From The Best Stories of Mary E. Wilkins (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1927)
Copyright, 1918, by Harper & Brothers.
“I think you ought to present that demand note of Uncle Abel's for collection,” said James Lord.
His old uncle Zenas sighed heavily.
“I think we have talked that matter over enough, don't you?” he returned.
The square old room in the low light of the gathering night was lovely, lovelier than in broad daylight, when its shabbiness, which was almost sordid, offended. Now soft shadows lay over it, and there were little pools of dim radiance here and there from polished surfaces of old furniture; an engraving over the mantel gleamed out like a sheet of silver, and right across the floor lay a mysterious beam of reflection beyond tracing. James saw that every night before the lamp was lit, and had never been able to trace its source. The glass over the engraving showing silver was simple enough. The street light caused that. The beam across the floor defied him. He gazed at it now as he talked with his uncle. Zenas was his paternal uncle. The Able to who he referred was on his mother's side of the family, Abel Carson. He was a rich old man and Zenas held his demand note, but would not make any effort to collect it.
“No, Uncle Zenas, I don't think we have talked enough until we have talked to some purpose,” said James Lord. “If you had that money I could enlist.”
“Do you think that is a reason for me to collect?”
Suddenly the boy rose and was across the room. His wiry young figure stood over the old man in the chair.
“Yes, I do,” he said, vehemently. “I do, and you ought to think so. You are an old man, Uncle Zenas, but I am ashamed for you. God knows, in time of peace I would be willing to stay here in Leicester and work in the Sylvesters' antique-store till I died, to support you; but this is different. If you had the money which that note represents you would have plenty if the war continued four years, and I could save a little out of my pay for you; but now here I am tied hand and foot. I see all the others going, and I am pinned down here because I am your sole support when you could get enough money tomorrow to set me free.”
“You know how I feel about this war,” said the old man, and there was a terrible inflexibility in his voice.
“Know how you feel! I should think so! I know to my shame and disgrace, and all the town knows. But I would go, for all that, Uncle Zenas, and I would feel right about going if you had enough money to live on.”
“You really mean that you would go to war when you know how I feel about the wickedness of war and how I am convinced that love and peace would take its place?”
“I love peace enough to fight for it,” the young voice rang out. “I don't love it enough to stay in a safe place and talk about it while the other fellows are getting hit. Uncle Zenas, for God's sake, why won't you collect that note? Uncle Abel has plenty of money. He is just laughing in his sleeve because you don't.”
“I have never had any quarrel with your uncle Able,” said the old voice, inexorably.
“And you won't try to collect because Uncle Abel has such a devilish temper and hates to pay out money like poison.”
“I cannot have a quarrel, James.”
“Uncle Zenas —”
The old man said nothing.
“Look here, Uncle Zenas, could you get on with what I could save from my pay if I did enlist? Have you got anything besides that note?”
The old man was silent.
“Is this house mortgaged?”
There was no reply.
“You could mortgage the house and set me free,” said the young voice, with a burst of courage.
“Mortgage the house where your grandfather was born!”
“Well, I suppose that would come sort of hard for you, but I would pay it as soon as I could after the war.”
“Young men often never return from war, and often when they do return it is to be burdens rather than agents to remove them. You can't guarantee anything when you go to war — you know that, James Lord.”
“Uncle Zenas, haven't you anything besides?”
Then the old man spoke with cold fury:
“If I had a million in banknotes here this minute I would put it in the fire and make you stay at home and support me. You shall not go to war, James Lord!”
“Uncle Zenas, if you were young and able-bodied, do you mean to say you would not go?”
“I would not! I would settle the whole peaceably.”
“No man can settle matters peaceably when there is no peace.”
The boy's voice rang high; then he hushed suddenly. He struck a match and lit the lamp on the table and made for the door.
“Where are you going?” asked Zenas.
“Over to the Sylvesters'. I see Thomas Dodd coming in here, and I don't want to stay and hear the old argument, when I am on Dodd's side and can't say so because you are my uncle. I don't like Dodd, either.”
James went out of the room, and at the same time the knocker clanged and a dog barked. The dog barked with a volley of shrill yelps.
Zenas rose and went to the front door. A large stout man stood there and a fox terrier was snapping at his heels. The large man kicked out at the dog, but did not hit him, and entered.
“Why in the name of common sense don't you tell Sam Buzzy to keep that nasty little cur of his at home?” he demanded. “He always hangs round your door, don't he?”
“I think he does a good deal,” admitted Zenas.
“Why don't you tell Buzzy to tie him up?”
“I like to live on good terms with my neighbors.”
