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THE evening was pearl-grey when they left the village; in their nostrils was the smell of the leisurely death of the year, of leaves drying and falling, of ripened fruit and bursting seed-pods.
"The fall's a maddening sort o' time for me," said Tom Randolph. "It makes me itch to get up on ma hind legs an' do things, go places."
"I suppose it's that the earth has such a feel of accomplishment," said Howe.
"You do feel as if Nature had pulled off her part of the job and was restin'."
They stopped a second and looked about them, breathing deep. On one side of the road were woods where in long alleys the mists deepened into purple darkness.
"There's the moon."
"God! it looks like a pumpkin."
"I wish those guns'd shut up 'way off there to the north."
"They're sort of irrelevant, aren't they?"
They walked on, silent, listening to the guns throbbing far away, like muffled drums beaten in nervous haste.
"Sounds almost like a barrage."
Martin for some reason was thinking of the last verses of Shelley's Hellas. He wished he knew them so that he could recite them.
"Faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks in a dissolving dream."
The purple trunks of saplings passed slowly across the broad face of the moon as they walked along. How beautiful the world was!
"Look, Tom." Martin put his arm about Randolph's shoulder and nodded towards the moon. "It might be a ship with puffed-out pumpkin-coloured sails, the way the trees make it look now."
"Wouldn't it be great to go to sea?" said Randolph, looking straight into the moon, "an' get out of this slaughter-house. It's nice to see the war, but I have no intention of taking up butchery as a profession. There is too much else to do in the world."
They walked slowly along the road talking of the sea, and Martin told how when he was a little kid he'd had an uncle who used to tell him about the Vikings and the Swan Path, and how one of the great moments of his life had been when he and a friend had looked out of their window in a little inn on Cape Cod one morning and seen the sea and the swaying gold path of the sun on it, stretching away, beyond the horizon.
"Poor old life," he said. "I'd expected to do so much with you." And they both laughed, a little bitterly.
They were strolling past a large farmhouse that stood like a hen among chicks in a crowd of little outbuildings. A man in the road lit a cigarette and Martin recognised him in the orange glare of the match.
"Monsieur Merrier!" He held out his hand. It was the aspirant he had drunk beer with weeks ago at Brocourt.
"Hah! It's you!"
"So you are en repos here, too?"
"Yes, indeed. But you two come in and see us; we are dying of the blues."
"We'd love to stop in for a second."
A fire smouldered in the big hearth of the farmhouse kitchen, sending a little irregular fringe of red light out over the tiled floor. At the end of the room towards the door three men were seated round a table, smoking. A candle threw their huge and grotesque shadows on the floor and on the whitewashed walls, and lit up the dark beams of that part of the ceiling. The three men got up and everyone shook hands, filling the room with swaying giant shadows. Champagne was brought and tin cups and more candles, and the Americans were given the two most comfortable chairs.
"It's such a find to have Americans who speak French," said a bearded man with unusually large brilliant eyes. He had been introduced as André Dubois, "a very terrible person," had added Merrier, laughing. The cork popped out of the bottle he had been struggling with.
"You see, we never can find out what you think about things. . . . All we can do is to be sympathetically inane, and vive les braves alliés and that sort of stuff."
"I doubt if we Americans do think," said Martin.
"Cigarettes, who wants some cigarettes?" cried Lully, a small man with a very brown oval face to which long eyelashes and a little bit of silky black moustache gave almost a winsomeness. When he laughed he showed brilliant, very regular teeth. As he handed the cigarettes about he looked searchingly at Martin with eyes disconcertingly intense. "Merrier has told us about you," he said. "You seem to be the first American we'd met who agreed with us."
"About the war, of course."
"Yes," took up the fourth man, a blonde Norman with an impressive, rather majestic face, "we were very interested. You see, we bore each other, talking always among ourselves. . . . I hope you won't be offended if I agree with you in saying that Americans never think. I've been in Texas, you see."
"Yes, I went to a Jesuit College in Dallas. I was preparing to enter the Society of Jesus."
"How long have you been in the war?" asked André Dubois, passing his hand across his beard.
"We've both been in the same length of time--about six months."
"Do you like it?"
"I don't have a bad time. . . . But the people in Boccaccio managed to enjoy themselves while the plague was at Florence. That seems to me the only way to take the war."
"We have no villa to take refuge in, though," said Dubois, "and we have forgotten all our amusing stories."
"And in America--they like the war?"
"They don't know what it is. They are like children. They believe everything they are told, you see; they have had no experience in international affairs, like you Europeans. To me our entrance into the war is a tragedy."
