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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 8

IT was on Monday morning, January the first, 1917, that I learned of my boy's death. And he had been killed the Thursday before ! He had been dead four days before I knew it! And yet— I had known. Let no one ever again tell me that there is nothing in presentiment. Why else had I been so sad and uneasy in my mind ? Why else, all through that Sunday, had it been so impossible for me to take comfort in what was said to cheer me ? Some warning had come to me, some sense that all was not well.

Realization came to me slowly. I sat and stared at that slip of paper, that had come to me like the breath of doom. Dead! Dead these four days! I was never to see the light of his eyes again. I was never to hear that laugh of his. I had looked on my boy for the last time. Could it be true? Ah, I knew it was. And it was for this moment that I had been waiting, that we had all been waiting, ever since we had sent John away to fight for his country and do his part. I think we had all felt that it must come. We had all known that it was too much to hope that he should be one of those to be spared.

The black despair that had been hovering over me for hours closed down now and enveloped all my senses. Everything was unreal. For a time I was quite numb. But then, as I began to realize and to visualize what it was to mean in my life that my boy was dead, there came a great pain. The iron of realization slowly seared every word of that curt telegram upon my heart. I said it to myself, over and over again. And I whispered to myself, as my thoughts took form, over and over, the one terrible word: "Dead!"

I felt that for me everything had come to an end with the reading of that dire message. It seemed to me that for me the board of life was black and blank. For me there was no past and there could be no future. Everything had been swept away, erased, by one sweep of the hand of a cruel fate. Oh, there was a past, though ! And it was in that past that I began to delve. It was made up of every memory I had of my boy. I fell at once to remembering him. I clutched at every memory, as if I must grasp them and make sure of them; lest they be taken from me as well as the hope of seeing him again that the telegram had for ever snatched away.

I would have been destitute indeed in that event. It was as if I must fix in my mind the way he had been wont to look, and recall to my ears every tone of his voice, every trick of his speech. There was something left of him that I must keep, I realized, even then, at all costs, if I was to be able to bear his loss at all.

There was a vision of him before my eyes. My bonnie Highland laddie, brave and strong, in his kilt and the uniform of his country, going out to his death with a smile on his face. And there was another vision that came up now, unbidden. It was a vision of him lying stark and cold upon the battlefield, the mud on his uniform. And when I saw that vision I was like a man gone mad and possessed of devils who had stolen away his faculties. I cursed war as I saw that vision, and the men who caused war. And when I thought of the Germans who had killed my boy, a terrible and savage hatred swept me, and I longed to go out there and kill with my bare hands, until I had avenged him or they had killed me too.

But then I was a little softened. I thought of his mother back in our wee hoose at Dunoon. And the thought of her, bereft even as I was, sorrowing, even as I was, and lost in her frightful loneliness, was pitiful, so that I had but the one desire and wish—to go to her, and join my tears with hers, that we who were left alone to bear our grief, might bear it together and give one to the other such comfort as there might be in life for us. And so I fell upon my knees and prayed, there in my lonely room in the hotel. I prayed to God that He might give us both, John's mother and myself, strength to bear the blow that had been dealt us, and to endure the sacrifice that He and our country had demanded of us.

My friends came to me. They came rushing to me. Never did man have better friends, and kindlier friends than mine proved themselves to me on that day of sorrow. They did all that good men and women could do. But there was no help for me in the ministration of friends. I was beyond the power of human words to comfort or solace. I was glad of their kindness, and the memory of it now is a precious one, which I would not be without. But at such a time I could not gain from them what they were eager to give me. I could only bow my head and pray for strength.

That night, that New Year's night that I shall never forget, no matter how long God may let me live, I went north. I took train from London to Glasgow, and the next day I came to our wee hoose—a sad, lonely wee hoose it had become now!—on the Clyde at Dunoon, and was with John's mother. It was the place for me. It was there that I wanted to be, and it was with her, who must hereafter be all the world to me. And I was eager to be with her, too, who had given John to me. Sore as my grief was, stricken as I was, I could comfort her as no one else could hope to do, and she could do as much for me. We belonged together.

I can scarce remember, even for myself, what happened there at Dunoon. I cannot tell you what I said or what I did, or what words and what thoughts passed between John's mother and myself. But there are some things that I do know and that I will tell you.

