The child's thin voice reached him in questionings, and the steady low tones of the woman. A man could ask little more of the world than to lead a child thus.... Perhaps they were poor. Boylan would have liked to fix that. It had to do with the whole inner ideal of the man to be a fixer of such things—to come home to a house of little ones in quantity and many women—a broad house of aunts, sisters and old women, a long broad table of all ages, the many problems resting on him—and one woman looking straight across.... She would know everything, and yet would advise with him—quiet discussions of policy regarding this one or that one, and the interposition of food....
He was perspiring. Always after a war or expedition he had perceived such matters more or less clearly, but not quite as now. Never before had he constructed his secret heaven with such durable substance.... He actually believed that the field would never call to him again. It had become like the fear of hunger that he had learned once for all. No more of that—no more of war. He had given everything to the field, and lost his broad board in the world-house. At least, he could find a door-step somewhere.
They were gone. He thought of his companion—the sense of summons that he seemed to have known always. He turned and walked back. The snow fell softly; the street lights were pleasant and warming with this bit of peace in the world, this little circle of life with men and women and children together.... As he neared the apothecary shop, his thoughts became rounder and rounder with what he had missed. He had taken the arc and lost the globe—a sorry old specimen of a man, if the truth were told, a career behind him designed to arouse the wildness of boys, but without appeal and very much to be discouraged by real men. Finally it occurred to him of the whole races of men who had what he lacked, yet were restless for the harshness and crudity of the earth.
"If they only knew what they have," he muttered. "I suppose they forget. Just as I forget between wars what hell is like.... I suppose they do forget, and read a man's stuff by their fires (ordering the kids to be quiet)... thinking that this war-man writing from the field is a great and lucky guy. I suppose they stop and think how things might have been different with them—had they taken to the open when the old call came.... Ordering the kids to be quiet—Good God—"
Whether it was the audacity of fatherhood that called this last into the world, or the face of the woman who had passed him—is not known. Enough that Big Belt forgot all his dreams. ...That white-skinned, wonder-eyed girl, the fire creature, twice seen in the bitter shadows of Judenbach!
She had looked into his face, as if she scarcely dared to trust her eyes, as if she, too, were not sure; and yet it had come over him like death that she was here for her own.... He tried to make himself believe that it was an illusion, just one of the queer jolts that come to a man when his thoughts are far off. But actualities rubbed this out. She was a prisoner of the Germans; probably had proved invaluable in the hospital service and had earned certain privileges; but it wouldn't do to let Peter fall into her clutches again; that meant revolution and death. They would make a dupe of him as before. It had nothing to do with peace and the outer world; it meant—
Boylan saw that he wanted Peter for his own. He wiped the sweat from under his hat.... He couldn't keep them apart; she would think out a way; a man can't wrestle with a woman.... The world was bleak and wide-open to disruption again. He climbed the stairs.
The wounded man was not awake. Boylan had objected from the first to his manner of breathing—too much in the throat, hardly a man-sized volume of air, the breathing of one who hadn't proper lung-room; but this was an old matter. He reflected on the various fatigues Mowbray had met with a smile, and the vitality which had finally pulled him loose from the cold clutch itself; standing him in stead through a journey so grisly that Boylan had not had the detachment so far to contemplate it from first to last. So he had been forced seriously to grant exceptions to the rule of chest inches and vitality. The soft winter air blew in from the slightly opened casement.
Peter's face was wan and boyish—different to Boylan as a result of his encounter in the street. He saw Peter now with the eyes of a man who must give up.... She was here in Sondreig. He would not help her, but if she came, there would be no fight.... It had been his fault. Boylan had sensed the danger of giving too much—from the beginning.... One woman brings a man into the world, sees him properly a man, and another woman takes him away.... Just how Big Belt broke into this particular picture must be suggested rather than explained. He was very close to mothers that night. He could understand fathers, too.
...They would never know what he had done. The Russians had not understood, except Lornievitch, in part, and he was far away; the Germans would never piece the fragments together, and Peter himself had been mainly unconscious. Peter had not been told even of the Dabnitz episode.... They might have pulled together for years if it hadn't been for the woman, but there was bound to be a woman. Mowbray was like that.
