The Brothers, by H.G. Wells

Chapter Two

The Prisoner

§ 1

Their resemblance had certainly not been exaggerated. Ratzel came in with a look of resolute resistance on his face, which changed to blank astonishment as he looked at Bolaris. He was wearing an open red shirt, which differed only from his captor’s in its colour. His hair was longer; he was disarmed and his hands were tied. He was the first to speak.

“I’ll be damned!” he exclaimed.

“Shot first, you’ll be,” said Bolaris. “What do you mean by looking so infernally like me?”

“I might ask the same question.”

“It’s my place to ask questions.”

“Coincidence. Can we by any chance be related?”

“I say I ask the questions. What is your name:”

“Robert Ratzel.”

“Age?”

“Thirty-four.”

“Place of birth?”

“Hulkingtown, Missouri.”

Bolaris became silent.

“We are related,” said Ratzel suddenly.

“No! Speak when you are spoken to.”

“But we are. I begin to realize —”

“Tell him not to talk,” said Bolaris to the man beside the prisoner. The guard made a prompt movement.

“I won’t talk,” Ratzel volunteered. An awkward silence descended upon the room. Every one was looking very intently at Bolaris.

“I am a native-born citizen of this country,” he said as if addressing a considerable audience. “I have never been in the United States of America. Never. I cannot even speak English, while the prisoner, as you will note, speaks our language with a marked English accent. Yes. Yes. An American accent. It’s very similar. Well, I have stopped him on the verge of claiming kinship with me on the strength of our certainly very remarkable resemblance. Our superficial resemblance. I can quite understand his motives.. It will do him no good if he does.”

Ratzel seemed about to speak but Bolaris held up a hand to silence him, a gesture reinforced by the guard, who gripped the prisoner’s wrists.

“Let go,” said Bolaris. “I trust his discretion.”

He reflected on his course of action.

“It looks to me,” he said, “as though you could do with a little food and drink. I myself want to go on eating. I will put you on your parole, eh? And you will join us? I mean you will join our meal.”

Ratzel nodded.

“Release his hands. Sit down, sir.”

Catherine filled a plate with chicken, white nut, and pimento, and handed it to one of the guards to put before her guest. There was a prolonged pause in the conversation. The men ate. The lady was smilingly but silently hospitable. Bolaris seemed to be considering his next move. When it came, it had an amazing quality of irrelevance.

“I wonder,” he said, “if this country is ever likely to produce a literature comparable to any of the great European literatures. What do you think, Ratzel? Or don’t you take an interest in that sort of thing?”

Ratzel stopped short with an attractive mouthful on his fork. He replaced it on his plate. After staring for a moment at his captor, he glanced at Catherine, who was watching him with a faint smile in her eyes. His expression of surprise gave place to one of bright response.

“If that’s your game,” he seemed to decide, “I can play it. “A lot of European literature,” he began, in a voice and with a manner that sounded almost like a parody of Bolaris, “is very much overrated. In fact almost all literature is overrated — in comparison with what is possible. Hitherto literature has been essentially aristocratic or bourgeois. It has been written mainly for people who wanted to feel secure, to please and reassure them. It has been leisure reading. Bric-a-brac. Tapestry. Stylistic or gentlemanly sham — careless. The English Jane Austen is quite typical. Quintessential I should call her. A certain ineluctable faded charm. Like some of the loveliest butterflies — with no guts at all. But here and now, we are tearing up life by the roots and anything we write — when we get to writing again — will be fundamental-vital, black, red, vibrating . . . ” The speaker resumed his interrupted meal.

The two listeners at the table heard this cultured speech with ill-concealed astonishment. They looked at the speaker, they looked at Bolaris, and remarked the similarity of the smile upon the two confronted faces. Then Catherine glanced at the guards for any gleam of comprehension. But the guards, who manifestly did not understand a word of it all, had assumed expressions of disciplined dignity.

“When we have settled up with your atrocious attempt to assist in carrying the world back to the dark ages,” Ratzel resumed — he took a large mouthful —“our boys will write. I think they will write well.”

“If we let them,” said Bolaris.

“This is the seventh grand attack you have made. Tell me about it.”

“I shall be in the city in a fortnight.”

“I knew it would fail.”

“You didn’t, I gather, see very much of it.”

“No. But I knew your foreign friends with the tanks wouldn’t like the idea of coming through those open fields in the centre when they realized we had irrigated them carefully every night. There’d be, I felt — well — indecision . . . Did we capture most of those tanks or did the funk begin before they had come on far enough? Did we get most or only just some?”

“The attack was none of my planning,” said Bolaris.

“Many?” The question went unanswered. “Why you had your Black Legion up in the air out of the game on our right I can’t imagine! It might as well have been bathing at the seaside for all the good it was.”

“Anyhow it got you.”

“You got me. How could a sane man have expected them out there? But it does not matter. I shall hardly be missed. No man is indispensable in a popular mass defence. The enthusiasm in the city is invincible. You can hardly imagine it.”

