Read CHAPTER VI of The Search , free online book, by Grace Livingston Hill, on ReadCentral.com.

There was no possible way to avoid meeting him.  John Cameron knew that with the first glance.  He also knew that Wainwright had recognized him at once and was lifting his chin already with that peculiar, disagreeable tilt of triumph that had always been so maddening to one who knew the small mean nature of the man.

Of course, there was still time to turn deliberately about and flee in the other direction, but that would be all too obvious, and an open confession of weakness.  John Cameron was never at any time a coward.

His firm lips set a trifle more sternly than usual, his handsome head was held high with fine military bearing.  He came forward without faltering for even so much as the fraction of a waver.  There was not a flicker in his eyes set straight ahead.  One would never have known from his looks that he recognized the oncoming man, or had so much as realized that an officer was approaching, yet his brain was doing some rapid calculation.  He had said in his heart if not openly that he would never salute this man.  He had many times in their home town openly passed him without salute because he had absolutely no respect for him, and felt that he owed it to his sense of the fitness of things not to give him deference, but that was a different matter from camp.  He knew that Wainwright was in a position to do him injury, and no longer stood in fear of a good thrashing from him as at home, because here he could easily have the offender put in the guard house and disgraced forever.  Nothing, of course, would delight him more than thus to humiliate his sworn enemy.  Yet Cameron walked on knowing that he had resolved not to salute him.

It was not merely pride in his own superiority.  It was contempt for the nature of the man, for his low contemptible plots and tricks, and cunning ways, for his entire lack of principle, and his utter selfishness and heartlessness, that made Cameron feel justified in his attitude toward Wainwright.  “He is nothing but a Hun at heart,” he told himself bitterly.

But the tables were turned.  Wainwright was no longer in his home town where his detestable pranks had goaded many of his neighbors and fellowtownsmen into a cordial hatred of him.  He was in a great military camp, vested with a certain amount of authority, with the right to report those under him; who in turn could not retaliate by telling what they knew of him because it was a court-martial offense for a private to report an officer.  Well, naturally the United States was not supposed to have put men in authority who needed reporting.  Cameron, of course, realized that these things had to be in order to maintain military discipline.  But it was inevitable that some unworthy ones should creep in, and Wainwright was surely one of those unworthy ones.  He would not bend to him, officer, or no officer.  What did he care what happened to himself?  Who was there to care but his mother?  And she would understand if the news should happen to penetrate to the home town, which was hardly likely.  Those who knew him would not doubt him, those who did not mattered little.  There was really no one who would care.  Stay!  A letter crackled in his breast pocket and a cold chill of horror struggled up from his heart.  Suppose she should hear of it!  Yes, he would care for that!

They were almost meeting now and Cameron’s eyes were straight ahead staring hard at the big green shape of the theatre a quarter of a mile away.  His face under its usual control showed no sign of the tumult in his heart, which flamed with a sudden despair against a fate that had placed him in such a desperate situation.  If there were a just power who controlled the affairs of men, how could it let such things happen to one who had always tried to live up upright life?  It seemed for that instant as if all the unfairness and injustice of his own hard life had culminated in that one moment when he would have to do or not do and bear the consequences.

Then suddenly out from the barracks close at hand with brisk step and noble bearing came Captain La Rue, swinging down the walk into the road straight between the two men and stopped short in front of Cameron with a light of real welcome in his eyes, as he lifted his hand to answer the salute which the relieved Cameron instantly flashed at him.

In that second Lieutenant Wainwright flung past them with a curt salute to the higher officer and a glare at the corporal which the latter seemed not to see.  It was so simultaneous with Cameron’s salute of La Rue that nobody on earth could say that the salute had not included the lieutenant, yet both the lieutenant and the corporal knew that it had not; and Wainwright’s brow was dark with intention as he turned sharply up the walk to the barracks which the captain had just left.

