The White Morning by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Gisela, like all the good women of Germany, flamed with patriotism and righteous indignation. Russia and France with no provocation, with no motive but insensate ambition on the one hand and a festering desire for revenge on the other, had crossed the sacred frontiers of the great Teutonic Empire. A French aviator had dropped bombs on Neuremburg, one of the artistic treasures of Europe, although, mercifully, his bombs had inadvertently been filled with air. Then followed the even more indefensible act of Great Britain, whose only motive in joining forces with paper allies was to aim a blow at the glorious commercial prestige of Germany, the object of her fear and hate these many years.
Gisela immediately entered the hospital opened by her mother in Berlin and took a rapid first-aid course, concentrating upon the work all the fine powers of her mind and strong young body. Literature, fame, propaganda among women, all were dismissed. Although victory was certain in a few months there would be many thousands of wounded and she was filled with a passionate desire to serve those heroes and martyrs of foreign hatred. She forgot her personal experience of the German male, forgot herself. Her beloved Fatherland was attacked, and the German male in his heroic resistance, his triumphal progress, was become a god. Dienen! Dienen!
She had no time to ponder upon the violation of Belgium and knew nothing of the curious escape of medieval psychology from the formal harness of modern times. She was engaged in hard menial labor during those first weeks and it was sufficient to know that Germany had been violated. It is true that her warrior parent had sometimes boasted of the day when Germany should rule the world, and that he had referred to the Great European War as a foregone conclusion, as so many had been doing these past ten or fifteen years; but he had been careful to say nothing about throwing the torch into the powder. Gisela, like the vast majority of civilians in the Central Empires, had grown too accustomed to the evidences of a great standing army to give them more than a passing thought. Were they not, then, situate in the very middle of Europe? Surrounded by envious and powerful enemies? What more natural than that they should be ever on the alert?
That Germany herself would strike at the peace of Europe, a peace which had brought her an unexampled prosperity and eminence, never had crossed Gisela's mind. Nevertheless, knowing the German male as she did, she was quite sure that the officers reveled in the exchange of peace for war as much as the men in the ranks detested it. She could see Franz von Nettelbeck barking out orders for the irresistible advance, his keen blue eyes flashing with triumph, his Prussian upper lip curling with impatient scorn, and Georg Zottmyer grinding his teeth in the trenches and suffering acutely from dyspepsia.
Until the summer of 1916 she was very busy, either in her mother's hospital or in one in Munich run by a group of Socialist friends under Marie von Erkel. She glanced at the English papers sometimes, but assumed that their versions of the war's origin, and of Germanic methods, were for home effect, and smiled at their occasional claims of victory.
Poor things! By this time she had seen so much mortal suffering, soothed so many dying men who raved of unimaginable horrors, written so many pathetic last letters to mothers and wives and sweethearts, that the first mood of fury and hatred had long since passed. Her mind, normally clear, acute, just, regained its poise. Moreover, those five years preceding the war, during which she had learned to use her gifts for the benefit of her sex instead of for her own amusement and fame, played their insidious part.
When she was ordered to take charge of a hospital in Lille in June of the second year of the war she had forced herself to accept the present state of Europe with a certain philosophy. After all, war was its normal, its historic, condition. Following a somewhat unusual interval of peace, owing to the beneficent reign of the German Emperor, the war microbes of Europe, cultured in the Balkan swamps, had, through some miscalculation, after a deplorable assassination, ravaged the entire continent instead of being localized as heretofore. Men were men and kings were kings and war was war. Gisela sometimes wondered if the hideous upheaval were anybody's fault, if the desire to fight had not been more or less simultaneous in spite of the fact that Germany was caught napping and permitted Russia and France to sneak over her frontiers.
The sinking of the Lusitania and other passenger ships, or rather the results, had filled her with a horror that might have developed into protest had she not been assured that the U-boats had purposely waited for a calm sea, not too far from shore, that the passengers might have every opportunity for escape; and that they had been the victims of contraband cargoes of ammunition exploding, badly adjusted life-boats, panic among themselves, and utter inefficiency and selfishness of the officers and crew.
