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First News

1918


Four years ago, on the first day of August, in the town of Cracow,
Austrian Poland, nobody would believe that the war was coming. My
apprehensions were met by the words: "We have had these scares before."
This incredulity was so universal amongst people of intelligence and
information, that even I, who had accustomed myself to look at the
inevitable for years past, felt my conviction shaken. At that time, it
must be noted, the Austrian army was already partly mobilised, and as we
came through Austrian Silesia we had noticed all the bridges being
guarded by soldiers.

"Austria will back down," was the opinion of all the well-informed men
with whom I talked on the first of August. The session of the University
was ended and the students were either all gone or going home to
different parts of Poland, but the professors had not all departed yet on
their respective holidays, and amongst them the tone of scepticism
prevailed generally. Upon the whole there was very little inclination to
talk about the possibility of a war. Nationally, the Poles felt that
from their point of view there was nothing to hope from it. "Whatever
happens," said a very distinguished man to me, "we may be certain that
it's our skins which will pay for it as usual." A well-known literary
critic and writer on economical subjects said to me: "War seems a
material impossibility, precisely because it would mean the complete ruin
of all material interests."

He was wrong, as we know; but those who said that Austria as usual would
back down were, as a matter of fact perfectly right. Austria did back
down. What these men did not foresee was the interference of Germany.
And one cannot blame them very well; for who could guess that, when the
balance stood even, the German sword would be thrown into the scale with
nothing in the open political situation to justify that act, or rather
that crime--if crime can ever be justified? For, as the same intelligent
man said to me: "As it is, those people" (meaning Germans) "have very
nearly the whole world in their economic grip. Their prestige is even
greater than their actual strength. It can get for them practically
everything they want. Then why risk it?" And there was no apparent
answer to the question put in that way. I must also say that the Poles
had no illusions about the strength of Russia. Those illusions were the
monopoly of the Western world.

Next day the librarian of the University invited me to come and have a
look at the library which I had not seen since I was fourteen years old.
It was from him that I learned that the greater part of my father's MSS.
was preserved there. He confessed that he had not looked them through
thoroughly yet, but he told me that there was a lot of very important
letters bearing on the epoch from '60 to '63, to and from many prominent
Poles of that time: and he added: "There is a bundle of correspondence
that will appeal to you personally. Those are letters written by your
father to an intimate friend in whose papers they were found. They
contain many references to yourself, though you couldn't have been more
than four years old at the time. Your father seems to have been
extremely interested in his son." That afternoon I went to the
University, taking with me _my_ eldest son. The attention of that young
Englishman was mainly attracted by some relics of Copernicus in a glass
case. I saw the bundle of letters and accepted the kind proposal of the
librarian that he should have them copied for me during the holidays. In
the range of the deserted vaulted rooms lined with books, full of august
memories, and in the passionless silence of all this enshrined wisdom, we
walked here and there talking of the past, the great historical past in
which lived the inextinguishable spark of national life; and all around
us the centuries-old buildings lay still and empty, composing themselves
to rest after a year of work on the minds of another generation.

No echo of the German ultimatum to Russia penetrated that academical
peace. But the news had come. When we stepped into the street out of
the deserted main quadrangle, we three, I imagine, were the only people
in the town who did not know of it. My boy and I parted from the
librarian (who hurried home to pack up for his holiday) and walked on to
the hotel, where we found my wife actually in the car waiting for us to
take a run of some ten miles to the country house of an old school-friend
of mine. He had been my greatest chum. In my wanderings about the world
I had heard that his later career both at school and at the University
had been of extraordinary brilliance--in classics, I believe. But in
this, the iron-grey moustache period of his life, he informed me with
badly concealed pride that he had gained world fame as the Inventor--no,
Inventor is not the word--Producer, I believe would be the right term--of
a wonderful kind of beetroot seed. The beet grown from this seed
contained more sugar to the square inch--or was it to the square
root?--than any other kind of beet. He exported this seed, not only with
profit (and even to the United States), but with a certain amount of
glory which seemed to have gone slightly to his head. There is a
fundamental strain of agriculturalist in a Pole which no amount of
brilliance, even classical, can destroy. While we were having tea
outside, looking down the lovely slope of the gardens at the view of the
city in the distance, the possibilities of the war faded from our minds.
Suddenly my friend's wife came to us with a telegram in her hand and said
calmly: "General mobilisation, do you know?" We looked at her like men
aroused from a dream. "Yes," she insisted, "they are already taking the
horses out of the ploughs and carts." I said: "We had better go back to
town as quick as we can," and my friend assented with a troubled look:
"Yes, you had better." As we passed through villages on our way back we
saw mobs of horses assembled on the commons with soldiers guarding them,
and groups of villagers looking on silently at the officers with their
note-books checking deliveries and writing out receipts. Some old
peasant women were already weeping aloud.

When our car drew up at the door of the hotel, the manager himself came
to help my wife out. In the first moment I did not quite recognise him.
His luxuriant black locks were gone, his head was closely cropped, and as
I glanced at it he smiled and said: "I shall sleep at the barracks to-
night."

I cannot reproduce the atmosphere of that night, the first night after
mobilisation. The shops and the gateways of the houses were of course
closed, but all through the dark hours the town hummed with voices; the
echoes of distant shouts entered the open windows of our bedroom. Groups
of men talking noisily walked in the middle of the roadway escorted by
distressed women: men of all callings and of all classes going to report
themselves at the fortress. Now and then a military car tooting
furiously would whisk through the streets empty of wheeled traffic, like
an intensely black shadow under the great flood of electric lights on the
grey pavement.

But what produced the greatest impression on my mind was a gathering at
night in the coffee-room of my hotel of a few men of mark whom I was
asked to join. It was about one o'clock in the morning. The shutters
were up. For some reason or other the electric light was not switched
on, and the big room was lit up only by a few tall candles, just enough
for us to see each other's faces by. I saw in those faces the awful
desolation of men whose country, torn in three, found itself engaged in
the contest with no will of its own, and not even the power to assert
itself at the cost of life. All the past was gone, and there was no
future, whatever happened; no road which did not seem to lead to moral
annihilation. I remember one of those men addressing me after a period
of mournful silence compounded of mental exhaustion and unexpressed
forebodings.

"What do you think England will do? If there is a ray of hope anywhere
it is only there."

I said: "I believe I know what England will do" (this was before the news
of the violation of Belgian neutrality arrived), "though I won't tell
you, for I am not absolutely certain. But I can tell you what I am
absolutely certain of. It is this: If England comes into the war, then,
no matter who may want to make peace at the end of six months at the cost
of right and justice, England will keep on fighting for years if
necessary. You may reckon on that."

"What, even alone?" asked somebody across the room.

I said: "Yes, even alone. But if things go so far as that England will
not be alone."

I think that at that moment I must have been inspired.


Joseph Conrad