Behind the Mask
IT WAS A GREY, dismal afternoon when I set out for the offices of Anti-Gas Ltd. * It was the second day of the new year. The sky was heavy with rain unshed, and the wind had a whine in it, as though the last funeral rites of 1932 were still being fulfilled, round the corner.
I went on foot, because there was plenty of time to spare, and also because the factory lay on the other side of the river, and I love crossing the London bridges on these dim and heavy days. I lingered a little on Westminster Bridge, looking down at the ri^er. It seemed to be hurrying more than usual, away from these restricting banks in a fever to get to the open sea. For there was no peace here. The seagulls screamed and swerved, the little tugs puffed and hooted, the trams arguecj shrilly behind me.
There are times when the viëw from Westminster Bridge is so lovely that it catches the breath when the city is set in silver and the sky is a shining space. Today everything was wrong. Wordsworth could not have written even a limerick about it.
I walked on. The stolid mass of the County Hall loomed up on the left a building as dull as most of the people who work in it, and completely out of character with the grim and earnest little houses of the Westminster Bridge Road. I jxassed rows of sordid shops, where one could buy mauve cajxî for eighteen-pence and made-up bows for a shilling. There were a great many public houses that looked like prisons, though 1 suppose they were sanctuaries to the people who entered them. There was a florist’s shop in which a few early hyacinths wilted. There was a confectioner’s displaying its wares of faded pink. And at last 1 came to the window of Anti-Gas Ltd.
I paused and studied it. I doubt if one out of the hundreds of thousands who pass down this busy street have ever thought it worth looking at. For it was so very quiet and discreet in fact, one might have mistaken it for the office of an old-fashioned solicitor. The bottom part of the window was almost opaque and the objects displayed in it were few and dreary. There was a fire-extinguisher, a respiratory apparatus, and some other object 1 did not recognize. There was, certainly, nothing to make one realize that here, in this comparatively modest building, was housed almost the only means of defense which the citizens of London possess against gas in the next war.
What? What’s that . . . you ask? The only means of defense ... in this little building? What about the army? The air force? Oh . . . to be sure ... it was proved in the last chapter, pretty conclusively, that in spite of the army, and the air force, no great city can be adequately defended from the air, and therefore from gas attacks. Admitted. But what about gas masks?
Well, Anti-Gas Ltd. is, as far as I am aware, the only English firm manufacturing gas masks on any large scale. So that my statement alx>ve is. in spite of the imaginary interjections of the disgruntled reader, correct. In that modest building is housed almost the only means of defense which the citizens of London possess against gas in the next tear.
Let us therefore go inside and see what is being done for our safety.
I KNOCKED AT a little window marked enquiries. The window flew open and a pleasant-faced youth asked my business. I told him.
“Certainly, sir. This way, please.”
We went up some very narrow stairs, dimly lit. It was all charmingly antique and tranquil. I was shown into a small room looking out on to a backyard. Again the feeling of its
being a solicitor’s office. But there was one object which dispelled this illusion.
It was a glass case, filled with little dolls, all wearing gas masks.
“What a very excellent idea !” I thought as I approached this singular exhibit. “Dolls in gas masks ! A most admirable conception! This is by far the most sensible Christmas present which any mother could possibly give to her child. Apart from the fact that her darlings will learn how to put the masks on quickly and efficiently, they will become accustomed to seeing them on the faces of those they love—a very necessary precaution!”
And I thought of thousands of small fingers, in the firelit nurseries of England, deftly slipping miniature gas masks over the waxen cheeks of their beloved dolls.
Then, as I examined these pigmy figures a little more carefully, I saw that they were not really dolls. They were models, for demonstration purposes. And some of them were for protection against coal gases, and things like that. However, they could be easily touched up for war purposes and given to the children. Any mother with any sense will do so, at the earliest opportunity.
The door opened, and I was conducted to the office of the gentleman who was to show me over the plant. We will call him Mr. X.
Now, let me say at the outset that in reporting the pro-
ceedings with Mr. X I have none of the pangs of conscience which assailed me on some other occasions. True I was a spy, but in this case I was not a hostile spy. Anti-Gas Ltd. of which Mr. X was a distinguished and efficient employee, is not an armament factory. It BNS is not a slaughter house, like Armsville.
It is an ««¿/-armament factory. Its object, in making gas masks—apart from making money—is to save life, not destroy it.
But—and it is a big “but”—this firm does bear one great resemblance to an armament factory, because, as I was almost immediately to learn, it does not care whose life it saves. “Kill anybody you like, as long as you give us the order,” says the armament makers. “Save anybody you like, as long as you give us the order,” says Anti-Gas Ltd.
