H.G. Wells: The War in the Air (1908)
The Great Collapse
And now the whole fabric of civilisation was bending and giving,
and dropping to pieces and melting in the furnace of the war.
The stages of the swift and universal collapse of the financial
and scientific civilisation with which the twentieth century
opened followed each other very swiftly, so swiftly that upon the
foreshortened page of history--they seem altogether to overlap.
To begin with, one sees the world nearly at a maximum wealth and
prosperity. To its inhabitants indeed it seemed also at a
maximum of security. When now in retrospect the thoughtful
observer surveys the intellectual history of this time, when one
reads its surviving fragments of literature, its scraps of
political oratory, the few small voices that chance has selected
out of a thousand million utterances to speak to later days, the
most striking thing of all this web of wisdom and error is surely
that hallucination of security. To men living in our present
world state, orderly, scientific and secured, nothing seems so
precarious, so giddily dangerous, as the fabric of the social
order with which the men of the opening of the twentieth century
were content. To us it seems that every institution and
relationship was the fruit of haphazard and tradition and the
manifest sport of chance, their laws each made for some separate
occasion and having no relation to any future needs, their
customs illogical, their education aimless and wasteful. Their
method of economic exploitation indeed impresses a trained and
informed mind as the most frantic and destructive scramble it is
possible to conceive; their credit and monetary system resting on
an unsubstantial tradition of the worthiness of gold, seems a
thing almost fantastically unstable. And they lived in planless
cities, for the most part dangerously congested; their rails and
roads and population were distributed over the earth in the
wanton confusion ten thousand irrevelant considerations had made.
Yet they thought confidently that this was a secure and permanent
progressive system, and on the strength of some three hundred
years of change and irregular improvement answered the doubter
with, "Things always have gone well. We'll worry through!"
But when we contrast the state of man in the opening of the
twentieth century with the condition of any previous period in
his history, then perhaps we may begin to understand something of
that blind confidence. It was not so much a reasoned confidence
as the inevitable consequence of sustained good fortune. By such
standards as they possessed, things HAD gone amazingly well for
them. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that for the first
time in history whole populations found themselves regularly
supplied with more than enough to eat, and the vital statistics
of the time witness to an amelioration of hygienic conditions
rapid beyond all precedent, and to a vast development of
intelligence and ability in all the arts that make life
wholesome. The level and quality of the average education had
risen tremendously; and at the dawn of the twentieth century
comparatively few people in Western Europe or America were unable
to read or write. Never before had there been such reading
masses. There was wide social security. A common man might
travel safely over three-quarters of the habitable globe, could
go round the earth at a cost of less than the annual earnings of
a skilled artisan. Compared with the liberality and comfort of
the ordinary life of the time, the order of the Roman Empire
under the Antonines was local and limited. And every year, every
month, came some new increment to human achievement, a new
country opened up, new mines, new scientific discoveries, a new
For those three hundred years, indeed, the movement of the world
seemed wholly beneficial to mankind. Men said, indeed, that
moral organisation was not keeping pace with physical progress,
but few attached any meaning to these phrases, the understanding
of which lies at the basis of our present safety. Sustaining and
constructive forces did indeed for a time more than balance the
malign drift of chance and the natural ignorance, prejudice,
blind passion, and,wasteful self-seeking of mankind.
The accidental balance on the side of Progress was far slighter
and infinitely more complex and delicate in its adjustments than
the people of that time suspected; but that did not alter the
fact that it was an effective balance. They did not realise that
this age of relative good fortune was an age of immense but
temporary opportunity for their kind. They complacently assumed
a necessary progress towards which they had no moral
responsibility. They did not realise that this security of
progress was a thing still to be won--or lost, and that the time
to win it was a time that passed. They went about their affairs
energetically enough and yet with a curious idleness towards
those threatening things. No one troubled over the real dangers
of mankind. They, saw their armies and navies grow larger and
more portentous; some of their ironclads at the last cost as much
as the whole annual expenditure upon advanced education; they
accumulated explosives and the machinery of destruction; they
allowed their national traditions and jealousies to accumulate;
they contemplated a steady enhancement of race hostility as the
races drew closer without. concern or understanding, and they
permitted the growth in their midst of an evil-spirited press,
mercenary, and unscrupulous, incapable of good, and powerful for
evil. The State had practically no control over the press at
all. Quite heedlessly they allowed thistouch-paper to lie at the
door of their war magazine for any spark to fire. The precedents
of history were all one tale of the collapse of civilisations,
the dangers of the time were manifest. One is incredulous now to
believe they could not see.
Could mankind have prevented this disaster of the War in the Air?
An idle question that, as idle as to ask could mankind have
prevented the decay that turned Assyria and Babylon to empty
deserts or the slow decline and fall, the gradual social
disorganisation, phase by phase, that closed the chapter of the
Empire of the West! They could not, because they did not, they
had not the will to arrest it. What mankind could achieve with a
different will is a speculation as idle as it is magnificent.
And this was no slow decadence that came to the Europeanised
world; those other civilisations rotted and crumbled down, the
Europeanised civilisation was, as it were, blown up. Within the
space of five years it was altogether disintegrated and
destroyed. Up to the very eve of the War in the Air one sees a
spacious spectacle of incessant advance, a world-wide security,
enormous areas with highly organised industry and settled
populations, gigantic cities spreading gigantically, the seas and
oceans dotted with shipping, the land netted with rails, and open
ways. Then suddenly the German air-fleets sweep across the
scene, and we are in the beginning of the end.
This story has already told of the swift rush upon New York of
the first German air-fleet and of the wild, inevitable orgy of
inconclusive destruction that ensued. Behind it a second
air-fleet was already swelling at its gasometers when England and
France and Spain and Italy showed their hands. None of these
countries had prepared for aeronautic warfare on the magnificent
scale of the Germans, but each guarded secrets, each in a measure
was making ready, and a common dread of German vigour and that
aggressive spirit Prince Karl Albert embodied, had long been
drawing these powers together in secret anticipation of some such
attack. This rendered their prompt co-operation possible, and
they certainly co-operated promptly. The second aerial power in
Europe at this time was France; the British, nervous for their
Asiatic empire, and sensible of the immense moral effect of the
airship upon half-educated populations, had placed their
aeronautic parks in North India, and were able to play but a
subordinate part in the European conflict. Still, even in
England they had nine or ten big navigables, twenty or thirty
smaller ones, and a variety of experimental aeroplanes. Before
the fleet of Prince Karl Albert had crossed England, while Bert
was still surveying Manchester in bird's-eye view, the diplomatic
exchanges were going on that led to an attack upon Germany. A
heterogeneous collection of navigable balloons of all sizes and
types gathered over the Bernese Oberland, crushed and burnt the
twenty-five Swiss air-ships' that unexpectedly resisted this
concentration in the battle of the Alps, and then, leaving the
Alpine glaciers and valleys strewn with strange wreckage, divided
into two fleets and set itself to terrorise Berlin and destroy
the Franconian Park, seeking to do this before the second
air-fleet could be inflated.
