Until the great war was over I had no idea that some of us who stayed at home made the great sacrifice.
My friend Harburn is, or rather was, a Northumbrian, or some kind of Northerner, a stocky man of perhaps fifty, with close-clipped grizzled hair and moustache, and a deep-coloured face. He was a neighbour of mine in the country, and we had the same kind of dogs—Airedales, never less than three at a time, so that for breeding purposes we were useful to each other. We often, too, went up to Town by the same train. His occupation was one which gave him opportunity of prominence in public life, but until the war he took little advantage of this, sunk in a kind of bluff indifferentism which was almost cynical. I used to look on him as a typically good-natured blunt Englishman, rather enjoying his cynicism, and appreciating his open-air tendencies—for he was a devotee of golf, and fond of shooting when he had the chance; a good companion, too, with an open hand to people in distress. He was unmarried, and dwelled in a bungalow-like house not far from mine, and next door to a German family called Holsteig, who had lived in England nearly twenty years. I knew them pretty well also—a very united trio, father, mother, and one son. The father, who came from Hanover, was something in the City, the mother was Scotch, and the son—the one I knew best and liked most—had just left his public school. This youth had a frank, open, blue-eyed face, and thick light hair brushed back without a parting—a very attractive, slightly Norwegian-looking type. His mother was devoted to him; she was a real West Highlander, slight, with dark hair going grey, high cheekbones, a sweet but rather ironical smile, and those grey eyes which have second sight in them. I several times met Harburn at their house, for he would go in to play billiards with Holsteig in the evenings, and the whole family were on very friendly terms with him.
The third morning after we had declared war on Germany Harburn, Holsteig, and I went up to Town in the same carriage. Harburn and I talked freely. But Holsteig, a fair, well-set-up man of about fifty, with a pointed beard and blue eyes like his son, sat immersed in his paper till Harburn said suddenly:
"I say, Holsteig, is it true that your boy was going off to join the German army?"
Holsteig looked up.
"Yes," he said. "He was born in Germany; he's liable to military service. But thank heaven, it isn't possible for him to go."
"But his mother?" said Harburn. "She surely wouldn't have let him?"
"She was very miserable, of course, but she thought duty came first."
"Duty! Good God!—my dear man! Half British, and living in this country all his life! I never heard of such a thing!" Holsteig shrugged his shoulders.
"In a crisis like this, what can you do except follow the law strictly? He is of military age and a German subject. We were thinking of his honour; but of course we're most thankful he can't get over to Germany."
"Well, I'm damned!" said Harburn. "You Germans are too bally conscientious altogether."
Holsteig did not answer.
I travelled back with Harburn the same evening, and he said to me:
"Once a German, always a German. Didn't that chap Holsteig astonish you this morning? In spite of living here so long and marrying a British wife, his sympathies are dead German, you see."
"Well," I replied; "put yourself in his place."
"I can't; I could never have lived in Germany. I wonder," he added reflectively, "I wonder if the chap's all right, Cumbermere?"
"Of course he's all right." Which was the wrong thing to say to Harburn if one wanted to re-establish his confidence in the Holsteigs, as I certainly did, for I liked them and was sure of their good faith. If I had said: "Of course he's a spy"—I should have rallied all Harburn's confidence in Holsteig, for he was naturally contradictious.
I only mention this little passage to show how early Harburn's thoughts began to turn to the subject which afterwards completely absorbed and inspired him till he died for his country.
I am not sure what paper first took up the question of interning all the Huns; but I fancy the point was raised originally rather from the instinct, deeply implanted in so many journals, for what would please the public, than out of any deep animus. At all events I remember meeting a sub-editor, who told me he had been opening letters of approval all the morning. "Never," said he, "have we had a stunt catch on so quickly. 'Why should that bally German round the corner get my custom?' and so forth. Britain for the British!"
"Rather bad luck," I said, "on people who've paid us the compliment of finding this the best country to live in!"
"Bad luck, no doubt," he replied, "mais la guerre c'est la guerre. You know Harburn, don't you? Did you see the article he wrote? By Jove, he pitched it strong."
