The White Morning by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
The three girls went to a little hotel that had been a favorite resort of Gisela's in times of peace when she had felt an imperative need of the high solitudes and eternal snows. They planned a week's rest, and a fortnight or more of mountain climbing, dismissing the world war from their minds as far as possible. But their gentle plans were upset on the eighth day after their arrival, when at the end of an hour's hard skating, clad in the bright sweaters and caps of old, Gisela suddenly stopped short and returned the hard stare of two young women who had drawn apart and were evidently discussing her. That they were Americans Gisela recognized at a glance, but for a moment she saw them through a curtain of fire and smoke and shrieking shells and dying groans, so deep in the background of her memory were the people and events of her merely personal life. One of the young women was very tall, with a slim dashing figure, fine fair hair, keen cold gray eyes, a haughty nostril and upper lip: a beauty of the patrician American type. The other was shorter but also excessively thin, with dark dancing eyes, a warm color, a coquettish nose and pouting lips--which somehow invoked the complacent visage of the late Herr Graf Niebuhr--and a brilliant smile. In a moment Gisela recognized Ann Howland Prentiss and Kate Terriss, now Mrs. Tolby. This American friend of her childhood had married an American whose business kept him in London, and her path and Gisela's had never crossed since her finishing days in Berlin; although she had corresponded with Lili for two or three years and knew the family history in vague outline.
Gisela skated directly over to them and held out her hand to Kate. "It is a long while," she said, "but perhaps you remember me--"
"Do I? Ann will not believe me--that you are Gisela von Niebuhr not Doering. What a lark that was to run off to America and fool everybody! I wish I had come across you. It would have been quite dramatic to tear off the mask of the governess and reveal the junker. I think it was too stupid of you, Ann, that you didn't guess."
"I noticed many inconsistencies," said Mrs. Prentiss dryly. She added, holding out her hand with a charming smile: "But later, I was so proud to have known Gisela Doering, that personal curiosity seemed impertinent. How we have missed your writings these last dreadful years!"
Then all three began to talk at once and Gisela gathered that Mrs. Tolby had nursed behind the British lines in France since the early days of the war, and that her old friend, Mrs. Prentiss, had joined her a few months since. Kate asked innumerable questions about the other girls, particularly Mariette, whom she remembered as a Germanic blonde of warm coloring, the coldest eyes, the most subtly rigid and ruthless mouth she had ever seen. She had found some difficulty picturing her as a Red Cross nurse and was not surprised to hear that she was in charge of an enormous organization for the supply of cantines. Of her executive ability and quick determination there could be no doubt--as she told Ann Prentiss later.
In the excitement and exhilaration of this purely feminine conversation--which soon included Heloise and Mimi--the two parties forgot the gory chasm that divided them. When they dropped suddenly at a chance word to the present that gripped even these glittering snow fields with its red insatiable fingers, Kate, as ever, was equal to the formidable moment and cried out, snapping her fingers at the blue ether so tranquilly aloof from warring hosts:
"Forget it! For to-day, at least. What are you thinking about so hard, Ann?"
"I'll tell you later. Let us go in and have tea and then skate again. I noticed how well my step suited Countess Gisela's."
Ann Howland, as the wife of an eminent politician, had long since cultivated the art of mental suppleness and had learned to fascinate the most diverse intelligences and egos. Gisela, who was always warmly responsive to personal charm when not too obviously insincere, enjoyed the hour on the ice so exclusively devoted to her by the distinguished American and went to bed that night well content to bury the war during this period of necessary rest, grateful for this fresh current that swept her for the moment into one of those old backwaters of mere femininity. Mrs. Prentiss had not related a single anecdote of the front, nor alluded to the fact that she was a Red Cross nurse.
But she and Kate Terriss sat up until midnight. They were both women capable of seizing those rare opportunities for service that flit past so many intelligent women lacking initiative, and here was one that the most clear-thinking man would have envied. It was a piece of unbelievable luck; Gisela Doering was not only here to their hand in a relaxed and friendly mood, but she possessed charm combined with a great intelligence and an iron will: she was far more the obvious leader than they had inferred from her work, and they guessed something of the powerful influence she must quietly have obtained over the women of Germany. Mrs. Prentiss had by no means approved of her at an earlier period, for she had shrewdly suspected that it was the handsome German governess, not the high-born Irma, who thwarted her designs upon the most attractive "foreigner" she had ever met. But even if she had cherished a grudge, and her life had been far too happy and successful for that, she would have been so profoundly grateful to Gisela for saving her from the anomalous and wretched position of other modern American women married to medieval Germans, that she felt almost as great a desire to serve her as civilization in general.
