Part 2 out of 5
So I set off in spite of her, feeling valiant and glad to be
so easily brave, but a little sorry that she should think herself
crossed by me.
A thin cloud veiled the moon, and the way under the beeches was
dark and indistinct. I was not so preoccupied with my love-affairs
as to neglect what I will confess was always my custom at night
across that wild and lonely park. I made myself a club by fastening
a big flint to one end of my twisted handkerchief and tying the
other about my wrist, and with this in my pocket, went on comforted.
And it chanced that as I emerged from the hollies by the corner
of the shrubbery I was startled to come unexpectedly upon a young
man in evening dress smoking a cigar.
I was walking on turf, so that the sound I made was slight. He
stood clear in the moonlight, his cigar glowed like a blood-red
star, and it did not occur to me at the time that I advanced towards
him almost invisibly in an impenetrable shadow.
"Hullo," he cried, with a sort of amiable challenge. "I'm here
I came out into the light. "Who cares if you are?" said I.
I had jumped at once to an interpretation of his words. I knew that
there was an intermittent dispute between the House people and the
villager public about the use of this track, and it is needless to
say where my sympathies fell in that dispute.
"Eh?" he cried in surprise.
"Thought I would run away, I suppose," said I, and came close up
All my enormous hatred of his class had flared up at the sight of
his costume, at the fancied challenge of his words. I knew him. He
was Edward Verrall, son of the man who owned not only this great
estate but more than half of Rawdon's pot-bank, and who had interests
and possessions, collieries and rents, all over the district of
the Four Towns. He was a gallant youngster, people said, and very
clever. Young as he was there was talk of parliament for him; he had
been a great success at the university, and he was being sedulously
popularized among us. He took with a light confidence, as a matter
of course, advantages that I would have faced the rack to get, and
I firmly believed myself a better man than he. He was, as he stood
there, a concentrated figure of all that filled me with bitterness.
One day he had stopped in a motor outside our house, and I remember
the thrill of rage with which I had noted the dutiful admiration
in my mother's eyes as she peered through her blind at him. "That's
young Mr. Verrall," she said. "They say he's very clever."
"They would," I answered. "Damn them and him!"
But that is by the way.
He was clearly astonished to find himself face to face with a man.
His note changed.
"Who the devil are YOU?" he asked.
My retort was the cheap expedient of re-echoing, "Who the devil
"WELL," he said.
"I'm coming along this path if I like," I said. "See? It's a public
path--just as this used to be public land. You've stolen the land
--you and yours, and now you want to steal the right of way. You'll
ask us to get off the face of the earth next. I sha'n't oblige.
I was shorter and I suppose a couple of years younger than he, but
I had the improvised club in my pocket gripped ready, and I would
have fought with him very cheerfully. But he fell a step backward
as I came toward him.
"Socialist, I presume?" he said, alert and quiet and with the
faintest note of badinage.
"One of many."
"We're all socialists nowadays," he remarked philosophically, "and
I haven't the faintest intention of disputing your right of way."
"You'd better not," I said.
He replaced his cigar, and there was a brief pause. "Catching a
train?" he threw out.
It seemed absurd not to answer. "Yes," I said shortly.
He said it was a pleasant evening for a walk.
I hovered for a moment and there was my path before me, and he
stood aside. There seemed nothing to do but go on. "Good night,"
said he, as that intention took effect.
I growled a surly good-night.
I felt like a bombshell of swearing that must presently burst with
some violence as I went on my silent way. He had so completely got
the best of our encounter.
There comes a memory, an odd intermixture of two entirely divergent
things, that stands out with the intensest vividness.
As I went across the last open meadow, following the short cut to
Checkshill station, I perceived I had two shadows.
The thing jumped into my mind and stopped its tumid flow for a
moment. I remember the intelligent detachment of my sudden interest.
I turned sharply, and stood looking at the moon and the great white
comet, that the drift of the clouds had now rather suddenly unveiled.
The comet was perhaps twenty degrees from the moon. What a wonderful
thing it looked floating there, a greenish-white apparition in
the dark blue deeps! It looked brighter than the moon because it
was smaller, but the shadow it cast, though clearer cut, was much
fainter than the moon's shadow. . . I went on noting these facts,
watching my two shadows precede me.
I am totally unable to account for the sequence of my thoughts
on this occasion. But suddenly, as if I had come on this new fact
round a corner, the comet was out of my mind again, and I was face
to face with an absolutely new idea. I wonder sometimes if the two
shadows I cast, one with a sort of feminine faintness with regard
to the other and not quite so tall, may not have suggested the
word or the thought of an assignation to my mind. All that I have
clear is that with the certitude of intuition I knew what it was
that had brought the youth in evening dress outside the shrubbery.
Of course! He had come to meet Nettie!
Once the mental process was started it took no time at all. The
day which had been full of perplexities for me, the mysterious
invisible thing that had held Nettie and myself apart, the unaccountable
strange something in her manner, was revealed and explained.
I knew now why she had looked guilty at my appearance, what had
brought her out that afternoon, why she had hurried me in, the
nature of the "book" she had run back to fetch, the reason why she
had wanted me to go back by the high-road, and why she had pitied
me. It was all in the instant clear to me.
You must imagine me a black little creature, suddenly stricken
still--for a moment standing rigid--and then again suddenly
becoming active with an impotent gesture, becoming audible with an
inarticulate cry, with two little shadows mocking my dismay, and
about this figure you must conceive a great wide space of moonlit
grass, rimmed by the looming suggestion of distant trees--trees
very low and faint and dim, and over it all the domed serenity of
that wonderful luminous night.
For a little while this realization stunned my mind. My thoughts
came to a pause, staring at my discovery. Meanwhile my feet and my
previous direction carried me through the warm darkness to Checkshill
station with its little lights, to the ticket-office window, and
so to the train.
I remember myself as it were waking up to the thing--I was alone
in one of the dingy "third-class" compartments of that time--and
the sudden nearly frantic insurgence of my rage. I stood up with the
cry of an angry animal, and smote my fist with all my strength
against the panel of wood before me. . . .
Curiously enough I have completely forgotten my mood after that
for a little while, but I know that later, for a minute perhaps, I
hung for a time out of the carriage with the door open, contemplating
a leap from the train. It was to be a dramatic leap, and then I
would go storming back to her, denounce her, overwhelm her; and I
hung, urging myself to do it. I don't remember how it was I decided
not to do this, at last, but in the end I didn't.
When the train stopped at the next station I had given up all
thoughts of going back. I was sitting in the corner of the carriage
with my bruised and wounded hand pressed under my arm, and still
insensible to its pain, trying to think out clearly a scheme of
action--action that should express the monstrous indignation that
CHAPTER THE THIRD
"THAT comet is going to hit the earth!"
So said one of the two men who got into the train and settled down.
"Ah!" said the other man.
"They do say that it is made of gas, that comet. We sha'n't
blow up, shall us?". . .
What did it matter to me?
I was thinking of revenge--revenge against the primary conditions
of my being. I was thinking of Nettie and her lover. I was firmly
resolved he should not have her--though I had to kill them both to
prevent it. I did not care what else might happen, if only that end
was ensured. All my thwarted passions had turned to rage. I would
have accepted eternal torment that night without a second thought,
to be certain of revenge. A hundred possibilities of action, a
hundred stormy situations, a whirl of violent schemes, chased one
another through my shamed, exasperated mind. The sole prospect I
could endure was of some gigantic, inexorably cruel vindication of
my humiliated self.
And Nettie? I loved Nettie still, but now with the intensest
jealousy, with the keen, unmeasuring hatred of wounded pride, and
baffled, passionate desire.
As I came down the hill from Clayton Crest --for my shilling and
a penny only permitted my traveling by train as far as Two-Mile
Stone, and thence I had to walk over the hill--I remember very
vividly a little man with a shrill voice who was preaching under
a gas-lamp against a hoarding to a thin crowd of Sunday evening
loafers. He was a short man, bald, with a little fair curly beard
and hair and watery blue eyes, and he was preaching that the end
of the world drew near.
I think that is the first time I heard any one link the comet with
the end of the world. He had got that jumbled up with international
politics and prophecies from the Book of Daniel.
I stopped to hear him only for a moment or so. I do not think I
should have halted at all but his crowd blocked my path, and the
sight of his queer wild expression, the gesture of his upward-pointing
finger, held me.
"There is the end of all your Sins and Follies," he bawled. "There!
There is the Star of Judgments, the Judgments of the most High
God! It is appointed unto all men to die--unto all men to die"--his
voice changed to a curious flat chant--"and after death, the
Judgment! The Judgment!"
I pushed and threaded my way through the bystanders and went on,
and his curious harsh flat voice pursued me. I went on with the
thoughts that had occupied me before--where I could buy a revolver,
and how I might master its use--and probably I should have forgotten
all about him had he not taken a part in the hideous dream that
ended the little sleep I had that night. For the most part I lay
awake thinking of Nettie and her lover.
Then came three strange days--three days that seem now to have been
wholly concentrated upon one business.
This dominant business was the purchase of my revolver. I held
myself resolutely to the idea that I must either restore myself by
some extraordinary act of vigor and violence in Nettie's eyes or I
must kill her. I would not let myself fall away from that. I felt
that if I let this matter pass, my last shred of pride and honor
would pass with it, that for the rest of my life I should never
deserve the slightest respect or any woman's love. Pride kept me
to my purpose between my gusts of passion.
Yet it was not easy to buy that revolver.
I had a kind of shyness of the moment when I should have to face
the shopman, and I was particularly anxious to have a story ready
if he should see fit to ask questions why I bought such a thing.
I determined to say I was going to Texas, and I thought it might
prove useful there. Texas in those days had the reputation of a
wild lawless land. As I knew nothing of caliber or impact, I wanted
also to be able to ask with a steady face at what distance a man
or woman could be killed by the weapon that might be offered me.
