IT was change of the morning watch in Hades – the hour when, despite all precaution, fires die down, pressures drop, and the merciless dynamos that have been torturing poor souls all night slack a few revolutions, ere they picked up again for the long day’s load. The stokers of Nos. 47-53 Auxiliary Furnaces stood easy over their bowls of raw cocoa. A lost soul, with workmanlike dog-teeth and the shadow of a rudimentary tail, complained loudly against his fate.
‘I was the strongest of Our Primitive Community,’ he bellowed, ‘so, of course, I hit them and bit them till they did what I wanted. And just when I had brought them to their knees, some dog—yes, you, Haka! — found out that he could throw a stone farther than I could reach. He threw it and it killed me. Justice! Give me justice, Somebody!’
‘I’m sorry,’ a long-armed, heavily-scarred shape replied. ‘But I should never have thought of stone-throwing if you hadn’t torn me nearly to ribbons. Don’t bear malice. I got nothing out of the trick in the long run. I battered my Tribe to their knees with boulders, and then, just when they ought to have stayed quiet, Fenir yonder, a coward who couldn’t stand up to a friendly little tap on the head, invented some despicable weapons called bows and arrows and laid me out howling at eighty yards. Was that justice?’
A slim, keen-faced shadow laughed as it blew upon its drink. ‘Surely, Haka,’ it said, ‘you couldn’t expect me to stand still and be stoned for ever. Besides — you killed my sister, two wives, and an uncle with your ‘friendly little taps.’ You were welcome to Uncle, but two perfectly good wives was rank oppression. You forced me to think how I could get even with you, and the Bow was the result. I hope you liked it. It gave me power, and all the power, for a day’s march round about — brought the toughest Tribe to their knees whimpering. But they wouldn’t leave well alone. Oisinn, you poltroon,’ — he turned to a smiling companion seated on a barrow — ‘What in — in this place — led you to invent armour?’
‘Pain, chum — just pain,’ Oisinn replied. ‘With one of your arrows in my thigh and another in my forearm, it was a case of protecting myself or bleeding to death. So I protected myself. There’s nothing like armour! Does anyone remember how our knights in mail used to ride through the naked peasantry, sword in one hand, battle- axe in t’other, with the arrows hopping off their breast-plates like hail, while the poor wretches dropped on their knees and begged for mercy? Ah! That was the age of Chivalry! Here’s confusion to the charcoal-peddling churl who stumbled on gunpowder and put an end to it!’
He flung the dregs of his cup sizzling against a furnace-door.
‘That’s me, I suppose,’ a fat Friar grunted. ‘Surely to Badness, Oisinn, you didn’t think folk would line up twelve deep for the rest of their natural lives while your plated knights made hash of ’em! Chivalry indeed! People had to live! I remember the morning my powder put a cannon-ball through four armoured knights on end. You never saw such a mess! And when the news came to Milan, those Milanese armourers swore like — like that silversmith at Ephesus. Demetrius, wasn’t it? I don’t blame ’em. Their trade was gone. In less time than a generation we had all our iron-clad community clinking on its marrow-bones before a dirty little culverin. Here’s to good old powder, Oisinn! It blew me through my own cell-window, but it’s the greatest invention of my or any age.’
‘D’you really think so, Brother Roger?’ said a pale, intellectual- looking Pope, as he wiped his face with a sweat-rag. ‘When I held the Keys of—er—in short, when I held the Keys I confided more in spiritual weapons — Interdicts, Inquisitions, and such-like. I’ve seen whole nations on their knees at the mere threat of an Interdict. No marrying, no burying, no christening, no Church or parish feasts, nothing but black spiritual darkness till they had made their peace with Me! But ours was a perverse world! At the very moment that I had it neatly shepherded on the road to Heaven, some villains — I regret the Ringleaders are not with us today — invented an irreligious printing engine called a printing-press, which they offered as a substitute for Me! For Me and my Interdicts! Now why, in Reason’s name?’
A small, merry-faced compositor of Caxton’s chapel sniggered where he sprawled among a pile of cooling clinkers.
‘Your Holiness does not realise,’ he began, ‘how tired we grew of your Holiness’s Interdicts. We noticed, too, that no suit could lie against any of your Holiness’s priests for any torturous or tortuous act, because (your Holiness passed the law yourself, I think), because your priests could read and write. Naturally, we all wanted to read and write. It was purely a question of demand and supply. Your Holiness, if I may say so, created the demand with your Holiness’s strong hand. My illustrious Master supplied it with its press.’
