Theodore Savage (7)
April 22, 2013
HILOBROW is pleased to present the seventh installment of our serialization of Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage (also known as Lest Ye Die). New installments will appear each Monday for 25 weeks.
When war breaks out in Europe — war which aims successfully to displace entire populations — British civilization collapses utterly and overnight. The ironically named Theodore Savage, an educated and dissatisfied idler, must learn to survive by his wits in the new England, where 20th-century science, technology, and culture are regarded with superstitious awe and terror.
The book — by a writer best known today for her suffragist plays, treatises, and activism — was published in 1922. In September 2013, HiLoBooks will publish it in a gorgeous paperback edition, with an Introduction by Gary Panter.
That night ended Theodore’s life as a clerk in the Civil Service. The confusion consequent on the breakdown of transport had left of the Distribution system but a paralysed mockery, a name without functions attached to it; and with morning Theodore and his able-bodied fellows were impressed into a special constabulary, hastily organized as a weapon against vagrancy grown desperate and riotous. They were armleted, put through a hurried course of instruction, furnished with revolvers or rifles and told to shoot plunderers at sight.
No system of improvised rationing could satisfy even the elementary needs of the hundreds of thousands who swept hither and thither, as panic seized or the invader drove them; hence military authority, in self-preservation, turned perforce on the growing menace of fugitive and destitute humanity. Order, so long as the semblance of it lasted, strove to protect and maintain the supplies of the fighting forces; which entailed, inevitably, the leaving to the fate of their own devices of the famished useless, the horde of devouring mouths. Interruption of transport meant entire dependence on local food stuffs; and, as stocks grew lower and plundering increased, provisions were seized by the military…. Theodore, in the first hours of his new duty, helped to load an armed lorry with the contents of a grocer’s shop and fight it through the streets of York. There was an ugly rush as the driver started his engine; men who had been foodless for days had watched, in sullen craving, while the shop was emptied of its treasure of sacks and tins; and when the engine buzzed a child wailed miserably, a woman shrieked “Don’t let them, don’t let them!” and the whole pack snarled and surged forward. Wolfish white faces showed at the tailboard and before the car drew clear her escort had used their revolvers. Theodore, not yet hardened to shooting, seized the nearest missile, a tin of meat, and hurled it into one of the faces; when they drew away three or four of the pack were tearing at each other for the treasure contained in the tin.
He noticed, as the days went by, how quickly he slipped from the outlook and habits of civilized man and adopted those of the primitive, even of the animal. It was not only that he was suspicious of every man, careful in approach, on the alert and ready for violence; he learned, like the animal, to be indifferent to the suffering that did not concern him. Violence, when it did not affect him directly, was a noise in the distance — no more; and as swiftly as he became inured to bloodshed he grew hardened to the sight of misery. At first he had sickened when he ate his rations at the thought of a million-fold suffering that starved while he filled his stomach; later, as order’s representative, he herded and hustled a massed starvation without scruple, driving it away when it grouped itself threateningly, shooting when it promised to give trouble to authority, and looking upon death, itself, indifferently.
It amazed him, looking back, to realize the swiftness with which ordered society had crumbled; laws, systems, habits of body and mind — they had gone, leaving nothing but animal fear and the animal need to be fed. Within little more than a week of the night when young Hewlett had called him to watch the red flashes and the glare in the sky, there remained of the fabric of order built up through the centuries very little but a military force that was fighting on two sides — against inward disorder and alien attack — and struggling to maintain itself alive. Automatically, inevitably — under pressure of starvation, blind vagrancy and terror — that which had once been a people, an administrative whole, was relapsing into a tribal separatism, the last barrier against nomadic anarchy…. As famished destitution overran the country, localities not yet destitute tried systematically and desperately to shut out the vagrant and defended what was left to them by force. Countrymen beat off the human plague that devoured their substance and trampled their crops underfoot; barriers were erected that no stranger might pass and bloody little skirmishes were frequent at the outskirts of villages. As bread grew scarcer and more precious, the penalties on those who stole it were increasingly savage; tribal justice — lynch law — took the place of petty sessions and assize, and plunderers, even suspected plunderers, were strung up to trees and their bodies left dangling as a warning…. And a day or two later, it might be, the poison-fire swept through the fields and devoured the homes of those who had executed tribal justice; or a horde of destitution, too strong to be denied, drove them out; and, homeless in their turn, they swelled the tide of plunderers and vagrants…. Man, with bewildering rapidity, was slipping through the stages whereby, through the striving of long generations, he had raised himself from primitive barbarism and the law that he shares with the brute.