When the two Americans parted for the night a methodical program had been worked out, with every date at command and every fact in damning sequence. The result of this momentous conference was that none of the five went to bed on the following night, but sat about a large oval table in the common sitting-room of Mrs. Prentiss and Mrs. Tolby, and wrangled until dawn.
The challenge was given by the Americans and accepted by the Germans, whose curiosity had been carefully pricked, and all had agreed that no matter how intensely distasteful any argument might be they would not separate for at least eight hours, and that there should be as little "hot stuff" (quoting Mimi Brandt) as possible.
The avowed object of the Americans was to prove conclusively that Germany, carrying out a deliberate program, had precipitated the war in 1914, believing Russia to be deliquescent, France riddled with syndicalism, and Britain on the verge of civil war; consequently that the exact moment had come for the swift execution of her scientifically wrought plan for world dominion.
The three German girls, deep and many as were their causes for resentment and disgust, had clung fast to the belief in their country's defensive attitude in the face of a gigantic conspiracy, and were not pried apart from it without hours of argument, hot and resentful on the one side, cool, precise, and logical on the other. But those acute German brains responded to the high intelligence of their opponents and to their manifest honesty. Moreover, it was indisputable that from the beginning the Americans had been in a position to know every side and detail of the ghastly story, while the Germans, confined within their own narrow borders and taught that the foreign newspapers were a tissue of "strategic lies," had been wholly dependent upon their government for "facts."
During this long debate Gisela sat at the head of the table, rigid and watchful, when she was not fiercely arguing; Mimi Brandt sprawled in an easy chair, satirical and slangy, enveloped in smoke; Heloise, very pale and the first to be convinced, sat with her little hands clenched against her cheek bones; Ann Prentiss, unshakenly cool quick and precise; the more brilliant Mrs. Tolby flashing her beacon light into recesses darkened these three years by systematic lies, but incapable of the final stupidity.
That long argument need not be reproduced here. All the world has made up its mind about Germany, knows her far better than as yet she knows herself. It was the deliberate effort of the Americans to force these three intelligent Germans, one of them a leader of the first importance, to realize that their country stood to the rest of the world for lying, treachery, cruelty, brutality, degeneracy, bad sportsmanship, ostrich psychology; above all, that she had forfeited her place among modern and honest nations.
When these facts had been hammered in, Mrs. Prentiss moved on to the two cardinal facts for whose elucidation the rest had been a mere preamble: that the Central Powers were beaten and knew it, but were determined to go on sacrificing the manhood of the country, reducing the population to the ultimate miseries of mind and body rather than yield; and that the only hope of obtaining mercy from the Entente Allies in the inevitable hour of surrender was to dethrone the Hohenzollerns and establish a Republic. Otherwise as a nation they would cease to exist and their last fate would be infinitely worse than their present. A German Republic would be welcomed into the family of nations and receive a friendly and helping hand from every one of the great adversaries, whose prestige and wealth were still unshaken, and who all desired to preserve the balance of power in Europe. Above all might they rely upon the United States of America, the friendly hints of whose President had been systematically distorted by the anxious Pan-Germans still in the saddle; who would cheerfully witness the loss of every drop of the people's life blood rather than their own power.
A conquered empire that had been hypnotized to the end by the monster criminals of history, whose word no man would ever take again, would be a mere collection of enslaved States for generations to come; the conquerors, having given them their choice, would show no mercy.
Britain could not be starved. The submarine war, whatever its devastations, and the vast inconveniences it had caused, was a failure. And the colossal wealth of the United States in money, in food, in men! Who knew her resources better than Gisela, who had lived in the country for four years and found it an absorbing study, who had continued to read American books, newspapers, and reviews up to the outbreak of the war? Well, they were all at the disposal of democracy; and as the Entente Allies, including the United States, were already many times stronger than Germany, how could they fail to win in the end, no matter how many millions of lives on all sides Germany continued to shovel into Moloch?
All of these three clever German girls had been more or less prepared to hear Germany proved a liar. They knew from British wounded that London was neither a fortified city nor reduced to ashes; also that all the Zeppelin raids on defenseless towns put together had been of less strategical value to Germany than the taking of one village in the war zone; she had merely piled up a mountain of hatred and contempt which must be leveled by the quick repudiation of her people if they would regain their lost intercourse with a triumphant world. Like all the other women who had nursed near the front and knew the truth, they translated into their own cynical vernacular such grandiose collocations as "Strategic retreats" from that of the Battle of the Marne to those which had been occurring periodically on the Western front since the beginning of the Somme offensive of 1916.
