When William Came Chapter 12: THE TRAVELLING COMPANIONS

The train bearing Yeovil on his visit to Torywood slid and rattled westward through the hazy dreamland of an English summer landscape. Seen from the train windows the stark bare ugliness of the metalled line was forgotten, and the eye rested only on the green solitude that unfolded itself as the miles went slipping by. Tall grasses and meadow-weeds stood in deep shocks, field after field, between the leafy boundaries of hedge or coppice, thrusting themselves higher and higher till they touched the low sweeping branches of the trees that here and there overshadowed them. Broad streams, bordered with a heavy fringe of reed and sedge, went winding away into a green distance where woodland and meadowland seemed indefinitely prolonged; narrow streamlets, lost to view in the growth that they fostered, disclosed their presence merely by the water-weed that showed in a riband of rank verdure threading the mellower green of the fields. On the stream banks moorhens walked with jerky confident steps, in the easy boldness of those who had a couple of other elements at their disposal in an emergency; more timorous partridges raced away from the apparition of the train, looking all leg and neck, like little forest elves fleeing from human encounter. And in the distance, over the tree line, a heron or two flapped with slow measured wing-beats and an air of being bent on an immeasurably longer journey than the train that hurtled so frantically along the rails. Now and then the meadowland changed itself suddenly into orchard, with close-growing trees already showing the measure of their coming harvest, and then strawyard and farm buildings would slide into view; heavy dairy cattle, roan and skewbald and dappled, stood near the gates, drowsily resentful of insect stings, and bunched-up companies of ducks halted in seeming irresolution between the charms of the horse-pond and the alluring neighbourhood of the farm kitchen. Away by the banks of some rushing mill-stream, in a setting of copse and cornfield, a village might be guessed at, just a hint of red roof, grey wreathed chimney and old church tower as seen from the windows of the passing train, and over it all brooded a happy, settled calm, like the dreaming murmur of a trout-stream and the far-away cawing of rooks.

It was a land where it seemed as if it must be always summer and generally afternoon, a land where bees hummed among the wild thyme and in the flower beds of cottage gardens, where the harvest-mice rustled amid the corn and nettles, and the mill-race flowed cool and silent through water-weeds and dark tunnelled sluices, and made soft droning music with the wooden mill-wheel. And the music carried with it the wording of old undying rhymes, and sang of the jolly, uncaring, uncared-for miller, of the farmer who went riding upon his grey mare, of the mouse who lived beneath the merry mill-pin, of the sweet music on yonder green hill and the dancers all in yellow–the songs and fancies of a lingering olden time, when men took life as children take a long summer day, and went to bed at last with a simple trust in something they could not have explained.

Yeovil watched the passing landscape with the intent hungry eyes of a man who revisits a scene that holds high place in his affections. His imagination raced even quicker than the train, following winding roads and twisting valleys into unseen distances, picturing farms and hamlets, hills and hollows, clattering inn yards and sleepy woodlands.

“A beautiful country,” said his only fellow-traveller, who was also gazing at the fleeting landscape; “surely a country worth fighting for.”

He spoke in fairly correct English, but he was unmistakably a foreigner; one could have allotted him with some certainty to the Eastern half of Europe.

“A beautiful country, as you say,” replied Yeovil; then he added the question, “Are you German?”

“No, Hungarian,” said the other; “and you, you are English?” he asked.

“I have been much in England, but I am from Russia,” said Yeovil, purposely misleading his companion on the subject of his nationality in order to induce him to talk with greater freedom on a delicate topic. While living among foreigners in a foreign land he had shrunk from hearing his country’s disaster discussed, or even alluded to; now he was anxious to learn what unprejudiced foreigners thought of the catastrophe and the causes which had led up to it.

“It is a strange spectacle, a wonder, is it not so?” resumed the other, “a great nation such as this was, one of the greatest nations in modern times, or of any time, carrying its flag and its language into all parts of the world, and now, after one short campaign, it is–”

And he shrugged his shoulders many times and made clucking noises at the roof of his voice, like a hen calling to a brood of roving chickens.

