_The A.B.C., that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons, controls the Planet. Transportation is Civilisation, our motto runs. Theoretically we do what we please, so long as we do not interfere with the traffic_ and all it implies. _Practically, the A.B.C. confirms or annuls all international arrangements, and, to judge from its last report, finds our tolerant, humorous, lazy little Planet only too ready to shift the whole burden of public administration on its shoulders_.
'With the Night Mail.'
[Footnote 1: _Actions and Reactions_.]
Isn't it almost time that our Planet took some interest in the proceedings of the Aerial Board of Control? One knows that easy communications nowadays, and lack of privacy in the past, have killed all curiosity among mankind, but as the Board's Official Reporter I am bound to tell my tale.
At 9.30 A.M., August 26, A.D. 2065, the Board, sitting in London, was informed by De Forest that the District of Northern Illinois had riotously cut itself out of all systems and would remain disconnected till the Board should take over and administer it direct.
Every Northern Illinois freight and passenger tower was, he reported, out of action; all District main, local, and guiding lights had been extinguished; all General Communications were dumb, and through traffic had been diverted. No reason had been given, but he gathered unofficially from the Mayor of Chicago that the District complained of 'crowd-making and invasion of privacy.'
As a matter of fact, it is of no importance whether Northern Illinois stay in or out of planetary circuit; as a matter of policy, any complaint of invasion of privacy needs immediate investigation, lest worse follow.
By 9-45 A.M. De Forest, Dragomiroff (Russia), Takahira (Japan), and Pirolo (Italy) were empowered to visit Illinois and 'to take such steps as might be necessary for the resumption of traffic and _all that that implies.'_ By 10 A.M. the Hall was empty, and the four Members and I were aboard what Pirolo insisted on calling 'my leetle godchild'--that is to say, the new _Victor Pirolo_. Our Planet prefers to know Victor Pirolo as a gentle, grey-haired enthusiast who spends his time near Foggia, inventing or creating new breeds of Spanish-Italian olive-trees; but there is another side to his nature--the manufacture of quaint inventions, of which the _Victor Pirolo_ is, perhaps, not the least surprising. She and a few score sister-craft of the same type embody his latest ideas. But she is not comfortable. An A.B.C. boat does not take the air with the level-keeled lift of a liner, but shoots up rocket-fashion like the 'aeroplane' of our ancestors, and makes her height at top-speed from the first. That is why I found myself sitting suddenly on the large lap of Eustace Arnott, who commands the A.B.C. Fleet. One knows vaguely that there is such a thing as a Fleet somewhere on the Planet, and that, theoretically, it exists for the purposes of what used to be known as 'war.' Only a week before, while visiting a glacier sanatorium behind Gothaven, I had seen some squadrons making false auroras far to the north while they manoeuvred round the Pole; but, naturally, it had never occurred to me that the things could be used in earnest.
Said Arnott to De Forest as I staggered to a seat on the chart-room divan: 'We're tremendously grateful to 'em in Illinois. We've never had a chance of exercising all the Fleet together. I've turned in a General Call, and I expect we'll have at least two hundred keels aloft this evening.'
'Well aloft?' De Forest asked.
'Of course, sir. Out of sight till they're called for.'
Arnott laughed as he lolled over the transparent chart-table where the map of the summer-blue Atlantic slid along, degree by degree, in exact answer to our progress. Our dial already showed 320 m.p.h. and we were two thousand feet above the uppermost traffic lines.
'Now, where is this Illinois District of yours?' said Dragomiroff. 'One travels so much, one sees so little. Oh, I remember! It is in North America.'
De Forest, whose business it is to know the out districts, told us that it lay at the foot of Lake Michigan, on a road to nowhere in particular, was about half an hour's run from end to end, and, except in one corner, as flat as the sea. Like most flat countries nowadays, it was heavily guarded against invasion of privacy by forced timber--fifty-foot spruce and tamarack, grown in five years. The population was close on two millions, largely migratory between Florida and California, with a backbone of small farms (they call a thousand acres a farm in Illinois) whose owners come into Chicago for amusements and society during the winter. They were, he said, noticeably kind, quiet folk, but a little exacting, as all flat countries must be, in their notions of privacy. There had, for instance, been no printed news-sheet in Illinois for twenty-seven years. Chicago argued that engines for printed news sooner or later developed into engines for invasion of privacy, which in turn might bring the old terror of Crowds and blackmail back to the Planet. So news-sheets were not.
'And that's Illinois,' De Forest concluded. 'You see, in the Old Days, she was in the forefront of what they used to call "progress," and Chicago--'
'Chicago?' said Takahira. 'That's the little place where there is Salati's Statue of the Nigger in Flames? A fine bit of old work.'
'When did you see it?' asked De Forest quickly. 'They only unveil it once a year.'
'I know. At Thanksgiving. It was then,' said Takahira, with a shudder. 'And they sang MacDonough's Song, too.'
'Whew!' De Forest whistled. 'I did not know that! I wish you'd told me before. MacDonough's Song may have had its uses when it was composed, but it was an infernal legacy for any man to leave behind.'
'It's protective instinct, my dear fellows,' said Pirolo, rolling a cigarette. 'The Planet, she has had her dose of popular government. She suffers from inherited agoraphobia. She has no--ah--use for Crowds.'
Dragomiroff leaned forward to give him a light. 'Certainly,' said the white-bearded Russian, 'the Planet has taken all precautions against Crowds for the past hundred years. What is our total population to-day? Six hundred million, we hope; five hundred, we think; but--but if next year's census shows more than four hundred and fifty, I myself will eat all the extra little babies. We have cut the birth-rate out--right out! For a long time we have said to Almighty God, "Thank You, Sir, but we do not much like Your game of life, so we will not play."'
'Anyhow,' said Arnott defiantly, 'men live a century apiece on the average now.'
'Oh, that is quite well! I am rich--you are rich--we are all rich and happy because we are so few and we live so long. Only _I_ think Almighty God He will remember what the Planet was like in the time of Crowds and the Plague. Perhaps He will send us nerves. Eh, Pirolo?'
The Italian blinked into space. 'Perhaps,' he said, 'He has sent them already. Anyhow, you cannot argue with the Planet. She does not forget the Old Days, and--what can you do?'
'For sure we can't remake the world.' De Forest glanced at the map flowing smoothly across the table from west to east. 'We ought to be over our ground by nine to-night. There won't be much sleep afterwards.'
