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- Philistia - 3/74 -
Oswald did not attempt to conceal a slight gesture of horror. The tall Russian looked down upon him commiseratingly. 'He is of the Few?' he asked of Ernest, that being the slang of the initiated for a member of the aristocratic and capitalist oligarchy.
'Not exactly,' Ernest answered with a smile; 'but he has not entirely learned the way we here regard these penal measures. His sympathies are one-sided as to Alexander, no doubt. He thinks merely of the hunted, wretched life the man bears about with him, and he forgets poor bleeding, groaning, down-trodden, long-suffering Russia. It is the common way of Englishmen. They do not realise Siberia and Poland and the Third Section, and all the rest of it; they think only of Alexander as of the benevolent despot who freed the serf and befriended the Bulgarian. They never remember that they have all the freedom and privileges themselves which you poor Russians ask for in vain; they do not bear in mind that he has only to sign his name to a constitution, a very little constitution, and he might walk abroad as light-hearted in St. Petersburg to-morrow as you and I walk in Regent Street to-day. We are mostly lopsided, we English, but you must bear with us in our obliquity; we have had freedom ourselves so long that we hardly know how to make due allowance for those unfortunate folks who are still in search of it.'
'If you had an Alexander yourselves for half a day,' the Russian said fiercely, turning to Oswald, 'you would soon see the difference. You would forget your virtuous indignation against Nihilist assassins in the white heat of your anger against unendurable tyranny. You had a King Charles in England once--the mere shadow of a Russian Czar--and you were not so very ceremonious with him, you order-loving English, after all.'
'It is a foolish thing, Borodinsky,' said Max Schurz, looking up from the long telegram the other had handed him, 'and I told Toroloff as much a fortnight ago, when he spoke to me about the matter. You can do no good by these constant attacks, and you only rouse the minds of the oligarchy against you by your importunity. Bloodshed will avail us nothing; the world cannot be regenerated by a baptism like that. Every peasant won over, every student enrolled, every mother engaged to feed her little ones on the gospel of Socialism together with her own milk, is worth a thousand times more to us and to the people than a dead Czar. If your friends had really blown him up, what then? You would have had another Czar, and another Third Section, and another reign of terror, and another raid and massacre; and we should have lost twenty good men from our poor little side for ever. We must not waste the salt of the earth in that reckless fashion. Besides, I don't like this dynamite. It's a bad argument, it smacks too much of the old royal and repressive method. You know the motto Louis Quatorze used to cast on his bronze cannon--"Ultima ratio regum." Well, we Socialists ought to be able to find better logic for our opponents than that, oughtn't we?'
'But in Russia,' cried the bearded man hotly, 'in poor stricken-down groaning Russia, what other argument have they left us? Are we to be hunted to death without real law or trial, tortured into sham confessions, deluded with mock pardons, arraigned before hypocritical tribunals, ensnared by all the chicanery, and lying, and treachery, and ferreting of the false bureaucracy, with its spies, and its bloodhounds, and its knout-bearing police-agents; and then are we not to make war the only way we can--open war, mind you, with fair declaration, and due formalities, and proper warning beforehand--against the irresponsible autocrat and his wire-pulled office-puppets who kill us off mercilessly? You are too hard upon us, Herr Schurz; even you yourself have no sympathy at all for unhappy Russia.'
The old man looked up at him tenderly and regretfully. 'My poor Borodinsky,' he said in a gentle tremulous voice, 'I have indeed sympathy and pity in abundance for you. I do not blame you; you will have enough and to spare to do that, even here in free England; I would not say a harsh word against you or your terrible methods for all the world. You have been hard-driven, and you stand at bay like tigers. But I think you are going to work the wrong way, not using your energies to the best possible advantage for the proletariate. What we have really got to do is to gain over every man, woman, and child of the working-classes individually, and to array on our side all the learning and intellect and economical science of the thinking classes individually; and then we can present such a grand united front to the banded monopolists that for very shame they will not dare to gainsay us. Indeed, if it comes to that, we can leave them quietly alone, till for pure hunger they will come and beg our assistance. When we have enticed away all the workmen from their masters to our co-operative factories, the masters may keep their rusty empty mills and looms and engines to themselves as long as they like, but they must come to us in the end, and ask us to give them the bread they used to refuse us. For my part, I would kill no man and rob no man; but I would let no man kill or rob another either.'