Gisela's mind was complex and subtle, but it was also honest. When it yielded a point, it yielded audibly. It was during the preliminary discussion that she exclaimed:
"It is true--certain things come back to me--Mimi, open the window. The air is blue and we are all hardy and can stand the night air. It was after the Agadir incident that I felt a change. I say felt because I was so absorbed in my work that I had no inclination for world politics and never discussed them. Up to that time I had never heard a hint of war for aggression on the part of Germany.... While, as far back as I can remember, it was taken for granted there would be a great war some day, I doubt if any but the military party really believed in it. We thought the time had passed for real wars, that we were far too highly civilized. Of course I knew that the military party to which my father belonged would have welcomed a war, for war was their profession, their game, their excuse for being, and I heard more or less talk among my brothers of Pan-Germanism; but still I imagined that it was merely a defensive Teutonic ideal, just as our oppressive standing army was a necessity owing to our geographical position. My brother Karl said once--it comes back to me, although I had quite forgotten it--that it was futile for the military caste to try to work up a war, because every moneyed man in the Empire--financiers, merchants, manufacturers, all the rest--never would hear of it. The country was too prosperous. Our wealth was growing at a pace which even the United States could not rival, and poverty was practically eliminated. That is the reason no hint made any impression on me. It seemed to me that we were the most fortunate and advanced nation in Europe and had only to wait for our kultur to pervade the earth.
"But--after Agadir--I seem to look back upon a slowly rising tide, muttering, sullen, determined--even in Bavaria the old serenity, the settled feeling, was gone--war was discussed as a possibility less casually than of old--"
"I recall a good deal more than that," interrupted Mimi. "Remember that I was the daughter of a manufacturer, and the wife, so-called, of a merchant. They were always grinding their teeth--and from about the time you speak of--over the wrongs of Germany. What the wrongs were I never could make out, and I am bound to say I did not listen very attentively, being absorbed in my own--but it would seem that Germany being the greatest country in the world was somehow not being permitted to let the rest of the world find it out--"
"It is all simple enough, now that I have the key. Germany tried to bully France, and not only was France anxious to avoid war but Britain showed her teeth. Germany was not then prepared to fight the world and was forced to compromise. France gave her a slice of the Kongo in exchange for Germany's consent to a French Protectorate in Morocco. Of course--after that it must have been evident to all the business brains of Germany that however great and prosperous the Empire might be she was not strong enough to dictate to Europe; nor presume to demand any more of the great prizes than she had already.
"In other words, she was shown her place. It was also more than possible that her aggressive prosperity might one of these days excite the apprehension of Great Britain, who would then show more than her teeth. Gradually the idea must have permeated, taken possession of the minds of men who had vast fortunes to increase or lose, that sooner or later they must fight for what they had and that it were better perhaps to strike first, at a moment they might choose themselves--however little they might sympathize with the ambitions of the Pan-German Party for supreme power in Europe--"
"Perhaps nothing," said Mimi. "They made up their minds to do it and they did it. It is as plain as daylight. I'd forgive them, too, if they'd won in six months, as they were so sure they would. What I don't forgive them for is that they have proved themselves the most criminal fools unhung. I'm glad that I am a Bavarian, and that Prussia, whom we have always so hated and despised that we have never turned the lions about on the Siegesthor, should be the prime offenders, humiliating as it may be that we fell for their lies and got into this rotten mess. But go ahead, Mrs. Prentiss. What's your next? Gee, but you can hand it out. You must have kept tab since August 1st, 1914."
"I took merely an intelligent American woman's interest," said Mrs. Prentiss, momentarily haughty. "And I spent the first two years and a half in Washington, where I often knew more than the newspapers; at all events where I was constantly in the society of thinking men. Also honest men, for war was the last thing we wanted, until our honor became too deeply involved to permit us to hold aloof and fatten on your misery any longer. Also, to be frank, our interests."
The fact which impressed the Germans and reduced all that had gone before to a heated academic discussion, was that Germany was beaten, and that the United States embargo would reduce the Central Empires to actual starvation, not merely devitalizing subnourishment; combined with their own certainty that the Teutonic Powers would go on fighting, under the lash of Prussia, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of loyal German and Austrian boys, plunge countless more families into hopeless grief, doom all the children in the land to sheer hunger and tuberculosis.
Starvation! That was the inevitable fate of Germany if she prolonged the war. And for what? Prostration, physical, financial, economic. To suffer for a generation, at least, the fate of the outlaw, mangy dogs nosing among rotten bones, kicked by the victors whenever they stood on their hind legs and whined for mercy.