Big Belt yawned over it all, drew his cot close, so he could hear Peter's call, lit a fresh candle, and wished he had remembered to smoke outside. Presently, however, he was breathing forth the full volume of a man.
Sitting by the civilized bed early the next afternoon he heard a voice below that clenched his jaw much as it had been that night outside the German camp before the stretcher was brought. She had found them. She did not speak first, but looked in.... Seeing the face upon the bed, she could not ask, nor speak, but crossed the room. It would have been just the same so far—had Boylan not been there. In fact, he had withdrawn from the place by his companion.... She knelt an instant. Now she arose and faced the friend.
"He will live."
Peter was still afar off.
"Yes, ma'am—I think he will."
She came to him now. "I saw you last night," she whispered. "I saw you come here. I could not come until now."
"Humph—" or something of the sort was heard from Boylan.
Berthe appeared to draw a certain truth from the situation. Perhaps she saw the woman in Boylan—the mysterious, draggled creature which he designated his devil on occasion. The old war-wolf gave her credit for no such penetration. Still she kept herself second, advised, assisted for a few moments, but would not let Boylan go.
"He's knit to you. He might die if you go," she said.
Something about her choked him. He had been with men so continually.
"And then I can't stay," she whispered. "But I am so thankful to have found you—that nothing else matters.... You see, we are prisoners. They have trusted certain of us to work; still we have no names, no way of hearing, no mails, or anything. It's a good miracle that I found you."
Presently she said again: "You don't think I understand, but I do. You have stood by him. He would not have been here but for you. He is living because of you. I see that. I see that he has been very close.... You may hate me as you wish, but you cannot help taking what I give you."
"You're an all-right young woman," Big Belt managed to remark. "I knew something of that." Then, in a panic, he added: "He'll know you to- night. He's cool now. He'll pull through. He'll know you to-night, and then I go."
"Not until he sees you.... Besides, I am a prisoner. I cannot come and go as I would. I may not be able to come to-night—they may say no." "He'll have all that he needs until you come," Boylan said.
She did come that night. Peter had returned, but voyaged again meanwhile. In the morning she came again.... Boylan ordered her to sit down in the far corner. He went to the bed, for Peter was stirring, and presently opened his eyes with reason and organization in them.
"Hello," he said.
Peter looked beyond him and around the room.
"Go to sleep," said Boylan.
Big Belt stepped aside. Peter managed to get a knuckle up to rub his eyes.
"He's back with us," Boylan whispered.
"Don't go," she pleaded.
"Don't be a fool," said Boylan.
She was there beside him, bending lower and lower. It was against nature for them not to forget the exterior world for a moment, and Boylan was on the stairs....
He saw Sondreig with eyes that seemed to have dropped their scales. It was early in the morning, and a light snow had freshened everything. An old woman was sitting at the locked entrance of what had been a dairy shop, weeping for her only son. Boylan stopped.
She was very poor and weak.
"Come, mother," he said, lifting her.
She looked into his face in a way that roweled the man.
"Come on," he said softly. "We'll have some breakfast. And you'll tell me about it. I belong to the widows and the fatherless, too."
So they rocked away together.
He was sleeping again. Berthe went to the window. Even in her happiness she was afraid, for she was remaining longer than her leave.... The window faced the south, and the apothecary shop was on the edge of town. The day was like a pearl—snowy distance, a soft- toned sky and the low shine of the sun. Deep down in the west, like an island, was a thick brush of cedars, preserving their green across the miles, and calling to her with something of the native wonder of old Mother Earth; and to the right, east of south, was the huge blurred stockade where King Cholera was so far imprisoned with the bait of fresh lives each day.
The old Mother was in her winter bloom, so pure and deep-eyed, so calm and above sorrow in her distance and coloring, that it became to Berthe a moment not to be forgotten—such a moment as would make a woman homesick in heaven.
