Amelia E. Barr.

An Orkney Maid online

. (page 9 of 15)
Online LibraryAmelia E. BarrAn Orkney Maid → online text (page 9 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

"Conall! My dear one! Art thou ill?" she asked.

"I am ill with anger and pity and shame!"

"What is thy meaning? Speak to me plainly."

"Oh, Rahal! the shame and the cruelty of it! I am beside myself!"

"Come to my room, then thou shalt tell thy sorrow and I will halve it
with thee."

"No! I want to cry out! I want to shout the shameful wrong from the
house-tops! Indeed, it is flying all over England and Scotland - over
all the civilized world! And yet - my God! the guilty ones are still

"Coll, my dear one, what is it thou most needs - cold water?"

"No! No! Get me a pot of hot tea.[*] My brain burns. My heart is like
to break! Our poor brave soldiers! They are dying of hunger and of
every form of shameful neglect. The barest necessities of life are
denied them."

[*] The Norsemen of Shetland and Orkney drank tea in every kind of
need or crisis. No meal without it, no pleasure without it; and
it was equally indispensable in every kind of trouble or

"By whom? By whom, Coll?"

"Pacifists in power and office everywhere! Give me a drink! Give me a
drink! I am ill - get me tea - and I will tell thee."

There was boiling water on the kitchen hob, and the tea was ready in
five minutes. "Drink, dear Coll," said Rahal, "and then share thy
trouble and anger with me. The mail packet brought the bad news, I

"Yes, about an hour ago. The town is in a tumult. Men are cursing
and women are doing nothing less. Some whose sons are at the front
are in a distraction. If Aberdeen were within our reach we would
give him five minutes to say his prayers and then send him to the
judgment of God. Englishmen and Norsemen will not lie down and rot
under Russian tyranny. To die fighting against it sends them joyfully
to the battlefield! But oh, Rahal! to be left alone to die on the
battlefield, without help, without care, without even a drink of
cold water! It is damnable cruelty! What I say is this: let England
stop her bell-ringing and shouts of victory until she has comforted
and helped her wounded and dying soldiers!"

"And Aberdeen? He is a Scotch nobleman - the Scotch are not cowards - what
has he done, Coll?"

"Because he hates fighting for our rights, he persuades all whom his
power and patronage can reach to lie down or he says they will be
knocked down. So it may be, but every man that has a particle of the
Divine in him would rather be knocked down than lie down - if down it
had to be - but there is no question of down in it! Aberdeen! He is
'England's worst enemy' - and he holds the power given him by England
to rule and ruin England! I wish he would die and go to judgment this
night! I do! I do! and my soul says to me, 'Thou art right.'"

"Coll, no man knoweth the will of the Almighty."

"Then they ought to! The question has now been up to England for a
two-years' discussion, and they have only to open His Word and find it
out"; then he straightened himself and in a mighty burst of joyful
pride and enthusiasm cried out:

"'Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and
my fingers to fight.

"'My goodness, and my fortress, my high tower, and my deliverer, my
shield, and He in whom I trust, who subdueth the people under me.'"

Anon he began to pace the floor as he continued: "'Rid us and deliver
us, from the hands of strange children - whose mouth speaketh vanity,
and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.' Rahal, could there
be a better description of Russia - 'her right hand of falsehood, her
mouth speaking vanity?' David put the very words needed in our mouths
when he taught us to say, 'rid us of such an enemy, and of all who
strike hands with him!' Yes, rid us. We want to be rid of all such
dead souls! Rid us."

Then Rahal reminded her husband that only recently his physician had
warned him against all excitement, especially of anger, and so finally
induced him to take a sedative and go to sleep. But sleep was far from
her. She sat down in her own room and closed her eyes against all
worldly sights and sounds. Her soul was trying to reach her son's soul
and impress upon it her own trust in the love and mercy of the "God of
battles." She had hoped that some word or thought of Boris would come
back to her in such a personal manner that she would feel that he was
thinking of her and of the many sweet spiritual confidences they had
had together.

