H. G. (Herbert George) Wells.

The undying fire, a contemporary novel online

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*' I should have been chary, Mr. Huss, of
wrangling about our particular shares and con-
tributions on an occasion so solemn as this,
but since you will have it so, since you
challenge discussion. ..."

He turned to his colleagues as if for
support.

"Go on," said Mr. Dad. "Facts are
facts."



§ 6

Sir Eliphaz cleared his throat, and con-
tinued to read the horizon.

"I have raised these points, Mr. Huss, by
way of an opening. The gist of what I have
to say Hes deeper. So far I have dealt with
the things you have said only in relation to
us ; as against us you assume your own
righteousness, you flout our poor judgments,
you sweep them aside ; the school must be
continued on your lines, the teaching must
follow your schemes. You can imagine no
alternative opinion. God forbid that I should
say a word in my own defence ; I have given
freely both of my time and of my money to
our school ; it would tax my secretaries now
to reckon up how much; but I make no
claims. . . . None. . . .

" But let me now put all this discussion
upon a wider and a graver footing. It is not
only us and our poor intentions you arraign.
Strange things have dropped from you, Mr.

74



The Three Visitors 75

Huss, in this discussion, things it has at once
pained and astonished me to hear from you.
You have spoken not only of man's ingrati-
tude, but of God's. I could scarcely believe
my ears, but indeed I heard you say that God
was silent, unhelpful, and that he too had
deserted you. In spite of the most meritorious
exertions on your part. . . . Standing as you
do on the very margin of the Great Secret, I
want to plead very earnestly with you against
all that you have said.'*

Sir Eliphaz seemed to meditate remotely.
He returned like a soaring vulture to his
victim. " I would be the last man to obtrude
my religious feelings \ipon anyone. ... I
make no parade of religion, Mr. Huss, none
at all. Many people think me no better than
an unbeliever. But here I am bound to make
my confession. I owe much to God, Mr.
Huss. . . .*'

He glowered at the sick man. He aban-
doned his grip upon the seat of his chair for a
moment, to make a gesture with his hairy
claw of a hand. " Your attitude to my God
is a far deeper offence to me than any merely
personal attack could be. Under his chasten-



76 The Undying Fire

ing blows, under trials that humbler spirits
would receive with thankfulness and construe
as lessons and warnings, you betray yourself
more proud, more self-assured, more — f re-
ward is not too harsh a word — more froward,
Mr. Huss, than you were even in the days
when we used to fret under you on Founder's
Day in the Great Hall, when you would
dictate to us that here you must have an
extension and there you must have a museum
or a picture room or what not, leaving
nothing to opinion, making our gifts a duty.
. . . You will not recognise the virtue of gifts
and graces either in man or God. . . . Cannot
you see, my dear Mr. Huss, the falsity of your
position? It is upon that point that I want
to talk to you now. God does not smite man
needlessly. This world is all one vast inten-
tion, and not a sparrow falls to the ground
unless He wills that sparrow to fall. Is your
heart so sure of itself? Does nothing that
has happened suggest to you that there may
be something in your conduct and direction of
Woldingstanton that has made it not quite so
acceptable an offering to God as you have
imagined it to be? "



The Three Visitors 77

Sir Eliphaz paused with an air of giving
Mr. Huss his chance, but meeting with no
response, he resumed : "I am an old man,
Mr. Huss, and I have seen much of the world
and more particularly of the world of finance
and industry, a world of swift opportunities
and sudden temptations. I have watched the
careers of many young men of parts, who have
seemed to be under the impression that the
world had been waiting for them overlong ; I
have seen more promotions, schemes and
enterprises, great or grandiose, than I care to
recall. Developing Woldingsrtanton from the
mere endowed school of a market ^own it was,
to its present position, has been for me a
subordinate incident, a holiday task, a piece
of by-play uj)on a crowded scene. My ex-
periences have been on a far greater scale.
Far greater. And in all my experience I have
never seen what I should call a really right-
minded man perish or an innocent dealer —
provided, that is, that he took ordinary pre-
cautions — destroyed. Ups and downs no
doubt there are, for the good as well as the
bad. I hAve seen the foolish taking root for a
time — it was but tor a time. I have watched



yS The Undying Fire

the manoeuvres of some exceedingly crafty



men. . . ."



Sir Eliphaz shook his head slowly from
side to side and all the hairs on his head waved
about.

