Footnote to Folly
Traveling through Europe in 1919, Vorse witnessed a class upheaval such as the Western world had not known since the liberal surge of 1848. The war and the Russian revolution shook the old societies to their depths. Millions of common people dreamed of far-reaching reform or even revolution; conservatives feared every labor revolt as a Bolshevik plot and quickly moved to slow the process of change. On her trip Vorse also saw the devastation of war through the eyes of the women, who were busily planting, rebuilding, cleaning up the mess. Before long, it was clear to her that with the blood barely dry on Europe’s face, the male players everywhere were setting up for business as usual, trying to square things to the old disastrous measurements in anticipation of the next violent encounter.
That disheartening knowledge was tempered by the exhilaration of her six-month journey. She rejoiced in the opportunity to work and travel, to write with ease, free of immediate responsibility for her younger children, now twelve and five. Her tour of postwar Europe began a period of four years during which she would live with them for only a few months each summer. She would remember the separation as an immensely satisfying and exciting interlude, one made painful in memory because it was followed by a terrible period of isolation and guilty remorse over her failure as a mother.
. . .
Vorse found the streets of London filled with troops from throughout the empire. It seemed that parties were going on in every hotel room and pub in the city. It was a brief, magical moment—the advent of hope and peace, the “last war” ended.
In those first enchanted days after the war, many women in Britain believed that the gains made during wartime would enable the female to create a better society. After decades of struggle for a wider suffrage, the Act of 1918 granted women the vote at age thirty, adding six million women to the register. And as the western front sucked in larger and larger numbers of soldiers, British women replaced men in all sorts of traditionally male occupations; the male trade unions even opened their doors a bit to women. The number of unionized women in England rose by 160 percent during the war years.
For a time, Vorse shared some of the illusions of November 1918. She dreamed that the postwar ferment among working women was the “real feminist movement” that would bring British women out of the isolation of their kitchens to reorganize national priorities. “I have often wondered what would happen if women would act as violently and thunder as imperiously on the doors of government in a campaign against infant mortality and child labor as they did to get suffrage,” Vorse wrote then. “If the women protested against war and the traffic in munitions with the furious concentration with which they demanded their enfranchisement, what would happen? . . . It has always seemed strange that they should get worked up enough to overthrow all the old conventions, go singing to jail, undergo the torture of a hunger strike for the franchise—for what? Why, unless they had a further imperative objective—the protection of all children, for instance, or an equal passion for peace?”1
The first big campaign of the British Labour Party was on. As elsewhere, the Russian revolution had brought a shift to the left. Large demonstrations were held to protest the Allied military intervention against the Bolsheviks. Deserting the war coalition of Lloyd George, the Labour Party sought to increase its influence in Parliament in the general election slated for mid-December. Labour’s bold design included a demand for free trade, a just peace, the nationalization of key industries, the full restoration of civil liberties, comprehensive unemployment and health benefits, and new capital, inheritance, and surplus-profit taxes. American progressives hailed Labour’s platform as a blueprint for a Wilsonian new world. In the first euphoric days after the Armistice, some American leftists, including Vorse, even hoped that the movement toward a farmer-labor alliance in the United States might produce an American Labor Party.
But not all were so optimistic. The illusions of prowar American liberals and progressives had begun to dissolve as early as 1917. Many had recoiled from the excesses of CPI propaganda and the vigilante and federal persecution of American dissidents and pacifists. Watching some of their heroes and heroines go to jail was a sobering experience for many American liberals. Jane Addams and Randolph Bourne were among the first of many to recognize Wilson’s “great crusade” as a colossal sham. By the fall of 1918, diehard prowar progressives like John Dewey were brooding uneasily. The Nation and the New Republic assumed a more critical stance. For many American liberals, Versailles would be the last stop on their ride to a new realism.
The peacemakers in Paris convened in January 1919. They met to establish a new territorial status quo, to agree on safeguards against future aggression by the defeated enemies, and to place the peace of Europe on more lasting foundations. The majority of them sought to achieve these grand objectives while attempting to maximize the impulses of nationalism, greed, and revenge.