But nothing came, no sign, no word, no sudden, flashing memory of some
special promise. All was void and still until she heard the voices of
Thora and Ian. Then she went down to them and found that the evil news
had met them on their way home. She asked Ian if he had any knowledge
of the whereabouts of Boris. Ian thought he might be at sea, as his
ship was at Spithead among the carrying ships of the navy. "If he had
been in Alma's fight, you might have heard from him," he added. "It
would be his first battle and he would want to write to you about it.
That would be only natural."

"Well, then, I will look for good news. If bad news is coming, I will
not pay it the compliment of going to meet it. Have you had a pleasant
day? Where first did you go?"

"To the land-locked Bay of Stromness which was full of ships of all
sizes, of schooners, and of little skiffs painted a light green colour
like the pleasure skiffs of Kirkwall."

"And the town?"

"Was very busy while we were there. It has but one long street, with
steep branches running directly up the big granite hill which shelters
it from the Atlantic. What I noticed particularly was, that the houses
on the main street all had their gables seaward; and are so built that
the people can step from their doors into their boats. I liked that
arrangement. Stromness is really an Orcadean Venice. The town is a
queer old place, with a non-English and non-Scotch look. The houses
have an old-world appearance and the names over the doorways carry you
back to Norseland. Only one street is flagged and little bays run up
into the street through its whole length. But the place appeared to be
very busy and happy. I noticed few Scotch there, the people seemed to
be purely Norse. All were busy - men, women and children."

"It used to be the last port for the Hudson Bay Company," said Rahal,
"and the big whaling fleets, and in days of war and convoys there were
hundreds of big ships in its wonderful harbour. I suppose that you had
no time to visit any of the ancient monuments there?" Rahal asked.

"No; Thora told me her grandmother Ragnor was buried in its cemetery
and that her grave was near the church door and had a white pillar at
the head of it. So we walked there."

"Well, then?"

"I cannot describe to you the savage, lonely grandeur of its
situation. It frightened me."

"The men and women who chose it were not afraid of it."

"Thora says its memory frightened her for years."

"Thora was only eight years old when her father placed the pillar at
the head of his mother's grave. It was then she saw it - but at eight
years many people are often more sensitive than at eighty. Yes,
indeed! They may see, then, what eyes dimmed by earthly vision cannot
see, and feel what hearts hardened by earth's experiences cannot
feel. Thora's spiritual sight was very keen in childhood and is not
dimmed yet."

At these words Thora entered the room, wearing the little frock of
white barége she had saved for this last day of Ian's visit. Her face
had been bathed, her hair brushed and loosened but yet dressed with
the easiest simplicity. She was in trouble but she knew when to speak
of trouble, and when to be silent. Her mother was talking of
Stromness; when her father came, he would know all, and say all. So
she went softly about the room, putting on the dinner table those last
final accessories that it was her duty to supply.

Yet the conversation was careless and indifferent. Rahal talked of
Stromness but her heart was far away from Stromness, and Thora would
have liked to tell her mother how beautifully their future home had
been papered, and all three were eager to discuss the news that had
come. But all knew well that it would be better not to open the
discussion till Ragnor was present to inform and direct their
ignorance of events.

On the stroke of six, Ragnor entered. He had slept and washed and was
apparently calm, but in some way his face had altered, for his heart
had mastered his brain and its usual expression of intellectual
strength was exchanged for one of intense feeling. His eyes shone and
he had the look of a man who had just come from the presence of God.

"We are waiting for you, dear Coll," said Rahal; and he answered
softly: "Well, then, I am here." For a moment his eyes rested on
the table which Rahal had set with extra care and with the delicacies
Ian liked best. Was it not the last dinner he would eat with them
for three months? She thought it only kind to give it a little
distinction. But this elaboration of the usual home blessings did not
produce the expected results. Every one was anxious, the atmosphere
of the room was tense and was not relieved until Ragnor had said a
grace full of meaning and had sat down and asked Ian if he "had heard
the news brought by that day's packet?"

"Very brokenly, Father," was the answer. "Two men, whom we met on the
Stromness road, told us that it was 'bad with the army,' but they were
excited and in a great hurry and would not stand to answer our

"No wonder! No wonder!"

"Whatever is the matter, Father?"

"I cannot tell you. The words stumble in my throat, and my heart
burns and bleeds. Here is the _London Times_! Read aloud from it what
William Howard Russell has witnessed - I cannot read the words - I would
be using my own words - listen, Rahal! Listen, Thora! and oh, may God
enter into judgment at once with the men responsible for the misery
that Russell tells us of."

