H. G. (Herbert George) Wells.

The undying fire, a contemporary novel online

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Not only the things of space but the things of
time swept together into nothingness. The
last moment of his dream rushed towards the
first, crumpled all the intervening moments
together and made them one. It seemed to
Mr. Huss that he was still in the instant of
insensibility. That sound of the breaking
string was still in his ears : — Ploot. . . .

It became part of that same sound which
came before the vision. . . .

He was aware of a new pain within him;



The Operation 235

not that dull aching now, but a pain keen and
sore. He gave a fluttering gasp.

"Quick," said a voice. "He is coming
to! "

" He'll not wake for hours," said a second
voice.

" His mouth and eyes ! "

He lifted his eyelids as one lifts lead. He
found himself looking into the intelligent but
unsympathetic face of Sir Alpheus Mengo, he
tried to comprehend his situation but lie had
forgotten how he had got to it, he closed his
eyes and sank back consciously and wilfully
towards insensibility. . . .



CHAPTER THE SEVENTH

LETTERS AND A TELEGRAM

§ 1

It was three weeks later.

Never had there been so successful an
operation as an operation in the experience of
either Sir Alpheus Mengo or Dr. Barrack.
The growth that had been removed was a non-
malignant growth ; the diagnosis of cancer had
been unsound. Mr. Huss was still lying flat
in his bed in Mrs. Croome's house, but he was
already able to read books, letters and news-
papers, and take an interest in affairs.

The removal of his morbid growth had
made a very great change in his mental
atmosphere. He no longer had the same sense
of an invincible hostile power brooding over
all his life; his natural courage had returned.
And the world which had seemed a conspiracy
of misfortunes was now a hopeful world again.
The last great offensive of the Germans to-

236



Letters and a Telegram 237

wards Paris had collapsed disastrously under
the counter attacks of Marshal Foch ; each
morning's paper told of fresh victories for the
Aihes, and the dark shadow of a German
Caesarism fell no longer across the future. The
imaginations of men were passing through a
phase of reasonableness and generosity ; the
idea of an organized world peace had seized
upon a multitude of minds ; there was now a
prospect of a new and better age such as would
have seemed incredible in the weeks when the
illness of Mr. Huss began to bear him down.
And it was not simply a general relief that
had come to his forebodings. His financial
position, for example, which had been wrecked
by one accident, had been restored by another.
A distant cousin of Mr. Huss, to whom how-
ever Mr. Huss was the nearest relative, had
died of softening of the brain, after a career
of almost imbecile speculation. He had left
his property partly to Mr. Huss and partly
to Woldiiigstanton School. For some years
before the war he had indulged in the wildest
buying of depreciated copper shares, and had
accumulated piles of what had seemed at the
time valueless paper. 'I'he war had changed



238 The Undying Fire

all that. Instead of being almost insolvent,
the deceased in spite of heavy losses on
Canadian land deals was found by his executors
to be worth nearly thirty thousand pounds.
It is easy to underrate the good in money.
The windfall meant a hundred needed comforts
and freedoms, and a release for the mind of
Mrs. Huss that nothing else could have given
her. And the mind of Mr. Huss reflected the
moods of his wife much more than he
suspected.

But still better things seemed to be afoot
in the world of Mr. Huss. The rest of the
governors of Woldingstanton, it became appar-
ent, were not in agreement with Sir Eliphaz
and Mr. Dad upon their project of replacing
Mr. Huss by Mr. Farr ; and a number of the
old boys of the school at the front, getting
wind of what was going on, had formed a small
committee for the express purpose of defend-
ing their old master. At the head of this
committee, by a happy chance, was young
Kenneth Burrows, the nephew and heir of Sir
Eliphaz. At the school he had never been in
the front rank ; he had been one of those good-
all-round boys who end as a school prefect, a



Letters and a Telegram 239

sound man in the first eleven, and second or
third in most of the subjects he took. Never
had he played a star part or enjoyed very much
of the head's confidences. It was all the more
delightful therefore to find him the most pas-
sionate and indefatigable champion of the
order of things that Mr. Huss had set up. He
had heard of the proposed changes at his
uncle's dinner-table when on leave, and he had
done something forthwith to shake that gentle-
man's resolves. Lady Burrows, who adored
him, became at once pro-Huss. She was all
the readier to do this because she did not like
Mr. Dad's rather emphatic table manners, nor
Mr. Farr's clothes.

