Story type: Essay
My study window looks down upon Hyde Park, and often, to quote the familiar promise of each new magazine, it amuses and instructs me to watch from my tower the epitome of human life that passes to and fro beneath. At the opening of the gates, creeps in the woman of the streets. Her pitiful work for the time being is over. Shivering in the chill dawn, she passes to her brief rest. Poor Slave! Lured to the galley’s lowest deck, then chained there. Civilization, tricked fool, they say has need of such. You serve as the dogs of Eastern towns. But at least, it seems to me, we need not spit on you. Home to your kennel! Perchance, if the Gods be kind, they may send you dreams of a cleanly hearth, where you lie with a silver collar round your neck.
Next comes the labourer–the hewer of wood, the drawer of water–slouching wearily to his toil; sleep clinging still about his leaden eyes, his pittance of food carried tied up in a dish-clout. The first stroke of the hour clangs from Big Ben. Haste thee, fellow-slave, lest the overseer’s whip, “Out, we will have no lie-a-beds here,” descend upon thy patient back.
Later, the artisan, with his bag of tools across his shoulder. He, too, listens fearfully to the chiming of the bells. For him also there hangs ready the whip.
After him, the shop boy and the shop girl, making love as they walk, not to waste time. And after these the slaves of the desk and of the warehouse, employers and employed, clerks and tradesmen, office boys and merchants. To your places, slaves of all ranks. Get you unto your burdens.
Now, laughing and shouting as they run, the children, the sons and daughters of the slaves. Be industrious, little children, and learn your lessons, that when the time comes you may be ready to take from our hands the creaking oar, to slip into our seat at the roaring loom. For we shall not be slaves for ever, little children. It is the good law of the land. So many years in the galleys, so many years in the fields; then we can claim our freedom. Then we shall go, little children, back to the land of our birth. And you we must leave behind us to take up the tale of our work. So, off to your schools, little children, and learn to be good little slaves.
Next, pompous and sleek, come the educated slaves–journalists, doctors, judges, and poets; the attorney, the artist, the player, the priest. They likewise scurry across the Park, looking anxiously from time to time at their watches, lest they be late for their appointments; thinking of the rates and taxes to be earned, of the bonnets to be paid for, the bills to be met. The best scourged, perhaps, of all, these slaves. The cat reserved for them has fifty tails in place of merely two or three. Work, you higher middle-class slave, or you shall come down to the smoking of twopenny cigars; harder yet, or you shall drink shilling claret; harder, or you shall lose your carriage and ride in a penny bus; your wife’s frocks shall be of last year’s fashion; your trousers shall bag at the knees; from Kensington you shall be banished to Kilburn, if the tale of your bricks run short. Oh, a many-thonged whip is yours, my genteel brother.
The slaves of fashion are the next to pass beneath me in review. They are dressed and curled with infinite pains. The liveried, pampered footman these, kept more for show than use; but their senseless tasks none the less labour to them. Here must they come every day, merry or sad. By this gravel path and no other must they walk; these phrases shall they use when they speak to one another. For an hour they must go slowly up and down upon a bicycle from Hyde Park Corner to the Magazine and back. And these clothes must they wear; their gloves of this colour, their neck-ties of this pattern. In the afternoon they must return again, this time in a carriage, dressed in another livery, and for an hour they must pass slowly to and fro in foolish procession. For dinner they must don yet another livery, and after dinner they must stand about at dreary social functions till with weariness and boredom their heads feel dropping from their shoulders.
With the evening come the slaves back from their work: barristers, thinking out their eloquent appeals; school-boys, conning their dog-eared grammars; City men, planning their schemes; the wearers of motley, cudgelling their poor brains for fresh wit with which to please their master; shop boys and shop girls, silent now as, together, they plod homeward; the artisan; the labourer. Two or three hours you shall have to yourselves, slaves, to think and love and play, if you be not too tired to think, or love, or play. Then to your litter, that you may be ready for the morrow’s task.
