In the Days of the Comet
H. G. Wells
Part 4 out of 5
By all the standards of the former time it would have been remarkable
that I talked quite easily and freely with so great a man. "Yes,"
I said; "that's it. One feels one has awakened --from something
more than that green gas. As though the other things also--weren't
He knitted his brows and felt the calf of his leg thoughtfully. "I
made a speech at Colchester," he said.
I thought he was going to add something more about that, but there
lingered a habit of reticence in the man that held him for the
moment. "It is a very curious thing," he broke away; "that this
pain should be, on the whole, more interesting than disagreeable."
"You are in pain?"
"My ankle is! It's either broken or badly sprained--I think sprained;
it's very painful to move, but personally I'm not in pain. That
sort of general sickness that comes with local injury--not a trace
of it! ..." He mused and remarked, "I was speaking at Colchester,
and saying things about the war. I begin to see it better. The
reporters--scribble, scribble. Max Sutaine, 1885. Hubbub. Compliments
about the oysters. Mm--mm. . . . What was it? About the war? A war
that must needs be long and bloody, taking toll from castle and
cottage, taking toll! . . . Rhetorical gusto! Was I drunk last
His eyebrows puckered. He had drawn up his right knee, his elbow
rested thereon and his chin on his fist. The deep-set gray eyes
beneath his thatch of eyebrow stared at unknown things. "My God!"
he murmured, "My God!" with a note of disgust. He made a big brooding
figure in the sunlight, he had an effect of more than physical
largeness; he made me feel that it became me to wait upon his thinking.
I had never met a man of this sort before; I did not know
such men existed. . . .
It is a curious thing, that I cannot now recall any ideas whatever
that I had before the Change about the personalities of statesmen,
but I doubt if ever in those days I thought of them at all as
tangible individual human beings, conceivably of some intellectual
complexity. I believe that my impression was a straightforward blend
of caricature and newspaper leader. I certainly had no respect for
them. And now without servility or any insincerity whatever, as if
it were a first-fruit of the Change, I found myself in the presence
of a human being towards whom I perceived myself inferior and
subordinate, before whom I stood without servility or any insincerity
whatever, in an attitude of respect and attention. My inflamed, my
rancid egotism--or was it after all only the chances of life?--had
never once permitted that before the Change.
He emerged from his thoughts, still with a faint perplexity in
his manner. "That speech I made last night," he said, "was damned
mischievous nonsense, you know. Nothing can alter that. Nothing. .
. . No! . . . Little fat gnomes in evening dress--gobbling oysters.
It was a most natural part of the wonder of that morning that he
should adopt this incredible note of frankness, and that it should
abate nothing from my respect for him.
"Yes," he said, "you are right. It's all indisputable fact, and I
can't believe it was anything but a dream."
That memory stands out against the dark past of the world with
extraordinary clearness and brightness. The air, I remember, was full
of the calling and piping and singing of birds. I have a curious
persuasion too that there was a distant happy clamor of pealing
bells, but that I am half convinced is a mistake. Nevertheless, there
was something in the fresh bite of things, in the dewy newness of
sensation that set bells rejoicing in one's brain. And that big,
fair, pensive man sitting on the ground had beauty even in his
clumsy pose, as though indeed some Great Master of strength and
humor had made him.
And--it is so hard now to convey these things --he spoke to me,
a stranger, without reservations, carelessly, as men now speak to
men. Before those days, not only did we think badly, but what we
thought, a thousand short-sighted considerations, dignity, objective
discipline, discretion, a hundred kindred aspects of shabbiness of
soul, made us muffle before we told it to our fellow-men.
"It's all returning now," he said, and told me half soliloquizingly
what was in his mind.
I wish I could give every word he said to me; he struck out image
after image to my nascent intelligence, with swift broken fragments
of speech. If I had a precise full memory of that morning I should
give it you, verbatim, minutely. But here, save for the little
sharp things that stand out, I find only blurred general impressions.
Throughout I have to make up again his half-forgotten sentences
and speeches, and be content with giving you the general effect.
But I can see and hear him now as he said, "The dream got worst at
the end. The war--a perfectly horrible business! Horrible! And it
was just like a nightmare, you couldn't do anything to escape from
it--every one was driven!"
His sense of indiscretion was gone.
He opened the war out to me--as every one sees it now. Only that
morning it was astonishing. He sat there on the ground, absurdly
forgetful of his bare and swollen foot, treating me as the humblest
accessory and as altogether an equal, talking out to himself the
great obsessions of his mind. "We could have prevented it! Any of
us who chose to speak out could have prevented it. A little decent
frankness. What was there to prevent us being frank with one another?
Their emperor--his position was a pile of ridiculous assumptions,
no doubt, but at bottom--he was a sane man." He touched off the
emperor in a few pithy words, the German press, the German people,
and our own. He put it as we should put it all now, but with a
certain heat as of a man half guilty and wholly resentful. "Their
damned little buttoned-up professors!" he cried, incidentally.
"Were there ever such men? And ours! Some of us might have taken
a firmer line. . . . If a lot of us had taken a firmer line and
squashed that nonsense early. . . ."
He lapsed into inaudible whisperings, into silence. . . .
I stood regarding him, understanding him, learning marvelously
from him. It is a fact that for the best part of the morning of
the Change I forgot Nettie and Verrall as completely as though they
were no more than characters in some novel that I had put aside to
finish at my leisure, in order that I might talk to this man.
"Eh, well," he said, waking startingly from his thoughts. "Here we
are awakened! The thing can't go on now; all this must end. How it
ever began------! My dear boy, how did all those things ever begin?
I feel like a new Adam. . . . Do you think this has happened--generally?
Or shall we find all these gnomes and things? . . . Who cares?"
He made as if to rise, and remembered his ankle. He suggested I should
help him as far as his bungalow. There seemed nothing strange to
either of us that he should requisition my services or that I should
cheerfully obey. I helped him bandage his ankle, and we set out,
I his crutch, the two of us making up a sort of limping quadruped,
along the winding lane toward the cliffs and the sea.
His bungalow beyond the golf links was, perhaps, a mile and a
quarter from the lane. We went down to the beach margin and along
the pallid wave-smoothed sands, and we got along by making a swaying,
hopping, tripod dance forward until I began to give under him, and
then, as soon as we could, sitting down. His ankle was, in fact,
broken, and he could not put it to the ground without exquisite
pain. So that it took us nearly two hours to get to the house,
and it would have taken longer if his butler-valet had not come
out to assist me. They had found motor-car and chauffeur smashed
and still at the bend of the road near the house, and had been on
that side looking for Melmount, or they would have seen us before.
For most of that time we were sitting now on turf, now on a chalk
boulder, now on a timber groin, and talking one to the other, with
the frankness proper to the intercourse of men of good intent,
without reservations or aggressions, in the common, open fashion
of contemporary intercourse to-day, but which then, nevertheless,
was the rarest and strangest thing in the world. He for the most
part talked, but at some shape of a question I told him--as plainly
as I could tell of passions that had for a time become incomprehensible
to me--of my murderous pursuit of Nettie and her lover, and how the
green vapors overcame me. He watched me with grave eyes and nodded
understandingly, and afterwards he asked me brief penetrating
questions about my education, my upbringing, my work. There was a
deliberation in his manner, brief full pauses, that had in them no
element of delay.
"Yes," he said, "yes--of course. What a fool I have been!" and said
no more until we had made another of our tripod struggles along
the beach. At first I did not see the connection of my story with
"Suppose," he said, panting on the groin, "there had been such a
thing as a statesman! . . ."
He turned to me. "If one had decided all this muddle shall end! If
one had taken it, as an artist takes his clay, as a man who builds
takes site and stone, and made------" He flung out his big broad hand
at the glories of sky and sea, and drew a deep breath, "something
to fit that setting."
He added in explanation, "Then there wouldn't have been such stories
as yours at all, you know. . . ."
"Tell me more about it," he said, "tell me all about yourself. I
feel all these things have passed away, all these things are to be
changed for ever. . . . You won't be what you have been from this
time forth. All the things you have done--don't matter now. To
us, at any rate, they don't matter at all. We have met, who were
separated in that darkness behind us. Tell me.
"Yes," he said; and I told my story straight and as frankly as I
have told it to you. "And there, where those little skerries of weed
rock run out to the ebb, beyond the headland, is Bungalow village.
What did you do with your pistol?"
"I left it lying there--among the barley."
He glanced at me from under his light eyelashes. "If others feel
like you and I," he said, "there'll be a lot of pistols left among
the barley to-day. . . ."
So we talked, I and that great, strong man, with the love of
brothers so plain between us it needed not a word. Our souls went
out to one another in stark good faith; never before had I had
anything but a guarded watchfulness for any fellow-man. Still I
see him, upon that wild desolate beach of the ebb tide, I see him
leaning against the shelly buttress of a groin, looking down at the
poor drowned sailor whose body we presently found. For we found a
newly drowned man who had just chanced to miss this great dawn in
which we rejoiced. We found him lying in a pool of water, among
brown weeds in the dark shadow of the timberings. You must not
overrate the horrors of the former days; in those days it was scarcely
more common to see death in England than it would be to-day. This
dead man was a sailor from the Rother Adler, the great German
battleship that--had we but known it--lay not four miles away along
the coast amidst ploughed-up mountains of chalk ooze, a torn and
battered mass of machinery, wholly submerged at high water, and
holding in its interstices nine hundred drowned brave men, all
strong and skilful, all once capable of doing fine things. . . .
I remember that poor boy very vividly. He had been drowned during
the anaesthesia of the green gas, his fair young face was quiet
and calm, but the skin of his chest had been crinkled by scalding
water and his right arm was bent queerly back. Even to this needless
death and all its tale of cruelty, beauty and dignity had come.
Everything flowed together to significance as we stood there, I,
the ill-clad, cheaply equipped proletarian, and Melmount in his
great fur-trimmed coat--he was hot with walking but he had not
thought to remove it--leaning upon the clumsy groins and pitying
this poor victim of the war he had helped to make. "Poor lad!" he
said, "poor lad! A child we blunderers sent to death! Do look at
the quiet beauty of that face, that body--to be flung aside like
(I remember that near this dead man's hand a stranded star-fish
writhed its slowly feeling limbs, struggling back toward the sea.
It left grooved traces in the sand.)
"There must be no more of this," panted Melmount, leaning on my
shoulder, "no more of this. . . ."
