CHAPTER THE THIRD
And while the countryside of England changed steadily from its lax
pacific amenity to the likeness of a rather slovenly armed camp, while
long-fixed boundaries shifted and dissolved and a great irreparable
wasting of the world's resources gathered way, Mr. Britling did his duty
as a special constable, gave his eldest son to the Territorials,
entertained Belgians, petted his soldiers in the barn, helped Teddy to
his commission, contributed to war charities, sold out securities at a
loss and subscribed to the War Loan, and thought, thought endlessly
about the war.
He could think continuously day by day of nothing else. His mind was as
caught as a galley slave, as unable to escape from tugging at this oar.
All his universe was a magnetic field which oriented everything, whether
he would have it so or not, to this one polar question.
His thoughts grew firmer and clearer; they went deeper and wider. His
first superficial judgments were endorsed and deepened or replaced by
others. He thought along the lonely lanes at night; he thought at his
desk; he thought in bed; he thought in his bath; he tried over his
thoughts in essays and leading articles and reviewed them and corrected
them. Now and then came relaxation and lassitude, but never release. The
war towered over him like a vigilant teacher, day after day, week after
week, regardless of fatigue and impatience, holding a rod in its hand.
Certain things had to be forced upon Mr. Britling because they jarred so
greatly with his habits of mind that he would never have accepted them
if he could have avoided doing so.
Notably he would not recognise at first the extreme bitterness of this
war. He would not believe that the attack upon Britain and Western
Europe generally expressed the concentrated emotion of a whole nation.
He thought that the Allies were in conflict with a system and not with a
national will. He fought against the persuasion that the whole mass of a
great civilised nation could be inspired by a genuine and sustained
hatred. Hostility was an uncongenial thing to him; he would not
recognise that the greater proportion of human beings are more readily
hostile than friendly. He did his best to believe--in his "And Now War
Ends" he did his best to make other people believe--that this war was
the perverse exploit of a small group of people, of limited but powerful
influences, an outrage upon the general geniality of mankind. The
cruelty, mischief, and futility of war were so obvious to him that he
was almost apologetic in asserting them. He believed that war had but to
begin and demonstrate its quality among the Western nations in order to
unify them all against its repetition. They would exclaim: "But we can't
do things like this to one another!" He saw the aggressive imperialism
of Germany called to account even by its own people; a struggle, a
collapse, a liberal-minded conference of world powers, and a universal
resumption of amiability upon a more assured basis of security. He
believed--and many people in England believed with him--that a great
section of the Germans would welcome triumphant Allies as their
liberators from intolerable political obsessions.
The English because of their insularity had been political amateurs for
endless generations. It was their supreme vice, it was their supreme
virtue, to be easy-going. They had lived in an atmosphere of comedy, and
denied in the whole tenor of their lives that life is tragic. Not even
the Americans had been more isolated. The Americans had had their
Indians, their negroes, their War of Secession. Until the Great War the
Channel was as broad as the Atlantic for holding off every vital
challenge. Even Ireland was away--a four-hour crossing. And so the
English had developed to the fullest extent the virtues and vices of
safety and comfort; they had a hatred of science and dramatic behaviour;
they could see no reason for exactness or intensity; they disliked
proceeding "to extremes." Ultimately everything would turn out all
right. But they knew what it is to be carried into conflicts by
energetic minorities and the trick of circumstances, and they were ready
to understand the case of any other country which has suffered that
fate. All their habits inclined them to fight good-temperedly and
comfortably, to quarrel with a government and not with a people. It took
Mr. Britling at least a couple of months of warfare to understand that
the Germans were fighting in an altogether different spirit.
The first intimations of this that struck upon his mind were the news of
the behaviour of the Kaiser and the Berlin crowd upon the declaration of
war, and the violent treatment of the British subjects seeking to return
to their homes. Everywhere such people had been insulted and
ill-treated. It was the spontaneous expression of a long-gathered
bitterness. While the British ambassador was being howled out of Berlin,
the German ambassador to England was taking a farewell stroll, quite
unmolested, in St. James's Park.... One item that struck particularly
upon Mr. Britling's imagination was the story of the chorus of young
women who assembled on the railway platform of the station through which
the British ambassador was passing to sing--to his drawn
blinds--"Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles." Mr. Britling could
imagine those young people, probably dressed more or less uniformly in
white, with flushed faces and shining eyes, letting their voices go,
full throated, in the modern German way....
And then came stories of atrocities, stories of the shooting of old men
and the butchery of children by the wayside, stories of wounded men
bayoneted or burnt alive, of massacres of harmless citizens, of looting
and filthy outrages....
Mr. Britling did his utmost not to believe these things. They
contradicted his habitual world. They produced horrible strains in his
mind. They might, he hoped, be misreported so as to seem more violent or
less justifiable than they were. They might be the acts of stray
criminals, and quite disconnected from the normal operations of the war.
Here and there some weak-minded officer may have sought to make himself
terrible.... And as for the bombardment of cathedrals and the crime of
Louvain, well, Mr. Britling was prepared to argue that Gothic
architecture is not sacrosanct if military necessity cuts through it....
It was only after the war had been going on some months that Mr.
Britling's fluttering, unwilling mind was pinned down by official
reports and a cloud of witnesses to a definite belief in the grim
reality of systematic rape and murder, destruction, dirtiness and
abominable compulsions that blackened the first rush of the Prussians
into Belgium and Champagne....
They came hating and threatening the lands they outraged. They sought
occasion to do frightful deeds.... When they could not be frightful in
the houses they occupied, then to the best of their ability they were
destructive and filthy. The facts took Mr. Britling by the throat....
The first thing that really pierced Mr. Britling with the conviction
that there was something essentially different in the English and the
German attitude towards the war was the sight of a bale of German comic
papers in the study of a friend in London. They were filled with
caricatures of the Allies and more particularly of the English, and they
displayed a force and quality of passion--an incredible force and
quality of passion. Their amazing hate and their amazing filthiness
alike overwhelmed Mr. Britling. There was no appearance of national
pride or national dignity, but a bellowing patriotism and a limitless
desire to hurt and humiliate. They spat. They were red in the face and
they spat. He sat with these violent sheets in his hands--_ashamed_.
