Some reason must explain why these young men and girls, when their superiors took their departure, showed so plainly the envy that they felt and now are apparently unmoved by the prospect of their own freedom. It is simply this. Vitality is an exhaustible quality. It may last up to a certain moment, then it burns out like the hungry wick of a candle that has no more grease to feed it. You can incarcerate a man for such a length of time that when at last you do give him his liberty he has no love left for it. It is much the same with these creatures who are imprisoned in the barred cells of London offices. By the time their day’s work is ended their vitality for enjoyment has been exhausted. They take their liberty much as a man takes the sentence of penal servitude when he had expected to be hanged.
Stand for a moment in this street that runs out from the Covent Garden Market and watch the office windows before the lights are extinguished. Is there one attitude, one movement, one gesture that betrays the joy of freedom now that the day’s work is over? Scarcely one. That boy with the long dark hair drooping on his forehead, contrasting so vividly against his sallow skin—you might imagine from the listlessness of his actions that the day’s work was just beginning. At lunch time, when the vitality was yet in store, he might have been seen, running out from the building in the gleeful anticipation of an hour’s rest. But now, when all the hours of the night are before him, his nervous energy has been sapped away. You get no spirit in a tired horse. It shies at nothing, but drags one foot wearily after another until the stable door is reached.
This is the actual condition of things that the young men and women find when they have burnt their boats, have left the country for the illusory joys of the town. There may be greater possibilities of enjoyment; but this huge, carnivorous plant—this gigantic city of London—has only displayed its attractions in order to gain its prey. They are drawn by the colours of the petals, they come to the honeyed perfume of its scent; but once caught in the prison of its embrace, there is only the slow poison of forced labour that eats its deadly way into the very heart of their vitality.
In one of these offices off Covent Garden, under a green-shaded lamp that cast its metallic rays on to the typewriting machine before her, sat one of the young lady clerks in the establishment of Bonsfield & Co., a firm of book-buyers. They carried on a promiscuous trade with America and the Colonies, and managed, by the straining of ends, to meet their expenses and show a small margin of profit. You undertake the labour of a slave in Egypt, and run the risk of a forlorn hope when you try to make a living wage in London as your own master. The price of freedom in a free country is beyond the reach of most pockets.