The Angel Æthereal, on his official visit to the Earth in 1947, paused between the Bank and the Stock Exchange to smoke a cigarette and scrutinise the passers-by.
"How they swarm," he said, "and with what seeming energy—in such an atmosphere! Of what can they be made?"
"Of money, sir," replied his dragoman; "in the past, the present, or the future. Stocks are booming. The barometer of joy stands very high. Nothing like it has been known for thirty years; not, indeed, since the days of the Great Skirmish."
"There is, then, a connection between joy and money?" remarked the Angel, letting smoke dribble through his chiselled nostrils.
"Such is the common belief; though to prove it might take time. I will, however, endeavour to do this if you desire it, sir."
"I certainly do," said the Angel; "for a less joyous-looking crowd I have seldom seen. Between every pair of brows there is a furrow, and no one whistles."
"You do not understand," returned his dragoman; "nor indeed is it surprising, for it is not so much the money as the thought that some day you need no longer make it which causes joy."
"If that day is coming to all," asked the Angel, "why do they not look joyful?"
"It is not so simple as that, sir. To the majority of these persons that day will never come, and many of them know it—these are called clerks; to some amongst the others, even, it will not come—these will be called bankrupts; to the rest it will come, and they will live at Wimblehurst and other islands of the blessed, when they have become so accustomed to making money that to cease making it will be equivalent to boredom, if not torture, or when they are so old that they can but spend it in trying to modify the disabilities of age."
"What price joy, then?" said the Angel, raising his eyebrows. "For that, I fancy, is the expression you use?"
"I perceive, sir," answered his dragoman, "that you have not yet regained your understanding of the human being, and especially of the breed which inhabits this country. Illusion is what we are after. Without our illusions we might just as well be angels or Frenchmen, who pursue at all events to some extent the sordid reality known as 'le plaisir,' or enjoyment of life. In pursuit of illusion we go on making money and furrows in our brows, for the process is wearing. I speak, of course, of the bourgeoisie or Patriotic classes; for the practice of the Laborious is different, though their illusions are the same."
"How?" asked the Angel briefly.
"Why, sir, both hold the illusion that they will one day be joyful through the possession of money; but whereas the Patriotic expect to make it through the labour of the Laborious, the Laborious expect to make it through the labour of the Patriotic."
"Ha, ha!" said the Angel.
"Angels may laugh," replied his dragoman, "but it is a matter to make men weep."
"You know your own business best," said the Angel, "I suppose."
"Ah! sir, if we did, how pleasant it would be. It is frequently my fate to study the countenances and figures of the population, and I find the joy which the pursuit of illusion brings them is insufficient to counteract the confined, monotonous and worried character of their lives."
"They are certainly very plain," said the Angel.
"They are," sighed his dragoman, "and getting plainer every day. Take for instance that one," and he pointed to a gentleman going up the steps. "Mark how he is built. The top of his grizzled head is narrow, the bottom of it broad. His body is short and thick and square; his legs even thicker, and his feet turn out too much; the general effect is almost pyramidal. Again, take this one," and he indicated a gentleman coming down the steps, "you could thread his legs and body through a needle's eye, but his head would defy you. Mark his boiled eyes, his flashing spectacles, and the absence of all hair. Disproportion, sir, has become endemic."
"Can this not be corrected?" asked the Angel.
"To correct a thing," answered his dragoman, "you must first be aware of it, and these are not; no more than they are aware that it is disproportionate to spend six days out of every seven in a counting-house or factory. Man, sir, is the creature of habit, and when his habits are bad, man is worse."
"I have a headache," said the Angel; "the noise is more deafening than it was when I was here in 1910."
"Yes, sir; since then we have had the Great Skirmish, an event which furiously intensified money-making. We, like every other people, have ever since been obliged to cultivate the art of getting five out of two-and-two. The progress of civilisation has been considerably speeded up thereby, and everything but man has benefited; even horses, for they are no longer overloaded and overdriven up Tower Hill or any other."
"How is that," asked the Angel, "if the pressure of work is greater?"
"Because they are extinct," said his dragoman; "entirely superseded by electric and air traction, as you see."
"You appear to be inimical to money," the Angel interjected, with a penetrating look. "Tell me, would you really rather own one shilling than five and sixpence?"
"Sir," replied his dragoman, "you are putting the candidate before the caucus, as the saying is. For money is nothing but the power to purchase what one wants. You should rather be inquiring what I want."
"Well, what do you?" said the Angel.
"To my thinking," answered his dragoman, "instead of endeavouring to increase money when we found ourselves so very bankrupt, we should have endeavoured to decrease our wants. The path of real progress, sir, is the simplification of life and desire till we have dispensed even with trousers and wear a single clean garment reaching to the knees; till we are content with exercising our own limbs on the solid earth; the eating of simple food we have grown ourselves; the hearing of our own voices, and tunes on oaten straws; the feel on our faces of the sun and rain and wind; the scent of the fields and woods; the homely roof, and the comely wife unspoiled by heels, pearls, and powder; the domestic animals at play, wild birds singing, and children brought up to colder water than their fathers. It should have been our business to pursue health till we no longer needed the interior of the chemist's shop, the optician's store, the hairdresser's, the corset-maker's, the thousand and one emporiums which patch and prink us, promoting our fancies and disguising the ravages which modern life makes in our figures. Our ambition should have been to need so little that, with our present scientific knowledge, we should have been able to produce it very easily and quickly, and have had abundant leisure and sound nerves and bodies wherewith to enjoy nature, art, and the domestic affections. The tragedy of man, sir, is his senseless and insatiate curiosity and greed, together with his incurable habit of neglecting the present for the sake of a future which will never come."
"You speak like a book," said the Angel.
"I wish I did," retorted his dragoman, "for no book I am able to procure enjoins us to stop this riot, and betake ourselves to the pleasurable simplicity which alone can save us."
"You would be bored stiff in a week," said the Angel.
"We should, sir," replied his dragoman, "because from our schooldays we are brought up to be acquisitive, competitive, and restless. Consider the baby in the perambulator, absorbed in contemplating the heavens and sucking its own thumb. Existence, sir, should be like that."
"A beautiful metaphor," said the Angel.
"As it is, we do but skip upon the hearse of life."
"You would appear to be of those whose motto is: 'Try never to leave things as you find them,'" observed the Angel.
"Ah, sir!" responded his dragoman, with a sad smile, "the part of a dragoman is rather ever to try and find things where he leaves them."
"Talking of that," said the Angel dreamily, "when I was here in 1910, I bought some Marconi's for the rise. What are they at now?"
"I cannot tell you," replied his dragoman in a deprecating voice, "but this I will say: Inventors are not only the benefactors but the curses of mankind, and will be so long as we do not find a way of adapting their discoveries to our very limited digestive powers. The chronic dyspepsia of our civilisation, due to the attempt to swallow every pabulum which ingenuity puts before it, is so violent that I sometimes wonder whether we shall survive until your visit in 1984."
"Ah!" said the Angel, pricking his ears; "you really think there is a chance?"
"I do indeed," his dragoman answered gloomily. "Life is now one long telephone call—and what's it all about? A tour in darkness! A rattling of wheels under a sky of smoke! A never-ending game of poker!"
"Confess," said the Angel, "that you have eaten something which has not agreed with you?"
"It is so," answered his dragoman; "I have eaten of modernity, the damndest dish that was ever set to lips. Look at those fellows," he went on, "busy as ants from nine o'clock in the morning to seven in the evening. And look at their wives!"
"Ah! yes," said the Angel cheerily; "let us look at their wives," and with three strokes of his wings he passed to Oxford Street.
"Look at them!" repeated his dragoman, "busy as ants from ten o'clock in the morning to five in the evening."
"Plain is not the word for them," said the Angel sadly. "What are they after, running in and out of these shop-holes?"
"Illusion, sir. The romance of business there, the romance of commerce here. They have got into these habits and, as you know, it is so much easier to get in than to get out. Would you like to see one of their homes?"
"No, no," said the Angel, starting back and coming into contact with a lady's hat. "Why do they have them so large?" he asked, with a certain irritation.
"In order that they may have them small next season," replied his dragoman. "The future, sir; the future! The cycle of beauty and eternal hope, and, incidentally, the good of trade. Grasp that phrase and you will have no need for further inquiry, and probably no inclination."
"One could get American sweets in here, I guess," said the Angel, entering.
"And where would you wish to go to-day, sir?" asked his dragoman of the Angel who was moving his head from side to side like a dromedary in the Haymarket.
"I should like," the Angel answered, "to go into the country."
"The country!" returned his dragoman, doubtfully. "You will find very little to see there."
"Natheless," said the Angel, spreading his wings.
"These," gasped his dragoman, after a few breathless minutes, "are the Chilterns—they will serve; any part of the country is now the same. Shall we descend?"
Alighting on what seemed to be a common, he removed the cloud moisture from his brow, and shading his eyes with his hand, stood peering into the distance on every side. "As I thought," he said; "there has been no movement since I brought the Prime here in 1944; we shall have some difficulty in getting lunch."
"A wonderfully peaceful spot," said the Angel.
"True," said his dragoman. "We might fly sixty miles in any direction and not see a house in repair."
"Let us!" said the Angel. They flew a hundred, and alighted again.
"Same here!" said his dragoman. "This is Leicestershire. Note the rolling landscape of wild pastures."
"I am getting hungry," said the Angel. "Let us fly again."
"I have told you, sir," remarked his dragoman, while they were flying, "that we shall have the greatest difficulty in finding any inhabited dwelling in the country. Had we not better alight at Blackton or Bradleeds?"
"No," said the Angel. "I have come for a day in the fresh air."
"Would bilberries serve?" asked his dragoman; "for I see a man gathering them."
The Angel closed his wings, and they dropped on to a moor close to an aged man.
"My worthy wight," said the Angel, "we are hungry. Would you give us some of your bilberries?"
"Wot oh!" ejaculated the ancient party; "never 'eard yer comin'. Been flyin' by wireless, 'ave yer? Got an observer, I see," he added, jerking his grizzled chin at the dragoman. "Strike me, it's the good old dyes o' the Gryte Skirmish over agyne."
"Is this," asked the Angel, whose mouth was already black with bilberries, "the dialect of rural England?"
"I will interrogate him, sir," said his dragoman, "for in truth I am at a loss to account for the presence of a man in the country." He took the old person by his last button and led him a little apart. Returning to the Angel, who had finished the bilberries, he whispered:
"It is as I thought. This is the sole survivor of the soldiers settled on the land at the conclusion of the Great Skirmish. He lives on berries and birds who have died a natural death."
"I fail to understand," answered the Angel. "Where is all the rural population, where the mansions of the great, the thriving farmer, the contented peasant, the labourer about to have his minimum wage, the Old, the Merrie England of 1910?"
"That," responded his dragoman somewhat dramatically, extending his hand towards the old man, "that is the rural population, and he a cockney hardened in the Great Skirmish, or he could never have stayed the course."
"What!" said the Angel; "is no food grown in all this land!"
