How One Boy Went
On the terrace late in the afternoon, under the immensity of the evening sky, and encircled by mountains, peace engulfs one in wave on wave of ineffable tranquillity. It floats from the sky, distils out of the dark mountains, breathes up from the earth, and carries one away upon a boundless flood of life, of growth, and beneficence. The sheep with little tinkling bells crop slowly over the lawn, looking, somehow, like woolly buttons embellishing a green mantle, and tempting one to count them with the murmured tag of ‘Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief’; a bird gives voice to a little half song; the swallows dip and twitter, chasing one another through the evening sky; every now and again there come wafts of spicy fragrance as the cattle trample through pennyroyal; and there, just beyond the frontiers of sight and hearing, is another world, an unseen element, which we just may not grasp. The little sheep are moving delicately to its unheard rhythm; the larkspurs stretch their blue spires up to it; the lovely tendrils of young vines fling themselves into it in an abandonment of ecstasy; and the mere faint glimpse of it so twists the heart out of the breast in a transport of love, that one would fain press the cheek against the vines, or cup caressing fingers about a flower-bell.
And what about humanity, one wonders? With nature’s children, the grass and the sparrows glimpsed as so miraculous, can it really be true that we are of more value than they?
As if in answer, there is a click at the gate, and a young man stands there in the soft evening light. Looking at him, we remember with a throb that he has just received his draft call. All day, in his blue overalls, he has been at work in the fields; and then, late in the afternoon, he drew the official summons from the roadside letter-box. He must leave to-morrow morning on the early train, and he is glad. ‘Yes,’ his sister-in-law says, ‘he’s been a-wantin’ to go right along. He never said nothin’ on account of the old folks, but I know if it had n’t ‘a’ been for them he’d have gone long ago.’
His blue overalls are changed now: he has on his best suit and looks extraordinarily clean and fresh, and in the poignant grace of his young manhood thrown sharply up against the horror of a world at war, extraordinarily beautiful as well. Did young men ever before seem so beautiful and so precious as they do now in these grim fighting years? He appears very gay and confident also; yet when one takes his hand to say good-bye, and wish him luck, — achingly conscious of how little words ever really say, — his fingers are ice-cold to the touch, and it comes over one, with a grip of understanding, what tides of tumultuous emotion are racing down there just beneath the surface of that gay and confident exterior. No matter how glad a boy may be to go, it is upsetting to have his accustomed world turn over so suddenly beneath his feet — to be working in the tranquil fields all day, and at dusk be called upon to beat his ploughshare into a sword.
Confound the Anglo-Saxon convention of the stiff upper lip! Why must we forever cover up all emotion? Why must he pretend, and we pretend, that there is no wrench and no excitement about it, that it is all just in the day’s work? Well, he really is glad to go — proud and elated and happy that Uncle Sam should touch his shoulder and say, ‘I need you, my boy’; and if, in spite of himself, those icy fingers reveal other emotions as well, he would not have us guess it. ‘That boy’s got nerve,’ his older brother exults. ‘In all my life I never seen a tear in his eye!’
What he is feeling himself is his own private affair; but he has come to our gate with a request on behalf of his parents — a request so appealing, so young, so American! It seems that his father and mother — ‘the old folks ’ — are ‘all broken up’ over his having to go so suddenly, and so, to comfort them, he has come to borrow our Ford car to take them to a moving-picture show in the village.
For sorrowful old hearts, a Ford and a movie!
I wonder if that fine old mother of his, in the midst of all her grief, has a moment’s respite of tender mirth over youth’s remedy? I suppose not. She must be too plunged in the anguish of parting from this her youngest child, whom just a few months ago she nursed back to life again through a desperate illness, to experience any of the detachment of amusement. Besides, both old people would be too loyal to their boy’s offering to permit themselves even the faintest or tenderest smile.
And so, with loyal old age on the back seat, and youth and hope on the front, our little old flivver goes racing away up and down the hill-road to the village. A treat of motor-ride and show for father and mother, flung confidently, gallantly, against the tragedy of a world’s disaster!
Well, we go back to the terrace and Nature’s mysterious peace; but now the wonder of the sheep and flowers has dimmed a little, for one has glimpsed a more poignant beauty — that of undaunted, heroic, humanity.
Oh, yes! of more value than very many sparrows, or than a whole wide world of grass!