IN THE DAYS OF THE COMET
BY H. G. WELLS
"The World's Great Age begins anew,
The Golden Years return,
The Earth doth like a Snake renew
Her Winter Skin outworn:
Heaven smiles, and Faiths and Empires gleam
Like Wrecks of a Dissolving Dream."
THE MAN WHO WROTE IN THE TOWER . . . 3
BOOK THE FIRST
I. DUST IN THE SHADOWS . . . . . . 9
II. NETTIE . . . . . . . . . . . . 52
III. THE REVOLVER . . . . . . . . . 89
IV. WAR . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152
V. THE PURSUIT OF THE TWO LOVERS . . 184
BOOK THE SECOND
THE GREEN VAPORS
I. THE CHANGE . . . . . . . . . 221
II. THE AWAKENING . . . . . . . . . 252
III. THE CABINET COUNCIL . . . . . . . 279
BOOK THE THIRD
THE NEW WORLD
I. LOVE AFTER THE CHANGE . . . . . . 303
II. MY MOTHER'S LAST DAYS . . . . . . 335
III. BELTANE AND NEW YEAR'S EVE . . . 353
THE WINDOW OF THE TOWER . . . . . . . 375
IN THE DAYS OF THE COMET
THE MAN WHO WROTE IN THE TOWER
I SAW a gray-haired man, a figure of hale age, sitting at a desk
He seemed to be in a room in a tower, very high, so that through
the tall window on his left one perceived only distances, a remote
horizon of sea, a headland and that vague haze and glitter in the
sunset that many miles away marks a city. All the appointments of
this room were orderly and beautiful, and in some subtle quality,
in this small difference and that, new to me and strange. They were
in no fashion I could name, and the simple costume the man wore
suggested neither period nor country. It might, I thought, be the
Happy Future, or Utopia, or the Land of Simple Dreams; an errant
mote of memory, Henry James's phrase and story of "The Great Good
Place," twinkled across my mind, and passed and left no light.
The man I saw wrote with a thing like a fountain pen, a modern touch
that prohibited any historical retrospection, and as he finished
each sheet, writing in an easy flowing hand, he added it to a growing
pile upon a graceful little table under the window. His last done
sheets lay loose, partly covering others that were clipped together
Clearly he was unaware of my presence, and I stood waiting until
his pen should come to a pause. Old as he certainly was
he wrote with a steady hand. . . .
I discovered that a concave speculum hung slantingly high over his
head; a movement in this caught my attention sharply, and I looked
up to see, distorted and made fantastic but bright and beautifully
colored, the magnified, reflected, evasive rendering of a palace,
of a terrace, of the vista of a great roadway with many people,
people exaggerated, impossible-looking because of the curvature of
the mirror, going to and fro. I turned my head quickly that I might
see more clearly through the window behind me, but it was too high
for me to survey this nearer scene directly, and after a momentary
pause I came back to that distorting mirror again.
But now the writer was leaning back in his chair. He put down his
pen and sighed the half resentful sigh—"ah! you, work, you! how
you gratify and tire me!"—of a man who has been writing to his
"What is this place," I asked, "and who are you?"
He looked around with the quick movement of surprise.
"What is this place?" I repeated, "and where am I?"
He regarded me steadfastly for a moment under his wrinkled brows,
and then his expression softened to a smile. He pointed to a chair
beside the table. "I am writing," he said.
"About the change."
I sat down. It was a very comfortable chair, and well placed under
"If you would like to read—" he said.
I indicated the manuscript. "This explains?" I asked.
"That explains," he answered.
He drew a fresh sheet of paper toward him as he looked at me.
I glanced from him about his apartment and back to the little
table. A fascicle marked very distinctly "1" caught my attention,
and I took it up. I smiled in his friendly eyes. "Very well," said
I, suddenly at my ease, and he nodded and went on writing. And in
a mood between confidence and curiosity, I began to read.
This is the story that happy, active-looking old man in that pleasant
place had written.
BOOK THE FIRST
CHAPTER THE FIRST
DUST IN THE SHADOWS
I HAVE set myself to write the story of the Great Change, so far
as it has affected my own life and the lives of one or two people
closely connected with me, primarily to please myself.
Long ago in my crude unhappy youth, I conceived the desire of
writing a book. To scribble secretly and dream of authorship was
one of my chief alleviations, and I read with a sympathetic envy
every scrap I could get about the world of literature and the
lives of literary people. It is something, even amidst this present
happiness, to find leisure and opportunity to take up and partially
realize these old and hopeless dreams. But that alone, in a world
where so much of vivid and increasing interest presents itself to
be done, even by an old man, would not, I think, suffice to set
me at this desk. I find some such recapitulation of my past as
this will involve, is becoming necessary to my own secure mental
continuity. The passage of years brings a man at last to retrospection;
at seventy-two one's youth is far more important than it was at
forty. And I am out of touch with my youth. The old life seems so
cut off from the new, so alien and so unreasonable, that at times
I find it bordering upon the incredible. The data have gone, the
buildings and places. I stopped dead the other afternoon in my walk
across the moor, where once the dismal outskirts of Swathinglea
straggled toward Leet, and asked, "Was it here indeed that I
crouched among the weeds and refuse and broken crockery and loaded
my revolver ready for murder? Did ever such a thing happen in my
life? Was such a mood and thought and intention ever possible to
me? Rather, has not some queer nightmare spirit out of dreamland
slipped a pseudo-memory into the records of my vanished life?"
There must be many alive still who have the same perplexities. And
I think too that those who are now growing up to take our places
in the great enterprise of mankind, will need many such narratives
as mine for even the most partial conception of the old world
of shadows that came before our day. It chances too that my case
is fairly typical of the Change; I was caught midway in a gust
of passion; and a curious accident put me for a time in the very
nucleus of the new order.
My memory takes me back across the interval of fifty years to a
little ill-lit room with a sash window open to a starry sky, and
instantly there returns to me the characteristic smell of that
room, the penetrating odor of an ill-trimmed lamp, burning cheap
paraffin. Lighting by electricity had then been perfected for fifteen
years, but still the larger portion of the world used these lamps.
All this first scene will go, in my mind at least, to that olfactory
accompaniment. That was the evening smell of the room. By day
it had a more subtle aroma, a closeness, a peculiar sort of faint
pungency that I associate—I know not why—with dust.
Let me describe this room to you in detail. It was perhaps eight
feet by seven in area and rather higher than either of these
dimensions; the ceiling was of plaster, cracked and bulging in
places, gray with the soot of the lamp, and in one place discolored
by a system of yellow and olive-green stains caused by the percolation
of damp from above. The walls were covered with dun-colored paper,
upon which had been printed in oblique reiteration a crimson shape,
something of the nature of a curly ostrich feather, or an acanthus
flower, that had in its less faded moments a sort of dingy gaiety.
There were several big plaster-rimmed wounds in this, caused by
Parload's ineffectual attempts to get nails into the wall, whereby
there might hang pictures. One nail had hit between two bricks and
got home, and from this depended, sustained a little insecurely
by frayed and knotted blind-cord, Parload's hanging bookshelves,
planks painted over with a treacly blue enamel and further decorated
by a fringe of pinked American cloth insecurely fixed by tacks. Below
this was a little table that behaved with a mulish vindictiveness
to any knee that was thrust beneath it suddenly; it was covered
with a cloth whose pattern of red and black had been rendered less
monotonous by the accidents of Parload's versatile ink bottle, and
on it, leit motif of the whole, stood and stank the lamp. This lamp,
you must understand, was of some whitish translucent substance that
was neither china nor glass, it had a shade of the same substance,
a shade that did not protect the eyes of a reader in any measure,
and it seemed admirably adapted to bring into pitiless prominence
the fact that, after the lamp's trimming, dust and paraffin had
been smeared over its exterior with a reckless generosity.
The uneven floor boards of this apartment were covered with scratched
enamel of chocolate hue, on which a small island of frayed carpet
dimly blossomed in the dust and shadows.
There was a very small grate, made of cast-iron in one piece and
painted buff, and a still smaller misfit of a cast-iron fender
that confessed the gray stone of the hearth. No fire was laid, only
a few scraps of torn paper and the bowl of a broken corn-cob pipe
were visible behind the bars, and in the corner and rather thrust
away was an angular japanned coal-box with a damaged hinge. It
was the custom in those days to warm every room separately from a
separate fireplace, more prolific of dirt than heat, and the rickety
sash window, the small chimney, and the loose-fitting door were
expected to organize the ventilation of the room among themselves
without any further direction.
Parload's truckle bed hid its gray sheets beneath an old patchwork
counterpane on one side of the room, and veiled his boxes and
suchlike oddments, and invading the two corners of the window were
an old whatnot and the washhandstand, on which were distributed
the simple appliances of his toilet.
This washhandstand had been made of deal by some one with an
excess of turnery appliances in a hurry, who had tried to distract
attention from the rough economies of his workmanship by an arresting
ornamentation of blobs and bulbs upon the joints and legs. Apparently
the piece had then been placed in the hands of some person of
infinite leisure equipped with a pot of ocherous paint, varnish,
and a set of flexible combs. This person had first painted the
article, then, I fancy, smeared it with varnish, and then sat down
to work with the combs to streak and comb the varnish into a weird
imitation of the grain of some nightmare timber. The washhandstand so
made had evidently had a prolonged career of violent use, had been
chipped, kicked, splintered, punched, stained, scorched, hammered,
dessicated, damped, and defiled, had met indeed with almost every
possible adventure except a conflagration or a scrubbing, until at
last it had come to this high refuge of Parload's attic to sustain
the simple requirements of Parload's personal cleanliness. There
were, in chief, a basin and a jug of water and a slop-pail of tin,
and, further, a piece of yellow soap in a tray, a tooth-brush, a
rat-tailed shaving brush, one huckaback towel, and one or two other
minor articles. In those days only very prosperous people had more
than such an equipage, and it is to be remarked that every drop
of water Parload used had to be carried by an unfortunate servant
girl,—the "slavey," Parload called her—up from the basement to
the top of the house and subsequently down again. Already we begin
to forget how modern an invention is personal cleanliness. It is a
fact that Parload had never stripped for a swim in his life; never
had a simultaneous bath all over his body since his childhood. Not
one in fifty of us did in the days of which I am telling you.
A chest, also singularly grained and streaked, of two large and
two small drawers, held Parload's reserve of garments, and pegs
on the door carried his two hats and completed this inventory
of a "bed-sitting-room" as I knew it before the Change. But I had
forgotten—there was also a chair with a "squab" that apologized
inadequately for the defects of its cane seat. I forgot that for
the moment because I was sitting on the chair on the occasion that
best begins this story.
I have described Parload's room with such particularity because it
will help you to understand the key in which my earlier chapters
are written, but you must not imagine that this singular equipment
or the smell of the lamp engaged my attention at that time to the
slightest degree. I took all this grimy unpleasantness as if it
were the most natural and proper setting for existence imaginable.
It was the world as I knew it. My mind was entirely occupied then
by graver and intenser matters, and it is only now in the distant
retrospect that I see these details of environment as being
remarkable, as significant, as indeed obviously the outward visible
manifestations of the old world disorder in our hearts.
Parload stood at the open window, opera-glass in hand, and sought
and found and was uncertain about and lost again, the new comet.
I thought the comet no more than a nuisance then because I wanted
to talk of other matters. But Parload was full of it. My head was
hot, I was feverish with interlacing annoyances and bitterness,
I wanted to open my heart to him—at least I wanted to relieve my
heart by some romantic rendering of my troubles—and I gave but
little heed to the things he told me. It was the first time I had
heard of this new speck among the countless specks of heaven, and
I did not care if I never heard of the thing again.
We were two youths much of an age together, Parload was two and
twenty, and eight months older than I. He was—I think his proper
definition was "engrossing clerk" to a little solicitor in Overcastle,
while I was third in the office staff of Rawdon's pot-bank in
Clayton. We had met first in the "Parliament" of the Young Men's
Christian Association of Swathinglea; we had found we attended
simultaneous classes in Overcastle, he in science and I in shorthand,
and had started a practice of walking home together, and so our
friendship came into being. (Swathinglea, Clayton, and Overcastle
were contiguous towns, I should mention, in the great industrial
area of the Midlands.) We had shared each other's secret of religious
doubt, we had confided to one another a common interest in Socialism,
he had come twice to supper at my mother's on a Sunday night, and
I was free of his apartment. He was then a tall, flaxen-haired,
gawky youth, with a disproportionate development of neck and wrist,
and capable of vast enthusiasm; he gave two evenings a week to
the evening classes of the organized science school in Overcastle,
physiography was his favorite "subject," and through this insidious
opening of his mind the wonder of outer space had come to take
possession of his soul. He had commandeered an old opera-glass
from his uncle who farmed at Leet over the moors, he had bought a
cheap paper planisphere and Whitaker's Almanac, and for a time day
and moonlight were mere blank interruptions to the one satisfactory
reality in his life—star-gazing. It was the deeps that had seized
him, the immensities, and the mysterious possibilities that might
float unlit in that unplumbed abyss. With infinite labor and the
help of a very precise article in The Heavens, a little monthly
magazine that catered for those who were under this obsession, he
had at last got his opera-glass upon the new visitor to our system
from outer space. He gazed in a sort of rapture upon that quivering
little smudge of light among the shining pin-points—and gazed. My
troubles had to wait for him.
"Wonderful," he sighed, and then as though his first emphasis did
not satisfy him, "wonderful!"
He turned to me. "Wouldn't you like to see?"
I had to look, and then I had to listen, how that this scarce-visible
intruder was to be, was presently to be, one of the largest comets
this world has ever seen, how that its course must bring it within
at most—so many score of millions of miles from the earth, a mere
step, Parload seemed to think that; how that the spectroscope was
already sounding its chemical secrets, perplexed by the unprecedented
band in the green, how it was even now being photographed in the
very act of unwinding—in an unusual direction—a sunward tail
(which presently it wound up again), and all the while in a sort
of undertow I was thinking first of Nettie Stuart and the letter
she had just written me, and then of old Rawdon's detestable face
as I had seen it that afternoon. Now I planned answers to Nettie
and now belated repartees to my employer, and then again "Nettie"
was blazing all across the background of my thoughts. . . .
Nettie Stuart was daughter of the head gardener of the rich Mr.
Verrall's widow, and she and I had kissed and become sweethearts
before we were eighteen years old. My mother and hers were second
cousins and old schoolfellows, and though my mother had been widowed
untimely by a train accident, and had been reduced to letting lodgings
(she was the Clayton curate's landlady), a position esteemed much
lower than that of Mrs. Stuart, a kindly custom of occasional
visits to the gardener's cottage at Checkshill Towers still kept
the friends in touch. Commonly I went with her. And I remember it
was in the dusk of one bright evening in July, one of those long
golden evenings that do not so much give way to night as admit at
last, upon courtesy, the moon and a choice retinue of stars, that
Nettie and I, at the pond of goldfish where the yew-bordered walks
converged, made our shy beginners' vow. I remember still—something
will always stir in me at that memory—the tremulous emotion of
that adventure. Nettie was dressed in white, her hair went off in
waves of soft darkness from above her dark shining eyes; there was
a little necklace of pearls about her sweetly modeled neck, and
a little coin of gold that nestled in her throat. I kissed her
half-reluctant lips, and for three years of my life thereafter—nay!
I almost think for all the rest of her life and mine—I could have
died for her sake.
You must understand—and every year it becomes increasingly difficult
to understand—how entirely different the world was then from what
it is now. It was a dark world; it was full of preventable disorder,
preventable diseases, and preventable pain, of harshness and stupid
unpremeditated cruelties; but yet, it may be even by virtue of
the general darkness, there were moments of a rare and evanescent
beauty that seem no longer possible in my experience. The
great Change has come for ever more, happiness and beauty are our
atmosphere, there is peace on earth and good will to all men. None
would dare to dream of returning to the sorrows of the former time,
and yet that misery was pierced, ever and again its gray curtain was
stabbed through and through by joys of an intensity, by perceptions
of a keenness that it seems to me are now altogether gone out
of life. Is it the Change, I wonder, that has robbed life of its
extremes, or is it perhaps only this, that youth has left me—even
the strength of middle years leaves me now—and taken its despairs
and raptures, leaving me judgment, perhaps, sympathy, memories?
I cannot tell. One would need to be young now and to have been
young then as well, to decide that impossible problem.
Perhaps a cool observer even in the old days would have found little
beauty in our grouping. I have our two photographs at hand in this
bureau as I write, and they show me a gawky youth in ill-fitting
ready-made clothing, and Nettie—Indeed Nettie is badly dressed,
and her attitude is more than a little stiff; but I can see her
through the picture, and her living brightness and something of
that mystery of charm she had for me, comes back again to my mind.
Her face has triumphed over the photographer—or I would long ago
have cast this picture away.
The reality of beauty yields itself to no words. I wish that I had
the sister art and could draw in my margin something that escapes
description. There was a sort of gravity in her eyes. There was
something, a matter of the minutest difference, about her upper
lip so that her mouth closed sweetly and broke very sweetly to a
smile. That grave, sweet smile!
After we had kissed and decided not to tell our parents for awhile
of the irrevocable choice we had made, the time came for us to part,
shyly and before others, and I and my mother went off back across
the moonlit park—the bracken thickets rustling with startled deer—to
the railway station at Checkshill and so to our dingy basement in
Clayton, and I saw no more of Nettie—except that I saw her in my
thoughts—for nearly a year. But at our next meeting it was decided
that we must correspond, and this we did with much elaboration
of secrecy, for Nettie would have no one at home, not even her
only sister, know of her attachment. So I had to send my precious
documents sealed and under cover by way of a confidential schoolfellow
of hers who lived near London. . . . I could write that address
down now, though house and street and suburb have gone beyond any
Our correspondence began our estrangement, because for the first
time we came into more than sensuous contact and our minds sought
Now you must understand that the world of thought in those days was
in the strangest condition, it was choked with obsolete inadequate
formulae, it was tortuous to a maze-like degree with secondary
contrivances and adaptations, suppressions, conventions, and
subterfuges. Base immediacies fouled the truth on every man's
lips. I was brought up by my mother in a quaint old-fashioned narrow
faith in certain religious formulae, certain rules of conduct,
certain conceptions of social and political order, that had no more
relevance to the realities and needs of everyday contemporary life
than if they were clean linen that had been put away with lavender
in a drawer. Indeed, her religion did actually smell of lavender;
on Sundays she put away all the things of reality, the garments and
even the furnishings of everyday, hid her hands, that were gnarled
and sometimes chapped with scrubbing, in black, carefully mended
gloves, assumed her old black silk dress and bonnet and took me,
unnaturally clean and sweet also, to church. There we sang and
bowed and heard sonorous prayers and joined in sonorous responses,
and rose with a congregational sigh refreshed and relieved when the
doxology, with its opening "Now to God the Father, God the Son,"
bowed out the tame, brief sermon. There was a hell in that religion
of my mother's, a red-haired hell of curly flames that had once
been very terrible; there was a devil, who was also ex officio the
British King's enemy, and much denunciation of the wicked lusts
of the flesh; we were expected to believe that most of our poor
unhappy world was to atone for its muddle and trouble here by
suffering exquisite torments for ever after, world without end,
Amen. But indeed those curly flames looked rather jolly. The whole
thing had been mellowed and faded into a gentle unreality long
before my time; if it had much terror even in my childhood I have
forgotten it, it was not so terrible as the giant who was killed
by the Beanstalk, and I see it all now as a setting for my poor
old mother's worn and grimy face, and almost lovingly as a part
of her. And Mr. Gabbitas, our plump little lodger, strangely
transformed in his vestments and lifting his voice manfully to
the quality of those Elizabethan prayers, seemed, I think, to give
her a special and peculiar interest with God. She radiated her
own tremulous gentleness upon Him, and redeemed Him from all the
implications of vindictive theologians; she was in truth, had I
but perceived it, the effectual answer to all she would have taught
So I see it now, but there is something harsh in the earnest
intensity of youth, and having at first taken all these things quite
seriously, the fiery hell and God's vindictiveness at any neglect,
as though they were as much a matter of fact as Bladden's iron-works
and Rawdon's pot-bank, I presently with an equal seriousness flung
them out of my mind again.
Mr. Gabbitas, you see, did sometimes, as the phrase went, "take
notice" of me, he had induced me to go on reading after I left
school, and with the best intentions in the world and to anticipate
the poison of the times, he had lent me Burble's "Scepticism
Answered," and drawn my attention to the library of the Institute
The excellent Burble was a great shock to me. It seemed clear from
his answers to the sceptic that the case for doctrinal orthodoxy
and all that faded and by no means awful hereafter, which I had
hitherto accepted as I accepted the sun, was an extremely poor
one, and to hammer home that idea the first book I got from the
Institute happened to be an American edition of the collected works
of Shelley, his gassy prose as well as his atmospheric verse. I was
soon ripe for blatant unbelief. And at the Young Men's Christian
Association I presently made the acquaintance of Parload, who told
me, under promises of the most sinister secrecy, that he was "a
Socialist out and out." He lent me several copies of a periodical
with the clamant title of The Clarion, which was just taking up a
crusade against the accepted religion. The adolescent years of any
fairly intelligent youth lie open, and will always lie healthily
open, to the contagion of philosophical doubts, of scorns and new
ideas, and I will confess I had the fever of that phase badly. Doubt,
I say, but it was not so much doubt—which is a complex thing—as
startled emphatic denial. "Have I believed THIS!" And I was also,
you must remember, just beginning love-letters to Nettie.
We live now in these days, when the Great Change has been in most
things accomplished, in a time when every one is being educated to a
sort of intellectual gentleness, a gentleness that abates nothing
from our vigor, and it is hard to understand the stifled and
struggling manner in which my generation of common young men did
its thinking. To think at all about certain questions was an act
of rebellion that set one oscillating between the furtive and the
defiant. People begin to find Shelley—for all his melody—noisy
and ill conditioned now because his Anarchs have vanished, yet there
was a time when novel thought HAD to go to that tune of breaking
glass. It becomes a little difficult to imagine the yeasty state
of mind, the disposition to shout and say, "Yah!" at constituted
authority, to sustain a persistent note of provocation such as we
raw youngsters displayed. I began to read with avidity such writing
as Carlyle, Browning, and Heine have left for the perplexity
of posterity, and not only to read and admire but to imitate. My
letters to Nettie, after one or two genuinely intended displays of
perfervid tenderness, broke out toward theology, sociology, and the
cosmos in turgid and startling expressions. No doubt they puzzled
I retain the keenest sympathy and something inexplicably near to
envy for my own departed youth, but I should find it difficult to
maintain my case against any one who would condemn me altogether as
having been a very silly, posturing, emotional hobbledehoy indeed
and quite like my faded photograph. And when I try to recall what
exactly must have been the quality and tenor of my more sustained
efforts to write memorably to my sweetheart, I confess I shiver. . .
Yet I wish they were not all destroyed.
Her letters to me were simple enough, written in a roundish,
unformed hand and badly phrased. Her first two or three showed a
shy pleasure in the use of the word "dear," and I remember being
first puzzled and then, when I understood, delighted, because she
had written "Willie ASTHORE" under my name. "Asthore," I gathered,
meant "darling." But when the evidences of my fermentation began,
her answers were less happy.
I will not weary you with the story of how we quarreled in our
silly youthful way, and how I went the next Sunday, all uninvited,
to Checkshill, and made it worse, and how afterward I wrote a letter
that she thought was "lovely," and mended the matter. Nor will I
tell of all our subsequent fluctuations of misunderstanding. Always
I was the offender and the final penitent until this last trouble
that was now beginning; and in between we had some tender near
moments, and I loved her very greatly. There was this misfortune
in the business, that in the darkness, and alone, I thought with
great intensity of her, of her eyes, of her touch, of her sweet
and delightful presence, but when I sat down to write I thought of
Shelley and Burns and myself, and other such irrelevant matters.
When one is in love, in this fermenting way, it is harder to make
love than it is when one does not love at all. And as for Nettie,
she loved, I know, not me but those gentle mysteries. It was not
my voice should rouse her dreams to passion. . . So our letters
continued to jar. Then suddenly she wrote me one doubting whether
she could ever care for any one who was a Socialist and did not
believe in Church, and then hard upon it came another note with
unexpected novelties of phrasing. She thought we were not suited
to each other, we differed so in tastes and ideas, she had long
thought of releasing me from our engagement. In fact, though I really
did not apprehend it fully at the first shock, I was dismissed.
Her letter had reached me when I came home after old Rawdon's none
too civil refusal to raise my wages. On this particular evening of
which I write, therefore, I was in a state of feverish adjustment
to two new and amazing, two nearly overwhelming facts, that I was
neither indispensable to Nettie nor at Rawdon's. And to talk of
Where did I stand?
I had grown so accustomed to think of Nettie as inseparably
mine—the whole tradition of "true love" pointed me to that—that
for her to face about with these precise small phrases toward
abandonment, after we had kissed and whispered and come so close
in the little adventurous familiarities of the young, shocked me
profoundly. I! I! And Rawdon didn't find me indispensable either.
I felt I was suddenly repudiated by the universe and threatened
with effacement, that in some positive and emphatic way I must at
once assert myself. There was no balm in the religion I had learnt,
or in the irreligion I had adopted, for wounded self-love.
Should I fling up Rawdon's place at once and then in some extraordinary,
swift manner make the fortune of Frobisher's adjacent and closely
The first part of that program, at any rate, would be easy of
accomplishment, to go to Rawdon and say, "You will hear from me
again," but for the rest, Frobisher might fail me. That, however,
was a secondary issue. The predominant affair was with Nettie.
I found my mind thick-shot with flying fragments of rhetoric that
might be of service in the letter I would write her. Scorn, irony,
tenderness—what was it to be?
"Brother!" said Parload, suddenly.
"What?" said I.
"They're firing up at Bladden's iron-works, and the smoke comes
right across my bit of sky."
The interruption came just as I was ripe to discharge my thoughts
"Parload," said I, "very likely I shall have to leave all this. Old
Rawdon won't give me a rise in my wages, and after having asked I
don't think I can stand going on upon the old terms anymore. See?
So I may have to clear out of Clayton for good and all."
That made Parload put down the opera-glass and look at me.
"It's a bad time to change just now," he said after a little pause.
Rawdon had said as much, in a less agreeable tone.
But with Parload I felt always a disposition to the heroic note.
"I'm tired," I said, "of humdrum drudgery for other men. One may
as well starve one's body out of a place as to starve one's soul
"I don't know about that altogether," began Parload, slowly. . . .
And with that we began one of our interminable conversations, one
of those long, wandering, intensely generalizing, diffusely personal
talks that will be dear to the hearts of intelligent youths until
the world comes to an end. The Change has not abolished that,
It would be an incredible feat of memory for me now to recall all
that meandering haze of words, indeed I recall scarcely any of it,
though its circumstances and atmosphere stand out, a sharp, clear
picture in my mind. I posed after my manner and behaved very foolishly
no doubt, a wounded, smarting egotist, and Parload played his part
of the philosopher preoccupied with the deeps.
We were presently abroad, walking through the warm summer's night
and talking all the more freely for that. But one thing that I
said I can remember. "I wish at times," said I, with a gesture at
the heavens, "that comet of yours or some such thing would indeed
strike this world—and wipe us all away, strikes, wars, tumults,
loves, jealousies, and all the wretchedness of life!"
"Ah!" said Parload, and the thought seemed to hang about him.
"It could only add to the miseries of life," he said irrelevantly,
when presently I was discoursing of other things.
"Collision with a comet. It would only throw things back. It would
only make what was left of life more savage than it is at present."
"But why should ANYTHING be left of life?" said I. . . .
That was our style, you know, and meanwhile we walked together up
the narrow street outside his lodging, up the stepway and the lanes
toward Clayton Crest and the high road.
But my memories carry me back so effectually to those days before
the Change that I forget that now all these places have been altered
beyond recognition, that the narrow street and the stepway and the
view from Clayton Crest, and indeed all the world in which I was
born and bred and made, has vanished clean away, out of space and
out of time, and wellnigh out of the imagination of all those who
are younger by a generation than I. You cannot see, as I can see,
the dark empty way between the mean houses, the dark empty way
lit by a bleary gas-lamp at the corner, you cannot feel the hard
checkered pavement under your boots, you cannot mark the dimly lit
windows here and there, and the shadows upon the ugly and often
patched and crooked blinds of the people cooped within. Nor can you
presently pass the beerhouse with its brighter gas and its queer,
screening windows, nor get a whiff of foul air and foul language
from its door, nor see the crumpled furtive figure—some rascal
child—that slinks past us down the steps.
We crossed the longer street, up which a clumsy steam tram, vomiting
smoke and sparks, made its clangorous way, and adown which one
saw the greasy brilliance of shop fronts and the naphtha flares of
hawkers' barrows dripping fire into the night. A hazy movement of
people swayed along that road, and we heard the voice of an itinerant
preacher from a waste place between the houses. You cannot see these
things as I can see them, nor can you figure—unless you know the
pictures that great artist Hyde has left the world—the effect of
the great hoarding by which we passed, lit below by a gas-lamp and
towering up to a sudden sharp black edge against the pallid sky.
Those hoardings! They were the brightest colored things in all
that vanished world. Upon them, in successive layers of paste and
paper, all the rough enterprises of that time joined in chromatic
discord; pill vendors and preachers, theaters and charities,
marvelous soaps and astonishing pickles, typewriting machines and
sewing machines, mingled in a sort of visualized clamor. And passing
that there was a muddy lane of cinders, a lane without a light,
that used its many puddles to borrow a star or so from the sky. We
splashed along unheeding as we talked.
Then across the allotments, a wilderness of cabbages and evil-looking
sheds, past a gaunt abandoned factory, and so to the high road.
The high road ascended in a curve past a few houses and a beerhouse
or so, and round until all the valley in which four industrial
towns lay crowded and confluent was overlooked.
I will admit that with the twilight there came a spell of weird
magnificence over all that land and brooded on it until dawn. The
horrible meanness of its details was veiled, the hutches that were
homes, the bristling multitudes of chimneys, the ugly patches of
unwilling vegetation amidst the makeshift fences of barrel-stave
and wire. The rusty scars that framed the opposite ridges where
the iron ore was taken and the barren mountains of slag from the
blast furnaces were veiled; the reek and boiling smoke and dust
from foundry, pot-bank, and furnace, transfigured and assimilated
by the night. The dust-laden atmosphere that was gray oppression
through the day became at sundown a mystery of deep translucent
colors, of blues and purples, of somber and vivid reds, of strange
bright clearnesses of green and yellow athwart the darkling sky.
Each upstart furnace, when its monarch sun had gone, crowned itself
with flames, the dark cinder heaps began to glow with quivering
fires, and each pot-bank squatted rebellious in a volcanic coronet of
light. The empire of the day broke into a thousand feudal baronies
of burning coal. The minor streets across the valley picked themselves
out with gas-lamps of faint yellow, that brightened and mingled at
all the principal squares and crossings with the greenish pallor of
incandescent mantles and the high cold glare of the electric arc.
The interlacing railways lifted bright signal-boxes over their
intersections, and signal stars of red and green in rectangular
constellations. The trains became articulated black serpents
Moreover, high overhead, like a thing put out of reach and near
forgotten, Parload had rediscovered a realm that was ruled by
neither sun nor furnace, the universe of stars.
This was the scene of many a talk we two had held together. And
if in the daytime we went right over the crest and looked westward
there was farmland, there were parks and great mansions, the spire
of a distant cathedral, and sometimes when the weather was near
raining, the crests of remote mountains hung clearly in the sky.
Beyond the range of sight indeed, out beyond, there was Checkshill;
I felt it there always, and in the darkness more than I did by day.
Checkshill, and Nettie!
And to us two youngsters as we walked along the cinder path beside
the rutted road and argued out our perplexities, it seemed that
this ridge gave us compendiously a view of our whole world.
There on the one hand in a crowded darkness, about the ugly factories
and work-places, the workers herded together, ill clothed, ill
nourished, ill taught, badly and expensively served at every occasion
in life, uncertain even of their insufficient livelihood from day
to day, the chapels and churches and public-houses swelling up amidst
their wretched homes like saprophytes amidst a general corruption,
and on the other, in space, freedom, and dignity, scarce heeding
the few cottages, as overcrowded as they were picturesque, in which
the laborers festered, lived the landlords and masters who owned
pot-banks and forge and farm and mine. Far away, distant, beautiful,
irrelevant, from out of a little cluster of secondhand bookshops,
ecclesiastical residences, and the inns and incidentals of a decaying
market town, the cathedral of Lowchester pointed a beautiful,
unemphatic spire to vague incredible skies. So it seemed to us that
the whole world was planned in those youthful first impressions.
We saw everything simple, as young men will. We had our angry, confident
solutions, and whosoever would criticize them was a friend of the
robbers. It was a clear case of robbery, we held, visibly so; there
in those great houses lurked the Landlord and the Capitalist, with
his scoundrel the Lawyer, with his cheat the Priest, and we others
were all the victims of their deliberate villainies. No doubt they
winked and chuckled over their rare wines, amidst their dazzling,
wickedly dressed women, and plotted further grinding for the faces
of the poor. And amidst all the squalor on the other hand, amidst
brutalities, ignorance, and drunkenness, suffered multitudinously
their blameless victim, the Working Man. And we, almost at the
first glance, had found all this out, it had merely to be asserted
now with sufficient rhetoric and vehemence to change the face
of the whole world. The Working Man would arise—in the form of a
Labor Party, and with young men like Parload and myself to represent
him—and come to his own, and then———?
Then the robbers would get it hot, and everything would be extremely
Unless my memory plays me strange tricks that does no injustice
to the creed of thought and action that Parload and I held as the
final result of human wisdom. We believed it with heat, and rejected
with heat the most obvious qualification of its harshness. At
times in our great talks we were full of heady hopes for the near
triumph of our doctrine, more often our mood was hot resentment
at the wickedness and stupidity that delayed so plain and simple a
reconstruction of the order of the world. Then we grew malignant,
and thought of barricades and significant violence. I was very
bitter, I know, upon this night of which I am now particularly
telling, and the only face upon the hydra of Capitalism and Monopoly
that I could see at all clearly, smiled exactly as old Rawdon had
smiled when he refused to give me more than a paltry twenty shillings
I wanted intensely to salve my self-respect by some revenge upon
him, and I felt that if that could be done by slaying the hydra, I
might drag its carcass to the feet of Nettie, and settle my other
trouble as well. "What do you think of me NOW, Nettie?"
That at any rate comes near enough to the quality of my thinking,
then, for you to imagine how I gesticulated and spouted to Parload
that night. You figure us as little black figures, unprepossessing in
the outline, set in the midst of that desolating night of flaming
industrialism, and my little voice with a rhetorical twang
protesting, denouncing. . . .
You will consider those notions of my youth poor silly violent
stuff; particularly if you are of the younger generation born since
the Change you will be of that opinion. Nowadays the whole world
thinks clearly, thinks with deliberation, pellucid certainties, you
find it impossible to imagine how any other thinking could have
been possible. Let me tell you then how you can bring yourself
to something like the condition of our former state. In the first
place you must get yourself out of health by unwise drinking and
eating, and out of condition by neglecting your exercise, then you
must contrive to be worried very much and made very anxious and
uncomfortable, and then you must work very hard for four or five
days and for long hours every day at something too petty to be
interesting, too complex to be mechanical, and without any personal
significance to you whatever. This done, get straightway into
a room that is not ventilated at all, and that is already full of
foul air, and there set yourself to think out some very complicated
problem. In a very little while you will find yourself in a state
of intellectual muddle, annoyed, impatient, snatching at the obvious
presently in choosing and rejecting conclusions haphazard. Try
to play chess under such conditions and you will play stupidly and
lose your temper. Try to do anything that taxes the brain or temper
and you will fail.
Now, the whole world before the Change was as sick and feverish as
that, it was worried and overworked and perplexed by problems that
would not get stated simply, that changed and evaded solution, it
was in an atmosphere that had corrupted and thickened past breathing;
there was no thorough cool thinking in the world at all. There
was nothing in the mind of the world anywhere but half-truths,
hasty assumptions, hallucinations, and emotions. Nothing. . . .
I know it seems incredible, that already some of the younger men
are beginning to doubt the greatness of the Change our world has
undergone, but read—read the newspapers of that time. Every age
becomes mitigated and a little ennobled in our minds as it recedes
into the past. It is the part of those who like myself have stories
of that time to tell, to supply, by a scrupulous spiritual realism,
some antidote to that glamour.
Always with Parload I was chief talker.
I can look back upon myself with, I believe, an almost perfect
detachment, things have so changed that indeed now I am another
being, with scarce anything in common with that boastful foolish
youngster whose troubles I recall. I see him vulgarly theatrical,
egotistical, insincere, indeed I do not like him save with
that instinctive material sympathy that is the fruit of incessant
intimacy. Because he was myself I may be able to feel and write
understandingly about motives that will put him out of sympathy
with nearly every reader, but why should I palliate or defend his
Always, I say, I did the talking, and it would have amazed me
beyond measure if any one had told me that mine was not the greater
intelligence in these wordy encounters. Parload was a quiet youth,
and stiff and restrained in all things, while I had that supreme
gift for young men and democracies, the gift of copious expression.
Parload I diagnosed in my secret heart as a trifle dull; he posed
as pregnant quiet, I thought, and was obsessed by the congenial
notion of "scientific caution." I did not remark that while my hands
were chiefly useful for gesticulation or holding a pen Parload's
hands could do all sorts of things, and I did not think therefore
that fibers must run from those fingers to something in his brain.
Nor, though I bragged perpetually of my shorthand, of my literature,
of my indispensable share in Rawdon's business, did Parload lay
stress on the conics and calculus he "mugged" in the organized
science school. Parload is a famous man now, a great figure in
a great time, his work upon intersecting radiations has broadened
the intellectual horizon of mankind for ever, and I, who am at best
a hewer of intellectual wood, a drawer of living water, can smile,
and he can smile, to think how I patronized and posed and jabbered
over him in the darkness of those early days.
That night I was shrill and eloquent beyond measure. Rawdon was, of
course, the hub upon which I went round—Rawdon and the Rawdonesque
employer and the injustice of "wages slavery" and all the immediate
conditions of that industrial blind alley up which it seemed our
lives were thrust. But ever and again I glanced at other things.
Nettie was always there in the background of my mind, regarding
me enigmatically. It was part of my pose to Parload that I had
a romantic love-affair somewhere away beyond the sphere of our
intercourse, and that note gave a Byronic resonance to many of the
nonsensical things I produced for his astonishment.
I will not weary you with too detailed an account of the talk of a
foolish youth who was also distressed and unhappy, and whose voice
was balm for the humiliations that smarted in his eyes. Indeed,
now in many particulars I cannot disentangle this harangue of which
I tell from many of the things I may have said in other talks to
Parload. For example, I forget if it was then or before or afterwards
that, as it were by accident, I let out what might be taken as an
admission that I was addicted to drugs.
"You shouldn't do that," said Parload, suddenly. "It won't do to
poison your brains with that."
My brains, my eloquence, were to be very important assets
to our party in the coming revolution. . . .
But one thing does clearly belong to this particular conversation
I am recalling. When I started out it was quite settled in the back
of my mind that I must not leave Rawdon's. I simply wanted to abuse
my employer to Parload. But I talked myself quite out of touch
with all the cogent reasons there were for sticking to my place,
and I got home that night irrevocably committed to a spirited—not
to say a defiant—policy with my employer.
"I can't stand Rawdon's much longer," I said to Parload by way of
"There's hard times coming," said Parload.
"Sooner. The Americans have been overproducing, and they mean to
dump. The iron trade is going to have convulsions."
"I don't care. Pot-banks are steady."
"With a corner in borax? No. I've heard—"
"What have you heard?"
"Office secrets. But it's no secret there's trouble coming to
potters. There's been borrowing and speculation. The masters don't
stick to one business as they used to do. I can tell that much.
Half the valley may be 'playing' before two months are out." Parload
delivered himself of this unusually long speech in his most pithy
and weighty manner.
"Playing" was our local euphemism for a time when there was no work
and no money for a man, a time of stagnation and dreary hungry
loafing day after day. Such interludes seemed in those days a
necessary consequence of industrial organization.
"You'd better stick to Rawdon's," said Parload.
"Ugh," said I, affecting a noble disgust.
"There'll be trouble," said Parload.
"Who cares?" said I. "Let there be trouble—the more the better.
This system has got to end, sooner or later. These capitalists with
their speculation and corners and trusts make things go from bad to
worse. Why should I cower in Rawdon's office, like a frightened dog,
while hunger walks the streets? Hunger is the master revolutionary.
When he comes we ought to turn out and salute him. Anyway, I'M
going to do so now."
"That's all very well," began Parload.
"I'm tired of it," I said. "I want to come to grips with all these
Rawdons. I think perhaps if I was hungry and savage I could talk
to hungry men—"
"There's your mother," said Parload, in his slow judicial way.
That WAS a difficulty.
I got over it by a rhetorical turn. "Why should one sacrifice
the future of the world—why should one even sacrifice one's own
future—because one's mother is totally destitute of imagination?"
It was late when I parted from Parload and came back to my own
Our house stood in a highly respectable little square near
the Clayton parish church. Mr. Gabbitas, the curate of all work,
lodged on our ground floor, and upstairs there was an old lady,
Miss Holroyd, who painted flowers on china and maintained her blind
sister in an adjacent room; my mother and I lived in the basement
and slept in the attics. The front of the house was veiled by
a Virginian creeper that defied the Clayton air and clustered in
untidy dependent masses over the wooden porch.
As I came up the steps I had a glimpse of Mr. Gabbitas printing
photographs by candle light in his room. It was the chief delight
of his little life to spend his holiday abroad in the company of a
queer little snap-shot camera, and to return with a great multitude
of foggy and sinister negatives that he had made in beautiful and
interesting places. These the camera company would develop for him
on advantageous terms, and he would spend his evenings the year
through in printing from them in order to inflict copies upon his
undeserving friends. There was a long frameful of his work in the
Clayton National School, for example, inscribed in old English
lettering, "Italian Travel Pictures, by the Rev. E. B. Gabbitas."
For this it seemed he lived and traveled and had his being. It was
his only real joy. By his shaded light I could see his sharp little
nose, his little pale eyes behind his glasses, his mouth pursed up
with the endeavor of his employment.
"Hireling Liar," I muttered, for was not he also part of the system,
part of the scheme of robbery that made wages serfs of Parload and
me?—though his share in the proceedings was certainly small.
"Hireling Liar," said I, standing in the darkness, outside
even his faint glow of traveled culture. . .
My mother let me in.
She looked at me, mutely, because she knew there was something
wrong and that it was no use for her to ask what.
"Good night, mummy," said I, and kissed her a little roughly, and
lit and took my candle and went off at once up the staircase to
bed, not looking back at her.
"I've kept some supper for you, dear."
"Don't want any supper."
"Good night, mother," and I went up and slammed my door upon her,
blew out my candle, and lay down at once upon my bed, lay there a
long time before I got up to undress.
There were times when that dumb beseeching of my mother's face
irritated me unspeakably. It did so that night. I felt I had to
struggle against it, that I could not exist if I gave way to its
pleadings, and it hurt me and divided me to resist it, almost beyond
endurance. It was clear to me that I had to think out for myself
religious problems, social problems, questions of conduct, questions
of expediency, that her poor dear simple beliefs could not help me
at all—and she did not understand! Hers was the accepted religion,
her only social ideas were blind submissions to the accepted
order—to laws, to doctors, to clergymen, lawyers, masters, and all
respectable persons in authority over us, and with her to believe
was to fear. She knew from a thousand little signs—though still at
times I went to church with her—that I was passing out of touch of
all these things that ruled her life, into some terrible unknown.
From things I said she could infer such clumsy concealments as I
made. She felt my socialism, felt my spirit in revolt against the
accepted order, felt the impotent resentments that filled me with
bitterness against all she held sacred. Yet, you know, it was not
her dear gods she sought to defend so much as me! She seemed always
to be wanting to say to me, "Dear, I know it's hard—but revolt
is harder. Don't make war on it, dear—don't! Don't do anything to
offend it. I'm sure it will hurt you if you do—it will hurt you
if you do."
She had been cowed into submission, as so many women of that time
had been, by the sheer brutality of the accepted thing. The existing
order dominated her into a worship of abject observances. It had
bent her, aged her, robbed her of eyesight so that at fifty-five
she peered through cheap spectacles at my face, and saw it only
dimly, filled her with a habit of anxiety, made her hands———
Her poor dear hands! Not in the whole world now could you find a
woman with hands so grimy, so needle-worn, so misshapen by toil,
so chapped and coarsened, so evilly entreated. . . . At any rate,
there is this I can say for myself, that my bitterness against the
world and fortune was for her sake as well as for my own.
Yet that night I pushed by her harshly. I answered her curtly,
left her concerned and perplexed in the passage, and slammed my
door upon her.
And for a long time I lay raging at the hardship and evil of life,
at the contempt of Rawdon, and the loveless coolness of Nettie's
letter, at my weakness and insignificance, at the things I found
intolerable, and the things I could not mend. Over and over went
my poor little brain, tired out and unable to stop on my treadmill
of troubles. Nettie. Rawdon. My mother. Gabbitas. Nettie. . .
Suddenly I came upon emotional exhaustion. Some clock was striking
midnight. After all, I was young; I had these quick transitions.
I remember quite distinctly, I stood up abruptly, undressed very
quickly in the dark, and had hardly touched my pillow again before
I was asleep.
But how my mother slept that night I do not know.
Oddly enough, I do not blame myself for behaving like this to my
mother, though my conscience blames me acutely for my arrogance to
Parload. I regret my behavior to my mother before the days of the
Change, it is a scar among my memories that will always be a little
painful to the end of my days, but I do not see how something of
the sort was to be escaped under those former conditions. In that
time of muddle and obscurity people were overtaken by needs and
toil and hot passions before they had the chance of even a year or
so of clear thinking; they settled down to an intense and strenuous
application to some partial but immediate duty, and the growth of
thought ceased in them. They set and hardened into narrow ways.
