The Guns of Europe/Chapter I

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The Guns of Europe by Joseph Alexander Altsheler
Chapter I:The Sistine Madonna

JOHN turned a little to the left, going nearer to the window, where he could gain a better view of the Madonna, which he had heard so often was the most famous picture in the world. He was no technical judge of painting—he was far too young for such knowledge—but he always considered the effect of the whole upon himself, and he was satisfied with that method, feeling perhaps that he gained more from it than if he had been able to tear the master- work to pieces, merely in order to see how Raphael had made it.

"Note well, John, that this is the Sistine Madonna," began William Anson in his didactic, tutorial tone. "Observe the wonderful expression upon the face of the Holy Mother. Look now at the cherubs gazing up into the blue vault, in which the Madonna like an angel is poised. Behold the sublime artist's mastery of every detail. There are those who hold that the Madonna della Sedia at Florence is its equal in beauty and greatness, but I do not agree with them. To me the Sistine Madonna is always first Centuries ago, even, its full worth was appreciated. It brought a great price at "

The rest of his speech trailed off into nothingness. John had impatiently moved further away, and had deliberately closed his ear also to any dying sounds of oratory that might reach him. He had his own method of seeing the wonders of the Old World. He was interested or he was not. It was to him a state of mind, atmospheric in a way. He liked to breathe it in, and the rattle of a guide or tutor's lecture nearly always broke the spell.

Anxious that Mr. Anson should not have any further chance to mar his pleasure he moved yet closer to the great window from which came nearly all the light that fell upon the Sistine Madonna. There he stood almost in the center of the beams and gazed upon the illumined face, which spoke only of peace upon earth and good will. He was moved deeply, although there was no sign of it in his quiet eyes. He did not object to emotion and to its vivid expression in others, but his shy nature, feeling the need of a defensive armor, rejected it for himself.

It was a brighter day than the changeful climate of Dresden and the valley of the Elbe usually offered. The sunshine came in a great golden bar through the window and glowed over the wonderful painting which had stood the test of time and the critics. He had liked the good, gray city sitting beside its fine river. It had seemed friendly and kind to him, having in it the quality of home, something almost American in its simplicity and lack of caste.

They had arrived as soon as the doors were opened, and but few people were yet in the room. John came from his mood of exaltation and glanced at the others, every one in turn. Two women, evidently teachers, stood squarely in front of the picture and looked alternately at the Madonna and one of the red volumes that mark the advance of the American hosts in Europe. A man with a thick, black beard, evidently a Russian, moved incessantly back and forth, his feet keeping up a light shuffle on the floor. John wondered why some northern races should be so emotional and others so reserved. He had ceased to think that climate ruled expression.

A stout German frau stood gazing in apparent stolidity. Yet she was not so stolid as she seemed, because John caught a beam of appreciation in her eye. Presently she turned and went out, doubtless returning to some task of the thrifty housewife in this very city of Dresden. John thought her emblematic of Germany, homely herself, but with the undying love of the beautiful shown so freely in her fine cities, and in the parks, gardens and fountains more numerous than in an other country.

Her place was taken by an officer in a uniform, subdued in color, but martial. He was a tall, stiff man, and as he walked with a tread akin to the goose- step his feet clanked upon the floor. He wore a helmet, the cloth cover over the spike, but John noticed that he did not take off the helmet in the presence of the Sistine Madonna. He moved to a place in front of the picture, brushing against the sisterhood of the red book, and making no apology. There he stood, indifferent to those about him, holding himself as one superior, dominant by force, the lord by right of rank over inferior beings.

John's heart swelled with a sense of resentment and hostility. He knew perfectly well that the stranger was a Prussian officer—a strong man too, both in mind and body. He stood upright, more than six feet tall, his wide shoulders thrown well back, his large head set upon a powerful neck. Reddish hair showed beneath the edges of the helmet, and the blue eyes that gazed at the picture were dominant and masterful. He was about thirty, just at the age when those who are strong have tested their minds against other men in the real arena of life and find them good. The heavy, protruding jaw and the compressed lips made upon John the impression of power.

The picture grew somewhat dim. One of those rapid changes to which Dresden is subject occurred. The sunshine faded and a grayness as of twilight filtered into the room. The glances of the young American and the Prussian officer turned away from the Madonna at the same time and met.

John was conscious that the blue eyes were piercing into him, but he had abundant courage and resolution and he gave back the look with a firmness and steadiness, equal to the Prussian's own. The cold steel of that glance rested upon him only for a few moments. It passed on, dissected in an instant the two teachers with the red guide book, and then the man walking, to the window, looked out at the gray walls of the city.