At this point, Adam Vedder entered the room. He was in a passion that
was relieving itself by a torrent of low voiced curses - curses only
just audible but intensely thrilling in their half-whispered tones of
passion. In the hall he had taken off his hat but on entering the room
he found it too warm for his top-coat, and he began to remove it,
muttering to himself while so doing. There was an effort to hear what
he was saying but very quickly Ragnor stopped the monologue by

"Adam! Thee! Thou art the one wanted. Ian is just going to read what
the _London Times_ says of this dreadful mismanagement."

"'Mismanagement!' Is that what thou calls the crime? Go on, Ian! More
light on this subject is wanted here."

So Ian stood up and read from the _Times'_ correspondent's letter the
following sentences:

"The skies are black as ink, the wind is howling over the
staggering tents, the water is sometimes a foot deep, our men have
neither warm nor waterproof clothing and we are twelve hours at a
time in the trenches - and not a soul seems to care for their
comfort or even their lives; the most wretched beggar who wanders
about the streets of London in the rain leads the life of a prince
compared with the British soldiers now fighting out here for their

... "The commonest accessories of a hospital are wanting; there
is not the least attention paid to decency or cleanliness, the
stench is appalling, the fetid air can barely struggle out through
chinks in the walls and roofs, and for all I can observe the men
die without the least effort being made to save them. They lie
just as they were let down on the ground by the poor fellows,
their comrades, who brought them on their backs from the camp with
the greatest tenderness but who are not allowed to remain with
them. The sick appear to be tended by the sick, and the dying by
the dying. There are no nurses - and men are literally dying
hourly, because the medical staff of the British army has
forgotten that old rags of linen are necessary for the dressing of

"My God!" cried Ian, as he let the paper fall from the hands he
clasped passionately together, "My God! How can Thou permit this?"

"Well, then, young man," said Adam, "thou must remember that God
permits what He does not will. And Conall," he continued, "millions
have been voted and spent for war and hospital materials, where are
the goods?"

"The captain of the packet told me no one could get their hands on
them. Some are in the holds of vessels and other things so piled on
the top of them that they cannot be got at till the hold is regularly
emptied. Some are stored in warehouses which no one has authority to
open - some are actually rotting on the open wharves, because the
precise order to remove them to the hospital cannot be found. The
surgeons have no bandages, the doctors no medicine, and as I said
there are no nurses but a few rough military orderlies. The situation
paralyses those who see it!"

"Paralyses! Pure nonsense!" cried Vedder, whose face was wet with
passionate tears, though he did not know it. "Paralyses! No, no! It
must make them work miracles. I am going to Edinburgh tomorrow. I am
going to buy all the luxuries and medicines I can afford for the lads
fighting and suffering. Sunna is going to spend a week in gathering
old linen in Kirkwall and then Mistress Brodie and she will bring it
with them. Rahal, Thora, you must do your best. And thou, Conall?"

"Adam, thou can open my purse and take all thou thinks is right. My
Boris may be among those dear lads; his mother will have something to
send him. Wilt thou see it is set on a fair way to reach his hand?"

"I will take it to him. If he be in London with his vessel, I will
find him; if he be at the front, I will find him. If he be in Scutari
hospital, I will find him!"

"Oh, Adam, Adam!" cried Rahal, "thou art the good man that God loves,
the man after His own heart." Her face was set and stern and white as
snow, and Thora's was a duplicate of it; but Ragnor, during his short
interval of rest, had arrived at that heighth and depth of confidence
in God's wisdom which made him sure that in the end the folly and
wickedness of men would "praise Him"; so he was ready to help, and
calm and strong in his sorrow.

At this point, Rahal rose and a servant came in and began to clear the
table and carry away the remains of the meal. Then Rahal rose and took
Thora's hand and Ian went with them to the parlour. She spoke kindly
to Ian who at her first words burst into bitter weeping, into an
almost womanly burst of uncontrollable distress. So she kissed and
left him with the only woman who had the power to soothe, in any
degree, the sense of utter helplessness which oppressed him.