Both over Berlin and Franconia the assailants with their modern
explosives effected great damage before they were driven off. In
Franconia twelve fully distended and five partially filled and
manned giants were able to make head against and at last, with
the help of a squadron of drachenflieger from Hamburg, defeat and
pursue the attack and to relieve Berlin, and the Germans were
straining every nerve to get an overwhelming fleet in the air,
and were already raiding London and Paris when the advance fleets
from the Asiatic air-parks, the first intimation of a new factor
in the conflict, were reported from Burmah and Armenia.
Already the whole financial fabric of the world was staggering
when that occurred. With the destruction of the American fleet
in the North Atlantic, and the smashing conflict that ended the
naval existence of Germany in the North Sea, with the burning and
wrecking of billions of pounds' worth of property in the four
cardinal cities of the world, the fact of the hopeless costliness
of war came home for the first time, came, like a blow in the
face, to the consciousness of mankind. Credit went down in a
wild whirl of selling. Everywhere appeared a phenomenon that had
already in a mild degree manifested itself in preceding periods
of panic; a desire to SECURE AND HOARD GOLD before prices reached
bottom. But now it spread like wild-fire, it became universal.
Above was visible conflict and destruction; below something was
happening far more deadly and incurable to the flimsy fabric of
finance and commercialism in which men had so blindly put their
trust. As the airships fought above, the visible gold supply of
the world vanished below. An epidemic of private cornering and
universal distrust swept the world. In a few weeks, money,
except for depreciated paper, vanished into vaults, into holes,
into the walls of houses, into ten million hiding-places. Money
vanished, and at its disappearance trade and industry came to an
end. The economic world staggered and fell dead. It was like
the stroke of some disease it was like the water vanishing out of
the blood of a living creature; it was a sudden, universal
coagulation of intercourse....
And as the credit system, that had been the living fortress of
the scientific civilisation, reeled and fell upon the millions it
had held together in economic relationship, as these people,
perplexed and helpless, faced this marvel of credit utterly
destroyed, the airships of Asia, countless and relentless, poured
across the heavens, swooped eastward to America and westward to
Europe. The page of history becomes a long crescendo of battle.
The main body of the British-Indian air-fleet perished upon a
pyre of blazing antagonists in Burmah; the Germans were scattered
in the great battle of the Carpathians; the vast peninsula of
India burst into insurrection and civil war from end to end, and
from Gobi to Morocco rose the standards of the "Jehad." For some
weeks of warfare and destruction it seemed as though the
Confederation of Eastern Asia must needs conquer the world, and
then the jerry-built "modern" civilisation of China too gave way
under the strain. The teeming and peaceful population of China
had been "westernised" during the opening years of the twentieth
century with the deepest resentment and reluctance; they had
been dragooned and disciplined under Japanese and
European--influence into an acquiescence with sanitary methods,
police controls, military service, and wholesale process of
exploitation against which their whole tradition rebelled. Under
the stresses of the war their endurance reached the breaking
point, the whole of China rose in incoherent revolt, and the
practical destruction of the central government at Pekin by a
handful of British and German airships that had escaped from the
main battles rendered that revolt invincible. In Yokohama
appeared barricades, the black flag and the social revolution.
With that the whole world became a welter of conflict.
So that a universal social collapse followed, as it were a
logical consequence, upon world-wide war. Wherever there were
great populations, great masses of people found themselves
without work, without money, and unable to get food. Famine was
in every working-class quarter in the world within three weeks of
the beginning of the war. Within a month there was not a city
anywhere in which the ordinary law and social procedure had not
been replaced by some form of emergency control, in which
firearms and military executions were not being used to keep
order and prevent violence. And still in the poorer quarters,
and in the populous districts, and even here and there already
among those who had been wealthy, famine spread.
So what historians have come to call the Phase of the Emergency
Committees sprang from the opening phase and from the phase of
social collapse. Then followed a period of vehement and
passionate conflict against disintegration; everywhere the
struggle to keep order and to keep fighting went on. And at the
same time the character of the war altered through the
replacement of the huge gas-filled airships by flying-machines as
the instruments of war. So soon as the big fleet engagements
were over, the Asiatics endeavoured to establish in close
proximity to the more vulnerable points of the countries against
which they were acting, fortified centres from which
flying-machine raids could be made. For a time they had
everything their own way in this, and then, as this story has
told, the lost secret of the Butteridge machine came to light,
and the conflict became equalized and less conclusive than ever.
For these small flying-machines, ineffectual for any large
expedition or conclusive attack, were horribly convenient for
guerilla warfare, rapidly and cheaply made, easily used, easily
hidden. The design of them was hastily copied and printed in
Pinkerville and scattered broadcast over the United States and
copies were sent to Europe, and there reproduced. Every man,
every town, every parish that could, was exhorted to make and use
them. In a little while they were being constructed not only by
governments and local authorities, but by robber bands, by
insurgent committees, by every type of private person. The
peculiar social destructiveness of the Butteridge machine lay in
its complete simplicity. It was nearly as simple as a
motor-bicycle. The broad outlines of the earlier stages of the
war disappeared under its influence, the spacious antagonism of
nations and empires and races vanished in a seething mass of
detailed conflict. The world passed at a stride from a unity and
simplicity broader than that of the Roman Empire at its best, to
as social fragmentation as complete as the robber-baron period of
the Middle Ages. But this time, for a long descent down gradual
slopes of disintegration, comes a fall like a fall over a cliff.
Everywhere were men and women perceiving this and struggling
desperately to keep as it were a hold upon the edge of the cliff.
A fourth phase follows. Through the struggle against Chaos, in
the wake of the Famine, came now another old enemy of humanity--
the Pestilence, the Purple Death. But the war does not pause.
The flags still fly. Fresh air-fleets rise, new forms of
airship, and beneath their swooping struggles the world
darkens--scarcely heeded by history.
It is not within the design of this book to tell what further
story, to tell how the War in the Air kept on through the sheer
inability of any authorities to meet and agree and end it, until
every organised government in the world was as shattered and
broken as a heap of china beaten with a stick. With every week
of those terrible years history becomes more detailed and
confused, more crowded and uncertain. Not without great and
heroic resistance was civilisation borne down. Out of the bitter
social conflict below rose patriotic associations, brotherhoods
of order, city mayors, princes, provisional committees, trying to
establish an order below and to keep the sky above. The double
effort destroyed them. And as the exhaustion of the mechanical
resources of civilisation clears the heavens of airships at last
altogether, Anarchy, Famine and Pestilence are discovered
triumphant below. The great nations and empires have become but
names in the mouths of men. Everywhere there are ruins and
unburied dead, and shrunken, yellow-faced survivors in a mortal
apathy. Here there are robbers, here vigilance committees, and
here guerilla bands ruling patches of exhausted territory,
strange federations and brotherhoods form and dissolve, and
religious fanaticisms begotten of despair gleam in famine-bright
eyes. It is a universal dissolution. The fine order and welfare
of the earth have crumpled like an exploded bladder. In five
short years the world and the scope of human life have undergone
a retrogressive change as great as that between the age of the
Antonines and the Europe of the ninth century....
