A PICTURE OF CIVILIZATION AT THE CLOSE OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.
JOHN HENRY MACKAY
IN THE HEART OF THE WORLD-METROPOLIS.
A WET, cold, October evening was beginning to lower upon London. It was the October of the same year in which, not five months before, had been inaugurated those ridiculous celebrations which gave the year 1887 the name of the "Jubilee Year," --- celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the rule of a woman who allows herself to be called "Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, and Empress of India." On this evening --- the last of the week --- a man coming from the direction of Waterloo Station was wending his way to the railroad bridge of Charing Cross through labyrinthine, narrow, and almost deserted streets. When, as if fatigued from an extended walk, he had slowly ascended the wooden steps that lead to the narrow walk for pedestrians running beside the tracks on the bridge, and had gone about as far as the middle of the river, he stepped into one of the round recesses fronting the water and remained standing there for a short time, while he allowed the crowd behind him to push on. Rather from habit than genuine fatigue, he stopped and looked down the Thames. As he had but seldom been on "the other side of the Thames," notwithstanding his already three years' sojourn in London, he never failed, on crossing one of the bridges, to enjoy afresh the magnificent view that London affords from them.
It was still just light enough for him to recognize, as far as Waterloo Bridge to his right, the dark masses of warehouses, and on the mirror of the Thames at his feet, the rows of broad-bellied freight boats and rafts coupled together, though already the lights of the evening were everywhere blazing into the dark, yawning chaos of this immense city. The two rows of lanterns on Waterloo Bridge stretched away like parallel lines, and each of the lanterns cast its sharp, glittering light, deep and long, into the dark, trembling tide, while to the left, in a terrace-shaped ascent, the countless little flames which illumine the Embankments, and the Strand with its surroundings, every evening, were beginning to flash. The quiet observer standing there saw yonder on the bridge the fleeting lights of the cabs; to his rear he heard the trains of the South East road rumbling and roaring while madly rushing in and out of the station of Charing Cross; saw beneath him the lazy waves of the Thames, with almost inaudible splashing, lapping against the dark, black, slimy masses stretching far into the deep; and as he turned to pass on, the gigantic station of Charing Cross, that centre of a never-ceasing life by night and by day, opened before him, flooded by the white glare of the electric light. . . .
He thought of Paris, his native city, as he slowly passed on. What a difference between the broad, level, and clear embankments of the Seine and these stiff, projecting masses, on which not even the sun could produce a ray of joy!
He longed to be back in the city of his youth. But he had learned to love London with the passionate, jealous love of obstinacy.
For one either loves London or hates it. . . .
Again the wanderer stopped. So brightly was the gigantic station illumined that he could plainly see the clock at its end. The hands stood between the seventh and the eighth hours. The bustle on the sidewalk seemed to have increased, as if a human wave was being washed from the one side to the other. It seemed as if the hesitating loiterer could not tear himself away. For a moment he watched the incessant play of the signals at the entrance of the station; then, across the tracks and through the confusion of iron posts and cars, he tried to reach Westminster Abbey with his eye; but he could not recognize anything except the shimmering dial on the steeple of Parliament House and the dark outlines of gigantic masses of stone that arose beyond. And scattered, in every direction the thousands and thousands of lights. . . .
Again he turned, to the open place where he had before been standing. Beneath his feet the trains of the Metropolitan Railway were rolling along with a dull rumbling noise; the entire expanse of the Victoria Embankment lay beneath him, half illumined as far as Waterloo Bridge. Stiff and severe, Cleopatra's Needle rose in the air.
From below came to the man's ears the laughing and singing of the young fellows and the girls who nightly monopolize the benches of the Embankments. "Do not forget me --- do not forget me," was the refrain. Their voices sounded hard. and shrill. "Do not forget me" --- one could hear it everywhere in London during the Jubilee Year. It was the song of the day.
If anybody had observed the features of the man who was just now bending over the edge of the bridge, he would not have failed to catch a strange expression of severity that suddenly possessed them. The pedestrian no longer heard anything of the now suppressed, now subdued noise and the trivial song. Again a thought had seized him at the sight of the mighty quays at his feet; how many human lives might lie crushed beneath these white granite quarries, piled one upon the other so solid and unconquerable? And he thought again of that silent, unrewarded, forgotten toil that had created all the magnificence round about him.
Sweat and blood are washed away, and the individual man, on the corpses of millions of unnamed, forgotten ones, rises living and admired. . . .
As if goaded by this thought, Carrard Auban passed on. Leaving behind him the stony arches at the end of the bridge, --- the remains of the old Hungerford Suspension Bridge, --- he looked down and walked faster. Again as always he lived in the thoughts to which he also had dedicated the youth of his life, and again he was impressed by the boundless grandeur of this movement which the second half of the nineteenth century has named the "social": to carry the light where darkness still prevails --- among the toiling, oppressed masses whose sufferings and slow death give life to "the others." . . .
