Dundonald's Destroyer by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
This is the year 1977. It will be objected that the episode I am going to tell, having happened in 1917, having been witnessed by twenty-odd thousand people, must have been, if true, for sixty years common property and an old tale. But when General Cochrane--who saved England at the end of the great war--told me the Kitchener incident of the story last year, sitting in the rose-garden of the White Hart Inn at Sonning-on-Thames, I had never heard of it.
I wonder why he told me. Probably, as is the case in most things which most people do, from a mixture of impulses. For one thing I am an American girl, with a fresher zest to hear tales of those titanic days than the people or the children of the people who lived through them. Also the great war of 1914 has stirred me since I was old enough to know about it, and I have read everything concerning it which I could lay hands on, and talked to everyone who had knowledge of it. Also, General Cochrane and I made friends from the first minute. I was a quite unimportant person of twenty-four years, he a magnificent hero of eighty, one of the proud figures of England; it made me a bit dizzy when I saw that he liked me. One feels, once in a long time, an unmistakable double pull, and knows that oneself and another are friends, and not age, color, race nor previous condition of servitude makes the slightest difference. To have that happen with a celebrity, a celebrity whom it would have been honor enough simply to meet, is quite dizzying. This was the way of it.
I was staying with my cousin Mildred Ward, an Atlanta girl who married Sir Cecil Ward, an English baronet of Oxfordshire. I reached Martin-Goring on a day in July just in time to dress for dinner. When I came down, a bit early, Milly looked me over and pronounced favorably.
"You're not so hard to look at," she pronounced. "It takes an American really to wear French clothes. I'm glad you're looking well tonight, because one of your heroes--Oh!"
She had floated inconsequently against a bookcase in a voyage along the big room, and a spray of wild roses from a vase on the shelf caught in her pretty gold hair.
"Oh--why does Middleton stick those catchy things up there?" she complained, separating the flowers from her hair, and I followed her eyes above the shelf.
"Why, that's a portrait of Kitchener--the old great Kitchener, isn't it?" I asked. "Did he belong to Cecil's people?"
"No," answered Milly, "only Cecil's grandfather and General Cochrane--or something--" her voice trailed. And then, "I've got somebody you'll be crazy about tonight, General Cochrane."
"Oh! You pretend to know about the great war and don't know General Cochrane, who saved England when the fleet was wrecked. Don't know him!"
"Oh!" I said again. "Know him? Know him! I know every breath, he drew. Only I couldn't believe my ears. The boy Donald Cochrane? It isn't true is it? How did you ever, ever--?"
"He lives five miles from us," said Milly, unconcernedly. "We see a lot of him. His wife was Cecil's great-aunt. She's dead now. His daughter is my best friend. 'The boy Donald Cochrane'!" She smiled a little. "He's no boy now. He's old. Even heroes do that--get old."
And with that the footman at the door announced "General Cochrane."
I stared away up at a very tall, soldierly old man with a jagged scar across his forehead. His wide-open, black-lashed gray eyes flashed a glance like a menace, like a sword, and then suddenly smiled as if the sun had jumped from a bank of storm-clouds. And I looked into those wonderful eyes and we were friends. As fast as that. Most people would think it nonsense, but it happened so. A few people will understand. He took me out to dinner, and it was as if no one else was at the table. I was aware only of the one heroic personality. At first I dared not speak of his history, and then, without planning or intention, my own voice astonished my own ears. I announced to him:
"You have been my hero since I was ten years old."
It was a marvelous thing he did, the lad of twenty, even considering that the secret was there at his hand, ready for him to use. The histories say that--that no matter if he did not invent the device, it was his ready wit which remembered it, and his persistence which forced the war department to use it. Yes, and his heroism which led the ship and all but gave his life. And when he had fulfilled his mission he stepped back into the place of a subaltern; he was modest, even embarrassed, at the great people who thronged to him. England was saved; that was all his affair; nothing, so the books say, could prod him into prominence--though he rose to be a General later--after that, after being the first man in England for those days. It was this personage with whom I had gone out to dinner, and to whom I dared make that sudden speech: "You have been my hero, General Cochrane, since I was ten years old."
He slued about with the menacing, shrapnel look, and it seemed that there might be an explosion of sharp-pointed small bullets over the dinner-table.
"Don't!" I begged. The sun came out; the artillery attack was over; he looked at me with boyish shyness.
"D'you know, when people say things like that I feel as if I were stealing," he told me confidentially. "Anybody else could have done all I did. In fact, it wasn't I at all," he finished.
"Not you? Who then? Weren't you the boy Donald Cochrane?"
