Satire of the Sea by Melville Davisson Post
"What was the mystery about St. Alban?" I asked.
The Baronet did not at once reply. He looked out over the English country through the ancient oak-trees, above the sweep of meadow across the dark, creeping river, to the white shaft rising beyond the wooded hills into the sky.
The war was over. I was a guest of Sir Henry Marquis for a week-end at his country-house. The man fascinated me. He seemed a sort of bottomless Stygian vat of mysteries. He had been the secret hand of England for many years in India. Then he was made a Baronet and put at the head of England's Secret Service at Scotland Yard.
A servant brought out the tea and we were alone on the grass terrace before the great oak-trees. He remained for some moments in reflection, then he replied:
"Do you mean the mystery of his death?"
"Was there any other mystery?" I said.
He looked at me narrowly across the table.
"There was hardly any mystery about his death," he said. "The man shot himself with an old dueling pistol that hung above the mantel in his library. The family, when they found him, put the pistol back on the nail and fitted the affair with the stock properties of a mysterious assassin.
"The explanation was at once accepted. The man's life, in the public mind, called for an end like that. St. Alban after his career, should by every canon of the tragic muse, go that way."
He made a careless gesture with his fingers.
"I saw the disturbed dust on the wall where the pistol had been moved, the bits of split cap under the hammer, and the powder marks on the muzzle.
"But I let the thing go. It seemed in keeping with the destiny of the man. And it completed the sardonic picture. It was all fated, as the Gaelic people say . . . . I saw no reason to disturb it."
"Then there was some other mystery?" I ventured.
He nodded his big head slowly.
"There is an ancient belief," he said, "that the hunted thing always turns on us. Well, if there was ever a man in this world on whom the hunted thing awfully turned, it was St. Alban."
He put out his hand.
"Look at the shaft yonder," he said, "lifted to his memory, towering over the whole of this English country, and cut on its base with his services to England and the brave words he said on that fatal morning on the Channel boat. Every schoolboy knows the words
"`Don't threaten, fire if you like!'
"First-class words for the English people to remember. No bravado, just the thing any decent chap would say. But the words are persistent. They remain in the memory. And it was a thrilling scene they fitted into. One must never forge that: The little hospital transport lying in the Channel in a choppy sea that ran streaks of foam; the grim turret and the long whaleback of a Uboat in the foam scruff; and the sun lying on the scrubbed deck of the jumping transport.
"Everybody was crowded about. St. Alban was in the center of the human pack, in a pace or two of clear deck, his injured arm in a sling; his split sleeve open around it; his shoulders thrown back; his head lifted; and before him, the Hun commander with his big automatic pistol.
"It's a wonderful, spirited picture, and it thrilled England. It was in accord with her legends. England has little favor of either the gods of the hills or the gods of the valleys. But always, in all her wars, the gods of the seas back her."
The big Baronet paused and poured out a cup of tea. He tasted it and set it down on the table.
"That's a fine monument," he said, indicating the white shaft that shot up into the cloudless evening sky. "The road makes a sharp turn by it. You have got to slow up, no matter how you travel. The road rises there. It's built that way; to make the passer go slow enough to read the legends on the base of the monument. It's a clever piece of business. Everybody is bound to give his tribute of attention to the conspicuous memorial.
"There are two faces to the monument that you must look at if you go that road. One recounts the man's services to England, and the other face bears his memorable words
"`Don't threaten, fire if you like!'"
The Baronet fingered the handle of his teacup.
"The words are precisely suited to the English people," he said. "No heroics, no pretension, that's the whole spirit of England. It's the English policy in a line: We don't threaten, and we don't wish to be threatened by another. Let them fire if they like, - that's all in the game. But don't swing a gun on us with a threat. St. Alban was lucky to say it. He got the reserve, the restraint, the commonplace understatement that England affects, into the sentence. It was a piece of good fortune to catch the thing like that.
"The monument is tremendous. One can't avoid it. It's always before the eye here, like the White Horse of Alfred on the chalk hill in Berkshire. All the roads pass it through this countryside. But every mortal thing that travels, motor and cart, must slow up around the monument."
He stopped for a moment and looked at the white needle shimmering in the evening sun.
"But St. Alban's greatest monument," he said, "was the lucky sentence. It stuck in the English memory and it will never go out of it. One wouldn't give a half-penny for a monument if one could get a phrase fastened in a people's memory like that."