Few women remained capable of a new idea after five and twenty,
few men after thirty-one or two. Discontent with the thing that
existed was regarded as immoral, it was certainly an annoyance, and
the only protest against it, the only effort against that universal
tendency in all human institutions to thicken and clog, to work
loosely and badly, to rust and weaken towards catastrophes, came
from the young—the crude unmerciful young. It seemed in those
days to thoughtful men the harsh law of being—that either we must
submit to our elders and be stifled, or disregard them, disobey them,
thrust them aside, and make our little step of progress before we
too ossified and became obstructive in our turn.
My pushing past my mother, my irresponsive departure to my own
silent meditations, was, I now perceive, a figure of the whole hard
relationship between parents and son in those days. There appeared
no other way; that perpetually recurring tragedy was, it seemed,
part of the very nature of the progress of the world. We did not
think then that minds might grow ripe without growing rigid, or
children honor their parents and still think for themselves. We were
angry and hasty because we stifled in the darkness, in a poisoned
and vitiated air. That deliberate animation of the intelligence
which is now the universal quality, that vigor with consideration,
that judgment with confident enterprise which shine through all
our world, were things disintegrated and unknown in the corrupting
atmosphere of our former state.
(So the first fascicle ended. I put it aside and looked for the
"Well?" said the man who wrote.
"This is fiction?"
"It's my story."
"But you— Amidst this beauty— You are not this ill-conditioned,
squalidly bred lad of whom I have been reading?"
He smiled. "There intervenes a certain Change," he said. "Have I
not hinted at that?"
I hesitated upon a question, then saw the second fascicle at hand,
and picked it up.)
CHAPTER THE SECOND
I CANNOT now remember (the story resumed), what interval separated
that evening on which Parload first showed me the comet—I think
I only pretended to see it then—and the Sunday afternoon I spent
Between the two there was time enough for me to give notice and
leave Rawdon's, to seek for some other situation very strenuously
in vain, to think and say many hard and violent things to my mother
and to Parload, and to pass through some phases of very profound
wretchedness. There must have been a passionate correspondence
with Nettie, but all the froth and fury of that has faded now out
of my memory. All I have clear now is that I wrote one magnificent
farewell to her, casting her off forever, and that I got in reply
a prim little note to say, that even if there was to be an end to
everything, that was no excuse for writing such things as I had done,
and then I think I wrote again in a vein I considered satirical.
To that she did not reply. That interval was at least three weeks,
and probably four, because the comet which had been on the first
occasion only a dubious speck in the sky, certainly visible only
when it was magnified, was now a great white presence, brighter
than Jupiter, and casting a shadow on its own account. It was
now actively present in the world of human thought, every one was
talking about it, every one was looking for its waxing splendor
as the sun went down—the papers, the music-halls, the hoardings,
Yes; the comet was already dominant before I went over to make
everything clear to Nettie. And Parload had spent two hoarded pounds
in buying himself a spectroscope, so that he could see for himself,
night after night, that mysterious, that stimulating line—the
unknown line in the green. How many times I wonder did I look at
the smudgy, quivering symbol of the unknown things that were rushing
upon us out of the inhuman void, before I rebelled? But at last I
could stand it no longer, and I reproached Parload very bitterly
for wasting his time in "astronomical dilettantism."
"Here," said I. "We're on the verge of the biggest lock-out in the
history of this countryside; here's distress and hunger coming,
here's all the capitalistic competitive system like a wound inflamed,
and you spend your time gaping at that damned silly streak of
nothing in the sky!"
Parload stared at me. "Yes, I do," he said slowly, as though it
was a new idea. "Don't I? . . . I wonder why."
"I want to start meetings of an evening on Howden's Waste."
"You think they'd listen?"
"They'd listen fast enough now."
"They didn't before," said Parload, looking at his pet instrument.
"There was a demonstration of unemployed at Swathinglea on Sunday.
They got to stone throwing."
Parload said nothing for a little while and I said several things.
He seemed to be considering something.
"But, after all," he said at last, with an awkward movement towards
his spectroscope, "that does signify something."
"What can it signify? You don't want me to believe in astrology.
What does it matter what flames in the heavens—when men are starving
"Science! What we want now is socialism—not science."
He still seemed reluctant to give up his comet.
"Socialism's all right," he said, "but if that thing up there WAS
to hit the earth it might matter."
"Nothing matters but human beings."
"Suppose it killed them all."
"Oh," said I, "that's Rot,"
"I wonder," said Parload, dreadfully divided in his allegiance.
He looked at the comet. He seemed on the verge of repeating his
growing information about the nearness of the paths of the earth
and comet, and all that might ensue from that. So I cut in with
something I had got out of a now forgotten writer called Ruskin,
a volcano of beautiful language and nonsensical suggestions, who
prevailed very greatly with eloquent excitable young men in those
days. Something it was about the insignificance of science and the
supreme importance of Life. Parload stood listening, half turned
towards the sky with the tips of his fingers on his spectroscope.
He seemed to come to a sudden decision.
"No. I don't agree with you, Leadford," he said. "You don't understand
Parload rarely argued with that bluntness of opposition. I was so
used to entire possession of our talk that his brief contradiction
struck me like a blow. "Don't agree with me!" I repeated.
"No," said Parload
"I believe science is of more importance than socialism," he said.
"Socialism's a theory. Science—science is something more."
And that was really all he seemed to be able to say.
We embarked upon one of those queer arguments illiterate young men
used always to find so heating. Science or Socialism? It was, of
course, like arguing which is right, left handedness or a taste for
onions, it was altogether impossible opposition. But the range of
my rhetoric enabled me at last to exasperate Parload, and his mere
repudiation of my conclusions sufficed to exasperate me, and we
ended in the key of a positive quarrel. "Oh, very well!" said I.
"So long as I know where we are!"
I slammed his door as though I dynamited his house, and went raging
down the street, but I felt that he was already back at the window
worshiping his blessed line in the green, before I got round the
I had to walk for an hour or so, before I was cool enough to go
And it was Parload who had first introduced me to socialism!
The most extraordinary things used to run through my head in those
days. I will confess that my mind ran persistently that evening upon
revolutions after the best French pattern, and I sat on a Committee
of Safety and tried backsliders. Parload was there, among the
prisoners, backsliderissimus, aware too late of the error of his
ways. His hands were tied behind his back ready for the shambles;
through the open door one heard the voice of justice, the rude
justice of the people. I was sorry, but I had to do my duty.
"If we punish those who would betray us to Kings," said I, with
a sorrowful deliberation, "how much the more must we punish those
who would give over the State to the pursuit of useless knowledge";
and so with a gloomy satisfaction sent him off to the guillotine.
"Ah, Parload! Parload! If only you'd listened to me earlier,
Parload. . . ."
None the less that quarrel made me extremely unhappy. Parload was
my only gossip, and it cost me much to keep away from him and think
evil of him with no one to listen to me, evening after evening.
That was a very miserable time for me, even before my last visit
to Checkshill. My long unemployed hours hung heavily on my hands.
I kept away from home all day, partly to support a fiction that
I was sedulously seeking another situation, and partly to escape
the persistent question in my mother's eyes. "Why did you quarrel
with Mr. Rawdon? Why DID you? Why do you keep on going about with
a sullen face and risk offending IT more?" I spent most of the
morning in the newspaper-room of the public library, writing
impossible applications for impossible posts—I remember that among
other things of the sort I offered my services to a firm of private
detectives, a sinister breed of traders upon base jealousies now
happily vanished from the world, and wrote apropos of an advertisement
for "stevedores" that I did not know what the duties of a stevedore
might be, but that I was apt and willing to learn—and in the
afternoons and evenings I wandered through the strange lights and
shadows of my native valley and hated all created things. Until my
wanderings were checked by the discovery that I was wearing out my
The stagnant inconclusive malaria of that time!
I perceive that I was an evil-tempered, ill-disposed youth with a
great capacity for hatred, BUT—
There was an excuse for hate.
It was wrong of me to hate individuals, to be rude, harsh,
and vindictive to this person or that, but indeed it would have
been equally wrong to have taken the manifest offer life made me,
without resentment. I see now clearly and calmly, what I then felt
obscurely and with an unbalanced intensity, that my conditions were
intolerable. My work was tedious and laborious and it took up an
unreasonable proportion of my time, I was ill clothed, ill fed,
ill housed, ill educated and ill trained, my will was suppressed
and cramped to the pitch of torture, I had no reasonable pride in
myself and no reasonable chance of putting anything right. It was
a life hardly worth living. That a large proportion of the people
about me had no better a lot, that many had a worse, does not
affect these facts. It was a life in which contentment would have
been disgraceful. If some of them were contented or resigned, so
much the worse for every one. No doubt it was hasty and foolish
of me to throw up my situation, but everything was so obviously
aimless and foolish in our social organization that I do not feel
disposed to blame myself even for that, except in so far as it
pained my mother and caused her anxiety.
Think of the one comprehensive fact of the lock-out!
That year was a bad year, a year of world-wide economic disorganization.
Through their want of intelligent direction the great "Trust" of
American ironmasters, a gang of energetic, narrow-minded furnace
owners, had smelted far more iron than the whole world had any demand
for. (In those days there existed no means of estimating any need
of that sort beforehand.) They had done this without even consulting
the ironmasters of any other country. During their period of activity
they had drawn into their employment a great number of workers,
and had erected a huge productive plant. It is manifestly just that
people who do headlong stupid things of this sort should suffer,
but in the old days it was quite possible, it was customary for
the real blunderers in such disasters, to shift nearly all the
consequences of their incapacity. No one thought it wrong for a
light-witted "captain of industry" who had led his workpeople into
overproduction, into the disproportionate manufacture, that is to
say, of some particular article, to abandon and dismiss them, nor
was there anything to prevent the sudden frantic underselling of
some trade rival in order to surprise and destroy his trade, secure
his customers for one's own destined needs, and shift a portion of
one's punishment upon him. This operation of spasmodic underselling
was known as "dumping." The American ironmasters were now dumping on
the British market. The British employers were, of course, taking
their loss out of their workpeople as much as possible, but in addition
they were agitating for some legislation that would prevent—not
stupid relative excess in production, but "dumping"—not the disease,
but the consequences of the disease. The necessary knowledge to
prevent either dumping or its causes, the uncorrelated production
of commodities, did not exist, but this hardly weighed with them
at all, and in answer to their demands there had arisen a curious
party of retaliatory-protectionists who combined vague proposals
for spasmodic responses to these convulsive attacks from foreign
manufacturers, with the very evident intention of achieving
financial adventures. The dishonest and reckless elements were
indeed so evident in this movement as to add very greatly to the
general atmosphere of distrust and insecurity, and in the recoil
from the prospect of fiscal power in the hands of the class of men
known as the "New Financiers," one heard frightened old-fashioned
statesmen asserting with passion that "dumping" didn't occur, or
that it was a very charming sort of thing to happen. Nobody would
face and handle the rather intricate truth of the business. The
whole effect upon the mind of a cool observer was of a covey of
unsubstantial jabbering minds drifting over a series of irrational
economic cataclysms, prices and employment tumbled about like towers
in an earthquake, and amidst the shifting masses were the common
work-people going on with their lives as well as they could,
suffering, perplexed, unorganized, and for anything but violent,
fruitless protests, impotent. You cannot hope now to understand
the infinite want of adjustment in the old order of things. At one
time there were people dying of actual starvation in India, while
men were burning unsalable wheat in America. It sounds like the
account of a particularly mad dream, does it not? It was a dream,
a dream from which no one on earth expected an awakening.
To us youngsters with the positiveness, the rationalism of youth,
it seemed that the strikes and lockouts, the overproduction and
misery could not possibly result simply from ignorance and want
of thought and feeling. We needed more dramatic factors than these
mental fogs, these mere atmospheric devils. We fled therefore to
that common refuge of the unhappy ignorant, a belief in callous
insensate plots—we called them "plots"—against the poor.
You can still see how we figured it in any museum by looking up
the caricatures of capital and labor that adorned the German and
American socialistic papers of the old time.
I had cast Nettie off in an eloquent epistle, had really imagined
the affair was over forever—"I've done with women," I said to
Parload—and then there was silence for more than a week.
Before that week was over I was wondering with a growing emotion
what next would happen between us.
I found myself thinking constantly of Nettie, picturing her—sometimes
with stern satisfaction, sometimes with sympathetic remorse—mourning,
regretting, realizing the absolute end that had come between us.
At the bottom of my heart I no more believed that there was an end
between us, than that an end would come to the world. Had we not
kissed one another, had we not achieved an atmosphere of whispering
nearness, breached our virgin shyness with one another? Of course
she was mine, of course I was hers, and separations and final
quarrels and harshness and distance were no more than flourishes
upon that eternal fact. So at least I felt the thing, however I
shaped my thoughts.
Whenever my imagination got to work as that week drew to its close,
she came in as a matter of course, I thought of her recurrently
all day and dreamt of her at night. On Saturday night I dreamt of
her very vividly. Her face was flushed and wet with tears, her
hair a little disordered, and when I spoke to her she turned away.
In some manner this dream left in my mind a feeling of distress
and anxiety. In the morning I had a raging thirst to see her.
That Sunday my mother wanted me to go to church very particularly.
She had a double reason for that; she thought that it would certainly
exercise a favorable influence upon my search for a situation
throughout the next week, and in addition Mr. Gabbitas, with
a certain mystery behind his glasses, had promised to see what he
could do for me, and she wanted to keep him up to that promise. I
half consented, and then my desire for Nettie took hold of me. I
told my mother I wasn't going to church, and set off about eleven
to walk the seventeen miles to Checkshill.
It greatly intensified the fatigue of that long tramp that the
sole of my boot presently split at the toe, and after I had cut the
flapping portion off, a nail worked through and began to torment
me. However, the boot looked all right after that operation and
gave no audible hint of my discomfort. I got some bread and cheese
at a little inn on the way, and was in Checkshill park about four.
I did not go by the road past the house and so round to the gardens,
but cut over the crest beyond the second keeper's cottage, along
a path Nettie used to call her own. It was a mere deer track. It
led up a miniature valley and through a pretty dell in which we
had been accustomed to meet, and so through the hollies and along
a narrow path close by the wall of the shrubbery to the gardens.
In my memory that walk through the park before I came upon Nettie
stands out very vividly. The long tramp before it is foreshortened
to a mere effect of dusty road and painful boot, but the bracken
valley and sudden tumult of doubts and unwonted expectations that
came to me, stands out now as something significant, as something
unforgettable, something essential to the meaning of all that
followed. Where should I meet her? What would she say? I had asked
these questions before and found an answer. Now they came again
with a trail of fresh implications and I had no answer for them at
all. As I approached Nettie she ceased to be the mere butt of my
egotistical self-projection, the custodian of my sexual pride, and
drew together and became over and above this a personality of her
own, a personality and a mystery, a sphinx I had evaded only to
I find a little difficulty in describing the quality of the old-world
love-making so that it may be understandable now.
We young people had practically no preparation at all for the stir
and emotions of adolescence. Towards the young the world maintained
a conspiracy of stimulating silences. There came no initiation.
There were books, stories of a curiously conventional kind that
insisted on certain qualities in every love affair and greatly
intensified one's natural desire for them, perfect trust, perfect
loyalty, lifelong devotion. Much of the complex essentials of
love were altogether hidden. One read these things, got accidental
glimpses of this and that, wondered and forgot, and so one grew.
Then strange emotions, novel alarming desires, dreams strangely
charged with feeling; an inexplicable impulse of self-abandonment
began to tickle queerly amongst the familiar purely egotistical
and materialistic things of boyhood and girlhood. We were like
misguided travelers who had camped in the dry bed of a tropical
river. Presently we were knee deep and neck deep in the flood.
Our beings were suddenly going out from ourselves seeking other
beings—we knew not why. This novel craving for abandonment to
some one of the other sex, bore us away. We were ashamed and full
of desire. We kept the thing a guilty secret, and were resolved to
satisfy it against all the world. In this state it was we drifted
in the most accidental way against some other blindly seeking
creature, and linked like nascent atoms.
We were obsessed by the books we read, by all the talk about us
that once we had linked ourselves we were linked for life. Then
afterwards we discovered that other was also an egotism, a thing
of ideas and impulses, that failed to correspond with ours.
So it was, I say, with the young of my class and most of the young
people in our world. So it came about that I sought Nettie on the
Sunday afternoon and suddenly came upon her, light bodied, slenderly
feminine, hazel eyed, with her soft sweet young face under the shady
brim of her hat of straw, the pretty Venus I had resolved should
be wholly and exclusively mine.
There, all unaware of me still, she stood, my essential feminine,
the embodiment of the inner thing in life for me—and moreover an
unknown other, a person like myself.
She held a little book in her hand, open as if she were walking
along and reading it. That chanced to be her pose, but indeed she was
standing quite still, looking away towards the gray and lichenous
shrubbery wall and, as I think now, listening. Her lips were a
little apart, curved to that faint, sweet shadow of a smile.
I recall with a vivid precision her queer start when she heard the
rustle of my approaching feet, her surprise, her eyes almost of
dismay for me. I could recollect, I believe, every significant word
she spoke during our meeting, and most of what I said to her. At
least, it seems I could, though indeed I may deceive myself. But
I will not make the attempt. We were both too ill-educated to
speak our full meanings, we stamped out our feelings with clumsy
stereotyped phrases; you who are better taught would fail to catch
our intention. The effect would be inanity. But our first words
I may give you, because though they conveyed nothing to me at the
time, afterwards they meant much.
"YOU, Willie!" she said.
"I have come," I said—forgetting in the instant all the elaborate
things I had intended to say. "I thought I would surprise you—"
She stared at me for a moment. I can see her pretty face now as
it looked at me—her impenetrable dear face. She laughed a queer
little laugh and her color went for a moment, and then so soon as
she had spoken, came back again.
"Surprise me at what?" she said with a rising note.
I was too intent to explain myself to think of what might lie in
"I wanted to tell you," I said, "that I didn't mean quite . . .
the things I put in my letter."
When I and Nettie had been sixteen we had been just of an age and
contemporaries altogether. Now we were a year and three-quarters
older, and she—her metamorphosis was almost complete, and I was
still only at the beginning of a man's long adolescence.
In an instant she grasped the situation. The hidden motives of her
quick ripened little mind flashed out their intuitive scheme of
action. She treated me with that neat perfection of understanding
a young woman has for a boy.
"But how did you come?" she asked.
I told her I had walked.
"Walked!" In an instant she was leading me towards the gardens.
I MUST be tired. I must come home with her at once and sit down.
Indeed it was near tea-time (the Stuarts had tea at the old-fashioned
hour of five). Every one would be SO surprised to see me. Fancy
walking! Fancy! But she supposed a man thought nothing of seventeen
miles. When COULD I have started!
All the while, keeping me at a distance, without even the touch of
"But, Nettie! I came over to talk to you?"
"My dear boy! Tea first, if you please! And besides—aren't we
The "dear boy" was a new note, that sounded oddly to me.
She quickened her pace a little.
"I wanted to explain—" I began.
Whatever I wanted to explain I had no chance to do so. I said a few
discrepant things that she answered rather by her intonation than
When we were well past the shrubbery, she slackened a little in
her urgency, and so we came along the slope under the beeches to
the garden. She kept her bright, straightforward-looking girlish
eyes on me as we went; it seemed she did so all the time, but now
I know, better than I did then, that every now and then she glanced
over me and behind me towards the shrubbery. And all the while,
behind her quick breathless inconsecutive talk she was thinking.
Her dress marked the end of her transition.
Can I recall it?
Not, I am afraid, in the terms a woman would use. But her bright
brown hair, which had once flowed down her back in a jolly pig-tail
tied with a bit of scarlet ribbon, was now caught up into an
intricacy of pretty curves above her little ear and cheek, and the
soft long lines of her neck; her white dress had descended to her
feet; her slender waist, which had once been a mere geographical
expression, an imaginary line like the equator, was now a thing
of flexible beauty. A year ago she had been a pretty girl's face
sticking out from a little unimportant frock that was carried upon
an extremely active and efficient pair of brown-stockinged legs.
Now there was coming a strange new body that flowed beneath her
clothes with a sinuous insistence. Every movement, and particularly
the novel droop of her hand and arm to the unaccustomed skirts she
gathered about her, and a graceful forward inclination that had come
to her, called softly to my eyes. A very fine scarf—I suppose you
would call it a scarf—of green gossamer, that some new wakened
instinct had told her to fling about her shoulders, clung now closely
to the young undulations of her body, and now streamed fluttering
out for a moment in a breath of wind, and like some shy independent
tentacle with a secret to impart, came into momentary contact with
She caught it back and reproved it.
We went through the green gate in the high garden wall. I held it
open for her to pass through, for this was one of my restricted
stock of stiff politenesses, and then for a second she was near
touching me. So we came to the trim array of flower-beds near the
head gardener's cottage and the vistas of "glass" on our left. We
walked between the box edgings and beds of begonias and into the
shadow of a yew hedge within twenty yards of that very pond with
the gold-fish, at whose brim we had plighted our vows, and so we
came to the wistaria-smothered porch.
The door was wide open, and she walked in before me. "Guess who
has come to see us!" she cried.
Her father answered indistinctly from the parlor, and a chair
creaked. I judged he was disturbed in his nap.
"Mother!" she called in her clear young voice. "Puss!"
Puss was her sister.
She told them in a marveling key that I had walked all the way from
Clayton, and they gathered about me and echoed her notes of surprise.
"You'd better sit down, Willie," said her father; "now you have got
here. How's your mother?"
He looked at me curiously as he spoke.
He was dressed in his Sunday clothes, a sort of brownish tweeds, but
the waistcoat was unbuttoned for greater comfort in his slumbers.
He was a brown-eyed ruddy man, and I still have now in my mind the
bright effect of the red-golden hairs that started out from his
cheek to flow down into his beard. He was short but strongly built,
and his beard and mustache were the biggest things about him. She
had taken all the possibility of beauty he possessed, his clear
skin, his bright hazel-brown eyes, and wedded them to a certain
quickness she got from her mother. Her mother I remember as
a sharp-eyed woman of great activity; she seems to me now to have
been perpetually bringing in or taking out meals or doing some
such service, and to me—for my mother's sake and my own—she was
always welcoming and kind. Puss was a youngster of fourteen perhaps,
of whom a hard bright stare, and a pale skin like her mother's, are
the chief traces on my memory. All these people were very kind to
me, and among them there was a common recognition, sometimes very
agreeably finding expression, that I was—"clever." They all stood
about me as if they were a little at a loss.
"Sit down!" said her father. "Give him a chair, Puss."
We talked a little stiffly—they were evidently surprised by my
sudden apparition, dusty, fatigued, and white faced; but Nettie
did not remain to keep the conversation going.
"There!" she cried suddenly, as if she were vexed. "I declare!"
and she darted out of the room.
"Lord! what a girl it is!" said Mrs. Stuart. "I don't know what's
come to her."
It was half an hour before Nettie came back. It seemed a long time
to me, and yet she had been running, for when she came in again
she was out of breath. In the meantime, I had thrown out casually
that I had given up my place at Rawdon's. "I can do better than
that," I said.
"I left my book in the dell," she said, panting. "Is tea
ready?" and that was her apology. . .
We didn't shake down into comfort even with the coming of the
tea-things. Tea at the gardener's cottage was a serious meal, with
a big cake and little cakes, and preserves and fruit, a fine spread
upon a table. You must imagine me, sullen, awkward, and preoccupied,
perplexed by the something that was inexplicably unexpected in
Nettie, saying little, and glowering across the cake at her, and all
the eloquence I had been concentrating for the previous twenty-four
hours, miserably lost somewhere in the back of my mind. Nettie's
father tried to set me talking; he had a liking for my gift of ready
speech, for his own ideas came with difficulty, and it pleased and
astonished him to hear me pouring out my views. Indeed, over there
I was, I think, even more talkative than with Parload, though to
the world at large I was a shy young lout. "You ought to write it
out for the newspapers," he used to say. "That's what you ought to
do. I never heard such nonsense."
Or, "You've got the gift of the gab, young man. We ought to ha'
made a lawyer of you."
But that afternoon, even in his eyes, I didn't shine. Failing any
other stimulus, he reverted to my search for a situation, but even
that did not engage me.
For a long time I feared I should have to go back to Clayton without
another word to Nettie, she seemed insensible to the need I felt
for a talk with her, and I was thinking even of a sudden demand
for that before them all. It was a transparent manoeuver of her
mother's who had been watching my face, that sent us out at last
together to do something—I forget now what—in one of the greenhouses.
Whatever that little mission may have been it was the merest, most
barefaced excuse, a door to shut, or a window to close, and I don't
think it got done.
Nettie hesitated and obeyed. She led the way through one of
the hot-houses. It was a low, steamy, brick-floored alley between
staging that bore a close crowd of pots and ferns, and behind big
branching plants that were spread and nailed overhead so as to make
an impervious cover of leaves, and in that close green privacy she
stopped and turned on me suddenly like a creature at bay.
"Isn't the maidenhair fern lovely?" she said, and looked at me with
eyes that said, "NOW."
"Nettie," I began, "I was a fool to write to you as I did."
She startled me by the assent that flashed out upon her face. But
she said nothing, and stood waiting.
"Nettie," I plunged, "I can't do without you. I—I love you."
"If you loved me," she said trimly, watching the white fingers
she plunged among the green branches of a selaginella, "could you
write the things you do to me?"
"I don't mean them," I said. "At least not always."
I thought really they were very good letters, and that Nettie was
stupid to think otherwise, but I was for the moment clearly aware
of the impossibility of conveying that to her.
"You wrote them."
"But then I tramp seventeen miles to say I don't mean them."
"Yes. But perhaps you do."
I think I was at a loss; then I said, not very clearly, "I don't."
"You think you—you love me, Willie. But you don't."
"I do. Nettie! You know I do."
For answer she shook her head.
I made what I thought was a most heroic plunge. "Nettie," I said,
"I'd rather have you than—than my own opinions."
The selaginella still engaged her. "You think so now," she said.
I broke out into protestations.
"No," she said shortly. "It's different now."
"But why should two letters make so much difference?" I said.
"It isn't only the letters. But it is different. It's different
She halted a little with that sentence, seeking her expression.
She looked up abruptly into my eyes and moved, indeed slightly,
but with the intimation that she thought our talk might end.
But I did not mean it to end like that.
"For good?" said I. "No! . . Nettie! Nettie! You don't mean that!"
"I do," she said deliberately, still looking at me, and with all
her pose conveying her finality. She seemed to brace herself for
the outbreak that must follow.
Of course I became wordy. But I did not submerge her. She stood
entrenched, firing her contradictions like guns into my scattered
discursive attack. I remember that our talk took the absurd form
of disputing whether I could be in love with her or not. And there
was I, present in evidence, in a deepening and widening distress
of soul because she could stand there, defensive, brighter and
prettier than ever, and in some inexplicable way cut off from me
You know, we had never been together before without little enterprises
of endearment, without a faintly guilty, quite delightful excitement.
I pleaded, I argued. I tried to show that even my harsh and difficult
letters came from my desire to come wholly into contact with her.
I made exaggerated fine statements of the longing I felt for her
when I was away, of the shock and misery of finding her estranged
and cool. She looked at me, feeling the emotion of my speech and
impervious to its ideas. I had no doubt—whatever poverty in my
words, coolly written down now—that I was eloquent then. I meant
most intensely what I said, indeed I was wholly concentrated upon
it. I was set upon conveying to her with absolute sincerity my
sense of distance, and the greatness of my desire. I toiled toward
her painfully and obstinately through a jungle of words.
Her face changed very slowly—by such imperceptible degrees as when
at dawn light comes into a clear sky. I could feel that I touched
her, that her hardness was in some manner melting, her determination
softening toward hesitations. The habit of an old familiarity lurked
somewhere within her. But she would not let me reach her.
"No," she cried abruptly, starting into motion.
She laid a hand on my arm. A wonderful new friendliness came into
her voice. "It's impossible, Willie. Everything is different
now—everything. We made a mistake. We two young sillies made a
mistake and everything is different for ever. Yes, yes."
She turned about.
"Nettie!" cried I, and still protesting, pursued her along the narrow
alley between the staging toward the hot-house door. I pursued her
like an accusation, and she went before me like one who is guilty
and ashamed. So I recall it now.
She would not let me talk to her again.
Yet I could see that my talk to her had altogether abolished
the clear-cut distance of our meeting in the park. Ever and again
I found her hazel eyes upon me. They expressed something novel—a
surprise, as though she realized an unwonted relationship, and a
sympathetic pity. And still—something defensive.
When we got back to the cottage, I fell talking rather more freely
with her father about the nationalization of railways, and my spirits
and temper had so far mended at the realization that I could still
produce an effect upon Nettie, that I was even playful with Puss.
Mrs. Stuart judged from that that things were better with me than
they were, and began to beam mightily.
But Nettie remained thoughtful and said very little. She was lost
in perplexities I could not fathom, and presently she slipped away
from us and went upstairs.
I was, of course, too footsore to walk back to Clayton, but I had
a shilling and a penny in my pocket for the train between Checkshill
and Two-Mile Stone, and that much of the distance I proposed to
do in the train. And when I got ready to go, Nettie amazed me by
waking up to the most remarkable solicitude for me. I must, she
said, go by the road. It was altogether too dark for the short way
to the lodge gates.
I pointed out that it was moonlight. "With the comet thrown in,"
said old Stuart.
"No," she insisted, "you MUST go by the road."
I still disputed.
She was standing near me. "To please ME," she urged, in a quick
undertone, and with a persuasive look that puzzled me. Even in the
moment I asked myself why should this please her?
I might have agreed had she not followed that up with, "The hollies
by the shrubbery are as dark as pitch. And there's the deer-hounds."
"I'm not afraid of the dark," said I. "Nor of the deer-hounds,
"But those dogs! Supposing one was loose!"
That was a girl's argument, a girl who still had to understand that
fear is an overt argument only for her own sex. I thought too of
those grisly lank brutes straining at their chains and the chorus
they could make of a night when they heard belated footsteps along
the edge of the Killing Wood, and the thought banished my wish to
please her. Like most imaginative natures I was acutely capable of
dreads and retreats, and constantly occupied with their suppression
and concealment, and to refuse the short cut when it might appear
that I did it on account of half a dozen almost certainly chained
dogs was impossible.
So I set off in spite of her, feeling valiant and glad to be
so easily brave, but a little sorry that she should think herself
crossed by me.
A thin cloud veiled the moon, and the way under the beeches was
dark and indistinct. I was not so preoccupied with my love-affairs
as to neglect what I will confess was always my custom at night
across that wild and lonely park. I made myself a club by fastening
a big flint to one end of my twisted handkerchief and tying the
other about my wrist, and with this in my pocket, went on comforted.
And it chanced that as I emerged from the hollies by the corner
of the shrubbery I was startled to come unexpectedly upon a young
man in evening dress smoking a cigar.
I was walking on turf, so that the sound I made was slight. He
stood clear in the moonlight, his cigar glowed like a blood-red
star, and it did not occur to me at the time that I advanced towards
him almost invisibly in an impenetrable shadow.
"Hullo," he cried, with a sort of amiable challenge. "I'm here
I came out into the light. "Who cares if you are?" said I.
I had jumped at once to an interpretation of his words. I knew that
there was an intermittent dispute between the House people and the
villager public about the use of this track, and it is needless to
say where my sympathies fell in that dispute.
"Eh?" he cried in surprise.
"Thought I would run away, I suppose," said I, and came close up
All my enormous hatred of his class had flared up at the sight of
his costume, at the fancied challenge of his words. I knew him. He
was Edward Verrall, son of the man who owned not only this great
estate but more than half of Rawdon's pot-bank, and who had interests
and possessions, collieries and rents, all over the district of
the Four Towns. He was a gallant youngster, people said, and very
clever. Young as he was there was talk of parliament for him; he had
been a great success at the university, and he was being sedulously
popularized among us. He took with a light confidence, as a matter
of course, advantages that I would have faced the rack to get, and
I firmly believed myself a better man than he. He was, as he stood
there, a concentrated figure of all that filled me with bitterness.
One day he had stopped in a motor outside our house, and I remember
the thrill of rage with which I had noted the dutiful admiration
in my mother's eyes as she peered through her blind at him. "That's
young Mr. Verrall," she said. "They say he's very clever."
"They would," I answered. "Damn them and him!"
But that is by the way.
He was clearly astonished to find himself face to face with a man.
His note changed.
"Who the devil are YOU?" he asked.
My retort was the cheap expedient of re-echoing, "Who the devil
"WELL," he said.
"I'm coming along this path if I like," I said. "See? It's a public
path—just as this used to be public land. You've stolen the land—you
and yours, and now you want to steal the right of way. You'll
ask us to get off the face of the earth next. I sha'n't oblige.
I was shorter and I suppose a couple of years younger than he, but
I had the improvised club in my pocket gripped ready, and I would
have fought with him very cheerfully. But he fell a step backward
as I came toward him.
"Socialist, I presume?" he said, alert and quiet and with the
faintest note of badinage.
"One of many."
"We're all socialists nowadays," he remarked philosophically, "and
I haven't the faintest intention of disputing your right of way."
"You'd better not," I said.
He replaced his cigar, and there was a brief pause. "Catching a
train?" he threw out.
It seemed absurd not to answer. "Yes," I said shortly.
He said it was a pleasant evening for a walk.
I hovered for a moment and there was my path before me, and he
stood aside. There seemed nothing to do but go on. "Good night,"
said he, as that intention took effect.
I growled a surly good-night.
I felt like a bombshell of swearing that must presently burst with
some violence as I went on my silent way. He had so completely got
the best of our encounter.
There comes a memory, an odd intermixture of two entirely divergent
things, that stands out with the intensest vividness.
As I went across the last open meadow, following the short cut to
Checkshill station, I perceived I had two shadows.
The thing jumped into my mind and stopped its tumid flow for a
moment. I remember the intelligent detachment of my sudden interest.
I turned sharply, and stood looking at the moon and the great white
comet, that the drift of the clouds had now rather suddenly unveiled.
The comet was perhaps twenty degrees from the moon. What a wonderful
thing it looked floating there, a greenish-white apparition in
the dark blue deeps! It looked brighter than the moon because it
was smaller, but the shadow it cast, though clearer cut, was much
fainter than the moon's shadow. . . I went on noting these facts,
watching my two shadows precede me.
I am totally unable to account for the sequence of my thoughts
on this occasion. But suddenly, as if I had come on this new fact
round a corner, the comet was out of my mind again, and I was face
to face with an absolutely new idea. I wonder sometimes if the two
shadows I cast, one with a sort of feminine faintness with regard
to the other and not quite so tall, may not have suggested the
word or the thought of an assignation to my mind. All that I have
clear is that with the certitude of intuition I knew what it was
that had brought the youth in evening dress outside the shrubbery.
Of course! He had come to meet Nettie!
Once the mental process was started it took no time at all. The
day which had been full of perplexities for me, the mysterious
invisible thing that had held Nettie and myself apart, the unaccountable
strange something in her manner, was revealed and explained.
I knew now why she had looked guilty at my appearance, what had
brought her out that afternoon, why she had hurried me in, the
nature of the "book" she had run back to fetch, the reason why she
had wanted me to go back by the high-road, and why she had pitied
me. It was all in the instant clear to me.
You must imagine me a black little creature, suddenly stricken
still—for a moment standing rigid—and then again suddenly
becoming active with an impotent gesture, becoming audible with an
inarticulate cry, with two little shadows mocking my dismay, and
about this figure you must conceive a great wide space of moonlit
grass, rimmed by the looming suggestion of distant trees—trees
very low and faint and dim, and over it all the domed serenity of
that wonderful luminous night.
For a little while this realization stunned my mind. My thoughts
came to a pause, staring at my discovery. Meanwhile my feet and my
previous direction carried me through the warm darkness to Checkshill
station with its little lights, to the ticket-office window, and
so to the train.
I remember myself as it were waking up to the thing—I was alone
in one of the dingy "third-class" compartments of that time—and
the sudden nearly frantic insurgence of my rage. I stood up with the
cry of an angry animal, and smote my fist with all my strength
against the panel of wood before me. . . .
Curiously enough I have completely forgotten my mood after that
for a little while, but I know that later, for a minute perhaps, I
hung for a time out of the carriage with the door open, contemplating
a leap from the train. It was to be a dramatic leap, and then I
would go storming back to her, denounce her, overwhelm her; and I
hung, urging myself to do it. I don't remember how it was I decided
not to do this, at last, but in the end I didn't.
When the train stopped at the next station I had given up all
thoughts of going back. I was sitting in the corner of the carriage
with my bruised and wounded hand pressed under my arm, and still
insensible to its pain, trying to think out clearly a scheme of
action—action that should express the monstrous indignation that
CHAPTER THE THIRD
"THAT comet is going to hit the earth!"
So said one of the two men who got into the train and settled down.
"Ah!" said the other man.
"They do say that it is made of gas, that comet. We sha'n't
blow up, shall us?". . .
What did it matter to me?
I was thinking of revenge—revenge against the primary conditions
of my being. I was thinking of Nettie and her lover. I was firmly
resolved he should not have her—though I had to kill them both to
prevent it. I did not care what else might happen, if only that end
was ensured. All my thwarted passions had turned to rage. I would
have accepted eternal torment that night without a second thought,
to be certain of revenge. A hundred possibilities of action, a
hundred stormy situations, a whirl of violent schemes, chased one
another through my shamed, exasperated mind. The sole prospect I
could endure was of some gigantic, inexorably cruel vindication of
my humiliated self.
And Nettie? I loved Nettie still, but now with the intensest
jealousy, with the keen, unmeasuring hatred of wounded pride, and
baffled, passionate desire.
As I came down the hill from Clayton Crest—for my shilling and
a penny only permitted my traveling by train as far as Two-Mile
Stone, and thence I had to walk over the hill—I remember very
vividly a little man with a shrill voice who was preaching under
a gas-lamp against a hoarding to a thin crowd of Sunday evening
loafers. He was a short man, bald, with a little fair curly beard
and hair and watery blue eyes, and he was preaching that the end
of the world drew near.
I think that is the first time I heard any one link the comet with
the end of the world. He had got that jumbled up with international
politics and prophecies from the Book of Daniel.
I stopped to hear him only for a moment or so. I do not think I
should have halted at all but his crowd blocked my path, and the
sight of his queer wild expression, the gesture of his upward-pointing
finger, held me.
"There is the end of all your Sins and Follies," he bawled. "There!
There is the Star of Judgments, the Judgments of the most High
God! It is appointed unto all men to die—unto all men to die"—his
voice changed to a curious flat chant—"and after death, the
Judgment! The Judgment!"
I pushed and threaded my way through the bystanders and went on,
and his curious harsh flat voice pursued me. I went on with the
thoughts that had occupied me before—where I could buy a revolver,
and how I might master its use—and probably I should have forgotten
all about him had he not taken a part in the hideous dream that
ended the little sleep I had that night. For the most part I lay
awake thinking of Nettie and her lover.
Then came three strange days—three days that seem now to have been
wholly concentrated upon one business.
This dominant business was the purchase of my revolver. I held
myself resolutely to the idea that I must either restore myself by
some extraordinary act of vigor and violence in Nettie's eyes or I
must kill her. I would not let myself fall away from that. I felt
that if I let this matter pass, my last shred of pride and honor
would pass with it, that for the rest of my life I should never
deserve the slightest respect or any woman's love. Pride kept me
to my purpose between my gusts of passion.
Yet it was not easy to buy that revolver.
I had a kind of shyness of the moment when I should have to face
the shopman, and I was particularly anxious to have a story ready
if he should see fit to ask questions why I bought such a thing.
I determined to say I was going to Texas, and I thought it might
prove useful there. Texas in those days had the reputation of a
wild lawless land. As I knew nothing of caliber or impact, I wanted
also to be able to ask with a steady face at what distance a man
or woman could be killed by the weapon that might be offered me.
I was pretty cool-headed in relation to such practical aspects of
my affair. I had some little difficulty in finding a gunsmith. In
Clayton there were some rook-rifles and so forth in a cycle shop,
but the only revolvers these people had impressed me as being too
small and toylike for my purpose. It was in a pawnshop window in
the narrow High Street of Swathinglea that I found my choice, a
reasonably clumsy and serious-looking implement ticketed "As used
in the American army."
I had drawn out my balance from the savings bank, matter of two
pounds and more, to make this purchase, and I found it at last
a very easy transaction. The pawnbroker told me where I could get
ammunition, and I went home that night with bulging pockets, an
The purchase of my revolver was, I say, the chief business of
those days, but you must not think I was so intent upon it as to
be insensible to the stirring things that were happening in the
streets through which I went seeking the means to effect my purpose.
They were full of murmurings: the whole region of the Four Towns
scowled lowering from its narrow doors. The ordinary healthy flow
of people going to work, people going about their business, was
chilled and checked. Numbers of men stood about the streets in knots
and groups, as corpuscles gather and catch in the blood-vessels in
the opening stages of inflammation. The woman looked haggard and
worried. The ironworkers had refused the proposed reduction of
their wages, and the lockout had begun. They were already at "play."
The Conciliation Board was doing its best to keep the coal-miners
and masters from a breach, but young Lord Redcar, the greatest of
our coal owners and landlord of all Swathinglea and half Clayton, was
taking a fine upstanding attitude that made the breach inevitable.
He was a handsome young man, a gallant young man; his pride revolted
at the idea of being dictated to by a "lot of bally miners," and
he meant, he said, to make a fight for it. The world had treated
him sumptuously from his earliest years; the shares in the common
stock of five thousand people had gone to pay for his handsome
upbringing, and large, romantic, expensive ambitions filled
his generously nurtured mind. He had early distinguished himself
at Oxford by his scornful attitude towards democracy. There was
something that appealed to the imagination in his fine antagonism
to the crowd—on the one hand, was the brilliant young nobleman,
picturesquely alone; on the other, the ugly, inexpressive multitude,
dressed inelegantly in shop-clothes, under-educated, under-fed,
envious, base, and with a wicked disinclination for work and a wicked
appetite for the good things it could so rarely get. For common
imaginative purposes one left out the policeman from the design,
the stalwart policeman protecting his lordship, and ignored the
fact that while Lord Redcar had his hands immediately and legally
on the workman's shelter and bread, they could touch him to the
skin only by some violent breach of the law.
He lived at Lowchester House, five miles or so beyond Checkshill;
but partly to show how little he cared for his antagonists, and
partly no doubt to keep himself in touch with the negotiations that
were still going on, he was visible almost every day in and about
the Four Towns, driving that big motor car of his that could take
him sixty miles an hour. The English passion for fair play one
might have thought sufficient to rob this bold procedure of any
dangerous possibilities, but he did not go altogether free from
insult, and on one occasion at least an intoxicated Irish
woman shook her fist at him. . . .
A dark, quiet crowd, that was greater each day, a crowd more than
half women, brooded as a cloud will sometimes brood permanently upon
a mountain crest, in the market-place outside the Clayton
Town Hall, where the conference was held. . . .
I consider myself justified in regarding Lord Redcar's passing
automobile with a special animosity because of the leaks in our
We held our little house on lease; the owner was a mean, saving
old man named Pettigrew, who lived in a villa adorned with plaster
images of dogs and goats, at Overcastle, and in spite of our specific
agreement, he would do no repairs for us at all. He rested secure
in my mother's timidity. Once, long ago, she had been behind-hand
with her rent, with half of her quarter's rent, and he had extended
the days of grace a month; her sense that some day she might need
the same mercy again made her his abject slave. She was afraid even
to ask that he should cause the roof to be mended for fear he might
take offence. But one night the rain poured in on her bed and gave
her a cold, and stained and soaked her poor old patchwork counterpane.
Then she got me to compose an excessively polite letter to old
Pettigrew, begging him as a favor to perform his legal obligations.
It is part of the general imbecility of those days that such one-sided
law as existed was a profound mystery to the common people, its
provisions impossible to ascertain, its machinery impossible to set
in motion. Instead of the clearly written code, the lucid statements
of rules and principles that are now at the service of every one,
the law was the muddle secret of the legal profession. Poor people,
overworked people, had constantly to submit to petty wrongs because
of the intolerable uncertainty not only of law but of cost, and of
the demands upon time and energy, proceedings might make. There
was indeed no justice for any one too poor to command a good
solicitor's deference and loyalty; there was nothing but rough
police protection and the magistrate's grudging or eccentric advice
for the mass of the population. The civil law, in particular, was
a mysterious upper-class weapon, and I can imagine no injustice that
would have been sufficient to induce my poor old mother to appeal
All this begins to sound incredible. I can only assure you that it
But I, when I learned that old Pettigrew had been down to tell my
mother all about his rheumatism, to inspect the roof, and to allege
that nothing was needed, gave way to my most frequent emotion in
those days, a burning indignation, and took the matter into my own
hands. I wrote and asked him, with a withering air of technicality,
to have the roof repaired "as per agreement," and added, "if not
done in one week from now we shall be obliged to take proceedings."
I had not mentioned this high line of conduct to my mother at first,
and so when old Pettigrew came down in a state of great agitation
with my letter in his hand, she was almost equally agitated.
"How could you write to old Mr. Pettigrew like that?" she asked
I said that old Pettigrew was a shameful old rascal, or words to
that effect, and I am afraid I behaved in a very undutiful way to
her when she said that she had settled everything with him—she
wouldn't say how, but I could guess well enough—and that I was
to promise her, promise her faithfully, to do nothing more in the
matter. I wouldn't promise her.
And—having nothing better to employ me then—I presently went
raging to old Pettigrew in order to put the whole thing before him
in what I considered the proper light. Old Pettigrew evaded my
illumination; he saw me coming up his front steps—I can still see
his queer old nose and the crinkled brow over his eye and the little
wisp of gray hair that showed over the corner of his window-blind—and
he instructed his servant to put up the chain when she answered
the door, and to tell me that he would not see me. So I had to fall
back upon my pen.
