A PICTURE OF CIVILIZATION AT THE CLOSE OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY.
JOHN HENRY MACKAY
THE EMPIRE OF HUNGER.
THE East End of London is the hell of poverty. Like an enormous, black, motionless, giant kraken, the poverty of London lies there in lurking silence and encircles with its mighty tentacles the life and the wealth of the city and of the West End: those on the left side extending over the Thames and embracing the entire Embankment on the other side --- Rotherhithe, Deptford, Peckham, Camberwell, Lambeth, the other London, the South separated by the Thames; those on the right side stealing round the northern limits of the city in thinner threads. They join each other where Battersea runs into Chelsea and Brompton across the Thames. . . .
The East End is a world in itself, separated from the West as the servant is separated from his master. Now and then one hears about it, but only as of something far off, somewhat as one hears about a foreign land inhabited by other people with other manners and customs. . . .
It was the first Saturday in November on which Auban had promised to visit his friend Trupp. He intended to go with the latter through the East End and then to the club of Russian revolutionists. They had chosen Saturday, because there is no work in London during the afternoon of that day; because Auban's business and Trupp's factory were closed for thirty-six hours.
Auban left his business about one o'clock in one of the side-streets of Fleet Street. The hurry and scurry of business life seemed, to have increased tenfold. He could hardly make his way to Fleet Street through the throng of carts, heavily laden with fresh-printed paper rolls which emitted a strange odor of dampness; of truck-wagons whose cursing drivers could not get from the spot; of hurrying, excited, jostling crowds of clerks, workingmen, messenger-boys, and merchants. To save time he decided not to go home. He ate in one of the nearest overcrowded restaurants, and ran through the latest papers. Everywhere the unemployed. . . . Trafalgar Square: police attacks; the assembled dispersed by force; new arrests on account of incendiary language. . . . Shelterless women in Hyde Park: sixteen nights in the open air; starved and frozen; some sent to the hospital, some to the workhouse, others die. . . . Preparations for the murder of the Chicago Anarchists: as there are not enough gallows, it has been decided to hang them in two divisions, first four, then three; extraordinary measures to preserve order; petitions for pardon by the condemned, signed by four of them; the governor relentless. . . . Auban let the papers drop.
Here it was, daily and hourly: the enormous debasement of life which makes of one a butcher, of another a victim! The one like the other overcome by illusion. . . . And nowhere an escape for either! Both obeying the idol of duty created by men. And both dominated by it, in life and in death! . . .
Auban took the next omnibus going to Liverpool Street Station. He sat on the top. As he passed the statue of the Queen and the Prince of Wales, which has been erected in the place of the obstructive gate of Temple Bar, where in former, darker ages, the bloody heads of executed criminals were exhibited before the people, he thought of the slow ascent of struggling and climbing humanity from slavery. How grandly it would some day develop in liberty! --- How long might it be yet, before those sculptured idols would be overthrown, the crowns and purple robes destroyed, the sceptres broken, the last remains of mediævalism effaced! . . .
Then must be fought that other tyrant, more blind: "the sovereign people." It would be the age of dulness, the age of mediocrity, of dead-levelism in the strait-jacket of equality, the age of mutual control, of petty quarrels in the place of the great struggles, of perpetual annoyances . . . then the fourth estate would have become the third, the class of the workingmen "promoted" to the class of the bourgeois, and the former would then exhibit the characteristics of the latter; commonplaceness of thought, pharisaical complacency of infallibility, well-fed virtue! And then would again appear the genuine insurgents, great and strong, hosts of them, the champions of the ego threatened in every movement. . . .
The omnibus moved slowly but surely down Fleet Street. At Ludgate Hill there was an enormous throng of people. In the direction of Holborn Viaduct, that wonder of modern street-engineering, fogs were rising; the iron bridge of Farringdon Street was already enveloped by them. In the opposite direction, where the Thames rushes along beneath Blackfriars Bridge, it was clear. As the horses, stamping on the wet wooden pavement, were drawing the packed omnibus under the railroad bridge of the London, Chatham and Dover Road, towards St. Paul's, the throng seemed impenetrable.
But St. Paul's rose in the air with its dark masses, from whose black background the white marble figure of Queen Anne stood out in relief. . . . The heart of the city, here it was beating. . . .
Farther. Past the gigantic masses which in their fixed calm seemed to belong to a forgotten past.
A black stream of humanity was flowing down Cheapside. Finally the great strong-box, the windowless, low, lazy building of the Bank came in view. It was already closed. Now it lay there as if dead.
Auban was again seized by the monstrous life that surrounded him.
The countless banks, grouped around the Bank of England like children about their foster-mother, were closed. Everybody was hastening to get dinner, reach home, enjoy rest. . . . Thousands and thousands of people, exhausted by the week's toil, were rushing along in wild confusion, each impelled by the wish to forget for a few hours the columns of figures which constituted his life, which filled his brain to the last nook and corner.
Young clerks, small messenger-boys in the most various uniforms, careworn book-keepers, serious trades-people, "solid" business men, speculators, usurers, great money-kings at whose feet the world worships, --- who would dare oppose them? --- all mingling here in wild chase, in mad confusion, apparently a chaos of disorder, but really issuing in the most admirable order.
The omnibus stopped here for some time. People got off and on. Crowds thronged after, but had to remain behind. But all found the place they were looking for in the almost endless line of omnibuses, one close upon the other. . . .
From his seat Auban surveyed the sea of humanity. He followed an individual here and there with his eyes; here, a young merchant, evidently a stranger, who seemed like one lost in the swarm, not knowing which way to turn; there, an elderly gentleman in a tall hat, a faultless, simple black coat, with a white beard, and an expression made up of haughtiness and prudence which seemed to say: "I am the world. I bought it. It is mine. --- What do you want? I keep you all in pay: the King and his court, the general and his army, the savant and his ideas, and all my people who work in order that I may be. For men are stupid. But I am wise, and I understand them. . . ."
Auban turned to look at the Bank again, There was the hiding-place of that great mystery which held all happiness and all unhappiness. Inscrutable to the majority, it was to them the higher power which determines their fate. With awe, with admiration, with speechless astonishment, they heard about the immense wealth in which they had no share. Whence came it? They did not know. Where did it go? Into the pockets of the rich; that they saw. But what brought it together here? What gave it the mighty power to shape the world as its possessors saw fit? No; they would never solve it, that frightful riddle of their own wretchedness and the happiness of others. There lay the vampire that sucked their last drop of blood, the monster that drove their wives to dishonor, and slowly choked their children. And they passed more rapidly by the dark walls behind which lay the gold that had been their own blood.
When they were told that the country in which they lived was burdened with a national debt of so and so many millions, and that each of them was in part responsible for this debt, the nonsense of it left them completely indifferent; what a million was they did not know, but the last unpaid room-rent and the five shillings' debt in the meat-shop weighed heavily upon them, and filled them with fear and trembling for the following day.
Socialism began to talk to many of them. When it told them that nothing in the world had any value except labor, and when they saw that those who did not work were in the possession of all values, it was no longer difficult for them to draw the simple conclusion that it must have been their labor which created the possessions of the former; in other words, that the former lived by their labor, robbed them of their labor; what it was that enabled them to do this was again an impenetrable mystery to most of them; for they were in the majority, and the others only a few against their masses! The more intelligent ones suspected that probably nothing would promise help except to place in opposition to the protective and defensive union of the robbers a similar union of the robbed. So they became Socialists.
For Auban the mystery had long lost its terrors, the sphinx face of power its awfulness. His studies had torn veil after veil from the hidden picture, and he now stood eye to eye with the doll of the State deprived of the tinsel trappings of idealism. The god before whom all worshipped, what was he but a wooden doll, empty and hollow, an enormous humbug, a bugbear? Wound up by a few skilled hands, automatic movements were to make a show of real life!
