My dearest Page:
It takes such an interminable time to get mail in these war times that I am afraid my letter will seem like last year's almanac by the time it reaches you. I must begin at the beginning and tell you of our journey across the ocean, but before I plunge into the lengthy recital I must inform you that I am very happy in my new home. I could not be anything but happy when I realize how much better off poor Father is. Of course the family is in the deepest mourning because of the death of Uncle Isaac and my cousin Grant, and there is an air of sadness in the whole village of Grantley; but everybody is very kind to us and I am sure I shall soon grow to love my aunts, the Misses Grace and Muriel Pore. These ladies are older than my father but they are quite strong and robust and it is wonderful what they can accomplish in the way of work.
All the women of England are busy at one thing or another. Women, great ladies who have never done any form of work before, not even dressed their own hair, are washing dishes in hospitals or doing other menial tasks.
Uncle Isaac was a widower, so the aunts have had entire charge of the housekeeping at Grantley Grange for many years. I think they are very kind to me in not looking upon me as an interloper.
Aunt Grace tells me that their father, my grandfather, bitterly regretted his sternness towards my father and mother and was willing at any time to make amends, but my father would never answer his letters. Poor Father is so sensitive. That has always been his trouble. I live in constant terror now for fear someone will hurt his feelings and he will refuse to see people or make himself miserable. He is to make himself useful and serve his country by teaching the boys in a school at Grantley. All of the young teachers have gone to the front and the nation needs teachers for the boys and girls. I am so happy that Father is to serve his country, somehow, and this is, after all, a very noble service as it is for the future good of the British Empire.
I know you wonder what I am going to do. I was willing to nurse if my aunts thought it wise, but was relieved when they decided that I could be of more use doing other things that life has already trained me to do. I know I should fail at the crucial moment as a nurse. I am so timid and do not seem to be able to shake off this shyness. It has been decided that I shall go every day to sing to the soldiers in the neighboring hospitals. That sounds like very little to do but when I tell you that I spend on an average of seven hours a day going to the various hospitals, you will realize that while it is very little to do, it takes a great deal of time to do it.
So many of the old estates near here have been turned over to the Government for hospitals that one can motor from one to the other in a short time. The wounded soldiers are very kind to me and express themselves as liking very much to hear me sing. They like the American songs, especially the darky songs. I sang "Clar de Kitchen" to them yesterday and they made me give them three encores. I thought of the last time I sang it when we had the circus at Maxton, and I choked with emotion at the remembrance of all of my dear friends.
Life at Price's Landing seems very far off and unreal, although there are times when this life seems to be the unreal thing and I expect any moment to awaken and find it all a dream. I remember in my little room over the store how low the ceiling was, so low over my bed where it sloped to the dormer window that I could lie there and touch it with my hand, and many a time have I bumped my head when I sprang too hurriedly from my bed. I learned to put up my hand and gauge the distance before I got up, in that way saving my poor head many a bump. I find myself now, when morning comes and the sun peeps in the windows of my great bedroom, reaching up expecting to touch the low ceiling of my little room in Virginia. It gives me a strange sensation, almost as great a shock as when you take one more step up when you have reached the top of the stairs.
The ceilings at Grantley Grange are quite as high as any I have ever seen. Too high for beauty, I think, but I don't dare say so. My aunts think perhaps there are more wonderfully beautiful places than the Grange, but they have never seen them, – except the great show places, of course. It is very beautiful and the time may come when I shall feel at home, but I still feel strange and something of an alien.
Father is as at home as though he had never left England. I wish all of you could see poor Father in his proper surroundings. He always was so out of place in the store. I think he felt irritated all the time that he was doing what he was doing, but a certain obstinacy in his character kept him from seeking more congenial employment. His sisters are very tender with him and I am hoping that he will begin to show to them the affection that I am sure he feels.
Now haven't I put the cart before the horse? I intended first to tell you all about our voyage over, and then lead up to conditions here, but I have left the first to the last.
In the first place poor Father was dreadfully seasick from the moment we got on the steamer, even before we started. There is something about the smell of machinery and rigging that makes him very ill. I tried to persuade him to stay on deck, but he would go to his stateroom, and there he stayed for the entire crossing.
I was anxious to see the last of my country. (I realize now that United States is my country. I realized it the moment I knew I was to live in England.) I stayed on deck as we steamed out of the harbor and kissed my hand good-by to New York's sky line and the Statue of Liberty. I felt very lonesome and very far away from all of my dear friends. There were letters down in my stateroom and I turned to go get them, when whom should I find at my side but George Massie? Page, I was never more astonished in all my life! I was glad, too, very glad. All the lonesome feeling left me. He told me that you and the Tuckers knew all about his coming and approved, so that was enough for me. The ocean did not seem near so vast nor the sky so high up.
