Rilla read her first love letter in her Rainbow Valley fir-shadowed nook, and a girl’s first love letter, whatever blasé, older people may think of it, is an event of tremendous importance in the teens. After Kenneth’s regiment had left Kingsport there came a fortnight of dully-aching anxiety and when the congregation sang in Church on Sunday evenings,
“Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea,”
Rilla’s voice always failed her; for with the words came a horribly vivid mind picture of a submarined ship sinking beneath pitiless waves amid the struggles and cries of drowning men. Then word came that Kenneth’s regiment had arrived safely in England; and now, at last, here was his letter. It began with something that made Rilla supremely happy for the moment and ended with a paragraph that crimsoned her cheeks with the wonder and thrill and delight of it. Between beginning and ending the letter was just such a jolly, newsy epistle as Ken might have written to anyone; but for the sake of that beginning and ending Rilla slept with the letter under her pillow for weeks, sometimes waking in the night to slip her fingers under and just touch it, and looked with secret pity on other girls whose sweethearts could never have written them anything half so wonderful and exquisite. Kenneth was not the son of a famous novelist for nothing. He “had a way” of expressing things in a few poignant, significant words that seemed to suggest far more than they uttered, and never grew stale or flat or foolish with ever so many scores of readings. Rilla went home from Rainbow Valley as if she flew rather than walked.
But such moments of uplift were rare that autumn. To be sure, there was one day in September when great news came of a big Allied victory in the west and Susan ran out to hoist the flag–the first time she had hoisted it since the Russian line broke and the last time she was to hoist it for many dismal moons.
“Likely the Big Push has begun at last, Mrs. Dr. dear,” she exclaimed, “and we will soon see the finish of the Huns. Our boys will be home by Christmas now. Hurrah!”
Susan was ashamed of herself for hurrahing the minute she had done it, and apologized meekly for such an outburst of juvenility. “But indeed, Mrs. Dr. dear, this good news has gone to my head after this awful summer of Russian slumps and Gallipoli setbacks.”
“Good news!” said Miss Oliver bitterly. “I wonder if the women whose men have been killed for it will call it good news. Just because our own men are not on that part of the front we are rejoicing as if the victory had cost no lives.”
“Now, Miss Oliver dear, do not take that view of it,” deprecated Susan. “We have not had much to rejoice over of late and yet men were being killed just the same. Do not let yourself slump like poor Cousin Sophia.”
Cousin Sophia had full range for her pessimism that gloomy autumn, and even Susan, incorrigible old optimist as she was, was hard put to it for cheer. When Bulgaria lined up with Germany Susan only remarked scornfully, “One more nation anxious for a licking,” but the Greek tangle worried her beyond her powers of philosophy to endure calmly.
“Constantine of Greece has a German wife, Mrs. Dr. dear, and that fact squelches hope. To think that I should have lived to care what kind of a wife Constantine of Greece had! The miserable creature is under his wife’s thumb and that is a bad place for any man to be. I am an old maid and an old maid has to be independent or she will be squashed out. But if I had been a married woman, Mrs. Dr. dear, I would have been meek and humble. It is my opinion that this Sophia of Greece is a minx.”
Susan was furious when the news came that Venizelos had met with defeat.
“I could spank Constantine and skin him alive afterwards, that I could,” she exclaimed bitterly.
“Oh, Susan, I’m surprised at you,” said the doctor, pulling a long face. “Have you no regard for the proprieties? Skin him alive by all means but omit the spanking.”
“If he had been well spanked in his younger days he might have more sense now,” retorted Susan. “But I suppose princes are never spanked, more is the pity. I see the Allies have sent him an ultimatum. I could tell them that it will take more than ultimatums to skin a snake like Constantine. Perhaps the Allied blockade will hammer sense into his head; but that will take some time I am thinking, and in the meantime what is to become of poor Serbia?”
They saw what became of Serbia, and during the process Susan was hardly to be lived with. In her exasperation she abused everything and everybody except Kitchener, and she fell upon poor President Wilson tooth and claw.
