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Immortal Youth Part 6

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IX

The rest is seen dimly, as through a mist. His voice is heard, distinct and clear, but as from a great distance.

To Ralph Heard he writes from Camp Lee, Virginia:

"I am eating, sleeping, and drilling with physical enthusiasm," and later, "Tell the fellows that the dust is gathering on my palette."

A letter to me in May tells of taking his pipe at the day's end and strolling into the woods of the camp to be alone with the song of birds and tints of sunset. Late in July came a letter from France describing a march "between gleam of gold in the west and a rising full moon in the east, ... aeroplanes in action overhead and cannonading over the hills to the east." Then occurs this:

"I am little different from as you know me, even though now in a machine gun company:--Curious irony.--"

And this:

"Continue your work.... Other victories are transient."

And this was his farewell:

"We have seen great visions and dreamed splendid dreams. And the faith you have in me,--which I prize so desperately,--I have in you, no matter where each of us may be headed. We will live the best we can--that, through our friendship, is all we ask of each other."

On January 23, 1919, one of his brothers writes from Le Mans, France:

"St. Remis du Plain is the name of the little town where Fred's company was billeted. It is perched on the top of a hill in the middle of a vast plain and was visible for a long time as I headed towards it. This was the trip I had planned long ago, and pictured a happy meeting; however, it was decreed otherwise. Pa.s.sing up the narrow street I saw 'Headquarters, 136 M. G. Bn.' written on the door of an old stone house. The orderly room was full of officers. I inquired for Lieut. Rew, the one who had previously written to me, and introduced myself as Fred's brother. The officer who was dictating stopped work, came over and shook hands with me. The captain commanding the battalion came from behind the table, greeted me and offered a word of sympathy. Soon all the officers were grouped about me and I saw that Fred was considered one of their number. The captain said, 'He was the best sergeant I ever had.' They invited me to mess with them, and Lieut. Rew said I was to bunk with him, 'for my men have cooties,' but I saw this was all done so that they might have a chance to speak of Fred. One of the sergeants told me that when the news came, the officers were even more broken up about it than the men.

"I was introduced to the noncoms with whom Fred seems to have been a favorite. In the evening, as we sat around an open fireplace, I asked if Fred had had a 'buddy.' The sergeant with whom Fred used to sleep said, 'No. He was everybody's friend.'

"As I was walking up to the kitchen, a private stepped out of the mess line and came up to me saying he knew me through my resemblance to Fred. Soon the mess line was demoralized and I was the center of a lively ma.s.s all talking at once and I could easily see why the captain recommended him so highly as a sergeant.--'He never said a harsh word,'--'He was always cheerful and never kicked,'--'When we complained about the feed or anything, he said it would be better later.' They talked so long that at last the cook asked me if I would not please eat so that they would eat and let him get through.

"The division left Camp Lee, June 21, 1918, and sailed from Newport News on the Italian transport _Caserta_. It was a dirty boat, the feed rotten, and the trip rough. Everybody was disgusted. Fred was about the only one of the company who never missed a meal. A private told me that he and Fred were standing at the rail in the bow of the ship one night talking about a number of things. This fellow voiced the sentiment of most of the company when he said he only wanted to make one more ocean trip and that was in the reverse direction. Fred looked far out across the water and remarked: 'I could stand a few more.'

"They landed at Brest on July 5 and entrained at once for Souville.

They used the French type of compartment cars where with ten men and full equipment there wasn't much room to move about. Fred was in charge of his compartment and, with his usual ingenuity, devised means of disposing of the equipment to best advantage for their comfort. He also carefully arranged the daily menu consisting of bread, corned beef, tomatoes, beans, and jam. He did all this in such a serio-comic way that the fellows are still laughing over the memories of the trip.

"On September 20 the division led the drive into the Argonne forest.

This is reputed to have been the hardest battle of the war in respect to the Germans' sh.e.l.l fire and the suffering caused by the rainy weather and lack of shelter. Through it all there was not a healthier nor more cheerful man than Fred. Recognized by the commanding officer as having 'the coolest head in the company and afraid of nothing' he was made a sergeant after this battle over the heads of some old National Guardsmen; but there was not a murmur--all were satisfied.

When they came out of the woods he helped the doctor with the wounded (he seems to have helped everywhere, from the kitchen to the captain's private office). After they had all been attended to, he asked the doctor to look him over. He had received three flesh wounds in shoulder and arm. He picked out the pieces of shrapnel himself and had the doctor bandage him. After which he went about his work as usual.

"October 10 found the company in the St. Mihiel sector, and on October 22 it moved into Belgium. All this meant miles of weary hiking under a full pack; but Fred remained the same cheerful fellow as ever. He amused the whole company with his doings. He found an old hair-clipper among some salvage and immediately opened a barber shop where lieutenants as well as privates got their hair cut. Another thing that I recognized as characteristic were the remarks pertaining to his appet.i.te. He never lost it. He was known to have 'eats' on his person all the time. He had a special knack of hunting out farm houses, engaging _madame_ in conversation, and coming away with bread, eggs, or cheese in his knapsack. Occasionally he did some sketching and his letters were a joy to the lieutenant who censored them because of the excellent descriptions they contained....

