Chapter XXI
 

That thunder in the soil, at first too deep within it to be audible, had come to the surface now and gradually became heard as the thunder of a million feet upon the training grounds. The bugles rang sharper; the drums and fifes of town and village and countryside were the drums and fifes of a war that came closer and closer to every hearth between the two oceans.

All the old symbols became symbols bright and new, as if no one had ever seen them before. "America" was like a new word, and the song "America" was like a new song. All the dusty blatancies of orating candidates, seeking to rouse bored auditors with "the old flag"; all the mechanical patriotics of school and church and club; all these time-worn flaccid things leaped suddenly into living colour. The flag became brilliant and strange to see--strange with a meaning that seemed new, a meaning long known, yet never known till now.

And so hearts that thought they knew themselves came upon ambushes of emotion and hidden indwellings of spirit not guessed before. Dora Yocum, listening to the "Star Spangled Banner," sung by children of immigrants to an out-of-tune old piano in a mission clubroom, in Chicago, found herself crying with a soul-shaking heartiness in a way different from other ways that she had cried. Among the many things she thought of then was this: That the banner the children were singing about was in danger. The great country, almost a continent, had always seemed so untouchable, so safe and sure; she had never been able to conceive of a hostile power mighty enough to shake or even jar it. And since so great and fundamental a thing could not be injured, a war for its defence had appeared to be, in her eyes, not only wicked but ridiculous. At last, less and less vaguely, she had come to comprehend something of the colossal German threat, and the shadow that touched this bright banner of which the immigrants' children piped so briskly in the mission club-room.

She had begun to understand, though she could not have told just why, or how, or at what moment understanding reached her. She began to understand that her country, threatened to the life, had flung its line those thousands of miles across the sea to stand and hold Hindenburg and Ludendorff and all their Kaisers, Kings, Dukes, and Crown Princes, their Krupp and Skoda monstrous engines, and their monstrous other engines of men made into armies. Through the long haze of misted sea-miles and the smoke of land-miles she perceived that brown line of ours, and knew it stood there that Freedom, and the Nation itself, might not perish from the earth.

And so, a week later, she went home, and came nervously to Ramsey's mother and found how to direct the letter she wanted to write. He was in France.

As the old phrase went, she poured out her heart. It seems to apply to her letter.

She wrote:

Don't misunderstand me. I felt that my bitter speech to you had driven you to take the step you did. I felt that I had sent you to be killed, and that I ought to be killed for doing it, but I knew that you had other motives, too. I knew, of course, that you thought of the country more than you did of me, or of any mad thing I would say--but I thought that what I said might have been the prompting thing, the word that threw you into it so hastily and before you were ready, perhaps. I dreaded to bear that terrible responsibility. I hope you understand.

My great mistake has been--I thought I sas so "logical"--it's been in my starting everything with a thought I'd never proven; that war is the worst thing, and all other evils were lesser. I was wrong. I was wrong, because war isn't the worst evil. Slavery is the worse evil, and now I want to tell you I have come to see that you are making war on those that make slavery. Yes, you are fighting those that make both war and slavery, and you are right, and I humbly reverence and honour all of you who are in this right war. I have come home to work in the Red Cross here; I work there all day, and all day I keep saying to myself--but I really mean to you--it's what I pray, and oh, how I pray it: "God be with you and grant you the victory!" For you must win and you will win.

Forgive me, oh, please--and if you will, could you write to me? I know you have things to do more important than "girls"--but oh, couldn't you, please?

This letter, which she had taken care not to dampen, as she wrote, went in slow course to the "American Expeditionary Forces in France," and finally found him whom it patiently sought. He delayed not long to answer, and in time she held in a shaking hand the pencilled missive he had sent her.

You forget all that comic talk about me enlisting because of your telling me to. I'd written my father I was going at the first chance a month and a half before that day when you said it. My mind was made up at the first time there was any talk of war, and you had about as much responsibility for my going as some little sparrow or something. Of course I don't mean I didn't pay any attention to the different things you said, because I always did, and I used to worry over it because I was afraid some day it would get you in trouble, and I'm mighty glad you've cut it out. That's right; you be a regular girl now. You always were one, and I knew it all right. I'm not as scared to write to you as I was to talk to you, so I guess you know I was mighty tickled to get your letter. It sounded blue, but I was glad to get it. You bet I'll write to you! I don't suppose you could have any idea how glad I was to get your letter. I could sit here and write to you all day if they'd let me, but I'm a corporal now. When you answer this, I wish you'd say how the old town looks and if the grass in the front yards is as green as it usually is, and everything. And tell me some more about everything you think of when you are working down at the Red Cross like you said. I guess I've read your letter five million times, and that part ten million. I mean where you underlined that "you" and what you said to yourself at the Red Cross. Oh, murder, but I was glad to read that! Don't forget about writing anything else you think of like that.

