The People of the Ruins (12)
August 9, 2012
HILOBROW is pleased to present the twelfth 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.
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LAST WEEK: “‘You have done it! You have done it!’ he cried again and again. ‘There is nothing left of them!’ Then, when his transports had abated a little, he went on more calmly. ‘We have smashed them to pieces. The rebel army has ceased to exist, and the Chairman has been killed.'”
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It was in a state of tranquil elation that Jeremy left his room to take his place at the banquet in the great hall. All day one emotion had been chasing another through his mind, like clouds hurrying across a storm-swept sky. Now it seemed that the last cloud had gone and had left a radiant evening serenity. He had been crushed by congratulations that morning. In the afternoon his love for the Lady Eva had exceeded his endurance. But to-night he felt himself able to bear the last degree of joy from either. He dressed with care, and, a minute or so before the hour, walked with a light and confident step through the corridors of the Treasury. He approached the hall by way of the private passages and turned into an anteroom, where, on ceremonial occasions, the Speaker and his family and his guests were accustomed to wait until the proper moment for taking their seats.
Here he found himself alone. After lighting an Irish cigar, he strolled jauntily up and down the room with his hands in his pockets, occasionally humming a bar or two of one of the songs of the nineteen-twenties — the last expressions of a frivolous and hilarious phase of society — or lightly kicking the furniture in the sheer height of his spirits. Not once since the moment of his waking in the Whitechapel Meadows had he been in such a mood. Something had happened to him of which he had no experience before; and its paradoxical result was to make him thoroughly at home in the new world for the first time. He felt like a man who in choppy water has been bumping up and down against the side of a quay and has at last succeeded in making himself fast. And, even in this gay and careless spirit, he was deeply conscious of what it was that had made him gay and careless. He continued, even through his light-hearted and somewhat ludicrous maneuvers up and down the room, through his tuneless but jaunty renderings of vulgar songs, to praise Heaven for having made the Lady Eva and for having given her to him. He knew that it was because of her that he was fit, as he told himself, reverting to earlier habits of phrase, to push a house over.
He did not, as he had hoped, get a moment alone with her before the banquet began. The Speaker beckoned him out without entering the room, and he could only catch a glimpse of her, by the side of the Lady Burney, as they entered the hall together. Immediately on their entrance the guests, who were already assembled, rose to their feet and began to cheer deafeningly. The sound had on Jeremy’s spirits an effect contrary to that which it had had in the morning. It elated him; and when the Speaker, with a hand on his shoulder, drew him into a more prominent place on the dais, he bowed without self-consciousness. At last the Speaker raised his hand authoritatively and obtained silence. There was a shuffling of chairs; and it seemed to be supposed that the banquet would begin. But the Speaker cried in a thundering voice:
“My friends!” A profound and instant hush fell on the assembly. “My friends,” he continued less loudly. “It is not our custom to make speeches before dinner or my custom to make long speeches at any time. I do not intend to say now what is in all our minds. But I believe that good news is the better for being soon told; and I have news to give you which I would like you to enjoy during dinner as well as after it. Jeremy Tuft, to whom under Heaven we owe our lives and our freedom to-night, has asked for the hand of my daughter, and she has consented to marry him.” The hush continued, while he said briskly in a low but audible tone, “Your right hand, girl — your right hand, Jeremy.” Then he went on again more loudly, “I put their hands together. I am the first to wish them happiness.” In the uproar that followed, Jeremy had a confused notion that he and the Lady Eva bowed to the guests in the hall with equal composure. He was vividly aware that the Lady Burney had kissed him, this time on both cheeks. A lull followed, in which his condition of exaltation enabled him to express his gratitude and joy in a few words without faltering. And then suddenly it was all over. He was sitting next to the Lady Eva, saying something to her, he knew not what, in an undertone; and the banquet had begun.