He hesitated for a moment, and decided to
favour his hearers with a scrap of auto-
biography.

*' Quite recently/' he began, " there was
a fellow came to us, just as we were laying
down our plant for production on a large
scale. He was a very plausible, energetic
young fellow indeed, an American Armenian.
Well, he happened to know somehow that we
were going to use kaolin from felspar, a by-
product of the new potash process, and he had
got hold of a scheme for washing London clay
that produced, he assured us, an accessible
kaolin just as good for our purpose and not a
tenth of the cost of the Norwegian stuff. It
would have reduced our prime cost something
like thirty per cent. Let alone tonnage.
Excuse these technicalities. On the face of it
it was a thoroughly good thing. The point
was that I knew all along that his stuff re-
tained a certain amount of sulphur and



The Three Visitors 79

couldn't possibly make a building block to
lasft. That wouldn't prevent us selling and
using the stuff with practical impunity. It
wasn't up to us to know. No one could have
made us liable. The thing indeed looked so
plain and safe that I admit it tempted me
sorely. And then, Mr. Huss, God came in.
I received a secret intimation. I want to tell
you of this in all good faith and simplicity.
In the night when all the world was deep in
sleep, I awoke. And I was in the extremest
terror ; my very bones were shaking ; I sat up
in my bed afraid almost to touch the switch
of the electric light ; my hair stood on end. I
could see nothing, I could hear nothing, but
it was as if a spirit passed in front of my face.
And in spite of the silence something seemed
to be saying to me : ' How about God, Sir
Eliphaz? Have you at last forgotten Him?
How can you, that would dwell in houses of
clay, whose foundation is the dust, escape His
judgments? ' That was all, Mr. Huss, just
that. ' Whose foundation is the dust ! '
Straight to the point. Well, Mr. Huss, I am
not n religious man, but I threw over that
Armenian."



8o The Undying Fire

Mr. Dad made a sound to intimate that
he would ha\ e done the same.

"I mention this experience, this inter-
vention — and it is not the only one of which
I could tell — because I want you to get my
view that if an enterprise, even though it is as
fair and honest-seeming a business as Wold-
ingstanton School, begins suddenly to crumple
and wilt, it means that somehow, somewhere
you must have been putting the wrong sort
of clay into it. It means not that God is
wrong and going back upon you, but that you
are wrong. You may be a great and famous
teacher now, Mr. Huss, thanks not a little to
the pedestal we have made for you, but God is
a greater and more famous teacher. He mani-
festly you have not convinced, even if you
could have convinced us, of Woldingstanton's
present perfection. . . .

*' That is practically all I have to say.
When we propose, in all humility, to turn the
school about into new and less pretentious
courses and you oppose us, that is our answer.
If you had done as well and wisely as you
declare, you would not be in this position and
this discussion would never have arisen.'*



The Three Visitors 8i

He paused.

" Said with truth and dignity,'* said Mr.
Dad. "You have put my opinion, Sir
Eliphaz, better than I could have put it
myself. I thank you."

He coughed briefly.



G



§ 7

" The question you put to me I have
put to myself," said Mr. Huss, and thought
deeply for a little while. . . .

" No, I do not feel convicted of wrong-
doing. I still believe the work I set myself
to do was right, right in spirit and intention,
right in plan and method. You invite me to
confess my faith broken and in the dust; and
my faith was never so sure. There is a God
in my heart, in my heart at least there is a
God, who has always guided me to right and
who guides me now. My conscience remains
unassailable. These afflictions that you speak
of as trials and warnings I can only see as
inexplicable disasters. They perplex me, but
they do not cow me. They strike me as point-
less and irrelevant events."

"But this is terrible!" said Mr. Dad,
deeply shocked.

" You push me back. Sir Eliphaz, from the
discussion of our school affairs to more funda-

83



The Three Visitors 83

mental questions. Vou have raised the prob-
lem of the moral government of the world, a
problem that has been distressing my mind
since I first came here to Sundering, whether
indeed failure is condemnation and success the
sunshine of God's approval. You beheve that
the great God of the stars and seas and moun-
tains is attentive to our conduct and responds
to it. His sense of right is the same sense of
right as ours ; he endorses a common aim.
Vour prosperity is the mark of your harmony
with that supreme God. ..."

" I wouldn't go so far as that," Mr. Dad
interjected. "No. No arrogance."

