The happy holidays in Transylvania came to a sad end in 1913 with the death of my uncle. And after that came wars and rumours of war and the whole world as we knew it seemed all to crumble up and change its face of joy and merriment into one of gravity and at times even of gloom. At first it was war in the Balkans with an attendant collapse on the Stock Exchange, the tumbling of securities that had seemed as safe (or very nearly as safe) as the Bank of England, down to unheard-of levels, and so many friends had been hit right and left with financial troubles and there was constant talk of selling houses that were too expensive to keep up or properties that were falling in value.
We never worried about all that. We had plenty of work to do, and the work was congenial and remunerative. We felt secure financially as to our future whatever happened. I wrote two romances during 1912, Fire in Stubble and Meadowsweet and started (at I am happy to say, public request) yet another adventure of my always popular Scarlet Pimpernel, namely, Eldorado, which was completed and finished the following year. It has always seemed to me strange how universally popular that hero of mine had become. In fact his popularity had grown and spread with the years.
The Terry management were reviving the play time after time either in London or on tour in the big towns, and since the first publication of The Scarlet Pimpernel itself I had written I Will Repay and The Elusive Pimpernel and still my readers seemed to be asking for more--so much so, in fact that I began at times to feel weary of that elusive personage, but never for a moment did my imagination give out as to his adventures. He had always been so intensely alive to me that at any moment I could conjure up pictures of him in the turmoil of revolutions and persecutions, ready to help and relieve sorrows and sufferings with his boundless energy and resourceful brain. I loved all his friends: Sir Andrew Ffoulkes, Lord Anthony Dewhurst, Lord Hastings, and above all I loved Marguerite, his brave and devoted wife. I knew them all personally. They were more real and more vivid to me than the friends of this world.
These were the exciting times of the great feminine movement, 'Votes for Women!' The slogan was everywhere. Discussions were hot and strong between those for and against the movement, discussions which often ended in loss of temper and sometimes alas! in the snapping of ties of old friendships. Needless to say that we took no part in the movement at all. We were workers and artists, not politicians. Frankly, I didn't care one way or the other. I knew--as certainly as I knew anything--that for good or ill women would get their parliamentary vote, sooner of later, and I was content to wait till that time came along. But in the meanwhile we knew, as indeed every thinking English man and woman knew also, that nothing in the political world is ever gained by gentle and peaceful methods. It is only by shouting and beating drums, by noise and untiring activity, by loud insistence and perseverance that anything in the way of reform is ever attained in this country or in any other.
In our village (Bearsted) the population, those at any rate who thought about things at all, were decidedly 'anti'. Mr. Lushington, the vicar, was getting on in life, and I don't think worried himself much about the matter. He certainly never expressed an opinion on the subject either in the pulpit or out of it. Against that his curate was violently anti-suffragist, and looked upon Mrs. Pankhurst and her adherents as something akin to female anti-Christs. (There were people like that in those days, both men and women.) He was practically in charge of the parish, and fired by the accounts in the Press of outrages perpetrated by the 'suffragettes', as they were called (including certain raids on London churches and demonstrations in Downing Street and Westminster), he organized a corps of day and night watchers, whose duty it was to guard the church and its approach, as well as the village green, against possible depredations.
We had spent Jack's Easter holidays in Switzerland and on our return found the whole village in a turmoil of excitement against the 'suffragettes'. Among other duties these watchers undertook the unpleasant task of ducking in the village pond all those women who attempted any demonstration or depredation of any sort or kind in the village. Thus were many men and women who declared themselves to be devoted to the cause of law and order, kept on the watch and out of their beds night after night. But no untoward incident had occurred up to now, and we were at the end of April. I imagine that gradually the zest for keeping watch o' nights-- with the likely pleasure of ducking one's political opponents in the village pond--had begun to cool down a bit.
