“The Shrinkage of the Planet” — Jack London

“The Shrinkage of the Planet” by Jack London

What a tremendous affair it was, the world of Homer, with its indeterminate boundaries, vast regions, and immeasurable distances.  The Mediterranean and the Euxine were illimitable stretches of ocean waste over which years could be spent in endless wandering.  On their mysterious shores were the improbable homes of impossible peoples.  The Great Sea, the Broad Sea, the Boundless Sea; the Ethiopians, “dwelling far away, the most distant of men,” and the Cimmerians, “covered with darkness and cloud,” where “baleful night is spread over timid mortals.”  Phœnicia was a sore journey, Egypt simply unattainable, while the Pillars of Hercules marked the extreme edge of the universe.  Ulysses was nine days in sailing from Ismarus the city of the Ciconians, to the country of the Lotus-eaters—a period of time which to-day would breed anxiety in the hearts of the underwriters should it be occupied by the slowest tramp steamer in traversing the Mediterranean and Black Seas from Gibraltar to Sebastopol.

Homer’s world, restricted to less than a drummer’s circuit, was nevertheless immense, surrounded by a thin veneer of universe—the Stream of Ocean.  But how it has shrunk!  To-day, precisely charted, weighed, and measured, a thousand times larger than the world of Homer, it is become a tiny speck, gyrating to immutable law through a universe the bounds of which have been pushed incalculably back.  The light of Algol shines upon it—a light which travels at one hundred and ninety thousand miles per second, yet requires forty-seven years to reach its destination.  And the denizens of this puny ball have come to know that Algol possesses an invisible companion, three and a quarter millions of miles away, and that the twain move in their respective orbits at rates of fifty-five and twenty-six miles per second.  They also know that beyond it are great chasms of space, innumerable worlds, and vast star systems.

While much of the shrinkage to which the planet has been subjected is due to the increased knowledge of mathematics and physics, an equal, if not greater, portion may be ascribed to the perfection of the means of locomotion and communication.  The enlargement of stellar space, demonstrating with stunning force the insignificance of the earth, has been negative in its effect; but the quickening of travel and intercourse, by making the earth’s parts accessible and knitting them together, has been positive.

The advantage of the animal over the vegetable kingdom is obvious.  The cabbage, should its environment tend to become worse, must live it out, or die; the rabbit may move on in quest of a better.  But, after all, the swift-footed creatures are circumscribed in their wanderings.  The first large river almost inevitably bars their way, and certainly the first salt sea becomes an impassable obstacle.  Better locomotion may be classed as one of the prime aims of the old natural selection; for in that primordial day the race was to the swift as surely as the battle to the strong.  But man, already pre-eminent in the common domain because of other faculties, was not content with the one form of locomotion afforded by his lower limbs.  He swam in the sea, and, still better, becoming aware of the buoyant virtues of wood, learned to navigate its surface.  Likewise, from among the land animals he chose the more likely to bear him and his burdens.  The next step was the domestication of these useful aids.  Here, in its organic significance, natural selection ceased to concern itself with locomotion.  Man had displayed his impatience at her tedious methods and his own superiority in the hastening of affairs.  Thenceforth he must depend upon himself, and faster-swimming or faster-running men ceased to be bred.  The one, half-amphibian, breasting the water with muscular arms, could not hope to overtake or escape an enemy who propelled a fire-hollowed tree trunk by means of a wooden paddle; nor could the other, trusting to his own nimbleness, compete with a foe who careered wildly across the plain on the back of a half-broken stallion. Continue reading ““The Shrinkage of the Planet” — Jack London”

“The Cupboard of the Yesterdays” — Saki

“The Cupboard of the Yesterdays” — Saki

“War is a cruelly destructive thing,” said the Wanderer, dropping his newspaper to the floor and staring reflectively into space.

“Ah, yes, indeed,” said the Merchant, responding readily to what seemed like a safe platitude; “when one thinks of the loss of life and limb, the desolated homesteads, the ruined—”

“I wasn’t thinking of anything of the sort,” said the Wanderer; “I was thinking of the tendency that modern war has to destroy and banish the very elements of picturesqueness and excitement that are its chief excuse and charm.  It is like a fire that flares up brilliantly for a while and then leaves everything blacker and bleaker than before.  After every important war in South-East Europe in recent times there has been a shrinking of the area of chronically disturbed territory, a stiffening of frontier lines, an intrusion of civilised monotony.  And imagine what may happen at the conclusion of this war if the Turk should really be driven out of Europe.”

“Well, it would be a gain to the cause of good government, I suppose,” said the Merchant.

“But have you counted the loss?” said the other.  “The Balkans have long been the last surviving shred of happy hunting-ground for the adventurous, a playground for passions that are fast becoming atrophied for want of exercise.  In old bygone days we had the wars in the Low Countries always at our doors, as it were; there was no need to go far afield into malaria-stricken wilds if one wanted a life of boot and saddle and licence to kill and be killed.  Those who wished to see life had a decent opportunity for seeing death at the same time.”

“It is scarcely right to talk of killing and bloodshed in that way,” said the Merchant reprovingly; “one must remember that all men are brothers.”