“They grew soft,” he resumed; “great world-commerce brings great luxury, and luxury brings softness. They had everything to warn them, things happening in their own time and before their eyes, and they would not be warned. They had seen, in one generation, the rise of the military and naval power of the Japanese, a brown-skinned race living in some island rice fields in a tropical sea, a people one thought of in connection with paper fans and flowers and pretty tea-gardens, who suddenly marched and sailed into the world’s gaze as a Great Power; they had seen, too, the rise of the Bulgars, a poor herd of zaptieh-ridden peasants, with a few students scattered in exile in Bukarest and Odessa, who shot up in one generation to be an armed and aggressive nation with history in its hands. The English saw these things happening around them, and with a war-cloud growing blacker and bigger and always more threatening on their own threshold they sat down to grow soft and peaceful. They grew soft and accommodating in all things in religion–”

“In religion?” said Yeovil.

“In religion, yes,” said his companion emphatically; “they had come to look on the Christ as a sort of amiable elder Brother, whose letters from abroad were worth reading. Then, when they had emptied all the divine mystery and wonder out of their faith naturally they grew tired of it, oh, but dreadfully tired of it. I know many English of the country parts, and always they tell me they go to church once in each week to set the good example to the servants. They were tired of their faith, but they were not virile enough to become real Pagans; their dancing fauns were good young men who tripped Morris dances and ate health foods and believed in a sort of Socialism which made for the greatest dulness of the greatest number. You will find plenty of them still if you go into what remains of social London.”

Yeovil gave a grunt of acquiescence.

“They grew soft in their political ideas,” continued the unsparing critic; “for the old insular belief that all foreigners were devils and rogues they substituted another belief, equally grounded on insular lack of knowledge, that most foreigners were amiable, good fellows, who only needed to be talked to and patted on the back to become your friends and benefactors. They began to believe that a foreign Minister would relinquish long-cherished schemes of national policy and hostile expansion if he came over on a holiday and was asked down to country houses and shown the tennis court and the rock-garden and the younger children. Listen. I once heard it solemnly stated at an after-dinner debate in some literary club that a certain very prominent German statesman had a daughter at school in England, and that future friendly relations between the two countries were improved in prospect, if not assured, by that circumstance. You think I am laughing; I am recording a fact, and the men present were politicians and statesmen as well as literary dilettanti. It was an insular lack of insight that worked the mischief, or some of the mischief. We, in Hungary, we live too much cheek by jowl with our racial neighbours to have many illusions about them. Austrians, Roumanians, Serbs, Italians, Czechs, we know what they think of us, and we know what to think of them, we know what we want in the world, and we know what they want; that knowledge does not send us flying at each other’s throats, but it does keep us from growing soft. Ah, the British lion was in a hurry to inaugurate the Millennium and to lie down gracefully with the lamb. He made two mistakes, only two, but they were very bad ones; the Millennium hadn’t arrived, and it was not a lamb that he was lying down with.”

“You do not like the English, I gather,” said Yeovil, as the Hungarian went off into a short burst of satirical laughter.

“I have always liked them,” he answered, “but now I am angry with them for being soft. Here is my station,” he added, as the train slowed down, and he commenced to gather his belongings together. “I am angry with them,” he continued, as a final word on the subject, “because I hate the Germans.”

He raised his hat punctiliously in a parting salute and stepped out on to the platform. His place was taken by a large, loose-limbed man, with florid face and big staring eyes, and an immense array of fishing-basket, rod, fly-cases, and so forth. He was of the type that one could instinctively locate as a loud-voiced, self-constituted authority on whatever topic might happen to be discussed in the bars of small hotels.

“Are you English?” he asked, after a preliminary stare at Yeovil.

This time Yeovil did not trouble to disguise his nationality; he nodded curtly to his questioner.

