For a time these two Labour Serfs were kept at their original occupations, she at her brass stamping and Denton at his press; and then came a move for him that brought with it fresh and still bitterer experiences of life in the underways of the great city. He was transferred to the care of a rather more elaborate press in the central factory of London Tile Trust.
In this new situation he had to work in a long vaulted room with a number of other men, for the most part born Labour Serfs. He came to this intercourse reluctantly. His upbringing had been refined, and until his ill fortune had brought him to that costume, he had never spoken in his life, except by way of command or some immediate necessity, to the white-faced wearers of the blue canvas. Now at last came contact; he had to work beside them, share their tools, eat with them. To both Elizabeth and himself this seemed a further degradation.
His taste would have seemed extreme to a man of the nineteenth century. But slowly and inevitably in the intervening years a gulf had opened between the wearers of the blue canvas and the classes above, a difference not simply of circumstance and habits of life, but of habits of thought—even of language. The underways had developed a dialect of their own: above too, had arisen a dialect, a code of thought, a language of “culture,” which aimed by a sedulous search after fresh distinction, to widen perpetually the space between itself and “vulgarity.” The bond of a common faith, moreover no longer held the race together. The last years of the nineteenth century were distinguished by the rapid development among the prosperous idle of esoteric perversions of the popular religion: glosses and interpretations that reduced the broad teachings of the carpenter of Nazareth to the exquisite narrowness of their lives. And spite of their inclination towards the ancient fashion of living, neither Elizabeth nor Denton had been sufficiently original to escape the suggestion of their surroundings. In matters of common behaviour they had followed the ways of their class, and so when they fell at last to be Labour Serfs it seemed to them almost as though they were falling among offensive inferior animals; they felt as a nineteenth-century duke and duchess might have felt, who were forced to take rooms in the Jago.
Their natural impulse was to maintain a “distance.” But Denton’s first idea of a dignified isolation from his new surroundings was soon rudely dispelled. He had imagined that his fall to the position of a Labour Serf was the end of his lesson, that when their little daughter had died he had plumbed the deeps of life; but indeed these things were only the beginning. Life demands something more from us than acquiescence. And now in a roomful of machine minders he was to learn a wider lesson, to make the acquaintance of another factor in life, a factor as elemental as the loss of things dear to us, more elemental even than toil.
His quite discouragement of conversation was an immediate cause of offence—was interpreted, rightly enough I fear, as disdain. His ignorance of the vulgar dialect, a thing upon which he had hitherto prided himself, suddenly took upon itself a new aspect. He failed to perceive at once that his reception of the coarse and stupid but genially intended remarks that greeted his appearance, must have stung the makers of these advances like blows in their faces. “Don’t understand,” he said rather coldly, and at hazard, “No, thank you.”
The man who had addressed him stared, scowled and turned away.
A second, who also failed at Denton’s unaccustomed ear, took the trouble to repeat his remark, and Denton discovered he was being offered the use of an oil can. He expressed polite thanks, and this second man embarked upon a penetrating conversation. Denton, he remarked had been a swell, and he wanted to know how he had come to wear the blue. He clearly expected an interesting record of vice and extravagance. Had Denton ever been at a Pleasure City? Denton was speedily to discover how existence of these wonderful places of delight permeated and defiled the thought and honour of these unwilling, hopeless workers of the underworld.
His aristocratic temperament resented these questions. He answered “No” curtly. The man persisted with a still more personal question, and this time it was Denton who turned away.
“Gorblimey!” said his interlocutor, much astonished.
It presently forced itself upon Denton’s mind that this remarkable conversation was being repeated in indignant tones to more sympathetic hearers, and that it gave rise to astonishment and ironical laughter. They looked at Denton with manifestly enhanced interest. A curious perception of isolation dawned upon him. He tried to think of his press and its unfamiliar peculiarities . . . .
The machines kept everybody pretty busy during the first spell, and then came a recess. It was only an interval for refreshment, to brief for any one to go out to a Labour Company dining-room. Denton followed his fellow-workers into a short gallery, in which were a number of bins and refuse from the presses.
Each man produced a packet of food. Denton had no packet. The manager, a careless young man who held his position by influence, had omitted to warn Denton that it was necessary to apply for this provision. He stood apart, feeling hungry. The others drew together in a group and talked in undertones, glancing at him ever and again. He became uneasy. His appearance of disregard cost him an increasing effort. He tried to think of the levers of his new press.
