The sun is sinking low, a transport is steaming slowly up the narrows with the tide. The decks are covered with brown men. They cluster over the superstructure like bees in swarming time. Their attitudes are relaxed and lounging. Some look thoughtful, some well contented, some are melancholy, and many are indifferent, as they watch the shore approaching. They are not the same men who went away.
Sergeant Hicks was standing in the stern, smoking, reflecting, watching the twinkle of the red sunset upon the cloudy water. It is more than a year since he sailed for France. The world has changed in that time, and so has he.
Bert Fuller elbowed his way up to the Sergeant. "The doctor says Colonel Maxey is dying, He won't live to get off the boat, much less to ride in the parade in New York tomorrow."
Hicks shrugged, as if Maxey's pneumonia were no affair of his. "Well, we should worry! We've left better officers than him over there."
"I'm not saying we haven't. But it seems too bad, when he's so strong for fuss and feathers. He's been sending cables about that parade for weeks."
"Huh!" Hicks elevated his eyebrows and glanced sidewise in disdain. Presently he sputtered, squinting down at the glittering water, "Colonel Maxey, anyhow! Colonel for what Claude and Gerhardt did, I guess!". Hicks and Bert Fuller have been helping to keep the noble fortress of Ehrenbreitstein. They have always hung together and are usually quarrelling and grumbling at each other when they are off duty. Still, they hang together. They are the last of their group. Nifty Jones and Oscar, God only knows why, have gone on to the Black Sea.
During the year they were in the Rhine valley, Bert and Hicks were separated only once, and that was when Hicks got a two weeks' leave and, by dint of persevering and fatiguing travel, went to Venice. He had no proper passport, and the consuls and officials to whom he had appealed in his difficulties begged him to content himself with something nearer. But he said he was going to Venice because he had always heard about it. Bert Fuller was glad to welcome him back to Coblentz, and gave a "wine party" to celebrate his return. They expect to keep an eye on each other. Though Bert lives on the Platte and Hicks on the Big Blue, the automobile roads between those two rivers are excellent.
Bert is the same sweet-tempered boy he was when he left his mother's kitchen; his gravest troubles have been frequent betrothals. But Hicks' round, chubby face has taken on a slightly cynical expression,--a look quite out of place there. The chances of war have hurt his feelings . . . not that he ever wanted anything for himself. The way in which glittering honours bump down upon the wrong heads in the army, and palms and crosses blossom on the wrong breasts, has, as he says, thrown his compass off a few points.
What Hicks had wanted most in this world was to run a garage and repair shop with his old chum, Dell Able. Beaufort ended all that. He means to conduct a sort of memorial shop, anyhow, with "Hicks and Able" over the door. He wants to roll up his sleeves and look at the logical and beautiful inwards of automobiles for the rest of his life.
As the transport enters the North River, sirens and steam whistles all along the water front begin to blow their shrill salute to the returning soldiers. The men square their shoulders and smile knowingly at one another; some of them look a little bored. Hicks slowly lights a cigarette and regards the end of it with an expression which will puzzle his friends when he gets home.
By the banks of Lovely Creek, where it began, Claude Wheeler's story still goes on. To the two old women who work together in the farmhouse, the thought of him is always there, beyond everything else, at the farthest edge of consciousness, like the evening sun on the horizon.
Mrs. Wheeler got the word of his death one afternoon in the sitting-room, the room in which he had bade her good-bye. She was reading when the telephone rang.
"Is this the Wheeler farm? This is the telegraph office at Frankfort. We have a message from the War Department,--" the voice hesitated. "Isn't Mr. Wheeler there?"
"No, but you can read the message to me."
Mrs. Wheeler said, "Thank you," and hung up the receiver. She felt her way softly to her chair. She had an hour alone, when there was nothing but him in the room,--but him and the map there, which was the end of his road. Somewhere among those perplexing names, he had found his place.
Claude's letters kept coming for weeks afterward; then came the letters from his comrades and his Colonel to tell her all.
In the dark months that followed, when human nature looked to her uglier than it had ever done before, those letters were Mrs. Wheeler's comfort. As she read the newspapers, she used to think about the passage of the Red Sea, in the Bible; it seemed as if the flood of meanness and greed had been held back just long enough for the boys to go over, and then swept down and engulfed everything that was left at home. When she can see nothing that has come of it all but evil, she reads Claude's letters over again and reassures herself; for him the call was clear, the cause was glorious. Never a doubt stained his bright faith. She divines so much that he did not write. She knows what to read into those short flashes of enthusiasm; how fully he must have found his life before he could let himself go so far--he, who was so afraid of being fooled! He died believing his own country better than it is, and France better than any country can ever be. And those were beautiful beliefs to die with. Perhaps it was as well to see that vision, and then to see no more. She would have dreaded the awakening,--she sometimes even doubts whether he could have borne at all that last, desolating disappointment. One by one the heroes of that war, the men of dazzling soldiership, leave prematurely the world they have come back to. Airmen whose deeds were tales of wonder, officers whose names made the blood of youth beat faster, survivors of incredible dangers,--one by one they quietly die by their own hand. Some do it in obscure lodging houses, some in their office, where they seemed to be carrying on their business like other men. Some slip over a vessel's side and disappear into the sea. When Claude's mother hears of these things, she shudders and presses her hands tight over her breast, as if she had him there. She feels as if God had saved him from some horrible suffering, some horrible end. For as she reads, she thinks those slayers of themselves were all so like him; they were the ones who had hoped extravagantly,--who in order to do what they did had to hope extravagantly, and to believe passionately. And they found they had hoped and believed too much. But one she knew, who could ill bear disillusion . . . safe, safe.
Mahailey, when they are alone, sometimes addresses Mrs. Wheeler as "Mudder" ; "Now, Mudder, you go upstairs an' lay down an' rest yourself." Mrs. Wheeler knows that then she is thinking of Claude, is speaking for Claude. As they are working at the table or bending over the oven, something reminds them of him, and they think of him together, like one person: Mahailey will pat her back and say, "Never you mind, Mudder; you'll see your boy up yonder." Mrs. Wheeler always feels that God is near,--but Mahailey is not troubled by any knowledge of interstellar spaces, and for her He is nearer still,--directly overhead, not so very far above the kitchen stove.