But most I recall Melmount as he talked a little later, sitting upon
a great chalk boulder with the sunlight on his big, perspiration-dewed
face. He made his resolves. "We must end war," he said, in that
full whisper of his; "it is stupidity. With so many people able
to read and think--even as it is--there is no need of anything of
the sort. Gods! What have we rulers been at? . . . Drowsing like
people in a stifling room, too dull and sleepy and too base toward
each other for any one to get up and open the window. What haven't
we been at?"
A great powerful figure he sits there still in my memory, perplexed
and astonished at himself and all things. "We must change all this,"
he repeated, and threw out his broad hands in a powerful gesture
against the sea and sky. "We have done so weakly--Heaven alone
knows why!" I can see him now, queer giant that he looked on that
dawnlit beach of splendor, the sea birds flying about us and that
crumpled death hard by, no bad symbol in his clumsiness and needless
heat of the unawakened powers of the former time. I remember it
as an integral part of that picture that far away across the sandy
stretches one of those white estate boards I have described, stuck
up a little askew amidst the yellow-green turf upon the crest of
the low cliffs.
He talked with a sort of wonder of the former things. "Has it ever
dawned upon you to imagine the pettiness--the pettiness!--of every
soul concerned in a declaration of war?" he asked. He went on,
as though speech was necessary to make it credible, to describe
Laycock, who first gave the horror words at the cabinet council,
"an undersized Oxford prig with a tenoring voice and a garbage of
Greek--the sort of little fool who is brought up on the
admiration of his elder sisters. . . .
"All the time almost," he said, "I was watching him--thinking what
an ass he was to be trusted with men's lives. ... I might have
done better to have thought that of myself. I was doing nothing
to prevent it all! The damned little imbecile was up to his neck
in the drama of the thing, he liked to trumpet it out, he goggled
round at us. 'Then it is war!' he said. Richover shrugged his
shoulders. I made some slight protest and gave in. . . . Afterward
I dreamt of him.
"What a lot we were! All a little scared at ourselves--all,
as it were, instrumental. . . .
"And it's fools like that lead to things like this!" He jerked his
head at that dead man near by us.
"It will be interesting to know what has happened to the world. .
. . This green vapor--queer stuff. But I know what has happened to
me. It's Conversion. I've always known. . . . But this is being
a fool. Talk! I'm going to stop it."
He motioned to rise with his clumsy outstretched hands.
"Stop what?" said I, stepping forward instinctively to help him.
"War," he said in his great whisper, putting his big hand on my
shoulder but making no further attempt to arise, "I'm going to put
an end to war--to any sort of war! And all these things that must
end. The world is beautiful, life is great and splendid, we had
only to lift up our eyes and see. Think of the glories through which
we have been driving, like a herd of swine in a garden place. The
color in life--the sounds--the shapes! We have had our jealousies,
our quarrels, our ticklish rights, our invincible prejudices, our
vulgar enterprise and sluggish timidities, we have chattered and
pecked one another and fouled the world--like daws in the temple,
like unclean birds in the holy place of God. All my life has been
foolishness and pettiness, gross pleasures and mean discretions--all.
I am a meagre dark thing in this morning's glow, a penitence, a
shame! And, but for God's mercy, I might have died this night--like
that poor lad there--amidst the squalor of my sins! No more of
this! No more of this!--whether the whole world has changed or no,
matters nothing. WE TWO HAVE SEEN THIS DAWN! . . ."
"I will arise and go unto my Father," he began presently, "and will
say unto Him------"
His voice died away in an inaudible whisper. His hand
tightened painfully on my shoulder and he rose. . . .
CHAPTER THE SECOND
So the great Day came to me.
And even as I had awakened so in that same dawn the whole world
For the whole world of living things had been overtaken by the
same tide of insensibility; in an hour, at the touch of this new
gas in the comet, the shiver of catalytic change had passed about
the globe. They say it was the nitrogen of the air, the old AZOTE,
that in the twinkling of an eye was changed out of itself, and in an
hour or so became a respirable gas, differing indeed from oxygen,
but helping and sustaining its action, a bath of strength and
healing for nerve and brain. I do not know the precise changes
that occurred, nor the names our chemists give them, my work has
carried me away from such things, only this I know--I and all men
I picture to myself this thing happening in space, a planetary
moment, the faint smudge, the slender whirl of meteor, drawing
nearer to this planet,--this planet like a ball, like a shaded
rounded ball, floating in the void, with its little, nearly impalpable
coat of cloud and air, with its dark pools of ocean, its gleaming
ridges of land. And as that midge from the void touches it, the
transparent gaseous outer shell clouds in an instant green
and then slowly clears again. . . .
Thereafter, for three hours or more,--we know the minimum time for
the Change was almost exactly three hours because all the clocks
and watches kept going--everywhere, no man nor beast nor bird nor
any living thing that breathes the air stirred at all but lay still. . . .
Everywhere on earth that day, in the ears of every one who breathed,
there had been the same humming in the air, the same rush of green
vapors, the crepitation, the streaming down of shooting stars.
The Hindoo had stayed his morning's work in the fields to stare
and marvel and fall, the blue-clothed Chinaman fell head foremost
athwart his midday bowl of rice, the Japanese merchant came out
from some chaffering in his office amazed and presently lay there
before his door, the evening gazers by the Golden Gates were overtaken
as they waited for the rising of the great star. This had happened
in every city of the world, in every lonely valley, in every home
and house and shelter and every open place. On the high seas, the
crowding steamship passengers, eager for any wonder, gaped and
marveled, and were suddenly terror-stricken, and struggled for the
gangways and were overcome, the captain staggered on the bridge
and fell, the stoker fell headlong among his coals, the engines
throbbed upon their way untended, the fishing craft drove by
without a hail, with swaying rudder, heeling and dipping. . . .
The great voice of material Fate cried Halt! And in the midst of
the play the actors staggered, dropped, and were still. The figure
runs from my pen. In New York that very thing occurred. Most of
the theatrical audiences dispersed, but in two crowded houses the
company, fearing a panic, went on playing amidst the gloom, and the
people, trained by many a previous disaster, stuck to their seats.
There they sat, the back rows only moving a little, and there, in
disciplined lines, they drooped and failed, nodded, and fell forward
or slid down upon the floor. I am told by Parload--though indeed I
know nothing of the reasoning on which his confidence rests---that
within an hour of the great moment of impact the first green
modification of nitrogen had dissolved and passed away, leaving the
air as translucent as ever. The rest of that wonderful interlude
was clear, had any had eyes to see its clearness. In London it
was night, but in New York, for example, people were in the full
bustle of the evening's enjoyment, in Chicago they were sitting
down to dinner, the whole world was abroad. The moonlight must have
illuminated streets and squares littered with crumpled figures,
through which such electric cars as had no automatic brakes had
ploughed on their way until they were stopped by the fallen bodies.
People lay in their dress clothes, in dining-rooms, restaurants,
on staircases, in halls, everywhere just as they had been overcome.
Men gambling, men drinking, thieves lurking in hidden places, sinful
couples, were caught, to arise with awakened mind and conscience
amidst the disorder of their sin. America the comet reached in the
full tide of evening life, but Britain lay asleep. But as I have
told, Britain did not slumber so deeply but that she was in the
full tide of what may have been battle and a great victory. Up and
down the North Sea her warships swept together like a net about
their foes. On land, too, that night was to have decided great
issues. The German camps were under arms from Redingen to Markirch,
their infantry columns were lying in swathes like mown hay, in
arrested night march on every track between 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 grounded, and was still. And as a queer contrast
one gathers that the fishes in the sea suffered not at all. . . .
Speaking of the fishes reminds me of a queer little inset upon that
great world-dreaming. The odd fate of the crew of the submarine
vessel B 94 has always seemed memorable to me. So far as I know,
they were the only men alive who never saw that veil of green drawn
across the world. All the while that the stillness held above, they
were working into the mouth of the Elbe, past the booms and the
mines, very slowly and carefully, a sinister crustacean of steel,
explosive crammed, along the muddy bottom. They trailed a long
clue that was to guide their fellows from the mother ship floating
awash outside. Then in the long channel beyond the forts they came
up at last to mark down their victims and get air. That must have
been before the twilight of dawn, for they tell of the brightness
of the stars. They were amazed to find themselves not three hundred
yards from an ironclad that had run ashore in the mud, and heeled
over with the falling tide. It was afire amidships, but no one heeded
that--no one in all that strange clear silence heeded that--and
not only this wrecked vessel, but all the dark ships lying about
them, it seemed to their perplexed and startled minds must be full
of dead men!
Theirs I think must have been one of the strangest of all experiences;
they were never insensible; at once, and, I am told, with a sudden
catch of laughter, they began to breathe the new air. None of
them has proved a writer; we have no picture of their wonder, no
description of what was said. But we know these men were active and
awake for an hour and a half at least before the general awakening
came, and when at last the Germans stirred and sat up they found
these strangers in possession of their battleship, the submarine
carelessly adrift, and the Englishmen, begrimed and weary, but
with a sort of furious exultation, still busy, in the bright dawn,
rescuing insensible enemies from the sinking conflagration. . . .
But the thought of certain stokers the sailors of the submarine
failed altogether to save brings me back to the thread of grotesque
horror that runs through all this event, the thread I cannot overlook
for all the splendors of human well-being that have come from it.
I cannot forget the unguided ships that drove ashore, that went
down in disaster with all their sleeping hands, nor how, inland,
motor-cars rushed to destruction upon the roads, and trains upon
the railways kept on in spite of signals, to be found at last by
their amazed, reviving drivers standing on unfamiliar lines, their
fires exhausted, or, less lucky, to be discovered by astonished
peasants or awakening porters smashed and crumpled up into heaps
of smoking, crackling ruin. The foundry fires of the Four Towns
still blazed, the smoke of our burning still denied the sky.
Fires burnt indeed the brighter for the Change--and spread. . . .
Picture to yourself what happened between the printing and composing
of the copy of the New Paper that lies before me now. It was the
first newspaper that was printed upon earth after the Great Change.
It was pocket-worn and browned, made of a paper no man ever intended
for preservation. I found it on the arbor table in the inn garden
while I was waiting for Nettie and Verrall, before that last
conversation of which I have presently to tell. As I look at it all
that scene comes back to me, and Nettie stands in her white raiment
against a blue-green background of sunlit garden, scrutinizing
my face as I read. . . .
