Ramsey Milholland by Booth Tarkington
When Johnnie comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah! We'll give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah! Hurrah! The men with the cheers, the boys with shouts, The ladies they will all turn out, And we'll all feel gay, when Johnnie comes marching home again!
The old man and the little boy, his grandson, sat together in the shade of the big walnut tree in the front yard, watching the "Decoration Day Parade," as it passed up the long street; and when the last of the veterans was out of sight the grandfather murmured the words of the tune that came drifting back from the now distant band at the head of the procession.
"Yes, we'll all feel gay when Johnnie comes marching home again," he finished, with a musing chuckle.
"Did you, Grandpa?" the boy asked.
"Did I what?"
"Did you all feel gay when the army got home?"
"It didn't get home all at once, precisely," the grandfather explained. "When the war was over I suppose we felt relieved, more than anything else."
"You didn't feel so gay when the war was, though, I guess!" the boy ventured.
"I guess we didn't."
"Were you scared, Grandpa? Were you ever scared the Rebels would win?"
"No. We weren't ever afraid of that."
"Not any at all?"
"No. Not any at all."
"Well, weren't you ever scared yourself, Grandpa? I mean when you were in a battle."
"Oh, yes; then I was." The old man laughed. "Scared plenty!"
"I don't see why," the boy said promptly. "I wouldn't be scared in a battle."
"'Course not! Grandpa, why don't you march in the Decoration Day Parade? Wouldn't they let you?"
"I'm not able to march any more. Too short of breath and too shaky in the legs and too blind."
"I wouldn't care," said the boy. "I'd be in the parade anyway, if I was you. They had some sittin' in carriages, 'way at the tail end; but I wouldn't like that. If I'd been in your place, Grandpa, and they'd let me be in that parade, I'd been right up by the band. Look, Grandpa! Watch me, Grandpa! This is the way I'd be, Grandpa."
He rose from the garden bench where they sat, and gave a complex imitation of what had most appealed to him as the grandeurs of the procession, his prancing legs simulating those of the horse of the grand marshal, while his upper parts rendered the drums and bugles of the band, as well as the officers and privates of the militia company which had been a feature of the parade. The only thing he left out was the detachment of veterans.
"Putty-boom! Putty-boom! Putty-boom-boom-boom!" he vociferated, as the drums--and then as the bugles: "Ta, ta, ra, tara!" He addressed his restive legs: "Whoa, there, you Whitey! Gee! Haw! Git up!" Then, waving an imaginary sword: "Col-lumn right! Farwud March! Halt! Carry harms! He "carried arms." "Show-dler harms!" He "shouldered arms," and returned to his seat.
"That'd be me, Grandpa. That's the way I'd do." And as the grandfather nodded, seeming to agree, a thought recently dismissed returned to the mind of the composite procession and he asked:
"Well, why weren't you ever afraid the Rebels would whip the Unions, Grandpa?"
"Oh, we knew they couldn't."
"I guess so." The little boy laughed disdainfully, thinking his question satisfactorily asnwered. "I guess those ole Rebels couldn't whipped a flea! They didn't know how to fight any at all, did they, Grandpa?"
"Oh, yes, they did!"
"What?" The boy was astounded. "Weren't they all just reg'lar ole cowards, Grandpa?"
"No," said the grandfather. "They were pretty fine soldiers."
"They were? Well, they ran away whenever you began shootin' at 'em, didn't they?"
"Sometimes they did, but most times they didn't. Sometimes they fought like wildcats--and sometimes we were the ones that ran away."
"To keep from getting killed, or maybe to keep from getting captured."
"But the Rebels were bad men, weren't they, Grandpa?"
The boy's forehead, customarily vacant, showed some little vertical shadows, produced by a struggle to think. "Well, but--" he began, slowly. "Listen, Grandpa, listen here!"
"Listen! Well, you said--you said you never got scared the ole Rebels were goin' to win."
"They did win pretty often," said the grandfather. "They won a good many battles."
"I mean, you said you never got scared they'd win the war."
"No, we were never afraid of that."
"Well, but if they were good men and fought like wildcats, Grandpa, and kep' winning battles and everything, how could that be? How could you help bein' scared they'd win the war?"
The grandfather's feeble eyes twinkled brightly. "Why, we knew they couldn't, Ramsey."
At this, the little vertical shadows on Ramsey's forehead became more pronounced, for he had succeeded in thinking. "Well, they didn't know they couldn't, did they?" he argued. "They thought they were goin' to win, didin't they?"
"Yes, I guess they did. Up till toward the last, I suppose they probably did. But you see they were wrong."
"Well, but--" Ramsey struggled. "Listen! Listen here, Grandpa! Well, anyway, if they never got scared we'd win, and nobody got scared they'd win--well, I don't see--"
"You don't see what?"
But Ramsey found himself unable to continue his concentration; he slumped down upon the small of his back, and his brow relaxed to its more comfortable placidity, while his eyes wandered with a new butterfly fluttering over the irises that bordered the iron picket fence at the south side of the yard. "Oh, nothin' much," he murmured.
"I see." And his grandfather laughed again. "You mean: If the Rebels felt just as sure of winning the war as we did, and kept winning battles why shouldn't we ever have had any doubts that we were going to win? That's it, isn't it?"
"I guess so, Grandpa."
"Well, I think it was mostly because we were certain that we were right."