The twilight deepens into dark; there comes back the woman of the streets. As the shadows, she rounds the City’s day. Work strikes its tent. Evil creeps from its peering place.
So we labour, driven by the whip of necessity, an army of slaves. If we do not our work, the whip descends upon us; only the pain we feel in our stomach instead of on our back. And because of that, we call ourselves free men.
Some few among us bravely struggle to be really free: they are our tramps and outcasts. We well-behaved slaves shrink from them, for the wages of freedom in this world are vermin and starvation. We can live lives worth living only by placing the collar round our neck.
There are times when one asks oneself: Why this endless labour? Why this building of houses, this cooking of food, this making of clothes? Is the ant so much more to be envied than the grasshopper, because she spends her life in grubbing and storing, and can spare no time for singing? Why this complex instinct, driving us to a thousand labours to satisfy a thousand desires? We have turned the world into a workshop to provide ourselves with toys. To purchase luxury we have sold our ease.
Oh, Children of Israel! why were ye not content in your wilderness? It seems to have been a pattern wilderness. For you, a simple wholesome food, ready cooked, was provided. You took no thought for rent and taxes; you had no poor among you–no poor-rate collectors. You suffered not from indigestion, nor the hundred ills that follow over-feeding; an omer for every man was your portion, neither more nor less. You knew not you had a liver. Doctors wearied you not with their theories, their physics, and their bills. You were neither landowners nor leaseholders, neither shareholders nor debenture holders. The weather and the market reports troubled you not. The lawyer was unknown to you; you wanted no advice; you had nought to quarrel about with your neighbour. No riches were yours for the moth and rust to damage. Your yearly income and expenditure you knew would balance to a fraction. Your wife and children were provided for. Your old age caused you no anxiety; you knew you would always have enough to live upon in comfort. Your funeral, a simple and tasteful affair, would be furnished by the tribe. And yet, poor, foolish child, fresh from the Egyptian brickfield, you could not rest satisfied. You hungered for the fleshpots, knowing well what flesh-pots entail: the cleaning of the flesh-pots, the forging of the flesh-pots, the hewing of wood to make the fires for the boiling of the flesh-pots, the breeding of beasts to fill the pots, the growing of fodder to feed the beasts to fill the pots.
All the labour of our life is centred round our flesh-pots. On the altar of the flesh-pot we sacrifice our leisure, our peace of mind. For a mess of pottage we sell our birthright.
Oh! Children of Israel, saw you not the long punishment you were preparing for yourselves, when in your wilderness you set up the image of the Calf, and fell before it, crying–“This shall be our God.”
You would have veal. Thought you never of the price man pays for Veal? The servants of the Golden Calf! I see them, stretched before my eyes, a weary, endless throng. I see them toiling in the mines, the black sweat on their faces. I see them in sunless cities, silent, and grimy, and bent. I see them, ague-twisted, in the rain-soaked fields. I see them, panting by the furnace doors. I see them, in loin-cloth and necklace, the load upon their head. I see them in blue coats and red coats, marching to pour their blood as an offering on the altar of the Calf. I see them in homespun and broadcloth, I see them in smock and gaiters, I see them in cap and apron, the servants of the Calf. They swarm on the land and they dot the sea. They are chained to the anvil and counter; they are chained to the bench and the desk. They make ready the soil, they till the fields where the Golden Calf is born. They build the ship, and they sail the ship that carries the Golden Calf. They fashion the pots, they mould the pans, they carve the tables, they turn the chairs, they dream of the sauces, they dig for the salt, they weave the damask, they mould the dish to serve the Golden Calf.
The work of the world is to this end, that we eat of the Calf. War and Commerce, Science and Law! what are they but the four pillars supporting the Golden Calf? He is our God. It is on his back that we have journeyed from the primeval forest, where our ancestors ate nuts and fruit. He is our God. His temple is in every street. His blue-robed priest stands ever at the door, calling to the people to worship. Hark! his voice rises on the gas-tainted air–“Now’s your time! Now’s your time! Buy! Buy! ye people. Bring hither the sweat of your brow, the sweat of your brain, the ache of your heart, buy Veal with it. Bring me the best years of your life. Bring me your thoughts, your hopes, your loves; ye shall have Veal for them. Now’s your time! Now’s your time! Buy! Buy!”