...If the big man would only come back. They might be angry for her staying. It would be so easy to lose all that she had won from the Germans. They had come to rely upon her more and more, realizing the character of her service, and forgetting its origin in Judenbach. She did not want to disappoint them. With Peter Mowbray here in good hands and climbing back to life—no woman in the midst of war could ask more.... At the bedside again, she pondered the recent weeks to this hour. Without words, without heaviness, he had come along, fitting so blithely into the new places, bringing his laugh and his skepticism of self always, asking for no sign nor reward of the future, building no dream of heaven, but standing true to the tasks of earth. Greatly more, and differently, she loved him now, and the distance held the green of cedars.
...An officer came to her from the bullet-ward.
"You are to stay until Mr. Boylan, the correspondent, comes," he said.
"But will they know? They were good to let me come."
"Colonel Hartz has signed the order. Word has been sent to the entrainment wards. You were attached there, I believe?"
"Let us know in case of any need here."
"Yes. Thank you."
A most satisfying adventure, so that Big Belt added many things to the matters which could not be related. The old mother had told him of her son (as they sat together in the little room she called home) and Boylan had seen in him a singular hero, and made the mother see it. Presently he strode forth to the shops and returned with many packages of food affairs, and a cart of fuel following. The prodigious prices which these things commanded in Sondreig appealed to him as a trifle; in fact, the simplicity of life on these direct terms of living first hand, struck him as the eternally right way.... Then she cooked for him, very intent and eager in the great joy of it, agitated by his praise. In fact, he went to great lengths of breakfasting to show his appreciation; until, perceiving what he had done, he strode forth again with replenished understanding and restocked the cupboard by means of the cart.... Yes, he would come to-morrow.... Yes, by all means, while he was in Sondreig.
Even if he had not thought of the white-fire creature being held in the room above the apothecary shop for his return, Boylan had found it necessary to leave the old mother, since she could not be made to eat with him there. She would have cooked for him until she fell by the fire, but as for her sharing the repast, she begged him to have peace, that time was plentiful for that.... He was thinking it all out once more, a most delectable incident, as he walked swiftly through the snow toward the apothecary shop, when his shoulder was plucked by a passerby, and he turned, stiffening a bit at the roughness of it. A black-bearded man of much rank peered into his face, crying out:
"Boylan, by the One God!"
"Herr Hartz—by the same!" Big Belt exclaimed.
And now they embraced—a mighty affair, a memorable spectacle of pounding, of disengagement, of renewed embrace—so that soldiers and hospital men circled wide in passing, and the little street was hushed with the exceeding joy.
"Come and live with me, Boylan. I will not take no for an answer. Come at once, and let us a table between us have, to prevent further inderrupption of travvic—"
At no time would the cause of this majestic effusion have been made clear to an outsider, though it was plain that the American correspondent and the German officer of rank shared it alike. The truth: these two, and two others somewhere in the world, were the surviving four of a complement of over thirty men who had made up the original outfit now known as the Schmedding Polar Failure. Colonel Hartz, detached from his cavalry command for service in the prison- hospital at Sondreig, was second in command here as he had been to Schmedding in that former ill-starred expedition.
The table was between them.
"But first," said Boylan, "there is a little business in which you can help. My friend, Mowbray... is just coming back to life from Russian wounds. I could not leave him without being assured of his care. There is one little nurse from the entrainment wards—it is a good story, which I will tell in good time—competent to care for him. She is there now, but I have already stayed longer than her leave granted. She must be set at rest, and word sent also to her own post—"
"So much words for a little thing—dictate and I write. Then tell me of yourself, which is more imbortant—"
It happened, even after the messages were sent, that Boylan spoke very little of himself. He was grappling with a certain final disposal. His talk was colored with desire. In fact, within an hour he had reached the critical part of his narrative, and was becoming more glib momentarily as the way out cleared:
"...You see, they met in Warsaw, where I was stationed before the war. She did not tell him what was in her mind. He parted from her—as any other married man taking the field. We were together with Kohlvihr's column, of which I will tell you later.... Now what do you think?"
Herr Hartz snorted. He did not care to think.
"She didn't stay in Warsaw," Boylan went on, with great intensity. "No, my friend, she joined the hospital corps, and followed him afield—"
"The Russians take anyone for the hosbittles," the other remarked impatiently.