"But I say!" he said feebly. "It's the sort of thing that might come out
of a lunatic asylum...."
One incredible craving was manifest in every one of them. The German
caricaturist seemed unable to represent his enemies except in extremely
tight trousers or in none; he was equally unable to represent them
without thrusting a sword or bayonet, spluttering blood, into the more
indelicate parts of their persons. This was the _leit-motif_ of the war
as the German humorists presented it. "But," said Mr. Britling, "these
things can't represent anything like the general state of mind in
"They do," said his friend.
"But it's blind fury--at the dirt-throwing stage."
"The whole of Germany is in that blind fury," said his friend. "While we
are going about astonished and rather incredulous about this war, and
still rather inclined to laugh, that's the state of mind of Germany....
There's a sort of deliberation in it. They think it gives them strength.
They _want_ to foam at the mouth. They do their utmost to foam more.
They write themselves up. Have you heard of the 'Hymn of Hate'?"
Mr. Britling had not.
"There was a translation of it in last week's _Spectator_.... This is
the sort of thing we are trying to fight in good temper and without
extravagance. Listen, Britling!
"_You_ will we hate with a lasting hate;
We will never forgo our hate--
Hate by water and hate by land,
Hate of the head and hate of the hand,
Hate of the hammer and hate of the crown,
Hate of seventy millions, choking down;
We love as one, we hate as one,
We have _one_ foe, and one alone--
He read on to the end.
"Well," he said when he had finished reading, "what do you think of it?"
"I want to feel his bumps," said Mr. Britling after a pause. "It's
"They're singing that up and down Germany. Lissauer, I hear, has been
"It's--stark malignity," said Mr. Britling. "What have we done?"
"It's colossal. What is to happen to the world if these people prevail?"
"I can't believe it--even with this evidence before me.... No! I want to
feel their bumps...."
"You see," said Mr. Britling, trying to get it into focus, "I have known
quite decent Germans. There must be some sort of misunderstanding.... I
wonder what makes them hate us. There seems to me no reason in it."
"I think it is just thoroughness," said his friend. "They are at war. To
be at war is to hate."
"That isn't at all my idea."
"We're not a thorough people. When we think of anything, we also think
of its opposite. When we adopt an opinion we also take in a provisional
idea that it is probably nearly as wrong as it is right. We
are--atmospheric. They are concrete.... All this filthy, vile, unjust
and cruel stuff is honest genuine war. We pretend war does not hurt.
They know better.... The Germans are a simple honest people. It is
their virtue. Possibly it is their only virtue...."
Mr. Britling was only one of a multitude who wanted to feel the bumps of
Germany at that time. The effort to understand a people who had suddenly
become incredible was indeed one of the most remarkable facts in English
intellectual life during the opening phases of the war. The English
state of mind was unlimited astonishment. There was an enormous sale of
any German books that seemed likely to illuminate the mystery of this
amazing concentration of hostility; the works of Bernhardi, Treitschke,
Nietzsche, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, became the material of countless
articles and interminable discussions. One saw little clerks on the way
to the office and workmen going home after their work earnestly reading
these remarkable writers. They were asking, just as Mr. Britling was
asking, what it was the British Empire had struck against. They were
trying to account for this wild storm of hostility that was coming at
them out of Central Europe.
It was a natural next stage to this, when after all it became manifest
that instead of there being a liberal and reluctant Germany at the back
of imperialism and Junkerdom, there was apparently one solid and
enthusiastic people, to suppose that the Germans were in some
distinctive way evil, that they were racially more envious, arrogant,
and aggressive than the rest of mankind. Upon that supposition a great
number of English people settled. They concluded that the Germans had a
peculiar devil of their own--and had to be treated accordingly. That was
the second stage in the process of national apprehension, and it was
marked by the first beginnings of a spy hunt, by the first denunciation
of naturalised aliens, and by some anti-German rioting among the mixed
alien population in the East End. Most of the bakers in the East End of
London were Germans, and for some months after the war began they went
on with their trade unmolested. Now many of these shops were wrecked....
It was only in October that the British gave these first signs of a
sense that they were fighting not merely political Germany but the
But the idea of a peculiar malignity in the German quality as a key to
the broad issue of the war was even less satisfactory and less permanent
in Mr. Britling's mind than his first crude opposition of militarism and
a peaceful humanity as embodied respectively in the Central Powers and
the Russo-Western alliance. It led logically to the conclusion that the
extermination of the German peoples was the only security for the
general amiability of the world, a conclusion that appealed but weakly
to his essential kindliness. After all, the Germans he had met and seen
were neither cruel nor hate-inspired. He came back to that obstinately.
From the harshness and vileness of the printed word and the unclean
picture, he fell back upon the flesh and blood, the humanity and
sterling worth, of--as a sample--young Heinrich.
Who was moreover a thoroughly German young German--a thoroughly Prussian
At times young Heinrich alone stood between Mr. Britling and the belief
that Germany and the whole German race was essentially wicked,
essentially a canting robber nation. Young Heinrich became a sort of
advocate for his people before the tribunal of Mr. Britling's mind. (And
on his shoulder sat an absurdly pampered squirrel.) s fresh, pink,
sedulous face, very earnest, adjusting his glasses, saying "Please,"
intervened and insisted upon an arrest of judgment....
Since the young man's departure he had sent two postcards of greeting
directly to the "Familie Britling," and one letter through the friendly
intervention of Mr. Britling's American publisher. Once also he sent a
message through a friend in Norway. The postcards simply recorded
stages in the passage of a distraught pacifist across Holland to his
enrolment. The letter by way of America came two months later. He had
been converted into a combatant with extreme rapidity. He had been
trained for three weeks, had spent a fortnight in hospital with a severe
cold, and had then gone to Belgium as a transport driver--his father had
been a horse-dealer and he was familiar with horses. "If anything
happens to me," he wrote, "please send my violin at least very carefully
to my mother." It was characteristic that he reported himself as very
comfortably quartered in Courtrai with "very nice people." The niceness
involved restraints. "Only never," he added, "do we talk about the war.
