S. Fowler Wright's Short Stories
"And Love was still the Lord of all."
In the ninety-third year (second period), of the Eugenic Era, there lived a girl named P.N. 40, who was, on the fifteenth of April of that year, within a fortnight of the age and ordeal of marriage.
For (as we know), the Eugénist government of that time had decreed that every girl who was sufficiently sound in health and ancestry should marry between the first and tenth days of the May following her twenty-second birthday. The intention being that her first child should be born in the early spring, which Sir Mordith Blinkwell had shown to be the ideal period for such nativities.
The custom was subsequently modified when the statistics of twenty years showed that 67.03 per cent of firstborn children had appeared in the inferior months of the year. Such is the perversity of women.
P.N. 40 was an exceptionally beautiful girl, which is an attractive subject for contemplation, but on the morning on which we first regard her she was an acutely miserable one, which is less so. The two statements may seem contradictory, but they are actually consequent.
She sat on the sunlit loggia of her ground-floor bedroom, in the early hours of that mid-April morning, gazing upon the 46.3 perches of ground which was the allotted portion for the back of every bungalow, with its two regulation trees and one bush, so planted as not to obstruct the light nor a duly assorted entrance of the four winds, and her mouth, which was made for a quite different purpose, was shut very savagely, and her eyes were sullen.
The Eugénist government, being laudably anxious to improve the quality of the race, had realised that it cannot be done very rapidly under a strictly monogamous regime. It is a lamentable fact, illustrating how much Nature has yet to learn, that the two sexes are born in approximately equal numbers. In some cases, as with cattle or poultry, the position may be improved by slaughtering the less desirable of the calves or cockerels (the males getting the worst of it, as usual), but, after three bills to deal with human babies in this logical and eugenic manner had been defeated in successive years, it was recognised that the problem must be attacked by different methods.
The prohibition of the marriage of the unfit, which had been enacted at the commencement of the second era, was of no assistance to the solution of this difficulty, for they were found to be of about equal numbers in either sex. The mutilation of the superfluous was hardly likely to be proposed again, after the massacre of the seventh year, which had followed the introduction of a bill for this purpose, and which had rendered necessary the election of a new parliament, from which most of the familiar faces were unavoidably absent.
It was the epoch-founding brain of Professor Gested, working with its usual mathematical precision, which had resolved the problem. He perceived that the Potential Maximum Fecundity of women is not increased by a multiplication of husbands, whereas a plurality of wives may lead to a substantial increase in the P.M.F. of mankind.
Building upon the solidity of this premise, he evolved a plan by which such a plurality, up to a maximum of six, should be allotted to those members of his own sex who were beyond criticism either in individual or ancestral health.
He proposed that men who were over the age of forty-two should be exempt from these inflictions, but it was only the slanderous venom of his enemies which pointed out that he was then on the threshold of his forty-third year.
By a contrary provision, men of inferior physical grades were allotted less than one complete unit of feminine companionship, to a minimum of one sixth, by which means he contrived:
(1) That a large majority of the next generation would be the children of a selected parentage.
(2) That all members of the community would be married (more or less), so that a minimum of opposition was aroused among the selfish anti-social voters who had done so much to retard the racial progress for which he toiled and pondered, for
(3) By this process of grading there would be no difficulty in avoiding an unallocated surplus, either of men or women, as the fraction of wife allowed to men of intermediate grades could be varied according to the number of women available.
Forty years had passed, and though the enforcement of this law had not been unopposed, nor always bloodless, yet it had been asserted successfully. The common sense of the race, with its dread of the old barbarisms still refreshed by the teaching of the intermediate seminaries, had been sufficient to discipline the rebellious reactions of youth, or the selfish criminality of discontented women. But it had been found necessary to segregate the young of either sex with an almost absolute division. A great national ideal cannot be reached without individual sacrifice, which, as Professor Gested had pointed out in his initial essay upon the subject, should be endured with equanimity, if not with joy.
But P.N. 40, however superficially attractive, had a mind which was destitute of the higher patriotism. Her heart did not beat more rapidly when she considered the P.M.F. of her sex.
It beat faster at the foolish imagination that 48 V.C. had regarded her with unusual interest as he had assisted her last February from the monoplane which had descended so unexpectedly (to him) on the shore of Llangorse, in Brecknockshire. 48 V.C., whose ancestry included an epileptic great-aunt, and who wore the pink-and-yellow arm-stripes which graded him for one-fourth of a wife at the next allotment.
P.N. 40 did not curse, for she had never heard of bad language, nor could she have imagined its possibilities adequately. The interjection was deleted from the vocabulary of an enlightened state. Even the wail of infancy had been stilled by a corporal punishment which descended automatically as it was electrically stimulated by the sound. She did not curse, but her thoughts were murderous.
It was the night before, in the common-room, that she had been publicly rebuked for seditious indecency by the Instructress, because she had expressed the opinion that a girl could choose her husband much better than the Board of Allocation would be likely to do.
"A pure-minded woman," she had been told severely, "does not discriminate between one man and another, if he be chosen as fit for fatherhood, nor does she rebel because she will only receive a fraction of his attentions."
Well, if that were so, she was not pure-minded. Very far from it. . . .
The P.N. 40 branded beneath her chin was indelible. It would always proclaim her as the bearer of a health-proud name. Only the children of 47 L.K. - Z.V. 5 could claim a physical preference - and 47 L.K. was not only of a stainless ancestry for four generations on either side - in fact, since the first studbook of the present series had been commenced - he was of a personal development so exceptional that when the Ministry of Pig-breeding, which was the most important government office under that which was held by the Premier (unless preference be given, in spite of its inevitable unpopularity, to that of the Ministry of Insight), had been awarded to him, it had been generally regarded as an exceptionally seemly choice.
