WHERE THE SOULS OF MEN ARE CALLING
BY CREDO HARRIS
Frontispiece by JOHN R. NEILL
NEW YORK BRITTON PUBLISHING COMPANY
BRITTON PUBLISHING COMPANY
All Rights Reserved
Made in U. S. A.
* * * * *
TO MAUD BLANC HARRIS
* * * * *
WHERE THE SOULS OF MEN ARE CALLING
Hillsdale is "somewhere in the United States of America"—but there are hundreds of Hillsdales!
This particular Hillsdale is no less, no more, than the others. It contains the usual center of business activity clustering about a rather modern hotel. One of its livery stables has been remodelled into a moving-picture house, the other into a garage; one of its newspapers has become a daily, the other still holds to a Friday issue. In its outlying districts will be found hitching racks before the stores. Altogether, Hillsdale might be said to be "on the fence," with one leg toward progressiveness, the other still lingering in the past.
Its residences have not grown beyond the rambling, mellow kind, that drowse in poetic languor amidst flowering vines and trees. These trees, that also line the streets, meeting in cathedral arches overhead, might be stately elms of New England, poplars of the middle-west, or live-oaks of the south; for it must be strictly borne in mind that Hillsdale is "somewhere in the United States."
One mild day in early April, 1917, in the side yard of a corner house well away from traffic noises, two trim little women, Miss Sallie and Miss Veemie Tumpson, were delicately uncovering their tulip beds when Colonel Hampton, passing on his way down town, stopped and raised his hat. An imperceptible agitation rustled their conventional exteriors, since it was an occasion of pleasure when Colonel Hampton paused at anyone's fence. They noticed, however, that his usual geniality was lacking; that the kindly seams in his face were set into lines of sternness.
"Well, m'em," he thundered, "their damned outrages continue!"
Miss Sallie gasped and stared at him, while her more timid sister was too much taken aback to move. In the forty-odd years of their acquaintance with this agreeable product of the mid-Victorian era, this was the first time they had heard an oath pass his lips—without an immediate apology; and the apology had not been forthcoming.
"Yes, m'em," he cried, striking the ferrule of his cane on the sidewalk, "their damned outrages continue!"
"Why, Colonel," Miss Veemie faltered, "whatever can have happened?" She was a trifle deaf, but she had no difficulty whatever in understanding the irate gentleman before her.
"Colonel Hampton," Miss Sallie, as was her habit, took the offensive, "what do you mean, sir!"
"Mean enough, and happened enough!" The cane again added emphasis. "Those German vipers have torpedoed another of our ships! The de-humanized outcasts, the blood-crazed toads, have wantonly destroyed more American lives! I tell you, m'em, our President is getting damned tired of it, and we'll have war as certain as your tulips are sure to be the fairest in our proud city, m'em!"
The cheeks of the little ladies flushed at this dull prophecy, but for quite a minute the three remained silent.
"Mercy, I hope not," Miss Veemie sighed at last—meaning the war, of course. "It's terrible!"
"And peace can be terrible," the Colonel thundered. "A country that buys peace at the price of dishonor is no better than a frump who sells her soul for gewgaws and furbalows! When posterity shall read of how the diseased mind of a single lunatic has stabbed history's richest pages with a sword of murder, rapacity and lust, it will turn a lip of contempt toward every nation that stood upon a vacuous neutrality. To hell with neutrality, when a madman stalks abroad!"
Miss Veemie now felt that she had been silenced for the rest of time, and Miss Sallie's delicate hands, incongruously housed in heavy garden gloves, became expressive of horrified amazement.
"What?" he demanded, looking more than ever furious.
The little ladies jumped, and Miss Sallie made haste to say:
He eyed them for a moment; not suspiciously, but with anger at everything in the universe—themselves, perhaps, excepted.
"Where's Jeb?" he asked.
"He went into the country again with his rifle this morning," Miss Sallie answered. "He feels as you do, Colonel, that the time has come to strike and we must be preparing for it."
"But I wish you'd speak to him," Miss Veemie imploringly added. "He's bent on getting ready and being among the first, if the time comes, and—and——"
"And he'll do it in splendid style, rest assured of it, m'em! Jeb will make a fine soldier!—he comes from a line of soldiers!"
Tears filled Miss Veemie's eyes.
"We've never seriously thought that Jeb——" she began, but could get no farther and relapsed into a sorrowful contemplation of the tulip bed.
"There, there; I know, I know," the old gentleman interrupted gently. "I know how you feel about him; I know how you've both been more than mothers to him!"
"We've done our best," there was a tightness in Miss Sallie's voice. "He never remembered his own mother, and was so little when dear brother Jebediah died."
"I know, I know," he murmured. "How old is Jeb?"
Another silence fell upon them. Then the Colonel sighed, turned and started on his way downtown, still muttering to himself as he went:
"I know, I know. All the same, that Kaiser's a damned murderer, and we've got to smash him if it takes the last drop of blood in Hillsdale; yes, sir, the last precious drop!" So by the time he reached the hotel his step was vigorous and the ferrule of his cane struck the sidewalk with military precision. Fifty-three years ago he had marched that way with Grant—or was it with Lee? Hillsdales do spread over such a lot of territory!
"Did you ever!" Miss Sallie gasped, breaking the silence.
"Sakes alive," Miss Veemie whispered, calling upon her nearest approach to profanity. But they continued to stare after him, by unspoken accord moving to the fence and leaning over it, farther and farther, to keep him in sight as long as possible.
It was while they were so occupied that a girl stepped out upon the side veranda. She hesitated an instant, poising lightly in surprise at their rather unusual attitudes, and biting her lips to keep from laughing outright. Then coming down into the garden, she asked:
"Is the parade in sight yet?"
Turning, they rushed at her.
"Marian! When did you get home? How did you get in without our seeing you?"
Her parasol fell to the ground before their onslaught of affectionate greetings, as they held her off, only to draw her close to them.
"Why," she laughed, somewhat out of breath, "the front door was open—as usual; so I came on through—as usual—looking for you!"
"When did you get home?" they insisted. "Is it really you?"
"You little dears," she cried. "Oh, but it's good to see you!"
"But when did you come?"
"And you're going to stay?"
"Hm-hm," she laughed, kissing them upon the cheeks. "I suppose I'll have to, unless Daddy has a change of heart and lets me go to France."
"France, nonsense! Stand off, and let's see you," Miss Sallie commanded. "My! My! And you're really a trained nurse?"
"Really a trained nurse," she answered enthusiastically.
"I could never understand why you wanted to be," Miss Veemie faltered, looking at her as though she were convinced that contact with the big cities and hospitals and surgical cases must surely have left an unfavorable impress. "But you haven't changed—I do believe! Why, child, you're even prettier! Is that taffeta, my dear? How much did you pay for it?"
"Sister Veemie," Miss Sallie interrupted with a shade of annoyance, "for pity sake don't begin to talk dresses—though it is becoming, my dear," she turned to Marian. "Have you seen Jeb?"
The girl hesitated, yet not exactly in embarrassment, and answered slowly:
"No. Is he well?"
"More than well—and simply daft with his preparations for the war!"
"Preparations for the war?" she asked, not understanding.
"Why, my child, he goes into the country every day to shoot his rifle, he's so in earnest! I do believe that if Congress could hear half he thinks about the insults we are forced to swallow, they'd declare war to-morrow!"
"Sister Sallie thinks he should have been named Patrick Henry," Miss Veemie sighed, "but I'm sure I can't imagine why! Jebediah is much prettier."
Miss Sallie ignored this, and in a more confidential tone continued:
"When he was a little boy, a fortune teller said——"
"Oh, I know," Marian laughed, "—said he might be President some day!"
"Well, my dear, I really shouldn't wonder! But, oh, why have you stayed away from us so long! Did nursing take so much time to learn? Now that you're back," her voice grew tender, "I do hope you and Jeb—well, you know that it was your dear mother's wish, and his dear mother's wish, Marian."
"Please don't," the girl interrupted hastily. "I've heard that a thousand times. Besides, Jeb and I were only four months old when our mothers died; and besides that," she smiled prettily, "Jeb has surely recovered from his silly notions by now."
"Jeb will entertain whatever notions I tell him to," Miss Sallie declared with vigor.
"Then I don't want to see him," Marian laughed, though with not enough conviction, perhaps, to keep Miss Sallie from darting a look of encouragement at her sister, who, failing to understand it, observed:
"Colonel Hampton just passed before you came; did you see him?"
"No!—bless his old heart! How is he?—quite as foolishly angry with my father as ever, I suppose?"
"He's not all to blame for that." Miss Sallie compressed her lips. "Your father, my dear, is as good a hater as he is an editor."
"Which is going some," Marian laughed.
"Going how?" Miss Veemie asked, protestingly.
