MATCHING'S EASY AT WAR
CHAPTER THE FIRST
On that eventful night of the first shots and the first deaths Mr.
Britling did not sleep until daylight had come. He sat writing at this
pamphlet of his, which was to hail the last explosion and the ending of
war. For a couple of hours he wrote with energy, and then his energy
flagged. There came intervals when he sat still and did not write. He
yawned and yawned again and rubbed his eyes. The day had come and the
birds were noisy when he undressed slowly, dropping his clothes anyhow
upon the floor, and got into bed....
He woke to find his morning tea beside him and the housemaid going out
of the room. He knew that something stupendous had happened to the
world, but for a few moments he could not remember what it was. Then he
remembered that France was invaded by Germany and Germany by Russia, and
that almost certainly England was going to war. It seemed a harsh and
terrible fact in the morning light, a demand for stresses, a certainty
of destruction; it appeared now robbed of all the dark and dignified
beauty of the night. He remembered just the same feeling of unpleasant,
anxious expectation as he now felt when the Boer War had begun fifteen
years ago, before the first news came. The first news of the Boer War
had been the wrecking of a British armoured train near Kimberley. What
similar story might not the overdue paper tell when presently it came?
Suppose, for instance, that some important division of our Fleet had
been surprised and overwhelmed....
Suppose the Germans were already crumpling up the French armies between
Verdun and Belfort, very swiftly and dreadfully....
Suppose after all that the Cabinet was hesitating, and that there would
be no war for some weeks, but only a wrangle about Belgian neutrality.
While the Germans smashed France....
Or, on the other hand, there might be some amazing, prompt success on
our part. Our army and navy people were narrow, but in their narrow way
he believed they were extraordinarily good....
What would the Irish do?...
His thoughts were no more than a thorny jungle of unanswerable questions
through which he struggled in un-progressive circles.
He got out of bed and dressed in a slow, distraught manner. When he
reached his braces he discontinued dressing for a time; he opened the
atlas at Northern France, and stood musing over the Belgian border. Then
he turned to Whitaker's Almanack to browse upon the statistics of the
great European armies. He was roused from this by the breakfast gong.
At breakfast there was no talk of anything but war. Hugh was as excited
as a cat in thundery weather, and the small boys wanted information
about flags. The Russian and the Serbian flag were in dispute, and the
flag page of Webster's Dictionary had to be consulted. Newspapers and
letters were both abnormally late, and Mr. Britling, tiring of supplying
trivial information to his offspring, smoked cigarettes in the garden.
He had an idea of intercepting the postman. His eyes and ears informed
him of the approach of Mrs. Faber's automobile. It was an old,
resolute-looking machine painted red, and driven by a trusted gardener;
there was no mistaking it.
Mrs. Faber was in it, and she stopped it outside the gate and made
signals. Mrs. Britling, attracted by the catastrophic sounds of Mrs.
Faber's vehicle, came out by the front door, and she and her husband
both converged upon the caller.
"I won't come in," cried Mrs. Faber, "but I thought I'd tell you. I've
been getting food."
"Provisions. There's going to be a run on provisions. Look at my flitch
"Faber says we have to lay in what we can. This war--it's going to stop
everything. We can't tell what will happen. I've got the children to
consider, so here I am. I was at Hickson's before nine...."
The little lady was very flushed and bright-eyed. Her fair hair was
disordered, her hat a trifle askew. She had an air of enjoying unwonted
excitements. "All the gold's being hoarded too," she said, with a crow
of delight in her voice. "Faber says that probably our cheques won't be
worth _that_ in a few days. He rushed off to London to get gold at his
clubs--while he can. I had to insist on Hickson taking a cheque.
'Never,' I said, 'will I deal with you again--never--unless you do....'
Even then he looked at me almost as if he thought he wouldn't.
"It's Famine!" she said, turning to Mr. Britling. "I've laid hands on
all I can. I've got the children to consider."
"But why is it famine?" asked Mr. Britling.
"Oh! it _is_!" she said.
"Faber understands," she said. "Of course it's Famine...."
"And would you believe me," she went on, going back to Mrs. Britling,
"that man Hickson stood behind his counter--where I've dealt with him
for _years_, and refused absolutely to let me have more than a dozen
tins of sardines. _Refused!_ Point blank!
"I was there before nine, and even then Hickson's shop was
crowded--_crowded_, my dear!"
"What have you got?" said Mr. Britling with an inquiring movement
towards the automobile.
She had got quite a lot. She had two sides of bacon, a case of sugar,
bags of rice, eggs, a lot of flour.
"What are all these little packets?" said Mr. Britling.
Mrs. Faber looked slightly abashed.
"Cerebos salt," she said. "One gets carried away a little. I just got
hold of it and carried it out to the car. I thought we might have to
salt things later."
"And the jars are pickles?" said Mr. Britling.
"Yes. But look at all my flour! That's what will go first...."
The lady was a little flurried by Mr. Britling's too detailed
examination of her haul. "What good is blacking?" he asked. She would
not hear him. She felt he was trying to spoil her morning. She declared
she must get on back to her home. "Don't say I didn't warn you," she
said. "I've got no end of things to do. There's peas! I want to show
cook how to bottle our peas. For this year--it's lucky, we've got no end
of peas. I came by here just for the sake of telling you." And with that
she presently departed--obviously ruffled by Mrs. Britling's lethargy
and Mr. Britling's scepticism.
Mr. Britling watched her go off with a slowly rising indignation.
"And that," he said, "is how England is going to war! Scrambling for
food--at the very beginning."
"I suppose she is anxious for the children," said Mrs. Britling.
"After all," said Mr. Britling, "if other people are doing that sort of
"That's the idea of all panics. We've got not to do it.... The country
hasn't even declared war yet! Hallo, here we are! Better late than
The head of the postman, bearing newspapers and letters, appeared
gliding along the top of the hedge as he cycled down the road towards
the Dower House corner.
England was not yet at war, but all the stars were marching to that end.
It was as if an event so vast must needs take its time to happen. No
doubt was left upon Mr. Britling's mind, though a whole-page
advertisement in the _Daily News_, in enormous type and of mysterious
origin, implored Great Britain not to play into the hands of Russia,
Russia the Terrible, that bugbear of the sentimental Radicals. The news
was wide and sweeping, and rather inaccurate. The Germans were said to
be in Belgium and Holland, and they had seized English ships in the Kiel
Canal. A moratorium had been proclaimed, and the reports of a food panic
showed Mrs. Faber to be merely one example of a large class of excitable
Mr. Britling found the food panic disconcerting. It did not harmonise
with his leading _motif_ of the free people of the world rising against
the intolerable burthen of militarism. It spoilt his picture....
Mrs. Britling shared the paper with Mr. Britling, they stood by the bed
of begonias near the cedar tree and read, and the air was full of the
cheerful activities of the lawn-mower that was being drawn by a
carefully booted horse across the hockey field.
Presently Hugh came flitting out of the house to hear what had happened.
"One can't work somehow, with all these big things going on," he
apologised. He secured the _Daily News_ while his father and mother read
_The Times_. The voices of the younger boys came from the shade of the
trees; they had brought all their toy soldiers out of doors, and were
making entrenched camps in the garden.
"The financial situation is an extraordinary one," said Mr. Britling,
concentrating his attention.... "All sorts of staggering things may
happen. In a social and economic system that has grown just anyhow....
Never been planned.... In a world full of Mrs. Fabers...."
"Moratorium?" said Hugh over his _Daily News_. "In relation to debts and
so on? Modern side you sent me to, Daddy. I live at hand to mouth in
etymology. Mors and crematorium--do we burn our bills instead of paying
"Moratorium," reflected Mr. Britling; "Moratorium. What nonsense you
talk! It's something that delays, of course. Nothing to do with death.