"It's sort of goin' back on our only excuse for existing," put in Randolph.
"In exchange for all the quiet and the civilisation and the beauty of ordered lives that Europeans gave up in going to the new world we gave them opportunity to earn luxury, and, infinitely more important, freedom from the past, that gangrened ghost of the past that is killing Europe to-day with its infection of hate and greed of murder.
"America has turned traitor to all that, you see; that's the way we look at it. Now we're a military nation, an organised pirate like France and England and Germany."
"But American idealism? The speeches, the notes?" cried Lully, catching the edge of the table with his two brown hands.
"Camouflage," said Martin.
"You mean it's insincere?"
"The best camouflage is always sincere."
Dubois ran his hands through his hair.
"Of course, why should there be any difference?" he said.
"Oh, we're all dupes, we're all dupes. Look, Lully, old man, fill up the Americans' glasses."
"And I used to believe in liberty," said Martin. He raised his tumbler and looked at the candle through the pale yellow champagne. On the wall behind him, his arm and hand and the tumbler were shadowed huge in dusky lavender blue. He noticed that his was the only tumbler.
"I am honoured," he said; "mine is the only glass."
"And that's looted," said Merrier.
"It's funny . . ." Martin suddenly felt himself filled with a desire to talk. "All my life I've struggled for my own liberty in my small way. Now I hardly know if the thing exists."
"Exists? Of course it does, or people wouldn't hate it so," cried Lully.
"I used to think," went on Martin, "that it was my family I must escape from to be free; I mean all the conventional ties, the worship of success and the respect-abilities that is drummed into you when you're young."
"I suppose everyone has thought that. . . ."
"How stupid we were before the war, how we prated of small revolts, how we sniggered over little jokes at religion and government. And all the while, in the infinite greed, in the infinite stupidity of men, this was being prepared." André Dubois was speaking, puffing nervously at a cigarette between phrases, now and then pulling at his beard with a long, sinewy hand.
"What terrifies me rather is their power to enslave our minds," Martin went on, his voice growing louder and surer as his idea carried him along. "I shall never forget the flags, the menacing, exultant flags along all the streets before we went to war, the gradual unbaring of teeth, gradual lulling to sleep of people's humanity and sense by the phrases, the phrases. . . . America, as you know, is ruled by the press. And the press is ruled by whom? Who shall ever know what dark forces bought and bought until we should be ready to go blinded and gagged to war? . . . People seem to so love to be fooled. Intellect used to mean freedom, a light struggling against darkness. Now the darkness is using the light for its own purposes. . . . We are slaves of bought intellect, willing slaves."
"But, Howe, the minute you see that and laugh at it, you're not a slave. Laugh and be individually as decent as you can, and don't worry your head about the rest of the world; and have a good time in spite of the God-damned scoundrels," broke out Randolph in English. "No use worrying yourself into the grave over a thing you can't help."
"There is one solution and one only, my friends," said the blonde Norman; "the Church. . . ." He sat up straight in his chair, speaking slowly with expressionless face. "People are too weak and too kindly to shift for themselves. Government of some sort there must be. Lay Government has proved through all the tragic years of history to be merely a ruse of the strong to oppress the weak, of the wicked to fool the confiding. There remains only religion. In the organisation of religion lies the natural and suitable arrangement for the happiness of man. The Church will govern not through physical force but through spiritual force."
"The force of fear." Lully jumped to his feet impatiently, making the bottles sway on the table.
"The force of love. . . . I once thought as you do, my friend," said the Norman, pulling Lully back into his chair with a smile.
Lully drank a glass of champagne greedily and undid the buttons of his blue jacket.
"Go on," he said; "it's madness."
"All the evil of the Church," went on the Norman's even voice, "comes from her struggles to attain supremacy. Once assured of triumph, established as the rule of the world, it becomes the natural channel through which the wise rule and direct the stupid, not for their own interest, not for ambition for worldly things, but for the love that is in them. The freedom the Church offers is the only true freedom. It denies the world, and the slaveries and rewards of it. It gives the love of God as the only aim of life."
"But think of the Church to-day, the cardinals at Rome, the Church turned everywhere to the worship of tribal gods. . . ."
"Yes, but admit that that can be changed. The Church has been supreme in the past; can it not again be supreme? All the evil comes from the struggle, from the compromise. Picture to yourself for a moment a world conquered by the Church, ruled through the soul and mind, where force will not exist, where instead of all the multitudinous tyrannies man has choked his life with in organising against other men, will exist the one supreme thing, the Church of God. Instead of many hatreds, one love. Instead of many slaveries, one freedom."