"And my misfortunes express his disap-
proval. Well, I have believed that; I have
believed that the rightness of a schoolmaster's
conscience must needs be the same thing as
the rightness of destiny, I too had fallen into
that comforting persuasion of prosperity ; but
this series of smashing experiences I have had,
cuhninating in your proposal to wipe out the
whole effect and significance of my life, brings
me face to face with the fundamental question
whether the order of the great universe, the
Gk)d of the stars, has any regard or relationship



84 The Undying Fire

whatever to the problems of our consciences
and the efforts of man to do right. That is a
question that echoes to me down the ages.
So far I have always professed myself a
Christian. ..."

** Well, I should hope so," said Mr. Dad,
" considering the terms of the school's founda-
tion."

" For, I take it, the creeds declare in a
beautiful symbol that the God who is present
in our hearts is one with the universal father
and at the same time his beloved Son, con-
tinually and eternally begotten from the
universal fatherhood, and crucified only to
conquer. He has come into our poor lives to
raise them up at last to Himself. But to be-
lieve that is to believe in the significance and
continuity of the whole effort of mankind.
The life of man must be like the perpetual
spreading of a fire. If right and wrong are
to perish together indifferently, if there is
aimless and fruitless suffering, if there opens
no hope for an eternal survival in consequences
of all good things, then there is no meaning in
such a belief as Christianity. It is a mere
superstition of priests and sacrifices, and I have



The Three Visitors 85

read things into it that were never truly there.
The rushhght of our faith burns in a windy
darkness that will see no dawn."

" Nay," said Sir Eliphaz, " nay. If there
is Gk>d in your work we cannot destroy it."

*' You are doing your best," said Mr.
Huss, " and now I am not sure that you will
fail. ... At one time I should have defied
you, but now I am not sure. ... I have sat
here through some dreary and dreadful days,
and lain awake through some interminable
nights; I have thought of many things that
men in their days of prosperity are apt to
dismiss from their minds ; and I am no longer
sure of the goodness of the world without us
or in the plan of Fate. Perhaps it is only in
us within our hearts that the light of Giod
flickers — and flickers insecurely. Where we
had thought a God, somehow akin to ourselves,
ruled in the universe, it may be there is
nothing but black emptiness and a coldness
worse than cruelty."

Mr. Dad was about to interrupt, and
restrained himself by a great effort.

" It is a cou)monplace of pietistic worKs
that natural things are perfect things, and that



86 The Undying Fire

the whole world of life, if it were not for the
sinfulness of man, would be perfect. Paley,
you will remember, Sir Eliphaz, in his
* Evidences of Christianity,' from which we
have both suffered, declares that this earth is
manifestly made for the happiness of the sen-
tient beings living thereon. But I ask you
to consider for a little and dispassionately,
whether life through all its stages, up to and
including man, is not rather a scheme of un-
easiness, imperfect satisfaction, and positive



miseries. . . ."



§ 8

*' Aren't we getting a bit out of our depth
in all this? " Mr. Dad burst out. " Put it at
that — out of our depth. . . . What does this
sort of carping and questioning amount to,
Mr. Huss.'* Does it do us any good? Does it
help us in the slightest degree? Why should
we go into all this? Why can't we be humble
and leave these deep questions to those who
make a speciality of dealing with them? We
don't know the ropes. We can't. Here are
you and Mr. Farr, for instance, both of you
whole-time schoohiias-ters so to speak ; here's
Sir Eliphaz toiling night and day to make
•.imple cheap suitable homes for the masse?,
who probably won't say thank you to him
when they see them ; here's me an over-
worked engineer and understaffed most
cruelly, not to speak of the most unfair and
impossible labour demands, so that you never
know where you are and what they won't ask
you next. And in the midst of it all we arc

87



88 The Undying Fire

to start an argey-bargey about the goodness
of God !

*' We're busy men, Mr. Huss. What do
we know of the .world being a scheme of im-
perfect satisfaction and what all? Where
does it come in? What's its practical value?
Words it is, all words, and getting away from
the plain and definite question we came to talk
over and settle and have done with. Such
talk, I will confess, makes me uncomfortable.
Give me the Bible and the simple religion I
learnt at my mother's knee. That's good
enough for me. Can't we just have faith and
leave all these questions alone? What are
men in reality? After all their arguments?
Worms. Just worms. Well then, let's have
the decency to behave as such and stick to
business, and do our best in that .state of life
unto which it has pleased God to call us.
That's what / say," said Mr. Dad.

