Prominent if not paramount among world-changing inventions in the history of man is that series of contrivances in locomotion that began with the railway and ended for a century or more with the motor and the patent road. That these contrivances, together with the device of limited liability joint stock companies and the supersession of agricultural labourers by skilled men with ingenious machinery, would necessarily concentrate mankind in cities of unparalleled magnitude and work an entire revolution in human life, became after the event, a thing so obvious that it is a matter of astonishment it was not more clearly anticipated. Yet that any steps should be taken to anticipate the miseries such a revolution might entail does not appear even to have been suggested; and the idea that moral prohibitions and sanctions, the privileges and concessions, the conception of property and responsibility, of comfort and beauty, that had rendered the mainly agricultural states of the past prosperous and happy, would fail in the rising torrent of novel opportunities and novel stimulations, never seems to have entered the nineteenth-century mind. That a citizen, kindly and fair in his ordinary life, could as a shareholder become almost murderously greedy; that commercial methods that were reasonable and honourable on the old-fashioned countryside, should on an enlarged scale be deadly and overwhelming; that ancient charity was modern pauperisation, and ancient employment modern sweating; that in fact, a revision and enlargement of the duties and rights of man had become urgently necessary, were things it could not entertain, nourished as it was on an archaic system of education and profoundly retrospective and legal in all its habits of thought. It was known that the accumulation of men in cities involved unprecedented dangers of pestilence; there was an energetic development of sanitation; but that the diseases of gambling and usury, of luxury and tyranny should become endemic, and produce horrible consequences was beyond the scope of nineteenth-century thought. And so, as if it were some inorganic process, practically unhindered by the creative will of man, the growth of the swarming unhappy cities that mark the twenty-first century accomplished itself.
The new society was divided into three main classes. At the summit slumbered the property owner, enormously rich by accident rather than design, potent save for the will and aim, the last avatar of Hamlet in the world. Below was the enormous multitude of workers employed by the gigantic companies that monopolised control; and between these two the dwindling middle class, officials of innumerable sorts, foreman, managers, the medical, legal, artistic, and scholastic classes, and the minor rich, a middle class whose members led a life of insecure luxury and precarious speculation amidst the movements of the great managers.
Already the love story and the marrying of two persons of middle class have been told: how they overcame the obstacles between them, and how they tried the simple old-fashioned way of living on the countryside and came back speedily enough into the city of London. Denton had no means, so Elizabeth borrowed money on the securities that her father Mwres held in trust for her until she was one-and-twenty.
The rate of interest she paid was of course high, because of the uncertainty of her security, and the arithmetic of lovers is often sketchy and optimistic. Yet they had very glorious times after that return. They determined they would not go to a Pleasure city nor waste their days rushing through the air from one part of the world to the other, for in spite of one disillusionment, their tastes were still old-fashioned. They furnished their little room with quaint old Victorian furniture, and found a shop on the forty-second floor in Seventh Way where printed books of the old sort were still to be bought. It was their pet affectation to read print instead of hearing phonographs. And when presently there came a sweet little girl, to unite them further if it were possible, Elizabeth would not send it to a Creche, as the custom was, but insisted on nursing it at home. The rent of their apartments was raised on account of this singular proceeding, but that they did not mind. It only meant borrowing a little more.
Presently Elizabeth was of age, and Denton had a business interview with her father that was not agreeable. An exceedingly disagreeable interview with their money-lender followed, from which he brought home a white face. On his return Elizabeth had to tell of a new and marvellous intonation of “Goo” that their daughter had devised, but Denton was inattentive. In the midst, just as she was at the cream of her description, he interrupted. “How much money do you think we have left, now that everything is settled?”
She stared and stopped her appreciative swaying of the Goo genius that had accompanied her description.
“You don’t mean . . .?
“Yes,” he answered. “Ever so much. We have been wild. It’s the interest. Or something. And the shares you had, slumped. Your father did not mind. Said it was not his business, after what had happened. He’s going to marry again . . . Well — we have scarcely a thousand left!”