“One must also remember that a large percentage of them are younger brothers; instead of going into bankruptcy, which is the usual tendency of the younger brother nowadays, they gave their families a fair chance of going into mourning.  Every bullet finds a billet, according to a rather optimistic proverb, and you must admit that nowadays it is becoming increasingly difficult to find billets for a lot of young gentlemen who would have adorned, and probably thoroughly enjoyed, one of the old-time happy-go-lucky wars.  But that is not exactly the burden of my complaint.  The Balkan lands are especially interesting to us in these rapidly-moving days because they afford us the last remaining glimpse of a vanishing period of European history.  When I was a child one of the earliest events of the outside world that forced itself coherently under my notice was a war in the Balkans; I remember a sunburnt, soldierly man putting little pin-flags in a war-map, red flags for the Turkish forces and yellow flags for the Russians.  It seemed a magical region, with its mountain passes and frozen rivers and grim battlefields, its drifting snows, and prowling wolves; there was a great stretch of water that bore the sinister but engaging name of the Black Sea—nothing that I ever learned before or after in a geography lesson made the same impression on me as that strange-named inland sea, and I don’t think its magic has ever faded out of my imagination.  And there was a battle called Plevna that went on and on with varying fortunes for what seemed like a great part of a lifetime; I remember the day of wrath and mourning when the little red flag had to be taken away from Plevna—like other maturer judges, I was backing the wrong horse, at any rate the losing horse.  And now to-day we are putting little pin-flags again into maps of the Balkan region, and the passions are being turned loose once more in their playground.”

“The war will be localised,” said the Merchant vaguely; “at least every one hopes so.”

“It couldn’t wish for a better locality,” said the Wanderer; “there is a charm about those countries that you find nowhere else in Europe, the charm of uncertainty and landslide, and the little dramatic happenings that make all the difference between the ordinary and the desirable.”

“Life is held very cheap in those parts,” said the Merchant.

“To a certain extent, yes,” said the Wanderer.  “I remember a man at Sofia who used to teach me Bulgarian in a rather inefficient manner, interspersed with a lot of quite wearisome gossip.  I never knew what his personal history was, but that was only because I didn’t listen; he told it to me many times.  After I left Bulgaria he used to send me Sofia newspapers from time to time.  I felt that he would be rather tiresome if I ever went there again.  And then I heard afterwards that some men came in one day from Heaven knows where, just as things do happen in the Balkans, and murdered him in the open street, and went away as quietly as they had come.  You will not understand it, but to me there was something rather piquant in the idea of such a thing happening to such a man; after his dullness and his long-winded small-talk it seemed a sort of brilliant esprit d’esalier on his part to meet with an end of such ruthlessly planned and executed violence.”

The Merchant shook his head; the piquancy of the incident was not within striking distance of his comprehension.

“I should have been shocked at hearing such a thing about any one I had known,” he said.

“The present war,” continued his companion, without stopping to discuss two hopelessly divergent points of view, “may be the beginning of the end of much that has hitherto survived the resistless creeping-in of civilisation.  If the Balkan lands are to be finally parcelled out between the competing Christian Kingdoms and the haphazard rule of the Turk banished to beyond the Sea of Marmora, the old order, or disorder if you like, will have received its death-blow.  Something of its spirit will linger perhaps for a while in the old charmed regions where it bore sway; the Greek villagers will doubtless be restless and turbulent and unhappy where the Bulgars rule, and the Bulgars will certainly be restless and turbulent and unhappy under Greek administration, and the rival flocks of the Exarchate and Patriarchate will make themselves intensely disagreeable to one another wherever the opportunity offers; the habits of a lifetime, of several lifetimes, are not laid aside all at once.  And the Albanians, of course, we shall have with us still, a troubled Moslem pool left by the receding wave of Islam in Europe.  But the old atmosphere will have changed, the glamour will have gone; the dust of formality and bureaucratic neatness will slowly settle down over the time-honoured landmarks; the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, the Muersteg Agreement, the Komitadje bands, the Vilayet of Adrianople, all those familiar outlandish names and things and places, that we have known so long as part and parcel of the Balkan Question, will have passed away into the cupboard of yesterdays, as completely as the Hansa League and the wars of the Guises.

“They were the heritage that history handed down to us, spoiled and diminished no doubt, in comparison with yet earlier days that we never knew, but still something to thrill and enliven one little corner of our Continent, something to help us to conjure up in our imagination the days when the Turk was thundering at the gates of Vienna.  And what shall we have to hand down to our children?  Think of what their news from the Balkans will be in the course of another ten or fifteen years.  Socialist Congress at Uskub, election riot at Monastir, great dock strike at Salonika, visit of the Y.M.C.A. to Varna.  Varna—on the coast of that enchanted sea!  They will drive out to some suburb to tea, and write home about it as the Bexhill of the East.

“War is a wickedly destructive thing.”

“Still, you must admit—” began the Merchant.  But the Wanderer was not in the mood to admit anything.  He rose impatiently and walked to where the tape-machine was busy with the news from Adrianople.