"I see," said Ramsey. "The Rebels knew they were on the side of the Devil." But at this, the grandfather's laugh was louder than it had been before, and Ramsey looked hurt. "Well, you can laugh if you want to!" he objected in an aggrieved voice. "Anyway, the Sunday- school sup'intendent told us when people knew they were on the Devil's side they always--"
"I dare say, I dare say," the old man interrupted, a little impatiently. "But in this world mighty few people think they're on the Devil's side, Ramsey. There was a Frenchman once, in olden times; he said people were crazy because, though they couldn't even make worms, they believed they could make gods. And so whenever countries or parts of a country get into a war, each side makes a god and a devil, and says: "God's on our side and the Devil's on the other." The South thought the Devil was on our side, you see."
"Well, that kind o' mixes it all up more'n ever."
"Yes, it seems so; but Abraham Lincoln wasn't mixed up about it. When some people told him that God was on our side, he said the important thing was to find out if we were on God's side. That was the whole question, you see; because either side could make up a god, the kind of a god they liked and wanted; and then they'd believe in him, too, and fight for him--but if he was only a made-up god they'd lose. President Lincoln didn't want to have a made-up god on his side; he wanted to find God Himself and find out what he wanted, and then do it. And that's what Lincoln did."
"Well, I don't understand much of all that!"
"No?" Then suppose you look at it this way: The South was fighting for what it believed to be its rights, but we weren't fighting for our rights; we were fighting for the right. The South was fighting for what it believed to be its right to split the Union and be a country by itself; but we were fighting for 'Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.' It wasn't only the Union we fought for; it was Freedom. The South wanted freedom to leave the Union; but the reason the South wanted that freedom to separate from us was because we wanted the Freedom of Man. There's the reason we had the certain knowledge that we were going to win the war. How plain and simple it is!"
Ramsey didn't think so. He had begun to feel bored by the conversation, and to undergo the oppression he usually suffered in school; yet he took a little interest in the inexplicable increase of fervour with which his grandfather spoke, and in a shoot of sunshine which somehow got through the foliage of the walnut tree and made a bedazzlement of glinting fine lines in one spot, about the size of a saucer, upon the old man's head of thick white hair. Half closing his eyes, drowsily, Ramsey played that this sunshine spot was a white bird's-next and, and he had a momentary half dream of a glittering little bird that dwelt there and wore a blue soldier cap on its head. The earnest old voice of the veteran was only a sound in the boy's ears.
"Yes, it's simple and plain enough now, though then we didn't often think of it in exactly this way, but just went on fighting and never doubted. We knew the struggle and suffering of our fathers and grandfathers to make a great country here for Freedom, and we knew that all this wasn't just the whim of a foolish god, willing to waste such great things--we knew that such a country couldn't have been building up just to be wasted. But, more than that, we knew that armies fighting for the Freedom of Man had to win, in the long run, over armies that fought for what they considered their rights.
"We didn't set out to free the slaves, so far as we knew. Yet our being against slavery was what made the war, and we had the consciousness that we were on the side of God's plan, because His plan is clearly the Freedom of Man. Long ago we began to see the hints of His plan--a little like the way you can see what's coming in August from what happens in April. but man has to win his freedom from himself--men in the light have to fight against men in the dark of their own shadow. That light is the answer; we had the light that made us never doubt. Ours was the true light, and so we--"
"Boom--" The veterans had begun to fire their cannon on the crest of the low hill, out at the cemetery; and from a little way down the street came the rat-a-tat of a toy drum and sounds of a fife played execrably. A file of children in cocked hats made of newspapers came marching importantly up the sidewalk under the maple shade trees; and in advance, upon a velocipede, rode a tin-sworded personage, shrieking incessant commands but not concerning himself with whether or not any military obedience was thereby obtained. Here was a revivifying effect upon young Ramsey; his sluggard eyelids opened electrically; he leaped to his feet and, abandoning his grandfather without preface or apology, sped across the lawn and out of the gate, charging headlong upon the commander of the company.
"You get off that 'locipede, Wesley Bender!" he bellowed. "You gimme that sword! What rights you got to go bein' captain o' my army, I'd like to know! Who got up this army, in the first place, I'd like to know! I did, myself yesterd'y afternoon, and you get back in line or I won't let you b'long to it at all!"
The pretender succumbed; he instantly dismounted, being out-shouted and overawed. On foot he took his place in the ranks, while Ramsey became sternly vociferous. "In-tention, company! Farwud march! Col-lumn right! Right-showdler harms! Halt! Far-wud march. Carry harms--"
The Army went trudging away under the continuous but unheed fire of orders, and presently disappeared round a corner, leaving the veteran chuckling feebly under his walnut tree and alone with the empty street. All trace of what he had said seemed to have been wiped from the grandson's mind; but memory has curious ways. Ramsey had understood not a fifth nor a tenth of his grandfather's talk, and already he had "forgotten" all of it--yet not only were there many, many times in the boy's later life when, without ascertainable cause, he would remember the sunlight falling upon the old man's white head, to make that semblance of a glittering bird's-nest there, but with the picture came recollections of words and sentences spoken by the grandfather, though the listener, half-drowsily, had heard but the sound of an old, earnest voice--and even the veteran's meaning finally took on a greater definiteness till it became, in the grandson's thoughts, something clear and bright and beautiful that he knew without being just sure where or how he had learned it.