Autobiography (Chesterton)/Chapter XI
|Chapter X|| Autobiography
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter XI: The Shadow of the Sword
I had been living, already for a long time, in the town of Beaconsfield in the County of Bucks; the town which some Colonials imagine to have been named after Lord Beaconsfield the politician. It is rather as if they thought that England had been named after Mr. England the pirate. I am almost tempted to add that I say it with an apology to pirates. I do not know for certain why Disraeli took his title from Beaconsfield, which he scarcely ever visited, rather than from Hughenden, where he lived. But I was told by old Lord Burnham, the founder of the Daily Telegraph, that (as the story ran) he had chosen the title originally intended for Burke, who did live at Beaconsfield and whose legend still clings in many ways to the place. Mr. Garvin, the editor of the Observer, lives in what was once the house of Burke's agent and the oak-tree in my own garden was one of the line of trees that marked the limit of this land. I am glad that Mr. Garvin fits into that political landscape much better than I do; for I admire Burke in many things while disagreeing with him in nearly everything. But Mr. Garvin strikes me as being rather like Burke; in his Irish origin, in his English Conservatism, in his eloquence and gravity and something that can only be called urgency of mind. I once suggested to him that he should appear at a local festival as Burke and I as Fox; a part for which I have no claim except in circumference. But I hope there will never come a dark and difficult hour when political differences become personal, and Mr. Garvin begins to throw daggers about and say that our friendship is at an end.
I have lived in Beaconsfield from the time when it was almost a village to the time when, as the enemy profanely says, it is almost a suburb. It would be truer to say that the two things in some sense still exist side by side; and the popular instinct has recognised the division by actually talking about the Old Town and the New Town. I once planned a massive and exhaustive sociological work, in several volumes, which was to be called "The Two Barbers of Beaconsfield" and based entirely upon the talk of the two excellent citizens to whom I went to get shaved. For those two shops do indeed belong to two different civilisations. The hairdresser of the New Town belongs to the new world and has the spotlessness of the specialist; the other has what may be called the ambidexterity of the peasant, shaving (so to speak) with one hand while he stuffs squirrels or sells tobacco with the other. The latter tells me from his own recollection what happened in Old Beaconsfield; the former, or his assistants, tell me from the Daily Mail what has not happened in a wider world. But I suggest this comparison, merely as an introduction to a parallel matter of local interest; which happens to embody, better perhaps than any other emblem, all those large matters that are more than local. If I wanted to write a book about the whole of this great passage in the history of England, including the Great War and many other changes almost as great, I should write it in the form of a History of the Beaconsfield War Memorial.
The plain primary proposal was that a cross should be set up at the cross-roads. Before the discussion was half over there had entered into it the following subjects of debate: (1) The Position of Woman in the Modern World, (2) Prohibition and the Drink Question, (3) The Excellence or Exaggeration of the Cult of Athletics, (4) The Problem of Unemployment, Especially in Relation to Ex-Service Men, (5) The Question of Support for Hospitals and the General Claims of Surgery and Medicine, (6) The Justice of the War, (7) Above all, or rather under all, for it was in many ways masked or symbolically suggested, the great war of religion which has never ceased to divide mankind, especially since that sign was set up among them. Those who debated the matter were a little group of the inhabitants of a little country town; the rector and the doctor and the bank manager and the respectable trades-men of the place, with a few hangers-on like myself, of the more disreputable professions of journalism or the arts. But the powers that were present there in the spirit came out of all the ages and all the battlefields of history; Mahomet was there and the Iconoclasts, who came riding out of the East to ruin the statues of Italy, and Calvin and Rousseau and the Russian anarchs and all the older England that is buried under Puritanism; and Henry the Third ordering the little images for Westminster and Henry the Fifth, after Agincourt, on his knees before the shrines of Paris. If one could really write that little story of that little place, it would be the greatest of historical monographs.