Just a temporary stoppage of payments.... Of course there's bound to be
a tremendous change in values...."
"There's bound to be a tremendous change in values."
On that text Mr. Britling's mind enlarged very rapidly. It produced a
wonderful crop of possibilities before he got back to his study. He sat
down to his desk, but he did not immediately take up his work. He had
discovered something so revolutionary in his personal affairs that even
the war issue remained for a time in suspense.
Tucked away in the back of Mr. Britling's consciousness was something
that had not always been there, something warm and comforting that made
life and his general thoughts about life much easier and pleasanter than
they would otherwise have been, the sense of a neatly arranged
investment list, a shrewdly and geographically distributed system of
holdings in national loans, municipal investments, railway debentures,
that had amounted altogether to rather over five-and-twenty thousand
pounds; his and Mrs. Britling's, a joint accumulation. This was, so to
speak, his economic viscera. It sustained him, and kept him going and
comfortable. When all was well he did not feel its existence; he had
merely a pleasant sense of general well-being. When here or there a
security got a little disarranged he felt a vague discomfort. Now he
became aware of grave disorders. It was as if he discovered he had been
accidentally eating toadstools, and didn't quite know whether they
weren't a highly poisonous sort. But an analogy may be carried too
At any rate, when Mr. Britling got back to his writing-desk he was much
too disturbed to resume "And Now War Ends."
"There's bound to be a tremendous change in values!"
He had never felt quite so sure as most people about the stability of
the modern financial system. He did not, he felt, understand the working
of this moratorium, or the peculiar advantage of prolonging the bank
holidays. It meant, he supposed, a stoppage of payment all round, and a
cutting off of the supply of ready money. And Hickson the grocer,
according to Mrs. Faber, was already looking askance at cheques.
Even if the bank did reopen Mr. Britling was aware that his current
balance was low; at the utmost it amounted to twenty or thirty pounds.
He had been expecting cheques from his English and American publishers,
and the usual _Times_ cheque. Suppose these payments were intercepted!
All these people might, so far as he could understand, stop payment
under this moratorium! That hadn't at first occurred to him. But, of
course, quite probably they might refuse to pay his account when it fell
And suppose _The Times_ felt his peculiar vein of thoughtfulness
unnecessary in these stirring days!
And then if the bank really did lock up his deposit account, and his
securities became unsaleable!
Mr. Britling felt like an oyster that is invited to leave its shell....
He sat back from his desk contemplating these things. His imagination
made a weak attempt to picture a world in which credit has vanished and
money is of doubtful value. He supposed a large number of people would
just go on buying and selling at or near the old prices by force of
His mind and conscience made a valiant attempt to pick up "And Now War
Ends" and go on with it, but before five minutes were out he was back at
the thoughts of food panic and bankruptcy....
The conflict of interests at Mr. Britling's desk became unendurable. He
felt he must settle the personal question first. He wandered out upon
the lawn and smoked cigarettes.
His first conception of a great convergent movement of the nations to
make a world peace and an end to militant Germany was being obscured by
this second, entirely incompatible, vision of a world confused and
disorganised. Mrs. Fabers in great multitudes hoarding provisions,
riotous crowds attacking shops, moratorium, shut banks and waiting
queues. Was it possible for the whole system to break down through a
shock to its confidence? Without any sense of incongruity the dignified
pacification of the planet had given place in his mind to these more
intimate possibilities. He heard a rustle behind him, and turned to face
"Do you think," she asked, "that there is any chance of a shortage of
"If all the Mrs. Fabers in the world run and grab--"
"Then every one must grab. I haven't much in the way of stores in the
"H'm," said Mr. Britling, and reflected.... "I don't think we must buy
"But if we are short."
"It's the chances of war," said Mr. Britling.
He reflected. "Those who join a panic make a panic. After all, there is
just as much food in the world as there was last month. And short of
burning it the only way of getting rid of it is to eat it. And the
harvests are good. Why begin a scramble at a groaning board?"
"But people _are_ scrambling! It would be awkward--with the children and
everything--if we ran short."
"We shan't. And anyhow, you mustn't begin hoarding, even if it means
"Yes. But you won't like it if suddenly there's no sugar for your tea."
Mr. Britling ignored this personal application.
"What is far more serious than a food shortage is the possibility of a
He paced the lawn with her and talked. He said that even now very few
people realised the flimsiness of the credit system by which the modern
world was sustained. It was a huge growth of confidence, due very
largely to the uninquiring indolence of--everybody. It was sound so long
as mankind did, on the whole, believe in it; give only a sufficient loss
of faith and it might suffer any sort of collapse. It might vanish
altogether--as the credit system vanished at the breaking up of Italy by
the Goths--and leave us nothing but tangible things, real property,
possession nine points of the law, and that sort of thing. Did she
remember that last novel of Gissing's?--"Veranilda," it was called. It
was a picture of the world when there was no wealth at all except what
one could carry hidden or guarded about with one. That sort of thing
came to the Roman Empire slowly, in the course of lifetimes, but
nowadays we lived in a rapider world--with flimsier institutions. Nobody
knew the strength or the weakness of credit; nobody knew whether even
the present shock might not send it smashing down.... And then all the
little life we had lived so far would roll away....
Mrs. Britling, he noted, glanced ever and again at her sunlit
house--there were new sunblinds, and she had been happy in her choice of
a colour--and listened with a sceptical expression to this
"A few days ago," said Mr. Britling, trying to make things concrete for
her, "you and I together were worth five-and-twenty thousand pounds. Now
we don't know what we are worth; whether we have lost a thousand or ten
He examined his sovereign purse and announced he had six pounds. "What
She had about eighteen pounds in the house.
"We may have to get along with that for an indefinite time."
"But the bank will open again presently," she said. "And people about
here trust us."
"Suppose they don't?"
She did not trouble about the hypothesis. "And our investments will
recover. They always do recover."
"Everything may recover," he admitted. "But also nothing may recover.
All this life of ours which has seemed so settled and secure--isn't
secure. I have felt that we were fixed here and rooted--for all our
lives. Suppose presently things sweep us out of it? It's a possibility
we may have to face. I feel this morning as if two enormous gates had
opened in our lives, like the gates that give upon an arena, gates
giving on a darkness--through which anything might come. Even death.
Suppose suddenly we were to see one of those great Zeppelins in the air,
or hear the thunder of guns away towards the coast. And if a messenger
came upon a bicycle telling us to leave everything and go inland...."
"I see no reason why one should go out to meet things like that."
"But there is no reason why one should not envisage them...."
"The curious thing," said Mr. Britling, pursuing his examination of the
matter, "is that, looking at these things as one does now, as things
quite possible, they are not nearly so terrifying and devastating to the
mind as they would have seemed--last week. I believe I should load you
all into Gladys and start off westward with a kind of exhilaration...."
She looked at him as if she would speak, and said nothing. She suspected
him of hating his home and affecting to care for it out of politeness to
"Perhaps mankind tries too much to settle down. Perhaps these stirrings
up have to occur to save us from our disposition to stuffy comfort.
There's the magic call of the unknown experience, of dangers and
hardships. One wants to go. But unless some push comes one does not go.
There is a spell that keeps one to the lair and the old familiar ways.
Now I am afraid--and at the same time I feel that the spell is broken.
The magic prison is suddenly all doors. You may call this ruin,
bankruptcy, invasion, flight; they are doors out of habit and
routine.... I have been doing nothing for so long, except idle things
and discursive things."
"I thought that you managed to be happy here. You have done a lot of
"Writing is recording, not living. But now I feel suddenly that we are
living intensely. It is as if the whole quality of life was changing.
