The Shape of Things to Come

Book the Fourth
The Modern State Militant

2. Melodramatic Interlude

H.G. Wells

I HAVE remarked already how impersonal is this school history of the year 2006 in comparison with the histories of our own time. Politicians and statesmen pass like the shadows of general forces, royalties peep and vanish like mice behind the wainscot. They vanish at last altogether—unobtrusively. Now and then this history picks out individuals, Henry Ford for instance, or De Windt, Winston Churchill or Woodrow Wilson, not as heroes and leaders but as types and witnesses. They manifest streams of tendency in the social brain, systems of ideas at a point of maximum effectiveness.

Then suddenly at this point the history lapses into something like melodrama. For a phase personalities assume such an importance as to seem to dominate the world’s affairs, as Cæsar and Cleopatra did or Mirabeau and Marie Antoinette. I think some explanatory links must be missing here, some comments that might have pointed the value of this episode in illuminating the play of motive that led to the Air Dictatorship. But let me give it as it came to me.

The Air and Sea Control and the organization of the associated subsidiary Controls had been the work of a group of keen young men, moved to action by the growing disorder of life and directly inspired by De Windt and his school of writers. They had been full of generosity, enthusiasm and confidence. The first World Council elected in 1978 included most of these leaders of ’65, now coming to middle age, one or two older acquisitions and only two additions from among the younger men. Arden Essenden, with his vigour of initiative, was not only the chairman but the natural leader of the first World Council. Only Ivan Englehart could compare with him in power of personality. There were finer and nobler minds present, but none others so emphatic and so available for the crude uses of popular admiration.

There was, it seems, a curiosity in the world about Essenden; his name was better known than any of his colleagues; his portrait, though indeed through nothing worse than acquiescence on his part, got into circulation, as newspapers began to abound again. It was the method of the new world government to have no presidential or secretarial signatures to its public announcements; it was stated simply that the “Control”, whichever it was, or the Council suggested, stated, proposed or had decided, and the World-State seal with its winged disc authenticated the document. But the idea spread by impalpable means that Essenden, who was known to have made the decisive speech for immediate world government at the second Basra Conference, might well have put his name whenever that seal appeared. His prestige grew and came back to his ears. There can be no doubt that his consciousness of a vague exterior support affected his attitude towards his colleagues and their common task.

The historians of our text book, so far as some difficult passages in the stenography can be deciphered, weigh the good and bad effects of this reinforcement of Essenden’s natural impatient decisiveness. They bring in other instances and compare him with other dictators. Indisputably there are crises in human affairs so urgent that many worthy considerations and qualifications are better disregarded and overborne rather than that action should be delayed. These critics of our time study the amount of justification that can be made out for Mussolini, for Stalin, Kemal, Hitler and the various other dictators during the economic debacle of the West, and I find this judgment of posterity very discordant with my own profoundly liberal and Anglo-Saxon prejudices. They stress the hopeless indeterminateness of the preceding parliamentary régime more than I should do.

They do not extend anything like the same charity to Essenden that they do to the earlier dictators. He played the “strong man” rôle half a century too late. The pattern of development, they decide, had been fully provided by De Windt and his fellow theorists. Essenden, they insist, did not so much lead as “speak first”, and with a needless haste, when the general decision was imminent. He induced the committee to strike too soon and too harshly at the old religious and political traditions that seemed to stand in the way of the Modern State. He found some of his colleagues slow in grasping things that seemed obvious to him. He was impatient and overbearing.

Quite early after the declaration of world sovereignty there were altercations in the committee meetings between him on the one hand and William Ryan and Hooper Hamilton on the other. Shi-lung-tang also becomes an inexplicable thorn in Essenden’s side, an enervating influence full of insidious depreciation. We find Rin Kay intervening with a gentle firmness in these disputes and Englehart fretting openly at their dissensions.

This new world government, one must realize, was carrying on under conditions that were often saturated with emotion. There was still much uncertainty in the outlook; and this perhaps let in adventure and romance. The World Council was in effective possession of world power, but not in unchallenged possession. Even in 2000 C.E., nineteen-twentieths of mankind were still unassimilated to the organization. If the world was not rebellious it was mutinous, and there were plenty of alert and intelligent people in opposition, estranged people or people shaped to forms of thought altogether uncongenial to the reconditioning of human affairs on Modern State lines.

