The World Set Free
ALL THINGS THAT
MAKE AND PASS,
STRIVING UPON A
OUT TO THE
THE WORLD SET FREE
'INTERPRETATION OF RADIUM'
THIS STORY, WHICH OWES LONG PASSAGES
TO THE ELEVENTH CHAPTER OF
THAT BOOK, ACKNOWLEDGES
THE WORLD SET FREE was written in 1913 and published early in
1914, and it is the latest of a series of three fantasias of
possibility, stories which all turn on the possible developments
in the future of some contemporary force or group of forces. The
World Set Free was written under the immediate shadow of the
Great War. Every intelligent person in the world felt that
disaster was impending and knew no way of averting it, but few of
us realised in the earlier half of 1914 how near the crash was to
us. The reader will be amused to find that here it is put off
until the year 1956. He may naturally want to know the reason
for what will seem now a quite extraordinary delay. As a
prophet, the author must confess he has always been inclined to
be rather a slow prophet. The war aeroplane in the world of
reality, for example, beat the forecast in Anticipations by about
twenty years or so. I suppose a desire not to shock the sceptical
reader's sense of use and wont and perhaps a less creditable
disposition to hedge, have something to do with this dating
forward of one's main events, but in the particular case of The
World Set Free there was, I think, another motive in holding the
Great War back, and that was to allow the chemist to get well
forward with his discovery of the release of atomic energy.
1956-or for that matter 2056-may be none too late for that
crowning revolution in human potentialities. And apart from this
procrastination of over forty years, the guess at the opening
phase of the war was fairly lucky; the forecast of an alliance of
the Central Empires, the opening campaign through the
Netherlands, and the despatch of the British Expeditionary Force
were all justified before the book had been published six months.
And the opening section of Chapter the Second remains now, after
the reality has happened, a fairly adequate diagnosis of the
essentials of the matter. One happy hit (in Chapter the Second,
Section 2), on which the writer may congratulate himself, is the
forecast that under modern conditions it would be quite
impossible for any great general to emerge to supremacy and
concentrate the enthusiasm of the armies of either side. There
could be no Alexanders or Napoleons. And we soon heard the
scientific corps muttering, 'These old fools,' exactly as it is
These, however, are small details, and the misses in the story
far outnumber the hits. It is the main thesis which is still of
interest now; the thesis that because of the development of
sovereign empires are no longer possible in the world, that to
attempt to keep on with the old system is to heap disaster upon
disaster for mankind and perhaps to destroy our race altogether.
The remaining interest of this book now is the sustained validity
of this thesis and the discussion of the possible ending of war
on the earth. I have supposed a sort of epidemic of sanity to
break out among the rulers of states and the leaders of mankind.
I have represented the native common sense of the French mind and
of the English mind-for manifestly King Egbert is meant to be
'God's Englishman'-leading mankind towards a bold and resolute
effort of salvage and reconstruction. Instead of which, as the
school book footnotes say, compare to-day's newspaper. Instead
of a frank and honourable gathering of leading men, Englishman
meeting German and Frenchman Russian, brothers in their offences
and in their disaster, upon the hills of Brissago, beheld in
Geneva at the other end of Switzerland a poor little League of
(Allied) Nations (excluding the United States, Russia, and most
of the 'subject peoples' of the world), meeting obscurely amidst
a world-wide disregard to make impotent gestures at the leading
problems of the debacle. Either the disaster has not been vast
enough yet or it has not been swift enough to inflict the
necessary moral shock and achieve the necessary moral revulsion.
Just as the world of 1913 was used to an increasing prosperity
and thought that increase would go on for ever, so now it would
seem the world is growing accustomed to a steady glide towards
social disintegration, and thinks that that too can go on
continually and never come to a final bump. So soon do use and
wont establish themselves, and the most flaming and thunderous of
lessons pale into disregard.
The question whether a Leblanc is still possible, the question
whether it is still possible to bring about an outbreak of
creative sanity in mankind, to avert this steady glide to
destruction, is now one of the most urgent in the world. It is
clear that the writer is temperamentally disposed to hope that
there is such a possibility. But he has to confess that he sees
few signs of any such breadth of understanding and steadfastness
of will as an effectual effort to turn the rush of human affairs
demands. The inertia of dead ideas and old institutions carries
us on towards the rapids. Only in one direction is there any
plain recognition of the idea of a human commonweal as something
overriding any national and patriotic consideration, and that is
in the working class movement throughout the world. And labour
internationalism is closely bound up with conceptions of a
profound social revolution. If world peace is to be attained
through labour internationalism, it will have to be attained at
the price of the completest social and economic reconstruction
and by passing through a phase of revolution that will certainly
be violent, that may be very bloody, which may be prolonged
through a long period, and may in the end fail to achieve
anything but social destruction. Nevertheless, the fact remains
that it is in the labour class, and the labour class alone, that
any conception of a world rule and a world peace has so far
educated and highly favoured leading and ruling men, voluntarily
setting themselves to the task of reshaping the world, has thus
far remained a dream.
H. G. WELLS.
THE SUN SNARERS
CHAPTER THE FIRST
THE NEW SOURCE OF ENERGY
CHAPTER THE SECOND
THE LAST WAR
CHAPTER THE THIRD
THE ENDING OF WAR
CHAPTER THE FOURTH
THE NEW PHASE
CHAPTER THE FIFTH
THE LAST DAYS OF MARCUS KARENIN
THE SUN SNARERS
THE history of mankind is the history of the attainment of
external power. Man is the tool-using, fire-making animal. From
the outset of his terrestrial career we find him supplementing
the natural strength and bodily weapons of a beast by the heat of
burning and the rough implement of stone. So he passed beyond
the ape. From that he expands. Presently he added to himself the
power of the horse and the ox, he borrowed the carrying strength
of water and the driving force of the wind, he quickened his fire
by blowing, and his simple tools, pointed first with copper and
then with iron, increased and varied and became more elaborate
and efficient. He sheltered his heat in houses and made his way
easier by paths and roads. He complicated his social
relationships and increased his efficiency by the division of
labour. He began to store up knowledge. Contrivance followed
contrivance, each making it possible for a man to do more.
Always down the lengthening record, save for a set-back ever and
again, he is doing more… A quarter of a million years ago the
utmost man was a savage, a being scarcely articulate, sheltering
in holes in the rocks, armed with a rough-hewn flint or a
fire-pointed stick, naked, living in small family groups, killed
by some younger man so soon as his first virile activity
declined. Over most of the great wildernesses of earth you would
have sought him in vain; only in a few temperate and sub-tropical
river valleys would you have found the squatting lairs of his
little herds, a male, a few females, a child or so.
He knew no future then, no kind of life except the life he led.
He fled the cave-bear over the rocks full of iron ore and the
promise of sword and spear; he froze to death upon a ledge of
coal; he drank water muddy with the clay that would one day make
cups of porcelain; he chewed the ear of wild wheat he had plucked
and gazed with a dim speculation in his eyes at the birds that
soared beyond his reach. Or suddenly he became aware of the scent
of another male and rose up roaring, his roars the formless
precursors of moral admonitions. For he was a great
individualist, that original, he suffered none other than
So through the long generations, this heavy precursor, this
ancestor of all of us, fought and bred and perished, changing
Yet he changed. That keen chisel of necessity which sharpened
the tiger's claw age by age and fined down the clumsy Orchippus
to the swift grace of the horse, was at work upon him-is at work
upon him still. The clumsier and more stupidly fierce among him
were killed soonest and oftenest; the finer hand, the quicker
eye, the bigger brain, the better balanced body prevailed; age by
age, the implements were a little better made, the man a little
more delicately adjusted to his possibilities. He became more
social; his herd grew larger; no longer did each man kill or
drive out his growing sons; a system of taboos made them
tolerable to him, and they revered him alive and soon even after
he was dead, and were his allies against the beasts and the rest
of mankind. (But they were forbidden to touch the women of the
tribe, they had to go out and capture women for themselves, and
each son fled from his stepmother and hid from her lest the anger
of the Old Man should be roused. All the world over, even to this
day, these ancient inevitable taboos can be traced.) And now
instead of caves came huts and hovels, and the fire was better
tended and there were wrappings and garments; and so aided, the
creature spread into colder climates, carrying food with him,
storing food-until sometimes the neglected grass-seed sprouted
again and gave a first hint of agriculture.
And already there were the beginnings of leisure and thought.
Man began to think. There were times when he was fed, when his
lusts and his fears were all appeased, when the sun shone upon
the squatting-place and dim stirrings of speculation lit his
eyes. He scratched upon a bone and found resemblance and pursued
it and began pictorial art, moulded the soft, warm clay of the
river brink between his fingers, and found a pleasure in its
patternings and repetitions, shaped it into the form of vessels,
and found that it would hold water. He watched the streaming
river, and wondered from what bountiful breast this incessant
water came; he blinked at the sun and dreamt that perhaps he
might snare it and spear it as it went down to its resting-place
amidst the distant hills. Then he was roused to convey to his
brother that once indeed he had done so-at least that some one
had done so-he mixed that perhaps with another dream almost as
daring, that one day a mammoth had been beset; and therewith
began fiction-pointing a way to achievement-and the august
prophetic procession of tales.
For scores and hundreds of centuries, for myriads of generations
that life of our fathers went on. From the beginning to the
ripening of that phase of human life, from the first clumsy
eolith of rudely chipped flint to the first implements of
polished stone, was two or three thousand centuries, ten or
fifteen thousand generations. So slowly, by human standards, did
humanity gather itself together out of the dim intimations of the
beast. And that first glimmering of speculation, that first
story of achievement, that story-teller bright-eyed and flushed
under his matted hair, gesticulating to his gaping, incredulous
listener, gripping his wrist to keep him attentive, was the most
marvellous beginning this world has ever seen. It doomed the
mammoths, and it began the setting of that snare that shall catch
That dream was but a moment in a man's life, whose proper
business it seemed was to get food and kill his fellows and beget
after the manner of all that belongs to the fellowship of the
beasts. About him, hidden from him by the thinnest of veils, were
the untouched sources of Power, whose magnitude we scarcely do
more than suspect even to-day, Power that could make his every
the way of it, though he died blindly unknowing.
At last, in the generous levels of warm river valleys, where food
is abundant and life very easy, the emerging human overcoming his
earlier jealousies, becoming, as necessity persecuted him less
urgently, more social and tolerant and amenable, achieved a
larger community. There began a division of labour, certain of
the older men specialised in knowledge and direction, a strong
man took the fatherly leadership in war, and priest and king
began to develop their roles in the opening drama of man's
history. The priest's solicitude was seed-time and harvest and
fertility, and the king ruled peace and war. In a hundred river
valleys about the warm, temperate zone of the earth there were
already towns and temples, a score of thousand years ago. They
flourished unrecorded, ignoring the past and unsuspicious of the
future, for as yet writing had still to begin.
Very slowly did man increase his demand upon the illimitable
wealth of Power that offered itself on every hand to him. He
tamed certain animals, he developed his primordially haphazard
agriculture into a ritual, he added first one metal to his
resources and then another, until he had copper and tin and iron
and lead and gold and silver to supplement his stone, he hewed
and carved wood, made pottery, paddled down his river until he
came to the sea, discovered the wheel and made the first roads.
But his chief activity for a hundred centuries and more, was the
subjugation of himself and others to larger and larger societies.
The history of man is not simply the conquest of external power;
it is first the conquest of those distrusts and fiercenesses,
that self-concentration and intensity of animalism, that tie his
hands from taking his inheritance. The ape in us still resents
association. From the dawn of the age of polished stone to the
achievement of the Peace of the World, man's dealings were
chiefly with himself and his fellow man, trading, bargaining,
law-making, propitiating, enslaving, conquering, exterminating,
and every little increment in Power, he turned at once and always
turns to the purposes of this confused elaborate struggle to
socialise. To incorporate and comprehend his fellow men into a
community of purpose became the last and greatest of his
instincts. Already before the last polished phase of the stone
age was over he had become a political animal. He made
astonishingly far-reaching discoveries within himself, first of
counting and then of writing and making records, and with that
his town communities began to stretch out to dominion; in the
valleys of the Nile, the Euphrates, and the great Chinese rivers,
the first empires and the first written laws had their
beginnings. Men specialised for fighting and rule as soldiers and
knights. Later, as ships grew seaworthy, the Mediterranean which
had been a barrier became a highway, and at last out of a tangle
of pirate polities came the great struggle of Carthage and Rome.
The history of Europe is the history of the victory and breaking
up of the Roman Empire. Every ascendant monarch in Europe up to
the last, aped Caesar and called himself Kaiser or Tsar or
Imperator or Kasir-i-Hind. Measured by the duration of human life
it is a vast space of time between that first dynasty in Egypt
and the coming of the aeroplane, but by the scale that looks back
to the makers of the eoliths, it is all of it a story of
Now during this period of two hundred centuries or more, this
preoccupied by politics and mutual aggression, their progress in
the acquirement of external Power was slow-rapid in comparison
with the progress of the old stone age, but slow in comparison
with this new age of systematic discovery in which we live. They
did not very greatly alter the weapons and tactics of warfare,
the methods of agriculture, seamanship, their knowledge of the
habitable globe, or the devices and utensils of domestic life
between the days of the early Egyptians and the days when
Christopher Columbus was a child. Of course, there were
inventions and changes, but there were also retrogressions;
things were found out and then forgotten again; it was, on the
whole, a progress, but it contained no steps; the peasant life
was the same, there were already priests and lawyers and town
craftsmen and territorial lords and rulers doctors, wise women,
soldiers and sailors in Egypt and China and Assyria and
south-eastern Europe at the beginning of that period, and they
were doing much the same things and living much the same life as
they were in Europe in A.D. 1500. The English excavators of the
year A.D. 1900 could delve into the remains of Babylon and Egypt
and disinter legal documents, domestic accounts, and family
correspondence that they could read with the completest sympathy.
There were great religious and moral changes throughout the
period, empires and republics replaced one another, Italy tried a
vast experiment in slavery, and indeed slavery was tried again
and again and failed and failed and was still to be tested again
and rejected again in the New World; Christianity and
Mohammedanism swept away a thousand more specialised cults, but
essentially these were progressive adaptations of mankind to
material conditions that must have seemed fixed for ever. The
idea of revolutionary changes in the material conditions of life
would have been entirely strange to human thought through all
Yet the dreamer, the story-teller, was there still, waiting for
his opportunity amidst the busy preoccupations, the comings and
goings, the wars and processions, the castle building and
cathedral building, the arts and loves, the small diplomacies and
incurable feuds, the crusades and trading journeys of the middle
ages. He no longer speculated with the untrammelled freedom of
the stone-age savage; authoritative explanations of everything
barred his path; but he speculated with a better brain, sat idle
and gazed at circling stars in the sky and mused upon the coin
and crystal in his hand. Whenever there was a certain leisure for
thought throughout these times, then men were to be found
dissatisfied with the appearances of things, dissatisfied with
the assurances of orthodox belief, uneasy with a sense of unread
symbols in the world about them, questioning the finality of
scholastic wisdom. Through all the ages of history there were
men to whom this whisper had come of hidden things about them.