John had not lowered his eyes before the intrusive gaze, but he felt now as if he had been subjected to an electric current. He was at once angry and indignant, but, resolving to throw it off, he shrugged his shoulders a little, and turned to his older friend who was supposed to be comrade and teacher at the same time.

Mr. Anson, the didactic strain, strong in him, recovered his importance, and began to talk again. He did not confine himself any longer to the Sistine Madonna, but talked of other pictures in the famous gallery, the wonderful art of Rubens and Jordaens, although it seemed to John's normal mind that they had devoted themselves chiefly to studies in fat. But the longest lecture must come to an end, and as the inevitable crowd gathered before the Madonna William Anson was forced by courtesy into silence. The Prussian had already gone, still wearing his defiant helmet, his sword swinging stiffly from his belt, his heavy boots clanking on the floor.

"Did you notice that officer?" asked John.

"I gave him a casual glance. He is not different from the others. You see them everywhere in Germany."

"He seemed typical to me. I don't recall another man who has impressed me so much. To me he personified the great German military organization which we are all so sure is invincible."

"And it is invincible. Nothing like the German army has ever before stood on this planet. A great race, strong in both body and mind, has devoted itself for half a century to learning everything that is to be learned about war. It's a magnificent machine, smooth, powerful, tremendous, unconquerable, and for that very reason neither you nor il, John, will ever see a war of the first magnitude in Europe. It would be too destructive. The nations would shrink back, appalled. Besides, the tide is the other way. Remember all those ministers who came over with us on the boat to attend the peace conference at Constance."

John accepted readily all that Mr. Anson said, and the significance of the Prussian, due he was sure to his own imagination, passed quickly from his mind. But he was tired of pictures. He had found that he could assimilate only a certain quantity, and after that all the rest, even be they Raphael, Murillo and Rubens, became a mere blur.

"Let's go out and walk on the terraces over the river," he said.

"But many other famous pictures are here. We can't afford to go back to America, and admit that we haven't seen some of the masterpieces of the Dresden gallery."

John laughed.

"No, we can't," he said, "because if we do ignore a single one that's the very one all our friends will tell us we should certainly have seen. But my eyes are growing tired, there's a congestion in the back of my head, and these polished floors have stiffened my

ankles. Besides, we've plenty of time, and we can 1 come back as often as we wish."

"I suppose then that we must go," said Mr. Anson, reluctantly. "But one should make the most of the opportunities for culture, vouchsafed to him."

John made no reply. He had heard that note so often. Mr. Anson was tremendous on "culture," and John thought it all right for him and others like him, but he preferred his own methods for himself. He led the way from the gallery and the older man followed reluctantly.

The sun, having gone behind the clouds, stayed there and Dresden was still gray, but John liked it best in its sober colors. Then the homely touch, the friendly feeling in the air were stronger. These people were much like his own. Many of them could have passed for Americans, and they welcomed as brethren those who came from beyond the Atlantic.

He looked from the Bruhl Terraces over the Elbe— a fine river too he thought it—the galleries, the palaces, the opera house, the hotels, and all the good gray city, beloved of English and Americans as well as Germans.

"What is that buzzing and whirring, John?" asked Mr. Anson suddenly.

"Look up! Always look up, when you hear that sound, and you will see the answer to your question written in the skies! There it goes! It's passing over the portion of the city beyond the river."

The long black shape of the Zeppelin dirigible was outlined clearly, as it moved off swiftly toward the southwest. It did not seem to diminish in size, as it left the city, but hung huge and somber against the sky, its whirr and buzz still audible.

"An interesting toy," said Mr. Anson.

"If a toy, it's certainly a gigantic one," said John.

"Tremendous in size, but a toy nevertheless."

"We're going up in it you know."

"Are you still bent upon that wild flight?"

"Why there's no danger. Herr Simmering, the proprietor of our hotel, chartered a dirigible last week, and took up all the guests who were willing to pay and go. I've talked to some of them and they say it was a wonderful experience. You remember that he's chartered another for next week, and you promised me we could go."

"Yes, I promised, but I thought at the time that something would surely happen to prevent it."

"Indian promises! I won't let you back out now!"

William Anson sighed. His was a sober mind. He liked the solid earth for his travels, and he would fain leave the air to others. The daring of young John Scott, for whom he felt in a measure responsible, often alarmed him, but John concealed under his quiet face and manner an immense fund of resolution.

"Suppose we go to the hotel," Mr. Anson said. "The air is rather keen and I'm growing hungry."