When he was calm enough to look around him, he saw that the table on the dais at which he was sitting was occupied by all the most influential of the “big men” that were in the habit of attending the Treasury. The Speaker sat at the middle of one side. The Lady Burney sat on his right, and beyond her the Canadian, on whose face for once the ordinary expression of grinning malice had given way to one of sinister displeasure. On his left was the Lady Eva, next to whom came Jeremy. Jeremy’s neighbor was the wife of a “big man” whom he knew but slightly, and who, to his relief, was at once engaged in conversation by the apparently still careworn and desponding dignitary, Henry Watkins. From this survey Jeremy turned with pleasure to the Lady Eva. Her mood chimed with his, and he was in high spirits. Her eyes were gleaming, her color was bright, and she talked lightly and without restraint. He noticed, too, with some pleasure that she showed a healthy appetite and took a sensible interest in good food. He was very hungry; and they talked for some time about the dishes. She did not drink, however. Nothing was served, indeed, no drinks were usual in England of that day, save whisky and beer, both of which were produced in good quality and consumed in large quantities. Jeremy, fearful of the effect either might have on him in his already stimulated condition, drank whisky sparingly, having weakened it with a great deal of water. So the banquet went through its innumerable courses to the last of them. At the end the servants cleared the table, and, with the costly Irish cigars, great decanters were brought in. These contained a kind of degenerate port which, for ceremonial reasons, was usually produced on the greatest occasions. But it was very nasty; and most persons confined themselves to a single glass of it, which they took because, for some inscrutable reason, it had been the custom of their ancestors.
The speeches, which began at this point, were excessively long and tedious. Jeremy gathered that a succession of hour-long speeches on every public occasion was one of the habits of the time, though it seemed to him as incomprehensible as seemed in the twentieth century the even longer sermons of an earlier period. Notable after notable arose and made the same remarks about the victory and the marriage, sometimes not even perceptibly varying the language. It was only in Henry Watkins’s oration that he found any gleam of interest.
It began dully enough. The man looked gloomy, and his utterance was halting. Jeremy was at first soothed into sleepiness by the monotonous voice. He decided that this great and wealthy man was almost certainly a descendant of the charwoman from whom he had had the earliest intimation that “trouble” was really in the air. There was something unmistakably reminiscent both in his despondency and in his stupidity. But all at once a new resemblance struck his ears and stimulated his attention. Mrs. Watkins, in that fast fading antiquity, had brought him bodements of ill; and this latest scion of her line seemed to be playing the same part.
“This young man,” said Henry Watkins in stumbling accents, “has delivered us all —I say, has delivered us all, from a great, a very great misfortune. If greater, yes, if much greater misfortune should threaten us, it is to him, it is to him, under Providence, and our wise ruler, that we shall look for help. And I say, my friends, I say and repeat,” he droned on, “that we must not regard ourselves as safe from all misfortunes —”
The Speaker, one place removed from Jeremy, moved sharply, knocked over a glass and scraped his foot on the floor. He interrupted the flow of the speech; and the orator paused and looked round at him, half grieved, half questioning. The Speaker took the glance; and it seemed to Jeremy that it was in answer that he frowned so savagely. The melancholy expression on Henry Watkins’s face deepened by a shade and became dogged. He continued with something of defiance in his voice.
“I say we ought not to think that we have seen the worst that can happen to us. This — all this unexpected danger which we have survived ought to teach us never again for a single moment to think ourselves in safety.” He concluded abruptly and sat down. He had apparently spoiled the Speaker’s joviality; and he had propounded to Jeremy a riddle very hard of solution. Jeremy felt certain that some purpose had lain behind his words, other than his usual pessimism, and that the Speaker’s interruption had betokened something more than his usual boredom.
“Do you know what he meant?” he asked of the Lady Eva; but she shook her head. He glanced along the table to see if Thomas Wells’s expression would throw any light on the matter. But he had left his place and had moved away to talk to a friend at some distance. Jeremy could not make out what it was all about, and gave it up. And now the formal part of the banquet was over; and the guests began to leave their places and to move about in the hall.
This was the signal for all who had ever spoken to Jeremy to come to him and congratulate him. He observed in their various manners a curious mixture of genuine homage and of assumed adulation of the man who might soon be their ruler. In the midst of it he saw on the outskirts of the crowd around him Roger Vaile, lounging with an air of detachment and indifference. He broke off the conversation in which he was engaged and forced a way to his friend.
“Roger!” he cried, taking him by the hand.
“Good luck to you, Jeremy,” Roger replied gently. “I’ve reason to be pleased with myself now, haven’t I?— even though it was an accident.”
“Be sure I shall never forget you, Roger,” Jeremy murmured; and then, feeling in his reply something of the manner of a great man towards a dependent, he blushed and was confused. Roger’s answering smile was friendly; and before Jeremy could recover his tongue he had slipped away. Soon half the guests had gone; for it was an early race. When the hall was beginning to look empty he felt a plucking at his sleeve from behind him; and turning he saw the Lady Eva. He followed her into the little ante-room behind the hall and found that they were alone there.