On which hint we dispersed, and I slept till Takahira waked me for dinner. Our ancestors thought nine hours' sleep ample for their little lives. We, living thirty years longer, feel ourselves defrauded with less than eleven out of the twenty-four.
By ten o'clock we were over Lake Michigan. The west shore was lightless, except for a dull ground-glare at Chicago, and a single traffic-directing light--its leading beam pointing north--at Waukegan on our starboard bow. None of the Lake villages gave any sign of life; and inland, westward, so far as we could see, blackness lay unbroken on the level earth. We swooped down and skimmed low across the dark, throwing calls county by county. Now and again we picked up the faint glimmer of a house-light, or heard the rasp and rend of a cultivator being played across the fields, but Northern Illinois as a whole was one inky, apparently uninhabited, waste of high, forced woods. Only our illuminated map, with its little pointer switching from county to county as we wheeled and twisted, gave us any idea of our position. Our calls, urgent, pleading, coaxing or commanding, through the General Communicator brought no answer.' Illinois strictly maintained her own privacy in the timber which she grew for that purpose.
'Oh, this is absurd!' said De Forest. 'We're like an owl trying to work a wheat-field. Is this Bureau Creek? Let's land, Arnott, and get hold of some one.'
We brushed over a belt of forced woodland--fifteen-year-old maple sixty feet high--grounded on a private meadow-dock, none too big, where we moored to our own grapnels, and hurried out through the warm dark night towards a light in a verandah. As we neared the garden gate I could have sworn we had stepped knee-deep in quicksand, for we could scarcely drag our feet against the prickling currents that clogged them. After five paces we stopped, wiping our foreheads, as hopelessly stuck on dry smooth turf as so many cows in a bog.
'Pest!' cried Pirolo angrily. 'We are ground-circuited. And it is my own system of ground-circuits too! I know the pull.'
'Good evening,' said a girl's voice from the verandah. 'Oh, I'm sorry! We've locked up. Wait a minute.'
We heard the click of a switch, and almost fell forward as the currents round our knees were withdrawn.
The girl laughed, and laid aside her knitting. An old-fashioned Controller stood at her elbow, which she reversed from time to time, and we could hear the snort and clank of the obedient cultivator half a mile away, behind the guardian woods.
'Come in and sit down,' she said. 'I'm only playing a plough. Dad's gone to Chicago to--Ah! Then it was _your_ call I heard just now!'
She had caught sight of Arnott's Board uniform, leaped to the switch, and turned it full on.
We were checked, gasping, waist-deep in current this time, three yards from the verandah.
'We only want to know what's the matter with Illinois,' said De Forest placidly.
'Then hadn't you better go to Chicago and find out?' she answered. 'There's nothing wrong here. We own ourselves.'
'How can we go anywhere if you won't loose us?' De Forest went on, while Arnott scowled. Admirals of Fleets are still quite human when their dignity is touched.
'Stop a minute--you don't know how funny you look!' She put her hands on her hips and laughed mercilessly.
'Don't worry about that,' said Arnott, and whistled. A voice answered from the _Victor Pirolo_ in the meadow.
'Only a single-fuse ground-circuit!' Arnott called. 'Sort it out gently, please.'
We heard the ping of a breaking lamp; a fuse blew out somewhere in the verandah roof, frightening a nestful of birds. The ground-circuit was open. We stooped and rubbed our tingling ankles.
'How rude--how very rude of you!' the maiden cried.
''Sorry, but we haven't time to look funny,' said Arnott. 'We've got to go to Chicago; and if I were you, young lady, I'd go into the cellars for the next two hours, and take mother with me.'
Off he strode, with us at his heels, muttering indignantly, till the humour of the thing struck and doubled him up with laughter at the foot of the gang-way ladder.
'The Board hasn't shown what you might call a fat spark on this occasion,' said De Forest, wiping his eyes. 'I hope I didn't look as big a fool as you did, Arnott! Hullo! What on earth is that? Dad coming home from Chicago?'
There was a rattle and a rush, and a five-plough cultivator, blades in air like so many teeth, trundled itself at us round the edge of the timber, fuming and sparking furiously.
'Jump!' said Arnott, as we bundled ourselves through the none-too-wide door. 'Never mind about shutting it. Up!'
The _Victor Pirolo_ lifted like a bubble, and the vicious machine shot just underneath us, clawing high as it passed.
'There's a nice little spit-kitten for you!' said Arnott, dusting his knees. 'We ask her a civil question. First she circuits us and then she plays a cultivator at us!'
'And then we fly,' said Dragomiroff. 'If I were forty years more young, I would go back and kiss her. Ho! Ho!'
'I,' said Pirolo, 'would smack her! My pet ship has been chased by a dirty plough; a--how do you say?--agricultural implement.'
'Oh, that is Illinois all over,' said De Forest. 'They don't content themselves with talking about privacy. They arrange to have it. And now, where's your alleged fleet, Arnott? We must assert ourselves against this wench.'
Arnott pointed to the black heavens.
'Waiting on--up there,' said he. 'Shall I give them the whole installation, sir?'
'Oh, I don't think the young lady is quite worth that,' said De Forest. 'Get over Chicago, and perhaps we'll see something.'
In a few minutes we were hanging at two thousand feet over an oblong block of incandescence in the centre of the little town.
'That looks like the old City Hall. Yes, there's Salati's Statue in front of it,' said Takahira. 'But what on earth are they doing to the place? I thought they used it for a market nowadays! Drop a little, please.'
We could hear the sputter and crackle of road-surfacing machines--the cheap Western type which fuse stone and rubbish into lava-like ribbed glass for their rough country roads. Three or four surfacers worked on each side of a square of ruins. The brick and stone wreckage crumbled, slid forward, and presently spread out into white-hot pools of sticky slag, which the levelling-rods smoothed more or less flat. Already a third of the big block had been so treated, and was cooling to dull red before our astonished eyes.
'It is the Old Market,' said De Forest. 'Well, there's nothing to prevent Illinois from making a road through a market. It doesn't interfere with traffic, that I can see.'
'Hsh!' said Arnott, gripping me by the shoulder. 'Listen! They're singing. Why on the earth are they singing?'
We dropped again till we could see the black fringe of people at the edge of that glowing square.
