The White Shield
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The flags fluttered listlessly in the warm spring air, and the little group on Jean Perry's piazza was scarcely more energetic. There was a martial significance in the atmosphere, for the heavy tread of battalions reverberated in the hearts of those who had seen one war, and came forth with sudden force to those who were about to live through it for the first time. Yet, the few who lounged in hammocks spoke in depreciation.
"The regular army is enough," said one; "that's what those fellows are for. As for me, I'm not anxious to be shot at. I would rather be excused."
Two or three of the others agreed, but Jack Terrence was watching Jean with grave trouble in his face. At the first sneering comment her eyes had flashed and then filled; now her breast was heaving with excitement, and her sensitive mouth was quivering.
A passing breeze stirred the scarlet veined folds of the flag above her, and for a moment it seemed to wave in proud defiance. But even as the century of its glorious history came back to her, one of the men looking at it reminiscently, was moved to languid speech.
"Funny thing, that rag up there – I suppose it really means a great deal to some people!"
"Do you honestly think so?" Jean's voice carried a note of fearful scorn. "I am proud to say that I am one of the people to whom it means something – more than your little mind can comprehend. If I could die fighting for it, and have it wrapped round me at the last, it would be glory enough for one small life, but I'm only a miserable woman, and I have to stay at home. Why ar'n't you in the ranks, fighting like a man? What do you think would become of your country if all the men were like you?" She ended convincingly.
The astonished individual whom she addressed made the earliest exit compatible with his dignity. The girls followed by twos and threes, and at last the time came to which Terrence had looked forward for an hour – a solitary moment with Jean.
"Let's go down to the river," he said, after waiting for her to speak. He took possession of her in the calm, masterful way that rests and soothes a nervous woman, and as his ring on her finger gave him the right to do. He found her hat and put it on her unresisting head without jabbing her with the pins, for which, even in her excitement, she was dimly grateful.
"You're such a comfort, Jack," she sighed restfully, as they strolled in the afternoon sunshine to the bank of the little noisy stream, that by courtesy was called a river.
"I get tired and fretted, and when you come it's just like putting on a pair of old shoes after you've been wearing new ones."
Terrence laughed. He was used to Jean's queer similes, and loved her all the more for her unexpectedness.
"You take things too seriously, dear, but just the same I was very proud of you this afternoon. You scattered the enemy's forces neatly." He laughed again, but this time there was no mirth in his face."I was glad, too, Jean, because it makes it easier to speak of something I've been thinking about for the last two weeks."
For an instant her heart stood still. She did not need to be told what had made him unlike his sunny self for the past few days. He turned his face away that he might not see the trouble in hers. She began to understand.
After a little he spoke again. "Dear little woman," he said softly, "it all rests with you. It is for you to decide – not me. If you feel that my first duty is to you, you have only to say the word; if you feel that, dearly as I love you, there is something beyond that, you – you need not speak at all."
They were sitting on the bank of the stream now, and the late afternoon light was playing upon its rippling surface, while a glory of crimson and gold touched each rock and tree.
Half-way up the hill beyond, was a tiny two-story house in process of construction. On the crest, where the sun might shine on it longest, the flag seemed beckoning to them both. They felt its meaning.
"Jean," said Jack again, and his lips trembled as they said the little name, "is the roof of our home coming between us and our flag?"
"If it did," she answered slowly, "it could only be a house – not a home."
In those few moments she had fought a gallant battle with herself. She was white now, but there was new strength in her voice.
"Brave heart," said Terrence tenderly, "I knew what you would say!"
Then he went on to tell her of the regiment that was forming, and in which he had been offered a position in the line of promotion.
Something of the old fire came into her eyes. "Never mind position or promotion. Put on the private's uniform and fight in the ranks and be glad you've got the health and the strength and the right to do it. Though," she added, as an afterthought, "I'd try to be reconciled to it, even if you were a major-general." She smiled slyly.
There was no one to see him put his arm around her in the twilight and draw her close. The soft melody of the little stream, as it hurried noisily away, and the drowsy chirp of the birds came dreamily into the summer stillness. Up on the hill, like a parting benediction, a soft sunset glow trembled and shone around the flag.
"My sweetheart," he said, "I want to tell you something for you to remember for all time." A lump came into his throat, but he choked it down and went on. "It sounds like a joke in a comic paper for me to say you're the only woman I ever loved; but it's true, and you know it is, and it's the kind of love that couldn't die with the body of either of us, don't you know that, dear?"
