by H. M. TOMLINSON
I WHO was at sea in the days of sail have been allowed to read—though bound to secrecy — the war logs of a fleet of merchant ships. The logs were laconic, of course, as is proper with the professional observations of craftsmen, and too often they alluded to technical matters not easily interpreted. But, after all, a tanker would be a ship to puzzle Nelson, who might not think its destruction by an alliance of submarine and airplane altogether gentlemanly.
In truth, what I read in those logs from all oceans was so peculiar and grisly, and was accepted by the su fferers so casu ally, — as if extinction by the shi plead, and fantastically, was only what men should expect, as were the accidents in ancient fables when the gods were jealous and men were new to the earth, — that I saw we were indeed in another era, and that it had the augury of a frightful dream.
I resolved, in the first shock of this surprise, that some day, and the sooner the better, landsmen, who are most of us, must be told of it. It had become necessary to acknowledge, with due humility in repentance, the nature of the new world that has been created since the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and there was light. Darkness once again is upon the face of the deep. But a time comes, and we may be in it, when horror sinks into apathy. Starved men and women shambling out of prison camps, or crawling from under a home crumbled by a bomb, or falling from a cloud in flames, are not interested in ships torn asunder. People, if released on probation from purgatory, do not look back at the prospect from which, temporally, they are free. They want ease of heart, if it can be got.
What writer could heighten, for general reading, with significance enough, those technical reports by seamen too weary to notice the fact that they still exist? When ugliness is the daily aspect of sunrise, what is there for a poet to sing about? No benefit could come of lifting the eyes to the hills.
Do we understand that that is where we are? Shall we end with loose hands, and minds surrendered, through apathy? We had better speak plainly to each other while there is time for it, before the soul dies out utterly, though we remain more energetic than ever. When the things we do would make Belial mute, the threat of hell is superfluous, for there we are.
I was reading a story recently by a municipal engineer. It was his first attempt at a relation of events, his usual duty being the water, light, power, roads, and drains of a city. His interest was science. He solved problems mathematically. If the marvels of the human spirit are not sub ject to a slide rule, — and they are not, — why should a busy man bother with them? It was enough to preserve the health of these people. You cannot provide for the unpredictable.
His city was Singapore. There, all had been lawful and established for so long that the disturbing whispers of Japanese self-interest on the prowl were confined to the clubs; they circulated after dark. But one day this engineer heard Japanese guns. The next day his work was all for the succor of a huge and variegated population which had not provided against doomsday. Somewhat later, ordered to go, he gave his automobile to an embarrassed soldier who was passing, and boarded a ship bound for he did not know where, and neither did her captain. In his story, soon after that, this passage occurs:—
As St. Valentine’s Day, 1943, was nearing its close, a state of affairs which defies description prevailed in this section of the Malay Archipelago. Perhaps never before in the long period of recorded history was there anything to compare with it. Men, women, and children, in ones and twos, in dozens, in scores, and in hundreds, were cast upon these tropical islands within an area of say four hundred square miles. Men and women of many races, of all professions, engineers, doctors, lawyers, business men, sisters, nurses, housewives, sailors, soldiers, and airmen, all shipwrecked. Between the islands on the phosphorescent sea floated boats and rafts laden with people; anti here and there, upheld by his lifebelt, a lone swimmer was striving to make land. All around the rafts and lifeboats were dismembered limbs, dead fish, and wreckage drifting with the currents; below, in all probability, were sharks; and above, at intervals, the winged machines of death. Among those who had escaped from death by bombs or the sea was not one who did not suffer from mutilations, wounds, sickness, hunger, cold, dirt, fear, or loss, and none knew what the morrow would bring forth.
That passage is from Singapore to Freedom, by Mr. O. W. Gilmour, The picture is of foundations collapsed, establishment gone, society adrift, its symbols of wealth as empty as the signs on an Assyrian brick, of gentle people glad of grasping any flotsam between the devil and the deep. Then were the foundations of society false? I think they must have been. Anyhow, we do get a fleeting glimpse of the world as it is; for that picture from the tropics is a common prospect today in all latitudes.
