CHILDREN OF LIGHT
It was Sunday evening, and on Sundays Max Schurz, the chief of the London Socialists, always held his weekly receptions. That night his cosmopolitan refugee friends were all at liberty; his French disciples could pour in from the little lanes and courts in Soho, where, since the Commune, they had plied their peaceful trades as engravers, picture-framers, artists'-colourmen, models, pointers, and so forth—for most of them were hangers-on in one way or another of the artistic world; his German adherents could stroll round, pipe in mouth, from their printing-houses, their ham-and-beef shops, or their naturalists' chambers, where they stuffed birds or set up exotic butterflies in little cabinets—for most of them were more or less literary or scientific in their pursuits; and his few English sympathisers, chiefly dissatisfied philosophical Radicals of the upper classes, could drop in casually for a chat and a smoke, on their way home from the churches to which they had been dutifully escorting their un-emancipated wives and sisters. Max Schurz kept open house for all on Sunday evenings, and there was not a drawing-room in London better filled than his with the very advanced and not undistinguished set who alone had the much-prized entrée of his exclusive salon.
The salon itself did not form any component part of Max Schurz's own private residence in any way. The great Socialist, the man whose mandates shook the thrones of Russia and Austria, whose movements spread terror in Paris and Berlin, whose dictates were even obeyed in Kerry and in Chicago, occupied for his own use two small rooms at the top of a shabby composite tenement in a doubtful district of Marylebone. The little parlour where he carried on his trade of a microscope-lens grinder would not have sufficed to hold one-tenth of the eager half-washed crowd that pressed itself enthusiastically upon him every Sunday. But a large room on the ground floor of the tenement, opening towards the main street, was used during the week by one of his French refugee friends as a dancing-saloon; and in this room on every Sunday evening the uncrowned king of the proletariate Socialists was permitted to hold his royal levees. Thither all that was best and truest in the socially rebellions classes domiciled in London used to make its way; and there men calmly talked over the ultimate chances of social revolutions which would have made the hair of respectable Philistine Marylebone stand stiffly on end, had it only known the rank political heresies that were quietly hatching in its unconscious midst.
While Max Schurz's hall was rapidly filling with the polyglot crowd of democratic solidarists, Ernest Le Breton and his brother were waiting in the chilly little drawing-room at Epsilon Terrace, Bayswater, for the expected arrival of Harry Oswald. Ernest had promised to introduce Oswald to Max Schurz's reception; and it was now past eight o'clock, getting rather a late hour for those simple-minded, early-rising Communists. 'I'm afraid, Herbert,' said Ernest to his brother, 'he forgets that Max is a working-man who has to be at his trade again punctually by seven o'clock to-morrow. He thinks he's going out to a regular society At Home, where ten o'clock's considered just the beginning of the evening. Max won't at all like his turning up so late; it smells of non-productivity.'
'If Herr Schurz wants to convert the world,' Herbert answered chillily, rolling himself a tiny cigarette, 'he must convince the unproductive as well as the proletariate before he can set things fairly on the roll for better arrangement. The proletariate's all very well in its way, no doubt, but the unproductive happen to hold the key of the situation. One convert like you or me is worth a thousand ignorant East-end labourers, with nothing but their hands and their votes to count upon.'
'But you are not a convert, Herbert.'
'I didn't say I was. I'm a critic. There's no necessity to throw oneself open-armed into the embrace of either party. The wise man can wait and watch the progress of the game, backing the winner for the time being at all the critical moments, and hedging if necessary when the chances turn momentarily against the favourite. There's a ring at the bell: that's Oswald; let's go down to the door to meet him.'
Ernest ran down the stairs rapidly, as was his wont; Herbert followed in a more leisurely fashion, still rolling the cigarette between his delicate finger and thumb. 'Goodness gracious, Oswald!' Ernest exclaimed as his friend stepped in, 'why, you've actually come in evening dress! A white tie and all! What on earth will Max say? He'll be perfectly scandalised at such a shocking and unprecedented outrage. This will never do; you must dissemble somehow or other.'
Oswald laughed. 'I had no idea,' he said, 'Herr Schurz was such a truculent sans-culotte as that comes to. As it was an evening reception I thought, of course, one ought to turn up in evening clothes.'
