Ramsey Milholland by Booth Tarkington
So everywhere over the country, that winter of 1916, there were light-hearted boys skylarking--at college, or on the farms; and in the towns the young machinists snowballed one another as they came from the shops; while on this Sunday of the "frat" snow fight probably several hundreds of thousands of youthful bachelors, between the two oceans, went walking, like Ramsey, each with a girl who could forget the weather. Yet boys of nineteen and in the twenties were not light-hearted all the time that winter and that spring and that summer. Most of them knew long, thoughtful moments, as Ramsey did, when they seemed to be thinking not of girls or work or play--nor of anything around them, but of some more vital matter or prospect. And at such times they were grave, but not ungentle.
For the long strain was on the country; underneath all its outward seeming of things going on as usual there shook a deep vibration, like the air trembling to vast organ pipes in diapasons too profound to reach the ear as sound: one felt, not heard, thunder in the ground under one's feet. The succession of diplomatic Notes came to an end after the torpedoing of the Sussex; and at last the tricky ruling Germans in Berlin gave their word to murder no more, and people said, "This means peace for America, and all is well for us," but everybody knew in his heart that nothing was well for us, that there was no peace.
They said "All is well," while that thunder in the ground never ceased--it grew deeper and heavier till all America shook with it and it became slowly audible as the voice of the old American soil wherein lay those who had defended it aforetime, a soil that bred those who would defend it again, for it was theirs; and the meaning of it--Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness--was theirs, and theirs to defend. And they knew they would defend it, and that more than the glory of a Nation was at stake. The Freedom of Man was at stake. So, gradually, the sacred thunder reached the ears of the young men and gave them those deep moments that came to them whether they sat in the classroom or the counting-room, or walked with the plow, or stood to the machine, or behind the ribbon counter. Thus the thunder shook them and tried them and slowly came into their lives and changed everything for them.
Hate of the Germans was not bred; but a contempt for what Germany had shown in lieu of a national heart; a contempt as mighty and profound as the resolve that the German way and the German will should prevail in America, nor in any country of the world that would be free. And when the German Kaiser laid his command upon America, that no American should take his ship upon the free seas, death being the penalty for any who disobeyed, then the German Kaiser got his answer, not only to this new law he had made for us, but to many other thoughts of his. Yet the answer was for some time delayed.
There was a bitter Sunday, and its bitterness went everywhere, to every place in the whole world that held high and generous hearts. Its bitterness came to the special meeting in the "Frat hall," where there were hearts, indeed, of that right sort, and one of them became vocal in its bitterness. This was the heart of Fred Mitchell, who was now an authority, being president of the Junior Class, chairman of the Prom Committee, and other things pleasant to be and to live for at his age.
"For me, Brothers," he said, "I'd think I'd a great deal rather have been shot through the head than heard the news from Washington to-day! I tell you, I've spent the meanest afternoon I ever did in my life, and I guess it's been pretty much the same with all of us. The worst of it is, it looks as though there isn't a thing in the world we can do. The country's been betrayed by a few blatherskites and boneheads that had the power to do it, and all we can do we've just got to stand it. But there's some Americans that aren't just standing it, and I want to tell you a lot of 'em are men from the universities, just like us. They're over there right now; they haven't said much--they just packed up and went. They're flying for France and for England and for Canada; they're fighting under every flag on the right side of the Western Front; and they're driving ambulances at Verdun and ammunition trucks at the Somme. Well, there's going to be a lot more American boys on all these jobs mighty soon, on account of what those men did in Congress to-day. If they won't give us a chance to do something under our own flag, then we'll have to go and do it under some other flag; and I want to tell you I'm one that's going to go! I'll stick it out in college up to Easter, and then if there's still no chance to go under the Stars and Stripes I'll maybe have to go under the flag my great-great- randfather fought against in 1776, but, anyhow, I'll go!"
It was in speaking to Ramsey of this declaration that Dora said Fred was a "dangerous firebrand." They were taking another February walk, but the February was February, 1917; and the day was dry and sunny. "It's just about a year ago," she said.
"What is?" Ramsey asked.
"That first time we went walking. Don't you remember?"
"Oh, that day? Yes, I remember it was snowing."
"And so cold and blowy!" she added. "It seems a long time ago. I like walking with you, Ramsey. You're so quiet and solid--I've always felt I could talk to you just anyhow I pleased, and you wouldn't mind. I'll miss these walks with you when we're out of college."
He chuckled. "That's funny!"
"Because we've only taken four besides this: two last year, and another week before last, and another last week. This is only the fifth."
"Good gracious! Is that all? It seemed to me we'd gone ever so often!" She laughed. "I'm afraid you won't think that seems much as if I'd liked going, but I really have. And, by the way, you've never called on me at all. Perhaps it's because I've forgotten to ask you."
"Oh, no," Ramsey said, and scuffed his shoes on the path, presently explaining rather huskily that he "never was much of a caller"; and he added, "or anything."
"Well, you must come if you ever care to," she said, with a big- sister graciousness. "The Dorm chaperon sits there, of course, but ours is a jolly one and you'd like her. You've probably met her-- Mrs. Hustings?--when you've called on other girls at our old shop."
"No," said Ramsey. "I never was much of a--" He paused, fearing that he might be repeating himself, and too hastily amended his intention. "I never liked any girl enough to go and call on her."
"Ramsey Milholland!" she cried. "Why, when we were in school half the room used to be talking about how you and that pretty Milla--"
"No, no!" Ramsey protested, again too hurriedly. "I never called on her. We just went walking."