Then it was, as I had no idea what were the proper "proceedings"
to take, the brilliant idea occurred to me of appealing to Lord
Redcar as the ground landlord, and, as it were, our feudal chief,
and pointing out to him that his security for his rent was depreciating
in old Pettigrew's hands. I added some general observations on
leaseholds, the taxation of ground rents, and the private ownership
of the soil. And Lord Redcar, whose spirit revolted at democracy,
and who cultivated a pert humiliating manner with his inferiors to
show as much, earned my distinguished hatred for ever by causing
his secretary to present his compliments to me, and his request
that I would mind my own business and leave him to manage his. At
which I was so greatly enraged that I first tore this note into
minute innumerable pieces, and then dashed it dramatically all over
the floor of my room—from which, to keep my mother from the job,
I afterward had to pick it up laboriously on all-fours.
I was still meditating a tremendous retort, an indictment of all
Lord Redcar's class, their manners, morals, economic and political
crimes, when my trouble with Nettie arose to swamp all minor
troubles. Yet, not so completely but that I snarled aloud when his
lordship's motor-car whizzed by me, as I went about upon my long
meandering quest for a weapon. And I discovered after a time that
my mother had bruised her knee and was lame. Fearing to irritate
me by bringing the thing before me again, she had set herself to
move her bed out of the way of the drip without my help, and she
had knocked her knee. All her poor furnishings, I discovered, were
cowering now close to the peeling bedroom walls; there had come a
vast discoloration of the ceiling, and a washing-tub was
in occupation of the middle of her chamber. . . .
It is necessary that I should set these things before you, should
give the key of inconvenience and uneasiness in which all things
were arranged, should suggest the breath of trouble that stirred
along the hot summer streets, the anxiety about the strike, the
rumors and indignations, the gatherings and meetings, the increasing
gravity of the policemen's faces, the combative headlines of the
local papers, the knots of picketers who scrutinized any one who
passed near the silent, smokeless forges, but in my mind, you must
understand, such impressions came and went irregularly; they made
a moving background, changing undertones, to my preoccupation by
that darkly shaping purpose to which a revolver was so imperative
Along the darkling streets, amidst the sullen crowds, the thought
of Nettie, my Nettie, and her gentleman lover made ever a vivid
inflammatory spot of purpose in my brain.
It was three days after this—on Wednesday, that is to say—that
the first of those sinister outbreaks occurred that ended in the
bloody affair of Peacock Grove and the flooding out of the entire
line of the Swathinglea collieries. It was the only one of these
disturbances I was destined to see, and at most a mere trivial
preliminary of that struggle.
The accounts that have been written of this affair vary very widely.
To read them is to realize the extraordinary carelessness of truth
that dishonored the press of those latter days. In my bureau I
have several files of the daily papers of the old time—I collected
them, as a matter of fact—and three or four of about that date I
have just this moment taken out and looked through to refresh my
impression of what I saw. They lie before me—queer, shriveled,
incredible things; the cheap paper has already become brittle and
brown and split along the creases, the ink faded or smeared, and I
have to handle them with the utmost care when I glance among their
raging headlines. As I sit here in this serene place, their quality
throughout, their arrangement, their tone, their arguments and
exhortations, read as though they came from drugged and drunken men.
They give one the effect of faded bawling, of screams and shouts
heard faintly in a little gramophone. . . . It is only on Monday
I find, and buried deep below the war news, that these publications
contain any intimation that unusual happenings were forward in
Clayton and Swathinglea.
What I saw was towards evening. I had been learning to shoot with
my new possession. I had walked out with it four or five miles
across a patch of moorland and down to a secluded little coppice
full of blue-bells, halfway along the high-road between Leet and
Stafford. Here I had spent the afternoon, experimenting and practising
with careful deliberation and grim persistence. I had brought an
old kite-frame of cane with me, that folded and unfolded, and each
shot-hole I made I marked and numbered to compare with my other
endeavors. At last I was satisfied that I could hit a playing-card
at thirty paces nine times out of ten; the light was getting too
bad for me to see my penciled bull's-eye, and in that state of
quiet moodiness that sometimes comes with hunger to passionate men,
I returned by the way of Swathinglea towards my home.
The road I followed came down between banks of wretched-looking
working-men's houses, in close-packed rows on either side, and took
upon itself the role of Swathinglea High Street, where, at a lamp
and a pillar-box, the steam-trams began. So far that dirty hot way
had been unusually quiet and empty, but beyond the corner, where
the first group of beershops clustered, it became populous. It was
very quiet still, even the children were a little inactive, but
there were a lot of people standing dispersedly in little groups,
and with a general direction towards the gates of the Bantock Burden
The place was being picketed, although at that time the miners
were still nominally at work, and the conferences between masters
and men still in session at Clayton Town Hall. But one of the men
employed at the Bantock Burden pit, Jack Briscoe, was a socialist,
and he had distinguished himself by a violent letter upon the crisis
to the leading socialistic paper in England, The Clarion, in which
he had adventured among the motives of Lord Redcar. The publication
of this had been followed by instant dismissal. As Lord Redcar wrote
a day or so later to the Times—I have that Times, I have all the
London papers of the last month before the Change—
"The man was paid off and kicked out. Any self-respecting employer
would do the same." The thing had happened overnight, and the men
did not at once take a clear line upon what was, after all, a very
intricate and debatable occasion. But they came out in a sort of
semiofficial strike from all Lord Redcar's collieries beyond the
canal that besets Swathinglea. They did so without formal notice,
committing a breach of contract by this sudden cessation. But in
the long labor struggles of the old days the workers were constantly
putting themselves in the wrong and committing illegalities
through that overpowering craving for dramatic promptness natural
to uneducated minds.
All the men had not come out of the Bantock Burden pit. Something
was wrong there, an indecision if nothing else; the mine was still
working, and there was a rumor that men from Durham had been held
in readiness by Lord Redcar, and were already in the mine. Now, it
is absolutely impossible to ascertain certainly how things stood at
that time. The newspapers say this and that, but nothing trustworthy
I believe I should have gone striding athwart the dark stage of
that stagnant industrial drama without asking a question, if Lord
Redcar had not chanced to come upon the scene about the same time
as myself and incontinently end its stagnation.
He had promised that if the men wanted a struggle he would put
up the best fight they had ever had, and he had been active all
that afternoon in meeting the quarrel half way, and preparing as
conspicuously as possible for the scratch force of "blacklegs"—as
we called them—who were, he said and we believed, to replace the
strikers in his pits.
I was an eye-witness of the whole of the affair outside the Bantock
Burden pit, and—I do not know what happened.
Picture to yourself how the thing came to me.
I was descending a steep, cobbled, excavated road between banked-up
footways, perhaps six feet high, upon which, in a monotonous
series, opened the living room doors of rows of dark, low cottages.
The perspective of squat blue slate roofs and clustering chimneys
drifted downward towards the irregular open space before the
colliery—a space covered with coaly, wheel-scarred mud, with a
patch of weedy dump to the left and the colliery gates to the right.
Beyond, the High Street with shops resumed again in good earnest
and went on, and the lines of the steam-tramway that started out
from before my feet, and were here shining and acutely visible
with reflected skylight and here lost in a shadow, took up for one
acute moment the greasy yellow irradiation of a newly lit gaslamp
as they vanished round the bend. Beyond, spread a darkling marsh
of homes, an infinitude of little smoking hovels, and emergent,
meager churches, public-houses, board schools, and other buildings
amidst the prevailing chimneys of Swathinglea. To the right, very
clear and relatively high, the Bantock Burden pit-mouth was marked
by a gaunt lattice bearing a great black wheel, very sharp and
distinct in the twilight, and beyond, in an irregular perspective,
were others following the lie of the seams. The general effect,
as one came down the hill, was of a dark compressed life beneath
a very high and wide and luminous evening sky, against which these
pit-wheels rose. And ruling the calm spaciousness of that heaven
was the great comet, now green-white, and wonderful for all who
had eyes to see.
The fading afterglow of the sunset threw up all the contours and
skyline to the west, and the comet rose eastward out of the pouring
tumult of smoke from Bladden's forges. The moon had still to rise.
By this time the comet had begun to assume the cloudlike form still
familiar through the medium of a thousand photographs and sketches.
At first it had been an almost telescopic speck; it had brightened
to the dimensions of the greatest star in the heavens; it had
still grown, hour by hour, in its incredibly swift, its noiseless
and inevitable rush upon our earth, until it had equaled and surpassed
the moon. Now it was the most splendid thing this sky of earth has
ever held. I have never seen a photograph that gave a proper idea
of it. Never at any time did it assume the conventional tailed
outline, comets are supposed to have. Astronomers talked of its
double tail, one preceding it and one trailing behind it, but these
were foreshortened to nothing, so that it had rather the form of a
bellying puff of luminous smoke with an intenser, brighter heart.
It rose a hot yellow color, and only began to show its distinctive
greenness when it was clear of the mists of the evening.
It compelled attention for a space. For all my earthly concentration of
mind, I could but stare at it for a moment with a vague anticipation
that, after all, in some way so strange and glorious an object
must have significance, could not possibly be a matter of absolute
indifference to the scheme and values of my life.
I thought of Parload. I thought of the panic and uneasiness that
was spreading in this very matter, and the assurances of scientific
men that the thing weighed so little—at the utmost a few hundred
tons of thinly diffused gas and dust—that even were it to smite
this earth fully, nothing could possibly ensue. And, after all,
said I, what earthly significance has any one found in the stars?
Then, as one still descended, the houses and buildings rose up,
the presence of those watching groups of people, the tension of
the situation; and one forgot the sky.
Preoccupied with myself and with my dark dream about Nettie and my
honor, I threaded my course through the stagnating threat of this
gathering, and was caught unawares, when suddenly the whole
scene flashed into drama. . . .
The attention of every one swung round with an irresistible magnetism
towards the High Street, and caught me as a rush of waters might
catch a wisp of hay. Abruptly the whole crowd was sounding one note.
It was not a word, it was a sound that mingled threat and protest,
something between a prolonged "Ah!" and "Ugh!" Then with a hoarse
intensity of anger came a low heavy booing, "Boo! boo—oo!" a note
stupidly expressive of animal savagery. "Toot, toot!" said Lord
Redcar's automobile in ridiculous repartee. "Toot, toot!" One heard
it whizzing and throbbing as the crowd obliged it to slow down.
Everybody seemed in motion towards the colliery gates, I, too, with
I heard a shout. Through the dark figures about me I saw the motor-car
stop and move forward again, and had a glimpse of something writhing
on the ground.
It was alleged afterwards that Lord Redcar was driving, and that
he quite deliberately knocked down a little boy who would not get
out of his way. It is asserted with equal confidence that the boy
was a man who tried to pass across the front of the motor-car as it
came slowly through the crowd, who escaped by a hair's breadth, and
then slipped on the tram-rail and fell down. I have both accounts
set forth, under screaming headlines, in two of these sere newspapers
upon my desk. No one could ever ascertain the truth. Indeed, in
such a blind tumult of passion, could there be any truth?
There was a rush forward, the horn of the car sounded, everything
swayed violently to the right for perhaps ten yards or so, and
there was a report like a pistol-shot.
For a moment every one seemed running away. A woman, carrying a
shawl-wrapped child, blundered into me, and sent me reeling back.
Every one thought of firearms, but, as a matter of fact, something
had gone wrong with the motor, what in those old-fashioned contrivances
was called a backfire. A thin puff of bluish smoke hung in the air
behind the thing. The majority of the people scattered back in a
disorderly fashion, and left a clear space about the struggle that
centered upon the motor-car.
The man or boy who had fallen was lying on the ground with no one
near him, a black lump, an extended arm and two sprawling feet.
The motor-car had stopped, and its three occupants were standing
up. Six or seven black figures surrounded the car, and appeared
to be holding on to it as if to prevent it from starting again;
one—it was Mitchell, a well-known labor leader—argued in fierce
low tones with Lord Redcar. I could not hear anything they said,
I was not near enough. Behind me the colliery gates were open,
and there was a sense of help coming to the motor-car from that
direction. There was an unoccupied muddy space for fifty yards,
perhaps, between car and gate, and then the wheels and head of the
pit rose black against the sky. I was one of a rude semicircle of
people that hung as yet indeterminate in action about this dispute.
It was natural, I suppose, that my fingers should close upon the
revolver in my pocket.
I advanced with the vaguest intentions in the world, and not so
quickly but that several men hurried past me to join the little
knot holding up the car.
Lord Redcar, in his big furry overcoat, towered up over the group
about him; his gestures were free and threatening, and his voice
loud. He made a fine figure there, I must admit; he was a big,
fair, handsome young man with a fine tenor voice and an instinct
for gallant effect. My eyes were drawn to him at first wholly. He
seemed a symbol, a triumphant symbol, of all that the theory of
aristocracy claims, of all that filled my soul with resentment.
His chauffeur sat crouched together, peering at the crowd under
his lordship's arm. But Mitchell showed as a sturdy figure also,
and his voice was firm and loud.
"You've hurt that lad," said Mitchell, over and over again. "You'll
wait here till you see if he's hurt."
"I'll wait here or not as I please," said Redcar; and to the
chauffeur, "Here! get down and look at it!"
"You'd better not get down," said Mitchell; and the chauffeur stood
bent and hesitating on the step.
The man on the back seat stood up, leant forward, and spoke to Lord
Redcar, and for the first time my attention was drawn to him. It
was young Verrall! His handsome face shone clear and fine in the
green pallor of the comet.
I ceased to hear the quarrel that was raising the voice of Mitchell
and Lord Redcar. This new fact sent them spinning into the background.
It was my own purpose coming to meet me half way.
There was to be a fight here, it seemed certain to come to a scuffle,
and here we were—
What was I to do? I thought very swiftly. Unless my memory cheats
me, I acted with swift decision. My hand tightened on my revolver,
and then I remembered it was unloaded. I had thought my course out
in an instant. I turned round and pushed my way out of the angry
crowd that was now surging back towards the motor-car.
It would be quiet and out of sight, I thought, among the dump
heaps across the road, and there I might load unobserved. . .
A big young man striding forward with his fists clenched, halted
for one second at the sight of me.
"What!" said he. "Ain't afraid of them, are you?"
I glanced over my shoulder and back at him, was near showing him my
pistol, and the expression changed in his eyes. He hung perplexed
at me. Then with a grunt he went on.
I heard the voices growing loud and sharp behind me.
I hesitated, half turned towards the dispute, then set off running
towards the heaps. Some instinct told me not to be detected loading.
I was cool enough therefore to think of the aftermath of the thing
I meant to do.
I looked back once again towards the swaying discussion—or was
it a fight now? and then I dropped into the hollow, knelt among
the weeds, and loaded with eager trembling fingers. I loaded one
chamber, got up and went back a dozen paces, thought of possibilities,
vacillated, returned and loaded all the others. I did it slowly
because I felt a little clumsy, and at the end came a moment of
inspection—had I forgotten any thing? And then for a few seconds
I crouched before I rose, resisting the first gust of reaction
against my impulse. I took thought, and for a moment that great
green-white meteor overhead swam back into my conscious mind. For
the first time then I linked it clearly with all the fierce violence
that had crept into human life. I joined up that with what I meant
to do. I was going to shoot young Verrall as it were under the
benediction of that green glare.
But about Nettie?
I found it impossible to think out that obvious complication.
I came up over the heap again, and walked slowly back towards the
Of course I had to kill him. . . .
Now I would have you believe I did not want to murder young Verrall
at all at that particular time. I had not pictured such circumstances
as these, I had never thought of him in connection with Lord Redcar
and our black industrial world. He was in that distant other world
of Checkshill, the world of parks and gardens, the world of sunlit
emotions and Nettie. His appearance here was disconcerting. I was
taken by surprise. I was too tired and hungry to think clearly, and
the hard implication of our antagonism prevailed with me. In the
tumult of my passed emotions I had thought constantly of conflicts,
confrontations, deeds of violence, and now the memory of these things
took possession of me as though they were irrevocable resolutions.
There was a sharp exclamation, the shriek of a woman, and the crowd
came surging back. The fight had begun.
Lord Redcar, I believe, had jumped down from his car and felled
Mitchell, and men were already running out to his assistance from
the colliery gates.
I had some difficulty in shoving through the crowd; I can still
remember very vividly being jammed at one time between two big men
so that my arms were pinned to my sides, but all the other details
are gone out of my mind until I found myself almost violently
projected forward into the "scrap."
I blundered against the corner of the motor-car, and came round it
face to face with young Verrall, who was descending from the back
compartment. His face was touched with orange from the automobile's
big lamps, which conflicted with the shadows of the comet light,
and distorted him oddly. That effect lasted but an instant, but it
put me out. Then he came a step forward, and the ruddy lights and
I don't think he recognized me, but he perceived immediately I
meant attacking. He struck out at once at me a haphazard blow, and
touched me on the cheek.
Instinctively I let go of the pistol, snatched my right hand out
of my pocket and brought it up in a belated parry, and then let
out with my left full in his chest.
It sent him staggering, and as he went back I saw recognition mingle
with astonishment in his face.
"You know me, you swine," I cried and hit again.
Then I was spinning sideways, half-stunned, with a huge lump of a
fist under my jaw. I had an impression of Lord Redcar as a great
furry bulk, towering like some Homeric hero above the fray. I went
down before him—it made him seem to rush up—and he ignored me
further. His big flat voice counseled young Verrall—
"Cut, Teddy! It won't do. The picketa's got i'on bahs. . . ."
Feet swayed about me, and some hobnailed miner kicked my ankle and
went stumbling. There were shouts and curses, and then everything
had swept past me. I rolled over on my face and beheld the chauffeur,
young Verrall, and Lord Redcar—the latter holding up his long
skirts of fur, and making a grotesque figure—one behind the other,
in full bolt across a coldly comet-lit interval, towards the open
gates of the colliery.
I raised myself up on my hands.
I had not even drawn my revolver—I had forgotten it. I was covered
with coaly mud—knees, elbows, shoulders, back. I had not
even drawn my revolver! . . .
A feeling of ridiculous impotence overwhelmed me. I struggled
painfully to my feet.
I hesitated for a moment towards the gates of the colliery, and then
went limping homeward, thwarted, painful, confused, and ashamed.
I had not the heart nor desire to help in the wrecking and burning
of Lord Redcar's motor.
In the night, fever, pain, fatigue—it may be the indigestion of
my supper of bread and cheese—roused me at last out of a hag-rid
sleep to face despair. I was a soul lost amidst desolations and
shame, dishonored, evilly treated, hopeless. I raged against the
God I denied, and cursed him as I lay.
And it was in the nature of my fever, which was indeed only half
fatigue and illness, and the rest the disorder of passionate youth,
that Nettie, a strangely distorted Nettie, should come through the
brief dreams that marked the exhaustions of that vigil, to dominate
my misery. I was sensible, with an exaggerated distinctness, of
the intensity of her physical charm for me, of her every grace and
beauty; she took to herself the whole gamut of desire in me and
the whole gamut of pride. She, bodily, was my lost honor. It was
not only loss but disgrace to lose her. She stood for life and all
that was denied; she mocked me as a creature of failure and defeat.
My spirit raised itself towards her, and then the bruise upon my
jaw glowed with a dull heat, and I rolled in the mud again before
There were times when something near madness took me, and I gnashed
my teeth and dug my nails into my hands and ceased to curse and cry
out only by reason of the insufficiency of words. And once towards
dawn I got out of bed, and sat by my looking-glass with my revolver
loaded in my hand. I stood up at last and put it carefully in my
drawer and locked it—out of reach of any gusty impulse. After
that I slept for a little while.
Such nights were nothing rare and strange in that old order of the
world. Never a city, never a night the whole year round, but amidst
those who slept were those who waked, plumbing the deeps of wrath
and misery. Countless thousands there were so ill, so troubled,
they agonize near to the very border-line of madness, each
one the center of a universe darkened and lost. . .
The next day I spent in gloomy lethargy.
I had intended to go to Checkshill that day, but my bruised ankle
was too swollen for that to be possible. I sat indoors in the
ill-lit downstairs kitchen, with my foot bandaged, and mused darkly
and read. My dear old mother waited on me, and her brown eyes watched
me and wondered at my black silences, my frowning preoccupations.
I had not told her how it was my ankle came to be bruised and my
clothes muddy. She had brushed my clothes in the morning before I
Ah well! Mothers are not treated in that way now. That I suppose
must console me. I wonder how far you will be able to picture that
dark, grimy, untidy room, with its bare deal table, its tattered
wall paper, the saucepans and kettle on the narrow, cheap, but
by no means economical range, the ashes under the fireplace, the
rust-spotted steel fender on which my bandaged feet rested; I wonder
how near you can come to seeing the scowling pale-faced hobbledehoy
I was, unshaven and collarless, in the Windsor chair, and the little
timid, dirty, devoted old woman who hovered about me with
love peering out from her puckered eyelids. . .
When she went out to buy some vegetables in the middle of the
morning she got me a half-penny journal. It was just such a one as
these upon my desk, only that the copy I read was damp from the
press, and these are so dry and brittle, they crack if I touch
them. I have a copy of the actual issue I read that morning; it
was a paper called emphatically the New Paper, but everybody bought
it and everybody called it the "yell." It was full that morning of
stupendous news and still more stupendous headlines, so stupendous
that for a little while I was roused from my egotistical broodings
to wider interests. For it seemed that Germany and England were on
the brink of war.
Of all the monstrous irrational phenomena of the former time, war
was certainly the most strikingly insane. In reality it was probably
far less mischievous than such quieter evil as, for example, the
general acquiescence in the private ownership of land, but its evil
consequences showed so plainly that even in those days of stifling
confusion one marveled at it. On no conceivable grounds was there
any sense in modern war. Save for the slaughter and mangling of a
multitude of people, the destruction of vast quantities of material,
and the waste of innumerable units of energy, it effected nothing.
The old war of savage and barbaric nations did at least change
humanity, you assumed yourselves to be a superior tribe in physique
and discipline, you demonstrated this upon your neighbors, and
if successful you took their land and their women and perpetuated
and enlarged your superiority. The new war changed nothing but the
color of maps, the design of postage stamps, and the relationship
of a few accidentally conspicuous individuals. In one of the last
of these international epileptic fits, for example, the English,
with much dysentery and bad poetry, and a few hundred deaths in
battle, conquered the South African Boers at a gross cost of about
three thousand pounds per head—they could have bought the whole
of that preposterous imitation of a nation for a tenth of that
sum—and except for a few substitutions of personalities, this
group of partially corrupt officials in the place of that, and so
forth, the permanent change was altogether insignificant. (But
an excitable young man in Austria committed suicide when at length
the Transvaal ceased to be a "nation.") Men went through the seat
of that war after it was all over, and found humanity unchanged,
except for a general impoverishment, and the convenience of an
unlimited supply of empty ration tins and barbed wire and cartridge
cases—unchanged and resuming with a slight perplexity all its old
habits and misunderstandings, the nigger still in his slum-like
kraal, the white in his ugly ill-managed shanty. . .
But we in England saw all these things, or did not see them,
through the mirage of the New Paper, in a light of mania. All my
adolescence from fourteen to seventeen went to the music of that
monstrous resonating futility, the cheering, the anxieties, the
songs and the waving of flags, the wrongs of generous Buller and
the glorious heroism of De Wet—who ALWAYS got away; that was the
great point about the heroic De Wet—and it never occurred to us
that the total population we fought against was less than half the
number of those who lived cramped ignoble lives within the compass
of the Four Towns.
But before and after that stupid conflict of stupidities, a greater
antagonism was coming into being, was slowly and quietly defining
itself as a thing inevitable, sinking now a little out of attention
only to resume more emphatically, now flashing into some acute
definitive expression and now percolating and pervading some new
region of thought, and that was the antagonism of Germany and Great
When I think of that growing proportion of readers who belong
entirely to the new order, who are growing up with only the vaguest
early memories of the old world, I find the greatest difficulty
in writing down the unintelligible confusions that were matter of
fact to their fathers.
Here were we British, forty-one millions of people, in a state of
almost indescribably aimless, economic, and moral muddle that we had
neither the courage, the energy, nor the intelligence to improve,
that most of us had hardly the courage to think about, and with our
affairs hopelessly entangled with the entirely different confusions
of three hundred and fifty million other persons scattered about
the globe, and here were the Germans over against us, fifty-six
millions, in a state of confusion no whit better than our own,
and the noisy little creatures who directed papers and wrote books
and gave lectures, and generally in that time of world-dementia
pretended to be the national mind, were busy in both countries,
with a sort of infernal unanimity, exhorting—and not only exhorting
but successfully persuading—the two peoples to divert such small
common store of material, moral and intellectual energy as either
possessed, into the purely destructive and wasteful business of war.
And—I have to tell you these things even if you do not believe
them, because they are vital to my story—there was not a man alive
who could have told you of any real permanent benefit, of anything
whatever to counterbalance the obvious waste and evil, that would
result from a war between England and Germany, whether England
shattered Germany or was smashed and overwhelmed, or whatever the
end might be.
The thing was, in fact, an enormous irrational obsession, it was,
in the microcosm of our nation, curiously parallel to the egotistical
wrath and jealousy that swayed my individual microcosm. It measured
the excess of common emotion over the common intelligence, the
legacy of inordinate passion we have received from the brute from
which we came. Just as I had become the slave of my own surprise and
anger and went hither and thither with a loaded revolver, seeking
and intending vague fluctuating crimes, so these two nations went
about the earth, hot eared and muddle headed, with loaded navies
and armies terribly ready at hand. Only there was not even a Nettie
to justify their stupidity. There was nothing but quiet imaginary
thwarting on either side.
And the press was the chief instrument that kept these two huge
multitudes of people directed against one another.
The press—those newspapers that are now so strange to us—like
the "Empires," the "Nations," the Trusts, and all the other great
monstrous shapes of that extraordinary time—was in the nature
of an unanticipated accident. It had happened, as weeds happen in
abandoned gardens, just as all our world has happened,—because
there was no clear Will in the world to bring about anything better.
Towards the end this "press" was almost entirely under the direction
of youngish men of that eager, rather unintelligent type, that
is never able to detect itself aimless, that pursues nothing with
incredible pride and zeal, and if you would really understand this
mad era the comet brought to an end, you must keep in mind that every
phase in the production of these queer old things was pervaded by
a strong aimless energy and happened in a concentrated rush.
Let me describe to you, very briefly, a newspaper day.
Figure first, then, a hastily erected and still more hastily
designed building in a dirty, paper-littered back street of old
London, and a number of shabbily dressed men coming and going in
this with projectile swiftness, and within this factory companies
of printers, tensely active with nimble fingers—they were always
speeding up the printers—ply their type-setting machines, and cast
and arrange masses of metal in a sort of kitchen inferno, above
which, in a beehive of little brightly lit rooms, disheveled men
sit and scribble. There is a throbbing of telephones and a clicking
of telegraph needles, a rushing of messengers, a running to and fro
of heated men, clutching proofs and copy. Then begins a clatter
roar of machinery catching the infection, going faster and faster,
and whizzing and banging,—engineers, who have never had time to
wash since their birth, flying about with oil-cans, while paper
runs off its rolls with a shudder of haste. The proprietor you
must suppose arriving explosively on a swift motor-car, leaping
out before the thing is at a standstill, with letters and documents
clutched in his hand, rushing in, resolute to "hustle," getting
wonderfully in everybody's way. At the sight of him even the messenger
boys who are waiting, get up and scamper to and fro. Sprinkle your
vision with collisions, curses, incoherencies. You imagine all the
parts of this complex lunatic machine working hysterically toward
a crescendo of haste and excitement as the night wears on. At last
the only things that seem to travel slowly in all those tearing
vibrating premises are the hands of the clock.
Slowly things draw on toward publication, the consummation of all
those stresses. Then in the small hours, into the now dark and
deserted streets comes a wild whirl of carts and men, the place
spurts paper at every door, bales, heaps, torrents of papers,
that are snatched and flung about in what looks like a free fight,
and off with a rush and clatter east, west, north, and south. The
interest passes outwardly; the men from the little rooms are going
homeward, the printers disperse yawning, the roaring presses slacken.
The paper exists. Distribution follows manufacture, and we follow
Our vision becomes a vision of dispersal. You see those bundles
hurling into stations, catching trains by a hair's breadth, speeding
on their way, breaking up, smaller bundles of them hurled with
a fierce accuracy out upon the platforms that rush by, and then
everywhere a division of these smaller bundles into still smaller
bundles, into dispersing parcels, into separate papers, and the
dawn happens unnoticed amidst a great running and shouting of boys,
a shoving through letter slots, openings of windows, spreading out
upon book-stalls. For the space of a few hours you must figure the
whole country dotted white with rustling papers—placards everywhere
vociferating the hurried lie for the day; men and women in trains,
men and women eating and reading, men by study-fenders, people
sitting up in bed, mothers and sons and daughters waiting for father
to finish—a million scattered people reading—reading headlong—or
feverishly ready to read. It is just as if some vehement jet
had sprayed that white foam of papers over the surface of the land. . .
And then you know, wonderfully gone—gone utterly, vanished as foam
might vanish upon the sand.
Nonsense! The whole affair a noisy paroxysm of nonsense, unreasonable
excitement, witless mischief, and waste of strength—signifying
nothing. . . .
And one of those white parcels was the paper I held in my hands,
as I sat with a bandaged foot on the steel fender in that dark
underground kitchen of my mother's, clean roused from my personal
troubles by the yelp of the headlines. She sat, sleeves tucked up
from her ropy arms, peeling potatoes as I read.
It was like one of a flood of disease germs that have invaded a
body, that paper. There I was, one corpuscle in the big amorphous
body of the English community, one of forty-one million such
corpuscles and, for all my preoccupations, these potent headlines,
this paper ferment, caught me and swung me about. And all over the
country that day, millions read as I read, and came round into line
with me, under the same magnetic spell, came round—how did we say
it?—Ah!—"to face the foe."
The comet had been driven into obscurity overleaf. The column
headed "Distinguished Scientist says Comet will Strike our Earth.
Does it Matter?" went unread. "Germany"—I usually figured this
mythical malignant creature as a corseted stiff-mustached Emperor
enhanced by heraldic black wings and a large sword—had insulted
our flag. That was the message of the New Paper, and the monster
towered over me, threatening fresh outrages, visibly spitting
upon my faultless country's colors. Somebody had hoisted a British
flag on the right bank of some tropical river I had never heard of
before, and a drunken German officer under ambiguous instructions
had torn it down. Then one of the convenient abundant natives
of the country, a British subject indisputably, had been shot in
the leg. But the facts were by no means clear. Nothing was clear
except that we were not going to stand any nonsense from Germany.
Whatever had or had not happened we meant to have an apology for,
and apparently they did not mean apologizing.
"HAS WAR COME AT LAST?"
That was the headline. One's heart leapt to assent. . . .
There were hours that day when I clean forgot Nettie, in dreaming
of battles and victories by land and sea, of shell fire, and
entrenchments, and the heaped slaughter of many thousands of men.
But the next morning I started for Checkshill, started, I remember,
in a curiously hopeful state of mind, oblivious of comets, strikes,
You must understand that I had no set plan of murder when I walked
over to Checkshill. I had no set plan of any sort. There was a
great confusion of dramatically conceived intentions in my head,
scenes of threatening and denunciation and terror, but I did not mean
to kill. The revolver was to turn upon my rival my disadvantage
in age and physique. . . .
But that was not it really! The revolver!—I took the revolver
because I had the revolver and was a foolish young lout. It was a
dramatic sort of thing to take. I had, I say, no plan at all.
Ever and again during that second trudge to Checkshill I was
irradiated with a novel unreasonable hope. I had awakened in the
morning with the hope, it may have been the last unfaded trail of
some obliterated dream, that after all Nettie might relent toward me,
that her heart was kind toward me in spite of all that I imagined
had happened. I even thought it possible that I might have misinterpreted
what I had seen. Perhaps she would explain everything. My revolver
was in my pocket for all that.
I limped at the outset, but after the second mile my ankle warmed
to forgetfulness, and the rest of the way I walked well. Suppose,
after all, I was wrong?
I was still debating that, as I came through the park. By the corner
of the paddock near the keeper's cottage, I was reminded by some
belated blue hyacinths of a time when I and Nettie had gathered
them together. It seemed impossible that we could really have parted
ourselves for good and all. A wave of tenderness flowed over me,
and still flooded me as I came through the little dell and drew
towards the hollies. But there the sweet Nettie of my boy's love
faded, and I thought of the new Nettie of desire and the man I had
come upon in the moonlight, I thought of the narrow, hot purpose
that had grown so strongly out of my springtime freshness, and my
mood darkened to night.
I crossed the beech wood and came towards the gardens with a resolute
and sorrowful heart. When I reached the green door in the garden
wall I was seized for a space with so violent a trembling that I
could not grip the latch to lift it, for I no longer had any doubt
how this would end. That trembling was succeeded by a feeling
of cold, and whiteness, and self-pity. I was astonished to find
myself grimacing, to feel my cheeks wet, and thereupon I gave way
completely to a wild passion of weeping. I must take just a little
time before the thing was done. . . . I turned away from the door
and stumbled for a little distance, sobbing loudly, and lay down
out of sight among the bracken, and so presently became calm again.
I lay there some time. I had half a mind to desist, and then my
emotion passed like the shadow of a cloud, and I walked very coolly
into the gardens.
Through the open door of one of the glass houses I saw old Stuart.
He was leaning against the staging, his hands in his pockets, and
so deep in thought he gave no heed to me.
I hesitated and went on towards the cottage, slowly.
Something struck me as unusual about the place, but I could not
tell at first what it was. One of the bedroom windows was open,
and the customary short blind, with its brass upper rail partly
unfastened, drooped obliquely across the vacant space. It looked
negligent and odd, for usually everything about the cottage was
The door was standing wide open, and everything was still. But giving
that usually orderly hall an odd look—it was about half-past two
in the afternoon—was a pile of three dirty plates, with used knives
and forks upon them, on one of the hall chairs.
I went into the hall, looked into either room, and hesitated.
Then I fell to upon the door-knocker and gave a loud rat-tat-too,
and followed this up with an amiable "Hel-lo!"
For a time no one answered me, and I stood listening and expectant,
with my fingers about my weapon. Some one moved about upstairs
presently, and was still again. The tension of waiting seemed to
brace my nerves.
I had my hand on the knocker for the second time, when Puss appeared
in the doorway.
For a moment we remained staring at one another without speaking.
Her hair was disheveled, her face dirty, tear-stained, and irregularly
red. Her expression at the sight of me was pure astonishment.
I thought she was about to say something, and then she had darted
away out of the house again.
"I say, Puss!" I said. "Puss!"
I followed her out of the door. "Puss! What's the matter? Where's
She vanished round the corner of the house.
I hesitated, perplexed whether I should pursue her. What did it
all mean? Then I heard some one upstairs.
"Willie!" cried the voice of Mrs. Stuart. "Is that you?"
"Yes," I answered. "Where's every one? Where's Nettie? I want to
have a talk with her."
She did not answer, but I heard her dress rustle as she moved. I
Judged she was upon the landing overhead.
I paused at the foot of the stairs, expecting her to appear and
Suddenly came a strange sound, a rush of sounds, words jumbled
and hurrying, confused and shapeless, borne along upon a note of
throaty distress that at last submerged the words altogether and
ended in a wail. Except that it came from a woman's throat it was
exactly the babbling sound of a weeping child with a grievance. "I
can't," she said, "I can't," and that was all I could distinguish.
It was to my young ears the strangest sound conceivable from a
kindly motherly little woman, whom I had always thought of chiefly
as an unparalleled maker of cakes. It frightened me. I went upstairs
at once in a state of infinite alarm, and there she was upon the
landing, leaning forward over the top of the chest of drawers beside
her open bedroom door, and weeping. I never saw such weeping. One
thick strand of black hair had escaped, and hung with a spiral
twist down her back; never before had I noticed that she had gray
As I came up upon the landing her voice rose again. "Oh that I should
have to tell you, Willie! Oh that I should have to tell you!" She
dropped her head again, and a fresh gust of tears swept all further
I said nothing, I was too astonished; but I drew nearer
to her, and waited. . . .
I never saw such weeping; the extraordinary wetness of her dripping
handkerchief abides with me to this day.
"That I should have lived to see this day!" she wailed. "I had
rather a thousand times she was struck dead at my feet."
I began to understand.
"Mrs. Stuart," I said, clearing my throat; "what has become of
"That I should have lived to see this day!" she said by way of
I waited till her passion abated.
There came a lull. I forgot the weapon in my pocket. I said nothing,
and suddenly she stood erect before me, wiping her swollen eyes.
"Willie," she gulped, "she's gone!"
"Gone! . . . Run away. . . . Run away from her home. Oh, Willie,
Willie! The shame of it! The sin and shame of it!"
She flung herself upon my shoulder, and clung to me, and began
again to wish her daughter lying dead at our feet.
"There, there," said I, and all my being was a-tremble. "Where has
she gone?" I said as softly as I could.
But for the time she was preoccupied with her own sorrow, and I had
to hold her there, and comfort her with the blackness of finality
spreading over my soul.
"Where has she gone?" I asked for the fourth time.
"I don't know—we don't know. And oh, Willie, she went out yesterday
morning! I said to her, 'Nettie,' I said to her, 'you're mighty
fine for a morning call.' 'Fine clo's for a fine day,' she said,
and that was her last words to me!—Willie!—the child I suckled
at my breast!"
"Yes, yes. But where has she gone?" I said.
She went on with sobs, and now telling her story with a sort of
fragmentary hurry: "She went out bright and shining, out of this
house for ever. She was smiling, Willie—as if she was glad to be
going. ("Glad to be going," I echoed with soundless lips.) 'You're
mighty fine for the morning,' I says; 'mighty fine.' 'Let the girl
be pretty,' says her father, 'while she's young!' And somewhere
she'd got a parcel of her things hidden to pick up, and she was
going off—out of this house for ever!"
She became quiet.
"Let the girl be pretty," she repeated; "let the girl be pretty
while she's young. . . . Oh! how can we go on LIVING, Willie? He
doesn't show it, but he's like a stricken beast. He's wounded to
the heart. She was always his favorite. He never seemed to care
for Puss like he did for her. And she's wounded him—"
"Where has she gone?" I reverted at last to that.
"We don't know. She leaves her own blood, she trusts herself— Oh,
Willie, it'll kill me! I wish she and me together were lying in
"But"—I moistened my lips and spoke slowly—"she may have gone
"If that was so! I've prayed to God it might be so, Willie. I've
prayed that he'd take pity on her—him, I mean, she's with."
I jerked out: "Who's that?"
"In her letter, she said he was a gentleman. She did say he was
"In her letter. Has she written? Can I see her letter?"
"Her father took it."
"But if she writes— When did she write?"
"It came this morning."
"But where did it come from? You can tell—"
"She didn't say. She said she was happy. She said love took one
like a storm—"
"Curse that! Where is her letter? Let me see it. And as for this
She stared at me.
"You know who it is."
"Willie!" she protested.
"You know who it is, whether she said or not?" Her eyes made a mute
She made no answer. "All I could do for you, Willie," she began
"Was it young Verrall?" I insisted.
For a second, perhaps, we faced one another in stark understanding.
. . . Then she plumped back to the chest of drawers, and her wet
pocket-handkerchief, and I knew she sought refuge from my relentless
My pity for her vanished. She knew it was her mistress's son as
well as I! And for some time she had known, she had felt.
I hovered over her for a moment, sick with amazed disgust. I suddenly
bethought me of old Stuart, out in the greenhouse, and turned and
went downstairs. As I did so, I looked up to see Mrs. Stuart moving
droopingly and lamely back into her own room.
Old Stuart was pitiful.
I found him still inert in the greenhouse where I had first seen
him. He did not move as I drew near him; he glanced at me, and then
stared hard again at the flowerpots before him.
"Eh, Willie," he said, "this is a black day for all of us."
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"The missus takes on so," he said. "I came out here."
"What do you mean to do?"
"What IS a man to do in such a case?"
"Do!" I cried, "why— Do!"
"He ought to marry her," he said.
"By God, yes!" I cried. "He must do that anyhow."
"He ought to. It's—it's cruel. But what am I to do? Suppose he
won't? Likely he won't. What then?"
He drooped with an intensified despair.
"Here's this cottage," he said, pursuing some contracted argument.
"We've lived here all our lives, you might say. . . . Clear out.
At my age. . . . One can't die in a slum."
I stood before him for a space, speculating what thoughts might
fill the gaps between these broken words. I found his lethargy, and
the dimly shaped mental attitudes his words indicated, abominable.
I said abruptly, "You have her letter?"
He dived into his breast-pocket, became motionless for ten seconds,
then woke up again and produced her letter. He drew it clumsily
from its envelope, and handed it to me silently.
"Why!" he cried, looking at me for the first time, "What's come to
your chin, Willie?"
"It's nothing," I said. "It's a bruise;" and I opened the letter.
It was written on greenish tinted fancy note-paper, and with all
and more than Nettie's usual triteness and inadequacy of expression.
Her handwriting bore no traces of emotion; it was round and upright
and clear as though it had been done in a writing lesson. Always
her letters were like masks upon her image; they fell like curtains
before the changing charm of her face; one altogether forgot the
sound of her light clear voice, confronted by a perplexing stereotyped
thing that had mysteriously got a hold upon one's heart and pride.
How did that letter run?—
"MY DEAR MOTHER,
"Do not be distressed at my going away. I have gone somewhere safe,
and with some one who cares for me very much. I am sorry for your
sakes, but it seems that it had to be. Love is a very difficult
thing, and takes hold of one in ways one does not expect. Do not
think I am ashamed about this, I glory in my love, and you must not
trouble too much about me. I am very, very happy (deeply underlined).
"Fondest love to Father and Puss.
That queer little document! I can see it now for the childish simple
thing it was, but at the time I read it in a suppressed anguish of
rage. It plunged me into a pit of hopeless shame; there seemed to
remain no pride for me in life until I had revenge. I stood staring
at those rounded upstanding letters, not trusting myself to speak
or move. At last I stole a glance at Stuart.
He held the envelope in his hand, and stared down at the postmark
between his horny thumbnails.
"You can't even tell where she is," he said, turning the thing
round in a hopeless manner, and then desisting. "It's hard on us,
Willie. Here she is; she hadn't anything to complain of; a sort of
pet for all of us. Not even made to do her share of the 'ousework.
And she goes off and leaves us like a bird that's learnt to fly.
Can't TRUST us, that's what takes me. Puts 'erself— But there!
What's to happen to her?"
"What's to happen to him?"
He shook his head to show that problem was beyond him.
"You'll go after her," I said in an even voice; "you'll make him
"Where am I to go?" he asked helplessly, and held out the envelope
with a gesture; "and what could I do? Even if I knew— How could
I leave the gardens?"
"Great God!" I cried, "not leave these gardens! It's your Honor,
man! If she was my daughter—if she was my daughter—I'd tear the
world to pieces!" . . I choked. "You mean to stand it?"
"What can I do?"
"Make him marry her! Horsewhip him! Horsewhip him, I say!—I'd
He scratched slowly at his hairy cheek, opened his mouth, and
shook his head. Then, with an intolerable note of sluggish gentle
wisdom, he said, "People of our sort, Willie, can't do things like
I came near to raving. I had a wild impulse to strike him in the
face. Once in my boyhood I happened upon a bird terribly mangled
by some cat, and killed it in a frenzy of horror and pity. I had
a gust of that same emotion now, as this shameful mutilated soul
fluttered in the dust, before me. Then, you know, I dismissed him
from the case.
"May I look?" I asked.
He held out the envelope reluctantly.
"There it is," he said, and pointing with his garden-rough forefinger.
"I.A.P.A.M.P. What can you make of that?"
I took the thing in my hands. The adhesive stamp customary in those
days was defaced by a circular postmark, which bore the name of
the office of departure and the date. The impact in this particular
case had been light or made without sufficient ink, and half the
letters of the name had left no impression. I could distinguish—
I A P A M P
and very faintly below D.S.O.
I guessed the name in an instant flash of intuition. It was
Shaphambury. The very gaps shaped that to my mind. Perhaps in a
sort of semi-visibility other letters were there, at least hinting
themselves. It was a place somewhere on the east coast, I knew,
either in Norfolk or Suffolk.
"Why!" cried I—and stopped.
What was the good of telling him?
Old Stuart had glanced up sharply, I am inclined to think almost
fearfully, into my face. "You—you haven't got it?" he said.
Shaphambury—I should remember that.
"You don't think you got it?" he said.
I handed the envelope back to him.
"For a moment I thought it might be Hampton," I said.
"Hampton," he repeated. "Hampton. How could you make Hampton?" He
turned the envelope about. "H.A.M.—why, Willie, you're a worse
hand at the job than me!"
He replaced the letter in the envelope and stood erect to put this
back in his breast pocket.
I did not mean to take any risks in this affair. I drew a stump
of pencil from my waistcoat pocket, turned a little away from him
and wrote "Shaphambury" very quickly on my frayed and rather grimy
"Well," said I, with an air of having done nothing remarkable.
I turned to him with some unimportant observation—I have forgotten
I never finished whatever vague remark I commenced.
I looked up to see a third person waiting at the greenhouse door.
It was old Mrs. Verrall.
I wonder if I can convey the effect of her to you. She was a little
old lady with extraordinarily flaxen hair, her weak aquiline features
were pursed up into an assumption of dignity, and she was richly
dressed. I would like to underline that "richly dressed," or have
the words printed in florid old English or Gothic lettering. No
one on earth is now quite so richly dressed as she was, no one old
or young indulges in so quiet and yet so profound a sumptuosity.
But you must not imagine any extravagance of outline or any beauty
or richness of color. The predominant colors were black and fur
browns, and the effect of richness was due entirely to the extreme
costliness of the materials employed. She affected silk brocades
with rich and elaborate patterns, priceless black lace over creamy
or purple satin, intricate trimmings through which threads and
bands of velvet wriggled, and in the winter rare furs. Her gloves
fitted exquisitely, and ostentatiously simple chains of fine gold
and pearls, and a great number of bracelets, laced about her little
person. One was forced to feel that the slightest article she wore
cost more than all the wardrobe of a dozen girls like Nettie; her
bonnet affected the simplicity that is beyond rubies. Richness,
that is the first quality about this old lady that I would like to
convey to you, and the second was cleanliness. You felt that old
Mrs. Verrall was exquisitely clean. If you had boiled my poor dear
old mother in soda for a month you couldn't have got her so clean
as Mrs. Verrall constantly and manifestly was. And pervading all
her presence shone her third great quality, her manifest confidence
in the respectful subordination of the world.
