« PreviousContinue »
Presently we came upon a road lined with stone fences, and presently after that upon the figure of a man. We saw him first some distance ahead of us, sitting by the roadside with his back to the wall, engaged apparently in listlessly sketching the very indifferent landscape before him. When we came up we saw that he was dressed in an old uniform of a sub-lieutenant of the German navy. He saluted us, but did not rise.
“I beg your pardon," he said in very good English. “I cannot get up without assistance.''
He was a young man with the dark eyes and hair of southern Germany, and his face was so worn and hollow, that I, who had by that time become used to most of the marks which want and suffering can leave upon the human countenance, stopped and looked at him. He returned the look for a moment, without defiance, without servility; indeed, as far as I could see, without interest or feeling of any kind whatever. His gaze was very level. I realized that I was staring, and colored a little at my own lack of manners. I glanced around to see if he had any attendant. No one was in sight.
"How do you go about, then," demanded the major brusquely, "if you can't geť on your feet?”
"I don't go about, sir," said the German in a dead voice. “They come for me at sun-down."
The major turned away indifferently and walked on. But for me there was something fascinating in this curious man, sitting motionless, imperturbable, apparently without feeling, in the motionless, dead Silesian afternoon.
“And your sketch. May I see it?"
"It is for you to command," he responded, showing no particular hostility, open or suppressed. “And why not?"
He lifted the sketching pad. I exclaimed in surprise. It was not a landscape, but a woman's hand and wrist that he had pencilled there. A strange drawing. The fingers—long and gracefully tapered, with a heavy wedding ring—were in the act of clutching, clutching desperately for something, and there was a power and fierceness of grip infused into their naturally delicate lines that made them horrible--and grotesque.
"What is this?” I said, looking from those pictured fingers, grasping with all the power of life, to the living face, gazing blankly, like a washed-out picture, into the distance.
“You like it?” he asked in his flat voice. "It passes the time. I still have a certain amount of time to get over with. It must be done somehow."
The major had disappeared down the road, leaving me to the contamination of the Hun. I suppose he thought that I had depraved tastes. I seated myself against the wall. The German evinced no objection, but made no assent.
“What did you mean by that?” I asked. For the first time there was a change in his expression. A dull smile passed over it and was gone.
“You would like to hear? It is yours to command. But that is only natural. To the victor belong the spoils. Why not? It doesn't matter.-Ah, you would like to hear, then? But you will have to listen to the whole story."
“It is a little story, a trifling thing, the sort that any of these magazine writers could dash off in half an hour and think nothing of it. Nothing of it at all. Such a senseless trifle that I laugh at myself sometimes and say, 'What a fool you are, August, to keep going over that little thing in your head. As if you were worth thinking of at all.' I know very well that I am not, but it amuses me, you may say. So I remember it. And make sketches. There is not much time left, and one must pass it somehow.
"I am not a Silesian. I don't know anyone in Silesia except the friends with whom I stay. I was born in Bavaria, and I had a very good time there years ago. I shall not go back; I cannot go back, I think. But after all, I must have been happy indeed. You see, my father was a large manufacturer and had money, and in between manufacturing, for I was to take over the business since I was the only son, I used to paint and sketch. We Bavarians were a jolly and careless lot, and the beer was good. And the painting helped one out, too. Self-expression, I called it. The Lord God knows I had little enough in myself to express, but after all, I did some work that might be called good. They used to say, my friends, that I ought not to waste myself in manufacturing petrol engines. But I laughed at them, for I knew very well that I was not a great artist, and went on with my sketches on Sundays and holidays, by way of a pastime, although it thrilled me when my work was good. Some of it was, I think, good. But it doesn't matter.
"Of course, there was Victoria, who liked the sketches and praised them, and that made me feel even better. Ah, sir, you don't know what eyes and hair she had; eyes that were deep, and hair that flew about her face on windy days and caught me, caught me as a spider catches a fly in his net. Whom would it not? If
If you had seen Victoria you would not smile behind your hand and think what a fool this is sitting beside you and talking about a woman in this way. Yes, I know that you think so. But you would not if you had seen her. A great deal I have been weak in, perhaps, but no man could have been strong there. What does it matter?
“Victoria! What a name! Victory. They gave it to her, of course, in the days when we Germans were rattling swords at the world. We've always named our children like that and talked like that and rattled swords. Until now, when they are still trying to get a rattle out of the empty scabbard up there in Berlin. Ah, the fools! Crazy fools! They have not seen; they don't realize what nonsense they talk—perhaps they are not men enough.