It is so frayed that the sheet cracks along the folds and comes to
pieces in my hands. It lies upon my desk, a dead souvenir of the
dead ages of the world, of the ancient passions of my heart. I know
we discussed its news, but for the life of me I cannot recall what
we said, only I remember that Nettie said very little, and that
Verrall for a time read it over my shoulder. And I did
not like him to read over my shoulder. . . .
The document before me must have helped us through the first
awkwardness of that meeting.
But of all that we said and did then I must tell in a later chapter. . . .
It is easy to see the New Paper had been set up overnight, and then
large pieces of the stereo plates replaced subsequently. I do not
know enough of the old methods of printing to know precisely what
happened. The thing gives one an impression of large pieces of
type having been cut away and replaced by fresh blocks. There is
something very rough and ready about it all, and the new portions
print darker and more smudgily than the old, except toward the
left, where they have missed ink and indented. A friend of mine,
who knows something of the old typography, has suggested to me that
the machinery actually in use for the New Paper was damaged that
night, and that on the morning of the Change Banghurst borrowed a
neighboring office--perhaps in financial dependence upon him--to
The outer pages belong entirely to the old period, the only parts
of the paper that had undergone alteration are the two middle
leaves. Here we found set forth in a curious little four-column
oblong of print, WHAT HAS HAPPENED. This cut across a column with
scare headings beginning, "Great Naval Battle Now in Progress. The
Fate of Two Empires in the Balance. Reported Loss of Two More------"
These things, one gathered, were beneath notice now. Probably it
was guesswork, and fabricated news in the first instance.
It is curious to piece together the worn and frayed fragments, and
reread this discolored first intelligence of the new epoch.
The simple clear statements in the replaced portion of the paper
impressed me at the time, I remember, as bald and strange, in that
framework of shouting bad English. Now they seem like the voice of
a sane man amidst a vast faded violence. But they witness to the
prompt recovery of London from the gas; the new, swift energy of
rebound in that huge population. I am surprised now, as I reread,
to note how much research, experiment, and induction must have been
accomplished in the day that elapsed before the paper was printed.
. . . But that is by the way. As I sit and muse over this partly
carbonized sheet, that same curious remote vision comes again to me
that quickened in my mind that morning, a vision of those newspaper
offices I have already described to you going through the crisis.
The catalytic wave must have caught the place in full swing, in
its nocturnal high fever, indeed in a quite exceptional state of
fever, what with the comet and the war, and more particularly with
the war. Very probably the Change crept into the office imperceptibly,
amidst the noise and shouting, and the glare of electric light that
made the night atmosphere in that place; even the green flashes
may have passed unobserved there, the preliminary descending trails
of green vapor seemed no more than unseasonable drifting wisps
of London fog. (In those days London even in summer was not safe
against dark fogs.) And then at the last the Change poured in and
If there was any warning at all for them, it must have been a sudden
universal tumult in the street, and then a much more universal
quiet. They could have had no other intimation.
There was no time to stop the presses before the main development
of green vapor had overwhelmed every one. It must have folded
about them, tumbled them to the earth, masked and stilled them.
My imagination is always curiously stirred by the thought of that,
because I suppose it is the first picture I succeeded in making for
myself of what had happened in the towns. It has never quite lost
its strangeness for me that when the Change came, machinery went
on working. I don't precisely know why that should have seemed so
strange to me, but it did, and still to a certain extent does. One
is so accustomed, I suppose, to regard machinery as an extension
of human personality that the extent of its autonomy the Change
displayed came as a shock to me. The electric lights, for example,
hazy green-haloed nebulas, must have gone on burning at least
for a time; amidst the thickening darkness the huge presses must
have roared on, printing, folding, throwing aside copy after copy
of that fabricated battle report with its quarter column of scare
headlines, and all the place must have still quivered and throbbed
with the familiar roar of the engines. And this though no men ruled
there at all any more! Here and there beneath that thickening fog
the crumpled or outstretched forms of men lay still.
A wonderful thing that must have seemed, had any man had by chance
the power of resistance to the vapor, and could he have walked
And soon the machines must have exhausted their feed of ink and
paper, and thumped and banged and rattled emptily amidst the general
quiet. Then I suppose the furnaces failed for want of stoking, the
steam pressure fell in the pistons, the machinery slackened, the
lights burnt dim, and came and went with the ebb of energy from the
power-station. Who can tell precisely the sequence of these things
And then, you know, amidst the weakening and terminating noises
of men, the green vapor cleared and vanished, in an hour indeed it
had gone, and it may be a breeze stirred and blew and went about
The noises of life were all dying away, but some there were that
abated nothing, that sounded triumphantly amidst the universal
ebb. To a heedless world the church towers tolled out two and then
three. Clocks ticked and chimed everywhere about the earth
to deafened ears. . . .
And then came the first flush of morning, the first rustlings
of the revival. Perhaps in that office the filaments of the lamps
were still glowing, the machinery was still pulsing weakly, when
the crumpled, booted heaps of cloth became men again and began to
stir and stare. The chapel of the printers was, no doubt, shocked
to find itself asleep. Amidst that dazzling dawn the New Paper
woke to wonder, stood up and blinked at its amazing self. . . .
The clocks of the city churches, one pursuing another, struck four.
The staffs, crumpled and disheveled, but with a strange refreshment
in their veins, stood about the damaged machinery, marveling and
questioning; the editor read his overnight headlines with incredulous
laughter. There was much involuntary laughter that morning. Outside,
the mail men patted the necks and rubbed the knees of their
awakening horses. . . .
Then, you know, slowly and with much conversation and doubt, they
set about to produce the paper.
Imagine those bemused, perplexed people, carried on by the inertia
of their old occupations and doing their best with an enterprise
that had suddenly become altogether extraordinary and irrational.
They worked amidst questionings, and yet light-heartedly. At every
stage there must have been interruptions for discussion. The paper
only got down to Menton five days late.
Then let me give you a vivid little impression I received of a
certain prosaic person, a grocer, named Wiggins, and how he passed
through the Change. I heard this man's story in the post-office at
Menton, when, in the afternoon of the First Day, I bethought me to
telegraph to my mother. The place was also a grocer's shop, and I
found him and the proprietor talking as I went in. They were trade
competitors, and Wiggins had just come across the street to break
the hostile silence of a score of years. The sparkle of the Change
was in their eyes, their slightly flushed cheeks, their more elastic
gestures, spoke of new physical influences that had invaded their
"It did us no good, all our hatred," Mr. Wiggins said to me,
explaining the emotion of their encounter; "it did our customers
no good. I've come to tell him that. You bear that in mind, young
man, if ever you come to have a shop of your own. It was a sort
of stupid bitterness possessed us, and I can't make out we didn't
see it before in that light. Not so much downright wickedness it
wasn't as stupidity. A stupid jealousy! Think of it!--two human
beings within a stone's throw, who have not spoken for twenty years,
hardening our hearts against each other!"
"I can't think how we came to such a state, Mr. Wiggins," said
the other, packing tea into pound packets out of mere habit as he
spoke. "It was wicked pride and obstinacy. We KNEW it was foolish
all the time."
I stood affixing the adhesive stamp to my telegram.
"Only the other morning," he went on to me, "I was cutting French
eggs. Selling at a loss to do it. He'd marked down with a great
staring ticket to ninepence a dozen--I saw it as I went past. Here's
my answer!" He indicated a ticket. "'Eightpence a dozen--same as
sold elsewhere for ninepence.' A whole penny down, bang off! Just
a touch above cost--if that--and even then------" He leant over
the counter to say impressively, "NOT THE SAME EGGS!"
"Now, what people in their senses would do things like that?" said
I sent my telegram--the proprietor dispatched it for me, and while
he did so I fell exchanging experiences with Mr. Wiggins. He knew
no more than I did then the nature of the change that had come over
things. He had been alarmed by the green flashes, he said, so much
so that after watching for a time from behind his bedroom window
blind, he had got up and hastily dressed and made his family get
up also, so that they might be ready for the end. He made them put
on their Sunday clothes. They all went out into the garden together,
their minds divided between admiration at the gloriousness of the
spectacle and a great and growing awe. They were Dissenters, and
very religious people out of business hours, and it seemed to them
in those last magnificent moments that, after all, science must be
wrong and the fanatics right. With the green vapors came
conviction, and they prepared to meet their God. . . .
This man, you must understand, was a common-looking man, in his
shirt-sleeves and with an apron about his paunch, and he told his
story in an Anglian accent that sounded mean and clipped to my
Staffordshire ears; he told his story without a thought of pride,
and as it were incidentally, and yet he gave me a vision of something
These people did not run hither and thither as many people did. These
four simple, common people stood beyond their back door in their
garden pathway between the gooseberry bushes, with the terrors
of their God and His Judgments closing in upon them, swiftly
and wonderfully--and there they began to sing. There they stood,
father and mother and two daughters, chanting out stoutly, but no
doubt a little flatly after the manner of their kind--
"In Zion's Hope abiding, My soul in Triumph sings---"
until one by one they fell, and lay still.
The postmaster had heard them in the gathering darkness,
"In Zion's Hope abiding." . . .
It was the most extraordinary thing in the world to hear this flushed
and happy-eyed man telling that story of his recent death. It did
not seem at all possible to have happened in the last twelve hours.
It was minute and remote, these people who went singing through
the darkling to their God. It was like a scene shown to me, very
small and very distinctly painted, in a locket.
But that effect was not confined to this particular thing. A vast
number of things that had happened before the coming of the comet
had undergone the same transfiguring reduction. Other people, too,
I have learnt since, had the same illusion, a sense of enlargement.
It seems to me even now that the little dark creature who had
stormed across England in pursuit of Nettie and her lover must
have been about an inch high, that all that previous life of ours
had been an ill-lit marionette show, acted in the twilight. . . .
The figure of my mother comes always into my conception of the
I remember how one day she confessed herself.
She had been very sleepless that night, she said, and took the
reports of the falling stars for shooting; there had been rioting
in Clayton and all through Swathinglea all day, and so she got out
of bed to look. She had a dim sense that I was in all such troubles.
But she was not looking when the Change came.
"When I saw the stars a-raining down, dear," she said, "and thought
of you out in it, I thought there'd be no harm in saying a prayer
for you, dear? I thought you wouldn't mind that."
And so I got another of my pictures--the green vapors come and go,
and there by her patched coverlet that dear old woman kneels and
droops, still clasping her poor gnarled hands in the attitude of
prayer--prayer to IT --for me!
Through the meagre curtains and blinds of the flawed refracting
window I see the stars above the chimneys fade, the pale light of
dawn creeps into the sky, and her candle flares and dies. . . .
