The few passengers
gathered together in the smoking lounge of the SS Tarconia made up a motley
crew, consisting of diverse confessions and breeds.
Major Tomtkatrick, puffing on a pipe and
firmly ensconced in the deepest sofa, regularly emptied a glass, alternating
between either a soda and whiskey or a brandy and soda, which was immediately
refilled with another healthy dose.
The features of this Scottish officer's
face bore the imprint of a serene rigidity that could just as easily be
taken as the mark of an honest face, or as a face in a drunken stupor.
Seated on what remained of the sofa was
a smallish, oily man, Governor of a Portuguese colony who, speaking in
a warm, picturesquely accented French uniquely his own, was engaged in
lively polemics. His antagonist was Swiss, a Mr. BrŽnner, who it was difficult
to put an age to and who was as rich and peaceful as a Swiss meadow. Mr.
Brunner spoke deliberately and excruciatingly slowly. He was only too
aware then, that whenever he spoke of things he would rather forget, his
voice became voluble and excitable and sounded like the rustling of straw
being chopped up. He assured the Governor that the reason for this trip
overseas bore witness to his interest in the Allied Cause. He was about
to fill a post left vacant by the draft in one of the belligerent countries.
He used several arguments to back up this assertion; one of which was
the risk he ran of being torpedoed, and that he had also refused a well-paying
job offered by a company in Pfortzeim just days before he sailed.
"It's more likely," riposted the Governor
in a voice of thunder, "that the German mark had collapsed just that very
day!" He pronounced "collapsed" as if it made him dizzy.
Perceiving that this was no time for a display
of wit, Mr. BrŽnner preferred, perfidiously, to question the motives underlying
Portugal's entry into the lists. According to him they were not as equally
selfless. He attempted to draw insidious conclusions from the amount of
enemy shipping seized in Portuguese ports. This set the Governor off on
a tirade of legitimate and noisy indignation. He had no hesitation in
accusing the Swiss Confederation of the most vulgar venality, attributing
the maintenance of their strict neutrality to the paucity of Swiss ports.
But a short distance from this quarrel sat
Mr. Camuzet, perched on a swivel chair and fighting off sea-sickness.
For this reason, he was displaying a disdainful lack of interest in the
general conversation. At one time he had received a chair in History on
one of our faculties. His teaching was free of all dogmatic restraint
and he willingly affected Voltarian tendencies. This resulted in some
of his lectures being more than somewhat perturbed at the instigation
of the noisy and reactionary section of the press, but which fortunately
had no effect on his promotion; a subject which greatly occupied his thoughts.
He even acquired a certain fame, consisting
of a mixture of glory and opprobrium which he attained after a series
of resounding lectures in which he presented, as the fruit of his personal
research, proof of an habitual and special relationship between Louis
XI and his counsellor, Philippe de Commines. He boasted of even having
shone a harsh light on the Pious King's demise, attributing it to the
final stages of an illness which is viewed most disfavorably.
If these astute enquiries had earned him
a deplorable reputation as far as the Guardians of the Noble Cause were
concerned, they had nonetheless considerably strengthened his position
publicly. From that day on the Government was able to number him among
the enlightened and active propagators of liberal thought; some enthusiasts
even seeing him as a new apostle of conscious, non-religious thinking.
Among many of the events that were largely
unforeseen was Mr. Camuzet breaking out of his shell with fervently patriotic
tendencies. For several days he lost all positive control of his soul
which he felt to be driven by violent, combative and irrefutable sentiments
of a grandeur that he had never previously suspected. He resolved to descend
into the street where he would speak freely in a harangue of rare excitation
and indignant anger which would move the crowd, in an excess of hatred,
to conquer the enemy. Desiring to transform the resolution into reality,
he turned his thunderbolts on a German caf».
Standing shakily on a table in front of
the caf», he stirred up the still hesitant condemnation of the hostile
crowd gathered at the front entrance. His eloquence went straight to the
heart of the masses, for a moment later nothing remained intact within
the establishment except for a bottle of Gentian, which was later smashed
against the metal sides of the public urinal, located on the opposite
sidewalk, by a frustrated cabby.
