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VI

 

It was not "his job"—that was the bitter drop in all the gladness.

At last what Troy longed for had come: his country was playing her part. And he, who had so watched and hoped and longed for the divine far-off event, had talked of it early and late to old and young, had got himself laughed at, scolded, snubbed, ridiculed, nicknamed, commemorated in a school-magazine skit in which "Marne" and "yarn" and "oh, darn," formed the refrain of a lyric beginning "Oh say, have you heard Belknap flap in the breeze?"—he, who had borne all the scoldings and all the ridicule, sustained by a mysterious secret faith in the strength of his cause, now saw that cause triumph, and all his country waving with flags and swarming with khaki, while he had to stand aside and look on, because his coming birthday was only his nineteenth. . . . He remembered the anguish of regret with which he had seen M. Gantier leave St. Moritz to join his regiment, and thought now with passionate envy of his tutor's fate. "Dulce et decorum est . . ." the old hackneyed phrase had taken on a beauty that rilled his eyes with tears.

Eighteen—and "nothing doing" till he was twenty-one! He could have killed the cousins and uncles strutting about in uniform and saying: "Don't fret, old man—there's lots of time. The war is sure to last another four years." To say that, and laugh, how little they must know of what war meant!

It was an old custom in the Belknap family to ask Troy what he wanted for his birthday. The custom (according to tradition) had originated on his sixth anniversary, when, being given a rabbit with ears that wiggled, he had grown very red and stammered out: "I did so want a 'cyclopedia. . . ."

Since then he had always been consulted on the subject with a good deal of ceremony, and had spent no little time and thought in making a judicious choice in advance. But this year his choice took no thinking over.

"I want to go to France," he said immediately.

"To France ———?" It struck his keen ears that there was less surprise than he had feared in Mr. Belknap's voice.

"To France, my boy? The Government doesn't encourage foreign travel just now."

"I want to volunteer in the Foreign Legion," said Troy, feeling as if the veins of his forehead would burst.

Mrs. Belknap groaned, but Mr. Belknap retained his composure.

"My dear chap, I don't think you know much about the Foreign Legion. It's a pretty rough berth for a fellow like you. And they're as likely as not," he added carelessly, "to send you to Morocco or the Cameroon."

Troy, knowing this to be true, hung his head.

"Now," Mr. Belknap continued, taking advantage of his silence, "my counter-proposition is that you should go to Brazil for three months with your Uncle Tom Jarvice, who is being sent down there on a big engineering job. It's a wonderful opportunity to see the country—see it like a prince too, for he'll have a special train at his disposal. Then, when you come back," he continued, his voice weakening a little under the strain of Troy's visible inattention, "we'll see. . . ."

"See what?"

"Well—I don't know . . . a camp . . . till it's time for Harvard. . . ."

"I want to go to France at once, father," said Troy, with the voice of a man.

"To do what?" wailed his mother.

"Oh, any old thing—drive an ambulance," Troy struck out at random.

"But, dearest," she protested, "you could never even learn to drive a Ford runabout!"

"That's only because it never interested me."

"But one of those huge ambulances—you'll be killed!"

"Father!" exclaimed Troy, in a tone that seemed to say: "Aren't we out of the nursery, at least?"

"Don't talk to him like that, Josephine," said Mr. Belknap, visibly wishing that he knew how to talk to his son himself, but perceiving that his wife was on the wrong tack.

"Don't you see, father, that there's no use talking at all? I'm going to get to France anyhow."

"In defiance of our wishes?"

"Oh, you'll forget all that later," said Troy.

Mrs. Belknap began to cry, and her husband turned on her.

"My dear, you're really—really—I understand Troy!" he blurted out, his veins swelling too.

"But if the Red Cross is to send you on that mission to Italy, why shouldn't Troy wait and go as your secretary?" Mrs. Belknap said, tacking skilfully.

Mr. Belknap, who had not yet made up his mind to accept the mission, made it up on the instant. "Yes, Troy—why not? I shall be going myself—in a month or so."

"I want to go to France," said his son. And he added, laughing with sudden courage: "You see, you've never refused me a birthday present yet."