When next I met Harburn himself, he began talking on this subject at once.
"Mark my words, Cumbermere, I'll have every German out of this country." His grey eyes seemed to glint with the snap and spark as of steel and flint and tinder; and I felt I was in the presence of a man who had brooded so over the German atrocities in Belgium that he was possessed by a sort of abstract hate.
"Of course," I said, "there have been many spies, but——"
"Spies and ruffians," he cried, "the whole lot of them."
"How many Germans do you know personally?" I asked him.
"Thank God! Not a dozen."
"And are they spies and ruffians?"
He looked at me and laughed, but that laugh was uncommonly like a snarl.
"You go in for 'fairness,'" he said; "and all that slop; take 'em by the throat—it's the only way."
It trembled on the tip of my tongue to ask him whether he meant to take the Holsteigs by the throat, but I swallowed it, for fear of doing them an injury. I was feeling much the same general abhorrence myself, and had to hold myself in all the time for fear it should gallop over my commonsense. But Harburn, I could see, was giving it full rein. His whole manner and personality somehow had changed. He had lost geniality, and that good-humoured cynicism which had made him an attractive companion; he was as if gnawed at inwardly—in a word, he already had a fixed idea.
Now, a cartoonist like myself has got to be interested in the psychology of men and things, and I brooded over Harburn, for it seemed to me remarkable that one whom I had always associated with good humour and bluff indifference should be thus obsessed. And I formed this theory about him: 'Here'—I said to myself—'is one of Cromwell's Ironsides, born out of his age. In the slack times of peace he discovered no outlet for the grim within him—his fire could never be lighted by love, therefore he drifted in the waters of indifferentism. Now suddenly in this grizzly time he has found himself, a new man, girt and armed by this new passion of hate; stung and uplifted, as it were, by the sight of that which he can smite with a whole heart. It's deeply interesting'—I said to myself—'Who could have dreamed of such a reincarnation; for what on the surface could possibly be less alike than an 'Ironside,' and Harburn as I've known him up to now?' And I used his face for the basis of a cartoon which represented a human weather-vane continually pointing to the East, no matter from what quarter the wind blew. He recognised himself, and laughed when he saw me—rather pleased, in fact, but in that laugh there was a sort of truculence, as if the man had the salt taste of blood at the back of his mouth.
"Ah!" he said, "you may joke about it, but I've got my teeth into them all right. The swine!"
And there was no doubt he had—the man had become a force; unhappy Germans, a few of them spies, no doubt, but the great majority as certainly innocent, were being wrenched from their trades and families, and piled into internment camps all day and every day. And the faster they were piled in, the higher grew his stock, as a servant of his country. I'm sure he did not do it to gain credit; the thing was a crusade to him, something sacred—'his bit'; but I believe he also felt for the first time in his life that he was really living, getting out of life the full of its juice. Was he not smiting hip and thigh? He longed, I am sure, to be in the thick of the actual fighting, but age debarred him, and he was not of that more sensitive type which shrinks from smiting the defenceless if it cannot smite anything stronger. I remember saying to him once:
"Harburn, do you ever think of the women and children of your victims?"
He drew his lips back, and I saw how excellent his teeth were.
"The women are worse than the men, I believe," he said. "I'd put them in, too, if I could. As for the children, they're all the better for being without fathers of that kidney."
He really was a little mad on the subject; no more so, of course, than any other man with a fixed idea, but certainly no less.
