|History of Astria||Contents etc.||Chapter II|
A GLIMPSE AT UNÆAN SOCIETY
IT is one of the most interesting things I know, being a three-er oneself, to watch and observe the doings of the two-ers. Take Mrs. Castle for instance. I mention her, not because she is of any importance in our story, but as illustrating my point. She's a beauty, admitted, but that is not what gives her her vogue. It's her nicely calculated indiscretions. She blurts out things which no one could possibly believe were intentional, unless, as in the present case, he was a three-er and she a two-er.
The two-ers she talks to very likely find out afterwards that she wasn't so impulsive as she seemed. But, to me, the play's the thing, seeing exactly at the moment it happens all that there is in it, noting the effect the plane folk have on one another and how they puzzle and bewilder one another. There is always a great deal of conscious or unconscious reserve, pretence, calculation in their dealings with one another. Except in the case of Laura. She is just perfect simplicity and would always produce the effect of a two-er in however many dimensions she was made up. Perhaps that is why they were all in love with her—Harold Wall, Forest, Flower, not to mention the crabbed old historian Lake who actually disclosed a vein of poetry, talking to her.
Now, to begin my story, in which I will subordinate as much as possible the incidents and occurrences affecting mere individuals, for my theme is an episode in the life of a people.
Harold Wall was the youngest son of General Wall. He had committed the mistake of entering the Army. The glamour of the old time achievements, the traditions which lingered on in the service, and the actual duties of his profession, which he took most seriously, blinded him to his mistake till he fell desperately in love with Laura Cartwright, the daughter of one of the richest and most influential men in the state. Then it was borne in on him that he was in a profession in which there was absolutely no chance of distinction. There was no use for an Army in Unæa. He was only a kind of policeman. His father had left him what would have been considered moderate riches in old days. But in these times it was a mere nothing beside the colossal fortunes of a later period. A year of concurrence with the prodigal youths of the Capital and an attempt to challenge the Goddess of speculation had made serious inroads on his inheritance. He drew back to find that, owing to a serious and unaccountable depression in the value of landed property, it was no easy matter to meet his obligations. Far from being able to demand the hand of Cartwright's daughter with any show of manliness, the only lot he could ask her to share was the obscure and penurious existence of a subordinate officer in a service far fallen from its once honourable place in public estimation. At this juncture Cartwright, in his official capacity of Secretary of State, offered him the post of Governor of the Colony it was planned to found on the uninhabited shore of Septentria. He urged his acceptance on the ground that it was fitting one of his name should lead out the first settlement to that distant region, and told him that the mere fact of his being at the head would be the most favourable augury of success in the public mind. Wall had consented. He accepted the post. And now he had come to one of the open air entertainments so fashionable in Unæa hoping to see Laura, to have some words with her, to have a little talk which he might remember in after years. On him, evidently very desirous of being let alone, descended Mrs. Castle, determined to find out all about his reasons for making an exile of himself.
"Why, Mr. Wall, I have not seen you for an age—and is it true you are going to Septentria?"
"Yes, Mrs. Castle."
"I said I didn't believe it, you can't really mean to throw yourself away like that."
"I consider it a fine opening."
"There's no accounting for tastes, your father went there, so I suppose it runs in the family—but he had companions, there was an object. You will have no one but ploughmen and labourers."
"In the course of time Septentria will be as great a country as this."
"Oh yes, but meanwhile—Mr. Wall, don't go." If anything could keep me, I'd remain."
"But, seriously, why should you go? No doubt Mr. Cartwright has talked you into it, he can persuade anybody to do anything."
"On the contrary, it's a great opportunity, and I am much obliged to Mr. Cartwright for the chance."
"Why, Harold, where have you been all this time?" It was Laura Cartwright who spoke, and, seeing their meeting, a sudden intuition came to Mrs. Castle which seldom failed her when there was an opportunity of mischief. She made the brilliant conjecture that Cartwright had offered Wall this distant post in order to remove an unwelcome suitor. She went as near expressing her thought in words as she dared.