He jerked his head back, coughed shortly,
adjusted his tie, and nodded to Mr. Farr in a
resolute manner.

"A simple, straightforward, commercial
and technical education," he added by way of
an explanatory colophon. "That's what
we're alter."



§ 9

Mr. Huss stared absently at Mr. Dad for

some moments, and then resumed :

" Let us look squarely at this world about
us. What is the true lot of life? Is there the
slightest justification for assuming that our
conceptions of right and happiness are re-
flected anywhere in the outward universe?
Is there, for instance, much animal happi-
ness? Do health and well-being constitute
the normal state of animals? "

He paused. Mr. Dad got up, and stood
looking out of the window with his back to
Mr. Huss. "Pulling nature to pieces," he
said over his shoulder. He turned and urged
further, with a snarl of bitterness in his
voice : " Suppose things are so, what is the
good of our calling attention to it? Where's
the benefit? "

Hut the attitude of Sir Eliphaz conveyed
a readine5>s to listen.

'* Before I became too ill to go out here,"

89



90 The Undying Fire

said Mr. Huss, *' I went for a walk in the
country behind this place. I was weary before
I started, but I was impelled to go by that
almost irresistible desire that will seize upon
one at times to get out of one's immediate
surroundings. I wanted to escape from this
wretched room, and I wanted to be alone,
secure from interruptions, and free to think in
peace. There was a treacherous promise in
the day outside, much sunshine and a breeze.
I had heard of woods a mile or so inland, and
that conjured up a vision of cool green shade
and kindly streams beneath the trees and of
the fellowship of shy and gentle creatures. So
I went out into the heat and into the dried and
salted east wind, through glare and inky
shadows, across many more fields than I had
expected, until I came to some woods and
then to a neglected park, and there for a time
I sat down to rest. . . .

'* But I could get no rest. The turf was
unclean through the presence of many sheep,
and in it there was a number of close-growing
but very sharply barbed thistles ; and after a
little time I realized that harvesters, those
minute red beasts that creep upon one in the



The Three Visitors 91

chalk lands and burrow into the skin and pro-
duce an almost intolerable itching, abounded.
I got up again and went on, hoping in vain to
find some fence or gate on which I might rest
more comfortably. There were many flies and
gnats, many more than there are here and of
different sorts, and they persecuted me more
and more. They surrounded me in a hum-
ming cloud, and I had to wave my walking-
stick about my head all the time to keep them
off me. I felt too exhausted to walk back, but
there was, I knew, a village a mile or so ahead
where I hoped to find some conveyance in
which I might return by road. . . .

" And as I struggled along in this fashion
I came upon first one thing and then another,
so apt to my mood that they might have been
put there by some adversary. First it was a
very young rabbit indeed, it ,was scarcely as
long as my hand, which some cruel thing had
dragged from its burrow. The back of its
head had been bitten open and .was torn and
bloody, and the flies rose from its oozing
wounds to my face like a cloud of witnesses.
Then as I went on, trying to distract my mind
from the memory of this pitiful dead thing by



92 The Undying Fire

looking about me for something more agree-
able, I discovered a row of little brown objeots
in a hawthorn bush, and going closer found
they were some half-dozen victims of a
butcher bird — beetles, fledgelings, and a mouse
or so — spiked on the thorns. They were all
twisted into painful attitudes, as if each had
suffered horribly and challenged me by the
last gesture of its limbs to judge between it
and its creator. . . . And a little further on a
gaunt, villainous-looking cat with rusty black
fur that had bare patches suddenly ran upon
me out of a side path ; it had something in its
mouth which it abandoned at the sight of me
and left writhing at my feet, a pretty crested
bird, very mangled, that flapped in flat circles
upon the turf, unable to rise. A fit of weak
and reasonless rage came upon me at this, and
seeing the cat halt some yards away and turn
to regard me and move as if to recover its
victim, I rushed at it and pursued it, shouting.
Then it occurred to me that it would be
kinder if, instead of a futile pursuit of the
wretched cat, I went back and put an end to
the bird's sufferings. For a time I could not
find it, and I searched for it in the bushes in



The Three Visitors 93

a fever to get it killed, groaning and cursing
as I did so. When I found it, it fought at nie
with its poor bleeding wings and snapped its
beak at me, and made me feel less like a de-
liverer than a murderer. I hit it with my
stick, and as it still moved I stamped it to
death with my feet. I fled from its body in
an agony. 'And this,' I cried, 'this hell
revealed, is God's creation ! ' "

" Tcha! " exclaimed Mr. Dad.