Their deliberations took place at the opening of a revolutionary era of soaring class protest. The Russian revolution had not been a single cataclysmic storm, which rent the land, but then passed on. The revolution was rather like a chain reaction, where blasts of energy ignited others in their turn. The upheaval in Russia and the threat of further revolution that hung over Europe in 1919 left their prominent mark at Versailles. As Thorstein Veblen noted, if the Allied desire to contain Marxist ideology was “not written into the text of the [Paris] Treaty [it] may rather be said to be the parchment upon which that text was written.”2
As Vorse traveled in England, reporting the Labour campaign, she heard jocular allusions to the American labor leader Samuel Gompers, the head of the AFL. “He is a favorite joke in England,” she wrote in Harper’s, “and they are unanimous about him, from the Ministry of Labor, where you may be asked, ‘I say, but is Gompers the best you can do in America by way of a leader?’ to a revolutionary girl organizer from the Clyde who rudely termed him ‘that old fossil.’” British labor had progressed far past the AFL, which under Gompers still fought for the right to exist and for better working conditions. In Britain, workers were thinking of socialism and disarmament, Vorse wrote, “for you will find more workers there than a few who do not believe that this war was fought for Democracy, but that the game of chance we call Commerce resulted in a gambling brawl called War.”3
Vorse went down to the Black Country, so-called for the perpetual smoke that covered it. A well-known union organizer, Mary MacArthur, was the Labour candidate for Stourbridge, one of sixteen women running for Parliament in 1918. Vorse joined MacArthur’s campaign with enthusiasm, addressing envelopes and spending part of election day in a committee room in Oldsbury. Although the Labour Party won enough seats in the election to emerge as the official opposition, most of its leaders were ousted and virtually all of its candidates who called for a nonvindictive peace were defeated. Victory in war strengthened the national forces of reaction and order; the progressive forces on both sides of the Atlantic experienced a series of defeats as the 1920s began.
. . .
Traveling with a contingent of Red Cross nurses, social workers, and entertainers from the YMCA, Vorse arrived in Paris five days before Christmas. Where London had been gay, Paris was ecstatic. Strangers embraced one another in the bars and restaurants. Yankee soldiers, recognizing her as an American, approached to ask questions or to introduce themselves. President Wilson, just back from his triumphal passage through Italy, was in Paris for the peace conference.
Vorse was invited to board the special train of the president of France, which took Wilson and General Pershing to dine with the Rainbow Division on Christmas Day. The unheated cars were icy cold throughout the trip. Lining the route from the train station stood mile after mile of silent American soldiers. They presented arms, a soft rain falling on their tin hats. She was unexpectedly moved by the sight of the serene faces of hundreds of young men who wouldn’t have to be killed.
On the way to Chaumont, they stopped for President Wilson to address his troops. A wet snow was falling on the muddy open field, which held a small bandstand. The soldiers turned rapt faces toward Wilson, who seemed transfigured by the grandeur of the moment. No one could know that he was then at the peak of his power. He said the words his audience wanted to hear. He spoke of the “fruits of victory” and the “establishment of peace upon the permanent foundations of peace and justice.” The troops cheered. It was a rarified moment. He believed what he said. The soldiers believed him. Vorse, charged with emotion, longed to believe, against all odds.
They drove on to the mess hall at Chaumont. Vorse, two other journalists, and three women in the president’s party were the only women present. But the hall was filled with men she knew, writers and artists from Provincetown, Amherst professors, New York newspaper and professional men, “and all of us,” she wrote, “were pumped full of hope by the fine phrases of the President whose grave profession of faith about a new world and justice was to mean exactly nothing.”4
On December 28, she began a surreal trip through the war zone. Past Château-Thierry and the Argonne forest, through Reims, on to Verdun—the destruction was so complete as to seem unreal. She could think only of a vast and lamentable and damaged stage set. She saw empty roads running through orchards that seemed to have been cut down by a giant scythe, despoiled towns where only chimneys still stood, munitions dumps, fleets of stranded camions, yards of dilapidated canvas camouflage flapping in the moist winter wind. Rusted barbed wire lay in the fields. Scattered bands of French soldiers piled mounds of unexploded shells along the roadside. She came upon a detail of American troops still hunting for corpses six weeks after the Armistice.