Almighty God, to whom we prayed, was kind, and He was pitiful and merciful. For presently He brought us both a sort of sad composure. Presently He assuaged our grief a little, and gave us the strength that we must have to meet the needs of life and the thought of going on in a world that was darkened by the loss of the boy in whom all our thoughts and all our hopes had been centred. I thanked God then, and I thank God now, that I have never denied Him nor taken His name in vain.

For God gave me great thoughts about my boy and about his death. Slowly, gradually, He made me to see things in their true light, and He took away the sharp agony of my first grief and sorrow, and gave me a sort of peace.

John died in the most glorious cause, and he died the most glorious death it may be given to a man to die. He died for humanity. He died for liberty, and that this world in which life must go on, no matter how many die, may be a better world to live in. He died in a struggle against the blackest force and the direst threat that has appeared against liberty and humanity within the memory of man. And were he alive now, and were he called again to-day to go out for the same cause, knowing that he must meet death—as he did meet it—he would go as smilingly and as willingly as he went then. He would go as a British soldier and a British gentleman, to fight and die for his King and his country. And I would bid him go.

I have lived through much since his death. They have not let me take a rifle or a sword and go into the trenches to avenge him. . . . But of that I will tell you later.

Ah, it was not at once that I felt so ! In my heart, in those early days of grief and sorrow, there was rebellion, often and often. There were moments when in my anguish I cried out, aloud: "Why? Why? Why did they have to take John, my boy—my only child?"

But God came to me, and slowly His peace entered my soul. And He made me see, as in a vision, that some things that I had said and that I had believed, were not so. He made me know, and I learned, straight from Him, that our boy had not been taken from us for ever as I had said to myself so often since that telegram had come.

He is gone from this life, but he is waiting for us beyond this life. He is waiting beyond this life and this wicked world of war and wanton cruelty and slaughter. And we shall come, some day, his mother and I, to the place where he is waiting for us, and we shall all be as happy there, as we were on this earth in the happy days before the war.

My eyes will rest again upon his face. I will hear his fresh young voice again as he sees me and cries out his greeting. I know what he will say. He will spy me, and his voice will ring out as it used to do. "Hello, Dad!" he will call, as he sees me. And I will feel the grip of his young, strong arms about me, just as in the happy days before that day that is of all the days of my life the most terrible and the most hateful in my memory —the day when they told me that he had been killed.

That is my belief. That is the comfort that God has given me in my grief and my sorrow. There is a God. Ah, yes, there is a God! Times there are, I know, when some of those who look upon the horrid slaughter of this war, that is going on, hour by hour, feel that their faith is being shaken by doubts. They think of the sacrifices, of the blood that is being poured out, of the sufferings of women and children. And they see the cause that is wrong and foul prospering, for a little time, and they cannot understand.

"If there is a God," they whisper to themselves, "why does He permit a thing so wicked to go on?"

But there is a God—there is! I have seen the stark horror of war. I know, as none can know until he has seen it at close quarters, what a thing war is as it is fought to-day. And I believe as I do believe, and as I shall believe until the end, because I know God's comfort and His grace. I know that my boy is surely waiting for me. In America, now, there are mothers and fathers by the scores of thousands who have bidden their sons good-bye; who water their letters from France with their tears—who turn white at the sight of a telegram and tremble at the sudden clamour of a telephone. Ah, I know—I know! I suffered as they are suffering. And I have this to beg them and to tell them. They must believe as I believe; then shall they find the peace and the comfort that I have found.

So it was that there, on the Clyde, John's mother and I came out of the blackness of our first grief. We began to be able to talk to one another. And every day we talked of John. We have never ceased to do that, his mother and I. We never shall. We may not have him with us bodily, but his spirit is never absent. And each day we remember some new thing about him that one of us can call to the other's mind. And it is as if, when we do that, we bring back some part of him out of the void.

Little, trifling memories of when he was a baby, and when he was a boy, growing up. And other memories, of later days. Often and often it was the days that were furthest away that we remembered best of all, and things connected with those days.

But I had small wish to see others. John's mother was enough for me. She and the peace that was coming to me on the Clyde. I could not bear to think of London. I had no plans to make. All that was over. All that part of my life, I thought, had ended with the news of my boy's death. I wanted no more than to stay at home on the Clyde and think of him. My wife and I did not even talk about the future. And nothing was further from all my thoughts than that I should ever step upon a stage again.

What! Go out before an audience and seek to make it laugh? Sing my songs when my heart was broken? I did not decide not to do it. I did not so much as think of it as a thing I had to decide about.


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