"I'm unhappy about you, Jeb," he said, as they fell into stride.
Jeb, having reached a state of mind wherein he expected at any moment to be called a coward, felt his body stiffen as if to receive a blow. He had become ashamed even to inquire for news of Marian, during these last few days, as the contrast of their characters was a thing he preferred keeping in the background. He now looked stolidly at the pavement, and asked:
"What about?"—but the words were huskily inarticulate and he repeated them, this time in a louder voice: "What about?"
"Oh, everything," the old gentleman answered. "Your splendid loyalty to the company that won't be formed has robbed you of a place in other branches of the service which by this time would have meant much to you, and I'm afraid now it's too late to recover the lost ground." He failed to notice that his young friend drew a breath of relief, or that he stepped out with greater confidence. "You might be training this minute, Jeb, were it not for my vain desire to put you quickly in a place of command! I am greatly distressed—greatly to be blamed!"
"Please don't say that, sir," Jeb turned to him quickly, yet with more pleasure than solicitude in his voice. "There'll be a second camp, and I won't lose anything in the long run. Even if I never get to go at all, Colonel, I've the satisfaction of having tried—that is, I will have tried; which, along with your kindness, is more than a compensation."
He meant this. He saw an opportunity, moreover, to beat the draft by giving out ahead of time his determination to attend the second training camp. It had not before occurred to him, because he had been too mentally paralyzed to think clearly. Now a suspicion which once had flickered in his mind came back with renewed vigor: that a kind of Fate was watching his career. It had steered him safely past the home company, and later had steered through rapids that might easily have dashed him against the first training camp. At present it was pointing to a secret passage of escape from conscription. To-day, he figured rapidly, was the thirty-first of May; the second camp would not open until August the twenty-seventh. Oh, lots of things could happen in three months! Jeb had not felt quite so hopeful since the declaration of war, and launched a flow of pyrotechnical sentiments which warmed the Colonel's blood.
This wordy recklessness continued while they turned into the Eagle building and ascended to the "office." Mr. Strong looked up smilingly as they entered, and the Colonel, standing with legs apart, pushed back his hat, exclaiming:
"Amos, Jeb has in him, I declare, sir, the spirit of the old days! He'll make a record, sir, of which we'll be proud; and also make those wretched Huns take water or I don't know a soldier! Rather than feel depressed because our planning has thus far kept him away from the Colors, he's confidently and happily looking forward to the second training camp for officers, sir. Incidentally this will spare him the odium—the odium, sir—of being drafted like a common slacker!"
"I'd die if I were drafted," Jeb put in. "I don't see how drafted men can face their own kind, much less the enemy!"
"You're right," the Colonel thundered. "Such a system saps our manhood! I thank God, Amos, that in the old days men responded to the call without being driven like a herd of moral lepers!"
"Not so fast, not so fast," Mr. Strong began to laugh at them. "In the old days, Roger, we owed our successes at arms to luck, rather than to a finely organized army. Washington couldn't have whipped the British without France; we couldn't have held our own with them again in 1812 if they hadn't been up to their ears in the Peninsular War, and unable to send anything like an equal force over here to engage us. It's the truth, Roger, and we lose nothing by admitting it! The Mexican War was a vastly superior power against a little one, and the same condition prevailed when we tackled Spain. Only once in our history did we find it necessary to draft, and that was when we fought an antagonist—I will not say an enemy—in every way our equal; that, Roger," he laid his hand on the Colonel's arm and spoke tenderly, "was when we fought you."
The Colonel looked out of the window. His eyes blinked several times before he replied, in the same gentle voice:
"By gad, Amos, you did have to draft then, didn't you!"
"We did, and I'm frank to say we should have done so in every war before and after. It's the only fair way, and the only efficient way! But aside from what we should have done, today we're fighting neither Mexico nor Spain. We're fighting a blood-glutted monster whose breath is poisonous gas, whose touch is fever, whose thoughts are leprous. This is too serious an emergency to trust in the hands of a fallacious volunteer system! The Government, by which I mean ourselves, must look to its knitting with an alertness never before found necessary, or this time we perish. And I want to tell you, Roger, with all solemnity, that there may be a score of legitimate reasons why a young man should not volunteer, but none to caste dishonor on his endraftment. This nation merely says to its young fighting men, 'Step up, my sons!'—then, all who should fight, will; and those who should not, won't! There is no way more fair; there is no way more honorable! So do not re-utter your sentiments, either of you!"
"I expect you're right," the Colonel murmured.
"I know I am. And you'll realize it next Tuesday, Roger, when you see what fine types of young fellows come before you to be registered. I put you down as a registrar," he added, "because I am to be one, also."
"Thank goodness I won't have to register," Jeb said contentedly. "I'm going to the second camp."
"You'll have to register, all the same, Jeb," the editor turned to him. "All men in the age must do that."
"But how about the second camp?"
"There's some talk of taking no men in the second camp who are in the draft age. Youngsters like you are wanted for the rank and file."
Mr. Strong turned to his desk and began opening mail, else he might have read Jeb's secret at a glance. The Colonel, blissfully ignorant, leaned over the ledger and began for the hundredth time to check off the extinct roster, saying with resignation:
"That sounds reasonable, Amos; and, since there's no odium attached to a drafted man, it may be all the greater achievement in the long run when Jeb has worked himself up from the ranks. He'll be a better officer for it."
"When is this registration?" Jeb tried to make his voice sound natural.
"Next Tuesday," Mr. Strong answered over his shoulder. The Colonel was still preoccupied and did not look up. The next moment Jeb slipped out and turned, dizzily, into Main street.
For the remainder of that week Jeb was an ill man. He could neither eat nor sleep, but paced restlessly about the garden, sometimes going far into the country and coming home exhausted. He did not realize that his panic-stricken mind was showing signs of its agony, or that his aunts were becoming greatly alarmed. But Sunday morning Miss Sallie and Miss Veemie held a consultation and decided to call Doctor Purdy—a gruff, good-natured friend of the family, who not infrequently dropped in for a cup of tea. This time he found his patient in the garden and was soon walking arm in arm with him. Later he rejoined the ladies on the front porch.
"Is it serious?" they asked, in a breath.
"Um," he answered, pursing his lips and looking out across the lawn, "no."
They did not suspect that Doctor Purdy was utterly in the dark about Jeb's ailment; nor that in a general way he had diagnosed it to be love or debt, judging solely from a very evident depression. Neither did the man of medicine guess how dangerously ill in mind his patient had become; for Jeb, in the darkest hours of these days, during which he was imminently faced with conscription—meaning to him a hell of hells in a foreign battlefield—had so worked himself into an hysteria that personal injury seemed the easiest and only solution to his suffering. Were he to shoot off his finger, for instance, he would not be drafted! He had read of this being done in other countries! Or, he might point the rifle at his foot—but that, perhaps, would be a needless sacrifice.
He had thought it carefully out, and had been actually on the point of deciding when the old physician appeared. Then Doctor Purdy, reading in his eyes the very image of despair, left good suggestions as the best medicine he then knew to bolster him up. The consequence was that Jeb, instead of resorting to wounds, settled on a better plan: he would become more ill, grow worse and worse, so that by Tuesday the doctor might carry a certificate to the registration place exempting him from service. He brightened wonderfully after this; he really became a hopeful looking invalid for one who intended to flirt shamelessly with death. He almost laughed. His appetite returned, and it was a hard knock for him to take to his bed instead of sitting down at the sumptuous feast which he knew Miss Sallie and Miss Veemie had provided. But bed it must be, and no dinner.
News of his illness had got abroad somewhat, and during the afternoon the Colonel and Mr. Strong called. When Miss Veemie, out of breath, came up to tell him this he expressed a feeble wish to see them, arranging himself deeper in the pillows and trying to remain calm.
"Well, sir," said the Colonel jovially, "this is no place for a soldier! The time will come, doubtless, when we'll be dropping by to see you tucked in white sheets, but then you'll have a leg off, or half your head! You'll be a battle-scarred veteran, then!"
The light was not strong enough for any of them to have seen the effect of this encouraging speech, but Jeb acquiesced feebly, adding a weak desire that the prophecy might come true. This sentiment, just at this time, did not escape the Colonel, who looked for the merest instant startled—then put an unworthy thought aside as the invalid concluded:
"I'm awfully sorry I won't be out Tuesday to register."
"Don't let that worry you, my boy," Mr. Strong leaned gently over and spoke to him. "The War Department has provided for those who happen to be ill, so you won't miss it; we promise to see to that, eh, Roger?"
"He's in my district," the generous Colonel answered, "so I'll come by here first thing Tuesday morning and fill out his card. Why, it'll be a pleasure, Jeb!"
Where was the good fairy, the kind Fate, now that had stood between him and this war horror! He felt limp and willing to lie still awhile; but as soon as the guests had left he sprang up and feverishly paced the floor.