The first thing to note, as typical of the modern tone, is a certain effect of toleration which actually results in timidity. Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it. There is a further qualification of some interest; that in this, as in many things, there is an immense intellectual superiority in the poor, and even in the ignorant. The cottagers of the Old Town either liked the Cross because it was Christian and said so, or else disliked the Cross because it was Popish and said so. But the leaders of the No-Popery Party were ashamed to talk No-Popery. They did not say in so many words that they thought a Crucifix a wicked thing; but they said, in any number of words, that they thought a parish pump or a public fountain or a municipal motor-bus a good thing. But the greater number of them tended to the proposal of a Club Building, especially for ex-service men; where the latter could have refreshment (that is where the Drink Question came in) or play games (that is where the Athletic Question came in) or possibly even share the Club on equal terms with their wives and women-folk (that is where the Wrongs of Women came in) and generally, in fact, enjoy all that we should desire ex-soldiers to enjoy, if there were really any chance of letting them do so. The scheme was in that sense admirable; but, as it proceeded, it became almost too admirable, in the original Latin sense of astonishing. Those who had propounded it called themselves, I need hardly say, the Practical Party. They justly condemned us of the other group as dreamers and mystical visionaries. They set to work to draw up their plans for the Club; and they were certainly plans of the most magnificent completeness. There were to be cricket-fields and football-fields and swimming-baths and golf-courses, for all I know. The incident has a primary moral, with reference to that strange modern notion about what is practical and constructive, which seems merely to mean what is large and largely advertised. By the end of the controversy the plan of the Practical Party had swelled to the ends of the earth and taken on the dimensions of Aladdin's Palace. There was not the remotest chance of collecting subscriptions for such a scheme; at the rate it was developing it might run to millions. Meanwhile, the vision of the mere visionaries could be realised easily for a few hundred pounds.
And the second moral to the story is this; that the modern mind finds it very difficult to understand the idea of an aim or object. When I was speaking on behalf of the simple stone monument at the cross-roads, I quoted the excellent saying of Mr. Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, when his sister asks him, just before the ball, whether it would not be much more rational if conversation at a ball took the place of dancing; and he answers, "Much more rational, but not half so like a ball." I pointed out that a parish-pump might seem to some more rational than a Cross, but it was not half so like a War Memorial. A club, or a hospital ward, or anything having its own practical purpose, policy and future, would not really be a War Memorial at all; it would not be in practice a memory of the War. If people thought it wrong to have a memory of the War, let them say so. If they did not approve of wasting money on a War Memorial, let us scrap the War Memorial and save the money. But to do something totally different which we wanted to do, on pretence of doing something else that we did not do, was unworthy of Homo sapiens and the dignity of that poor old anthropoid. I got some converts to my view; but I think that many still thought I was not practical; though in fact I was very specially practical, for those who understand what is really meant by a Pragma. The most practical test of the problem of unmemorial memorials was offered by the Rector of Beaconsfield, who simply got up and said, "We already have a ward in the Wycombe Hospital which was supposed to commemorate something. Can anybody here tell me what it commemorates?"
Anyhow, the Cross was the crux; and it is no pun but a plain truth to put it so. But the curious point is that few of those who found the Cross crucial would admit in so many words that it was crucial because it was the Cross. They advanced all sorts of alternative objections or made all sorts of alternative proposals. One lady wished to have a statue of a soldier, and I shuddered inwardly, knowing what such statues can be; fortunately another lady, with a nephew in the Navy, called out indignantly, "What about the sailors?" Whereupon the first lady said with hasty but hearty apology, "Oh, yes; and a sailor as well." Whereupon a third lady, with a brother in the Air Force, proposed that this also should be included in the group; and the first lady with large and generous gestures accepted all and every addition of the kind; so that this magnificent sculptural monument was soon towering into tanks and toppling with aeroplanes. It seemed a little dangerous; but it was safer than a market-cross. Other objections to the latter symbol were adduced, probably to cover the real objection; such as the monument as an obstacle to traffic. The local doctor, an admirable physician but a sceptic of rather a schoolboy sort, observed warmly, "If you do stick up a thing like this, I hope you'll stick a light on it, or all our cars will smash into it in the dark." Whereupon my wife, who was then an ardent Anglo-Catholic, observed with an appearance of dreamy rapture, "Oh, yes! How beautiful! A lamp continually burning before the Cross!" Which was not exactly what the man of science had proposed; but it could not have been more warmly seconded.