"I want to go to the Crimea!" he said, "I would gladly go there. It
would give me a chance to die happily. It would repay me for all my
miserable life. I want to go, Thora. You want me to go, Thora! Yes,
you do, dear one!"

"No, I do not want you to go. I want you here. Oh, what a selfish
coward I am. Go, Ian, if you wish - if you feel it right to go, then

This subject was sufficient to induce a long and strange conversation
during which Thora was led to understand that some great and cruel
circumstances had ruined and in some measure yet controlled her
lover's life. She was begging him to go and talk to her father and
tell him all that troubled him so cruelly when Rahal entered the room

"Dear ones," she said, "the house is cold and the lamps nearly out.
Say good night, now. Ian must be up early - and tomorrow we shall have
a busy day collecting all the old linen we can." She was yet as white
as the long dressing gown she wore but there was a smile on her face
that made it lovely as she recited slowly:

"Watching, wondering, yearning, knowing
Whence the stream, and where 'tis going
Seems all mystery - by and by
He will speak, and tell us why."

And the simple words had a charm in them, and though they said "Good
night," in a mist of tears, the sunshine of hope turned them into that
wonderful bow which God 'bended with his hands' and placed in the
heavens as a token of His covenant with man, that He would always
remember man's weakness and give him help in time of trouble. Now let
every good man and woman say "I'll warrant it! I never yet found a
deluge of any kind but I found also that God had provided an ark for
my refuge and my comfort."



There is a tear for all who die,
A mourner o'er the humblest grave;
But nations swell the funeral cry,
And triumph weeps above the brave.
For them is Sorrow's purest sigh,
O'er Ocean's heaving bosom sent
In vain their bones unburied lie,
All earth becomes their monument.

Born to the War of 1854 on October 21, 1854,
a Daughter, called Red Cross.

The next night Vedder went away. His purposes were necessarily rather
vague, but it was certain he would go to the front if he thought he
could do any good there. He talked earnestly and long with Ragnor but
when it came to parting, both men were strangely silent. They clasped
hands and looked long and steadily into each other's eyes. No words
could interpret that look. It was a conversation for eternity.

In the meantime, the whole town was eager to do something but what
could they do that would give the immediate relief that was needed?
There were no sewing machines then, women's fingers and needles could
not cope with the difficulty, even regarding the Orkney men who were
suffering. To gather from every one the very necessary old linen
seemed to be the very extent of their usefulness.

In these first days of the trouble, Rahal and Thora were serious and
quiet. A dull, inexplicable melancholy shrouded the girl like a
garment. The pretty home preparing for Ian and herself lost its
interest. She refused to look forward and lived only in the unhappy
present. The few words Ian has said about some wrong or trouble in the
past years of his life overshadowed her. She was naturally very
prescient and her higher self dwelt much in

... that finer atmosphere,
Where footfalls of appointed things,
Reverberent of days to be,
Are heard in forecast echoings,
Like wave beats from a viewless sea.

However, if trouble lasts through the night, joy, or at least hope and
expectation, comes in the morning; and certainly the first shock of
grief settled down into patient hoping and waiting. Vedder and Ian
were both good correspondents and the silence and loneliness were
constantly broken by their interesting letters. And joyful or
sorrowful, Time goes by.

Sunna wrote occasionally but she said she found Edinburgh dull, and
that she would gladly return to Kirkwall if it was not for the
Pentland Firth and its winter tempers and tantrums.

The war [she added] has stopped all balls and even house parties.
There is no dancing and no sports of any kind, and I believe
skating and golf have been forbidden. Love-making is the only
recreation allowed and I am not tempted to sin in this direction.
The churches are always open and their bells clatter all day long.
I have no lovers. Every man will talk of the war, and then they
get offended if you ask them why they are not gone. I have had the
pleasure of saying a few painful truths to these feather-bed
patriots, and they tell each other, no doubt, that I am impossible
and impertinent. One of them said to me, myself: "Wait a wee, Miss
Vedder, I wouldna wonder but some crippled war lad will fa' to
your lot, when the puir fellows come marching home again." The
Edinburgh men are just city flunkeys, they would do fine to wait
on our Norse men. I would like well to see a little dandy advocate
I know here, trotting after Boris.

