He was sitting thus a cold cheerless December day with a French book he had recently sent for, trying to study a little and prepare himself for the new country to which he was soon going.
The door of the barracks opened letting in a rush of cold air, and closed again quickly. A tall man in uniform with the red triangle on his arm stood pulling off his woolen gloves and looking about him. Nobody paid any attention to him. Cameron was deep in his book and did not even notice him. Off at his left a new crap game was just starting. The phraseology beat upon his accustomed ears like the buzz of bees or mosquitos.
"I'll shoot a buck!"
"Come on now there, dice! Remember the baby's shoes!"
Cameron had ceased to hear the voices. He was struggling with a difficult French idiom.
The stranger took his bearings deliberately and walked over to Cameron, sitting down with a friendly air on the nearest cot.
"Would you be interested in having one of my little books?" he asked, and his voice had a clear ring that brought Cameron's thoughts back to the barracks again. He looked up for a curt refusal. He did not wish to be bothered now, but something in the young man's earnest face held him. Y.M.C.A. men in general were well enough, but Cameron wasn't crazy about them, especially when they were young. But this one had a look about him that proclaimed him neither a slacker nor a sissy. Cameron hesitated:
"What kind of a book?" he asked in a somewhat curt manner.
The boy, for he was only a boy though he was tall as a man, did not hedge but went straight to the point, looking eagerly at the soldier:
"A pocket Testament," he said earnestly, and laid in Cameron's hand a little book with limp leather covers. Cameron took it up half curiously, and then looked into the other's face almost coldly.
"You selling them?" There was a covert sneer in his tone.
"No, no!" said the other quickly, "I'm giving them away for a promise. You see, I had an accident and one of my eyes was put out a while ago. Of course, they wouldn't take me for a soldier, and the next best thing was to be all the help I could to the fellows that are going to fight. I figure that book is the best thing I can bring you."
The manly simplicity of the boy held Cameron's gaze firmly fixed.
"H'm! In what way?" Cameron was turning the leaves curiously, enjoying the silky fineness and the clear-cut print and soft leather binding. Life in the barracks was so much in the rough that any bit of refinement was doubly appreciated. He liked the feel of the little book and had a curious longing to be its possessor.
"Why, it gives you a pretty straight line on where we're all going, what is expected of us, and how we're to be looked out for. It shows one how to know God and be ready to meet death if we have to."
"What makes you think anyone can know God on this earth?" asked Cameron sharply.
"Because I have," said the astonishing young man quite as if he were saying he were related to the President or something like that.
"You have! How did you get to know Him?"
"Through that little book and by following its teachings."
Cameron turned over the pages again, catching familiar phrases here and there as he had heard them sometimes in Sunday school years ago.
"You said something about a promise. What was it?"
"That you'll carry the book with you always, and read at least a verse in it every day."
"Well, that doesn't sound hard," mused Cameron. "I guess I could stand for that."
"The book is yours, then. Would you like to put your name to that acceptance card in the front of the book?"
"What's that?" asked Cameron sharply as if he had discovered the fly in the ointment for which he had all along been suspicious.
"Well, I call it the first step in knowing God. It's your act of acceptance of the way God has planned for you to be forgiven and saved from sin. If you sign that you say you will accept Christ as your Saviour."
"But suppose you don't believe in Christ? I can't commit myself to anything like that till I know about it?"
"Well, you see, that's the first move in getting to know God," said the stranger with a smile. "God says he wants you to believe in his Son. He asks that much of you if you want to get to know Him."
Cameron looked at him with bewildered interest. Was here a possible answer to the questions of his heart. Why did this curious boy have a light in his face that never came from earth or air? What was there about his simple earnestness that was so convincing?
Another crap game had started up on the other side of them. A musically inclined private was playing ragtime on the piano, and another was trying to accompany him on the banjo. The air was hazier than ever. It seemed strange to be talking of such things in these surroundings:
"Let's get out of here and walk!" said Cameron, "I'd like to understand what you mean."
For two hours they tramped across the frozen ground and talked, arguing this way and that, much drawn toward one another. At last in the solemn background of a wall of whispering pines that shut them away from the stark gray rows of barracks, Cameron took out his fountain pen and with his foot on a prone log, opened the little book on his knee and wrote his name and the date. Then he put it in his breast pocket with the solemn feeling that he had taken some kind of a great step toward what his soul had been longing to find. They knelt on the frozen ground beside that log and the stranger prayed simply as if he were talking to a friend. Thereafter that spot was hallowed ground to Cameron, to which he came often to think and to read his little book.
That night he wrote to Ruth, telling in a shy way of his meeting with the Testament man and about the little book. After he had mailed the letter he walked back again to the spot among the pines and standing there looked up to the stars and somehow committed himself again to the covenant he had signed in the little book. It was then that he decided that if he got home again after quarantine before he went over, he would unite with the church. Somehow the stranger's talk that afternoon had cleared away his objections. On his way back to the barracks across the open field, up through the woods and over the crest of the hill toward the road as he walked thinking deeply, suddenly from down below on the road a familiar voice floated up to him. He parted the branches of oak underbrush that made a screen between him and the road and glanced down to get his bearings the better to avoid an unwelcome meeting. It was inevitable when one came near Lieutenant Wainwright that he would overhear some part of a conversation for he had a carrying voice which he never sought to restrain.
"You're sure she's a girl with pep, are you? I don't want to bother with any other kind. All right. Tell her to wait for me in the Washington station to-morrow evening at eight. I'll look for her at the right of the information booth. Tell her to wear a red carnation so I'll know her. I'll show her a good time, all right, if she's the right sort. I'll trust you that she's a good looker!"
Cameron could not hear the response, but the two were standing silhouetted against a distant light, and something in the attitude of the other man held his attention. For a moment he could not place him, then it flashed across his mind that this was the soldier Chambers, who had been the means of his missing the train at Chester on the memorable occasion when Ruth Macdonald had saved the day. It struck him as a strange thing that these two enemies of his whom he would have supposed to be strangers to one another should be talking thus intimately. To make sure of the man's identity he waited until the two parted and Wainwright went his way, and then at a distance followed the other one until he was quite certain. He walked back thoughtfully trying to make it out. Had Wainwright then been at the bottom of his trouble that day? It began to seem quite possible. And how had Ruth Macdonald happened to be so opportunely present at the right moment? How had she happened to turn down that road, a road that was seldom used by people going to Baltimore? It was all very strange and had never been satisfactorily explained. Ruth had evaded the question most plausibly every time he had brought it up. Could it be that Wainwright had told her of a plot against him and she had reached out to help him? His heart leaped at the thought. Then at once he was sure that Wainwright had never told her, unless perhaps he had told some tale against him, and made him the butt of a great joke. Well, if he had she had cared enough to defend him and help him out without ever giving away the fact that she knew. But here, too, lay a thorn to disturb him. Why had Ruth Macdonald not told him the plain truth if she knew? Was she trying to shield Harry Wainwright? Could she really care for that contemptible scoundrel?
The thought in all its phases tore his mind and kept him awake for hours, for the crux of the whole matter was that he was afraid that Ruth Macdonald was going to marry Lieutenant Wainwright, and he knew that it was not only for her sake, but for his also that he did not want this—that it was agony even to contemplate.
He told himself, of course, that his interest was utterly unselfish. That she was nothing to him but a friend and never would be, and that while it might be hard to see her belong to some fine man and know he never might be more than a passing friend, still it would not be like seeing her tied to a rotten unprincipled fellow like Wainwright. The queer part of it was that the word "rotten" in connection with his enemy played a great part in his thoughts that night.
Somewhere in the watches of the night a memory came to him of the covenant he had made that day and a vague wistful reaching of his heart after the Christ to whom he was supposed to have surrendered his life. He wondered if a Christ such as the stranger had claimed He had, would take an interest in the affairs of Ruth Macdonald. Surely, such a flower of a girl would be protected if there was protection for anyone! And somehow he managed a queer little prayer for her, the first he had tried to put up. It helped him a little, and toward morning he fell asleep.
A few days later in glancing through his newly acquired Testament he came upon a verse which greatly troubled him for a time. His eye had caught it at random and somehow it lodged in his mind:
"Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye."
Somehow the principle of that verse did not fit with his proud spirit. He thought instantly of Wainwright's distasteful face and form. It seemed to loom before him with a smug triumphal sneer. His enmity toward the fellow had been of years standing, and had been deepened many times by unforgetable acts. There was nothing about Wainwright to make one forgive him. There was everything about him to make one want to punish him. When the verse first confronted Cameron he felt a rising indignation that there had been so much as a connection in his thoughts with his quarrel with Wainwright. Why, anybody that knew him knew Wainwright was wrong. God must think so, too. That verse might apply to little quarrels but not to his feeling about the way Wainwright had treated him ever since they were children. That was not to be borne, of course. Those words he had called Cameron's father! How they made his blood boil even now! No, he would not forbear nor forgive Wainwright. God would not want him to do so. It was right he should be against him forever! Thus he dismissed the suggestion and turned to the beginning of his testament, having determined to find the Christ of whom the stranger had set him in search.
On the flyleaf of the little book the stranger had written a few words:
"And ye shall find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart."—Jeremiah xxix: 13.