She was pale and a little out of breath that day, but without any
loss of her ultimate confidence, and it was clear to me that she
had come to interview Stuart upon the outbreak of passion that had
bridged the gulf between their families.
And here again I find myself writing in an unknown language, so far
as my younger readers are concerned. You who know only the world
that followed the Great Change will find much that I am telling
inconceivable. Upon these points I cannot appeal, as I have appealed
for other confirmations, to the old newspapers; these were the things
that no one wrote about because every one understood and every one
had taken up an attitude. There were in England and America, and
indeed throughout the world, two great informal divisions of human
beings—the Secure and the Insecure. There was not and never had
been in either country a nobility—it was and remains a common
error that the British peers were noble—neither in law nor custom
were there noble families, and we altogether lacked the edification
one found in Russia, for example, of a poor nobility. A peerage
was an hereditary possession that, like the family land, concerned
only the eldest sons of the house; it radiated no luster of noblesse
oblige. The rest of the world were in law and practice common—and
all America was common. But through the private ownership of land
that had resulted from the neglect of feudal obligations in Britain
and the utter want of political foresight in the Americas, large
masses of property had become artificially stable in the hands
of a small minority, to whom it was necessary to mortgage all new
public and private enterprises, and who were held together not by
any tradition of service and nobility but by the natural sympathy
of common interests and a common large scale of living. It was a class
without any very definite boundaries; vigorous individualities, by
methods for the most part violent and questionable, were constantly
thrusting themselves from insecurity to security, and the sons
and daughters of secure people, by marrying insecurity or by wild
extravagance or flagrant vice, would sink into the life of anxiety
and insufficiency which was the ordinary life of man. The rest
of the population was landless and, except by working directly or
indirectly for the Secure, had no legal right to exist. And such
was the shallowness and insufficiency of our thought, such the
stifled egotism of all our feelings before the Last Days, that very
few indeed of the Secure could be found to doubt that this was the
natural and only conceivable order of the world.
It is the life of the Insecure under the old order that I am
displaying, and I hope that I am conveying something of its hopeless
bitterness to you, but you must not imagine that the Secure lived
lives of paradisiacal happiness. The pit of insecurity below them
made itself felt, even though it was not comprehended. Life about
them was ugly; the sight of ugly and mean houses, of ill-dressed
people, the vulgar appeals of the dealers in popular commodities,
were not to be escaped. There was below the threshold of their minds
an uneasiness; they not only did not think clearly about social
economy but they displayed an instinctive disinclination to think.
Their security was not so perfect that they had not a dread of
falling towards the pit, they were always lashing themselves by
new ropes, their cultivation of "connexions," of interests, their
desire to confirm and improve their positions, was a constant
ignoble preoccupation. You must read Thackeray to get the full
flavor of their lives. Then the bacterium was apt to disregard class
distinctions, and they were never really happy in their servants.
Read their surviving books. Each generation bewails the decay
of that "fidelity" of servants, no generation ever saw. A world
that is squalid in one corner is squalid altogether, but that they
never understood. They believed there was not enough of anything
to go round, they believed that this was the intention of God and
an incurable condition of life, and they held passionately and with
a sense of right to their disproportionate share. They maintained
a common intercourse as "Society" of all who were practically
secure, and their choice of that word is exhaustively eloquent
of the quality of their philosophy. But, if you can master these
alien ideas upon which the old system rested, just in the same
measure will you understand the horror these people had for marriages
with the Insecure. In the case of their girls and women it was
extraordinarily rare, and in the case of either sex it was regarded
as a disastrous social crime. Anything was better than that.
You are probably aware of the hideous fate that was only too probably
the lot, during those last dark days, of every girl of the insecure
classes who loved and gave way to the impulse of self-abandonment
without marriage, and so you will understand the peculiar situation
of Nettie with young Verrall. One or other had to suffer. And as
they were both in a state of great emotional exaltation and capable
of strange generosities toward each other, it was an open question
and naturally a source of great anxiety to a mother in Mrs. Verrall's
position, whether the sufferer might not be her son—whether as
the outcome of that glowing irresponsible commerce Nettie might
not return prospective mistress of Checkshill Towers. The chances
were greatly against that conclusion, but such things did occur.
These laws and customs sound, I know, like a record of some
nasty-minded lunatic's inventions. They were invincible facts in
that vanished world into which, by some accident, I had been born,
and it was the dream of any better state of things that was scouted
as lunacy. Just think of it! This girl I loved with all my soul,
for whom I was ready to sacrifice my life, was not good enough to
marry young Verrall. And I had only to look at his even, handsome,
characterless face to perceive a creature weaker and no better
than myself. She was to be his pleasure until he chose to cast her
aside, and the poison of our social system had so saturated her
nature—his evening dress, his freedom and his money had seemed
so fine to her and I so clothed in squalor—that to that prospect
she had consented. And to resent the social conventions that
created their situation, was called "class envy," and gently born
preachers reproached us for the mildest resentment against an injustice
no living man would now either endure or consent to profit by.
What was the sense of saying "peace" when there was no peace? If
there was one hope in the disorders of that old world it lay in
revolt and conflict to the death.
But if you can really grasp the shameful grotesqueness of the old
life, you will begin to appreciate the interpretation of old Mrs.
Verrall's appearance that leapt up at once in my mind.
She had come to compromise the disaster!
And the Stuarts WOULD compromise! I saw that only too well.
An enormous disgust at the prospect of the imminent encounter between
Stuart and his mistress made me behave in a violent and irrational
way. I wanted to escape seeing that, seeing even Stuart's first
gesture in that, at any cost.
"I'm off," said I, and turned my back on him without any further
My line of retreat lay by the old lady, and so I advanced toward
I saw her expression change, her mouth fell a little way open, her
forehead wrinkled, and her eyes grew round. She found me a queer
customer even at the first sight, and there was something in the
manner of my advance that took away her breath.
She stood at the top of the three or four steps that descended to
the level of the hothouse floor. She receded a pace or two, with
a certain offended dignity at the determination of my rush.
I gave her no sort of salutation.
Well, as a matter of fact, I did give her a sort of salutation.
There is no occasion for me to begin apologizing now for the thing
I said to her—I strip these things before you—if only I can get
them stark enough you will understand and forgive. I was filled
with a brutal and overpowering desire to insult her.
And so I addressed this poor little expensive old woman in
the following terms, converting her by a violent metonymy into a
comprehensive plural. "You infernal land thieves!" I said point-blank
into her face. "HAVE YOU COME TO OFFER THEM MONEY?"
And without waiting to test her powers of repartee I passed rudely
beyond her and vanished, striding with my fists clenched,
out of her world again. . .
I have tried since to imagine how the thing must have looked to
her. So far as her particular universe went I had not existed at
all, or I had existed only as a dim black thing, an insignificant
speck, far away across her park in irrelevant, unimportant transit,
until this moment when she came, sedately troubled, into her own
secure gardens and sought for Stuart among the greenhouses. Then
abruptly I flashed into being down that green-walled, brick-floored
vista as a black-avised, ill-clad young man, who first stared and
then advanced scowling toward her. Once in existence I developed
rapidly. I grew larger in perspective and became more and more
important and sinister every moment. I came up the steps with
inconceivable hostility and disrespect in my bearing, towered
over her, becoming for an instant at least a sort of second French
Revolution, and delivered myself with the intensest concentration
of those wicked and incomprehensible words. Just for a second I
threatened annihilation. Happily that was my climax.
And then I had gone by, and the Universe was very much as it had
always been except for the wild swirl in it, and the faint sense
of insecurity my episode left in its wake.
The thing that never entered my head in those days was that a large
proportion of the rich were rich in absolute good faith. I thought
they saw things exactly as I saw them, and wickedly denied. But indeed
old Mrs. Verrall was no more capable of doubting the perfection
of her family's right to dominate a wide country side, than she was
of examining the Thirty-nine Articles or dealing with any other of
the adamantine pillars upon which her universe rested in security.
No doubt I startled and frightened her tremendously. But she could
None of her sort of people ever did seem to understand such livid
flashes of hate, as ever and again lit the crowded darkness below
their feet. The thing leapt out of the black for a moment and
vanished, like a threatening figure by a desolate roadside lit for
a moment by one's belated carriage-lamp and then swallowed up by
the night. They counted it with nightmares, and did their best to
forget what was evidently as insignificant as it was disturbing.
CHAPTER THE FOURTH
FROM that moment when I insulted old Mrs. Verrall I became
representative, I was a man who stood for all the disinherited of
the world. I had no hope of pride or pleasure left in me, I was
raging rebellion against God and mankind. There were no more vague
intentions swaying me this way and that; I was perfectly clear now
upon what I meant to do. I would make my protest and die.
I would make my protest and die. I was going to kill Nettie—Nettie
who had smiled and promised and given herself to another, and who
stood now for all the conceivable delightfulnesses, the lost imaginations
of the youthful heart, the unattainable joys in life; and Verrall
who stood for all who profited by the incurable injustice of our
social order. I would kill them both. And that being done I would
blow my brains out and see what vengeance followed my blank refusal
So indeed I was resolved. I raged monstrously. And above me,
abolishing the stars, triumphant over the yellow waning moon that
followed it below, the giant meteor towered up towards the zenith.
"Let me only kill!" I cried. "Let me only kill!"
So I shouted in my frenzy. I was in a fever that defied hunger
and fatigue; for a long time I had prowled over the heath towards
Lowchester talking to myself, and now that night had fully come I
was tramping homeward, walking the long seventeen miles without a
thought of rest. And I had eaten nothing since the morning.
I suppose I must count myself mad, but I can recall my ravings.
There were times when I walked weeping through that brightness that
was neither night nor day. There were times when I reasoned in a
topsy-turvy fashion with what I called the Spirit of All Things.
But always I spoke to that white glory in the sky.
"Why am I here only to suffer ignominies?" I asked. "Why have you
made me with pride that cannot be satisfied, with desires that
turn and rend me? Is it a jest, this world—a joke you play on your
guests? I—even I—have a better humor than that!"
"Why not learn from me a certain decency of mercy? Why not undo?
Have I ever tormented—day by day, some wretched worm—making
filth for it to trail through, filth that disgusts it, starving it,
bruising it, mocking it? Why should you? Your jokes are clumsy.
Try—try some milder fun up there; do you hear? Something that
doesn't hurt so infernally."
"You say this is your purpose—your purpose with me. You are making
something with me—birth pangs of a soul. Ah! How can I believe
you? You forget I have eyes for other things. Let my own case go,
but what of that frog beneath the cart-wheel, God?—and the bird
the cat had torn?"
And after such blasphemies I would fling out a ridiculous little
debating society hand. "Answer me that!"
A week ago it had been moonlight, white and black and hard across
the spaces of the park, but now the light was livid and full of
the quality of haze. An extraordinarily low white mist, not three
feet above the ground, drifted broodingly across the grass, and
the trees rose ghostly out of that phantom sea. Great and shadowy
and strange was the world that night, no one seemed abroad; I and my
little cracked voice drifted solitary through the silent mysteries.
Sometimes I argued as I have told, sometimes I tumbled along in
moody vacuity, sometimes my torment was vivid and acute.
Abruptly out of apathy would come a boiling paroxysm of fury, when
I thought of Nettie mocking me and laughing, and of her and Verrall
clasped in one another's arms.
"I will not have it so!" I screamed. "I will not have it so!"
And in one of these raving fits I drew my revolver from my pocket
and fired into the quiet night. Three times I fired it.
The bullets tore through the air, the startled trees told one another
in diminishing echoes the thing I had done, and then, with a slow
finality, the vast and patient night healed again to calm. My shots,
my curses and blasphemies, my prayers—for anon I prayed—that
Silence took them all.
It was—how can I express it?—a stifled outcry tranquilized,
lost, amid the serene assumptions, the overwhelming empire of that
brightness. The noise of my shots, the impact upon things, had
for the instant been enormous, then it had passed away. I found
myself standing with the revolver held up, astonished, my emotions
penetrated by something I could not understand. Then I looked up
over my shoulder at the great star, and remained staring at it.
"Who are YOU?" I said at last.
I was like a man in a solitary desert who has suddenly heard a voice. . . .
That, too, passed.
As I came over Clayton Crest I recalled that I missed the multitude
that now night after night walked out to stare at the comet, and
the little preacher in the waste beyond the hoardings, who warned
sinners to repent before the Judgment, was not in his usual place.
It was long past midnight, and every one had gone home. But I did
not think of this at first, and the solitude perplexed me and left
a memory behind. The gas-lamps were all extinguished because of the
brightness of the comet, and that too was unfamiliar. The little
newsagent in the still High Street had shut up and gone to bed,
but one belated board had been put out late and forgotten, and it
still bore its placard.
The word upon it—there was but one word upon it in staring
You figure that empty mean street, emptily echoing to my footsteps—no
soul awake and audible but me. Then my halt at the placard. And
amidst that sleeping stillness, smeared hastily upon the board,
a little askew and crumpled, but quite distinct beneath that cool
meteoric glare, preposterous and appalling, the measureless evil
of that word—
I awoke in that state of equanimity that so often follows an
It was late, and my mother was beside my bed. She had some breakfast
for me on a battered tray.
"Don't get up yet, dear," she said. "You've been sleeping. It was
three o'clock when you got home last night. You must have been
"Your poor face," she went on, "was as white as a sheet and your
eyes shining. . . . It frightened me to let you in. And you stumbled
on the stairs."
My eyes went quietly to my coat pocket, where something still bulged.
She probably had not noticed. "I went to Checkshill," I said. "You
"I got a letter last evening, dear," and as she bent near me to put
the tray upon my knees, she kissed my hair softly. For a moment we
both remained still, resting on that, her cheek just touching my
I took the tray from her to end the pause.
"Don't touch my clothes, mummy," I said sharply, as she moved
towards them. "I'm still equal to a clothes-brush."
And then, as she turned away, I astonished her by saying, "You dear
mother, you! A little—I understand. Only—now—dear mother; oh!
let me be! Let me be!"
And, with the docility of a good servant, she went from me. Dear
heart of submission that the world and I had used so ill!
It seemed to me that morning that I could never give way to a gust
of passion again. A sorrowful firmness of the mind possessed me.
My purpose seemed now as inflexible as iron; there was neither love
nor hate nor fear left in me—only I pitied my mother greatly for
all that was still to come. I ate my breakfast slowly, and thought
where I could find out about Shaphambury, and how I might hope to
get there. I had not five shillings in the world.
I dressed methodically, choosing the least frayed of my collars,
and shaving much more carefully than was my wont; then I went down
to the Public Library to consult a map.
Shaphambury was on the coast of Essex, a long and complicated
journey from Clayton. I went to the railway-station and made some
memoranda from the time-tables. The porters I asked were not very
clear about Shaphambury, but the booking-office clerk was helpful,
and we puzzled out all I wanted to know. Then I came out into the
coaly street again. At the least I ought to have two pounds.
I went back to the Public Library and into the newspaper room to
think over this problem.
A fact intruded itself upon me. People seemed in an altogether
exceptional stir about the morning journals, there was something
unusual in the air of the room, more people and more talking than
usual, and for a moment I was puzzled. Then I bethought me: "This
war with Germany, of course!" A naval battle was supposed to be in
progress in the North Sea. Let them! I returned to the consideration
of my own affairs.
Could I go and make it up with him, and then borrow? I weighed the
chances of that. Then I thought of selling or pawning something,
but that seemed difficult. My winter overcoat had not cost a pound
when it was new, my watch was not likely to fetch many shillings.
Still, both these things might be factors. I thought with a certain
repugnance of the little store my mother was probably making for
the rent. She was very secretive about that, and it was locked in
an old tea-caddy in her bedroom. I knew it would be almost impossible
to get any of that money from her willingly, and though I told
myself that in this issue of passion and death no detail mattered,
I could not get rid of tormenting scruples whenever I thought of
that tea-caddy. Was there no other course? Perhaps after every
other source had been tapped I might supplement with a few shillings
frankly begged from her. "These others," I said to myself, thinking
without passion for once of the sons of the Secure, "would find it
difficult to run their romances on a pawnshop basis. However, we
must manage it."
I felt the day was passing on, but I did not get excited about
that. "Slow is swiftest," Parload used to say, and I meant to get
everything thought out completely, to take a long aim and then to
act as a bullet flies.
I hesitated at a pawnshop on my way home to my midday meal, but I
determined not to pledge my watch until I could bring my overcoat
I ate silently, revolving plans.
After our midday dinner—it was a potato-pie, mostly potato with
some scraps of cabbage and bacon—I put on my overcoat and got it
out of the house while my mother was in the scullery at the back.
A scullery in the old world was, in the case of such houses as
ours, a damp, unsavory, mainly subterranean region behind the dark
living-room kitchen, that was rendered more than typically dirty
in our case by the fact that into it the coal-cellar, a yawning
pit of black uncleanness, opened, and diffused small crunchable
particles about the uneven brick floor. It was the region of
"washing-up," that greasy, damp function that followed every meal;
its atmosphere had ever a cooling steaminess and the memory of
boiled cabbage, and the sooty black stains where saucepan or kettle
had been put down for a minute, scraps of potato-peel caught by
the strainer of the escape-pipe, and rags of a quite indescribable
horribleness of acquisition, called "dish-clouts," rise in my
memory at the name. The altar of this place was the "sink," a tank
of stone, revolting to a refined touch, grease-filmed and unpleasant
to see, and above this was a tap for cold water, so arranged that
when the water descended it splashed and wetted whoever had turned
it on. This tap was our water supply. And in such a place you
must fancy a little old woman, rather incompetent and very gentle,
a soul of unselfishness and sacrifice, in dirty clothes, all come
from their original colors to a common dusty dark gray, in worn,
ill-fitting boots, with hands distorted by ill use, and untidy
graying hair—my mother. In the winter her hands would be "chapped,"
and she would have a cough. And while she washes up I go out, to
sell my overcoat and watch in order that I may desert her.
I gave way to queer hesitations in pawning my two negotiable articles.
A weakly indisposition to pawn in Clayton, where the pawnbroker
knew me, carried me to the door of the place in Lynch Street,
Swathinglea, where I had bought my revolver. Then came an idea that
I was giving too many facts about myself to one man, and I came
back to Clayton after all. I forget how much money I got, but I
remember that it was rather less than the sum I had made out to be
the single fare to Shaphambury. Still deliberate, I went back to
the Public Library to find out whether it was possible, by walking
for ten or twelve miles anywhere, to shorten the journey. My boots
were in a dreadful state, the sole of the left one also was now
peeling off, and I could not help perceiving that all my plans
might be wrecked if at this crisis I went on shoe leather in which
I could only shuffle. So long as I went softly they would serve,
but not for hard walking. I went to the shoemaker in Hacker Street,
but he would not promise any repairs for me under forty-eight hours.
I got back home about five minutes to three, resolved to start by
the five train for Birmingham in any case, but still dissatisfied
about my money. I thought of pawning a book or something of that
sort, but I could think of nothing of obvious value in the house.
My mother's silver—two gravy-spoons and a salt-cellar—had been
pawned for some weeks, since, in fact, the June quarter day. But
my mind was full of hypothetical opportunities.
As I came up the steps to our door, I remarked that Mr. Gabbitas
looked at me suddenly round his dull red curtains with a sort of
alarmed resolution in his eye and vanished, and as I walked along
the passage he opened his door upon me suddenly and intercepted
You are figuring me, I hope, as a dark and sullen lout in shabby,
cheap, old-world clothes that are shiny at all the wearing surfaces,
and with a discolored red tie and frayed linen. My left hand keeps
in my pocket as though there is something it prefers to keep a grip
upon there. Mr. Gabbitas was shorter than I, and the first note
he struck in the impression he made upon any one was of something
bright and birdlike. I think he wanted to be birdlike, he possessed
the possibility of an avian charm, but, as a matter of fact, there
was nothing of the glowing vitality of the bird in his being. And
a bird is never out of breath and with an open mouth. He was in
the clerical dress of that time, that costume that seems now almost
the strangest of all our old-world clothing, and he presented it in
its cheapest form—black of a poor texture, ill-fitting, strangely
cut. Its long skirts accentuated the tubbiness of his body, the
shortness of his legs. The white tie below his all-round collar,
beneath his innocent large-spectacled face, was a little grubby,
and between his not very clean teeth he held a briar pipe. His
complexion was whitish, and although he was only thirty-three or
four perhaps, his sandy hair was already thinning from the top of
To your eye, now, he would seem the strangest figure, in the utter
disregard of all physical beauty or dignity about him. You would
find him extraordinarily odd, but in the old days he met not only
with acceptance but respect. He was alive until within a year or so
ago, but his later appearance changed. As I saw him that afternoon
he was a very slovenly, ungainly little human being indeed, not only
was his clothing altogether ugly and queer, but had you stripped
the man stark, you would certainly have seen in the bulging paunch
that comes from flabby muscles and flabbily controlled appetites,
and in the rounded shoulders and flawed and yellowish skin, the same
failure of any effort toward clean beauty. You had an instinctive
sense that so he had been from the beginning. You felt he was not
only drifting through life, eating what came in his way, believing
what came in his way, doing without any vigor what came in his way,
but that into life also he had drifted. You could not believe him
the child of pride and high resolve, or of any splendid passion of
love. He had just HAPPENED. . . But we all happened then. Why am
I taking this tone over this poor little curate in particular?
"Hello!" he said, with an assumption of friendly ease. "Haven't
seen you for weeks! Come in and have a gossip."
An invitation from the drawing-room lodger was in the nature of a
command. I would have liked very greatly to have refused it, never
was invitation more inopportune, but I had not the wit to think
of an excuse. "All right," I said awkwardly, and he held the door
open for me.
"I'd be very glad if you would," he amplified. "One doesn't get
much opportunity of intelligent talk in this parish."
What the devil was he up to, was my secret preoccupation. He fussed
about me with a nervous hospitality, talking in jumpy fragments,
rubbing his hands together, and taking peeps at me over and round
his glasses. As I sat down in his leather-covered armchair, I had
an odd memory of the one in the Clayton dentist's operating-room—I
know not why.
"They're going to give us trouble in the North Sea, it seems," he
remarked with a sort of innocent zest. "I'm glad they mean fighting."
There was an air of culture about his room that always cowed me,
and that made me constrained even on this occasion. The table under
the window was littered with photographic material and the later
albums of his continental souvenirs, and on the American cloth
trimmed shelves that filled the recesses on either side of the
fireplace were what I used to think in those days a quite incredible
number of books—perhaps eight hundred altogether, including
the reverend gentleman's photograph albums and college and school
text-books. This suggestion of learning was enforced by the
little wooden shield bearing a college coat-of-arms that hung over
the looking-glass, and by a photograph of Mr. Gabbitas in cap and
gown in an Oxford frame that adorned the opposite wall. And in the
middle of that wall stood his writing-desk, which I knew to have
pigeon-holes when it was open, and which made him seem not merely
cultured but literary. At that he wrote sermons, composing them
"Yes," he said, taking possession of the hearthrug, "the war had
to come sooner or later. If we smash their fleet for them now;
well, there's an end to the matter!"
He stood on his toes and then bumped down on his heels, and looked
blandly through his spectacles at a water-color by his sister—the
subject was a bunch of violets—above the sideboard which was his
pantry and tea-chest and cellar. "Yes," he said as he did so.
I coughed, and wondered how I might presently get away.
He invited me to smoke—that queer old practice!—and then when
I declined, began talking in a confidential tone of this "dreadful
business" of the strikes. "The war won't improve THAT outlook," he
said, and was very grave for a moment.
He spoke of the want of thought for their wives and children shown
by the colliers in striking merely for the sake of the union, and
this stirred me to controversy, and distracted me a little from my
resolution to escape.
"I don't quite agree with that," I said, clearing my throat. "If
the men didn't strike for the union now, if they let that be broken
up, where would they be when the pinch of reductions did come?"
To which he replied that they couldn't expect to get top-price
wages when the masters were selling bottom-price coal. I replied,
"That isn't it. The masters don't treat them fairly. They have to
To which Mr. Gabbitas answered, "Well, I don't know. I've been in
the Four Towns some time, and I must say I don't think the balance
of injustice falls on the masters' side."
"It falls on the men," I agreed, wilfully misunderstanding him.
And so we worked our way toward an argument. "Confound this
argument!" I thought; but I had no skill in self-extraction, and
my irritation crept into my voice. Three little spots of color came
into the cheeks and nose of Mr. Gabbitas, but his voice showed
nothing of his ruffled temper.
"You see," I said, "I'm a socialist. I don't think this world was
made for a small minority to dance on the faces of every one else."
"My dear fellow," said the Rev. Gabbitas, "I'M a socialist too.
Who isn't. But that doesn't lead me to class hatred."
"You haven't felt the heel of this confounded system. I have."
"Ah!" said he; and catching him on that note came a rap at the front
door, and, as he hung suspended, the sound of my mother letting
some one in and a timid rap.
"NOW," thought I, and stood up, resolutely, but he would not let
me. "No, no, no!" said he. "It's only for the Dorcas money."
He put his hand against my chest with an effect of physical
compulsion, and cried, "Come in!"
"Our talk's just getting interesting," he protested; and there
entered Miss Ramell, an elderly little young lady who was mighty
in Church help in Clayton.
He greeted her—she took no notice of me—and went to his bureau,
and I remained standing by my chair but unable to get out of the
room. "I'm not interrupting?" asked Miss Ramell.
"Not in the least," he said; drew out the carriers and opened his
desk. I could not help seeing what he did.
I was so fretted by my impotence to leave him that at the moment
it did not connect at all with the research of the morning that
he was taking out money. I listened sullenly to his talk with Miss
Ramell, and saw only, as they say in Wales, with the front of my
eyes, the small flat drawer that had, it seemed, quite a number
of sovereigns scattered over its floor. "They're so unreasonable,"
complained Miss Ramell. Who could be otherwise in a social
organization that bordered on insanity?
I turned away from them, put my foot on the fender, stuck my elbow
on the plush-fringed mantelboard, and studied the photographs,
pipes, and ash-trays that adorned it. What was it I had to think
out before I went to the station?
Of course! My mind made a queer little reluctant leap—it felt like
being forced to leap over a bottomless chasm—and alighted upon the
sovereigns that were just disappearing again as Mr. Gabbitas shut
"I won't interrupt your talk further," said Miss Ramell, receding
Mr. Gabbitas played round her politely, and opened the door for her
and conducted her into the passage, and for a moment or so I had
the fullest sense of proximity to those—it seemed to me
there must be ten or twelve—sovereigns. . . .
The front door closed and he returned. My chance of escape had
"I MUST be going," I said, with a curiously reinforced desire to
get away out of that room.
"My dear chap!" he insisted, "I can't think of it. Surely—there's
nothing to call you away." Then with an evident desire to shift the
venue of our talk, he asked, "You never told me what you thought
of Burble's little book."
I was now, beneath my dull display of submission, furiously angry
with him. It occurred to me to ask myself why I should defer
and qualify my opinions to him. Why should I pretend a feeling
of intellectual and social inferiority toward him. He asked what
I thought of Burble. I resolved to tell him—if necessary with
arrogance. Then perhaps he would release me. I did not sit down
again, but stood by the corner of the fireplace.
"That was the little book you lent me last summer?" I said.
"He reasons closely, eh?" he said, and indicated the armchair with
a flat hand, and beamed persuasively.
I remained standing. "I didn't think much of his reasoning powers,"
"He was one of the cleverest bishops London ever had."
"That may be. But he was dodging about in a jolly feeble case,"
"That he's wrong. I don't think he proves his case. I don't think
Christianity is true. He knows himself for the pretender he is.
Mr. Gabbitas went, I think, a shade paler than his wont, and propitiation
vanished from his manner. His eyes and mouth were round, his face
seemed to get round, his eyebrows curved at my remarks.
"I'm sorry you think that," he said at last, with a catch in his
He did not repeat his suggestion that I should sit. He made a step
or two toward the window and turned. "I suppose you will admit—" he
began, with a faintly irritating note of intellectual condescension.
. . . .
I will not tell you of his arguments or mine. You will find if
you care to look for them, in out-of-the-way corners of our book
museums, the shriveled cheap publications—the publications of the
Rationalist Press Association, for example—on which my arguments
were based. Lying in that curious limbo with them, mixed up with
them and indistinguishable, are the endless "Replies" of orthodoxy,
like the mixed dead in some hard-fought trench. All those disputes
of our fathers, and they were sometimes furious disputes, have
gone now beyond the range of comprehension. You younger people, I
know, read them with impatient perplexity. You cannot understand
how sane creatures could imagine they had joined issue at all
in most of these controversies. All the old methods of systematic
thinking, the queer absurdities of the Aristotelian logic, have
followed magic numbers and mystical numbers, and the Rumpelstiltskin
magic of names now into the blackness of the unthinkable. You can
no more understand our theological passions than you can understand
the fancies that made all ancient peoples speak of their gods only
by circumlocutions, that made savages pine away and die because
they had been photographed, or an Elizabethan farmer turn back from
a day's expedition because he had met three crows. Even I, who have
been through it all, recall our controversies now with something
Faith we can understand to-day, all men live by faith, but in the
old time every one confused quite hopelessly Faith and a forced,
incredible Belief in certain pseudo-concrete statements. I am
inclined to say that neither believers nor unbelievers had faith as
we understand it—they had insufficient intellectual power. They
could not trust unless they had something to see and touch and
say, like their barbarous ancestors who could not make a bargain
without exchange of tokens. If they no longer worshipped stocks and
stones, or eked out their needs with pilgrimages and images, they
still held fiercely to audible images, to printed words and formulae.
But why revive the echoes of the ancient logomachies?
Suffice it that we lost our tempers very readily in pursuit of
God and Truth, and said exquisitely foolish things on either side.
And on the whole—from the impartial perspective of my three and
seventy years—I adjudicate that if my dialectic was bad, that of
the Rev. Gabbitas was altogether worse.
Little pink spots came into his cheeks, a squealing note into his
voice. We interrupted each other more and more rudely. We invented
facts and appealed to authorities whose names I mispronounced;
and, finding Gabbitas shy of the higher criticism and the Germans,
I used the names of Karl Marx and Engels as Bible exegetes with no
little effect. A silly wrangle! a preposterous wrangle!—you must
imagine our talk becoming louder, with a developing quarrelsome
note—my mother no doubt hovering on the staircase and listening
in alarm as who should say, "My dear, don't offend it! Oh, don't
offend it! Mr. Gabbitas enjoys its friendship. Try to think whatever
Mr. Gabbitas says"—though we still kept in touch with a pretence
of mutual deference. The ethical superiority of Christianity to
all other religions came to the fore—I know not how. We dealt with
the matter in bold, imaginative generalizations, because of the
insufficiency of our historical knowledge. I was moved to denounce
Christianity as the ethic of slaves, and declare myself a disciple
of a German writer of no little vogue in those days, named Nietzsche.
For a disciple I must confess I was particularly ill acquainted
with the works of the master. Indeed, all I knew of him had come
to me through a two-column article in The Clarion for the previous
week. . . . But the Rev. Gabbitas did not read The Clarion.
I am, I know, putting a strain upon your credulity when I tell you
that I now have little doubt that the Rev. Gabbitas was absolutely
ignorant even of the name of Nietzsche, although that writer presented
a separate and distinct attitude of attack upon the faith that was
in the reverend gentleman's keeping.
"I'm a disciple of Nietzsche," said I, with an air of extensive
He shied away so awkwardly at the name that I repeated it at once.
"But do you know what Nietzsche says?" I pressed him viciously.
"He has certainly been adequately answered," said he, still trying
to carry it off.
"Who by?" I rapped out hotly. "Tell me that!" and became mercilessly
A happy accident relieved Mr. Gabbitas from the embarrassment
of that challenge, and carried me another step along my course of
It came on the heels of my question in the form of a clatter of
horses without, and the gride and cessation of wheels. I glimpsed
a straw-hatted coachman and a pair of grays. It seemed an incredibly
magnificent carriage for Clayton.
"Eh!" said the Rev. Gabbitas, going to the window. "Why, it's old
Mrs. Verrall! It's old Mrs. Verrall. Really! What CAN she want with
He turned to me, and the flush of controversy had passed and his
face shone like the sun. It was not every day, I perceived, that
Mrs. Verrall came to see him.
"I get so many interruptions," he said, almost grinning. "You must
excuse me a minute! Then—then I'll tell you about that fellow.
But don't go. I pray you don't go. I can assure you. . . . MOST
He went out of the room waving vague prohibitory gestures.
"I MUST go," I cried after him.
"No, no, no!" in the passage. "I've got your answer," I think it
was he added, and "quite mistaken;" and I saw him running down the
steps to talk to the old lady.
I swore. I made three steps to the window, and this brought me
within a yard of that accursed drawer.
I glanced at it, and then at that old woman who was so absolutely
powerful, and instantly her son and Nettie's face were flaming in
my brain. The Stuarts had, no doubt, already accepted accomplished
facts. And I too—
What was I doing here?
What was I doing here while judgment escaped me?
I woke up. I was injected with energy. I took one reassuring look
at the curate's obsequious back, at the old lady's projected nose
and quivering hand, and then with swift, clean movements I had the
little drawer open, four sovereigns in my pocket, and the drawer
shut again. Then again at the window—they were still talking.
That was all right. He might not look in that drawer for hours. I
glanced at his clock. Twenty minutes still before the Birmingham
train. Time to buy a pair of boots and get away. But how I was to
get to the station?
I went out boldly into the passage, and took my hat and stick. . . .
Walk past him?
Yes. That was all right! He could not argue with me while so
important a person engaged him. . . . I came boldly down the steps.
"I want a list made, Mr. Gabbitas, of all the really DESERVING
cases," old Mrs. Verrall was saying.
It is curious, but it did not occur to me that here was a mother
whose son I was going to kill. I did not see her in that aspect
at all. Instead, I was possessed by a realization of the blazing
imbecility of a social system that gave this palsied old woman
the power to give or withhold the urgent necessities of life from
hundreds of her fellow-creatures just according to her poor, foolish
old fancies of desert.
"We could make a PROVISIONAL list of that sort," he was saying,
and glanced round with a preoccupied expression at me.
"I MUST go," I said at his flash of inquiry, and added, "I'll be
back in twenty minutes," and went on my way. He turned again to
his patroness as though he forgot me on the instant. Perhaps after
all he was not sorry.
I felt extraordinarily cool and capable, exhilarated, if anything,
by this prompt, effectual theft. After all, my great determination
would achieve itself. I was no longer oppressed by a sense
of obstacles, I felt I could grasp accidents and turn them to
my advantage. I would go now down Hacker Street to the little
shoemaker's—get a sound, good pair of boots—ten minutes—and then to
the railway-station—five minutes more—and off! I felt as efficient
and non-moral as if I was Nietzsche's Over-man already come. It did
not occur to me that the curate's clock might have a considerable
margin of error.
I missed the train.
Partly that was because the curate's clock was slow, and partly
it was due to the commercial obstinacy of the shoemaker, who would
try on another pair after I had declared my time was up. I bought
the final pair however, gave him a wrong address for the return of
the old ones, and only ceased to feel like the Nietzschean Over-man,
when I saw the train running out of the station.
Even then I did not lose my head. It occurred to me almost at once
that, in the event of a prompt pursuit, there would be a great
advantage in not taking a train from Clayton; that, indeed, to have
done so would have been an error from which only luck had saved
me. As it was, I had already been very indiscreet in my inquiries
about Shaphambury; for once on the scent the clerk could not fail
to remember me. Now the chances were against his coming into the
case. I did not go into the station therefore at all, I made no
demonstration of having missed the train, but walked quietly past,
down the road, crossed the iron footbridge, and took the way back
circuitously by White's brickfields and the allotments to the way
over Clayton Crest to Two-Mile Stone, where I calculated I should
have an ample margin for the 6.13 train.
I was not very greatly excited or alarmed then. Suppose, I reasoned,
that by some accident the curate goes to that drawer at once: will
he be certain to miss four out of ten or eleven sovereigns? If he
does, will he at once think I have taken them? If he does, will
he act at once or wait for my return? If he acts at once, will he
talk to my mother or call in the police? Then there are a dozen
roads and even railways out of the Clayton region, how is he to
know which I have taken? Suppose he goes straight at once to the
right station, they will not remember my departure for the simple
reason that I didn't depart. But they may remember about Shaphambury?
It was unlikely.
I resolved not to go directly to Shaphambury from Birmingham, but
to go thence to Monkshampton, thence to Wyvern, and then come down
on Shaphambury from the north. That might involve a night at some
intermediate stopping-place but it would effectually conceal me
from any but the most persistent pursuit. And this was not a case
of murder yet, but only the theft of four sovereigns.
I had argued away all anxiety before I reached Clayton Crest.
At the Crest I looked back. What a world it was! And suddenly it
came to me that I was looking at this world for the last time. If
I overtook the fugitives and succeeded, I should die with them—or
hang. I stopped and looked back more attentively at that wide ugly
It was my native valley, and I was going out of it, I thought never
to return, and yet in that last prospect, the group of towns that
had borne me and dwarfed and crippled and made me, seemed, in some
indefinable manner, strange. I was, perhaps, more used to seeing it
from this comprehensive view-point when it was veiled and softened
by night; now it came out in all its weekday reek, under a clear
afternoon sun. That may account a little for its unfamiliarity.
And perhaps, too, there was something in the emotions through which
I had been passing for a week and more, to intensify my insight,
to enable me to pierce the unusual, to question the accepted. But
it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time, how promiscuous,
how higgledy-piggledy was the whole of that jumble of mines and
homes, collieries and potbanks, railway yards, canals, schools,
forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotment hovels,
a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which
men lived as happy as frogs in a dustbin. Each thing jostled and
damaged the other things about it, each thing ignored the other
things about it; the smoke of the furnace defiled the potbank clay,
the clatter of the railway deafened the worshipers in church, the
public-house thrust corruption at the school doors, the dismal
homes squeezed miserably amidst the monstrosities of industrialism,
with an effect of groping imbecility. Humanity choked amidst its
products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like
a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.
I did not think these things clearly that afternoon. Much less did
I ask how I, with my murderous purpose, stood to them all. I write
down that realization of disorder and suffocation here and now as
though I had thought it, but indeed then I only felt it, felt it
transitorily as I looked back, and then stood with the thing escaping
from my mind.
I should never see that country-side again.
I came back to that. At any rate I wasn't sorry. The chances were
I should die in sweet air, under a clean sky.
From distant Swathinglea came a little sound, the minute undulation
of a remote crowd, and then rapidly three shots.
That held me perplexed for a space. . . . Well, anyhow I was
leaving it all! Thank God I was leaving it all! Then, as I turned
to go on, I thought of my mother.
It seemed an evil world in which to leave one's mother. My thoughts
focused upon her very vividly for a moment. Down there, under that
afternoon light, she was going to and fro, unaware as yet that
she had lost me, bent and poking about in the darkling underground
kitchen, perhaps carrying a lamp into the scullery to trim, or
sitting patiently, staring into the fire, waiting tea for me. A
great pity for her, a great remorse at the blacker troubles that
lowered over her innocent head, came to me. Why, after all, was
I doing this thing?
I stopped again dead, with the hill crest rising between me and
home. I had more than half a mind to return to her.
Then I thought of the curate's sovereigns. If he has missed them
already, what should I return to? And, even if I returned, how
could I put them back?
And what of the night after I renounced my revenge? What of the
time when young Verrall came back? And Nettie?
No! The thing had to be done.
But at least I might have kissed my mother before I came away, left
her some message, reassured her at least for a little while.
All night she would listen and wait for me. . . . .
Should I send her a telegram from Two-Mile Stone?
It was no good now; too late, too late. To do that would be to tell
the course I had taken, to bring pursuit upon me, swift and sure,
if pursuit there was to be. No. My mother must suffer!
I went on grimly toward Two-Mile Stone, but now as if some greater
will than mine directed my footsteps thither.
I reached Birmingham before darkness came, and just caught the last
train for Monkshampton, where I had planned to pass the night.
CHAPTER THE FIFTH
THE PURSUIT OF THE TWO LOVERS
As the train carried me on from Birmingham to Monkshampton, it
carried me not only into a country where I had never been before,
but out of the commonplace daylight and the touch and quality
of ordinary things, into the strange unprecedented night that was
ruled by the giant meteor of the last days.
There was at that time a curious accentuation of the common alternation
of night and day. They became separated with a widening difference
of value in regard to all mundane affairs. During the day, the
comet was an item in the newspapers, it was jostled by a thousand
more living interests, it was as nothing in the skirts of the war
storm that was now upon us. It was an astronomical phenomenon,
somewhere away over China, millions of miles away in the deeps.
We forgot it. But directly the sun sank one turned ever and again
toward the east, and the meteor resumed its sway over us.
One waited for its rising, and yet each night it came as a surprise.
Always it rose brighter than one had dared to think, always larger and
with some wonderful change in its outline, and now with a strange,
less luminous, greener disk upon it that grew with its growth, the
umbra of the earth. It shone also with its own light, so that this
shadow was not hard or black, but it shone phosphorescently and with
a diminishing intensity where the stimulus of the sun's rays was
withdrawn. As it ascended toward the zenith, as the last trailing
daylight went after the abdicating sun, its greenish white illumination
banished the realities of day, diffused a bright ghostliness over
all things. It changed the starless sky about it to an extraordinary
deep blue, the profoundest color in the world, such as I have never
seen before or since. I remember, too, that as I peered from the
train that was rattling me along to Monkshampton, I perceived and
was puzzled by a coppery red light that mingled with all the shadows
that were cast by it.
It turned our ugly English industrial towns to phantom cities.
Everywhere the local authorities discontinued street lighting—one
could read small print in the glare,—and so at Monkshampton I
went about through pale, white, unfamiliar streets, whose electric
globes had shadows on the path. Lit windows here and there burnt
ruddy orange, like holes cut in some dream curtain that hung before
a furnace. A policeman with noiseless feet showed me an inn woven
of moonshine, a green-faced man opened to us, and there I abode
the night. And the next morning it opened with a mighty clatter,
and was a dirty little beerhouse that stank of beer, and there was
a fat and grimy landlord with red spots upon his neck, and much
noisy traffic going by on the cobbles outside.
I came out, after I had paid my bill, into a street that echoed
to the bawlings of two newsvendors and to the noisy yappings of a
dog they had raised to emulation. They were shouting: "Great British
disaster in the North Sea. A battleship lost with all hands!"
I bought a paper, went on to the railway station reading such
details as were given of this triumph of the old civilization, of
the blowing up of this great iron ship, full of guns and explosives
and the most costly and beautiful machinery of which that time was
capable, together with nine hundred able-bodied men, all of them
above the average, by a contact mine towed by a German submarine.
I read myself into a fever of warlike emotions. Not only did I
forget the meteor, but for a time I forgot even the purpose that
took me on to the railway station, bought my ticket, and was now
carrying me onward to Shaphambury.
So the hot day came to its own again, and people forgot the night.
Each night, there shone upon us more and more insistently, beauty,
wonder, the promise of the deeps, and we were hushed, and marveled
for a space. And at the first gray sounds of dawn again, at the
shooting of bolts and the noise of milk-carts, we forgot, and the
dusty habitual day came yawning and stretching back again. The
stains of coal smoke crept across the heavens, and we rose to the
soiled disorderly routine of life.
"Thus life has always been," we said; "thus it will always be."
The glory of those nights was almost universally regarded as
spectacular merely. It signified nothing to us. So far as western
Europe went, it was only a small and ignorant section of the lower
classes who regarded the comet as a portent of the end of the
world. Abroad, where there were peasantries, it was different, but
in England the peasantry had already disappeared. Every one read.
The newspaper, in the quiet days before our swift quarrel with Germany
rushed to its climax, had absolutely dispelled all possibilities
of a panic in this matter. The very tramps upon the high-roads, the
children in the nursery, had learnt that at the utmost the whole
of that shining cloud could weigh but a few score tons. This fact
had been shown quite conclusively by the enormous deflections that
had at last swung it round squarely at our world. It had passed
near three of the smallest asteroids without producing the minutest
perceptible deflection in their course; while, on its own part, it
had described a course through nearly three degrees. When it struck
our earth there was to be a magnificent spectacle, no doubt, for
those who were on the right side of our planet to see, but beyond
that nothing. It was doubtful whether we were on the right side.
The meteor would loom larger and larger in the sky, but with the
umbra of our earth eating its heart of brightness out, and at last
it would be the whole sky, a sky of luminous green clouds, with
a white brightness about the horizon, west and east. Then a pause—a
pause of not very exactly definite duration—and then, no doubt,
a great blaze of shooting stars. They might be of some unwonted
color because of the unknown element that line in the green revealed.
For a little while the zenith would spout shooting stars. Some,
it was hoped, would reach the earth and be available for analysis.
That, science said, would be all. The green clouds would whirl and
vanish, and there might be thunderstorms. But through the attenuated
wisps of comet shine, the old sky, the old stars, would reappear,
and all would be as it had been before. And since this was to happen
between one and eleven in the morning of the approaching Tuesday—I
slept at Monkshampton on Saturday night,—it would be only partially
visible, if visible at all, on our side of the earth. Perhaps, if
it came late, one would see no more than a shooting star low down
in the sky. All this we had with the utmost assurances of science.
Still it did not prevent the last nights being the most beautiful
and memorable of human experiences.
The nights had become very warm, and when next day I had ranged
Shaphambury in vain, I was greatly tormented, as that unparalleled
glory of the night returned, to think that under its splendid
benediction young Verrall and Nettie made love to one another.
I walked backward and forward, backward and forward, along the sea
front, peering into the faces of the young couples who promenaded,
with my hand in my pocket ready, and a curious ache in my heart
that had no kindred with rage. Until at last all the promenaders
had gone home to bed, and I was alone with the star.