Sir Henry moved in his chair.
"I often wonder," he said, "whether the thing was an inspiration of St. Alban's that morning on the deck of the hospital transport, or had he thought about it at some other time? Was the sentence stored in the man's memory, or did it come with the first gleam of returning consciousness from a soul laid open by disaster? I think racial words, simple and unpretentious, may lies in any man close to the bone like that to be rived out with a mortal hurt. That's what keeps me wondering about the words he used. And he did use them.
"I don't doubt that a lot of our hero stuff has been edited after the fact. But this sentence wasn't edited. That's what he said, precisely. A hundred wounded soldiers on the hospital transport heard it. They were crowding round him. And they told the story when they got ashore. The story varied in trifling details as one would expect among so many witnesses to a tragic event like that. But it didn't vary about what the man said when the Hun commander was swinging his automatic pistol on him.
"There was no opportunity to edit a brave sentence to fit the affair. St. Alban said it. And he didn't think it up as he climbed out of the cabin of the transport. If he had been in a condition to think, he had enough of the devil's business to think about just then; a brave sentence would hardly have concerned him, as I said awhile ago.
"Besides, we have his word that, after what happened in the cabin, everything else that occurred that morning on the transport was a blank to the man; was walled off from his consciousness, and these words were the first impulse of one returning to a realization of events."
Sir Henry Marquis reflected.
"I think they were," he continued. "They have the mark of spontaneity; of the first disgust of one grasping the fact that he was being threatened."
The Baronet paused.
"The event had a great effect on England," he said. "And it helped to restore our shattered respect for a desperate enemy. The Hun commander didn't sink the transport, and he didn't shoot St. Alban. It's true there was a sort of gentleman's agreement among the enemies that hospital transports should not be sunk.
"But anything was likely to happen just then. The Hun had failed to subjugate the world, and he was a barbarous, mad creature. England believed that something noble in St. Alban worked the miracle.
"`You're a brave man!'
"Some persons on the transport testified to such a comment from the submarine commander. At any rate, he went back to his U-boat and the undersea.
That's the last they saw of him. The transport came on into Dover.
"England thought the affair was one of the adventures of the sea. A chance thing, that happened by accident. But there was one man in England who knew better."
"You?" I said.
The Baronet shrugged his shoulders.
"St. Alban," he answered.
He got up and began to walk about the terrace. I sat with the cup of tea cooling before me. The big man walked slowly with his fingers linked behind him. Finally he stopped. His voice was deep and reflective.
"`Man is altogether the sport of fortune!' . . . I read that in Herodotus, in a form at Rugby. I never thought about it again. But it's God's truth. St. Alban was at Rugby. I often wonder if he remembered it. My word, he lived to verify it! Herodotus couldn't cite a case to equal him. And the old Greek wasn't hemmed in by the truth. I maintain that the man's case has no parallel.
"To have all the painstaking labor of years negatived by one enveloping, vicious misfortune; to be beaten out of life by it, and at the same time to gain that monument out yonder and one's niche as hero by the grim device of an enemy's satire; by the acting of a scene that one would never have taken part in if one had realized it, is beyond any complication of tragedy known to the Greek.
"Look at the three strange phases of it: To be a mediocre Englishman with no special talent; to die in horrible despair; and to leave behind a glorious legend. And for all these three things to contradict one another in the same life is unequaled in the legends of any people."
The Baronet went on in a deep level voice.
"There wag a vicious vitality behind the whole desperate business. Every visible impression of the thing was wrong. Every conception of it held today by the English people is wrong!
"The German submarine didn't overhaul the hospital transport in the Channel by accident. The Hun commander didn't fail to sink the transport out of any humane motives. He didn't fail to shoot St. Alban because he was moved by the heroism of the man. It was all grim calculation!
"He thought it was safe to let St. Alban go ahead. And he would have been right if St. Alban had been the great egotist that he was.
"The commander of that submarine was Plutonburg of Prussia. He was the right-hand man of old Von Tirpitz. He was the one man in the German navy who never ceased to urge its Admiralty to sink everything. He loathed every fiber of the English people. We had all sorts of testimony to that. The trawlers and freightboat captains brought it in. He staged his piracies to a theatrical frightfulness. `Old England!' he would say, when he climbed up out of the sea onto the deck of a British ship and looked about him at the sailors, `Old, is right, old and rotten!' Then he would smite his big chest and quote the diatribes of Treitschke. `But in a world that the Prussian inhabits a nation, old and rotten, may endure for a time, but it shall not endure forever!'
