Collected Stories, by Olaf Stapledon

The Road to the Aide Post

(1916)

In Belgium at two o’clock in the morning, an ambulance driver stepped out of his car and yawned. It had rained since the previous night and the world was very wet. But at last the west wind was victoriously pursuing the clouds, piling their disordered companies one upon another. Suddenly the moon shone. White ruined houses on one side of the street, huddled like sheep, looked towards the East and the star shells. Dark ruined houses on the other side held their broken walls and rafters against the sky. The driver stood for a moment watching: he began a sigh, but successfully turned it into a yawn, and moved away to prepare his car for two stretcher cases. Then he walked into the place that was once a children’s playground, toward the Aide post, once the school cellar. How slow they were to-night in bringing out the school cellar. How slow they were to-night in bringing out the wounded. He examined a new hole where a shell had gone through the building. He stood by a heap of debris and watched the moon. A mighty white upright cloud was flying overhead. He looked up the sides of it as if he were standing at the foot of some extravagant aerial leaning tower of Pisa, for ever falling upon him through a sky visibly deep as the universe. The moon looked at him in that significant way of hers, as if she were desperately trying to tell him some good news. For a moment he stood fascinated by this sudden beauty. Then he remembered himself, and carefully yawned in the face of the moon.

They brought out the wounded; one moaning, the other silent; the one face half hidden under rugs and miserably moving; the other face wholly hidden under white bandages. The stretchers were soon stowed on board, driver and brancardier took their seats, and the old bus crept down the street.

The moaning man moaned with regularity, save when the car bumped him into a cry. The other lay still. What an embusqué slacker I am! thought the driver What must these old fellows think of me? The moaning man was a vieux papa for whom war was an incongruous, last chapter to a life of tilling and begetting. It was incongruous, but he had not complained. Gallantry was not his line, but he had not shirked anything that he was expected to do. Now he lay absorbed in his pain, praying for the end of the journey, or losing himself among grotesque visions of crops and beast and bursting shells, only to find himself once more in a furnace of pain. The other lay still; no one can guess where his spirit wandered, upon the earth or in the hollow sky. It’s a miserable game, thought the driver, Why didn’t I enlist long ago? He had no peace principles, and he disliked people, who said they were pacifists. War might be a horrible mistake, but his soldier friends in Gallipoli and Flanders were dying well. They had excelled themselves. Better make a hideous mistake and suffer with one’s fellows than be a lone prig. For him, war was not scientific hate; it was love gone mad. England demanded him, and England was a nearer thing than God. Besides, who said it was wrong to fight? The best things were won by fighting; and God fought Satan. What a Paradise Lost if God had been a pacifist!

So thought the driver, as he drove down moonlit avenues. At the hospital, the car was unloaded, and he saw the two broken men carried through the door that had received so many like them.

Now in the early dawn that driver came hurrying back. There was a rose pink glow in the East, as if no ill had ever come out of that quarter; as if hate were never in this world. Into this fairy land he drove, and the joy of morning began in him. But the gentle appearance of things did not shake his resolution. Surely, surely, he must enlist, and give his life with his friends. The Red Cross was not a heavy enough cross for such as he. The sunrise swallowed all that was left of the night; the whole sky was on fire. He would go, he would go. What was he that he should judge, when so many finer men had not hesitated to fight? His Quaker parents would be very grieved, but he must do it. He himself was unhappy thinking of his parents’ grief. After all war was indeed a hideous thing. In fact his determination to fight began already his disillusionment. A secret voice saying You will fight only because you are ashamed not to fight. You will fight for you own peace of mind, not for victory, not for the cause. You have not forgotten yourself in the cause. You will not even find the peace of mind you seek. The sun flashed from behind the Eastern cloudbank and the trees and fields and sparkling canal seemed suddenly to laugh, so bright they grew. Oh God, what a world! cried the driver aloud while the car roared along. The sun and the countryside undoubtedly confirmed that secret voice now that he allowed himself to attend to them.

He had heard someone say that just as private killing went out of date so will war someday go also, and that this War is but the red dawn of a new age wherein many obscurities will be enlightened. Surely if Peace and Goodwill could not be the idea of today they would be the idea of tomorrow. Woe unto those who, having any inkling of that great idea of tomorrow, desert it even for the highest of today’s ideals. The Fates had made him to have some glimpse of the dawn, before his fighting friends: Woe to him if he closed his eyes.

Not happy, nor content, nor even positive, was he on his return; but very sure that he would not fight. His vision of the new idea (which is also so old an idea) was very faint; but it was a vision, and commanded his allegiance. Perhaps after all he was making a mistake; but it was a noble mistake. The vision must be followed even at the risk of his soul’s life.

The driver backed his car into its place; stumped into the camp, pulled his best enemy out of bed, persuaded the puppy to lick the cook’s slumbering face; and began his morning toilet. Many times again he was tempted in that wilderness of doubt. Each time the vision was a little clearer than before.

He is a type, is he not?

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30