That meant no half-way business. He could understand that. Well, he was willing to put himself into the search fully. He understood that it was worth a whole-hearted search if one were really to find a God as a reward.
That night he wrote a letter to the minister in Bryne Haven asking for an interview when next he was able to get leave from camp. In the meantime he kept out of the way of Wainwright most adroitly, and found many ways to avoid a meeting.
There had been three awful days when his "peach of a captain" about whom he had spoken to Ruth, had been called away on some military errand and Wainwright had been the commanding officer. They had been days of gall and wormwood to Cameron, for his proud spirit could not bend to salute the man whom he considered a scoundrel, and Wainwright took a fine delight in using his power over his enemy to the limit. If it had not been for the unexpected return of the captain a day earlier than planned, Cameron might have had to suffer humiliations far greater than he did.
The bitterness between the two grew stronger, and Cameron went about with his soul boiling with rage and rebellion. It was only when Ruth's letters came that he forgot it all for a few minutes and lifted his thoughts to higher things.
It was a clear, crisp day in March with just a smell of Spring in the air, when Cameron finally united with the church.
He had taken a long time to think about it. Quarantine had extended itself away into February, and while his company had had its regular drill and hard work, there had been no leave from camp, no going to Y.M.C.A. huts, and no visiting canteens. They had been shut up to the company of the members of their own barracks, and there were times when that palled upon Cameron to a distressing degree. Once when it had snowed for three days, and rained on the top of it, and a chill wind had swept into the cracks and crannies of the barracks, and poured down from the ventilators in the roofs. The old stoves were roaring their best to keep up good cheer, and the men lay on their cots in rows talking; telling their vile stories, one after another, each to sound bigger than the last, some mere lads boasting of wild orgies, and all finally drifting into a chat on a sort of philosophy of the lowest ideals. Cameron lay on his cot trying to sleep, for he had been on guard all night, and a letter from Ruth was in his inside pocket with a comfortable crackle, but the talk that drifted about him penetrated even his army blankets when he drew them up over his ears.
The fellows had arrived at a point where a young lad from Texas had stated with a drawl that all girls were more or less bad; that this talk of the high standards of womanhood was all bosh; that there was one standard for men and women, yes, but it was man's standard, not woman's, as was written sometimes. White womanhood! Bah! There was no such thing!
In vain Cameron stuffed the blanket about his ears, resolutely shut his eyes and tried to sleep. His very blood boiled in his veins. The letter in his pocket cried out to be exonerated from this wholesale blackening. Suddenly Cameron flung the blanket from him and sprang to his feet with a single motion, a tall soldier with a white flame of wrath in his face, his eyes flashing with fire. They called him in friendly derision the "Silent Corporal" because he kept so much to himself, but now he blazed forth at them:
"You lie, Kelly! You know you do! The whole lot of you are liars! You know that rot you've been talking isn't true. You know that it's to cover up your own vile deeds and to excuse your own lustful passions that you talk this way and try to persuade your hearts and consciences that you are no worse than the girls you have dishonored! But it isn't so and you know it! There are good women! There always have been and there always will be! You, every one of you, know at least one. You are dishonoring your mothers and your sisters when you talk that way. You are worse than the beasts you are going out to fight. That's the rotten stuff they are teaching. They call it Kultur! You'll never win out against them if you go in that spirit, for it's their spirit and nothing more. You've got to go clean! If there's a God in heaven He's in this war, and it's got to be a clean war! And you've got to begin by thinking differently of women or you're just as bad as the Huns!"
With that he seized his poncho, stamped out into the storm, and tramped for two hours with a driving sleet in his face, his thoughts a fury of holy anger against unholy things, and back of it all the feeling that he was the knight of true womanhood. She had sent him forth and no man in his presence should defile the thought of her. It was during that tramp that he had made up his mind to ally himself with God's people. Whether it would do any good in the long run in his search for God or not, whether he even was sure he believed in God or not, he would do that much if he were permitted.
His interview with the minister had not made things much plainer. He had been told that he would grow into things. That the church was the shepherd-fold of the soul, that he would be nurtured and taught, that by and by these doubts and fears would not trouble him. He did not quite see it, how he was to be nurtured on the distant battlefield of France, but it was a mystical thing, anyway, and he accepted the statement and let it go at that. One thing that stuck in his heart and troubled him deeply was the way the minister talked to him about love and fellowship with his fellow men. As a general thing, Cameron had no trouble with his companions in life, but there were one or two, notably Wainwright and a young captain friend of his at camp, named Wurtz, toward whom his enmity almost amounted to hatred.
He was not altogether sure that the ministers suggestion that he might love the sinner and hate the sin would hold good with regard to Wainwright; but there had been only a brief time before the communion service and he had had to let the matter go. His soul was filled with a holy uplifting as he stepped out from the pastor's study and followed into the great church.
It had startled him just a little to find so many people there. In contemplating this act of allying himself with God he had always thought of it as being between himself and God, with perhaps the minister and an elder or two. He sat down in the place indicated for him much disturbed in spirit. It had always been an annoyance to him to be brought to the notice of his fellow townsmen, and a man in uniform in these days was more than ever an object of interest. His troubled gaze was downward during the opening hymns and prayers. But when he came to stand and take his vows he lifted his eyes, and there, off at one side where the seats grouped in a sort of transept, he caught a glimpse of Ruth Macdonald standing beside her tall Captain-cousin who was home for the day, and there was a light in her eyes that steadied him and brought back the solemnity of the moment once more. It thrilled him to think she was there. He had not realized before that this must be her church. In fact, he had not thought of it as being any church in particular, but as being a part of the great church invisible to which all God's children belonged. It had not occurred to him until that morning, either, that his mother might be hurt that he had not chosen her church. But when he spoke to her about it she shook her head and smiled. She was only glad of what he was doing. There were no regrets. She was too broad minded to stop about creeds. She was sitting there meekly over by the wall now, her hands folded quietly in her lap, tears of joy in her eyes. She, too, had seen Ruth Macdonald and was glad, but she wondered who the tall captain by her side might be.
It happened that Cameron was the only person uniting by confession at that time, for the quarantine had held him beyond the time the pastor had spoken of when so many were joining, and he stood alone, tall and handsome in his uniform, and answered in a clear, deep voice: "I do," "I will!" as the vows were put upon him one by one. Every word he meant from his heart, a longing for the God who alone could satisfy the longings of his soul.
He thrilled with strange new enthusiasm as the congregation of church members were finally called upon to rise and receive him into their fellowship, and looking across he saw Ruth Macdonald again and his beloved Captain La Rue standing together while everybody sang:
Blest be the tie that binds Our hearts in Christian love; The fellowship of kindred minds Is like to that above.
But when the bread and the wine had been partaken of, the solemn prayer of dedication spoken, the beautiful service was over, and the rich tones of the organ were swelling forth, he suddenly felt strange and shy among all that crowd of people whom he knew by sight only. The elders and some of the other men and women shook hands with him, and he was trying to slip away and find his mother when a kindly hand was laid upon his shoulder and there stood the captain with Ruth beside him, and a warm hand shake of welcome into the church.
"I'm so glad," he said, "that you have taken this step. You will never regret it, Cameron. It is good that we can be of the same company here if we have failed in other ways." Then turning to Ruth he said:
"I didn't tell you, did I, Ruth, that I've failed in trying to get Cameron transferred to my division? I did everything I could, but they've turned down my application flatly. It seems like stupidity to me, for it was just the place for which he was most fitted, but I guess it's because he was too much of a man to stay in a quiet sector and do such work. If he had been maimed or half blinded they might have considered him. They need him in his present place, and I am the poorer for it."
There was a glow in Ruth's eyes as she put her hand in Cameron's and said simply: "I'm glad you're one of us now," that warmed his heart with a great gladness.
"I didn't know you were a member," he said wonderingly.
"Why, yes, I've been a member since I was fourteen," she said, and suddenly he felt that he had indeed come into a holy and blessed communion. If he had not yet found God, at least he was standing on the same ground with one of his holy children.
That was the last time he got home before he sailed. Shipping quarantine was put on his company the very next week, the camp was closed to visitors, and all passes annulled. The word came that they would be going over in a few days, but still they lingered, till the days grew into three weeks, and the Spring was fully upon them in all its beauty, touching even the bare camp with a fringe of greenness and a sprinkle of wild bloom in the corners where the clearing had not been complete.
Added to his other disappointments, a direful change had taken place at camp. The "peach of a captain" had been raised to the rank of major and Captain Wurtz had been put in his place. It seemed as if nothing worse could be.
The letters had been going back and forth rather often of late, and Cameron had walked to the loneliest spot in the camp in the starlight and had it out with himself. He knew now that Ruth Macdonald was the only girl in all the world to him. He also knew that there was not a chance in a thousand that he could ever be more to her than he now was. He knew that the coming months held pain for him, and yet, he would not go back and undo this beautiful friendship, no, not for all the pain that might come. It was worth it, every bit.
He had hoped to get one more trip home, and she had wanted to see the camp, had said that perhaps when the weather got warmer she might run down some day with his mother, but now the quarantine was on and that was out of the question. He walked alone to the places he would have liked to show her, and then with a sigh went to the telephone office and waited two hours till he got a connection through to her house, just to tell her how sorry he was that he could not come up as he had expected and take that ride with her that she had promised in her last letter. Somehow it comforted him to hear her voice. She had asked if there would be no lifting of the quarantine before they left, no opportunity to meet him somewhere and say good-bye, and he promised that he would let her know if any such chance came; but he had little hope, for company after company were being sent away in the troop trains now, hour after hour, and he might be taken any minute.