"Not a cabbage," replied his dragoman; "not a mustard and cress—outside the towns, that is."
"I perceive," said the Angel, "that I have lost touch with much that is of interest. Give me, I pray, a brief sketch of the agricultural movement."
"Why, sir," replied his dragoman, "the agricultural movement in this country since the days of the Great Skirmish, when all were talking of resettling the land, may be summed up in two words: 'Town Expansion.' In order to make this clear to you, however, I must remind you of the political currents of the past thirty years. You will not recollect that during the Great Skirmish, beneath the seeming absence of politics, there were germinating the Parties of the future. A secret but resolute intention was forming in all minds to immolate those who had played any part in politics before and during the important world-tragedy which was then being enacted, especially such as continued to hold portfolios, or persisted in asking questions in the House of Commons, as it was then called. It was not that people held them to be responsible, but nerves required soothing, and there is no anodyne, as you know, sir, equal to human sacrifice. The politician was, as one may say—'off.' No sooner, of course, was peace declared than the first real General Election was held, and it was with a certain chagrin that the old Parties found themselves in the soup. The Parties which had been forming beneath the surface swept the country; one called itself the Patriotic, and was called by its opponents the Prussian Party; the other called itself the Laborious, and was called by its opponents the Loafing Party. Their representatives were nearly all new men. In the first flush of peace, with which the human mind ever associates plenty, they came out on such an even keel that no Government could pass anything at all. Since, however, it was imperative to find the interest on a National Debt of £8,000,000,000, a further election was needed. This time, though the word Peace remained, the word Plenty had already vanished; and the Laborious Party, which, having much less to tax, felt that it could tax more freely, found itself in an overwhelming majority. You will be curious to hear, sir, of what elements this Party was composed. Its solid bulk were the returned soldiers, and the other manual workers of the country; but to this main body there was added a rump, of pundits, men of excellent intentions, brains, and principles, such as in old days had been known as Radicals and advanced Liberals. These had joined out of despair, feeling that otherwise their very existence was jeopardised. To this collocation—and to one or two other circumstances, as you will presently see, sir—the doom of the land must be traced. Now, the Laborious Party, apart from its rump, on which it would or could not sit—we shall never know now—had views about the resettlement of the land not far divergent from those held by the Patriotic Party, and they proceeded to put a scheme into operation, which, for perhaps a year, seemed to have a prospect of success. Many returned soldiers were established in favourable localities, and there was even a disposition to place the country on a self-sufficing basis in regard to food. But they had not been in power eighteen months when their rump—which, as I have told you, contained nearly all their principles—had a severe attack of these. 'Free Trade,'—which, say what you will, follows the line of least resistance and is based on the 'good of trade'—was, they perceived, endangered, and they began to agitate against bonuses on corn and preferential treatment of a pampered industry. The bonus on corn was in consequence rescinded in 1924, and in lieu thereof the system of small holdings was extended—on paper. At the same time the somewhat stunning taxation which had been placed upon the wealthy began to cause the break-up of landed estates. As the general bankruptcy and exhaustion of Europe became more and more apparent the notion of danger from future war began to seem increasingly remote, and the 'good of trade' became again the one object before every British eye. Food from overseas was cheapening once more. The inevitable occurred. Country mansions became a drug in the market, farmers farmed at a loss; small holders went bust daily, and emigrated; agricultural labourers sought the towns. In 1926 the Laborious Party, who had carried the taxation of their opponents to a pitch beyond the power of human endurance, got what the racy call 'the knock,' and the four years which followed witnessed the bitterest internecine struggle within the memory of every journalist. In the course of this strife emigration increased and the land emptied rapidly. The final victory of the Laborious Party, in 1930, saw them, still propelled by their rump, committed, among other things, to a pure town policy. They have never been out of power since; the result you see. Food is now entirely brought from overseas, largely by submarine and air service, in tabloid form, and expanded to its original proportions on arrival by an ingenious process discovered by a German. The country is now used only as a subject for sentimental poets, and to fly over, or by lovers on bicycles at week-ends."
"Mon Dieu!" said the Angel thoughtfully. "To me, indeed, it seems that this must have been a case of: 'Oh! What a surprise!'"
"You are not mistaken, sir," replied his dragoman; "people still open their mouths over this consummation. It is pre-eminently an instance of what will happen sometimes when you are not looking, even to the English, who have been most fortunate in this respect. For you must remember that all Parties, even the Pundits, have always declared that rural life and all that, don't you know, is most necessary, and have ever asserted that they were fostering it to the utmost. But they forgot to remember that our circumstances, traditions, education, and vested interests so favoured town life and the 'good of trade' that it required a real and unparliamentary effort not to take that line of least resistance. In fact, we have here a very good example of what I told you the other day was our most striking characteristic—never knowing where we are till after the event. But what with fog and principles, how can you expect we should? Better be a little town blighter with no constitution and high political principles, than your mere healthy country product of a pampered industry. But you have not yet seen the other side of the moon."
"To what do you refer?" asked the Angel.
"Why, sir, to the glorious expansion of the towns. To this I shall introduce you to-morrow, if such is your pleasure."
"Is London, then, not a town?" asked the Angel playfully.
"London?" cried his dragoman; "a mere pleasure village. To which real town shall I take you? Liverchester?"
"Anywhere," said the Angel, "where I can get a good dinner." So-saying, he paid the rural population with a smile and spread his wings.
"The night is yet young," said the Angel Æthereal on leaving the White Heart Hostel at Liverchester, "and I have had perhaps too much to eat. Let us walk and see the town."
"As you will, sir," replied his dragoman; "there is no difference between night and day, now that they are using the tides for the provision of electric power."
The Angel took a note of the fact. "What do they manufacture here?" he asked.
"The entire town," returned his dragoman, "which now extends from the old Liverpool to the old Manchester (as indeed its name implies), is occupied with expanding the tabloids of food which are landed in its port from the new worlds. This and the town of Brister, reaching from the old Bristol to the old Gloucester, have had the monopoly of food expansion for the United Kingdom since 1940."
"By what means precisely?" asked the Angel.
"Congenial environment and bacteriology," responded his dragoman. They walked for some time in silence, flying a little now and then in the dirtier streets, before the Angel spoke again:
"It is curious," he said, "but I perceive no difference between this town and those I remember on my visit in 1910, save that the streets are better lighted, which is not an unmixed joy, for they are dirty and full of people whose faces do not please me."
"Ah! sir," replied his dragoman, "it is too much to expect that the wonderful darkness which prevailed at the time of the Great Skirmish could endure; then, indeed, one could indulge the hope that the houses were all built by Wren, and the people all clean and beautiful. There is no poetry now."
"No!" said the Angel, sniffing, "but there is atmosphere, and it is not agreeable."
"Mankind, when herded together, will smell," answered his dragoman. "You cannot avoid it. What with old clothes, patchouli, petrol, fried fish and the fag, those five essentials of human life, the atmosphere of Turner and Corot are as nothing."
"But do you not run your towns to please yourselves?" said the Angel.
"Oh, no, sir! The resistance would be dreadful. They run us. You see, they are so very big, and have such prestige. Besides," he added, "even if we dared, we should not know how. For, though some great and good man once brought us plane-trees, we English are above getting the best out of life and its conditions, and despise light Frenchified taste. Notice the principle which governs this twenty-mile residential stretch. It was intended to be light, but how earnest it has all turned out! You can tell at a glance that these dwellings belong to the species 'house' and yet are individual houses, just as a man belongs to the species 'man,' and yet, as they say, has a soul of his own. This principle was introduced off the Avenue Road a few years before the Great Skirmish, and is now universal. Any person who lives in a house identical with another house is not known. Has anything heavier and more conscientious ever been seen?"
"Does this principle also apply to the houses of the working-man?" inquired the Angel.
"Hush, sir!" returned his dragoman, looking round him nervously; "a dangerous word. The Laborious dwell in palaces built after the design of an architect called Jerry, with communal kitchens and baths."
"Do they use them?" asked the Angel with some interest.
"Not as yet, indeed," replied his dragoman; "but I believe they are thinking of it. As you know, sir, it takes time to introduce a custom. Thirty years is but as yesterday."
"The Japanese wash daily," mused the Angel.
"Not a Christian nation," replied his dragoman; "nor have they the dirt to contend with which is conspicuous here. Let us do justice to the discouragement which dogs the ablutions of such as know they will soon be dirty again. It was confidently supposed, at the time of the Great Skirmish, which introduced military discipline and so entirely abolished caste, that the habit of washing would at last become endemic throughout the whole population. Judge how surprised were we of that day when the facts turned out otherwise. Instead of the Laborious washing more, the Patriotic washed less. It may have been the higher price of soap, or merely that human life was not very highly regarded at the time. We cannot tell. But not until military discipline disappeared, and caste was restored, which happened the moment peace returned, did the survivors of the Patriotic begin to wash immoderately again, leaving the Laborious to preserve a level more suited to democracy."
"Talking of levels," said the Angel; "is the populace increasing in stature?"
"Oh, no, indeed!" responded his dragoman; "the latest statistics give a diminution of one inch and a half during the past generation."
"And in longevity?" asked the Angel.
"As to that, babies and old people are now communally treated, and all those diseases which are curable by lymph are well in hand."
"Do people, then, not die?"
"Oh, yes, sir! About as often as before. There are new complaints which redress the balance."
"And what are those?"
"A group of diseases called for convenience Scienticitis. Some think they come from the present food system; others from the accumulation of lymphs in the body; others, again, regard them as the result of dwelling on the subject—a kind of hypnotisation by death; a fourth school hold them traceable to town air; while a fifth consider them a mere manifestation of jealousy on the part of Nature. They date, one may say, with confidence, from the time of the Great Skirmish, when men's minds were turned with some anxiety to the question of statistics, and babies were at a premium."
"Is the population, then, much larger?"
"You mean smaller, sir, do you not? Not perhaps so much smaller as you might expect; but it is still nicely down. You see, the Patriotic Party, including even those Pontificals whose private practice most discouraged all that sort of thing, began at once to urge propagation. But their propaganda was, as one may say, brain-spun; and at once bumped up—pardon the colloquialism—against the economic situation. The existing babies, it is true, were saved; the trouble was rather that the babies began not to exist. The same, of course, obtained in every European country, with the exception of what was still, in a manner of speaking, Russia; and if that country had but retained its homogeneity, it would soon by sheer numbers have swamped the rest of Europe. Fortunately, perhaps, it did not remain homogeneous. An incurable reluctance to make food for cannon and impose further burdens on selves already weighted to the ground by taxes, developed in the peoples of each Central and Western land; and in the years from 1920 to 1930 the downward curve was so alarming in Great Britain that if the Patriotic Party could only have kept office long enough at a time they would, no doubt, have enforced conception at the point of the bayonet. Luckily or unluckily, according to taste, they did not; and it was left for more natural causes to produce the inevitable reaction which began to set in after 1930, when the population of the United Kingdom had been reduced to some twenty-five millions. About that time commerce revived. The question of the land had been settled by its unconscious abandonment, and people began to see before them again the possibility of supporting families. The ingrained disposition of men and women to own pets, together with 'the good of trade,' began once more to have its way; and the population rose rapidly. A renewed joy in life, and the assurance of not having to pay the piper, caused the slums, as they used to be called, to swarm once more, and filled the communal crèches. And had it not been for the fact that any one with physical strength, or love of fresh air, promptly emigrated to the Sister Nations on attaining the age of eighteen we might now, sir, be witnessing an overcrowding equal to that of the times before the Great Skirmish. The movement is receiving an added impetus with the approach of the Greater Skirmish between the Teutons and Mongolians, for it is expected that trade will boom and much wealth accrue to those countries which are privileged to look on with equanimity at this great new drama, as the editors are already calling it."
