The Man on Horseback/Chapter 40

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CHAPTER XL

WAR!

It came suddenly, over night, crashing like an iron fist into the teeth of the world, the Western world, France, England, Belgium, the United States; the stupid, decent, happy, purblind world that had caviled and jested and thrown the mud of doubt when the chosen amongst its peoples had spoken words of warning, that had branded the seers as liars, the prophets as panicky fools; that had refused to believe what it had feared to believe; that, poisoned with the deliberate propaganda of forty years, refused to believe even now, even after the steely, inexorable fact of War hurled across its frontiers, crashing, roaring, maiming, torturing, killing.

It started with a tense, dramatic whisper that changed, in twenty-four hours, to a savage, clarion call of triumph, as the gray-green hordes trampled the fair fields of Belgium and blackened the crime in the German soul with the blacker crime of the German fist.

It came unrelenting, disdainful, bestial, smashing the standards of the gray, swinging centuries, smashing the God-made, man-made standards of civilization and honesty and decency.

On it came in the rolling boundlessness of crazy ambition, bruiting afar the thunder word of a mad nation, led by a mad Kaiser, reëchoing it from the east to the west of Europe, and beyond, from the heights of Quebec to the matted jungles of Central Africa.

It wakened the fog-bound cities of the North with the sweep of it.

It chilled the golden-souled cities of the West with the steel of it.

It rolled over the sad marshes of the East like a sheet of smouldering fire, yellow, burning, inexorable.

It thundered against the hope of all the world and killed that hope—with the laughter of Satan, the Cursed, laughing into nothingness God's cosmic code.

War!

The war of a snake's fang and a tiger's claw!

The war of poison and rape and murder and disease!

German War!

 

It struck Berlin like a typhoon.

The night before there had been whisperings—yes!—also nervousness, fear, tense, shuddering expectancy.

Crowds paraded the streets, looking up anxiously at the flickering lights—cressets of evil—that shone behind the windows of the Imperial Schloss, the War Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Chancellor's Palace.

"War? Out of the question! Ausgeschlossen! Ganz unmöglich!"

Then, in the morning, the fact of it, crimson-stained, irrevocable!

In ten minutes the news had swept over Berlin; dipping eastward from the Emperor's Schloss to the wholesale district that clutters around the Alexander Platz and speeding up innumerable hands busy with needle and thread and gray-green uniform cloth; swinging beyond the drab, dusty flats of Treptow and causing burly foremen in overalls to curse the beery slowness of their workmen, who were riveting bolts into gun caissons or trimming airplane wings into aluminum frames.

North it surged, to Moabit, with the message to countless factories:

"Get ready! Get ready! The minutes spell victory! They spell the Fate of the Nation!"

And trip-hammers thudded; bit-braces zummed; derrick-cranes hoisted away; dynamos throbbed; piling-gins shook and drummed; gudgeons slid into shafts; gas engines hissed and stuttered; pliers bit and wrenched and cut.

West traveled the news, echoing in the villas of merchants and bankers and brokers, sending them frantically to the long-distance telephones, there to rush orders to their correspondents on the stock exchanges of Frankfort and Munich and Vienna:

"Buy German Consols!"

"Buy Prussian State Railways!"

"Sell French Government Bonds!"

"Sell Russian Petroleum!"

"Sell Belgian Industrials!"

Remembering the secret orders received weeks ago from the Ministry of Commerce for just such an emergency; then cabling across to New York and Chicago with similar orders, supplemented later in the day by other, stranger ones:

"Buy Bethlehem Steel!"

"Buy Remington Arms!"

"Buy U. S. Steel Commons!"

Still on rushed the news, to Spandau, Magdeburg, Kopenick, Frankfort-on-the-Oder and many more of that spider web of small towns that cluster about Berlin, causing the division freight superintendents and the division passenger superintendents of the Imperial German Railways to meet in sudden conclaves, not to figure and debate (all that had been done weeks, months, years ago) but to revise certain figures, to dovetail them with the new orders that shot from the Berlin Railway Ministry with the speed and precision of bullets:

"Freight train Number Two Spandau-Mannheim—switch to track 59, 9, O.P.!"

"Ninety-three car loads of coal southeast from Munich—no!—northeast—to Breslau! Track to Bohemian frontier!"

"Vienna clamors for coal, for cars, for tenders! For men!" And the comment, though not sent along the wires: "Damn these Austrians! Slow, soft! Just that much dead weight!"

Thus the news, rushing on, on. The Jaganath}} of War was in motion. Crunchingly, pitilessly, its wheels moved.

 

By noon, Berlin had re-made the map of Europe over beer and coffee and champagne. The British ultimatum had not yet been ticked on its way, thus talk ran free and brave.