"First call in the dining-car," said John, "and I come."

"I notice that you're always eager for the table,

although you shirk the pictures and statues, now and then."

"It's merely the necessity of nature, Mr. Anson. The paint and marble will do any time."

William Anson smiled. He liked his young comrade, all the more so perhaps because they were so different. John supplied the daring and adventurous spirit that he lacked, and the youth had enough for two.

"I wonder if any new people have come," said John, as they walked down the steps from the terrace. "Don't think I'm weak on culture, Mr. Anson, but it's always interesting to me to go back to the hotel, see what fresh types have appeared, and guess from what countries they have come."

"The refuge of a Ia2y mind which is unwilling to cope with its opportunities for learning and progress. John, I feel sometimes that you are almost hopeless. You have a frivolous strain that you ought to get rid of as soon as you can."

"Well, sir, I had to laugh at those fat Venuses of Rubens and Jordaens. They may be art, but I never thought that Venus weighed three hundred pounds. I know those two painters had to advertise all through the Low Countries, before they could get models fat enough."

"Stop, John! Is nothing sacred to you?"

"A lady can be too fat to be sacred."

Mr. Anson shook his head. He always stood impressed, and perhaps a little awed before centuries of culture, and he failed to understand how any one could challenge the accepted past. John's Philistine spirit, which he deemed all the more irregular in one so young pained him at times. Yet it was more assumed than real with young Scott.

They reached their hotel and passed into the dining- room, where both did full justice to the good German food. John did not fail to make his usual inspection of guests, but he started a little, when he saw the Prussian officer of the gallery, alone at a table by a window overlooking the Elbe. It was one of the pleasantest views in Europe, but John knew very well that the man was thinking little of it. His jaw had not lost is pugnacious thrust, and he snapped his orders to the waiter as if he were rebuking a recruit.

Nobody had told John that he was a Prussian, but the young American knew it nevertheless, and he knew him to be a product, out of the very heart of that iron military system, before which the whole world stood afraid, buttressed as it was by tremendous victories over France, and a state of readiness known to be without an equal.

Herr Simmering, fat, bland and bald, was bending over them, asking them solicitously if all was right. John always liked this bit of personal attention from the European hotel proprietors. It established a friendly feeling. It showed that one was not lost among the swarm of guests, and here in Germany it invariably made his heart warm to the civilians.

"Can you tell us, Herr Simmering," he asked, "who is the officer alone in the alcove by the window?"

Herr Gustav Adolph Simmering, the soul of bland- ness and courtesy, stiffened in an instant. With the asking of that simple question he seemed to breathe a new and surcharged air. He lost his expansiveness in the presence of the German army or any representative of it. Lowering his voice he replied:

"A captain attached in some capacity to the General Staff in Berlin. Rudolf von Boehlen is his name. It is said that he has high connections, a distant cousin of the von Moltkes, in much favor, too, with the Emperor."

"Do Prussian officers have to come here and tell the Saxons what to do ?"

The good Herr Simmering spread out his hands in horror. These simple Americans surely asked strange and intrusive questions. One could forgive them only because they were so open, so much like innocent children, and, unlike those disagreeable English, quarreled so little about their bills.

"I know no more," he replied. "Here in Germany we never ask why an officer comes and goes. We trust implicitly in the Emperor and his advisers who have guarded us so well, and we do not wish to learn the higher secrets of state. We know that such knowledge is not for us."

Dignified and slow, as became an important landlord, he nevertheless went away with enough haste to indicate clearly to John that he wished to avoid any more questions about the Prussian officer. John was annoyed. He felt a touch of shame for Herr Simmering.

"I wish the Germans wouldn't stand in such tremendous awe of their own army," he said. "They seem to regard it as some mysterious and omnipotent force which is always right."

"Don't forget their education and training, John. The great German empire has risen upon the victories of 1870, and if ever war between them should come again Germany could smash France as easily as she did then."

"I could never become reconciled to the spectacle of an empire treading a republic into the earth."

Mr. Anson smiled. He had dined well, and he was at peace with the earth.

"Names mean little," he said indulgently.

John did not reply, but his under jaw thrust forward in a pugnacious manner, startlingly like that of the Prussian. The officer, although no word had passed between them, nor even a glance of real hostility had aroused a stubborn antagonism, increased by the obvious awe of Herr Simmering and the deference paid to him by the whole establishment of the hotel.