"In all this," said the Angel Æthereal, "I perceive something rather sordid."
"Sir," replied his dragoman earnestly, "your remark is characteristic of the sky, where people are not made of flesh and blood; pay, I believe, no taxes; and have no experience of the devastating consequences of war. I recollect so well when I was a young man, before the Great Skirmish began, and even when it had been going on several years, how glibly the leaders of opinion talked of human progress, and how blind they were to the fact that it has a certain connection with environment. You must remember that ever since that large and, as some still think, rather tragic occurrence environment has been very dicky and Utopia not unrelated to thin air. It has been perceived time and again that the leaders of public opinion are not always confirmed by events. The new world, which was so sapiently prophesied by rhetoricians, is now nigh thirty years old, and, for my part, I confess to surprise that it is not worse than it actually is. I am moralising, I fear, however, for these suburban buildings grievously encourage the philosophic habit. Rather let us barge along and see the Laborious at their labours, which are never interrupted now by the mere accident of night."
The Angel increased his speed till they alighted amid a forest of tall chimneys, whose sirens were singing like a watch of nightingales.
"There is a shift on," said the dragoman. "Stand here, sir; we shall see them passing in and out."
The Laborious were not hurrying, and went by uttering the words: "Cheer oh!" "So long!" and "Wot abaht it!"
The Angel contemplated them for a time before he said: "It comes back to me now how they used to talk when they were doing up my flat on my visit in 1910."
"Give me, I pray, an imitation," said his dragoman.
The Angel struck the attitude of one painting a door. "William," he said, rendering those voices of the past, "what money are you obtaining?"
"Not half, Alfred."
"If that is so, indeed, William, should you not rather leave your tools and obtain better money? I myself am doing this."
"Not half, Alfred."
"Round the corner I can obtain more money by working for fewer hours. In my opinion there is no use in working for less money when you can obtain more. How much does Henry obtain?"
"Not half, Alfred."
"What I am now obtaining is, in my opinion, no use at all."
"Not half, Alfred."
Here the Angel paused, and let his hand move for one second in a masterly exhibition of activity.
"It is doubtful, sir," said his dragoman, "whether you would be permitted to dilute your conversation with so much labour in these days; the rules are very strict."
"Are there, then, still Trades Unions?" asked the Angel.
"No, indeed," replied his dragoman; "but there are Committees. That habit which grew up at the time of the Great Skirmish has flourished ever since. Statistics reveal the fact that there are practically no adults in the country between the ages of nineteen and fifty who are not sitting on Committees. At the time of the Great Skirmish all Committees were nominally active; they are now both active and passive. In every industry, enterprise, or walk of life a small active Committee directs; and a large passive Committee, formed of everybody else, resists that direction. And it is safe to say that the Passive Committees are active and the Active Committees passive; in this way no inordinate amount of work is done. Indeed, if the tongue and the electric button had not usurped practically all the functions of the human hand, the State would have some difficulty in getting its boots blacked. But a ha'poth of visualisation is worth three lectures at ten shillings the stall, so enter, sir, and see for yourself."
Saying this, he pushed open the door.
In a shed, which extended beyond the illimitable range of the Angel's eye, machinery and tongues were engaged in a contest which filled the ozone with an incomparable hum. Men and women in profusion were leaning against walls or the pillars on which the great roof was supported, assiduously pressing buttons. The scent of expanding food revived the Angel's appetite.
"I shall require supper," he said dreamily.
"By all means, sir," replied his dragoman; "after work—play. It will afford you an opportunity to witness modern pleasures in our great industrial centres. But what a blessing is electric power!" he added. "Consider these lilies of the town, they toil not, neither do they spin——"
"Yet Solomon in all his glory," chipped in the Angel eagerly, "had not their appearance, you bet."
"Indeed they are an insouciant crowd," mused his dragoman. "How tinkling is their laughter! The habit dates from the days of the Great Skirmish, when nothing but laughter would meet the case."
"Tell me," said the Angel, "are the English satisfied at last with their industrial conditions, and generally with their mode of life in these expanded towns?"
"Satisfied? Oh dear, no, sir! But you know what it is: They are obliged to wait for each fresh development before they can see what they have to counteract; and, since that great creative force, 'the good of trade,' is always a little stronger than the forces of criticism and reform, each development carries them a little further on the road to——"
"Hell! How hungry I am again!" exclaimed the Angel. "Let us sup!"
"Laughter," said the Angel Æthereal, applying his wineglass to his nose, "has ever distinguished mankind from all other animals with the exception of the dog. And the power of laughing at nothing distinguishes man even from that quadruped."
"I would go further, sir," returned his dragoman, "and say that the power of laughing at that which should make him sick distinguishes the Englishman from all other varieties of man except the negro. Kindly observe!" He rose, and taking the Angel by the waist, fox-trotted him among the little tables.
"See!" he said, indicating the other supper-takers with a circular movement of his beard, "they are consumed with laughter. The habit of fox-trotting in the intervals of eating has been known ever since it was introduced by Americans a generation ago, at the beginning of the Great Skirmish, when that important people had as yet nothing else to do; but it still causes laughter in this country. A distressing custom," he wheezed, as they resumed their seats, "for not only does it disturb the oyster, but it compels one to think lightly of the human species. Not that one requires much compulsion," he added, "now that music-hall, cinema, and restaurant are conjoined. What a happy idea that was of Berlin's, and how excellent for business! Kindly glance for a moment—but not more—at the left-hand stage."
The Angel turned his eyes towards a cinematograph film which was being displayed. He contemplated it for the moment without speaking.
"I do not comprehend," he said at last, "why the person with the arrested moustaches is hitting so many people with that sack of flour."
"To cause amusement, sir," replied his dragoman. "Look at the laughing faces around you."
"But it is not funny," said the Angel.
"No, indeed," returned his dragoman. "Be so good as to carry your eyes now to the stage on the right, but not for long. What do you see?"
"I see a very red-nosed man beating a very white-nosed man about the body."
"It is a real scream, is it not?"
"No," said the Angel drily. "Does nothing else ever happen on these stages?"
"Nothing. Stay! Revues happen!"
"What are revues?" asked the Angel.
"Criticisms of life, sir, as it would be seen by persons inebriated on various intoxicants."
"They should be joyous."
"They are accounted so," his dragoman replied; "but for my part, I prefer to criticise life for myself, especially when I am drunk."
"Are there no plays, no operas?" asked the Angel from behind his glass.
"Not in the old and proper sense of these words. They disappeared towards the end of the Great Skirmish."
"What food for the mind is there, then?" asked the Angel, adding an oyster to his collection.
"None in public, sir, for it is well recognised, and has been ever since those days, that laughter alone promotes business and removes the thought of death. You cannot recall, as I can, sir, the continual stream which used to issue from theatres, music-halls, and picture-palaces in the days of the Great Skirmish, nor the joviality of the Strand and the more expensive restaurants. I have often thought," he added with a touch of philosophy, "what a height of civilisation we must have reached to go jesting, as we did, to the Great Unknown."
"Is that really what the English did at the time of the Great Skirmish?" asked the Angel.
"It is," replied his dragoman solemnly.
"Then they are a very fine people, and I can put up with much about them which seems to me distressing."
"Ah! sir, though, being an Englishman, I am sometimes inclined to disparage the English, I am yet convinced that you could not fly a week's journey and come across another race with such a peculiar nobility, or such an unconquerable soul, if you will forgive my using a word whose meaning is much disputed. May I tempt you with a clam?" he added, more lightly. "We now have them from America—in fair preservation, and very nasty they are, in my opinion."
The Angel took a clam.
"My Lord!" he said, after a moment of deglutition.
"Quite so!" replied his dragoman. "But kindly glance at the right-hand stage again. There is a revue on now. What do you see?"
The Angel made two holes with his forefingers and thumbs and, putting them to his eyes, bent a little forward.
"Tut, tut!" he said; "I see some attractive young females with very few clothes on, walking up and down in front of what seem to me, indeed, to be two grown-up men in collars and jackets as of little boys. What precise criticism of life is this conveying?"
His dragoman answered in reproachful accents:
"Do you not feel, sir, from your own sensations, how marvellously this informs one of the secret passions of mankind? Is there not in it a striking revelation of the natural tendencies of the male population? Remark how the whole audience, including your august self, is leaning forward and looking through their thumb-holes?"
The Angel sat back hurriedly.
"True," he said, "I was carried away. But that is not the criticism of life which art demands. If it had been, the audience, myself included, would have been sitting back with their lips curled dry, instead of watering."
"For all that," replied his dragoman, "it is the best we can give you; anything which induces the detached mood of which you spoke, has been banned from the stage since the days of the Great Skirmish; it is so very bad for business."
"Pity!" said the Angel, imperceptibly edging forward; "the mission of art is to elevate."
"It is plain, sir," said his dragoman, "that you have lost touch with the world as it is. The mission of art—now truly democratic—is to level—in principle up, in practice down. Do not forget, sir, that the English have ever regarded æstheticism as unmanly, and grace as immoral; when to that basic principle you add the principle of serving the taste of the majority, you have perfect conditions for a sure and gradual decrescendo."
"Does taste, then, no longer exist?" asked the Angel.
"It is not wholly, as yet, extinct, but lingers in the communal kitchens and canteens, as introduced by the Young Men's Christian Association in the days of the Great Skirmish. While there is appetite there is hope, nor is it wholly discouraging that taste should now centre in the stomach; for is not that the real centre of man's activity? Who dare affirm that from so universal a foundation the fair structure of æstheticism shall not be rebuilt? The eye, accustomed to the look of dainty dishes and pleasant cookery, may once more demand the architecture of Wren, the sculpture of Rodin, the paintings of—dear me—whom? Why, sir, even before the days of the Great Skirmish, when you were last on earth, we had already begun to put the future of æstheticism on a more real basis, and were converting the concert-halls of London into hotels. Few at the time saw the far-reaching significance of that movement, or realised that æstheticism was to be levelled down to the stomach, in order that it might be levelled up again to the head, on true democratic principles."
"But what," said the Angel, with one of his preternatural flashes of acumen, "what if, on the other hand, taste should continue to sink and lose even its present hold on the stomach? If all else has gone, why should not the beauty of the kitchen go?"