"I must say," Miss Sallie interposed, "that the Colonel has been a devoted friend to Jeb!"
"And I'm devoted to the Colonel," Marian quickly replied, as though her loyalty had been challenged. "You both know how I've deplored that quarrel—why, it started long, long before I was born, and I'm sure they've forgotten its origin!"
"Politics! Wretched politics," Miss Sallie sighed. "I've often thought, my child, how easily you might re-cement their friendship." She looked wistfully at the girl, who asked in all sincerity:
"The Colonel is so fond of Jeb, and you are your father's only child! Can't you just fancy them clasping hands beneath a wedding bell of beautiful lilies?"
"It's easier to fancy them quarreling again the next day! No," she began to laugh delightedly, "if you're so set on having a wedding, marry them to each other; then they can fuss to their heart's content and nobody will mind. There, forgive me!" she cried, putting her arms about Miss Veemie, who was taking this seriously, and almost gasping for breath, "I was horrid to joke about it! But you mustn't let Miss Sallie put those silly thoughts on Jeb and me, really! Remember, I've been away two years—two years this very sixth of April—and see how we've both improved!"
There might have been a slight suspicion of yearning that somehow got into her voice as she said this; at any rate, Miss Sallie thought so, and wisely decided to let the subject rest awhile.
Marian walked to the fallen parasol, picked it up and opened it.
"I suppose I ought to be going," she said. "Father expects me about twelve. Your tulips are looking well, for this early," she continued evenly. "Do you still have the scarlet ones in this bed? And, oh, I wonder if I can see the courthouse clock from your fence, as I used to!"
She leaned over the pickets, looking; then glanced up the street in the other direction. Miss Sallie did not miss the significance of this, and smiled.
"What time is it?" she asked, as Marian turned around.
"I—I really; isn't that funny? I've forgotten!" And to hide a very genuine embarrassment she leaned again over the pickets; glancing, as before, up and down the street where the courthouse was, and was not, but now giving a little exclamation of pleasure.
"He's coming! Your spoiled nephew is at the corner."
She glanced at Miss Sallie, and found that little lady beaming pleasantly with a "bless you, my children," countenance that sent the blood flying to her cheeks. She felt suddenly afraid to stay and face the man from whom, at the last moment and as a last resort, she had fled to keep from giving a certain answer to his insistent pleadings. She knew that he would plead again, even after two years of waiting; and, in a sense, she wanted him to plead, though not just at this spot, nor until she had gathered up her forces with which she might artfully resist him awhile longer.
"Well, goodbye, everybody," she said quickly. "I must hurry downtown."
"Without seeing Jeb?" Miss Sallie exclaimed.
"Oh, I'll see him soon. We can't escape each other very long in Hillsdale," she laughed.
"But, my child, it will only be a minute! You surely——"
Jeb, having entered by the front way, was now heard whistling as he came through the house, and the next moment he stepped out on the side veranda; then stopped, crying joyously:
"Hello, Jeb," she said, advancing with a candor that belied the look Miss Sallie had surprised half a minute before.
"Oh, Jeb," Miss Veemie glided toward him, "I've been so worried for fear your gun had exploded and done something! Are you tired, dear?"
This adulation had been a daily occurrence in Jeb's life since he was four years old, when these adoring aunts had taken him beneath their roof. Usually he met it half way, but now, with an indifference that in a moment of less excitement would have been pronounced, he passed her and caught Marian's hand, crying:
"This is a surprise! Did you drop out of the trees?"
"That savors horribly of monkeys, Jeb," she laughed, quietly withdrawing her hand. "You used to do better!"
"I meant to ask how long since you dropped down from heaven, angel," he smiled. "My word, but you're looking fit! For a three times winner, you just about take the cake!"
"Cake, dear?" Miss Veemie sweetly inquired. "Certainly you shall!" And, turning, she hurried busily into the house, Miss Sallie following with an expression about her mouth which said as plainly as words that her well-meaning sister would not emerge with cake, or anything else, to interrupt a tete-a-tete so promising.
Jeb waited until they had quite disappeared, then he crossed to Marian, asking soberly:
"Why did you run away, just when you promised to tell me what I wanted to hear?—and why didn't you answer my letters?"
"I wonder," she said, turning toward the flower beds, "if the tulips will be in bloom soon! I'd so love to see them again!"
He laughed tenderly, but persisted:
"Why did you run away?—why didn't you answer my letters?"
"Oh, those things happened two years ago, Jeb. Haven't you advanced at all?—do you always live in the past like a silly old man? You didn't write but three times, anyway!"
"Good Lord, how many times did you expect me to write without getting an answer?" he cried.
"Oh," she answered indifferently, "as many times as you thought it was worth doing. I might have answered the fourth; one can never tell about those things. Miss Sallie says you're getting ready to fight, Jeb. Are you thinking of going over to join the British or French?"
"Not for me," he laughed, disregarding, somewhat to her surprise, the subject of letters and answers. "They can peg along with their own scrap; I'm getting in shape for this country, if it becomes involved! You ought to see the hikes I take, Marian! Twelve miles in a forenoon—easy! And my shooting is really—look here!" He began fumbling in his pocket and brought out several paper targets which he unfolded and held before her. "What d'you think of that for three hundred yards!—five centers! Here's the four hundred!—look, Marian! Isn't it a peach? By Jove, if ever I get a crack at those Huns, there'll be a few less!"
From the targets, over which he was now bending in feverish interest, she glanced up at him without being observed, her face somewhat puzzled. She felt extremely gratified that Jeb had made these perfect scores, and her spirit thrilled with his martial fervor; but, on the other hand, he had just been talking about a certain question which she had evaded two years ago by running away to take a hospital course in nursing, and it seemed to her that he was dismissing it rather abruptly. Yet she knew Jeb's temperament, as any girl will know a man with whom she has been a play-fellow since childhood; and, although hardly prepared for it just at this moment, she read aright that his love of self, his thirst for praise, had in no wise diminished. Had she been asked for a direct answer she could have told that his enthusiasm for target practice in the woods, where for hours he pretended to be shooting Germans, was vital to his abnormally active imagination; for Jeb, although a giant in strength and a god in grace, possessed the brow and eyes of an inveterate dreamer.
Formerly his dreams had run to adventure of a milder form, sometimes to verse, once or twice or thrice or more to love. He had, as a matter of fact, for short periods loved nearly all the girls in Hillsdale who were pretty enough, and clever enough; never becoming really serious—unless it was with her! But she had laughed at him then, sympathetically and sweetly, reminding him that they had grown up together, besides being each of them twenty-four.
Not that she believed these were serious obstacles, but at the time they served; for, if the strict truth be told, Marian understood Jeb too well to confess how much she cared. His exceptional charm, fascinating her beyond anything she had experienced, was, on the other hand, marred by his inordinate vanity. His extreme courtesy, urban manner and quick instinct for thoughtful attentions to old and young alike, she read truly as superficial, rather than sincere, kindnesses. The casual acquaintance would not have discovered this—but Marian had grown up with him! She could love him, she had more than a hundred times told herself—God, yes! Alone in the nights when his warm bronze coloring of perfect health seemed near to her, she had admitted this. Yet by day she laughed at it; and laughed at Jeb. Thereupon Jeb had settled down in earnest to win her.
Miss Sallie and Miss Veemie had watched through a prayer-glass the beginning of that ardent affair. From their lofty place of vantage twenty-four and twenty-four might not have been quite suitable, but years could stand for naught against the tower of mental strength and character with which they knew Marian to be possessed. They would gladly have greeted her as one of themselves, one to mother Jeb, to see that he was warmly clothed and did not eat imprudently. He had always been a child to them! Many times, in the bygone days, Miss Sallie would hint at this ideal mating, till at last the daughter of Amos Strong had wrapped the little woman in her arms, saying sweetly that she preferred something in life besides "mothering an overgrown, selfish boy."
It had cost her something to say this, for in her heart she was just beginning to know how adoringly she could be these things and more to him. As a child she mothered him; at ten he bullied her; in their 'teens she had bossed and mothered him again! Love him? She admitted it through tears to her mirror—and yet, withal, she had understood him just a shade too well!
Then came the day—as such days will—when she was cornered, pinioned, made captive!—when she could no longer fight, and knew that surrender was but a matter of hours. Much of that night (she remembered every minute of it now!) she had lain awake watching her heart and her level judgment wage their last battle; and the next afternoon, an hour before he was to come, she quietly left for Baltimore, or New York—or it may have been Chicago—to take the course in nursing.
Her eyes now swept him with tenderness as the memory of that day came rushing back, but a shadow of disappointment crossed them as she saw that he was still looking, fascinated, at the proof of his skill. Was her return, after an absence of two years, so meaningless that he could be engrossed by a few sheets of inert paper while she stood within touch of him?
"You shoot very well, Jeb," she said, casually.
