Mary Russell’s War Journal (thirty-six): Russell off to War

 

6 April 1915

A slight hitch in my plans has occurred with the discovery that identity papers are not readily forged by a person with naught but an amateur’s workshop. However, by asking around among the village troublemakers, I discovered a man in Eastbourne who can provide the necessary documents, and I have paid him the first instalment of the price. Unfortunately, it will take him some days to finish, thus my reading on the Downs resumes.

I admit to a brief hesitation, in my intent to set off for the Front, following some Times articles this last week, in which it would appear that the government may be starting to take seriously the potential that lies in the female half of the nation. The government wish to induce women to come to the aid of agriculturists by doing dairy work, milking, and other “light” employment. In the meantime, Patrick will be troubled in the coming year by the same article’s description of “the scarcity of farm labour and the requisitioning of hay by the War Office….” My two strong arms will be missed, when it comes to this summer’s harvest. Or perhaps not—with any luck, the War will be over by then. In any event, Thursday’s news then trumpeted THE ARMY OF WOMEN, with OVER 20,000 APPLICANTS FOR WAR WORK, so perhaps he and my aunt will manage without me.

I suppose it is understandable that Sunday’s celebration of the Christian holiday made for a wistful pursuit of normality, with a number of News pieces such as one about the EASTER HARE AND EASTER EGGS.  (It asked: What is the connexion of the hare with eggs, and of both with Easter? In reply, the writer claimed that as a Christian symbol, the hare is as old as the catacombs, where it is the emblem of the repentant sinner. Which seems quite odd to me.)

Similarly, an earnest gentleman urged the use of HONEY FOR SOLDIERS, in a letter to the editor that began, “May I bring to notice the value of honey for our warriors? It is an especial nutrient for them when they have lost body heat on deck or in trench…”

Lacking Easter eggs, or even pots of honey (personally, I’d have thought them unsuitable as a gift for the Front, being both heavy and breakable) I shall divert myself with my former reading material, the Latin text of Virgil. The Georgics, by odd coincidence, contain a section on bees: “First, seek a settled home for your bees, where the winds […of War?] may find no access…”

I write this in the still hours of the morning, having been unable to sleep. For yesterday, just before tea, Patrick came to the door with a look on his face such as I had not seen before. I knew immediately what it meant.  Yes, my friend Thomas Saunders was killed, three days ago.

It was a shock, and yet it was not unexpected. I think I knew the moment he planted his shy salute on my cheek that I would never see him again. Just as I know that this War will not be over until every person on earth has the heart ripped from his or her chest.

His passing has also firmed my own thoughts. Tomorrow the Met office are predicting rain, which will make it a good day to spend in the stables with my thoughts and this journal. When I started it thirty-six weeks ago, I was the daughter of two parents, the sister to a younger brother, the citizen of a country far from War. Eight months ago, I was a child, with no more pressing concern than my right to visit a friend. So much change, such sadness in the world.

When I have finished my meditation on the past months, I shall close the book and arrange to send it to a place where it shall be safe, but where I can do my best to forget it.

Thursday, they forecast, will have fair skies. So that morning when the sun rises, before my aunt (whose unreasonable behaviour has reached absurd heights, now reaching a protest over replacing a pair of shoes that have blistered my toes) is astir, I shall pocket the Georgics and a bread roll and set out for a day’s rambling. Only this time, instead of turning north to the forested Weald, I shall walk in the direction of those distant guns and that ominous stretch of sea, that I might confront them face to face.

I do not know when, if ever, I will read the final installments of The Valley of Fear, a story that has taken up so much of my interest in recent months, a tale that—shallow as I feel to admit it—helped to pull me from the state I was in after the accident.

Stories do not matter, not really.  Like the hay harvest, the tale will go on without me.  I shall do what I can, and do it with all my strength, wanting only to feel that my parents, and my brother, would be proud of me. I shall walk across the Downs with my Virgil, and prepare to set off for France.

