Two Masters

Two Masters by A.W.Wheen appeared in The London Mercury for November 1924, and was reprinted in 1929 as the first of Faber’s Criterion Miscellany pamphlets, shortly after the appearance of Wheen’s translation of All Quiet on the Western Front. The story’s reappearance in this form can perhaps be partly explained by Wheen’s friendship with T.S.Eliot – they were part of a group who met together for lunch once a week during the twenties, in a restaurant near the Victoria and Albert Museum, where Wheen was Librarian. He was an Australian, who during the War had served in Egypt and France, eventually winning the Military Medal and gaining a commission.
Two Masters is an odd story, in two parts that do not quite fit together satisfactorily. The first part is set in Egypt, where the story-teller, Carter, describes Ralston, an Australian sergeant of “unsoldierly appearance”who seems more interested in painting than in soldiering. Ralston adopts an anti-romantic attitude to war; he served at Gallipoli, but will not join in with others when they tell self-flattering stories of heroism on the Peninsula.
Carter gets to know him better, and he starts talking seriously; his conversation is studded with quotations from Dante, Shakespeare and Marlowe– but Dante especially. He says:

It is not by virtus, but by virtue, that the victory is to be won, for the measure of courage is the poise of faith against fear. Courage will be given me, and I shall be taught to endure; so must I hope.
Qui sarai to poco tempo silvano;
e sarai meco senza fine cive
di quella Roma onde Cristo e romano.

When the battalion goes to France, Carter sees Ralston in action:

His courage was of a character which marked it as unique. Everywhere he was serene and imperturbable, and in extremity he was the rallying-point for us all.

The second half of the story is a long letter dated August 1918, from Ralston – now an officer – to Carter at a training camp in England. Ralston describes a secret mission behind the German lines:

I went impersonating that German artillery-liaison officer we captured by Warfusée-Abancourt. Already I had pledged my soul to my country, and this spying business, this ultimate degredation that a country can demand of its citizen, seemed a small thing to me then…
Again I was serving two masters. As a German artillery-officer I was ranging guns on my own countrymen, and as a British spy I was betraying the Germans who had accepted me.

He makes close friends with Schaeffer, a German officer (“with him I could have made that one friendship which in a life-time it is given men to enjoy… We were made for friendship.”). Inadvertently he gives himself away to Schaeffer, who does not denounce him. They talk together of the impossibility of serving two masters – the state and the Christian law to which their consciences respond. They are each faced with E.M.Forster’s conundrum – who to betray, your country or your friend?

It is not a completely believable scenario, and much of the story’s language is so high-flown that it makes little connection with the realities of soldiering, but Two Masters gives voice to the disquiet about the morality of war that was emerging in many texts of the 1920s – such as the very different Temptation of Dominic Burleigh, which I wrote about yesterday.

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