"Yes," he said, and stopped as if he were considering it. "Yes," he said quietly in the clean-cut, terse English manner of speaking, "I suppose I was the boy Donald Cochrane." He gazed across the white lilacs and pink roses on the table as if dreaming a bit. Then he turned with a long breath. "My child," he said, "there is something about you which gives me back my youth, and--the freshness of a great experience. I thank you."
I gazed into those compelling eyes, gasping like a fish with too much oxygen, I felt myself, Virginia Fox, meshed in the fringes of historic days, stirred by the rushing mighty wind of that Great Experience. I was awestruck into silence. Just then Milly got up, and eight women flocked into the library.
I was good for nothing there, simply good for nothing at all. I tried to talk to the nice, sensible English women, and I could not. I knew Milly was displeased with me for not keeping up my end, but I was sodden with thrills. I had sat through a dinner next to General Cochrane, the Donald Cochrane who was the most dramatic figure of the world war of sixty years ago. It has always moved me to meet persons who even existed at that time. I look at them and think what intense living it must have meant to pick up a paper and read--as the news of the day, mind you--that Germany had entered Belgium, that King Albert was fighting in the trenches, that Von Kluck was within seventeen miles of Paris, that Von Kluck was retreating--think of the rapture of that--Paris saved!--that the Germans had taken Antwerp; that the Lusitania was sunk; that Kitchener was drowned at sea! I wonder if the people who lived and went about their business in America in those days realized that they were having a stage-box for the greatest drama of history? I wonder. Terror and heroism and cruelty find self-sacrifice on a scale which had never been dreamed, which will never, God grant, need to be dreamed on this poor little racked planet again. Of course, there are plenty of those people alive yet, and I've talked to many and they remember it, all of them remember well, even those who were quite small. And it has stirred me simply to look into the eyes of such an one and consider that those eyes read such things as morning news. The great war has had a hold on me since I first heard of it, and I distinctly remember the day, from my father, at the age of seven.
"Can you remember when it happened, father?" I asked him. And then: "Can you remember when they drove old people out of their houses--and killed them?"
"Yes," said my father. And I burst into tears. And when I was not much older he told me about Donald Cochrane, the boy who saved England.
It was not strange to my own mind that I could not talk commonplaces now, when I had just spent an hour tailing to the man who had been that historic boy--the very Donald Cochrane. I could not talk commonplaces.
Milly's leisurely voice broke my meditation. "I'm sorry that my cousin, Virginia Fox, should have such bad manners, Lady Andover," she was drawling. "She was brought up to speak when spoken to, but I think it's the General who has hypnotized her. Virginia, did you know that Lady Andover asked you--" And I came to life.
"It was Miss Fox who hypnotized the General, I fancy," said Lady Andover most graciously, considering I had overlooked her existence a second before. "He had a word for no one else during dinner." I felt myself go scarlet; it had pleased the Marvelous Person, then, to like me a little, perhaps for the youth and enthusiasm in me.
With that the men straggled into the room and the tall grizzled head of my hero, his lined face conspicuous for the jagged, glorious scar, towered over the rest. I saw the vivid eyes flash about, and they met mine; I was staring at him, as I must, and my heart all but jumped out of me when he came straight to where I stood, my back against the bookcase.
"I was looking for you," he said simply.
Then he glanced over my head and his hand shot up in a manner of salute; I turned to see why. I was in front of the portrait of Lord Kitchener.
"Did you know him, General Cochrane?" I asked.
"Know him?" he demanded, and the gray glance plunged out at me from under the thick lashes.
"Don't do it," I pleaded, putting my hands over my eyes. "When you look at me so it's--bombs and bullets." The look softened, but the lean, wrinkled face did not smile.
"You asked if I knew Kitchener," he stated.
I spoke haltingly. "I didn't know. Ought I to have known?"
General Cochrane gazed down, all at once dreamy, as if he looked through me at something miles and aeons away.
"No," he said. "There's no reason why you should. You have an uncommon knowledge of events of that time, an astonishing knowledge for a young thing, so that I forget you can't know--all of it." He stopped, as if considering. "It is because I am old that I have fancies," he went on slowly. "And you have understanding eyes. I have had a fancy this evening that you and I were meant to be friends; that a similarity of interests, a--a likeness--oh, hang it all!" burst out the General like a college boy. "I never could talk except straight and hot. I mean I've a feeling of a bond between us--you'll think me most presuming--"
I interrupted, breathless. "It's so," I whispered. "I felt it, only I'd not have dared--" and I choked.
Old General Cochrane frowned thoughtfully. "Curious," was what he said. "It's psychology of course, but I'm hanged if I know the explanation. However, since it's so, my child, I'm glad. A man as old as I makes few new friends. And a beautiful young woman--with a brain--and charm--and innocent eyes--and French clothes!"