Then one day he called her up and told her that the next Saturday and Sunday the camp was to be thrown open to visitors, and if she could come down with his mother he would meet them at the Hostess' House and they could spend the day together. Ruth promptly accepted the invitation and promised to arrange it all with his mother and take the first train down Saturday morning. After he had hung up the receiver and paid his bill he walked away from the little telephone headquarters in a daze of joy. She had promised to come! For one whole day he would have her to himself! She was willing to come with his mother! Then as he passed the officers' headquarters it occurred to him that perhaps she had other interests in coming to camp than just to see him, and he frowned in the darkness and his heart burned hot within him. What if they should meet Wainwright! How the day would be spoiled!
With this trouble on his mind he went quite early in the morning down as near to the little trolley station as he could get, for since the quarantine had been put on no soldiers without a special pass were allowed beyond a certain point, which was roped off about the trolley station. Sadly, Cameron took his place in the front rank, and stood with folded arms to wait. He knew he would have some time to stand before he could look for his guests, but the crowd was always so great at the train times that it was well to get a good place early. So he stood and thought his sad thoughts, almost wishing he had not asked them to come, as he realized more and more what unpleasantness might arise in case Wainwright should find out who were his guests. He was sure that the lieutenant was not above sending him away on a foolish errand, or getting him into a humiliating situation before his friends.
As he stood thus going over the situation and trying to plan how he might spirit his guests away to some pleasant spot where Wainwright would not be likely to penetrate, he heard the pompous voice of the lieutenant himself, and slipping behind a comrade turned his face away so that he would not be recognized.
"Yes, I got special leave for three days!" proclaimed the satisfied voice, and Cameron's heart bounded up so joyously that he would have almost been willing then and there to put aside his vow not to salute him, and throw his arms about his enemy. Going away for three days. That meant two things! First that Wainwright would not have to be thought of in making his plans, and second that they were evidently not going to move before Wainwright got back. They surely would not have given him leave if the company was to be sent away that day. A third exultant thought followed; Wainwright was going home presumably to see Ruth and Ruth would not be there! Perhaps, oh perhaps he might be able to persuade her and his mother to stay over Sunday! He hardly dared to hope, however, for Ruth Macdonald might think it presumptuous in him to suggest it, and again she might wish to go home to meet Wainwright. And, too, where could they sleep if they did stay. It was hopeless, of course. They would have to go back to Baltimore or to Washington for the night and that would be a hard jaunt.
However, Ruth Macdonald had thought of such a possibility herself, and when she and Mrs. Cameron stepped down from the Philadelphia train at the small country station that had suddenly become an important point because of the great camp that had sprung up within a stone's throw of it, she looked around enquiringly at the little cottage homes in sight and said to her companion:
"Would it be very dreadful in us to discover if there is some place here where we could stay over night in case John's company does not go just yet and we find we would be allowed to see him again on Sunday?"
She knew by the sudden lighting of the mother's wistful face that she had read aright the sighs half stifled that she had heard on the train when the mother had thought she was not noticing.
"Oh, do you suppose we could stay?" The voice was full of yearning.
"Well, we can find out, at least. Anyhow, I'm going in here to see whether they would take us in case we could. It looks like a nice neat place."
Ruth pulled open the gate, ran up the steps of the pleasant porch shaded with climbing roses, and knocked timidly at the open door.
A broad, somewhat frowsy woman appeared and surveyed her coolly with that apprising glance that a native often gives to a stranger; took in the elegant simplicity of her quiet expensive gown and hat, lingering with a jealous glance on the exquisite hand bag she carried, then replied apathetically to Ruth's question:
"No, we're all full. We ain't got any room. You might try down to the Salvation Army Hut. They got a few rooms down there. It's just been built. They might take you in. It's down the road a piece, that green building to the right. You can't miss it. You'll see the sign."
Ruth caught her breath, thanked her and hastened back to her companion. Salvation Army! That was eccentric, queer, but it would be perfectly respectable! Or would it? Would Aunt Rhoda disapprove very much? Somehow the Salvation Army was associated in her mind with slums and drunkards. But, at least, they might be able to direct her to a respectable place.
Mrs. Cameron, too, looked dubious. This having a society girl to chaperone was new business for her. She had never thought much about it, but somehow she would hardly have associated the Salvation Army with the Macdonald family in any way. She paused and looked doubtfully at the unpretentious little one-story building that stretched away capaciously and unostentatiously from the grassy roadside.
"SALVATION ARMY" arose in bold inviting letters from the roof, and "Ice Cold Lemonade" beckoned from a sign on the neat screen door. Ruth was a bit excited.
"I'm going in!" she declared and stepped within the door, Mrs. Cameron following half fearfully.
The room which they entered was long and clean and pleasant. Simple white curtains draped the windows, many rush-bottomed big rocking chairs were scattered about, a long desk or table ran along one side of the room with writing materials, a piano stood open with music on its rack, and shelves of books and magazines filled the front wall.
Beyond the piano were half a dozen little tables, white topped and ready for a hungry guest. At the back a counter ran the width of the room, with sandwiches and pies under glass covers, and a bright coffee urn steaming suggestively at one end. Behind it through an open door was a view of the kitchen, neat, handy, crude, but all quite clean, and through this door stepped a sweet-faced woman, wiping her hands on her gingham apron and coming toward them with a smile of welcome as if they were expected guests. It was all so primitive, and yet there was something about it that bore the dignity of refinement, and puzzled this girl from her sheltered home. She was almost embarrassed to make her enquiry, but the hearty response put her quite at her ease, as if she had asked a great favor of another lady in a time of stress:
"I'm so sorry, but our rooms are all taken," the woman waved a slender hand toward the long side of the room and Ruth noticed for the first time that a low partition ran the length of the room at one side with doors. Mechanically she counted them, eight of them, neat, gray-painted doors. Could these be rooms? How interesting! She had a wild desire to see inside them. Rooms! They were more like little stalls, for the partitions did not reach all the way to the ceiling. A vision of her own spacious apartment at home came floating in vague contrast. Then one of the doors opposite her opened as its occupant, a quiet little elderly woman, came out, and she had a brief glimpse of the white curtained window, the white draped comfortable looking bed, a row of calico curtained hooks on the wall, and a speck of a wash stand with tin pitcher and basin in the corner, all as clean and new as the rest of the place. She swiftly decided to stay here if there was any chance. Another look at the sweet face of the presiding woman who was trying to make them understand how crowded everything was, and how many mothers there were with sons who were going that night or the next, and who wanted to be near them, determined her. She was saying there was just a chance in case a certain mother from Boston who had written her did not arrive at five o'clock:
"But we ought not to take a chance," said Cameron's mother, looking at the eager faced girl with a cautious wistfulness. "What could we do if night came and we had no place to stay?"
Ruth cast her eyes about.
"Couldn't we sit in a couple of those rocking chairs all night?" she asked eagerly.
The Salvation Army woman laughed affectionately as if she had found a kindred spirit:
"Why, dearie, I could give you a couple of cots out here in the dining room if you didn't mind. I wouldn't have pillows, but I think I could get you some blankets."
"Then we'll stay," said Ruth triumphantly before Mrs. Cameron could protest, and went away feeling that she had a new friend in the wise sweet Salvation Army woman. In five minutes more they were seated in the trolley on their way into the camp.
"I'm afraid your people would not like you to stay in such a place," began Mrs. Cameron dubiously, though her eyes shone with a light that belied her words.
"Nonsense!" said Ruth with a bewildering smile, "it is as clean as a pin and I'm very much excited about staying there. It will be an adventure. I've never known much about the Salvation Army before, except that they are supposed to be very good people."
"There might be some rough characters——"
"Well, I guess they can't hurt us with that good woman around, and anyhow, you're going to stay till your son goes!" laughingly declared Ruth.
"Well, we'll see what John says," said his mother with a sigh, "I can't let you do anything—questionable."
"Please, Mrs. Cameron," pleaded Ruth, "let us forget things like that this trip and just have a happy time."
The mother smiled, sadly, wistfully, through a mist of tears. She could not help thinking how wonderful it would have been if there had been no war and her dear boy could have had this sweet wholesome girl for a friend.
The sun was shining gloriously when the two stepped from the trolley at the little camp station and looked bewildered about them at the swarms of uniforms and boyish faces, searching for their one. They walked through the long lane lined with soldiers, held back by the great rope and guarded by Military Police. Each crowding eager soldier had an air of expectancy upon him, a silence upon him that showed the realization of the parting that was soon to be. In many faces deep disappointment was growing as the expected ones did not arrive. Ruth's throat was filled with oppression and tears as she looked about and suddenly felt the grip of war, and realized that all these thousands were bearing this bitterness of parting, perhaps forever. Death stalking up and down a battlefield, waiting to take his pick of them! This was the picture that flashed before her shrinking eyes.
It was almost like a solemn ceremony, this walking down the lane of silent waiting soldiers, to be claimed by their one. It seemed to bring the two young people nearer in heart than they had ever been before, when at the end of the line Cameron met them with a salute, kissed his mother, and then turned to Ruth and took her hand with an earnest grave look of deep pleasure in his eyes.