And 47 L.K. still lived a life of robust vigour, though his years were seventy. One of his six wives, although themselves the cream of the community, had shown an inferior vitality. She had died last year - died shamefully of a nameless cause, so that all her descendants had trembled lest the small red letter should be added to their branded names which would consign them to a childless end.
If there were truth in the envious whisperings of the common-room, she herself, P.N. 40, was selected for the high honour of the vacant place.
On the first of May, at the festival of the Branding of Brides, she would receive her husband's number beneath her chin, behind the place on which her own appeared already.
At the day's end, in the solitude of her own room, she would be able to look in the mirror, and learn to whom she had been consigned. Modesty did not admit of an earlier curiosity.
Then there would be a period of ten days, during which she would be entitled, at any moment, to require an aeroplane to convey her to her husband's home. If the eleventh day came, and she had not departed - well, there would be no order to delay the fumigation of a section which should be no longer occupied.
. . . She knew that this allocation was not inevitable. Degeneration of character may disqualify the most physically-perfect for the honour of a Sixth-Grade marriage. She might do outrageous things during her last fortnight of freedom, such as would insure that she would never know the dignity of being the youngest wife of 47 L.K. She might even, by a diabolical ingenuity of graded follies, contrive to be classified with the Fourth-Grade women, who are the sole wives of a single husband.
But this thought brought no comfort. She did not merely wish to be a monogamous wife. She wanted (with an almost obsolete vulgarity) to be the wife of a particular man whom she should never have seen - would, very certainly, never have seen, but for the maniac folly of P.T. 69, who had persuaded her to join in that disastrous escapade.
Besides, she was not free from the natural vanity of women. She could not easily endure the degradations which follow from a Fourth-Grade marriage. Girls of that class might be content enough, for they had expected nothing more, but she had been brought up differently. To pick her clothes on the fourth day, after the three upper grades had chosen all the lovelier colours! To sit in the back rows of the theatre, the solitary companion of the man beside you, and watch the grouped seats of the Sevens, Fives, and Threes, that graded backward, proclaiming the physical ignominy of the place to which you were relegated!
Such sacrifices have been made by women of ancient days (or so romance will have it) to secure the man of their choosing, but not, even by them, for a precarious difference in the percentage of a stranger's love.
The English schoolmasters in the public schools of the nineteenth century found that they could save themselves much trouble in the teaching of Greek and Latin (which were believed to be essential to the Intellectual welfare of their pupils) if they stimulated their curiosity by providing them with the most indecent books which have survived in those languages, the vicious consequences of which procedure always filled them with a very innocent wonder.
It has to be chronicled, with whatever reluctance, that the seminaries of the Second Era were not free from a very similar obliquity. The study of the older forms of the English language was stimulated by the use of indecent textbooks, one of the worst of which - entitled The Oxford Book of English Verse - P.N. 40 had nefariously retained at the conclusion of her literary instructions. This book, though still used in schools, was not one which any decent woman would allow on the tables of her reception rooms. It is largely occupied with lauding the consequences of Self-selection, or with the advocacy of unions in conditions of precarious poverty; and it will even treat its most tragic imaginations - such as the mating of immature women - with an obtuse levity, subversive of every purer instinct in the mind that reads it. The great subjects of poetry, such as The Intervals between Meals, and the Proper Spacing of Children, are not even mentioned in these crude songs of a forgotten barbarism.
Cultivating her sorrow, as Folly will, P.N. 40 went inside, seeking the hidden book, with which she returned, and sat down to the idle turning of its familiar pages.
She knew that she could not be overlooked, except from the air, which, at this hour, was empty of random traffic on the lower airways. It was true that she might be under observation of the Ministry of Insight, but that (she supposed) was arithmetically improbable, and, anyway, it was a risk which was never absent.
There was the case last year of the third wife of 60 S.V.K., who had made complaint that she was ignored by her husband, and baited by his other wives in various illegal ways. Naturally, he had denied it. Naturally, also, if the other wives were of the disposition alleged against them, they had supported his denials. But her own evidence was given with such an air of sincerity, with such an accumulation of circumstance, that it had been almost impossible to disbelieve it. It seemed incredible that it should have been invented without some impulse of suffered wrong, so that the denials with which it was met were discredited by their own emphasis. Anyway, the Assessors had decided in her favour, and it was only when 60 S.V.K. had been condemned, and was awaiting sentence, that the M.I. had ordered a further investigation, at which it had confronted the woman with a photographic record of herself and her husband in an attitude of affectionate intimacy. Threatened with the production of every moment of her life for the period in question, she had collapsed, and confessed the jealous origin of her baseless tales. . . .
No one had guessed, till then, the extent of the oversight which was exercised by this Ministry. Even now, it was surmise only as to whether it were casual or ubiquitous in the taking of such records. No one knew.
But P.N. 40 was in a mood to be reckless, and, anyway, there is little gain in stealing a book which is never read.
She loved those old poems, just as she hated the modern ones, which she had been forced to learn in the seminaries. There was The Regulated Altar-Flame, which every girl was expected to recite from memory on her fourteenth birthday. An interminable, sickening poem:
- "She hath no cause for secret shame,
The Regulated Altar-Flame."
How she loathed the reiteration of that refrain! "In fifteen years five children came." Probably they did. She didn't care, either way. Her mind was more occupied with a satisfactory adjustment of the conditions precedent to such advents.
It will be seen that the selection of such a book indicated that she was making little effort to prepare herself for the high destiny of the marriage for which she had been physically qualified by the discretions of four precedent generations.
48 V.C., perilously watching from the evergreen shelter of a spruce-fir (it was a regulation that one of the two trees should be a conifer), came to that conclusion, and was encouraged to the temerity of revealing his presence to the unconscious girl.