Degenerate France, impotent Belgium, barbarous, top-heavy Russia were disposed of with the gesture of a hand, the twisting of an arrogant, or Jesuitical word.

"Wir sind die Herren Nation—we are the nation of masters! Resistance? Shucks! Ours the strong hand, theirs the scraggly throat … And we squeeze, squeeze!"

During those first hours the war had not yet assumed a personal aspect, had not yet bitten with its ragged, slimy fangs into the life, the home, the comfort, the happiness of the individual German. It was simply a glorious, shining adventure, a cumulated, latter-day memory of all the great men who had clouted German history to the final apex: Herman the Cheruscan, Friedrich Barbarossa, Prince Blücher, Moltke, Bismarck!

A stern duty, this war. A thundering, eternal right. But one that would be seen to by the army already mobilized—they were swinging down the streets like an immense gray-green snake with innumerable, bobbing heads—a million and a half men. Only the peace strength of conscripts, with perhaps an additional thirty or forty reserve divisions—just to stay in the background in case of emergencies.

Second line reserve? Third line? The men of the Landwehr in the prime of their years? The logy, bearded, retired burgesses of the Landsturm?

Nonsense!

This was a little saber rattling escapade for the beardless youth of Germany. For, of course, the whole thing would be a military promenade, breakfast in Brussels, lunch in Paris, back in Berlin for a late dinner and theater. The fighting would be over in a few weeks, meanwhile life at home would run in the same smooth channels.

"Yes. A military promenade, meine Herren Commilitonen," said the red-faced chairman of the Borussia fraternity of students who had met as usual over their morning Schoppen at the Pschorr Restaurant. "We will take Paris and Calais. France will cede us the rest of Lorraine. Belgium will submit peacefully. Russia? Pooh! Afterwards we will speak a few words to those damned English and Americans. Gentlemen! I drink to His All-Gracious Majesty, the War Lord!"

"Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!" came the alcoholic chorus and steins were drained, then brought down on the wooden table with a crash.

The students smiled at each other. They had settled that little war.

 

"An experiment in racial biology," Professor Sachs said to his class at the university, "and the old German sword will prove that the experiment is right. It will wipe out forever that cursed and unnatural, that most ungodly heresy called Democracy, that ominous, new superstition of the Western peoples, those diseased, cowardly degenerates. War! A fact! A moral fact! A German fact! In its final consequences, a great, civilizing, beautiful fact! For the value or the non- value of an action can only be inferred from its consequences, and we shall dictate these consequences in Paris, as we did in Seventy, with a sword dipped in blood!"

 

"It will give a knockout blow to foreign competition," whispered chosen, well-primed speakers among the socialistic workmen. "It will raise our wage standard. It will help us to invade new markets. Beer will be cheaper, also wool. Meat will be more plentiful."

 

"The very thing," laughed the professional Anti-semites. "For over a hundred years has Germany groaned under the heel of Jewish usurers—the Bleichröders and Warschauers and Mendelsohns and Oppenheims! This war will change all that. Under the cloak of national necessity we will dip our fingers into their swollen pockets. We will confiscate their millions—and that will help the East-Elbian Junkers, the flower of the land, the salt of the earth!"

"It's damned good business," opined the bankers and merchants. "Remember that last Brazilian Government order for locomotives? The Yankees got that. And that railway from Pekin to Shensi? The Chinese Government accepted a British tender. War will change all that. We shall insist on a clause in the final peace terms which will …"

"But neither England nor America are in this war," came the voice of doubt.

"Of course not. They're afraid of us, diese verfluchten, hypokritischen Schweinehunde. And just because they are afraid, we Germans shall dictate to them whatever we please …"

"Yes. Quite right. Just wait till our troops have entered Paris!"

 

Paris!

That was the slogan, the guerdon, the grail.

"Nach Paris—on to Paris!"

They clenched their hairy fists. They smacked their sagging lips. They exchanged lecherous, meaning winks.

Why, there were women in Paris. French women. They had read about them. They had seen pictures.

Too, there were art treasures, cellars filled with vintage wines, the best of food, everything worth while in life.

Loot!

Why, it was theirs! Paris was an oyster to be opened at the mere kick of their booted, spurred toes!

"Nach Paris!"

Crudely the boast was chalked on every troop train that snorted away from the Lehrter Railway Depot bound for the Northwest, for Belgium. For the road lay there. It was easy. The Belgians would not be such fools as to resist.

The Belgian treaty? Rot! A scrap of paper!

The Belgians honor? Rot again! They would pay for that selfsame honor with minted gold—gold which France would repay to the Imperial Treasury a thousandfold!

Thus:

"Nach Paris!"