That also went with me through the stillness --that silent
kneeling figure, that frozen prayer to God to shield me, silent
in a silent world, rushing through the emptiness of space. . . .
With the dawn that awakening went about the earth. I have told how
it came to me, and how I walked in wonder through the transfigured
cornfields of Shaphambury. It came to every one. Near me, and for
the time, clear forgotten by me, Verrall and Nettie woke--woke near
one another, each heard before all other sounds the other's voice
amidst the stillness, and the light. And the scattered people who
had run to and fro, and fallen on the beach of Bungalow village,
awoke; the sleeping villagers of Menton started, and sat up in
that unwonted freshness and newness; the contorted figures in the
garden, with the hymn still upon their lips, stirred amidst the
flowers, and touched each other timidly, and thought of Paradise.
My mother found herself crouched against the bed, and rose--rose
with a glad invincible conviction of accepted prayer. . . .
Already, when it came to us, the soldiers, crowded between the
lines of dusty poplars along the road to Allarmont, were chatting
and sharing coffee with the French riflemen, who had hailed them
from their carefully hidden pits among the vineyards up the slopes
of Beauville. A certain perplexity had come to these marksmen, who
had dropped asleep tensely ready for the rocket that should wake
the whirr and rattle of their magazines. At the sight and sound of
the stir and human confusion in the roadway below, it had come to
each man individually that he could not shoot. One conscript, at
least, has told his story of his awakening, and how curious he thought
the rifle there beside him in his pit, how he took it on his knees
to examine. Then, as his memory of its purpose grew clearer, he
dropped the thing, and stood up with a kind of joyful horror at
the crime escaped, to look more closely at the men he was to have
assassinated. "Braves types," he thought, they looked for such
a fate. The summoning rocket never flew. Below, the men did not
fall into ranks again, but sat by the roadside, or stood in groups
talking, discussing with a novel incredulity the ostensible causes
of the war. "The Emperor!" said they; and "Oh, nonsense! We're
civilized men. Get some one else for this job! . . . Where's the
The officers held their own horses, and talked to the men frankly,
regardless of discipline. Some Frenchmen out of the rifle-pits came
sauntering down the hill. Others stood doubtfully, rifles still in
hand. Curious faces scanned these latter. Little arguments sprang
as: "Shoot at us! Nonsense! They're respectable French citizens."
There is a picture of it all, very bright and detailed in the
morning light, in the battle gallery amidst the ruins at old Nancy,
and one sees the old-world uniform of the "soldier," the odd caps
and belts and boots, the ammunition-belt, the water-bottle, the
sort of tourist's pack the men carried, a queer elaborate equipment.
The soldiers had awakened one by one, first one and then another.
I wonder sometimes whether, perhaps, if the two armies had come
awake in an instant, the battle, by mere habit and inertia, might
not have begun. But the men who waked first, sat up, looked
about them in astonishment, had time to think a little. . . .
Everywhere there was laughter, everywhere tears.
Men and women in the common life, finding themselves suddenly lit
and exalted, capable of doing what had hitherto been impossible,
incapable of doing what had hitherto been irresistible, happy,
hopeful, unselfishly energetic, rejected altogether the supposition
that this was merely a change in the blood and material texture of
life. They denied the bodies God had given them, as once the Upper
Nile savages struck out their canine teeth, because these made
them like the beasts. They declared that this was the coming of a
spirit, and nothing else would satisfy their need for explanations.
And in a sense the Spirit came. The Great Revival sprang directly
from the Change--the last, the deepest, widest, and most enduring
of all the vast inundations of religious emotion that go by that
But indeed it differed essentially from its innumerable predecessors.
The former revivals were a phase of fever, this was the first
movement of health, it was altogether quieter, more intellectual,
more private, more religious than any of those others. In the old
time, and more especially in the Protestant countries where the
things of religion were outspoken, and the absence of confession
and well-trained priests made religious states of emotion explosive
and contagious, revivalism upon various scales was a normal phase
in the religious life, revivals were always going on--now a little
disturbance of consciences in a village, now an evening of emotion
in a Mission Room, now a great storm that swept a continent, and
now an organized effort that came to town with bands and banners
and handbills and motor-cars for the saving of souls. Never at
any time did I take part in nor was I attracted by any of these
movements. My nature, although passionate, was too critical (or
sceptical if you like, for it amounts to the same thing) and shy
to be drawn into these whirls; but on several occasions Parload and
I sat, scoffing, but nevertheless disturbed, in the back seats of
I saw enough of them to understand their nature, and I am not
surprised to learn now that before the comet came, all about the
world, even among savages, even among cannibals, these same, or
at any rate closely similar, periodic upheavals went on. The world
was stifling; it was in a fever, and these phenomena were neither
more nor less than the instinctive struggle of the organism against
the ebb of its powers, the clogging of its veins, the limitation
of its life. Invariably these revivals followed periods of sordid
and restricted living. Men obeyed their base immediate motives
until the world grew unendurably bitter. Some disappointment, some
thwarting, lit up for them--darkly indeed, but yet enough for
indistinct vision--the crowded squalor, the dark inclosure of life.
A sudden disgust with the insensate smallness of the old-world way
of living, a realization of sin, a sense of the unworthiness of all
individual things, a desire for something comprehensive, sustaining,
something greater, for wider communions and less habitual things,
filled them. Their souls, which were shaped for wider issues, cried
out suddenly amidst the petty interests, the narrow prohibitions,
of life, "Not this! not this!" A great passion to escape from the
jealous prison of themselves, an inarticulate, stammering, weeping
passion shook them. . . . I have seen------ I remember how once
in Clayton Calvinistic Methodist chapel I saw--his spotty fat face
strangely distorted under the flickering gas-flares--old Pallet
the ironmonger repent. He went to the form of repentance, a bench
reserved for such exhibitions, and slobbered out his sorrow and
disgust for some sexual indelicacy--he was a widower--and I can see
now how his loose fat body quivered and swayed with his grief. He
poured it out to five hundred people, from whom in common times
he hid his every thought and purpose. And it is a fact, it shows
where reality lay, that we two youngsters laughed not at all at that
blubbering grotesque, we did not even think the distant shadow of
a smile. We two sat grave and intent--perhaps wondering.
Only afterward and with an effort did we scoff. . . .
Those old-time revivals were, I say, the convulsive movements of
a body that suffocates. They are the clearest manifestations from
before the Change of a sense in all men that things were not right.
But they were too often but momentary illuminations. Their force
spent itself in inco-ordinated shouting, gesticulations, tears.
They were but flashes of outlook. Disgust of the narrow life, of
all baseness, took shape in narrowness and baseness. The quickened
soul ended the night a hypocrite; prophets disputed for precedence;
seductions, it is altogether indisputable, were frequent among
penitents! and Ananias went home converted and returned with
a falsified gift. And it was almost universal that the converted
should be impatient and immoderate, scornful of reason and
a choice of expedients, opposed to balance, skill, and knowledge.
Incontinently full of grace, like thin old wine-skins overfilled,
they felt they must burst if once they came into contact with hard
fact and sane direction.
So the former revivals spent themselves, but the Great Revival did
not spend itself, but grew to be, for the majority of Christendom
at least, the permanent expression of the Change. For many it has
taken the shape of an outright declaration that this was the Second
Advent--it is not for me to discuss the validity of that suggestion,
for nearly all it has amounted to an enduring broadening
of all the issues of life. . . .
One irrelevant memory comes back to me, irrelevant, and yet by some
subtle trick of quality it summarizes the Change for me. It is the
memory of a woman's very beautiful face, a woman with a flushed
face and tear-bright eyes who went by me without speaking, rapt
in some secret purpose. I passed her when in the afternoon of the
first day, struck by a sudden remorse, I went down to Menton to send
a telegram to my mother telling her all was well with me. Whither
this woman went I do not know, nor whence she came; I never saw her
again, and only her face, glowing with that new and luminous
resolve, stands out for me. . . .
But that expression was the world's.
CHAPTER THE THIRD
THE CABINET COUNCIL
AND what a strange unprecedented thing was that cabinet council at
which I was present, the council that was held two days later in
Melmount's bungalow, and which convened the conference to frame the
constitution of the World State. I was there because it was convenient
for me to stay with Melmount. I had nowhere to go particularly,
and there was no one at his bungalow, to which his broken ankle
confined him, but a secretary and a valet to help him to begin his
share of the enormous labors that evidently lay before the rulers
of the world. I wrote shorthand, and as there was not even a phonograph
available, I went in so soon as his ankle had been dressed, and
sat at his desk to write at his dictation. It is characteristic
of the odd slackness that went with the spasmodic violence of the
old epoch, that the secretary could not use shorthand and that
there was no telephone whatever in the place. Every message had
to be taken to the village post-office in that grocer's shop at
Menton, half a mile away. . . . So I sat in the back of Melmount's
room, his desk had been thrust aside, and made such memoranda as
were needed. At that time his room seemed to me the most beautifully
furnished in the world, and I could identify now the vivid cheerfulness
of the chintz of the sofa on which the great statesman lay just in
front of me, the fine rich paper, the red sealing-wax, the silver
equipage of the desk I used. I know now that my presence in that
room was a strange and remarkable thing, the open door, even the
coming and going of Parker the secretary, innovations. In the old
days a cabinet council was a secret conclave, secrecy and furtiveness
were in the texture of all public life. In the old days everybody
was always keeping something back from somebody, being wary and
cunning, prevaricating, misleading--for the most part for no reason
at all. Almost unnoticed, that secrecy had dropped out of life.
I close my eyes and see those men again, hear their deliberating
voices. First I see them a little diffusely in the cold explicitness
of daylight, and then concentrated and drawn together amidst the
shadow and mystery about shaded lamps. Integral to this and very
clear is the memory of biscuit crumbs and a drop of spilt water,
that at first stood shining upon and then sank into the
green table-cloth. . . .
I remember particularly the figure of Lord Adisham. He came to the
bungalow a day before the others, because he was Melmount's personal
friend. Let me describe this statesman to you, this one of the
fifteen men who made the last war. He was the youngest member of
the Government, and an altogether pleasant and sunny man of forty.
He had a clear profile to his clean gray face, a smiling eye, a
friendly, careful voice upon his thin, clean-shaven lips, an easy
disabusing manner. He had the perfect quality of a man who had
fallen easily into a place prepared for him. He had the temperament
of what we used to call a philosopher--an indifferent, that is to say.
