H. G. (Herbert George) Wells.

The undying fire, a contemporary novel online

. (page 9 of 11)
Online LibraryH. G. (Herbert George) WellsThe undying fire, a contemporary novel → online text (page 9 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Yet a little nearer and the water wiU come
pressing in through cracks and breaches at a
score of points, the air will be compressed in



Elihu Reproves Job 189

his lungs, the long death struggle of the
U-boat will begin, and after some hours of
hopeless suffering he will suffocate and drown
Hke a rat in a flooded tunnel. . . .

" Think of the life of endless apprehension
in that confined space below the waters. The
air is almost always stuffy and sometimes it
is poisonous. All sorts of evil chances may
occur in this crowded tinful of machinery to
release oppressive gases and evil odours. A
whiff of chlorine for instance may warn the
crew of flooded accumulators. At the first
sting of chlorine the U-boat must come up at
any risk. . . . And nothing can be kept
dry. The surfaces of the apparatus and the
furniture sweat continually ; except where the
machinery radiates a certain heat a clammy
chill pervades the whole contrivance. Have
you ever seen the thick blubber of a whale?
Only by means of that enormous layer of
non-conductor can a whale keep its body warm
in spite of the waters about it. A U-boat
cannot afford any layer of blubber. It is at
the temperature of the dark under-waters.
And this life of cold, fear, suffocation, head-
ache and nausea is not sustained by hot and



iQo The Undying Fire

nourishing food. There is no blazing galley
fire for the cook of the U-boat.

" The U-boat rolls very easily; she is, of
course, no heavier nor lighter than the water
in which she floats, and if by chance she
touches bottom in shallow water, she bounds
about like a rubber ball on a pavement. Inside
the sailors are thrown about and dashed against
the machinery.

*'That is the quality of everyday life in a
U-boat retained below the surface. Now think
what an emergence involves. Up she comes
until the periscope can scrutinize the sky and
the nearer sea. Nothing in sight? Thank
God ! She rises out of the water and some of
the sailors get a breath of fresh air. Not all,
for there is no room nor time for all of them
to come out. But the fortunate ones who get
to the hatches may even have the luck of
sunshine. To come to the surface on a calm
open sea away from any traffic at all is the
secret hope of every U-boat sailor. But
suppose now there is something in sight.
Then the U-boat musft come up with infinite
discretion and examine the quarry. It looks
an innocent craft, a liner, a trawler, a cargo-



Elihu Reproves Job 191

boat. But is that innocence certain? How
does the U-boat man know that she hasn't a
gun? What new contrivance of the hunter
may not hide behind that harmless-looking
mask? Until they have put a ship down, the
U-boat sailors never know what ugly surprise
she may not have in store for them. When
they approach a vessel they must needs be
ignorant of what counter-attack creeps upon
them from her unseen other side. As a con-
sequence these men are in terror of every ship
they hail.

"Is it any wonder then if their behaviour
is hasty and hysterical, if they curse and insult
the wretched people they are proposing to
drown, if they fire upon them unexpectedly
and do strange and abominable things? The
U-boat man is no fine captain on his quarter
deck. He is a man who lives a life of intense
physical hardship and extreme fear, who faces
overwhelming risks, in order to commit as
inglorious a crime as any man can commit.
He is a man already in hell.

'* The Germans do what they can to keep
up the spirit of these crews. An English
captain who spent a fortnight upon one as a



192 The Undying Fire

prisoner and who was recently released by way
of Switzerland, says that when they had sunk
a merchant ship ' they played victory music
on the gramophone.' Imagine that bleak
festival !

*'The inevitable end of the U-boat sailor,
unless he is lucky enough to get captured, is
death, and a very horrible and slow death
indeed. Sooner or later it is bound to come.
Some never return from their first voyage.
There is a brief spree ashore if they do ; then
out they go again. Perhaps they return a
second time, perhaps not. Some may even
have made a score of voyages, but sooner or
later they are caught. The average life of a
U-boat is less than five voyages — out and
home. Of the crews of the original U-boats
which began the U-boat campaign very few
men survive to-day. When our young hope-
ful left his home in Germany to join the
U-boat service, he left it for a certain death.
He learns that slowly from the conversation of
his mates. Men are so scarce now for this vile
work that once G^ermany has got a man she
will use him to the end.

