WAR-TIME REFLECTIONS IN PARIS
BY MARGARET DELAND
OVER here in Paris, I thread my perplexities like many colored beads upon a string. Perhaps, sometime, the pattern of a clear opinion may work itself out. At present my colors are only other people's opinions; and as I put a crimson bead on the string, or a black one, and then some crystal beads—many, many of these—and every now and then a gold bead—many of these, too—I say to myself over and over: "I don't know; I don't understand. I wonder. ..."
And so I thread my perplexities.
One thing that puzzles me is the sense of unreality which many of us Americans feel. "Nothing seems real," we say to one another, with bewildered looks. Back of the sense of unrealnesss an inarticulate something that seems like anger. Yet it is not exactly anger, or anger at least implies the outraged sense of justice, which is deeply righteous. This emotion (whatever it is!) does not wait for any rational process, and cannot by any stretch of self-approval be called "righteous." It rises, with a sudden murderous flare of rage, in quiet, reasonable minds; then sinks down, apparently gone. But it has not gone. It lifts again the next day, perhaps at the sight of a blind man clinging to his wife's hand as he stumbles up the steps of the Madeleine. Of course this fury must be rooted in the sense of justice, but it has blossomed into a rank growth that is so remote from our placid experience that it has the quality of a dream. When I see it, or feel it, I slip a crimson bead on my string.
Beside it, in the still unseen design, I [get] the sinister consciousness in everybody about me of waiting. For what? No one knows. Some say for an Allied victory. Some say the same words, but add a question, "Then what?" Others—only a very few—say they wait for an Allied defeat; these whisper their confidence that out of defeat will come the real victory—the birth of the Spirit! The Allies (so these people say) need rebirth as much as Germany. On all sides is this inchoate expectancy. ...
And as I think about it I slip a black bead on my string.
Yet perhaps this is a mistake; perhaps the sense of waiting for something undefined ought, as those whisperers say, to be symbolized by the color of Hope? It may be that some minds really are hearing, as they say they hear, very far off, very faintly, from across blood-stained years ahead of us, a Voice:
"Wait, I say, on the Lord."
Those who hear that Voice in the unspoken expectancy are waiting with good courage; they are willing to tread even the hard road of Defeat, because they are confident that they will meet Him at its end!
But for most of us the sense of waiting takes the color of Fear, and black beads grow into the pattern. ... With them come the crystal beads. As I look at these, shining among the rest, I wonder whether—there are so many of them!—any far-off interest of tears can possibly repay the nations—all the nations!—for their present pain? Some say it will. "Vivre pour tout cela," said a man whose son has died for France, "mourir pour tout cela. ... ça en vaut la peine." So men have always said—for themselves; but tears are not too much to pay for the precious knowledge that a man may say it, with passion, of something infinitely dearer than himself—an only son—mort au champ d'honneur! Yet marching with the triumph of the Spirit, is the grief of the world. A grief which questions and questions. ... Surely never before have so many broken hearts stormed together the gate of Death, saying: "Where? Where?"
Now, here is a curious thing. In this new, unreal rage that has fallen upon us some of us say we do not know ourselves; but through Grief, many French people say, we are beginning to know God! They believe—these people who have wept—that Grief will destroy a materialism which has cried its impudent self-sufficiency into the face of God. If this be true, we shall all share the high knowledge, for it seems as if there were more crystal beads than all the rest put together.
No, it is the golden ones that outnumber the others! Perhaps, after all, there will be no pattern—nothing but a golden string that will hold heaven and earth together. ...
These are my perplexities, which are jumbled in my mind like beads in a child's box: Why are we angry with this curious kind of anger? Why do we fear something that has no name? Does grief imply a final joy? Is courage to be trusted to make the race gentler? ... Sometimes I ask Gaston what pattern he thinks my beads will make. Gaston's height indicates that he is eleven, but his little white, pinched, wicked-eyed face suggests that he is at least fifteen. When he happens to think of it, he comes in from the street to answer the bell of the ascenseur and carry me up to my floor in this dingy old hotel.
"Oui. Did Madame observe the newspaper this morning?"
"What about it, Gaston?"
He takes his hand from the wheel of the antiquated mechanism by which the elevator jiggles up and down, and we stop abruptly between floors. Then he fumbles in some tiny pocket of his little blue jacket, brass-buttoned to his sharp white chin, and produces a crumpled newspaper—a single flimsy sheet whose smudged head-lines shout the Caillaux indictment—
"Traître!" cries Gaston, shrilly.
