In the Days of the Comet
by H.G. Wells
PROLOGUE. The Man Who Wrote in the Tower
BOOK I: THE COMET
BOOK II: THE GREEN VAPOURS
BOOK III: THE NEW WORLD
Window of the
PROLOGUE. The Man Who Wrote in the
I SAW a grey-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; 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
The man I saw wrote with a thing like a fountain pen, a modern
touch that prohibited any historical reference, and as he finished each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 into
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
coloured, 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 towards him as he looked at me.
I glanced from him about his apartment and back to the little
table. A fascicle marked very distinctly "I" 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 the
pleasant place had written.
BOOK I: THE COMET
CHAPTER 1. 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 a desire to write 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 he 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 relive 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 towards 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 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 odour 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,
grey with the soot of the lamp, and in one place discoloured by a
system of yellow and olive-green stains caused by the percolation of
damp from above. The walls were covered with dun-coloured 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 grey 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 it 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 organise the
ventilation of the room among themselves without any further direction.
Parload's truckle bed hid its grey sheets beneath an old patchwork
counterpane on one side of the room, and veiled his boxes and such-like
oddments, and invading the two corners of the window were an old
whatnot and the wash-handstand, on which were distributed the simple
appliances of his toilet.
This wash-handstand had been made of deal by someone 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 wash-handstand so made had
evidently had a prolonged career of violent use, had been chipped,
kicked, splintered, punched, stained, scorched, hammered, desiccated,
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. No one in fifty of us did in the days of which I am telling
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 the 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 apologised 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 the 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
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 doubts, 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
organised science school in Overcastle, physiography was his favourite
"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 of 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 labour 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 the 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 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 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 school-fellows, 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 -- 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-modelled 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 seems 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 grey 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 had
triumphed over the photographer -- or I would long ago have cast this
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 into 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 man's teaching.
Our correspondence began our estrangement, because for the firs
time we came into more than sensuous contact and our minds sought
Now you must understand that the world of thought of those days was
in the strangest condition, it was choked with obsolete inadequate
formulæ, 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 has 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 or 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 more 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 the vindictive theologians; she was in truth, had I but
perceived it, the effectual answer to all she would have taught me.
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 in Clayton.
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, or
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 everyone is being educated to a
sort of intellectual gentleness, a gentleness that abates nothing from
our vigour, and it is hard to understand the stifled and struggling
manner to 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 towards theology,
sociology, and the cosmos in turgid and startling expressions. No doubt
they puzzled her extremely.
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 anyone 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
I will not weary you with the story of how we quarrelled in our
silly youthful way, and how I went the next Sunday, all uninvited, to
Checkshill, and made it worse, and how afterwards 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 arouse her dreams to passion. . . . So our
letters continued to jar. Then suddenly she wrote me one doubting
whether she could ever care for anyone who was a Socialist and did not
believe in Church, and then hard upon it came another note with
unexpected novelties and 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 comets!
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 those precise small phrases towards 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 learned, 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 competitive pot-bank?
The first part of that programme 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? . . .
"Bother!" 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 any more. 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 in one."
"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 generalising, 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, anyhow.
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 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
towards 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, and well-nigh 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 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 no doubt
-- 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
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 coloured 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, marvellous
soaps and astonishing pickles, typewriting machines and sewing
machines, mingled in a sort of visualised clamour. 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 grey oppression through the day became
at sundown a mystery of deep translucent colours, of blues and purples,
of sombre and vivid reds, of strange bright clearness 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 breathing fire. . . .
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 labourers 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 second-hand 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 criticise 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 Labour Party, and with young men like
Parload and myself to represent them -- and come to his own, and then
Then the robbers would get it hot, and everything would be
Unless my memory plays me strange tricks, that does no injustice to
the creed of through 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 qualifications 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 a week.
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 see us as little black figures, unprepossessing in 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 little while you will find yourself in a
state of intellectual muddle, annoyed, impatient, snatching at the
obvious, presently 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
Now the whole world before the Change was as sick and feverish as
that; it was worried and over-worked 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 as well, 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 quality?
Always, I say, I did the talking, and at 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 fibres 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 organised science school. Parload is a
famous man now, a great figure in a great time; his work upon
intersecting radiations has broadened the intellectual horizons 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
patronised and posed and jabbered over him in the darkness of those
That night I was shrill and eloquent beyond measure. Rawdon was, of
course, the hub upon which I went round -- Rawdon and 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
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 say 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 a
"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
"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 organisation.