"A single tyranny, instead of a million. What's the choice?" cried Lully.
"But you are both violent, my children." Merrier got to his feet and smilingly filled the glasses all round. "You go at the matter too much from the heroic point of view. All this sermonising does no good. We are very simple people who want to live quietly and have plenty to eat and have no one worry us or hurt us in the little span of sunlight before we die. All we have now is the same war between the classes: those that exploit and those that are exploited. The cunning, unscrupulous people control the humane, kindly people. This war that has smashed our little European world in which order was so painfully taking the place of chaos, seems to me merely a gigantic battle fought over the plunder of the world by the pirates who have grown fat to the point of madness on the work of their own people, on the work of the millions in Africa, in India, in America, who have come directly or indirectly under the yoke of the insane greed of the white races. Well, our edifice is ruined. Let's think no more of it. Ours is now the duty of rebuilding, reorganising. I have not faith enough in human nature to be an anarchist. . . . We are too like sheep; we must go in flocks, and a flock to live must organise. There is plenty for everyone, even with the huge growth in population all over the world. What we want is organisation from the bottom, organisation by the ungreedy, by the humane, by the uncunning, socialism of the masses that shall spring from the natural need of men to help one another; not socialism from the top to the ends of the governors, that they may clamp us tighter in their fetters. We must stop the economic war, the war for existence of man against man. That will be the first step in the long climb to civilisation. They must co-operate, they must learn that it is saner and more advantageous to help one another than to hinder one another in the great war against nature. And the tyranny of the feudal money lords, the unspeakable misery of this war is driving men closer together into fraternity, co-operation. It is the lower classes, therefore, that the new world must be founded on. The rich must be extinguished; with them wars will die. First between rich and poor, between the exploiter and the exploited. . . ."
"They have one thing in common," interrupted the blonde Norman, smiling.
"Humanity. . . . That is, feebleness, cowardice."
"No, indeed. All through the world's history there has been one law for the lord and another for the slave, one humanity for the lord and another humanity for the slave. What we must strive for is a true universal humanity."
"True," cried Lully, "but why take the longest, the most difficult road? You say that people are sheep; they must be driven. I say that you and I and our American friends here are not sheep. We are capable of standing alone, of judging all for ourselves, and we are just ordinary people like anyone else."
"Oh, but look at us, Lully!" interrupted Merrier. "We are too weak and too cowardly . . ."
"An example," said Martin, excitedly leaning across the table. "We none of us believe that war is right or useful or anything but a hideous method of mutual suicide. Have we the courage of our own faith?"
"As I said," Merrier took up again, "I have too little faith to be an anarchist, but I have too much to believe in religion." His tin cup rapped sharply on the table as he set it down.
"No," Lully continued, after a pause, "it is better for man to worship God, His image on the clouds, the creation of his fancy, than to worship the vulgar apparatus of organised life, government. Better sacrifice his children to Moloch than to that society for the propagation and protection of commerce, the nation. Oh, think of the cost of government in all the ages since men stopped living in marauding tribes! Think of the great men martyred. Think of the thought trodden into the dust. . . . Give man a chance for once. Government should be purely utilitarian, like the electric light wires in a house. It is a method for attaining peace and comfort--a bad one, I think, at that; not a thing to be worshipped as God. The one reason for it is the protection of property. Why should we have property? That is the central evil of the world. . . . That is the cancer that has made life a hell of misery until now; the inflated greed of it has spurred on our nations of the West to throw themselves back, for ever, perhaps, into the depths of savagery. . . . Oh, if people would only trust their own fundamental kindliness, the fraternity, the love that is the strongest thing in life. Abolish property, and the disease of the desire for it, the desire to grasp and have, and you'll need no government to protect you. The vividness and resiliency of the life of man is being fast crushed under organisation, tabulation. Overorganisation is death. It is disorganisation, not organisation, that is the aim of life."
"I grant that what all of you say is true, but why say it over and over again?" André Dubois talked, striding back and forth beside the table, his arms gesticulating. His compound shadow thrown by the candles on the white wall followed him back and forth, mocking him with huge blurred gestures. "The Greek philosophers said it and the Indian sages. Our descendants thousands of years from now will say it and wring their hands as we do. Has not someone on earth the courage to act? . . ." The men at the table turned towards him, watching his tall figure move back and forth.
"We are slaves. We are blind. We are deaf. Why should we argue, we who have no experience of different things to go on? It has always been the same: man the slave of property or religion, of his own shadow. . . First we must burst our bonds, open our eyes, clear our ears. Now we know nothing but what we are told by the rulers. Oh, the lies, the lies, the lies, the lies that life is smothered in! We must strike once more for freedom, for the sake of the dignity of man. Hopelessly, cynically, ruthlessly we must rise and show at least that we are not taken in; that we are slaves but not willing slaves. Oh, they have deceived us so many times. We have been such dupes, we have been such dupes!"