He led them up under the big trees in front of the Hostess' House while all around were hushed voices, and teary eyes. That first moment of meeting was the saddest and the quietest of the day with everybody, except the last parting hour when mute grief sat unchecked upon every face, and no one stopped to notice if any man were watching, but just lived out his real heart self, and showed his mother or his sister or his sweetheart how much he loved and suffered.
That was a day which all the little painted butterflies of temptation should have been made to witness. There were no painted ladies coming through the gates that day. This was no time for friendships like that. Death was calling, and the deep realities of life stood out and demanded attention.
The whole thing was unlike anything Ruth had ever witnessed before. It was a new world. It was as if the old conventions which had heretofore hedged her life were dropped like a garment revealing life as it really was, and every one walked unashamed, because the great sorrow and need of all had obliterated the little petty rules of life, and small passions were laid aside, while hearts throbbed in a common cause.
He waited on them like a prince, seeming to anticipate every need, and smooth every annoyance. He led them away from the throng to the quiet hillside above the camp where spring had set her dainty foot-print. He spread down his thick army blanket for them to sit upon and they held sweet converse for an hour or two. He told them of camp life and what was expected to be when they started over, and when they reached the other side.
His mother was brave and sensible. Sometimes the tears would brim over at some suggestion of what her boy was soon to bear or do, but she wore a smile as courageous and sweet as any saint could wear. The boy saw and grew tender over it. A bird came and sang over their heads, and the moment was sweet with springing things and quiet with the brooding tenderness of parting that hung over the busy camp. Ruth had one awful moment of adjustment when she tried to think how her aunt Rhoda would look if she could see her now; then she threw the whole thing to the winds and resolved to enjoy the day. She saw that while the conventions by which she had been reared were a good thing in general, perhaps, they certainly were not meant to hamper or hinder the true and natural life of the heart, or, if they were, they were not good things; and she entered into the moment with her full sympathy. Perhaps Aunt Rhoda would not understand, but the girl she had brought up knew that it was good to be here. Her aunt was away from home with an invalid friend on a short trip so there had been no one to question Ruth's movements when she decided to run down to Washington with a "friend from the Red Cross" and incidentally visit the camp a little while.
He had them over the camp by and by, to the trenches and dummies, and all the paraphernalia of war preparation. Then they went back to the Hostess' House and fell into line to get dinner. As Cameron stood looking down at Ruth in the crowded line in the democratic way which was the only way there was, it came over them both how strange and wonderful it was that they two who had seen each other so little in their lives and who had come from such widely separated social circles should be there together in that beautiful intimacy. It came to them both at once and flashed its thought from one pair of eyes to the other and back again. Cameron looked deep into her thoughts then for a moment to find out if there was a shadow of mortification or dismay in her face; but though she flushed consciously her sweet true eyes gave back only the pleasure she was feeling, and her real enjoyment of the day. Then instantly each of them felt that another crisis had been passed in their friendship, another something unseen and beautiful had happened that made this moment most precious—one never to be forgotten no matter what happened in the future, something they would not have missed for any other experience.
It was Ruth who announced suddenly, late in the afternoon, during a silence in which each one was thinking how fast the day was going:
"Did you know that we were going to stay over Sunday?"
Cameron's face blazed with joyful light:
"Wonderful!" he said softly, "do you mean it? I've been trying to get courage all day to suggest it, only I don't know of any place this side of Washington or Baltimore where you can be comfortable, and I hate to think of you hunting around a strange city late at night for accommodations. If I could only get out to go with you——!"
"It isn't necessary," said Ruth quickly, "we have our accommodations all arranged for. Your mother and I planned it all out before we came. But are you sure we can get into camp to-morrow?"
"Yes, I'm almost certain we can get you passes by going up to officers' headquarters and applying. A fellow in our company told me this morning he had permission for his mother and sister to come in to-morrow. And we are not likely to leave before Monday now, for this morning our lieutenant went away and I heard him say he had a three days' leave. They wouldn't have given him that if they expected to send us before he got back, at least not unless they recalled him—they might do that."
"Is that the lieutenant that you called a 'mess' the other day?" asked Ruth with twinkling eyes.
"Yes," said Cameron turning a keen, startled glance at her, and wondering what she would say if she knew it was Wainwright he meant.
But she answered demurely:
"So he's away, is he? I'm glad. I was hoping he would be."
"Why?" asked Cameron.
"Oh, I thought he might be in the way," she smiled, and changed the subject, calling attention to the meadow lark who was trilling out his little ecstasy in the tall tree over their head.
Cameron gave one glance at the bird and then brought his gaze back to the sweet upturned face beside him, his soul thrilling with the wonder of it that she should be there with him!
"But you haven't told me where you have arranged to stay. Is it Baltimore or Washington? I must look up your trains. I hope you will be able to stay as late as possible. They're not putting people out of camp until eight o'clock to-night."
"Lovely!" said Ruth with the eagerness of a child. "Then we'll stay till the very last trolley. We're not going to either Baltimore or Washington. We're staying right near the camp entrance in that little town at the station where we landed, I don't remember what you call it. We got accommodations this morning before we came into camp."
"But where?" asked Cameron anxiously. "Are you sure it's respectable? I'm afraid there isn't any place there that would do at all."
"Oh, yes there is," said Ruth. "It's the Salvation Army 'Hut,' they called it, but it looks more like a barracks, and there's the dearest little woman in charge!"
"John, I'm afraid it isn't the right thing to let her do it!" put in his mother anxiously. "I'm afraid her aunt wouldn't like it at all, and I'm sure she won't be comfortable."
"I shall love it!" said Ruth happily, "and my aunt will never know anything about it. As for comfort, I'll be as comfortable as you are, my dear lady, and I'm sure you wouldn't let comfort stand in the way of being with your boy." She smiled her sweet little triumph that brought tears to the eyes of the mother; and Cameron gave her a blinding look of gratitude and adoration. So she carried her way.
Cameron protested no more, but quietly enquired at the Hostess' House if the place was all right, and when he put them on the car at eight o'clock he gave Ruth's hand a lingering pressure, and said in a low tone that only she could hear, with a look that carried its meaning to her heart:
"I shall never forget that you did this for my mother—and me!"
The two felt almost light-hearted in comparison to their fellow travellers, because they had a short reprieve before they would have to say good-bye. But Ruth sat looking about her, at the sad-eyed girls and women who had just parted from their husbands and sons and sweethearts, and who were most of them weeping, and felt anew the great burden of the universal sorrow upon her. She wondered how God could stand it. The old human question that wonders how God can stand the great agonies of life that have to come to cure the world of its sin, and never wonders how God can stand the sin! She felt as if she must somehow find God and plead with Him not to do it, and again there came that longing to her soul, if she only knew God intimately! Cameron's question recurred to her thoughts, "Could anyone on this earth know God? Had anyone ever known Him? Would the Bible say anything about it?" She resolved to read it through and find out.
The brief ride brought them suddenly into a new and to Ruth somewhat startling environment.
As they followed the grassy path from the station to their abiding place two little boys in full military uniform appeared out of the tall grass of the meadows, one as a private, the other as an officer. The small private saluted the officer with precision and marched on, turning after a few steps to call back, "Mother said we might sleep in the tent to-night! The rooms are all full." The older boy gave a whoop of delight and bounded back toward the building with a most unofficer-like walk, and both disappeared inside the door. A tiny khaki dog-tent was set up in the grass by the back door, and in a moment more the two young soldiers emerged from the back door with blankets and disappeared under the brown roof with a zest that showed it was no hardship to them to camp out for the night.
There were lights in the long pleasant room, and people. Two soldiers with their girls were eating ice cream at the little tables, and around the piano a group of officers and their wives was gathered singing ragtime. Ruth's quick glance told her they were not the kind she cared for, and—how could people who were about to part, perhaps forever, stand there and sing such abominable nonsense! Yet—perhaps it was their way of being brave to the last. But she wished they would go.
The sweet-faced woman of the morning was busy behind the counter and presently she saw them and came forward:
"I'm sorry! I hoped there would be a room, but that woman from Boston came. I can only give you cots out here, if you don't mind."
Mrs. Cameron looked around in a half-frightened manner, but Ruth smiled airily and said that would be all right.
They settled down in the corner between the writing table and book case and began to read, for it was obvious that they could not retire at present.
The little boys came running through and the officers corralled them and clamored for them to sing. Without any coaxing they stood up together and sang, and their voices were sweet as birds as they piped out the words of a popular song, one singing alto, the little one taking the high soprano. Ruth put down her book and listened, wondering at the lovely expressions on the two small faces. They made her think of the baby-seraphs in Michael Angelo's pictures. Presently they burst into a religious song with as much gusto as they had sung the ragtime. They were utterly without self-consciousness, and sang with the fervor of a preacher. Yet they were regular boys, for presently when they were released they went to turning hand springs and had a rough and tumble scuffle in the corner till their mother called them to order.
In a few minutes more the noisy officers and their wives parted, the men striding off into the night with a last word about the possibility of unexpected orders coming, and a promise to wink a flash light out of the car window as the troop train went by in case they went out that night. The wives went into one of the little stall-rooms and compared notes about their own feelings and the probability of the ——Nth Division leaving before Monday.
