A GIRL AMONG THE ANARCHISTS
By Isabel Meredith
In spite of the fact that there are certain highly respectable individualists of a rabid type who prefer to call themselves Anarchists, it must be owned that it requires some courage to write about Anarchism even with the sympathy befitting a clinical physician or the scientific detachment of a pathologist. And yet it is certain that Anarchists are curiously interesting, and not the less in need of observation from the fact that apparently none of the social quacks who prescribe seriously in leading articles has the faintest insight into them as a phenomenon, a portent, or a disease. This book, if it is read with understanding, will, I feel assured, do not a little to show how it comes about that Anarchism is as truly endemic in Western Civilisations as cholera is in India. Isabel Meredith, whom I had the pleasure of knowing when she was a more humble member of the staff of the Tocsin than the editor, occupies, to my knowledge, a very curious and unique position in the history of English Anarchism. There is nothing whatever in "A Girl among the Anarchists" which is invented, the whole thing is an experience told very simply, but I think convincingly. Nevertheless as such a human document must seem incredible to the ordinary reader, I have no little pleasure in saying that I know what she has written to be true. I was myself a contributor to the paper which is here known as the Tocsin. I have handled the press and have discussed details (which did not include bombs) with the editor. I knew "Kosinski" and still have an admiration for "Nekrovitch." And even now I do not mind avowing that I am philosophically as much an Anarchist as the late Dr. H. G. Sutton, who would no doubt have been astounded to learn that he belonged to the brotherhood.
Curiously enough I have found most Anarchists of the mildest dispositions. I have met meek Germans (there are meek Germans still extant) who even in their wildest Anarchic indignation seemed as little capable of hurting a living soul as of setting the Elbe on fire. For it must be understood that the "red wing" of the Anarchists is a very small section of the body of philosophers known as Anarchists. There is no doubt that those of the dynamite section are practically insane. They are "impulsives"; they were outraged and they revolted before birth. Most of the proletariat take their thrashing lying down. There are some who cannot do that. It is out of these who are not meek and do not inherit even standing-room on the earth that such as "Matthieu" comes. Perhaps it may not be out of place to suggest that a little investigation might be better than denunciation, which is always wide of the mark, and that, as Anarchism is created by the social system of repression, more repression will only create more Anarchism. However, I am perfectly aware that the next time a wild-eyed philosopher, who ought to be under restraint in an asylum, throws a bomb, all the newspapers in Europe will advocate measures for turning all the meeker Anarchists into outrage-mongers. For of the Anarchists it is certainly true that repression does not repress. Anarchism is a creed and a philosophy, but neither as creed nor philosophy does it advocate violence. It only justifies resistance to violence. So much, I think, will be discovered in this book even by a leader-writer.
In conclusion I cannot do better than quote from Spinoza's Tractatus Politicus:—
"In order that I might inquire better into the matter of this science with the same freedom of mind with which we are wont to treat lines and surfaces in mathematics, I determined not to laugh or weep over the actions of men but simply to understand them, and to contemplate their affections and passions such as love, hate, anger, envy, arrogance, pity, and all other disturbances of soul not as vices of human nature, but as properties pertaining to it in the same way as heat, cold, storm, thunder pertain to the nature of the atmosphere. For these, though troublesome, are yet necessary and have certain causes through which we may come to understand them, and thus by contemplating them in their truth, gain for our minds as much joy as by the knowledge of things which are pleasing to the senses."
I think that Isabel Meredith, so far as the outlook of her book extends, is a disciple of Spinoza. But she can speak for herself.
I. A STRANGE CHILDHOOD
II. A GATHERING IN CHISWICK
III. AN ABORTIVE GROUP-MEETING.
IV. A POLICE SCARE
V. TO THE RESCUE
VI. A FOREIGN INVASION
VII. THE OFFICE OF THE TOCSIN
VIII. THE DYNAMITARD'S ESCAPE
IX. SOME ANARCHIST PERSONALITIES
X. A FLIGHT
XI. A CRISIS
XII. THE TOCSIN'S LAST TOLL.
A STRANGE CHILDHOOD
In the small hours of a bitter January morning I sat in my room gazing into the fire, and thinking over many things. I was alone in the house, except for the servants, but this circumstance did not affect me. My childhood and upbringing had been of no ordinary nature, and I was used to looking after myself and depending on my own resources for amusement and occupation.
My mother had died when I was yet a small child and, with my elder sister and brother, I had grown up under our father's eye. He was a chemist and a man of advanced ideas on most things. He had never sent us to school, preferring to watch in person over our education, procuring for us private tuition in many subjects, and himself instructing us in physical science and history, his two favourite studies. We rapidly gained knowledge under his system and were decidedly precocious children, but we had none of the ordinary school society and routine. Our childhood was by no means dull or mopish, for there were three of us and we got on very well together, but we mixed hardly at all with children of our own age, our interests were not theirs, and their boisterous ways were somewhat repellent to us.
Our father was a great believer in liberty, and, strange to say, he put his ideas into practice in his own household. He was a devoted and enthusiastic student, and for days, nay, weeks together, we would see but little of him. He had fitted himself up a small laboratory at the top of our house on which he spent all his available money, and here he passed nearly all the time he could dispose of over and beyond that necessary for the preparation and delivery of his scientific lectures. As we grew out of childhood he made no difference in his mode of life. He gave us full liberty to follow our various bents, assisting us with his advice when requested, ever ready to provide the money necessary for any special studies or books; taking an interest in our readings and intellectual pursuits. The idea of providing us with suitable society, of launching us out into the world, of troubling to see that we conformed to the ordinary conventions of society, never occurred to him. Occasionally some old friend of his would drop in, or some young admirer who had followed his scientific work in the press would write asking permission to call and consult him on some point. They were always received with cordiality, and my father would take much trouble to be of any assistance he could to them. We children used generally to be present on such occasions, and frequently would join in the conversation, and thus we got to know various people, among whom foreigners and various types of cranks were fairly in evidence.
We lived in a large old-fashioned house in Fitzroy Square where our father had settled down somewhere in the seventies soon after his marriage to a South American Spaniard, whom he had met during a scientific research expedition in Brazil. She was a girl of seventeen, his junior by some twenty years. During his journeys into the interior of Brazil he had fallen seriously ill with malarial fever, and had been most kindly taken in and nursed by a coffee-planter and his family. Here he had met his future wife who was acting as governess. She was of Spanish descent, and combined the passionate enthusiasm of a Southerner with the independence and self-reliance which life in a new and only partially civilised country breeds. She was an orphan and penniless, but our father fell in love with her, attracted doubtless by her beauty and vivaciousness in such striking contrast with his bookish way of life, and he married her and brought her home to London. He truly loved her and was a good husband in all essential respects, but the uncongenial climate and monotonous life told on her health, and she died three years after my birth, much mourned by her husband, who plunged all the more deeply into scientific research, his only other thought being a care for our education. He had lived on in the same old house which grew somewhat dingier and shabbier each year, whilst the neighbourhood fell from its pristine respectability to become the resort of foreigners of somewhat doubtful character, of Bohemian artists and musicians.
As I sat gazing into the fire many pictures of those old days rose before me. I saw our large drawing-room with its old-fashioned furniture, handsome, often beautiful, but ill-kept; its sombre hangings and fine pictures. I recalled a typical scene there with a large fire burning cheerily in the big grate, relieving the gloom of a late winter afternoon with the bright flickering of its flames. Ensconced in a roomy arm-chair, our father is seated by the fire in a skullcap and list slippers, with his favourite cat perched on his knee. Opposite him sit two ladies, the elder of whom—a quaint, nice-looking old lady, dressed neatly in black, but whose innate eccentricity succeeded in imparting something odd to the simplest and quietest of attires—is leaning eagerly forward, pouring forth a long tale of woe into my father's sympathetic ear. She is denouncing the London roughs, landlords, and police, who, apparently, are all in league to ruin her and turn her cats astray upon an unkind world. The brutality of the English poor, who consider their duty towards the feline race fully performed when they have fed them, and who pay no more attention to their morals and higher feelings than if they were stocks and stones, arouses her ire; sympathy is what she needs, sympathy to help her to face the world and continue her crusade against cruelty. She says all this in a scattered and disconnected style, jumping from one point to another, turning occasionally to her friend for support or confirmation. This friend is a meek, subdued-looking person of uncertain age, somewhat washed-out and bedraggled in appearance. Her attire is nondescript, and seems to consist of oddments bought solely because they were cheap and bearing no relation whatever one to the other. Mrs. Smuts, growing more and more absorbed in the course of her harangue on the great cat question, states that she believes in marrying cats young in life and looking strictly after their morals; and as she appeals to Miss Meggs whilst voicing this sentiment, the latter timidly interjects, "But do you think, my dear Maria, that cats can maintain themselves chaste on a meat diet? I never give mine anything more exciting than cold potatoes and rice pudding, and I find that they thrive on it, Mr. Meredith!"