"Victoria, I was saying. Yes, she was a woman who ought to have been soft and graceful and yielding like the floating lightness of her dark hair. I used to think she was. I used to sketch her often, with her hair waving in that way in the wind. And she liked the sketches; or said she did. But she had that stupid name. Victoria! What does it matter, all this of victory and defeat? Nothing, nothing, I tell you, in this machine of a world.
"Of course, the machine caught me. I didn't know it then. I was too young and full of my work and my pictures and the gay times we young fellows used to have. How should I have known anything about the machine? I looked at my sketches in my room. “These, I said to myself, 'I shall learn to make in earnest. When the war is over I shall paint indeed.' And so I went off with my regiment, Victoria pinning a nosegay to my helmet and crying a bit on my shoulder while all the crowd yelled and felt properly enthusiastic.
"I didn't know about the machine. Sometimes, in that first year, I began to have little glimmerings of an idea, on cold mornings in the trenches or after some raid or skirmish when the nerves grew tired and the reaction set in. Once only I tried to make a picture. They were only five or six men of my halfcompany sitting on the ground. But I could not draw them. There was too much, too much in those few faces and the bowedover backs and the muddy clothing. I threw the paper away. This was how I was learning to make pictures ! I did not try after that.
"And so I returned on leave after that first year. Victoria was there and the others, and they asked all the usual questions and were sentimental and laughed over me, of course.
I tried to answer them, and stopped. It was the same as with the picture. There was too much; I did not understand what I wanted to say. I did not understand, then. So I covered it up by telling the ordinary silly stories of the trenches and the marching and the victories and the mud—all the common soldier stories, you know. I couldn't tell the real truth. I did not then recognize the machine that had caught me and was grinding me, all of us, through itself. That seems simple now, but then I did not understand.
“ 'Ah,' said Victoria to me, after some foolish tale of a man I had seen somewhere with his two legs shot off, 'it is terrible.' She did not know what the word meant. I see now that she didn't. It is terrible, but it is for the Emperor.'
"'The Emperor,' I said stupidly. I had forgotten all about the Emperor. He had already ceased to mean anything to me; already it was only the machine that counted, but I did not know it by its right name as yet.
'We suffer too,' said Victoria. 'This vile blockade. We could not give you the good old-time dinner that such a homecoming deserved, August. Food is too scarce.'
"And that reminded me of something else to tell her and to keep the conversation going. 'You know, it was a funny thing. They were calling for volunteers in the regiment, just before I
left, for the submarine fleets. They wanted engineers. Funny thing, isn't it, for the navy to go after volunteers in an infantry regiment! They need officers and men, it seems. Yes, I called it a funny thing.
'August!' she cried. Her voice was hard. You see, she couldn't have been thinking of me at all. I didn't notice at the time, but I remembered the sound of it afterwards. Often. 'August, how glorious! How fine for you to go into the submarine fleets, there, in the greatest service the Emperor asks of us!'
"'For me? I'm not going into the navy,' I said. "Why should I?'
"'Why should you?' Her voice was still hard and ringing, , like her name. “Why should you go anywhere that your Emperor and country call you? You are an engineer. You did not spend so much time with your silly sketching that you are not a good engineer.
"It was true. In my father's factory I had learned the inside and out of petrol engines. The Emperor and my country, she said. I had not been thinking of them very much.
“ 'I had not intended to go,' I told her.
“'You had not intended! Where is your patriotism? Where is your love of country and of honor and—of me, August?' Yes, she had the face to say it. Of her! But I did not question, then. I looked at her; she was thin; the food had not been good or plentiful. She needed me in the submarine fleet. I volunteered. It was not for the Emperor or for the country, it was for her. Would you believe it, who have not seen Victoria, that her need loomed so large in my eyes? It was for that I joined. At least, I thought then that this was the reason, but after all it was really only the machine catching me up in the net of Victoria's dark hair and pale cheeks. A little thing to catch a man. But what does it matter?
“My first morning at sea I shall always remember. I had been upon the ocean before, to England and to your own country. But never have I seen quite that level look of horror upon it, as it was on that first morning when we sailed out of Cuxhaven harbor, with the little waves snapping viciously at our feet over the low, ugly sides of the submarine boat. Cold, grey, merciless.