The People of the Ruins (4)
June 14, 2012
HILOBROW is pleased to present the fourth installment of our serialization of Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins: A Story of the English Revolution and After. New installments will appear each Thursday for 16 weeks.
Trapped in a London laboratory during a worker uprising in 1924, ex-artillery officer and physics instructor Jeremy Tuft awakens 150 years later — in a neo-medieval society whose inhabitants have forgotten how to build or operate machinery. Not only have his fellow Londoners forgotten most of what humankind used to know, before civilization collapsed, but they don’t particularly care to re-learn any of it. Though he is at first disconcerted by the failure of his own era’s smug doctrine of Progress, Tuft eventually decides that post-civilized life is simpler, more peaceful. That is, until northern English and Welsh tribes threaten London — at which point he sets about reinventing weapons of mass destruction.
Shanks’ post-apocalyptic novel, a pessimistic satire on Wellsian techno-utopian novels, was first published in 1920. In October, HiLoBooks will publish a beautiful new edition of The People of the Ruins, with an introduction by Tom Hodgkinson.
LAST WEEK: “Jeremy pulled himself together with a jerk, and asked breathlessly, ‘What year is this? For God’s sake tell me what year it is!’ ‘The year of Our Lord two thousand and seventy-four,’ the young man answered, and then suddenly realizing the significance of what he had said, he put his hand on Jeremy’s shoulder, and added: ‘All right, man, all right. Be calm.'”
How and when Jeremy’s second unconsciousness overtook him he did not know. He remembered stumbling after his friend down the uneven road he had now begun to hate. He remembered that the heat of the day had grown intense, that his own dizziness had increased, and that he had been falling wearily over stones and from one rut to another. He had a dim recollection of entering the street he had seen before, and of noticing the odd effect produced by twentieth-century buildings sagging crazily forward over a rough cobbled roadway. But he did not remember his sudden collapse, or how his friend had secured a cart and anxiously bundled him into it. He did not remember the jolting journey that followed, as speedy as the streets of this new London would allow.
He came to himself in a bed in a little, bare, whitewashed room through the windows of which the westering sun was throwing a last golden flood. He sat up hastily, and saw that he was alone. At his side on a small table stood a metal dish holding a thick slice of bread and some leaves of lettuce; and by the dish there was a mug of rudely glazed earthenware. His mouth was dry and his tongue swollen; and he investigated the mug first. He was rewarded by a draught of thin but, as he then thought, delicious ale. He immediately set to on the bread and lettuce, and thought of nothing else till he had finished it. When he had scraped together the last crumbs and his first ravenousness had given way to a healthy and normal hunger, he looked about him with more interest.
The room, his first glance told him, was bare even to meanness. It held nothing but the bed in which he lay, the table and a large, cumbrously-made wooden chest which stood in the further corner. The walls, as well as the ceiling, were covered with a coarse whitewash which was flaking here and there; and there was a square of rough matting on the boards of the floor. Jeremy, quite awake and alert now, wondered whether, after all, he had not been taken to an asylum, perhaps — and this seemed most probable — to the infirmary of a workhouse. The sheets on the bed and the nightshirt in which he found himself, clean but of very coarse linen, seemed to support this theory. On the other hand, if it were correct, ought he not to be in a ward with the other patients? And was it usual in the workhouses of this age to have mugs of ale by the bedside of unconscious men?
Curiosity soon stirred him farther, and he put one foot cautiously to the ground. He was reassured at once by a sensation of strength and health; and he slipped out of bed and went to the window. Here he met with another surprise; for it was glazed with small leaded panes of thick and muddy glass, such as was becoming rare in his own time even in the remotest and most primitive parts of the country. And a brief examination showed that the window was genuine, not merely a sheet of glass cut up by sham leads to give a false appearance of antiquity. Puzzling a little over this, and finding that he could not see clearly through the stains and whorls in the glass, he undid the window, and thrust his head out. Below him stretched spacious gardens with lawns and shrubberies, fading in the distance among tall trees, through which buildings could just be discerned.
As he leant out he could hear the voices of persons hidden somewhere beneath; and he was straining forward to catch their meaning when a hand fell on his shoulder. He looked round with a start, and saw his friend carrying a pile of clothes over one arm, and smiling at him pleasantly.
“Well,” said the young man, “I’m relieved to find you awake again. Do you know that you’ve lain there since before noon, and that it’s now nearly six o’clock? I began to think that you’d fallen into another trance.”
“Where am I?” Jeremy asked bluntly.
