The World Set Free
H.G. Wells [Herbert George Wells]
Part 2 out of 4
CHAPTER THE SECOND
THE LAST WAR
Viewed from the standpoint of a sane and ambitious social order,
it is difficult to understand, and it would be tedious to follow,
the motives that plunged mankind into the war that fills the
histories of the middle decades of the twentieth century.
It must always be remembered that the political structure of the
world at that time was everywhere extraordinarily behind the
collective intelligence. That is the central fact of that
history. For two hundred years there had been no great changes in
political or legal methods and pretensions, the utmost change had
been a certain shifting of boundaries and slight readjustment of
procedure, while in nearly every other aspect of life there had
been fundamental revolutions, gigantic releases, and an enormous
enlargement of scope and outlook. The absurdities of courts and
the indignities of representative parliamentary government,
coupled with the opening of vast fields of opportunity in other
directions, had withdrawn the best intelligences more and more
from public affairs. The ostensible governments of the world in
the twentieth century were following in the wake of the
ostensible religions. They were ceasing to command the services
of any but second-rate men. After the middle of the eighteenth
century there are no more great ecclesiastics upon the world's
memory, after the opening of the twentieth no more statesmen.
Everywhere one finds an energetic, ambitious, short-sighted,
common-place type in the seats of authority, blind to the new
possibilities and litigiously reliant upon the traditions of the
Perhaps the most dangerous of those outworn traditions were the
boundaries of the various 'sovereign states,' and the conception
of a general predominance in human affairs on the part of some
one particular state. The memory of the empires of Rome and
Alexander squatted, an unlaid carnivorous ghost, in the human
imagination--it bored into the human brain like some grisly
parasite and filled it with disordered thoughts and violent
impulses. For more than a century the French system exhausted
its vitality in belligerent convulsions, and then the infection
passed to the German-speaking peoples who were the heart and
centre of Europe, and from them onward to the Slavs. Later ages
were to store and neglect the vast insane literature of this
obsession, the intricate treaties, the secret agreements, the
infinite knowingness of the political writer, the cunning
refusals to accept plain facts, the strategic devices, the
tactical manoeuvres, the records of mobilisations and
counter-mobilisations. It ceased to be credible almost as soon as
it ceased to happen, but in the very dawn of the new age their
state craftsmen sat with their historical candles burning, and,
in spite of strange, new reflections and unfamiliar lights and
shadows, still wrangling and planning to rearrange the maps of
Europe and the world.
It was to become a matter for subtle inquiry how far the millions
of men and women outside the world of these specialists
sympathised and agreed with their portentous activities. One
school of psychologists inclined to minimise this participation,
but the balance of evidence goes to show that there were massive
responses to these suggestions of the belligerent schemer.
Primitive man had been a fiercely combative animal; innumerable
generations had passed their lives in tribal warfare, and the
weight of tradition, the example of history, the ideals of
loyalty and devotion fell in easily enough with the incitements
of the international mischief-maker. The political ideas of the
common man were picked up haphazard, there was practically
nothing in such education as he was given that was ever intended
to fit him for citizenship as such (that conception only
appeared, indeed, with the development of Modern State ideas),
and it was therefore a comparatively easy matter to fill his
vacant mind with the sounds and fury of exasperated suspicion and
For example, Barnet describes the London crowd as noisily
patriotic when presently his battalion came up from the depot to
London, to entrain for the French frontier. He tells of children
and women and lads and old men cheering and shouting, of the
streets and rows hung with the flags of the Allied Powers, of a
real enthusiasm even among the destitute and unemployed. The
Labour Bureaux were now partially transformed into enrolment
offices, and were centres of hotly patriotic excitement. At
every convenient place upon the line on either side of the
Channel Tunnel there were enthusiastic spectators, and the
feeling in the regiment, if a little stiffened and darkened by
grim anticipations, was none the less warlike.
But all this emotion was the fickle emotion of minds without
established ideas; it was with most of them, Barnet says, as it
was with himself, a natural response to collective movement, and
to martial sounds and colours, and the exhilarating challenge of
vague dangers. And people had been so long oppressed by the
threat of and preparation for war that its arrival came with an
effect of positive relief.
The plan of campaign of the Allies assigned the defence of the
lower Meuse to the English, and the troop-trains were run direct
from the various British depots to the points in the Ardennes
where they were intended to entrench themselves.
Most of the documents bearing upon the campaign were destroyed
during the war, from the first the scheme of the Allies seems to
have been confused, but it is highly probable that the formation
of an aerial park in this region, from which attacks could be
made upon the vast industrial plant of the lower Rhine, and a
flanking raid through Holland upon the German naval
establishments at the mouth of the Elbe, were integral parts of
the original project. Nothing of this was known to such pawns in
the game as Barnet and his company, whose business it was to do
what they were told by the mysterious intelligences at the
direction of things in Paris, to which city the Whitehall staff
had also been transferred. From first to last these directing
intelligences remained mysterious to the body of the army, veiled
under the name of 'Orders.' There was no Napoleon, no Caesar to
embody enthusiasm. Barnet says, 'We talked of Them. THEY are
sending us up into Luxembourg. THEY are going to turn the
Central European right.'
Behind the veil of this vagueness the little group of more or
less worthy men which constituted Headquarters was beginning to
realise the enormity of the thing it was supposed to control....
In the great hall of the War Control, whose windows looked out
across the Seine to the Trocadero and the palaces of the western
quarter, a series of big-scale relief maps were laid out upon
tables to display the whole seat of war, and the staff-officers
of the control were continually busy shifting the little blocks
which represented the contending troops, as the reports and
intelligence came drifting in to the various telegraphic bureaux
in the adjacent rooms. In other smaller apartments there were
maps of a less detailed sort, upon which, for example, the
reports of the British Admiralty and of the Slav commanders were
recorded as they kept coming to hand. Upon these maps, as upon
chessboards, Marshal Dubois, in consultation with General Viard
and the Earl of Delhi, was to play the great game for world
supremacy against the Central European powers. Very probably he
had a definite idea of his game; very probably he had a coherent
and admirable plan.
But he had reckoned without a proper estimate either of the new
strategy of aviation or of the possibilities of atomic energy
that Holsten had opened for mankind. While he planned
entrenchments and invasions and a frontier war, the Central
European generalship was striking at the eyes and the brain. And
while, with a certain diffident hesitation, he developed his
gambit that night upon the lines laid down by Napoleon and
Moltke, his own scientific corps in a state of mutinous activity
was preparing a blow for Berlin. 'These old fools!' was the key
in which the scientific corps was thinking.
The War Control in Paris, on the night of July the second, was an
impressive display of the paraphernalia of scientific military
organisation, as the first half of the twentieth century
understood it. To one human being at least the consulting
commanders had the likeness of world-wielding gods.
She was a skilled typist, capable of nearly sixty words a minute,
and she had been engaged in relay with other similar women to
take down orders in duplicate and hand them over to the junior
officers in attendance, to be forwarded and filed. There had
come a lull, and she had been sent out from the dictating room to
take the air upon the terrace before the great hall and to eat
such scanty refreshment as she had brought with her until her
services were required again.
From her position upon the terrace this young woman had a view
not only of the wide sweep of the river below her, and all the
eastward side of Paris from the Arc de Triomphe to Saint Cloud,
great blocks and masses of black or pale darkness with pink and
golden flashes of illumination and endless interlacing bands of
dotted lights under a still and starless sky, but also the whole
spacious interior of the great hall with its slender pillars and
gracious arching and clustering lamps was visible to her. There,
over a wilderness of tables, lay the huge maps, done on so large
a scale that one might fancy them small countries; the messengers
and attendants went and came perpetually, altering, moving the
little pieces that signified hundreds and thousands of men, and
the great commander and his two consultants stood amidst all
these things and near where the fighting was nearest, scheming,
directing. They had but to breathe a word and presently away
there, in the world of reality, the punctual myriads moved. Men
rose up and went forward and died. The fate of nations lay behind
the eyes of these three men. Indeed they were like gods.
Most godlike of the three was Dubois. It was for him to decide;
the others at most might suggest. Her woman's soul went out to
this grave, handsome, still, old man, in a passion of instinctive
Once she had taken words of instruction from him direct. She had
awaited them in an ecstasy of happiness--and fear. For her
exaltation was made terrible by the dread that some error might
She watched him now through the glass with all the unpenetrating
minuteness of an impassioned woman's observation.
He said little, she remarked. He looked but little at the maps.
The tall Englishman beside him was manifestly troubled by a swarm
of ideas, conflicting ideas; he craned his neck at every shifting
of the little red, blue, black, and yellow pieces on the board,
and wanted to draw the commander's attention to this and that.
Dubois listened, nodded, emitted a word and became still again,
brooding like the national eagle.
His eyes were so deeply sunken under his white eyebrows that she
could not see his eyes; his moustache overhung the mouth from
which those words of decision came. Viard, too, said little; he
was a dark man with a drooping head and melancholy, watchful
eyes. He was more intent upon the French right, which was feeling
its way now through Alsace to the Rhine. He was, she knew, an
old colleague of Dubois; he knew him better, she decided, he
trusted him more than this unfamiliar Englishman....
Not to talk, to remain impassive and as far as possible in
profile; these were the lessons that old Dubois had mastered
years ago. To seem to know all, to betray no surprise, to refuse
to hurry--itself a confession of miscalculation; by attention to
these simple rules, Dubois had built up a steady reputation from
the days when he had been a promising junior officer, a still,
almost abstracted young man, deliberate but ready. Even then men
had looked at him and said: 'He will go far.' Through fifty
years of peace he had never once been found wanting, and at
manoeuvres his impassive persistence had perplexed and hypnotised
and defeated many a more actively intelligent man. Deep in his
soul Dubois had hidden his one profound discovery about the
modern art of warfare, the key to his career. And this discovery
was that NOBODY KNEW, that to act therefore was to blunder, that
to talk was to confess; and that the man who acted slowly and
steadfastly and above all silently, had the best chance of
winning through. Meanwhile one fed the men. Now by this same
strategy he hoped to shatter those mysterious unknowns of the
Central European command. Delhi might talk of a great flank march
through Holland, with all the British submarines and hydroplanes
and torpedo craft pouring up the Rhine in support of it; Viard
might crave for brilliance with the motor bicycles, aeroplanes,
and ski-men among the Swiss mountains, and a sudden swoop upon
Vienna; the thing was to listen--and wait for the other side to
begin experimenting. It was all experimenting. And meanwhile he
remained in profile, with an air of assurance--like a man who
sits in an automobile after the chauffeur has had his directions.