There are such times. There are times when the spirit of life changes
altogether. The old world knew that better than we do. It made a
distinction between weekdays and Sabbaths, and between feasts and fasts
and days of devotion. That is just what has happened now. Week-day rules
must be put aside. Before--oh! three days ago, competition was fair, it
was fair and tolerable to get the best food one could and hold on to
one's own. But that isn't right now. War makes a Sabbath, and we shut
the shops. The banks are shut, and the world still feels as though
Sunday was keeping on...."
He saw his own way clear.
"The scale has altered. It does not matter now in the least if we are
ruined. It does not matter in the least if we have to live upon potatoes
and run into debt for our rent. These now are the most incidental of
things. A week ago they would have been of the first importance. Here we
are face to face with the greatest catastrophe and the greatest
opportunity in history. We have to plunge through catastrophe to
opportunity. There is nothing to be done now in the whole world except
to get the best out of this tremendous fusing up of all the settled
things of life." He had got what he wanted. He left her standing upon
the lawn and hurried back to his desk....
When Mr. Britling, after a strenuous morning among high ideals,
descended for lunch, he found Mr. Lawrence Carmine had come over to join
him at that meal. Mr. Carmine was standing in the hall with his legs
very wide apart reading _The Times_ for the fourth time. "I can do no
work," he said, turning round. "I can't fix my mind. I suppose we are
going to war. I'd got so used to the war with Germany that I never
imagined it would happen. Gods! what a bore it will be.... And Maxse and
all those scaremongers cock-a-hoop and 'I told you so.' Damn these
He looked despondent and worried. He followed Mr. Britling towards the
dining-room with his hands deep in his pockets.
"It's going to be a tremendous thing," he said, after he had greeted
Mrs. Britling and Hugh and Aunt Wilshire and Teddy, and seated himself
at Mr. Britling's hospitable board. "It's going to upset everything. We
don't begin to imagine all the mischief it is going to do."
Mr. Britling was full of the heady draught of liberal optimism he had
been brewing upstairs. "I am not sorry I have lived to see this war," he
said. "It may be a tremendous catastrophe in one sense, but in another
it is a huge step forward in human life. It is the end of forty years of
evil suspense. It is crisis and solution."
"I wish I could see it like that," said Mr. Carmine.
"It is like a thaw--everything has been in a frozen confusion since that
Jew-German Treaty of Berlin. And since 1871."
"Why not since Schleswig-Holstein?" said Mr. Carmine.
"Why not? Or since the Treaty of Vienna?"
"Or since--One might go back."
"To the Roman Empire," said Hugh.
"To the first conquest of all," said Teddy....
"I couldn't work this morning," said Hugh. "I have been reading in the
Encyclopædia about races and religions in the Balkans.... It's very
"So long as it could only be dealt with piecemeal," said Mr. Britling.
"And that is just where the tremendous opportunity of this war comes in.
Now everything becomes fluid. We can redraw the map of the world. A week
ago we were all quarrelling bitterly about things too little for human
impatience. Now suddenly we face an epoch. This is an epoch. The world
is plastic for men to do what they will with it. This is the end and the
beginning of an age. This is something far greater than the French
Revolution or the Reformation.... And we live in it...."
He paused impressively.
"I wonder what will happen to Albania?" said Hugh, but his comment was
"War makes men bitter and narrow," said Mr. Carmine.
"War narrowly conceived," said Mr. Britling. "But this is an indignant
and generous war."
They speculated about the possible intervention of the United States.
Mr. Britling thought that the attack on Belgium demanded the
intervention of every civilised power, that all the best instincts of
America would be for intervention. "The more," he said, "the quicker."
"It would be strange if the last power left out to mediate were to be
China," said Mr. Carmine. "The one people in the world who really
believe in peace.... I wish I had your confidence, Britling."
For a time they contemplated a sort of Grand Inquest on Germany and
militarism, presided over by the Wisdom of the East. Militarism was, as
it were, to be buried as a suicide at four cross-roads, with a stake
through its body to prevent any untimely resuscitation.
Mr. Britling was in a phase of imaginative release. Such a release was
one of the first effects of the war upon many educated minds. Things
that had seemed solid forever were visibly in flux; things that had
seemed stone were alive. Every boundary, every government, was seen for
the provisional thing it was. He talked of his World Congress meeting
year by year, until it ceased to be a speculation and became a mere
intelligent anticipation; he talked of the "manifest necessity" of a
Supreme Court for the world. He beheld that vision at the Hague, but Mr.
Carmine preferred Delhi or Samarkand or Alexandria or Nankin. "Let us
get away from the delusion of Europe anyhow," said Mr. Carmine....
As Mr. Britling had sat at his desk that morning and surveyed the
stupendous vistas of possibility that war was opening, the catastrophe
had taken on a more and more beneficial quality. "I suppose that it is
only through such crises as these that the world can reconstruct
itself," I said. And, on the whole that afternoon he was disposed to
hope that the great military machine would not smash itself too easily.
"We want the nations to feel the need of one another," he said. "Too
brief a campaign might lead to a squabble for plunder. The Englishman
has to learn his dependence on the Irishman, the Russian has to be
taught the value of education and the friendship of the Pole.... Europe
will now have to look to Asia, and recognise that Indians and Chinamem
are also 'white.'... But these lessons require time and stresses if
they are to be learnt properly...."
They discussed the possible duration of the war.
Mr. Carmine thought it would be a long struggle; Mr. Britling thought
that the Russians would be in Berlin by the next May. He was afraid they
might get there before the end of the year. He thought that the Germans
would beat out their strength upon the French and Belgian lines, and
never be free to turn upon the Russian at all. He was sure they had
underrated the strength and energy of the French and of ourselves. "The
Russians meanwhile," he said, "will come on, slowly, steadily,
That day of vast anticipations drew out into the afternoon. It was a
day--obsessed. It was the precursor of a relentless series of doomed and
fettered days. There was a sense of enormous occurrences going on just
out of sound and sight--behind the mask of Essex peacefulness. From this
there was no escape. It made all other interests fitful. Games of
Badminton were begun and abruptly truncated by the arrival of the
evening papers; conversations started upon any topic whatever returned
to the war by the third and fourth remark....
After lunch Mr. Britling and Mr. Carmine went on talking. Nothing else
was possible. They repeated things they had already said. They went into
things more thoroughly. They sat still for a time, and then suddenly
broke out with some new consideration....
It had been their custom to play skat with Herr Heinrich, who had shown
them the game very explicitly and thoroughly. But there was no longer
any Herr Heinrich--and somehow German games were already out of fashion.
The two philosophers admitted that they had already considered skat to
be complicated without subtlety, and that its chief delight for them had
been the pink earnestness of Herr Heinrich, his inability to grasp
their complete but tacit comprehension of its innocent strategy, and his
invariable ill-success to bring off the coups that flashed before his
He would survey the destructive counter-stroke with unconcealed
surprise. He would verify his first impression by craning towards it and
adjusting his glasses on his nose. He had a characteristic way of doing
this with one stiff finger on either side of his sturdy nose.
"It is very fortunate for you that you have played that card," he would
say, growing pinker and pinker with hasty cerebration. "Or else--yes"--a
glance at his own cards--"it would have been altogether bad for you. I
had taken only a very small risk.... Now I must--"
He would reconsider his hand.
"_Zo!_" he would say, dashing down a card....
Well, he had gone and skat had gone. A countless multitude of such links
were snapping that day between hundreds of thousands of English and
The imminence of war produced a peculiar exaltation in Aunt Wilshire.
She developed a point of view that was entirely her own.