Camuzet was already likening his success
to that of Caton the Censor, when a gentleman in sober dress asked him
to accompany him to the police station. There he was asked a number of
indiscrete questions even though his fame, allied with having mutual friends,
was a guarantee of the Police Chief's indulgence. He limited himself to
deferentially pointing out to Mr. Camuzet the serious and untimely drawbacks
of popular ire being aroused and that sometimes results were blindly achieved
which were the very opposite of those expected.
The crowd was now rumbling in front of the
Police Station, as it had previously rumbled in front of the German caf»,
calling for the release of the orator. A few discordant voices proclaimed
him to be a spy.
The Chief of Police released a Mr. Camuzet
convinced of his sway over the masses; but he was tired of being a public
speaker and preferred to be a consul. It was with more moderate demagoguery
that he returned from the police station to the street, saying, "I shall
go and calm the people."
Happily, there came a drop in the fever
and Mr. Camuzet considered applying his formidable gifts in more rational
directions. Remembering the contacts he had within the government, he
requested and was granted the honor of defending French Thought abroad,
believing that his presence at home had become both without purpose and
superfluous. Charged with divers missions and propaganda, he talked unceasingly
to neutrals both near and far, both benevolent and rather less so.
Armed with a variety of missions to carry
out, he was on his way to Santa Lucia, the capital of the Republic of
Assumption where the population was, in the majority, Christian, and their
deep-rooted Catholic convictions showed them to be strongly in favor of
ourselves in the testing trials of war. Within this state it was the Jesuits
who were most largely listened to among the ruling classes, and they made
our victory on the Marne seem like a miracle; they had exploited it in
our favor with lively success.
Mr. Camuzet counted on giving several conferences
in Santa Lucia where he intended to display our victories in a positive
light and thereby dissipate any pious misunderstandings among the people
of Assumptions that he himself considered to be out of date but nonetheless
capable of biasing France's liberal renown.
For the moment his face was drawn while
waiting on the inevitable and was going through the whole range of colors
from white to green. So apparent was his discomfort that Major Tomkatrick
was moved to ask him if he wasn't cold. "No, but I'm not hungry, either,"
Mr. Camuzet replied in a sad voice.
In the least noticeable corner of the smoking
lounge were Dr. and Mrs. Bronnum, Danish Protestant missionaries. Mr.
Bronnum was as bright and pink as a cherub, his face a picture of innocence
and purity, while Mrs. Bronnum's stomach indicated a far advanced pregnancy.
The impartial observer, assuming that mysteries were still in fashion
these days, would have been in a veritable dilemma as to which of the
two had the least interesting features; he would have willingly refused
to decide on one or the other.
Prince Catulesco of the Rumanian Royal House
was stretched out in a becoming half-light on a couch covered with a faded
yellow cover. His pose was calculatedly negligent. His youthful face was
wan, the features drawn, a long lick of dark hair fell down nearly over
his eyes which were deep-set and feverish beneath pink eyelids with sparse
eyelashes. His puny body, precociously worn out, could be discerned inside
a tight suit with patterns on it. His knowledge of the French language
was vast, and in it he composed verse which before the war had enjoyed
a certain success in those select circles where one likes to think one
knows about literature. His muse wandered with familiarity through the
dark periods of the Middle Ages where she harvested strange accents that
were commonly accorded to be incomprehensible and which modern critics,
through dearth of anything else, declared to be of wild beauty. It was
above all at night, in the scenery of his choice, that he sought inspiration.
In order to penetrate this shadowy epoch with greater acuity, he placed
his faith in morphine and other substances, leaving them to cut the last
ties with this century to which he refused to belong-it was contemporaneous
with a modernism he found outrageous. He had been privileged with unforgettable
visions that, when recounted, left even his admirers bemused. His favorite
place of meditation was the Pont des Arts, where he was horrified, as
if it were happening at that very moment, by the bells of St. Germain
de l'Auxerrois, being rung for the massacre of the Protestants on Saint
Bartholemew's Day, by Quasimodo balancing on a flying buttress of Notre
Dame, grimacing at him in the moonbeams with a realism that left him enraptured.
