Refugees in Chelsea


Henry James

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Published in the Times Literary Supplement, March 23, 1916.

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Refugees in Chelsea

THIS is not a Report on our so interesting and inspiring Chelsea work, since November last, in aid of the Belgians driven thither from their country by a violence of unprovoked invasion and ravage more appalling than has ever before overtaken a peaceful and industrious people; it is the simple statement of a neighbour and an observer deeply affected by the most tragic exhibition of national and civil prosperity and felicity suddenly subjected to bewildering outrage that it would have been possible to conceive. The case, as the generous American communities have shown they well understand, has had no analogue in the experience of our modern generations, no matter how far back we go; it has been recognised, in surpassing practical ways, as virtually the greatest public horror of our age, or of all the preceding; and one gratefully feels, in presence of so much done in direct mitigation of it, that its appeal to the pity and the indignation of the civilised world anticipated and transcended from the first all superfluity of argument. We live into — that is, we learn to cultivate — possibilities of sympathy and reaches of beneficence very much as the stricken and suffering themselves live into their dreadful history and explore and reveal its extent; and this admirable truth it is that unceasingly pleads with the intelligent, the fortunate, and the exempt, not to consent in advance to any dull limitation of the helpful idea. The American people have surely a genius, of the most eminent kind, for withholding any such consent and despising all such limits; and there is doubtless no remarked connection in which they have so shown the sympathetic imagination in free and fearless activity — that is, in high originality — as under the suggestion of the tragedy of Belgium.

I have small warrant perhaps to say that atmospheres are communicable; but I can testify at least that they are breathable on the spot, to whatever effect of depression or of cheer; and I should go far, I feel, were I to attempt to register the full bitter-sweet taste, by our Chelsea waterside, all these months, of the refugee element in our vital medium. (The sweet, as I strain a point perhaps to call it, inheres, to whatever distinguishability, in our hope of having really done something, verily done much; the bitter ineradicably seasons the consciousness, hopes and demonstrations and fond presumptions and all.) I need go no further, none the less, than the makeshift provisional gates of Crosby Hall, marvellous monument transplanted a few years since from the Bishopsgate quarter of the City to a part of the ancient suburban site of the garden of Sir Thomas More, and now serving with extraordinary beneficence as the most splendid of shelters for the homeless. This great private structure, though of the grandest civic character, dating from the fifteenth century, and one of the noblest relics of the past that London could show, was held a few years back so to cumber the precious acre or more on which it stood that it was taken to pieces in the candid commercial interest and in order that the site it had so long sanctified should be converted to such uses as would stuff out still further the ideal number of private pockets. Dismay and disgust were unable to save it; the most that could be done was to gather in with tenderness of care its innumerable constituent parts and convey them into safer conditions, where a sad defeated piety has been able to re-edify them into some semblance of the original majesty. Strange withal some of the turns of the whirligig of time; the priceless structure came down to the sound of lamentation, not to say of execration, and of the gnashing of teeth, and went up again before cold and disbelieving, quite despairing, eyes; in spite of which history appears to have decided once more to cherish it and give a new consecration. It is, in truth, still magnificent; it lives again for our gratitude in its noblest particulars; and the almost incomparable roof has arched all this winter and spring over a scene probably more interesting and certainly more pathetic than any that have ever drawn down its ancient far-off blessing.

The place has formed, then, the headquarters of the Chelsea circle of hospitality to the exiled, the broken, and the bewildered; and if I may speak of having taken home the lesson of their state and the sense of their story, it is by meeting them in the finest club conditions conceivable that I have been able to do so. Hither, month after month and day after day, the unfortunates have flocked, each afternoon; and here the comparatively exempt, almost ashamed of their exemption in presence of so much woe, have made them welcome to every form of succour and reassurance. Certain afternoons each week have worn the character of the huge comprehensive tea-party, a fresh well-wisher discharging the social and financial cost of the fresh occasion — which has always festally profited, in addition, by the extraordinary command of musical accomplishment, the high standard of execution, that is the mark of the Belgian people. This exhibition of our splendid local resource has rested, of course, on a multitude of other resources, still local, but of a more intimate hospitality, little by little worked out and applied, and into the details of which I may not here pretend to go beyond noting that they have been accountable for the large housed and fed and clothed and generally protected and administered numbers, all provided for in Chelsea and its outer fringe, on which our scheme of sociability at Crosby Hall itself has up to now been able to draw. To have seen this scheme so long in operation has been to find it suggest many reflections, all of the most poignant and moving order; the foremost of which has, perhaps, had for its subject that never before can the wanton hand of history have descended upon a group of communities less expectant of public violence from without or less prepared for it and attuned to it.