Stated in advance of explanation, it may occasion more surprise that 48 V.C. should have been able to read the title of the book from such a distance, than that she should have been encouraged by the thought of its licentiously headstrong monogamies. Yet the explanation is simple.
Like the muscles of the athlete, or the suppleness of the acrobat, his eyesight had been trained and perfected from his earliest childhood, to fit him for his intended occupation, which was to be that of an air-pilot. The theory of selection which had so destined him from infancy had been justified in its results, for, at the age of twenty-three, which was that of male maturity and marriage at this period, he had gained the rare honour of being appointed to one of the Condor patrol-planes, of which there were but twelve, and which exercised a final control and supervision over the airways of the world.
The Condors were single-seaters. They were in all ways self-sufficient. They were so swift that they could circle round an intercontinental liner as a swallow passes an express train. By right of office, they were exempt from the traffic-laws of the air. All gave way before them when their sirens shrilled to the instruments in the ears of a thousand pilots, or their twin blue lights (interbarred with the warning pink) flashed, halcyon, through the night. Like shining minnows in the swaying weeds of the shallows, they twinkled nightly through the crowded planes of the port-ways as they swayed and strained rhythmically upon their anchors before the stresses of the equal wind. They could talk with each other through a separation of ten thousand miles. They could command, and the haughtiest liner must change its course, or pause motionless in the void. They were independent of extraneous fuel, and, when their pilot needed rest, or would survey his patrol from a steady point, they could rise above the highest levels of traffic, and hang stationary, or drift idly upon the wind, for a week if need be.
48 V.C. might have been bolder yet had he known that this last attribute of his Condor had impressed the imagination of P.N. 40 so much that the sheet of paper closed between the printed leaves held the commencement of a poem which she had been inspired to attempt in the quaint, archaic diction of the book she loved so foolishly, and in which she compared him to the frigate-bird (or was it the albatross?) of the Southern seas. Her mind had not been cumbered with useless knowledge, so she avoided nouns of exact identification.
- As that strong bird that dwells above the deep,
Lord of the wide wind-spaces of the sky,
Rests on sufficient wings in careless sleep,
Above the summer clouds securely high,
Unseen beneath the emulous surges leap,
Noise of contending navies comes not nigh. . . .
She hadn't got any further. The construction was becoming conscious of some grammatical embarrassment, and, of course, it was really nonsense, like the pastoral of a seventeenth-century poet. There were no navies now, contentious or amicable. . . . Besides, she did not think of him most often as resting in the high solitudes of the air, but rather as he darted, meteor-bright and meteor-swift, among the crowded traffic of the night; or as he descended, bolt-like, to her rescue from the empty sky on the windy shore of Llangorse. . . .
She turned the pages idly to pause at The Lady of Shalott, with its quaint unreal echo of a misery kindred to, yet so different from her own.
- And sometimes thro' the mirror blue
The knights come riding two and two,
She hath no loyal knight in view. . . .
. . . She knew the voice that called her name from the shadow of the fir-branches, and her body thrilled with a sudden terror, and her heart beat chokingly. She did not know that she answered, but when 48 V.C. descended, and crossed the lawn toward her, she found words in an agony of fearful protest.
"Oh, but you must not - if you were seen - come inside - come quickly - "
In the shelter of her own room they looked at one another without speech for some moments.
Wild joy contended in her heart with utter terror at the audacity of his presence in that forbidden place, within ten miles of which no man had ever been known to trespass: where men only came when the bride-season had ended, and the apartments were delivered to the periodical fumigators. They stood under the shadow of a penalty that they could only guess, but which could be no less than the shattering of the lives they knew, if any life should be left them, not knowing but that an official of the M.I. might be recording every word and motion on the plates of his laboratory-instrument in Hampstead, scarcely thirty miles away. . . . And he was the only man to whom she had ever spoken intimately, or on a basis of equality!
If there were less fear in his equal silence, there was an even greater diffidence. To find the vision of his hopeless dreams within the reach of his hand. . . . To have dared so much, and to be conscious of the utter madness of the offer that he had come to make. . . . To be sickeningly conscious of the pink-and-yellow band upon his arm, which proclaimed him unfit to consort with such as she, and his children after him. . . . O, unscalable heaven! . . .
She recovered her self-possession first, as a girl will.
"How did you find me?" she asked, in a very natural wonder.
"I saw your number," he said simply, and the words, which explained everything, brought a flood of shame to her face, such as she had never known before. Had she lifted her chin? She had been taught from childhood that it is the lowest shame of womanhood. To lift her chin to a man - to show him the letter-number by which he may trace and find her. A woman may call with her eyes, she may beckon with her hand, and it may be no worse than idle teasing - but to lift her chin!
He saw the confusion he had caused, though he only vaguely comprehended it, for the teaching of the women's schools was outside his experience, and he added hastily:
"It was when I was lifting you out of the smash. I couldn't help seeing - really." And then, with a sudden honesty of laughter: "I didn't try, either."
She looked down silently, but without sign of resentment at this last audacious avowal, and he was emboldened to add:
"I would have found you, anyway, if I had had to search the world."
She gave him her eyes then for a moment, and thrilled deliciously at what she saw in those that met them. She half lifted her hands, and threw them apart in a gesture of impotence. It was no time for love's finesses.
"It's no use," she said, "no use! You know it's useless. I can't think why you came."
Her voice reproached him, as though he had been guilty of a needless cruelty, but her words told him that which gave him courage to speak his purpose.
"Of course, it's of use, if you'll come. We've only got to wait for a bad night."
"Come where?" she said, with a direct brevity which is as commendable as it is rare in the mouths of women. There was a trembling dawn of hope behind the puzzled wonder of her eyes.