At this point we children, stifling our laughter, rush headlong from the room, to vent our mirth in safety in the kitchen.
Another frequent visitor whom my imagination summoned from the grave in which he had lain now for several years past, was a tall, thin, delicate-looking man of some thirty years of age. He was by birth a Frenchman, but had lived mostly in England, his parents having come over as political exiles from the tyranny of Louis Napoleon, afterwards settling permanently in this country. He was an engineer by profession, but a poet at heart, and all his spare time and thought he devoted to tackling the problem of aerial navigation. His day was spent earning a scanty living in a shipbuilding yard, but his evenings and nights were passed in constructing a model of a flying-machine. He would bring his drawings round to our father for discussion and advice; and although he never attained success, he was always hopeful, trusting that some one of the ever fresh improvements and additions which his fertile brain was always busy conceiving would solve the difficulty which had hitherto beset him. His sallow face with its large dreamy eyes and his spare figure, clad in an old bluish suit, rusty with age and threadbare with brushing, stand out clear in my memory. There was also an old professor, a chemist like my father, who often assisted him in his experiments. He was somewhat formidable in appearance, wearing gold spectacles, and helping himself freely to the contents of a snuff-box, but he was one of the most kind-hearted of men. Children were great favourites with him, and his affection was returned with interest as soon as the shyness consequent on his somewhat gruff manner was overcome. He used to enjoy drawing us out, and would laugh heartily at our somewhat old-fashioned remarks and observations, at which we used to grow very indignant, for we were decidedly touchy when our dignity was at stake. He had nicknamed me Charlotte Corday, for, after a course of Greek and Roman history, studied in Plutarch and Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," I had plunged into the French Revolution, glorying in its heroisms and audacity, and it had become a favourite amusement with all three of us to enact scenes drawn from its history, and to recite aloud, with great emphasis if little art, revolutionary poetry. The old professor loved to tease me by abusing my favourite heroes; and when he had at last roused me to a vigorous assertion of revolutionary sentiments, he would turn to my father and say, "There's a little spitfire for you; you will have to keep a look-out or she will be making bombs soon and blowing us all up," at which my father would smile complacently.
Our father was very charitable. He did not like to be bothered or disturbed, but he would willingly give a little assistance when asked, and the result was that our door was always besieged by beggars of various nationalities, Spaniards and Italians forming the chief contingent. Generally they confined themselves to sending in notes, which used to be returned with a shilling or half-crown as the case might be, but sometimes one would insist on a personal interview. I remember one wild-looking Hungarian, whose flowing locks were crowned by a sort of horse's sun-bonnet, who used to rush round on one of those obsolete bicycles, consisting of an enormously high wheel on the top of which he was perched, and a tiny little back one. He was generally pursued by a crowd of hooting boys, advising him to "get 'is 'air cut," and inquiring, "Where did you get that 'at?" He used to insist on seeing my father; but the help he solicited was not for himself but for various political refugees in whom he was interested. One day the professor happened to meet this wild-looking creature at our door, and inquired of my father who that maniac might be. "Oh, he is a Hungarian refugee; a good fellow, I believe. I have noticed something rather odd in his appearance, but I do not consider him mad," replied his friend.
Amid such surroundings we grew up. My elder sister, Caroline, had a notable musical gift, and even as a small child had a fine voice, which developed into a rich contralto. Our father, always anxious to do his duty by us, gave her a first-rate musical education, sending her abroad to study under famous Continental teachers, and at eighteen she made her first appearance in public, exciting much attention by the powerful dramatic qualities of her voice. It was evident that her right course was to go in for operatic singing, and this she did. She continued on the most affectionate terms with her family, but naturally her pursuit took her into quite another path of life, and we saw less and less of her as time went on. This threw my brother and myself more together. There was only a year's difference between us, and we studied together, walked, talked, played, and read together—in fact, were inseparable. Raymond was no ordinary boy. In character and in manners he was very like my father. His favourite study was physical science in its various branches; mine, history and sociological subjects. He saw things from the scientific standpoint, I from the poetical and artistic; but we were both by nature enthusiastic and dreamers, and sympathised heartily with each other's views. His ambition was to become a famous explorer; mine, to die on a scaffold or a barricade, shouting Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
Our father took a great pride in Raymond, and carefully supervised his studies. He passed various brilliant examinations, and at eighteen, having decided to go in for medicine, was already walking a hospital. Shortly after this our father died suddenly. He was at work as usual in his laboratory when he was seized by a paralytic stroke, and in three days he was dead.
This blow quite stunned us for a time. Our father was everything to us; and the possibility of his death we had never contemplated. Though, as I have explained, he had always left us free to follow our own devices, still he was the centre round which our family life circled; we were passionately attached to him, and now that he was gone we felt at a loss indeed. We had no relatives living of our father's; our mother's family we had never known, and they were too distant to be practically available. Our father's friends were not such as to be of much help to us. Cat enthusiasts and scientific dreamers are all very well in their way, but they almost always take far more than they give in the mart of friendship. The old professor had preceded my father to his grave.
Our father left us comfortably off. The house was our own, and property yielding a comfortable income was divided equally between us. Our home seemed desolate indeed without our father, and very gloomily did the first months of his absence pass; but in time hope and youth reasserted themselves and we gradually settled down to much our old way of life. Caroline obtained several engagements and was still studying enthusiastically. Raymond passed most of his time at the hospital, where he had rooms, though he frequently came home; I was the only one who had not a definite occupation. I read a great deal and wrote a little also, chiefly studies on historical subjects which interested me, but I had printed nothing. In fact I had never been in the way of the literary world, and did not know how to set about it. Time used often to hang rather heavily on my hands in the big house where I was generally alone. I was the housekeeper, but such cares did not take up much of my time. The result of so much solitude and lack of occupation was that I became restless and dissatisfied. Mere reading without any definite object did not and could not suffice me; to write when there seemed no prospect of ever being read, and keenly alive as I was to my own deficiencies, did not attract me; friends I might say I had none, for the few people my father knew were interested in him and not in us children, and ceased to frequent our house after his death. Caroline's musical friends did not appeal to me, so that the whole interest of my life was centred round my brother. When he came home we used always to be together, and conversation never flagged. Never having been to school he had none of the schoolboy's patronising contempt for a sister. We had always been chums and companions, and so we continued, but whereas, as children, it was I, with my more passionate and enterprising nature, who took the lead, now it was he who, mixing with the outer world, provided the stimulus of new ideas and fresh activities for which I craved. Brought suddenly face to face, after the studious seclusion of home, with the hard facts of life as seen in a London hospital, he had begun to take a deep interest in social questions. The frightful havoc of life and happiness necessitated by the economic conditions of nineteenth-century society, impressed him deeply, and he felt that any doctor who looked upon his profession as other than a mere means to make money must tackle such problems. Following up this line of thought he became interested in economics and labour questions. His views were the result of no mere surface impression, but the logical outcome of thought and study, and he arrived at socialism by mental processes of his own, uninfluenced by the ordinary channels of propaganda. I shared his interests and read on parallel lines. We had no friends in Socialist circles, no personal interest of any kind balanced our judgment. The whole trend of our education had been to make independent thinkers of us. What we saw in the whole problem was a question of justice, and for this we were ready and anxious to work. A new interest was thus brought into our lives, which, in my case, soon became all-absorbing. I was always begging my brother to bring me home fresh books. The driest volumes of political economy, the most indigestible of philosophical treatises, nothing came amiss. From these I passed on to more modern works. Raymond had made friends with a student who was a professed socialist and through him he came into possession of a number of pamphlets and papers, all of which I devoured eagerly, and some of which made a lasting impression on my mind. Krapotkin's "Appeal to the Young" was of this number. I remember in my enthusiasm reading it aloud to my sister Caroline, who, however, took scant interest in such matters, and who tried, but in vain, to put a damper on my enthusiasm.
I was always fond of scribbling, and the outcome of all this reading was that I, too, flew to pen and paper. I used to read my papers to Raymond on those rare occasions when I fancied I had not done so much amiss. They would provide the material for an evening's conversation, then I would toss them aside and think no more about them. One day, however, Raymond brought his Socialist friend home with him. It seems they had talked about me and my all-absorbing interest in social subjects. Hughes, my brother's friend, had been surprised to hear from Raymond that I knew no socialists in the flesh, and that all my hero-worship was laid before the altar of mental abstractions, of my own creation for the most part.
