“It is I, my love!” he cried. “I am here.”
And there, before the dawn had made the shadows of the Law Courts grey, they found him; bruised and muddy and daubed with blood, without the sword and spurs of his honour, lacking the scented token of his love. A thing in no way tragic, for here was no misfortune, but merely the conclusion of Nature’s remorseless logic. For century after century those of his name had lived, sheltered by the prowess of their ancestors from the trivial hardships and afflictions that make us men. And now he lay on the pavement, stiff and cold, a babe that had cried itself to sleep because it could not understand, silent until the morning.
The workmen’s dwellings stood in the northwest of London, in quaint rivalry with the comfortable ugliness of the Maida Vale blocks of flats. They were fairly new and very well built, with wide stone staircases that echoed all day to the impatient footsteps of children, and with a flat roof that served at once as a playground for them and a drying-ground for their mothers’ washing. In hot weather it was pleasant enough to play hide-and-seek or follow-my-leader up and down the long alleys of cool white linen, and if a sudden gust of wind or some unexpected turn of the game set the wet sheets flapping in the children’s faces, their senses were rather tickled than annoyed.
To George, mooning in a corner of the railings that seemed to keep all London in a cage, these games were hardly more important than the shoutings and whistlings that rose from the street below. It seemed to him that all his life—he had lived eleven years—he had been standing in a corner watching other people engaging in meaningless ploys and antics. The sun was hot, and yet the children ran about and made themselves hotter, and he wondered, as when he had been in bed with one of his frequent illnesses he had wondered at the grown-up folk who came and went, moving their arms and legs and speaking with their mouths, when it was possible to lie still and quiet and feel the moments ticking themselves off in one’s forehead. As he rested in his corner, he was conscious of the sharp edge of the narrow stone ledge on which he was sitting and the thin iron railings that pressed into his back; he smelt the evil smell of hot London, and the soapy odour of the washing; he saw the glitter of the dust, and the noises of the place beat harshly upon his ears, but he could find no meaning in it all. Life spoke to him with a hundred tongues, and all the while he was longing for silence. To the older inhabitants of the tenements he seemed a morbid little boy, unhappily too delicate for sense to be safely knocked into him; his fellow-children would have ignored him completely if he had not had strange fancies that made interesting stories and sometimes inspired games. On the whole, George was lonely without knowing what loneliness meant.