It was inevitable that these disharmonies between the leading figures at the centre of things, and the similar veins of discord that broke the solidarity of the Fellowship with a thousand intricate streaks and patches of weakness, should find echoes and misinterpretations in the greater world outside the machine. That greater world was still prepared for heroes and villains, ready for blind partisanships and storms of suspicion. It wanted drama in its government. A legend came into being which exaggerated a supposed want of sympathy on the part of Essenden for the “priggishness” and “petty tyrannies” of the various Controls. He was supposed to be nobler stuff. He was credited with the intention of taking things into his own hands altogether and ruling the world in a more generous and popular spirit. As the history puts it: “An autocrat has always been the imaginative refuge of the crowd from hard and competent aristocracy.”

That Arden Essenden ever plotted to realize these dreams there is no evidence at all. No word, much less any deed, is on record to show that he was unfaithful to the Modern State. But there can be no doubt that he felt that he was a fine figure and very necessary to the World Republic. He felt, as Stalin had done before him, that men could not do without him.

And then abruptly women come back into the history. We find a love intrigue flung across the stream of history. I did not notice until I came to this part of the world story how small a part women had played in the drama that began with the World War. In most countries they had been emancipated and given equal political rights with men before that disaster. That achieved, they vanish out of the picture throughout four decades of violence. There were indeed women leaders in the early stages of the Russian Revolution, but none filled a decisive rôle. And for all the leadership women exercised between the Twenties and the Eighties they might have been every one of them in kitchen, nursery, hospital, or harem. They lost what little political significance they had when queens went out of fashion. A considerable proportion of the Modern State Fellowship was feminine, but no women occupied decisive positions in the scheme. There were none on the World Council. They were doing vitally important work, educational, secretarial, executive, and the like, but it was ancillary work that did not lead to individual distinction.

But at this point the historian of the year 2106 breaks his inadvertent taboo and two women’s names appear, the names of Elizabeth Horthy and Jean Essenden, and we find the threads of human destiny running askew about a story of passionate love and passionate misbehaviour.

Elizabeth Horthy, who caused the downfall and execution of Arden Essenden, was evidently a woman of splendid appearance and unfaltering conduct. She was an air pilot, and she seems to have liked to wear her uniform on occasions when most women would have been in a robe. She knew, says the history, what suited her. She was tall and evidently beautifully made; she “lifted her chin”, it seems; she had a “broad brow” and a “serene” face. This I learn from quotations that are given from Essenden’s letters to her. They are the letters of a man quite artlessly in love. But there is nothing in the notes to tell us whether she was dark or fair, what colour of eyes looked out from under that “broad brow”, nor what sort of voice she had. Her love letters seem to have been pithy and extraordinarily indiscreet. Of her charm and distinction there can be no doubt. She was one of those women who seem radiant to men. She was “like sunshine”; she was “like heartening music”. Again I quote Essenden. She made men her friends, except for Hooper Hamilton, who manifestly felt some obscure resentment against her.

Now this young woman, with her obvious “bravery” and a powerful disposition for romance, seems to have come to Basra in the train of William Ryan. It is possible but improbable that she was his mistress. Apparently she took little or no interest in the immense task of the World Revolution except as a suitable background for her exciting personal adventure. She seems to have fallen in love with Essenden at sight and he with her. It may be she came to Basra intending to do that. Something theatrical about him was not too theatrical for her. They were both theatrical. She liked things to be magnificent, and perhaps her taste for magnificence was stronger than her critical powers.

She seems to have given herself to him without hesitation or qualification or concealment. Theirs was—again I quote those artless letters of his—“the sort of love that flaunts itself like a flag”.

But there was a third principal in this primitive drama, the wife of Essenden, a woman of great energy, great possessiveness and obtrusive helpfulness. It had been her vanity to “inspire” Essenden. And in the cast of the drama was Ryan, loudly resentful at Essenden “stealing” his “air girl”, and Hooper Hamilton, inexplicably malignant. We are left to guess at the incidents and details of the drama, which was after all a very commonplace drama, only that it was magnified to the scale of the world stage. It culminated in Jean Essenden bringing a charge before the World Council against her husband of being concerned in a reactionary plot against the Modern State. She had, she said, intercepted letters, though none were ever produced. The historian of the year 2106, reviewing the particulars of the case, declared that there was no real evidence at all of any guilty associations of either Elizabeth Horthy or Essenden with the widespread movement that certainly existed for a monarchist and individualist reaction. But at the time the accusation was all too plausible. In some of her scrawled notes to him it seems Elizabeth called him “my King”.