"You are right," said the blonde Norman sullenly; "we have all been dupes."
A sudden self-consciousness chilled them all to silence for a while. Without wanting to, they strained their ears to hear the guns. There they were, throbbing loud, unceasing, towards the north, like hasty muffled drum-beating.
"Cease; drain not to its dregs the wine,
Of bitter Prophecy.
The world is weary of its past.
Oh, might it die or rest at last."
All through the talk snatches from Hellas had been running through Howe's head.
After a long pause he turned to Merrier and asked him how he had fared in the attack.
"Oh, not so badly. I brought my skin back," said Merrier, laughing. "It was a dull business. After waiting eight hours under gas bombardment we got orders to advance, and so over we went with the barrage way ahead of us. There was no resistance where we were. We took a lot of prisoners and blew up some dugouts and I had the good luck to find a lot of German chocolate. It came in handy, I can tell you, as no ravitaillement came for two days. We just had biscuits and I toasted the biscuits and chocolate together and had quite good meals, though I nearly died of thirst afterwards. . . . We lost heavily, though, when they started counterattacking."
"An' no one of you were touched?"
"Luck. . . . But we lost many dear friends. Oh, it's always like that."
"Look what I brought back--a German gun," said André Dubois, going to the corner of the room.
"That's some souvenir," said Tom Randolph, sitting up suddenly, shaking himself out of the reverie he had been sunk in all through the talk of the evening.
"And I have three hundred rounds. They'll come in handy some day."
"In the revolution--after the war."
"That's the stuff I like to hear," cried Randolph, getting to his feet. "Why wait for the war to end?"
"Why? Because we have not the courage. . . . But it is impossible until after the war."
"And then you think it is possible?"
"Will it accomplish anything?"
"One last bottle of champagne," cried Merrier.
They seated themselves round the table again. Martin took in at a glance the eager sunburned faces, the eyes burning with hope, with determination, and a sudden joy flared through him.
"Oh, there is hope," he said, drinking down his glass. "We are too young, too needed to fail. We must find a way, find the first step of a way to freedom, or life is a hollow mockery."
"To Revolution, to Anarchy, to the Socialist state," they all cried, drinking down the last of the champagne. All the candles but one had guttered out. Their shadows swayed and darted in long arms and changing, grotesque limbs about the room.
"But first there must be peace," said the Norman, Jean Chenier, twisting his mouth into a faintly bitter smile.
"Oh, indeed, there must be peace."
"Of all slaveries, the slavery of war, of armies, is the bitterest, the most hopeless slavery." Lully was speaking, his smooth brown face in a grimace of excitement and loathing. "War is our first enemy."
"But oh, my friend," said Merrier, "we will win in the end. All the people in all the armies of the world believe as we do. In all the minds the seed is sprouting."
"Before long the day will come. The tocsin will ring."
"Do you really believe that?" cried Martin. "Have we the courage, have we the energy, have we the power? Are we the men our ancestors were?"
"No," said Dubois, crashing down on the table with his fist; "we are merely intellectuals. We cling to a mummified world. But they have the power and the nerve."
"The stupid average working-people."
"We only can combat the lies," said Lully; "they are so easily duped. After the war that is what we must do."
"Oh, but we are all such dupes," cried Dubois. "First we must fight the lies. It is the lies that choke us."
It was very late. Howe and Tom Randolph were walking home under a cold white moon already well sunk in the west; northward was a little flickering glare above the tops of the low hills and a sound of firing as of muffled drums beaten hastily.
"With people like that we needn't despair of civilisation," said Howe.
"With people who are young and aren't scared you can do lots."
"We must come over and see those fellows again. It's such a relief to be able to talk."
"And they give you the idea that something's really going on in the world, don't they?"
"Oh, it's wonderful! Think that the awakening may come soon."
"We might wake up to-morrow and . . ."
"It's too important to joke about; don't be an ass, Tom."
They rolled up in their blankets in the silent barn and listened to the drum-fire in the distance. Martin saw again, as he lay on his side with his eyes closed, the group of men in blue uniforms, men with eager brown faces and eyes gleaming with hope, and saw their full red lips moving as they talked.
The candle threw the shadows of their heads, huge, fantastic, and of their gesticulating arms on the white walls of the kitchen. And it seemed to Martin Howe that all his friends were gathered in that room.