Great was my excitement when Raymond told me that I might expect him and his friend, of whom I had heard so much, to turn up together one Sunday evening. So great was my ignorance of the world, so wild my enthusiasm, that I imagined every socialist as a hero, willing to throw away his life at a moment's notice on behalf of the "Cause." I had had no experience of the petty internal strifes, of the jealousies and human frailties which a closer knowledge of all political parties reveals. I remember how ashamed I felt of the quite unostentatious comfort of our home, how anxious I was to dissemble the presence of servants, how necessary I thought it to dress myself in my oldest and least becoming clothes for the occasion, and how indignant I felt when Caroline, who was going off to sing at a concert that evening, said, on coming in to wish me good-bye, "Why, surely, Isabel, you're not going to receive that gentleman looking such a fright as this?" As if a Socialist could care for dress! How I felt he would despise me for all the outward signs which proved that I was living on the results of "unearned increment" (vide Karl Marx) and that I was a mere social parasite!
When at last the longed-for, yet dreaded moment came, I was surprised, relieved, and I must add somewhat disappointed, at seeing a young man looking much like any other gentleman, except that he wore a red tie, and that his clothes were of a looser and easier fit than is usual. "What a jolly place you have!" he exclaimed after my brother had introduced us and he had given a look round. I felt considerably relieved, as I had quite expected him to scowl disapproval, and my brother, after saying, "Yes, it is a nice old house; we are very fond of it," suggested that we should adjourn to supper.
During this repast I took an animated part in the conversation, which turned on recent books and plays. At last reference was made to a book, "The Ethics of Egoism," which had excited much attention. It was a work advocating the most rabid individualism, denying the Socialist standpoint of the right to live, and saying that the best safeguard for the development and amelioration of the race lay in that relentless law of nature which sent the mentally and morally weak to the wall. I had read the book with interest, and had even written a rather long criticism of it, of which I felt distinctly proud. In the course of the discussion to which this book gave rise among us, my brother mentioned that I had written something on it, and Hughes begged me to read my performance. Though I felt somewhat diffident, I acceded, after some persuasion, to his request, and was elated beyond measure at earning his good opinion of my effort.
"By George, that's about the best criticism I've read of the work. Where do you intend publishing it, Miss Meredith?"
"Oh, I had never thought of publishing it," I replied; "I have never published anything."
"But we cannot afford to lose such good stuff," he insisted. "Come, Raymond, now, don't you think your sister ought to get that into print?"
"I think you should publish it, Isabel, if you could," he replied.
"Could! Why any of our papers would be only too delighted to have it. Let me take it down to the Democrat," he said, mentioning the name of a paper which Raymond often brought home with him.
"Oh, if you really think it worth while, I shall be only too pleased," I replied.
Thus was effected my first introduction to the actual Socialist party. My article was printed and I was asked for others. I made the acquaintance of the editor, who, I must confess, spite of my enthusiasm, soon struck me as a rather weak-kneed and altogether unadmirable character. He thought it necessary to get himself up to look like an artist, though he had not the soul of a counter-jumper, and the result was long hair, a velvet coat, a red tie, bumptious bearing, and an altogether scatter-brained and fly-away manner. In figure he was long and willowy, and reminded me irresistibly of an unhealthy cellar-grown potato plant. My circle of acquaintances rapidly enlarged, and soon, instead of having too much time on my hands for reading and study, I had too little. At one of the Sunday evening lectures of the Democratic Club, at which I had become a regular attendant, I made the acquaintance of Nekrovitch, the famous Nihilist, and his wife. I took to him instinctively, drawn by the utter absence of sham or "side" which characterised the man. I had never understood why Socialism need imply the arraying of oneself in a green curtain or a terra-cotta rug, or the cultivation of flowing locks, blue shirts, and a peculiar cut of clothes: and the complete absence of all such outward "trade marks" pleased me in the Russian. He invited me to his house, and I soon became a constant visitor. In the little Chiswick house I met a class of people who stimulated me intellectually, and once more aroused my rather waning enthusiasm for the "Cause." The habit of taking nothing for granted, of boldly inquiring into the origin of all accepted precepts of morality, of intellectual speculation unbiassed by prejudice and untrammelled by all those petty personal and party questions and interests which I had seen occupy so much time and thought at the Democratic Club, permeated the intellectual atmosphere. Quite a new side of the problem—that of its moral bearings and abstract rights as opposed to the merely material right to daily bread which had first appealed to my sense of justice and humanity—now opened before me. The right to complete liberty of action, the conviction that morality is relative and personal and can never be imposed from without, that men are not responsible, or only very partially so, for their surroundings, by which their actions are determined, and that consequently no man has a right to judge his fellow; such and similar doctrines which I heard frequently upheld, impressed me deeply. I was morally convinced of their truth, and consequently more than half an Anarchist. The bold thought and lofty ideal which made of each man a law unto himself, answerable for his own actions only to his own conscience, acting righteously towards others as the result of his feeling of solidarity and not because of any external compulsion, captivated my mind.
The Anarchists who frequented Nekrovitch's house were men of bold and original thought, the intellectual part of the movement, and I was never tired of listening to their arguments. Meantime the more I saw of the Social Democrats the less I felt satisfied with them. A wider experience would have told me that all political parties, irrespective of opinion, are subject to much the same criticism, and that Socialist ideas are no protection against human weaknesses; but extreme youth is not compromising where its ideals are concerned, and I expected and insisted on a certain approach to perfection in my heroes. True, Nekrovitch made me hesitate some time before taking the final step. His attitude in such discussions was one of sound common sense, and he never ceased reminding his Anarchist friends, though all in vain, that we must live in our own times, and that it is no use trying to forestall human evolution by some thousand years.
At home I had become more and more my own mistress. I was now full eighteen years of age, and had always been accustomed to think and act for myself. Caroline, with whom I was on most affectionate terms, despite our frequent differences on politics, had accepted an engagement as prima donna with a travelling opera company which was to visit the United States and the principal cities of South America; her engagement was to last two years, and she had left just three weeks before the opening of my first chapter.
Raymond slept at home, but as the date of his final examination drew near he was more and more occupied, and frequently whole weeks passed in which I only caught a glimpse of him. He knew and sympathised with my new line of thought; he had accompanied me more than once to the Nekrovitchs', whom he liked much, but he had no longer the time to devote much thought to such matters. Of money I always had a considerable command; ever since our father's death I had kept house, and now that Caroline was away I had full control of the household purse.
Turning over all these thoughts in my mind as I sat toasting my feet before the fire, I felt more and more inclined to throw in my lot with the Anarchists. At the same time I felt that if I did take this step it must be as a worker and in no half-hearted spirit. The small hours of the morning were rapidly slipping by as I turned at last into bed to dream of Anarchist meetings, melting into a confused jumble with the rights of cats and the claims of the proletariat.
A GATHERING IN CHISWICK
As my first actual acquaintance with Anarchists was effected in Nekrovitch's house, it will not be out of place for me to give a slight sketch of the gatherings held there and of my host himself.
An interminably dreary journey by tram and rail, omnibus and foot, the latter end of which lay along a monotonous suburban road, brought you to the humble dwelling of the famous Nihilist. Here from time to time on Sunday evenings it was my wont to put in an appearance towards ten or eleven, for the journey was deceptively long from Fitzroy Square, and Nekrovitch, like most Russians, was himself of so unpunctual and irregular a nature, that he seemed to foster the like habits in all his friends. The nominal hour for these social gatherings to commence was eight, but not till past nine did the guests begin to assemble, and till midnight and later they would come dribbling in. Only one conscientiously punctual German was ever known to arrive at the appointed hour, but the only reward of the Teuton's mistaken zeal was to wait for hours in solitary state in an unwarmed, unlighted room till his host and fellow-guests saw fit to assemble.
The meeting-room, or parlour, or drawing-room in Nekrovitch's house was by no means a palatial apartment. Small and even stuffy to the notions of a hygienic Englishman, and very bare, scanty in furniture, and yet poorer in decoration, this room bore evidence to its owners' contempt for such impedimenta, and their entire freedom from slavery to household gods. It was evidently the home of people used to pitching their tent often, and to whom a feeling of settled security was unknown. But its occupants usually made up for any deficiencies in their surroundings.
The company was always of a very mixed cosmopolitan character—Russian Nihilists and exiles, English Liberals who sympathised with the Russian constitutional movement, Socialists and Fabians, Anarchists of all nationalities, journalists and literary men whose political views were immaterial, the pseudo-Bohemian who professes interest in the "queer side of life," all manner of faddists, rising and impecunious musicians and artists—all were made welcome, and all were irresistibly attracted towards the great Russian Nihilist.
The most notable figure in this assembly, and he certainly would have been in most assemblies, was Nekrovitch himself. Nekrovitch was essentially a great man; one of those men whom to know was to admire and to love; a man of strong intellect, and of the strong personal magnetism which is so frequently an adjunct of genius. Physically he was a huge powerful man, so massive and striking in appearance that he suggested comparison rather with some fact of nature—a rock, a vigorous forest tree —than with another man. He was one of those rare men who, like mountains in a landscape, suffice in themselves to relieve their environments, whatever these may be, from all taint of meanness. He stood out from among his guests the centre of conversation, of feeling, and of interest. He was almost invariably engaged in eager conversation, pitched in a loud tone of voice, broken at intervals when he listened to the other disputants, while puffing the cigarettes which he was constantly rolling, and looking intently out of his deep-set penetrating eyes.