It was Mr. Britling's habit, a habit he had set himself to acquire after
much irritating experience, to disregard Aunt Wilshire. She was not,
strictly speaking, his aunt; she was one of those distant cousins we
find already woven into our lives when we attain to years of
responsibility. She had been a presence in his father's household when
Mr. Britling was a boy. Then she had been called "Jane," or "Cousin
Jane," or "Your cousin Wilshire." It had been a kindly freak of Mr.
Britling's to promote her to Aunty rank.
She eked out a small inheritance by staying with relatives. Mr.
Britling's earlier memories presented her as a slender young woman of
thirty, with a nose upon which small boys were forbidden to comment. Yet
she commented upon it herself, and called his attention to its marked
resemblance to that of the great Duke of Wellington. "He was, I am
told," said Cousin Wilshire to the attentive youth, "a great friend of
your great-grandmother's. At any rate, they were contemporaries. Since
then this nose has been in the family. He would have been the last to
draw a veil over it, but other times, other manners. 'Publish,' he said,
'and be damned.'"
She had a knack of exasperating Mr. Britling's father, a knack which to
a less marked degree she also possessed in relation to the son. But Mr.
Britling senior never acquired the art of disregarding her. Her
method--if one may call the natural expression of a personality a
method--was an invincibly superior knowledge, a firm and ill-concealed
belief that all statements made in her hearing were wrong and most of
them absurd, and a manner calm, assured, restrained. She may have been
born with it; it is on record that at the age of ten she was pronounced
a singularly trying child. She may have been born with the air of
thinking the doctor a muff and knowing how to manage all this business
better. Mr. Britling had known her only in her ripeness. As a boy, he
had enjoyed her confidences--about other people and the general neglect
of her advice. He grew up rather to like her--most people rather liked
her--and to attach a certain importance to her unattainable approval.
She was sometimes kind, she was frequently absurd....
With very little children she was quite wise and Jolly....
So she circulated about a number of houses which at any rate always
welcomed her coming. In the opening days of each visit she performed
marvels of tact, and set a watch upon her lips. Then the demons of
controversy and dignity would get the better of her. She would begin to
correct, quietly but firmly, she would begin to disapprove of the tone
and quality of her treatment. It was quite common for her visit to
terminate in speechless rage both on the side of host and of visitor.
The remarkable thing was that this speechless rage never endured. Though
she could exasperate she could never offend. Always after an interval
during which she was never mentioned, people began to wonder how Cousin
Jane was getting on.... A tentative correspondence would begin, leading
slowly up to a fresh invitation.
She spent more time in Mr. Britling's house than in any other. There was
a legend that she had "drawn out" his mind, and that she had "stood up"
for him against his father. She had certainly contradicted quite a
number of those unfavourable comments that fathers are wont to make
about their sons. Though certainly she contradicted everything. And Mr.
Britling hated to think of her knocking about alone in boarding-houses
and hydropathic establishments with only the most casual chances for
Moreover, he liked to see her casting her eye over the morning paper.
She did it with a manner as though she thought the terrestrial globe a
great fool, and quite beyond the reach of advice. And as though she
understood and was rather amused at the way in which the newspaper
people tried to keep back the real facts of the case from her.
And now she was scornfully entertained at the behaviour of everybody in
the war crisis.
She confided various secrets of state to the elder of the younger
Britlings--preferably when his father was within earshot.
"None of these things they are saying about the war," she said, "really
matter in the slightest degree. It is all about a spoilt carpet and
nothing else in the world--a madman and a spoilt carpet. If people had
paid the slightest attention to common sense none of this war would have
happened. The thing was perfectly well known. He was a delicate child,
difficult to rear and given to screaming fits. Consequently he was never
crossed, allowed to do everything. Nobody but his grandmother had the
slightest influence with him. And she prevented him spoiling this carpet
as completely as he wished to do. The story is perfectly well known. It
was at Windsor--at the age of eight. After that he had but one thought:
war with England....
"Everybody seemed surprised," she said suddenly at tea to Mr. Carmine.
"I at least am not surprised. I am only surprised it did not come
sooner. If any one had asked me I could have told them, three years,
five years ago."
The day was one of flying rumours, Germany was said to have declared war
on Italy, and to have invaded Holland as well as Belgium.
"They'll declare war against the moon next!" said Aunt Wilshire.
"And send a lot of Zeppelins," said the smallest boy. "Herr Heinrich
told us they can fly thousands of miles."
"He will go on declaring war until there is nothing left to declare war
against. That is exactly what he has always done. Once started he cannot
desist. Often he has had to be removed from the dinner-table for fear of
injury. _Now_, it is ultimatums."
She was much pleased by a headline in the _Daily Express_ that streamed
right across the page: "The Mad Dog of Europe." Nothing else, she said,
had come so near her feelings about the war.
"Mark my words," said Aunt Wilshire in her most impressive tones. "He is
insane. It will be proved to be so. He will end his days in an
asylum--as a lunatic. I have felt it myself for years and said so in
private.... Knowing what I did.... To such friends as I could trust not
to misunderstand me.... Now at least I can speak out.
"With his moustaches turned up!" exclaimed Aunt Wilshire after an
interval of accumulation.... "They say he has completely lost the use of
the joint in his left arm, he carries it stiff like a Punch and
Judy--and he wants to conquer Europe.... While his grandmother lived
there was some one to keep him in order. He stood in Awe of her. He
hated her, but he did not dare defy her. Even his uncle had some
influence. Now, nothing restrains him.
"A double-headed mad dog," said Aunt Wilshire. "Him and his eagles!... A
man like that ought never to have been allowed to make a war.... Not
even a little war.... If he had been put under restraint when I said so,
none of these things would have happened. But, of course I am nobody....
It was not considered worth attending to."
One remarkable aspect of the English attitude towards the war was the
disposition to treat it as a monstrous joke. It is a disposition
traceable in a vast proportion of the British literature of the time. In
spite of violence, cruelty, injustice, and the vast destruction and
still vaster dangers of the struggles, that disposition held. The
English mind refused flatly to see anything magnificent or terrible in
the German attack, or to regard the German Emperor or the Crown Prince
as anything more than figures of fun. From first to last their
conception of the enemy was an overstrenuous, foolish man, red with
effort, with protruding eyes and a forced frightfulness of demeanour.
That he might be tremendously lethal did not in the least obscure the
fact that he was essentially ridiculous. And if as the war went on the
joke grew grimmer, still it remained a joke. The German might make a
desert of the world; that could not alter the British conviction that he
was making a fool of himself.
And this disposition kept coming to the surface throughout the
afternoon, now in a casual allusion, now in some deliberate jest. The
small boys had discovered the goose step, and it filled their little
souls with amazement and delight. That human beings should consent to
those ridiculous paces seemed to them almost incredibly funny. They
tried it themselves, and then set out upon a goose-step propaganda.
Letty and Cissie had come up to the Dower House for tea and news, and
they were enrolled with Teddy and Hugh. The six of them, chuckling and
swaying, marched, in vast scissor strides across the lawn. "Left," cried
"Toes _out_ more," said Mr. Lawrence Carmine.
"Keep stiffer," said the youngest Britling.
"Watch the Zeppelins and look proud," said Hugh. "With the chest out.
Mrs. Britling was so much amused that she went in for her camera, and
took a snapshot of the detachment. It was a very successful snapshot,
and a year later Mr. Britling was to find a print of it among his
papers, and recall the sunshine and the merriment....