Presently one, a man shorter but much broader and stouter than Denton, came forward to him. Denton turned to him as unconcernedly as possible. “Here!” said the delegate—as Denton judged him to be—extending a cube of bread in a not too clean hand. He had a swart, broad-nosed face, and his mouth hung down towards one corner.
Denton felt doubtful for the instant whether this was meant for civility or insult. His impulse was to decline. “No thanks,” he said; and at the man’s change of expression, “I’m not hungry.”
There came a laugh from the group behind. “Told you so,” said the man who had offered Denton the loan of an oil can. “He’s top side, he is. You ain’t good enough for ‘im.”
The swart face grew a shade darker.
“Here,” said its owner, still extending the bread, and speaking in a lower tone; “you got to eat this. See?”
Denton looked into the threatening face before him, and odd little currents of energy seemed to be running through his limbs and body.
“I don’t want it,” he said, trying a pleasant smile that twitched and failed.
The thickset man advanced his face, and the bread became a physical threat in his hand. Denton’s mind rushed together to the one problem of his antagonist’s eyes.
“Eat it,” said the swart man.
There came a pause, and then they both moved quickly. The cube of bread described a complicated path, a curve that would have ended in Denton’s face; and then his fist hit the wrist of the hand that gripped it, and it flew upward, and out of the conflict—its part played.
He stepped back quickly, fists clenched and arms tense. The hot, dark countenance receded, became an alert hostility, watching its chance. Denton for one instant felt confident, and strangely buoyant and serene. His heart beat quickly. He felt his body alive, and glowing to the tips.
“Scrap, boys!” shouted some one, and then the dark figure had leapt forward, ducked back and sideways, and come in again. Denton struck out, and was hit. One of his eyes seemed to him to be demolished, and he felt a soft lip under his fist before he was hit again—this time under the chin. A huge fan of fiery needles shot open. He had a momentary persuasion that his head was knocked to pieces, and then something hit his head and back from behind, and the fight became an uninteresting, an impersonal thing.
He was aware that time—seconds or minutes—had passed, abstract uneventful time. He was lying with his head in a heap of ashes, and something wet and warm ran swiftly into his neck. The first shock broke up into discrete sensations. All his head throbbed; his eye and chin throbbed exceedingly, and the taste of blood was in his mouth.
“He’s all right,” said a voice. “He’s opening his eyes.”
“Serve him—well right,” said a second.
His mates were standing about him. He made an effort and sat up. He put his hand to the back of his head, and his hair was wet and full of cinders. A laugh greeted the gesture. His eye was partially closed. He perceived what had happened. His momentary anticipation of a final victory had vanished.
“Looks surprised,” said some one.
“’Ave any more?” said a wit; and then, imitating Denton’s refined accent: “No, Thank you.”
Denton perceived the swart man with a blood-stained handkerchief before his face, and somewhat in the background.
“Where’s that bit of bread he’s got to eat?” said a little ferret-faced creature; and sought with his foot in the ashes of the adjacent bin.
Denton had a moment of internal debate. He knew the code of honour required a man to pursue a fight he has begun, to the bitter end; but this was his first taste of the bitterness. He was resolved to rise again, but he felt no passionate impulse. It occurred to him—and the thought was no very violent spur—that he was perhaps after all a coward. For a moment his will was heavy, a lump of lead.
“’Ere it is,” said the little ferret-faced man, and stooped to pick up a cindery cube. He looked at Denton, then at the others.
Slowly, unwillingly, Denton stood up.
A dirty-faced albino extended a hand to the ferret-faced man.
“Gimme that toke,” he said. He advanced threateningly, bread in hand, to Denton. “So you ain’t ’ad your bellyful yet,” he said. “Eh?”
Now it was coming. “No, I haven’t,” said Denton, with a catching of the breath, and resolved to try this brute behind the ear before he himself got stunned again. He knew he would be stunned again. He was astonished how ill he had judged himself beforehand. A few ridiculous lunges, and down he would go again. He watched the albino’s eyes. The albino was grinning confidently, like a man who plans an agreeable trick. A sudden perception of impending indignities stung Denton.
“You leave ’im alone, Jim,” said the swart man suddenly over the blood-stained rag. “He ain’t done nothing to you.”