'* You don't know what Mr. Huss was to
us, Sir," the young man repeated several
times, and returned to France with that sen-
tence growing and flowering in his mind. He
was one of thf)se good types for whom the war
was a powerful developer. Death, hardsliip,
and responsibility — he was still not two-and-
twenty, and a major in the artillery — had
already made an understanding man out of the
schoolboy ; he could imagine what disposses-
sion meant; his new maturitv made it seem a



240 The Undying Fire

natural thing to write to comfort his old head
as one man writes to another. His pencilled
sheets, when first they came, made the en-
feebled recipient cry, not with misery but
happiness. They were re-read like a love-
letter ; they were now on the coverlet, and Mr.
Huss was staring at the ceiling and already
planning a new Woldingstanton rising from its
ashes, greater than the old.



§ 2

It is only in the last few weeks, the young
man wrote, that we have heard of all these
schemes to break up the tradition of Wolding-
stanton, and now there is a talk of your
resigning the headmastership in favour of Mr.
Farr. Personally, Sir, I canH imagine how
you can possibly dream of giving up your
work — and to him of all people; — I still have
a sort of doubt about it; but my uncle was
very positive that you were disposed to resign
(personally, he said, he had implored you to
stay), and it is on the off-chance of his being
right that I am bothering you with this letter.
Briefly it is to implore you to stand by the
school, which is as much as to say to stand by
yourself and us. You^ve taught hundreds of
us to stick it, and now you owe it to us to
stick it yourself. I know you^re ill, dreadfully
ill; I've heard about Ciilbcrt, and I know,
Sir, we all know, although he wasnt in the
school and you never betrayed a preference

Q 241



242 The Undying Fire

or were led into an unfair thing through it,
how much you loved him; you^ve been put
through it, Sir, to the last degree. But, Sir,
there are some of us here who feel almost as
though they were your sons ; if you don't and
canH give us that sort of love, it doesn't alter
the fact that there are men out here who
think of you as they'd like to think of their
fathers. Men like myself particularly, who
were left as hoys without a father.

I'm no great hand at expressing myself;
I'm no credit to Mr. Cross and his English
class; generally I don't believe in saying too
much ; but I would like to tell you something
of what you have been to a lot of us, and why
Wolding Stanton going on will seem to us like a
flag still flying and Woldingstanton breaking
its tradition like a sort of surrender. And I
don't want a bit to flatter you, Sir, if you'll
forgive me, and set you up in what I am writ-
ing to you. One of the loveable things about
you to us is that you have always been so jolly
human to us. You've always been unequal.
I've seen you give lessons that were among
the best lessons in the world, and I've seen
you give some jolly bad lessons. And there



Letters and a Telegram 243

were some affairs — that business of the
November fireworks for example — when we
thought you were harsh and wrong —

" I was wrong," said Mr. Huss.

