Only One of Them by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
It was noon on a Saturday. Out of the many buildings of the great electrical manufacturing plant at Schenectady poured employees by hundreds. Thirty trolley-cars were run on special tracks to the place and stood ready to receive the sea streaming towards them. Massed motor-cars waited beyond the trolleys for their owners, officials of the works. The girl in blue serge, standing at a special door of a special building counted, keeping watch meantime of the crowd, the cars. A hundred and twenty-five she made it; it came to her mind that State Street in Albany on a day of some giant parade was not unlike this, not less a throng. The girl, who was secretary to an assistant manager, was used to the sight, but it was an impressive sight and she was impressionable and found each Saturday's pageant a wonder. The pageant was more interesting it may be because it focussed always on one figure--and here he was.
"Did you wait, long?" he asked as he came up, broad-shouldered and athletic of build, boyish and honest of face, as good looking a young American as one may see in any crowd.
"I was early." She smiled up at him as they swung off towards the trolleys; her eyes flashed a glance which said frankly that she found him satisfactory to look upon.
They sped past others, many others, and made a trolley car and a seat together, which was the goal. They always made it, every Saturday, yet it was always a game. Exhilarated by the winning of the game they settled into the scat for the three-quarters of an hour run; it was quite a worth-while world, the smiling glances said one to the other.
The girl gazed, not seeing them particularly, at the slower people filling the seats and the passage of the car. Then: "Oh," she spoke, "what was it you were going to tell me?"
The man's face grew sober, a bit troubled. "Well," he said, "I've decided. I'm going to enlist."
She was still for a second. Then: "I think that's splendid," she brought out. "Splendid. Of course, I knew you'd do it. It's the only thing that could be. I'm glad."
"Yes," the man spoke slowly. "It's the only thing that could be. There's nothing to keep me. My mother's dead. My father's husky and not old and my sisters are with him. There's nobody to suffer by my going."
"N-no," the girl agreed. "But--it's the fine thing to do just the same. You're thirty-two you see, and couldn't be drafted. That makes it rather great of you to go."
"Well," the man answered, "not so very great, I suppose, as it's what all young Americans are doing. I rather think it's one of those things, like spelling, which are no particular credit if you do them, but a disgrace if you don't."
"What a gray way of looking at it!" the girl objected. "As if all the country wasn't glorying in the boys who go! As if we didn't all stand back of you and crowd the side lines to watch you, bursting with pride. You know we all love you."
"Do you love me, Mary? Enough to marry me before I go?" His voice was low, but the girl missed no syllable. She had heard those words or some like them in his voice before.
"Oh, Jim," she begged, "don't ask me now. I'm not certain--yet. I--I couldn't get along very well without you. I care a lot. But--I'm not just sure it's--the way I ought to care to marry you."
As alone in the packed car as in a wood, the little drama went on and no one noticed. "I'm sorry, Mary." The tone was dispirited. "I could go with a lot lighter heart if we belonged to each other."
"Don't say that, Jim," she pleaded. "You make me out--a slacker. You don't want me to marry you as a duty?"
"Good Lord, no!"
"I know that. And I--do care. There's nobody like you. I admire you so for going--but you're not afraid of anything. It's easy for you, that part. I suppose a good many are really--afraid. Of the guns and the horror--all that. You're lucky, Jim. You don't give that a thought."
The man flashed an odd look, and then regarded his hands joined on his knee.
"I do appreciate your courage. I admire that a lot. But somehow Jim there's a doubt that holds me back. I can't be sure I--love you enough; that it's the right way--for that."
The man sighed. "Yes," he said. "I see. Maybe some time. Heavens knows I wouldn't want you unless it was whole-hearted. I wouldn't risk your regretting it, not if I wanted you ten times more. Which is impossible." He put out his big hand with a swift touch on hers. "Maybe some time. Don't worry," he said. "I'm yours." And went on in a commonplace tone, "I think I'll show up at the recruiting office this afternoon, and I'll come to your house in the evening as usual. Is that all right?"
The car sped into Albany and the man went to her door with the girl and left her with few words more and those about commonplace subjects. As he swung down the street he went over the episode in his mind, and dissected it and dwelt on words and phrases and glances, and drew conclusions as lovers have done before, each detail, each conclusion mightily important, outweighing weeks of conversation of the rest of the world together. At last he shook his head and set his lips.