I was pretty cool-headed in relation to such practical aspects of
my affair. I had some little difficulty in finding a gunsmith. In
Clayton there were some rook-rifles and so forth in a cycle shop,
but the only revolvers these people had impressed me as being too
small and toylike for my purpose. It was in a pawnshop window in
the narrow High Street of Swathinglea that I found my choice, a
reasonably clumsy and serious-looking implement ticketed "As used
in the American army."
I had drawn out my balance from the savings bank, matter of two
pounds and more, to make this purchase, and I found it at last
a very easy transaction. The pawnbroker told me where I could get
ammunition, and I went home that night with bulging pockets, an
The purchase of my revolver was, I say, the chief business of
those days, but you must not think I was so intent upon it as to
be insensible to the stirring things that were happening in the
streets through which I went seeking the means to effect my purpose.
They were full of murmurings: the whole region of the Four Towns
scowled lowering from its narrow doors. The ordinary healthy flow
of people going to work, people going about their business, was
chilled and checked. Numbers of men stood about the streets in knots
and groups, as corpuscles gather and catch in the blood-vessels in
the opening stages of inflammation. The woman looked haggard and
worried. The ironworkers had refused the proposed reduction of
their wages, and the lockout had begun. They were already at "play."
The Conciliation Board was doing its best to keep the coal-miners
and masters from a breach, but young Lord Redcar, the greatest of
our coal owners and landlord of all Swathinglea and half Clayton, was
taking a fine upstanding attitude that made the breach inevitable.
He was a handsome young man, a gallant young man; his pride revolted
at the idea of being dictated to by a "lot of bally miners," and
he meant, he said, to make a fight for it. The world had treated
him sumptuously from his earliest years; the shares in the common
stock of five thousand people had gone to pay for his handsome
upbringing, and large, romantic, expensive ambitions filled
his generously nurtured mind. He had early distinguished himself
at Oxford by his scornful attitude towards democracy. There was
something that appealed to the imagination in his fine antagonism
to the crowd--on the one hand, was the brilliant young nobleman,
picturesquely alone; on the other, the ugly, inexpressive multitude,
dressed inelegantly in shop-clothes, under-educated, under-fed,
envious, base, and with a wicked disinclination for work and a wicked
appetite for the good things it could so rarely get. For common
imaginative purposes one left out the policeman from the design,
the stalwart policeman protecting his lordship, and ignored the
fact that while Lord Redcar had his hands immediately and legally
on the workman's shelter and bread, they could touch him to the
skin only by some violent breach of the law.
He lived at Lowchester House, five miles or so beyond Checkshill;
but partly to show how little he cared for his antagonists, and
partly no doubt to keep himself in touch with the negotiations that
were still going on, he was visible almost every day in and about
the Four Towns, driving that big motor car of his that could take
him sixty miles an hour. The English passion for fair play one
might have thought sufficient to rob this bold procedure of any
dangerous possibilities, but he did not go altogether free from
insult, and on one occasion at least an intoxicated Irish
woman shook her fist at him. . . .
A dark, quiet crowd, that was greater each day, a crowd more than
half women, brooded as a cloud will sometimes brood permanently upon
a mountain crest, in the market-place outside the Clayton
Town Hall, where the conference was held. . . .
I consider myself justified in regarding Lord Redcar's passing
automobile with a special animosity because of the leaks in our
We held our little house on lease; the owner was a mean, saving
old man named Pettigrew, who lived in a villa adorned with plaster
images of dogs and goats, at Overcastle, and in spite of our specific
agreement, he would do no repairs for us at all. He rested secure
in my mother's timidity. Once, long ago, she had been behind-hand
with her rent, with half of her quarter's rent, and he had extended
the days of grace a month; her sense that some day she might need
the same mercy again made her his abject slave. She was afraid even
to ask that he should cause the roof to be mended for fear he might
take offence. But one night the rain poured in on her bed and gave
her a cold, and stained and soaked her poor old patchwork counterpane.
Then she got me to compose an excessively polite letter to old
Pettigrew, begging him as a favor to perform his legal obligations.
It is part of the general imbecility of those days that such one-sided
law as existed was a profound mystery to the common people, its
provisions impossible to ascertain, its machinery impossible to set
in motion. Instead of the clearly written code, the lucid statements
of rules and principles that are now at the service of every one,
the law was the muddle secret of the legal profession. Poor people,
overworked people, had constantly to submit to petty wrongs because
of the intolerable uncertainty not only of law but of cost, and of
the demands upon time and energy, proceedings might make. There
was indeed no justice for any one too poor to command a good
solicitor's deference and loyalty; there was nothing but rough
police protection and the magistrate's grudging or eccentric advice
for the mass of the population. The civil law, in particular, was
a mysterious upper-class weapon, and I can imagine no injustice that
would have been sufficient to induce my poor old mother to appeal
All this begins to sound incredible. I can only assure you that it
But I, when I learned that old Pettigrew had been down to tell my
mother all about his rheumatism, to inspect the roof, and to allege
that nothing was needed, gave way to my most frequent emotion in
those days, a burning indignation, and took the matter into my own
hands. I wrote and asked him, with a withering air of technicality,
to have the roof repaired "as per agreement," and added, "if not
done in one week from now we shall be obliged to take proceedings."
I had not mentioned this high line of conduct to my mother at first,
and so when old Pettigrew came down in a state of great agitation
with my letter in his hand, she was almost equally agitated.
"How could you write to old Mr. Pettigrew like that?" she asked
I said that old Pettigrew was a shameful old rascal, or words to
that effect, and I am afraid I behaved in a very undutiful way to
her when she said that she had settled everything with him--she
wouldn't say how, but I could guess well enough--and that I was
to promise her, promise her faithfully, to do nothing more in the
matter. I wouldn't promise her.
And--having nothing better to employ me then--I presently went
raging to old Pettigrew in order to put the whole thing before him
in what I considered the proper light. Old Pettigrew evaded my
illumination; he saw me coming up his front steps--I can still see
his queer old nose and the crinkled brow over his eye and the little
wisp of gray hair that showed over the corner of his window-blind--and
he instructed his servant to put up the chain when she answered
the door, and to tell me that he would not see me. So I had to fall
back upon my pen.
Then it was, as I had no idea what were the proper "proceedings"
to take, the brilliant idea occurred to me of appealing to Lord
Redcar as the ground landlord, and, as it were, our feudal chief,
and pointing out to him that his security for his rent was depreciating
in old Pettigrew's hands. I added some general observations on
leaseholds, the taxation of ground rents, and the private ownership
of the soil. And Lord Redcar, whose spirit revolted at democracy,
and who cultivated a pert humiliating manner with his inferiors to
show as much, earned my distinguished hatred for ever by causing
his secretary to present his compliments to me, and his request
that I would mind my own business and leave him to manage his. At
which I was so greatly enraged that I first tore this note into
minute innumerable pieces, and then dashed it dramatically all over
the floor of my room--from which, to keep my mother from the job,
I afterward had to pick it up laboriously on all-fours.
I was still meditating a tremendous retort, an indictment of all
Lord Redcar's class, their manners, morals, economic and political
crimes, when my trouble with Nettie arose to swamp all minor
troubles. Yet, not so completely but that I snarled aloud when his
lordship's motor-car whizzed by me, as I went about upon my long
meandering quest for a weapon. And I discovered after a time that
my mother had bruised her knee and was lame. Fearing to irritate
me by bringing the thing before me again, she had set herself to
move her bed out of the way of the drip without my help, and she
had knocked her knee. All her poor furnishings, I discovered, were
cowering now close to the peeling bedroom walls; there had come a
vast discoloration of the ceiling, and a washing-tub was
in occupation of the middle of her chamber. . . .
It is necessary that I should set these things before you, should
give the key of inconvenience and uneasiness in which all things
were arranged, should suggest the breath of trouble that stirred
along the hot summer streets, the anxiety about the strike, the
rumors and indignations, the gatherings and meetings, the increasing
gravity of the policemen's faces, the combative headlines of the
local papers, the knots of picketers who scrutinized any one who
passed near the silent, smokeless forges, but in my mind, you must
understand, such impressions came and went irregularly; they made
a moving background, changing undertones, to my preoccupation by
that darkly shaping purpose to which a revolver was so imperative
Along the darkling streets, amidst the sullen crowds, the thought
of Nettie, my Nettie, and her gentleman lover made ever a vivid
inflammatory spot of purpose in my brain.
It was three days after this--on Wednesday, that is to say--that
the first of those sinister outbreaks occurred that ended in the
bloody affair of Peacock Grove and the flooding out of the entire
line of the Swathinglea collieries. It was the only one of these
disturbances I was destined to see, and at most a mere trivial
preliminary of that struggle.
The accounts that have been written of this affair vary very widely.
To read them is to realize the extraordinary carelessness of truth
that dishonored the press of those latter days. In my bureau I
have several files of the daily papers of the old time--I collected
them, as a matter of fact--and three or four of about that date I
have just this moment taken out and looked through to refresh my
impression of what I saw. They lie before me--queer, shriveled,
incredible things; the cheap paper has already become brittle and
brown and split along the creases, the ink faded or smeared, and I
have to handle them with the utmost care when I glance among their
raging headlines. As I sit here in this serene place, their quality
throughout, their arrangement, their tone, their arguments and
exhortations, read as though they came from drugged and drunken men.
They give one the effect of faded bawling, of screams and shouts
heard faintly in a little gramophone. . . . It is only on Monday
I find, and buried deep below the war news, that these publications
contain any intimation that unusual happenings were forward in
Clayton and Swathinglea.