Then the head of the house appeared with a Bible under his arm humming a hymn. He cast a keen pleasant glance at the two strangers in the corner, and gave a cheery word to his wife in answer to her question:
"Yes, we had a great meeting to-night. A hundred and twenty men raised their hands as wanting to decide for Christ, and two came forward to be prayed for. It was a blessed time. I wish the boys had been over there to sing. The meeting was in the big Y.M.C.A. auditorium. Has Captain Hawley gone yet?"
"Not yet." His wife's voice was lowered. She motioned toward one of the eight gray doors, and her husband nodded sadly.
"He goes at midnight, you know. Poor little woman!"
Just then the door opened and a young soldier came out, followed by his wife, looking little and pathetic with great dark hollows under her eyes, and a forced smile on her trembling lips.
The soldier came over and took the hand of the Salvation Army woman:
"Well, I'm going out to-night, Mother. I want to thank you for all you've done for my little girl"—looking toward his wife—"and I won't forget all the good things you've done for me, and the sermons you've preached; and when I get over there I'm going to try to live right and keep all my promises. I want you to pray for me that I may be true. I shall never cease to thank the Lord that I knew you two."
The Salvationists shook hands earnestly with him, and promised to pray for him, and then he turned to the children:
"Good-bye, Dicky, I shan't forget the songs you've sung. I'll hear them sometimes when I get over there in battle, and they'll help to keep me true."
But Dicky, not content with a hand shake swarmed up the leg and back of his tall friend as if he had been a tree, and whispered in a loud confidential child-whisper:
"I'm a goin' to pray fer you, too, Cap'n Hawley. God bless you!"
The grown-up phrases on the childish lips amused Ruth. She watched the little boy as he lifted his beautiful serious face to the responsive look of the stranger, and marvelled. Here was no parrot-like repetition of word she had heard oft repeated by his elders; the boy was talking a native tongue, and speaking of things that were real to him. There was no assumption of godliness nor conceit, no holier-than-thou smirk about the child. It was all sincere, as a boy would promise to speak to his own father about a friend's need. It touched Ruth and tears sprang to her eyes.
All the doubts she had had about the respectability of the place had vanished long ago. There might be all kinds of people coming and going, but there was a holy influence here which made it a refuge for anyone, and she felt quite safe about sleeping in the great barn-like room so open. It was as if they had happened on some saint's abode and been made welcome in their extremity.
Presently, one by one the inmates of the rooms came in and retired. Then the cots were brought out and set up, little simple affairs of canvas and steel rods, put together in a twinkling, and very inviting to the two weary women after the long day. The cheery proprietor called out, "Mrs. Brown, haven't you an extra blanket in your room?" and a pleasant voice responded promptly, "Yes, do you want it?"
"Throw it over then, please. A couple of ladies hadn't any place to go. Anybody else got one?"
A great gray blanket came flying over the top of the partition, and down the line another voice called: "I have one I don't need!" and a white blanket with pink stripes followed, both caught by the Salvationist, and spread upon the little cots. Then the lights were turned out one by one and there in the shelter of the tall piano, curtained by the darkness the two lay down.
Ruth was so interested in it all and so filled with the humor and the strangeness of her situation that tired as she was she could not sleep for a long time.
The house settled slowly to quiet. The proprietor and his wife talked comfortably about the duties of the next day, called some directions to the two boys in the puppy tent, soothed their mosquito bites with a lotion and got them another blanket. The woman who helped in the kitchen complained about not having enough supplies for morning, and that contingency was arranged for, all in a patient, earnest way and in the same tone in which they talked about the meetings. They discussed their own boy, evidently the brother of the small boys, who had apparently just sailed for France as a soldier a few days before, and whom the wife had gone to New York to see off, and they commended him to their Christ in little low sentences of reassurance to each other. Ruth could not help but hear much that was said, for the rooms were all open to sounds, and these good people apparently had nothing to hide. They spoke as if all their household were one great family, equally interested in one another, equally suffering and patient in the necessities of this awful war.
In another tiny room the Y.M.C.A. man who had been the last to come in talked in low tones with his wife, telling her in tender, loving tones what to do about a number of things after he was gone.
In a room quite near there were soft sounds as of suppressed weeping. Something made Ruth sure it was the mother who had been spoken of earlier in the evening as having come all the way from Texas and arrived too late to bid her boy good-bye.
Now and again the sound of a troop train stirred her heart to untold depths. There is something so weird and sorrowful about its going, as if the very engine sympathized, screaming its sorrow through the night. Ruth felt she never would forget that sound. Out there in the dark Cameron might be even then slipping past them out into the great future. She wished she could dare ask that sweet faced woman, or that dear little boy to pray for him. Maybe she would next day.
The two officer's wives seemed to sit up in bed and watch the train. They had discovered a flash light, and were counting the signals, and quite excited. Ruth's heart ached for them. It was a peculiarity of this trip that she found her heart going out to others so much more than it had ever gone before. She was not thinking of her own pain, although she knew it was there, but of the pain of the world.
Her body lying on the strange hard cot ached with weariness in unaccustomed places, yet she stretched and nestled upon the tan canvas with satisfaction. She was sharing to a certain extent the hardships of the soldiers—the hardship of one soldier whose privations hurt her deeply. It was good to have to suffer—with him. Where was God? Did He care? Was He in this queer little hostel? Might she ask Him now to set a guard over Cameron and let him find the help he needed wherewith to go to meet Death, if Death he must meet?
She laid her hands together as a little child might do and with wide-open eyes staring into the dark of the high ceiling she whispered from her heart: "Oh God, help—us—to find you!" and unconsciously she, too, set her soul on the search that night.
As she closed her eyes a great peace and sense of safety came over her.
Outside on the road a company of late soldiers, coming home from leave noised by. Some of them were drunk, and wrangling or singing, and a sense of their pitiful need of God came over her as she sank into a deep sleep.
She was awakened by the rattling of the pots and pans in the tiny kitchen. She sat up startled and looked about her. It was very early. The first sunlight was streaming redly through the window screens, and the freshness of the morning was everywhere, for all the windows were wide open. The stillness of the country, broken only by the joyous chorus of the birds, struck her as a wonderful thing. She lay down again and closed her eyes to listen. Music with the scent of clover! The cheery little home noises in the kitchen seemed a pleasant background for the peace of the Sabbath morning. It was so new and strange. Then came the thought of camp and the anticipation of the day, with the sharp pang at the memory that perhaps even now Cameron was gone. Orders were so uncertain. In the army a man must be ready to move at a moment's notice. What if while she slept he had passed by on one of those terrible troop trains!
She sat up again and began to put her hair into order and make herself presentable. He had promised that if such a thing as a sudden move should occur he would throw out an old envelope with his name written on it as they passed by the hut, and she meant to go out to that railroad track and make a thorough search before the general public were up.
Mrs. Cameron was still sleeping soundly, one work-worn hand partly shading her face. Ruth knew instinctively that she must have been weeping in the night. In the early morning dawn she drooped on the hard little cot in a crumpled heap, and the girl's heart ached for her sorrow.
Ruth stole into the kitchen to ask for water to wash her face:
"I'm sorry," said the pleasant-faced woman who was making coffee and frying bacon, "but the wash basins are all gone; we've had so many folks come in. But you can have this pail. I just got this water for myself and I'll let you have it and I'll get some more. You see, the water pipes aren't put in the building yet and we have to go down the road quite a piece to get any. This is all there was left last night."
She handed Ruth a two-gallon galvanized tin bucket containing a couple of inches of water, obviously clean, and added a brief towel to the toilet arrangements.
Ruth beat a hasty retreat back to the shelter of the piano with her collection, fearing lest mirth would get the better of her. She could not help thinking how her aunt would look if she could see her washing her face in this pittance of water in the bottom of the great big bucket.
But Ruth Macdonald was adaptable in spite of her upbringing. She managed to make a most pleasing toilet in spite of the paucity of water, and then went back to the kitchen with the bucket.
"If you will show me where you get the water I'll go for some more," she offered, anxious for an excuse to get out and explore the track.
The woman in the kitchen was not abashed at the offer. She accepted the suggestion as a matter of course, taking for granted the same helpful spirit that seemed to pervade all the people around the place. It did not seem to strike her as anything strange that this young woman should be willing to go for water. She was not giving attention to details like clothes and handbags, and neither wealth nor social station belonged to her scheme of life. So she smilingly gave the directions to the pump and went on breaking nice brown eggs into a big yellow bowl. Ruth wished she could stay and watch, it looked so interesting.
She took the pail and slipped out the back door, but before she went in search of water she hurried down to the railroad track and scanned it for several rods either way, carefully examining each bit of paper, her breath held in suspense as she turned over an envelope or scrap of paper, lest it might bear his name. At last with a glad look backward to be sure she had missed nothing, she hurried up the bank and took her way down the grassy path toward the pump, satisfied that Cameron had not yet left the camp.
It was a lovely summer morning, and the quietness of the country struck her as never before. The wild roses shimmered along the roadside in the early sun, and bees and butterflies were busy about their own affairs. It seemed such a lovely world if it only had not been for war. How could God bear it! She lifted her eyes to the deep blue of the sky, where little clouds floated lazily, like lovely aviators out for pleasure. Was God up there? If she might only find Him. What did it all mean, anyway? Did He really care for individuals?