One may guess if I tried to stop this description. I could have listened all night. With that:
"'Did I know Kitchener!' the child asked," reflected the General, and threw back his splendid head and laughed. I stared up, my heart pumping. Then, "Well, rather. Why, little Miss Fox--" and he stopped. "I've a mind to tell the child a fairy-story," he said. "A true fairy-story which is so extraordinary that few have been found to believe it, even of those who saw it happen."
He halted again.
General Coehrane looked about the roomful of people and tossed out his hand. "In this mob?" he objected. "It's too long a story in any case. But why shouldn't you and I have a seance, to let a garrulous old fellow talk about his youth?" he demanded in his lordly way. "Why not come out on the river in my boat? They'll let you play about with an octogenarian, won't they?"
"I'll come," I answered the General eagerly.
"Very good. Tomorrow. Oh, by George, no. That confounded Prime Minister comes down to me tomorrow. I detest old men," said General Cochrane. "Well, then, the day after?"
The Thames was a picture-book river that day, gay with row-boats and punts and launches, yet serene for all its gaiety; slipping between grassy banks under immemorial trees with the air of a private stream wandering, protected, through an estate. The English have the gift above other nations of producing an atmosphere of leisure and seclusion, and surely there is no little river on earth so used and so unabused as the Thames. Of all the craft abroad that bright afternoon, General Cochrane's white launch with its gold line above the water and its gleaming brass trimmings was far and away the prettiest, and I was bursting with pride as we passed the rank and file on the stream and they looked at us admiringly. To be alive on such a day in England was something; to be afloat on the silvery Thames was enchantment; to be in that lovely boat with General Cochrane, the boy Donald Cochrane, was a rapture not to be believed without one's head reeling. Yet here it was happening, the thing I should look back upon fifty, sixty years from now, an old gray woman, and tell my grandchildren as the most interesting event of my life. It was happening, and I was enjoying every second, and not in the least awed into misery, as is often the case with great moments. For the old officer was as perfect a playmate as any good-for-nothing young subaltern in England, and that is putting it strongly.
"Wouldn't it be nicer to land at Sonning and have our tea there?" he suggested. We were dropping through the lock just higher than the village; the wet, mossy walls were rising above us on both sides and the tops of the lock-keeper's gorgeous pink snapdragons were rapidly going out of sight. My host went on: "There's rather a nice rose-garden, and it's on the river, and the plum-cake's good. What do you think, that or on board?"
"The rose-garden," I decided.
Sonning is a village cut out of a book and pasted on the earth. It can't be true, it's so pretty. And the little White Hart Inn is adorable.
"Is it really three hundred years old?" I asked. "The standard roses look like an illustration out of 'Alice in Wonderland.' Yes, please--tea in the White Hart garden."
The old General heaved a sigh. "Thank Heaven," he said. "I was most awfully anxious for fear you'd say on the boat, and I didn't order any."
We slipped under an arch of the ancient red bridge and were at the landing. I remember the scene as we stood on shore and looked down the shining way of the river, the tall grasses bending on either side like green fur stroked by the breeze; I remember the trim sea-wall and velvet lawn, and the low, long house with leaded windows of the place next the inn. A house-boat was moored to the shore below, white, with scarlet geraniums flowing the length of the upper deck, and willow chairs and tables; people were having tea up there; muslin curtains blew from the portholes below. Some Americans went past with two enormous Scotch deer-hound puppies on leash. "Be quiet, Jock," one of them said, and the big, gentle-faced beast turned on her with a giant, caressing bound, the last touch of beauty in the beautiful, quiet scene.
It was early, so that we took the table which pleased us, one set a bit aside against a ten-foot hedge, and guarded by a tall bush of tea-roses. A plump maid hurried across the lawn and spread a cloth on our table and waited, smiling, as if seeing us had simply made her day perfect. And the General gave the orders.
"The plum-cake is going to be wonderful," I said then, "and I'm hungry as a bear for tea. But the best thing I've been promised this afternoon is a fairy-story."
The shrapnel look flashed, keen and bright and afire, but I looked back steadily, not afraid. I knew what sunlight was going to break; and it broke.
"D'you know," said he, "I'm really quite mad to talk about myself. Men always are. You've heard the little tale of the man who said, 'Let's have a garden-party. Let's go out on the lawn and talk about me'? One becomes a frightful bore quite easily. So that I've made rules--I don't hector people about--about things I've been concerned with. As to the incident I said I'd tell you, that would be quite impossible to tell to--well, practically anyone."
My circulatory system did a prance; he could tell it practically to no one, yet he was going to tell it to me! I instantly said that. "But you're going to tell it to me?" I was anxious.
"Child, you flatter well," said the Marvelous Person, who had brought me picnicking. "It's the American touch; there's a way with American women quite irresistible."