Nekrovitch's wife, a Russian like himself, had been a student of medicine at the Russian University until, along with her husband, she had been compelled to take flight from the attentions of the Russian police. She was a curly-headed brunette, with bright hazel eyes and a vivacious manner; a very intelligent and highly "simpatica" woman, as the Italians would put it.
Round Nekrovitch there always clustered an eager crowd of admirers and intimates, discussing, disputing, listening, arguing. They were mostly foreigners, of the shaggy though not unwashed persuasion, but two English faces especially attracted notice. One belonged to a young woman, still on the right side of thirty, dressed without exaggeration in the aesthetic style, with a small but singularly intellectual head and an argumentative manner, whom I knew as Miss Cooper. The other was a man of some thirty-seven years, with auburn hair, which displayed a distinct tendency to develop into a flowing mane; tall, slim, and lithe of limb, with a splendid set of teeth, which showed under his bushy moustache whenever his frank, benevolent smile parted his lips. He was somewhat taciturn, but evidently tenacious; a glance at his spacious forehead and finely-shaped head revealed a man of mind, and the friendly, fearless glance of his eyes betokened a lovable nature, though, as he listened to his opponents or answered in his low distinct voice, there was an intensity and fixedness in their depth not incompatible with the fanatic.
This Dr. Armitage was one of the most noticeable figures in the English Anarchist movement, and it was with him that I first discussed Anarchist principles as opposed to those of legal Socialism. Nekrovitch and others often joined in the discussion, and very animated we all grew in the course of debate. Nekrovitch smiled sympathetically at my whole-hearted and ingenuous enthusiasm. He never made any attempt to scoff at it or to discourage me, though he vainly attempted to persuade me that Anarchism was too distant and unpractical an ideal, and that my energies and enthusiasm might be more advantageously expended in other directions. "Anyway," he once said to me, "it is very agreeable to a Russian to see young people interested in politics and political ideals. It reminds him of his own country."
Among the other Anarchists who frequented Nekrovitch's house was the Anarchist and scientist, Count Voratin, a man who had sacrificed wealth and high position and family ties for his principles with less fuss than another rich man would make in giving a donation to an hospital. He seemed always absolutely oblivious of his own great qualities, as simple and kindly in manners as a moujik but with a certain innate dignity and courtliness of demeanour which lifted him above most of those with whom he came in contact. I nourished an almost passionate admiration for Voratin as a thinker and a man, and his writings had gone far to influence me in my Anarchist leanings. Never shall I forget the excitement I felt when first I met him at Nekrovitch's house. I reverenced him as only a youthful disciple can reverence a great leader.
From Armitage and Nekrovitch I heard much from time to time of another Russian Anarchist, Ivan Kosinski, a man actively engaged in the Anarchist propaganda all over Europe. He was much admired by them for his absolute unswerving devotion to his ideas. A student and a man of means, he had never hesitated between his interests and his convictions. He had come into collision with the Russian authorities by refusing to perform military service. In prison he would not recognise the right of judges and jailers, and had consequently spent most of his time in a strait waistcoat and a dark cell. His forte was silence and dogged unyielding obstinacy. On escaping from Russian prisons he had gone to America: he had starved and tramped, but he had never accepted any sort of help. How he lived was a mystery to all. He was known to be an ascetic and a woman-hater, and had been seen at one time selling fly-papers in the streets of New York. In revolutionary circles he was looked up to as an original thinker, and it was rumoured that he played a leading part in most of the revolutionary movements of recent years. He was also engaged on a life of Bakounine which was to be the standard work on the famous revolutionist, for which purpose he was always reading and travelling in search of material.
And at last one evening Nekrovitch announced that Kosinski was expected. I had heard so much about this man that I spent my whole evening in a state of suppressed excitement at the news. For many months past I had sympathised with the Anarchist principles, but I had taken no particular steps towards joining the party or exerting myself on its behalf. I was waiting for some special stimulus to action. Half unconsciously I found myself wondering whether Kosinski would prove this.
I had passed a pleasant evening in the little Chiswick house between the usual political and ethical discussions and the usual interesting or entertaining company. I had assisted at a long discussion between Miss Cooper and Dr. Armitage, which, commencing on the question of Socialism, had gradually deviated into one on food and dress reform, a matter upon which that lady held very strong views. I had felt a little irritated at the conversation, for I entertained scant sympathy for what I regarded as hygienic fads; and the emphasis with which the lady averred that she touched neither flesh nor alcohol, and felt that by this abstinence she was not "besotting her brain nor befouling her soul," amused me much. Dr. Armitage, to my surprise, expressed some sympathy with her views, and treated the question with what I considered undue importance. This discussion was brought at last to a termination by Miss Cooper breaking off for a meal (she always ate at regular intervals), and retiring into a corner to consume monkey-nuts out of a hanging pocket or pouch which she carried with her.
The evening advanced, and I began to despair of Kosinski's ever arriving. Every time there was a knock at the door, I wondered whether it was the much-expected Anarchist, but I was repeatedly disappointed. Once it was the musical infant prodigy of the season whose talents had taken London by storm, another time it was a Nihilist, yet another a wild-looking Czech poet. One loud rat-tat made me feel certain that Kosinski had arrived, but I was again disillusioned, as an aesthetic, fascinating little lady made her entry, dragging triumphantly in tow a reluctant, unengaging and green-haired husband. Nekrovitch gave me a significant glance. "So sorry to be so late," the little lady began in a high-pitched voice, "but I had to attend a meeting of our society for the distribution of sanitary dust-bins; and Humphry got quite disagreeable waiting for me outside, although he was well wrapped up in comforters and mits. My dear Anna (this to Madame Nekrovitch), do tell him that he is most absurd and egoistic, and that it is his duty to think less of personal comfort and more of humanity."
At this last word the injured Humphry, who had approached the fire, and was attempting to thaw his nose and toes, gave utterance to a suppressed groan; but a cup of steaming tea and some appetising buttered toast diverted his spouse's thoughts, and she was soon deep in a confidential chat with Anna.
At last, long after eleven, appeared the new-comer of whom I had heard so much. I must confess that my preconceived notions (one always has a preconceived notion of the appearance of a person one has heard much spoken of) fell to the ground. I had imagined him dark and audacious, and I saw before me a tall, big, well-built man, with a slight stoop in his shoulders, fair of skin, with a blonde beard and moustache, lank long hair, a finely-cut, firm-set mouth, and blue dreamy eyes, altogether a somewhat Christ-like face. He was clad in a thick, heavy, old-fashioned blue overcoat with a velvet collar, which he refused to remove, baggy nondescript trousers, and uncouth-looking boots. He saluted his host and hostess in an undemonstrative style, bowed awkwardly to the other guests, and settled down to crouch over the fire, and look unostentatiously miserable.
From the first moment Kosinski interested me. His manners were not engaging; towards women especially he was decidedly hostile. But the marked indifference to opinion which his bearing indicated, his sincerity, his unmistakable moral courage, perhaps his evident aversion to my sex, all had for me a certain fascination.
I felt attracted towards the man, and was pleased that a discussion on Anarchism with Armitage at last afforded me an opportunity of exchanging a few words with him—even though on his side the conversation was not altogether flattering to myself. It happened in this way.
Nekrovitch, Armitage, and myself had, according to our wont, been discussing the great Anarchist question. For the hundredth time the Russian had endeavoured to persuade us of the truth and the reason of his point of view.
"So long as men are men," he maintained, "there must be some sort of government, some fixed recognised law—organisation, if you will, to control them."
"All governments are equally bad," answered the doctor. "All law is coercion, and coercion is immoral. Immoral conditions breed immoral people. In a free and enlightened society there would be no room for coercive law. Crime will disappear when healthy and natural conditions prevail."
And Nekrovitch, perceiving for the hundredth time that his arguments were vain, and that Armitage was not to be moved, had left us to ourselves and gone across to his other guests. Doctor Armitage, always eager for converts, turned his undivided attention to me.
"I hope yet to be able to claim you for a comrade," he said: "you are intelligent and open-minded, and cannot fail to see the futility of attempting to tinker up our worn-out society. You must see that our Socialist friends have only seized on half-truths, and they stop short where true reform should begin."