The Change had caught him at his week-end recreation, fly-fishing;
and, indeed, he said, I remember, that he recovered to find himself
with his head within a yard of the water's brim. In times of crisis
Lord Adisham invariably went fly-fishing at the week-end to keep his
mind in tone, and when there was no crisis then there was nothing
he liked so much to do as fly-fishing, and so, of course, as there
was nothing to prevent it, he fished. He came resolved, among other
things, to give up fly-fishing altogether. I was present when he
came to Melmount, and heard him say as much; and by a more naive
route it was evident that he had arrived at the same scheme of
intention as my master. I left them to talk, but afterward I came
back to take down their long telegrams to their coming colleagues.
He was, no doubt, as profoundly affected as Melmount by the
Change, but his tricks of civility and irony and acceptable humor
had survived the Change, and he expressed his altered attitude,
his expanded emotions, in a quaint modification of the old-time
man-of-the-world style, with excessive moderation, with a trained
horror of the enthusiasm that swayed him.
These fifteen men who ruled the British Empire were curiously unlike
anything I had expected, and I watched them intently whenever my
services were not in request. They made a peculiar class at that
time, these English politicians and statesmen, a class that has
now completely passed away. In some respects they were unlike the
statesmen of any other region of the world, and I do not find that
any really adequate account remains of them. . . . Perhaps you are
a reader of the old books. If so, you will find them rendered with
a note of hostile exaggeration by Dickens in "Bleak House," with
a mingling of gross flattery and keen ridicule by Disraeli, who
ruled among them accidentally by misunderstanding them and pleasing
the court, and all their assumptions are set forth, portentously,
perhaps, but truthfully, so far as people of the "permanent
official" class saw them, in the novels of Mrs. Humphry Ward. All
these books are still in this world and at the disposal of the
curious, and in addition the philosopher Bagehot and the picturesque
historian Macaulay give something of their method of thinking, the
novelist Thackeray skirts the seamy side of their social life, and
there are some good passages of irony, personal descriptions, and
reminiscence to be found in the "Twentieth Century Garner" from the
pens of such writers, for example, as Sidney Low. But a picture of
them as a whole is wanting. Then they were too near and too great;
now, very rapidly, they have become incomprehensible.
We common people of the old time based our conception of our
statesmen almost entirely on the caricatures that formed the most
powerful weapon in political controversy. Like almost every main
feature of the old condition of things these caricatures were an
unanticipated development, they were a sort of parasitic outgrowth
from, which had finally altogether replaced, the thin and vague
aspirations of the original democratic ideals. They presented
not only the personalities who led our public life, but the most
sacred structural conceptions of that life, in ludicrous, vulgar,
and dishonorable aspects that in the end came near to destroying
entirely all grave and honorable emotion or motive toward the State.
The state of Britain was represented nearly always by a red-faced,
purse-proud farmer with an enormous belly, that fine dream
of freedom, the United States, by a cunning, lean-faced rascal
in striped trousers and a blue coat. The chief ministers of state
were pickpockets, washerwomen, clowns, whales, asses, elephants,
and what not, and issues that affected the welfare of millions of
men were dressed and judged like a rally in some idiotic pantomime.
A tragic war in South Africa, that wrecked many thousand homes,
impoverished two whole lands, and brought death and disablement
to fifty thousand men, was presented as a quite comical quarrel
between a violent queer being named Chamberlain, with an eyeglass,
an orchid, and a short temper, and "old Kroojer," an obstinate
and very cunning old man in a shocking bad hat. The conflict was
carried through in a mood sometimes of brutish irritability and
sometimes of lax slovenliness, the merry peculator plied his trade
congenially in that asinine squabble, and behind these fooleries
and masked by them, marched Fate--until at last the clowning of
the booth opened and revealed--hunger and suffering, brands burning
and swords and shame. . . . These men had come to fame and power in
that atmosphere, and to me that day there was the oddest suggestion
in them of actors who have suddenly laid aside grotesque and foolish
parts; the paint was washed from their faces, the posing put aside.
Even when the presentation was not frankly grotesque and degrading
it was entirely misleading. When I read of Laycock, for example,
there arises a picture of a large, active, if a little wrong-headed,
intelligence in a compact heroic body, emitting that "Goliath" speech
of his that did so much to precipitate hostilities, it tallies not
at all with the stammering, high-pitched, slightly bald, and very
conscience-stricken personage I saw, nor with Melmount's contemptuous
first description of him. I doubt if the world at large will ever
get a proper vision of those men as they were before the Change.
Each year they pass more and more incredibly beyond our intellectual
sympathy. Our estrangement cannot, indeed, rob them of their
portion in the past, but it will rob them of any effect of reality.
The whole of their history becomes more and more foreign, more and
more like some queer barbaric drama played in a forgotten tongue.
There they strut through their weird metamorphoses of caricature,
those premiers and presidents, their height preposterously exaggerated by
political buskins, their faces covered by great resonant inhuman
masks, their voices couched in the foolish idiom of public
utterance, disguised beyond any semblance to sane humanity, roaring
and squeaking through the public press. There it stands, this
incomprehensible faded show, a thing left on one side, and now still
and deserted by any interest, its many emptinesses as inexplicable
now as the cruelties of medieval Venice, the theology of old Byzantium.
And they ruled and influenced the lives of nearly a quarter of
mankind, these politicians, their clownish conflicts swayed the
world, made mirth perhaps, made excitement, and permitted--infinite
I saw these men quickened indeed by the Change, but still wearing
the queer clothing of the old time, the manners and conventions of
the old time; if they had disengaged themselves from the outlook
of the old time they still had to refer back to it constantly as a
common starting-point. My refreshed intelligence was equal to that,
so that I think I did indeed see them. There was Gorrell-Browning,
the Chancellor of the Duchy; I remember him as a big round-faced
man, the essential vanity and foolishness of whose expression, whose
habit of voluminous platitudinous speech, triumphed absurdly once
or twice over the roused spirit within. He struggled with it, he
burlesqued himself, and laughed. Suddenly he said simply, intensely--it
was a moment for every one of clean, clear pain, "I have been a
vain and self-indulgent and presumptuous old man. I am of little
use here. I have given myself to politics and intrigues, and life
is gone from me." Then for a long time he sat still. There was
Carton, the Lord Chancellor, a white-faced man with understanding,
he had a heavy, shaven face that might have stood among the busts
of the Caesars, a slow, elaborating voice, with self-indulgent,
slightly oblique, and triumphant lips, and a momentary, voluntary,
humorous twinkle. "We have to forgive," he said. "We have to forgive
These two were at the top corner of the table, so that I saw their
faces well. Madgett, the Home Secretary, a smaller man with wrinkled
eyebrows and a frozen smile on his thin wry mouth, came next to
Carton; he contributed little to the discussion save intelligent
comments, and when the electric lights above glowed out, the shadows
deepened queerly in his eye-sockets and gave him the quizzical
expression of an ironical goblin. Next him was that great peer,
the Earl of Richover, whose self-indulgent indolence had accepted
the role of a twentieth-century British Roman patrician of culture,
who had divided his time almost equally between his jockeys,
politics, and the composition of literary studies in the key of
his role. "We have done nothing worth doing," he said. "As for me,
I have cut a figure!" He reflected--no doubt on his ample patrician
years, on the fine great houses that had been his setting, the
teeming race-courses that had roared his name, the enthusiastic
meetings he had fed with fine hopes, the futile Olympian beginnings.
. . . "I have been a fool," he said compactly. They heard him in
a sympathetic and respectful silence. Gurker, the Chancellor of
the Exchequer, was partially occulted, so far as I was concerned,
by the back of Lord Adisham. Ever and again Gurker protruded into
the discussion, swaying forward, a deep throaty voice, a big nose,
a coarse mouth with a drooping everted lower lip, eyes peering
amidst folds and wrinkles. He made his confession for his race.
"We Jews," he said, "have gone through the system of this world,
creating nothing, consolidating many things, destroying much. Our
racial self-conceit has been monstrous. We seem to have used our
ample coarse intellectuality for no other purpose than to develop
and master and maintain the convention of property, to turn life
into a sort of mercantile chess and spend our winnings grossly.
. . . We have had no sense of service to mankind. Beauty which is
godhead--we made it a possession."
These men and these sayings particularly remain in my memory.
Perhaps, indeed, I wrote them down at the time, but that I do not
now remember. How Sir Digby Privet, Revel, Markheimer, and the others
sat I do not now recall; they came in as voices, interruptions,
imperfectly assigned comments. . . .
One got a queer impression that except perhaps for Gurker or Revel
these men had not particularly wanted the power they held; had
desired to do nothing very much in the positions they had secured.
They had found themselves in the cabinet, and until this moment
of illumination they had not been ashamed; but they had made no
ungentlemanly fuss about the matter. Eight of that fifteen came from
the same school, had gone through an entirely parallel education;
some Greek linguistics, some elementary mathematics, some emasculated
"science," a little history, a little reading in the silent or
timidly orthodox English literature of the seventeenth, eighteenth,
and nineteenth centuries, all eight had imbibed the same dull gentlemanly
tradition of behavior; essentially boyish, unimaginative--with
neither keen swords nor art in it, a tradition apt to slobber into
sentiment at a crisis and make a great virtue of a simple duty rather
clumsily done. None of these eight had made any real experiments
with life, they had lived in blinkers, they had been passed from
nurse to governess, from governess to preparatory school, from Eton
to Oxford, from Oxford to the politico-social routine. Even their
vices and lapses had been according to certain conceptions of good
form. They had all gone to the races surreptitiously from Eton, had
all cut up to town from Oxford to see life--music-hall life--had
all come to heel again. Now suddenly they discovered their
limitations. . . .
"What are we to do?" asked Melmount. "We have awakened; this empire
in our hands. . . ." I know this will seem the most fabulous of all
the things I have to tell of the old order, but, indeed, I saw it
with my eyes, I heard it with my ears. It is a fact that this group
of men who constituted the Government of one-fifth of the habitable
land of the earth, who ruled over a million of armed men, who
had such navies as mankind had never seen before, whose empire of
nations, tongues, peoples still dazzles in these greater days, had
no common idea whatever of what they meant to do with the world.
They had been a Government for three long years, and before the
Change came to them it had never even occurred to them that it was
necessary to have no common idea. There was no common idea at all.