"Don't I though!" he cried. "See, Marian—here's the five hundred!"
"I should think," she said, glancing at it indifferently, "that you'd join the regular army."
"You bet I will, if the time ever comes when we've got to fight! I wouldn't ask for anything better! Gee, I wish we'd declare war to-morrow!"
"I rather think," she slowly replied, "that your wish is very near fulfillment, Jeb."
He turned quickly and stared at her.
"What makes you say that?" he asked, tensely.
Had her eyes been looking at him then she might have seen something in his drawn face and blanched cheeks that would have struck dismay into her very soul; but, as it was, she attributed the question purely and simply to his eagerness for service, and answered with a suggestion of sharpness that was not lost on him:
"Because there's a limit, Jeb, to the patience of a country, just as there is to the patience of men and women. Even the mildest of us reach the end of our endurance, sooner or later," she added, not knowing whether she wanted to laugh or be furious.
"Oh, come," he cried, squaring his shoulders. "I thought maybe you had some inside news from your father! Don't be a gloom, Marian! The war's three thousand miles away from us, and that's where it's going to stay—take my word for it!"
"But I thought you were crazy for it," she turned on him in surprise.
He shifted uneasily, but his voice rang strong and true as he answered:
"I am crazy for it! What d'you suppose I've been getting ready for all these months? But you leave wars and that sort of thing to us men! You haven't anything to do with 'em!"
"We have to nurse you in wars, Jeb, just as we do in times of peace," she laughed. "Really, I don't see how such big babies as some men I know can conduct a first class war, anyhow!"
This was the old Marian again; lightly bantering, deliciously good to look upon. He moved close to her, and asked earnestly:
"Why did you run away from me?"
"I wanted to be a nurse," she answered.
"But why did you decide so quickly to be a nurse?"
She hesitated, then smiled:
"It was better than the other alternative."
"Now that you are a nurse, can't you accept the other alternative, too? You know I want you just as much."
His voice, deep and resonant with a timbre that went to women's hearts, thrilled her delightfully. But she had not forgiven him for the paper target episode, wherein she had been pushed aside to make way for his skill. There were, moreover, plans that had been fermenting in her mind for many months—plans of which marriage should not be a part—and she answered him frankly:
"I really don't know at all, Jeb—I haven't had time to think. Of course, should our country get into this war, daddy has promised to let me go across at once; otherwise he insists that I can't. Still, if I go to France, you will, too, for that matter," she added brightly. Then the color flew to her cheeks. "Maybe when I saw you in uniform, Jeb, and realized that you—that we might neither of us get back, then I might—we might——"
She was looking down, unable to go farther without assistance; but he offered none, and they stood for several moments in absolute silence—for a quick spasm of fright had shot across his soul! The sublimity of her partial surrender, contingent only upon his transportation to a foreign battlefield, suddenly brought the war from three thousand miles away to his very door. But his next feeling was one of self-contempt, and squaring his shoulders with a jerk he said:
"I love your pluck! Then it's all settled."
"Oh, it isn't all settled by a great deal," she laughed; but, seeing his face, gasped in mock astonishment. "Heavens! Which is making you look so like a ghost—marriage or war?"
"They're quite synonymous," he replied, trying to match her banter. "May I speak to your illustrious father?"
"That reminds me that I've an engagement with him right now," she exclaimed. "For the present, you may say good-bye to Miss Sallie and Miss Veemie for me."
With a pretty smile and toss of her head she swept him a little courtesy, then turned to the gate, but he called after her:
"Wait! I'll go with you—and show him my targets!"
She stopped, looking back as though she had not heard aright.
"Targets?" she asked, slightly arching her brows.
"Why, these, of course," he cried, drawing them again from his breast pocket. "I always hunt him up, or the Colonel, when I've made a cracker-jack score! It tickles 'em to death!"
He sprang to the gate and held it open for her to pass, apparently having forgotten everything but a desire to reap praise from one or the other of these old gentlemen; who in their turns, although separately, had never failed to be genially appreciative. The flavor of war, which filled the air as a restless spirit since diplomatic relations with Germany had come to an end—the numb fear with which he had been obsessed but a moment ago—were completely relegated to the limbo of forgetfulness as he now issued forth in search of praise wherewith to feed his vanity.
Whenever it so happened that he failed to get a sufficient amount of this from one or the other of these men, or from his adoring aunts, he drew it from himself. He could not have named a night for months that he had fallen asleep without first thinking of the splendid soldier he would make. He would let his imagination run riot and live through battle after battle, leading his men intrepidly—men who loved the very ground on which he trod. Into the thickest places where old veterans could not have stood the gaff, he went with calm indifference. Victory followed victory—complete, hilarious victories! Dead Germans, prisoners, and cannon which Jeb flung into the game bag of his waking dreams, if put side by side, would have reached around the world.
'Tis true, that this top-lofty state of mind suffered a complete relapse when Bernstorff got his papers, and for the first time Jeb seriously felt the cold fingers of fear reach out and touch him. It had been a peculiar change, that for awhile startled him more than the imminence of war. He might have been thrilled over the wild race, the reckless dash, as of unbridled horses, with which a nation long in suspense hurtled toward a finality; but it was an elation thoroughly dampened by dread. As the days had passed, however, and nothing more terrible happened, his courage came creeping back, even growing into modest bravado. Excursions to the country with his rifle became frequent again. He began to feel himself stiffen-up when Miss Sallie would tell a neighbor how he was getting ready for the possible war; this neighbor told other neighbors, and he was soon basking in admiring looks which were as meat and drink to him. It was on this crest of popularity that Marian found him when she returned to Hillsdale.
With a face utterly devoid of expression she watched him now while he held back the gate with one hand while trying to stuff the bulkily folded targets into his pocket.
"Maybe you'd rather carry them, Marian," he said, "and we can look at them again on the way downtown!"
She did not answer.
"I always take them down to your father, you know," he said again.
"I should think daddy would be immensely flattered," she observed, passing out to the street.
Scarcely had the gate closed after them when Miss Sallie and Miss Veemie, guilt written in every line of their radiant faces, tiptoed from the house, stepped into the garden and ran to the fence. As they had formerly done while watching Colonel Hampton stalk angrily townward, they now, also, leaned farther and farther over the pickets, keeping the young people who comprised their hope in view to the very last.
Colonel Hampton, after leaving the Tumpson sisters in a fog of astonishment, did not pause at the hotel and sink into the porch chair that had become his by right of daily occupation. This morning his mind was set upon greater things. Affectionate greetings from passing friends hardly checked him, and he strode deliberately onward to the office of the Hills County Eagle, the daily, owned and edited by Amos Strong—a long ago friend, although for twice a score of years his most unrelenting political foe. There had been a time when the town prophesied a "meeting" between these two, but their enmity had finally congealed into nothing more deadly than complete estrangement.
Now, indifferent to a look of consternation on a reporter's face, the Colonel stamped across the "city room," glared around until he saw a glass door marked "editor," pushed it violently open without knocking and closed it after him. This had not happened in the reporter's memory; it had, on the other hand, been just the thing everybody feared might come to pass.
The grizzled editor did not immediately look up; yet, when he did, his astonishment was complete, and his ever alert mind reviewed the Eagle's recent utterances to discover if therein lay a reason for this visit. Recalling nothing of particular belligerency—at any rate, nothing against the Colonel—he said crisply:
"Take a seat, Colonel Hampton."
"Colonel Hampton will never take a seat in your office, sir," his caller thundered, greatly emphasizing "Colonel Hampton." And, answering a further look of perplexity in the editor's face that now betrayed a growing anger, he continued jerkily: "We're coming very near to war, sir; this country, our country, against those sickening anti-Christs who bayonet children, rape women, and wantonly torture unto death defenseless men—and boast of it, sir; gloat over it! It'll be our country against that polluted swamp of slimy creatures, sir; and in our country there shall be neither Democrats nor Republicans! Politics be damned, sir! Until those breeders of paresis—those Hohenzollern upstarts who, as God is my witness, are the vomit of hell—shall be stripped of their freedom, you and I cast our vote for Humanity! Amos, I want to take your hand, and I want you to take mine!"
Mr. Strong sprang to his feet and his chair fell heavily to the floor. It was this alarming noise that reached the listening reporter's ear and brought him in haste to his chief's aid; yet when he had pushed open the door, unnoticed by those within, he drew quickly back and tiptoed to his desk. There are some things at which even a reporter may not gaze.
"Do you agree with me that there should and will be war, Roger?" Mr. Strong was saying half an hour later. They were comfortably settled now, with cigars alight, and except for slight traces where tears had marked their cheeks no one would have suspected aught but a lifetime of congeniality.
"Both should and will, Amos! It is one of the few expressions in your columns with which I have thoroughly concurred."