“I don’t imagine it. I know all about it. Their discipline is atrocious.”

“They don’t loot,” said Ratzel. “They kill priests.”

“Each side kills priests nowadays. When they get in the way, and they do get in the way.” Bolaris went off at a tangent again. “What has happened to the Royal Galleries? There were some very beautiful things in them.”

“Your imported bombers were careless and ignorant. But most of the best things are well taken care of. Do you know the Galleries at all? There was a long narrow gallery of late Italian and French heroic stuff. The art director — and how I agree with him! — left that to the last, and one of those new incendiary bombs they have sent you now, got it. I have always disliked that sort of painting myself, Rapes of the Sabines, the Looting of Corinth, and all that stuff. Always reminded me of turning out linen for the laundry — sprawling naked women instead of nice ordinary soiled linen. We all have our likes and dislikes.” He returned to his plate with the air of a man who does not wish to monopolize a conversation.

“I know very little about pictures,” said Bolaris modestly, and proceeded to disprove the statement by a dissertation on painting that would have been a model for an English University extension lecture or any small all-about-art-in-half-an-hour handbook (q.v.). Occasionally the prisoner interjected an intelligent remark, but for the most part he nodded and ate. Then abruptly Bolaris came to an end. He consulted a wrist watch and signalled to the two guards, who came to attention. Ratzel finished his wine appreciatively and stood up.

§ 2

Bolaris lifted his glass to his departing guest. “I am sorry you have to return to your quarters downstairs. They are far from perfect — but civil war is always uncivilized. A class war more particularly so. No chivalry. Later on maybe I may have to shoot you. But I do hope that before then we may have a chance to resume what I have found a very agreeable conversation indeed. War would be intolerable without such occasional interludes. . . . The prisoner was led out. Directly the door had closed upon Ratzel, Bolanris’s manner changed.

“Get outside,” he said to the remaining guards, and Catherine and Handon shifted closer to him because they felt that what he had to say would not be said too loudly. Catherine’s expression was one of anticipatory appreciation; Handon’s intimated a hopeless curiosity struggling against complete stupefaction.

“Now,” said Bolaris. “You have been a little puzzled by — what shall I call it — the untimely refinement — the cultured irrelevance of our conversation. But I had to talk about something — or rather I had to talk about nothing. I wanted to look at him. I wanted to look him over. And I didn’t want him to talk to me. I wanted to draw out our resemblances and differences. I wanted to note any distinctive mannerisms he had — for a good reason. I wanted time to think about what to do next — with him in front of me. And the curious thing is that he came more than half-way to meet me. He took my point very quickly. He was quite ready to play the man of culture, reluctantly at war. Just as I might have done. I couldn’t catch him saying anything or moving in any way that was distinctive between us. Could you? I’d heard we have a resemblance. But this is a Double.”

“It is incredible that —” Catherine was beginning, and then she caught a warning glance in his eyes. “What do you think of it, Handon?” she asked.

“I don’t like him,” said Handon compactly. “I disagree.”

“One thing I noted,” said Catherine. “His accent is American.”

“And I?”

“You have no accent. Why should you have?”

“You don’t like him, Handon?”

“He’s sinister.”

“But my double?”

“He looks like you,” said Handon, and paused before he added, “but, mind you — he isn’t you.”

“Yes,” said Bolaris slowly, with an air of receiving a very important statement. “I think that is . . . probably . . . correct.”

“He is completely different,” said Handon. “I can see through him.”

“And you see?”

“A Red. Everything we are fighting against. Everything you stand against.”

“That may well be,” said Bolaris deliberately. “All the same there is something about him, some possibility, some opportunity. It is well you sent for me as you did. Your instincts, Handon, are always sound. I feel — what do I feel: Handon, I feel that I haven’t got it — and yet that it’s just at my fingers’ ends. If he is like me, I am like him. That opens — possibilities. For example — away there, nineteen miles as the crow flies, like all the secrets of the defence.”

“But what do you mean?”

“To talk to those fellows! To see it from their side! That would be something.”

“You mustn’t dream of impersonating him!” cried Handon. “If you leave us — even for a day —

“You would carry on. I could trust the Five.”

“But if something new arose? And if they spotted it and got you? They wouldn’t hesitate to shoot. Think how they shot Mand. And with everything — as things are.”

“I’m not going to do it. But I want to turn all these possibilities over in my mind. You must trust me to do that. I want to see him some more — worm things out of him. . . . Anyhow I want to stay here. . . . And all the time things are happening at the chateau.” He lowered his voice.