It is better not to do so." He mentioned the violin also in the later
communication through Norway. Therein he lamented the lost fleshpots of
Courtrai. He had been in Posen, and now he was in the Carpathians, up to
his knees in snow and "very uncomfortable...."
And then abruptly all news from him ceased.
Month followed month, and no further letter came.
"Something has happened to him. Perhaps he is a prisoner...."
"I hope our little Heinrich hasn't got seriously damaged.... He may be
"Or perhaps they stop his letters.... Very probably they stop his
Mr. Britling would sit in his armchair and stare at his fire, and recall
conflicting memories of Germany--of a pleasant land, of friendly people.
He had spent many a jolly holiday there. So recently as 1911 all the
Britling family had gone up the Rhine from Rotterdam, had visited a
string of great cities and stayed for a cheerful month of sunshine at
Neunkirchen in the Odenwald.
The little village perches high among the hills and woods, and at its
very centre is the inn and the linden tree and--Adam Meyer. Or at least
Adam Meyer _was_ there. Whether he is there now, only the spirit of
change can tell; if he live to be a hundred no friendly English will
ever again come tramping along by the track of the Blaue Breiecke or the
Weisse Streiche to enjoy his hospitality; there are rivers of blood
between, and a thousand memories of hate....
It was a village distended with hospitalities. Not only the inn but all
the houses about the place of the linden tree, the shoe-maker's, the
post-mistress's, the white house beyond, every house indeed except the
pastor's house, were full of Adam Meyer's summer guests. And about it
and over it went and soared Adam Meyer, seeing they ate well, seeing
they rested well, seeing they had music and did not miss the
moonlight--a host who forgot profit in hospitality, an inn-keeper with
the passion of an artist for his inn.
Music, moonlight, the simple German sentiment, the hearty German voices,
the great picnic in a Stuhl Wagen, the orderly round games the boys
played with the German children, and the tramps and confidences Hugh had
with Kurt and Karl, and at last a crowning jollification, a dance, with
some gipsy musicians whom Mr. Britling discovered, when the Germans
taught the English various entertaining sports with baskets and potatoes
and forfeits and the English introduced the Germans to the licence of
the two-step. And everybody sang "Britannia, Rule the Waves," and
"Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles," and Adam Meyer got on a chair and
made a tremendous speech more in dialect than ever, and there was much
drinking of beer and sirops in the moonlight under the linden....
Afterwards there had been a periodic sending of postcards and greetings,
which indeed only the war had ended.
Right pleasant people those Germans had been, sun and green-leaf lovers,
for whom "Frisch Auf" seemed the most natural of national cries. Mr.
Britling thought of the individual Germans who had made up the
assembly, of the men's amusingly fierce little hats of green and blue
with an inevitable feather thrust perkily into the hatband behind, of
the kindly plumpnesses behind their turned-up moustaches, of the blonde,
sedentary women, very wise about the comforts of life and very kind to
the children, of their earnest pleasure in landscape and Art and Great
Writers, of their general frequent desire to sing, of their plasticity
under the directing hands of Adam Meyer. He thought of the mellow south
German landscape, rolling away broad and fair, of the little clean
red-roofed townships, the old castles, the big prosperous farms, the
neatly marked pedestrian routes, the hospitable inns, and the artless
He saw all those memories now through a veil of indescribable
sadness--as of a world lost, gone down like the cities of Lyonesse
beneath deep seas....
Right pleasant people in a sunny land! Yet here pressing relentlessly
upon his mind were the murders of Visé, the massacres of Dinant, the
massacres of Louvain, murder red-handed and horrible upon an inoffensive
people, foully invaded, foully treated; murder done with a sickening
cant of righteousness and racial pretension....
The two pictures would not stay steadily in his mind together. When he
thought of the broken faith that had poured those slaughtering hosts
into the decent peace of Belgium, that had smashed her cities, burnt her
villages and filled the pretty gorges of the Ardennes with blood and
smoke and terror, he was flooded with self-righteous indignation, a
self-righteous indignation that was indeed entirely Teutonic in its
quality, that for a time drowned out his former friendship and every
kindly disposition towards Germany, that inspired him with destructive
impulses, and obsessed him with a desire to hear of death and more death
and yet death in every German town and home....
It will be an incredible thing to the happier reader of a coming age--if
ever this poor record of experience reaches a reader in the days to
come--to learn how much of the mental life of Mr. Britling was occupied
at this time with the mere horror and atrocity of warfare. It is idle
and hopeless to speculate now how that future reader will envisage this
war; it may take on broad dramatic outlines, it may seem a thing, just,
logical, necessary, the burning of many barriers, the destruction of
many obstacles. Mr. Britling was too near to the dirt and pain and heat
for any such broad landscape consolations. Every day some new detail of
evil beat into his mind. Now it would be the artless story of some
Belgian refugee. There was a girl from Alost in the village for example,
who had heard the fusillade that meant the shooting of citizens, the
shooting of people she had known, she had seen the still blood-stained
wall against which two murdered cousins had died, the streaked sand
along which their bodies had been dragged; three German soldiers had
been quartered in her house with her and her invalid mother, and had
talked freely of the massacres in which they had been employed. One of
them was in civil life a young schoolmaster, and he had had, he said, to
kill a woman and a baby. The girl had been incredulous. Yes, he had done
so! Of course he had done so! His officer had made him do it, had stood
over him. He could do nothing but obey. But since then he had been
unable to sleep, unable to forget.
"We had to punish the people," he said. "They had fired on us."
And besides, his officer had been drunk. It had been impossible to
argue. His officer had an unrelenting character at all times....
Over and over again Mr. Britling would try to imagine that young
schoolmaster soldier at Alost. He imagined with a weak staring face and
watery blue eyes behind his glasses, and that memory of murder....
