Chapter numbering skips Chapter XI in the printed text. The original numbering has been retained in this transcription.
GRACE LIVINGSTON HILL
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers New York
Made in the United States of America
Copyright, 1919, By The Christian Herald Copyright, 1919, By J. B. Lippincott Company
Printed in the United States of America
Two young men in officers' uniforms entered the smoker of a suburban train, and after the usual formalities of matches and cigarettes settled back to enjoy their ride out to Bryne Haven.
"What d'ye think of that girl I introduced you to the other night, Harry? Isn't she a pippin?" asked the second lieutenant taking a luxurious puff at his cigarette.
"I should say, Bobbie, she's some girl! Where d'ye pick her up? I certainly owe you one for a good time."
"Don't speak of it, Harry. Come on with me and try it again. I'm going to see her friend to-night and can get her over the 'phone any time. She's just nuts about you. What do you say? Shall I call her up?"
"Well, hardly to-night, Bob," said the first lieutenant thoughtfully, "she's a ripping fine girl and all that, of course, but the fact is, Bob, I've decided to marry Ruth Macdonald and I haven't much time left before I go over. I think I'll have to get things fixed up between us to-night, you see. Perhaps—later——. But no. I guess that wouldn't do. Ruth's folks are rather fussy about such things. It might get out. No, Bob, I'll have to forego the pleasures you offer me this time."
The second lieutenant sat up and whistled:
"You've decided to marry Ruth Macdonald!" he ejaculated, staring. "But has Ruth Macdonald decided to marry you?"
"I hardly think there'll be any trouble on that score when I get ready to propose," smiled the first lieutenant complacently, as he lolled back in his seat. "You seem surprised," he added.
"Well, rather!" said the other officer dryly, still staring.
"What's there so surprising about that?" The first lieutenant was enjoying the sensation he was creating. He knew that the second lieutenant had always been "sweet" on Ruth Macdonald.
"Well, you know, Harry, you're pretty rotten!" said the second lieutenant uneasily, a flush beginning to rise in his face. "I didn't think you'd have the nerve. She's a mighty fine girl, you know. She's—unusual!"
"Exactly. Didn't you suppose I would want a fine girl when I marry?"
"I don't believe you're really going to do it!" burst forth the second lieutenant. "In fact, I don't believe I'll let you do it if you try!"
"You couldn't stop me, Bob!" with an amiable sneer. "One word from you, young man, and I'd put your captain wise about where you were the last time you overstayed your leave and got away with it. You know I've got a pull with your captain. It never pays for the pot to call the kettle black."
The second lieutenant sat back sullenly with a deep red streaking his cheeks.
"You're no angel yourself, Bob, see?" went on the first lieutenant lying back in his seat in satisfied triumph, "and I'm going to marry Ruth Macdonald next week and get a ten days' leave! Put that in your pipe and smoke it!"
There ensued a long and pregnant silence. One glance at the second lieutenant showed that he was most effectually silenced.
The front door of the car slammed open and shut, and a tall slim officer with touches of silver about the edges of his dark hair, and a look of command in his keen eyes came crisply down the aisle. The two young lieutenants sat up with a jerk, and an undertone of oaths, and prepared to salute as he passed them. The captain gave them a quick searching glance as he saluted and went on to the next car.
The two jerked out salutes and settled back uneasily.
"That man gives me a pain!" said Harry Wainwright preparing to soothe his ruffled spirits by a fresh cigarette.
"He thinks he's so doggone good himself that he has to pry into other people's business and get them in wrong. It beats me how he ever got to be a captain—a prim old fossil like him!"
"It might puzzle some people to know how you got your commission, Harry. You're no fossil, of course, but you're no angel, either, and there are some things in your career that aren't exactly laid down in military manuals."
"Oh, my uncle Henry looked after my commission. It was a cinch! He thinks the sun rises and sets in me, and he had no idea how he perjured himself when he put me through. Why, I've got some of the biggest men in the country for my backers, and wouldn't they lie awake at night if they knew! Oh Boy! I thought I'd croak when I read some of those recommendations, they fairly gushed with praise. You'd have died laughing, Bob, if you had read them. They had such adjectives as 'estimable, moral, active, efficient,' and one went so far as to say that I was equally distinguished in college in scholarship and athletics! Some stretch of imagination, eh, what?"
The two laughed loudly over this.
"And the best of it is," continued the first lieutenant, "the poor boob believed it was all true!"
"But your college records, Harry, how could they get around those? Or didn't they look you up?"
"Oh, mother fixed that all up. She sent the college a good fat check to establish a new scholarship or something."
"Lucky dog!" sighed his friend. "Now I'm just the other way. I never try to put anything over but I get caught, and nobody ever tried to cover up my tracks for me when I got gay!"
"You worry too much, Bobby, and you never take a chance. Now I——"
The front door of the car opened and shut with a slam, and a tall young fellow with a finely cut face and wearing workman's clothes entered. He gave one quick glance down the car as though he was searching for someone, and came on down the aisle. The sight of him stopped the boast on young Wainwright's tongue, and an angry flush grew, and rolled up from the top of his immaculate olive-drab collar to his close, military hair-cut.
Slowly, deliberately, John Cameron walked down the aisle of the car looking keenly from side to side, scanning each face alertly, until his eyes lighted on the two young officers. At Bob Wetherill he merely glanced knowingly, but he fixed his eyes on young Wainwright with a steady, amused, contemptuous gaze as he came toward him; a gaze so noticeable that it could not fail to arrest the attention of any who were looking; and he finished the affront with a lingering turn of his head as he passed by, and a slight accentuation of the amusement as he finally lifted his gaze and passed on out of the rear door of the car. Those who were sitting in the seats near the door might have heard the words: "And they killed such men as Lincoln!" muttered laughingly as the door slammed shut behind him.
Lieutenant Wainwright uttered a low oath of imprecation and flung his half spent cigarette on the floor angrily:
"Did you see that, Bob?" he complained furiously, "If I don't get that fellow!"
"I certainly did! Are you going to stand for that? What's eating him, anyway? Has he got it in for you again? But he isn't a very easy fellow to get, you know. He has the reputation——"
"Oh, I know! Yes, I guess anyhow I know!"
"Oh, I see! Licked you, too, once, did he?" laughed Wetherill, "what had you been up to?"
"Oh, having some fun with his girl! At least I suppose she must have been his girl the way he carried on about it. He said he didn't know her, but of course that was all bluff. Then, too, I called his father a name he didn't like and he lit into me again. Good night! I thought that was the end of little Harry! I was sick for a week after he got through with me. He certainly is some brute. Of course, I didn't realize what I was up against at first or I'd have got the upper hand right away. I could have, you know! I've been trained! But I didn't want to hurt the fellow and get into the papers. You see, the circumstances were peculiar just then——"
"I see! You'd just applied for Officer's Training Camp?"
"Exactly, and you know you never can tell what rumor a person like that can start. He's keen enough to see the advantage, of course, and follow it up. Oh, he's got one coming to him all right!"
"Yes, he's keen all right. That's the trouble. It's hard to get him."
"Well, just wait. I've got him now. If I don't make him bite the dust! Ye gods! When I think of the way he looks at me every time he sees me I could skin him alive!"
"I fancy he'd be rather slippery to skin. I wouldn't like to try it, Harry!"
"Well, but wait till you see where I've got him! He's in the draft. He goes next week. And they're sending all those men to our camp! He'll be a private, of course, and he'll have to salute me! Won't that gall him?"
"He won't do it! I know him, and he won't do it!"
"I'll take care that he does it all right! I'll put myself in his way and make him do it. And if he refuses I'll report him and get him in the guard house. See? I can, you know. Then I guess he'll smile out of the other side of his mouth!"
"He won't likely be in your company."
"That doesn't make any difference. I can get him into trouble if he isn't, but I'll try to work it that he is if I can. I've got 'pull,' you know, and I know how to 'work' my superiors!" he swaggered.
"That isn't very good policy," advised the other, "I've heard of men picking off officers they didn't like when it came to battle."
"I'll take good care that he's in front of me on all such occasions!"
A sudden nudge from his companion made him look up, and there looking sharply down at him, was the returning captain, and behind him walked John Cameron still with that amused smile on his face. It was plain that they had both heard his boast. His face crimsoned and he jerked out a tardy salute, as the two passed on leaving him muttering imprecations under his breath.
When the front door slammed behind the two Wainwright spoke in a low shaken growl:
"Now what in thunder is that Captain La Rue going on to Bryne Haven for? I thought, of course, he got off at Spring Heights. That's where his mother lives. I'll bet he is going up to see Ruth Macdonald! You know they're related. If he is, that knocks my plans all into a cocked hat. I'd have to sit at attention all the evening, and I couldn't propose with that cad around!"
"Better put it off then and come with me," soothed his friend. "Athalie Britt will help you forget your troubles all right, and there's plenty of time. You'll get another leave soon."
"How the dickens did John Cameron come to be on speaking terms with Captain La Rue, I'd like to know?" mused Wainwright, paying no heed to his friend.
"H'm! That does complicate matters for you some, doesn't it? Captain La Rue is down at your camp, isn't he? Why, I suppose Cameron knew him up at college, perhaps. Cap used to come up from the university every week last winter to lecture at college."