And the Americans were prepared to pour into France and Britain billions of dollars and millions of men and incalculable tons of food and ammunition.
The two Americans had a deeper purpose in forcing this long argument than hammering the truth into those intelligent but Prussianized brains. As the hours wore toward the dawn they observed with satisfaction that Gisela's face grew whiter and grimmer, until finally it set itself in rigid lines. Her mouth was hard, her eyes expanded as if they saw far beyond the crystal mountains glittering before the open windows. Her mass of dark hair had fallen, and Mrs. Tolby whispered to Mrs. Prentiss that she looked like the Medusa in the Glyptothek in Munich, lovely but relentless.
Gisela was no longer the radiant and voluptuous beauty who had incurred the secret wrath of Ann Howland at Bar Harbor. These years of war, during which she had known hard physical labor and often insufficient nourishment, more rarely still a full night's sleep, had taken her lovely curves of cheek and form, her brilliant color. She was thin, almost gaunt; but the dissolving of the flesh had given her intellect, her force of character, her aspiring spirit, their first real opportunity to stamp her features. She would always be handsome, with her long dark eyes and masses of soft dark hair, her noble outlines; and her womanly sympathies had preserved their balance between a devitalizing horror on the one hand and callousness on the other; but it was a spiritualized beauty, devoid of that appeal to sex of which she had been, even after she had buried the memory of Franz von Nettelbeck and all desire for love, femininely tenacious, however disdainful.
Mimi was the first to speak after a long interval of silence.
"You've got me, all right. I've been digging up a few more things. We're up against it for keeps, and it's get out or starve out. I've a notion to sneak off to my relations in Milwaukee. Mrs. Prentiss, I'll go as your maid--"
"You'll do nothing of the sort!" Gisela's voice cut through the ripples of laughter which always greeted Mimi's redundant slang. "You'll go back to Germany with me and do your part in putting an end to this war!" All but Heloise half arose, but she sat staring at that hard drawn face as if in telepathic communication.
"Can you do anything--really?" gasped Kate. "We have been hoping for a revolution, but had given up the idea--until after the war. Your Socialists either eat out of the Kaiser's hand or sputter and fizzle out. And all your able-bodied men are at the front--"
"But not the women."
"You have both lived in Germany. You know that German women are big strong creatures--what you call husky. They are stronger than many of the men because they have led more decent lives. The men at the front are hopeless as revolutionary material--at present. They are hypnotized. They have been taught not to think. They are sick of the war, they suffer when they come home and see their women reduced to shadows, or go to the cemeteries to visit the graves of their little brothers and sisters; but the teaching of a lifetime: the omnipotence of their sovereigns, whom they innocently believe to rule by divine right, sends them back submissive, patient, sad. I know what you had in mind when you brought us here to convince us that our country was not only responsible for the war, but beaten. You hoped we would somehow bring about the assassination of the Kaiser and the Crown Prince Ruprecht of Bavaria--all the great generals. Is it not so? That would, assuredly, break down the morale of the army, give it a more smashing blow than any it has received even on the Western front. Well, it cannot be done. Even I could not obtain a pass into Great Headquarters. You might as well expect a British soldier to be permitted to saunter over from his lines and make sketches of the German trenches. Those men guard themselves--day and night, at every point--as if haunted with the fear of assassination. Perhaps they are. And remember that the downfall of Caesarism means the downfall not only of junkerism but of all the other kings and Grand Dukes--who are powerful and wealthy in their own domains. They have no doubt cursed Prussia daily since September, 1914, but now they all sink or swim together. They will force Germany to die a thousand deaths in the hope of a miracle that will save a class to which the rest of poor Germany is a breeding-ground for their mighty armies. I belong to that class. One of my brothers is on the staff of the Crown Prince of Prussia. Take my word for it: the solution of Germany's deliverance is not to be found in the simple antidote of political assassination, for only men bound up in the success of the German arms, or their terrorized creatures of our own sex, are near enough to throw the bomb."
"It was rather a commonplace idea," said Kate, gracefully, "but what can you do?"
"Quite aside from the women of the industrial and lower classes generally, who have given the municipalities serious trouble with their food riots--far more than you know about--the German women altogether are restless and dissatisfied. They were promised a short and triumphant war. They are daily more skeptical of promises. They have suffered death in life. All that early exaltation--exhilaration--has gone long since. They shut their teeth and endure because they still believe the cunning official lies--that Britain must be starved by the submersibles, that France's man power is nearly exhausted, that the United States cannot prepare an army in less than two years and needs all her trained men at home to quell the riots of the masses who disapprove of the war. They are taught to believe that ultimate victory for Germany is inevitable--that it is merely a question of months.