Vorse passed an American cemetery where thousands of small white crosses stood as far as she could see, with names and numbers on them. There were many other cemeteries, each filled with the bodies of Germans, English, French, Italians. Meanwhile, the American officers she met along the way told her tales of sacrifice, a river forded here, an impenetrable point taken there. It was New Year’s Day. She listened to the officers recite the familiar mythology that glorified the horrors of war, but said nothing.
Vorse had a military pass and Red Cross travel orders to write an article on American troops in occupied countries. She encountered endless red tape in getting transportation to Germany. With the business of killing over, hundreds of travelers swarmed into the train station. Conductors had to push people off the cars. When she finally did board a train, a pudgy American lieutenant refused to budge from her seat. Joining others in the corridor, she sat down on her bags, with the snow sifting in on her through the broken window. She dozed sitting up, as those around her chatted, drank, and kept her awake with singing. No one really complained of the physical discomfort, for the war was over and many of the passengers were going home.
She was intensely aware of the excitement of her passage, at this spot on earth, at this moment, of being able to observe and talk with the famous and the simple folk alike, all playing their roles in the momentous postwar drama with an unknown ending of unimagined consequence. Male journalists of similar achievements—riding on this train toward Germany, fingers monitoring the pulse of these times—might have shared some of Vorse’s emotions. But there was more to her happiness. She was a woman, freed by her own hand from historic bonds—there was great pride in that—propelled by courage into risk and adventure not attempted by many of her sex. Measuring herself against male reporters, she knew herself successful. She realized the extra curiosity and energy required to approach the core of action, in search of the stories she wanted most to tell. She thought of Joe O’Brien, and felt sure of the approval he would have given. She thought of her mother, too, defiantly. She reminded herself that her children were safe at home. She could relish the weeks free of family care, could delight in the wonder of day after day that belonged only to her and that could be shaped according to her own desires and no one else’s claims. She had never felt such a quiet sense of power and happiness.5
Her sense of self seemed at once remarkable and tenuous, because, as a woman, it was less assured as one’s due reward for talent and gumption. “I marvel at my luck at being offered these grand assignments,” she would emphasize again and again in her letters to Miss Selway, the children’s nurse. She was half plumped with pride, half filled with fear that fate might suddenly snatch away her “luck” and with it her consciousness of excellence and joy.
In the lovely Rhineland countryside, almost untouched by the war, she met the American publisher S. S. McClure. They were whisked in plush army cars on a tour through twenty towns. From Germany, she received an assignment to Rome to do a series of articles on Red Cross activities in postwar Europe.6
For several weeks she rarely removed her coat or gloves, working or sleeping. By rail, car, and barge she traveled free on a military pass through the cities of northern Italy. On the plains beyond the Piave, she saw the same war wreckage as in France. At the Red Cross headquarters, the people traded ducks, fish, and vegetables for extra milk or some other household necessities. Life was reduced to essentials, the finding of warmth, shelter, and food. Everywhere she saw the women of Italy furiously cleaning, building, or planting, fighting to restore some normality to the lives of their families.7
Vorse’s agreement with the Red Cross included an assignment to study postwar labor conditions in Italy. In the fifteen years since she had marched with the workers in the general strike at Venice, the Italian labor movement had become a giant. Powerful worker cooperatives of production and consumption prospered. Socialism, with a strong anarcho-syndicalist component, flourished in the northern industrial cities. By 1920, the Socialist Party would become the largest and best organized in Italy, and it and the Chambers of Labor would control local governments in twenty-six out of sixty-nine provinces. “All the objective reasons for social change were present,” Vorse wrote. There was a war-swept land, a weak government, which had maneuvered its people into war, and a large body of militant workers, disillusioned, angry, and organized. The attempt at massive factory and land seizures by the workers and peasants was soon to follow.