The ignorance of the deluded masses put into the stiff figures of that skeleton the terrible weapons of privilege. This bank, the greatest in England, was invested by the State with the monopoly of issuing paper money. Thus enormous fortunes arose which gave a false picture of the true condition of the country. Beyond the reach of competition as it was, this one principle alone enforced by power, suppressed free intercourse, undermined confidence in one's own and others' powers, rose destructively between supply and demand, and created those frightful differences in possession which elevated some into masters and degraded others into slaves.
The monopoly of money, the authority of the privilege to create the only legal medium of exchange, --- if it fell, the State fell, and the track was cleared for the free intercourse of men.
But Auban's thoughts were interrupted.
The omnibus finally started, again, leaving the immense buildings of financial traffic behind it, the Bank and the stock exchange, on which as in bloody scorn shone the words of the Bible: "The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof."
As he wound his way through the narrow streets to Liverpool Station, turning aside from the roar and bustle of Broad Street to reach his destination by a longer but quieter route, Auban, walled in by those high, silent, forbidding houses which seemed never to have been cheered by a ray of the sun, felt as if he were riding through the cool, dark passes of a narrow valley.
The omnibus stopped at the giant buildings of the stations of Liverpool Street. Auban entered the large bar-room on the corner of the street. Its apartments were overcrowded. People jostled each other, standing, holding in their hands glasses and pewter mugs, speaking in a lively manner, discussing, drowning each other's voices. In perpetual motion the doors opened and shut; the money jingled on the counter.
Auban sat in the corner for a while, drinking his half-and-half in small draughts. Then he pushed through the swarms of people to the station. Leaning against the grating of the entrance, in the midst of a crowd of screaming newsboys, bootblacks, flower girls, venders of all sorts, old and young, stood a small deformed boy, noticed by no one, staring before him with gloomy sullenness, his hands buried in his dirty trousers, ragged, debased, the face of an old man on the thin body of a child. Auban saw him, and his practised eye at once recognized hunger in those looks. He bought a few oranges at the nearest cart. With speechless greed the little fellow ate the fruit, without looking up, like a starving dog that pounces upon a bone. How long was it since he had eaten anything? How long already had he been standing here, his little heart filled with scorn, bitterness, and despair, apathetically staring before him at his bare feet growing stiff on the cold stones?
A cold shudder ran through Auban. It was the beginning of the horror which had always turned him into ice when he returned from the home of the "disinherited," the silent desolation of the East End of London. . . .
As the train bore him the short distance to Shoreditch, there rose before him in gigantic outlines from a hundred separate recollections the shadowy picture of that monstrous life: gloomy, threatening, silent, shapeless, intangible.
He thought of many another walk during which he had for long hours journeyed through the empire of hunger: of that interesting afternoon in the present summer when he had crossed the Isle of Dogs from end to end on foot, stupefied by the magnificence of its improvements made within less than twenty years, horrified by the wretchedness of those abandoned streets in whose rickety houses and miserable huts a tired race seemed to have hid its burdens of care. Then of that evening in Poplar which brought the afternoon to a close, when he had watched the enjoyments of the poor in a song and dance hall of the lowest order, among half-grown boys in shirt-sleeves, and girls in fine hats with feathers, a pewter mug of ale before him, his pipe in his mouth, in the three-penny seat, the best and also the last, listening to the screaming voices of some hoarse female singers and negro imitators, and in the midst of the noisy accompaniment of a hundred voices. Then of that other afternoon in Wapping, through which he had loafed with the old sailor who showed him the enormous London docks, who took him in the evening to St. George Street, that notorious sailors' resort; to the dance hall where tall Malayans, silent Norsemen, negroes, and Chinamen, the entire strange and heterogeneous society thrown together here by the ships from all lands, mingled in dance and dissipation; and to the opium den at the Mint, that dark hole where the haunting silence of death seemed to rest over deathlike forms lost in their vice. And Auban thought of his solitary evening walks in the terrible misery of the districts of Whitechapel and Bow, where there was hardly a street through which he had not walked in amazement at the frightful things he saw, and in horror of the still more frightful things he suspected behind the dirty walls and the broken window-panes.
Auban had neither costly habits, nor any special claims on daily life that took much of his time. His days were mostly given to his calling, which, however, did not slavishly bind him to the hour; his evening hours mostly to his studies in political economy and watching the course of the movement. Then the Sunday afternoons to his friends. What leisure was left he devoted to walks through the immense city. These walks constituted his only genuine pleasure, his greatest enjoyment. He was happy if he could get away an afternoon for such a walk; then he would bend over the large map of the city, let his finger move from one point to another, until he had fixed the starting-point and the destination of that day's walk. When he plunged into the mysterious life of a strange neighborhood, he was seized, carried away, inspired by the greatness of the age which in ceaseless activity had created all those mighty things; when he returned to his quiet room, he was as if crushed beneath the pressure of this overpowering life that lifted some to the summit of happiness, to hurl the rest into the abyss of misery. . . .
He had often thought of transferring his room, for a time at least, into the wretchedness of this life, in order to learn to know it better than he should ever be able to by mere outside observation, but he could never find the time. So he had to rely on what he saw and heard when occasion took him there. And even that was indeed enough.
Now Trupp had carried out this plan. He had written a card to his friend: he had given up his work in consequence of some trouble with his boss, and was now living in the neighborhood of Whitechapel. He suggested a rendezvous
At four o'clock. It had just struck half-past three. Auban awaited him without impatience.
Trupp arrived at the appointed time. His solid, broad-shouldered form was safely making its way through the throng. Again as on that evening in Soho he saw Auban; his hands resting on his cane, gently leaning against the entrance pillar of Shoreditch Station, not lost in revery this time, but closely observing men and surroundings.
They exchanged greetings. The last Sunday afternoon was not mentioned.
Trupp was more gloomy than usual. Full of bitterness, he told of the insolent brutality of his boss, the contemptible servility of his fellow-workingmen, the dull inactivity of his comrades. An example must again be set, else everything would fall asleep. He looked pale, as if he had had little rest of late. There was an unsteady flicker in his eye. --- They turned into Hackney Road, that sad, long street of trouble and care where the small shopkeepers live. Then Trupp turned southward, toward the district of Bethnal Green.
The bustle round them suddenly ceased. The streets grew narrower, darker, duller; the filth greater and greater. Only here and there an insignificant store with knicknacks and old rubbish. Else nothing but locked doors and windows, whose panes had long ago been blinded by the filth.
They passed through several streets; then at a sudden turn they entered a narrow passage that led through under a house. It seemed to grow lighter, for the many-storied houses were at an end.
They stood on a small square. Three streets started thence which were formed by narrow houses, all two stories high, whose back yards adjoined each other.
It had taken them hardly five minutes to reach this place.
Trupp stopped, waiting. He did not say a word, but Auban suspected that it was just this spot he wanted him to see.
He took his stand on a pile of heaped-up earth and surveyed the picture that presented itself.
Never in his life, it seemed to him, had he seen anything more sad, more depressing, more disconsolate than the stiff uniformity of those filthy holes of which one adjoined the other in horrid symmetry until the twentieth disappeared in the gray gloom of this chilly November afternoon. The yards that were separated from each other by crumbling walls reaching to a man's breast, and whose narrowness hardly permitted one to stretch out his arms, were filled with muddy pools of slimy filth; heaps of rubbish were piled up in the corners; wherever one looked, he saw broken things and furniture lying about; here and there a rag of gray linen was hanging motionless in the chilly air. The stone steps leading to the doors were worn out; the blinds of the windows, mostly broken, were swinging loosely on their hinges; the windowpanes were cracked, hardly one was whole; the holes pasted over with paper; where the windows were open, bare walls were seen.