“I was just coming in search of you, Cameron,” said the captain with a twinkle in his eyes, and his voice was clearly distinct to Wainwright as he loitered in the barracks doorway to listen, “I went down to Washington yesterday and put in the strongest plea I knew how for your transfer.  I hope it will go through all right.  There is no one else out for the job and you are just the man for the place.  It will be a great comfort to have you with me.”

A few more words and the busy man moved on eluding Cameron’s earnest thanks and leaving him to pursue his course to the Y.M.C.A. hut with a sense of soothing and comfort.  It never occurred to either of them that their brief conversation had been overheard, and would not have disturbed them if it had.

Lieutenant Wainwright lingered on the steps of the barracks with a growing curiosity and satisfaction.  The enemy were playing right into his hands:  both the enemy-for he hated Captain La Rue as sin always hates the light.

He lounged about the barracks in deep thought for a few minutes and then made a careful toilet and went out.

He knew exactly where to go and how to use his influence, which was not small, although not personal.  It was characteristic of the man that it made no difference to him that the power he was wielding was a borrowed power whose owner would have been the last man to have done what he was about to do with it.  He had never in his life hesitated about getting whatever he wanted by whatever means presented itself.  He was often aware that people gave him what he wanted merely to get rid of him, but this did not alloy his pleasure in his achievement.

He was something of a privileged character in the high place to which he betook himself, on account of the supreme regard which was held for the uncle, a mighty automobile king, through whose influence he had obtained his commission.  So far he had not availed himself of his privileges too often and had therefore not as yet outworn his welcome, for he was a true diplomat.  He entered this evening with just the right shade of delicate assurance and humble affrontery to assure him a cordial welcome, and gracefully settled himself into the friendliness that was readily extended to him.  He was versed in all the ways of the world and when he chose could put up a good appearance.  He knew that for the sake of his father’s family and more especially because of his uncle’s high standing, this great official whom he was calling upon was bound to be nice to him for a time.  So he bided his time till a few other officials had left and his turn came.

The talk was all personal, a few words about his relatives and then questions about himself, his commission, how he liked it, and how things were going with him.  Mere form and courtesy, but he knew how to use the conversation for his own ends: 

“Oh, I’m getting along fine and dandy!” he declared effusively, “I’m just crazy about camp!  I like the life!  But I’ll tell you what makes me tired.  It’s these little common guys running around fussing about their jobs and trying to get a lot of pull to get into some other place.  Now there’s an instance of that in our company, a man from my home town, no account whatever and never was, but he’s got it in his head that he’s a square peg in a round hole and he wants to be transferred.  He shouts about it from morning till night trying to get everybody to help him, and at last I understand he’s hoodwinked one captain into thinking he’s the salt of the earth, and they are plotting together to get him transferred.  I happened to overhear them talking about it just now, how they are going to this one and that one in Washington to get things fixed to suit them.  They think they’ve got the right dope on things all right and it’s going through for him to get his transfer.  It makes me sick.  He’s no more fit for a commission than my dog, not as fit, for he could at least obey orders.  This fellow never did anything but what he pleased.  I’ve known him since we were kids and never liked him.  But he has a way with him that gets people till they understand him.  It’s too bad when the country needs real men to do their duty that a fellow like that can get a commission when he is utterly inefficient besides being a regular breeder of trouble.  But, of course, I can’t tell anybody what I know about him.”

“I guess you needn’t worry, Wainwright.  They can’t make any transfers without sending them up to me, and you may be good and sure I’m not transferring anybody just now without a good reason, no matter who is asking it.  He’s in your company, is he?  And where does he ask to be transferred?  Just give me his name.  I’ll make a note of it.  If it ever comes up I’ll know how to finish him pretty suddenly.  Though I doubt if it does.  People are not pulling wires just now.  This is war and everything means business.  However, if I find there has been wire-pulling I shall know how to deal with it summarily.  It’s a court-martial offense, you know.”

They passed on to other topics, and Wainwright with his little eyes gleaming triumphantly soon took himself out into the starlight knowing that he had done fifteen minutes’ good work and not wishing to outdo it.  He strolled contentedly back to officers’ quarters wearing a more complacent look on his heavy features.  He would teach John Cameron to ignore him!