"What will be done with him?" I ask, adding, mildly, that I should be glad to ascend.
Gaston, grinning, draws his forefinger back and forth across his throat; then he spins his wheel about and we leap with upsetting rapidity to my floor.
Gaston is obligingly ready to cut anybody's throat at any time. He makes his vicious little gesture when various people are named, especially the German Emperor. And everybody who sees him do it nods approval. Here it is—that uprush of rage! We are, all of us non-combatants, accepting killing as a commonplace—just as in our dreams we are matter-of-fact over the most preposterous happenings of joy or horror, and the ages of evolution which have named them "right" or "wrong" are as though they had never been. Possibly the commonplaceness of it is because murder is loose now in the world. Or is it that the "natural man" in us has been masquerading as the "spiritual man" by hiding himself under splendid words—courage, patriotism, justice—and now he rises up and glares at us with blood-red eyes? At any rate, fury is here, and most of us are shaken by the surge of it—except the blind man groping and stumbling up the steps of the Madeleine. He, apparently, feels no rage. One soldier said, thoughtfully, "The longer I fight the Germans the better I like them."
But eyes that are not blind sometimes see red. I first realized this in one of the air raids, and I said to myself, like the old woman in Mother Goose: "If this be I, as I suppose it be ..."
It was nearly midnight when the sirens screamed suddenly from all quarters of the sky at once. It was a screech that ripped the air as if the scroll of the heavens was being rent; and instantly all the lights went out and we were in pitchy darkness, except as the surprised moon peered in between our curtains. There was a gasp of astonishment; then people who were in bed jumped out, fumbled about for more or less clothing, and rushed to windows or out into the street. From my third floor I could see Gaston on the pavement below, dancing up and down like a midge and shrieking with joy at the rattling crash of the air-guns, or the terrible detonations of exploding bombs. A group of American girls leaned appallingly far out of their window and craned their young necks to stare up at the stars of man's ingenuity moving about among the stars of God's serenity and law. They were darting—these stars—zigzagging, soaring up to grapple with one another against the face of the moon; and some of them were dropping death down on our heads. As "efficiency" duplicated the French signal lights or German machines, we did not know which were the stars of murder and which were the stars of defense—only God's stars were candid. And all the while the pretty young Americans (why do their fathers and mothers let them come over here?) watched the battle with exactly the same happy excitement that I have seen on their faces at a football game; they were all ready to turn down their pink thumbs for a German aviator, only—"Which are the Germans?'" one said, distractedly.
A moving star suddenly seemed to stagger ... then swooped, then fell, straight—straight—straight down, with horribly increasing velocity. We knew that in that flaming star were men keyed to furious living, panting, screaming orders to each other, sweating, tearing at levers, knowing they were plunging from abysmal heights to smash like eggs on some slate roof. As that agonizing star fell, the eager young faces were smiling fiercely, and I could hear panting ejaculations:
"Oh! Oh! Oh! Look! See him? See him! Oh, I hope he's a German!"
And so before their eyes two men dropped to death.
Of course this sort of excitement is as old as human nature. But the difference between the football and arena joy which are without danger (I mean as an animus) and this rejoicing is that these women—and Gaston dancing on the pavement—were themselves in danger of instant death. Only a block or two away two persons were blown to pieces. Yet there was not a quiver of alarm!
After it was all over some one said, with a sort of gasp, a curious thing: "I don't, somehow, believe it." She paused, and caught her breath with a scared look. "I don't know who I am," she said, in a whisper.
Of course the monstrous thing was not real to her; the whole business of war cannot, for the moment, be real to any of us Americans because frightfulness is outside of our experience and our minds do not know how to believe it. As for this especial unreality of the raid, never before has the sky betrayed us; so how could those falling bombs be anything else but of the substance of a dream?
