had passed. He lay still, and presently his breathing became regular and deep.
But Elizabeth remained with eyes wide open in the darkness, until the clamour of a bell and the sudden brilliance of the electric light warned them that the Labour Company had need of them for yet another day.
That day came a scuffle with the albino Whitey and the little ferret-faced man. Blunt, the swart artist in scrapping, having first letDenton grasp the bearing of his lesson, intervened, not without a certain quality of patronage. “Drop ‘is ‘air, Whitey, and let the man be,” said his gross voice through a shower of indignities. “Can’t you see ‘e don’t know ‘ow to scrap?” And Denton, lying shamefully in the dust, realised that he must accept that course of instruction after all.
He made his apology straight and clean. He scrambled up and walked to Blunt. “I was a fool, and you are right,” he said. “If it isn’t too late … ”
That night, after the second spell, Denton went with Blunt to certain waste and slime-soaked vaults under the Port of London, to learn the first beginnings of the high art of scrapping as it had been perfected in the great world of the underways: how to hit or kick a man so as to hurt him excruciatingly or make him violently sick, how to hit or kick “vital,” how to use glass in one’s garments as a club and to spread red ruin with various domestic implements, how to anticipate and demolish your adversary’s intentions in other directions; all the pleasant devices, in fact, that had grown up among the disinherited of the great cities of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, were spread out by a gifted exponent for Denton’s learning. Blunt’s bashfulness fell from him as the instruction proceeded, and he developed a certain expert dignity, a quality of fatherly consideration. He treated Denton with the utmost consideration, only “flicking him up a bit” now and then, to keep the interest hot, and roaring with laughter at a happy fluke of Denton’s that covered his mouth with blood.
“I’m always keerless of my mouth,” said Blunt, admitting a weakness. “Always. It don’t seem to matter, like, just getting bashed in the mouth—not if your chin’s all right. Tastin’ blood does me good. Always. But I better not ‘it you again.”
Denton went home, to fall asleep exhausted and wake in the small hours with aching limbs and all his bruises tingling. Was it worth while that he should go on living? He listened to Elizabeth’s breathing, and remembering that he must have awaked her the previous night, he lay very still. He was sick with infinite disgust at the new conditions of his life. He hated it all, hated even the genial savage who had protected him so generously. The monstrous fraud of civilisation glared stark before his eyes; he saw it as a vast lunatic growth, producing a deepening torrent of savagery below, and above ever more flimsy gentility and silly wastefulness. He could see no redeeming reason, no touch of honour, either in the life he had led or in this life to which he had fallen. Civilisation presented itself as some catastrophic product as little concerned with men—save as victims—as a cyclone or a planetary collision. He, and therefore all mankind, seemed living utterly in vain. His mind sought some strange expedients of escape, if not for himself then at least for Elizabeth. But he meant them for himself. What if he hunted up Mwres and told him of their disaster? It came to him as an astonishing thing how utterly Mwres and Bindon had passed out of his range. Where were they? What were they doing? From that he passed to thoughts of utter dishonour. And finally, not arising in any way out of this mental tumult, but ending it as dawn ends the night, came the clear and obvious conclusion of the night before: the conviction that he had to go through with things; that, apart from any remoter view and quite sufficient for all his thought and energy, he had to stand up and fight among his fellows and quit himself like a man.