior to 1914, who took every sharp turn within the law, and who shamelessly mocked at any ideals of citizenship, were among the first to put on the King's uniform and march out to die.
To-day I read in the "paper from home" that Private William Keel is "missing, believed killed"; and it took me back to the old days before the war when the late Private Keel was accustomed to hold up the little town. Mr. Keel was a sober man—except upon occasions. The occasions were not numerous, but they left an undying impression on his neighbors and fellow townsmen; for the late private had a way all his own. He was a big Welshman, so strong that he never knew how strong he was; and when he became obsessed with the desire to get drunk, no one could stop him. He had to have it out. At such times his one ambition was to ride a horse up the steps of the hotel, and then—George Washington-like—rise in his stirrups and deliver an impassioned address on what we owe to the Old Flag. If he were blocked or thwarted in this, he became dangerous and hard to manage, and sometimes it took a dozen men to remove him to the Police Station. When he found himself safely landed there, with a locked door and small, barred window between himself and liberty, his mood changed and the remainder of the night was spent in song, mostly of "A life on the ocean wave and a home on the rolling deep"; for he had been a sailor before he came land-seeking to western Canada.
After having "proved up" his land in southern Manitoba—the Wanderlust seized him and he went to South America, where no doubt he enlivened the proceedings for the natives, as he had for us while he lived among us.
Six weeks after the declaration of war he came back—a grizzled man of forty; he had sold out everything, sent his wife to England, and had come to enlist with the local regiment. Evidently his speech about what we owe to the Old Flag had been a piece of real eloquence, and Bill himself was the proof.
He enlisted with the boys from home as a private, and on the marches he towered above them—the tallest man in the regiment. No man was more obedient or trustworthy. He cheered and admonished the younger men, when long marches in the hot sun, with heavy accouterments, made them quarrelsome and full of complaints. "It's all for the Old Flag, boys," he told them.
To-day I read that he is "missing, believed killed"; and I have the feeling, which I know is in the heart of many who read his name, that we did not realize the heroism of the big fellow in the old days of peace. It took a war to show us how heroic our people are.
Not all the heroes are war-heroes either. The slow-grinding, searching tests of peace have found out some truly great ones among our people and have transmuted their common clay into pure gold.
It is much more heartening to tell of the woman who went right rather than of her who went wrong, and for that reason I gladly set down here the story of one of these.
Mrs. Elizabeth Tweed is the wife of Private William Tweed—small, dark-eyed, and pretty, with a certain childishness of face which makes her rouged cheeks and blackened eyebrows seem pathetically, innocently wicked.
Mrs. Elizabeth Tweed, wife of Private William Tweed, was giving trouble to the Patriotic Society. It was bad enough for her to go out evenings with an officer, and dance in the afternoon at the hotel dansant in a perfect outburst of gay garments; but there was no excuse for her coming home in a taxi-cab, after a shopping expedition in broad daylight, and to the scandal of the whole street, who watched her from behind lace curtains.
The evil effects of Mrs. Tweed's actions began to show in the falling-off of subscriptions to the Patriotic Fund, and the collectors heard many complaints about her gay habits of life and her many and varied ways of squandering money. Mrs. Tweed became a perfect wall of defense for those who were not too keen on parting with their money. They made a moral issue of it, and virtuously declared, "That woman is not going to the devil on my money." "I scrimp and save and deny myself everything so I can give to the Patriotic Fund, and look at her!" women cried.
It was in vain that the collectors urged that she was only getting five dollars a month, anyway, from the Patriotic Fund, and that would not carry her far on the road to destruction or in any other direction. When something which appears to set aside the obligation to perform a disagreeable duty comes in view, the hands of the soul naturally clamp on it.
Mrs. Tweed knew that she was the bad example, and gloried in it. She banged the front door when she entered the block late at night, and came up the stairs gayly singing, "Where did Robinson Crusoe go with Friday on Saturday night?" while her sleepy neighbors anathematized all dependents of the Patriotic Fund.