Whether or not the foundations of civilization have given way, there is nothing false in the way ordinary men and women have faced downfall. That is the heartening thing in this war, and our only hope. It is clear that life has a heroic principle. Between the devil and the deep, that, fact floats along to our advantage. Mr. Gilmour was impressed by it; it surprises him at every turn. He noticed the charity of Malays and Chinese to castaways; they forgot peril when they saw distress. Tn young officers stripped of uniforms and authority there were humor and integrity which catastrophe could not break. No claims were made to property. The man next to you gave away his coat if you were bare; tropical nights can be perishing. Nurses, halfnaked on a desert beach, did what they could for the wounded as if a hospital ward were about them.
T WAS the same in London. There, as in Chungking and Leningrad, people in the street, who left no name behind them, would run to tasks so unprovided for and appalling that the famous heroes of the legends may be forgotten in the name of Anybody. A hero is not distinguished by a badge, he does not look like Roland, but as a rule he is there when wanted. It is true there is a greater “news value” in black markets and other evidence of the residual brute, but it is also true that our modest neighbor has more valor in him than we suspected, though he thinks nothing of it, and neither do the newspapers.
This does not mean that he is not a fool, if we measure him by the standard for bright success. It is likely, of course, that the standards by which we have valued things hitherto have been short. If a man is only reckoned as a unit of industrial energy, then he is lost in statistics. We do not know he is there. We ask of a cog in a mechanical system only that it should be a good cog. We talk of humanity, but that is only an abstraction; humanitarians waste affection on a myth. There are persons who bleed when cut. This strikes us as extraordinary only because we have been thinking, in a mechanical age, of fellow creatures as manpower.
The standards in common use make it easier for us to account now for the collapse of our society. Had we known how to judge values, had we known no more than the right way to define success, we might have stared at Vanity Fair, and merely wondered how long it could last. We recall today that not a few observers had for years been warning us that we were on a steep place, as it were, and the sea below. Even now it is not easy to reduce to a prime motive our old way of living, unless it were no more than to buy in the cheapest and sell in the dearest market; and that does not seem sufficient to secure an acquittal from a rigorous judge. It was unreasonable of society to sharpen the instinct t o possess, as the test of a fellow, and then expect the best of him. Our enemies are teaching us to what that instinct leads, when every restraint goes and it rises to the passion and argument of religion, with a believing nation behind it, fully armed.
When nations scattered and were lost, what held us from going with the rest was none of the national institutions which exact obedience, or at least draw some puzzled attention — the Church, Parliament, Congress, the Bank of England, Wall Street, monarchy or republicanism, or whatever else of the State has been above rude question. It was none of these, nor all of them together. It was the common person. His feeling, when he heard the challenge in the news, was the response in the body of the people. There was no doubt, and no argument. There was an uprising. It was prevalent virtue in revolt from malevolence.
Not by chance does it happen that the root meaning of virtue is man. It is a curious fact that though his energy is spent in trying to win enough bread, with but brief time to consider circumstance, yet at a word he will break life habits and every law of political economy. He rarely owns enough to make a fight over it worth while, but he has a latent quality, otherwise useless, which treachery is likely to provoke, and in a day the common person is as high as Olympus, and has for liars the same threat of thunderbolts about a stormy head.
That seems incredible in an age of scientific materialism, when we can unlock the forces of nature but see in the soul of man no natural value that would increase the potency of our devices for control; nevertheless, there it is. Reason and evidence are transcended. Physical experiments cannot explain it. The cynicism of realists is silenced; or it is until the valor of the humble has shaped another reality, in which cynics may feel comfortable again. Isn’t it enough to make one believe that there exists, as the discarded humanists used to tell us, a power of the spirit, and that miracles are nothing much?