That almost led to a mutiny. But that is
just where you score, and why Wolding-
stanton can't do without you. When that
firework row was on we called a meeting of
the school and house prefects and had up some
of the louts to it — you never heard of that
meeting — and we said, we all agreed you were
wrong and we all agreed that right or wrong
we stood by you, and wouldn't let the row go
further. Perhaps you remember how that
affair shut up all at once. But that is where
you've got us. You do wrong, you let us see
through you; there never was a schoolmaster
or a father gave himself away so freely as you
do, you never put up a sliam front on us and
consequently every one of us knows that what
he knows about you is the real thing in you;
the very kids in the lower fifth can get a
glimpse of it and grasp that you are driving
at something with all your heart and soid, and
that the school goes somewhere and has life in
it. We Woldingstanton boys have that in



244 The Undying Fire

common when we meet; we understand one
another; we have something that a lot of the
other chaps one meets out here, even from
the crack schools^ don't seem to have. It
isnH a flourish with us, Sir, it is a simple state-
ment of fact that the life we joined up to at
WoJdingstaiiton is more important to us than
the life in our bodies. Just as it is more im-
portant to you. It isnH only the way you
taught it, though you taught it splendidly, it
is the way you felt it that got hold of us. You
made us think and feel that the past of the
world was our own history ; you made us feel
that we were in one living story with the rein-
deer men and the Egyptian priests, with the
soldiers of Caesar and the alchemists of Spain ;
nothing was dead and nothing alien; you
made discovery and civilization our adventure
and the whole future our inheritance. Most
of the men I meet here feel lost in this war;
they are like rabbits washed out of their bur-
rows by a flood, but we of Woldingstanton
have taken it in the day^s work, and when Me
peace comes and the new world begins, it will
still be in the story for us, the day^s work will
still join on. That's the essence of Wolding-



Letters and a Telegram 245

Stanton, that it puts you on the high road that
goes on. The other chaps I talk to here from
other schools seem to be on no road at all.
They are tough and plucky by nature and
association; they are fighters and sturdy men;
but what holds them in it is either just habit
and the example of people about them or
something unsound that can't hold out to the
end ; a vague loyalty to the Empire or a desire
to punish the Hun or restore the peace of
Europe, some short range view of that sort,
motives that xvill leave them stranded at the
end of the war, anyhow, with nothing to go
on to. To talk of after the war to them is to
realize what blind alleys their teachers have
led them into. They can understand fighting
against things but not for things. Beyond an
impossible ambition to go back somewhere
and settle down as they used to be, there^s not
the ghost of an idea to them at all. The whole
value of Woldingstanton is that it steers a
man through and among the blind alleys ayid
sets him on a way out that he can follow for
all the rest of his days; it makes him a player
in a limitless team and one with the Creator.
We are all coming back to take up our jobs



246 The Undying Fire

in that spirit, jobs that will all join up at last
tn making a real world state, a world civiliza-
tion and a new order of things, and unless we
can think of you, sir, away at Woldingstanton,
working away to make more of us, ready to
pick up the sons we shall send you presently —
Mr. Huss stopped reading.



§ 8

He lay thinking idly.

*' I was talking about blind alleys the other
day. Queer that he should have hit on the
same phrase. . . .

" Some old sermon of mine perhaps. . . .
No doubt I've had the thought before. . . .

" I suppose that one could define educa-
tion as the hfting of minds out of blind
alleys. . . .

** A permissible definition anyhow. . . .

" I wish I could remember that talk bet-
ter. I said a lot of things about submarines.
I said something about the whole world really
being like the crew of a submarine. . . .

" It's tnie — universally. Everyone is in a
blind alley until we pierce a road. . . .

" That was a queer talk we had. . . . T
remember I wouldn't go to bed — a kind of
fever in the mind. . . .

" Then there was a dream.

" I wish I could remember more iA that

247



248 The Undying Fire

dream. It was as if I could see round some
metaphysical corner. ... I seemed to be in
a great place — talking to God. . . .

" But how could one have talked to
God? ...

" No. It is gone. . . ."

His thought reverted to the letter of young
Burrows.

He began to scheme out the reinstatement
of Woldingstanton. He had an idea of re-
building School House with a map corridor to
join it to the picture gallery and the concert
hall, which were both happily still standing.
He wanted the maps on one side to show
the growth and succession of empires in the
western world, and on the other to present the
range of geographical knowledge and thought
at different periods in man's history.

