The Dark Hour by Wilbur Daniel Steele

The returning ship swam swiftly through the dark; the deep, interior breathing of the engines, the singing of wire stays, the huge whispering rush of foam streaming the water-line made up a body of silence upon which the sound of the doctor’s footfalls, coming and going restlessly along the near deck, intruded only a little—a faint and personal disturbance. Charging slowly through the dark, a dozen paces forward, a dozen paces aft, his invisible and tormented face bent forward a little over his breast, he said to himself,—

“What fools! What blind fools we’ve been!”

Sweat stood for an instant on his brow, and was gone in the steady onrush of the wind.

The man lying on the cot in the shelter of the cabin companionway made no sound all the while. He might have been asleep or dead, he remained so quiet; yet he was neither asleep nor dead, for his eyes, large, wasted, and luminous, gazed out unwinking from the little darkness of his shelter into the vaster darkness of the night, where a star burned in slow mutations, now high, now sailing low, over the rail of the ship.

Once he said in a washed and strengthless voice, “That’s a bright star, doctor.”

If the other heard, he gave no sign. He continued charging slowly back and forth, his large dim shoulders hunched over his neck, his hands locked behind him, his teeth showing faintly gray between the fleshy lips which hung open a little to his breathing.

“It’s dark!” he said of a sudden, bringing up before the cot in the companionway. “God, Hallett, how dark it is!” There was something incoherent and mutilated about it, as if the cry had torn the tissues of his throat. “I’m not myself to-night,” he added, with a trace of shame.

Hallett spoke slowly from his pillow.

“It wouldn’t be the subs to-night? You’re not that kind, you know. I’ve seen you in the zone. And we’re well west of them by this, anyhow; and as you say, it’s very dark.”

“It’s not that darkness. Not that!”

Again there was the same sense of something tearing. The doctor rocked for a moment on his thick legs. He began to talk.

“It’s this war—” His conscience protested: “I ought not to go on so—it’s not right, not right at all—talking so to the wounded—the dying—I shouldn’t go on so to the dying—” And all the while the words continued to tumble out of his mouth. “No, I’m not a coward—not especially. You know I’m not a coward, Hallett. You know that. But just now, to-night, somehow, the whole black truth of the thing has come out and got me—jumped out of the dark and got me by the neck, Hallett. Look here; I’ve kept a stiff lip. Since the first I’ve said, ‘We’ll win this war.’ It’s been a matter of course. So far as I know, never a hint of doubt has shadowed my mind, even when things went bad. ‘In the end,’ I’ve said, ‘in the end, of course, we’re bound to win.’”

He broke away again to charge slowly through the dark with his head down, butting; a large, overheated animal endowed with a mind.

“But—do we want to win?”

Hallett’s question, very faint across the subdued breathings and showerings of the ship, fetched the doctor up. He stood for a moment, rocking on his legs and staring at the face of the questioner, still and faintly luminous on the invisible cot. Then he laughed briefly, shook himself, and ignored the preposterous words. He recollected tardily that the fellow was pretty well gone.

“No,” he went on. “Up to to-night I’ve never doubted. No one in the world, in our part of the world, has doubted. The proposition was absurd to begin with. Prussia, and her fringe of hangers-on, to stand against the world—to stand against the very drift and destiny of civilization? Impossible! A man can’t do the impossible; that’s logic, Hallett, and that’s common sense. They might have their day of it, their little hour, because they had the jump—but in the end! in the end!— But look at them, will you! Look at them! That’s what’s got me to-night, Hallett. Look at them! There they stand. They won’t play the game, won’t abide at all by the rules of logic, of common sense. Every day, every hour, they perform the impossible. Not once since the war was a year old have they been able to hang out another six months. They’d be wiped from the earth; their people would starve. They’re wiped from the earth, and they remain. They starve and lay down their skinny bodies on the ground, and they stand up again with sleek bellies. They make preposterous, blind boasts. They say, ‘We’ll over-run Roumania in a month.’ Fantastic! It’s done! They say, ‘Russia? New-born Russia? Strong young boy-Russia? We’ll put him out of it for good and all by Christmas.’ That was to cheer up the hungry ones in Berlin. Everybody saw through it. The very stars laughed. It’s done! God, Hallett! It’s like clockwork. It’s like a rehearsed and abominable programme—”

“Yes—a programme.”