That great empire was no more than a thing adrift, an aimless thing
that ate and drank and slept and bore arms, and was inordinately
proud of itself because it had chanced to happen. It had no plan,
no intention; it meant nothing at all. And the other great empires
adrift, perilously adrift like marine mines, were in the self-same
case. Absurd as a British cabinet council must seem to you now, it
was no whit more absurd than the controlling ganglion, autocratic
council, president's committee, or what not, of each of
its blind rivals. . . .
I remember as one thing that struck me very forcibly at the time,
the absence of any discussion, any difference of opinion, about the
broad principles of our present state. These men had lived hitherto
in a system of conventions and acquired motives, loyalty to a party,
loyalty to various secret agreements and understandings, loyalty
to the Crown; they had all been capable of the keenest attention
to precedence, all capable of the most complete suppression of
subversive doubts and inquiries, all had their religious emotions
under perfect control. They had seemed protected by invisible but
impenetrable barriers from all the heady and destructive speculations,
the socialistic, republican, and communistic theories that one may
still trace through the literature of the last days of the comet.
But now it was as if the very moment of the awakening those barriers
and defences had vanished, as if the green vapors had washed
through their minds and dissolved and swept away a hundred once
rigid boundaries and obstacles. They had admitted and assimilated
at once all that was good in the ill-dressed propagandas that had
clamored so vehemently and vainly at the doors of their minds in
the former days. It was exactly like the awakening from an absurd
and limiting dream. They had come out together naturally and
inevitably upon the broad daylight platform of obvious and reasonable
agreement upon which we and all the order of our world now stand.
Let me try to give the chief things that had vanished from their
minds. There was, first, the ancient system of "ownership" that
made such an extraordinary tangle of our administration of the
land upon which we lived. In the old time no one believed in that
as either just or ideally convenient, but every one accepted it.
The community which lived upon the land was supposed to have waived
its necessary connection with the land, except in certain limited
instances of highway and common. All the rest of the land was
cut up in the maddest way into patches and oblongs and triangles
of various sizes between a hundred square miles and a few acres,
and placed under the nearly absolute government of a series of
administrators called landowners. They owned the land almost as
a man now owns his hat; they bought it and sold it, and cut it up
like cheese or ham; they were free to ruin it, or leave it waste,
or erect upon it horrible and devastating eyesores. If the community
needed a road or a tramway, if it wanted a town or a village in any
position, nay, even if it wanted to go to and fro, it had to do so
by exorbitant treaties with each of the monarchs whose territory
was involved. No man could find foothold on the face of the earth
until he had paid toll and homage to one of them. They had practically
no relations and no duties to the nominal, municipal, or national
Government amidst whose larger areas their own dominions lay. . .
. This sounds, I know, like a lunatic's dream, but mankind was that
lunatic; and not only in the old countries of Europe and Asia,
where this system had arisen out of the rational delegation of local
control to territorial magnates, who had in the universal baseness
of those times at last altogether evaded and escaped their duties,
did it obtain, but the "new countries," as we called them then--the
United States of America, the Cape Colony, Australia, and New
Zealand--spent much of the nineteenth century in the frantic giving
away of land for ever to any casual person who would take it. Was
there coal, was there petroleum or gold, was there rich soil or
harborage, or the site for a fine city, these obsessed and witless
Governments cried out for scramblers, and a stream of shabby,
tricky, and violent adventurers set out to found a new section of
the landed aristocracy of the world. After a brief century of hope
and pride, the great republic of the United States of America,
the hope as it was deemed of mankind, became for the most part a
drifting crowd of landless men; landlords and railway lords, food
lords (for the land is food) and mineral lords ruled its life,
gave it Universities as one gave coins to a mendicant, and spent
its resources upon such vain, tawdry, and foolish luxuries as the
world had never seen before. Here was a thing none of these statesmen
before the Change would have regarded as anything but the natural
order of the world, which not one of them now regarded as anything
but the mad and vanished illusion of a period of dementia.
And as it was with the question of the land, so was it also
with a hundred other systems and institutions and complicated and
disingenuous factors in the life of man. They spoke of trade, and
I realized for the first time there could be buying and selling
that was no loss to any man; they spoke of industrial organization,
and one saw it under captains who sought no base advantages. The
haze of old associations, of personal entanglements and habitual
recognitions had been dispelled from every stage and process of
the social training of men. Things long hidden appeared discovered
with an amazing clearness and nakedness. These men who had
awakened, laughed dissolvent laughs, and the old muddle of schools
and colleges, books and traditions, the old fumbling, half-figurative,
half-formal teaching of the Churches, the complex of weakening and
confusing suggestions and hints, amidst which the pride and honor
of adolescence doubted and stumbled and fell, became nothing but
a curious and pleasantly faded memory. "There must be a common
training of the young," said Richover; "a frank initiation. We have
not so much educated them as hidden things from them, and set traps.
And it might have been so easy --it can all be done so easily."
That hangs in my memory as the refrain of that council, "It can
all be done so easily," but when they said it then, it came to my
ears with a quality of enormous refreshment and power. It can all
be done so easily, given frankness, given courage. Time was when
these platitudes had the freshness and wonder of a gospel.
In this enlarged outlook the war with the Germans--that mythical,
heroic, armed female, Germany, had vanished from men's imaginations
--was a mere exhausted episode. A truce had already been arranged
by Melmount, and these ministers, after some marveling reminiscences,
set aside the matter of peace as a mere question of particular
arrangements. . . . The whole scheme of the world's government had
become fluid and provisional in their minds, in small details as
in great, the unanalyzable tangle of wards and vestries, districts
and municipalities, counties, states, boards, and nations, the
interlacing, overlapping, and conflicting authorities, the felt of
little interests and claims, in which an innumerable and insatiable
multitude of lawyers, agents, managers, bosses, organizers lived
like fleas in a dirty old coat, the web of the conflicts, jealousies,
heated patchings up and jobbings apart, of the old order--they
flung it all on one side.
"What are the new needs?" said Melmount. "This muddle is too rotten
to handle. We're beginning again. Well, let us begin afresh."
"Let us begin afresh!" This piece of obvious common sense seemed
then to me instinct with courage, the noblest of words. My heart
went out to him as he spoke. It was, indeed, that day as vague as
it was valiant; we did not at all see the forms of what we were
thus beginning. All that we saw was the clear inevitableness
that the old order should end. . . .
And then in a little space of time mankind in halting but effectual
brotherhood was moving out to make its world anew. Those early
years, those first and second decades of the new epoch, were in
their daily detail a time of rejoicing toil; one saw chiefly one's
own share in that, and little of the whole. It is only now that I
look back at it all from these ripe years, from this high tower,
that I see the dramatic sequence of its changes, see the cruel old
confusions of the ancient time become clarified, simplified, and
dissolve and vanish away. Where is that old world now? Where is
London, that somber city of smoke and drifting darkness, full of the
deep roar and haunting music of disorder, with its oily, shining,
mud-rimmed, barge-crowded river, its black pinnacles and blackened
dome, its sad wildernesses of smut-grayed houses, its myriads of
draggled prostitutes, its millions of hurrying clerks? The very
leaves upon its trees were foul with greasy black defilements.
Where is lime-white Paris, with its green and disciplined foliage,
its hard unflinching tastefulness, its smartly organized viciousness,
and the myriads of workers, noisily shod, streaming over the bridges
in the gray cold light of dawn. Where is New York, the high city
of clangor and infuriated energy, wind swept and competition swept,
its huge buildings jostling one another and straining ever upward
for a place in the sky, the fallen pitilessly overshadowed. Where
are its lurking corners of heavy and costly luxury, the shameful
bludgeoning bribing vice of its ill ruled underways, and all the
gaunt extravagant ugliness of its strenuous life? And where now is
Philadelphia, with its innumerable small and isolated homes, and
Chicago with its interminable blood-stained stockyards, its polyglot
underworld of furious discontent.
All these vast cities have given way and gone, even as my native
Potteries and the Black Country have gone, and the lives that were
caught, crippled, starved, and maimed amidst their labyrinths, their
forgotten and neglected maladjustments, and their vast, inhuman,
ill-conceived industrial machinery have escaped--to life. Those
cities of growth and accident are altogether gone, never a chimney
smokes about our world to-day, and the sound of the weeping of
children who toiled and hungered, the dull despair of overburdened
women, the noise of brute quarrels in alleys, all shameful pleasures
and all the ugly grossness of wealthy pride have gone with them,
with the utter change in our lives. As I look back into the past
I see a vast exultant dust of house-breaking and removal rise
up into the clear air that followed the hour of the green vapors,
I live again the Year of Tents, the Year of Scaffolding, and like
the triumph of a new theme in a piece of music--the great cities
of our new days arise. Come Caerlyon and Armedon, the twin cities
of lower England, with the winding summer city of the Thames between,
and I see the gaunt dirt of old Edinburgh die to rise again white
and tall beneath the shadow of her ancient hill; and Dublin too,
reshaped, returning enriched, fair, spacious, the city of rich
laughter and warm hearts, gleaming gaily in a shaft of sunlight
through the soft warm rain. I see the great cities America has
planned and made; the Golden City, with ever-ripening fruit along
its broad warm ways, and the bell-glad City of a Thousand Spires.
I see again as I have seen, the city of theaters and meeting-places,
the City of the Sunlight Bight, and the new city that is still
called Utah; and dominated by its observatory dome and the plain and
dignified lines of the university facade upon the cliff, Martenabar
the great white winter city of the upland snows. And the lesser
places, too, the townships, the quiet resting-places, villages half
forest with a brawl of streams down their streets, villages laced
with avenues of cedar, villages of garden, of roses and wonderful
flowers and the perpetual humming of bees. And through all the
world go our children, our sons the old world would have made into
servile clerks and shopmen, plough drudges and servants; our daughters
who were erst anaemic drudges, prostitutes, sluts, anxiety-racked
mothers or sere, repining failures; they go about this world glad
and brave, learning, living, doing, happy and rejoicing, brave and
free. I think of them wandering in the clear quiet of the ruins of
Rome, among the tombs of Egypt or the temples of Athens, of their
coming to Mainington and its strange happiness, to Orba and the
wonder of its white and slender tower. . . . But who can tell of
the fullness and pleasure of life, who can number all our new cities
in the world?--cities made by the loving hands of men for living
men, cities men weep to enter, so fair they are, so gracious
and so kind. . . .
Some vision surely of these things must have been vouchsafed me
as I sat there behind Melmount's couch, but now my knowledge of
accomplished things has mingled with and effaced my expectations.
