"american, Sir!"

Author: Mary Raymond Shipman Andrew

"Dear Uncle Bill:" (And why he should have called me "Uncle Bill," Heaven only knows. I was not his uncle and almost never had I been addressed as "Bill." But he chose the name, without explanation, from the first.) "Dear Uncle Bill: Where am I going to in vacation? The fellows ask. Their fathers come to Commencement and take them home. I'm the only one out, because my father's dead. And I haven't anybody to belong to. It would be great if you'd come. Yours Sincerely—John."

I threw the letter in the scrap-basket and an hour later fished it out. I read it over. I—go to a school commencement! Not if I knew it! The cheek of the whippersnapper! I had not even seen him; he might be any sort of wild Indian; he might expect me to "take him home" afterwards. Rather not! I should give him to understand that I would pay his bills and—well, yes—I would send him to a proper place in vacations; but be bothered by him personally I would not. Fishing trips to Canada interrupted by a child! Unthinkable. I would write to that effect.

I sat down to my orderly desk and drew out paper. I began: "Dear John." Then I stopped. An unwelcome vision arose of a small boy who was "the only one out." "My father's dead." Thirty years rolled back, and I saw the charming boy, a cousin, who had come to be this lad's father. I turned my head at that thought, as long ago I had turned it every morning when I waked to look at him, the beautiful youngster of my adoration, sleeping across the room which we shared together. For a dozen years we shared that room and other things—ponies, trips abroad, many luxuries. For the father and mother who worshipped and pampered John, and who were casually kind to me, an uninteresting orphan—these were rich, then, and free-handed. Too free-handed, it was seen later, for when the two were killed at one moment in an accident, only debts were left for John. I was suddenly important, I, the gray satellite of the rainbow prince, for I had a moderate fortune. The two of us were just graduated from Yale; John with honors and prizes and hosts of friends, I with some prizes and honors. Yet I had not been "tapped" for "Bones" or "Scroll and Key" and I was a solitary pilgrim ever, with no intimates. We stood so together, facing out towards life.

I split my unimpressive patrimony in two and John took his part and wandered south on a mining adventure. For that, he was always keen about the south and his plan from seventeen on was to live in Italy. But it was I, after all, who went to Italy year after year, while John led Lord knows what thriftless life in Florida. From the last morning when he had wheeled, in our old big room, and dashed across it and thrown his arms around me in his own impulsive, irresistible way—since that morning I had never seen him. Letters, plenty. More money was needed always. John always thought that the world owed him a living.

Then he did the thing which was incredible and I pulled him out and hushed up the story and repaid the money, but it made me ill, and I suppose I was a bit savage, for he barely answered my letters after, and shortly stopped writing altogether. John could not endure unpleasantness. I lost sight of him till years later when he—and I—were near forty and I had a note signed Margaret Donaldson, John's wife. John was dead. He had been on a shooting trip and a gun had gone off. Though it was not in words, yet through them I got a vague suggestion of suicide. Heavy-hearted, I wondered. The life so suddenly ended had once been dear to me.

"They did not bring John home," the note said. "He was so badly mutilated that they buried him near where he died. I believe he would have wanted you to know, and for that reason I am writing. I am an entirely capable bread-winner, so that John's boy and I will have no troubles as to money."

There was a child two years old. I liked the chill and the independence of the proud little note.

The next chapter opened ten years later with a letter saying that Margaret Donaldson's boy was left with her poor and elderly parents and that they did not want him. Would I, his mother being dead, take care of him? He was twelve, healthy and intelligent—which led directly to the evening when I sat, very cross, at my desk and fished young John's note out of the scrap-basket. I had got as far in answer as "Dear John"—when these visions of the past interrupted. I am not soft-hearted. I am crabbed and prejudiced and critical, and I dislike irregularity. Above all I am thoroughly selfish. But the sum of that is short of being brutal. Only sheer brutality could repel the lad's note and request. My answer went as follows:

"Dear John: I will come to your commencement and bring you back with me for a short time. I may take you on a fishing trip to Canada. Sincerely, Uncle Bill."