"That indeed," sighed his dragoman, placing his hand on his heart, "is a thought which often gives me a sinking sensation. Two liqueur brandies," he murmured to the waiter. "But the stout heart refuses to despair. Besides, advertisements show decided traces of æsthetic advance. All the great painters, poets, and fiction writers are working on them; the movement had its origin in the propaganda demanded by the Great Skirmish. You will not recollect the war poetry of that period, the patriotic films, the death cartoons, and other remarkable achievements. We have just as great talents now, though their object has not perhaps the religious singleness of those stirring times. Not a food, corset, or collar which has not its artist working for it! Toothbrushes, nutcrackers, babies' baths—the whole caboodle of manufacture—are now set to music. Such themes are considered subliminal if not sublime. No, sir, I will not despair; it is only at moments when I have dined poorly that the horizon seems dark. Listen—they have turned on the 'Kalophone,' for you must know that all music now is beautifully made by machine—so much easier for every one."
The Angel raised his head, and into his eyes came the glow associated with celestial strains.
"The tune," he said, "is familiar to me."
"Yes, sir," answered his dragoman, "for it is 'The Messiah' in ragtime. No time is wasted, you notice; all, even pleasure, is intensively cultivated, on the lines of least resistance, thanks to the feverishness engendered in us by the Great Skirmish, when no one knew if he would have another chance, and to the subsequent need for fostering industry. But whether we really enjoy ourselves is perhaps a question to answer which you must examine the English character."
"That I refuse to do," said the Angel.
"And you are wise, sir, for it is a puzzler, and many have cracked their heads over it. But have we not been here long enough? We can pursue our researches into the higher realms of art to-morrow."
A beam from the Angel's lustrous eyes fell on a lady at the next table. "Yes, perhaps we had better go," he sighed.
"And so it is through the fields of true art that we shall walk this morning?" said the Angel Æthereal.
"Such as they are in this year of Peace 1947," responded his dragoman, arresting him before a statue; "for the development of this hobby has been peculiar since you were here in 1910, when the childlike and contortionist movement was just beginning to take hold of the British."
"Whom does this represent?" asked the Angel.
"A celebrated publicist, recently deceased at a great age. You see him unfolded by this work of multiform genius, in every aspect known to art, religion, nature, and the population. From his knees downwards he is clearly devoted to nature, and is portrayed as about to enter his bath. From his waist to his knees he is devoted to religion—mark the complete disappearance of the human aspect. From his neck to his waist he is devoted to public affairs; observe the tweed coat, the watch chain, and other signs of practical sobriety. But the head is, after all, the crown of the human being, and is devoted to art. This is why you cannot make out that it is a head. Note its pyramidal severity, its cunning little ears, its box-built, water-tightal structure. The hair you note to be in flames. Here we have the touch of beauty—the burning shrub. In the whole you will observe that aversion from natural form and the single point of view, characteristic of all twentieth-century æsthetics. The whole thing is a very great masterpiece of childlike contortionism. To do things as irresponsibly as children and contortionists—what a happy discovery of the line of least resistance in art that was! Mark, by the way, this exquisite touch about the left hand."
"It appears to be deformed," said the Angel, going a step nearer.
"Look closer still," returned his dragoman, "and you will see that it is holding a novel of the great Russian, upside down. Ever since that simple master who so happily blended the childlike with the contortionist became known in this country they have been trying to go him one better, in letters, in painting, in sculpture, and in music, refusing to admit that he was the last cry; and until they have beaten him this movement simply cannot cease; it may therefore go on for ever, for he was the limit. That hand symbolises the whole movement."
"How?" said the Angel.
"Why, sir, somersault is its mainspring. Did you never observe the great Russian's method? Prepare your characters to do one thing, and make them very swiftly do the opposite. Thus did that terrific novelist demonstrate his overmastering range of vision and knowledge of the depths of human nature. Since his characters never varied this routine in the course of some eight thousand pages, people have lightly said that he repeated himself. But what of that? Consider what perfect dissociation he thereby attained between character and action; what nebulosity of fact; what a truly childlike and mystic mix-up of all human values hitherto known! And here, sir, at the risk of tickling you, I must whisper." The dragoman made a trumpet of his hand: "Fiction can only be written by those who have exceptionally little knowledge of ordinary human nature, and great fiction only by such as have none at all."
"How is that?" said the Angel, somewhat disconcerted.
"Surprise, sir, is the very kernel of all effects in art, and in real life people will act as their characters and temperaments determine that they shall. This dreadful and unmalleable trait would have upset all the great mystic masters from generation to generation if they had only noticed it. But did they? Fortunately not. These greater men naturally put into their books the greater confusion and flux in which their extraordinary selves exist! The nature they portray is not human, but super- or subter-human, which you will. Who would have it otherwise?"
"Not I," said the Angel. "For I confess to a liking for what is called the 'tuppence coloured.' But Russians are not as other men, are they?"
"They are not," said his dragoman, "but the trouble is, sir, that since the British discovered him, every character in our greater fiction has a Russian soul, though living in Cornwall or the Midlands, in a British body under a Scottish or English name."
"Very piquant," said the Angel, turning from the masterpiece before him. "Are there no undraped statues to be seen?"
"In no recognisable form. For, not being educated to the detached contemplation which still prevailed to a limited extent even as late as the days of the Great Skirmish, the populace can no longer be trusted with such works of art; they are liable to rush at them, for embrace, or demolition, as their temperaments may dictate."
"The Greeks are dead, then," said the Angel.
"As door-nails, sir. They regarded life as a thing to be enjoyed—a vice you will not have noticed in the British. The Greeks were an outdoor people, who lived in the sun and the fresh air, and had none of the niceness bred by the life of our towns. We have long been renowned for our delicacy about the body; nor has the tendency been decreased by constituting Watch Committees of young persons in every borough. These are now the arbiters of art, and nothing unsuitable to the child of seven passes their censorship."
"How careful!" said the Angel.
"The result has been wonderful," remarked his dragoman. "Wonderful!" he repeated, dreamily. "I suppose there is more smouldering sexual desire and disease in this country than in any other."
"Was that the intention?" asked the Angel.
"Oh! no, sir! That is but the natural effect of so remarkably pure a surface. All is within instead of without. Nature has now wholly disappeared. The process was sped up by the Great Skirmish. For, since then, we have had little leisure and income to spare on the gratification of anything but laughter; this and the 'unco-guid' have made our art-surface glare in the eyes of the nations, thin and spotless as if made of tin."
The Angel raised his eyebrows. "I had hoped for better things," he said.
"You must not suppose, sir," pursued his dragoman, "that there is not plenty of the undraped, so long as it is vulgar, as you saw just now upon the stage, for that is good business; the line is only drawn at the danger-point of art, which is always very bad business in this country. Yet even in real life the undraped has to be grotesque to be admitted; the one fatal quality is natural beauty. The laugh, sir, the laugh—even the most hideous and vulgar laugh—is such a disinfectant. I should, however, say in justice to our literary men, that they have not altogether succumbed to the demand for cachinnations. A school, which first drew breath before the Great Skirmish began, has perfected itself, till now we have whole tomes where hardly a sentence would be intelligible to any save the initiate; this enables them to defy the Watch Committees, with other Philistines. We have writers who mysteriously preach the realisation of self by never considering anybody else; of purity through experience of exotic vice; of courage through habitual cowardice; and of kindness through Prussian behaviour. They are generally young. We have others whose fiction consists of autobiography interspersed with philosophic and political fluencies. These may be of any age from eighty odd to the bitter thirties. We have also the copious and chatty novelist; and transcribers of the life of the Laborious, whom the Laborious never read. Above all, we have the great Patriotic school, who put the national motto first, and write purely what is good for trade. In fact, we have every sort, as in the old days."
"It would appear," said the Angel, "that the arts have stood somewhat still."
"Except for a more external purity, and a higher internal corruption," replied his dragoman.
"Are artists still noted for their jealousies?" asked the Angel.
"They are, sir; for that is inherent in the artistic temperament, which is extremely touchy about fame."
"And do they still get angry when those gentlemen—the——"
"Critics," his dragoman suggested. "They get angry, sir; but critics are usually anonymous, and from excellent reasons; for not only are the passions of an angry artist very high, but the knowledge of an angry critic is not infrequently very low, especially of art. It is kinder to save life, where possible."
"For my part," said the Angel, "I have little regard for human life, and consider that many persons would be better buried."
"That may be," his dragoman retorted with some irritation; "'errare est humanum.' But I, for one, would rather be a dead human being any day than a live angel, for I think they are more charitable."
"Well," said the Angel genially, "you have the prejudice of your kind. Have you an artist about the place, to show me? I do not recollect any at Madame Tussaud's."
"They have taken to declining that honour. We could see one in real life if we went to Cornwall."
"I cannot tell you, sir. There is something in the air which affects their passions."
"I am hungry, and would rather go to the Savoy," said the Angel, walking on.
"You are in luck," whispered his dragoman, when they had seated themselves at a table covered with prawns; "for at the next on your left is our most famous exponent of the mosaic school of novelism."
"Then here goes!" replied the Angel. And, turning to his neighbour, he asked pleasantly: "How do you do, sir? What is your income?"
The gentleman addressed looked up from his prawn, and replied wearily: "Ask my agent. He may conceivably possess the knowledge you require."
"Answer me this, at all events," said the Angel, with more dignity, if possible: "How do you write your books? For it must be wonderful to summon around you every day the creatures of your imagination. Do you wait for afflatus?"
"No," said the author; "er—no! I—er—" he added weightily, "sit down every morning."
The Angel rolled his eyes and, turning to his dragoman, said in a well-bred whisper: "He sits down every morning! My Lord, how good for trade!"
"A glass of sherry, dry, and ham sandwich, stale, can be obtained here, sir," said the dragoman; "and for dessert, the scent of parchment and bananas. We will then attend Court 45, where I shall show you how fundamentally our legal procedure has changed in the generation that has elapsed since the days of the Great Skirmish."
"Can it really be that the Law has changed? I had thought it immutable," said the Angel, causing his teeth to meet with difficulty: "What will be the nature of the suit to which we shall listen?"
"I have thought it best, sir, to select a divorce case, lest you should sleep, overcome by the ozone and eloquence in these places."
"Ah!" said the Angel: "I am ready."
The Court was crowded, and they took their seats with difficulty, and a lady sitting on the Angel's left wing.
"The public will frequent this class of case," whispered his dragoman. "How different when you were here in 1910!"
The Angel collected himself: "Tell me," he murmured, "which of the grey-haired ones is the judge?"
"He in the bag-wig, sir," returned his dragoman; "and that little lot is the jury," he added, indicating twelve gentlemen seated in two rows.
"What is their private life?" asked the Angel.
"No better than it should be, perhaps," responded his dragoman facetiously; "but no one can tell that from their words and manner, as you will presently see. These are special ones," he added, "and pay income tax, so that their judgment in matters of morality is of considerable value."
"They have wise faces," said the Angel. "Which is the prosecutor?"
"No, no!" his dragoman answered, vividly: "This is a civil case. That is the plaintiff with a little mourning about her eyes and a touch of red about her lips, in the black hat with the aigrette, the pearls, and the fashionably sober clothes."