As with many great headmasters, his idle
day-dreams were often architectural. He took
out another of his dream toys now and played
with it. This dream was that he could
organize a series of ethnological exhibits show-
ing various groups of primitive peoples in a
tri])le order ; first little models of them in their
savage state, then displays of their arts and



Letters and a Telegram 249

manufactures to show their distinctive gifts and
aptitudes, and then suggestions of the part
such a people might play as artists or guides,
or beast tamers or the like, in a wholly civilized
world. Such a collection would be far beyond
the vastest possibilities to which Wolding-
stanton could ever attain — but he loved the
dream.

The groups would stand in well-lit bays,
side chapels, so to speak, in his museum build-
ing. There would be a crescent of seats and a
black-board, for it was one of his fantasies to
have a school so great that the classes would
move about it, like little parties of pilgrims in
a cathedral. . . .

From that he drifted to a scheme for group-
ing great schools for such common purposes
as the educational development of the
cinematograph, a central reference library,
and the like. . . .

For one great school leads to another.
Schools are living things, and like all living
things they nmst grow and reproduce their
kind and go on from conquest to conquest — or
fall under the sway of the Farrs and Dads and
stagnate, become diseased and malignant, and



250 The Undying Fire

perish. But Woldingstanton was not to
perish. It was to spread. It was to call to
its kind across the Atlantic and throughout
the world. ... It was to give and receive ideas,
interbreed, and develop. . . .

Across the blue October sky the white
clouds drifted, and the air was full of the hum
of a passing aeroplane. The chained dog that
had once tortured the sick nerves of Mr. Huss
now barked unheeded.

" I would like to give one of the chapels
of the races to the memory of Gilbert," whis-
pered Mr. Huss. . . .



§ 4

The door at the foot of his bed opened, and
Mrs. Huss appeared.

She had an effect of appearing suddenly,
and yet she moved slowly into the room,
clutching a crumpled bit of paper in her hand.
Her face had undergone some extraordinary
change ; it was dead white, and her eyes were
wide open and very bright. She stood stiffly.
She might have been about to fall. She did
not attempt to close the door behind her.

Mrs. Croome became audible rattling her
pans downstairs.

When Mrs. Huss spoke, it was in an almost
noiseless whisper. " Job! "

He had a strange idea that Mrs. Croome
must have given them notice to quit instantly
or perpetrated some such brutality, a sus-
picion which his wife's gesture seemed to con-
firm. She was shaking the cnimpled scrap of
paper in an absurd maimer. He frowned In a
gust ol" impatience.

25^



252 The Undying Fire

" I didn't open it," she said at last, ** not
till I had eaten some breakfast. I didn't dare.
I saw it was from the bank and I thought it
might be about the overdraft. . . . All the
while. . . ."

She was weeping. " All the while I was
eating my egg, ..."

"Oh«;/iatisit?"

She grimaced.

*' From him.''

He stared.

"A cheque, Job — come through — from
him. From our boy."

His mouth fell open, he drew a deep
breath. His tears came. He raised himself,
and was reminded of his bandaged state and
dropped back again. He held out his lean
hand to her.

" He's a prisoner? " he gasped.
"A/we?"

She nodded. She seemed about to fling
herself violently upon his poor crumpled body.
Her arms waved about seeking for something
to embrace.

Then she flopped down in the narrow
space oecween bed and paper-adorned fire-



Letters and a Telegram 253

place, and gathered the counterpane together
into a himp with her clutching hands. "Oh
my baby boy!" she wept. "My hahij
boy. . . .

"And I was so wicked about the mourn-
ing. ... I was so wicked. ..."

Mr. Huss lay stiff, as the doctor had
ordered him to do ; but the hand he
stretched down could just touch and caress
her hair.



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Online LibraryH. G. (Herbert George) WellsThe undying fire, a contemporary novel → online text (page 11 of 11)