"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 dependence over the wooden
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
travelled 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 endeavour of his employment.
. . .
"Hireling Liar," I muttered, for was not he also part of the
system, part of the scheme of robbery that made wage 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 travelled 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."
"But, dearie -- "
"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, but 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
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
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 behaviour 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
My pushing past my mother, my irresponsible 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 honour
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 vigour 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
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 to put a question, then saw the second fascicle at
hand, and picked it up.)
CHAPTER 2. Nettie
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 at
Between those two there was time enough for me to give notice and
leave Rawdon's, to seek for some other situations 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 for ever, 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,
everyone was talking about it, everyone was looking for its waxing
splendour as the sun went down -- the papers, the music-halls, the
hoardings, echoed it.
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
"Here," said I, "we're on the verge of the biggest lockout 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 the damned silly streak of nothing in the
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 demonstratin 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 in matter what flames in the heavens -- when men are starving
"It's -- it's science."
"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 mightn't 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
"No. I don't agree with you, Leadford," he said. "You don't
understand about science."
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
worshipping 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 last 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 upon 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 all 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 boots.
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 everyone. 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 organisation 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
disorganisation. 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 work-people 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
work-people 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 cause, 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 a covey of unsubstantiated
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,
unorganised, 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 unsaleable
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 lock-outs, the over-production and
misery could not possibly result simply from ignorance and want of
thought and feeling. We needed more dramatic factors that 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 labour 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 for ever -- "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, realising
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 favourable 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 should 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 meet again.
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 desires for them, perfect trust, perfect loyalty, live-long
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 trickle queerly
amongst the familiar purely egotistical and materialistic things of
boyhood and girlhood. We were like misguided travellers 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 someone 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 grey 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 to 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 colour 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). Everyone would be so surprised to see me. Fancy walking! Fancy!
But she supposed a man thought nothing of seventeen miles. When could I
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 intonations than her
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 neck 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 my arm.
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
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 parlour, 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 marvelling key that I had walked all the way
from Clayton, and they gathered about me and echoed her notes of
"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 moustache 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
"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
the 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 that 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 gab, young man. We ought to have 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 manœuvre 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 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--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 for
She halted a little with that sentence, seeking 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
"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
intrenched, firing her contradictions like guns into my scattered
discussive 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 and inaccessible.
You know, we had never been together before without little
enterprises of endearment, without a faintly guilty, quite delightful
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, might convey--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 towards 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 day. I could feel that I touched her,
that her hardness was in some manner melting, her determination
softening towards 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 towards the hothouse 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 realised 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 nationalisation of railways, and my spirits
and temper had so far mended at the realisation 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 f 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 by wish to lease 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
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 to
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 popularised
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 are
"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 shan't oblige. See?"
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
"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 in 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
the evening dress outside the shrubbery. Of course! He had come to meet
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, that 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 realisation 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
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 boing 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 3. The Revolver
"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 older man.
"They do say that it is made of gas, that comet. We shan'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
insured. All my thwarted passions had turned to rage. I would have
accepted eternal torment that night without a seconde thought, to be
certain of revenge. A hundred possibilities of action, a hundred story
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 keen,
unmeasuring hatred of wounded pride, and baffled, passionate desire.
As Ii came down the hill from Clayton Crest--for my shilling and a
penny only permitted my travelling 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 anyone 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 chang--"and after death, the Judgment! The
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 vigour 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 honour 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 calibre 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 shop 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, a 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 armed man.
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 women looked haggard and worried. The iron-workers
had refused the proposed reduction of their wages, and the lockout had
begun. They were3 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 all 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 wicket
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 occasiona at
least an intoxicated Irish woman shook her fist at him. . . .
A dark, quiet crowd, that was greater each day, 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 considered myself justified in regarding Lord Redcar's passing
automobile with a special animosity because of the leaks in our roof.
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 saviour 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
set in motion. Instead of the clearly written code, the lucid
statements of rules and principles that are now at the service of
everyone, the law was the muddled 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 anyone 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 to it.
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 me.
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
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 grey 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
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 afterwards had to pick it up laboriously on
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 rumours 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 scrutinised anyone 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 pre-occupation by that darkly shaping purpose to
which a revolver was so imperative an essential.