Meantime John Cameron with his head among the stars walked the dusty camp streets and forgot the existence of Lieutenant Wainwright.  A glow of gratitude had flooded his soul at sight of his beloved captain, whom he hoped soon to be able to call his captain.  Unconsciously he walked with more self-respect as the words of confidence and trust rang over again in his ears.  Unconsciously the little matters of personal enmity became smaller, of less importance, beside the greater things of life in which he hoped soon to have a real part.  If he got this transfer it meant a chance to work with a great man in a great way that would not only help the war but would be of great value to him in this world after the war was over.  It was good to have the friendship of a man like that, fine, clean, strong, intellectual, kind, just, human, gentle as a woman, yet stern against all who deviated from the path of right.

The dusk was settling into evening and twinkling lights gloomed out amid the misty, dust-laden air.  Snatches of wild song chorused out from open windows: 

She’s my lady, my baby,
She’s cock-eyed, she’s crazy.

The twang of a banjo trailed in above the voices, with a sound of scuffling.  Loud laughter broke the thread of the song leaving "Mary Ann!" to soar out alone.  Then the chorus took it up once more: 

All her teeth are false
From eating Rochelle salts-
She’s my freckled-faced, consumptive MARY ANN-N-N!

Cameron turned in at the quiet haven of the Y.M.C.A. hut, glad to leave the babel sounds outside.  Somehow they did not fit his mood to-night, although there were times when he could roar the outlandish gibberish with the best of them.  But to-night he was on such a wonderful sacred errand bent, that it seemed as though he wanted to keep his soul from contact with rougher things lest somehow it might get out of tune and so unfit him for the task before him.

And then when he had seated himself before the simple desk he looked at the paper with discontent.  True, it was all that was provided and it was good enough for ordinary letters, but this letter to her was different.  He wished he had something better.  To think he was really writing to her!  And now that he was here with the paper before him what was he to say?  Words seemed to have deserted him.  How should he address her?

It was not until he had edged over to the end of the bench away from everybody else and taken out the precious letter that he gained confidence and took up his pen: 

“My dear friend: -” Why, he would call her his friend, of course, that was what she had called him.  And as he wrote he seemed to see her again as she sat in her car by the station the day he started on his long, long trail and their eyes had met.  Looking so into her eyes again, he wrote straight from his soul: 

MY DEAR FRIEND: 

Your letter has just reached me after travelling about for weeks.  I am not going to try to tell you how wonderful it is to me to have it.  In fact, the wonder began that morning I left home when you smiled at me and waved a friendly farewell.  It was a great surprise to me.  I had not supposed until that moment that you remembered my existence.  Why should you?  And it has never been from lack of desire to do so that I failed to greet you when we passed in the street.  I did not think that I, a mere little hoodlum from your infant days, had a right to intrude upon your grown-up acquaintance without a hint from you that such recognition would be agreeable.  I never blamed you for not speaking of course.  Perhaps I didn’t give you the chance.  I simply thought I had grown out of your memory as was altogether natural.  It was indeed a pleasant experience to see that light of friendliness in your eyes at the station that day, and to know it was a real personal recognition and not just a patriotic gush of enthusiasm for the whole shabby lot of us draftees starting out to an unknown future.  I thanked you in my heart for that little bit of personal friendliness but I never expected to have an opportunity to thank you in words, nor to have the friendliness last after I had gone away.  When your letter came this morning it sure was some pleasant surprise.  I know you have a great many friends, and plenty of people to write letters to, but somehow there was a real note of comradeship in the one you wrote me, not as if you just felt sorry for me because I had to go off to war and fight and maybe get killed.  It was as if the conditions of the times had suddenly swept away a lot of foolish conventions of the world, which may all have their good use perhaps at times, but at a time like this are superfluous, and you had just gravely and sweetly offered me an old friend’s sympathy and good will.  As such I have taken it and am rejoicing in it.