"Oh, Laura dear," said she, "I was so glad to see Mr. Wall, but what do you think Mr. Cartwright's done. He's simply forcing Mr. Wall to go to Septentria just when we had a chance of seeing him often," and she fluttered off.
To the bewildering vision in a filmy lavender-tinted cloud, incredibly daintily arched hat, and with clear inquiring glance, Harold said apologetically: "It's difficult to explain things to Mrs. Castle."
"So papa wants you to go to Septentria, Harold?" she said, looking at him with an air of dainty inquiry. "No, not at all, but since I couldn't stay here, he put the opportunity in my way."
"I don't see why you couldn't stay here," said the girl.
"It isn't practical," said he.
"That's what you say when you don't want to explain. Now tell me that there are business reasons which a silly girl couldn't understand."
"No, Laura, not at all. There is a mortgage on my property which must be paid."
"Well, Harold, sell your place; it's very valuable; you don't want so much land."
"I have tried to. I cannot get more than enough to pay off the debt."
"Harold, wherever did you go? It depends on where you went and how hard you tried."
"I went to the State bank—it holds the mortgage."
"That's another name for papa."
"And to the Persepolis Trust Company."
"Papa is one of the directors of that; of course if one of these companies tries to beat you down they all join in—Harold, I wouldn't sell."
Harold brushed away her remark. "The property is not worth so much as it was. Your father has put an opportunity in my way by which I can leave everything comfortably settled."
A flush, rosy with the self-luminousness of dawn, it-radiated her face, the soft dimples were almost lost in this new effect of colour. She knew she looked heart-less, but her little triumph of making Harold Wall tell what he did not want to, and the consciousness of her power over him were too delightful.
"Well certainly, Harold," she said, "it does look as if papa first tried to drive you out, and then rewarded you for going away. Whatever can the reason be?"
"It isn't likely," said Wall, "that your father concerns himself with my affairs; besides he told me that personally he would be very sorry to have me go."
On Laura's face came an expression of a slight degree of incredulity.
"There's no reason. Whatever reason could there be?" he said.
"Don't ask me!" said Laura, demurely, "I am only a girl and I couldn't see an inch into my father's plans however much I tried. I suppose over there you will go about in skins when your clothes are all worn out; they will be nice and warm these cold winters. Now, Harold, when you come back, I shall be quite an old woman and very chilly, promise to bring me a nice lot of warm furs." So saying, she went on her way.
No doubt this allusion to her feelings in the future was a mere chance expression on the part of the girl, but Harold felt as if the sun might shine and the earth blossom for all his lifetime and he never see it, if when he came back Laura were old. He was conscious, too, of having been found unsatisfactory by this fair maiden, and the conversation had not been what he had desired it to be. He wanted a long quiet talk for this their last, so that in after years he might have plenty to remember, plenty to live on. But there wasn't the slightest satisfactoriness in their conversation. There had not been the slightest note of renunciation about Laura, or of appreciation of it in him. And yet, if he saw her again, what different could he expect!
Mr. Cartwright at this moment approached near enough to Harold to recognise him and said, "Glad to meet you Wall: there are one or two matters which I have put in a sealed letter, to be opened next year. The winters are getting so much colder that I can't feel certain of the ocean being free of ice long enough for a passage till late in next summer, and I do not want to defer these topics indefinitely. And that reminds me, you can make a considerable addition to your salary by shipping furs over here; get hold of all you can. According to the weather bureau, we are in for a spell of hard winters."
Harold was about to say that his duties as governor were inconsistent with a private venture of this kind, but Cartwright left him no time.
"No thanks," he said, "it's what I like to see; some energy and commercial enterprise in young men. Has my daughter passed you?"
All around a ripple of conversation, never very serious, always animated. These flats, to use the word by which they spoke of one another—not with any notion of disparagement, but to express the utmost fulness of being, these flats had a variety of the most lively interests, and no subject was too serious for them to touch on if it was introduced in a light and airy way. Social reforms, the last discoveries of science, the newest theory of the State, all were welcome topics lending variety to the gossip of politics and society.