Here is a picture which illustrates this point clearly. As we were passing along the corridor, I saw a vast pile of metal discs. They were an odd shape, like bits of a cocktail shaker, and I asked Mr. X what they were.
“Those are parts of gas masks,” said Mr. X.
“There seem a great many of them.” “Yes. There are forty thousand." “Really? That’s encouraging.” ‘Encouraging?” Mr. X raised his eyebrow's.
“Well—it’s nice to know' that there’ll be at any rate forty thousand people left in England after the next war.” “In England?” Mr. X stared at me. “But those gas masks are going to Turkey!”
We passed on. I glanced back at that great pile of metal. So those masks were going to Turkey, were they? In order, I suppose, that when we are engaged in hostilities in the Near East, the Turks may be adequately protected against British airmen by British masks—and may bring British airplanes crashing t the ground with anti-aircraft guns manufactured by the British firm of Armsville? Very interesting. Forty thousand gas masks going to Turkey! Forty thousand Turks saved to carry on the torch of progress !
These reflections were rudely interrupted because Mr. X came to an abrupt halt. We w'ere face to face with a great array of the masks themselves—not the metal fittings, but the face coverings, which are at once so hideously human and yet so far removed from life. There they hung—row upon row of them, grim and grey, still and sightless. Their blank faces w'ere turned dead toward me, and their canvas features seemed to droop in dejection and despair. And as I looked, a gleam of watery' sunshine filtered through the window, caught the metal rods on w'hich the masks were hanging, and sparkled fitfully. So that there w'as a glimmer behind those gaping sockets, as though men’s eyes were peering through them. I wondered whose eyes would one day peer at what scenes of desolation?
Then Mr. X spoke again
“Those.” he said, “are going to another . . . ahem! . . . foreign government.”
MR. X WAS very informative.
“Is it possible,” I said to him, “that London may one day be under a shroud of gas?”
“It is possible ... to say the least of it.”
“And is it possible to provide every man, woman and child with gas masks?”
He paused. And in that pause I imagined that he was thinking much as I was thinking. For if you ask this question seriously, it answers itself. Think of the babies in the slums—the people in the hospitals—in the lunatic
Continued on page 38
Continued jrom page 14
asylums - the trans[ ~
port workers. Think of the vast life of a great city throttled in a gas
mask for twenty-four ___________
hours. And not only fighting gas, but fire. Evidently these questions were occurring to Mr. X also, for he went off at a tangent. He said brightly:
“We could manufacture forty million gas masks and retail them at five shillings apiece.”
“Could you really?”
“Oh, yes. It would be an economic proposition.”
“But what about you . . . your own family?”
“Ah!” He paused again. “Well, of course, the first thing I should do would be to make one room in the house absolutely gas proof.”
“How would you do that?”
And now for the moment, I am going to leave Mr. X in case this conversation sounds too fantastic. For there is a constant danger that this book, which is entirely concerned with facts, may, by its cumulative effect, read like a fairy story. Let us, therefore, remind ourselves of the factual basis of this narrative, and also gain a little encouragement, by quoting from the British Red Cross Society’s recent First Aid in Chemical Warfare, which is partly based on the official publications of the Army Council.
“Any room with sound walls, roof and floor, can be rendered gas proof. The windows, if they do not fit tightly, should be puttied, and all other openings, including the chimney, should be stopped: while the doors should have strips of cloth nailed round them to prevent the entrance of poisoned air. When the room is to be used as a gas proof shelter, fires and other means of heating should be extinguished as they help to draw in air from outside.”
This sounds very easy and pleasant. Actually, of course, it is not worth the paper it is written on, unless you are able to convince yourself that the population of a vast city would be able to sit indoors, as though they were just shutting out a London fog, for days on end.
We had better get back to Mr. X.
“You would like to see how we test the gas masks?”
"Very much indeed.”
We dived down some steep wooden stairs, hurried along a corridor, passed through a grey room filled with grey men doing grey things, and emerged into a backyard of peculiar squalor. An acrid odor hung about this yard. It was open to the sky—such sky as there was -and if one looked up, there were tattered clouds, like pieces of old newspaper, blown across a heaven that was curiously like a backyard itself. But there was no particular reason to look up, because here, straight ahead, was an object of grim and compelling interest.
It was a black iron cell, large enough to hold a dozen men, and it had three glass windows wet with moisture. In the base of it, about three feet from the ground, were vent holes which were, at this moment, stuffed with corks. There hovered round this iron monstrosity a smell indescribably disgusting—a smell that was dead, and yet alive, a smell that was despairing and yet had a foul tickle about it.