A sob from Jean made him draw her closer still. "So I want to tell you now that, whatever happens, that will always be the same – nothing can ever change that. I want you to remember that. I haven't half deserved the love you've given me, but it's the sweetest thing God ever let a man dream of, and it's made me a better man, Jean, and there won't be a moment while I'm away that I won't see your dear face, because I'm fighting for you as well as for my dear country – to be the man you want me to be, and to make you proud of your volunteer."
The succeeding days were all confusion and preparation. To Terrence, they were days of drill, recruiting and unaccustomed labour; to Jean they were days of heartache, mingled with a strange pride that was neither wholly happiness nor wholly pain.
The day came at last when the regiment was ordered forward, and the whole town turned out to give its boys a rousing farewell. The love of fight, mingled with the stern discipline and cool courage of the Anglo-Saxon, was in the face of every man in the regiment.
Jean never forgot the spectacle as they formed in marching ranks. In spite of the pain at her heart, she was unreasonably proud at the sight of Jack in his new uniform – not that of a private, as she had wished him to go, but as first lieutenant, looking very handsome.
The long column swung into line. Quick and short came the word of command. Her eyes were upon her volunteer, and across the crowd of waiting thousands, he saw only her – cheeks crimson with pride, eyes sweet with love, and lips that trembled and tried to be brave in spite of all.
"Forward, march!" It was the summons to the glory and the agony of battle for those who kept time with the music. It was the summons to as brave a faith to those who remained behind.
After the first shock was over, Jean became almost happy. Jack wrote letters full of hope and good spirits. Every amusing thing that happened in camp, he stored away to write to Jean. He even had a little note-book in which to jot down, from time to time, things which would interest her. This was a never failing source of pleasure to his mates, and he was enthusiastically "guyed" by every man in the company. Of course he told her this, and, womanlike, Jean was much pleased.
Boxes of home delicacies sent to Jack filled the entire company with a beautiful admiration for "Terrence's girl." Magazines, papers and letters almost flooded the mails.
"Poor Terrence is getting pale," said one of them at mess.
"Separation," suggested the corporal.
"Naw," rejoined the other. "It's carryin' his mail from the post-office to his tent. That's what's wearin' on him."
Like a happy lover, Terrence took the jokes cheerfully. The routine of camp life made some of the men complain bitterly, but he said never a word. It was for his country – and Jean.
After two months of waiting, the regiment was ordered to the front and the old confusion began again. The night in camp was a memorable one. Already the star-spangled flag had been planted in new places, and the thirst for conquest, which is perhaps, more Anglo-Saxon than exclusively British, was upon every man in the army.
There is no need to write of the gallant charge at Santiago; no need to speak of the steadfast courage of those who faced three times their number in the narrow pass; no need to say that every lad in Uncle Sam's uniform proved himself to be the stuff of which Republics are built – for the world knows it all. Whatever criticism the strategists of the future, sitting in comfortable chairs, may make, as to tactics and military skill, the valour of the American army has been proved anew.
Up the burning, blazing heights, Lieutenant Terrence rushed with his men, stopping not for strange pitfalls and unknown dangers, facing volley after volley of explosive bullets, heeding not those who fell by the way, as long as through the smoke of battle, dimly lit by flash and flame, the flag called – "Follow!"
The orders had been brief: "Take the blockhouse on the height by storm." And the charge began with a cheer. But only twenty-two of the seventy-five men reached the summit, and after a fierce hand-to-hand conflict, dislodged the superior force. The rest lay upon the hillside, – some past help, and all exposed to the fire of an unchivalrous foe.
Lieutenant Terrence was among those reported "missing." The corporal spent the night in the underbrush with a lantern, but to no avail.
"Don't be so cut up, Johnny," said a messmate, "you can't do him no good."
"Maybe he fell off the side," replied the corporal, after a long silence, "and, anyway, it's his girl I'm thinking of. I'm going to find him for her."
Over the wire from headquarters came the list of killed, wounded and missing. Jean grasped the morning paper eagerly and then grew white "Missing! Missing!"
A dull dead weight settled down upon her like a suffocating pall. With sudden meaning, what he had said came back to her: "It's you I'm fighting for as well as for my country – to be the man you want me to be, and to make you proud of your volunteer."