At first they only roared against the roar of the surfacers and levellers. Then the words came up clearly--the words of the Forbidden Song that all men knew, and none let pass their lips--poor Pat MacDonough's Song, made in the days of the Crowds and the Plague--every silly word of it loaded to sparking-point with the Planet's inherited memories of horror, panic, fear and cruelty. And Chicago--innocent, contented little Chicago--was singing it aloud to the infernal tune that carried riot, pestilence and lunacy round our Planet a few generations ago!
'Once there was The People--Terror gave it birth;
Once there was The People, and it made a hell of earth!'
(Then the stamp and pause):
'Earth arose and crushed it. Listen, oh, ye slain!
Once there was The People--it shall never be again!'
The levellers thrust in savagely against the ruins as the song renewed itself again, again and again, louder than the crash of the melting walls.
De Forest frowned.
'I don't like that,' he said. 'They've broken back to the Old Days! They'll be killing somebody soon. I think we'd better divert 'em, Arnott.'
'Ay, ay, sir.' Arnott's hand went to his cap, and we heard the hull of the _Victor Pirolo_ ring to the command: 'Lamps! Both watches stand by! Lamps! Lamps! Lamps!'
'Keep still!' Takahira whispered to me. 'Blinkers, please, quartermaster.'
'It's all right--all right!' said Pirolo from behind, and to my horror slipped over my head some sort of rubber helmet that locked with a snap. I could feel thick colloid bosses before my eyes, but I stood in absolute darkness.
'To save the sight,' he explained, and pushed me on to the chart-room divan. 'You will see in a minute.'
As he spoke I became aware of a thin thread of almost intolerable light, let down from heaven at an immense distance--one vertical hairsbreadth of frozen lightning.
'Those are our flanking ships,' said Arnott at my elbow. 'That one is over Galena. Look south--that other one's over Keithburg. Vincennes is behind us, and north yonder is Winthrop Woods. The Fleet's in position, sir'--this to De Forest. 'As soon as you give the word.'
'Ah no! No!' cried Dragomiroff at my side. I could feel the old man tremble. 'I do not know all that you can do, but be kind! I ask you to be a little kind to them below! This is horrible--horrible!'
'When a Woman kills a Chicken,
Dynasties and Empires sicken,'
Takahira quoted. 'It is too late to be gentle now.'
'Then take off my helmet! Take off my helmet!' Dragomiroff began hysterically.
Pirolo must have put his arm round him.
'Hush,' he said, 'I am here. It is all right, Ivan, my dear fellow.'
'I'll just send our little girl in Bureau County a warning,' said Arnott. 'She don't deserve it, but we'll allow her a minute or two to take mamma to the cellar.'
In the utter hush that followed the growling spark after Arnott had linked up his Service Communicator with the invisible Fleet, we heard MacDonough's Song from the city beneath us grow fainter as we rose to position. Then I clapped my hand before my mask lenses, for it was as though the floor of Heaven had been riddled and all the inconceivable blaze of suns in the making was poured through the manholes.
'You needn't count,' said Arnott. I had had no thought of such a thing. 'There are two hundred and fifty keels up there, five miles apart. Full power, please, for another twelve seconds.'
The firmament, as far as eye could reach, stood on pillars of white fire. One fell on the glowing square at Chicago, and turned it black.
'Oh! Oh! Oh! Can men be allowed to do such things?' Dragomiroff cried, and fell across our knees.
'Glass of water, please,' said Takahira to a helmeted shape that leaped forward. 'He is a little faint.'
The lights switched off, and the darkness stunned like an avalanche. We could hear Dragomiroff's teeth on the glass edge.
Pirolo was comforting him.
'All right, all ra-ight,' he repeated. 'Come and lie down. Come below and take off your mask. I give you my word, old friend, it is all right. They are my siege-lights. Little Victor Pirolo's leetle lights. You know _me_! I do not hurt people.'
'Pardon!' Dragomiroff moaned. 'I have never seen Death. I have never seen the Board take action. Shall we go down and burn them alive, or is that already done?'
'Oh, hush,' said Pirolo, and I think he rocked him in his arms.
'Do we repeat, sir?' Arnott asked De Forest.
'Give 'em a minute's break,' De Forest replied. 'They may need it.'
We waited a minute, and then MacDonough's Song, broken but defiant, rose from undefeated Chicago.
'They seem fond of that tune,' said De Forest. 'I should let 'em have it, Arnott.'
'Very good, sir,' said Arnott, and felt his way to the Communicator keys.
No lights broke forth, but the hollow of the skies made herself the mouth for one note that touched the raw fibre of the brain. Men hear such sounds in delirium, advancing like tides from horizons beyond the ruled foreshores of space.
'That's our pitch-pipe,' said Arnott. 'We may be a bit ragged. I've never conducted two hundred and fifty performers before.' He pulled out the couplers, and struck a full chord on the Service Communicators.
The beams of light leaped down again, and danced, solemnly and awfully, a stilt-dance, sweeping thirty or forty miles left and right at each stiff-legged kick, while the darkness delivered itself--there is no scale to measure against that utterance--of the tune to which they kept time. Certain notes--one learnt to expect them with terror--cut through one's marrow, but, after three minutes, thought and emotion passed in indescribable agony.
We saw, we heard, but I think we were in some sort swooning. The two hundred and fifty beams shifted, re-formed, straddled and split, narrowed, widened, rippled in ribbons, broke into a thousand white-hot parallel lines, melted and revolved in interwoven rings like old-fashioned engine-turning, flung up to the zenith, made as if to descend and renew the torment, halted at the last instant, twizzled insanely round the horizon, and vanished, to bring back for the hundredth time darkness more shattering than their instantly renewed light over all Illinois. Then the tune and lights ceased together, and we heard one single devastating wail that shook all the horizon as a rubbed wet finger shakes the rim of a bowl.
'Ah, that is my new siren,' said Pirolo. 'You can break an iceberg in half, if you find the proper pitch. They will whistle by squadrons now. It is the wind through pierced shutters in the bows.'
I had collapsed beside Dragomiroff, broken and snivelling feebly, because I had been delivered before my time to all the terrors of Judgment Day, and the Archangels of the Resurrection were hailing me naked across the Universe to the sound of the music of the spheres.
Then I saw De Forest smacking Arnott's helmet with his open hand. The wailing died down in a long shriek as a black shadow swooped past us, and returned to her place above the lower clouds.
'I hate to interrupt a specialist when he's enjoying himself,' said De Forest. 'But, as a matter of fact, all Illinois has been asking us to stop for these last fifteen seconds.'