The Red Cross ladies discussed the matter among themselves and decided that some one should put the matter before Mrs. Tweed and tell her how hard she was making it for the other dependents of soldiers. The president was selected for the task, which did not at first sight look like a pleasant one, but Mrs. Kent had done harder things than this, and she set out bravely to call on the wayward lady.
The D.O.E. visitor who called on all the soldiers' wives in that block had reported that Mrs. Tweed had actually put her out, and told her to go to a region which is never mentioned in polite society except in theological discussions.
"I know," Mrs. Tweed said, when the Red Cross President came to see her, "what you are coming for, and I don't blame you—I sure have been fierce, but you don't know what a good time I've had. Gee, it's great! I've had one grand tear!—one blow-out! And now I am almost ready to be good. Sit down, and I'll tell you about it; you have more give to you than that old hatchet-face that came first; I wouldn't tell her a thing!
"I am twenty-five years old, and I never before got a chance to do as I liked. When I was a kid, I had to do as I was told. My mother brought me up in the fear of the Lord and the fear of the neighbors. I whistled once in church and was sent to bed every afternoon for a week—I didn't care, though, I got in my whistle. I never wanted to do anything bad, but I wanted to do as I liked—and I never got a chance. Then I got married. William is a lot older than I am, and he controlled me—always—made me economize, scrimp, and save. I really did not want to blow money, but they never gave me a chance to be sensible. Every one put me down for a 'nut.' My mother called me 'Trixie.' No girl can do well on a name like that. Teachers passed me from hand to hand saying, 'Trixie is such a mischief!' I had a reputation to sustain.
"Then mother and father married me off to Mr. Tweed because he was so sensible, and I needed a firm hand, they said. I began everything in life with a handicap. Name and appearance have always been against me. No one can look sensible with a nose that turns straight up, and I will have bright colors to wear—I was brought up on wincey, color of mud, and all these London-smoke, battleship-gray colors make me sick. I want reds and blues and greens, and I am gradually working into them."
She held out a dainty foot as she spoke, exhibiting a bright-green stocking striped in gold.
"But mind you, for all I am so frivolous, I am not a fool exactly. All I ask is to have my fling, and I've had it now for three whole months. When William was at home I never could sit up and read one minute, and so the first night he was away I burned the light all night just to feel wicked! It was great to be able to let it burn. I've gone to bed early every night for a week to make up for it. What do you think of that? It is just born in me, and I can't help it. If William had stayed at home, this would never have showed out in me. I would have gone on respectable and steady. But this is one of the prices we pay for bringing up women to be men's chattels, with some one always placed in authority over them. When the authority is removed, there's the devil to pay!"
The President of the Red Cross looked at her in surprise. She had never thought of it this way before; women were made to be protected and shielded; she had said so scores of times; the church had taught it and sanctioned it.
"The whole system is wrong," Mrs. Tweed continued, "and nice women like you, working away in churches ruled by men, have been to blame. You say women should be protected, and you cannot make good the protection. What protection have the soldiers' wives now? Evil tongues, prying eyes, on the part of women, and worse than that from the men. The church has fallen down on its job, and isn't straight enough to admit it! We should either train our women to take their own part and run their own affairs, or else we should train the men really to honor and protect women. The church has done neither. Bah! I could make a better world with one hand tied behind my back!"
"But, Mrs. Tweed," said the president, "this war is new to all of us—how did we know what was coming? It has taken all of us by surprise, and we have to do our bit in meeting the new conditions. Your man was never a fighting man—he hates it; but he has gone and will fight, although he loathes it. I never did a day's work outside of my home until now, and now I go to the office every day and try to straighten out tangles; women come in there and accuse me of everything, down to taking the bread out of their children's mouths. Two of them who brought in socks the other day said, 'Do you suppose the soldiers ever see them?' I did all I could to convince them that we were quite honest, though I assure you I felt like telling them what I thought of them. But things are abnormal now, everything is out of sorts; and if we love our country we will try to remedy things instead of making them worse. When I went to school we were governed by what they called the 'honor system.' It was a system of self-government; we were not watched and punished and bound by rules, but graded and ruled ourselves—and the strange thing about it was that it worked! When the teacher went out of the room, everything went on just the same. Nobody left her desk or talked or idled; we just worked on, minding our own affairs; it was a great system."