"Exactly; and my friend Mowbray found her nursing sick soldiers in Judenbach. It happened that they were together when the city changed hands. By the way, there was much of interest in those days of which I will tell you later.... This is the point. She was a Polish prisoner— he an American non-combatant. I advised them to say nothing for the present that they were married. It was very ticklish to change hands anyway, and would have complicated the position of each one. So they were separated. He was with me day by day until he was wounded. He moved in a dream without her—a good boy, Colonel—and a good girl— but war. I say, we learned something about men, you and I—long ago—- "
Herr Hartz now beamed.
"We learned it," he breathed.
"They make only a few on the pattern of Mowbray.... Last night I saw her in the street here at Sondreig.... So you see why I arranged for her to take my place at his side—but you can arrange the rest—"
"For God's sake, what do you want? You talk and talk about such people and women and love stories—when we have so much to say about ourselves—"
"Be patient. We have all time," said Big Belt. "I only want them together—a true married pair. Then they will be off my hands. You can make Headquarters forget she is Polish—that is all. Some little place apart—for them to be together while he heals—"
"Such a lot of talk for small things. It shall be done, Boylan, with a paper. I will send them to the country and monobolize you myself. This is a big war—yes?"
A last time he climbed to the floor above the apothecary shop. If only she wouldn't act up. A serious thing, this he had done. Big Belt felt that he had rushed matters, possibly treading upon a host of delicate and incomprehensible affairs. But, when he had found in Colonel Hartz a man to make action of his words, he had plunged....
Peter was asleep. The woman came forward noiselessly, offering her hand. By her face he knew that all was well with the patient. Boylan had stiffened to resist the pang of Peter's passing from his life. This had so far prevented his voice from softening to the woman. It was now evening.
"I've done what seemed best," he began abruptly in a whisper. "It appears to have accomplished what I set out after, but it's likely a ruffian's way—"
Her gray eyes widened, her face blanched.
Big Belt cleared his throat. Whispering was difficult.
"I met an old friend who made possible your remaining here. He's to send you into the country—as soon as the young fellow is able to be moved. You are to take care of him there. You see, my friend happened to be second in command here at Sondreig, and he thinks he can make all concerned forget that you were picked up from the opposition in Judenbach—"
"Can make Sondreig forget that?" she whispered.
"We are very old friends. We were out together in a former service—"
"And we are to be sent into the country—as soon as Peter is able?"
"But what is the terrible part?"
"There might have been a better way, but I didn't think of it—"
"Oh, what, Mr. Boylan?"
"I told him that you two were married—"
"I say, I told him that you two were married—"
Big Belt backed from her, and sat down.
"There isn't any then," he said. "That's it.... That you were married in Warsaw, and followed him to the field—without his knowing."
"Is that all?"
"Oh, you frightened me."
...Boylan was on the stairs. He halted, turned back. She came to him eagerly.
"But were you married?" he asked.
"No. But it's such a little thing compared to what might have happened—to keep us apart. I mean what might have happened here.... Oh, God bless you!"
He twisted his chin away from his collar, drew it clear with his hand, cleared his throat to speak, and vanished.
THE GREEN OF CEDARS
It wasn't an open fire, but a little iron stove that got so red that it trembled, and at intervals could hardly contain the puttering of the pine; and there was a one-armed soldier, who spent the long forenoons cutting carefully and piling, until there was a rustic wainscot half around the room, the drying breath of which was the purest fragrance in the world.... They petted the soldier until an officer came down.
It was the hunting forest of a certain Count, and the hut they lived in was but the lodge of one of his keepers; but it was far enough from the great mansion (where wounded officers of royal blood and toppling rank healed or died in much the same fashion as other men) to afford the silence and solitude they had dreamed of. And all about them the great trees pondered between the winds—pine and balsam, cedar and fir. It had looked like a bit of an island from the Sondreig window, but proved a true forest when they reached there—an enchanted one to Berthe and Mowbray.