'What a pity.' Arnott slipped off his mask. 'I wanted you to hear us really hum. Our lower C can lift street-paving.'
'It is Hell--Hell!' cried Dragomiroff, and sobbed aloud.
Arnott looked away as he answered:
'It's a few thousand volts ahead of the old shoot-'em-and-sink-'em game, but I should scarcely call it _that_. What shall I tell the Fleet, sir?'
'Tell 'em we're very pleased and impressed. I don't think they need wait on any longer. There isn't a spark left down there.' De Forest pointed. 'They'll be deaf and blind.'
'Oh, I think not, sir. The demonstration lasted less than ten minutes.'
'Marvellous!' Takahira sighed. 'I should have said it was half a night. Now, shall we go down and pick up the pieces?'
'But first a small drink,' said Pirolo. 'The Board must not arrive weeping at its own works.'
'I am an old fool--an old fool!' Dragomiroff began piteously. 'I did not know what would happen. It is all new to me. We reason with them in Little Russia.'
Chicago North landing-tower was unlighted, and Arnott worked his ship into the clips by her own lights. As soon as these broke out we heard groanings of horror and appeal from many people below.
'All right,' shouted Arnott into the darkness. 'We aren't beginning again!' We descended by the stairs, to find ourselves knee-deep in a grovelling crowd, some crying that they were blind, others beseeching us not to make any more noises, but the greater part writhing face downward, their hands or their caps before their eyes.
It was Pirolo who came to our rescue. He climbed the side of a surfacing-machine, and there, gesticulating as though they could see, made oration to those afflicted people of Illinois.
'You stchewpids!' he began. 'There is nothing to fuss for. Of course, your eyes will smart and be red to-morrow. You will look as if you and your wives had drunk too much, but in a little while you will see again as well as before. I tell you this, and I--I am Pirolo. Victor Pirolo!'
The crowd with one accord shuddered, for many legends attach to Victor Pirolo of Foggia, deep in the secrets of God.
'Pirolo?' An unsteady voice lifted itself. 'Then tell us was there anything except light in those lights of yours just now?'
The question was repeated from every corner of the darkness.
'No!' he thundered. (Why have small men such large voices?) 'I give you my word and the Board's word that there was nothing except light--just light! You stchewpids! Your birth-rate is too low already as it is. Some day I must invent something to send it up, but send it down--never!'
'Is that true?--We thought--somebody said--'
One could feel the tension relax all round.
'You too big fools,' Pirolo cried. 'You could have sent us a call and we would have told you.'
'Send you a call!' a deep voice shouted. 'I wish you had been at our end of the wire.'
'I'm glad I wasn't,' said De Forest. 'It was bad enough from behind the lamps. Never mind! It's over now. Is there any one here I can talk business with? I'm De Forest--for the Board.'
'You might begin with me, for one--I'm Mayor,' the bass voice replied.
A big man rose unsteadily from the street, and staggered towards us where we sat on the broad turf-edging, in front of the garden fences.
'I ought to be the first on my feet. Am I?' said he.
'Yes,' said De Forest, and steadied him as he dropped down beside us.
'Hello, Andy. Is that you?' a voice called.
'Excuse me,' said the Mayor; 'that sounds like my Chief of Police, Bluthner!'
'Bluthner it is; and here's Mulligan and Keefe--on their feet.'
'Bring 'em up please, Blut. We're supposed to be the Four in charge of this hamlet. What we says, goes. And, De Forest, what do you say?'
'Nothing--yet,' De Forest answered, as we made room for the panting, reeling men. '_You've_ cut out of system. Well?'
'Tell the steward to send down drinks, please,' Arnott whispered to an orderly at his side.
'Good!' said the Mayor, smacking his dry lips. 'Now I suppose we can take it, De Forest, that henceforward the Board will administer us direct?'
'Not if the Board can avoid it,' De Forest laughed. 'The A.B.C. is responsible for the planetary traffic only.'
'_And all that that implies_.' The big Four who ran Chicago chanted their Magna Charta like children at school.
'Well, get on,' said De Forest wearily. 'What is your silly trouble anyway?'
'Too much dam' Democracy,' said the Mayor, laying his hand on De Forest's knee.
'So? I thought Illinois had had her dose of that.'
'She has. That's why. Blut, what did you do with our prisoners last night?'
'Locked 'em in the water-tower to prevent the women killing 'em,' the Chief of Police replied. 'I'm too blind to move just yet, but--'
'Arnott, send some of your people, please, and fetch 'em along,' said De Forest.
'They're triple-circuited,' the Mayor called. 'You'll have to blow out three fuses.' He turned to De Forest, his large outline just visible in the paling darkness. 'I hate to throw any more work on the Board. I'm an administrator myself, but we've had a little fuss with our Serviles. What? In a big city there's bound to be a few men and women who can't live without listening to themselves, and who prefer drinking out of pipes they don't own both ends of. They inhabit flats and hotels all the year round. They say it saves 'em trouble. Anyway, it gives 'em more time to make trouble for their neighbours. We call 'em Serviles locally. And they are apt to be tuberculous.'
'Just so!' said the man called Mulligan. Transportation is Civilisation. Democracy is Disease. I've proved it by the blood-test, every time.'
'Mulligan's our Health Officer, and a one-idea man,' said the Mayor, laughing. 'But it's true that most Serviles haven't much control. They _will_ talk; and when people take to talking as a business, anything may arrive--mayn't it, De Forest?'
'Anything--except the facts of the case,' said De Forest, laughing.
'I'll give you those in a minute,' said the Mayor. 'Our Serviles got to talking--first in their houses and then on the streets, telling men and women how to manage their own affairs. (You can't teach a Servile not to finger his neighbour's soul.) That's invasion of privacy, of course, but in Chicago we'll suffer anything sooner than make Crowds. Nobody took much notice, and so I let 'em alone. My fault! I was warned there would be trouble, but there hasn't been a Crowd or murder in Illinois for nineteen years.'
'Twenty-two,' said his Chief of Police.
'Likely. Anyway, we'd forgot such things. So, from talking in the houses and on the streets, our Serviles go to calling a meeting at the Old Market yonder.' He nodded across the square where the wrecked buildings heaved up grey in the dawn-glimmer behind the square-cased statue of The Negro in Flames. 'There's nothing to prevent any one calling meetings except that it's against human nature to stand in a Crowd, besides being bad for the health. I ought to have known by the way our men and women attended that first meeting that trouble was brewing. There were as many as a thousand in the market-place, touching each other. Touching! Then the Serviles turned in all tongue-switches and talked, and we--'
'What did they talk about?' said Takahira.