Don’t make any mistake about this, however.  I never have forgotten you or the rose!  I stole it from the Wainwright’s yard after I got done licking Chuck, and I had a fight with Hal Wainwright over it which almost finished the rose, and nearly got me expelled from school before I got through with it.  Hal told his mother and she took it to the school board.  I was a pretty tough little rascal in those days I guess and no doubt needed some lickings myself occasionally.  But I remember I almost lost my nerve when I got back to school that day and came within an ace of stuffing the rose in my pocket instead of throwing it on your desk.  I never dreamed the rose would be anything to you.  It was only my way of paying tribute to you.  You seemed to me something like a rose yourself, just dropped down out of heaven you know, you were so little and pink and gold with such great blue eyes.  Pardon me.  I don’t mean to be too personal.  You don’t mind a big hobbledehoy’s admiration, do you?  You were only a baby; but I would have licked any boy in town that lifted a word or a finger against you.  And to think you really needed my help!  It certainly would have lifted me above the clouds to have known it then!

And now about this war business.  Of course it is a rough job, and somebody had to do it for the world.  I was glad and willing to do my part; but it makes a different thing out of it to be called a knight, and I guess I’ll look at it a little more respectfully now.  If a life like mine can protect a life like yours from some of the things those Germans are putting over I’ll gladly give it.  I’ve sized it up that a man couldn’t do a bigger thing for the world anyhow he planned it than to make the world safe for a life like yours; so me for what they call “the supreme sacrifice,” and it won’t be any sacrifice at all if it helps you!

No, I haven’t got a sweater or those other things that go with those that you talk about.  Mother hasn’t time to knit and I never was much of a lady’s man, I guess you know if you know me at all.  Or perhaps you don’t.  But anyhow I’d be wonderfully pleased to wear a sweater that you knit, although it seems a pretty big thing for you to do for me.  However, if knitting is your job in this war, and I wouldn’t be robbing any other better fellow, I certainly would just love to have it.

If you could see this big dusty monotonous olive-drab camp you would know what a bright spot your letter and the thought of a real friend has made in it.  I suppose you have been thinking all this time that I was neglectful because I didn’t answer, but it was all the fault of someone who gave you the wrong address.  I am hoping you will forgive me for the delay and that some day you will have time to write to me again.

Sincerely and proudly,

Your knight,

JOHN CAMERON.

As he walked back to his barracks in the starlight his heart was filled with a great peace.  What a thing it was to have been able to speak to her on paper and let her know his thoughts of her.  It was as if after all these years he had been able to pluck another trifling rose and lay it at her lovely feet.  Her knight!  It was the fulfillment of all his boyish dreams!

He had entrusted his letter to the Y.M.C.A. man to mail as he was going out of camp that night and would mail it in Baltimore, ensuring it an immediate start.  Now he began to speculate whether it would reach its destination by morning and be delivered with the morning mail.  He felt as excited and impatient as a child over it.

Suddenly a voice above him in a barracks window rang out with a familiar guffaw, and the words: 

“Why, man, I can’t!  Didn’t I tell you I’m going to marry Ruth Macdonald before I go!  There wouldn’t be time for that and the other, too!”

Something in his heart grew cold with pain and horror, and something in his motive power stopped suddenly and halted his feet on the sidewalk in the grade cut below the officers’ barracks.

“Aw!  A week more won’t make any difference,” drawled another familiar voice, “I say, Hal, she’s just crazy about you and you could get no end of information out of her if you tried.  All she asks is that you tell what you know about a few little things that don’t matter anyway.”

“But I tell you I can’t, man.  If Ruth found out about the girl the mischief would be to pay.  She wouldn’t stand for another girl-not that kind of a girl, you know, and there wouldn’t be time for me to explain and smooth things over before I go across the Pond.  I tell you I’ve made up my mind about this.”

The barracks door slammed shut on the voices and Corporal Cameron’s heart gave a great jump upwards in his breast and went on.  Slowly, dizzily he came to his senses and moved on automatically toward his own quarters.