Then came the great day of the cricket match, Bearsted versus Royal Marine depot. There was not a soul in the village or in any of the villages round who would not be present on that great occasion. There had even been a vague, if unconfirmed, rumour that Pelham Warner who had promised to come over and see the match, would give hundreds of spectators the delight of seeing him play--on which side and under what rules were not stated. We were giving a monster tea-party at Snowfield to all our friends and acquaintances and we had engaged the Royal Marine depot band from Deal to play on the green, where my secretary, and one or two of our old servants, would dispense tea and cakes in a tent in the intervals of play. The weather had been glorious for the past week and the barometer was behaving splendidly, as steady as a rock.
And lo! In the early morning Bearsted was confronted with an outrage as abominable as it was unexplainable. The village green was dotted all over with small flags each bearing the legend in bold, black lettering:
"NO VOTES FOR WOMEN, NO CRICKET FOR BEARSTED."
Who had perpetrated this gross offence against order and decency? Who had dared launch this flagrant menace and proclaim this insult against the whole population of Bearsted? The reaction was terrific. The villagers were up in arms. They patrolled every approach of the village green, armed with their scythes and their sickles and their spades. They cast longing eyes on the village pond into which they hoped to hurl those female miscreants as in the olden days witches were hurled till they drowned.
In Snowfield we know nothing. We guessed, but we did not know: nor did any of our servants with the exception of one who had perpetrated the outrage and he had done it by way of a joke. But who that one was we did not know till long afterwards. He was instigated and aided in the writing on the flags by my secretary, a nice girl, as quiet and simple and as a little mouse, but she worshipped at the shrine of Mrs. Pankhurst & Co. Anyway, though the menace was emphatic and categorical, nothing followed. Nothing happened. The cricket match was a great success (I forget which side won), so was the tea and so was the band; and all of us from Snowfield were able to go about with the air of complete innocence, for not one of us knew anything at all. I think that the man who felt the keenest disappointment in the whole affair was our poor curate, who had so looked forward to the delight of ducking a few militant suffragettes in the village pond.
I find it amusing to see in my dear one's small diary for that year (1913) that '2 aeroplanes passed over Bearsted on that eventful afternoon'.
Eldorado was published that year and I made a start on a book to which I had looked forward with immense joy for some time. This was Unto Cæsar, a romance of ancient Rome in the time of the Cæsars. I had spent many days and months--not to say years--of study of that fascinating epoch, and we had gone on a long holiday to Rome recently so as to enable me to consolidate the pictures which my mind had created of that magnificent period. My idea was to place in the midst of opulent, pagan, gorgeous Rome, a man in high position and therefore of influence who had been present in Jerusalem at the time of the death of our Lord, had in fact been an eye-witness of His death upon the Cross and had thereafter become a Christian. The likely reaction on a strong, dominating character after such an experience fascinated me and set me thinking, so did the contrast that presented itself to my mind of such a man's character and way of thinking, as against the thoughts and feelings of those who had been his close associates in the past in the service of the Cæsars; so did, above all, the idea of love for a woman to whom that which had altered the whole course of his life and had completely changed his character and his every thought would be only a mere incident not worthy of notice--just a very ordinary event, the punishment of a malefactor.
As in all my books the dominant idea for me was always character rather than story. I have always begun my books with the conception of a character and then built my romance round that. Unto Cæsar gave me immense pleasure to write: that book and By the Gods Beloved have always remained my favourite works--leaving The Scarlet Pimpernel as one apart from anything else I have ever done. In those books I could allow my imagination and my love for the picturesque to run absolutely riot. I am happy to say that both have been among the most popular, the most widely read, and the most frequently translated into European languages.
In this same still peaceful year I wrote The Laughing Cavalier, which was also one of the romances I most rejoiced in. There was no difficulty in creating this character. It was all there, glowing out of Hals' vivid and magnificent picture. All I had to do was to imagine what he would do, what adventures would befall him and above all how the serious business of love as well of political and religious conflict would affect him. The Laughing Cavalier was published the following year--the great year. But more of this anon.