H G Wells
Perkins and Mankind
It was the Christmas party at Heighton that was one of the turning-points in Perkins' life. The Duchess had sent him a three-page wire in the hyperbolical style of her class, conveying a vague impression that she and the Duke had arranged to commit suicide together if Perkins didn't "chuck" any previous engagement he had made. And Perkins had felt in a slipshod sort of way—for at this period he was incapable of ordered thought—he might as well be at Heighton as anywhere....
The enormous house was almost full. There must have been upwards of fifty people sitting down to every meal. Many of these were members of the family. Perkins was able to recognise them by their unconvoluted ears—the well-known Grifford ear, transmitted from one generation to another. For the rest there were the usual lot from the Front Benches and the Embassies. Evesham was there, clutching at the lapels of his coat; and the Prescotts—he with his massive mask of a face, and she with her quick, hawk-like ways, talking about two things at a time; old Tommy Strickland, with his monocle and his dropped g's, telling you what he had once said to Mr. Disraeli; Boubou Seaforth and his American wife; John Pirram, ardent and elegant, spouting old French lyrics; and a score of others.
Perkins had got used to them by now. He no longer wondered what they were "up to," for he knew they were up to nothing whatever. He reflected, while he was dressing for dinner on Christmas night, how odd it was he had ever thought of Using them. He might as well have hoped to Use the Dresden shepherds and shepherdesses that grinned out in the last stages of refinement at him from the glazed cabinets in the drawing-rooms.... Or the Labour Members themselves....
True there was Evesham. He had shown an exquisitely open mind about the whole thing. He had at once grasped the underlying principles, thrown out some amazingly luminous suggestions. Oh yes, Evesham was a statesman, right enough. But had even he ever really believed in the idea of a Provisional Government of England by the Female Foundlings?
To Perkins the whole thing had seemed so simple, so imminent—a thing that needed only a little general good-will to bring it about. And now.... Suppose his Bill had passed its Second Reading, suppose it had become Law, would this poor old England be by way of functioning decently—after all? Foundlings were sometimes naughty....
What was the matter with the whole human race? He remembered again those words of Scragson's that had had such a depressing effect on him at the Cambridge Union—"Look here, you know! It's all a huge nasty mess, and we're trying to swab it up with a pocket handkerchief." Well, he'd given up trying to do that....
During dinner his eyes wandered furtively up and down the endless ornate table, and he felt he had been, in a sort of way, right in thinking these people were the handiest instrument to prise open the national conscience with. The shining red faces of the men, the shining white necks and arms of the women, the fearless eyes, the general free-and-easiness and spaciousness, the look of late hours counteracted by fresh air and exercise and the best things to eat and drink—what mightn't be made of these people, if they'd only Submit?
Perkins looked behind them, at the solemn young footmen passing and repassing, noiselessly, in blue and white liveries. They had Submitted. And it was just because they had been able to that they were no good.
"Damn!" said Perkins, under his breath.
One of the big conifers from the park had been erected in the hall, and this, after dinner, was found to be all lighted up with electric bulbs and hung with packages in tissue paper.
The Duchess stood, a bright, feral figure, distributing these packages to the guests. Perkins' name was called out in due course and the package addressed to him was slipped into his hand. He retired with it into a corner. Inside the tissue-paper was a small morocco leather case. Inside that was a set of diamond and sapphire sleeve-links—large ones.
He stood looking at them, blinking a little.
He supposed he must put them on. But something in him, some intractably tough bit of his old self, rose up protesting—frantically.
If he couldn't Use these people, at least they weren't going to Use him!
"No, damn it!" he said under his breath, and, thrusting the case into his pocket, slipped away unobserved.
He flung himself into a chair in his bedroom and puffed a blast of air from his lungs.... Yes, it had been a narrow escape. He knew that if he had put those beastly blue and white things on he would have been a lost soul....
"You've got to pull yourself together, d'you hear?" he said to himself. "You've got to do a lot of clear, steady, merciless thinking—now, to-night. You've got to persuade yourself somehow that, Foundlings or no Foundlings, this regeneration of mankind business may still be set going—and by you."
He paced up and down the room, fuming. How recapture the generous certitudes that had one by one been slipping away from him? He found himself staring vacantly at the row of books on the little shelf by his bed. One of them seemed suddenly to detach itself—he could almost have sworn afterwards that he didn't reach out for it, but that it hopped down into his hand....