"I see her," said the Angel: "an attractive woman. Will she win?"
"We do not call it winning, sir; for this, as you must know, is a sad matter, and implies the breaking-up of a home. She will most unwillingly receive a decree, at least, I think so," he added; "though whether it will stand the scrutiny of the King's Proctor we may wonder a little, from her appearance."
"King's Proctor?" said the Angel. "What is that?"
"A celestial Die-hard, sir, paid to join together again those whom man have put asunder."
"I do not follow," said the Angel fretfully.
"I perceive," whispered his dragoman, "that I must make clear to you the spirit which animates our justice in these matters. You know, of course, that the intention of our law is ever to penalise the wrong-doer. It therefore requires the innocent party, like that lady there, to be exceptionally innocent, not only before she secures her divorce, but for six months afterwards."
"Oh!" said the Angel. "And where is the guilty party?"
"Probably in the south of France," returned his dragoman, "with the new partner of his affections. They have a place in the sun; this one a place in the Law Courts."
"Dear me!" said the Angel. "Does she prefer that?"
"There are ladies," his dragoman replied, "who find it a pleasure to appear, no matter where, so long as people can see them in a pretty hat. But the great majority would rather sink into the earth than do this thing."
"The face of this one is most agreeable to me; I should not wish her to sink," said the Angel warmly.
"Agreeable or not," resumed his dragoman, "they have to bring their hearts for inspection by the public if they wish to become free from the party who has done them wrong. This is necessary, for the penalisation of the wrong-doer."
"And how will he be penalised?" asked the Angel naïvely.
"By receiving his freedom," returned his dragoman, "together with the power to enjoy himself with his new partner, in the sun, until, in due course, he is able to marry her."
"This is mysterious to me," murmured the Angel. "Is not the boot on the wrong leg?"
"Oh! sir, the law would not make a mistake like that. You are bringing a single mind to the consideration of this matter, but that will never do. This lady is a true and much-wronged wife; that is—let us hope so!—to whom our law has given its protection and remedy; but she is also, in its eyes, somewhat reprehensible for desiring to avail herself of that protection and remedy. For, though the law is now purely the affair of the State and has nothing to do with the Appointed, it still secretly believes in the religious maxim: 'Once married, always married,' and feels that however much a married person is neglected or ill-treated, she should not desire to be free."
"She?" said the Angel. "Does a man never desire to be free?"
"Oh, yes! sir, and not infrequently."
"Does your law, then, not consider him reprehensible in that desire?"
"In theory, perhaps; but there is a subtle distinction. For, sir, as you observe from the countenances before you, the law is administered entirely by males, and males cannot but believe in the divine right of males to have a better time than females; and, though they do not say so, they naturally feel that a husband wronged by a wife is more injured than a wife wronged by a husband."
"There is much in that," said the Angel. "But tell me how the oracle is worked—for it may come in handy!"
"You allude, sir, to the necessary procedure? I will make this clear. There are two kinds of cases: what I may call the 'O.K.' and what I may call the 'rig.' Now in the 'O.K.' it is only necessary for the plaintiff, if it be a woman, to receive a black eye from her husband and to pay detectives to find out that he has been too closely in the company of another; if it be a man, he need not receive a black eye from his wife, and has merely to pay the detectives to obtain the same necessary information."
"Why this difference between the sexes?" asked the Angel.
"Because," answered his dragoman, "woman is the weaker sex, things are therefore harder for her."
"But," said the Angel, "the English have a reputation for chivalry."
"They have, sir."
"Well——" began the Angel.
"When these conditions are complied with," interrupted his dragoman, "a suit for divorce may be brought, which may or may not be defended. Now, the 'rig,' which is always brought by the wife, is not so simple, for it must be subdivided into two sections: 'Ye straight rig' and 'Ye crooked rig.' 'Ye straight rig' is where the wife cannot induce her husband to remain with her, and discovering from him that he has been in the close company of another, wishes to be free of him. She therefore tells the Court that she wishes him to come back to her, and the Court will tell him to go back. Whereon, if he obey, the fat is sometimes in the fire. If, however, he obeys not, which is the more probable, she may, after a short delay, bring a suit, adducing the evidence she has obtained, and receive a decree. This may be the case before you, or, on the other hand, it may not, and will then be what is called 'Ye crooked rig.' If that is so, these two persons, having found that they cannot live in conjugal friendliness, have laid their heads together for the last time, and arranged to part; the procedure will now be the same as in 'Ye straight rig.' But the wife must take the greatest care to lead the Court to suppose that she really wishes her husband to come back; for, if she does not, it is collusion. The more ardent her desire to part from him, the more care she must take to pretend the opposite! But this sort of case is, after all, the simplest, for both parties are in complete accord in desiring to be free of each other, so neither does anything to retard that end, which is soon obtained."
"About that evidence?" said the Angel. "What must the man do?"
"He will require to go to an hotel with a lady friend," replied his dragoman; "once will be enough. And, provided they are called in the morning, there is no real necessity for anything else."
"H'm!" said the Angel. "This, indeed, seems to me to be all around about the bush. Could there not be some simple method which would not necessitate the perversion of the truth?"
"Ah, no!" responded his dragoman. "You forget what I told you, sir. However unhappy people may be together, our law grudges their separation; it requires them therefore to be immoral, or to lie, or both, before they can part."
"Curious!" said the Angel.
"You must understand, sir, that when a man says he will take a woman, and a woman says she will take a man, for the rest of their natural existence, they are assumed to know all about each other, though not permitted, of course, by the laws of morality to know anything of real importance. Since it is almost impossible from a modest acquaintanceship to make sure whether they will continue to desire each other's company after a completed knowledge, they are naturally disposed to go it 'blind,' if I may be pardoned the expression, and will take each other for ever on the smallest provocations. For the human being, sir, makes nothing of the words 'for ever,' when it sees immediate happiness before it. You can well understand, therefore, how necessary it is to make it very hard for them to get untied again."
"I should dislike living with a wife if I were tired of her," said the Angel.
"Sir," returned his dragoman confidentially, "in that sentiment you would have with you the whole male population. And, I believe, the whole of the female population would feel the same if they were tired of you, as the husband."
"That!" said the Angel, with a quiet smile.
"Ah! yes, sir; but does not this convince you of the necessity to force people who are tired of each other to go on living together?"
"No," said the Angel, with appalling frankness.
"Well," his dragoman replied soberly, "I must admit that some have thought our marriage laws should be in a museum, for they are unique; and, though a source of amusement to the public, and emolument to the profession, they pass the comprehension of men and angels who have not the key of the mystery."
"What key?" asked the Angel.
"I will give it you, sir," said his dragoman: "The English have a genius for taking the shadow of a thing for its substance. 'So long,' they say, 'as our marriages, our virtue, our honesty, and happiness seem to be, they are.' So long, therefore, as we do not dissolve a marriage it remains virtuous, honest and happy though the parties to it may be unfaithful, untruthful, and in misery. It would be regarded as awful, sir, for marriage to depend on mutual liking. We English cannot bear the thought of defeat. To dissolve an unhappy marriage is to recognise defeat by life, and we would rather that other people lived in wretchedness all their days than admit that members of our race had come up against something too hard to overcome. The English do not care about making the best out of this life in reality so long as they can do it in appearance."
"Then they believe in a future life?"
"They did to some considerable extent up to the 'eighties of the last century, and their laws and customs were no doubt settled in accordance therewith, and have not yet had time to adapt themselves. We are a somewhat slow-moving people, always a generation or two behind our real beliefs."
"They have lost their belief, then?"
"It is difficult to arrive at figures, sir, on such a question. But it has been estimated that perhaps one in ten adults now has some semblance of what may be called active belief in a future existence."
"And the rest are prepared to let their lives be arranged in accordance with the belief of that tenth?" asked the Angel, surprised. "Tell me, do they think their matrimonial differences will be adjusted over there, or what?"
"As to that, all is cloudy; and certain matters would be difficult to adjust without bigamy; for general opinion and the law permit the remarriage of persons whose first has gone before."
"How about children?" said the Angel; "for that is no inconsiderable item, I imagine."
"Yes, sir, they are a difficulty. But here, again, my key will fit. So long as the marriage seems real, it does not matter that the children know it isn't and suffer from the disharmony of their parents."
"I think," said the Angel acutely, "there must be some more earthly reason for the condition of your marriage laws than those you give me. It's all a matter of property at bottom, I suspect."
"Sir," said his dragoman, seemingly much struck, "I should not be surprised if you were right. There is little interest in divorce where no money is involved, and our poor are considered able to do without it. But I will never admit that this is the reason for the state of our divorce laws. No, no; I am an Englishman."
"Well," said the Angel, "we are wandering. Does this judge believe what they are now saying to him?"
"It is impossible to inform you, for judges are very deep and know all that is to be known on these matters. But of this you may be certain: if anything is fishy to the average apprehension, he will not suffer it to pass his nose."
"Where is the average apprehension?" asked the Angel.
"There, sir," said his dragoman, pointing to the jury with his chin, "noted for their common sense."
"And these others with grey heads who are calling each other friend, though they appear to be inimical?"
"Little can be hid from them," returned his dragoman; "but this case, though defended as to certain matters of money, is not disputed in regard to the divorce itself. Moreover, they are bound by professional etiquette to serve their clients through thin and thick."
"Cease!" said the Angel; "I wish to hear this evidence, and so does the lady on my left wing."
His dragoman smiled in his beard, and made no answer.
"Tell me," remarked the Angel, when he had listened, "does this woman get anything for saying she called them in the morning?"
"Fie, sir!" responded his dragoman; "only her expenses to the Court and back. Though indeed, it is possible that after she had called them, she got half a sovereign from the defendant to impress the matter on her mind, seeing that she calls many people every day."
"The whole matter," said the Angel with a frown, "appears to be in the nature of a game; nor are the details as savoury as I expected."
"It would be otherwise if the case were defended, sir," returned his dragoman; "then, too, you would have had an opportunity of understanding the capacity of the human mind for seeing the same incident to be both black and white; but it would take much of your valuable time, and the Court would be so crowded that you would have a lady sitting on your right wing also, and possibly on your knee. For, as you observe, ladies are particularly attached to these dramas of real life."
"If my wife were a wrong one," said the Angel, "I suppose that, according to your law, I could not sew her up in a sack and place it in the water?"
"We are not now in the days of the Great Skirmish," replied his dragoman somewhat coldly. "At that time any soldier who found his wife unfaithful, as we call it, could shoot her with impunity and receive the plaudits and possibly a presentation from the populace, though he himself may not have been impeccable while away—a masterly method of securing a divorce. But, as I told you, our procedure has changed since then; and even soldiers now have to go to work in this roundabout fashion."
"Can he not shoot the paramour?" asked the Angel.
"Not even that," answered his dragoman. "So soft and degenerate are the days. Though, if he can invent for the paramour a German name, he will still receive but a nominal sentence. Our law is renowned for never being swayed by sentimental reasons. I well recollect a case in the days of the Great Skirmish, when a jury found contrary to the plainest facts sooner than allow that reputation for impartiality to be tarnished."