She shut the door behind them and opened her arms.
“Only a minute,” she whispered. “Oh, my dear, my dear, goodnight. I am so happy.” He embraced her silently, and his eyes pricked. Hardly had he released her before she had gone. He went back into the hall and found the last guest departing, and the servants putting out the candles. He wondered for a moment why all great days must end with this flat moment; but the thought did not depress him. He walked away, slow and unaccompanied, to his own room.
When he was there he busied himself for some moments with trifles and delayed to undress. He wanted very much to lie awake for hours so that he could taste again all the most exquisite moments of the day that was just gone. He also desired with equal intensity to fall asleep at once, so that he might begin the new day as soon as possible. He had got so far as taking off his coat when there was a discreet knocking at the door. He opened it and found a servant, who said deferentially:
“The Speaker would like to see you at once, sir, in his own room.”
“All right,” Jeremy answered, picking up his coat. And then, when the man had gone, he murmured to himself in sudden dread, “What can it be? Oh, what can it be?”
Jeremy hastened down the stairs to the Speaker’s room in a state of rapidly increasing agitation. He did not know, he could not imagine, what it was that he feared; but he had been raised to so high a pinnacle of joy that the least touch of the unexpected could set him trembling and looking for evil. When he reached his object he found the old man alone, seated sprawling in his great chair by the open window, his wrinkled, thick-veined hands spread calmly on the carven arms. Two or three candles stood on the table behind him, flickering and guttering slightly in the faint night breeze.
“I am glad you have come at once, my son,” he observed, turning his head a little, in a tone which showed no symptoms of trouble. “You had not gone to bed, then? I wished to speak to you alone, before the others have come that I have sent for. Sit down and listen to me.”
Jeremy drew up a smaller chair on the other side of the window and obeyed.
“We have yet another battle before us,” the Speaker pronounced abruptly.
Jeremy started. “What —” he began.
“Another battle,” the old man repeated. “Do not be distressed. I know this is ill news for a bridegroom, yet it is not so bad as it seems. When we returned this morning — it was after you had fainted at the door and while you were still unconscious —I learnt that the President of Wales had made up his mind, only a few days after the Northerners, to march on London. I knew that there was trouble of some kind in the west, but I had got no trustworthy news to show me how far it had gone. But information came to me this morning that the President and his army had passed round the Cotswolds and were marching towards Oxford. The worst part of the news was that the Gloucestershire wool-merchants had joined with him. Of course, they were very much interested in what might happen to the Chairman. That was what that gloomy dullard, Henry Watkins, was hinting at in his speech to-night —I know you saw me frowning at him. I tell you frankly I thought nothing of it. It was only the Yorkshiremen that disturbed the others; and I took it for granted that our victory would settle all quarrels at once.”
“Yes…” Jeremy murmured doubtfully in the pause.
“Well, I was wrong. It seems that a survivor got away to the west this morning, apparently just after Thomas Wells took the Chairman prisoner. I don’t know how he went. I think he must have got on to the railway somewhere and found an engine ready to move. He could hardly have moved so fast otherwise. Anyway, he found the President, with the greater part of his army, at Oxford — and the President has sent a letter to me. It reached me only a few minutes ago.” He stopped and ran a hand through his beard, regarding Jeremy thoughtfully with tranquil eyes.
“Go on… go on,” Jeremy whispered tensely.
“That was quick work, wasn’t it?” the Speaker ruminated. “He can’t have started before seven this morning, because I’m sure the Chairman wasn’t taken till then. The letter reached me here at a quarter to midnight — less than seventeen hours. The President was in a great hurry —I know him well, I can see him raging.” He checked himself and smiled at Jeremy with a kind of genial malice. “You want to know what he said in his letter? Well, he warned me that he would hold me responsible for the Chairman’s safekeeping; and he summoned me to a conference at Oxford where the three of us were to settle our differences and rearrange the affairs of the country.”
“And what answer will you make?” Jeremy managed to utter.
“I have ordered the messenger to be flogged by the grooms,” the Speaker replied composedly. “I expect that they are flogging him now. The only other answer we have to give, Jeremy, will be delivered by your guns.”
“But this is terrible,” Jeremy cried, springing up from his chair. “You don’t understand —”
“Rubbish, my friend,” the old man interrupted with an air of serene commonsense. “It means only that the President does not know what has happened. If he still wishes to fight when he knows — why, then we will fight him. I hope he will wish it. Perhaps when he is broken we shall have peace forever.”