Mr. Strong burst into a merry laugh and waved the handkerchief that was still in his hand, crying:
"Truce, truce! You forget, Roger!"
"So I do, so I do, Amos! We sha'n't open the old wounds again—at least, not so long as our country is in need of cohesion. My anger, I assure you, was never as great as my amazement that one of your talents could—but there, there! I may have been somewhat wrong, also—as a matter of fact, Amos, I shouldn't be surprised if that were so! Tell me of Marian! When is she coming back to us again?"
A look of new pleasure crossed the editor's grizzled face as he answered:
"She got home last night, Roger—and the first thing she did was to ask about you, whom she believed I hated!" Again he laughed, with a buoyancy that had not been in his voice for many years.
"She did that?" the Colonel cried, his eyes filling with tears. "God bless her! She's a noble girl, worthy of her noble father! Do you know, Amos, I'm beginning to believe that she showed extraordinary foresight in taking that training! Why, even I considered it a romantic waste of time,—and so did you, Roger," he turned accusingly. "Admit it!"
"I did, but I wanted to humor her; for the purpose was noble, and it does a girl no harm. But I hope she won't hold me to a foolish promise I made, to let her go across should we become involved in this titanic struggle."
"God guide her aright," the Colonel whispered; to which his old friend murmured:
"I stopped by the Tumpson's," the Colonel resumed, after they had been for a moment silent. "Miss Sallie tells me that Jeb is out again with his rifle, as usual, and is showing more eagerness to be ready. I believe all our young men will respond nobly if the President calls for volunteers."
"Without a doubt of it, Roger; and Jeb ought to make a fine soldier—although he's had no military training."
"Well, no; but he's a handsome fellow, and a gentleman, and his father was our friend, Amos. I can coach him, and give him a pretty fair idea of what war is like."
"There's some talk of schools being inaugurated for teaching such chaps as he, should the struggle really come; schools where the most approved methods of modern warfare will be demonstrated by our regularly qualified officers."
"Schools be damned, sir," the Colonel thundered. "What school, what infant West Pointer, is qualified better than I, who fought my weight in wildcats four successive years!—or you, sir, who I've no doubt fought well, too, although under the banner of a——"
"Truce, truce!" Mr. Strong cried, this time laughing till tears of pleasure ran down his cheeks. "At Shiloh, Roger, you knew how to honor a truce, for I carried the flag to you myself—and you weren't old enough to raise a mustache, either!"
"So you did, Amos; so you did—and, by gad, your cheeks were as smooth as a girl's, too!" the Colonel's voice dropped to the softness of reminiscence, growing harsh again as he added: "If I temporarily forget the rules of honorable warfare, it's because my memory has been corrupted by the vileness of those Outcasts who, in their ego-mania, blaspheme the Almighty God by claiming kinship with Him. I wish you and I could go over there and clean up that pestilential Prussian herd! By gad, sir, they've the hoof and mouth disease, each confounded one of them! Whenever I think of them I get rush of blood to the head!"
"And rush of words to the tongue, Roger," the editor added, good naturedly. "But, my friend, such blasts of hatred are too German to be acceptable. We're not a nation of small venom!"
"I don't give a cracky whether we are or not! Those rag-tag and bobtail vermin are calling us names!—and, if I can't fight, by gad, I'll cuss back!"
"No, you won't, and be part of the big, conquering nation that you are. Those 'hymns of hate' don't affect England!—neither do the scores of lewd verses that flow like filth all over Germany! They are merely the wails of disappointed people, Roger,—the shrieks of a cruelly tricked national soul! Let them pass!"
"Disappointed people fiddle-sticks!—and I say that it's a tragic mistake to let anything pass! The most dangerous propaganda waged by German spies in this country—more alarming in its results thus far than the blowing up of munition factories, the setting afire of grain elevators, the enciting of Mexico—has been the honorless skill with which they have fed the American mind upon the idea of a disgruntled Germany, a starving Germany, and all such twaddle! Can't you see why such tales are being circulated? Simply to inject into our minds the poison of national inertia, so that when war comes—as it some day shall—every fellow will be likely to think: 'Oh, it can't last long now!—let the other boys get ready; I haven't time!'"
"I hadn't thought of that, Roger."
"Then think of it now; and, furthermore, remember this, Amos: that no sooner will war be declared before their propaganda will go one step farther. Do you know what it will be? Peace talk! Crumbling Germany ready to make terms! Why? Simply to keep filling our systems with more of the national inertia poison—to keep us retarded—to keep us from dashing into the big game with every fibre quivering, and our souls afire to finish it up! Berlin's hope is that while America grows sleek with too much optimism, Germany will grow stronger to prolong her insolent and murderous campaign. Open your columns, Amos, and shout these truths broadcast—for therein will rest the salvation of our country! Germany poor in food or munitions?—fiddle-sticks! The German people disgruntled?—twaddle!"
"Where do you get this idea?" Mr. Strong looked at him in amazement.
"Out of my good, common horse-sense brain! You recall that story of the German Government confiscating the people's copper utensils and taking copper from the roofs of buildings, to keep up the manufacture of ammunition? Any school boy should have known that they didn't appropriate one copper pot, nor lift an inch of copper roofing, when the vast mines of Sweden pour their enormous output—not only of copper, but of unrivaled iron ore—in almost a continuous stream from Stockholm to Luebeck Bay; and von Capelle's fleet is there to see it safely across, too! The cry came forth that they were short of cotton for explosives—and that cry was sent out on the very day a national holiday had been proclaimed to celebrate their discovery of a method by which all types of high explosives can be made without cotton! Why, Amos, lying is a fine art with that government! I read in your own paper a long and pathetic ditty, cabled from Amsterdam, about 'starving Germany!' Don't you know that, with the millions of deported Belgians, Serbians, and Poles—to say nothing of the war prisoners—Germany should have this year a larger acreage under cultivation than at any time since the Confederation? They know how to farm intensively over there, and get their fertilizer, as they have already been getting their fats—from their own dead. These are but the beginnings of other things our common sense would teach us, were we not hypnotized with a morbid craving to swallow their neatly prepared fairy-tales!"
"Roger," Mr. Strong sprang to his feet, "by the eternal, you speak inspired words! They have poisoned us with lies of a starving Imperial Government; they'll continue to poison us with lies of an early peace—and then prepare fresh blows while we wallow in our self-complaisance! Open my columns? They'll blaze as columns of righteous fire!" Leaning forward, he added: "Why shouldn't we be getting ready here in Hillsdale? There's fine material for a company of militia! Will you join with me in equipping one?"
The Colonel banged his hand down on the table.
"Done!" he cried.
"And there," the editor continued, pointing out of the window, "is the captain for it!"
In an instant the Colonel was upon his feet, looking across the street to where his old friend pointed.
"Jeb!—and Marian!" he added, his voice ringing with delight. "Which is going to be the captain, Amos?" he chuckled. "By Gad, they're coming up! He'll make a fine officer!"
But Amos Strong was looking tenderly at the girl; then he turned and caught the Colonel's hand, crying:
"Roger, we'll set the pace for every city and town throughout our country. We'll equip the company, so it'll be ready to go at the first crack—and Jeb will be a credit!"
"One who'll capture hearts as well as Huns, I'll warrant—if he's not already a helpless prisoner!"
The two old men looked at each other and smiled, and it was while they were in this attitude that Marian and Jeb entered.
She stopped on the threshold, scarcely believing her eyes; and Jeb, looking over her head, was no less mystified. That these two sworn enemies should be standing there, holding hands in all friendliness, surpassed the miraculous.
The men had turned cordially to welcome her, but hesitated at the amazement that was pictured in her face. Their reconciliation had been so spontaneously genuine that it seemed already to be a thing of long standing, and they did not penetrate Marian's embarrassment until she timidly advanced, asking:
"Is it all right for us to come in, Daddy? Were you and Colonel Hampton really shaking hands?"
He approached swiftly and took her in his arms, turning to the Colonel and repeating the girl's question:
"Were we really shaking hands, Roger?"
"By gad, Amos, we've been shaking hands every day for forty years, only we didn't know it!"
"You should have come in before, Roger."
"How, in thunder, could I come in, when your perverted editorial columns were——"
"Stop!" Marian cried, running to him and throwing her arms about his neck. "Do you want it to begin all over again, just when I have you both together for the first time in my life?"
But her father laughed good-naturedly, knowing that as soon as he called "Truce!" the irate Colonel would subside.
"How in the world did it happen?" she asked, still clinging to the Colonel's neck and looking up into his eyes which were fast growing moist with tears of happiness. "Tell me at once, which of you was generous enough to make the first move?"
"Poof and nonsense!" he exclaimed, trying to frown upon her severely. "There was no generosity about it! I reckon Amos and I know where each other lives!"
