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THE WORLD SET FREE
A PROPHETIC TRILOGY
BY H. G. WELLS
Author of "Tono Bungay," "The New Machiavelli," "Marriage," etc.
WITH A PICTURE BY GEORGE INNESS, JR.
a great multitude of wild flowers. More particularly is this so in early June, when
THE whole world was into a the slender asphodel, with its spike
phase of destruction.
Power after power about the armed globe sought to anticipate attack by aggression. They went to war in a delirium of panic in order to use their bombs first. China and Japan had assailed Russia and destroyed Moscow; the United States had attacked Japan; India was in anarchistic revolt, with Delhi a pit of fire spouting death and flame; the redoubtable King of the Balkans was mobilizing. It must have seemed plain at last to every one in those days that the world was slipping headlong to anarchy. By the spring of 1959, from nearly two hundred centersand every week added to their numberroared the unquenchable, crimson conflagrations of the atomic bombs; the flimsy fabric of the world's credit had vanished; industry was completely disorganized; and every city, every thickly populated area, was starving or trembled on the verge of starvation. Most of the capital cities of the world were burning, millions of people had already perished, and over great areas government was at an end. Humanity has been compared by one contemporary writer to a sleeper who handles matches in his sleep, and wakes to find himself in flames.
THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE NEW
On the mountain-side above the town of Brissago, and commanding two long stretches of Lake Maggiore, looking eastward to Bellinzona and southward to Luino, there is a shelf of grass meadows which is very beautiful in springtime with
white lily blossom, is in flower. To the westward of this delightful shelf there is a deep and densely wooded trench, a great gulf of blue a mile or so in width, out of which arise great precipices, very high and wild. Above the asphodel-fields themselves the mountains climb in rocky slopes to solitudes of stone and sunlight that curve round and join that wall of cliffs in one common sky-line. This desolate and austere background contrasts very vividly with the glowing serenity of the great lake below, with the spacious view of fertile hills and roads and villages and islands to south and east, and with the hotly golden rice-fields of the Val Maggia to the north.
And because it was a remote and insignificant place, far away out of the crowding tragedies of that year of disaster and of universal war, away from burning cities and starving multitudes, bracing and tranquilizing and hidden, it was here that there gathered the conference of rulers that was to arrest, if possible, before it was too late the débâcle of civilization. Here, brought together by the indefatigable energy of that impassioned humanitarian Leblanc, the French ambassador at Washington, the chief powers of the world were to meet in a last desperate conference to "save humanity."
Leblanc was one of those simple, spirited men whose lot would have been insignificance in any period of security, but who have been caught up to an immortal rôle in history by the sudden simplification of human affairs to the measure of their simplicity through some tragical
Copyright, 1914, by THE CENTURY CO.
crisis. Such a man was Abraham Lincoln, and such was Garibaldi. And Leblanc, with his transparent, childish innocence, his entire self-forgetfulness, came into this confusion of distrust and intricate disaster with an invincible appeal for the manifest sanities of the situation. His voice, when he spoke, was "full of remonstrance." He was a little, bald, spectacled man, full of that intellectual idealism which has been one of the peculiar gifts of France to humanity. He was possessed of one clear persuasion: that war must end, and that the only way to end war was to have only one government for mankind. He brushed aside all other considerations. At the very outbreak of the war, so soon as the two capitals of the belligerents had been wrecked, he went to the President in the White House with this proposal; he made it as if it was a matter of course. He was fortunate to be in Washington and in touch with that gigantic childishness which was the characteristic of the American imagination. For the AmeriFor the Americans also were among the simple peoples by whom the world was saved. He won over the American President and the American Government to his general ideas. At any rate, they supported him sufficiently to give him a standing with the more skeptical European governments, and with this backing he set to work-it seemed the most fantastic of enterprises -to bring together all the rulers of the world and unify them. He wrote in numerable letters, he sent messages, he went desperate journeys, he enlisted whatever support he could find. No one was too humble for an ally or too obstinate for his advances; through the terrible autumn of the last wars this persistent little visionary in spectacles must have seemed rather like a hopeful canary twittering during a thunder-storm. And no accumulation of disasters daunted his conviction that they could be ended.