Across this sombre spectacle of disaster goes a minute and
insignificant person for whom perhaps the readers of this story
have now some slight solicitude. Of him there remains to be told
just one single and miraculous thing. Through a world darkened
and lost, through a civilisation in its death agony, our little
Cockney errant went and found his Edna! He found his Edna!
He got back across the Atlantic partly by means of an order from
the President and partly through his own good luck. He contrived
to get himself aboard a British brig in the timber trade that put
out from Boston without cargo, chiefly, it would seem, because
its captain had a vague idea of "getting home" to South Shields.
Bert was able to ship himself upon her mainly because of the
seamanlike appearance of his rubber boots. They had a long,
eventful voyage; they were chased, or imagined themselves to be
chased, for some hours by an Asiatic ironclad, which was
presently engaged by a British cruiser. The two ships fought for
three hours, circling and driving southward as they fought, until
the twilight and the cloud-drift of a rising gale swallowed them
up. A few days later Bert's ship lost her rudder and mainmast in
a gale. The crew ran out of food and subsisted on fish. They
saw strange air-ships going eastward near the Azores and landed
to get provisions and repair the rudder at Teneriffe. There they
found the town destroyed and two big liners, with dead still
aboard, sunken in the harbour. From there they got canned food
and material for repairs, but their operations were greatly
impeded by the hostility of a band of men amidst the ruins of the
town, who sniped them and tried to drive them away.
At Mogador, they stayed and sent a boat ashore for water, and
were nearly captured by an Arab ruse. Here too they got the
Purple Death aboard, and sailed with it incubating in their
blood. The cook sickened first, and then the mate, and presently
every one was down and three in the forecastle were dead. It
chanced to be calm weather, and they drifted helplessly and
indeed careless of their fate backwards towards the Equator. The
captain doctored them all with rum. Nine died all together, and
of the four survivors none understood navigation; when at last
they took heart again and could handle a sail, they made a course
by the stars roughly northward and were already short of food
once more when they fell in with a petrol-driven ship from Rio to
Cardiff, shorthanded by reason of the Purple Death and glad to
take them aboard. So at,last, after a year of wandering Bert
reached England. He landed in bright June weather, and found the
Purple Death was there just beginning its ravages.
The people were in a state of panic in Cardiff and many had fled
to the hills, and directly the steamer came to the harbour she
was boarded and her residue of food impounded by some
unauthenticated Provisional Committee. Bert tramped through a
country disorganised by pestilence, foodless, and shaken to the
very base of its immemorial order. He came near death and
starvation many times, and once he was drawn into scenes of
violence that might have ended his career. But the Bert
Smallways who tramped from Cardiff to London vaguely "going
home," vaguely seeking something of his own that had no tangible
form but Edna, was a very different person from the Desert
Dervish who was swept out of England in Mr. Butteridge's balloon
a year before. He was brown and lean and enduring, steady-eyed
and pestilence-salted, and his mouth, which had once hung open,
shut now like a steel trap. Across his brow ran a white scar
that he had got in a fight on the brig. In Cardiff he had felt
the need of new clothes and a weapon, and had, by means that
would have shocked him a year ago, secured a flannel shirt, a
corduroy suit, and a revolver and fifty cartridges from an
abandoned pawnbroker's. He also got some soap and had his first
real wash for thirteen months in a stream outside the town. The
Vigilance bands that had at first shot plunderers very freely
were now either entirely dispersed by the plague, or busy between
town and cemetery in a vain attempt to keep pace with it. He
prowled on the outskirts of the town for three or four days,
starving, and then went back to join the Hospital Corps for a
week, and so fortified himself with a few square meals before he
The Welsh and English countryside at that time presented the
strangest mingling of the assurance and wealth of the opening
twentieth century with a sort of Dureresque medievalism. All the
gear, the houses and mono-rails, the farm hedges and power
cables, the roads and pavements, the sign-posts and
advertisements of the former order were still for the most part
intact. Bankruptcy, social collapse, famine, and pestilence had
done nothing to damage these, and it was only to the great
capitals and ganglionic centres, as it were, of this State, that
positive destruction had come. Any one dropped suddenly into the
country would have noticed very little difference. He would have
remarked first, perhaps, that all the hedges needed clipping,
that the roadside grass grew rank, that the road-tracks were
unusually rainworn, and that the cottages by the wayside seemed
in many cases shut up, that a telephone wire had dropped here,
and that a cart stood abandoned by the wayside. But he would
still find his hunger whetted by the bright assurance that
Wilder's Canned Peaches were excellent, or that there was nothing
so good for the breakfast table as Gobble's Sausages. And then
suddenly would come the Dureresque element; the skeleton of a
horse, or some crumpled mass of rags in the ditch, with gaunt
extended feet and a yellow, purple-blotched skin and face, or
what had been a face, gaunt and glaring and devastated. Then
here would be a field that had been ploughed and not sown, and
here a field of corn carelessly trampled by beasts, and here a
hoarding torn down across the road to make a fire.
Then presently he would meet a man or a woman, yellow-faced and
probably negligently dressed and armed--prowling for food. These
people would have the complexions and eyes and expressions of
tramps or criminals, and often the clothing of prosperous
middle-class or upper-class people. Many of these would be eager
for news, and willing to give help and even scraps of queer
meat, or crusts of grey and doughy bread, in return for it. They
would listen to Bert's story with avidity, and attempt to keep
him with them for a day or so. The virtual cessation of postal
distribution and the collapse of all newspaper enterprise had
left an immense and aching gap in the mental life of this time.
Men had suddenly lost sight of the ends of the earth and had
still to recover the rumour-spreading habits of the Middle Ages.
In their eyes, in their bearing, in their talk, was the quality
of lost and deoriented souls.
As Bert travelled from parish to parish, and from district to
district, avoiding as far as possible those festering centres of
violence and despair, the larger towns, he found the condition
of affairs varying widely. In one parish he would find the large
house burnt, the vicarage wrecked, evidently in violent conflict
for some suspected and perhaps imaginary store of food unburied
dead everywhere, and the whole mechanism of the community at a
standstill. In another he would find organising forces stoutly
at work, newly-painted notice boards warning off vagrants, the
roads and still cultivated fields policed by armed men, the
pestilence under control, even nursing going on, a store of food
husbanded, the cattle and sheep well guarded, and a group of two
or three justices, the village doctor or a farmer, dominating the
whole place; a reversion, in fact, to the autonomous community of
the fifteenth century. But at any time such a village would be
liable to a raid of Asiatics or Africans or such-like
air-pirates, demanding petrol and alcohol or provisions. The
price of its order was an almost intolerable watchfulness and
Then the approach to the confused problems of some larger centre
of population and the presence of a more intricate conflict would
be marked by roughly smeared notices of "Quarantine" or
"Strangers Shot," or by a string of decaying plunderers dangling
from the telephone poles at the roadside. About Oxford big
boards were put on the roofs warning all air wanderers off with
the single word, "Guns."