Jeremy walked three or four times up and down the room, pressing his hands together and trying vainly by a violent tension of all his muscles to regain his composure.
“You don’t understand a bit,” he burst out at last, “what luck it all was. I tell you it was luck, merely luck…” He stopped, stumbling and stuttering, so much confounded by this unexpected and horrible menace to his happiness, that he was unable to frame any words of explanation.
The Speaker continued to smile at him. “You are not yourself to-night, Jeremy,” he chided gently. “You are overwrought; and it is not to be wondered at. You will find your next triumph less exciting.”
But Jeremy’s agitation only increased. It was not only his own future that was at stake, but the Lady Eva’s also and his future with her. “Can’t you make peace with him?” he demanded wildly.
“Peace —” the Speaker began in a more vehement tone. But before he could go on the door was opened and two servants appeared, dragging between them a torn and disheveled man, whose bloodshot eyes were rolling madly in their sockets, and whose face was white and twisted with pain. Just inside the room they let go his arms, and he fell sprawling on the floor with a faint moan.
“Peace!” cried the Speaker, rising from his chair and pointing at the man. “That is the ambassador of peace I shall send back to the President! Peace between us, I thank God, is impossible unless he humbles himself to me!”
Jeremy took a step towards the prostrate figure and recoiled again, seeing that the torn garments had been roughly pulled on over lacerated and bleeding shoulders. He recovered himself and bent down over the unhappy creature whose breath came thick and short through the writhing mouth. He looked up with horror in his eyes.
“This is… this is the President’s messenger?” he muttered.
The Speaker nodded.
“But you didn’t do this to the men from Bradford. You let them go back untouched.”
“I will make an end of these troubles!” Again Jeremy could see in the old man a reincarnation of one of the vengeful prophets of the ancient Jews. But the next moment the menacing attitude was relaxed, and the Speaker, turning to the immobile servants, said coldly: “Take this fellow out and lay him down in the courtyard. Tether his horse fast beside him. When he is able to move, let him go back without hindrance to his master and say what has been done to him.”
The men bowed, stooped over the moaning wretch and dragged him roughly away. A profound silence followed his last inarticulate, half-conscious complaints as he was borne down the corridor.
“And now,” said the Speaker, resuming his serenity of manner without an effort, “now we must make our plans. I propose that we shall march out at once and prepare to meet the President west of London if he wishes to attack us; and I have decided that you shall take command of the army.”
“I?” Jeremy exclaimed. “Oh, but —” He was overwhelmed by an absurd confusion. Once again he was in the nightmare world, struggling with shadows, wrestling with an incomprehensible mind on which he could never get a grip. “I can’t command the army! I know something about guns, but I’ve no experience of infantry. I shouldn’t…” His protests faded away into silence before the Speaker’s imperturbability.
“Guns are all very well… I don’t mind… I can’t…” These words jerked out and ceased, like the last spasmodic drops from a fountain, when the water has been turned off at the main. Then, when he himself supposed that he had finished, he added suddenly with an air of conclusiveness: “I know something about guns…”
The Speaker made no answer for a moment or two. When he did it was slowly and with extreme deliberation. “You won this morning’s battle for us,” he said, “by the use of guns. Our battle against the President, if it is ever fought, will have to be won in the same way. None of us properly understands how to do it but you. And, after all, wasn’t there a great general in the old times, somewhere about your time, who began his career in the artillery? What was his name? I know so little of history; but I think it began with a B.”
“Napoleon,” Jeremy suggested with a half hysterical chuckle.
“Napoleon? Was that it? I thought it was some other name. Well, then, if he could —”
“I won’t do it,” Jeremy suddenly uttered. The door opened again, and the Canadian entered. He was wrapped in a great furred gown, from the ample collar of which his face hardly protruded, looking sharper and leaner than ever.
“You sent for me,” he said in a colorless and slightly drowsy voice. “What has happened now?”