What I saw was towards evening. I had been learning to shoot with
my new possession. I had walked out with it four or five miles
across a patch of moorland and down to a secluded little coppice
full of blue-bells, halfway along the high-road between Leet and
Stafford. Here I had spent the afternoon, experimenting and practising
with careful deliberation and grim persistence. I had brought an
old kite-frame of cane with me, that folded and unfolded, and each
shot-hole I made I marked and numbered to compare with my other
endeavors. At last I was satisfied that I could hit a playing-card
at thirty paces nine times out of ten; the light was getting too
bad for me to see my penciled bull's-eye, and in that state of
quiet moodiness that sometimes comes with hunger to passionate men,
I returned by the way of Swathinglea towards my home.
The road I followed came down between banks of wretched-looking
working-men's houses, in close-packed rows on either side, and took
upon itself the role of Swathinglea High Street, where, at a lamp
and a pillar-box, the steam-trams began. So far that dirty hot way
had been unusually quiet and empty, but beyond the corner, where
the first group of beershops clustered, it became populous. It was
very quiet still, even the children were a little inactive, but
there were a lot of people standing dispersedly in little groups,
and with a general direction towards the gates of the Bantock Burden
The place was being picketed, although at that time the miners
were still nominally at work, and the conferences between masters
and men still in session at Clayton Town Hall. But one of the men
employed at the Bantock Burden pit, Jack Briscoe, was a socialist,
and he had distinguished himself by a violent letter upon the crisis
to the leading socialistic paper in England, The Clarion, in which
he had adventured among the motives of Lord Redcar. The publication
of this had been followed by instant dismissal. As Lord Redcar wrote
a day or so later to the Times--I have that Times, I have all the
London papers of the last month before the Change--
"The man was paid off and kicked out. Any self-respecting employer
would do the same." The thing had happened overnight, and the men
did not at once take a clear line upon what was, after all, a very
intricate and debatable occasion. But they came out in a sort of
semiofficial strike from all Lord Redcar's collieries beyond the
canal that besets Swathinglea. They did so without formal notice,
committing a breach of contract by this sudden cessation. But in
the long labor struggles of the old days the workers were constantly
putting themselves in the wrong and committing illegalities
through that overpowering craving for dramatic promptness natural
to uneducated minds.
All the men had not come out of the Bantock Burden pit. Something
was wrong there, an indecision if nothing else; the mine was still
working, and there was a rumor that men from Durham had been held
in readiness by Lord Redcar, and were already in the mine. Now, it
is absolutely impossible to ascertain certainly how things stood at
that time. The newspapers say this and that, but nothing trustworthy
I believe I should have gone striding athwart the dark stage of
that stagnant industrial drama without asking a question, if Lord
Redcar had not chanced to come upon the scene about the same time
as myself and incontinently end its stagnation.
He had promised that if the men wanted a struggle he would put
up the best fight they had ever had, and he had been active all
that afternoon in meeting the quarrel half way, and preparing as
conspicuously as possible for the scratch force of "blacklegs"--as
we called them --who were, he said and we believed, to replace the
strikers in his pits.
I was an eye-witness of the whole of the affair outside the Bantock
Burden pit, and--I do not know what happened.
Picture to yourself how the thing came to me.
I was descending a steep, cobbled, excavated road between banked-up
footways, perhaps six feet high, upon which, in a monotonous
series, opened the living room doors of rows of dark, low cottages.
The perspective of squat blue slate roofs and clustering chimneys
drifted downward towards the irregular open space before the
colliery--a space covered with coaly, wheel-scarred mud, with a
patch of weedy dump to the left and the colliery gates to the right.
Beyond, the High Street with shops resumed again in good earnest
and went on, and the lines of the steam-tramway that started out
from before my feet, and were here shining and acutely visible
with reflected skylight and here lost in a shadow, took up for one
acute moment the greasy yellow irradiation of a newly lit gaslamp
as they vanished round the bend. Beyond, spread a darkling marsh
of homes, an infinitude of little smoking hovels, and emergent,
meager churches, public-houses, board schools, and other buildings
amidst the prevailing chimneys of Swathinglea. To the right, very
clear and relatively high, the Bantock Burden pit-mouth was marked
by a gaunt lattice bearing a great black wheel, very sharp and
distinct in the twilight, and beyond, in an irregular perspective,
were others following the lie of the seams. The general effect,
as one came down the hill, was of a dark compressed life beneath
a very high and wide and luminous evening sky, against which these
pit-wheels rose. And ruling the calm spaciousness of that heaven
was the great comet, now green-white, and wonderful for all who
had eyes to see.
The fading afterglow of the sunset threw up all the contours and
skyline to the west, and the comet rose eastward out of the pouring
tumult of smoke from Bladden's forges. The moon had still to rise.
By this time the comet had begun to assume the cloudlike form still
familiar through the medium of a thousand photographs and sketches.
At first it had been an almost telescopic speck; it had brightened
to the dimensions of the greatest star in the heavens; it had
still grown, hour by hour, in its incredibly swift, its noiseless
and inevitable rush upon our earth, until it had equaled and surpassed
the moon. Now it was the most splendid thing this sky of earth has
ever held. I have never seen a photograph that gave a proper idea
of it. Never at any time did it assume the conventional tailed
outline, comets are supposed to have. Astronomers talked of its
double tail, one preceding it and one trailing behind it, but these
were foreshortened to nothing, so that it had rather the form of a
bellying puff of luminous smoke with an intenser, brighter heart.
It rose a hot yellow color, and only began to show its distinctive
greenness when it was clear of the mists of the evening.
It compelled attention for a space. For all my earthly concentration of
mind, I could but stare at it for a moment with a vague anticipation
that, after all, in some way so strange and glorious an object
must have significance, could not possibly be a matter of absolute
indifference to the scheme and values of my life.
I thought of Parload. I thought of the panic and uneasiness that
was spreading in this very matter, and the assurances of scientific
men that the thing weighed so little--at the utmost a few hundred
tons of thinly diffused gas and dust--that even were it to smite
this earth fully, nothing could possibly ensue. And, after all,
said I, what earthly significance has any one found in the stars?
Then, as one still descended, the houses and buildings rose up,
the presence of those watching groups of people, the tension of
the situation; and one forgot the sky.
Preoccupied with myself and with my dark dream about Nettie and my
honor, I threaded my course through the stagnating threat of this
gathering, and was caught unawares, when suddenly the whole
scene flashed into drama. . . .
The attention of every one swung round with an irresistible magnetism
towards the High Street, and caught me as a rush of waters might
catch a wisp of hay. Abruptly the whole crowd was sounding one note.
It was not a word, it was a sound that mingled threat and protest,
something between a prolonged "Ah!" and "Ugh!" Then with a hoarse
intensity of anger came a low heavy booing, "Boo! boo --oo!" a note
stupidly expressive of animal savagery. "Toot, toot!" said Lord
Redcar's automobile in ridiculous repartee. "Toot, toot!" One heard
it whizzing and throbbing as the crowd obliged it to slow down.
Everybody seemed in motion towards the colliery gates, I, too, with
I heard a shout. Through the dark figures about me I saw the motor-car
stop and move forward again, and had a glimpse of something writhing
on the ground.
It was alleged afterwards that Lord Redcar was driving, and that
he quite deliberately knocked down a little boy who would not get
out of his way. It is asserted with equal confidence that the boy
was a man who tried to pass across the front of the motor-car as it
came slowly through the crowd, who escaped by a hair's breadth, and
then slipped on the tram-rail and fell down. I have both accounts
set forth, under screaming headlines, in two of these sere newspapers
upon my desk. No one could ever ascertain the truth. Indeed, in
such a blind tumult of passion, could there be any truth?
There was a rush forward, the horn of the car sounded, everything
swayed violently to the right for perhaps ten yards or so, and
there was a report like a pistol-shot.
For a moment every one seemed running away. A woman, carrying a
shawl-wrapped child, blundered into me, and sent me reeling back.
Every one thought of firearms, but, as a matter of fact, something
had gone wrong with the motor, what in those old-fashioned contrivances
was called a backfire. A thin puff of bluish smoke hung in the air
behind the thing. The majority of the people scattered back in a
disorderly fashion, and left a clear space about the struggle that
centered upon the motor-car.
The man or boy who had fallen was lying on the ground with no one
near him, a black lump, an extended arm and two sprawling feet.
The motor-car had stopped, and its three occupants were standing
up. Six or seven black figures surrounded the car, and appeared
to be holding on to it as if to prevent it from starting again;
one--it was Mitchell, a well-known labor leader --argued in fierce
low tones with Lord Redcar. I could not hear anything they said,
I was not near enough. Behind me the colliery gates were open,
and there was a sense of help coming to the motor-car from that
direction. There was an unoccupied muddy space for fifty yards,
perhaps, between car and gate, and then the wheels and head of the
pit rose black against the sky. I was one of a rude semicircle of
people that hung as yet indeterminate in action about this dispute.
It was natural, I suppose, that my fingers should close upon the
revolver in my pocket.
I advanced with the vaguest intentions in the world, and not so
quickly but that several men hurried past me to join the little
knot holding up the car.
Lord Redcar, in his big furry overcoat, towered up over the group
about him; his gestures were free and threatening, and his voice
loud. He made a fine figure there, I must admit; he was a big,
fair, handsome young man with a fine tenor voice and an instinct
for gallant effect. My eyes were drawn to him at first wholly. He
seemed a symbol, a triumphant symbol, of all that the theory of
aristocracy claims, of all that filled my soul with resentment.
His chauffeur sat crouched together, peering at the crowd under
his lordship's arm. But Mitchell showed as a sturdy figure also,
and his voice was firm and loud.
"You've hurt that lad," said Mitchell, over and over again. "You'll
wait here till you see if he's hurt."
"I'll wait here or not as I please," said Redcar; and to the
chauffeur, "Here! get down and look at it!"
"You'd better not get down," said Mitchell; and the chauffeur stood
bent and hesitating on the step.
