The War in the Air – Day 115 of 115

“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 vicarage garden.

“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 ’ave begun.”

He said it simply–somebody somewhere ought to have stopped something, but who or how or why were all beyond his ken.

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