The Marne/Chapter 5
"It seems too absurd," said Mrs. Belknap; "but Troy will be eighteen to-morrow. And that means," she added with a sigh, "that this horrible war has been going on for three whole years. Do you remember, dearest, your fifteenth birthday was on the very day that odious Archduke was assassinated? We had a picnic on the Morterasch."
"Oh, dear," cried Sophy Wicks, flinging her tennis-racket into the air with a swing that landed it in the middle of the empty court—"perhaps that's the reason he's never stopped talking about the war for a single minute since!"
Around the big tea-table under the trees there was a faint hush of disapproval. A year before, Sophy Wicks's airy indifference to the events that were agitating the world had amused some people and won the frank approval of others. She did not exasperate her friends by professions of pacifism, she simply declared that the war bored her; and after three years of vain tension, of effort in the void, something in the baffled American heart whispered that, things being as they were, she was perhaps right.
But now things were no longer as they had been. Looking back, Troy surveyed the gradual development of the war-feeling as it entered into a schoolboy's range of vision. He had begun to notice the change before the sinking of the Lusitania. Even in the early days, when his school-fellows had laughed at him and called him "Marny," some of them had listened to him and imitated him. It had become the fashion to have a collection of war-trophies from the battlefields. The boys' sisters were "adopting war-orphans" at long distance, and when Troy went home for the holidays he heard more and more talk of war-charities, and noticed that the funds collected were no longer raised by dancing and fancy-balls. People who used the war as an opportunity to have fun were beginning to be treated almost as coldly as the pacifists.
But the two great factors in the national change of feeling were the Lusitania and the training-camps.
The Lusitania showed America what the Germans were, Plattsburg tried to show her the only way of dealing with them.
Both events called forth a great deal of agitated discussion, for if they focussed the popular feeling for war, they also gave the opponents of war in general a point of departure for their arguments. For a while feeling ran high, and Troy, listening to the heated talk at his parents' table, perceived with disgust and wonder that at the bottom of the anti-war sentiment, whatever specious impartiality it put on, there was always the odd belief that life-in-itself—just the mere raw fact of being alive—was the one thing that mattered, and getting killed the one thing to be avoided.
This new standard of human dignity plunged Troy into the lowest depths of pessimism. And it bewildered him as much as it disgusted him, since it did away at a stroke with all that gave any interest to the fact of living. It killed romance, it killed poetry and adventure, it took all the meaning out of history and conduct and civilization. There had never been anything worth while in the world that had not had to be died for, and it was as clear as day that a world which no one would die for could never be a world worth being alive in.
Luckily most people did not require to reason the matter out in order to feel as Troy did, and in the long run the Lusitania and Plattsburg won the day. America tore the gag of neutrality from her lips, and with all the strength of her liberated lungs claimed her right to a place in the struggle. The pacifists crept into their holes, and only Sophy Wicks remained unconverted.
Troy Belknap, tall and shy and awkward, lay at her feet and blushed and groaned inwardly at her wrong-headedness. All the other girls were war-mad; with the rupture of diplomatic relations the country had burst into flame, and with the declaration of war the flame had become a conflagration. And now, having at last a definite and personal concern in the affair, every one was not only happier but more sensible than when a perpetually thwarted indignation had had to expend itself in vague philanthropy.
It was a peculiar cruelty of fate that made Troy feel Miss Wicks's indifference more than the zeal of all the other young women gathered about the Belknap tennis-court. In spite of everything, he found her more interesting, more inexhaustible, more "his size" (as they said at school), than any of the gay young war-goddesses who sped their tennis-balls across the Belknap court.
It was a Long Island Sunday in June. A caressing warmth was in the air, and a sea-breeze stirred the tops of the lime branches. The smell of fresh hay-cocks blew across the lawn, and a sparkle of blue water and a dipping of white sails showed through the trees beyond the hay-fields.
Mrs. Belknap smiled indulgently on the pleasant scene: her judgement of Sophy Wicks was less severe than that of the young lady's contemporaries. What did it matter if a chit of eighteen, having taken up a foolish attitude, was too self-conscious to renounce it?
"Sophy will feel differently when she has nursed some of our own soldiers in a French base hospital," she said, addressing herself to the disapproving group.
The young girl raised her merry eyebrows. "Who'll stay and nurse Granny if I go to a French base hospital? Troy, will you?" she suggested.
The other girls about the tea-table laughed. Though they were only Troy's age, or younger, they did not mind his being teased, for he seemed only a little boy to them, now that they all had friends or brothers in the training-camps or on the way to France. Besides, though they disapproved of Sophy's tone, her argument was unanswerable. They knew her precocious wisdom and self-confidence had been acquired at the head of her grandmother's household, and that there was no one else to look after poor old paralytic Mrs. Wicks and the orphan brothers and sisters to whom Sophy was mother and guardian.
Two or three of the young men present were in uniform, and one of them, Mrs. Belknap's nephew, had a captain's double bar on his shoulder. What did Troy Belknap and Sophy Wicks matter to young women playing a last tennis-match with heroes on their way to France?
The game began again, with much noise and cheerful wrangling. Mrs. Belknap walked toward the house to welcome a group of visitors, and Miss Wicks remained beside the tea-table, alone with Troy. She was leaning back in a wide basket-chair, her thin ankles in white open-work stockings thrust out under her short skirt, her arms locked behind her thrown-back head. Troy lay on the ground and plucked at the tufts of grass at his elbow. Why was it that, with all the currents of vitality flowing between this group of animated girls and youths, he could feel no nearness but hers? The feeling was not particularly agreeable, but there was no shaking it off: it was like a scent that has got into one's clothes. He was not sure that he liked her, but he wanted to watch her, to listen to her, to defend her against the mockery and criticism in the eyes of the others. At this point his powers of analysis gave out, and his somewhat extensive vocabulary failed him. After all, he had to fall back on the stupid old school phrase: she was "his size"—that was all.
"Why do you always say the war bores you?" he asked abruptly, without looking up.
"Because it does, my boy; and so do you, when you hold forth about it."
He was silent, and she touched his arm with the tip of her swinging tennis-shoe. "Don't you see, Troy, it's not our job—not just now, anyhow. So what's the use of always jawing about it?"
She jumped up, recovered her racket, and ran to take her place in a new set beside Troy's cousin, the captain.