The Flowers of the Forest
28 August 1914
Glen St. Mary, PEI
Faith says that we must only write cheerful letters, and never any that would make you sorrier to get them than to get nothing at all. I will try to write that sort of letter, though melancholy nips at my heels. I shall kick it away, both for your sake and to prove to Faith that I can dig in with as much resolve as she.
It is a strange thing. After we bid you and Jem farewell at the station, Faith and I walked home together. Faith and I are friends, of course, but Di is her especial chum. Walking home from the station, we left Di behind with the others and just went on ourselves, which is not often our way. Neither of us said anything for a long while, but all of a sudden, Faith squeezed my arm and said, "We've work to do, Nan. And we must help one another to do it well." I will do my bit, the same as Faith. Though I cannot help but think that nothing can ever be quite the same for any of us again.*
We have been very busy in the Glen. Di and I have hemmed dozens of bedsheets for the Red Cross. All of Ingleside is snowed over with drifts of cotton and we are thankful for our thimbles. I never liked to use mine before — it seemed such a clumsy thing and I always loved to feel the fabric against my skin. But without it, my fingers would soon be torn to bits, so I wear it and am glad. Even Rilla has been helping, though Di grumbles about having to pick out her stitches more often than not.
But you will never believe what Rilla has done. I can hardly believe it myself. She and some of the other Glen girls have organized a Junior Red Cross, but that is not the amazing thing, as funny as it is to imagine Rilla running anything. The amazing thing is that Rilla went out to canvass for Red Cross supplies and came home with a BABY!
Yes, you may read that again, and it won't have changed!
Here is the story in brief: Rilla went to collect supplies from Mrs. Jim Anderson, but arrived at the house to find Mrs. Anderson dead and her little newborn baby being neglected by Meg Conover. So Rilla took the baby and brought it home in a soup tureen! By all accounts, she means to keep it and raise it, at least until someone can contact its father, who is an Englishman who went home to enlist. Dad says that Rilla must care for it herself so as not to trouble Mother and Susan, though I believe he only means to see if Rilla will rise to the challenge. Can you imagine Dad and Mother sending a baby to Hopetown? No, you cannot; the thing is impossible.
I will never forget the moment Mother came home from Charlottetown — she had been away at a Red Cross convention for a couple of days. Di and I were hemming sheets and Susan was sitting with us, knitting. Mother came in and set aside her hat and asked us where Rilla was, and Susan — bold as brass — said to her, "She's upstairs, Mrs. Dr. dear, putting her baby to bed."
Di says that Mother looked as though she had touched a live wire. She jumped a foot in the air and goggled at Susan. Di and I were in stitches in every sense and couldn't catch our breaths enough to explain. After a while, we settled down and Susan went to get Mother a cup of tea, and the whole story came out. But oh, I wish Jem could have seen it. He'll be tickled to hear of such a successful prank — tell him he must give Rilla her due in the annals of family mischief hereafter.
Dad called us into the library next morning — me and Di and Walter and Shirley — and told us to go easy on Rilla over this. He said that she is doing good work as well as she can and that we should be generous and support her. And that he sympathized if we needed to laugh over it, but we should go do it where she cannot hear us.
I promise you that we were well out of earshot when we told Faith and Una about it. Of course Una thinks it is very noble and wants to help sew baby clothes for the poor mite, but I thought Faith was going to suffocate she laughed so hard and so long. I suppose we all need a hearty laugh these days. And if you can close your eyes and imagine Rilla Blythe carrying a naked baby in a soup tureen, you may have it!
We are headed off to Redmond in a few days, though there has hardly been time to think of it between Red Cross sheets and unexpected arrivals. I almost wish we were not. As long as we stay in the Glen, working feverishly over our uncomplicated seams, it seems that we are suspended in some alternate universe, outside of ordinary time. I fear that going to Redmond will start the clock again, and make all of this real, rather than the horrid, cruel jest it seems at the moment.
Of course, the cruelest cut is that you will not be in Kingsport as you should have been. I suppose there is no use groaning over it, but after so long apart, we were finally supposed to be in the same place this year. I had been so looking forward to it and it's a horrid disappointment.
I suppose we'll get along alright. Faith says she didn't like her boarding house much, so she and Di and I are going to set up housekeeping together. Mother's friend, Mrs. Blake, has helped us find a little cottage that should suit — she assured Mother that it has plenty of trees about it to keep me happy, but it is not too far from Redmond, or else Di and Faith would object to the inconvenience. I worried that we mightn't be able to afford it, but Dad says not to think of the expense at all and Mother says just mind we're frugal in our grocery budget.