"Ah!" said the Angel absently; "what is happening now?"
"The jury are considering their verdict. The conclusion is, however, foregone, for they are not retiring. The plaintiff is now using her smelling salts."
"She is a fine woman," said the Angel emphatically.
"Hush, sir! The judge might hear you."
"What if he does?" asked the Angel in surprise.
"He would then eject you for contempt of Court."
"Does he not think her a fine woman, too?"
"For the love of justice, sir, be silent," entreated his dragoman. "This concerns the happiness of three, if not of five lives. Look! She is lifting her veil; she is going to use her handkerchief."
"I cannot bear to see a woman cry," said the Angel, trying to rise; "please take this lady off my left wing."
"Kindly sit tight!" murmured his dragoman to the lady, leaning across behind the Angel's back. "Listen, sir!" he added to the Angel: "The jury are satisfied that what is necessary has taken place. All is well; she will get her decree."
"Hurrah!" said the Angel in a loud voice.
"If that noise is repeated, I will have the Court cleared."
"I am going to repeat it," said the Angel firmly; "she is beautiful!"
His dragoman placed a hand respectfully over the Angel's mouth. "Oh, sir!" he said soothingly, "do not spoil this charming moment. Hark! He is giving her a decree nisi, with costs. To-morrow it will be in all the papers, for it helps to sell them. See! She is withdrawing; we can now go." And he disengaged the Angel's wing.
The Angel rose quickly and made his way towards the door. "I am going to walk out with her," he announced joyously.
"I beseech you," said his dragoman, hurrying beside him, "remember the King's Proctor! Where is your chivalry? For he has none, sir—not a little bit!"
"Bring him to me; I will give it him!" said the Angel, kissing the tips of his fingers to the plaintiff, who was vanishing in the gloom of the fresh air.
In the Strangers' room of the Strangers' Club the usual solitude was reigning when the Angel Æthereal entered.
"You will be quiet here," said his dragoman, drawing up two leather chairs to the hearth, "and comfortable," he added, as the Angel crossed his legs. "After our recent experience, I thought it better to bring you where your mind would be composed, since we have to consider so important a subject as morality. There is no place, indeed, where we could be so completely sheltered from life, or so free to evolve from our inner consciousness the momentous conclusions of the armchair moralist. When you have had your sneeze," he added, glancing at the Angel, who was taking snuff, "I shall make known to you the conclusions I have formed in the course of a chequered career."
"Before you do that," said the Angel, "it would perhaps be as well to limit the sphere of our inquiry."
"As to that," remarked his dragoman, "I shall confine my information to the morals of the English since the opening of the Great Skirmish, in 1914, just a short generation of three and thirty years ago; and you will find my theme readily falls, sir, into the two main compartments of public and private morality. When I have finished you can ask me any questions."
"Proceed!" said the Angel, letting his eyelids droop.
"Public morality," his dragoman began, "is either superlative, comparative, positive, or negative. And superlative morality is found, of course, only in the newspapers. It is the special prerogative of leader-writers. Its note, remote and unchallengeable, was well struck by almost every organ at the commencement of the Great Skirmish, and may be summed up in a single solemn phrase: 'We will sacrifice on the altar of duty the last life and the last dollar—except the last life and dollar of the last leader-writer.' For, as all must see, that one had to be preserved, to ensure and comment on the consummation of the sacrifice. What loftier morality can be conceived? And it has ever been a grief to the multitude that the lives of those patriots and benefactors of their species should, through modesty, have been unrevealed to such as pant to copy them. Here and there the lineaments of a tip-topper were discernible beneath the disguise of custom; but what fair existences were screened! I may tell you at once, sir, that the State was so much struck at the time of the Great Skirmish by this doctrine of the utter sacrifice of others that it almost immediately adopted the idea, and has struggled to retain it ever since. Indeed, only the unaccountable reluctance of 'others' to be utterly sacrificed has ensured their perpetuity."
"In 1910," said the Angel, "I happened to notice that the Prussians had already perfected that system. Yet it was against the Prussians that this country fought?"
"That is so," returned his dragoman; "there were many who drew attention to the fact. And at the conclusion of the Great Skirmish the reaction was such that for a long moment even the leader-writers wavered in their selfless doctrines; nor could continuity be secured till the Laborious Party came solidly to the saddle in 1930. Since then the principle has been firm but the practice has been firmer, and public morality has never been altogether superlative. Let us pass to comparative public morality. In the days of the Great Skirmish this was practised by those with names, who told others what to do. This large and capable body included all the preachers, publicists, and politicians of the day, and in many cases there is even evidence that they would have been willing to practise what they preached if their age had not been so venerable or their directive power so invaluable."
"In-valuable," murmured the Angel; "has that word a negative signification?"
"Not in all cases," said his dragoman with a smile; "there were men whom it would have been difficult to replace, though not many, and those perhaps the least comparatively moral. In this category, too, were undoubtedly the persons known as conchies."
"From conch, a shell?" asked the Angel.
"Not precisely," returned his dragoman; "and yet you have hit it, sir, for into their shells they certainly withdrew, refusing to have anything to do with this wicked world. Sufficient unto them was the voice within. They were not well treated by an unfeeling populace."
"This is interesting to me," said the Angel. "To what did they object?"
"To war," replied his dragoman. "'What is it to us,' they said, 'that there should be barbarians like these Prussians, who override the laws of justice and humanity?'—words, sir, very much in vogue in those days. 'How can it affect our principles if these rude foreigners have not our views, and are prepared, by cutting off the food supplies of this island, to starve us into submission to their rule? Rather than turn a deaf ear to the voice within we are prepared for general starvation; whether we are prepared for the starvation of our individual selves we cannot, of course, say until we experience it. But we hope for the best, and believe that we shall go through with it to death, in the undesired company of all who do not agree with us.' And it is certain, sir, that some of them were capable of this; for there is, as you know, a type of man who will die rather than admit that his views are too extreme to keep himself and his fellow-men alive."
"How entertaining!" said the Angel. "Do such persons still exist?"
"Oh! yes," replied the dragoman; "and always will. Nor is it, in my opinion, altogether to the disadvantage of mankind, for they afford a salutary warning to the human species not to isolate itself in fancy from the realities of existence and extinguish human life before its time has come. We shall now consider the positively moral. At the time of the Great Skirmish these were such as took no sugar in their tea and invested all they had in War Stock at five per cent. without waiting for what were called Premium Bonds to be issued. They were a large and healthy group, more immediately concerned with commerce than the war. But the largest body of all were the negatively moral. These were they who did what they crudely called 'their bit,' which I may tell you, sir, was often very bitter. I myself was a ship's steward at the time, and frequently swallowed much salt water, owing to the submarines. But I was not to be deterred, and would sign on again when it had been pumped out of me. Our morality was purely negative, if not actually low. We acted, as it were, from instinct, and often wondered at the sublime sacrifices which were being made by our betters. Most of us were killed or injured in one way or another; but a blind and obstinate mania for not giving in possessed us. We were a simple lot." The dragoman paused and fixed his eyes on the empty hearth. "I will not disguise from you," he added, "that we were fed-up nearly all the time; and yet—we couldn't stop. Odd, was it not?"
"I wish I had been with you," said the Angel, "for—to use that word without which you English seem unable to express anything—you were heroes."
"Sir," said his dragoman, "you flatter us by such encomium. We were, I fear, dismally lacking in commercial spirit, just men and women in the street having neither time nor inclination to examine our conduct and motives, nor to question or direct the conduct of others. Purely negative beings, with perhaps a touch of human courage and human kindliness in us. All this, however, is a tale of long ago. You can now ask me any questions, sir, before I pass to private morality."
"You alluded to courage and kindliness," said the Angel: "How do these qualities now stand?"
"The quality of courage," responded his dragoman, "received a set-back in men's estimation at the time of the Great Skirmish, from which it has never properly recovered. For physical courage was then, for the first time, perceived to be most excessively common; it is, indeed, probably a mere attribute of the bony chin, especially prevalent in the English-speaking races. As to moral courage, it was so hunted down that it is still somewhat in hiding. Of kindliness there are, as you know, two sorts: that which people manifest towards their own belongings; and that which they do not as a rule manifest towards every one else."
"Since we attended the Divorce Court," remarked the Angel with deliberation, "I have been thinking. And I fancy no one can be really kind unless they have had matrimonial trouble, preferably in conflict with the law."
"A new thought to me," observed his dragoman attentively; "and yet you may be right, for there is nothing like being morally outcast to make you feel the intolerance of others. But that brings us to private morality."
"Quite!" said the Angel, with relief. "I forgot to ask you this morning how the ancient custom of marriage was now regarded in the large?"
"Not indeed as a sacrament," replied his dragoman; "such a view was becoming rare already at the time of the Great Skirmish. Yet the notion might have been preserved but for the opposition of the Pontifical of those days to the reform of the Divorce Laws. When principle opposes common sense too long, a landslide follows."
"Of what nature, then, is marriage now?"
"Purely a civil, or uncivil, contract, as the case may be. The holy state of judicial separation, too, has long been unknown."
"Ah!" said the Angel, "that was the custom by which the man became a monk and the lady a nun, was it not?"
"In theory, sir," replied his dragoman, "but in practice not a little bit, as you may well suppose. The Pontifical, however, and the women, old and otherwise, who supported them, had but small experience of life to go on, and honestly believed that they were punishing those still-married but erring persons who were thus separated. These, on the contrary, almost invariably assumed that they were justified in free companionships, nor were they particular to avoid promiscuity! So it ever is, sir, when the great laws of Nature are violated in deference to the Higher Doctrine."
"Are children still born out of wedlock?" asked the Angel.
"Yes," said his dragoman, "but no longer considered responsible for the past conduct of their parents."
"Society, then, is more humane?"
"Well, sir, we shall not see the Millennium in that respect for some years to come. Zoos are still permitted, and I read only yesterday a letter from a Scottish gentleman pouring scorn on the humane proposal that prisoners should be allowed to see their wives once a month without bars or the presence of a third party; precisely as if we still lived in the days of the Great Skirmish. Can you tell me why it is that such letters are always written by Scotsmen?"
"Is it a riddle?" asked the Angel.
"It is indeed, sir."
"Then it bores me. Speaking generally, are you satisfied with current virtue now that it is a State matter, as you informed me yesterday?"
"To tell you the truth, sir, I do not judge my neighbours; sufficient unto myself is the vice thereof. But one thing I observe, the less virtuous people assume themselves to be, the more virtuous they commonly are. Where the limelight is not, the flower blooms. Have you not frequently noticed that they who day by day cheerfully endure most unpleasant things, while helping their neighbours at the expense of their own time and goods, are often rendered lyrical by receiving a sovereign from some one who would never miss it, and are ready to enthrone him in their hearts as a king of men? The truest virtue, sir, must be sought among the lowly. Sugar and snow may be seen on the top, but for the salt of the earth one must look to the bottom."