Not a human soul far or near. It seemed as if death had just passed in giant strides through these streets and touched all breathing things with his redeeming hand. . . .
Then Auban saw something move in the distance. Was it an animal, a human being? He fancied he recognized the bent form of a woman. But at this distance he could not distinguish anything clearly. --- A thin smoke rose from a few of the many chimneys and mingled with the leaden gray air.
No artist has ever attempted to paint this picture, Auban thought, and yet he would need to put only one color on his palette: a dirty gray.
He listened. From a great distance an uninterrupted dull roll came rumbling into this forsaken stillness: the thousand-fold noises of bustling London consolidated into one portentous muttering. But here it found no echo in answer.
Meanwhile Trupp had been walking up and down: he had stood before the rotting carcass of a dog, looked at the hidden, rusty lantern at the street corner which had lost its panes to the last splinter, and was now seeking in vain for a trace of something green in this dusty sand --- not a single blade of grass found sustenance in this cursed soil. . . .
Everywhere neglect; wherever the eye turned, the neglect of hunger which daily fights a frightful battle with death.
Slowly the friends tore themselves away from the wretched sight, and silently walked down the middle street. Sometimes a window was half opened, a bushy head thrust out, and shy, curious eyes followed half in fear, half in hate, the wholly unusual sight of the strangers. A man was hammering at a broken cart which obstructed the whole width of the street. He did not respond to the greeting of the passers-by; stupefied, he stared at them as at an apparition from another world; a woman who had been cowering in a door corner, motionless, rose terrified, pressed her child with both hands against her breast hardly covered with rags, and propped herself, as if to offer resistance, against the wall, not once taking her eye off the two men; only a crowd of children playing in the mud of the street did not look up, --- they might have been taken for idiots, so noiselessly did they pursue their joyless games.
Trupp and Auban walked faster. They felt like intruders upon the secrets of a strange life, and they hastened to get away from all those looks of fear, hate, envy, astonishment, and hunger.
At the end of the street another group of children was gathered: they were amusing themselves by the sight of the dying fits of a cat whose eyes they had gouged out, and whom they had hanged by the tail. When the bleeding, tortured animal jerked with its feet to get away, they struck at it with the cruel, awful pleasure children take in visible pain. Trupp quickly stepped among them: "Cut it down!" he commanded. But he might just as well have spoken in German, so little were the words understood, which in his mouth sounded hard and unnatural. In speechless astonishment the children looked up at him, without knowing what he wanted of them. He had to take the dying animal away himself. --- Returning to Auban, he loudly expressed his indignation at such shameful cruelty to animals. The other sadly shrugged his shoulders: "Better conditions, better manners," he said; "what else can avail here?"
Trupp seemed to know every nook and corner of these streets. He led the way back and forth, often standing still when they came to a house whose cracked walls seemed as if they would tumble down if one leaned against them; then again finding narrow passages of an arm's width, from whose walls a filthy moisture trickled down, gathering on the ground below in pestilent, nauseous pools; so, surely and without a word, he led Auban through the dark labyrinth of this immense misery, whose gloomy monotony seemed to be without end, no matter what direction they chose.
They came into a court-like space which was enclosed by tall, gray houses; Gibraltar Gardens was to be read on a sign on the street corner. "Gibraltar Gardens!" said Trupp; "they mock the misery which they have created!" --- On the cracked asphaltum of the court a number of the children were amusing themselves with roller-skating --- in the "Gardens of Gibraltar," where not a blade of grass grew!
The friends walked on through narrow streets of very old, bent, low, small houses, whose doors one could enter only with bowed head: pedlers lived there, and they had filled the street to suffocation with their second-hand rubbish; and then suddenly the wanderers came upon the roaring life of Church Lane. At a blow the physiognomy of the surrounding was changed; from deathlike desertion into the rushing life of trade on a Saturday afternoon!
Auban was tired. He limped more heavily. At his suggestion they spent a half-hour in the nearest public house, where he sat down in a corner. They still did not talk much together; at most, indicating some observation to each other. It was a gin palace of the lowest order which they had entered. It was called "The Chimney Sweep," as Auban laughingly noticed. The sawdust-covered floor reeked with filth and saliva; the bar was swimming with all sorts of drinks running together, which dried up into a sticky crust; behind it, where the large barrels were piled against the wall from the floor to the ceiling, the waiters had all they could do to fill the hands stretched out towards them; the stupefying odor of tobacco smoke and brandy, the moist warm vapors of unwashed clothing and bodies crowding each other, filled the space to the last corner.
Here misery was in search of its frightful happiness by drowning its hunger in drink. It was a genuine East End crowd; men and women, the latter almost as numerous as the former; some with infants on their withered breasts, but most of them old or at any rate appearing old. Through the grown people ragged children were forcing their way. Almost all were drunk, in the first stages of the Saturday drunk from which they sober up in sleep on Sunday. Auban called Trupp's attention to an inscription on the wall: "Swearing and bad language strictly prohibited!" . . . It was simply ridiculous, that injunction whose threat no one minded.
The confusion of noises was overwhelming. It did not cease for a moment, and rolled in swelling waves back and forth from one apartment to another. The stammering words of a drunken man were drowned by the coarse abuse of an excited old fellow, who declared somebody had drunk out of his glass; and the neighing laughter with which the two men were incited against each other, by the mad screams of a woman who was standing with clenched fists before her husband who did not want to go with her. Young men, almost boys, were singing in a corner with their dressed-up sweethearts or showing them nigger dances by stamping the resounding floor with their heavy shoes in measured time and throwing their upper body back and forth. But suddenly the attention of all women was aroused: a baby had begun to cry; perhaps he found no more nourishment at the breast of his drunken mother. From all sides they bent over the little wrinkled, gray face, and each woman rivalled the others with suggestions about quieting him. Natural good-heartedness broke forth; they wished to help. Despite this, the infant cried louder and louder, until his lamentations died away in a low whimpering.
The grotesque spectacle of this life was nothing new to Auban. He had often been in these last haunts of misery, where the appearance even of a man not dressed in rags is an event.
To-day, however, most of the people were already too much occupied with themselves in their drunkenness, or engaged in quarrels and disputes with one another, to concern themselves greatly about the strangers. An old woman only obtruded herself on Trupp with tenacious persistence, staring at him in a repulsively tender way with her bloodshot, bleared eyes and stammering her wishes in the idiom of the East End, a slang of which he did not understand a word. He took no notice of her. When she fell against him, he pushed her calmly aside. In doing so his face showed neither disgust nor contempt. This woman too was a member of the great family of humanity and his sister.
On the bench, opposite to Auban, sat a young, completely neglected girl. Out of her large dark eyes shot forth bolts of wrath at Trupp. Why? From hatred against the foreigner whom she had recognized in him? From anger at the obtrusiveness of the old woman, or at his cool defence? From jealousy? --- It was not to be learned from the abuse which she showered upon him from time to time.
Auban studied her. Her debased features, in which contempt mingled with meanness and hatred, were still beautiful, notwithstanding her right cheek was scratched bloody and her hair fell over her forehead in wild disorder. Her teeth were faultless. Her disorderly dress, the dirty linen sacque, was torn open, as if with brazen intention, and revealed to view the still childlike white breasts. "Why should I be disturbed about you?" all her movements seemed to say.
How long before the last traces of youth and grace would be wiped away? What difference was there still between her and that old woman, always drunk, into whose ear Trupp shouted, as she again fell against him with the whole weight of her body, that he did not understand English; he was a German. ---
"Are you, darling?" she stammered, and put her face close to his own. But at this moment she was completely overcome by her drunkenness. Uttering a gurgling sound, she fell down, head foremost, and lay motionless, on the slippery floor. The gray braids of her hair half-covered her distorted face.
The men laughed loudly; the woman shrieked and covered Trupp with a flood of abuse.