‘Then it would seem,’ the Pope said slowly, ‘as though I were in a measure responsible for the new invention.’
‘So it struck us at the time,’ said the compositor.
‘I — I — I,’ the Tailed Man stammered, ‘was just going to say the same thing. By your argument, I am responsible for Haka’s stone- throwing.’ He scowled furiously at the scarred man.
‘Who else? You hit me and bit me into it. And so, it follows,’ Haka went on, ‘that I and not you, Fenir, invented the bow and arrow.’
‘I see,’ Fenir responded. ‘Then I with my little arrow drove Oisinn here to invent armour, which means —’
‘That I,’ Oisinn interrupted, pointing at Friar Bacon, ‘am really the creator of gunpowder! Evidently we are all public benefactors without knowing it. I suppose that’s why we’re put in the same watch.’
‘Here’s a new hand sent to join us. He doesn’t look much like a benefactor.’ Friar Bacon pointed to a trim little figure in black broad-cloth and starched linen that painfully descended tier after tier of the platforms and gratings which rise in illimitable perspective above the Auxiliary Furnaces. His neat boots slipped cruelly on the greasy floor- plate of the last descent.
‘Hello!’ said Oisinn, as he panted before them. ‘What’s your trouble?’
‘Me ‘eart,’ was the answer. ‘Overstrain through overwork. I’m another victim to the cause of Labour. Sugden’s my name. Better known as Honest Pete.’
‘Hooray, Honest Pete,’ Oisinn replied. ‘Honestly, now, what have you been up to?’
‘I’ve been bringing the Community to its knees,’ was the proud reply, received with shouts of mirth.
‘What! Again?’ the Tailed Man cried. ‘You don’t look as if you could bite much.’
‘What weight of bow do you draw?’ Oisinn inquired.
‘His weapons are probably spiritual,’ said the Pope kindly.
‘Nonsense. Of course he blew up his Community with my gunpowder, the Friar put in, as Mr. Sugden turned smiling from one to the other.
‘Powder?’ he said scornfully. ‘Not at all! Power was our trick. We’ve starved the beggars! No cooking, no lighting, no heating, no travel, no traffic, no manufactures till they’ve made their peace with Us! That’s what We’ve done — all over England. You’ve ‘eard of England?’
‘I clapped an Interdict on it once,’ said the Pope. ‘But, if you’re speaking the truth, it strikes me I was an amateur at that job. And have you burned them much?’
‘Contrariwise. We’ve put ’em in cold storage. Froze ’em out! Now, by the look of you, it’s quite possible you’ve ‘eard talk of coal.’
The Pope’s uplifted hand checked any ribald comment. Mr. Sugden, throwing back his frock-coat, took the hot floor. ‘Well, Comrades,’ he said, ‘you’ll admit, I ‘ope, that Coal is Power — and all the Power. There’s no other way of getting Power, which means heat, light, and — and power — except through coal. Ther’fore, as you can readily understand, the men who produce the coal ‘ave the power and all the power over the Community.’
‘By the way,’ said Fenir of the Bow and Arrow. ‘How long have you thrown this stone — I mean, used this coal — that gives you this power?’
‘A matter of a hundred years or so,’ said Mr. Sugden. ‘But what’s that got to do with it? … I’ll just slip off my coat, if you don’t mind. I’m more used to shirt-sleeves.’
‘I don’t think you will.’ The Tailed Man bared his teeth once. Mr. Sugden winced.
‘No offence. I ain’t particular about my dress. But, as I was saying; that being realised, it only remained to organise the power. Which we did. We then issued a mandate that no more coal was to be produced by the producers till the Community ‘ad satisfied our demands.’
‘And what were your demands?’ the Pope inquired with interest.
‘Only justice an’ our rights. We weren’t pleased with Society as it existed. We were — or rather, I should say, we are — goin’ to reorganise Society from top to bottom; an’ if the Community don’t like it, it can lump it an’ be damned.’
‘Excuse me a moment,’ said the Pope. ‘But this happens to be one of the few places in the universe where it is not necessary to allude to one’s social conditions.’
‘Ho! ‘Mr. Sugden fetched up with a snort. ‘Well, I’m willin’ for the present to make allowance for the superstitions of the less advarnced brethren, but if I’m to explain our plan of campaign —’
‘We are very rarely pressed for time here,’ said the Pope. ‘But please go on. You have, I understand, put a comprehensive Interdict on the Community.’