"I believe you," said the Angel. "It is probably harder for a man in the limelight to enter virtue than for the virtuous to enter the limelight. Ha, ha! Is the good old custom of buying honour still preserved?"
"No, sir; honour is now only given to such as make themselves too noisy to be endured, and saddles the recipient with an obligation to preserve public silence for a period not exceeding three years. That maximum sentence is given for a dukedom. It is reckoned that few can survive so fearful a term."
"Concerning the morality of this new custom," said the Angel, "I feel doubtful. It savours of surrender to the bully and the braggart, does it not?"
"Rather to the bore, sir; not necessarily the same thing. But whether men be decorated for making themselves useful, or troublesome, the result in either case is to secure a comparative inertia, which has ever been the desideratum; for you must surely be aware, sir, how a man's dignity weighs him down."
"Are women also rewarded in this way?"
"Yes, and very often; for although their dignity is already ample, their tongues are long, and they have little shame and no nerves in the matter of public speaking."
"And what price their virtue?" asked the Angel.
"There is some change since the days of the Great Skirmish," responded his dragoman. "They do not now so readily sell it, except for a wedding ring; and many marry for love. Women, indeed, are often deplorably lacking in commercial spirit; and though they now mix in commerce, have not yet been able to adapt themselves. Some men even go so far as to think that their participation in active life is not good for trade and keeps the country back."
"They are a curious sex," said the Angel; "I like them, but they make too much fuss about babies."
"Ah! sir, there is the great flaw. The mother instinct—so heedless and uncommercial! They seem to love the things just for their own sakes."
"Yes," said the Angel, "there's no future in it. Give me a cigar."
"What, then, is the present position of 'the good'?" asked the Angel Æthereal, taking wing from Watchester Cathedrome towards the City Tabernacle.
"There are a number of discordant views, sir," his dragoman whiffled through his nose in the rushing air; "which is no more novel in this year of Peace 1947 than it was when you were here in 1910. On the far right are certain extremists, who believe it to be what it was—omnipotent, but suffering the presence of 'the bad' for no reason which has yet been ascertained; omnipresent, though presumably absent where 'the bad' is present; mysterious, though perfectly revealed; terrible, though loving; eternal, though limited by a beginning and an end. They are not numerous, but all stall-holders, and chiefly characterised by an almost perfect intolerance of those whose views do not coincide with their own; nor will they suffer for a moment any examination into the nature of 'the good,' which they hold to be established for all time, in the form I have stated, by persons who have long been dead. They are, as you may imagine, somewhat out of touch with science, such as it is, and are regarded by the community at large rather with curiosity than anything else."
"The type is well known in the sky," said the Angel. "Tell me: Do they torture those who do not agree with them?"
"Not materially," responded his dragoman. "Such a custom was extinct even before the days of the Great Skirmish, though what would have happened if the Patriotic or Prussian Party had been able to keep power for any length of time we cannot tell. As it is, the torture they apply is purely spiritual, and consists in looking down their noses at all who have not their belief and calling them erratics. But it would be a mistake to underrate their power, for human nature loves the Pontifical, and there are those who will follow to the death any one who looks down his nose, and says: 'I know!' Moreover, sir, consider how unsettling a question 'the good' is, when you come to think about it and how unfatiguing the faith which precludes all such speculation."
"That is so," said the Angel thoughtfully.
"The right centre," continued his dragoman, "is occupied by the small yet noisy Fifth Party. These are they who play the cornet and tambourine, big drum and concertina, descendants of the Old Prophet, and survivors of those who, following a younger prophet, joined them at the time of the Great Skirmish. In a form ever modifying with scientific discovery they hold that 'the good' is a superman, bodiless yet bodily, with a beginning but without an end. It is an attractive faith, enabling them to say to Nature: 'Je m'en fiche de tout cela. My big brother will look after me Pom!' One may call it anthropomorphia, for it seems especially soothing to strong personalities. Every man to his creed, as they say; and I would never wish to throw cold water on such as seek to find 'the good' by closing one eye instead of two, as is done by the extremists on the right."
"You are tolerant," said the Angel.
"Sir," said his dragoman, "as one gets older, one perceives more and more how impossible it is for man not to regard himself as the cause of the universe, and for certain individual men not to believe themselves the centre of the cause. For such to start a new belief is a biological necessity, and should by no means be discouraged. It is a safety-valve—the form of passion which the fires of youth take in men after the age of fifty, as one may judge by the case of the prophet Tolstoy and other great ones. But to resume: In the centre, of course, are situated the enormous majority of the community, whose view is that they have no view of what 'the good' is."
"None?" repeated the Angel Æthereal, somewhat struck.
"Not the faintest," answered his dragoman. "These are the only true mystics; for what is a mystic if not one with an impenetrable belief in the mystery of his own existence? This group embraces the great bulk of the Laborious. It is true that many of them will repeat what is told them of 'the good' as if it were their own view, without compunction, but this is no more than the majority of persons have done from the beginning of time."
"Quite," admitted the Angel; "I have observed that phenomenon in the course of my travels. We will not waste words on them."
"Ah, sir!" retorted his dragoman, "there is more wisdom in these persons than you imagine. For, consider what would be the fate of their brains if they attempted to think for themselves. Moreover, as you know, all definite views about 'the good' are very wearing, and it is better, so this great majority thinks, to let sleeping dogs lie than to have them barking in its head. But I will tell you something," the dragoman added: "These innumerable persons have a secret belief of their own, old as the Greeks, that good fellowship is all that matters. And, in my opinion, taking 'the good' in its limited sense, it is an admirable creed."
"Oh! cut on!" said the Angel.
"My mistake, sir!" said his dragoman. "On the left centre are grouped that increasing section whose view is that since everything is very bad, 'the good' is ultimate extinction—'Peace, perfect peace,' as the poet says. You will recollect the old tag: 'To be or not to be.' These are they who have answered that question in the negative; pessimists masquerading to an unsuspecting public as optimists. They are no doubt descendants of such as used to be called 'Theosophians,' a sect which presupposed everything and then desired to be annihilated; or, again, of the Christian Scientites, who simply could not bear things as they were, so set themselves to think they were not, with some limited amount of success, if I remember rightly. I recall to mind the case of a lady who lost her virtue, and recovered it by dint of remembering that she had no body."
"Curious!" said the Angel. "I should like to question her; let me have her address after the lecture. Does the theory of reincarnation still obtain?"
"I do not wonder, sir, that you are interested in the point, for believers in that doctrine are compelled, by the old and awkward rule that 'Two and two make four,' to draw on other spheres for the reincarnation of their spirits."
"I do not follow," said the Angel.
"It is simple, however," answered his dragoman, "for at one time on earth, as is admitted, there was no life. The first incarnation, therefore—an amœba, we used to be told—enclosed a spirit, possibly from above. It may, indeed, have been yours, sir. Again, at some time on this earth, as is admitted, there will again be no life; the last spirit will therefore flit to an incarnation, possibly below; and again, sir, who knows, it may be yours."
"I cannot jest on such a subject," said the Angel, with a sneeze.
"No offence," murmured his dragoman. "The last group, on the far left, to which indeed I myself am not altogether unaffiliated, is composed of a small number of extremists, who hold that 'the good' is things as they are—pardon the inevitable flaw in grammar. They consider that what is now has always been, and will always be; that things do but swell and contract and swell again, and so on for ever and ever; and that, since they could not swell if they did not contract, since without the black there could not be the white, nor pleasure without pain, nor virtue without vice, nor criminals without judges; even contraction, or the black, or pain, or vice, or judges, are not 'the bad,' but only negatives; and that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. They are Voltairean optimists masquerading to an unsuspecting population as pessimists. 'Eternal Variation' is their motto."
"I gather," said the Angel, "that these think there is no purpose in existence?"
"Rather, sir, that existence is the purpose. For, if you consider, any other conception of purpose implies fulfilment, or an end, which they do not admit, just as they do not admit a beginning."
"How logical!" said the Angel. "It makes me dizzy! You have renounced the idea of climbing, then?"
"Not so," responded his dragoman. "We climb to the top of the pole, slide imperceptibly down, and begin over again; but since we never really know whether we are climbing or sliding, this does not depress us."
"To believe that this goes on for ever is futile," said the Angel.
"So we are told," replied his dragoman, without emotion. "We think, however, that the truth is with us, in spite of jesting Pilate."
"It is not for me," said the Angel, with dignity, "to argue with my dragoman."
"No, sir, for it is always necessary to beware of the open mind. I myself find it very difficult to believe the same thing every day. And the fact is that whatever you believe will probably not alter the truth, which may be said to have a certain mysterious immutability, considering the number of efforts men have made to change it from time to time. We are now, however, just above the City Tabernacle, and if you will close your wings we shall penetrate it through the clap-trap-door which enables its preachers now and then to ascend to higher spheres."
"Stay!" said the Angel; "let me float a minute while I suck a peppermint, for the audiences in these places often have colds." And with that delicious aroma clinging to them they made their entry through a strait gate in the roof and took their seats in the front row, below a tall prophet in eyeglasses, who was discoursing on the stars. The Angel slept heavily.
"You have lost a good thing, sir," said his dragoman reproachfully, when they left the Tabernacle.
"In my opinion," the Angel playfully responded, "I won a better, for I went nap. What can a mortal know about the stars?"
"Believe me," answered his dragoman, "the subject is not more abstruse than is generally chosen."
"If he had taken religion I should have listened with pleasure," said the Angel.
"Oh! sir, but in these days such a subject is unknown in a place of worship. Religion is now exclusively a State affair. The change began with discipline and the Education Bill in 1918, and has gradually crystallised ever since. It is true that individual extremists on the right make continual endeavours to encroach on the functions of the State, but they preach to empty houses."
"And the Deity?" said the Angel: "You have not once mentioned Him. It has struck me as curious."
"Belief in the Deity," responded his dragoman, "perished shortly after the Great Skirmish, during which there was too active and varied an effort to revive it. Action, as you know, sir, always brings reaction, and it must be said that the spiritual propaganda of those days was so grossly tinged with the commercial spirit that it came under the head of profiteering and earned for itself a certain abhorrence. For no sooner had the fears and griefs brought by the Great Skirmish faded from men's spirits than they perceived that their new impetus towards the Deity had been directed purely by the longing for protection, solace, comfort, and reward, and not by any real desire for 'the good' in itself. It was this truth, together with the appropriation of the word by Emperors, and the expansion of our towns, a process ever destructive of traditions, which brought about extinction of belief in His existence."
"It was a large order," said the Angel.
"It was more a change of nomenclature," replied his dragoman. "The ruling motive for belief in 'the good' is still the hope of getting something out of it—the commercial spirit is innate."
"Ah!" said the Angel, absently. "Can we have another lunch now? I could do with a slice of beef."
"An admirable idea, sir," replied his dragoman; "we will have it in the White City."
"What in your opinion is the nature of happiness?" asked the Angel Æthereal, as he finished his second bottle of Bass, in the grounds of the White City. The dragoman regarded his angel with one eye.