Lastly, the most significant part of this social episode was the end of it. If anyone fails to realise how lasting, or lingering, in spite of everything, are the old social forms of England and its structure as an ancient aristocratic state, he could not do better than consider the last quiet and ironic ending of the great battle of the Beaconsfield War Memorial. There was a huge paper plebiscite in which hardly anybody knew what he was voting for, but which turned up somehow with a narrow numerical majority for the building of the Club. The Club, for which the practical majority had voted was never built. The Cross, for which the more mystical minority had largely forgotten to vote, was built. When the whole fuss of papers and public meetings was over, and everybody was thinking about other things, the rector of the parish raised a quiet subscription of his own among his own co-religionists and sympathisers; got enough money to put up a Cross and put it up. Meanwhile Lord Burnham, the chief landlord of the neighbourhood, equally casually informed the Ex-Service Men and their sympathisers that they could use a hall, which was his property, for their Club, if they liked, they appeared to be perfectly contented; and so far from demanding any other Club, seemed to have become fairly indifferent about the use of this one. So did the Great War pass over Beaconsfield, making the world safe for Democracy and the holding of any number of public meetings full of the revolutionary hopes of the Modern World; and so in the end the whole matter was decided at the private discretion of the Squire and Parson, as it was in the days of old.
There was a sequel, however, involving more serious things. A renewed shock went through the anti-clerical party on finding that the Cross was a Crucifix. This represented, to many amiable and professedly moderate Nonconformists and other Protestants, exactly that extra touch that they could not tolerate. The distinction is all the more clearly to be kept in mind because it is, on the face of it, an entirely irrational distinction. The sort of Evangelical who demands what he calls a Living Christ must surely find it difficult to reconcile with his religion an indifference to a Dying Christ; but anyhow one would think he would prefer it to a Dead Cross. To salute the Cross in that sense is literally to bow down to wood and stone; since it is only an image in stone of something that was made of wood. It is surely less idolatrous to salute the Incarnate God or His image; and the case is further complicated by the relation of the image to the other object. If a man were ready to wreck every statue of Julius Caesar, but also ready to kiss the sword that killed him, he would be liable to be misunderstood as an ardent admirer of Caesar. If a man hated to have a portrait of Charles the First, but rubbed his hands with joy at the sight of the axe that beheaded him, he would have himself to blame if he were regarded rather as a Roundhead than a Royalist. And to permit a picture of the engine of execution, while forbidding a picture of the victim, is just as strange and sinister in the case of Christ as in that of Caesar. And this illustrates something about the whole situation, which grew clearer and clearer to me about this time and initiated the next step of my life.
Of that revolution in my life I shall write more fully later. But for the moment, in the particular connection under consideration, I will say this. The fact that, after all these alarums and excursions, and as the almost inconsequent outcome of so much fuss and turmoil, a carved crucifix does now actually stand in the heart of the little town that is my home, is naturally a source of intense and somewhat ironic joy to me. But, with quite undiminished sympathy and respect for my friends and neighbours who did actually set it up, there is a certain quality in the way in which it came, and the way in which it was accepted, that is not to me entirely acceptable. I do not want the crucifix to be a compromise, or a concession to the weaker brethren, or a makeweight or a by-product. I want it to be a blazon and a boast. I want there to be no more doubt about our all glorying in it than there would have been in any body of old Crusaders pitting the Cross against the Crescent. And if anyone wants to know my feelings about a point on which I touch rarely and with reluctance: the relation of the Church I left to the Church I joined, there is the answer as compact and concrete as a stone image. I do not want to be in a religion in which I am allowed to have a crucifix. I feel the same about the much more controversial question of the honour paid to the Blessed Virgin. If people do not like that cult, they are quite right not to be Catholics. But in people who are Catholics, or call themselves Catholics, I want the idea not only liked but loved and loved ardently, and above all proudly proclaimed. I want it to be what the Protestants are perfectly right in calling it; the badge and sign of a Papist. I want to be allowed to be enthusiastic about the existence of the enthusiasm; not to have my chief enthusiasm coldly tolerated as an eccentricity of myself. And that is why, with all the good will in the world, I cannot feel the crucifix at one end of the town as a substitute for the little Roman Catholic Church at the other.