" Suddenly it seemed to me that scales had
fallen from my eyes and that I saw the whole
world plain. It was as if the universe had put
aside a mask it had hitherto worn, and shown
me its face, and it was a face of boundless
evil. ... It was as if a power of darkness sat
over me and watched me with a mocking gaze,
and for the rest of that day I could think of
nothing but the feeble miseries of living
things. I was tortured, and all life was tor-
tured with me. I failed to find the village I
sought ; I strayed far, I got back here at last
long after dark, stopping sometimes by the
wayside to be sick, sometimes kneeling or
lying down for a time to rest, shivering and
burning with an increasing fever.



94 The Undying Fire

" I had, as you know, been the first to find
poor Williamson lying helpless among the
acids ; that ghastly figure and the burnt bodies
of the two boys who died in School House
haunt my mind constantly ; but what was most
in my thoughts on that day when the world
of nature showed its teeth to me was the
wretchedness of animal life. I do not know
why that should have seemed more pitiful to
me, and more fundamental, but it did.
Human suffering, perhaps, is complicated by
moral issues ; man can look before and after
and find remote justifications and stern con-
solations outside his present experiences ; but
the poor birds and beasts, they have only their
present experiences and their individual fives
cut off and shut in. How can there be
righteousness in any scheme that aflfliots
them? I thought of one creature after an-
other, and I could imagine none that had more
than an occasional gleam of false and futile
satisfaction between suffering and suffering.
And to-day, gentlemen, as I sit here with you,
the same dark stream of conviction pours
through my mind. I feel that life is a weak
and inconsequent stirring amidst the dust of



The Three Visitors 95

space and time, incapable of overcoming even
its internal dissensions, doomed to phases of
delusion, to irrational and undeserved punish-
ments, to vain complainings and at last to
extinction.

" Is there so much as one healthy living
being in the world? I question it. As I
wandered that day, I noted the trees as I had
never noted them before. There was not one
that did not show a stricken or rotten branch,
or that was not studded with the stumps of
lost branches decaying backwards towards
the main stem ; from every fork came dark
stains of corruption, the bark was twisted and
contorted, and fungoid protrusions proclaimed
the hidden mycelium of disease. The leaves
were spotted with warts and blemishes, and
gnawed and bitten by a myriad enemies. I
noted too that the turf under my feet was worn
and scor'"hed and weary ; gossamer threads
and spiders of a hundred sorts trapped the
multitudinous insects in the wilted autunmul
undergrowth ; the hedges were a slow conflict
of thrusting and strangulating plants in which
every individual was more or less crippled or
stunted. Most of these plants were armed like



96 The Undying Fire

assassins; they had great thorns or stinging
hairs ; some ripened poisonous berries. And
this was the reality of hfe ; this was no excep-
tional mood of things, but a revelation of
things established. I had been blind and now
I saw. Even as these woods and thickets were,
so was all the world. . . .

" I had been reading in a book I had
chanced to pick up in this lodging about the
jungles of India, which many people think of as
a vast wealth of splendid and luxuriant vegeta-
tion. For the greater part of the year they
are hot and thorny wastes of brown, dead and
mouldering matter. Comes the steaming down-
pour of the rains ; and then for a Httle while
there is a tangled rush of fighting greenery,
jostling, choking, torn and devoured by a mul-
titude of beajsts and by a horrible variety of
insects that the hot morature has called to
activity. Then under the dry breath of the
destroyer the exuberance stales and withers,
everything ripens and falls, and the jungle
relapses again into sullen heat and gloomy fer-
mentation. And in truth everywhere the
growth season is a wild scramble into exist-
ence, the rest of the year a complicated mas-



The Three Visitors 97

sacre. Even in our British climate is it not
plain to you how the summer outlasts the lavish
promise of the spring. In our spring there is no
doubt an air of hope, of budding and blossom-
ing ; there is the nesting and singing of birds,
a certain cleanness of the air, an emergence of
primary and comparatively innocent things ;


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