March 1st, 1921
A house in Copenhagen, Norway
And now has every city sent up her tale of men… The windows were opened for the sea breeze, which carried the tap-tap-tap of regimental drums and the underlying tramp-tramp-tramp of thousands of booted feet, marching to the railway station, into Geir’s bedchamber. At this distance the jangle of harness and creaking of leather were not audible, but sometimes the deep rumble of an artillery battery going over cobblestones would break the monotony. Otherwise only the ticking of the grandfather clock in the next room over, and Geir’s own laboured breathing, broke the hush of waiting. At last Geir spoke into the silence, mostly for something to do other than listen to the poem being read by some echo of his student days at the back of his head:
“They call the month,” – he had to pause and gasp for breath – “March, for good reason.”
“And that’s Socialism, is it?” his son Bård asked; irony twisted his mouth. Bård was pushing sixty and in no danger of conscription himself, but his youngest son Amund was twenty and in the army, and the others not impossibly old if the war went badly enough.
It was an old argument between them, and Geir spared enough breath for a sigh. “No,” he said, glad of anything to take his mind off his lungs even if they had beaten the subject to death a dozen times, “that’s imperialism. Spanish imperialism. And coalition politics,” he had to add in fairness. He was too sick to be in the government, but he knew well how it had been formed: MacRaghnall nobles in charge of the armed forces and foreign policy – the guarantees of their power, as they saw it – and a smattering of Socialists for domestic issues, to keep the streets quiet. Class traitors, the lot of them, Geir thought ironically; the charge had been leveled at him, often enough, in and after the negotiations that ended the Troubles in 1912.
“A new Crusade, they’re calling it now,” his son remarked, abandoning the argument; he’d wandered over to the window and was looking abstractedly out it, hands behind his back.
“God wills it,” Geir quoted. The Københavns Tidning had managed to actually use that literal phrase, though at least they’d had the good taste not to print the death to Spain that was being bandied about the streets. Sometimes he thought Socialism was just hopeless, as doomed as Christianity by the plain nature of the beast called ‘human’; did these people just find peace and prosperity boring? Thousands, tens of thousands, of boys, with their blood seeping into their lungs from the gas… the doctors called pneumonia the “old man’s friend”, but just then Geir could have done well without a friend that sat on his chest and squeezed his ribcage; and gas was supposed to be worse.
“To be fair, the Spanish do feed their people a different flavour of opium,” Bård said. He left off staring out the window and returned to his chair by Geir’s bed. Geir closed his eyes, exhausted by their brief exchange; then a fresh thought – the first in a long time – came to the surface of his mind, and brought a spark of energy with it.
“What if it were a Crusade, though? Not over some minor difference of theology, but against exploitation, imperialism, against war itself?”
“A war to end wars?” Bård smiled wryly. “Maybe Russia could do it, or China. Some country with the manpower to make a bunch of greedy imperialist exploiters say uncle, and make it stick. Establish once and for all who is boss, and make the rest stop fighting over it… But Norway? I’ll count us lucky if we come out of this with an African hellhole to put a naval base in.”
“But Russia is in it,” Geir wheezed. “And there are workers and farmers in Russia, aren’t there? Give them the good word: This can be the last war, if we do it right.”
“Worker, peasant, our armies / the greatest are, that now march forth…” Bård’s singing voice cracked a little, but his eyes were thoughtful. “Perhaps it could be done. It might make this thing worthwhile, if it were the last one. But – ” he spread his hands. “You’re the famous organiser, leader of Landsorganisasjonen, Statsminister even; I’m just a worker. What am I going to do about it?”
Geir looked at his son levelly, and – sick old man that his father was – Bård flinched. “You’ll go down to Arbeidernes Hus today, and you’ll bring them word from Geir Randall. His dying word, it may be; that’s not important. You’ll tell them to reach out to their brothers in Russia, in England, even in France. You’ll tell them that this is our chance. That they’ll fight, and win this war; and more important, they’ll win the peace. They’ll not let Spain off with the loss of a province, or an African hellhole. They’ll conquer the peninsula, and free Africa. They’ll unite Europe under the Russian banner – and then, if need be, they’ll bring the war to Asia. Europe has slumbered long; let the West awake. The workers have shed enough blood; let there be one more outpouring, to unite the world, and then an end to war, and even to the rumour of war.”
Geir’s old skill with words, that had carried him through fifty years of politics, had returned to him briefly and carried him through his speech; now he slumped back down into the bed, exhausted and unable to get his breath back. But, he was pleased to see, he had at least managed to fire up Bård – so that makes once in sixty years, he couldn’t help but gibe.
“I’ll go right away,” his son said.
“Yes – go,” Geir gasped. His lungs were full of some horrible liquid, and he couldn’t breathe; but it wasn’t as though Bård could do anything about it. He went out the door with as much speed as a sixty-year-old factory worker was likely to manage; a minute later his wife came in to replace him in the chair. Geir acknowledged her with a nod, but couldn’t manage words; he was too busy breathing. Instead he listened to the sounds of marching boots, still drifting in through the open window along with the scent of spring. Spring, and men were going out to kill, as they always had; but perhaps, just perhaps, this time it could be different. Or perhaps – more likely, even – the dream of a Final Peace would turn out like all the other dreams of Socialism, a cruel mirage; perhaps the crusade Geir had just invented – even if it happened – would be the last gasp of the labour movement, a last desperate throw at the forces of oppression. It was, in any case, out of Geir’s hands; his radius of action had shrunk down, down, collapsing in even past the walls of this tiny room, to his own body and the desperate struggle for the next breath. It couldn’t be long now, he knew dimly.
The sound of the guns going past was the same; but now it was a sound of hope.