"You'll tell me, Daddy," she turned to him. "Which of you big babies was big enough——"
"Don't tell her a thing, Amos," the Colonel thundered, getting red.
"So you're the one, then," she smiled up at him. "I'm going to call you Uncle Roger!"—and she kissed him.
"I wish she'd call me Uncle Jeb," came a half sigh from across the table.
"She'll be calling you Captain Jeb,—eh, Roger?" Mr. Strong laughed. "Tell them about it!"
"Oh," the Colonel said, wiping his glasses, "my best friend, here, has proposed that he and I recruit a company of soldiers, equip it, and have it ready for business. Jeb is to be its captain."
"You mean uniforms, and everything?" Jeb cried.
"Uniforms and everything," Mr. Strong emphatically answered. "The story will run in to-morrow's Eagle, and we'll take recruits right here in this office, where Colonel Hampton—your Uncle Roger," he pinched Marian's cheek, "will have charge. We'll wire Washington for a hundred and fifty equipments, and be drilling by this time next week. Now, what do you think about it?"
"I'm crazy about it," Jeb shouted; and Marian, catching his hands, cried:
"Captain Jeb! I'm as proud of you as I can be!"
His eyes were sparkling as he gazed down at her; his vivid imagination had lost no time picturing the khaki-clad lads, with him at their head, marching, drilling, and doing all manner of things of which he could not have told the names but had seen in the movies. She gloried in his enthusiasm, and squeezed his hands again, whispering:
"I'm proud of you!"
"There must be books and manuals and the like in Washington," the Colonel was saying, "which teach the duties of a captain; so we'll wire for them, also. Then I'll coach you, Jeb; I'll make an officer out of you, you young cub!"
More and more each of them had caught the spirit. Jeb's eyes danced; his pulse was bounding; his dreams of military splendor were coming true. Marian had clasped her hands and rather worshipfully stared at him. Mr. Strong stood with legs apart, looking him over with unfeigned admiration; while the Colonel, also gazing, unconsciously drummed a marching tattoo with his fingers on the table.
It all seemed so easy! With the simple faith of men who implicitly believed the War Department would suspend business to fulfil their wishes, they decided to order uniforms and wire the Hillsdale representative to dash out in search of books. Jeb would absorb the books and become a captain; the Colonel, ensconced in Mr. Strong's room, would recruit the company, which, in turn, would don the uniforms and make Hillsdale gasp at its brilliant efficiency. Flags would wave, citizens would applaud, and the President would send a message of fervent congratulations. That was the way it seemed to Jeb. He did not dream of the nearness of the war, which had been viewed by him, as by millions of others, as a mirage far off beyond the seas. Now he spoke in a voice that trembled with pride:
"I'll make it a company of sharpshooters in no time; for, if there's one thing I can do, it's shoot! Look at my last targets!" he cried, drawing them from his pocket.
Meanwhile, the key out in the telegraph room began an agitated ticking. It was too early for "A.P. stuff," but the reporter recognized, by long association, sounds resembling the Eagle's call. Now he heard the operator give a low whistle, and that, also, from long association, he knew meant "flash!" so he sauntered back and sat on the table, waiting. In another moment he burst into Mr. Strong's room, thrusting a message across the targets which Jeb had just unfolded.
The editor read it and caught his breath, then passed it over to his friend, with the brief remark to all:
The Colonel sprang up as if electrified. Standing at full height he clasped both hands above his face and fervently cried:
"Thank God! The honor of our country is vindicated!"
War! Jeb felt suddenly sick and dizzy. The targets which had meant so much to him, taking on a lustre as if they were jewels in his crown of pride, and passports to a military future, became gray and sordid. He hated them, he hated everything they stood for, and, seeing the eyes of Marian and her father fixed upon the Colonel, he surreptitiously dropped them to the floor, pushing them farther out of sight beneath the table with his foot.
"War!" Marian gasped, as though she were struggling to take in the full significance of this startling news. Then she flew to the editor and wrapped him in her arms, saying excitedly: "Oh, Daddy, remember your promise! I'm going!—I'm going! You said I could if it ever came!—and I'm all ready, Daddy dear, for the very first boat that leaves!"
The Colonel could not have told why, but suddenly he burst into tears, coughed, made a great fuss pulling himself together, and thundered:
"War! War on the damnedest hierachy of fiends—if I may use the term—the world has ever known! And we're going to thrash 'em if it takes the last drop of blood in Hillsdale; yes, sir, the very last drop! You, Jeb, will now lead your company into the thick of it! Lord, boy, but I envy you!"
Marian left her father and ran to Jeb.
"Oh, just think!—maybe we can go on the same——" She stopped short, frightened at the appearance of his face. She tried to finish the sentence, but stammered over it as though her eyes, dilated with horror, were holding her tongue captive by what she saw.
Amos Strong had turned and was looking out of the window, overcome by the far-reaching consequences of his promise made half thoughtlessly two years before, and he therefore did not see the mute tragedy being played behind him; but the Colonel missed none of it, although his faith in Jeb was too deeply rooted to be shaken. He merely believed that his young friend had been shocked—for the moment shocked—and nothing more; a belief which he considered justified when Jeb, calling upon every ounce of the Tumpson pride, forced his knees to stiffen and his lips to smile.
Marian approached him.
"Jeb," she said, laughing a little hysterically, "you frightened me."
"How?" he turned to her slowly, still hammering himself into better control.
"Never mind now! Some day I'll offer you an apology."
Although she was still laughing, the Colonel saw at once what had been passing in her mind. It was an unfair suspicion, he thought, one unworthy of her, and for an instant his anger flamed. He'd show her what kind of stuff the son of his old friend was made of! He'd make her repent bitterly, by letting her realize that, once in France, Jeb might be lost to her forever! It was a cruelty unlike the Colonel, but he was mad through and through. To touch Jeb's honor was akin to touching his own. So he joined in laughing with her, and exclaimed:
"Jeb, your company will get the pick of it, for it's always the first boys over who draw the primest fighting—and you ought to be on the firing line by June! Think of that, sir! Why, it'll be another case of Kitchener's first hundred thousand—you'll get chewed up into little bits! Gad, but I envy you! Why, I'll bet a cooky there isn't a fellow in your company who comes out with both legs! It's an opportunity of a life time, sir!"
Had Jeb not been quick enough to know that Marian was closely watching him, he might have cried aloud for the Colonel to be quiet. The old gentleman's enthusiastic words, in contrast to Jeb's earlier vision of gay uniforms, flashing bayonets, flags, soft smiles and dewy eyes, made the picture of actual war take on a thousand new horrors. He felt sick; the next instant he hated himself—but, above all other things, these people must never suspect him!
In the midst of this depression, while he seemed to be standing on a slave-block, while critical eyes bored him for defects, he thought of somebody's prophecy that the war would be over by July. This was a very large straw for Jeb just then, so he grasped it eagerly, summoning another grin and saying with a tremendous effort to keep his voice steady:
"I wouldn't ask for a greater picnic—if we get there in time! But some people think Germany's about done for!"
"That's because Germany wants us to think so." Mr. Strong, still looking out of the window, flung the words over his shoulder. "It's a crafty part of their scheme to bait us—Roger has opened my eyes to that!"
"By gad," the Colonel exclaimed, immensely pleased by the editor's acknowledgment, "the war won't be over until the armies of William the Vile, the Prussian Outcast Emperor, are licked to a frazzle—and that's going to take five million of our men, a hundred billion of our dollars, and a damned sight longer than any year, or two years, or three years; you can bet your last nickel on it!"
Marian gasped, and turned quickly away in order that he might not see her. She had not been as much affected by his words as by another look in Jeb's grinning, sickly face which made her want to run and hide—and cry. She, more than any of those present, could read his expressions like type in a book; yet in all justice to him she had never before seen an indication of cowardice and, impulsively loyal, desiring only to rescue him in time so that the Colonel might not find him out, she swung upon the old fellow's arm, saying gaily:
"He's unhappy thinking he won't get a chance!—that's what's the matter, Uncle Roger!"
But even this new and affectionate title of "Uncle Roger" did not at once penetrate the old gentleman's mind. His eyes, which had been fixed on Jeb with an expression of hopefulness, were now studiously looking at the floor. Rather hysterically, Marian caught the lapels of his coat and put her face directly in his range of vision, crying:
"That's what it is!—I know it, Uncle Roger! Please understand me!"
"Sure, that's what it is," Jeb shouted forcefully, seeing the brink upon which he had been standing, and making an heroic effort to act the part of a man. "Sure it is," he repeated, with even more emphasis. "I don't care how long the darned old war lasts!—it's only how short it might last, that gets my goat!"
Marian was not deceived, but the Colonel, looking as though twenty years had been taken from his shoulders, swallowed it whole and struck the table sharply with his hand.