And every one about him was the stronger and surer for that quiet
face, that air of knowledge and unruffled confidence. The
clustering lights threw a score of shadows of him upon the maps,
great bunches of him, versions of a commanding presence, lighter
or darker, dominated the field, and pointed in every direction.
Those shadows symbolised his control. When a messenger came from
the wireless room to shift this or that piece in the game, to
replace under amended reports one Central European regiment by a
score, to draw back or thrust out or distribute this or that
force of the Allies, the Marshal would turn his head and seem not
to see, or look and nod slightly, as a master nods who approves a
pupil's self-correction. 'Yes, that's better.'
How wonderful he was, thought the woman at the window, how
wonderful it all was. This was the brain of the western world,
this was Olympus with the warring earth at its feet. And he was
guiding France, France so long a resentful exile from
imperialism, back to her old predominance.
It seemed to her beyond the desert of a woman that she should be
privileged to participate....
It is hard to be a woman, full of the stormy impulse to personal
devotion, and to have to be impersonal, abstract, exact,
punctual. She must control herself....
She gave herself up to fantastic dreams, dreams of the days when
the war would be over and victory enthroned. Then perhaps this
harshness, this armour would be put aside and the gods might
unbend. Her eyelids drooped....
She roused herself with a start. She became aware that the night
outside was no longer still. That there was an excitement down
below on the bridge and a running in the street and a flickering
of searchlights among the clouds from some high place away beyond
the Trocadero. And then the excitement came surging up past her
and invaded the hall within.
One of the sentinels from the terrace stood at the upper end of
the room, gesticulating and shouting something.
And all the world had changed. A kind of throbbing. She couldn't
understand. It was as if all the water-pipes and concealed
machinery and cables of the ways beneath, were beating--as pulses
beat. And about her blew something like a wind--a wind that was
Her eyes went to the face of the Marshal as a frightened child
might look towards its mother.
He was still serene. He was frowning slightly, she thought, but
that was natural enough, for the Earl of Delhi, with one hand
gauntly gesticulating, had taken him by the arm and was all too
manifestly disposed to drag him towards the great door that
opened on the terrace. And Viard was hurrying towards the huge
windows and doing so in the strangest of attitudes, bent forward
and with eyes upturned.
Something up there?
And then it was as if thunder broke overhead.
The sound struck her like a blow. She crouched together against
the masonry and looked up. She saw three black shapes swooping
down through the torn clouds, and from a point a little below two
of them, there had already started curling trails of red....
Everything else in her being was paralysed, she hung through
moments that seemed infinities, watching those red missiles whirl
down towards her.
She felt torn out of the world. There was nothing else in the
world but a crimson-purple glare and sound, deafening,
all-embracing, continuing sound. Every other light had gone out
about her and against this glare hung slanting walls, pirouetting
pillars, projecting fragments of cornices, and a disorderly
flight of huge angular sheets of glass. She had an impression of
a great ball of crimson-purple fire like a maddened living thing
that seemed to be whirling about very rapidly amidst a chaos of
falling masonry, that seemed to be attacking the earth furiously,
that seemed to be burrowing into it like a blazing rabbit . . .
She had all the sensations of waking up out of a dream.
She found she was lying face downward on a bank of mould and that
a little rivulet of hot water was running over one foot. She
tried to raise herself and found her leg was very painful. She
was not clear whether it was night or day nor where she was; she
made a second effort, wincing and groaning, and turned over and
got into a sitting position and looked about her.
Everything seemed very silent. She was, in fact, in the midst of
a vast uproar, but she did not realise this because her hearing
had been destroyed.
At first she could not join on what she saw to any previous
She seemed to be in a strange world, a soundless, ruinous world,
a world of heaped broken things. And it was lit--and somehow
this was more familiar to her mind than any other fact about
her--by a flickering, purplish-crimson light. Then close to her,
rising above a confusion of debris, she recognised the Trocadero;
it was changed, something had gone from it, but its outline was
unmistakable. It stood out against a streaming, whirling uprush
of red-lit steam. And with that she recalled Paris and the Seine
and the warm, overcast evening and the beautiful, luminous
organisation of the War Control....
She drew herself a little way up the slope of earth on which she
lay, and examined her surroundings with an increasing
The earth on which she was lying projected like a cape into the
river. Quite close to her was a brimming lake of dammed-up water,
from which these warm rivulets and torrents were trickling. Wisps
of vapour came into circling existence a foot or so from its
mirror-surface. Near at hand and reflected exactly in the water
was the upper part of a familiar-looking stone pillar. On the
side of her away from the water the heaped ruins rose steeply in
a confused slope up to a glaring crest. Above and reflecting
this glare towered pillowed masses of steam rolling swiftly
upward to the zenith. It was from this crest that the livid glow
that lit the world about her proceeded, and slowly her mind
connected this mound with the vanished buildings of the War
'Mais!' she whispered, and remained with staring eyes quite
motionless for a time, crouching close to the warm earth.
Then presently this dim, broken human thing began to look about
it again. She began to feel the need of fellowship. She wanted
to question, wanted to speak, wanted to relate her experience.
And her foot hurt her atrociously. There ought to be an
ambulance. A little gust of querulous criticisms blew across her
mind. This surely was a disaster! Always after a disaster there
should be ambulances and helpers moving about....
She craned her head. There was something there. But everything
was so still!
'Monsieur!' she cried. Her ears, she noted, felt queer, and she
began to suspect that all was not well with them.
It was terribly lonely in this chaotic strangeness, and perhaps
this man--if it was a man, for it was difficult to see--might for
all his stillness be merely insensible. He might have been
The leaping glare beyond sent a ray into his corner and for a
moment every little detail was distinct. It was Marshal Dubois.
He was lying against a huge slab of the war map. To it there
stuck and from it there dangled little wooden objects, the
symbols of infantry and cavalry and guns, as they were disposed
upon the frontier. He did not seem to be aware of this at his
back, he had an effect of inattention, not indifferent attention,
but as if he were thinking....
She could not see the eyes beneath his shaggy brows, but it was
evident he frowned. He frowned slightly, he had an air of not
wanting to be disturbed. His face still bore that expression of
assured confidence, that conviction that if things were left to
him France might obey in security....
She did not cry out to him again, but she crept a little nearer.
A strange surmise made her eyes dilate. With a painful wrench
she pulled herself up so that she could see completely over the
intervening lumps of smashed-up masonry. Her hand touched
something wet, and after one convulsive movement she became
It was not a whole man there; it was a piece of a man, the head
and shoulders of a man that trailed down into a ragged darkness
and a pool of shining black....
And even as she stared the mound above her swayed and crumbled,
and a rush of hot water came pouring over her. Then it seemed to
her that she was dragged downward....
When the rather brutish young aviator with the bullet head and
the black hair close-cropped en brosse, who was in charge of the
French special scientific corps, heard presently of this disaster
to the War Control, he was so wanting in imagination in any
sphere but his own, that he laughed. Small matter to him that
Paris was burning. His mother and father and sister lived at
Caudebec; and the only sweetheart he had ever had, and it was
poor love-making then, was a girl in Rouen. He slapped his
second-in-command on the shoulder. 'Now,' he said, 'there's
nothing on earth to stop us going to Berlin and giving them
tit-for-tat.... Strategy and reasons of state--they're over....
Come along, my boy, and we'll just show these old women what we
can do when they let us have our heads.'
He spent five minutes telephoning and then he went out into the
courtyard of the chateau in which he had been installed and
shouted for his automobile. Things would have to move quickly
because there was scarcely an hour and a half before dawn. He
looked at the sky and noted with satisfaction a heavy bank of
clouds athwart the pallid east.
He was a young man of infinite shrewdness, and his material and
aeroplanes were scattered all over the country-side, stuck away
in barns, covered with hay, hidden in woods. A hawk could not
have discovered any of them without coming within reach of a gun.
But that night he only wanted one of the machines, and it was
handy and quite prepared under a tarpaulin between two ricks not
a couple of miles away; he was going to Berlin with that and just
one other man. Two men would be enough for what he meant to
He had in his hands the black complement to all those other gifts
science was urging upon unregenerate mankind, the gift of
destruction, and he was an adventurous rather than a sympathetic
He was a dark young man with something negroid about his gleaming
face. He smiled like one who is favoured and anticipates great
pleasures. There was an exotic richness, a chuckling flavour,
about the voice in which he gave his orders, and he pointed his
remarks with the long finger of a hand that was hairy and
'We'll give them tit-for-tat,' he said. 'We'll give them
tit-for-tat. No time to lose, boys....'
And presently over the cloud-banks that lay above Westphalia and
Saxony the swift aeroplane, with its atomic engine as noiseless
as a dancing sunbeam and its phosphorescent gyroscopic compass,
flew like an arrow to the heart of the Central European hosts.
It did not soar very high; it skimmed a few hundred feet above
the banked darknesses of cumulus that hid the world, ready to
plunge at once into their wet obscurities should some hostile
flier range into vision. The tense young steersman divided his
attention between the guiding stars above and the level, tumbled
surfaces of the vapour strata that hid the world below. Over
great spaces those banks lay as even as a frozen lava-flow and
almost as still, and then they were rent by ragged areas of
translucency, pierced by clear chasms, so that dim patches of the
land below gleamed remotely through abysses. Once he saw quite
distinctly the plan of a big railway station outlined in lamps
and signals, and once the flames of a burning rick showing livid
through a boiling drift of smoke on the side of some great hill.
But if the world was masked it was alive with sounds. Up through
that vapour floor came the deep roar of trains, the whistles of
horns of motor-cars, a sound of rifle fire away to the south, and
as he drew near his destination the crowing of cocks....
The sky above the indistinct horizons of this cloud sea was at
first starry and then paler with a light that crept from north to
east as the dawn came on. The Milky Way was invisible in the
blue, and the lesser stars vanished. The face of the adventurer
at the steering-wheel, darkly visible ever and again by the oval
greenish glow of the compass face, had something of that firm
beauty which all concentrated purpose gives, and something of the
happiness of an idiot child that has at last got hold of the
matches. His companion, a less imaginative type, sat with his
legs spread wide over the long, coffin-shaped box which contained
in its compartments the three atomic bombs, the new bombs that
would continue to explode indefinitely and which no one so far
had ever seen in action. Hitherto Carolinum, their essential
substance, had been tested only in almost infinitesimal
quantities within steel chambers embedded in lead. Beyond the
thought of great destruction slumbering in the black spheres
between his legs, and a keen resolve to follow out very exactly
the instructions that had been given him, the man's mind was a
blank. His aquiline profile against the starlight expressed
nothing but a profound gloom.