They could no longer lead ordinary lives nor content themselves
with the common things of this world once they had heard this
voice. And mostly they believed not only that all this world was
as it were a painted curtain before things unguessed at, but that
these secrets were Power. Hitherto Power had come to men by
chance, but now there were these seekers seeking, seeking among
rare and curious and perplexing objects, sometimes finding some
discovery, sometimes pretending to find. The world of every day
laughed at these eccentric beings, or found them annoying and
ill-treated them, or was seized with fear and made saints and
sorcerers and warlocks of them, or with covetousness and
entertained them hopefully; but for the greater part heeded them
not at all. Yet they were of the blood of him who had first
dreamt of attacking the mammoth; every one of them was of his
blood and descent; and the thing they sought, all unwittingly,
was the snare that will some day catch the sun.
Such a man was that Leonardo da Vinci, who went about the court
of Sforza in Milan in a state of dignified abstraction. His
common-place books are full of prophetic subtlety and ingenious
anticipations of the methods of the early aviators. Durer was his
parallel and Roger Bacon-whom the Franciscans silenced-of his
kindred. Such a man again in an earlier city was Hero of
Alexandria, who knew of the power of steam nineteen hundred years
before it was first brought into use. And earlier still was
Archimedes of Syracuse, and still earlier the legendary Daedalus
of Cnossos. All up and down the record of history whenever there
was a little leisure from war and brutality the seekers appeared.
And half the alchemists were of their tribe.
When Roger Bacon blew up his first batch of gunpowder one might
have supposed that men would have gone at once to the explosive
engine. But they could see nothing of the sort. They were not
too poor to make such engines even had they thought of them. For
a time they could not make instruments sound enough to stand this
new force even for so rough a purpose as hurling a missile. Their
first guns had barrels of coopered timber, and the world waited
for more than five hundred years before the explosive engine
Even when the seekers found, it was at first a long journey
before the world could use their findings for any but the
roughest, most obvious purposes. If man in general was not still
as absolutely blind to the unconquered energies about him as his
paleolithic precursor, he was at best purblind.
The latent energy of coal and the power of steam waited long on
the verge of discovery, before they began to influence human
There were no doubt many such devices as Hero's toys devised and
forgotten, time after time, in courts and palaces, but it needed
that coal should be mined and burning with plenty of iron at hand
before it dawned upon men that here was something more than a
curiosity. And it is to be remarked that the first recorded
suggestion for the use of steam was in war; there is an
Elizabethan pamphlet in which it is proposed to fire shot out of
corked iron bottles full of heated water. The mining of coal for
fuel, the smelting of iron upon a larger scale than men had ever
done before, the steam pumping engine, the steam-engine and the
steam-boat, followed one another in an order that had a kind of
logical necessity. It is the most interesting and instructive
chapter in the history of the human intelligence, the history of
steam from its beginning as a fact in human consciousness to the
perfection of the great turbine engines that preceded the
utilisation of intra-molecular power. Nearly every human being
years; the women in particular were always heating water, boiling
its fury; millions of people at different times must have watched
steam pitching rocks out of volcanoes like cricket balls and
blowing pumice into foam, and yet you may search the whole human
record through, letters, books, inscriptions, pictures, for any
glimmer of a realisation that here was force, here was strength
to borrow and use… Then suddenly man woke up to it, the
railways spread like a network over the globe, the ever enlarging
iron steamships began their staggering fight against wind and
Steam was the first-comer in the new powers, it was the beginning
of the Age of Energy that was to close the long history of the
But for a long time men did not realise the importance of this
novelty. They would not recognise, they were not able to
recognise that anything fundamental had happened to their
immemorial necessities. They called the steam-engine the 'iron
horse' and pretended that they had made the most partial of
substitutions. Steam machinery and factory production were
visibly revolutionising the conditions of industrial production,
population was streaming steadily in from the country-side and
concentrating in hitherto unthought-of masses about a few city
centres, food was coming to them over enormous distances upon a
scale that made the one sole precedent, the corn ships of
imperial Rome, a petty incident; and a huge migration of peoples
between Europe and Western Asia and America was in Progress,
and-nobody seems to have realised that something new had come
into human life, a strange swirl different altogether from any
previous circling and mutation, a swirl like the swirl when at
last the lock gates begin to open after a long phase of
accumulating water and eddying inactivity…
The sober Englishman at the close of the nineteenth century could
sit at his breakfast-table, decide between tea from Ceylon or
coffee from Brazil, devour an egg from France with some Danish
ham, or eat a New Zealand chop, wind up his breakfast with a West
Indian banana, glance at the latest telegrams from all the world,
scrutinise the prices current of his geographically distributed
investments in South Africa, Japan, and Egypt, and tell the two
children he had begotten (in the place of his father's eight)
that he thought the world changed very little. They must play
cricket, keep their hair cut, go to the old school he had gone
to, shirk the lessons he had shirked, learn a few scraps of
Horace and Virgil and Homer for the confusion of cads, and all
would be well with them…
Electricity, though it was perhaps the earlier of the two to be
studied, invaded the common life of men a few decades after the
exploitation of steam. To electricity also, in spite of its
provocative nearness all about him, mankind had been utterly
blind for incalculable ages. Could anything be more emphatic than
the appeal of electricity for attention? It thundered at man's
ears, it signalled to him in blinding flashes, occasionally it
killed him, and he could not see it as a thing that concerned him
enough to merit study. It came into the house with the cat on any
dry day and crackled insinuatingly whenever he stroked her fur.
It rotted his metals when he put them together… There is no
single record that any one questioned why the cat's fur crackles
or why hair is so unruly to brush on a frosty day, before the
sixteenth century. For endless years man seems to have done his
very successful best not to think about it at all; until this new
spirit of the Seeker turned itself to these things.
How often things must have been seen and dismissed as
unimportant, before the speculative eye and the moment of vision
came! It was Gilbert, Queen Elizabeth's court physician, who
first puzzled his brains with rubbed amber and bits of glass and
silk and shellac, and so began the quickening of the human mind
to the existence of this universal presence. And even then the
science of electricity remained a mere little group of curious
facts for nearly two hundred years, connected perhaps with
magnetism-a mere guess that-perhaps with the lightning. Frogs'
legs must have hung by copper hooks from iron railings and
twitched upon countless occasions before Galvani saw them.
Except for the lightning conductor, it was 250 years after
Gilbert before electricity stepped out of the cabinet of
scientific curiosities into the life of the common man… Then
suddenly, in the half-century between 1880 and 1930, it ousted
the steam-engine and took over traction, it ousted every other
form of household heating, abolished distance with the perfected
wireless telephone and the telephotograph…
And there was an extraordinary mental resistance to discovery and
invention for at least a hundred years after the scientific
revolution had begun. Each new thing made its way into practice
against a scepticism that amounted at times to hostility. One
writer upon these subjects gives a funny little domestic
conversation that happened, he says, in the year 1898, within ten
years, that is to say, of the time when the first aviators were
fairly on the wing. He tells us how he sat at his desk in his
study and conversed with his little boy.
His little boy was in profound trouble. He felt he had to speak
very seriously to his father, and as he was a kindly little boy
he did not want to do it too harshly.
This is what happened.
'I wish, Daddy,' he said, coming to his point, 'that you wouldn't
write all this stuff about flying. The chaps rot me.'
'Yes!' said his father.
'And old Broomie, the Head I mean, he rots me. Everybody rots
'But there is going to be flying-quite soon.'
The little boy was too well bred to say what he thought of that.
'Anyhow,' he said, 'I wish you wouldn't write about it.'
'You'll fly-lots of times-before you die,' the father assured
The little boy looked unhappy.
The father hesitated. Then he opened a drawer and took out a
blurred and under-developed photograph. 'Come and look at this,'
The little boy came round to him. The photograph showed a stream
and a meadow beyond, and some trees, and in the air a black,
pencil-like object with flat wings on either side of it. It was
the first record of the first apparatus heavier than air that
ever maintained itself in the air by mechanical force. Across the
margin was written: 'Here we go up, up, up-from S. P. Langley,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington.'
The father watched the effect of this reassuring document upon
his son. 'Well?' he said.
'That,' said the schoolboy, after reflection, 'is only a model.'
'Model to-day, man to-morrow.'
The boy seemed divided in his allegiance. Then he decided for
what he believed quite firmly to be omniscience. 'But old
Broomie,' he said, 'he told all the boys in his class only
yesterday, "no man will ever fly." No one, he says, who has ever
shot grouse or pheasants on the wing would ever believe anything
of the sort…'
Yet that boy lived to fly across the Atlantic and edit his
At the close of the nineteenth century as a multitude of passages
in the literature of that time witness, it was thought that the
fact that man had at last had successful and profitable dealings
with the steam that scalded him and the electricity that flashed
and banged about the sky at him, was an amazing and perhaps a
culminating exercise of his intelligence and his intellectual
courage. The air of 'Nunc Dimittis' sounds in same of these
writings. 'The great things are discovered,' wrote Gerald Brown
in his summary of the nineteenth century. 'For us there remains
little but the working out of detail.' The spirit of the seeker
was still rare in the world; education was unskilled,
unstimulating, scholarly, and but little valued, and few people
even then could have realised that Science was still but the
flimsiest of trial sketches and discovery scarcely beginning. No
one seems to have been afraid of science and its possibilities.
Yet now where there had been but a score or so of seekers, there
were many thousands, and for one needle of speculation that had
been probing the curtain of appearances in 1800, there were now
hundreds. And already Chemistry, which had been content with her
atoms and molecules for the better part of a century, was
preparing herself for that vast next stride that was to
revolutionise the whole life of man from top to bottom.
One realises how crude was the science of that time when one
considers the case of the composition of air. This was
determined by that strange genius and recluse, that man of
mystery, that disembowelled intelligence, Henry Cavendish,
towards the end of the eighteenth century. So far as he was
concerned the work was admirably done. He separated all the known
ingredients of the air with a precision altogether remarkable; he
even put it upon record that he had some doubt about the purity
of the nitrogen. For more than a hundred years his determination
was repeated by chemists all the world over, his apparatus was
treasured in London, he became, as they used to say, 'classic,'
and always, at every one of the innumerable repetitions of his
experiment, that sly element argon was hiding among the nitrogen
(and with a little helium and traces of other substances, and
indeed all the hints that might have led to the new departures of
the twentieth-century chemistry), and every time it slipped
unobserved through the professorial fingers that repeated his
Is it any wonder then with this margin of inaccuracy, that up to
the very dawn of the twentieth-century scientific discovery was
still rather a procession of happy accidents than an orderly
conquest of nature?
Yet the spirit of seeking was spreading steadily through the
world. Even the schoolmaster could not check it. For the mere
secrets of nature in the nineteenth century, there were now, at
the beginning of the twentieth, myriads escaping from the
limitations of intellectual routine and the habitual life, in
Europe, in America, North and South, in Japan, in China, and all
about the world.
It was in 1910 that the parents of young Holsten, who was to be
called by a whole generation of scientific men, 'the greatest of
European chemists,' were staying in a villa near Santo Domenico,
between Fiesole and Florence. He was then only fifteen, but he
was already distinguished as a mathematician and possessed by a
savage appetite to understand. He had been particularly attracted
by the mystery of phosphorescence and its apparent unrelatedness
to every other source of light. He was to tell afterwards in his
reminiscences how he watched the fireflies drifting and glowing
among the dark trees in the garden of the villa under the warm
blue night sky of Italy; how he caught and kept them in cages,
dissected them, first studying the general anatomy of insects
very elaborately, and how he began to experiment with the effect
of various gases and varying temperature upon their light. Then
the chance present of a little scientific toy invented by Sir
William Crookes, a toy called the spinthariscope, on which radium
particles impinge upon sulphide of zinc and make it luminous,
induced him to associate the two sets of phenomena. It was a
happy association for his inquiries. It was a rare and fortunate
thing, too, that any one with the mathematical gift should have
been taken by these curiosities.
And while the boy Holsten was mooning over his fireflies at
Fiesole, a certain professor of physics named Rufus was giving a
course of afternoon lectures upon Radium and Radio-Activity in
Edinburgh. They were lectures that had attracted a very
considerable amount of attention. He gave them in a small
lecture-theatre that had become more and more congested as his
course proceeded. At his concluding discussion it was crowded
right up to the ceiling at the back, and there people were
standing, standing without any sense of fatigue, so fascinating
did they find his suggestions. One youngster in particular, a
chuckle-headed, scrub-haired lad from the Highlands, sat hugging
his knee with great sand-red hands and drinking in every word,
eyes aglow, cheeks flushed, and ears burning.
'And so,' said the professor, 'we see that this Radium, which
seemed at first a fantastic exception, a mad inversion of all
that was most established and fundamental in the constitution of
noticeably and forcibly what probably all the other elements are
doing with an imperceptible slowness. It is like the single
voice crying aloud that betrays the silent breathing multitude in
the darkness. Radium is an element that is breaking up and flying
to pieces. But perhaps all elements are doing that at less
perceptible rates. Uranium certainly is; thorium-the stuff of
this incandescent gas mantle-certainly is; actinium. I feel
that we are but beginning the list. And we know now that the
atom, that once we thought hard and impenetrable, and indivisible
and final and-lifeless-lifeless, is really a reservoir of
immense energy. That is the most wonderful thing about all this
of bricks, as solid building material, as substantial matter, as
unit masses of lifeless stuff, and behold! these bricks are
boxes, treasure boxes, boxes full of the intensest force. This
little bottle contains about a pint of uranium oxide; that is to
say, about fourteen ounces of the element uranium. It is worth
about a pound. And in this bottle, ladies and gentlemen, in the
atoms in this bottle there slumbers at least as much energy as we
could get by burning a hundred and sixty tons of coal. If at a
word, in one instant I could suddenly release that energy here
and now it would blow us and everything about us to fragments; if
I could turn it into the machinery that lights this city, it
could keep Edinburgh brightly lit for a week. But at present no
man knows, no man has an inkling of how this little lump of stuff
can be made to hasten the release of its store. It does release
it, as a burn trickles. Slowly the uranium changes into radium,
the radium changes into a gas called the radium emanation, and
that again to what we call radium A, and so the process goes on,
giving out energy at every stage, until at last we reach the last
stage of all, which is, so far as we can tell at present, lead.