So days came and went, and the passion of shame and sorrow died down
and people did not talk of the war. But the doors of St. Magnus stood
open all day long and there were always women praying there. They had
begun to carry their anxieties and griefs to God; and that was well
for God did not weary of their complaining. Women have the very heart
of sympathy for a man's griefs. God is the only refuge for a sorrowful

Steadily the preparations for Thora's marriage went on, but the spirit
that animated their first beginnings had cooled down into that calm
necessity, which always has to attend to all "finishings off." Early
in December, Thora's future home was quite finished, and this last
word expresses its beauty and completeness. Then Ragnor kissed his
daughter, and put into her hand the key of the house and the deed of
gift which made it her own forever. And in this same hour they decided
that the first day of the New Year should be the wedding day; for
Bishop Hedley would then be in Kirkwall and who else could marry the
little Thora whom he had baptised and confirmed and welcomed into the
fold of the church.

Nothing is more remarkable than the variety of moods in which women
take the solemn initiatory rite ushering them into their real life
and their great and honourable duties. Thora was joyful as a bird in
spring and never weary of examining the lovely home, the perfect
wardrobe, and the great variety of beautiful presents that had been
given her.

Very soon it was the twentieth of December, and Ian was expected on
the twenty-third. Christmas preparations had now taken the place of
marriage preparations for every item was ready for the latter event.
There had been a little anxiety about the dress and veil, but they
arrived on the morning of the twentieth and were beautiful and fitting
in every respect. The dress was of the orthodox white satin and the
veil fell from a wreath of orange flowers and myrtle leaves. And oh,
how proud and happy Thora was in their possession. Several times that
wonderful day she had run secretly to her room to examine and admire

On the morning of the twenty-first she reminded herself that in two
days Ian would be with her and that in nine days she would be his
wife. She was genuine and happy about the event. She made no pretences
or reluctances. She loved Ian with all her heart, she was glad she was
going to be always with him. Life would then be full and she would be
the happiest woman in the world. She asked her father at the breakfast
table to send her, at once, any letters that might come for her in his
mail. "I am sure there will be one from Ian," she said, "and, dear
Father, it hurts me to keep it waiting."

About ten o'clock, Mrs. Beaton called and brought Thora a very
handsome ring from Maximus Grant and a bracelet from herself. She
stayed to lunch with the Ragnors and after the meal was over, they
went upstairs to look at the wedding dress. "I want to see it on you,
Thora," said Mrs. Beaton, "I shall have a wedding dress to buy for my
niece soon and I would like to know what kind of a fit Mrs. Scott
achieves." So Thora put on the dress, and Mrs. Beaton admitted that it
"fit like a glove" and that she should insist on her niece Helen going
to Mrs. Scott.

With many scattering, delaying remarks and good wishes, the lady
finally bid Thora good-bye and Mrs. Ragnor went downstairs with her.
Then Thora eagerly lifted two letters that had come in her father's
mail and been sent home to her. One was from Ian. "The last he will
write to Thora Ragnor," she said with a smile. "I will put it with
his first letter and keep them all my life long. So loving is he, so
good, so handsome! There is no one like my Ian." Twice over she read
his loving letter and then laid it down and lifted the one which had
come with it.

"Jean Hay," she repeated, "who is Jean Hay?" Then she remembered the
writer - an orphan girl living with a married brother who did not
always treat her as kindly as he should have done. Hearing and
believing this story, Rahal Ragnor hired the girl, taught her how to
sew, how to mend and darn and in many ways use her needle. Then
discovering that she had a genius for dressmaking, she placed her with
a first-class modiste in Edinburgh to be properly instructed and
liberally attended to all financial requisites; for Rahal Ragnor could
not do anything unless it was wholly and perfectly done. Then Thora
had dressed Jean from her own wardrobe and asked her father to send
their protegée to Edinburgh on one of the vessels he controlled. And
Jean had been heartily grateful, had done well, and risen to a place
of trust in her employer's business; and a few times every year she
wrote to Mrs. Ragnor or Thora. All these circumstances were remembered
by Thora in a moment. "Jean Hay!" she exclaimed. "Well, Jean, you
must wait a few minutes, until I have taken off my wedding dress. I am

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryAmelia E. BarrAn Orkney Maid → online text (page 9 of 15)