Then again it would be some incident of death and mutilation in Antwerp,
that Van der Pant described to him. The Germans in Belgium were shooting
women frequently, not simply for grave spying but for trivial
offences.... Then came the battleship raid on Whitby and Scarborough,
and the killing among other victims of a number of children on their way
to school. This shocked Mr. Britling absurdly, much more than the
Belgian crimes had done. They were _English_ children. At home!... The
drowning of a great number of people on a torpedoed ship full of
refugees from Flanders filled his mind with pitiful imaginings for days.
The Zeppelin raids, with their slow crescendo of blood-stained futility,
began before the end of 1914.... It was small consolation for Mr.
Britling to reflect that English homes and women and children were,
after all, undergoing only the same kind of experience that our ships
have inflicted scores of times in the past upon innocent people in the
villages of Africa and Polynesia....
Each month the war grew bitterer and more cruel. Early in 1915 the
Germans began their submarine war, and for a time Mr. Britling's concern
was chiefly for the sailors and passengers of the ships destroyed. He
noted with horror the increasing indisposition of the German submarines
to give any notice to their victims; he did not understand the grim
reasons that were turning every submarine attack into a desperate
challenge of death. For the Germans under the seas had pitted themselves
against a sea power far more resourceful, more steadfast and skilful,
sterner and more silent, than their own. It was not for many months that
Mr. Britling learnt the realities of the submarine blockade. Submarine
after submarine went out of the German harbours into the North Sea,
never to return. No prisoners were reported, no boasting was published
by the British fishers of men; U boat after U boat vanished into a
chilling mystery.... Only later did Mr. Britling begin to hear whispers
and form ideas of the noiseless, suffocating grip that sought through
the waters for its prey.
The _Falaba_ crime, in which the German sailors were reported to have
jeered at the drowning victims in the water, was followed by the sinking
of the _Lusitania_. At that a wave of real anger swept through the
Empire. Hate was begetting hate at last. There were violent riots in
Great Britain and in South Africa. Wretched little German hairdressers
and bakers and so forth fled for their lives, to pay for the momentary
satisfaction of the Kaiser and Herr Ballin. Scores of German homes in
England were wrecked and looted; hundreds of Germans maltreated. War is
war. Hard upon the _Lusitania_ storm came the publication of the Bryce
Report, with its relentless array of witnesses, its particulars of
countless acts of cruelty and arrogant unreason and uncleanness in
Belgium and the occupied territory of France. Came also the gasping
torture of "gas," the use of flame jets, and a new exacerbation of the
savagery of the actual fighting. For a time it seemed as though the
taking of prisoners along the western front would cease. Tales of
torture and mutilation, tales of the kind that arise nowhere and out of
nothing, and poison men's minds to the most pitiless retaliations,
drifted along the opposing fronts....
The realities were evil enough without any rumours. Over various
dinner-tables Mr. Britling heard this and that first-hand testimony of
harshness and spite. One story that stuck in his memory was of British
prisoners on the journey into Germany being put apart at a station from
their French companions in misfortune, and forced to "run the gauntlet"
back to their train between the fists and bayonets of files of German
soldiers. And there were convincing stories of the same prisoners robbed
of overcoats in bitter weather, baited with dogs, separated from their
countrymen, and thrust among Russians and Poles with whom they could
hold no speech. So Lissauer's Hate Song bore its fruit in a thousand
cruelties to wounded and defenceless men. The English had cheated great
Germany of another easy victory like that of '71. They had to be
punished. That was all too plainly the psychological process. At one
German station a woman had got out of a train and crossed a platform to
spit on the face of a wounded Englishman.... And there was no monopoly
of such things on either side. At some journalistic gathering Mr.
Britling met a little white-faced, resolute lady who had recently been
nursing in the north of France. She told of wounded men lying among the
coal of coal-sheds, of a shortage of nurses and every sort of material,
of an absolute refusal to permit any share in such things to reach the
German "swine." ... "Why have they come here? Let our own boys have it
first. Why couldn't they stay in their own country? Let the filth die."
Two soldiers impressed to carry a wounded German officer on a stretcher
had given him a "joy ride," pitching him up and down as one tosses a man
in a blanket. "He was lucky to get off with that."...
"All _our_ men aren't angels," said a cheerful young captain back from
the front. "If you had heard a little group of our East London boys
talking of what they meant to do when they got into Germany, you'd feel
"But that was just talk," said Mr. Britling weakly, after a pause....
There were times when Mr. Britling's mind was imprisoned beyond any hope
of escape amidst such monstrous realities....
He was ashamed of his one secret consolation. For nearly two years yet
Hugh could not go out to it. There would surely be peace before
Tormenting the thought of Mr. Britling almost more acutely than this
growing tale of stupidly inflicted suffering and waste and sheer
destruction was the collapse of the British mind from its first fine
phase of braced-up effort into a state of bickering futility.
Too long had British life been corrupted by the fictions of loyalty to
an uninspiring and alien Court, of national piety in an official Church,
of freedom in a politician-rigged State, of justice in an economic
system where the advertiser, the sweater and usurer had a hundred
advantages over the producer and artisan, to maintain itself now
steadily at any high pitch of heroic endeavour. It had bought its
comfort with the demoralisation of its servants. It had no completely
honest organs; its spirit was clogged by its accumulated insincerities.
Brought at last face to face with a bitter hostility and a powerful and
unscrupulous enemy, an enemy socialistic, scientific and efficient to an
unexampled degree, it seemed indeed to be inspired for a time by an
unwonted energy and unanimity. Youth and the common people shone. The
sons of every class went out to fight and die, full of a splendid dream
of this war. Easy-going vanished from the foreground of the picture. But
only to creep back again as the first inspiration passed. Presently the
older men, the seasoned politicians, the owners and hucksters, the
charming women and the habitual consumers, began to recover from this
blaze of moral exaltation. Old habits of mind and procedure reasserted
themselves. The war which had begun so dramatically missed its climax;
there was neither heroic swift defeat nor heroic swift victory. There
was indecision; the most trying test of all for an undisciplined people.
There were great spaces of uneventful fatigue. Before the Battle of the
Yser had fully developed the dramatic quality had gone out of the war.