Father was very miserable, so miserable that I had to call in the ship's surgeon. The doctor made light of his malady but that did not make it any easier to bear. I had to nurse him a great deal, and as he shared his stateroom with another man it was rather embarrassing for me to go in at night and attend to poor Father's many wants. In fact, the man objected.
Then it was I decided to tell Father of George Massie's presence on board. Of course, he had no way to know my friend was there. He was very angry at first, but I had sudden courage and told him that we had not chartered the ship and other passengers had as much right there as we had, and that Mr. Massie was going abroad to serve the Allies. I also told him that George was willing to do anything for him he could, and would attend to him during the night when I could not come in his stateroom. Father became reconciled to George's presence then, and he could hardly have kept up his anger after the faithful way in which he nursed him for the rest of the journey.
Of course, he did not have to be nursed all the time and we had much time on deck. The weather was perfect and I was not ill one moment. I had a seat at the captain's table and that dear old man saw to it that I was bountifully served. He was so kind to me, and to everyone in fact, but he seemed to think I needed especial care and my own father could not have been more attentive to me.
I know that the news of our boat having struck a mine must have been a great shock to all of my friends. I am sure that George's cablegram that all was well must have set your minds at rest, however.
It happened just at dusk after a wonderfully calm day. The sea had been like a mill-pond all day and the sun very hot, so hot that we had sought the shade of the boats on deck. Towards sunset the wind had suddenly risen and the waves had begun to look very high. Of course all waves look high to me, as I am fully aware that I am the most timid person in all the world. It turned quite cold, so cold that I put on my heavy coat. We were almost at the end of our journey. I had everything packed and in order; and at last we had persuaded Father to dress and come on deck. He had been much better for days and had been able to retain nourishment, which meant a return of his normal strength. He had even ventured down to dinner on that evening.
We had hoped to arrive in Liverpool by eight o'clock but we were proceeding very slowly and cautiously as the danger zone was filled with possible disaster. The captain assured us that we would land sometime during the night but he advised all of us to go to bed at the usual hour. Our voyage had been a very pleasant one. I had made many friends and was glad to feel that I had been able to throw off some of the miserable shyness that has always been such a handicap to me.
For several days we had been wearing life-preservers by command of the captain. Of course we felt confident that there was no use in it, but still we had to do it. George was too big for any of those furnished by the ship's company, the straps refusing to meet; but I had pieced out the straps with some stout cotton cloth.
We were at dinner on that eventful day, all of us looking very strange and bulky in our safety-first garb, when suddenly there was an explosion that shook all of us out of our seats. I was dreadfully frightened but managed to appear calm for Father's sake, who because of his recent illness was much unnerved.
"Get your warm coats and any small hand baggage with your valuables!" the captain shouted, "and report on deck immediately."
I tell you we obeyed without any demur! Many of the passengers hurried up, not going to their staterooms at all, but Father felt he must get his Gladstone bag and I had a small satchel all packed, which I took. I never heard so much shouting in all my life. The women were screaming and the men shouting. There was only one child on board, a dear little girl of seven, and she and I were the calmest ones among the females. I was frightened at first but a sudden courage came to me. It may have been because the little girl slipped her hand in mine. Her mother had fainted and her husband was carrying her up on deck. The child's name was Winnie. She was a gentle little thing. We had made friends the very first day on board and had had many long talks together. Her mother was ill most of the time and Winnie and I had time to become very intimate. When she slipped her hand in mine, I knew that she expected me to look after her, and then it was God sent me strength to do it.
The engines stopped the moment we hit the mine and the boat was listing so that when we got on deck we found a decided slant, so much so that it was difficult to walk. The life-boats were being loaded and launched. I was shocked to see how some of the men crowded in. The sailors were a rude lot from all the quarters of the globe, and few of them showed any desire to save anything but their own skins.
George Massie was everywhere. I was astounded at his powers of swearing, but he said afterwards that it was the only way to control people in times like that. He simply took command of the boats, for which the captain had no time. The officers were a rather weak lot and one and all concerned for their own safety. They say so many of the good seamen have enlisted that many of the passenger ships are manned by weaklings. The captain was splendid and did his duty like the English gentleman he was.
Of course at first we feared it was a submarine that had hit us. Its being a mine that we had hit made us much more comfortable. At least, we were not to fall into the hands of the Germans.
