H.G. Wells: The world is weary of this bloodshed, weary of all this weeping
From Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916)
All over England now, where the livery of mourning had been a rare thing to see, women and children went about in the October sunshine in new black clothes. Everywhere one met these fresh griefs, mothers who had lost their sons, women who had lost their men, lives shattered and hopes destroyed. The dyers had a great time turning coloured garments to black. And there was also a growing multitude of crippled and disabled men. It was so in England, much more was it so in France and Russia, in all the countries of the Allies, and in Germany and Austria; away into Asia Minor and Egypt, in India and Japan and Italy there was mourning, the world was filled with loss and mourning and impoverishment and distress.
And still the mysterious powers that required these things of mankind were unappeased, and each day added its quota of heart-stabbing messages and called for new mourning, and sent home fresh consignments of broken and tormented men.
Presently she became aware of footsteps rustling through the grass towards her.
She looked over her shoulder and discovered Mr. Britling approaching by the field path. He looked white and tired and listless, even his bristling hair and moustache conveyed his depression; he was dressed in an old tweed knickerbocker suit and carrying a big atlas and some papers. He had an effect of hesitation in his approach. It was as if he wanted to talk to her and doubted her reception for him.
He spoke without any preface. “Direck has told you?” he said, standing over her.
She answered with a sob.
“I was afraid it was so, and yet I did not believe it,” said Mr. Britling. “Until now.”
He hesitated as if he would go on, and then he knelt down on the grass a little way from her and seated himself. There was an interval of silence.
“At first it hurts like the devil,” he said at last, looking away at Mertonsome spire and speaking as if he spoke to no one in particular. “And then it hurts. It goes on hurting…And one can’t say much to any one…”
He said no more for a time. But the two of them comforted one another, and knew that they comforted each other. They had a common feeling of fellowship and ease. They had been stricken by the same thing; they understood how it was with each other. It was not like the attempted comfort they got from those who had not loved and dreaded…
She took up a little broken twig and dug small holes in the ground with it.
“It’s strange,” she said, “but I’m glad I know for sure.”
“I can understand that,” said Mr. Britling.
“It stops the nightmares…It isn’t hopes I’ve had so much as fears…I wouldn’t admit he was dead or hurt. Because — I couldn’t think it without thinking it — horrible. Now – ”
“It’s final,” said Mr. Britling.
“It’s definite,” she said after a pause. “It’s like thinking he’s asleep — for good.”
But that did not satisfy her. There was more than this in her mind. “It does away with the half and half,” she said. “He’s dead or he is alive…”
She looked up at Mr. Britling as if she measured his understanding.
“You don’t still doubt?” he said.
“I’m content now in my mind — in a way. He wasn’t anyhow there — unless he was dead. But if I saw Teddy coming over the hedge there to me — It would be just natural…No, don’t stare at me. I know really he is dead. And it is a comfort. It is peace…All the thoughts of him being crushed dreadfully or being mutilated or lying and screaming — or things like that — they’ve gone. He’s out of his spoilt body. He’s my unbroken Teddy again…Out of sight somewhere…Unbroken…Sleeping.”
She resumed her excavation with the little stick, with the tears running down her face.
Mr. Britling presently went on with the talk. “For me it came all at once, without a doubt or a hope. I hoped until the last that nothing would touch Hugh. And then it was like a black shutter falling — in an instant…”
He considered. “Hugh, too, seems just round the corner at times. But at times, it’s a blank place…
“At times,” said Mr. Britling, “I feel nothing but astonishment. The whole thing becomes incredible. Just as for weeks after the war began I couldn’t believe that a big modern nation could really go to war — seriously — with its whole heart…And they have killed Teddy and Hugh…
“They have killed millions. Millions — who had fathers and mothers and wives and sweethearts…”
“Somehow I can’t talk about this to Edith. It is ridiculous, I know. But in some way I can’t…It isn’t fair to her. If I could, I would…Quite soon after we were married I ceased to talk to her. I mean talking really and simply — as I do to you. And it’s never come back. I don’t know why…And particularly I can’t talk to her of Hugh…Little things, little shadows of criticism, but enough to make it impossible…And I go about thinking about Hugh, and what has happened to him sometimes…as though I was stifling.”
Letty compared her case.
“I don’t want to talk about Teddy — not a word.”