It had ceased to be either a tragedy or a triumph; for both sides it
became a monstrous strain and wasting. It had become a wearisome
thrusting against a pressure of evils....
Under that strain the dignity of England broke, and revealed a malignity
less focussed and intense than the German, but perhaps even more
distressing. No paternal government had organised the British spirit for
patriotic ends; it became now peevish and impatient, like some
ill-trained man who is sick, it directed itself no longer against the
enemy alone but fitfully against imagined traitors and shirkers; it
wasted its energies in a deepening and spreading net of internal
squabbles and accusations. Now it was the wily indolence of the Prime
Minister, now it was the German culture of the Lord Chancellor, now the
imaginative enterprise of the First Lord of the Admiralty that focussed
a vindictive campaign. There began a hunt for spies and of suspects of
German origin in every quarter except the highest; a denunciation now of
"traitors," now of people with imaginations, now of scientific men, now
of the personal friend of the Commander-in-Chief, now of this group and
then of that group.... Every day Mr. Britling read his three or four
newspapers with a deepening disappointment.
When he turned from the newspaper to his post, he would find the
anonymous letter-writer had been busy....
Perhaps Mr. Britling had remarked that Germans were after all human
beings, or that if England had listened to Matthew Arnold in the
'eighties our officers by this time might have added efficiency to their
courage and good temper. Perhaps he had himself put a touch of irritant
acid into his comment. Back flared the hate. "Who are _you_, Sir? What
are _you_, Sir? What right have _you_, Sir? What claim have _you_,
"Life had a wrangling birth. On the head of every one of us rests the
ancestral curse of fifty million murders."
So Mr. Britling's thoughts shaped themselves in words as he prowled one
night in March, chill and melancholy, across a rushy meadow under an
overcast sky. The death squeal of some little beast caught suddenly in a
distant copse had set loose this train of thought. "Life struggling
under a birth curse?" he thought. "How nearly I come back at times to
the Christian theology!... And then, Redemption by the shedding of
"Life, like a rebellious child, struggling out of the control of the
hate which made it what it is."
But that was Mr. Britling's idea of Gnosticism, not of orthodox
Christianity. He went off for a time into faded reminiscences of
theological reading. What had been the Gnostic idea? That the God of the
Old Testament was the Devil of the New? But that had been the idea of
Mr. Britling, between the black hedges, came back presently from his
attempts to recall his youthful inquiries into man's ancient
speculations, to the enduring riddles that have outlasted a thousand
speculations. Has hate been necessary, and is it still necessary, and
will it always be necessary? Is all life a war forever? The rabbit is
nimble, lives keenly, is prevented from degenerating into a diseased
crawling eater of herbs by the incessant ferret. Without the ferret of
war, what would life become?... War is murder truly, but is not Peace
It was during these prowling nights in the first winter of the war that
Mr. Britling planned a new writing that was to go whole abysses beneath
the facile superficiality of "And Now War Ends." It was to be called the
"Anatomy of Hate." It was to deal very faithfully with the function of
hate as a corrective to inefficiency. So long as men were slack, men
must be fierce. This conviction pressed upon him....
In spite of his detestation of war Mr. Britling found it impossible to
maintain that any sort of peace state was better than a state of war. If
wars produced destructions and cruelties, peace could produce indolence,
perversity, greedy accumulation and selfish indulgences. War is
discipline for evil, but peace may be relaxation from good. The poor man
may be as wretched in peace time as in war time. The gathering forces of
an evil peace, the malignity and waste of war, are but obverse and
reverse of the medal of ill-adjusted human relationships. Was there no
Greater Peace possible; not a mere recuperative pause in killing and
destruction, but a phase of noble and creative living, a phase of
building, of discovery, of beauty and research? He remembered, as one
remembers the dead, dreams he had once dreamt of the great cities, the
splendid freedoms, of a coming age, of marvellous enlargements of human
faculty, of a coming science that would be light and of art that could
But would that former peace have ever risen to that?...
After all, had such visions ever been more than idle dreams? Had the war
done more than unmask reality?...
He came to a gate and leant over it.
The darkness drizzled about him; he turned up his collar and watched the
dim shapes of trees and hedges gather out of the night to meet the
dismal dawn. He was cold and hungry and weary.
He may have drowsed; at least he had a vision, very real and plain, a
vision very different from any dream of Utopia.
It seemed to him that suddenly a mine burst under a great ship at sea,
that men shouted and women sobbed and cowered, and flares played upon
the rain-pitted black waves; and then the picture changed and showed a
battle upon land, and searchlights were flickering through the rain and
shells flashed luridly, and men darkly seen in silhouette against red
flames ran with fixed bayonets and slipped and floundered over the mud,
and at last, shouting thinly through the wind, leapt down into the enemy
And then he was alone again staring over a wet black field towards a dim
crest of shapeless trees.
Abruptly and shockingly, this malignity of warfare, which had been so
far only a festering cluster of reports and stories and rumours and
suspicions, stretched out its arm into Essex and struck a barb of
grotesque cruelty into the very heart of Mr. Britling. Late one
afternoon came a telegram from Filmington-on-Sea, where Aunt Wilshire
had been recovering her temper in a boarding-house after a round of
visits in Yorkshire and the moorlands. And she had been "very seriously
injured" by an overnight German air raid. It was a raid that had not
been even mentioned in the morning's papers. She had asked to see him.
It was, ran the compressed telegraphic phrase, "advisable to come at
Mrs. Britling helped him pack a bag, and came with him to the station in
order to drive the car back to the Dower House; for the gardener's boy
who had hitherto attended to these small duties had now gone off as an
unskilled labourer to some munition works at Chelmsford. Mr. Britling
sat in the slow train that carried him across country to the junction
for Filmington, and failed altogether to realise what had happened to
the old lady. He had an absurd feeling that it was characteristic of her
to intervene in affairs in this manner. She had always been so tough and
unbent an old lady that until he saw her he could not imagine her as
being really seriously and pitifully hurt....