The bewildered and amazed passivity of the Flemish civil population, the state as of people surprised by sudden ruffians, murderers, and thieves in the dead of night and hurled out, terrified and half clad, snatching at the few scant household gods nearest at hand, into a darkness mitigated but by flaring incendiary torches — this has been the experience stamped on our scores and scores of thousands, whose testimony to suffering, dismay, and despoilment silence alone, the silence of vain uncontributive wonderment, has for the most part been able to express. Never was such a revelation of a deeply domestic, a rootedly domiciled and instinctively and separately clustered people, a mass of communities for which the sight of the home violated, the objects helping to form it profaned, and the cohesive family, the Belgian ideal of the constituted life, dismembered, disembowelled, and shattered, had so supremely to represent the crack of doom and the end of everything. There have been days and days when under this particular impression the mere aspect and manner of our serried recipients of relief, something vague and inarticulate as in persons who have given up everything but patience and are living, from hour to hour, but in the immediate and the unexplained, has put on such a pathos as to make the heart sick. One has had just to translate any seated row of figures, thankful for warmth and light and covering, for sustenance and human words and human looks, into terms that would exemplify some like exiled and huddled and charity-fed predicament for our superior selves, to feel our exposure to such a fate, our submission to it, our holding in the least together under it, darkly unthinkable. Dim imaginations would at such moments interpose, a confused theory that even at the worst our adventurous habits, our imperial traditions, our general defiance of the superstition of domesticity, would dash from our lips the cup of bitterness; from these it was at all events impossible not to come back to the consciousness that almost every creature there collected was indebted to our good offices for the means to come at all. I thought of our parents and children, our brothers and sisters, aligned in borrowed garments and settled to an as yet undetermined future of eleemosynary tea and buns, and I ask myself, doubtless to little purpose, either what grace of resignation or what clamour of protest we should, beneath the same star, be noted as substituting for the inveterate Belgian decency.

I can only profess at once that the sense of this last round about one was, at certain hours when the music and the chant of consolation rose in the stillness from our improvised stage at the end of the great hall, a thing to cloud with tears any pair of eyes lifted to our sublime saved roof in thanks for its vast comprehension. Questions of exhibited type, questions as to a range of form and tradition, a measure of sensibility and activity, not our own, dwindled and died before the gross fact of our having here an example of such a world-tragedy as we supposed Europe had outlived, and that nothing at all therefore mattered but that we should bravely and handsomely hold up our quite heavy enough end of it. It is because we have responded in this degree to the call unprecedented that we are, in common with a vast number of organisations scattered through these islands, qualified to claim that no small part of the inspiration to our enormous act of welcome resides in the moral interest it yields. One can indeed be certain of such a source of profit but in the degree in which one has found oneself personally drawing upon it; yet it is obvious that we are not treated every day to the disclosure of a national character, a national temperament and type, confined for the time to their plainest and stoutest features and set, on a prodigious scale, in all the relief that the strongest alien air and alien conditions can give them. Great salience, in such a case, do all collective idiosyncrasies acquire — upon the fullest enumeration of which, however, as the Belgian instance and the British atmosphere combine to represent them, I may not now embark, prepossessed wholly as I am with the more generally significant social stamp and human aspect so revealed, and with the quality derived from these things by the multiplied examples that help us to take them in. This feeling that our visitors illustrate above all the close and comfortable household life, with every implication of a seated and saturated practice of it, practice of the intimate and private and personal, the securely sensual and genial arts that flow from it, has been by itself the key to a plenitude of observation and in particular to as much friendly searching insight as one could desire to enjoy.