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
The accounts that have been written of this affair vary very
widely. To read them is to realise the extraordinary carelessness of
the truth that dishonoured 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, shrivelled, 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 forwarded 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, half-way 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
endeavours. 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 pencilled bull's-eye, and in that state of quiet moodiness
that sometimes comes with hunger to passionate men, I returned by 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 rôle 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 coal-pit.
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
semi-official 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 labour
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
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 rumour 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 the
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 the 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 gas-lamp as they vanished round the bend. To the left spread
a darkling marsh of homes, an infinitude of little smoking hovels,
meagre churches, public-houses, Board schools, and other buildings out
of which the prevailing chimneys of Swathinglea rose detachedly. To the
right, very clear and relatively high, the Bantock Burden pit-mouth was
marked by a gaunt lattice bearing a great black wheel, 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, noiseless and inevitable rush
upon our earth, until it had equalled 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 colour, 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 he
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 anyone 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
honour, 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 everyone 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 breath, an 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 os, and there
was a report like a pistol-shot.
For a moment everyone seemed running away. A woman, carrying a
shawl-wrapped child, blundered into me, and sent me reeling back.
Everyone thought of fire arms, 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 centred upon
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 gain; one--it was Mitchell, a
well-known labour 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
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 joint he little knot
holding up the car.
Lord Redcar, in his beg 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 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 prompt 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 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 anything? 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 under the benediction of that
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
past 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
I had some difficulty in shoving through the crowd; I can still
remember 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
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 queerness
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 counselled 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
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,
dishonoured, 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 honour. 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 my rivals.
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
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
agonised near to the very border-line of madness, each one the centre
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 got up.
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 foot 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 to buy some vegetables in the middle of the morning
she got me a halfpenny 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 that former time, war
was certainly the most strikingly insane. In reality it was probably
far less mischievous than such quieter evils 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 marvelled 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 neighbours, and if successful you took
their land and their women and perpetuated and enlarged your
superiority. The new war changed nothing but the colour 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 Britain.
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
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 counter-balance 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 face, 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," and "Nations," the Trusts, and all the other great monstrous
shapes of that extraordinary time--was in thenature 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
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, dishevelled 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 towards a
crescendo of haste and excitement as the night wears on. At last the
only things that seem to travel deliberately in all those tearing
vibrating premises are the hands of the clock.
Slowly things draw on towards 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 papers 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 slackened. The paper exists. Distribution
follows manufacture, and we follow the bundles.
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 particles 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 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-moustached 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 colours. 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 apologising.
"HAS WAR COME AT LAST?"
That was the headline. One's heart leaped 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, and
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 train of some
obliterated dream, that after all Nettie might relent towards me, that
her heart was kind towards 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 w 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 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's 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 short
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 glasshouses 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 conspicuously trim.
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. Someone moved about upstairs
presently, and was still again. The tension of waiting seemed to brace
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 dishevelled, 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 darted away out of the
"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 someone upstairs.
"Willie!" cried the voice of Mrs. Stuart. "Is that you?"
"Yes," I answered. "Where's everyone? 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 like 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 grey hairs.
As I came upon the landing her voice rose again. "O 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 her 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
"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
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 favourite. 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 our
"But"--I moistened my lips and spoke slowly--"she may have gone to
"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 a
"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 hims 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 fhe 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
"MY DEAR MOTHER,
"Do not be distressed at my going away. I have gone somewhere safe,
and with someone 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
"What's to happen to him?"
He shook his head to show that the 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 would I do? Even if I knew-- How could I
leave the gardens?"
"Great God!" I cried, "not leave these gardens! It's your Honour,
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 that."
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--
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
"Why!" I cried--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 it
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 shirt
"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 extraordinary 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
colour. The predominant colours 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 pruple 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 things that
no one wrote about because everyone understood and everyone 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 lustre of noblesse oblige. The rest of the world
was in law and practice common--and all America was common. But though
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 "connections," of
interests, their desire to confirm and improve their positions, was a
constant ignoble preoccupation. You must read Thackeray to get the full
flavour 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 he 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 towards 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 this 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
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 leaped 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 towards
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 apologising 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, 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 towards 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
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 wre 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 countryside, than she was of
examining the Thirty-One 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 leaped 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 4. War
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 to live.
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 humour than that!
"Why not learn from me a certain decency of mercy? Why not undo?