But he found her in the hospital very much hurt indeed. She had been
smashed in some complicated manner that left the upper part of her body
intact, and lying slantingly upon pillows. Over the horror of bandaged
broken limbs and tormented flesh below sheets and a counterpane were
drawn. Morphia had been injected, he understood, to save her from pain,
but presently it might be necessary for her to suffer. She lay up in her
bed with an effect of being enthroned, very white and still, her strong
profile with its big nose and her straggling hair and a certain dignity
gave her the appearance of some very important, very old man, of an aged
pope for instance, rather than of an old woman. She had made no remark
after they had set her and dressed her and put her to bed except "send
for Hughie Britling, The Dower House, Matching's Easy. He is the best of
the bunch." She had repeated the address and this commendation firmly
over and over again, in large print as it were, even after they had
assured her that a telegram had been despatched.
In the night, they said, she had talked of him.
He was not sure at first that she knew of his presence.
"Here I am, Aunt Wilshire," he said.
She gave no sign.
"Your nephew Hugh."
"Mean and preposterous," she said very distinctly.
But she was not thinking of Mr. Britling. She was talking of something
She was saying: "It should not have been known I was here. There are
spies everywhere. Everywhere. There is a spy now--or a lump very like a
spy. They pretend it is a hot-water bottle. Pretext.... Oh, yes! I
admit--absurd. But I have been pursued by spies. Endless spies. Endless,
endless spies. Their devices are almost incredible.... He has never
"All this on account of a carpet. A palace carpet. Over which I had no
control. I spoke my mind. He knew I knew of it. I never concealed it.
So I was hunted. For years he had meditated revenge. Now he has it. But
at what a cost! And they call him Emperor. Emperor!
"His arm is withered; his son--imbecile. He will die--without
Her voice weakened, but it was evident she wanted to say something more.
"I'm here," said Mr. Britling. "Your nephew Hughie."
"Can you understand me?" he asked.
She became suddenly an earnest, tender human being. "My dear!" she said,
and seemed to search for something in her mind and failed to find it.
"You have always understood me," she tried.
"You have always been a good boy to me, Hughie," she said, rather
vacantly, and added after some moments of still reflection, "_au fond_."
After that she was silent for some minutes, and took no notice of his
Then she recollected what had been in her mind. She put out a hand that
sought for Mr. Britling's sleeve.
"I'm here, Auntie," said Mr. Britling. "I'm here."
"Don't let him get at _your_ Hughie.... Too good for it, dear. Oh!
much--much too good.... People let these wars and excitements run away
with them.... They put too much into them.... They aren't--they aren't
worth it. Don't let him get at your Hughie."
"You understand me, Hughie?"
"Then don't forget it. Ever."
She had said what she wanted to say. She had made her testament. She
closed her eyes. He was amazed to find this grotesque old creature had
suddenly become beautiful, in that silvery vein of beauty one sometimes
finds in very old men. She was exalted as great artists will sometimes
exalt the portraits of the aged. He was moved to kiss her forehead.
There came a little tug at his sleeve.
"I think that is enough," said the nurse, who had stood forgotten at his
"But I can come again?"
She indicated departure by a movement of her hand.
The next day Aunt Wilshire was unconscious of her visitor.
They had altered her position so that she lay now horizontally, staring
inflexibly at the ceiling and muttering queer old disconnected things.
The Windsor Castle carpet story was still running through her mind, but
mixed up with it now were scraps of the current newspaper controversies
about the conduct of the war. And she was still thinking of the dynastic
aspects of the war. And of spies. She had something upon her mind about
the King's more German aunts.
"As a precaution," she said, "as a precaution. Watch them all.... The
Princess Christian.... Laying foundation stones.... Cement.... Guns. Or
else why should they always be laying foundation stones?... Always....
Why?... Hushed up....
"None of these things," she said, "in the newspapers. They ought to be."
And then after an interval, very distinctly, "The Duke of Wellington. My
ancestor--in reality.... Publish and be damned."
After that she lay still....
The doctors and nurses could hold out only very faint hopes to Mr.
Britling's inquiries; they said indeed it was astonishing that she was
And about seven o'clock that evening she died....
Mr. Britling, after he had looked at his dead cousin for the last time,
wandered for an hour or so about the silent little watering-place before
he returned to his hotel. There was no one to talk to and nothing else
to do but to think of her death.
The night was cold and bleak, but full of stars. He had already mastered
the local topography, and he knew now exactly where all the bombs that
had been showered upon the place had fallen. Here was the corner of
blackened walls and roasted beams where three wounded horses had been
burnt alive in a barn, here the row of houses, some smashed, some almost
intact, where a mutilated child had screamed for two hours before she
could be rescued from the debris that had pinned her down, and taken to
the hospital. Everywhere by the dim light of the shaded street lamps he
could see the black holes and gaps of broken windows; sometimes
abundant, sometimes rare and exceptional, among otherwise uninjured
dwellings. Many of the victims he had visited in the little cottage
hospital where Aunt Wilshire had just died. She was the eleventh dead.
Altogether fifty-seven people had been killed or injured in this
brilliant German action. They were all civilians, and only twelve were
Two Zeppelins had come in from over the sea, and had been fired at by an
anti-aircraft gun coming on an automobile from Ipswich. The first
intimation the people of the town had had of the raid was the report of
this gun. Many had run out to see what was happening. It was doubtful if
any one had really seen the Zeppelins, though every one testified to the
sound of their engines. Then suddenly the bombs had come streaming
down. Only six had made hits upon houses or people; the rest had fallen
ruinously and very close together on the local golf links, and at least
half had not exploded at all and did not seem to have been released to
A third at least of the injured people had been in bed when destruction
came upon them.