“There is a particular thing, Handon, I want said to the representative of a certain foreign power about those new tanks. I’m a little doubtful about that slim youngster, the new assistant secretary. I want it brought home to our friends that if they will insist on keeping their own men in those tanks — who don’t know the language, who can’t question a peasant, who can’t find their way about, who don’t care a damn for our cause — they are bound to keep bunched up, and if they bunch up they can be laid for. As they were today. Very gently but very firmly I want that said. Between ourselves it wasn’t really Gammet’s fault. So far as the loss of the tanks goes. But that’s another question. Until our men are in those tanks, Handon, the confounded contraptions are part of a potential army of occupation. The King would as soon be nursed by a foreign army as nursed by us. I want someone who has this in mind to be at the chateau when our good friends ring through. And at the same time I’ve got this sense of something immensely important here. I want to be here.”

“I could go back,” said Handon.

“Take the cars and send them back for me.”

“But I don’t like leaving you.”

“I know. When you’re not about nowadays, Handon, it’s like leaving one’s right hand upstairs.”

“You’ll do nothing rash with that fellow?”

“Really, Handon!”

“Forgive a loyal anxiety. In my instincts, in my bones, I distrust him.”

“I stretch out my right hand where it is most needed.” Bolaris got up and, clapping his hand affectionately upon his adherent’s shoulder-blades, steered him towards the door.

§ 3

Bolaris and Catherine stood at the small window beside the portico of the villa and watched the cars pause for a moment to check with the sentinels and then vanish one after the other through the gates. Bolaris laid his hand on Catherine’s farther shoulder and drew her face towards his own, a familiarity he would never have allowed himself in the jealous presence of Handon.

“That gets rid of him,” he said.

She let her cheek touch his ever so lightly. But Bolaris, she perceived, was not in the mood for making love that night. He was thinking of Handon.

“Handon,” he said, “is the perfect lieutenant, the ideal disciple, the loyalest of the Five.”

She thought for a moment. “You make people like that.”

“I never made Handon. He was born, not made. . . . Darling, when at last we are in the city and the whole country is ours, and I have settled certain little affairs of which you know, then, I suppose, you think, as everybody thinks, that I shall be dictator, a real dictator, and do just exactly as I like.”

She was quick to take his meaning. “There will be Handon, of course,” she said.

“There will be Handon,” he said softly. “There will be all the Five. There will be the Bands, the Inner Circle, the Boys. There will be all that I have said because I wanted to hear how it sounded, and all that I said because I knew it would win them. And all that I have been to them and all that I am to them. A man fettered from head to foot in what is expected of him. His own slave. I shall have to do what is expected of me at every turn. As much a sacrifice as one of those magic kings you read about in Frazer’s Golden Bough. *.. Catherine, dear, the other night I had a dream. It was a triumph. I was on the balcony of the palace above the great square over there, and they were cheering me and cheering me. Silver trumpets. Banners. Waving flags. Crowds as far as the eye could reach. And a sort of horror of myself came upon me. I found I was not moving myself. I was being moved. My nerves had become wires. I was made to lift up my hand and salute the crowd. I was caught. I was frozen. I had become an automaton. . . . And then quite suddenly I was alone with you. I was weeping, my dear; I was kneeling at your feet between your knees and weeping in your arms. As I did — you remember that time? I was doing it because that is what I felt like doing and not what I had to do. And then — outside — the cheering had changed to howling.”

She kissed him very softly.

“And now,” he said, abruptly withdrawing his arm, “for my brother.”

“Your brother?” she cried.

“Obviously my brother.”

“But how, your brother?”

“I don’t know. He does. I want him to tell me.”

“Your brother!”

“Worse than that. Dearest! — my Twin. No one must know, of course. We must hush it up. No dictatorship could stand it for a moment. Think of Handon! Oh, my dear! think of Handon!”

Bolaris was seized by laughter. The sentinels outside heard him and exchanged glances of amazement. She loved his swift changes to laughter and her heart within her laughed. For he had scarcely laughed at all since his first repulse before the city. He had been dark and moody.

“Handon’s whole soul is fighting against it now! The devotee, the fanatic, the soul of loyalty! The psychological struggle going on in that car up the hill must be stupendous. Twins! It is something he will not believe — cannot believe. Not even half-brothers. Not even mere brothers. Never will that frightful realization get into his head — unless it is driven in with a nail and hammer. The obvious was already fighting for life in him — and losing, when he talked just now. How could he, how could any one of his quality, be devoted to a Twin! You, my dear, were slightly shaken. Oh, yes! you were. There was a faint recoil. Don’t I know? You’ll get over it. But for him! Two of me! And one of them on the other side! It would give his poor wits a sort of permanent squint. From the very moment he set eyes on Ratzel he realized that such a being was intolerable. Impossible. Ratzel, he feels, is sheer blasphemy. Taking my likeness in vain. A revolting caricature. . . . If Handon can contrive to kill him, he will. Mark my words. Shoot him and bury him and forget about him. Or rather not forget about him, but go on to a story that in no respect was it possible to mistake him for me. Ratzel will become shorter — very, very, very ugly — sinister..”

He clapped his hands for an officer.

“Bring the prisoner to me in the room upstairs. I want to question him in private.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30