In those days I was here, there, and everywhere, and had let my country cottage, so I saw nothing of the Holsteigs, and indeed had pretty well forgotten their existence. But coming back at the end of 1917 from a long spell with the Red Cross I found among my letters one from Mrs. Holsteig:
"Dear Mr. Cumbermere,
You were always so friendly to us that I have summoned up courage to write this letter. You know perhaps that my husband was interned over a year ago, and repatriated last September; he has lost everything, of course; but so far he is well and able to get along in Germany. Harold and I have been jogging on here as best we can on my own little income—'Huns in our midst' as we are, we see practically nobody. What a pity we cannot all look into each other's hearts, isn't it? I used to think we were a 'fair-play' people, but I have learned the bitter truth—that there is no such thing when pressure comes. It's much worse for Harold than for me; he feels his paralysed position intensely, and would, I'm sure, really rather be 'doing his bit' as an interned, than be at large, subject to everyone's suspicion and scorn. But I am terrified all the time that they will intern him. You used to be intimate with Mr. Harburn. We have not seen him since the first autumn of the war, but we know that he has been very active in the agitation, and is very powerful in this matter. I have wondered whether he can possibly realise what this indiscriminate internment of the innocent means to the families of the interned. Could you not find a chance to try and make him understand? If he and a few others were to stop hounding on the government, it would cease, for the authorities must know perfectly well that all the dangerous have been disposed of long ago. You have no notion how lonely one feels in one's native land nowadays; if I should lose Harold too I think I might go under, though that has never been my habit.
Believe me, dear Mr. Cumbermere,
Most truly yours
On receiving this letter I was moved by compassion, for it required no stretch of imagination to picture the life of that lonely British mother and her son; and I thought very carefully over the advisability of speaking to Harburn, and consulted the proverbs: "Speech is silver, but Silence is golden—When in doubt play trumps." "Second thoughts are best—He who hesitates is lost." "Look before you leap—Delays are dangerous." They balanced so perfectly that I had recourse to Commonsense, which told me to abstain. But meeting Harburn at the Club a few days later and finding him in a genial mood, I let impulse prevail, and said:
"By the way, Harburn, you remember the Holsteigs? I had a letter from poor Mrs. Holsteig the other day; she seems terrified that they'll intern her son, that particularly nice boy. Don't you think it's time you let up on these unhappy people?"
The moment I reached the word Holsteig I saw I had made a mistake, and only went on because to have stopped at that would have been worse still. The hair had bristled up on his back, as it were, and he said:
"Holsteig? That young pup who was off to join the German army if he could? By George, is he at large still? This Government will never learn. I'll remember him."
"Harburn," I stammered, "I spoke of this in confidence. The boy is half British, and a friend of mine. I thought he was a friend of yours too."
"Of mine?" he said. "No thank you. No mongrels for me. As to confidence, Cumbermere, there's no such thing in war time over what concerns the country's safety."
"Good God!" I exclaimed. "You really are crazy on this subject. That boy—with his bringing-up!"
He grinned. "We're taking no risks," he said, "and making no exceptions. The British army or an internment camp. I'll see that he gets the alternatives."
"If you do," I said, rising, "we cease to be friends. I won't have my confidence abused."
"Oh! Hang it all!" he grumbled; "sit down! We must all do our duty."
"You once complained to Holsteig himself of that German peculiarity."
He laughed. "I did," he said; "I remember—in the train. I've changed since then. That pup ought to be in with all the other swine-hounds. But let it go."
There the matter rested, for he had said: "Let it go," and he was a man of his word. It was, however, a lesson to me not to meddle with men of temperament so different from my own. I wrote to young Holsteig and asked him to come and lunch with me. He thanked me, but could not, of course, being confined to a five-mile radius. Really anxious to see him, I motorbiked down to their house. I found a very changed youth; moody and introspective, thoroughly forced in upon himself, and growing bitter. He had been destined for his father's business, and, marooned as he was by his nationality, had nothing to do but raise vegetables in their garden and read poetry and philosophy—not occupations to take a young man out of himself. Mrs. Holsteig, whose nerves were evidently at cracking point, had become extremely bitter, and lost all power of seeing the war as a whole. All the ugly human qualities and hard people which the drive and pressure of a great struggle inevitably bring to the top seemed viewed by her now as if they were the normal character of her fellow countrymen, and she made no allowance for the fact that those fellow countrymen had not commenced this struggle, nor for the certainty that the same ugly qualities and hard people were just as surely to the fore in every other of the fighting countries. The certainty she felt about her husband's honour had made her regard his internment and subsequent repatriation as a personal affront, as well as a wicked injustice. Her tall thin figure and high-cheekboned face seemed to have been scorched and withered by some inner flame; she could not have been a wholesome companion for her boy in that house, empty even of servants. I spent a difficult afternoon in muzzling my sense of proportion, and journeyed back to Town sore, but very sorry.