"The question is not simple, sir, though often made the subject of symposiums in the more intellectual journals. Even now, in the middle of the twentieth century, some still hold that it is a by-product of fresh air and good liquor. The Old and Merrie England indubitably procured it from those elements. Some, again, imagine it to follow from high thinking and low living, while no mean number believe that it depends on women."
"Their absence or their presence?" asked the Angel, with interest.
"Some this and others that. But for my part, it is not altogether the outcome of these causes."
"Is this now a happy land?"
"Sir," returned his dragoman, "all things earthly are comparative."
"Get on with it," said the Angel.
"I will comply," responded his dragoman reproachfully, "if you will permit me first to draw your third cork. And let me say in passing that even your present happiness is comparative, or possibly superlative, as you will know when you have finished this last bottle. It may or may not be greater; we shall see."
"We shall," said the Angel, resolutely.
"You ask me whether this land is happy; but must we not first decide what happiness is? And how difficult this will be you shall soon discover. For example, in the early days of the Great Skirmish, happiness was reputed non-existent; every family was plunged into anxiety or mourning; and, though this to my own knowledge was not the case, such as were not pretended to be. Yet, strange as it may appear, the shrewd observer of those days was unable to remark any indication of added gloom. Certain creature comforts, no doubt, were scarce, but there was no lack of spiritual comfort, which high minds have ever associated with happiness; nor do I here allude to liquor. What, then, was the nature of this spiritual comfort, you will certainly be asking. I will tell you, and in seven words: People forgot themselves and remembered other people. Until those days it had never been realised what a lot of medical men could be spared from the civil population; what a number of clergymen, lawyers, stockbrokers, artists, writers, politicians, and other persons, whose work in life is to cause people to think about themselves, never would be missed. Invalids knitted socks and forgot to be unwell; old gentlemen read the papers and forgot to talk about their food; people travelled in trains and forgot not to fall into conversation with each other; merchants became special constables and forgot to differ about property; the House of Lords remembered its dignity and forgot its impudence; the House of Commons almost forgot to chatter. The case of the working man was the most striking of all—he forgot he was the working man. The very dogs forgot themselves, though that, to be sure, was no novelty, as the Irish writer demonstrated in his terrific outburst: 'On my doorstep.' But time went on, and hens in their turn forgot to lay, ships to return to port, cows to give enough milk, and Governments to look ahead, till the first flush of self-forgetfulness which had dyed peoples' cheeks——"
"Died on them," put in the Angel, with a quiet smile.
"You take my meaning, sir," said his dragoman, "though I should not have worded it so happily. But certainly the return to self began, and people used to think: 'This war is not so bloody as I thought, for I am getting better money than I ever did, and the longer it lasts the more I shall get, and for the sake of this I am prepared to endure much.' The saying "Beef and beer, for soon you must put up the shutters," became the motto of all classes. 'If I am to be shot, drowned, bombed, ruined, or starved to-morrow,' they said, 'I had better eat, drink, marry, and buy jewelry to-day.' And so they did, in spite of the dreadful efforts of one bishop and two gentlemen who presided over the important question of food. They did not, it is true, relax their manual efforts to accomplish the defeat of their enemies, or 'win the war,' as it was somewhat loosely called; but they no longer worked with their spirits, which, with a few exceptions, went to sleep. For, sir, the spirit, like the body, demands regular repose, and in my opinion is usually the first of the two to snore. Before the Great Skirmish came at last to its appointed end the snoring from spirits in this country might have been heard in the moon. People thought of little but money, revenge, and what they could get to eat, though the word 'sacrifice' was so accustomed to their lips that they could no more get it off them than the other forms of lip-salve, increasingly in vogue. They became very merry. And the question I would raise is this: By which of these two standards shall we assess the word 'happiness'? Were these people happy when they mourned and thought not of self; or when they merried and thought of self all the time?"
"By the first standard," replied the Angel, with kindling eyes. "Happiness is undoubtedly nobility."
"Not so fast, sir," replied his dragoman; "for I have frequently met with nobility in distress; and, indeed, the more exalted and refined the mind, the unhappier is frequently the owner thereof, for to him are visible a thousand cruelties and mean injustices which lower natures do not perceive."
"Hold!" exclaimed the Angel: "This is blasphemy against Olympus, 'The Spectator,' and other High-Brows."
"Sir," replied his dragoman gravely, "I am not one of those who accept gilded doctrines without examination; I read in the Book of Life rather than in the million tomes written by men to get away from their own unhappiness."
"I perceive," said the Angel, with a shrewd glance, "that you have something up your sleeve. Shake it out!"
"My conclusion is this, sir," returned his dragoman, well pleased: "Man is only happy when he is living at a certain pressure of life to the square inch; in other words, when he is so absorbed in what he is doing, making, saying, thinking, or dreaming, that he has lost self-consciousness. If there be upon him any ill—such as toothache or moody meditation—so poignant as to prevent him losing himself in the interest of the moment, then he is not happy. Nor must he merely think himself absorbed, but actually be so, as are two lovers sitting under one umbrella, or he who is just making a couplet rhyme."
"Would you say, then," insinuated the Angel, "that a man is happy when he meets a mad bull in a narrow lane? For there will surely be much pressure of life to the square inch."
"It does not follow," responded his dragoman; "for at such moments one is prone to stand apart, pitying himself and reflecting on the unevenness of fortune. But if he collects himself and meets the occasion with spirit he will enjoy it until, while sailing over the hedge, he has leisure to reflect once more. It is clear to me," he proceeded, "that the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the old fable was not, as has hitherto been supposed by a puritanical people, the mere knowledge of sex, but symbolised rather general self-consciousness; for I have little doubt that Adam and Eve sat together under one umbrella long before they discovered they had no clothes on. Not until they became self-conscious about things at large did they become unhappy."
"Love is commonly reputed by some, and power by others, to be the keys of happiness," said the Angel, regardless of his grammar.
"Duds," broke in his dragoman. "For love and power are only two of the various paths to absorption, or unconsciousness of self; mere methods by which men of differing natures succeed in losing their self-consciousness, for he who, like Saint Francis, loves all creation, has no time to be conscious of loving himself, and he who rattles the sword and rules like Bill Kaser, has no time to be conscious that he is not ruling himself. I do not deny that such men may be happy, but not because of the love or the power. No, it is because they are loving or ruling with such intensity that they forget themselves in doing it."
"There is much in what you say," said the Angel thoughtfully. "How do you apply it to the times and land in which you live?"
"Sir," his dragoman responded, "the Englishman never has been, and is not now, by any means so unhappy as he looks, for, where you see a furrow in the brow, or a mouth a little open, it portends absorption rather than thoughtfulness—unless, indeed, it means adenoids—and is the mark of a naturally self-forgetful nature; nor should you suppose that poverty and dirt which abound, as you see, even under the sway of the Laborious, is necessarily deterrent to the power of living in the moment; it may even be a symptom of that habit. The unhappy are more frequently the clean and leisured, especially in times of peace, when they have little to do save sit under mulberry trees, invest money, pay their taxes, wash, fly, and think about themselves. Nevertheless, many of the Laborious also live at half-cock, and cannot be said to have lost consciousness of self."
"Then democracy is not synonymous with happiness?" asked the Angel.
"Dear sir," replied his dragoman, "I know they said so at the time of the Great Skirmish. But they said so much that one little one like that hardly counted. I will let you into a secret. We have not yet achieved democracy, either here or anywhere else. The old American saying about it is all very well, but since not one man in ten has any real opinion of his own on any subject on which he votes, he cannot, with the best will in the world, put it on record. Not until he learns to have and record his own real opinion will he truly govern himself for himself, which is, as you know, the test of true democracy."
"I am getting fuddled," said the Angel. "What is it you want to make you happy?"
His dragoman sat up: "If I am right," he purred, "in my view that happiness is absorption, our problem is to direct men's minds to absorption in right and pleasant things. An American making a corner in wheat is absorbed and no doubt happy, yet he is an enemy of mankind, for his activity is destructive. We should seek to give our minds to creation, to activities good for others as well as for ourselves, to simplicity, pride in work, and forgetfulness of self in every walk of life. We should do things for the sheer pleasure of doing them, and not for what they may or may not be going to bring us in, and be taught always to give our whole minds to it; in this way only will the edge of our appetite for existence remain as keen as a razor which is stropped every morning by one who knows how. On the negative side we should be brought up to be kind, to be clean, to be moderate, and to love good music, exercise, and fresh air."
"That sounds a bit of all right," said the Angel. "What measures are being taken in these directions?"
"It has been my habit, sir, to study the Education Acts of my country ever since that which was passed at the time of the Great Skirmish; but, with the exception of exercise, I have not as yet been able to find any direct allusion to these matters. Nor is this surprising when you consider that education is popularly supposed to be, not for the acquisition of happiness, but for the good of trade or the promotion of acute self-consciousness through what we know as culture. If by any chance there should arise a President of Education so enlightened as to share my views, it would be impossible for him to mention the fact for fear of being sent to Colney Hatch."
"In that case," asked the Angel, "you do not believe in the progress of your country?"
"Sir," his dragoman replied earnestly, "you have seen this land for yourself and have heard from me some account of its growth from the days when you were last on earth, shortly before the Great Skirmish; it will not have escaped your eagle eye that this considerable event has had some influence in accelerating the course of its progression; and you will have noticed how, notwithstanding the most strenuous intentions at the close of that tragedy, we have yielded to circumstance and in every direction followed the line of least resistance."
"I have a certain sympathy with that," said the Angel, with a yawn; "it is so much easier."
"So we have found; and our country has got along, perhaps, as well as one could have expected, considering what it has had to contend with: pressure of debt; primrose paths; pelf; party; patrio-Prussianism; the people; pundits; Puritans; proctors; property; philosophers; the Pontifical; and progress. I will not disguise from you, however, that we are far from perfection; and it may be that on your next visit, thirty-seven years hence, we shall be further. For, however it may be with angels, sir, with men things do not stand still; and, as I have tried to make clear to you, in order to advance in body and spirit, it is necessary to be masters of your environment and discoveries instead of letting them be masters of you. Wealthy again we may be; healthy and happy we are not, as yet."
"I have finished my beer," said the Angel Æthereal, with finality, "and am ready to rise. You have nothing to drink! Let me give you a testimonial instead!" Pulling a quill from his wing, he dipped it in the mustard and wrote: "A Dry Dog—No Good For Trade" on his dragoman's white hat. "I shall now leave the earth," he added.
"I am pleased to hear it," said his dragoman, "for I fancy that the longer you stay the more vulgar you will become. I have noticed it growing on you, sir, just as it does on us."
The Angel smiled. "Meet me by sunlight alone," he said, "under the left-hand lion in Trafalgar Square at this hour of this day, in 1984. Remember me to the waiter, will you? So long!" And, without pausing for a reply, he spread his wings, and soared away.
"L'homme moyen sensuel! Sic itur ad astra!" murmured his dragoman enigmatically, and, lifting his eyes, he followed the Angel's flight into the empyrean.