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All Roads Lead to Calvary By Jerome K. Jerome Characters: 23220

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:06

The twilight was fading as she left the office. She turned northward, choosing a broad, ill-lighted road. It did not matter which way she took. She wanted to think; or, rather, to dream.

It would all fall out as she had intended. She would commence by becoming a power in journalism. She was reconciled now to the photograph idea-was even keen on it herself. She would be taken full face so that she would be looking straight into the eyes of her readers as she talked to them. It would compel her to be herself; just a hopeful, loving woman: a little better educated than the majority, having had greater opportunity: a little further seeing, maybe, having had more leisure for thought: but otherwise, no whit superior to any other young, eager woman of the people. This absurd journalistic pose of omniscience, of infallibility-this non-existent garment of supreme wisdom that, like the King's clothes in the fairy story, was donned to hide his nakedness by every strutting nonentity of Fleet Street! She would have no use for it. It should be a friend, a comrade, a fellow-servant of the great Master, taking counsel with them, asking their help. Government by the people for the people! It must be made real. These silent, thoughtful-looking workers, hurrying homewards through the darkening streets; these patient, shrewd-planning housewives casting their shadows on the drawn-down blinds: it was they who should be shaping the world, not the journalists to whom all life was but so much "copy." This monstrous conspiracy, once of the Sword, of the Church, now of the Press, that put all Government into the hands of a few stuffy old gentlemen, politicians, leader writers, without sympathy or understanding: it was time that it was swept away. She would raise a new standard. It should be, not "Listen to me, oh ye dumb," but, "Speak to me. Tell me your hidden hopes, your fears, your dreams. Tell me your experience, your thoughts born of knowledge, of suffering."

She would get into correspondence with them, go among them, talk to them. The difficulty, at first, would be in getting them to write to her, to open their minds to her. These voiceless masses that never spoke, but were always being spoken for by self-appointed "leaders," "representatives," who immediately they had climbed into prominence took their place among the rulers, and then from press and platform shouted to them what they were to think and feel. It was as if the Drill-Sergeant were to claim to be the "leader," the "representative" of his squad; or the sheep-dog to pose as the "delegate" of the sheep. Dealt with always as if they were mere herds, mere flocks, they had almost lost the power of individual utterance. One would have to teach them, encourage them.

She remembered a Sunday class she had once conducted; and how for a long time she had tried in vain to get the children to "come in," to take a hand. That she might get in touch with them, understand their small problems, she had urged them to ask questions. And there had fallen such long silences. Until, at last, one cheeky ragamuffin had piped out:

"Please, Miss, have you got red hair all over you? Or only on your head?"

For answer she had rolled up her sleeve, and let them examine her arm. And then, in her turn, had insisted on rolling up his sleeve, revealing the fact that his arms above the wrists had evidently not too recently been washed; and the episode had ended in laughter and a babel of shrill voices. And, at once, they were a party of chums, discussing matters together.

They were but children, these tired men and women, just released from their day's toil, hastening homeward to their play, or to their evening tasks. A little humour, a little understanding, a recognition of the wonderful likeness of us all to one another underneath our outward coverings was all that was needed to break down the barrier, establish comradeship. She stood aside a moment to watch them streaming by. Keen, strong faces were among them, high, thoughtful brows, kind eyes; they must learn to think, to speak for themselves.

She would build again the Forum. The people's business should no longer be settled for them behind lackey-guarded doors. The good of the farm labourer should be determined not exclusively by the squire and his relations. The man with the hoe, the man with the bent back and the patient ox-like eyes: he, too, should be invited to the Council board. Middle-class domestic problems should be solved not solely by fine gentlemen from Oxford; the wife of the little clerk should be allowed her say. War or peace, it should no longer be regarded as a question concerning only the aged rich. The common people-the cannon fodder, the men who would die, and the women who would weep: they should be given something more than the privilege of either cheering platform patriots or being summoned for interrupting public meetings.

From a dismal side street there darted past her a small, shapeless figure in crumpled cap and apron: evidently a member of that lazy, over-indulged class, the domestic servant. Judging from the talk of the drawing-rooms, the correspondence in the papers, a singularly unsatisfactory body. They toiled not, lived in luxury and demanded grand pianos. Someone had proposed doing something for them. They themselves-it seemed that even they had a sort of conscience-were up in arms against it. Too much kindness even they themselves perceived was bad for them. They were holding a meeting that night to explain how contented they were. Six peeresses had consented to attend, and speak for them.

Likely enough that there were good-for-nothing, cockered menials imposing upon incompetent mistresses. There were pampered slaves in Rome. But these others. These poor little helpless sluts. There were thousands such in every city, over-worked and under-fed, living lonely, pleasureless lives. They must be taught to speak in other voices than the dulcet tones of peeresses. By the light of the guttering candles, from their chill attics, they should write to her their ill-spelt visions.