But we cannot hasten it.'
'I take ye, man,' whispered the chuckle-headed lad, with his red
hands tightening like a vice upon his knee. 'I take ye, man. Go
on! Oh, go on!'
The professor went on after a little pause. 'Why is the change
gradual?' he asked. 'Why does only a minute fraction of the
radium disintegrate in any particular second? Why does it dole
itself out so slowly and so exactly? Why does not all the
uranium change to radium and all the radium change to the next
lowest thing at once? Why this decay by driblets; why not a decay
en masse?… Suppose presently we find it is possible to
quicken that decay?'
The chuckle-headed lad nodded rapidly. The wonderful inevitable
idea was coming. He drew his knee up towards his chin and swayed
in his seat with excitement. 'Why not?' he echoed, 'why not?'
The professor lifted his forefinger.
'Given that knowledge,' he said, 'mark what we should be able to
do! We should not only be able to use this uranium and thorium;
not only should we have a source of power so potent that a man
might carry in his hand the energy to light a city for a year,
fight a fleet of battleships, or drive one of our giant liners
across the Atlantic; but we should also have a clue that would
enable us at last to quicken the process of disintegration in all
the other elements, where decay is still so slow as to escape our
finest measurements. Every scrap of solid matter in the world
would become an available reservoir of concentrated force. Do
you realise, ladies and gentlemen, what these things would mean
The scrub head nodded. 'Oh! go on. Go on.'
'It would mean a change in human conditions that I can only
compare to the discovery of fire, that first discovery that
lifted man above the brute. We stand to-day towards
radio-activity as our ancestor stood towards fire before he had
learnt to make it. He knew it then only as a strange thing
utterly beyond his control, a flare on the crest of the volcano,
a red destruction that poured through the forest. So it is that
we know radio-activity to-day. This-this is the dawn of a new
day in human living. At the climax of that civilisation which
had its beginning in the hammered flint and the fire-stick of the
savage, just when it is becoming apparent that our
ever-increasing needs cannot be borne indefinitely by our present
sources of energy, we discover suddenly the possibility of an
entirely new civilisation. The energy we need for our very
existence, and with which Nature supplies us still so grudgingly,
is in reality locked up in inconceivable quantities all about us.
We cannot pick that lock at present, but--'
He paused. His voice sank so that everybody strained a little to
He put up that lean finger again, his solitary gesture.
'And then,' he said…
'Then that perpetual struggle for existence, that perpetual
struggle to live on the bare surplus of Nature's energies will
cease to be the lot of Man. Man will step from the pinnacle of
this civilisation to the beginning of the next. I have no
eloquence, ladies and gentlemen, to express the vision of man's
material destiny that opens out before me. I see the desert
continents transformed, the poles no longer wildernesses of ice,
the whole world once more Eden. I see the power of man reach out
among the stars…'
He stopped abruptly with a catching of the breath that many an
actor or orator might have envied.
The lecture was over, the audience hung silent for a few seconds,
sighed, became audible, stirred, fluttered, prepared for
dispersal. More light was turned on and what had been a dim mass
of figures became a bright confusion of movement. Some of the
people signalled to friends, some crowded down towards the
platform to examine the lecturer's apparatus and make notes of
his diagrams. But the chuckle-headed lad with the scrub hair
wanted no such detailed frittering away of the thoughts that had
inspired him. He wanted to be alone with them; he elbowed his way
out almost fiercely, he made himself as angular and bony as a
cow, fearing lest some one should speak to him, lest some one
should invade his glowing sphere of enthusiasm.
He went through the streets with a rapt face, like a saint who
sees visions. He had arms disproportionately long, and
ridiculous big feet.
He must get alone, get somewhere high out of all this crowding of
commonness, of everyday life.
He made his way to the top of Arthur's Seat, and there he sat for
a long time in the golden evening sunshine, still, except that
ever and again he whispered to himself some precious phrase that
had stuck in his mind.
'If,' he whispered, 'if only we could pick that lock…'
The sun was sinking over the distant hills. Already it was shorn
of its beams, a globe of ruddy gold, hanging over the great banks
of cloud that would presently engulf it.
'Eh!' said the youngster. 'Eh!'
He seemed to wake up at last out of his entrancement, and the red
sun was there before his eyes. He stared at it, at first without
intelligence, and then with a gathering recognition. Into his
mind came a strange echo of that ancestral fancy, that fancy of a
Stone Age savage, dead and scattered bones among the drift two
hundred thousand years ago.
'Ye auld thing,' he said-and his eyes were shining, and he made
a kind of grabbing gesture with his hand; 'ye auld red thing…
We'll have ye YET.'
CHAPTER THE FIRST
THE NEW SOURCE OF ENERGY
The problem which was already being mooted by such scientific men
as Ramsay, Rutherford, and Soddy, in the very beginning of the
twentieth century, the problem of inducing radio-activity in the
heavier elements and so tapping the internal energy of atoms, was
solved by a wonderful combination of induction, intuition, and
luck by Holsten so soon as the year 1933. From the first
detection of radio-activity to its first subjugation to human
purpose measured little more than a quarter of a century. For
twenty years after that, indeed, minor difficulties prevented any
striking practical application of his success, but the essential
thing was done, this new boundary in the march of human progress
was crossed, in that year. He set up atomic disintegration in a
minute particle of bismuth; it exploded with great violence into
a heavy gas of extreme radio-activity, which disintegrated in its
turn in the course of seven days, and it was only after another
year's work that he was able to show practically that the last
result of this rapid release of energy was gold. But the thing
was done-at the cost of a blistered chest and an injured finger,
and from the moment when the invisible speck of bismuth flashed
into riving and rending energy, Holsten knew that he had opened a
way for mankind, however narrow and dark it might still be, to
worlds of limitless power. He recorded as much in the strange
diary biography he left the world, a diary that was up to that
particular moment a mass of speculations and calculations, and
which suddenly became for a space an amazingly minute and human
record of sensations and emotions that all humanity might
He gives, in broken phrases and often single words, it is true,
but none the less vividly for that, a record of the twenty-four
hours following the demonstration of the correctness of his
intricate tracery of computations and guesses. 'I thought I
should not sleep,' he writes-the words he omitted are supplied
in brackets-(on account of) 'pain in (the) hand and chest and
(the) wonder of what I had done… Slept like a child.'
He felt strange and disconcerted the next morning; he had nothing
to do, he was living alone in apartments in Bloomsbury, and he
decided to go up to Hampstead Heath, which he had known when he
was a little boy as a breezy playground. He went up by the
underground tube that was then the recognised means of travel
from one part of London to another, and walked up Heath Street
from the tube station to the open heath. He found it a gully of
planks and scaffoldings between the hoardings of house-wreckers.
The spirit of the times had seized upon that narrow, steep, and
winding thoroughfare, and was in the act of making it commodious
and interesting, according to the remarkable ideals of
Neo-Georgian aestheticism. Such is the illogical quality of
humanity that Holsten, fresh from work that was like a petard
under the seat of current civilisation, saw these changes with
regret. He had come up Heath Street perhaps a thousand times, had
known the windows of all the little shops, spent hours in the
vanished cinematograph theatre, and marvelled at the high-flung
early Georgian houses upon the westward bank of that old gully of
a thoroughfare; he felt strange with all these familiar things
gone. He escaped at last with a feeling of relief from this
choked alley of trenches and holes and cranes, and emerged upon
the old familiar scene about the White Stone Pond. That, at
least, was very much as it used to be.
There were still the fine old red-brick houses to left and right
of him; the reservoir had been improved by a portico of marble,
the white-fronted inn with the clustering flowers above its
portico still stood out at the angle of the ways, and the blue
view to Harrow Hill and Harrow spire, a view of hills and trees
and shining waters and wind-driven cloud shadows, was like the
opening of a great window to the ascending Londoner. All that
was very reassuring. There was the same strolling crowd, the same
perpetual miracle of motors dodging through it harmlessly,
escaping headlong into the country from the Sabbatical stuffiness
behind and below them. There was a band still, a women's suffrage
meeting-for the suffrage women had won their way back to the
tolerance, a trifle derisive, of the populace again-socialist
orators, politicians, a band, and the same wild uproar of dogs,
frantic with the gladness of their one blessed weekly release
from the back yard and the chain. And away along the road to the
Spaniards strolled a vast multitude, saying, as ever, that the
view of London was exceptionally clear that day.
Young Holsten's face was white. He walked with that uneasy
affectation of ease that marks an overstrained nervous system and
an under-exercised body. He hesitated at the White Stone Pond
whether to go to the left of it or the right, and again at the
fork of the roads. He kept shifting his stick in his hand, and
every now and then he would get in the way of people on the
footpath or be jostled by them because of the uncertainty of his
movements. He felt, he confesses, 'inadequate to ordinary
mischievous. All the people about him looked fairly prosperous,
fairly happy, fairly well adapted to the lives they had to
lead-a week of work and a Sunday of best clothes and mild
promenading-and he had launched something that would disorganise
the entire fabric that held their contentments and ambitions and
satisfactions together. 'Felt like an imbecile who has presented
a box full of loaded revolvers to a Creche,' he notes.
He met a man named Lawson, an old school-fellow, of whom history
now knows only that he was red-faced and had a terrier. He and
Holsten walked together and Holsten was sufficiently pale and
jumpy for Lawson to tell him he overworked and needed a holiday.
They sat down at a little table outside the County Council house
of Golders Hill Park and sent one of the waiters to the Bull and
Bush for a couple of bottles of beer, no doubt at Lawson's
suggestion. The beer warmed Holsten's rather dehumanised system.
He began to tell Lawson as clearly as he could to what his great
discovery amounted. Lawson feigned attention, but indeed he had
end, before many years are out, this must eventually change war,
transit, lighting, building, and every sort of manufacture, even
agriculture, every material human concern--'
Then Holsten stopped short. Lawson had leapt to his feet. 'Damn
that dog!' cried Lawson. 'Look at it now. Hi! Here!
Phewoo-phewoo phewoo! Come HERE, Bobs! Come HERE!'
The young scientific man, with his bandaged hand, sat at the
green table, too tired to convey the wonder of the thing he had
sought so long, his friend whistled and bawled for his dog, and
the Sunday people drifted about them through the spring sunshine.
For a moment or so Holsten stared at Lawson in astonishment, for
he had been too intent upon what he had been saying to realise
how little Lawson had attended.
Then he remarked, 'WELL!' and smiled faintly, and-finished the
tankard of beer before him.
Lawson sat down again. 'One must look after one's dog,' he said,
with a note of apology. 'What was it you were telling me?'
In the evening Holsten went out again. He walked to Saint Paul's
Cathedral, and stood for a time near the door listening to the
evening service. The candles upon the altar reminded him in some
odd way of the fireflies at Fiesole. Then he walked back through
the evening lights to Westminster. He was oppressed, he was
indeed scared, by his sense of the immense consequences of his
discovery. He had a vague idea that night that he ought not to
publish his results, that they were premature, that some secret
association of wise men should take care of his work and hand it
on from generation to generation until the world was riper for
its practical application. He felt that nobody in all the
change, they trusted the world for what it was, not to alter too
rapidly, to respect their trusts, their assurances, their habits,
their little accustomed traffics and hard-won positions.
He went into those little gardens beneath the over-hanging,
brightly-lit masses of the Savoy Hotel and the Hotel Cecil. He
sat down on a seat and became aware of the talk of the two people
next to him. It was the talk of a young couple evidently on the
eve of marriage. The man was congratulating himself on having
regular employment at last; 'they like me,' he said, 'and I like
the job. If I work up-in'r dozen years or so I ought to be
gettin' somethin' pretty comfortable. That's the plain sense of
it, Hetty. There ain't no reason whatsoever why we shouldn't get
along very decently-very decently indeed.'
So it struck upon Holsten's mind. He added in his diary, 'I had
a sense of all this globe as that…'
By that phrase he meant a kind of clairvoyant vision of this
populated world as a whole, of all its cities and towns and
villages, its high roads and the inns beside them, its gardens
and farms and upland pastures, its boatmen and sailors, its ships
coming along the great circles of the ocean, its time-tables and
appointments and payments and dues as it were one unified and
progressive spectacle. Sometimes such visions came to him; his
mind, accustomed to great generalisations and yet acutely
sensitive to detail, saw things far more comprehensively than the
minds of most of his contemporaries. Usually the teeming sphere
moved on to its predestined ends and circled with a stately
swiftness on its path about the sun. Usually it was all a living
progress that altered under his regard. But now fatigue a little
deadened him to that incessancy of life, it seemed now just an
eternal circling. He lapsed to the commoner persuasion of the
great fixities and recurrencies of the human routine. The remoter
past of wandering savagery, the inevitable changes of to-morrow
were veiled, and he saw only day and night, seed-time and
harvest, loving and begetting, births and deaths, walks in the
summer sunlight and tales by the winter fireside, the ancient
sequence of hope and acts and age perennially renewed, eddying on
for ever and ever, save that now the impious hand of research was
raised to overthrow this drowsy, gently humming, habitual, sunlit
spinning-top of man's existence…
For a time he forgot wars and crimes and hates and persecutions,
famine and pestilence, the cruelties of beasts, weariness and the
all mankind in terms of the humble Sunday couple upon the seat
beside him, who schemed their inglorious outlook and improbable
contentments. 'I had a sense of all this globe as that.'
His intelligence struggled against this mood and struggled for a
time in vain. He reassured himself against the invasion of this
disconcerting idea that he was something strange and inhuman, a
loose wanderer from the flock returning with evil gifts from his
sustained unnatural excursions amidst the darknesses and
phosphorescences beneath the fair surfaces of life. Man had not
been always thus; the instincts and desires of the little home,
the little plot, was not all his nature; also he was an
adventurer, an experimenter, an unresting curiosity, an
insatiable desire. For a few thousand generations indeed he had
tilled the earth and followed the seasons, saying his prayers,
grinding his corn and trampling the October winepress, yet not
for so long but that he was still full of restless stirrings.
'If there have been home and routine and the field,' thought
Holsten, 'there have also been wonder and the sea.'
