No human relations are acknowledged here. Outside, you may be a husband wonderfully beloved and tragically important; you may be a man whose courage has be-medalled your brave breast; you may be a passionate and subtle musician in your private hours; you may even on Sundays be a much appreciated vessel of the divine: but all such distinctions are not current here; here they are foreign coin, diplomas unacknowledged in this barbarous realm of ink and steel. The more ignorant, the more narrow, the more mean, the more unnatural, you can contrive to be, the better will be your lot in this sad monastery of Mammon. When the door hissed behind you, with that little patent pneumatic device, you ceased to be a human being, and began to be—the human machine. All the vitality you have stored within that pale body you are expected to exhaust here,—you have sold it, don’t you remember, for sixty or three hundred pounds a year; you are not expected to have any left over for pleasures. That will be robbery. Masters suffer much from peculation indeed in this way; but a machine is in course of invention which shall put an end to this, by the application of which to your heart the task-master will know whether or not you have spent every available heart-beat in his slavery during the day, or whether you are endeavouring, you miserable thief, to steal home with a little remnant of it for your children at night.
This was the theory of the office, as Henry once heard it expressed, with a cynicism more brief and direct from the lips of one of his task-masters; but it must be admitted that in certain respects his experience was extreme. There are offices which are the ears and eyes of activities absorbingly and even romantically human. To be in a shipping-office is not perhaps to be the rose, but it is to live near it,—the great rose of the sea. You are, so to say, a land-sailor, a supercargo left on shore. Your office-windows are lashed with hurricanes; your talk is frequently of cyclones. The names of far romantic isles are constantly on your lips, and your bills of lading are threepenny romances in themselves. Strange produce of distant lands are your daily concern, and the four winds meet at your counter with a savour of tar. For all you know, a pirate may claim your attention any minute of the day.
Or, again, to be, say, in a corn-merchant’s, a clearing-house of the fruitful earth. There at your telephone you may hear the corn-fields whispering to you, hear the wheat waving in the wind, and the thin chatter of oats. Or you may sell butter and cheese in an office that smells of farms. However removed, you are an indirect agent of the earth, a humble go-between of the seasons and the eternal needs of man.