Mrs. Tweed looked at her with a cynical smile. "Some system!" she cried mockingly; "it may work in a school, where the little pinafore, pig-tail Minnies and Lucys gather; it won't work in life, where every one is grabbing for what he wants, and getting it some way. But see here," she cried suddenly, "you haven't called me down yet! or told me I am a disgrace to the Patriotic Fund! or asked me what will my husband say when he comes home! You haven't looked shocked at one thing I've told you. Say, you should have seen old hatchet-face when I told her that I hoped the war would last forever! She said I was a wicked woman!"
"Well—weren't you?" asked the president.
"Sure I was—if I meant it—but I didn't. I wanted to see her jump, and she certainly jumped; and she soon gave me up and went back and reported. Then you were sent, and I guess you are about ready to give in."
"Indeed, I am not," said the president, smiling. "You are not a fool—I can see that—and you can think out these things for yourself. You are not accountable to me, anyway. I have no authority to find fault with you. If you think your part in this terrible time is to go the limit in fancy clothes, theaters, and late suppers with men of questionable character—that is for you to decide. I believe in the honor system. You are certainly setting a bad example—but you have that privilege. You cannot be sent to jail for it. The money you draw is hard-earned money—it is certainly sweated labor which our gallant men perform for the miserable little sum that is paid them. It is yours to do with as you like. I had hoped that more of you young women would have come to help us in our work in the Red Cross and other places. We need your youth, your enthusiasm, your prettiness, for we are sorely pressed with many cares and troubles, and we seem to be old sometimes. But you are quite right in saying that it is your own business how you spend the money!"
After Mrs. Kent had gone, the younger woman sat looking around her flat with a queer feeling of discontent. A half-eaten box of chocolates was on the table and a new silk sweater coat lay across the lounge. In the tiny kitchenette a tap dripped with weary insistence, and unwashed dishes filled the sink. She got up suddenly and began to wash the dishes, and did not stop until every corner of her apartment was clean and tidy.
"I am getting dippy," she said as she looked at herself in the mirror in the buffet; "I've got to get out—this quiet life gets me. I'll go down to the dansant this afternoon—no use—I can't stand being alone."
She put on her white suit, and dabbing rouge on her cheeks and penciling her eyes, she went forth into the sunshiny streets.
She stopped to look at a display of sport suits in a window, also to see her own reflection in a mirror placed for the purpose among the suits.
Suddenly a voice sounded at her elbow: "Some kid, eh? Looking good enough to eat!"
She turned around and met the admiring gaze of Sergeant Edward Loftus Brown, recruiting sergeant of the 19-th, with whom she had been to the theater a few nights before. She welcomed him effusively.
"Come on and have something to eat," he said. "I got three recruits to-day—so I am going to proclaim a half-holiday."
They sat at a table in an alcove and gayly discussed the people who passed by. The President of the Red Cross came in, and at a table across the room hastily drank a cup of tea and went out again.
"She came to see me to-day," said Mrs. Tweed, "and gave me to understand that they were not any too well pleased with me—I am too gay for a soldier's wife! And they do not approve of you."
Sergeant Brown smiled indulgently and looked at her admiringly through his oyster-lidded eyes. His smile was as complacent as that of the ward boss who knows that the ballot-box is stuffed. It was the smile of one who can afford to be generous to an enemy.
"Women are always hard on each other," he said soothingly; "these women do not understand you, Trixie, that's all. No person understands you but me." His voice was of the magnolia oil quality.
"Oh, rats!" she broke out. "Cut that understanding business! She understands me all right—she knows me for a mean little selfish slacker who is going to have a good time no matter what it costs. I have been like a bad kid that eats the jam when the house is burning! But remember this, I'm no fool, and I'm not going to kid myself into thinking it is anything to be proud of, for it isn't."