Had he possessed one chum, to whom he could pour out this agony and who in turn could have jolted him back into a normal perspective, Jeb might have faced the issue with coolness and even gladness, as millions of other fellows were doing. But he had started wrong, and the farther he stumbled down the wrong road the harder it was to struggle back. Each hour he had let himself be confronted with agonizing thoughts of pain and death—strangling in the cruel embrace of the one, or being drawn whimpering into the mysterious uncertainty of the other; vivid prospects, these, that drew him into a state of dumb hysteria. He loathed himself, he loathed everything about him, until the untoward tomorrows were nearly effaced by the self-torment of todays. To be caught between the two was an endless terror—since tomorrows are always tomorrows, and todays face us with every dawn. Trembling at the uncertainties ahead, he longed for that peace which is only found in the finalities of yesterdays. With anguished eyes he peered into the future, and wrung his hands impotently.
When he heard Miss Sallie and Miss Veemie coming up to say goodnight, he slipped between the sheets and remained impassive while they fussed about, touching the pillow here or patting the coverlet there. At last, alone for the night, he crossed silently to the door and locked it; then drew a chair to the window and gazed moodily out into the trees, one of whose branches brushed the sill on which he leaned.
There was an agitation in the leaves that seemed to whisper eerie things to him; they were stirred by some invisible emotion—by fear, he thought. To his mind all nature was trembling before the great human sacrifice about to be demanded of this fair land; and he imagined other trees, forests upon forests of them, vines, flowers, grasses—aye, mountains and gorges, even—being obsessed by this same dumb shivering. "The world is shivering," he whispered. He was shivering! How long, he wondered, must it be before this quietly shivering world would burst into a raging frenzy, as these trees within touch of him had been whipped by storms of unbridled passion! He recalled a storm in the previous summer, when green leaves torn from their stems were driven before the hurricane and plastered on these very window panes above his head. He likened it to a man-made fury, wherein pieces of human body would be blown about with the same unrelenting indifference.
By eight o'clock next morning Jeb was on his way downtown. Although his face was white and somewhat drawn, the illness had disappeared; he had eaten a man's size breakfast and declared himself to be fit. The shivers that earlier made a playground of his frame were quiet; their elements were present, but scattered by a resolution that was now driving him onward—and well nigh driving him mad!
Turning into the Eagle building he walked stolidly to the editor's room and entered. As he had hoped, Mr. Strong was not there, and only the Colonel arose, crying with outstretched hands:
"A soldier's recovery, on my word, sir! Jeb, you rebound like a rubber ball—I'm proud of you!"
"You mustn't be proud of me," he replied slowly, not looking into the honest face that smiled at him. "I am not fit to be proud of."
The words might have been taken for extreme modesty, but the tone fell unpleasantly on the Colonel's ears. He recognized, or thought he recognized, something that had its root in this young man before him; not merely an expression of the moment. For an instant his keen eyes bored into the averted face, causing Jeb to look up rather defiantly.
"Colonel," he said jerkily, "tomorrow is draft day. I'm afraid of it; I'm a—a——" then it burst in a tone of desperation, "—a coward, sir!"
The office was perfectly still for nearly a minute, during which the Colonel's scrutinizing gaze never faltered. He would have been vacuous indeed to ask if this thing were a joke, for Jeb's whole attitude condemned him. But the old gentleman was not the type who easily surrendered the honor of his friends, and when he spoke his words came haltingly, as though he were weighing this damning statement against all that had formerly been good; he was unwilling to pronounce a verdict on the bare face value of such an accusation without throwing into the balance, not only Jeb's character since boyhood, but the affectionate memory of his father.
"It takes a brave man to say that, Jeb, and you've certainly shown no cowardice thus far. I prefer to think that you are mistaking a new situation, a strange sensation, for this more unworthy thing—I won't name it, sir!"
Whatever the hope to which Colonel Hampton clung, he could no longer doubt Jeb's earnestness nor his sanity. He saw that this son of his dead friend was speaking a horrible truth which he, himself, could not possibly understand. And then he seemed suddenly to have aged, to have grown old in a moment.
Sometimes an autumn will progress far while still holding the bounteous greens of summer; the skies will have tempered their chill to trees and grass, and even scattered wild flowers will retain their bloom. But, one night, something taps upon the window pane. Faster, faster, like metallic clicks of a speeding-up machine, the sleet rattles for a little while, and lo! where are the leaves, the flowers, of yesterday! Thus did the Colonel age at this quick approach of blighting cold which the optimism of his nature was impotent to withstand. Yet he was still unwilling to give up the fight. Jeb was afraid, not a coward! There lay a vast difference between these, and he said hopefully:
"Get this in your mind, Jeb: bravery is the absence of fear, but courage is the ability to overcome fear! It's no disgrace to be afraid; it's only a disgrace to be a slave to fear. The man who possesses one pound of fear and two pounds of courage, is a lion; reverse this order and you have—that other thing, which I won't believe you are! Why, boy, I remember my first experience well! My regiment was behind a hill, waiting the word that would send us charging into action—and a red-hot fight they said it would be, too! I was leaning on my rifle in the most nonchalant attitude of indifference, but the truth was that if it hadn't been for that prop my knees would have crumpled up. You're the first man I ever told this to, and I wouldn't now unless I thought it would help you. That was the most unhappy moment in my life; but, like all troubles, it appeared to be much greater at a distance. Once in action I had a rattling good time and hated like the devil to quit; and you'll be the same way—I know you will. I'll go a step further with your case—as also mine—and assert that the man who doesn't know fear is an utter stranger to the extreme delights of courage—for courage is a delight to the very soul after it takes possession. The trouble is, you've been thinking too much; you've been picturing foreign things in a foreign land, and your vision is distorted. Go to it, lad, and you'll be the same game rooster your daddy was before you!"
The Colonel finished with a burst of enthusiasm that was genuine until he saw the face of his staring listener. Then his jaws set and the appearance of age again crept slowly back. He turned away and began drumming on the table with his pencil.
"I suppose it can't be helped," he said, tremulously, after a death-like silence wherein the breathing of each was distinctly audible. "I suppose it's in one's make-up," he continued, as though pleading with an invisible accuser who was sitting there in judgment upon the son of his old friend. "It's probably like an ear for music, an eye for color, an aptitude for this or that pursuit in life—just stuck in, you know, without apparent cause; and so with the stuff that makes soldiers." Then, turning in a sudden fury, he thundered: "But the hell of it is, that every born male baby should be then and there a born soldier, else nature has blundered in making it a male!—for a boy-child that comes into the world without that divine element which later would make it joyfully die for its country, ought to be a girl-child! I'm not sure that it ought to be anything at all, judging from the nobility our girls, our women, have always shown when their country bleeds! There's Marian Strong, possessed with the courage of a lion—yes, sir, a lion! I don't understand you; I don't understand anything—I'm damned if I do!—not anything at all!"
Again, except for the drumming pencil, the same sickening stillness filled the room. When Mr. Strong was heard outside talking to a member of his staff, the old soldier and the young slacker looked at each other quickly, almost guiltily, as if they had nearly been surprised in a crime. To their relief he turned and descended the stairs, but the Colonel tilted his chair until he could see the courthouse clock, saying drily:
"He'll be back in a few minutes. The draft registration is tomorrow. What are we going to do?"
Jeb felt as though his body were a sponge that had absorbed all the sickening heaviness extant throughout the world. There was a strong tugging within that demanded of him to cry aloud his intention to enlist, but another personality whimpered desperately, "I can't—I can't!" His own face now was drawn as the Colonel's had been; his eyes seemed filmy, and when he spoke his voice was lifeless.
"I know it is," he said.
It did not escape the Colonel that Jeb had replied directly to the thing which most concerned him. The draft was his evil fetish; second in importance came the question of what he should do, or whether Mr. Strong might return and be a witness to his disgrace—yet the Colonel even now was unwilling to call it this. Applied to any one else—yes! Treating with any one else he would doubtless have ordered him from the office. But this was the son of his old friend; the boy he had watched with pride, lo! these twenty-six years. One cannot in the batting of an eye shake off an affection so deeply grounded!
"Well, sir, I know it, too," he suddenly exclaimed. "I ask you what we are going to do!"
"I—I wish I knew," Jeb answered desperately. "I—I want to do something——"
"You've got to do something," the interruption came with uncompromising sternness.
The door opened and Mr. Strong entered.
"Hullo," he cried, with a brevity characteristic of him when hurried. "Would have been here sooner, but that plagued unit had to be got fixed."
"What unit are you talking about, Amos?" the Colonel asked, glad and sorry for the interruption.
The editor seated himself and began to run a thin steel paper knife through one after another of several unopened letters.
"Barrow's," he answered, without turning around. "Barrow's hospital unit—leaves some time tonight; and Wade, the man listed to go from here, dropped a packing box on his foot. Barrow 'phoned me last night, and I've been looking for a suitable man all morning."
Nearly everyone in Hillsdale had heard that the great Barrow was heading a hospital unit, and the editor's nearest friends knew that he had been honored with permission to select one man from his own town. Now this man had come to grief! The Colonel looked across at Jeb. He saw at once a miraculous opportunity, and whispered:
"Helping about a hospital is a fine work, Jeb. Of course, it isn't like being with the Colors, but it means service—a very noble service!"
Jeb's mind had sprung farther ahead than the nobility of service. It saw a place of comparative safety, far from the range of shells; there would be no charging over parapets, no bullets would come ploughing through his stomach, no shrapnel would tear shreds from his face! He thought much of that face. He could actually be in France and come home a hero! Besides all these considerations, he would escape the draft!
