The Marne/Chapter 4
The 10th of November came, and they sailed.
The week in the steamer was intolerable, not only because they were packed like herrings, and Troy (who had never known discomfort before) had to share his narrow cabin with two young German-Americans full of open brag about the Fatherland; but also because of the same eternally renewed anecdotes among the genuine Americans about the perils and discomforts they had undergone, and the general disturbance of their plans.
Most of the passengers were in ardent sympathy with the Allies, and hung anxiously on the meagre wirelesses; but a flat-faced professor with lank hair, having announced that "there were two sides to every case," immediately raised up a following of unnoticed ladies, who "couldn't believe all that was said of the Germans" and hoped that America would never be "drawn in"; while, even among the right-minded, there subsisted a vague feeling that war was an avoidable thing, which one had only to reprobate enough to prevent its recurrence.
They found New York—Mrs. Belknap's New York—buzzing with war-charities, yet apparently unaware of the war. That at least was Troy's impression during the twenty-four hours before he was packed off to school to catch up with his interrupted studies.
At school he heard the same incessant war-talk, and found the same fundamental unawareness of the meaning of the war. At first the boys were very keen to hear his story, but he described what he had seen so often—and especially his haunting impressions of the Marne—that they named him "Marny Belknap," and finally asked him to cut it out.
The masters were mostly frankly for the Allies, but the Rector had given out that neutrality was the attitude approved by the Government, and therefore a patriotic duty; and one Sunday after chapel he gave a little talk to explain why the President thought it right to try to keep his people out of the dreadful struggle. The words duty and responsibility and fortunate privilege recurred often in this address, and it struck Troy as odd that the lesson of the day happened to be the story of the Good Samaritan.
When he went home for the Christmas holidays everybody was sending toys and sugar-plums to the Belgian war-orphans, with little notes from "Happy American children" requesting to have their gifts acknowledged.
"It makes us so happy to help," beaming young women declared with a kind of ghoulish glee, doing up parcels, planning war-tableaux and charity dances, rushing to "propaganda" lectures given by handsome French officers, and keeping up a kind of continuous picnic on the ruins of civilization.
Mr. and Mrs. Belknap had inevitably been affected by the surrounding atmosphere.
"The tragedy of it—the tragedy—no one can tell who hasn't seen it and been through it," Mrs. Belknap would begin, looking down her long dinner-table between the orchids and the candelabra; and the pretty women and prosperous men would interrupt their talk, and listen for a moment, half absently, with spurts of easy indignation that faded out again as they heard the story oftener.
After all, Mrs. Belknap wasn't the only person who had seen a battlefield! Lots and lots more were pouring home all the time with fresh tales of tragedy: the Marne had become—in a way—an old story. People wanted something newer . . . different. . . .
And then, why hadn't Joffre followed up the offensive? The Germans were wonderful soldiers after all. . . . Yes, but such beasts . . . sheer devils. . . . Here was Mr. So-and-so, just back from Belgium—such horrible stories—really unrepeatable! "Don't you want to come and hear them, my dear? Dine with us to-morrow; he's promised to come unless he's summoned to Washington. But do come anyhow; the Jim Cottages are going to dance after dinner. . . ."
In time Mrs. Belknap, finding herself hopelessly out-storied, out-charitied, out-adventured, began insensibly to take a calmer and more distant view of the war. What was the use of trying to keep up her own enthusiasm when that of her audience had flagged? Wherever she went she was sure to meet other ladies who had arrived from France much more recently, and had done and seen much more than she had. One after another she saw them received with the same eagerness—"Of course we all know about the marvellous things you've been doing in France—your wonderful war-work"—then, like herself, they were superseded by some later arrival, who had been nearer the front, or had raised more money, or had had an audience of the Queen of the Belgians, or an autograph letter from Lord Kitchener. No one was listened to for long, and the most eagerly-sought-for were like the figures in a movy-show, forever breathlessly whisking past to make way for others.
Mr. Belknap had always been less eloquent about the war than his wife; but somehow Troy had fancied he felt it more deeply. Gradually, however, he too seemed to accept the situation as a matter of course, and Troy, coming home for the Easter holidays, found at the family table a large sonorous personage—a Senator, just back from Europe—who, after rolling out vague praises of France and England, began insidiously to hint that it was a pity to see such wasted heroism, such suicidal determination on the part of the Allies to resist all offers of peace from an enemy so obviously their superior.
"She wouldn't be if America came in!" Troy blurted out, reddening at the sound of his voice.
"America?" some one playfully interjected; and the Senator laughed, and said something about geographical immunity. "They can't touch us. This isn't our war, young man."
"It may be by the time I'm grown up," Troy persisted, burning redder.
"Well," returned the Senator good-humouredly, "you'll have to hurry, for the economists all say it can't last more than a year longer. Lord Reading told me———"
"There's been misery enough, in all conscience," sighed a lady, playing with her pearls; and Mr. Belknap added gravely: "By the time Troy grows up I hope wars and war-talk will be over for good and all."
"Oh, well—at his age every fellow wants to go out and kill something," remarked one of his uncles sympathetically.
Troy shuddered at the well-meant words. To go out and kill something! They thought he regarded the war as a sport, just as they regarded it as a moving-picture show! As if any one who had had even a glimpse of it could ever again think with joy of killing! His boy's mind was sorely exercised to define the urgent emotions with which it laboured. To save France—that was the clear duty of the world, as he saw it. But none of these kindly careless people about him knew what he meant when he said "France." Bits of M. Gantier's talk came back to him, embodying that meaning.
"Whatever happens, keep your mind keen and clear: open as many windows on the universe as you can. . . ." To Troy, France had been the biggest of those windows.
The young tutor had never declaimed about his country; he had simply told her story and embodied her ideals in his own impatient, questioning and yet ardent spirit. "Le monde est aux enthousiastes," he had once quoted; and he had shown Troy how France had always been alive in every fibre, and how her inexhaustible vitality had been perpetually nourished on criticism, analysis and dissatisfaction. "Self-satisfaction is death," he had said; "France is the phœnix-country always rising from the ashes of her recognized mistakes."
Troy felt what a wonderful help it must be to have that long rich past in one's blood. Every stone that France had carved, every song she had sung, every new idea she had struck out, every beauty she had created in her thousand fruitful years, was a tie between her and her children. These things were more glorious than her battles, for it was because of them that all civilization was bound up in her, and that nothing that concerned her could concern her only.