"Sitting Up For The Dawn"! It was one of that sociological series by which H.G. W*lls had first touched his soul to finer issues when he was at the 'Varsity.
He opened it with tremulous fingers. Could it re-exert its old sway over him now?
The page he had opened it at was headed "General Cessation Day," and he began to read....
"The re-casting of the calendar on a decimal basis seems a simple enough matter at first sight. But even here there are details that will have to be thrashed out....
"Mr. Edgar Dibbs, in his able pamphlet 'Ten to the Rescue,'1 advocates a twenty-hour day, and has drawn up an ingenious scheme for accelerating the motion of this planet by four in every twenty-four hours, so that the alternations of light and darkness shall be re-adjusted to the new reckoning. I think such re-adjustment would be indispensable (though I know there is a formidable body of opinion against me). But I am far from being convinced of the feasibility of Mr. Dibbs' scheme. I believe the twenty-four hour day has come to stay—anomalous though it certainly will seem in the ten-day week, the fifty-day month, and the thousand-day year. I should like to have incorporated Mr. Dibbs' scheme in my vision of the Dawn. But, as I have said, the scope of this vision is purely practical....
"Mr. Albert Baker, in a paper2 read before the South Brixton Hebdomadals, pleads that the first seven days of the decimal week should retain their old names, the other three to be called provisionally Huxleyday, Marxday, and Tolstoiday. But, for reasons which I have set forth elsewhere,3 I believe that the nomenclature which I had originally suggested4—Aday, Bday, and so on to Jday—would be really the simplest way out of the difficulty. Any fanciful way of naming the days would be bad, as too sharply differentiating one day from another. What we must strive for in the Dawn is that every day shall be as nearly as possible like every other day. We must help the human units—these little pink slobbering creatures of the Future whose cradle we are rocking—to progress not in harsh jerks, but with a beautiful unconscious rhythm....
"There must be nothing corresponding to our Sunday. Sunday is a canker that must be cut ruthlessly out of the social organism. At present the whole community gets 'slack' on Saturday because of the paralysis that is about to fall on it. And then 'Black Monday'!—that day when the human brain tries to readjust itself—tries to realise that the shutters are down, and the streets are swept, and the stove-pipe hats are back in their band-boxes....
"Yet of course there must be holidays. We can no more do without holidays than without sleep. For every man there must be certain stated intervals of repose—of recreation in the original sense of the word. My views on the worthlessness of classical education are perhaps pretty well known to you, but I don't underrate the great service that my friend Professor Ezra K. Higgins has rendered by his discovery5 that the word recreation originally signified a re-creating—i.e.,6 a time for the nerve-tissues to renew themselves in. The problem before us is how to secure for the human units in the Dawn—these giants of whom we are but the foetuses—the holidays necessary for their full capacity for usefulness to the State, without at the same time disorganising the whole community—and them.
"The solution is really very simple. The community will be divided into ten sections—Section A, Section B, and so on to Section J. And to every section one day of the decimal week will be assigned as a 'Cessation Day.' Thus, those people who fall under Section A will rest on Aday, those who fall under Section B will rest on Bday, and so on. On every day of the year one-tenth of the population will be resting, but the other nine-tenths will be at work. The joyous hum and clang of labour will never cease in the municipal workshops....
"You figure the smokeless blue sky above London dotted all over with airships in which the holiday-making tenth are re-creating themselves for the labour of next week—looking down a little wistfully, perhaps, at the workshops from which they are temporarily banished. And here I scent a difficulty. So attractive a thing will labour be in the Dawn that a man will be tempted not to knock off work when his Cessation Day comes round, and will prefer to work for no wage rather than not at all. So that perhaps there will have to be a law making Cessation Day compulsory, and the Overseers will be empowered to punish infringement of this law by forbidding the culprit to work for ten days after the first offence, twenty after the second, and so on. But I don't suppose there will often be need to put this law in motion. The children of the Dawn, remember, will not be the puny self-ridden creatures that we are. They will not say, 'Is this what I want to do?' but 'Shall I, by doing this, be (a) harming or (b) benefiting—no matter in how infinitesimal a degree—the Future of the Race?'
"Sunday must go. And, as I have hinted, the progress of mankind will be steady proportionately to its own automatism. Yet I think there would be no harm in having one—just one—day in the year set aside as a day of universal rest—a day for the searching of hearts. Heaven—I mean the Future—forbid that I should be hide-bound by dry-as-dust logic, in dealing with problems of flesh and blood. The sociologists of the past thought the grey matter of their own brains all-sufficing. They forgot that flesh is pink and blood is red. That is why they could not convert people....