Taking their risks amidst these things, cyclists still kept
abroad, and once or twice during Bert's long tramp powerful motor
cars containing masked and goggled figures went tearing past him.
There were few police in evidence, but ever and again squads of
gaunt and tattered soldier-cyclists would come drifting along,
and such encounters became more frequent as he got out of Wales
into England. Amidst all this wreckage they were still
campaigning. He had had some idea of resorting to the workhouses
for the night if hunger pressed him too closely, but some of
these were closed and others converted into temporary hospitals,
and one he came up to at twilight near a village in
Gloucestershire stood with all its doors and windows open, silent
as the grave, and, as he found to his horror by stumbling along
evil-smelling corridors, full of unburied dead.
From Gloucestershire Bert went northward to the British
aeronautic park outside Birmingham, in the hope that he might be
taken on and given food, for there the Government, or at any rate
the War Office, still existed as an energetic fact, concentrated
amidst collapse and social disaster upon the effort to keep the
British flag still flying in the air, and trying to brisk up
mayor and mayor and magistrate and magistrate in a new effort of
organisation. They had brought together all the best of the
surviving artisans from that region, they had provisioned the
park for a siege, and they were urgently building a larger type
of Butteridge machine. Bert could get no footing at this work:
he was not sufficiently skilled, and he had drifted to Oxford
when the great fight occurred in which these works were finally
wrecked. He saw something, but not very much, of the battle from
a place called Boar Hill. He saw the Asiatic squadron coming up
across the hills to the south-west, and he saw one of their
airships circling southward again chased by two aeroplanes, the
one that was ultimately overtaken, wrecked and burnt at Edge
Hill. But he never learnt the issue of the combat as a whole.
He crossed the Thames from Eton to Windsor and made his way round
the south of London to Bun Hill, and there he found his brother
Tom, looking like some dark, defensive animal in the old shop,
just recovering from the Purple Death, and Jessica upstairs
delirious, and, as it seemed to him, dying grimly. She raved of
sending out orders to customers, and scolded Tom perpetually lest
he should be late with Mrs. Thompson's potatoes and Mrs. Hopkins'
cauliflower, though all business had long since ceased and Tom
had developed a quite uncanny skill in the snaring of rats and
sparrows and the concealment of certain stores of cereals and
biscuits from plundered grocers' shops. Tom received his brother
with a sort of guarded warmth.
"Lor!" he said, "it's Bert. I thought you'd be coming back some
day, and I'm glad to see you. But I carn't arst you to eat
anything, because I 'aven't got anything to eat.... Where you
been, Bert, all this time?"
Bert reassured his brother by a glimpse of a partly eaten swede,
and was still telling his story in fragments and parentheses,
when he discovered behind the counter a yellow and forgotten note
addressed to himself. "What's this?" he said, and found it was a
year-old note from Edna. "She came 'ere," said Tom, like one who
recalls a trivial thing, "arstin' for you and arstin' us to take
'er in. That was after the battle and settin' Clapham Rise
afire. I was for takin' 'er in, but Jessica wouldn't 'ave
it--and so she borrowed five shillings of me quiet like and went
on. I dessay she's tole you--"
She had, Bert found. She had gone on, she said in her note, to
an aunt and uncle who had a brickfield near Horsham. And there
at last, after another fortnight of adventurous journeying, Bert
When Bert and Edna set eyes on one another, they stared and
laughed foolishly, so changed they were, and so ragged and
surprised. And then they both fell weeping.
"Oh! Bertie, boy!" she cried. "You've come--you've come!" and
put out her arms and staggered. "I told 'im. He said he'd kill
me if I didn't marry him."
But Edna was not married, and when presently Bert could get talk
from her, she explained the task before him. That little patch
of lonely agricultural country had fallen under the power of a
band of bullies led by a chief called Bill Gore who had begun
life as a butcher boy and developed into a prize-fighter and a
professional sport. They had been organised by a local nobleman
of former eminence upon the turf, but after a time he had
disappeared, no one quite knew how and Bill had succeeded to the
leadership of the countryside, and had developed his teacher's
methods with considerable vigour. There had been a strain of
advanced philosophy about the local nobleman, and his mind ran to
"improving the race" and producing the Over-Man, which in
practice took the form of himself especially and his little band
in moderation marrying with some frequency. Bill followed up the
idea with an enthusiasm that even trenched upon his popularity
with his followers. One day he had happened upon Edna tending
her pigs, and had at once fallen a-wooing with great urgency
among the troughs of slush. Edna had made a gallant resistance,
but he was still vigorously about and extraordinarily impatient.
He might, she said, come at any time, and she looked Bert in the
eyes. They were back already in the barbaric stage when a man
must fight for his love.
And here one deplores the conflicts of truth with the chivalrous
tradition. One would like to tell of Bert sallying forth to
challenge his rival, of a ring formed and a spirited encounter,
and Bert by some miracle of pluck and love and good fortune
winning. But indeed nothing of the sort occurred. Instead, he
reloaded his revolver very carefully, and then sat in the best
room of the cottage by the derelict brickfield, looking anxious
and perplexed, and listening to talk about Bill and his ways, and
thinking, thinking. Then suddenly Edna's aunt, with a thrill in
her voice, announced the appearance of that individual. He was
coming with two others of his gang through the garden gate. Bert
got up, put the woman aside, and looked out. They presented
remarkable figures. They wore a sort of uniform of red golfing
jackets and white sweaters, football singlet, and stockings and
boots and each had let his fancy play about his head-dress. Bill
had a woman's hat full of cock's feathers, and all had wild,
slouching cowboy brims.
Bert sighed and stood up, deeply thoughtful, and Edna watched
him, marvelling. The women stood quite still. He left the
window, and went out into the passage rather slowly, and with the
careworn expression of a man who gives his mind to a complex and
uncertain business. "Edna!" he called, and when she came he
opened the front door.
He asked very simply, and pointing to the foremost of the three,
"That 'im? ... Sure?" ... and being told that it was, shot his
rival instantly and very accurately through the chest. He then
shot Bill's best man much less tidily in the head, and then shot
at and winged the third man as he fled. The third gentleman
yelped, and continued running with a comical end-on twist.
Then Bert stood still meditating, with the pistol in his hand,
and quite regardless of the women behind him.
So far things had gone well.
