I MUST now describe from the Neptunian point of view that moment in the career of the First Men which seemed to those who experienced it an eternity of war.
As the summer of 1914 advanced, our observers crowded in ever-greater numbers into your world, seeking out among you suitable minds in which and from which to observe your coming crisis. As a flock of birds, before settling on a tree, hovers for a. moment while each individual selects a convenient twig, so we settled upon your race. The tree knows nothing of its living burden; you were wholly ignorant of your Neptunian guests.
Long before this great company began to arrive, those of us who, like myself, are specialists in your epoch had, of course, already been at work among you, wandering from mind to mind and studying the great movements of human history which were to ‘result in your crisis. But in 1914 an immensely greater company gathered to watch in as much detail as possible your reaction to the unprecedented events of the next four years. In spite of this influx, of observers, not every one of you could be directly studied. But a considerable proportion of the total European population harboured within themselves Neptunian visitors. We diligently sought out all those who were significant, not only those in prominent positions but very many obscure persons who seemed to afford peculiarly lucid examples of your nature and of the trend of thought and feeling in your day. Such persons would have been astounded had they known that they were singled out for study along with generals and political leaders; but in truth it was in the masses, rather than in their leaders, that the real drama of the war was taking place. For in the leaders the poignancy and subtlety of experience was in most cases reduced by the necessity of pursuing some official policy.
Throughout the summer of 1914, then, a huge anthropological expedition, organized on Neptune two thousand million years in the future, was invading your minds in its thousands and its hundreds of thousands. Yet also (to repeat) at the very same time, in the Neptunian sense, other and even greater expeditions were at work upon crises of one or other of the sixteen human species which have their historical location between the First Men and the Last Men. Thus some were studying the fall of the noble Second Men in their long struggle with the cloud-like Martian invaders; others watched the heroic colonization of Venus by the Fifth Men, the last Terrestrials; others, most fortunate, wandered among the lyrical minds of the pygmy Flying Men of Venus, the Seventh species; and many more carried out their devoted work in the field of man’s age-long and tortured struggle to take root on Neptune; others again studied the later and happier Neptunian races. But these expeditions I must not now describe, for my concern is with yourselves. In our work upon the First Men we have concentrated our main force in your own crucial age.
In every European capital, in every drab provincial town, in every agricultural district, our observers settled. Had you been gifted with Neptunian vision, you might have seen, whenever you walked in the streets of Berlin, Paris, or London, that the crowd was composed of persons of two kinds. Most of them were uncontaminated members of your species; but about one in twenty (at least in these metropolitan areas) would have appeared to you curiously altered. You would have seen in the expression of their eyes, had you peered closely at them, a fitful gleam, a faint surprise, verging on bewilderment, a queer inwardness combined oddly with an increased intensity of observation and interest, in fact an almost haunted look, which the Neptunian has learned to recognize in such of you as have been singled out by one of his colleagues as a convenient observation-point. It is not surprising that you should manifest some outward symptom when you are thus possessed, as it were, by an all-pervading mental parasite, whose filaments reach into every nook and cranny of your minds. Yet so subtle is this unintentional influence of ours, that the hosts themselves are, as a rule, completely unaware of it, and even their most intimate friends do not notice any alteration in them. Only to Neptunians, using the eyes of other individuals of your species is the ‘possessed’ look apparent. Sometimes, of course, we deliberately make our presence felt by some act of definite influence, and when such influence is frequent, the host himself may have a sense that he is somehow possessed, or going mad. But the more passive presence of a Neptunian produces only a slight increase of the intensity of consciousness, and especially of self-consciousness.
Conceive then that, before war was declared, Neptunian observers were busy making themselves acquainted with their chosen hosts. That we concentrated in greatest number upon the years of the war and the two decades following, is not to be attributed to any special preference for the mentality of your Twentieth over your Nineteenth Century. As between the generations which, through complacent materialism and sentimentality, brought the war into being, and the generation which, through moral timidity and lack of faith in the human nature of the ‘enemy’, allowed itself to be herded into the trenches, and again the later generations, which, attaining maturity when the war was over, blamed its predecessors or malicious fate for its own supine laziness and lack of vision — as between these three groups of persons we have no predilection. To us all alike are ‘human’, in the manner characteristic of a half-human species. Each is the inevitable product of its predecessors and its world, yet each is in part responsible for its own turpitude. This is, I know, a paradox which must remain insoluble upon your plane of understanding. But to us, there is no paradox. All your generations appear equally culpable, equally pitiable. But since, in the war itself and its consequences, the whole drama of your species finds its climax, it is in the war period and the decades following it that our observers chiefly congregate.
Very thoroughly the pioneers had already sifted your populations for significant individuals, so that when the main expedition arrived it was possible to allocate each new-comer to a suitable host. Most often (but not always) we set our women observers to study Terrestrial women. And as far as possible we contrived to arrange matters so that there should be some kind of temperamental similarity between observer and observed; for thus, we find, the work proceeds most smoothly and effectively. Some of us occupied the minds of the politicians on whose decision so much was to depend, seeking to understand and sympathize with their ingrained political convictions, sorting out the obscure tangle of self-interest and public loyalty which was to determine their behaviour, harking back now and then into their youth or childhood, or even infancy, to discover the submerged sources of their whims, delusions and prejudices. Others of us familiarized themselves with the astounding mixture of honest heart-searching and intricate self-deception which was the habitual attitude of your religious leaders to all serious problems, and was so soon to find its most striking expression in the futility of your churches in the face of war. Yet others were savouring the insistent itch of military experts to put their huge lethal toy in action, or the mere boyish braggartism, a relic of the heroic age, which infected your more romantic militarists.
In varying degrees of minuteness we have studied your Asquith and your Grey, your Bethmann–Hollweg, your von Bülow and your Treitschke, your Hindenburg, your Foch, your Clemenceau and your Lloyd George. Each of these, though not one of them is intrinsically of serious interest to us, has called for careful study on account of the momentous results of his actions. Your Lenin, however, we have studied in greater detail; many of my colleagues have had occasion to live through all the phases of that remarkable spirit, in whom, as in no other, we find a most instructive blend of that which might have saved your species with that which was bound to destroy it.
Sometimes we have performed curious experiments by introducing into one mind thoughts and valuations derived from another, as in biological research the experimenter may introduce blood or portions of tissue from one organism to another. Thus it has proved instructive to bewilder statesmen at the council table by momentarily forcing upon them ideas disruptive of their policies and their most cherished faiths. For instance, one of my most brilliant young colleagues, fresh from the revolutionary and exiled Lenin, once contrived, that Asquith, the legal-minded premier, in the presence of his cabinet, should sink for a moment into horrified abstraction while a blast of revolutionary schemes and cravings fell on him like a whirlwind. It was indeed instructive to observe how, after the attack the ageing statesman soothed himself by dipping into Carlyle’s French Revolution, and by slightly changing his attitude to the Welsh thorn in his flesh. Of deeper effects we observed none.
To give another example of this transfusion of thought, Lenin himself, that man of stainless steel, that future Almighty, was once, to his own surprise, so flooded with the timid megalomaniac fantasies of the Czar, that he found himself pitying, even pitifully loving that imperial half-wit. On another occasion, while he was in the act of composing a relentless article on the baseness of an archimandrite, my colleague forced upon him a precise apprehension of the old villain’s mind. He suddenly realized in imagination that this profligate priest had once yearned toward the supernal beauty, and that even yet his blind spirit carried out by rote the gesture of prostration before the great lover, Jesus. This incident had a strange and significant effect on the revolutionary. Pent-up springs of mercy and piety welled in him. He experienced, as few Christians have ever experienced, the divinity of Love. Sitting in his hired room in Paris, with the indictment of the priest spread out on the table before him, he whom many were yet to call Anti–Christ, received the divine love into his heart. My young colleague who was in charge of the experiment reports that his host accepted the revelation like any Christian saint, and that for an hour he remained in ecstasy. At the close of that period he whispered in his Russian speech, ‘I come not to bring peace, but a sword’, and so once more took up his pen.
Not only men of action, but leaders of thought, too, our observers inhabited. In many minds of writers and artists they had detected in the ‘prewar’ age the first stirrings of that disillusionment and horror which the war climate was later to foster.
Earlier they had seen the English Tennyson, under the influence of science and a friend’s death, face the spectre for a moment, only to cover his eyes and comfortably pray. Carlyle they had seen praise action as a drug for doubt. But now, they saw the writings of Thomas Hardy, formerly neglected, gradually compel men’s attention more by their gloomy verisimilitude, than by their obscure conviction of cosmical beauty. In each people our observers heard already, in the midst of the complacency of that age, a whisper of uneasiness, rising here and there to despair. Already the old gods were failing, and no new gods appeared to take their place. The universe, it seemed, was a stupendous machine, grinding for no purpose. Man’s mind was but a little friction upon a minor axle, a casual outcome of natural law. He dared not even regard himself as the one divine spark in a waste of brute matter; for he himself was just matter, and his behaviour the expression of his brute nature. Moreover, Freud had spoken, and ripples of horror were already spreading across Europe.
But there was Evolution. Our observers watched Bergson and all those whose faith was given to evolution champion their doctrine of a biological deity with something of the fervour of the old church militant. Their gospel touched few hearts. Disillusionment was already in the air. In laboratories our observers watched great scientists conduct their crucial experiments, and weave their theories, so subtle, so wide-sweeping, so devastating, so true on one plane and so meaningless on another. Again and again we have seen the truth missed when it was hidden only by a film. Again and again we have watched promising enterprises run to waste through the influence of some mad whim or prejudice. In many a study and on many a college lawn we have noted the turn of argument wherein acute minds first began to stray down some blind alley, or first tethered themselves to false assumptions.
But the overwhelming majority of our explorers were concerned with humbler persons. Our pioneers had flitted from mind to mind among artisans, factory hands, dock labourers, peasants, private soldiers, in search of those most significant or most subject to Neptunian influence, so that the main company should be able to settle promptly into posts of vantage for their work. If you incline to commiserate with those of us to whom it was allotted to observe simple minds in obscure positions, you are under a misconception. The difference between your mentally richest and your mentally poorest is negligible to us.