The sky below grew clearer as the Central European capital was
So far they had been singularly lucky and had been challenged by
no aeroplanes at all. The frontier scouts they must have passed
in the night; probably these were mostly under the clouds; the
world was wide and they had had luck in not coming close to any
soaring sentinel. Their machine was painted a pale gray, that
lay almost invisibly over the cloud levels below. But now the
east was flushing with the near ascent of the sun, Berlin was but
a score of miles ahead, and the luck of the Frenchmen held. By
imperceptible degrees the clouds below dissolved....
Away to the north-eastward, in a cloudless pool of gathering
light and with all its nocturnal illuminations still blazing, was
Berlin. The left finger of the steersman verified roads and open
spaces below upon the mica-covered square of map that was
fastened by his wheel. There in a series of lake-like expansions
was the Havel away to the right; over by those forests must be
Spandau; there the river split about the Potsdam island; and
right ahead was Charlottenburg cleft by a great thoroughfare that
fell like an indicating beam of light straight to the imperial
headquarters. There, plain enough, was the Thiergarten; beyond
rose the imperial palace, and to the right those tall buildings,
those clustering, beflagged, bemasted roofs, must be the offices
in which the Central European staff was housed. It was all coldly
clear and colourless in the dawn.
He looked up suddenly as a humming sound grew out of nothing and
became swiftly louder. Nearly overhead a German aeroplane was
circling down from an immense height to challenge him. He made a
gesture with his left arm to the gloomy man behind and then
gripped his little wheel with both hands, crouched over it, and
twisted his neck to look upward. He was attentive, tightly
strung, but quite contemptuous of their ability to hurt him. No
German alive, he was assured, could outfly him, or indeed any one
of the best Frenchmen. He imagined they might strike at him as a
hawk strikes, but they were men coming down out of the bitter
cold up there, in a hungry, spiritless, morning mood; they came
slanting down like a sword swung by a lazy man, and not so
rapidly but that he was able to slip away from under them and get
between them and Berlin. They began challenging him in German
with a megaphone when they were still perhaps a mile away. The
words came to him, rolled up into a mere blob of hoarse sound.
Then, gathering alarm from his grim silence, they gave chase and
swept down, a hundred yards above him perhaps, and a couple of
hundred behind. They were beginning to understand what he was.
He ceased to watch them and concentrated himself on the city
ahead, and for a time the two aeroplanes raced....
A bullet came tearing through the air by him, as though some one
was tearing paper. A second followed. Something tapped the
It was time to act. The broad avenues, the park, the palaces
below rushed widening out nearer and nearer to them. 'Ready!'
said the steersman.
The gaunt face hardened to grimness, and with both hands the
bomb-thrower lifted the big atomic bomb from the box and steadied
it against the side. It was a black sphere two feet in diameter.
Between its handles was a little celluloid stud, and to this he
bent his head until his lips touched it. Then he had to bite in
order to let the air in upon the inducive. Sure of its
accessibility, he craned his neck over the side of the aeroplane
and judged his pace and distance. Then very quickly he bent
forward, bit the stud, and hoisted the bomb over the side.
'Round,' he whispered inaudibly.
The bomb flashed blinding scarlet in mid-air, and fell, a
descending column of blaze eddying spirally in the midst of a
whirlwind. Both the aeroplanes were tossed like shuttlecocks,
hurled high and sideways and the steersman, with gleaming eyes
and set teeth, fought in great banking curves for a balance. The
gaunt man clung tight with hand and knees; his nostrils dilated,
his teeth biting his lips. He was firmly strapped....
When he could look down again it was like looking down upon the
crater of a small volcano. In the open garden before the
Imperial castle a shuddering star of evil splendour spurted and
poured up smoke and flame towards them like an accusation. They
were too high to distinguish people clearly, or mark the bomb's
effect upon the building until suddenly the facade tottered and
crumbled before the flare as sugar dissolves in water. The man
stared for a moment, showed all his long teeth, and then
staggered into the cramped standing position his straps
permitted, hoisted out and bit another bomb, and sent it down
after its fellow.
The explosion came this time more directly underneath the
aeroplane and shot it upward edgeways. The bomb box tipped to
the point of disgorgement, and the bomb-thrower was pitched
forward upon the third bomb with his face close to its celluloid
stud. He clutched its handles, and with a sudden gust of
determination that the thing should not escape him, bit its stud.
Before he could hurl it over, the monoplane was slipping
sideways. Everything was falling sideways. Instinctively he gave
himself up to gripping, his body holding the bomb in its place.
Then that bomb had exploded also, and steersman, thrower, and
aeroplane were just flying rags and splinters of metal and drops
of moisture in the air, and a third column of fire rushed eddying
down upon the doomed buildings below....
Never before in the history of warfare had there been a
continuing explosive; indeed, up to the middle of the twentieth
century the only explosives known were combustibles whose
explosiveness was due entirely to their instantaneousness; and
these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night
were strange even to the men who used them. Those used by the
Allies were lumps of pure Carolinum, painted on the outside with
unoxidised cydonator inducive enclosed hermetically in a case of
membranium. A little celluloid stud between the handles by which
the bomb was lifted was arranged so as to be easily torn off and
admit air to the inducive, which at once became active and set up
radio-activity in the outer layer of the Carolinum sphere. This
liberated fresh inducive, and so in a few minutes the whole bomb
was a blazing continual explosion. The Central European bombs
were the same, except that they were larger and had a more
complicated arrangement for animating the inducive.
Always before in the development of warfare the shells and
rockets fired had been but momentarily explosive, they had gone
off in an instant once for all, and if there was nothing living
or valuable within reach of the concussion and the flying
fragments then they were spent and over. But Carolinum, which
belonged to the beta group of Hyslop's so-called 'suspended
degenerator' elements, once its degenerative process had been
induced, continued a furious radiation of energy and nothing
could arrest it. Of all Hyslop's artificial elements, Carolinum
was the most heavily stored with energy and the most dangerous to
make and handle. To this day it remains the most potent
degenerator known. What the earlier twentieth-century chemists
called its half period was seventeen days; that is to say, it
poured out half of the huge store of energy in its great
molecules in the space of seventeen days, the next seventeen
days' emission was a half of that first period's outpouring, and
so on. As with all radio-active substances this Carolinum,
though every seventeen days its power is halved, though
constantly it diminishes towards the imperceptible, is never
entirely exhausted, and to this day the battle-fields and bomb
fields of that frantic time in human history are sprinkled with
radiant matter, and so centres of inconvenient rays.
What happened when the celluloid stud was opened was that the
inducive oxidised and became active. Then the surface of the
Carolinum began to degenerate. This degeneration passed only
slowly into the substance of the bomb. A moment or so after its
explosion began it was still mainly an inert sphere exploding
superficially, a big, inanimate nucleus wrapped in flame and
thunder. Those that were thrown from aeroplanes fell in this
state, they reached the ground still mainly solid, and, melting
soil and rock in their progress, bored into the earth. There, as
more and more of the Carolinum became active, the bomb spread
itself out into a monstrous cavern of fiery energy at the base of
what became very speedily a miniature active volcano. The
Carolinum, unable to disperse, freely drove into and mixed up
with a boiling confusion of molten soil and superheated steam,
and so remained spinning furiously and maintaining an eruption
that lasted for years or months or weeks according to the size of
the bomb employed and the chances of its dispersal. Once
launched, the bomb was absolutely unapproachable and
uncontrollable until its forces were nearly exhausted, and from
the crater that burst open above it, puffs of heavy incandescent
vapour and fragments of viciously punitive rock and mud,
saturated with Carolinum, and each a centre of scorching and
blistering energy, were flung high and far.
Such was the crowning triumph of military science, the ultimate
explosive that was to give the 'decisive touch' to war....
A recent historical writer has described the world of that time
as one that 'believed in established words and was invincibly
blind to the obvious in things.' Certainly it seems now that
nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier
twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming
impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not
see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands. Yet
the broad facts must have glared upon any intelligent mind. All
through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the amount of
energy that men were able to command was continually increasing.
Applied to warfare that meant that the power to inflict a blow,
the power to destroy, was continually increasing. There was no
increase whatever in the ability to escape. Every sort of
passive defence, armour, fortifications, and so forth, was being
outmastered by this tremendous increase on the destructive side.
Destruction was becoming so facile that any little body of
malcontents could use it; it was revolutionising the problems of
police and internal rule. Before the last war began it was a
matter of common knowledge that a man could carry about in a
handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a
city. These facts were before the minds of everybody; the
children in the streets knew them. And yet the world still, as
the Americans used to phrase it, 'fooled around' with the
paraphernalia and pretensions of war.
It is only by realising this profound, this fantastic divorce
between the scientific and intellectual movement on the one hand,
and the world of the lawyer-politician on the other, that the men
of a later time can hope to understand this preposterous state of
affairs. Social organisation was still in the barbaric stage.
There were already great numbers of actively intelligent men and
much private and commercial civilisation, but the community, as a
whole, was aimless, untrained and unorganised to the pitch of
imbecility. Collective civilisation, the 'Modern State,' was
still in the womb of the future....
But let us return to Frederick Barnet's Wander Jahre and its
account of the experiences of a common man during the war time.
While these terrific disclosures of scientific possibility were
happening in Paris and Berlin, Barnet and his company were
industriously entrenching themselves in Belgian Luxembourg.
He tells of the mobilisation and of his summer day's journey
through the north of France and the Ardennes in a few vivid
phrases. The country was browned by a warm summer, the trees a
little touched with autumnal colour, and the wheat already
golden. When they stopped for an hour at Hirson, men and women
with tricolour badges upon the platform distributed cakes and
glasses of beer to the thirsty soldiers, and there was much
cheerfulness. 'Such good, cool beer it was,' he wrote. 'I had
had nothing to eat nor drink since Epsom.'
A number of monoplanes, 'like giant swallows,' he notes, were
scouting in the pink evening sky.