"Oh--American women!" I remonstrated.
"Yes, indeed. They're delightful--you're witches, every mother's daughter of you. But you--ah--that's different, now. You and I, as we decided long ago, on day before yesterday, have a bond. I can't help the conviction that you're the hundred-thousandth person. You have understanding eyes. If I were a young man--And yet it's not just that; it's something a bit rarer. Moreover, they tell me there's a chap back in America."
"Yes," I owned. "There is a chap." And I persisted: "I'm to have a fairy-story?"
The black-lashed gaze narrowed as it traveled across the velvet turf and the tall roses, down the path of the quiet river. He had a fine head, thick-thatched and grizzled, not white; his nose was of the straight, short English type, slightly chopped up at the end--a good-looking nose; his mouth was wide and not chiseled, yet sensitive as well as strong; the jaw was powerful and the chin square with a marked dimple in it; there was also color, the claret and honey of English tanned complexions. Of course his eyes, with the exaggeratedly thick and long black lashes, were the wonderful part of him, but there is no describing the eyes. It was the look from them, probably, which made General Cochrane's face remarkable. I suppose it was partly that compelling look which had brought about his career. He was six feet four, lean and military, full of presence, altogether a conspicuously beautiful old lion in a land where every third man is beautiful.
"What are you looking munitions-of-war at, General, down the innocent little Thames River? You must be seeing around corners, past Wargrave, as far as Henley."
"I didn't see the Thames River," he shot at me in his masterful way. "I was looking at things past, and people dead and gone. We ancients do that. I saw London streets and crowds; I read the posters which told that Kitchener was drowned at sea, and then I saw, a year later, England in panic; I saw an almighty meeting in Trafalgar Square and I heard speeches which burned my ears--men urging Englishmen to surrender England and make terms with the Huns. Good God!" His fist came down on the rattling little iron table.
"My blood boils now when I remember. Child," he demanded, "I can't see why your alluring ways should have set me talking. Fancy, I've never told this tale but twice, and I'm holding forth to a little alien whom I haven't known two days, a young ne'er-do-well not born till forty years after the tale happened!"
"What difference does that make?" I asked. "Age means nothing to real people. And we've known each other since--since we hunted pterodactyls together, pre-historically. Only--I hate bats," I objected to my own arrangement. I went on: "If you knew how I want to hear! It's the most wonderful thing in my life, this afternoon--you."
"I know you are honest," he said. "Different from the ruck. I knew that the moment I saw you."
"Then," I prodded, "do begin with the posters about Lord Kitchener."
"But that's not the beginning," he protested. "You'll spoil it all," he said.
"Oh, no, then! Begin at the beginning. I didn't know. I wanted to get you started."
The gray eyes dreamed down the placid river water.
"The beginning was before I was born. It began when Kitchener, a young general, picked up a marauding party of black rascals on his way to Khartoum. They had a captive, a white girl, a lady. They had murdered her father and mother and young brother. The father was newly appointed Colonel of a regiment, traveling to his post with his family. The Arabs were saving the girl for their devilish head chieftain. Kitchener had the lot executed, and sent for the girl. She was--"
The old man's hand lifted to his head and he took off his hat and laid it on the ground.
"I cannot speak of that girl without uncovering," he said, quietly. "She was my mother." There was an electrical silence. I knew enough to know that no words fitted here. The old officer went on: "She was one of the wonderful people. What she seemed to think of, after the horrors she had gone through, was not herself or her suffering, but only to show her gratitude. It was a long journey--weeks--through that land of hell, while she was in Kitchener's hands, and not once did she lose courage. The Sirdar told me that it was having an angel in camp--she held that rough soldiery in the hollow of her hand. She told Kitchener her story, and after that she would not talk of herself. You've heard that he never had a love affair? That's wrong. He was in love then, and for the rest of his life, with my mother."
I gasped. The shrapnel eyes menaced me.
"She could not speak of herself, d'you see? It was salvation to think only of others, so that she'd not told him that she was engaged to my father. Love from any other was the last thing she was thinking of. After what had happened she was living from one breath to another and she dared not consider her own affairs. The night before they reached Cairo, Kitchener asked her to marry him. He was over forty then; she was nineteen. She told him of her engagement, of course--told him also that it might be she would never marry at all; a life of her own and happiness seemed impossible now. She might go into a sisterhood. Work for others was what she must have. Then, unexpectedly, my father was at Cairo to meet her, and Kitchener went to him and told him. From that on the two men were close friends. My people were not married till five years later, and when I came to be baptized General Kitchener was godfather. All my young days I was used to seeing him about the house at intervals, as if he belonged to us. I remember his eyes following my mother. Tall and slight she was, with a haunted look, from what she'd seen; she moved softly, spoke softly. It was no secret from the two, my father and mother, that he loved her always. Yet, so loyal, so crystal he was that my father had never one moment of jealousy. On the contrary they were like brothers. Then they died--my father and mother. The two almost together. I came into Kitchener's hands, Lord Kitchener by then. When he met me in London, a long lad of seventeen, he held my fingers a second and looked hard at me.