The moving, the lacerating thing is the fashion after which such a reading of the native elements, once adopted, has been as a light flaring into every obscurest retreat, as well as upon any puzzling ambiguity, of the state of shock of the national character under the infamy of the outrage put upon it. That they, of all people the most given over to local and patriarchal beatitude among the admirable and the cherished objects handed down to them by their so interesting history on every spot where its action has been thickest — that is, on every inch, so to speak, of their teeming territory — should find themselves identified with the most shamelessly cynical public act of which the civilised world at this hour retains the memory, is a fact truly representing the exquisite in the horrible; so peculiarly addressed has been their fate to the desecration of ideals that had fairly become breath of their lungs and flesh of their flesh. Oh, the installed and ensconced, the immemorially edified and arranged, the thoroughly furnished and provided and nourished people! — not in the least besotted or relaxed in their security and density, like the self-smothered society of the ancient world upon which the earlier Huns and Vandals poured down, but candidly complacent and admirably intelligent in their care for their living tradition, and only so off their guard as to have consciously set the example of this care to all such as had once smoked with them their wondrous pipe of peace. Almost any posture of stupefaction would have been conceivable in the shaken victims of this delusion: I can speak best, however, but of what I have already glanced at, that temperamental weight of their fall which has again and again, at sight of many of them gathered together, made the considering heart as heavy for them as if it, too, had for the time been worsted.

However, it would take me far to tell of half the penetrating admonitions, whether of the dazed or of the roused appearance, that have for so long almost in like degree made our attention ache. I think of particular faces, in the whole connection, when I want most to remember — since to remember always, and never, never to forget, is a prescription shining before us like a possible light of dawn — faces saying such things in their silence, or in their speech of quite different matters, as to make the only thinkable comment or response some word or some gesture of reprieve to dumb or to dissimulated anguish. Blest be the power that has given to civilised men the appreciation of the face — such an immeasurable sphere of exercise for it has this monstrous trial of the peoples come to supply. Such histories, such a record of moral experience, of emotion convulsively suppressed, as one meets in some of them: and this even if, on the whole, one has been able to think of these special allies, all sustainingly, much rather as the sturdiest than as the most demonstrative of sufferers. I have in these rapid remarks to reduce my many impressions to the fewest, but must even thus spare one of them for commemoration of the admirable cast of working countenance we are rewarded by the sight of, wherever we turn amid the quantity of helpful service and all the fruitful industries that we have been able to start and that keep themselves going. These are the lights in the picture; and who indeed would wish that the lights themselves should be anything less than tragic? The strong young man (no young men are familiarly stronger,) mutilated, amputated, dismembered in penalty for their defence of their soil against the horde, and now engaged at Crosby Hall in the making of handloom socks, to whom I pay an occasional visit — much more for my own cheer, I apprehend, than for theirs — express so in their honest concentration under difficulties the actual and general value of their people that just to be in their presence is a blest renewal of faith. Excellent, exemplary, is this manly, homely, handy type, grave in its somewhat strained attention, but at once lighted to the briefest, sincerest humour of protest by any direct reference to the general cruelty of its misfortune. Anything but unsuggestive, the range of the ‘quiet’ physiognomy, when one feels the consciousness behind it not to have run thin. Thick and strong is the good Flemish sense of life and all its functions — which fact is responsible for no empty and really unmodelled ‘mug.’