"It's not honest." He formed the words with his lips now, a summing up of many thoughts in his brain. The brain went on elaborating the text. "She thinks I'm brave; she thinks it's easy for me to face enlisting, and the rest. She thinks I'm the makeup which can meet horror and suffering light-heartedly. And I'm not. She admires me for that--she said so. I'm not it. I'm fooling her; it's not honest. Yet"--he groaned aloud. "Yet I may lose her if I tell her the truth. I'm afraid. I am. I hate it. I can't bear--I can't bear to leave my job and my future, just when it's opening out. But I could do that. Only I'm--Oh, damnation--I'm afraid. Horror and danger, agony of men and horses, myself wounded maybe, out on No Man's Land--left there--hours. To die like a dog. Oh, my God--must I? If I tell it will break the little hold I have on her. Must I go to this devil's dance that I hate--and give up her love besides? But yet--it isn't honest to fool her. Oh, God, what will I do?" People walking up State Street, meeting a sober-faced young man, glanced at him with no particular interest. A woman waiting on a doorstep regarded him idly.
"Why isn't he in uniform?" she wondered as one does wonder in these days at a strong chap in mufti. Then she rebuked her thought. "Undoubtedly there's a good reason; American boys are not slackers."
His slow steps carried him beyond her vision and casual thought. The people in the street and the woman on the doorstep did not think or care that what they saw was a man fighting his way through the crisis of his life, fighting alone "per aspera ad astra--" through thorns to the stars.
He lunched with a man at a club and after that took his way to the building on Broadway where were the recruiting headquarters. He had told her that he was going to enlist. As he walked he stared at the people in the streets as a man might stare going to his execution. These people went about their affairs, he considered, as if he--who was about to die--did not, in passing their friendly commonplace, salute them. He did salute them. Out of his troubled soul he sent a silent greeting to each ordinary American hurrying along, each standing to him for pleasant and peaceful America, America of all his days up to now. Was he to toss away this comfortable comradeship, his life to be, everything he cared for on earth, to go into hell, and likely never come back? Why? Why must he? There seemed to be plenty who wanted to fight--why not let them? It was the old slacker's argument; the man was ashamed as he caught himself using it; he had the grace to see its selfishness and cowardice. Yet his soul was in revolt as he drove his body to the recruiting office, and the thoughts that filled him were not of the joy of giving but of the pain of giving up. With that he stood on the steps of the building and here was Charlie Thurston hurrying by on the sidewalk.
"Hello, Jim! Going in to enlist? So long till you come back with one leg and an eye out."
It was Thurston's idea of a joke. He would have been startled if he had known into what a trembling balance his sledge-hummer wit cast its unlucky weight. The balance quivered at the blow, shook back and forth an instant and fell heavily. Jim Barlow wheeled, sprang down the stone steps and bolted up the street, panting as one who has escaped a wild beast. Thurston had said it. That was what was due to happen. It was now three o'clock; Barlow fled up State Street to the big hotel and took a room and locked his door and threw himself on the bed. What was he to do? After weeks of hesitation he had come to the decision that he would offer himself to his country. He saw--none plainer--the reasons why it was fit and right so to do. Other men were giving up homes and careers and the whole bright and easy side of life--why not he? It was the greatest cause to fight for in the world's history--should he not fight for it? How, after the war, might he meet friends, his own people, his children to come, if he alone of his sort had no honorable record to show? Such arguments, known to all, he repeated, even aloud he repeated them, tossing miserably about the bed in his hotel room. And his mind at once accepted them, but that was all. His spirit failed to spring to his mind's support with the throb of emotion which is the spark that makes the engine go. The wheels went around over and over but the connection was not made. The human mind is useful machinery, but it is only the machine's master, the soul, which can use it. Over and over he got to his feet and spoke aloud: "Now I will go." Over and over a repulsion seized him so strongly that his knees gave way and he fell back on the bed. If he had a mother, he thought, she might have helped, but there was no one. Mary--but he could not risk Mary's belief in his courage. Only a mother would have understood entirely.
With that, sick at heart, the hideous sea of counter arguments, arguments of a slacker, surged upon him. What would it all matter a hundred years from now? Wasn't he more useful in his place keeping up the industries of the nation? Wasn't he a bigger asset to America as an alive engineer, an expert in his work, than as mere cannon fodder, one of thousands to be shot into junk in a morning's "activity"--just one of them? Because the Germans were devils why should he let them reach over here, away over here, and drag him out of a decent and happy life and throw him like dirt into the horrible mess they had made, and leave him dead or worse--mangled and useless. Then, again--there were plenty of men mad to fight; why not let them? Through a long afternoon he fought with the beasts, and dinner-time came and he did not notice, and at last he rose and, telephoning first to Mary a terse message that he would not be able to come this evening, he went out, hardly knowing what he did, and wandered up town.
