H. G. (Herbert George) Wells.

The undying fire, a contemporary novel online

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emotional lady, effusive rather than steadfast.
Like the wives of most schoolmasters, she had



36 The Undying Fire

been habitually preoccupied with matters of
domestic management for many years, and
her first reaction was in the direction of a
bitter economy, mingled with a display of
contempt she had never manifested hitherto
for her husband's practical ability. Far better
would it have been for Mr. Huss if she had
broken down altogether ; she insisted upon
directing everything, and doing so with a sort
of pitiful vehemence that brooked no contra-
diction. It was impossible to stay at Wold-
ingstanton through the vacation, in sight of
the tragic and blackened ruins of School
House, and so she decided upon Sundering
on Sea because of its nearness and its pre-war
reputation for cheapness. There, she an-
nounced, her husband must " pull himself
together and pick up," and then return to
the rebuilding of School House and the
rehabilitation of the school. Many formalities
had to be gone through before the building
could be put in hand, for in those days Britain
was at the extremity of her war effort, and
labour and material were unobtainable with-
out special permits and great exertion. Sun-
dering on Sea was as convenient a place as



Sea View, Sundering on Sea 27

an5^where from >vhich to write letters, but his
idea of going to London to see influential
people was resisted by Mrs. Huss on the score
of the expense, and overcome when he per-
sisted in it by a storm of tears.

On her arrival at Sundering Mrs. Huss
put up at the Railway Hotel for the night,
and spent the next morning in a stern visita-
tion of possible lodgings. Something in the
unassuming outlook of Sea View attracted
her, and after a long dispute she was able to
beat down Mrs. Croome's demand from five
to four and a half guineas a week. That after-
noon some importunate applicant in an ex-
tremity of homelessness — for there had been a
sudden rush of visitors to Sundering — offered
six guineas. Mrs. Croome tried to call off her
first bargain, but Mrs. Huss was obdurate,
and thereafter all the intercourse of landlady
and her lodgers went to the unspoken refrain
of " I get four and a half guineas and I ought
to get six." To recoup herself Mrs. Croome
attempted to make extra charges for the use
of the bathroom, for cooking after five o'clock,
for cleaning Mr. Huss's brown boots with
specially bought brown cream instead of



28 The Undying" Fire

blacking, and for the ink used by him in his
very voluminous correspondence ; upon all of
which points there was nmch argument and
bitterness.

But a heavier blow than any they had
hitherto experienced was now to fall upon Mr.
and Mrs. Huss. Job in the ancient story had
seven sons and three daughters, and they were
all swept away. This Job was to suffer a
sharper thrust ; he had but one dear only son,
a boy of great promise, who had gone into
the Royal Flying Corps. News came that he
had been shot down over the German lines.

Unhappily there had been a conflict
between Mr. and Mrs. Huss about this boy.
Huss had been proud that the youngster
should choose the heroic service; Mrs. Huss
had done her utmost to prevent his joining it.
The poor lady was now ruthless in her anguish.
She railed upon him as the murderer of their
child. She hoped he was pleased with his
handiwork. He could count one more name
on his hst; he could add it to the roll of
honour in the chapel " with the others." Her
baby boy ! This said, she went wailing from
the room.



Sea View, Sundering on Sea 29

The wretched man sat confounded. That
" with the others " cut him to the heart.
For the school chapel had a list of V.C.'s,
D.C.M.'s and the like, second to none, and
it had indeed been a pride to him.

For some days his soul was stunned. He
was utterly exhausted and lethargic. He
could hardly attend to the most necessary
letters. From dignity, hope, and a great
sheaf of activities, his life had shrunken
abruptly to the compass of this dingy lodging,
pervaded by the squabbhng of two irrational
women ; his work in the world was in ruins ;
he had no strength left in him to struggle
against fate. And a vague internal pain
crept slowly into his consciousness.

His wife, insane now and cruel with
sorrow, tried to put a great quarrel upon him
about wearing mourning for their son. He
had always disliked and spoken against these
pomps of death, but she insisted that what-
ever callousness he might display she at least
must wear black. He might, she said, rest
assured that she would spend no more money
than the barest decency required; she would
buy the cheapest material, and make it up



30 The Undying Fire

in her bedroom. But black she must have.
This resohition led straight to a conflict with
Mrs. Croome, who objected to her best bed-
room being littered with bits of black stuff,
and cancelled the loan of her sewing machine.
The mourning should be made, Mrs. Huss
insisted, though she had to sew every stitch
of it by hand. And the poor distraught lady
in her silly parsimony made still deeper
trouble for herself by cutting her material in
every direction half an inch or more short of
the paper pattern. She came almost to a
physical tussle with Mrs. Croome because of
the state of the carpet and counterpane, and
Mrs. Croome did her utmost to drag Mr. Huss
into an altercation upon the matter with her
husband.