“That’s queer…But perhaps — a son is different. Now I come to think of it — I’ve never talked of Mary…Not to any one ever. I’ve never thought of that before. But I haven’t. I couldn’t. No. Losing a lover, that’s a thing for oneself. I’ve been through that, you see. But a son’s more outside you. Altogether. And more your own making. It’s not losing a thing in you; it’s losing a hope and a pride…Once when I was a little boy I did a drawing very carefully. It took me a long time…And a big boy tore it up. For no particular reason. Just out of cruelty…That — that was exactly like losing Hugh…”
“No,” she confessed, “I’m more selfish than that.”
“It isn’t selfish,” said Mr. Britling. “But it’s a different thing. It’s less intimate, and more personally important.”
“I have just thought, ‘He’s gone. He’s gone.’ Sometimes, do you know, I have felt quite angry with him. Why need he have gone — so soon?”
Mr. Britling nodded understandingly.
“I’m not angry. I’m not depressed. I’m just bitterly hurt by the ending of something I had hoped to watch — always — all my life,” he said. “I don’t know how it is between most fathers and sons, but I admired Hugh. I found exquisite things in him. I doubt if other people saw them. He was quiet. He seemed clumsy. But he had an extraordinary fineness. He was a creature of the most delicate and rapid responses…These aren’t my fond delusions. It was so…You know, when he was only a few days old, he would start suddenly at any strange sound. He was alive like an Æolian harp from the very beginning…And his hair when he was born — he had a lot of hair — was like the down on the breast of a bird. I remember that now very vividly — and how I used to like to pass my hand over it. It was silk, spun silk. Before he was two he could talk — whole sentences. He had the subtlest ear. He loved long words…And then,” he said with tears in his voice, “all this beautiful fine structure, this brain, this fresh life as nimble as water — as elastic as a steel spring – it is destroyed….
“I don’t make out he wasn’t human. Often and often I have been angry with him, and disappointed in him. There were all sorts of weaknesses in him. We all knew them. And we didn’t mind them. We loved him the better. And his odd queer cleverness!…And his profound wisdom. And then all this beautiful and delicate fabric, all those clear memories in his dear brain, all his whims, his sudden inventions…
“You know, I have had a letter from his chum Park. He was shot through a loophole. The bullet went through his eye and brow…Think of it!
“An amazement…a blow…a splattering of blood. Rags of tormented skin and brain stuff…In a moment. What had taken eighteen years — love and care…”
He sat thinking for an interval, and then went on, “The reading and writing alone! I taught him to read myself — because his first governess, you see, wasn’t very clever. She was a very good methodical sort, but she had no inspiration. So I got up all sorts of methods for teaching him to read. But it wasn’t necessary. He seemed to leap all sorts of difficulties. He leapt to what one was trying to teach him. It was as quick as the movement of some wild animal…
“He came into life as bright and quick as this robin looking for food…
“And he’s broken up and thrown away…Like a cartridge case by the side of a covert…”
He choked and stopped speaking. His elbows were on his knees, and he put his face between his hands and shuddered and became still. His hair was troubled. The end of his stumpy moustache and a little roll of flesh stood out at the side of his hand, and made him somehow twice as pitiful. His big atlas, from which papers projected, seemed forgotten by his side. So he sat for a long time, and neither he nor Letty moved or spoke. But they were in the same shadow. They found great comfort in one another. They had not been so comforted before since their losses came upon them.
“After this precious blood, after this precious blood, if we leave one plot of wickedness or cruelty in the world — ”
And therewith he began to lecture Letty on the importance of international politics — to every one. How he and she and every one must understand, however hard it was to understand.
“No life is safe, no happiness is safe, there is no chance of bettering life until we have made an end to all that causes war….
“We have to put an end to the folly and vanity of kings, and to any people ruling any people but themselves. There is no convenience, there is no justice in any people ruling any people but themselves; the ruling of men by others, who have not their creeds and their languages and their ignorances and prejudices, that is the fundamental folly that has killed Teddy and Hugh – and these millions. To end that folly is as much our duty and business as telling the truth or earning a living….”
“…The world is weary of this bloodshed, weary of all this weeping, of this wasting of substance and this killing of sons and lovers. We want it soon, and to have it soon we must work to bring it about. We must give our lives. What is left of our lives…
“That is what you and I must do, Letty. What else is there left for us to do?…I will write of nothing else, I will think of nothing else now but of safety and order. So that all these dear dead — not one of them but will have brought the great days of peace and man’s real beginning nearer, and these cruel things that make men whimper like children, that break down bright lives into despair and kill youth at the very moment when it puts out its clean hands to take hold of life — these cruelties, these abominations of confusion, shall cease from the earth forever.”