The Colonel, watching closely, read each argument, each emotion. For a moment his own fearless, honest eyes drew to shiny points and his lips, had he not controlled them, would have curled in disgust. But he could not quite forget that Jeb was the son of his old friend; aye, and his own friend. As there had been two personalities in Jeb, tugging for and against enlistment, so were there two beings in the Colonel's soul condemning and pleading for this weakling Hercules. He now turned anxiously to the editor, asking:
"You haven't found anyone, have you, Amos?"
"Eh? No, Roger, I haven't. Our boys, who are not already pledged to the Colors, prefer taking their turn with the draft."
"Then wire Barrow quickly that Jeb takes Wade's place!"
Mr. Strong swung about in his chair.
"Jeb? Does Jeb want that branch of service?"
"He's crazy for it, Amos! He wants anything that'll get him to France as speedily as possible."
The Colonel tried manfully, for the love of old associations, to look without flinching into the eyes of Amos Strong. He felt that Jeb should have told this lie—not, perhaps, an out and out lie, for Jeb did truly want any service wherein he would escape the draft and gun-fire; but it was a lie, nevertheless, and the Colonel's cheeks burned hotly.
"Well, I'm——!" Mr. Strong did not say it—not that he wouldn't have! He turned, wrote a hurried direction and rang for his stenographer; then, as she retired, he wheeled back again with a cordial smile.
"You've greatly surprised me, Jeb—that is, I'm delighted with your resolution. I've a blank somewhere," he now began fumbling over the littered desk, "and we'll make it out at once; just a form, you know—all units have 'em in one style or another! Now: Name? —— Residence? —— Age? ——"
It was soon done and passed over for Jeb's signature which was attached with a firm, confident hand. Mr. Strong wrote awhile further, and looked up, saying:
"It may be slightly irregular, but the time is so short we can't help ourselves; so I've vouched for your physical condition. I've also waived indemnity in case you're killed, since, of course, thus far in life you've contributed nothing to the support of your aunts."
This mention of being killed, put down in regular form, drove the color from Jeb's cheeks; but it seemed absurd to him and the next moment he laughed, saying:
"I don't suppose there's one chance in a thousand of that, way back in a hospital!"
The desk telephone rang and Mr. Strong took up the receiver, thus checking his reply.
"Yes, Barrow, I called you. I've a man for Wade's place. Still room? Good! Jeb Tumpson—known him all his life! J-E-B, yes, Jeb. Not time to mail it?—wait!" He reached for the application and began to read it slowly, sometimes repeating so the listener could take it correctly down. "When shall he report, Barrow? Good! He'll be uniformed there? Splendid! Don't forget, if you should see my daughter! Well, goodbye and good luck, Barrow; yours is a noble work, and God husband you!"
"Amen," the Colonel whispered.
Mr. Strong, hanging up the receiver, swung about enthusiastically.
"Jeb," he cried, "hustle! Barrow says bring only a suitcase and toilet articles; report to his hospital as soon as your train lands you, and be fitted out. I'll mail this original application to the proper place with a notation that you've left. You'll take the fast express this afternoon, reach him about nine-thirty, and sail some time after midnight. That's moving some!" he slapped his thigh. "Now hurry home and tell the little aunts. Roger and I will have money at the train for you. Oh, by the way," he arose and followed Jeb who was about to pass out, "I wouldn't let on about dangers, understand? Just pretend there aren't any; for if those dear ladies knew you were going into a branch of service where the death toll is higher than any place else in the army, they'd be ill with worrying."
Jeb leaned against the door-jamb and opened his lips wide for breath. His throat felt parched, his heart was beating like the roll-call on a drum. But Mr. Strong, moved greatly by the moment, laid a hand on his shoulder, adding:
"I haven't said as much as I want; I'm not going to, either. You know I want to be proud of you, and I'll be watching for news with an interest akin to that which I feel for Marian. You're going away to play a mighty big game, boy, wherein Humanity is trumps and Patriotism, Righteousness and Service are the other three aces. Yet even if you hold all these, you may still lose unless you possess one more magic card: Self-respect. We all owe to our soul a certain measure of self-respect, Jeb. It is a gentleman's personal debt of honor to himself, demanding payment before every other obligation, and is satisfied only when we face each of life's crises with steel-tipped, crystal courage. Think of this often; carry it with you everywhere; it is the last and best thing I can give you. Now hustle!" he gave him an affectionate push. "We'll be at the depot waiting."
Job went down the stairs in a storm of mental hysteria. His physical senses seemed to be numb, but the brain more than made up for this. It was writhing in an agony of fear, a chaos of racing tortures; yet in their midst one thing stood aloof with the firmness of rock. This was the belief—unassailable, absolute—that he could not by any human means turn from the direction his life was pointing. He felt this profoundly. His mind kicked and held back against it, but a great something was calmly impelling him on. He hated this inexorable force; he cursed it; for he did not realize that it was his own soul!
The editor had followed him out, having duties elsewhere in the building, so the Colonel sat alone listening to their retreating steps. His fine head was erect, his hands were clasped and his arms thrust out before him on the table. Jeb's confession was burning into his brain as he reviewed every chapter of the boy's behavior since early April. Each of Jeb's procrastinations and evasions now stood out clearly, connoting but one thing, predicated on but one thing! Slowly the old gentleman's mustache began to move in a curious way; by degrees his face became convulsed; then, letting his head fall between the outstretched arms, he yielded to a great sob:
"My God—a coward!"
Some time before daylight Jeb fell asleep. In the work and hustle of getting aboard and stowing supplies for his unit, of dodging a company of Canadians looking to their own embarkation, and of steering his course through half an army of sweating stevedores who were loading vast quantities of freight for the Allied army, he had not thought of himself. But he had felt the elation which comes to all who are cohesively striving for a single purpose that lies beyond dangerous, and as yet insurmountable, ground. He had responded to the camaraderie of these Canadian chaps, and it had been good. Now he slept.
The steamer that took his unit to France, and these few furloughed boys from Canada back to their regiment, was not large as steamers go, but it looked monstrous to Jeb. Had he been familiar with trans-Atlantic travel he would have missed the library, main saloon, smoking and writing-rooms, as these spaces which formerly belonged to the pleasure traveler were now converted into bunks. Bunks were everywhere—empty bunks for the most part on this trip, but ready for the great movement later on. Perhaps the next time over she might bring the American boys!
When these lads from Canada, the doctors and the nurses (and the stretcher bearers, of which Jeb was one, although he had not yet discovered it) realized their transport was an old reconverted German tub, they would have cheered an irony so delightful had not orders been issued for complete silence. No one must know that this ship, secretly restored from the ravages of her former crew, entertained the slightest idea of sailing; not one of the swarm of spies in German pay, infesting New York and its environs, must suspect this midnight-to-dawn embarkation! So, while Jeb slept, tugs quietly warped her out, towed her in ghostlike fashion toward the Bay and turned her free. By daylight she was over the horizon.
And no one suspected that before daylight one of the sweating stevedores, washed and smartly dressed, left his back-hall room in a Hoboken boarding house, crossed to New York and entered a telephone booth in a large hotel; thereupon calling an uptown number and telling a keen-eyed man who listened gratefully that his wife was out of danger and the doctor had left at two o'clock. Later that morning one of the commercial messages which loaded the telegraph wires sped to a merchant in Buenos Ayres asking quotations on 8,000 feet of 2-A grade mahogany veneer; and, half an hour later, the Swedish Legation there was telling Berlin that, upon this date, at 2 A. M., a steamer of 8,000 tons burden had cleared New York, destination France.
When the bugles sounded reveille Jeb fell out with the others. This taste of the military was decidedly acceptable to him. He regretted that his unit did not fall in for mess, as the Canadian veterans, for instance. He regretted keenly his ignorance of army matters, the manual, even, and the habit that came with constant discipline of keeping oneself smart, straight, clear-eyed and ever courteous—as a good soldier is. There were several pretty nurses aboard—several who were not!—and for once his classic features found worthy rivals in the less handsome, though more perfectly conditioned, regulars.
Jeb had not realized as yet that he was stepping into an age where Service counts above all other human assets; where the millionaire who sits smugly in his club is contemptible beside the twenty-five dollar a week man who puts his shoulder to the yoke. He had not seen this as yet, nor could he have believed that henceforth, as never before, the real men and real women of the world would be graded by the stamp of sterling service, as distinguished from, and higher than, sterling dollars. This great lesson he had yet to learn, as millions are learning and will continue to learn.
There sometimes comes in the life of men an affinity for other men; when two from afar will be drawn together as old acquaintances. This is more usual when the sexes are crossed—at least, poets would have it so—but in all reaches of human habitation there are moments when a man will see another in a crowd and say to himself, "I'd like to meet that chap!" Thus it was with Jeb and Sergeant Tim Doreen, one-time citizen of Galway (the old sod), later American citizen, still later discharged with honor from a Canadian regiment because of a grievous wound. But wounds meant less to Tim than fighting and now, within six weeks, he was on his way back. "Not as I wouldn't love to go wid me Stars an' Stripes, lad," he carefully explained, "—for 'twould do me 'art good to slug the heathen Boche from under its majistic folds—but ye'll be some time gittin' ready over here, whilst the b'ys av me old rigiment is standin' at attintion waitin' fer me this minute!"