'First, how badly things were managed in the city. That pleased us Four--we were on the platform--because we hoped to catch one or two good men for City work. You know how rare executive capacity is. Even if we didn't it's--it's refreshing to find any one interested enough in our job to damn our eyes. You don't know what it means to work, year in, year out, without a spark of difference with a living soul.'
'Oh, don't we!' said De Forest. 'There are times on the Board when we'd give our positions if any one would kick us out and take hold of things themselves.'
'But they won't,' said the Mayor ruefully. 'I assure you, sir, we Four have done things in Chicago, in the hope of rousing people, that would have discredited Nero. But what do they say? "Very good, Andy. Have it your own way. Anything's better than a Crowd. I'll go back to my land." You _can't_ do anything with folk who can go where they please, and don't want anything on God's earth except their own way. There isn't a kick or a kicker left on the Planet.'
'Then I suppose that little shed yonder fell down by itself?' said De Forest. We could see the bare and still smoking ruins, and hear the slag-pools crackle as they hardened and set.
'Oh, that's only amusement. 'Tell you later. As I was saying, our Serviles held the meeting, and pretty soon we had to ground-circuit the platform to save 'em from being killed. And that didn't make our people any more pacific.'
'How d'you mean?' I ventured to ask.
'If you've ever been ground-circuited,' said the Mayor, 'you'll know it don't improve any man's temper to be held up straining against nothing. No, sir! Eight or nine hundred folk kept pawing and buzzing like flies in treacle for two hours, while a pack of perfectly safe Serviles invades their mental and spiritual privacy, may be amusing to watch, but they are not pleasant to handle afterwards.'
'Our folk own themselves. They were of opinion things were going too far and too fiery. I warned the Serviles; but they're born house-dwellers. Unless a fact hits 'em on the head they cannot see it. Would you believe me, they went on to talk of what they called "popular government"? They did! They wanted us to go back to the old Voodoo-business of voting with papers and wooden boxes, and word-drunk people and printed formulas, and news-sheets! They said they practised it among themselves about what they'd have to eat in their flats and hotels. Yes, sir! They stood up behind Bluthner's doubled ground-circuits, and they said that, in this present year of grace, _to_ self-owning men and women, _on_ that very spot! Then they finished'--he lowered his voice cautiously--'by talking about "The People." And then Bluthner he had to sit up all night in charge of the circuits because he couldn't trust his men to keep 'em shut.'
'It was trying 'em too high,' the Chief of Police broke in. 'But we couldn't hold the Crowd ground-circuited for ever. I gathered in all the Serviles on charge of Crowd-making, and put 'em in the water-tower, and then I let things cut loose. I had to! The District lit like a sparked gas-tank!'
'The news was out over seven degrees of country,' the Mayor continued; 'and when once it's a question of invasion of privacy, good-bye to right and reason in Illinois! They began turning out traffic-lights and locking up landing-towers on Thursday night. Friday, they stopped all traffic and asked for the Board to take over. Then they wanted to clean Chicago off the side of the Lake and rebuild elsewhere--just for a souvenir of "The People" that the Serviles talked about. I suggested that they should slag the Old Market where the meeting was held, while I turned in a call to you all on the Board. That kept 'em quiet till you came along. And--and now _you_ can take hold of the situation.'
'Any chance of their quieting down?' De Forest asked.
'You can try,' said the Mayor.
De Forest raised his voice in the face of the reviving Crowd that had edged in towards us. Day was come.
'Don't you think this business can be arranged?' he began. But there was a roar of angry voices:
'We've finished with Crowds! We aren't going back to the Old Days! Take us over! Take the Serviles away! Administer direct or we'll kill 'em! Down with The People!'
An attempt was made to begin MacDonough's Song. It got no further than the first line, for the _Victor Pirolo_ sent down a warning drone on one stopped horn. A wrecked side-wall of the Old Market tottered and fell inwards on the slag-pools. None spoke or moved till the last of the dust had settled down again, turning the steel case of Salad's Statue ashy grey.
'You see you'll just _have_ to take us over,' the Mayor whispered.
De Forest shrugged his shoulders.
'You talk as if executive capacity could be snatched out of the air like so much horse-power. Can't you manage yourselves on any terms?' he said.
'We can, if you say so. It will only cost those few lives to begin with,'
The Mayor pointed across the square, where Arnott's men guided a stumbling group of ten or twelve men and women to the lake front and halted them under the Statue.
'Now I think,' said Takahira under his breath, 'there will be trouble.'
The mass in front of us growled like beasts.
At that moment the sun rose clear, and revealed the blinking assembly to itself. As soon as it realized that it was a crowd we saw the shiver of horror and mutual repulsion shoot across it precisely as the steely flaws shot across the lake outside. Nothing was said, and, being half blind, of course it moved slowly. Yet in less than fifteen minutes most of that vast multitude--three thousand at the lowest count--melted away like frost on south eaves. The remnant stretched themselves on the grass, where a crowd feels and looks less like a crowd.
'These mean business,' the Mayor whispered to Takahira. 'There are a goodish few women there who've borne children. I don't like it.'
The morning draught off the lake stirred the trees round us with promise of a hot day; the sun reflected itself dazzlingly on the canister-shaped covering of Salati's Statue; cocks crew in the gardens, and we could hear gate-latches clicking in the distance as people stumblingly resought their homes.
'I'm afraid there won't be any morning deliveries,' said De Forest. 'We rather upset things in the country last night.'
'That makes no odds,' the Mayor returned. 'We're all provisioned for six months. _We_ take no chances.'
Nor, when you come to think of it, does any one else. It must be three-quarters of a generation since any house or city faced a food shortage. Yet is there house or city on the Planet to-day that has not half a year's provisions laid in? We are like the shipwrecked seamen in the old books, who, having once nearly starved to death, ever afterwards hide away bits of food and biscuit. Truly we trust no Crowds, nor system based on Crowds!
De Forest waited till the last footstep had died away. Meantime the prisoners at the base of the Statue shuffled, posed, and fidgeted, with the shamelessness of quite little children. None of them were more than six feet high, and many of them were as grey-haired as the ravaged, harassed heads of old pictures. They huddled together in actual touch, while the crowd, spaced at large intervals, looked at them with congested eyes.