Moreover, Jean Essenden repeated the most incredible conversations with her husband: boasts of future glory, dark threats at his colleagues, strange replies to her remonstrances. She at least was an inflexible Modern Republican. Afterwards in a storm of remorse she retracted all this evidence, but only when it was too late. Probably it was half true. Probably it was reality a little refracted in her mind.

It was Hamilton who sealed Essenden’s fate. He presided over the Special Court that had been formed to try the case. “Some of the evidence may be given with a motive,” he said, looking at the white face of the accusing wife. “But it is a small matter that Essenden should or should not be a party in this conspiracy. His real offence is that he should have allowed this situation to develop, that he should have permitted his attention to wander from the services of the Republic to personal gratifications—personal gratifications and displays. At least he has been guilty of egotism. He has sacrificed himself and the interest of the world that has wrapped about him to an intensely personal drama. The question of his specific guilt is an altogether minor matter. The question before us is not, ‘What has Essenden done?’ but, ‘What are we going to do about Essenden?’ There is need for repression coming; civil war and bloodshed are plainly upon us. This is no time for Great Lovers. Essenden has become ambiguous. He cannot lead us, and—how can we do without him? Things have come to this, Essenden, you are inconvenient. Apart from this quarrel of the women, you are in the way.”

The notes quote these words from the gramophone records of the trial. For it appears that the historian of the year 2106 could sit at his desk and listen to the steel-band record of the proceedings; note the speeches and mark the inflexions of the voices.

There was a pause, and then Essenden cleared his throat. “I see that I am in the way.”

It was decided that there should be no open trial and condemnation. That would have precipitated the revolt. A tabloid was to be given to him, and he was to take it privately. He might “sit in the spring sunshine amidst flowers and green trees” and take it in his own time.

The record was cut deep, it seems, by the scream of Jean Essenden, protesting that that last half-hour should not be spent by the two lovers together.

Through all the years to come those steel ribbons will preserve the shrill intonations of those distressful moments. “I can’t bear that!” cried Jean Essenden—down to the end of time.

“No,” Elizabeth’s actual words are given; “there is no need for you to be hurt any more. Don’t be distressed, Jean, any more. It’s over. It’s all over for ever. I will go now. Out of the court now. I never meant to hurt Arden in this way. How was I to know? There is no need at all for us two even to say Good-Bye or be together any more. Jean, you couldn’t help yourself. You had to do what you have done. But I never meant to hurt you. Or him.”

Those are her words as the shorthand notes give them, but we shall never hear the sound of them. But the man who wrote them down, a century after they were spoken, heard them as he wrote, heard her voice weaken, if it weakened. Was she speaking or was she making a speech? We are left guessing how far these words of hers betrayed her sense of drama or whether it had indeed the simple generosity it may have had.

There is no description of the last moments of Arden Essenden, the man who had drafted the proclamation that founded the World-State. Possibly he did sit for awhile in some sunlit garden and then quietly swallowed his tabloid. He may have thought about his life of struggle, of his early days in the years of devastation and of the long battle for the World-State for which he had fought so stubbornly. Or perhaps according to all the rules of romance he thought only of Elizabeth. Much more probably he was too tired and baffled to think coherently and sat dully in the sunshine staring at those flowers which make the colophon to his story. Then the book closed for him. He died somewhere in the North of France, but the notes do not say precisely where.

They are more explicit about the fate of Elizabeth Horthy, who killed herself that day. There was no tabloid for her. She took her nearest way out of the world by flying her machine to an immense height and throwing herself out. She went up steeply. It was as though she was trying to fly right away from a planet which had done with romance. “The aeroplane ceased to climb; it hung motionless, a quivering speck in the sky, and then began to waver and fall like a dead leaf. It was too high for anyone to see that its pilot had leapt free from it and was also falling through the air. A mere tattered rag of body was found amidst the branches of a little thicket of oak near Chantilly.”

A fortnight after Hooper Hamilton also succumbed to “egotism” and took an overdose of sleeping-draught at his summer-house in the Aland Isles.

And with that this novelette-like interlude ends. It is elementary in its crudity. It is out of key with all that precedes it and all that follows. We are told there were other “stories” about the men of the First Council, but these other stories after this one sample are left to our imaginations. Its immense irrelevance tears the fabric of our history. But through the gap we see the pitiful imagination of humanity straining for a supreme intensity of personal passion.

Did that young woman as she stepped out upon nothingness above the cirrus clouds feel that her life had been worth while? The history calls her, “that last romantic”.

The Shape of Things to Come - Contents    |     Book 4 - 3. Futile Insurrection

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