"And that end ?



Elihu Reproves Job 193

**I was given some particulars of the fate
of one U-boat that were told by two prisoners
who died at Harwich the other day. This par-
ticular boat was got by a mine which tore a
hole in her aft. She was too disabled to come
to the surface, and she began to sink tail
down. Now the immediate effect of a hole in
a U-boat is of course to bring the air pressure
within her to the same level as the pressure
of the water outside. For every ten yards
of depth this means an addition of fourteen
pounds to the square inch. The ears and blood
vessels are suddenly subjected to this enormous
pressure. There is at once a violent pain in
the ears and a weight on the chest. Cotton
wool has to be stuffed into ears and nostrils
to save the ear dnmi. Then the boat is no
longer on an even keel. The men stand and
slip about on the sides of things. They
clamber up the floor out of the way of the
slowly rising water. For the water does not
come nishing in to drown them speedily. It
cannot do that because there is no escape for
the air ; the water creeps in steadily and
stealthily as the U-boat goes deeper and
deeper. It is a process of slow and crushing



N



194 The Undying Fire

submergence that has the cniel deliberation of
some story by Edgar Allan Poe ; it may last
for hours. A time comes when the lights go
out and the rising waters stop the apparatus
for keeping up the supply of oxygen and
absorbing the carbonic acid. Suffocation
begins. Think of what must happen in the
minds of the doomed men crowded together
amidst the machinery. In the particular case
these prisoners described, ^veral of the men
drowned themselves deliberately in the rising
waters inside the boat. And in another case
where the boat was recovered full of dead men,
they had all put their heads under the water
inside the boat. People say the U-boat men
carry poison against such mischances as this.
They don't. It would be too tempting. . . .
" When it becomes evident that the U-boat
can never recover the surface, there is usually
an attempt to escape by the hatches. The
hatches can be opened when at last the pressure
inside is equal to that of the water without.
The water of course rushes in and sinks the
U-boat to the bottom like a stone, but the men
who are nearest to the hatch have a chance
of escaping with the rush of air to the surface.



Elihu Reproves Job 195

There is of course a violent struggle to get
nearest to the hatch. This is what happened
in the case of the particular U-boat from
which these prisoners came. The forward
hatch was opened. Our patrol boat cruising
above saw the waters thrown up by the air-
burst and then the heads of the men struggling
on the surface. Most of these men were
screaming with pain. All of them went under
before they could be picked up except two.
And these two died in a day or so. They died
because coming suddenly up to the ordinary
atmosphere out of the compressed air of the
sinking submarine had burst the tissues of
their lungs. They were choked with blood.
" Think of those poor creatures dying in
the hospital. They were worn out by fits of
coughing and hjcmorrhage, but there must
have been moments of exhausted quiet before
the end, when our youngster lay and stared at
the bleak walls of the ward and thought ; when
he asked himself, ' What have I been doing?
What have I done.'* What has this world done
for me? It has made me a murderer. It has
tortured me and wasted mc. . . . And I
meant well by it. . . /



196 The Undying Fire

** Whether he thought at all about the
making of the submarine, the numberless
ingenuities and devices, the patience and
devotion, that had gone to make that grim
trap in which he had been caught at last, I
cannot guess. . . . Probably he took it as
a matter of course. . . .

"So it was that our German youngster
who dreamt dreams, who had ambitions, who
wished to serve and do brave and honourable
things, died. ... So five thousand men at
least have died, English some of them as well
as German, in lost submarines beneath the
waters of the narrow seas. . . .

" There is a story and a true story. It is
more striking than the fate of most men and
women in the world, but is it, in its essence,
different? Is not the whole hfe of our time
in the vein of this story? Is not this story
of youth and hope and possibility misled,
marched step by step into a world miscon-
ceived, thrust into evil, and driven down to
ugliness and death, only a more vivid render-
ing of what is now the common fate of
great multitudes? Is there any one of us
who is not in some fashion aboard a sub-



Elihu Reproves Job 197

marine, doing evil and driving towards an
evil end? . . .

