THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
IT was a park of tanks, a huge zoo of fabulous-looking iron monsters, by hundreds lined up round the hedges of their fields! I felt a momentary shock that I had brought no buns, so homely and decent looked these rows behind rows of patient Behemoths. But hardly had I alighted, and absorbed the staggering fact of my whereabouts, than a further shock obliterated even that, and wiped out the tanks, and carried me whirling across the world. For there came along a flash of blue, and then another, — of a blue strangely familiar, yet grostesquely unexpected here. Abruptly, violently, I was back upon the northern plains of China, jogging along from dawn to dusk over the loess lands of Shensi or Kansu, and through gray little walled cities filled with just such twinkling, ruddy faces as these. And here they all were again, in a Picardy valley, in attendance on tanks.
For several minutes the shock really did take me between wind and water. I could not talk very coherently to anybody, or study very intelligently the insides of the tanks in their gigantic hangars: I did so fiercely want to be once more out of all this, and away into the peace of Asia. And I had a terrified wonder all the time whether I might not at any corner hear the voice of Elder Brother, or the Groom, or Old Ai. If I had, it would, as the Americans say, have ‘broken me all up.’ However, no actual old friend appeared, but they were all old friends really. For these were not slim and furtive, pussy-footed Southerners: they were just the fellows that I knew, the jolly lads of the North, always ready to laugh and be friendly.
I like the poetic justice of finding them here, too. It strikes home in the very bull’s-eye of one’s brain, to find the oldest of civilized races — or the only one — visibly and actually taking its part against Kultur. It is a good omen, and there is a beautiful irony about putting China and the tanks together. Here are these uncouth great engines, the very latest word in the mechanism of massacre, and here in attendance on them, laughing and singing, the representatives of that race to which we owe almost all the mechanism we have, the race which has invented the origins of everything we are, yet itself has always rested content to go as far as convenience required and no further.
But my friends have suffered often enough from my passion for what I regard as the ideals of Asia; you cannot wonder if all my emotions leap at the sight of Chinese tending tanks. Progress and civilization mean to us only an advance in physical comfort for ourselves or discomfort for other people — trains, telephones, tanks, tubes; the confusion is as old as Christendom, between comfort and happiness, the ideal and the machine. We have, of course, been on the wrong tack, in fact, for a thousand years, but I think people in general are beginning to realize the error. At least the darkened world is all astir with doubts and wonders. Mr. Wells’s new kindness to God is a fair symptom that the times of error, besides being very evil, are also waxing late.
Altogether I have no doubt that this war is turning every one to thinking; otherwise, indeed, what would be the use of it? Meanwhile, I take you back to the tanks. Do not fancy that the Chinese play any part with these, except that of coolies and fetchers and carriers in the hangars. (Though I should not be surprised if they came to be even better than we are at camouflage if they are allowed to try their hand. It is a game that would exactly suit them, and once they are interested, they always improve on their model.)
Dazed as Sheba’s Queen, I wandered on through a long succession of these hangars, filled with innumerable multitudes of parts and pieces, all to me alike unintelligible. But the huge, massive orderliness of the whole scene is in itself overwhelming. You might take it as a microcosm of the war itself. The long, high-arched dimness of each hangar is full of life: trolleys come and go on little rails, Chinese sit singing at their task of tagging camouflage nets, or run errands for some commanding soldier who knows no word of their language. But he gets along with his new allies quite easily all the same; they are a good crowd to handle, these Shantung fellows, as bright and sharp as needles, if they are decently treated and joked with, and allowed to be interested in their work. Here and there, in corners or separate sheds, are invalid tanks themselves, like trunkless sick elephants, waiting to be looked after; on one of them you can still read in Russian its supposed Russian destination, painted on its flank to mislead, in the days when the secret of the tanks and their purpose was still being kept in the dark.
But most of them are outside in the fields, some sheeted and some bare, monstrous and prehistoric in their rows. They really are terrifying things, oppressively evil and ominous. They daunt one’s imagination to such an extent that I should always have the instinct to run away if I saw a tank advancing down upon me, even if I knew quite well that it was a perfectly friendly tank, which was bringing me tea. And I think I realize why it is they are so dreadful.