“If he had done his duty and gone into the war long ago we should not have seen this mess in Serbia,” she avowed.
“It would be a serious thing to plunge a great country like the United States, with its mixed population, into the war, Susan,” said the doctor, who sometimes came to the defence of the President, not because he thought Wilson needed it especially, but from an unholy love of baiting Susan.
“Maybe, doctor dear–maybe! But that makes me think of the old story of the girl who told her grandmother she was going to be married. ‘It is a solemn thing to be married,’ said the old lady. ‘Yes, but it is a solemner thing not to be,’ said the girl. And I can testify to that out of my own experience, doctor dear. And I think it is a solemner thing for the Yankees that they have kept out of the war than it would have been if they had gone into it. However, though I do not know much about them, I am of the opinion that we will see them starting something yet, Woodrow Wilson or no Woodrow Wilson, when they get it into their heads that this war is not a correspondence school.”
On a pale-yellow, windy evening in October Carl Meredith went away. He had enlisted on his eighteenth birthday. John Meredith saw him off with a set face. His two boys were gone–there was only little Bruce left now. He loved Bruce and Bruce’s mother dearly; but Jerry and Carl were the sons of the bride of his youth and Carl was the only one of all his children who had Cecilia’s very eyes. As they looked lovingly out at him above Carl’s uniform the pale minister suddenly remembered the day when for the first and last time he had tried to whip Carl. That was the first time he had realised how much Carl’s eyes were like Cecilia’s. Now he realised it again once more. Would he ever again see his dead wife’s eyes looking at him from his son’s face? What a bonny, clean, handsome lad he was! Only the other day Carl had been a little scrap of a boy, hunting bugs in Rainbow Valley, taking lizards to bed with him, and scandalizing the Glen by carrying frogs to Sunday School. It seemed hardly–right–somehow that he should be an “able-bodied man” in khaki. Yet John Meredith had said no word to dissuade him when Carl had told him he must go.
Rilla felt Carl’s going keenly. They had always been cronies and playmates. He was only a little older than she was and they had been children in Rainbow Valley together. She recalled all their old pranks and escapades as she walked slowly home alone. The full moon peeped through the scudding clouds with sudden floods of weird illumination, the telephone wires sang a shrill weird song in the wind, and the tall spikes of withered, grey-headed golden-rod in the fence corners swayed and beckoned wildly to her like groups of old witches weaving unholy spells. On such a night as this, long ago, Carl would come over to Ingleside and whistle her out to the gate. “Let’s go on a moon-spree, Rilla,” he would say, and the two of them would scamper off to Rainbow Valley. Rilla had never been afraid of his beetles and bugs, though she drew a hard and fast line at snakes. They used to talk together of almost everything and were teased about each other at school; but one evening when they were about ten years of age they had solemnly promised, by the old spring in Rainbow Valley, that they would never marry each other. Alice Clow had “crossed out” their names on her slate in school that day, and it came out that “both married.” They did not like the idea at all, hence the mutual vow in Rainbow Valley. There was nothing like an ounce of prevention. Rilla laughed over the old memory–and then sighed. That very day a dispatch from some London paper had contained the cheerful announcement that “the present moment is the darkest since the war began.” It was dark enough, and Rilla wished desperately that she could do something besides waiting and serving at home, as day after day the Glen boys she had known went away. If she were only a boy, speeding in khaki by Carl’s side to the Western front! She had wished that in a burst of romance when Jem had gone, without, perhaps, really meaning it. She meant it now. There were moments when waiting at home, in safety and comfort, seemed an unendurable thing.
The moon burst triumphantly through an especially dark cloud and shadow and silver chased each other in waves over the Glen. Rilla remembered one moonlit evening of childhood when she had said to her mother, “The moon just looks like a sorry, sorry face.” She thought it looked like that still–an agonised, care-worn face, as though it looked down on dreadful sights. What did it see on the Western front? In broken Serbia? On shell-swept Gallipoli?