Literature had almost ceased to exist, for the poor were too hard pressed by the exigencies of their daily life to read, and the rich were too much occupied with pleasurable distractions to peruse anything which exacted serious attention. Science on the other hand flourished, prosecuted by an able class of specialists, and on science all looked with respect, even those most incapable of subduing their lively spirits to its exacting monotony of concentration.
"Let us listen to what he is saying," said Agatha Harcourt, looking towards a fashionable philosopher of the latest style, surrounded by a little group of women.
"What is the good?" asked Forest, "he would only give you theories, I can tell you how they work out."
"Then let us listen to him first so that I know what the theories are," said she.
But Edward Forest had no intention of letting Agatha listen to anyone but him.
Forest was a good specimen of the young flat of wealth. He had many likeable qualities, and a most delightful habit of expressing himself with perfect freedom. He had never known necessity of any kind, or what it was to go without anything he wanted. Happy himself, he wanted to make everybody happy, and except that he had lost the faculty of being quite in earnest about anything, might be accounted quite perfect.
He took great pleasure in his conversations with Agatha. Most girls' minds were like limpets, they had rather be pulled in half than be taken from what they clung to. But he could move Agatha's mind bodily, take it up and set it down in a different place. If he could have concentrated himself on any one subject, he would have become a professor for the pleasure of seeing Agatha's face as she listened to him lecturing. First of all would come an expression of wonder, then of a slight bewilderment, then she gently settled down on the new conviction and made some little remark showing her perfect acceptance of the new facts. She had the genius of belief, and belief is, after all, the prime factor in knowledge.
"His theories are very simple," he said, "he's a moralist of the new school and tells you that instead of listening to the voice from within, you should listen to the voice from without."
"And lower your ideals?" said Agatha.
"No, raise them, the moralists have been asleep, the march of civilization has passed them by. Think of all science has done, its made our environment, and all we can do is to rise to the demands on us."
"I like that," said Agatha, "it shows how great science is."
"Yes," said Forest. "If we don't manifest intelligence, we should be run over or crushed to pieces every hour, we live so close packed together we have to treat one another well, and the post puts us in communication with the ends of the earth, so we have to think of the whole; it's a wonderful theory, but I've had a terrible time in trying to carry it out consistently."
"I didn't know you were a disciple."
"Oh, an enthusiastic one."
"Well, tell me," said Agatha, "how do you carry it out?"
"One of the first things is to bring business methods into the home circle. Now I haven't a circle, so I just begin with myself. For instance, you know how bankers and other business men, when they write to you, send you a paper and all you have to do is to sign it, that's the method I use in my correspondence. When I write to a friend I enclose an answer, all he has to do is to sign it. You've no idea what satisfactory answers I get."
"But," said Agatha, who was nothing if not conscientiously logical, "you said you had a terrible time."
"Yes, it was this way," and Forest went on to tell her how, wishing to ascertain the state of a certain young lady's feelings towards him, he had enclosed half-a-dozen letters for her to choose from, wishing to be very fair. But the girl in question had been as averse to reading as to writing, and, thinking he had made her a present for her use in her correspondence, had sent the letters impartially all round to young men of her acquaintance.
"It made a terrible lot of complications," he said. "Yes, it would," said Agatha, "but not for you."
"Think of my feelings—I may have caused an ill-assorted union."
"Was that the last one before Laura?" she asked. Forest looked at her with an expression of more irritation than she believed him capable of showing.
But he soon recovered himself. To the favoured of fortune, life in Flatland was indeed delightful. It is a mistake to suppose that thickness is essential to the display of nature's most prodigal gifts. Regard the loveliness of blossoms, the irridescent beauty of gossamer threads, the opalescent hues of tenuous layers of pearl. It is in the thin and unsubstantial that nature puts forth her supremest effort, and in these people, all thin and unsubstantial, nature had found a field suited for her abilities.
And so, his feeling of irritation past, no words could be better chosen than those in which Forest touched on his feelings for Laura, and his determination to hope and persevere. And no delicate comprehension was ever shown more consolatory than Agatha supplied. But she was serious herself, and tried for kindness sake to draw him from the thought of his passion.
