As he understood this, Henry began to feel more at home; and, as the characters of his associates revealed themselves, he began to see that there were amongst them several pleasant and indeed merry fellows, and that, after all, fortune might have thrown him into much worse company. They, on their side, making like discoveries in him, he presently found himself admitted to their freemasonry, and initiated into their many secret ways of mitigating their lot, and shortening their long days. Thus, this chill, stern world of automata, which, on first sight, looked as if no human word or smile or jest could escape the detection of its iron laws, revealed, when you were once inside it, an under-world of pleasant escapes and exciting truancies, of which, as you grew accustomed to the risks and general conditions of the life, you were able skilfully to avail yourself.
The main principle of these was to seem to spend twice as much time on each task as it needed, that you might have the other half for such private uses as were within your reach,—to elongate dinner-hours at both ends so adroitly, and on such carefully selected propitious occasions, that the elongation, or at least the whole extent of it, would pass unobserved; and, in general, to gain time, any waste ends of five minutes or quarter hours, on all possible occasions. If the reader calls this shirking and robbery, he must. Technically, no doubt, it was; but these clerks, without so formulating it, merely exercised the right of all oppressed beings liberally to interpret to their own advantage, where possible, the terms of an unjust contract which grinding economic conditions had compelled them to make. They had been forced to promise too much in exchange for too little, and they equalised the disparity where they could.
Whether they spent the time thus hoarded in a profitable fashion, is a question of personal definition. It was usually expended in companies of twos or threes, with a pipe and a pot of beer and much spirited talk, in the warm corners of adjacent taverns; and, so long as you don’t drink too much, there has perhaps been invented none pleasanter than that old-fashioned way of spending an hour. Certainly, it was the way for ale to taste good, and a pipe to seem the most satisfying of all earthly consolations. It was almost worth the bondage to enjoy the keen relish of the escape.
By degrees, though the youngest there, Henry came to be allowed a certain leadership in these sorties of the human element. He made it his business to stimulate these unthrifty instincts, and to fan the welcome sparks of natural idleness; and so successfully that at times there seemed to have entered with him into that gloomy place a certain Bacchic influence, which now and again would prompt his comrades to such daring clutches of animated release, that the spirit of it even pervaded the penetralia of the senior partner’s office, with the result that some mishap of truancy