We have sat all day on heaps of road metal in country lanes, wielding a hammer, and savouring humble thoughts in minds not barren but not fortune-favoured. In French peasants we have driven sewage carts over our hectares, estimating the unsown crop, and the cost, and the sowing. In Prussian military messes we have drunk to ‘der Tag.’ In British foc’s’les, homeward bound from Yokohama and Kobe, we have looked back upon Geisha girls; forward to the wife in Canning Town. In provincial suburbs we have pondered the sententious wisdom of scavengers, while they: pushed their hand-carts and condescended to speak with tramps; We have been present with trapped miners, while the flooding water crept up legs and bodies, or lungs were invaded by hostile gases. We have listened to doomed men chanting under the roots of mountains. Some of us, in zeal to observe last acts of piety or panic, have been destroyed in the destruction of their hosts. In factories we have spent our Terrestrial years feeding voracious machines and dreaming impossible triumphs or love idylls. On holidays we have been borne by the released flood of our fellow-workers along esplanades and heaths. Over shop-counters in Bond Street and the rue de Rivoli we have fingered camisoles, stockings, dress pieces. We have pondered, tone by tone, cliché by cliché, the intercourse of customers and shop-girls. We have jostled around buses and down subways, and hurried into city offices. In third-class railway carriages we have read innumerable evening papers through the eyes of clerks and typists, devouring the murders and the sex, skimming the politics. In the discreet darkness of picture palaces we have had forbidden tactual intimacies. In jails we have estimated the civilization of Europe through the rage of its outcasts. We have battered impotently on cell doors, counted and recounted the threads of spider-webs, strained to catch sounds of the world’s great tide of life, which had left us stranded. We have entered into inmates of lunatic asylums, to gain insight into your mentality by watching its disintegration. We know also what it is to be segregated as mad by a world madder than oneself. In public-houses and Bier Stuben we have escaped for a while from nagging reality through the cheap ecstasy of inebriation. Or, less forlorn, we have found in the applause of our companions false consolation for our defeat in life.
More precisely it was our hosts that had all these experiences, while we, calm scrutinizers, appraised their minds. With the patience of big-game photographers, who endure tropical heat and drought or stand up to the neck in marsh for the sake of one snap of the camera-shutter, we have suffered interminable floods of rhetoric and infantile philosophy, in the hope of confronting one of those rare denizens of the mind’s jungle, those most vital and significant mental occurrences, which give insight into the mentality of an alien species.
We have also suffered vicariously the pains, both maternal and filial, of many births. We have watched the clean pages of many infant minds ignorantly scribbled over with indelible fears and loathings, We have experienced in many young things the same hungers and worships that we ourselves have known in our own far-future childhood upon Neptune. But in Terrestrial childhood we find these young healthy lusts and admirations all poisoned, misdirected, blunderingly thwarted or sapped, so that again and again we are reminded that the folly of your generation, as of every generation of your species, is due less to its innate coarseness of fibre than to the disastrous influence of its parents and teachers. Could we but, like your Pied Piper, rescue all your infants from their mothers and fathers, could we but transport them to Neptune, even with their ineradicable simian impulses and their inherited distortions of mind and body, could we but keep them from the contamination of their elders, what a race we could make of them! We could not indeed bring them further than the threshold of true humanity, but within their natural limits they might be made generous, free-minded, zestful, unafraid, Then, if we could but return them to your planet in the first bloom of maturity, how they would remake your world! But instead they must remain unfulfilled, like seeds which, blown into a cave, send forth long pale stems and flaccid leaves, seeking in vain the light.
The many boys and girls whom we have seen, confident at first that life held in store for them some as yet unimaginable treasure or some opportunity of high devotion, already in a few years disillusioned! We have encountered them at first unsullied, equipped by nature to learn prowess of body and mind, to advance from triumph to triumph of skilled and generous living, Then we have seen their bodies hampered, constricted, poisoned by misguided care, and their spirits even more seriously maltreated. Though in physical athletics they have often been patiently trained to habits of free and effective action, in the athletics of the mind and of the spirit they have acquired a cramped style and blind tactics, In the great game of life they never learned to keep their eyes on the ball. For them indeed the ball was invisible. They hit out stiffly or limply at nothing at all, or at hypnotic hallucinations, conjured before them by the exhortations of blind coaches.
Everywhere we have found in the lives of grown men and women a bewildered futility and resentfulness. The men blamed the women for their hobbled lives, the women the men for their servitude. The rich blamed the poor for disloyalty, the poor the rich for tyranny, the young blamed the old for lack of vision, the old the young for rebelliousness. And increasingly, even in that age before the war men and women, rich and poor, old and young, were beginning to suspect that they were playing their brief game in a madhouse with no rules and a phantom ball. .
No wonder that in our research among the aged of that time we found very prevalent a most tragic condition of the spirit. In. numerable old men and old women, looking back with conscious complacency upon their achievements, and forward with confidence to their reward in heaven, were yet haunted in the recesses of their being with a sense that their lives had been phantasmal, that they had never really lived at all. Most of them were able on the whole to ignore these deep whispers of misgiving, or to drown them with vociferous piety; but many of the more self-conscious old people whom we studied, whether successful business men or members of the ‘professions’, socially triumphant old ladies or, retired matrons of institutions, reviewed their careers with blank dissatisfaction and a nightmare sense that in their moment of living they had missed some great drudgery-redeeming good, simply by looking in the wrong direction. Only those whose lives had been dominated by concrete misfortune or disappointment, or by the demands of some all-absorbing heroic ministration, escaped this universal distaste of all values.
Such was the condition of the First Men as it was revealed to our observers in their survey of the years before the outbreak of the European War. Such were the beings that they studied. On the whole they found themselves forced to be twi-minded?? about these distressful creatures. From one point of view, as I have said, they could not but regard your species as not yet human; a thing incredibly stupid and insensitive, incredibly distorted and tortured by the fantastic habits, the rudimentary’ culture’ which alone distinguished it from the lower beasts; a thing in some ways further removed from true humanity even than ox or tiger, because it had strayed further down the wrong path; a thing incomparably more filthy than the baboon, because, retaining brutality, it had lost innocence and learned to affect righteousness; a thing which was squandering the little powers that it had stumbled upon for ends essentially the same as the ends of monkeys, and in its frantic grabbing, devouring, voiding, had fouled a whole planet.
But from the other point of view our observers were forced to admit, at first reluctantly, that this errant and brutal thing had in it the distinctive essence which is man. Penetrating with difficulty into the minds of tiger and baboon to compare them with your species, they found indeed less brutality, but also less divinity; in fact a greater emptiness. In you they recognized the first blind restlessness of the spirit, which never troubles the mere beast, and wins its beatitude only in the full human estate. In you they found the rudimentary insight of the mind into itself and into others, that insight which lay beyond the reach of all Terrestrial organisms save Homo Sapiens and the Philosophical Lemurs, whose far more brilliant achievement man himself had terminated. In you they found love, though more often hate; in you philosophy though halting and superstitious; in you worship, though for the most part directed on unworthy objects.
All this might have been truly said of your species at any time of its career; but, at the moment which I am now describing, it was balanced on a still finer knife-edge between beast and man. This was due not to any change in its nature but to the pressure of circumstances. Hitherto, though a sensitive minority had been aware that the aims toward which men commonly strove were for the most part puerile, the majority were able to pursue these aims in undisturbed complacency. But in 1914 many forces were combining to shock even minds of average percipience into a sense of the contemptible insufficiency of the extant plan of human life, both individual and social. It is worthwhile to enumerate these forces. First, then, although the nations and races were still violently opposed to one another in sentiment, the world was already becoming a single economic system. Each section was growing more and more dependent on the healthy life of others. Secondly, though national and racial cultures were still for the most part mutually unintelligible and repugnant, the seeds of an all-inclusive world culture were already quickening. Third, the battle between doctrinal religion and scientific materialism, in which science had been steadily advancing all along the line, was already beginning to dissolve and crystallize out in a new alignment. For while the old religion was beginning to seem not only intellectually incredible but also spiritually insufficient, the old science was already appearing not only spiritually arid but intellectually naive. Fourth, man’s increasing awareness of his littleness under the stars was combining with his first crude apprehension of the cosmical enterprise of Life to give him a wider horizon, a new humility, and also the first obscure glimpse of a new aim. Unfortunately in 1914 the effect of these forces was nowhere profound; and only in certain regions of the Western Civilization was it at all widespread. It was not strong enough to prevent the outbreak of war. All it produced was a devastating, though mostly unacknowledged, suspicion in all the combatants that human nature had failed.
In August 1914 it was said by the more thoughtful among you that a great war in Europe might well cause the’ downfall’ of civilization. They expected that the war would lead at once to complete economic and social confusion. In this prophecy they were wrong. They underestimated the recuperative powers of their material civilization. But the war was to cause a disaster more subtle and profound than any which was foreseen in 1914. It was to undermine man’s confidence in his own nature. Henceforth your species was to suffer a kind of racial neurosis blended of guilt, horror, inferiority, and hate. Not only civilization was to be undermined, but the integrity of a species.
In the fateful days when ultimatums and declarations of war were being bandied from capital to capital, the population of Europe was wholly unprepared to take the one line which could have saved it. It had neither the courage nor the imagination for a general to fight. On the other hand it could not accept the war innocently, as earlier generations had accepted wars. Hitherto men had fought with a clear conscience, however much they might personally loathe the distresses that war must bring. But, since the last war in Europe, a change had begun to come over men’s minds. Though it was not yet possible for the masses to reject war, it was no longer possible for them to accept it without guilt. Few, even of those who suffered no conscious heart-searching, were wholly immune from that unwitting shame and embitterment which was the characteristic mood of your war-tortured populations, and had never occurred at all widely in any earlier war.
It was extremely interesting to observe within minds of various types the different reactions of your species to the novel fact of war. Most were taken completely by surprise. In the manner characteristic of their species they had lived hitherto without serious thought ‘for matters of public concern. The rivalries of national states might indeed rouse in them some sentimental interest, but the life of the race lay almost wholly beyond their grasp. They were fully occupied in keeping themselves and their families afloat in the maelstrom of economic individualism. Inevitably their chief concern was private fulfilment, and its essential means, money. National affairs, racial affairs, cosmical events, were of interest to them only in their economic bearing, or at most as occasions of curiosity, wonder or ridicule. They produced and consumed, bought and sold, played ritual games with balls, and transported themselves hither and thither in mechanical vehicles in search of a goal which ever eluded them. They indulged in illicit sexual intercourse; or with public applause they married, propagated, launched their children upon the maelstrom. They put on their best clothes on Sunday, and after church or chapel they walked in the park. Or, with a sense less of moral guilt than of social degradation, they spent their Sundays in old clothes and upon congenial occupations. Almost invariably they applauded the things they had been taught to revile. Or, if they were’ original’ and dared to think and feel spontaneously, they found themselves harassed both by their fellows and by their own archaic consciences. They then either recanted or developed into extravagant cranks. But these were few. The overwhelming majority were enslaved by the custom of the herd.
Such were the beings on whom the fate of the Terrestrial spirit now depended. Nowhere was there any clear perception of the issues at stake, nowhere any recognition that the species was faced with the supreme crisis of its career. Scarcely a man or woman in Europe or America, still less in the remote East, realized that the great test of the human animal had come, and come, alas, too soon.