‘We’ve brought ’em to their knees, I tell you.’
‘Then they’ll throw stones at you,’ said the Tailed Man, rubbing his skull. ‘I know ’em.’
‘Any stone-throwin’ that’s needed will be done by us,’ said Mr. Sugden grimly. ‘But they’ve no ‘eart for stone-throwing. They can’t make nothing, nor yet move it after it’s made. Yes, when I laid down on my bed just now to get a bit o’ sleep between telegrams, there was one million and a ‘alf o’ people not knowin’ where their food and fuel was comin’ from. In another few weeks there’ll be five million in the same situation. The luckiest of ’em will ‘ave drawn out all their savin’s, so they won’t be capitalists any more; an’ the rest’ll be starved. All of ’em will thus become ‘ot stuff for the real revolution. Because, between friends, I may tell you, gents, that this little kick-up of ours is only a dress-parade for the Social Armageddon.’
‘But I don’t see’ — a Lancastrian Baron of the Wars of the Roses shouldered forward — ‘I don’t see how my class could find themselves starved in a few weeks. I was besieged for six months once by the neighbourhood, and except for missing my daily ride and having to drink small beer instead of Burgundy the last ten days, I wasn’t inconvenienced.’
‘And from what I remember of the clergy,’ the Pope began —
‘If I know anything of drilled troops,’ said the Friar, ‘I wager they didn’t suffer first.’
Caxton’s proof-puller grinned. ‘Dies erit praegelida sinistra quum typographer’, he quoted.
‘Her, oh, these capitalists,’ Mr. Sugden replied, with large scorn, ‘was warned in time —worse luck— an’ they got their coal early. But I’m talkin’ of the entire Community taken in bulk. That’s where we are bringin’ pressure to bear. They can’t stand it.”
‘They’ll play you some dirty trick or other,’ the Tailed Man insisted. ‘Communities are like snakes. If you catch ’em by the head they sting; if you catch ’em by the tail they wriggle away; and if you step on ’em in the middle they coil round you and choke you.’
‘They can’t, I tell you!’ Mr. Sugden almost shouted. ‘We’ve got ’em in a cleft stick. Coal’s the sole source of power, ain’t it? Take that away, and the Community, man, woman, an’ child, is bound to come to its knees, or be starved.’
‘Then you’ve starved women and children,’ Friar Bacon said.
‘War’s war,” Mr. Sugden replied. ‘We can’t make exceptions. Besides, we ain’t fools. We took good care to get ourselves protected under the Trades Disputes Act before we began. Are you aware that, no action against any Trade Union for anything it sees fit to do in furtherance of a trade dispute, shall be considered in a Court of Law?’
‘Infallibility! O my Triple Hat!’ cried the Pope enviously. ‘That’s beyond even my wildest dreams.’
‘Not bad for a first step,’ Mr. Sugden smiled. ‘So you can take it from me, Comrades, the Unions are the Gov’ment. Wait a little longer an’ you’ll see what we’ve done for our clarse. ‘Ere!’ he cried, and spun round. ‘You leave go of my coat-tails.’
An adhesive succubus in the shape of a starved week-old baby clung squalling at the skirts of the silk-faced frock-coat.
‘Mind!’ cried Oisinn, ‘there’s another between your feet! Don’t step back! There are a couple behind you.’
‘Then take ’em away where they belong. What are they doin’ here?’ Mr. Sugden hopped nervously among the squirming horrors on the floor.
‘I expect they’ve followed you,’ said the Pope. ‘One’s works very often do.’
The others stared coolly, as the stokehold filled with shapes. It was long since their works had ceased to follow them in active shape, but they were always appreciative of another’s discomfort. The shape of a grey-haired woman, her head coquettishly slewed to one side, her blackened tongue clacking outside her puffed lips, swung herself, rather than ran, into Mr. Sugden’s arms, stuttering, ‘Kiss me, Mr. Sugden. I only ‘ung myself on Thursday.’
‘Ah!’ said the Pope, who in his appointed times had been visited by his own victims. ‘Then there were suicides, too?’
‘The papers said so,’ Mr. Sugden panted, as he fenced with the lurching terror. ‘But — don’t ‘ug me, you devil — the Cap’talist Press was always against us. We must alter all that.’ He stepped back on a babe, whose strained ribs cracked like a wine-glass.
‘Do be careful, Pete,’ the woman croaked. ‘That’s my little ‘Erb.’
