The Little Moment of Happiness
THE LITTLE MOMENT OF HAPPINESS
Kendall regarded her. She was a little thing with clear eyes and a rather pretty face.
Those low-lying hills were France!
They had not lifted into view suddenly, but hadrather emerged from the east, solidifying slowly out of aslate-colored blur which to the eyes of unaccustomedvoyagers might or might not have been land. There wasno ebullition of spirits. The two thousand men andwomen aboard the vessel crowded to the rail and strainedtheir eyes toward that land in which great events awaitedthem, for the most part in utter silence. Conversationfailed. There was an impressiveness about the momentakin to the impressiveness of entering some great cathedral—therewas awe!... There, rising out of the east wasFrance!... France!
The sentiment that stirred them was more profoundthan a thrill. The day had held its thrill for them—athrill that for many of them had followed a sleeplessnight. Those who had slept had done so fully clothed,with life-jackets within instant touch of the hand. Forthe kindly ocean had been made dangerous, not by theelements, which throughout the voyage had held themselvesin restraint, but by men. It had been a morningof mists which lay upon the placid waters and glowed inresponse to the touch of the rising sun. Then, as theluminous grayness dissipated, there came into view far offto the northward, a spot which grew and approached untilit became a grim and business-like French destroyer tobe greeted with cheers of relief. It was the convoy.There was a thrill. It spelled safety—that little boatwith ready guns—but it spoke of danger as well. Theearly passengers who watched the approach of the littlevessel of war warmed with affection toward it. It wastheir guardian, come out of nothingness to protect themthrough the remaining perilous miles of ocean.
In the cabin a little party of women had remainedthrough the night, fearful of the unseen, impressed bythe perils which might hide beneath the dark waterswhich the bow of the vessel turned up into wonderfulpatterns of phosphorescence. They had grouped togetherto draw what comfort they could from companionship.Now they emerged on deck relieved, almost jubilant,until one of their number said, suddenly, “I am toldit is the last ten miles which is most dangerous.”
The destroyer ran alongside, and a sailor with twolittle flags waved a long message to the bridge; then shedropped back astern, and with her passed that thrillwhich had stirred the ship’s company.
No, it was no thrill that moved the passengers on thevessel as the hills of France arose before them; the emotionwas more profound, more impressive. To many of themit was the first sight of a foreign shore, but, more thanthat, it was their first sight of France—of that Francewhich by the greatness of her spirit during three years ofperil, of suffering, of horrors, had become not a country,but a symbol.
For the most part the passengers were in uniform. Inthese days there were no tourists, none who traveledabroad for amusement or recreation or to accomplish thatobject so dear to Americans—to improve the mind.These voyagers went as servants, to take their part, greator small, in that war which America had come to see atlast was her war.
There were many young officers among the first-classpassengers, boyish lieutenants proud of unaccustomeduniforms, a little set up because they were not as othermen; but all eager to be at their grim work. In a monththeir swanking would be a thing of the past, for theywould have encountered reality, and out of the realitythey would emerge as men. There was a captain or so,themselves boyish; there were Red Cross men who,before assuming their uniforms, had been lawyers, merchants,brokers. Older men there were, wearing well-tailoreduniforms and carrying themselves with assurance.There was a considerable company of Y. M. C. A. workers,on their way to do what came to hand. They were notcertain yet what it was to be, but they would learn.Their uniforms were not so well tailored, their putteeswere not of expensive leather like those of the officers andRed Cross men. As one reviewed them he saw that allbut a few were not members of the executive class, butworkers. They were coming to drive trucks, to sellmeager supplies over the makeshift counters of huts andcanteens, to serve the soldier in such ways as offered.
And there were women—Red Cross women, Y. M. C. A.women, a few musicians and entertainers come to lightenthe tedium of the boys in khaki. There were a few civilians,French people, returning from America for purposesimportant only to them. And there was a sprinkling ofFrench officers, among them a boyish hero much followedby women’s eyes because he was a handsome boy mademore handsome by the splendor of his uniform—trousersof red, long coat of black, and most of all, perhaps, by thecluster of medals upon his breast. He was only a youth,but he was France’s most famous aviator.
There were third-class passengers. Forward were sixhundred Poles in vivid red coats, recruited in the UnitedStates and Canada for the Polish Legion, going to fightfor their country, which could only be a member of thefamily of nations if the Allies succeeded in crushing theenemy. Aft there were six hundred American boys—machine-gunmen and a signal-corps unit.
All of them—officers, men, women—knew that those hillsconcealed something, something tremendous. Residentin each individual was a consciousness that beyond therelay a new world, but how new and how different none wascapable of realizing. The old life, the old ways, theaccustomed rules of the game of life, had been left behindand few had the vision to perceive that they were leftbehind forever, that nothing could again be as it hadbeen, and that they were standing poised for a stepthrough a doorway which led into a new era.