The youngster as he came into the school drawing-room was a thing to remember. He was a tall boy, and he looked like his father. Very olive he was—and is—and his blue eyes shone out of the dark face from under the same thickset and long lashes. His father's charm and beauty halted me, but I judged, before I let myself go, that he had also his mother's stability. I have seen no reason since to doubt my judgment. I never had so fine a fishing trip to Canada as that summer, in spite of the fact that John broke four good rods. He has been my most successful investment; and when the war broke out and he rushed to me clamoring to go, I felt indeed that I was giving humanity my best and my own. Then one day he came, in his uniform of an ambulance driver, to tell me good-bye.

That was in 1914, and the boy, just about to enter Yale, was eighteen. He went through bad fighting, and in March, 1917, he was given a Croix de Guerre. Then America came in and he transferred to his own flag and continued ambulance work under our Red Cross. He drove one of the twenty ambulances hurried into Italy after the Caporetto disaster in October, the first grip of the hand of America to that brave hand of Italy.

I did not know for a time that my lad was in the ambulance section rushed to Italy, but I had a particular interest from the first in this drive for I had spent weeks, twice, up in Lombardy and Venetia. That was how I followed the Italian disaster—as a terrible blow to a number of old friends. Then after the Caporetto crisis came the stand behind the Tagliamento; the retreat still farther and the more hopeful stand behind the Piave. And with that I knew that the First Ambulance Section was racing to the Italian front and that my boy was driving one of the cars.

And behold it was now the year 1919 and the war was over and the cablegram from Bordeaux, which read: "Sailing 13th Santa Angela 12 day boat New York," was a week old.

Of course I met him. I left a director's meeting and vital engagements, with indecent firmness, to meet that ship. At crack of dawn on a raw morning in March I arose and drove miles to a freezing pier to meet it. And presently, as I stood muffled in a fur coat, an elderly, grizzled, small man, grim and unexhilarating—presently the soul of this monotonous person broke into song. For out of the early morning, out from behind a big anchored vessel near the pier, poked the nose of a troop ship and lumbered forward, and her decks were brown with three thousand soldiers—Americans of our victorious army coming home from overseas.

It was a sight which none of us will ever see again. Out in the harbor tugs were yelping, whistles blowing; the little fleet which had gone down the bay to meet the incoming troops was screaming itself mad in a last chorus of joyful welcome. And the good ship Santa Angela, blessed old tub, rolled nearer till the lads on her, shouting, waving, laughing, crying lads could be seen separately, and she had rounded the corner into the slip and was mere yards from the dock.

And then the boy came down the gangplank and I greeted him as is my ungracious way, as if he had been off on a sailing trip. But he knew, and he held to me, the tall fellow, with his arm around my shoulder unashamed, and from that moment to this in the den he had hardly let me out of his sight.

After dinner that night I settled back in deep satisfaction and lighted a fresh cigar. And the boy, standing before the blazing logs, which kept up a pleasant undertone to the music of his young voice, began.

"You know, Uncle Bill, we were blamed proud to be Red Cross when we knew what was doing about Italy. It was plumb great. You know it all of course. But I saw it. No worse fight ever—in all history. Towns turned into a rolling river of refugees. Hungry, filthy, rain-soaked, half-clad—old, babies, sick—a multitude pitiful beyond words—stumbling, racing down those mountain trails, anyhow—to get anywhere—away."

He dropped into a chair and went on.

"We didn't get there for the first, but it was plenty bad enough," and his eyes were seeing wordless sights. "The United States had declared war on Austria December 7th, and four days later Section One was rolling across the battlefield of Solferino.

"I was proud to be in that bunch. Talk about the flower of a country, Uncle Bill,—we grew 'em. Six wore the Croix de Guerre—well, of course that's often just luck." He reddened as he remembered who was one of that six. "All of them had gone through battles a-plenty. Whole shooting-match keen for service—no slackers and no greenhorns in that crowd.