He turned his head and looked up over the back of the seat at the
great hotels above him, full of softly shaded lights and the glow
and colour and stir of feasting. Might his gift to mankind mean
simply more of that?…
He got up and walked out of the garden, surveyed a passing
tram-car, laden with warm light, against the deep blues of
evening, dripping and trailing long skirts of shining reflection;
he crossed the Embankment and stood for a time watching the dark
river and turning ever and again to the lit buildings and
bridges. His mind began to scheme conceivable replacements of all
those clustering arrangements…
'It has begun,' he writes in the diary in which these things are
recorded. 'It is not for me to reach out to consequences I cannot
the armoury of Change. If I were to burn all these papers,
before a score of years had passed, some other man would be doing
Holsten, before he died, was destined to see atomic energy
dominating every other source of power, but for some years yet a
vast network of difficulties in detail and application kept the
new discovery from any effective invasion of ordinary life. The
path from the laboratory to the workshop is sometimes a tortuous
one; electro-magnetic radiations were known and demonstrated for
twenty years before Marconi made them practically available, and
in the same way it was twenty years before induced radio-activity
could be brought to practical utilisation. The thing, of course,
was discussed very much, more perhaps at the time of its
discovery than during the interval of technical adaptation, but
with very little realisation of the huge economic revolution that
impended. What chiefly impressed the journalists of 1933 was the
production of gold from bismuth and the realisation albeit upon
unprofitable lines of the alchemist's dreams; there was a
considerable amount of discussion and expectation in that more
intelligent section of the educated publics of the various
civilised countries which followed scientific development; but
for the most part the world went about its business-as the
inhabitants of those Swiss villages which live under the
perpetual threat of overhanging rocks and mountains go about
their business-just as though the possible was impossible, as
though the inevitable was postponed for ever because it was
It was in 1953 that the first Holsten-Roberts engine brought
induced radio-activity into the sphere of industrial production,
and its first general use was to replace the steam-engine in
electrical generating stations. Hard upon the appearance of this
came the Dass-Tata engine-the invention of two among the
brilliant galaxy of Bengali inventors the modernisation of Indian
thought was producing at this time-which was used chiefly for
automobiles, aeroplanes, waterplanes, and such-like, mobile
purposes. The American Kemp engine, differing widely in principle
but equally practicable, and the Krupp-Erlanger came hard upon
the heels of this, and by the autumn of 1954 a gigantic
replacement of industrial methods and machinery was in progress
all about the habitable globe. Small wonder was this when the
cost, even of these earliest and clumsiest of atomic engines, is
compared with that of the power they superseded. Allowing for
lubrication the Dass-Tata engine, once it was started cost a
penny to run thirty-seven miles, and added only nine and quarter
pounds to the weight of the carriage it drove. It made the heavy
alcohol-driven automobile of the time ridiculous in appearance as
well as preposterously costly. For many years the price of coal
and every form of liquid fuel had been clambering to levels that
made even the revival of the draft horse seem a practicable
possibility, and now with the abrupt relaxation of this
stringency, the change in appearance of the traffic upon the
world's roads was instantaneous. In three years the frightful
armoured monsters that had hooted and smoked and thundered about
the world for four awful decades were swept away to the dealers
in old metal, and the highways thronged with light and clean and
shimmering shapes of silvered steel. At the same time a new
impetus was given to aviation by the relatively enormous power
for weight of the atomic engine, it was at last possible to add
Redmayne's ingenious helicopter ascent and descent engine to the
vertical propeller that had hitherto been the sole driving force
of the aeroplane without overweighting the machine, and men found
themselves possessed of an instrument of flight that could hover
or ascend or descend vertically and gently as well as rush wildly
through the air. The last dread of flying vanished. As the
journalists of the time phrased it, this was the epoch of the
Leap into the Air. The new atomic aeroplane became indeed a
mania; every one of means was frantic to possess a thing so
controllable, so secure and so free from the dust and danger of
the road, and in France alone in the year 1943 thirty thousand of
these new aeroplanes were manufactured and licensed, and soared
humming softly into the sky.
And with an equal speed atomic engines of various types invaded
industrialism. The railways paid enormous premiums for priority
in the delivery of atomic traction engines, atomic smelting was
embarked upon so eagerly as to lead to a number of disastrous
explosions due to inexperienced handling of the new power, and
the revolutionary cheapening of both materials and electricity
made the entire reconstruction of domestic buildings a matter
merely dependent upon a reorganisation of the methods of the
builder and the house-furnisher. Viewed from the side of the new
power and from the point of view of those who financed and
manufactured the new engines and material it required the age of
the Leap into the Air was one of astonishing prosperity.
Patent-holding companies were presently paying dividends of five
or six hundred per cent. and enormous fortunes were made and
fantastic wages earned by all who were concerned in the new
developments. This prosperity was not a little enhanced by the
fact that in both the Dass-Tata and Holsten-Roberts engines one
of the recoverable waste products was gold-the former
disintegrated dust of bismuth and the latter dust of lead-and
that this new supply of gold led quite naturally to a rise in
prices throughout the world.
This spectacle of feverish enterprise was productivity, this
crowding flight of happy and fortunate rich people-every great
city was as if a crawling ant-hill had suddenly taken wing-was
the bright side of the opening phase of the new epoch in human
history. Beneath that brightness was a gathering darkness, a
deepening dismay. If there was a vast development of production
there was also a huge destruction of values. These glaring
factories working night and day, these glittering new vehicles
swinging noiselessly along the roads, these flights of
dragon-flies that swooped and soared and circled in the air, were
indeed no more than the brightnesses of lamps and fires that
gleam out when the world sinks towards twilight and the night.
Between these high lights accumulated disaster, social
catastrophe. The coal mines were manifestly doomed to closure at
no very distant date, the vast amount of capital invested in oil
was becoming unsaleable, millions of coal miners, steel workers
upon the old lines, vast swarms of unskilled or under-skilled
labourers in innumerable occupations, were being flung out of
employment by the superior efficiency of the new machinery, the
rapid fall in the cost of transit was destroying high land values
at every centre of population, the value of existing house
property had become problematical, gold was undergoing headlong
depreciation, all the securities upon which the credit of the
world rested were slipping and sliding, banks were tottering, the
stock exchanges were scenes of feverish panic;-this was the
reverse of the spectacle, these were the black and monstrous
under-consequences of the Leap into the Air.
There is a story of a demented London stockbroker running out
into Threadneedle Street and tearing off his clothes as he ran.
'The Steel Trust is scrapping the whole of its plant,' he
shouted. 'The State Railways are going to scrap all their
engines. Everything's going to be scrapped-everything. Come and
scrap the mint, you fellows, come and scrap the mint!'
In the year 1955 the suicide rate for the United States of
America quadrupled any previous record. There was an enormous
increase also in violent crime throughout the world. The thing
had come upon an unprepared humanity; it seemed as though human
society was to be smashed by its own magnificent gains.
For there had been no foresight of these things. There had been
no attempt anywhere even to compute the probable dislocations
this flood of inexpensive energy would produce in human affairs.
The world in these days was not really governed at all, in the
sense in which government came to be understood in subsequent
years. Government was a treaty, not a design; it was forensic,
conservative, disputatious, unseeing, unthinking, uncreative;
throughout the world, except where the vestiges of absolutism
still sheltered the court favourite and the trusted servant, it
was in the hands of the predominant caste of lawyers, who had an
enormous advantage in being the only trained caste. Their
professional education and every circumstance in the manipulation
of the fantastically naive electoral methods by which they
clambered to power, conspired to keep them contemptuous of facts,
conscientiously unimaginative, alert to claim and seize
advantages and suspicious of every generosity. Government was an
obstructive business of energetic fractions, progress went on
outside of and in spite of public activities, and legislation was
the last crippling recognition of needs so clamorous and
imperative and facts so aggressively established as to invade
even the dingy seclusions of the judges and threaten the very
existence of the otherwise inattentive political machine.
The world was so little governed that with the very coming of
plenty, in the full tide of an incalculable abundance, when
everything necessary to satisfy human needs and everything
necessary to realise such will and purpose as existed then in
human hearts was already at hand, one has still to tell of
suffering. There was no scheme for the distribution of this vast
new wealth that had come at last within the reach of men; there
was no clear conception that any such distribution was possible.
As one attempts a comprehensive view of those opening years of
the new age, as one measures it against the latent achievement
that later years have demonstrated, one begins to measure the
blindness, the narrowness, the insensate unimaginative
individualism of the pre-atomic time. Under this tremendous dawn
of power and freedom, under a sky ablaze with promise, in the
very presence of science standing like some bountiful goddess
over all the squat darknesses of human life, holding patiently in
her strong arms, until men chose to take them, security, plenty,
the solution of riddles, the key of the bravest adventures, in
her very presence, and with the earnest of her gifts in court,
the world was to witness such things as the squalid spectacle of
the Dass-Tata patent litigation.
There in a stuffy court in London, a grimy oblong box of a room,
during the exceptional heat of the May of 1956, the leading
counsel of the day argued and shouted over a miserable little
matter of more royalties or less and whether the Dass-Tata
company might not bar the Holsten-Roberts' methods of utilising
the new power. The Dass-Tata people were indeed making a
strenuous attempt to secure a world monopoly in atomic
engineering. The judge, after the manner of those times, sat
raised above the court, wearing a preposterous gown and a foolish
huge wig, the counsel also wore dirty-looking little wigs and
queer black gowns over their usual costume, wigs and gowns that
were held to be necessary to their pleading, and upon unclean
wooden benches stirred and whispered artful-looking solicitors,
busily scribbling reporters, the parties to the case, expert
witnesses, interested people, and a jostling confusion of
subpoenaed persons, briefless young barristers (forming a style
on the most esteemed and truculent examples) and casual eccentric
spectators who preferred this pit of iniquity to the free
sunlight outside. Every one was damply hot, the examining King's
Counsel wiped the perspiration from his huge, clean-shaven upper
lip; and into this atmosphere of grasping contention and human
exhalations the daylight filtered through a window that was
manifestly dirty. The jury sat in a double pew to the left of
the judge, looking as uncomfortable as frogs that have fallen
into an ash-pit, and in the witness-box lied the would-be
omnivorous Dass, under cross-examination…
Holsten had always been accustomed to publish his results so soon
as they appeared to him to be sufficiently advanced to furnish a
basis for further work, and to that confiding disposition and one
happy flash of adaptive invention the alert Dass owed his
But indeed a vast multitude of such sharp people were clutching,
patenting, pre-empting, monopolising this or that feature of the
new development, seeking to subdue this gigantic winged power to
the purposes of their little lusts and avarice. That trial is
just one of innumerable disputes of the same kind. For a time the
face of the world festered with patent legislation. It chanced,
however, to have one oddly dramatic feature in the fact that
Holsten, after being kept waiting about the court for two days as
a beggar might have waited at a rich man's door, after being
bullied by ushers and watched by policemen, was called as a
witness, rather severely handled by counsel, and told not to
'quibble' by the judge when he was trying to be absolutely
The judge scratched his nose with a quill pen, and sneered at
Holsten's astonishment round the corner of his monstrous wig.
Holsten was a great man, was he? Well, in a law-court great men
were put in their places.
'We want to know has the plaintiff added anything to this or
hasn't he?' said the judge, 'we don't want to have your views
whether Sir Philip Dass's improvements were merely superficial
adaptations or whether they were implicit in your paper. No
doubt-after the manner of inventors-you think most things that
were ever likely to be discovered are implicit in your papers. No
modifications are merely superficial. Inventors have a way of
thinking that. The law isn't concerned with that sort of thing.
The law has nothing to do with the vanity of inventors. The law
is concerned with the question whether these patent rights have
the novelty the plantiff claims for them. What that admission
may or may not stop, and all these other things you are saying in
your overflowing zeal to answer more than the questions addressed
to you-none of these things have anything whatever to do with
the case in hand. It is a matter of constant astonishment to me
in this court to see how you scientific men, with all your
extraordinary claims to precision and veracity, wander and wander
so soon as you get into the witness-box. I know no more
unsatisfactory class of witness. The plain and simple question
knowledge and methods in this matter or has he not? We don't
want to know whether they were large or small additions nor what
the consequences of your admission may be. That you will leave to
Holsten was silent.
'Surely?' said the judge, almost pityingly.
'No, he hasn't,' said Holsten, perceiving that for once in his
life he must disregard infinitesimals.
'Ah!' said the judge, 'now why couldn't you say that when counsel
put the question?…'
An entry in Holsten's diary-autobiography, dated five days later,
runs: 'Still amazed. The law is the most dangerous thing in this
country. It is hundreds of years old. It hasn't an idea. The
oldest of old bottles and this new wine, the most explosive wine.
Something will overtake them.'
There was a certain truth in Holsten's assertion that the law was
and widely accepted ideas, an archaic thing. While almost all the
material and methods of life had been changing rapidly and were
now changing still more rapidly, the law-courts and the
legislatures of the world were struggling desperately to meet
modern demands with devices and procedures, conceptions of rights
and property and authority and obligation that dated from the
rude compromises of relatively barbaric times. The horse-hair
wigs and antic dresses of the British judges, their musty courts
and overbearing manners, were indeed only the outward and visible
intimations of profounder anachronisms. The legal and political
organisation of the earth in the middle twentieth century was
indeed everywhere like a complicated garment, outworn yet strong,
that now fettered the governing body that once it had protected.
Yet that same spirit of free-thinking and outspoken publication
that in the field of natural science had been the beginning of
the conquest of nature, was at work throughout all the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries preparing the spirit of the new world
within the degenerating body of the old. The idea of a greater
subordination of individual interests and established
institutions to the collective future, is traceable more and more
clearly in the literature of those times, and movement after
movement fretted itself away in criticism of and opposition to
first this aspect and then that of the legal, social, and
political order. Already in the early nineteenth century Shelley,
with no scrap of alternative, is denouncing the established
rulers of the world as Anarchs, and the entire system of ideas
and suggestions that was known as Socialism, and more
particularly its international side, feeble as it was in creative
proposals or any method of transition, still witnesses to the
growth of a conception of a modernised system of
inter-relationships that should supplant the existing tangle of
proprietary legal ideas.