"To the forest reservation in Brazil," he answered, with equal directness, but an inward terror as to how his suggestion would be received, which was very quickly ended.
"Of course I'd come," she said. "Rather. But how could we? If we got there, we should be traced for certain."
"I don't think so," he answered, with a stubborn determination to smother the doubt in his own mind. In abrupt and eager phrases he told her the plan which he had formed for her abduction.
Ten years before, after the draining of the great swamps of the Upper Amazon, the forests had been cleared of human life, partially destroyed and replanted, and then relegated to a solitude of fifty years, for certain experimental purposes, which are not without interest, but which would involve too much explanation for the brevity of this narrative to contain it.
If she could join him under the boundary of the aerodrome thirteen miles away, on a night of cloud and storm (the worse the better, for his purpose) - and, fortunately, the coming nights would be moonless - he did not doubt that they could escape unseen and unfollowed. He supposed (foolishly enough) that even the M.I. would be unlikely to have its attention concentrated upon them at such a time. He was, indeed, more concerned for the conditions of the wild life that they must be prepared to face together than for the perils of the journey in his familiar element.
Nor did she think much of the danger of the flight itself, though she had a greater fear and a greater knowledge of the powers that ruled them. She thought of the flashing speed of Condor 5 . . . they would escape in the night unnoticed, and who should follow? They would be almost there in the morning!
"I'm afraid," he said, with his irrepressible truthfulness, "it won't be so easy as you think. We shall have to try it in a Kestrel."
"In a Kestrel!" Wonder contended with dismay in the voice with which she answered, and there was good cause for her protest.
Everyone knew the Kestrels. They were the only form of plane that everyone was trained to handle. They were foolproof and simple. When they had risen, they would not readily descend, without deliberate manipulations, too low for a parachute to be used safely. But they were built for short flights on the afternoon of a summer day; they were forbidden to go over any considerable stretch of water: and though the difficulty of fuel did not arise, and they were swallow-swift in a quiet air, they were unfit either in strength or power of flight for any ocean passage, where their parachutes would be useless. Their speed and direction were controlled by a degree of muscular exertion that made a prolonged flight an arduous enterprise.
To consider one for such a purpose was as though a gnat should calculate its miles of motion, spinning in sunlit clusters, and conclude its fitness for a non-stop flight across the breadth of England.
Yet there was no other way. 48 V.C. had judged coolly enough that, even could he descend in his own machine, and take the girl unobserved, its disappearance would lead to a world-search, and an almost certain finding. He might not even be able to destroy it effectively, or to hide it among the forest trees, before its location would have been observed, and their fate be certain. He must make excuse to put up Condor 5 for repairs, and when on the free leave which would result, he could easily have one of the very numerous Kestrels so placed that it could start unnoticed in the night.
There was one point in their favour. The Kestrels, though small, had a roomy car, being built for summer picnics in the air, whereas the Condors were for work and speed, and had a seating space for one only. Also, with sufficient skill (which he must contrive - and who could fail with such reward on landing?) the Kestrels were capable of a very high speed indeed, though it was seldom attempted. But, most important of all, he intended his plan to succeed by its incredibility. If the flight were known, and the disappearance of the Kestrel discovered, no one (he thought) would dream of looking for them more than a hundred miles away.
Yet it was with a natural doubt that he looked at P.N. 40 as he confessed his plan. Suicide was not a popular enterprise, even under the conditions of life which have been vaguely indicated, and no man can invite a young lady he scarcely knows to join him in a very probable drowning without some natural doubt as to the nature of her reply.
But P.N. 40 did not hesitate. Perhaps she did not realise the utter madness of the project as clearly as she would have done had she had a wider experience of the air. Perhaps she had a confidence in this audacious lover which might not have been felt by a more indifferent auditor.
"Oh, yes, if you think a Kestrel's best. You ought to know," she answered easily. "But you'd better go now, or we'll neither of us go anywhere. The disk's changed colour twice already."
She pointed to the signal which had twice reminded her of her remissness in approaching the morning meal - a remissness of which she had not been guilty in a score of previous years, and which could not continue for many seconds longer without some emphatic interruption resulting.
48 V.C. turned reluctantly. He wanted to make clearer arrangements for meeting. He wanted permission to come again, if the chance should offer. He wanted. . . . But the girl had no mind for a needless peril.
"Come again? Of course not. Are you quite mad? Of course I shall find it. I'm not a fool, really. The first night the indicator shows below two-seven, I shall be there at half-past three. You needn't look for me earlier. If the nights are fine till the twenty-eighth, I'll come then anyway. . . . You'd better go while the sky's clear."
He did not want to go. . . . He wanted to say goodbye, and, lacking practice, he was not sure how to begin. A night-passage to Brazil seemed a less formidable enterprise.
He looked uncertainly at the empty sky, and back into the room - and found it empty also.
Then he went.
P.N. 40 might be willing to risk her life for a lover. She might (which seemed to her a more serious consequence) be prepared to abandon the amenities of civilised life for his companionship. She was not in the least disposed to risk everything which was at stake because he could not understand that it was time to go.
P.N. 40 entered the breakfast-hall bravely enough, though she was conscious of the puzzled wonder of a hundred pairs of eyes that were directed upon her, and her heart might well have failed at the thought that she had already drawn inquiry, which might so easily turn to suspicion, in her direction.
She was three minutes late, in a world in which unpunctuality was as rare as manslaughter.
There had been a period of many centuries during which men had learnt to rely upon mechanical instruments, not only for recording, but for notifying them of the passage of time, and had become consequently almost insensitive to its durations.