Vorse traveled to Bologna to report on the convention of sugar-beet workers and a demonstration there for the liberation of political prisoners. In the town square, where thousands of peasants and workers gathered for the speeches, old trade-union banners fluttered next to new red flags. Vorse became separated from her friends in the crowd and found herself next to an old peasant woman. For the sake of hearing her speak, Vorse asked her what the meeting was about:
“Signora,” she said, “the meetings of working people are always about one thing. They are about the Three Fears.” I asked her what they were. She looked at me from her deep eyes.
“The fear of unemployment, the fear of sickness, the fear of old age. That is what we are always having meetings about. How to get rid of them.”
Standing in the square so far from home, Vorse again felt the electric thrill of people banded together for a moment, united by a great idea. It seemed to her that the old peasant woman represented tens of millions of people. This host seemed newly aware that poverty and war were not, after all, inevitable conditions of human experience, but were rather predicaments maintained to protect the privileges of the nameable, the guilty, the powerful few. “How to get rid of them?”8
In February, Vorse left Italy to report the Internationalist Socialist Conference in Bern, Switzerland. It was the first gathering of the socialists of the Second International since the war. Delegates from twenty-six countries met in the hope of influencing the peace conference at Paris to secure a good—a Wilsonian—peace, and to unite the cause of labor in the postwar world. But the Bern meeting failed to revive the Second International or to exert pressure on the peacemakers. Instead, it became a platform for nationalist rivalries and socialist disunity. The 1919 Bern conference, like the Lenin-inspired rival formation of the Communist Third International, which formed in Moscow a month later, illustrated the impassable doctrinal gulf that separated the right, center, and left wings of the socialist movement in 1919. This gap could no longer be bridged by the prewar expedients of rhetoric and compromise. The war and the consolidation of the Russian revolution ended the development of global socialist unity. But these events merely accelerated the dissolution of a movement that had never agreed on theoretical foundations.9
As Vorse walked along Bern’s snowy streets to the Volkhaus where the conference would be held, she thought of the last time she had seen the city after the Women’s International Peace Conference of 1915. Then Angelika Balabanoff, the passionate revolutionary, overcome with misery because the Italians were entering the war, had seen her off at the station. And Fritz Platten, the Swiss socialist leader, had advised Vorse, when she asked who in the French trade unions would oppose the war, to get in touch with a man named Trotsky of whom, in 1915, Vorse had never heard. Now Trotsky’s name was known to every head of state. Balabanoff was in Russia defending the revolution. Platten, still in Switzerland, hotly opposed the Bern meeting of socialists as a traitorous gathering of agents of capitalist governments.
Vorse discovered that the dissonance of Versailles was reproduced in Bern in miniature. Remembering the women’s peace meeting four years before, she contrasted the eloquent speeches she had heard then with the “incredible adventures in vanity” at Bern, “where men with nothing to say afflicted the audience unchecked for hours.” With the other journalists, she sat at the long press tables, reading the papers, chatting with her friends, writing her copy, and moaning at the lengthy boredom of the speeches. Meanwhile, the delegates wrangled. “It was the antithesis of Lawrence. Absent completely was the creative flame, the group illuminator,” she wrote.10
It was downstairs in the Volkshaus restaurant and in the informal gathering in the hotels that the real meeting of socialists took place. Here she got the echoes of the revolutions in Germany and Austria and Hungary and spoke with the men and women who stirred the protest then convulsing Europe.
The polarization of postwar socialism was vividly brought home to her in a two-hour conversation between Fritz Platten and George Lansbury, in which she served as translator. Platten represented the extreme left; he argued that socialists should not participate in the parliaments of the bourgeois states. Lansbury represented the extreme right, speaking for the British version of gentle, evolutionary replacement of capitalism. As she sat translating the feverish rhetoric of one Great Man to the other, she realized that, for them, she was nearly invisible, as a female intellect or as a female facilitator. She marveled that neither man was sensitive enough to recognize the scornful alienation she felt toward both of them. She judged Platten’s uncompromising militance infantile and disastrous, and Lansbury’s sweet optimism shortsighted and self-defeating.