Barnet's battalion was sent through the Sedan country to a place
called Virton, and thence to a point in the woods on the line to
Jemelle. Here they detrained, bivouacked uneasily by the
railway--trains and stores were passing along it all night--and
next morning he: marched eastward through a cold, overcast dawn,
and a morning, first cloudy and then blazing, over a large
spacious country-side interspersed by forest towards Arlon.
There the infantry were set to work upon a line of masked
entrenchments and hidden rifle pits between St Hubert and Virton
that were designed to check and delay any advance from the east
upon the fortified line of the Meuse. They had their orders, and
for two days they worked without either a sight of the enemy or
any suspicion of the disaster that had abruptly decapitated the
armies of Europe, and turned the west of Paris and the centre of
Berlin into blazing miniatures of the destruction of Pompeii.
And the news, when it did come, came attenuated. 'We heard there
had been mischief with aeroplanes and bombs in Paris,' Barnet
relates; 'but it didn't seem to follow that "They" weren't still
somewhere elaborating their plans and issuing orders. When the
enemy began to emerge from the woods in front of us, we cheered
and blazed away, and didn't trouble much more about anything but
the battle in hand. If now and then one cocked up an eye into the
sky to see what was happening there, the rip of a bullet soon
brought one down to the horizontal again....
That battle went on for three days all over a great stretch of
country between Louvain on the north and Longwy to the south. It
was essentially a rifle and infantry struggle. The aeroplanes do
not seem to have taken any decisive share in the actual fighting
for some days, though no doubt they effected the strategy from
the first by preventing surprise movements. They were aeroplanes
with atomic engines, but they were not provided with atomic
bombs, which were manifestly unsuitable for field use, nor indeed
had they any very effective kind of bomb. And though they
manoeuvred against each other, and there was rifle shooting at
them and between them, there was little actual aerial fighting.
Either the airmen were indisposed to fight or the commanders on
both sides preferred to reserve these machines for scouting....
After a day or so of digging and scheming, Barnet found himself
in the forefront of a battle. He had made his section of rifle
pits chiefly along a line of deep dry ditch that gave a means of
inter-communication, he had had the earth scattered over the
adjacent field, and he had masked his preparations with tussocks
of corn and poppy. The hostile advance came blindly and
unsuspiciously across the fields below and would have been very
cruelly handled indeed, if some one away to the right had not
opened fire too soon.
'It was a queer thrill when these fellows came into sight,' he
confesses; 'and not a bit like manoeuvres. They halted for a
time on the edge of the wood and then came forward in an open
line. They kept walking nearer to us and not looking at us, but
away to the right of us. Even when they began to be hit, and
their officers' whistles woke them up, they didn't seem to see
us. One or two halted to fire, and then they all went back
towards the wood again. They went slowly at first, looking round
at us, then the shelter of the wood seemed to draw them, and they
trotted. I fired rather mechanically and missed, then I fired
again, and then I became earnest to hit something, made sure of
my sighting, and aimed very carefully at a blue back that was
dodging about in the corn. At first I couldn't satisfy myself
and didn't shoot, his movements were so spasmodic and uncertain;
then I think he came to a ditch or some such obstacle and halted
for a moment. "GOT you," I whispered, and pulled the trigger.
'I had the strangest sensations about that man. In the first
instance, when I felt that I had hit him I was irradiated with
joy and pride....
'I sent him spinning. He jumped and threw up his arms....
'Then I saw the corn tops waving and had glimpses of him flapping
about. Suddenly I felt sick. I hadn't killed him....
'In some way he was disabled and smashed up and yet able to
struggle about. I began to think....
'For nearly two hours that Prussian was agonising in the corn.
Either he was calling out or some one was shouting to him....
'Then he jumped up--he seemed to try to get up upon his feet with
one last effort; and then he fell like a sack and lay quite still
and never moved again.
'He had been unendurable, and I believe some one had shot him
dead. I had been wanting to do so for some time....'
The enemy began sniping the rifle pits from shelters they made
for themselves in the woods below. A man was hit in the pit next
to Barnet, and began cursing and crying out in a violent rage.
Barnet crawled along the ditch to him and found him in great
pain, covered with blood, frantic with indignation, and with the
half of his right hand smashed to a pulp. 'Look at this,' he
kept repeating, hugging it and then extending it. 'Damned
foolery! Damned foolery! My right hand, sir! My right hand!'
For some time Barnet could do nothing with him. The man was
consumed by his tortured realisation of the evil silliness of
war, the realisation which had come upon him in a flash with the
bullet that had destroyed his skill and use as an artificer for
ever. He was looking at the vestiges with a horror that made him
impenetrable to any other idea. At last the poor wretch let
Barnet tie up his bleeding stump and help him along the ditch
that conducted him deviously out of range....
When Barnet returned his men were already calling out for water,
and all day long the line of pits suffered greatly from thirst.
For food they had chocolate and bread.
'At first,' he says, 'I was extraordinarily excited by my baptism
of fire. Then as the heat of the day came on I experienced an
enormous tedium and discomfort. The flies became extremely
troublesome, and my little grave of a rifle pit was invaded by
ants. I could not get up or move about, for some one in the trees
had got a mark on me. I kept thinking of the dead Prussian down
among the corn, and of the bitter outcries of my own man. Damned
foolery! It WAS damned foolery. But who was to blame? How had
we got to this? . . .
'Early in the afternoon an aeroplane tried to dislodge us with
dynamite bombs, but she was hit by bullets once or twice, and
suddenly dived down over beyond the trees.
' "From Holland to the Alps this day," I thought, "there must be
crouching and lying between half and a million of men, trying to
inflict irreparable damage upon one another. The thing is idiotic
to the pitch of impossibility. It is a dream. Presently I shall
wake up." . . .
'Then the phrase changed itself in my mind. "Presently mankind
will wake up."
'I lay speculating just how many thousands of men there were
among these hundreds of thousands, whose spirits were in
rebellion against all these ancient traditions of flag and
empire. Weren't we, perhaps, already in the throes of the last
crisis, in that darkest moment of a nightmare's horror before the
sleeper will endure no more of it--and wakes?
'I don't know how my speculations ended. I think they were not
so much ended as distracted by the distant thudding of the guns
that were opening fire at long range upon Namur.'
But as yet Barnet had seen no more than the mildest beginnings of
modern warfare. So far he had taken part only in a little
shooting. The bayonet attack by which the advanced line was
broken was made at a place called Croix Rouge, more than twenty
miles away, and that night under cover of the darkness the rifle
pits were abandoned and he got his company away without further
His regiment fell back unpressed behind the fortified lines
between Namur and Sedan, entrained at a station called Mettet,
and was sent northward by Antwerp and Rotterdam to Haarlem.
Hence they marched into North Holland. It was only after the
march into Holland that he began to realise the monstrous and
catastrophic nature of the struggle in which he was playing his
He describes very pleasantly the journey through the hills and
open land of Brabant, the repeated crossing of arms of the Rhine,
and the change from the undulating scenery of Belgium to the
flat, rich meadows, the sunlit dyke roads, and the countless
windmills of the Dutch levels. In those days there was unbroken
land from Alkmaar and Leiden to the Dollart. Three great
provinces, South Holland, North Holland, and Zuiderzeeland,
reclaimed at various times between the early tenth century and
1945 and all many feet below the level of the waves outside the
dykes, spread out their lush polders to the northern sun and
sustained a dense industrious population. An intricate web of
laws and custom and tradition ensured a perpetual vigilance and a
perpetual defence against the beleaguering sea. For more than two
hundred and fifty miles from Walcheren to Friesland stretched a
line of embankments and pumping stations that was the admiration
of the world.
If some curious god had chosen to watch the course of events in
those northern provinces while that flanking march of the British
was in progress, he would have found a convenient and appropriate
seat for his observation upon one of the great cumulus clouds
that were drifting slowly across the blue sky during all these
eventful days before the great catastrophe. For that was the
quality of the weather, hot and clear, with something of a
breeze, and underfoot dry and a little inclined to be dusty. This
watching god would have looked down upon broad stretches of
sunlit green, sunlit save for the creeping patches of shadow cast
by the clouds, upon sky-reflecting meres, fringed and divided up
by masses of willow and large areas of silvery weeds, upon white
roads lying bare to the sun and upon a tracery of blue canals.
The pastures were alive with cattle, the roads had a busy
traffic, of beasts and bicycles and gaily coloured peasants'
automobiles, the hues of the innumerable motor barges in the
canal vied with the eventfulness of the roadways; and everywhere
in solitary steadings, amidst ricks and barns, in groups by the
wayside, in straggling villages, each with its fine old church,
or in compact towns laced with canals and abounding in bridges
and clipped trees, were human habitations.
The people of this country-side were not belligerents. The
interests and sympathies alike of Holland had been so divided
that to the end she remained undecided and passive in the
struggle of the world powers. And everywhere along the roads
taken by the marching armies clustered groups and crowds of
impartially observant spectators, women and children in peculiar
white caps and old-fashioned sabots, and elderly, clean-shaven
men quietly thoughtful over their long pipes. They had no fear of
their invaders; the days when 'soldiering' meant bands of
licentious looters had long since passed away....
That watcher among the clouds would have seen a great
distribution of khaki-uniformed men and khaki-painted material
over the whole of the sunken area of Holland. He would have
marked the long trains, packed with men or piled with great guns
and war material, creeping slowly, alert for train-wreckers,
along the north-going lines; he would have seen the Scheldt and
Rhine choked with shipping, and pouring out still more men and
still more material; he would have noticed halts and
provisionings and detrainments, and the long, bustling
caterpillars of cavalry and infantry, the maggot-like wagons, the
huge beetles of great guns, crawling under the poplars along the
dykes and roads northward, along ways lined by the neutral,
unmolested, ambiguously observant Dutch. All the barges and
shipping upon the canals had been requisitioned for transport. In
that clear, bright, warm weather, it would all have looked from
above like some extravagant festival of animated toys.
As the sun sank westward the spectacle must have become a little
indistinct because of a golden haze; everything must have become
warmer and more glowing, and because of the lengthening of the
shadows more manifestly in relief. The shadows of the tall
churches grew longer and longer, until they touched the horizon
and mingled in the universal shadow; and then, slow, and soft,
and wrapping the world in fold after fold of deepening blue, came
the night--the night at first obscurely simple, and then with
faint points here and there, and then jewelled in darkling
splendour with a hundred thousand lights. Out of that mingling of
darkness and ambiguous glares the noise of an unceasing activity
would have arisen, the louder and plainer now because there was
no longer any distraction of sight.