It became evident to him that if he did not go into politics at
once, he would be hanged as an assassin and accordingly, and
without a word to the women, he went down to the village
public-house he had passed an hour before on his way to Edna,
entered it from the rear, and confronted the little band of
ambiguous roughs, who were drinking in the tap-room and
discussing matrimony and Bill's affection in a facetious but
envious manner, with a casually held but carefully reloaded
revolver, and an invitation to join what he called, I regret to
say, a "Vigilance Committee" under his direction. "It's wanted
about 'ere, and some of us are gettin' it up." He presented
himself as one having friends outside, though indeed, he had no
friends at all in the world but Edna and her aunt and two female
There was a quick but entirely respectful discussion of the
situation. They thought him a lunatic who had tramped into, this
neighbourhood ignorant of Bill. They desired to temporise until
their leader came. Bill would settle him. Some one spoke of
"Bill's dead, I jest shot 'im," said Bert. "We don't need reckon
with 'IM. 'E's shot, and a red-'aired chap with a squint, 'E'S
shot. We've settled up all that. There ain't going to be no more
Bill, ever. 'E'd got wrong ideas about marriage and things. It's
'is sort of chap we're after."
That carried the meeting.
Bill was perfunctorily buried, and Bert's Vigilance Committee
(for so it continued to be called) reigned in his stead.
That is the end of this story so far as Bert Smallways is
concerned. We leave him with his Edna to become squatters among
the clay and oak thickets of the Weald, far away from the stream
of events. From that time forth life became a succession of
peasant encounters, an affair of pigs and hens and small needs
and little economies and children, until Clapham and Bun Hill and
all the life of the Scientific Age became to Bert no more than
the fading memory of a dream. He never knew how the War in the
Air went on, nor whether it still went on. There were rumours of
airships going and coming, and of happenings Londonward. Once or
twice their shadows fell on him as he worked, but whence they
came or whither they went he could not tell. Even his desire to
tell died out for want of food. At times came robbers and
thieves, at times came diseases among the beasts and shortness of
food, once the country was worried by a pack of boar-hounds he
helped to kill; he went through many inconsecutive, irrelevant
adventures. He survived them all.
Accident and death came near them both ever and again and passed
them by, and they loved and suffered and were happy, and she bore
him many children--eleven children--one after the other, of whom
only four succumbed to the necessary hardships of their simple
life. They lived and did well, as well was understood in those
days. They went the way of all flesh, year by year.
It happened that one bright summer's morning exactly thirty years
after the launching of the first German air-fleet, an old man
took a small boy to look for a missing hen through the ruins of
Bun Hill and out towards the splintered pinnacles of the Crystal
Palace. He was not a very old man; he was, as a matter of fact,
still within a few weeks of sixty-three, but constant stooping
over spades and forks and the carrying of roots and manure, and
exposure to the damps of life in the open-air without a change of
clothing, had bent him into the form of a sickle. Moreover, he
had lost most of his teeth and that had affected his digestion
and through that his skin and temper. In face and expression he
was curiously like that old Thomas Smallways who had once been
coachman to Sir Peter Bone, and this was just as it should be,
for he was Tom Smallways the son, who formerly kept the little
green-grocer's shop under the straddle of the mono-rail viaduct
in the High Street of Bun Hill. But now there were no
green-grocer's shops, and Tom was living in one of the derelict
villas hard by that unoccupied building site that had been and
was still the scene of his daily horticulture. He and his wife
lived upstairs, and in the drawing and dining rooms, which had
each French windows opening on the lawn, and all about the ground
floor generally, Jessica, who was now a lean and lined and
baldish but still very efficient and energetic old woman, kept
her three cows and a multitude of gawky hens. These two were
part of a little community of stragglers and returned fugitives,
perhaps a hundred and fifty souls of them all together, that had
settled down to the new conditions of things after the Panic and
Famine and Pestilence that followed in the wake of the War. They
had come back from strange refuges and hiding-places and had
squatted down among the familiar houses and begun that hard
struggle against nature for food which was now the chief interest
of their lives. They were by sheer preoccupation with that a
peaceful people, more particularly after Wilkes, the house agent,
driven by some obsolete dream of acquisition, had been drowned in
the pool by the ruined gas-works for making inquiries into title
and displaying a litigious turn of mind. (He had not been
murdered, you understand, but the people had carried an exemplary
ducking ten minutes or so beyond its healthy limits.)
This little community had returned from its original habits of
suburban parasitism to what no doubt had been the normal life of
humanity for nearly immemorial years, a life of homely economies
in the most intimate, contact with cows and hens and patches of
around, a life that breathes and exhales the scent of cows and
finds the need for stimulants satisfied by the activity of the
bacteria and vermin it engenders. Such had been the life of the
European peasant from the dawn of history to the beginning of the
Scientific Era, so it was the large majority of the people of
Asia and Africa had always been wont to live. For a time it had
seemed that, by virtue of machines, and scientific civilisation,
Europe was to be lifted out of this perpetual round of animal
drudgery, and that America was to evade it very largely from the
outset. And with the smash of the high and dangerous and
splendid edifice of mechanical civilisation that had arisen so
marvellously, back to the land came the common man, back to the
The little communities, still haunted by ten thousand memories
of a greater state, gathered and developed almost tacitly a
customary law and fell under the guidance of a medicine man or a
priest. The world rediscovered religion and the need of
something to hold its communities together. At Bun Hill this
function was entrusted to on old Baptist minister. He taught a
simple but adequate faith. In his teaching a good principle
called the Word fought perpetually against a diabolical female
influence called the Scarlet Woman and an evil being called
Alcohol. This Alcohol had long since become a purely
spiritualised conception deprived of any element of material
application; it had no relation to the occasional finds of
whiskey and wine in Londoners' cellars that gave Bun Hill its
only holidays. He taught this doctrine on Sundays, and on
weekdays he was an amiable and kindly old man, distinguished by
his quaint disposition to wash his hands, and if possible his
face, daily, and with a wonderful genius for cutting up pigs. He
held his Sunday services in the old church in the Beckenham Road,
and then the countryside came out in a curious reminiscence of
the urban dress of Edwardian times. All the men without
exception wore frock coats, top hats, and white shirts, though
many had no boots. Tom was particularly distinguished on these
occasions because he wore a top hat with gold lace about it and a
green coat and trousers that he had found upon a skeleton in the
basement of the Urban and District Bank. The women, even
Jessica, came in jackets and immense hats extravagantly trimmed
with artificial flowers and exotic birds' feather's--of which
there were abundant supplies in the shops to the north--and the
children (there were not many children, because a large
proportion of the babies born in Bun Hill died in a few days'
time of inexplicable maladies) had similar clothes cut down to
accommodate them; even Stringer's little grandson of four wore a
large top hat.