In their reaction to war, Western men and women revealed, themselves as falling into a few well-marked types, which nevertheless graded into one another. Indeed, scarcely any individuals could be said to belong wholly to any one type. In almost all there were traces of every kind of war sentiment, and in many there was an almost diurnal fluctuation of mood from one to another. Nevertheless Western Europeans may be significantly classified according to their most characteristic attitude to the war as’ follows:
First, in every nation there was the incredibly large swarm of’ persons who, in spite of their vociferous patriotism, were at most times incapable of taking the war seriously in any sense except as a source of possible danger or profit to themselves. Such creatures we found in all classes, from manual labourers to captains of industry and respected statesmen. In the armies also we found, many, who had failed to evade their military obligations. They were of all orders of intelligence, from the very stupid to the acute; but even the most brilliant of them lacked the power to see beyond the horizon of private, or at most family, interest. They were nearly always quite unconscious of their own deficiency; yet almost with the unwitting mimicry shown by some insects, they managed to behave, verbally at least, with impeccable correctness. They were seldom suspected of being inhuman. Often have we experimented on these backward animals, striving to introduce into the mind of some munition-profiteer, some popular demagogue, some climbing staff-officer, or some abject shirker in the ranks, glimmers of a self-oblivious view. Most often the experiment has failed completely; but in some cases we have been rewarded by a curious spectacle. The little self, outraged by the incursion of unself-centred fantasies, has called ‘morality’ or ‘duty’ to its assistance. The ambitious general, for instance, troubled for a moment by the sacrifice of life entailed in some brilliant barren attack, has told himself that it is necessary, and could not see that he was caring only for his reputation as a resolute commander.
The second type recorded by our observers was less contemptible, but almost as backward. These were the persons who, though often strong in a kind of social sense, innocently accepted war and the martial code. Their vision was limited to the hero ideal. They saw the war in the good old way as a supreme opportunity of personal courage and devotion. It came, they said, to purge men of the selfishness bred of industrialism and of the softness bred of security. These guiltless champions of the war might personally behave toward it either with cowardice or heroism; but they never questioned it. With complete sincerity they faced it as a god-sent ordeal. For them it was indeed a religious test, an opportunity to enter into communion with some obscurely conceived heroic deity. To speak against it was sacrilege; but a sacrilege so gross and fantastic that it should be regarded as a sign rather of idiocy than of wickedness. Consequently, though they condemned pacifism whole-heartedly, there was no vindictiveness in their condemnation. Again and again our observers, experimenting in these simple minds, have tried to introduce some doubt, some apprehension that there might be another side to the matter. But such doubts as could be introduced appeared to the subject himself as merely an intellectual exercise, not as a live issue. Such images of brutality and disgust as were introduced were accepted simply as tests of fortitude.
Curiously it was among these archaic souls, these happy warriors, that we sometimes came upon a pellucid kind of religious experience. Fortunate innocents, they were exempt from the guilt and torture which wrecked so many of their fellows. For them the issue was a clear issue between self-regard and loyalty to all that they most cherished. And those who had the strength to bear themselves throughout according to their code had the reward of a very sweet and well-deserved beatitude. We attended many a death-agony that was thus redeemed, especially in the earliest phase of the war. Many an old regular thus found his rest. Many a very young subaltern, whose photograph on the parental mantelpiece truthfully commemorated a bright immaculate boy-soldier, found in his last moment that peace which passed his simple understanding. But many more, to whom death came less suddenly or more brutally, could not attain that bliss. Hundreds, thousands of these luckless beings, betrayed by their god, we have watched slipping down into the gulf of death, clutching, screaming, bewildered and indignant, or utterly dehumanized by pain.
More common than the ‘happy warriors’ was a third type, namely those who, having passed in spirit beyond this knightly innocence, still tried to retain it. These, when the war began, were first shocked and torn asunder by conflicting motives, by loyalty to the old idea of War and by the obscure stirrings of something new which they dared not clearly face. For, in spite of all their regrets and compassion, they very deeply lusted for war. And because this new thing that disturbed them ran counter to this lust and to the familiar code, they strove to ignore it. Or they persuaded themselves that though war was an evil, this war was a necessary evil. They elaborated all manner of arguments to convince themselves that their country’s cause was the cause of humanity, or that the War, though tragic, would result in a great moral purgation. They eagerly accepted every slander against the enemy, for it was very urgent for these distraught spirits to believe that the enemy peoples were almost sub-human. Only so could they feel confident that the War was right, and indulge their martial zeal with a clear conscience. The pacifists they condemned even more bitterly than the enemy, for in tormenting the pacifists they seemed to be crushing the snake in their own hearts.
The fourth type, though not actually a majority in all lands, had the greatest influence, because in most of the other types the sentiment of this fourth type was present in some considerable degree. These were at the outset little stirred by patriotism, and for them war had but a slight romantic appeal. They thought only of individual lives and happiness, and nearest their hearts were the lives and happiness of their fellow-countrymen. Under the influence of the lying propaganda with which the spirit of each nation was poisoned by its government, they sincerely believed that the enemy government was in the wrong, and was carrying out a base policy by brutal measures. But they preserved their sanity so far as to believe that the enemy peoples were on the whole not very different from themselves. As individuals the enemy were ‘just ordinary decent folk’ who, through some lack of resolution, had been led into a false policy. Consequently (so it was said) the ‘group spirit’ of these swarms of harmless enemy individuals was unhealthy. In the mass they were a danger to civilization, and so at all costs they must be beaten.
Such was the attitude of most men and many women in both the opposed groups of peoples. They lacked faith in human nature. And through their lack of faith in it they betrayed it. They might so easily have risen up in their millions in all lands to say, ‘This war must stop; we will not fight.’ Yet of course, though in a sense so easy, such a refusal was also utterly impossible to them. Because they were without any perception of man’s true end, because they accepted the world as it stood and human nature as it seemed, they inevitably missed the great opportunity, and condemned their species to decline. Pitiable beings, they brought upon their own heads, and upon the future, deluges of pain, grief, despair, all through lack of vision, or of courage. They manned a thousand trenches, endured a thousand days and nights of ennui or horror, displayed what in your kind is called superb devotion. All this they did, and all for nothing. They thrust bayonets into one another’s entrails, they suffered nightmares of terror, disgust and frantic remorse. They were haunted by bloody and filthy memories, and by prospects of desolation. Those of them who were parents gave up their sons, those who were women gave up their men, and all for nothing; or for a hope that was as impossible, as meaningless, as self-contradictory, as a round square, for the mad hope that war should end war. They believed that from their agony there must spring anew, fair world. But in fact through their lack of faith in one another the whole future of their species was overclouded.
The fifth type that we discovered was actually opposed to the war. There were many kinds of pacifists. A few were those naive beings who, loyal to the Christian faith both in the spirit and the letter, simply accepted the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, and thought no further. But the main body of effective pacifists, even of those who gave as their motive ‘religious scruples’, were of a very different water. One and all, though they knew it not were ruled by that imperious, but still unformulated impulse which I have already noted in the case of Paul, the impulse of loyalty to the dawning spirit of man. But since the real spring of their conduct Was still so obscure, they had to rationalize it in various manners. Many supposed themselves to be moved simply by the Christian faith. But indeed in these, so our observers discovered, it was not Christianity that had bred pacifism, but pacifism that had given Christianity a new significance. Strong in the intuitive loyalty to the great adventure of the Terrestrial mind, they interpreted that intuition as loyalty to the Christian God. They strove, so they said, to love their fellows as Jesus had bidden them, but also they strove to love Jesus himself even more. And for them Jesus, though they knew it not, was the divine spirit embodied in their groping species.
Others there were, upon whom the basis of the same intuition constructed other rationalizations. Some, believing that they cared only for the happiness of individuals, declared that the misery of war must far outweigh all its good effects. They cared nothing for national honour, nothing for treaty obligations to defend weak peoples, nothing for the propagation of national culture. These, they said, were mere phantoms, for which not one life should be sacrificed. Better for the weak peoples to have their countries occupied peaceably than turned into a battlefield. Let them be defended not by force but by the pressure of world-opinion. As for culture, it was worth nothing if it depended on bayonets and guns. Nothing whatever mattered, so they affirmed, but the happiness of individuals. Yet all the while these hedonistic pacifists unwittingly drew the fervour which made them face tribunals, prison, and in some cases a firing party, not from their liberal individualism but from that deep and obscure intuition that the human race was no mere swarm of happy-unhappy individuals, but a vessel still unfilled, an instrument still roughly fashioned, and some day to be used for cosmical achievement. For this they went to prison, for this they resisted the taunts of their own herd-consciences. For this they died; and because they felt it in their hearts that the Western peoples must now at last dare to say, each to the other, ‘Rather than make war, we will let you overrun our lands, sequester our goods, sleep with our wives, educate our children to your way of living. For we are all equal vessels of the one spirit, we and you.’
Such was the composition of Europe when the war began. There was the great host of those who regarded it almost solely from the personal point of view; the smaller company of martial romantics; the conflict-racked enemy-haters and pacifist-baiters; the swarms of unimaginative loyal folk, who accepted the war as the only way to preserve human happiness, but were sorely perplexed by the savagery that was expected of them; the minute band of those who intuited that war between modern civilized men was utter folly and sacrilege, than which there could be no worse alternative.
Of these last the more resolute and the more pugnacious refused absolutely to have any part in the great madness, and were therefore persecuted, imprisoned, or even shot. But others, like Paul, less heroic, less confident of their own opinion, or more sympathetic to the great public agony, could not bring themselves to stand aside inactive. They chose therefore to help the wounded, to expose themselves so far as was permitted, to accept so far as possible on the one hand the great common agony, and on the other the private loneliness of those who cannot share the deepest passions of their fellows.
To Neptunian observers these perplexed beings were the most significant matter for study, for in them the balance between the archaic and the modern was most delicate. The conflict which in most had been violently solved, in one way or the other, was in these ever present and insoluble.
Viewed from the moon, and with eyes such as yours, your little Great War would have been invisible, save through a powerful telescope, which would have revealed it as a minute and intermittent smoky stain on the dimly green surface of Europe. To the Martians, those intelligent clouds who in the fullness of time were to invade your planet, it was unnoticeable. With optical organs much more powerful than any terrestrial telescope, their astronomers were already observing the Earth as a promised land seen from Pisgah. But what concerned them was your atmosphere, your plentiful water, your vegetation. They sometimes wondered whether the many smears and stipples of cloud which kept appearing and disappearing in your temperate zones were intelligent organisms like themselves. But they guessed that it was not so. They detected normal clouds of vapour, and, much more rarely, clouds of smoke and dust, which they rightly believed to be of volcanic origin, The minute traces produced by your war were assumed to be of the latter type. It did not occur to the Martians that these were artificial smoke-palls, beneath which the proud denizens of Earth were blundering through a great, though a fantastic agony.