Sergeant Brown sat up straight and regarded her critically. "What have you done," he said, "that she should call you down for it? You're young and pretty and these old hens are jealous of you. They can't raise a good time themselves and they're sore on you because all the men are crazy about you."
"Gee, you're mean," Mrs. Tweed retorted, "to talk that way about women who are giving up everything for their country. Mrs. Kent's two boys are in the trenches, actually fighting, not just parading round in uniform like you. She goes every day and works in the office of the Red Cross and tries to keep every tangle straightened out. She's not jealous of me—she despises me for a little feather-brained pinhead. She thinks I am even worse than I am. She thinks I am as bad as you would like me to be! Naturally enough, she judges me by my company."
Sergeant Brown's face flushed dull red, but she went on: "That woman is all right—take it from me."
"Well, don't get sore on me," he said quickly; "I'm not the one who is turning you down. I've always stuck up for you and you know it!"
"Why shouldn't you?" she cried. "You know well that I am straight, even if I am a fool. These women are out of patience with me and my class——"
"Men are always more charitable to women than women are to each other, anyway—women are cats, mostly!" he said, as he rolled a cigarette.
"There you go again!" she cried,—"pretending that you know. I tell you women are women's best friends. What help have you given to me to run straight, for all your hot air about thinking so much of me? You've stuck around my flat until I had to put you out—you've never sheltered or protected me in any way. Men are broad-minded toward women's characters because they do not care whether women are good or not—they would rather that they were not. I do not mean all men,—William was different, and there are plenty like him—but I mean men like you who run around with soldiers' wives and slam the women who are our friends, and who are really concerned about us. You are twenty years older than I am. You're always blowing about how much you know about women—also the world. Why didn't you advise me not to make a fool of myself?"
Sergeant Brown leaned over and patted her hand. "There now, Trixie," he said, "don't get excited; you're the best girl in town, only you're too high-strung. Haven't I always stood by you? Did I ever turn you down, even when these high-brow ladies gave you the glassy eye? Why are you going back on a friend now? You had lots to say about the Daughter of the Empire who came to see you the last time."
"She wasn't nice to me," said Mrs. Tweed; "but she meant well, anyway. But I'm getting ashamed of myself now—for I see I am not playing the game. Things have gone wrong through no fault of ours. The whole world has gone wrong, and it's up to us to bring it right if we can. These women are doing their share—they've given up everything. But what have I done? I let William go, of course, and that's a lot, for I do think a lot of William; but I am not doing my own share. Running around to the stores, eating late suppers, saying snippy things about other women, and giving people an excuse for not giving to the Patriotic Fund. You and I sitting here to-day, eating expensive things, are not helping to win the war, I can tell you."
"But my dear girl," he interrupted, "whose business is it? and what has happened to you anyway? I didn't bring you here to tell me my patriotic duty. I like you because you amuse me with your smart speeches. I don't want to be lectured—and I won't have it."
Mrs. Tweed arose and began to put on her gloves. "Here's where we part," she said; "I am going to begin to do my part, just as I see it. I've signed on—I've joined the great Win-the-War-Party. You should try it, Sergeant Brown. We have no exact rules to go by—we are self-governed. It is called the honor system; each one rules himself. It's quite new to me, but I expect to know more about it."
"Sit down!" he said sternly; "people are looking at you—they think we are quarreling; I am not done yet, and neither are you. Sit down!"
She sat down and apologized. "I am excited, I believe," she said; "people generally are when they enlist; and although I stood up, I had no intention of going, for the bill has not come yet and I won't go without settling my share of it."
"Forget it!" he said warmly; "this isn't a Dutch treat. What have I done that you should hit me a slam like this?"
"It isn't a slam," she said; "it is quite different. I want to run straight and fair—and I can't do it and let you pay for my meals; there's no sense in women being sponges. I know we have been brought up to beat our way. 'Be pretty, and all things will be added unto you,' is the first commandment, and the one with the promise. I've laid hold on that all my life, but to-day I am giving it up. The old way of training women nearly got me, but not quite—and now I am making a new start. It isn't too late. The old way of women always being under an obligation to men has started us wrong. I'm not blaming you or any one, but I'm done with it. If you see things as I do, you'll be willing to let me pay. Don't pauperize me any more and make me feel mean."