I suppose the indifference to danger was because anger as well as love casts out fear; and down below the unreality there was in all of us a very real and righteous anger that the Germans should make the heavens their accomplice! But as for this other kind of anger, which made the woman who had said, in a whisper, "I don't know who I am," add, smiling. fiercely, over clenched teeth, "I hope he was a German!"—that scares me. It is a slipping down into the primitive. When I climb out of it I am smirched by the slime of hate. Gaston, and the pretty girls, and certain dull, elderly folk, all were seething with the fury of combat, and grinning with lust for death that made us strangers to ourselves. I heard a calm, fat, gentle, and rather unusually reasonable person say: "I'd like to squeeze his [a German's] throat, in my hands, and feel the blood spurt between my fingers, and see his eyes pop out onto his cheeks!" This is not an expression of justice; it is a desire to commit murder.
I have found this smiling ferocity in many people. Sometimes it is respectable and practical—"No trade ever again with the Boche!" In other words, death by economic strangulation! But oftener it is the open and unashamed vindictiveness which would like to feel the blood spurt. As non-combatants have no chance to sink their fingers into howling throats, they find it a satisfaction to make Gaston's gesture in their minds.
Which makes me wonder, while I thread my beads in so many shades of crimson—Gaston's scarlet, the girls' blush-rose and pink, my own dull red—whether our fury is perhaps not ours, but just a ripple creeping into the pools and inlets of our minds from the tide of rage which at certain moments rises—must rise!—in the minds of the men in the trenches (the Boche and the Allies) who, without the assistance of personal animosity, must do this wet, dirty, bad-smelling business of killing? They could not do it unless they were carried along on the surge of an emotion which does not wait upon reason. Once they have done what they have to do, this motor rage ebbs. But it does not ebb from the little pools on the shore which it has filled—Gaston's mind, and mine, and many, many other minds, which have no outlet of action; they lie harsh and brackish, long after the tide has swept back into the deep. It is the menace to the future of this inactive fury of non-combatants which frightens me, because it is corrosive; it may poison the springs of the idealism which we had hoped would make democracy safe for the world. ...
Of course it may be more than a ripple of the necessary fury of the trenches; it may be, for all we know, the spume and froth from the lift and heave of a reasoning World-anger which is reproaching humanity for continuing to endure "the foolish business of kings and queens"—a business which has brought the world to its present pass! Some people think Gaston is going to illustrate this World-anger and teach us to be done with our folly. These are the people who say they are "waiting" for victory; but they add the uneasy question, "Then what?"
I asked Gaston about this sense of expectancy, in which he himself, although he does not know it, has a place. But he evaded an explanation. I pulled him in from the street, where he had been buying a petit Suisse for private consumption in a little niche under the stairs where, when not on the pavement, he curls up like a brass-buttoned rat and sleeps.
"Gaston, I have waited five minutes for the elevator!"
"The ascenseur is out of order."
"Gaston, I admire and envy your powers of imagination."
Gaston moved the car up a foot, dropped it six inches, then let it shoot up another foot; here we paused while he experimented with the wheel.
"Madame, the dirty Boches return to-night."
"Who says so?"
"Tout le monde."
"And what will you do, Gaston—go down to the cellar?"
"Moi?" shrieked Gaston. "La cave? Non! Madame a peur?"
I said I hoped not, I really thought not; but wasn't anybody afraid?"
"No French people," Gaston said, politely. (The hotel was full of Americans.) After that he became absorbed in the Noah's Ark elevator and confined his remarks to, "Oh, la-la!" He did, however, while we hung between the second and third floors, throw me a kind word:
"Did Madame observe the decorations of the new concierge?"
"Indeed I did, Gaston!"
"La Croix de Guerre et la Médaille Militaire!"
"And when will you receive the Médaille Militaire?"
"Madame, my age is such that je ne la porte pas à présent. When my age is en règle peace will be here."
"When will that be?"
"Oh, la-la! Very soon."
"Who says so, Gaston?"
"Tout le monde."
"Oh, Gaston, you have taken me to the fifth floor!"
Gaston looked patient and lifted his little shoulders to his ears. "Madame was conversing."
So Gaston "waits" for peace. And it is to come soon! It is not only Gaston's world which says so; other worlds declare it, too! But their certainty is not quite so certain as Gaston's "La-la."
I asked a concierge's wife about it—a woman, heavy-eyed, dressed in black, sitting alone in a chilly little den at the entrance of a hotel. It was dark and rainy, and all Paris was cold, and the mud in the streets that used to be so clean, but are now so filthy, made one think of the mud in the trenches. I spoke of the war and the hope of an early peace, and she agreed listlessly. Oh yes, peace must come, of course.
She hoped it would be soon. She was very listless.