These excuses sounded plausible to a young woman still too occupied to ponder; but during her journey through Belgium and the invaded districts of France her mind grew more and more uneasy. Surely an army so uniformly victorious, an army which only forebore to press forward in a battle--like that of the Marne, for instance--for sound strategic reasons, should have found it unnecessary to destroy whole towns with their priceless monuments of art, level countless insignificant villages, and reduce their inhabitants to cowering misery. She had been a student of history and had inferred that modern warfare was as humane as war may be; witness the fine magnanimity of the Japanese, an Oriental race. This passing country, which she had known well in its hey-day, looked extraordinarily like the historical pictures of the invasions of Goths and Vandals and Huns.
"Huns!" She had resented the constant use of the word in the English papers, dismissing it finally as childish spite. Had its usurpation of the classic and noble word "Germans" been one of those quick, merciless, simultaneous designations that fly through every army in wartime and are as apt as they are inevitable?
She felt a sudden desire to "talk it out" with Franz von Nettelbeck, whose mind, despite his prejudices, was the most stimulating she had ever known. But although she heard of him often, for he had covered himself with glory, she had seen him only once--from a window in Berlin as he promenaded Unter den Linden; a superb and haughty figure, his swelling chest covered with medals.
In Lille she met Elsa, who had been in charge of a hospital for a year, Mimi Brandt and Heloise von Erkel, with whom she had been intimately associated in Munich. She found all three horrified and appalled at the atrocious cruelties, the persistent and needless severities, the arrogant and swaggering attitude, accompanied by countless petty tyrannies, unworthy of an army in possession; the wholly unmodern and dishonorable treatment of a prostrate and wretched people. Above all, the deportations of the young girls of Lille, torn from their families, driven in herds through the streets, their faces stamped with despair or abject terror, condemned to God knew what horrible fate, had shaken these three humane and thinking women to the core.
All three, while serving far behind the lines, had thought their German army an army of demi-gods, and all three were bitterly ashamed of their countrymen and disposed to question a sovereign, and a military caste, that not only encouraged the saddist lust of their fighters and seemed unable to spare sufficient food for the civilians, in spite of the great leakage through neutral countries, but which persisted in calling themselves victorious when they were either perpetually on the defensive or in the act of being beaten, despite their irresistible rush. The Somme Drive had not begun but there was not a nurse in Lille that did not know the truth about Verdun.
"And believe me, as the Americans say," remarked Mimi Brandt, "when the German people know the truth, particularly the German women, there will be some circus."
Mimi had been far more of an active rebel than the Niebuhr girls, possibly because her life-stream was closer to the source, patently to herself because she had a magnificent voice which needed only technique to assure her a welcome in any of the great opera houses of Germany. Adroitly persuaded by her parents to marry when she was not quite seventeen, she had conceived an abhorrence of the rodent-visaged young burgess who had been her lot; not only was he personally distasteful to the ardent romantic girl, but he would not permit her to cultivate her voice, much less study for the stage. Her revenge had been a cruel disdain, to which he had responded by lying under the bed all night and howling. Twice she had run away, visiting prosperous and sympathetic relatives in Milwaukee, and both times returned at the passionate solicitations of her parents; not only outraged in their dearest conventions but anxious to be rid of the small rodent born of the union.
Her last return had been but a month before the outbreak of the war, and Hans Brandt, to his growling disgust, was promptly swept off by the searching German broom. He was as much in love with his wife as a man so meagerly equipped in all but national conceit may be, for Mimi was a handsome girl with a buxom but graceful figure, and a laughing face whose golden brown eyes sparkled with the pure fun of living when they were not somber with disgust and rebellion.
Gisela had always looked upon Heloise von Erkel as the most tragic figure in Munich. In appearance she had distinction rather than beauty, for although her features were delicate her complexion and hair were faded and there were faint lines on her charming face. She was a blonde of the French type, and her light figure, although indifferently carried and a stranger to gowns, possessed an indefinable elegance.