That night brought the British declaration of war against Germany. To
nearly every Englishman that came as a matter of course, and it is one
of the most wonderful facts in history that the Germans were surprised
by it. When Mr. Britling, as a sample Englishman, had said that there
would never be war between Germany and England, he had always meant that
it was inconceivable to him that Germany should ever attack Belgium or
France. If Germany had been content to fight a merely defensive war upon
her western frontier and let Belgium alone, there would scarcely have
been such a thing as a war party in Great Britain. But the attack upon
Belgium, the westward thrust, made the whole nation flame unanimously
into war. It settled a question that was in open debate up to the very
outbreak of the conflict. Up to the last the English had cherished the
idea that in Germany, just as in England, the mass of people were
kindly, pacific, and detached. That had been the English mistake.
Germany was really and truly what Germany had been professing to be for
forty years, a War State. With a sigh--and a long-forgotten
thrill--England roused herself to fight. Even now she still roused
herself sluggishly. It was going to be an immense thing, but just how
immense it was going to be no one in England had yet imagined.
Countless men that day whom Fate had marked for death and wounds stared
open-mouthed at the news, and smiled with the excitement of the
headlines, not dreaming that any of these things would come within three
hundred miles of them. What was war to Matching's Easy--to all the
Matching's Easies great and small that make up England? The last home
that was ever burnt by an enemy within a hundred miles of Matching's
Easy was burnt by the Danes rather more than a thousand years ago....
And the last trace of those particular Danes in England were certain
horny scraps of indurated skin under the heads of the nails in the door
of St. Clement Danes in London....
Now again, England was to fight in a war which was to light fires in
England and bring death to English people on English soil. There were
inconceivable ideas in August, 1914. Such things must happen before they
can be comprehended as possible.
This story is essentially the history of the opening and of the
realisation of the Great War as it happened to one small group of people
in Essex, and more particularly as it happened to one human brain. It
came at first to all these people in a spectacular manner, as a thing
happening dramatically and internationally, as a show, as something in
the newspapers, something in the character of an historical epoch rather
than a personal experience; only by slow degrees did it and its
consequences invade the common texture of English life. If this story
could be represented by sketches or pictures the central figure would be
Mr. Britling, now sitting at his desk by day or by night and writing
first at his tract "And Now War Ends" and then at other things, now
walking about his garden or in Claverings park or going to and fro in
London, in his club reading the ticker or in his hall reading the
newspaper, with ideas and impressions continually clustering, expanding,
developing more and more abundantly in his mind, arranging themselves,
reacting upon one another, building themselves into generalisations and
All Mr. Britling's mental existence was soon threaded on the war. His
more or less weekly _Times_ leader became dissertations upon the German
point of view; his reviews of books and Literary Supplement articles
were all oriented more and more exactly to that one supreme fact....
It was rare that he really seemed to be seeing the war; few people saw
it; for most of the world it came as an illimitable multitude of
incoherent, loud, and confusing impressions. But all the time he was at
least doing his utmost to see the war, to simplify it and extract the
essence of it until it could be apprehended as something epic and
explicable, as a stateable issue....
Most typical picture of all would be Mr. Britling writing in a little
circle of orange lamplight, with the blinds of his room open for the
sake of the moonlight, but the window shut to keep out the moths that
beat against it. Outside would be the moon and the high summer sky and
the old church tower dim above the black trees half a mile away, with
its clock--which Mr. Britling heard at night but never noted by
day--beating its way round the slow semicircle of the nocturnal hours.
He had always hated conflict and destruction, and felt that war between
civilised states was the quintessential expression of human failure, it
was a stupidity that stopped progress and all the free variation of
humanity, a thousand times he had declared it impossible, but even now
with his country fighting he was still far from realising that this was
a thing that could possibly touch him more than intellectually. He did
not really believe with his eyes and finger-tips and backbone that
murder, destruction, and agony on a scale monstrous beyond precedent was
going on in the same world as that which slumbered outside the black ivy
and silver shining window-sill that framed his peaceful view.
War had not been a reality of the daily life of England for more than a
thousand years. The mental habit of the nation for fifty generations was
against its emotional recognition. The English were the spoilt children
of peace. They had never been wholly at war for three hundred years, and
for over eight hundred years they had not fought for life against a
foreign power. Spain and France had threatened in turn, but never even
crossed the seas. It is true that England had had her civil dissensions
and had made wars and conquests in every part of the globe and
established an immense empire, but that last, as Mr. Britling had told
Mr. Direck, was "an excursion." She had just sent out younger sons and
surplus people, emigrants and expeditionary forces. Her own soil had
never seen any successful foreign invasion; her homeland, the bulk of
her households, her general life, had gone on untouched by these things.
Nineteen people out of twenty, the middle class and most of the lower
class, knew no more of the empire than they did of the Argentine
Republic or the Italian Renaissance. It did not concern them. War that
calls upon every man and threatens every life in the land, war of the
whole national being, was a thing altogether outside English experience
and the scope of the British imagination. It was still incredible, it
was still outside the range of Mr. Britling's thoughts all through the
tremendous onrush and check of the German attack in the west that opened
the great war. Through those two months he was, as it were, a more and
more excited spectator at a show, a show like a baseball match, a
spectator with money on the event, rather than a really participating
citizen of a nation thoroughly at war....
After the jolt of the food panic and a brief, financial scare, the vast
inertia of everyday life in England asserted itself. When the public
went to the banks for the new paper money, the banks tendered
gold--apologetically. The supply of the new notes was very insufficient,
and there was plenty of gold. After the first impression that a
universal catastrophe had happened there was an effect as if nothing had
Shops re-opened after the Bank Holiday, in a tentative spirit that
speedily became assurance; people went about their business again, and
the war, so far as the mass of British folk were concerned, was for some
weeks a fever of the mind and intelligence rather than a physical and
personal actuality. There was a keen demand for news, and for a time
there was very little news. The press did its best to cope with this
immense occasion. Led by the _Daily Express_, all the halfpenny
newspapers adopted a new and more resonant sort of headline, the
streamer, a band of emphatic type that ran clean across the page and
announced victories or disconcerting happenings. They did this every
day, whether there was a great battle or the loss of a trawler to
announce, and the public mind speedily adapted itself to the new pitch.
There was no invitation from the government and no organisation for any
general participation in war. People talked unrestrictedly; every one
seemed to be talking; they waved flags and displayed much vague
willingness to do something. Any opportunity of service was taken very
eagerly. Lord Kitchener was understood to have demanded five hundred
thousand men; the War Office arrangements for recruiting, arrangements
conceived on a scale altogether too small, were speedily overwhelmed by
a rush of willing young men. The flow had to be checked by raising the
physical standard far above the national average, and recruiting died
down to manageable proportions. There was a quite genuine belief that
the war might easily be too exclusively considered; that for the great
mass of people it was a disturbing and distracting rather than a vital
interest. The phase "Business as Usual" ran about the world, and the
papers abounded in articles in which going on as though there was no war
at all was demonstrated to be the truest form of patriotism. "Leave
things to Kitchener" was another watchword with a strong appeal to the
national quality. "Business as usual during Alterations to the Map of
Europe" was the advertisement of one cheerful barber, widely quoted....
Hugh was at home all through August. He had thrown up his rooms in
London with his artistic ambitions, and his father was making all the
necessary arrangements for him to follow Cardinal to Cambridge.
Meanwhile Hugh was taking up his scientific work where he had laid it
down. He gave a reluctant couple of hours in the afternoon to the
mysteries of Little-go Greek, and for the rest of his time he was either
working at mathematics and mathematical physics or experimenting in a
little upstairs room that had been carved out of the general space of
the barn. It was only at the very end of August that it dawned upon him
or Mr. Britling that the war might have more than a spectacular and
sympathetic appeal for him. Hitherto contemporary history had happened
without his personal intervention. He did not see why it should not
continue to happen with the same detachment. The last elections--and a
general election is really the only point at which the life of the
reasonable Englishman becomes in any way public--had happened four years
ago, when he was thirteen.