Even to the average Terrestrial, your little Great War was a minor and a remote disturbance. A few miles behind the lines one might often find complete rural peace, marred only by distant muttering. Across the English Channel men sometimes heard with awe the sound of the guns; but the widespread sense that the tragedy in France had somehow changed the spirit of peaceful landscapes in Surrey, Cumberland, or the distant Hebrides, was but a projection of war-haunted minds. The psychological reverberations of the war did indeed spread far afield. Few comers of Europe escaped such serious influences as the removal of their young men, the rationing of their food, the over-work of their remaining inhabitants. Throughout the continent there was a sense, illusory but profound, that war had somehow altered the very constitution of the universe; or that it had laid bare the sinister depths of existence, which hitherto had been concealed by the scum, the multi-coloured film, of Nineteenth-century civilization. But elsewhere, over whole continents the military operations were known only as a distant marvel, romantic, magical, scarcely real. Folk tilled and hunted, copulated and bore children, propitiated the gods of rain and storm, trapped marauding beasts and sometimes listened incredulously to travellers’ tales of the White Man’s War. In more remote parts of the earth, on the upper reaches of the Amazon, in African jungles, and on the Thibetan plateau, there were isolated folk who never heard rumour of your war until after it had ceased.
But to most Europeans it did indeed seem that when the war began the whole ground-tone of existence was altered. For a few months many clung to the conviction that this profound change of key was for the good, a transition from the sordid, though safe, to the heroic, though tortured. The Germans pressed forward toward Paris, that mythical city of delight. The French and the British ‘gallantly contested every inch’, and at last ‘miraculously’ they held their own. Stories of heroism and horror percolated through Europe, stories of the incredible effects of high-explosive shells, of great buildings collapsing like card-houses, of men’s bodies blown to pieces or mown down in hundreds by machine-guns. All this was at first accepted as quite in order, quite as it should be, in the new bewildering heroic universe that had come into being. Amiable bank-clerks and shop-keepers began to spend their leisure in learning to be ‘frightful’ in the sacred cause, learning to give the right sort of lunge with a bayonet, to stick it successfully into a belly; learning the right twist to release it. Paul in those early days had bought a little red manual of military training, in which he diligently studied the theory of co-operative slaughter. Here at last, he had told himself, was the grim and heroic reality, the thing that had always lain behind this solid-seeming but, in fact, phantasmal ‘civilization’. Yet somehow the little book failed to give him any sense of reality at all. It seemed entirely beside the mark. This killing was after all a laborious, useless, imbecile accomplishment, like learning to play the piano with your toes. Yes, it was a new world that had come into being, and one took some time to get the feel of it. Many people seemed to Paul to unearth a new self to cope with it, a simpler, less doubting, more emotional self, a self that concealed under righteous indignation a terrible glee in the breakdown of old taboos. Even while they inveighed against the enemy’s rumoured brutality, these beings of the new world seemed to savour it on the mental palate lingeringly, lustfully. They were trapped hopelessly, these vengeful ones, trapped by the spirit of the archaic animal from which the true spirit of man could not free itself. Talking to such persons, Paul glimpsed images of the half-born foal, which, through my influence, had so long haunted him.
Gradually the romantic early phase of your war was succeeded by something very different. It almost seemed that man, in origin arboreal and subsequently terrestrial, was to end his career as the greatest and most noxious of burrowing vermin. The armies dug themselves in. They constructed immensely elongated and complex warrens, and settled down to a subterranean life of tedium punctuated by horrors formerly unimagined. It became evident to the combatants, and gradually to the home populations also, that the war was not going to be what it ought to have been. It was not a gentlemanly war. It was ruthless in a way that made the wars of the history books seem temperate. It was a life-and-death struggle in which rules were an abandoned. And it was mechanized. The spirit of it was indeed a strange blend of the machine, with its regularity and large-scale effectiveness, and the brute at bay. It was an affair of stop-watches, mathematical calculations, weight and frequency of projectiles, mechanical transport, railway co-ordination; but also it Was an affair of mud, dust, blood, knives, even teeth. Everything that happened in it had two sides, a mechanical and a brutal, at the one end the exquisite designing, making, emplacing and sighting of the great gun, at the other, the shattering of human bodies, the agony of human minds. At one end the hum of munition factories, at the other the corpse-laden mud of No-man’s-land, and the scream of tortured men out on the wire, imploring, inaccessible. Machinery, that creature of human imagination, had seemingly turned upon its creator, and was not only tearing up his body, but reducing his mind to the brute level from which it had emerged. For strange and disturbing things were now happening in civilized Europe. There were still of course, plentiful stories of heroism; human nature was said to be showing itself capable of unexpected devotion and fortitude. But also there were whispers of something less reputable. The bravest and most it seemed, might be suddenly converted into panic-stricken cattle, trampling one another under foot. The most level-headed might suddenly run mad. The most generous might suddenly indulge in brutality or meanness. There were stories also of tragic muddle and betrayal of duty, stories of British shells falling in British trenches, of troops sent up to certain destruction through a staff-officer’s blunder, of supplies misdirected, of whole forlorn offensives launched for no reason but to satisfy the pride of some general or politician.
There is no need for me to enlarge upon these matters. They have been well enough recorded by your own scribes, and are, on the other hand, of little interest to the Neptunian observers of your great folly. Though more than ordinarily disastrous, they were but typical of the blend of organization and chaos, which is the outstanding character of your whole world-order. The Neptunian, studying that order, is inevitably reminded of the fortuitous, unplanned organization, and the blindly apt, but precarious behaviour of an ant colony. But though your massed stupidity afforded us little interest, we found in the lives of individual soldiers, and in their diverse adjustments to the war, much to arrest our attention.
For the majority, adjustment consisted in acquiring the technique of a new life, in learning to make good use of cover, to contrive some slight animal comfort for oneself even in the trenches, to make the best of minute pleasures, savouring them, drop by drop, to live upon the hope of strawberry jam, or a parcel from home, or a letter in a well-known hand, or a visit to some woman behind the lines; or, failing these ecstasies, to make the best of plum jam, of a rum-ration, or of sex without woman; to ‘wangle’ small privileges out of the great military machine, to be expert in ‘système D’; and at the same time to take deep into one’s heart the soldier’s morality of faithful obedience to superiors, faithful loyalty to comrades, and complete irresponsibility in respect of all things further afield; to live within the moment and within the visible horizon; to shut the eyes of the spirit against disgust, and stop the ears of the spirit against horror, against self-pity, against doubt.
It is true that to many spiritually undeveloped beings the war-life was a tonic. Many of those who had been nurtured in prosperity, or at least in ease, who had never faced distress, and never been tortured by compassion, were now roughly awakened. Generously they gave themselves, and in the giving they found themselves. But others of their kind were broken by the ordeal. The awakening came too late, or to natures incapable of generosity.
But it was not in these, either the made or the marred, that our observers were interested. We were concerned rather to watch the adjustments of those in whom there was at work a force alien to the simple soldier ideal. Many such have I myself inhabited. At the outset they have gone forth with a sense that the heavens applaud them, that there was a God whom they were serving, and who would recompense them for their huge sacrifice with the inestimable prize of his approval. But, Soon or late, their faith has been destroyed by the ugly facts of war.
Let me tell of one case, unique, yet typical of thousands on both sides of the line. From the Terrestrial point of view, the events which I am about to relate were contemporary with the story of Paul, already Partially recounted; and they culminated in 1917, when the war was far advanced, and Paul had already been more than two years in France. But from the Neptunian point of view my exploration of these events took place some time before I had made the acquaintance of Paul. The specimen case that I shall now report is one of my most interesting treasures. Also, it nearly cost me my life.
He was a young German, a native of Neustadt in the Black Forest, and he had been trained for the care of trees. His hands were skilled in tending the baby pines in their crowded nurseries, and in planting them out in the greater world of the forest. When he wielded the axe or the saw, the deed was done with precision, and also with a deep sense of fate. The resinous odour of the forest and of fresh-cut wood, the ever-present vision of towering shafts and swaying branches, the occasional glimpse of a deer — these things he valued lightly while he was yet with them; but when he was removed from them he longed for them.
Now this young man, whom I will call Hans, had been selected for study because, though he became a good soldier, he was more than a good soldier. During his career as a forester I had found in him a very unusual feeling for individual trees, and for the massed ranks of the forest. He could not help regarding them as each one a unique spirit, living according to the laws of its own being, and striving toward perfection of life. In his capacity of woodman, tender in nurturing, relentless in the final execution, he persuaded himself that, though to the trees themselves the goal seemed to be merely endless enlargement in girth and stature, he, in his lethal ministration, afforded them in spite of themselves a nobler destiny, a fuller achievement. Sometimes when he regarded a score or so of the great felled trunks, laid flank to flank, with the resin still oozing from their clean-sawn wounds, he would say to the standing forest, ‘Do not pity them, for they have gloriously attained their destiny.’ Then with reverence, almost it seemed with envy of this beatitude, he would lay his hand on the rough and tawny skin of some prone giant, in a last salute. For the great communal being of the forest, reclining so grandly on its many hills, he had a feeling compounded of benevolence and awe. It was for him a spirit, one of God’s nobler creatures. When it began to be depleted for the war he was distressed. But even the forest, he admitted, must be sacrificed for that even nobler forest, the Fatherland.
He was a good son of the Fatherland, and also a good Catholic. They told him that the English and the French were servants of Satan, who wanted to harm the Fatherland. He went to the war filled with a sense of glorious adventure in a great cause. He was very proud of his new life. He cared for his rifle as he cared for his axe, and became as deadly a shot as he was precise a sawyer. When he killed his first man, with a bullet through the forehead, he had that sense of fate, and of calm almost loving execution, which he had known in felling the beloved trees in their ripeness. His next man he overcame in savage hand-to-hand struggle in the dark. For the Fatherland and in defence of his own life he did it; but there was no joy in it. Little by little he earned a reputation for coolness and resolution. He volunteered for a number of dangerous tasks and carried them out with distinction. When steel helmets were issued, he was proud to wear one. Its noble curves suggested the mythical heroes of his race. Its weight on his head crowned him.