He and Jeb possessed not one thing in common, yet each was endowed with something the other would have given his all to own. Jeb's face, for instance, was like a cameo, high-bred, delicate and intellectual; Tim's was scarred by shrapnel—although it had never been much of a face to start with! He had always wanted to be handsome, for he loved beauty extravagantly, be it in man or woman. Jeb, moreover, was tall, splendidly built, graceful; his hands were smooth, his fingers well groomed, he carried himself with the air of a gentleman. Tim was short, perhaps just within the army requirement; he was built like a pine knot, was smartly soldierly but lacked every other grace; his hands were what hands should be that had not shirked in the trenches. He could not have passed for a gentleman—or for what is the usually accepted term for that individual—with all the arts of Poole and the rest of Piccadilly thrown in; and Tim's highest ambition would have been to walk some evening into the Ritz-Carlton, Sheppards, Continental, or Plaza, "wid clothes enough an' manners enough to make them as eats there break their sweet necks wid lookin', an' strain their soft eyes wid admirin' av me!"
Jeb could have done it, for he drew just such looks in places given over to social frivolities; so Tim liked Jeb, because Tim was generous and knew only a manly man's psychology. Little did he dream which of the two would attract the smiles of admiration, the tears of adulation, in the great field of human service! Just one thing he did possess, however, which Jeb would have given his world for, and that was courage. If ever man bore the mark of courage, 'twas Tim Doreen! Perhaps the widest breach between them might have been thus summed up: Jeb was well aware that Jeb was handsome; Tim had never given a thought to the fact that Tim was in the highest sense courageous.
The duties of a sergeant are not all hammocks and cigarettes. He occupies an anomalous position of go-between for his captain and the men; he must swear here, praise there, appear to be hurt at other times. He must never miss anything, from a grumble beneath the breath to a blistered heel or a bad tooth. He must lay alongside the men, in a figurative sense, and get to know their souls; and get them to love him or to hate him—but never to think of him with indifference. If his captain is wise, he will listen to him patiently and follow his advice; for a good sergeant maketh a happy company, just as truly as a good housewife maketh a contented home.
There were few duties aboard ship. The Canadians were already veterans, and their new captain who was taking them back allowed more loafing than usual. He believed in a generous breathing space before the sterner days to come—providing they kept themselves fit! Neither did Barrow care much how his unit employed its time, if all hands attended his lectures and first aid demonstrations; and so it came about that Tim and Jeb sat many hours together. It also followed that Tim saw in his new friend elements which puzzled him, for now, the sixth day out, he turned, saying quietly:
"Lad, ye've been talkin' a lot about this Medical Corps job av yours, an' the risk ye're takin'; an' whin ye're not talkin', ye're wonderin' how soon we'll be blowed up be a submarine! W'ot ails ye now? W'ot's bitin' ye?"
The irresistible caress of the Celtic tongue was in Tim's question, and Jeb, hesitating but a moment, impulsively leaned toward him.
"Tim," he said, "I don't want you to think less of me, but the idea of being sunk out here in mid ocean, or being shot up in a battle, scares me stiff. I guess I'm a—a——"
"Don't say it," the other checked him. "Don't be callin' yeself w'ot ye'd be knockin' the head off anither mon for sayin! I've suspected ye had a strong leanin' thot way, Jeb, but hadn't thought no less av ye, as I've seen manny a lad change from bad to good in the jumpin' av a cartridge clip."
"But the worst of it is, Tim, that I came away to escape the draft; and now I see the draft was a cinch to what I've got into."
"It is not!" Tim vigorously replied. "I'd sooner have yer job twinty times! To begin wid, ye only had wan chanct in eight to be taken in the draft, but wid the doctors ye're shure to see scrappin'! Thot's the way to look at it, lad!"
"Oh, I know!—but I can't," Jeb muttered, despairingly. "Since Barrow told me I had to lug a stretcher I haven't eaten a meal a day, Tim. It isn't sea-sickness, either, for the ocean's like a mill pond; it's just knowing the Medical mortality is heavier than any branch of the service—heavier'n air fighting, even!"
"Thot's right," Tim said thoughtfully. "Medical comes first—fifty-fifty, mind ye; thin the infantry, an' thin the air—or maybe 'tis the artillery; I forget now. But, anyway, thot's w'ot makes it worth a domn, can't ye see, lad? I own thot it don't strike me funny-bone, though. Whin I stand up for to be shot at, I want to do some shootin' meself; I don't want to have me hands glued to no stretcher, an' me heart bleedin' for the poor divil on it, an' let a lot of 'arf-fed outcasts plug me lights out! No, sor! Whin anny lunatic av a Hun pulls his trigger at Tim Doreen it arouses me timper, an' I'd be apt to drop me load an' go back an' take a swat at 'im; thin, like as not, the doctors 'd have me court-martialled!"
"If you hadn't got blown up first," Jeb bitterly replied.
"Now, don't ye go thinkin' 'bout bein' blowed up! 'Tis the worst kind av weed a soldier can smoke!—an' I'm sayin' 'tis been the trouble wid ye, Jeb; ye think too much! Transfer thim thoughts to how quick ye're goin' to blow up the inimies av yer country; thin yell wanst or twict like the ould divil hisself, an' ye'll be itchin' for a scrap so's ye can't sleep! Quit thinkin' thot rot 'bout bein' kilt—which ye can't control in anny case; an' begin thinkin' how ye'll kill a Hun—which ye can control! Thot's the creed, as good soldiers sees it!"
"But hell, Tim," he said, with something like a whine, "I can't possibly shut out the dangers! They loom up like mountains."
"Hell yer own self," the sergeant turned on him. "Dangers as looks mountain high ain't no more'n a hill o' beans whin ye git ye're belly on 'em! W'y, look!—me ould fayther, wanst, waked me in the night sayin' as a gang o' burglars was downstairs lootin' the family silver. Well, lad, bein' but half awake I believed 'im, an' the goose flesh growed out on me ar-rms so that—'tis the truth I'm tellin' ye—I plucked enough for a parlor duster! But whin I got downstairs investigatin', the gang was no more'n a loose shutter flappin' in the wind. The burglars was just a noise—d'ye git me? No danger, but a noise—an' w'ot's a noise? Ye see, Jeb, 'twas the wrong kind of thinkin'; an' the wrong kind of thinkin' breeds fear, an' fear shrinks up a man whilst it makes the inimy grow six inches. Put them six inches on yeself, say I, an' let the Boche shrink—which he'll do, too, whin he sees ye've the bigger courage!"
It did not occur to Jeb that this man was doing his very utmost to inspire one spark of the lacking courage; he did not realize that Tim was thoughtfully picking his words, as carefully as though he were telling stories to a little child. Tim would not have been the crack sergeant that he was had Jeb suspected this!
"I can see them shrinking now," Jeb said, with something like a sneer at Tim's assurance. "Why, everybody says they're the finest fighters on earth!"
"Thin iverybody lies, an' 'tis Tim Doreen as says it! There ye go again wid a lot of domn fool thinkin' of w'ot ye got no cause to think. Wasn't I just after tellin' ye there ain't no worse dry-rot for a soldier? The Boche can put up as good a scrap as most, lad, whin they're bunched in a crowd, but take 'em mon for mon an' they ain't no fighters a-tall, a-tall. I ain't denyin' their officers is hep to the game—but thot's just w'ot proves me p'int: for do ye s'pose their fat-headed gineral staff'd be silly enough to march ar-rmy after ar-rmy jam up aginst our strong positions, bunched like a herd o' sheep, if they didn't know the men was too spineless to go into the fray like us, or the British, or the Frinch—which is to say, in open order an' like hell?"
"I don't see how that'll get us anywhere," Jeb remarked.
"'Twill get us iverywhere," Tim replied emphatically. "Didn't it get us as far as we've got, whin we were at our wur-rst, an' thim at their best? An' they was shure a rattlin' ar-rmy thot first year, make no mistake on thot, lad! There was fine steel in 'em, mind ye: the 2nd Bavarian Corps, now, which did me heart good to fight wid!—cruel, unprincipled outcasts, to be shure, an' wid no mercy nor respect for women—still, they was good fighters! But of late the b'ys tells me their whole ar-rmy's been so watered down wid inferior stuff thot ye'd not know it for the same; an' lest they're touchin' elbows an' absorbin' courage w'ot comes from bein' clost, they ain't w'ot ye'd call reliable, anny more. They can't stand the gaff as they wanst could! W'y, I was in at the takin' av wan av their artillery positions on the Somme, lad, an' may I be shot for a spy if we didn't find gunners chained to the wheels! Ye don't need no searchlight to find the answer av thot, do ye now? Their fightin' machine is good, mind ye; but it ain't no more nor less'n a red sausage machine whin iverythin's considered! But as for the individual fightin' mon, w'y, he don't grow over there, a-tall, a-tall!"
"That's all very well, Tim, but they kill a lot of our fellows, just the same!"