. . .
Immediately after her return from Bern to Italy, Vorse was offered an opportunity to join the Balkan Commission of the Red Cross to report relief activity in the area of Serbia, which would become Yugoslavia. In all the murderous havoc created by the war, there was no place, not even Russia, where the results were more tragic than in Serbia, where the war began. By 1915, the country was overrun by invading armies. The Serbian soldiers, accompanied by thousands of civilians, retreated to the seas over the snow-covered mountains of Montenegro and Albania. Of the 250,000 Serbian soldiers in retreat, fewer than half survived the march. Many Serbians fled their homes at that time.
Not only were Serbia’s transportation and communications systems, buildings, hospitals, food animals, and crops destroyed, but one out of every five Serbians died during the war from starvation, disease, exposure, or battle. In early 1919, 150,000 Serbian children were in desperate need of food. Clothing was so scarce that newborn babies were wrapped in paper. There were over 71,000 abandoned or orphaned children. Vorse learned that the attempt to alleviate suffering on such a scale drove the Red Cross officials in Italy to bitter wrangling. They debated what should be loaded on the first relief ships to Serbia—food, clothing, or medical supplies. Each item was needed as badly as the other. If some were clothed or fed, they died of their wounds or typhus. If medical care was provided, they lay naked or starved.
She longed to report the Balkan relief effort, but the time that she had expected to stay in Europe was over. During the four months she had been abroad, Miss Selway had become increasingly impatient at Vorse’s several postponements of her return. The responsibility drawing Vorse back was compelling, but stronger yet was her desire to continue her work in Europe.
Vorse returned a note of fait accompli to Miss Selway. It was flavored with a smattering of the guilt allotted to womankind, a bit of artifice, and a great dash of self-direction:
March 14, 1919
Dearest Miss Selway,
This morning the Balkan Commission sent you a cable asking if you would mind if I stayed away a month longer. They have offered me a most wonderful job. I am to go to North Serbia, Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania and write articles. It will give me an experience such as you may imagine and also an opportunity to do some good. . . . The only regret I have is to stay away from my children a month longer. This last week I was not very well, and I thought I should have died for lonesomeness for you all. . . . One opportunity after another of the most wonderful kind comes to anyone who can write and who is over here now. . . . You will think that I am never at all coming home, but that is not so, as this is positively the last delay which I will make, no matter if I am offered the starry crown of Persia, although, as far as I can see, I could keep on traveling for years with my expenses paid. . . .
With dearest love to my darlings and kisses, ever,
P. S. Honest to God, when this work is finished I am coming home. Nothing but work like this would make me now extend my stay. The work, which besides being an unparalleled opportunity, also comes in the nature of a real duty. If you could see the work of the Red Cross as I have seen it in the devastated countries and see how actual life and hope comes back to the people when they have received food and clothes again for the first time in years you would understand how I feel I ought to do this if it is a possible thing for you to remain another month.11
Vorse made a bargain with the Red Cross officials. In return for her work, they promised to find her transportation home when she returned to Paris. She obtained vaccinations and a new Red Cross uniform and boarded the train for Serbia.
Vorse was detained in Trieste, awaiting transportation to Belgrade. There she had a chance to admire the efficiency of the American Relief Administration, which was headquartered in the hotel. The ARA was one of the organizations under the direction of Herbert Hoover, who in 1919 launched the most massive relief program in history. As director of relief in Europe, Hoover coordinated and delivered over a billion dollars of goods to twenty-two countries in Europe in the nine months after the Armistice. The need for help was great. In the great territory of southern and eastern Europe, a population of 200 million people was on the verge of starvation, without adequate clothing or medical care. In this area, torn by national and political hatreds, the delivery of relief goods required herculean effort and determination. Hoover’s staff of volunteers was required to perform countless minor miracles each day.