But when Auban had descended the steps of the bridge and found himself in Villiers Street, that remarkable little street which leads from the Strand down past the city station of Charing Cross, he became again fascinated by the bustling life around him. Incessantly it was surging past him: this one wanted to catch the train which had just discharged those who were hurrying towards the Strand --- belated theatre-goers who had perhaps again miscalculated the distances of London; here a prostitute was talking at a gentleman with a silk hat, whom she had enticed hither by a word and a look of her weary eyes, in order to come to an agreement with him concerning the "price"; and there a crowd of hungry street urchins were pushing their dirty faces against the window panes of an Italian waffle-baker, greedily following every movement of the untiring worker. Auban saw everything: he had the same attention of a practised eye for the ten-year-old youngster who was seeking to beg a penny of the passers-by by turning wheels before them on the moist pavement, and for the debased features of the fellow who, when he came to a halt, instantly obtruded himself on him and tried to talk him into buying the latest number of the "Matrimonial News" --- "indispensable for all who wished to marry" --- but immediately turned to the next man when he found that he got no answer.
Auban passed slowly on. He knew this life too well to be confused and stupefied by it; and yet it seized and interested him ever anew with all its might. He had devoted hours and days to its study during these years, and always and everywhere he found it new and interesting. And the more he learned to know its currents, its depths, and its shallows, the more he admired this matchless city. For some time this affection, which was more than an attachment and less than love, had been growing into a passionately excited one. London had shown him too much --- much more than to the inhabitant and the visitor; and now he wished to see all. And so the restlessness of this wish had driven him in the afternoon of this day to the other side of the Thames, for extended wanderings in Kennington and Lambeth --- those quarters of a frightful misery, --- to allow him to return fatigued and at the same time discouraged and embittered, and to show him now in the Strand the reflection as well as the reverse of that life.
He was now standing at the entrance of the dark and desolate tunnel which passes underneath Charing Cross and leads to Northumberland Avenue. The shrill and vibrant sounds of a banjo struck his ear; a group of passers-by had collected: in their midst a boy in a ragged caricature costume and with blackened face was playing his instrument --- who has not seen the bizarre forms of these "negro comedians" executing their noisy song-dances at the street corners of London? --- while a girl was dancing to the sounds of the same with that mechanical indifference which seems to know no fatigue. Forcing his way along, Auban cast a glance also at the face of this child: indifference and at the same time a certain impatience lay upon it.
"They support their whole family, poor things!" he murmured. The next minute the crowd had dispersed, and the little couple forced their way to the next street corner, there to begin anew, play and dance, until the policeman, hated and feared, drove them away.
Auban passed through the tunnel whose stone floor was covered with filth and out of whose corners rose a corrupt atmosphere. It was almost deserted; only now and then some unrecognizable form crept along the walls and past him. But Auban knew that on wet, cold days and nights, here as well as in hundreds of other passage ways, whole rows of unfortunates were lying about, closely pressed against each other and against the cold walls, and always expecting to be driven away the next moment by the "strong arm of the law": heaps of filth and rags, ruined in hunger and dirt, the "Pariahs of society," creatures in truth devoid of will. . . . And while he was climbing the steps at the end of the gloomy passage, a scene which he had witnessed on this same spot about a year previous, suddenly rose before him with such terrific clearness that he involuntarily stopped and looked round as if it must repeat itself bodily before his eyes.
It was on a damp, cold evening, towards midnight, the city enveloped by fog and smoke as by an impenetrable veil. He had come hither to give some of the shelterless the few coppers which they need in order to pass the night in a lodging-house, instead of in the icy cold of the open air. When he had descended these steps, --- the tunnel was overcrowded by people who, after they had passed through all the stages of misery, had reached the last, --- he saw a face rise before him which he had never since forgotten: the features of a woman, frightfully disfigured by leprosy and bloody sores, who, with an infant at her breast, was dragging, rather than leading, a fourteen-year-old girl by the hand, while a third child, a boy, was clinging to her dress.
"Two shillings only, gentleman; two shillings only!"
He stopped to question her.
"Two shillings only; she is still so young, but she will do anything you want," and with that she drew the girl near, who turned away, trembling and crying.
A shudder ran through him. But the beseeching and piteous voice of the woman kept on.
"Pray, do take her along. If you won't do it, we shall have to sleep out doors, --- only two shillings, gentleman, only two shillings; just see how pretty she is!" And again she drew the child to her.
Auban felt a terror creeping over him. Stunned and unable to speak a word, he turned to pass on.
But he had not yet gone a step, when the woman suddenly threw herself shrieking before him on the ground, let go of the girl and clung to him.
"Don't go away! Don't go away!" she screamed in frightful despair. "If you won't do it, we must starve --- take her along! --- no one else will come here to-night, and in the Strand we are not allowed --- please do it --- please do it!"
But when, without intending to, he looked round, the woman lying before him suddenly sprang up.
"Don't call a policeman! No, don't call a policeman!" she cried quickly, in fear. Then, when she arose, Auban regained his composure. Without a word he reached into his pocket and gave her a handful of money.
The woman uttered a shout of joy. Again she took the girl by the arm and placed her before him.