The word 'Sociology' was invented by Herbert Spencer, a popular
writer upon philosophical subjects, who flourished about the
middle of the nineteenth century, but the idea of a state,
planned as an electric-traction system is planned, without
reference to pre-existing apparatus, upon scientific lines, did
not take a very strong hold upon the popular imagination of the
world until the twentieth century. Then, the growing impatience
of the American people with the monstrous and socially paralysing
party systems that had sprung out of their absurd electoral
arrangements, led to the appearance of what came to be called the
'Modern State' movement, and a galaxy of brilliant writers, in
America, Europe, and the East, stirred up the world to the
thought of bolder rearrangements of social interaction, property,
employment, education, and government, than had ever been
contemplated before. No doubt these Modern State ideas were very
largely the reflection upon social and political thought of the
vast revolution in material things that had been in progress for
two hundred years, but for a long time they seemed to be having
Rousseau and Voltaire seemed to have had at the time of the death
of the latter. They were fermenting in men's minds, and it needed
only just such social and political stresses as the coming of the
atomic mechanisms brought about, to thrust them forward abruptly
into crude and startling realisation.
Frederick Barnet's Wander Jahre is one of those autobiographical
novels that were popular throughout the third and fourth decades
of the twentieth century. It was published in 1970, and one must
than in a literal sense. It is indeed an allusive title,
carrying the world back to the Wilhelm Meister of Goethe, a
century and a half earlier.
Its author, Frederick Barnet, gives a minute and curious history
of his life and ideas between his nineteenth and his twenty-third
birthdays. He was neither a very original nor a very brilliant
man, but he had a trick of circumstantial writing; and though no
authentic portrait was to survive for the information of
posterity, he betrays by a score of casual phrases that he was
short, sturdy, inclined to be plump, with a 'rather blobby' face,
and full, rather projecting blue eyes. He belonged until the
financial debacle of 1956 to the class of fairly prosperous
people, he was a student in London, he aeroplaned to Italy and
then had a pedestrian tour from Genoa to Rome, crossed in the air
to Greece and Egypt, and came back over the Balkans and Germany.
His family fortunes, which were largely invested in bank shares,
coal mines, and house property, were destroyed. Reduced to
penury, he sought to earn a living. He suffered great hardship,
and was then caught up by the war and had a year of soldiering,
first as an officer in the English infantry and then in the army
of pacification. His book tells all these things so simply and
at the same time so explicitly, that it remains, as it were, an
eye by which future generations may have at least one man's
vision of the years of the Great Change.
And he was, he tells us, a 'Modern State' man 'by instinct' from
the beginning. He breathed in these ideas in the class rooms and
laboratories of the Carnegie Foundation school that rose, a long
and delicately beautiful facade, along the South Bank of the
Thames opposite the ancient dignity of Somerset House. Such
thought was interwoven with the very fabric of that pioneer
school in the educational renascence in England. After the
customary exchange years in Heidelberg and Paris, he went into
the classical school of London University. The older so-called
'classical' education of the British pedagogues, probably the
most paralysing, ineffective, and foolish routine that ever
wasted human life, had already been swept out of this great
institution in favour of modern methods; and he learnt Greek and
Latin as well as he had learnt German, Spanish, and French, so
that he wrote and spoke them freely, and used them with an
unconscious ease in his study of the foundation civilisations of
the European system to which they were the key. (This change was
still so recent that he mentions an encounter in Rome with an
'Oxford don' who 'spoke Latin with a Wiltshire accent and
manifest discomfort, wrote Greek letters with his tongue out, and
seemed to think a Greek sentence a charm when it was a quotation
and an impropriety when it wasn't.')
Barnet saw the last days of the coal-steam engines upon the
English railways and the gradual cleansing of the London
atmosphere as the smoke-creating sea-coal fires gave place to
electric heating. The building of laboratories at Kensington was
still in progress, and he took part in the students' riots that
delayed the removal of the Albert Memorial. He carried a banner
with 'We like Funny Statuary' on one side, and on the other
'Seats and Canopies for Statues, Why should our Great Departed
Stand in the Rain?' He learnt the rather athletic aviation of
those days at the University grounds at Sydenham, and he was
fined for flying over the new prison for political libellers at
Wormwood Scrubs, 'in a manner calculated to exhilarate the
prisoners while at exercise.' That was the time of the attempted
suppression of any criticism of the public judicature and the
place was crowded with journalists who had ventured to call
attention to the dementia of Chief Justice Abrahams. Barnet was
not a very good aviator, he confesses he was always a little
afraid of his machine-there was excellent reason for every one
to be afraid of those clumsy early types-and he never attempted
steep descents or very high flying. He also, he records, owned
one of those oil-driven motor-bicycles whose clumsy complexity
and extravagant filthiness still astonish the visitors to the
museum of machinery at South Kensington. He mentions running
over a dog and complains of the ruinous price of 'spatchcocks' in
Surrey. 'Spatchcocks,' it seems, was a slang term for crushed
He passed the examinations necessary to reduce his military
service to a minimum, and his want of any special scientific or
technical qualification and a certain precocious corpulence that
handicapped his aviation indicated the infantry of the line as
his sphere of training. That was the most generalised form of
soldiering. The development of the theory of war had been for
some decades but little assisted by any practical experience.
What fighting had occurred in recent years, had been fighting in
minor or uncivilised states, with peasant or barbaric soldiers
and with but a small equipment of modern contrivances, and the
great powers of the world were content for the most part to
maintain armies that sustained in their broader organisation the
traditions of the European wars of thirty and forty years before.
There was the infantry arm to which Barnet belonged and which was
supposed to fight on foot with a rifle and be the main portion of
the army. There were cavalry forces (horse soldiers), having a
ratio to the infantry that had been determined by the experiences
of the Franco-German war in 1871. There was also artillery, and
for some unexplained reason much of this was still drawn by
horses; though there were also in all the European armies a small
number of motor-guns with wheels so constructed that they could
go over broken ground. In addition there were large developments
of the engineering arm, concerned with motor transport,
motor-bicycle scouting, aviation, and the like.
No first-class intelligence had been sought to specialise in and
work out the problem of warfare with the new appliances and under
modern conditions, but a succession of able jurists, Lord
Haldane, Chief Justice Briggs, and that very able King's Counsel,
Philbrick, had reconstructed the army frequently and thoroughly
and placed it at last, with the adoption of national service,
upon a footing that would have seemed very imposing to the public
of 1900. At any moment the British Empire could now put a
million and a quarter of arguable soldiers upon the board of
Welt-Politik. The traditions of Japan and the Central European
armies were more princely and less forensic; the Chinese still
refused resolutely to become a military power, and maintained a
small standing army upon the American model that was said, so far
as it went, to be highly efficient, and Russia, secured by a
stringent administration against internal criticism, had scarcely
altered the design of a uniform or the organisation of a battery
since the opening decades of the century. Barnet's opinion of his
military training was manifestly a poor one, his Modern State
ideas disposed him to regard it as a bore, and his common sense
condemned it as useless. Moreover, his habit of body made him
peculiarly sensitive to the fatigues and hardships of service.
'For three days in succession we turned out before dawn and-for
no earthly reason-without breakfast,' he relates. 'I suppose
that is to show us that when the Day comes the first thing will
be to get us thoroughly uncomfortable and rotten. We then
proceeded to Kriegspiel, according to the mysterious ideas of
those in authority over us. On the last day we spent three hours
under a hot if early sun getting over eight miles of country to a
point we could have reached in a motor omnibus in nine minutes
and a half-I did it the next day in that-and then we made a
massed attack upon entrenchments that could have shot us all
about three times over if only the umpires had let them. Then
a barbarian to stick this long knife into anything living. Anyhow
in this battle I shouldn't have had a chance. Assuming that by
some miracle I hadn't been shot three times over, I was far too
hot and blown when I got up to the entrenchments even to lift my
beastly rifle. It was those others would have begun the
'For a time we were watched by two hostile aeroplanes; then our
own came up and asked them not to, and-the practice of aerial
warfare still being unknown-they very politely desisted and went
away and did dives and circles of the most charming description
over the Fox Hills.'
All Barnet's accounts of his military training were written in
the same half-contemptuous, half-protesting tone. He was of
opinion that his chances of participating in any real warfare
were very slight, and that, if after all he should participate,
it was bound to be so entirely different from these peace
manoeuvres that his only course as a rational man would be to
keep as observantly out of danger as he could until he had learnt
this quite frankly. Never was a man more free from sham heroics.
Barnet welcomed the appearance of the atomic engine with the zest
of masculine youth in all fresh machinery, and it is evident that
for some time he failed to connect the rush of wonderful new
possibilities with the financial troubles of his family. 'I knew
my father was worried,' he admits. That cast the smallest of
shadows upon his delighted departure for Italy and Greece and
Egypt with three congenial companions in one of the new atomic
models. They flew over the Channel Isles and Touraine, he
mentions, and circled about Mont Blanc-'These new helicopters,
we found,' he notes, 'had abolished all the danger and strain of
sudden drops to which the old-time aeroplanes were liable'-and
then he went on by way of Pisa, Paestum, Ghirgenti, and Athens,
to visit the pyramids by moonlight, flying thither from Cairo,
and to follow the Nile up to Khartum. Even by later standards,
it must have been a very gleeful holiday for a young man, and it
made the tragedy of his next experiences all the darker. A week
after his return his father, who was a widower, announced himself
ruined, and committed suicide by means of an unscheduled opiate.
At one blow Barnet found himself flung out of the possessing,
spending, enjoying class to which he belonged, penniless and with
no calling by which he could earn a living. He tried teaching
and some journalism, but in a little while he found himself on
the underside of a world in which he had always reckoned to live
in the sunshine. For innumerable men such an experience has
meant mental and spiritual destruction, but Barnet, in spite of
to the test, of the more valiant modern quality. He was saturated
with the creative stoicism of the heroic times that were already
dawning, and he took his difficulties and discomforts stoutly as
his appointed material, and turned them to expression.
Indeed, in his book, he thanks fortune for them. 'I might have
lived and died,' he says, 'in that neat fool's paradise of secure
lavishness above there. I might never have realised the
gathering wrath and sorrow of the ousted and exasperated masses.
In the days of my own prosperity things had seemed to me to be
very well arranged.' Now from his new point of view he was to
find they were not arranged at all; that government was a
compromise of aggressions and powers and lassitudes, and law a
convention between interests, and that the poor and the weak,
though they had many negligent masters, had few friends.
'I had thought things were looked after,' he wrote. 'It was with
a kind of amazement that I tramped the roads and starved-and
found that no one in particular cared.'
He was turned out of his lodging in a backward part of London.
'It was with difficulty I persuaded my landlady-she was a needy
widow, poor soul, and I was already in her debt-to keep an old
box for me in which I had locked a few letters, keepsakes, and
the like. She lived in great fear of the Public Health and
Morality Inspectors, because she was sometimes too poor to pay
the customary tip to them, but at last she consented to put it in
a dark tiled place under the stairs, and then I went forth into
the world-to seek first the luck of a meal and then shelter.'
He wandered down into the thronging gayer parts of London, in
which a year or so ago he had been numbered among the spenders.
London, under the Visible Smoke Law, by which any production of
visible smoke with or without excuse was punishable by a fine,
had already ceased to be the sombre smoke-darkened city of the
Victorian time; it had been, and indeed was, constantly being
rebuilt, and its main streets were already beginning to take on
those characteristics that distinguished them throughout the
latter half of the twentieth century. The insanitary horse and
the plebeian bicycle had been banished from the roadway, which
was now of a resilient, glass-like surface, spotlessly clean; and
the foot passenger was restricted to a narrow vestige of the
ancient footpath on either side of the track and forbidden at the
risk of a fine, if he survived, to cross the roadway. People
descended from their automobiles upon this pavement and went
through the lower shops to the lifts and stairs to the new ways
for pedestrians, the Rows, that ran along the front of the houses
at the level of the first story, and, being joined by frequent
bridges, gave the newer parts of London a curiously Venetian
appearance. In some streets there were upper and even third-story
Rows. For most of the day and all night the shop windows were
lit by electric light, and many establishments had made, as it
were, canals of public footpaths through their premises in order
to increase their window space.
Barnet made his way along this night-scene rather apprehensively
since the police had power to challenge and demand the Labour
Card of any indigent-looking person, and if the record failed to
show he was in employment, dismiss him to the traffic pavement
But there was still enough of his former gentility about Barnet's
appearance and bearing to protect him from this; the police, too,
had other things to think of that night, and he was permitted to
reach the galleries about Leicester Square-that great focus of
London life and pleasure.
He gives a vivid description of the scene that evening. In the
centre was a garden raised on arches lit by festoons of lights
and connected with the Rows by eight graceful bridges, beneath
which hummed the interlacing streams of motor traffic, pulsating
as the current alternated between east and west and north and
south. Above rose great frontages of intricate rather than
beautiful reinforced porcelain, studded with lights, barred by
bold illuminated advertisements, and glowing with reflections.
There were the two historical music halls of this place, the
Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, in which the municipal players
revolved perpetually through the cycle of Shakespeare's plays,
and four other great houses of refreshment and entertainment
whose pinnacles streamed up into the blue obscurity of the night.
The south side of the square was in dark contrast to the others;
it was still being rebuilt, and a lattice of steel bars
surmounted by the frozen gestures of monstrous cranes rose over
the excavated sites of vanished Victorian buildings.
This framework attracted Barnet's attention for a time to the
exclusion of other interests. It was absolutely still, it had a
dead rigidity, a stricken inaction, no one was at work upon it
and all its machinery was quiet; but the constructor's globes of
vacuum light filled its every interstice with a quivering green
moonshine and showed alert but motionless-soldier sentinels!
He asked a passing stroller, and was told that the men had struck
that day against the use of an atomic riveter that would have
doubled the individual efficiency and halved the number of steel
'Shouldn't wonder if they didn't get chucking bombs,' said
Barnet's informant, hovered for a moment, and then went on his
way to the Alhambra music hall.
Barnet became aware of an excitement in the newspaper kiosks at
the corners of the square. Something very sensational had been
flashed upon the transparencies. Forgetting for a moment his
penniless condition, he made his way over a bridge to buy a
paper, for in those days the papers, which were printed upon thin
sheets of metallic foil, were sold at determinate points by
specially licensed purveyors. Half over, he stopped short at a
change in the traffic below; and was astonished to see that the
police signals were restricting vehicles to the half roadway.
When presently he got within sight of the transparencies that had
replaced the placards of Victorian times, he read of the Great
March of the Unemployed that was already in progress through the
West End, and so without expenditure he was able to understand
what was coming.
He watched, and his book describes this procession which the
police had considered it unwise to prevent and which had been
spontaneously organised in imitation of the Unemployed
Processions of earlier times. He had expected a mob but there was
a kind of sullen discipline about the procession when at last it
arrived. What seemed for a time an unending column of men
marched wearily, marched with a kind of implacable futility,
along the roadway underneath him. He was, he says, moved to join
them, but instead he remained watching. They were a dingy,
shabby, ineffective-looking multitude, for the most part
incapable of any but obsolete and superseded types of labour.
