A thrill charged the men; they became pale; they gazed on Joe, who looked as white as linen; and suddenly they burst forth in a wildness, a shouting, a stamping, a cry of: “Mr. Joe! Mr. Joe! Mr. Joe!”
Joe arose; he leaned a little forward; he trembled visibly, his rising hand shaking so that he dropped it. Then at last he spoke:
“Yes—John is my friend. And you—are my friends. Yes. But—you’re wrong. I was to blame.” He paused. “I was to blame. Here, to-night, I want to say this: Those girls, those comrades of ours—all that went to waste with them—well,” his voice broke, “I’m going to try to make good for them....”
For a moment he stood there, his face working strangely as if he were going to break down, and the men looked away from him. Then he went on in a voice warmly human and tender:
“You and I, boys, we grew up together. I know your wives and children. You’ve given me happy hours. I’ve made you stand for a lot—your old man was considerable boy—had his bad habits, his queer notions. Once in awhile went crazy. But we managed along, quarreling just enough to hit it off together. Remember how I fired Tommy three times in one week? Couldn’t get rid of him. Oh, Tommy, what ‘pi’ you made of things! Great times we’ve had, great times. It hurts me raw.” He paused, looking round at them. They were glancing at him furtively with shining eyes. “Hurts me raw to think those times are over—for me. But the dead have called me. I go out into another world. I go out into a great fight. I may fail—quite likely I will. But I shall be backed. Your love goes with me, and I’ve got a big job ahead.” Again he paused, overcome. Then he tried to smile, tried to smooth out the tragic with a forced jocularity. “Now, boys, behave. Mind you don’t work too much. And don’t all forget the old man. And—but that’s enough, I guess.”
The silence was terrible. Some of those big men were crying softly like stricken children. It was the last requiem over the dead, the last flare-up of the tragic fire. They crowded round Joe. He was blind himself with tears, though he felt a strange quiet in his heart.
And then he was out in the starry autumn night, walking home, murmuring:
“It’s all over. That’s out of my life.”
And he felt as if something had died within him.
THE WIND IN THE OAKS
Early Monday evening there came a note from Myra:
I wanted you to know that I am leaving
country—to-morrow—to get a rest.
Joe at once put on his hat and coat and went out. The last meeting with his men had given him a new strength, a heightened manhood. Like a man doomed to death, he felt beyond despair now. He only knew he must go to Myra and set straight their relationship as a final step before he plunged into the great battle. No more weakness! No more quarreling! But clear words and definite understanding!