Then a country schoolmaster, a Mr. Alfred Borton, had immortalised himself, and revolutionised the organisation of society, by observing that, if he established a habit of feeding his flock of geese at seven minutes to four, they would appear at his backdoor at that time, neither before nor after, with an exact punctuality. He had reflected that what is possible to a goose should not be impossible to a man, and he had first experimented with one of his own family, a child of three years, who had learnt that it must leave its nursery at exact periods, of which no indication was given, for an adjoining meal-room, if it were to obtain the quantities of food that it required, or the delicacies that it coveted. It was found that children so trained could achieve automatic habits which would not vary more than from seven to thirteen seconds from exact punctuality. They would observe the regularities of an ordered household with no more conscious thought than they would give to the separate movements of the limbs that bore them to the waiting table.
It was natural, therefore, that Instructress 90 should have been alarmed and puzzled as three successive minutes passed, at the end of each of which she had given the signal, which should have been so needless, and which, she knew, must have discoloured and agitated the warning disk which was fitted into every bedroom to deal with such an emergency, before P.N. 40 approached the table, unaware of how successfully she was concealing the perturbations of her secret mind.
The Instructress was a lady of seventy, wearing the white dress of widowhood, below the rose-pink collarette of honour which was the badge of the Sixth-Grade Women. The four red stars on her right sleeve were the number of her living children. There were no gray disks of the dead. She was now a tall, somewhat angular woman, with a rather long nose, and a high crown of greying hair. In younger days, she had been a famous athlete. She had been born in the early days of the Second Era. She believed in it absolutely.
The glance she gave to the approaching girl was shrewd, but kindly. She guessed that some abnormal mental disturbance must have occasioned so startling a breach of ordered living. It was not unusual for her to have to deal with such a difficulty among the lower girls, though she had never before known it to occur to one of her own grade, nor to have so disconcerting an evidence. A Sixth-Grade girl was usually too sensible of the honour which was before her. Also, they were not numerous. This year, P.N. 40 was the only one at the table of Instructress 90.
"What has happened?" she asked, as P.N. 40 lifted her chin courteously, and seated herself at her right-hand.
"I was thinking . . . I forgot."
The Instructress considered this impossible answer.
"I trust it was not done deliberately? After the scene of last night - "
"Oh, no, Instructress. I am very sorry. I didn't mean it at all. It won't happen again."
There was an evident sincerity in the voice that answered. A sincerity of regret which was unmistakable. And the tone was more satisfactory than had been usual from P.N. 40. The matter must be reported. It was too serious for a mere reprimand to condone it. But it might be less so than that she had feared. Perhaps an instinct of rebellion had culminated in this outrageous breach of etiquette, and had produced a natural reaction. She said no more.
P.N. 40 had to exercise a more severe self-discipline to avoid the friendlier queries of her right-hand neighbour. R.E. 7 was a rather heavily-built girl, with very light hair, and small eyes. She was wholesome and healthy, but not outwardly attractive. She wore the badge of the Fifth-Grade only, her lack of physical beauty having excluded her from the highest rank, to which she would otherwise have been eligible. The two girls had been at the same seminary, and there was a tested and confident friendship between them. P.N. 40 had been the captain of the Hockey Team which had won the World Championship for three successive years, at Buda-Pesth, at Stockholm, and at Pretoria. The success of this team was commonly attributed to P.N. 40 herself, who, from her forward position of inside-left, had shot more goals than had been credited to a single player since the present championship had been established. But P.N. 40 knew that the stability of the team, and the bulk of her own opportunities, came from the rocklike defence, and the skilful feeding of the centre-half-back behind her. In other ways, too numerous to detail, too different for brevity, she had learnt the reliability of her companion. She would have told her all, when the opportunity came, with an absolute confidence both in the reticence and the loyalty of the friendship that would receive it. But the fear of the M.I. was upon her. The spoken word might not be safe, in whatever privacy; even the articulated thought. . . .
R.E. 7 saw that her curiosity was unwelcome. She became silent, and P.N. 40 was quickly joining in a foolish discussion which arose among the lower-grade girls as to why the law did not allow an uneven number of wives (the gradations were six, four, two, one, one-quarter and one-sixth), and whether the single wife allocated to Grade Three infringed this rule - a discussion which was allowed good-humouredly by the Instructress, until it touched the borders of impropriety, when she intervened with the silencing remark that such subjects were more suitable for the classroom than the breakfast-table, and that she would deal with it sufficiently at a future session, when the Routines of Matrimony would be the subject of the day.
The days passed without any disturbing incident, but also without the break of weather for which P.N. 40 was watching with a concealed anxiety, until the 27th of April, when the skies clouded heavily and a cold tempestuous wind, veering unsteadily from one point of the compass to another, resulted in the air-warning which brought all the pleasure-planes to the crowded anchorages, and caused the freight-planes to descend to the lower levels which the pleasure-planes had vacated. Only the mile-high continental liners continued their scheduled way, indifferent to any elemental discord.
That afternoon, Condor 5 descended to its aerodrome, reporting a strain on the hinge-expander of the falling-tail, which would take two days to repair.
That night, at 11:45, when, for three-quarters of an hour, the long lines of the sleeping-bungalows had been dark and silent, P.N. 40, bareheaded, but clothed in a suit of waterproofs, and with her most precious possessions slung from her shoulders in an oilskin satchel, opened her bedroom window, and stepped quietly out into the blackness of the driving rain.
The method by which the grazing-park, which surrounded the great circle of the sleeping-bungalows, was drained and irrigated does not concern us, except to remark that it simplified the difficulty of finding a twelve-mile way through the blinding rain which she had never traversed before, and for which her only guidance was the red lights of the landing-platforms of the aerodrome she was seeking.