Very steadily the process of displacement continued. On most nights, in one direction or another, there were sudden outbursts of light — the glare of explosion or burning buildings or the greenish-blue reflection of the poison-fire. The silent engine gave no warning of its coming, and the first announcement of danger was the bursting of gas-shell and high explosive, or the sudden vivid pallor of the poison-fire as it ran before the wind and swept along dry fields and hedgerows. Where it swept it left not only long tracts of burned crop and black skeleton trees, but, often enough, the charred bodies of the homeless whom its rush had outpaced and overtaken. … Sudden and unreasoning panic was frequent — wild rushes from imaginary threats — and there were many towns which, when their turn came, were shells and empty buildings only; dead towns, whence the inhabitants had already fled in a body. York had been standing all but silent for days when an enemy swooped down to destroy it and Theodore, guarding military stores in a camp on the Ripon road, looked his last on the towers of the Minster, magnificent against a sea of flame. Death, in humanity, had ceased to move him greatly; but he turned away his head from the death of high human achievement.
For the first few days of disaster there was a certain amount of news, or what passed for news, from the outside world; in districts yet untouched and not wholly panic-stricken, local journals struggled out and communiques — true or false — were published by the military authorities. But with the rapid growth of the life nomadic, the herding and driving to and fro, with the consequent absence of centres for the dissemination of news or information, the outside world withdrew to a distance and veiled itself in silence unbroken. With the disappearance of the newspaper there was left only rumour, and rumour was always current — sometimes hopeful, sometimes dreadful, always wild; to-day, Peace was coming, a treaty all but signed — and to-morrow London was in ruins…. No one knew for certain what was happening out of eyeshot, or could more than guess how far devastation extended. This alone was a certainty; that in every direction that a man might turn, he met those who were flying from destruction, threatened or actual; and that night after night and day after day, humanity crouched before the science itself had perfected…. Sometimes there were visible encounters in the air, contending squadrons that chased, manoeuvred and gave battle; but the invaders, driven off, returned again and the process of displacement continued. And, with every hour of its continuance, the death-roll grew longer, un-counted; and men, who had struggled to retain a hold on their humanity and the life civilized, gave up the struggle, became predatory beasts and fought with each other for the means to keep life in their bodies.
In after years Theodore tried vainly to remember how long he was quartered in the camp on the Ripon road — whether it was weeks or a matter of days only. Then or later he lost all sense of time, retaining only a memory of happenings, of events that followed each other and connecting them roughly with the seasons — frosty mornings, wet and wind or summer heat. There were the nights when York flamed and the days when thick smoke hung over it; and the morning when aeroplanes fought overhead and two crashed within a mile of the camp. There was the night of pitched battle with a rabble of the starving, grown desperate, which rushed the guard suddenly out of the darkness and beat and hacked at the doors of the sheds which contained the hoarded treasure of food. Theodore, with every other man in the camp, was turned out hastily to do battle with the horde of invaders — to shoot into the mass of them and drive them back to their starvation. In the end the rush was stemmed and the camp cleared of the mob; but there was a hideous five minutes of shots and knife-thrusts and hand-to-hand struggling before the final stampede. Even after the stampede the menace was not at an end; when the sun rose it showed to the watchers in the camp a sullen rabble that lingered not a field’s breadth distant — a couple of hundred wolfish men and women who could not tear themselves away from the neighbourhood of food, who glared covetously and took hopeless counsel together till the order to charge them was given and they broke and fled, spitting back hatred.
After that, the night guard was doubled and the commanding officer applied in haste for reinforcements; barbed wire entanglements were stretched round the camp and orders were given to disperse any crowd that assembled and lingered in the neighbourhood. Behind their entanglements and line of sentries the little garrison lived as on an island in the flood of anarchy and ruin — a remnant of order, defending itself against chaos. And, for all the discipline with which they faced anarchy and the ruthlessness with which they beat back chaos, they knew (so often as they dared to think) that the time might be at hand — must be at hand, if no deliverance came — when they, every man of them, would be swept from their island to the common fate and become as the creatures, scarce human, who crawled to them for food and were refused. When darkness fell and flames showed red on the horizon, they would wonder how long before their own turn came — and be thankful for the lightening in the east; and as each convoy of lorries drove up to remove supplies from their fast dwindling stores, they would scan the faces of men who were ignorant and helpless as themselves to see if they were bearers of good news…. And the news was always their own news repeated; of ruin and burning, of famine and the threat of the famished. No message — save stereotyped military orders — from that outside world whence alone they could hope for salvation.