“Only a thousand?”
“Only a thousand.”
And Elizabeth sat down. For a moment she regarded him with a white face, then her eyes went about the quaint, old-fashioned room, with its middle Victorian furniture and genuine oleographs, and rested at last on the little lump of humanity within her arms.
Denton glanced at her and stood downcast. Then he swung round on his heel and walked up and down very rapidly.
“I must get something to do,” he broke out presently. “I am an idle scoundrel. I ought to have thought of this before. I have been a selfish fool. I wanted to be with you all day . . . ”
He stopped, looking at her white face. Suddenly he came and kissed her and the little face that nestled against her breast.
“It’s all right, dear,” he said, standing over her; “you won’t be lonely now — now Dings is beginning to talk to you. And I can soon get something to do, you know. Soon . . . Easily . . . It’s only a shock at first. But it will come all right. It’s only to come right. I will go out again as soon as I have rested, and find what can be done. For the present it’s hard to think of anything . . . ”
“It would be hard to leave these rooms,” said Elizabeth; “but —”
“There won’t be any need of that — trust me.”
“They are expensive.”
Denton waved that aside. He began talking of the work he could do. He was not very explicit what it would be; but he was quite sure that there was something to keep them comfortably in the happy middle class, whose way of life was the only one they knew.
“There are three-and-thirty million people in London,” he said; “some of them must have need of me.”
“The trouble is . . . Well — Bindon, that brown little old man your father wanted you to marry. He’s an important person . . . I can’t go back to my flying-stage work, because he is now a Commissioner of the Flying Stage Clerks.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Elizabeth.
“He was made that in the last few weeks . . . or things would be easy enough, for they liked me on the flying stage. But there’s dozens of other things to be done — dozens. Don’t you worry dear. I’ll rest a little while, and then we’ll dine, and then I’ll start on my rounds. I know lots of people — lots.”
So they rested, and then they went to the public dining-room and dined, and then he started on his search for employment. But they soon realised that in the matter of one convenience the world was just as badly off as it had ever been, and that was a nice, secure, honourable, remunerative employment, leaving ample leisure for the private life, and demanding no special ability, no violent exertion nor risk, and no sacrifice of any sort for its attainment. He evolved a number of brilliant projects, and spent many days hurrying from one part of the enormous city to another in search of influential friends; and all his influential friends were glad to see him, and very sanguine until it came to definite proposals, and then they became guarded and vague. He would part with them coldly, and think over their behaviour, and get irritated on his way back, and stop at some telephone office and spend money on an animated but unprofitable quarrel. And as the days passed, he got so worried and irritated, that even to seem kind and careless before Elizabeth cost him an effort — as she, being a loving woman, perceived very clearly.
After an extremely complex preface one day, she helped him out with a painful suggestion. He had expected her to weep and give way to despair when it came to selling all their joyfully bought early Victorian treasures, their quaint objects of art, their antimacassars, bead mats, repp curtains, veneered furniture, gold-framed steel engravings and pencil drawings, wax flowers under shades, stuffed birds, and all sorts of choice old things; but it was she who made the proposal. The sacrifice seemed to fill her with pleasure, and so did the idea of shifting to apartments ten or twelve floors lower in another hotel. “So long as Dings is with us, nothing matters,” she said. “It’s all experience.” So he kissed her, said she was braver than when she fought the sheep-dogs, called her Boadicea, and abstained very carefully from reminding her that they would have to pay a considerably higher rent on account of the little voice with which Dings greeted the perpetual uproar of the city.
His idea had been to get Elizabeth out of the way when it came to selling the absurd furniture about which their affections were twined and tangled; but when it came to the sale it was Elizabeth who haggled with the dealer while Denton went about the running ways of the city, white and sick with sorrow and fear of what was still to come. When they moved into their sparsely furnished pink-and-white apartments in a cheap hotel, there came an outbreak of furious energy on his part, and then nearly a week of lethargy during which he sulked at home. Through those days Elizabeth shone like a star, and at the end Denton’s misery found a vent in tears. And then he went out into the city ways again, and — to his utter amazement — found some work to do.