Oh! Children of Israel, was Veal, even with all its trimmings, quite worth the price?
And we! what wisdom have we learned, during the centuries? I talked with a rich man only the other evening. He calls himself a Financier, whatever that may mean. He leaves his beautiful house, some twenty miles out of London, at a quarter to eight, summer and winter, after a hurried breakfast by himself, while his guests still sleep, and he gets back just in time to dress for an elaborate dinner he himself is too weary or too preoccupied to more than touch. If ever he is persuaded to give himself a holiday it is for a fortnight in Ostend, when it is most crowded and uncomfortable. He takes his secretary with him, receives and despatches a hundred telegrams a day, and has a private telephone, through which he can speak direct to London, brought up into his bedroom.
I suppose the telephone is really a useful invention. Business men tell me they wonder how they contrived to conduct their affairs without it. My own wonder always is, how any human being with the ordinary passions of his race can conduct his business, or even himself, creditably, within a hundred yards of the invention. I can imagine Job, or Griselda, or Socrates liking to have a telephone about them as exercise. Socrates, in particular, would have made quite a reputation for himself out of a three months’ subscription to a telephone. Myself, I am, perhaps, too sensitive. I once lived for a month in an office with a telephone, if one could call it life. I was told that if I had stuck to the thing for two or three months longer, I should have got used to it. I know friends of mine, men once fearless and high-spirited, who now stand in front of their own telephone for a quarter of an hour at a time, and never so much as answer it back. They tell me that at first they used to swear and shout at it as I did; but now their spirit seems crushed. That is what happens: you either break the telephone, or the telephone breaks you. You want to see a man two streets off. You might put on your hat, and be round at his office in five minutes. You are on the point of starting when the telephone catches your eye. You think you will ring him up to make sure he is in. You commence by ringing up some half-dozen times before anybody takes any notice of you whatever. You are burning with indignation at this neglect, and have left the instrument to sit down and pen a stinging letter of complaint to the Company when the ring-back re-calls you. You seize the ear trumpets, and shout–
“How is it that I can never get an answer when I ring? Here have I been ringing for the last half-hour. I have rung twenty times.” (This is a falsehood. You have rung only six times, and the “half-hour” is an absurd exaggeration; but you feel the mere truth would not be adequate to the occasion.) “I think it disgraceful,” you continue, “and I shall complain to the Company. What is the use of my having a telephone if I can’t get any answer when I ring? Here I pay a large sum for having this thing, and I can’t get any notice taken. I’ve been ringing all the morning. Why is it?”
Then you wait for the answer.
“What–what do you say? I can’t hear what you say.”
“I say I’ve been ringing here for over an hour, and I can’t get any reply,” you call back. “I shall complain to the Company.”
“You want what? Don’t stand so near the tube. I can’t hear what you say. What number?”
“Bother the number; I say why is it I don’t get an answer when I ring?”
“Eight hundred and what?”
You can’t argue any more, after that. The machine would give way under the language you want to make use of. Half of what you feel would probably cause an explosion at some point where the wire was weak. Indeed, mere language of any kind would fall short of the requirements of the case. A hatchet and a gun are the only intermediaries through which you could convey your meaning by this time. So you give up all attempt to answer back, and meekly mention that you want to be put in communication with four-five-seven-six.
“Four-nine-seven-six?” says the girl.
“Did you say seven-six or six-seven?”
“Six-seven–no! I mean seven-six: no–wait a minute. I don’t know what I do mean now.”
“Well, I wish you’d find out,” says the young lady severely. “You are keeping me here all the morning.”
So you look up the number in the book again, and at last she tells you that you are in connection; and then, ramming the trumpet tight against your ear, you stand waiting.