Auban had risen. He wanted to lift up the old woman. But Trupp prevented him. "Let her lie. She lies well there. If you should want to lift all the drunken women on their feet whom we shall see to-day, you would have much to do."
He was right. The woman was already sleeping.
"Let us go," said Auban.
The young girl had come up to Trupp and placed herself breast to breast against him. She looked at him with her large eyes sparkling with morbid desire. But she did not say a word. Trupp turned aside from her toward the door.
"You are a fool!" she then said with an indescribable expression. Auban saw her return to her place and cover her face with her hands.
When they stood on the street, the roar and the bustle seemed like stillness after the bluster that had surrounded them.
It had grown darker and cooler. The air was impregnated with moisture. The nearer the evening approached, the noisier and livelier grew the street. The vendors on the wagons who monopolized the edge of the street, one after the other, cried louder. The mountains of vegetables and oranges were crumbling together; the old clothes and footwear were thrown pell-mell together, touched by so many scrutinizing hands; the leaves of the second-hand books were turned over, held close to the faces in the increasing darkness.
The dealers in clams and snails, the abominable food of the poorest classes, monopolized the street-corners. The sight of their loathsome wares filled one with nausea. . . .
"Brick Lane!" said Trupp suddenly.
They stood at the entrance of that street so much talked about.
Whitechapel! The East End in the East End! The hell of hells!
Where do you end, where do you begin? --- Your original boundaries of a district have been effaced by your name --- to-day its mention recalls the darkest portion of the great night of the East End, the most dismal of its dens and haunts, the deepest of its abysses of misery. . . .
Here human bodies lie piled up highest and most inextricably. Here the crowds whom no name mentions and no voice calls mingle and creep over each other most restlessly. Here want huddles the human animals most closely together into an unrecognizable mass of filth and rubbish, and their poisoned breath lowers like a pest-laden cloud over this section of the immense city, whose narrower boundaries are only drawn in the south by the black streak of the Thames. . . .
From north to south in a slight curve extends Brick Lane. It begins where Church Street runs into Bethnal Green Road, ending at the Museum of the same name, which was founded to meet the desire of the "poorer classes" for education, just as Victoria Park near by was founded that they might not be compelled to entirely forego their scanty breath of fresh air. It ends where at Aldgate the interminable Whitechapel Road and Mile End Road branch off to the north, and the stately, broad Commercial Road East, running as far as the India docks to the south.
Whoever has once slowly sauntered through Brick Lane can say that he has been grazed by the pestilential breath of want; whoever has gone astray in its side-streets, has walked along the edge of the abyss of human suffering. Whoever would like to see how much human nature can endure; whoever still believes in the childish dream that the world may be saved by love, poverty relieved by charity, misery abolished by the State; whoever would trace the last effects of the terrible deeds of the murderer State, --- let him visit the battlefield of Brick Lane, where men do not fall with skulls cracked and hearts shot through, but where hunger cuts them down easily, after want has deprived them of their last force of resistance. . . .
It is a long walk down Brick Lane. The friends walked silently. Enormous warehouses, looming up in the distance, vaulted railroad tunnels of the Great Eastern Railway, broke the monotony of the crowded rows of houses. Frequently they had difficulty in elbowing their way through the surging crowds. Odors alternated: decaying fish, onions, and fat, pungent vapors of roasted coffee, the foul air of filth, of decaying matter. . . . Shops with bloody meat, stuck on prongs --- "cat's meat"; at every street-corner a "wine and spirits" house; torn posters on the walls, still in loud colors; a crowd of young men passes by --- they shout and sing; down the side-street a drunken form is feeling its way along the wall, muttering to itself and gesticulating, perhaps overcome by a single glass of whiskey because the stomach had been without food for days. . . .
The region grew more and more dismal. The Jews' quarter, the poorest of the poor. The victims of the exploiters, the "sweaters," tailors, and small trades-men. Infinitely contented, beasts of burden bearing the impossible, satisfied with six, yes, four pence for eighteen hours' daily labor, completely lost in dull resignation, they are the most willing subjects of the exploiters and force wages down to far below the starvation point. So they are the terror and the abomination of the inhabitants of the East End, whom they kill by their tenacious perseverance and their calamitous capacity of living on nothing in this frightful struggle of a more than merciless, of a vicious competition.
They alone have been able to gain a firm footing in Whitechapel: so they are encamped in the midst of the East End like a decaying fungus at the base of some giant tree. . . .
Again those frightful rows of two-storied houses, whose gray monotony offers no resting place to the eye, stretching toward the east in stiff uniformity.
Such is Brick Lane, whose end Auban and Trupp have now reached, indescribable in its apparent indifference and awful gloom: pass through it not once, as to-day, but a hundred times, and nothing else will it betray to you of its hidden secrets, of its silent sufferings, of its dead lamentations, except this one thing: that it never yet saw an heir to happiness. . . .
Whitechapel! When the two friends were passing through dirty, narrow Osborne Street, the entrance to Brick Lane, it was nearly six o'clock. They found themselves in the midst of a mighty stream of humanity that was flowing up Whitechapel and Mile End Road: thousands upon thousands of workingmen bent towards the outer, the outermost limits of the giant body of the city. Through the fog glowed the red eyes of the lanterns, in long rows, converging in the farthest distance. The north side of the street was densely occupied by two rows of traders of all kinds, their wagons and stands, from which smoking naphtha lamps threw flames of light upon the masses who were forcing their way through the narrow middle road, jostling, pushing each other, excited, half stupefied. . . . It is the great day, Saturday evening. Whoever still has a penny spends it.
For Whitechapel Road is the greatest public pleasure-ground of the East End, accessible to all. Large music halls with broad lobbies and high stories and galleries are located there, and small hidden penny gaffs, in which there is little to see on account of the tobacco smoke, and little to hear on account of the noise. --- There is the medicine man with his wizard's oil which cures all ills, --- no matter how taken, internally or externally, --- as well as the shooting-stand, whose waving kerosene oil flames make the gaslights unnecessary. There we meet the powerful man and the mermaid, the cabinet of wax figures and the famous dog with the lion's claws --- his forefeet have been split, all that is to be seen for a penny. . . .
Auban and Trupp saw nothing of all these splendors. They had to pass through this tide for a distance. Only step by step could they proceed. Turning again towards the north, whence they had come, Trupp led his friend through two or three dark streets, and again through one of those low passages where dust, lime, and mortar fall down on them from the walls which they graze. . . . Suddenly they stood in one of those quiet, secluded court-yards which no stranger ever enters. Nothing was recognizable here except the towering masses of stone, which during the day could hardly offer a passage to the light from above, so closely did they adjoin each other. But now they completely disappeared in the fog and the approaching night. Auban felt as if he were at the bottom of a deep well, walled in on all sides, buried alive, with no way out and no light.
But he felt Trupp's hand again on his. It drew him away. Here he had rented a room. His room was on the first floor, close by the door. When it was lighted, Auban saw that its entire furniture consisted of a bed of straw, a table, and a chair. The table was covered with papers, pamphlets, and letters.
While he contemplated this cheerless simplicity, Trupp was walking to and fro, his head bent, his hands in his pockets, as he always did when he was inwardly excited. Forcing Auban to take the chair, while he seated himself on his trunk, he broke the silence of the past hours by telling in a suppressed, almost choked voice what he had seen during the past days.
