WHEN the train left me at Clayton Station, the only passenger to alight, its hurried retreat down the long straight of converging metals, a rapidly diminishing cube, seemed to be measuring for me the isolation of the place. Clayton appeared to be two railway platforms and a row of elms across an empty road. After the last rumble of the train, which had the note of a distant cry of derision, there closed in the quiet of a place where affairs had not even begun. It was raining, there was a little luggage, I did not know the distance to the village, and the porter had disappeared. A defective gutter-spout overhead was the leaking conduit for all the sounds and movement of the countryside.
Then I saw a boy humped into the shelter of a shrub which leaned over the station fence. He was reading. Before him was a hand-cart lettered "Humphrey Monk, Grocer and General Dealer, Clayton." The boy wore spectacles which, when he looked at me, magnified his eyes so that the lad seemed a luminous and disembodied stare. I saw only the projection of his enlarged gaze. He promised to take my luggage to Clayton. I walked through three miles of steady rain to the village, by a stretch of marshland so hushed by the nearness of the draining sky that the land might have been what it seemed at a little distance merely a faint presentment of fields solvent in the wet. Its green melted into the outer grey at a short distance where rows of elms were smeared. There was nothing beyond.
This old village of Clayton is five miles inland from Clayton-on-Sea, that new and popular resort hardened with asphalt and concrete, to which city folk retire for a change in the summer. During the winter months many of the shops of the big town are closed till summer brings the holiday-makers again. The porticoes of the abandoned premises fill with street litter, old paper, and straws. The easterly winds cut the life out of the streets, the long ranks of automatic machines look out across the empty parade, and rust, and the lines of the pier-deck advance desolately far into the wind and grey sea, straight and uninterrupted. It is more than barren then, Clayton-on-Sea, for man has been there, builded busily and even ornately, loaded the town with structures for even his minor whims in idleness; and forsaken it all. So it will look on the Last Day. The advertisements clamour pills and hair-dye to a town which seems as if the Judgment Day has passed and left the husk of life. So I was driven to the original Clayton, the place which gave the name, the little inland village that did, when I found it, show some signs of welcome life. It was a clump of white cottages in a vague cloud of trees. It had some chimneys smoking, there was a man several fields away, and a dog sitting in a porch barked at me. Here was a little of the warmth of human contiguity.
When night came, and the village was but a few chance and unrelated lights, there was the choice between my bedroom and the taproom of the inn where I lodged. In the bedroom, crowning a chest of drawers, was a large Bible, and on the wall just above was a glass case of shabby sea-birds, their eyes so placed that they appeared to be looking up from Holy Writ with a look of such fatuous rapture that one's idea of immortality became associated with bodies dusty, stuffed, and wired. (Oh, the wind and the rain!) Yet there was left the bar-parlour; and there, usually, was a dim lamp showing but a table with assorted empty mugs, a bar with bottles and a mirror, but nobody to serve, and a picture of Queen Victoria in her coronation robes.
There was but one other light in Clayton which showed sanctuary after dark for the stranger. It was in Mr. Monk's shop. His shop at least had its strange interests in its revelation of the diverse needs of civilised homes, for Mr. Monk sold everything likely to be wanted urgently enough
his neighbours to make a journey to greater Clayton prohibitive. In one corner of his shop a young lady was caged, for it was also the post office. The interior of the store was confused with boxes, barrels, bags, and barricades of smaller tins and jars, with alleys for sidelong progress between them. I do not think any order ever embarrassed Mr. Monk. Without hesitation he would turn, sure of his intricate world, from babies' dummies to kerosene. There were cards hanging from the rafters bearing briar pipes, bottles of lotion for the hair of school-children, samples of sauce, and stationery.
His shop had its own native smell. It was of coffee, spices, rock-oil, cheese, bundles of wood, biscuits, and jute bags, and yet was none of these things, for their separate flavours were so blended by old association that they made one indivisible smell, peculiar, but not unpleasant, when you were used to it. I found Mr. Monk's barrel of soda quite a cherishable seat on a dull night, for the grocer's lamp was then the centre of a very dark world. Around it and beyond was only the blackness and silence of vacuity. And the grocer himself, if not busy, would give me his casual and valuable advice on the minor frailties of the human, and they seemed as engaging and confusing in their directness as a child's for Mr. Monk was large and bland, with a pale, puffy, and unsmiling face, and only betrayed his irony with a slow wink when he was sure you were not deceived. He knew much about the gentry around, those bored and weary youths in check coats, riding breeches, and large pipes, and the young ladies in pale homespun costumes who had rude and familiar words to all they judged were their equals, and were accompanied invariably by Aberdeen terriers.