'And how about Alexander Nicolaiovitch, then?' persisted the Russian, eagerly. 'Has he killed none in his loathsome prisons and in his Siberian quicksilver mines? Has he robbed none of their own hardly got earnings by his poisoned vodki and his autocratically imposed taxes and imposts? Who gave him an absolute hereditary right to put us to death, to throw us in prison, to take our money from us against our will and without our leave, to treat us as if we existed, body and soul, and wives and children, only as chattels for the greater glory of his own orthodox imperial majesty? If we may justly slay the highway robber who meets us, arms in hand, in the outskirts of the city, and demands of us our money or our life, may we not justly slay Alexander Nicolaiovitch, who comes to our homes in the person of his tax-gatherers to take the bread out of our children's mouths and to help himself to whatever he chooses by the divine right of his Romanoff heirship? I tell you, Herr Max, we may blamelessly lie in wait for him wherever we find him, and whoso says us nay is siding with the wolf against the lambs, with the robber and the slayer against the honest representative of right and justice.'
'I never met a Nihilist before,' said Oswald to Ernest, in a half-undertone,' and it never struck me to think what they might have to say for themselves from their own side of the question.'
'That's one of the uses of coming here to Herr Schurz's,' Ernest answered quickly. 'You may not agree with all you hear, but at least you learn to see others as they see themselves; whereas if you mix always in English society, and read only English papers, you will see them only as we English see them.'
'But just fancy,' Oswald went on, as they both stood back a little to make way for others who wished for interviews with the great man, 'just fancy that this Borodinsky, or whatever his name may be, has himself very likely helped in dynamite plots, or manufactured nitro-glycerine cartridges to blow up the Czar; and yet we stand here talking with him as coolly as if he were an ordinary respectable innocent Englishman.'
'What of that?' Ernest answered, smiling. 'Didn't we meet Prince Strelinoffsky at Oriel last term, and didn't we talk with him too, as if he was an honest, hard-working, bread-earning Christian? and yet we knew he was a member of the St. Petersburg office clique, and at the bottom of half the trouble in Poland for the last ten years or so. Grant even that Borodinsky is quite wrong in his way of dealing with noxious autocrats, and yet which do you think is the worst criminal of the two--he with his little honest glazier's shop in a back slum of Paddington, or Strelinoffsky with his jewelled fingers calmly signing accursed warrants to send childing Polish women to die of cold and hunger and ill-treatment on the way to Siberia?'
'Well, really, Le Breton, you know I'm a passably good Radical, but you're positively just one stage too Radical even for me.'
'Come here oftener,' answered Ernest; 'and perhaps you'll begin to think a little differently about some things.'
An hour later in the evening Max Schurz found Ernest alone in a quiet corner. 'One moment, my dear Le Breton,' he said; 'you know I always like to find out all about people's political antecedents; it helps one to fathom the potentialities of their characters. From what social stratum, now, do we get your clever friend, Mr. Oswald?'
'His father's a petty tradesman in a country town in Devonshire, I believe,' Ernest answered; 'and he himself is a good general democrat, without any very pronounced socialistic colouring.'
'A petty tradesman! Hum, I thought so. He has rather the mental bearing and equipment of a man from the petite bourgeoisie. I have been talking to him, and drawing him out. Clever, very, and with good instincts, but not wholly and entirely sound. A fibre wrong somewhere, socially speaking, a false note suspected in his ideas of life; too much acquiescence in the thing that is, and too little faith or enthusiasm for the thing that ought to be. But we shall make something of him yet. He has read "Gold" and understands it. That is already a beginning. Bring him again. I shall always be glad to see him here.'
'I will,' said Ernest, 'and I believe the more you know him, Herr Max, the better you will like him.'
'And what did you think of the sons of the prophets?' asked Herbert Le Breton of Oswald as they left the salon at the close of the reception.
'Frankly speaking,' answered Oswald, looking half aside at Ernest, 'I didn't quite care for all of them--the Nihilists and Communards took my breath away at first; but as to Max Schurz himself I think there can be only one opinion possible about him.'
'And that is----?'
'That he's a magnificent old man, with a genuine apostolic inspiration. I don't care twopence whether he is right or wrong, but he's a perfectly splendid old fellow, as honest and transparent as the day's long. He believes in it all, and would give his life for it freely, if he thought he could forward the cause a single inch by doing it.'
'You're quite right,' said Herbert calmly. 'He's an Elijah thrown blankly upon these prosaic latter days; and what's more, his gospel's all true; but it doesn't matter a sou to you or me, for it will never come about in our time, no nor for a century after. "Post nos millennium." So what on earth's the good of our troubling our poor overworked heads about it?'
'He's the only really great man I ever knew,' said Ernest enthusiastically, 'and I consider that his friendship's the one thing in my life that has been really and truly worth living for. If a pessimist were to ask me what was the use of human existence, I should give him a card of introduction to go to Max Schurz's.'
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