Story type: Essay
The big room was very still. Outside, beneath a thin, cold drizzle, the first tinge of green showed on the broad lawn. The crocuses were beginning to thrust their spears through the sodden mold. One of the long French windows stood ajar, and in the air that slipped through was a clean, moist whiff of coming spring. It was the end of March.
In the leather armchair by the wide, flat desk sat a man. His chin was on his chest; the lowered head and the droop of the broad, spare shoulders showed the impact of some heavy burden. His clothes were gray–a trim, neatly cut business suit; his hair was gray; his gray-blue eyes were sombre. In the gathering dusk he seemed only a darker shadow in the padded chair. His right hand–the long, firm, nervous hand of a scholar–rested on the blotting pad. A silver pen had slipped from his fingers as he sat in thought. On the desk lay some typed sheets which he was revising.
Sitting there, his mind had been traversing the memories of the past two and a half years. Every line of his lean, strong figure showed some trace of the responsibilities he had borne. In the greatest crisis of modern times he had steadfastly pursued an ideal, regardless of the bitterness of criticism and the sting of ridicule. The difficulties had been tremendous. Every kind of influence had been brought upon him to do certain things, none of which he had done. A scholar, a dreamer, a lifelong student of history, he had surprised his associates by the clearness of his vision, the tenacity of his will. Never, perhaps, in the history of the nation had a man been more brutally reviled than he–save one! And his eyes turned to the wall where, over the chimney piece, hung the portrait of one of his predecessors who had stood for his ideals in a time of fiery trial. It was too dark now to see the picture but he knew well the rugged, homely face, the tender, pain-wrenched mouth.
This man had dreamed a dream. Climbing from the humble youth of a poor student, nourished in classroom and library with the burning visions of great teachers, he had hoped in this highest of positions to guide his country in the difficult path of a higher patriotism. Philosopher, idealist, keen student of men, he had been able to keep his eyes steadfast on his goal despite the intolerable cloud of unjust criticism that had rolled round him. Venomous and shameful attacks had hurt him, but had never abated his purpose. In a world reeling and smoking with the insane fury of war, one nation should stand unshaken for the message of the spirit, for the glory of humanity; for the settlement of disputes by other means than gunpowder and women’s tears. That was his dream. To that he had clung.
He shifted grimly in his chair, and took up the pen.
What a long, heart-rending strain it had been! His mind went back to the golden August day when the telegram was laid on his desk announcing that the old civilization of Europe had fallen into fragments. He remembered the first meeting thereafter, when his associates, with grave, anxious faces, debated the proper stand for them to take. He remembered how, in the swinging relaxation of an afternoon of golf, he had thoughtfully planned the wording of his first neutrality proclamation.
In those dim, far-off days, who had dreamed what would come? Who could have believed that great nations would discard without compunction all the carefully built-up conventions of international law? That murder in the air, on land, on the sea, under the sea, would be rewarded by the highest military honours? That a supposedly friendly nation would fill another land with spies–even among the accredited envoys of diplomacy?
Sadly this man thought of the long painful fight he had made to keep one nation at least out of the tragic, barbaric struggle. Giving due honour to convinced militarist and sincere pacifist, his own course was still different. That his country, disregarding the old fetishes of honour and insult, should stand solidly for humanity; should endure all things, suffer all things, for humanity’s sake; should seek to bind up the wounds and fill the starving mouths. That one nation–not because she was weak, but because she was strong–should, with God’s help, make a firm stand for peace and show to all mankind that force can never conquer force.
“A nation can be so right that it should be too proud to fight.” Magnificent words, true words, which one day would re-echo in history as the utterance of a man years in advance of his time–but what rolling thunders of vituperation they had cost him! Too proud to fight!… If only it had been possible to carry through to the end this message from Judea!
But, little by little, and with growing anguish, he had seen that the nation must take another step. Little by little, as the inhuman frenzies of warfare had grown in savagery, inflicting unspeakable horror on non-combatants, women and children, he had realized that his cherished dream must be laid aside. For the first time in human history a great nation had dared to waive pride, honour, and–with bleeding heart–even the lives of its own for the hope of humanity and civilization. With face buried in his hands he reviewed the long catalogue of atrocities on the seas. He could feel his cheeks grow hot against his palms. Arabic, Lusitania, Persia, Laconia, Falaba, Gulflight, Sussex, California–the names were etched in his brain in letters of grief. And now, since the “barred-zone” decree …
He straightened in his chair. Like a garment the mood of anguish slipped from him. He snapped on the green desk light and turned to his personal typewriter. As he did so, from some old student day a phrase flashed into his mind–the words of Martin Luther, the Thuringian peasant and university professor, who four hundred years before had nailed his theses on the church door at Wittenberg:
“Gott helfe mir, ich kann nicht anders.”
