Chapter the Third: The Ending of War - Section 2

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 magnificence 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 chestnut. 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 cable car, 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 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 pre-atomic opinions and the silencing effect of those sustained explosives.

The king’s freedom from the trammels of etiquette was very complete. In theory—and he abounded in theory—his manners were purely democratic. It was by sheer habit and inadvertency that he permitted Firmin, who had discovered a rucksack in a small shop in the town below, to carry both bottles of beer. The king had never, as a matter of fact, carried anything for himself in his life, and he had never noted that he did not do so.

‘We will have nobody with us,’ he said, ‘at all. We will be perfectly simple.’

So Firmin carried the beer.

As they walked up—it was the king 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—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—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. 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 mustn’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 hadn’t heard, sir.’

‘The Americans ran the Japanese aeroplane down into the sea and there the bomb got busted.’

‘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.

‘But, sir.’

‘Leblanc won’t let him.’

Firmin halted abruptly and gave a vicious pull at the offending strap. ‘Sir, he will listen to his advisers,’ he said, in a tone that in some subtle way seemed to implicate his master with the trouble of the knapsack.

The king considered him.

‘We will go just a little higher,’ he said. ‘I want to find this unoccupied village they spoke of, and then we will drink that beer. It can’t be far. We will drink the beer and throw away the bottles. And then, Firmin, I shall ask you to look at things in a more generous light.... Because, you know, you must....’

He turned about and for some time the only sound they made was the noise of their boots upon the loose stones of the way and the irregular breathing of Firmin.

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 that are still to be found in the mountains of North Italy, buildings that were used only in the high summer, and which it was the custom to leave locked up and deserted through all the winter and spring, and up to the middle of June. The buildings were of a soft-toned 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 weeds 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-coloured beasts, I expect, one sees on the roads below, and 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 rumour of the Romans had come into these parts, men drove 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 amidst this golden broom....’

He meditated over a busy mouthful of bread and cheese.

‘We ought to have brought a tankard for that beer,’ he said.

Firmin produced a folding aluminium cup, and the king was pleased to drink.

‘I wish, sir,’ said Firmin suddenly, ‘I could induce you at least to delay your decision——’

‘It’s no good talking, Firmin,’ said the king. ‘My mind’s as clear as daylight.’

‘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.’ He regarded his companion for a moment and then remarked: ‘Kingship!—what do YOU know of kingship, Firmin?

‘Yes,’ cried the king to his astonished counsellor. ‘For the first time in my life I am going to be a king. I am going to lead, and lead by my own authority. For a dozen generations my family has been a set of dummies in the hands of their advisers. Advisers! Now I am going to be a real king—and I am going to—to abolish, dispose of, finish, the crown to which I have been a slave. But what a world of paralysing shams this roaring stuff has ended! The rigid old world is in the melting-pot again, and I, who seemed to be no more than the stuffing inside a regal robe, I am a king among kings. I have to play my part at the head of things and put an end to blood and fire and idiot disorder.’

‘But, sir,’ protested Firmin.

‘This man Leblanc is right. The whole world has got to be a Republic, one and indivisible. You know that, and my duty is to make that easy. A king should lead his people; you want me to stick on their backs like some Old Man of the Sea. To-day must be a sacrament of kings. Our trust for mankind is done with and ended. We must part our robes among them, we must part our kingship among them, and say to them all, now the king in every one must rule the world.... Have you no sense of the magnificence of this occasion? You want me, Firmin, you want me to go up there and haggle like a damned little solicitor for some price, some compensation, some qualification....’

Firmin shrugged his shoulders and assumed an expression of despair. Meanwhile, he conveyed, one must eat.

For a time neither spoke, and the king ate and turned over in his mind the phrases of the speech he intended to make to the conference. By virtue of the antiquity of his crown he was to preside, and he intended to make his presidency memorable. Reassured of his eloquence, he considered the despondent and sulky Firmin for a space.

‘Firmin,’ he said, ‘you have idealised kingship.’

‘It has been my dream, sir,’ said Firmin sorrowfully, ‘to serve.’

‘At the levers, Firmin,’ said the king.

‘You are pleased to be unjust,’ said Firmin, deeply hurt.

‘I am pleased to be getting out of it,’ said the king.

‘Oh, Firmin,’ he went on, ‘have you no thought for me? Will you never realise that I am not only flesh and blood but an imagination—with its rights. I am a king in revolt against that fetter they put upon my head. I am a king awake. My reverend grandparents never in all their august lives had a waking moment. They loved the job that you, you advisers, gave them; they never had a doubt of it. It was like giving a doll to a woman who ought to have a child. They delighted in processions and opening things and being read addresses to, and visiting triplets and nonagenarians and all that sort of thing. Incredibly. They used to keep albums of cuttings from all the illustrated papers showing them at it, and if the press-cutting parcels grew thin they were worried. It was all that ever worried them. But there is something atavistic in me; I hark back to unconstitutional monarchs. They christened me too retrogressively, I think. I wanted to get things done. I was bored. I might have fallen into vice, most intelligent and energetic princes do, but the palace precautions were unusually thorough. I was brought up in the purest court the world has ever seen.... Alertly pure.... So I read books, Firmin, and went about asking questions. The thing was bound to happen to one of us sooner or later. Perhaps, too, very likely I’m not vicious. I don’t think I am.’