Wainwright muttered a chain of choice expletives known only to men of his kind.
"Forget it!" encouraged his friend slapping him vigorously on the shoulder as the train drew into Bryne Haven. "Come off that grouch and get busy! You're on leave, man! If you can't visit one woman there's plenty more, and time enough to get married, too, before you go to France. Marriage is only an incident, anyway. Why make such a fuss about it?"
By the fitful glare of the station lights they could see that Cameron was walking with the captain just ahead of them in the attitude of familiar converse. The sight did not put Wainwright into a better humor.
At the great gate of the Macdonald estate Cameron and La Rue parted. They could hear the last words of their conversation as La Rue swung into the wide driveway and Cameron started on up the street:
"I'll attend to it the first thing in the morning, Cameron, and I'm glad you spoke to me about it! I don't see any reason why it shouldn't go through! I shall be personally gratified if we can make the arrangement. Good-night and good luck to you!"
The two young officers halted at a discreet distance until John Cameron had turned off to the right and walked away into the darkness. The captain's quick step could be heard crunching along the gravel drive to the Macdonald house.
"Well, I guess that about settles me for the night, Bobbie!" sighed Wainwright. "Come on, let's pass the time away somehow. I'll stop at the drug store to 'phone and make a date with Ruth for to-morrow morning. Wonder where I can get a car to take her out? No, I don't want to go in her car because she always wants to run it herself. When you're proposing to a woman you don't want her to be absorbed in running a car. See?"
"I don't know. I haven't so much experience in that line as you have, Harry, but I should think it might be inconvenient," laughed the other.
They went back to the station. A few minutes later Wainwright emerged from the telephone booth in the drug store with a lugubrious expression.
"Doggone my luck! She's promised to go to church with that smug cousin of hers, and she's busy all the rest of the day. But she's promised to give me next Saturday if I can get off!" His face brightened with the thought.
"I guess I can make it. If I can't do anything else I'll tell 'em I'm going to be married, and then I can make her rush things through, perhaps. Girls are game for that sort of thing just now; it's in the air, these war marriages. By George, I'm not sure but that's the best way to work it after all. She's the kind of a girl that would do almost anything to help you out of a fix that way, and I'll just tell her I had to say that to get off and that I'll be court-martialed if they find out it wasn't so. How about it?"
"I don't know, Harry. It's all right, of course, if you can get away with it, but Ruth's a pretty bright girl and has a will of her own, you know. But now, come on. It's getting late. What do you say if we get up a party and run down to Atlantic City over Sunday, now that you're free? I know those two girls would be tickled to death to go, especially Athalie. She's a Westerner, you know, and has never seen the ocean."
"All right, come on, only you must promise there won't be any scrapes that will get me into the papers and blow back to Bryne Haven. You know there's a lot of Bryne Haven people go to Atlantic City this time of year and I'm not going to have any stories started. I'm going to marry Ruth Macdonald!"
"All right. Come on."
Ruth Macdonald drew up her little electric runabout sharply at the crossing, as the station gates suddenly clanged down in her way, and sat back with a look of annoyance on her face.
Michael of the crossing was so overcareful sometimes that it became trying. She was sure there was plenty of time to cross before the down train. She glanced at her tiny wrist watch and frowned. Why, it was fully five minutes before the train was due! What could Michael mean, standing there with his flag so importantly and that determined look upon his face?
She glanced down the platform and was surprised to find a crowd. There must be a special expected. What was it? A convention of some sort? Or a picnic? It was late in the season for picnics, and not quite soon enough for a college football game. Who were they, anyway? She looked them over and was astonished to find people of every class, the workers, the wealthy, the plain every-day men, women and children, all with a waiting attitude and a strange seriousness upon them. As she looked closer she saw tears on some faces and handkerchiefs everywhere in evidence. Had some one died? Was this a funeral train they were awaiting? Strange she had not heard!
Then the band suddenly burst out upon her with the familiar wail:
There's a long, long trail awinding, Into the land of our dreams,—
and behind came the muffled tramping of feet not accustomed to marching together.
Ruth suddenly sat up very straight and began to watch, an unfamiliar awe upon her. This must be the first draft men just going away! Of course! Why had she not thought of it at once. She had read about their going and heard people mention it the last week, but it had not entered much into her thoughts. She had not realized that it would be a ceremony of public interest like this. She had no friends whom it would touch. The young men of her circle had all taken warning in plenty of time and found themselves a commission somewhere, two of them having settled up matters but a few days before. She had thought of these draft men, when she had thought of them at all, only when she saw mention of them in the newspapers, and then as a lot of workingmen or farmers' boys who were reluctant to leave their homes and had to be forced into patriotism in this way. It had not occurred to her that there were many honorable young men who would take this way of putting themselves at the disposal of their country in her time of need, without attempting to feather a nice little nest for themselves. Now she watched them seriously and found to her astonishment that she knew many of them. There were three college fellows in the front ranks whom she had met. She had danced with them and been taken out to supper by them, and had a calling acquaintance with their sisters. The sister of one stood on the sidewalk now in the common crowd, quite near to the runabout, and seemed to have forgotten that anybody was by. Her face was drenched with tears and her lips were quivering. Behind her was a gray-haired woman with a skewey blouse and a faded dark blue serge skirt too long for the prevailing fashion. The tears were trickling down her cheeks also; and an old man with a crutch, and a little round-eyed girl, seemed to belong to the party. The old man's lips were set and he was looking at the boys with his heart in his eyes.
Ruth shrank back not to intrude upon such open sorrow, and glanced at the line again as they straggled down the road to the platform; fifty serious, grave-eyed young men with determined mien and sorrow in the very droop of their shoulders. One could see how they hated all this publicity and display, this tense moment of farewell in the eyes of the town; and yet how tender they felt toward those dear ones who had gathered thus to do them honor as they went away to do their part in the great world-struggle for liberty.
As she looked closer the girl saw they were not mature men as at first glance they had seemed, but most of them mere boys. There was the boy that mowed the Macdonald lawn, and the yellow-haired grocery boy. There was the gas man and the nice young plumber who fixed the leak in the water pipes the other day, and the clerk from the post office, and the cashier from the bank! What made them look so old at first sight? Why, it was as if sorrow and responsibility had suddenly been put upon them like a garment that morning for a uniform, and they walked in the shadow of the great sadness that had come upon the world. She understood that perhaps even up to the very day before, they had most of them been merry, careless boys; but now they were men, made so in a night by the horrible sin that had brought about this thing called War.
For the first time since the war began Ruth Macdonald had a vision of what the war meant. She had been knitting, of course, with all the rest; she had spent long mornings at the Red Cross rooms—she was on her way there this very minute when Michael and the procession had interrupted her course—she had made miles of surgical dressings and picked tons of oakum. She had bade her men friends cheery good-byes when they went to Officers' Training Camps, and with the other girls welcomed and admired their uniforms when they came home on short furloughs, one by one winning his stripes and commission. They were all men whom she had known in society. They had wealth and position and found it easy to get into the kind of thing that pleased them in the army or navy. The danger they were facing seemed hardly a negligible quantity. It was the fashion to look on it that way. Ruth had never thought about it before. She had even been severe in her judgment of a few mothers who worried about their sons and wanted to get them exempt in some way. But these stern loyal mothers who stood in close ranks with heavy lines of sacrifice upon their faces, tears on their cheeks, love and self-abnegation in their eyes, gave her a new view of the world. These were the ones who would be in actual poverty, some of them, without their boys, and whose lives would be empty indeed when they went forth. Ruth Macdonald had never before realized the suffering this war was causing individuals until she saw the faces of those women with their sons and brothers and lovers; until she saw the faces of the brave boys, for the moment all the rollicking lightness gone, and only the pain of parting and the mists of the unknown future in their eyes.
It came to the girl with a sudden pang that she was left out of all this. That really it made little difference to her whether America was in the war or not. Her life would go on just the same—a pleasant monotony of bustle and amusement. There would be the same round of social affairs and regular engagements, spiced with the excitement of war work and occasional visiting uniforms. There was no one going forth from their home to fight whose going would put the light of life out for her and cause her to feel sad, beyond the ordinary superficial sadness for the absence of one's playmates.
She liked them all, her friends, and shrank from having them in danger; although it was splendid to have them doing something real at last. In truth until this moment the danger had seemed so remote; the casualty list of which people spoke with bated breath so much a thing of vast unknown numbers, that it had scarcely come within her realization as yet. But now she suddenly read the truth in the suffering eyes of these people who were met to say good-bye, perhaps a last good-bye, to those who were dearer than life to them. How would she, Ruth Macdonald, feel, if one of those boys were her brother or lover? It was inconceivably dreadful.
The band blared on, and the familiar words insisted themselves upon her unwilling mind:
There's a long, long night of waiting!
A sob at her right made her start and then turn away quickly from the sight of a mother's grief as she clung to a frail daughter for support, sobbing with utter abandon, while the daughter kept begging her to "be calm for Tom's sake."
