Ramsey Milholland by Booth Tarkington
That early spring of 1915 the two boys and their friends and Brethren talked more of the war than they had in the autumn, though the subject was not an all at absorbing one; for the trenches in Flanders and France were still of the immense, remote distance. By no stretch of imagination could these wet trenches be thought greatly to concern the "frat," the Lumen, or the university. Really important matters were the doings of the "Track Team," now training in the "Gym" and on the 'Varsity Field, and, more vital still, the prospects of the Nine. But in May there came a shock which changed things for a time.
The Lusitania brought to every American a revelation of what had lain so deep in his own heart that often he had not realized it was there. When the Germans hid in the sea and sent down the great merchant ship, with American babies and their mothers, and gallantly dying American gentlemen, there came a change even to girls and boys and professors, until then so preoccupied with their own little aloof world thousands of miles from the murder.
Fred Mitchell, ever volatile and generous, was one of those who went quite wild. No orator, he nevertheless made a frantic speech at the week's "frat meetings," cursing the Germans in the simple old English words that their performance had demonstrated to be applicable, and going on to demand that the fraternity prepare for its own share in the action of the country. "I don't care how insignificant we few fellows here to-night may seem," he cried; "we can do our little, and if everybody in this country's ready to do their own little, why, that'll be plenty! Brothers, don't you realize that all over the United States to-night the people are feeling just the way we are here? Millions and millions and millions of them! Wherever there's an American he's with us--and you bet your bottom dollar there are just a few more Americans in this country of ours than there are big-mouthed lobsters like that fellow Linski! I tell you, if Congress only gives the word, there could be an army of five million men in this country to-morrow, and those dirty baby-killin' dachshunds would hear a word or two from your Uncle Samuel! Brothers, I demand that something be done right here and now, and by us! I move we telegraph the Secretary of War to-night and offer him a regiment from this university to go over and help hang their damn Kaiser."
The motion was hotly seconded and instantly carried. Then followed a much flustered discussion of the form and phrasing of the proposed telegram, but, after everything seemed to have been settled, someone ascertained by telephone that the telegraph company would not accept messages containing words customarily defined as profane; so the telegram had to be rewritten. This led to further amendment, and it was finally decided to address the senators from that state, instead of the Secretary of War, and thus in a somewhat modified form the message was finally despatched.
Next day, news of what the "frat" had done made a great stir in the university; other "frats" sent telegrams, so did the "Barbarians," haters of the "frats" but joining them in this; while a small band of "German-American" students found it their duty to go before the faculty and report these "breaches of neutrality." They protested heavily, demanding the expulsion of the "breachers" as disloyal citizens, therefore unfit students, but suffered a disappointment; for the faculty itself had been sending telegrams of similar spirit, addressing not only the senators and congressmen of the state but the President of the United States. Flabbergasted, the "German- Americans" retired; they were confused and disgusted by this higher-up outbreak of unneutrality--it overwhelmed them that citizens of the United States should not remain neutral in the dispute between the United States and Germany. All day the campus was in ferment.
At twilight, Ramsey was walking meditatively on his way to dinner at the "frat house," across the campus from his apartment at Mrs. Meig's. Everybody was quiet now, both town and gown; the students were at their dinners and so were the burghers. Ramsey was late but did not quicken his thoughtful steps, which were those of one lost in reverie. He had forgotten that spring-time was all about him, and, with his head down, walked unregardful of the new gayeties flung forth upon the air by great clusters of flowering shrubs, just come into white blossom and lavender.
He was unconscious that somebody behind him, going the same way, came hastening to overtake him and called his name, "Ramsey! Ramsey Milholland!" Not until he had been called three times did he realize that he was being hailed--and in a girl's voice! By that time, the girl herself was beside him, and Ramsey halted, quite taken aback. The girl was Dora Yocum.
She was pale, a little breathless, and her eyes were bright and severe. "I want to speak to you," she said, quickly. "I want to ask you about something. Mr. Colburn and Fred Mitchell are the only people I know in your 'frat' except you, and I haven't seen either of them to-day, or I'd have asked one of them."
Most uncomfortably astonished, Ramsey took his hands out of his pockets, picked a leaf from a lilac bush beside the path, and put the stem of the leaf seriously into a corner of his mouth, before finding anything to say. "Well--well, all right," he finally responded. "I'll tell you--if it's anything I know about."
"You know about it," said Dora. "That is, you certainly do if you were at your 'frat' meeting last night. Were you?"
"Yes, I was there," Ramsey answered, wondering what in the world she wanted to know, though he supposed vaguely that it must be something about Colburn, whom he had several times seen walking with her. "Of course I couldn't tell you much," he added, with an afterthought. "You see, a good deal that goes on at a 'frat' meeting isn't supposed to be talked about."