As stories of mysteries are said to be popular, I should say that something near the ultimate mystery is there, and that to get light on it would take a longish book; either that or a parable. But who would write it? And who would believe? Science has found no way to release this secret of human life to our advantage, though word of it is in the earliest scriptures and songs, and has survived the wars and squalor of millennia. When we are grieved by old and new horrors, and are reminded pessimistically that humanity never changes, we should remember also that neither does this principle change, despite neglect, persecution, and the blind trampling of never ending droves of beasts. It is perennial, like the flowers of the field. It has their original resource. It is as certain as the demonstrations of mathematics. It can be read in the eyes of a child, felt in a poem, heard in music, and seen in the face of a man who somehow’ knows that this will be his last operational flight. Though it is absent from the market place, it would as well repay our wonder as whatever overcomes ihought in the outer gulfs of the night sky. I think it must have a meaning of greater importance to us than anything else that engages us. Unless we learn more of its purport, how remote will be victory!
THE chances and entanglements of sensational fiction, and the brave airing of scandals in the press, after this affair is past, should have the attraction for us of yesterday’s bus tickets. We know now that a situation cannot form, unprecedented and horrifying, but somebody there will face it. No grotesque invention could match the hesitating yarn of the fellow next to you in a London bus. You find he is a Pole, and that he has just emerged from the darkness of Central Europe. As he talks of his experience, without emotion, — you are more shocked than he is, apparently, — Trafalgar Square ahead looks spectral.
One meets boys who have made voyages and come through hazards a relation of which would check Odysseus at his fables; but we shall not get those yarns; all will dissolve in the universal nightmare. What excitement is in the clashes of the Iliad for the pilot who has spent five minutes over Berlin in a plane on fire, two engines stopped, and who must chance it again next week? A passer-by in a London street, one night, entered a house to get a woman out of bed while there was time. Her bed was in the basement, water was rising from a burst main, and what of the house was not already down was blazing. He burrowed through rubble, and dived to ease the twisted iron of the bedstead holding the woman down. When the flood nearly filled the room he had to give up, and swam about in the dark to find the place of his entry, but it had gone. A fall of burning rafters presently made a gap and a glare, and he got out.
Should we recommend Ambrose Bierce to that man? I see no good in it, nor would thousands more who have listened to explosions for hours, waiting their turn. We have discovered that reality can be phantom-like, and its shapes not to be trusted, as might be expected when revolutionary opinions are at Work; but we can at least see to it that sanity is kept at the center. What shall we want of imagined incoherence and manias after this year?
For some time in this war I saved instances of good work done where good, in the situations reported, must have seemed no good at all. Still, somebody there proved superior to the impossible, and brought good about. It was not long before the collection was so large that I could see I was only keeping an unnecessary account of a man we all know. Nothing was extraordinary in it except ignorance of the fact that this was his character. Though humanity never changes, neither does he. He might be a favorite of the elements, and immune. From the ice age of prehistory to the disasters recorded today he comes out, rather dazed, to begin again upon another home. All the never ending blunders of statecraft have done nothing to reduce his faith and hope; and that is astonishing in a backward glance, for by now he should be extinct.
Yet he has survived every great work on his behalf by princes and men of action. Whatever happens to him, there comes a nudge from his forgotten past which pushes him towards what he had better do next; and that he does, without waiting for authority. Let us hope that this time he will pay less attention than he has done hitherto to outside authority with its undivulged purpose. He could trust his own monitor. He need only give to the conditions of his life — and all the earth conditions it — the unselfish spirit and good sense he is giving to putting out the flames. And today he has new and better knowledge of the rest of the world.
I supposed on a recent journey that a man sitting opposite in the train had escaped from one of Europe’s remoter corners; England at present is cosmopolis. He lacked assurance and was nondescript. He looked too modest to have a pronounced political opinion or to meddle with our affairs. At length he put away his pipe, finding his matches had gone, and then I could hear he was only a Cockney. We are forced to dress like foreigners since new clothes went out of fashion. Unfolding along the carriage windows was the pastoral west of England. Plymouth was mentioned, and how fire and blast had altered the old town. He knew more of that than I did; I gathered from hints dropped that he had seen enough of fire to lessen the terrors of the place in waiting. He was a fireman in the London docks during the historic autumn of 1940.
