A Somewhat Improbable Story

I cannot remember whether this tale is true or not. If I read
it through very carefully I have a suspicion that I should come
to the conclusion that it is not. But, unfortunately, I cannot read
it through very carefully, because, you see, it is not written yet.
The image and the idea of it clung to me through a great part
of my boyhood; I may have dreamt it before I could talk; or told it
to myself before I could read; or read it before I could remember.
On the whole, however, I am certain that I did not read it,
for children have very clear memories about things like that;
and of the books which I was really fond I can still remember,
not only the shape and bulk and binding, but even the position
of the printed words on many of the pages. On the whole, I incline
to the opinion that it happened to me before I was born.

. . . . .

At any rate, let us tell the story now with all the advantages
of the atmosphere that has clung to it. You may suppose me,
for the sake of argument, sitting at lunch in one of those quick-lunch
restaurants in the City where men take their food so fast that it
has none of the quality of food, and take their half-hour's
vacation so fast that it has none of the qualities of leisure;
to hurry through one's leisure is the most unbusiness-like of actions.
They all wore tall shiny hats as if they could not lose an instant
even to hang them on a peg, and they all had one eye a little off,
hypnotised by the huge eye of the clock. In short, they were the slaves
of the modern bondage, you could hear their fetters clanking.
Each was, in fact, bound by a chain; the heaviest chain ever tied
to a man--it is called a watch-chain.

Now, among these there entered and sat down opposite to me a man
who almost immediately opened an uninterrupted monologue.
He was like all the other men in dress, yet he was startlingly
opposite to them in all manner. He wore a high shiny hat
and a long frock coat, but he wore them as such solemn things
were meant to be worn; he wore the silk hat as if it were a mitre,
and the frock coat as if it were the ephod of a high priest.
He not only hung his hat up on the peg, but he seemed
(such was his stateliness) almost to ask permission of the hat
for doing so, and to apologise to the peg for making use of it.
When he had sat down on a wooden chair with the air of one
considering its feelings and given a sort of slight stoop
or bow to the wooden table itself, as if it were an altar,
I could not help some comment springing to my lips.
For the man was a big, sanguine-faced, prosperous-looking man,
and yet he treated everything with a care that almost
amounted to nervousness.

For the sake of saying something to express my interest I said,
"This furniture is fairly solid; but, of course, people do treat
it much too carelessly."

As I looked up doubtfully my eye caught his, and was fixed
as his was fixed in an apocalyptic stare. I had thought him
ordinary as he entered, save for his strange, cautious manner;
but if the other people had seen him then they would have screamed
and emptied the room. They did not see him, and they went on making
a clatter with their forks, and a murmur with their conversation.
But the man's face was the face of a maniac.

"Did you mean anything particular by that remark?" he asked at last,
and the blood crawled back slowly into his face.

"Nothing whatever," I answered. "One does not mean anything here;
it spoils people's digestions."

He limped back and wiped his broad forehead with a big handkerchief;
and yet there seemed to be a sort of regret in his relief.

"I thought perhaps," he said in a low voice, "that another of them
had gone wrong."

"If you mean another digestion gone wrong," I said, "I never heard
of one here that went right. This is the heart of the Empire,
and the other organs are in an equally bad way."