"We started on the twelve hundred mile trip to Milan from Paris November 18th, and at Ventimiglia, just over the border, Italy welcomed us. Lord, Uncle Bill," the boy laughed out, and rubbed his eyes where tears stood. "They wouldn't look at our passports—no, sir! They opened the gate to Italy and we rolled in like visiting princes. They showered presents on us, those poor villagers—food, flowers—all they had. Often didn't keep any for themselves.

"We got there December 8th. Tuned up the cars and were off again in two or three days, to the job. They gave us a great send-off. Real party. Two parties. First a sort of reception in a big gray courtyard of an old palace, all dolled up with American and Italian flags. Big bugs and speeches—and they presented us to Italy. A bugle blew and a hundred of us in khaki—we'd been reinforced—stood at salute and an Italian general swept into the gates with his train of plumed Bersagliari —sent to take us over. Then we twenty drove our busses out with our own flags flying and pulled up again for Party Number Two in front of the Cathedral. Finally the Mayor bid us his prettiest good-bye, and off we drove again through the cheering crowds and the waving flags—this time out of the city gate—to the Piave front."

The boy rose from his chair, put on a fresh log, then turned and stood facing me, towering over me in his young magnificence.

It flashed to me that I'd never seen him look so like his father, yet so different. All John Donaldson's physical beauty, all his charm were repeated in his son, but underlaid with a manliness, a force which poor John never had.

"We were pitched into the offensive in the hottest of it," spoke the boy. "It was thick. We were hampered by lack of workers. We wanted Americans. Morgan had a thought.

"'Italy's full of Americans,' he suggested. 'Living here. Over military age, but fit for a lot of our use. I miss my guess if bunches of 'em wouldn't jump at a chance to get busy under their own flag.'

"We sent out a call and they came. Down from hill-towns, out of cities, from villages we'd never heard of—it was amazing how they came. We didn't dream there was such a number. Every one middle-aged, American all, and gentlemen all. One morning, after brisk work the night before, I'd just turned out and was standing by my bus—I slept on a stretcher inside—I saw a big, athletic, grizzled chap, maybe fifty-five or over, shabby as to clothes, yet with an air like a duke, sauntering up. How he got in there I never thought to ask. He held out his hand as if we were old friends. 'Good morning,' he said. 'I hope I didn't wake you up. How do you like Italy?' There was something attractive about him, something suggestive of a gracious host whose flower garden was Italy—which he trusted was to my taste. I told him I worshipped Italy.

"Just then a shell—they were coming over off and on—struck two hundred yards down the road and we both turned to look. In thirty seconds, maybe, another—and another—placed middling close, half a minute apart maybe, till eight had plowed along that bit. When they stopped, he looked at me. 'That's the first time I ever saw shells light nearby,' he spoke. 'Eight, I made it. But two were duds, weren't they?'

"It didn't seem to occur to him that they might have hit him. About then he saw me wondering, I suppose, what a civilian was doing making conversation inside the lines before breakfast, and he explained.

"'You need men for the Red Cross, I believe,' he explained. 'I came to offer my services.' He spoke English perfectly, yet with a foreign twist, and he was so very dark that I wondered about his nationality.

"'Are you Italian?' I asked, and at that he started and straightened his big shabby shoulders as if I'd hit him, and flushed through his brown skin.

"'American, sir,' he said proudly.

"And, Uncle Bill, something in the way he said it almost brought tears to my eyes. It was as if his right to being American was the last and most precious thing he owned, and as if I'd tried to take it from him.

"So I threw back 'That's great,' as heartily as I knew how, and shook hands with him over it.

"There was something about him which I couldn't place. He looked—natural. Especially his eyes.

"Well, I said we'd be delighted to use him, and told him where to report and then, though it wasn't my business, I asked his name. And what do you think he told me?"

I shook my head.

"He gave his name as John Donaldson," stated the boy.