"You consider this a poor room? You are greatly mistaken. I live like a prince --- I am the only person in this whole house who has his own room to himself. Yes, several hundred, people, several dozens of families, are living in this 'family hotel.' Here and on the first floor things are still passable: one family only occupying a room, parents, children, large and small, all mixed together. Further up --- I have not yet been there, for on the third floor the filth and the odor are such that one must turn back --- things are not so well. Two families in one room not larger than this. Whether they avail themselves of the famous chalk mark, I cannot say. Suffice it that they get on: sleeping-room, drawing-room, dining-room, kitchen, sick and death chamber --- all in one. Or a hole ten by six feet is inhabited by six, ten, twelve workingmen --- tailors. They work twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours, often still longer. They all sleep in that one room, on the floor, on a bundle of rags, if they do not work through the nights by the poisonous gaslight. Days may pass, weeks, before they get out of their clothes. What they earn? That varies. Twopence the hour? Very rarely. Most of the time not so much in three, but frequently only in six hours. They are glad if they get one or one and a half shillings when they must stop from exhaustion. For making a coat which sells at two guineas in the store, they get from four to five, sometimes --- when a strike is favorable to the sweaters and enables them to make any offer --- only two to three, yes, one shilling. Do you want to hear of anything more? --- It is the same in the shoemakers' branch, among the girls who make match-boxes, the seamstresses, the spinners. The making of a gross of match-boxes fetches about twopence, --- the work requires from three to four hours; the sewing of a dozen shirts four or even three, and two and a half pence; the polishing of a gross of lead-pencils --- an hour and a half's work --- twopence; there are hands for everything, which will not rest until they have torn their nails from their fingers."
Auban interrupted him. He knew his friend. If he allowed him to go on, he would, promiscuously thrusting his hand into the heap of collected experience, continue hour after hour to draw forth one fact after another, one argument after another, and, in bleeding pain and frightful joy at once, conjure up a picture against which all objections would prove futile. Again and again when he stopped exhausted and tremendously excited, his ceterum censeo was the revolution, the destruction of the old society, the overthrow of the existing order of things.
He was not to be checked in his mad career. Ever-new rocks did he find, out of which he smote the waters of his theories. Interrupted, he digressed, came to another subject, and without hesitation tore off the veil, putting to flight any ray of a possible hope of slow improvement, strangling every idea of peaceable reform, burying it under the burden of his impeachments. . . . Then, when he had enveloped his hearers in the shadows of his despair, he whispered, stepping before them, the one word: "Revolution!" and left them alone in the night with this single star. . . . So he had become the agitator whose words had always been most effective when born of the moment. Better than any one else Trupp knew how to break the lethargy of indifference, to kindle discontent, to awaken hatred and revolt. Therefore his work among the indifferent was always successful. He was not an organizer. So he avoided the clubs more and more. He liked to get out of the way of discussions. He did not know how to convince. When the rapture and the enthusiasm of the hour had fled, --- in the dull monotony of the following day which made the struggle appear useless, the victory hopeless, --- many of those whom he had carried away were seized anew and more powerfully by the gloomy feeling of the vanity of all effort, which snapped asunder the drawn chord of hope. He could point the way; he could not take the lead.
When Auban interrupted him, his feverish spirit seized upon another side of the conversation. He told of the children of this misery who are born in this and die in yonder corner, more than thirty in a hundred, before passing their first year, missed by no one, hardly known by their own mothers, never dressed, never enough to eat; of the fortunate ones who are spared a life of uncertainty, the slow death of starvation; of the high prices the poor must pay for everything they need --- four, five shillings weekly rent to the landlord for the hole of a room alone, while the earnings of the whole family do not amount to ten, twelve; of the comparatively high school money which they are compelled to pay for their children, whom they need so much to help add a few pence weekly to their earnings; of their complete helplessness in all things, at the death of their relatives, for instance. Of late, dark rumors of frightful occurrences had reached the public, so impossible that everybody regarded them as the abortion of a distempered brain, of a sensational imagination. They were based on facts. Trupp confirmed them.
It was not a very uncommon thing for corpses to remain unburied for days in the same room where the rest of the family lived day and night.
"When I came here," said Trupp, "a young man of about twenty had died. Of a fever; I think scarlet fever. At any rate, his disease was contagious. The husband was out of work; the wife consumptive. She coughed the whole day. They had four children; but the second, a girl, came home only when she found no other shelter. She and her brother were the only ones who occasionally brought something into the house. Besides, there is the old insane mother of the wife, who never leaves her corner in the room. Well, the son died. He had been ill eight days. Of course, no care, no physician, no food. The corpse remained on the same spot on which the sick boy had died. No one touched it. Instead of looking after work, the man ran a whole day from one magistrate to another. He was referred from one district to another; one had no cemetery, to the other he did not belong. He was a foreigner, could not easily make himself understood --- in short, the body remained where it was, without a coffin, unburied. After three days, people in the house began to talk about the matter; after five, the stench came through the cracks of the door; after seven, it had grown so intolerable that the neighbors in the adjoining rooms revolted; only after eight days a policeman heard about the matter, and on the ninth finally, the corpse, in the last stage of putrefaction, was taken away! The papers published no reports about it. And why should they? It is all useless, anyway. --- Nine days! That is easily told, but no imagination can in reality paint the picture of that room!"
He ceased for a moment. Auban was cold. He drew his cloak more closely round him, and looked at the light which was going out.
But Trupp had not yet finished. "Sometimes they throw a corpse into a corner of the yard, let what will become of it. Not far from here is a street, which is inhabited by thieves, pimps, murderers, rabble of the first order. There are crowds of children there. When one of them died recently, it was left where it lay. No one claimed it. Who the parents were no one knew. The woman who lived yonder told me of another case. Up there --- above us --- lives a drunkard. He has a wife and seven children. The woman works for the whole family. Recently one of the children died --- of that dreadful disease for which science has no name, 'slow exhaustion, in consequence of insufficient nourishment' --- do not the newspaper reports usually call it so? The woman takes her very last thing to the pawnshop, only to be able to buy a coffin and a few green branches. But before she can get enough together a few days pass. One evening the husband comes home; of course, completely drunk. The coffin is in his way. He takes it and throws it, with the corpse, through the window of the third story. The following day the women almost killed the man; but over their gin the men laughed about the 'smart fellow.' Such is East End life."
"Enough, Otto," he said. "Can you show me the street of which you just spoke?"
"Now? --- I guess not! We should not get away again with a whole skin."
"Then let us go." As they stood by the door, he looked Trupp in the eye. "You will surely not continue to live here?"
"Why not? --- Am I perhaps better? Have I earned more than those poor? --- One more or less matters nothing."
"Yes, it does. One less in filth is always better than one more." . . .
As they stood in the narrow entry, the door opposite was opened. A thin streak of light faintly illumined the passage, and showed the person emerging to be a young woman. She muttered something as she saw Trupp. It sounded like an entreaty, and she pointed to the room. A suffocating, musty, corrupted vapor met the men as they approached --- the vapor of clothing that had never been aired, of decaying straw, spoiling food, mixed and impregnated with the miasms of loathsome diseases produced by that uncleanliness which covered everything, --- the walls, the floor, the windows. In the cloud of vapor which, despite the cold, warmed the room that could not be heated, a bed was distinguishable which took up the whole length of a wall. On this bed rose a figure that would surely not have been regarded as a human being if it had not hurled towards the door a flood of incoherent abuse: his face entirely disfigured by vice, disease, drunkenness, his head bound up by a dirty, blood-soaked rag, emaciated, his exhausted limbs hardly covered by rags, the man resembled more a dead than a living person. He fell back with a rattling sound, exhausted by the exertion of his aimless wrath. Trupp spoke to the woman. Auban only heard that it was a case of taking the sick man to the hospital, --- the paradise of poverty. He felt tired and stupefied, and walked ahead. Trupp soon followed. He had to lead his friend by the arm, so full of holes was the creaking floor of the passage, so worn out the stone flagging of the stairs. "That is also one of those whom the police can take to the poorhouse every day --- they have 'no visible means of existence'! They are terribly afraid of it," said Trupp.
The lighted yard was deserted as before. One might have believed that all those houses enclosing it were uninhabited, it was so still; there was no sign of life.