Have I ever tormented--day by day, some retched 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
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 extraordinary 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 stumbled 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 tranquillised, 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 everyone 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
news-agent 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
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 tired
"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
My eyes went quietly to my coat pocket, where something still
bulged. She probably had not noticed. "I went to Checkshill," I said.
"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 head.
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
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 ruin 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 fires.
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 also.
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, unsavoury, 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 indescribably 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 colours to a common dusty dark grey, in worn,
ill-fitting boots, with hands distorted by ill use, and untidy greying
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 was to queer hesitation 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 my 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
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 and intercepted me.
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 discoloured 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 anyone 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 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. It slong skirts accentuated the
tubbiness of his body, the shortness of his legs. The white tie below
his all-around 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 tip 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 with 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 towards
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, 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
"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 Clayton's dentist's operating room--I know not
"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-colour 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 protect
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 towards 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 colour 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 everyone 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
someone 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 yo9ung 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 remember 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," claimed Miss Ramell. Who
could be otherwise in a social organisation that bordered upon
I turned away from them, put my foot on the fender, stuck my elbow
on the plush-fringed mantel-board, and studied the photographs, pipes,
and ashtrays 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 his
"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 towards 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. His
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 towards the window and turned, "I suppose you will admit--" he
began, with a faintly irritation 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 shrivelled cheap publications--the publications of the Rationalist
Press Association, for example--on which my arguments were based. Lying
in that curious limbo with them, mised 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 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 near incredulity.
Faith we can understand today, all men live by faith; but in the
old time everyone 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 sticks and stones, or eked out
their needs with pilgrimages and images, they still held fiercely to
audible images, to printed words and formulæ.
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
generalisations, because of the insuffieciency of our historical
knowledge. I was moved to denounce Christianity as the ethic of slaves,
an 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 Nietzche, 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 awkwkardly 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," he said, still trying
to carry it off.
"Who by?" I rapped out hotly. "Tell me that!" and became
A happy accident relieved Mr. Gabbitas from the embarrassment of
that challenge, and carried me another step along my course of personal
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 greys. It seemed an incredibly
magnificent carriage for Clayton.
"Eh!" said the Rev. ggg, going to the window. "Why, it's old Mrs.
It's old Mrs. Verrall. Really! What can she want with me?"
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 he 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 was I to get to the
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. ggg, 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 realisation 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
"We could make a provisional list of that sort," he was say8ing,
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, exhilirated, 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 a 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
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 fee 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 if 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 valley.
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 viewpoint when it was veiled and softened by night;
now it came out in all its week-day 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 pot-banks,
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
pot-bank clay, the clatter of the railway deafened the worshippers 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
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 realisation 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 countryside 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 ululation
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
focussed 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 had 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 no; 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 towards 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 5. The Pursuit of the Two
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 towards 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 disc 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 towards 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 extraordinarily deep
blue, the profoundest colour 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 turned out 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
I came out, after I had paid my bill, into a street that echoed to
the bawlings of two news-vendors 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 civilisation, 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 emotion. 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 outward to
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 marvelled for
a space. And at the first grey 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
"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 to 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. Everyone 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 learned 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
colour 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
seafront, 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 untravelled 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
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 everyone 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 a 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 coloured with a view to be
memorable rather than beautiful, to "stand out" amidst the gentle
greyish 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 realised 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
guide-book--"one of the most delightful resorts in the East Anglia
poppy-land." Then more mean houses, the giant 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
centre 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 confusingly 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 number 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 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 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 stumps 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
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,
travelling 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 towards 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 a 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 that
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 an 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 honour 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 could imagine.
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
you 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 a day.
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 couples.
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
splendour 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-modelled 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 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 glare.
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, the silver ring shone in the sky
"Rum," he said.
"What is?" I asked.
"Searchlights! 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
"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 traveller 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
undulation, 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 colourless 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 grey. After a time black pine-woods 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 to 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 these 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,
travelling very swiftly and keeping an equal distance. And when I
looked again they were very small, and then the shine had swallowed
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 my
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 ripples.
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
discolouring curtain over these mysteries, the finite world again, the
grey 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 patterning of flashing wavelets about them. He
smote the water and splashed it towards 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 towards 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 sand.
I heard him shout between exhaustion and laughter. . . .
And suddenly I was a thing of bestial fury, standing 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
quite unsuspected pursuit of them, through the soft and noiseless sand.
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 a light.
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 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 verandahs and
supplementary lean-tos 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 towards
that queer village of careless sensuality, and now within my puny body
I was coldly sharp-set 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
recognise me clearly at a distance of many paces.