For a time it was believed in Matching's Easy that the German armies had
been defeated and very largely destroyed at Liège. It was a mistake not
confined to Matching's Easy.
The first raiding attack was certainly repulsed with heavy losses, and
so were the more systematic assaults on August the sixth and seventh.
After that the news from Liège became uncertain, but it was believed in
England that some or all of the forts were still holding out right up to
the German entry into Brussels. Meanwhile the French were pushing into
their lost provinces, occupying Altkirch, Mulhausen and Saarburg; the
Russians were invading Bukovina and East Prussia; the _Goeben_, the
_Breslau_ and the _Panther_ had been sunk by the newspapers in an
imaginary battle in the Mediterranean, and Togoland was captured by the
French and British. Neither the force nor the magnitude of the German
attack through Belgium was appreciated by the general mind, and it was
possible for Mr. Britling to reiterate his fear that the war would be
over too soon, long before the full measure of its possible benefits
could be secured. But these apprehensions were unfounded; the lessons
the war had in store for Mr. Britling were far more drastic than
anything he was yet able to imagine even in his most exalted moods.
He resisted the intimations of the fall of Brussels and the appearance
of the Germans at Dinant. The first real check to his excessive
anticipations of victory for the Allies came with the sudden
reappearance of Mr. Direck in a state of astonishment and dismay at
Matching's Easy. He wired from the Strand office, "Coming to tell you
about things," and arrived on the heels of his telegram.
He professed to be calling upon Mr. and Mrs. Britling, and to a certain
extent he was; but he had a quick eye for the door or windows; his
glance roved irrelevantly as he talked. A faint expectation of Cissie
came in with him and hovered about him, as the scent of violets follows
He was, however, able to say quite a number of things before Mr.
Britling's natural tendency to do the telling asserted itself.
"My word," said Mr. Direck, "but this is _some_ war. It is going on
regardless of every decent consideration. As an American citizen I
naturally expected to be treated with some respect, war or no war. That
expectation has not been realised.... Europe is dislocated.... You have
no idea here yet how completely Europe is dislocated....
"I came to Europe in a perfectly friendly spirit--and I must say I am
surprised. Practically I have been thrown out, neck and crop. All my
luggage is lost. Away at some one-horse junction near the Dutch frontier
that I can't even learn the name of. There's joy in some German home, I
guess, over my shirts; they were real good shirts. This tweed suit I
have is all the wardrobe I've got in the world. All my money--good
American notes--well, they laughed at them. And when I produced English
gold they suspected me of being English and put me under arrest.... I
can assure you that the English are most unpopular in Germany at the
present time, thoroughly unpopular.... Considering that they are getting
exactly what they were asking for, these Germans are really remarkably
annoyed.... Well, I had to get the American consul to advance me money,
and I've done more waiting about and irregular fasting and travelling on
an empty stomach and viewing the world, so far as it was permitted, from
railway sidings--for usually they made us pull the blinds down when
anything important was on the track--than any cow that ever came to
Chicago.... I was handed as freight--low grade freight.... It doesn't
Mr. Direck assumed as grave and gloomy an expression as the facial
habits of years would permit.
"I tell you I never knew there was such a thing as war until this
happened to me. In America we don't know there is such a thing. It's
like pestilence and famine; something in the story books. We've
forgotten it for anything real. There's just a few grandfathers go
around talking about it. Judge Holmes and sage old fellows like him.
Otherwise it's just a game the kids play at.... And then suddenly here's
everybody running about in the streets--hating and threatening--and nice
old gentlemen with white moustaches and fathers of families scheming and
planning to burn houses and kill and hurt and terrify. And nice young
women, too, looking for an Englishman to spit at; I tell you I've been
within range and very uncomfortable several times.... And what one can't
believe is that they are really doing these things. There's a little
village called Visé near the Dutch frontier; some old chap got fooling
there with a fowling-piece; and they've wiped it out. Shot the people by
the dozen, put them out in rows three deep and shot them, and burnt the
place. Short of scalping, Red Indians couldn't have done worse.
Respectable German soldiers....
"No one in England really seems to have any suspicion what is going on
in Belgium. You hear stories--People tell them in Holland. It takes your
breath away. They have set out just to cow those Belgians. They have
started in to be deliberately frightful. You do not begin to
understand.... Well.... Outrages. The sort of outrages Americans have
never heard of. That one doesn't speak of.... Well.... Rape.... They
have been raping women for disciplinary purposes on tables in the
market-place of Liège. Yes, sir. It's a fact. I was told it by a man who
had just come out of Belgium. Knew the people, knew the place, knew
everything. People over here do not seem to realise that those women are
the same sort of women that you might find in Chester or Yarmouth, or in
Matching's Easy for the matter of that. They still seem to think that
Continental women are a different sort of women--more amenable to that
sort of treatment. They seem to think there is some special Providential
law against such things happening to English people. And it's within
two hundred miles of you--even now. And as far as I can see there's
precious little to prevent it coming nearer...."
Mr. Britling thought there were a few little obstacles.
"I've seen the new British army drilling in London, Mr. Britling. I
don't know if you have. I saw a whole battalion. And they hadn't got
half-a-dozen uniforms, and not a single rifle to the whole battalion.
"You don't begin to realise in England what you are up against. You have
no idea what it means to be in a country where everybody, the women, the
elderly people, the steady middle-aged men, are taking war as seriously
as business. They haven't the slightest compunction. I don't know what
Germany was like before the war, I had hardly gotten out of my train
before the war began; but Germany to-day is one big armed camp. It's all
crawling with soldiers. And every soldier has his uniform and his boots
and his arms and his kit.
"And they're as sure of winning as if they had got London now. They mean
to get London. They're cocksure they are going to walk through Belgium,
cocksure they will get to Paris by Sedan day, and then they are going to
destroy your fleet with Zeppelins and submarines and make a dash across
the Channel. They say it's England they are after, in this invasion of
Belgium. They'll just down France by the way. They say they've got guns
to bombard Dover from Calais. They make a boast of it. They know for
certain you can't arm your troops. They know you can't turn out ten
thousand rifles a week. They come and talk to any one in the trains, and
explain just how your defeat is going to be managed. It's just as though
they were talking of rounding up cattle."
Mr. Britling said they would soon be disillusioned.
Mr. Direck, with the confidence of his authentic observations, remarked
after a perceptible interval, "I wonder how."
He reverted to the fact that had most struck upon his imagination.
"Grown-up people, ordinary intelligent experienced people, taking war
seriously, talking of punishing England; it's a revelation. A sort of
solemn enthusiasm. High and low....
"And the trainloads of men and the trainloads of guns...."
"Liège," said Mr. Britling.
"Liège was just a scratch on the paint," said Mr. Direck. "A few
thousand dead, a few score thousand dead, doesn't matter--not a red cent
to them. There's a man arrived at the Cecil who saw them marching into
Brussels. He sat at table with me at lunch yesterday. All day it went
on, a vast unending river of men in grey. Endless waggons, endless guns,
the whole manhood of a nation and all its stuff, marching....
"I thought war," said Mr. Direck, "was a thing when most people stood
about and did the shouting, and a sort of special team did the fighting.
Well, Germany isn't fighting like that.... I confess it, I'm scared....
It's the very biggest thing on record; it's the very limit in wars.... I
dreamt last night of a grey flood washing everything in front of it. You
and me--and Miss Corner--curious thing, isn't it? that she came into
it--were scrambling up a hill higher and higher, with that flood pouring
after us. Sort of splashing into a foam of faces and helmets and
bayonets--and clutching hands--and red stuff.... Well, Mr. Britling, I
admit I'm a little bit overwrought about it, but I can assure you you
don't begin to realise in England what it is you've butted against...."