The man on the back seat stood up, leant forward, and spoke to Lord
Redcar, and for the first time my attention was drawn to him. It
was young Verrall! His handsome face shone clear and fine in the
green pallor of the comet.
I ceased to hear the quarrel that was raising the voice of Mitchell
and Lord Redcar. This new fact sent them spinning into the background.
It was my own purpose coming to meet me half way.
There was to be a fight here, it seemed certain to come to a scuffle,
and here we were--
What was I to do? I thought very swiftly. Unless my memory cheats
me, I acted with swift decision. My hand tightened on my revolver,
and then I remembered it was unloaded. I had thought my course out
in an instant. I turned round and pushed my way out of the angry
crowd that was now surging back towards the motor-car.
It would be quiet and out of sight, I thought, among the dump
heaps across the road, and there I might load unobserved. . .
A big young man striding forward with his fists clenched, halted
for one second at the sight of me.
"What!" said he. "Ain't afraid of them, are you?"
I glanced over my shoulder and back at him, was near showing him my
pistol, and the expression changed in his eyes. He hung perplexed
at me. Then with a grunt he went on.
I heard the voices growing loud and sharp behind me.
I hesitated, half turned towards the dispute, then set off running
towards the heaps. Some instinct told me not to be detected loading.
I was cool enough therefore to think of the aftermath of the thing
I meant to do.
I looked back once again towards the swaying discussion--or was
it a fight now? and then I dropped into the hollow, knelt among
the weeds, and loaded with eager trembling fingers. I loaded one
chamber, got up and went back a dozen paces, thought of possibilities,
vacillated, returned and loaded all the others. I did it slowly
because I felt a little clumsy, and at the end came a moment of
inspection--had I forgotten any thing? And then for a few seconds
I crouched before I rose, resisting the first gust of reaction
against my impulse. I took thought, and for a moment that great
green-white meteor overhead swam back into my conscious mind. For
the first time then I linked it clearly with all the fierce violence
that had crept into human life. I joined up that with what I meant
to do. I was going to shoot young Verrall as it were under the
benediction of that green glare.
But about Nettie?
I found it impossible to think out that obvious complication.
I came up over the heap again, and walked slowly back towards the
Of course I had to kill him. . . .
Now I would have you believe I did not want to murder young Verrall
at all at that particular time. I had not pictured such circumstances
as these, I had never thought of him in connection with Lord Redcar
and our black industrial world. He was in that distant other world
of Checkshill, the world of parks and gardens, the world of sunlit
emotions and Nettie. His appearance here was disconcerting. I was
taken by surprise. I was too tired and hungry to think clearly, and
the hard implication of our antagonism prevailed with me. In the
tumult of my passed emotions I had thought constantly of conflicts,
confrontations, deeds of violence, and now the memory of these things
took possession of me as though they were irrevocable resolutions.
There was a sharp exclamation, the shriek of a woman, and the crowd
came surging back. The fight had begun.
Lord Redcar, I believe, had jumped down from his car and felled
Mitchell, and men were already running out to his assistance from
the colliery gates.
I had some difficulty in shoving through the crowd; I can still
remember very vividly being jammed at one time between two big men
so that my arms were pinned to my sides, but all the other details
are gone out of my mind until I found myself almost violently
projected forward into the "scrap."
I blundered against the corner of the motor-car, and came round it
face to face with young Verrall, who was descending from the back
compartment. His face was touched with orange from the automobile's
big lamps, which conflicted with the shadows of the comet light,
and distorted him oddly. That effect lasted but an instant, but it
put me out. Then he came a step forward, and the ruddy lights and
I don't think he recognized me, but he perceived immediately I
meant attacking. He struck out at once at me a haphazard blow, and
touched me on the cheek.
Instinctively I let go of the pistol, snatched my right hand out
of my pocket and brought it up in a belated parry, and then let
out with my left full in his chest.
It sent him staggering, and as he went back I saw recognition mingle
with astonishment in his face.
"You know me, you swine," I cried and hit again.
Then I was spinning sideways, half-stunned, with a huge lump of a
fist under my jaw. I had an impression of Lord Redcar as a great
furry bulk, towering like some Homeric hero above the fray. I went
down before him--it made him seem to rush up--and he ignored me
further. His big flat voice counseled young Verrall--
"Cut, Teddy! It won't do. The picketa's got i'on bahs. . . ."
Feet swayed about me, and some hobnailed miner kicked my ankle and
went stumbling. There were shouts and curses, and then everything
had swept past me. I rolled over on my face and beheld the chauffeur,
young Verrall, and Lord Redcar--the latter holding up his long
skirts of fur, and making a grotesque figure--one behind the other,
in full bolt across a coldly comet-lit interval, towards the open
gates of the colliery.
I raised myself up on my hands.
I had not even drawn my revolver--I had forgotten it. I was covered
with coaly mud--knees, elbows, shoulders, back. I had not
even drawn my revolver! . .
A feeling of ridiculous impotence overwhelmed me. I struggled
painfully to my feet.
I hesitated for a moment towards the gates of the colliery, and then
went limping homeward, thwarted, painful, confused, and ashamed.
I had not the heart nor desire to help in the wrecking and burning
of Lord Redcar's motor.
In the night, fever, pain, fatigue--it may be the indigestion of
my supper of bread and cheese--roused me at last out of a hag-rid
sleep to face despair. I was a soul lost amidst desolations and
shame, dishonored, evilly treated, hopeless. I raged against the
God I denied, and cursed him as I lay.
And it was in the nature of my fever, which was indeed only half
fatigue and illness, and the rest the disorder of passionate youth,
that Nettie, a strangely distorted Nettie, should come through the
brief dreams that marked the exhaustions of that vigil, to dominate
my misery. I was sensible, with an exaggerated distinctness, of
the intensity of her physical charm for me, of her every grace and
beauty; she took to herself the whole gamut of desire in me and
the whole gamut of pride. She, bodily, was my lost honor. It was
not only loss but disgrace to lose her. She stood for life and all
that was denied; she mocked me as a creature of failure and defeat.
My spirit raised itself towards her, and then the bruise upon my
jaw glowed with a dull heat, and I rolled in the mud again before
There were times when something near madness took me, and I gnashed
my teeth and dug my nails into my hands and ceased to curse and cry
out only by reason of the insufficiency of words. And once towards
dawn I got out of bed, and sat by my looking-glass with my revolver
loaded in my hand. I stood up at last and put it carefully in my
drawer and locked it--out of reach of any gusty impulse. After
that I slept for a little while.
Such nights were nothing rare and strange in that old order of the
world. Never a city, never a night the whole year round, but amidst
those who slept were those who waked, plumbing the deeps of wrath
and misery. Countless thousands there were so ill, so troubled,
they agonize near to the very border-line of madness, each
one the center of a universe darkened and lost. . .
The next day I spent in gloomy lethargy.
I had intended to go to Checkshill that day, but my bruised ankle
was too swollen for that to be possible. I sat indoors in the
ill-lit downstairs kitchen, with my foot bandaged, and mused darkly
and read. My dear old mother waited on me, and her brown eyes watched
me and wondered at my black silences, my frowning preoccupations.
I had not told her how it was my ankle came to be bruised and my
clothes muddy. She had brushed my clothes in the morning before I
Ah well! Mothers are not treated in that way now. That I suppose
must console me. I wonder how far you will be able to picture that
dark, grimy, untidy room, with its bare deal table, its tattered
wall paper, the saucepans and kettle on the narrow, cheap, but
by no means economical range, the ashes under the fireplace, the
rust-spotted steel fender on which my bandaged feet rested; I wonder
how near you can come to seeing the scowling pale-faced hobbledehoy
I was, unshaven and collarless, in the Windsor chair, and the little
timid, dirty, devoted old woman who hovered about me with
love peering out from her puckered eyelids. . .
When she went out to buy some vegetables in the middle of the
morning she got me a half-penny journal. It was just such a one as
these upon my desk, only that the copy I read was damp from the
press, and these are so dry and brittle, they crack if I touch
them. I have a copy of the actual issue I read that morning; it
was a paper called emphatically the New Paper, but everybody bought
it and everybody called it the "yell." It was full that morning of
stupendous news and still more stupendous headlines, so stupendous
that for a little while I was roused from my egotistical broodings
to wider interests. For it seemed that Germany and England were on
the brink of war.
Of all the monstrous irrational phenomena of the former time, war
was certainly the most strikingly insane. In reality it was probably
far less mischievous than such quieter evil as, for example, the
general acquiescence in the private ownership of land, but its evil
consequences showed so plainly that even in those days of stifling
confusion one marveled at it. On no conceivable grounds was there
any sense in modern war. Save for the slaughter and mangling of a
multitude of people, the destruction of vast quantities of material,
and the waste of innumerable units of energy, it effected nothing.
The old war of savage and barbaric nations did at least change
humanity, you assumed yourselves to be a superior tribe in physique
and discipline, you demonstrated this upon your neighbors, and
if successful you took their land and their women and perpetuated
and enlarged your superiority. The new war changed nothing but the
color of maps, the design of postage stamps, and the relationship
of a few accidentally conspicuous individuals. In one of the last
of these international epileptic fits, for example, the English,
with much dysentery and bad poetry, and a few hundred deaths in
battle, conquered the South African Boers at a gross cost of about
three thousand pounds per head --they could have bought the whole
of that preposterous imitation of a nation for a tenth of that
sum--and except for a few substitutions of personalities, this
group of partially corrupt officials in the place of that, and so
forth, the permanent change was altogether insignificant. (But
an excitable young man in Austria committed suicide when at length
the Transvaal ceased to be a "nation.") Men went through the seat
of that war after it was all over, and found humanity unchanged,
except for a general impoverishment, and the convenience of an
unlimited supply of empty ration tins and barbed wire and cartridge
cases--unchanged and resuming with a slight perplexity all its old
habits and misunderstandings, the nigger still in his slum-like
kraal, the white in his ugly ill-managed shanty. . .