It may be that watcher drifting in the pellucid gulf beneath the
stars watched all through the night; it may be that he dozed. But
if he gave way to so natural a proclivity, assuredly on the
fourth night of the great flank march he was aroused, for that
was the night of the battle in the air that decided the fate of
Holland. The aeroplanes were fighting at last, and suddenly
about him, above and below, with cries and uproar rushing out of
the four quarters of heaven, striking, plunging, oversetting,
soaring to the zenith and dropping to the ground, they came to
assail or defend the myriads below.
Secretly the Central European power had gathered his flying
machines together, and now he threw them as a giant might fling a
handful of ten thousand knives over the low country. And amidst
that swarming flight were five that drove headlong for the sea
walls of Holland, carrying atomic bombs. From north and west and
south, the allied aeroplanes rose in response and swept down upon
this sudden attack. So it was that war in the air began. Men
rode upon the whirlwind that night and slew and fell like
archangels. The sky rained heroes upon the astonished earth.
Surely the last fights of mankind were the best. What was the
heavy pounding of your Homeric swordsmen, what was the creaking
charge of chariots, beside this swift rush, this crash, this
giddy triumph, this headlong swoop to death?
And then athwart this whirling rush of aerial duels that swooped
and locked and dropped in the void between the lamp-lights and
the stars, came a great wind and a crash louder than thunder, and
first one and then a score of lengthening fiery serpents plunged
hungrily down upon the Dutchmen's dykes and struck between land
and sea and flared up again in enormous columns of glare and
crimsoned smoke and steam.
And out of the darkness leapt the little land, with its spires
and trees, aghast with terror, still and distinct, and the sea,
tumbled with anger, red-foaming like a sea of blood....
Over the populous country below went a strange multitudinous
crying and a flurry of alarm bells... .
The surviving aeroplanes turned about and fled out of the sky,
like things that suddenly know themselves to be wicked....
Through a dozen thunderously flaming gaps that no water might
quench, the waves came roaring in upon the land....
'We had cursed our luck,' says Barnet, 'that we could not get to
our quarters at Alkmaar that night. There, we were told, were
provisions, tobacco, and everything for which we craved. But the
main canal from Zaandam and Amsterdam was hopelessly jammed with
craft, and we were glad of a chance opening that enabled us to
get out of the main column and lie up in a kind of little harbour
very much neglected and weedgrown before a deserted house. We
broke into this and found some herrings in a barrel, a heap of
cheeses, and stone bottles of gin in the cellar; and with this I
cheered my starving men. We made fires and toasted the cheese and
grilled our herrings. None of us had slept for nearly forty
hours, and I determined to stay in this refuge until dawn and
then if the traffic was still choked leave the barge and march
the rest of the way into Alkmaar.
'This place we had got into was perhaps a hundred yards from the
canal and underneath a little brick bridge we could see the
flotilla still, and hear the voices of the soldiers. Presently
five or six other barges came through and lay up in the meer near
by us, and with two of these, full of men of the Antrim regiment,
I shared my find of provisions. In return we got tobacco. A
large expanse of water spread to the westward of us and beyond
were a cluster of roofs and one or two church towers. The barge
was rather cramped for so many men, and I let several squads,
thirty or forty perhaps altogether, bivouac on the bank. I did
not let them go into the house on account of the furniture, and I
left a note of indebtedness for the food we had taken. We were
particularly glad of our tobacco and fires, because of the
numerous mosquitoes that rose about us.
'The gate of the house from which we had provisioned ourselves
was adorned with the legend, Vreugde bij Vrede, "Joy with Peace,"
and it bore every mark of the busy retirement of a comfort-loving
proprietor. I went along his garden, which was gay and delightful
with big bushes of rose and sweet brier, to a quaint little
summer-house, and there I sat and watched the men in groups
cooking and squatting along the bank. The sun was setting in a
nearly cloudless sky.
'For the last two weeks I had been a wholly occupied man, intent
only upon obeying the orders that came down to me. All through
this time I had been working to the very limit of my mental and
physical faculties, and my only moments of rest had been devoted
to snatches of sleep. Now came this rare, unexpected interlude,
and I could look detachedly upon what I was doing and feel
something of its infinite wonderfulness. I was irradiated with
affection for the men of my company and with admiration at their
cheerful acquiescence in the subordination and needs of our
positions. I watched their proceedings and heard their pleasant
voices. How willing those men were! How ready to accept
leadership and forget themselves in collective ends! I thought
how manfully they had gone through all the strains and toil of
the last two weeks, how they had toughened and shaken down to
comradeship together, and how much sweetness there is after all
in our foolish human blood. For they were just one casual sample
of the species--their patience and readiness lay, as the energy
of the atom had lain, still waiting to be properly utilised.
Again it came to me with overpowering force that the supreme need
of our race is leading, that the supreme task is to discover
leading, to forget oneself in realising the collective purpose of
the race. Once more I saw life plain....'
Very characteristic is that of the 'rather too corpulent' young
officer, who was afterwards to set it all down in the Wander
Jahre. Very characteristic, too, it is of the change in men's
hearts that was even then preparing a new phase of human history.
He goes on to write of the escape from individuality in science
and service, and of his discovery of this 'salvation.' All that
was then, no doubt, very moving and original; now it seems only
the most obvious commonplace of human life.
The glow of the sunset faded, the twilight deepened into night.
The fires burnt the brighter, and some Irishmen away across the
meer started singing. But Barnet's men were too weary for that
sort of thing, and soon the bank and the barge were heaped with
'I alone seemed unable to sleep. I suppose I was over-weary, and
after a little feverish slumber by the tiller of the barge I sat
up, awake and uneasy....
'That night Holland seemed all sky. There was just a little
black lower rim to things, a steeple, perhaps, or a line of
poplars, and then the great hemisphere swept over us. As at
first the sky was empty. Yet my uneasiness referred itself in
some vague way to the sky.
'And now I was melancholy. I found something strangely sorrowful
and submissive in the sleepers all about me, those men who had
marched so far, who had left all the established texture of their
lives behind them to come upon this mad campaign, this campaign
that signified nothing and consumed everything, this mere fever
of fighting. I saw how little and feeble is the life of man, a
thing of chances, preposterously unable to find the will to
realise even the most timid of its dreams. And I wondered if
always it would be so, if man was a doomed animal who would never
to the last days of his time take hold of fate and change it to
his will. Always, it may be, he will remain kindly but jealous,
desirous but discursive, able and unwisely impulsive, until
Saturn who begot him shall devour him in his turn....
'I was roused from these thoughts by the sudden realisation of
the presence of a squadron of aeroplanes far away to the
north-east and very high. They looked like little black dashes
against the midnight blue. I remember that I looked up at them at
first rather idly--as one might notice a flight of birds. Then I
perceived that they were only the extreme wing of a great fleet
that was advancing in a long line very swiftly from the direction
of the frontier and my attention tightened.
'Directly I saw that fleet I was astonished not to have seen it
'I stood up softly, undesirous of disturbing my companions, but
with my heart beating now rather more rapidly with surprise and
excitement. I strained my ears for any sound of guns along our
front. Almost instinctively I turned about for protection to the
south and west, and peered; and then I saw coming as fast and
much nearer to me, as if they had sprung out of the darkness,
three banks of aeroplanes; a group of squadrons very high, a main
body at a height perhaps of one or two thousand feet, and a
doubtful number flying low and very indistinct. The middle ones
were so thick they kept putting out groups of stars. And I
realised that after all there was to be fighting in the air.
'There was something extraordinarily strange in this swift,
noiseless convergence of nearly invisible combatants above the
sleeping hosts. Every one about me was still unconscious; there
was no sign as yet of any agitation among the shipping on the
main canal, whose whole course, dotted with unsuspicious lights
and fringed with fires, must have been clearly perceptible from
above. Then a long way off towards Alkmaar I heard bugles, and
after that shots, and then a wild clamour of bells. I determined
to let my men sleep on for as long as they could....
'The battle was joined with the swiftness of dreaming. I do not
think it can have been five minutes from the moment when I first
became aware of the Central European air fleet to the contact of
the two forces. I saw it quite plainly in silhouette against the
luminous blue of the northern sky. The allied aeroplanes--they
were mostly French--came pouring down like a fierce shower upon
the middle of the Central European fleet. They looked exactly
like a coarser sort of rain. There was a crackling sound--the
first sound I heard--it reminded one of the Aurora Borealis, and
I supposed it was an interchange of rifle shots. There were
flashes like summer lightning; and then all the sky became a
whirling confusion of battle that was still largely noiseless.
Some of the Central European aeroplanes were certainly charged
and overset; others seemed to collapse and fall and then flare
out with so bright a light that it took the edge off one's vision
and made the rest of the battle disappear as though it had been
snatched back out of sight.
'And then, while I still peered and tried to shade these flames
from my eyes with my hand, and while the men about me were
beginning to stir, the atomic bombs were thrown at the dykes.
They made a mighty thunder in the air, and fell like Lucifer in
the picture, leaving a flaring trail in the sky. The night,
which had been pellucid and detailed and eventful, seemed to
vanish, to be replaced abruptly by a black background to these
tremendous pillars of fire....
'Hard upon the sound of them came a roaring wind, and the sky was
filled with flickering lightnings and rushing clouds....
'There was something discontinuous in this impact. At one moment
I was a lonely watcher in a sleeping world; the next saw every
one about me afoot, the whole world awake and amazed....
'And then the wind had struck me a buffet, taken my helmet and
swept aside the summerhouse of Vreugde bij Vrede, as a scythe
sweeps away grass. I saw the bombs fall, and then watched a great
crimson flare leap responsive to each impact, and mountainous
masses of red-lit steam and flying fragments clamber up towards
the zenith. Against the glare I saw the country-side for miles
standing black and clear, churches, trees, chimneys. And
suddenly I understood. The Central Europeans had burst the dykes.
Those flares meant the bursting of the dykes, and in a little
while the sea-water would be upon us....'
He goes on to tell with a certain prolixity of the steps he
took--and all things considered they were very intelligent
steps--to meet this amazing crisis. He got his men aboard and
hailed the adjacent barges; he got the man who acted as barge
engineer at his post and the engines working, he cast loose from
his moorings. Then he bethought himself of food, and contrived to
land five men, get in a few dozen cheeses, and ship his men again
before the inundation reached them.