"'You're very like her, Donald,' he said. And held on. And said it again. 'Your mother's double. I'd know you for her boy if I caught one look of your eyes, anywhere,' he said. 'Her boy.'--Well--what? Do I want more tea? Of course, I do."
For the smiling plump maid had long ago brought the steaming stuff, the bread and butter and jam and plum cake, I had officiated and General Cochrane had been absorbing his tea as an Englishman does, automatically, while he talked.
About us the tables were filling up, all over the rose-garden. The Americans were there with the beautiful long-legged giant deer-hound puppy, Jock, and were having trouble with his table manners. People came in by twos and threes and more, from the river, with the glow of exercise on their faces; an elderly country parson sat near, black-coated, white-collared, with his elderly daughter and their dog, a well-behaved Scottie this one, big-headed, with an age-old, wise, black face. And a group of three pretty girls with their pretty pink-cheeked mother and a young man or so were having a gay time with soft-voiced laughter and jokes, not far away. The breeze lifted the long purple and rose-colored motor veils of mother and daughters. The whole place was full of bright colors and low-toned cheerful talk, yet so English was the atmosphere, that it was as if the General and I were shut into an enchanted forest. No one looked at us, no one seemed to know we were there. The General began to talk again, unconscious as the rest of anything or anybody not his affair.
"I got my commission in 1915 in K-1, Kitchener's first hundred thousand, and I went off to the front in the second year of the war. I had a scratch and was slightly gassed once, but nothing much happened for a long time. And in 1916, in May, came the news that my godfather, the person closest to me on earth, was drowned at sea. I was in London, just out of the hospital and about to go back to France."
The old General stopped and stared down at the graveled path with its trim turf border lying at his feet.
"It was to me as if the world, seething in its troubles, was suddenly empty--with that man gone. I drifted with the crowd about London town, and the crowd appeared to be like myself, dazed. The streets were full and there was continually a profound, sorrowful sound, like the groan of a nation; faces were blank and gray. Those surging, mournful London streets, and the look of the posters with great letters on them--his name--that memory isn't likely to leave me till I die. Of course, I got hold of every detail and tried to picture the manner of it to myself, but I couldn't get it that he was dead. Kitchener, the heart of the nation; I couldn't comprehend that he had stopped breathing. I couldn't get myself satisfied that I wasn't to see him again. It seemed there must be some way out. You'll remember, perhaps, that four boats were seen to put off from the Hampshire as she sank? I tried to trace those boats. I traveled up there and interviewed people who had seen them. I got no good from it. But it kept coming to me that it was not a mine that had sunk the ship, that it was a torpedo from a German submarine, and that Kitchener was on one of the boats that put off and that he had been taken prisoner by the enemy. God knows why that thought persisted--there were reasons against it--it was a boy's theory. But it persisted; I couldn't get it out of my head. I was in St. Paul's at the Memorial Service; I heard the 'Last Post' played for him, and I saw the King and Queen in tears; all that didn't settle my mind. I went back to the front, heavy-hearted, and tried to behave myself as I believed he'd have had me--the Sirdar. My people had called him the Sirdar always. Luck was with me in France; I had chances, and did a bit of work, and got advancement."
"I know," I nodded. "I've read history. A few trifles like the rescue of the rifles and holding that trench and--"
The old soldier interrupted, looking thunderous. "It has a bearing on the episode I'm about to tell you. That's why I refer to it."
I didn't mind his haughtiness. It was given me to see the boy's shyness within that grim old hero.
"So that when I landed in London in 1917, having been stupid enough to get my right arm potted, it happened that my name was known. They picked me out to make a doing over. I was most uncommonly conspicuous for nothing more than thousands of other lads had done. They'd given their lives like water, thousands of them--it made me sick with shame, when I thought of those others, to have my name ringing through the land. But so it was, and it served a purpose, right enough, I saw later.
"Then, as I began to crawl about, came the crisis of the war. Ill news piled on ill news; the army in France was down with an epidemic; each day's news was worse than the last; to top all, the Germans found the fleet. It was in letters a foot long about London--newsboys crying awful words:
"'Fleet discovered--German submarines and Zeppelins approaching.'