"What!" I asked bewildered. "This man in Italy was called——"

"By my name," the boy said slowly. "John Donaldson."

I reasoned a bit. "John Donaldson" is a name not impossible to be duplicated. "It was devilish odd," I said, "to run into your own handle like that, wasn't it?"

The boy went on. "At that second Ted Frith ran along shouting, '7:30. Better hurry. Coffee's waiting.' So I threw the strange man a good-bye and bolted.

"That day we were going some. They were heaving eggs from the other side of the Piave and we were bringing back wounded to the dressing stations as fast as we could make it over that wrecked land; going back faster for more. When I stopped for chow at midday, I found Ted Frith near me, eating also.

"'Remember the old boy you were talking to this morning?' asked Ted between two mouthfuls of dum-dums—that's beans, Uncle Bill. I 'lowed I remembered the old boy; in fact he'd stuck in my mind all day.

"'Well,' Ted went on, 'he's a ring-tailed snorter. He's got an American uniform, tin derby and all, and he's up in the front trenches in the cold and mud with his chocolates and stuff, talking the lingo to the wops and putting heart into them something surprising. They're cheering up wherever he goes. Good work.'

"That afternoon I ran into the man under hot fire hurrying down the communication trench for more stuff. He looked as pleased as a boy with a new pony. 'Hello,' I yelled across the noise. 'How do you like our Italy? They tell me you're helping a lot.'

"He stopped and stared with those queerly homelike, big eyes. 'Do they?' he smiled. 'It's the best time I've had for years, sir.'

"'Needn't sir me,' I explained. 'I'm not an officer.'

"'Ah, but you are—my superior officer,' he argued in a courteous, lovely way. 'I'm a recruit—raw recruit. Certainly I must say sir, to you.'

"'Duck there,' I shouted. 'You're on a rise—you'll be hit.'

"He glanced around. 'If you knew what a treat I'd consider it to be done for wearing this.' He looked down and slapped his big knee in its khaki. 'But if I'm helping, it's the game to keep whole. You see, sir,' and he laughed out loud—'this is my good day. I'm American to-day, sir!'

"And as I let in the clutch and turned the wheel, I sniffled. The man's delight at being allowed to do a turn of any sort under the flag got me.

"The hideous day wore on; one of the worst I went through. We were rushing 'em steadily—four badly wounded in the back you know, and one who could sit up in the front seat with the driver, every trip. About 3:30 as I was going up to the front lines, I struck Ted Firth again coming down.

"'That you, Johnny?' he shouted as we jammed together, and then: 'Your friend's got his,' he said. We were caught in a crowd and had to wait, so we could talk.

"'Oh no!' I groaned. 'Gone west?'

"He shook his head. 'I think not yet. But I'm afraid he's finished. Had to leave him. Didn't see him till I was loaded up. He's been stretcher-bearer the last three hours.'

"'The devil he has. Why?'

"'A sudden attack—bearer was killed. He jumped in and grabbed the stretcher. Powerful old boy. Back and forth from the hurricane to the little dressing station, and at last he got it. Thick to-day, isn't it?'

"'Stretcher-bearer!' I repeated. 'Nerve for a new bird.'

"'Nerve!' echoed Teddy. 'He's been eating it up. The hotter it got, the better it suited. He's one of the heroes fast enough. If he lives, he's due a cross for his last stunt—out under fire twice in five minutes to bring in wounded. But he won't live. There—it's clearing. You run along and find the old boy, Johnny.'

"I found him. He was hurt too badly to talk about. As gently as we knew how, Joe Barron and I lifted him into the car and he recognized me.

"'Why, good evening, sir,' he greeted me, smiling at the disputed title, charming and casual as ever. He identified me—'The boy who adored Italy.' Then: 'Such luck!' he gasped. 'Killed—in our uniform—serving!' And as he felt my hand on his forehead: 'For God's sake don't be sorry, lad,' he begged. 'A great finish for me. I never hoped for luck like this.'