The story was like a page from some fantastic romance of Jules Verne's;
the peace of the little old town, the people going to bed, the quiet
streets, the quiet starry sky, and then for ten minutes an uproar of
guns and shells, a clatter of breaking glass, and then a fire here, a
fire there, a child's voice pitched high by pain and terror, scared
people going to and fro with lanterns, and the sky empty again, the
Five minutes before, Aunt Wilshire had been sitting in the
boarding-house drawing-room playing a great stern "Patience," the
Emperor Patience ("Napoleon, my dear!--not that Potsdam creature") that
took hours to do. Five minutes later she was a thing of elemental terror
and agony, bleeding wounds and shattered bones, plunging about in the
darkness amidst a heap of wreckage. And already the German airmen were
buzzing away to sea again, proud of themselves, pleased no doubt--like
boys who have thrown a stone through a window, beating their way back to
thanks and rewards, to iron crosses and the proud embraces of delighted
Fraus and Fräuleins....
For the first time it seemed to Mr. Britling he really saw the immediate
horror of war, the dense cruel stupidity of the business, plain and
close. It was as if he had never perceived anything of the sort before,
as if he had been dealing with stories, pictures, shows and
representations that he knew to be shams. But that this dear, absurd old
creature, this thing of home, this being of familiar humours and
familiar irritations, should be torn to pieces, left in torment like a
smashed mouse over which an automobile has passed, brought the whole
business to a raw and quivering focus. Not a soul among all those who
had been rent and torn and tortured in this agony of millions, but was
to any one who understood and had been near to it, in some way lovable,
in some way laughable, in some way worthy of respect and care. Poor Aunt
Wilshire was but the sample thrust in his face of all this mangled
multitude, whose green-white lips had sweated in anguish, whose broken
bones had thrust raggedly through red dripping flesh.... The detested
features of the German Crown Prince jerked into the centre of Mr.
Britling's picture. The young man stood in his dapper uniform and
grinned under his long nose, carrying himself jauntily, proud of his
extreme importance to so many lives....
And for a while Mr. Britling could do nothing but rage.
"Devils they are!" he cried to the stars.
"Devils! Devilish fools rather. Cruel blockheads. Apes with all science
in their hands! My God! but _we will teach them a lesson yet!_..."
That was the key of his mood for an hour of aimless wandering, wandering
that was only checked at last by a sentinel who turned him back towards
He wandered, muttering. He found great comfort in scheming vindictive
destruction for countless Germans. He dreamt of swift armoured
aeroplanes swooping down upon the flying airship, and sending it reeling
earthward, the men screaming. He imagined a shattered Zeppelin
staggering earthward in the fields behind the Dower House, and how he
would himself run out with a spade and smite the Germans down. "Quarter
indeed! Kamerad! Take _that_, you foul murderer!"
In the dim light the sentinel saw the retreating figure of Mr. Britling
make an extravagant gesture, and wondered what it might mean.
Signalling? What ought an intelligent sentry to do? Let fly at him?
Arrest him?... Take no notice?...
Mr. Britling was at that moment killing Count Zeppelin and beating out
his brains. Count Zeppelin was killed that night and the German Emperor
was assassinated; a score of lesser victims were offered up to the
_manes_ of Aunt Wilshire; there were memorable cruelties before the
wrath and bitterness of Mr. Britling was appeased. And then suddenly he
had had enough of these thoughts; they were thrust aside, they vanished
out of his mind.
All the while that Mr. Britling had been indulging in these imaginative
slaughterings and spending the tears and hate that had gathered in his
heart, his reason had been sitting apart and above the storm, like the
sun waiting above thunder, like a wise nurse watching and patient above
the wild passions of a child. And all the time his reason had been
maintaining silently and firmly, without shouting, without speech, that
the men who had made this hour were indeed not devils, were no more
devils than Mr. Britling was a devil, but sinful men of like nature with
himself, hard, stupid, caught in the same web of circumstance. "Kill
them in your passion if you will," said reason, "but understand. This
thing was done neither by devils nor fools, but by a conspiracy of
foolish motives, by the weak acquiescences of the clever, by a crime
that was no man's crime but the natural necessary outcome of the
ineffectiveness, the blind motives and muddleheadedness of all mankind."
So reason maintained her thesis, like a light above the head of Mr.
Britling at which he would not look, while he hewed airmen to quivering
rags with a spade that he had sharpened, and stifled German princes with
their own poison gas, given slowly and as painfully as possible. "And
what of the towns _our_ ships have bombarded?" asked reason unheeded.
"What of those Tasmanians _our_ people utterly swept away?"
"What of French machine-guns in the Atlas?" reason pressed the case. "Of
Himalayan villages burning? Of the things we did in China? Especially
of the things we did in China...."
Mr. Britling gave no heed to that.
"The Germans in China were worse than we were," he threw out....
He was maddened by the thought of the Zeppelin making off, high and far
in the sky, a thing dwindling to nothing among the stars, and the
thought of those murderers escaping him. Time after time he stood still
and shook his fist at Boötes, slowly sweeping up the sky....
And at last, sick and wretched, he sat down on a seat upon the deserted
parade under the stars, close to the soughing of the invisible sea
His mind drifted back once more to those ancient heresies of the
Gnostics and the Manichæans which saw the God of the World as altogether
evil, which sought only to escape by the utmost abstinences and evasions
and perversions from the black wickedness of being. For a while his soul
sank down into the uncongenial darknesses of these creeds of despair. "I
who have loved life," he murmured, and could have believed for a time
that he wished he had never had a son....
Is the whole scheme of nature evil? Is life in its essence cruel? Is man
stretched quivering upon the table of the eternal vivisector for no
end--and without pity?
These were thoughts that Mr. Britling had never faced before the war.
They came to him now, and they came only to be rejected by the inherent
quality of his mind. For weeks, consciously and subconsciously, his mind
had been grappling with this riddle. He had thought of it during his
lonely prowlings as a special constable; it had flung itself in
monstrous symbols across the dark canvas of his dreams. "Is there indeed
a devil of pure cruelty? Does any creature, even the very cruellest of
creatures, really apprehend the pain it causes, or inflict it for the
sake of the infliction?" He summoned a score of memories, a score of
imaginations, to bear their witness before the tribunal of his mind. He
forgot cold and loneliness in this speculation. He sat, trying all
Being, on this score, under the cold indifferent stars.