There was a humble church in a quiet street where a service flag hung, thick with dark stars, and the congregation were passing out from a special service for its boys who were going off to camp. The boys were there on the steps, surrounded by people eager to touch their hands, a little group of eight or ten with serious bright faces, and a look in their eyes which stabbed into Barlow. One may see that look any day in any town, meeting the erect stalwart lads in khaki who are about our streets. It is the look of those who have made a vital sacrifice and know the price, and whose minds are at peace. Barlow, lingering on the corner across the way, stared hungrily. How had they got that look, that peace? If only he might talk to one of them! Yet he knew how dumb an animal is a boy, and how helpless these would be to give him the master word.
The master-word, he needed that; he needed it desperately. He must go; he must. Life would be unendurable without self-respect; no amount of explaining could cover the stain on his soul if he failed in the answer to the call of honor. That was it, it was in a nut-shell, the call. Yet he could not hear it as his call. He wandered unhappily away and left the church and its dissolving congregation, and the boys, the pride of the church, the boys who were now, they also, separating and going back each to his home for the last evening perhaps, to be loved and made much of. Barlow vaguely pictured the scenes in those little homes--eyes bright with unshed tears, love and laughter and courage, patriotism as fine as in any great house in America, determination that in giving to America what was dearest it should be given with high spirit--that the boys should have smiling faces to remember, over there. And then again--love and tender words. He was missing all that. He, too, might go back to his father's house an enlisted man, and meet his father's eyes of pride and see his sisters gaze at him with a new respect, feel their new honor of him in the touch of arms about his neck. All these things were for him too, if he would but take them. With that there was the sound of singing, shrill, fresh voices singing down the street. He wheeled about. A company of little girls were marching towards him and he smiled, looking at them, thinking the sight as pretty as a garden of flowers. They were from eight to ten or eleven years old and in the bravery of fresh white dresses; each had a big butterfly of pink or blue or yellow or white ribbon perched on each little fair or dark head, and each carried over her shoulder a flag. Quite evidently they were coming from the celebration at the church, where in some capacity they had figured. Not millionaires children these; the little sisters likely of the boys who were going to be soldiers; just dear things that bloom all over America, the flowering of the land, common to rich and poor. As they sprang along two by two, in unmartial ranks, they sang with all their might "The Long, Long Trail."
"There's a long, long trail that's leading To No Man's Land in France Where the shrapnel shells are bursting And we must advance."
* * * * *
We're going to show old Kaiser Bill What our Yankee boys can do.
Jim Barlow, his hands in his pockets, backed up against a house and listened to the clear, high, little voices. "No Man's Land in France--We must advance--What our Yankee boys can do."
As if his throat were gripped by a quick hand, a storm of emotion swept him. The little girls--little girls who were the joy, each one, of some home! Such little things as the Germans--in Belgium--"Oh, my God!" The words burst aloud from his lips. These were trusting--innocent, ignorant--to "What our Yankee boys can do." Without that, without the Yankee boys, such as these would be in the power of wild beasts. It was his affair. Suddenly he felt that stab through him.
"God," he prayed, whispering it as the little girls passed on singing, "help me to protect them; help me to forget myself." And the miracle that sends an answer sometimes, even in this twentieth century, to true prayer happened to Jim Barlow. Behold he had forgotten himself. With his head up and peace in his breast, and the look in his face already, though he did not know it, that our soldier boys wear, he turned and started at a great pace down the street to the recruiting office.
"Why, you did come."
It was nine o'clock and he stood with lighted face in the middle of the little library. And she came in; it was an event to which he never got used, Mary's coming into a room. The room changed always into such an astonishing place.
"Mary, I've done it. I'm--" his voice choked a bit--"I'm a soldier." He laughed at that. "Well not so you'd notice it, yet. But I've taken the first step."
"I knew, Jim. You said you were going to enlist. Why did you telephone you couldn't come?"
He stared down at her, holding her hands yet. He felt, unphrased, strong, the overwhelming conviction that she was the most desirable thing on earth. And directly on top of that conviction another, that he would be doing her desirableness, her loveliness less than the highest honor if he posed before her in false colors. At whatever cost to himself he must be honest with her. Also--he was something more now than his own man; he was a soldier of America, and inside and out he would be, for America's sake, the best that was in him to be.
"Mary, I've got a thing to tell you."
"Yes?" The sure way in which she smiled up at him made the effort harder.
"I fooled you. You think I'm a hero. And I'm not. I'm a--" for the life of him he could not get out the word "coward." He went on: "I'm a blamed baby." And he told her in a few words, yet plainly enough what he had gone through in the long afternoon. "It was the kiddies who clinched it, with their flags and their hair ribbons--and their Yankee boys. I couldn't stand for--not playing square with them."