My train from Wyvern to Shaphambury that morning was a whole hour
late; they said it was on account of the movement of troops to meet
a possible raid from the Elbe.
Shaphambury seemed an odd place to me even then. But something was
quickening in me at that time to feel the oddness of many accepted
things. Now in the retrospect I see it as intensely queer. The whole
place was strange to my untraveled eyes; the sea even was strange.
Only twice in my life had I been at the seaside before, and then
I had gone by excursion to places on the Welsh coast whose great
cliffs of rock and mountain backgrounds made the effect of the horizon
very different from what it is upon the East Anglian seaboard. Here
what they call a cliff was a crumbling bank of whitey-brown earth
not fifty feet high.
So soon as I arrived I made a systematic exploration of Shaphambury.
To this day I retain the clearest memories of the plan I shaped
out then, and how my inquiries were incommoded by the overpowering
desire of every one to talk of the chances of a German raid, before
the Channel Fleet got round to us. I slept at a small public-house
in a Shaphambury back street on Sunday night. I did not get on to
Shaphambury from Wyvern until two in the afternoon, because of the
infrequency of Sunday trains, and I got no clue whatever until late
in the afternoon of Monday. As the little local train bumped into
sight of the place round the curve of a swelling hill, one saw
a series of undulating grassy spaces, amidst which a number of
conspicuous notice-boards appealed to the eye and cut up the distant
sea horizon. Most of these referred to comestibles or to remedies
to follow the comestibles; and they were colored with a view to be
memorable rather than beautiful, to "stand out" amidst the gentle
grayish tones of the east coast scenery. The greater number, I may
remark, of the advertisements that were so conspicuous a factor
in the life of those days, and which rendered our vast tree-pulp
newspapers possible, referred to foods, drinks, tobacco, and the
drugs that promised a restoration of the equanimity these other
articles had destroyed. Wherever one went one was reminded in glaring
letters that, after all, man was little better than a worm, that
eyeless, earless thing that burrows and lives uncomplainingly
amidst nutritious dirt, "an alimentary canal with the subservient
appendages thereto." But in addition to such boards there were also
the big black and white boards of various grandiloquently named
"estates." The individualistic enterprise of that time had led to
the plotting out of nearly all the country round the seaside towns
into roads and building-plots—all but a small portion of the south
and east coast was in this condition, and had the promises of those
schemes been realized the entire population of the island might
have been accommodated upon the sea frontiers. Nothing of the sort
happened, of course; the whole of this uglification of the coast-line
was done to stimulate a little foolish gambling in plots, and
one saw everywhere agents' boards in every state of freshness and
decay, ill-made exploitation roads overgrown with grass, and here
and there, at a corner, a label, "Trafalgar Avenue," or "Sea View
Road." Here and there, too, some small investor, some shopman with
"savings," had delivered his soul to the local builders and built
himself a house, and there it stood, ill-designed, mean-looking,
isolated, ill-placed on a cheaply fenced plot, athwart which his
domestic washing fluttered in the breeze amidst a bleak desolation
of enterprise. Then presently our railway crossed a high road,
and a row of mean yellow brick houses—workmen's cottages, and
the filthy black sheds that made the "allotments" of that time a
universal eyesore, marked our approach to the more central areas
of—I quote the local guidebook—"one of the most delightful resorts
in the East Anglian poppy-land." Then more mean houses, the gaunt
ungainliness of the electric force station—it had a huge chimney,
because no one understood how to make combustion of coal complete—and
then we were in the railway station, and barely three-quarters of
a mile from the center of this haunt of health and pleasure.
I inspected the town thoroughly before I made my inquiries. The
road began badly with a row of cheap, pretentious, insolvent-looking
shops, a public-house, and a cab-stand, but, after an interval of
little red villas that were partly hidden amidst shrubbery gardens,
broke into a confusedly bright but not unpleasing High Street,
shuttered that afternoon and sabbatically still. Somewhere in the
background a church bell jangled, and children in bright, new-looking
clothes were going to Sunday-school. Thence through a square of
stuccoed lodging-houses, that seemed a finer and cleaner version of
my native square, I came to a garden of asphalt and euonymus—the
Sea Front. I sat down on a cast-iron seat, and surveyed first of all
the broad stretches of muddy, sandy beach, with its queer wheeled
bathing machines, painted with the advertisements of somebody's
pills—and then at the house fronts that stared out upon these visceral
counsels. Boarding-houses, private hotels, and lodging-houses in
terraces clustered closely right and left of me, and then came to
an end; in one direction scaffolding marked a building enterprise
in progress, in the other, after a waste interval, rose a monstrous
bulging red shape, a huge hotel, that dwarfed all other things.
Northward were low pale cliffs with white denticulations of tents,
where the local volunteers, all under arms, lay encamped, and
southward, a spreading waste of sandy dunes, with occasional bushes
and clumps of stunted pine and an advertisement board or so. A
hard blue sky hung over all this prospect, the sunshine cast inky
shadows, and eastward was a whitish sea. It was Sunday, and the
midday meal still held people indoors.
A queer world! thought I even then—to you now it must seem impossibly
queer,—and after an interval I forced myself back to my own affair.
How was I to ask? What was I to ask for? I puzzled for a long time
over that—at first I was a little tired and indolent—and then
presently I had a flow of ideas.
My solution was fairly ingenious. I invented the following story.
I happened to be taking a holiday in Shaphambury, and I was making
use of the opportunity to seek the owner of a valuable feather boa,
which had been left behind in the hotel of my uncle at Wyvern by a
young lady, traveling with a young gentleman—no doubt a youthful
married couple. They had reached Shaphambury somewhen on Thursday.
I went over the story many times, and gave my imaginary uncle and
his hotel plausible names. At any rate this yarn would serve as
a complete justification for all the questions I might wish to ask.
I settled that, but I still sat for a time, wanting the energy to
begin. Then I turned toward the big hotel. Its gorgeous magnificence
seemed to my inexpert judgment to indicate the very place a rich
young man of good family would select.
Huge draught-proof doors were swung round for me by an ironically
polite under-porter in a magnificent green uniform, who looked at
my clothes as he listened to my question and then with a German
accent referred me to a gorgeous head porter, who directed me to
a princely young man behind a counter of brass and polish, like a
bank—like several banks. This young man, while he answered me, kept
his eye on my collar and tie—and I knew that they were abominable.
"I want to find a lady and gentleman who came to Shaphambury on
Tuesday," I said.
"Friends of yours?" he asked with a terrible fineness of irony.
I made out at last that here at any rate the young people had not
been. They might have lunched there, but they had had no room. But
I went out—door opened again for me obsequiously—in a state of
social discomfiture, and did not attack any other establishment
My resolution had come to a sort of ebb. More people were promenading,
and their Sunday smartness abashed me. I forgot my purpose in an
acute sense of myself. I felt that the bulge of my pocket caused
by the revolver was conspicuous, and I was ashamed. I went along
the sea front away from the town, and presently lay down among
pebbles and sea poppies. This mood of reaction prevailed with me
all that afternoon. In the evening, about sundown, I went to the
station and asked questions of the outporters there. But outporters,
I found, were a class of men who remembered luggage rather than
people, and I had no sort of idea what luggage young Verrall and
Nettie were likely to have with them.
Then I fell into conversation with a salacious wooden-legged old
man with a silver ring, who swept the steps that went down to the
beach from the parade. He knew much about young couples, but only
in general terms, and nothing of the particular young couple I
sought. He reminded me in the most disagreeable way of the sensuous
aspects of life, and I was not sorry when presently a gunboat
appeared in the offing signalling the coastguard and the camp, and
cut short his observations upon holidays, beaches, and morals.
I went, and now I was past my ebb, and sat in a seat upon the parade,
and watched the brightening of those rising clouds of chilly fire
that made the ruddy west seem tame. My midday lassitude was going,
my blood was running warmer again. And as the twilight and that filmy
brightness replaced the dusty sunlight and robbed this unfamiliar
place of all its matter-of-fact queerness, its sense of aimless
materialism, romance returned to me, and passion, and my thoughts
of honor and revenge. I remember that change of mood as occurring
very vividly on this occasion, but I fancy that less distinctly I
had felt this before many times. In the old times, night and the
starlight had an effect of intimate reality the daytime did not possess.
The daytime—as one saw it in towns and populous places—had hold
of one, no doubt, but only as an uproar might, it was distracting,
conflicting, insistent. Darkness veiled the more salient aspects of
those agglomerations of human absurdity, and one could exist—one
I had a queer illusion that night, that Nettie and her lover were
close at hand, that suddenly I should come on them. I have already
told how I went through the dusk seeking them in every couple that
drew near. And I dropped asleep at last in an unfamiliar bedroom
hung with gaudily decorated texts, cursing myself for having wasted
I sought them in vain the next morning, but after midday I came in
quick succession on a perplexing multitude of clues. After failing
to find any young couple that corresponded to young Verrall
and Nettie, I presently discovered an unsatisfactory quartette of
Any of these four couples might have been the one I sought; with
regard to none of them was there conviction. They had all arrived
either on Wednesday or Thursday. Two couples were still in occupation
of their rooms, but neither of these were at home. Late in the
afternoon I reduced my list by eliminating a young man in drab, with
side whiskers and long cuffs, accompanied by a lady, of thirty or
more, of consciously ladylike type. I was disgusted at the sight
of them; the other two young people had gone for a long walk, and
though I watched their boarding-house until the fiery cloud shone
out above, sharing and mingling in an unusually splendid sunset,
I missed them. Then I discovered them dining at a separate table
in the bow window, with red-shaded candles between them, peering
out ever and again at this splendor that was neither night nor day.
The girl in her pink evening dress looked very light and pretty
to me—pretty enough to enrage me,—she had well shaped arms and
white, well-modeled shoulders, and the turn of her cheek and the
fair hair about her ears was full of subtle delights; but she was
not Nettie, and the happy man with her was that odd degenerate type
our old aristocracy produced with such odd frequency, chinless,
large bony nose, small fair head, languid expression, and a neck
that had demanded and received a veritable sleeve of collar. I
stood outside in the meteor's livid light, hating them and cursing
them for having delayed me so long. I stood until it was evident
they remarked me, a black shape of envy, silhouetted against the
That finished Shaphambury. The question I now had to debate was
which of the remaining couples I had to pursue.
I walked back to the parade trying to reason my next step out, and
muttering to myself, because there was something in that luminous
wonderfulness that touched one's brain, and made one feel a little
One couple had gone to London; the other had gone to the Bungalow
village at Bone Cliff. Where, I wondered, was Bone Cliff?
I came upon my wooden-legged man at the top of his steps.
"Hullo," said I.
He pointed seaward with his pipe, his silver ring shone in the sky
"Rum," he said.
"What is?" I asked.
"Search-lights! Smoke! Ships going north! If it wasn't for this
blasted Milky Way gone green up there, we might see."
He was too intent to heed my questions for a time. Then he vouchsafed
over his shoulder—
"Know Bungalow village?—rather. Artis' and such. Nice goings on!
Mixed bathing—something scandalous. Yes."
"But where is it?" I said, suddenly exasperated.
"There!" he said. "What's that flicker? A gunflash—or I'm a lost
"You'd hear," I said, "long before it was near enough to see a
He didn't answer. Only by making it clear I would distract him until
he told me what I wanted to know could I get him to turn from his
absorbed contemplation of that phantom dance between the sea rim and
the shine. Indeed I gripped his arm and shook him. Then he turned
upon me cursing.
"Seven miles," he said, "along this road. And now go to 'ell with
I answered with some foul insult by way of thanks, and so we parted,
and I set off towards the bungalow village.
I found a policeman, standing star-gazing, a little way beyond the
end of the parade, and verified the wooden-legged man's directions.
"It's a lonely road, you know," he called after me. . . .
I had an odd intuition that now at last I was on the right track.
I left the dark masses of Shaphambury behind me, and pushed out
into the dim pallor of that night, with the quiet assurance of a
traveler who nears his end.
The incidents of that long tramp I do not recall in any orderly
succession, the one progressive thing is my memory of a growing
fatigue. The sea was for the most part smooth and shining like a
mirror, a great expanse of reflecting silver, barred by slow broad
undulations, but at one time a little breeze breathed like a faint
sigh and ruffled their long bodies into faint scaly ripples that
never completely died out again. The way was sometimes sandy, thick
with silvery colorless sand, and sometimes chalky and lumpy, with
lumps that had shining facets; a black scrub was scattered, sometimes
in thickets, sometimes in single bunches, among the somnolent
hummocks of sand. At one place came grass, and ghostly great sheep
looming up among the gray. After a time black pinewoods intervened,
and made sustained darknesses along the road, woods that frayed
out at the edges to weirdly warped and stunted trees. Then isolated
pine witches would appear, and make their rigid gestures at me as
I passed. Grotesquely incongruous amidst these forms, I presently
came on estate boards, appealing, "Houses can be built to suit
purchaser," to the silence, to the shadows, and the glare.
Once I remember the persistent barking of a dog from somewhere inland
of me, and several times I took out and examined my revolver very
carefully. I must, of course, have been full of my intention when
I did that, I must have been thinking of Nettie and revenge, but
I cannot now recall those emotions at all. Only I see again very
distinctly the greenish gleams that ran over lock and barrel as I
turned the weapon in my hand.
Then there was the sky, the wonderful, luminous, starless, moonless
sky, and the empty blue deeps of the edge of it, between the meteor
and the sea. And once—strange phantoms!—I saw far out upon
the shine, and very small and distant, three long black warships,
without masts, or sails, or smoke, or any lights, dark, deadly,
furtive things, traveling very swiftly and keeping an equal distance.
And when I looked again they were very small, and then the shine
had swallowed them up.
Then once a flash and what I thought was a gun, until I looked
up and saw a fading trail of greenish light still hanging in the
sky. And after that there was a shiver and whispering in the air,
a stronger throbbing in one's arteries, a sense of refreshment,
a renewal of purpose. . . .
Somewhere upon my way the road forked, but I do not remember
whether that was near Shaphambury or near the end of my walk. The
hesitation between two rutted unmade roads alone remains clear in
At last I grew weary. I came to piled heaps of decaying seaweed
and cart tracks running this way and that, and then I had missed
the road and was stumbling among sand hummocks quite close to the
sea. I came out on the edge of the dimly glittering sandy beach,
and something phosphorescent drew me to the water's edge. I bent
down and peered at the little luminous specks that floated in the
Presently with a sigh I stood erect, and contemplated the lonely
peace of that last wonderful night. The meteor had now trailed its
shining nets across the whole space of the sky and was beginning
to set; in the east the blue was coming to its own again; the sea
was an intense edge of blackness, and now, escaped from that great
shine, and faint and still tremulously valiant, one weak elusive
star could just be seen, hovering on the verge of the invisible.
How beautiful it was! how still and beautiful! Peace! peace!—the
peace that passeth understanding, robed in light descending! . . .
My heart swelled, and suddenly I was weeping.
There was something new and strange in my blood. It came to me that
indeed I did not want to kill.
I did not want to kill. I did not want to be the servant of my
passions any more. A great desire had come to me to escape from
life, from the daylight which is heat and conflict and desire, into
that cool night of eternity—and rest. I had played—I had done.
I stood upon the edge of the great ocean, and I was filled with an
inarticulate spirit of prayer, and I desired greatly—peace from
And presently, there in the east, would come again the red discoloring
curtain over these mysteries, the finite world again, the gray and
growing harsh certainties of dawn. My resolve I knew would take up
with me again. This was a rest for me, an interlude, but to-morrow
I should be William Leadford once more, ill-nourished, ill-dressed,
ill-equipped and clumsy, a thief and shamed, a wound upon the face
of life, a source of trouble and sorrow even to the mother I loved;
no hope in life left for me now but revenge before my death.
Why this paltry thing, revenge? It entered into my thoughts that
I might end the matter now and let these others go.
To wade out into the sea, into this warm lapping that mingled the
natures of water and light, to stand there breast-high, to thrust
my revolver barrel into my mouth———?
I swung about with an effort. I walked slowly up the beach thinking. . . .
I turned and looked back at the sea. No! Something within me said,
I must think.
It was troublesome to go further because the hummocks and
the tangled bushes began. I sat down amidst a black cluster of
shrubs, and rested, chin on hand. I drew my revolver from my pocket
and looked at it, and held it in my hand. Life? Or Death? . . .
I seemed to be probing the very deeps of being, but indeed
imperceptibly I fell asleep, and sat dreaming.
Two people were bathing in the sea.
I had awakened. It was still that white and wonderful night, and
the blue band of clear sky was no wider than before. These people
must have come into sight as I fell asleep, and awakened me almost
at once. They waded breast-deep in the water, emerging, coming
shoreward, a woman, with her hair coiled about her head, and in
pursuit of her a man, graceful figures of black and silver, with a
bright green surge flowing off from them, a pattering of flashing
wavelets about them. He smote the water and splashed it toward
her, she retaliated, and then they were knee-deep, and then for an
instant their feet broke the long silver margin of the sea.
Each wore a tightly fitting bathing dress that hid nothing of the
shining, dripping beauty of their youthful forms.
She glanced over her shoulder and found him nearer than she thought,
started, gesticulated, gave a little cry that pierced me to the
heart, and fled up the beach obliquely toward me, running like the
wind, and passed me, vanished amidst the black distorted bushes,
and was gone—she and her pursuer, in a moment, over the ridge of
I heard him shout between exhaustion and laughter. . . .
And suddenly I was a thing of bestial fury, standing up with hands
held up and clenched, rigid in gesture of impotent threatening,
against the sky. . . .
For this striving, swift thing of light and beauty was Nettie—and
this was the man for whom I had been betrayed!
And, it blazed upon me, I might have died there by the sheer ebbing
of my will—unavenged!
In another moment I was running and stumbling, revolver in hand, in
quiet unsuspected pursuit of them, through the soft and noiseless
I came up over the little ridge and discovered the bungalow village
I had been seeking, nestling in a crescent lap of dunes. A door
slammed, the two runners had vanished, and I halted staring.
There was a group of three bungalows nearer to me than the others.
Into one of these three they had gone, and I was too late to see
which. All had doors and windows carelessly open, and none showed
This place, upon which I had at last happened, was a fruit of the
reaction of artistic-minded and carelessly living people against
the costly and uncomfortable social stiffness of the more formal
seaside resorts of that time. It was, you must understand, the custom
of the steam-railway companies to sell their carriages after they
had been obsolete for a sufficient length of years, and some genius
had hit upon the possibility of turning these into little habitable
cabins for the summer holiday. The thing had become a fashion with
a certain Bohemian-spirited class; they added cabin to cabin, and
these little improvised homes, gaily painted and with broad verandas
and supplementary leantos added to their accommodation, made the
brightest contrast conceivable to the dull rigidities of the decorous
resorts. Of course there were many discomforts in such camping that
had to be faced cheerfully, and so this broad sandy beach was sacred
to high spirits and the young. Art muslin and banjoes, Chinese
lanterns and frying, are leading "notes," I find, in the impression
of those who once knew such places well. But so far as I was
concerned this odd settlement of pleasure-squatters was a mystery
as well as a surprise, enhanced rather than mitigated by an
imaginative suggestion or so I had received from the wooden-legged
man at Shaphambury. I saw the thing as no gathering of light
hearts and gay idleness, but grimly—after the manner of poor men
poisoned by the suppression of all their cravings after joy. To the
poor man, to the grimy workers, beauty and cleanness were absolutely
denied; out of a life of greasy dirt, of muddied desires, they
watched their happier fellows with a bitter envy and foul, tormenting
suspicions. Fancy a world in which the common people held love
to be a sort of beastliness, own sister to being drunk! . . .
There was in the old time always something cruel at the bottom of
this business of sexual love. At least that is the impression I
have brought with me across the gulf of the great Change. To succeed
in love seemed such triumph as no other success could give,
but to fail was as if one was tainted. . . .
I felt no sense of singularity that this thread of savagery should
run through these emotions of mine and become now the whole strand
of these emotions. I believed, and I think I was right in believing,
that the love of all true lovers was a sort of defiance then, that
they closed a system in each other's arms and mocked the world
without. You loved against the world, and these two loved AT me.
They had their business with one another, under the threat of a
watchful fierceness. A sword, a sharp sword, the keenest edge in
life, lay among their roses.
Whatever may be true of this for others, for me and my imagination,
at any rate, it was altogether true. I was never for dalliance, I was
never a jesting lover. I wanted fiercely; I made love impatiently.
Perhaps I had written irrelevant love-letters for that very reason;
because with this stark theme I could not play. . .
The thought of Nettie's shining form, of her shrinking bold abandon
to her easy conqueror, gave me now a body of rage that was nearly
too strong for my heart and nerves and the tense powers of my merely
physical being. I came down among the pale sand-heaps slowly toward
that queer village of careless sensuality, and now within my puny
body I was coldly sharpset for pain and death, a darkly gleaming
hate, a sword of evil, drawn.
I halted, and stood planning what I had to do.
Should I go to bungalow after bungalow until one of the two I sought
answered to my rap? But suppose some servant intervened!
Should I wait where I was—perhaps until morning—watching? And
All the nearer bungalows were very still now. If I walked softly
to them, from open windows, from something seen or overheard,
I might get a clue to guide me. Should I advance circuitously,
creeping upon them, or should I walk straight to the door? It was
bright enough for her to recognize me clearly at a distance of many
The difficulty to my mind lay in this, that if I involved other
people by questions, I might at last confront my betrayers with
these others close about me, ready to snatch my weapon and seize
my hands. Besides, what names might they bear here?
"Boom!" the sound crept upon my senses, and then again it came.
I turned impatiently as one turns upon an impertinence, and beheld
a great ironclad not four miles out, steaming fast across the
dappled silver, and from its funnels sparks, intensely red, poured
out into the night. As I turned, came the hot flash of its guns,
firing seaward, and answering this, red flashes and a streaming
smoke in the line between sea and sky. So I remembered it, and I
remember myself staring at it—in a state of stupid arrest. It was
an irrelevance. What had these things to do with me?
With a shuddering hiss, a rocket from a headland beyond the village
leapt up and burst hot gold against the glare, and the sound of
the third and fourth guns reached me.
The windows of the dark bungalows, one after another, leapt out,
squares of ruddy brightness that flared and flickered and became
steadily bright. Dark heads appeared looking seaward, a door opened,
and sent out a brief lane of yellow to mingle and be lost in the
comet's brightness. That brought me back to the business in hand.
"Boom! boom!" and when I looked again at the great ironclad,
a little torchlike spurt of flame wavered behind her funnels. I
could hear the throb and clangor of her straining engines. . . .
I became aware of the voices of people calling to one another in
the village. A white-robed, hooded figure, some man in a bathing
wrap, absurdly suggestive of an Arab in his burnous, came out from
one of the nearer bungalows, and stood clear and still and shadowless
in the glare.
He put his hands to shade his seaward eyes, and shouted to people
The people within—MY people! My fingers tightened on my revolver.
What was this war nonsense to me? I would go round among the hummocks
with the idea of approaching the three bungalows inconspicuously
from the flank. This fight at sea might serve my purpose—except
for that, it had no interest for me at all. Boom! boom! The huge
voluminous concussions rushed past me, beat at my heart and passed.
In a moment Nettie would come out to see.
First one and then two other wrappered figures came out of the
bungalows to join the first. His arm pointed seaward, and his voice,
a full tenor, rose in explanation. I could hear some of the words.
"It's a German!" he said. "She's caught."
Some one disputed that, and there followed a little indistinct
babble of argument. I went on slowly in the circuit I had marked
out, watching these people as I went.
They shouted together with such a common intensity of direction
that I halted and looked seaward. I saw the tall fountain flung by
a shot that had just missed the great warship. A second rose still
nearer us, a third, and a fourth, and then a great uprush of dust,
a whirling cloud, leapt out of the headland whence the rocket had
come, and spread with a slow deliberation right and left. Hard on
that an enormous crash, and the man with the full voice leapt and
Let me see! Of course, I had to go round beyond the bungalows, and
then come up towards the group from behind.
A high-pitched woman's voice called, "Honeymooners! honeymooners!
Come out and see!"
Something gleamed in the shadow of the nearer bungalow, and
a man's voice answered from within. What he said I did not catch,
but suddenly I heard Nettie calling very distinctly, "We've been
The man who had first come out shouted, "Don't you hear the guns?
They're fighting—not five miles from shore."
"Eh?" answered the bungalow, and a window opened.
I did not hear the reply, because of the faint rustle of my own
movements. Clearly these people were all too much occupied by the
battle to look in my direction, and so I walked now straight toward
the darkness that held Nettie and the black desire of my heart.
"Look!" cried some one, and pointed skyward.
I glanced up, and behold! The sky was streaked with bright green
trails. They radiated from a point halfway between the western
horizon and the zenith, and within the shining clouds of the meteor
a streaming movement had begun, so that it seemed to be pouring
both westwardly and back toward the east, with a crackling sound, as
though the whole heaven was stippled over with phantom pistol-shots.
It seemed to me then as if the meteor was coming to help me,
descending with those thousand pistols like a curtain to fend off
this unmeaning foolishness of the sea.
"Boom!" went a gun on the big ironclad, and "boom!" and the guns
of the pursuing cruisers flashed in reply.
To glance up at that streaky, stirring light scum of the sky made
one's head swim. I stood for a moment dazed, and more than a little
giddy. I had a curious instant of purely speculative thought. Suppose,
after all, the fanatics were right, and the world WAS coming to an
end! What a score that would be for Parload!
Then it came into my head that all these things were happening to
consecrate my revenge! The war below, the heavens above, were the
thunderous garment of my deed. I heard Nettie's voice cry out not
fifty yards away, and my passion surged again. I was to return to
her amid these terrors bearing unanticipated death. I was to possess
her, with a bullet, amidst thunderings and fear. At the thought I
lifted up my voice to a shout that went unheard, and advanced now
recklessly, revolver displayed in my hand.
It was fifty yards, forty yards, thirty yards—the little group
of people, still heedless of me, was larger and more important now,
the green-shot sky and the fighting ships remoter. Some one darted
out from the bungalow, with an interrupted question, and stopped,
suddenly aware of me. It was Nettie, with some coquettish dark
wrap about her, and the green glare shining on her sweet face and
white throat. I could see her expression, stricken with dismay and
terror, at my advance, as though something had seized her by the
heart and held her still—a target for my shots.
"Boom!" came the ironclad's gunshot like a command. "Bang!" the
bullet leapt from my hand. Do you know, I did not want to shoot
her then. Indeed I did not want to shoot her then! Bang! and I
had fired again, still striding on, and—each time it seemed I had
She moved a step or so toward me, still staring, and then someone
intervened, and near beside her I saw young Verrall.
A heavy stranger, the man in the hooded bath-gown, a fat, foreign-looking
man, came out of nowhere like a shield before them. He seemed a
preposterous interruption. His face was full of astonishment and
terror. He rushed across my path with arms extended and open hands,
as one might try to stop a runaway horse. He shouted some nonsense.
He seemed to want to dissuade me, as though dissuasion had anything
to do with it now.
"Not you, you fool!" I said hoarsely. "Not you!" But he hid Nettie
By an enormous effort I resisted a mechanical impulse to shoot
through his fat body. Anyhow, I knew I mustn't shoot him. For
a moment I was in doubt, then I became very active, turned aside
abruptly and dodged his pawing arm to the left, and so found two
others irresolutely in my way. I fired a third shot in the air, just
over their heads, and ran at them. They hastened left and right; I
pulled up and faced about within a yard of a foxy-faced young man
coming sideways, who seemed about to grapple me. At my resolute
halt he fell back a pace, ducked, and threw up a defensive arm,
and then I perceived the course was clear, and ahead of me, young
Verrall and Nettie—he was holding her arm to help her—running
away. "Of course!" said I.
I fired a fourth ineffectual shot, and then in an access of fury
at my misses, started out to run them down and shoot them barrel to
backbone. "These people!" I said, dismissing all these interferences.
. . . "A yard," I panted, speaking aloud to myself, "a yard! Till
then, take care, you mustn't—mustn't shoot again."
Some one pursued me, perhaps several people—I do not
know, we left them all behind. . . .
We ran. For a space I was altogether intent upon the swift monotony
of flight and pursuit. The sands were changed to a whirl of green
moonshine, the air was thunder. A luminous green haze rolled about
us. What did such things matter? We ran. Did I gain or lose? that
was the question. They ran through a gap in a broken fence that
sprang up abruptly out of nothingness and turned to the right. I
noted we were in a road. But this green mist! One seemed to plough
through it. They were fading into it, and at that thought I made
a spurt that won a dozen feet or more.
She staggered. He gripped her arm, and dragged her forward. They
doubled to the left. We were off the road again and on turf. It
felt like turf. I tripped and fell at a ditch that was somehow
full of smoke, and was up again, but now they were phantoms
half gone into the livid swirls about me. . . .
Still I ran.
On, on! I groaned with the violence of my effort. I staggered
again and swore. I felt the concussions of great guns tear past me
through the murk.
They were gone! Everything was going, but I kept on running. Once
more I stumbled. There was something about my feet that impeded
me, tall grass or heather, but I could not see what it was, only
this smoke that eddied about my knees. There was a noise and spinning
in my brain, a vain resistance to a dark green curtain that was
falling, falling, falling, fold upon fold. Everything grew darker
I made one last frantic effort, and raised my revolver, fired my
penultimate shot at a venture, and fell headlong to the ground.
And behold! the green curtain was a black one, and the earth and
I and all things ceased to be.
BOOK THE SECOND
THE GREEN VAPORS
CHAPTER THE FIRST
I SEEMED to awaken out of a refreshing sleep.
I did not awaken with a start, but opened my eyes, and lay very
comfortably looking at a line of extraordinarily scarlet poppies
that glowed against a glowing sky. It was the sky of a magnificent
sunrise, and an archipelago of gold-beached purple islands floated in
a sea of golden green. The poppies too, swan-necked buds, blazing
corollas, translucent stout seed-vessels, stoutly upheld, had a
luminous quality, seemed wrought only from some more solid kind of
I stared unwonderingly at these things for a time, and then there
rose upon my consciousness, intermingling with these, the bristling
golden green heads of growing barley.
A remote faint question, where I might be, drifted and vanished
again in my mind. Everything was very still.
Everything was as still as death.
I felt very light, full of the sense of physical well-being.
I perceived I was lying on my side in a little trampled space
in a weedy, flowering barley field, that was in some inexplicable
way saturated with light and beauty. I sat up, and remained for a
long time filled with the delight and charm of the delicate little
convolvulus that twined among the barley stems, the pimpernel that
laced the ground below.
Then that question returned. What was this place? How had I come
to be sleeping here?
I could not remember.
It perplexed me that somehow my body felt strange to me. It was
unfamiliar—I could not tell how—and the barley, and the beautiful
weeds, and the slowly developing glory of the dawn behind; all
those things partook of the same unfamiliarity. I felt as though
I was a thing in some very luminous painted window, as though this
dawn broke through me. I felt I was part of some exquisite picture
painted in light and joy.
A faint breeze bent and rustled the barley-heads, and jogged my
Who was I? That was a good way of beginning.
I held up my left hand and arm before me, a grubby hand, a frayed
cuff; but with a quality of painted unreality, transfigured as a
beggar might have been by Botticelli. I looked for a time steadfastly
at a beautiful pearl sleeve-link.
I remembered Willie Leadford, who had owned that arm and hand, as
though he had been some one else.
Of course! My history—its rough outline rather than the immediate
past—began to shape itself in my memory, very small, very bright
and inaccessible, like a thing watched through a microscope.
Clayton and Swathinglea returned to my mind; the slums and darkness,
Dureresque, minute and in their rich dark colors pleasing, and through
them I went towards my destiny. I sat hands on knees recalling that
queer passionate career that had ended with my futile shot into
the growing darkness of the End. The thought of that shot awoke my
There was something in it now, something absurd, that made me smile
Poor little angry, miserable creature! Poor little angry, miserable
I sighed for pity, not only pity for myself, but for all the hot
hearts, the tormented brains, the straining, striving things of hope
and pain, who had found their peace at last beneath the pouring
mist and suffocation of the comet. Because certainly that world was
over and done. They were all so weak and unhappy, and I was now so
strong and so serene. For I felt sure I was dead; no one living
could have this perfect assurance of good, this strong and confident
peace. I had made an end of the fever called living. I was dead,
and it was all right, and these———?
I felt an inconsistency.
These, then, must be the barley fields of God!—the still and
silent barley fields of God, full of unfading poppy flowers whose
seeds bear peace.
It was queer to find barley fields in heaven, but no doubt there
were many surprises in store for me.
How still everything was! Peace! The peace that passeth understanding.
After all it had come to me! But, indeed, everything was very still!
No bird sang. Surely I was alone in the world! No birds sang. Yes,
and all the distant sounds of life had ceased, the lowing
of cattle, the barking of dogs. . . .
Something that was like fear beatified came into my heart. It was
all right, I knew; but to be alone! I stood up and met the hot
summons of the rising sun, hurrying towards me, as it were,
with glad tidings, over the spikes of the barley. . . .
Blinded, I made a step. My foot struck something hard, and I looked
down to discover my revolver, a blue-black thing, like a dead snake
at my feet.
For a moment that puzzled me.
Then I clean forgot about it. The wonder of the quiet took possession
of my soul. Dawn, and no birds singing!
How beautiful was the world! How beautiful, but how still! I walked
slowly through the barley towards a line of elder bushes, wayfaring
tree and bramble that made the hedge of the field. I noted as
I passed along a dead shrew mouse, as it seemed to me, among the
halms; then a still toad. I was surprised that this did not leap
aside from my footfalls, and I stooped and picked it up. Its body
was limp like life, but it made no struggle, the brightness of its
eye was veiled, it did not move in my hand.
It seems to me now that I stood holding that lifeless little creature
for some time. Then very softly I stooped down and replaced it. I
was trembling—trembling with a nameless emotion. I looked with
quickened eyes closely among the barley stems, and behold, now
everywhere I saw beetles, flies, and little creatures that did not
move, lying as they fell when the vapors overcame them; they seemed
no more than painted things. Some were novel creatures to me. I
was very unfamiliar with natural things. "My God!" I cried; "but
is it only I———?"
And then at my next movement something squealed sharply. I turned
about, but I could not see it, only I saw a little stir in a rut
and heard the diminishing rustle of the unseen creature's flight.
And at that I turned to my toad again, and its eye moved and it
stirred. And presently, with infirm and hesitating gestures, it
stretched its limbs and began to crawl away from me.
But wonder, that gentle sister of fear, had me now. I saw a little
way ahead a brown and crimson butterfly perched upon a cornflower.
I thought at first it was the breeze that stirred it, and then I
saw its wings were quivering. And even as I watched it, it started
into life, and spread itself, and fluttered into the air.
I watched it fly, a turn this way, a turn that, until suddenly it
seemed to vanish. And now, life was returning to this thing and
that on every side of me, with slow stretchings and bendings,
with twitterings, with a little start and stir. . . .
I came slowly, stepping very carefully because of these drugged,
feebly awakening things, through the barley to the hedge. It was a
very glorious hedge, so that it held my eyes. It flowed along and
interlaced like splendid music. It was rich with lupin, honeysuckle,
campions, and ragged robin; bed straw, hops, and wild clematis
twined and hung among its branches, and all along its ditch border
the starry stitchwort lifted its childish faces, and chorused in
lines and masses. Never had I seen such a symphony of note-like
flowers and tendrils and leaves. And suddenly in its depths, I
heard a chirrup and the whirr of startled wings.
Nothing was dead, but everything had changed to beauty! And I
stood for a time with clean and happy eyes looking at the intricate
delicacy before me and marveling how richly God has made
his worlds. . . . .
"Tweedle-Tweezle," a lark had shot the stillness with his shining
thread of song; one lark, and then presently another, invisibly in
the air, making out of that blue quiet a woven cloth of gold. . . .
The earth recreated—only by the reiteration of such phrases
may I hope to give the intense freshness of that dawn. For a time
I was altogether taken up with the beautiful details of being, as
regardless of my old life of jealous passion and impatient sorrow
as though I was Adam new made. I could tell you now with infinite
particularity of the shut flowers that opened as I looked, of tendrils
and grass blades, of a blue-tit I picked up very tenderly—never
before had I remarked the great delicacy of feathers—that presently
disclosed its bright black eye and judged me, and perched, swaying
fearlessly, upon my finger, and spread unhurried wings and flew
away, and of a great ebullition of tadpoles in the ditch; like all
the things that lived beneath the water, they had passed unaltered
through the Change. Amid such incidents, I lived those first great
moments, losing for a time in the wonder of each little part the
mighty wonder of the whole.
A little path ran between hedge and barley, and along this, leisurely
and content and glad, looking at this beautiful thing and that,
moving a step and stopping, then moving on again, I came presently
to a stile, and deep below it, and overgrown, was a lane.
And on the worn oak of the stile was a round label, and on the
label these words, "Swindells' G 90 Pills."
I sat myself astraddle on the stile, not fully grasping all the
implications of these words. But they perplexed me even more than
the revolver and my dirty cuff.
About me now the birds lifted up their little hearts and sang, ever
more birds and more.
I read the label over and over again, and joined it to the fact
that I still wore my former clothes, and that my revolver had been
lying at my feet. One conclusion stared out at me. This was no new
planet, no glorious hereafter such as I had supposed. This beautiful
wonderland was the world, the same old world of my rage and death!
But at least it was like meeting a familiar house-slut, washed and
dignified, dressed in a queen's robes, worshipful and fine. . . .
It might be the old world indeed, but something new lay upon all
things, a glowing certitude of health and happiness. It might be
the old world, but the dust and fury of the old life was certainly
done. At least I had no doubt of that.
I recalled the last phases of my former life, that darkling climax
of pursuit and anger and universal darkness and the whirling green
vapors of extinction. The comet had struck the earth and made an
end to all things; of that too I was assured.
But afterward? . . .
The imaginations of my boyhood came back as speculative possibilities.
In those days I had believed firmly in the necessary advent of a
last day, a great coming out of the sky, trumpetings and fear, the
Resurrection, and the Judgment. My roving fancy now suggested to
me that this Judgment must have come and passed. That it had passed
and in some manner missed me. I was left alone here, in a swept and
garnished world (except, of course, for this label of Swindells')
to begin again perhaps. . . .
No doubt Swindells has got his deserts.
My mind ran for a time on Swindells, on the imbecile pushfulness of
that extinct creature, dealing in rubbish, covering the country-side
with lies in order to get—what had he sought?—a silly, ugly,
great house, a temper-destroying motor-car, a number of disrespectful,
abject servants; thwarted intrigues for a party-fund baronetcy as
the crest of his life, perhaps. You cannot imagine the littleness
of those former times; their naive, queer absurdities! And for
the first time in my existence I thought of these things without
bitterness. In the former days I had seen wickedness, I had
seen tragedy, but now I saw only the extraordinary foolishness of
the old life. The ludicrous side of human wealth and importance
turned itself upon me, a shining novelty, poured down upon me like
the sunrise, and engulfed me in laughter. Swindells! Swindells,
damned! My vision of Judgment became a delightful burlesque. I saw
the chuckling Angel sayer with his face veiled, and the corporeal
presence of Swindells upheld amidst the laughter of the spheres.
"Here's a thing, and a very pretty thing, and what's to be done with
this very pretty thing?" I saw a soul being drawn from a rotund,
substantial-looking body like a whelk from its shell. . . .
I laughed loudly and long. And behold! even as I laughed the keen
point of things accomplished stabbed my mirth, and I was weeping,
weeping aloud, convulsed with weeping, and the tears were pouring
down my face.
Everywhere the awakening came with the sunrise. We awakened to the
gladness of the morning; we walked dazzled in a light that was joy.
Everywhere that was so. It was always morning. It was morning
because, until the direct rays of the sun touched it, the changing
nitrogen of our atmosphere did not pass into its permanent phase,
and the sleepers lay as they had fallen. In its intermediate
state the air hung inert, incapable of producing either revival or
stupefaction, no longer green, but not yet changed to the
gas that now lives in us. . . .
To every one, I think, came some parallel to the mental states I
have already sought to describe—a wonder, an impression of joyful
novelty. There was also very commonly a certain confusion of the
intelligence, a difficulty in self-recognition. I remember clearly
as I sat on my stile that presently I had the clearest doubts of
my own identity and fell into the oddest metaphysical questionings.
"If this be I," I said, "then how is it I am no longer madly seeking
Nettie? Nettie is now the remotest thing—and all my wrongs. Why
have I suddenly passed out of all that passion? Why does
not the thought of Verrall quicken my pulses?" . . .
I was only one of many millions who that morning had the same doubts. I
suppose one knows one's self for one's self when one returns from
sleep or insensibility by the familiarity of one's bodily sensations,
and that morning all our most intimate bodily sensations were
changed. The intimate chemical processes of life were changed, its
nervous metaboly. For the fluctuating, uncertain, passion-darkened
thought and feeling of the old time came steady, full-bodied,
wholesome processes. Touch was different, sight was different, sound
and all the senses were subtler; had it not been that our thought
was steadier and fuller, I believe great multitudes of men would
have gone mad. But, as it was, we understood. The dominant impression
I would convey in this account of the Change is one of enormous
release, of a vast substantial exaltation. There was an effect, as
it were, of light-headedness that was also clear-headedness, and
the alteration in one's bodily sensations, instead of producing the
mental obfuscation, the loss of identity that was a common mental
trouble under former conditions, gave simply a new detachment from
the tumid passions and entanglements of the personal life.
In this story of my bitter, restricted youth that I have been
telling you, I have sought constantly to convey the narrowness, the
intensity, the confusion, muddle, and dusty heat of the old world.
It was quite clear to me, within an hour of my awakening, that all
that was, in some mysterious way, over and done. That, too, was the
common experience. Men stood up; they took the new air into their
lungs—a deep long breath, and the past fell from them; they could
forgive, they could disregard, they could attempt. . . . And it
was no new thing, no miracle that sets aside the former order of
the world. It was a change in material conditions, a change in the
atmosphere, that at one bound had released them. Some of them it
had released to death. . . . Indeed, man himself had changed not
at all. We knew before the Change, the meanest knew, by glowing
moments in ourselves and others, by histories and music and beautiful
things, by heroic instances and splendid stories, how fine mankind
could be, how fine almost any human being could upon occasion be;
but the poison in the air, its poverty in all the nobler elements
which made such moments rare and remarkable—all that has changed.
The air was changed, and the Spirit of Man that had drowsed and
slumbered and dreamt dull and evil things, awakened, and stood with
wonder-clean eyes, refreshed, looking again on life.
The miracle of the awakening came to me in solitude, the laughter,
and then the tears. Only after some time did I come upon another
man. Until I heard his voice calling I did not seem to feel there
were any other people in the world. All that seemed past, with
all the stresses that were past. I had come out of the individual
pit in which my shy egotism had lurked, I had overflowed to all
humanity, I had seemed to be all humanity; I had laughed at Swindells
as I could have laughed at myself, and this shout that came to me
seemed like the coming of an unexpected thought in my own mind.
But when it was repeated I answered.
"I am hurt," said the voice, and I descended into the lane forthwith,
and so came upon Melmount sitting near the ditch with his back to
Some of the incidental sensory impressions of that morning bit so
deeply into my mind that I verily believe, when at last I face the
greater mysteries that lie beyond this life, when the things of
this life fade from me as the mists of the morning fade before the
sun, these irrelevant petty details will be the last to leave me,
will be the last wisps visible of that attenuating veil. I believe,
for instance, I could match the fur upon the collar of his great
motoring coat now, could paint the dull red tinge of his big
cheek with his fair eyelashes just catching the light and showing
beyond. His hat was off, his dome-shaped head, with its smooth hair
between red and extreme fairness, was bent forward in scrutiny of
his twisted foot. His back seemed enormous. And there was something
about the mere massive sight of him that filled me with liking.
"What's wrong?" said I.
"I say," he said, in his full deliberate tones, straining round
to see me and showing a profile, a well-modeled nose, a sensitive,
clumsy, big lip, known to every caricaturist in the world, "I'm in
a fix. I fell and wrenched my ankle. Where are you?"
I walked round him and stood looking at his face. I perceived he
had his gaiter and sock and boot off, the motor gauntlets had been
cast aside, and he was kneading the injured part in an exploratory
manner with his thick thumbs.
"By Jove!" I said, "you're Melmount!"
"Melmount!" He thought. "That's my name," he said, without looking
up. . . . "But it doesn't affect my ankle."
We remained silent for few moments except for a grunt of pain from
"Do you know?" I asked, "what has happened to things?"
He seemed to complete his diagnosis. "It's not broken," he said.
"Do you know," I repeated, "what has happened to everything?"
"No," he said, looking up at me incuriously for the first time.
"There's some difference———"
"There's a difference." He smiled, a smile of unexpected pleasantness,
and an interest was coming into his eyes. "I've been a little
preoccupied with my own internal sensations. I remark an extraordinary
brightness about things. Is that it?"
"That's part of it. And a queer feeling, a clear-headedness———"
He surveyed me and meditated gravely. "I woke up," he said, feeling
his way in his memory.
"I lost my way—I forget quite how. There was a curious green fog."
He stared at his foot, remembering. "Something to do with a comet.
I was by a hedge in the darkness. Tried to run. . . . Then I
must have pitched into this lane. Look!" He pointed with his head.
"There's a wooden rail new broken there. I must have stumbled over
that out of the field above." He scrutinized this and concluded.
"Yes. . . ."
"It was dark," I said, "and a sort of green gas came out of nothing
everywhere. That is the last I remember."
"And then you woke up? So did I. . . . In a state of great bewilderment.
Certainly there's something odd in the air. I was—I was rushing
along a road in a motor-car, very much excited and preoccupied. I
got down——" He held out a triumphant finger. "Ironclads!"
"NOW I've got it! We'd strung our fleet from here to Texel. We'd
got right across them and the Elbe mined. We'd lost the Lord Warden.