This aerodrome was, in fact, no more than a depot for pleasure-Kestrels, and a government repairing-shed for planes of the lighter patterns. It had no accommodation except for such as could easily come to earth, or which were so built that they could settle on the landing-platforms. The flat fields of Middlesex offered no security of anchorage for the larger airships, such as can be found in the Devon coombes, or the valleys of Wales, where the largest plane may inflate its buoys, and swing on shortened cables in defiance of storms from whatever quarter. The nearest airpost (and that an inferior one), was in the Chiltern Hills.
Yet, however small in comparison with the major ports, the aerodrome was of sufficient extent to make the place of appointment somewhat vague, even had there been light to aid her. But P.N. 40 had spoken truly enough when she said that she was no fool, and she now applied a simple logic to the problem before her. He would know the path by which she would come, and she was here on the night, and at the time, she had promised. She did not want to advertise her presence. Secrecy was vital. She looked across the phosphorescent luminosity of the boundary, waiting in the darkness for any voice or movement to call her.
But nothing stirred. There was only the scream of the wind through the plane-platforms, and the nearer rattle of the rain.
Should she call aloud, and perhaps bring the discovery which would be ruin?
Should she return, to lose the wild hope which she had hidden during those waiting days? Perhaps to find that her absence had been discovered, and to meet some terrible or shameful penalty?
She could not wait here for ever. . . .
Had he forgotten his promise?
Perhaps he thought the storm too bad for so perilous an adventure.
Perhaps he was asleep and unheeding, or far away in his Condor, resting.
What did she know of men, that she should trust him with her life so lightly? Sin, as she had been taught from childhood. Folly, with its inevitable fruit of pain.
So her thoughts warred, while she stood patient and resolute in the storm.
Lightning flickered, and a dark shape showed, not fifty yards over the boundary.
Surely a Kestrel; and Kestrels are not left out in such positions without reason through a night of storm.
She had been a fool, after all.
But why had he given no signal?
She must have stood so silently that he had supposed that she had not come.
So they must have waited, each for the other, not fifty yards apart!
And the vital moments were passing.
Thinking thus, she went confidently forward.
She came to the dim bulk of the Kestrel, for such it was. She had been right so far.
"Forty-eight," she whispered, but there was no answer.
Fearful, and trembling with an anxiety which she could control no longer, she felt for the lighting-switch, and illuminated the interior of the car.
It was rain-soaked, and empty.
The significance was too clear for any hope to survive it. If this were the chosen car, it would at least have had a store of provisions and water, if not a hundred things that they would need in their forest solitudes. . . .
She heard the beat of the balance-wings as Condor 5 came to the ground beside her. It came down with no pretence of concealment. Its landing-lights shone through the rain. She was aware of the wail of the signal-sirens, and of long arms of light that rose, stabbing the storm.
"Quick," said the voice of 48 V.C., "heave these things in. We've got two minutes, with luck."
In the barbarous period of the twentieth century, it had been customary to choose a Premier for his capacity to talk loudly enough to engage the attention of a numerous audience, vaguely enough to avoid the danger of any absolute statement, and cunningly enough to conceal the emptiness of his declarations. Having these qualifications, he might be a lawyer or an iron founder, or (and more probably) a man of University education, who was destitute of any practical knowledge, and without any specialised occupation.
In the Second Eugenic Era such a leadership would have been regarded with an astonishment which might not be entirely unmerited. A government has many responsibilities. It must have many departments. But, of all these, the most important must surely be the care of the physique of the race itself, for the benefit of which the other departments exist, and a man without expert knowledge on that greatest of earthly subjects could be little fit to guide its destinies further.
Professor Philphit (66 D.T.), who held that office in the ninety-third year of that era, was so conscious of the importance of the subject in which he had specialised very brilliantly that he had himself taken charge of the Physical and Selection Department, which had never been more vigorously administered than when under his enthusiastic direction.
He had himself shown, in his well-known monograph On the Psychology of the Adolescent, that the atavistic impulses of youth can be controlled without too serious difficulty, providing that there be no discernible possibility of their realisation. A hope, however slender, that the law of allocation could be successfully evaded, would be the cause of a multitudinous unrest, which might require a stern severity of repression or would cause the precarious foundations of the youthful civilisation which he controlled to shake beneath him.
It followed that every instance of erratic contact, however casual or trivial, between the youths and girls of the separated seminaries, was regarded with the importance of a seed from which a crop might develop which would choke the healthy growth of the entire community. Professor Philphit had given orders that such instances should be reported instantly to himself, and the escapade in which P.N. 40 had been involved with P.T. 69 had naturally come before him. It had been shown that P.T. 69 had been primarily responsible for that incident, and she had been degraded accordingly, but P.N. 40 had escaped any serious penalty, though her subsequent conduct had been very closely watched, as had that of the youthful pilot who had effected her rescue.
The report that the girl had been late for breakfast, without any credible explanation, within a fortnight of the Branding Festival, had caused an instant requisition upon the Ministry of Insight to expose the truth of her conduct.
The apparatus of the Ministry of Insight, at this period, had reached a point of excellence of which it was difficult to take the fullest advantage.
It was no longer obstructed by intervening walls, nor dependent upon visible light-rays for the photographs which it obtained. In theory, it could, and did, record every incident of the lives of every individual from Penzance to Wick, and it could reproduce every audible sound they made from its records, not only of the moving lips, but of the diaphragm from which it came.
But the very extent and quality of this success produced its own difficulty. How could so vast an accumulation of records be stored, tabulated, developed? There were difficulties not merely in their use, but even in their retention. Without the application of a newly-discovered element of comparative rarity, they faded within a few hours of their production.
The result was that the records actually retained related to events of national importance, to specimen records of selected lives, and to periodic photography of the interiors of the bodies of the nation, this census being taken at intervals of six or seven years, without public knowledge of the time of its incidence.