They were about to find contact with another civilization,with another philosophy, another method of life.It was not alone that they were to be set down in analien land, amid a people speaking a tongue which wasmeaningless to them, and living their lives according toa manner which seemed good to them—and which wasgood to them and to all who saw it with clear eyes andopen mind—but because they were about to become apart of events through which no soul can pass withoutbeing so modified and molded as to emerge a differentsoul, detached, unrelated, cut off by experience andknowledge from the soul that had been.
Behind those low-lying hills lay France.... Whatwas France? It was, for every man and woman aboardthat vessel, the great adventure of the soul. Just that.Each one of them was to be born again. With thetouch of the soil of France beneath their feet would comea new birth, the entrance into a new life in which eachwould find much to wonder at, much to admire, much topuzzle over.... But they would find themselves. Moreoverthey would find a world which had resolved itselfinto genuineness, a world which was true, because war hadstripped it of pretense.
The American soul is a peculiar affair. It is circumscribedby environment, by inherited prejudices. It is,for the most part, incapable of comprehending itself,much less the soul of another people of another temperamentand genius, ripened by plenitude of years and bya hundred generations of genius which has studied the artof living. The American soul is a living thing imprisonedin a cage of concealments. It was to come into intimatecontact with a people who do not believe in imprisoningthe soul, who have sought for and discovered the essentials,and have cut away—perhaps have never found thenecessity for cutting away—the shame, the self-deceptions,the glossings-over, the self-imposed blind spots, whichmake us what we are. The American soul recognizes foodand admits it to thought’s decent society, but it declinesto recognize the existence of processes of digestion. TheFrench soul knows that food must be digested as wellas eaten. To the French soul digestion is respectable.
So the American soul was to meet the French soul—ameeting of the poles. From such a meeting must resultsomething worth while to the world....
From that day, the 18th of May, A.D. 1918, those menand women would calculate the events of their lives.It was the beginning of a new dispensation. As the worlddates events as A.D. or B.C., so these Americans woulddate their events as, “Before I landed in France,” or,“After I landed in France.”
It was from the port side of the vessel that the bestview of the now distinct land was to be obtained, and therail was crowded from end to end of the long deck withmen and women who looked and looked as if land were anew and tremendous curiosity, a something which theyhad never seen before and might miss altogether if theirattention wavered for an instant. Tea and wafers hadjust been served by the deck stewards. Well forwardstood a young man with the bars of a captain on hisshoulders; he stood back from the rail, alone, lookingover the heads of the other passengers, as his heightmade it practicable for him to do. He held in his righthand a cup of tea and was eating one of a handful ofsquare wafers. Not as a man eats who is dallying withthe quaint foreign custom of afternoon tea did he bearhimself, but as a young man who is honestly hungry.He addressed himself to those biscuits and washed themdown with tea because it had been long hours since themidday meal and because his big young body wasdemanding food.
In his uniform he presented a figure to admire, as didmost of the young officers aboard. His back was broad,his legs straight, and, though not bulky, gave one theimpression that he was graciously and strongly made.One may read much from a man’s legs. More especiallyis this so in uniform and leather puttees. Indications ofcharacter are resident in a calf, but more especially inknees and ankles. These things are concealed by thetrousers of civilian life. Some day an astute judge ofcharacter will write a monograph on masculine legs andrevolutionize the appraisal of men. The captain’s legswere a credit to the United States, the army, and himself.
He was not handsome, nor was his face delicate withovermuch intellectual labor. If you had met him in acrowd you would have said immediately that here was ayoung man who could play a bully game of football.That was the impression his features gave—of ability toplay a rough game splendidly. It was not the face of apugilist nor of a society man. It was the face of anaverage young American of the class which goes to college,acquires enough education to make him easy in thepresence of gentlemen, and upon which to base a greatersuccess in life than had been possible to his father whocame before him. When you looked at him you thoughtin physical terms before you considered his possiblementality. There was nothing dull about him; therewere indications of a reasonable amount of good nature,and some intolerance, and much of boyishness. His attentionwas equally divided between France and biscuits.
A young woman just in front of him turned and lookedup at him. “Here comes something,” she said, pointing.
“Dirigible,” he replied, following the direction of herfinger.
The dirigible buzzed out to the vessel, looked it over,and evidently with satisfied mind turned and hurriedaway toward shore again....
“There’s a convoy or something,” said the youngwoman.
The captain was interested. “Probably coastwiseships coming down from England. Six of them, aren’tthere?... And see all those other little boats in