By Jove, yes. The Lord Warden! A battleship that cost two million
pounds—and that fool Rigby said it didn't matter! Eleven hundred
men went down. . . . I remember now. We were sweeping up the North
Sea like a net, with the North Atlantic fleet waiting at the Faroes
for 'em—and not one of 'em had three days' coal! Now, was that a
dream? No! I told a lot of people as much—a meeting was it?—to
reassure them. They were warlike but extremely frightened. Queer
people—paunchy and bald like gnomes, most of them. Where? Of
course! We had it all over—a big dinner—oysters!—Colchester.
I'd been there, just to show all this raid scare was nonsense. And
I was coming back here. . . . But it doesn't seem as though that
was—recent. I suppose it was. Yes, of course!—it was. I got out
of my car at the bottom of the rise with the idea of walking along
the cliff path, because every one said one of their battleships was
being chased along the shore. That's clear! I heard their guns———"
He reflected. "Queer I should have forgotten! Did YOU hear any
I said I had heard them.
"Was it last night?"
"Late last night. One or two in the morning."
He leant back on his hand and looked at me, smiling frankly. "Even
now," he said, "it's odd, but the whole of that seems like a silly
dream. Do you think there WAS a Lord Warden? Do you really believe
we sank all that machinery—for fun? It was a dream. And yet—it
By all the standards of the former time it would have been remarkable
that I talked quite easily and freely with so great a man. "Yes,"
I said; "that's it. One feels one has awakened—from something
more than that green gas. As though the other things also—weren't
He knitted his brows and felt the calf of his leg thoughtfully. "I
made a speech at Colchester," he said.
I thought he was going to add something more about that, but there
lingered a habit of reticence in the man that held him for the
moment. "It is a very curious thing," he broke away; "that this
pain should be, on the whole, more interesting than disagreeable."
"You are in pain?"
"My ankle is! It's either broken or badly sprained—I think sprained;
it's very painful to move, but personally I'm not in pain. That
sort of general sickness that comes with local injury—not a trace
of it! . . ." He mused and remarked, "I was speaking at Colchester,
and saying things about the war. I begin to see it better. The
reporters—scribble, scribble. Max Sutaine, 1885. Hubbub. Compliments
about the oysters. Mm—mm. . . . What was it? About the war? A war
that must needs be long and bloody, taking toll from castle and
cottage, taking toll! . . . Rhetorical gusto! Was I drunk last
His eyebrows puckered. He had drawn up his right knee, his elbow
rested thereon and his chin on his fist. The deep-set gray eyes
beneath his thatch of eyebrow stared at unknown things. "My God!"
he murmured, "My God!" with a note of disgust. He made a big brooding
figure in the sunlight, he had an effect of more than physical
largeness; he made me feel that it became me to wait upon his thinking.
I had never met a man of this sort before; I did not know
such men existed. . . .
It is a curious thing, that I cannot now recall any ideas whatever
that I had before the Change about the personalities of statesmen,
but I doubt if ever in those days I thought of them at all as
tangible individual human beings, conceivably of some intellectual
complexity. I believe that my impression was a straightforward blend
of caricature and newspaper leader. I certainly had no respect for
them. And now without servility or any insincerity whatever, as if
it were a first-fruit of the Change, I found myself in the presence
of a human being towards whom I perceived myself inferior and
subordinate, before whom I stood without servility or any insincerity
whatever, in an attitude of respect and attention. My inflamed, my
rancid egotism—or was it after all only the chances of life?—had
never once permitted that before the Change.
He emerged from his thoughts, still with a faint perplexity in
his manner. "That speech I made last night," he said, "was damned
mischievous nonsense, you know. Nothing can alter that. Nothing. . . .
No! . . . Little fat gnomes in evening dress—gobbling oysters.
It was a most natural part of the wonder of that morning that he
should adopt this incredible note of frankness, and that it should
abate nothing from my respect for him.
"Yes," he said, "you are right. It's all indisputable fact, and I
can't believe it was anything but a dream."
That memory stands out against the dark past of the world with
extraordinary clearness and brightness. The air, I remember, was full
of the calling and piping and singing of birds. I have a curious
persuasion too that there was a distant happy clamor of pealing
bells, but that I am half convinced is a mistake. Nevertheless, there
was something in the fresh bite of things, in the dewy newness of
sensation that set bells rejoicing in one's brain. And that big,
fair, pensive man sitting on the ground had beauty even in his
clumsy pose, as though indeed some Great Master of strength and
humor had made him.
And—it is so hard now to convey these things—he spoke to me,
a stranger, without reservations, carelessly, as men now speak to
men. Before those days, not only did we think badly, but what we
thought, a thousand short-sighted considerations, dignity, objective
discipline, discretion, a hundred kindred aspects of shabbiness of
soul, made us muffle before we told it to our fellow-men.
"It's all returning now," he said, and told me half soliloquizingly
what was in his mind.
I wish I could give every word he said to me; he struck out image
after image to my nascent intelligence, with swift broken fragments
of speech. If I had a precise full memory of that morning I should
give it you, verbatim, minutely. But here, save for the little
sharp things that stand out, I find only blurred general impressions.
Throughout I have to make up again his half-forgotten sentences
and speeches, and be content with giving you the general effect.
But I can see and hear him now as he said, "The dream got worst at
the end. The war—a perfectly horrible business! Horrible! And it
was just like a nightmare, you couldn't do anything to escape from
it—every one was driven!"
His sense of indiscretion was gone.
He opened the war out to me—as every one sees it now. Only that
morning it was astonishing. He sat there on the ground, absurdly
forgetful of his bare and swollen foot, treating me as the humblest
accessory and as altogether an equal, talking out to himself the
great obsessions of his mind. "We could have prevented it! Any of
us who chose to speak out could have prevented it. A little decent
frankness. What was there to prevent us being frank with one another?
Their emperor—his position was a pile of ridiculous assumptions,
no doubt, but at bottom—he was a sane man." He touched off the
emperor in a few pithy words, the German press, the German people,
and our own. He put it as we should put it all now, but with a
certain heat as of a man half guilty and wholly resentful. "Their
damned little buttoned-up professors!" he cried, incidentally.
"Were there ever such men? And ours! Some of us might have taken
a firmer line. . . . If a lot of us had taken a firmer line and
squashed that nonsense early. . . ."
He lapsed into inaudible whisperings, into silence. . . .
I stood regarding him, understanding him, learning marvelously
from him. It is a fact that for the best part of the morning of
the Change I forgot Nettie and Verrall as completely as though they
were no more than characters in some novel that I had put aside to
finish at my leisure, in order that I might talk to this man.
"Eh, well," he said, waking startlingly from his thoughts. "Here we
are awakened! The thing can't go on now; all this must end. How it
ever began———! My dear boy, how did all those things ever begin?
I feel like a new Adam. . . . Do you think this has happened—generally?
Or shall we find all these gnomes and things? . . . Who cares?"
He made as if to rise, and remembered his ankle. He suggested I should
help him as far as his bungalow. There seemed nothing strange to
either of us that he should requisition my services or that I should
cheerfully obey. I helped him bandage his ankle, and we set out,
I his crutch, the two of us making up a sort of limping quadruped,
along the winding lane toward the cliffs and the sea.
His bungalow beyond the golf links was, perhaps, a mile and a
quarter from the lane. We went down to the beach margin and along
the pallid wave-smoothed sands, and we got along by making a swaying,
hopping, tripod dance forward until I began to give under him, and
then, as soon as we could, sitting down. His ankle was, in fact,
broken, and he could not put it to the ground without exquisite
pain. So that it took us nearly two hours to get to the house,
and it would have taken longer if his butler-valet had not come
out to assist me. They had found motor-car and chauffeur smashed
and still at the bend of the road near the house, and had been on
that side looking for Melmount, or they would have seen us before.
For most of that time we were sitting now on turf, now on a chalk
boulder, now on a timber groin, and talking one to the other, with
the frankness proper to the intercourse of men of good intent,
without reservations or aggressions, in the common, open fashion
of contemporary intercourse to-day, but which then, nevertheless,
was the rarest and strangest thing in the world. He for the most
part talked, but at some shape of a question I told him—as plainly
as I could tell of passions that had for a time become incomprehensible
to me—of my murderous pursuit of Nettie and her lover, and how the
green vapors overcame me. He watched me with grave eyes and nodded
understandingly, and afterwards he asked me brief penetrating
questions about my education, my upbringing, my work. There was a
deliberation in his manner, brief full pauses, that had in them no
element of delay.
"Yes," he said, "yes—of course. What a fool I have been!" and said
no more until we had made another of our tripod struggles along
the beach. At first I did not see the connection of my story with
"Suppose," he said, panting on the groin, "there had been such a
thing as a statesman! . . ."
He turned to me. "If one had decided all this muddle shall end! If
one had taken it, as an artist takes his clay, as a man who builds
takes site and stone, and made———" He flung out his big broad hand
at the glories of sky and sea, and drew a deep breath, "something
to fit that setting."
He added in explanation, "Then there wouldn't have been such stories
as yours at all, you know. . . ."
"Tell me more about it," he said, "tell me all about yourself. I
feel all these things have passed away, all these things are to be
changed for ever. . . . You won't be what you have been from this
time forth. All the things you have done—don't matter now. To
us, at any rate, they don't matter at all. We have met, who were
separated in that darkness behind us. Tell me.
"Yes," he said; and I told my story straight and as frankly as I
have told it to you. "And there, where those little skerries of weed
rock run out to the ebb, beyond the headland, is Bungalow village.
What did you do with your pistol?"
"I left it lying there—among the barley."
He glanced at me from under his light eyelashes. "If others feel
like you and I," he said, "there'll be a lot of pistols left among
the barley to-day. . . ."
So we talked, I and that great, strong man, with the love of
brothers so plain between us it needed not a word. Our souls went
out to one another in stark good faith; never before had I had
anything but a guarded watchfulness for any fellow-man. Still I
see him, upon that wild desolate beach of the ebb tide, I see him
leaning against the shelly buttress of a groin, looking down at the
poor drowned sailor whose body we presently found. For we found a
newly drowned man who had just chanced to miss this great dawn in
which we rejoiced. We found him lying in a pool of water, among
brown weeds in the dark shadow of the timberings. You must not
overrate the horrors of the former days; in those days it was scarcely
more common to see death in England than it would be to-day. This
dead man was a sailor from the Rother Adler, the great German
battleship that—had we but known it—lay not four miles away along
the coast amidst ploughed-up mountains of chalk ooze, a torn and
battered mass of machinery, wholly submerged at high water, and
holding in its interstices nine hundred drowned brave men, all
strong and skilful, all once capable of doing fine things. . . .
I remember that poor boy very vividly. He had been drowned during
the anaesthesia of the green gas, his fair young face was quiet
and calm, but the skin of his chest had been crinkled by scalding
water and his right arm was bent queerly back. Even to this needless
death and all its tale of cruelty, beauty and dignity had come.
Everything flowed together to significance as we stood there, I,
the ill-clad, cheaply equipped proletarian, and Melmount in his
great fur-trimmed coat—he was hot with walking but he had not
thought to remove it—leaning upon the clumsy groins and pitying
this poor victim of the war he had helped to make. "Poor lad!" he
said, "poor lad! A child we blunderers sent to death! Do look at
the quiet beauty of that face, that body—to be flung aside like
(I remember that near this dead man's hand a stranded star-fish
writhed its slowly feeling limbs, struggling back toward the sea.
It left grooved traces in the sand.)
"There must be no more of this," panted Melmount, leaning on my
shoulder, "no more of this. . . ."
But most I recall Melmount as he talked a little later, sitting upon
a great chalk boulder with the sunlight on his big, perspiration-dewed
face. He made his resolves. "We must end war," he said, in that
full whisper of his; "it is stupidity. With so many people able
to read and think—even as it is—there is no need of anything of
the sort. Gods! What have we rulers been at? . . . Drowsing like
people in a stifling room, too dull and sleepy and too base toward
each other for any one to get up and open the window. What haven't
we been at?"
A great powerful figure he sits there still in my memory, perplexed
and astonished at himself and all things. "We must change all this,"
he repeated, and threw out his broad hands in a powerful gesture
against the sea and sky. "We have done so weakly—Heaven alone
knows why!" I can see him now, queer giant that he looked on that
dawnlit beach of splendor, the sea birds flying about us and that
crumpled death hard by, no bad symbol in his clumsiness and needless
heat of the unawakened powers of the former time. I remember it
as an integral part of that picture that far away across the sandy
stretches one of those white estate boards I have described, stuck
up a little askew amidst the yellow-green turf upon the crest of
the low cliffs.
He talked with a sort of wonder of the former things. "Has it ever
dawned upon you to imagine the pettiness—the pettiness!—of every
soul concerned in a declaration of war?" he asked. He went on,
as though speech was necessary to make it credible, to describe
Laycock, who first gave the horror words at the cabinet council,
"an undersized Oxford prig with a tenoring voice and a garbage of
Greek—the sort of little fool who is brought up on the
admiration of his elder sisters. . . .
"All the time almost," he said, "I was watching him—thinking what
an ass he was to be trusted with men's lives. . . . I might have
done better to have thought that of myself. I was doing nothing
to prevent it all! The damned little imbecile was up to his neck
in the drama of the thing, he liked to trumpet it out, he goggled
round at us. 'Then it is war!' he said. Richover shrugged his
shoulders. I made some slight protest and gave in. . . . Afterward
I dreamt of him.
"What a lot we were! All a little scared at ourselves—all,
as it were, instrumental. . . .
"And it's fools like that lead to things like this!" He jerked his
head at that dead man near by us.
"It will be interesting to know what has happened to the world. . . .
This green vapor—queer stuff. But I know what has happened to me.
It's Conversion. I've always known. . . . But this is being a fool.
Talk! I'm going to stop it."
He motioned to rise with his clumsy outstretched hands.
"Stop what?" said I, stepping forward instinctively to help him.
"War," he said in his great whisper, putting his big hand on my
shoulder but making no further attempt to arise, "I'm going to put
an end to war—to any sort of war! And all these things that must
end. The world is beautiful, life is great and splendid, we had
only to lift up our eyes and see. Think of the glories through which
we have been driving, like a herd of swine in a garden place. The
color in life—the sounds—the shapes! We have had our jealousies,
our quarrels, our ticklish rights, our invincible prejudices, our
vulgar enterprise and sluggish timidities, we have chattered and
pecked one another and fouled the world—like daws in the temple,
like unclean birds in the holy place of God. All my life has been
foolishness and pettiness, gross pleasures and mean discretions—all.
I am a meagre dark thing in this morning's glow, a penitence, a
shame! And, but for God's mercy, I might have died this night—like
that poor lad there—amidst the squalor of my sins! No more of
this! No more of this!—whether the whole world has changed or no,
matters nothing. WE TWO HAVE SEEN THIS DAWN! . . ."
"I will arise and go unto my Father," he began presently, "and will
say unto Him———"
His voice died away in an inaudible whisper. His hand
tightened painfully on my shoulder and he rose. . . .
CHAPTER THE SECOND
So the great Day came to me.
And even as I had awakened so in that same dawn the whole world
For the whole world of living things had been overtaken by the
same tide of insensibility; in an hour, at the touch of this new
gas in the comet, the shiver of catalytic change had passed about
the globe. They say it was the nitrogen of the air, the old AZOTE,
that in the twinkling of an eye was changed out of itself, and in an
hour or so became a respirable gas, differing indeed from oxygen,
but helping and sustaining its action, a bath of strength and
healing for nerve and brain. I do not know the precise changes
that occurred, nor the names our chemists give them, my work has
carried me away from such things, only this I know—I and all men
I picture to myself this thing happening in space, a planetary
moment, the faint smudge, the slender whirl of meteor, drawing
nearer to this planet,—this planet like a ball, like a shaded
rounded ball, floating in the void, with its little, nearly impalpable
coat of cloud and air, with its dark pools of ocean, its gleaming
ridges of land. And as that midge from the void touches it, the
transparent gaseous outer shell clouds in an instant green
and then slowly clears again. . . .
Thereafter, for three hours or more,—we know the minimum time for
the Change was almost exactly three hours because all the clocks
and watches kept going—everywhere, no man nor beast nor bird nor
any living thing that breathes the air stirred at all but lay still. . . .
Everywhere on earth that day, in the ears of every one who breathed,
there had been the same humming in the air, the same rush of green
vapors, the crepitation, the streaming down of shooting stars.
The Hindoo had stayed his morning's work in the fields to stare
and marvel and fall, the blue-clothed Chinaman fell head foremost
athwart his midday bowl of rice, the Japanese merchant came out
from some chaffering in his office amazed and presently lay there
before his door, the evening gazers by the Golden Gates were overtaken
as they waited for the rising of the great star. This had happened
in every city of the world, in every lonely valley, in every home
and house and shelter and every open place. On the high seas, the
crowding steamship passengers, eager for any wonder, gaped and
marveled, and were suddenly terror-stricken, and struggled for the
gangways and were overcome, the captain staggered on the bridge
and fell, the stoker fell headlong among his coals, the engines
throbbed upon their way untended, the fishing craft drove by
without a hail, with swaying rudder, heeling and dipping. . . .
The great voice of material Fate cried Halt! And in the midst of
the play the actors staggered, dropped, and were still. The figure
runs from my pen. In New York that very thing occurred. Most of
the theatrical audiences dispersed, but in two crowded houses the
company, fearing a panic, went on playing amidst the gloom, and the
people, trained by many a previous disaster, stuck to their seats.
There they sat, the back rows only moving a little, and there, in
disciplined lines, they drooped and failed, nodded, and fell forward
or slid down upon the floor. I am told by Parload—though indeed I
know nothing of the reasoning on which his confidence rests—-that
within an hour of the great moment of impact the first green
modification of nitrogen had dissolved and passed away, leaving the
air as translucent as ever. The rest of that wonderful interlude
was clear, had any had eyes to see its clearness. In London it
was night, but in New York, for example, people were in the full
bustle of the evening's enjoyment, in Chicago they were sitting
down to dinner, the whole world was abroad. The moonlight must have
illuminated streets and squares littered with crumpled figures,
through which such electric cars as had no automatic brakes had
ploughed on their way until they were stopped by the fallen bodies.
People lay in their dress clothes, in dining-rooms, restaurants,
on staircases, in halls, everywhere just as they had been overcome.
Men gambling, men drinking, thieves lurking in hidden places, sinful
couples, were caught, to arise with awakened mind and conscience
amidst the disorder of their sin. America the comet reached in the
full tide of evening life, but Britain lay asleep. But as I have
told, Britain did not slumber so deeply but that she was in the
full tide of what may have been battle and a great victory. Up and
down the North Sea her warships swept together like a net about
their foes. On land, too, that night was to have decided great
issues. The German camps were under arms from Redingen to Markirch,
their infantry columns were lying in swathes like mown hay, in
arrested night march on every track between Longuyon and Thiancourt,
and between Avricourt and Donen. The hills beyond Spincourt were
dusted thick with hidden French riflemen; the thin lash of the French
skirmishers sprawled out amidst spades and unfinished rifle-pits
in coils that wrapped about the heads of the German columns,
thence along the Vosges watershed and out across the frontier
near Belfort nearly to the Rhine. . . .
The Hungarian, the Italian peasant, yawned and thought the morning
dark, and turned over to fall into a dreamless sleep; the Mahometan
world spread its carpet and was taken in prayer. And in Sydney,
in Melbourne, in New Zealand, the thing was a fog in the afternoon,
that scattered the crowd on race-courses and cricket-fields,
and stopped the unloading of shipping and brought men out from
their afternoon rest to stagger and litter the streets. . . .
My thoughts go into the woods and wildernesses and jungles of the
world, to the wild life that shared man's suspension, and I think
of a thousand feral acts interrupted and truncated—as it were
frozen, like the frozen words Pantagruel met at sea. Not only men
it was that were quieted, all living creatures that breathe the air
became insensible, impassive things. Motionless brutes and birds
lay amidst the drooping trees and herbage in the universal twilight,
the tiger sprawled beside his fresh-struck victim, who bled to
death in a dreamless sleep. The very flies came sailing down the
air with wings outspread; the spider hung crumpled in his loaded
net; like some gaily painted snowflake the butterfly drifted
to earth and grounded, and was still. And as a queer contrast
one gathers that the fishes in the sea suffered not at all. . . .
Speaking of the fishes reminds me of a queer little inset upon that
great world-dreaming. The odd fate of the crew of the submarine
vessel B 94 has always seemed memorable to me. So far as I know,
they were the only men alive who never saw that veil of green drawn
across the world. All the while that the stillness held above, they
were working into the mouth of the Elbe, past the booms and the
mines, very slowly and carefully, a sinister crustacean of steel,
explosive crammed, along the muddy bottom. They trailed a long
clue that was to guide their fellows from the mother ship floating
awash outside. Then in the long channel beyond the forts they came
up at last to mark down their victims and get air. That must have
been before the twilight of dawn, for they tell of the brightness
of the stars. They were amazed to find themselves not three hundred
yards from an ironclad that had run ashore in the mud, and heeled
over with the falling tide. It was afire amidships, but no one heeded
that—no one in all that strange clear silence heeded that—and
not only this wrecked vessel, but all the dark ships lying about
them, it seemed to their perplexed and startled minds must be full
of dead men!
Theirs I think must have been one of the strangest of all experiences;
they were never insensible; at once, and, I am told, with a sudden
catch of laughter, they began to breathe the new air. None of
them has proved a writer; we have no picture of their wonder, no
description of what was said. But we know these men were active and
awake for an hour and a half at least before the general awakening
came, and when at last the Germans stirred and sat up they found
these strangers in possession of their battleship, the submarine
carelessly adrift, and the Englishmen, begrimed and weary, but
with a sort of furious exultation, still busy, in the bright dawn,
rescuing insensible enemies from the sinking conflagration. . . .
But the thought of certain stokers the sailors of the submarine
failed altogether to save brings me back to the thread of grotesque
horror that runs through all this event, the thread I cannot overlook
for all the splendors of human well-being that have come from it.
I cannot forget the unguided ships that drove ashore, that went
down in disaster with all their sleeping hands, nor how, inland,
motor-cars rushed to destruction upon the roads, and trains upon
the railways kept on in spite of signals, to be found at last by
their amazed, reviving drivers standing on unfamiliar lines, their
fires exhausted, or, less lucky, to be discovered by astonished
peasants or awakening porters smashed and crumpled up into heaps
of smoking, crackling ruin. The foundry fires of the Four Towns
still blazed, the smoke of our burning still denied the sky.
Fires burnt indeed the brighter for the Change—and spread. . . .
Picture to yourself what happened between the printing and composing
of the copy of the New Paper that lies before me now. It was the
first newspaper that was printed upon earth after the Great Change.
It was pocket-worn and browned, made of a paper no man ever intended
for preservation. I found it on the arbor table in the inn garden
while I was waiting for Nettie and Verrall, before that last
conversation of which I have presently to tell. As I look at it all
that scene comes back to me, and Nettie stands in her white raiment
against a blue-green background of sunlit garden, scrutinizing
my face as I read. . . .
It is so frayed that the sheet cracks along the folds and comes to
pieces in my hands. It lies upon my desk, a dead souvenir of the
dead ages of the world, of the ancient passions of my heart. I know
we discussed its news, but for the life of me I cannot recall what
we said, only I remember that Nettie said very little, and that
Verrall for a time read it over my shoulder. And I did not like
him to read over my shoulder. . . .
The document before me must have helped us through the first
awkwardness of that meeting.
But of all that we said and did then I must tell in a later chapter. . . .
It is easy to see the New Paper had been set up overnight, and then
large pieces of the stereo plates replaced subsequently. I do not
know enough of the old methods of printing to know precisely what
happened. The thing gives one an impression of large pieces of
type having been cut away and replaced by fresh blocks. There is
something very rough and ready about it all, and the new portions
print darker and more smudgily than the old, except toward the
left, where they have missed ink and indented. A friend of mine,
who knows something of the old typography, has suggested to me that
the machinery actually in use for the New Paper was damaged that
night, and that on the morning of the Change Banghurst borrowed a
neighboring office—perhaps in financial dependence upon him—to
The outer pages belong entirely to the old period, the only parts
of the paper that had undergone alteration are the two middle
leaves. Here we found set forth in a curious little four-column
oblong of print, WHAT HAS HAPPENED. This cut across a column with
scare headings beginning, "Great Naval Battle Now in Progress. The
Fate of Two Empires in the Balance. Reported Loss of Two More———"
These things, one gathered, were beneath notice now. Probably it
was guesswork, and fabricated news in the first instance.
It is curious to piece together the worn and frayed fragments, and
reread this discolored first intelligence of the new epoch.
The simple clear statements in the replaced portion of the paper
impressed me at the time, I remember, as bald and strange, in that
framework of shouting bad English. Now they seem like the voice of
a sane man amidst a vast faded violence. But they witness to the
prompt recovery of London from the gas; the new, swift energy of
rebound in that huge population. I am surprised now, as I reread,
to note how much research, experiment, and induction must have been
accomplished in the day that elapsed before the paper was printed.
. . . But that is by the way. As I sit and muse over this partly
carbonized sheet, that same curious remote vision comes again to me
that quickened in my mind that morning, a vision of those newspaper
offices I have already described to you going through the crisis.
The catalytic wave must have caught the place in full swing, in
its nocturnal high fever, indeed in a quite exceptional state of
fever, what with the comet and the war, and more particularly with
the war. Very probably the Change crept into the office imperceptibly,
amidst the noise and shouting, and the glare of electric light that
made the night atmosphere in that place; even the green flashes
may have passed unobserved there, the preliminary descending trails
of green vapor seemed no more than unseasonable drifting wisps
of London fog. (In those days London even in summer was not safe
against dark fogs.) And then at the last the Change poured in and
If there was any warning at all for them, it must have been a sudden
universal tumult in the street, and then a much more universal
quiet. They could have had no other intimation.
There was no time to stop the presses before the main development
of green vapor had overwhelmed every one. It must have folded
about them, tumbled them to the earth, masked and stilled them.
My imagination is always curiously stirred by the thought of that,
because I suppose it is the first picture I succeeded in making for
myself of what had happened in the towns. It has never quite lost
its strangeness for me that when the Change came, machinery went
on working. I don't precisely know why that should have seemed so
strange to me, but it did, and still to a certain extent does. One
is so accustomed, I suppose, to regard machinery as an extension
of human personality that the extent of its autonomy the Change
displayed came as a shock to me. The electric lights, for example,
hazy green-haloed nebulas, must have gone on burning at least
for a time; amidst the thickening darkness the huge presses must
have roared on, printing, folding, throwing aside copy after copy
of that fabricated battle report with its quarter column of scare
headlines, and all the place must have still quivered and throbbed
with the familiar roar of the engines. And this though no men ruled
there at all any more! Here and there beneath that thickening fog
the crumpled or outstretched forms of men lay still.
A wonderful thing that must have seemed, had any man had by chance
the power of resistance to the vapor, and could he have walked
And soon the machines must have exhausted their feed of ink and
paper, and thumped and banged and rattled emptily amidst the general
quiet. Then I suppose the furnaces failed for want of stoking, the
steam pressure fell in the pistons, the machinery slackened, the
lights burnt dim, and came and went with the ebb of energy from the
power-station. Who can tell precisely the sequence of these things
And then, you know, amidst the weakening and terminating noises
of men, the green vapor cleared and vanished, in an hour indeed it
had gone, and it may be a breeze stirred and blew and went about
The noises of life were all dying away, but some there were that
abated nothing, that sounded triumphantly amidst the universal
ebb. To a heedless world the church towers tolled out two and then
three. Clocks ticked and chimed everywhere about the earth
to deafened ears. . . .
And then came the first flush of morning, the first rustlings
of the revival. Perhaps in that office the filaments of the lamps
were still glowing, the machinery was still pulsing weakly, when
the crumpled, booted heaps of cloth became men again and began to
stir and stare. The chapel of the printers was, no doubt, shocked
to find itself asleep. Amidst that dazzling dawn the New Paper
woke to wonder, stood up and blinked at its amazing self. . . .
The clocks of the city churches, one pursuing another, struck four.
The staffs, crumpled and disheveled, but with a strange refreshment
in their veins, stood about the damaged machinery, marveling and
questioning; the editor read his overnight headlines with incredulous
laughter. There was much involuntary laughter that morning. Outside,
the mail men patted the necks and rubbed the knees of their
awakening horses. . . .
Then, you know, slowly and with much conversation and doubt, they
set about to produce the paper.
Imagine those bemused, perplexed people, carried on by the inertia
of their old occupations and doing their best with an enterprise
that had suddenly become altogether extraordinary and irrational.
They worked amidst questionings, and yet light-heartedly. At every
stage there must have been interruptions for discussion. The paper
only got down to Menton five days late.
Then let me give you a vivid little impression I received of a
certain prosaic person, a grocer, named Wiggins, and how he passed
through the Change. I heard this man's story in the post-office at
Menton, when, in the afternoon of the First Day, I bethought me to
telegraph to my mother. The place was also a grocer's shop, and I
found him and the proprietor talking as I went in. They were trade
competitors, and Wiggins had just come across the street to break
the hostile silence of a score of years. The sparkle of the Change
was in their eyes, their slightly flushed cheeks, their more elastic
gestures, spoke of new physical influences that had invaded their
"It did us no good, all our hatred," Mr. Wiggins said to me,
explaining the emotion of their encounter; "it did our customers
no good. I've come to tell him that. You bear that in mind, young
man, if ever you come to have a shop of your own. It was a sort
of stupid bitterness possessed us, and I can't make out we didn't
see it before in that light. Not so much downright wickedness it
wasn't as stupidity. A stupid jealousy! Think of it!—two human
beings within a stone's throw, who have not spoken for twenty years,
hardening our hearts against each other!"
"I can't think how we came to such a state, Mr. Wiggins," said
the other, packing tea into pound packets out of mere habit as he
spoke. "It was wicked pride and obstinacy. We KNEW it was foolish
all the time."
I stood affixing the adhesive stamp to my telegram.
"Only the other morning," he went on to me, "I was cutting French
eggs. Selling at a loss to do it. He'd marked down with a great
staring ticket to ninepence a dozen—I saw it as I went past. Here's
my answer!" He indicated a ticket. "'Eightpence a dozen—same as
sold elsewhere for ninepence.' A whole penny down, bang off! Just
a touch above cost—if that—and even then———" He leant over
the counter to say impressively, "NOT THE SAME EGGS!"
"Now, what people in their senses would do things like that?" said
I sent my telegram—the proprietor dispatched it for me, and while
he did so I fell exchanging experiences with Mr. Wiggins. He knew
no more than I did then the nature of the change that had come over
things. He had been alarmed by the green flashes, he said, so much
so that after watching for a time from behind his bedroom window
blind, he had got up and hastily dressed and made his family get
up also, so that they might be ready for the end. He made them put
on their Sunday clothes. They all went out into the garden together,
their minds divided between admiration at the gloriousness of the
spectacle and a great and growing awe. They were Dissenters, and
very religious people out of business hours, and it seemed to them
in those last magnificent moments that, after all, science must be
wrong and the fanatics right. With the green vapors came
conviction, and they prepared to meet their God. . . .
This man, you must understand, was a common-looking man, in his
shirt-sleeves and with an apron about his paunch, and he told his
story in an Anglian accent that sounded mean and clipped to my
Staffordshire ears; he told his story without a thought of pride,
and as it were incidentally, and yet he gave me a vision of something
These people did not run hither and thither as many people did. These
four simple, common people stood beyond their back door in their
garden pathway between the gooseberry bushes, with the terrors
of their God and His Judgments closing in upon them, swiftly
and wonderfully—and there they began to sing. There they stood,
father and mother and two daughters, chanting out stoutly, but no
doubt a little flatly after the manner of their kind—
"In Zion's Hope abiding,
My soul in Triumph sings—-"
until one by one they fell, and lay still.
The postmaster had heard them in the gathering darkness,
"In Zion's Hope abiding." . . .
It was the most extraordinary thing in the world to hear this flushed
and happy-eyed man telling that story of his recent death. It did
not seem at all possible to have happened in the last twelve hours.
It was minute and remote, these people who went singing through
the darkling to their God. It was like a scene shown to me, very
small and very distinctly painted, in a locket.
But that effect was not confined to this particular thing. A vast
number of things that had happened before the coming of the comet
had undergone the same transfiguring reduction. Other people, too,
I have learnt since, had the same illusion, a sense of enlargement.
It seems to me even now that the little dark creature who had
stormed across England in pursuit of Nettie and her lover must
have been about an inch high, that all that previous life of ours
had been an ill-lit marionette show, acted in the twilight. . . .
The figure of my mother comes always into my conception of the
I remember how one day she confessed herself.
She had been very sleepless that night, she said, and took the
reports of the falling stars for shooting; there had been rioting
in Clayton and all through Swathinglea all day, and so she got out
of bed to look. She had a dim sense that I was in all such troubles.
But she was not looking when the Change came.
"When I saw the stars a-raining down, dear," she said, "and thought
of you out in it, I thought there'd be no harm in saying a prayer
for you, dear? I thought you wouldn't mind that."
And so I got another of my pictures—the green vapors come and go,
and there by her patched coverlet that dear old woman kneels and
droops, still clasping her poor gnarled hands in the attitude of
prayer—prayer to IT—for me!
Through the meagre curtains and blinds of the flawed refracting
window I see the stars above the chimneys fade, the pale light of
dawn creeps into the sky, and her candle flares and dies. . . .
That also went with me through the stillness—that silent
kneeling figure, that frozen prayer to God to shield me, silent
in a silent world, rushing through the emptiness of space. . . .
With the dawn that awakening went about the earth. I have told how
it came to me, and how I walked in wonder through the transfigured
cornfields of Shaphambury. It came to every one. Near me, and for
the time, clear forgotten by me, Verrall and Nettie woke—woke near
one another, each heard before all other sounds the other's voice
amidst the stillness, and the light. And the scattered people who
had run to and fro, and fallen on the beach of Bungalow village,
awoke; the sleeping villagers of Menton started, and sat up in
that unwonted freshness and newness; the contorted figures in the
garden, with the hymn still upon their lips, stirred amidst the
flowers, and touched each other timidly, and thought of Paradise.
My mother found herself crouched against the bed, and rose—rose
with a glad invincible conviction of accepted prayer. . . .
Already, when it came to us, the soldiers, crowded between the
lines of dusty poplars along the road to Allarmont, were chatting
and sharing coffee with the French riflemen, who had hailed them
from their carefully hidden pits among the vineyards up the slopes
of Beauville. A certain perplexity had come to these marksmen, who
had dropped asleep tensely ready for the rocket that should wake
the whirr and rattle of their magazines. At the sight and sound of
the stir and human confusion in the roadway below, it had come to
each man individually that he could not shoot. One conscript, at
least, has told his story of his awakening, and how curious he thought
the rifle there beside him in his pit, how he took it on his knees
to examine. Then, as his memory of its purpose grew clearer, he
dropped the thing, and stood up with a kind of joyful horror at
the crime escaped, to look more closely at the men he was to have
assassinated. "Brave types," he thought, they looked for such
a fate. The summoning rocket never flew. Below, the men did not
fall into ranks again, but sat by the roadside, or stood in groups
talking, discussing with a novel incredulity the ostensible causes
of the war. "The Emperor!" said they; and "Oh, nonsense! We're
civilized men. Get some one else for this job! . . . Where's the
The officers held their own horses, and talked to the men frankly,
regardless of discipline. Some Frenchmen out of the rifle-pits came
sauntering down the hill. Others stood doubtfully, rifles still in
hand. Curious faces scanned these latter. Little arguments sprang
as: "Shoot at us! Nonsense! They're respectable French citizens."
There is a picture of it all, very bright and detailed in the
morning light, in the battle gallery amidst the ruins at old Nancy,
and one sees the old-world uniform of the "soldier," the odd caps
and belts and boots, the ammunition-belt, the water-bottle, the
sort of tourist's pack the men carried, a queer elaborate equipment.
The soldiers had awakened one by one, first one and then another.
I wonder sometimes whether, perhaps, if the two armies had come
awake in an instant, the battle, by mere habit and inertia, might
not have begun. But the men who waked first, sat up, looked
about them in astonishment, had time to think a little. . . .
Everywhere there was laughter, everywhere tears.
Men and women in the common life, finding themselves suddenly lit
and exalted, capable of doing what had hitherto been impossible,
incapable of doing what had hitherto been irresistible, happy,
hopeful, unselfishly energetic, rejected altogether the supposition
that this was merely a change in the blood and material texture of
life. They denied the bodies God had given them, as once the Upper
Nile savages struck out their canine teeth, because these made
them like the beasts. They declared that this was the coming of a
spirit, and nothing else would satisfy their need for explanations.
And in a sense the Spirit came. The Great Revival sprang directly
from the Change—the last, the deepest, widest, and most enduring
of all the vast inundations of religious emotion that go by that
But indeed it differed essentially from its innumerable predecessors.
The former revivals were a phase of fever, this was the first
movement of health, it was altogether quieter, more intellectual,
more private, more religious than any of those others. In the old
time, and more especially in the Protestant countries where the
things of religion were outspoken, and the absence of confession
and well-trained priests made religious states of emotion explosive
and contagious, revivalism upon various scales was a normal phase
in the religious life, revivals were always going on—now a little
disturbance of consciences in a village, now an evening of emotion
in a Mission Room, now a great storm that swept a continent, and
now an organized effort that came to town with bands and banners
and handbills and motor-cars for the saving of souls. Never at
any time did I take part in nor was I attracted by any of these
movements. My nature, although passionate, was too critical (or
sceptical if you like, for it amounts to the same thing) and shy
to be drawn into these whirls; but on several occasions Parload and
I sat, scoffing, but nevertheless disturbed, in the back seats of
I saw enough of them to understand their nature, and I am not
surprised to learn now that before the comet came, all about the
world, even among savages, even among cannibals, these same, or
at any rate closely similar, periodic upheavals went on. The world
was stifling; it was in a fever, and these phenomena were neither
more nor less than the instinctive struggle of the organism against
the ebb of its powers, the clogging of its veins, the limitation
of its life. Invariably these revivals followed periods of sordid
and restricted living. Men obeyed their base immediate motives
until the world grew unendurably bitter. Some disappointment, some
thwarting, lit up for them—darkly indeed, but yet enough for
indistinct vision—the crowded squalor, the dark inclosure of life.
A sudden disgust with the insensate smallness of the old-world way
of living, a realization of sin, a sense of the unworthiness of all
individual things, a desire for something comprehensive, sustaining,
something greater, for wider communions and less habitual things,
filled them. Their souls, which were shaped for wider issues, cried
out suddenly amidst the petty interests, the narrow prohibitions,
of life, "Not this! not this!" A great passion to escape from the
jealous prison of themselves, an inarticulate, stammering, weeping
passion shook them. . . .
I have seen——— I remember how once in Clayton Calvinistic
Methodist chapel I saw—his spotty fat face strangely distorted
under the flickering gas-flares—old Pallet the ironmonger repent.
He went to the form of repentance, a bench reserved for such
exhibitions, and slobbered out his sorrow and disgust for some
sexual indelicacy—he was a widower—and I can see now how his
loose fat body quivered and swayed with his grief. He poured it
out to five hundred people, from whom in common times he hid his
every thought and purpose. And it is a fact, it shows where reality
lay, that we two youngsters laughed not at all at that blubbering
grotesque, we did not even think the distant shadow of a smile.
We two sat grave and intent—perhaps wondering.
Only afterward and with an effort did we scoff. . . .
Those old-time revivals were, I say, the convulsive movements of
a body that suffocates. They are the clearest manifestations from
before the Change of a sense in all men that things were not right.
But they were too often but momentary illuminations. Their force
spent itself in inco-ordinated shouting, gesticulations, tears.
They were but flashes of outlook. Disgust of the narrow life, of
all baseness, took shape in narrowness and baseness. The quickened
soul ended the night a hypocrite; prophets disputed for precedence;
seductions, it is altogether indisputable, were frequent among
penitents! and Ananias went home converted and returned with
a falsified gift. And it was almost universal that the converted
should be impatient and immoderate, scornful of reason and
a choice of expedients, opposed to balance, skill, and knowledge.
Incontinently full of grace, like thin old wine-skins overfilled,
they felt they must burst if once they came into contact with hard
fact and sane direction.
So the former revivals spent themselves, but the Great Revival did
not spend itself, but grew to be, for the majority of Christendom
at least, the permanent expression of the Change. For many it has
taken the shape of an outright declaration that this was the Second
Advent—it is not for me to discuss the validity of that suggestion,
for nearly all it has amounted to an enduring broadening
of all the issues of life. . . .
One irrelevant memory comes back to me, irrelevant, and yet by some
subtle trick of quality it summarizes the Change for me. It is the
memory of a woman's very beautiful face, a woman with a flushed
face and tear-bright eyes who went by me without speaking, rapt
in some secret purpose. I passed her when in the afternoon of the
first day, struck by a sudden remorse, I went down to Menton to send
a telegram to my mother telling her all was well with me. Whither
this woman went I do not know, nor whence she came; I never saw her
again, and only her face, glowing with that new and luminous
resolve, stands out for me. . . .
But that expression was the world's.
CHAPTER THE THIRD
THE CABINET COUNCIL
AND what a strange unprecedented thing was that cabinet council at
which I was present, the council that was held two days later in
Melmount's bungalow, and which convened the conference to frame the
constitution of the World State. I was there because it was convenient
for me to stay with Melmount. I had nowhere to go particularly,
and there was no one at his bungalow, to which his broken ankle
confined him, but a secretary and a valet to help him to begin his
share of the enormous labors that evidently lay before the rulers
of the world. I wrote shorthand, and as there was not even a phonograph
available, I went in so soon as his ankle had been dressed, and
sat at his desk to write at his dictation. It is characteristic
of the odd slackness that went with the spasmodic violence of the
old epoch, that the secretary could not use shorthand and that
there was no telephone whatever in the place. Every message had
to be taken to the village post-office in that grocer's shop at
Menton, half a mile away. . . . So I sat in the back of Melmount's
room, his desk had been thrust aside, and made such memoranda as
were needed. At that time his room seemed to me the most beautifully
furnished in the world, and I could identify now the vivid cheerfulness
of the chintz of the sofa on which the great statesman lay just in
front of me, the fine rich paper, the red sealing-wax, the silver
equipage of the desk I used. I know now that my presence in that
room was a strange and remarkable thing, the open door, even the
coming and going of Parker the secretary, innovations. In the old
days a cabinet council was a secret conclave, secrecy and furtiveness
were in the texture of all public life. In the old days everybody
was always keeping something back from somebody, being wary and
cunning, prevaricating, misleading—for the most part for no reason
at all. Almost unnoticed, that secrecy had dropped out of life.
I close my eyes and see those men again, hear their deliberating
voices. First I see them a little diffusely in the cold explicitness
of daylight, and then concentrated and drawn together amidst the
shadow and mystery about shaded lamps. Integral to this and very
clear is the memory of biscuit crumbs and a drop of spilt water,
that at first stood shining upon and then sank into the
green table-cloth. . . .
I remember particularly the figure of Lord Adisham. He came to the
bungalow a day before the others, because he was Melmount's personal
friend. Let me describe this statesman to you, this one of the
fifteen men who made the last war. He was the youngest member of
the Government, and an altogether pleasant and sunny man of forty.
He had a clear profile to his clean gray face, a smiling eye, a
friendly, careful voice upon his thin, clean-shaven lips, an easy
disabusing manner. He had the perfect quality of a man who had
fallen easily into a place prepared for him. He had the temperament
of what we used to call a philosopher—an indifferent, that is to say.
The Change had caught him at his week-end recreation, fly-fishing;
and, indeed, he said, I remember, that he recovered to find himself
with his head within a yard of the water's brim. In times of crisis
Lord Adisham invariably went fly-fishing at the week-end to keep his
mind in tone, and when there was no crisis then there was nothing
he liked so much to do as fly-fishing, and so, of course, as there
was nothing to prevent it, he fished. He came resolved, among other
things, to give up fly-fishing altogether. I was present when he
came to Melmount, and heard him say as much; and by a more naive
route it was evident that he had arrived at the same scheme of
intention as my master. I left them to talk, but afterward I came
back to take down their long telegrams to their coming colleagues.
He was, no doubt, as profoundly affected as Melmount by the
Change, but his tricks of civility and irony and acceptable humor
had survived the Change, and he expressed his altered attitude,
his expanded emotions, in a quaint modification of the old-time
man-of-the-world style, with excessive moderation, with a trained
horror of the enthusiasm that swayed him.
These fifteen men who ruled the British Empire were curiously unlike
anything I had expected, and I watched them intently whenever my
services were not in request. They made a peculiar class at that
time, these English politicians and statesmen, a class that has
now completely passed away. In some respects they were unlike the
statesmen of any other region of the world, and I do not find that
any really adequate account remains of them. . . . Perhaps you are
a reader of the old books. If so, you will find them rendered with
a note of hostile exaggeration by Dickens in "Bleak House," with
a mingling of gross flattery and keen ridicule by Disraeli, who
ruled among them accidentally by misunderstanding them and pleasing
the court, and all their assumptions are set forth, portentously,
perhaps, but truthfully, so far as people of the "permanent
official" class saw them, in the novels of Mrs. Humphry Ward. All
these books are still in this world and at the disposal of the
curious, and in addition the philosopher Bagehot and the picturesque
historian Macaulay give something of their method of thinking, the
novelist Thackeray skirts the seamy side of their social life, and
there are some good passages of irony, personal descriptions, and
reminiscence to be found in the "Twentieth Century Garner" from the
pens of such writers, for example, as Sidney Low. But a picture of
them as a whole is wanting. Then they were too near and too great;
now, very rapidly, they have become incomprehensible.
We common people of the old time based our conception of our
statesmen almost entirely on the caricatures that formed the most
powerful weapon in political controversy. Like almost every main
feature of the old condition of things these caricatures were an
unanticipated development, they were a sort of parasitic outgrowth
from, which had finally altogether replaced, the thin and vague
aspirations of the original democratic ideals. They presented
not only the personalities who led our public life, but the most
sacred structural conceptions of that life, in ludicrous, vulgar,
and dishonorable aspects that in the end came near to destroying
entirely all grave and honorable emotion or motive toward the State.