Cissie did not come up to the Dower House that afternoon, and so Mr.
Direck, after some vague and transparent excuses, made his way to the
Here his report become even more impressive. Teddy sat on the writing
desk beside the typewriter and swung his legs slowly. Letty brooded in
the armchair. Cissie presided over certain limited crawling operations
of the young heir.
"They could have the equal of the whole British Army killed three times
over and scarcely know it had happened. They're _all_ in it. It's a
whole country in arms."
Teddy nodded thoughtfully.
"There's our fleet," said Letty.
"Well, _that_ won't save Paris, will it?"
Mr. Direck didn't, he declared, want to make disagreeable talk, but this
was a thing people in England had to face. He felt like one of them
himself--"naturally." He'd sort of hurried home to them--it was just
like hurrying home--to tell them of the tremendous thing that was going
to hit them. He felt like a man in front of a flood, a great grey flood.
He couldn't hide what he had been thinking. "Where's our army?" asked
"Lost somewhere in France," said Teddy. "Like a needle in a bottle of
"What I keep on worrying at is this," Mr. Direck resumed. "Suppose they
did come, suppose somehow they scrambled over, sixty or seventy thousand
"Every man would turn out and take a shot at them," said Letty.
"But there's no rifles!"
"There's shot guns."
"That's exactly what I'm afraid of," said Mr. Direck. "They'd
"You may be the bravest people on earth," said Mr. Direck, "but if you
haven't got arms and the other chaps have--you're just as if you were
He became gloomily pensive.
He roused himself to describe his experiences at some length, and the
extraordinary disturbance of his mind. He related more particularly his
attempts to see the sights of Cologne during the stir of mobilisation.
After a time his narrative flow lost force, and there was a general
feeling that he ought to be left alone with Cissie. Teddy had a letter
that must be posted; Letty took the infant to crawl on the mossy stones
under the pear tree. Mr. Direck leant against the window-sill and became
silent for some moments after the door had closed on Letty.
"As for you, Cissie," he began at last, "I'm anxious. I'm real anxious.
I wish you'd let me throw the mantle of Old Glory over you."
He looked at her earnestly.
"Old Glory?" asked Cissie.
"Well--the Stars and Stripes. I want you to be able to claim American
citizenship--in certain eventualities. It wouldn't be so very difficult.
All the world over, Cissie, Americans are respected.... Nobody dares
touch an American citizen. We are--an inviolate people."
He paused. "But how?" asked Cissie.
"It would be perfectly easy--perfectly."
"Just marry an American citizen," said Mr. Direck, with his face beaming
with ingenuous self-approval. "Then you'd be safe, and I'd not have to
"Because we're in for a stiff war!" cried Cissie, and Direck perceived
he had blundered.
"Because we may be invaded!" she said, and Mr. Direck's sense of error
"I vow--" she began.
"No!" cried Mr. Direck, and held out a hand.
There was a moment of crisis.
"Never will I desert my country--while she is at war," said Cissie,
reducing her first fierce intention, and adding as though she regretted
her concession, "Anyhow."
"Then it's up to me to end the war, Cissie," said Mr. Direck, trying to
get her back to a less spirited attitude.
But Cissie wasn't to be got back so easily. The war was already
beckoning to them in the cottage, and drawing them down from the
auditorium into the arena.
"This is the rightest war in history," she said. "If I was an American I
should be sorry to be one now and to have to stand out of it. I wish I
was a man now so that I could do something for all the decency and
civilisation the Germans have outraged. I can't understand how any man
can be content to keep out of this, and watch Belgium being destroyed.
It is like looking on at a murder. It is like watching a dog killing a
Mr. Direck's expression was that of a man who is suddenly shown strange
lights upon the world.
Mr. Britling found Mr. Direck's talk very indigestible.
He was parting very reluctantly from his dream of a disastrous collapse
of German imperialism, of a tremendous, decisive demonstration of the
inherent unsoundness of militarist monarchy, to be followed by a world
conference of chastened but hopeful nations, and--the Millennium. He
tried now to think that Mr. Direck had observed badly and misconceived
what he saw. An American, unused to any sort of military occurrences,
might easily mistake tens of thousands for millions, and the excitement
of a few commercial travellers for the enthusiasm of a united people.
But the newspapers now, with a kindred reluctance, were beginning to
qualify, bit by bit, their first representation of the German attack
through Belgium as a vast and already partly thwarted parade of
incompetence. The Germans, he gathered, were being continually beaten in
Belgium; but just as continually they advanced. Each fresh newspaper
name he looked up on the map marked an oncoming tide. Alost--Charleroi.
Farther east the French were retreating from the Saales Pass. Surely the
British, who had now been in France for a fortnight, would presently be
manifest, stemming the onrush; somewhere perhaps in Brabant or East
Flanders. It gave Mr. Britling an unpleasant night to hear at Claverings
that the French were very ill-equipped; had no good modern guns either
at Lille or Maubeuge, were short of boots and equipment generally, and
rather depressed already at the trend of things. Mr. Britling dismissed
this as pessimistic talk, and built his hopes on the still invisible
British army, hovering somewhere--
He would sit over the map of Belgium, choosing where he would prefer to
have the British hover....
Namur fell. The place names continued to shift southward and westward.
The British army or a part of it came to light abruptly at Mons. It had
been fighting for thirty-eight hours and defeating enormously superior
forces of the enemy. That was reassuring until a day or so later "the
Cambray--Le Cateau line" made Mr. Britling realise that the victorious
British had recoiled five and twenty miles....
And then came the Sunday of _The Times_ telegram, which spoke of a
"retreating and a broken army." Mr. Britling did not see this, but Mr.
Manning brought over the report of it in a state of profound
consternation. Things, he said, seemed to be about as bad as they could
be. The English were retreating towards the coast and in much disorder.
They were "in the air" and already separated from the Trench. They had
narrowly escaped "a Sedan" under the fortifications of Maubeuge.... Mr.
Britling was stunned. He went to his study and stared helplessly at
maps. It was as if David had flung his pebble--and missed!
But in the afternoon Mr. Manning telephoned to comfort his friend. A
reassuring despatch from General French had been published and--all was
well--practically--and the British had been splendid. They had been
fighting continuously for several days round and about Mons; they had
been attacked at odds of six to one, and they had repulsed and
inflicted enormous losses on the enemy. They had established an
incontestable personal superiority over the Germans. The Germans had
been mown down in heaps; the British had charged through their cavalry
like charging through paper. So at last and very gloriously for the
British, British and German had met in battle. After the hard fighting
of the 26th about Landrecies, the British had been comparatively
unmolested, reinforcements covering double the losses had joined them
and the German advance was definitely checked ... Mr. Britling's mind
swung back to elation. He took down the entire despatch from Mr.
Manning's dictation, and ran out with it into the garden where Mrs.
Britling, with an unwonted expression of anxiety, was presiding over the
teas of the usual casual Sunday gathering.... The despatch was read
aloud twice over. After that there was hockey and high spirits, and then
Mr. Britling went up to his study to answer a letter from Mrs.
Harrowdean, the first letter that had come from her since their breach
at the outbreak of the war, and which he was now in a better mood to
answer than he had been hitherto.