The albino’s grin vanished. He stopped. He looked from one to the other. It seemed to Denton that the swart man demanded the privilege of his destruction. The albino would have been better.
“You leave ’im alone,” said the swart man. “See? ’E’s ’ad ’is licks.”
A clattering bell lifted up its voice and solved the situation. The albino hesitated. “Lucky for you,” he said, adding a foul metaphor, and turned with the others towards the press-room again. “Wait for the end of the spell, mate,” said the albino over his shoulder—an afterthought. The swart man waited for the albino to precede him. Denton realised that he had a reprieve.
The men passed towards an open door, Denton became aware of his duties, and hurried to join the tail of the queue. At the doorway of the vaulted gallery of presses a yellow-uniformed labour policeman stood ticking a card. He had ignored the swart man’s haemorrhage.
“Hurry up there!” he said to Denton.
“Hello!” he said, at the sight of his facial disarry. “Who’s been hitting you?”
“That’s my affair,” said Denton.
“Not if it spiles your work, it ain’t,” said the man in yellow. “You mind that.”
Denton made no answer. He was a rough—a labourer. He wore the blue canvas. The laws of assault and battery, he knew, were not for the likes of him. He went to his press.
He could feel the skin of his brow and chin and head lifting themselves to noble bruises, felt the throb and pain of each aspiring contusion. His nervous system slid down to lethargy; at each movement in his press adjustment he felt he lifted a weight. And as for his honour—that too throbbed and puffed. How did he stand? What precisely had happened in the last ten minutes? What would happen next? He knew that there was enormous matter for thought, he could not think save, in disordered snatches.
His mood was a sort of stagnant astonishment. All his conceptions were overthrown. He had regarded his security from physical violence as inherent, as one of the conditions of life. So indeed, it had been while he wore his middle-class costume, had his middle-class property to serve for his defence. But who would interfere among Labour roughs fighting together? And indeed in those days no man would. In Underworld there was no law between man and man; the law and machinery of the state had become for them something that held men down, fended them off from much desirable property and pleasure, and that was all. Violence, that ocean in which the brutes live for ever, and from which a thousand dykes and contrivances have won our hazardous civilised life, had flowed in again upon the sinking underways and submerged them. The fist ruled. Denton had come right down at last to the elemental—fist and trick and the stubborn heart and fellowship—even as it was in the beginning.
The rhythm of his machine changed, and his thoughts were interrupted.
Presently he could think again. Strange how quickly things had happened! He bore these men who had thrashed him no very vivid ill-will. He was bruised and enlightened. He saw with absolute fairness, now the reasonableness of his unpopularity. He had behaved like a fool. Disdain, seclusion, are the privilege of the strong. The fallen aristocrat still clinging to his pointless distinction is surely the most pitiful creature of pretence in all this clamant universe. Good heavens! What was there for him to despise in these men?
What a pity he had not appreciated all this better five hours ago!
What would happen at the end of the spell? He could not tell. He could not imagine. He could not imagine the thoughts of these men. He was sensible only of their hostility and utter want of sympathy. Vague possibilities of shame and violence chased one another, across his mind. Could he devise some weapon? He recalled his assault upon the hypnotist, but there were no detachable lamps here. He could see nothing that he could catch up in his defence.
For a space he thought of a headlong bolt for the security of the public ways directly when the spell was over. Apart from the trivial consideration of his self-respect, he perceived that this would be only a foolish postponement and aggravation of his trouble. He perceived the ferret-faced man and the albino talking together with their eyes towards him. Presently they were talking to the swart man, who stood with his broad back studiously towards Denton.
At last the end of the second spell. The lender of oil cans stopped his press sharply and turned round, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His eyes had the quite expectation of one who seats himself in a theatre.
Now was the crisis, and all the little nerves of Denton’s being seemed leaping and dancing. He had decided to show fight if any fresh indignity was offered him. He stopped his press and turned. With an enormous affectation of ease he walked down the vault and entered the passage of the ash pits, only to discover he had left his jacket—which he had taken off because of the heat of the vault—beside his press. He walked back. He met the albino eye to eye.
He heard the ferret-faced man in expostulation. “’E reely ought, eat it,” said the ferret-faced man. “’E did reely.”
“No—you leave ’im alone,” said the swart man.
Apparently nothing further was to happen to him that day. He passed out to the passage and staircase that led up to the moving platforms of the city.
