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"Maraton has come! Maraton! Maraton is here!"
Across Soho, threading his way with devilish ingenuity through mazes of narrow streets, scattering with his hooter little groups of gibbering, swarthy foreigners, Aaron Thurnbrein, bent double over his ancient bicycle, sped on his way towards the Commercial Road and eastwards. With narrow cheeks smeared with dust, yellow teeth showing behind his parted lips, through which the muttered words came with uneven vehemence, ragged clothes, a ragged handkerchief around his neck, a greasy cap upon his head--this messenger, charged with great tidings, proclaimed himself, by his visible existence, one of the submerged clinging to his last spar, fighting still with hands which beat the air, yet carrying the undaunted light of battle in his blazing eyes, deep-sunken, almost cavernous, the last refuge, perhaps, of that ebbing life. Drops of perspiration were upon his forehead, his breath came hard and painfully. Before he had reached his destination, one could almost hear the rattle in his throat. He even staggered as at last he dropped from his bicycle and, wheeling it across a broad pavement, left it reclining against a box of apples exposed in front of a small greengrocer's shop.
The neighbourhood was ugly and dirty, the shop was ugly and dirty. The interior into which he passed was dark, odoriferous, bare of stock, poverty-smitten. A woman, lean, hard-featured, with thin grey hair disordered and unkempt, looked up quickly at his coming and as quickly down again. Her face was perhaps too lifeless to express any emotion whatsoever, but there might have been a shade of disappointment in the swift withdrawal of her gaze. A customer would have been next door to a miracle, but hope dies hard.
"You!" she muttered. "What are you bothering about?"
"I want David," Aaron Thurnbrein panted. "I have news! Is he behind?"
The woman moved away to let him pass.
"He is behind," she answered, in a dull, lifeless tone. "Since you took him with you to Bermondsey, he does no work. What does it matter? We starve a little sooner. Take him to another meeting, if you will. I'd rather you taught him how to steal. There's rest in the prisons, at least."
Aaron Thurnbrein brushed past her, inattentive, unlistening. She was not amongst those who counted. He pushed open an ill-fitting door, whose broken glass top was stuffed with brown paper. The room within was almost horrible in its meagreness. The floor was uncarpeted, the wall unpapered. In a three-legged chair drawn up to the table, with paper before him and a pencil in his hand, sat David Ross. He looked up at the panting intruder, only to glower.
"What do you want, boy?" he asked pettishly. "I am at work. I need these figures. I am to speak to-night at Poplar."
"Put them away!" Aaron Thurnbrein cried. "Soon you and I will be needed no more. A greater than we have known is here--here in London!"
The older man looked up, for a moment, as though puzzled. Then a light broke suddenly across his face, a light which seemed somehow to become reflected in the face of the starveling youth.
"Maraton!" he almost shrieked.
"Maraton!" the other echoed. "He is here in London!"
The face of the older man twitched with excitement.
"But they will arrest him!"
"If they dared," Aaron Thurnbrein declared harshly, "a million of us would tear him out of prison. But they will not. Maraton is too clever. America has not even asked for extradition. For our sakes he keeps within the law. He is here in London! He is stripped for the fight!"
David Ross rose heavily to his feet. One saw then that he was not really old. Starvation and ill-health had branded him with premature age. He was not thin but the flesh hung about him in folds. His cheeks were puffy; his long, hairy eyebrows drooped down from his massive forehead. There was the look about him of a strong man gone to seed.
"They will be all around him like flies over a carcass!" he muttered.
"Mr. Foley--Foley--the Prime Minister--sent for him directly he arrived," Aaron Thurnbrein announced. "He is to see him to-night at his own house in Downing Street. It makes no difference."
"Who can tell?" the other remarked despondently. "The pages of history are littered with the bodies of strong men who have opened their lips to the poisoned spoon."
Aaron Thurnbrein spat upon the floor.
"There is but one Maraton," he cried fervently. "There has been but one since the world was shaped. He is come, and the first step towards our deliverance is at hand."
The older man, whose trembling fingers still rested upon the sheets of paper, looked at his visitor curiously.
"You are a Jew," he muttered. "Why do you worship Maraton? He is not of your race."
The young man's gesture was almost sublime.
"Jew or Christian--what does it matter?" he demanded. "I am a Jew. What has my religion done for me? Nothing! I am a free man in my thoughts. I am one of the oppressed. Men or women, Jews or Christians, infidels or believers--what does it matter? We are those who have been broken upon the wheel. Deliverance for us will come too late. We fight for those who will follow. It is Maraton who points towards the light. It is Maraton whose hand shall press the levers which shall set the kingdoms rocking. I tell you that our own country, even, may bite the dust--a conqueror's hand lay heavy upon her throat; and yet, no matter. Through the valley of fire and blood and pestilence--one must pass through these to the great white land."