“Sit down,” the Speaker returned. “Henry Watkins and John Hammond will be here in a moment.” Without a word the Canadian sank into a chair and drew the fur of his gown closely round his ears and mouth. Over the folds of it his small, red eyes looked out with an unwavering and sinister expression. His arrival brought an oppressive silence with it; and Jeremy began suddenly to feel the uncanny effects of being thus wakeful in a sleeping world. He looked furtively at the calm, stern face of the Speaker, and saw how the thick lips were compressed in a rigid line. Outside a faint and eery wind persistently moved the leaves. Within, the great building was stonily silent all around them; and the flames of the candles on the table danced at a movement of the air or burnt up straight and still in the succeeding calm. The hush lasted until a servant announced the attendance of Henry Watkins and John Hammond, who had been fetched out of their beds and had reached the Treasury together.
“I told you, sir, I told you how it would be,” said Henry Watkins at once in a voice like the insistent notes of a tolling bell.
The Speaker made an abrupt gesture. “You have heard then?” he asked sharply.
“We passed a man outside, sir, in the courtyard, lying on the ground beside his tethered horse,” John Hammond interposed, “and we made inquiries while we were waiting to be brought in to you.”
“I have made no secret of it,” the Speaker said simply. “Every waking man in the Treasury may know all about it by now. Well, then…” And in his deliberate and unconcerned manner he repeated to them the same story that he had told to Jeremy. “Nor am I sorry for it,” he concluded. “It is as well that we should be done with all this at once, as I think we shall be.”
When he had finished the Canadian shifted slightly in his chair. “You say they are at Oxford now?” he asked, his voice a little muffled by the thick fur that brushed his lips. The Speaker assented. “And the Gloucestershire men have joined them?” Again the Speaker assented. “Ah!” murmured the Canadian enigmatically; and he seemed to sink further into the folds of his gown, as though he were preparing himself for sleep.
Henry Watkins and John Hammond made no answer, but looked at one another lugubriously.
“Come, gentlemen,” the Speaker cried heartily. “We know now that we have nothing to be afraid of. I have determined that Jeremy Tuft shall take command of the whole army; and I am sure that the man who saved us this morning can save us again.”
“Ah, that is a good plan,” observed John Hammond sagely. He was a heavy man of slow speech, and he wagged his head solemnly while he talked. “Jeremy Tuft will command the whole army. That is a very good plan.”
“We could not do better,” said Henry Watkins with an approach to cheerfulness.
Jeremy fancied that he heard Thomas Wells sniff under his wrappings; and the justice of the implied criticism twitched horribly at his nerves. He stared out of the window into the blackness, a resolve taking shape in his mind. At last he stood up deliberately and spoke with a roughness, almost arrogance, that he certainly did not feel.
“I will not take command of the army,” he said, letting the words fall one by one. “I am not fit to do it. I should only bring disaster on all of us. I have too much at stake to risk it. It would be better if Thomas Wells were to take command.” He stopped and waited, defiant and sullen. The Canadian made one sharp movement, then folded his gown more closely around him, so as still further to hide his face, and sat on impassively.
Henry Watkins was at him at once, eagerly arguing that there was little hope, but that what there was lay in his hands. Jeremy looked around as though he were seeking some way of escape. He felt very weary and alone. He didn’t want to argue: it was a waste of time and pains since his mind was made up, and neither the most urgent nor the most persuasive reasoning could change it. But while Henry Watkins talked and he countered in stubborn monosyllables, he was watching sidelong, with an unnamed, unadmitted apprehension, the Speaker’s resolved and quiet face. Suddenly Henry Watkins ceased and threw up his hands in a gesture of despair. Then the Speaker rose, walked away, and, without a word, tugged sharply at the bell pull. A servant immediately answered the summons, and in his ear the old man delivered a long whispered order. The servant bowed and went out, and the Speaker returned to his seat. All the others looked at him curiously, but maintained the silence which had fallen on them.
Then Jeremy involuntarily broke out, “What have you done? What have you sent for?”
“I have sent for my daughter,” the Speaker answered steadily. “It is time for her to be called into our counsels.”
Jeremy’s muscles jerked and quivered at the Speaker’s announcement, but he said nothing. His mouth set more firmly, a frown came on his forehead, and his hands, thrust under his folded arms, were so tightly clenched that he had a sensation of pain in the knuckles. Behind this appearance of resolution his thoughts were plaintive and resentful. He repeated over and over again in his mind, “I will not give way. I must not give way. Why will they be such fools?” The more he considered it the more certain he became that he was not competent to command an army. He could not do it, he told himself, and at the same time look properly after his guns. Besides, he was modest in a hard-headed way; and he refused to believe that he had the qualities which are necessary in great military commanders. The fact that he most passionately desired that they should win the coming battle only made him more determined to refuse this absurd proposal. As he sat silent in the ring of silent men he felt injured and aggrieved, and his temper grew with every moment more obstinate.