“Oh, my Lord!” snarled the stout man. “And so you let your friends take chances of being bitten by mad dogs rather than have a row with a neighbor!” The man seated himself and the chair creaked. “This old relic won't let me down with a broken bone, will it?” he growled.
“I think it is fairly strong.”
“It isn't as if you had steam heat. Steam heat is the very dickens for old furniture. You ought to have it, though. Only thing for a house as big as this. Hot-air furnace don't begin to heat it.”
“It does, except when the wind is in certain directions.”
“Strange the wind ain't as accommodating as you peace folks. Sort of queer nature seems to go on such strikes.”
Zenas flushed. He was a handsome, small old man, with delicate but strong features and a small, closely set mouth.
“When are you going to start your peace delegation?” said the other. His voice hissed with aggravation.
Zenas said nothing.
“Ain't you going to send a peace delegation to Europe pretty soon?” demanded Thomas Dodd.
Zenas spoke sharply.
“Would to God I could do that very thing and stop this frightful slaughter!” said he.
“H'm! Suppose you think a peace delegation, with the women wearing stuffed doves on their hats, and the men with olive sprigs in their buttonholes, and the whole lot preaching and praying, could do more than the armies of the Allies and the United States, now we are in it. H'm!”
“I certainly do,” said Zenas, firmly.
The argument was on.
Thomas rose and towered over Zenas ponderously. He shook the index finger of his right hand in his face:
“You believe that right against Scripture?”
Zenas looked at Thomas and his small face seemed as hard as flint.
“I think that is Scripture.”
“What do you make of this saying from the Gospel, ‘I came not to send peace, but a sword’? What do you think of that, eh?”
Zenas spoke with tense firmness:
“‘If any man strike you on one cheek I say unto you turn the other also.’”
Thomas Dodd openly sneered. “If I were you I would quote Scripture correctly,” said he. Then he fairly shouted, “‘But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’”
“The meaning is the same,” returned Zenas, firmly.
“You know what is said if anybody changes just one word in the Bible, I suppose,” sneered Thomas Dodd.
Zenas did not answer. He was a gentleman, and Dodd lacked some of the traits of one. That gave Zenas a certain dignity.
Thomas dimly recognized the fact. His great face blazed red. He shook his finger in the other man's face.
“You traitor, you!” he shouted. “That's what you are, a damn traitor!”
“If believing in saving the sons of my country from quarrel and bloodshed is treachery, then I am a traitor,” replied Zenas.
He gazed straight at the index finger, which nearly touched his delicate nose. Zenas looked more high-bred than usual in contrast with Thomas Dodd. His face did not flush. It was slightly paler and his features stood out more distinctly.
“Damn traitor!” said Thomas Dodd.
Zenas said nothing.
“You really mean you would be content to let those crowing fools — for they are fools, and history is going to show it — sink our ships, and murder Americans, and make plots against our government, and try to get us into war with other nations, and into civil war, and blow up our factories and our bridges — and not fight?”
“I believe in peace.”
“Hang peace! Why, there isn't any peace! How in Sam Hill can you want to keep what isn't in existence? There hasn't been any peace in this happy-go-lucky country, bless it, since those doggoned Germans goose stepped over the Belgian frontier! Peace! Huh!”
“I do not defend the invasion of Belgium,” stated Zenas, mildly. “I admit I feel that the principle is wrong and —”
“Who cares a cat's hind leg about principle, now the United States has finally reared and is shaking all her flags out, and getting her men and her guns and her ships into the ring?” shouted Thomas Dodd. He fairly danced up and down. “Don't I know that principle is behind the whole devilish mess? But now we have taken our stand on principle for granted, and are saying, ‘Look here, Bill Hohenzollern, you have hit us; now we hit you.’ Lord-a-mighty, it was all well enough to talk principle and high-mindedness when we begun, but now it is hit back, and sit on the whole crew like our fathers sat on the Indians. I tell you now, Zenas Lord, it is hit! Do ye hear me? Hit! Hit!”
“I believe in peace,” said Zenas.
“Do you actually sit there and say, you whose folks did some tall fighting in the little baby wars we used to have, that you would stand for that usage any longer, and let them go on hitting us and turn the other cheek?”
“I believe in following the lead of Scripture,” said Zenas.
“Well, here goes!” shouted Thomas Dodd. “I'll give you one chance to practise what you preach!” With that Thomas Dodd gave the man in the chair a mighty slap on his right cheek. Directly over its delicate pallor red finger marks blazed out. Zenas said nothing. Slowly and with dignity he turned the other cheek. Thomas Dodd nearly knocked him out of his chair with a blow on the left jaw.