"It is always so," said Trupp. "During the day the children are never noisy in their play."
There was a group of people at the corner of the next street. They were talking together in a lively manner. Some of them were evidently very much excited. As Auban and Trupp drew nearer, a woman came toward them. She was screaming for a physician. The crowd readily made way for them. They passed through a gateway. A yard, half dark, narrow, dirty, lay before them. Here also was a group of men and women, with children clinging to them. In regular paces, two policemen were walking up and down, as far as the space permitted.
Auban was about to turn back again, when his eyes fell on a lantern which stood on the ground, and cast a dull light on a heap of straw, on which lay a human form. No one hindered him as he stepped closer. The people standing round crowded forward; the policemen paced up and down. Auban was taken for a physician. The corpse lying before them was that of a man of about fifty. It lay on the back, the arms half stretched out and hanging down on both sides, the open eyes turned upwards. The body of the dead man was covered only by a long, black coat. It was open and lay against the naked flesh, with the collar drawn up and enclosing the neck. From his tattered, dirty, and threadbare black trousers, his naked feet protruded, covered by blue frost-marks and filth. His worn silk hat with a ragged rim had rolled away. His unkempt gray hair had fallen over his forehead; the left hand of the dead man was clenched.
Auban bent over him. The body was frightfully emaciated: the ribs of his chest protruded sharply; the joints of his hands and feet were so narrow that a boy's hand might have encircled them. His cheeks were fallen in, and his cheek-bones stood out prominently; his nose was sharp and thin; his lips entirely bloodless, and a little opened as if in pain; the projecting teeth apparently in good condition. The temples and the region of the throat were deeply sunken --- the corpse appeared as if it had been lying for months in a dry place, so thin and tight the yellowish skin covered the bones.
Auban looked up to the policeman who was standing beside him.
"Starved?" he asked in a low voice.
The policeman nodded, stolid and indifferent. --- Starved! A thrill of excitement ran through the crowd standing round, who had noiselessly followed every movement of Auban. The word passed from lip to lip, and each spoke it in a different tone of fear and horror, as if each had heard his own death sentence. The children clung more closely to the women, these more closely to the men. A young fellow uttered a scornful, loud cry; he was pushed away. The whole group was thus set into commotion. They jostled each other: each wished to cast a glance at the dead man.
The policemen resumed their walk, occasionally casting a scrutinizing look at some individual in the crowd.
Auban had risen from his kneeling position. The hand of the dead man had fallen back flaccidly after he had raised it. There was no longer a trace of life in the lifeless body.
As he was about to turn, he suddenly felt Trupp's iron grasp on his arm. He looked up and saw a thoroughly troubled face. Trupp's eyes were fixed upon the dead man in rigid fright and speechless amazement, as if he recalled to him some dreadful memory.
"Do you know him?" asked Auban.
Trupp made no answer. He steadily gazed at the corpse.
The dead man lay before them, and it suddenly seemed not only to Trupp, but also to Auban, as if a last ray of life were returning into his broken eyes, and as if they were now telling in silent speech for the last time the history of their life: the history of a descent from high to low. . . .
Trupp pulled his friend away, startled from his thoughts. The crowd looked after them in dull expectation, as they still believed Auban to be a physician. Only the two policemen continued pacing up and down, unconcerned: presently an officer would come with a wagon, and tomorrow the dead would lie on the marble slab of a dissecting-table. . . .
On the street Trupp said rapidly, with a voice still choked with fear: ---
"I saw him --- once --- it was four weeks ago --- in Fleet Street. . . . He was coming down that street --- towards me --- just as he lay there: without shoes, without a shirt, but with a tall hat and black gloves. The sight of him was not ridiculous; on the contrary, it was frightful. He looked like death personified --- emaciated like a skeleton --- like a shadow! --- so he slunk along the wall, looking straight ahead, observing no one and unobserved by any. --- My feeling told me I should not do it; but I recognized hunger, and so I went up to him and asked him something. He did not understand me. I doubt if he heard me at all. But when I gave him a shilling, he cast a glance on the money, then one on me as if he wanted to strangle me on the spot, and flung what I had given him --- my last shilling --- to the next street urchin. --- I was of course so astonished that I let him go. . . ."
Auban shook his head.
"Is it really the same man?"
"Could we forget that face after we have once seen it?"
Auban remained silent. It was a strange coincidence, but it was not impossible. Trupp might be mistaken. But Auban did not himself believe that he was under a delusion.
He too was greatly agitated. That face --- no, one could not forget it after having once seen it. But sadder than the bloodless cheeks and the reproachful eyes had been to him the emaciation of those enfeebled, completely exhausted, famished limbs. Hunger must have labored long and patiently before death could extinguish the blazing flames of that life! . . .
Weeks ago passing all ordeals through the strength of pride, it succumbed only to-day; he had retreated into a corner, the dirtiest, most hidden of all --- there, unseen by any of those millions, he had broken down; there, unheard by any, he had breathed his last sigh, --- tired, perplexed, stupefied, sick, despairing, he had --- starved!
"Starved! . . . Starved! . . . Starved! . . ."
Again and again Trupp muttered that word to himself.
Then aloud to Auban: ---
"To see that we had indeed not expected! --- Look, how everything justifies me! But the vengeance we shall take will efface everything!"
"Except folly," thought Auban. But of course he did not say it now.
"There can be no blame: what has the blind done that he is blind? --- Only folly, folly everywhere --- yes, and it will take a terrible revenge! . . ."
Suddenly they stood at the entrance to the large, broad living stream of Whitechapel Road.
They had been walking till now without knowing where. Absorbed in what they had seen, they forgot all else. Now they were startled by the light that suddenly flooded them. They looked about. Everything was as it had been two hours ago. Again the lights! Again life, flowing, rushing life, ever and ever again conquering life after the terrors of death!
"To the club!" said Auban. It was the first word that he spoke. He was tired, hungry, but outwardly and inwardly calm, congealed as it were. Trupp was neither thirsty nor exhausted. While he changed his course with the confidence of habit and crossed Commercial Road, he looked before him gloomily, apparently cold, but stirred by indignation, tortured by a dull pain.
They had only a few minutes more to walk. A street lay before them, enveloped in the darkness of the evening, illumined by not a single light. It was Berner Street, E.C. The houses ran into one another; doors and windows were hardly to be distinguished in the shadows of the night. Only one well acquainted here could have found a given house. Auban felt his way with his cane rather than walked.
Here was located the club of the Jewish revolutionists of the East End. Trupp stood before the door and pulled the iron knocker. It was opened at once. Heads emerged from a room on the right, friendly hands were extended to Trupp when he was recognized. Auban saw with what pleasure he grasped the hands and shook them again and again. He himself had not been here for a year. He doubted whether he would see any familiar faces. But he had hardly mingled with the lively groups which filled the small low rooms of the basement, some standing, some sitting round the tables and on the benches, when he felt a hand upon his shoulder and looked into the face of an old comrade whom he had not seen for years, not since his years of storm and stress in Paris.
Memories flew up like a flock of birds whose cage is suddenly opened by the hand of accident.
Except the "Morgenröthe," the third section of the old Communistic Workingmen's Educational Society, the "International Workingmen's Club" was the only club of revolutionary Socialists in the East End. The members, about two hundred of them, consisted mostly of Russian and Polish immigrants. The whole of Whitechapel, which for the most part was inhabited by their countrymen, constituted their wide field of propagandism.
Auban asked his friend to translate for him portions of the paper which the club published weekly at a great sacrifice, assisted by no one, bitterly hated and persecuted by the wealthy Jews of the West End (who once even succeeded by bribery in temporarily suppressing the paper). It was called "The Worker's Friend," and was printed with Hebrew letters in that queer mixture of the Polish, German, and English idiom, which is chiefly spoken by the Polish emigrants and understood only with difficulty by others.