“I am tired,” Miss Oliver had said that day, in a rare outburst of impatience, “of this horrible rack of strained emotions, when every day brings a new horror or the dread of it. No, don’t look reproachfully at me, Mrs. Blythe. There’s nothing heroic about me today. I’ve slumped. I wish England had left Belgium to her fate–I wish Canada had never sent a man–I wish we’d tied our boys to our apron strings and not let one of them go. Oh–I shall be ashamed of myself in half an hour–but at this very minute I mean every word of it. Will the Allies never strike?”
“Patience is a tired mare but she jogs on,” said Susan.
“While the steeds of Armageddon thunder, trampling over our hearts,” retorted Miss Oliver. “Susan, tell me–don’t you ever–didn’t you ever–take spells of feeling that you must scream–or swear–or smash something–just because your torture reaches a point when it becomes unbearable?”
“I have never sworn or desired to swear, Miss Oliver dear, but I will admit,” said Susan, with the air of one determined to make a clean breast of it once and for all, “that I have experienced occasions when it was a relief to do considerable banging.”
“Don’t you think that is a kind of swearing, Susan? What is the difference between slamming a door viciously and saying d—”
“Miss Oliver dear,” interrupted Susan, desperately determined to save Gertrude from herself, if human power could do it, “you are all tired out and unstrung–and no wonder, teaching those obstreperous youngsters all day and coming home to bad war news. But just you go upstairs and lie down and I will bring you up a cup of hot tea and a bite of toast and very soon you will not want to slam doors or swear.”
“Susan, you’re a good soul–a very pearl of Susans! But, Susan, it would be such a relief–to say just one soft, low, little tiny d—”
“I will bring you a hot-water bottle for the soles of your feet, also,” interposed Susan resolutely, “and it would not be any relief to say that word you are thinking of, Miss Oliver, and that you may tie to.”
“Well, I’ll try the hot-water bottle first,” said Miss Oliver, repenting herself on teasing Susan and vanishing upstairs, to Susan’s intense relief. Susan shook her head ominously as she filled the hot-water bottle. The war was certainly relaxing the standards of behaviour woefully. Here was Miss Oliver admittedly on the point of profanity.
“We must draw the blood from her brain,” said Susan, “and if this bottle is not effective I will see what can be done with a mustard plaster.”
Gertrude rallied and carried on. Lord Kitchener went to Greece, whereat Susan foretold that Constantine would soon experience a change of heart. Lloyd George began to heckle the Allies regarding equipment and guns and Susan said you would hear more of Lloyd George yet. The gallant Anzacs withdrew from Gallipoli and Susan approved the step, with reservations. The siege of Kut-El-Amara began and Susan pored over maps of Mesopotamia and abused the Turks. Henry Ford started for Europe and Susan flayed him with sarcasm. Sir John French was superseded by Sir Douglas Haig and Susan dubiously opined that it was poor policy to swap horses crossing a stream. Not a move on the great chess-board of king or bishop or pawn escaped Susan, who had once read only Glen St. Mary notes. “There was a time,” she said sorrowfully, “when I did not care what happened outside of P.E. Island, and now a king cannot have a toothache in Russia or China but it worries me. It may be broadening to the mind, as the doctor said, but it is very painful to the feelings.”
When Christmas came again Susan did not set any vacant places at the festive board. Two empty chairs were too much even for Susan who had thought in September that there would not be one.
“This is the first Christmas that Walter was not home,” Rilla wrote in her diary that night. “Jem used to be away for Christmases up in Avonlea, but Walter never was. I had letters from Ken and him today. They are still in England but expect to be in the trenches very soon. And then–but I suppose we’ll be able to endure it somehow. To me, the strangest of all the strange things since 1914 is how we have all learned to accept things we never thought we could–to go on with life as a matter of course. I know that Jem and Jerry are in the trenches–that Ken and Walter will be soon–that if one of them does not come back my heart will break–yet I go on and work and plan–yes, and even enjoy life by times. There are moments when we have real fun because, just for the moment, we don’t think about things and then–we remember–and the remembering is worse than thinking of it all the time would have been.
“Today was dark and cloudy and tonight is wild enough, as Gertrude says, to please any novelist in search of suitable matter for a murder or elopement. The raindrops streaming over the panes look like tears running down a face, and the wind is shrieking through the maple grove.