He emerged on the livid brilliance and streaming movement of the public street. He became acutely aware of his disfigured face, and felt his swelling bruises with a limp, investigatory hand. He went up to the swiftest platform, and seated himself on a Labour Company bench.
He lapsed into a pensive torpor. The immediate dangers and stresses of his position he saw with a sort of static clearness. What would they do to-morrow? He could not tell. What would Elizabeth think of his brutalisation? He could not tell. He was exhausted. He was aroused presently by a hand upon his arm.
He looked up, and saw the swart man seated beside him. He started. Surely he was safe from violence in the public way!
The swart man’s face retained no traces of his share in the fight; his expression was free from hostility—seemed almost deferential. “’Scuse me,” he said, with a total absence of truculence. Denton realised that no assault was intended. He stared, awaiting the next development.
It was evident the next sentence was premeditated. “Whad—I—was—going—to say—was this,” said the swart man, and sought through a silence for further words.
“Whad—I—was—going—to say—was this,” he repeated.
Finally he abandoned that gambit. “You’re aw right,” he cried, laying a grimy hand on Denton’s grimy sleeve. “You’re aw right. You’re a ge’man. Sorry—very sorry. Wanted to tell you that.”
Denton realised that there must exist motives beyond a mere impulse to abominable proceedings in the man. He meditated, and swallowed an unworthy pride.
“I did not mean to be offensive to you,” he said, “in refusing that bit of bread.”
“Meant it friendly,” said the swart man, recalling the scene; “but—in front of that blarsted Whitey and his snigger—well—I ’ad to scrap.”
“Yes,” said Denton with sudden fervour: “I was a fool.”
“Ah,” said the swart man, with great satisfaction. “That’s aw right. Shake!”
And Denton shook.
The moving platform was rushing by the establishment of a face moulder, and its lower front was a huge display of mirror, designed to stimulate the thirst for more symmetrical features. Denton caught the reflection of himself and his new friend, enormously twisted and broadened. His own face was puffed, one-sided, and blood-stained; a grin of idiotic and insincere amiability distorted its latitude. A wisp of hair occluded one eye. The trick of the mirror presented the swart man as a gross expansion of lip and nostril. They were linked by shaking hands. Then abruptly this vision passed—to return to memory in the anaemic meditations of a waking dawn.
As he shook, the swart man made some muddled remark, to the effect that he had always known he could get on with a gentleman if one came his way. He prolonged the shaking until Denton, under the influence of the mirror, withdrew his hand. The swart man became pensive, spat impressively on the platform, and resumed his theme.
“Whad I was going to say was this,” he said; he gravelled, and shook his head at his foot.
Denton became curious. “Go on,” he said, attentive.
The swart man took the plunge. He grasped Denton’s arm, became intimate in his attitude. “’Scuse me,” he said. “Fact is, you done know ’ow to scrap. Done know ’ow to. Why—you done know ’ow to begin. You’ll get killed if you don’t mind. Ouldin’ your ’ands—There!”
He reinforced his statement by objurgation, watching the effect of each oath with a wary eye.
“F’r instance. You’re tall. Long arms. You got a longer reach than any one in the brasted vault. Gobblimey, but I thought I’d got a Tough on. ’Stead of which . . . ’Scuse me. I wouldn’t have ’it you if I’d known. It’s like fighting sacks. ’Tisn’ right. Y’r arms seemed ’ung on ’ooks. Reg’lar—’ung on ’ooks. There!”
Denton stared, and then surprised and hurt his battered chin by a sudden laugh. Bitter tears came into his eyes.
“Go on,” he said.
The swart man reverted to his formula. He was good enough to say he liked the look of Denton, thought he had stood up “amazing plucky. On’y pluck ain’t no good—ain’t no brasted good—if you don’t ’old your ’ands.
“Whad I was going to say was this,” he said. “Lemme show you ’ow to scrap. Just lemme. You’re ig’nant, you ain’t no class; but you might be a very decent scrapper—very decent. Shown. That’s what I meant to say.”
Denton hesitated. “But—” he said, “I can’t give you anything—”
“That’s the ge’man all over,” said the swart man. “Who arst you to?”
“But your time?”
“If you don’t get learnt scrapping you’ll get killed—, don’t you make no bones of that.”
Denton thought. “I don’t know,” he said.