Something indeed I must have foreseen--or else why was my heart so
BOOK THE THIRD
THE NEW WORLD
CHAPTER THE FIRST
LOVE AFTER THE CHANGE
So far I have said nothing of Nettie. I have departed widely from
my individual story. I have tried to give you the effect of the
change in relation to the general framework of human life, its
effect of swift, magnificent dawn, of an overpowering letting in
and inundation of light, and the spirit of living. In my memory all
my life before the Change has the quality of a dark passage, with
the dimmest side gleams of beauty that come and go. The rest is dull
pain and darkness. Then suddenly the walls, the bitter confines,
are smitten and vanish, and I walk, blinded, perplexed, and yet
rejoicing, in this sweet, beautiful world, in its fair incessant
variety, its satisfaction, its opportunities, exultant in this glorious
gift of life. Had I the power of music I would make a world-wide
motif swell and amplify, gather to itself this theme and that, and
rise at last to sheer ecstasy of triumph and rejoicing. It should
be all sound, all pride, all the hope of outsetting in the morning
brightness, all the glee of unexpected happenings, all the gladness
of painful effort suddenly come to its reward; it should be like
blossoms new opened and the happy play of children, like tearful,
happy mothers holding their first-born, like cities building to
the sound of music, and great ships, all hung with flags and wine
bespattered, gliding down through cheering multitudes to their first
meeting with the sea. Through it all should march Hope, confident
Hope, radiant and invincible, until at last it would be the triumph
march of Hope the conqueror, coming with trumpetings and banners
through the wide-flung gates of the world.
And then out of that luminous haze of gladness comes Nettie,
So she came again to me--amazing, a thing incredibly forgotten.
She comes back, and Verrall is in her company. She comes back
into my memories now, just as she came back then, rather quaintly
at first--at first not seen very clearly, a little distorted by
intervening things, seen with a doubt, as I saw her through the
slightly discolored panes of crinkled glass in the window of the
Menton post-office and grocer's shop. It was on the second day
after the Change, and I had been sending telegrams for Melmount,
who was making arrangements for his departure for Downing Street.
I saw the two of them at first as small, flawed figures. The glass
made them seem curved, and it enhanced and altered their gestures
and paces. I felt it became me to say "Peace" to them, and I went
out, to the jangling of the door-bell. At the sight of me they
stopped short, and Verrall cried with the note of one who has
sought, "Here he is!" And Nettie cried, "Willie!"
I went toward them, and all the perspectives of my reconstructed
universe altered as I did so
I seemed to see these two for the first time; how fine they were,
how graceful and human. It was as though I had never really looked
at them before, and, indeed, always before I had beheld them through
a mist of selfish passion. They had shared the universal darkness
and dwarfing of the former time; they shared the universal exaltation
of the new. Now suddenly Nettie, and the love of Nettie, a great
passion for Nettie, lived again in me. This change which had enlarged
men's hearts had made no end to love. Indeed, it had enormously
enlarged and glorified love. She stepped into the center of that
dream of world reconstruction that filled my mind and took possession
of it all. A little wisp of hair had blown across her cheek, her
lips fell apart in that sweet smile of hers; her eyes were full
of wonder, of a welcoming scrutiny, of an infinitely courageous
I took her outstretched hand, and wonder overwhelmed me. "I wanted
to kill you," I said simply, trying to grasp that idea. It seemed
now like stabbing the stars, or murdering the sunlight.
"Afterward we looked for you," said Verrall; "and we could not find
you. . . . We heard another shot."
I turned my eyes to him, and Nettie's hand fell from me. It was
then I thought of how they had fallen together, and what it must
have been to have awakened in that dawn with Nettie by one's side.
I had a vision of them as I had glimpsed them last amidst the
thickening vapors, close together, hand in hand. The green hawks of
the Change spread their darkling wings above their last stumbling
paces. So they fell. And awoke--lovers together in a morning
of Paradise. Who can tell how bright the sunshine was to them,
how fair the flowers, how sweet the singing of the birds? . . .
This was the thought of my heart. But my lips were saying, "When
I awoke I threw my pistol away." Sheer blankness kept my thoughts
silent for a little while; I said empty things. "I am very glad
I did not kill you--that you are here, so fair and well. . . ."
"I am going away back to Clayton on the day after to-morrow," I
said, breaking away to explanations. "I have been writing shorthand
here for Melmount, but that is almost over now. . . ."
Neither of them said a word, and though all facts had suddenly ceased
to matter anything, I went on informatively, "He is to be taken to
Downing Street where there is a proper staff, so that there will
be no need of me. . . . Of course, you're a little perplexed at
my being with Melmount. You see I met him--by accident --directly
I recovered. I found him with a broken ankle--in that lane. . . .
I am to go now to the Four Towns to help prepare a report. So that
I am glad to see you both again" --I found a catch in my voice--"to
say good-bye to you, and wish you well."
This was after the quality of what had come into my mind when first
I saw them through the grocer's window, but it was not what I felt
and thought as I said it. I went on saying it because otherwise
there would have been a gap. It had come to me that it was going
to be hard to part from Nettie. My words sounded with an effect of
unreality. I stopped, and we stood for a moment in silence looking
at one another.
It was I, I think, who was discovering most. I was realizing for
the first time how little the Change had altered in my essential
nature. I had forgotten this business of love for a time in
a world of wonder. That was all. Nothing was lost from my nature,
nothing had gone, only the power of thought and restraint had been
wonderfully increased and new interests had been forced upon me.
The Green Vapors had passed, our minds were swept and garnished, but
we were ourselves still, though living in a new and finer air. My
affinities were unchanged; Nettie's personal charm for me was only
quickened by the enhancement of my perceptions. In her presence,
meeting her eyes, instantly my desire, no longer frantic but sane,
was awake again.
It was just like going to Checkshill in the old time, after
writing about socialism. . . .
I relinquished her hand. It was absurd to part in these terms.
So we all felt it. We hung awkwardly over our sense of that. It
was Verrall, I think, who shaped the thought for me, and said that
to-morrow then we must meet and say good-bye, and so turned our
encounter into a transitory making of arrangements. We settled we
would come to the inn at Menton, all three of us, and take
our midday meal together. . . .
Yes, it was clear that was all we had to say now. . . .
We parted a little awkwardly. I went on down the village street,
not looking back, surprised at myself, and infinitely perplexed.
It was as if I had discovered something overlooked that disarranged
all my plans, something entirely disconcerting. For the first time
I went back preoccupied and without eagerness to Melmount's work.
I wanted to go on thinking about Nettie; my mind had suddenly become
voluminously productive concerning her and Verrall.
The talk we three had together in the dawn of the new time is very
strongly impressed upon my memory. There was something fresh and
simple about it, something young and flushed and exalted. We took
up, we handled with a certain naive timidity, the most difficult
questions the Change had raised for men to solve. I recall we
made little of them. All the old scheme of human life had dissolved
and passed away, the narrow competitiveness, the greed and base
aggression, the jealous aloofness of soul from soul. Where had
it left us? That was what we and a thousand million others
were discussing. . . .
It chances that this last meeting with Nettie is inseparably
associated--I don't know why--with the landlady of the Menton inn.
The Menton inn was one of the rare pleasant corners of the old
order; it was an inn of an unusual prosperity, much frequented by
visitors from Shaphambury, and given to the serving of lunches and
teas. It had a broad mossy bowling-green, and round about it were
creeper-covered arbors amidst beds of snap-dragon, and hollyhock,
and blue delphinium, and many such tall familiar summer flowers.
These stood out against a background of laurels and holly, and
above these again rose the gables of the inn and its signpost--a
white horsed George slaying the dragon--against copper beeches under
the sky. While I waited for Nettie and Verrall in this agreeable
trysting place, I talked to the landlady --a broad-shouldered,
smiling, freckled woman--about the morning of the Change. That
motherly, abundant, red-haired figure of health was buoyantly sure
that everything in the world was now to be changed for the better.
That confidence, and something in her voice, made me love her as
I talked to her. "Now we're awake," she said, "all sorts of things
will be put right that hadn't any sense in them. Why? Oh! I'm sure
Her kind blue eyes met mine in an infinitude of friendliness. Her
lips in her pauses shaped in a pretty faint smile.
Old tradition was strong in us; all English inns in those days
charged the unexpected, and I asked what our lunch was to cost.
"Pay or not," she said, "and what you like. It's holiday these days.
I suppose we'll still have paying and charging, however we manage
it, but it won't be the worry it has been--that I feel sure. It's
the part I never had no fancy for. Many a time I peeped through the
bushes worrying to think what was just and right to me and mine,
and what would send 'em away satisfied. It isn't the money I care
for. There'll be mighty changes, be sure of that; but here I'll
stay, and make people happy--them that go by on the roads. It's a
pleasant place here when people are merry; it's only when they're
jealous, or mean, or tired, or eat up beyond any stomach's digesting, or
when they got the drink in 'em that Satan comes into this garden.
Many's the happy face I've seen here, and many that come again
like friends, but nothing to equal what's going to be, now things
are being set right."
She smiled, that bounteous woman, with the joy of life and hope.
"You shall have an omelet," she said, "you and your friends; such
an omelet--like they'll have 'em in heaven! I feel there's cooking
in me these days like I've never cooked before. I'm rejoiced
to have it to do. . . . "
It was just then that Nettie and Verrall appeared under a rustic
archway of crimson roses that led out from the inn. Nettie wore
white and a sun-hat, and Verrall was a figure of gray. "Here
are my friends," I said; but for all the magic of the Change,
something passed athwart the sunlight in my soul like the passing
of the shadow of a cloud. "A pretty couple," said the landlady,
as they crossed the velvet green toward us. . . .
They were indeed a pretty couple, but that did not greatly gladden
me. No--I winced a little at that.
This old newspaper, this first reissue of the New Paper,
dessicated last relic of a vanished age, is like the little piece
of identification the superstitious of the old days--those queer
religionists who brought a certain black-clad Mrs. Piper to the
help of Christ--used to put into the hand of a clairvoyant. At
the crisp touch of it I look across a gulf of fifty years and see
again the three of us sitting about that table in the arbor, and I
smell again the smell of the sweet-briar that filled the air about
us, and hear in our long pauses the abundant murmuring of bees
among the heliotrope of the borders.
It is the dawn of the new time, but we bear, all three of us, the
marks and liveries of the old.