At first Hans thought of the war in terms of his forest-born philosophy. He and his comrades were trees, who sought one destiny but were to find another, less easeful but more fulfilling to the spirit. But little by little it began to appear to him that this war, nay this world, was no well-tended forest but a terrible primeval jungle in which everything was crippled by everything else, and all things were useless. He strove to put a way this thought by drugging himself with war propaganda, or with duties, or with pleasures. But it would not leave him. So greatly did it disturb him that everything began to seem changed and sinister to him. Common objects looked at him meaningfully, tauntingly. Empty tins and trampled cigarette-ends would leer at him like little devils, deriding him for being trapped. His own hands in their ordinary actions seemed somehow to reproach him for putting them to serve the Devil. He had an overwhelming sense of betrayal. But whether it was that he himself was betrayed, or that he had betrayed something else, was never quite clear. Emblems of his religion, encountered in shattered churches or shrines, sometimes reproached him with his irrevocable treason; sometimes on the other hand they confessed themselves mere jests perpetrated by the universal diabolic power which had masqueraded as the God of Love. He began to think about the men he had killed, and to see them again, especially at night, especially a French corporal whose face he had smashed with a hand grenade. His rifle now took on a snake-like coldness in his hands, so that he shuddered. His helmet pressed on his forehead vindictively. Over all things there was a kind of darkness, which was the worse because he knew it was not ‘real’. In his ears there began to be a distant wailing as of wind, which when the great guns roared and crashed, was yet heard screaming above them.
In fact, Hans was on the way to breakdown. Now Neptunian observers found amongst you two kinds of breakdown, very different in origin. Both types are of great interest to us, because the more effectively integrated minds of our own species afford the psychologist no such opportunity of study, even under the most severe strain. One type of Terrestrial disorder, the commoner, was due to the conflict between primitive biological impulses of self-preservation and the behaviour imposed by military obligation. The other, which was more interesting to us, sprang from the conflict between military obligation and the still unrecognized impulse of loyalty to the striving Terrestrial spirit. This was the conflict which was most seriously undermining Hans, though the other also was of course adding to his distress. He himself lacked the selfknowledge to understand his trouble. He thought it was simply a trouble of the more primitive kind, and was bitterly ashamed. He determined not to give way, but to pull himself together. Both loyalty and self-pride demanded it.
In the case of Hans and a small minority of his fellow-men this ruinous mental conflict was complicated by another and even less understood division of the mind, namely by the fundamental and insoluble problem of your species, the discord between loyalty to the adventuring spirit of Man and on the other hand the ecstatic admiration of fate even when tragic. Although deep in his heart Hans was coming to realize that to fight for the Fatherland or any nation was treason to Man, and that this war was diabolic, he had also a vivid though unintelligible apprehension of the whole great hideous tumult as somehow an expression of super-human, inhuman, beauty. His mind was therefore torn by a three-cornered conflict, between old tribal loyalty, the new loyalty to Man, and the zest of tragic existence.
It was with dreadful satisfaction that Hans found himself involved once more in the centre of a great offensive. I, his indwelling companion, knew that within the next few days he would meet his death; but I did not know precisely when it would occur. I had therefore to prepare myself to leave him by partially reverting my attention to my own world. But at the same time it was necessary to observe him closely, for the moments of his life which would be of supreme interest to me were now at hand. I had also to keep a wary eye upon his circumstances, lest I should be entangled with him in his death.
All this happened at a time when I had been rather too constantly engaged on work in your world, and was so soaked in your mentality that I could not at all easily disengage myself from it. Moreover I found myself extremely reluctant to do so. Not only was I desirous to follow Hans through to his last moment, and if possible to afford his tortured spirit something of the Neptunian serenity, but also I was by now trapped by an overwhelming affection for your tragic world. It was therefore both with difficulty and with a strangely violent regret that I set myself to recapture in imagination the wider horizons and the crystalline titanic edifices of Neptune, the great limbs and eloquent features of my own race. My regret alarmed me; for it was a sure sign that I had stayed in your world much longer than was wholesome. Like one lost in the snow, who has an overwhelming desire to lie down and sleep, but knows that if he does he will never rise again, and never complete his work, so I now realized that a great effort was necessary. I began to goad myself by thinking of all the precious fruits of my exploration, which, if I were to succumb, would never be delivered to my own world.
Meanwhile the hour of the offensive was approaching. From the felt tone of Hans’s body, it was evident that he was going sick; but he would not admit it to himself. He developed a distressing colic and diarrhoea, but he clung to his post. He was seized also by a strong premonition of death, an infection from my own awareness that this was indeed his last battle. While he and his comrades were awaiting the order to attack. Hans experienced a sudden increase of mental lucidity. In desperate haste he reviewed his whole life, his whole experience of existence. He was terrified at the contrast, not the physical but the spiritual contrast, between his forest years and the present. Then, there was a bland rightness about everything. Now, everything, even generous and gallant action, was somehow evil, tainted by an all-pervading shame. He said to himself. ‘We have simply walked all together into Hell.’
It was almost the moment of attack. I knew that he would survive the storming of the enemy first-line trench; for I had previously learned from a Neptunian colleague, who had already observed this action through the eyes of another individual, that Hans was to be seen alive in the trench. Therefore I felt secure enough to watch my man minutely for a while, and to prepare his mind to meet death with peace, instead of the rage and despair that had hitherto possessed him. While he was still waiting inactive, Hans was very near to breaking-point. It seemed possible that he would not obey the order to advance. But when the word came, he clambered up with the rest; and as he pounded across the tract of shell-torn earth and tangled wire, he suddenly blazed up with maniac hate of the universe and all its denizens. In those moments it mattered not at all to him whether his bayonet should pierce a blue or a grey uniform. Nothing mattered, but that he should void the hate that was in him. I felt a bullet tear one of his ears. He did not notice it. A near shell killed the man on his right, and half-buried Hans himself. He picked himself up and stumbled on.
It now became clear that I was far more dangerously entangled in your world than I had thought; for at this moment, as I watched the desperate plight of this blind half-human spirit, I found myself suddenly undermined by doubt of my own Neptunian vision. Here was a mind blessed neither with the insensitivity of the beast nor with the all-redeeming vision of my own species, a mind deranged by the horror and guilt of three years of war, and now overwhelmingly nauseated by its own being and by the satanic universe which had spawned it only to devour it, a mind which looked forward to nothing but horror and annihilation for itself, and futility for its world. It suddenly appeared to me that a universe in which such torture could occur must be utterly vile, and that the Neptunian complacency was heartless. This apostasy I noted with dismay; but by now I was in no mood to withdraw myself into spiritual safety. More important it seemed to stay with Hans, and afford him at all costs at least an illusory consolation.
While he was covering the last few paces to the enemy trench, I was somewhat anxiously engaged in two very different undertakings. The first was to thrust upon the mind of Hans an image of the forest, which might serve as the starting-point for a spiritual change. The second, which I undertook at first with reluctance, was to prepare myself for a sudden exit from your world. I successfully established in him the vision of lofty trunks and sombre foliage. As he plunged into the trench with his bayonet in the neck of an enemy, this image took possession of the deeper region of his mind. I then began to think more conscientiously of my own safety, and to steady myself in earnest for the leap to Neptune. I pictured my own far future body, lying asleep in my subterranean garden. I dwelt upon the translucent features of the woman called Panther. I reminded myself of the Mad Star and of the supreme disaster which we, the Last Men, await undismayed. Contemplating this the last scene of the tragedy of Man, I began once more to see your little war in its true proportions. Presently the cramped and unwholesome feel of the young German’s body began to fade from me. The racket of battle, the tumbled and bleeding human forms, began to seem as a dream when one is all but wakened, a dream of being entangled in the insensate feuds of wild animals.
But now something happened which recalled my attention wholly to your sphere. A savage tussle was taking place in the trench, and the invaders were becoming masters of the situation. Hans, however, was playing no part in the fight. He was standing aside watching it, as though it were a dog-fight. In his mind was a vast confusion, caused by a sudden enlightenment. Not only had the forest-image started a change in him, but also he had been infected by my own reversion to the Neptunian mentality, so that in those moments he too experienced a kind of awakening. Suddenly he flung away his rifle and rushed with a huge laugh into the melee. Seizing one of his countrymen by the collar and the seat of the trousers, he tugged him away, crying, ‘No more brawling.’ An officer, seeing that Hans was out of his mind and causing trouble, shot him through the head.
Fortunately I had caught sight of the muzzle of the weapon out of the corner of Hans’s eye. Desperately, with a wild leap of the mind, I disengaged myself from your world.
I awoke to find myself in bed in my garden. I could not remember what had happened, but I had a violent pain in my head, and several of my colleagues were standing round me. They had heard me scream, they said, and had come running to my assistance. A few minutes later, apparently, I lost consciousness again and fell into convulsions. I remember nothing further tin six weeks later, when I awoke to find myself in the tree-girt hospital where shattered explorers are nursed back to health.
While I was studying Hans, I was of course also, in the very same span of Terrestrial duration, resident in Paul. Yet from the Neptunian point of view, let me repeat, my operations upon Hans took place before I had even discovered Paul. Consequently while I was in Hans I knew nothing about Paul and my work upon him, but while I was in Paul I remembered my experiences in Hans. This fact, as I shall tell in due season, had in one respect a curious effect on Paul.
Meanwhile I must revert to Paul’s career at the point where I. first introduced him into this survey. It will be remembered that he was suffering an agony of indecision about the war, that he hurried to a recruiting office, and then fled away from it. We left him slinking through the streets of London.
During the next few days Paul was frequently troubled by his waking nightmare, the mare that was dead, with her strangled foal. Sometimes it seemed to him that he himself was the foal, unable to free himself from the restriction of an outgrown mentality. Sometimes the whole human race was the foal. Sometimes on the other hand, the foal was just his unborn martial self, throttled by his most unmartial past.
A few days later Paul heard of a curious semi-religious ambulance organization, which, while professing pacifism, undertook voluntary succour of the wounded at the front. It was controlled and largely manned by a certain old-established and much-respected religious sect which adhered strictly to the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, and to its own unique tradition of good works and quietism. Some members of this sect preached a rigorous pacifism which very soon brought them into conflict with authority; but others, who tempered pacifism with a craving to take some part in the great public ordeal, created this anomalous organization, whose spirit was an amazing blend of the religious, the military, the pacific, the purely adventurous, and the cynical. This ‘Ambulance Unit’ lasted throughout the war. It was formed in the first instance as an outlet for the adventurousness of the younger sectarians, who very naturally chafed at their exclusion from the tremendous adventure and agony of their contemporaries. Throughout its career it contained many such, normal young men eager for ardours and endeavours, who, though they had no very serious pacifist convictions, remained loyal to the tradition of their fathers, and refused to bear arms. Others there were, both within and without the sectarian fold, who, though they profoundly felt that to make war in modern Europe under any circumstances whatever was treason against something more sacred than nationalism, had yet not the heart to wash their hands of the world’s distresses.