"I can quite see your point of view," I replied; "in fact I am more than half a convert already. But I should like to know what I can do. I have been interested now in these problems for a year or two, and must confess that the electioneering and drawing-room politics of Fabians and Social Democrats are not much to my taste; in fact I may say that I am sick of them. A few men like our friend Nekrovitch, who ennoble any opinions they may hold, are of course exceptions, but I cannot blind myself to the fact that ambition, wire-pulling, and faddism play a prominent part in the general proceedings. On the other hand you seem to me to sin in the opposite direction. No organisation, no definite programme, no specific object!—what practical good could any one like myself do in such a party?"
The doctor smiled a quiet smile of triumph as he proceeded to overthrow my objections: "Why, the very strength of our party lies in the fact that it has not what you are pleased to call an organisation. Organisations are only a means for intriguers and rogues to climb to power on the shoulders of their fellow-men; and at best only serve to trammel initiative and enterprise. With us every individual enjoys complete liberty of action. This of course does not mean to say that several individuals may not unite to attain some common object, as is shown by our groups which are scattered all over the globe. But each group is autonomous, and within the group each individual is his own law. Such an arrangement, besides being right in principle, offers great practical advantages in our war against society, and renders it impossible for governments to stamp us out. Again, as to our lack of programme, if a clear grasp of principle and of the ultimate aim to be attained is meant, it is wrong to say we have no programme, but, if you mean a set of rules and formulas, why, what are they after all but a means of sterilising ideas? Men and their surroundings are unceasingly undergoing modification and change, and one of the chief defects of all governments and parties hitherto has been that men have had to adapt themselves to their programmes, instead of their programmes to themselves. We make no statement as to specific object: each comrade has his own, and goes for it without considering it necessary to proclaim the fact to the whole world. Now you ask me how you could help this movement or what you could do, and I have no hesitation in saying, much. Every revolution requires revolutionists, we need propagandists, we need workers, we need brains and money, and you have both."
"So you think that one ought to place one's property at the service of the Cause, and that thus one is doing more good than by helping in the ordinary way?"
"Why, of course, the revolutionist aims at eradicating the causes of poverty and vice, whereas benevolence, by making it just possible for people to put up with their circumstances, only strengthens the chains which hold mankind in slavery."
We had unconsciously raised our voices in the heat of discussion, and Kosinski, who had caught our last observations, broke in unexpectedly. It was the first time he had opened his mouth to any purpose, and he went straight to the point: "It is you bourgeois Socialists, with your talk of helping us, and your anxiety about using your property 'to the best advantage,' who are the ruin of every movement," he said, addressing me in an uncompromising spirit. "What is wanted to accomplish any great change is enthusiasm, whole-hearted labour, and where that is, no thought is taken as to whether everything is being used to the best advantage. If you are prepared to enter the movement in this spirit, without any backward notion that you are conferring a favour upon any one—for indeed the contrary is the case—well and good: your work will be willingly accepted for what it is worth, and your money, if you have any, will be made good use of; but if not, you had better side with your own class and enjoy your privileges so long as the workers put up with you."
These outspoken remarks were followed by a momentary silence. Mrs. Trevillian looked dismayed; Miss Cooper evidently concluded that Kosinski must have dined on steak; Dr. Armitage agreed, but seemed to consider that more amenity of language might be compatible with the situation. Nekrovitch laughed heartily, enjoying this psychological sidelight, and I, who ought to have felt crushed, was perhaps the only one who thoroughly endorsed the sentiment expressed, finding therein the solution of many moral difficulties which had beset me. Kosinksi was right. I felt one must go the whole length or altogether refrain from dabbling in such matters. And as to property I again knew that he was right; it was what I had all along instinctively felt. Private property was, after all, but the outcome of theft, and there can be no virtue in restoring what we have come by unrighteously.
Small things are often the turning-point in a career; and, looking back, I clearly see that that evening's discussion played no small part in determining my future conduct. I was already disposed towards Anarchist doctrines, and my disposition was more inclined towards action of any order than towards mere speculation. I was the first to speak. "Kosinski is quite right; I am the first to recognise it. Only I think it a little unfair to assume me to be a mere bourgeois, attempting to play the part of lady patroness to the revolution. I am sure none who know me can accuse me of such an attitude."
Kosinski grumbled out a reply: "Well, of course I may be mistaken; but I have seen so many movements ruined by women that I am rather distrustful; they are so rarely prepared to forgo what they consider the privileges of the sex—which is but another phrase for bossing every one and everything and expecting much in return for nothing; but of course there may be exceptions. Perhaps you are one."
Nekrovitch laughed aloud: "Bravo, bravo, you are always true to yourself, Kosinski. I have always known you as a confirmed misogynist, and I see you still resist all temptations to reform. You carry boorishness to the verge of heroism."
The hours had slipped by rapidly, and Mrs. Trevillian took the hint which her spouse had long tried to give by shuffling restlessly in his seat and casting side glances at the clock which pointed to half-past one. She rose to go. "We really must be leaving—it is quite late, and Humphry is never fit for anything unless he gets at least six hours' sleep. Good-bye; thanks for such a pleasant evening," and she bustled out, followed by her husband. I rose to follow her example and, turning a deaf ear to Nekrovitch, who remarked, "Oh, Isabel, do stay on; it is not yet late, and as you have lost your last train it is no use being in a hurry," I shook hands with my friends, including Kosinski, who had once more subsided into a corner, and left, accompanied by Dr. Armitage, who offered to walk home with me.
We walked rapidly on through the keen night air. I felt excited and resolute with the feeling that a new phase of existence was opening before me. Dr. Armitage at last spoke. "I hope, Isabel"—it was usual in this circle to eschew surnames, and most of my friends and acquaintances called me Isabel in preference to Miss Meredith—"I hope, Isabel, that you will come to our meetings. I should like you to know some of our comrades; there are many very interesting men, quite original thinkers, some of them. And I think human beings so often throw light on matters which one otherwise fails to grasp."
"I should much like to," I replied, "if you can tell me how and when; for I suppose one requires some sort of introduction even to Anarchist circles."
"Oh, that is easy enough," he replied. "I have often mentioned your name, and the comrades will be very glad to see you; we make no sort of mystery about our meetings. There will be a meeting at the office of our paper, the Bomb, next Saturday. Do come. The business on hand will perhaps not interest you much, but it will be an opportunity for meeting some of our men, and I shall be there."
"Oh, I shall be so glad to come!" I exclaimed. "What will you be discussing?"
"Well, to tell the truth, it is a somewhat unpleasant matter," replied the doctor with some hesitation in his voice. "There have been some strange reports circulating about the Myers case, and we are anxious to get at the truth of the business. It may strike you as a rather unsuitable introduction, but come nevertheless. The movement is always in need of new blood and fresh energies to keep it from narrowing its sphere of activity, and it is well that you should know us as we are."
"Very well, I will come if you will give me the direction."
"Let us say nine o'clock at the office of the Bomb in Slater's Mews, —— Street; you will find me there."
"Agreed," I replied, and conversation dropped as we walked rapidly along. I was much occupied with my own thoughts and Dr. Armitage was noted for his long periods of silence. At last we reached my doorstep. I fumbled for my latch-key, found it, and wished my friend good-night. We shook hands and parted.
AN ABORTIVE GROUP-MEETING
Before describing the strange committee or group-meeting about to be dealt with, it is necessary to say a few words concerning the mysterious affair which gave rise to it.
On the 17th of December 189- the posters of the evening papers had announced in striking characters:—
"DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST: ATTEMPTED OUTRAGE IN A LONDON PARK."
That same afternoon a loud explosion had aroused the inhabitants of a quiet suburban district, and on reaching the corner of —— Park whence the report emanated, the police had found, amid a motley debris of trees, bushes, and railings, the charred and shattered remains of a man. These, at the inquest, proved to have belonged to Augustin Myers, an obscure little French Anarchist, but despite the usual lengthy and unsatisfactory routine of police inquiries, searches, and arrests, practically nothing could be ascertained concerning him or the circumstances attending his death. All that was certain was that the deceased man had in his possession an explosive machine, evidently destined for some deadly work, and that, while traversing the park, it had exploded, thus putting an end both to its owner and his projects.
Various conflicting theories were mooted as to the motive which prompted the conduct of the deceased Anarchist, but no confirmation could be obtained to any of these. Some held that Myers was traversing London on his way to some inconspicuous country railway station, whence to take train for the Continent where a wider and more propitious field for Anarchist outrage lay before him. Others opined that he had contemplated committing an outrage in the immediate vicinity of the spot which witnessed his own death; and others, again, that, having manufactured his infernal machine for some nefarious purpose either at home or abroad, he was suddenly seized either with fear or remorse, and had journeyed to this unobserved spot in order to bury it. The papers hinted at accomplices and talked about the usual "widespread conspiracy"; the police opened wide their eyes, but saw very little. The whole matter, in short, remained, and must always remain, a mystery to the public.