The conversation did not revive after the Speaker’s interruption, for a sense of expectation filled the room and kept it in abeyance. Presently the old man rose stately from his chair and, moving to the window, thrust out his head and leant his arms on the sill. By doing so he broke the tension a little; and Jeremy got up and went to the table to look for a cigar, walking self-consciously and feeling that all these people regarded him with dislike. When he had found a cigar and lit it, he shrank from going back to his seat and facing them again. He lingered at the table, where he had discovered some papers of his own relating to the guns; and these made an excuse with which he could pretend to busy himself. He was vaguely conscious somewhere just within the blurred edge of his vision that John Hammond had gone over to Thomas Wells and was talking to him in a subdued voice. The Canadian answered seldom and briefly, and their words floated past his ears in a faint confusion of sound. Then John Hammond grew louder and more urgent and the Canadian exclaimed morosely:
“I have no patience…”
John Hammond insisted; and, in spite of himself, Jeremy turned his head sideways to listen.
“It would be better to be beaten,” he heard Thomas Wells say, almost under his breath but with a vicious intensity, “than be led by a vampire risen God knows how from the grave!” A disagreeable thrill passed through him; but before he could stir the door by his side opened softly and the Lady Eva stood motionless on the threshold. She was wearing a furred robe, like Thomas Wells’s; but it was less ample and hung on her more gracefully. Her fair hair fell in two long plaits, loose at the ends, down her back, and her eyes, though they shone with excitement, yet showed that she had just risen from sleep. As Jeremy silently regarded her, she glanced down and pulled the hem of the robe across to hide her bare ankles.
When she looked beyond him and saw how many others there were in the room, she seemed to recoil a little. “Father,” she said, speaking quietly but steadily, “you sent for me!”
The Speaker slowly drew his great shoulders in through the window and turned around. “Come in, Eva,” he ordered in an equable voice, “come in and sit down. These are all friends here, and you need not be ashamed before them.” She advanced with short steps, sat in Jeremy’s chair, which stood empty, and arranged the hem of her gown about her feet and the collar about her throat. Then, before fixing her eyes on the old man, she cast a candid and ardent regard of affection at Jeremy. He was discomposed by it, and only with an effort could he compel his eyes to meet hers and answer them. She seemed for a moment to be troubled; but her face cleared to an expression of eager intentness as her father began to address her.
“This is the first time I have ever asked you to help me, Eva,” he said with kindly and matter-of-fact briskness. “Perhaps I should have done so before; but now at least I think you can do something for us that no one else can do. There is another war in front of us: I need not tell you now how or why it has arisen. It will be nothing at all if we face it properly; and therefore I have designed that your promised husband here shall command the army. He refuses; I do not know why — perhaps modesty… perhaps…” He shrugged his shoulders, pursed his lips and spread out his hands, palms uppermost. “I sent for you because I thought that to-night you might be able to sway him, as I cannot.”
During this speech Jeremy’s anger had been rising fast, and now he interrupted. “This is most unfair, sir,” he cried, coming forward from the shadows in which he had been hiding.
“Be quiet, Jeremy,” said the Speaker, without raising his voice, but with a note of sternness. Then he went on smoothly: “My girl, I ask you to remember that the safety of all of us, of you and of your mother and of myself, no less than of the country, depends on our leaving nothing undone to protect ourselves. I am persuaded that Jeremy Tuft should be our leader, but I cannot convince him. I put our case in your hands.”
The girl leant forward a little towards him, breathing quickly, her eyes wide open and her lips parted. A shade as of thought passed over her face; but Jeremy broke in again, still looking at the old man.
“You won’t understand me, sir,” he protested anxiously. “God knows I would do what you ask if I thought it for the best. But I know what I can’t do and you don’t. You exaggerated what I did this morning. You don’t know anything about it, sir, indeed you don’t. There’s only one man here who ought to do it, and that is Thomas Wells. You ought to appoint him. I will serve under him and… and…”
He stopped, a little frightened by what in his eagerness he had been about to say. While he had been talking desperately, seeing no signs of help on the faces around him, he had discovered suddenly his deepest objection to the proposal. The Canadian, damn him! was the man for the job. He had the gusto for war, for bloodshed and death, which commanders need: he was the only true soldier among them. And he hated Jeremy. Jeremy continued his pause, shying at this last, this fatal argument. Then on an impulse he chanced it, concluding suddenly with a gulp, “And he won’t serve under me.” The ghost of a chuckle came from the Canadian bunched up in his chair.
