“The Germans have recaptured Premysl,” said Susan despairingly, looking up from her newspaper, “and now I suppose we will have to begin calling it by that uncivilised name again. Cousin Sophia was in when the mail came and when she heard the news she hove a sigh up from the depths of her stomach, Mrs. Dr. dear, and said, ‘Ah yes, and they will get Petrograd next I have no doubt.’ I said to her, ‘My knowledge of geography is not so profound as I wish it was but I have an idea that it is quite a walk from Premysl to Petrograd.’ Cousin Sophia sighed again and said, ‘The Grand Duke Nicholas is not the man I took him to be.’ ‘Do not let him know that,’ said I. ‘It might hurt his feelings and he has likely enough to worry him as it is. But you cannot cheer Cousin Sophia up, no matter how sarcastic you are, Mrs. Dr. dear. She sighed for the third time and groaned out, ‘But the Russians are retreating fast,’ and I said, ‘Well, what of it? They have plenty of room for retreating, have they not?’ But all the same, Mrs. Dr. dear, though I would never admit it to Cousin Sophia, I do not like the situation on the eastern front.”
Nobody else liked it either; but all summer the Russian retreat went on–a long-drawn-out agony.
“I wonder if I shall ever again be able to await the coming of the mail with feelings of composure–never to speak of pleasure,” said Gertrude Oliver. “The thought that haunts me night and day is–will the Germans smash Russia completely and then hurl their eastern army, flushed with victory, against the western front?”
“They will not, Miss Oliver dear,” said Susan, assuming the role of prophetess. “In the first place, the Almighty will not allow it, in the second, Grand Duke Nicholas, though he may have been a disappointment to us in some respects, knows how to run away decently and in order, and that is a very useful knowledge when Germans are chasing you. Norman Douglas declares he is just luring them on and killing ten of them to one he loses. But I am of the opinion he cannot help himself and is just doing the best he can under the circumstances, the same as the rest of us. So do not go so far afield to borrow trouble, Miss Oliver dear, when there is plenty of it already camping on our very doorstep.”
Walter had gone to Kingsport the first of June. Nan, Di and Faith had gone also to do Red Cross work in their vacation. In mid-July Walter came home for a week’s leave before going overseas. Rilla had lived through the days of his absence on the hope of that week, and now that it had come she drank every minute of it thirstily, hating even the hours she had to spend in sleep, they seemed such a waste of precious moments. In spite of its sadness, it was a beautiful week, full of poignant, unforgettable hours, when she and Walter had long walks and talks and silences together. He was all her own and she knew that he found strength and comfort in her sympathy and understanding. It was very wonderful to know she meant so much to him–the knowledge helped her through moments that would otherwise have been unendurable, and gave her power to smile–and even to laugh a little. When Walter had gone she might indulge in the comfort of tears, but not while he was here. She would not even let herself cry at night, lest her eyes should betray her to him in the morning.
On his last evening at home they went together to Rainbow Valley and sat down on the bank of the brook, under the White Lady, where the gay revels of olden days had been held in the cloudless years. Rainbow Valley was roofed over with a sunset of unusual splendour that night; a wonderful grey dusk just touched with starlight followed it; and then came moonshine, hinting, hiding, revealing, lighting up little dells and hollows here, leaving others in dark, velvet shadow.
“When I am ‘somewhere in France,'” said Walter, looking around him with eager eyes on all the beauty his soul loved, “I shall remember these still, dewy, moon-drenched places. The balsam of the fir-trees; the peace of those white pools of moonshine; the ‘strength of the hills’–what a beautiful old Biblical phrase that is. Rilla! Look at those old hills around us–the hills we looked up at as children, wondering what lay for us in the great world beyond them. How calm and strong they are–how patient and changeless–like the heart of a good woman. Rilla-my-Rilla, do you know what you have been to me the past year? I want to tell you before I go. I could not have lived through it if it had not been for you, little loving, believing heart.”
Rilla dared not try to speak. She slipped her hand into Walter’s and pressed it hard.
“And when I’m over there, Rilla, in that hell upon earth which men who have forgotten God have made, it will be the thought of you that will help me most. I know you’ll be as plucky and patient as you have shown yourself to be this past year–I’m not afraid for you. I know that no matter what happens, you’ll be Rilla-my-Rilla–no matter what happens.”
Rilla repressed tear and sigh, but she could not repress a little shiver, and Walter knew that he had said enough. After a moment of silence, in which each made an unworded promise to each other, he said, “Now we won’t be sober any more. We’ll look beyond the years–to the time when the war will be over and Jem and Jerry and I will come marching home and we’ll all be happy again.”
“We won’t be–happy–in the same way,” said Rilla.
“No, not in the same way. Nobody whom this war has touched will ever be happy again in quite the same way. But it will be a better happiness, I think, little sister–a happiness we’ve earned. We were very happy before the war, weren’t we? With a home like Ingleside, and a father and mother like ours we couldn’t help being happy. But that happiness was a gift from life and love; it wasn’t really ours–life could take it back at any time. It can never take away the happiness we win for ourselves in the way of duty. I’ve realised that since I went into khaki. In spite of my occasional funks, when I fall to living over things beforehand, I’ve been happy since that night in May. Rilla, be awfully good to mother while I’m away. It must be a horrible thing to be a mother in this war–the mothers and sisters and wives and sweethearts have the hardest times. Rilla, you beautiful little thing, are you anybody’s sweetheart? If you are, tell me before I go.”
“No,” said Rilla. Then, impelled by a wish to be absolutely frank with Walter in this talk that might be the last they would ever have, she added, blushing wildly in the moonlight, “but if–Kenneth Ford–wanted me to be–”
“I see,” said Walter. “And Ken’s in khaki, too. Poor little girlie, it’s a bit hard for you all round. Well, I’m not leaving any girl to break her heart about me–thank God for that.”