Then there was a crash. Zenas Lord's chair fell over backward and he was fighting Thomas Dodd. Zenas landed a terrible blow on the right cheek of Thomas, then on the left, with little fists that seemed as hard as steel. Zenas was a small man, but small men sometimes make mighty fighters. Zenas had always known he could fight. He would not, perhaps, have been a pacifist if he had not known that. Deep in his mind had lurked the knowledge of restrained power. For an old man he was amazing. He fairly seemed a blur of motion, so fast he rained blow after blow upon the other man.
Thomas Dodd was no coward. He had been taken by surprise. It was as if a dove had attacked him like a tiger; but he soon began to defend himself. Nothing except defense, and that only to a limited extent, was possible. As well attack a buzz saw as that fierce old man who had turned from his precepts of peace.
Zenas simply could not be hit. When the blow landed he was not there, and immediately Thomas received one. The two were all over the room. The table and the lamp and a vase of flowers went over, and water and oil trickled over the carpet.
The fighters collided against the silver-gleaming picture over the low mantel, and that crashed down. Zenas pushed Thomas against a gilt-framed mirror, and it cracked, and stars and fissures appeared with noises of explosions.
Always Thomas was on the defense, trying to dodge those blows off the steely little fists of the peaceful man, and never got in one blow himself. Thomas's nose was bleeding; his mouth was puffing; his eyes were closing. He was panting terribly. He was game withal. Never once did he whimper, but he was being worsted.
At last both men crashed down on the floor, and Zenas was sitting on Thomas and pounding the floor with Thomas's great head. Zenas was now beyond himself. The blood which had been held so long in check by laws of peace was over the dam, in flood tide. He was dangerous and terrible.
Zenas pounded the floor with the head of Thomas, and Thomas was gasping when the two old Sylvester brothers, who lived next door, came rushing in. With them was their niece Adeline and her husband, Marion Leicester.
For a moment not one trusted vision. The whole was monstrous and incredible. That little old Zenas Lord, who had antagonized everybody in Leicester and the Barrs by his peaceful attitude when the world was at fighting point, was himself fighting and, it seemed, ready to murder another man, was unbelievable.
Marion Leicester, who wore the khaki and was home on furlough, stared. They all stared. Then Marion made a spring.
“You'll kill him if you don't stop that!” he called, and grasped Zenas's shoulders. They felt like shoulders of steel. Marion was strong, but he could not move those dreadful shoulders of rage. “Let up, for God's sake, man! You don't want to kill him!” he shouted.
Old Zenas twisted round a terrible face of white wrath. “That is just what I want to do,” said he. “I want to kill him!”
Zenas made as if to give the floor another pound with the head of Thomas, but Adeline Leicester was before him. Thomas's head came down upon a very large feather cushion which Adeline had snatched from the sofa.
“Take away that damned thing!” screamed Zenas.
He snatched it away himself, and again raised the head. The two Sylvesters and Marion Leicester tugged at Zenas, but all three were not sufficient to prevent another thud.
“He'll kill him!” cried Adeline. She was sobbing and poising the sofa cushion when James Lord came in at a run.
“What in time —” he began.
“James! James!” gasped Adeline. “Your uncle has gone crazy! He's killing Mr. Dodd!”
Zenas unexpectedly spoke in a collected voice.
“I am not killing Thomas Dodd. I am killing war,” said he.
“For Heaven's sake, give us a hand, Jim,” gasped Marion Leicester, “or I believe in my soul your uncle will kill him! He's like a man made of steel.”
As he spoke he again endeavored to get a hold on the old man's shoulders, but such awful tenacity of nerve and will was beyond his strength to overcome.
James was as small as his uncle and of about the same build, and he was young. Finally the four men forced Zenas into a chair, and Marion and James held him while the Sylvesters and Adeline attended to Thomas Dodd.
Presently Thomas Dodd was lying on the sofa, the blood washed from his face, a bandage soaked with liniment on his left jaw and another wet with ice water on his eye. He was still game. As soon as he could speak he turned his right eye in the direction of old Zenas, held in his chair like a restrained charge of dynamite.
“What in tunket possessed you?” he demanded.
Zenas glared at him.
“You're licked!” he proclaimed, in a high voice of triumph.
James stared at him. He really thought his uncle had gone stark mad.
“What made you fly in the face of Scripture?” snarled the old man on the sofa.
“Scripture doesn't say what's to be done when the second cheek is hit,” declared Zenas.
“Hum!” demanded the old man on the sofa. “Do you mean to say the second cheek of your own country wasn't hit when Germany tried her devilish plots and blew up our factories and more ships, after the Lusitania?”