Such were the pioneers of this strange organization; but as time passed it gathered to itself a very diverse swarm of persons who were driven from their civil occupations either by public opinion or their own consciences, or finally by legal compulsion. A few, very few, were narrow-hearted beings whose chief motive was simply to avoid what they regarded as the spiritual defilement of a soldier’s work. There was also a sprinkling of artists and intellectuals whose main concern was neither religion nor pacifism, but the adventures of the mind in novel circumstances. Among those who were admitted into the Unit after conscription had been introduced into England, some were serious pacifists who had been loyal to their civilian duties as long as possible; and a few, whose pacifism was only skin deep, chose the Unit as the line of least resistance, simply because they had no stomach either for the trenches or for prison.
To the military authorities this fantastic organization was a minute and negligible excrescence on the military machine. The dignitaries of the armies, if ever they came across it at all, regarded it at first as something to be kept at arm’s length until it had been brought under proper military control. It was a God-sent butt for ridicule. On the other hand it proved to have its uses; and often it earned a kind of incredulous respect, even affection.
To Neptunian observers this uncomfortable medley of cranks and commonplace individuals appeared, surprising as it may seem, as one of the most interesting phenomena of your whole war. It was not the mere pacifism of these beings that concerned us, for at home and later in the prisons there were pacifists more logical and more heroic. What interested us was the heart-searching bewilderment of minds which could not find harmony either with the great mass of their warring fellows or with the more relentless pacifists. We are interested too in the reactions which these unclassified beings aroused in any ordinary persons who happened to come across them. For they were neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring. They claimed to be pacifists, but obviously they were ‘helping to win the war’ by releasing others for more arduous military duties. Surely, then, they were either fools or shirkers. Surely, said the martial-minded, they ought all to be in the trenches, or put in prison, or, better still, shot. But others, the majority, gave them a contemptuous toleration.
To Paul it seemed that by joining this body he would be both taking part in the war and registering his protest against it. In fact, as he ruefully admitted, he would both have his cake and eat it. But what else could he do? He was convinced at last that some mysterious thing inside him would always prevent him from enlisting. But if he could not fight, neither must he shirk. That he was moved at all by the will to avoid the extremity of danger and agony he did not admit; for he pictured himself as a stretcher-bearer rescuing the wounded under fire, or as a motor-ambulance driver trundling his car where the fight was hottest. So little did he yet know of ‘modern’ warfare.
Paul joined the Unit. With surprise and with shame-faced delight, he learned that he must dress as a British officer, though with certain distinguishing signs. On his left arm he must wear a red-cross brassard, stamped with a kind of postage mark. His hat also bore a red cross on a huge white square. Neptunian observers have been much indebted to this uniform. Nothing could have better symbolized the mental discord of Paul and his like. Nothing could have been more nicely calculated to intensify that discord. One side of Paul clung to the delusion that since he was to be dressed as an officer he must be after all, in spirit, a member of that gallant fraternity. The other side of him recognized that this could not be. He became in fact an object of ridicule, sometimes of indignant scorn. Wherever he went, he felt people wondering what on earth he was, and how he dared to caricature his betters. Pacifists, on the other hand, raised their eyebrows at his military colouring. One day while he was still painfully conscious of his uniform, he met Katherine in the street. Her husband was already in the trenches. She gazed at Paul for a moment in amazement, suppressed a smile, was smitten by Paul’s distress, and became blunderingly tactful.
In France Paul was less conscious of his uniform. There were others of his kind, and anyhow no one seemed to mind. Moreover he had work to do. Having had some slight acquaintance with a motor-bicycle, he was set to help in the repair of broken-down cars at the headquarters of the Unit. A few weeks later he became an orderly on a motor ambulance. He made innumerable journeys between the advanced stations and the hospitals, working entirely for the French army. For the first time he dealt with the wounded, with sitting-cases mostly cheerful at their release, and stretcher-cases in all phases of distress and weakness. Paul was at first deeply disturbed by compassion for these much-bandaged blue-clad figures, many of whom moaned and lamented at every jerk of the car. He was also bitterly ashamed before them, because he was whole and full of life. Yet there was another part of him which reacted in a less orthodox manner, and one which Paul himself at first regarded as disreputable, even Satanic. It was almost like the glee of the scientist watching a successful experiment, or of the artist apprehending some high, intricate, inevitable form. Paul tried hard not to feel in this way, or not to know that he felt so. But he could not help it; and he was abashed at his own brutality. It was I who caused this feeling in him, I, working upon his own rudimentary impulses. He need not have been ashamed.
In these days the main concern of Paul’s life, apart from the overwhelming wounded themselves, was to get to the end of each journey without a mishap, and to escape night work. There was also an increasing sense that, after all, this was not good enough, not the sort of thing he wanted for his conscience’ sake. Occasionally he saw a shell burst in the sand-dunes, or knock off the corner of a house. But as for stretcher-bearing in the front line, there was not to be anything of the sort. None of the armies were going to let irresponsible volunteers do work which demanded strict military discipline. One day, however, a gay young member of the party was killed by a shell. Paul found himself torn between regret for the dead boy and selfish satisfaction that, after all, this work was not entirely sheltered.
The weeks and months passed, weeks made up of sultry day-driving and pitch-black night-driving, of blood-stained blankets, packs, overcoats, of occasional alarms, of letters written and received, of bathes in the sea, not far from the steel entanglements which crossed the beach at the end of the line. Then there were talks, talks with those who shared the dilemma of Paul himself, and talks with the utterly different beings who accepted the war with a shrug; laborious, joking conversations with innumerable poilus, and still more laborious smutty jests, sometimes with Algerians and Moroccans.
Some months after the beginning of his war career, Paul, who had learnt to drive, was put in charge of a motor ambulance on a new convoy, which was to go far away south to a part of the line beyond the British front. His companions, some forty in all, constituted a fair sample of the Unit. There were sons of rich and religious manufacturers, and there were very small traders. There were printer’s apprentices, social workers, mechanics, students, clerks, teachers, shop assistants, artists. There were devout sectarians, less devout sectarians, and those who in revulsion from piety were at pains to shock the devout with cynicism and ribaldry. There were careless young Irishmen seeking adventure without ‘military discipline. There were kindly and earnest products of sectarian schools, and others who had emerged from the same schools with a no less earnest, no less kindly, frivolity. There were grizzled men who secretly cared nothing for pacifism, but sought the quickest way of seeing the spectacle of war. Here I may mention, too, the colourless but useful creature whom I have chosen as my mouthpiece for communicating with you. He has served me well in the past for the recounting of events in which he played no part; but now that it is necessary to dwell for a moment on microscopic occurrences of which he himself was a witness, I find him less manageable. It is not always possible to prevent him from dwelling unduly on the insignificant hardships and dangers in which he participated. Such were the companions of Paul, the unique being whom I had so carefully prepared for this experience.
With a sense that at last the test was coming, the Convoy lumbered south. It left behind it all traces of the British Army, which it so envied, respected, and obscurely feared. Presently it found itself established in a town beside an old royal hunting forest. And there for months it stayed, finding much hard work, but none of the ardours which it sought. In time even the work decreased, to a steady routine. In the earliest and more disorderly phase of the war the pioneers of this ‘Ambulance Unit’ had found ample opportunity to show that pacifism was not incompatible with courage and endurance; and even now, other Convoys of the Unit, it was said, were being of real use, and suffering real danger and hardship. But this Convoy, it seemed, was fated to idleness. There grew up a general restlessness, a tendency to quarrel over nothing, a disposition to walk violently along the geometrically ruled ‘allées’ of that prim forest. Paul conceived a sentimental passion for the forest. He withdrew as far as possible from his companions, and tried to think of himself as some kind of a fawn trapped into a human way of life. He found a deep satisfaction in sleeping on a stretcher under the stars and branches. I contrived that the forest should increasingly take possession of him, for I wished to perform a minor experiment on him. Reconstructing in my own mind the personality of Hans, who was at this time sniping Frenchmen further down the line, I brought Paul also under the young forester’s influence. Paul began to feel toward this neat French forest almost as Hans toward his grander German one. He spent all his spare time in it, laying bare his spirit, so he thought, to the presence of the trees. He began to write verses again, in his own groping technique. Here is one of them.
Stroke of the Axe! The trunk shivers and gapes.
Stroke on stroke! The chips fly.
‘Oh year upon year upon year I grew.
since I woke in the seed.’
Stroke of the axe!
Raw, wounded wood, and the heart laid bare.
‘Oh sun, and wind, and rain!
Oh leafing, and the fall of leaves!
Oh flower, love, and love’s fruit!’
Fierce bite of the axe!
Staggering, crying timber.
The twigs and the little branches are shattered
on the ground.
The woodman stands.
After some months of futility, the Convoy became so restless that its leaders persuaded the army authorities to give it a change. Henceforth it was to be attached permanently to one of the divisions of the French army. Once more the dark-green vehicles, plastered with red and white emblems of mercy, lumbered through France in search of a dreaded and a longed-for goal. The Convoy joined its Division in ‘Lousy Champagne’, whose barren hills were now snowclad. This was during the Great Cold. The bread crystallized, the ration wine froze. The radiators of the cars, boiling at the top, froze at the bottom. At night Paul, shivering in his sleeping-bag under a pile of blankets in his canvas-sided car, thought of the trenches and was abashed.
The weeks rolled by. In quiet times Paul and his friends played rugger with the Division, or walked over the down-like hills which were already beginning to stipple themselves with flowers. It grew warm, hot. They bathed in the stream, their white bodies rejoicing in freedom from stiff military clothes. On one of these occasions Paul, dozing naked in the sun before his dip, dreamed about my seaside holiday with the woman, Panther. This dream had an interesting effect on him. He woke with a sense of the shadowy unreality of all Terrestrial events beyond the immediate reach of his senses; but the bright meadow, the willow-shaded stream, the delicious aliveness of his own sun-kindled body, had gained from his dream a more intense reality, an added spiritual significance. He thought of Katherine, whose breasts at least he had known. His flesh stirred. In sudden exasperation at his own futility and the world’s perversity, he dived.
Sometimes the young Englishmen went into the little town behind the lines to take wine or coffee, omelettes or gauffres; or to talk to the daughter of the patron. By the cynics it was maliciously suggested that this grey-eyed Athene had relations other than conventional with certain members of the Convoy. But to the devout this horror was incredible. Paul at least confessed to himself that he would have gladly lain with her, for he was hungry for woman, and she found her way into his dreams. But, however she treated others, to Paul she remained sweetly unapproachable. His failure with her intensified his discontent with the whole life of the Convoy. He wanted to prove himself a man, to have a share in the world’s burden, even if the world was a fool to bear it. To the Neptunian it was very interesting to observe in the Convoy this growing obsession with the need to vindicate pacifism by physical courage. At this time some who had hot blood and little care for pacifism went home to join the fighting forces. Others went home not to enlist but to go to prison for their pacifism, New hands came from headquarters to replenish the Convoy. Now that conscription was in force there was no lack of personnel.