His standard of employment had fallen steadily until at last it had reached the lowest level of independent workers. At first he had aspired to some high official position in great Flying or Windvane or Water Companies, or to an appointment on one of the General Intelligence Organisations that had replaced newspapers, or to some professional partnership, but those were the dreams of the beginning. From that he had passed to speculation, and three hundred gold “lions” out of Elizabeth’s thousand had vanished one evening in the share market. Now he was glad his good looks secured him a trial in the position of salesman to the Suzannah Hat Syndicate, a Syndicate dealing in ladies’ caps, hair decorations, and hats — for though the city was completely covered in, ladies still wore extremely elaborate and beautiful hats at the theatres and places of public worship.
It would have been amusing if one could have confronted a Regent Street shopkeeper of the nineteenth century with the development of his establishment in which Denton’s duties lay. Nineteenth Way was still sometimes called Regent Street, but it was now a street of moving platforms and nearly eight hundred feet wide. The middle space was immovable and gave access by staircases descending into subterranean ways to the houses on either side. Right and left were an ascending series of continuous platforms each of which travelled about five miles an hour faster than the one internal to it, so that one could step from platform to platform until one reached the swiftest outer way and so go about the city. The establishment of the Suzannah Hat Syndicate projected a vast facade upon the outer way, sending out overhead at either end an overlapping series of huge white glass screens, on which gigantic animated pictures of the faces of well-known beautiful living women wearing novelties in hats were thrown. A dense crowd was always collected in the stationary central way watching a vast kinematograph which displayed the changing fashion. The whole front of the building was in perpetual chromatic change, and all down the facade — four hundred feet it measured — and all across the street of moving ways, laced and winked and glittered in a thousand varieties of colour and lettering the inscription —
Suzanna! ‘Ets! Suzanna! ‘Ets!
A Broadside of gigantic phonographs drowned all conversation in the moving way and roared “hats” at the passer-by, while far down the street and up, other batteries counselled the public to “walk down for Suzannah,” and queried, “Why don’t you buy the girl a hat?”
For the benefit of those who chanced to be deaf — and deafness was not uncommon in London of that age, inscriptions of all sizes were thrown from the roof above upon the moving platforms themselves, and on one’s hand or on the bald head of the man before one, or on a lady’s shoulders, or in a sudden jet of flame before one’s feet, the moving fingers wrote in unanticipated letters of fire “‘ets r chip t’de,” or simply “ets.” And spite of all these efforts so high was the pitch at which the city lived, so trained became one’s eyes and ears to ignore all sorts of advertisement, that many a citizen had passed that place thousands of times and was still unaware of the existence of the Suzannah Hat Syndicate.
To enter the building one descended the staircase in the middle way and walked through a public passage in which pretty girls promenaded, girls who were willing to wear a ticked hat for a small fee. The entrance chamber was a large hall, in wax heads fashionably adorned rotated gracefully upon pedestals, and from this one passed through a cash office to an interminable series of little rooms, each room with its salesman, its three or four hats and pins, its mirrors, its kinematographs, telephones and hat slides in communication with the central depot, its comfortable lounge and tempting refreshments. A salesman in such an apartment did Denton now become. It was his business to attend to any of the incessant stream of ladies who chose to stop with him, to behave as winningly as possible, to offer refreshment, to converse on any topic the possible customer chose, and to guide the conversation dexterously but not insistently towards hats. He was to suggest trying on various types of hat and to show by his manner and bearing, but without any coarse flattery, the enhanced impression made by the hats he wished to sell. He had several mirrors, adapted by various subtleties of curvature and tint to different types of face and complexion, and much depended on the proper use of these.
Denton flung himself at these curious and not very congenial duties with a good will and energy that would have amazed him a year before; but all to no purpose. The Senior Manageress, who had selected him for appointment and conferred various small marks of favour upon him, suddenly changed in her manner, declared for no assignable cause that he was stupid, and dismissed him at the end of six weeks of salesmanship. So Denton had to resume his ineffectual search for employment.
