The Martial Adventures of Henry and Me by William Allen White



WE found when we were leaving England another of those curious contrasts between the nations of the earth that one meets in a long journey. Coming into Bordeaux we were convoyed for three hours by a ratty little French destroyer and a big dirigible French balloon. Leaving Liverpool, we lay two nights and a day sealed in the harbour, and then sailed out with the Arabic, the Mongolian, the Victorian, and two freighters, amid a whole flock of cruisers and destroyers. The protecting fleet stayed with us two nights and three days. On the French boat the barber practically had no news of sudden deaths and hairbreadth escapes which had happened while we slept. We sailed into the Gironde River peacefully, almost joyously. But we left the Mersey with a story that a big fleet of destroyers hovered at the river's mouth; that the Belgic had been beached out there on a shoal by a

334--Martial Adventures of Henry and Me

"sub," and that we would be lucky if our throats were not cut in the water as we tried to swim ashore after we had been blown out of our boats.

The French certainly are more casual than the English. But then, the Germans have sunk virtually no French liners, while the British liner is the favourite food of von Tirpetz! They even showed us his teeth marks on our American liner, the New York. On an earlier trip during the summer of 1917 the boat had been torpedoed when Admiral Sims was a passenger, going to England. The Admiral was sitting at dinner when the explosion occurred and the force of it threw him to the high ceiling of the dining saloon! At least that's what they told us. Caution and conflicting doubts, "fears within and foes without," were not so unreasonable as one might fancy, coming out of any British port.

But to Henry and me the greatest contrast came, not in the conduct of the ship's officers, as compared with the French seamen, but in the ship's company, going to war and coming away from it. We went with youth; the Espagne was crowded with young men going to war, with young women going out to serve those who were salvaging the waste of war. The boat carried a score of lovers--some married, some impromptu,

"The Land of the Free"--335

some incidental and fleeting, but all vastly interesting. For when the new wine blooms the old ferments, and stumbling over the dark decks at night on the Espagne, we were forever running into youth paired off and gazing at the mystery of the ocean and the stars. So the corks were always popping in our old hearts; and we enjoyed it. But we paced the black night decks of the New York as "one who treads alone a banquet hall deserted." We were among the younger people on the ship. There was no youth to play with under thirty! No one touched the piano. No one lifted his voice in song. The most devilish thing going as we sailed was a game of chess! There was a night game of whist or cribbage or some other sedentary game, which closed at ten, and after that in the library the talk sagged and died like a decomposed chord in a Tschaikovsky symphony! It was sad! One had to go to the smoking room where there was wassail on lemon squash and insipid English beer until after midnight. But there the talk was good. Of course it sometimes bore a strong smell of man about it, but it was virile and wise. A rug dealer from Odessa, a dealer in mining machinery from Moscow, a Chicago college professor returning from Petrograd, a cigarette maker from Egypt, a brace

336--Martial Adventures of Henry and Me

of British naval officers going over to return with Canadian transports, an American aerial engineer, back from an inspection trip to France, a great English actor, who once played Romeo with Mary Anderson--to give one an approximate of his age--a Red Cross commission from Italy, and an Australian premier. The whole ship's company was but thirty-four first class and of these but six were women. It was no place for dashing young blades in their late forties like Henry and me.

As the hour for leaving the ship approached, the press of the splendid months behind us drew Henry and me together more and more. We were hanging over the deck rail looking at a faint attempt at a cloudy sunset at the end of our last day out. We fell to talking of the love affairs on the Espagna, and perhaps from me came some words about the Eager Soul, the Gilded Youth and the Young Doctor. Henry looked up dazed and anxious. Clearly he did not know what it was all about.

"Who was this Gilded Youth?" asked Henry.

"He was the dream we dreamed when we were boys, Henry. When fate set you out as a book agent on the highway and me to kicking a Peerless job press in a dingy printing office. The

"The Land of the Free"--337

Gilded Youth was all we would fain have been!"

"And the Eager Soul?" quoth he.

"She, dearly beloved, was the ideal of our boyish hearts. Did you ever have a red-headed sweetheart in those olden golden days, Henry?" He shook a sad head in retrospection. "Nor did one ever come to me. But most boys want one sometime, so I took her off the Red Cross Posters and breathed the breath of life into her. And isn't she a peach; and doesn't she kind of warm your heart and make up for the hardship of your youth?" He smiled assent and asked: "But the young Doctor, Bill, surely he--"

"He is the American spirit in France, Henry--badly scared, very shy at heart, full of hope and dying to serve!"

"And it never happened--any of it? " asked Henry.

"Yes, oh, yes, Henry. There was the tall boy who played Saint Saens on the Espagne, and did the funny stunt at the auction; there was the night we sat on the food box near the front at Douaumont and heard the ambulance boy whistling the bit from "Thais," far up the hill in the misty moonlight; there was the French soldier by the splintered tree in the Forest of Hess; there was the head nurse killed by the abri between

338--Martial Adventures of Henry and Me

Souilly and Verdun, who waited while her girls went in; there was the poor dying boy in the hospital for whom you bought the flowers and there was the handsome New York woman coming over to start her hospital. There was the young doctor whom the German officer prisoner tried to kill. And there was the picture of the red-headed Red Cross nurse, and there were our dreams.

"And the ending--will you have a happy ending?" demanded Henry.

"Aren't the visions of the young men, and the dreams of the old always happy? It is in passing through life from one to the other that our courage fails and our hearts sadden. And these phantoms are of such stuff as dreams are made of and they may not falter or grow weary, or grow old. Youth always has a happy ending--even in death. It is when youth ends in life that we may question its happiness."

And so we left our fancies and walked to the big guns far forward and gazed into the sunset, where home lay, home, and the things that were real, and dear, and worth while.





Previous  Contents
KanColl  Return to Books