"She will go with you, gentleman --- she will do anything you want," she added in a whisper. Auban turned away, and hurried as quickly as possible through the rows of the sleeping and the drunken people towards the exit: no one had paid any attention to the scene.
When he reached the Strand, he felt how violently his heart was beating, and how his hands were trembling.
A week later he came evening after evening to search in the tunnel of Charing Cross and its surroundings for the woman and her children, without being able to find them again. There had been something in the eyes of the girl that disquieted him. But the time had been too short for him to discern what this abyss of fear and misery concealed.
At last he became so absorbed in thinking of the immense wretchedness that daily presented itself to him that he forgot this one scene, and daily he saw again upon the streets the children of poverty --- children of thirteen and fourteen years --- offering themselves --- and he was unable to help.
Who was more to be pitied, the mother or the children? How great must be the misery, how frightful the despair, how insane the hunger, that impelled both! But the woman of the bourgeoisie speaks with loathing of the "monster of a mother" and of the "degraded child," --- the Pharisee who under the weight of the same misery would travel exactly the same paths.
Pity! Most miserable of all our lies! This age knows only injustice. It is to-day the greatest crime to be poor. Very well. The more quickly must the perception come that our only deliverance consists in omitting this crime.
"The insane ones!" murmured Auban, "the insane ones! --- they do not see whither pity and love have brought us." His eyes were dimmed, as if by the memory of the struggles which this perception had caused him.
How plainly, in passing through the tunnel this evening, did he recall the piteous, despairing voice of the woman and her urgent: "Do it! do it!" And again out of the gloomy darkness emerged the shy, sickly eyes of the child.
He turned round, and again passed, through the tunnel. But before starting for the Strand, he turned into one of the side streets that lead down towards the Thames. He knew them all: these streets, these corners, these entrances. and alleys: here was the sober-gray rear of a theatre whose front flooded the Strand with light; and yonder narrow three-storied house with the sham windows was one of those notorious resorts whose inner walls nightly witness scenes of depravity such as even the most degraded fancy dare not fully picture to itself. Here misery still lived, and, in yonder quiet street hard by, comfort, --- and thus the two alternated as far as the little church of Savoy in the midst of its bare trees --- and as far as the aristocratic, exclusive edifices of the Temple with its splendid gardens. . . .
Auban knew all; even the forever-deserted broad, vaulted passage which leads underneath the streets to the Embankments, and from whose forsaken, mysterious stillness the life of the Strand sounds like the distant dying rush and roar of an ever last and ever first wave upon a desolate, sandy shore. . . . The cold became more piercing as the hour fled, and trickled down in the foggy dampness of London. Auban was getting tired, and decided to go home. He turned towards the Strand.
The "Strand!" Connecting the West End and the city, it lay before him, lit up by the countless lights of its shops, filled with the rush of a never-stagnant and never-ceasing human tide; two separate streams, the one surging up to St. Paul's, the other down to Charing Cross. Between both, the deafening confusion of an uninterrupted traffic of vehicles; one after another, 'busses, clumsy, covered with gaudy advertisements, filled with people; one after another, hansoms, light, running along easily on two wheels; thundering freight wagons; red, closed mail coaches of the Royal Mail; strong, broad four-wheelers; and winding their way through all these, hardly recognizable in the dark mass, swiftly gliding bicycles.
The East End is labor and poverty, chained together by the curse of our time --- servitude; the City is the usurer who sells labor and pockets the profit; the West End is the aristocratic idler who consumes it. The Strand is one of the most swollen arteries through which courses the blood turned into money; it is the rival of Oxford Street, and struggles against being conquered by it. It is the heart of London. It bears a name which the world knows. It is one of the few streets where you see people from all sections of the city; the poor takes his rags there, and the rich his silk. If you lend your ear, you can hear the languages of the whole world; the restaurants have Italian proprietors, whose waiters talk French with you; more than half of the prostitutes are Germans, who either perish here or save enough to return to their fatherland, and become "respectable" there.
Along the Strand are located the immense court buildings, and one is puzzled to know whether these are actors or lunatics whom one sees passing under the lofty archways --- the judges in their long cloaks and their powdered wigs with the neatly ridiculous cues --- respectable badges of a disreputable farce which every sensible man in his heart scorns and despises, and in which everybody plays a part if he is called; and in its cold Somerset House the Strand gathers a bewildering number of magistrates of whose existence you have never heard in your life until you hear them mentioned; and the Strand has its theatres, more theatres than any other street in the world.
Thus it is the first walk of the stranger who arrives at the station of Charing Cross, and whom its mostly narrow and crowding buildings disappoint; so will it be his last when he leaves London, the one to which he will give his last hour.
Auban disappeared in the sea of humanity. Now as he was passing the Adelphi, and the electric light --- far eclipsing the gas-jets --- was filling the street with its clear white radiance, one could see that he limped slightly. It was hardly noticeable when he walked rapidly; but when he sauntered along slowly, he dragged the left foot slightly, and supported himself more on his cane.