"Shure, ivery now an' thin wan av the b'ys is sent west; but ye wouldn't have a war all wan-sided, would ye? 'Twould be no war if ye did."
"It's all so horrible," Jeb shuddered. The mention of being "sent west" did not appeal to him since he had learned that it was the Tommy's way of saying that a man had been killed.
"Now, thot's where ye're wrong, lad," Tim straightened up to reach in his breeches pockets for "the makings," but his hand came out empty and he continued: "There's plenty av fun goin' on, an' laughs, too. I mind me wan day whin the '75's was barkin' their throats out an' bein' answered by God knows w'ot mighty ingines av war. We'd been brought up clost an' was lookin' for a rush anny minute, so the men was jokin' for the most part—thot or cussin'; 'tis all the same whin a rigiment feels good! I was sint along to help the bombers adjust detonators an' straighten out pins, whin I come on a little cockney lad—timid like yeself, Jeb—holdin' a puddin' an' not knowin' w'ot to do wid it; so I says to 'im:
"'Whin they git clost, now, pull out thot pin, count four, an' let her fly!'
"''Ow let 'er fly?' he asks.
"'W'y, chuck 'er, ye blighter!' says I.
"'But 'ow farst must Hi count four?' he asks agin, lookin' worrit; 's'pose she goes hoff in me 'and?' he says.
"'Well,' says I, 'if she goes hoff in ye 'and, sonny, ye may stop countin'.'
"An', Jeb," the sergeant added, "he laughed so 'twas all he could do to keep from droppin' it; but he got the hang, so help me, an' did a man's work thot day!"
"Oh, I couldn't do anything like that," Jeb cried despairingly. "I just couldn't! The whole idea is horrible! And look at their submarines, all around us everywhere!"
"Well, look at 'em! Where the divil d'ye see 'em! Has anny wan av 'em been comin' aboard for a nip av grog? There ye go thinkin' wrong again, Jeb; ye make me lose me timper! Haven't we been sailin' right along in a sea as smooth as a lass's cheek, now comin' sivin days? W'y, me b'y, even this ould tub's too fast for 'em!" Tim yawned and rolled over on the deck, where they had been sitting with their backs against a partition wall that, in former days of German ownership, had inclosed the "gesellschafthalle." He searched again through his pockets, and yawned once more, saying: "Shure, an' 'tis a long time gittin' back wid the b'ys! But don't ye worry over w'ot's ahead—wait till it comes clost enough for ye to grab it. Most ivery trouble, lad, dies 'asy whin ye git yer teeth in good, an' shake it wanst or twict! Give me a bit av the makin's, Jeb; I left me own below!"
Jeb passed over his pouch and papers, then watched the sergeant roll a cigarette, light it, and give the match an outward flip. Taking a few deep inhalations he eyed Jeb back, and said thoughtfully:
"Lad, I don't want ye to take this wrong, but I've a mind to be askin' if ye have less courage than a gir-rl—a lady gir-rl, w'ot's been raised in silver an' gold an' soft pilleys! I want ye to keep thot in mind whilst I tell ye a story; 'tis a story av me own wound, whin I got me 'packet' for Blighty—an' av a nurse w'ot had jist come out from the States, an' av a Frinch doctor w'ot's the king av all men, so help me! 'Twas 'im as brought me in off No Man's Land, where I was bleedin' me life away! He come right out through a rain av fire thot would have curled yer hair into little kinks av wire—for his stretcher bearers had been sore shot up thot day, an' he was doin' ivery kind av wur-rk at wanst. But, to git along: Whin I opened me eyes in the dressin' station dug-out I scarce knowed if I was alive or dead—so weak did I feel. He was standin' near, shakin' his head at a purty nurse, an' sayin': 'We got to lose 'im, for he's lost too much blood! If we had anny to transfuse,' he says, 'we'd pull 'im through, but thot's impossible,' he says, 'for me b'ys have bled too much a-ready,' he says."
Tim took another inhalation, and slowly continued:
"I was too weak to say me prayers—not thot I wasn't in need av thim! The nurse was lookin' up at 'im wid big, wonderin' eyes, an' her breast was heavin'. 'Will thot save 'im?' she asks. ''Tis the only thing,' he answers, sorrowful. 'Thin save 'im,' she says, rollin' up her sleeve; 'here's the blood—save 'im, quick!'
"Well, Jeb," Tim sighed, "I never see sich a look as come into thot doctor's face. He stared at her, thin shouted so's ye could a-heerd 'im a mile: 'I won't do it!' But still she stands her ground, an' says in a flash: 'Ye will, if ye do yer dooty!' 'But I need ye', he cries again; 'I can't spare ye!' But she gives it to 'im strong, lad, an' says: 'A fightin' man is worth more'n a nurse jist now! Hurry, Doctor Bonsecours!'—for thot's his name, Jeb. 'But I need ye anither way, me darlin',' he pleads wid her—an' I hope to be shot for a spy if iver I see a holier look in a mon's face! She weakened a bit, an' her cheeks got r-rosy red, but she says up to him, brave as iver: 'Save this mon first, for all av France needs him!' Mind ye, lad, her sayin' thot all av France needed a beggar like me!—but 'twas because he hisself was Frinch, no doubt!"
Tim wiped his sleeve across his eyes. He made no pretense at hiding the tears that sprang to them, for they were tokens of a deep and lasting gratitude, and he was not ashamed.
"An' so they did it, right there, lad, for a little runt av an Irishman; an' the last thing I heerd her sayin', as she breathed in thot stuff—I can't for the life av me remember its name—was: 'Plase be shure to take enough, Doctor!'"
Tim did not mention how he had joined what little voice he possessed with that of Bonsecours, pleading with her to make no such sacrifice; and then, finding this useless, threatening to kill the great surgeon if he so much as scratched her arm.
"Thot's the way people fight an' live out there, lad. Mind ye, the blessed nurse hadn't known 'im more'n a week—maybe less; but it don't take long for men or women to see the kind av stuff as is in each ither, whin they're totterin' on the edge av No Man's Land! Annyway, I don't know as she iver give 'im the answer he wanted; but w'ot's more to the p'int av me story is this; thot she's nothin' but a blessed gir-rl, from a little town back home, mind ye, but I'd have ye know thot the gr-reat wur-rk Doctor Bonsecours has done is the talk av the Frinch ar-rmy—an' she's his right-hand liftenant. She's as tender as tears, lad, but as brave as a lion—an' in about the same job as yeself. She don't mind the shells a-tall, a-tall! D'ye git that, Jeb?"
"What town did she come from?" Jeb asked, his eyes growing thoughtful.
"Sure, an' I can't think av it!"
"Was it——" He stopped abruptly, as a strange and curious sensation seized him. It seemed as though the deck suddenly heaved upward—very much like the feeling he would have if, sitting in a hammock, someone sat down beside him. Immediately following this came a terrific explosion, numbing in its intensity, and a wall of maddened water leaped past the rail for a hundred feet into the air. In a twinkling Tim dragged him through the door, as a shower of debris came down upon the place where they had been sitting. The huge smoke funnel crashed to the deck, scattering soot in all directions, then balanced an instant, and plunged into the sea.
In the midst of this confusion, even before the funnel disappeared, Tim was bellowing a command. His captain, at his side, waited as the men poured up to them, then said drily:
"Belts on the nurses; see that everyone's on deck, and belt yourselves!"
Life belts were everywhere within easy reach and, as the men scattered, Tim stopped an instant to hand one of them to his captain, who smilingly took it but was later seen tying it on Dr. Barrow.
The sergeant then dashed below, hurrying toward the staterooms to be sure that everyone got up to deck. In his reckless determination to make Jeb see this duty through, he had not let go of his sleeve.
"Take the doors on thot side," he now yelled at him in a voice of thunder, "an' I'll take this! Smash 'em down where they're jammed, an' look clost iverywhere inside! Sometimes women faints!"
With this he released his hold; but Jeb, trying to go on, could not—he could only cross his arms against the panels and press his head there to shut out the terror. When Tim, kicking in a door three staterooms away, saw this he made one spring back and landed his next kick on a spot that made Jeb flinch. This was followed by another, and still another, while a string of lurid oaths poured from his lips which burned like a lash of fire. Jeb sprang around, one fist drawn back to kill, his eyes glittering as points of iron; but the sergeant's eyes were as points of steel. The next moment Jeb had started on the work of rescue. Tim worked across from him—and smiled.
When Tim had become satisfied that no one remained below, they began their retreat. By now the ship was listing to a degree which made it necessary for them to walk with one foot on the panelled wall, and to jump the cross halls. The stairs upward they negotiated with one foot on the balusters. At the landing above a number of life belts, having slid along the floor, lay piled in confusion against the wall; and before stepping out on deck Tim tied one of these on Jeb, then safeguarded himself, saying briefly:
"Stay clost to me!"
They found moving more difficult now, as the ship had not stopped listing. The deck leaned so precipitously that they had to grasp the hand-rail, and work themselves by this means slowly around to the upper side. Tim moved with the coolness of a veteran. Jeb scrambled with the energy of despair.
There were plenty of boats at this upper rail, but to let them over was a difficult problem, since they must scrape down the ship's hull and risk being capsized or smashed. Those at the lower rail were entirely out of commission—splintered by the torpedo.