That was the Sunday costume of the Bun Hill district, a curious
and interesting survival of the genteel traditions of the
Scientific Age. On a weekday the folk were dingily and curiously
hung about with dirty rags of housecloth and scarlet flannel,
sacking, curtain serge, and patches of old carpet, and went
either bare-footed or on rude wooden sandals. These people, the
reader must understand, were an urban population sunken back to
the state of a barbaric peasantry, and so without any of the
simple arts a barbaric peasantry would possess. In many ways
they were curiously degenerate and incompetent. They had lost
any idea of making textiles, they could hardly make up clothes
when they had material, and they were forced to plunder the
continually dwindling supplies of the ruins about them for cover.
All the simple arts they had ever known they had lost, and with
the breakdown of modern drainage, modern water supply, shopping,
and the like, their civilised methods were useless. Their
cooking was worse than primitive. It was a feeble muddling with
food over wood fires in rusty drawing-room fireplaces; for the
kitcheners burnt too much. Among them all no sense of baking or
brewing or metal-working was to be found.
Their employment of sacking and such-like coarse material for
work-a-day clothing, and their habit of tying it on with string
and of thrusting wadding and straw inside it for warmth, gave
these people an odd, "packed" appearance, and as it was a
week-day when Tom took his little nephew for the hen-seeking
excursion, so it was they were attired.
"So you've really got to Bun Hill at last, Teddy," said old Tom,
beginning to talk and slackening his pace so soon as they were
out of range of old Jessica. "You're the last of Bert's boys for
me to see. Wat I've seen, young Bert I've seen, Sissie and Matt,
Tom what's called after me, and Peter. The traveller people
brought you along all right, eh?"
"I managed," said Teddy, who was a dry little boy.
"Didn't want to eat you on the way?"
"They was all right," said Teddy. "and on the way near
Leatherhead we saw a man riding on a bicycle."
"My word!" said Tom, "there ain't many of those about nowadays.
Where was he going?"
"Said 'e was going to Dorking if the High Road was good enough.
But I doubt if he got there. All about Burford it was flooded.
We came over the hill, uncle--what they call the Roman Road.
That's high and safe."
"Don't know it," said old Tom. "But a bicycle! You're sure it
was a bicycle? Had two wheels?"
"It was a bicycle right enough."
"Why! I remember a time, Teddy, where there was bicycles no end,
when you could stand just here--the road was as smooth as a board
then--and see twenty or thirty coming and going at the same time,
bicycles and moty-bicycles; moty cars, all sorts of whirly
"No!" said Teddy.
"I do. They'd keep on going by all day,--'undreds and 'undreds."
"But where was they all going?" asked Teddy.
"Tearin' off to Brighton--you never seen Brighton, I expect--it's
down by the sea, used to be a moce 'mazing place--and coming and
going from London."
"Lord knows why, Teddy. They did. Then you see that great thing
there like a great big rusty nail sticking up higher than all the
houses, and that one yonder, and that, and how something's fell
in between 'em among the houses. They was parts of the
mono-rail. They went down to Brighton too and all day and night
there was people going, great cars as big as 'ouses full of
The little boy regarded the rusty evidences acrosss the narrow
muddy ditch of cow-droppings that had once been a High Street.
He was clearly disposed to be sceptical, and yet there the ruins
were! He grappled with ideas beyond the strength of his
"What did they go for?" he asked, "all of 'em?"
"They 'AD to. Everything was on the go those days--everything."
"Yes, but where did they come from?"
"All round 'ere, Teddy, there was people living in those 'ouses,
and up the road more 'ouses and more people. You'd 'ardly
believe me, Teddy, but it's Bible truth. You can go on that way
for ever and ever, and keep on coming on 'ouses, more 'ouses, and
more. There's no end to 'em. No end. They get bigger and
bigger." His voice dropped as though he named strange names.
"It's LONDON," he said.
"And it's all empty now and left alone. All day it's left alone.
You don't find 'ardly a man, you won't find nothing but dogs and
cats after the rats until you get round by Bromley and Beckenham,
and there you find the Kentish men herding swine. (Nice rough
lot they are too!) I tell you that so long as the sun is up it's
as still as the grave. I been about by day--orfen and orfen."
"And all those 'ouses and streets and ways used to be full of
people before the War in the Air and the Famine and the Purple
Death. They used to be full of people, Teddy, and then came a
time when they was full of corpses, when you couldn't go a mile
that way before the stink of 'em drove you back. It was the
Purple Death 'ad killed 'em every one. The cats and dogs and
'ens and vermin caught it. Everything and every one 'ad it.
Jest a few of us 'appened to live. I pulled through, and your
aunt, though it made 'er lose 'er 'air. Why, you find the
skeletons in the 'ouses now. This way we been into all the
'ouses and took what we wanted and buried moce of the people, but
up that way, Norwood way, there's 'ouses with the glass in the
windows still, and the furniture not touched--all dusty and
falling to pieces--and the bones of the people lying, some in
bed, some about the 'ouse, jest as the Purple Death left 'em
five-and-twenty years ago. I went into one--me and old Higgins
las' year--and there was a room with books, Teddy--you know what
I mean by books, Teddy?"
"I seen 'em. I seen 'em with pictures."
"Well, books all round, Teddy, 'undreds of books, beyond-rhyme or
reason, as the saying goes, green-mouldy and dry. I was for
leaven' 'em alone--I was never much for reading--but ole Higgins
he must touch em. 'I believe I could read one of 'em NOW,' 'e
"'Not it,' I says.
"'I could,' 'e says, laughing and takes one out and opens it.
"I looked, and there, Teddy, was a cullud picture, oh, so lovely!
It was a picture of women and serpents in a garden. I never see
anything like it.
"'This suits me,' said old Higgins, 'to rights.'
"And then kind of friendly he gave the book a pat--
Old Tom Smallways paused impressively.
"And then?" said Teddy.
"It all fell to dus'. White dus'!" He became still more
impressive. "We didn't touch no more of them books that day.
Not after that."
For a long time both were silent. Then Tom, playing with a
subject that attracted him with a fatal fascination, repeated,
"All day long they lie--still as the grave."
Teddy took the point at last. "Don't they lie o' nights?" he
Old Tom shook his head. "Nobody knows, boy, nobody knows."
"But what could they do?"
"Nobody knows. Nobody ain't seen to tell not nobody."
"They tell tales," said old Tom. "They tell tales, but there
ain't no believing 'em. I gets 'ome about sundown, and keeps
indoors, so I can't say nothing, can I? But there's them that
thinks some things and them as thinks others. I've 'eard it's
unlucky to take clo'es off of 'em unless they got white bones.
The boy watched his uncle sharply. "WOT stories?" he said.
"Stories of moonlight nights and things walking about. But I
take no stock in 'em. I keeps in bed. If you listen to stories
--Lord! You'll get afraid of yourself in a field at midday."
The little boy looked round and ceased his questions for a space.