"Yes," she said, smiling faintly, though with a satire that missed him. "I've been a member of a sorority since September, and I think I have an idea of what could be told or not told. Suppose we walk on, if you don't mind. My question needn't embarrass you."
Nevertheless, as they slowly went on together, Ramsey was embarrassed. He felt "queer." They had known each other so long; in a way had shared so much, sitting daily for years near each other and undergoing the same outward experiences; they had almost "grown up together," yet this was the first time they had ever talked together or walked together.
"Well--" he said. "If you want to ask anything it's all right for me to tell you--well, I just as soon, I guess."
"It has nothing to do with the secret proceedings of your 'frat'," said Dora, primly. "What I want to ask about has been talked of all over the place to-day. Everyone has been saying it was your 'frat' that sent the first telegram to members of the Government offering support in case of war with Germany. They say you didn't even wait until to-day, but sent off a message last night. What I wanted to ask you was whether this story is true or not?"
"Why, yes," said Ramsey, mildly. "That's what we did."
She uttered an exclamation, a sound of grief and of suspicion confirmed. "Ah! I was afraid so!"
"'Afraid so'? What's the matter?" he asked, and because she seemed excited and troubled, he found himself not quite so embarrassed as he had been at first; for some reason her agitation made him feel easier. "What was wrong about that?"
"Oh, it's all so shocking and wicked and mistaken!" she cried. "Even the faculty has been doing it, and half the other 'frats' and sororities! And it was yours that started it."
"Yes, we did," he said, throughly puzzled. "We're the oldest 'frat' here, and of course"--he chuckled modestly--"of course we think we're the best. Do you mean you believe we ought to've sat back and let somebody else start it?"
"Oh, no!" she answered, vehemently. "Nobody ought to have started it! That's the trouble; don't you see? If nobody had started it none of it might have happened. The rest mightn't have caught it. It mightn't have got into their heads. A war thought is the most contagious thought in the world; but if it can be kept from starting, it can be kept from being contagious. It's just when people have got into an emotional state, or a state of smouldering rage, that everybody ought to be so terribly careful not to think war thoughts or make war speeches--or send war telegrams! I thought--oh, I was so sure I'd convinced Mr. Colburn of all this, the last time we talked of it! He seemed to understand, and I was sure he agreed with me." She bit her lip. "He was only pretending--I see that now!"
"I guess he must 'a' been," said Ramsey, with admirable simplicity. "He didn't talk about anything like that last night. He was as much for it as anybody."
"I've no doubt!"
Ramsey made bold to look at her out of the side of his eye, and as she was gazing tensely forward he continued his observation for some time. She was obviously controlling agitation, almost controlling tears, which seemed to threaten her very wide-open eyes; for those now fully grown and noticeable eyewinkers of hers were subject to fluctuations indicating such a threat. She looked "hurt," and Ramsey was touched; there was something human about her, then, after all. And if he had put his feeling into words at the moment, he would have said that he guessed maybe he could stand this ole girl, for a few minutes sometimes, better than he'd always thought he could.
"Well," he said, "Colburn prob'ly wouldn't want to hurt your feelings or anything. Colburn--"
"He? He didn't! I haven't the faintest personal interest in what he did."
"Oh!" said Ramsey. "Well, excuse me; I thought prob'ly you were sore because he'd jollied you about this pacifist stuff, and then--"
"No!" she said, sharply. "I'm not thinking of his having agreed with me and fooling me about it. He just wanted to make a pleasant impression on a girl, and said anything he thought would please her. I don't care whether he does things like that or not. What I care about is that the principle didn't reach him and that he mocked it! I don't care about a petty treachery to me, personally, but I--"
Fraternal loyalty could not quite brook this. "Brother Colburn is a perfectly honor'ble man," said Ramsey, solemnly. "He is one of the most honor'ble men in this--"
"Of course! she cried. "Oh, can't I make you understand that I'm not condemning him for a little flattery to me? I don't care two straws for his showing that I didn't influence him. He doesn't interest me, please understand."
Ramsey was altogether perplexed. "Well, I don't see what makes you go for him so hard, then."
"But you said he was treach--"
"I don't condemn him for it," she insisted, despairingly. "Don't you see the difference? I'm not condemning anybody; I'm only lamenting.
"About all of you that want war!"
"My golly!" Ramsey exclaimed. "You don't think those Dutchmen were right to drown babies and--"
"No! I think they were ghastly murderers! I think they were detestable and fiendish and monstrous and--"
"Well, then, my goodness! What do you want?"
"I don't want war!"
"I want Christianity!" she cried. "I can't think of the Germans without hating them, and so to-day, when all the world is hating them, I keep myself from thinking of them as much as I can. Already half the world is full of war; you want to go to war to make things right, but it won't; it will only make more war!"
"Don't you see what you've done, you boys?" she said. "Don't you see what you've done with your absurd telegram? That started the rest; they thought they all had to send telegrams like that."