Tim saluted the captain—the ship's captain, this time—and barked his report. He was ordered to boat No. 1. When he reached this position Jeb was close behind, terror still pictured on his face. In a fury the sergeant turned to him, crying:
"Look at the courage av thim nurses, ye —— —— ——! Can't ye try to be a man? 'Ere, give a hand!" Another string of profanity rolling from his tongue was as potent as the kick had been, for Jeb, still gasping, fell to work.
And then a cry went up! It came from the breasts of those who waited with limitless courage, and those who worked feverishly to save. It was the heartrending, bloodcurdling cry of people doomed—for the ship had begun to settle! Through his megaphone the captain yelled:
"Jump! Jump! For the love of God, jump!"
Jeb felt himself seized by the shoulder and torn from the davit to which he held. Confusedly he heard Tim yelling: "Swim off as far as ye can, lad!" and the next instant he was plunging downward, striking the ship's side and sliding, bounding off, turning, striking again and sliding, till he splashed into the water.
When his head came up—providentially with its senses—the sergeant's command lingered and he set his face away, swimming with all his might. Once or twice he paused for breath, because it is hard work propelling a life belt through the water, but these rests were momentary; till, feeling himself safe from suction, he turned over on his back and floated. In this position he could see the ship, and was just in time to watch the last of its passengers leave the rail. These were Tim and a pretty nurse who had been too frightened at the dizzy height to take the leap until, tearing free her hold, he had lifted her in his arms and skidded down the side.
There was no confusion now. The sea had never seemed more peaceful. Heads were bobbing merrily in the water, as though in for a pleasure swim; beyond them lay the steamer, abjectly motionless—looking like a monster which might have arisen from the deeps to bask upon the surface. Jeb was wondering if he should not yet swim back and try to climb aboard, when the great hulk swayed—gently at first, this way and that; then, as if tender hands were lowering it into a grave, it slowly began to sink.
At this point the prevailing quiet was shattered by a hell of sounds. Had a score of nearby thunder storms been raging and a hundred frame houses ruthlessly been crushed between two great forces, their combined noises might have been compared to those issuing from the stricken vessel as she took her plunge—until the closing waters choked them into a kind of gurgling silence, as though a bellowing giant were being drowned instead of a thing of splintering wood and groaning steel.
Dazed as Jeb was, he saw a mountain-high wave of seething foam rise from the grave and roar toward him with the speed of unchecked horses. Tossing like jack-straws on its crest were bunks, in part or whole, chairs, planking, and debris of all descriptions. As it drew near he took a deep breath and crossed his arms to protect his face. The next second it was atop of him.
An eternity seemed to pass before he came up—an eternity during which he rolled over and over in a seething green wilderness. When, choked and coughing, he gained the surface he felt that it had been changed into another world. The former peace of waters scarcely disturbed by gentle waves whereon heads had bobbed in apparent merriment, the listed ship that had lain sleeping on the skyline, were gone; in their stead was a great waste of hissing bubbles which burst about his face and blinded him. The surface had become an ocean of hisses—as though the submarine, agent of that nation which generates hate, had by some wicked magic changed the water with its hatred, too! And in the midst of this confusion a chorus of three hundred passionate voices wailed their anguish to a passive God; for, while these human beings had been whole before, there were now many whom the sweeping wreckage had torn—some with fractured bones, some disembowled, some mercifully dead! Never could Jeb have dreamed a transition so horrible!
Already scores of panic-stricken were climbing on an overturned boat, drifting off to the right. Another upturned boat floated at a greater distance, and Jeb saw the bobbing heads appear again, beginning to move as a flock of swimming ducks toward it. But many heads did not move at all, and he knew what their inertia meant. One of this kind floated close to him, and made him sick. He pushed it away, but it kept drifting back, seeming unwilling to leave him, till in desperation he untied the life belt tapes and let it sink. An hour earlier, had Jeb been told he could do this, he would have screamed denials.
Presently a voice hailed him cheerily, and he beheld Tim, still holding the little nurse, balanced on a kind of box affair that floated almost flush with the water.
"Come over, Jeb," the sergeant called. "Shure, an' there's room for wan more, an' 'tis cold ye'll be, I'm thinkin' afore we turn in tonight!"
"He oughtn't to joke like that," Jeb thought, beginning now to shiver; for he had become tired, and swam the intervening distance painfully.
"Easy, lad," Tim leaned to give him a hand, "for if ye don't look smart 'tis off we go agin, an' 'twon't do the lass no good bein' colder'n she is! Did I hurt ye now, me darlin'?" he asked a moment later of the little nurse, who smiled back at him. Blood and water were trickling down her ashen face from a scalp wound; yet she was many times more fortunate than scores of other poor creatures near to them. There is an unparalleled ruthlessness in a sweeping wave of heavy debris, beneath which a human body can be ground to atoms.
Jeb had no more than safely got astride the box—a tippy affair it was—when they were startled by someone blaspheming in a way that made their flesh creep. Even Tim blanched; for in the voice he recognized the timbre of insanity. He had seen this happen in the trenches, when men driven mad by concussion or gas or horrors ran amuck among their fellows. The one who now swam toward them was evidently a stoker—a powerful creature. His face was grimed with coal dirt, his eyes were red, and his blasphemies were interspersed with hilarity at the prospect of cutting their throats. When thirty yards off he stopped swimming, reached beneath the life belt and got out a knife—then, holding it conveniently between his teeth, came on.
Jeb would have left the box and made a dash for the open sea had not Tim checked him by a firm command; for, with the little nurse wounded in his arms, the sergeant had but one recourse and he was man enough to take it.
"Be smart now, Jeb," he said. "Reach thot broken oar, lad, lest it floats past ye! Now brace yeself, an' whin the poor divil gits clost, belt 'im wan on the head wid all yer might! Kill 'im the first crack!"
"Kill him!" Jeb screamed in horror. "Kill him! Man, I can't!"
"Ye fool, ye can an' ye will!" Tim's voice bit into him like a file. "D'ye want 'im up here slittin' the throats av us—an' this gir-rul to boot? He's looney, man! 'Tis 'im, or the three av us! Quick—str-rike!"
Jeb felt his muscles turn to steel under this commanding voice. The piece of oar rose high above his head and, as the crazed stoker was about to lay hand upon the box, came down with all his strength.
The little nurse clung tighter to the sergeant and buried her face in his tunic.
"Dear Christ!" she whispered, shivering.
The man floated slowly by, rising and falling easily with the waves. His face hung downward in the water, his arms were extended in the attitude of a benediction. After him trailed a narrow streak of red, growing wider though less bright as it mingled with the sea.
"I wonder if the poor divil still has thot knife in his teeth," was Tim's observation, spoken from the depth of sorrow.
Jeb held the broken oar out before him as a thing unclean, then opened his fingers and let it fall.
Scarcely more than twenty minutes could have passed since the vessel sank, but she had been struck late in the afternoon and the sun now slanted perilously near the horizon. Tim and the little nurse looked at it thoughtfully, but neither spoke. Only a slight pressure of their arms suggested that each believed it would never rise for them—or, rising, would look upon a sea of floating dead. Jeb had not noticed the sun. His face was lowered close to the planking of their frail refuge. The ocean had again become a thing of peace and beauty—and silence. Those who were on upturned boats had realized the impotency of screaming, and merely clung with dogged tenacity; those who had been too much lacerated to reach these places of imperfect shelter, had yielded to the cradling waves and were now asleep. Thus the minutes dragged. Then the sergeant gave a cry of consternation.
"Well, w'ot d'ye know about thot! May I be shot for a spy, if 'tain't the submarine!"
Little more than a hundred yards away a monster was rising from the sea. Jeb looked up just as the conning tower emerged with water rushing off it like small Niagaras. Then, on a line of its submerged length, the ocean seemed to heave, pressed upward by the long gray hull that now broke through. It arose majestically, sleek as a bathing seal, reflecting the westering sun like wet granite. Almost at once the man-hatch in the conning tower opened, two sailors bobbed out and drew respectfully aside as an officer climbed leisurely to deck. He stood awhile twisting his mustache, gazing at the overturned boats with their desperate crews; for the partially submerged box nearer by, and its three human atoms, he had not yet noticed.
At sight of him the sergeant's temper flared.
"Look!" he cried. "Look, Jeb!—look, me darlin'!—see for wanst in yer lives a murderin' sore dressed in the livery av a rotten master!" As the officer turned in their direction Tim shook his fist at him, this time becoming the incarnation of rage. "Turn yer ugly mug away!—turn it away, I tell ye, from a sight too blessed for yer dirty eyes to see!—ye cholera germ!—ye fester!—ye—ye——Oh, me darlin'," he wailed to the little nurse, "if ye'd but go deaf a minute whilst I tell 'im what's in me 'art!" And in disappointment he held his thumb to his nose, by this most desperate sign trying to express the insults his tongue could not utter.
Jeb was trembling.
"Don't make him mad, Tim," he implored. "He might kill us!"