He saw Captain von Boehlen go out, and drawn by a vague resolve he excused himself, abandoning Mr. Anson who was still trifling pleasantly with the fruit, and also left the dining-room. He saw the captain receive his helmet from an obsequious waiter, put it on his head and walk into the parlor, his heavy boots as usual clanking upon the polished floor. In the final analysis it was this very act of keeping his helmet on, no matter where he was, that repelled young Scott and aroused his keen enmity.

John went to the smoking-room. Von Boehlen lingered a moment or two in the parlor, and then took his way also down the narrow passage to the smoking-room. It was perhaps a part of the American's vague plan that he should decide suddenly to go by the same way to the parlor. Hence it was inevitable that they should meet if Captain von Boehlen kept his course—an invariable one with him—in the very center of the hall. John liked the center of the hall, too, particularly on that day. He was tall and strong and he knew that he would have the advantage of readiness, which everybody said was the cardinal virtue of the Prussian army.

Just before they reached the point of contact the Prussian started back with a muttered oath of surprise and annoyance. His hand flew to the hilt of his sword, and then came away again. John watching him closely was sure that hand and hilt would not have parted company so readily had it been a German civilian who was claiming with Captain Rudolf von Boehlen an equal share of the way.

But John saw the angry flash in the eyes of the Prussian die suddenly like a light put out by a puff of wind, and the compressed line of the lips relax. He knew that it was not the result of innate feeling, but of a mental effort made by von Boehlen, and he surmised that the fact of his being a foreigner had all to do with it. Yet he waited for the other to apologize first.

"Pardon," said the captain, "it is somewhat dark here, and as I was absorbed in thought I did not notice you."

His English was excellent and his manner polite enough. John could do nothing less than respond in kind.

"It was perhaps my fault more than yours," he said.

The face of Captain von Boehlen relaxed yet further into a smile.

"You are an American," he said, "a member of an amiable race, our welcome guests in Europe. What could our hotels and museums do without you?"

When he smiled he showed splendid white teeth, sharp and powerful. His manner, too, had become compelling. John could not now deny its charm. Perhaps his first estimate of Captain von Boehlen had been wrong.

"It is true that we come in shoals," he responded. "Sometimes I'm not sure whether we're welcome to the general population."

"Oh, yes, you are. The Americans are the spoiled children of Europe."

"At least we are the children of Europe. The people on both sides of the Atlantic are apt to forget that. We're transplanted Europeans. The Indians are the only people of the original American stock."

"But you are not Europeans. One can always tell the difference. You speak English, but you are not English. I should never take an American for an Englishman."

"But our basis is British. Despite all the infusions of other bloods, and they've been large, Great Britain is our mother country. I feel it myself."

Von Boehlen smiled tranquilly.

"Great Britain has always been your chief enemy," he said. "You have been at war with her twice, and in your civil war, when you were in dire straits her predominant classes not only wished for your destruction, but did what they could to achieve it."

"Old deeds," said John. "The bad things of fifty or a hundred years ago are dead and buried."

But the Prussian would not have it so. Germany, he said, was the chief friend of America. Their peoples, he insisted, were united not only by a tie of blood, but by points of view, similar in so many important cases. He seemed for some inscrutable reason anxious to convince one as young as his listener, and he employed a smoothness of speech and a charm of manner that John in the morning in the gallery would have thought impossible in one so stiff and haughty. The spell that this man was able to cast increased, and yet he was always conscious of a pitiless strength behind it.

John presently found himself telling his name, how he was traveling with William Anson, older than himself, and in a way both a comrade and a tutor, how he expected to meet his uncle, James Pomeroy, a United States Senator, in Vienna, and his intention of returning to America early in the autumn to finish his course at the university.

"I should like to see that America of yours," said von Boehlen, after he had told something of himself, "but I fear it is not to be this year."

"You stay in Dresden long?" asked John.

"No, I leave tonight, but we may meet again, and then you can tell me more of that far western world, so vast and so interesting, but of which we Europeans really know so little."

John noticed that he did not tell where he was going. But he surmised that Prussian army officers usually kept their destination to themselves. His talk with von Boehlen had impressed him more than ever with the size, speed and overwhelming power of the German army machine. It was not possible for anything to stand before it, and the mystery that clothed it around imparted to it a superhuman quality.

But he brushed away such thoughts. The sun was shining again. It danced in a myriad golden beams over the Elbe, it clothed in warmth the kindly city, and von Boehlen, with a politeness that was now unimpeachable rose to tell him good-bye. He acknowledged to himself that he felt a little flattered by the man's attention, and his courtesy was equal to that of the Prussian. Then the officer, dropping his hand to the hilt of his sword, apparently a favorite gesture, stalked away.