It was all horrible! Why had she gotten into this situation? Aunt Rhoda would blame her for it. Aunt Rhoda would say it was too conspicuous, right there in the front ranks! She put her hand on the starter and glanced out, hoping to be able to back out and get away, but the road behind was blocked several deep with cars, and the crowd had closed in upon her and about her on every side. Retreat was impossible. However, she noticed with relief that the matter of being conspicuous need not trouble her. Nobody was looking her way. All eyes were turned in one direction, toward that straggling, determined line that wound up from the Borough Hall, past the Post Office and Bank to the station where the Home Guards stood uniformed, in open silent ranks doing honor to the boys who were going to fight for them.
Ruth's eyes went reluctantly back to the marching line again. Somehow it struck her that they would not have seemed so forlorn if they had worn new trig uniforms, instead of rusty varied civilian clothes. They seemed like an ill-prepared sacrifice passing in review. Then suddenly her gaze was riveted upon a single figure, the last man in the procession, marching alone, with uplifted head and a look of self-abnegation on his strong young face. All at once something sharp seemed to slash through her soul and hold her with a long quiver of pain and she sat looking straight ahead staring with a kind of wild frenzy at John Cameron walking alone at the end of the line.
She remembered him in her youngest school days, the imp of the grammar school, with a twinkle in his eye and an irrepressible grin on his handsome face. Nothing had ever daunted him and no punishment had ever stopped his mischief. He never studied his lessons, yet he always seemed to know enough to carry him through, and would sometimes burst out with astonishing knowledge where others failed. But there was always that joke on his lips and that wide delightful grin that made him the worshipped-afar of all the little girls. He had dropped a rose on her desk once as he lounged late and laughing to his seat after recess, apparently unaware that his teacher was calling him to order. She could feel the thrill of her little childish heart now as she realized that he had given the rose to her. The next term she was sent to a private school and saw no more of him save an occasional glimpse in passing him on the street, but she never had forgotten him; and now and then she had heard little scraps of news about him. He was working his way through college. He was on the football team and the baseball team. She knew vaguely that his father had died and their money was gone, but beyond that she had no knowledge of him. They had drifted apart. He was not of her world, and gossip about him seldom came her way. He had long ago ceased to look at her when they happened to pass on the street. He doubtless had forgotten her, or thought she had forgotten him. Or, it might even be that he did not wish to presume upon an acquaintance begun when she was too young to have a choice of whom should be her friends. But the memory of that rose had never quite faded from her heart even though she had been but seven, and always she had looked after him when she chanced to see him on the street with a kind of admiration and wonder. Now suddenly she saw him in another light. The laugh was gone from his lips and the twinkle from his eyes. He looked as he had looked the day he fought Chuck Woodcock for tying a string across the sidewalk and tripping up the little girls on the way to school. It came to her like a revelation that he was going forth now in just such a way to fight the world-foe. In a way he was going to fight for her. To make the world a safe place for girls such as she! All the terrible stories of Belgium flashed across her mind, and she was lifted on a great wave of gratitude to this boy friend of her babyhood for going out to defend her!
All the rest of the straggling line of draft men were going out for the same purpose perhaps, but it did not occur to her that they were anything to her until she saw John Cameron. All those friends of her own world who were training for officers, they, too, were going to fight in the same way to defend the world, but she had not thought of it in that way before. It took a sight of John Cameron's high bearing and serious face to bring the knowledge to her mind.
She thought no longer of trying to get away. She seemed held to the spot by a new insight into life. She could not take her eyes from the face of the young man. She forgot that she was staying, forgot that she was staring. She could no more control the swelling thoughts of horror that surged over her and took possession of her than she could have controlled a mob if it had suddenly swept down upon her.
The gates presently lifted silently to let the little procession pass over to her side of the tracks, and within a few short minutes the special train that was to bear the men away to camp came rattling up, laden with other victims of the chance that sent some men on ahead to be pioneers in the camps.
These were a noisy jolly bunch. Perhaps, having had their own sad partings they were only trying to brace themselves against the scenes of other partings through which they must pass all the way along the line. They must be reminded of their own mothers and sisters and sweethearts. Something of this Ruth Macdonald seemed to define to herself as, startled and annoyed by the clamor of the strangers in the midst of the sacredness of the moment, she turned to look at the crowding heads in the car windows and caught the eye of an irrepressible youth:
"Think of me over there!" he shouted, waving a flippant hand and twinkling his eyes at the beautiful girl in her car.
Another time Ruth would have resented such familiarity, but now something touched her spirit with an inexpressible pity, and she let a tiny ripple of a smile pass over her lovely face as her eyes traveled on down the platform in search of the tall form of John Cameron. In the moment of the oncoming train she had somehow lost sight of him. Ah! There he was stooping over a little white haired woman, taking her tenderly in his arms to kiss her. The girl's eyes lingered on him. His whole attitude was such a revelation of the man the rollicking boy had become. It seemed to pleasantly round out her thought of him.
The whistle sounded, the drafted men gave one last wringing hand-clasp, one last look, and sprang on board.
John Cameron was the last to board the train. He stood on the lower step of the last car as it began to move slowly. His hat was lifted, and he stood with slightly lifted chin and eyes that looked as if they had sounded the depths of all sadness and surrendered himself to whatever had been decreed. There was settled sorrow in all the lines of his fine face. Ruth was startled by the change in it; by the look of the boy in the man. Had the war done that for him just in one short summer? Had it done that for the thousands who were going to fight for her? And she was sitting in her luxurious car with a bundle of wool at her feet, and presuming to bear her part by mere knitting! Poor little useless woman that she was! A thing to send a man forth from everything he counted dear or wanted to do, into suffering and hardship—and death—perhaps! She shuddered as she watched his face with its strong uplifted look, and its unutterable sorrow. She had not thought he could look like that! Oh, he would be gay to-morrow, like the rest, of course, with his merry jest and his contagious grin, and making light of the serious business of war! He would not be the boy he used to be without the ability to do that. But she would never forget how he had looked in this farewell minute while he was gazing his last on the life of his boyhood and being borne away into a dubious future. She felt a hopelessly yearning, as if, had there been time, she would have liked to have told him how much she appreciated his doing this great deed for her and for all her sisters!
Has it ever been fully explained why the eyes of one person looking hard across a crowd will draw the eyes of another?
The train had slipped along ten feet or more and was gaining speed when John Cameron's eyes met those of Ruth Macdonald, and her vivid speaking face flashed its message to his soul. A pleased wonder sprang into his eyes, a question as his glance lingered, held by the tumult in her face, and the unmistakable personality of her glance. Then his face lit up with its old smile, graver, oh, much! and more deferential than it used to be, with a certain courtliness in it that spoke of maturity of spirit. He lifted his hat a little higher and waved it just a trifle in recognition of her greeting, wondering in sudden confusion if he were really not mistaken after all and had perhaps been appropriating a farewell that belonged to someone else; then amazed and pleased at the flutter of her handkerchief in reply.
The train was moving rapidly now in the midst of a deep throaty cheer that sounded more like a sob, and still he stood on that bottom step with his hat lifted and let his eyes linger on the slender girlish figure in the car, with the morning sun glinting across her red-gold hair, and the beautiful soft rose color in her cheeks.
As the train swept past the little shelter shed he bethought himself and turned a farewell tender smile on the white-haired woman who stood watching him through a mist of tears. Then his eyes went back for one last glimpse of the girl; and so he flashed out of sight around the curve.
It had taken only a short time after all. The crowd drowned its cheer in one deep gasp of silence and broke up tearfully into little groups beginning to melt away at the sound of Michael ringing up the gates, and telling the cars and wagons to hurry that it was almost time for the up-train.
Ruth Macdonald started her car and tried to bring her senses back to their normal calm wondering what had happened to her and why there was such an inexpressible mingling of loss and pleasure in her heart.
The way at first was intricate with congestion of traffic and Ruth was obliged to go slowly. As the road cleared before her she was about to glide forward and make up for lost time. Suddenly a bewildered little woman with white hair darted in front of the car, hesitated, drew back, came on again. Ruth stopped the car shortly, much shaken with the swift vision of catastrophe, and the sudden recognition of the woman. It was the same one who had been with John Cameron.
"Oh, I'm so sorry I startled you!" she called pleasantly, leaning out of the car. "Won't you get in, please, and let me take you home?"
The woman looked up and there were great tears in her eyes. It was plain why she had not seen where she was going.
"Thank you, no, I couldn't!" she said with a choke in her voice and another blur of tears, "I—you see—I want to get away—I've been seeing off my boy!"
"I know!" said Ruth with quick sympathy, "I saw. And you want to get home quickly and cry. I feel that way myself. But you see I didn't have anybody there and I'd like to do a little something just to be in it. Won't you please get in? You'll get home sooner if I take you; and see! We're blocking the way!"
The woman cast a frightened glance about and assented:
"Of course. I didn't realize!" she said climbing awkwardly in and sitting bolt upright as uncomfortable as could be in the luxurious car beside the girl. It was all too plain she did not wish to be there.
Ruth manoeuvred her car quickly out of the crowd and into a side street, gliding from there to the avenue. She did not speak until they had left the melting crowd well behind them. Then she turned timidly to the woman:
She spoke the words hesitatingly as if she feared to touch a wound. The woman's eyes suddenly filled again and a curious little quiver came on the strong chin.
"Yes," she tried to say and smothered the word in her handkerchief pressed quickly to her lips in an effort to control them.
Ruth laid a cool little touch on the woman's other hand that lay in her lap:
"Please forgive me!" she said, "I wasn't sure. I know it must be awful,—cruel—for you!"