"Oh, go as far as you like!" he said petulantly. "Pay for me, too, if you like—don't leave me a shred of self-respect. This all comes of giving women the vote. I saw it coming, but I couldn't help it! I like the old-fashioned women best—but don't mind me!"
"I won't," she said; "nothing is the same as it was. How can anything go on the same? We have to change to meet new conditions and I'm starting to-day. I'm going to give up my suite and get a job—anything—maybe dishwashing. I'm going to do what I can to bring things right. If every one will do that, the country is safe."
* * * * *
In a certain restaurant there is a little waitress with clustering black hair and saucy little turned-up nose. She moves quickly, deftly, decidedly, and always knows what to do. She is young, pretty, and bright, and many a man has made up his mind to speak to her and ask her to "go out and see a show"; but after exchanging a few remarks with her, he changes his mind. Something tells him it would not go! She carries trays of dishes from eight-thirty to six every day except Sunday. She has respectfully refused to take her allowance from the Patriotic Fund, explaining that she has a job. The separation allowance sent to her from the Militia Department at Ottawa goes directly into the bank, and she is able to add to it sometimes from her wages.
The people in the block where Mrs. Tweed lived will tell you that she suddenly gave up her suite and moved away and they do not know where she went, but they are very much afraid she was going "wrong." What a lot of pleasant surprises there will be for people when they get to heaven!
There are certain words which have come into general circulation since the war. One of the very best of these is "Conservation."
Conservation is a fine, rich-sounding, round word, agreeable to the ear and eye, and much more aristocratic than the word "Reform," which seems to carry with it the unpleasant suggestion of something that needs to be changed. The dictionary, which knows everything, says that "Conservation means the saving from destructive change the good we already possess," which seems to be a perfectly worthy ambition for any one to entertain.
For many people, changes have in them an element of wickedness and danger. I once knew a little girl who wore a sunbonnet all summer and a hood all winter, and cried one whole day each spring and fall when she had to make the change; for changes to her were fearsome things.
This antagonism to change has delayed the progress of the world and kept back many a needed reform, for people have grown to think that whatever is must be right, and indeed have made a virtue of this belief.
"It was good enough for my father and it is good enough for me," cries many a good tory (small t, please), thinking that by this utterance he convinces an admiring world that all his folks have been exceedingly fine people for generations.
But changes are inevitable. What is true to-day may not be true to-morrow. All our opinions should be marked, "Subject to change without notice." We cannot all indulge ourselves in the complacency of the maiden lady who gave her age year after year as twenty-seven, because she said she was not one of these flighty things who say "one thing to-day and something else to-morrow."
Life is change. Only dead things remain as they are. Every living thing feels the winds of the world blowing over it, beating and buffeting it, marking and bleaching it. Change is a characteristic of life, and we must reckon on it! Progress is Life's first law! In order to be as good as we were yesterday, we have to be better. Life is built on a sliding scale; we have to keep moving to keep up. There are no rest stations on Life's long road!
The principle of conservation is not at enmity with the spirit of change. It is in thorough harmony with it.
Conservation becomes a timely topic in these days of hideous waste. In fact it will not much longer remain among the optional subjects in Life's curriculum. Even now the Moving Finger, invisible yet to the thoughtless, is writing after it the stern word "Compulsory." Four hundred thousand men have been taken away from the ranks of producers here in Canada, and have gone into the ranks of destroyers, becoming a drain upon our resources for all that they eat, wear, and use. Many thousand other men are making munitions, whose end is destruction and waste. We spend more in a day now to kill and hurt our fellow men than we ever spent in a month to educate or help them. Great new ways of wasting and destroying our resources are going on while the old leaks are all running wide open. More children under five years old have died since the war than there have been men killed in battle!—and largely from preventable "dirt-diseases" and poverty. Rats, weeds, extravagance, general shiftlessness are still doing business at the old stand, unmolested.