Suddenly a man among them began to talk. The Mayor had not in the least exaggerated. It appeared that our Planet lay sunk in slavery beneath the heel of the Aerial Board of Control. The orator urged us to arise in our might, burst our prison doors and break our fetters (all his metaphors, by the way, were of the most mediaeval). Next he demanded that every matter of daily life, including most of the physical functions, should be submitted for decision at any time of the week, month, or year to, I gathered, anybody who happened to be passing by or residing within a certain radius, and that everybody should forthwith abandon his concerns to settle the matter, first by crowd-making, next by talking to the crowds made, and lastly by describing crosses on pieces of paper, which rubbish should later be counted with certain mystic ceremonies and oaths. Out of this amazing play, he assured us, would automatically arise a higher, nobler, and kinder world, based--he demonstrated this with the awful lucidity of the insane--based on the sanctity of the Crowd and the villainy of the single person. In conclusion, he called loudly upon God to testify to his personal merits and integrity. When the flow ceased, I turned bewildered to Takahira, who was nodding solemnly.
'Quite correct,' said he. 'It is all in the old books. He has left nothing out, not even the war-talk.'
'But I don't see how this stuff can upset a child, much less a district,' I replied.
'Ah, you are too young,' said Dragomiroff. 'For another thing, you are not a mamma. Please look at the mammas.'
Ten or fifteen women who remained had separated themselves from the silent men, and were drawing in towards the prisoners. It reminded one of the stealthy encircling, before the rush in at the quarry, of wolves round musk-oxen in the North. The prisoners saw, and drew together more closely. The Mayor covered his face with his hands for an instant. De Forest, bareheaded, stepped forward between the prisoners, and the slowly, stiffly moving line.
'That's all very interesting,' he said to the dry-lipped orator. 'But the point seems that you've been making crowds and invading privacy.'
A woman stepped forward, and would have spoken, but there was a quick assenting murmur from the men, who realised that De Forest was trying to pull the situation down to ground-line.
'Yes! Yes!' they cried. 'We cut out because they made crowds and invaded privacy! Stick to that! Keep on that switch! Lift the Serviles out of this! The Board's in charge! Hsh!'
'Yes, the Board's in charge,' said De Forest. 'I'll take formal evidence of crowd-making if you like, but the Members of the Board can testify to it. Will that do?'
The women had closed in another pace, with hands that clenched and unclenched at their sides.
'Good! Good enough!' the men cried. 'We're content. Only take them away quickly.'
'Come along up!' said De Forest to the captives, 'Breakfast is quite ready.'
It appeared, however, that they did not wish to go. They intended to remain in Chicago and make crowds. They pointed out that De Forest's proposal was gross invasion of privacy.
'My dear fellow,' said Pirolo to the most voluble of the leaders, 'you hurry, or your crowd that can't be wrong will kill you!'
'But that would be murder,' answered the believer in crowds; and there was a roar of laughter from all sides that seemed to show the crisis had broken.
A woman stepped forward from the line of women, laughing, I protest, as merrily as any of the company. One hand, of course, shaded her eyes, the other was at her throat.
'Oh, they needn't be afraid of being killed!' she called.
'Not in the least,' said De Forest. 'But don't you think that, now the Board's in charge, you might go home while we get these people away?'
'I shall be home long before that. It--it has been rather a trying day.'
She stood up to her full height, dwarfing even De Forest's six-foot-eight, and smiled, with eyes closed against the fierce light.
'Yes, rather,' said De Forest. 'I'm afraid you feel the glare a little. We'll have the ship down.'
He motioned to the _Pirolo_ to drop between us and the sun, and at the same time to loop-circuit the prisoners, who were a trifle unsteady. We saw them stiffen to the current where they stood. The woman's voice went on, sweet and deep and unshaken:
'I don't suppose you men realise how much this--this sort of thing means to a woman. I've borne three. We women don't want our children given to Crowds. It must be an inherited instinct. Crowds make trouble. They bring back the Old Days. Hate, fear, blackmail, publicity, "The People"--_That! That! That_!' She pointed to the Statue, and the crowd growled once more.
'Yes, if they are allowed to go on,' said De Forest. 'But this little affair--'
'It means so much to us women that this--this little affair should never happen again. Of course, never's a big word, but one feels so strongly that it is important to stop crowds at the very beginning. Those creatures'--she pointed with her left hand at the prisoners swaying like seaweed in a tideway as the circuit pulled them--'those people have friends and wives and children in the city and elsewhere. One doesn't want anything done to _them_, you know. It's terrible to force a human being out of fifty or sixty years of good life. I'm only forty myself. _I_ know. But, at the same time, one feels that an example should be made, because no price is too heavy to pay if--if these people and _all that they imply_ can be put an end to. Do you quite understand, or would you be kind enough to tell your men to take the casing off the Statue? It's worth looking at.'
'I understand perfectly. But I don't think anybody here wants to see the Statue on an empty stomach. Excuse me one moment.' De Forest called up to the ship, 'A flying loop ready on the port side, if you please.' Then to the woman he said with some crispness, 'You might leave us a little discretion in the matter.'
'Oh, of course. Thank you for being so patient. I know my arguments are silly, but--' She half turned away and went on in a changed voice, 'Perhaps this will help you to decide.'
She threw out her right arm with a knife in it. Before the blade could be returned to her throat or her bosom it was twitched from her grip, sparked as it flew out of the shadow of the ship above, and fell flashing in the sunshine at the foot of the Statue fifty yards away. The outflung arm was arrested, rigid as a bar for an instant, till the releasing circuit permitted her to bring it slowly to her side. The other women shrank back silent among the men.
Pirolo rubbed his hands, and Takahira nodded.
'That was clever of you, De Forest,' said he.
'What a glorious pose!' Dragomiroff murmured, for the frightened woman was on the edge of tears.
'Why did you stop me? I would have done it!' she cried.
'I have no doubt you would,' said De Forest. 'But we can't waste a life like yours on these people. I hope the arrest didn't sprain your wrist; it's so hard to regulate a flying loop. But I think you are quite right about those persons' women and children. We'll take them all away with us if you promise not to do anything stupid to yourself.'