It was all such a new experience, the village pump, and the few early stragglers watching her curiously from the station platform. A couple of grave soldiers hurried by, and the pang of what was to come shot through her heart. The thought of the day was full of mingled joy and sorrow.
They ate a simple little breakfast, good coffee, toast and fried eggs. Ruth wondered why it tasted so good amid such primitive surroundings; yet everything was so clean and tidy, though coarse and plain. When they went to pay their bill the proprietor said their beds would be only twenty-five cents apiece because they had had no pillow. If they had had a pillow he would have had to charge them fifty cents. The food was fabulously cheap. They looked around and wondered how it could be done. It was obvious that no tips would be received, and that money was no consideration. In fact, the man told them his orders were merely to pay expenses. He gave them a parting word of good cheer, and promised to try and make them more comfortable if they wanted to return that night, and so they started out for camp. Ruth was silent and thoughtful. She was wishing she had had the boldness to ask this quaint Christian man some of the questions that troubled her. He looked as if he knew God, and she felt as if he might be able to make some things plain to her. But her life had been so hedged about by conventionalities that it seemed an impossible thing to her to open her lips on the subject to any living being—unless it might be to John Cameron. It was queer how they two had grown together in the last few months. Why could they not have known one another before?
Then there came a vision of what her aunt might have thought, and possible objections that might have come up if they had been intimate friends earlier. In fact, that, too, seemed practically to have been an impossibility. How had the war torn away the veil from foolish laws of social rank and station! Never again could she submit to much of the system that had been the foundation of her life so far. Somehow she must find a way to tear her spirit free from things that were not real. The thought of the social activities that would face her at home under the guise of patriotism turned her soul sick with loathing. When she went back home after he was gone she would find a way to do something real in the world that would make for righteousness and peace somehow. Knitting and dancing with lonesome soldiers did not satisfy her.
That was a wonderful day and they made the most of every hour, realizing that it would probably be the last day they had together for many a long month or year.
In the morning they stepped into the great auditorium and attended a Y.M.C.A. service for an hour, but their hearts were so full, and they all felt so keenly that this day was to be the real farewell, and they could not spare a moment of it, that presently they slipped away to the quiet of the woods once more, for it was hard to listen to the music and keep the tears back. Mrs. Cameron especially found it impossible to keep her composure.
Sunday afternoon she went into the Hostess' House to lie down in the rest room for a few minutes, and sent the two young people off for a walk by themselves.
Cameron took Ruth to the log in the woods and showed her his little Testament and the covenant he had signed. Then they opened their hearts together about the eternal things of life; shyly, at first, and then with the assurance that sympathy brings. Cameron told her that he was trying to find God, and Ruth told him about their experiences the night before. She also shyly promised that she would pray for him, although she had seldom until lately done very much real praying for herself.
It was a beautiful hour wherein they travelled miles in their friendship; an hour in which their souls came close while they sat on the log under the trees with long silences in the intervals of their talk.
It was whispered at the barracks that evening at five when Cameron went back for "Retreat" that this was the last night. They would move in the morning surely, perhaps before. He hurried back to the Hostess' House where he had left his guests to order the supper for all, feeling that he must make the most of every minute.
Passing the officers' headquarters he heard the raucous laugh of Wainwright, and caught a glimpse of his fat head and neck through a window. His heart sank! Wainwright was back! Then he had been sent for, and they must be going that night!
He fled to the Hostess' House and was silent and distraught as he ate his supper. Suppose Wainwright should come in while they were there and see Ruth and spoil those last few minutes together? The thought was unbearable.
Nobody wanted much supper and they wandered outside in the soft evening air. There was a hushed sorrow over everything. Even the roughest soldiers were not ashamed of tears. Little faded mothers clung to big burly sons, and their sons smoothed their gray hair awkwardly and were not ashamed. A pair of lovers sat at the foot of a tree hand in hand and no one looked at them, except in sympathy. There were partings everywhere. A few wives with little children in their arms were writing down hurried directions and receiving a bit of money; but most desolate of all was the row of lads lined up near the station whose friends were gone, or had not come at all, and who had to stand and endure the woe of others.
"Couldn't we walk out of camp?" asked Ruth suddenly. "Must we go on that awful trolley? Last night everybody was weeping. I wanted to weep, too. It is only a few steps from the end of camp to our quarters. Or is it too far for you, Mrs. Cameron?"
"Nothing is too far to-night so I may be with my boy one hour longer."
"Then we must start at once," said Cameron, "there is barely time to reach the outskirts before the hour when all visitors must be out of camp. It is over three miles, mother."
"I can walk it if Ruth can," said the mother smiling bravely.
He drew an arm of each within his own and started off, glad to be out of Wainwright's neighborhood, gladder still to have a little longer with those he loved.
Out through the deserted streets they passed, where empty barracks were being prepared for the next draft men; past the Tank Headquarters and the colored barracks, the storehouses and more barracks just emptied that afternoon into troop trains; out beyond the great laundry and on up the cinder road to the top of the hill and the end of the way.
There at last, in sight of the Military Police, pacing back and forth at the entrance to camp, with the twinkling lights of the village beyond, and the long wooded road winding back to camp, they paused to say good-bye. The cinder path and the woods at its edge made a blot of greenish black against a brilliant stormy sky. The sun was setting like a ball of fire behind the trees, and some strange freak of its rays formed a golden cross resting back against the clouds, its base buried among the woods, its cross bar rising brilliant against the black of a thunder cloud.
"Look!" said Ruth, "it is an omen!" They looked and a great wonder and awe came upon them. The Cross!
Cameron looked back and then down at her and smiled.
"It will lead you safely home," she said softly and laid her hand in his. He held her fingers close for an instant and his eyes dared some of the things his lips would never have spoken now even if they two had been alone.
The Military Police stepped up:
"You don't have to stay out here to say good-bye. You can come into the station right here and sit down. Or if your friends are going to the village you may go with them, Comrade. I can trust you to come back right away."
"I thank you!" Cameron said. "That is the kindest thing that has happened to me at this camp. I wish I could avail myself of it, but I have barely time to get back to the barracks within the hour given me. Perhaps—" and he glanced anxiously across the road toward the village. "Could you just keep an eye out that my ladies reach the Salvation Army Hut all right?"
"Sure!" said the big soldier heartily, "I'll go myself. I'm just going off duty and I'll see them safe to the door."
He stepped a little away and gave an order to his men, and so they said good-bye and watched Cameron go down the road into the sunset with the golden cross blazing above him as he walked lower and lower down the hill into the shadow of the dark woods and the thunder cloud. But brightly the cross shone above him as long as they could see, and just before he stepped into the darkness where the road turned he paused, waved his hat, and so passed on out of their sight.
The first night on the water was one of unspeakable horror to Cameron. They had scarcely begun to feel the roll of the waves before Captain Wurtz manifested his true nature. At six o'clock and broad daylight, he ordered the men below, had them locked in, and all the port holes closed!
The place was packed, the heat was unbearable, the motion increasing all the time, and the air soon became intolerable. In vain the men protested, and begged for air. Their requests were all denied. The captain trusted no man. He treated them as if they were hounds. Wainwright stood by the captain's side, smoking the inevitable cigarette, his eyes narrowly watching Cameron, when the order was given; but no onlooker could have told from Cameron's well trained face whether he had heard or not. Well he knew where those orders had originated, and instantly he saw a series of like torments. Wainwright had things in his own hands for this voyage. Wurtz was his devoted slave. For Wainwright had money, and used it freely with his captain, and Wainwright well knew how to think up tortures. It was really the only thing in which he was clever. And here again was an instance of practice making perfect, for Wainwright had done little else since his kindergarten days than to think up trials for those who would not bow to his peevish will. He seemed to be gifted in finding out exactly what would be the finest kind of torture for any given soul who happened to be his victim. He had the mind of Nero and the spirit of a mean little beast. The wonder, the great miracle was, that he had not in some way discovered that Ruth had been visiting the camp, and taken his revenge before she left. This was the first thought that came to Cameron when he found himself shut into the murky atmosphere. The next thought was that perhaps he had discovered it and this was the result. He felt himself the Jonah for the company, and as the dreadful hours went by would fain have cast himself into the sea if there had been a possible way of escape.
It was not an American transport on which they were sailing, and the captain was not responsible for the food, but he might have refused to allow such meals to be served to his men if he had cared. He did not care, that was the whole trouble. He ate and drank, principally drank, and did whatever Wainwright suggested. When a protest came up to him he turned it down with a laugh, and said: "Oh, that's good enough for a buck private," and went on with his dirty jokes.
The supper that first night was abominable, some unpleasant kind of meat cooked with cabbage, and though they tried to eat it, many of them could not keep it down. The ship rolled and the men grew sick. The atmosphere became fetid. Each moment seemed more impossible than the last. There was no room to move, neither could one get out and away. After supper the men lay down in the only place there was to lie, two men on the tables, two men on the benches each side, two men on the floor between, and so on all over the cabin, packed like eggs in a box.
They sent a message to their captain begging for air, but he only laughed, and sent word back they would have air enough before they got through with this war.