This second search did not last very long. Their money was at the ebb. To eke it out a little longer they resolved to part with their darling Dings, and took that small person to one of the public creches that abounded in the city. That was the common use of the time. The industrial emancipation of women, the correlated disorganisation of the secluded “home,” had rendered creches a necessity for all but very rich and exceptionally-minded people. Therein children encountered hygienic and educational advantages impossible without such organisation. Creches were of all classes and types of luxury, down to those of Labour Company, were children were taken on credit, to be redeemed in labour as they grew up.
But both Denton and Elizabeth being, as I have explained, strange old-fashioned young people, full of nineteenth-century ideas, hated these convenient creches exceedingly and at last took their little daughter to one with extreme reluctance. They were received by a motherly person in a uniform who was very brisk and prompt in her manner until Elizabeth wept at the mention of parting from her child. The motherly person, after a brief astonishment at this unusual emotion, changed suddenly into a creature of hope and comfort, and so won Elizabeth’s gratitude for life. They were conducted into a vast room presided over by several nurses and with hundreds of two-year-old girls grouped about the toy-covered floor. This was the Two-year-old Room. Two nurses came forward, and Elizabeth watched their bearing towards Dings with jealous eyes. They were kind — it was clear they felt kind, and yet . . .
Presently it was time to go. By that time Dings was happily established in a corner, sitting on the floor with her arms filled, and herself, indeed, for the most part hidden by an unaccustomed wealth of toys. She seemed careless of all human relationships as her parents receded.
They were forbidden to upset her by saying good-bye.
At the door Elizabeth glanced back for the last time, and behold! Dings had dropped her new wealth and was standing with a dubious face. Suddenly Elizabeth gasped, and the motherly nurse pushed her forward and closed the door.
“You can come again soon, dear,” she said, with unexpected tenderness in her eyes. For a moment Elizabeth stared at her with a blank face. “You can come again soon,” repeated the nurse. Then with a swift transition Elizabeth was weeping in the nurse’s arms. So it was that Denton’s heart was won also.
And three weeks after our young people were absolutely penniless, and only one way lay open. They must go to the Labour Company. So soon as the rent was a week overdue their few remaining possessions were seized, and with scant courtesy they were shown the way out of the hotel. Elizabeth walked along the passage towards the staircase that ascended to the motionless middle way, too dulled by misery to think. Denton stopped behind to finish a stinging and unsatisfactory argument with the hotel porter, and then came hurrying after her, flushed and hot. He slackened his pace as he overtook her, and together they ascended to the middle way in silence. There they found two seats vacant and sat down.
“We need not go there — yet?” said Elizabeth.
“No — not till we are hungry,” said Denton.
They said no more.
Elizabeth’s eyes sought a resting-place and found none. To the right roared the eastward ways, to the left the ways in the opposite direction, swarming with people. Backwards and forwards along a cable overhead rushed a string of gesticulating men, dressed like clowns, each marked on back and crest with one gigantic letter, so that altogether they spelt out:
“Purkinje’s Digestive Pills.”
An anaemic little woman in horrible coarse blue canvas pointed a little girl to one of this string of hurrying advertisements.
“Look!” said the anaemic women: “There’s yer father.”
“Which?” said the little girl.
“‘Im wiv his nose coloured red,” said the anaemic woman.
The little girl began to cry, and even Elizabeth could have cried too.
“Ain’t ‘e kickin’ ‘is legs —! Just!” said the anaemic woman in the blue, trying to make things bright again. “Looky — now!”
On the facade to the right a huge intensely bright disc of weird colour span incessantly, and letters of fire that came and went spelt out —
“Does This Make You Giddy?”
Then a pause, followed by —
“Take A Purkinje’s Digestive Pill.”