And the young man replied with simplicity: “This is the Treasury. You know, I’m one of the Speaker’s Clerks.” And then seeing Jeremy’s stare of bewilderment, he went on: “Or perhaps you don’t know. We have apartments here in the Treasury during our term of service, and dine in the Great Hall. This room belongs to another of the Clerks. Luckily he’s away on a journey, and so I’ve been able to borrow it for you. And that reminds me that though you told me a great deal about yourself, you never told me your name.” Jeremy told him. “And mine’s Roger Vaile. Now I think you ought to get dressed, if you feel strong enough.”
But Jeremy’s bewilderment was by no means dissipated. “The Speaker? The Treasury?” he inquired disconnectedly.
The young man whose name was Roger Vaile laughed in a good-humored way. “Didn’t you have them in your time? It’s not much use asking me, I’m afraid. I know so little about the old times that I can’t tell what will be new to you, and what you know already. But you must know who the Speaker is?”
“Yes… I suppose so… the Speaker of the House of Commons,” Jeremy began. “But —”
Roger Vaile looked perplexed in his turn. “N-no —I don’t know… perhaps… he’s… oh, he’s the ruler of the country — like a king, you know.”
“But why is he called the Speaker?” Jeremy persisted.
“Oh, I suppose because he speaks for the people, who know more about these things than I do. Now; that’s evident, isn’t it? But I’ll find some one for you. You’d better dress,” he concluded, making for the door, plainly anxious to avoid further questions. “Dinner’s served at half-past six. I’ll call for you.” He escaped, but returned in a moment to say: “By the way, I’ve told no one anything about you. I’ve only said that I’m entertaining a friend from the country.”
“Thanks… oh, thanks,” Jeremy replied hastily and rather foolishly, looking up from his manipulation of the garments which Roger had disposed on the bed. They proved, however, on examination, to be the least of the problems at that moment confusing his mind. They were, in fact, exceedingly like the evening dress to which he was accustomed. A kind of dinner-jacket with coarsely woven silk on the lapels was substituted for the tail-coat, and the shirt was made of heavy, unstarched linen, and had a soft collar attached to it. The socks were of thick and heavy silk; but the cloth of the coat, waistcoat and trousers, which turned out, under closer inspection, to be dark purple instead of black, was as soft and fine as could be desired. The shoes were more unusual. They were of fine leather, long and pointed and intricately adorned, and their color was a rich and pleasing green.
Jeremy had no trouble in dressing; but when he had finished he was made a little uneasy by what he could see of the result. He supposed, however, that his costume was that of a well-dressed young man of the period, though it did not fit him at all points as he could have wished; and he sat down on the bed to wait as tranquilly as he could till Roger should call for him. Tranquillity, however, was not to be had for the asking. Too many questions beset his mind; and though he had a wealth of observations on which to reflect there seemed to be at once too many and too few. He certainly had never believed that the Millennium was somewhere just around the corner, waiting to be led in by the hand of Science. But he had held the comfortable belief that mankind was advancing in conveniences and the amenities of life by regular and inevitable degrees. Yet all that he had seen so far seemed to be preparing an overthrow of this supposition no less direct and amazing than the revelation he had received when he looked for the houses of Whitechapel and found that they were no longer there. The mere fact that a whole quarter of London had been destroyed and had never been rebuilt was in itself significant. The condition of the still inhabited houses which he had seen was strange. The clothes he wore, the sheets on his bed, the glazing of his window, pointed to an unexpected state of affairs. And Roger Vaile’s attitude towards the scientific theories which Jeremy had so guilelessly spread before him was perhaps the most striking phenomenon of all. Jeremy sought vainly for words which would describe the impression it had made on him. Could a savage have looked otherwise if you had explained to him the theory of atomic weights? And the Speaker, who spoke for the people… and the Treasury? Jeremy thought suddenly, with a certain ingratitude, that Roger’s easy acceptance of his own almost impossible story had something about it that was decidedly queer.
The course of his meditations led him to as many blind alleys as there were paths to be followed; and he was just staring down the eighth or ninth when Roger entered, dressed in garments closely resembling those he had given to Jeremy. Jeremy followed his beckoning finger and was led down a narrow staircase, along a passage and into a hall of some dimensions, which was lit partly by the sun still streaming through the windows, partly by a multitude of tall, thick candles. It contained three tables, two of which were long and stood in the body of the hall. The third was much smaller and was raised on a dais at the end, at right angles to the others. This was still unoccupied; but around the long tables sat or stood a number of men of varying ages, mostly young, talking desultorily, and waiting. These were also dressed like Jeremy; but some of them had been more adventurous in the colors of their jackets, and some displayed modest touches of lace on their breasts or at their wrists.