The night wore on and Cameron lay on his scant piece of floor—he had given his bench to a sicker man than himself—and tried to sleep. But sleep did not visit his eyelids. He was thinking, thinking. "I'm going to find God! I'm going to search for Him with all my heart, and somehow I'm going to find Him before I'm done. I may never come home, but I'll find God, anyhow! It's the only thing that makes life bearable!"
Then would come a wave of hate for his enemy and wipe out all other thoughts, and he would wrestle in his heart with the desire to kill Wainwright—yes, and the captain, too. As some poor wretch near him would writhe and groan in agony his rage would boil up anew, his fists would clench, and he would half rise to go to the door and overpower that guard! If only he could get up to where the officers were enjoying themselves! Oh, to bring them down here and bind them in this loathsome atmosphere, feed them with this food, stifle them in the dark with closed port holes! His brain was fertile with thoughts of revenge. Then suddenly across his memory would flash the words: "If with all your heart ye seek Him," and he would reach out in longing: Oh, if he could find God, surely God would stop a thing like this! Did God have no power in His own earth?
Slowly, painfully, the days dragged by, each worse than the last. In the mornings the men must go on deck whether they were sick or not, and must stay there all day, no matter what the weather. If they were wet they must dry out by the heat of their bodies. There was no possibility of getting at their kit bags, it was so crowded. No man was allowed to open one. All they had was the little they carried in their packs. How they lived through it was a wonder, but live they did. Perhaps the worst torture of all was the great round cork life preserver in the form of a cushioned ring which they were obliged to wear night and day. A man could never lie down comfortably with it on, and if from sheer exhaustion he fell asleep he awoke with his back aching tortures. The meat and cabbage was varied twice by steamed fish served in its scales, tails, fins, heads, and entrails complete. All that they got which was really eatable was a small bun served in the morning, and boiled potatoes occasionally.
Nevertheless, these hardships would have been as nothing to Cameron if they had not represented to him hate, pure and simple. He felt, and perhaps justly, that if Wainwright had not wished to make him suffer, these things would surely have been mitigated.
The day came at last when they stood on the deck and watched the strange foreign shore draw nearer. Cameron, stern and silent, stood apart from the rest. For the moment his anger toward Wainwright was forgotten, though he could hear the swaggering tones from the deck above, and the noisome laughter of Wurtz in response. Cameron was looking into the face of the future, wondering what it would mean for him. Out there was the strange country. What did it hold for him? Was God there? How he wanted God to go with him and help him face the future!
There was much delay in landing, and getting ready to move. The men were weak from sickness and long fasting. They tottered as they stood, but they had to stand—unless they dropped. They turned wan faces toward one another and tried to smile. Their fine American pep was gone, hopelessly, yet they grinned feebly now and then and got off a weak little joke or two. For the most part they glared when the officers came by—especially two—those two. The wrath toward them had been brewing long and deep as each man lay weltering through those unbearable nights. Hardship they could bear, and pain, and sickness—but tyranny never!
Someone had written a letter. It was not the first. There had been others on ship board protesting against their treatment. But this letter was a warning to that captain and lieutenant. If they ever led these men into battle they would be killed before the battle began. It was signed by the company. It had been a unanimous vote. Now as they stood staring leadenly at the strange sights about them, listening to the new jargon of the shore, noting the quaint headdresses and wooden sabots of the people with a fine scorn of indifference, they thought of that letter in hard phrases of rage. And bitterest of all were the thoughts of John Cameron as he stood in his place awaiting orders.
They were hungry, these men, and unfit, when at last the order came to march, and they had to hike it straight up a hill with a great pack on their backs. It was not that they minded the packs or the hike or the hunger. It was the injustice of their treatment that weighed upon them like a burden that human nature could not bear. They had come to lift such a burden from the backs of another nation, and they had been treated like dogs all the way over! Like the low rumbling of oncoming thunder was the blackness of their countenances as they marched up, up, and up into Brest. The sun grew hot, and their knees wobbled under them from sheer weakness; strong men when they started, who were fine and fit, now faint like babies, yet with spirits unbroken, and great vengeance in their hearts. They would fight, oh they would fight, yes, but they would see that captain out of the way first! Here and there by the way some fell—the wonder is they all did not—and had to be picked up by the ambulances; and at last they had to be ordered to stop and rest! They! Who had come over here to flaunt their young strength in the face of the enemy! They to fall before the fight was begun. This, too, they laid up against their tyrant.
But there was welcome for them, nevertheless. Flowers and wreaths and bands of music met them as they went through the town, and women and little children flung them kisses and threw blossoms in their way. This revived somewhat the drooping spirits with which they had gone forth, and when they reached camp and got a decent meal they felt better, and more reasonable. Still the bitterness was there, against those two who had used their power unworthily. That night, lying on a hard little cot in camp Cameron tried to pray, his heart full of longing for God, yet found the heavens as brass, and could not find words to cry out, except in bitterness. Somehow he did not feel he was getting on at all in his search, and from sheer weariness and discouragement he fell asleep at last.
Three days and nights of rest they had and then were packed into tiny freight cars with a space so small that they had to take turns sitting down. Men had to sleep sitting or standing, or wherever they could find space to lie down. So they started across France, three days and awful nights they went, weary and sore and bitter still. But they had air and they were better fed. Now and then they could stand up and look out through a crack. Once in a while a fellow could get space to stretch out for a few minutes. Cameron awoke once and found feet all over him, feet even in his face. Yet these things were what he had expected. He did not whine. He was toughened for such experiences, so were the men about him. The hardness merely brought out their courage. They were getting their spirits back now as they neared the real scene of action. The old excitement and call to action were creeping back into their blood. Now and then a song would pipe out, or a much abused banjo or mandolin would twang and bring forth their voices. It was only when an officer walked by or mention would be made of the captain or lieutenant that their looks grew black again and they fell silent. Injustice and tyranny, the things they had come out to fight, that they would not forgive nor forget. Their spirits were reviving but their hate was there.
At last they detrained and marched into a little town.
This was France!
Cameron looked about him in dismay. A scramble of houses and barns, sort of two-in-one affairs. Where was the beauty of France about which he had read so often? Mud was everywhere. The streets were deep with it, the ground was sodden, rain-soaked. It was raining even then. Sunny France!
It was in a barnyard deep in manure where Cameron's tent was set up. Little brown tents set close together, their flies dovetailing so that more could be put in a given space.
Dog weary he strode over the stakes that held them, and looked upon the place where he was to sleep. Its floor was almost a foot deep in water! Rank, ill smelling water! Pah! Was this intention that he should have been billeted here? Some of the men had dry places. Of course, it might have just happened, but—well, what was the use. Here he must sleep for he could not stand up any longer or he would fall over. So he heaped up a pillow of the muck, spread his blanket out and lay down. At least his head would be high enough out of the water so that he would not drown in his sleep, and with his feet in water, and the cold ooze creeping slowly through his heavy garments, he dropped immediately into oblivion. There were no prayers that night. His heart was full of hate. The barnyard was in front of an old stone farm house, and in that farm house were billeted the captain and his favorite first lieutenant. Cameron could hear his raucous laugh and the clinking of the wine glasses, almost the gurgle of the wine. The thought of Wainwright was his last conscious one before he slept. Was it of intention that he should have been put here close by, where Wainwright could watch his every move?
As the days went by and real training began, with French officers working them hard until they were ready to drop at night, gradually Cameron grew stolid. It seemed sometimes as if he had always been here, splashing along in the mud, soaked with rain, sleeping in muck at night, never quite dry, never free from cold and discomfort, never quite clean, always training, the boom of the battle afar, but never getting there. Where was the front? Why didn't they get there and fight and get done with it all?
The rain poured down, day after day. Ammunition trains rolled by. More men marched in, more marched on, still they trained. It seemed eons since he had bade Ruth and his mother good-bye that night at the camp. No mail had come. Oh, if he could just hear a word from home! If he only had her picture! They had taken some together at camp and she had promised to have them developed and send them, but they would probably never reach him. And it were better if they did not. Wainwright was censor. If he recognized the writing nothing would ever reach him he was sure. Still, Wainwright had nothing to do with the incoming mail, only the outgoing. Well, Wainwright should never censor his letters. He would find a way to get letters out that Wainwright had never censored, or he would never send any.
But the days dragged by in rain and mud and discouragement, and no letters came. Once or twice he attempted to write a respectable letter to his mother, but he felt so hampered with the thought of Wainwright having to see it that he kept it securely in his pocket, and contented himself with gay-pictured postcards which he had purchased in Brest, on which he inscribed a few non-committal sentences, always reminding them of the censor, and his inability to say what he would, and always ending, "Remember me to my friend, and tell her I have forgotten nothing but cannot write at present for reasons which I cannot explain."
At night he lay on his watery couch and composed long letters to Ruth which he dared not put on paper lest somehow they should come into the hands of Wainwright. He took great satisfaction in the fact that he had succeeded in slipping through a post card addressed to herself from Brest, through the kindness and understanding of a small boy who agreed to mail it in exchange for a package of chewing gum. Here at the camp there was no such opportunity, but he would wait and watch for another chance. Meantime the long separation of miles, and the creeping days, gave him a feeling of desolation such as he had never experienced before. He began to grow introspective. He fancied that perhaps he had overestimated Ruth's friendship for him. The dear memories he had cherished during the voyage were brought out in the nightwatches and ruthlessly reviewed, until his own shy hope that the light in her eyes had been for him began to fade, and in its place there grew a conviction that happiness of earth was never for him. For, he reasoned, if she cared, why did she not write? At least a post card? Other fellows were getting letters now and then. Day after day he waited when the mail was distributed, but nothing ever came. His mother seemed to have forgotten, too. Surely, all these weeks, some word would have come through. It was not in reason that his mail should be delayed beyond others. Could it be that there was false play somehow? Was Wainwright at the bottom of this? Or had something happened to his mother, and had Ruth forgotten?