I do wonder where you are tonight. Won't you write and tell me a bit about Valcartier when you get there? I want to be able to imagine you properly in your new surroundings. As for my own environs, I am in the garrett, with moonlight flooding in through the windows and the whole house asleep beneath me. Looking out toward the Four Winds light, I can't believe it was only three weeks ago we were there together. But let's not think on that night. I'd much rather remember the evening we walked out to the rock shore in July. I think you will not have forgotten . . .
[Several pages omitted.]
There, now I am sniffling, which certainly violates Faith's cardinal rule of letter-writing. No more of that.
Instead, I will tell you how proud I am of you, and resolve never to give any reason that you should not be proud of me, too. I may not sail into things with Faith's aplomb, but I daresay I can match her in keeping the homefires burning. And if I can't, at least I can make a valiant attempt.
I do hope you will be rather gladder to have received this letter than not. While I am writing it, I have been able to convince myself that you are not far away at all. It is as if I can capture my time with ink and paper and send you all of my minutes and hours transformed into lines, that we may share them.
Know that there can be no time when you think of me that I am not also thinking of you.
8 September 1914
Redmond College, Kingsport, Nova Scotia
We're back at Redmond and everything seems dull as dishwater without you here. Especially with Nan mooning around the house and sighing from dawn til dusk. I swear she hasn't opened a single book all week. I imagine Jerry's letters must be as long as novels, as she seems to write for hours and hours.
Di and I have a plan, though. We went to see Mrs. Wellfleet, who is the chairwoman of the Kingsport Red Cross, and talked to her about setting up a chapter for the Redmond students. She thinks it's a splendid idea and agrees that the young folk will work better if we organize ourselves and coordinate with her, rather than being under the thumb of our elders. Di has been drawing up flyers to announce our first meeting this coming Wednesday. We're hoping for a good turnout. If no one else shows, at least we'll drag Nan along. She can sniffle into some bandages.
I don't know whether we can get Walter to help with our work, though. It's true that Red Cross work is mostly taken up by women, but the Kingsport Red Cross has plenty of men who help with the planning and organizing, and of course we'll always need help with events. But I am reluctant to ask Walter to help, somehow. He has gone very quiet lately and we don't see as much of him as I expected we would.
I tried very hard to convince Carl to come to Kingsport with us this fall. Father and Rosemary wanted him to go straight through to Redmond once he had graduated Queen's, but Carl has a very independent streak in him and means to earn part of his own way through college.** It's the queerest thing. It's not a question of worrying over whether Father can afford the tuition, especially with Jerry in the army instead of studying this year. But Carl put his foot down and refused to go, and so he is teaching at the Harbour Head school for the year. I think it will be quite dull for him at home with only Una and Rilla around, and Rilla busy with her baby (I will never get used to saying that, Jem, not if I live a thousand years — the whole thing is preposterous!). Though I suppose Shirley will be home from Queen's on the weekends to keep Carl company.
I don't have very many idle moments, but those I have are mostly filled up by sifting through delicious memories of you. It still makes me giggle to remember how you kissed me on the train platform the day you left — what a scandal that made! At least four venerable ladies scolded me over it before I left for Redmond and I'm sure that they were just the boldest of many who were more timid, though no less outraged. If they thought that was a show, I'm very glad they don't tend to stroll through Rainbow Valley in firefly time.
All my love and then some,
15 September 1914
I keep quite as busy as you. Here is my schedule: drill, drill, drill, drill, a little more drill, drill, after that we drill, drill, stop to eat a bit of watery stew and sawdusty bread, drill, drill, and drill until I fall down asleep at night (I find that I even drill in my dreams, which might please Sergeant Barlow, but crowds out more pleasant options). You wouldn't imagine it would take so much time and effort to get men to walk in a straight line together, but the thing is more easily said than done.
On Monday, just as my company was finishing up another interminable session of drill, we heard the sound of bagpipes from over a ridge. We stopped by the road and would you believe it? In a minute, a whole Highland regiment came streaming over the rise. Can you imagine it, Faith? A thousand "Highlanders" (of course, they are Canadians and some of those Toronto boys never even saw a thistle, but they still look mighty fine). They wear khaki tunics like the rest of us, but under that they have tartan kilts and great white sporrans with black tassels. They wear high stockings and white spats over their boots and little glengarry caps decorated with badges. What a thrill to see them on the march! They are camped near us and we can hear their pipers playing day and night. Just now, as I write this, the pipers are practicing "The Flowers of the Forest." It reminds me of Walter's old fancy of the piper coming down through Rainbow Valley to collect us all. And I guess he has.