The wounded man lay quite still and gazed at the star. When he spoke, his words carried an odd sense of authenticity, finality. His mind had got a little away from him, and now it was working with the new, oracular clarity of the moribund. It bothered the doctor inexplicably—tripped him up. He had to shake himself. He began to talk louder and make wide, scarcely visible gestures.

“We’ve laughed so long, Hallett. There was Mittel-Europa! We always laughed at that. A wag’s tale. To think of it—a vast, self-sufficient, brutal empire laid down across the path of the world! Ha-ha! Why, even if they had wanted it, it would be—”

“If they wanted it, it would be—inevitable.”

The doctor held up for a full dozen seconds. A kind of anger came over him and his face grew red. He couldn’t understand. He talked still louder.

“But they’re doing it! They’re doing that same preposterous thing before our eyes, and we can’t touch them, and they’re— Hallett! They’re damn near done! Behind that line there,—you know the line I mean,—who of us doesn’t know it? That thin line of smoke and ashes and black blood, like a bent black wire over France! Behind that line they’re at work, day by day, month after month, building the empire we never believed. And Hallett, it’s damn near done! And we can’t stop it. It grows bigger and bigger, darker and darker—it covers up the sky—like a nightmare—”

“Like a dream!” said Hallett softly; “a dream.”

The doctor’s boot-soles drummed with a dull, angry resonance on the deck.

“And we can’t touch them! They couldn’t conceivably hold that line against us—against the whole world—long enough to build their incredible empire behind it. And they have! Hallett! How could they ever have held it?”

“You mean, how could we ever have held it?”

Hallett’s words flowed on, smooth, clear-formed, unhurried, and his eyes kept staring at the star.

“No, it’s we have held it, not they. And we that have got to hold it—longer than they. Theirs is the kind of a Mittel-Europa that’s been done before; history is little more than a copybook for such an empire as they are building. We’ve got a vaster and more incredible empire to build than they—a Mittel-Europa, let us say, of the spirit of man. No, no, doctor; it’s we that are doing the impossible, holding that thin line.”

The doctor failed to contain himself.

“Oh, pshaw! pshaw! See here, Hallett! We’ve had the men, and there’s no use blinking the truth. And we’ve had the money and the munitions.”

“But back of all that, behind the last reserve, the last shell-dump, the last treasury, haven’t they got something that we’ve never had?”

“And what’s that?”

“A dream.”

“A what?”

“A dream. We’ve dreamed no dream. Yes—let me say it! A little while ago you said, ‘nightmare,’ and I said, ‘dream.’ Germany has dreamed a dream. Black as the pit of hell,—yes, yes,—but a dream. They’ve seen a vision. A red, bloody, damned vision,—yes, yes,—but a vision. They’ve got a programme, even if it’s what you called it, a ‘rehearsed and abominable programme.’ And they know what they want. And we don’t know what we want!”

The doctor’s fist came down in the palm of his hand.

“What we want? I’ll tell you what we want, Hallett. We want to win this war!

“Yes?”

“And by the living God, Hallett, we will win this war! I can see again. If we fight for half a century to come; if we turn the world wrong-side-out for men, young men, boys, babes; if we mine the earth to a hollow shell for coal and iron; if we wear our women to ghosts to get out the last grain of wheat from the fields—we’ll do it! And we’ll wipe this black thing from the face of the earth forever, root and branch, father and son of the bloody race of them to the end of time. If you want a dream, Hallett, there’s a—”

“There’s a—nightmare. An overweening muscular impulse to jump on the thing that’s scared us in the dark, to break it with our hands, grind it into the ground with our heels, tear ourselves away from it—and wake up.”

He went on again after a moment of silence.