A vast and desolating braying began. “If you love Swagger Literature, put your telephone on to Bruggles, the Greatest Author of All Time. The Greatest Thinker of all time. Teaches you Morals up to your Scalp! The very image of Socrates, except the back of his head, which is like Shakespeare. He has six toes, dresses in red, and never cleans his teeth. Hear Him!”
Denton’s voice became audible in a gap in the uproar. “I never ought to have married you,” he was saying. “I have wasted your money, ruined you, brought you to misery. I am a scoundrel . . . Oh, this accursed world!”
She tried to speak, and for some moments could not. She grasped his hand. “No,” she said at last. A half-formed desire suddenly became determination. She stood up. “Will you come?”
He rose also. “We need not go there yet.”
“Not that. But I want you to come to the flying stages — where we met. You know? The little seat.”
He hesitated. “Can you?” he said, doubtfully.
“Must,” she answered.
He hesitated still for a moment, then moved to obey her will.
And so it was they spent their last half-day of freedom out under the open air in the little seat under the flying stages where they had been wont to meet five short years ago. There she told him, what she could not tell him in the tumultuous public ways, that she did not repent even now of their marriage — that whatever discomfort and misery life still had for them, she was content with things that had been. The weather was kind to them, the seat was sunlit and warm, and overhead the shining aeroplanes went and came.
At last towards sunsetting their time was at an end, and they made their vows to one another and clasped hands, and then rose up and went back into the ways of the city, a shabby-looking, heavy-hearted pair, tired and hungry. Soon they came to one of the pale blue signs that marked a Labour Company Bureau. For a space they stood in the middle way regarding this and at last descended, and entered the waiting-room.
The Labour Company had originally been a charitable organisation; its aim was to supply food, shelter, and work to all comers. This it was bound to do by the conditions of its incorporation, and it was also bound to supply food and shelter and medical attendance to all incapable of work who chose to demand its aid. In exchange these incapables paid labour notes, which they had to redeem upon recovery. They signed these labour notes with thumb-marks, which were photographed and indexed in such a way that this world-wide Labour Company could identify any one of its two or three hundred million clients at the cost of an hour’s inquiry. The day’s labour was defined as two spells in a treadmill used in generating electrical force, or its equivalent, and its due performance could be enforced by law. In practice the Labour Company found it advisable to add to its statutory obligations of food and shelter a few pence a day as an inducement to effort; and its enterprise had not only abolished pauperisation altogether, but supplied practically all but the very highest and most responsible labour throughout the world. Nearly a third of the population of the world were its serfs and debtors from the cradle to the grave.
In this practical, unsentimental way the problem of the unemployed had been most satisfactorily met and overcome. No one starved in the public ways, and no rags, no costume less sanitary and sufficient than the Labour Company’s hygienic but inelegant blue canvas, pained the eye throughout the whole world. It was the constant theme of the phonographic newspapers how much the world had progressed since nineteenth-century days, when the bodies of those killed by the vehicular traffic or dead of starvation were, they alleged, a common feature in all the busier streets.
Denton and Elizabeth sat apart in the waiting-room until their turn came. Most of the others collected there seemed limp and taciturn, but three or four young people gaudily dressed made up for the quietude of their companions. They were life clients of the Company, born in the Company’s creche and destined to die in its hospital, and they had been out for a spree with some shillings or so, of extra pay. They talked vociferously in a later development of the Cockney dialect, manifestly very proud of themselves.
Elizabeth’s eyes went from these to the less assertive figures. One seemed exceptionally pitiful to her. It was a women of perhaps forty-five, with gold-stained hair and a painted face, down which abundant tears had trickled; she had a pinched nose, hungry eyes, lean hands and shoulders, and her dusty worn-out finery told the story of her life. Another was a grey-bearded old man in the costume of a bishop of one of the high episcopal sects — for religion was now also a business, and had its ups and downs. And besides him a sickly, dissipated-looking boy of perhaps two-and-twenty glared at Fate.