Jeremy was still staring covertly at these people and finding, a little to his surprise, that neither their costume nor his own looked odd, being naturally worn, when a trumpet rang out metallically, and at once all the lounging men sprang to their feet in rigid attitudes. A door on the dais was thrown open by a servant, and a tall, stooping figure walked in.
“The Speaker,” Roger whispered softly in Jeremy’s ear. Jeremy craned his neck to see the ruler of England. He caught a glimpse of a large, rather fleshy face, with deep folds, discernible in spite of the long white beard about the heavy, drooping mouth, and more than a touch of Jewish traits in the curve of the nose, and the heaviness of the eyelids. As the Speaker walked to his seat, another man, shorter, but spare, and more erect, with lean features and a bearing of almost barbaric pride, which was accentuated by the dull red of his jacket, followed him in.
“That damned Canadian!” Roger muttered, and Jeremy staring in some surprise found that the exclamation was not for him. Still no one sat. Even the Speaker and his guest remained standing by their chairs, until another trumpet sounded, and a second door on the dais was thrown open. Two women came through it. The first was middle-aged and stout, florid of coloring, and, even at that distance, obviously over-painted. The second, whom the first partially hid, seemed to be young, and to move with a carriage as robust and distinguished as that of the erect Canadian. Jeremy had seen no more than this when his gaze was diverted by the rising of a priest who intoned a grace and then by the bustle attendant on the whole company sitting down. He gathered from Roger’s whisper that these were the Speaker’s wife and daughter; but after dinner had begun, he could not clearly see the party of four on the dais because of the glare and the flickering of the candles between him and them.
Roger Vaile did more for Jeremy than provide him with food and lodging. He was also at the pains of finding out the wisest man he knew to answer Jeremy’s questions and resolve his doubts. After a lengthy meal of huge and crudely spiced dishes they returned to Roger’s own room, an apartment a little larger than that in which Jeremy had found himself, but not much less bare; and there they discovered, sitting on the bed and waiting for them, an elderly priest in a long black soutane, with a golden crucifix at his breast.
He rose as they entered, and surveyed Jeremy with intense curiosity. Jeremy returned the stare, but rather less intently. This, he found with little interest, was like any priest of any age. He was clean shaven and almost bald, with pouched and drooping cheeks, and a chin that multiplied and returned to unity as he talked and moved his head. But above these signs of age were two large and childlike blue eyes which shone on Jeremy with something like greed in their eagerness.
“This is the man,” Roger said briefly to the priest, and to Jeremy he said: “This is my uncle, Father Henry Dean. He is writing the chronicle of the Speakers, and he knows more about the old times than any other man alive.”
The priest took Jeremy’s hand in a soft clasp without relaxing his eager stare. “There are few men alive who are older than I am,” he murmured, “but you are one of them, if my nephew has told me the truth. Yes — more than a century older.”
“I don’t feel it,” Jeremy answered aimlessly.
“No? No. That is miraculous. Ah, yes, I believe your story. I know well that the world is full of marvels. Who should know that better than I who have spent so many years searching the wonderful past? And there were greater marvels in those days than now. Young man —” he stopped and chuckled with a touch of senility. “Young man, you will be nearly two centuries old.”
Jeremy nodded without speaking.
“Yes, yes,” the old man went on, “so many strange things happened in those days that we have no call to be amazed at you. Why, there used to be a machine in those times that the doctors used to look right through men’s bodies.”
Jeremy started slightly. “You mean the Röntgen Rays?” he said.
“A wonderful light,” said the old man eagerly, “you know it, you have seen it?”
“Why, yes,” Jeremy turned to Roger. “You know that vacuum-tube I showed you —” But the old man was continuing his catalogue of wonders.
“Men used to cross to America in less than a week. Yes — and some even flew over in aeroplanes in a day.”
“Uncle, uncle,” Roger remonstrated gently, “you mustn’t tell fairy tales to a man who has been to fairyland. He knows what the truth is.”
“But that is true,” Jeremy roused himself to say; “it was done several times — not regularly, but often.” Roger bestowed on him a glance of covert doubt, and the priest leant forward in tremulous gratitude.
“I knew it, I knew it!” he cried. “Roger, like all the world to-day you are too ignorant. You do not know —”
But Jeremy interrupted again. “But have you aeroplanes now?” he asked. “Can you fly?”
“Not for many years now,” the old man sighed, “Roger has never seen a man flying. I did when I was very young.” He drew a deep breath and regarded Jeremy almost with reverence. “You lived in a wonderful time,” he said. “Why, you were alive in the time of the great artists, when that was made.” He turned, and indicated with a devout finger a little marble statue which stood on the mantelpiece behind him. Jeremy followed his gesture, and noticed for the first time that the room was not entirely without decoration. The statue to which his gaze was directed represented the body of a man from the waist upwards. The anatomy of the body was entirely distorted, the ribs stood out like ridges, and one arm, which was raised over the head, was a good third longer than the other.