There remained with Theodore to the end of his days the dreadful memory of the women. At the beginning — just at the beginning — of disaster, authority had connived at a certain amount of charitable diversion of military stores for the benefit of women and children; but as supplies dwindled and destroying hordes of vagrants multiplied, the tacit permission was withdrawn. The soldier, the instrument of order, unfed was an instrument of order no longer; discipline was discipline for so long only as it obtained the necessities of life, and troops whose rations failed them in the end ceased to be troops and swelled the flood of vagrant and destitute anarchy. The useless mouth was the weapon of the enemy; and authority hardened its heart perforce against the crying of the useless mouth.
Once a score or so of women, with a tall, frantic girl as their leader, stood for hours at the edge of the wire entanglement and called on the soldiers to shoot — if they would not feed them, to shoot. Then, receiving only silence as answer, the tall girl cried out that, by God, the soldiers should be forced to shoot! and led her companions — some cumbered with children — to tear and hurl themselves across the stretch of barbed and twisted wire. As they scrambled over, bleeding, crying and their clothes in rags, they were seized by the wrists and hustled to the gate of the camp — some limp and effortless, others kicking and writhing to get free. When the gate was closed and barred on them they beat on it — then lay about wretchedly … and at last shambled wretchedly away….
More dreadful even than the women who dragged with them children they could not feed, were those who sought to bribe the possessors of food with the remnant of their feminine attractions; who eyed themselves anxiously in streams, pulled their sodden clothes into a semblance of jauntiness and made piteous attempts at flirtation. Money being worthless, since it could buy neither safety nor food, the price for those who traded their bodies was paid in a hunk of bread or meat…. Those women suffered most who had no man of their own to forage and fend for them, and were no longer young enough for other men to look on with pleasure. They — as humanity fell to sheer wolfishness and the right of the strongest — were beaten back and thrust aside when it came to the sharing-out of spoil.
He remembered very clearly a day when news that was authentic reached them from the outside world; an aeroplane came down with engine-trouble in a field on the edge of the camp, and the haggard-faced pilot, beset with breathless questions, laughed roughly when they asked him of London — how lately he had been there, what was happening? “Oh yes, I was over it a day or two ago. You’re no worse off than they are down south —London’s been on the run for days.” He turned back to his engine and whistled tunelessly through the silence that had fallen on his hearers…. Theodore said it over slowly to himself, “London’s been on the run for days.” If so — if so — then what, in God’s name, of Phillida ?
Hitherto he had fought back his dread for Phillida, denying to himself, as he denied to others, the rumour that disaster was wide-spread and general, and insisting that she, at least, was safe. If there was one thing intolerable, one thing that could not be, it was Phillida vagrant, Phillida starving — his dainty lady bedraggled and grovelling for her bread…. like the haggard women who had beaten with their hands on the gate….
“It must stop,” he choked suddenly, “it must stop — it can’t go on!”
The pilot broke off from his whistling to stare at the distorted face.
“No,” he said grimly, “it can’t go on. What’s more, it’s stopping, by degrees — stopping itself; you mayn’t have noticed it yet, but we do. Taking ’em all round they’re leaving off, not coming as thick as they did. And”— his mouth twisted ironically —”we’re leaving off and for the same reason.”
“The same reason?” someone echoed him.
“Because we can’t go on…. You don’t expect us to carry on long in this, do you?” He shrugged and jerked his head towards a smoke cloud on the western skyline. “That’s what ran us — gone up in smoke. Food and factories and transport and Lord knows what beside. The things that ran us and kept us going … We’re living on our own fat now — what there is of it — and so are the people on the other side. We can just keep going as long as it lasts; but it’s getting precious short now, and when we’ve finished it — when there’s no fat left!…” He laughed unpleasantly and stared at the rolling smoke cloud.
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.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | 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 | serialized between March and August 2012; Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, serialized between May and September 2012; William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, serialized between June and December 2012; J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, serialized between September 2012 and May 2013; and Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, serialized between March and August 2013.