I was off again with the Red Cross shortly after, and did not return to England till August of 1918. I was unwell, and went down to my cottage, now free to me again. The influenza epidemic was raging, and there I developed a mild attack; when I was convalescent my first visitor was Harburn, who had come down to his bungalow for a summer holiday. He had not been in the room five minutes before he was off on his favourite topic. My nerves must have been on edge from illness, for I cannot express the disgust with which I listened to him on that occasion. He seemed to me just like a dog who mumbles and chews a mouldy old bone with a sort of fury. There was a kind of triumph about him, too, which was unpleasant, though not surprising, for he was more of a 'force' than ever. 'God save me from the fixed idea!' I thought, when he was gone. That evening I asked my old housekeeper if she had seen young Mr. Holsteig lately.
"Oh! no," she said; "he's been put away this five month. Mrs. 'Olsteig goes up once a week to see 'im, 'Olsteig. She's nigh out of her mind, poor lady—the baker says; that fierce she is about the Gover'ment."
I confess I could not bring myself to go and see her.
About a month after the armistice had been signed I came down to my cottage again. Harburn was in the same train, and he gave me a lift from the station. He was more like his old good-humoured self, and asked me to dinner the next day. It was the first time I had met him since the victory. We had a most excellent repast, and drank the health of the Future in some of his oldest port. Only when we had drawn up to the blazing wood fire in that softly lighted room, with our glasses beside us and two Airedales asleep at our feet, did he come round to his hobby.
"What do you think?" he said, suddenly leaning towards the flames, "some of these blazing sentimentalists want to release our Huns. But I've put my foot on it; they won't get free till they're out of this country and back in their precious Germany." And I saw the familiar spark and smoulder in his eyes.
"Harburn," I said, moved by an impulse which I couldn't resist, "I think you ought to take a pill."
He stared at me.
"This way madness lies," I went on. "Hate is a damned insidious disease; men's souls can't stand very much of it without going pop. You want purging."
"Hate! I thrive on it. The more I hate the brutes, the better I feel. Here's to the death of every cursed Hun!"
I looked at him steadily. "I often think," I said, "that there could have been no more unhappy men on earth than Cromwell's Ironsides, or the red revolutionaries in France, when their work was over and done with."
"What's that to do with me?" he said, amazed.
"They too smote out of sheer hate, and came to an end of their smiting. When a man's occupation's gone——"
"You're drivelling!" he said sharply.
"Far from it," I answered, nettled. "Yours is a curious case, Harburn. Most of our professional Hun-haters have found it a good stunt, or are merely weak sentimentalists; they can drop it easily enough when it ceases to be a good stunt, or a parrot's war-cry. You can't; with you it's mania, religion. When the tide ebbs and leaves you high and dry——"
He struck his fist on the arm of his chair, upsetting his glass and awakening the Airedale at his feet.
"I won't let it ebb," he said; "I'm going on with this—Mark me!"
"Remember Canute!" I muttered. "May I have some more port?" I had got up to fill my glass when I saw to my astonishment that a woman was standing in the long window which opened on to the verandah. She had evidently only just come in, for she was still holding the curtain in her hand. It was Mrs. Holsteig, with her fine grey hair blown about her face, looking strange and almost ghostly in a grey gown. Harburn had not seen her, so I went quickly towards her, hoping to get her to go out again as silently, and speak to me on the verandah; but she held up her hand with a gesture as if she would push me back, and said:
"Forgive my interrupting; I came to speak to that man."
Startled by the sound of her voice, Harburn jumped up and spun round towards it.
"Yes," she repeated quite quietly; "I came to speak to you; I came to put my curse on you. Many have put their curses on you silently; I do so to your face. My son lies between life and death in your prison—your prison. Whether he lives or dies I curse you for what you have done to poor wives and mothers—to British wives and mothers. Be for ever accursed! Good-night!"