'I promise--I promise.' She controlled herself with an effort. 'But it is so important to us women. We know what it means; and I thought if you saw I was in earnest--'
'I saw you were, and you've gained your point. I shall take all your Serviles away with me at once. The Mayor will make lists of their friends and families in the city and the district, and he'll ship them after us this afternoon.'
'Sure,' said the Mayor, rising to his feet. 'Keefe, if you can see, hadn't you better finish levelling off the Old Market? It don't look sightly the way it is now, and we shan't use it for crowds any more.'
'I think you had better wipe out that Statue as well, Mr. Mayor,' said De Forest. 'I don't question its merits as a work of art, but I believe it's a shade morbid.'
'Certainly, sir. Oh, Keefe! Slag the Nigger before you go on to fuse the Market. I'll get to the Communicators and tell the District that the Board is in charge. Are you making any special appointments, sir?'
'None. We haven't men to waste on these back-woods. Carry on as before, but under the Board. Arnott, run your Serviles aboard, please. Ground ship and pass them through the bilge-doors. We'll wait till we've finished with this work of art.'
The prisoners trailed past him, talking fluently, but unable to gesticulate in the drag of the current. Then the surfacers rolled up, two on each side of the Statue. With one accord the spectators looked elsewhere, but there was no need. Keefe turned on full power, and the thing simply melted within its case. All I saw was a surge of white-hot metal pouring over the plinth, a glimpse of Salad's inscription, 'To the Eternal Memory of the Justice of the People,' ere the stone base itself cracked and powdered into finest lime. The crowd cheered.
'Thank you,' said De Forest; 'but we want our break-fasts, and I expect you do too. Good-bye, Mr. Mayor! Delighted to see you at any time, but I hope I shan't have to, officially, for the next thirty years. Good-bye, madam. Yes. We're all given to nerves nowadays. I suffer from them myself. Good-bye, gentlemen all! You're under the tyrannous heel of the Board from this moment, but if ever you feel like breaking your fetters you've only to let us know. This is no treat to us. Good luck!'
We embarked amid shouts, and did not check our lift till they had dwindled into whispers. Then De Forest flung himself on the chart-room divan and mopped his forehead.
'I don't mind men,' he panted, 'but women are the devil!'
'Still the devil,' said Pirolo cheerfully. 'That one would have suicided.'
'I know it. That was why I signalled for the flying loop to be clapped on her. I owe you an apology for that, Arnott. I hadn't time to catch your eye, and you were busy with our caitiffs. By the way, who actually answered my signal? It was a smart piece of work.'
'Ilroy,' said Arnott; 'but he overloaded the wave. It may be pretty gallery-work to knock a knife out of a lady's hand, but didn't you notice how she rubbed 'em? He scorched her fingers. Slovenly, I call it.'
'Far be it from me to interfere with Fleet discipline, but don't be too hard on the boy. If that woman had killed herself they would have killed every Servile and everything related to a Servile throughout the district by nightfall.'
'That was what she was playing for,' Takahira said. 'And with our Fleet gone we could have done nothing to hold them.'
'I may be ass enough to walk into a ground-circuit,' said Arnott, 'but I don't dismiss my Fleet till I'm reasonably sure that trouble is over. They're in position still, and I intend to keep 'em there till the Serviles are shipped out of the district. That last little crowd meant murder, my friends.'
'Nerves! All nerves!' said Pirolo. 'You cannot argue with agoraphobia.'
'And it is not as if they had seen much dead--or _is_ it?' said Takahira.
'In all my ninety years I have never seen Death.' Dragomiroff spoke as one who would excuse himself. 'Perhaps that was why--last night--'
Then it came out as we sat over breakfast, that, with the exception of Arnott and Pirolo, none of us had ever seen a corpse, or knew in what manner the spirit passes.
'We're a nice lot to flap about governing the Planet,' De Forest laughed. 'I confess, now it's all over, that my main fear was I mightn't be able to pull it off without losing a life.'
'I thought of that too,' said Arnott; 'but there's no death reported, and I've inquired everywhere. What are we supposed to do with our passengers? I've fed 'em.'
'We're between two switches,' De Forest drawled. 'If we drop them in any place that isn't under the Board the natives will make their presence an excuse for cutting out, same as Illinois did, and forcing the Board to take over. If we drop them in any place under the Board's control they'll be killed as soon as our backs are turned.'
'If you say so,' said Pirolo thoughtfully, 'I can guarantee that they will become extinct in process of time, quite happily. What is their birth-rate now?'
'Go down and ask 'em,' said De Forest.
'I think they might become nervous and tear me to bits,' the philosopher of Foggia replied.
'Not really? Well?'
'Open the bilge-doors,' said Takahira with a downward jerk of the thumb.
'Scarcely--after all the trouble we've taken to save 'em,' said De Forest.
'Try London,' Arnott suggested. 'You could turn Satan himself loose there, and they'd only ask him to dinner.'
'Good man! You've given me an idea. Vincent! Oh, Vincent!' He threw the General Communicator open so that we could all hear, and in a few minutes the chart-room filled with the rich, fruity voice of Leopold Vincent, who has purveyed all London her choicest amusements for the last thirty years. We answered with expectant grins, as though we were actually in the stalls of, say, the Combination on a first night.
'We've picked up something in your line,' De Forest began.
'That's good, dear man. If it's old enough. There's nothing to beat the old things for business purposes. Have you seen _London, Chatham, and Dover_ at Earl's Court? No? I thought I missed you there. Immense! I've had the real steam locomotive engines built from the old designs and the iron rails cast specially by hand. Cloth cushions in the carriages, too! Immense! And paper railway tickets. And Polly Milton.'
'Polly Milton back again!' said Arnott rapturously. 'Book me two stalls for to-morrow night. What's she singing now, bless her?'
'The old songs. Nothing comes up to the old touch. Listen to this, dear men.' Vincent carolled with flourishes:
Oh, cruel lamps of London,
If tears your light could drown,
Your victims' eyes would weep them,
Oh, lights of London Town!
'Then they weep.'
'You see?' Pirolo waved his hands at us. 'The old world always weeped when it saw crowds together. It did not know why, but it weeped. We know why, but we do not weep, except when we pay to be made to by fat, wicked old Vincent.'
'Old, yourself!' Vincent laughed. 'I'm a public benefactor, I keep the world soft and united.'
'And I'm De Forest of the Board,' said De Forest acidly, 'trying to get a little business done. As I was saying, I've picked up a few people in Chicago.'
'I cut out. Chicago is--'
'Do listen! They're perfectly unique.'