"Madame," I said, "I rejoice that the American soldiers are here at last."
Then she lifted her somber eyes and looked at me, yet it seemed as if she looked through me, beyond me, at something I could not see.
"Madame," she said, with patient but quite terrible dignity—"Madame, the American soldiers come too late."
The significance of this left me dumb. For what kind of a peace is she "waiting"?
I quoted the concierge's wife to a man who knows more of the real state of things over here than this poor woman (or Gaston) could possibly know, and, of course, far more than any bewildered American whose especial fear is of generalizing from insufficient data and who only knows that everybody seems to be waiting ... waiting ... waiting. He laughed and shrugged with amused disgust.
"Oh, you Americans have not come 'too late.' You may still help us—if you ever really get in. But have no fear, Madame, have no fear! Whether you get in or not, we shall never give up while there are any of us left!" Then, even while I was slipping a golden bead on my thread, he added, his voice dropping almost to a whisper, "But there are very few of us left!"
So he, too, is "waiting" for a peace which he does not define. But some people skirt the edge of a definition. A laconic word or two in the compartment of a train that was dragging itself, hours late, into Paris, was fairly definite. Two elderly French officers in faded blue uniforms were talking together. Their faces were worn and lined, and one man had white hair. Apparently they did not notice the American sitting opposite them, trying to forget French indifference to ventilation by reading a novel. At any rate, they made no effort not to be overheard.
"Eh bien," said one of them, heavily, "nous sommes finis. Même avec les plus grandes victoires, nous sommes finis."
The "peace" hinted at in these words is one which civilization is not willing to face. Yet some people think France is facing it. They say that the falling birth-rate has for several years been an anxiety, but that the talk about it now, apropos of a million and a half dead young men, is confession. "While there are any of us left"—we shall not be "finished." But, "There are very few of us left."
In the United States we have known, with horrible disgust, that Germany, facing some such possibility for herself, has—with her customary efficiency—begun to educate her people as to the probable necessity of polygamy. France has not been credited with any such foresight. But it would seem that she has it; and in its train may come extraordinary ethical changes (and for these, too, tout le monde "waits"). If Germany officially approves the Torgas pamphlet on the plurality of wives—"secondary marriages"—France unofficially—but without public or legal disapproval—may read Mère sans Être Êpouse—a study of existing conditions, written with dignity and solemnity. It is addressed to the "jeunes filles et jeunes veuves de France," and advocates—what the title indicates. According to this book, France "ne peut éviter l'abîme qu'en choissisant entre la maternitė des célibataires et la polygamie"—to which last the author is sure the Frenchwoman will never agree. So, while the nation waits for "victory," some people face the fact that victory may bring France to the edge of an "abyss."
The essence of war is the substitution of one set of ideals for another; it offers certain spiritual gains—courage, self-sacrifice, loyalty; against those gains thoughtful persons must set the spiritual losses—one dares not enumerate them! But is one of these losses to be the throwing over, with a coup de main, of sex ethics which, imperfect as they are, have taken us so long, so very long, to build up? If this is a possibility hidden in the unspoken expectancy, surely the color of Fear has its place in the vaguely growing pattern. At any rate, it seems as if many of these brave people, these people of supreme courage, are afraid. They are afraid, not because they are cowardly, but because they are intelligent. Their wisdom shows them two things to be afraid of—first, the kind of peace which may come; and next, the thing which may come after the peace—be the peace what it may!
What will come afterward?
As to the present moment, the French look facts in the face, as we Americans have not yet done. To begin with, many of them feel, so people say, that the war now is as much a state of mind as it is a military situation. That is why they are afraid. Their state of mind has resulted from recognizing perfectly obvious things—first, that they are tired; next, that the English are tired—and hungry; then, that America (not the soldiers, but the nation) which has come into the war, "so late," is neither tired nor hungry; it is something much worse—it is not serious. America is stepping out into the cataclysm with a sunshade and a smiling face. The French do not resent the smiling—they smiled themselves with complete self-confidence when they started in. They do not resent the sunshade—they, too, know the parasitic plague of politicians who bind the hands of War Departments with miles of red tape; they do not even resent the mentality that makes it possible for an American soldier to say, "These here French 'ain't taught me nothin'!" It is not these things they fear in us. It is, I think, our fundamental lack of seriousness. Nobody in America is venturing to say that the bright lexicon of Youth does contain such a word as failure. The French people are not so—young. When they see us here—with our government's sunshades and smiles—they are kind to us, extraordinarily kind to us! And they are really glad to see us, because they think we may be helpful if we "ever get into the war." But their lexicon is, I think, more complete than ours, so they smile to themselves, now and then, as one smiles at well-meaning and conceited children.
