John Galsworthy: Only a helpless or wicked God would allow the slaughter of millions
From Saint’s Progress (1919)
In days of suffering and anxiety, like these of the great war, Thirza Pierson was a valuable person. Without ever expressing an opinion on cosmic matters, she reconfirmed certain cosmic truths, such as that though the whole world was at war, there was such a thing as peace; that though all the sons of mothers were being killed, there remained such a thing as motherhood…
No paper came on Sundays – not even the local paper, which had so long and so nobly done its bit with headlines to win the war. No news whatever came, of men blown up, to enliven the hush of the hot July afternoon…
The disappearance of every young male thing into the maw of the military machine put a premium on instinct. The thoughts of Noel and her school companions were turned, perforce, to that which, in pre-war freedom of opportunity they could afford to regard as of secondary interest. Love and Marriage and Motherhood, fixed as the lot of women by the countless ages, were threatened for these young creatures. They not unnaturally pursued what they felt to be receding.
At Chepstow a soldier got in, followed by a woman with a very flushed face and curious, swimmy eyes; her hair was in disorder, and her lip bleeding, as if she had bitten it through. The soldier, too, looked strained and desperate. They sat down, far apart, on the seat opposite. Pierson, feeling that he was in their way, tried to hide himself behind his paper; when he looked again, the soldier had taken off his tunic and cap and was leaning out of the window. The woman, on the seat’s edge, sniffing and wiping her face, met his glance with resentful eyes, then, getting up, she pulled the man’s sleeve.
“Sit dahn; don’t ‘ang out o’ there.”
The soldier flung himself back on the seat and looked at Pierson.
“The wife an’ me’s ‘ad a bit of a row,” he said companionably. “Gits on me nerves; I’m not used to it. She was in a raid, and ‘er nerves are all gone funny; ain’t they, old girl? Makes me feel me ‘ead. I’ve been wounded there, you know; can’t stand much now. I might do somethin’ if she was to go on like this for long.”
Pierson looked at the woman, but her eyes still met his resentfully. The soldier held out a packet of cigarettes. “Take one,” he said. Pierson took one and, feeling that the soldier wanted him to speak, murmured: “We all have these troubles with those we’re fond of; the fonder we are of people, the more we feel them, don’t we? I had one with my daughter last night.”
“Ah!” said the soldier; “that’s right. The wife and me’ll make it up. ‘Ere, come orf it, old girl.”
From behind his paper he soon became conscious of the sounds of reconciliation – reproaches because someone had been offered a drink, kisses mixed with mild slappings, and abuse. When they got out at Bristol the soldier shook his hand warmly, but the woman still gave him her resentful stare, and he thought dreamily: ‘The war! How it affects everyone!’
Death! The commonest thing in the world, now – commoner than life! This young doctor must have seen many die in these last two years, saved many from death; and there he lay, not able to lift a finger to save himself. Pierson looked at his daughter; what a strong, promising young couple they were! And putting his arm round her, he led her away to the sofa, whence they could see the sick man.
“If he dies, Dad -” she whispered.
“He will have died for the Country, my love, as much as ever our soldiers do.”
“I know; but that’s no comfort. I’ve been watching here all day; I’ve been thinking; men will be just as brutal afterwards – more brutal. The world will go on the same.”
“We must hope not. Shall we pray, Gracie?”
Gratian shook her head.
“If I could believe that the world – if I could believe anything! I’ve lost the power, Dad; I don’t even believe in a future life. If George dies, we shall never meet again.”
Pierson stared at her without a word.
Gratian went on: “The last time we talked, I was angry with George because he laughed at my belief; now that I really want belief, I feel that he was right.”
Pierson said tremulously:
“No, no, my dear; it’s only that you’re overwrought. God in His mercy will give you back belief.”
“There is no God, Dad”
“My darling child, what are you saying?”
“No God who can help us; I feel it. If there were any God who could take part in our lives, alter anything without our will, knew or cared what we did – He wouldn’t let the world go on as it does.”
“But, my dear, His purposes are inscrutable. We dare not say He should not do this or that, or try to fathom to what ends He is working.”
“Then He’s no good to us. It’s the same as if He didn’t exist. Why should I pray for George’s life to One whose ends are just His own? I know George oughtn’t to die. If there’s a God who can help, it will be a wicked shame if George dies; if there’s a God who can help, it’s a wicked shame when babies die, and all these millions of poor boys. I would rather think there’s no God than a helpless or a wicked God – ”
“So you really think God merciful, sir?”
“Don’t let us argue, George; you’re not strong enough.”
“Oh! I’m pining for something to bite on.”
Pierson looked at Gratian, and said softly:
“God’s mercy is infinite, and you know it is.”
Laird also looked at Gratian, before he answered:
“God’s mercy is surely the amount of mercy man has succeeded in arriving at. How much that is, this war tells you, sir.”
“Shall I tell you what I should like?” she whispered. “To take God’s hand and show Him things. I’m certain He’s not seen everything.”
A shudder went through Pierson, one of those queer sudden shivers, which come from a strange note in a voice, or a new sharp scent or sight.
“My dear, what things you say!”
“But He hasn’t, and it’s time He did. We’d creep, and peep, and see it all for once, as He can’t in His churches. Daddy, oh! Daddy! I can’t bear it any more; to think of them being killed on a night like this; killed and killed so that they never see it all again – ever see it – ever see it!” She sank down, and covered her face with her arms.
“I can’t, I can’t! Oh! take it all away, the cruelty! Why does it come – why the stars and the flowers, if God doesn’t care any more than that?”