"He—is all I have left!" the woman breathed with a quick controlled gasp, "but, of course—it was—right that he should go!"
She set her lips more firmly and blinked off at the blur of pretty homes on her right without seeing any of them.
"He would have gone sooner, only he thought he ought not to leave me till he had to," she said with another proud little quiver in her voice, as if having once spoken she must go on and say more, "I kept telling him I would get on all right—but he always was so careful of me—ever since his father died!"
"Of course!" said Ruth tenderly turning her face away to struggle with a strange smarting sensation in her own eyes and throat. Then in a low voice she added:
"I knew him, you know. I used to go to the same school with him when I was a little bit of a girl."
The woman looked up with a quick searching glance and brushed the tears away firmly.
"Why, aren't you Ruth Macdonald? Miss Macdonald, I mean—excuse me! You live in the big house on the hill, don't you?"
"Yes, I'm Ruth Macdonald. Please don't call me Miss. I'm only nineteen and I still answer to my little girl name," Ruth answered with a charming smile.
The woman's gaze softened.
"I didn't know John knew you," she said speculatively. "He never mentioned——"
"Of course not!" said the girl anticipating, "he wouldn't. It was a long time ago when I was seven and I doubt if he remembers me any more. They took me out of the public school the next year and sent me to St. Mary's for which I've never quite forgiven them, for I'm sure I should have got on much faster at the public school and I loved it. But I've not forgotten the good times I had there, and John was always good to the little girls. We all liked him. I haven't seen him much lately, but I should think he would have grown to be just what you say he is. He looks that way."
Again the woman's eyes searched her face, as if she questioned the sincerity of her words; then apparently satisfied she turned away with a sigh:
"I'd have liked him to know a girl like you," she said wistfully.
"Thank you!" said Ruth brightly, "that sounds like a real compliment. Perhaps we shall know each other yet some day if fortune favors us. I'm quite sure he's worth knowing."
"Oh, he is!" said the little mother, her tears brimming over again and flowing down her dismayed cheeks, "he's quite worth the best society there is, but I haven't been able to manage a lot of things for him. It hasn't been always easy to get along since his father died. Something happened to our money. But anyway, he got through college!" with a flash of triumph in her eyes.
"Wasn't that fine!" said Ruth with sparkling eyes, "I'm sure he's worth a lot more than some of the fellows who have always had every whim gratified. Now, which street? You'll have to tell me. I'm ashamed to say I don't know this part of town very well. Isn't it pretty down here? This house? What a wonderful clematis! I never saw such a wealth of bloom."
"Yes, John planted that and fussed over it," said his mother with pride as she slipped unaccustomedly out of the car to the sidewalk. "I'm very glad to have met you and it was most kind of you to bring me home. To tell the truth"—with a roguish smile that reminded Ruth of her son's grin—"I was so weak and trembling with saying good-bye and trying to keep up so John wouldn't know it, that I didn't know how I was to get home. Though I'm afraid I was a bit discourteous. I couldn't bear the thought of talking to a stranger just then. But you haven't been like a stranger—knowing him, and all——"
"Oh, thank you!" said Ruth, "it's been so pleasant. Do you know, I don't believe I ever realized what an awful thing the war is till I saw those people down at the station this morning saying good-bye. I never realized either what a useless thing I am. I haven't even anybody very dear to send. I can only knit."
"Well, that's a good deal. Some of us haven't time to do that. I never have a minute."
"You don't need to, you've given your son," said Ruth flashing a glance of glorified understanding at the woman.
A beautiful smile came out on the tired sorrowful face.
"Yes, I've given him," she said, "but I'm hoping God will give him back again some day. Do you think that's too much to hope. He is such a good boy!"
"Of course not," said Ruth sharply with a sudden sting of apprehension in her soul. And then she remembered that she had no very intimate acquaintance with God. She wished she might be on speaking terms, at least, and she would go and present a plea for this lonely woman. If it were only Captain La Rue, her favorite cousin, or even the President, she might consider it. But God! She shuddered. Didn't God let this awful war be? Why did He do it? She had never thought much about God before.
"I wish you would let me come to see you sometime and take you for another ride," she said sweetly.
"It would be beautiful!" said the older woman, "if you would care to take the time from your own friends."
"I would love to have you for one of my friends," said the girl gracefully.
The woman smiled wistfully.
"I'm only here holidays and evenings," she conceded, "I'm doing some government work now."
"I shall come," said Ruth brightly. "I've enjoyed you ever so much." Then she started her car and whirled away into the sunshine.
"She won't come, of course," said the woman to herself as she stood looking mournfully after the car, reluctant to go into the empty house. "I wish she would! Isn't she just like a flower! How wonderful it would be if things had been different, and there hadn't been any war, and my boy could have had her for a friend! Oh!"
* * * * *
Down at the Club House the women waited for the fair young member who had charge of the wool. They rallied her joyously as she hurried in, suddenly aware that she had kept them all waiting.
"I saw her in the crowd at the station this morning," called out Mrs. Pryor, a large placid tease with a twinkle in her eye. "She was picking out the handsomest man for the next sweater she knits. Which one did you choose, Miss Ruth? Tell us. Are you going to write him a letter and stick it in the toe of his sock?"
The annoyed color swept into Ruth's face, but she paid no other heed as she went about her morning duties, preparing the wool to give out. A thought had stolen into her heart that made a tumult there and would not bear turning over even in her mind in the presence of all these curious people. She put it resolutely by as she taught newcomers how to turn the heel of a sock, but now and then it crept back again and was the cause of her dropping an occasional stitch.
Dottie Wetherill came to find out what was the matter with her sock, and to giggle and gurgle about her brother Bob and his friends. Bob, it appeared, was going to bring five officers home with him next week end and they were to have a dance Saturday night. Of course Ruth must come. Bob was soon to get his first lieutenant's commission. There had been a mistake, of course, or he would have had it before this, some favoritism shown; but now Bob had what they called a "pull," and things were going to be all right for him. Bob said you couldn't get anywhere without a "pull." And didn't Ruth think Bob looked perfectly fine in his uniform?
It annoyed Ruth to hear such talk and she tried to make it plain to Dottie that she was mistaken about "pull." There was no such thing. It was all imagination. She knew, for her cousin, Captain La Rue, was very close to the Government and he had told her so. He said that real worth was always recognized, and that it didn't make any difference where it was found or who your friends were. It mattered what you were.
She fixed Dottie's sock and moved on to the wool table to get ready an allotment for some of the ladies to take home.
Mrs. Wainwright bustled in, large and florid and well groomed, with a bunch of photographer's proofs of her son Harry in his uniform. She called loudly for Ruth to come and inspect them. There were some twenty or more poses, each one seemingly fatter, more pompous and conceited looking than the last. She stated in boisterous good humor that Harry particularly wanted Ruth's opinion before he gave the order. At that Mrs. Pryor bent her head to her neighbor and nodded meaningly, as if a certain matter of discussion were settled now beyond all question. Ruth caught the look and its meaning and the color flooded her face once more, much to her annoyance. She wondered angrily if she would never be able to stop that childish habit of blushing, and why it annoyed her so very much this morning to have her name coupled with that of Harry Wainwright. He was her old friend and playmate, having lived next door to her all her life, and it was but natural when everybody was sweethearting and getting married, that people should speak of her and wonder whether there might be anything more to their relationship than mere friendship. Still it annoyed her. Continually as she turned the pages from one fat smug Wainwright countenance to another, she saw in a mist the face of another man, with uplifted head and sorrowful eyes. She wondered if when the time came for Harry Wainwright to go he would have aught of the vision, and aught of the holiness of sorrow that had shown in that other face.
She handed the proofs back to the mother, so like her son in her ample blandness, and wondered if Mrs. Cameron would have a picture of her son in his uniform, fine and large and lifelike as these were.
She interrupted her thoughts to hear Mrs. Wainwright's clarion voice lifted in parting from the door of the Club House on her way back to her car:
"Well, good-bye, Ruth dear. Don't hesitate to let me know if you'd like to have either of the other two large ones for your own 'specials,' you know. I shan't mind changing the order a bit. Harry said you were to have as many as you wanted. I'll hold the proofs for a day or two and let you think it over."
Ruth lifted her eyes to see the gaze of every woman in the room upon her, and for a moment she felt as if she almost hated poor fat doting Mamma Wainwright. Then the humorous side of the moment came to help her and her face blossomed into a smile as she jauntily replied:
"Oh, no, please don't bother, Mrs. Wainwright. I'm not going to paper the wall with them. I have other friends, you know. I think your choice was the best of them all."
Then as gaily as if she were not raging within her soul she turned to help poor Dottie Wetherill who was hopelessly muddled about turning her heel.
Dottie chattered on above the turmoil of her soul, and her words were as tiny April showers sizzling on a red hot cannon. By and by she picked up Dottie's dropped stitches. After all, what did such things matter when there was war and men were giving their lives!
"And Bob says he doubts if they ever get to France. He says he thinks the war will be over before half the men get trained. He says, for his part, he'd like the trip over after the submarines have been put out of business. It would be something to tell about, don't you know? But Bob thinks the war will be over soon. Don't you think so, Ruth?"