Zenas was silent.
“And wasn't more than both cheeks of every decent country on the face of the earth hit after Belgium, anyhow?” demanded Thomas Dodd. “Wasn't all humanity hit? Wasn't — God Almighty himself hit?”
After another silence Zenas spoke in a queer, shocked voice.
“Maybe you are right,” he said.
“Of course I'm right! But you had to have both your own cheeks hammered, and behave like Germany yourself, making out you were the injured one and pitching into your friend, before you could get it into your hard head. Yes, sir, the United States of America had both cheeks hit, and her heart hit, and the God in whom she believes hit, before she sailed in. Now she's going to hit, and I guess Germany will be on the sofa before long about as beat out as I am. Well, it was worth it. If you hadn't owned up you could have used my head for a tack hammer till you were convinced I did a good thing when I boxed you. When a man's hit himself it sort of drives things home.”
“You are right,” said Zenas. He was very pale, and his face wore a strange expression.
He looked shocked and exalted. He also had been vanquished, although he bore not a mark on his wiry old body. Thomas Dodd had been subtly victorious. Zenas realized a soreness of his very soul, harder to be borne than all the bruises which he had inflicted on the other's body.
“It isn't Germany's body alone, but her soul we are fighting,” he groaned, as if to himself.
“We are going to win,” said Marion.
“Win fast enough,” said Zenas, “but it's got to be a terrible victory. Germany on the sofa, body and soul!”
Suddenly he turned very pale and James caught him. The old pacifist had exhausted himself. He was helped into his bedroom and Adeline brought him a glass of port wine. He looked up at her after he had swallowed it.
“Sam Buzzy has got to keep his dog at home,” said he.
“Lie still now and don't worry,” said Adeline, soothingly.
“I am going to collect that demand note,” said Zenas.
Adeline did not know what he meant.
“That's all right, so you shall. Don't worry,” said she.
“How is Thomas going to get home?”
“Marion will drive him in the car.”
“I didn't hurt him much?”
“No. Don't you worry.”
After the Sylvesters had gone, and Marion had driven off, with Thomas Dodd propped up in the tonneau of the car, James Lord sat by himself in the outer room. He thought it wiser to leave his uncle alone. The bedroom door was ajar and he could hear if he stirred.
James sat with a bewildered face until he heard the Leicester car return; then he jumped up and opened the door for Marion. Both men tiptoed back into the room.
“I think he's asleep,” whispered James.
The two stood looking at each other.
“What possessed him?” whispered Marion.
“Hanged if I know. Say, Marion, it's hard luck. I want to enlist. I don't want to hang around here when it's a war like this war. I'm disgraced for life if I don't enlist.”
“I suppose you have to —”
“Support him, yes. But if he would collect a demand note that's due him he would have enough to set me free.”
Marion gave a low whistle.
“A demand note?”
“Yes, my uncle Abel's.”
“He ought to pay.”
“Of course he ought. He would pay, too, but of course he'd get mad. Uncle Abel never paid for anything without raising Cain, and Uncle Zenas is all for peace.”
Marion tapped his head significantly.
“I don't know,” said James. “Sometimes I wonder myself.”
“You needn't wonder,” said a voice. “I'm just as right in my head as you are.” He was still very pale, old Zenas, standing there in the bedroom door, but he spoke firmly. “I've made up my mind to fight a little for my own rights,” said Zenas. “My fight with Thomas turned me clean round. I'm for every man that's able fighting for the country, and fighting for his own rights if he's able. Sam Buzzy has got to keep that dog of his home, and I'm going to collect that note, and — Look here, James Lord, I've got money besides that. You go and enlist, and there will be plenty for you to buy yourself a good kit, everything you want, and you can stay in the army, for all me, as long as you live. Maybe you'll get promoted. I've had money enough all along, only I wouldn't tell because I didn't approve of war. Better hurry and enlist before the war's over.”
James looked at him, frightened.
Old Zenas laughed.
“You needn't think I'm crazy,” said he. “You enlist, and you fight for all you are worth, if you think anything of me.”
“I don't know how to thank you, uncle,” said James, in a bewildered fashion.
Zenas looked at the man in khaki, then at his nephew. A strange light was in his eyes. His peaceful acquiescence with the buffets of the century of wrath and terror was gone forever. He was now of his day, the dreadful Day for all the world. He understood. He could not fight the common foe as he had fought Thomas Dodd; he was too old. The din of battle and trench life was not for him, but in him blazed like a torch the war spirit.
“How can I ever thank you, uncle?” James said, again.
“The head of Germania on a charger,” said old Zenas Lord.