The state of Britain was represented nearly always by a red-faced,
purse-proud farmer with an enormous belly, that fine dream
of freedom, the United States, by a cunning, lean-faced rascal
in striped trousers and a blue coat. The chief ministers of state
were pickpockets, washerwomen, clowns, whales, asses, elephants,
and what not, and issues that affected the welfare of millions of
men were dressed and judged like a rally in some idiotic pantomime.
A tragic war in South Africa, that wrecked many thousand homes,
impoverished two whole lands, and brought death and disablement
to fifty thousand men, was presented as a quite comical quarrel
between a violent queer being named Chamberlain, with an eyeglass,
an orchid, and a short temper, and "old Kroojer," an obstinate
and very cunning old man in a shocking bad hat. The conflict was
carried through in a mood sometimes of brutish irritability and
sometimes of lax slovenliness, the merry peculator plied his trade
congenially in that asinine squabble, and behind these fooleries
and masked by them, marched Fate—until at last the clowning of
the booth opened and revealed—hunger and suffering, brands burning
and swords and shame. . . . These men had come to fame and power in
that atmosphere, and to me that day there was the oddest suggestion
in them of actors who have suddenly laid aside grotesque and foolish
parts; the paint was washed from their faces, the posing put aside.
Even when the presentation was not frankly grotesque and degrading
it was entirely misleading. When I read of Laycock, for example,
there arises a picture of a large, active, if a little wrong-headed,
intelligence in a compact heroic body, emitting that "Goliath" speech
of his that did so much to precipitate hostilities, it tallies not
at all with the stammering, high-pitched, slightly bald, and very
conscience-stricken personage I saw, nor with Melmount's contemptuous
first description of him. I doubt if the world at large will ever
get a proper vision of those men as they were before the Change.
Each year they pass more and more incredibly beyond our intellectual
sympathy. Our estrangement cannot, indeed, rob them of their
portion in the past, but it will rob them of any effect of reality.
The whole of their history becomes more and more foreign, more and
more like some queer barbaric drama played in a forgotten tongue.
There they strut through their weird metamorphoses of caricature,
those premiers and presidents, their height preposterously exaggerated by
political buskins, their faces covered by great resonant inhuman
masks, their voices couched in the foolish idiom of public
utterance, disguised beyond any semblance to sane humanity, roaring
and squeaking through the public press. There it stands, this
incomprehensible faded show, a thing left on one side, and now still
and deserted by any interest, its many emptinesses as inexplicable
now as the cruelties of medieval Venice, the theology of old Byzantium.
And they ruled and influenced the lives of nearly a quarter of
mankind, these politicians, their clownish conflicts swayed the
world, made mirth perhaps, made excitement, and permitted—infinite
I saw these men quickened indeed by the Change, but still wearing
the queer clothing of the old time, the manners and conventions of
the old time; if they had disengaged themselves from the outlook
of the old time they still had to refer back to it constantly as a
common starting-point. My refreshed intelligence was equal to that,
so that I think I did indeed see them. There was Gorrell-Browning,
the Chancellor of the Duchy; I remember him as a big round-faced
man, the essential vanity and foolishness of whose expression, whose
habit of voluminous platitudinous speech, triumphed absurdly once
or twice over the roused spirit within. He struggled with it, he
burlesqued himself, and laughed. Suddenly he said simply, intensely—it
was a moment for every one of clean, clear pain, "I have been a
vain and self-indulgent and presumptuous old man. I am of little
use here. I have given myself to politics and intrigues, and life
is gone from me." Then for a long time he sat still. There was
Carton, the Lord Chancellor, a white-faced man with understanding,
he had a heavy, shaven face that might have stood among the busts
of the Caesars, a slow, elaborating voice, with self-indulgent,
slightly oblique, and triumphant lips, and a momentary, voluntary,
humorous twinkle. "We have to forgive," he said. "We have to
These two were at the top corner of the table, so that I saw their
faces well. Madgett, the Home Secretary, a smaller man with wrinkled
eyebrows and a frozen smile on his thin wry mouth, came next to
Carton; he contributed little to the discussion save intelligent
comments, and when the electric lights above glowed out, the shadows
deepened queerly in his eye-sockets and gave him the quizzical
expression of an ironical goblin. Next him was that great peer,
the Earl of Richover, whose self-indulgent indolence had accepted
the role of a twentieth-century British Roman patrician of culture,
who had divided his time almost equally between his jockeys,
politics, and the composition of literary studies in the key of
his role. "We have done nothing worth doing," he said. "As for me,
I have cut a figure!" He reflected—no doubt on his ample patrician
years, on the fine great houses that had been his setting, the
teeming race-courses that had roared his name, the enthusiastic
meetings he had fed with fine hopes, the futile Olympian beginnings.
. . . "I have been a fool," he said compactly. They heard him in
a sympathetic and respectful silence.
Gurker, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was partially occulted, so
far as I was concerned, by the back of Lord Adisham. Ever and again
Gurker protruded into the discussion, swaying forward, a deep throaty
voice, a big nose, a coarse mouth with a drooping everted lower lip,
eyes peering amidst folds and wrinkles. He made his confession for
his race. "We Jews," he said, "have gone through the system of this
world, creating nothing, consolidating many things, destroying much.
Our racial self-conceit has been monstrous. We seem to have used our
ample coarse intellectuality for no other purpose than to develop
and master and maintain the convention of property, to turn life into
a sort of mercantile chess and spend our winnings grossly. . . . We
have had no sense of service to mankind. Beauty which is godhead—we
made it a possession."
These men and these sayings particularly remain in my memory.
Perhaps, indeed, I wrote them down at the time, but that I do not
now remember. How Sir Digby Privet, Revel, Markheimer, and the others
sat I do not now recall; they came in as voices, interruptions,
imperfectly assigned comments. . . .
One got a queer impression that except perhaps for Gurker or Revel
these men had not particularly wanted the power they held; had
desired to do nothing very much in the positions they had secured.
They had found themselves in the cabinet, and until this moment
of illumination they had not been ashamed; but they had made no
ungentlemanly fuss about the matter. Eight of that fifteen came from
the same school, had gone through an entirely parallel education;
some Greek linguistics, some elementary mathematics, some emasculated
"science," a little history, a little reading in the silent or
timidly orthodox English literature of the seventeenth, eighteenth,
and nineteenth centuries, all eight had imbibed the same dull gentlemanly
tradition of behavior; essentially boyish, unimaginative—with
neither keen swords nor art in it, a tradition apt to slobber into
sentiment at a crisis and make a great virtue of a simple duty rather
clumsily done. None of these eight had made any real experiments
with life, they had lived in blinkers, they had been passed from
nurse to governess, from governess to preparatory school, from Eton
to Oxford, from Oxford to the politico-social routine. Even their
vices and lapses had been according to certain conceptions of good
form. They had all gone to the races surreptitiously from Eton, had
all cut up to town from Oxford to see life—music-hall life—had
all come to heel again. Now suddenly they discovered their
limitations. . . .
"What are we to do?" asked Melmount. "We have awakened; this empire
in our hands. . . ." I know this will seem the most fabulous of all
the things I have to tell of the old order, but, indeed, I saw it
with my eyes, I heard it with my ears. It is a fact that this group
of men who constituted the Government of one-fifth of the habitable
land of the earth, who ruled over a million of armed men, who
had such navies as mankind had never seen before, whose empire of
nations, tongues, peoples still dazzles in these greater days, had
no common idea whatever of what they meant to do with the world.
They had been a Government for three long years, and before the
Change came to them it had never even occurred to them that it was
necessary to have no common idea. There was no common idea at all.
That great empire was no more than a thing adrift, an aimless thing
that ate and drank and slept and bore arms, and was inordinately
proud of itself because it had chanced to happen. It had no plan,
no intention; it meant nothing at all. And the other great empires
adrift, perilously adrift like marine mines, were in the self-same
case. Absurd as a British cabinet council must seem to you now, it
was no whit more absurd than the controlling ganglion, autocratic
council, president's committee, or what not, of each of
its blind rivals. . . .
I remember as one thing that struck me very forcibly at the time,
the absence of any discussion, any difference of opinion, about the
broad principles of our present state. These men had lived hitherto
in a system of conventions and acquired motives, loyalty to a party,
loyalty to various secret agreements and understandings, loyalty
to the Crown; they had all been capable of the keenest attention
to precedence, all capable of the most complete suppression of
subversive doubts and inquiries, all had their religious emotions
under perfect control. They had seemed protected by invisible but
impenetrable barriers from all the heady and destructive speculations,
the socialistic, republican, and communistic theories that one may
still trace through the literature of the last days of the comet.
But now it was as if the very moment of the awakening those barriers
and defences had vanished, as if the green vapors had washed
through their minds and dissolved and swept away a hundred once
rigid boundaries and obstacles. They had admitted and assimilated
at once all that was good in the ill-dressed propagandas that had
clamored so vehemently and vainly at the doors of their minds in
the former days. It was exactly like the awakening from an absurd
and limiting dream. They had come out together naturally and
inevitably upon the broad daylight platform of obvious and reasonable
agreement upon which we and all the order of our world now stand.
Let me try to give the chief things that had vanished from their
minds. There was, first, the ancient system of "ownership" that
made such an extraordinary tangle of our administration of the
land upon which we lived. In the old time no one believed in that
as either just or ideally convenient, but every one accepted it.
The community which lived upon the land was supposed to have waived
its necessary connection with the land, except in certain limited
instances of highway and common. All the rest of the land was
cut up in the maddest way into patches and oblongs and triangles
of various sizes between a hundred square miles and a few acres,
and placed under the nearly absolute government of a series of
administrators called landowners. They owned the land almost as
a man now owns his hat; they bought it and sold it, and cut it up
like cheese or ham; they were free to ruin it, or leave it waste,
or erect upon it horrible and devastating eyesores. If the community
needed a road or a tramway, if it wanted a town or a village in any
position, nay, even if it wanted to go to and fro, it had to do so
by exorbitant treaties with each of the monarchs whose territory
was involved. No man could find foothold on the face of the earth
until he had paid toll and homage to one of them. They had practically
no relations and no duties to the nominal, municipal, or national
Government amidst whose larger areas their own dominions lay. . . .
This sounds, I know, like a lunatic's dream, but mankind was that
lunatic; and not only in the old countries of Europe and Asia,
where this system had arisen out of the rational delegation of local
control to territorial magnates, who had in the universal baseness
of those times at last altogether evaded and escaped their duties,
did it obtain, but the "new countries," as we called them then—the
United States of America, the Cape Colony, Australia, and New
Zealand—spent much of the nineteenth century in the frantic giving
away of land for ever to any casual person who would take it. Was
there coal, was there petroleum or gold, was there rich soil or
harborage, or the site for a fine city, these obsessed and witless
Governments cried out for scramblers, and a stream of shabby,
tricky, and violent adventurers set out to found a new section of
the landed aristocracy of the world. After a brief century of hope
and pride, the great republic of the United States of America,
the hope as it was deemed of mankind, became for the most part a
drifting crowd of landless men; landlords and railway lords, food
lords (for the land is food) and mineral lords ruled its life,
gave it Universities as one gave coins to a mendicant, and spent
its resources upon such vain, tawdry, and foolish luxuries as the
world had never seen before. Here was a thing none of these statesmen
before the Change would have regarded as anything but the natural
order of the world, which not one of them now regarded as anything
but the mad and vanished illusion of a period of dementia.
And as it was with the question of the land, so was it also
with a hundred other systems and institutions and complicated and
disingenuous factors in the life of man. They spoke of trade, and
I realized for the first time there could be buying and selling
that was no loss to any man; they spoke of industrial organization,
and one saw it under captains who sought no base advantages. The
haze of old associations, of personal entanglements and habitual
recognitions had been dispelled from every stage and process of
the social training of men. Things long hidden appeared discovered
with an amazing clearness and nakedness. These men who had
awakened, laughed dissolvent laughs, and the old muddle of schools
and colleges, books and traditions, the old fumbling, half-figurative,
half-formal teaching of the Churches, the complex of weakening and
confusing suggestions and hints, amidst which the pride and honor
of adolescence doubted and stumbled and fell, became nothing but
a curious and pleasantly faded memory. "There must be a common
training of the young," said Richover; "a frank initiation. We have
not so much educated them as hidden things from them, and set traps.
And it might have been so easy—it can all be done so easily."
That hangs in my memory as the refrain of that council, "It can
all be done so easily," but when they said it then, it came to my
ears with a quality of enormous refreshment and power. It can all
be done so easily, given frankness, given courage. Time was when
these platitudes had the freshness and wonder of a gospel.
In this enlarged outlook the war with the Germans—that mythical,
heroic, armed female, Germany, had vanished from men's imaginations—was
a mere exhausted episode. A truce had already been arranged
by Melmount, and these ministers, after some marveling reminiscences,
set aside the matter of peace as a mere question of particular
arrangements. . . . The whole scheme of the world's government had
become fluid and provisional in their minds, in small details as
in great, the unanalyzable tangle of wards and vestries, districts
and municipalities, counties, states, boards, and nations, the
interlacing, overlapping, and conflicting authorities, the felt of
little interests and claims, in which an innumerable and insatiable
multitude of lawyers, agents, managers, bosses, organizers lived
like fleas in a dirty old coat, the web of the conflicts, jealousies,
heated patchings up and jobbings apart, of the old order—they
flung it all on one side.
"What are the new needs?" said Melmount. "This muddle is too rotten
to handle. We're beginning again. Well, let us begin afresh."
"Let us begin afresh!" This piece of obvious common sense seemed
then to me instinct with courage, the noblest of words. My heart
went out to him as he spoke. It was, indeed, that day as vague as
it was valiant; we did not at all see the forms of what we were
thus beginning. All that we saw was the clear inevitableness
that the old order should end. . . .
And then in a little space of time mankind in halting but effectual
brotherhood was moving out to make its world anew. Those early
years, those first and second decades of the new epoch, were in
their daily detail a time of rejoicing toil; one saw chiefly one's
own share in that, and little of the whole. It is only now that I
look back at it all from these ripe years, from this high tower,
that I see the dramatic sequence of its changes, see the cruel old
confusions of the ancient time become clarified, simplified, and
dissolve and vanish away. Where is that old world now? Where is
London, that somber city of smoke and drifting darkness, full of the
deep roar and haunting music of disorder, with its oily, shining,
mud-rimmed, barge-crowded river, its black pinnacles and blackened
dome, its sad wildernesses of smut-grayed houses, its myriads of
draggled prostitutes, its millions of hurrying clerks? The very
leaves upon its trees were foul with greasy black defilements.
Where is lime-white Paris, with its green and disciplined foliage,
its hard unflinching tastefulness, its smartly organized viciousness,
and the myriads of workers, noisily shod, streaming over the bridges
in the gray cold light of dawn. Where is New York, the high city
of clangor and infuriated energy, wind swept and competition swept,
its huge buildings jostling one another and straining ever upward
for a place in the sky, the fallen pitilessly overshadowed. Where
are its lurking corners of heavy and costly luxury, the shameful
bludgeoning bribing vice of its ill ruled underways, and all the
gaunt extravagant ugliness of its strenuous life? And where now is
Philadelphia, with its innumerable small and isolated homes, and
Chicago with its interminable blood-stained stockyards, its polyglot
underworld of furious discontent.
All these vast cities have given way and gone, even as my native
Potteries and the Black Country have gone, and the lives that were
caught, crippled, starved, and maimed amidst their labyrinths, their
forgotten and neglected maladjustments, and their vast, inhuman,
ill-conceived industrial machinery have escaped—to life. Those
cities of growth and accident are altogether gone, never a chimney
smokes about our world to-day, and the sound of the weeping of
children who toiled and hungered, the dull despair of overburdened
women, the noise of brute quarrels in alleys, all shameful pleasures
and all the ugly grossness of wealthy pride have gone with them,
with the utter change in our lives. As I look back into the past
I see a vast exultant dust of house-breaking and removal rise
up into the clear air that followed the hour of the green vapors,
I live again the Year of Tents, the Year of Scaffolding, and like
the triumph of a new theme in a piece of music—the great cities
of our new days arise. Come Caerlyon and Armedon, the twin cities
of lower England, with the winding summer city of the Thames between,
and I see the gaunt dirt of old Edinburgh die to rise again white
and tall beneath the shadow of her ancient hill; and Dublin too,
reshaped, returning enriched, fair, spacious, the city of rich
laughter and warm hearts, gleaming gaily in a shaft of sunlight
through the soft warm rain. I see the great cities America has
planned and made; the Golden City, with ever-ripening fruit along
its broad warm ways, and the bell-glad City of a Thousand Spires.
I see again as I have seen, the city of theaters and meeting-places,
the City of the Sunlight Bight, and the new city that is still
called Utah; and dominated by its observatory dome and the plain and
dignified lines of the university facade upon the cliff, Martenabar
the great white winter city of the upland snows. And the lesser
places, too, the townships, the quiet resting-places, villages half
forest with a brawl of streams down their streets, villages laced
with avenues of cedar, villages of garden, of roses and wonderful
flowers and the perpetual humming of bees. And through all the
world go our children, our sons the old world would have made into
servile clerks and shopmen, plough drudges and servants; our daughters
who were erst anaemic drudges, prostitutes, sluts, anxiety-racked
mothers or sere, repining failures; they go about this world glad
and brave, learning, living, doing, happy and rejoicing, brave and
free. I think of them wandering in the clear quiet of the ruins of
Rome, among the tombs of Egypt or the temples of Athens, of their
coming to Mainington and its strange happiness, to Orba and the
wonder of its white and slender tower. . . . But who can tell of
the fullness and pleasure of life, who can number all our new cities
in the world?—cities made by the loving hands of men for living
men, cities men weep to enter, so fair they are, so gracious
and so kind. . . .
Some vision surely of these things must have been vouchsafed me
as I sat there behind Melmount's couch, but now my knowledge of
accomplished things has mingled with and effaced my expectations.
Something indeed I must have foreseen—or else why was my heart so
BOOK THE THIRD
THE NEW WORLD
CHAPTER THE FIRST
LOVE AFTER THE CHANGE
So far I have said nothing of Nettie. I have departed widely from
my individual story. I have tried to give you the effect of the
change in relation to the general framework of human life, its
effect of swift, magnificent dawn, of an overpowering letting in
and inundation of light, and the spirit of living. In my memory all
my life before the Change has the quality of a dark passage, with
the dimmest side gleams of beauty that come and go. The rest is dull
pain and darkness. Then suddenly the walls, the bitter confines,
are smitten and vanish, and I walk, blinded, perplexed, and yet
rejoicing, in this sweet, beautiful world, in its fair incessant
variety, its satisfaction, its opportunities, exultant in this glorious
gift of life. Had I the power of music I would make a world-wide
motif swell and amplify, gather to itself this theme and that, and
rise at last to sheer ecstasy of triumph and rejoicing. It should
be all sound, all pride, all the hope of outsetting in the morning
brightness, all the glee of unexpected happenings, all the gladness
of painful effort suddenly come to its reward; it should be like
blossoms new opened and the happy play of children, like tearful,
happy mothers holding their first-born, like cities building to
the sound of music, and great ships, all hung with flags and wine
bespattered, gliding down through cheering multitudes to their first
meeting with the sea. Through it all should march Hope, confident
Hope, radiant and invincible, until at last it would be the triumph
march of Hope the conqueror, coming with trumpetings and banners
through the wide-flung gates of the world.
And then out of that luminous haze of gladness comes Nettie,
So she came again to me—amazing, a thing incredibly forgotten.
She comes back, and Verrall is in her company. She comes back
into my memories now, just as she came back then, rather quaintly
at first—at first not seen very clearly, a little distorted by
intervening things, seen with a doubt, as I saw her through the
slightly discolored panes of crinkled glass in the window of the
Menton post-office and grocer's shop. It was on the second day
after the Change, and I had been sending telegrams for Melmount,
who was making arrangements for his departure for Downing Street.
I saw the two of them at first as small, flawed figures. The glass
made them seem curved, and it enhanced and altered their gestures
and paces. I felt it became me to say "Peace" to them, and I went
out, to the jangling of the door-bell. At the sight of me they
stopped short, and Verrall cried with the note of one who has
sought, "Here he is!" And Nettie cried, "Willie!"
I went toward them, and all the perspectives of my reconstructed
universe altered as I did so.
I seemed to see these two for the first time; how fine they were,
how graceful and human. It was as though I had never really looked
at them before, and, indeed, always before I had beheld them through
a mist of selfish passion. They had shared the universal darkness
and dwarfing of the former time; they shared the universal exaltation
of the new. Now suddenly Nettie, and the love of Nettie, a great
passion for Nettie, lived again in me. This change which had enlarged
men's hearts had made no end to love. Indeed, it had enormously
enlarged and glorified love. She stepped into the center of that
dream of world reconstruction that filled my mind and took possession
of it all. A little wisp of hair had blown across her cheek, her
lips fell apart in that sweet smile of hers; her eyes were full
of wonder, of a welcoming scrutiny, of an infinitely courageous
I took her outstretched hand, and wonder overwhelmed me. "I wanted
to kill you," I said simply, trying to grasp that idea. It seemed
now like stabbing the stars, or murdering the sunlight.
"Afterward we looked for you," said Verrall; "and we could not find
you. . . . We heard another shot."
I turned my eyes to him, and Nettie's hand fell from me. It was
then I thought of how they had fallen together, and what it must
have been to have awakened in that dawn with Nettie by one's side.
I had a vision of them as I had glimpsed them last amidst the
thickening vapors, close together, hand in hand. The green hawks of
the Change spread their darkling wings above their last stumbling
paces. So they fell. And awoke—lovers together in a morning
of Paradise. Who can tell how bright the sunshine was to them,
how fair the flowers, how sweet the singing of the birds? . . .
This was the thought of my heart. But my lips were saying, "When
I awoke I threw my pistol away." Sheer blankness kept my thoughts
silent for a little while; I said empty things. "I am very glad
I did not kill you—that you are here, so fair and well. . . ."
"I am going away back to Clayton on the day after to-morrow," I
said, breaking away to explanations. "I have been writing shorthand
here for Melmount, but that is almost over now. . . ."
Neither of them said a word, and though all facts had suddenly ceased
to matter anything, I went on informatively, "He is to be taken to
Downing Street where there is a proper staff, so that there will
be no need of me. . . . Of course, you're a little perplexed at
my being with Melmount. You see I met him—by accident—directly
I recovered. I found him with a broken ankle—in that lane. . . .
I am to go now to the Four Towns to help prepare a report. So that
I am glad to see you both again"—I found a catch in my voice—"to
say good-bye to you, and wish you well."
This was after the quality of what had come into my mind when first
I saw them through the grocer's window, but it was not what I felt
and thought as I said it. I went on saying it because otherwise
there would have been a gap. It had come to me that it was going
to be hard to part from Nettie. My words sounded with an effect of
unreality. I stopped, and we stood for a moment in silence looking
at one another.
It was I, I think, who was discovering most. I was realizing for
the first time how little the Change had altered in my essential
nature. I had forgotten this business of love for a time in
a world of wonder. That was all. Nothing was lost from my nature,
nothing had gone, only the power of thought and restraint had been
wonderfully increased and new interests had been forced upon me.
The Green Vapors had passed, our minds were swept and garnished, but
we were ourselves still, though living in a new and finer air. My
affinities were unchanged; Nettie's personal charm for me was only
quickened by the enhancement of my perceptions. In her presence,
meeting her eyes, instantly my desire, no longer frantic but sane,
was awake again.
It was just like going to Checkshill in the old time, after
writing about socialism. . . .
I relinquished her hand. It was absurd to part in these terms.
So we all felt it. We hung awkwardly over our sense of that. It
was Verrall, I think, who shaped the thought for me, and said that
to-morrow then we must meet and say good-bye, and so turned our
encounter into a transitory making of arrangements. We settled we
would come to the inn at Menton, all three of us, and take
our midday meal together. . . .
Yes, it was clear that was all we had to say now. . . .
We parted a little awkwardly. I went on down the village street,
not looking back, surprised at myself, and infinitely perplexed.
It was as if I had discovered something overlooked that disarranged
all my plans, something entirely disconcerting. For the first time
I went back preoccupied and without eagerness to Melmount's work.
I wanted to go on thinking about Nettie; my mind had suddenly become
voluminously productive concerning her and Verrall.
The talk we three had together in the dawn of the new time is very
strongly impressed upon my memory. There was something fresh and
simple about it, something young and flushed and exalted. We took
up, we handled with a certain naive timidity, the most difficult
questions the Change had raised for men to solve. I recall we
made little of them. All the old scheme of human life had dissolved
and passed away, the narrow competitiveness, the greed and base
aggression, the jealous aloofness of soul from soul. Where had
it left us? That was what we and a thousand million others
were discussing. . . .
It chances that this last meeting with Nettie is inseparably
associated—I don't know why—with the landlady of the Menton inn.
The Menton inn was one of the rare pleasant corners of the old
order; it was an inn of an unusual prosperity, much frequented by
visitors from Shaphambury, and given to the serving of lunches and
teas. It had a broad mossy bowling-green, and round about it were
creeper-covered arbors amidst beds of snap-dragon, and hollyhock,
and blue delphinium, and many such tall familiar summer flowers.
These stood out against a background of laurels and holly, and
above these again rose the gables of the inn and its signpost—a
white-horsed George slaying the dragon—against copper beeches under
While I waited for Nettie and Verrall in this agreeable trysting
place, I talked to the landlady—a broad-shouldered, smiling,
freckled woman—about the morning of the Change. That motherly,
abundant, red-haired figure of health was buoyantly sure that
everything in the world was now to be changed for the better.
That confidence, and something in her voice, made me love her as
I talked to her. "Now we're awake," she said, "all sorts of things
will be put right that hadn't any sense in them. Why? Oh! I'm sure
Her kind blue eyes met mine in an infinitude of friendliness. Her
lips in her pauses shaped in a pretty faint smile.
Old tradition was strong in us; all English inns in those days
charged the unexpected, and I asked what our lunch was to cost.
"Pay or not," she said, "and what you like. It's holiday these days.
I suppose we'll still have paying and charging, however we manage
it, but it won't be the worry it has been—that I feel sure. It's
the part I never had no fancy for. Many a time I peeped through the
bushes worrying to think what was just and right to me and mine,
and what would send 'em away satisfied. It isn't the money I care
for. There'll be mighty changes, be sure of that; but here I'll
stay, and make people happy—them that go by on the roads. It's a
pleasant place here when people are merry; it's only when they're
jealous, or mean, or tired, or eat up beyond any stomach's digesting, or
when they got the drink in 'em that Satan comes into this garden.
Many's the happy face I've seen here, and many that come again
like friends, but nothing to equal what's going to be, now things
are being set right."
She smiled, that bounteous woman, with the joy of life and hope.
"You shall have an omelet," she said, "you and your friends; such
an omelet—like they'll have 'em in heaven! I feel there's cooking
in me these days like I've never cooked before. I'm rejoiced
to have it to do. . . ."
It was just then that Nettie and Verrall appeared under a rustic
archway of crimson roses that led out from the inn. Nettie wore
white and a sun-hat, and Verrall was a figure of gray. "Here
are my friends," I said; but for all the magic of the Change,
something passed athwart the sunlight in my soul like the passing
of the shadow of a cloud. "A pretty couple," said the landlady,
as they crossed the velvet green toward us. . . .
They were indeed a pretty couple, but that did not greatly gladden
me. No—I winced a little at that.
This old newspaper, this first reissue of the New Paper,
dessicated last relic of a vanished age, is like the little piece
of identification the superstitious of the old days—those queer
religionists who brought a certain black-clad Mrs. Piper to the
help of Christ—used to put into the hand of a clairvoyant. At
the crisp touch of it I look across a gulf of fifty years and see
again the three of us sitting about that table in the arbor, and I
smell again the smell of the sweet-briar that filled the air about
us, and hear in our long pauses the abundant murmuring of bees
among the heliotrope of the borders.
It is the dawn of the new time, but we bear, all three of us, the
marks and liveries of the old.
I see myself, a dark, ill-dressed youth, with the bruise Lord Redcar
gave me still blue and yellow beneath my jaw; and young Verrall
sits cornerwise to me, better grown, better dressed, fair and quiet,
two years my senior indeed, but looking no older than I because of
his light complexion; and opposite me is Nettie, with dark eyes upon
my face, graver and more beautiful than I had ever seen her in the
former time. Her dress is still that white one she had worn when
I came upon her in the park, and still about her dainty neck she
wears her string of pearls and that little coin of gold. She is so
much the same, she is so changed; a girl then and now a woman—and
all my agony and all the marvel of the Change between! Over the end
of the green table about which we sit, a spotless cloth is spread,
it bears a pleasant lunch spread out with a simple equipage. Behind
me is the liberal sunshine of the green and various garden. I see
it all. Again I sit there, eating awkwardly, this paper lies upon
the table and Verrall talks of the Change.
"You can't imagine," he says in his sure, fine accents, "how much
the Change has destroyed of me. I still don't feel awake. Men of
my sort are so tremendously MADE; I never suspected it before."
He leans over the table toward me with an evident desire to make
himself perfectly understood. "I find myself like some creature
that is taken out of its shell—soft and new. I was trained to
dress in a certain way, to behave in a certain way, to think in
a certain way; I see now it's all wrong and narrow—most of it
anyhow—a system of class shibboleths. We were decent to each other
in order to be a gang to the rest of the world. Gentlemen indeed!
But it's perplexing———"
I can hear his voice saying that now, and see the lift of his
eyebrows and his pleasant smile.
He paused. He had wanted to say that, but it was not the thing we
had to say.
I leant forward a little and took hold of my glass very tightly.
"You two," I said, "will marry?"
They looked at one another.
Nettie spoke very softly. "I did not mean to marry when I came
away," she said.
"I know," I answered. I looked up with a sense of effort and met
He answered me. "I think we two have joined our lives. . . . But
the thing that took us was a sort of madness."
I nodded. "All passion," I said, "is madness." Then I fell into a
doubting of those words.
"Why did we do these things?" he said, turning to her suddenly.
Her hands were clasped under her chin, her eyes downcast.
"We HAD to," she said, with her old trick of inadequate expression.
Then she seemed to open out suddenly.
"Willie," she cried with a sudden directness, with her eyes appealing
to me, "I didn't mean to treat you badly—indeed I didn't. I kept
thinking of you—and of father and mother, all the time. Only it
didn't seem to move me. It didn't move me not one bit from the way
I had chosen."
"Chosen!" I said.
"Something seemed to have hold of me," she admitted. "It's all so
unaccountable. . . ."
She gave a little gesture of despair.
Verrall's fingers played on the cloth for a space. Then he turned
his face to me again.
"Something said 'Take her.' Everything. It was a raging desire—for
her. I don't know. Everything contributed to that—or counted for
"Go on," said I.
"When I knew of you———"
I looked at Nettie. "You never told him about me?" I said, feeling,
as it were, a sting out of the old time.
Verrall answered for her. "No. But things dropped; I saw you that
night, my instincts were all awake. I knew it was you."
"You triumphed over me? . . . If I could I would have triumphed
over you," I said. "But go on!"
"Everything conspired to make it the finest thing in life. It had
an air of generous recklessness. It meant mischief, it might mean
failure in that life of politics and affairs, for which I was
trained, which it was my honor to follow. That made it all the
finer. It meant ruin or misery for Nettie. That made it all the
finer. No sane or decent man would have approved of what we did.
That made it more splendid than ever. I had all the advantages of
position and used them basely. That mattered not at all."
"Yes," I said; "it is true. And the same dark wave that lifted you,
swept me on to follow. With that revolver—and blubbering with
hate. And the word to you, Nettie, what was it? 'Give?' Hurl yourself
down the steep?"
Nettie's hands fell upon the table. "I can't tell what it was," she
said, speaking bare-hearted straight to me. "Girls aren't trained
as men are trained to look into their minds. I can't see it yet.
All sorts of mean little motives were there—over and above the
'must.' Mean motives. I kept thinking of his clothes." She smiled—a
flash of brightness at Verrall. "I kept thinking of being like a
lady and sitting in an hotel—with men like butlers waiting. It's
the dreadful truth, Willie. Things as mean as that! Things meaner
I can see her now pleading with me, speaking with a frankness as
bright and amazing as the dawn of the first great morning.
"It wasn't all mean," I said slowly, after a pause.
"No!" They spoke together.
"But a woman chooses more than a man does," Nettie added. "I saw
it all in little bright pictures. Do you know—that jacket—there's
something——— You won't mind my telling you? But you won't now!"
I nodded, "No."
She spoke as if she spoke to my soul, very quietly and very
earnestly, seeking to give the truth. "Something cottony in that
cloth of yours," she said. "I know there's something horrible in
being swung round by things like that, but they did swing me round.
In the old time—to have confessed that! And I hated Clayton—and
the grime of it. That kitchen! Your mother's dreadful kitchen!
And besides, Willie, I was afraid of you. I didn't understand you
and I did him. It's different now—but then I knew what he meant.
And there was his voice."
"Yes," I said to Verrall, making these discoveries quietly, "yes,
Verrall, you have a good voice. Queer I never thought of that
We sat silently for a time before our vivisected passions.
"Gods!" I cried, "and there was our poor little top-hamper of
intelligence on all these waves of instinct and wordless desire,
these foaming things of touch and sight and feeling, like—like
a coop of hens washed overboard and clucking amidst the seas."
Verrall laughed approval of the image I had struck out. "A week
ago," he said, trying it further, "we were clinging to our chicken
coops and going with the heave and pour. That was true enough a
week ago. But to-day———?"
"To-day," I said, "the wind has fallen. The world storm is over.
And each chicken coop has changed by a miracle to a vessel that
makes head against the sea."
"What are we to do?" asked Verrall.
Nettie drew a deep crimson carnation from the bowl before us, and
began very neatly and deliberately to turn down the sepals of its
calyx and remove, one by one, its petals. I remember that went
on through all our talk. She put those ragged crimson shreds in a
long row and adjusted them and readjusted them. When at last I was
alone with these vestiges the pattern was still incomplete.
"Well," said I, "the matter seems fairly simple. You two"—I
swallowed it—"love one another."
I paused. They answered me by silence, by a thoughtful silence.
"You belong to each other. I have thought it over and looked at it
from many points of view. I happened to want—impossible things.
. . . I behaved badly. I had no right to pursue you." I turned to
Verrall. "You hold yourself bound to her?"
He nodded assent.
"No social influence, no fading out of all this generous clearness
in the air—for that might happen—will change you back . . . ?"
He answered me with honest eyes meeting mine, "No, Leadford, no!"
"I did not know you," I said. "I thought of you as something very
different from this."
"I was," he interpolated.
"Now," I said, "it is all changed."
Then I halted—for my thread had slipped away from me.
"As for me," I went on, and glanced at Nettie's downcast face, and
then sat forward with my eyes upon the flowers between us, "since
I am swayed and shall be swayed by an affection for Nettie, since
that affection is rich with the seeds of desire, since to see her
yours and wholly yours is not to be endured by me—I must turn
about and go from you; you must avoid me and I you. . . . We must
divide the world like Jacob and Esau. . . . I must direct myself
with all the will I have to other things. After all—this passion
is not life! It is perhaps for brutes and savages, but for men.
No! We must part and I must forget. What else is there but that?"
I did not look up, I sat very tense with the red petals printing
an indelible memory in my brain, but I felt the assent of Verrall's
pose. There were some moments of silence. Then Nettie spoke.
"But———" she said, and ceased.
I waited for a little while. I sighed and leant back in my chair.
"It is perfectly simple," I smiled, "now that we have cool heads."
"But IS it simple?" asked Nettie, and slashed my discourse out of
I looked up and found her with her eyes on Verrall. "You see,"
she said, "I like Willie. It's hard to say what one feels—but I
don't want him to go away like that."
"But then," objected Verrall, "how———?"
"No," said Nettie, and swept her half-arranged carnation petals back
into a heap of confusion. She began to arrange them very quickly
into one long straight line.
"It's so difficult——— I've never before in all my life tried
to get to the bottom of my mind. For one thing, I've not treated
Willie properly. He—he counted on me. I know he did. I was
his hope. I was a promised delight—something, something to crown
life—better than anything he had ever had. And a secret pride. . . .
He lived upon me. I knew—when we two began to meet together,
you and I——— It was a sort of treachery to him———"
"Treachery!" I said. "You were only feeling your way through all
"You thought it treachery."
"I don't now."
"I did. In a sense I think so still. For you had need of me."
I made a slight protest at this doctrine and fell thinking.
"And even when he was trying to kill us," she said to her lover,
"I felt for him down in the bottom of my mind. I can understand
all the horrible things, the humiliation—the humiliation! he went
"Yes," I said, "but I don't see———"
"I don't see. I'm only trying to see. But you know, Willie, you
are a part of my life. I have known you longer than I have known
Edward. I know you better. Indeed I know you with all my heart.
You think all your talk was thrown away upon me, that I never
understood that side of you, or your ambitions or anything. I did.
More than I thought at the time. Now—now it is all clear to me.
What I had to understand in you was something deeper than Edward
brought me. I have it now. . . . You are a part of my life, and I
don't want to cut all that off from me now I have comprehended it,
and throw it away."
"But you love Verrall."
"Love is such a queer thing! . . . Is there one love? I mean, only
one love?" She turned to Verrall. "I know I love you. I can speak
out about that now. Before this morning I couldn't have done. It's
just as though my mind had got out of a scented prison. But what
is it, this love for you? It's a mass of fancies—things about
you—ways you look, ways you have. It's the senses—and the senses
of certain beauties. Flattery too, things you said, hopes and
deceptions for myself. And all that had rolled up together and taken
to itself the wild help of those deep emotions that slumbered in my
body; it seemed everything. But it wasn't. How can I describe it?
It was like having a very bright lamp with a thick shade—everything
else in the room was hidden. But you take the shade off and there
they are—it is the same light—still there! Only it lights every
Her voice ceased. For awhile no one spoke, and Nettie, with a quick
movement, swept the petals into the shape of a pyramid.
Figures of speech always distract me, and it ran through my mind
like some puzzling refrain, "It is still the same light. . . ."
"No woman believes these things," she asserted abruptly.
"No woman ever has believed them."
"You have to choose a man," said Verrall, apprehending her before
"We're brought up to that. We're told—it's in books, in stories,
in the way people look, in the way they behave—one day there will
come a man. He will be everything, no one else will be anything.
Leave everything else; live in him."
"And a man, too, is taught that of some woman," said Verrall.
"Only men don't believe it! They have more obstinate minds. . . .
Men have never behaved as though they believed it. One need not
be old to know that. By nature they don't believe it. But a woman
believes nothing by nature. She goes into a mold hiding her secret
thoughts almost from herself."
"She used to," I said.
"You haven't," said Verrall, "anyhow."
"I've come out. It's this comet. And Willie. And because I never
really believed in the mold at all—even if I thought I did. It's
stupid to send Willie off—shamed, cast out, never to see him
again—when I like him as much as I do. It is cruel, it is wicked
and ugly, to prance over him as if he was a defeated enemy, and
pretend I'm going to be happy just the same. There's no sense in
a rule of life that prescribes that. It's selfish. It's brutish.
It's like something that has no sense. I———" there was a sob in
her voice: "Willie! I WON'T."
I sat lowering, I mused with my eyes upon her quick fingers.
"It IS brutish," I said at last, with a careful unemotional
deliberation. "Nevertheless—it is in the nature of things. . . .
No! . . . You see, after all, we are still half brutes, Nettie.
And men, as you say, are more obstinate than women. The comet
hasn't altered that; it's only made it clearer. We have come into
being through a tumult of blind forces. . . . I come back to what
I said just now; we have found our poor reasonable minds, our wills
to live well, ourselves, adrift on a wash of instincts, passions,
instinctive prejudices, half animal stupidities. . . . Here we
are like people clinging to something—like people awakening—upon
"We come back at last to my question," said Verrall, softly; "what
are we to do?"
"Part," I said. "You see, Nettie, these bodies of ours are not
the bodies of angels. They are the same bodies——— I have read
somewhere that in our bodies you can find evidence of the lowliest
ancestry; that about our inward ears—I think it is—and about our
teeth, there remains still something of the fish, that there are
bones that recall little—what is it?—marsupial forebears—and
a hundred traces of the ape. Even your beautiful body, Nettie,
carries this taint. No! Hear me out." I leant forward earnestly.
"Our emotions, our passions, our desires, the substance of them,
like the substance of our bodies, is an animal, a competing thing, as
well as a desiring thing. You speak to us now a mind to minds—one
can do that when one has had exercise and when one has eaten, when
one is not doing anything—but when one turns to live, one turns
again to matter."
"Yes," said Nettie, slowly following me, "but you control it."
"Only through a measure of obedience. There is no magic in the
business—to conquer matter, we must divide the enemy, and take
matter as an ally. Nowadays it is indeed true, by faith a man can
remove mountains; he can say to a mountain, Be thou removed and be
thou cast into the sea; but he does it because he helps and trusts
his brother men, because he has the wit and patience and courage
to win over to his side iron, steel, obedience, dynamite, cranes,
trucks, the money of other people. . . . To conquer my desire for
you, I must not perpetually thwart it by your presence; I must go
away so that I may not see you, I must take up other interests,
thrust myself into struggles and discussions———"
"And forget?" said Nettie.
"Not forget," I said; "but anyhow—cease to brood upon you."
She hung on that for some moments.
"No," she said, demolished her last pattern and looked up at Verrall
as he stirred.
Verrall leant forward on the table, elbows upon it, and the fingers
of his two hands intertwined.
"You know," he said, "I haven't thought much of these things. At
school and the university, one doesn't. . . . It was part of the
system to prevent it. They'll alter all that, no doubt. We seem"—he
thought—"to be skating about over questions that one came to at
last in Greek—with variorum readings—in Plato, but which it never
occurred to any one to translate out of a dead language into living
realities. . . ." He halted and answered some unspoken question
from his own mind with, "No. I think with Leadford, Nettie, that,
as he put it, it is in the nature of things for men to be exclusive.
. . . Minds are free things and go about the world, but only one
man can possess a woman. You must dismiss rivals. We are made for
the struggle for existence—we ARE the struggle for existence; the
things that live are the struggle for existence incarnate—and that
works out that the men struggle for their mates; for each woman
one prevails. The others go away."
"Like animals," said Nettie.
"Yes. . . ."
"There are many things in life," I said, "but that is the rough
"But," said Nettie, "you don't struggle. That has been altered
because men have minds."
"You choose," I said.
"If I don't choose to choose?"
"You have chosen."
She gave a little impatient "Oh! Why are women always the slaves of
sex? Is this great age of Reason and Light that has come to alter
nothing of that? And men too! I think it is all—stupid. I do not
believe this is the right solution of the thing, or anything but
the bad habits of the time that was. . . Instinct! You don't let
your instincts rule you in a lot of other things. Here am I between
you. Here is Edward. I—love him because he is gay and pleasant,
and because—because I LIKE him! Here is Willie—a part of me—my
first secret, my oldest friend! Why must I not have both? Am I not
a mind that you must think of me as nothing but a woman? imagine
me always as a thing to struggle for?" She paused; then she made
her distressful proposition to me. "Let us three keep together,"
she said. "Let us not part. To part is hate, Willie. Why should we
not anyhow keep friends? Meet and talk?"
"Talk?" I said. "About this sort of thing?"
I looked across at Verrall and met his eyes, and we studied one
another. It was the clean, straight scrutiny of honest antagonism.
"No," I decided. "Between us, nothing of that sort can be."
"Ever?" said Nettie.
"Never," I said, convinced.
I made an effort within myself. "We cannot tamper with the law and
customs of these things," I said; "these passions are too close
to one's essential self. Better surgery than a lingering disease!
From Nettie my love—asks all. A man's love is not devotion—it is
a demand, a challenge. And besides"—and here I forced my theme—"I
have given myself now to a new mistress—and it is I, Nettie, who
am unfaithful. Behind you and above you rises the coming City
of the World, and I am in that building. Dear heart! you are only
happiness—and that———Indeed that calls! If it is only that my
life blood shall christen the foundation stones—I could almost
hope that should be my part, Nettie—I will join myself in that."
I threw all the conviction I could into these words. . . . "No
conflict of passion." I added a little lamely, "must distract me."
There was a pause.
"Then we must part," said Nettie, with the eyes of a woman one
strikes in the face.
I nodded assent. . . .
There was a little pause, and then I stood up. We stood up, all
three. We parted almost sullenly, with no more memorable words,
and I was left presently in the arbor alone.
I do not think I watched them go. I only remember myself left there
somehow—horribly empty and alone. I sat down again and fell into
a deep shapeless musing.
Suddenly I looked up. Nettie had come back and stood looking down
"Since we talked I have been thinking," she said. "Edward has let
me come to you alone. And I feel perhaps I can talk better to you
I said nothing and that embarrassed her.
"I don't think we ought to part," she said.
"No—I don't think we ought to part," she repeated.
"One lives," she said, "in different ways. I wonder if you will
understand what I am saying, Willie. It is hard to say what I feel.
But I want it said. If we are to part for ever I want it said—very
plainly. Always before I have had the woman's instinct and the
woman's training which makes one hide. But——— Edward is not all
of me. Think of what I am saying—Edward is not all of me. . . . I
wish I could tell you better how I see it. I am not all of myself.
You, at any rate, are a part of me and I cannot bear to leave you.
And I cannot see why I should leave you. There is a sort of blood
link between us, Willie. We grew together. We are in one another's
bones. I understand you. Now indeed I understand. In some way
I have come to an understanding at a stride. Indeed I understand
you and your dream. I want to help you. Edward—Edward has no dreams.
. . . It is dreadful to me, Willie, to think we two are to part."
"But we have settled that—part we must."
"I love you."
"Well, and why should I hide it Willie?—I love you. . . ." Our
eyes met. She flushed, she went on resolutely: "You are stupid.
The whole thing is stupid. I love you both."