Twice Boylan came down for a day, bringing Moritz Abel the second time; but the Colonel, whose authority had done so much for them, required much of Big Belt, and there was a woman (some mystery about this) who would keep dinner waiting, he said. So both times he had started back while there remained light in the sky. And Peter had become thoughtful.
"Why, there are whole days I can't account for," he muttered. "He must have had me strapped to him for days at a time."
He had asked for Poltneck, of whom she had seen the last in Judenbach. The Germans had loved his singing and made very much of him; and Peter had asked for Moritz Abel before the latter came for the day. Berthe had answered freely, but of Duke Fallows she had not spoken in a way to satisfy his questions. In fact, it was not until the day that Peter first crossed the little room alone that she seemed ready to speak. That afternoon he had called her from the window.
"Where is Fallows, Berthe?"
"Not far from here," she said. "Not as far as Sondreig from here—a place you have never seen, but I watched it every day from the window of the apothecary shop until you were moved. He offered himself at once when he heard—the cholera quarantine.... But he left a message for you to carry, Peter—gave it to me for you.
"I saw him for a few brief moments after he had volunteered. He talked of you and that other American boy of the other war. He said that the night he separated from that other—just after the battle of Liaoyang, the Russians in full retreat, he had written his story of the battle— the story of the Ploughman, and intrusted it to his friend to carry to America. He wants you to carry his story of this service—asked me to give it to you when you were better—to take to America with yours. 'Just a picture,' he said. 'It may be all wrong, but I see it so to- night, and I would like to have it come out in America some time.'
"He is very dear to us, Peter—that old burning exile. Some time we may understand his love for America.... It was hard to let him go. They fight day and night in the Stockade. They are trying to spare Sondreig.... I wish you might have been with him that last night before he went. It was before I found you—before I saw the big man in the street.... He was glad to go. There was no sense of sacrifice in it. His whole sense was of our sorrow and the world's sorrow. But it would have been good for him if you had been there—because you are of his country. He said it again and again: 'She must see it. It is her immortal opportunity,' meaning America—"
"Is his story so we can see it?" Peter asked.
She took from her breast a little chamois, in which was wrapped two pages of tough tissue, spread them out, drew her chair close to him, and read this picture Fallows had made, and his message to America:
..._It is the long night of Europe. France sits in dust upon the ground, staring toward the End. Mother England has called for her sons, and some have not answered. She turns her frost-rimed glass from the grim horizons to the grimmer skies, and always in the movement of the darkened shadows is written the word, "Disaster." ...Smileless Germany, stricken as never a nation was stricken before, save by the wrath of God, still holds to the fatal enchantment of a fatherland of the ground, while the changes in the Prussian boundaries are marked in fire and the blood of her children.... Russia is looking southward, furious to open her casements upon the perilous seas—gloomy millions of the tundras, mighty millions of the ice-ringing plains—looking southward, marching southward, to-day marking time, to-morrow a league, but southward as a ship in passage. Russia, the young, holy genii battling with demons in her breast, everything to win and only the fruits of her world-shocking fecundity to lose—southward to slaughter through the long night.
...A call to America through the long night—the voice calling for her to put on her splendid, her initial magic. The voice from the vision of sorrow-illumined men in frozen bivouacs, crying to America to hold fast to the dream of her Founders, lest the vessel of the future be drained of vital essence, indeed—to hold fast until we come ...crying for America to answer, not with rapacious intellect, not the answer of a militant body, but an answer from the soul of the New World, with its original vitality in the Fatherhood of God.
...Repeating through the long night that the patience of Nature is exhausted with the hate of man for man; that the hatred of nation for nation is a lost experiment; that the bitter romance of the predatory is a story finished in hell; that the passion for self and boundary is done, that Compassion for neighbor and nation is the art of the future; crying the end of the national soul and the stroke of the hour for the birth of the world-soul; crying to America, the only temple, the sole house of nativity, to put on again her youthful magic, to ignite afresh the Gleam of her Founders, to arise to her superb and heroic destiny._ They sat in silence until the tap at the door. It was the one-armed soldier, who came in, regarded the stove critically inside and out, judiciously chose one knot of pine, inserted it with grave care, and, departing, inquired if there was anything further he could do.