“It wasn’t a warehouse alight. Nothing like that. It was the parish going up.” What a parish is like when it goes up, and I was told in part, faded out the charm of the Devon scene undulating past us. My unknown companion had the empty mask and the low voice of one who has seen all he wants to see. Even when he was explaining the way a warehouse front falls outward towards you from a central incandescence, as if masonry were liquid, he might have been remarking on the promise of the crops. “No, no sound. Nothing. Couldn’t hear nothing. Not with the gunfire and those Jerries over. That, and the flames. They went up like the earth roaring away in one big gas escape, miles high. Too much to throttle down, that. The dock water was burning. Yes, it was. Oil or something. No, you don’t hear nothing. It’s all noise.”
Pepper, he advised me, is wicked when alight in bulk. You can believe sparks are in the lungs and won’t go out, cough as you may. Each commodity has its own fashion in burning. When it is sugar, you are soon standing in a flood of boiling toffee. Feet and hose-pipes are glued to the road. That is why you can’t jump when the wall comes over. It caught one crew. “ I had the wind up all right, but I couldn’t beat it. Most of us weren’t used to it, you see, but nobody made off. Anyway, what was the good? We were in the middle of a town alight. You can’t run out of that.”
Blazing rubber is to be avoided; its black smoke is suffocating; and so, when the bursts of more bombs spread it, where are you? It seems that one autumn sunrise, when he felt the game was up, — not much left to burn, as well as he knew, — he was making his way to another vantage. Reeking London, to his eye, was done for. Once he knew it, now he didn’t. Passing through a street that was not all there, and nobody about, he heard a woman cry out. “There she was. I hadn’t noticed her. Bunched up on a doorstep. ‘Young man,’ she says, ‘have you seen the milkman about this morning?’”
Those docks are still subject to the tides. They are not dealing with the old amplitude of traffic, it is true, yet are showing more life than the firemen of 1940 ever expected to see there again. That Cockney and his mates did better than they knew; they more than helped to hold the citadel against German anarchy. They proved the adaptability of the ordinary mortal to be equal to any occasion. We may, in the light of that, cast out most of our fears for the future. Not with words, but in what he does, that fellow answers the critics who question whether this, that, and the other thing, though idealistically desirable, wall be possible, after the cost of the war has been counted.
BUT was the cost of it reckoned beforehand? Nobody paused for a moment to think of it. Not so much as an estimate for memorial cards was made. The immediate need was to use land and materials, because goods were called for, and nothing was allowed to hinder willing hands. A right to keep hands and spades apart ceased to be recognized. By so simple a method was wealth created. It would be as easy to continue making wealth when the war ends, except that guns and bombs will then cease to be the goods. War compelled an effort in unity for communal salvation; and ships, airplanes, guns, food, ammunition, steel, stores, and whatever else was called for appeared as if conjured from the void. Who or what would prevent a full flow of wealth in peace as in war, to be used as calls for it direct? Since it is easy to manage cannon, and for any distance, why not corn? Are there likely to be influences to hold back the necessaries of life, when those of death are exempt?
We shall not find prevention in the ordinary person. Ilis chief desire will ever be to make something. He felt it as a child. So the fears and whimpering of frightened people, who know of no measure but the cash register, is already derisory. The impossible has been done. It is accomplished daily, and not by economists, lawyers, and politicians, nor by experts so well-informed that they cannot take a first step, but by the man of no importance. He is performing the impossible for no better reason than that he sees no other choice. He fails at times, we know, and not seldom; but his own sort following after him take up the task and the lesson.