‘Well, I ain’t legally responsible,’ Mr. Sugden retorted. Upon this the shape turned into a middle-aged man who by signs — for his lower jaw was shot away — implored Sugden to tie up his shattered skull, and so collapsed to the floor, rhythmically patting Mr. Sugden’s boots.
‘Get up!’ Mr. Sugden quavered. ‘You ain’t really ‘urt. I’ve never seen a suicide. Gov’ment oughtn’t to let ’em happen. Lend me a ‘andkerchief. No, don’t! I never could stand the sight o’ blood. Oh, get up, chum, an’ you and me’ll go an’ look for the capitalist that brought you to this. I ain’t legally responsible — s’welp me Gawd, I ain’t.’
‘So we see,’ said Friar Bacon, as the stokehold began to fill and they smelt the heavy sour smell of extreme poverty. The shapes of girls that had been maids, and wives that had been faithful ere the strike overtook them, linked arms and danced merrily in what garments were unpawned, till angry men, blazing with their own secret shames, thrust them aside and asked Sugden questions not to be hinted at above the breath. Then came the elderly toothless dead, cut off before their time by a few days’ cold and underfeeding, who wailed for the dear remnant of life out of which they said Sugden had defrauded them. Behind them were ranged the drawn and desperate faces of such as had spent all their savings in one month and now looked forward to certain pinch and woe — not for themselves, as they muttered, but for their families.
On the floor, in a lively dado, lay some few score coal-seeking men and boys with here and there a woman or two, who were being pressed to death by falls of dirt and rock. Between their outcries, which were of astonishing volume, they bit their own hands with their teeth.
‘Ah!’ said the Lancastrian Baron with a smile. ‘This is something like a class war. Nothing but villeins, serfs, vassals and wenches.’
‘An’ all of ’em loyal to us,’ said Mr. Sugden proudly. ‘See ‘ow they stand it! There’s spirit for you — an’ no legal liability attachin’. They do this because they like it.’
‘As a show,’ the Pope purred, ‘this is, of course, nothing compared with what some of us are responsible for; but we must look deeper than the mere shadows of things. What I am sure we all admire most is the purely logical chain of consequences which Mr. Sugden has called into action. They should fructify and ramify for generations. Mere killing — even by pressing to death — is so distressingly finite. The dead, when dead, cease to function towards any useful end. But to drag down, to debauch, to weaken, to starve — and — er — morally disorientate the living by the million is a stroke of genius. And to see the whole noble work confined entirely to your own class must be a source of peculiar gratification to you, is it not?’
‘Look ‘ere!’ said Mr. Sugden furiously, as a dozen babies tried to climb up his back. ‘That tone o’ voice may ‘ave suited the Feudalistic Ages, but times advarnce, me good friend, and it’s obsolete. Labour ‘as come into its own at larst, and there ain’t a court in the land which dare say I’ve done wrong. You can put that in your pipe and smoke it!’
Here a whistle rang through the stokehold, and Accusing Voices bade them prepare for inspection.
‘It’s the Old Man himself,’ Something cried from an upper grating, as the shapes trailed away, and Friar Bacon dragged Mr. Sugden to his feet.
It had pleased His Majesty’s ever kindly heart to clothe himself that morning in coolest white ducks with white-covered yachting cap and creamy-white pipe-clayed shoes, so that he looked not unlike Captain Kettle and spoke with that officer’s directness when his silk handkerchief picked up smear or grime from any bright-work.
‘You gentlemen,’ he began as he entered the stokehold, ‘seem to think you’re running a refrigerator.’ He pointed with a palm-leaf fan to the dropping gauges and thermometers. ‘What’s your excuse? A new hand has been sent down and he’s been seeing things, has he? And that has interfered with your stoking, has it? Are you aware, my sons, that you’re talking to the Father of Lies? You are, eh? Then let me warn you —’
At this moment somebody put the watch-bill into his hands.
‘You’re right — I’m wrong — as usual,’ he went on after scanning it. ‘Good morning, Mr. Sugden, or, if you will pardon the liberty, Honest Pete.’ He bowed elaborately. ‘Inexcusable of me to forget you. Any man with ‘Honest’ before his name is always sure of a warm place in my regard. You were mixed ud in the coal strike, weren’t you? Well, you’ve come to the right shop. We’ve got coal to burn, and you’re going to help burn it. Your heart troubling you? Beating one hundred and twenty-six to the minute, is it? Never mind! We’ve done with minutes down here. I give you my word you aren’t in any danger of dying. We can’t afford to lose a man like you.’