“Yes,” Jeremy said, surveying it with interest, “perhaps I did. That is what we used to call Futurist art.”
“They were masters then,” said the priest with a deep expulsion of his breath. Jeremy’s eyes wandered round the room and fell on a picture, plainly a lithograph of the war-period, which, when he had regarded it long enough, resolved itself into a crane lifting a great gun into a railway wagon. But it was drawn in fierce straight lines and savage angles, with shadows like wedges, making a bewildering pattern which for a moment defeated him. He dropped his eyes from it, and again looked round the room. This time his gaze fell on the bed, which was wooden and obviously new. The flat head of it was covered with rude carving such as might have been executed by a child armed for the first time with a gouge and a mallet. It had none of the vigor and rhythm that commonly goes with primitive workmanship. The design was glaringly stupid and senseless.
“We are poor workmen to-day,” said the priest, following and interpreting his glance.
Roger, who had stood by, silent but a little impatient, now intervened. “These are old family things,” he explained, “that I brought with me from home. They are very rare. But the bed is new, and I think it very pretty. I had it made only a few months ago.” He motioned his guests into chairs, and produced a large earthenware pot which he offered to Jeremy. Jeremy removed the lid, and saw, somewhat to his surprise, that it contained a dark, finely cut tobacco.
“It’s Connemara,” he said laconically. The old priest shook a long finger at him.
“Ah, Roger, Roger!” he chided. “When will you learn to be thrifty? Cannot you smoke the tobacco of your own country? Winchcombe is good enough for me,” he added to Jeremy, bringing a linen bag and a cherrywood pipe out of the folds of his robe.
“I’ve no pipe,” said Jeremy, fumbling mechanically in his pockets. Roger, without speaking, went to a chest, and produced two new, short clay pipes, one of which he handed to Jeremy, while he kept the other himself. All three were silent for a moment while they filled and lighted from a taper; and the familiar operation, the familiar pause, afflicted Jeremy with an acute memory of earlier days. Then while his palate was still savoring the first breath of the strong, cool Irish tobacco in the new pipe, the priest began again his rambling spoken reveries.
“Tell me,” he demanded suddenly, “did you live in the time of the first Speaker?”
Jeremy, hampered by a grievous lack of historical knowledge, tried to explain that the Speaker was a functionary dating from centuries before his time. The old man jumped in his chair with childlike enthusiasm.
“Yes, yes!” he cried. “This generation has almost forgotten how he came by his name. But I meant the great-grandfather of our Speaker, the first to rule England. You know he was the only strong man when the troubles began. Do you remember him? Surely you must remember him?” Jeremy shook his head, considering. He did not even recall what had been the name of the Speaker when he fell asleep. But his mind caught at a word the priest had used.
“The troubles?” he repeated.
“Yes,” the priest answered, a little taken aback, throwing a glance at Roger. “Don’t you know? The wars, the fighting…”
“The war…” Jeremy began. He knew a great deal about what had been called by his generation, quite simply, The War.
But Roger interposed. “My uncle means the civil wars. Surely it was in the middle of the troubles that your trance began?”
It was by way of such stumblings and misapprehensions that Jeremy gained at last a partial and confused picture of the world into which he had fallen. He had been the first to tire, but the old priest had been very unwilling to let him go.
“No, no,” he said again and again, as Jeremy strove to rise, “you must first tell me…”— while Roger sat watching them with an air of inalterable mildness. Roger had taken but a little part in the conversation. His notions of the twentieth century were extraordinarily vague and inaccurate; and when he had been rebuked once or twice for ignorance he had shrugged his shoulders, placidly observing that it mattered very little, and had said no more.
Jeremy crept into bed very late by the light of a flickering candle, desiring only to forget everything, to postpone all effort of thought until another day. But when he had blown out his candle, and nothing remained but a patch of moonlight thrown through the window on the opposite wall, his mind grew active again. It was indeed absurd to be lying there in the darkness with nothing to give him ocular evidence of his strange misfortune, nothing visible at all but the square of pale radiance, barred by the heavy leads of the pane.
