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The Next of Kin: Those who Wait and Wonder By Nellie L. McClung Characters: 11983

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


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 p

anicky,-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!!!"

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