I see myself, a dark, ill-dressed youth, with the bruise Lord Redcar
gave me still blue and yellow beneath my jaw; and young Verrall
sits cornerwise to me, better grown, better dressed, fair and quiet,
two years my senior indeed, but looking no older than I because of
his light complexion; and opposite me is Nettie, with dark eyes upon
my face, graver and more beautiful than I had ever seen her in the
former time. Her dress is still that white one she had worn when
I came upon her in the park, and still about her dainty neck she
wears her string of pearls and that little coin of gold. She is so
much the same, she is so changed; a girl then and now a woman--and
all my agony and all the marvel of the Change between! Over the end
of the green table about which we sit, a spotless cloth is spread,
it bears a pleasant lunch spread out with a simple equipage. Behind
me is the liberal sunshine of the green and various garden. I see
it all. Again I sit there, eating awkwardly, this paper lies upon
the table and Verrall talks of the Change.
"You can't imagine," he says in his sure, fine accents, "how much
the Change has destroyed of me. I still don't feel awake. Men of
my sort are so tremendously MADE; I never suspected it before."
He leans over the table toward me with an evident desire to make
himself perfectly understood. "I find myself like some creature
that is taken out of its shell--soft and new. I was trained to
dress in a certain way, to behave in a certain way, to think in a
certain way; I see now it's all wrong and narrow--most of it anyhow
--a system of class shibboleths. We were decent to each other in
order to be a gang to the rest of the world. Gentlemen indeed! But
I can hear his voice saying that now, and see the lift of his
eyebrows and his pleasant smile.
He paused. He had wanted to say that, but it was not the thing we
had to say.
I leant forward a little and took hold of my glass very tightly.
"You two," I said, "will marry?"
They looked at one another.
Nettie spoke very softly. "I did not mean to marry when I came
away," she said.
"I know," I answered. I looked up with a sense of effort and met
He answered me. "I think we two have joined our lives. . . . But
the thing that took us was a sort of madness."
I nodded. "All passion," I said, "is madness." Then I fell into a
doubting of those words.
"Why did we do these things?" he said, turning to her suddenly.
Her hands were clasped under her chin, her eyes downcast.
"We HAD to," she said, with her old trick of inadequate expression.
Then she seemed to open out suddenly.
"Willie," she cried with a sudden directness, with her eyes appealing
to me, "I didn't mean to treat you badly--indeed I didn't. I kept
thinking of you--and of father and mother, all the time. Only it
didn't seem to move me. It didn't move me not one bit from the way
I had chosen."
"Chosen!" I said.
"Something seemed to have hold of me," she admitted. "It's all so
unaccountable. . . ."
She gave a little gesture of despair.
Verrall's fingers played on the cloth for a space. Then he turned
his face to me again.
"Something said 'Take her.' Everything. It was a raging desire--for
her. I don't know. Everything contributed to that--or counted for
"Go on," said I.
"When I knew of you------"
I looked at Nettie. "You never told him about me?" I said, feeling,
as it were, a sting out of the old time.
Verrall answered for her. "No. But things dropped; I saw you that
night, my instincts were all awake. I knew it was you."
"You triumphed over me? . . . If I could I would have triumphed
over you," I said. "But go on!"
"Everything conspired to make it the finest thing in life. It had
an air of generous recklessness. It meant mischief, it might mean
failure in that life of politics and affairs, for which I was
trained, which it was my honor to follow. That made it all the
finer. It meant ruin or misery for Nettie. That made it all the
finer. No sane or decent man would have approved of what we did.
That made it more splendid than ever. I had all the advantages of
position and used them basely. That mattered not at all."
"Yes," I said; "it is true. And the same dark wave that lifted you,
swept me on to follow. With that revolver--and blubbering with
hate. And the word to you, Nettie, what was it? 'Give?' Hurl yourself
down the steep?"
Nettie's hands fell upon the table. "I can't tell what it was," she
said, speaking bare-hearted straight to me. "Girls aren't trained
as men are trained to look into their minds. I can't see it yet.
All sorts of mean little motives were there--over and above the
'must.' Mean motives. I kept thinking of his clothes." She smiled--a
flash of brightness at Verrall. "I kept thinking of being like a
lady and sitting in an hotel--with men like butlers waiting. It's
the dreadful truth, Willie. Things as mean as that! Things meaner
I can see her now pleading with me, speaking with a frankness as
bright and amazing as the dawn of the first great morning.
"It wasn't all mean," I said slowly, after a pause.
"No!" They spoke together.
"But a woman chooses more than a man does," Nettie added. "I saw
it all in little bright pictures. Do you know--that jacket--there's
something------ You won't mind my telling you? But you won't now!"
I nodded, "No."
She spoke as if she spoke to my soul, very quietly and very
earnestly, seeking to give the truth. "Something cottony in that
cloth of yours," she said. "I know there's something horrible in
being swung round by things like that, but they did swing me round.
In the old time--to have confessed that! And I hated Clayton--and
the grime of it. That kitchen! Your mother's dreadful kitchen!
And besides, Willie, I was afraid of you. I didn't understand you
and I did him. It's different now--but then I knew what he meant.
And there was his voice."
"Yes," I said to Verrall, making these discoveries quietly, "yes,
Verrall, you have a good voice. Queer I never thought of that
We sat silently for a time before our vivisected passions.
"Gods!" I cried, "and there was our poor little top-hamper of
intelligence on all these waves of instinct and wordless desire,
these foaming things of touch and sight and feeling, like --like
a coop of hens washed overboard and clucking amidst the seas."
Verrall laughed approval of the image I had struck out. "A week
ago," he said, trying it further, "we were clinging to our chicken
coops and going with the heave and pour. That was true enough a
week ago. But to-day------?"
"To-day," I said, "the wind has fallen. The world storm is over.
And each chicken coop has changed by a miracle to a vessel that
makes head against the sea."
"What are we to do?" asked Verrall.
Nettie drew a deep crimson carnation from the bowl before us, and
began very neatly and deliberately to turn down the sepals of its
calyx and remove, one by one, its petals. I remember that went
on through all our talk. She put those ragged crimson shreds in a
long row and adjusted them and readjusted them. When at last I was
alone with these vestiges the pattern was still incomplete.
"Well," said I, "the matter seems fairly simple. You two"--I
swallowed it--"love one another."
I paused. They answered me by silence, by a thoughtful silence.
"You belong to each other. I have thought it over and looked at it
from many points of view. I happened to want--impossible things.
. . . I behaved badly. I had no right to pursue you." I turned to
Verrall. "You hold yourself bound to her?"
He nodded assent.
"No social influence, no fading out of all this generous clearness
in the air--for that might happen--will change you back . . . ?"
He answered me with honest eyes meeting mine, "No, Leadford, no!"
"I did not know you," I said. "I thought of you as something very
different from this."
"I was," he interpolated.
"Now," I said, "it is all changed."
Then I halted--for my thread had slipped away from me.
"As for me," I went on, and glanced at Nettie's downcast face, and
then sat forward with my eyes upon the flowers between us, "since
I am swayed and shall be swayed by an affection for Nettie, since
that affection is rich with the seeds of desire, since to see her
yours and wholly yours is not to be endured by me--I must turn
about and go from you; you must avoid me and I you. . . . We must
divide the world like Jacob and Esau. ... I must direct myself
with all the will I have to other things. After all--this passion
is not life! It is perhaps for brutes and savages, but for men.
No! We must part and I must forget. What else is there but that?"
I did not look up, I sat very tense with the red petals printing
an indelible memory in my brain, but I felt the assent of Verrall's
pose. There were some moments of silence. Then Nettie spoke.
"But------" she said, and ceased.
I waited for a little while. I sighed and leant back in my chair.
"It is perfectly simple," I smiled, "now that we have cool heads."
"But IS it simple?" asked Nettie, and slashed my discourse out of
I looked up and found her with her eyes on Verrall. "You see,"
she said, "I like Willie. It's hard to say what one feels--but I
don't want him to go away like that."
"But then," objected Verrall, "how------?"
"No," said Nettie, and swept her half-arranged carnation petals back
into a heap of confusion. She began to arrange them very quickly
into one long straight line.
"It's so difficult------ I've never before in all my life tried
to get to the bottom of my mind. For one thing, I've not treated
Willie properly. He--he counted on me. I know he did. I was
his hope. I was a promised delight--something, something to crown
life--better than anything he had ever had. And a secret pride. .
. . He lived upon me. I knew--when we two began to meet together,
you and I------ It was a sort of treachery to him------"
"Treachery!" I said. "You were only feeling your way through all
"You thought it treachery."
"I don't now."
"I did. In a sense I think so still. For you had need of me."
I made a slight protest at this doctrine and fell thinking.
"And even when he was trying to kill us," she said to her lover,
"I felt for him down in the bottom of my mind. I can understand
all the horrible things, the humiliation--the humiliation! he went
"Yes," I said, "but I don't see------"
"I don't see. I'm only trying to see. But you know, Willie, you
are a part of my life. I have known you longer than I have known
Edward. I know you better. Indeed I know you with all my heart.
You think all your talk was thrown away upon me, that I never
understood that side of you, or your ambitions or anything. I did.
More than I thought at the time. Now --now it is all clear to me.
What I had to understand in you was something deeper than Edward
brought me. I have it now. . . . You are a part of my life, and I
don't want to cut all that off from me now I have comprehended it,
and throw it away."
"But you love Verrall."
"Love is such a queer thing! . . . Is there one love? I mean, only
one love?" She turned to Verrall. "I know I love you. I can speak
out about that now. Before this morning I couldn't have done. It's
just as though my mind had got out of a scented prison. But what
is it, this love for you? It's a mass of fancies--things about
you--ways you look, ways you have. It's the senses--and the senses
of certain beauties. Flattery too, things you said, hopes and
deceptions for myself. And all that had rolled up together and taken
to itself the wild help of those deep emotions that slumbered in my
body; it seemed everything. But it wasn't. How can I describe it?
It was like having a very bright lamp with a thick shade--everything
else in the room was hidden. But you take the shade off and there
they are--it is the same light--still there! Only it lights every
Her voice ceased. For awhile no one spoke, and Nettie, with a quick
movement, swept the petals into the shape of a pyramid.
Figures of speech always distract me, and it ran through my mind
like some puzzling refrain, "It is still the same light. . . ."
"No woman believes these things," she asserted abruptly.
"No woman ever has believed them."
"You have to choose a man," said Verrall, apprehending her before
"We're brought up to that. We're told--it's in books, in stories,
in the way people look, in the way they behave--one day there will
come a man. He will be everything, no one else will be anything.
Leave everything else; live in him."
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