Agatha had studied science and knew that there was much beyond the pleasing effect of a beauteous outline, she tried to lead Forest to those delights of mind he had often shared with her. "Edward," she said, "it is not what Laura is in herself you care for, it's always how she looks, your love for her is superficial."
"And so it's real," he answered, there's nothing in that old fiction of a substance. I don't want to account for Laura, it's what she is I care for, she's the essence of all being, all loveliness."
Much as Agatha sympathised with Forest she had no great faith in the fortune of his suit. She sighed gently and reserved her efforts for a more propitious occasion.
As he walked from the brilliant assembly, Harold strove to banish Laura's image, and called to help him all the carping disparagement he could find. But her sweet graces vanquished all his halting arguments. And, indeed, the days were not so very long ago when as boy and girl they had played together—once there was not this difference—it was something then to be his father's son, and Cartwright was but one amongst a number of pushing, energetic men of business.
Now Harold could, perhaps, hope to make as much as one of Cartwright's valets or gardeners, and outside of wealth there was no avenue to distinction. The opportunities to make money which once had existed had been covered up by the organizing abilities at the head of the great companies—nothing remained for independent adventure.
To enter the service of one of the great companies and work up into a position of confidence was the only way in which men became rich nowadays, exceptions being made of the lucky inventors and skilful lawyers.
He could realise the polite incredulity with which her father would receive a demand for his daughter's hand—the entirely reasonable way in which he would allude to a boy and girl fancy which ought not to be used to his daughter's detriment. Every time he met Cartwright he felt a revolt of pride at the man's manner. Another proof, he said to himself, of how little fitted he was for the ordinary opportunities of advancement.
The leadership of the Colony! That was indeed a piece of good fortune—incredibly surprising. He ground the stones beneath his heels, thinking how, if he had not known her, the adventure over the ocean would have filled him with joy. Now he thought of it as a kind of death.
"Hullo, Wall, when do you start?" It was the socialist deputy to National Convention who addressed him.
Wall told him the state of the preparations.
"I'm glad you are going, we have one less to reckon with."
"Come with me, then you will have only one to reckon with."
"No, I'm safer here; do you suppose you'll find this state of things still going on when you come back?"
"Certainly; you have large masses of the city population with you, but the army can account for them. The rural districts are against you, and whole sections of labour, if you come to it."
The member replied angrily, "Yes, the capitalists have bribed certain sections of us as you say—they let them share in preying on the community, and think they have them body and soul. But we shall break them up."
"Even then you will find it takes a long time to change the existing order of things."
The deputy recognised the justice of this observation. In Astria, owing to the limited possibilities of movement, a well-armed and disciplined force was very much more efficacious than with us. Being unable to contradict Wall, he contented himself with saying:
"Then you mean to say the present state will last as long as your salaries are regularly paid?"
"Yes, if you like to put it that way," said Wall.
"And who pays you? For instance, who pays you, Wall, individually, for taking out these poor creatures to starve?"
"The Bank of Commerce and the Amalgamated Mines."
"Not a bit of it, we do, the people you keep under. You know how the price of coal and oil went up this last extraordinarily cold winter?"
Well, the price isn't going down.' The bank and mine owners have decided to keep up those prices permanently; they've made a sinking fund to recoup all the expenses of your expedition ten times over."
Wall had a soldier's dislike of government by the people. His conception of the State was a disciplined body working together under direction. The oligarchy which practically governed Unæa certainly used the economic forces to apply compulsion; it supplied
discipline and direction. But Wall may be pardoned for wishing that they were not of such pronounced financial ability.
At his quarters, Harold found a lively discussion in progress. It was one of the evenings when the younger officers met together to dine and talk. For all that they bore externally the semblance of an inflexible, unthinking instrument, yet amongst these soldiers the conversation at times ran freely.
A young man, named Beam, was telling a fanciful story when Wall entered.