"By gad!" he cried, in a voice of thunder. "I know it, lad; I know it! For a second—why, by gad, sir!"
Mr. Strong turned from the window.
"What's the matter, Roger?" he asked.
Marian, seeing traces of tears upon his cheeks—and guessing well the reason—affectionately took his hand and pressed it to her lips. But her eyes were staring, somewhat fearfully, at the Colonel, who cleared his throat, looked at her steadily, and answered:
"I—I'd better be going now," Jeb suggested, "for Aunt Sallie and Aunt Veemie will want to hear the news."
"Tell them the town will be proud of you, my boy," Mr. Strong gave him a salute; and the Colonel, in his enthusiasm forgetting he had harbored a doubt of Jeb, shouted:
"And tell 'em I wouldn't be surprised if some day we put up a monument to you! When a fellow charges through hails of bullets, each singing him a lullaby, he never knows what instant one will come 'chunk!' into his stomach! Gad, but it's a great game! I envy you, boy! And I'm going to teach you all I know, so you'll be the best prepared officer that ever stepped on foreign soil. You'll know how to lean low while charging, sir, to escape some of the fire—for a man can keep on going with a hole in his arm, or leg, or maybe his face, but protect your stomach, sir! A hole through it brings on nausea, and nine times out of ten you'll have to sit down. Officers don't sit down, sir, till they're knocked down for keeps!"
Jeb had walked to the door, using all of his will power to shut out these words which had so nearly snapped the last thread of his waning courage. Thus far, he felt assured, no one in the room had suspected the turmoil that had well nigh driven him frantic. It was not cowardice, he told himself; merely a loss of self-control—for how could a chap remain calm while the old Colonel was shooting his stomach full of holes? His quick perception of situations made it clear that his exit now must remove whatever vestige of doubt there might have existed in the minds of those behind him, and, turning at the threshold, he laughed boisterously:
"I'll remember everything, Colonel! You just teach me how to do it, and between us the Huns'll get all their hides can hold!" He slammed the door, and was gone.
"I'd forgotten you were such a bloodthirsty old wildcat, Roger," Mr. Strong began to laugh.
"You've had no cause to," the Colonel looked humorously across at him. "But my bark in this case was worse than my bite. I merely wanted to stir the young man's ardor so that he'll be the more keen for a smell of powder. Did you note his eyes sparkling, Amos?—did you, Marian?"
Marian had not stirred during the Colonel's admonitions to Jeb. She had been sitting limply in her father's desk chair, looking at the targets which lay crumpled and forgotten beneath the table. Now she answered listlessly:
"Yes, I noticed it."
Her tone, as well as her attitude, caught the Colonel's attention and sobered him. He glanced toward Amos Strong, who had again turned to the window and, with hands crossed behind his back, was gazing down into the street; then whispered guardedly:
"You mustn't jump at conclusions, my dear little girl. Jeb's the soul of honor, and of courage; he's just a mite unstrung, that's all—why shouldn't he be?"
"Why do you think I'm jumping at conclusions?" she asked, smiling at him. "He ought to make a very fine soldier, and I'm sure he will."
"He will, indeed," the old fellow patted her cheek. "And now let me beg of you, for your dear father's sake, to let the honor of Hillsdale rest with Jeb, and you stay home here with us!"
"Oh, I couldn't stay home," she moved restlessly. "Don't put your plea on old daddy's account—it isn't fair! He has you, now," she added, trying to smile bravely. "Why, Uncle Roger, I was counting on you to support me!"
"There, there! I will, I will! When do you want to start?"
"To-day," she answered, again listlessly.
"To-day?" he cried in astonishment. "Why, my dear child——"
She sprang to her feet, fighting back tears, and faced him.
"Certainly to-day," she said quickly. "Aren't men falling to-day?—suffering and crying for help to-day? Are the Germans going to stop firing until I get there?—or any of us can get there? Don't you see the sooner everyone gets busy the sooner it will be over?—and can't you see that I—I can't stay here a minute longer than is absolutely necessary?" She looked down again at the fallen targets, and a little shiver seemed to pass over her; then she crossed to her father, tiptoed behind him and put her arms around his neck. "Your promise, Daddy?" she asked, tenderly.
He wheeled, almost savagely, and gathered her close to him, saying huskily:
"Your daddy never went back on a promise, dear."
"Damn those Hun outcasts!" the Colonel thundered, stamping from the room and banging the door after him.
Jeb had stepped out upon the street with heavy feet. There was a dull weight at his heart; a sickening weariness permeated his entire body. The Colonel's words of warning to protect his stomach, the suggestion of bullets ploughing through it, caused him to stop and loosen his belt, which had begun to feel uncomfortable. He even ran his had over that part of his anatomy and found that it seemed actually to be tender.
"What the hell's the matter with me?" he asked himself. "I'm no coward; there hasn't been a coward in my family since the Crusade. No, it's the Colonel's eternal cackling that's got my goat!"
Heartened somewhat, he continued at a faster pace and soon turned through the side gate, thence across the porch into the Tumpson home. Miss Sallie's voice from upstairs greeted him.
"Back safe, Jeb?"
The tenderness of her inquiry, subtly—though unintentionally—suggesting that the manor lord had returned and therefore the womenfolk must haste with ministering, greatly restored his self-esteem. Again the sword began to lose its tarnish; again it flashed in his hand with zest; again in imagination his company stepped off with the precision of regulars!
"War's declared," he shouted. "Colonel Hampton and Mr. Strong have patched up their fuss, and are going to recruit a company and make me captain. We'll be smashing the Germans inside a month!"
He wondered at the strength with which these last words were spoken, and was on the point of repeating them because their sound had caressed his pride, when Miss Sallie gave a cry.
"Sister Veemie," she called, "come with me quickly! War is declared, and our Jeb has been appointed to lead the soldiers! Oh, what shall become of us!"
The last symptoms of trepidation lingering in his make-up now disappeared entirely, and it was a tall, proud, imperious officer who stood in the front hall waiting for the little ladies who, hand-in-hand, came timidly down. Without speaking, Miss Veemie crossed to where he stood. She did not seem to walk, but glide, so smooth and gentle was her movement and the flow of her wide, rather old-fashioned skirt. Tiptoeing and putting her arms around his neck, she simply whispered:
"Pshaw, Aunt Veemie," he said, feeling delightfully heroic, "it isn't anything to take on about. We're at war, and at it for keeps!—that's all there is to it! I've been honored with a captaincy, and we'll be in France before July Fourth, and in Berlin by Thanksgiving. Think of that!"
Miss Sallie caught his sleeve.
"Oh, Jeb," she cried, "if your dear father had lived to hear you speak thus spiritedly!"
"We're so proud of you, dear," Miss Veemie whispered, her eyes gazing up at him through tears of adulation. "You'll try not to get hurt, won't you?" She admonished simply from force of habit.
It might have been a war god who dined in their home that evening. He was seated in Jeb's place, and on either side of him sat a seamed though gentle handmaiden, missing no opportunity to load his plate with good things. Their faded cheeks were tinged with a glow that had not been there in many years, their eyes sparkled with an almost forgotten light, and the lace on their narrow-breasted bodices rose and fell with an agitation that required at times a delicate hand to still.
The talk was of war, and Jeb handled the subject to his entire satisfaction. His highly strung mind drew pictures that more and more stirred their admiration—and horror. Working upon fragments of fact that from day to day had been printed in the Eagle, he built a structure of sacrifice and slaughter from which he alone arose supreme. It was a dramatic dissertation and contained red-blooded sentiments that would have done credit to a man who had actually played the giant game, swapped trick for trick with death, and won out by sheer luck.
Curiously enough, he believed himself; he believed that his moment of weakness earlier in the day had now passed into the limbo of things never to be resurrected; he believed that his courage was absolute, that no terrors were great enough to shake it. The ancient Egyptians brought a skeleton to their feasts to remind them of death, but Jeb's apparent familiarity with carnage seemed to be giving him new life.
A man may think he possesses a determined belief, yet unless he has energy and faith enough to test it he is harboring little more than a wish, a hope. If he is downright honest he will not permit himself to be deceived—but the trouble is that hopes which he wishes were beliefs, and wishes that he hopes will become beliefs, are blindfolds deliberately placed across his eyes to spare him an unrestricted vision of his naked soul. This is the most common type of cowardice in the world.
The brave words Jeb uttered were most agreeable to his senses; they fed the hole that should have been filled with courage, and he therefore plunged onward into the realm of imageries until the little ladies felt that they had never really known their Jeb. Certain were they that his manliness had received a most inadequate appreciation.