She had reached a quiet, tree-bordered road, surrounding a great park. Lovers, furtively holding hands, passed her by, whispering.

She would write books. She would choose for her heroine a woman of the people. How full of drama, of tragedy must be their stories: their problems the grim realities of life, not only its mere sentimental embroideries. The daily struggle for bare existence, the ever-shadowing menace of unemployment, of illness, leaving them helpless amid the grinding forces crushing them down on every side. The ceaseless need for courage, for cunning. For in the kingdom of the poor the tyrant and the oppressor still sit in the high places, the robber still rides fearless.

In a noisy, flaring street, a thin-clad woman passed her, carrying a netted bag showing two loaves. In a flash, it came to her what it must mean to the poor; this daily bread that in comfortable homes had come to be regarded as a thing like water; not to be considered, to be used without stint, wasted, thrown about. Borne by those feeble, knotted hands, Joan saw it revealed as something holy: hallowed by labour; sanctified by suffering, by sacrifice; worshipped with fear and prayer.

In quiet streets of stately houses, she caught glimpses through uncurtained windows of richly-laid dinner-tables about which servants moved noiselessly, arranging flowers and silver. She wondered idly if she would every marry. A gracious hostess, gathering around her brilliant men and women, statesmen, writers, artists, captains of industry: counselling them, even learning from them: encouraging shy genius. Perhaps, in a perfectly harmless way, allowing it the inspiration derivable from a well-regulated devotion to herself. A salon that should be the nucleus of all those forces that influence influences, over which she would rule with sweet and wise authority. The idea appealed to her.

Into the picture, slightly to the background, she unconsciously placed Greyson. His tall, thin figure with its air of distinction seemed to fit in; Greyson would be very restful. She could see his handsome, ascetic face flush with pleasure as, after the guests were gone, she would lean over the back of his chair and caress for a moment his dark, soft hair tinged here and there with grey. He would always adore her, in that distant, undemonstrative way of his that would never be tiresome or exacting. They would have children. But not too many. That would make the house noisy and distract her from her work. They would be beautiful and clever; unless all the laws of heredity were to be set aside for her especial injury. She would train them, shape them to be the heirs of her labour, bearing her message to the generations that should follow.

At a corner where the trams and buses stopped she lingered for a while, watching the fierce struggle; the weak and aged being pushed back time after time, hardly seeming to even resent it, regarding it as in the natural order of things. It was so absurd, apart from the injustice, the brutality of it! The poor, fighting among themselves! She felt as once when watching a crowd of birds to whom she had thrown a handful of crumbs in winter time. As if they had not enemies enough: cats, weasels, rats, hawks, owls, the hunger and the cold. And added to all, they must needs make the struggle yet harder for one another: pecking at each other's eyes, joining with one another to attack the fallen. These tired men, these weary women, pale-faced lads and girls, why did they not organize among themselves some system that would do away with this daily warfare of each against all. If only they could be got to grasp the fact that they were one family, bound together by suffering. Then, and not till then, would they be able to make their power felt? That would have to come first: the Esprit de Corps of the Poor.

In the end she would go into Parliament. It would be bound to come soon, the woman's vote. And after that the opening of all doors would follow. She would wear her college robes. It would be far more fitting than a succession of flimsy frocks that would have no meaning in them. What pity it was that the art of dressing-its relation to life-was not better understood. What beauty-hating devil had prompted the workers to discard their characteristic costumes that had been both beautiful and serviceable for these hateful slop-shop clothes that made them look like walking scarecrows. Why had the coming of Democracy coincided seemingly with the spread of ugliness: dull towns, mean streets, paper-strewn parks, corrugated iron roofs, Christian chapels that would be an insult to a heathen idol; hideous factories (Why need they be hideous!); chimney-pot hats, baggy trousers, vulgar advertisements, stupid fashions for women that spoilt every line of their figure: dinginess, drabness, monotony everywhere. It was ugliness that was strangling the soul of the people; stealing from them all dignity, all self-respect, all honour for one another; robbing them of hope, of reverence, of joy in life.

Beauty. That was the key to the riddle. All Nature: its golden sunsets and its silvery dawns; the glory of piled-up clouds, the mystery of moonlit glades; its rivers winding through the meadows; the calling of its restless seas; the tender witchery of Spring; the blazonry of autumn woods; its purple moors and the wonder of its silent mountains; its cobwebs glittering with a thousand jewels; the pageantry of starry nights. Form, colour, mu

sic! The feathered choristers of bush and brake raising their matin and their evensong, the whispering of the leaves, the singing of the waters, the voices of the winds. Beauty and grace in every living thing, but man. The leaping of the hares, the grouping of cattle, the flight of swallows, the dainty loveliness of insects' wings, the glossy skin of horses rising and falling to the play of mighty muscles. Was it not seeking to make plain to us that God's language was beauty. Man must learn beauty that he may understand God.