"The five-hundredth and last day of each year shall be a General Cessation Day. It will correspond somewhat to our present Christmas Day. But with what a difference! It will not be, as with us, a mere opportunity for relatives to make up the quarrels they have picked with each other during the past year, and to eat and drink things that will make them ill well into next year. Holly and mistletoe there will be in the Municipal Eating Rooms, but the men and women who sit down there to General Cessation High-Tea will be glowing not with a facile affection for their kith and kin, but with communal anxiety for the welfare of the great-great-grand-children of people they have never met and are never likely to meet.
"The great event of the day will be the performance of the ceremony of 'Making Way.'
"In the Dawn, death will not be the haphazard affair that it is under the present anarchic conditions. Men will not be stumbling out of the world at odd moments and for reasons over which they have no control. There will always, of course, be a percentage of deaths by misadventure. But there will be no deaths by disease. Nor, on the other hand, will people die of old age. Every child will start life knowing that (barring misadventure) he has a certain fixed period of life before him—so much and no more, but not a moment less.
"It is impossible to foretell to what average age the children of the Dawn will retain the use of all their faculties—be fully vigorous mentally and physically. We only know they will be 'going strong' at ages when we have long ceased to be any use to the State. Let us, for sake of argument, say that on the average their facilities will have begun to decay at the age of ninety—a trifle over thirty-two, by the new reckoning. That, then, will be the period of life fixed for all citizens. Every man on fulfilling that period will avail himself of the Municipal Lethal Chamber. He will 'make way'....
"I thought at one time that it would be best for every man to 'make way' on the actual day when he reaches the age-limit. But I see now that this would savour of private enterprise. Moreover, it would rule out that element of sentiment which, in relation to such a thing as death, we must do nothing to mar. The children and friends of a man on the brink of death would instinctively wish to gather round him. How could they accompany him to the lethal chamber, if it were an ordinary working-day, with every moment of the time mapped out for them?
"On General Cessation Day, therefore, the gates of the lethal chambers will stand open for all those who shall in the course of the past year have reached the age-limit. You figure the wide streets filled all day long with little solemn processions—solemn and yet not in the least unhappy.... You figure the old man walking with a firm step in the midst of his progeny, looking around him with a clear eye at this dear world which is about to lose him. He will not be thinking of himself. He will not be wishing the way to the lethal chamber was longer. He will be filled with joy at the thought that he is about to die for the good of the race—to 'make way' for the beautiful young breed of men and women who, in simple, artistic, antiseptic garments, are disporting themselves so gladly on this day of days. They pause to salute him as he passes. And presently he sees, radiant in the sunlight, the pleasant white-tiled dome of the lethal chamber. You figure him at the gate, shaking hands all round, and speaking perhaps a few well-chosen words about the Future...."
It was enough. The old broom hadn't lost its snap. It had swept clean the chambers of Perkins' soul—swished away the whole accumulation of nasty little cobwebs and malignant germs. Gone were the mean doubts that had formed in him, the lethargy, the cheap cynicism. Perkins was himself again.
He saw now how very stupid it was of him to have despaired just because his own particular panacea wasn't given a chance. That Provisional Government plan of his had been good, but it was only one of an infinite number of possible paths to the Dawn. He would try others—scores of others....
He must get right away out of here—to-night. He must have his car brought round from the garage—now—to a side door....
But first he sat down to the writing-table, and wrote quickly:
I regret I am called away on urgent political business....
He took the morocco leather case out of his pocket and enclosed it, with the note, in a large envelope.
Then he pressed the electric button by his bedside, almost feeling that this was a signal for the Dawn to rise without more ado....
Footnote 1: (return)
Published by the Young Self-Helpers' Press, Ipswich.
Footnote 2: (return)
"Are We Going Too Fast?"
Footnote 3: (return)
"A Midwife For The Millennium." H.G. W*lls.
Footnote 4: (return)
"How To Be Happy Though Yet Unborn." H.G. W*lls.
Footnote 5: (return)
"Words About Words." By Ezra K. Higgins, Professor of Etymology, Abraham Z. Stubbins University, Padua, Pa., U.S.A. (2 vols.).
Max Beerbohm, A Christmas Garland