"Well, the faculty--"
"Even they mightn't have thought of it if it hadn't been for the first one. Vengeance is the most terrible thought; once you put it into people's minds that they ought to have it, it runs away with them"
"Well, it isn't mostly vengeance we're after, at all. There's a lot more to it than just getting even with--"
She did not heed him. "You're all blind! You don't see what you're doing; you don't even see what you've done to this peaceful place here. You've filled it full of thoughts of fury and killing and massacre--"
"Why, no," said Ramsey. "It was those Dutch did that to us; and, besides, there's more to it than you--"
"No, there isn't," she interrupted. "It's just the old brutal spirit that nations inherit from the time they were only tribes; it's the tribe spirit, and an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It's those things and the love of fighting--men have always loved to fight. Civilization hasn't taken it out of them; men still have the brute in them that loves to fight!"
"I don't think so," said Ramsey. "Americans don't love to fight; I don't know about other countries, but we don't. Of course, here and there, there's some fellow that likes to hunt around for scrapes, but I never saw more than three or four in my life that acted that way. Of course a football team often has a scrapper or two on it, but that's different."
"No," she said. "I think you all really love to fight."
Ramsey was roused to become argumentative. "I don't see where you get the idea. Colburn isn't that way, and back at school there wasn't a single boy that was anything like that."
"What!" She stopped, and turned suddenly to face him.
"What's the matter?" he said, stopping, too. Something he said had startled her, evidently.
"How can you say such a thing?" she cried. "You love to fight!"
"You do! You love fighting. You always have loved fighting."
He was dumbfounded. "Why, I never had a fight in my life!"
She cried out in protest of such prevarication.
"Well, I never did," he insisted, mildly.
"Why, you had a fight about me!"
"No, I didn't."
"With Wesley Bender!"
Ramsey chuckled. "That wasn't a fight!"
"Nothing like one. We were just guyin' him about--about gettin' slicked up, kind of, because he at in front of you; and he hit me with his book strap and I chased him off. Gracious, no; that wasn't a fight!"
"But you fought Linski only last fall."
Ramsey chuckled again. "That wasn't even as much like a fight as the one with Wesley. I just told this Linski I was goin' to give him a punch in the sn-- I just told him to look out because I was goin' to hit him, and then I did it, and waited to see if he wanted to do anything about it, and he didn't. That's all there was to it, and it wasn't any more like fighting than--than feeding chickens is."
She laughed dolefully. "It seems to me rather more like it than that!"
"Well, it wasn't."
They had begun to walk on again, and Ramsey was aware that they had passed the "frat house," where his dinner was probably growing cold. He was aware of this, but not sharply or insistently. Curiously enough, he did not think about it. He had begun to find something pleasant in the odd interview, and in walking beside a girl, even though the girl was Dora Yocum. He made no attempt to account to himself for anything so peculiar.
For a while they went slowly together, not speaking, and without destination, though Ramsey vaguely took it for granted that Dora was going somewhere. But she wasn't. They emerged from the part of the small town closely built about the university and came out upon a bit of parked land overlooking the river; and here Dora's steps slowed to an indeterminate halt near a bench beneath a maple tree.
"I think I'll stay here a while," she said; and as he made no response, she asked, "Hadn't you better be going back to your 'frat house' for your dinner? I didn't mean for you to come out of your way with me; I only wanted to get an answer to my question. You'd better be running back."
He stood irresolute, not sure that he wanted his dinner just then. It would have amazed him to face the fact deliberately that perhaps he preferred being with Dora Yocum to eating. However, he faced no such fact, nor any fact, but lingered.
"Well--" he said again.
"You'd better go."
"I guess I can get my dinner pretty near any time. I don't--" He had a thought. "Did you--"
"Did I what?"
"Did you have your dinner before I met you?"
"Well, aren't you--"
She shook her head. "I don't want any."
"I don't think people have very much appetite to-day and yesterday," she said, with the hint of a sad laugh, "all over America."
"No; I guess that's so."
"It's too terrible!" she said. "I can't sit and eat when I think of the Lusitania--of all those poor, poor people strangling in the water--"
"No; I guess nobody can eat much, if they think about that."
"And of what it's going to bring, if we let it," she went on. "As if this killing weren't enough, we want to add our killing! Oh, that's the most terrible thing of all--the thing it makes within us! Don't you understand?"
She turned to him appealingly, and he felt queerer than ever. Dusk had fallen. Where they stood, under the young-leaved maple tree, there was but a faint lingering of afterglow, and in this mystery her face glimmered wan and sweet; so that Ramsey, just then, was like one who discovers an old pan, used in the kitchen, to be made of chased silver.
"Well, I don't feel much like dinner right now," he said. "We--we could sit here awhile on this bench, prob'ly."