She had written ignoring his silence and absence, or rather treating it
as if it were an incident of no particular importance. Apparently she
had not called upon the patient and devoted Oliver as she had
threatened; at any rate, there were no signs of Oliver in her
communication. But she reproached Mr. Britling for deserting her, and
she clamoured for his presence and for kind and strengthening words. She
was, she said, scared by this war. She was only a little thing, and it
was all too dreadful, and there was not a soul in the world to hold her
hand, at least no one who understood in the slightest degree how she
felt. (But why was not Oliver holding her hand?) She was like a child
left alone in the dark. It was perfectly horrible the way that people
were being kept in the dark. The stories one heard, "_often from quite
trustworthy sources_," were enough to depress and terrify any one.
Battleship after battleship had been sunk by German torpedoes, a thing
kept secret from us for no earthly reason, and Prince Louis of
Battenberg had been discovered to be a spy and had been sent to the
Tower. Haldane too was a spy. Our army in France had been "practically
_sold_" by the French. Almost all the French generals were in German
pay. The censorship and the press were keeping all this back, but what
good was it to keep it back? It was folly not to trust people! But it
was all too dreadful for a poor little soul whose only desire was to
live happily. Why didn't he come along to her and make her feel she had
protecting arms round her? She couldn't think in the daytime: she
couldn't sleep at night....
Then she broke away into the praises of serenity. Never had she thought
so much of his beautiful "Silent Places" as she did now. How she longed
to take refuge in some such dreamland from violence and treachery and
foolish rumours! She was weary of every reality. She wanted to fly away
into some secret hiding-place and cultivate her simple garden there--as
Voltaire had done.... Sometimes at night she was afraid to undress. She
imagined the sound of guns, she imagined landings and frightful scouts
"in masks" rushing inland on motor bicycles....
It was an ill-timed letter. The nonsense about Prince Louis of
Battenberg and Lord Haldane and the torpedoed battleships annoyed him
extravagantly. He had just sufficient disposition to believe such tales
as to find their importunity exasperating. The idea of going over to
Pyecrafts to spend his days in comforting a timid little dear obsessed
by such fears, attracted him not at all. He had already heard enough
adverse rumours at Claverings to make him thoroughly uncomfortable. He
had been doubting whether after all his "Examination of War" was really
much less of a futility than "And Now War Ends"; his mind was full of a
sense of incomplete statements and unsubstantial arguments. He was
indeed in a state of extreme intellectual worry. He was moreover
extraordinarily out of love with Mrs. Harrowdean. Never had any
affection in the whole history of Mr. Britling's heart collapsed so
swiftly and completely. He was left incredulous of ever having cared for
her at all. Probably he hadn't. Probably the whole business had been
deliberate illusion from first to last. The "dear little thing"
business, he felt, was all very well as a game of petting, but times
were serious now, and a woman of her intelligence should do something
better than wallow in fears and elaborate a winsome feebleness. A very
unnecessary and tiresome feebleness. He came almost to the pitch of
writing that to her.
The despatch from General French put him into a kindlier frame of mind.
He wrote instead briefly but affectionately. As a gentleman should. "How
could you doubt our fleet or our army?" was the gist of his letter. He
ignored completely every suggestion of a visit to Pyecrafts that her
letter had conveyed. He pretended that it had contained nothing of the
sort.... And with that she passed out of his mind again under the stress
of more commanding interests....
Mr. Britling's mood of relief did not last through the week. The
defeated Germans continued to advance. Through a week of deepening
disillusionment the main tide of battle rolled back steadily towards
Paris. Lille was lost without a struggle. It was lost with mysterious
ease.... The next name to startle Mr. Britling as he sat with newspaper
and atlas following these great events was Compiègne. "Here!" Manifestly
the British were still in retreat. Then the Germans were in possession
of Laon and Rheims and still pressing south. Maubeuge surrounded and cut
off for some days, had apparently fallen....
It was on Sunday, September the sixth, that the final capitulation of
Mr. Britling's facile optimism occurred.
He stood in the sunshine reading the _Observer_ which the gardener's boy
had just brought from the May Tree. He had spread it open on a garden
table under the blue cedar, and father and son were both reading it,
each as much as the other would let him. There was fresh news from
France, a story of further German advances, fighting at Senlis--"But
that is quite close to Paris!"--and the appearance of German forces at
Nogent-sur-Seine. "Sur Seine!" cried Mr. Britling. "But where can that
be? South of the Marne? Or below Paris perhaps?"
It was not marked upon the _Observer's_ map, and Hugh ran into the house
for the atlas.
When he returned Mr. Manning was with his father, and they both looked
Hugh opened the map of northern France. "Here it is," he said.
Mr. Britling considered the position.
"Manning says they are at Rouen," he told Hugh. "Our base is to be moved
round to La Rochelle...."
He paused before the last distasteful conclusion.
"Practically," he admitted, taking his dose, "they have got Paris. It is
almost surrounded now."
He sat down to the map. Mr. Manning and Hugh stood regarding him. He
made a last effort to imagine some tremendous strategic reversal, some
stone from an unexpected sling that should fell this Goliath in the
midst of his triumph.
"Russia," he said, without any genuine hope....
And then it was that Mr. Britling accepted the truth.
"One talks," he said, "and then weeks and months later one learns the
meaning of the things one has been saying. I was saying a month ago that
this is the biggest thing that has happened in history. I said that
this was the supreme call upon the will and resources of England. I
said there was not a life in all our empire that would not be vitally
changed by this war. I said all these things; they came through my
mouth; I suppose there was a sort of thought behind them.... Only at
this moment do I understand what it is that I said. Now--let me say it
over as if I had never said it before; this _is_ the biggest thing in
history, that we _are_ all called upon to do our utmost to resist this
tremendous attack upon the peace and freedom of the world. Well, doing
our utmost does not mean standing about in pleasant gardens waiting for
the newspaper.... It means the abandonment of ease and security....
"How lazy we English are nowadays! How readily we grasp the comforting
delusion that excuses us from exertion. For the last three weeks I have
been deliberately believing that a little British army--they say it is
scarcely a hundred thousand men--would somehow break this rush of
millions. But it has been driven back, as any one not in love with easy
dreams might have known it would be driven back--here and then here and
then here. It has been fighting night and day. It has made the most
splendid fight--and the most ineffectual fight.... You see the vast
swing of the German flail through Belgium. And meanwhile we have been
standing about talking of the use we would make of our victory....
"We have been asleep," he said. "This country has been asleep....
"At the back of our minds," he went on bitterly, "I suppose we thought
the French would do the heavy work on land--while we stood by at sea. So
far as we thought at all. We're so temperate-minded; we're so full of
qualifications and discretions.... And so leisurely.... Well, France is
down. We've got to fight for France now over the ruins of Paris. Because
you and I, Manning, didn't grasp the scale of it, because we indulged in
generalisations when we ought to have been drilling and working.
Because we've been doing 'business as usual' and all the rest of that
sort of thing, while Western civilisation has been in its death agony.
If this is to be another '71, on a larger scale and against not merely
France but all Europe, if Prussianism is to walk rough-shod over
civilisation, if France is to be crushed and Belgium murdered, then life
is not worth having. Compared with such an issue as that no other issue,
no other interest matters. Yet what are we doing to decide it--you and
I? How can it end in anything but a German triumph if you and I, by the
million, stand by...."
He paused despairfully and stared at the map.
"What ought we to be doing?" asked Mr. Manning.
"Every man ought to be in training," said Mr. Britling. "Every one ought
to be participating.... In some way.... At any rate we ought not to be
taking our ease at Matching's Easy any more...."
"It interrupts everything," said Hugh suddenly. "These Prussians are the
biggest nuisance the world has ever seen."
He considered. "It's like every one having to run out because the house
catches fire. But of course we have to beat them. It has to be done. And
every one has to take a share.
"Then we can get on with our work again."
Mr. Britling turned his eyes to his eldest son with a startled
expression. He had been speaking--generally. For the moment he had