She saw the London of the future. Not the vision popular just then: a soaring whirl of machinery in motion, of moving pavements and flying omnibuses; of screaming gramophones and standardized "homes": a city where Electricity was King and man its soulless slave. But a city of peace, of restful spaces, of leisured men and women; a city of fine streets and pleasant houses, where each could live his own life, learning freedom, individuality; a city of noble schools; of workshops that should be worthy of labour, filled with light and air; smoke and filth driven from the land: science, no longer bound to commercialism, having discovered cleaner forces; a city of gay playgrounds where children should learn laughter; of leafy walks where the creatures of the wood and field should be as welcome guests helping to teach sympathy and kindliness: a city of music, of colour, of gladness. Beauty worshipped as religion; ugliness banished as a sin: no ugly slums, no ugly cruelty, no slatternly women and brutalized men, no ugly, sobbing children; no ugly vice flaunting in every highway its insult to humanity: a city clad in beauty as with a living garment where God should walk with man.

She had reached a neighbourhood of narrow, crowded streets. The women were mostly without hats; and swarthy men, rolling cigarettes, lounged against doorways. The place had a quaint foreign flavour. Tiny cafés, filled with smoke and noise, and clean, inviting restaurants abounded. She was feeling hungry, and, choosing one the door of which stood open, revealing white tablecloths and a pleasant air of cheerfulness, she entered. It was late and the tables were crowded. Only at one, in a far corner, could she detect a vacant place, opposite to a slight, pretty-looking girl very quietly dressed. She made her way across and the girl, anticipating her request, welcomed her with a smile. They ate for a while in silence, divided only by the narrow table, their heads, when they leant forward, almost touching. Joan noticed the short, white hands, the fragrance of some delicate scent. There was something odd about her. She seemed to be unnecessarily conscious of being alone. Suddenly she spoke.

"Nice little restaurant, this," she said. "One of the few places where you can depend upon not being annoyed."

Joan did not understand. "In what way?" she asked.

"Oh, you know, men," answered the girl. "They come and sit down opposite to you, and won't leave you alone. At most of the places, you've got to put up with it or go outside. Here, old Gustav never permits it."

Joan was troubled. She was rather looking forward to occasional restaurant dinners, where she would be able to study London's Bohemia.

"You mean," she asked, "that they force themselves upon you, even if you make it plain-"

"Oh, the plainer you make it that you don't want them, the more sport they think it," interrupted the girl with a laugh.

Joan hoped she was exaggerating. "I must try and select a table where there is some good-natured girl to keep me in countenance," she said with a smile.

"Yes, I was glad to see you," answered the girl. "It's hateful, dining by oneself. Are you living alone?"

"Yes," answered Joan. "I'm a journalist."

"I thought you were something," answered the girl. "I'm an artist. Or, rather, was," she added after a pause.

"Why did you give it up?" asked Joan.

"Oh, I haven't given it up, not entirely," the girl answered. "I can always get a couple of sovereigns for a sketch, if I want it, from one or another of the frame-makers. And they can generally sell them for a fiver. I've seen them marked up. Have you been long in London?"

"No," answered Joan. "I'm a Lancashire lass."

"Curious," said the girl, "so am I. My father's a mill manager near Bolton. You weren't educated there?"

"No," Joan admitted. "I went to Rodean at Brighton when I was ten years old, and so escaped it. Nor were you," she added with a smile, "judging from your accent."

"No," answered the other, "I was at Hastings-Miss Gwyn's. Funny how we seem to have always been near to one another. Dad wanted me to be a doctor. But I'd always been mad about art."

Joan had taken a liking to the girl. It was a spiritual, vivacious face with frank eyes and a firm mouth; and the voice was low and strong.

"Tell me," she said, "what interfered with it?" Unconsciously she was leaning forward, her chin supported by her hands. Their faces were very near to one another.

The girl looked up. She did not answer for a moment. There came a hardening of the mouth before she spoke.

"A baby," she said. "Oh, it was my own fault," she continued. "I wanted it. It was all the talk at the time. You don't remember. Our right to children. No woman complete without one. Maternity, woman's kingdom. All that sort of thing. As if the storks brought them. Don't suppose it made any real difference; but it just helped me to pretend that it was something pretty and high-class. 'Overmastering passion' used to be the explanation, before that. I guess it's all much of a muchness: just natural instinct."

The restaurant had been steadily emptying. Monsieur Gustav and his ample-bosomed wife were seated at a distant table, eating their own dinner.

"Why couldn't you have married?" asked Joan.