"A bit later, still worse. 'The Bellerophon sunk by German torpedo--ten dreadnoughts sunk--' There were the names of the big ships, the Queen Elizabeth, the Warspite, the Thunderer, the Agamemnon, the King Edward--a lot more, battle cruisers, too--then ten more dreadnoughts--and more and worse every hour. The German navy was said to be coming into the North Sea and advancing to our coast. And our navy was going--gone--nothing to stand between us and the fate of Belgium.
"Then England went mad! I thank God I'll not live through such days again. The land went mad with fear. You'll remember that there had been a three-year strain which human nerves were not meant to bear. Well, there was a faction who urged that the only sane act now possible was to surrender to Germany quickly and hope for a mercy which we couldn't get if we struggled. The government, under enormous pressure, weakened. It's easy to cry 'Shame!' now, but how could it stand firm with the country stampeding back of it?
"So things were the day of the mass meeting in Trafalgar Square. I was tall, and so thin and gaunt that, with my uniform and my arm in its sling, it was easy to get close to the front, straight under the speakers. And no sooner had I got there than I was seized with a restlessness, an uncontrollable desire to see my godfather--Kitchener. Only to see him, to lay eyes on him. I wish I might express to you the push of that feeling. It was thirst in a desert. With that spell on me I stood down in front of the stone lions and stared up at Nelson on his column, and listened to the speakers. They were mad, quite, those speakers. The crowd was mad, too. It overflowed that great space, and there were few steady heads in the lot. You'll realize it looked a bit of a close shave, with the German navy coming and our fleet being destroyed, no one knew how fast, and the army in France, and struck down by illness. At that moment it looked a matter of three or four days before the Huns would be landing. Never before in a thousand years was England as near the finish. As I stood there fidgeting, with the starvation on me for my godfather, it flashed to me that there's a legend in every nation about some one of its heroes, how in the hour of need he will come back to save the people--Charlemagne in France, don't you know, and Barbarossa and King Arthur and--oh, a number. And I spoke aloud, so that the chap next prodded me in the ribs and said: 'Stop that, will you? I can't hear'--I spoke aloud and said:
"'This is the hour. Come back and save us.'
"The speakers had been ranting along, urging on the people to force the government to give in and make terms with those devils who'd crushed Belgium. Of course there were plenty there ready to die in the last ditch for honor and the country, but the mob was with the speakers. Quite insane with terror the mob was. And I spoke aloud to Kitchener, like a madman of a sort also, begging him to come from another world and save his people.
"'This is the hour; come and save us,' said I, and said it as if my words could get through to Kitchener in eternity.
"With that a taxicab forced through the crowd, close to the platform, and it stopped and somebody got out. I could see an officer's cap and the crowd pressing. My eyes were riveted on that brown cap; my breath came queerly; there was a murmur, a hush and a murmur together, where that tall officer with the cap over his face pushed toward the speakers. I felt I should choke if I didn't see him--and I couldn't see him. Then he made the platform, and before my eyes, before the eyes of twenty thousand people, he stood there--Kitchener!"
General Cochrane stared defiantly at me. "I'm not asking you to believe this," he said. "I'm merely telling you--what happened."
"Go on," I whispered.
He went on: "A silence like death fell on that vast crowd. The voice of the speaker screaming out wild cowardice about mercy from the Germans kept on for a few words, and then the man caught the electrical atmosphere and was aware that something was happening. He halted half-way in a word, and turned and faced the grim, motionless figure--Kitchener. The man stared a half minute and shot his hands up and howled, and ran into the throng. All over the great place, by then, was a whisper swelling into a bass murmur, into a roar, his name.
"'Kitchener--Kitchener!' and 'K. of K.!' and 'Kitchener of Khartoum!'
"Never in my life have I heard a volume of sound like London shouting that day the name of Kitchener. After a time he lifted his hand and stood, deep-eyed and haggard, as the mass quieted. He spoke. I can't tell you what he said. I couldn't have told you the next hour. But he quieted us and lifted us, that crowd, fearstruck, sobbing, into courage. He put his own steady dignity into those cheap, frightened little Johnnies. He gave us strength even if the worst came, and he held up English pluck and doggedness for us to look at and to live by. As his voice stopped, as I stood down in front just under him, I flung up my arms, and I suppose I cried out something; I was but a lad of twenty, and half crazed with the joy of seeing him. And he swung forward a step to me as if he had seen me all the time--and I think he had. 'Do the turn, Donald,' he said, 'The time has come for a Cochrane to save England.'
"And with that he wheeled and without a look to right or left, in his own swift, silent, shy way he was gone.
"Nobody saw where he went. I all but killed myself for an hour trying to find him, but it was of no use. And with that, as I sat at my lunch, too feverish and stirred to eat food, demanding over and over what he meant, what the 'turn' was which I was to do, why a Cochrane should have a chance to save England--with that, suddenly I knew."