But I have here introduced the War Memorial in connection with the other matter of the War. I have purposely approached the episode of the War from the wrong end. I have spoken first of certain problems that arose when it was all over; because it happens to illustrate certain peculiarities in my own position and experience. There are certain things to be said that can hardly be said except as by one regarding the War in retrospect; the problem involved had hardly arisen when we only saw it in prospect; and yet, unless I pass on to some such summary, all that I say on this subject may be much misunderstood; especially in the atmosphere that has been spreading during the last ten or twelve years.
I have always suffered from the disadvantage, among my solid and sturdy British countrymen, of not altering my opinions quickly enough. I have generally attempted, in a modest way, to have reasons for my opinions; and I have never been able to see why the opinions should change until the reasons change. If I were really a sturdy and stolid Briton, it would, of course, be enough for me that the fashions change. For that sort of sturdy Briton does not want to be consistent with himself; he only wants to be consistent with everybody else. But having what I am pleased to suppose a sort of political philosophy, I have in many matters retained my political opinions. I thought in the first days of the Home Rule quarrel that Ireland ought to be governed by Irish ideas. And I still think so, even when my fellow Liberals have made the shocking discovery that Irish ideas are ordinary Christian ideas. I thought that England's action in the South African War was wrong; and I still think it was wrong. I thought that England's action in the Great War was right; and I still think it was right. I did not learn my politics in the first case from the Daily Mail and I do not propose to learn any others in the second case from the Daily Express. In the first case, I thought and think that Jewish financial power should not dominate England. In the second case, I thought and think that Prussian militarism and materialism should not dominate Europe. Until I alter my view of these two principles, I can see no reason for altering my view of the practical applications of them. Obstinacy of this sort, founded on a cold insensibility to the fluctuations of the market and to all the weight which attaches to the opinions of the two or three men who own all the newspapers, has on the face of it all sorts of disadvantages in dividing an individual from his contemporaries. But it has some advantages; and one advantage is that the man can look, without division of heart or disturbance of mind, at the War Memorial of Beaconsfield.
For the whole point at issue is really there. The Memorial was set up, like the Monument after the Great Fire, to commemorate the fact that something had been saved out of the Great War. What was saved was Beaconsfield; just as what was saved was Britain; not an ideal Beaconsfield, not a perfect or perfectly progressing Beaconsfield, not a New Beaconsfield with gates of gold and pearl descending out of heaven from God; but Beaconsfield. A certain social balance, a certain mode of life, a certain tradition of morals and manners, some parts of which I regret, some parts of which I value, was in fact menaced by the fate of falling into a complete and perhaps permanent inferiority and impotence, as compared with another tradition and mode of life. It is all nonsense to say that in such a struggle defeat would not have been destruction, merely because it probably would not have been what is legally called annexation. States so defeated become vassal-states, retaining a merely formal independence, and in every vital matter steered by the diplomacy and penetrated by the culture of the conqueror. The men whose names are written on the Beaconsfield War Memorial died to prevent Beaconsfield being so immediately overshadowed by Berlin that all its reforms would be modelled on Berlin, all its products used for the international purposes of Berlin, even if the King of Prussia were not called in so many words the Suzerain of the King of England. They died to prevent it and they did prevent it. Let those who enjoy the thought insist that they died in vain.
Conflict came to a head in Europe because the Prussian was insufferable. What would he have been like if he, who was already insufferable, had been shown to be insuperable? What would the Kaiser, with his Mailed Fist and his boasts of being Attila and the leader of the Huns, even in time of peace, have been like if he had issued completely victorious out of a universal war? Yet that is the common-sense question to be asked, if we are asking whether it was worth while for men to fight and go on fighting. It is not the point to put wild and visionary questions about whether the world has been vastly improved by the War; whether Utopia or the New Jerusalem have come out of the War; to ask in that apocalyptic fashion what has come out of the War. We have come out of the War, and come out alive; England and Europe have come out of the War, with all their sins on their heads, confused, corrupted, degraded; but not dead. The only defensible war is a war of defence. And a war of defence, by its very definition and nature, is one from which a man comes back battered and bleeding and only boasting that he is not dead.