A moment later his colour suddenly became fiery. "I don't mean--I mean--" he stammered. "It was walking, of course--I mean we did go out walking but it wasn't walking like--like this." He concluded with a fit of coughing which seemed to rack him.
Dora threw back her head and laughed delightfully. "Don't you apologize!" she said. "I didn't when I said it seemed to me that we've gone walking so often, when in reality it's only four or five times altogether. I think I can explain, though: I thhink it came partly from a feeling I have that I can rely on you--that you're a good, solid, reliable sort of person. I remember from the time we were little children, you always had a sort of worried, honest look in school; and you used to make a dent in your forehead--you meant it for a frown--whenever I caught your eye. You hated me so honestly, and you were so honestly afraid I wouldn't see it!"
"Oh, yes--yes!" she laughed, then grew serious. "My feeling about you--that you were a person to be relied on, I mean--I think it began that evening in our freshman year, after the Lusitania, when I stopped you on campus and you went with me, and I couldn't help crying, and you were so nice and quiet. I hardly realized then that it was the first time we'd ever really talked together--of course I did all the talking!--and yet we'd known each other so many years. I thought of it afterward. But what gave me such a different view of you, I'd always thought you were one of that truculent sort of boys, always just bursting for a fight; but you showed me you'd really never had a fight in your life and hated fighting, and that you sympathized with my feeling about war." She stopped speaking to draw in her breath with a sharp sigh. "Ah, don't you remember what I've told you all along? How it keeps coming closer and closer--and now it's almost here! Isn't it unthinkable? And what can we do to stop it, we poor few who feel that we must stop it?"
"Well--" Ramsey began uncomfortably. "Of course I--I--"
"You can't do much," she said. "I know. None of us can. What can any little group do? There are so few of us among the undergraduates --and only one in the whole faculty. All the rest are for war. But we mustn't give up; we must never feel afterward that we left anything undone; we must fight to the last breath!"
"'Fight'?" he repeated wonderingly, then chuckled.
"Oh, as a figure of speech," she said, impatiently. "Our language is full of barbaric figures left over from the dark ages. But, oh, Ramsey!"--she touched his sleeve--"I've heard that Fred Mitchell is saying that he's going to Canada after Easter, to try to get into the Canadian aviation corps. If it's true, he's a dangerous firebrand, I think. Is it true?"
"I guess so. He's been talking that way some."
"But why do you let him talk that way?" she cried. "He's your roommate; surely you have more influence with him than anybody else has. Couldn't you--"
He shook his head slowly, while upon his face the faintly indicated modellings of a grin hinted of an inner laughter at some surreptitious thought. "Well, you know, Fred says himself sometimes, I don't seem to be much of a talker exactly!"
"I know. But don't you see? That sort of thing is contagious. Others will think they ought to go if he does; he's popular and quite a leader. Can't you do anything with him?"
She waited for him to answer. "Can't you?" she insisted.
The grin had disappeared, and Ramsey grew red again. He seemed to wish to speak, to heave with speech that declined to be spoken and would not rouse up from his inwards. Finally he uttered words.
"Oh, I know," she said. "A man--or a boy!--always hates to be intruding his own convictions upon other men, especially in a case like this, where he might be afraid of some idiot's thinking him unmanlike. But Ramsey--" Suddenly she broke off and looked at him attentively; his discomfort had become so obvious that suspicion struck her. She spoke sharply. "Ramsey you aren't dreaming of doing such a thing, are you?"
"What such a thing?"
"Fred hasn't influenced you, has he? You aren't planning to go with him, are you?"
"To join the Canadian aviation."
"No; I hadn't thought of doing it."
She sighed again, relieved. "I had a queer feeling about you just then--that you were thinking of doing some such thing. You looked so odd--and you're always so quiet, anybody might not really know what you do think. But I'm not wrong about you, am I, Ramsey?"
They had come to the foot of the steps that led up to the entrance of her dormitory, and their walk was at an end. As they stopped and faced each other, she looked at him earnestly; but he did not meet the scrutiny, his eyelids fell.
"I'm not wrong, am I, Ramsey?"
"About what?" he murmured, uncomfortably.
"You are my friend, aren't you?"
"Then it's all right," she said. "That relieves me and makes me happier than I was just now, for of course if you're my friend you wouldn't let me make any mistake about you. I believe you, and now, just before I go in and we won't see much of each other for a week --if you still want me to go with you again next Sunday--"
"Yes--won't you, please?"
"Yes, if you like. But I want to tell you now that I count on you in all this, even though you don't 'talk much,' as you say; I count on you more than I do on anybody else, and I trust you when you say you're my friend, and it makes me happy. And I think perhaps you're right about Fred Mitchell. Talk isn't everything, nobody knows that better than I, who talk so much! and I think that, instead of talking to Fred, a steady, quiet influence like yours would do more good than any amount of arguing. So I trust you, you see? And I'm sorry I had that queer doubt of you." She held out her hand. "Unless I happen to see you on the campus for a minute, in the meantime, it's good-bye until a week from to-day. So--well, so, good-bye until then!"
"Wait," said Ramsey.
"What is it?"
He made a great struggle. "I'm not influencing Fred not to go," he said. "I--don't want you to trust me to do anything like that."
"I think it's all right for him to go, if he wants to," Ramsey said, miserably.
"You do? For him to go to fight?"
He swallowed. "Yes."
"Oh!" she cried, turned even redder than he, and ran up the stone steps. But before the storm doors closed upon her she looked down to where he stood, with his eyes still lowered, a lonely-seeming figure, upon the pavement below. Her voice caught upon a sob as she spoke.
"If you feel like that, you might as well go and enlist, yourself," she said, bitterly. "I can't--I couldn't--speak to you again after this!"