The cry was echoed through the streets, flung to the skies, caught, flung high again like a glittering, tinselly ball.

People cheered. They shouted. They laughed. They drank toasts to the army, the nation, the emperor, the Crown Prince, themselves.

Supermen, we! Beyond the Good and the Evil! We—the masters! We—with God! And so:

"Hurrah! Hurrah!" and again: "Hurrah!"

 

But around two in the afternoon a subtle change began to creep into the emotional atmosphere of the German capital. People still laughed and cheered and toasted. They still boasted and bragged insanely. They still drove their national megalomania with the knotted whip of lust and hatred.

But their triumphant joy seemed a little forced. The spontaneity had faded out of it.

Men, strangers, stopped each other on the street, faces just a little pale, eyes just a little haggard, hands just a little shaky. They produced blue bits of paste board—the summons to the Bezirkskommando, the inspection headquarters of the military districts where they resided.

"They're calling the second reserves to the colors. Another fifty divisions. I wonder why."

"Oh, just to make doubly sure. That's our German way. Anyway, we're past thirty-three, you and I, we won't have to fight. The war will be over in a month, before they'll have time to muster us in."

"I don't know about that. There are rumors …"

"Don't believe them. Foreign propaganda. English lies!"

"Still … Listen!" as a newspaper boy ran past, shouting his wares. "Here, boy! The Berliner Zeitung!"

"What is it?"

"What does that head-line say?"

"Wait. Don't crowd so."

"Yes—go on—read—"

"The Belgians …"

"Surrender? Submit?"

"No, no! Gott im Himmel! They resist! They fight!"

"Damned fools! We'll eat 'em up!"

"But England—Sir Edward Grey sent an ultimatum—yesterday …"

"Bluff! The English won't fight. India would rebel, Ireland, Canada, South Africa …"

 

Yet, for all their brave boastings, they were beginning to get nervous. The war was becoming a personal issue as, hour after hour, more reservists were called to the colors, by letter and telegram and telephone and newspaper advertisements and big placards pasted on the walls and those advertising columns, typical of Berlin, called Litvas-säulen.

In each city ward the office of the district military inspector was packed with an anxious mob shouting questions:

"When? When, Herr Oberst!"

"At once! Second and third reserves called out! Go to the barracks of your old regiments. You will find everything ready there, your uniforms, your rifles, your side arms. All numbered. Alles klappt! That is the Prussian way!"

Then the chorus, once more enthusiastic, terrible in its overwhelming, unreasoning, racial conceit:

"Yes. That is the Prussian way!" And the crowd, arm in arm, marching out on the sun-bathed streets, swinging along in the old, rectangular goose step they had learned years ago when they were with the colors, and singing at the top of their lungs:

 

"Lebt whol, Ihr Mädels und Ihr Frauen,
Und schafft Euch einen Andren an …"

 

And on they rolled to the barracks, each man to the cupboard which was painted with his number. They passed reservists, already in uniform, on their way, on foot, on horseback, and then every one would laugh and wave hands and handkerchiefs to those, the vanguard, who rode away triumphantly in the sunshine, women and children paralleling the marching columns on the sidewalks, crying, laughing, singing, shouting, throwing flowers and cigarettes.

The Uhlans of the Guard, too, were receiving their quota of reservists and Tom, who was on duty, watched them arrive, waited till they had donned their uniforms, then picked out horses and saddles for them. He, Captain von Quitzow, and young von Königsmark, promoted two days earlier to a second lieutenancy, were the only officers left at barracks. All the field officers, Colonel Heinrich Wedekind included, had been ordered to Metz an hour earlier to confer with the commanding General of the cavalry brigade of the First Army Corps; the squadron leaders had been transferred to do some quick drilling with new mounted troops that were being levied for the Eastern border, and the subalterns were busy at depot head quarters. Tom realized that, for once, he was not being watched. They had forgotten about him in the general turmoil, but for the time-being he could not get away. There were too many things to do, and he helped loyally—not out of loyalty for that Germany which he hated, but for von Quitzow, who was fussed, nervous, wavering between tears and terrible fits of Berserker rage, and for von Königsmark, who was pale and serious, but unable to cope with the situation.

So Tom did his best, and it was four o'clock in the afternoon before the full quota of reservists had been mustered in and assigned to their squadrons.

"I'm going to snatch a bite," he said to von Quitzow, rushed out, and went to the nearest telephone booth.

He called up the Colonel's house. Of course he knew that Wedekind had left for Metz; and he chuckled when the servant told him across the wires that his wife had accompanied him.

"Bully! he said to himself, jumped into a taxi-cab and, twenty minutes later, rang the bell of the Colonel's apartment. He asked for old Mrs. Wedekind and she came to him, pale, wrinkled, more feeble than he had ever seen her before, but with the same little malicious twinkle in her shrewd old eyes.