"I don't know what I think," said Ruth exasperated at the little prattler. It seemed so awful for a girl with brains—or hadn't she brains?—to chatter on interminably in that inane fashion about a matter of such awful portent. And yet perhaps the child was only trying to cover up her fears, for she all too evidently worshipped her brother.
Ruth was glad when at last the morning was over and one by one the women gathered their belongings together and went home. She stayed longer than the rest to put the work in order. When they were all gone she drove around by the way of the post office and asked the old post master who had been there for twenty years and knew everybody, if he could tell her the address of the boys who had gone to camp that morning. He wrote it down and she tucked it in her blouse saying she thought the Red Cross would be sending them something soon. Then she drove thoughtfully away to her beautiful sheltered home, where the thought of war hardly dared to enter yet in any but a playful form. But somehow everything was changed within the heart of Ruth Macdonald and she looked about on all the familiar places with new eyes. What right had she to be living here in all this luxury while over there men were dying every day that she might live?
The sun shone blindly over the broad dusty drill-field. The men marched and wheeled, about-faced and counter-marched in their new olive-drab uniforms and thought of home—those that had any homes to think about. Some who did not thought of a home that might have been if this war had not happened.
There were times when their souls could rise to the great occasion and their enthusiasm against the foe could carry them to all lengths of joyful sacrifice, but this was not one of the times. It was a breathless Indian summer morning, and the dust was inches thick. It rose like a soft yellow mist over the mushroom city of forty thousand men, brought into being at the command of a Nation's leader. Dust lay like a fine yellow powder over everything. An approaching company looked like a cloud as it drew near. One could scarcely see the men near by for the cloud of yellow dust everywhere.
The water was bad this morning when every man was thirsty. It had been boiled for safety and was served warm and tasted of disinfectants. The breakfast had been oatmeal and salty bacon swimming in congealed grease. The "boy" in the soldier's body was very low indeed that morning. The "man" with his disillusioned eyes had come to the front. Of course this was nothing like the hardships they would have to endure later, but it was enough for the present to their unaccustomed minds, and harder because they were doing nothing that seemed worth while—just marching about and doing sordid duties when they were all eager for the fray and to have it over with. They had begun to see that they were going to have to learn to wait and be patient, to obey blindly; they—who never had brooked commands from any one, most of them, not even from their own parents. They had been free as air, and they had never been tied down to certain company. Here they were all mixed up, college men and foreign laborers, rich and poor, cultured and coarse, clean and defiled, and it went pretty hard with them all. They had come, a bundle of prejudices and wills, and they had first to learn that every prejudice they had been born with or cultivated, must be given up or laid aside. They were not their own. They belonged to a great machine. The great perfect conception of the army as a whole had not yet dawned upon them. They were occupied with unpleasant details in the first experimental stages. At first the discomforts seemed to rise and obliterate even the great object for which they had come, and discontent sat upon their faces.
Off beyond the drill-field whichever way they looked, there were barracks the color of the dust, and long stark roads, new and rough, the color of the barracks, with jitneys and trucks and men like ants crawling furiously back and forth upon them all animated by the same great necessity that had brought the men here. Even the sky seemed yellow like the dust. The trees were gone except at the edges of the camp, cut down to make way for more barracks, in even ranks like men.
Out beyond the barracks mimic trenches were being dug, and puppets hung in long lines for mock enemies. There were skeleton bridges to cross, walls to scale, embankments to jump over, and all, everything, was that awful olive-drab color till the souls of the new-made soldiers cried out within them for a touch of scarlet or green or blue to relieve the dreary monotony. Sweat and dust and grime, weariness, homesickness, humbled pride, these were the tales of the first days of those men gathered from all quarters who were pioneers in the first camps.
Corporal Cameron marched his awkward squad back and forth, through all the various manoeuvres, again and again, giving his orders in short, sharp tones, his face set, his heart tortured with the thought of the long months and years of this that might be before him. The world seemed most unfriendly to him these days. Not that it had ever been over kind, yet always before his native wit and happy temperament had been able to buoy him up and carry him through hopefully. Now, however, hope seemed gone. This war might last till he was too old to carry out any of his dreams and pull himself out of the place where fortune had dropped him. Gradually one thought had been shaping itself clearly out of the days he had spent in camp. This life on earth was not all of existence. There must be something bigger beyond. It wasn't sane and sensible to think that any God would allow such waste of humanity as to let some suffer all the way through with nothing beyond to compensate. There was a meaning to the suffering. There must be. It must be a preparation for something beyond, infinitely better and more worth while. What was it and how should he learn the meaning of his own particular bit?
John Cameron had never thought about religion before in his life. He had believed in a general way in a God, or thought he believed, and that a book called the Bible told about Him and was the authentic place to learn how to be good. The doubts of the age had not touched him because he had never had any interest in them. In the ordinary course of events he might never have thought about them in relation to himself until he came to die—perhaps not then. In college he had been too much engrossed with other things to listen to the arguments, or to be influenced by the general atmosphere of unbelief. He had been a boy whose inner thoughts were kept under lock and key, and who had lived his heart life absolutely alone, although his rich wit and bubbling merriment had made him a general favorite where pure fun among the fellows was going. He loved to "rough house" as he called it, and his boyish pranks had always been the talk of the town, the envied of the little boys; but no one knew his real, serious thoughts. Not even his mother, strong and self-repressed like himself, had known how to get down beneath the surface and commune with him. Perhaps she was afraid or shy.
Now that he was really alone among all this mob of men of all sorts and conditions, he had retired more and more into the inner sanctuary of self and tried to think out the meaning of life. From the chaos that reigned in his mind he presently selected a few things that he called "facts" from which to work. These were "God, Hereafter, Death." These things he must reckon with. He had been working on a wrong hypothesis all his life. He had been trying to live for this world as if it were the end and aim of existence, and now this war had come and this world had suddenly melted into chaos. It appeared that he and thousands of others must probably give up their part in this world before they had hardly tried it, if they would set things right again for those that should come after. But, even if he had lived out his ordinary years in peace and success, and had all that life could give him, it would not have lasted long, seventy years or so, and what were they after they were past? No, there was something beyond or it all wouldn't have been made—this universe with the carefully thought out details working harmoniously one with another. It wouldn't have been worth while otherwise. There would have been no reason for a heart life.
There were boys and men in the army who thought otherwise. Who had accepted this life as being all. Among these were the ones who when they found they were taken in the draft and must go to camp, had spent their last three weeks of freedom drunk because they wanted to get all the "fun" they could out of life that was left to them. They were the men who were plunging into all the sin they could find before they went away to fight because they felt they had but a little time to live and what did it matter? But John Cameron was not one of these. His soul would not let him alone until he had thought it all out, and he had come thus far with these three facts, "God, Death, A Life Hereafter." He turned these over in his mind for days and then he changed their order, "Death, A Life Hereafter, God."
Death was the grim person he was going forth to meet one of these days or months on the field of France or Italy, or somewhere "over there." He was not to wait for Death to come and get him as had been the old order. This was WAR and he was going out to challenge Death. He was convinced that whether Death was a servant of God or the Devil, in some way it would make a difference with his own personal life hereafter, how he met Death. He was not satisfied with just meeting Death bravely, with the ardor of patriotism in his breast, as he heard so many about him talk in these days. That was well so far as it went, but it did not solve the mystery of the future life nor make him sure how he would stand in that other world to which Death stood ready to escort him presently. Death might be victor over his body, but he wanted to be sure that Death should not also kill that something within him which he felt must live forever. He turned it over for days and came to the conclusion that the only one who could help him was God. God was the beginning of it all. If there was a God He must be available to help a soul in a time like this. There must be a way to find God and get the secret of life, and so be ready to meet Death that Death should not conquer anything but the body. How could one find God? Had anybody ever found Him? Did anyone really think they had found Him? These were questions that beat in upon his soul day after day as he drilled his men and went through the long hard hours of discipline, or lay upon his straw tick at night while a hundred and fifty other men about him slept.
His mother's secret attempts at religion had been too feeble and too hidden in her own breast to have made much of an impression upon him. She had only hoped her faith was founded upon a rock. She had not known. And so her buffeted soul had never given evidence to her son of hidden holy refuge where he might flee with her in time of need.
Now and then the vision of a girl blurred across his thoughts uncertainly, like a bright moth hovering in the distance whose shadow fell across his dusty path. But it was far away and vague, and only a glance in her eyes belonged to him. She was not of his world.
He looked up to the yellow sky through the yellow dust, and his soul cried out to find the way to God before he had to meet Death, but the heavens seemed like molten brass. Not that he was afraid of death with a physical fear, but that his soul recoiled from being conquered by it and he felt convinced that there was a way to meet it with a smile of assurance if only he could find it out. He had read that people had met it that way. Was it all their imagination? The mere illusion of a fanatical brain? Well, he would try to find out God. He would put himself in the places where God ought to be, and when he saw any indication that God was there he would cry out until he made God hear him!
The day he came to that conclusion was Sunday and he went over to the Y.M.C.A. Auditorium. They were having a Mary Pickford moving picture show there. If he had happened to go at any time during the morning he might have heard some fine sermons and perhaps have found the right man to help him, but this was evening and the men were being amused.