"No, I mean another street gone wrong," and he said heavily
and quietly, "but as I suppose that doesn't explain much to you,
I think I shall have to tell you the story. I do so with all
the less responsibility, because I know you won't believe it.
For forty years of my life I invariably left my office, which is
in Leadenhall Street, at half-past five in the afternoon, taking with
me an umbrella in the right hand and a bag in the left hand.
For forty years two months and four days I passed out of the side
office door, walked down the street on the left-hand side,
took the first turning to the left and the third to the right,
from where I bought an evening paper, followed the road on
the right-hand side round two obtuse angles, and came out just
outside a Metropolitan station, where I took a train home.
For forty years two months and four days I fulfilled this course
by accumulated habit: it was not a long street that I traversed,
and it took me about four and a half minutes to do it.
After forty years two months and four days, on the fifth day I
went out in the same manner, with my umbrella in the right hand
and my bag in the left, and I began to notice that walking along
the familiar street tired me somewhat more than usual; and when I
turned it I was convinced that I had turned down the wrong one.
For now the street shot up quite a steep slant, such as one
only sees in the hilly parts of London, and in this part
there were no hills at all. Yet it was not the wrong street;
the name written on it was the same; the shuttered shops were
the same; the lamp-posts and the whole look of the perspective
was the same; only it was tilted upwards like a lid.
Forgetting any trouble about breathlessness or fatigue I ran
furiously forward, and reached the second of my accustomed turnings,
which ought to bring me almost within sight of the station.
And as I turned that corner I nearly fell on the pavement.
For now the street went up straight in front of my face like a steep
staircase or the side of a pyramid. There was not for miles
round that place so much as a slope like that of Ludgate Hill.
And this was a slope like that of the Matterhorn. The whole
street had lifted itself like a single wave, and yet every speck
and detail of it was the same, and I saw in the high distance,
as at the top of an Alpine pass, picked out in pink letters
the name over my paper shop.

"I ran on and on blindly now, passing all the shops and coming to a
part of the road where there was a long grey row of private houses.
I had, I know not why, an irrational feeling that I was a long
iron bridge in empty space. An impulse seized me, and I pulled up
the iron trap of a coal-hole. Looking down through it I saw empty
space and the stairs.

"When I looked up again a man was standing in his front garden, having
apparently come out of his house; he was leaning over the railings and
gazing at me. We were all alone on that nightmare road; his face was
in shadow; his dress was dark and ordinary; but when I saw him standing
so perfectly still I knew somehow that he was not of this world.
And the stars behind his head were larger and fiercer than ought
to be endured by the eyes of men.

"'If you are a kind angel,' I said, 'or a wise devil, or have anything
in common with mankind, tell me what is this street possessed of devils.'

"After a long silence he said, 'What do you say that it is?'

"'It is Bumpton Street, of course,' I snapped. 'It goes to Oldgate

"'Yes,' he admitted gravely; 'it goes there sometimes. Just now, however,
it is going to heaven.'

"'To heaven?' I said. 'Why?'

"'It is going to heaven for justice,' he replied. 'You must have treated
it badly. Remember always that there is one thing that cannot be endured
by anybody or anything. That one unendurable thing is to be overworked
and also neglected. For instance, you can overwork women--everybody does.
But you can't neglect women--I defy you to. At the same time,
you can neglect tramps and gypsies and all the apparent refuse of the
State so long as you do not overwork it. But no beast of the field, no
horse, no dog can endure long to be asked to do more than his work and
yet have less than his honour. It is the same with streets. You have
worked this street to death, and yet you have never remembered its
existence. If you had a healthy democracy, even of pagans, they would
have hung this street with garlands and given it the name of a god.
Then it would have gone quietly. But at last the street has grown tired
of your tireless insolence; and it is bucking and rearing its head to
heaven. Have you never sat on a bucking horse?'

"I looked at the long grey street, and for a moment it seemed to me
to be exactly like the long grey neck of a horse flung up to heaven.
But in a moment my sanity returned, and I said, 'But this
is all nonsense. Streets go to the place they have to go.
A street must always go to its end.'

"'Why do you think so of a street?' he asked, standing very still.

"'Because I have always seen it do the same thing,' I replied,
in reasonable anger. 'Day after day, year after year, it has always
gone to Oldgate Station; day after . . .'

"I stopped, for he had flung up his head with the fury
of the road in revolt.

"'And you?' he cried terribly. 'What do you think the road thinks
of you? Does the road think you are alive? Are you alive?
Day after day, year after year, you have gone to Oldgate Station. . . .'
Since then I have respected the things called inanimate."

And bowing slightly to the mustard-pot, the man in
the restaurant withdrew.

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