He turned to the other cheerily.
‘Boys, I want you to appreciate our Pete. He’s not much to look at, but between you and me and the Pit, he’s one of the world’s greatest benefactors — just like yourselves. That’s why I’ve put him in your watch. Pete has achieved what Kings and Armies and Emperors couldn’t. Don’t blush, my son. It’s the Devil’s own truth. You’ve starved and frozen and ruined a few thousand and, what’s better, you’ve worried and inconvenienced forty million people in England alone, plus three or four hundred million white men elsewhere, thinking hard how to avoid cold, darkness, and starvation. You’ve concentrated the master-minds of the age just on one problem — how to do without coal — and they’ve solved it!’
The Tailed Man laughed aloud. ‘I warned you,’ he cried to Sugden, ‘I know what a Community is like if you bite it too hard. It never changes.’ Haka, Fenir, and Oisinn nodded assent.
‘Yes,’ said the Old Man relishingly. ‘You’re all in the procession, but Pete’s the latest and greatest Lord High Makee-do, up to date. Who killed King Coal? Pete! Three cheers for —’
‘I don’t believe it,’ Mr. Sugden interrupted. ‘Coal is one of the vital services of the Community.’
‘It would have been, my son, if you’d left it alone, but, thanks to you, it’s dead as —’ The Old Man checked himself, because it must be left to the Dead to realise their first and second death. ‘Your Community, that you are so fond of, carried on with oil and patent fuels for a while just to ease off the pressure, and then they harnessed the tides — the greatest step since fire-making.’
‘How much? It can’t be done,’ Mr. Sugden shouted. He was still enjoying, so to speak, the privileges of the new boy.
‘Harnessed up the tide — the cool, big, wet, deep, blue sparkling sea. It was purely a question of demand and supply. I believe they did it on the pneumatic principle, not on the hydraulic, if you’re interested in those things.’
‘I ain’t,’ Mr. Sugden retorted. ‘I’m only concerned with outstanding social facts. We leave machinery to the intellectuals.’
‘The inventor of this particular gadget wasn’t in the least intellectual. He was the son of a woman who committed suicide somewhere in the Potteries, I’m told.’
‘Well, war’s war,’ said Mr. Sugden, glancing uneasily over his shoulder for the shades of more non-combatants.
‘Just what he said when all the coal-mines were closed inside of two years. Anyway, Power’s a little cheaper up topside, nowadays, than water. I haven’t got the figures with me, but that’s the outstanding social fact, Pete.’
Mr. Sugden shook his head. ”Tain’t possible. ‘Tain’t in reason,’ he said. ‘An’ for another thing, the Boilermakers’ Union wouldn’t stand it.’
‘Oh, Demetrius!’ Friar Bacon exploded and came to attention again.
‘They had to! You didn’t leave the Community a loophole of escape.’
”Course we didn’t. I’ve told you we weren’t fools!’
‘I see you weren’t. But it was a case of ‘root, hog, or die’ for the Community. And they didn’t like dying; so they rooted; and Coal and Steam went pungo, Pete.’
‘You expect me to believe that Steam’s gone too?’ Mr. Sugden was very scornful.
‘Yes. There used to be an old prophecy in the Pit — one of Napoleon’s, I think — that Democracy came in with Steam and will go out with it. And that’s fulfilled.’
Mr. Sugden smashed his fat right hand into his still plumper left.
‘Look ‘ere! You can’t run the world without Democracy, any more than you can run it without coal. You’re mad. You’ve got no comprehension of the simplest facts o’ life.’
There was a hush of awed delight and expectation among his mates, as he drew breath and went on: —
‘I don’t know ‘oo in ‘ell you may be, but let me tell you’ — down came the hand again —’ that you’re either crazy or an ‘opeless, ‘elpless, malignant and unscrupulous Liar, Because, standin’ where I do to-day, I answer you to your face an’ say to you that — that I don’t believe one bloomin’ word of it!’
‘I thought you wouldn’t,’ the Old Man replied, with that bland smile before which the instructed cringe. ‘But if you’ll oblige me by hustling into that starboard bunker (you needn’t take your collar off) and trimming it until further orders, you may get some sense of the weight of your present responsibilities. Jump, my son! There are at present two hundred and eighty-seven million tons per annum of coal in Great Britain alone, for which no one except ourselves has any use. You’ll find every ounce of it there!’
In due time Mr. Sugden realised that the Old Man spoke the truth.