He might have been in bed in some old-fashioned country inn, the chance lodging of a night, where there would have been just such a window, and where the sheets would have been as coarse and heavy as these were. But then, a mile, or two miles, or five miles away there would have been a railway station, whence sooner or later a train would have carried him back to the flat in Holborn, back to his lectures and the classes of intelligent young men and women eager for rational instruction in the mysteries of the universe. He thought of that station, and for a moment could see it as vividly as he desired it, could picture the fresh morning walk there, the little, almost deserted platform with a name picked out in white pebbles, the old porter…. He could conjure up the journey and even the smoky approach to London. But here, though as he had learnt there were still trains, there was certainly no train which could do that for him.
He shifted uneasily on to the other side, and recognized with a groan that this was an empty vision. It behooved him to make himself at home as much and as soon as he could in the year two thousand and seventy-four, to learn what this world was like, to adapt himself to it.
“We are a diminished people,” was the burden of the priest’s lament. “Our ancestors were wise and rich and strong, but we have lost nearly all they had, and we shall never regain it.” And he had rehearsed the marvels of the twentieth century, trains leaving every town in constant succession, motors on the roads, aeroplanes overhead, steamers on the sea. But the steamship, owing to the difficulties of its construction, had practically ceased to exist. A rapidly growing percentage of accidents, due to faulty workmanship, had driven the aeroplane altogether out of use. There were still a few motors; but these had long been less reliable, and were now growing less speedy, than the horse. As for trains — there were still trains running to and from London. One went to Edinburgh every week, and two to Liverpool and Bristol. The trains to Dover, to the Midlands and to Yorkshire were even more frequent. The line from London to the West of England was still open, but that district had now little importance, and trains were dispatched there only when there was some special reason.
Roger treated his uncle’s laments with gentle and reasonable sarcasm. “I think,” he said weightily, “that you exaggerate. I’m not convinced that the old times were as wonderful as you think. Why, so far as railways go, I know something about railways. It’s part of my duties. And I know this, that engines are always breaking down. I take it that even in the old times an engine that had broken down wouldn’t go. And I imagine that our clever ancestors had just as much trouble as we have in keeping the lines up. Now this week the train from Edinburgh is two days overdue, because there’s been a landslide in the Midlands. I suppose you’ll agree,” he added, turning to Jeremy, “that even in your time a train couldn’t get through a landslide.”
Jeremy had agreed. “I dare say,” Roger went on, “that the railways aren’t as good now as they were before the troubles. But we’re going to improve them. The Speaker talks about repairing the old line that went out to the eastern counties. You know — you can still see parts of it near Chelmsford.”
The old man on this had looked appealingly at Jeremy, who sought without success to convince Roger that the difference was really great. But his attention was chiefly concentrated on discovering how this and other differences had come about. It seemed incredible that the race could have forgotten so much and yet live. The “Troubles” were so often in the mouths of both uncle and nephew that Jeremy’s mind came at last to give them their due in the shape of a capital letter. The “Troubles.” … He supposed that his trance had begun with this beginning and indeed much of what the priest had told him was more vivid to him than to the teller when he remembered the soldier and the alien woman who had called him a dirty bourgeois, or Scott leaning down, pale and anxious from the lorry, or the man whom he had never seen, but who had thrown a bomb at him down Trehanoc’s cellar steps.
Jeremy gathered that it had been a question not of one outburst of fighting, one upheaval and turning-point of time, but of numbers spread over many years.
“It is hard to say how it all came about,” mused the old man, at one of the few moments when he was cajoled into telling instead of asking. “Some have said that the old life grew too difficult, and just ground itself to pieces. It began with the rich and the poor. When some accident brought them to blows it was too late to put the world right. After that they never trusted one another, and there was no more peace.”
“When did the fighting stop at last?” asked Jeremy.
“It kept on stopping — it kept on stopping. And it kept on breaking out again, first in one country and then in another. For fifty years there was always war in some part of the world. And when they stopped fighting they couldn’t settle down again. The workers idled, or smashed the machines. And at last a time came when the fighting didn’t stop. It went on and on in England and all over the Continent. All the schools were closed, all the teachers were idle for more than twenty years. I have often thought that that was how we came to lose so much. A generation grew up that had never learnt anything. Only a few men knew how to do the things their fathers had done every day, and the rest were too stupid or too lazy to learn from them properly. Then everybody was tired out and more than half the people were dead; they had to begin again, and they were too weary to recover as much as they might have done.”