They bore a few banners with the time-honoured inscription:
'Work, not Charity,' but otherwise their ranks were unadorned.
They were not singing, they were not even talking, there was
nothing truculent nor aggressive in their bearing, they had no
in the more prosperous parts of London. They were a sample of
that great mass of unskilled cheap labour which the now still
cheaper mechanical powers had superseded for evermore. They were
being 'scrapped'-as horses had been 'scrapped.'
Barnet leant over the parapet watching them, his mind quickened
be done for this gathering surplus of humanity? They were so
manifestly useless-and incapable-and pitiful.
What were they asking for?
They had been overtaken by unexpected things. Nobody had
It flashed suddenly into his mind just what the multitudinous
shambling enigma below meant. It was an appeal against the
unexpected, an appeal to those others who, more fortunate, seemed
wiser and more powerful, for something-for INTELLIGENCE. This
mute mass, weary footed, rank following rank, protested its
persuasion that some of these others must have foreseen these
dislocations-that anyhow they ought to have foreseen-and
That was what this crowd of wreckage was feeling and seeking so
dumbly to assert.
'Things came to me like the turning on of a light in a darkened
room,' he says. 'These men were praying to their fellow
creatures as once they prayed to God! The last thing that men
will realise about anything is that it is inanimate. They had
transferred their animation to mankind. They still believed
there was intelligence somewhere, even if it was careless or
malignant… It had only to be aroused to be
conscience-stricken, to be moved to exertion… And I saw, too,
that as yet THERE WAS NO SUCH INTELLIGENCE. The world waits for
intelligence. That intelligence has still to be made, that will
for good and order has still to be gathered together, out of
scraps of impulse and wandering seeds of benevolence and whatever
is fine and creative in our souls, into a common purpose. It's
something still to come…'
this not very heroical young man who, in any previous age, might
well have been altogether occupied with the problem of his own
individual necessities, should be able to stand there and
generalise about the needs of the race.
But upon all the stresses and conflicts of that chaotic time
there was already dawning the light of a new era. The spirit of
humanity was escaping, even then it was escaping, from its
extreme imprisonment in individuals. Salvation from the bitter
thousands of years, which men had sought in mortifications, in
the wilderness, in meditation, and by innumerable strange paths,
was coming at last with the effect of naturalness into the talk
of men, into the books they read, into their unconscious
gestures, into their newspapers and daily purposes and everyday
acts. The broad horizons, the magic possibilities that the spirit
of the seeker had revealed to them, were charming them out of
those ancient and instinctive preoccupations from which the very
threat of hell and torment had failed to drive them. And this
young man, homeless and without provision even for the immediate
hours, in the presence of social disorganisation, distress, and
us, and the very splendour of its intricate and immeasurable
difficulty filled me with exaltation. I saw that we have still
to discover government, that we have still to discover education,
which is the necessary reciprocal of government, and that all
this-in which my own little speck of a life was so manifestly
overwhelmed-this and its yesterday in Greece and Rome and Egypt
were nothing, the mere first dust swirls of the beginning, the
movements and dim murmurings of a sleeper who will presently be
And then the story tells, with an engaging simplicity, of his
and a little hungry.'
He bethought himself of the John Burns Relief Offices which stood
upon the Thames Embankment. He made his way through the
galleries of the booksellers and the National Gallery, which had
been open continuously day and night to all decently dressed
people now for more than twelve years, and across the
rose-gardens of Trafalgar Square, and so by the hotel colonnade
to the Embankment. He had long known of these admirable offices,
which had swept the last beggars and matchsellers and all the
casual indigent from the London streets, and he believed that he
would, as a matter of course, be able to procure a ticket for
food and a night's lodgings and some indication of possible
But he had not reckoned upon the new labour troubles, and when he
got to the Embankment he found the offices hopelessly congested
and besieged by a large and rather unruly crowd. He hovered for
a time on the outskirts of the waiting multitude, perplexed and
dismayed, and then he became aware of a movement, a purposive
trickling away of people, up through the arches of the great
buildings that had arisen when all the railway stations were
removed to the south side of the river, and so to the covered
ways of the Strand. And here, in the open glare of midnight, he
found unemployed men begging, and not only begging, but begging
with astonishing assurance, from the people who were emerging
from the small theatres and other such places of entertainment
which abounded in that thoroughfare.
This was an altogether unexampled thing. There had been no
begging in London streets for a quarter of a century. But that
night the police were evidently unwilling or unable to cope with
the destitute who were invading those well-kept quarters of the
town. They had become stonily blind to anything but manifest
Barnet walked through the crowd, unable to bring himself to ask;
indeed his bearing must have been more valiant than his
circumstances, for twice he says that he was begged from. Near
the Trafalgar Square gardens, a girl with reddened cheeks and
blackened eyebrows, who was walking alone, spoke to him with a
'I'm starving,' he said to her abruptly.
'Oh! poor dear!' she said; and with the impulsive generosity of
her kind, glanced round and slipped a silver piece into his
It was a gift that, in spite of the precedent of De Quincey,
might under the repressive social legislation of those times,
have brought Barnet within reach of the prison lash. But he took
it, he confesses, and thanked her as well as he was able, and
went off very gladly to get food.
A day or so later-and again his freedom to go as he pleased upon
the roads may be taken as a mark of increasing social
disorganisation and police embarrassment-he wandered out into
the open country. He speaks of the roads of that plutocratic age
as being 'fenced with barbed wire against unpropertied people,'
of the high-walled gardens and trespass warnings that kept him to
the dusty narrowness of the public ways. In the air, happy rich
people were flying, heedless of the misfortunes about them, as he
himself had been flying two years ago, and along the road swept
the new traffic, light and swift and wonderful. One was rarely
out of earshot of its whistles and gongs and siren cries even in
the field paths or over the open downs. The officials of the
labour exchanges were everywhere overworked and infuriated, the
casual wards were so crowded that the surplus wanderers slept in
ranks under sheds or in the open air, and since giving to
wayfarers had been made a punishable offence there was no longer
friendship or help for a man from the rare foot passenger or the
monstrous disregard for anything but pleasure and possession in
all those people above us, but I saw how inevitable that was, how
certainly if the richest had changed places with the poorest,
that things would have been the same. What else can happen when
men use science and every new thing that science gives, and all
their available intelligence and energy to manufacture wealth and
appliances, and leave government and education to the rustling
traditions of hundreds of years ago? Those traditions come from
the dark ages when there was really not enough for every one,
when life was a fierce struggle that might be masked but could
not be escaped. Of course this famine grabbing, this fierce
dispossession of others, must follow from such a disharmony
between material and training. Of course the rich were vulgar and
the poor grew savage and every added power that came to men made
the rich richer and the poor less necessary and less free. The
men I met in the casual wards and the relief offices were all
smouldering for revolt, talking of justice and injustice and
revenge. I saw no hope in that talk, nor in anything but
of social reconstruction was still a riddle, that no effectual
rearrangement was possible until this riddle in all its tangled
aspects was solved. 'I tried to talk to those discontented men,'
When I talked of patience and the larger scheme, they answered,
"But then we shall all be dead"-and I could not make them see,
what is so simple to my own mind, that that did not affect the
question. Men who think in lifetimes are of no use to
He does not seem to have seen a newspaper during those
wanderings, and a chance sight of the transparency of a kiosk in
the market-place at Bishop's Stortford announcing a 'Grave
International Situation' did not excite him very much. There had
been so many grave international situations in recent years.
This time it was talk of the Central European powers suddenly
attacking the Slav Confederacy, with France and England going to
the help of the Slavs.
But the next night he found a tolerable meal awaiting the
vagrants in the casual ward, and learnt from the workhouse master
that all serviceable trained men were to be sent back on the
morrow to their mobilisation centres. The country was on the eve
of war. He was to go back through London to Surrey. His first
feeling, he records, was one of extreme relief that his days of
'hopeless battering at the underside of civilisation' were at an
end. Here was something definite to do, something definitely
provided for. But his relief was greatly modified when he found
that the mobilisation arrangements had been made so hastily and
carelessly that for nearly thirty-six hours at the improvised
depot at Epsom he got nothing either to eat or to drink but a cup
of cold water. The depot was absolutely unprovisioned, and no one
was free to leave it.
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
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.
established ideas; it was with most of them, Barnet says, as it
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
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
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
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…
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 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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?
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
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
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,
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,
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
voices. How willing those men were! How ready to accept
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.
'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
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
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
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…
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
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…"
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.
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
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
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,
Firmin halted abruptly. 'But, sir!' he cried.
The king stopped six yards ahead of him and looked back at his
adviser's perspiring visage.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
'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
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,
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
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
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
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
'WELL,' he said at last. 'And I have known nothing!'
The king smiled very cheerfully. He liked these talks with
That conference upon the Brissago meadows was one of the most
heterogeneous collections of prominent people that has ever met
together. Principalities and powers, stripped and shattered until
all their pride and mystery were gone, met in a marvellous new
humility. Here were kings and emperors whose capitals were lakes
of flaming destruction, statesmen whose countries had become
chaos, scared politicians and financial potentates. Here were
leaders of thought and learned investigators dragged reluctantly
to the control of affairs. Altogether there were ninety-three of
them, Leblanc's conception of the head men of the world. They
had all come to the realisation of the simple truths that the
indefatigable Leblanc had hammered into them; and, drawing his
resources from the King of Italy, he had provisioned his
conference with a generous simplicity quite in accordance with
astonishing and entirely rational appeal. He had appointed King
Egbert the president, he believed in this young man so firmly
that he completely dominated him, and he spoke himself as a
secretary might speak from the president's left hand, and
evidently did not realise himself that he was telling them all
exactly what they had to do. He imagined he was merely
recapitulating the obvious features of the situation for their
convenience. He was dressed in ill-fitting white silk clothes,
and he consulted a dingy little packet of notes as he spoke.
They put him out. He explained that he had never spoken from
notes before, but that this occasion was exceptional.
And then King Egbert spoke as he was expected to speak, and
Leblanc's spectacles moistened at that flow of generous
sentiment, most amiably and lightly expressed. 'We haven't to
stand on ceremony,' said the king, 'we have to govern the world.
We have always pretended to govern the world and here is our
'Of course,' whispered Leblanc, nodding his head rapidly, 'of
'The world has been smashed up, and we have to put it on its
wheels again,' said King Egbert. 'And it is the simple common
sense of this crisis for all to help and none to seek advantage.
Is that our tone or not?'
The gathering was too old and seasoned and miscellaneous for any
great displays of enthusiasm, but that was its tone, and with an
astonishment that somehow became exhilarating it began to resign,
repudiate, and declare its intentions. Firmin, taking notes
behind his master, heard everything that had been foretold among
dreaming, he assisted at the proclamation of the World State, and
saw the message taken out to the wireless operators to be
throbbed all round the habitable globe. 'And next,' said King
Egbert, with a cheerful excitement in his voice, 'we have to get
every atom of Carolinum and all the plant for making it, into our
Firman was not alone in his incredulity. Not a man there who was
not a very amiable, reasonable, benevolent creature at bottom;
some had been born to power and some had happened upon it, some
had struggled to get it, not clearly knowing what it was and what
it implied, but none was irreconcilably set upon its retention at
the price of cosmic disaster. Their minds had been prepared by
circumstances and sedulously cultivated by Leblanc; and now they
took the broad obvious road along which King Egbert was leading
them, with a mingled conviction of strangeness and necessity.
Things went very smoothly; the King of Italy explained the
arrangements that had been made for the protection of the camp
from any fantastic attack; a couple of thousand of aeroplanes,
each carrying a sharpshooter, guarded them, and there was an
excellent system of relays, and at night all the sky would be
searched by scores of lights, and the admirable Leblanc gave
luminous reasons for their camping just where they were and going
on with their administrative duties forthwith. He knew of this
place, because he had happened upon it when holiday-making with
Madame Leblanc twenty years and more ago. 'There is very simple
fare at present,' he explained, 'on account of the disturbed
state of the countries about us. But we have excellent fresh
milk, good red wine, beef, bread, salad, and lemons… In a
few days I hope to place things in the hands of a more efficient
The members of the new world government dined at three long
tables on trestles, and down the middle of these tables Leblanc,
in spite of the barrenness of his menu, had contrived to have a
great multitude of beautiful roses. There was similar
accommodation for the secretaries and attendants at a lower level
down the mountain. The assembly dined as it had debated, in the
open air, and over the dark crags to the west the glowing June
sunset shone upon the banquet. There was no precedency now among
the ninety-three, and King Egbert found himself between a
pleasant little Japanese stranger in spectacles and his cousin of
Central Europe, and opposite a great Bengali leader and the
President of the United States of America. Beyond the Japanese
was Holsten, the old chemist, and Leblanc was a little way down
the other side.
The king was still cheerfully talkative and abounded in ideas. He
fell presently into an amiable controversy with the American, who
seemed to feel a lack of impressiveness in the occasion.
It was ever the Transatlantic tendency, due, no doubt, to the
necessity of handling public questions in a bulky and striking
manner, to over-emphasise and over-accentuate, and the president
was touched by his national failing. He suggested now that there
should be a new era, starting from that day as the first day of
the first year.
The king demurred.
'From this day forth, sir, man enters upon his heritage,' said
'Man,' said the king, 'is always entering upon his heritage. You
Americans have a peculiar weakness for anniversaries-if you will
forgive me saying so. Yes-I accuse you of a lust for dramatic
effect. Everything is happening always, but you want to say this
or this is the real instant in time and subordinate all the
others to it.'
The American said something about an epoch-making day.
'But surely,' said the king, 'you don't want us to condemn all
humanity to a world-wide annual Fourth of July for ever and ever
more. On account of this harmless necessary day of declarations.
No conceivable day could ever deserve that. Ah! you do not know,
as I do, the devastations of the memorable. My poor grandparents
were-RUBRICATED. The worst of these huge celebrations is that
they break up the dignified succession of one's contemporary
emotions. They interrupt. They set back. Suddenly out come the
flags and fireworks, and the old enthusiasms are furbished
up-and it's sheer destruction of the proper thing that ought to
be going on. Sufficient unto the day is the celebration thereof.
Let the dead past bury its dead. You see, in regard to the
things I hold, are august, and have a right to be lived through
on their merits. No day should be sacrificed on the grave of
departed events. What do you think of it, Wilhelm?'
had been saying.
And then, since the American pressed his idea, the king contrived
to shift the talk from the question of celebrating the epoch they
were making to the question of the probabilities that lay ahead.