Some of them say, a little impatiently, that the Americans do not know how big it all is, or how far-reaching in its outcome. But the French know! They know that the present situation is as far beyond the declaration of war in 1914 as the declaration of war was beyond that pistol-shot in the street in Sarajevo. They know it is beyond the question of a struggle between the Central Powers and the Allies; some of them believe that it has become a cosmic question—that Civilization and Chaos are at grips. The Americans, on the other hand, seem to be under the impression that it is the local issue of throttling Fritz—a thing which they mean to do! "Oh, the simplicity of us!" said an American long resident in France. "We are provincial in the death struggle!" For the World—not just the Allies, and poor, mad Germany, who happens to be the child who took the candle into the powder-magazine—the whole World is shaking! The French people know it, if we don't, and what their knowledge may do in creating a "state of mind" needs no comment. The two worn and haggard officers in the train put it into words: "Même avec les plus grandes victoires. ..."
You will not wonder that I mark the expectancy in the air by a black bead?
The wife of the concierge calls that bead the fear of defeat; the brilliant Frenchman would name it, if he were willing to name it, the fear of conquest; the two officers know it is fear of national extinction.
But there are others who call it Hope, and not Fear at all. This handful of dreamers have opened their windows toward the east! Their "state of mind" bids them look beyond the gathering darkness toward a Dawn. But they do not deny the terrors of the dark. During the hours before daybreak may come—God knows what! But whatever comes, it will be part of a process which will bring about an adjustment of the social order. It is probable, they say, that Gaston, with his hideous little gesture, will have a hand in it. This is their hope—a new Heaven and a new Earth; Chaos dragged from the throat of Civilization; our code of morals saved from the assault of an efficiency which would reinforce itself by polygamy; the Idealism of Jesus preserved for our children's children! All this through Gaston's surgery. He accomplished, they say, a good deal in 1789. "But that which is coming," said a Frenchman, smiling, "will be for thoroughness, to 1789, as a Sunday picnic, as you call it." Another of the Intellectuals put it in a way which would, I think, have appealed to Gaston:
"It will come," said he, "the new world! But first will come the world revolution. It has already begun in Russia. After the Peace, Germany will explode, then England, then France, and then you people!—with your imitation Democracy. And during the process," he ended, joyously, "it will be casser des gueules!"
It is fair, in this connection, and also cheerful, to quote the comment of an American on that reference to the breaking of snouts—and his slang is just as forcible as that of the French editor:
"If anybody said that sort of thing to me," said this youngster, grinning, "I should reply, gently but firmly: 'To hell wid yez! There ain't going to be no revolution in ours! Why, what have we got to revolute about? We're a free people. No, sir! We'll lick these damn Germans out of their boots, and then, so far as the Allies go, everything will be lovely, and the goose hang high!" I fancy many of us at home share this opinion.
The possibility the American denied was put in still another way by a French gentleman, whose serene face, furrowed with suffering, shines with a confidence that is willing to suffer still more—for with him experience has worked Hope.
"Madame," said he, "I had in my country place two horses of an unfriendliness. They mordaient; they nipped, as you would say; they hennissaient! And two dogs that loved me. They were both my friends, but to each other they were of a ferocity terrible. I had also a gaz'l. ..."
"Gaz'l?" I queried.
"Madame! Gaz'l. You are acquainted with the gaz'l in your wonderful country of Southern America?"
Some one behind me murmured, "Gazelle," and I said, hastily: "Oh yes, certainly. Pray proceed, Monsieur."
"Eh bien, mes chevaux snorted and mordaient; my dogs fought and tore each other; but all, all, united in attacking my gaz'l."
"My gaz'l was, you understand, of a smell. It was a wild beast, and so was of a smell, ma pauvre gaz'l!"
I again pitied the wild beast.