And if there is one thing more than another likely to make a man feel ridiculous it is standing on tip-toe in a corner, holding a machine to his head, and listening intently to nothing. Your back aches and your head aches, your very hair aches. You hear the door open behind you and somebody enter the room. You can’t turn your head. You swear at them, and hear the door close with a bang. It immediately occurs to you that in all probability it was Henrietta. She promised to call for you at half-past twelve: you were to take her to lunch. It was twelve o’clock when you were fool enough to mix yourself up with this infernal machine, and it probably is half-past twelve by now. Your past life rises before you, accompanied by dim memories of your grandmother. You are wondering how much longer you can bear the strain of this attitude, and whether after all you do really want to see the man in the next street but two, when the girl in the exchange-room calls up to know if you’re done.
“Done!” you retort bitterly; “why, I haven’t begun yet.”
“Well, be quick,” she says, “because you’re wasting time.”
Thus admonished, you attack the thing again. “ARE you there?” you cry in tones that ought to move the heart of a Charity Commissioner; and then, oh joy! oh rapture! you hear a faint human voice replying–“Yes, what is it?”
“Oh! Are you four-five-seven-six?”
“Are you four-five-seven-six, Williamson?”
“What! who are you?”
“No, JONES. Are you four-five-seven-six?”
“Yes; what is it?”
“Is Mr. Williamson in?”
“Will I what–who are you?”
“Jones! Is Mr. Williamson in?”
“You’re the son of what? I can’t hear what you say.”
Then you gather yourself for one final effort, and succeed, by superhuman patience, in getting the fool to understand that you wish to know if Mr. Williamson is in, and he says, so it sounds to you, “Be in all the morning.”
So you snatch up your hat and run round.
“Oh, I’ve come to see Mr. Williamson,” you say.
“Very sorry, sir,” is the polite reply, “but he’s out.”
“Out? Why, you just now told me through the telephone that he’d be in all the morning.”
“No, I said, he ‘WON’T be in all the morning.’”
You go back to the office, and sit down in front of that telephone and look at it. There it hangs, calm and imperturbable. Were it an ordinary instrument, that would be its last hour. You would go straight down-stairs, get the coal-hammer and the kitchen-poker, and divide it into sufficient pieces to give a bit to every man in London. But you feel nervous of these electrical affairs, and there is a something about that telephone, with its black hole and curly wires, that cows you. You have a notion that if you don’t handle it properly something may come and shock you, and then there will be an inquest, and bother of that sort, so you only curse it.
That is what happens when you want to use the telephone from your end. But that is not the worst that the telephone can do. A sensible man, after a little experience, can learn to leave the thing alone. Your worst troubles are not of your own making. You are working against time; you have given instructions not to be disturbed. Perhaps it is after lunch, and you are thinking with your eyes closed, so that your thoughts shall not be distracted by the objects about the room. In either case you are anxious not to leave your chair, when off goes that telephone bell and you spring from your chair, uncertain, for the moment, whether you have been shot, or blown up with dynamite. It occurs to you in your weakness that if you persist in taking no notice, they will get tired, and leave you alone. But that is not their method. The bell rings violently at ten-second intervals. You have nothing to wrap your head up in. You think it will be better to get this business over and done with. You go to your fate and call back savagely–
“What is it? What do you want?”
No answer, only a confused murmur, prominent out of which come the voices of two men swearing at one another. The language they are making use of is disgraceful. The telephone seems peculiarly adapted for the conveyance of blasphemy. Ordinary language sounds indistinct through it; but every word those two men are saying can be heard by all the telephone subscribers in London.
It is useless attempting to listen till they have done. When they are exhausted, you apply to the tube again. No answer is obtainable. You get mad, and become sarcastic; only being sarcastic when you are not sure that anybody is at the other end to hear you is unsatisfying.
At last, after a quarter of an hour or so of saying, “Are you there?” “Yes, I’m here,” “Well?” the young lady at the Exchange asks what you want.
“I don’t want anything,” you reply.
“Then why do you keep talking?” she retorts; “you mustn’t play with the thing.”