"The dirty coward can only kill wan thing, an' thot's me body, but me soul'll go on cussin' 'im till the ind av doom." He shook his fist again, becoming more derisive: "Look at his head, now! If 'tain't the shape av a rotten pear may I be shot for a spy!—mind ye how it slopes up to a p'int, both fore-and-aft, and amidships; the fat-jowled swine!"
The man had been regarding them stolidly. He may not have understood Tim's insults, but the gestures were unmistakable. Without taking away his stare he spoke a brief command to one of the sailors who ducked below, reappearing with a rifle.
Tim grew at once thoughtful, but Jeb, cowering lower, began to hurl abuses at him. He had warned him, he cried; and now see what was going to happen!
Without further ado the sailor took deliberate aim and fired; the little nurse flinched, shuddered, and relaxed. Tim looked down at her with widening, almost unbelieving, eyes; then raised his face to the sky and, like a wounded animal, emitted one long howl. All of the plucky sergeant's grief, fury, self-condemnation—aye, and love—were in that wail of agony.
The sailor was aiming for another shot when Jeb's ears were filled with a weird, screeching noise; a violent jolt of air almost knocked him from the box, and a geyser of spray shot up ten feet from the submarine's bow. Before even the deep boom of the distant gun that had fired this projectile reached him, another screeching followed, another jolt of air struck him in the face, and this time, with a mighty roar, the undersea boat split almost in two.
Had not the officer and two sailors been so intent upon a petty revenge they might have seen, coming at express speed between themselves and the sun, a British fast patrol; however, it is difficult at best to detect spots against so dazzling a light—and there is, besides, the working of an all-powerful justice to be reckoned with!
The two sailors, standing between their commander and the explosion, crumpled up as if they were air bags pricked with a knife; but the officer did not fall. He staggered once, nearly losing his balance, and then looked stupidly at the great hole into which roared a revenging sea. His U-boat was sinking fast; though by no agency from within. Those below would forever remain below; they had made their own grave, and their casket would be the steel monster which typified the steel-clad hand of another monster—their master!
But the officer did not think so loyally of his master when he found himself about to face a Higher King. The steel-clad hand had forsaken him; even the German God—the "made in Germany" one which German professors and German pastors were loud in proclaiming as distinct and more refined than the God who watches over England, France and America—had now forsaken him. He felt the same impulse to howl that Tim had felt, although love and self-condemnation were not a part of it; only hatred. The water had reached his feet; with one more look around he sprang outward and began to swim.
"I've been prayin' for thot, me darlin'," Tim whispered. His arms relaxed from about the little dead nurse. With fingers of tenderness he untied the life belt tapes, then let her sink gently into the waves. "God bless ye, lass! 'Tis only today we met, but ye'll live wid Tim Doreen an' no ither till he's sent west to ye!" Leaning forward he watched her as she sank into the light green water, her hair streaming gracefully upward as though waving him goodbye, till the brightness of it was claimed by the darker green below. Then Tim became another man.
"Which way is thot——" he bellowed, but he saw the pear-shaped head before Jeb could answer. With one gesture of fury he stripped off his own life belt, and yelled: "Now, ye murderer av women, wan av us is due in hell, an' 'tain't Tim Doreen, ayther, ye tub av slop!"
He struck out powerfully, straight for the man he had sworn to kill, but in changing once from the overhand to side stroke he saw Jeb, white as a sheet, swimming directly behind. Without pausing, he asked:
"W'ot the divil brings ye here?"
"I owe him something, too," Jeb panted. "I'm coming."
For an instant the sergeant forgot his oath, and a slow grin overspread his face.
"Well, w'ot d'ye know about thot?" he said. "God bless ye, lad; but ye can help best by settin' on the box. 'Tis me own fight; do as I tell ye, now!"
Jeb could not have described that fight, because he was too far off to see distinctly—and Tim never referred to it. But he saw the German, when Tim had come to within ten feet of him, turn and begin swimming frantically away. There was doubtless something in the sergeant's eyes that sapped the other's courage. Relentlessly Tim gained, each stroke bringing him a few inches nearer, till he seemed to crawl up on the officer's back. After that they might have been two splashing fish—till Tim began slowly to swim back.
"God, Tim," Jeb cried, holding out a hand. "I wish you'd let me come! I—I believe I might have done it!"
The sergeant drew himself on the tippy box, and panted:
"Ye'll have a chance, lad whin ye see ither dastardly things thim outcasts do! No man can keep from fightin', Jeb! Shure, an' the Boches make their own wur-rst inimies!"
He sat despondently, regaining his breath and blinking the water from his eyes, when something caught to a sleeve button on his tunic made him stare. It was a short piece of black-and-white striped ribbon—the Order of the Iron Cross—which the German had worn in a breast button-hole of his uniform.
"Well, w'ot d'ye know about thot," he mused.
Slowly he twisted off the button, and the ribbon with it, then leaned above the spot where the little nurse's hair had waved her last farewell, and let them sink.
"'Tis me first dicoration, darlin'," he whispered; and it was not the ocean water now that blinded him.
Just as the red sun dipped that night the patrol boat picked up the last piece of human wreckage, and dashed toward the coast of France.
Barrow's unit had suffered sorely, but its gaps were filled from other sources and fresh supplies received from home. Close upon the middle of August it moved to take the field. This delay had not been without advantages, perhaps the chief of which was a fluency in French that many of his men were able to acquire. It had also given Jeb an opportunity to acquire an entirely new viewpoint regarding the purposes of this war, which had not penetrated to Hillsdale.
As the train now proceeded slowly, switching here and there to let other strings of cars pass toward the front with more important freight, Jeb felt that he was at last nearing the great adventure. His experience with the submarine left an indelible effect without producing anything like the result Tim would have desired. For Jeb had been involuntarily projected into that crisis before being given time to think; he had gone with the stream, not buoyed by courage but spurred by despair. Once tossed into the hideous vortex, he simply had to get out—which was vastly different from deliberately going into it with eyes ahead, as now when he approached the battle front! Nevertheless, the torture he faced upon the floating box, although unknown to him, left an impress for the good.
As he sat uncomfortably drawn up on the seat of a third-class compartment he missed Tim, and wondered dully if the regiment, which that little son of Mars had said was waiting for him—at attention!—could now be in the thick of things. He pictured Tim chasing Germans with the same dogged nerve that he had chased and caught the murderer of the little nurse. As evening fell, battle scenes grew vivid in the twilit compartment, because he was thinking again! Whenever speeding trains passed, their approaching rumbles would make him start, and leave him sick in spirit; for each time he would at first mistake them for the growling of distant guns, and he dreaded the hour when these sounds would reach him. He despised the thought of guns, despised the military trains, despised the war, the blood and maiming;—he despised himself. He needed Tim!
"Is there anything on your mind, old fellow?" one of the unit asked him kindly.
"Oh, no," he forced himself to laugh. "Have a cigarette, won't you?"
Early next morning, after an almost sleepless night, the unit disembarked at a village standing as a solitary outpost on the edge of a great unknown wilderness. Beyond this point the railroad, even civilization, had been paralyzed by the dragon that fed upon humanity. If Jeb expected the villagers to be out in force to greet Barrow's unit, he was disappointed; for, with the exception of a crippled man laboriously pushing a cart, a nun who with bowed head came from one doorway and hurried into another, and a bent old woman struggling to take down the night shutters from her shop window, the place might have been deserted. On the far side of his train, however, where he had not looked, a group of soldiers lounged about their wagons waiting to take these passengers of mercy forward; unshaven chaps they were, well meriting the nickname of poilus—"the hairy ones."
Now that the train had stopped he could hear the far-off growling of guns; deep-voiced monsters which his imagination pictured straining on their leashes while snarling at each other across the space of miles—truly dogs of war! He drew farther back in the seat, dreading to get out; but the moment had come, the fellows and nurses were moving to the door, the great task was at hand! He tried, while standing, to simulate indifference, but his legs were weak and his teeth chattered, just a little, in spite of his effort to control himself. It seemed as if he were forever wanting to yawn, conscious of the heaviness upon his chest.
With Dr. Barrow and a lieutenant on the first creaking wagon, the others followed, but there was no road. A morass was there, that formerly had been a road—a ditch sloshy with mud which, in some places, made it necessary for all hands to climb down and put their shoulders to the wheels.
"It is trying, this traveling in limbers," the lieutenant smiled apologetically. "The incessant hauling up of shells from our bases destroys the best of roads in a few days. But what would you?" he shrugged, smiling again. "If the ammunition dumps are constantly depleted, they must be fed!"
The far-off French artillery, in skillfully emplaced positions to right and left, seeming to enfilade on a point immediately ahead, was so vigorously directed that the German guns must have been dazed, since their counter-battery work sounded spasmodic and—so far as distance permitted Jeb to guess—never effective. Yet he was moving toward that tumult; as inexorably as death, he approached it. With eyes feeding upon this new world and ears startled by fierce rumblings, he felt as though he were living in a nightmare; and when the next minute threatened to snap his reason or strangle his frantically pounding heart, he turned to the driver, asking—but fearful of the answer:
"Who's winning this battle?"
It was spoken only in Hillsdale French, aided by a two months stop in Paris; but his poilu companion smiled brightly and replied in the average Paris English:
"Oh, Monsieur, there is now for three days what you call moment decalme. Tomorrow, if no rain, oui!—perhaps a ver' fine battle!"