“Glad of that,” said the fisherman; “I don’t like travelling with Germans.”

“Unfortunately,” said Yeovil, “we have to travel with them, as partners in the same State concern, and not by any means the predominant partner either.”

“Oh, that will soon right itself,” said the other with loud assertiveness, “that will right itself damn soon.”

“Nothing in politics rights itself,” said Yeovil; “things have to be righted, which is a different matter.”

“What d’y’mean?” said the fisherman, who did not like to have his assertions taken up and shaken into shape.

“We have given a clever and domineering people a chance to plant themselves down as masters in our land; I don’t imagine that they are going to give us an easy chance to push them out. To do that we shall have to be a little cleverer than they are, a little harder, a little fiercer, and a good deal more self-sacrificing than we have been in my lifetime or in yours.”

“We’ll be that, right enough,” said the fisherman; “we mean business this time. The last war wasn’t a war, it was a snap. We weren’t prepared and they were. That won’t happen again, bless you. I know what I’m talking about. I go up and down the country, and I hear what people are saying.”

Yeovil privately doubted if he ever heard anything but his own opinions.

“It stands to reason,” continued the fisherman, “that a highly civilised race like ours, with the record that we’ve had for leading the whole world, is not going to be held under for long by a lot of damned sausage- eating Germans. Don’t you believe it! I know what I’m talking about. I’ve travelled about the world a bit.”

Yeovil shrewdly suspected that the world travels amounted to nothing more than a trip to the United States and perhaps the Channel Islands, with, possibly, a week or fortnight in Paris.

“It isn’t the past we’ve got to think of, it’s the future,” said Yeovil. “Other maritime Powers had pasts to look back on; Spain and Holland, for instance. The past didn’t help them when they let their sea-sovereignty slip from them. That is a matter of history and not very distant history either.”

“Ah, that’s where you make a mistake,” said the other; “our sea-sovereignty hasn’t slipped from us, and won’t do, neither. There’s the British Empire beyond the seas; Canada, Australia, New Zealand, East Africa.”

He rolled the names round his tongue with obvious relish.

“If it was a list of first-class battleships, and armoured cruisers and destroyers and airships that you were reeling off, there would be some comfort and hope in the situation,” said Yeovil; “the loyalty of the colonies is a splendid thing, but it is only pathetically splendid because it can do so little to recover for us what we’ve lost. Against the Zeppelin air fleet, and the Dreadnought sea squadrons and the new Gelberhaus cruisers, the last word in maritime mobility, of what avail is loyal devotion plus half-a-dozen warships, one keel to ten, scattered over one or two ocean coasts?”

“Ah, but they’ll build,” said the fisherman confidently; “they’ll build. They’re only waiting to enlarge their dockyard accommodation and get the right class of artificers and engineers and workmen together. The money will be forthcoming somehow, and they’ll start in and build.”

“And do you suppose,” asked Yeovil in slow bitter contempt, “that the victorious nation is going to sit and watch and wait till the defeated foe has created a new war fleet, big enough to drive it from the seas? Do you suppose it is going to watch keel added to keel, gun to gun, airship to airship, till its preponderance has been wiped out or even threatened? That sort of thing is done once in a generation, not twice. Who is going to protect Australia or New Zealand while they enlarge their dockyards and hangars and build their dreadnoughts and their airships?”

“Here’s my station and I’m not sorry,” said the fisherman, gathering his tackle together and rising to depart; “I’ve listened to you long enough. You and me wouldn’t agree, not if we was to talk all day. Fact is, I’m an out-and-out patriot and you’re only a half-hearted one. That’s what you are, half-hearted.”

And with that parting shot he left the carriage and lounged heavily down the platform, a patriot who had never handled a rifle or mounted a horse or pulled an oar, but who had never flinched from demolishing his country’s enemies with his tongue.

“England has never had any lack of patriots of that type,” thought Yeovil sadly; “so many patriots and so little patriotism.”

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