Here every one became diffident. They could see the world
unified and at peace, but what detail was to follow from that
unification they seemed indisposed to discuss. This diffidence
struck the king as remarkable. He plunged upon the possibilities
of science. All the huge expenditure that had hitherto gone into
unproductive naval and military preparations, must now, he
declared, place research upon a new footing. 'Where one man
worked we will have a thousand.' He appealed to Holsten. 'We
have only begun to peep into these possibilities,' he said. 'You
at any rate have sounded the vaults of the treasure house.'
'They are unfathomable,' smiled Holsten.
'Man,' said the American, with a manifest resolve to justify and
reinstate himself after the flickering contradictions of the
king, 'Man, I say, is only beginning to enter upon his heritage.'
'Tell us some of the things you believe we shall presently learn,
give us an idea of the things we may presently do,' said the king
Holsten opened out the vistas…
'Science,' the king cried presently, 'is the new king of the
'OUR view,' said the president, 'is that sovereignty resides with
'No!' said the king, 'the sovereign is a being more subtle than
that. And less arithmetical. Neither my family nor your
emancipated people. It is something that floats about us, and
above us, and through us. It is that common impersonal will and
sense of necessity of which Science is the best understood and
most typical aspect. It is the mind of the race. It is that
which has brought us here, which has bowed us all to its
He paused and glanced down the table at Leblanc, and then
re-opened at his former antagonist.
'There is a disposition,' said the king, 'to regard this
gathering as if it were actually doing what it appears to be
doing, as if we ninety-odd men of our own free will and wisdom
were unifying the world. There is a temptation to consider
ourselves exceptionally fine fellows, and masterful men, and all
anything abler than any other casually selected body of
ninety-odd men. We are no creators, we are consequences, we are
salvagers-or salvagees. The thing to-day is not ourselves but
the wind of conviction that has blown us hither…'
The American had to confess he could hardly agree with the king's
estimate of their average.
'Holster, perhaps, and one or two others, might lift us a
little,' the king conceded. 'But the rest of us?'
His eyes flitted once more towards Leblanc.
'Look at Leblanc,' he said. 'He's just a simple soul. There are
hundreds and thousands like him. I admit, a certain dexterity, a
certain lucidity, but there is not a country town in France where
there is not a Leblanc or so to be found about two o'clock in its
principal cafe. It's just that he isn't complicated or
Super-Mannish, or any of those things that has made all he has
would have remained just what his father was, a successful
epicier, very clean, very accurate, very honest. And on holidays
he would have gone out with Madame Leblanc and her knitting in a
punt with a jar of something gentle and have sat under a large
reasonable green-lined umbrella and fished very neatly and
successfully for gudgeon…'
The president and the Japanese prince in spectacles protested
'If I do him an injustice,' said the king, 'it is only because I
want to elucidate my argument. I want to make it clear how small
are men and days, and how great is man in comparison…'
So it was King Egbert talked at Brissago after they had
proclaimed the unity of the world. Every evening after that the
assembly dined together and talked at their ease and grew
accustomed to each other and sharpened each other's ideas, and
every day they worked together, and really for a time believed
that they were inventing a new government for the world. They
discussed a constitution. But there were matters needing
attention too urgently to wait for any constitution. They
attended to these incidentally. The constitution it was that
waited. It was presently found convenient to keep the
constitution waiting indefinitely as King Egbert had foreseen,
and meanwhile, with an increasing self-confidence, that council
went on governing…
On this first evening of all the council's gatherings, after King
Egbert had talked for a long time and drunken and praised very
abundantly the simple red wine of the country that Leblanc had
procured for them, he fathered about him a group of congenial
spirits and fell into a discourse upon simplicity, praising it
above all things and declaring that the ultimate aim of art,
religion, philosophy, and science alike was to simplify. He
instanced himself as a devotee to simplicity. And Leblanc he
instanced as a crowning instance of the splendour of this
quality. Upon that they all agreed.
When at last the company about the tables broke up, the king
found himself brimming over with a peculiar affection and
admiration for Leblanc, he made his way to him and drew him aside
and broached what he declared was a small matter. There was, he
said, a certain order in his gift that, unlike all other orders
and decorations in the world, had never been corrupted. It was
reserved for elderly men of supreme distinction, the acuteness of
whose gifts was already touched to mellowness, and it had
included the greatest names of every age so far as the advisers
of his family had been able to ascertain them. At present, the
king admitted, these matters of stars and badges were rather
obscured by more urgent affairs, for his own part he had never
set any value upon them at all, but a time might come when they
would be at least interesting, and in short he wished to confer
the Order of Merit upon Leblanc. His sole motive in doing so, he
added, was his strong desire to signalise his personal esteem.
He laid his hand upon the Frenchman's shoulder as he said these
things, with an almost brotherly affection. Leblanc received this
proposal with a modest confusion that greatly enhanced the king's
opinion of his admirable simplicity. He pointed out that eager
as he was to snatch at the proffered distinction, it might at the
present stage appear invidious, and he therefore suggested that
the conferring of it should be postponed until it could be made
the crown and conclusion of his services. The king was unable to
shake this resolution, and the two men parted with expressions of
The king then summoned Firmin in order to make a short note of a
number of things that he had said during the day. But after about
twenty minutes' work the sweet sleepiness of the mountain air
overcame him, and he dismissed Firmin and went to bed and fell
asleep at once, and slept with extreme satisfaction. He had had
an active, agreeable day.
The establishment of the new order that was thus so humanly
begun, was, if one measures it by the standard of any preceding
age, a rapid progress. The fighting spirit of the world was
exhausted. Only here or there did fierceness linger. For long
decades the combative side in human affairs had been monstrously
exaggerated by the accidents of political separation. This now
became luminously plain. An enormous proportion of the force that
sustained armaments had been nothing more aggressive than the
section of the men actually enlisted for fighting ever at any
time really hungered and thirsted for bloodshed and danger. That
kind of appetite was probably never very strong in the species
after the savage stage was past. The army was a profession, in
which killing had become a disagreeable possibility rather than
an eventful certainty. If one reads the old newspapers and
periodicals of that time, which did so much to keep militarism
alive, one finds very little about glory and adventure and a
constant harping on the disagreeableness of invasion and
subjugation. In one word, militarism was funk. The belligerent
resolution of the armed Europe of the twentieth century was the
resolution of a fiercely frightened sheep to plunge. And now that
its weapons were exploding in its hands, Europe was only too
eager to drop them, and abandon this fancied refuge of violence.
For a time the whole world had been shocked into frankness;
nearly all the clever people who had hitherto sustained the
ancient belligerent separations had now been brought to realise
this atmosphere of moral renascence, there was little attempt to
get negotiable advantages out of resistance to the new order.
Human beings are foolish enough no doubt, but few have stopped to
haggle in a fire-escape. The council had its way with them. The
band of 'patriots' who seized the laboratories and arsenal just
outside Osaka and tried to rouse Japan to revolt against
inclusion in the Republic of Mankind, found they had
miscalculated the national pride and met the swift vengeance of
their own countrymen. That fight in the arsenal was a vivid
incident in this closing chapter of the history of war. To the
last the 'patriots' were undecided whether, in the event of a
defeat, they would explode their supply of atomic bombs or not.
They were fighting with swords outside the iridium doors, and the
moderates of their number were at bay and on the verge of
destruction, only ten, indeed, remained unwounded, when the
republicans burst in to the rescue…
One single monarch held out against the general acquiescence in
the new rule, and that was that strange survival of mediaevalism,
the 'Slavic Fox,' the King of the Balkans. He debated and
delayed his submissions. He showed an extraordinary combination
of cunning and temerity in his evasion of the repeated summonses
from Brissago. He affected ill-health and a great preoccupation
with his new official mistress, for his semi-barbaric court was
arranged on the best romantic models. His tactics were ably
seconded by Doctor Pestovitch, his chief minister. Failing to
establish his claims to complete independence, King Ferdinand
Charles annoyed the conference by a proposal to be treated as a
protected state. Finally he professed an unconvincing
submission, and put a mass of obstacles in the way of the
transfer of his national officials to the new government. In
these things he was enthusiastically supported by his subjects,
still for the most part an illiterate peasantry, passionately if
the effect of atomic bombs. More particularly he retained control
of all the Balkan aeroplanes.
For once the extreme naivete of Leblanc seems to have been
mitigated by duplicity. He went on with the general pacification
of the world as if the Balkan submission was made in absolute
aeroplanes that hitherto guarded the council at Brissago upon the
approaching fifteenth of July. But instead he doubled the number
upon duty on that eventful day, and made various arrangements for
their disposition. He consulted certain experts, and when he took
King Egbert into his confidence there was something in his neat
and explicit foresight that brought back to that ex-monarch's
mind his half-forgotten fantasy of Leblanc as a fisherman under a
About five o'clock in the morning of the seventeenth of July one
of the outer sentinels of the Brissago fleet, which was soaring
unobtrusively over the lower end of the lake of Garda, sighted
and hailed a strange aeroplane that was flying westward, and,
failing to get a satisfactory reply, set its wireless apparatus
talking and gave chase. A swarm of consorts appeared very
promptly over the westward mountains, and before the unknown
aeroplane had sighted Como, it had a dozen eager attendants
closing in upon it. Its driver seems to have hesitated, dropped
down among the mountains, and then turned southward in flight,
only to find an intercepting biplane sweeping across his bows. He
then went round into the eye of the rising sun, and passed within
a hundred yards of his original pursuer.
The sharpshooter therein opened fire at once, and showed an
intelligent grasp of the situation by disabling the passenger
first. The man at the wheel must have heard his companion cry out
behind him, but he was too intent on getting away to waste even a
glance behind. Twice after that he must have heard shots. He let
his engine go, he crouched down, and for twenty minutes he must
have steered in the continual expectation of a bullet. It never
came, and when at last he glanced round, three great planes were
close upon him, and his companion, thrice hit, lay dead across
his bombs. His followers manifestly did not mean either to upset
or shoot him, but inexorably they drove him down, down. At last
he was curving and flying a hundred yards or less over the level
fields of rice and maize. Ahead of him and dark against the
morning sunrise was a village with a very tall and slender
campanile and a line of cable bearing metal standards that he
could not clear. He stopped his engine abruptly and dropped flat.
He may have hoped to get at the bombs when he came down, but his
pitiless pursuers drove right over him and shot him as he fell.
Three other aeroplanes curved down and came to rest amidst grass
close by the smashed machine. Their passengers descended, and
ran, holding their light rifles in their hands towards the debris
and the two dead men. The coffin-shaped box that had occupied
the centre of the machine had broken, and three black objects,
each with two handles like the ears of a pitcher, lay peacefully
amidst the litter.
These objects were so tremendously important in the eyes of their
captors that they disregarded the two dead men who lay bloody and
broken amidst the wreckage as they might have disregarded dead
frogs by a country pathway.
'By God,' cried the first. 'Here they are!'
'And unbroken!' said the second.
'I've never seen the things before,' said the first.
'Bigger than I thought,' said the second.
The third comer arrived. He stared for a moment at the bombs and
then turned his eyes to the dead man with a crushed chest who lay
in a muddy place among the green stems under the centre of the
'One can take no risks,' he said, with a faint suggestion of
The other two now also turned to the victims. 'We must signal,'
said the first man. A shadow passed between them and the sun,
and they looked up to see the aeroplane that had fired the last
shot. 'Shall we signal?' came a megaphone hail.
'Three bombs,' they answered together.
'Where do they come from?' asked the megaphone.
The three sharpshooters looked at each other and then moved
towards the dead men. One of them had an idea. 'Signal that
first,' he said, 'while we look.' They were joined by their
aviators for the search, and all six men began a hunt that was
necessarily brutal in its haste, for some indication of identity.
They examined the men's pockets, their bloodstained clothes, the
machine, the framework. They turned the bodies over and flung
them aside. There was not a tattoo mark… Everything was
elaborately free of any indication of its origin.
'We can't find out!' they called at last.
'Not a sign?'
'Not a sign.'
'I'm coming down,' said the man overhead…
The Slavic fox stood upon a metal balcony in his picturesque Art
Nouveau palace that gave upon the precipice that overhung his
bright little capital, and beside him stood Pestovitch, grizzled
and cunning, and now full of an ill-suppressed excitement. Behind
them the window opened into a large room, richly decorated in
aluminium and crimson enamel, across which the king, as he
glanced ever and again over his shoulder with a gesture of
inquiry, could see through the two open doors of a little azure
walled antechamber the wireless operator in the turret working at
his incessant transcription. Two pompously uniformed messengers
waited listlessly in this apartment. The room was furnished with
a stately dignity, and had in the middle of it a big green
baize-covered table with the massive white metal inkpots and
antiquated sandboxes natural to a new but romantic monarchy. It
was the king's council chamber and about it now, in attitudes of
suspended intrigue, stood the half-dozen ministers who
constituted his cabinet. They had been summoned for twelve
o'clock, but still at half-past twelve the king loitered in the
balcony and seemed to be waiting for some news that did not come.
The king and his minister had talked at first in whispers; they
had fallen silent, for they found little now to express except a
vague anxiety. Away there on the mountain side were the white
metal roofs of the long farm buildings beneath which the bomb
factory and the bombs were hidden. (The chemist who had made all
these for the king had died suddenly after the declaration of
Brissago.) Nobody knew of that store of mischief now but the king
and his adviser and three heavily faithful attendants; the
aviators who waited now in the midday blaze with their
bomb-carrying machines and their passenger bomb-throwers in the
exercising grounds of the motor-cyclist barracks below were still
in ignorance of the position of the ammunition they were
presently to take up. It was time they started if the scheme was
to work as Pestovitch had planned it. It was a magnificent plan.
It aimed at no less than the Empire of the World. The government
of idealists and professors away there at Brissago was to be
blown to fragments, and then east, west, north, and south those
aeroplanes would go swarming over a world that had disarmed
itself, to proclaim Ferdinand Charles, the new Caesar, the
Master, Lord of the Earth. It was a magnificent plan. But the
tension of this waiting for news of the success of the first blow
The Slavic fox was of a pallid fairness, he had a remarkably long
nose, a thick, short moustache, and small blue eyes that were a
little too near together to be pleasant. It was his habit to
worry his moustache with short, nervous tugs whenever his
restless mind troubled him, and now this motion was becoming so
incessant that it irked Pestovitch beyond the limits of
'I will go,' said the minister, 'and see what the trouble is with
the wireless. They give us nothing, good or bad.'
