Chapter I. The Germans Are Coming!
The Germans had already entered Brussels, their scouts were reported on the outskirts of Ghent; a little farther now, over behind the horizon wind-mills, and we might at any moment come on them.
For more than a fortnight we had been hurrying eastward, hearing, through cable despatches and wireless, the far-off thunder of that vast gray tide rumbling down to France. The first news had come drifting in, four thousand miles away, to the little Wisconsin lake where I was fishing. A strange herd of us, all drawn in one way or another by the war, had caught the first American ship, the old St. Paul, and, with decks crowded with trunks and mail-bags from half a dozen ships, steamed eastward on the all but empty ocean. There were reservists hurrying to the colors, correspondents, men going to rescue wives and sisters. Some were hit through their pocketbooks, some through their imaginations - like the young women hoping to be Red Cross nurses, or to help in some way, they weren't sure how.
One had a steamer chair next mine - a pale, Broadway tomboy sort of girl in a boyish sailor suit, who looked as if she needed sleep. Without exactly being on the stage, she yet appeared to live on the fringe of it, and combined the slangy freedoms of a chorus girl with a certain quick wisdom and hard sense. It was she who discovered a steerage passenger, on the Liverpool dock, who had lost his wife and was bringing his four little children back to Ireland from Chicago, and, while the other cabin passengers fumed over their luggage, took up a collection for him then and there.
"Listen here!" she would say, grabbing my arm. "I want to tell you something. I'm going to see this thing - d'you know what I mean? - for what it'll do to me - you know - for its effect on my mind! I didn't say anything about it to anybody - they'd only laugh at me - d'you know what I mean? They don't think I've got any serious side to me. Now, I don't mind things - I mean blood - you know - they don't affect me, and I've read about nursing - I've prepared for this! Now, I don't know how to go about it, but it seems to me that a woman who can - you know - go right with 'em - jolly 'em along - might be just what they'd want - d'you know what I mean?"
One Russian had said good-by to a friend at the dock, he to try to get through this way, the other by the Pacific and Trans-Siberian. The Englishman who shared my stateroom was an advertising man. "I've got contracts worth fifty thousand pounds," he said, "and I don't suppose they're worth the paper they're written on." There were several Belgians and a quartet of young Frenchmen who played cards every night and gravely drank bottle after bottle of champagne to the glory of France.
Even the Balkans were with us, in the shape of a tall, soldier-like Bulgarian with a heavy mustache and the eyes of a kindly and highly intelligent hawk. He was going back home - "to fight?" "Yes, to fight."
"With Servia?" asked some one politely, with the usual vague American notion of the Balkan states. The Bulgarian's eyes shone curiously.
"You have a sense of humor!" he said.
This man had done newspaper work in Russia and America, studied at Harvard, and he talked about our politics, theatres, universities, society generally. It was a pity, he said, and the result of the comparative lack of critical spirit in America that Mr. Roosevelt had been a hero so long. There were party papers mechanically printing their praise or blame - "and then, of course, the New York Evening Post and the Springfield Republican" - but no general intelligent criticism of ideas for a popular idol to meet and answer. "On the whole, he's a good influence - but in place of something better. It isn't good for a man to stand so long in the bright sunshine."
That it was impossible for the Mexicans to work out their own salvation he doubted. "I think of Bulgaria - surely our inheritance of Turkish rule was almost as bad, and of how the nation has responded, and of the intensive culture we had at a time when we were only a name to most western Europeans." He was but one of those new potentialities which every whisper from the now cloud-wrapped Continent seemed to be opening - this tall, scholar-fighter from the comic-opera land where Mr. Shaw placed his chocolate soldiers.
In a steamer chair a frail-looking young woman in a white polo coat looked nervously out on the sea. She was Irish and came of a fighting line - father, uncles, and brothers in army and navy, her husband in command of a British cruiser, scouting the very steamship lane through which we were steaming. Frail-looking, but not frail in spirit - a fighter born, with Irish keenness and wit, she was ready to prick any balloon in sight. She had chased about the world too long after a fighting family to care much about settling down now. They couldn't afford to keep a place in England and live somewhere else half the time - "and, after all, what is there in being a cabbage?" She talked little. "You can learn more about people merely watching them," and she lay in her steamer chair and watched.
She could tell, merely by looking at them in their civilian's clothes, which were army and which navy men, which "R.N.s" and which merchant- service men. We spoke of a young lieutenant from an India artillery regiment. "Yes - 'garrison-gunner,'" she said. She was sorry for the German people, but the Kaiser was "quite off his rocker and had to be licked."