The other day in London the streets were thick and brisk with the martial uniforms of many nations. I saw the orris of a score of captains and several admirals in five minutes west of Charing Cross. But to meet, as I did, a man with whom I had talked in the navigation room of his ship during the middle watch, long ago, was rather like running into the past, and recognizing a shade. He really is a sailor, and a master mariner, though dressed as he was one might not have guessed it; not a trace of gold lace, but he spent ten years under sail. He was no more conspicuous that day than any other elderly nobody; though if only he would write the story of his life afloat it would make the fabulists see they come short of the truth. But he wall never write it. To suggest it to him would only make him ribald.
Eyeing a group of soldiers, he mentioned casually that the likes of him were being asked to volunteer for service at a second front, wherever that wras likely to be. I did not ask him whether he had booked for it. There was no doubt he had. Sailors will sign on for whatever is going. They know nothing of heroism, but trust to luck. For my friend, a voyage to the shores of that famous front wall be only another voyage. He has not been surprised since he wars an apprentice. He had a long winter voyage in an open boat in the last war. He had his boats out of the davits again in a London dock this war, and in tow for Dunkirk. It was at shorl call, and it must have been a voyage and a half, but all he says of it is, “Well, we had fair weather for it.” Most of his stories are of the comic sort. He rejects publicity as unpleasant. But if ever you hear with deep distaste great seas running at night, when your ship is foundering, he is the man to have near you; but then, if that mischance comes, you will find such a sailor near you, most likely, though you may not know his name.
RETIRED admiral, who returned to service as a commodore of convoys, confessed some months ago — since his word with us on the humors of directing convoys he has joined the missing — that when he first went to sea with them he doubted the ability of a great number of merchant seamen to act in concert as would navy men. Keep station? Why, with ships of various sizes, ages, design, and speed? He had little hope. He was doubtful of himself. How command that assembly, should it be hunted? He interviewed phlegmatic bowler-hatted men, who had no advice to give him. He told them what he wanted, but wondered, privately, how seamen could do it, and keep it up, with such vessels, and weather on its way to meet them. He judged it better not to worry these untried strangers with anxious questions, and so left his charges, blacked out in a storm, to Providence.
One sunrise, the seas immense and the wind stilt high, he looked round him for his flock, expecting the worst. But there it was, despite its limitations, in pretty good array, as to the manner born. When attacked at last, it held its course as if nothing under heaven could make it change its gait. It could go on like this while it floated. He had an idea these merchantmen-at-arms rate the shocks of war, torpedoes, bombing, and gunfire, as hardly comparable with their customary hazards, fog, blizzard, hurricane, collision, and poor food and low pay. He didn’t believe anything could happen at sea to which they would not try to adjust themselves, and perhaps succeed, as men used to all the variations of hard luck.
When the convoy makes the land, war has not done with it, A central bureau must disperse it, and direct each ship to where its cargo had better be discharged, as things stand then; and circumstance can be altered out of recognition, and in a brief time, through the anarchy of battle. The shipowner and his private interest, moving his tonnage to his judgment of markets and facilities, is in abeyance. A body of maritime students, who have privy knowledge, dispose of tonnage as the needs of the commonweal and its armies require.
This management of ships and freights used to be regarded as an unachievable dispensation, the certain way to national ruin; but it works. It works miraculously well. Individual enterprise, faced with the task of serving the national interest unconditionally, is short in mental equipment. Such a revolutionary demand changes the world before its eyes into one it does not know and cannot understand. As with the man who once was curious about the way to salvation, private interest must be born again; and in war there is no time for that; a new birth might take too long and come too late.
Then a pilot takes over a ship. He also is anonymous. The year when charts and experience told him what to do is past. Since last he guided a ship into that harbor, perhaps the night before, its landmarks, mine fields, soundings, buoys, and sandbars may have been reassorted. A shower of bombs can transform even a faithful fairway. It will look as aforetime, but the set of currents are not what they were, and yesterday’s safe lead is a peril today to be avoided by prayer, while making calculations which a pilot hopes will suit his ship’s draught.