"There's a small village," the boy went on—"I never knew its name; it's back of the Piave; only a pile of broken stuff now anyhow. But the church was standing that night, a lovely old church with a tower pierced with windows. We stuck in a traffic jam in front of that church. The roads were one solid column going forward into the mess. Mile after mile of it in one stream—and every parallel road must have been the same.

"It got dark early and the ration truck was late coming up, being caught in the jam. It was night by the time the eats were ready and I left my bus in front of the church I spoke of. I'd wished myself on the officers of a battery having mess in trees back of a ruined house. When I went back to the bus, it was clean dark. But the sky was alight with gun flashes from everywhere, a continuous flicker like summer lightning with glares here and there like a sudden blaze from a factory chimney. The rumbling gun thunder was without a break, punctuated by heavier boomings; the near guns seemed an insane 4th of July. I looked in at my load and I saw that my namesake was worse. We were still trapped in the jam; no chance of breaking for hours maybe. I saw then that they'd turned the church into a dressing station. There was straw on the stone floors and two surgeons and some orderlies. Wounded were being carried in on stretchers. Joe Barron and I lifted out John Donaldson and took him in and cared for him as well as possible until we could corral an overworked doctor. I thought I'd talk to him a bit to distract him, and he seemed glad to have me."

The lad stopped; his big fingers pulled at the collar of his uniform.

"Little by little," he went on, "John Donaldson of Italy told his story. He held tight to my hand as he told it." The boy halted again and bit at his lower lip with strong white teeth. "I like to remember that," he went on slowly. "He had lived nearly twenty years in Perugia. He had run away from America. Because—he—took money. Quite a lot of money. He—was supposed to be dead."

I sat forward, grasping the sides of my chair, pulling the thing out of the boy with straining gaze.

"Uncle Bill," he spoke, and his dear voice shook, "you know who it was. I found why his eyes looked familiar. They were exactly like my own. The man I was helping to die was my father."

I heard my throat make a queer sound, but I said no word. The voice flowed on, difficultly, determinedly.

"It's a strange thing to remember—a weird and unearthly bit of living—that war-ruined church, strewn with straw, the wounded wrapped like mummies in dark blankets, their white bandages making high spots in the wavering, irregular lights of lanterns and pocket flashes moving about. I sat on the pavement by his side, hand in hand. A big crucifix hung above, and the Christ seemed to be looking—at him."

The voice stopped. I heard my own as a sound from beyond me asking a question. "How did you find out?" I asked.

"Why, you see, Uncle Bill," he answered, as if my voice had helped him to normality a bit, "I started off by saying I'd write to anybody for him, and wasn't there somebody at home maybe? And he smiled out of his torture, and said 'Nobody.'

"Then I said how proud we were of such Americans as he had shown himself and how much he'd helped. I told him what Teddy Frith said of how he'd put heart into the men. And about the war cross. At that his face brightened.

"'Did he really say I'd helped?' He was awfully pleased. Then he considered a moment and spoke: 'There's one lad I'd like to have know—if it's possible to find him—and if he ever knows anything about me—that I died decently.'

"I threw at him—little dreaming the truth, yet eagerly—'I'll find him. I promise it. What's his name?'

"And he smiled again, an alluring, sidewise smile he had, and said: 'Why, the same name as mine—John Donaldson. He was my baby.'

"Then for the first time the truth came in sight, and my heart stood still. I couldn't speak. But I thought fast. I feared giving him a shock, yet I had to know—I had to tell him. I put my free hand over his that clung to me and I said: 'Do you know, Mr. Donaldson, it's queer, but that's my name too. I also am John Donaldson.'

"He turned his head with a start and his eyes got wide. 'You are?' he said, and he peered at me in the half light. 'I believe you look like me. God!' he said. His face seemed to sharpen and he shot words at me. 'Quick!' he said. 'I mayn't have time. What was your mother's name?'

"I told him.

"He was so still for a breath that I thought I'd killed him. Then his face lighted—quite

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