I am afraid at the same time that, if the various ways of being bad are beyond our reckoning, the condition and the action of exemplary goodness tend rather to reduce to a certain rich unity of appearance those marked by them, however dissociated from each other such persons may have been by race and education. Otherwise what tribute shouldn’t I be moved to pay to the gentleman of Flanders to whom the specially improvised craftsmen I have just mentioned owe their training and their inspiration? through his having, in his proscribed and denuded state, mastered the craft in order to recruit them to it, and, in fine, so far as my observation has been concerned, exhibit clear human virtue, courage and patience and the humility of sought fellowship in privation, with an unconscious beauty that I should be ashamed in this connection not to have noted publicly. I scarce know what such a ‘personality’ as his suggests to me if not that we had all, on our good Chelsea ground, best take up and cherish as directly and ultimately as possible every scrap of our community with our gentleman of Flanders. I make such a point as this, at the same time, only to remember how, almost wherever I have tried sustainingly to turn, my imagination and my intelligence have been quickened, and to recognise in particular, for that matter, that this couldn’t possibly be more the case for them than in visiting a certain hostel in one of our comparatively contracted but amply decent local squares — riverside Chelsea having, of course, its own urban identity in the multitudinous County of London: which, in itself as happy an example, doubtless, of the hostel smoothly working as one need cite, placed me in grateful relation with a lady, one of the victims of her country’s convulsion and in charge of the establishment I allude to, whom simply to ‘meet,’ as we say, is to learn how singular a dignity, how clear a distinction, may shine in active fortitude and economic self-effacement under an all but crushing catastrophe. ‘Talk about faces ——!’ I could but privately ejaculate as I gathered the sense of all that this one represented in the way of natural nobleness and sweetness, a whole past acquaintance with letters and art and taste, insisting on their present restrictedness to bare sisterly service.

The proud rigour of association with pressing service alone, with absolutely nothing else, the bare commodious house, so otherwise known to me of old and now — like most of our hostels, if I am not mistaken, the most unconditioned of loans from its relinquishing owner — the lingering look of ancient peace in the precincts, an element I had already, as I passed and repassed at the afternoon hour, found somehow not at all dispelled by the presence in the central green garden itself of sundry maimed and hobbling and smiling convalescents from an extemporised small hospital close at hand, their battered khaki replaced by a like uniformity of the loose light blue, and friendly talk with them through the rails of their enclosure as blest to one participant at least as friendly talk with them always and everywhere is: such were the hovering elements of an impression in which the mind had yet mainly to yield to that haunting force on the part of our waiting proscripts which never consents to be long denied. The proof of which universally recognised power of their spell amid us is indeed that they have led me so far with a whole side of my plea for them still unspoken. This, however, I hope on another occasion to come back to; and I am caught meanwhile by my memory of how the note of this conviction was struck for me, with extraordinary force, many months ago and in the first flush of recognition of what the fate that had overtaken our earliest tides of arrival and appeal really meant — meant so that all fuller acquaintance, since pursued, has but piled one congruous reality after another upon the horror.

It was in September, in a tiny Sussex town which I had not quitted since the outbreak of the war, and where the advent of our first handful of fugitives before the warning of Louvain and Aerschoot and Termonde and Dinant had just been announced. Our small hill-top city, covering the steep sides of the compact pedestal crowned by its great church, had reserved a refuge at its highest point; and we had waited all day, from occasional train to train, for the moment at which we should attest our hospitality. It came at last, but late in the evening, when a vague outside rumour called me to my doorstep, where the unforgettable impression at once assaulted me. Up the precipitous little street that led from the station, over the old grass-grown cobbles where vehicles rarely pass, came the panting procession of the homeless and their comforting, their almost clinging entertainers, who seemed to hurry them on as in a sort of overflow of expression of the fever of charity. It was swift and eager, in the autumn darkness and under the flare of a single lamp — with no vociferation and, but for a woman’s voice, scarce a sound save the shuffle of mounting feet and the thick-drawn breath of emotion. The note I except, however, was that of a young mother carrying her small child and surrounded by those who bore her on and on, almost lifting her as they went together. The resonance through our immemorial old street of her sobbing and sobbing cry was the voice itself of history; it brought home to me more things than I could then quite take the measure of, and these just because it expressed for her not direct anguish, but the incredibility, as who should say, of honest assured protection. Months have elapsed, and from having been then one of a few hundred she is now one of scores and scores of thousands: yet her cry is still in my ears, whether to speak most of what she had lately or of what she actually felt; and it plays, to my own sense, as a great fitful, tragic light over the dark exposure of her people.

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