General Cochrane halted again, and again he gazed down the little river, the river of England, the river which he, more than any other, had kept for English folk and their peaceful play-times. I knew I must not hurry him; I waited.
"The thing came to me like lightning," he went on, "and I had only to go from one simple step to another; it seemed all thought out for me. It was something, don't you see, which I'd known all my lifetime, but hadn't once thought of since the war began. I went direct to my bankers and got a box out of the safe and fetched it home in a cab. There I opened it and took out papers and went over them.... This part of the tale is mostly in print," General Cochrane interrupted himself. "Have you read it? I don't want to bore you with repetitions."
I answered hurriedly, trembling for fear I might say the wrong thing: "I've read what's in print, but your telling it puts it in another world. Please go on. Please don't shorten anything."
The shadow of a smile played. "I rather like telling you a story, d'you know," he spoke, half absent-mindedly--his real thoughts were with that huge past. He swept back to it. "You know, of course, about Dundonald's Destroyer--the invention of my great-grandfather's kinsman, Thomas Cochrane, tenth Earl of Dundonald? He was a good bit of an old chap in various ways. He did things to the French fleet that put him as a naval officer in the class with Nelson and Drake. But he's remembered in history by his invention. It was a secret, of course, one of the puzzles of the time and of years after, up to 1917. It was known there was something. He offered it to the government in 1811, and the government appointed a committee to examine into it. The chairman was the Duke of York, commander-in-chief of the army, said to be the ablest administrator of military affairs of that time. Also there were Admirals Lord Keith and Exmouth and the Congreve brothers of the ordnance department. A more competent committee of five could not have been gathered in the world. This board would not recommend the adoption of the scheme. Why? They reported that there was no question that the invention would do all which Dundonald claimed, but it was so unspeakably dreadful as to be impossible for civilized men.
"There was not a shadow of doubt, the committee reported, that Dundonald's device would not merely defeat but annihilate and sweep out of existence any hostile force, whole armies and navies. 'No power on earth could stand against it,' said the old fellow, and the five experts backed him up. But they considered that the devastation would be inhuman beyond permissible warfare. Not war, annihilation. In fact, they shelved it because it was too efficient. There was great need of means for fighting Napoleon just then, so they gave it up reluctantly, but it was a bit too shocking.
"The weak point of the business was, as Dundonald himself declared, that it was so simple--as everybody knows now--that its first use would tell the secret and put it in the hands of other nations. Therefore the committee recommended that this incipient destruction should be stowed away and kept secret, so that no power more unscrupulous than England should get it and use it for the annihilation of England and the conquest of the world. Also the committee persuaded the Earl before he went on his South American adventure to swear formally that he would never disclose his device except in the service of England. He kept that oath.
"Well, the formula for this affair was, of course, in pigeonholes or vaults in the British Admiralty ever since the committee in 1811 had examined and refused it. But there was also, unknown to the public, another copy. The Earl was with my great-grandfather, his kinsman and lifelong friend, shortly before his death, and he gave this copy to him with certain conditions. The old chap had an ungovernable temper, quarreled right and left, don't you know, his life long, and at this time and until he died he was not on speaking terms with his son Thomas, who succeeded him as Earl, or indeed with any of the three other sons. Which accounts for his trusting to my great-grandfather the future of his invention. I found a quaint note with the papers. He said in effect that he had come to believe with the committee that it was quite too shocking for decent folk. Yet, he suggested, the time might come when England was in straits and only a sweeping blow could serve her. If that time should come it would be a joy to him in heaven or in hell--he said--to think that a man of his name had used the work of his brains to save England.
"Therefore, the Earl asked my grandfather to guard this gigantic secret and to see to it that one man in each generation of Cochranes should know it and have it at hand for use in an emergency. My grandfather came into the papers when he came of age, and after him my father; I was due to read them when I should be twenty-one. I was only twenty in 1917. But the papers were mine, and from the moment it flashed to me what Kitchener meant I didn't hesitate. It was this enormous power which was placed suddenly in the hands of a lad of twenty. The Sirdar placed it there.
"I went over the business in an hour--it was simple, like most big things. You know what it was, of course; everybody knows now. Wasn't it extraordinary that in five thousand years of fighting no one ever hit on it before? I rushed to the War Office.
"Well, the thing came off. At first they pooh-poohed me as an unbalanced boy, but they looked up the documents in the Admiralty and there was no question. It isn't often a youngster is called into the councils of the government, and I've wondered since how I held my own. I've come to believe that I was merely a body for Kitchener's spirit. I was conscious of no fatigue, no uncertainty. I did things as the Sirdar might have done them, and it appears to me only decent to realize that he did do them, and not I. You probably know the details."