'Do they build houses of baked mudblocks while you wait--eh? That's an old contact.'
'They're an untouched primitive community, with all the old ideas.'
'Sewing-machines and maypole-dances? Cooking on coal-gas stoves, lighting pipes with matches, and driving horses? Gerolstein tried that last year. An absolute blow-out!'
De Forest plugged him wrathfully, and poured out the story of our doings for the last twenty-four hours on the top-note.
'And they do it _all_ in public,' he concluded. 'You can't stop 'em. The more public, the better they are pleased. They'll talk for hours--like you! Now you can come in again!'
'Do you really mean they know how to vote?' said Vincent. 'Can they act it?'
'Act? It's their life to 'em! And you never saw such faces! Scarred like volcanoes. Envy, hatred, and malice in plain sight. Wonderfully flexible voices. They weep, too.'
'Aloud? In public?'
'I guarantee. Not a spark of shame or reticence in the entire installation. It's the chance of your career.'
'D'you say you've brought their voting props along--those papers and ballot-box things?'
'No, confound you! I'm not a luggage-lifter. Apply direct to the Mayor of Chicago. He'll forward you everything. Well?'
'Wait a minute. Did Chicago want to kill 'em? That 'ud look well on the Communicators.'
'Yes! They were only rescued with difficulty from a howling mob--if you know what that is.'
'But I don't,' answered the Great Vincent simply.
'Well then, they'll tell you themselves. They can make speeches hours long.'
'How many are there?'
'By the time we ship 'em all over they'll be perhaps a hundred, counting children. An old world in miniature. Can't you see it?'
'M-yes; but I've got to pay for it if it's a blow-out, dear man.'
'They can sing the old war songs in the streets. They can get word-drunk, and make crowds, and invade privacy in the genuine old-fashioned way; and they'll do the voting trick as often as you ask 'em a question.'
'Too good!' said Vincent.
'You unbelieving Jew! I've got a dozen head aboard here. I'll put you through direct. Sample 'em yourself.'
He lifted the switch and we listened. Our passengers on the lower deck at once, but not less than five at a time, explained themselves to Vincent. They had been taken from the bosom of their families, stripped of their possessions, given food without finger-bowls, and cast into captivity in a noisome dungeon.
'But look here,' said Arnott aghast; 'they're saying what isn't true. My lower deck isn't noisome, and I saw to the finger-bowls myself.'
'My people talk like that sometimes in Little Russia,' said Dragomiroff. 'We reason with them. We never kill. No!'
'But it's not true,' Arnott insisted. 'What can you do with people who don't tell facts? They're mad!'
'Hsh!' said Pirolo, his hand to his ear. 'It is such a little time since all the Planet told lies.'
We heard Vincent silkily sympathetic. Would they, he asked, repeat their assertions in public--before a vast public? Only let Vincent give them a chance, and the Planet, they vowed, should ring with their wrongs. Their aim in life--two women and a man explained it together--was to reform the world. Oddly enough, this also had been Vincent's life-dream. He offered them an arena in which to explain, and by their living example to raise the Planet to loftier levels. He was eloquent on the moral uplift of a simple, old-world life presented in its entirety to a deboshed civilisation.
Could they--would they--for three months certain, devote themselves under his auspices, as missionaries, to the elevation of mankind at a place called Earl's Court, which he said, with some truth, was one of the intellectual centres of the Planet? They thanked him, and demanded (we could hear his chuckle of delight) time to discuss and to vote on the matter. The vote, solemnly managed by counting heads--one head, one vote--was favourable. His offer, therefore, was accepted, and they moved a vote of thanks to him in two speeches--one by what they called the 'proposer' and the other by the 'seconder.'
Vincent threw over to us, his voice shaking with gratitude:
'I've got 'em! Did you hear those speeches? That's Nature, dear men. Art can't teach _that._ And they voted as easily as lying. I've never had a troupe of natural liars before. Bless you, dear men! Remember, you're on my free lists for ever, anywhere--all of you. Oh, Gerolstein will be sick--sick!'
'Then you think they'll do?' said De Forest.
'Do? The Little Village'll go crazy! I'll knock up a series of old-world plays for 'em. Their voices will make you laugh and cry. My God, dear men, where _do_ you suppose they picked up all their misery from, on this sweet earth? I'll have a pageant of the world's beginnings, and Mosenthal shall do the music. I'll--'
'Go and knock up a village for 'em by to-night. We'll meet you at No. 15 West Landing Tower,' said De Forest. 'Remember the rest will be coming along to-morrow.'
'Let 'em all come!' said Vincent. 'You don't know how hard it is nowadays even for me, to find something that really gets under the public's damned iridium-plated hide. But I've got it at last. Good-bye!'
'Well,' said De Forest when we had finished laughing, 'if any one understood corruption in London I might have played off Vincent against Gerolstein, and sold my captives at enormous prices. As it is, I shall have to be their legal adviser to-night when the contracts are signed. And they won't exactly press any commission on me, either.'
'Meantime,' said Takahira, 'we cannot, of course, confine members of Leopold Vincent's last-engaged company. Chairs for the ladies, please, Arnott.'
'Then I go to bed,' said De Forest. 'I can't face any more women!' And he vanished.
When our passengers were released and given another meal (finger-bowls came first this time) they told us what they thought of us and the Board; and, like Vincent, we all marvelled how they had contrived to extract and secrete so much bitter poison and unrest out of the good life God gives us. They raged, they stormed, they palpitated, flushed and exhausted their poor, torn nerves, panted themselves into silence, and renewed the senseless, shameless attacks.
'But can't you understand,' said Pirolo pathetically to a shrieking woman, 'that if we'd left you in Chicago you'd have been killed?'
'No, we shouldn't. You were bound to save us from being murdered.'
'Then we should have had to kill a lot of other people.'
'That doesn't matter. We were preaching the Truth. You can't stop us. We shall go on preaching in London; and _then_ you'll see!'
'You can see now,' said Pirolo, and opened a lower shutter.
We were closing on the Little Village, with her three million people spread out at ease inside her ring of girdling Main-Traffic lights--those eight fixed beams at Chatham, Tonbridge, Redhill, Dorking, Woking, St. Albans, Chipping Ongar, and Southend.
Leopold Vincent's new company looked, with small pale faces, at the silence, the size, and the separated houses.
Then some began to weep aloud, shamelessly--always without shame.