Madame, it was winter. Je faisais des réparations to my stable wherein these animals lived. It became upon a cold day—froid extrême—necessary to lift the roof of my écurie. I said to my garde, 'Les animaux go to perish!' He said, 'Non, Monsieur, they are very warm.' I said: 'C'est impossible! What have you done with them?' He replied, 'They are all in one stall.' I said: 'My God! They will destroy one another. The horses will kick each other to death, the dogs will tear each other to pieces—and ma pauvre gaz'l!' 'Monsieur,' my garde said, 'venez avec moi voir les animaux? I accompanied him to the stall. Madame! The cold extreme, the frost of a degree, was such, my horses, my dogs, my gaz'l were all togezzer in the stall! ver' close, ver' close; serrés—huddled, you would say in your language, so expressive. Yes, close togezzer, because they had been uncomfortable apart! Cold apart! They, to be comfortable, to be warm, was togezzer. Madame, Democracy was born!"
"Must we be uncomfortable to learn the meaning of the word?" I said.
"Comfort has not taught you its meaning, in America," he said, smiling a little cynically. "You think you are a democracy? Dear Madame! it is in America an empty word. Many of you are comfortable. Many, many of you are uncomfortable. Not so is the true democracy."
"So, we must all suffer together?" I pondered. ...
Before this belief that the Kingdom of Heaven may be brought about by pressure from the outside, how was one to say that when the roof was put back on the barn les animaux would not again squeal and nip and tear, and the smell of the gaz'l be as pronounced as ever?
It is hardly necessary to say that the immense majority of people do not believe in this possibility of a revolution. They are waiting for victory—complete, complacent, vindictive victory! With no Gaston anywhere in it—except, indeed, as he has been privileged to help in bringing it about, by dying for his country. This comfortable certainty is held by people who have never felt the cold of the lifted roof, and to whom, consequently, huddling is quite unthinkable. They belong in the class with a gentle and very kindly woman in America who said to me some two or three years ago:
"I am tired to death of all this talk about working-people. They never wash, and there's a great deal too much done for them, anyhow. All these tiresome girls' clubs! I say, let working-girls stay home with their mothers in the evenings, instead of running around to girls' clubs!"
This is almost as far removed from the hope of "huddling" as a scene I remember in my childhood—a big, rocking, family carriage; two fat, strong horses, pulling over a terribly muddy Maryland road. I sat inside with a very majestic and rigid old lady with gray side curls, who never leaned back upon the ancient cushions. We were going, I think, to Hagerstown, to call on some other majestic old lady. As the coach pulled and tugged and I tumbled about like a very small pea in a peck measure, we passed a group of school children, who drew aside to escape the splashing mud from the fetlocks of the fat horses. They didn't escape very much of it, and I can see now their look of dismay at spotted aprons, but the old lady did not notice the aprons. She frowned—and said:
"Fy! fy! What are we coming to? Not one of them bowed to us! When I was young children in their station respected their betters. Where, where shall we end?" she demanded, darkly. She, too, had never huddled.
I remember pondering, as we sank into the muddy ruts, and tugged out to balance on precarious wheels before plunging down again: "Why should the children bow to her? She didn't bow to them."
There is one more hope that a very, very few people feel; it is even more like Fear than the hope of the owner of the gaz'l. I heard it expressed by a little group of Americans, who thought, so some of them said, that the only certain way of ushering in the Kingdom of God was to refrain from ever putting the roof on the stable. "Let 'em all grow their own hair if they want to be warm!" said one of these vaguely speculating folk.
In other words, let us return to the beginnings of things. This will be easy, because, the speaker said, we are seeing the end of a civilization which created the box-stall and is therefore responsible for the differentiation of comfort. "But it must be the whole hog," she went on; "there is no half-way house on the road to regeneration. Gaston won't accomplish it."
This girl, her eyebrows gathering into a frown, seemed to be trying to talk out her perplexities. Some one had said that Nationalism was responsible for the idea that population should be valued by quantity, not quality; naturally, such a standard can contemplate polygamy! "Nationalism is the seed of war," this person said. "Dulce et decorum is death for an ideal, but not for a geographical boundary! Christ died for People, not for Nations. We must learn to think of ourselves, not as French or American or German, but as we are born—just poor, little, naked humans! When we do that the foolishness of war will end." But the Girl went further than that: "An Allied victory will just strengthen Nationalism," she said, "and, of course, there is going to be an Allied victory! Must be, you know. I don't doubt it for a moment! We've simply got to win—only—sometimes I—I wonder ..."
"I wonder most all of the time," I confessed.