Mary Judith Russell

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Thus ends Mary Russell’s War Journal. Two days later, the Russell Memoirs begin, with:

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him. In my defence I must say it was an engrossing book, and it was very rare to come across another person in that particular part of the world in that war year of 1915. In my seven weeks of peripatetic reading amongst the sheep (which tended to move out of my way) and the gorse bushes (to which I had painfully developed an instinctive awareness) I had never before stepped on a person….

Read more from The Beekeeper’s Apprenticehere, or to see the momentous meeting from the other person’s point of view, an excerpt of Beekeeping for Beginners is here.

Comments

  1. Karen B says:

    It has been a particular pleasure, each Monday morning as I sip my coffee, to read the next installment of Mary Russell’s journal. Thank you.

    Might the journal be published? As an e-book, if nothing else?

  2. Merrily Taylor says:

    Oh my gosh – this entry in Russell’s diary both catches at the heart – “Just as I know that this War will not be over until every person on earth has the heart ripped from his or her chest” – and gives one cause for rejoicing. Russell has so much more before her than an escape to the front. I keep thinking about that old quotation about being “surprised by joy.”
    Thanks, Miss Russell, for sharing this time in your youth with us, and indeed for all your wonderful stories.

  3. Thanks for this, Laurie. For Russell’s diary of the war and transition to England. I now have to go and root out The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and re-read it for the Nth time. 😉

  4. Diane Kennedy says:

    Mary Russell’s War Journal has been a wonderful treat. I have looked forward to each installment (much like Mary looks forward to the next Strand issue) and have thought about each one during the week. Thank you!

  5. Oh, my, I’m mopping the tears dripping down my face, mourning Thomas (that sweet boy) and the end of Mary’s childhood.

    At the same time, I am so happy to hear this will be published. I can’t wait to have a copy.

    Judith

  6. Alice Wright says:

    Mary Russell’s War Journal has given such a rich glimpse into her life before and after the accident. It is a wonderful adjunct to the Kanon and I’m so happy it will be offered in some form for her fans.

  7. Roger Webster says:

    I see Mary still hasn’t found that proof reader: “come to the air (sic) of agriculturalists.” No doubt Mr. Holmes will cure that problem.
    I wonder if Patrick kept a diary – or even more interestingly, did Mary’s aunt? That could be an enlightening alternative viewpoint!

  8. Mary Achor says:

    I have loved this journal. And today I have an enormous lump in my throat, just as Merrily says. Ripped at my heart…

  9. Annette Lessmann says:

    I, too, would love to see this journal published. As much as I find ebooks convenient to carry around, the feel of a real book with covers and weight are now I like to read about Mary and Holmes.

  10. carolyn fetsko says:

    Thank you. I have looked forward to my Monday version of Pickwick Papers. Please start another series about ANYTHING. But if I had my druthers…revisit the Martinelli people.

  11. susan pence says:

    I just started rereading The Beekeeper’s Apprentice for the millionth time, it seems! I want want want this journal to be published so I can add it to my collection of the evolving story of Mary Russell!

  12. So pleased to read that these will be bound as a “real” book. And BEEK will go to Sussex with me next month 🙂

  13. Thanks so much for this – it’s been lovely. Such a treat!

  14. Thomas Munn says:

    Thank you! This was a delightful insight to Ms. Russell’s mind set and background that I had hoped might be found someday in her journals. It provides a most satisfying frame to the established picture of a close friend.

  15. Lisa Conner says:

    Would Russell abandon her plans to be an ambulance driver that easily?
    Somehow, given how fiercely determined she has sounded until now, I suspect she would still hold on to that plan. Holmes would certainly figure out what she was up to and would then concoct a way to make her see she can be useful at home, but he would have to be careful how he does it, she is so determined and bold….

  16. Ah, yes, it would have to be the Georgics, wouldn’t it! Russell speaks disparagingly of Tolkien and his Anglo-Saxon interests at one point (in LETT, I think?), but the Anglo-Saxon Aldhelm (writing in Latin and often quoting Vergil) uses bees in an extended metaphor for the “mellifluous” dedication to their studies that he wants to praise among the nuns at Barking. The link between bees and erudition seems apt for a young Russell as she encounters Holmes!

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