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
leaped 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, leaped 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 at 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 clangour 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
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."
Someone 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, leaped out of the headland whence the rocket had come, and
spread with slow deliberation right and left. Hard on that an enormous
crash, and the man with the full voice leaped and cried, "Hit!"
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 form within. What he said I did not catch, but suddenly
I heard Nettie calling very distinctly, "We've been bathing."
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 towards
the darkness that neld Nettie and the black desire of my heart.
"Look!" cried someone, 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 towards 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. Someone 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
"Boom!" came the ironclad's gunshot like a command. "Bang!" the
bullet leaped 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 missed.
She moved a step or so towards me, still staring, and then someone
intervened, and near beside her I saw young Verrall.
A heavy stranger, the man in the hooded bathgown, 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."
Someone 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
on 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
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 and 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 II: THE GREEN VAPOURS
CHAPTER 1. The Change
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 light.
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
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 mind
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 someone 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, Düreresque,
minute and in their rich dark colours 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 emotions again.
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
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,
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
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
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 buses, 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 vapours 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
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 eyes 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 whir of startled
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 marvelling 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 would 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 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 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'' robes, worshipful and fine. . . .
It might be th3e 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
vapours of extinction The comet had struck the earth and made an end to
all things; of that too I was assured.
But afterwards? . . .
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 had got his deserts.
My mind ran for a time on Swindells, on the imbecile pushfulness of
that extinct creature, dealing in rubbish, covering the countryside
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 naïve, 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 slayer 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
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 everyone, 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 not changed 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 was 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 me.
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-modelled 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?"
"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 a few moments except for a grunt of pain
"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. I tried to run. . . . Then I must have
pitched forward 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 scrutinised 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
war-like 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 everyone 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 leaned 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 night?"
His eyebrows puckered. He had drawn up his right knee, his elbow
rested thereon and his chin on his fist. The deep-set grey 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. Gulp!"
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. 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 clamour of pealing bells, but that I am half
convinced was 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 humour 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 soliloquisingly
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
to 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 worse 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--everyone was driven!"
His sense of indiscretion was gone.
He opened the war out to me--as everyone 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
obsession 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 marvellously
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 these 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 towards 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 vapours
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 that
"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
He added in explanation, "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 as
you and I do," 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 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 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 anæsthesia 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 this!"
(I remember that near this dead man's hand a stranded star-fish
writhed its slowly feeling limbs, struggling back towards 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? . . . Drowning
like people in a stifling room, too dull and sleepy and too base
towards each other for anyone 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 comprehensive gesture. "We
have done so weakly--Heaven alone knows why!" I can see him now, queer
giant that he looked on that dawn-lit beach of splendour, 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
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 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. . . . Afterwards 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 nearby us.
"It will be interesting to know what has happened to the world. . .
. The green vapour--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 rise, "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 palace. The colour 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 I
will say unto Him----"
His voice died away in an inaudible whisper. His hand tightened
painfully on my shoulder and he rose. . . .
CHAPTER 2. The Awakening
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 gave them; my work has carried me away from such things;
only this I know--I and all men were renewed.
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 everyone who breathed,
there had been the same humming in the air, the same rush of green
vapours, 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 forward athwart his
mid-day bowl of rice, the Japanese merchant came out for some
chaffering in his office amazed and presently lay there before his
door, the evengazers of 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 marvelled, 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 on 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 inference 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 amid
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
Longnyon 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 was 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 are 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, explosively 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 splendours 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 defiled the sky. Fires burned 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 is pocket-worn and browned, made of a paper no man even intended for
preservation. I found it on the arbour 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, scrutinising 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 on 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 towards 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 neighbouring office--perhaps in financial
dependence upon him--to print in.
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 headlines
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 discoloured 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 carbonised 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 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 vapour
seemed no more than unseasonable drifting wisps of London fog. (In
those days London even in the summer was not safe against dark fogs.)
And then at the last the Change poured in and overtook them.
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 vapour had overwhelmed everyone. 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 nebul, 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 would have seemed, had any man been able to
resist the vapour, and could he have walked amidst it.
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 light
burned dim, and came and went with the ebb of energy from the
power-station. Who can tell precisely the sequence of these things now?
And then, you know, amidst the weakening and terminating noises of
men, the green vapour cleared and vanished, in an hour indeed it had
gone, and it may be a breeze stirred and blew and went about the earth.