But we in England saw all these things, or did not see them,
through the mirage of the New Paper, in a light of mania. All my
adolescence from fourteen to seventeen went to the music of that
monstrous resonating futility, the cheering, the anxieties, the
songs and the waving of flags, the wrongs of generous Buller and
the glorious heroism of De Wet--who ALWAYS got away; that was the
great point about the heroic De Wet--and it never occurred to us
that the total population we fought against was less than half the
number of those who lived cramped ignoble lives within the compass
of the Four Towns.
But before and after that stupid conflict of stupidities, a greater
antagonism was coming into being, was slowly and quietly defining
itself as a thing inevitable, sinking now a little out of attention
only to resume more emphatically, now flashing into some acute
definitive expression and now percolating and pervading some new
region of thought, and that was the antagonism of Germany and Great
When I think of that growing proportion of readers who belong
entirely to the new order, who are growing up with only the vaguest
early memories of the old world, I find the greatest difficulty
in writing down the unintelligible confusions that were matter of
fact to their fathers.
Here were we British, forty-one millions of people, in a state of
almost indescribably aimless, economic, and moral muddle that we had
neither the courage, the energy, nor the intelligence to improve,
that most of us had hardly the courage to think about, and with our
affairs hopelessly entangled with the entirely different confusions
of three hundred and fifty million other persons scattered about
the globe, and here were the Germans over against us, fifty-six
millions, in a state of confusion no whit better than our own,
and the noisy little creatures who directed papers and wrote books
and gave lectures, and generally in that time of world-dementia
pretended to be the national mind, were busy in both countries,
with a sort of infernal unanimity, exhorting--and not only exhorting
but successfully persuading--the two peoples to divert such small
common store of material, moral and intellectual energy as either
possessed, into the purely destructive and wasteful business of war.
And--I have to tell you these things even if you do not believe
them, because they are vital to my story--there was not a man alive
who could have told you of any real permanent benefit, of anything
whatever to counterbalance the obvious waste and evil, that would
result from a war between England and Germany, whether England
shattered Germany or was smashed and overwhelmed, or whatever the
end might be.
The thing was, in fact, an enormous irrational obsession, it was,
in the microcosm of our nation, curiously parallel to the egotistical
wrath and jealousy that swayed my individual microcosm. It measured
the excess of common emotion over the common intelligence, the
legacy of inordinate passion we have received from the brute from
which we came. Just as I had become the slave of my own surprise and
anger and went hither and thither with a loaded revolver, seeking
and intending vague fluctuating crimes, so these two nations went
about the earth, hot eared and muddle headed, with loaded navies
and armies terribly ready at hand. Only there was not even a Nettie
to justify their stupidity. There was nothing but quiet imaginary
thwarting on either side.
And the press was the chief instrument that kept these two huge
multitudes of people directed against one another.
The press--those newspapers that are now so strange to us--like
the "Empires," the "Nations," the Trusts, and all the other great
monstrous shapes of that extraordinary time--was in the nature
of an unanticipated accident. It had happened, as weeds happen in
abandoned gardens, just as all our world has happened,--because
there was no clear Will in the world to bring about anything better.
Towards the end this "press" was almost entirely under the direction
of youngish men of that eager, rather unintelligent type, that
is never able to detect itself aimless, that pursues nothing with
incredible pride and zeal, and if you would really understand this
mad era the comet brought to an end, you must keep in mind that every
phase in the production of these queer old things was pervaded by
a strong aimless energy and happened in a concentrated rush.
Let me describe to you, very briefly, a newspaper day.
Figure first, then, a hastily erected and still more hastily
designed building in a dirty, paper-littered back street of old
London, and a number of shabbily dressed men coming and going in
this with projectile swiftness, and within this factory companies
of printers, tensely active with nimble fingers--they were always
speeding up the printers--ply their type-setting machines, and cast
and arrange masses of metal in a sort of kitchen inferno, above
which, in a beehive of little brightly lit rooms, disheveled men
sit and scribble. There is a throbbing of telephones and a clicking
of telegraph needles, a rushing of messengers, a running to and fro
of heated men, clutching proofs and copy. Then begins a clatter
roar of machinery catching the infection, going faster and faster,
and whizzing and banging,--engineers, who have never had time to
wash since their birth, flying about with oil-cans, while paper
runs off its rolls with a shudder of haste. The proprietor you
must suppose arriving explosively on a swift motor-car, leaping
out before the thing is at a standstill, with letters and documents
clutched in his hand, rushing in, resolute to "hustle," getting
wonderfully in everybody's way. At the sight of him even the messenger
boys who are waiting, get up and scamper to and fro. Sprinkle your
vision with collisions, curses, incoherencies. You imagine all the
parts of this complex lunatic machine working hysterically toward
a crescendo of haste and excitement as the night wears on. At last
the only things that seem to travel slowly in all those tearing
vibrating premises are the hands of the clock.
Slowly things draw on toward publication, the consummation of all
those stresses. Then in the small hours, into the now dark and
deserted streets comes a wild whirl of carts and men, the place
spurts paper at every door, bales, heaps, torrents of papers,
that are snatched and flung about in what looks like a free fight,
and off with a rush and clatter east, west, north, and south. The
interest passes outwardly; the men from the little rooms are going
homeward, the printers disperse yawning, the roaring presses slacken.
The paper exists. Distribution follows manufacture, and we follow
Our vision becomes a vision of dispersal. You see those bundles
hurling into stations, catching trains by a hair's breadth, speeding
on their way, breaking up, smaller bundles of them hurled with
a fierce accuracy out upon the platforms that rush by, and then
everywhere a division of these smaller bundles into still smaller
bundles, into dispersing parcels, into separate papers, and the
dawn happens unnoticed amidst a great running and shouting of boys,
a shoving through letter slots, openings of windows, spreading out
upon book-stalls. For the space of a few hours you must figure the
whole country dotted white with rustling papers--placards everywhere
vociferating the hurried lie for the day; men and women in trains,
men and women eating and reading, men by study-fenders, people
sitting up in bed, mothers and sons and daughters waiting for father
to finish--a million scattered people reading--reading headlong
--or feverishly ready to read. It is just as if some vehement jet
had sprayed that white foam of papers over the surface of the land. . .
And then you know, wonderfully gone--gone utterly, vanished as foam
might vanish upon the sand.
Nonsense! The whole affair a noisy paroxysm of nonsense, unreasonable
excitement, witless mischief, and waste of strength--signifying
nothing. . . .
And one of those white parcels was the paper I held in my hands,
as I sat with a bandaged foot on the steel fender in that dark
underground kitchen of my mother's, clean roused from my personal
troubles by the yelp of the headlines. She sat, sleeves tucked up
from her ropy arms, peeling potatoes as I read.
It was like one of a flood of disease germs that have invaded a
body, that paper. There I was, one corpuscle in the big amorphous
body of the English community, one of forty-one million such
corpuscles and, for all my preoccupations, these potent headlines,
this paper ferment, caught me and swung me about. And all over the
country that day, millions read as I read, and came round into line
with me, under the same magnetic spell, came round--how did we say
it?--Ah!--"to face the foe."
The comet had been driven into obscurity overleaf. The column
headed "Distinguished Scientist says Comet will Strike our Earth.
Does it Matter?" went unread. "Germany"--I usually figured this
mythical malignant creature as a corseted stiff-mustached Emperor
enhanced by heraldic black wings and a large sword--had insulted
our flag. That was the message of the New Paper, and the monster
towered over me, threatening fresh outrages, visibly spitting
upon my faultless country's colors. Somebody had hoisted a British
flag on the right bank of some tropical river I had never heard of
before, and a drunken German officer under ambiguous instructions
had torn it down. Then one of the convenient abundant natives
of the country, a British subject indisputably, had been shot in
the leg. But the facts were by no means clear. Nothing was clear
except that we were not going to stand any nonsense from Germany.
Whatever had or had not happened we meant to have an apology for,
and apparently they did not mean apologizing.
"HAS WAR COME AT LAST?"
That was the headline. One's heart leapt to assent. . . .
There were hours that day when I clean forgot Nettie, in dreaming
of battles and victories by land and sea, of shell fire, and
entrenchments, and the heaped slaughter of many thousands of men.
But the next morning I started for Checkshill, started, I remember,
in a curiously hopeful state of mind, oblivious of comets, strikes,
You must understand that I had no set plan of murder when I walked
over to Checkshill. I had no set plan of any sort. There was a
great confusion of dramatically conceived intentions in my head,
scenes of threatening and denunciation and terror, but I did not mean
to kill. The revolver was to turn upon my rival my disadvantage
in age and physique. . . .
But that was not it really! The revolver!--I took the revolver
because I had the revolver and was a foolish young lout. It was a
dramatic sort of thing to take. I had, I say, no plan at all.
Ever and again during that second trudge to Checkshill I was
irradiated with a novel unreasonable hope. I had awakened in the
morning with the hope, it may have been the last unfaded trail of
some obliterated dream, that after all Nettie might relent toward me,
that her heart was kind toward me in spite of all that I imagined
had happened. I even thought it possible that I might have misinterpreted
what I had seen. Perhaps she would explain everything. My revolver
was in my pocket for all that.
I limped at the outset, but after the second mile my ankle warmed
to forgetfulness, and the rest of the way I walked well. Suppose,
after all, I was wrong?