Paul himself, whenever he went home on leave, had thoughts of joining the army. But he knew that these thoughts sprang only from his loneliness in a land intent on war, not from conviction of duty. On leave he was always cowed. He felt himself an outcast. He felt the women flaunting their soldiers at him. And the soldiers, though they let him alone, put him to shame. People at home judged him according to their own natures, as an impossible idealist, a fool, or a common shirker. All arguments closed with the same formula, ‘But we must fight, to keep the Germans out.’ When Paul dared to say ‘Would it really matter so very much if they came?’ he was silenced by stories of atrocities which in his heart he could not believe.
Once when he was on leave he met the Archangel, who was now an army chaplain, and had been wounded. They dined together at a railway restaurant among officers and women. Paul, homeward bound, was shabby. His tunic had a torn pocket, mended clumsily by his own hands. Those hands, which he had scrubbed till they seemed unusually clean, now turned out after all to be ingrained with engine oil; and his nails were ragged. He felt as though, for his ungentlemanly conduct in refusing to fight, he had been degraded from his own social class. This sense of loss of caste was intensified by the fact that he was wearing a closed collar; for since conscription had come in, the Unit had been made to give up the secretly cherished open collar of the officer’s tunic. The Archangel was friendly, sympathetic even. Yet in his very sympathy, so at least it seemed to Paul, condemnation was implied. Over coffee Paul suddenly asked, not without malice, ‘What would Jesus have done?’ While the priest was looking at the tablecloth for an answer, Paul, to his own horror, said in a clear loud voice, ‘Jesus would have shot the politicians and the war lords and started a European revolution.’ There was a silence in the restaurant. The pained Archangel murmured, ‘Strange talk from a pacifist, isn’t it?’ Then at last quite suddenly Paul’s pacifism defined itself in his mind, assumed a precise and limiting outline. To the Archangel he said, not too loud, but with conviction, ‘To fight for one’s nation against other nations in a world insane with nationalism, is an offence against the spirit, like fighting for a religious sect in a world insane with sectarianism. But to fight for revolution and a new world-order might become necessary.’ Paul was surprised at himself for making this statement. How it would grieve his pacifist friends! Was it true, he wondered. One conviction at least became clear in his mind. Whatever was needed to bring about a right world-order was itself right. But national wars could never do this, and were utterly wrong. Perhaps the only thing that could bring about a right world-order was not violence but a very great change in the hearts of ordinary people. But could that change ever occur? Somehow, it must.
Such were the thoughts that occupied Paul during the pause that followed the Archangel’s protest.
It was always with mingled despair and relief that Paul went back from leave. On leave he was haunted by the foal-image. When he was in the war area he felt there was some life in the creature yet; it was struggling though doomed. But at home it seemed already dead, mere horsemeat, never to be the friend of Man.
Life on the familiar sector was in the main too humdrum to be very repugnant. Sometimes for a day or two there would be activity. The roads would be seriously shelled, and the loaded cars would have to run the gauntlet. It was unpleasant, even nerve-racking, but it was soon over. And always one knew that this was but child’s play, not the real thing. During one of these minor disturbances, while Paul was returning to the front with an empty car, and shells were dropping close around him, he saw a figure lying at the road-side, its head badly smashed. Obviously the man was dead, so Paul drove on. But the next car stopped to pick him up, and he was still alive. For months Paul was haunted by that incident, going over it again and again in an agony of shame. It became to him the nadir of his existence. It increased his ludicrous obsession over physical courage.
The Division liked its ‘Section Sanitaire Anglaise.’ It had come to regard these strayed English no longer with suspicion, but with affection tempered by incredulity. It excused their pacifism as one might excuse a Mohammedan for not eating pork. No doubt in both cases there was some equally remote and fantastic historical explanation. To Frenchmen it was apparently inconceivable that anyone should take pacifism seriously unless it happened to be an element of his religious orthodoxy. For Frenchmen themselves, so the Convoy had long ago discovered, the only serious religion was France, the only orthodoxy uncompromising loyalty to France. If anyone suggested that some policy beneficial to France might not be acceptable to other peoples, these amiable, lucid, but strangely unimaginative Latin children would no doubt charmingly express regret, but would also point out that if the policy was necessary for France, they must support it. The extermination of wild animals by the march of civilization is to be regretted, but no sane man would suggest that civilization should be restricted in order to save them. As to pacifism, anyhow, it was no more practicable in Europe than in the jungle. Thus talked the considerate and very gallant officers of the Division, so respect-worthy in sky-blue and gold. Thus talked the amiable poilus, so devoted to their distant families and the land they should be tilling. And, indeed, all that the troops said about pacifism was true. They and their like made it impossible. Once more, the foal.
One Frenchman indeed did show some understanding of these English cranks. He was one of the two priests attached to the Division. His colleague, a red-bearded lover of wine, wore military uniform, and was a hearty friend of the troops; but M. l’Abbé himself wore his black cassock, tramped the whole sector with his finger in a little volume of St. Thomas, and was revered. He would talk long with the English over meals in dug-outs, for he was interested in their sect and their ideas. Of their pacifism he would repeat, ‘Ah, mes chers messieurs, si tout le monde pouvait sentir comme vous!’ One day he was caught by a shell, which broke his leg. Members of the Convoy visited him in hospital, where his clean body was making a quick recovery. Then, through some muddle over a change of staff, he was neglected, and died. In the commemorative address given by his colleague, the abbot’s death was laid to the account of the God-hating enemy. To Paul it seemed to be due to more complex causes.
In most Frenchmen’s eyes the pacifism of these English merely gave an added and farcical piquancy to a body that had already earned respect for its efficiency. For these pacifists were extremely Conscientious in their work, as is indeed to be expected where consciences suffer from chronic irritation. The Division also admired, and politely ridiculed, the extravagant cleanliness of the Convoy. In quiet times the paintwork of its cars was sleek with paraffin. Lamps, fittings, even crank-cases were kept bright with metal polish. Some of the members grumbled, but all acquiesced. Thus did the Convoy pay tribute to the great British Army, which in spite of antimilitarism it so faithfully admired.
Cleanliness did not interfere with efficiency. What the Convoy undertook to do, it invariably did. On the other hand, from the Division’s point of view, the conscientiousness of these English sometimes went too far, as when they flatly refused to transport rifles and ammunition to the front in their red-cross cars. The General was indignant, and threatened to get rid of this pack of lunatics. But an artist member of the Convoy was at that time painting his portrait, so the matter was dropped.
By now this little speck of Englishmen in an ocean of Latins had acquired a strong group-spirit. Though internally it was generally at loggerheads with itself, all its jarring elements were in accord in maintaining the prestige of the Convoy. H anyone indulged in some minor lapse, public opinion was emphatically against him. On the other hand, if the officers of the Convoy sought to introduce customs which to the rank and file seemed unnecessary or obnoxious, the cry of ‘militarism’ was raised; and the long-suffering officers, though they had behind them the whole power of the British and French armies, patiently argued the matter out with the rebels. Punishment was unknown in the Convoy.
This little group of two score persons was ever in a state of internal strain, either between the officers and the rest, or between, one clique and another. Thus the earnestly devout would outrage the earnestly frivolous by organizing religious meetings. The frivolous would conscientiously get mildly drunk on ration wine. The earnestly philistine talked sex and sport, motors and war, to maintain their integrity against the earnestly intellectual, who talked art,
politics, pacifism, and what they thought was philosophy. Yet all alike, or nearly all, received something from the strange corporate being of the Convoy. All were intensely conscious of their nationality, and of the need to impress these foreigners with British excellence. Yet all were outcasts from their nation, and deeply ashamed; even though also they consciously despised nationalism, and vehemently prophesied cosmopolitanism.
At last the test came. The Division moved to a part of the line beside the Montagne de Rheims. On the way the Convoy was caught up in a continuous stream of traffic making for the front, a stream of troops, guns, limbers, troops, motor-lorries, tanks, troops, ambulance sections. There was indescribable congestion, long waits, snail progress. Ahead a ceaseless roar of guns. On this journey I found in Paul a ludicrous blend of thankfulness and fright. His body was continuously in a state of suppressed tremor. Now and then he fetched a huge sigh, which he carefully turned into a yawn, lest his companion should guess that he was not looking forward to this offensive with the enthusiasm affected by all true members of the Convoy. Paul kept saying to himself, ‘This is the real thing, this is reality.’ But sometimes what he said was, ‘Reality? It’s just a bloody farce.’
The Convoy reached its destination and took over its duties. For a few days there was normal work, save that the roads were fairly steadily shelled. One shell Paul had reason to remember. He was in the courtyard that served the Convoy as a parking-ground. A score of blue figures tramped past the gateway singing, exchanging pleasantries with the English. They marched on, and disappeared behind the wall. Then there was a shattering explosion, followed by dead silence. The English rushed out into the road. There lay the twenty blue figures, one of them slowly moving the stump of an arm. Blood trickled down the camber of the road, licking up the dust. It flowed along the gutters. Paul and his mates got stretchers and carried away those who were not dead, shouting instructions to one another, for the shelling continued. During this operation Paul had one of those strange fits of heightened percipience which my influence sometimes brought upon him. Everything seemed to be stamped upon his senses with a novel and exquisite sharpness, the limpness of the unconscious bodies that he lifted, a blood-stained letter protruding from a torn pocket, a steel helmet lying in the road, with a fragment of someone’s scalp in it, bloody and lousy. Paul’s legs were trembling with fright and nausea, while the compassionate part of him insisted that these unhappy fellow mortals must be succoured. For some might live. That letter might yet after all be answered. It seemed to Paul now imperative that this poilu and his maraine should communicate once more. Yet at the same time that deep mysterious alien part of him, which he was gradually coming to accept and even value, laughed delicately, laughed as one may laugh with tenderness at the delicious gaucherie of a child.
It seemed to say to the other Paul, and to the stricken men also, ‘You dear, stupid children, to hurt yourselves like this, and to be so upset about it! Babes will be babes; and monkeys, monkeys.’
When Paul was off duty he went up into the forest-clad mountains and looked down at the line of dense smoke which marked the front, overhung at regular intervals by the two rows of captive balloons, stretching indefinitely into the south-east. An enemy ‘plane, harassed at first by white points of shrapnel, attacked a French balloon, which burst into flame. A scarcely visible parachute sank earthward from it. Paul went further into the forest. Here there was a kind of peace in spite of the roaring guns. Under my influence the spirit of Hans came on him again, so that he had a perplexing sense that, in the presence of his brothers the trees, he was brought mysteriously into touch also with his brothers the enemy.