One evening I spoke to Mr. Monk of his boy. The boy, I said, seemed a strange little fellow. Mr. Monk, in his soiled white apron, turned on me, and said nothing at first, but tapped his bald head solemnly. "Can't make him out," he said. "I think this is where it is "--and pressed a fat thumb against his head again. "But you have to put up with any boy you can get here." He sighed. "The bright kids go. Clear out. There's nothing fer 'em here but farm labour an' the poor rate. I don't know how the farmers about here could make a do of it if we didn't pay rates to keep their labourers from dying off. My boys get fed up. Off they go, 'nd I doan' blame 'em. One of 'em's in a racin' stable now, doin' well. Another's got a potman's job London somewhere. Doin' well. But the kid I've got now, he'll stop. No ginger in that boy. Can't see anything five minutes off, either. Must be under his nose, and your finger shouting at it. He's got a cloudy mind. Yet he's clever, in his way. There's the door-mat of the shop. As soon as anyone puts a foot on that mat, the clock in my kitchen strikes two. All his fake. But he does rile the customers. Silly young fool. If there's two parcels to deliver, it's the wrong one gets first chance."
In a land where discovery had not gone beyond the blacksmith's forge and the arable fields, a native boy who had turned a door-mat into a watch-dog was an interesting possibility. There the boy was at that moment; stepping off his responsive mat, ill-clad, the red nose of his meagre face almost as evident as his magnified stare of surprised inquiry, and his mouth open. Mr. Monk chaffed him. I spoke with some seriousness to him, but he was shy, and gave no answer except some throat noises. Yet presently he ceased to rub a boot up and down one leg, and became articulate. He mumbled that he knew the telegraph instrument too. ("Oho!" said Mr. Monk, looking interested. "You do, do yer? What about learning not to leave Mrs. Brown's parcel at Mrs. Pipkin's?") Had I ever been to London, the boy asked, his big eyes full on my face. Had I ever seen a Marconi station? I talked to him, perhaps unwisely, of some of the greater affairs. He said nothing. His mouth remained open and his stare full-orbed.
There was one grey, still Sunday when it was not raining, the grey sky being exhausted, and I met the grocer's boy a little distance from the village, sitting on a fence, reading. The boy closed his book when he saw me, but not before I had noticed that the volume was open at a page showing one of those highly technical diagrams of involved machinery which only the elect may read. I took the book--it was a manual of civil engineering--and asked questions with some humility; for before the man who understands the manipulating of metals and can make living servants for himself out of pipes, wheels, and valves, I stand as would a primitive or an innocent and confiding girl before the magician who interprets for them oracles. With the confidence of long familiarity and the faint hauteur of shyness he explained some of the diagrams in which, at that moment, he was interested.
We talked of them, and of Clayton; for I wished to know how this grocer's boy, who went about masked with a mouth open a little fatuously, an insignificant face, goggles, and a hand-truck, himself of no account in a flat and unremarkable place aside from the press of life's affairs, had discovered there were hills to which he could lift his eyes after those humiliating interviews with Mr. Monk concerning the wrong delivery of cheese and bacon. I was aware of the means by which news of the outer world got to Clayton. It came in a popular halfpenny paper, and that outer world must therefore have seemed to Clayton to be all aeroplanes, musical-comedy girls, dog shows, and Mr. Lloyd George. The grocer's boy got his tongue free at last, and talked. He was halt and obscure, but I thought I saw a mind beating against the elms and stones of the village, and repelled by the concrete, asphalt, and lodging-houses of the seaside place. But I am impressionable, too. It may have been my fancy. What the boy finished with was "There's no chance here. You never hear of anything."
You never heard of anything. That countryside really looked remote enough from the centre of affairs, from the place where men, undistracted by the news and pictures of the halfpenny illustrated Press, were getting work done. Clayton was deaf and dumb. Some miles away the smoke of the London train was streaming across the dim fields like a comet. We both stood watching that comet going sure and bright to its destiny, leaving Clayton behind, regardless of us, and as though all we there were nothing worth. We were outside the pull of life's spinning hub. Beyond and remote from us things would be happening; but no voice or pulse of life could vibrate us, merged as we were within the inelastic silence of Clayton.
We walked back to the village, and the boy said good-night, passing through a white gate to a cottage unseen at that late hour of the evening. Near midnight I left my stuffed birds, with their fixed and upturned gaze, and went into the open, where above the shapeless lumps of massive dark of Clayton the stars were detaching their arrows, for the night was clear and frosty at last. Sirius, pulsing and resplendent, seemed nearer and more vital than anything in the village.
I walked as far as the white gate of the cottage where I had left Mr. Monk's boy; and there he was again, to my surprise, at that hour. He came forward. At first he appeared to be agitated; but as he talked brokenly I saw he was exalted. He was no grocer's boy then. The lad half dragged me, finding I did not understand him, towards his home. We went round to the back of the sleeping cottage, and found a little shed. On a bench in that shed a candle was burning in a ginger-beer bottle. By the candle was a structure meaningless to me, having nothing of which I could make a guess. It was fragmentary and idle, the building which a child makes of household utensils, naming it anything to its fancy. There were old jam-pots, brass door-knobs, squares of india-rubber, an electric bell, glass rods, cotton reels, and thin wires which ran up to the roof out of sight.
"Listen!" said the grocer's boy imperatively, holding up a finger. I remained intent and suspicious, wondering. Nothing happened. I was turning to ask the lad why I should listen, for the shed was very still, and then I saw the hammer of the bell lift itself, as though alive. Some erratic and faint tinkling began. "That's my wireless," said the grocer's boy, his eyes extraordinarily bright. "I've only just finished it. Who is calling us?"