Behind the scenes, however, the Anarchists talked of a very different order of "conspiracy." The funeral rites of the poor little Augustin were performed with as much ceremony and sympathy as an indignant London mob would allow, and he was followed to his grave by a goodly cortege of "comrades," red and black flags and revolutionary song. Among the chief mourners was the deceased man's brother Jacob, who wept copiously into the open grave and sung his "Carmagnole" with inimitable zeal. It was this brother whose conduct had given rise to suspicion among his companions, and "spies" and "police plots" were in every one's mouth. The office of the Bomb, as being the centre of English anarchy, had been selected as the scene for an inquiry en group into the matter.
Thus on a wet and chilling January evening—one of those evenings when London, and more especially squalid London, is at the height of its unattractiveness—I set out towards my first Anarchist "group-meeting." And certainly the spirit which moved me from within must have been strong that the flesh quailed not at the foul scenery amid which my destination lay.
Half-way down one of the busiest, grimiest, and most depressing streets in the W.C. district stands a squalid public-house, the type of many hundreds and thousands of similar dens in the metropolis. The "Myrtle Grove Tavern," pastoral as the name sounds, was not precisely the abode of peace and goodwill. From four A.M., when the first of her habitues began to muster round the yet unopened doors, till half-past twelve P.M., when the last of them was expelled by the sturdy "chucker-out," the atmosphere was dense with the foul breath and still fouler language of drunken and besotted men and women. Every phase of the lower order of British drinker and drunkard was represented here. The coarse oaths of the men, mingled with the shriller voices of their female companions, and the eternal "'e saids" and "she saids" of the latter's complaints and disputes were interrupted by the plaintive wailings of the puny, gin-nourished infants at their breasts. Here, too, sat the taciturn man, clay pipe in mouth, on his accustomed bench day after day, year in year out, gazing with stony and blear-eyed indifference on all that went on around him; deaf, dumb, and unseeing; only spitting deliberately at intervals, and with apparently no other vocation in life than the consumption of fermented liquor.
The side-door for "jugs and bottles" gave on to a dirty and odoriferous mews, down which my destination lay. The unbridled enthusiasm of eighteen years can do much to harden or deaden the nervous system, but certainly it required all my fortitude to withstand the sickening combination of beer and damp horsy hay which greeted my nostrils. Neither could the cabmen and stablemen, hanging round the public-house doors and the mews generally, be calculated to increase one's democratic aspirations, but I walked resolutely on, and turning to my left, dexterously avoiding an unsavoury heap of horse manure, straw, and other offal, I clambered up a break-neck ladder, at the top of which loomed the office of the Bomb.
The door was furtively opened in response to my kick by a lean, hungry-looking little man of very circumspect appearance. He cast me a surly and suspicious glance, accompanied by a not very encouraging snarl, but on my mentioning Dr. Armitage he opened the door a few inches wider and I passed in.
It took me some seconds before I could accustom my eyes to the fetid atmosphere of this den, which was laden with the smoke of divers specimens of the worst shag and cheapest tobacco in the metropolis. But various objects, human and inanimate, became gradually more distinct, and I found myself in a long, ill-lighted wooden shed, where type and dust and unwashed human beings had left their mark, and where soap and sanitation were unknown. Past the type racks and cases, which occupied the first half of this apartment, were grouped benches, stools, packing-cases, and a few maimed and deformed chairs for the accommodation of the assembly. Then came a hand printing-press, on which were spread the remains of some comrade's repast: the vertebral column of a bloater and an empty condensed-milk can, among other relics. The floor, from one extremity to the other of the "office," was littered with heaps of unsold revolutionary literature, the approximate date of which could be gauged by the thickness of dust in which it was smothered. On the walls and from beams and rafters hung foils and boxing-gloves; artistic posters and cartoons, the relics of a great artist who had founded the Bomb, and the effigies of divers comrades to whom a pathway to a better world had been opened through the hangman's drop. But what most riveted my attention was an indistinct animate something enveloped in a red flag, rolled up in a heap on the frouziest and most forbidding old sofa it had ever been my lot to behold. That this something was animate could be gathered from the occasional twitchings of the red bundle, and from the dark mop of black greasy hair which emerged from one end. But to what section of the animal kingdom it belonged I was quite at a loss to decide. Other stray objects which I noted about this apartment were an ostentatious-looking old revolver of obsolete make, and some chemical bottles, which, however, contained no substance more dangerous than Epsom salts.
The human occupants were not less noticeable than the inanimate, and some of them are deserving of our attention.
The man Myers, round whom the interest of the meeting was principally centred this evening, was to all appearances a mean enough type of the East End sartorial Jew. His physiognomy was not that of a fool, but indicated rather that low order of intelligence, cunning and intriguing, which goes to make a good swindler. The low forehead, wide awake, shifty little eyes, the nose of his forefathers, and insolent lock of black hair plastered low on his brow—all these characteristics may frequently be met with in the dock of the "Old Bailey" when some case of petty swindling is being tried.
Next Myers I noticed Dr. Armitage, who stood out in striking contrast from the rest of his companions. The smile with which he welcomed me was eloquent of the satisfaction with which he noted this my first entrance into an Anarchist circle.
The short bench on which he sat was shared by a man in corduroys of the navvy type, a large honest-looking fellow whose views of the Social question appeared to be limited to a not very definite idea of the injustice of third-class railway travelling and the payment of rent, and he expressed his opinions on these knotty problems with more freedom and warmth of language than was perhaps altogether warranted by the occasion.
Gracefully poised on one leg against an adjoining type-rack leaned a tall youth with fair curling hair, a weak tremulous mouth, and an almost girlish physiognomy. This youth had been drummed out of the army, the discipline of which he had found too severe, for feigning illness, since when he had passed his time between the bosom of his family, the workhouse, and the Anarchist party. He paid very little attention to the proceedings of the meeting, but discoursed eloquently, in a low voice, of the brutality of his parents who refused to keep him any longer unless he made some attempt to find employment. I remember wondering, en passant, why this fair-haired, weak-kneed youth had ever entered the Anarchist party; but the explanation, had I but known, was close at hand.
This explanation was a square-built, sturdy-looking man of some forty years. His appearance was the reverse of engaging, but by no means lacking in intelligence. He was ill-satisfied and annoyed with the universe, and habitually defied it from the stronghold of a double bed. Thither he had retired after the death of his father, an old market-porter, who had been crushed by the fall of a basket of potatoes. The son saw in this tragic circumstance the outcome and the reward of labour, swore a solemn oath never to do a stroke of work again, threw up his job, and from that day became a confirmed loafer in the Anarchist party. Some months previously, while propagandising in the workhouse, he found the youth there, and learned from his own lips how, being disinclined to become a burden on his poor old parents after his exit from the army, he had seen no other alternative but to become a pauper, and make the best he could of the opportunities afforded him by the poor-rates. From the workhouse he was dragged triumphantly forth by his new friend, and became an easy convert to anarchic and communistic principles.
The only feminine element in this assembly was a fair, earnest-looking Russian girl, whose slight knowledge of English did not allow her to follow the proceedings very accurately. She was an almost pathetic figure in her naive enthusiasm, and evidently regarded her present companions as seriously as those she had left behind her in Russia, and seemed to imagine they played as dangerous a role, and ran the same risk as they did.
There were several others present among whom the loafer type was perhaps in the ascendant. But there were also many of the more intelligent artisan class, discontented with their lot; labourers and dockers who had tramped up after a hard day's work, a young artist who looked rather of the Social Democratic type, a cabman, a few stray gentlemen, a clever but never-sober tanner, a labour agitator, a professional stump-orator, and one or two fishy and nondescript characters of the Hebraic race. O'Flynn, the printer of the Bomb, was a cantankerous Irishman with a taste for discoursing on abstract questions, concerning which he grew frightfully muddled and confused. He had a rather mad look in his eye and a disputatious manner.
When at last inquiry was made whether all companions expected were present, the red flag began to quiver and writhe most noticeably and finally to unfurl, and there emerged from its depths the dirtiest and most slovenly man I had ever seen, and the frouziest and most repulsive of dogs. This man, if man I may call him, was bony and ill-built, and appeared to consist largely of hands and feet. His arms were abnormally long and his chest narrow and hollow, and altogether he seemed to hang together by a mere fluke. His ill-assorted limbs were surmounted by a sallow, yellowish face, large repulsive lips, and a shapeless nose, and to him belonged the long, black greasy hair which I had already noted amid the folds of the red banner. Large gristly ears emerged from his uncombed mop of hair, and the only redeeming feature about the abject creature was his large, brown, dog-like eyes. He crept forward, grinding his teeth and rubbing his bony hands, and subsided into a waste-paper basket which was the only available seat left unoccupied.
And now at last, after much talking and shifting about, and not before a young German hairdresser had been stationed with one eye glued to a hole in the outer wall of the shed, in order to make sure that no detective was listening outside, the proceedings commenced.