"No," said Peter.
And Berthe asked: "Is there anything we can do for you?"
He bowed his head in the doorway, and they saw beyond him the winding aisles of the forest—green and white, the dusk creeping in.
A brief expression of the critical Reception of
DOWN AMONG MEN
Outlook: Possessed of a marvelous descriptive genius, equipped with a remarkably flexible use of English and impelled by the passion of a mystic—the author of Down Among Men has written a striking novel.
The Dial: Seems to us the most exalted and appealing story Mr. Comfort has thus far written.
The Argonaut: A novel of extraordinary power. It is good as Routledge Rides Alone. It could hardly be better.
London Post: Alive with incident, bounding with physical energy, dramatic in coloring, and modern in every phrase. He has a message delivered with vigor, inspired with tense passion.
Atlantic Monthly: There is so much real fire in it—the fire of youth that has seen and suffered—so much vitality and passion that one grows chary of petty comments. The writer offers us the cup of life, and there is blood in the cup.
Chicago Record-Herald: An almost perfect tale of courage and adventure.
Chicago Tribune: Contains some of the most remarkable scenes that have appeared in recent American fiction.
New York Times: Few richer novels than this of Mr. Comfort's have been published in many a long day.
New York Globe: We can say in all sincerity that we know of no recent bit of descriptive writing that can match this for sustained, breathless, dramatic interest.
Springfield Republican: Down Among Men is perhaps the most ambitious American novel that has come out during the past year.
...A hint from the first-year's recognition of a book that was made to remain in American literature:
Boston Transcript: If it be extravagance, let it be so, to say that Comfort's account of his childhood has seldom been rivaled in literature. It amounts to revelation. Really the only parallels that will suggest themselves in our letters are the great ones that occur in Huckleberry Finn.... This man Comfort's gamut is long and he has raced its full length. One wonders whether the interest, the skill, the general worth of it, the things it has to report of all life, as well as the one life, do not entitle Midstream to the very long life that is enjoyed only by the very best of books.
San Francisco Argonaut: Read the book. It is autobiography in its perfection. It shows more of the realities of the human being, more of god and devil in conflict, than any book of its kind.
Springfield Republican: It is difficult to think of any other young American who has so courageously reversed the process of writing for the "market" and so flatly insisted upon being taken, if at all, on his own terms of life and art. And now comes his frank and amazing revelation, Midstream, in which he captures and carries the reader on to a story of regeneration. He has come far; the question is, how much farther will he go?
Mary Fanton Roberts in The Craftsman: Beside the stature of this book, the ordinary novel and biography are curiously dwarfed. You read it with a poignant interest and close it with wonder, reverence and gratitude. There is something strangely touching about words so candid, and a draught of philosophy that has been pressed from such wild and bitter-sweet fruit. The message it contains is one to sink deep, penetrating and enriching whatever receptive soul it touches. This man's words are incandescent. Many of us feel that he is breathing into a language, grown trite from hackneyed usage, the inspiration of a quickened life.
Ida Gilbert Myers in Washington Star: Courage backs this revelation. The gift of self-searching animates it. Honesty sustains it. And Mr. Comfort's rare power to seize and deliver his vision inspires it. It is a tremendous thing—the greatest thing that this writer has yet done.
George Soule in The Little Review: Here is a man's life laid absolutely bare. A direct, big thing, so simple that almost no one has done it before—this Mr. Comfort has dared. People who are made uncomfortable by intimate grasp of anything, to whom reserve is more important than truth—these will not read Midstream through, but others will emerge from the book with a sense of the absolute nobility of Mr. Comfort's frankness.
Edwin Markham in Hearst's Magazine: Will Levington Comfort, a novelist of distinction, has given us a book alive with human interest, with passionate sincerity, and with all the power of his despotism over words. He has been a wandering foot—familiar with many strands; he has known shame and sorrow and striving; he has won to serene heights. He tells it all without vaunt, relating his experience to the large meanings of life for all men, to the mystic currents behind life, out of which we come, to whose great deep we return.