He stood for a few moments and watched the pretty show. The sunlight on Mary's beautiful hair, as it fell glimmering through the trees in the picture reminded him of the red-gold lights on Ruth Macdonald's hair the morning he left home, and with a sigh he turned away and walked to the edge of camp where the woods were still standing.
Alone he looked up to the starry sky. Amusement was not what he wanted now. He was in search of something vague and great that would satisfy, and give him a reason for being and suffering and dying perhaps. He called it God because he had no other name for it. Red-gold hair might be for others but not for him. He might not take it where he would and he would not take it where it lay easy to get. If he had been in the same class with some other fellows he knew he would have wasted no time on follies. He would have gone for the very highest, finest woman. But there! What was the use! Besides, even if he had been—and he had had—every joy of life here was but a passing show and must sometime come to an end. And at the end would be this old problem. Sometime he would have had to realize it, even if war had not come and brought the revelation prematurely. What was it that he wanted? How could he find out how to die? Where was God?
But the stars were high and cold and gave no answer, and the whispering leaves, although they soothed him, sighed and gave no help.
The feeling was still with him next morning when the mail was distributed. There would be nothing for him. His mother had written her weekly letter and it had reached him the day before. He could expect nothing for several days now. Other men were getting sheaves of letters. How friendless he seemed among them all. One had a great chocolate cake that a girl had sent him and the others were crowding around to get a bit. It was doubtful if the laughing owner got more than a bite himself. He might have been one of the group if he had chosen. They all liked him well enough, although they knew him very little as yet, for he had kept much to himself. But he turned sharply away from them and went out. Somehow he was not in the mood for fun. He felt he must be growing morbid but he could not throw it off that morning. It all seemed so hopeless, the things he had tried to do in life and the slow progress he had made upward; and now to have it all blocked by war!
None of the other fellows ever dreamed that he was lonely, big, husky, handsome fellow that he was, with a continuous joke on his lips for those he had chosen as associates, with an arm of iron and a jaw that set like steel, grim and unmistakably brave. The awkward squad as they wrathfully obeyed his stern orders would have told you he had no heart, the way he worked them, and would not have believed that he was just plain homesick and lonesome for some one to care for him.
He was not hungry that day when the dinner call came, and flung himself down under a scrub oak outside the barracks while the others rushed in with their mess kits ready for beans or whatever was provided for them. He was glad that they were gone, glad that he might have the luxury of being miserable all alone for a few minutes. He felt strangely as if he were going to cry, and yet he didn't know what about. Perhaps he was going to be sick. That would be horrible down in that half finished hospital with hardly any equipment yet! He must brace up and put an end to such softness. It was all in the idea anyway.
Then a great hand came down upon his shoulder with a mighty slap and he flung himself bolt upright with a frown to find his comrade whose bunk was next to his in the barracks. He towered over Cameron polishing his tin plate with a vigor.
"What's the matter with you, you boob? There's roast beef and its good. Cooky saved a piece for you. I told him you'd come. Go in and get it quick! There's a letter for you, too, in the office. I'd have brought it only I was afraid I would miss you. Here, take my mess kit and hurry! There's some cracker-jack pickles, too, little sweet ones! Step lively, or some one will swipe them all!"
Cameron arose, accepted his friend's dishes and sauntered into the mess hall. The letter couldn't be very important. His mother had no time to write again soon, and there was no one else. It was likely an advertisement or a formal greeting from some of the organizations at home. They did that about fortnightly, the Red Cross, the Woman's Club, The Emergency Aid, The Fire Company. It was kind in them but he wasn't keen about it just then. It could wait until he got his dinner. They didn't have roast beef every day, and now that he thought about it he was hungry.
He almost forgot the letter after dinner until a comrade reminded him, handing over a thick delicately scented envelope with a silver crest on the back. The boys got off their kidding about "the girl he'd left behind him" and he answered with his old good-natured grin that made them love him, letting them think he had all kinds of girls, for the dinner had somewhat restored his spirits, but he crumpled the letter into his pocket and got away into the woods to read it.
Deliberately he walked down the yellow road, up over the hill by the signal corps tents, across Wig-Wag Park to the woods beyond, and sat down on a log with his letter. He told himself that it was likely one of those fool letters the fellows were getting all the time from silly girls who were uniform-crazy. He wouldn't answer it, of course, and he felt a kind of contempt with himself for being weak enough to read it even to satisfy his curiosity.
Then he tore open the envelope half angrily and a faint whiff of violets floated out to him. Over his head a meadow lark trilled a long sweet measure, and glad surprise suddenly entered into his soul.
The letter was written in a fine beautiful hand and even before he saw the silver monogram at the top, he knew who was the writer, though he did not even remember to have seen the writing before:
MY DEAR FRIEND:
I have hesitated a long time before writing because I do not know that I have the right to call you a friend, or even an acquaintance in the commonly accepted sense of that term. It is so long since you and I went to school together, and we have been so widely separated since then that perhaps you do not even remember me, and may consider my letter an intrusion. I hope not, for I should hate to rank with the girls who are writing to strangers under the license of mistaken patriotism.
My reason for writing you is that a good many years ago you did something very nice and kind for me one day, in fact you helped me twice, although I don't suppose you knew it. Then the other day, when you were going to camp and I sat in my car and watched you, it suddenly came over me that you were doing it again; this time a great big wonderful thing for me; and doing it just as quietly and inconsequentially as you did it before; and all at once I realized how splendid it was and wanted to thank you.
It came over me, too, that I had never thanked you for the other times, and very likely you never dreamed that you had done anything at all.
You see I was only a little girl, very much frightened, because Chuck Woodcock had teased me about my curls and said that he was going to catch me and cut them off, and send me home to my aunt that way, and she would turn me out of the house. He had been frightening me for several days, so that I was afraid to go to school alone, and yet I would not tell my aunt because I was afraid she would take me away from the Public School and send me to a Private School which I did not want. But that day I had seen Chuck Woodcock steal in behind the hedge, ahead of the girls. The others were ahead of me and I was all out of breath—running to catch up because I was afraid to pass him alone; and just as I got near two of them,—Mary Wurts and Caroline Meadows, you remember them, don't you?—they gave a scream and pitched headlong on the sidewalk. They had tripped over a wire he had stretched from the tree to the hedge. I stopped short and got behind a tree, and I remember how the tears felt in my throat, but I was afraid to let them out because Chuck would call me a crybaby and I hated that. And just then you came along behind me and jumped through the hedge and caught Chuck and gave him an awful whipping. "Licking" I believe we called it then. I remember how condemned I felt as I ran by the hedge and knew in my heart that I was glad you were hurting him because he had been so cruel to me. He used to pull my curls whenever he sat behind me in recitation.
I remember you came in to school late with your hair all mussed up beautifully, and a big tear in your coat, and a streak of mud on your face. I was so worried lest the teacher would find out you had been fighting and make you stay after school. Because you see I knew in my heart that you had been winning a battle for me, and if anybody had to stay after school I wished it could be me because of what you had done for me. But you came in laughing as you always did, and looking as if nothing in the world unusual had happened, and when you passed my desk you threw before me the loveliest pink rose bud I ever saw. That was the second thing you did for me.
Perhaps you won't understand how nice that was, either, for you see you didn't know how unhappy I had been. The girls hadn't been very friendly with me. They told me I was "stuck up," and they said I was too young to be in their classes anyway and ought to go to Kindergarten. It was all very hard for me because I longed to be big and have them for my friends. I was very lonely in that great big house with only my aunt and grandfather for company. But the girls wouldn't be friends at all until they saw you give me that rose, and that turned the tide. They were crazy about you, every one of them, and, they made up to me after that and told me their secrets and shared their lunch and we had great times. And it was all because you gave me the rose that day. The rose itself was lovely and I was tremendously happy over it for its own sake, but it meant a whole lot to me besides, and opened the little world of school to my longing feet. I always wanted to thank you for it, but you looked as if you didn't want me to, so I never dared; and lately I wasn't quite sure you knew me, because you never looked my way any more.
But when I saw you standing on the platform the other day with the other drafted men, it all came over me how you were giving up the life you had planned to go out and fight for me and other girls like me. I hadn't thought of the war that way before, although, of course, I had heard that thought expressed in speeches; but it never struck into my heart until I saw the look on your face. It was a kind of "knightliness," if there is such a word, and when I thought about it I realized it was the very same look you had worn when you burst through the hedge after Chuck Woodcock, and again when you came back and threw that rose on my desk. Although, you had a big, broad boy's-grin on your face then, and were chewing gum I remember quite distinctly; and the other day you looked so serious and sorry as if it meant a great deal to you to go, but you were giving up everything gladly without even thinking of hesitating. The look on your face was a man's look, not a boy's.
It has meant so much to me to realize this last great thing that you are doing for me and for the other girls of our country that I had to write and tell you how much I appreciate it.
I have been wondering whether some one has been knitting you a sweater yet, and the other things that they knit for soldiers; and if they haven't, whether you would let me send them to you? It is the only thing I can do for you who have done so much for me.