" Croome don't interfere much, but some
things he or nobody ain't going to stand, Mr.
'Uss."

For some days in this battlefield of in-
satiable grief and petty cruelty, and with a
dull pain steadily boring its way to recog-
nition, Mr. Huss forced himself to carry on
in a fashion the complex of business necessi-
tated by the school disaster. Then in the



Sea View, Sundering on Sea 31

night came a dream, as dreams sometimes
will, to enlighten him upon his bodily con-
dition. Projecting from his side he saw a
hard, white body that sent round, wormlike
tentacles into every corner of his being. A
number of doctors were struggling to tear
this thing away from him. At every effort
the pain increased.

He awoke, but the pain throbbed on.

He lay quite still. Upon the heavy dark-
ness he saw the word " Cancer," bright red
and glowing — as pain glows. . . .

He argued in the face of invincible con-
viction. He kept the mood conditional. *' If
it be so," he said, though he knew that the
thing was so. What should he do? There
would have to be operations, great expenses,
enfeeblement. . . .

Whom could he ask for advice? Who
would help him? . . .

Suppose in the morning he were to take
a bathing ticket as if he meant to bathe, and
struggle out beyond the mud-flats. He could
behave as though cramp had taken him
suddenly . . .

Five minutes of suffocation he would have



32 The Undying Fire

to force himself through, and then peace —
endless peace !

" No," he said, with a sudden gust of
courage. " I will fight it out to the end.*'

But his mind was too dull to form plans
and physically he was afraid. He would have
to find a doctor somehow, and even that little
task appalled him.

Then he would have to tell Mrs. Huss. . . .

For a time he lay quite still as if he
listened to the alternative swell and diminu-
endo of his pain.

" Oh ! if I had someone to help me ! " he
whispered, and was overcome by the lonely
misery of his position. " If I had someone ! ' *

For years he had never wept, but now
tears were wrung from him. He rolled over
and buried his face in the pillow and tried to
wriggle his body away from that steady gnaw-
ing ; he fretted as a child might do.

The night about him was as it were a great
watching presence that would not help nor
answer.



§8

Behind the brass plate at the corner which
said " Dr. Elihu Barrack " Mr. Hiiss found
a hard, competent young man, who had
returned from the war to his practice at Sun-
dering after losing a leg. The mechanical
substitute seemed to have taken to him very
kindly. He appeared to be both modest and
resourceful ; his unfavourable diagnosis was
all the more convincing because it .was tenta-
tive and conditional. He knew the very
specialist for the case ; no less a surgeon than
Sir Alpheus Mengo came, it happened, quite
frequently to play golf on the Sundering
links. It would be easy to arrange for him
to examine Mr. Huss in Dr. Barrack's little
consulting room, and if an operation had to
be performed it could be managed with a
minimum of expense in Mr. Huss's own lodg-
ings without any extra charge for mileage and
the like.

"Of course," said Mr. Huss, '* of

^ 33



34 The Undying Fire

course," with a clear vision of Mrs. Croome
confronted with the proposal.

Sir Alpheus Mengo came down the next
Saturday, and made a clandestine examina-
tion. He decided to operate the following
week-end. Mr. IIuss was left at his own
request to break the news to his wife and to
make the necessary arrangements for this use
of Mrs. Croome's rooms. But it was two days
before he could bring himself to broach the
matter.

He sat now Hstening to the sounds of his
wife moving about in the bedroom overhead,
and to the muffled crashes that intimated the
climax of Mrs. Croome's preparation of the
midday meal. He heard her calling upstairs
to know whether Mrs. Huss was ready for her
to serve up. He was seized with panic as a
schoolboy might be who had not prepared his
lesson. He tried hastily to frame some intro-
ductory phrases, but nothing would come into
his mind save terms of disgust and lamenta-
tion. The sullen heat of the day mingled in
one impression with his pain. He was
nauseated by the smell of cooking. He felt
it would be impossible to sit up at table and



Sea View, Sundering on Sea 35

pretend to eat the meal of burnt bacon and
potatoes that was all too evidently coming.