He looked at the face beside him, and all its native coarseness shouted at him. He felt a quick revulsion from his transient friendliness. It seemed to him incredible that it should be necessary for him to be indebted to such a creature.
“The chaps are always scrapping,” said the swart man. “Always. And of course—if one gets waxy and ’its you vital . . . .”
“By God!” cried Denton; “I wish one would.”
“Of course, if you feel like that—”
“You don’t understand.”
“P’raps I don’t,” said the swart man; and lapsed into a fuming silence.
When he spoke again his voice was less friendly, and he prodded Denton by way of address. “Look see!” he said: “Are you going to let me show you ’ow to scrap?”
“It’s tremendously kind of you,” said Denton; “but—”
There was a pause. The swart man rose and bent over Denton.
“Too much ge’man,” he said—“eh? I got a red face . . . By gosh! You are a brasted fool!” He turned away, and instantly Denton realised the truth of this remark.
The swart man descended with dignity to a cross way, and Denton, after a momentary impulse to pursuit, remained on the platform. For a time the things that had happened filled his mind. In one day his graceful system of resignation had been shattered beyond hope. Brute force, the final, the fundamental, had thrust its face through all his explanations and glosses and consolations and grinned enigmatically. Though he was hungry and tired, he did not go on directly to the Labour Hotel, where he would meet Elizabeth. He found he was beginning to think, he wanted very greatly to think; and so, wrapped in a monstrous cloud of meditation, he went the circuit of the city on his moving platform twice. You figure him, tearing through the glaring, thunder-voiced city at a pace of fifty miles an hour, the city upon the planet that spins along its chartless path through space many thousands of miles an hour, funking most terribly, and trying to understand why the heart and will in him should suffer and keep alive.
When at last he came to Elizabeth, she was white and anxious. He might have noted she was in trouble, had it not been for his own preoccupation. He feared most that she would desire to know every detail of his indignities, that she would be sympathetic or indignant. He saw her eyebrows rise at the sight of him.
“I’ve had rough handling,” he said, and gasped. “It’s too fresh—too hot. I don’t want to talk about it.” He sat down with an unavoidable air of sullenness.
She stared at him in astonishment, and as she read something of significant hieroglyphic of his battered face, her lips whitened. Her hand—it was thinner now, than in the days of their prosperity, and her first finger was a little altered by the metal punching she did—clenched convulsively. “This horrible world!” she said, and said no more.
In these latter days they had become a very silent couple; they said scarcely a word to each other that night, but each followed a private train of thought. In the small hours, as Elizabeth lay awake, Denton started up beside her suddenly—he had been lying as still as a dead man.
“I cannot stand it!” cried Denton. “I will not stand it!”
She saw him dimly, sitting up; saw his arm lunge as if in a furious blow at the enshrouding night. Then for a space he was still. “It is too much—it is more than one can bear!”
She could say nothing. To her also, it seemed that this was as far as one could go. She waited through a long stillness. She could see that Denton sat with his arms about his knees, his chin almost touching them.
Then he laughed.
“No,” he said at last, “I’m going to stand it. That’s the peculiar thing. There isn’t a grain of suicide in us—not a grain. I suppose all people with a turn that way have gone. We’re going through with it—to the end.”
Elizabeth thought grayly, and realised that this also was true.
“We’re going through with it. To think of all who have gone through with it: all the generations—endless—endless. Little beasts that snapped and snarled, snapping and snarling, snapping and snarling, generation after generation.”
His monotone, ended abruptly, resumed after a vast interval.
“There were ninety thousand years of stone age. A Denton somewhere in all those years. Apostolic succession. The grace of going through. Let me see! Ninety—nine hundred—three nines, twenty-seven—three thousand generations of men—! Men more or less. And each fought, and was bruised, and shamed, and somehow held his own—going through with it—passing it on . . . And thousands more to come perhaps—thousands! Passing it on. I wonder if they will thank us.”
His voice assumed an argumentative note. “If one could find something definite . . . If one could say, ‘This is why—this is why it goes on . . . .’”
He became still, and Elizabeth’s eyes slowly separated him from the darkness until at last she could see how he sat with his head resting on his hand. A sense of the enormous remoteness of their minds came to her; that dim suggestion of another being seemed to her a figure of their mutual understanding. What could he be thinking now? What might he not say next? Another age seemed to elapse before he sighed and whispered: “No, I don’t understand it. No!” Then a long interval, and he repeated this. But the second time it had the tone almost of a solution.