She let the curtain fall, and had vanished before Harburn had time to reach the window. She vanished so swiftly and silently, she had spoken so quietly, that both he and I stood rubbing our eyes and ears.
"A bit theatrical!" he said at last.
"Perhaps," I answered slowly; "but you have been cursed by a live Scotswoman. Look at those dogs!"
The two Airedales were standing stock-still with the hair bristling on their backs.
Harburn suddenly laughed, and it jarred the whole room.
"By George!" he said, "I believe that's actionable."
But I was not in that mood, and said tartly:
"If it is, we are all food for judges."
He laughed again, this time uneasily, slammed the window to, bolted it, and sat down again in his chair.
"He's got the 'flue,' I suppose," he said. "She must think me a prize sort of idiot to have come here with such tomfoolery."
But our evening was spoiled, and I took my leave almost at once. I went out into the roupy raw December night pondering deeply. Harburn had made light of it, and though I suppose no man likes being cursed to his face in the presence of a friend, I felt his skin was quite thick enough to stand it. Besides, it was too cheap and crude a way of carrying on. Anybody can go into his neighbour's house and curse him—and no bones broken. And yet—what she had said was no doubt true; hundreds of women—of his fellow countrywomen—must silently have put their curse on one who had been the chief compeller of their misery. Still, he had put his curse on the Huns and their belongings, and I felt he was man enough to take what he had given. 'No,' I thought, 'she has only fanned the flame of his hate. But, by Jove! that's just it! Her curse has fortified my prophecy!' It was of his own state of mind that he would perish; and she had whipped and deepened that state of mind. And, odd as it may seem, I felt quite sorry for him, as one is for a poor dog that goes mad, does what harm he can, and dies. I lay awake that night a long time thinking of him, and of that unhappy, half-crazed mother, whose son lay between life and death.
Next day I went to see her, but she was up in London, hovering round the cage of her son, no doubt. I heard from her, however, some days later, thanking me for coming, and saying he was out of danger. But she made no allusion to that evening visit. Perhaps she was ashamed of it. Perhaps she was demented when she came, and had no remembrance thereof.
Soon after this I went to Belgium to illustrate a book on Reconstruction, and found such subjects that I was not back in Town till the late summer of 1919. Going into my Club one day I came on Harburn in the smoking-room. The curse had not done him much harm, it seemed, for he looked the picture of health.
"Well, how are you?" I said. "You look at the top of your form."
"Never better," he replied.
"Do you remember our last evening together?"
He uttered a sort of gusty grunt, and did not answer.
"That boy recovered," I said. "What's happened to him and his mother, since?"
"The ironical young brute! I've just had this from him." And he handed me a letter with the Hanover post mark.
"Dear Mr. Harburn,
It was only on meeting my mother here yesterday that I learned of her visit to you one evening last December. I wish to apologise for it, since it was my illness which caused her to so forget herself. I owe you a deep debt of gratitude for having been at least part means of giving me the most wonderful experience of my life. In that camp of sorrow—where there was sickness of mind and body such as I am sure you have never seen or realised, such endless hopeless mental anguish of poor huddled creatures turning and turning on themselves year after year—I learned to forget myself, and to do my little best for them. And I learned, and I hope I shall never forget it, that feeling for one's fellow creatures is all that stands between man and death; I was going fast the other way before I was sent there. I thank you from my heart, and beg to remain,
Very faithfully yours
I put it down, and said:
"That's not ironical. He means it."
"Bosh!" said Harburn, with the old spark and smoulder in his eyes. "He's pulling my leg—the swinelet Hun!"
"He is not, Harburn; I assure you."
Harburn got up. "He is; I tell you he is. Ah! Those brutes! Well! I haven't done with them yet."
And I heard the snap of his jaw, and saw his eyes fixed fiercely on some imaginary object. I changed the subject hurriedly, and soon took my departure. But going down the steps, an old jingle came into my head, and has hardly left it since:
<>"The man recovered from the bite,
The dog it was that died."
Sorry, no summary available yet.