It was John's first impulse to tell Mr. Anson of his talk with von Boehlen, but he obeyed his second and kept it to himself. Even after he was gone the feeling that some motive was behind the Prussian's blandness remained.

A letter came that afternoon from his uncle, the Senator. He was in Vienna, and he wished his nephew and Mr. Anson to join him there, cutting short their stay in Dresden. They could come by the way of Prague, and a day or two spent in that old Bohemian city would repay them. John showed the letter to Mr. Anson, who agreed with him that a wish from the Senator was in reality a command, and should be obeyed promptly.

John, although he liked Dresden, had but one regret. He could not go up in the Zeppelin dirigible and he hastened to tell Herr Simmering that his entry was withdrawn.

"I'll have to cut out the dirigible," he said in his colloquial tongue. "Perhaps you can find somebody to take my place."

"Perhaps," said the landlord, "and on the other hand it may be that the dirigible will not go up for me."

"Why? I thought you had chartered it for a second trip."

Herr Simmering compressed his lips. John saw- that, under impulse, he had said more than he intended. It was an objection of his to Germany—this constant secrecy and mystery that seemed to him not only useless but against the natural flow of human nature.

"Are all the Zeppelins confiscated by the government?" he asked, speaking wholly at random.

Herr Simmering started. Fat and smooth, he shot a single, menacing glance at the young American. But, in a moment, he was smiling again and John had not noticed.

"Our government never tells its plans," he said. "Mr. Anson says that you leave tomorrow for Prague."

"Yes," said John curiously, "and I can almost infer from your tone, Herr Simmering, that you will be glad to see us go."

But Herr Simmering protested earnestly that he never liked to lose paying guests, above all those de1 light ful Americans, who had so much appreciation and who made so little trouble. The German soul and the American soul were akin.

"Well, we do like your country and your people," said John. "That's the reason we come here so much."

In the evening, while Mr. Anson was absorbed in the latest English newspapers which had just come in, John went out for a walk. His favorite method of seeing a European city was to stroll the streets, and using his own phrase to "soak" it in.

He passed now down the street which led by the very edge of the Elbe, and watched the long freight boats go by, lowering their smokestacks as they went under the bridges. The night was cloudy, and the city behind him became dusky in the mists and darkness. Dresden was strangely quiet, too, but he soon forgot it, as he moved back into the past.

The past, not the details, but the dim forgotten life, aways made a powerful appeal to John. He had read that Dresden began with a little fishing village, and now he was trying to imagine the tawny men of a thousand years ago, in their rude canoes, casting their nets and lines in the river which flowed so darkly before him. But the mood did not endure long. He strolled presently upon the terraces and then back toward the king's palace, drawn there by a great shouting.

As he approached the building he became conscious that an event of interest was occurring. A huge crowd had gathered, and the youth of it was demonstrating with energy, cheering and breaking soon into national songs.

John pressed into the edge of the crowd, eager to know what it was all about, but not yet able to see over the heads of the close ranks in front of him. "What is it? What is it? he asked of several, but they merely shrugged their shoulders, unable to understand English.

John was angry at himself once more for knowing nothing of German. The whole life of a nation flowed past him, and all of it was mysterious, merely because he did not have that little trick of tongue. He caught sight at last of a man in an automobile that moved very slowly in the heart of the crowd, the people fairly pressed against the body of the machine. It was obvious that the stranger furnished the occasion for the cheering and the songs, and John repeated his questions, hoping that he would ultimately encounter some one in this benighted multitude who understood English.

His hope was not in vain. A man told him that it was the King of Saxony returning to his capital and palace. John then drew away in some distaste. He did not see why the whole population of a city, even though they were monarchists, should go wild over the coming home of a sovereign. Doubtless the King of Saxony, who was not so young, had come home thousands of times before, and there must be something servile in a people who made such an old story an occasion for a sort of worship.

He pushed his way out of the crowd and returned to the terrace. But the noise of the shouting and the singing reached him there. Now it was mostly singing, and it showed uncommon fervor. John shrugged his shoulders. He liked such an unreasonable display less than ever, and walked far along the river, until no sound from the crowd reached him.

When he returned toward the hotel everybody had gone, save a few policemen, and John hoped that the king was not only in his palace, but was sound alseep. It must be a great tax upon Saxon energy to demonstrate so heavily every time he came back to the palace, perhaps from nothing more than a drive.

He found that Mr. Anson, having exhausted the newspapers, had gone to his room, and pleasantly weary in both body and mind, he sought his own bed.