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 dishevelled, but with a strange refreshment in
their veins, stood about the damaged machinery, marvelling 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 beings.
"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
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 leaned 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 despatched 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 vapours 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 withaout a thought of pride, and as it were
incidentally, and yet he gave me a vision of something heroic.
These people did not run hither and thither as many others did. The
four of them 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
"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
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 incident. 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 learned 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 through Swathinglea all day, and so she got out of bed to
look. She had a dim sense that I must certainly be mixed up in that
But she was not looking when the Change came.
"When I saw the stars a-raining down, dear," she said, "and though
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 vapours 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 an blinds of the flawed refracting
window I see the stars above the chimneys fade, the pale light of dawn
creeps intot he 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 everyone. Near me, and for the
time clean 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 invisible
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 whir 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 an 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 escape, 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 road-side, 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 civilised
men. Get someone else for this job! . . . Where's the coffee?"
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 he 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 name.
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 organised 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 revivalist meetings.
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
enclosure of life. A sudden disgust with the insensate smallness of the
old-world way of living, a realisation 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 afterwards 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
incoordinated 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 any choice of expedients, opposed to balance,
skill, and knowledge. Incontinently full of grace, like thin old
wine-skins over-filled, 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 the issues
of life. . . .
One irrelevant memory comes back to me, irrelevant, and yet by some
subtle trick of quality it summarises 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 3. 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 labours 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 grey 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 arrived 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 naïve route it was evident that he
had arrived at the same scheme of intention as my master. I left them
to talk, but afterwards 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 humour 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 t
heir 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
dishonourable aspects that in the end came near to destroying entirely
all grave and honourable 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 pick-pockets, 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 behind the clowning, the
curtains 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
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 mediæval 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 movement for
everyone 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 a 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 Cæsars, 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 forgive--even ourselves."
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 rôle
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 rôle. "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 racecourses 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
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 behaviour;
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, home governess to perparatory
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
own eyes. I heard it with my own 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 had come to them
it had never even occurred to them that it was necessary to have a
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 commmittee, 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 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 at the
very moment of the awakening those barriers and defences had vanished,
as if the green vapours 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 clamoured 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 everyone 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 delegation of local control to
territorial magnates did it obtain, but the "new countries," as we
called them then--the United States of America, 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
harbourage, 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 realised for the
first time there could be buying and selling that was no loss to any
man; they spoke of industrial organisation, 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 honour 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 marvelling
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 unanalysable 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, organisers 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
"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 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 sombre 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-greyed 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
organised viciousness; and the myriads of workers, noisily shod,
streaming over the bridges in the grey cold light of dawn? Where is New
York, the high city of clangour 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 bloodstained 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 vapours, I live again in 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 hears, 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 theatres 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 façade 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 anæmic 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, or 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 fulness 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 III: THE NEW WORLD
CHAPTER 1. 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 an 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 discoloured 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,
I went towards 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 hand enlarged men's
hearts had made no end to love. Indeed, it had enormously enlarged and
glorified love. She stepped into the centre 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 friendliness.
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.
"Afterwards 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 glimpsed them last amidst the thickening vapours,
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 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 realising for
the first time how little the Change had altered in my essential
nature. I had forgotten this bitterness 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 Vapours
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 out
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 naïve timidity, the most difficulty questions
the Change had raised for men to answer. 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 service of lunches and
teas. It had a broad mossy bowling-green, and round about it were
creeper-covered arbours amidst beds of snap-dragons, 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 the sky.
While I waited for Nettie and Verrall in this agreeably
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 of it."
Her kind blue eyes met mine in a 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
charge 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 omelette," she said, "you and your friends; such an
omelette--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 grey. "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
towards 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, desiccated
last relic of a vanished age, is like the little piece of
identification of 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 arbour, and I smell again the smell of
the sweet-brier that filled the air about us, and hear in our long
pauses the abundant murmuring of bees among the heliotrope of the
It is the dawn of the new time, but we still bear 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
"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 towards 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 leaned 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
"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 honour 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
Nettie's hands fell upon the table. "I can't tell what it was," she
said, speaking barehearted 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 than that!"
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 though of that before!"
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, the
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."
4Verrall 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 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 leaned 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 was treachery."
"I don't know."
"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 through."
"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 thrown it away."
"But you love Verrall."