He thought of certain instances of boyish cruelty that had horrified him
in his own boyhood, and it was clear to him that indeed it was not
cruelty, it was curiosity, dense textured, thick skinned, so that it
could not feel even the anguish of a blinded cat. Those boys who had
wrung his childish soul to nigh intolerable misery, had not indeed been
tormenting so much as observing torment, testing life as wantonly as one
breaks thin ice in the early days of winter. In very much cruelty the
real motive is surely no worse than that obtuse curiosity; a mere step
of understanding, a mere quickening of the nerves and mind, makes it
impossible. But that is not true of all or most cruelty. Most cruelty
has something else in it, something more than the clumsy plunging into
experience of the hobbledehoy; it is vindictive or indignant; it is
never tranquil and sensuous; it draws its incentive, however crippled
and monstrous the justification may be, from something punitive in man's
instinct, something therefore that implies a sense, however misguided,
of righteousness and vindication. That factor is present even in spite;
when some vile or atrocious thing is done out of envy or malice, that
envy and malice has in it always--_always?_ Yes, always--a genuine
condemnation of the hated thing as an unrighteous thing, as an unjust
usurpation, as an inexcusable privilege, as a sinful overconfidence.
Those men in the airship?--he was coming to that. He found himself
asking himself whether it was possible for a human being to do any cruel
act without an excuse--or, at least, without the feeling of
excusability. And in the case of these Germans and the outrages they had
committed and the retaliations they had provoked, he perceived that
always there was the element of a perceptible if inadequate
justification. Just as there would be if presently he were to maltreat a
fallen German airman. There was anger in their vileness. These Germans
were an unsubtle people, a people in the worst and best sense of the
words, plain and honest; they were prone to moral indignation; and moral
indignation is the mother of most of the cruelty in the world. They
perceived the indolence of the English and Russians, they perceived
their disregard of science and system, they could not perceive the
longer reach of these greater races, and it seemed to them that the
mission of Germany was to chastise and correct this laxity. Surely, they
had argued, God was not on the side of those who kept an untilled field.
So they had butchered these old ladies and slaughtered these children
just to show us the consequences:
"All along of dirtiness, all along of mess,
All along of doing things rather more or less."
The very justification our English poet has found for a thousand
overbearing actions in the East! "Forget not order and the real," that
was the underlying message of bomb and gas and submarine. After all,
what right had we English _not_ to have a gun or an aeroplane fit to
bring down that Zeppelin ignominiously and conclusively? Had we not
undertaken Empire? Were we not the leaders of great nations? Had we
indeed much right to complain if our imperial pose was flouted? "There,
at least," said Mr. Britling's reason, "is one of the lines of thought
that brought that unseen cruelty out of the night high over the houses
of Filmington-on-Sea. That, in a sense, is the cause of this killing.
Cruel it is and abominable, yes, but is it altogether cruel? Hasn't it,
after all, a sort of stupid rightness?--isn't it a stupid reaction to an
indolence at least equally stupid?"
What was this rightness that lurked below cruelty? What was the
inspiration of this pressure of spite, this anger that was aroused by
ineffective gentleness and kindliness? Was it indeed an altogether evil
thing; was it not rather an impulse, blind as yet, but in its ultimate
quality _as good as mercy_, greater perhaps in its ultimate values than
This idea had been gathering in Mr. Britling's mind for many weeks; it
had been growing and taking shape as he wrote, making experimental
beginnings for his essay, "The Anatomy of Hate." Is there not, he now
asked himself plainly, a creative and corrective impulse behind all
hate? Is not this malignity indeed only the ape-like precursor of the
great disciplines of a creative state?
The invincible hopefulness of his sanguine temperament had now got Mr.
Britling well out of the pessimistic pit again. Already he had been on
the verge of his phrase while wandering across the rushy fields towards
Market Saffron; now it came to him again like a legitimate monarch
returning from exile.
"When hate shall have become creative energy....
"Hate which passes into creative power; gentleness which is indolence
and the herald of euthanasia....
"Pity is but a passing grace; for mankind will not always be pitiful."
But meanwhile, meanwhile.... How long were men so to mingle wrong with
right, to be energetic without mercy and kindly without energy?...
For a time Mr. Britling sat on the lonely parade under the stars and in
the sound of the sea, brooding upon these ideas.
His mind could make no further steps. It had worked for its spell. His
rage had ebbed away now altogether. His despair was no longer infinite.
But the world was dark and dreadful still. It seemed none the less dark
because at the end there was a gleam of light. It was a gleam of light
far beyond the limits of his own life, far beyond the life of his son.
It had no balm for these sufferings. Between it and himself stretched
the weary generations still to come, generations of bickering and
accusation, greed and faintheartedness, and half truth and the hasty
blow. And all those years would be full of pitiful things, such pitiful
things as the blackened ruins in the town behind, the little grey-faced
corpses, the lives torn and wasted, the hopes extinguished and the
He was no longer thinking of the Germans as diabolical. They were human;
they had a case. It was a stupid case, but our case, too, was a stupid
case. How stupid were all our cases! What was it we missed? Something,
he felt, very close to us, and very elusive. Something that would
resolve a hundred tangled oppositions....
His mind hung at that. Back upon his consciousness came crowding the
horrors and desolations that had been his daily food now for three
quarters of a year. He groaned aloud. He struggled against that renewed
envelopment of his spirit. "Oh, blood-stained fools!" he cried, "oh,
pitiful, tormented fools!
"Even that vile airship was a ship of fools!
"We are all fools still. Striving apes, irritated beyond measure by our
own striving, easily moved to anger."
Some train of subconscious suggestion brought a long-forgotten speech
back into Mr. Britling's mind, a speech that is full of that light which
still seeks so mysteriously and indefatigably to break through the
darkness and thickness of the human mind.
He whispered the words. No unfamiliar words could have had the same
effect of comfort and conviction.
He whispered it of those men whom he still imagined flying far away
there eastward, through the clear freezing air beneath the stars, those
muffled sailors and engineers who had caused so much pain and agony in
this little town.
"_Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do._"