But regretfully, it has been observed through
the ages that such cerebral gymnastics, whilst exalting the faculties
of the soul, also exhaust our bodies which are only too concrete. The
poet's being, overworked by such immaterialism, had little by little reached
the lamentable stage where it was withering away. Just before it was completely
consumed it had been decided that the Prince should recover some of his
vitality; but the war having rendered his over-sensitive brain so painfully
feverish, it was concluded that distant and, for the moment, tranquil
shores would be required to restore the consistency he had driven away.
At this precise moment he was removing a
slim cigarette from his pallid lips, from which was escaping a wisp of
unusually scented smoke. His eyes swept over the listeners and he said
in an astonishingly grave voice, "Don't you find that they're talking
more and more about America? Will they declare war at last?"
Mr. Camuzet pricked up an ear, for he harbored
mitigated feelings toward the United States, having only had a partial
success on a round of conferences in that country, in which he had dealt
in a doctorly fashion with the current parliamentary divergences between
the two republics, deploring loudly that two forms of government apparently
so similar at the core, represented such radical differences. But despite
a desire to spread himself on this subject, the very richness of which
beckoned his expertise, Dr. Camuzet was forced to remain silent; the hard
fight against sea-sickness absorbed him entirely.
The Prince went on. "An American lady, one
of my best and most sincere friends..." he paused for a short moment,
glancing sideways, which confirmed what his listeners had already guessed,
"...and who has connections with political circles in Washington, was
telling me that the day war would be declared, would be the day when women
were in favor of the war. Gentleman, it is the women who think in America.
Win over the women to your cause and they will make the old senators think."
Though Major Tomkatrick did not understand
the finer political points of this argument, he nonetheless appreciated
its libertine ring. And as he only felt a lukewarm sympathy for his cousins
across the Atlantic, he went further and said, "You're quite right, Sir!
These people have no breeding, but they're too proud to fight."
For some while now, Mr. BrŽnner had suspected
some further attack by the Portuguese Governor, and one which would anger
his national pride; he moved to the defensive by creating a diversion:
"Nevertheless, it is wonderful, as it is said, how one can adapt to all
new dangers..." but he had no time to finish this laborious sentence in
which he had placed so much hope, because suddenly the door of the smoking
lounge sprang open letting in a gust of violent freezing air which caused
every one of the occupants to huddle up. The intruder was the telegraph
operator who said in a single breath, "Gentlemen-the-United-States-have-broken-off-all-diplomatic-relations-with-Germany!"
and the door slammed shut behind him, making the frame shake.
Major Tomkatrick, knowing what should be
done in such circumstances, did not hesitate even for a second, but cried
out with all the strength of his lungs, "Hip Hip Hooray!" He was astonished
and hurt to find no echo. Setting his glass down, he fell silent.
Then Mr. Camuzet said in a faint voice,
"This is of course encouraging, but I'm wary of its definitive nature,
of diplomatic ruptures, as well as of..." A larger than usual wave suddenly
tipped the SS Tarconia to an exaggerated angle, and once again Mr. Camuzet
was reduced to silence.
As for Major Tomkatrick, he considered the
typically French need for going on and on about the appearance of facts
completely ridiculous. However, it did provide him with a certain inner
satisfaction, confirming as it did all the ready-made opinions he held
and which his parents had conceived for him.
The luncheon gong summoned the passengers
three times, and sounded the death knell in Mr. Camuzet's stomach, who
at the end of his long heroic efforts, went swiftly through the door and
ran to the ship's railing. Major Tomkatrick finished his cocktail, and
then, with noble steps, crossed the smoking lounge, demonstrating an astonishing
sense of balance, and made an entrance into the dining-room which the
Prince's vagabond imagination found beautiful.
He swiftly pictured Major Tomkatrick with
the majesty of Charles VII, the Victorious-causing him to mount the steps
and cross the threshold of the great portico of Reims Cathedral, directing
him to the altar. Then, refusing the meal, he remained on his couch with
the faded yellow cover, imagining that the smoke coming from his cigarette
was the slow perfume of incense, as he invited his muse to the grandiose
ceremonies of the Coronation.
L. des Touches.