Rilla glanced up at the Manse on the hill. She could see a light in Una Meredith’s window. She felt tempted to say something–then she knew she must not. It was not her secret: and, anyway, she did not know–she only suspected.
Walter looked about him lingeringly and lovingly. This spot had always been so dear to him. What fun they all had had here lang syne. Phantoms of memory seemed to pace the dappled paths and peep merrily through the swinging boughs–Jem and Jerry, bare-legged, sunburned schoolboys, fishing in the brook and frying trout over the old stone fireplace; Nan and Di and Faith, in their dimpled, fresh-eyed childish beauty; Una the sweet and shy, Carl, poring over ants and bugs, little slangy, sharp-tongued, good-hearted Mary Vance–the old Walter that had been himself lying on the grass reading poetry or wandering through palaces of fancy. They were all there around him–he could see them almost as plainly as he saw Rilla–as plainly as he had once seen the Pied Piper piping down the valley in a vanished twilight. And they said to him, those gay little ghosts of other days, “We were the children of yesterday, Walter–fight a good fight for the children of to-day and to-morrow.”
“Where are you, Walter,” cried Rilla, laughing a little. “Come back–come back.”
Walter came back with a long breath. He stood up and looked about him at the beautiful valley of moonlight, as if to impress on his mind and heart every charm it possessed–the great dark plumes of the firs against the silvery sky, the stately White Lady, the old magic of the dancing brook, the faithful Tree Lovers, the beckoning, tricksy paths.
“I shall see it so in my dreams,” he said, as he turned away.
They went back to Ingleside. Mr. and Mrs. Meredith were there, with Gertrude Oliver, who had come from Lowbridge to say good-bye. Everybody was quite cheerful and bright, but nobody said much about the war being soon over, as they had said when Jem went away. They did not talk about the war at all–and they thought of nothing else. At last they gathered around the piano and sang the grand old hymn:
“Oh God, our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come.
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home.”
“We all come back to God in these days of soul-sifting,” said Gertrude to John Meredith. “There have been many days in the past when I didn’t believe in God–not as God–only as the impersonal Great First Cause of the scientists. I believe in Him now–I have to–there’s nothing else to fall back on but God–humbly, starkly, unconditionally.”
“‘Our help in ages past’–’the same yesterday, to-day and for ever,'” said the minister gently. “When we forget God–He remembers us.”
There was no crowd at the Glen Station the next morning to see Walter off. It was becoming a commonplace for a khaki clad boy to board that early morning train after his last leave. Besides his own, only the Manse folk were there, and Mary Vance. Mary had sent her Miller off the week before, with a determined grin, and now considered herself entitled to give expert opinion on how such partings should be conducted.
“The main thing is to smile and act as if nothing was happening,” she informed the Ingleside group. “The boys all hate the sob act like poison. Miller told me I wasn’t to come near the station if I couldn’t keep from bawling. So I got through with my crying beforehand, and at the last I said to him, ‘Good luck, Miller, and if you come back you’ll find I haven’t changed any, and if you don’t come back I’ll always be proud you went, and in any case don’t fall in love with a French girl.’ Miller swore he wouldn’t, but you never can tell about those fascinating foreign hussies. Anyhow, the last sight he had of me I was smiling to my limit. Gee, all the rest of the day my face felt as if it had been starched and ironed into a smile.”
In spite of Mary’s advice and example Mrs. Blythe, who had sent Jem off with a smile, could not quite manage one for Walter. But at least no one cried. Dog Monday came out of his lair in the shipping-shed and sat down close to Walter, thumping his tail vigorously on the boards of the platform whenever Walter spoke to him, and looking up with confident eyes, as if to say, “I know you’ll find Jem and bring him back to me.”
“So long, old fellow,” said Carl Meredith cheerfully, when the good-byes had to be said. “Tell them over there to keep their spirits up–I am coming along presently.”
“Me too,” said Shirley laconically, proffering a brown paw. Susan heard him and her face turned very grey.
Una shook hands quietly, looking at him with wistful, sorrowful, dark-blue eyes. But then Una’s eyes had always been wistful. Walter bent his handsome black head in its khaki cap and kissed her with the warm, comradely kiss of a brother. He had never kissed her before, and for a fleeting moment Una’s face betrayed her, if anyone had noticed. But nobody did; the conductor was shouting “all aboard”; everybody was trying to look very cheerful. Walter turned to Rilla; she held his hands and looked up at him. She would not see him again until the day broke and the shadows vanished–and she knew not if that daybreak would be on this side of the grave or beyond it.
“Good-bye,” she said.
On her lips it lost all the bitterness it had won through the ages of parting and bore instead all the sweetness of the old loves of all the women who had ever loved and prayed for the beloved.
“Write me often and bring Jims up faithfully, according to the gospel of Morgan,” Walter said lightly, having said all his serious things the night before in Rainbow Valley. But at the last moment he took her face between his hands and looked deep into her gallant eyes. “God bless you, Rilla-my-Rilla,” he said softly and tenderly. After all it was not a hard thing to fight for a land that bore daughters like this.
He stood on the rear platform and waved to them as the train pulled out. Rilla was standing by herself, but Una Meredith came to her and the two girls who loved him most stood together and held each other’s cold hands as the train rounded the curve of the wooded hill.
Rilla spent an hour in Rainbow Valley that morning about which she never said a word to anyone; she did not even write in her diary about it; when it was over she went home and made rompers for Jims. In the evening she went to a Junior Red Cross committee meeting and was severely businesslike.
“You would never suppose,” said Irene Howard to Olive Kirk afterwards, “that Walter had left for the front only this morning. But some people really have no depth of feeling. I often wish I could take things as lightly as Rilla Blythe.”