The weeks rolled by. The drilling went on. At last word came that the company was to move up farther toward the front. They prepared for a long hike almost eagerly, not knowing yet what was before them. Anything was better than this intolerable waiting.
Solemnly under a leaden sky they gathered; sullenly went through their inspection; stolidly, dully, they marched away through the rain and mud and desolation. The nights were cold and their clothes seemed thin and inadequate. They had not been paid since they came over, so there was no chance to buy any little comfort, even if it had been for sale. A longing for sweets and home puddings and pies haunted their waking hours as they trudged wearily hour after hour, kilometer after kilometer, coming ever nearer, nearer.
For two days they hiked, and then entrained for a long uncomfortable night, and all the time Cameron's soul was crying out within him for the living God. In these days he read much in the little Testament whenever there was a rest by the wayside, and he could draw apart from the others. Ever his soul grew hungrier as he neared the front, and knew his time now was short. There were days when he had the feeling that he must stop tramping and do something about this great matter that hung over him, and then Wainwright would pass by and cast a sharp direction at him with a sneer in the curl of his moustache, and all the fury of his being would rise up, until he would clench his fists in helpless wrath, as Wainwright swaggered on. To think how easily he could drag him in the dust if it only came to a fair fight between them! But Wainwright had all the advantage now, with such a captain on his side!
That night ride was a terrible experience. Cameron, with his thoughts surging and pounding through his brain, was in no condition to come out of hardships fresh and fit. He was overcome with weariness when he climbed into the box car with thirty-nine other fellows just as weary, just as discouraged, just as homesick.
There was only room for about twenty to travel comfortably in that car, but they cheerfully huddled together and took their turns sitting down, and somewhere along in the night it came Cameron's turn to slide down on the floor and stretch out for a while; or perhaps his utter weariness made him drop there involuntarily, because he could no longer keep awake. For a few minutes the delicious ache of lying flat enveloped him and carried him away into unconsciousness with a lulling ecstasy. Then suddenly Wainwright seemed to loom over him and demand that he rise and let him lie down in his place. It seemed to Cameron that the lethargy that had stolen over him as he fell asleep was like heavy bags of sand tied to his hands and feet. He could not rise if he would. He thought he tried to tell Wainwright that he was unfair. He was an officer and had better accommodations. What need had he to come back here and steal a weary private's sleep. But his lips refused to open and his throat gave out no sound. Wainwright seemed gradually stooping nearer, nearer, with a large soft hand about his throat, and his little pig eyes gleaming like two points of green light, his selfish mouth all pursed up as it used to be when the fellows stole his all-day sucker, and held it tantalizingly above his reach. One of his large cushiony knees was upon Cameron's chest now, and the breath was going from him. He gasped, and tried to shout to the other fellows that this was the time to do away with this tyrant, this captain's pet, but still only a croak would come from his lips. With one mighty effort he wrenched his hands and feet into action, and lunged up at the mighty bully above him, struggling, clutching wildly for his throat, with but one thought in his dreaming brain, to kill—to kill! Sound came to his throat at last, action to his sleeping body, and struggling himself loose from the two comrades who had fallen asleep upon him and almost succeeded in smothering him, he gave a hoarse yell and got to his feet.
They cursed and laughed at him, and snuggled down good naturedly to their broken slumbers again, but Cameron stood in his corner, glaring out the tiny crack into the dark starless night that was whirling by, startled into thoughtfulness. The dream had been so vivid that he could not easily get rid of it. His heart was boiling hot with rage at his old enemy, yet something stronger was there, too, a great horror at himself. He had been about to kill a fellow creature! To what pass had he come!
And somewhere out in that black wet night, a sweet white face gleamed, with brown hair blown about it, and the mist of the storm in its locks. It was as if her spirit had followed him and been present in that dream to shame him. Supposing the dream had been true, and he had actually killed Wainwright! For he knew by the wild beating of his heart, by the hotness of his wrath as he came awake, that nothing would have stayed his hand if he had been placed in such a situation.
It was like a dream to hover over a poor worn tempest-tossed soul in that way and make itself verity; demand that he should live it out again and again and face the future that would have followed such a set of circumstances. He had to see Ruth's sad, stern face, the sorrowful eyes full of tears, the reproach, the disappointment, the alien lifting of her chin. He knew her so well; could so easily conjecture what her whole attitude would be, he thought. And then he must needs go on to think out once more just what relation there might be between his enemy and the girl he loved—think it out more carefully than he had ever let himself do before. All he knew about the two, how their home grounds adjoined, how their social set and standing and wealth was the same, how they had often been seen together; how Wainwright had boasted!
All night he stood and thought it out, glowering between the cracks of the car at the passing whirl, differentiating through the blackness now and then a group of trees or buildings or a quick flash of furtive light, but mainly darkness and monotony. It was as if he were tied to the tail of a comet that dashed hellwards for a billion years, so long the night extended till the dull gray dawn. There was no God anywhere in that dark night. He had forgotten about Him entirely. He was perhaps strongly conscious of the devil at his right hand.
They detrained and hiked across a bit of wet country that was all alike—all mud, in the dull light that grew only to accentuate the ugliness and dreariness of everything. Sunny France! And this was sunny France!
At last they halted along a muddy roadside and lined up for what seemed an interminable age, waiting for something, no one knew what, nor cared. They were beyond caring, most of them, poor boys! If their mothers had appeared with a bowl of bread and milk and called them to bed they would have wept in her arms with joy. They stood apathetically and waited, knowing that sometime after another interminable age had passed, the red tape necessary to move a large body like themselves would be unwound, and everything go on again to another dreary halt somewhere. Would it ever be over? The long, long trail?
Cameron stood with the rest in a daze of discouragement, not taking the trouble to think any more. His head was hot and his chest felt heavy, reminding him of Wainwright's fat knee; and he had an ugly cough.
Suddenly someone—a comrade—touched him on the shoulder.
"Come on in here, Cammie, you're all in. This is the Salvation Army Hut!"
Cameron turned. Salvation Army! It sounded like the bells of heaven. Ah! It was something he could think back to, that little Salvation Army Hut at camp! It brought the tears into his throat in a great lump. He lurched after his friend, and dropped into the chair where he was pushed, sliding his arms out on the table before him and dropping his head quickly to hide his emotion. He couldn't think what was the matter with him. He seemed to be all giving way.
"He's all in!" he heard the voice of his friend, "I thought maybe you could do something for him. He's a good old sport!"
Then a gentle hand touched his shoulder, lightly, like his mother's hand. It thrilled him and he lifted his bleared eyes and looked into the face of a kindly gray-haired woman.
She was not a handsome woman, though none of the boys would ever let her be called homely, for they claimed her smile was so glorious that it gave her precedence in beauty to the greatest belle on earth. There was a real mother lovelight in her eyes now when she looked at Cameron, and she held a cup of steaming hot coffee in her hand, real coffee with sugar and cream and a rich aroma that gave life to his sinking soul.
"Here, son, drink this!" she said, holding the cup to his lips.
He opened his lips eagerly and then remembered and drew back:
"No," he said, drawing away, "I forgot, I haven't any money. We're all dead broke!" He tried to pull himself together and look like a man.
But the coffee cup came close to his lips again and the rough motherly hand stole about his shoulders to support him:
"That's all right!" she said in a low, matter-of-fact tone. "You don't need money here, son, you've got home, and I'm your mother to-night. Just drink this and then come in there behind those boxes and lie down on my bed and get a wink of sleep. You'll be yourself again in a little while. That's it, son! You've hiked a long way. Now forget it and take comfort."
So she soothed him till he surely must be dreaming again, and wondered which was real, or if perhaps he had a fever and hallucinations. He reached a furtive hand and felt of the pine table, and the chair on which he sat to make sure that he was awake, and then he looked into her kind gray eyes and smiled.
She led him into the little improvised room behind the counter and tucked him up on her cot with a big warm blanket.
"That's all right now, son," she whispered, "don't you stir till you feel like it. I'll look after you and your friend will let you know if there is any call for you. Just you rest."
He thanked her with his eyes, too weary to speak a word, and so he dropped into a blessed sleep.
When he awakened slowly to consciousness again there was a smell in the air of more coffee, delicious coffee. He wondered if it was the same cup, and this only another brief phase of his own peculiar state. Perhaps he had not been asleep at all, but had only closed his eyes and opened them again. But no, it was night, and there were candles lit beyond the barricade of boxes. He could see their flicker through the cracks, and shadows were falling here and there grotesquely on the bit of canvas that formed another wall. There was some other odor on the air, too. He sniffed delightedly like a little child, something sweet and alluring, reminding one of the days when mother took the gingerbread and pies out of the oven. No—doughnuts, that was it! Doughnuts! Not doughnuts just behind the trenches! How could that be?