I hope you will not think I am presuming to have written this on the strength of a childish acquaintance. I wish you all honors that can come to you on such a quest as yours, and I had almost said all good luck, only that that word sounds too frivolous and pagan for such a serious matter; so I will say all safety for a swift accomplishment of your task and a swift homecoming. I used to think when I was a little child that nothing could ever hurt you or make you afraid, and I cannot help feeling now that you will come through the fire unscathed. May I hope to hear from you about the sweater and things? And may I sign myself
John Cameron lifted his eyes from the paper at last and looked up at the sky. Had it ever been so blue before? At the trees. What whispering wonders of living green! Was that only a bird that was singing that heavenly song—a meadow lark, not an angel? Why had he never appreciated meadow larks before?
He rested his head back against a big oak and his soldier's hat fell off on the ground. He closed his eyes and the burden of loneliness that had borne down upon him all these weeks in the camp lifted from his heart. Then he tried to realize what had come to him. Ruth Macdonald, the wonder and admiration of his childhood days, the admired and envied of the home town, the petted beauty at whose feet every man fell, the girl who had everything that wealth could purchase! She had remembered the little old rose he had dared to throw on her desk, and had bridged the years with this letter!
He was carried back in spirit to the day he left for camp. To the look in her eyes as he moved away on the train. The look had been real then, and not just a fleeting glance helped out by his fevered imagination. There had been true friendliness in her eyes. She had intended to say good-bye to him! She had put him on a level with her own beautiful self. She had knighted him, as it were, and sent him forth! Even the war had become different since she chose to think he was going forth to fight her battles. What a sacred trust!
Afar in the distance a bugle sounded that called to duty. He had no idea how the time had flown. He glanced at his wrist watch and was amazed. He sprang to his feet and strode over the ground, but the way no longer seemed dusty and blinded with sunshine. It shone like a path of glory before his willing feet, and he went to his afternoon round of duties like a new man. He had a friend, a real friend, one that he had known a long time. There was no fear that she was just writing to him to get one more soldier at her feet as some girls would have done. Her letter was too frank and sincere to leave a single doubt about what she meant. He would take her at her word.
Sometime during the course of the afternoon it occurred to him to look at the date of the letter, and he found to his dismay that it had been written nearly four weeks before and had been travelling around through various departments in search of him, because it had not the correct address. He readily guessed that she had not wanted to ask for his company and barracks; she would not have known who to ask. She did not know his mother, and who else was there? His old companions were mostly gone to France or camp somewhere.
And now, since all this time had elapsed she would think he had not cared, had scorned her letter or thought it unmaidenly! He was filled with dismay and anxiety lest he had hurt her frankness by his seeming indifference. And the knitted things, the wonderful things that she had made with her fair hands! Would she have given them to some one else by this time? Of course, it meant little to her save as a kind of acknowledgment for something she thought he had done for her as a child, but they meant so much to him! Much more than they ought to do, he knew, for he was in no position to allow himself to become deeply attached to even the handiwork of any girl in her position. However, nobody need ever know how much he cared, had always cared, for the lovely little girl with her blue eyes, her long curls, her shy sweet smile and modest ways, who had seemed to him like an angel from heaven when he was a boy. She had said he did not know that he was helping her when he burst through the hedge on the cowering Chuck Woodcock; and he would likely never dare to tell her that it was because he saw her fright and saw her hide behind that tree that he went to investigate and so was able to administer a just punishment. He had picked that rose from the extreme west corner of a great petted rose bush on the Wainwright lawn, reaching through an elaborate iron fence to get it as he went cross-lots back to school. He would call it stealing now to do that same, but then it had been in the nature of a holy rite offered to a vestal virgin. Yet he must have cast it down with the grin of an imp, boorish urchin that he was; and he remembered blushing hotly in the dark afterwards at his presumption, as he thought of it alone at night. And all the time she had been liking it. The little girl—the little sweet girl! She had kept it in her heart and remembered it!
His heart was light as air as he went back to the barracks for retreat. A miracle had been wrought for him which changed everything. No, he was not presuming on a friendly letter. Maybe there would be fellows who would think there wasn't much in just a friendly letter to a lonely soldier, and a sweater or two more or less. But then they would never have known what it was to be so lonely for friendship, real friendship, as he was.
He would hurry through supper and get to the Y.M.C.A. hut to write her an answer. He would explain how the letter had been delayed and say he hoped she had not given the things away to someone else. He began planning sentences as he stood at attention during the captain's inspection at retreat. Somehow the captain was tiresomely particular about the buttons and pocket flaps and little details to-night. He waited impatiently for the command to break ranks, and was one of the first at the door of the mess hall waiting for supper, his face alight, still planning what he would say in that letter and wishing he could get some fine stationery to write upon; wondering if there was any to be had with his caduces on it.
At supper he bubbled with merriment. An old schoolmate might have thought him rejuvenated. He wore his schoolboy grin and rattled off puns and jokes, keeping the mess hall in a perfect roar.
At last he was out in the cool of the evening with the wonderful sunset off in the west, on his way to the Y.M.C.A. hut. He turned a corner swinging into the main road and there, coming toward him, not twenty feet away, he saw Lieutenant Wainwright!
There was no possible way to avoid meeting him. John Cameron knew that with the first glance. He also knew that Wainwright had recognized him at once and was lifting his chin already with that peculiar, disagreeable tilt of triumph that had always been so maddening to one who knew the small mean nature of the man.
Of course, there was still time to turn deliberately about and flee in the other direction, but that would be all too obvious, and an open confession of weakness. John Cameron was never at any time a coward.
His firm lips set a trifle more sternly than usual, his handsome head was held high with fine military bearing. He came forward without faltering for even so much as the fraction of a waver. There was not a flicker in his eyes set straight ahead. One would never have known from his looks that he recognized the oncoming man, or had so much as realized that an officer was approaching, yet his brain was doing some rapid calculation. He had said in his heart if not openly that he would never salute this man. He had many times in their home town openly passed him without salute because he had absolutely no respect for him, and felt that he owed it to his sense of the fitness of things not to give him deference, but that was a different matter from camp. He knew that Wainwright was in a position to do him injury, and no longer stood in fear of a good thrashing from him as at home, because here he could easily have the offender put in the guard house and disgraced forever. Nothing, of course, would delight him more than thus to humiliate his sworn enemy. Yet Cameron walked on knowing that he had resolved not to salute him.
It was not merely pride in his own superiority. It was contempt for the nature of the man, for his low contemptible plots and tricks, and cunning ways, for his entire lack of principle, and his utter selfishness and heartlessness, that made Cameron feel justified in his attitude toward Wainwright. "He is nothing but a Hun at heart," he told himself bitterly.
But the tables were turned. Wainwright was no longer in his home town where his detestable pranks had goaded many of his neighbors and fellowtownsmen into a cordial hatred of him. He was in a great military camp, vested with a certain amount of authority, with the right to report those under him; who in turn could not retaliate by telling what they knew of him because it was a court-martial offense for a private to report an officer. Well, naturally the United States was not supposed to have put men in authority who needed reporting. Cameron, of course, realized that these things had to be in order to maintain military discipline. But it was inevitable that some unworthy ones should creep in, and Wainwright was surely one of those unworthy ones. He would not bend to him, officer, or no officer. What did he care what happened to himself? Who was there to care but his mother? And she would understand if the news should happen to penetrate to the home town, which was hardly likely. Those who knew him would not doubt him, those who did not mattered little. There was really no one who would care. Stay! A letter crackled in his breast pocket and a cold chill of horror struggled up from his heart. Suppose she should hear of it! Yes, he would care for that!
They were almost meeting now and Cameron's eyes were straight ahead staring hard at the big green shape of the theatre a quarter of a mile away. His face under its usual control showed no sign of the tumult in his heart, which flamed with a sudden despair against a fate that had placed him in such a desperate situation. If there were a just power who controlled the affairs of men, how could it let such things happen to one who had always tried to live up upright life? It seemed for that instant as if all the unfairness and injustice of his own hard life had culminated in that one moment when he would have to do or not do and bear the consequences.
Then suddenly out from the barracks close at hand with brisk step and noble bearing came Captain La Rue, swinging down the walk into the road straight between the two men and stopped short in front of Cameron with a light of real welcome in his eyes, as he lifted his hand to answer the salute which the relieved Cameron instantly flashed at him.
In that second Lieutenant Wainwright flung past them with a curt salute to the higher officer and a glare at the corporal which the latter seemed not to see. It was so simultaneous with Cameron's salute of La Rue that nobody on earth could say that the salute had not included the lieutenant, yet both the lieutenant and the corporal knew that it had not; and Wainwright's brow was dark with intention as he turned sharply up the walk to the barracks which the captain had just left.
"I was just coming in search of you, Cameron," said the captain with a twinkle in his eyes, and his voice was clearly distinct to Wainwright as he loitered in the barracks doorway to listen, "I went down to Washington yesterday and put in the strongest plea I knew how for your transfer. I hope it will go through all right. There is no one else out for the job and you are just the man for the place. It will be a great comfort to have you with me."
A few more words and the busy man moved on eluding Cameron's earnest thanks and leaving him to pursue his course to the Y.M.C.A. hut with a sense of soothing and comfort. It never occurred to either of them that their brief conversation had been overheard, and would not have disturbed them if it had.
Lieutenant Wainwright lingered on the steps of the barracks with a growing curiosity and satisfaction. The enemy were playing right into his hands: both the enemy—for he hated Captain La Rue as sin always hates the light.
He lounged about the barracks in deep thought for a few minutes and then made a careful toilet and went out.