"The ship is sinking so slowly that I can assure you there is no immediate danger," George had had time to tell Father and me. "It is safe to wait for the last boat, so let me help launch these others first and then I can get into the boat with you. These sailors are too crazy to trust without a commander."
The captain had determined not to leave the ship until he was sure there was no chance of saving it. The chief engineer was to stay with him and several sailors volunteered. It so happened that they were able to get into port on their own steam and we might have stayed safely on board, but of course the chances were that she would sink and it was deemed wiser for us to take to the boats.
I wish all of you might have seen Father. He was very calm and brave after the first shock was over. He was not strong enough to help much but he was willing to help, and when the men crowded into the boats leaving women shrieking for places, he swore with almost as much fervor as George Massie himself. Do you know, Page, I know it sounds silly, but I believe I love my father more and am closer to him since I know he can swear a little? He swore to some purpose, too, as he called the selfish men such terrible names that two of them were actually abashed and got out of the first boat to give their places to two women.
To make the scene more dismal it had begun to rain, such a cold, penetrating rain! Poor little Winnie clung to me and I could hear her praying: "Please God, save Mamma, and Papa, and me, and Miss Pore, and her papa, too, and the giant." She always called George the giant. "Don't let us get drownded dead!"
We got off at last! Winnie and her mother and father were in the boat with us. That was something George Massie managed. He saw that the father, Mr. Trask, was a good, reliable man and could help with the boat, and he also felt that Mrs. Trask and Winnie would need me, which they did. There were five other men in the boat with us and one other woman: a nice old Irish chambermaid, who never stopped praying a single moment until we were safe on the high seas in our tiny boat with the waves dashing all around us and the rain pouring on us.
I felt much safer on the steamer, although when we left her she had listed until her decks were at an angle of forty-five degrees. Of course the wireless had been busy sending appeals for help but we were three hours getting any. Mrs. Trask was very ill and had to lie in the bottom of the boat, where her husband and Father made her as comfortable as possible. Winnie sat in my lap and I wrapped her in a great rug that George had thrown around me. We kept each other warm under the rug and gave each other courage, too.
The vessel that picked us up was not very gracious about it. They had picked up so many shipwrecked persons since the war began that it was an old story to them and not at all interesting. It was a fishing smack and smelled worse than anything I have ever imagined in the way of odors. Poor Mrs. Trask actually fainted again from the stench of fish offal.
True to the captain's promise, we did land sometime during the night, but we were not safely in bed as he had hoped, but propped up in the foul little cabin of the fishing smack trying to choke down some vile black coffee that one of the men, not so hardened to shipwrecks as the rest, had humanely concocted for us.
This is about all, dear Page! We got to bed when we reached Liverpool and stayed there for twenty-four hours. I kept Winnie with me, thereby saving the poor little thing the agony of seeing her mother die. Poor Mrs. Trask passed away the day after we landed. She was not strong enough to stand the shock and exposure. Mr. Trask is an Englishman and was going home to enlist and leave his wife and child with his own people. His wife thought it right but was evidently in the deepest misery over his decision. Maybe she was not sorry to die. I am so sorry for him and for the dear little girl. She is to come to Grantley Grange to visit me soon.
I can never tell you how splendid George Massie was. He was so brave and so determined. I did not dream he could command men as he did. He says it is football training that made him know what to do and how to do it. He is going to France next week to join the Red Cross as a stretcher bearer, I think. I shall miss him ever so much but know it is right for him to help if he can. Service is in the air here in England. There is no more talk of who you are or what you own or what your ancestors have done. It is: What can you do? Then do it!
It is a tremendous experience to be in the midst of this war. No one talks anything but war. There are no entertainments of any sort except the theatres. I believe they keep them open to cheer up the people. The fields are full of women; the factories are kept up by them; the trams and busses are run by them, – in fact they do anything and everything that men did before the war.
You remember, do you not, how I was so afraid my clothes would look poor and mean and out of style? Well, on the contrary, for once in my life, I am better dressed than the persons with whom I come in contact. I am really ashamed to be so much better dressed than the other girls. It seems so frivolous of me. I know you can't help smiling to think of what the others' clothes must be.
I am writing to my dear Tuckers, too, and if you read their letter and they read yours you can piece together what my life here is. Please send them on to Mary Flannagan when you have finished reading them. I have not time to write another long letter just now.
Besides singing to the soldiers, I am to teach music to the children in Father's school. You can readily see how busy I am to be.
I shall never cease to miss my dear friends in Virginia. Some day I hope to come back to America, but in the meantime I am going to do my bit here in England. Please write to me!
Your devoted friend,