He is reasonably proud of this piece of coolness. His idea was
to take the wave head-on and with his engines full speed ahead.
And all the while he was thanking heaven he was not in the jam of
traffic in the main canal. He rather, I think, overestimated the
probable rush of waters; he dreaded being swept away, he
explains, and smashed against houses and trees.
He does not give any estimate of the time it took between the
bursting of the dykes and the arrival of the waters, but it was
probably an interval of about twenty minutes or half an hour. He
was working now in darkness--save for the light of his
lantern--and in a great wind. He hung out head and stern
Whirling torrents of steam were pouring up from the advancing
waters, which had rushed, it must be remembered, through nearly
incandescent gaps in the sea defences, and this vast uprush of
vapour soon veiled the flaring centres of explosion altogether.
'The waters came at last, an advancing cascade. It was like a
broad roller sweeping across the country. They came with a deep,
roaring sound. I had expected a Niagara, but the total fall of
the front could not have been much more than twelve feet. Our
barge hesitated for a moment, took a dose over her bows, and then
lifted. I signalled for full speed ahead and brought her head
upstream, and held on like grim death to keep her there.
'There was a wind about as strong as the flood, and I found we
were pounding against every conceivable buoyant object that had
been between us and the sea. The only light in the world now
came from our lamps, the steam became impenetrable at a score of
yards from the boat, and the roar of the wind and water cut us
off from all remoter sounds. The black, shining waters swirled
by, coming into the light of our lamps out of an ebony blackness
and vanishing again into impenetrable black. And on the waters
came shapes, came things that flashed upon us for a moment, now a
half-submerged boat, now a cow, now a huge fragment of a house's
timberings, now a muddle of packing-cases and scaffolding. The
things clapped into sight like something shown by the opening of
a shutter, and then bumped shatteringly against us or rushed by
us. Once I saw very clearly a man's white face....
'All the while a group of labouring, half-submerged trees
remained ahead of us, drawing very slowly nearer. I steered a
course to avoid them. They seemed to gesticulate a frantic
despair against the black steam clouds behind. Once a great
branch detached itself and tore shuddering by me. We did, on the
whole, make headway. The last I saw of Vreugde bij Vrede before
the night swallowed it, was almost dead astern of us....'
Morning found Barnet still afloat. The bows of his barge had
been badly strained, and his men were pumping or baling in
relays. He had got about a dozen half-drowned people aboard whose
boat had capsized near him, and he had three other boats in tow.
He was afloat, and somewhere between Amsterdam and Alkmaar, but
he could not tell where. It was a day that was still half night.
Gray waters stretched in every direction under a dark gray sky,
and out of the waves rose the upper parts of houses, in many
cases ruined, the tops of trees, windmills, in fact the upper
third of all the familiar Dutch scenery; and on it there drifted
a dimly seen flotilla of barges, small boats, many overturned,
furniture, rafts, timbering, and miscellaneous objects.
The drowned were under water that morning. Only here and there
did a dead cow or a stiff figure still clinging stoutly to a box
or chair or such-like buoy hint at the hidden massacre. It was
not till the Thursday that the dead came to the surface in any
quantity. The view was bounded on every side by a gray mist that
closed overhead in a gray canopy. The air cleared in the
afternoon, and then, far away to the west under great banks of
steam and dust, the flaming red eruption of the atomic bombs came
visible across the waste of water.
They showed flat and sullen through the mist, like London
sunsets. 'They sat upon the sea,' says Barnet, 'like frayed-out
waterlilies of flame.'
Barnet seems to have spent the morning in rescue work along the
track of the canal, in helping people who were adrift, in picking
up derelict boats, and in taking people out of imperilled houses.
He found other military barges similarly employed, and it was
only as the day wore on and the immediate appeals for aid were
satisfied that he thought of food and drink for his men, and what
course he had better pursue. They had a little cheese, but no
water. 'Orders,' that mysterious direction, had at last
altogether disappeared. He perceived he had now to act upon his
'One's sense was of a destruction so far-reaching and of a world
so altered that it seemed foolish to go in any direction and
expect to find things as they had been before the war began. I
sat on the quarter-deck with Mylius my engineer and Kemp and two
others of the non-commissioned officers, and we consulted upon
our line of action. We were foodless and aimless. We agreed
that our fighting value was extremely small, and that our first
duty was to get ourselves in touch with food and instructions
again. Whatever plan of campaign had directed our movements was
manifestly smashed to bits. Mylius was of opinion that we could
take a line westward and get back to England across the North
Sea. He calculated that with such a motor barge as ours it would
be possible to reach the Yorkshire coast within four-and-twenty
hours. But this idea I overruled because of the shortness of our
provisions, and more particularly because of our urgent need of
'Every boat we drew near now hailed us for water, and their
demands did much to exasperate our thirst. I decided that if we
went away to the south we should reach hilly country, or at least
country that was not submerged, and then we should be able to
land, find some stream, drink, and get supplies and news. Many of
the barges adrift in the haze about us were filled with British
soldiers and had floated up from the Nord See Canal, but none of
them were any better informed than ourselves of the course of
events. "Orders" had, in fact, vanished out of the sky.
' "Orders" made a temporary reappearance late that evening in the
form of a megaphone hail from a British torpedo boat, announcing
a truce, and giving the welcome information that food and water
were being hurried down the Rhine and were to be found on the
barge flotilla lying over the old Rhine above Leiden.' . . .
We will not follow Barnet, however, in the description of his
strange overland voyage among trees and houses and churches by
Zaandam and between Haarlem and Amsterdam, to Leiden. It was a
voyage in a red-lit mist, in a world of steamy silhouette, full
of strange voices and perplexity, and with every other sensation
dominated by a feverish thirst. 'We sat,' he says, 'in a little
huddled group, saying very little, and the men forward were mere
knots of silent endurance. Our only continuing sound was the
persistent mewing of a cat one of the men had rescued from a
floating hayrick near Zaandam. We kept a southward course by a
watch-chain compass Mylius had produced....
'I do not think any of us felt we belonged to a defeated army,
nor had we any strong sense of the war as the dominating fact
about us. Our mental setting had far more of the effect of a
huge natural catastrophe. The atomic bombs had dwarfed the
international issues to complete insignificance. When our minds
wandered from the preoccupations of our immediate needs, we
speculated upon the possibility of stopping the use of these
frightful explosives before the world was utterly destroyed. For
to us it seemed quite plain that these bombs and the still
greater power of destruction of which they were the precursors
might quite easily shatter every relationship and institution of
' "What will they be doing," asked Mylius, "what will they be
doing? It's plain we've got to put an end to war. It's plain
things have to be run some way. THIS--all this--is impossible."
'I made no immediate answer. Something--I cannot think what--had
brought back to me the figure of that man I had seen wounded on
the very first day of actual fighting. I saw again his angry,
tearful eyes, and that poor, dripping, bloody mess that had been
a skilful human hand five minutes before, thrust out in indignant
protest. "Damned foolery," he had stormed and sobbed, "damned
foolery. My right hand, sir! My RIGHT hand. . . ."
'My faith had for a time gone altogether out of me. "I think we
are too--too silly," I said to Mylius, "ever to stop war. If we'd
had the sense to do it, we should have done it before this. I
think this----" I pointed to the gaunt black outline of a smashed
windmill that stuck up, ridiculous and ugly, above the blood-lit
waters--"this is the end." '
But now our history must part company with Frederick Barnet and
his barge-load of hungry and starving men.
For a time in western Europe at least it was indeed as if
civilisation had come to a final collapse. These crowning buds
upon the tradition that Napoleon planted and Bismarck watered,
opened and flared 'like waterlilies of flame' over nations
destroyed, over churches smashed or submerged, towns ruined,
fields lost to mankind for ever, and a million weltering bodies.
Was this lesson enough for mankind, or would the flames of war
still burn amidst the ruins?
Neither Barnet nor his companions, it is clear, had any assurance
in their answers to that question. Already once in the history
of mankind, in America, before its discovery by the whites, an
organised civilisation had given way to a mere cult of warfare,
specialised and cruel, and it seemed for a time to many a
thoughtful man as if the whole world was but to repeat on a
larger scale this ascendancy of the warrior, this triumph of the
destructive instincts of the race.
The subsequent chapters of Barnet's narrative do but supply body
to this tragic possibility. He gives a series of vignettes of
civilisation, shattered, it seemed, almost irreparably. He found
the Belgian hills swarming with refugees and desolated by
cholera; the vestiges of the contending armies keeping order
under a truce, without actual battles, but with the cautious
hostility of habit, and a great absence of plan everywhere.
Overhead aeroplanes went on mysterious errands, and there were
rumours of cannibalism and hysterical fanaticisms in the valleys
of the Semoy and the forest region of the eastern Ardennes.
There was the report of an attack upon Russia by the Chinese and
Japanese, and of some huge revolutionary outbreak in America.
The weather was stormier than men had ever known it in those
regions, with much thunder and lightning and wild cloud-bursts of
CHAPTER THE THIRD
THE ENDING OF WAR
On the mountain-side above the town of Brissago and commanding
two long stretches of Lake Maggiore, looking eastward to
Bellinzona, and southward to Luino, there is a shelf of grass
meadows which is very beautiful in springtime with a great
multitude of wild flowers. More particularly is this so in early
June, when the slender asphodel Saint Bruno's lily, with its
spike of white blossom, is in flower. To the westward of this
delightful shelf there is a deep and densely wooded trench, a
great gulf of blue some mile or so in width out of which arise
great precipices very high and wild. Above the asphodel fields
the mountains climb in rocky slopes to solitudes of stone and
sunlight that curve round and join that wall of cliffs in one
common skyline. This desolate and austere background contrasts
very vividly with the glowing serenity of the great lake below,
with the spacious view of fertile hills and roads and villages
and islands to south and east, and with the hotly golden rice
flats of the Val Maggia to the north. And because it was a remote
and insignificant place, far away out of the crowding tragedies
of that year of disaster, away from burning cities and starving
multitudes, bracing and tranquillising and hidden, it was here
that there gathered the conference of rulers that was to arrest,
if possible, before it was too late, the debacle of civilisation.
Here, brought together by the indefatigable energy of that
impassioned humanitarian, Leblanc, the French ambassador at
Washington, the chief Powers of the world were to meet in a last
desperate conference to 'save humanity.'