"They say there's a 'og man in Beck'n'am what was lost in London
three days and three nights. 'E went up after whiskey to
Cheapside, and lorst 'is way among the ruins and wandered. Three
days and three nights 'e wandered about and the streets kep'
changing so's he couldn't get 'ome. If 'e 'adn't remembered some
words out of the Bible 'e might 'ave been there now. All day 'e
went and all night--and all day long it was still. It was as
still as death all day long, until the sunset came and the
twilight thickened, and then it began to rustle and whisper and
go pit-a-pat with a sound like 'urrying feet."
"Yes," said the little boy breathlessly. "Go on. What then?"
"A sound of carts and 'orses there was, and a sound of cabs and
omnibuses, and then a lot of whistling, shrill whistles, whistles
that froze 'is marrer. And directly the whistles began things
begun to show, people in the streets 'urrying, people in the
'ouses and shops busying themselves, moty cars in the streets, a
sort of moonlight in all the lamps and winders. People, I say,
Teddy, but they wasn't people. They was the ghosts of them that
was overtook, the ghosts of them that used to crowd those
streets. And they went past 'im and through 'im and never 'eeded
'im, went by like fogs and vapours, Teddy. And sometimes they
was cheerful and sometimes they was 'orrible, 'orrible beyond
words. And once 'e come to a place called Piccadilly, Teddy, and
there was lights blazing like daylight and ladies and gentlemen
in splendid clo'es crowding the pavement, and taxicabs follering
along the road. And as 'e looked, they all went evil--evil in
the face, Teddy. And it seemed to 'im SUDDENLY THEY SAW 'IM, and
the women began to look at 'im and say things to 'im--'orrible--
wicked things. One come very near 'im, Teddy, right up to 'im,
and looked into 'is face--close. And she 'adn't got a face to
look with, only a painted skull, and then 'e see; they was all
painted skulls. And one after another they crowded on 'im saying
'orrible things, and catchin' at 'im and threatenin' and coaxing
'im, so that 'is 'eart near left 'is body for fear."
"Yes," gasped Teddy in an unendurable pause.
"Then it was he remembered the words of Scripture and saved
himself alive. 'The Lord is my 'Elper, 'e says, 'therefore I
will fear nothing,' and straightaway there came a cock-crowing
and the street was empty from end to end. And after that the
Lord was good to 'im and guided 'im 'ome."
Teddy stared and caught at another question. "But who was the
people," he asked, "who lived in all these 'ouses? What was
"Gent'men in business, people with money--leastways we thought it
was money till everything smashed up, and then seemingly it was
jes' paper--all sorts. Why, there was 'undreds of thousands of
them. There was millions. I've seen that 'I Street there
regular so's you couldn't walk along the pavements, shoppin'
time, with women and people shoppin'."
"But where'd they get their food and things?"
"Bort 'em in shops like I used to 'ave. I'll show you the place,
Teddy, if we go back. People nowadays 'aven't no idee of a
shop--no idee. Plate-glass winders--it's all Greek to them.
Why, I've 'ad as much as a ton and a 'arf of petaties to 'andle
all at one time. You'd open your eyes till they dropped out to
see jes' what I used to 'ave in my shop. Baskets of pears 'eaped
up, marrers, apples and pears, d'licious great nuts." His voice
became luscious--"Benanas, oranges."
"What's benanas?" asked the boy, "and Oranges?"
"Fruits they was. Sweet, juicy, d'licious fruits. Foreign
fruits. They brought 'em from Spain and N' York and places. In
ships and things. They brought 'em to me from all over the
world, and I sold 'em in my shop. _I_ sold 'em, Teddy! me what
goes about now with you, dressed up in old sacks and looking for
lost 'ens. People used to come into my shop, great beautiful
ladies like you'd 'ardly dream of now, dressed up to the nines,
and say, 'Well, Mr. Smallways, what you got 'smorning?' and I'd
say, 'Well, I got some very nice C'nadian apples, 'or p'raps I
got custed marrers. See? And they'd buy 'em. Right off they'd
say, 'Send me some up.' Lord! what a life that was. The business
of it, the bussel, the smart things you saw, moty cars going by,
kerridges, people, organ-grinders, German bands. Always
something going past--always. If it wasn't for those empty
'ouses, I'd think it all a dream."
"But what killed all the people, uncle?" asked Teddy.
"It was a smash-up," said old Tom. "Everything was going right
until they started that War. Everything was going like
clock-work. Everybody was busy and everybody was 'appy and
everybody got a good square meal every day."
He met incredulous eyes. "Everybody," he said firmly. "If you
couldn't get it anywhere else, you could get it in the workhuss,
a nice 'ot bowl of soup called skilly, and bread better'n any one
knows 'ow to make now, reg'lar WHITE bread, gov'ment bread."
Teddy marvelled, but said nothing. It made him feel deep
longings that he found it wisest to fight down.
For a time the old man resigned himself to the pleasures of
gustatory reminiscence. His lips moved. "Pickled Sammin!" he
whispered, "an' vinegar.... Dutch cheese, BEER! A pipe of
"But 'OW did the people get killed?" asked Teddy presently.
"There was the War. The War was the beginning of it. The War
banged and flummocked about, but it didn't really KILL many
people. But it upset things. They came and set fire to London
and burnt and sank all the ships there used to be in the Thames--
we could see the smoke and steam for weeks--and they threw a bomb
into the Crystal Palace and made a bust-up, and broke down the
rail lines and things like that. But as for killin' people, it
was just accidental if they did. They killed each other more.
There was a great fight all hereabout one day, Teddy--up in the
air. Great things bigger than fifty 'ouses, bigger than the
Crystal Palace--bigger, bigger than anything, flying about up in
the air and whacking at each other and dead men fallin' off 'em.
T'riffic! But, it wasn't so much the people they killed as the
business they stopped. There wasn't any business doin', Teddy,
there wasn't any money about, and nothin' to buy if you 'ad it."
"But 'ow did the people get KILLED?" said the little boy in the
"I'm tellin' you, Teddy," said the old man. "It was the stoppin'
of business come next. Suddenly there didn't seem to be any
money. There was cheques--they was a bit of paper written on,
and they was jes' as good as money--jes' as good if they come
from customers you knew. Then all of a sudden they wasn't. I
was left with three of 'em and two I'd given' change. Then it got
about that five-pun' notes were no good, and then the silver sort
of went off. Gold you 'couldn't get for love or--anything. The
banks in London 'ad got it, and the banks was all smashed up.
Everybody went bankrup'. Everybody was thrown out of work.
He paused, and scrutinised his hearer. The small boy's
intelligent face expressed hopeless perplexity.
"That's 'ow it 'appened," said old Tom. He sought for some means
of expression. "It was like stoppin' a clock," he said. "Things
were quiet for a bit, deadly quiet, except for the air-ships
fighting about in the sky, and then people begun to get excited.