The demand for the exposure of the actions of P.N. 40 on the occasion of her unpunctuality was made within seven minutes of the circumstance coming to the Premier's knowledge, and within twenty-four hours of its occurrence. Everything possible was done to supply his requirements, but the result was incomplete, although sufficiently dreadful in its disclosures to prove the use, indeed the necessity, of these records, if anyone then living had been sufficiently foolish to question it.
The picture of the bedroom itself had faded into a dim scene of two figures which did not appear to move about more than a little, or to approach very closely. Nothing could be recovered of speech, or even of expression or gesture. But there was a clear record of 48 V.C. leaving the window, and making his covert return to the aerodrome. The expression of his face was not that of one who has been suitably rebuked for a very shameful trespass.
Considering this sinister episode, Professor Philphit gave instructions for a special photograph of P.N. 40 to be taken, and being satisfied therefrom that she had, at least, preserved her physical integrity, he decided to do nothing further for the moment, but to watch the delinquents very closely until she should have passed into the care of her selected husband.
The reports he received were satisfactory until the morning of the 27th of April. P.N. 40 was punctual in attendance at her meals and classes. She seemed placid and cheerful. She took an intelligent interest in the instructions she was receiving in the Seven Duties of Marriage. 48 V.C. was occupied on his patrol, and had shown no disposition to descend to the aerodrome, nor consciousness of the existence of P.N. 40. There had certainly been no communication between them. Professor Pilphit began to hope that the incident might pass without consequence. If so, it would be best for many reasons that nothing should be done to revive it.
When, on the morning of the 27th, he heard that 48 V.C. had descended with a report of damage to his machine, he was cautious, but not alarmed. He inquired as to the nature of the alleged damage, and learnt that it was certainly genuine. It did not render the machine unfit for flight, but it might render landing dangerous in a rough wind. 48 V.C. had been right to report it. It might have been wiser to do so earlier. Certainly, it would have been wrong to continue flying in the storm which had now arisen, with such a defect unremedied.
All this seemed right enough, but the Premier took no risks. He ordered a police-officer to remain in the company of 48 V.C. until he should return to the air, and to report telepathically to his private instrument, to avoid the delay of communicating through the Ministry of Insight, should any suspicious circumstance require it. It is to his lasting honour that the possibility did not enter his mind that P.N. 40 could be so shameless as to go out into the night to seek her lover.
It followed that when 48 V.C. strolled into the mess-room, having (very fortunately) already arranged, on some plausible pretext, for a carefully-selected Kestrel to be left for the next twenty-four hours near the boundary of the aerodrome, he found a certain Police-Inspector, 17 T.P., with whom he already had some acquaintance, had developed a friendliness which he was very disinclined to welcome, but which he found it impossible to shake off.
After some hours of abortive fencing, when the necessity for obtaining supplies for the Kestrel was becoming desperately urgent, he attacked his persecutor with a direct inquiry.
"You seem very fond of me today, Inspector. Have you been told to watch me?"
"Yes," said the Inspector.
"Why?" asked 48 V.C.
"I don't know."
"Are you reporting everything I do?"
"Everything I say?"
"Well, that's something."
48 V.C. had exceptionally good nerves, or he would not have been a Condor-pilot at twenty-three. He showed no sign of more annoyance than would be natural under such circumstances. Very quickly, he thought of an audacious expedient.
"Well, if you've got to come around with me, you might lend me a hand. I'm going to load up Condor 5, ready to fly as soon as the repair is finished."
"She'd fly all right now, if you wanted to get away from me," said the Inspector.
"Yes, but I don't," said 48 V.C.
He commenced, with his companion's help, to load the well of the Condor with an unusually well-assorted store of food and water. He thought of tools, and many miscellaneous things, which might be useful in the air. He explained that he never knew what accidents he might have to succour, or in what distant places.
"Are you reporting all this?" he asked pleasantly.
"Yes," said the Inspector.
"You might tell them that it looks as though I mean to disappear altogether."
"You couldn't do that," said the Inspector. "Not in a Condor, anyway."
"I suppose not," said 48 V.C., laughing. "I'd better alter my plans."
The Inspector laughed also. He did not take him seriously. They both knew that in the chartroom of the Ministry of the Air, the location of every machine with a metallically-responsive hull could be told at any moment, within half-a-mile in either altitude or direction. Only the Kestrels were built of the commoner metals, and their little flutterings were outside the knowledge, as they were beneath the notice, of the chartroom records.
It was after three A.M. when 48 V.C. rose from his berth in the dormitory, and commenced dressing.
"What's the game?" inquired the Inspector, rising with an equal alertness.
"It's the weather," said 48 V.C. "I think the things in the Condor may need moving."
"Are you gone crazy?" said the Inspector. He began to understand why he had been detailed to watch this young pilot, in whom insanity was developing so rapidly. A sad case. He followed him out into the storm.
"Inspector," said 48 V.C. from his seat in the Condor, "it's a bad night for flying. You weren't told to come with me, were you? You'd better go back and report."
"I can report without going back," said the Inspector grimly. He wiped the rain from his eyes to watch the Condor as it rose abruptly into the air, and circled back to the further side of the aerodrome. There was nothing here for which prompt action might be needed. The next moment his whistle shrilled through the darkness. For the last news he had sent had closely followed an alarming telepathic report from Instructress 90 that the room of P.N. 40 was empty, and orders had come to arrest the fugitives by any method, without regard to their lives, if they should attempt resistance, or their flight continue.
There were running feet within ten yards as the Kestrel felt the impulse of the release, and rose clear of the hands that clutched in vain in the rain-drenched darkness for the mooring-ropes, which they guessed that she must be trailing behind her.