Through the open door she indicated her son's work room that looked as if a cyclone had struck it, scraps of paper on the floor, books upset, drawers pulled out, disarranged in the haste of departure.

"When the cat is away …"

"The mice begin to play," Tom finished the proverb. "Yes."

He was silent. He looked at her thin, trembling hands, at her fringe of white hair beneath the spidery lace cap. For a moment he felt strangely, almost cruelly young. Then he looked into her eyes. He saw that the little malicious twinkle had given way to an expression of sympathy, of love even, and at once the difference in age between him and her seemed to vanish.

"Mrs. Wedekind," he said, "I have come here to ask you to …" he faltered, was silent. He did not know how to put his request into words; and she gave a short, bitter laugh.

"You have come here," she said, "because you are young and in love—and, therefore, selfish, terribly, terribly selfish!"

"Please—please …"

"No use denying it, my boy. And why should you? Love is glorious, love is selfish. It is the way of love. I—I know …"

Suddenly, as Tom looked, she seemed to grow very old. Her eyes became dim. Her words came mumbling:

"They—my son, the army, Prussia, the Emperor—they think that force dominates the world. But they are wrong. It is love which dominates, love which rules. And …"

Once more her words were clear and distinct:

"You want my help, don't you? To help you and Bertha to get out of Germany, out of the Eagle's clutches?"

"Yes," murmured Tom, "I want you to …"

"Do not tell me," she interrupted. "I could not listen to you. It would be treason. I am a German. But"—she put her wrinkled old hand on Tom's arm—"it may interest you to hear that I have decided to join my son at Metz and that Bertha is going with me. You, too, are going there, with your regiment. Metz is but a few miles from the French frontier. Bertha and I leave to-night. To-morrow night, at eleven o'clock, I shall go with her to pray in the old Marienkirche—near the fortifications. It may be that I shall lose Bertha there. You see, I am old and short-sighted."

She rose.

"To-morrow night," she repeated, "near the Church of St. Mary, at eleven! Good-by, Mr. Graves!"

He bent over her thin, scented old hand. He stammered his thanks, but she cut them short.

"No, no, no!" she said, just a little petulantly. "I told you that you are in love, and that people who love are selfish, brutally selfish."

And then the Westerner in Torn rose to the occasion.

"That's where you are wrong, dead wrong!" he cried. "I—by Gosh!—I'll show you. I'll take you with me to France, to America, if I manage to make my get-away. I'll take both you and Bertha!"

She broke into a peal of laughter.

"Thank you. You are a dear boy, Tom … May I call you Tom? But …"

Abruptly her merriment ceased. She was terribly, stonily serious as she went on:

"I do not want to leave Germany."

"What?" asked Tom with naïve wonder.

"Don't you see? It is not only because I am too old, but also because—why, Tom, I am a German."

"But I've heard you say …"

"Many things—against Prussia and the Kaiser and the Junkers. True things. But, for all that, I love the Fatherland—right or wrong!" She drew herself up. "And the Fatherland is at war." She threw open the window. "Listen!"

From the street, a great, zumming chorus rose, swelling, bloating, ever increasing, singing the old German battle hymn with a hundred thousand throats:

 

"Lieb' Vaterland, magst ruhig sein …
Fest steht, und treu, die Wacht, die Wacht am Rhein"—

 

Then, with dramatic suddenness, the song broke off. There was utter, terrible silence—hushed, strained, as of a thousand unspoken questions.

Somebody, an officer of the Cuirassiers, came running around the corner. He was waving a newspaper. Tom looked from the window, Mrs. Wedekind by his side. The crowd had turned like one man and was staring at the officer.

"What—what has happened?" Mrs. Wedekind's voice trembled.

And then the answer, from the street, as the Cuirassier shouted it at the silent, questioning mob:

"England! England has declared war!"—and, at once, a chorus of cries, of shouts, of hysterical yells:

"England! The traitor nation!"

"To hell with England!"

"Gott strafe England!"

And, clear above the roar, a single, high-pitched voice stabbing out:

"On to the British Embassy! Kill the English! Kill them!"

The shout was taken up. The crowd, the Cuirassier leading, rolled on like a maelstrom, and Tom grabbed cape and uhlanka and saber.

A moment earlier, he had felt prey to a certain doubt, a certain fear. Now he saw a chance.

"Good-by!" He kissed Mrs. Wedekind's hand. "To-morrow night at eleven, in Metz, near St. Mary's Church!"

And he was out of the room, down the stairs, into the street, running to catch up with the mob that was still shouting hysterically:

"Kill the English! Kill them! On to the British Embassy!"