His quiet discouragement of conversation was an immediate cause of offence—was interpreted, rightly enough I fear, as disdain. His ignorance of the vulgar dialect, a thing upon which he had hitherto prided himself, suddenly took upon itself a new aspect. He failed to perceive at once that his reception of the coarse and stupid but genially intended remarks that greeted his appearance must have stung the makers of these advances like blows in their faces. “Don’t understand,” he said rather coldly, and at hazard, “No, thank you.”
The man who had addressed him stared, scowled, and turned away.
A second, who also failed at Denton’s unaccustomed ear, took the trouble to repeat his remark, and Denton discovered he was being offered the use of an oil can. He expressed polite thanks, and this second man embarked upon a penetrating conversation. Denton, he remarked, had been a swell, and he wanted to know how he had come to wear the blue. He clearly expected an interesting record of vice and extravagance. Had Denton ever been at a Pleasure City? Denton was speedily to discover how the existence of these wonderful places of delight permeated and defiled the thought and honour of these unwilling, hopeless workers of the underworld.
His aristocratic temperament resented these questions. He answered “No” curtly. The man persisted with a still more personal question, and this time it was Denton who turned away.
“Gorblimey!” said his interlocutor, much astonished.
It presently forced itself upon Denton’s mind that this remarkable conversation was being repeated in indignant tones to more sympathetic hearers, and that it gave rise to astonishment and ironical laughter. They looked at Denton with manifestly enhanced interest. A curious perception of isolation dawned upon him. He tried to think of his press and its unfamiliar peculiarities… .
The machines kept everybody pretty busy during the first spell, and then came a recess. It was only an interval for refreshment, too brief for any one to go out to a Labour Company dining-room. Denton followed his fellow-workers into a short gallery, in which were a number of bins of refuse from the presses.
Each man produced a packet of food. Denton had no packet. The manager, a careless young man who held his position by influence, had omitted to warn Denton that it was necessary to apply for this provision. He stood apart, feeling hungry. The others drew together in a group and talked in undertones, glancing at him ever and again. He became uneasy. His appearance of disregard cost him an increasing effort. He tried to think of the levers of his new press.
Presently one, a man shorter but much broader and stouter than Denton, came forward to him. Denton turned to him as unconcernedly as possible. “Here!” said the delegate—as Denton judged him to be—extending a cube of bread in a not too clean hand. He had a swart, broad-nosed face, and his mouth hung down towards one corner.
Denton felt doubtful for the instant whether this was meant for civility or insult. His impulse was to decline. “No, thanks,” he said;and, at the man’s change of expression, “I’m not hungry.”
There came a laugh from the group behind. “Told you so,” said the man who had offered Denton the loan of an oil can. “He’s top side, he is. You ain’t good enough for ‘im.”
The swart face grew a shade darker.
“Here,” said its owner, still extending the bread, and speaking in a lower tone; “you got to eat this. See?”
Denton looked into the threatening face before him, and odd little currents of energy seemed to be running through