"Amen!" David Ross cried fervently. "The gift is upon you to-day, Aaron. Amen!"
The two stood together for a moment, speechless, carried away out of themselves. Then the door was suddenly opened. The woman stood there, sour and withered; behind her, a hard-featured man, official, malevolent.
"We are for the streets!" the woman exclaimed harshly. "He's got the order."
"Three pounds thirteen or out you go," the man announced, pushing his way forward. "Here's the paper."
David Ross looked at him as one awakened from a dream.
"And d--d well time, too!" the newcomer continued. "You've had all the chance in the world. How do you expect to make a living, fiddling about here all day with pencil and paper, and talking Socialist rot at night? Leave that chair alone and be off, both of you."
They glanced despairingly towards Aaron Thurnbrein. He thrust his hands into his pockets and exposed them with a little helpless gesture. The coins he produced were of copper. The official looked at them and around the place with a grin of Contempt.
"Cut it short," he ordered. "Clear out."
"There's my bicycle," Aaron Thurnbrein said slowly.
They all looked at him--the woman and the man with nervous anxiety, the official with a flicker of interest Aaron Thurnbrein drew a little sigh. The bicycle bad been earned by years of strenuous toil. It was almost a necessity of his existence.
"Aaron's bicycle," David Ross muttered. "No, no! That must not be. Let us go to the streets."
But the woman did not move. Already the young man had wheeled it into the shop.
"Take it," he insisted. "What does it matter? Maraton is here!"
Away again, this time on foot, along the sun-baked pavements, through courts and alleys into a narrow, busy street in the neighbourhood of Shoreditch. He stopped at last before a factory and looked tentatively up at the windows. Through the opened panes came the constant click of sewing machines, the smell of cloth, the vision of many heads bent over their work. He stood where he was for a time and watched. The place was like a hive of industry. Row after row of girls were there, seated side by side, round-shouldered, bending over their machines, looking neither to the right nor to the left, struggling to keep up to time to make sure of the wage which was life or death to them. It was nothing to them that above the halo of smoke the sky was blue; or that away beyond the murky horizon, the sun, which here in the narrow street seemed to have drawn all life from the air, was shining on yellow cornfields bending before the west wind. Here there was simply an intolerable heat, a smell of fish and a smell of cloth.
Aaron Thurnbrein crossed the street, entered the unimposing doorway and knocked at the door which led into the busy but unassuming offices. A small boy threw open a little glass window and looked at him doubtfully.
"I don't know that you can see Miss Thurnbrein even for a minute," he declared, in answer to Aaron's confident enquiry. "It's our busiest time. What do you want?"
"I am her brother," Aaron announced. "It is most important."
The boy slipped from a worn stool and disappeared. Presently the door of the little waiting-room was suddenly opened, and a girl entered.
"Aaron!" she exclaimed. "Has anything happened?"
Once more he raised his head, once more the light that flickered in his face transformed him into some semblance of a virile man.
"Maraton is here! Maraton has arrived!"
The light flashed, too, for a moment in her face, only she, even before it came, was beautiful.
"At last!" she cried. "At last! Have you seen him, Aaron? Tell me quickly, what is he like?"
"Not yet," Aaron replied. "To-night they say that he goes first to visit the Prime Minister. He will come to us afterwards."
"It is great news," she murmured. "If only one could see him!"
The office boy reappeared.
"Guvnor says why aren't you at your work, Miss Thurnbrein," he remarked, as he climbed on to his stool. "You won't get through before closing time, as it is."
She turned reluctantly away. There was something in her face from which even Aaron could scarcely remove his eyes.
"I must go," she declared. "We are busy here, and so many of the girls are away--down with the heat, I suppose. Thank you for coming, Aaron."
"I would like," he answered, "to walk the streets of London one by one, and stand at the corners and shout to the passers-by that Maraton has come. Only I wonder if they would understand. I wonder!"
He passed out into the street and the girl returned to her work. After a few yards he felt suddenly giddy. There was a little enclosure across the road, called by courtesy a playground--a few benches, a dusty space, and some swings. He threw himself into a corner of one of the benches and closed his eyes. He was worn out, physically exhausted. Yet all the time the sense of something wonderful kept him from collapse. Maraton had come!
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