“This hasn’t been a nice Christmas Day in any way. Nan had toothache and Susan had red eyes, and assumed a weird and gruesome flippancy of manner to deceive us into thinking she hadn’t; and Jims had a bad cold all day and I’m afraid of croup. He has had croup twice since October. The first time I was nearly frightened to death, for father and mother were both away–father always is away, it seems to me, when any of this household gets sick. But Susan was cool as a fish and knew just what to do, and by morning Jims was all right. That child is a cross between a duck and an imp. He’s a year and four months old, trots about everywhere, and says quite a few words. He has the cutest little way of calling me “Willa-will.” It always brings back that dreadful, ridiculous, delightful night when Ken came to say good-bye, and I was so furious and happy. Jims is pink and white and big-eyed and curly-haired and every now and then I discover a new dimple in him. I can never quite believe he is really the same creature as that scrawny, yellow, ugly little changeling I brought home in the soup tureen. Nobody has ever heard a word from Jim Anderson. If he never comes back I shall keep Jims always. Everybody here worships and spoils him–or would spoil him if Morgan and I didn’t stand remorselessly in the way. Susan says Jims is the cleverest child she ever saw and can recognize Old Nick when he sees him–this because Jims threw poor Doc out of an upstairs window one day. Doc turned into Mr. Hyde on his way down and landed in a currant bush, spitting and swearing. I tried to console his inner cat with a saucer of milk but he would have none of it, and remained Mr. Hyde the rest of the day. Jims’s latest exploit was to paint the cushion of the big arm-chair in the sun parlour with molasses; and before anybody found it out Mrs. Fred Clow came in on Red Cross business and sat down on it. Her new silk dress was ruined and nobody could blame her for being vexed. But she went into one of her tempers and said nasty things and gave me such slams about ‘spoiling’ Jims that I nearly boiled over, too. But I kept the lid on till she had waddled away and then I exploded.
“‘The fat, clumsy, horrid old thing,’ I said–and oh, what a satisfaction it was to say it.
“‘She has three sons at the front,’ mother said rebukingly.
“‘I suppose that covers all her shortcomings in manners,’ I retorted. But I was ashamed–for it is true that all her boys have gone and she was very plucky and loyal about it too; and she is a perfect tower of strength in the Red Cross. It’s a little hard to remember all the heroines. Just the same, it was her second new silk dress in one year and that when everybody is–or should be–trying to ‘save and serve.’
“I had to bring out my green velvet hat again lately and begin wearing it. I hung on to my blue straw sailor as long as I could. How I hate the green velvet hat! It is so elaborate and conspicuous. I don’t see how I could ever have liked it. But I vowed to wear it and wear it I will.
“Shirley and I went down to the station this morning to take Little Dog Monday a bang-up Christmas dinner. Dog Monday waits and watches there still, with just as much hope and confidence as ever. Sometimes he hangs around the station house and talks to people and the rest of his time he sits at his little kennel door and watches the track unwinkingly. We never try to coax him home now: we know it is of no use. When Jem comes back, Monday will come home with him; and if Jem–never comes back–Monday will wait there for him as long as his dear dog heart goes on beating.
“Fred Arnold was here last night. He was eighteen in November and is going to enlist just as soon as his mother is over an operation she has to have. He has been coming here very often lately and though I like him so much it makes me uncomfortable, because I am afraid he is thinking that perhaps I could care something for him. I can’t tell him about Ken–because, after all, what is there to tell? And yet I don’t like to behave coldly and distantly when he will be going away so soon. It is very perplexing. I remember I used to think it would be such fun to have dozens of beaux–and now I’m worried to death because two are too many.