Dinner over, he left them for the quietude of the garden. Back and forth upon the path, bordered by wee budding tulips, he walked with springing steps. His gaze was in the laced branches overhead, a tangle that broke the calm flood of moonlight into silver patches and scattered them over the ground. Back and forth across these he strode—one moment in sharp outline, the next obscured—thinking, dreaming. He would not stop to hear the unspoken message of this place, whispering to him everywhere that the intricate mesh of branches represented Fear, through which the pulseless courage shed upon man from God is shattered. He would not see, in the tiny green tips pushing through the earth, that man's blooming into perfection is a slow process, dependent upon the cultivation of his soul. In this night of his greatest promise, he asked only to live with dreams.
The soil surrounding Jeb's progress thus far in life had been prepared by his two adoring aunts with very much the same care they bestowed on their tulips. After he was put into their hands at the age of four, neither their time, nor thought, nor means were spared in forcing his development. But while Miss Sallie and Miss Veemie could intensify the development of a tulip, it might not be said that they knew anything about boys. To a critical eye—had it watched Jeb now walking this way and that as a restive animal—the fruit of their labor would without doubt have been pronounced satisfactory; yet only in a visual sense could he have been called animal. So far as concerned temperament he was merely a fretful peri locked up in a cage of flowers—for how in the name of all creation had it been possible for Miss Sallie and Miss Veemie, sole proprietresses of this male machine, to make him properly masculine!
Within the dining-room there were no dreams. As he had passed out, the little ladies remained silent for several minutes. Slowly Miss Sallie raised her eyes and looked at her sister, then sharply exclaimed:
"Don't be a fool, now, Veemie!"
"I can't help it," the other choked. "It's an outrage for the Colonel to have selected Jeb to do all those horrid things! He's nothing but a boy!"
Miss Sallie was seldom out of patience with her more tender sister, yet at this moment her love and her patriotism—by which is meant her heart and soul—were violently in conflict. Fearing lest the former might prevail, she replied with greater asperity:
"Well, be a fool if you must, but for pity sake don't let Jeb see you! He's no boy any more; since this morning he's grown into a big, mature man!—just the kind we need to end this horrible war! As for Marian, she'll be glad enough to wait for him!"
Miss Sallie appeared not to see her sister rise hurriedly and leave the room; but she waited, listening, until a door upstairs slammed, then called softly to their maid:
"Be sure that Mr. Jeb's room is right!"
With this nightly admonition she went on tiptoe to her own room and locked herself in. Until well nigh daylight a far-seeing God gazed tenderly into the upturned faces of two women whose souls writhed in an agony of pleading.
When Jeb opened his eyes next morning, rather heavy after a scanty sleep, he did not at once remember the great change that had come into his life. He vaguely knew something had happened; then suddenly the captaincy loomed ahead, startling him as though it were an exploding bomb. There was nothing imaginary about this, and he lay awhile considering it.
The same unpleasant weight crept over him; his heart beat rapidly, and his body seemed to be very hollow. Unceasing panoramas of heroism cast on his mental screen were one thing, but the military company in the broad daylight of cold, hard fact did not appeal to him at all. Embarking for a distant shore where men were torn by shells, where the ground was slippery with the blood of countless thousands, where a fellow's chances of getting back alive were, so he pictured it, one in a million, brought a distinct feeling of panic. He could see the air literally filled with bursting shrapnel, while red-hot bullets from machine-guns swept the earth as clean as a scythe goes through the ripening wheat. Man simply could not endure in a hell like that! It was utterly impossible!
For a little while he gained a modicum of comfort by swearing at the Administration, the President, the Cabinet. What right had they to declare war, anyhow? Now, if we were going to fight Mexico!—or if the Germans tried to come over here!—well, that would be a different proposition!
The usual tonic of his bath, a shave, fresh clothes and breakfast began to improve the situation, but he was still desperately depressed. The adoring solicitude of his aunts—more tender after their night of prayerful and palpitating concentration—helped but little.
"Where are you going this morning, dear?" Miss Sallie, trying to seem natural, asked as he arose from the table. Miss Veemie repeated the question with a look, not trusting herself to speak.
"Oh," he answered, with that indifference which is intended to imply the highest type of courage—but never does unless the courage is there!—"I suppose I ought to run downtown and see if the War Department has answered about our uniforms and rifles. Then I'll stop by for a game of tennis with Marian."
Miss Veemie, still silent, closed her eyes as though shutting out a reality that her prayers had been unable to dissolve. Her sister became busy taking up and putting down into their same places the sideboard silver. Jeb felt an undeniable interest in the uniforms and rifles, looking forward to them very much as a condemned man might view a gallows. Nevertheless, after he had walked halfway to the Eagle office, the mood sufficiently passed for him to enter with a certain amount of savoir faire.
The Colonel had been there since eight o'clock, properly ensconced behind a table especially placed for him. A ledger for recruits' names lay open, with pens and ink-pot ready. Mr. Strong had not yet come down; neither had a man thus far been recruited, although the Eagle's story was setting Hillsdale aflame with patriotism.
"Any news?" Jeb asked, shaking hands.
"No, sir," the Colonel answered, leaning near the window to glance up at the courthouse clock. "But our telegrams have been received, and the War Department is doubtless busily packing the things at this moment. They ought to reach here to-morrow, without fail, if sent by express—as they will be sent, of course. In times of war, Jeb, materials have to move quickly, remember that! It was the secret of Stonewall Jackson's greatest strength—and of Napoleon's. They moved like meteors!"
To-morrow! This brought the crisis so close that Jeb sat down and drew a long breath. The old gentleman watched him for a moment, then in a voice of tenderness asked:
"Did you know that Marian leaves to-night? Her father is going with her as far as New York."
"Leaves for where?" Jeb exclaimed, straightening up.
"For France, of course! Where else would she be leaving for at a time like this? Her father burned the wires last night; although I know how each message burned more deeply into his heart! They leave here about midnight."
Jeb remained silent, crushed by feelings of self-condemnation. How was it that she possessed the courage to go, and he did not! The Colonel, divining a different type of depression and wanting to cheer him up, cried good humoredly:
"Here, sir! Before giving yourself over to moonings, just sign this page; then you'll belong to your government body and soul! Your name should be the first, anyhow!"
He held out the pen, but Jeb did not appear to see it. Instead, he arose abruptly, saying:
"I'll—I'll have to attend to something first," and he hurried out.
"I'll sign it for you," the Colonel called; adding to himself, as he chuckled merrily: "Gone after Marian, the young cub!"
But Jeb was after nothing but to escape that terrifying page which suddenly appeared to him as a chamber of horrors; he heard nothing now but the Colonel's promise to sign it by proxy, and an outraged voice within which called him to look upon the courage of a girl. They were driving him mad. He turned toward the open country, walking fast, but as one who walks in sleep. Many tried to stop him, to congratulate him on the good fortune of being a captain, but he rudely passed with scarcely a word. Some looked after him, and a few complained rather knowingly:
"That's the trouble with militarism; it makes the officers so stuck up!"
On and on he went, to the wood where he had killed imaginary Germans; and there, throwing himself on the ground, he began to fight another, a very much more real battle.
In the meanwhile, long before the courthouse clock struck the hour of noon, the Colonel had filled many pages of his ledger. Marian and her father had come down, being afraid to leave each other during these last few hours they would have together. The Colonel had told of Jeb's brief visit, adding his own belief that the lad had gone out to the Strong residence; and Marian took a seat by the window, where she could watch the street and at the same time greet each recruit who entered to put his name down on the company roster.
Despite the nearness of her departure, Mr. Strong and Colonel Hampton were almost joyous as they noted the happy, though firm, looks of determination radiating from the faces of men who came in streams to offer the best they had.
The barber's assistant followed Hillsdale's most promising young lawyer; the driver of Hincky's grocery wagon reached the door simultaneously with the rising banker, and Mr. Strong felt a catch of pleasure at his throat when the financier, stepping aside and putting a hand on the driver's shoulder, said:
"After you, old fellow!"
An Italian bootblack from the hotel-stand looked in, asking shyly:
"You tak'a me?"
A woman in a faded dress brought her husky lad who twisted his hat with awkward fingers.
"He ain't quite twenty-one," she said, in a low voice, "so I come to give consent. He wants to go, thank God!—an' I can git along."
Colonel Hampton sprang up and embraced them both in one sweep of his long arms; and, when the woman cried a little, Marian soothed her with endearing words of praise.
Hillsdale, one way or another, was responding to its country's need. During the day the recruiting list grew past the four-hundred mark—but, although Marian's eyes grew tired gazing down upon those who were coming and going in the street, nowhere did she get a glimpse of Jeb.
There had been neither time nor thought of luncheon, and during a lull, about the middle of the afternoon, she arose wearily, saying:
"I think I'll go home now, and pack."
Both of the old gentlemen turned and looked at her mutely, their eyes expressive of pain; for in the excitement of recruiting they had temporarily forgotten the nearness of her leaving.