"Won't they follow?" she asked, as he switched off the car-light, and the darkness closed them. Harshly, through the noises of the storm, there came the useless barking of an Elston gun.
"Not in Condor 5," he answered. "I've seen to that. They may in others, but they won't have them out for five minutes yet, and how will they find us then?"
He laughed excitedly, and then became tense and cool, as he saw a streak of light that searched the sky turn from white to orange-red as he watched it. The Kestrel swerved to his steering, so that the girl was thrown against the side of the car in the darkness.
"What's the matter?" she said, laughing at the mishap, in contempt of a bruised shoulder. "Do you usually steer like that?"
"I may do it worse," he answered. "Don't talk now. Get the straps on quickly. Don't switch the light."
She knew that it was no time for talking, as she groped in the dark for the first strap she could find which would serve to hold her in the swaying plane.
Overhead, the red light moved incessantly, probing the night.
Flying low, with frantic dashes, right or left, as the blind search pursued them, the Kestrel dodged like a snipe, till, perilously low, it passed over the great circle of the sleeping-bungalows, and the public halls which they surrounded, with the lighted tower in the centre.
P.N. 40 spoke at last, with a natural question.
"Did it matter so much if they saw us? They knew we were there." She was puzzled, realising that they must have circled round, while they might have been fifty miles away.
He answered: "I didn't think they'd have done that. We're safe now, if we fly low for a time, but I had to get the rise of the land between us. No, the searchlight wouldn't have mattered. Not while it was white. But the orange-red is meant to kill. We should have shrivelled up like a cinder if it had once settled upon us. . . . Do you mind?"
He spoke with a sudden contrition for the reckless perils into which he had lured her. . . . Her of whom he had dreamed, unhoping. . . . This stranger who touched his knee.
She did not answer in words, but he had switched on the car lights, and her eyes spoke clearly.
"We shall be steadier now, for a time," he said, "if the wind holds as it is." They began to plane upward. Side by side, they settled themselves into the seats in such comfort as the space allowed. For ecstatic breathless moments they forgot everything but themselves. The wonder of the new companionship; the joy of the distant goal.
The speed increased to the maximum. They knew now that they were out over the Channel. The light in the open car made the surrounding blackness more absolute. There was no steadiness in the wind, which drove gustily. Out of the darkness the storm came in heaving oceans of air through which the flying speck of the little Kestrel fought, and swayed, and faltered. It was colder now, and the rain had become sleet in their faces.
"They won't find us?" she asked.
"Not they," he said confidently. He felt fairly sure of that, during the darkness at least - though he had been startled by the use of the orange ray, and the ruthless purpose which it showed. He meant to be very far across the sea before the light should aid them.
But he knew that there was an even greater peril in the flight itself - a peril which he could only guess, for no one had ever put a Kestrel to such a test before . . . and in such weather as this, with the length of the Atlantic before them!
"Can I help?" she said, after a time.
"Not yet," he answered. "I can keep on for a long while yet. I'll tell you when I get tired. You'd better sleep now."
Soaring still, the straining body of the little Kestrel fought its bitter way through the storm, and she slept beside him. Should it fail, as at any moment it might should the frail parts snap at pressures which they had not been made to meet - well, it would be useless to wake her. He knew they could not go on for very long like this. There might be better weather if he still went upward. He knew that he had reached a level where there was an added danger in the darkness. Any moment an airliner, shouldering its smooth contemptuous passage through the night, might strike them broken-winged to the water, and pass on, unaware of their triviality. But it was the only chance they had. His foot pressed harder on the soaring-lever, and the wing-beats quickened. They went upward through the storm.
There was a murmur of protest in the Telescenic Laboratory.
"They want us to find a Kestrel - in the night!"
"Within fifty miles of Brentwood."
"It can't be done. . . . There's no responsive metal in a Kestrel. How can we tell where to look?"
"Why can't they wait till morning? We can't miss it when it comes down. A Kestrel can't go far."
"They say it first circled low, and then rose, and headed south."
"Well, we've got to try."
"South? It can't go far that way. Does it want to fall into the Channel?"
The operators might murmur, but the words of protest were over in ten seconds, and already the crackling sound of the batteries, and the droning of the great disks, showed that the search had started.
For twenty minutes the swift miles of magnetic air passed before the eyes of the operators, luminous as though unaware either of storm or darkness, before they found the speck they sought in the immensity of the night.
Nearly two miles up, they reported, heading south-west for the Channel.
Can it last? came the query.
It may be blown back. It is facing the storm. But it is making for the open sea.
Can it live, if it does not return to land?
On the screen, the Chief Operator studied the driving blur of the storm for some minutes further before he answered the query.
A wind-tossed Kestrel showed faintly.
Lightning flickered around it.
Knowing that it had no electric control, he looked for it to crumple and disappear, but it still kept onward.
Its course was rapid, but so erratic at times that they had difficulty in keeping the sights upon it.
He noticed that it was still climbing upward, between the buffetings of the storm.
Then he saw that it was falling - falling fast. Was it injured? He thought it righted for a moment, and then he lost it.
They searched for it to the limits of height which they could reach, and downward till they skimmed the blackness of the heaving sea, but they could not find it again.
Did it matter whether it were already beneath the waters, or a windblown atom in the screaming heights? There could be only one end. He ordered them to give up the useless search.
He reported: It is out of sight, and is probably sunk already. If it be still flying, it must return, or fail and perish. It is unfit for such a flight, and the air to southward is foul with crossing storms.
He spoke of failure, not understanding that they had triumphed already. For all men die, but few live.
Far up, far over the Atlantic wastes, the little craft, with its two warm-hearted lovers, beat upward through the snow-swept night, upward against the fury of the freezing wind, still upward . . . upward . . . to override the storm.
* * * * *
End of this file.