At the station of Charing Cross the crowd had become blocked. For a few moments Auban stood near one of the gates. The gate nearest Villiers Street, which a few minutes ago he had crossed further down, was besieged by flower-girls, some of whom were cowering behind their half-empty baskets, cold and worn out, and some trying to persuade the passers-by to purchase their poor flowers, with their incessant "Penny a bunch!" A policeman pushed one of them brutally back; she had ventured to take a step upon the pavement, and they were not allowed to go an inch beyond the limits of the side street. The shrill cries of the newsboys who wished to get rid of their last special editions, in order to be able to see Charlie Coborn --- the "inimitable" --- in his "Two Lovely Black Eyes" in "Gatti's Hungerford Palace," would have been unbearable, had they not been drowned by the hoarse cries of the omnibus conductors and the rumble and clatter of wheels on the stones of the Charing Cross entrance, which the West Ender, accustomed to asphaltum and wooden pavements, has almost forgotten.
With a confidence which only a long familiarity with the street life of a great city can give, Auban improved the first second in which the rows of wagons offered a passage across the street; and while in the next the tides closed behind him, he passed the Church of St. Martin, cast a glance upon Trafalgar Square reposing in the stillness of the grave, cut through the narrow and dark Green Street without paying any attention to the "cabby," who from his box was calling at him in a suppressed voice that he had "something to say" --- something about "a young lady" --- and found himself three minutes later in the lighted lobbies of the "Alhambra," from which belated frequenters would not allow themselves to be turned away, as they still hoped to secure standing room in the overcrowded house. Auban passed indifferently on, without glancing at the shining photographs of the voluptuous ballet-dancers --- advertising specimens from the new monster ballet "Algeria," to which half of London was flocking.
The garden in the middle of Leicester Square lay shrouded in darkness. From the gratings the statue of Shakspere was no longer recognizable. "There is no darkness but ignorance," was graven there. Who read it?
The north end of the square was the scene of a boisterous life. Auban had to force his way through crowds of French prostitutes, whose loud laughter, screaming, and scolding, drowned everything. Their gaudy and vulgar dresses, their shameless offers, their endless entreaties: "Chéri, chéri," with which they approached and followed every passer-by, reminded him of the midnight hours on the outer boulevards of Paris.
Everywhere this age seemed to show him the most disfigured side of its face.
Before him two young English girls were walking along. They were scarcely more than sixteen years old. Their dishevelled blond hair, wet from the moisture in the atmosphere, was hanging far over their shoulders. As they turned round, a look into their pale, weary features told him that they had long been wandering thus --- forever the same short distance, evening after evening; at a street corner a German woman with the Cologne dialect and a far-sounding voice --- all Germans shout in London --- was telling another that she had not eaten anything warm for three days and nothing at all for one: business was growing worse and worse; at the next a crowd was gathering, into which Auban was pushed, so that he had to witness the scene that took place: an old woman who was selling match-boxes had got into a quarrel with one of the women. They screamed at each other. "There," shrieked the old one, and spat in the face of the other before her, but at the same instant the indignity was returned. For a moment both stood speechless with wrath. The old one, trembling, put the boxes in the bag. Then, amid the wild applause of the spectators, they thrust their finger-nails in each other's eyes and, blackguarding each other, rolled on the ground, until one of the spectators separated them; whereupon they picked up their things, --- the one her broken umbrella, the other her rag of a hat, --- and the crowd laughingly dispersed in all directions.
Auban passed on, towards the Piccadilly Circus. This scene, one among countless, --- what was it other than a new proof that the method of keeping the people in brutality, in order to talk about the "mob" and its degeneracy, was still very successful?
Music halls and boxing-matches, --- these occupy the few free hours of the poorer classes of England; on Sundays prayers and sermons: excellent means against "the most dangerous evil of the time," the awakening of the people to intellectual independence.
Involuntarily Auban struck the ground with his cane, which he held in a firm grasp.
The square which he had just left, Piccadilly, and Regent Street, --- these are evening after evening and night after night the busiest and most frequented markets of living flesh for London. Hither the misery of the metropolis, assisted by the "civilized" states of the Continent, throws a supply which exceeds even an insatiable demand. From the beginning of dusk until the dawn of the new day prostitution sways the life of these centres of traffic, and seems to constitute the axis around which everything exclusively revolves.
How beautifully convenient the leaders of public life arrange things for themselves, mused Auban. If their reason brings up before a barn door, and they can go no farther, they instantly say: a necessary evil. Poverty --- a necessary evil; prostitution --- a necessary evil. And yet there is no less necessary and no greater evil than they themselves! It is they who would order all things, and who put all things into the greatest disorder; who would guide all things, and who divert all things from their natural paths; who would advance all things, and who hinder all progress. . . . They have big books written, --- it has ever been so, and must ever remain so; and, in order, nevertheless, to do something, at least seemingly, they devote themselves to "reform." And the more they reform, the worse things get. They see it, but they do not wish to see it; they know it, but they dare not know it. Why? They would then become useless, and nowadays everybody must make himself useful. A life of mere material ease will no longer suffice. "Deceived deceivers! from the first to the last!" said Auban, laughing; and his laughter was now almost without bitterness.