"But--convince them that Germany cannot win, that their own conquest is inevitable after three or four more years of horror and torment and personal despair, turn their blind hatred of England and America upon their own conscienceless rulers--"
"Jimminy!" cried Mimi. "That's the dope. Pound it into them that the Enemy Allies will give them a square deal as a Republic and put them under the steam-roller with the Hohenzollerns if they stand pat, and you'll get them. No more hungry and tubercular babies, no more babies born with a cuticle short in theirs. They'd rise as one man--I mean--damn the men!--as one woman."
Heloise left her seat like a whirlwind and flung herself at Gisela's feet. Her face was flaming white. She looked like a sibyl. "I knew it would be you!" she cried in her sweet bell-like tones. "I have had visions of you leading us out of this awful war. You have only to talk to the women--your word was gospel to them before the war--they too will have the vision and they will make it fact."
"Yes--but--" interrupted the practical Ann. "How shall you go to work? It is a stupendous idea. But you never could keep such a propaganda movement a secret. Some one would be sure to betray you. German women are perfect fools about men."
"No longer. Nor were they for several years before the war as subservient (inwardly) to men as they had been in the past. Far from it. And now! They have suffered too much at the hands of men. They have no illusions left. Love and marriage are ghastly caricatures to women who have lived in a time when men are slaughtered like pigs in massed formation; when their little boys are driven to war; when young girls--and widows!--are forced to bring more males into the world with the sanction of neither love nor marriage; when those too young for the trench or the casual bed wail incessantly for bread. Oh, no! The German man's day of any but legal dominion is over. Of course there is always the danger of spies and traitors, but--"
"The wall for you at sunrise if you get caught," cried Mimi, with another subsidence of enthusiasm.
"If that happen to be my destiny. Can any one experience what we have done during these three years and not be as fatalistic as the men in the trenches? I'd rather die before a firing squad after an attempt to save my wretched country than live to see it set back a hundred years. But I refuse to believe that I shall be betrayed or that I shall fail. That I believe to be my destiny. For a long time the idea has been fumbling in the back of my mind, but it lacked the current which would switch it into my consciousness. You two have supplied the current."
Kate threw back her head and gave her merry, ringing laugh. "What delicious irony! Germany defeated by its women! When I think of your august papa, dear Gisela! That kulturistically typical, that naive yet Jovian symbol of all the arrogance and conceit, the simple creed of Kaiserism ueber alles, and will-to-rule, that hurled this colossus on the back of Europe--"
"Quite so. You of all present know that I received the proper training for the part I am about to play. If all goes well we women will erect a tablet to my father's memory in the cathedral at Berlin." She leaned down and patted the rapt face of Heloise, then scowled at Mimi. "May I not count on you?" she asked sternly.
"May you? Well, say, what are you taking me for? I'm more afraid of you than I am of a firing squad, and anyhow I seem to know we'll win out. I'm going to carry a club in case I mix up with Hans. But what's your plan?"
"This is neither the time nor place to work out a campaign. The first move will be to train lieutenants in every State in Germany--women whom we know either personally or through correspondence. You, Heloise, will return to Munich at once and make out the lists. We shall have no difficulty obtaining permits to travel all over the Empire, for it will never enter the insanely stupid official head to doubt whatever excuse we may choose to give. Not only are we German women and therefore sheep, but we are Red Cross nurses.... And remember that nearly all the men who are still in the factories are Socialists--and that women swarm in all of those factories--"
"Marie!" cried Heloise. "How she will work! She has the confidence of the Socialist party--both wings--wherever she is known; and she can talk--like a torrent of liquid fire."
"And the next chapter?" asked Mrs. Prentiss curiously. "You led the German women in thought for five years. Shall you have a Woman's Republic, with you as President?"
"Certainly not. It is not in the German women--not yet--to crave the grinding cares of public life. We shall make the men do the work, and we will live for the first time. Delivered from Caesarism and junkerism and with the advanced men of Germany at the head of a Republic, I should feel too secure of Germany's future to demand any of the ugly duties of government--although the women will speak through the men. Their day of silence and submission is forever passed--"
"Same here," remarked Mimi, stretching and yawning. "Let's go to bed. I have smoked fifty-three cigarettes and my voice is ruined. Nevertheless I shall be a great prima donna, and you, Gisela, can chuck propaganda, and write romance. The world will devour it after these years of undiluted realism written in red ink on a black page. Look at the sun trying to climb out of that mist and give us his blessing."
"I shall go for a walk," said Gisela, "and I shall go alone."