'Evening clothes! My dear fellow, how on earth do you suppose a set of poor Leicester Square outlaws are going to get themselves correctly set up in black broadcloth coats and trousers? They might wash their white ties themselves, to be sure; they mostly do their own washing, I believe, in their own basins.' ('And not much at that either,' put in Herbert, parenthetically.) 'But as to evening clothes, why, they'd as soon think of arraying themselves for dinner in full court dress as of putting on an obscurantist swallow-tail. It's the badge of a class, a distinct aristocratic outrage; we must alter it at once, I assure you, Oswald.'
'At any rate,' said Oswald laughing, 'I've had the pleasure of finding myself accused for the first time in the course of my existence of being aristocratic. It's quite worth while going to Max Schurz's once in one's life, if it were only for the sake of that single new sensation.'
'Well, my dear fellow, we must rectify you, anyhow, before you go. Let me see; luckily you've got your dust-coat on, and you needn't take that off; it'll do splendidly to hide your coat and waistcoat. I'll lend you a blue tie, which will at once transform your upper man entirely. But you show the cloven hoof below; the trousers will surely betray you. They're absolutely inadmissible under any circumstances whatsoever, as the Court Circular says, and you must positively wear a coloured pair of Herbert's instead of them. Run upstairs quickly, there's a good fellow, and get rid of the mark of the Beast as fast as you can.'
Oswald did as he was told without demur, and in about a minute more presented himself again, with the mark of the Beast certainly most effectually obliterated, at least so far as outer appearance went. His blue tie, light dust-coat, and borrowed grey trousers, made up an ensemble much more like an omnibus conductor out for a holiday than a gentleman of the period in correct evening dress. 'Now mind,' Ernest said seriously, as he opened the door, 'whatever you do, Oswald, if you stew to death for it—and Schurz's rooms are often very close and hot, I can assure you—don't for heaven's sake go and unbutton your dust-coat. If you do they'll see at once you're a wolf in sheep's clothing, and I shouldn't be at all surprised if they were to turn and rend you. At least, I'm sure Max would be very much annoyed with me for unsocially introducing a plutocratic traitor into the bosom of the fold.'
They walked along briskly in the direction of Marylebone, and stopped at last at a dull, yellow-washed house, which bore on its door a very dingy brass plate, inscribed in red letters, 'M. et Mdlle. Tirard. Salon de Danse.' Ernest opened the door without ringing, and turned down the passage towards the salon. 'Remember,' he said, turning to Harry Oswald by way of a last warning, with his hand on the inner door-handle, 'coûte que coûte, my dear fellow, don't on any account open your dust-coat. No anti-social opinions; and please bear in mind that Max is, in his own way, a potentate.'
The big hall, badly lighted by a few contribution candles (for the whole colony subscribed to the best of its ability for the support of the weekly entertainment), was all alive with eager figures and the mingled busy hum of earnest conversation. A few chairs ranged round the wall were mostly occupied by Mdlle. Tirard and the other ladies of the Socialist party; but the mass of the guests were men, and they were almost all smoking, in utter indifference to the scanty presence of the fair sex. Not that they were intentionally rude or boorish; that they never were; except where an emperor or an aristocrat is concerned, there is no being on earth more courteous, kindly, and considerate for the feelings of others than your exiled Socialist. He has suffered much himself in his own time, and so miseris succurrere discit. Emperors he mentally classes with cobras, tarantulas, and scorpions, as outside the pale of humanitarian sympathies altogether; but, with this slight political exception, he is the broadest and tenderest and most catholic in his feelings of all living breathing creatures. However, the ladies of his party have all been brought up from their childhood onward in a mingled atmosphere of smoke and democracy; so that he no more thinks of abstaining from tobacco in their presence than he thinks of commiserating the poor fish for being so dreadfully wet, or the unfortunate mole for his unpleasantly slimy diet of live earthworms.
'Herr Schurz,' said Ernest, singling out the great leader in the gloom immediately, 'I've brought my brother Herbert here, whom you know already, to see you, as well as another Oxford friend of mind, Mr. Harry Oswald, Fellow and Lecturer of Oriel. He's almost one of us at heart, I'm happy to say, and at any rate I'm sure you'll be glad to make his acquaintance.'