“I am learning to cook. Susan is teaching me. I tried to learn long ago–but no, let me be honest–Susan tried to teach me, which is a very different thing. I never seemed to succeed with anything and I got discouraged. But since the boys have gone away I wanted to be able to make cake and things for them myself and so I started in again and this time I’m getting on surprisingly well. Susan says it is all in the way I hold my mouth and father says my subconscious mind is desirous of learning now, and I dare say they’re both right. Anyhow, I can make dandy short-bread and fruitcake. I got ambitious last week and attempted cream puffs, but made an awful failure of them. They came out of the oven flat as flukes. I thought maybe the cream would fill them up again and make them plump but it didn’t. I think Susan was secretly pleased. She is past mistress in the art of making cream puffs and it would break her heart if anyone else here could make them as well. I wonder if Susan tampered–but no, I won’t suspect her of such a thing.
“Miranda Pryor spent an afternoon here a few days ago, helping me cut out certain Red Cross garments known by the charming name of ‘vermin shirts.’ Susan thinks that name is not quite decent, so I suggested she call them ‘cootie sarks,’ which is old Highland Sandy’s version of it. But she shook her head and I heard her telling mother later that, in her opinion, ‘cooties’ and ‘sarks’ were not proper subjects for young girls to talk about. She was especially horrified when Jem wrote in his last letter to mother, ‘Tell Susan I had a fine cootie hunt this morning and caught fifty-three!’ Susan positively turned pea-green. ‘Mrs. Dr. dear,’ she said, ‘when I was young, if decent people were so unfortunate as to get–those insects–they kept it a secret if possible. I do not want to be narrow-minded, Mrs. Dr. dear, but I still think it is better not to mention such things.’
“Miranda grew confidential over our vermin shirts and told me all her troubles. She is desperately unhappy. She is engaged to Joe Milgrave and Joe joined up in October and has been training in Charlottetown ever since. Her father was furious when he joined and forbade Miranda ever to have any dealing or communication with him again. Poor Joe expects to go overseas any day and wants Miranda to marry him before he goes, which shows that there have been ‘communications’ in spite of Whiskers-on-the-moon. Miranda wants to marry him but cannot, and she declares it will break her heart.
“‘Why don’t you run away and marry him?’ I said. It didn’t go against my conscience in the least to give her such advice. Joe Milgrave is a splendid fellow and Mr. Pryor fairly beamed on him until the war broke out and I know Mr. Pryor would forgive Miranda very quickly, once it was over and he wanted his housekeeper back. But Miranda shook her silvery head dolefully.
“‘Joe wants me to but I can’t. Mother’s last words to me, as she lay on her dying-bed, were, “Never, never run away, Miranda,” and I promised.’
“Miranda’s mother died two years ago, and it seems, according to Miranda, that her mother and father actually ran away to be married themselves. To picture Whiskers-on-the-moon as the hero of an elopement is beyond my power. But such was the case and Mrs. Pryor at least lived to repent it. She had a hard life of it with Mr. Pryor, and she thought it was a punishment on her for running away. So she made Miranda promise she would never, for any reason whatever, do it.
“Of course, you cannot urge a girl to break a promise made to a dying mother, so I did not see what Miranda could do unless she got Joe to come to the house when her father was away and marry her there. But Miranda said that couldn’t be managed. Her father seemed to suspect she might be up to something of the sort and he never went away for long at a time, and, of course, Joe couldn’t get leave of absence at an hour’s notice.
“‘No, I shall just have to let Joe go, and he will be killed–I know he will be killed–and my heart will break,’ said Miranda, her tears running down and copiously bedewing the vermin shirts!
“I am not writing like this for lack of any real sympathy with poor Miranda. I’ve just got into the habit of giving things a comical twist if I can, when I’m writing to Jem and Walter and Ken, to make them laugh. I really felt sorry for Miranda who is as much in love with Joe as a china-blue girl can be with anyone and who is dreadfully ashamed of her father’s pro-German sentiments. I think she understood that I did, for she said she had wanted to tell me all about her worries because I had grown so sympathetic this past year. I wonder if I have. I know I used to be a selfish, thoughtless creature–how selfish and thoughtless I am ashamed to remember now, so I can’t be quite so bad as I was.
“I wish I could help Miranda. It would be very romantic to contrive a war-wedding and I should dearly love to get the better of Whiskers-on-the-moon. But at present the oracle has not spoken.”