The girl shrugged her shoulders. "Who was there for me to marry?" she answered. "The men who wanted me: clerks, young tradesmen, down at home-I wasn't taking any of that lot. And the men I might have fancied were all of them too poor. There was one student. He's got on since. Easy enough for him to talk about waiting. Meanwhile. Well, it's like somebody suggesting dinner to you the day after to-morrow. All right enough, if you're not troubled with an appetite."

The waiter came to clear the table. They were almost the last customers left. The man's tone and manner jarred upon Joan. She had not noticed it before. Joan ordered coffee and the girl, exchanging a joke with the waiter, added a liqueur.

"But why should you give up your art?" persisted Joan. It was that was sticking in her mind. "I should have thought that, if only for the sake of the child, you would have gone on with it."

"Oh, I told myself all that," answered the girl. "Was going to devote my life to it. Did for nearly two years. Till I got sick of living like a nun: never getting a bit of excitement. You see, I've got the poison in me. Or, maybe, it had always been there."

"What's become of it?" asked Joan. "The child?"

"Mother's got it," answered the girl. "Seemed best for the poor little beggar. I'm supposed to be dead, and my husband gone abroad." She gave a short, dry laugh. "Mother brings him up to see me once a year. They've got quite fond of him."

"What are you doing now?" asked Joan, in a low tone.

"Oh, you needn't look so scared," laughed the girl, "I haven't come down to that." Her voice had changed. It had a note of shrillness. In some indescribable way she had grown coarse. "I'm a kept woman," she explained. "What else is any woman?"

She reached for her jacket; and the waiter sprang forward and helped her on with it, prolonging the business needlessly. She wished him "Good evening" in a tone of distant hauteur, and led the way to the door. Outside the street was dim and silent. Joan held out her hand.

"No hope of happy endings," she said with a forced laugh. "Couldn't marry him I suppose?"

"He has asked me," answered the girl with a swagger. "Not sure that it would suit me now. They're not so nice to you when they've got you fixed up. So long."

She turned abruptly and walked rapidly away. Joan moved instinctively in the opposite direction, and after a few minutes found herself in a broad well-lighted thoroughfare. A newsboy was shouting his wares.

"'Orrible murder of a woman. Shockin' details. Speshul," repeating it over and over again in a hoarse, expressionless monotone.

He was selling the papers like hot cakes; the purchasers too eager to even wait for their change. She wondered, with a little lump in her throat, how many would have stopped to buy had he been calling instead: "Discovery of new sonnet by Shakespeare. Extra special."

Through swinging doors, she caught glimpses of foul interiors, crowded with men and women released from their toil, taking their evening pleasure. From coloured posters outside the great theatres and music halls, vulgarity and lewdness leered at her, side by side with announcements that the house was full. From every roaring corner, scintillating lights flared forth the merits of this public benefactor's whisky, of this other celebrity's beer: it seemed the only message the people cared to hear. Even among the sirens of the pavement, she noticed that the quiet and merely pretty were hardly heeded. It was everywhere the painted and the overdressed that drew the roving eyes.

She remembered a pet dog that someone had given her when she was a girl, and how one afternoon she had walked with the tears streaming down her face because, in spite of her scoldings and her pleadings, it would keep stopping to lick up filth from the roadway. A kindly passer-by had laughed and told her not to mind.

"Why, that's a sign of breeding, that is, Missie," the man had explained. "It's the classy ones that are always the worst."

It had come to her afterwards craving with its soft brown, troubled eyes for forgiveness. But she had never been able to break it of the habit.

Must man for ever be chained by his appetites to the unclean: ever be driven back, dragged down again into the dirt by his own instincts: ever be rendered useless for all finer purposes by the baseness of his own desires?

The City of her Dreams! The mingled voices of the crowd shaped itself into a mocking laugh.

It seemed to her that it was she that they were laughing at, pointing her out to one another, jeering at her, reviling her, threatening her.

She hurried onward with bent head, trying to escape them. She felt so small, so helpless. Almost she cried out in her despair.

She must have walked mechanically. Looking up she found herself in her own street. And as she reached her doorway the tears came suddenly.

She heard a quick step behind her, and turning, she saw a man with a latch key in his hand. He passed her and opened the door; and then, facing round, stood aside for her to enter. He was a sturdy, thick-set man with a strong, massive face. It would have been ugly but for the deep, flashing eyes. There was tenderness and humour in them.

"We are next floor neighbours," he said. "My name's Phillips."

Joan thanked him. As he held the door open for her their hands accidentally touched. Joan wished him good-night and went up the stairs. There was no light in her room: only the faint reflection of the street lamp outside.

She could still see him: the boyish smile. And his voice that had sent her tears back again as if at the word of command.

She hoped he had not seen them. What a little fool she was.

A little laugh escaped her.

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