For many months it was an open question whether there was to be found throughout all the race the will and intelligence to face these new conditions and make even an attempt to arrest the downfall of the social order. For a time the war spirit defeated every attempt to rally the forces of preservation and construction. Leblanc seemed to be protesting against earthquakes, and as likely to find
a spirit of reason in the crater of Etna. Even though the shattered official governments now clamored for peace, bands of irreconcilables and invincible patriots, usurpers, adventurers, and political desperados, were now everywhere in possession of the simple apparatus for the discouragement of atomic energy and the initiation of new centers of destruction. The stuff exercised an irresistible fascination upon a certain type of mind. should any one give in while he could still destroy his enemies? Surrender? While there is still a chance of blowing them to dust? The power of destruction which had once been the ultimate privilege of government was now the only power left in the world, and it was everywhere. There were few thoughtful men during that phase of blazing waste who did not pass through such moods of despair and declare, "This is the end.”
And all the while Leblanc was going to and fro with glittering glasses and an inexhaustible persuasiveness, urging the manifest reasonableness of his view upon ears that ceased presently to be inattentive. Never at any time did he betray a doubt that all this chaotic conflict would end. No nurse during a nursery uproar was ever so certain of the inevitable ultimate peace. From being treated as an amiable dreamer, he came by insensible degrees to be regarded as an extravagant possibility. Then he began to seem even practicable. The people who listened to him in 1958 with a smiling impatience were eager before 1959 was four months old to know just exactly what he thought might be done. He answered with the patience of a philosopher and the lucidity of a Frenchman. He began to receive responses of a more and more hopeful type.
THE GATHERING OF THE RULERS
He came across the Atlantic to Italy, and there he gathered in the promises for this congress. He chose those high meadows above Brissago for the reasons we have stated. "We must get away," he said, "from old associations." He set to work requisitioning material for his conference with an assurance that was justified by the replies. With a slight incredulity the conference, which was to begin a new order in the world, gathered itself together.
Leblanc summoned it without arrogance; he controlled it by virtue of a vast humility. Men appeared upon those upland slopes with the apparatus for wireless telegraphy; others followed with tents and provisions; a little cable was flung down to a convenient spot upon the Locarno road below. Leblanc arrived, sedulously directing every detail that would affect the tone of the assembly. He might have been a courier in advance rather than the originator of the gathering.
And then there arrived, some by the cable, most by aëroplane, a few in other fashions, the men who had been called together to confer upon the state of the world. It was to be a conference without a name. Nine monarchs, the presidents of four republics, several ministers and ambassadors, powerful journalists, and such-like prominent and influential men took part in it. There were even scientific men, and that world-famous old man Holsten came with the others to contribute his amateur statecraft to the desperate problem of the age. Only Leblanc would have dared so to summon figureheads and powers and intelligence, or have had the courage to hope for their agreement.
AND one at least of those who were called to this conference of governments came to it on foot. This was King Egbert, the young king of the most venerable kingdom in Europe. He was a rebel, and had always been of deliberate choice a rebel against the magnificences of his position. He affected long pedestrian tours and a disposition to sleep in the open air. He came now over the Pass of Sta. Maria Maggiore, and by boat up the lake to Brissago; thence he walked up the mountain, a pleasant path set with oaks and sweet chestnuts. For provision on the walk, for he did not want to hurry, he carried with him a pocketful of bread and cheese. A certain small retinue that was necessary to his comfort and dignity upon occasions of state he sent on by the cablecar, and with him walked his private secretary, Firmin, a man who had thrown up the professorship of world politics in the London School of Sociology, Economics, and Political Science, to take up these duties.
Firmin was a man of strong rather than of rapid thought; he had anticipated great influence in this new position, and after some years he was still only beginning to apprehend how largely his function was to listen. Originally he had been something of a thinker upon international politics, an authority upon tariffs and strategy, and a valued contributor to various of the higher organs of public opinion; but the atomic bombs had taken him by surprise, and he had still to recover completely from his preatomic opinions and the silencing effect of those sustained explosions.
As they walked up,-it was the king who made the pace rather than Firmin,— they talked of the conference before them, and Firmin, with a certain want of assurance that would have surprised him in himself in the days of his professorship, sought to define the policy of his companion.
"In its broader form, sir," said Firmin, "I admit a certain plausibility in this project of Leblanc's; but I feel that although it may be advisable to set up some sort of general control for international affairs, -a sort of Hague court with extended powers, -that is no reason whatever for losing sight of the principles of national and imperial autonomy."