They chimed a solemn refrain in his heart as he inserted a fresh sheet of paper behind the roller and resumed his writing….
“With a profound sense of the solemn and even tragical character of the step I am taking and of the grave responsibilities which it involves…. I advise that the Congress declare the recent course of the Imperial German Government to be in fact nothing less than war against the Government and people of the United States….”
The typewriter clicked industriously. The face bent intently over the keys was grave and quiet, but as the paper unrolled before him some of his sadness seemed to pass away. A vision of his country, no longer divided in petty schisms, engrossed in material pursuits, but massed in one by the force and fury of a valiant ideal, came into his mind.
“It is for humanity,” he whispered to himself. “Ich kann nicht anders….”
“We have no quarrel with the German people. We have no feeling toward them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was not upon their impulse that their government acted in entering this war. It was not with their previous knowledge or approval…. Self-governed nations do not fill their neighbour states with spies, or set the course of intrigue to bring about some critical posture of affairs which will give them an opportunity to strike and make conquest…. A steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations….
“Only free peoples can hold their purpose and their
honour steady to a common end and prefer the interests
of mankind to any narrow interest of their own.”
With the gathering of the dusk the rain had stopped. He rose from his chair and walked to the window. The sky had cleared; in the west shone a faint band of clear apple green in which burned one lucent star. Distantly he could hear the murmur of the city like the pulsing heartbeat of the nation. As often, in moments of tension, he seemed to feel the whole vast stretch of the continent throbbing; the yearning breast of the land trembling with energy; the great arch of sky, spanning from coast to coast, quiver with power unused. The murmur of little children in their cradles, the tender words of mothers, the footbeat of men on the pavements of ten thousand cities, the flags leaping in air from high buildings, ships putting out to sea with gunners at their sterns–in one aching synthesis the vastness and dearness and might of his land came to him. A mingled nation, indeed, of various and clashing breeds; but oh, with what a tradition to uphold!
Words were forming in his mind as he watched the fading sky, and he returned quietly to the typewriter:
“We are glad to fight thus for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included…. The world must be made safe for democracy.”
The world must be made safe for democracy! As the wires leaped and the little typewriter spoke under the pressure of his strong fingers, scenes passed in his mind of the happy, happy Europe he had known in old wander days, years before.
He could see the sun setting down dark aisles of the Black Forest; the German peasants at work in the fields; the simple, cordial friendliness of that lovely land. He remembered French villages beside slow-moving rivers; white roads in a hot shimmer of sun; apple orchards of the Moselle. And England–dear green England, fairest of all–the rich blue line of the Chiltern Hills, and Buckinghamshire beech woods bronze and yellow in the autumn. He remembered thatched cottages where he had bicycled for tea, and the naive rustic folk who had made him welcome.
What deviltry had taken all these peaceful people, gripped them and maddened them, set them at one another’s throats? Millions of children, millions of mothers, millions of humble workers, happy in the richness of life–where were they now? Life, innocent human life–the most precious thing we know or dream of, freedom to work for a living and win our own joys of home and love and food–what Black Death had maddened the world with its damnable seeds of hate? Would life ever be free and sweet again?
The detestable sultry horror of it all broke upon him anew in a tide of anguish. No, the world could never be the same again in the lives of men now living. But for the sake of the generations to come–he thought of his own tiny grandchildren–for the love of God and the mercy of mankind, let this madness be crushed. If his country must enter the war let it be only for the love and service of humanity. “It is a fearful thing,” he thought, “but the right is more precious than peace.”
Sad at heart he turned again to the typewriter, and the keys clicked off the closing words:
“To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured.”
He leaned back in his chair, stiff and weary. His head ached hotly. With elbows on the desk he covered his forehead and eyes with his hands. All the agony, the bitterness, the burden of preceding days swept over him, but behind it was a cool and cleansing current of peace. “Ich kann nicht anders,” he whispered.
Then, turning swiftly to the machine, he typed rapidly:
“God helping her, she can do no other.”