Humanity has an old ancestral horror of everything that moves otherwise than on feet or wheels. That is the only choice for all respectable decent movables; we hate slugs and snakes and snails, for instance, and everything that goes uncannily on its belly (women, being the older half of us, have that hatred even stronger than men). And it is for the very same reason that one’s primitive instinct loathes the tanks. They break the law of foot-or-wheel; it makes them unrighteous and frightening merely in themselves, without a thought of their guns and terrors. In fact, it is obvious to compare them to slugs: neither has anything apparent to move with, yet they do move.
E pur si muove: it is this that makes them so malign.
I do not feel that they waddle, as John Buchan says: their footless advance is ponderous, even, and smooth — exactly like the unctuous, inexorable advance of the great bulks that develop upon you in nightmare. As one climbs inside, however, one has no such comparisons, but rather feels as if one were prosaically getting into a ’bus. A ’bus not built for passengers, though: one crouches, and clutches, and braces one’s feet, and clings passionately to any projection that comes handy (usually it is a boiling-water pipe), as off the thing goes lumbering. Over the ground it monumentally grinds; it is filled with clangor and roar, and emits eldritch screeches as it goes: the pandemonium is deafening, and as it turns it has a sleek, horrible effect of skidding. Anyhow, it is not from inside that you best appreciate the marvelousness of a tank: there you are merely deafened, dithered, and ‘churned to a pummy.’
But imagine some music-hall on Olympus, and the time come for a tank to do its ‘turn.’ Before it there is a deep trench, or pit, more than thirty feet across, and as many deep. The rounded rhomboidal mass of Behemoth sits leadenly on the far side, lifting his blunted nose. Then, with a jangling roar, the monster starts. ‘Without the smallest plunge or caper,’ he advances implacably toward the trench; his nose hangs over, his fore-quarters, half his body — more. Behemoth’s centre of gravity must lie incredibly far back: for it seems a long age, and a monstrous miracle of magic, as he hangs out across the trench. One shivers in endless anticipation of the critical instant when the inevitable happens, and Behemoth nose-dives into the depths with a cataclysmal crash. And then, slowly, agonizingly, he rootles up again on the near side, horribly like a gigantic, footless beast in agony, entrapped, nuzzling and nosing his way up, and up, and up, until he staggers, half-erect, against the brink; and so, higher and yet higher, and yet higher, till at last once more the centre of gravity is passed, and with a shattering crash, Behemoth falls forward on his belly again, and, after a few wild rockings fro and back, blandly proceeds toward his next trial.
This, let us take it, is a big square pile of built-up earth, walled in and breasted up with wood-balks, till it is the size of a cottage, but many times stronger, being quite solid. Were it a cottage, in fact, it would crumble at the first moment of Behemoth’s pressure; as it is, the balks and solid bulk withstand him, as his snout ascends its sides, up, and up, until his mass seems to stand straight, erect in air, and he threatens apparently to fall backwards at any moment. But at the crucial instant, — just as this appears inevitable, — victory is gained, and Behemoth smashes down square upon the top, and subsides there, rocking. After a moment of sitting poised, however, he crawls forward again — out over the farther edge of the pile, until it is an anguish to see how far he hangs over, yet does not fall. Forward, forward, he still proceeds, though, and with a crash like an earthquake takes a header once more to earth. But the rest of him is still to follow: onward gropes his snout, and onward, till with a far worse crash than the last, his whole bulk falls square to earth again, with wilder, more reverberating rockings than ever.
I tell you, it really is a fearsome sight: and what the Chinese must think of it all, one simply cannot conceive. And even this is only Behemoth at peace. Imagine Behemoth enraged, with tusks of red fire projecting on either flank, drunkenly wallowing across the shell-shattered earth in his implacable advance, and cuddling cottages and shelters into crumbles with the dreadful, smooth rootlings of his snout; and you may begin to form a faint notion of the fear that fell upon the Amalekites when first they saw this new product of evolution.