“Yes, that’s it, that’s it. We’ve never asked for anything better; not once since those terrible August days have we got down on our naked knees and prayed for anything more than just to be allowed to wake up—and find it isn’t so. How can we expect, with a desire like that, to stand against a positive and a flaming desire? No, no! The only thing to beat a dream is a dream more poignant. The only thing to beat a vision black as midnight is a vision white as the noonday sun. We’ve come to the place, doctor, where half a loaf is worse than no bread.”

The doctor put his hands in his pockets and took them out again, shifted away a few steps and back again. He felt inarticulate, handless, helpless in the face of things, of abstractions, of the mysterious, unflagging swiftness of the ship, bearing him willy-nilly over the blind surface of the sea. He shook himself.

“God help us,” he said.

“What God?”

The doctor lifted a weary hand.

“Oh, if you’re going into that—”

“Why not? Because Prussia, doctor, has a god. Prussia has a god as terrible as the God of conquering Israel, a god created in her own image. We laugh when we hear her speaking intimately and surely to this god. I tell you we’re fools. I tell you, doctor, before we shall stand we shall have to create a god in our own image, and before we do that we shall have to have a living and sufficient image.”

“You don’t think much of us,” the doctor murmured wearily.

The other seemed not to hear. After a little while he said:

“We’ve got to say black or white at last. We’ve got to answer a question this time with a whole answer.”

“This war began so long ago,” he went on, staring at the star. “So long before Sarajevo, so long before the ‘balances of power’ were thought of, so long before the ‘provinces’ were lost and won, before Bismarck and the lot of them were begotten, or their fathers. So many, many years of questions put, and half-answers given in return. Questions, questions: questions of a power-loom in the North Counties; questions of a mill-hand’s lodging in one Manchester or another, of the weight of a headtax in India, of a widow’s mass for her dead in Spain; questions of a black man in the Congo, of an eighth-black man in New Orleans, of a Christian in Turkey, an Irishman in Dublin, a Jew in Moscow, a French cripple in the streets of Zabern; questions of an idiot sitting on a throne; questions of a girl asking her vote on a Hyde Park rostrum, of a girl asking her price in the dark of a Chicago doorway—whole questions half-answered, hungry questions half-fed, mutilated fag-ends of questions piling up and piling up year by year, decade after decade.— Listen! There came a time when it wouldn’t do, wouldn’t do at all. There came a time when the son of all those questions stood up in the world, final, unequivocal, naked, devouring, saying, ‘Now you shall answer me. You shall look me squarely in the face at last, and you shall look at nothing else; you shall take your hands out of your pockets and your tongues out of your cheeks, and no matter how long, no matter what the blood and anguish of it, you shall answer me now with a whole answer—or perish!’”

“And what’s the answer?”

The doctor leaned down a little, resting his hands on the foot of the cot.

The gray patch of Hallett’s face moved slightly in the dark.

“It will sound funny to you. Because it’s a word that’s been worn pretty thin by so much careless handling. It’s ‘Democracy’!”

The doctor stood up straight on his thick legs.

“Why should it sound funny?” he demanded, a vein of triumph in his tone. “It is the answer. And we’ve given it. ‘Make the world safe for democracy!’ Eh? You remember the quotation?”

“Yes, yes, that’s good. But we’ve got to do more than say it, doctor. Go further. We’ve got to dream it in a dream; we’ve got to see democracy as a wild, consuming vision. If the day ever comes when we shall pronounce the word ‘democracy’ with the same fierce faith with which we conceive them to be pronouncing ‘autocracy’—that day, doctor—”

He raised a transparent hand and moved it slowly over his eyes.

“It will be something to do, doctor, that will. Like taking hold of lightning. It will rack us body and soul; belief will strip us naked for a moment, leave us new-born and shaken and weak—as weak as Christ in the manger. And that day nothing can stand before us. Because, you see, we’ll know what we want.”

The doctor stood for a moment as he had been, a large, dark troubled body rocking slowly to the heave of the deck beneath him. He rubbed a hand over his face.

“Utopian!” he said.

“Utopian!” Hallett repeated after him. “To-day we are children of Utopia—or we are nothing. I tell you, doctor, to-day it has come down to this—Hamburg to Bagdad—or—Utopia!”