Jeremy pondered over again the vision raised by these words. He could see the earth ravaged by exhausted enemies, too evenly matched to bring the struggle to an end until exhaustion had reached its lowest pitch. He could see all the mechanical wonders of his own age smashed by men who were too weak to prevail, but who were strong enough not to endure the soulless contrivances which had brought them into servitude. And he could see the gradual triumph of the Speaker over a weary and starving population. The first Speaker, who had really been Speaker of the House of Commons in the year when Jeremy had fallen into his trance, had been a man of unsuspected strength of character and a member of a great and wealthy Jewish house. Assisted by his kinsmen in all parts of the world, he had been a rallying-point for the rich in the early disorders; and he had established a party which had lasted, with varying fortunes, through all the changes of succeeding years. He it was who had arranged that compromise with the Church of Rome by which all southern England became again more or less Catholic without too violently alienating those parts of the country in which other sorts of religion were dominant. Not the least of his claims for greatness had been his perception of the real power still concentrated in the fugitive and changing person of that Bishop of Rome who was chased from his own ruined palace and his own city, up and down Europe from one refuge to another, as the forces of disorder veered and changed…subsided here and rose again there. One by one the countries of the earth had sunk, bloodless and impoverished, into quiescence, and when the turn of England came, the house of the Speaker, the house of Burney, in the person of his grandson, had been at hand to take the opportunity.
“And did all the people die off in the fighting?” Jeremy had wondered.
“In battle and disease and famine,” the priest answered. “Towards the end of the Troubles came the Great Famine. And that was the cause of the worst of the wars. The people of the towns were starving, because they were fighting in America and sent us no food-ships, and the country people were nearly starving too, because their crops had failed. They struggled for what food there was… they died by millions… by millions and millions….”
“I must say I find it hard to believe all that,” Roger interposed with an air of detachment. “My uncle is so enthusiastic about the old times that he believes whatever any one tells him or what he reads in a lot of old books — books you couldn’t imagine if you hadn’t seen them, filthy, simply dropping to pieces…. The more improbable the story the better he likes it. Well, in the first place, why should those people have wanted food from other countries? What did they do if they didn’t grow it for themselves? And why should so many of them be living in towns?”
“You are very ignorant, my boy,” said the old man calmly. “Look at London now; look at the miles of houses that no one has lived in for a hundred years. Who did live in them but the people who died of famine?”
“It isn’t a very great matter after all, is it?” Roger muttered, suppressing a yawn.
“Before the Troubles,” the priest continued, half to himself, “there were nearly fifty millions of people in England alone. Do you know what the census was?” he asked sharply, turning to Jeremy. Jeremy replied that he did. “Ah, Roger wouldn’t know what the word meant. Well, I have read the report of the census of 1921, and then there were nearly fifty million people in England alone. Where are they now? We have not more than ten or twelve millions, and we have never counted them — never counted them. But Roger and the young men of his age think that nothing has happened, that we are not much worse off than we were, that there is no need for us to bestir ourselves.”
“And is it like this all over the world?” Jeremy had asked, stunned by the implications of this fact.
“All over the world — so far as we know.”
“All over the world — all over the world.” The words rang again in Jeremy’s ears as he tossed uneasily in bed. The old world had collapsed, and the falling roof had crushed and blotted, out forever most of what he had thought perpetually established. And then, amazingly, the stones and timbers had not continued in their fall to utter ruin. They had found their level and stayed, jammed together, perhaps, fortuitously, to make a lower and narrower vault, which still sufficed to shelter the improvident family of men. The human race had not perished, had not even been reduced to utter barbarism. Its glissade into the abyss had been arrested, and it remained on the ledge of ground where it had been thrown. So much was left. How much?
He realized with a slight shock that he was lying on his back, beating feverishly with his hands on the bedclothes, and muttering half aloud as though in a delirium, “What is left? What can be left?” He dragged himself back abruptly from what seemed for a moment to be the edge of madness. Still his mind obstinately demanded to know what was left that was tangible, that he had known and could recognize. He could not get beyond the landmarks of his childhood. Was Westminster Abbey still standing? Was the Monument? He knew that St. Paul’s was gone. It had been lost by a generation which had been careless of the warnings given by its groaning arches and leaning walls; it had fallen and crushed some hundreds of the negligent inheritors. Was Nelson’s column still in Trafalgar Square? Jeremy, with a childish unreason, was eager to have an answer to this question.
Now his thoughts abruptly abandoned it and fled back to pictures of the Troubles. He could see very vividly, more vividly than anything else, the classroom in which he had been accustomed to deliver his lecture empty and deserted, benches torn up to make bonfires or barricades, dust sifting in through the broken windows and lying thick on the floor. He remembered with a painful laugh that he had left the first written sheets of a paper on the Viscosity of Liquids in a drawer in the lecturer’s table. Burnt, too, no doubt…. That knowledge had perished. But most knowledge had perished in another way, had merely faded from the mind of man, because of his growing incapacity for acquiring it. There flashed upon him the vision of a changed world, in which there was no fellow for him, save only a few, and those among the very old.