The ability in the common person to meet, with steady patience, and no resentment, life in a new aspect is revealed only when a community is in grave peril. We had forgotten what a long experience with trouble that man has had since he first made a fire and pushed out a coracle. He can face anything, even a new social dispensation designed for his good. Clearly we may depend on him, at least, if our present intent to direct human affairs to a better purpose after this is honestly felt. But he himself may have something to say about that, and he is most of the folk.
Two friends from Boston — one the editor of the Atlantic Monthly — stood with me on London ground once familiar to me, but that day scarcely to be made out. Explosions had riven it, fire had gone through it. Miracles of modern invention had been worked upon it. It was a London dock, known to readers of The Mirror of the Sea and to me since childhood. The dockmaster saw us and asked our business, but was reassured. His jacket, showing t he rank of naval commander, was well-decorated for service in other wars. We liked the look of him, and he must have been sure of us, for he became communicative, dryly. We looked round that rectangular basin, out of which, we were told, ships had been warped on a September night that appeared to be London’s finale, and expressed surprise. What, big ships shifted? In that limited space hurriedly? At night? “We had plenty of light,” was all he said.
For my part, I felt that more than a familiar scene had gone. The past was with it, blotted out. We stood where, till lately, an old tradition, and the names of the men who had made it, and a way of life first instituted by companies of merchant adventurers nearly three centuries ago, were still of the daily life of a London parish. But the day the three of us saw it, it was jagged walls and rubble and nondescript relics of the past, waiting for resurrection to sound; though all was quiet when we left it. No trumpet yet.
That dockmaster had plenty of light. But what a light! As if all we had labored to get went up lurid as Hades itself, once the elements of existence were at an unlucky juncture and were touched off. In so horrifying a light we could see, and not for the first time, that we had not gained on the original hairy savage as much as had been supposed. There is no essential difference between a flint arrowhead and an aerial bomb. They are aimed by the same impulse. The whole of our elaborate system for social well-being, with its power stations and aerodromes, its doles, bread lines, and funeral expenses guaranteed by legislatures, turns into an offensive corruption with a change of wind and an idiot’s dab of phosphorus. What is this conquest of nature we boast about? It begins to look very much like the suicide of mankind.
Frankenstein goes over our communities with their treasuries of the best that man has done, and leaves them foul heaps of ash and bones. Well, was it supposed that our common way of life, not much affected by the Church and all, in which the devil was welcome to the hindmost, could be made holy, in lieu of a god, by the magic of a physical laboratory? No more than that seems to have been our faith. This very day, despite all warning lessons, we show our mental preferences as disdainfully and ruinously as ever. A special tolerance of ugliness in a nihilistic age is to be expected, and gives our daily prospect. If beauty is not functional, to use a cant word, it can be discarded with the rest of the outworn. It is forgotten that only in a humble awareness of the past, with its errors and triumphs, and a sensitiveness to high values, and a rendering to material power of not a jot more than belongs to it, is our hope for the future.
So we close down the Humanities even at the universities. How significant that is! Do not the Nazis, as a matter of duty, burn libraries? — which is only a bit farther along the same road. The arts today are shut to youth. Students are exempt from battle only if their studies are directed to perfection in the science of destruction. And nobody worries about this — nobody, that is, to whom a legislature need give more attention than it ever gives to the signs of the times. “A thing of ugliness,” says Sir Arthur Helps, “is potent for evil. It deforms the taste of the thoughtless; it frets the man who knows how bad it is; it is a disgrace to the people who raised it — an example and an occasion for more monstrosities.”
We have reason for a new song of praise, then, since we have found that the valor of the common man transcends the devices of statecraft and the mockery of the cynics. His virtue, free at the call, is of proved greater value and potency than whatever further power science can discover and release. We could at least depend on him not to go on mutilating our tender planet, for gain, till it is a dead star. Instead of into the head, let us look into the heart, to see what that can do for us.