Those who now think too little of the Allied Cause are those who once thought too much of it. Those who are disappointed with the great defence of civilisation are those who expected too much of it. A rather unstable genius like Mr. H. G. Wells is typical of the whole contradiction. He began by calling the Allied effort, The War That Will End War. He has ended by saying, through his rather equivocal mask of Mr. Clissold, that it was no better than a forest fire and that it settled nothing. It is hard to say which of the two statements is the more absurd. It settled exactly what it set out to settle. But that was something rather more rational and modest than what Mr. Wells had settled that it was to settle. To tell a soldier defending his country that it is The War That Will End War is exactly like telling a workman, naturally rather reluctant to do his day's work, that it is The Work That Will End Work. We never promised to put a final end to all war or all work or all worry. We only said that we were bound to endure something very bad because the alternative was something worse. In short, we said what every man on the defensive has to say. Mr. Brown is attacked by a burglar and manages to save his life and property. It is absurd to turn round on him and say, "After all, what has come out of the battle in the back-garden? It is the same old Septimus Brown, with the same face, the same trousers, the same temper a little uncertain at breakfast, the same taste for telling the anecdote about the bookmaker at Brighton." It is absurd to complain that Mr. Brown has not been turned into a Greek god merely by being bashed on the head by a burglar. He had a right to defend himself; he had a right to save himself; and what he saved was himself, so far no better and no worse. If he had gone out to purify the world by shooting all possible burglars, it would not have been a defensive war. And it would not have been a defensible one.
That is what I mean by saying that for me the War Memorial of Beaconsfield commemorates the rescue of Beaconsfield; not of an ideal Beaconsfield, but of the real Beaconsfield. There are all sorts of things in such an English country town with which I do not agree; there are many which I have tried all my life to alter. I do not like the English landed system, with its absence of peasants and its predominance of squires; I do not like the formless religious compromise of Puritanism turning into Paganism; but I do not want it discredited and flattened out by Prussianism. The defence of its prestige and independence against an inhuman and heathen hegemony was just. But I am far from certain that a War to End War would have been just. I am far from certain that, even if anybody could prevent all protest or defiance under arms, offered by anybody anywhere under any provocation, it would not be an exceedingly wicked thing to do.
This interlude on the intellectual aspects of the War is necessary; because all I say about the passing details of the War period will be unmeaning, if it is assumed that I sympathise with the rather weak-minded reaction that is going on around us. At the first outbreak of the War I attended the conference of all the English men of letters, called together to compose a reply to the manifesto of the German professors. I at least, among all those writers, can say, "What I have written I have written." I wrote several pamphlets against Prussia, which many would consider violent, though in that moment every one supported their violence. I am still perfectly prepared to support their truth. I hardly know of a word I would alter. I did not take my views from the fever of that fashion; nor with that fever have they passed away.
Immediately after the outbreak of War I was bowled over by a very bad illness, which lasted for many months and at one time came very near to ending so as to cut me off from all newspaper communications and this wicked world. The last thing I did while I was still on my feet, though already very ill, was to go to Oxford and speak to a huge packed mass of undergraduates in defence of the English Declaration of War. That night is a nightmare to me; and I remember nothing except that I spoke on the right side. Then I went home and went to bed, tried to write a reply to Bernard Shaw, of which about one paragraph may still exist, and was soon incapable of writing anything. The illness left certain results that prevented me, even when I had recovered, from doing anything more useful than writing. But I set to work to contribute as much as I could both to the general press and the Government Propaganda; of which there were several departments. And I may remark here that the conduct of the war, whether at home or abroad, was an excellent education for any writer, tending too much to theories, in that complex but concrete matter of the material of mankind; the mystery and inconsistency of man. Man seems to be capable of great virtues but not small virtues; capable of defying his torturer but not of keeping his temper. And I must admit that I was astounded, when writing propagandist literature at the request of various Government Departments, at the small and spinsterish vanities and jealousies that seemed to divide those Departments; and the way in which they kept up their fussy formalities in the full glare of the Day of Judgment. The facts were really very much as they were so cleverly described by Mr. Arnold Bennett in his story of Lord Raingo. I could understand a man being a coward and running away from a German; I can understand, and I hope humbly might emulate, a man fighting and standing firm. But that any Englishman should behave as if it were not a fight between an Englishman and a German, but a fight between a Foreign Office clerk and a War Office clerk, is something that altogether escapes my imagination. I daresay every one of those Government officials would have died for England without any fuss at all. But he could not have it suggested that some two-penny leaflet should pass through another little cell in the huge hive of Whitehall, without making a most frightful fuss. I had imagined that I was, for the moment, of one body with Englishmen from whom I differed on the deepest vitals of the soul; one in that hour of death with atheists and pessimists and Manichean Puritans and even with Orangemen from Belfast. But the forms of the Circumlocution Office could still divide men whom neither God nor devil could put asunder. It was a small thing; but it was a part of that realisation of the real riddle of man, which is hidden from boys and comes only to men in their maturity; and which took on more and more the nature of a religious enlightenment; upon the true doctrine of Original Sin and of Human Dignity. It was part of that belated process of growing up, which must unfortunately precede the splendid attainment of second childhood.