She became aware that he was preparing to lie down. She marked his movements, perceived with astonishment how he adjusted his pillow with a careful regard to comfort. He lay down with a sigh of contentment almost. His passion had passed. He lay still, and presently his breathing became regular and deep.
But Elizabeth remained with eyes wide open in the darkness, until the clamour of a bell and sudden brilliance of the electric light warned them that the Labour Company had need of them for yet another day.
That day came a scuffle with the albino Whitey and the little ferret-faced man. Blunt, the swart artist in scrapping, having first let Denton grasp the bearing of his lesson, intervened, not without a certain quality of patronage. “Drop ’is ’air, Whitey, and let the man be,” said his gross voice through a shower of indignities. “Can’t you see ’e don’t know ’ow to scrap?” And Denton, lying shamefully in the dust, realised that he must accept that course of instruction after all.
He made his apology straight and clean. He scrambled up and walked to Blunt. “I was a fool, and you are right,” he said. “If it isn’t too late . . . .”
That night, after the second spell, Denton went with Blunt to certain waste and slime-soaked vaults under the Port of London, to learn the first beginnings of the high art of scrapping as it had been perfected in the great world of the underways: how to hit or kick a man so as to hurt him excruciatingly or make him violently sick, how to hit or kick “vital,” how to use glass in one’s garments as a club and to spread red ruin with various domestic implements, how to anticipate and demolish your adversary’s intentions in other directions; all the pleasant devices, in fact, that had grown up among the disinherited of the great cities of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, were spread out by a gifted exponent for Denton’s learning. Blunt’s bashfulness fell from him as the instruction proceeded, and he developed a certain expert dignity, a quality of fatherly consideration. He treated Denton with the utmost consideration, only “flicking him up a bit” now and then, to keep the interest hot, and roaring with laughter at a happy fluke of Denton’s that covered his mouth with blood.
“I’m always keerless of my mouth,” said Blunt, admitting a weakness. “Always. It don’t seem to matter, like just getting bashed in the mouth—not if your chin’s all right. Tastin’ blood does me good. Always. But I better not ’it you again.”
Denton went home, to fall asleep exhausted and wake in the small hours with aching limbs and all his bruises tingling. Was it worth while that he should go on living? He listened to Elizabeth’s breathing, and remembering that he must have awaked her the previous night, he lay very still. He was sick with infinite disgust at the new conditions of his life. He hated it all, hated even the genial savage who had protected him so generously. The monstrous fraud of civilisation glared stark before his eyes: he saw it as a vast lunatic growth, producing a deepening torrent of savagery below, and above ever more flimsy gentility and silly wastefulness. He could see no redeeming reason, no touch of honour, either in the life he had led or in this life to which he had fallen. Civilisation presented itself as some catastrophic project as little concerned with men—save as victims—as a cyclone or a planetary collision. He and therefore all mankind, seemed living utterly in vain. His mind sought some strange expedients of escape, if not for himself then at least for Elizabeth. But he meant them for himself. What if he hunted up Mwres and told him of their disaster? It came to him as an astonishing thing how utterly Mwres and Bindon had passed out of his range. Where were they? What were they doing? From that he passed to thoughts of utter dishonour. And finally, not arising in any way out of this mental tumult, but ending it as dawn ends the night, came the clear and obvious conclusion of the night before: the conviction that he had to go through with things; that apart from any remoter view and quite sufficient for all his thought and energy, he had to stand up and fight among his fellows and quit himself like a man.
The second night’s instruction was perhaps less dreadful than the first; and the third was even endurable, for Blunt dealt out some praise. The fourth day Denton chanced upon the fact that the ferret-faced man was a coward. There passed a fortnight of smouldering days and feverish instruction at night; Blunt, with many blasphemies, testified that never had he met so apt a pupil; and all night long Denton dreamt of kicks and counters and gouges and cunning tricks. For all that time no further outrages were attempted, for fear of Blunt; and then came the second crisis. Blunt did not come one day—afterwards he admitted his deliberate intention—and through the tedious morning Whitey awaited the interval between the spells with an ostentatious impatience. He knew nothing of the scrapping lessons, and he spent the time in telling Denton and the vault generally of certain disagreeable proceedings he had in mind.