Leblanc was one of those ingenuous men whose lot would have been
insignificant in any period of security, but who have been caught
up to an immortal role in history by the sudden simplification of
human affairs through some tragical crisis, to the measure of
their simplicity. Such a man was Abraham Lincoln, and such was
Garibaldi. And Leblanc, with his transparent childish innocence,
his entire self-forgetfulness, came into this confusion of
distrust and intricate disaster with an invincible appeal for the
manifest sanities of the situation. His voice, when he spoke, was
'full of remonstrance.' He was a little bald, spectacled man,
inspired by that intellectual idealism which has been one of the
peculiar gifts of France to humanity. He was possessed of one
clear persuasion, that war must end, and that the only way to end
war was to have but one government for mankind. He brushed aside
all other considerations. At the very outbreak of the war, so
soon as the two capitals of the belligerents had been wrecked, he
went to the president in the White House with this proposal. He
made it as if it was a matter of course. He was fortunate to be
in Washington and in touch with that gigantic childishness which
was the characteristic of the American imagination. For the
Americans also were among the simple peoples by whom the world
was saved. He won over the American president and the American
government to his general ideas; at any rate they supported him
sufficiently to give him a standing with the more sceptical
European governments, and with this backing he set to work--it
seemed the most fantastic of enterprises--to bring together all
the rulers of the world and unify them. He wrote innumerable
letters, he sent messages, he went desperate journeys, he
enlisted whatever support he could find; no one was too humble
for an ally or too obstinate for his advances; through the
terrible autumn of the last wars this persistent little visionary
in spectacles must have seemed rather like a hopeful canary
twittering during a thunderstorm. And no accumulation of
disasters daunted his conviction that they could be ended.
For the whole world was flaring then into a monstrous phase of
destruction. Power after Power about the armed globe sought to
anticipate attack by aggression. They went to war in a delirium
of panic, in order to use their bombs first. China and Japan had
assailed Russia and destroyed Moscow, the United States had
attacked Japan, India was in anarchistic revolt with Delhi a pit
of fire spouting death and flame; the redoubtable King of the
Balkans was mobilising. It must have seemed plain at last to
every one in those days that the world was slipping headlong to
anarchy. By the spring of 1959 from nearly two hundred centres,
and every week added to their number, roared the unquenchable
crimson conflagrations of the atomic bombs, the flimsy fabric of
the world's credit had vanished, industry was completely
disorganised and every city, every thickly populated area was
starving or trembled on the verge of starvation. Most of the
capital cities of the world were burning; millions of people had
already perished, and over great areas government was at an end.
Humanity has been compared by one contemporary writer to a
sleeper who handles matches in his sleep and wakes to find
himself in flames.
For many months it was an open question whether there was to be
found throughout all the race the will and intelligence to face
these new conditions and make even an attempt to arrest the
downfall of the social order. For a time the war spirit defeated
every effort to rally the forces of preservation and
construction. Leblanc seemed to be protesting against
earthquakes, and as likely to find a spirit of reason in the
crater of Etna. Even though the shattered official governments
now clamoured for peace, bands of irreconcilables and invincible
patriots, usurpers, adventurers, and political desperadoes, were
everywhere in possession of the simple apparatus for the
disengagement of atomic energy and the initiation of new centres
of destruction. The stuff exercised an irresistible fascination
upon a certain type of mind. Why should any one give in while he
can still destroy his enemies? Surrender? While there is still
a chance of blowing them to dust? The power of destruction which
had once been the ultimate privilege of government was now the
only power left in the world--and it was everywhere. There were
few thoughtful men during that phase of blazing waste who did not
pass through such moods of despair as Barnet describes, and
declare with him: 'This is the end....'
And all the while Leblanc was going to and fro with glittering
glasses and an inexhaustible persuasiveness, urging the manifest
reasonableness of his view upon ears that ceased presently to be
inattentive. Never at any time did he betray a doubt that all
this chaotic conflict would end. No nurse during a nursery
uproar was ever so certain of the inevitable ultimate peace.
From being treated as an amiable dreamer he came by insensible
degrees to be regarded as an extravagant possibility. Then he
began to seem even practicable. The people who listened to him in
1958 with a smiling impatience, were eager before 1959 was four
months old to know just exactly what he thought might be done.
He answered with the patience of a philosopher and the lucidity
of a Frenchman. He began to receive responses of a more and more
hopeful type. He came across the Atlantic to Italy, and there he
gathered in the promises for this congress. He chose those high
meadows above Brissago for the reasons we have stated. 'We must
get away,' he said, 'from old associations.' He set to work
requisitioning material for his conference with an assurance that
was justified by the replies. With a slight incredulity the
conference which was to begin a new order in the world, gathered
itself together. Leblanc summoned it without arrogance, he
controlled it by virtue of an infinite humility. Men appeared
upon those upland slopes with the apparatus for wireless
telegraphy; others followed with tents and provisions; a little
cable was flung down to a convenient point upon the Locarno road
below. Leblanc arrived, sedulously directing every detail that
would affect the tone of the assembly. He might have been a
courier in advance rather than the originator of the gathering.
And then there arrived, some by the cable, most by aeroplane, a
few in other fashions, the men who had been called together to
confer upon the state of the world. It was to be a conference
without a name. Nine monarchs, the presidents of four republics,
a number of ministers and ambassadors, powerful journalists, and
such-like prominent and influential men, took part in it. There
were even scientific men; and that world-famous old man, Holsten,
came with the others to contribute his amateur statecraft to the
desperate problem of the age. Only Leblanc would have dared so
to summon figure heads and powers and intelligence, or have had
the courage to hope for their agreement....
And one at least of those who were called to this conference of
governments came to it on foot. This was King Egbert, the young
king of the most venerable kingdom in Europe. He was a rebel,
and had always been of deliberate choice a rebel against the
magnificence of his position. He affected long pedestrian tours
and a disposition to sleep in the open air. He came now over the
Pass of Sta Maria Maggiore and by boat up the lake to Brissago;
thence he walked up the mountain, a pleasant path set with oaks
and sweet chestnut. For provision on the walk, for he did not
want to hurry, he carried with him a pocketful of bread and
cheese. A certain small retinue that was necessary to his comfort
and dignity upon occasions of state he sent on by the cable car,
and with him walked his private secretary, Firmin, a man who had
thrown up the Professorship of World Politics in the London
School of Sociology, Economics, and Political Science, to take up
these duties. Firmin was a man of strong rather than rapid
thought, he had anticipated great influence in this new position,
and after some years he was still only beginning to apprehend how
largely his function was to listen. Originally he had been
something of a thinker upon international politics, an authority
upon tariffs and strategy, and a valued contributor to various of
the higher organs of public opinion, but the atomic bombs had
taken him by surprise, and he had still to recover completely
from his pre-atomic opinions and the silencing effect of those
The king's freedom from the trammels of etiquette was very
complete. In theory--and he abounded in theory--his manners were
purely democratic. It was by sheer habit and inadvertency that he
permitted Firmin, who had discovered a rucksack in a small shop
in the town below, to carry both bottles of beer. The king had
never, as a matter of fact, carried anything for himself in his
life, and he had never noted that he did not do so.
'We will have nobody with us,' he said, 'at all. We will be
So Firmin carried the beer.
As they walked up--it was the king made the pace rather than
Firmin--they talked of the conference before them, and Firmin,
with a certain want of assurance that would have surprised him in
himself in the days of his Professorship, sought to define the
policy of his companion. 'In its broader form, sir,' said Firmin;
'I admit a certain plausibility in this project of Leblanc's, but
I feel that although it may be advisable to set up some sort of
general control for International affairs--a sort of Hague Court
with extended powers--that is no reason whatever for losing sight
of the principles of national and imperial autonomy.'
'Firmin,' said the king, 'I am going to set my brother kings a
Firmin intimated a curiosity that veiled a dread.
'By chucking all that nonsense,' said the king.
He quickened his pace as Firmin, who was already a little out of
breath, betrayed a disposition to reply.
'I am going to chuck all that nonsense,' said the king, as Firmin
prepared to speak. 'I am going to fling my royalty and empire on
the table--and declare at once I don't mean to haggle. It's
haggling--about rights--has been the devil in human affairs,
for--always. I am going to stop this nonsense.'
Firmin halted abruptly. 'But, sir!' he cried.
The king stopped six yards ahead of him and looked back at his
adviser's perspiring visage.
'Do you really think, Firmin, that I am here as--as an infernal
politician to put my crown and my flag and my claims and so forth
in the way of peace? That little Frenchman is right. You know he
is right as well as I do. Those things are over. We--we kings
and rulers and representatives have been at the very heart of the
mischief. Of course we imply separation, and of course
separation means the threat of war, and of course the threat of
war means the accumulation of more and more atomic bombs. The old
game's up. But, I say, we mustn't stand here, you know. The
world waits. Don't you think the old game's up, Firmin?'
Firmin adjusted a strap, passed a hand over his wet forehead, and
followed earnestly. 'I admit, sir,' he said to a receding back,
'that there has to be some sort of hegemony, some sort of
'There's got to be one simple government for all the world,' said
the king over his shoulder.
'But as for a reckless, unqualified abandonment, sir----'
'BANG!' cried the king.
Firmin made no answer to this interruption. But a faint shadow
of annoyance passed across his heated features.
'Yesterday,' said the king, by way of explanation, 'the Japanese
very nearly got San Francisco.'
'I hadn't heard, sir.'
'The Americans ran the Japanese aeroplane down into the sea and
there the bomb got busted.'
'Under the sea, sir?'
'Yes. Submarine volcano. The steam is in sight of the
Californian coast. It was as near as that. And with things like
this happening, you want me to go up this hill and haggle.
Consider the effect of that upon my imperial cousin--and all the
'HE will haggle, sir.'
'Not a bit of it,' said the king.
'Leblanc won't let him.'
Firmin halted abruptly and gave a vicious pull at the offending
strap. 'Sir, he will listen to his advisers,' he said, in a tone
that in some subtle way seemed to implicate his master with the
trouble of the knapsack.
The king considered him.
'We will go just a little higher,' he said. 'I want to find this
unoccupied village they spoke of, and then we will drink that
beer. It can't be far. We will drink the beer and throw away the
bottles. And then, Firmin, I shall ask you to look at things in a
more generous light.... Because, you know, you must....'
He turned about and for some time the only sound they made was
the noise of their boots upon the loose stones of the way and the
irregular breathing of Firmin.