When I first recovered full consciousness, in the final turn of my long sickness, I am told that I asked for Land and Water, in which Mr. Belloc had already begun his well-known series of War articles, the last of which I had read, or been able to understand, being the news of the new hope from the Marne. When I woke again to real things, the long battles before Ypres were over and the long trench war had begun. The nurse, knowing that I had long been incapable of really reading anything, gave me a copy of the paper at random, as one gives a doll to a sick child. But I suddenly asserted in a loud and clear voice that this was an old number dealing with the first attempt before Nancy; and that I wanted all the numbers of the paper that had appeared since the Battle of the Marne. My mind, such as it is, had suddenly become perfectly clear; as clear as it is now. That also was something of a lesson in the paradox of real things, so different from many modern and merely theatrical things. Since then I have known that everything is not a slow and graduated curve of evolution; but that there is in life and death an element of catastrophe that carries something of the fear of miracle.
At my clear and reiterated request, they brought me the whole huge file of the weekly paper; and I read it steadily through, understanding all the facts and figures and diagrams and calculations, and studying them so closely that I really felt at the end that I had not lost so very much of the general history of the War. I found that the pamphlets I had written were already in circulation, especially abroad; all the more successfully because in a sense secretly. My old friend Masterman, in charge of one Propaganda Department, told me with great pride that his enemies were complaining that no British propaganda was being pushed in Spain or Sweden. At this he crowed aloud with glee; for it meant that propaganda like mine was being absorbed without people even knowing it was propaganda. And I myself saw my very bellicose essay called "The Barbarism of Berlin" appearing as a quiet Spanish philosophical study called "The Concept of Barbarism." The fools who baited Masterman would have published it with a Union Jack cover and a picture of the British Lion, so that hardly one Spaniard would read it, and no Spaniard would believe it. It was in matters of that sort that the rather subtle individuality of Masterman was so superior to his political surroundings. In many respects, as I have hinted, he suffered himself to sink too deeply into those surroundings. He allowed himself to be used as a Party hack by Party leaders who were in every way his inferiors. But all that dark humour that was deepest in him came out again, as he grinned over this attack on his success as an intellectual smuggler.