I remember my lars' customer, the very lars' customer that ever I
'ad. He was a Mr. Moses Gluckstein, a city gent and very
pleasant and fond of sparrowgrass and chokes, and 'e cut in--
there 'adn't been no customers for days--and began to talk very
fast, offerin' me for anything I 'ad, anything, petaties or
anything, its weight in gold. 'E said it was a little
speculation 'e wanted to try. 'E said it was a sort of bet
reely, and very likely 'e'd lose; but never mind that, 'e wanted
to try. 'E always 'ad been a gambler, 'e said. 'E said I'd only
got to weigh it out and 'e'd give me 'is cheque right away.
Well, that led to a bit of a argument, perfect respectful it was,
but a argument about whether a cheque was still good, and while
'e was explaining there come by a lot of these here unemployed
with a great banner they 'ad for every one to read--every one
could read those days--'We want Food.' Three or four of 'em
suddenly turns and comes into my shop.
"'Got any food?' says one.
"'No, I says, 'not to sell. I wish I 'ad. But if I 'ad, I'm
afraid I couldn't let you have it. This gent, 'e's been offerin'
"Mr. Gluckstein 'e tried to stop me, but it was too late.
"'What's 'e been offerin' you?' says a great big chap with a
'atchet; 'what's 'e been offerin you?' I 'ad to tell.
"'Boys,' 'e said, ''ere's another feenancier!' and they took 'im
out there and then, and 'ung 'im on a lam'pose down the street.
'E never lifted a finger to resist. After I tole on 'im 'e never
said a word...."
Tom meditated for a space. "First chap I ever sin 'ung!" he
"Ow old was you?" asked Teddy.
"'Bout thirty," said old Tom.
"Why! I saw free pig-stealers 'ung before I was six," said
Teddy. "Father took me because of my birfday being near. Said I
ought to be blooded...."
"Well, you never saw no-one killed by a moty car, any'ow," said
old Tom after a moment of chagrin. "And you never saw no dead
men carried into a chemis' shop."
Teddy's momentary triumph faded. "No," he said, "I 'aven't."
"Nor won't. Nor won't. You'll never see the things I've seen,
never. Not if you live to be a 'undred... Well, as I was
saying, that's how the Famine and Riotin' began. Then there was
strikes and Socialism, things I never did 'old with, worse and
worse. There was fightin' and shootin' down, and burnin' and
plundering. They broke up the banks up in London and got the
gold, But they couldn't make food out of gold. 'Ow did WE get
on? Well, we kep' quiet. We didn't interfere with no-one and
no-one didn't interfere with us. We 'ad some old 'tatoes about,
but mocely we lived on rats. Ours was a old 'ouse, full of rats,
and the famine never seemed to bother 'em. Orfen we got a rat.
Orfen. But moce of the people who lived hereabouts was too
tender stummicked for rats. Didn't seem to fancy 'em. They'd
been used to all sorts of fallals, and they didn't take to 'onest
feeding, not till it was too late. Died rather.
"It was the famine began to kill people. Even before the Purple
Death came along they was dying like flies at the end of the
summer. 'Ow I remember it all! I was one of the first to 'ave
it. I was out, seein' if I mightn't get 'old of a cat or
somethin', and then I went round to my bit of ground to see
whether I couldn't get up some young turnips I'd forgot, and I
was took something awful. You've no idee the pain, Teddy--it
doubled me up pretty near. I jes' lay down by 'at there corner,
and your aunt come along to look for me and dragged me 'ome like
"I'd never 'ave got better if it 'adn't been for your aunt.
'Tom,' she says to me, 'you got to get well,' and I 'AD to. Then
SHE sickened. She sickened but there ain't much dyin' about your
aunt. 'Lor!' she says, 'as if I'd leave you to go muddlin' along
alone!' That's what she says. She's got a tongue, 'as your aunt.
But it took 'er 'air off--and arst though I might, she's never
cared for the wig I got 'er--orf the old lady what was in the
"Well, this 'ere Purple Death,--it jes' wiped people out, Teddy.
You couldn't bury 'em. And it took the dogs and the cats too,
and the rats and 'orses. At last every house and garden was full
of dead bodies. London way, you couldn't go for the smell of
there, and we 'ad to move out of the 'I street into that villa we
got. And all the water run short that way. The drains and
underground tunnels took it. Gor' knows where the Purple Death
come from; some say one thing and some another. Some said it
come from eatin' rats and some from eatin' nothin'. Some say the
Asiatics brought it from some 'I place, Thibet, I think, where it
never did nobody much 'arm. All I know is it come after the
Famine. And the Famine come after the Penic and the Penic
come after the War."
Teddy thought. "What made the Purple Death?" he asked.
"'Aven't I tole you!"
"But why did they 'ave a Penic?"
"They 'ad it."
"But why did they start the War?"
"They couldn't stop theirselves. 'Aving them airships made 'em."
"And 'ow did the War end?"
"Lord knows if it's ended, boy," said old Tom. "Lord knows if
it's ended. There's been travellers through 'ere--there was a
chap only two summers ago--say it's goin' on still. They say
there's bands of people up north who keep on with it and people
in Germany and China and 'Merica and places. 'E said they still
got flying-machines and gas and things. But we 'aven't seen
nothin' in the air now for seven years, and nobody 'asn't come
nigh of us. Last we saw was a crumpled sort of airship going
away--over there. It was a littleish-sized thing and lopsided,
as though it 'ad something the matter with it."
He pointed, and came to a stop at a gap in the fence, the
vestiges of the old fence from which, in the company of his
neighbour Mr. Stringer the milkman, he had once watched the South
of England Aero Club's Saturday afternoon ascents. Dim memories,
it may be, of that particular afternoon returned to him.
"There, down there, where all that rus' looks so red and bright,
that's the gas-works."
"What's gas?" asked the little boy.
"Oh, a hairy sort of nothin' what you put in balloons to make
'em go up. And you used to burn it till the 'lectricity come."
The little boy tried vainly to imagine gas on the basis of these
particulars. Then his thoughts reverted to a previous topic.
"But why didn't they end the War?"
"Obstinacy. Everybody was getting 'urt, but everybody was
'urtin' and everybody was 'igh-spirited and patriotic, and so
they smeshed up things instead. They jes' went on smeshin'. And
afterwards they jes' got desp'rite and savige."
"It ought to 'ave ended," said the little boy.
"It didn't ought to 'ave begun," said old Tom, "But people was
proud. People was la-dy-da-ish and uppish and proud. Too much
meat and drink they 'ad. Give in--not them! And after a bit
nobody arst 'em to give in. Nobody arst 'em...."
He sucked his old gums thoughtfully, and his gaze strayed away
across the valley to where the shattered glass of the Crystal
Palace glittered in the sun. A dim large sense of waste and
irrevocable lost opportunities pervaded his mind. He repeated
his ultimate judgment upon all these things, obstinately, slowly,
and conclusively, his final saying upon the matter.
"You can say what you like," he said. "It didn't ought ever to
He said it simply--somebody somewhere ought to have stopped
something, but who or how or why were all beyond his ken.