"Plutonburg didn't let St. Alban and the transport go ahead out of the promptings of a noble nature. He did it because he hated England, and he wanted St. Alban to live on in the hell he had trapped him into. He counted on his keeping silent. But the Hun made a mistake.
"St. Alban didn't measure up to the standard of Prussian egoism by which Plutonburg estimated him."
Sir Henry continued in the same even voice. The levels of emotion in his narrative did not move him.
"Did you ever see the picture of Plutonburg, in Munich? He had a face like Chemosh. And he dressed the part. Other under-boat commanders wore the conventional naval cap, but Plutonburg always wore a steel helmet with a corrugated earpiece. Some artist under the frightfulness dogma must have designed it for him. It framed his face down to the jaw. The face looked like it was set in iron, and it was a thick-lidded, heavy, menacing face; the sort of face that a broad-line cartoonist gives to a threatening war-joss. At any rate, that's how the picture presents him. One thinks of Attila under his ox head. You can hardly imagine anything human in it, except a cruel satanic humor.
"He must have looked like Beelzebub that morning, on the transport, when he let St. Alban go on."
The Baronet looked down at me.
"Now, that's the truth about the fine conduct of Plutonburg that England applauded as an act of chivalry. It was a piece of sheer, hellish malignity, if there ever was an instance."
Sir Henry took a turn across the terrace, for a moment silent. Then he went on:
"And in fact, everything in the heroic event on the deck of the transport was a pretense. The Hun didn't intend to shoot St. Alban. As I have said, Plutonburg had him in just the sort of hell he wanted him in, and he didn't propose to let him out with a bullet. And St. Alban ought to have known it, unless, as he afterwards said, the whole thing from the first awful moment in the cabin was simply walled out of his consciousness, until he began dimly to realize up there in the sun, in the crowd, that he was being threatened and blurted out his words from a sort of awful disgust."
Again he paused.
"Plutonburg was right about having St. Alban in the crater of the pit. But he was wrong to measure him by his Prussian standard. St. Alban came on to London. He got the heads of the War Office together and told them. I was there. It was the devil's own muddle of a contrast. Outside, London was ringing with the man's striking act of personal heroism. And inside of the Foreign Office three or, four amazed persons were listening to the bitter truth."
The Baronet spread out his hands with a sudden gesture.
"I shall always remember the man's strange, livid face; his fingers that jumped about the cuff of his coat sleeve; and his shaking jaw."
Sir Henry went over and sat down at the table. For a good while he was silent. The sun filtering through the limbs of the great oak-trees made mottled spots on his face. He seemed to turn away from the thing he had been concerned with, and to see something else, something wholly apart and at a distance from St. Alban's affairs.
"You must have wondered like everybody else," he said, "why the Allied drive on the Somme accomplished so little at first. Both England and France had made elaborate preparations for it over a long period of time. Every detail had been carefully, worked out. Every move had been estimated with; mathematical exactness.
"The French divisions had been equipped and strategically grouped. England had put a million of fresh troops into France. And the line of the drive had been mapped. The advance, when it was opened on the first day of July, ought to have gone forward irresistibly from cog to cog like a wheel of a machine on the indentations of a track. But the thing didn't happen that way. The drive sagged and stuck."
The big Englishman pressed the table with his clinched hand.
"My word!" he said, "is it any wonder that the devil, Plutonburg, grinned when he put up his automatic pistol? Why shoot the Englishman? He would do it himself soon enough. He was right about that. If he had only been right about his measure of St. Alban, the drive on the Somme would have been a ghastly catastrophe for the Allied armies."
I hesitated to interrupt Sir Henry. But he had got my interest desperately worked up about what seemed to me great unjointed segments of this affair, that one couldn't understand till they were put together. I ventured a query.
"How did St. Alban come to be on the hospital transport?" I said. "Was he in the English army in France?"
"Oh, no," he said. "When the war opened St. Alban was in the Home Office, and, he set out to make England spy-proof. He organized the Confidential Department, and he went to work to take every precaution. He wasn't a great man in any direction, but he was a careful, thorough man. And with tireless, never-ceasing, persistent effort, he very nearly swept England clean of German espionage."