"What are the businesses in which men
engage? How many of them have any like-
ness to freighted ships that serve the good of
mankind? Think of the lying and cornering,
the crowding and outbidding, the professional
etiquette that robs the common man, the
unfair advantage smugly accepted ! What
man among us can say, * All that I do is
service ' ? Our holding and our effort : is it
much better than the long interludes below
the surface, and when we come up to struggle
for our own hands, torpedoing competitors,
wrecking antagonists, how is it with us? The
submarine sailors stare in the twilight at
drowning men. Every day I stare at a world
drowning in poverty and ignorance, a world
awash in the seas of hunger, disease, and
misery. We have been given leisure, freedom,
and intelligence ; what have we done to prevent
these things?

*** I tell you all the world is a submarine,
and every one of us is something of a U-boat
man. These fools who squeal in the papers
for cruelties to the U-boat men do not realize



198 The Undying Fire

their own part in the world. . . . We might
live in sunshine and freedom and security,
and we live cramped and cold, in bitter
danger, because we are at war with our fellow
men. . . .

'* But there, doctor, you have the answer \;o
the first part of your question. You asked
what the Spirit of God in Man was against.
It is against these mental confusions, these
ignorances, that thrust life into a frightful
cul-de-sac, that the God in our Hearts urges
us to fight. . . . He is crying out in our
hearts to save us from these blind alleys of
selfishness, darkness, cruelty, and pain in
which our race must die ; he is crying for the
high road which is salvation, he is commanding
the organized unity of mankind."



§ 5

The lassitude that had been earlier
apparent in the manner of Mr. Huss had
vanished. He was talking now with more
energy ; his eyes were bright and there was
a flush in his cheeks. His voice was low, but
his speech was clear and no longer broken by
painful pauses.

" But your question had a double edge,"
he continued ; " you asked me not only what
it is that the Spirit of God in us fights against,
but what it is he fights for. Whither does the
high road lead ? I have told you what I think
the life of man is, a felted and corrupting mass
of tragic experiences ; let me tell you now a
little, if this pain at my side will still permit
it, what life upon this earth, under the
leadership of the Spirit of God our Captain,
might be.

" I will take it that men are still as they
are, that all this world is individually the same ;
I will suppose no miraculous change in human
nature ; but I will suppose that events in the

199



200 The Undying Fire

past have run along different channels, so that
there has been much more thinking, much
more exchange of thought, far better teach-
ing. I want simply this world better taught,
so that wherever the flame of God can be lit
it has been lit. Everyone I will suppose
educated. By educated, to be explicit, I
mean a knowledge and understanding of
history. Yes, Mr. Farr — salvation by his-
tory. Everyone about the earth I will suppose
has been taught not merely to read and write
and calculate, but has been given all that can
be told simply and plainly of the past history
of the earth, of our place in space and time,
and the true history of mankind. I will not
suppose that there is any greater knowledge
of things than men actually possess to-day,
but instead of its being confusedly stored in
many minds and many books and many
languages, it has all been sorted out and set
out plainly so that it can be easily used. It
has been kept back from no one, mistold to
no one. Moreover I will suppose that instead
of a myriad of tongues and dialects, all men
can read the same books and talk together in
the same speech.



EHhu Reproves Job 201



((



These you may say are difficult suppo-
sitions, but they are not impossible sup-
positions. Quite a few resolute men could
set mankind definitely towards such a state of
affairs so that they would reach it in a dozen
generations or so. But think what a differ-
ence there would be from our conditions in
such a world. In a world so lit and opened
by education, most of these violent dissensions
that trouble mankind would be impossible.
Instead of men and communities behaving like
fever patients in delirium, striking at their
nurses, oversetting their food and medicine
and inflicting injuries on themselves and one
another, they would be alive to the facts of
their common origin, their common offspring
— for at last in our descendants all our lives
must meet again — and their common destiny.
In that more open and fresher air, the fire
that is God will burn more brightly, for most
of us who fail to know God fail through want
of knowledge. Many more men and women
will be happily devoted to the connnon work
of mankind, and the evil that is in all of us
will be more plainly seen and more easily
restrained. I doubt if any man is altogether



202 The Undying Fire

evil, but in this dark world the good in men
is handicapped and sacrifice is mocked. Bad
example finishes what weak and aimless teach-
ing has begun. This is a world where folly
and hate can bawl sanity out of hearing.
Only the determination of schoolmasters and
teachers can hope to change that. How can
you hope to change it by anything but teach-
ing? Cannot you realize what teaching
means? . . .