He reflected. ‘No,’ he said.

Firmin cleared his throat. ‘I don’t think you are, sir,’ he said. ‘You prefer——’

He stopped short. He had been going to say ‘talking.’ He substituted ‘ideas.’

‘That world of royalty!’ the king went on. ‘In a little while no one will understand it any more. It will become a riddle....

‘Among other things, it was a world of perpetual best clothes. Everything was in its best clothes for us, and usually wearing bunting. With a cinema watching to see we took it properly. If you are a king, Firmin, and you go and look at a regiment, it instantly stops whatever it is doing, changes into full uniform and presents arms. When my august parents went in a train the coal in the tender used to be whitened. It did, Firmin, and if coal had been white instead of black I have no doubt the authorities would have blackened it. That was the spirit of our treatment. People were always walking about with their faces to us. One never saw anything in profile. One got an impression of a world that was insanely focused on ourselves. And when I began to poke my little questions into the Lord Chancellor and the archbishop and all the rest of them, about what I should see if people turned round, the general effect I produced was that I wasn’t by any means displaying the Royal Tact they had expected of me....’

He meditated for a time.

‘And yet, you know, there is something in the kingship, Firmin. It stiffened up my august little grandfather. It gave my grandmother a kind of awkward dignity even when she was cross—and she was very often cross. They both had a profound sense of responsibility. My poor father’s health was wretched during his brief career; nobody outside the circle knows just how he screwed himself up to things. “My people expect it,” he used to say of this tiresome duty or that. Most of the things they made him do were silly—it was part of a bad tradition, but there was nothing silly in the way he set about them.... The spirit of kingship is a fine thing, Firmin; I feel it in my bones; I do not know what I might not be if I were not a king. I could die for my people, Firmin, and you couldn’t. No, don’t say you could die for me, because I know better. Don’t think I forget my kingship, Firmin, don’t imagine that. I am a king, a kingly king, by right divine. The fact that I am also a chattering young man makes not the slightest difference to that. But the proper text-book for kings, Firmin, is none of the court memoirs and Welt-Politik books you would have me read; it is old Fraser’s Golden Bough. Have you read that, Firmin?’

Firmin had. ‘Those were the authentic kings. In the end they were cut up and a bit given to everybody. They sprinkled the nations—with Kingship.’

Firmin turned himself round and faced his royal master.

‘What do you intend to do, sir?’ he asked. ‘If you will not listen to me, what do you propose to do this afternoon?’

The king flicked crumbs from his coat.

‘Manifestly war has to stop for ever, Firmin. Manifestly this can only be done by putting all the world under one government. Our crowns and flags are in the way. Manifestly they must go.’

‘Yes, sir,’ interrupted Firmin, ‘but WHAT government? I don’t see what government you get by a universal abdication!’

‘Well,’ said the king, with his hands about his knees, ‘WE shall be the government.’

‘The conference?’ exclaimed Firmin.

‘Who else?’ asked the king simply.

‘It’s perfectly simple,’ he added to Firmin’s tremendous silence.

‘But,’ cried Firmin, ‘you must have sanctions! Will there be no form of election, for example?’

‘Why should there be?’ asked the king, with intelligent curiosity.

‘The consent of the governed.’

‘Firmin, we are just going to lay down our differences and take over government. Without any election at all. Without any sanction. The governed will show their consent by silence. If any effective opposition arises we shall ask it to come in and help. The true sanction of kingship is the grip upon the sceptre. We aren’t going to worry people to vote for us. I’m certain the mass of men does not want to be bothered with such things.... We’ll contrive a way for any one interested to join in. That’s quite enough in the way of democracy. Perhaps later—when things don’t matter.... We shall govern all right, Firmin. Government only becomes difficult when the lawyers get hold of it, and since these troubles began the lawyers are shy. Indeed, come to think of it, I wonder where all the lawyers are.... Where are they? A lot, of course, were bagged, some of the worst ones, when they blew up my legislature. You never knew the late Lord Chancellor....

‘Necessities bury rights. And create them. Lawyers live on dead rights disinterred.... We’ve done with that way of living. We won’t have more law than a code can cover and beyond that government will be free....

‘Before the sun sets to-day, Firmin, trust me, we shall have made our abdications, all of us, and declared the World Republic, supreme and indivisible. I wonder what my august grandmother would have made of it! All my rights! . . . And then we shall go on governing. What else is there to do? All over the world we shall declare that there is no longer mine or thine, but ours. China, the United States, two-thirds of Europe, will certainly fall in and obey. They will have to do so. What else can they do? Their official rulers are here with us. They won’t be able to get together any sort of idea of not obeying us.... Then we shall declare that every sort of property is held in trust for the Republic....’

‘But, sir!’ cried Firmin, suddenly enlightened. ‘Has this been arranged already?’

‘My dear Firmin, do you think we have come here, all of us, to talk at large? The talking has been done for half a century. Talking and writing. We are here to set the new thing, the simple, obvious, necessary thing, going.’

He stood up.

Firmin, forgetting the habits of a score of years, remained seated.

‘WELL,’ he said at last. ‘And I have known nothing!’

The king smiled very cheerfully. He liked these talks with Firmin.