Banter, the little man who had opened the door to me, rose to his feet, cleared his throat, and said "Comrades" in a stentorian voice. Then followed a long and rambling statement which he read out, from amid the grammatical inaccuracies and continual digressions of which I was enabled to gather that he had noticed of late something very peculiar about the conduct of Jacob Myers, who had appeared to exercise undue influence and power over his brother Augustin; that, moreover, Jacob had been seen by a third party drinking a glass of rum in the "Nag and Beetle" in company with a well-known detective, and that, in final and conclusive proof of some very fishy transactions on his part, three undeniable half-crowns had been distinctly observed in his overcoat pocket the previous week. "And how should he come by these by honest means?" indignantly inquired Banter. "He says he's out of work, and he's not got the courage to steal!"
"'Ear, 'ear! Why pay rent to robber landlords?" the navvy, Armitage's neighbour, ejaculated at this juncture, after which irrelevant inquiry he spat defiance at Society.
Then followed the speeches for the prosecution, if the use of such a word may be permitted in connection with an Anarchist transaction. The chief accusations made against Myers were his violent blood-and-thunder speeches which he had in no wise carried out in action, but which he had delivered under the eyes and in the hearing of the police who had listened and seen it all with quite commendable Christian forbearance. Besides this several sensational articles had appeared in the daily press in connection with Augustin's death, exaggerating the importance of the affair and hinting at dark plots; of which articles he was suspected of being the author. Jacob was in fact accused of having egged on his unfortunate brother to his doom in order that he might turn a little money out of the transaction between newspaper reports and police fees. It apparently mattered little to this modern Shylock whence came his pound of flesh or what blood ran or congealed in its veins.
Through all these statements and questions Myers sat in stolid and insolent silence—occasionally whistling snatches of some music-hall air. At last when reference was made to some chemicals which he was alleged to have procured and handed on to his brother, he roused up from his affected indifference and appealed to Armitage for assistance. "Dr. Armitage knows," he exclaimed indignantly, "that I only procured the sulphuric acid from him for domestic purposes."
My eyes were riveted on the doctor's face, and only to one who knew him well could the expression be at all decipherable. To me it distinctly denoted disappointment—that humiliating sense of disappointment and disillusion which must invariably come upon a man of strong and fanatical convictions when brought into contact with the meanness and cowardice of his fellows.
Dr. Armitage was a fanatic and an idealist, and two convictions were paramount in his mind at this time: the necessity and the justice of the "propaganda by force" doctrine preached by the more advanced Anarchists, and the absolute good faith and devotion to principle of the men with whom he was associated. A man of the Myers type was quite incomprehensible to him. Not for a single instant had Armitage hesitated to throw open the doors of his Harley Street establishment to the Anarchists: to him the cause was everything, and interests, prudence, prospects, all had to give way before it. And here was this man who had professed the same principles as himself, with whom he had discoursed freely on the necessity of force, who had openly advocated dynamite in his presence—this man who had spoken of the revolution and the regeneration of Society with the same warmth as himself—talking of "domestic purposes," and ready to recant all that he had preached and said. And what lay behind this reticence and these denials? Treachery of the basest kind, and the most sordid, abominable calculations which it was possible to conceive.
These thoughts I read in the doctor's face, and turning my eyes from him to the abject Jacob I could only wonder at the naive sincerity of Armitage, which could ever have laid him open to such illusions and disillusions.
After some seconds' hesitation Armitage replied: "I do not desire or intend to go into any details here concerning my past conversations or relations with Jacob Myers, neither do I consider myself in any way bound to discuss here the motives which prompted, or which I thought prompted his actions, and the requests he made of me. As Anarchists we have not the right to judge him, and all we can do is to refuse to associate ourselves any further with him, which I, for one, shall henceforth do. The knowledge of his own abominable meanness should be punishment enough for Myers."
The doctor's words were received with very general approval.
"Armitage is perfectly right," said Carter. "We Anarchists cannot pretend to judge our fellows, but we can form our own opinions and act accordingly. Myers' conduct proves him to be no better than a spy; we of the Bomb can have no further relations with him."
"Damn about judging and not judging," exclaimed a sturdy-looking docker. "All I know is that if Myers does not quickly clear out of the Bomb I'll kick him out. He ought to be shot. I don't pretend to understand none of these nice distinctions. I call a spade a spade, and if...."
"'Ear,'ear! Down with ..." commenced Elliot again, and Jacob opened his mouth to speak, but he was saved from any further need of self-defence or explanation, for at this moment the door of the office was broken rudely open and there entered like a hurricane a veritable fury in female form—a whirlwind, a tornado, a ravening wolf into a fold of lambs. This formidable apparition, which proved to be none other than the wife of the suspected Myers, amid a volley of abuse and oaths delivered in the choicest Billingsgate, pounced down on her ill-used husband, denounced Anarchy and the Anarchists—their morals, their creeds, their hellish machinations; she called on Jehovah to chastise, nay, utterly to destroy them, and soundly rated her consort for ever having associated with such scoundrels. And thus this formidable preacher of dynamite and disaster was borne off in mingled triumph and disgrace by his indignant spouse.
A POLICE SCARE
I left the office of the Bomb towards 1 A.M., undecided whether to weep or to laugh at what I had witnessed there. This, my first introduction into an English Anarchist circle had certainly not been very encouraging, but I was too deeply persuaded of the truth and justice of the Anarchist doctrines to be deterred by such a beginning, and I did not for one instant waver from my resolve to enter and take part in the "movement." That some insincere and dishonest men and some fools should also play their part in it I from the first recognised as inevitable, but I could not see that this affected the Anarchist principles or rendered it less necessary for those believing in them to advocate and spread them. Dr. Armitage accompanied me part of my way home and we talked the matter over en route. "Why trouble ourselves," he exclaimed, "about a few unprincipled men in such a wide, such a universal movement? Our objects and ideals are too far above such considerations to allow us to be influenced by them. Men like Myers are but the outcome of unnatural and vitiated conditions; they are produced by the very society which it is our object to abolish—as all manner of disease is produced by vitiated air. With better conditions such men will disappear; nay, the very possibility of their existence will be gone."
"But in the meantime," I rejoined, "they are surely damaging our Cause, and scenes like the one we have just witnessed would, if known to the public, bring our party into ridicule and discredit."
"The Cause is too great and too high to be influenced by such men or such scenes," answered the doctor with conviction. "Moreover it is our duty to bring fresh blood and life into the party, so that no place will be left to renegades of the Myers type."
And in face of Armitage's unswerving faith and optimism my moment of disgust and perplexity passed, and I felt more than ever determined to bring my quota of time and strength to the propagation of the Anarchist ideals. "I have only seen a very limited and narrow circle," I said to myself; "the field is wide, and I only know one obscure and unclean corner of it. I cannot judge from this night's experience."
As far as the squalor of the men and their surroundings was concerned, although it was at first something of a shock to me, I did not allow myself to be disconcerted on its account. I had no desire or ambition to be a mere dilettante Socialist, and as dirt and squalor had to be faced, well, I was ready to face them. A famous Russian writer has described a strange phase through which the Russian youth passed not many years since, the "V. Narod" ("To the People!") movement, when young men and girls by the thousands, some belonging to the highest classes in society, fled from their families, tore themselves free from all domestic and conventional yokes, persuaded that it was their duty to serve the cause of the masses, and that in no way could they better accomplish this object than by settling in the people's midst, living their life, taking part in their work. I was passing through a similar phase of mental evolution.
I felt a strong desire to free myself from all the ideas, customs, and prejudices which usually influence my class, to throw myself into the life and the work of the masses. Thus it was that I worked hard to learn how to compose and print, that I might be of use to the Cause in the most practical manner of all—the actual production of its literature. Thus it was also that I resolutely hardened myself against any instinctive sentiments of repulsion which the unclean and squalid surroundings of the people might raise in me. I remember reading an article by Tolstoi which appeared in the English press, dealing with the conditions of the Russian moujik, in which he clearly and uncompromisingly stated that in order to tackle the social problem, it is necessary to tackle dirt and vermin with it. If you desire to reach your moujik you must reach him a travers his dirt and his parasites: if you are disinclined to face these, then leave your moujik alone. It was in fact a case of "take me, take my squalor." I determined to take both.
Dr. Armitage left me at the corner of Oxford Circus, but before I had taken many steps farther, I heard him suddenly turn round, and in an instant he had come up with me again.
"By the way, Isabel," he exclaimed, "I was quite forgetting to mention something I had done, to which I trust you will not object. You know how full up my place is just now with hard-up comrades. Well I took the liberty to send on to you a young Scotchman, I forget his name, who has just tramped up from the North; a most interesting fellow, rather taciturn, but with doubtless a good deal in him. He had nowhere to pass the night, poor chap, and no money, so I told him that if he waited on your doorstep some time after midnight you would be certain to give him a night's lodgings when you returned. Did I do right?" and the doctor's kindly face beamed with the look of a man who expected approbation.
