Story type: Essay
Translator: Alexander Teixeira de Mattos
Of all the heroes of this stupendous war, heroes who will live in the memory of man, one assuredly of the most unsullied, one of those whom we can never love enough, is the great young king of my little country.
He was indeed at the critical hour the appointed man, the man for whom every heart was waiting. With sudden beauty he embodied the mighty voice of his people. He stood, upon the moment, for Belgium, revealed unto herself and unto others. He had the wonderful good fortune to realize and bestow a conscience in one of those dread hours of tragedy and perplexity when the best of consciences waver.
Had he not been at hand, there is no doubt but that all would have happened differently; and history would have lost one of her fairest and noblest pages. Certainly Belgium would have been loyal and true to her word; and any government would have been swept away, pitilessly and irresistibly, by the indignation of a people that had never, however far we probe into the past, played false. But there would have been much of that confusion and irresolution inevitable in a host suddenly threatened with disaster. There would have been vain talking, mistaken measures, excusable but irreparable vacillations; and, above all, the much-needed words, the precise and final words, would not have been spoken and the deeds, than which we can picture none more resolute, none greater, would not have been done at the right moment.
Thanks to the king, the peerless act shines forth and is maintained complete, unfaltering; and the path of heroism is straight and clearly defined and splendid as that of Thermopylae indefinitely extended.
But what he has suffered, what he suffers day by day only those can understand who have had the privilege of access to this hero: the most sensitive and the gentlest of men, silent and reserved; a man of controlled emotions, modest with a timidity that is at once baffling and delightful; loving his people less as a father loves his children than as a son loves his adoring mother. Of all that cherished kingdom, his pride and his joy, the seat of his happiness, the centre of his love and his security, there is left intact but a handful of cities, which are threatened at every moment by the foulest invader that the world has ever borne.
All the others–so quaint or so beautiful, so bright, so serene, happy to be there, so inoffensive–jewels in the crown of Peace, models of pure and upright family life, homes of loyal and dutiful industry, of ready, ever-smiling geniality, with the natural welcome, the ever-proffered hand and the ever-open heart: all the others are dead cities, of which not one stone is left upon another; and the very country-side, one of the fairest in this world, with its gentle pastures, is now no more than one vast field of horror.
Treasures have perished that were numbered among the noblest and dearest possessions of mankind; monuments have disappeared which nothing can replace; and the half of a nation, among all nations the most attached to its old simple habits, its humble homes, is at present wandering along the roads of Europe. Thousands of innocent people have been massacred; and of those who remain nearly all are doomed to poverty and hunger.
But that remainder has but one soul, which has taken refuge in the spacious soul of its king. Not a murmur, not a word of reproach! But yesterday a town of thirty thousand inhabitants received the order to forsake its white houses, its churches, its ancient streets and squares, the scene of a light-hearted and industrious life. The thirty thousand inhabitants, women and children and old men, set forth to seek an uncertain refuge in a neighbouring city, which is threatened almost as directly as their own and which to-morrow, it may be, must in its turn set forth, but whither none can say, for the country is so small that its boundaries are quickly reached, its shelter soon exhausted.
No matter: they obey in silence and one and all approve and bless their sovereign. He did what had to be done, what every one in his place would have done; and, though they are all suffering as no people has suffered since the barbarous invasions of the earliest ages, they know that he suffers more than any of them, for in him all their sorrows find a goal; in him they are reflected and enhanced. They do not even harbour the idea that they might have been saved by a sacrifice of honour. They draw no distinction between duty and destiny. To them that duty, with its frightful consequences, seems as inevitable as a natural force against which we cannot even dream of struggling, so great is it and so invincible.
Here is an example of the collective bravery of nameless heroes, an ingenuous and almost unconscious courage, which rivals and at times exceeds the most exalted deeds in legend and history, for since the days of the great martyrs men have never suffered death more simply for a simple idea.
And, if amid the anguish of our struggle it were seemly to speak of aught but tears and lamentations, we should find a magnificent consolation in the spectacle of the unexpected heroism that suddenly surrounds us on every side. It may well be said that never in the memory of mankind have men sacrificed their lives with such zest, such self-abnegation, such enthusiasm; and that the immortal virtues which to this day have uplifted and preserved the flower of the human race have never shone more brilliantly, never manifested greater power, energy or youth.