Sir Henry spoke with vigor and decision.
"Now, that's what St. Alban did in England - not because he was a man of any marked ability, but because he was a persistent person dominated by a single consuming idea. He started out to rid England of every form of espionage. And when he had accomplished that, as the cases of Ernest, Lody, and Schultz eloquently attest, he determined to see that every move of the English expeditionary force on the Continent should be guarded from German espionage."
Sir Henry paused and poured out a cup of tea. He tasted it. It was cold, and he put the cup down on the table.
"That's how St. Alban came to be in France," he said. "The great drive on the Somme had been planned at a meeting of military leaders in Paris. The French were confident that they could keep their plans secret from German espionage. They admitted frankly that signals were wirelessed out of France. But they had taken such precautions that only the briefest signals could go out.
"The Government radio stations were always alert. And they at once negatived any unauthorized wireless so that German spies could only snap out a signal or two at any time. They could do this, however.
"They had a wireless apparatus inside a factory chimney at Auteuil. It wasn't located until the war was nearly over.
"The French didn't undertake to say that they could make their country spy-proof. They knew that there were German agents in France that nobody could tell from innocent French people. But they did undertake to say that nothing could be carried over into the German lines. And they justified that promise. They did see that nothing was carried out of France." The Baronet looked at me across the table.
"Now, that's what took St. Alban across the Channel," he said. "The English authorities wanted to be certain that there was no German espionage. And there was no man in England able to be certain of that except St. Alban. He went over to make sure. If the plans for the Somme drive should get out of France, they should not get out through any English avenue."
The Baronet paused.
"St. Alban went about the thing in his thorough, persistent manner. He didn't trust to subordinates. He went himself. That's what took him out on the English line. And that's how he came to be wounded in the elbow.
"It wasn't very much of a wound - a piece of shrapnel nearly spent when it hit him. But the French hospital service was very much concerned. It gave him every attention.
"The man came into Paris when he had finished. The French authorities put him up at the Hotel Meurice. You know the Hotel Meurice. It's on the Rue de la Rivoli. It looks out over the garden of the Tuileries. St. Alban was satisfied with the condition of affairs in France, and he was anxious to go back to London. Arrangements had been made for him to go on the hospital transport.
"He was in his room at the Meurice waiting for the train to Calais. He was, in fact, fatigued with the attention the French authorities had given him. Everything that one could think of had been anticipated, he said. He thought there could be nothing more. Then there was a timid knock, and a nurse came in to say that she had been sent to see that the dressing on his arm was all right. He said that he had found it easier to submit to the French attentions than to undertake to explain that he didn't need them.
"He was busy with some final orders, so he put out his arm and allowed the nurse to take the pins out of the split sleeve and adjust the dressing. She put on some bandages, made a little timid curtsey and went out.
"St. Alban didn't think of it again until the German Uboat stopped the transport the next morning in the Channel. He wasn't disturbed when the submarine commander came into his cabin. He knew enough not to carry any papers about with him. But Plutonburg didn't bother himself about luggage. He'd had his signal from the factory chimney at Auteuil. He stood there grinning in the cabin before St. Alban; that Satanic, Chemosh grin that the artist got in the Munich picture.
"`I used to be something of a surgeon,' he said, `Doctor Ulrich von Plutonburg, if you will remember. I'll take a look at your arm.'
"tit, Alban said he thought the man might be moved by some humane consideration, so he put out his arm.
"Plutonburg took the pins out of the sleeve and removed the bandage that the nurse had put on in the Hotel Meurice. Then he held it up. The long, cotton bandage was lined with glazed cambric, and on it, in minute detail, was the exact position of all the Allied forces along the whole front in the region of the Somme, precisely as they had been massed for the drive on July first!"
I cried out in astonishment. "So that's what you meant," I said, "by the trailed thing turning on him!"
"Precisely," replied the Baronet. "The very thing that St. Alban labored to prevent another from doing, he did awfully himself!"
The big Englishman's fingers drummed on the table.
"It was a great moment for Plutonburg," he said. "No living man but that Prussian could have put the Satanic humor into the rest of the affair."
He paused as under the pressure of the memory.
"St. Alban always maintained that from the moment he saw the long map on the bandage everything blurred around him, and began to clear only when he spoke on the deck. He used to curse this blur. It made him a national figure and immortal, but it prevented him, he said, from striking the Prussian in the face."