For a moment his mind paused, as though a cold finger had intervened and touched it. During the hours of the night his eyes had been growing used to the darkness, but, so much were his thoughts turned inwards, he had not noticed it. Now, in the sudden cessation of thought, he saw clearly the bed in which he was lying, the matting on the floor, the rough walls and ceiling, and every detail of the little room. He started up, went to the window and thrust his head out into the night air. The bushes below murmured faintly under the touch of a breeze he could not feel. All around was perfectly quiet; and where that evening he had seen buildings through the farthest trees, no lights were to be descried. He pushed his head farther out and looked to left and right. There were no lights in the Treasury: no sound came from any of the rooms. Jeremy stayed thus for a little, helpless in one of those fits in which every physical faculty is capable while the mind is dizzied by the mere power of a thought.
He knew that, by reason of his strange fate, he was alone in this generation. But he had only just begun to realize how much alone he was. Now he felt he had no community with any of these creatures, that not only the face of the earth but the spirit of its dwellers had been changed while he slept. They looked at the world and at themselves in a manner which was not familiar to him. They were ignorant of things he could never explain to them. They believed things which to him could never be credible. There was a gap between him and them which nothing could ever bridge.
Tears came into his eyes as he pondered numbly over his tragedy. It seemed to him that he could look back and see his own world, full of familiar men and places, friendly and infinitely desirable. He began to believe that all things which had happened and are to happen exist simultaneously somewhere in the universe. And then, shaking himself free from this absurd homesickness in time, he began to consider the immediate future. The rest of his life was perhaps a negligible piece of eternity compared with that through which he had already lived; but it would have to be passed somehow. The more he thought about it the more ridiculously impossible it seemed that he should now see out the reasonable span of human life.
Could he adjust himself to this new world, find a place in its business, earn a living, make friends, perhaps marry and beget children? The idea was preposterous; he ought rather to be in a museum. Could it be possible that one day his youth in the twentieth century would be as dim a recollection to him as must be, he supposed, the youth of most old men to them? There passed before his eyes, sudden and uncalled for, a procession of solemn persons, parents, and even aunts, schoolmasters, the principal of the college in which he lectured, the professor under whom he had worked. All, in that distant youth, when he had seemed rash and impatient, had advised him, had adjured him to consider his future. Well, here it was…. He laughed loudly and harshly.
He drew his head from the window and turned slowly back towards his bed, cooled and refreshed and a little inclined towards sleep. As he pulled the clothes over his body and settled his head on the pillow the thought struck him that perhaps all this was a nightmare, which would have disappeared when he woke, for sleeping and waking were now invested for him with powers so incalculable that anything might be expected of either of them. He drew closer down into the bed and found the warmth of the rough sheets pleasant to his limbs. The square of the window was rapidly changing to a pale gray. Perhaps in the morning this fantastic mirage would have altered its appearance. It was getting towards dawn — would he never go to sleep? Or if it did not… no doubt a humdrum career was as possible in this century as in any other. There was a bird waking in the bushes under his window; and when they all began it would be impossible to go to sleep. Perhaps he could get a job of some kind — he might be useful on the railways…. His eyelids sank and an invincible lassitude spread through his body. A sudden fear of sleep seized him — a terror lest this time it might carry him into some even less friendly age; but in spite of it, consciousness faded away.
In another room, not far off in that diminished city, candles were burning while Jeremy tossed to and fro in the darkness. At a great mahogany table — the dining-table of some moldered Victorian gentleman —Father Henry Dean sat down long after midnight, and, with the sleepless industry of a very old man, began to turn over the pages of his chronicle. All around the lighted circle in which he sat soft shadows filled the room, obscuring the great oak dresser, a now worn and mellowed relic of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the bookcase, which was modern work, covered with crude and tasteless arabesques, and offended its owner whenever he saw it.
His labors in the composition of his history were immense and were bewildering to the younger men of his time. It had been a blissful experience to meet, in Jeremy, one who understood the pains he took in order to arrive at a seemingly useless truth. The pages through which he was now glancing represented a lifetime of devotion. They represented also an enduring and a passionate regret. Father Henry deserved whatever condemnation properly falls upon the praiser of the past.
In the pursuit of his object he had lavished his youth and his middle age; and he was still spending his last years in the discovery and study of the books that were now slowly vanishing from the world. He alone in his generation had made many journeys to the great deserted repository where, before the Troubles, the authorities of the British Museum had stored the innumerable and bewildering periodicals of a time that had been, if anything, too well informed. A satirical poet might have found a theme in that dark, dejected, and rat-ridden building, whose windows and doors had long since vanished and where man’s neglect had conspired with the weather and the sheltering beasts to disperse the knowledge it contained.