Well, I was interrupted then and this is the next day. Of course, I can't tell you where we are, because that darned censor will read this letter, but I guess he will let this much by. Who do you think I ran across in a village yesterday? Two boys from the old school days, and we certainly did shake hands a few times! It was the old foolish Dutch Krusemeyer and Albert Paxton, both of them lieutenants. I heard Fred Mitchell is still training in the States and about crazy because they won't send him over yet.

If you had any idea how glad I was to get your letter, you wouldn't lose any time answering this one. Anyhow, I'm going to write to you again every few days if I get the chance, because maybe you'll answer more than one of 'em.

But see here, cut out that "sent you to be killed" stuff. You've got the wrong idea altogether. We've got the big job of our lives, we know that, but we're going to do it. There'll be mistakes and bad times, but we won't fall down. Now you'll excuse me for saying it this way, Dora, but I don't know just how to express myself except saying of course we know everybody isn't going to get back home--but listen, we didn't come over here to get killed particularly, we came over here to give these Dutchmen h--l!

Perhaps you can excuse language if I write it with a blank like that, but before we get back we're going to do what we came for. They may not all of them be as bad as some of them--it's a good thing you don't know what we do, because some of it would make you sick. As I say, there may be quite a lot of good ones among them; but we know what they've done to this country, and we know what they mean to do to ours. So we're going to attend to them. Of course that's why I'm here. It wasn't you.

Don't forget to write pretty soon, Dora. You say in your letter--I certainly was glad to get that letter--well, you say I have things to do more important than "girls." Dora, I think you probably know without my saying so that of course while I have got important things to do, just as every man over here has, and everybody at home, for that matter, well, the thing that is most important in the world to me, next to helping win this war, it's reading the next letter from you.

Don't forget how glad I'll be to get it, and don't forget you didn't have anything to do with my being over here. That was--it was something else. And you bet, whatever happens I'm glad I came! Don't ever forget that!

Dora knew it was "something else." Her memory went back to her first recollection of him in school: from that time on he had been just an ordinary, everyday boy, floundering somehow through his lessons in school and through his sweethearting with Milla, as the millions of other boys floundered along with their own lessons and their own Millas. She saw him swinging his books and romping homeward from the schoolhouse, or going whistling by her father's front yard, rattling a stick on the fence as he went, care-free and masterful, but shy as a deer if strangers looked at him, and always "not much of a talker."

She had always felt so superior to him, she shuddered as she thought of it. His quiet had been so much better than her talk. His intelligence was proven now, when it came to the great test, to be of a stronger sort than hers. He was wise and good and gentle--and a fighting man! "We know what they've done to this country and what they mean to do to ours. So we're going to attend to them." She read this over, and she knew that Ramsey, wise and gentle and good, would fight like an unchained devil, and that he and his comrades would indeed and indeed do what they "came for."

"It wasn't you," he said. She nodded gently, agreeing, and knew what it was that sent him. Yet Ramsey had his own secret there, and did not tell it. Sometimes there rose, faint in his memory, a whimsical picture, yet one that had always meant much to him. He would see an old man sitting with a little boy upon a rustic bench under a walnut tree to watch the "Decoration Day Parade" go by--and Ramsey would see a shoot of sunshine that had somehow got through the walnut tree and made a bedazzlement of glinting fine lines over a spot about the size of a saucer, upon the old man's thick white hair. And in Ramsey's memory, the little boy, sitting beside the veteran, would half close his eyes, drowsily, playing that this sunshine spot was a white bird's-nest, until he had a momentary dream of a glittering little bird that dwelt there and wore a blue soldier cap on its head. And Ramsey would bring out of his memory toughts that the old man had got into the child's head that day. "We knew that armies fighting for the Freedom of Man had to win, in the long run.... We were on the side of God's Plan.... Long ago we began to see hints of His Plan.... Man has to win his freedom from himself--men in the light have to fight against men in the dark.... That light is the answer.... We had the light that made us never doubt."

A long while Dora sat with the letter in her hand before she answered it and took it upon her heart to wear. That was the place for it, since it was already within her heart, where he would find it when he came home again. And she beheld the revelation sent to her. This ordinary life of Ramsey's was but the outward glinting of a high and splendid spirit, as high and splendid as earth can show. And yet it was only the life of an everyday American boy. The streets of the town were full, now, of boys like Ramsey.

At first they were just boys in uniform; then one saw that they were boys no more.

They were soldiers.