Left to himself, the king could worry his moustache without
stint; he leant his elbows forward on the balcony and gave both
of his long white hands to the work, so that he looked like a
pale dog gnawing a bone. Suppose they caught his men, what
should he do? Suppose they caught his men?
The clocks in the light gold-capped belfries of the town below
presently intimated the half-hour after midday.
Of course, he and Pestovitch had thought it out. Even if they
had caught those men, they were pledged to secrecy… Probably
they would be killed in the catching… One could deny anyhow,
deny and deny.
And then he became aware of half a dozen little shining specks
very high in the blue… Pestovitch came out to him presently.
'The government messages, sire, have all dropped into cipher,' he
said. 'I have set a man--'
'LOOK!' interrupted the king, and pointed upward with a long,
Pestovitch followed that indication and then glanced for one
questioning moment at the white face before him.
'We have to face it out, sire,' he said.
For some moments they watched the steep spirals of the descending
messengers, and then they began a hasty consultation…
They decided that to be holding a council upon the details of an
ultimate surrender to Brissago was as innocent-looking a thing as
the king could well be doing, and so, when at last the ex-king
Egbert, whom the council had sent as its envoy, arrived upon the
scene, he discovered the king almost theatrically posed at the
head of his councillors in the midst of his court. The door upon
the wireless operators was shut.
The ex-king from Brissago came like a draught through the
curtains and attendants that gave a wide margin to King
Ferdinand's state, and the familiar confidence of his manner
belied a certain hardness in his eye. Firmin trotted behind him,
and no one else was with him. And as Ferdinand Charles rose to
greet him, there came into the heart of the Balkan king again
it passed at the careless gestures of his guest. For surely any
one might outwit this foolish talker who, for a mere idea and at
the command of a little French rationalist in spectacles, had
thrown away the most ancient crown in all the world.
One must deny, deny…
And then slowly and quite tiresomely he realised that there was
nothing to deny. His visitor, with an amiable ease, went on
talking about everything in debate between himself and Brissago
Could it be that they had been delayed? Could it be that they
had had to drop for repairs and were still uncaptured? Could it
be that even now while this fool babbled, they were over there
among the mountains heaving their deadly charge over the side of
Strange hopes began to lift the tail of the Slavic fox again.
What was the man saying? One must talk to him anyhow until one
knew. At any moment the little brass door behind him might open
with the news of Brissago blown to atoms. Then it would be a
delightful relief to the present tension to arrest this chatterer
forthwith. He might be killed perhaps. What?
The king was repeating his observation. 'They have a ridiculous
fancy that your confidence is based on the possession of atomic
King Ferdinand Charles pulled himself together. He protested.
'Oh, quite so,' said the ex-king, 'quite so.'
'What grounds?' The ex-king permitted himself a gesture and the
ghost of a chuckle-why the devil should he chuckle? 'Practically
none,' he said. 'But of course with these things one has to be
And then again for an instant something-like the faintest shadow
of derision-gleamed out of the envoy's eyes and recalled that
chilly feeling to King Ferdinand's spine.
Some kindred depression had come to Pestovitch, who had been
watching the drawn intensity of Firmin's face. He came to the
'A search!' cried the king. 'An embargo on our aeroplanes.'
'Only a temporary expedient,' said the ex-king Egbert, 'while the
search is going on.'
The king appealed to his council.
'The people will never permit it, sire,' said a bustling little
man in a gorgeous uniform.
'You'll have to make 'em,' said the ex-king, genially addressing
all the councillors.
King Ferdinand glanced at the closed brass door through which no
news would come.
'When would you want to have this search?'
The ex-king was radiant. 'We couldn't possibly do it until the
day after to-morrow,' he said.
'Just the capital?'
'Where else?' asked the ex-king, still more cheerfully.
'For my own part,' said the ex-king confidentially, 'I think the
whole business ridiculous. Who would be such a fool as to hide
atomic bombs? Nobody. Certain hanging if he's caught-certain,
and almost certain blowing up if he isn't. But nowadays I have to
The king thought he had never met such detestable geniality. He
glanced at Pestovitch, who nodded almost imperceptibly. It was
well, anyhow, to have a fool to deal with. They might have sent a
diplomatist. 'Of course,' said the king, 'I recognise the
overpowering force-and a kind of logic-in these orders from
'I knew you would,' said the ex-king, with an air of relief, 'and
so let us arrange--'
They arranged with a certain informality. No Balkan aeroplane
was to adventure into the air until the search was concluded, and
meanwhile the fleets of the world government would soar and
circle in the sky. The towns were to be placarded with offers of
reward to any one who would help in the discovery of atomic
'You will sign that,' said the ex-king.
'To show that we aren't in any way hostile to you.'
Pestovitch nodded 'yes' to his master.
'And then, you see,' said the ex-king in that easy way of his,
'we'll have a lot of men here, borrow help from your police, and
run through all your things. And then everything will be over.
Meanwhile, if I may be your guest…' When presently Pestovitch
sea. One moment he was exalted and full of contempt for 'that
ass' and his search; the next he was down in a pit of dread.
'They will find them, Pestovitch, and then he'll hang us.'
The king put his long nose into his councillor's face. 'That
grinning brute WANTS to hang us,' he said. 'And hang us he will,
if we give him a shadow of a chance.'
'But all their Modern State Civilisation!'
Vivisecting Prigs?' cried this last king of romance. 'Do you
adventure has any appeal to them? Here am I, the last and
greatest and most romantic of the Caesars, and do you think they
will miss the chance of hanging me like a dog if they can,
killing me like a rat in a hole? And that renegade! He who was
once an anointed king!…
'I hate that sort of eye that laughs and keeps hard,' said the
'I won't sit still here and be caught like a fascinated rabbit,'
said the king in conclusion. 'We must shift those bombs.'
'Risk it,' said Pestovitch. 'Leave them alone.'
'No,' said the king. 'Shift them near the frontier. Then while
they watch us here-they will always watch us here now-we can
buy an aeroplane abroad, and pick them up…'
The king was in a feverish, irritable mood all that evening, but
he made his plans nevertheless with infinite cunning. They must
get the bombs away; there must be a couple of atomic hay lorries,
the bombs could be hidden under the hay… Pestovitch went and
came, instructing trusty servants, planning and replanning…
The king and the ex-king talked very pleasantly of a number of
subjects. All the while at the back of King Ferdinand Charles's
mind fretted the mystery of his vanished aeroplane. There came no
news of its capture, and no news of its success. At any moment
all that power at the back of his visitor might crumble away and
It was past midnight, when the king, in a cloak and slouch hat
that might equally have served a small farmer, or any respectable
middle-class man, slipped out from an inconspicuous service gate
on the eastward side of his palace into the thickly wooded
gardens that sloped in a series of terraces down to the town.
Pestovitch and his guard-valet Peter, both wrapped about in a
similar disguise, came out among the laurels that bordered the
pathway and joined him. It was a clear, warm night, but the stars
seemed unusually little and remote because of the aeroplanes,
each trailing a searchlight, that drove hither and thither across
the blue. One great beam seemed to rest on the king for a moment
as he came out of the palace; then instantly and reassuringly it
had swept away. But while they were still in the palace gardens
another found them and looked at them.
'They see us,' cried the king.
'They make nothing of us,' said Pestovitch.
The king glanced up and met a calm, round eye of light, that
seemed to wink at him and vanish, leaving him blinded…
The three men went on their way. Near the little gate in the
garden railings that Pestovitch had caused to be unlocked, the
king paused under the shadow of an flex and looked back at the
place. It was very high and narrow, a twentieth-century rendering
of mediaevalism, mediaevalism in steel and bronze and sham stone
and opaque glass. Against the sky it splashed a confusion of
pinnacles. High up in the eastward wing were the windows of the
apartments of the ex-king Egbert. One of them was brightly lit
now, and against the light a little black figure stood very still
and looked out upon the night.
The king snarled.
'He little knows how we slip through his fingers,' said
And as he spoke they saw the ex-king stretch out his arms slowly,
like one who yawns, knuckle his eyes and turn inward-no doubt to
Down through the ancient winding back streets of his capital
hurried the king, and at an appointed corner a shabby
atomic-automobile waited for the three. It was a hackney
carriage of the lowest grade, with dinted metal panels and
deflated cushions. The driver was one of the ordinary drivers of
the capital, but beside him sat the young secretary of
Pestovitch, who knew the way to the farm where the bombs were
The automobile made its way through the narrow streets of the old
town, which were still lit and uneasy-for the fleet of airships
overhead had kept the cafes open and people abroad-over the
great new bridge, and so by straggling outskirts to the country.
And all through his capital the king who hoped to outdo Caesar,
sat back and was very still, and no one spoke. And as they got
out into the dark country they became aware of the searchlights
wandering over the country-side like the uneasy ghosts of giants.
The king sat forward and looked at these flitting whitenesses,
and every now and then peered up to see the flying ships
'I don't like them,' said the king.
Presently one of these patches of moonlight came to rest about
them and seemed to be following their automobile. The king drew
'The things are confoundedly noiseless,' said the king. 'It's
like being stalked by lean white cats.'
He peered again. 'That fellow is watching us,' he said.
And then suddenly he gave way to panic. 'Pestovitch,' he said,
clutching his minister's arm, 'they are watching us. I'm not
going through with this. They are watching us. I'm going back.'
Pestovitch remonstrated. 'Tell him to go back,' said the king,
and tried to open the window. For a few moments there was a grim
struggle in the automobile; a gripping of wrists and a blow. 'I
can't go through with it,' repeated the king, 'I can't go through
'But they'll hang us,' said Pestovitch.
'Not if we were to give up now. Not if we were to surrender the
bombs. It is you who brought me into this…'
At last Pestovitch compromised. There was an inn perhaps half a
mile from the farm. They could alight there and the king could
get brandy, and rest his nerves for a time. And if he still
thought fit to go back he could go back.
'See,' said Pestovitch, 'the light has gone again.'
The king peered up. 'I believe he's following us without a
light,' said the king.
In the little old dirty inn the king hung doubtful for a time,
council. 'If there is a council,' said Pestovitch. 'By this time
your bombs may have settled it.
'But if so, these infernal aeroplanes would go.'
'They may not know yet.'
'But, Pestovitch, why couldn't you do all this without me?'
Pestovitch made no answer for a moment. 'I was for leaving the
bombs in their place,' he said at last, and went to the window.
About their conveyance shone a circle of bright light. Pestovitch
had a brilliant idea. 'I will send my secretary out to make a
kind of dispute with the driver. Something that will make them
watch up above there. Meanwhile you and I and Peter will go out
by the back way and up by the hedges to the farm…'
It was worthy of his subtle reputation and it answered passing
In ten minutes they were tumbling over the wall of the farm-yard,
wet, muddy, and breathless, but unobserved. But as they ran
towards the barns the king gave vent to something between a groan
and a curse, and all about them shone the light-and passed.
But had it passed at once or lingered for just a second?
'They didn't see us,' said Peter.
light went swooping up the mountain side, hung for a second about
a hayrick, and then came pouring back.
'In the barn!' cried the king.
He bruised his shin against something, and then all three men
were inside the huge steel-girdered barn in which stood the two
motor hay lorries that were to take the bombs away. Kurt and
Abel, the two brothers of Peter, had brought the lorries thither
in daylight. They had the upper half of the loads of hay thrown
off, ready to cover the bombs, so soon as the king should show
the hiding-place. 'There's a sort of pit here,' said the king.
'Don't light another lantern. This key of mine releases a
For a time scarcely a word was spoken in the darkness of the
barn. There was the sound of a slab being lifted and then of feet
descending a ladder into a pit. Then whispering and then heavy
breathing as Kurt came struggling up with the first of the hidden
'We shall do it yet,' said the king. And then he gasped. 'Curse
that light. Why in the name of Heaven didn't we shut the barn
door?' For the great door stood wide open and all the empty,
lifeless yard outside and the door and six feet of the floor of
the barn were in the blue glare of an inquiring searchlight.
'Shut the door, Peter,' said Pestovitch.
'No,' cried the king, too late, as Peter went forward into the
light. 'Don't show yourself!' cried the king. Kurt made a step
forward and plucked his brother back. For a time all five men
stood still. It seemed that light would never go and then
abruptly it was turned off, leaving them blinded. 'Now,' said
the king uneasily, 'now shut the door.'
'Not completely,' cried Pestovitch. 'Leave a chink for us to go
It was hot work shifting those bombs, and the king worked for a
time like a common man. Kurt and Abel carried the great things
up and Peter brought them to the carts, and the king and
Pestovitch helped him to place them among the hay. They made as
little noise as they could…
'Ssh!' cried the king. 'What's that?'
But Kurt and Abel did not hear, and came blundering up the ladder
with the last of the load.
'Ssh!' Peter ran forward to them with a whispered remonstrance.
Now they were still.
The barn door opened a little wider, and against the dim blue
light outside they saw the black shape of a man.
'Any one here?' he asked, speaking with an Italian accent.
The king broke into a cold perspiration. Then Pestovitch
answered: 'Only a poor farmer loading hay,' he said, and picked
up a huge hay fork and went forward softly.
'You load your hay at a very bad time and in a very bad light,'
said the man at the door, peering in. 'Have you no electric
Then suddenly he turned on an electric torch, and as he did so
Pestovitch sprang forward. 'Get out of my barn!' he cried, and
drove the fork full at the intruder's chest. He had a vague idea
that so he might stab the man to silence. But the man shouted
loudly as the prongs pierced him and drove him backward, and
instantly there was a sound of feet running across the yard.
'Bombs,' cried the man upon the ground, struggling with the
prongs in his hand, and as Pestovitch staggered forward into view
with the force of his own thrust, he was shot through the body by
one of the two new-comers.
The man on the ground was badly hurt but plucky. 'Bombs,' he
repeated, and struggled up into a kneeling position and held his
electric torch full upon the face of the king. 'Shoot them,' he
cried, coughing and spitting blood, so that the halo of light
round the king's head danced about.
For a moment in that shivering circle of light the two men saw
the king kneeling up in the cart and Peter on the barn floor
beside him. The old fox looked at them sideways-snared, a
white-faced evil thing. And then, as with a faltering suicidal
heroism, he leant forward over the bomb before him, they fired
together and shot him through the head.
The upper part of his face seemed to vanish.
'Shoot them,' cried the man who had been stabbed. 'Shoot them
And then his light went out, and he rolled over with a groan at
the feet of his comrades.
But each carried a light of his own, and in another moment
everything in the barn was visible again. They shot Peter even
as he held up his hands in sign of surrender.
Kurt and Abel at the head of the ladder hesitated for a moment,