Under heaven knew what impulse of romantic madness Frau von Erkel, then Heloise d'Oremont, had married a young German officer, and although both fancied themselves deeply in love the breach began shortly after they had settled to the routine life of the frontier town where he was stationed, and had widened rapidly in spite of the fact that she produced six children as automatically as the most devoted (and detested) hausfrau of her acquaintance. Shortly after the birth of Marie, the breach became a chasm, for the chocolate firm, inherited through her bourgeoise mother and the source of Frau von Erkel's wealth, failed, and the haughty Bavarian aristocrat was forced to keep up his position in the army and maintain his growing family on an income, accruing from chocolate investments, that should have been reserved for pleasure alone.
However, there was help for it. He renounced cards and such other costly diversions as was possible without lowering his standard as a gentleman and an officer, and of course the real privation was borne by the women of the family. He even ceased to rage at his wife, for she merely sat in her favorite chair, her hands folded, and looked at him with her subtle ironic smile.
When Gisela met them, Frau von Erkel and her three daughters (all in their late twenties and unmarried) were living in a dingy old house in a respectable quarter, with one beer-sodden maid to relieve them of the heavy work and bake the cake for the Sunday "Coffee."
Colonel von Erkel and his three sons lived in bachelor quarters and called upon the women of the family every Sunday afternoon at precisely four o'clock. In full uniform, and imposing specimens of the German officer, they sat stiffly upon the uncomfortable chairs for about thirty minutes and then simultaneously escaped and were seen no more for a week.
At first Gisela was intensely amused at the vagaries of the Erkels, but when she saw the four narrow beds in a row in one small monastic room (the first floor was let to lodgers to pay the rent), and still more of their almost hopeless contriving to hold their position in Munich society, to say nothing of a bare sufficiency of food and raiment, her sympathies, always more deep than quick, were permanently aroused. But they were confined to the girls. Charming and graceful as the old lady was, it was evident that if above the arrogance of her German husband she was afflicted with the intense conservatism of her own race. It had taken Aimee, the oldest of the girls, three years of persistent begging, nagging, arguments, tears, and threats of abrupt demise, to obtain permission to move her piano--a present from relatives who occasionally came to the rescue--a bookcase and three chairs up to the garret and have a room she could call her own. Frau von Erkel was scandalized that a French girl (she systematically ignored the German infusion in her daughters) should wish for hours of solitude. But Aimee had the national genius for pegging away, and her mother, who came in time to feel that one nerve was being gnawed with maddening reiteration, finally succumbed; relieving her mind daily.
After that it was comparatively easy, although there were several notable engagements, for Heloise to become secretary to Gisela Doering. She never dared admit that she received a generous monthly cheque for her services, but Gisela was a favorite with the old lady (always sitting placidly in her chair, with her hands in her lap, a faint ironic smile on her still pretty face), and as her literary style was extolled by her exacting daughters (Frau von Erkel never read even a German newspaper, but subscribed for Le Figaro), and as she knew Gisela to be a member of her own class, the new connection was harmonious; and Heloise at last experienced something like real liberty in the tiny garden house of the parterre apartment of Gisela Doering on the Koeniginstrasse.
There is little time in the war zones to meet and talk, but even nurses must rest and take the air, and during the month before the frightful rush of wounded after the British offensive on the Somme began, the four girls, all in different hospitals, maneuvered to obtain leave of absence at the same hour, early in the evening. They promenaded the desolate streets arm in arm, their heads together, relieving their burdened souls. There was no idea of treason in any one of those rebellious minds, for they still believed their Fatherland to have been on the defensive from the first, the victim of a conspiracy, and they knew from the expression of the officers' faces, to say nothing of their tempers, that the danger was by no means past.
But being women, and women who had thought for themselves for many years, they must talk it out, and when too overcharged to trust their comments to the narrow streets, they retired to a hillock outside the city which no spy could approach unseen. However, nothing was farther from the minds of the German men of war than that the women cogs of their supremely organized land should presume to criticize methods which had, to their best belief, terrorized the world.