The strained nerves and tortured heart could bear no more, and she was mercifully unconscious when they found her lying with the paper in her hands.
There were hushed whispers in the house for days to come, and the wires were kept busy with eager questionings. The old family physician was fighting an unequal battle with death for Jean had no desire to live.
After a week, a telegram came for Jean. It was the old doctor who opened it with trembling hands, dreading to give her the message he knew it must contain. After the first eager glance, his face changed mysteriously, and then became transfigured with a radiant smile as he read:
"Wounded, but not seriously. Home on Olivette. Terrence."
The little blind god has a healing power quite beyond prosaic belief and in a very short time Jean was able to go out and once more the sound of building came from the hillside. All through the days that followed she listened to it with joy. Every ring of metal or shout of command was a distinct pleasure.
It was evening when Terrence reached the town unannounced and unheralded with his right arm in a sling. Those on the piazza merely knew that some one had entered the gate, but a white-robed figure flew down the steps with a cry of gladness that sent the family into the house.
Human hearts did not need to be told that a bronzed and bearded soldier was holding his sweetheart close, and that a woman was sobbing out more happiness than one heart could hold, on the shoulder of her volunteer.
In Reflected Glory
Wheels! Wheels! Wheels! The boulevards were full of them, from the glistening up-to-date mount, back to the antiquated '91 model with its hard tires and widely curved handle-bars.
The sun struck the sheen of nickel and new enamel and sent a thousand little needles of light in all directions. Even the '91 model was beautiful in the light of the spring day, overtaken though it might be by the swiftly moving procession.
Wheels! Every man, woman, and child in the city of Chicago who could beg, borrow, or rent a bicycle, was speeding westward to the flagstaff at the entrance to the Garfield Park Loop. Every spoke and bar had been polished to the limit, and the long asphalt boulevard was a glittering, sparkling avenue of wheels.
Wheels! It was the day of the great road race, under the auspices of the Associated Cycling Clubs. The twenty-five mile course had been smoothed and measured, the sky was blue and cloudless, and far away in Wheeling four hundred eager cyclers awaited the bugle call.
John Gardner stood at the door of his news-room and watched with a wistful eye, the few hundred wheelmen who had chosen to ride on the business street that went past his door. The orange and black of the South Shore Club fluttered from many a shining bar, and at the sight of the colours the old man's face grew tender. For it was Jack's club that boasted the orange and black – Jack Gardner of the "Varsity, '98," and his only son. A touch on his arm made him turn his face within.
"Father," said a gentle voice, "why don't we go to the doin's?"
"Land sakes, Mother, who'd take care of the store?"
"Guess the store ain't goin' to run away, and we ain't been out in years. Let's go, Father, and see Jack ride!"
It was John Gardner's way to oppose everything at first, and then to generously give in. He liked to feel himself master in his own house, so he hesitated.
But the stronger will was fully settled upon going. "I'm a-goin' Father, even if I have to go alone."
She vanished into the back part of the store and began to brush carefully the state gown, the brown silk, made after the quaint fashion of a bygone day. After a few minutes the old man appeared in the door.
"I reckon we'll go, Hannah," he said, with the air of one granting a favour, "but it do seem wrong to leave the little store!"
For many a year the little store had been open on all holidays, as well as weekdays and evenings, for Jack in school and college had needed money, and a startling amount of it. Old John Gardner never complained. Hampered, and made ashamed all his life by his lack of "book larnin'," he had vowed that his son should have "a bang-up eddication, the best they is a-goin'," if he could get it for him.
To-day Jack was to ride in the road race, and imbued with solemn importance Gardner, senior, robed himself for the occasion. They made a queer picture as they stood on the corner waiting for a car. Hannah's brown silk was wrinkled and shabby, but her thin gray hair arranged in tiny puffs around her forehead, looked, as her fond mate said, "right smart." Twenty years ago, when Jack was a little boy in dresses, his father had bought a silk hat to wear to a funeral, and it was this relic of past splendour which now adorned his head.
Once on the car, a new fear presented itself. "Mother," he said, "sposen Jack should see us!"
For an instant her heart stood still. "He won't," she said bravely; "he won't see anything but that new bicycle of his'n and we will come home as soon as it's over."
"I don't know's we'd ought," said the old man doubtfully. "He might not like it."
"Like what?" demanded Hannah sharply.
