Sergt. Warren Comes Back from France

by Fisher Ames, Jr.

Immediately after voting, the Rev. Jeremiah Soule stepped outside the town hall to fortify himself with fresh air for the coming meeting. Several others had done the same.

“Been a hard winter, Mr. Soule,” politely remarked one of the loiterers about the door. He was clad for the gusts of March like a sealer about to venture forth upon an Arctic floe.

“And especially for the boys in the trenches,” said the minister.

“That’s a fact, sir. I didn’t mean we’d ought to complain. We had our share of coal and wood, I guess, if the wood was green and the coal mostly slate.”

“And we had the money to pay for it.”

The group of men stirred a little uneasily.

“Honestly made, I think you’ll admit that, sir,” said Arthur Watts, a strapping fellow of thirty years, who had been called in the first draft and rejected on account of his poor teeth.

“I believe so—quite,” admitted Mr. Soule. “We are making good rope for the government and our allies, and no one is better pleased over it than I. I’m proud of the cordage plant. Yes, since this dreadful war had to be, the town has come honestly enough by its prosperity.” 

The group felt that Mr. Soule had tactfully dodged the real issue, and they were content to have it so. Just then the polls were closed, and those who had brought lunch boxes proceeded to consume the contents. Others presented themselves at the anteroom, where George Bassett was dispensing his famous chowder and coffee, together with pickles and bread and butter.

“It frets the parson to see us keeping our money instead of blowing it all out in charity,” remarked Watts, across a steaming mug of strong coffee. He laughed indulgently.

His friends did not echo his amusement. They looked, if not exactly ill at ease, at any rate somewhat sober.

The hall was packed when Joel Holmes, a massive and imperturbable person, was chosen moderator for the tenth successive time. Warrant in one large hand and gavel in the other, he inscrutably stared upon the expectant voters for a weighty minute.

“The meeting will please come to order,” he announced. The gavel smote the desk resoundingly.

As usual, the first person to be recognized was fiery little Mr. Abel Crabbe, who had a few withering remarks to make concerning the warrant as a whole. He was greatly applauded. As a conscientious objector to everything, Abel was looked upon as an interesting feature of town meeting.

A number of articles were then discussed and disposed of without excitement until Henry Torrey rose. He was as much of an objector as Mr. Crabbe, but he dealt in irony rather than in blunt scorn. With a grim  smile he proceeded to ridicule the library directors. When he had exposed them in their true colors, he made an impassioned motion to halve the appropriation they asked for in Article 6 of the warrant.

The motion was enthusiastically seconded, but on being put to vote Torrey’s was the only ay. The crowd enjoyed Torrey as they enjoyed Abel Crabbe, but they had perfect faith in the library directors, the town officers and the warrant.

Early in the proceedings it was evident that Article No. 10 was to furnish the event of the day. It ran as follows:

“That the sum of $25,000 be appropriated for the improvement and embellishment of Farragut Square, said improvement to include the removal of the four old buildings now abutting upon it, the erection of a flagpole and a suitable band stand and the widening of Brig Street on the bay side of the square.”

When the article was reached, no disposition was shown to dispose of it quickly. Fenville wished to hear the report of the committee and the opinions and impressions of each and every member thereon. The plan had caught the popular fancy. Nearly every man there was ready to back it firmly, even boastfully.

Pompous Mr. Baxter, the chairman of the committee, sounded the keynote. He sketched the history of the cordage plant, which had begun as an unaspiring rope-walk. He compared it to the ugly duckling that became a regal swan. And the swan, he said, pursuing the simile, had not flown out of their hands in spite of the great wings it had grown. 

At this point the moderator’s voice and gavel were called upon to quell a disturbance in the rear of the hall apparently occasioned by the entrance of some late arrivals.

When order was restored Mr. Baxter, continuing the pæan to the town’s prosperity, spoke of the uniquely local character of the cordage plant; of the fact that virtually everyone, from the president down to the office boy, concerned with it was a native of Fenville. And besides a liberal salary everyone had a share in the profits. Nearly every penny of the stock was owned right in the town of Fenville. All of which was no news, but everyone relished Baxter’s glowing phrases just the same.

The speeches of the other committeemen were in the same tenor. Fenville had made money out of its cordage; was still making money. It could afford to pat its own back, and the pat might well take the form of a renovated and beautified town square that would advertise its business smartness to all beholders.

As the last of the committeemen sat down, some one in the rear of the hall addressed the moderator.

“Mr. ——?” queried that official, unable to see the speaker clearly. Like the old hall, recently destroyed by fire, the new structure had made a concession to the fair and inquisitive sex in the shape of a deep rear balcony.

“Warren—Miles Warren.”

An excited craning of heads followed, and even Joel Holmes showed the human being beneath the armor of officialdom. 

“Miles Warren!” he ejaculated. Then his gavel mechanically reminded him of his duties and he recalled the meeting to order. It took vigorous rapping to still the persistent murmurs and the eager turnings.

“I’d like to say a few words about Article 10,” said the man under the low balcony.

“Well, I guess you can!” boomed the moderator. He was preserving his self-control with difficulty. His hands fidgeted and his circular face showed a deepening crimson. “But we can’t hear what you say way back there—or see you, either,” he added. “Please step a little farther forward if you will, Mr. Warren.”

The storm of welcoming applause for the son who had so unexpectedly returned to his native town after two years of splendid service in the far-famed Foreign Legion suddenly fell to a shocked silence. They saw now why Sergt. Warren had come home. His father stood beside him. Miles needed some one to guide him up the narrow aisle—for he was blind.