I said, "You do not understand what you say. No!"
"You mean that I must go."
"Yes, yes. Go!"
For a moment we looked at one another, mute, as though deep down
in the unfathomable darkness below the surface and present reality
of things dumb meanings strove to be. She made to speak and desisted.
"But MUST I go?" she said at last, with quivering lips, and the
tears in her eyes were stars. Then she began, "Willie———"
"Go!" I interrupted her. . . . "Yes."
Then again we were still.
She stood there, a tearful figure of pity, longing for me, pitying
me. Something of that wider love, that will carry our descendants
at last out of all the limits, the hard, clear obligations of our
personal life, moved us, like the first breath of a coming wind
out of heaven that stirs and passes away. I had an impulse to take
her hand and kiss it, and then a trembling came to me, and I knew
that if I touched her, my strength would all pass from me. . . .
And so, standing at a distance one from the other, we parted, and
Nettie went, reluctant and looking back, with the man she had chosen,
to the lot she had chosen, out of my life—like the sunlight
out of my life. . . .
Then, you know, I suppose I folded up this newspaper and put it
in my pocket. But my memory of that meeting ends with the face of
Nettie turning to go.
I remember all that very distinctly to this day. I could almost
vouch for the words I have put into our several mouths. Then comes
a blank. I have a dim memory of being back in the house near the
Links and the bustle of Melmount's departure, of finding Parker's
energy distasteful, and of going away down the road with a strong
desire to say good-bye to Melmount alone.
Perhaps I was already doubting my decision to part for ever from
Nettie, for I think I had it in mind to tell him all that
had been said and done. . . .
I don't think I had a word with him or anything but a hurried hand
clasp. I am not sure. It has gone out of my mind. But I have a
very clear and certain memory of my phase of bleak desolation as
I watched his car recede and climb and vanish over Mapleborough
Hill, and that I got there my first full and definite intimation
that, after all, this great Change and my new wide aims in life,
were not to mean indiscriminate happiness for me. I had a sense of
protest, as against extreme unfairness, as I saw him go. "It is
too soon," I said to myself, "to leave me alone."
I felt I had sacrificed too much, that after I had said good-bye to
the hot immediate life of passion, to Nettie and desire, to physical
and personal rivalry, to all that was most intensely myself, it was
wrong to leave me alone and sore hearted, to go on at once with
these steely cold duties of the wider life. I felt new born, and
naked, and at a loss.
"Work!" I said with an effort at the heroic, and turned about with
a sigh, and I was glad that the way I had to go would at
least take me to my mother. . . .
But, curiously enough, I remember myself as being fairly cheerful
in the town of Birmingham that night, I recall an active and
interested mood. I spent the night in Birmingham because the train
service on was disarranged, and I could not get on. I went to listen
to a band that was playing its brassy old-world music in the public
park, and I fell into conversation with a man who said he had been
a reporter upon one of their minor local papers. He was full and
keen upon all the plans of reconstruction that were now shaping
over the lives of humanity, and I know that something of that
noble dream came back to me with his words and phrases. We walked
up to a place called Bourneville by moonlight, and talked of the
new social groupings that must replace the old isolated homes, and
how the people would be housed.
This Bourneville was germane to that matter. It had been an
attempt on the part of a private firm of manufacturers to improve
the housing of their workers. To our ideas to-day it would seem the
feeblest of benevolent efforts, but at the time it was extraordinary
and famous, and people came long journeys to see its trim cottages
with baths sunk under the kitchen floors (of all conceivable
places), and other brilliant inventions. No one seemed to see the
danger to liberty in that aggressive age, that might arise through
making workpeople tenants and debtors of their employer, though an
Act called the Truck Act had long ago intervened to prevent minor
developments in the same direction. . . . But I and my chance
acquaintance seemed that night always to have been aware of that
possibility, and we had no doubt in our minds of the public nature
of the housing duty. Our interest lay rather in the possibility of
common nurseries and kitchens and public rooms that should economize
toil and give people space and freedom.
It was very interesting, but still a little cheerless, and when I
lay in bed that night I thought of Nettie and the queer modifications
of preference she had made, and among other things and in a way, I
prayed. I prayed that night, let me confess it, to an image I had
set up in my heart, an image that still serves with me as a symbol
for things inconceivable, to a Master Artificer, the unseen captain
of all who go about the building of the world, the making of mankind.
But before and after I prayed I imagined I was talking and reasoning
and meeting again with Nettie. . . . She never came into the temple
of that worshiping with me.
CHAPTER THE SECOND
MY MOTHER'S LAST DAYS
NEXT day I came home to Clayton.
The new strange brightness of the world was all the brighter there,
for the host of dark distressful memories, of darkened childhood,
toilsome youth, embittered adolescence that wove about the place
for me. It seemed to me that I saw morning there for the first time.
No chimneys smoked that day, no furnaces were burning, the people
were busy with other things. The clear strong sun, the sparkle in
the dustless air, made a strange gaiety in the narrow streets. I
passed a number of smiling people coming home from the public
breakfasts that were given in the Town Hall until better things
could be arranged, and happened on Parload among them. "You were
right about that comet," I sang out at the sight of him; and he
came toward me and clasped my hand.
"What are people doing here?" said I.
"They're sending us food from outside," he said, "and we're going
to level all these slums—and shift into tents on to the moors;"
and he began to tell me of many things that were being arranged,
the Midland land committees had got to work with remarkable celerity
and directness of purpose, and the redistribution of population
was already in its broad outlines planned. He was working at
an improvised college of engineering. Until schemes of work were
made out, almost every one was going to school again to get as much
technical training as they could against the demands of the huge
enterprise of reconstruction that was now beginning.
He walked with me to my door, and there I met old Pettigrew coming
down the steps. He looked dusty and tired, but his eye was brighter
than it used to be, and he carried in a rather unaccustomed manner,
a workman's tool basket.
"How's the rheumatism, Mr. Pettigrew?" I asked.
"Dietary," said old Pettigrew, "can work wonders. . . ." He looked
me in the eye. "These houses," he said, "will have to come down,
I suppose, and our notions of property must undergo very considerable
revision—in the light of reason; but meanwhile I've been doing
something to patch that disgraceful roof of mine! To think that
I could have dodged and evaded———"
He raised a deprecatory hand, drew down the loose corners of his
ample mouth, and shook his old head.
"The past is past, Mr. Pettigrew."
"Your poor dear mother! So good and honest a woman! So simple and
kind and forgiving! To think of it! My dear young man!"—he said
it manfully—"I'm ashamed."
"The whole world blushed at dawn the other day, Mr. Pettigrew," I
said, "and did it very prettily. That's over now. God knows, who
is NOT ashamed of all that came before last Tuesday."
I held out a forgiving hand, naively forgetful that in this place
I was a thief, and he took it and went his way, shaking his head
and repeating he was ashamed, but I think a little comforted.
The door opened and my poor old mother's face, marvelously cleaned,
appeared. "Ah, Willie, boy! YOU. You!"
I ran up the steps to her, for I feared she might fall.
How she clung to me in the passage, the dear woman! . . .
But first she shut the front door. The old habit of respect for my
unaccountable temper still swayed her. "Ah deary!" she said, "ah
deary! But you were sorely tried," and kept her face close to my
shoulder, lest she should offend me by the sight of the tears that
welled within her.
She made a sort of gulping noise and was quiet for a while, holding
me very tightly to her heart with her worn, long hands . . .
She thanked me presently for my telegram, and I put my arm about
her and drew her into the living room.
"It's all well with me, mother dear," I said, "and the dark times
are over—are done with for ever, mother."
Whereupon she had courage and gave way and sobbed aloud, none
She had not let me know she could still weep for five grimy years. . . .
Dear heart! There remained for her but a very brief while in this
world that had been renewed. I did not know how short that time
would be, but the little I could do—perhaps after all it was not
little to her—to atone for the harshness of my days of wrath and
rebellion, I did. I took care to be constantly with her, for I
perceived now her curious need of me. It was not that we had ideas
to exchange or pleasures to share, but she liked to see me at table,
to watch me working, to have me go to and fro. There was no toil
for her any more in the world, but only such light services as
are easy and pleasant for a worn and weary old woman to do, and I
think she was happy even at her end.
She kept to her queer old eighteenth century version of religion,
too, without a change. She had worn this particular amulet so
long it was a part of her. Yet the Change was evident even in that
persistence. I said to her one day, "But do you still believe in
that hell of flame, dear mother? You—with your tender heart!"
She vowed she did.
Some theological intricacy made it necessary to her, but still———
She looked thoughtfully at a bank of primulas before her for a time,
and then laid her tremulous hand impressively on my arm. "You know,
Willie, dear," she said, as though she was clearing up a childish
misunderstanding of mine, "I don't think any one will GO there. I
never DID think that. . . ."
That talk stands out in my memory because of that agreeable theological
decision of hers, but it was only one of a great number of talks.
It used to be pleasant in the afternoon, after the day's work was
done and before one went on with the evening's study—how odd it
would have seemed in the old time for a young man of the industrial
class to be doing post-graduate work in sociology, and how much
a matter of course it seems now!—to walk out into the gardens
of Lowchester House, and smoke a cigarette or so and let her talk
ramblingly of the things that interested her. . . . Physically
the Great Change did not do so very much to reinvigorate her—she
had lived in that dismal underground kitchen in Clayton too long
for any material rejuvenescence—she glowed out indeed as a dying
spark among the ashes might glow under a draught of fresh air—and
assuredly it hastened her end. But those closing days were very
tranquil, full of an effortless contentment. With her, life was like
a rainy, windy day that clears only to show the sunset afterglow.
The light has passed. She acquired no new habits amid the comforts
of the new life, did no new things, but only found a happier light
upon the old.
She lived with a number of other old ladies belonging to our commune
in the upper rooms of Lowchester House. Those upper apartments
were simple and ample, fine and well done in the Georgian style,
and they had been organized to give the maximum of comfort and
conveniences and to economize the need of skilled attendance. We
had taken over the various "great houses," as they used to be
called, to make communal dining-rooms and so forth—their kitchens
were conveniently large—and pleasant places for the old people
of over sixty whose time of ease had come, and for suchlike public
uses. We had done this not only with Lord Redcar's house, but also
with Checkshill House—where old Mrs. Verrall made a dignified
and capable hostess,—and indeed with most of the fine residences
in the beautiful wide country between the Four Towns district and
the Welsh mountains. About these great houses there had usually
been good outbuildings, laundries, married servants' quarters,
stabling, dairies, and the like, suitably masked by trees, we
turned these into homes, and to them we added first tents and wood
chalets and afterward quadrangular residential buildings. In order
to be near my mother I had two small rooms in the new collegiate
buildings which our commune was almost the first to possess, and they
were very convenient for the station of the high-speed electric
railway that took me down to our daily conferences and my secretarial
and statistical work in Clayton.
Ours had been one of the first modern communes to get in order; we
were greatly helped by the energy of Lord Redcar, who had a fine
feeling for the picturesque associations of his ancestral home—the
detour that took our line through the beeches and bracken and
bluebells of the West Wood and saved the pleasant open wildness
of the park was one of his suggestions; and we had many reasons to
be proud of our surroundings. Nearly all the other communes that
sprang up all over the pleasant parkland round the industrial
valley of the Four Towns, as the workers moved out, came to us to
study the architecture of the residential squares and quadrangles
with which we had replaced the back streets between the great
houses and the ecclesiastical residences about the cathedral, and
the way in which we had adapted all these buildings to our new
social needs. Some claimed to have improved on us. But they could
not emulate the rhododendron garden out beyond our shrubberies; that
was a thing altogether our own in our part of England, because of
its ripeness and of the rarity of good peat free from lime.
These gardens had been planned under the third Lord Redcar, fifty
years ago and more; they abounded in rhododendra and azaleas, and
were in places so well sheltered and sunny that great magnolias
flourished and flowered. There were tall trees smothered in crimson
and yellow climbing roses, and an endless variety of flowering
shrubs and fine conifers, and such pampas grass as no other garden
can show. And barred by the broad shadows of these, were glades and
broad spaces of emerald turf, and here and there banks of pegged
roses, and flower-beds, and banks given over some to spring bulbs,
and some to primroses and primulas and polyanthuses. My mother
loved these latter banks and the little round staring eyes of their
innumerable yellow, ruddy brown, and purple corollas, more than
anything else the gardens could show, and in the spring of the Year
of Scaffolding she would go with me day after day to the seat that
showed them in the greatest multitude.
It gave her, I think, among other agreeable impressions, a sense
of gentle opulence. In the old time she had never known what it was
to have more than enough of anything agreeable in the world at all.
We would sit and think, or talk—there was a curious effect of
complete understanding between us whether we talked or were still.
"Heaven," she said to me one day, "Heaven is a garden."
I was moved to tease her a little. "There's jewels, you know, walls
and gates of jewels—and singing."
"For such as like them," said my mother firmly, and thought for
a while. "There'll be things for all of us, o' course. But for me
it couldn't be Heaven, dear, unless it was a garden—a nice sunny
garden. . . . And feeling such as we're fond of, are close and
You of your happier generation cannot realize the wonderfulness
of those early days in the new epoch, the sense of security, the
extraordinary effects of contrast. In the morning, except in high
summer, I was up before dawn, and breakfasted upon the swift, smooth
train, and perhaps saw the sunrise as I rushed out of the little
tunnel that pierced Clayton Crest, and so to work like a man. Now
that we had got all the homes and schools and all the softness of
life away from our coal and iron ore and clay, now that a thousand
obstructive "rights" and timidities had been swept aside, we could
let ourselves go, we merged this enterprise with that, cut across
this or that anciently obstructive piece of private land, joined and
separated, effected gigantic consolidations and gigantic economies,
and the valley, no longer a pit of squalid human tragedies and
meanly conflicting industries, grew into a sort of beauty of its
own, a savage inhuman beauty of force and machinery and flames.
One was a Titan in that Etna. Then back one came at midday to bath
and change in the train, and so to the leisurely gossiping lunch
in the club dining-room in Lowchester House, and the refreshment
of these green and sunlit afternoon tranquillities.
Sometimes in her profounder moments my mother doubted whether all
this last phase of her life was not a dream.
"A dream," I used to say, "a dream indeed—but a dream that is one
step nearer awakening than that nightmare of the former days."
She found great comfort and assurance in my altered clothes—she
liked the new fashions of dress, she alleged. It was not simply
altered clothes. I did grow two inches, broaden some inches
round my chest, and increase in weight three stones before I was
twenty-three. I wore a soft brown cloth and she would caress my
sleeve and admire it greatly—she had the woman's sense of texture
very strong in her.
Sometimes she would muse upon the past, rubbing together her poor
rough hands—they never got softened—one over the other. She told
me much I had not heard before about my father, and her own early
life. It was like finding flat and faded flowers in a book still
faintly sweet, to realize that once my mother had been loved with
passion; that my remote father had once shed hot tears of tenderness in
her arms. And she would sometimes even speak tentatively in those
narrow, old-world phrases that her lips could rob of all their
bitter narrowness, of Nettie.
"She wasn't worthy of you, dear," she would say abruptly, leaving
me to guess the person she intended.
"No man is worthy of a woman's love," I answered. "No woman is
worthy of a man's. I love her, dear mother, and that you cannot
"There's others," she would muse.
"Not for me," I said. "No! I didn't fire a shot that time; I burnt
my magazine. I can't begin again, mother, not from the beginning."
She sighed and said no more then.
At another time she said—I think her words were: "You'll be lonely
when I'm gone dear."
"You'll not think of going, then," I said.
"Eh, dear! but man and maid should come together."
I said nothing to that.
"You brood overmuch on Nettie, dear. If I could see you married to
some sweet girl of a woman, some good, KIND girl———"
"Dear mother, I'm married enough. Perhaps some day——— Who knows?
I can wait."
"But to have nothing to do with women!"
"I have my friends. Don't you trouble, mother. There's plentiful
work for a man in this world though the heart of love is cast out
from him. Nettie was life and beauty for me—is—will be. Don't
think I've lost too much, mother."
(Because in my heart I told myself the end had still to come.)
And once she sprang a question on me suddenly that surprised me.
"Where are they now?" she asked.
She had pierced to the marrow of my thoughts. "I don't know," I
Her shriveled hand just fluttered into touch of mine.
"It's better so," she said, as if pleading. "Indeed . . . it is
There was something in her quivering old voice that for a moment
took me back across an epoch, to the protests of the former time,
to those counsels of submission, those appeals not to offend It,
that had always stirred an angry spirit of rebellion within me.
"That is the thing I doubt," I said, and abruptly I felt I could
talk no more to her of Nettie. I got up and walked away from her,
and came back after a while, to speak of other things, with a bunch
of daffodils for her in my hand.
But I did not always spend my afternoons with her. There were days
when my crushed hunger for Nettie rose again, and then I had to be
alone; I walked, or bicycled, and presently I found a new interest
and relief in learning to ride. For the horse was already very
swiftly reaping the benefit to the Change. Hardly anywhere was the
inhumanity of horse traction to be found after the first year of
the new epoch, everywhere lugging and dragging and straining was
done by machines, and the horse had become a beautiful instrument
for the pleasure and carriage of youth. I rode both in the saddle
and, what is finer, naked and barebacked. I found violent exercises
were good for the states of enormous melancholy that came upon me,
and when at last horse riding palled, I went and joined the aviators
who practised soaring upon aeroplanes beyond Horsemarden Hill. . . .
But at least every alternate day I spent with my mother, and
altogether I think I gave her two-thirds of my afternoons.
When presently that illness, that fading weakness that made an euthanasia
for so many of the older people in the beginning of the new time,
took hold upon my mother, there came Anna Reeves to daughter
her—after our new custom. She chose to come. She was already
known to us a little from chance meetings and chance services she
had done my mother in the garden; she sought to give her help. She
seemed then just one of those plainly good girls the world at its
worst has never failed to produce, who were indeed in the dark old
times the hidden antiseptic of all our hustling, hating, faithless
lives. They made their secret voiceless worship, they did their
steadfast, uninspired, unthanked, unselfish work as helpful daughters,
as nurses, as faithful servants, as the humble providences of homes.
She was almost exactly three years older than I. At first I found
no beauty in her, she was short but rather sturdy and ruddy, with
red-tinged hair, and fair hairy brows and red-brown eyes. But her
freckled hands I found, were full of apt help, her voice
carried good cheer. . . .
At first she was no more than a blue-clad, white-aproned benevolence,
that moved in the shadows behind the bed on which my old mother lay
and sank restfully to death. She would come forward to anticipate
some little need, to proffer some simple comfort, and always then
my mother smiled on her. In a little while I discovered the beauty
of that helpful poise of her woman's body, I discovered the grace
of untiring goodness, the sweetness of a tender pity, and the
great riches of her voice, of her few reassuring words and phrases.
I noted and remembered very clearly how once my mother's lean old
hand patted the firm gold-flecked strength of hers, as it went by
upon its duties with the coverlet.
"She is a good girl to me," said my mother one day. "A good girl.
Like a daughter should be. . . . I never had a daughter—really."
She mused peacefully for a space. "Your little sister died," she
I had never heard of that little sister.
"November the tenth," said my mother. "Twenty-nine months and three
days. . . . I cried. I cried. That was before you came, dear. So
long ago—and I can see it now. I was a young wife then, and your
father was very kind. But I can see its hands, its dear little
quiet hands. . . . Dear, they say that now—now they will not let
the little children die."
"No, dear mother," I said. "We shall do better now."
"The club doctor could not come. Your father went twice. There
was some one else, some one who paid. So your father went on into
Swathinglea, and that man wouldn't come unless he had his fee. And
your father had changed his clothes to look more respectful and he
hadn't any money, not even his tram fare home. It seemed cruel to
be waiting there with my baby thing in pain. . . . And I can't help
thinking perhaps we might have saved her. . . . But it was like
that with the poor always in the bad old times—always. When the
doctor came at last he was angry. 'Why wasn't I called before?'
he said, and he took no pains. He was angry because some one hadn't
explained. I begged him—but it was too late."
She said these things very quietly with drooping eyelids, like one
who describes a dream. "We are going to manage all these things
better now," I said, feeling a strange resentment at this pitiful
little story her faded, matter-of-fact voice was telling me.
"She talked," my mother went on. "She talked for her age wonderfully.
. . . Hippopotamus."
"Eh?" I said.
"Hippopotamus, dear—quite plainly one day, when her father was
showing her pictures. . . And her little prayers. 'Now I lay me.
. . . down to sleep.' . . . I made her little socks. Knitted they
was, dear, and the heel most difficult."
Her eyes were closed now. She spoke no longer to me but to herself.
She whispered other vague things, little sentences, ghosts of long
dead moments. . . . Her words grew less distinct.
Presently she was asleep and I got up and went out of the room,
but my mind was queerly obsessed by the thought of that little life
that had been glad and hopeful only to pass so inexplicably out of
hope again into nonentity, this sister of whom I had never
heard before. . . .
And presently I was in a black rage at all the irrecoverable sorrows
of the past, of that great ocean of avoidable suffering of which
this was but one luminous and quivering red drop. I walked in the
garden and the garden was too small for me; I went out to wander
on the moors. "The past is past," I cried, and all the while across
the gulf of five and twenty years I could hear my poor mother's
heart-wrung weeping for that daughter baby who had suffered and
died. Indeed that old spirit of rebellion has not altogether died
in me, for all the transformation of the new time. . . . I quieted
down at last to a thin and austere comfort in thinking that the
whole is not told to us, that it cannot perhaps be told to such
minds as ours; and anyhow, and what was far more sustaining, that
now we have strength and courage and this new gift of wise love,
whatever cruel and sad things marred the past, none of these sorrowful
things that made the very warp and woof of the old life, need now
go on happening. We could foresee, we could prevent and save. "The
past is past," I said, between sighing and resolve, as I came into
view again on my homeward way of the hundred sunset-lit windows of
old Lowchester House. "Those sorrows are sorrows no more."
But I could not altogether cheat that common sadness of the new
time, that memory, and insoluble riddle of the countless lives that
had stumbled and failed in pain and darkness before our air grew
CHAPTER THE THIRD
BELTANE AND NEW YEAR'S EVE
IN the end my mother died rather suddenly, and her death came as
a shock to me. Diagnosis was still very inadequate at that time.
The doctors were, of course, fully alive to the incredible defects
of their common training and were doing all they could to supply
its deficiencies, but they were still extraordinarily ignorant.
Some unintelligently observed factor of her illness came into play
with her, and she became feverish and sank and died very quickly.
I do not know what remedial measures were attempted. I hardly knew
what was happening until the whole thing was over.
At that time my attention was much engaged by the stir of the great
Beltane festival that was held on May-day in the Year of Scaffolding.
It was the first of the ten great rubbish burnings that opened the
new age. Young people nowadays can scarcely hope to imagine the
enormous quantities of pure litter and useless accumulation with
which we had to deal; had we not set aside a special day and season,
the whole world would have been an incessant reek of small fires;
and it was, I think, a happy idea to revive this ancient festival of
the May and November burnings. It was inevitable that the old idea
of purification should revive with the name, it was felt to be a
burning of other than material encumbrances, innumerable quasi-spiritual
things, deeds, documents, debts, vindictive records, went up on
those great flares. People passed praying between the fires, and
it was a fine symbol of the new and wiser tolerance that had come
to men, that those who still found their comfort in the orthodox
faiths came hither unpersuaded, to pray that all hate might be burnt
out of their professions. For even in the fires of Baal, now that
men have done with base hatred, one may find the living God.
Endless were the things we had to destroy in those great purgings.
First, there were nearly all the houses and buildings of the old
time. In the end we did not save in England one building in five
thousand that was standing when the comet came. Year by year, as
we made our homes afresh in accordance with the saner needs of our
new social families, we swept away more and more of those horrible
structures, the ancient residential houses, hastily built, without
imagination, without beauty, without common honesty, without even
comfort or convenience, in which the early twentieth century had
sheltered until scarcely one remained; we saved nothing but what
was beautiful or interesting out of all their gaunt and melancholy
abundance. The actual houses, of course, we could not drag to
our fires, but we brought all their ill-fitting deal doors, their
dreadful window sashes, their servant-tormenting staircases, their
dank, dark cupboards, the verminous papers from their scaly walls,
their dust and dirt-sodden carpets, their ill-designed and yet
pretentious tables and chairs, sideboards and chests of drawers,
the old dirt-saturated books, their ornaments—their dirty, decayed,
and altogether painful ornaments—amidst which I remember there
were sometimes even STUFFED DEAD BIRDS!—we burnt them all. The
paint-plastered woodwork, with coat above coat of nasty paint, that
in particular blazed finely. I have already tried to give you an
impression of old-world furniture, of Parload's bedroom, my mother's
room, Mr. Gabbitas's sitting-room, but, thank Heaven! there is
nothing in life now to convey the peculiar dinginess of it all. For
one thing, there is no more imperfect combustion of coal going on
everywhere, and no roadways like grassless open scars along the
earth from which dust pours out perpetually. We burnt and destroyed
most of our private buildings and all the woodwork, all our furniture,
except a few score thousand pieces of distinct and intentional
beauty, from which our present forms have developed, nearly all
our hangings and carpets, and also we destroyed almost every scrap
of old-world clothing. Only a few carefully disinfected types and
vestiges of that remain now in our museums.
One writes now with a peculiar horror of the dress of the old world.
The men's clothes were worn without any cleansing process at all,
except an occasional superficial brushing, for periods of a year
or so; they were made of dark obscurely mixed patterns to conceal
the stage of defilement they had reached, and they were of a felted
and porous texture admirably calculated to accumulate drifting
matter. Many women wore skirts of similar substances, and of so
long and inconvenient a form that they inevitably trailed among
all the abomination of our horse-frequented roads. It was our boast
in England that the whole of our population was booted—their feet
were for the most part ugly enough to need it,—but it becomes
now inconceivable how they could have imprisoned their feet in the
amazing cases of leather and imitations of leather they used. I
have heard it said that a large part of the physical decline that
was apparent in our people during the closing years of the nineteenth
century, though no doubt due in part to the miscellaneous badness
of the food they ate, was in the main attributable to the vileness
of the common footwear. They shirked open-air exercise altogether
because their boots wore out ruinously and pinched and hurt them
if they took it. I have mentioned, I think, the part my own boots
played in the squalid drama of my adolescence. I had a sense
of unholy triumph over a fallen enemy when at last I found myself
steering truck after truck of cheap boots and shoes (unsold stock
from Swathinglea) to the run-off by the top of the Glanville blast
"Plup!" they would drop into the cone when Beltane came, and the
roar of their burning would fill the air. Never a cold would come
from the saturation of their brown paper soles, never a corn from
their foolish shapes, never a nail in them get home at last in
suffering flesh. . . .
Most of our public buildings we destroyed and burnt as we reshaped
our plan of habitation, our theater sheds, our banks, and inconvenient
business warrens, our factories (these in the first year of all),
and all the "unmeaning repetition" of silly little sham Gothic
churches and meeting-houses, mean looking shells of stone and
mortar without love, invention, or any beauty at all in them, that
men had thrust into the face of their sweated God, even as they
thrust cheap food into the mouths of their sweated workers; all
these we also swept away in the course of that first decade. Then
we had the whole of the superseded steam-railway system to scrap
and get rid of, stations, signals, fences, rolling stock; a plant
of ill-planned, smoke-distributing nuisance apparatus, that would,
under former conditions, have maintained an offensive dwindling
obstructive life for perhaps half a century. Then also there was a
great harvest of fences, notice boards, hoardings, ugly sheds, all
the corrugated iron in the world, and everything that was smeared
with tar, all our gas works and petroleum stores, all our horse
vehicles and vans and lorries had to be erased. . . . But I have
said enough now perhaps to give some idea of the bulk and quality
of our great bonfires, our burnings up, our meltings down, our
toil of sheer wreckage, over and above the constructive effort, in
those early years.
But these were the coarse material bases of the Phoenix fires
of the world. These were but the outward and visible signs of the
innumerable claims, rights, adhesions, debts, bills, deeds, and
charters that were cast upon the fires; a vast accumulation of
insignia and uniforms neither curious enough nor beautiful enough
to preserve, went to swell the blaze, and all (saving a few truly
glorious trophies and memories) of our symbols, our apparatus and
material of war. Then innumerable triumphs of our old, bastard,
half-commercial, fine-art were presently condemned, great oil
paintings, done to please the half-educated middle-class, glared
for a moment and were gone, Academy marbles crumbled to useful lime,
a gross multitude of silly statuettes and decorative crockery, and
hangings, and embroideries, and bad music, and musical instruments
shared this fate. And books, countless books, too, and bales
of newspapers went also to these pyres. From the private houses
in Swathinglea alone—which I had deemed, perhaps not unjustly,
altogether illiterate—we gathered a whole dust-cart full of cheap
ill-printed editions of the minor English classics—for the most
part very dull stuff indeed and still clean—and about a truckload
of thumbed and dog-eared penny fiction, watery base stuff, the
dropsy of our nation's mind. . . . And it seemed to me that when
we gathered those books and papers together, we gathered together
something more than print and paper, we gathered warped and
crippled ideas and contagious base suggestions, the formulae of dull
tolerances and stupid impatiences, the mean defensive ingenuities
of sluggish habits of thinking and timid and indolent evasions.
There was more than a touch of malignant satisfaction for me in
helping gather it all together.
I was so busy, I say, with my share in this dustman's work that
I did not notice, as I should otherwise have done, the little
indications of change in my mother's state. Indeed, I thought her
a little stronger; she was slightly flushed, slightly more talkative. . . .
On Beltane Eve, and our Lowchester rummage being finished, I went
along the valley to the far end of Swathinglea to help sort the
stock of the detached group of potbanks there—their chief output
had been mantel ornaments in imitation of marble, and there was
very little sorting, I found, to be done—and there it was nurse
Anna found me at last by telephone, and told me my mother had died
in the morning suddenly and very shortly after my departure.
For a while I did not seem to believe it; this obviously imminent
event stunned me when it came, as though I had never had an
anticipatory moment. For a while I went on working, and then almost
apathetically, in a mood of half-reluctant curiosity, I started
When I got there the last offices were over, and I was shown my
old mother's peaceful white face, very still, but a little cold
and stern to me, a little unfamiliar, lying among white flowers.
I went in alone to her, into that quiet room, and stood for
a long time by her bedside. I sat down then and thought. . . .
Then at last, strangely hushed, and with the deeps of my loneliness
opening beneath me, I came out of that room and down into the world
again, a bright-eyed, active world, very noisy, happy, and busy
with its last preparations for the mighty cremation of past and
I remember that first Beltane festival as the most terribly lonely
night in my life. It stands in my mind in fragments, fragments of
intense feeling with forgotten gaps between.
I recall very distinctly being upon the great staircase of Lowchester
House (though I don't remember getting there from the room in which
my mother lay), and how upon the landing I met Anna ascending as I
came down. She had but just heard of my return, and she was hurrying
upstairs to me. She stopped and so did I, and we stood and clasped
hands, and she scrutinized my face in the way women sometimes do.
So we remained for a second or so. I could say nothing to her at
all, but I could feel the wave of her emotion. I halted, answered
the earnest pressure of her hand, relinquished it, and after
a queer second of hesitation went on down, returning to my own
preoccupations. It did not occur to me at all then to ask myself
what she might be thinking or feeling.
I remember the corridor full of mellow evening light, and how I
went mechanically some paces toward the dining-room. Then at the
sight of the little tables, and a gusty outburst of talking voices
as some one in front of me swung the door open and to, I remembered
that I did not want to eat. . . . After that comes an impression
of myself walking across the open grass in front of the house, and
the purpose I had of getting alone upon the moors, and how somebody
passing me said something about a hat. I had come out without my
A fragment of thought has linked itself with an effect of long
shadows upon turf golden with the light of the sinking sun. The
world was singularly empty, I thought, without either Nettie or my
mother. There wasn't any sense in it any more. Nettie was
already back in my mind then. . . .
Then I am out on the moors. I avoided the crests where the
bonfires were being piled, and sought the lonely places. . . .
I remember very clearly sitting on a gate beyond the park, in a
fold just below the crest, that hid the Beacon Hill bonfire and its
crowd, and I was looking at and admiring the sunset. The golden
earth and sky seemed like a little bubble that floated in the globe
of human futility. . . . Then in the twilight I walked along an
unknown, bat-haunted road between high hedges.
I did not sleep under a roof that night. But I hungered and ate.
I ate near midnight at a little inn over toward Birmingham, and
miles away from my home. Instinctively I had avoided the crests
where the bonfire crowds gathered, but here there were many people,
and I had to share a table with a man who had some useless mortgage
deeds to burn. I talked to him about them—but my soul stood at a
great distance behind my lips. . . .
Soon each hilltop bore a little tulip-shaped flame flower. Little
black figures clustered round and dotted the base of its petals,
and as for the rest of the multitude abroad, the kindly night
swallowed them up. By leaving the roads and clear paths and wandering
in the fields I contrived to keep alone, though the confused noise
of voices and the roaring and crackling of great fires was always
I wandered into a lonely meadow, and presently in a hollow of
deep shadows I lay down to stare at the stars. I lay hidden in the
darkness, and ever and again the sough and uproar of the Beltane
fires that were burning up the sere follies of a vanished age, and
the shouting of the people passing through the fires and praying to
be delivered from the prison of themselves, reached my ears. . . .
And I thought of my mother, and then of my new loneliness and the
hunger of my heart for Nettie.
I thought of many things that night, but chiefly of the overflowing
personal love and tenderness that had come to me in the wake of
the Change, of the greater need, the unsatisfied need in which I
stood, for this one person who could fulfil all my desires. So long
as my mother had lived, she had in a measure held my heart, given
me a food these emotions could live upon, and mitigated that emptiness
of spirit, but now suddenly that one possible comfort had left me.
There had been many at the season of the Change who had thought that
this great enlargement of mankind would abolish personal love; but
indeed it had only made it finer, fuller, more vitally necessary.
They had thought that, seeing men now were all full of the joyful
passion to make and do, and glad and loving and of willing service
to all their fellows, there would be no need of the one intimate
trusting communion that had been the finest thing of the former
life. And indeed, so far as this was a matter of advantage and
the struggle for existence, they were right. But so far as it was
a matter of the spirit and the fine perceptions of life, it was
We had indeed not eliminated personal love, we had but stripped it
of its base wrappings, of its pride, its suspicions, its mercenary
and competitive elements, until at last it stood up in our minds
stark, shining and invincible. Through all the fine, divaricating
ways of the new life, it grew ever more evident, there were for
every one certain persons, mysteriously and indescribably in the
key of one's self, whose mere presence gave pleasure, whose mere
existence was interest, whose idiosyncrasy blended with accident
to make a completing and predominant harmony for their predestined
lovers. They were the essential thing in life. Without them the
fine brave show of the rejuvenated world was a caparisoned steed
without a rider, a bowl without a flower, a theater without a play.
. . . And to me that night of Beltane, it was as clear as white
flames that Nettie, and Nettie alone, roused those harmonies in
me. And she had gone! I had sent her from me; I knew not whither
she had gone. I had in my first virtuous foolishness cut her out
of my life for ever!
So I saw it then, and I lay unseen in the darkness and called upon
Nettie, and wept for her, lay upon my face and wept for her, while
the glad people went to and fro, and the smoke streamed thick
across the distant stars, and the red reflections, the shadows and
the fluctuating glares, danced over the face of the world.
No! the Change had freed us from our baser passions indeed, from
habitual and mechanical concupiscence and mean issues and coarse
imaginings, but from the passions of love it had not freed us. It
had but brought the lord of life, Eros, to his own. All through the
long sorrow of that night I, who had rejected him, confessed
his sway with tears and inappeasable regrets. . . .
I cannot give the remotest guess of when I rose up, nor of
my tortuous wanderings in the valleys between the midnight fires,
nor how I evaded the laughing and rejoicing multitudes who went
streaming home between three and four, to resume their lives, swept
and garnished, stripped and clean. But at dawn, when the ashes of
the world's gladness were ceasing to glow—it was a bleak dawn that
made me shiver in my thin summer clothes—I came across a field
to a little copse full of dim blue hyacinths. A queer sense
of familiarity arrested my steps, and I stood puzzled. Then I was
moved to go a dozen paces from the path, and at once a singularly
misshapen tree hitched itself into a notch in my memory. This was
the place! Here I had stood, there I had placed my old kite, and
shot with my revolver, learning to use it, against the day when I
should encounter Verrall.
Kite and revolver had gone now, and all my hot and narrow past, its
last vestiges had shriveled and vanished in the whirling gusts of
the Beltane fires. So I walked through a world of gray ashes at
last, back to the great house in which the dead, deserted image of
my dear lost mother lay.
I came back to Lowchester House very tired, very wretched; exhausted
by my fruitless longing for Nettie. I had no thought of what lay
A miserable attraction drew me into the great house to look again
on the stillness that had been my mother's face, and as I came into
that room, Anna, who had been sitting by the open window, rose to
meet me. She had the air of one who waits. She, too, was pale with
watching; all night she had watched between the dead within and
the Beltane fires abroad, and longed for my coming. I stood
mute between her and the bedside. . . .
"Willie," she whispered, and eyes and body seemed incarnate pity.
An unseen presence drew us together. My mother's face became resolute,
commanding. I turned to Anna as a child may turn to its nurse. I
put my hands about her strong shoulders, she folded me to her, and
my heart gave way. I buried my face in her breast and clung
to her weakly, and burst into a passion of weeping. . . .
She held me with hungry arms. She whispered to me, "There, there!"
as one whispers comfort to a child. . . . Suddenly she was kissing
me. She kissed me with a hungry intensity of passion, on my cheeks,
on my lips. She kissed me on my lips with lips that were
salt with tears. And I returned her kisses. . . .
Then abruptly we desisted and stood apart—looking at one another.
It seems to me as if the intense memory of Nettie vanished utterly
out of my mind at the touch of Anna's lips. I loved Anna.
We went to the council of our group—commune it was then called—and
she was given me in marriage, and within a year she had borne me
a son. We saw much of one another, and talked ourselves very close
together. My faithful friend she became and has been always, and
for a time we were passionate lovers. Always she has loved me and
kept my soul full of tender gratitude and love for her; always
when we met our hands and eyes clasped in friendly greeting, all
through our lives from that hour we have been each other's secure
help and refuge, each other's ungrudging fastness of help and sweetly
frank and open speech. . . . And after a little while my love and
desire for Nettie returned as though it had never faded away.
No one will have a difficulty now in understanding how that could
be, but in the evil days of the world malaria, that would have been
held to be the most impossible thing. I should have had to crush
that second love out of my thoughts, to have kept it secret from
Anna, to have lied about it to all the world. The old-world theory
was there was only one love—we who float upon a sea of love find
that hard to understand. The whole nature of a man was supposed to
go out to the one girl or woman who possessed him, her whole nature
to go out to him. Nothing was left over—it was a discreditable
thing to have any overplus at all. They formed a secret secluded
system of two, two and such children as she bore him. All other
women he was held bound to find no beauty in, no sweetness, no
interest; and she likewise, in no other man. The old-time men and
women went apart in couples, into defensive little houses, like
beasts into little pits, and in these "homes" they sat down purposing
to love, but really coming very soon to jealous watching of this
extravagant mutual proprietorship. All freshness passed very
speedily out of their love, out of their conversation, all pride
out of their common life. To permit each other freedom was blank
dishonor. That I and Anna should love, and after our love-journey
together, go about our separate lives and dine at the public tables,
until the advent of her motherhood, would have seemed a terrible
strain upon our unmitigable loyalty. And that I should have it
in me to go on loving Nettie—who loved in different manner both
Verrall and me—would have outraged the very quintessence of the
In the old days love was a cruel proprietary thing. But now Anna
could let Nettie live in the world of my mind, as freely as a rose
will suffer the presence of white lilies. If I could hear notes that
were not in her compass, she was glad, because she loved me, that
I should listen to other music than hers. And she, too, could see
the beauty of Nettie. Life is so rich and generous now, giving
friendship, and a thousand tender interests and helps and comforts, that
no one stints another of the full realization of all possibilities
of beauty. For me from the beginning Nettie was the figure of beauty,
the shape and color of the divine principle that lights the world.
For every one there are certain types, certain faces and forms,
gestures, voices and intonations that have that inexplicable
unanalyzable quality. These come through the crowd of kindly friendly
fellow-men and women—one's own. These touch one mysteriously, stir
deeps that must otherwise slumber, pierce and interpret the world.
To refuse this interpretation is to refuse the sun, to darken and
deaden all life. . . . I loved Nettie, I loved all who were like
her, in the measure that they were like her, in voice, or eyes, or
form, or smile. And between my wife and me there was no bitterness
that the great goddess, the life-giver, Aphrodite, Queen of the
living Seas, came to my imagination so. It qualified our mutual
love not at all, since now in our changed world love is unstinted;
it is a golden net about our globe that nets all humanity together.
I thought of Nettie much, and always movingly beautiful things
restored me to her, all fine music, all pure deep color, all
tender and solemn things. The stars were hers, and the mystery of
moonlight; the sun she wore in her hair, powdered finely, beaten
into gleams and threads of sunlight in the wisps and strands of her
hair. . . . Then suddenly one day a letter came to me from her, in
her unaltered clear handwriting, but in a new language of expression,
telling me many things. She had learnt of my mother's death, and
the thought of me had grown so strong as to pierce the silence I
had imposed on her. We wrote to one another—like common friends
with a certain restraint between us at first, and with a great
longing to see her once more arising in my heart. For a time I left
that hunger unexpressed, and then I was moved to tell it to her. And
so on New Year's Day in the Year Four, she came to Lowchester and
me. How I remember that coming, across the gulf of fifty years! I
went out across the park to meet her, so that we should meet alone.
The windless morning was clear and cold, the ground new carpeted
with snow, and all the trees motionless lace and glitter of frosty
crystals. The rising sun had touched the white with a spirit
of gold, and my heart beat and sang within me. I remember now the
snowy shoulder of the down, sunlit against the bright blue sky. And
presently I saw the woman I loved coming through the white
still trees. . . .
I had made a goddess of Nettie, and behold she was a fellow-creature!
She came, warm-wrapped and tremulous, to me, with the tender promise
of tears in her eyes, with her hands outstretched and that dear
smile quivering upon her lips. She stepped out of the dream I had
made of her, a thing of needs and regrets and human kindliness. Her
hands as I took them were a little cold. The goddess shone through
her indeed, glowed in all her body, she was a worshipful temple of
love for me—yes. But I could feel, like a thing new discovered,
the texture and sinews of her living, her dear personal
and mortal hands. . . .
THE WINDOW OF THE TOWER
This was as much as this pleasant-looking, gray-haired man
had written. I had been lost in his story throughout the earlier
portions of it, forgetful of the writer and his gracious room, and
the high tower in which he was sitting. But gradually, as I drew
near the end, the sense of strangeness returned to me. It was more
and more evident to me that this was a different humanity from any
I had known, unreal, having different customs, different beliefs,
different interpretations, different emotions. It was no mere change
in conditions and institutions the comet had wrought. It had made
a change of heart and mind. In a manner it had dehumanized the
world, robbed it of its spites, its little intense jealousies, its
inconsistencies, its humor. At the end, and particularly after
the death of his mother, I felt his story had slipped away from my
sympathies altogether. Those Beltane fires had burnt something in
him that worked living still and unsubdued in me, that rebelled in
particular at that return of Nettie. I became a little inattentive.
I no longer felt with him, nor gathered a sense of complete
understanding from his phrases. His Lord Eros indeed! He and these
transfigured people—they were beautiful and noble people, like the
people one sees in great pictures, like the gods of noble sculpture,
but they had no nearer fellowship than these to men. As the change
was realized, with every stage of realization the gulf widened and
it was harder to follow his words.
I put down the last fascicle of all, and met his friendly eyes. It
was hard to dislike him.
I felt a subtle embarrassment in putting the question that perplexed
me. And yet it seemed so material to me I had to put it. "And did
you—?" I asked. "Were you—lovers?"
His eyebrows rose. "Of course."
"But your wife—?"
It was manifest he did not understand me.
I hesitated still more. I was perplexed by a conviction of baseness.
"But—" I began. "You remained lovers?"
"Yes." I had grave doubts if I understood him. Or he me.
I made a still more courageous attempt. "And had Nettie no other
"A beautiful woman like that! I know not how many loved beauty in
her, nor what she found in others. But we four from that time were
very close, you understand, we were friends, helpers, personal
lovers in a world of lovers."
"There was Verrall."
Then suddenly it came to me that the thoughts that stirred in my mind
were sinister and base, that the queer suspicions, the coarseness
and coarse jealousies of my old world were over and done for these
more finely living souls. "You made," I said, trying to be liberal
minded, "a home together."
"A home!" He looked at me, and, I know not why, I glanced down at
my feet. What a clumsy, ill-made thing a boot is, and how hard and
colorless seemed my clothing! How harshly I stood out amidst these
fine, perfected things. I had a moment of rebellious detestation.
I wanted to get out of all this. After all, it wasn't my style. I
wanted intensely to say something that would bring him down a peg,
make sure, as it were, of my suspicions by launching an offensive
accusation. I looked up and he was standing.
"I forgot," he said. "You are pretending the old world is still
going on. A home!"
He put out his hand, and quite noiselessly the great window widened
down to us, and the splendid nearer prospect of that dreamland city
was before me. There for one clear moment I saw it; its galleries
and open spaces, its trees of golden fruit and crystal waters,
its music and rejoicing, love and beauty without ceasing flowing
through its varied and intricate streets. And the nearer people I
saw now directly and plainly, and no longer in the distorted mirror
that hung overhead. They really did not justify my suspicions, and
yet—! They were such people as one sees on earth—save that they
were changed. How can I express that change? As a woman is changed
in the eyes of her lover, as a woman is changed by the love of a
lover. They were exalted. . . .
I stood up beside him and looked out. I was a little flushed, my
ears a little reddened, by the inconvenience of my curiosities,
and by my uneasy sense of profound moral differences. He
was taller than I. . . .
"This is our home," he said smiling, and with thoughtful eyes on me.