The other lifted his big arms and his face was red.

“You’re playing with words, Hallett. You do nothing but twist my words. When I say Utopian, I mean, precisely, impossible. Absolutely impossible. See here! You tell me this empire of theirs is a dream. I give you that. How long has it taken them to dream it? Forty years. Forty years! And this wild, transcendental empire of the spirit you talk about,—so much harder,—so many hundreds of times more incredible,—will you have us do that sort of a thing in a day? We’re a dozen races, a score of nations. I tell you it’s—it’s impossible!”

“Yes. Impossible.”

The silence came down between them, heavy with all the dark, impersonal sounds of passage, the rhythmical explosions of the waves, the breathing of engines, the muffled staccato of the spark in the wireless room, the note of the ship’s bell forward striking the hour and after it a hail, running thin in the wind: “Six bells, sir, and—all’s well!”

All’s well!

The irony of it! The infernal patness of it, falling so in the black interlude, like stage business long rehearsed.

All’s well!” the doctor echoed with the mirthless laughter of the damned.

Hallett raised himself very slowly on an elbow and stared at the star beyond the rail.

“Yes, I shouldn’t wonder. Just now—to-night—somehow—I’ve got a queer feeling that maybe it is. Maybe it’s going to be.—Maybe it’s going to be; who knows? The darkest hour of our lives, of history, perhaps, has been on us. And maybe it’s almost over. Maybe we’re going to do the impossible, after all, doctor. And maybe we’re going to get it done in time. I’ve got a queer sense of something happening—something getting ready.”

When he spoke again, his voice had changed a little.

“I wish my father could have lived to see this day. He’s in New York now, and I should like—”

The doctor moved forward suddenly and quietly, saying: “Lie down, Hallett. You’d better lie down now.”

But the other protested with a gray hand.

“No, no, you don’t understand. When I say—well—it’s just the shell of my father walking around and talking around, these ten years past. Prison killed his heart. He doesn’t even know it, that the immortal soul of him has gone out. You know him, doctor. Ben Hallett; the Radical—‘the Destroyer,’ they used to call him in the old days. He was a brave man, doctor; you’ve got to give him that; as brave as John the Baptist, and as mad. I can see him now,—to-night,—sitting in the back room in Eighth Street, he and old Radinov and Hirsch and O’Reilly and the rest, with all the doors shut and the windows shut and their eyes and ears and minds shut up tight, trying to keep the war out. They’re old men, doctor, and they must cling to yesterday, and to to-morrow. They mustn’t see to-day. They must ignore to-day. To-day is the tragic interruption. They too ask nothing but to wake up and find it isn’t so. All their lives they’ve been straining forward to see the ineffable dawn of the Day of Man, calling for the Commune and the red barricades of revolution. The barricades! Yesterday, it seems to them now, they were almost in sight of the splendid dawn—the dawn of the Day of Barricades. And then this war, this thing they call a ‘rich man’s plot’ to confound them, hold them up, turn to ashes all the fire of their lives. All they can do is sit in a closed room with their eyes shut and wait till this meaningless brawl is done. And then, to-morrow—to-morrow—some safely distant to-morrow (for they’re old men),—to-morrow, the barricades! And that’s queer. That’s queer.”

“Queer?”

“It seems to me that for days now, for weeks and months now, there’s been no sound to be heard in all the length and breadth of the world but the sound of barricades.”

The voice trailed off into nothing.

To the doctor, charging slowly back and forth along the near deck, his hands locked behind him and his face bent slightly over his breast, there came a queer sense of separation, from Hallett, from himself, his own everyday acts, his own familiar aspirations, from the ship which held him up in the dark void between two continents.

What was it all about, he asked himself over and over. Each time he passed the shadow in the companionway he turned his head, painfully, and as if against his will. Once he stopped squarely at the foot of the cot and stood staring down at the figure there, faintly outlined, motionless and mute. Sweat stood for a moment on his brow, and was gone in the steady onrush of the wind. And he was used to death.

But Hallett had fooled him. He heard Hallett’s whisper creeping to him out of the shadow:

“That’s a bright star, doctor.”