If I had had a bit more imagination (and patience) I would have gone with Roddy MacCallum of the Upper Glen and joined the Highlanders myself. Wouldn't you like to see me in tartan rather than khaki? But Roddy had to go all the way to Toronto to enlist and I don't think I could have waited that long. I wonder if he is disappointed to find that few of his comrades speak the Gaelic like they do in the Upper Glen, or whether it gives him some sort of standing among his fellows. I met one of the Highlanders yesterday and his name was Anatole Dubois, and if he can be a Highlander, they'd have to commission red-headed me an officer on the spot!
Ah, well. I've missed my chance there. I shall have to console myself with the knowledge that I have the bonniest lass on any continent waiting for me at home.
My own section is jolly. Most of the boys are from Nova Scotia, with a few strays here and there. I have made a few especial friends, but generally get along well with everyone.
Give my best to Di and Walter and tell Nan that Jerry can barely march because he stays up half the night reading the tomes she writes. Ask her to have mercy on the poor chap.
Hugs and kisses,
16 September 1914
Thank you for your lovely, long letters. Jem teases me about them, saying I should keep them in my breast pocket to stop bullets with, but I cherish every word. Whenever I am off-duty, I read and re-read them, feeling almost as if I were with you in the Glen or in Kingsport with you. They are wonderful gifts and I can't thank you enough for sending them.
Still, you must need to study sometimes! It must take you hours to compose these. And while I will always read every word you write me, please do not feel that you must write so constantly that you do not have time for other pursuits. I love to imagine you out in the world, enjoying courses and concerts and rambles through the park, not just hunched over a desk, writing to me. It's alright, Nan. Have a grand time at Redmond. I'm fine here — writing won't bring me back any faster.
I know it's a disappointment — after all our planning and waiting — that we aren't there together. But missing a year isn't the worst. I'll just do my senior year next year when you are a sophomore and then we'll both of us have two years left and graduate at the same time. That will be alright, won't it?
You ask about Valcartier. My overall impression is mostly one of boredom. Between the hours of drill and the monotony of meals and other duties, there is certainly very little excitement to it. In the evenings, the men in my section like to play cards, though I have no practice at it. They poked fun at me at first for reading instead of playing, but backed off a bit when they learned I was a minister's son — that seemed to explain my lack of experience to them. Besides, I have made an effort to join in a few times since — now the teasing has become a bit more good-natured, as I tend to give up my money without much of a fight.
I spend most of my time with my section — there are nine men in it, including myself. Four sections make a platoon; four platoons make a company; four companies make a battalion. When you count in all the cooks and drivers and quartermasters and officers' staff and medics and Chaplain Caruthers, plus the boys in the special machine gun section, there are about 1,000 of us altogether in the battalion. Jem is in my battalion, but in a different company. I don't see him much day-to-day, but we have some liberty on Sundays and other times here and there. Our battalion is part of the 4th Brigade of the First Division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. So if we ever get to the front, you'll know who to look for in the papers.
Most of the talk around here is war talk, and what isn't is no fit subject for a letter. I think of all the times we scolded Mary Vance for using coarse language and laugh. I know they say that sailors are the ones who swear, but I never heard anything like this down at Captain Malachi's, I assure you. Perhaps the old salts only toned down their vocabulary for my sake, but I tend to think that even they would be impressed by the day-to-day chatter around here. I don't think that swearing is a habit I am very likely to pick up, but I cannot say the same for Jem. He is already a dab hand at poker, though I don't think I'm supposed to tell you that either.
There are rumors that we will be shipping out soon. I certainly hope so. I'm not sure what more profit is to be gained from marching around in circles for another month. I confess myself surprised that the army puts so much effort into parade maneuvers and so little into teaching the men some useful French. I have only a bit from my courses at Redmond, but have been studying my grammar and phrasebook a little every day. Nous devrions pouvoir parler aux gens, non?
I'm sorry I don't have time to write you more now. But know that I am thinking of you always, not just when I am writing.
*"Nothing to do now but go home — and wait. The doctor and Mrs. Blythe walked off together — so did Nan and Faith — so did John and Rosemary." Rilla of Ingleside, chapter 6; Nan, RoI, chapter 5.
**"Mr. Meredith and Rosemary wanted him to go right on to Redmond in the fall, but Carl has a very independent streak in him and means to earn part of his own way through college." RoI, chapter 1.