The ARA was renowned for its effective operation, a result of Hoover’s policy of strict accounting, tight administration, and allotment of authority to subordinates who in turn were subject to his indisputable one-man control. The Red Cross, Vorse wrote, was a lumbering organization, “floundering on its amorphous way, smartly or amateurishly, according to the initiative and ability of its commanding officers.” Hoover’s ARA, however, “worked with the swiftness and economy of a well-oiled machine.”12
But Vorse realized that the ARA had political as well as humanitarian goals. Hoover used his power of life and death during the Russian civil war to aid the counterrevolutionary White armies attacking the Bolsheviks. Hoover at first provisioned only the civilian population behind the White forces. By July 1919, he had expanded his aid to feed the White military personnel as well.
The ARA also withheld food from the new Bolshevik government in Hungary, which had come to power two weeks before Vorse’s arrival in Trieste. The victory in March 1919 of the Communist government of Bela Kun in Hungary had thrown the peace conference into near panic. All around her Vorse saw evidence of Allied plans to overthrow the Hungarian Bolsheviks. She met British officers assigned to patrol the Danube and learned that Serbian divisions and French colonial troops were being concentrated near the Hungarian border. Meanwhile, the Red Cross prepared hospital boats to care for those to be wounded in the anticipated Allied attack on Communist Hungary.
At last Vorse reached Semlin by train and after a long wait was ferried to Belgrade. The city had been devastated by constant bombardment. Finding a room required hours of effort. When she found one, it was miles from the Red Cross headquarters or any restaurant. The streetcars had not run in years. Picking her way through the uprooted cobblestones in the streets, she jumped aside to let oxcarts and droves of hogs pass. Soldiers swarmed everywhere in colorful uniforms from a dozen countries. There was almost no civilian who was not dressed in rags.
Vorse found hundreds of peasants in line outside the Red Cross clinic. Some of them had traveled in ox carts for days to receive medical care. The overworked American nurses in the Red Cross hospital were furious at the Serbian soldiers who had been assigned to them as orderlies. The Serbian soldiers refused to do any task normally performed by women. “It was the women whose work kept Serbia going,” Vorse wrote. Here, as in the rest of Europe, she saw it was the women who were cleaning, planting, weaving, rebuilding.13
In Belgrade, Vorse befriended young Drew Pearson, then with the American Friends Service Committee, and the Red Cross typists Holly and Sylvia Beach. Sylvia Beach was soon to open the famed Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co., haunt of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and other expatriates. Colonel Herbert Robinson, the Red Cross office manager in Belgrade, suspected Vorse was a corrupting influence on the young Americans. “That Vorse woman scandalized Belgrade not only by smoking—which was not done by women in those days—but by chainsmoking in public,” Robinson remembered years later. “She actually ate with a fork in one hand and a cigarette in the other! She would leave Hostess House in the evening to address [revolutionary] meetings, taking the Beach girls and Drew Pearson with her.”14
Vorse was given a choice by the Red Cross officials of going west to Herzegovina on an expedition to bring food, or of going south from Belgrade, through Macedonia, to visit the medical missions at Salonika and Monastir. Her choice to go south was a fateful decision. She later learned that the Red Cross officer who headed the expedition to the west got typhus and died.
The railroad between Belgrade and southern Serbia was destroyed. The road was cut and the bridges dynamited. Vorse traveled south over perilous side roads in a camion driven by a Serbian who had learned to speak German in a prison camp. The roads were almost empty. It was Easter Monday. Every now and then they passed a soldier, to whom they offered a ride, picking up a traveler here, dropping him off there.
At Raska, the children who came running out to meet them had the sores of malnutrition on their faces. In this bleak town Vorse and the collection of hitchhiking soldiers found a room and a restaurant. A soldier shared his bottle of Chianti. To her astonishment, she heard the familiar words “socialism,” “capitalism,” “bolshevism” flashing out at her from the spirited Slavic conversation. In this remote spot, she met the same discontent born from war and its consequences that was stirring in every country in Europe in early 1919.