The little spare wizened-up grey man, in the threadbare brown velveteen jacket, who stood in the middle of the hall, caught Ernest's hand warmly, and held it for a moment fettered in his iron grip. There was an honesty in that grip and in those hazy blue-spectacled eyes that nobody could for a second misunderstand. If an emperor had been introduced to Max Schurz he might have felt a little abashed one minute at the old Socialist's royal disdain, but he could not have failed to say to himself as he looked at him from head to foot, 'Here, at least, is a true man.' So Harry Oswald felt, as the spare grey thinker took his hand in his, and grasped it firmly with a kindly pressure, but less friendly than that with which he had greeted his known admirer, Ernest Le Breton. As for Herbert, he merely bowed to him politely from a little distance; and Herbert, who had picked up at once with a Polish exile in a corner, returned the bow frigidly without coming up to the host himself at all for a moment's welcome.
'I'm always pleased to meet friends of the cause from Oxford,' Herr Schurz said, in almost perfect English. 'We want recruits most of all among the thinking classes. If we are ever to make headway against the banded monopolies—against the place-holders, the land-grabbers, the labour-taxers, the robbers of the poor—we must first secure the perfect undivided confidence of the brain-workers, the thinkers, and the writers. At present everything is against us; we are but a little leaven, trying vainly in our helpless fashion to leaven the whole lump. The capitalist journals carry off all the writing talent in the world; they are timid, as capital must always be; they tremble for their tens of thousands a year, and their vast circulations among the propertied classes. We cannot get at the heart of the people, save by the Archimedean lever of the thinking world. For that reason, my dear Le Breton, I am always glad to muster here your Oxford neophytes.'
'And yet, Herr Schurz,' said Ernest gently, 'you know we must not after all despair. Look at the history of your own people! When the cause of Jehovah seemed most hopeless, there were still seven thousand left in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal. We are gaining strength every day, while they are losing it.'
'Ah yes, my friend. I know that too,' the old man answered, with a solemn shake of the head; 'but the wheels move slowly, they move slowly—very surely, but oh, so slowly. You are young, friend Ernest, and I am growing old. You look forward to the future with hope; I look back to the past with regret: so many years gone, so little, so very little done. It will come, it will come as surely as the next glacial period, but I shall not live to see it. I stand like Moses on Pisgah; I see the promised land before me; I look down upon the equally allotted vineyards, and the glebe flowing with milk and honey in the distance; but I shall not lead you into it; I shall not even lead you against the Canaanites; another than I must lead you in. But I am an old man, Mr. Oswald, an old man now, and I am talking all about myself—an anti-social trick we have inherited from our fathers. What is your friend's special line at Oxford, did you say, Ernest?'
'Oswald is a mathematician, sir,' said Ernest, 'perhaps the greatest mathematician among the younger men in the whole University.'
'Ah! that is well. We want exact science. We want clear and definite thinking. Biologists and physicists and mathematicians, those are our best recruits, you may depend upon it. We need logic, not mere gas. Our French friends and our Irish friends—I have nothing in the world to say against them; they are useful men, ardent men, full of fire, full of enthusiasm, ready to do and dare anything—but they lack ballast. You can't take the kingdom of heaven by storm. The social revolution is not to be accomplished by violence, it is not even to be carried by the most vivid eloquence; the victory will be in the end to the clearest brain and the subtlest intellect. The orthodox political economists are clever sophists; they mask and confuse the truth very speciously; we must have keen eyes and sharp noses to spy out and scent out their tortuous fallacies. I'm glad you're a mathematician, Mr. Oswald. And so you have thought on social problems?'
'I have read "Gold and the Proletariate,"' Oswald answered modestly, 'and I learned much from it, and thought more. I won't say you have quite converted me, Herr Schurz, but you have given me plenty of food for future reflection.'
'That is well, said the old man, passing one skinny brown hand gently up and down over the other. 'That is well. There's no hurry. Don't make up your mind too fast. Don't jump at conclusions. It's intellectual dishonesty to do that. Wait till you have convinced yourself. Spell out your problems slowly; they are not easy ones; try to see how the present complex system works; try to probe its inequalities and injustices; try to compare it with the ideal commonwealth: and you'll find the light in the end, you'll find the light.'