"Hush, Father," she answered, "you know we don't see Jack very often 'cause he has to live down where his school is. Lemme see – it's three months now since he's been home, ain't it?"
"Three months yestidy."
"So what's goin' to hurt if we see him ride to-day? He'll never notice us among all them folks."
Two girls who sat opposite were watching the old couple with very evident amusement. "There's rural simplicity for you," said one.
"So I see," responded the other. "They appear to be attached to some Jack. Wouldn't it be funny if it were Jack Gardner?" They laughed in unison and Hannah looked up into their faces. John's eyes followed hers and neither spoke for a moment. They saw nothing but the joy and happiness of girlhood and something blinded them both. Jack was forgotten for the moment in the memory of the little girl who lay in the Silent City beyond the smoke and dust of the town.
They left the car when the others did and followed the crowd.
"I don't b'leeve Jack'll see us, Mother," said the old man. "I ain't goin' to worry about it no more."
Twenty-five miles away, Jack Gardner surveyed his wheel complacently. Every screw was tightened, his chains were just right, his tires were exactly mellow enough and his handle-bars were at the proper pitch. He was none the less pleased with his own appearance, for he had written his father that he needed a new suit in the colours worn by the South Shore Club. He had searched the town for the orange and black and finally found them. The S.S.C. on his black chest could be seen as far as his wheel could, and he had topped the glaring outfit with a flaming orange cap, with a black tassel to stream in the wind behind.
"Get on to the oriole!" The champion of a rival club was inclined to be sportive at Jack's expense. He retorted with a fling at the green costume of the other, and then the bugle sounded for the flying start.
Anxious friends and trainers shouted, final directions from behind the "dead line," as Jack called it. Another blare from the bugle, a sudden whir, a flash of the shining spokes and they were off.
As the last group flew over the tape the train started back to the city. A South Shore Club man climbed up on the locomotive to "josh" the engineer. "You'll have to get a move on you, if you catch Gardner," he said.
The engineer laughed and looked fondly at his giant of steel. Perhaps an engineer enamoured of his engine can understand the love of a cyclist for his wheel.
The people around the Garfield Park Loop were beginning to get impatient. Most of them had stood for two hours holding their bicycles, and even a well behaved bicycle is an awkward possession in a crowd. Pedals scraped the shins of utterly strange riders, handle-bars got tangled in watch-guards, and front wheels got into mischief with unpleasant regularity.
Close to the course, and on the grassy bank, sat Mr. and Mrs. Gardner. Kindly souls had made way for them until they had at last reached the very front. The day and the multitude were almost spectacle enough, but a cry from the far north brought them to their feet.
Yes, there they were – a cloud of dust across the field. How small the riders seemed! Nearer and nearer they came – how the shining wheels flew through the sunlight! Tense, strained faces almost on the handle-bars: every man of them was doing his best, and the crowd was cheering like mad. The band played merrily, as on and on they flew, – past the judges' stand, over the tape and down, to the mingled praise and solicitude of their friends. The old people were very much disappointed. Jack had not ridden after all! Perhaps – but there was another cloud of dust and another cry from the north. On came another group of riders. They went by like the whirlwind, but no Jack was there.
"I sh'd have thought he'd got back somewheres near the front," said the old man. He was hurt to think his son was so far behind.
Group after group passed by, the old people watching anxiously; then Hannah gripped his arm suddenly.
See! Down the course, only a faint speck now, shone the orange and black of the South Shore Club. Perhaps —
Yes, riding at the head of thirty tired wheelmen, to the stirring strains of a Sousa march, their Jack, strong, superb, excited, nerving himself for the final effort.
Their hearts stopped beating during the instant he was flying by. "There," she whispered reassuringly, "I told you he wouldn't see us. My! Wasn't he fine?"
But John Gardner could not speak, for his eyes were dim with happy pride in remembrance of that superb specimen of perfect manhood six feet high – his Jack, to whom he had given the "eddication."
They watched the rest of the race with little interest, for the best of it all had gone by.
When the last rider crossed the tape, the multitude stirred to go. "We better stand right here, Hannah, till some of these folks gets away," he said. So they stood perfectly still and let the crowd surge around them.
Then a great huzza went up, the track cleared again, as if by magic, and down the course came a dozen men, shouting in unrestrained joy. Aloft on their shoulders they held – the old people craned their necks to see – yes, Jack – their Jack – looking sheepish and very much ashamed.
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