But this man who knew that there has never anywhere been justice on this earth, and who despised the belief in heavenly justice as the conscious lie of hired priests, or feared it as the unconscious and thoughtless devotion to this lie, felt, whenever he placed his hand in the festering sore of prostitution, with a shudder, that here was a way along which a tardy justice was slowly, inexpressibly slowly, creeping from the suffering to the living.
What to the wealthy are the people --- the people who "must not be treated too well," lest they become overbearing? Human beings with the same claims on life and the same wishes as they themselves? Absurd dreams! A labor machine which must be attended to that it may do its work. And the verse of an English song ran through Auban's mind:
Our sons are the rich man's serfs by day,
And our daughters his slaves by night.
Their sons --- good enough for labor. But at a distance --- at a distance. A pressure of the hand that labors for them? Labor is their duty. And these hands are so soiled --- by the labor of a never-ending day.
Their daughters --- good enough to serve as conduits for the troubled stream of their lusts which would else overflow on the immaculate and pure souls of their own mothers and daughters. Their daughters by night! What will money not buy of hunger and of despair?
But here --- here alone! --- the one thus sacrificed draws her murderers into the whirlpool of their ruin.
Our whole sexual life --- here wildly riotous, there pressed into the unnatural relationship of marriage --- is being overspread, as by a dark, threatening cloud, by a legion of terrible diseases, at whose mention everybody grows pale, because no one is secure against them. And as it has corrupted an incalculable portion of the youth of our time, so it is already standing as the fulfilment of an unuttered curse over a generation still lying in slumber.
Auban was forced to look up. A crowd of young men of the jeunesse dorée were staggering out of the London Pavilion, whose gas torches scattered their streams of light over Piccadilly Circus. Their sole employment was only too plainly written on their dull, brutally debauched faces: sport, women, and horses. They were of course in full dress; but the tall hats were crushed in, and shirts, crumpled and soiled by whiskey and cigar ashes, furnished a conspicuous contrast to their black frock coats. With coarse laughter and cynical remarks some of them surrounded a few of the demi-monde, while the others called for hansoms, which speedily came driving up; the noisily protesting women were forced in, and the singing of the drunken men died away in the clatter of the departing cabs.
Auban surveyed the place. There before him --- down Piccadilly --- lay a world of wealth and comfort: the world of the aristocratic palaces and the great clubs, of the luxurious stores and of fashionable art --- the whole surfeited and extravagant life of the "great world,". . . the sham life of pretence.
The lightning of the coming revolution must strike first here. It cannot be otherwise. . . .
As Auban crossed the street, he was attracted by the ragged form of an aged man, who, whenever the traffic of the wagons permitted, cleared the street of the traces left by the wagons and horses, and, when his broom had done the work, modestly waited for the thoughtfulness of those whose feet he had protected against contact with the filth; and Auban became curious to see how many would even as much as notice the service. For about five minutes he leaned against the lantern post in front of the arched entrance of Spiers and Pond's restaurant at the Criterion, and watched the untiring labor of the old man. During these five minutes about three hundred persons crossed the street dry-shod. The old man no one saw.
"You are not doing a good business?" he asked, as he approached him.
The old man put his hand in the pocket of his ragged coat and drew forth four copper pieces.
"That is all in three hours."
"That is not enough for your night's lodging," said Auban, and gave him a sixpence.
And the old man looked after him, as he slowly crossed the place with difficult steps.
Behind Auban disappeared the lights of the place, the light-colored, similarly built houses of the square of Regent Street; and while the distances behind him grew narrower and the roar died away, he walked on confidently farther and farther into the dark, mysterious network of the streets of Soho. . . .
At the same hour --- it was not far from nine --- there was coming from the east, from the direction of Drury Lane towards Wardour Street, with the unsteady haste which shows that one is in a strange and unknown quarter and yet would like to reach a definite place, a man of about forty years, in the not striking dress of a laborer, which differs from that of the citizen in London only by its simplicity. As he stopped --- convinced that he would hardly gratify his impatience by proceeding in the direction he was going --- and asked his way of one of the young fellows congregated in front of one of the innumerable public houses, it was to be seen by his vain efforts to make himself understood that the inquirer was a foreigner.
He seemed, nevertheless, to have understood the explanations, for he took an entirely different route from the one which he had been following. He turned towards the north. After he had passed through two or three more of the equally dark, filthy, and in all respects similar streets, he suddenly found himself in the midst of the tumult of one of those market-places where on Saturday evenings the population of the poorer quarters supply their needs for the following days with the wages of the past week. The sides of the street were occupied by two endless rows of closely crowding carts with tables and stands, heavily laden with each of the thousand needs of daily life, and between them, as well as on the narrow sidewalks beside the open and overstocked shops, a turbulent and haggling mass was pushing and jostling along, whose cries and noise were only surpassed by the shrill confusion of the voices of the vendors praising their wares. The street in its entire length was dipped in a dazzling brightness by the flickering blaze of countless petroleum flames, a brightness such as the light of day never brought here; the damp air filled with a thick, steaming smoke; the ground covered with sweepings of all kinds which made the walking on the slippery, irregular stone pavement still more difficult.