Suddenly he gripped her hands so that it hurt. "Mary, God help me, I'll try to fight the devils over there so that kiddies like that, and--you, and all the blessed people, the whole dear shooting-match will be safe over here. I'm glad--I'm so glad I'm going to have a hand in it. Mary, it's queer, but I'm happier than I've been in months. Only"--his brows drew anxiously. "Only I'm scared stiff for fear you think me--a coward."
He had the word out now. Thee taste wasn't so bad after all; it seemed oddly to have nothing to do with himself. "Mary, dear, couldn't you--forget that in time? When I've been over there and behaved decently--and I think I will. Somehow I'm not afraid of being afraid now. It feels like a thing that couldn't be done--by a soldier of Uncle Sam's. I'll just look at the other chaps--all heroes, you know--and be so proud I'm with them and so keen to finish our job that I know--somehow I know I'll never think about my blooming self at all. It's queer to say it, Mary, but the way it looks now I'm in it, it's not just country even. It's religion. See, Mary?"
There was no sound, no glance from Mary. But he went on, unaware, so rapt was he in his new illumination.
"And when I come back, Mary, with a decent record--just possibly with a war-cross--oh, my word! Think of me! Then, couldn't you forget this business I've been telling you? Do you think you could marry me then?"
What was the matter? Why did she stand so still with her head bending lower and lower, the color deepening on the bit of cheek that his anxious eyes could see.
Suddenly she was clutching his collar as if in deadly fear.
"Mary, what's the matter? I'm such a fool, but--oh, Mary, dear!"
With that Mary-dear straightened and, slipping her clutch to the lapel of his old coat, spoke. She looked into his eyes with a smile that was sweeter--oh, much sweeter!--for tears that dimmed it, and she choked most awfully between words. "Jim"--and a choke. "Jim, I'm terrified to think I nearly let you get away. You. And me not worthy to lace your shoes--" ("Oh, gracious, Mary--don't!") "me--the idiot, backing and filling when I had the chance of my life at--at a hero. Oh, Jim!"
"Here! Mary, don't you understand? I've been telling you I was scared blue. I hated to tell you Mary, and it's the devil to tell you twice--"
What was this? Did Heaven then sometimes come down unawares on the head of an every-day citizen with great lapses of character? Jim Barlow, entranced, doubted his senses yet could not doubt the touch of soft hands clasped in his neck. He held his head back a little to be sure that they were real. Yes, they were there, the hands--Barlow's next remark was long, but untranslatable. Minutes later. "Mary, tell me what you mean. Not that I care much if--if this." Language grows elliptical under stress. "But--did you get me? I'm--a coward." A hand flashed across his mouth.
"Don't you dare, Jim, you're the bravest--bravest--"
The words died in a sharp break. "Why, Jim it was a hundred thousand times pluckier to be afraid and then go. Can't you see that, you big stupid?"
"But, Mary, you said you admired it when--when you thought I was a lion of courage."
"Of course. I admired you. Now I adore you."
"Well," summed up, Barlow bewildered, "if women aren't the blamedest!"
And Mary squealed laughter. She put hands each side of his face. "Jim--listen. I'll try to explain because you have a right to understand."
"Well, yes," agreed Jim.
"It's like this. I thought you'd enlist and I never dreamed you were balky. I didn't know you hated it so. Why didn't you tell me?"
"Go on," urged Jim.
"I thought you were mad to be going, like--like these light-headed boys. That you didn't mind leaving me compared to the adventure. That you didn't care for danger. But now--now." She covered his eyes with her fingers, "Now Jim, you need me. A woman can't love a man her best unless she can help him. Against everything--sorrow, mosquitoes, bad food--drink--any old bother. That's the alluring side of tipplers. Women want to help them. So, now I know you need me," the soft, unsteady voice wandered on, and Jim, anchored between, the hands, drank in her look with his eyes and her tones with his ears and prayed that the situation might last a week. "You need me so, to tell you how much finer you are than if you'd gone off without a quiver."
Barlow sighed in contentment. "And me thinking I was the solitary 'fraid-cat of America!"
"Solitary! Why, Jim, there must be at least ten hundred thousand men going through this same battle. All the ones old enough to think, probably. Why Jim--you're only one of them. In that speech the other night the man said this war was giving men their souls. I think it's your kind he meant, the kind that realizes the bad things over there and the good things over here and goes just the same. The kind--you are."
"I'm a hero from Hero-ville," murmured Barlow. "But little Mary, when I come back mangled will you feel the same? Will you marry me then, Mary?"
"I'll marry you any minute," stated Mary, "and when you come back I'll love you one extra for every mangle."
"Any minute," repeated Barlow dramatically. "Tomorrow?"
And summed up again the heaven that he could not understand and did not want to, "Search me," he adjured the skies in good Americanese, "if girls aren't the blamedest."