"From the plains of Elysium were sent across all the dangerous wastes on the way a gentle and beautiful tribe of sheep to dwell on this earth, then uninhabited and fertile. To guide them safely the Great Shepherd provided a guard of dogs, fleet and fierce, with long fangs and untiring limbs. Through many a battle they brought the beautiful and gentle tribe of sheep to this earth, fed on the way by the commissaries of the Great Shepherd supplying both sheep and dogs with food suited for them.
"But on the earth where the luscious grass grew thick, the sheep spoke to the commissary of the Great Shepherd saying:
"`Here is food more exquisite than that we had on the way, we need no more from your hands.'
"`And the dogs?' asked the commissary.
"`If the ungrateful animals do not relish the food of this exquisite earth, 'tis their own fault,' replied the sheep; `besides their task is done. What further use can there be for them, on this safe-guarded earth—what foe can come nigh us? '
"So the commissary withdrew.
"And while the beautiful peaceful sheep nibbled the grass of the earth, the dogs lay faint and dying. One old worn-out hound could drag his limbs no more, and to him a lamb came, and with the sportive grace of its kind kicked with its soft white legs at the muzzle of the decrepit useless dog. The tender foot was entangled in the old hound's fangs—the starving jaws closed upon it, and food and life better than all that had ever been given him coursed through his veins. Invigorated, he rose, and going to where his brothers were lying, waiting for death, he lay down amongst them. `Where have you found food?' they asked in surprise. `I have eaten a lamb,' he replied. They viewed him with horror, but some of the younger ones soon after pulled down a sheep.
"And the race of wolves arose—a race justly handed down to execration in all the tales and histories and stories the sheep have told, but it is no less just to tell its origin."
Wall was in a very bad humour. When the speaker had finished, he rose up and said:
"Beam, you would wait till I was quite dead before you kicked me in the mouth." His hearers remained silent awhile, then burst into laughter. There was something inexpressibly sheep-like in Beam, when they thought of him in contrast with Wall. They recognised that lamb and wolf were differences of individuals, and the specious distinction which Beam had made between the army and the rest of the community was unmasked. With a kind of shiver, that little group of soldiers turned from the theorists and agitators who had begun to influence them, back to the old simple lines of loyalty, that capacity for personal allegiance which was like the flame of life in the service.
"Speak to us, Wall," they cried, "bid us good-bye."
But Wall said, "No, I'm going to turn in," and left them.
He found it impossible however to sleep. In the darkness and inaction he felt as if a great black pall was holding him in its folds, for ever cutting off every ray of light, and he recognised what had become an elemental fact of his being, that without Laura all the joy and hope of his life would be gone for ever. He rose and sorted a mass of papers relating to the Colony, making notes and calculations as he went on seeking a refuge in work. As hour after hour passed he deadened his pain in his labour. When he threw himself on his bed in the early morning, there was a report written for Cartwright's eye, containing his final recommendations, and estimating that everything would be in readiness for the voyage in little more than a month's time. It was but scant consolation, but he treasured the thought that his letter would enter her house, perhaps be seen by her.
Laura Cartwright, too, could not sleep. She cried at first, from pure vexation and impatience. "How stupid he is, can't he understand? I wish I could make him feel; he is going with no sign of regret; if only I could make him one little bit sorry!" But as his face rose more clearly before her, he did not look so very happy after all—only resolute and proud. "Ah! if it is his pride, it is more hopeless than all—that could never break."
The birds began to sing. She went to the window. There in the sky hung the bright planet Ardaea, the lovers' star, almost defying the light of dawn. Never before had Laura seen her so conspicuous and large.
"You shine on him too," she said, "after all, he and I are in the same world." A mysterious sense of nearness wrapped her round; as it were an unfathomable message came to her from within: "We belong to each other—he is mine and I am his by all that is best in both of us. This very minute I know he is thinking of me. There never was a time when, at the bottom of my heart, I did not think of him, and there never will be a time when we do not think of one another."
From the land-locked bay of girlhood her little bark passed out on the deep waves of womanhood. The winds were adverse, the sky was sombre, but in the great change her girlish sorrow fled.
|History of Astria||Contents etc.||Chapter II|