The laborer who had made inquiry concerning his way became entangled in the throng, and was trying to extricate himself as quickly as he could. He hardly gave a look at the treasures stored round about, --- at the stands with the huge, raw, bloody pieces of meat; at the heavily laden carts with vegetables of all sorts; at the tables full of old iron and clothing; at the long rows of foot-wear bound together which hung stretched above him and across the street; at the whole impenetrable hodgepodge of retail trade that here surrounded him with its noise and violence. When, accompanied by the curses of the crowd, a cart pushed recklessly through the multitude, he availed himself of the opportunity to follow it, and thus reached sooner than he had hoped the corner of the next cross-street, where things again took their even course and offered the possibility of standing still for a moment.
Then, as he looked round, he suddenly saw Auban on the other side of the street. Surprised to see his friend so unexpectedly in this quarter, he did not at once hasten to him; and then --- as he had already half crossed the street --- he turned back into the crowd, impelled by the thought: What is he doing here? The next minute he gazed at him attentively.
Auban was standing in the middle of a row of half-drunken men who were laying siege to the entrance of a public house, in the hope of being invited by one of their acquaintances: "Have a drink!" He was standing there, bent forward a little, his hands resting on the cane held between his knees, and staring fixedly into the passing throng, as if waiting to see a familiar face emerge from it. His features were severe; around the mouth lay a sharp line, and his deep-sunken eyes wore a fixed and gloomy look. His closely-shaved cheeks were lean, and the sharp nose gave the features of his narrow and fine face the expression of great will-power. A dark, loose cloak fell carelessly down the exceptionally tall and narrow-shouldered form; and as the other on the opposite street corner saw him so standing, it struck him for the first time that for years he had not seen him otherwise than in this same loose garment of the same comfortable cut and of the same simplest dark color. Just so plain and yet so striking had been his external appearance when --- how long ago was it: six or seven years already? --- he made his acquaintance in Paris, and just as then, with the same regular, sharp, and gloomy features which had at most grown a little more pale and gray, he was standing there to-day, careless and unconcerned, in thoughtful contemplation in the midst of the feverish and joyless bustle of the Saturday evening of Soho.
Now he was coming towards him, fixedly gazing straight ahead. But he did not see him, and was about to pass by him.
"Auban!" exclaimed the other.
The person addressed was not startled, but he turned slowly to one side and gazed with a vacant and absent look into the face of the speaker, until the other grasped him by the arm.
"Otto?" asked he then, but without surprise. And then almost in a whisper, and in the husky tones, still half embarrassed through fear, of one awaking and telling of his bad dream, softly, lest he call it to life: "I was thinking of something else; of --- of the misery, how great it is, how enormous, and how slowly the light comes, how slowly."
The other looked at him surprised. But already Auban, suddenly awake, burst out in laughter, and in his usual confident voice asked:
"But how in the world do you come from your East End to Soho?"
"I have gone astray. Where is Oxford Street? There, is it not?"
But Auban took him smilingly by the shoulder and turned him round.
"No, there. Listen: before us lies the north of the city, the entire length of Oxford Street; behind us, the Strand, which you know; there, whence you came --- you came from the east? --- is Drury Lane and the former Seven Dials, of which you have surely already heard. Seven Dials, the former hell of poverty; now 'civilized.' Have you not yet seen the famous Birddealers' Street? Look," he continued, without awaiting an answer, and made a gesture with his hand toward the east, "in those streets as far as Lincoln's Inn Fields, a large portion of the misery of the West End is quartered. What do you think they would not give if they could sweep it off and push it to the east? Of what use is it that they build broad thoroughfares, just as Haussmann, the prefect of the Seine, did in Paris, in order thus more readily to meet the revolutions, --- of what use is it? It crowds only more closely on itself. There is not a Saturday evening that I do not go through this quarter between Regent Street and Lincoln's Inn, between the Strand and Oxford Street; it is an empire in itself, and I find just as much to see here as in the East End. It is the first time you are here?"
"Yes, if I am not mistaken. Did not the Club meet here formerly?"
"Yes. But nearer to Oxford Street. However, a lot of Germans are living here --- in the better streets near Regent Street."
"Where is misery worst?"
"Worst?" Auban reflected a moment. "If you turn in from Drury Lane --- the Courts of Wild Street; then the terrible jumble of almost tumbledown houses near the Old Curiosity Shop which Dickens has described, with the dirt-covered alleys; in general, along the side streets of Drury Lane, especially in the north along the Queen Streets; and further this way, above all, the former Dials, the hell of hells."
"Do you know all the streets here?"
"But you cannot see much on them. The tragedies of poverty are enacted behind the walls."
"But still the last act --- how often! --- on the street."
They had slowly walked on. Auban had placed his arm in that of the other, and was leaning wearily against him. Notwithstanding this, he limped more than before.
"And where are you going, Otto?" he asked.
