Magick7's Moonlight Stories Index





An Investigation Into the Causes and Origin of the War


Lord Dunsany




The German imperial barber has been called up. He must have been called up quite early in the war. I have seen photographs in papers that leave no doubt of that. Who he is I do not know: I once read his name in an article but have forgotten it; few even know if he still lives. And yet what harm he has done! What vast evils he has unwittingly originated! Many years ago he invented a frivolity, a jeu d'esprit easily forgivable to an artist in the heyday of his youth, to whom his art was new and even perhaps wonderful. A craft, of course, rather than an art, and a humble craft at that; but then, the man was young, and what will not seem wonderful to youth?

He must have taken the craft very seriously, but as youth takes things seriously, fantastically and with laughter. He must have determined to outshine rivals: he must have gone away and thought, burning candles late perhaps, when all the palace was still. But how can youth think seriously? And there had come to him this absurd, this fantastical conceit. What else would have come? The more seriously he took the tonsorial art, the more he studied its tricks and phrases and heard old barbers lecture, the more sure were the imps of youth to prompt him to laughter and urge him to something outrageous and ridiculous. The background of the dull pomp of Potsdam must have made all this more certain. It was bound to come.

And so one day, or, as I have suggested, suddenly late one night, there came to the young artist bending over tonsorial books that quaint, mad, odd, preposterous inspiration. Ah, what pleasure there is in the madness of youth; it is not like the madness of age, clinging to outworn formulæ; it is the madness of breaking away, of galloping among precipices, of dallying with the impossible, of courting the absurd. And this inspiration, it was in none of the books; the lecturer barbers had not lectured on it, could not dream of it and did not dare to; there was no tradition for it, no precedent; it was mad; and to introduce it into the pomp of Potsdam, that was the daring of madness. And this preposterous inspiration of the absurd young barber-madman was nothing less than a moustache that without any curve at all, or any suggestion of sanity, should go suddenly up at the ends very nearly as high as the eyes!

He must have told his young fellow craftsmen first, for youth goes first to youth with its hallucinations. And they, what could they have said? You cannot say of madness that it is mad, you cannot call absurdity absurd. To have criticized would have revealed jealousy; and as for praise you could not praise a thing like that. They probably shrugged, made gestures; and perhaps one friend warned him. But you cannot warn a man against a madness; if the madness is in possession it will not be warned away: why should it? And then perhaps he went to the old barbers of the Court. You can picture their anger. Age does not learn from youth in any case. But there was the insult to their ancient craft, bad enough if only imagined, but here openly spoken of. And what would come of it? They must have feared, on the one hand, dishonour to their craft if this young barber were treated as his levity deserved; and, on the other hand, could they have feared his success? I think they could not have guessed it.

And then the young idiot with his preposterous inspiration must have looked about to see where he could practise his new absurdity. It should have been enough to have talked about it among his fellow barbers; they would have gone with new zest to their work next day for this delirious interlude, and no harm would have been done. ``Fritz,'' (or Hans) they would have said, ``was a bit on last night, a bit full up,'' or whatever phrase they use to touch on drunkenness; and the thing would have been forgotten. We all have our fancies. But this young fool wanted to get his fancy mixed up with practice: that's where he was mad. And in Potsdam, of all places.

He probably tried his friends first, young barbers at the Court and others of his own standing. None of them were fools enough to be seen going about like that. They had jobs to lose. A Court barber is one thing, a man who cuts ordinary hair is quite another. Why should they become outcasts because their friend chose to be mad?

He probably tried his inferiors then, but they would have been timid folk; they must have seen the thing was absurd, and of course daren't risk it. Again, why should they?

Did he try to get some noble then to patronize his invention? Probably the first refusals he had soon inflamed his madness more, and he threw caution insanely to the winds, and went straight to the Emperor.

It was probably about the time that the Emperor dismissed Bismarck; certainly the drawings of that time show him still with a sane moustache.

The young barber probably chanced on him in this period, finding him bereft of an adviser, and ready to be swayed by whatever whim should come. Perhaps he was attracted by the barber's hardihood, perhaps the absurdity of his inspiration had some fascination for him, perhaps he merely saw that the thing was new and, feeling jaded, let the barber have his way. And so the frivolity became a fact, the absurdity became visible, and honour and riches came the way of the barber.

A small thing, you might say, however fantastical. And yet I believe the absurdity of that barber to be among the great evils that have brought death nearer to man; whimsical and farcical as it was, yet a thing deadlier than Helen's beauty or Tamerlane's love of skulls. For just as character is outwardly shown so outward things react upon the character; and who, with that daring barber's ludicrous fancy visible always on his face, could quite go the sober way of beneficent monarchs? The fantasy must be mitigated here, set off there; had you such a figure to dress, say for amateur theatricals, you would realize the difficulty. The heavy silver eagle to balance it; the glittering cuirass lower down, preventing the eye from dwelling too long on the barber's absurdity. And then the pose to go with the cuirass and to carry off the wild conceit of that mad, mad barber. He has much to answer for, that eccentric man whose name so few remember. For pose led to actions; and just when Europe most needed a man of wise counsels, restraining the passions of great empires, just then she had ruling over Germany and, unhappily, dominating Austria, a man who every year grew more akin to the folly of that silly barber's youthful inspiration.

Let us forgive the barber. For long I have known from pictures that I have seen of the Kaiser that he has gone to the trenches. Probably he is dead. Let us forgive the barber. But let us bear in mind that the futile fancies of youth may be deadly things, and that one of them falling on a fickle mind may so stir its shallows as to urge it to disturb and set in motion the avalanches of illimitable grief.