The Lady Eva swung around to him impetuously. “Thomas Wells,” she murmured, her voice thrilling with an intense desire to persuade, “you won’t mind, will you? Help me to get him to accept.”
“I won’t make any difficulties, Lady Eva,” pronounced the Canadian levelly, straightening himself and pulling the edge of his robe down from his mouth. “Any one who commands the army is at liberty to — to make what use of me he can — while I’m your guest here. I’m not stuck on commanding. I guess these little troubles of yours aren’t any business of mine. Anyway, I ought to be going back home soon, since I can’t go and stay with the Chairman of Bradford, as I promised him once. My word, sir, but it’s getting on towards morning! I’m beginning to feel cold,” he finished inconsequently, turning to the Speaker.
“It isn’t fair,” Jeremy begun again. He was very tired. His body ached all over, and his eyelids were beginning to droop. His determination was not weakened, but he dreaded the effort of keeping up a firm front much longer. He felt too weak now to force his own view on the stubborn old man.
But the Speaker ignored him. He stood up and, including the three other men in one confidential glance, said: “Thomas Wells is right, gentlemen, it grows very late. Let us leave them alone for a few minutes. We will meet again in the morning. Jeremy, do you hear? I will not accept your final answer until the morning.” He moved with ponderous slowness towards his daughter and put out a firm hand to hold her down in her chair. “Goodnight, my child!” he murmured, as he stooped and kissed her on the forehead. “Do what you can for us.” His accent in these words was pathetic; but his air as he led the way to the door was one of infinite cunning.
As soon as he was left alone with the Lady Eva, Jeremy, who had been staring out into the invisible garden, turned reluctantly around and faced her, in an attitude of defense. She came to him at once, and, kneeling on the great chair beside him, threw her arms around his neck.
“My dear,” she said brokenly and passionately, “don’t — don’t look at me like that!”
His obstinacy and resentment melted suddenly away as he responded to the caress. “Eva!” he muttered, “I thought… I was afraid you were… you wanted…”
“You looked at me as though you hated me,” she said.
He comforted her in silence for some time and she clung to him. Then he thought he heard her whispering something. “What is it?” he asked gently.
“I am so afraid, Jeremy,” she repeated, in a voice that was still almost inaudible; and as he did not answer she went on a little more loudly, “You know, I dreaded something… this afternoon… and this must be it.” Still he said nothing; and after a pause she resumed: “Nobody but you can save us, Jeremy. I am certain of it — you are so wonderful, you know so much of what happened in the old times. Weren’t you sent here by the Blessed Virgin to save us? I know why you don’t want to — but it will be all right. Oh, Jeremy, it will!”
A great wave of hopelessness came over him and, when he tried to speak, choked his utterance. He could only shake his head miserably. Suddenly the Lady Eva let fall her arms from his neck and sank down in a heap on the chair. He realized with an unbearable pang that she was sobbing wildly.
“Eva! Eva!” he cried hopelessly, trying to gather her to him again. But she drew herself away and continued to sob, breathing shortly and spasmodically. He felt afraid of her. Then she rose and with a last jerky sigh gave herself into his arms. He felt her body, slight and yielding, yet strong and supple, in his embrace, and he began to grow dizzy. Her face was wet and her mouth was loose and hot beneath his.
“Eva!” he murmured, torn and wretched, with a sense of ineluctable doom stealing upon them. He looked up over her head and saw that in the garden the lawns and flowers were now growing distinct in a hard, clear, cold light. A chilly breath came in at the window, and all at once the birds began drowsily to wake and chatter. Inside the room all the candles were out but one, that still burnt on, though sickly and near its end. The light seemed to Jeremy to be coming as fast and as inevitably as the surrender which he could no longer escape. “Don’t, dear,” he uttered hoarsely. “Don’t, don’t! I’ll do what they want me to do. I’ll go and tell your father now.”
She hid her face on his breast and for a little while her shoulders still heaved irregularly like a stormy sea after the wind has fallen.
NEXT WEEK: “Jeremy’s resolution, braced for a swift and single test of it, withstood the strain hardly. It seemed to him that the moments in which good luck might carry him through were fast running away; he felt them like material things melting out of his hands.”
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.