"To the Club. Will you not come along?"
"I am a little tired. I spent the whole afternoon over yonder." Then, as it occurred to him that the other might see in these words only a pretence for declining, he added more quickly: "But I'll go with you; it is a good chance; else I should not get there so very soon again. How long it is since we saw each other!"
"Yes; it is almost three weeks!"
"I am beginning more and more to live for myself. You know it. What can I do in the clubs? These long speeches, always on the same subject: what are they for? All that is only tiresome."
He saw very well how disagreeable his words were to the other, and how he nevertheless tried to come to terms with the justice of his remark.
"I am still at home every Sunday afternoon after five o'clock, as I used to be. Why don't you come any more?"
"Because all sorts of people meet at your place; bourgeois, and Social Democrats, and literary people, and Individualists."
Auban burst out laughing. "Tant mieux. The discussions can only gain thereby. But the Individualists are the worst of all, aren't they, Otto?"
His face was completely changed. Just before gloomy and reserved, it now showed a kindly expression of friendship and friendliness.
But the other, who had been addressed as Otto, and whose name was Trupp, seemed to be affected only disagreeably by it, and he mentioned a name which, although it did not remove the calm from Auban's brow, made the smile die away from his lips.
"Fifteen years! And for nothing!" said the workingman, wrathful and indignant.
"But why did he go so carelessly into the trap of his enemies? He must have known them."
"He was betrayed!"
"Why did he confide in others?" asked Auban again. "Every one is lost from the start who builds on others. He knew this too. It was a useless sacrifice!"
"I fear you have no idea of the greatness of this sacrifice and his devotion," said Trupp, angrily.
"Dear Otto, you know very well that I am altogether lacking in the feeling of appreciation of all so-called sacrifices. Of what use has been the defeat of the comrade, the best, the most honest, perhaps, of all? Tell me!"
"It has made the struggle more bitter. It has shaken some out of their lethargy; others --- us --- it has filled with new hate. It has" --- and his eyes flashed, while Auban felt how the arm which he was holding was trembling in convulsive wrath --- "it has renewed within us the oath to claim on the day of reckoning a hundredfold expiation for every victim!"
"Then when this accursed order has been razed to the ground, then upon its ruins will rise the free society."
Auban looked again at the violent talker, with the sad, serious look with which he had before greeted him. He knew that in the distracted breast of this man but one wish and one hope were still living, --- the hope of the outbreak of the "great," of the "last," revolution.
Thus, years ago, had they walked over the boulevards of Paris and intoxicated themselves by the sounding words of hope; and while Auban had long ago lost all faith, except the faith in the slowly, slowly acting power of reason, which will finally lead every man, instead of providing for others, to provide for himself, and had thus more and more come back to himself, so the other had more and more lost himself in the fanaticism of a despair, and conjured daily anew the shimmering ghost of the "golden future" before his eyes, and let slip from his hands, which longingly and confidingly entwined the neck of love, the last hold upon the reality of things.
"In fifteen years," thus again broke forth, blazing, the flame of hope from his words, "much can happen!"
Auban made no further answer. He was powerless against this faith. Slowly they walked on. The streets grew more and more deserted and quiet. The atmosphere, growing denser and denser, was still charged with the teeming dampness of three hours ago. The sky was one misty, gray mass of clouds. The lanterns gleamed with an unsteady flicker. Between the two men lay the silence of estrangement.
They were also externally very different.
Auban was taller and thinner; Trupp, more muscular and well proportioned. The latter wore a short, brown, full beard, while the former was always carefully shaved.
When they were alone they always, as on this evening, talked in French, which Trupp spoke without trouble, if not quite correctly, while Auban spoke it so rapidly that even Frenchmen often found difficulty in following him. His voice had a strange, hard sound, which occasionally yielded to the warmth of his vivacity, but still oftener to a fine irony.
Before them the tangle of small and narrow streets was beginning to disappear. They ascended a few steps. There lay Oxford Street!
"In fifteen years," Auban broke the silence, "the chains of servitude will have nearly cut through the wrists of the nations in the countries of the Continent, so that they will no longer be able to strike a blow. Here the same hands will be manacled on the day on which the right of speech is denied the mouth which now protests and talks itself hoarse."
"I know the workingmen better than you. They will have risen long before then."
"Only to be mown down by cannons, which automatically fire one shot every second, and sixty in a minute. Yes. I know the bourgeoisie better, and its helpers."
They were standing in Oxford Street: in the light and life of night.
"Look there --- do you believe this life, so entangled, so perplexed, so enormously complicated, will fall at one blow, and at the bidding of a few individuals?"
"Yes," said Trupp, and pointed to the east. "There lies the future."
But Auban asked: "What is the future? The future is Socialism. The suppression of the individual into ever-narrower limits. The total lack of independence. The large family. All children, children. . . . But this, too, must be passed through."
He laughed bitterly, and as he followed the gaze of his friend: "There lies --- Russia!" Then both were again silent.
Oxford Street stretched away --- an immeasurable line of blending light and rushing darkness up and down.