Presently Elizabeth and then Denton interviewed the manageress — for the Company preferred women in this capacity — and found she possessed an energetic face, a contemptuous manner, and a particularly unpleasant voice. They were given various cheques, including one to certify that they need not have their heads cropped; and when they had given their thumb-marks, learnt the number corresponding thereunto, and exchanged their shabby middle-class clothes for duly numbered canvas suits, they repaired to the huge plain dining-room for their first meal under these new conditions. Afterwards they were to return to her for instructions about their work.
When they had made the exchange of their clothing Elizabeth did not seem able to look at Denton at first; but he looked at her, and saw with astonishment that even in blue canvas she was still beautiful. And then their soup and bread came sliding on its little rail down the long table towards them and stopped with a jerk, and he forgot the matter. For they had had no proper meal for three days.
After they had dined they rested for a time. Neither talked — there was nothing to say; and presently they got up and went back to the manageress to learn what they had to do.
The manageress referred to a tablet. “Y’r rooms won’t be here; it’ll be in the Highbury Ward, ninety-seventh way, number two thousand and seventeen. Better make a note of it on y’r card. You, nought nought nought, type seven, sixty-four, b.c.d., gamma forty-one, female; you ‘ave to go to the Metal-beating Company, and try that for a day — fourpence bonus if ye’re satisfactory; and you, nought seven one, type four, seven hundred and nine, g.f.b., pi five and ninety, male; you ‘ave to go to the Photographic Company on Eighty-first way, and learn something or other — I don’t know — thrippence. ‘Ere’s y’r cards. That’s all. Next! What? Didn’t catch it all? Lor! So, suppose I must go over it all again. Why don’t you listen? Keerless, unprovident people! One’d think these things didn’t matter.”
Their ways to their work lay together for a time. And now they found they could talk. Curiously enough, the worst of their depression seemed over now that they had actually donned the blue. Denton could talk with interest even of the work that lay before them. “Whatever it is,” he said, “it can’t be so hateful as that hat shop. And after we have paid for Dings, we shall still have a whole penny a day between us even now. Afterwards — we may improve — get more money.”
Elizabeth was less inclined to speech. “I wonder why work should seem so hateful,” she said.
“It’s odd,” said Denton. “I suppose it wouldn’t be if it were not the thought of being ordered about . . . I hope we shall have decent managers.”
Elizabeth did not answer. She was not thinking of that. She was tracing out some thoughts of her own.
“Of course,” she said presently, “we have been using up work all our lives. It’s only fair —”
She stopped. It was too intricate.
“We paid for it,” said Denton, for at that time he had not troubled himself about these complicated things. “We did nothing — and yet we paid for it. That’s what I cannot understand.”
“Perhaps we are paying,” said Elizabeth presently — for her theology was old-fashioned and simple.
Presently it was time for them to part, and each went to the appointed work. Denton’s was to mind a complicated hydraulic press that seemed almost an intelligent thing. This press worked by the sea-water that was destined finally to flush the city drains — for the world had long since abandoned the folly of pouring drinkable water into its sewers. This water was brought close to the eastward edge of the city by a huge canal, and then raised by an enormous battery of pumps into reservoirs at a level of four hundred feet above the sea, from which it spread by a billion arterial branches over the city. Thence it poured down, cleansing, sluicing, working machinery of all sorts, through an infinite variety of capillary channels into the great drains, the cloacae maximae, and so carried the sewage out to the agricultural areas that surrounded London on every side.
The press was employed in one of the processes of the photographic manufacture, but the nature of the process it did not concern Denton to understand. The most salient fact to his mind was that it had to be conducted in ruby light, and as a consequence the room in which he worked was lit by one coloured globe that poured a lurid and painful illumination about the room. In the darkest corner stood the press whose servant Denton had now become; it was a huge, dim, glittering thing with a projecting hood that had a remote resemblance to a bowed head, and squatting like some metal Buddha in this weird light that ministered to its needs, it seemed to Denton in certain moods almost as if this must needs be the obscure idol to which humanity in some strange aberration had offered up his life. His duties had a varied monotony. Such items as the following will convey an idea of the service of the press. The thing worked with a busy clicking so long as things went well; but if the paste that came pouring through a feeder from another room and which it was perpetually compressing into thin plates, changed in quality the rhythm of its click altered and Denton hastened to make certain adjustments. The slightest delay involved a waste of paste and the docking of one or more of his daily pence. If the supply of paste waned — there were hand processes of a peculiar sort involved in its preparation, and sometimes the workers had convulsions which deranged their output — Denton had to throw the press out of gear. In the painful vigilance a multitude of such trivial attentions entailed, painful because of the incessant effort its absence of natural interest required, Denton had now to pass one-third of his days. Save for an occasional visit from the manager, a kindly but singularly foul-mouthed man, Denton passed his working hours in solitude.