"Ye—es," I gasped out, somewhat taken aback, "quite right, of course;" for I felt that any hesitation would be feeble, a mere relic of bourgeois prejudice.
And, sure enough, on reaching my domicile, I found installed on the doorstep a most uncouth and villainous-looking tramp. Taciturn he certainly was, for he scarcely opened his mouth to say "Good-evening," and indeed during the three days of his residence with me he hardly ever articulated a sound. As I was getting out my latch-key the local policeman chanced to pass: "That fellow has been hanging about for the last hours, miss," he said to me. "Shall I remove him for you?"
"Certainly not," I replied firmly, and opening the door, I requested my unknown comrade to enter. I can still see in my mind's eye that constable's face. It looked unutterable things.
After conducting the tramp to the pantry, and letting him loose on a cold pigeon-pie and other viands, and finally installing him on the study sofa, I retired to my own apartment, well prepared to enjoy a good night's rest.
This was destined, however, to be of short duration. Towards 6.30 I was roused from sleep by a loud rat-tat at the front door and, the servants not being up at such an hour, and suspecting that this early visit was in some way connected with the Anarchists, I hastily slipped on a wrapper and ran downstairs.
On opening the door I found one of the members of the previous night's meeting, the taciturn hero of the potato tragedy.
"It's rather early to disturb you," he began, "but I came to let you know that last night, after you had all gone, Comrades Banter and O'Flynn were arrested."
"Arrested!" I exclaimed, as yet unused to such incidents; "why, what on earth are they charged with?"
"Well," answered Carter, "the charge is not yet very clear, but so far as we can understand, it is in some way connected with the Myers business. They are charged with manufacturing explosives, or something of the sort. The fact is, the police and Jacob Myers are at the bottom of the whole matter, and Banter, O'Flynn, and Augustin have all played into their hands."
"Come in here," I interrupted, leading the way to the dining-room. "Let us sit down and talk the matter over together;" and we entered, Carter casting a distinctly disapprobatory glance at the "bourgeois luxury" of this apartment.
As soon as we were seated my companion returned to the question of the moment. "I fear," he said, "that it is rather a serious affair for the comrades. That Myers is a police emissary there can no longer be any reasonable doubt, and the death of his brother is clear proof that he has not been wasting his time lately. And it is only too likely that the same hand which provided Augustin with explosives may have placed similar material in the possession of Banter and O'Flynn."
"How abominable!" I exclaimed indignantly.
"Yes, but Anarchists should not be stupid enough to take any one into their confidence in such matters," returned Carter. "It is merely encouraging mouchards and police plots. However, the question now is—What can be done to help the comrades out of the mess?"
"I am willing to do my best," I answered; "only tell me how I can be of use."
"You can be of great use, if you care to be," answered Carter. "A barrister must be procured to defend them, witnesses must be found, money procured (and here he cast a side-glance at my plate), and some one ought to interview the comrades in Holloway, and take some food to the poor fellows."
"I am quite willing to do my best in all these matters," I answered enthusiastically.
Carter stayed some little while longer instructing me in the various things I was to do, and then left me, retiring presumably to his double bed again, for I saw no more of him till long after the trial was over. He had handed the work over to me, and doubtless felt that so far as he was personally concerned his responsibilities were at an end.
As soon as the morning papers arrived I scanned them eagerly and from them learned further particulars of the arrest. A widespread conspiracy was suspected, the object of which was to blow up the West End of London, and leaders were devoted to the denunciation of the Anarchists and their infamous teachings. Explosives, it was alleged, had been found in the possession of the arrested men, "evidently destined to carry into effect the deadly work which was only stopped by the hand of God in Queen's Park three weeks ago."
Having disposed of a hasty breakfast, I left the house, and my morning was spent in places which were new and strange to me—Holloway Jail, the Old Jewry, and the Middle Temple. Holloway Prison was my first destination, for before any other steps could be taken it was necessary to ascertain what views the prisoners themselves held as to the course to be adopted in their defence.
I awaited my turn in the prison waiting-room along with a motley crowd of other visitors—burglars' and forgers' wives, pickpockets' mates, and the mother of a notorious murderer among others. Their language was not very choice when addressing the jailers, but sympathetic enough when talking among themselves and inquiring of one another, "What's your man up for?" or, "How did your mate get copped?" I felt painfully conscious of the tameness of my reply: "It's a friend: incitement to murder." How far more respectable murder itself would have sounded in the midst of such superior crime!
One burglar's spouse confided to me that her husband had been "at it for years, but this was the first time he'd been copped:" which latter incident she seemed to consider an unpardonable infringement of the privileges and rights of citizenship. She was a bright buxom little woman and had evidently flourished on his plunder.
In striking contrast to the burglar's wife, I noticed the daughter of a would-be suicide, a tall, beautiful girl, who formed a pathetic contrast to her surroundings. Her unfortunate father—an unsuccessful musician—had succumbed in the struggle for an honest life, and the cares of a large family had driven him to desperation. As I gazed at the poor girl with her tear-swollen eyes and noted her extreme thinness and the shabbiness of her well-worn clothes, and as, from her, my eyes turned to the cheerful burglar's wife, I meditated on the superiority of virtue over dishonesty —especially in the reward accorded to it.
At last, having stated my name, the name of my prisoner, the relationship or lack of relationship between us, and declared my non-connection with the case, and having received a tin number in return for this information, I was ushered through various passages and apartments into a kind of dark cage, separated by a narrow passage from a still darker one, in the depths of which I perceived my Anarchist, O'Flynn, as soon as my eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness. I had several questions to ask him during the few minutes at our disposal, and conversation was anything but easy; for on all sides of me other prisoners and their relatives were talking, weeping, arguing, disputing, and shouting one another down with all their might and lungs.
Two things struck me in Holloway Prison on this my first visit to such a place. Firstly, the outward cleanliness, and I might almost say pleasantness, of the place; and secondly, the illogical nature of the law which treats the unconvicted men, who in its eyes are consequently innocent, like convicted criminals. Nothing could be more uncomfortable and unattractive than the conditions under which the detained men are allowed to see their relatives; no privacy of any sort is allowed them, the time allotted is of the briefest, and only one visitor a day is permitted to pass. The censorship over books allowed is very strict and hopelessly stupid, and altogether everything is made as uncomfortable as possible for those under detention.
Later in the course of my Anarchist career I had occasion to visit Newgate on a similar errand, and was struck by the same incongruity in the system. The external impression made by Newgate was very different, however.
There is no suggestion of pleasantness about Newgate. It strikes you indeed as the threshold of the gallows, and is calculated to arouse qualms in the most strenuous upholder of capital punishment. A constant sense of gloom is settled like a pall over the whole building, blacker even than the soot and grime which encrust it. Inside, the dreary atmosphere is ominous of the constant vicinity of the hangman's drop, doors seem for ever to be swinging heavily and locking, keys and chains clanking, and over all the uncompromising flagstaff looms like an embodied threat.
After my many dreary wanderings round London, the clambering in and out of omnibuses and other vehicles, and prison interviews, I found the old-world tranquillity of the Temple quite a relief.
Here began a new order of search. I had to find a barrister, and that without delay. But how, whom, and in what court or lane did the right man dwell? During one brief moment indeed my thoughts turned towards our family solicitor as a possible counsellor in this matter, but only to be promptly diverted into other channels. That worthy gentleman's feelings would certainly not have withstood so rude a shock. I could picture him, in my mind's eye, slowly removing his gold pince-nez and looking at me in blank but indulgent surprise, as at one who had suddenly taken leave of her senses. No, this would never do. Barristers by the score must surely reside in the labyrinths of the Temple, and I determined to seek one first hand.
And thus it was that, after some little hesitation, I finally ascended the stairs of a house in Fig Tree Court in the hope that J. B. Armstrong, Esq., selected at random, might answer my purpose.
The clerk who opened the door looked politely surprised at my appearance and inquired my business, into which I promptly plunged headfirst. His eyebrows gradually ascended higher and higher into the regions of his hair, and his face grew stern and sad as I proceeded. "Allow me to inquire," he interrupted, "the name of the solicitor who is instructing the case."
"I have not got a solicitor," I replied, somewhat taken aback.
Then he re-opened the door. "I feel confident, madam, that Mr. Armstrong would not care to undertake such a case. Good morning."
I retired from this gentleman's presence neither bent nor broken, though slightly disappointed. "So it is usual to engage a solicitor first," I reflected, "and to communicate through him with the barrister, is it? Well, a solicitor can't be afforded here and we must do without him." The Anarchist in me revolted at such red-tapeism. "Well, here's for another plunge," I said to myself; "let us try a B this time. C. Bardolph sounds promising." And I ascended another staircase and knocked at another inhospitable door.