"There are three Londons," said Auban, impressed by the life, "three: London on Saturday evening, when it gets drunk in order to forget the coming week; London on Sunday, when it sleeps in the lap of the infallible church to sober up; and London, when it works and lets work --- on the long, long days of the week."
"I hate this city," said the other.
"I love it!" said Auban, passionately.
"How different was Paris!"
And the common memories rose before them.
But Auban hurried on.
"We shall never reach the Club."
They crossed Oxford Street straight ahead, and walked up the next cross-street towards the north. Auban again rested heavily on the arm of his friend. "But tell me: how are matters?"
"Very well, notwithstanding we are still without a 'council.' Do you still remember what a fuss was made at the time we organized the Club wholly according to the communistic principle: without council, without officers, without statutes, without programme, and without fixed compulsory dues? Complete failure through disorder was prophesied, and all other possible things besides. But we are still getting on very nicely, and in our meetings things proceed just as in others where the bell of the president rules --- it is always one talking after the other, if he has anything to say."
"Yes," said he, "that the fanatics of order cannot understand, how sensible people can come together and remain together in order to deliberate on their common interests, unless the individual has been guaranteed his membership with rights and duties on a bit of paper. But the fact that this attempt has not failed is surely not a proof to you of the possibility of constituting human society at large on like foundations? That would be pure insanity."
"So? that would be pure insanity? We don't think so. We cherish this hope," protested Trupp, tenaciously.
Auban broke in: "How is your paper going?"
"Slowly. Do you read it?"
"Yes. But rarely. I have forgotten the little German that I learned in school."
"We edit it together, too. Without a committee, without an editor. On one evening in the week those who have time and who feel inclined come together, and the communications sent in are read, discussed, and put together."
"But that is why the matter differs so extraordinarily in point of excellence and is so heterogeneous. No, back of a paper must be a personality, a complete, interesting personality."
Trupp interrupted him violently.
"Yes, and then we should again have 'leadership.' A manager always turns into a governor" --- he did not notice the assenting nod of Auban --- "here in the small way, there in the large! Our whole movement has terribly suffered therefrom, from this centralism. Where in the beginning there was pure enthusiasm, it has changed into self-complacency; genuine pity and love into the desire of each to act the part of the saviour. Thus we already have everywhere high and low, the flock and the bellwether, on the one side conceit, on the other thoughtless and fanatical echoing of the party principles."
"But you have indeed totally misunderstood me. As if, I had ever believed anything else! On general principles I distrust every one who would presume to represent others, to provide for others, and to take upon his own shoulders the responsibility for the affairs of others. Mind your own business and let me take care of mine --- that is a good saying. And really Anarchism."
"I, too, am an Anarchist."
"No, my friend, you are not. You champion in every respect the opposite of truly Anarchistic ideas. You are a thorough-going Communist --- not only in your opinions, but in your whole way of feeling and wishing."
"Who would dispute my right to call my opinions Anarchistic?"
"Nobody. But you do not consider what lamentable confusion arises from the mixing of totally different conceptions. But why quarrel now over the old question? Come on Sunday. We might again discuss. Why not?"
"Very well. But you are, and you will remain, the Individualist that you have become since you have studied the social question 'scientifically'! I wish you were still the same that you were when I met you in Paris, my friend!"
"No, not I, Otto!" said Auban, and laughed out loud.
Trupp was annoyed.
"You do not know what you are defending! Is not Individualism synonymous with giving free rein to all the low passions of man, above all, egoism, and has it not produced all this misery --- liberty on the one --- "
Auban stopped and looked at the speaker.
"Liberty of the individual? To-day when we are living under a Communism more complicated and brutal than ever before? To-day when the individual, from the cradle to the grave, is placed under contribution to the State, to the community? Go to the ends of the world, and tell me where I can escape these obligations and be myself. I will go to this liberty that I have sought in vain all my life."
"But your views only furnish new weapons to the bourgeoisie."
"If you will not use these weapons yourselves, the only ones in which I still believe. Only then. And surely, they --- these slowly ripening thoughts of egoism (I use this word deliberately) --- they are in the same way dangerous to the present conditions as they will be dangerous to the conditions prevailing when we shall have entered the haven of the popular state that will make all things happy, the haven of condensed Communism --- more dangerous than all your bombs and all the bayonets arid mitrailleuses of the present rulers."
"You have greatly changed," said Trupp, seriously.
"No, Otto. I have only found myself."
"We must come back to this. It must he decided --- "
"Whether I still belong to you or not? But this is surely only talk. For the free man --- and you want the whole, undivided autonomy of the individual --- can only belong to himself."
They had now entered Charlotte Street, which lay before them in its length and gloomy darkness.
They turned into one of the side streets, into one of the almost deserted and half-lighted passages which stretch along towards the noise of Tottenham Court Road.
"Now we must talk German," said Auban in that language, which sounded odd and unfamiliar on his lips.
They stopped in front of a narrow, light-colored house.
Above the door, upon the pane illuminated by the flickering light behind it, stood the name of the Club.
Trupp quickly opened the door, and they entered.