" When I ask you to suppose a world
instructed and educated in the place of this
old traditional world of unguided passion and
greed and meanness and mean bestiality, a
world taught by men instead of a world neg-
lected by hirelings, I do not ask you to
imagine any miraculous change in human
nature. I ask you only to suppose that each
mind has the utmost enlightenment of which
it is capable instead of its being darkened and
overcast. Everyone is to have the best chance
of being his best self. Everyone is to be living
in the light of the acutest self-examination and
the clearest mutual criticism. Naturally we
shall be living under infinitely saner and more
helpful institutions. Such a state of things



Elihu Reproves Job 203

will not indeed mitigate natural vanity or
natural self-love ; it will not rob the greedy
man of his greed, the fool uf his folly, the
eccentric of his abnormality, nor the lustful of
his lust. But it will rob them of excuses and
hiding places ; it will light them within and
cast a light round about them ; it will turn
their evil to the likeness of a disease of which
they themselves in their clear moments will
be ready to be cured and which they will
hesitate to transmit. That is the world which
such of us schoolmasters and teachers among
us as have the undying fire of God already Ut
in our hearts, do now labour, generation by
generation, against defeat and sometimes
against hope, to bring about; that is the
present work God has for us. And as we do
bring it about then the prospect opens out
before mankind to a splendour. . . .

" In this present world men live to be
themselves ; having their lives they lose them ;
in the world that we are seeking to make they
jvill give themselves to the God of Mankind,
and so they will live indeed. They will as a
matter of course change their institutions and
their methods so that all men may be used to



204 The Undying Fire

the best effect, in the common work of man-
kind. They will take this little planet which
has been torn into shreds of possession, and
make it again one garden. . . .

*' The most perplexing thing about men
at the present time is their lack of under-
standing of the vast possibilities of power and
happiness that science is offering them "

"Then why not teach science f^^ cried
Mr. Farr.

" Provided only that they will unite their
efforts. They solve the problems of material
science in vain until they have solved their
social and political problems. When those
are solved, the mechanical and technical diflB-
culties are trivial. It is no occult secret; it
is a plain and demonstrable thing to-day that
the world could give ample food and ample
leisure to every human being, if only by a
world-wide teaching the spirit of unity could
be made to prevail over the impulse to dissen-
sion. And not only that, but it would then
be possible to raise the common health and
increase the common fund of happiness im-
measurably. Look plainly at the world as it
is. Most human beings when they are not



Elihu Reproves Job 205

dying untimely, are suffering more or less
from avoidable disorders, they are ill or they
are convalescent, or they are suffering from
or crippled by some preventible taint in the
blood, or they are stunted or weakened by a
needlessly bad food supply, or spiritless and
feeble through bad housing, bad clothing, dull
occupations, or insecurity and anxiety. Few
enjoy for very long stretches at a time that
elementary happiness which is the natural
accompaniment of sound health. This almost
universal lowness of tone, which does not
distress us only because most of us are un-
able to imagine anything better, means an
enormous waste of human possibility ; less
work, less hopefulness. Isolated efforts will
never raise men out of this swamp of malaise.
At Woldingstanton we have had the best
hygienic arrangements we could find, we have
taken the utmost precautions, and yet there
has scarcely been a year when our work has
not been crippled and delayed by some
epidemic, infhienza one year, measles another,
and so on. VVe take our precautions; but the
townspeople, especially in the poorer quarters,
don't and can't. 1 think myself the wastage



2o6 The Undying Fire

of these perennial petty pestilences is far
greater than that caused by the big epidemics
that sometimes sweep the world. But all such
things, great or petty, given a sufficient world
unanimity, could be absolutely banished from
human Hfe. Given a sufficient unanimity and
intelligent direction, men could hunt down all
these infectious diseases, one by one, to the
regions in which they are endemic, and from
which they start out again and again to distress
the world, and could stamp them out for ever.
It is not want of knowledge prevents this now
but want of a properly designed education,
which would give people throughout the world
the understanding, the confidence, and the
will needed for so collective an enterprise.