"Isn't it possible," she said, slowly, "that if we just prop up Nationalism we shall prop up for a little while longer this rotten thing that you call civilization? Is it worth while to do that? Civilization is rotten; you can't deny it."
"I'm not denying it."
"It is the expression of a debauched commercialism that has been squeezing the life out of—well, your friend Gaston's body and soul. Look at his nasty, wicked, little body! Apparently he has no soul. Your civilization, which is pure materialism, has done it!"
"I do wish you wouldn't call it mine!" one of her hearers said.
"It is yours! You batten on it. You grind Gaston's bones to make your bread—"
"Oh, come now!"
"I mean you draw your dividends," she said to the company at large; and some one protested, meekly:
"Not very many now, or very large ones."
"That's not from of not from any excess virtue on your part," she said, sweetly. "I bet you, none of you ever objected to a melon yet. Well," she went on, frowning, "I know I am all balled up and going off on side-tracks, but what I'm trying to say is, that an Allied victory will only keep the civilization of materialism going a little while longer. I think M. Blank is right, and we shall 'huddle.' But I feel pretty sure that there will come a moment when the gaz'l will suddenly take the whole box-stall; and I sha'n't blame him! Civilization has created him, and it is he who has suffered the most from a war which he did not desire, and did not make, but only fought. When he gets the stall he will die in it, because it isn't Nature— Or turn into a horse, and then we'd have the whole business to do over again!"
Some one said here, that her ideas on evolution would interest Darwin, but she did not notice the flippant interruption.
"Isn't it possible," she said, "that, to get straightened out, to live, in fact, we've got, all of us, to get out into the open? Haven't we got to grow our own hair to keep warm? Yes, we must go farther than Gaston's revolution which every one is whispering about; that will only be a piece of court-plaster on an ulcer. We will go the whole hog."
This was too preposterous.
"You mean, a return to the primeval slime? Thank you! I prefer the box-stall even if the gaz'l is of a smell."
"I don't think your preferences will be consulted. But it does seem"—her face fell into painful lines of sincerity—"it really does seem that the sooner the smash of the whole darned thing comes the better. It isn't any easier to pull a tooth by degrees."
(I may say that this thoughtful woman is a doctor, so her illustrations are natural enough.)
"So that's why," she ended, quietly, "that sometimes, I—I think I believe, that it will be better for Germany to win the war!"
There was an outcry at this, "Germany is the apotheosis of materialism!"
"I know. It would be casting out devils by Beelzebub, the Prince of Devils. But a German victory would ice the toboggan and get us down to the bottom more quickly."
A ribald voice suggested that "ice" wouldn't last long in the place to which she seemed bent on sending us. But the girl was in too painful earnest to retort.
"You bet," she said, "we'll drag Germany over the precipice with us, and, once at the bottom, we shall all begin to climb up again. But we must touch bed-rock first."
Everybody laughed, and, of course, nobody took her seriously. Yet this, stripped of slang, is a thing for which, here and there, a very few people are "waiting." They are saying, carefully, with weighed words, something that confesses what this extravagant statement means.
"Not even Gaston's surgery can better conditions that ought not to exist," they say. "We are at the end of our epoch. We must begin all over again."
Of course, very few go as far as this. Gaston is the boundary set by most of the dreamers. Those who do go farther believe, as this girl put it, that an Allied victory will be only a temporary uplifting; that Gaston would be but a palliative, and that it is better, not only for France, but for Western civilization, to get to the bottom as quickly as possible.
"Don't prolong the agony by defeating Germany," one of them said. But whether victory comes, or defeat, Gaston, they say, will do his part. Under his star there will be, perforce, some huddling; and dogs and horses and gaz'l will be quite sure that they are going to live happily for evermore. ... But after that, the dark. And after that, the dawn!
It is a Hope! Eons off, perhaps, but a Hope. The hope of the upward curve of the spiral after it has dipped into the primeval. Back again, these people say, to the beginnings of things, must go our miserable little civilization. Back to some bath of realities, to wash us clean of an unreality which has mistaken geographical boundaries for spiritual values, and mechanics for God. Then, up—up—up—toward the singing heights!
"We will find God," the crystal beads declare! Not in our time, perhaps; perhaps not even in the time of our children; but sometime. "The processes of God are years and centuries."
And as I write, the guns are trained on Paris. ...