Whitey was not popular, and the vault disgorged to see him haze the new man with only a languid interest. But matters changed when Whitey’s attempt to open the proceedings by kicking Denton in the face was met by an excellently executed duck, catch and throw, and completed the flight of Whitey’s foot in its orbit and brought Whitey’s head into the ash-heap that had once received Denton’s. Whitey arose a shade whiter, and now blasphemously bent upon vital injuries. There were indecisive passages, foiled enterprises that deepened Whitey’s evidently growing perplexity; and then things developed into a grouping of Denton uppermost with Whitey’s throat in his hand, his knee on Whitey’s chest, and a tearful Whitey with a black face, protruding tongue and broken finger endeavouring to explain the misunderstanding by means of hoarse sounds. Moreover, it was evident that among the bystanders there had never been a more popular person than Denton.
Denton, with proper precaution, released his antagonist and stood up. His blood seemed changed to some sort of fluid fire, his limbs felt light and supernaturally strong. The idea that he was a martyr in the civilisation machine had vanished from his mind. He was a man in a world of men.
The little ferret-faced man was the first in the competition to pat him on the back. The lender of oil cans was a radiant sun of genial congratulation . . . It seemed incredible to Denton that he had ever thought of despair.
Denton was convinced that not only had he to go through with things, but that he could. He sat on the canvas pallet expounding this new aspect to Elizabeth. One side of his face was bruised. She had not recently fought, she had not been patted on the back, there were not hot bruises upon her face, only a pallor and a new line or so about the mouth. She was taking the woman’s share. She looked steadfastly at Denton in his new mood of prophecy. “I feel that there is something,” he was saying, “something that goes on, a Being of Life in which we live and move and have our being, something that began fifty—a hundred million years ago, perhaps, that goes on—on: growing, spreading to things beyond us—things that will justify us all . . . That will explain and justify my fighting—these bruises, and all the pain of it. It’s the chisel—yes, the chisel of the Maker. If only I could make you feel as I feel, if I could make you! You will dear, I know you will.”
“No,” she said in a low voice. “No, I shall not.”
“So I might have thought—”
She shook her head. “No,” she said, “I have thought as well. What you say—doesn’t convince me.”
She looked at his face resolutely. “I hate it,” she said, and caught at her breath. “You do not understand, you do not think. There was a time when you said things and I believed them. I am growing wiser. You are a man, you can fight, force your way. You do not mind bruises. You can be coarse and ugly, and still a man. Yes—it makes you. It makes you. You are right. Only a woman is not like that. We are different. We let ourselves get civilised too soon. This underworld is not for us.”
She paused and began again.
“I hate it! I hate this horrible canvas! I hate it more than—more than the worst that happened. It hurts my fingers to touch it. It is horrible to the skin. And the women I work with day after day! I lie awake at nights and think how I may be growing like them . . . .”
She stopped. “I am growing like them!” she cried passionately.
Denton stared at her distress. “But—” he said and stopped.
“You don’t understand. What have I? What have I to save me? You can fight. Fighting is man’s work. But women—women are different . . . I have thought it all out, I have done nothing but think night and day. Look at the colour of my face! I cannot go on. I cannot endure this life . . . I cannot endure it.”
She stopped. She hesitated.
“You do not know all,” she said abruptly, and for an instant her lips had a bitter smile. “I have been asked to leave you.”
She made no answer save an affirmative movement of the head.
Denton stood up sharply. They stared at one another through a long silence.
Suddenly she turned herself about, and flung face downward upon their canvas bed. She did not sob, she made no sound. She lay still upon her face. After a vast, distressful void her shoulders heaved and she began to weep silently.
“Elizabeth!” he whispered—”Elizabeth!”
Very softly he sat down beside her, bent down, put his arm across her in a doubtful caress, seeking vainly for some clue to this intolerable situation.
“Elizabeth,” he whispered in her ear.
She thrust him from her with her hand. “I cannot bear a child to be a slave!” and broke out into loud and bitter weeping.
Denton’s face changed—became blank dismay. Presently he slipped from the bed and stood on his feet. All the complacency had vanished from his face, had given place to impotent rage. He began to rave and curse at the intolerable forces which pressed upon him, at all the accidents and hot desires and heedlessness that mock the life of man. His little voice rose in that little room, and he shook his fist, this animalcule of the earth, at all that environed him about, at the millions about him, at this past and future and all the insensate vastness of the overwhelming city.