Elizabeth’s work was of a more social sort. There was a fashion for covering the apartments of the very wealthy with metal plates beautifully embossed with repeated patterns. The taste of the time demanded, however, that the repetition of the patterns should not be exact — not mechanical, but “natural —” and it was found that the most pleasing arrangement of pattern irregularity was obtained by employing women of refinement and natural taste to punch out the patterns with small dites. So many square feet of plates was exacted from Elizabeth as a minimum, and for whatever square feet she did in excess she received a small payment. The room, like most rooms of women workers, was under a manageress: men had been found by the Labour Company not only less exacting but extremely liable to excuse favoured ladies from a proper share of their duties. The manageress was a not unkindly, taciturn person, with the hardened remains of beauty of the brunette type; and the other women workers, who of course hated her, associated her name scandalously with one of the metal-work directors in order to explain her position.
Only two or three of Elizabeth’s fellow-workers were born labour serfs; plain, morose girls, but most of them corresponded to what the nineteenth century would have called a “reduced” gentlewoman. But the ideal of what constituted a gentlewoman had altered: the faint, faded, negative virtue, the modulated voice and restrained gesture of the old-fashioned gentlewoman had vanished from the earth. Most of her companions showed in discoloured hair, ruined complexions, and the texture of their reminiscent conversations, the vanished glories of a conquering youth. All of these artistic workers were much older than Elizabeth, and two openly expressed their surprise that anyone so young and pleasant should come to share their toil. But Elizabeth did not trouble them with her old-world moral conceptions.
They were permitted, and even encouraged to converse with each other, for the directors very properly judged that anything that conduced to variations of mood made for pleasing fluctuations in their patterning; and Elizabeth was almost forced to hear the stories of these lives with which her own interwove: garbled and distorted they were by vanity indeed and yet comprehensible enough. And soon she began to appreciate the small spites and cliques, the little misunderstandings and alliances that enmeshed about her. One woman was excessively garrulous and descriptive about a wonderful son of hers; another had cultivated a foolish coarseness of speech, that she seemed to regard as the wittiest expression of originality conceivable; a third mused for ever on dress, and whispered to Elizabeth how she saved her pence day after day, and would presently have a glorious day of freedom, wearing . . . and then followed hours of description; two others sat always together, and called one another pet names, until one day some little thing happened, and they sat apart, blind and deaf as it seemed to one another’s being. And always from them all came an incessant tap, tap, tap, tap, and the manageress listened always to the rhythm to mark if one fell away. Tap, tap, tap, tap: so their days passed, so their lives must pass. Elizabeth sat among them, kindly and quiet, gray-hearted, marvelling at Fate: tap, tap, tap; tap, tap, tap; tap, tap, tap.
So there came to Denton and Elizabeth a long succession of laborious days, that hardened their hands, wove strange threads of some new and sterner substance into the soft prettiness of their lives, and drew grave lines and shadows on their faces. The bright, convenient ways of the former life had receded to an inaccessible distance; slowly they learnt the lesson of the under-world — sombre and laborious, vast and pregnant. There were many little things that happened: things that would be tedious and miserable to tell, things that were bitter and grievous to bear — indignities, tyrannies, such as must ever season the bread of the poor in cities; and one thing that was not little, but seemed like the utter blackening of life to them, which was that the child they had given life to, sickened and died. But that story, that ancient perpetually recurring story, has been told so often, has been told so beautifully, that there is no need to tell it over again here. There was the same sharp fear, the same anxiety, the deferred inevitable blow, and the black silence. It has always been the same; it will always be the same. It is one of the things that must be.