Fenville had heard of the metal cross pinned to the faded tunic and had shared the pride of John Warren and his wife, Abigail; but it had not heard of the scarred face and sightless eyes. Miles had gone forth to fight for democracy “like a true knight of old,” the Fenville Weekly Gazette had said. The townspeople had not smiled at the phrase, for there had always been something gallant in Miles; he had always had a fearless and honorable outlook upon life.

“I’m not much use to them over there, so it seems good to get home,” he said. “And on town-meeting  day. I knew father wanted to be here, and I did, too, so we came right over from the depot.”

Sightless: thrown back into the discard. But there was the same firm mouth and the same upright carriage of the well-shaped head. Broken? Not a bit of it. Everyone could see that. The old spirit was there, just as gallant as when he had set out for the battlefields of France.

“This Article No. 10,” continued the sergeant. “You don’t know how strange it sounds. Because I’ve come straight home from over there, you know. I was going to say, without seeing anything on the way.” He smiled. “And that’s true, too. What I mean is, I haven’t had time to get adjusted to the change. It wasn’t till just now that I said to myself, the war’s thousands of miles off, way across the ocean. Not that the ocean would stop Fritz from getting at us mighty quick if he ever beats us over there. You may depend on that.

“Some one has to make the things that are needed and get paid for them. That’s of course. But I haven’t been seeing that side. I’ve been seeing France and England and our own boys with their backs to the wall. I’ve been seeing new graveyards grow; bigger than big towns—as big as cities. And cities that were nothing but graveyards. Towns that were nothing but ash heaps. Rich lands churned up into terrible deserts.

“And I’ve met men—met them all the time—who’d been seeing the same and worse in Russia and Poland, Serbia and Roumania—the whole Christian world being battered and ripped to pieces. 

“That is the way you think about it over there. What can you do to stop it—how can you help the millions that have lost their fathers or mothers, husbands or wives, or children—that have no food or homes or country? That is what you ask yourself day and night.

“You can never give them back what they have lost. But if you had money, you could keep some of them from dying of cold and hunger; little children at least. That is about all money means to you over there.

“So when I come home to hear that Fenville has grown rich, why, I can’t seem to sense it! And that you want to fix up Farragut Square,—make it pretty,—buy the town a kind of decoration because it has been lucky enough and smart enough to make money—out of the war. It’s like blood money to me—like blood itself; a drop for every penny.”

Fenville had never tolerated criticism, but the man in the faded uniform with the cross on his tunic and his head up, and his poor, blind, scarred face, exerted a strange influence over the audience. Even the least imaginative man had his vision of what that figure symbolized.

“It was looking at him, as much as hearing him speak—why, I seemed to get a sight right over to France as clear as if I had been there,” explained Mr. Totten afterwards. “France made Farragut Square look kind of small.”

“I’ll say just one thing more,” Miles went on, and you could have heard a pin drop in that hall. “If any  of our boys don’t come back,—Lem Chapman and Frank Keeler and the others,—those that do, will they think a prettified Farragut Square is the best monument for the ones who died for us over there?”

The sergeant turned, and John Warren took hold of his arm to lead him back. Mr. Chapman, Lem’s father, was up like a flash.

“Hold on!” he shouted. “No, it ain’t, by Jupiter!”

Crash! Out came the handclapping like the rattle of rifle fire. More than one shrewd old eye was moist, and few were the hearts that did not beat with a more generous quickness.

“What can we do, Sergt. Miles?” asked Mr. Chapman. “You have told us what we shouldn’t do, and I for one thank you for it. We want to do the right thing. Every man of us here does. Tell us what it is.”

“Let us dispose of Article 10 first,” said Dr. Shepard. The house approved, and Mr. Chapman gave way. The article was put in the form of a motion, was voted upon, and defeated as if it had never had a friend in the world.

“Make a motion, Miles!” shouted a score of voices.

“Do you want to know what I should do?” said the soldier. “There are places in France and Belgium that used to be towns. Some haven’t even the cellars left. An American society has been formed to take hold of the work of building up those places after the war. We could write to that society and get the name of a town that once was—a little one; one where perhaps our own boys have fought. Fenville could put the  money she meant to spend on herself into helping to make it a town again. It would help, don’t you worry about that. So Fenville could feel, always, long after our time, that that little French town was her camarade. And it would be her bit; Fenville’s bit.”

When he could make himself heard, the Rev. Jeremiah Soule made a motion, the gist of which was that a committee be appointed to correspond with the society with the object of learning the name of some small devastated town in France or Belgium that would be a worthy recipient of twenty-five thousand dollars from Fenville’s treasury, the same to be expended toward rebuilding the town at the end of the war.

A dozen voices seconded the motion, and on being put to vote it was carried unanimously. Mr. Crabbe, the conscientious objector, was one of the first to rise on the ay vote. The fiery little man had his streak of sentiment, after all.

So had Henry Torrey, who said gruffly that he was glad to see the town’s money spent for a really useful purpose for once.

“Three cheers for Sergt. Warren, then!” shouted Mr. Chapman. “And make them rousers!”

“He and John went out,” said a voice in the rear of the hall.

“Cheer him from the steps!” cried another.

The crowd filed out. The two Warrens were walking down the road. The sergeant had his father’s arm; but his head was up, and it was not he, but the older man, that had the air of being led. For some reason the crowd fell silent. 

Finally some one said crisply, “Miles Warren always could see straight. And I tell you he can see as straight’s ever, even if he is blind.”

Fisher Ames, Jr.