It seemed to him that in spite of his effort to bear in mind that the whole should be greater than any part, his chapters broke up into sentences and his sentences into forlorn and ungregarious words. When he looked to his first book for comfort he found the same horrid phenomenon taking place in its familiar pages. Sometimes when he was disheartened by his fruitless efforts he slipped out into the streets, fixing his attention on concrete objects to rest his tired mind. But he could not help noticing that London had discovered the secret which made his intellectual life a torment. The streets were more than a mere assemblage of houses, London herself was more than a tangled skein of streets, and overhead heaven was more than a meeting-place of individual stars. What was this secret that made words into a book, houses into cities, and restless and measurable stars into an unchanging and immeasurable universe?
The room in which the Burchell family lived in Love Street, S.E., was underground and depended for light and air on a grating let into the pavement above.
Uncle John, who was a queer one, had filled the area with green plants and creepers in boxes and tins hanging from the grating, so that the room itself obtained very little light indeed, but there was always a nice bright green place for the people sitting in it to look at. Toby, who had peeped into the areas of other little boys, knew that his was of quite exceptional beauty, and it was with a certain awe that he helped Uncle John to tend the plants in the morning, watering them and taking the pieces of paper and straws that had fallen through the grating from their hair. “It is a great mistake to have straws in ones hair,” Uncle John would say gravely; and Toby knew that it was true.
It was in the morning after they had just been watered that the plants looked and smelt best, and when the sun shone through the grating and the diamonds were shining and falling through the forest, Toby would tell the baby about the great bird who would one day come flying through the trees—a bird of all colours, ugly and beautiful, with a harsh sweet voice. “And that will be the end of everything,” said Toby, though of course he was only repeating a story his Uncle John had told him.
There were other people in the big, dark room besides Toby and Uncle John and the baby; dark people who flitted to and fro about secret matters, people called father and mother and Mr. Hearn, who were apt to kick if they found you in their way, and who never laughed except at nights, and then they laughed too loudly.