"The company went over the top early in the morning of October 31.

Fred was wounded in the left side by a piece of high explosive sh.e.l.l at about 5:30 A.M. It was before daylight and few knew he had been hit. When they did hear it, they were far in advance and Fred had been carried to Evacuation Hospital Number Five, at Staden, Belgium. He died there on November 2. One of the boys who helped carry him to the rear says that he was fully conscious despite the serious nature of his wound, and tells of how he directed them what to do--how he told them to leave him when the sh.e.l.ls fell too fast (which they wouldn't do)--of how they left him, quite himself, at the first-aid station....

"He was never referred to as a bully or even as a fighter--he was spared the grewsome experience of hand-to-hand fighting, for from the first the Germans were in full flight; but he was remembered for his cheerfulness, his kindness toward others and especially for his lack of harsh words. His favorite text from the Bible was that part of the Sermon on the Mount known as the beat.i.tudes, _and he often wondered why ministers did not preach on it more_. _He constantly spoke of this to the men._ (The italics are not in the original.)

"His fire has gone out, but he left a glow in the hearts of these men which will never go out."

And now it is time that a few questions be asked, simple and direct.

It is due him.

Why is it that when he set himself to create he had to contend against that dead-weight of indifference if not the active hostility of organized society recorded in these pages; but when he was commandeered to destroy, that society clothed him, fed him, sheltered him, trained him, transported him, paid him, nursed him, and buried him?

It is well that we should know what has been squandered. He that might have enn.o.bled generations of men with his great visions and his splendid dreams is mingling his clay with the soil of Belgium. He had the seeds of genius. Capitalism made him a machine gunner.

Is this the best we can find for our artists to do? Is it any wonder that the creative minds of to-day are finding themselves driven to social revolution as their art-form?

In the brown-owl hut beside the Merrimac that summer day in 1917 he remarked in a tone of indulgent irony:

"The 'military experts' have found a nice, polite term for men killed or too badly maimed to fight any more."

"What is it?" I asked.

"'Wastage.'"

[Music:--Beethoven: Finale of The Ninth Symphony.]

X

VISITATION

Here, at the end, let those measures of the Ninth Symphony sound: no dirge; but a paean of joy. For in that choral ecstasy of Beethoven's hymn to human brotherhood speaks the whole meaning and purpose of the life that was.

Why have I detained you for a tale so plain? What was he but an obscure young painter, thirty years old, with his way to make? Why should I point him out to you among the millions? Because he was my friend? No. Because he is yours. Because I thought I saw in him the seeds of greatness? No. Because the seeds of greatness which were in him are in you; and he shall make you see them.

I give him to you young men to be your friend, loyal and high-minded.

I give him to you young women to be your lover, clean of body and of soul. He will be worthy of your friendship and of your love, and you shall be worthy of his in return.

I give him to you in all the beauty of his youth and he shall never grow old, but he shall himself become one of the heroic friends, one of the great companions. I give you his soul to carry in your own, a life within a life. Through his eyes you may see the wonder and glory of the beautiful world which he saw so joyously. Let his generous heart beat through yours his pa.s.sion for an ideal society and a better time than ours.

He is to be immortal. And it is you who must make him so. Let him kindle in your hearts a fire which will not go out. He that would have made great canvases glow with the might of his spirit and the splendor of his imagination shall not now live by art alone, but by the living deeds of you. You shall be his masterpieces. You, immortal youth, shall be his immortality.

Away from the dust and heat of the day, when the loud world crowds and clamors, he shall make for you, all in a dim, cool chamber of your souls, a sanctuary--a little s.p.a.ce of sacred friendship--where you may enter and, closing the door, renew your vows.

You may have him to stand beside you in hours of triumph, and in hours of disaster; steadier of your aim, sustainer of your courage.

Sit in the twilight with folded hands and he shall speak to you. When moonbeams pour their silent music into your chamber at dead of night and your sight rejoices in them, it is he. Hearken to the beat of surf along a lonely sh.o.r.e; to the song of the hermit thrush in dense thickets; to the whisper of the night wind among the leaves: "It is he!" Kindle to the charm and mystery of a face in the crowd, and "It is he!" Thrill at the return of many-blossomed spring, at the strength of men, at the grace of women, and your joy shall be his joy. In every visitation to you of the truth that not by hate, not by blows, but only by the love of the human heart can the world be won from its evil, he shall live, he shall live again. And the color and rhythm of life, the joy of begetting which he never knew, the joy of creating which he knew so abundantly, when it is yours shall be his also. And so all that is highest and best in you, all that inspired him and that he inspired, shall be the works of art by which he is remembered.

Immortal youth, let him be comrade and friend to you as he was to me; let him live forever in your young hearts, himself forever young, bathed in the glory of eternal dawn.

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Immortal Youth Part 6 summary

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