Then this was a lull!—this cannonading, that to Jeb seemed reaching from skyline to skyline, was only a lull! Merciful God, he cried in his soul, what might a battle be like!
By midday, after hours of frightful tugging, they were halfway on their journey, being well out on what two weeks ago was the battle field, but now presenting a picture of broadcast desolation. Shell craters, caused by heavier projectiles burrowing and bursting, pockmarked the ground like a telescopic photograph of the moon. Fields, so lately rich with waving grain, were blasted into subsidences and cavities, bisected by crumbled trenches before which the wreckage of barbed-wire entanglements—a fortnight since forming barriers so impregnable as to resemble from a distance walls of red rust—lay snarled and tied into a million knots by the ruthless lyddite fingers.
It was a pastoral landscape distorted by the paralysis of suffering and death, and Jeb realized that not for many years would these tortured fields regain their tranquillity. Where were rises, now lay depressions; the loamy top soil was blown into dust and scattered to the winds, while sterile clay and pebbly strata had been boiled up from below to take its place. Mixed with this mass of unprofitable earth, strewn over its surface and buried for a depth of thirty feet, were thousands of tons of other wire, iron stakes, and wire stanchions; cartridge cases, rifles, and gas gongs; sand bags, iron scraps, and forge tools; steel helmets, spades, and telephones; pieces of uniforms, water pipes, pick axes, gas masks, binoculars, trench periscopes, blankets, surgical dressings, boots, aye, and human bones—all, all things which the plow shares of coming generations would be turning up to remind man (should man ever forget) that Humanity had once been outraged by a people who, although made in the imitation of Christ, preferred to assume the habits of beasts.
"How, in the name of God," Jeb cried, "could any army stand before such a blasting as must have been here!"
"Our army did, Monsieur," the driver said quietly. "It not only stood, but drove the Boche far back."
"Well, I take off my hat to your army!"
"The world does, also, Monsieur," his companion replied; although it was modestly spoken, without a hint of boastfulness. "We do not fight like the Boche, Monsieur," he added simply. "Their methods are more like a mob with a bad conscience; they fight more with a dread of being defeated than with the honesty of soldiers who have an honest cause."
He then explained to Jeb that these fields, after all, represented merely the face to face struggle of man and man, and were therefore less sickening than the devastation they would see farther on, which stood as a monument to the enemy's vilest cupidity. This became apparent when they began to cross that stretch of country gloatingly described by German newspapers as "the empire of death"—meaning a territory seven or eight miles in width, extending over the entire front, which by order of "the High German Command" was converted absolutely into waste. Forced by the Allies to retreat, this "High German Command" conceived that, by leaving a barrier of desolation and cruelty so terrible, no army would be hardy enough, or have heart enough, to advance across it. Their system was complete, as the results now showed—although their calculations had gone wrong.
"First, Monsieur," he said, "they began by robbing the American Relief Committee's supplies, immediately following their solemn pledge to permit this food to succor the starving peasantry; therefore those pitiable folk, already tragic human wrecks, continued to starve. Next they killed these peasants' cows to fill their own precious bellies, and then the little babies began, by slow starvation, to die. But the men, women, and boys old enough to till the soil, or work in German factories, were fed and sent away; the girls pretty enough to wait upon German officers—you know what that means, Monsieur—were dressed in stolen finery and, weeping, driven to their new positions—six hundred of them taken from within the space that you are looking on now, although we have learned that many succeeded in killing themselves. Only the helpless aged and the babes escaped these brutalities; for they, being useless, were left to the mercy of the vultures, unless salvaged by our army. Right on this ground we saved many such, Monsieur; Mon Dieu! but how our army did weep over them!"
Jeb had already seen enough to bring this recital well within the focus of truth, and as the wagons wound slowly forward he further saw to what depth of hatred and cold malice the mind of that "High Command" descended. Burned villages and hamlets might have been expected, as conflagrations spring from bursting shells, yet even his inexperienced eye detected a very sharp distinction between ruins wrought by military operations and the vandalism caused by unbridled, bestial passions. For nowhere upon this barren outlook had a house been left standing—all was a mass of tumbled brick and stone and clay and twisted timbers, licked by flames or crumbled by explosions scientifically placed by German engineers; nay, nor was there even a barn, nor an agricultural implement with which some palsied peasant woman might in time reclaim her land. Iron of plows, of harrows, of cultivators, lay in piles amidst the ashes of their frames; spokes of wagon and cart wheels had been hacked to splinters, and harness cut into useless bits. Wells had been fouled by chucking in their own dead, or stable refuse. In the orchards every tree stood girdled, the immature fruit wrinkled amidst withered leaves. Never again, unless French nurserymen sped here hastily to bridge from bark to bark, or graft onto the old stumps,—as they had elsewhere attempted with varying promise—would these slopes of arboriculture put forth buds; neither would the poplars, planes, mulberries, willows—all had been granted citizenship to this newly created German Empire, "the empire of death."
"Where are those whom you did not salvage—I mean the girls? Are they still in the German lines?" Jeb asked.
"Not if they have found a way to die," his comrade answered in a whisper. "The Belshazzar feast of those Prussian swine, Monsieur, is the Calvary of every maid who does not find a swifter way to God—but the debauched officers know that, and keep them closely guarded. Oh," he cried, "our hearts give thanks that your country is coming to help us avenge these things! All along we have said that if the American spirit of decency and fairness—so well known and loved by us—could but see even the little which you have seen, your armies would be pouring to our aid!—just as your wonderful nurses have come!"
Jeb felt a rush of self-righteous anger that for the moment transcended his horror of going forward. While in Paris he had read official translations from the German press; now with his own eyes he was looking upon the things gloatingly described in the Berliner Tageblatt when it told the people of Berlin: "The enemy's mouth must stay dry, his eyes turn in vain to the wells—they are buried in rubble. No four walls for him to settle down into; all levelled and burnt out, the villages turned into dumps of rubbish, churches and church towers laid out in ruins. Smouldering fires and smoke and stench; a rumble spreading from village to village—the mine charges still doing their final work, which leaves nothing more to do."
[Footnote 1: Berliner Tageblatt. March 26, 1917.]
It was a cry of false triumph that must have stirred the German soul to joy, because the very next day, he now remembered, the Lokalanzeiger had boastfully added: "No village or farm was left standing, no road was left passable, no railroad track or embankment, nothing, nothing whatever, not a tub, not a bench for those who will succeed them in the abandoned places. What they could not take with them they have burnt or smashed. In front of our new positions runs an Empire of Death—a Death which lays the shrivelled hands of destruction upon all the works of Man and all the bloom of Nature." This, "by order of the High German Command."
[Footnote 2: Berlin Lokalanzeiger, March 27, 1917.]
It was the last word of Barbarity! But what the Berliner Tageblatt and the Lokalanzeiger did not tell their readers, Jeb now realized with a shudder, would have made a chapter of degeneracy and revolting crime unparalleled in history.
Yet, even in the face of this, he turned sick at the thought of going forward to the certain annihilation awaiting him in that ghostly wilderness of mist and wet and wreckage ahead. On the other hand, how in God's name could he keep from going, he asked himself, when the blood of innocents was calling on every side! He felt again the "something strong within him which commanded";—but he hated it!
Had Dr. Barrow been sufficiently skillful with the knife, he might have dissected out this better Jeb who insisted on going forward, and let the other crawl into a shell hole to hide for the rest of time; then both Jebs would have been supremely satisfied. But, being first and foremost a courageous man, he did not suspect that any one of his unit could possibly falter. Jeb knew this, and it made him feel all the more alone.
They reached a rise in the rolling landscape and stopped to breathe their beasts which were shaking the heavy limbers by their desperate gasps for air. The ground sloped down and up again, and there, protected from the enemy, a new world came into view—a world wherein American, French and English engineers, commanding an army of construction, worked feverishly, as ants. For an instant the nobler Jeb prevailed, and he raised his eyes in a mute prayer of thankfulness for this trio of forces—the strongest combination the world has ever seen! The rumbling cannon ceased to jar his nerves, while he gazed wistfully at the low clouds sweeping by in companies that seemed to hasten from this theatre of wrath. Occasional gusts of white smoke burst into being just beneath them and hung a moment suspended before racing on; or a distant squirt of lace-like shrapnel, curving ever downward, came to see what went on behind the Allied lines.
Beyond these gusts and squirts of man-made clouds, observation balloons—the "sausages" of the enemy—floated motionless above the horizon, sometimes catching a fleck of sunlight and glistening like dull silver. There were no German fliers in the air that day, but high above, as gray vultures hungrily soaring over one spot, two American, two British and four French airmen glided back and forth, in and out, circling, circling. With such grace and ease did they pirouette through their reconnaisance that Jeb was reminded of an aerial quadrille being danced five thousand feet above the earth; or, seeming to tire of this, one of them would change the play to hide-and-seek, point toward the translucent blue and scoot behind a cloud, with the others following. It was a cordial invitation for the Boche to come up and fight! Jeb did not see them again for several minutes, but he noticed that one of the kite balloons suddenly burst into a little puff of flame and disappeared. Unconsciously, he grinned.