Trupp was in the midst of a group of lively talking people. They asked him to speak. He evidently had no desire to. But he consented, and followed them to the upper hall, after he had hastily drunk a glass of beer.
Auban remained sitting, and ordered something to eat. The acquaintance who had recognized him overwhelmed him with questions. They learned many things from each other: one of their friends had been cast ashore here, another there, by the great, mighty wave of the movement. In the course of those few years everything had been moved out of its position, had changed, had taken on a new aspect.
Auban grew more serious than he had been. He felt again the whirr of the wheel rolling on and on, the tramp of the crushing footstep that had also passed over him. . . . No sword was any longer suspended above him. He no longer feared anything, since he battled only for himself. But still the drops of pain were flowing from the scars of his iron heart.
They talked of their former friends. One of them had been shown up as a decoy? Was it possible? None of them would have thought that. "He was a scoundrel."
"Perhaps he was only unfortunate," suggested Auban. But the other would not hear of that.
Thus they talked together for an hour.
Then they ascended the narrow stairs to the hall, which was completely packed with people. It was of medium size and held hardly more than a hundred and fifty persons. Plain benches without backs stretched through it crosswise and along the walls. Everywhere extreme poverty, but everywhere also the endeavor to overcome poverty. On the walls hung a number of portraits: Marx, Proudhon, Lassalle overthrowing the golden calf of capitalism; a cartoon in a black frame: "Mrs. Grundy" --- the stingy, greedy, envious bourgeoisie, which, laden with treasures of all sorts, refuses the starving the pittance of a penny. . . .
At the front the room was enclosed by a small stage. There Trupp was standing beside the table of the chairman. He spoke in German. Auban pushed a little forward to see him. He could understand only a few words; he could hardly guess what he was saying. Was he telling of his experiences that evening? . . . Auban felt the tremendous passion flooding the meeting in hot waves from that point. Breathless, anxious not to lose a single word, they hung on the lips of the speaker. An electric thrill passed through those young people, hardly out of their teens; those women tired and crushed by the burden of their ceaseless toil; those men who, torn away from their native soil, had found each other here doubly and trebly disappointed. Rarely had Auban seen such devotion, such burning interest, such glowing enthusiasm as shone from those faces. He knew them. Questions that among the children of the West would have at most formed matter for calm, indifferent interchange of opinion, were discussed here as if life and death depended on them; in contrast with their own sorrowful, depressed, narrow life only the ideal of paradise! Nothing else! Highest perfection in Communism: above all, peace, fraternity, equality! Christians, idealists, dreamers, fools --- such were those Jewish revolutionists of the East End --- step-children of reason, banner-bearers of enthusiasm.
Trupp closed. They were preparing for the discussion.
"Be egoists!" Auban would like to have shouted at them. "Be egoists! Egoism is the only weapon against the egoism of your co-religionist exploiters; there is no other. Use it: cool, determined, superior, calm, and you are the victors!"
But he did not express his thoughts. The time when he himself, inspired and inspiring, had stood by the surging waves of excited masses had been followed by years of study. His course included but one study: men. Since he understood them, he knew that the effect of the spoken word is the greater, the more general, the more ideal it is, the farther it goes to meet the vague desires of the heart. It is the phrase that is everywhere received with wild joy by the crowds; the clear, sober word of reason, stripped of tinsel, addressing itself to individual interests, denying all moral commands of duty, dies away without being understood, and without effect.
Had not that been brought home again to him only last Sunday?
Therefore, if he should speak to-day, he would again reap only misunderstanding, instead of joyful applause.
The discussion was in full swing. Almost everyone who approached the speaker's table spoke with the most glowing zeal to convince, to persuade: not a word was lost.
Trupp retreated to the background of the hall. There he was again surrounded on all sides. They wished to be enlightened on this or that point of his speech. He replied to each. --- Auban had sat down. His acquaintance had left him. He did not understand a word. He saw the excited faces that hovered about him through a thin veil of tobacco smoke.
"To-day flaming enthusiasm, tomorrow sobering up and discouragement. . . . To-day Haymarket, tomorrow the gallows. . . . To-day revolution, tomorrow a new illusion and its old authority!" he thought.
Trupp asked him if he would go with him to the "Morgenröthe." There was a meeting at that place, and he wished to speak there also. Auban let him go alone.
The workingmen's Marseillaise was sung. The gathering began to break up. The crowd mingled together.
A tall, broad-shouldered German comrade, with a blonde beard and hair, his glass in his hand, with his head raised, sang in a clear, firm voice, giving the keynote, as it were, the first stanza of the song over the heads of the others: ---
Wohlan, wer Recht und Freiheit achtet,
Zu unserer Fahne steht zu Hanf!
Ob uns die Lüge noch umnachtet,
Bald steigt der Morgen hell herauf!
Ein schwerer Kampf ist's, den wir wagen,
Zahllos ist unserer Feinde Schaar ---
Doch ob wie Flammen die Gefahr
Mög' ülber uns zusammenschlagen,
Tod jeder Tyrannei!
Die Arbeit werde frei!
Und wär's zum Tod!
Denn unsere Fahn' ist roth!
All joined in the refrain.
Auban hummed the French words of the Marseillaise. . . . How many times already had he heard it, how many times already joined in singing it? In hope, in revolt, in despair, in the confidence of victory? Who had not already sung it?
Auban chanced to see how the eyes of a young man --- he was evidently a Pole or a Russian --- were suspiciously resting on his strange form. He could not help smiling.
Should he tell him who he was? --- They did not know him any more. But still the mere mention of his name would have sufficed to at once put to flight all doubt and suspicion.
But he refrained from doing it. He looked at his watch: he must not stay much longer, if he still wished to catch the last train of the underground road for King's Cross at Aldgate.
He went. They had reached the closing stanza of the song. They sang: ---
Tod jeder Tyrannei!
Die Arbeit werde frei!
Und wär's zum Tod.!
Denn unsere Fahn' ist roth!
Denn unsere --- Fahn' ist --- roth!
Denn unsere --- Fahn' --- ist --- roth!
Auban stood on the street. It was pitch dark. With difficulty he felt his way to where the great streets converged. But before he had yet reached the first gaslights, an enormous building suddenly rose before him in the darkness: in four rows, one above the other, twelve, fourteen, twenty brightly illuminated windows. . . . It was one of the large factories of which there are from forty to fifty in every parish of the East End of London. Was it a silk factory? Auban did not know.
That building, ugly, coarse, ridiculous in shape, a four-cornered monstrosity with a hundred red, glowing eyes, with the flitting shadows of human forms and the gigantic limbs of the machinery behind them, was it not the glaring symbol of the age, the characteristic embodiment of its essential spirit: industry?
The culmination of the evening was reached when Auban stood again on the spot where the two giant streets converge. Already here and there excessive fatigue was beginning to merge in the stillness of Sunday. Soon the public houses were to close. More and more the people constituting the great stream of humanity were disappearing in the side-streets.
But still the throng was almost impenetrable. In feverish haste most of them drained the last flat drops of the flat drink of their Saturday spree.
Aldgate could be reached in less than five minutes. There was still half an hour for Auban before the last train of the underground road for King's Cross would leave Aldgate Station, and overcome by an inward force against which he was helpless, he turned once more into one of the northern side-streets, into a night full of peculiar mystery. . . .
Only a few lanterns were still burning here, only few people passed by him. Then he came upon streets running crosswise. He turned toward the west.
He passed a group of young people. They were carrying on a dispute in a low voice, in order not to attract the attention of a policeman, and took no notice of Auban. He kept close to the wall.
A light shone from a grated window. He stopped and looked through the dirt-covered panes. It was the kitchen, the common kitchen of a lodging-house which he saw, the common waiting-room for all frequenters before they retire to the sleeping-place rented for one night.