" The sufferings and mutual cruelties of
animals are no doubt a part of the hard aim-
lessness of nature, but men are in a position
to substitute aim for that aimlessness, they
have already all the knowledge and all the
resources needed to escape from these cul-de-
sacs of wrong-doing and suffering and ugly
futility into which they jostle one another.
But they do not do it because they have not
been sufficiently educated and are not being



Elihu Reproves Job 207

sufficiently educated to sane understanding and
effort. The bulk of their collective strength is
dissipated in miserable squabbles and sus-
picions, in war and the preparation for war,
in lawsuits and bickering, in making little
sterile private hoards of wealth and power, in
chaflFering, in stupid persecutions and opposi-
tions and vanities. It is not only that they live
in a state of general infection and ill health
and bad temper, ill nourished, ill housed and
morally horrible, when the light is ready to
shine upon them and health and splendour is
within their grasp, but that all that they could
so attain would be but the prelude to still
greater attainments.

" Apart from and above the sweeping away
of the poverty, filthiness and misery of life that
would follow on an intelligent use of such
powers and such qualities as men possess now,
there would be a tremendous increase in happi-
ness due to the contentment of belonging to
one common comprehensible whole, of know-
ing that one played a part and a worthy part
in an immortal and universal task. The
merest handful of people can look with con-
tent upon the tenor of their lives to-day. A



2o8 The Undying Fire

few teachers are perhaps aware that they
serve God rightly, a few scientific investi-
gators, a few doctors and bridge-builders and
makers of machinery, a few food-growers and
sailors and the like. They can believe that
thej^ do something that is necessary, or build
something which will endure. But most men
and women to-day are like beasts caught in a
tunnel ; they follow base occupations, they
trade and pander and dispute ; there is no peace
in their hearts ; they gratify their lusts and
seek excitements ; they know they spend their
lives in vain and they have no means of escape.
The world is full of querulousness and abuse,
derision and spite, mean tricks and flounder-
ing effort, vice without a gleam of pleasure
and vain display, because blind Nature spews
these people into being and there is no light to
guide their steps. Yet there is work to be
done by everyone, a plain reason for that work,
and happiness in the doing of it. . . .

" I do not know if any of us realize all that
a systematic organization of the human intel-
ligence upon the work of research would mean
for our race. People talk of the wonders that
scientific work has given us in the past two



Elihu Reproves Job 209

hundred years, wonders of which for the most
part we are too disordered and fooHsh to avail
ourselves fully. But what scientific research
has produced so far must be as yet only the
smallest earnest of what scientific research can
presently give mankind. All the knowledge
that makes to-day different from the world of
Queen Elizabeth has been the work of a few
score thousand men, mostly poorish men,
w^orking with limited material and restricted
time, in a world that discouraged and misun-
derstood them. Many hundreds of thousands
of men with gifts that would have been of
the profoundest value in scientific work, have
missed the education or the opportunity to
use those gifts. But in a world clarified by
understanding, the net of research would miss
few of its born servants, there would be
the swiftest, clearest communication of results
from worker to worker, the readiest honour
and help for every gift. Poor science, which
goes abf)ut now amidst our crimes and con-
fusions like an ill-trimmed evil-smelling oil
lantern in a dark cavern in which men fight
and steal, her flickering light, snatched first
by this man and then by that, as often as not
Q



210 The Undying Fire

a help to violence and robbery, would become
like the sunrise of a bright summer morning.
We do not realize what in a little while man-
kind could do. Our power over matter, our
power over life, our power over ourselves,
would increase year by year and day by day.

** Here am I, after great suffering, waiting
here for an uncertain operation that may kill
me. It need not have been so. Here are we
all, sitting hot and uncomfortable in this ill-
ventilated, ill-furnished room, looking out
upon a vile waste. It need not have been so.
Such is the quality of our days. I sit here
wrung by pain, in the antechamber of death,
because mankind has suffered me to suffer.
. . . All this could have been avoided.


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11

Online LibraryH. G. (Herbert George) WellsThe undying fire, a contemporary novel → online text (page 9 of 11)