At Mitrovika, “a lost and vicious little hole,” her driver left her. She awaited the train to Salonika. No train was ready; none was expected. Looking for bread for her journey, Vorse walked through the rain to the market. Veiled Turkish women drew back and turned to stare at her. At a distance, a boy of twelve or thirteen stood watching her. He was dressed in rags. Drawn by his speculative gaze, she went to him. Offering him bread, she asked if he were hungry. He shook his head, and slogged off through the ankle-deep mud.
Back at the train station she sat waiting on her duffel bag. The air smelled of wet clothes and garlic. Gradually the station-agent’s room filled with damp groups of soldiers and peasants, all waiting patiently. The ragged boy she had seen in the market stood on the platform. He began to cry. Vorse reported the boy’s story for her Harper’s readers.15
The soldiers gathered around him, kind in their curiosity. “Why do you cry?” . . . they asked. He cried on disconsolately, without answering.
Then his story dripped out slowly, like rain falling. He raised his head and looked at the soldiers and talked without emphasis, with the manner of recounting the inevitable. There was no protest and no hope in his voice.
“He is an orphan, He has no one—he has no one at all,” they reported. . . .
The boy stood looking out over the railway. . . . His face was brown and sharpened with hunger. . . . He seemed so lost and forlorn that a chill crept over us. . . .
I went up to him with a soldier in horizon blue who spoke French with me. . . .
Please ask his name,” I said. . . .
At the soldier’s question, the boy turned to me.
“Milorad Bachinin,” he told me.
When the train arrived, the passengers entered a boxcar. They sat on the floor, pulling their blankets, coats, or rugs about them. Drawn together by their cold encampment, they opened their packages and shared their supper. Milorad ate hungrily, perched on a bale of goods, smiling at Vorse across the others’ heads. A woman beside her wondered aloud what would become of the boy. One of the soldiers said he could use the boy’s help at his little store in Mladnova. When Vorse promised to find Red Cross transportation for the boy and the soldier, Milorad gravely agreed to go.
The train drew into the Uskub station. The soldier assured her that he would find the boy when it was time for him to leave. The next day Vorse looked for Milorad at the station, for she had promised to buy him some new clothes. She searched for him all day along the main streets and in the market. It was the next morning before she found him:
His flight to me was like a leaping, happy animal. . . . He looked up at me and love streamed from his eyes, and the radiance of it transfigured him. He was so happy that he walked along in a sort of quiet ecstasy. He was so happy that it hurt me to look at him. . . . I record this as the high moment, higher even than when we got his clothes at the Red Cross store-room, walking proudly ahead of the crowd waiting for distribution.
When Vorse entered the train station the next day before dawn, her heart expected to find Milorad there. He ran to her, smiling, yet tense with anxiety.
He clasped my hand and put it to his cheek with that lovely gesture of his. . . .
We were strangers, and we did not speak each other’s language, but the spiritual bond of mother and son was ours. Not a very good mother—not watchful enough, not patient enough; Milorad a boy on whom adversity had put its cramped hand, with no high courage, nor with the promise of much high endeavor—but to him the love of my heart flowed out, and in my heart were the things Milorad had found in none of the compassionate women of his own land. I loved him not for his goodness, but for his need of me, and because I must. Now there came to him slowly the bitter knowledge, that I, his mother, was leaving him to loneliness and misery. His pain welled over in tears, his sobs racked him and left him gasping. I have never seen a child feel such grief as that which bankrupted Milorad of hope. He had not believed I could go. He came to me and pleaded with me, his words rushing out in the torrent of his tears.
I did not need to know what he said; he was emptying his heart. He threw the treasure of his love before me, and his belief and his pain. People came up to comfort him. . . .
The train moved. I could no longer see his face for my own tears. . . .
But when I look out over the implacable silence that divides us, I wonder if it would not have been better if we had not met.
Predictably, Vorse did not record any realization that she found it easier to write about others’ children than to care for her own. Her story of Milorad was more than a powerful message to her readers about the obscenity of war. It was also an anxious attempt to assuage her guilt about the two children who Miss Selway insisted had been abandoned in Provincetown.