This renders you speechless with indignation for a while, upon recovering from which you explain that somebody rang you up.
“WHO rang you up?” she asks.
“I don’t know.”
“I wish you did,” she observes.
Generally disgusted, you slam the trumpet up and return to your chair. The instant you are seated the bell clangs again; and you fly up and demand to know what the thunder they want, and who the thunder they are.
“Don’t speak so loud, we can’t hear you. What do you want?” is the answer.
“I don’t want anything. What do you want? Why do you ring me up, and then not answer me? Do leave me alone, if you can!”
“We can’t get Hong Kongs at seventy-four.”
“Well, I don’t care if you can’t.”
“Would you like Zulus?”
“What are you talking about?” you reply; “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Would you like Zulus–Zulus at seventy-three and a half?”
“I wouldn’t have ’em at six a penny. What are you talking about?”
“Hong Kongs–we can’t get them at seventy-four. Oh, half-a-minute” (the half-a-minute passes). “Are you there?”
“Yes, but you are talking to the wrong man.”
“We can get you Hong Kongs at seventy-four and seven-eights.”
“Bother Hong Kongs, and you too. I tell you, you are talking to the wrong man. I’ve told you once.”
“Why, that I am the wrong man–I mean that you are talking to the wrong man.”
“Who are you?”
“Oh, aren’t you one-nine-eight?”
How can a man after that sit down and write pleasantly of the European crisis? And, if it were needed, herein lies another indictment against the telephone. I was engaged in an argument, which, if not in itself serious, was at least concerned with a serious enough subject, the unsatisfactory nature of human riches; and from that highly moral discussion have I been lured, by the accidental sight of the word “telephone,” into the writing of matter which can have the effect only of exciting to frenzy all critics of the New Humour into whose hands, for their sins, this book may come. Let me forget my transgression and return to my sermon, or rather to the sermon of my millionaire acquaintance.
It was one day after dinner, we sat together in his magnificently furnished dining-room. We had lighted our cigars at the silver lamp. The butler had withdrawn.
“These cigars we are smoking,” my friend suddenly remarked, a propos apparently of nothing, “they cost me five shillings apiece, taking them by the thousand.”
“I can quite believe it,” I answered; “they are worth it.”
“Yes, to you,” he replied, almost savagely. “What do you usually pay for your cigars?”
We had known each other years ago. When I first met him his offices consisted of a back room up three flights of stairs in a dingy by-street off the Strand, which has since disappeared. We occasionally dined together, in those days, at a restaurant in Great Portland Street, for one and nine. Our acquaintanceship was of sufficient standing to allow of such a question.
“Threepence,” I answered. “They work out at about twopence three-farthings by the box.”
“Just so,” he growled; “and your twopenny-three-farthing weed gives you precisely the same amount of satisfaction that this five shilling cigar affords me. That means four and ninepence farthing wasted every time I smoke. I pay my cook two hundred a year. I don’t enjoy my dinner as much as when it cost me four shillings, including a quarter flask of Chianti. What is the difference, personally, to me whether I drive to my office in a carriage and pair, or in an omnibus? I often do ride in a bus: it saves trouble. It is absurd wasting time looking for one’s coachman, when the conductor of an omnibus that passes one’s door is hailing one a few yards off. Before I could afford even buses–when I used to walk every morning to the office from Hammersmith–I was healthier. It irritates me to think how hard I work for no earthly benefit to myself. My money pleases a lot of people I don’t care two straws about, and who are only my friends in the hope of making something out of me. If I could eat a hundred-guinea dinner myself every night, and enjoy it four hundred times as much as I used to enjoy a five-shilling dinner, there would be some sense in it. Why do I do it?”
I had never heard him talk like this before. In his excitement he rose from the table, and commenced pacing the room.
“Why don’t I invest my money in the two and a half per cents?” he continued. “At the very worst I should be safe for five thousand a year. What, in the name of common sense, does a man want with more? I am always saying to myself, I’ll do it; why don’t I?
“Well, why not?” I echoed.