While I was gazing at this thing I heard a cough behind me. I looked round and I saw three men, lined up for inspection. Two of them, who were middle-aged, had rather elaborate contraptions round their middles —oxygen masks, I believe, which are used for tunnelling parties. The other member of the party was only about nineteen. He was the one who had coughed, and he carried the standardized gas mask which is supplied by the War Office.
It was this young man who attracted my attention. He was trembling all over. Why? It was not cold. The air was mild enough. What was the matter with him? He seemed to be about to say something, to cry out. But he did not get the chance, because my guide flicked his fingers, and said :
“All right. Put ’em on.”
Whereupon the men put on their gas masks. The young man’s hands were trembling so much that he could hardly get the straps over his ears.
A man in a white coat opened the door of the cell, went inside, and lit a fuse. A few sparks spat out from the darkness. He came hurrying out again. In a moment fumes and coils of sullen yellow gas began to pour through the open door. We stepped back, quickly.
The guide held up his hand.
“Allright. In you go.”
The men stumbled in, like pigs going to a slaughter chamber. The door slammed on them. We went round to the side and looked through the steamy windows. I could just discern three grotesque figures, standing like ghosts in the curling fumes.
“Not a particularly lethal gas,” said my companion, pleasantly, “though, of course, a good gulp of it would lay you out pretty quickly. Still, it’s the psychological effect which is important. We have to accustom men to get used to wearing these things.”
I thought of the psychological effect which I had seen in the trembling hands of the young man with fair hair who was shut up in that chamber now. “Thank you,” I said “I quite understand. May they come out now?”
The door was opened. The figures stumbled out. They removed their masks. The young man’s face was dead white. I went up to him.
“Could I borrow your mask?”
“Do you want to go in?”
“Yes—just to see thepsychologicaleffect.” “Certainly.”
Yet he looked a little doubtful.
“There’s not the faintest danger, is there?”
“None whatever. I was merely thinking about your clothes . . . they may smell rather ...”
I told him that I did not mind about the smell of my clothes. I took the mask from the young man. It was sweaty inside, and I had to wipe it with a handkerchief.
I put it on. First the strap round the waist, then the chin, then the head, then the whole face piece. As soon as it was on, there was a sense of the world being far, far away—shut out. One’s breath came in a
sort of long wail, and exuded in a hoarse gasp. Wail, gasp, wail, gasp.
T NODDED, I walked up the stairs. Into the chamber. The world, now, was only a whirling of grey veils, a choking and a gasping, a foul nightmare. It was not that one was afraid, for there was nothing whatever to be afraid of. The mask was working perfectly, and even if it had been leaking, a few gulps of this gas would only have been painful, not fatal. No, it was the psychological effect—to quote my friend—which was so appalling. One felt so helpless, like a trussed animal in a burning building. And those veils, those grey whirling veils, what if they had been really deadly, if they had been charged with acids which wormed their way through one’s clothes, burning, eating away like cancer?
I had had quite enough. I stepped outside. I took off the mask and breathed deeply. Never had air tasted sweeter than in that dirty backyard.
“Funny feeling the first time, isn’t it?”
“Still it’s surprising how quickly you get used to it. Why, a man can wear this mask for twenty-four hours if necessary. Sleep in it, in fact.”
“I know. A woman, too, of course.”
“Of course. And they may have to.”
Now will you please stop reading for a moment, and do a little mental exercise. It is a very simple exercise. You know what a gas mask looks like. Well, just picture, for a moment, a mask on the face of some woman you love. Imagine it, for example, shoved over your mother’s head. It will rumple her hair, and the straps will cut into her chin, but, of course, you can’t worry about details like that. When she has it on she won’t be able to talk to you nor you to her, for you will be wearing a mask, too. You will have to sit, silently, gasping. If she has a weak heart—as my mother has—I fear she will not gasp for long. She will suddenly crumple up, and the face you have always loved, that one day you had thought to kiss, in its last stillness, will be kissed and crumpled by the mask. And if you tear it off, it will be stained and pock-marked by the encroaching acid, as she lies on the floor. But if she is a strong woman, she may survive, though I think many women would become insane under such an ordeal. Even if they were asked to do this, in peace, for practice, they would find, at the end of a few hours, that their brains could not stand it any longer. Twenty-four hours is a long time. Supposing the raid came at four o’clock in the morning. By four o’clock on the following afternoon, you would be wanting, your tea, to say the least of it. Your head would be bursting, your brain on fire . . .
Enough of this. The trouble about all these arguments is that they are so strong, so utterly overwhelming to anybody possessed of the least imagination, that it is difficult to avoid writing at the top of one’s voice. Just as it is difficult, in an argument with a militarist, to avoid giving him a sock in the jaw before one has been talking for five minutes, Which is not as illogical as it sounds. Tobe continued