At length, as it seemed to Firmin, or quite soon, as it seemed to
the king, the gradient of the path diminished, the way widened
out, and they found themselves in a very beautiful place indeed.
It was one of those upland clusters of sheds and houses that are
still to be found in the mountains of North Italy, buildings that
were used only in the high summer, and which it was the custom to
leave locked up and deserted through all the winter and spring,
and up to the middle of June. The buildings were of a soft-toned
gray stone, buried in rich green grass, shadowed by chestnut
trees and lit by an extraordinary blaze of yellow broom. Never
had the king seen broom so glorious; he shouted at the light of
it, for it seemed to give out more sunlight even than it
received; he sat down impulsively on a lichenous stone, tugged
out his bread and cheese, and bade Firmin thrust the beer into
the shaded weeds to cool.
'The things people miss, Firmin,' he said, 'who go up into the
air in ships!'
Firmin looked around him with an ungenial eye. 'You see it at
its best, sir,' he said, 'before the peasants come here again and
make it filthy.'
'It would be beautiful anyhow,' said the king.
'Superficially, sir,' said Firmin. 'But it stands for a social
order that is fast vanishing away. Indeed, judging by the grass
between the stones and in the huts, I am inclined to doubt if it
is in use even now.'
'I suppose,' said the king, 'they would come up immediately the
hay on this flower meadow is cut. It would be those slow,
creamy-coloured beasts, I expect, one sees on the roads below,
and swarthy girls with red handkerchiefs over their black
hair.... It is wonderful to think how long that beautiful old
life lasted. In the Roman times and long ages before ever the
rumour of the Romans had come into these parts, men drove their
cattle up into these places as the summer came on.... How haunted
is this place! There have been quarrels here, hopes, children
have played here and lived to be old crones and old gaffers, and
died, and so it has gone on for thousands of lives. Lovers,
innumerable lovers, have caressed amidst this golden broom....'
He meditated over a busy mouthful of bread and cheese.
'We ought to have brought a tankard for that beer,' he said.
Firmin produced a folding aluminium cup, and the king was pleased
'I wish, sir,' said Firmin suddenly, 'I could induce you at least
to delay your decision----'
'It's no good talking, Firmin,' said the king. 'My mind's as
clear as daylight.'
'Sire,' protested Firmin, with his voice full of bread and cheese
and genuine emotion, 'have you no respect for your kingship?'
The king paused before he answered with unwonted gravity. 'It's
just because I have, Firmin, that I won't be a puppet in this
game of international politics.' He regarded his companion for a
moment and then remarked: 'Kingship!--what do YOU know of
'Yes,' cried the king to his astonished counsellor. 'For the
first time in my life I am going to be a king. I am going to
lead, and lead by my own authority. For a dozen generations my
family has been a set of dummies in the hands of their advisers.
Advisers! Now I am going to be a real king--and I am going
to--to abolish, dispose of, finish, the crown to which I have
been a slave. But what a world of paralysing shams this roaring
stuff has ended! The rigid old world is in the melting-pot again,
and I, who seemed to be no more than the stuffing inside a regal
robe, I am a king among kings. I have to play my part at the head
of things and put an end to blood and fire and idiot disorder.'
'But, sir,' protested Firmin.
'This man Leblanc is right. The whole world has got to be a
Republic, one and indivisible. You know that, and my duty is to
make that easy. A king should lead his people; you want me to
stick on their backs like some Old Man of the Sea. To-day must
be a sacrament of kings. Our trust for mankind is done with and
ended. We must part our robes among them, we must part our
kingship among them, and say to them all, now the king in every
one must rule the world.... Have you no sense of the magnificence
of this occasion? You want me, Firmin, you want me to go up
there and haggle like a damned little solicitor for some price,
some compensation, some qualification....'
Firmin shrugged his shoulders and assumed an expression of
despair. Meanwhile, he conveyed, one must eat.
For a time neither spoke, and the king ate and turned over in his
mind the phrases of the speech he intended to make to the
conference. By virtue of the antiquity of his crown he was to
preside, and he intended to make his presidency memorable.
Reassured of his eloquence, he considered the despondent and
sulky Firmin for a space.
'Firmin,' he said, 'you have idealised kingship.' 'It has been
my dream, sir,' said Firmin sorrowfully, 'to serve.'
'At the levers, Firmin,' said the king.
'You are pleased to be unjust,' said Firmin, deeply hurt.
'I am pleased to be getting out of it,' said the king.
'Oh, Firmin,' he went on, 'have you no thought for me? Will you
never realise that I am not only flesh and blood but an
imagination--with its rights. I am a king in revolt against that
fetter they put upon my head. I am a king awake. My reverend
grandparents never in all their august lives had a waking moment.
They loved the job that you, you advisers, gave them; they never
had a doubt of it. It was like giving a doll to a woman who ought
to have a child. They delighted in processions and opening things
and being read addresses to, and visiting triplets and
nonagenarians and all that sort of thing. Incredibly. They used
to keep albums of cuttings from all the illustrated papers
showing them at it, and if the press-cutting parcels grew thin
they were worried. It was all that ever worried them. But there
is something atavistic in me; I hark back to unconstitutional
monarchs. They christened me too retrogressively, I think. I
wanted to get things done. I was bored. I might have fallen into
vice, most intelligent and energetic princes do, but the palace
precautions were unusually thorough. I was brought up in the
purest court the world has ever seen. . . . Alertly pure.... So I
read books, Firmin, and went about asking questions. The thing
was bound to happen to one of us sooner or later. Perhaps, too,
very likely I'm not vicious. I don't think I am.'
He reflected. 'No,' he said.
Firmin cleared his throat. 'I don't think you are, sir,' he
said. 'You prefer----'
He stopped short. He had been going to say 'talking.' He
'That world of royalty!' the king went on. 'In a little while no
one will understand it any more. It will become a riddle....
'Among other things, it was a world of perpetual best clothes.
Everything was in its best clothes for us, and usually wearing
bunting. With a cinema watching to see we took it properly. If
you are a king, Firmin, and you go and look at a regiment, it
instantly stops whatever it is doing, changes into full uniform
and presents arms. When my august parents went in a train the
coal in the tender used to be whitened. It did, Firmin, and if
coal had been white instead of black I have no doubt the
authorities would have blackened it. That was the spirit of our
treatment. People were always walking about with their faces to
us. One never saw anything in profile. One got an impression of
a world that was insanely focused on ourselves. And when I began
to poke my little questions into the Lord Chancellor and the
archbishop and all the rest of them, about what I should see if
people turned round, the general effect I produced was that I
wasn't by any means displaying the Royal Tact they had expected
He meditated for a time.
'And yet, you know, there is something in the kingship, Firmin.
It stiffened up my august little grandfather. It gave my
grandmother a kind of awkward dignity even when she was
cross--and she was very often cross. They both had a profound
sense of responsibility. My poor father's health was wretched
during his brief career; nobody outside the circle knows just how
he screwed himself up to things. "My people expect it," he used
to say of this tiresome duty or that. Most of the things they
made him do were silly--it was part of a bad tradition, but there
was nothing silly in the way he set about them.... The spirit of
kingship is a fine thing, Firmin; I feel it in my bones; I do not
know what I might not be if I were not a king. I could die for my
people, Firmin, and you couldn't. No, don't say you could die for
me, because I know better. Don't think I forget my kingship,
Firmin, don't imagine that. I am a king, a kingly king, by right
divine. The fact that I am also a chattering young man makes not
the slightest difference to that. But the proper text-book for
kings, Firmin, is none of the court memoirs and Welt-Politik
books you would have me read; it is old Fraser's Golden Bough.
Have you read that, Firmin?'
Firmin had. 'Those were the authentic kings. In the end they
were cut up and a bit given to everybody. They sprinkled the
Firmin turned himself round and faced his royal master.
'What do you intend to do, sir?' he asked. 'If you will not
listen to me, what do you propose to do this afternoon?'
The king flicked crumbs from his coat.
'Manifestly war has to stop for ever, Firmin. Manifestly this
can only be done by putting all the world under one government.
Our crowns and flags are in the way. Manifestly they must go.'
'Yes, sir,' interrupted Firmin, 'but WHAT government? I don't see
what government you get by a universal abdication!'
'Well,' said the king, with his hands about his knees, 'WE shall
be the government.'
'The conference?' exclaimed Firmin.
'Who else?' asked the king simply.
'It's perfectly simple,' he added to Firmin's tremendous silence.
'But,' cried Firmin, 'you must have sanctions! Will there be no
form of election, for example?'
'Why should there be?' asked the king, with intelligent
'The consent of the governed.'
'Firmin, we are just going to lay down our differences and take
over government. Without any election at all. Without any
sanction. The governed will show their consent by silence. If
any effective opposition arises we shall ask it to come in and
help. The true sanction of kingship is the grip upon the sceptre.
We aren't going to worry people to vote for us. I'm certain the
mass of men does not want to be bothered with such things....
We'll contrive a way for any one interested to join in. That's
quite enough in the way of democracy. Perhaps later--when things
don't matter.... We shall govern all right, Firmin. Government
only becomes difficult when the lawyers get hold of it, and since
these troubles began the lawyers are shy. Indeed, come to think
of it, I wonder where all the lawyers are.... Where are they? A
lot, of course, were bagged, some of the worst ones, when they
blew up my legislature. You never knew the late Lord Chancellor.
. . .
'Necessities bury rights. And create them. Lawyers live on dead
rights disinterred.... We've done with that way of living. We
won't have more law than a code can cover and beyond that
government will be free....
'Before the sun sets to-day, Firmin, trust me, we shall have made
our abdications, all of us, and declared the World Republic,
supreme and indivisible. I wonder what my august grandmother
would have made of it! All my rights! . . . And then we shall go
on governing. What else is there to do? All over the world we
shall declare that there is no longer mine or thine, but ours.
China, the United States, two-thirds of Europe, will certainly
fall in and obey. They will have to do so. What else can they
do? Their official rulers are here with us. They won't be able
to get together any sort of idea of not obeying us.... Then we
shall declare that every sort of property is held in trust for
'But, sir!' cried Firmin, suddenly enlightened. 'Has this been
'My dear Firmin, do you think we have come here, all of us, to
talk at large? The talking has been done for half a century.
Talking and writing. We are here to set the new thing, the
simple, obvious, necessary thing, going.'
He stood up.
Firmin, forgetting the habits of a score of years, remained
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