I waited, hoping that he would not stop. Then I said: "I know that the government asked for twenty-five volunteers for a service which would destroy the German fleet, but which would mean almost certain death to the volunteers. I know that you headed the list and that thousands offered." My voice shook and I spoke with difficulty as I realized to whom I was speaking. "I know that you were the only one who came back alive, and that you were barely saved."
General Cochrane seemed not to hear me. He was living over enormous events.
"It was a bright morning in the North Sea," he talked on, but not to me now. "Nobody but ourselves knew just what was to be done, but everybody hoped--they didn't know what. It was a desperate England from which we sailed away. We hadn't long to wait--the second morning. There were their ships, the triumphant long lines of the invader. There were their crowded transports, the soldiers coming to crucify England as they had crucified Belgium--thousands and tens of thousands of them. Then--we did it. German power was wiped off the face of the earth. German arrogance was ended for all time. And that was the last I knew," said General Cochrane. "I was conscious till it was known that the trick had worked. Of course it couldn't be otherwise, yet it was so beyond anything which mankind had dreamed that I couldn't believe it till I knew. Then, naturally, I didn't much care if I lived or died. I'd done the turn as the Sirdar told me, and one life was a small thing to pay. I dropped into blackness quite happily, and when I woke up to this good earth I was glad. England was right. The Sirdar had saved her."
"And the Sirdar?" I asked him. "Was it--himself?"
"Himself? Most certainly."
"I mean--well--" I stammered. And then I plunged in. "I must know," I said. "Was it Lord Kitchener in flesh and blood? Had he been a prisoner in Germany and escaped? Or was it--his ghost?"
The old lion rubbed his cheek consideringly. "Ah, there you have me," and he smiled. "Didn't I tell you this was a tale which could be told to few people?" he demanded. "'Flesh and blood'--ah, that's what I can't tell you. But--himself? Those people, the immense crowd which saw him and recognized him, they knew. Afterwards they begged the question. The papers were full of a remarkable speech made by an unknown officer who strikingly resembled Kitchener. That's the way they got out of it. But those people knew, that day. There wasn't any doubt in their minds when that roar of his name went up. They knew! But people are ashamed to own to the supernatural. And yet it's all around us," mused General Cochrane.
"Could it have been--did you ever think--" I began, and dared not go on.
"Did I ever think what, child?" repeated the old officer, with his autocratic friendliness. "Out with it. You and I are having a truth-feast."
"Well, then," I said, "if you won't be angry--"
"I won't. Come along."
"Did you ever think that it might have been that--you were only a boy, and wounded and weak and overstrained--and full of longing for your godfather. Did you ever think that you might have mistaken the likeness of the officer for Kitchener himself? That the thought of Dundonald's Destroyer was working in your mind before, and that it materialized at that moment and you--imagined the words he said. Perhaps imagined them afterwards, as you searched for him over London. The two things might have suggested each other in your feverish boy's brain."
I stopped, frightened, fearful that he might think me not appreciative of the honor he had done me in telling this intimate experience. But General Cochrane was in no wise disturbed.
"Yes, I've thought that," he answered dispassionately. "It may be that was the case. And yet--I can't see it. That thing happened to me. I've not been able to explain it away to my own satisfaction. I've not been able to believe otherwise than that the Sirdar, England's hero, came to save England in her peril, and that he did it by breathing his thought into me. His spirit got across somehow from over there--to me. I was the only available person alive. The copy in the archives was buried, dead and buried and forgotten for seventy years. So he did it--that way. And if your explanation is the right one it isn't so much less wonderful, is it?" he demanded. "In these days psychology dares say more than in 1917. One knows that ghost stories, as they called them in those ignorant times, are not all superstition and imagination. One knows that a soul lives beyond the present, that a soul sometimes struggles back from what we call the hereafter to this little earth--makes the difficult connection between an unseen world of spirit, unconditioned by matter, and our present world of spirit, conditioned by matter. When the pull is strong enough. And what pull could be stronger than England's danger? To Kitchener?" The black-lashed, gray eyes flamed at me, unblinking the rift of light through the curtain of eternal silences.
When I spoke again: "It's a story the world ought to own some day," I said. "Love of country, faithfulness that death could not hinder."
"Well," said old General Cochrane, "when I'm gone you may write it for the world if you like, little American. And what I'll do will be to find the Sirdar, the very first instant I'm over the border, and say to him, 'I've known it was your work all along, sir, and however did you get it across?'"
A month ago my cousin sent me some marked newspapers. General Cochrane has gone over the border, and I make no doubt that before now he has found the Sirdar and that the two sons and saviors of a beloved little land on a little planet have talked over that moment, in the leisures and simplicities of eternity, and have wondered perhaps that anyone could wonder how he got it across.