The offensive began. Henceforth there was continuous work, with rare meals and no sleep. French and German wounded came flooding in. Hundreds who could find no place in the cars had to stagger all the way down to the chateau where the gaily-clad doctors grew more and more flustered. Slowly, uncertainly, these walking wounded swarmed along the road, their blue and their grey clothes sometimes indistinguishable for dust and blood. The roads now began to be impossible with shell-holes, and choked with wreckage. At one time Paul, hurrying along under shell-fire with a full load of sorrowing creatures shaken together in his reeling car, found himself behind a galloping artillery wagon. At the cross-roads, where some one, for reasons unknown, had propped a dead sergeant against the sign-post, a shell fell on the front of the wagon. The two men and one of the rear horses were killed. Its fellow floundered with broken legs, then died. The leaders stampeded. The road was now completely blocked. French and English dragged the dead horses and the limber to the ditch, tugging frantically at harness and splintered wood, while the wounded in the waiting cars, supposing themselves deserted under fire, cried out for help.
At night things were worse. Cars slipped into ditches, plunged into shell-holes. Paul, with a full load of stretcher-cases, almost drove off a broken bridge into the river. All the cars were damaged by shell-fire. Some were put out of action. One, going up empty to the front, suddenly found itself in a covey of bursting shells. The driver and orderly tumbled hurriedly into a ditch, and a shell burst on the driving-seat. The petrol went up in a huge column of flame’ and soon nothing remained of the car, but scrap iron and pools of aluminium on the road. Later, a line of tanks, going up, met a line of ambulances, coming down, where there was no room to pass. Confusion and altercations. A tank was hit; once more a column of flame, dwarfing the other, afforded a beacon for enemy guns.
Two or three days and nights of this kind of thing severely strained the Convoy. One or two members had already been wounded, and others had been badly shaken. Nerves developed here and there. Some one began to behave oddly, wandering about delivering meaningless messages. He was taken away. Paul himself was in a queer state; for his head was splitting, his mouth foul, his limbs curiously stiff and heavy. His stomach seemed to have collapsed. Worse, his driving was becoming erratic, and he sometimes said things he did not intend to say. He was continuously scared, and also scared of being found out by his calmer colleagues. His bogy, the foal, began to haunt him again. Somehow it was all mixed up with another vision, a bloodstained letter protruding from a torn pocket; and with yet another, a cow so flattened in the mud by the wheels of lorries and the feet of troops that nothing of it remained three-dimensional except its head in the gutter, and one broken horn. The thought that, after all, this ambulance life was mere child’s play compared with what was afoot elsewhere, hurt him so badly that inwardly he whined. For if things grew much worse than this he would certainly crack; and yet ‘this’ was nothing. Superficially he had maintained thus far something like the appearance of calm. He even contrived an occasional stammering joke. But inwardly he was by now going faint with terror. And this welling terror was beginning to spoil his affected calm. People were beginning to look at him anxiously. Paul found himself reviewing his case in this manner once while he was crouching in a ditch waiting for a lull in the shelling, and for a load of wounded. Yes, inwardly he was by now not far from cracking.
Yet more inwardly still, so he remarked to himself, he was quite calm. That was the odd part of it all. His silly body, or animal nature, as he put it, might very well crack, or run away howling, and yet he, Paul, would have no part in it. He, Paul, the rider of this quivering animal, was unperturbed, interested, amused. The beast might run away with him or throw him. It was proving a rather worthless sort of beast, and he had his work cut out to force it to the jumps. He would damned well master it if he could; but if he could not, well, it was all in the game, the extremely interesting game of being a human thing, half god, half beast. He knew quite well it didn’t seriously matter if he was killed, or even if he was horribly wounded. It didn’t really matter even if he cracked, though he must hang on if he could. He had a strange conviction, there in the ditch, that whichever did happen would be just the right thing; that even if he cracked, it would somehow be part of the’ music of the spheres’. Even the foal unborn was part of the music. Even this war, this bloody awful farce, was part of the music. If you couldn’t be anything but a vibrating, a tortured string in the orchestra, you didn’t like it. But if you had ears to listen, it was — great. These wounded — if only they could somehow hear, even through their own pain, the music of the spheres! If he himself were to be caught by the next shell, would he still keep hold of the music? Not he! He would be a mere tortured animal. Well, what matter? The music would still be there, even if he could not hear it, even if no man heard it. That was nonsense. Yet profoundly he knew that it was true.
Presently, for no apparent reason, the sector quietened down. The offensive, it seemed, had been a failure. The advance, which was to have swept the Germans out of France, never began. The Division, moreover, was in a state of mutiny, sensing mismanagement, declaring that thousands of lives had been lightly thrown away. It was withdrawn. The Convoy travelled with it into a flowery region far behind the lines. Tin hats were discarded.
Then occurred a little incident very significant to the Neptunian observer. The Convoy, having borne itself well, was cited in the orders of the Corps d’ Armée. It was therefore entitled to have the Croix de Guerre painted on its cars. The artists undertook this task. The bronze cross, with its red and green ribbon, was earned also by certain individual members of the Convoy. Should they accept it, should they wear the ribbon? To refuse would be insulting to the French army. But that pacifists should display military decorations was too ridiculous. There was some debate, but the thing was done. Thus did these pacifists, hypnotized for so long by the prestige and glamour of the military, bring themselves to devour the crumbs of glory that fell from the master’s table.
There is no need to dwell upon the subsequent adventures of this war-scarred and war-decorated group of pacifists. The being whose brain I use in communicating with you would gladly tell of them in detail, for in his memory they have a false glamour and significance. But already I have allowed him too much rein. The life of his Convoy is indeed significant to the student of your species; but the events on which he seeks to dwell are minute with an even more microscopic minuteness than the Great War, which to the Neptunian observer, searching for your War through past ages, is so easily to be overlooked. The significance of the war itself, lies partly in its fatal results, partly in that it reveals so clearly the limits of a half-developed mind. The importance of the ultro-microscopic?? events that I have allowed my instrument to enlarge upon in this section, is that they show how, even in the less conventional minds of your race, the archaic impulses caused devastating perplexity.
When the Convoy had rested, it wandered from sector to sector, till at last it found itself once more near the vine-clad and forest-crowned Mountain of Rheims, and once more destined for a great offensive. Once more the din of the troops, guns, lorries. Once more torn-up roads, smashed cars, night-driving in blurred and suffocating gas-masks. Once more the inflooding wounded, and now and again a member of the little group itself wounded or killed. This time the offensive went on and on. Car after car was put out of action. Half the personnel were laid low, some by gas, some seemingly by bad water.
One day, as Paul was turning his car round before loading, a shell caught his companion, who was directing him from the road. This was a lad with whom Paul had often worked, and often amicably wrangled about art and life, a boy full of promise, and of the will to make his mark. Now, he lay crumpled on the road. Paul and others rushed to him. The lower part of his body had been terribly smashed, but he was still conscious. His eyes turned to Paul, and his lips moved. Paul bent to listen, and seemed to hear a faint gasping reiteration of one phrase, ‘Won’t die yet.’ With difficulty they got the boy on to a stretcher, his face twisted with added pain.. As they carried him away, he stirred feebly, then suddenly went limp, his head rolling loosely with the motion of the bearers. An arm slipped off the stretcher, and dangled. They put him down again and bent over him. A French broncardier, who was helping, stood up with a shrug and a sigh. ‘C’est déjà fini,’ he said. Looking down at the smooth face, he added, ‘Qui, mon pauvre, c’est fini. Mort pour la patrie! Ah, les sales Boches!’
Paul gazed at the tanned bloodless features, the curiously changed eyes, the sagging mouth. This was the moment for me to undertake an operation which I had long contemplated. Bringing all my strength to bear on Paul I lashed him into a degree of self-consciousness and other-consciousness which I had not hitherto produced in him. With this heightened sensitivity, he was overwhelmed by vivid apprehension of the life that had been cut short, the intricacy and delicate organization of the spirit which he had known so well, and had now seen extinguished, with all its young ambitions, fears, admirations, loves, all its little whims and lusts and laughters. The experience came on him in a flash, so that he let slip a quick sharp scream of surprise and compassion. He stared fascinated at a smear of blood on the cheek, seeing as it were right through the present death-mask into the boy’s whole living past, retaining it in one imaginative grasp, as music may be retained in the mind’s ear after it has been interrupted; may still be heard, gathering strength, proliferating, and suddenly broken across with the breaking of the instrument. Paul heard, indeed, what the boy himself did not hear, the terrible snap and silence of the end. This was but the first stage of my operation on Paul. I also contrived that, with his hypersensitive vision, he should seem to see, beyond this one dead boy, the countless hosts of the prematurely dead, not the dead of your war only, but of all the ages, the whole massed horror of young and vital spirits snuffed out before their time. Paul’s mind reeled and collapsed; but not before he had glimpsed in all this horror a brilliant, and insupportable, an inhuman, beauty. The operation had been completed, and in due season I should observe the results. He fell, and was carried away in one of the ambulances.
In a few days, however, he recovered, and was able to take part in a new phase of the war, the advance of the Allies. It was a swarming advance along unspeakable roads, over pontoon bridges, through burning villages.
During this final advance Paul one day perceived in a field by the road the mare and unborn foal whose image had so long haunted him. The unexpected but all too familiar sight shocked him deeply. Volume by volume it corresponded with his image, but there was an added stench. How came it, he wondered, that for years he had ‘remembered’ this thing before ever he had seen It?
One symbolical aspect of his foal was still hidden from him. When at last the armistice came, so longed for, so incredible, Paul did not yet know that the peace ensuing on the world’s four years’ travail was to be the peace, not of accomplished birth but of strangulation.
The following curious poem, which Paul devised shortly before the end of the war, expresses his sense of the futility and pettiness of all human activity.
If God has not noticed us?
He is so occupied
with the crowded cycle of nature.
The sea’s breath.
by drenching the hills
and descending along the meadow brooklets
are playgrounds of busy insect populations).
to rise again.
skating on the stagnant skin of a backwater.
we get rumour of Oceanus.
of storm-driven worlds and island universes.
And we would annex them!
We would dignify the fiery currents of the Cosmos
by spawning in them!
But the minnow, death, he snaps us;
and presently some inconsiderable spate
will scour the cranny clean of us.
Long after man, the stars
will continually evaporate in radiant energy
to recondense as nebulae.
and again stars;
till here and there some new planet
will harbour again
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00