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The Next of Kin: Those who Wait and Wonder By Nellie L. McClung Characters: 11387

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


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."

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