The priest’s youth had gone before he heard of this storehouse. When he found it, the stooping, patient figure, turning over the pages of long-forgotten newspapers, which were brown and ragged, dropping in pieces, covered with mildew, sodden with rain or eaten away by rats, might have offered the same poet a spectacle too pathetic for the exercise of his fancy. Father Henry did his best; but the ravages of time had been enormous. For the whole of 1920 and part of 1921 he could find no connected authority but the files of an illustrated Sunday paper.
It had been almost the same in the British Museum itself, which he had discovered in earlier life and where his strange passion was first nurtured. There was only the tragic difference that here decay had not gone so far that it might not yet be repaired. Many of the treasures of the Museum had been destroyed, or spoilt, or stolen, and the library had suffered no less. Father Henry, when he was a young man, obtained a key to the rooms in which the books lay and wandered among the shelves, observing with tears the damage done here, too, by rain and the rats, so that here too many unique records were already wholly destroyed or rendered illegible. There was still a curator of the Museum, an official at the Speaker’s court, who held the post as a sinecure and visited the building perfunctorily once or twice a year. In his very early and ardent youth the priest had addressed a petition to the Speaker, praying with some vehemence that the part of the Museum which held the library might be mended and made weatherproof. The Speaker was indifferent, the curator resentful; and Father Henry’s foolish persistence had spoilt his own hopes of advancement and thrown him more deeply into his solitary enthusiasm for the recovery of knowledge.
Once again, in his middle years, on the succession of a new Speaker, he renewed his petition, and for a time his expectations had risen. But the new ruler had lost interest when he found that Father Henry’s object was only the study of history, not the revival of mechanical inventions. Other things had intervened, and the project had been dropped. After that the priest began carrying to his own house such volumes as he most valued; but he dared not do this on a great scale, lest the curator should make it a convenient occasion for a display of zeal. He prophesied privately to acquaintances, who did not care, that in another generation the library would have been altogether lost.
Amid these difficulties he had almost completed the work through which he was now abstractedly rambling. Jeremy’s appearance had filled him with homesickness for the past no less acute than Jeremy’s own; and he looked at the crabbedly written pages through a film of tears. In an early chapter he corrected with pleasure his own doubt whether the Atlantic had ever really been crossed through the air. In the newspapers he had consulted by some odd chance, only allusions to this feat, but no direct record of it survived. He noted also that he must revise his estimate of one Bob Hart, a prominent Labor leader of the years in which the Troubles began. Relying on the illustrated Sunday paper, Father Henry Dean had depicted him as a great, corrupt, and sinister demagogue, who combined the more salient qualities of Robespierre and Heliogabalus. Jeremy happened to have met him once or twice, and affirmed confidently that he was a small, bewildered and timid man, with a stock of homely eloquence and no reasoning power.
The old priest turned on and reached his account of the ruin of St. Paul’s, which had occurred after the Troubles and, indeed, during his own childhood. He had actually seen it standing, though he had not seen it fall. In the chronicle he described the catastrophe, the portents which preceded it, and the cloud of dust which hung for a few minutes over the settling ruins, and in which many had thought they had seen an avenging shape.
After this he had given a long and elaborate account of the wonderful building, supplementing his childish recollections from a rich and varied tradition. Father Henry remembered that the great dome of the cathedral had been gilded, and here tradition supported him. Jeremy, however, declared that this was not true. The old priest looked carefully through what he had written; and then, sitting back in his great chair and rattling his quill between his teeth, he considered Jeremy’s evidence. At last he shook his head, put down his pen, and locked his papers away. Having done this, he blew out all the candles but one, took the last and dragged himself heavily away to bed.
NEXT WEEK: “Jeremy sought to order in his mind the confused and contradictory thoughts. ‘And yet perhaps you have lost much that is better gone. This world seems to me simpler, more peaceful, safer… We used to feel that we were living on the edge of a precipice — every man by himself, and all men together, lived in anxiety….'”
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.
HILOBOOKS: The mission of HiLoBooks is to serialize novels on HiLobrow; and also, as of 2012, operating as an imprint of Richard Nash’s Cursor, to reissue Radium Age science fiction in beautiful new print editions. So far, we have published Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’s The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, and J.D. Beresford’s Goslings. Forthcoming: E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
READ: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, serialized between January and April 2012; Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), serialized between March and June 2012; Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, serialized between April and July 2012; and H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, serialized between March and August 2012.
ORIGINAL FICTION: HILOBROW has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic) and Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda. We also publish original stories and comics.