"Love is such a queer thing! . . . Is there 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
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 I
"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 mould 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 believe in the mould 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 voice3. "Willie! I
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 a raft."
"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 leaned 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 she stirred.
Verrall leaned 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 various 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 stgruggle 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 I am 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
proposal 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 studies 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 shal 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 arbour 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 trains service was
disarranged, and I could not go farther. 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 iwords and phrases. We walked up to a place called Bournville
by moonlight, and talked othe new social groupings that must replace
the old isolated homes, and how the people would be housed.
This Bournville 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 economise 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 worshipping with me.
CHAPTER 2. 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 towards me and clasped my
"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 improved college of
engineering. Until schemes of work were made out, almost everyone was
going to school again to get as much technical training as possible
against the demands of the huge enterprise of reconstruction that was
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
"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, naïvely forgetful that in his 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, marvellously
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
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 of
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
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--qwith 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 anyone 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 tone 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 organised to give the maximum of comfort and convenience
and to economise 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 châlets and
afterwards 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
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 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 those 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 sadi 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 b things for all of us, o' course. But for me it
couldn't be Heaven, dear, unless it was a garden. . . . And feeling
such as we're fond of, are close and handy by."
You of your happier generation cannot realise 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 bathe and change in the
train, and so the leisurely gossiping lunch in the club dining-room in
Lowchester House, and the refreshment of these green and sunlit
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 realise 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
"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 alter."
"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
"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 shrivelled 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 of 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, then 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 move dint he shadows behind the bed on which my old
mother lay and sank restfully to death. She would come forward to
anticipate some 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
"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 said.
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
"No, dear mother," I said. "We shall do better now."
"The club doctor could not come. Your father went twice. There was
someone else, someone 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 someone 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 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, ghosts of long-dead moments. . . .
Her words grew less distinct.
Soon she was asleep and I got up and went out of the room, but my
mind was queerly obsessed by the thought of that small 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 into
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 clear. . .
CHAPTER 3. Beltane and New Year's
IN THE end my mother died rather suddenly, and her death came as a
shock ot 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
unintelligibly 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 Mayday 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 first, and it was a fine symbol of
the new and wiser tolerance that had come to me, that those who still
found their comfort in the orthodox faiths came hither unpersuaded, to
pray that all hate might be burned 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 were 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 save 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, 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 burned 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
burned 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 hangins 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--tgheir 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
"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 burned as we reshaped
our plan of habitation, our theatre sheds, our banks, and inconvenient
business warrens, our factories, 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 nations 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 formulæ of dull tolerances and stupid
impatiences, the mean defensive ingenuitites 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 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 pot-banks 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 for
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 superseded
I remember that first Beltane festival as the most terribly lonely
night of 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 descending
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 scrutinised 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
I remember the corridor full of mellow evening light, and how I
went mechanically some paces towards the dining-room. Then at the sight
of the little tables, and a gusty outburst of talking voices as someone
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 hat.
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 was 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 bubble that floated in the glob 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 an inn over towards 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
Soon each hilltop bore a tulip-shaped flame flower. Little black
figures clustered around 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 cracking of great fires was always near me.
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 in 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 altogether wrong.
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 everyone 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 theatre
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
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 shrivelled and vanished in the whirling gusts of the
Beltane fires. So I walked through a world of grey ashes at last, back
to the great house in which the dead, deserted image of my dear lost
I came back to Lowchester House very tired, very wretched;
exhausted by my fruitless longing for Nettie, I had no thought of what
lay before me.
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 and 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 dishonour. 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 old
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 realisation of all possibilities of beauty. For me
from the beginning Nettie was the figure of beauty, the shape and
colour of the divine principle that lights the world. For everyone
there are certain types, certain faces and forms, gestures, voices and
intonations that have that inexplicable unanalysable quality. There
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
I thought of Nettie much, and always movingly beautiful things
restored me to her; all fine music, all pure deep colour, 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 learned 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 ordinary 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
might 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. . . .
EPILOGUE. The Window of the Tower
THIS WAS as much as this pleasant-looking grey-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 dehumanised the world, robbed it of its
spites, its intense jealousies, its inconsistencies, its humour. 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
burned something in him that worked living still and unsubdued in me,
that rebelled in particular at that return of Nettie. I became
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 competitive
men. As the Change was realised, with every stage of realisation the
gulf widened and it was harder to follow his word.
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
colourless seemed my clothing! How harshly I stood out amidst these
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