It came. Its progress along the passage
was announced by a clatter of dishes. The
door was opened by a kick. Mrs. Croome
put the feast upon the table with something
between defence and defiance in her manner.
" What else," she seemed to intimate, " could
one expect for four and a half guineas a week
in the very height of the season.^ From a
woman who could have got six ! "

" Your dinner's there," Mrs. Croome
called upstairs to Mrs. Huss in tones of
studied negligence, and then retired to her
own affairs in the kitchen, slamming the door
behind her.

The room quivered down to silence, and
then Mr. Huss could hear the footsteps of his
wife crossing the bedroom and descending the
staircase.

Mrs. Huss was a dark, graceful, and rather
untidy lady of seven and forty, .with the
bridling bearing of one who habitually repels
implicit accusations. She lifted the lid of the
vegetable dish. " I thought I smelt burn-
ing," she said. " The woman is impossible.''



36 The Undying Fire

She stood by her chair, regarding her hus-
band and waiting.

He rose reluctantly, and transferred him-
self to a seat at table.

It had always been her custom to carve.
She now prepared to serve him. " No," he
said, full of loathing. '' I can't eat. I canH.^*

She put down the tablespoon and fork
she had just raised, and regarded him with
eyes of dark disapproval.

" It's all we can get," she said.

He shook his head. "It isn't that."

'* I don't know what you expect me to
get for you here," she complained. " The
tradesmen don't know us — and don't care."

" It isn't that. I'm ill."

" It's the heat. We are all ill. Everyone.
In such weather as this. It's no excuse for
not making an effort, situated as we are."

" I mean I am really ill. I am in pain."

She looked at him as one might look at
an unreasonable child. He was constrained
to more definite statement.

" I suppose I must tell you sooner or later.
I've had to see a doctor."

Without oonsultinjEf m<e! "



((



Sea View, Sundering on Sea 37

" I thought if it turned out to be fancy I
needn't bother you."

" But how did you find a doctor? "

*' There's a fellow at the corner. Oh ! it's
no good making a long story of it. I have
cancer. . . . Nothing v^all do but an opera-
tion." Self-pity wrung him. He controlled
a violent desire to crj^ " I am too ill to eat.
I ought to be lying down."

She flopped back in her chair and stared
at him as one stares at some hideous r.on-
strosity. " Oh! " she said. " To have cancer
now ! In these lodgings ! "

"I can't help it," he said in accents that
were almost a whine. " I didn't choose the
time."

*' Cancer! " she cried reproachfully. " The
horror of it ! "

He looked at her for a moment with hate
in his heart. He saw under her knitted brows
dark and hostile eyes that had once sparkled
with affection, he saw a loose mouth with
downturned comers that had been proud and
pretty, and this mask of dislike was projecting
forward upon a neck he had used to call her
head-stalk, so like had it seemed to the stem



38 The Undying Fire

of some pretty flower. She had had lovely
shoulders and an impudent humour; and now
the skin upon her neck and shoulders had a
little loosened, and she was no longer impu-
dent but harsh. Her brows were moist with
heat, and her hair more than usually astray.
But these things did not increase, they miti-
gated his antagonism. They did not repel
him as defects; they hurt him as wounds
received in a common misfortune. Always
he had petted and spared and rejoiced in her
vanity and weakness, and now as he realized
the full extent of her selfish abandonment a
protective pity arose in his heart that over-
came his physical pain. It was terrible to see
how completely her delicacy and tenderness
of mind had been broken down. She had
neither the strength nor the courage left even
for an unselfish thought. And he could not
help her ; whatever power he had possessed
over her mind had gone long ago. His magic
had departed.

Latterly he had been thinking very much
of her prospects if he were to die. In some
ways his death might be a good thing for her.
He had an endowment assurance running that



Sea View, Sundering on Sea 39

would bring in about seven thousand pounds
immediately at his death, but which would
otherwise involve heavy annual payments for
some years. So far, to die would be clear
gain. But who would invest this money for
her and look after her interests? She was, he
knew, very silly about property ; suspicious of
people she knew intimately, and greedy and
credulous with strangers. He had helped to
make her incompetent, and he owed it to her
to live and protect her if he could. And
behind that intimate and immediate reason
for living he had a strong sense of work in the
world yet to be done by him, and a task in
education still incomplete.

He spoke with his chin in his hand and
his eyes staring at the dark and distant sea.
" An operation," he said, " might cure me."