The room was overcrowded. More than seventy persons must have been there; they lay, sat, and stood around in smaller and larger groups: some cowered in the corners. A large number thronged round the fireplace. There they prepared their food, --- tea, a bit of fish, the remains of meat. Each was awaiting his turn. As soon as one made room by the fire, another took his place. The spare fire did not give out much heat, for many were cold in their rags and crowded closely together.
There was only one table in the middle of the room. Bent over it, head beside head, most of them were already asleep in confused disorder, --- men, women, and children together. Only a few ate there, and on the narrow benches along the walls. But the table was strewn with dirty tin dishes, --- cups, bowls, plates, --- which the exhausted ones had pushed away before sleep overcame them. The floor was covered with refuse of every kind; children who had slipped away from the laps of their sleeping mothers crept round like little blind dogs.
The faint glimmer of the embers hardly illumined the room. Two smoking lamps on the walls were going out.
Nothing that he had seen to-day, nothing that he had ever seen in the East End, had made a deeper impression on Auban than the silent, gloomy, dismal picture of that room.
Was it the late hour that was having its effect on him? Was it his overheated brain, exhausted by long hours of exertion, which produced that abortion? Or did that which he had so often seen come close to him now that he was alone: this night scene of the abandoned life of the outcasts?
He held his breath while he penetrated every corner of the picture with his eyes.
No imagination could have fancied a more disconsolate room, and in it a more grotesque grouping, than was presented here: the white-haired old man, whose cane had dropped from his hand while he fell asleep with his head bent forward; the young girl who was staring before her while her pimp covered her with abuse; that entire family forming a group: the father evidently out of work, and the mother in despair over their situation, quieting the children who were quarrelling about a broken dish; those sleeping rows --- they seemed as if dead. . . .
And above them all the gloomy cloud of eternal filth and eternal hunger. No longer any joy, any charm, any hope . . . thus day after day . . . thus night after night. . . .
Auban forcibly tore himself away from the picture without color, without outline, without tone.
He knew those lodging-houses where one found shelter for single nights. But white letters on the red walls gave the additional information: threepence, fourpence, and sixpence a night. For sixpence --- those were the "chambers" where one got his own bed, whose linen was changed once at least every few weeks, after it had served twenty different bodies. For fourpence they slept in rows, closely crowding upon each other, utilizing the space to the fullest extent. For threepence, finally --- that was the large room with the empty benches on which one slept, or the kitchen where one remained on the spot where one fell asleep: protected against nothing but the icy cold of the night and the fatal dampness of the street pavement. . . .
A man staggered out of the door. He had been turned away because he could not pay. Auban wished to speak to him, to help him, but he was completely drunk. He staggered on backwards and forwards, knocked about with his hands, and felt his way along the walls of the houses, muttering and reeling --- into the night which devoured him.
Auban also walked on. He had forgotten where he was and at what hour.
Suddenly he reflected. He must retrace his steps to assure himself that he was on the right way. There was the street into which he had turned, --- therefore straight ahead, again towards the west. . . .
From that point only an unsteady light every hundred paces. The streets grew narrower and narrower. The pavement worse and worse, larger and larger mud pools and rubbish heaps. . . .
But Auban did not wish to go back again.
The door of a house stood open. Another lodging-house, but an unlicensed one. One of the notorious rookeries, as the people call them. It was overcrowded. The entire narrow, steep stairway, as far as Auban could see, covered with crouching dark human bodies. Over and beside each other, like corpses thrown on a heap, so they lay there. As far as the street, on the threshold even, they were cowering. Nothing was any longer plainly recognizable; the skin, peeping from under the rags and tatters, was as dirty as they were, soaked with dampness, filth, and disease. . . .
Auban shuddered. He hurried on. A cross street; then a high wall; a monstrous seven-story tenement house, suddenly rising out of the darkness like a giant. He passed it. Straight ahead --- towards the west.
In the next street again a number of stragglers, but scarcely recognizable: shadows painted on the walls, or sitting in the house doors petrified. No noise, no talk, no laughter, no singing . . . the stillness of the grave.
Auban began to doubt whether he was on the right way. Again the streets grew completely deserted.
But he knew this region. Had he not been here in the daytime? Everything seemed changed. That wall on the left --- he had never seen it. Had he gone wrong? --- Impossible! He taxed his excited brain, almost to bursting, while he stood still. He reflected --- it must be so and could not be otherwise; if he turned toward the left, toward the south, he must reach Whitechapel High Street in three minutes; if he walked straight on towards the west, he must in the same length of time reach Commercial Street. . . .
Forward, then, straight ahead! . . .
He felt only now how tired he was. His lame leg pained him. He would rather lie down on the ground and sleep.
But he called his will to his aid and walked on.
A thought came to him: suppose he should now be attacked --- who would hear his calls for help? --- Nobody. He had no other weapon with him than his cane, which was beginning to weigh heavily in his hand. --- If anybody should meet him and recognize a stranger in him, it was hardly conceivable that he should let the chance of robbing him pass by. . . .
An entirely new feeling possessed him. It was not fear. It was rather the abhorrence of the thought of being attacked by a wild animal in human form in this night, in this filth, in this solitude, and compelled to engage in a struggle for life and death.
He saw how careless it had been of him to challenge this almost unavoidable danger. He remembered now, too, that he was on the very street at the entrance of which a policeman had told him a while ago, as he probably told every well-dressed man, to keep away from it.
Auban hurried on as fast as he could. But the wall seemed to be endless. The darkness was impenetrable. He could not have told the difference between a man and a wall at ten paces.
He held his cane with an iron grasp, without supporting himself on it. He fancied every moment that he saw a robber emerging from the darkness, feeling him at his throat or by his side. . . . But he was determined to sell his life dearly at least.
He ran and swung his cane before him. Perspiration dropped from his forehead. His horror increased. . . .
Where was he? --- It was no longer Whitechapel. It was a night without beginning and end; the fathomless depth of an abyss. . . .
Suddenly his cane struck against a wall. And now Auban could again distinguish houses and windows on his right. A short street opened, faintly illumined by a single lantern, and so narrow that no wagon could have passed through it. It led into a longer one. . . .
Suddenly the whole width of Commercial Street lay before Auban. In five minutes he stood panting under the round glass globe of the light which illumined the entrance to the ticket-offices and the stairs leading below.
He had reached the last point of this day's walk, Aldgate Station.
He still had just ten minutes before the departure of his train.
The whole way from the Club had not taken more than half an hour. Auban felt as if hours had passed since the song of the Marseillaise had vibrated in his ear. . . .
While he was resting to quiet his wild pulses, while the street vendors before him were removing their boards and boxes with the remains of their wares, and round him men were jostling and pushing each other in unconscious intoxication and feverish haste, he once more turned his eyes towards the east. . . . And in a flash the picture he had been longing to shape rose before him: the enormous mouth of the gigantic body of East End --- such was Whitechapel, which lay yawning before him. Whatever came near its poisoned breath staggered, lost its hold, was crushed by relentless yawning, and devoured, while all the sounds of misery, from the rattle of fear to the sighs of hunger, died away in the pestilent darkness of its abyss. And all the countries of the entire world threw their refuse into that greedy mouth, so that at last that terrible, forceless, insatiable body might satisfy itself, whose hunger was immeasurable and seemed constantly to be increasing. . . .
And while Auban retreated before the vapor, he suddenly saw in the last minute still remaining to him the grand vision of coming events: that gigantic mouth opened wide its foaming jaws and vomited forth in choking rage an enormous slimy wave of rubbish, filth, and corruption over London. . . . And --- like a tottering mountain, --- that nauseating wave buried everything: all grandeur, all beauty, all wealth. . . . London was now only an infinite lake of rottenness and corruption, whose horrible vapors infected the heavens and slowly destroyed all life. . . .