And it was Elizabeth who was first to speak, after an aching, dull interspace of days: not indeed, of the foolish little name that was a name no longer, but of the darkness that brooded over her soul. They had come through the shrieking, tumultuous ways of the city together; the clamour of trade, of yelling competitive religions, of political appeal, had beat upon deaf ears; the glare of focused lights, of dancing letters, and fiery advertisements, had fallen upon the set, miserable faces unheeded. They took their dinner in the dining-hall at a place apart. “I want,” said Elizabeth clumsily, “to go out to the flying stages — to that seat. Here, one can say nothing . . . ”
Denton looked at her. “It will be night,” he said.
“I have asked — it is a fine night.” She stopped.
He perceived she could find no words to explain herself. Suddenly he understood that she wished to see the stars once more, the stars they had watched together from the open downland in that wild honeymoon of theirs five years ago. Something caught at his throat. He looked away from her.
“There will be plenty of time to go,” he said, in a matter-of-fact tone.
And at last they came out to their little seat on the flying stage, and sat there for a long time in silence. The little seat was in shadow, but the zenith was pale blue with the effulgence of the stage overhead, and all the city spread below them, squares and circles and patches of brilliance caught in a mesh-work of light. The little stars seemed very faint and small: near as they had been to the old-world watcher, they had become now infinitely remote. Yet one could see them in the darkened patches amidst the glare, and especially in the northward sky, the ancient constellations gliding steadfast and patient about the pole.
Long our two people sat in silence, and at last Elizabeth sighed.
“If I understood,” she said, “if I could understand. When one is down there the city seems everything — the noise, the hurry, the voices — you must live, you must scramble. Here — it is nothing; a thing that passes. One can think in peace.”
“Yes,” said Denton. “How flimsy it all is! From here more than half of it is swallowed by the night . . . It will pass.”
“We shall pass first,” said Elizabeth.
“I know,” said Denton. “If life were not a moment, the whole of history would seem like the happening of a day . . . Yes — we shall pass. And the city will pass, and all the things that are to come. Man and the Overman and wonders unspeakable. And yet . . . ”
He paused, and then began afresh. “I know what you feel. At least I fancy . . . Down there one thinks of one’s work, one’s little vexations and pleasures, one’s eating and drinking and ease and pain. One lives, and one must die. Down there and every day — our sorrow seemed the end of life . . . Up here it is different. For instance, down there it would seem impossible almost to go on living if one were horribly disfigured, horribly crippled, disgraced. Up here — under these stars — none of those things would matter. They don’t matter . . . They are part of something. One seems just to touch that something — under the stars . . . ”
He stopped. The vague, impalpable things in his mind, cloudy emotions half shaped towards ideas, vanished before the rough grasp of words. “It is hard to express,” he said lamely.
They sat through a long stillness.
“It is well to come here,” he said at last. “We stop — our minds are very finite. After all we are just poor animals rising out of the brute, each with a mind, the poor beginning of a mind. We are so stupid. So much hurts. And yet . . . I know, I know — and some day we shall see. All this frightful stress, all this discord will resolve to harmony, and we shall know it. Nothing is, but it makes for that. Nothing. All the failures — every little thing makes for that harmony. Everything is necessary to it, we shall find. We shall find. Nothing, not even the most dreadful thing, could be left out. Not even the most trivial. Every tap of your hammer on the brass, every moment of work, my idleness even . . . Dear one! Every movement of our poor little one . . . All these things go on for ever. And the faint impalpable things. We, sitting here together — Everything . . . ”
“The passion that joined us, and what has come since. It is not passion now. More than anything else it is sorrow. Dear . . . ”
He could say no more, could follow his thoughts no further.
Elizabeth made no answer — she was very still; but presently her hand sought his and found it.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02