“That’s what I want you to tell me,” he returned. “You set up for understanding human nature, it’s a mystery to me. In my place, you would do as I do; you know that. If somebody left you a hundred thousand pounds to-morrow, you would start a newspaper, or build a theatre–some damn-fool trick for getting rid of the money and giving yourself seventeen hours’ anxiety a day; you know you would.”
I hung my head in shame. I felt the justice of the accusation. It has always been my dream to run a newspaper and own a theatre.
“If we worked only for what we could spend,” he went on, “the City might put up its shutters to-morrow morning. What I want to get at the bottom of is this instinct that drives us to work apparently for work’s own sake. What is this strange thing that gets upon our back and spurs us?”
A servant entered at that moment with a cablegram from the manager of one of his Austrian mines, and he had to leave me for his study. But, walking home, I fell to pondering on his words. WHY this endless work? Why each morning do we get up and wash and dress ourselves, to undress ourselves at night and go to bed again? Why do we work merely to earn money to buy food; and eat food so as to gain strength that we may work? Why do we live, merely in the end to say good-bye to one another? Why do we labour to bring children into the world that they may die and be buried?
Of what use our mad striving, our passionate desire? Will it matter to the ages whether, once upon a time, the Union Jack or the Tricolour floated over the battlements of Badajoz? Yet we poured our blood into its ditches to decide the question. Will it matter, in the days when the glacial period shall have come again, to clothe the earth with silence, whose foot first trod the Pole? Yet, generation after generation, we mile its roadway with our whitening bones. So very soon the worms come to us; does it matter whether we love, or hate? Yet the hot blood rushes through our veins, we wear out heart and brain for shadowy hopes that ever fade as we press forward.
The flower struggles up from seed-pod, draws the sweet sap from the ground, folds its petals each night, and sleeps. Then love comes to it in a strange form, and it longs to mingle its pollen with the pollen of some other flower. So it puts forth its gay blossoms, and the wandering insect bears the message from seed-pod to seed-pod. And the seasons pass, bringing with them the sunshine and the rain, till the flower withers, never having known the real purpose for which it lived, thinking the garden was made for it, not it for the garden. The coral insect dreams in its small soul, which is possibly its small stomach, of home and food. So it works and strives deep down in the dark waters, never knowing of the continents it is fashioning.
But the question still remains: for what purpose is it all? Science explains it to us. By ages of strife and effort we improve the race; from ether, through the monkey, man is born. So, through the labour of the coming ages, he will free himself still further from the brute. Through sorrow and through struggle, by the sweat of brain and brow, he will lift himself towards the angels. He will come into his kingdom.
But why the building? Why the passing of the countless ages? Why should he not have been born the god he is to be, imbued at birth with all the capabilities his ancestors have died acquiring? Why the Pict and Hun that I may be? Why I, that a descendant of my own, to whom I shall seem a savage, shall come after me? Why, if the universe be ordered by a Creator to whom all things are possible, the protoplasmic cell? Why not the man that is to be? Shall all the generations be so much human waste that he may live? Am I but another layer of the soil preparing for him?
Or, if our future be in other spheres, then why the need of this planet? Are we labouring at some Work too vast for us to perceive? Are our passions and desires mere whips and traces by the help of which we are driven? Any theory seems more hopeful than the thought that all our eager, fretful lives are but the turning of a useless prison crank. Looking back the little distance that our dim eyes can penetrate the past, what do we find? Civilizations, built up with infinite care, swept aside and lost. Beliefs for which men lived and died, proved to be mockeries. Greek Art crushed to the dust by Gothic bludgeons. Dreams of fraternity, drowned in blood by a Napoleon. What is left to us, but the hope that the work itself, not the result, is the real monument? Maybe, we are as children, asking, “Of what use are these lessons? What good will they ever be to us?” But there comes a day when the lad understands why he learnt grammar and geography, when even dates have a meaning for him. But this is not until he has left school, and gone out into the wider world. So, perhaps, when we are a little more grown up, we too may begin to understand the reason for our living.