I was still debating that, as I came through the park. By the corner
of the paddock near the keeper's cottage, I was reminded by some
belated blue hyacinths of a time when I and Nettie had gathered
them together. It seemed impossible that we could really have parted
ourselves for good and all. A wave of tenderness flowed over me,
and still flooded me as I came through the little dell and drew
towards the hollies. But there the sweet Nettie of my boy's love
faded, and I thought of the new Nettie of desire and the man I had
come upon in the moonlight, I thought of the narrow, hot purpose
that had grown so strongly out of my springtime freshness, and my
mood darkened to night.
I crossed the beech wood and came towards the gardens with a resolute
and sorrowful heart. When I reached the green door in the garden
wall I was seized for a space with so violent a trembling that I
could not grip the latch to lift it, for I no longer had any doubt
how this would end. That trembling was succeeded by a feeling
of cold, and whiteness, and self-pity. I was astonished to find
myself grimacing, to feel my cheeks wet, and thereupon I gave way
completely to a wild passion of weeping. I must take just a little
time before the thing was done. . . . I turned away from the door
and stumbled for a little distance, sobbing loudly, and lay down
out of sight among the bracken, and so presently became calm again.
I lay there some time. I had half a mind to desist, and then my
emotion passed like the shadow of a cloud, and I walked very coolly
into the gardens.
Through the open door of one of the glass houses I saw old Stuart.
He was leaning against the staging, his hands in his pockets, and
so deep in thought he gave no heed to me.
I hesitated and went on towards the cottage, slowly.
Something struck me as unusual about the place, but I could not
tell at first what it was. One of the bedroom windows was open,
and the customary short blind, with its brass upper rail partly
unfastened, drooped obliquely across the vacant space. It looked
negligent and odd, for usually everything about the cottage was
The door was standing wide open, and everything was still. But giving
that usually orderly hall an odd look--it was about half-past two
in the afternoon--was a pile of three dirty plates, with used knives
and forks upon them, on one of the hall chairs.
I went into the hall, looked into either room, and hesitated.
Then I fell to upon the door-knocker and gave a loud rat-tat-too,
and followed this up with an amiable "Hel-lo!"
For a time no one answered me, and I stood listening and expectant,
with my fingers about my weapon. Some one moved about upstairs
presently, and was still again. The tension of waiting seemed to
brace my nerves.
I had my hand on the knocker for the second time, when Puss appeared
in the doorway.
For a moment we remained staring at one another without speaking.
Her hair was disheveled, her face dirty, tear-stained, and irregularly
red. Her expression at the sight of me was pure astonishment.
I thought she was about to say something, and then she had darted
away out of the house again.
"I say, Puss!" I said. "Puss!"
I followed her out of the door. "Puss! What's the matter? Where's
She vanished round the corner of the house.
I hesitated, perplexed whether I should pursue her. What did it
all mean? Then I heard some one upstairs.
"Willie!" cried the voice of Mrs. Stuart. "Is that you?"
"Yes," I answered. "Where's every one? Where's Nettie? I want to
have a talk with her."
She did not answer, but I heard her dress rustle as she moved. I
Judged she was upon the landing overhead.
I paused at the foot of the stairs, expecting her to appear and
Suddenly came a strange sound, a rush of sounds, words jumbled
and hurrying, confused and shapeless, borne along upon a note of
throaty distress that at last submerged the words altogether and
ended in a wail. Except that it came from a woman's throat it was
exactly the babbling sound of a weeping child with a grievance. "I
can't," she said, "I can't," and that was all I could distinguish.
It was to my young ears the strangest sound conceivable from a
kindly motherly little woman, whom I had always thought of chiefly
as an unparalleled maker of cakes. It frightened me. I went upstairs
at once in a state of infinite alarm, and there she was upon the
landing, leaning forward over the top of the chest of drawers beside
her open bedroom door, and weeping. I never saw such weeping. One
thick strand of black hair had escaped, and hung with a spiral
twist down her back; never before had I noticed that she had gray
As I came up upon the landing her voice rose again. "Oh that I should
have to tell you, Willie! Oh that I should have to tell you!" She
dropped her head again, and a fresh gust of tears swept all further
I said nothing, I was too astonished; but I drew nearer
to her, and waited. . . .
I never saw such weeping; the extraordinary wetness of her dripping
handkerchief abides with me to this day.
"That I should have lived to see this day!" she wailed. "I had
rather a thousand times she was struck dead at my feet."
I began to understand.
"Mrs. Stuart," I said, clearing my throat; "what has become of
"That I should have lived to see this day!" she said by way of
I waited till her passion abated.
There came a lull. I forgot the weapon in my pocket. I said nothing,
and suddenly she stood erect before me, wiping her swollen eyes.
"Willie," she gulped, "she's gone!"
"Gone! . . . Run away. . . . Run away from her home. Oh, Willie,
Willie! The shame of it! The sin and shame of it!"
She flung herself upon my shoulder, and clung to me, and began
again to wish her daughter lying dead at our feet.
"There, there," said I, and all my being was a-tremble. "Where has
she gone?" I said as softly as I could.
But for the time she was preoccupied with her own sorrow, and I had
to hold her there, and comfort her with the blackness of finality
spreading over my soul.
"Where has she gone?" I asked for the fourth time.
"I don't know--we don't know. And oh, Willie, she went out yesterday
morning! I said to her, 'Nettie,' I said to her, 'you're mighty
fine for a morning call.' 'Fine clo's for a fine day,' she said,
and that was her last words to me!--Willie!--the child I suckled
at my breast!"
"Yes, yes. But where has she gone?" I said.
She went on with sobs, and now telling her story with a sort of
fragmentary hurry: "She went out bright and shining, out of this
house for ever. She was smiling, Willie--as if she was glad to be
going. ("Glad to be going," I echoed with soundless lips.) 'You're
mighty fine for the morning,' I says; 'mighty fine.' 'Let the girl
be pretty,' says her father, 'while she's young!' And somewhere
she'd got a parcel of her things hidden to pick up, and she was
going off--out of this house for ever!"
She became quiet.
"Let the girl be pretty," she repeated; "let the girl be pretty
while she's young. . . . Oh! how can we go on LIVING, Willie? He
doesn't show it, but he's like a stricken beast. He's wounded to
the heart. She was always his favorite. He never seemed to care
for Puss like he did for her. And she's wounded him--"
"Where has she gone?" I reverted at last to that.
"We don't know. She leaves her own blood, she trusts herself-- Oh,
Willie, it'll kill me! I wish she and me together were lying in
"But"--I moistened my lips and spoke slowly --"she may have gone
"If that was so! I've prayed to God it might be so, Willie. I've
prayed that he'd take pity on her--him, I mean, she's with."
I jerked out: "Who's that?"
"In her letter, she said he was a gentleman. She did say he was
"In her letter. Has she written? Can I see her letter?"
"Her father took it."
"But if she writes-- When did she write?"
"It came this morning."
"But where did it come from? You can tell--"
"She didn't say. She said she was happy. She said love took one
like a storm--"
"Curse that! Where is her letter? Let me see it. And as for this
She stared at me.
"You know who it is."
"Willie!" she protested.
"You know who it is, whether she said or not?" Her eyes made a mute
She made no answer. "All I could do for you, Willie," she began
"Was it young Verrall?" I insisted.
For a second, perhaps, we faced one another in stark understanding.
. . . Then she plumped back to the chest of drawers, and her wet
pocket-handkerchief, and I knew she sought refuge from my relentless
My pity for her vanished. She knew it was her mistress's son as
well as I! And for some time she had known, she had felt.
I hovered over her for a moment, sick with amazed disgust. I suddenly
bethought me of old Stuart, out in the greenhouse, and turned and
went downstairs. As I did so, I looked up to see Mrs. Stuart moving
droopingly and lamely back into her own room.
Old Stuart was pitiful.
I found him still inert in the greenhouse where I had first seen
him. He did not move as I drew near him; he glanced at me, and then
stared hard again at the flowerpots before him.
"Eh, Willie," he said, "this is a black day for all of us."
"What are you going to do?" I asked.
"The missus takes on so," he said. "I came out here."
"What do you mean to do?"
"What IS a man to do in such a case?"
"Do!" I cried, "why-- Do!"
"He ought to marry her," he said.
"By God, yes!" I cried. "He must do that anyhow."
"He ought to. It's--it's cruel. But what am I to do? Suppose he
won't? Likely he won't. What then?"
He drooped with an intensified despair.
"Here's this cottage," he said, pursuing some contracted argument.
"We've lived here all our lives, you might say. . . . Clear out.
At my age. . . . One can't die in a slum."
I stood before him for a space, speculating what thoughts might
fill the gaps between these broken words. I found his lethargy, and
the dimly shaped mental attitudes his words indicated, abominable.
I said abruptly, "You have her letter?"
He dived into his breast-pocket, became motionless for ten seconds,
then woke up again and produced her letter. He drew it clumsily
from its envelope, and handed it to me silently.
"Why!" he cried, looking at me for the first time, "What's come to
your chin, Willie?"
"It's nothing," I said. "It's a bruise;" and I opened the letter.
It was written on greenish tinted fancy note-paper, and with all
and more than Nettie's usual triteness and inadequacy of expression.
Her handwriting bore no traces of emotion; it was round and upright
and clear as though it had been done in a writing lesson. Always
her letters were like masks upon her image; they fell like curtains
before the changing charm of her face; one altogether forgot the
sound of her light clear voice, confronted by a perplexing stereotyped
thing that had mysteriously got a hold upon one's heart and pride.
How did that letter run?--
"MY DEAR MOTHER,
"Do not be distressed at my going away. I have gone somewhere safe,
and with some one who cares for me very much. I am sorry for your
sakes, but it seems that it had to be. Love is a very difficult
thing, and takes hold of one in ways one does not expect. Do not
think I am ashamed about this, I glory in my love, and you must not
trouble too much about me. I am very, very happy (deeply underlined).
"Fondest love to Father and Puss. "Your loving "Nettie."