"But we are not the only ones," said Heloise grimly, as they sat on their refuge one dusky evening. "All but the sheep have a word to say now and then. Of course there always will be women who will grovel at the feet of men merely because they are men; but look out for the others when this accursed war is over. God! How I hate men! To think that once I dreamed and hoped like the silly romantic girl I was that some day some man would marry me in spite of my poverty. Now I would not marry one of the Kaiser's sons. Sick or well, German, English, French, I loathe them all alike. Obscene beasts every one of them; but I hate the Germans most, for they are the most disgusting invalids. And I am a German girl, too. France has never had any call for me. It is Marie who would be all French if she could. Poor little Marie, with her drab face and hair, her poverty, her dynamic body, mad to marry, and climbing out of the window when mother is asleep, to go to Socialists' meetings and scream off her pent-up passions. What a hideous world!"
She sprang to her feet and flung her arms above her head and glared at the unresponsive stars.
"O God!" she prayed. "Deliver us! Deliver us from war and deliver us from men! Deliver us from Kings and deliver us from criminal jealousies and ambitions and greeds that the innocent millions expiate in blood and tears! Deliver us from cowards--" She whirled suddenly upon Gisela. "You--you--why don't you lead us out? You have more mind than any woman in Germany. You have more influence. I have always placed my hopes on you. But now--now--you are doing nothing but nurse disgusting men like the rest of us."
"Hush! You are talking too loud. And you are carrying your revolt too far. These poor deluded men you nurse are only to be pitied, and if they merely revolt you, you have no vocation--"
"When did I ever pretend to have a vocation for nursing? Like all the rest I felt I must do my part, and heaven knows it is better than sitting at home making bandages and watching my mother slowly starve. If I had rolled one more bandage I should have gone mad."
"Well, dear Heloise, as far as I am concerned, the time for women to battle for their rights is when their country is safe, not in mortal danger. Be sure that when this war is over--"
She fell silent. A little flame had leapt in her brain. She extinguished it hurriedly, but it burnt the fingers of her will, always enthroned and always on guard. As she stared at Heloise, lovely in her Red Cross uniform, a white torch against the dark horizon, her tragic eyes once more searching the heavens, it struggled for life again and again. She loved Heloise and she felt a sudden inclusive love of her sex, an overpowering desire to deliver it from the sadness and horror of war; a profounder emotion than anything it had inspired in those far off days of peace. After all, however serious she had believed herself to be, it had been a game, a career; for in times of peace one must invent the vital interests of life, and one's success or failure depends upon one's powers of creating and sustaining the delusion. Only two things in life were real, love and war.
Gisela, like many women of dominating intellect and personality, had exhausted her power of sex-love with her first unfortunate but prolonged passion, and although she had no hatred of men, and indeed liked many and craved their society, she gave her real sympathies and affections to her women friends. She had no intimates, and this, perhaps, was one secret of her power. A certain aloofness is essential in intellectual leadership. But if she had no talent for intimacy she had much for friendship, and the friends of her inner circle were all women, partly because there was no waste of time fending off love-making, partly because there were more interests in common, consequently a deeper bond. To-night she was filled with an irresistible pity and a longing to set them free. But her hands were tied. She dared not even go to Great Headquarters and protest against the terrible fate of the young girls of Lille. She would have accomplished no good and become an instant object of suspicion.
For many months she did her duty doggedly, her indignation routed by the disquieting fact that the Germans were retreating from the Somme; inch by inch, but still retreating. Once she might have been satisfied with grandiose phrases and scornful assurances. But the long attack on Verdun had ended in dark humiliation; a failure that the most resourceful vocabulary was unable to translate into a German advantage, optically inverted.
More than half a million young Germans had fallen before Verdun, and for what? That France, disdained these many years by the mighty Teutonic Empire, and numerically inferior, might demonstrate to the world that she was the greater military nation of the two.
What was it all for? What of the ever-receding fields of peace, grown green and fat again? What of the racing past dotted with the broken headstones of promises of victory by this means or that?
But to attempt to answer historical enigmas while working day and night over the mangled victims of the Somme was beyond her powers. It was not until she broke down, and, with Heloise von Erkel and Mimi Brandt, obtained leave to spend a month at St. Moritz, that she found her answer.