Her thoughts, it became apparent, had
been travelling through some broken and un-
beautiful country roughly parallel with the
course of his own. " But need there be an
operation?" she thought aloud. "Are they
ever any good? "

" I could die," he admitted bitterly, and
repented as he spoke.



40 The Undying Fire

There had been times, he remembered,
when she had said and done sweet and gallant
things, poor soul ! poor broken companion !
And now she had fallen into a darkness far
greater than his. He had feared that he had
hurt her, and then when he saw that she was
not hurt, and that she scrutinized his face
eagerly as if she weighed the sincerity of his
words, his sense of utter loneliness was com-
pleted.

Over his mean drama of pain and debase-
ment in its close atmosphere buzzing with
flies, it was as if some gigantic and remorse-
less being watched him as a man of science
might hover over some experiment, and
marked his life and all his world. " You are
alone," this brooding witness counselled,
" you are utterly alone. Curse God and die.'^

It seemed a long time before Mr. Huss
answered this imagined voice, and when he
answered it he spoke as if he addressed his wife
alone.

" iNTo," he said wnth a sudden decisiveness.
*' No. I will face that operation. . . . We
are ill and our hearts are faint. Neither for
you, dear, nor for me must our story finish



Sea View, Sundering on Sea 41

in this fashion. No. I shall go on to the
end."

" And have your operation here? "

" In this house. It is by far the most
convenient place, as things are."

" You may die here ! "

" Well, I shall die fighting."

" Leaving me here with Mrs. Croome."

His temper broke under her reply.
" Leaving you here with Mrs. Croome," he
said harshly.

He got up. "I can eat nothing," he
repeated, and dropped back sullenly into the
horsehair armchair.

There was a long silence, and then he
heard the little, almost mouselike, movements
of his wife as she began her meal. For a while
he had forgotten the dull ache within him,
but now, glowing and fading and glowing, it
made its way back into his consciousness. He
was helpless and perplexed ; he had not meant
to quarrel. He had hurt this poor thing who
had been his love and companion ; he had
bullied her. His clogged brain could think of
nothing to set matters right. He stared with
dull eyes at a world utterly hateful to him.



CHAPTER THE THIRD

THE THREE VISITORS

§ 1

While this unhappy conversation was occur-
ring at Sundering on Sea, three men were
discussing the case of Mr. Huss very earnestly
over a meatless but abundant lunch in the bow
window of a club that gives upon the trees and
sunshine of Carlton Gardens. Lobster salad
engaged them, and the ice in the jug of hock
cup clinked very pleasantly as they replenished
their glasses.

The host was Sir Eliphaz Burrows, the
patentee and manufacturer of those Temanite
building blocks which have not only revolu-
tionized the construction of army hutments,
but put the whole problem of industrial and
rural housing upon an altogether new footing ;
his guests were Mr. William Dad, formerly
the maker of the celebrated Dad and Showhite
car de luxe, and now one of the chief contrac-

43



The Three Visitors 43

tors for aeroplanes in England ; and Mr.
Joseph Farr, the head of the technical section
of Woldingstanton School. Both the former
gentlemen were governors of that foundation
and now immensely rich, and Sir Eliphaz had
once been a pupil of the father of Mr. Huss
and had played a large part in the appoint-
ment of the latter to Woldingstanton. He
was a slender old man, with an avid vulturine
head poised on a long red neck, and he had
an abundance of parti-coloured hair, red and
white, springing from a circle round the
crown of his head, from his eyebrows, his face
generally, and the backs of his hands. He
.wore a blue soft shirt with a turn-down collar
within a roomy blue serge suit, and that and
something about his large loose black tie sug-
gested scholarship and refinement. His man-
ners were elaborately courteous. Mr. Dad
was a compacter, keener type, warily alert in
his bearing, an industrial fox-terrier from the
Midlands, silver-haired and dressed in ordinary
morning dress except for a tan vest with a
bright brown ribbon border. Mr. Farr was
big in a grey flannel Norfolk suit; he had «
large, round, white, shiny, clean-shaven face



44 The Undying Fire

and uneasy hands, and it was apparent that
he carried pocket-books and suchlike Uiggage
in his breast pocket.

They consumed the lobster appreciatively,
and approached in a fragmentary and tenta-
tive manner the business that had assembled
them : namely, the misfortunes that had over-
whelmed Mr. Huss and their bearing upon
the future of the school.

" For my part I don't think there is such
a thing as misfortune," said Mr. Dad. " I
don't hold with it. Miscalculation if you
like."

*' In a sense," said Mr. F'lrr ambiguously,
glancing at Sir Eliphaz.