Firmin," said the king, "I am going to set my brother-kings a good example." Firmin intimated a curiosity that veiled a dread.
"By chucking all that nonsense," said the king.
He quickened his pace as Firmin, who was already a little out of breath, betrayed a disposition to reply.
"I am going to chuck all that nonsense," said the king as Firmin prepared to speak. "I am going to fling my royalty and empire on the table, and declare at once I don't mean to haggle. It's haggling about rights that has been the devil in human affairs for- always. I am going to stop this nonsense." Firmin halted abruptly. "But, sir!" he cried.
The king stopped six yards ahead of him, and looked back at his adviser's perspiring visage.
"Do you really think, Firmin, that I am here as an infernal politician to put my crown and my flag and my claims and
so forth in the way of peace? That little Frenchman is right, and you know he is right as well as I do. Those things are over. We-we kings and rulers and representatives have been at the very heart of the mischief. Of course we imply separation, and of course separation means the threat of war, and of course the threat of war means the accumulation of more and more atomic bombs. The old game's up. But, I say, we must n't stand here, you know. The world waits. Don't you think the old game 's up, Firmin?”
Firmin adjusted a strap, passed a hand over his wet forehead, and followed earnestly.
"I admit, sir," he said to a receding back, "that there has to be some sort of hegemony, some sort of amphictyonic council-"
"There's got to be one simple government for all the world," said the king over his shoulder.
"But as for a reckless, unqualified abandonment, sir-”
"Bang!" cried the king.
Firmin made no answer to this interruption, but a faint shadow of annoyance passed across his heated features.
"Yesterday," said the king by way of explanation, "the Japanese very nearly got San Francisco.'
"I had n't heard, sir."
"The Americans ran the Japanese aëroplane down into the sea, and there the bomb got bu'sted."
"Under the sea, sir?"
"Yes. Submarine volcano. The steam is in sight of the Californian coast; it was as near as that. And with things like this happening, you want me to go up this hill and haggle. Consider the effect of that upon my imperial cousin and all the others!"
"He will haggle, sir."
"Not a bit of it," said the king.
At length, as it seemed to Firmin, or quite soon, as it seemed to the king, the gradient of the path diminished, the way widened out, and they found themselves in a very beautiful place indeed. It was one of those upland clusters of sheds and houses, still to be found in the mountains of northern Italy, that were used only in the high summer and were left locked up and deserted through all the winter and spring and up to the middle of June. The
buildings were all of a softened gray stone, buried in rich green grass, shadowed by chestnut-trees, and lit by an extraordinary blaze of yellow broom. Never had the king seen broom so glorious; he shouted at the light of it, for it seemed to give out more sunlight even than it received. He sat down impulsively on a lichenous stone, tugged out his bread and cheese, and bade Firmin thrust the beer into the shaded woods to cool.
"The things people miss, Firmin," he said, "who go up into the air in ships." Firmin looked around him with an ungenial eye.
"You see it at its best, sir," he said, "before the peasants come here again and make it filthy."
"It would be beautiful anyhow," said the king.
"Superficially, sir," said Firmin. "But it stands for a social order that is fast vanishing away. Indeed, judging by the grass between the stones and in the huts, I am inclined to doubt if it is in use even now."
"I suppose," said the king, "they would come up immediately the hay on this flower meadow is cut. It would be those slow, creamy-colored beasts, I suspect, one sees on the roads below, and the swarthy girls with red handkerchiefs over their black hair. It is wonderful to think how long that beautiful old life lasted. In the Roman times, and long ages before ever the manners of the Romans had come into these parts, men came driving their cattle up into these places as the summer came on. How haunted is this place! There have been quarrels here, hopes; children have played here and lived to be old crones and old gaffers and died: and so it has gone on for thousands of lives. Lovers, innumerable lovers, have caressed amid this golden broom."
"Sire," protested Firmin, with his voice full of bread and cheese and genuine emotion, "have you no respect for your kingship?"
The king paused before he answered with unwonted gravity:
"It 's just because I have, Firmin, that I won't be a puppet in this game of international politics." national politics." He regarded his companion for a moment and then remarked: "Kingship! What do you know of kingship, Firmin? Yes," cried the king to his