He knew exactly where to go and how to use his influence, which was not small, although not personal. It was characteristic of the man that it made no difference to him that the power he was wielding was a borrowed power whose owner would have been the last man to have done what he was about to do with it. He had never in his life hesitated about getting whatever he wanted by whatever means presented itself. He was often aware that people gave him what he wanted merely to get rid of him, but this did not alloy his pleasure in his achievement.
He was something of a privileged character in the high place to which he betook himself, on account of the supreme regard which was held for the uncle, a mighty automobile king, through whose influence he had obtained his commission. So far he had not availed himself of his privileges too often and had therefore not as yet outworn his welcome, for he was a true diplomat. He entered this evening with just the right shade of delicate assurance and humble affrontery to assure him a cordial welcome, and gracefully settled himself into the friendliness that was readily extended to him. He was versed in all the ways of the world and when he chose could put up a good appearance. He knew that for the sake of his father's family and more especially because of his uncle's high standing, this great official whom he was calling upon was bound to be nice to him for a time. So he bided his time till a few other officials had left and his turn came.
The talk was all personal, a few words about his relatives and then questions about himself, his commission, how he liked it, and how things were going with him. Mere form and courtesy, but he knew how to use the conversation for his own ends:
"Oh, I'm getting along fine and dandy!" he declared effusively, "I'm just crazy about camp! I like the life! But I'll tell you what makes me tired. It's these little common guys running around fussing about their jobs and trying to get a lot of pull to get into some other place. Now there's an instance of that in our company, a man from my home town, no account whatever and never was, but he's got it in his head that he's a square peg in a round hole and he wants to be transferred. He shouts about it from morning till night trying to get everybody to help him, and at last I understand he's hoodwinked one captain into thinking he's the salt of the earth, and they are plotting together to get him transferred. I happened to overhear them talking about it just now, how they are going to this one and that one in Washington to get things fixed to suit them. They think they've got the right dope on things all right and it's going through for him to get his transfer. It makes me sick. He's no more fit for a commission than my dog, not as fit, for he could at least obey orders. This fellow never did anything but what he pleased. I've known him since we were kids and never liked him. But he has a way with him that gets people till they understand him. It's too bad when the country needs real men to do their duty that a fellow like that can get a commission when he is utterly inefficient besides being a regular breeder of trouble. But, of course, I can't tell anybody what I know about him."
"I guess you needn't worry, Wainwright. They can't make any transfers without sending them up to me, and you may be good and sure I'm not transferring anybody just now without a good reason, no matter who is asking it. He's in your company, is he? And where does he ask to be transferred? Just give me his name. I'll make a note of it. If it ever comes up I'll know how to finish him pretty suddenly. Though I doubt if it does. People are not pulling wires just now. This is war and everything means business. However, if I find there has been wire-pulling I shall know how to deal with it summarily. It's a court-martial offense, you know."
They passed on to other topics, and Wainwright with his little eyes gleaming triumphantly soon took himself out into the starlight knowing that he had done fifteen minutes' good work and not wishing to outdo it. He strolled contentedly back to officers' quarters wearing a more complacent look on his heavy features. He would teach John Cameron to ignore him!
Meantime John Cameron with his head among the stars walked the dusty camp streets and forgot the existence of Lieutenant Wainwright. A glow of gratitude had flooded his soul at sight of his beloved captain, whom he hoped soon to be able to call his captain. Unconsciously he walked with more self-respect as the words of confidence and trust rang over again in his ears. Unconsciously the little matters of personal enmity became smaller, of less importance, beside the greater things of life in which he hoped soon to have a real part. If he got this transfer it meant a chance to work with a great man in a great way that would not only help the war but would be of great value to him in this world after the war was over. It was good to have the friendship of a man like that, fine, clean, strong, intellectual, kind, just, human, gentle as a woman, yet stern against all who deviated from the path of right.
The dusk was settling into evening and twinkling lights gloomed out amid the misty, dust-laden air. Snatches of wild song chorused out from open windows:
She's my lady, my baby, She's cock-eyed, she's crazy.
The twang of a banjo trailed in above the voices, with a sound of scuffling. Loud laughter broke the thread of the song leaving "Mary Ann!" to soar out alone. Then the chorus took it up once more:
All her teeth are false From eating Rochelle salts— She's my freckled-faced, consumptive MARY ANN-N-N!
Cameron turned in at the quiet haven of the Y.M.C.A. hut, glad to leave the babel sounds outside. Somehow they did not fit his mood to-night, although there were times when he could roar the outlandish gibberish with the best of them. But to-night he was on such a wonderful sacred errand bent, that it seemed as though he wanted to keep his soul from contact with rougher things lest somehow it might get out of tune and so unfit him for the task before him.
And then when he had seated himself before the simple desk he looked at the paper with discontent. True, it was all that was provided and it was good enough for ordinary letters, but this letter to her was different. He wished he had something better. To think he was really writing to her! And now that he was here with the paper before him what was he to say? Words seemed to have deserted him. How should he address her?
It was not until he had edged over to the end of the bench away from everybody else and taken out the precious letter that he gained confidence and took up his pen:
"My dear friend:——" Why, he would call her his friend, of course, that was what she had called him. And as he wrote he seemed to see her again as she sat in her car by the station the day he started on his long, long trail and their eyes had met. Looking so into her eyes again, he wrote straight from his soul:
MY DEAR FRIEND:
Your letter has just reached me after travelling about for weeks. I am not going to try to tell you how wonderful it is to me to have it. In fact, the wonder began that morning I left home when you smiled at me and waved a friendly farewell. It was a great surprise to me. I had not supposed until that moment that you remembered my existence. Why should you? And it has never been from lack of desire to do so that I failed to greet you when we passed in the street. I did not think that I, a mere little hoodlum from your infant days, had a right to intrude upon your grown-up acquaintance without a hint from you that such recognition would be agreeable. I never blamed you for not speaking of course. Perhaps I didn't give you the chance. I simply thought I had grown out of your memory as was altogether natural. It was indeed a pleasant experience to see that light of friendliness in your eyes at the station that day, and to know it was a real personal recognition and not just a patriotic gush of enthusiasm for the whole shabby lot of us draftees starting out to an unknown future. I thanked you in my heart for that little bit of personal friendliness but I never expected to have an opportunity to thank you in words, nor to have the friendliness last after I had gone away. When your letter came this morning it sure was some pleasant surprise. I know you have a great many friends, and plenty of people to write letters to, but somehow there was a real note of comradeship in the one you wrote me, not as if you just felt sorry for me because I had to go off to war and fight and maybe get killed. It was as if the conditions of the times had suddenly swept away a lot of foolish conventions of the world, which may all have their good use perhaps at times, but at a time like this are superfluous, and you had just gravely and sweetly offered me an old friend's sympathy and good will. As such I have taken it and am rejoicing in it.
Don't make any mistake about this, however. I never have forgotten you or the rose! I stole it from the Wainwright's yard after I got done licking Chuck, and I had a fight with Hal Wainwright over it which almost finished the rose, and nearly got me expelled from school before I got through with it. Hal told his mother and she took it to the school board. I was a pretty tough little rascal in those days I guess and no doubt needed some lickings myself occasionally. But I remember I almost lost my nerve when I got back to school that day and came within an ace of stuffing the rose in my pocket instead of throwing it on your desk. I never dreamed the rose would be anything to you. It was only my way of paying tribute to you. You seemed to me something like a rose yourself, just dropped down out of heaven you know, you were so little and pink and gold with such great blue eyes. Pardon me. I don't mean to be too personal. You don't mind a big hobbledehoy's admiration, do you? You were only a baby; but I would have licked any boy in town that lifted a word or a finger against you. And to think you really needed my help! It certainly would have lifted me above the clouds to have known it then!
And now about this war business. Of course it is a rough job, and somebody had to do it for the world. I was glad and willing to do my part; but it makes a different thing out of it to be called a knight, and I guess I'll look at it a little more respectfully now. If a life like mine can protect a life like yours from some of the things those Germans are putting over I'll gladly give it. I've sized it up that a man couldn't do a bigger thing for the world anyhow he planned it than to make the world safe for a life like yours; so me for what they call "the supreme sacrifice," and it won't be any sacrifice at all if it helps you!
No, I haven't got a sweater or those other things that go with those that you talk about. Mother hasn't time to knit and I never was much of a lady's man, I guess you know if you know me at all. Or perhaps you don't. But anyhow I'd be wonderfully pleased to wear a sweater that you knit, although it seems a pretty big thing for you to do for me. However, if knitting is your job in this war, and I wouldn't be robbing any other better fellow, I certainly would just love to have it.
If you could see this big dusty monotonous olive-drab camp you would know what a bright spot your letter and the thought of a real friend has made in it. I suppose you have been thinking all this time that I was neglectful because I didn't answer, but it was all the fault of someone who gave you the wrong address. I am hoping you will forgive me for the delay and that some day you will have time to write to me again.
Sincerely and proudly,
As he walked back to his barracks in the starlight his heart was filled with a great peace. What a thing it was to have been able to speak to her on paper and let her know his thoughts of her. It was as if after all these years he had been able to pluck another trifling rose and lay it at her lovely feet. Her knight! It was the fulfillment of all his boyish dreams!