That queer little document! I can see it now for the childish simple
thing it was, but at the time I read it in a suppressed anguish of
rage. It plunged me into a pit of hopeless shame; there seemed to
remain no pride for me in life until I had revenge. I stood staring
at those rounded upstanding letters, not trusting myself to speak
or move. At last I stole a glance at Stuart.
He held the envelope in his hand, and stared down at the postmark
between his horny thumbnails.
"You can't even tell where she is," he said, turning the thing
round in a hopeless manner, and then desisting. "It's hard on us,
Willie. Here she is; she hadn't anything to complain of; a sort of
pet for all of us. Not even made to do her share of the 'ousework.
And she goes off and leaves us like a bird that's learnt to fly.
Can't TRUST us, that's what takes me. Puts 'erself-- But there!
What's to happen to her?"
"What's to happen to him?"
He shook his head to show that problem was beyond him.
"You'll go after her," I said in an even voice; "you'll make him
"Where am I to go?" he asked helplessly, and held out the envelope
with a gesture; "and what could I do? Even if I knew-- How could
I leave the gardens?"
"Great God!" I cried, "not leave these gardens! It's your Honor,
man! If she was my daughter--if she was my daughter--I'd tear the
world to pieces!" . . I choked. "You mean to stand it?"
"What can I do?"
"Make him marry her! Horsewhip him! Horsewhip him, I say!--I'd
He scratched slowly at his hairy cheek, opened his mouth, and
shook his head. Then, with an intolerable note of sluggish gentle
wisdom, he said, "People of our sort, Willie, can't do things like
I came near to raving. I had a wild impulse to strike him in the
face. Once in my boyhood I happened upon a bird terribly mangled
by some cat, and killed it in a frenzy of horror and pity. I had
a gust of that same emotion now, as this shameful mutilated soul
fluttered in the dust, before me. Then, you know, I dismissed him
from the case.
"May I look?" I asked.
He held out the envelope reluctantly.
"There it is," he said, and pointing with his garden-rough forefinger.
"I.A.P.A.M.P. What can you make of that?"
I took the thing in my hands. The adhesive stamp customary in those
days was defaced by a circular postmark, which bore the name of
the office of departure and the date. The impact in this particular
case had been light or made without sufficient ink, and half the
letters of the name had left no impression. I could distinguish--
I A P A M P
and very faintly below D.S.O.
I guessed the name in an instant flash of intuition. It was
Shaphambury. The very gaps shaped that to my mind. Perhaps in a
sort of semi-visibility other letters were there, at least hinting
themselves. It was a place somewhere on the east coast, I knew,
either in Norfolk or Suffolk.
"Why!" cried I--and stopped.
What was the good of telling him?
Old Stuart had glanced up sharply, I am inclined to think almost
fearfully, into my face. "You--you haven't got it?" he said.
Shaphambury--I should remember that.
"You don't think you got it?" he said.
I handed the envelope back to him.
"For a moment I thought it might be Hampton," I said.
"Hampton," he repeated. "Hampton. How could you make Hampton?" He
turned the envelope about. "H.A.M.--why, Willie, you're a worse
hand at the job than me!"
He replaced the letter in the envelope and stood erect to put this
back in his breast pocket.
I did not mean to take any risks in this affair. I drew a stump
of pencil from my waistcoat pocket, turned a little away from him
and wrote "Shaphambury" very quickly on my frayed and rather grimy
"Well," said I, with an air of having done nothing remarkable.
I turned to him with some unimportant observation --I have forgotten
I never finished whatever vague remark I commenced.
I looked up to see a third person waiting at the greenhouse door.
It was old Mrs. Verrall.
I wonder if I can convey the effect of her to you. She was a little
old lady with extraordinarily flaxen hair, her weak aquiline features
were pursed up into an assumption of dignity, and she was richly
dressed. I would like to underline that "richly dressed," or have
the words printed in florid old English or Gothic lettering. No
one on earth is now quite so richly dressed as she was, no one old
or young indulges in so quiet and yet so profound a sumptuosity.
But you must not imagine any extravagance of outline or any beauty
or richness of color. The predominant colors were black and fur
browns, and the effect of richness was due entirely to the extreme
costliness of the materials employed. She affected silk brocades
with rich and elaborate patterns, priceless black lace over creamy
or purple satin, intricate trimmings through which threads and
bands of velvet wriggled, and in the winter rare furs. Her gloves
fitted exquisitely, and ostentatiously simple chains of fine gold
and pearls, and a great number of bracelets, laced about her little
person. One was forced to feel that the slightest article she wore
cost more than all the wardrobe of a dozen girls like Nettie; her
bonnet affected the simplicity that is beyond rubies. Richness,
that is the first quality about this old lady that I would like to
convey to you, and the second was cleanliness. You felt that old
Mrs. Verrall was exquisitely clean. If you had boiled my poor dear
old mother in soda for a month you couldn't have got her so clean
as Mrs. Verrall constantly and manifestly was. And pervading all
her presence shone her third great quality, her manifest confidence
in the respectful subordination of the world.
She was pale and a little out of breath that day, but without any
loss of her ultimate confidence, and it was clear to me that she
had come to interview Stuart upon the outbreak of passion that had
bridged the gulf between their families.
And here again I find myself writing in an unknown language, so far
as my younger readers are concerned. You who know only the world
that followed the Great Change will find much that I am telling
inconceivable. Upon these points I cannot appeal, as I have appealed
for other confirmations, to the old newspapers; these were the things
that no one wrote about because every one understood and every one
had taken up an attitude. There were in England and America, and
indeed throughout the world, two great informal divisions of human
beings--the Secure and the Insecure. There was not and never had
been in either country a nobility --it was and remains a common
error that the British peers were noble--neither in law nor custom
were there noble families, and we altogether lacked the edification
one found in Russia, for example, of a poor nobility. A peerage
was an hereditary possession that, like the family land, concerned
only the eldest sons of the house; it radiated no luster of noblesse
oblige. The rest of the world were in law and practice common--and
all America was common. But through the private ownership of land
that had resulted from the neglect of feudal obligations in Britain
and the utter want of political foresight in the Americas, large
masses of property had become artificially stable in the hands
of a small minority, to whom it was necessary to mortgage all new
public and private enterprises, and who were held together not by
any tradition of service and nobility but by the natural sympathy
of common interests and a common large scale of living. It was a class
without any very definite boundaries; vigorous individualities, by
methods for the most part violent and questionable, were constantly
thrusting themselves from insecurity to security, and the sons
and daughters of secure people, by marrying insecurity or by wild
extravagance or flagrant vice, would sink into the life of anxiety
and insufficiency which was the ordinary life of man. The rest
of the population was landless and, except by working directly or
indirectly for the Secure, had no legal right to exist. And such
was the shallowness and insufficiency of our thought, such the
stifled egotism of all our feelings before the Last Days, that very
few indeed of the Secure could be found to doubt that this was the
natural and only conceivable order of the world.
It is the life of the Insecure under the old order that I am
displaying, and I hope that I am conveying something of its hopeless
bitterness to you, but you must not imagine that the Secure lived
lives of paradisiacal happiness. The pit of insecurity below them
made itself felt, even though it was not comprehended. Life about
them was ugly; the sight of ugly and mean houses, of ill-dressed
people, the vulgar appeals of the dealers in popular commodities,
were not to be escaped. There was below the threshold of their minds
an uneasiness; they not only did not think clearly about social
economy but they displayed an instinctive disinclination to think.
Their security was not so perfect that they had not a dread of
falling towards the pit, they were always lashing themselves by
new ropes, their cultivation of "connexions," of interests, their
desire to confirm and improve their positions, was a constant
ignoble preoccupation. You must read Thackeray to get the full
flavor of their lives. Then the bacterium was apt to disregard class
distinctions, and they were never really happy in their servants.
Read their surviving books. Each generation bewails the decay
of that "fidelity" of servants, no generation ever saw. A world
that is squalid in one corner is squalid altogether, but that they
never understood. They believed there was not enough of anything
to go round, they believed that this was the intention of God and
an incurable condition of life, and they held passionately and with
a sense of right to their disproportionate share. They maintained
a common intercourse as "Society" of all who were practically
secure, and their choice of that word is exhaustively eloquent
of the quality of their philosophy. But, if you can master these
alien ideas upon which the old system rested, just in the same
measure will you understand the horror these people had for marriages
with the Insecure. In the case of their girls and women it was
extraordinarily rare, and in the case of either sex it was regarded
as a disastrous social crime. Anything was better than that.
You are probably aware of the hideous fate that was only too probably
the lot, during those last dark days, of every girl of the insecure
classes who loved and gave way to the impulse of self-abandonment
without marriage, and so you will understand the peculiar situation
of Nettie with young Verrall. One or other had to suffer. And as
they were both in a state of great emotional exaltation and capable
of strange generosities toward each other, it was an open question
and naturally a source of great anxiety to a mother in Mrs. Verrall's
position, whether the sufferer might not be her son--whether as
the outcome of that glowing irresponsible commerce Nettie might
not return prospective mistress of Checkshill Towers. The chances
were greatly against that conclusion, but such things did occur.
These laws and customs sound, I know, like a record of some
nasty-minded lunatic's inventions. They were invincible facts in
that vanished world into which, by some accident, I had been born,
and it was the dream of any better state of things that was scouted
as lunacy. Just think of it! This girl I loved with all my soul,
for whom I was ready to sacrifice my life, was not good enough to
marry young Verrall. And I had only to look at his even, handsome,
characterless face to perceive a creature weaker and no better
than myself. She was to be his pleasure until he chose to cast her
aside, and the poison of our social system had so saturated her
nature--his evening dress, his freedom and his money had seemed
so fine to her and I so clothed in squalor--that to that prospect
she had consented. And to resent the social conventions that
created their situation, was called "class envy," and gently born
preachers reproached us for the mildest resentment against an injustice
no living man would now either endure or consent to profit by.