But I am rather proud of the fact that if I wrote a little book called "The Barbarism of Berlin," I also wrote during the War a rather larger book called The Crimes of England. For I was vividly convinced of the folly of England merely playing the Pharisee in this moment of intense moral reality. I therefore wrote a book actually making a list of the real sins of the British Empire in modern history; and then pointing out that in every one of them, not only was the German Empire far worse, but the worst tendencies of Britain had actually been borrowed from Germany. It was a Pro-German policy, the support of the Protestant hero in Prussia or the Protestant princes of Hanover, that had involved us in our mortal quarrel with Ireland and in many worse things. All our recent Imperialism had been praise of Prussia, as an example and an excuse. Nevertheless, to write of the Crimes of England, under that naked title, was at that time liable to misunderstanding; and I believe that in some places the book was banned like a pacifist pamphlet. It was not very pacifist. But all this was to happen later. When I first recovered, I read up, as I have said, the facts of the War. And then, like one resuming the normal routine of his life, I started again to answer Mr. Bernard Shaw There is some foundation for the anecdote told in Colonel Repington's memoirs; that Mr. Belloc and I went on talking through an air-raid and did not know it had begun. I am not sure at what stage we did eventually realise it; but I am quite sure we went on talking. I cannot quite see what else there was to do. But I remember the occasion very well; partly because it was the first air-raid that I had experienced, though I was going to and fro in London all through that period; and secondly because there were other circumstances, which Colonel Repington does not mention, which accentuated the ironic side of the abstractions of conversation and the actuality of bombs. It was at the house of Lady Juliet Duff; and among the guests was Major Maurice Baring, who had brought with him a Russian in uniform; who talked in such a way as to defy even the interruptions of Belloc, let alone of mere bombs. He talked French in a flowing monologue that suavely swept us all before it; and the things he said had a certain quality characteristic of his nation; a quality which many have tried to define, but which may best be simplified by saying that his nation appears to possess every human talent except common sense. He was an aristocrat, a landed proprietor, an officer in one of the crack regiments of the Czar, a man altogether of the old regime. But there was something about him that is the making of every Bolshevist; something I have felt in every Russian I ever met. I can only say that when he walked out of the door, one felt he might just as well have walked out of the window. He was not a Communist; but he was a Utopian; and his Utopia was far, far madder than any Communism. His practical proposal was that poets alone should be allowed to rule the world. He was himself, as he gravely explained, a poet. But he was so courteous and complimentary as to select me, as being also a poet, to be the absolute and autocratic governor of England. D'Annunzio was similarly enthroned to govern Italy. Anatole France was enthroned to govern France. I pointed out, in such French as could be interposed into such a mild torrent, that government required an idée générale and that the ideas of France and D'Annunzio were flatly opposed, rather to the disadvantage of any patriotic Frenchman. But he waved all such doubts away; he was sure that so long as the politicians were poets, or at any rate authors, they could never make any mistakes or fail to understand each other. Kings and magnates and mobs might collide in blind conflict; but literary men can never quarrel. It was somewhere about this stage in the new social structure that I began to be conscious of noises without (as they say in the stage directions) and then of the thrilling reverberations and the thunder of the war in heaven. Prussia, the Prince of the Air, was raining fire on the great city of our fathers; and whatever may be said against Prussia, she is not governed by poets. We went on talking, of course, with no alteration in the arrangements, except that the lady of the house brought down her baby from an upper floor; and still the great plan unfolded itself for the poetic government of the world. Nobody in such circumstances is entirely without passing thoughts of the possible end; and much has been written about ideal or ironic circumstances in which that end might come. But I could imagine few more singular circumstances, in which to find myself at the point of death, than sitting in a big house in Mayfair and listening to a mad Russian, offering me the Crown of England.
When he had gone, Belloc and I walked across the Park with the last rumblings still echoing in the sky, and heard the All Clear signal as we came out by Buckingham Gate, like the noise of trumpets of triumph. And we talked a little of the prospects of the War, which were then in the transition stage between the last peril and the last deliverance; and we parted, not without a certain belated emotion of excitement; and I went along Kensington High Road to my mother's home.
Among the legends, not to say the lies, that became current about Belloc among people who knew nothing about him, was the legend that he was what was called an Optimist about the War; or that he exaggerated the German casualties in order to make out a case for mere comfort and reassurance. To anybody who knows Belloc this idea is grotesque in the last degree. To begin with, being an animal endowed with the power of thought, he is quite incapable of supposing it to matter whether you are an Optimist or a Pessimist upon a question of fact; or of recommending anybody to be bright and cheerful so that it will not rain tomorrow. Second, in so far as mood and emotion have their legitimate place in life, his mood and emotion are generally not optimistic enough. And third, those persons who have taken the trouble to go into the actual facts and figures about enemy mortality have agreed that his calculations were substantially correct and those of the other party wildly incorrect. The truth is that, at the very beginning of a novel type of trench warfare, everybody's calculations were for a time incorrect; but his were corrected as early as anybody's and were afterwards continually right while the opposite ones were continually wrong. For the rest, what threw out every scientific estimate of the war was a factor that was moral and not scientific; a standing instance of the change of all material things on the pivot of the human will. It was the revolt in Russia. Nobody worth speaking of predicted it; but Belloc himself said the wisest thing in a general fashion about affairs of the kind. In one of his articles in Land and Water, he must have rather puzzled many of his readers, I fear, by an elaborate historical reconstruction of the outlook on the future, in the mind of a Greek official in Byzantium, at the beginning of the sixth century, calculating and combining all the forces of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. He noted how much a man might think he had accounted for all the possibilities, the danger of a religious split between East and West, the danger of the barbarian raids on Gaul or Britain, the situation in Africa and Spain, and so on; and then say he had in his hand all the materials of change. "At that moment, far away in a little village of Arabia, Mahomet was eighteen years old."