"Don't be sad," she smiled, bending over her father. "You'll have me for several more days!" The Colonel, who for once forgot his gallantry and remained seated, she kissed upon the forehead, murmuring: "I won't say goodbye to you now, Uncle Roger, because I know you'll be down at the train to-night. But you'll promise me to take care of daddy, won't you? And Daddy," she turned, making a brave effort to laugh, "you promise to take care of Uncle Roger, too!"
She realized that were either of them to attempt a word they would make a sorry showing, and this would throw her into a torrential storm of tears. Of all three in the editor's office, her shoulders carried the heaviest burden. Each of the men was losing but one whom he loved; she was losing two—and, besides these two, there was Jeb! Jeb, who had thought more of his targets than of her return!—Jeb, who had not signed the company roster, although over four hundred of Hillsdale's men had come in gladly! She patted the Colonel's head and threw a hurried kiss to her father, then was gone.
"I've never been more proud of her," the Colonel said, beginning to cough; and there was a huskiness in the editor's throat as he replied:
"I wish her dear mother could have lived to share our pride, Roger."
When at sundown the Colonel, closing his ledger with a bang, announced the time was up, Mr. Strong took his arm and drew him gently from the chair.
"I don't make a practice of this, Roger," he said, "but I think we're entitled to stop by the hotel for a small—er——"
About this time a man, deep in a distant wood, turned wearily over on the ground. His hair was disordered, and there were signs of suffering in his face. A close observer would have noticed that his finger nails were dirty, not from personal untidyness but because, while in some mental anguish, they had been dug into the earth.
As wearily as he had turned, he now arose, swaying slightly from his long prostrate position. Then he started cityward, at the same moment that Colonel Hampton and Mr. Strong were touching glasses, with an unspoken toast, to the health and safety of a girl who personified the fighting spirit of America.
Long after Miss Sallie and Miss Veemie had retired that night Jeb sat in the garden, a prey to desperate thoughts. When, far across the undulating landscape, he heard the long, low whistle of an express that would stop at Hillsdale, he arose and went slowly, with hesitating steps, to the station. Mr. Strong and Marian and the Colonel were there when he came within the circle of light; and, to his surprise, they greeted him warmly—for he had feared this meeting, and would have been almost glad to avoid it. Within his own conscience he had been so pitilessly accused that it seemed as though every man and woman must accuse him, also.
Through the silence of that midnight hour they stood, speaking nervously, oppressed by the torturing heaviness which accompanies such partings. With an effort Marian turned to him suddenly:
"When will you be coming over, Jeb?"
He was expecting this question; before leaving the garden he knew to a certainty that it would be asked, and now answered promptly:
"I wish I were going with you to-night! But you're lucky in having had your training, while mine is still to come. You can look for me, though, just as soon as we can get the company in shape!"
"By gad," the Colonel exclaimed.
"Oh, Jeb," Marian leaned impulsively toward him, "you can't possibly know how happy that makes me!"
The rails were beginning to hum, and a glaring headlight shot into view. It was but a matter of seconds then before the brake-shoes ground upon the metal wheels—another few seconds for hasty adieux—and the train was off again.
Jeb and the Colonel watched the two red signal lights growing smaller, until shut out by a curve; but they continued to stand, listening to the rumble as it faded into the distance—into the dawn of a new world, where the souls of men were calling, and from which the souls of slackers stood back in fear!
When the last faint sound had become lost, and the purity of the night was undisturbed, the two saddened men turned by mutual consent and walked slowly homeward.
Three days later Mr. Strong returned and took up his duties with stoic bravery. Marian had sailed with a unit happening to be in need of nurses, and by now, he told the Colonel, she must be far out upon the ocean. Each time the telegraph operator entered the anxious father's heart stood still—for there were nests of conscienceless submarines waiting for just such prey! But the cable came at last announcing: "Safe. Quickly front." It required no translation to know that she was doubtless at that moment speeding on her mission of mercy to the trenches. For an hour the two old men sat without speaking, moodily staring out of the window.
No word came from Washington, other than a polite note from the Congressman which stated that books, such as he presumed the gentlemen wanted, were much in demand but would be sent if procurable. From the War Department—nothing!
At the expiration of another week, however, the official envelope arrived. In warm terms its writer appreciated the patriotism of Hillsdale, but regretted that uniforms and rifles were not being issued just at present to organizations such as the gallant company in question. The Colonel had inserted that word "gallant" when reading this at a meeting called for the purpose, assuaging his conscience with the excuse of civic necessity. He pointed out, also, that the equipment was tentatively promised—if one chose to interpret the letter in this way; and, of course, everyone did so choose. Then came another wait through which the Colonel and Mr. Strong grew more and more depressed. For hours they would sit in semi-silence, intermittently exchanging thoughts of Marian and Jeb.
Since Jeb's name had been entered on the roster book he felt chained to a slowly gnawing torture, for any train might bring over an army man to administer the oaths of allegiance, and there would then be no escape. But as weeks passed and nothing happened he began to breathe more hopefully. The depression, born of fear, was wearing off, while the self-satisfied conceit slunk back into its former place. It would have been safe to say that Jeb was close to normal.
This respite, however, took a precipitate tumble one morning when he received word to come at once to the office. As he entered, Mr. Strong and the Colonel looked up with serious faces.
"There isn't any bad news from Marian?" he asked, breathlessly.
They shook their heads. But he saw that something serious had happened, and guessed in a flash that the dreaded time was at hand! With a rush all the old fear surged back to torture him.
"Jeb," the editor said, pointing to a chair, "we've decided your best chance lies in the Reserve Officers' Corps. If you're ready now, we'll help you make out the papers and see that you get properly fixed up."
"Chance of a lifetime, Jeb," the Colonel enthusiastically cried. "Training, commission, fighting with the first contingent that goes over! I congratulate you, sir!"
"But—but what about the company?" he faltered, feeling the world wobble and reel.
"Company the devil, sir! Amos and I don't believe the Department intends sending us the stuff! No, sir, they've doubtless settled on this other scheme."
Only for a moment did Job hesitate, and then he arose supreme. His face was white, his eyes blazed as fire, his voice became pinched and high with emotion. Never, he declared, would he turn back from the duty toward which he had set his will! That duty was to his comrades in Hillsdale, who had paid him the high compliment of dedicating their lives to his leadership. Desert them now, when the first opportunity came for personal advancement, and he would be a traitor to all mankind! If, merely for the love of fighting, he could so far forget these confiding fellows, how could he ever look them in the eyes again!
The truth of the matter was that Jeb worked himself into a frenzy of oratory which convinced in spite of logic. He was pleading desperately for Jeb, for Jeb's hide, for Jeb's life. Having no suspicion of this the two old gentlemen listened with rapture expressed in their moistening eyes, and when he concluded, out of breath but defiant, they sprang up and embraced him.
"By gad, sir," the Colonel cried, "you made the shades of eloquence, from Webster to Demosthenes, sit up and cock their ears! Amos, when this war's over we'll run him for the senate, eh?"
So the Officers' Reserve Corps was laid upon the shelf. Other men in Hillsdale applied for it; some were ordered to report at the training camp of their divisional area; but, for Jeb, the dark angel of torture had again passed by.
At breakfast one morning, opening the Eagle, his blood congealed into fine particles of ice. His head whirled, his body became sick in every part. Leaving abruptly he went into the garden and there read, painfully read, the big headlines and their accompanying story.
The draft! Drafting between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one—and he was twenty-six! He could not have been more in the center, in the very bull's-eye, of the age selection! With all his senses in a panic, his mind darted this way and that, seeking, as a trapped rat, some avenue of exit; but on every side, so far as years counted, he was equally hemmed in. A moment of fury took the place of fear, wherein he cursed and raved against a government, calling itself paternal, that would play fast and loose with its people's lives; but at last he fell into a dull brooding, tinged with physical and mental nausea.
He was aroused by a voice, and looked up to behold the Colonel's head and shoulders above the picket fence. The old gentleman's face was grave and his well-known Stetson had been pulled lower to his eyes.
"I thought I'd find you," he was saying. "Walk down to my office with me."
Since the sixth of April, now almost two months passed, the Colonel had referred to the table in Mr. Strong's editorial sanctum as his office; not alone because it pleased him so to do, but equally because his friend would tolerate no other arrangement. Never having possessed an office of any kind, he felt that it added dignity to his declining years; and there, each morning, he would re-check the names on his recruiting ledger, besides writing suggestions—some very good suggestions—to the War Department. If the young Martian clerks, working like bees in that august building at Sixteenth and Pennsylvania Avenue, grew into the habit of unopening fat envelopes postmarked "Hillsdale" until the very last moment, they learned to do so after a manner of self-protection—but had the Colonel suspected this he would have gone forthwith and flourished his cane, not only over their heads, but over the heads of their heads, even unto the Mr. Secretary of War himself.