What was the sense of saying "peace" when there was no peace? If
there was one hope in the disorders of that old world it lay in
revolt and conflict to the death.
But if you can really grasp the shameful grotesqueness of the old
life, you will begin to appreciate the interpretation of old Mrs.
Verrall's appearance that leapt up at once in my mind.
She had come to compromise the disaster!
And the Stuarts WOULD compromise! I saw that only too well.
An enormous disgust at the prospect of the imminent encounter between
Stuart and his mistress made me behave in a violent and irrational
way. I wanted to escape seeing that, seeing even Stuart's first
gesture in that, at any cost.
"I'm off," said I, and turned my back on him without any further
My line of retreat lay by the old lady, and so I advanced toward
I saw her expression change, her mouth fell a little way open, her
forehead wrinkled, and her eyes grew round. She found me a queer
customer even at the first sight, and there was something in the
manner of my advance that took away her breath.
She stood at the top of the three or four steps that descended to
the level of the hothouse floor. She receded a pace or two, with
a certain offended dignity at the determination of my rush.
I gave her no sort of salutation.
Well, as a matter of fact, I did give her a sort of salutation.
There is no occasion for me to begin apologizing now for the thing
I said to her--I strip these things before you--if only I can get
them stark enough you will understand and forgive. I was filled
with a brutal and overpowering desire to insult her.
And so I addressed this poor little expensive old woman in
the following terms, converting her by a violent metonymy into a
comprehensive plural. "You infernal land thieves!" I said point-blank
into her face. "HAVE YOU COME TO OFFER THEM MONEY?"
And without waiting to test her powers of repartee I passed rudely
beyond her and vanished, striding with my fists clenched,
out of her world again. . .
I have tried since to imagine how the thing must have looked to
her. So far as her particular universe went I had not existed at
all, or I had existed only as a dim black thing, an insignificant
speck, far away across her park in irrelevant, unimportant transit,
until this moment when she came, sedately troubled, into her own
secure gardens and sought for Stuart among the greenhouses. Then
abruptly I flashed into being down that green-walled, brick-floored
vista as a black-avised, ill-clad young man, who first stared and
then advanced scowling toward her. Once in existence I developed
rapidly. I grew larger in perspective and became more and more
important and sinister every moment. I came up the steps with
inconceivable hostility and disrespect in my bearing, towered
over her, becoming for an instant at least a sort of second French
Revolution, and delivered myself with the intensest concentration
of those wicked and incomprehensible words. Just for a second I
threatened annihilation. Happily that was my climax.
And then I had gone by, and the Universe was very much as it had
always been except for the wild swirl in it, and the faint sense
of insecurity my episode left in its wake.
The thing that never entered my head in those days was that a large
proportion of the rich were rich in absolute good faith. I thought
they saw things exactly as I saw them, and wickedly denied. But indeed
old Mrs. Verrall was no more capable of doubting the perfection
of her family's right to dominate a wide country side, than she was
of examining the Thirty-nine Articles or dealing with any other of
the adamantine pillars upon which her universe rested in security.
No doubt I startled and frightened her tremendously. But she could
None of her sort of people ever did seem to understand such livid
flashes of hate, as ever and again lit the crowded darkness below
their feet. The thing leapt out of the black for a moment and
vanished, like a threatening figure by a desolate roadside lit for
a moment by one's belated carriage-lamp and then swallowed up by
the night. They counted it with nightmares, and did their best to
forget what was evidently as insignificant as it was disturbing.
CHAPTER THE FOURTH
FROM that moment when I insulted old Mrs. Verrall I became
representative, I was a man who stood for all the disinherited of
the world. I had no hope of pride or pleasure left in me, I was
raging rebellion against God and mankind. There were no more vague
intentions swaying me this way and that; I was perfectly clear now
upon what I meant to do. I would make my protest and die.
I would make my protest and die. I was going to kill Nettie--Nettie
who had smiled and promised and given herself to another, and who
stood now for all the conceivable delightfulnesses, the lost imaginations
of the youthful heart, the unattainable joys in life; and Verrall
who stood for all who profited by the incurable injustice of our
social order. I would kill them both. And that being done I would
blow my brains out and see what vengeance followed my blank refusal
So indeed I was resolved. I raged monstrously. And above me,
abolishing the stars, triumphant over the yellow waning moon that
followed it below, the giant meteor towered up towards the zenith.
"Let me only kill!" I cried. "Let me only kill!"
So I shouted in my frenzy. I was in a fever that defied hunger
and fatigue; for a long time I had prowled over the heath towards
Lowchester talking to myself, and now that night had fully come I
was tramping homeward, walking the long seventeen miles without a
thought of rest. And I had eaten nothing since the morning.
I suppose I must count myself mad, but I can recall my ravings.
There were times when I walked weeping through that brightness that
was neither night nor day. There were times when I reasoned in a
topsy-turvy fashion with what I called the Spirit of All Things.
But always I spoke to that white glory in the sky.
"Why am I here only to suffer ignominies?" I asked. "Why have you
made me with pride that cannot be satisfied, with desires that
turn and rend me? Is it a jest, this world--a joke you play on your
guests? I--even I--have a better humor than that!"
"Why not learn from me a certain decency of mercy? Why not undo?
Have I ever tormented --day by day, some wretched worm--making
filth for it to trail through, filth that disgusts it, starving it,
bruising it, mocking it? Why should you? Your jokes are clumsy.
Try--try some milder fun up there; do you hear? Something that
doesn't hurt so infernally."
"You say this is your purpose--your purpose with me. You are making
something with me--birth pangs of a soul. Ah! How can I believe
you? You forget I have eyes for other things. Let my own case go,
but what of that frog beneath the cart-wheel, God?--and the bird
the cat had torn?"
And after such blasphemies I would fling out a ridiculous little
debating society hand. "Answer me that!"
A week ago it had been moonlight, white and black and hard across
the spaces of the park, but now the light was livid and full of
the quality of haze. An extraordinarily low white mist, not three
feet above the ground, drifted broodingly across the grass, and
the trees rose ghostly out of that phantom sea. Great and shadowy
and strange was the world that night, no one seemed abroad; I and my
little cracked voice drifted solitary through the silent mysteries.
Sometimes I argued as I have told, sometimes I tumbled along in
moody vacuity, sometimes my torment was vivid and acute.
Abruptly out of apathy would come a boiling paroxysm of fury, when
I thought of Nettie mocking me and laughing, and of her and Verrall
clasped in one another's arms.
"I will not have it so!" I screamed. "I will not have it so!"
And in one of these raving fits I drew my revolver from my pocket
and fired into the quiet night. Three times I fired it.
The bullets tore through the air, the startled trees told one another
in diminishing echoes the thing I had done, and then, with a slow
finality, the vast and patient night healed again to calm. My shots,
my curses and blasphemies, my prayers --for anon I prayed--that
Silence took them all.
It was--how can I express it?--a stifled outcry tranquilized,
lost, amid the serene assumptions, the overwhelming empire of that
brightness. The noise of my shots, the impact upon things, had
for the instant been enormous, then it had passed away. I found
myself standing with the revolver held up, astonished, my emotions
penetrated by something I could not understand. Then I looked up
over my shoulder at the great star, and remained staring at it.
"Who are YOU?" I said at last.
I was like a man in a solitary desert who has suddenly heard a voice. . . .
That, too, passed.
As I came over Clayton Crest I recalled that I missed the multitude
that now night after night walked out to stare at the comet, and
the little preacher in the waste beyond the hoardings, who warned
sinners to repent before the Judgment, was not in his usual place.
It was long past midnight, and every one had gone home. But I did
not think of this at first, and the solitude perplexed me and left
a memory behind. The gas-lamps were all extinguished because of the
brightness of the comet, and that too was unfamiliar. The little
newsagent in the still High Street had shut up and gone to bed,
but one belated board had been put out late and forgotten, and it
still bore its placard.
The word upon it--there was but one word upon it in staring
You figure that empty mean street, emptily echoing to my footsteps--no
soul awake and audible but me. Then my halt at the placard. And
amidst that sleeping stillness, smeared hastily upon the board,
a little askew and crumpled, but quite distinct beneath that cool
meteoric glare, preposterous and appalling, the measureless evil
of that word--
I awoke in that state of equanimity that so often follows an
It was late, and my mother was beside my bed. She had some breakfast
for me on a battered tray.
"Don't get up yet, dear," she said. "You've been sleeping. It was
three o'clock when you got home last night. You must have been
"Your poor face," she went on, "was as white as a sheet and your
eyes shining. . . . It frightened me to let you in. And you stumbled
on the stairs."
My eyes went quietly to my coat pocket, where something still bulged.
She probably had not noticed. "I went to Checkshill," I said. "You
"I got a letter last evening, dear," and as she bent near me to put
the tray upon my knees, she kissed my hair softly. For a moment we
both remained still, resting on that, her cheek just touching my
I took the tray from her to end the pause.
"Don't touch my clothes, mummy," I said sharply, as she moved
towards them. "I'm still equal to a clothes-brush."
And then, as she turned away, I astonished her by saying, "You dear
mother, you! A little --I understand. Only--now--dear mother; oh!
let me be! Let me be!"
And, with the docility of a good servant, she went from me. Dear
heart of submission that the world and I had used so ill!
It seemed to me that morning that I could never give way to a gust
of passion again. A sorrowful firmness of the mind possessed me.
My purpose seemed now as inflexible as iron; there was neither love
nor hate nor fear left in me--only I pitied my mother greatly for
all that was still to come. I ate my breakfast slowly, and thought
where I could find out about Shaphambury, and how I might hope to
get there. I had not five shillings in the world.
I dressed methodically, choosing the least frayed of my collars,
and shaving much more carefully than was my wont; then I went down