I need not dwell further on that old and idle quarrel; if the men who ranted about Optimism are remembered at all in serious history, they will be remembered because they quarrelled with Belloc. They were the half-educated proprietors of the Yellow Press of that time, who were annoyed with him for certain relevant remarks he had made about the Sale of Peerages. But it is worth pausing upon for a moment in order to emphasise what was certainly true of all my friends, and I think of all the worthier friends of England; that we never based our convictions on small-minded swagger about Success; that we worked for victory while being entirely ready for defeat; and we never predicted anything about the end of the war, or any other future event; Belloc least of all; as when I heard him say in the first of his London lectures; "It is no part of any speaker or writer to talk about victories being made certain beforehand by this or that. God alone gives victory."
There is another aspect of the way in which the Yellow Press spread panic and political mutiny and called them patriotism and journalistic enterprise. It was apparently supposed that England was in need of being prodded on from behind. My friend Bentley, doing excellent work on the Daily Telegraph, described it more truly as England being stabbed in the back. The Daily Telegraph, indeed, during those days of fever, did an admirable work of medicinal and moral sanitation. But for me and my little group the quarrel had another effect; that we were, in very varying proportions, fighting upon two fronts; regarding the Hohenzollerns and the Harmsworths as equally successful advertisers and equally unsuccessful statesmen. And it fell to me to give a full expression to this double attitude, for a reason that I could never in common conditions have forseen.
I became an editor. It would at any time have seemed to me about as probable or promising as that I should become a publisher or a banker or a leader-writer on The Times. But the necessity arose out of the continued existence of our little paper, the New Witness, which was passionately patriotic and Pro-Ally but as emphatically opposed to the Jingoism of the Daily Mail. There were not too many people who could be trusted to maintain these two distinct indignations, without combining them by the disgusting expedient of being moderate. There were not too many of such people; but I was in a manner one of them. And when my brother went to the Front, he left his paper in my hands, requesting me to edit it until he returned. But I went on editing it because he did not return. For my brother was destined to prove, in a dark hour of doom, that he alone of all the men of our time possessed the two kinds of courage that have nourished the nation; the courage of the forum and of the field. In the second case he suffered with thousands of men equally brave; in the first he suffered alone. For it is another example of the human irony that it seems easier to die in battle than to tell the truth in politics. Human nature is in any case a strange affair; and on the news of my brother's death, I as editor of his paper was moved to an odd reaction which I cannot altogether explain, but which I could only express by writing an open letter to Rufus Isaacs, Lord Reading, upon the memories of our great Marconi quarrel. I tried to tell him, with all restraint, that I believed he had really acted against my nation, but in favour of his own blood; and that he who had talked, and doubtless despised even in talking, the tedious Parliamentary foolery about having once met his brother at a family function, had in truth acted throughout from those deep domestic loyalties that were my own tragedy in that hour. But I added, "You are far more unhappy; for your brother is still alive."
It is strange, as I have said, that in a little while his brother was also dead and in the same religious confession as that of my own brother. So ended, symbolically enough, the great Marconi duel; and I continued the editing of my brother's paper, if you can call it editing; and all the other financiers and politicians showed no signs of dying in any faith, or indeed of dying at all. The War worked to its end, in which so many lives were ended; the Germans made their last vast and vain assaults and Foch struck his final blow before Chalons, where Christendom had broken the Huns a thousand years before. But in England the politicians continued to beam benevolently upon us; new noblemen continued to spring into life from somewhat obscure commercial soils; there were any number of flourishing economic ventures, supported by forceful publicity and magnetic personality; and all the powers of the scientific mergers and newspaper combines, that now rule the State, rose slowly into their present power and peace. As the Ancient Mariner remarked, in a moment of melancholy comparison:
The many men so beautiful
And they all dead did lie;
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.