" If a man keeps his head screwed on the
right way," said Mr. Dad, and attacked a
claw with hope and appetite. Mr. Dad
affected the parsimony of unfinished sen-
tences.

" I can't help thinking," said Sir EHphaz,
putting down his glass and wiping his mous-
tache and eyebrows with care before resuming
his lobster, " that a man who entrusts his
affairs to a solicitor, after the fashion of the
widow and orphan, must be singularly lack-



The Three Visitors 45

ing in judgment. Or reckless. Never in the
whole course of my life have I met a solicitor
who could invest money safely and profitably.
Clergymen I have known, women of all sorts,
savages, monomaniacs, criminals, but never
solicitors."

" I have known some smart business par-
sons," said Mr. Dad judicially. " One in
particular. Sharp as nails. They are a much
underestimated class."

" Perhaps it is natural that a solicitor
should be a wild investor," Sir Eliphaz pur-
sued his subject. "He lives out of the
ordinary world in a dirty little office in some
antiquated inn, his office fittings are fifty
years out of date, his habitual scenery consists
of tin boxes painted with the names of dead
and disreputable clients ; he has to take the
law courts, filled with horse-boxes and men
dressed up in gowns and horsehair wigs, quite
seriously ; nobody ever goes near him but
abnormal people or people in abnormal states :
people upset by jealousy, people upset by fear,
blackmailed people, cheats trying to dodge
the law, lunatics, litigants and legatees. The
only investments he ever discusses are queer



46 The Undying Fire

investments. Nat\irally he loses all sense of
proportion. Naturally he becomes insanely
suspicious ; and when a client asks for positive
action he flounders and gambles."

" Naturally," said Mr. Dad. " And here
we find poor Huss giving all his business



over "



" Exactly," said Sir Eliphaz, and filled
his glass.

"There's been a great change in him in
the last two years," said Mr. Farr. " He let
the war worry him for one thing."

"No good doing that," said Mr. Dad.

" And even before the war," Sir Eliphaz
began.

"Even before the war," said Mr. Farr,
in a pause.

" There was a change," said Sir Eliphaz.
" He had been bitten by educational
theories."

" No business for a headmaster," said Mr.
Farr.

" Our intention had always been a great
scientific and technical school," said Sir
Eliphaz. "He introduced Logic into the
teaching of plain English — against my



The Three Visitors 47

opinion. He encouraged some of the boys
to read philosophy."

" All he could," said Mr. Farr.

" I never held with his fad for teaching
history," said Mr. Dad. " He was history
mad. It got worse and worse. What's
history after all? At the best, it's over and
done with. . . . But he wouldn't argue upon
it — not reasonably. He was — overbearing.
He had a way of looking at you. ... It was
never our intention to make Woldingstanton
into a school of history."

"And now, Mr. Farr," said Sir Eliphaz,
what are the particulars of the fire? "

It isn't for me to criticise," said Mr.
Farr.

" What I say," said Mr. Dad, projecting
his muzzle with an appearance of great deter-
mination, " is, fix responsibility. Fix respon-
sibility. Here is a door locked that common
sense dictated should be open. Who was
responsible? "

" No one in School House seems to have
been especially responsible for that door so far
as I can ascertain," said Mr. Farr.

All responsibility," said Mr. Dad, with






((



48 The Undying Fire

an expression of peevish insistence, as though
Mr. Farr had annoyed him, " all responsibility
that is not delegated rests with the Head.
That's a hard and fast and primary rule of
business organization. In my factory I say
quite plainly to everyone who comes into it,
man or woman, chick or child . . ."

Mr. Dad was still explaining in a series
of imaginary dialogues, tersely but dramatic-
ally, his methods of delegating authority,
when Sir Eliphaz cut across the flow with,
Returning to Mr. Huss for a moment



5 J



The point that Sir Eliphaz wanted to get
at was whether Mr. Huss expected to con-
tinue headmaster at Woldingstanton. From
some chance phrase in a letter Sir Ehphaz
rather gathered that he did.

" Well," said Mr. Farr portentously, let-
ting the thing hang for a moment, " he
does."

''Tcha!" said Mr. Dad, and shut his
mouth tightly and waved his head slowly from
side to side with knitted brows as if he had
bitten his tongue.

" I would be the first to recognize the



The Three Visitors 49

splendid work he did for the school in his
opening years," said Mr. Farr. " I would be
the last to alter the broad lines of the work
as he set it out. Barring that I should replace


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