"Steady," said Josella as we turned into the empty road. "I think there's something going on at the gates."
We parked the car and climbed into an adjoining garden whence we could prospect discreetly.
Whatever was going on was right at the front. We managed to find a slightly higher mound which gave us
a view of the gates across the heads of the crowd. On this side a man in a cap was talking volubly
through the bars. He did not appear to be making a lot of headway, for the part taken in the conversation
by the man on the other side of the gates consisted almost entirely of negative headshakes.
"What is it?" Josella asked in a whisper.
I helped her up beside me. The talkative man turned so that we had a glimpse of his profile. He was, I
judged, about thirty, with a straight, narrow nose and rather bony features.
What showed of his hair was dark, but it was the intensity of his manner that was more noticeable than
As the colloquy through the gates continued to get nowhere, his voice became louder and more
emphatic-though without visible effect on the other. There could be no doubt that the man beyond the
gates was able to see; he was doing so watchfully, through born-rimmed glasses. A few yards behind him
stood a little knot of three more men about whom there was equally little doubt. They, too, were
regarding the crowd and its spokesman with careful attention. The man on our side grew more heated.
His voice rose as if he were talking as much for the benefit of the crowd as for those behind the railings.
"Now listen to me," he said angrily. "These people here have got just as much bloody right to live as you
have, haven't they? It's not their fault they're blind, is it? It's nobody's fault-but it's going to be your fault if
they starve, and you know it."
His voice was a curious mixture of the rough and the educated, so that it was hard to place him-as
though neither style seemed quite natural to him, somehow.
"I've been showing them where to get food. I've been doing what I can for them, but, Christ, there's only
one of me, and there's thousands of them. You could be showing 'em where to get food, too-but are
you?-hell! What are you doing about it? Damn all, that's what. Just look after your own lousy skins. I've
met your kind before. It's 'Damn you, Jack, I'm all right'-that's your motto."
He spat with contempt and raised a long, oratorical arm.
"Out there," he said, waving his hand toward London at large, "out there there are thousands of poor
devils only wanting someone to show them how to get the food that's there for the taking. And you could
do it. All you've got to do is show them. But do you? Do you, you buggers? No, what
you do is shut yourselves in here and let them bloody well starve when each one of you could keep
hundreds alive by doing no more than coming out and showing the poor sods where to get the grub. God
almighty, aren't you people human?"
The man's voice was violent. He had a case to put, and he was putting it passionately. I felt Josella's
hand unconsciously clutching my arm, and I put my band over hers. The man on the far side of the gate
said something that was inaudible where we stood.
"How long?" shouted the man on our side. "How in hell would I know how long the food's going to last?
What I do know is that if bastards like you don't muck in and help, there ain't going to be many left alive
by the time they come to clear this bloody mess up." He stood glaring for a moment. "Fact of it is, you're
scared-seared to show 'em where the food is. And why? Because the more these poor devils get to eat,
the less there's going to be for your lot. That's the way of it, isn't it? That's the truth-if you had the guts to
Again we failed to hear the answer of the other man; but, whatever it was, it did nothing to mollify he
speaker. He stared back grimly through the gates for a moment. Then he said:
"All right-if that's the way you want it!"
He made a lightning snatch between the bars and caught the other's arm. In one swift movement he
dragged it through and twisted it. He grabbed the hand of a blind man standing beside him and clamped it
on the arm.
"Hang on there, mate," he said, and jumped toward the main fastening of the gates.
The man inside recovered from his first surprise. He struck wildly through the bars behind him with his
other hand. A chance swipe took the blind man in the face. It made him give a yell and tighten his grip.
The leader of the crowd was wrenching at the gate fastening. At that moment a rifle cracked. The bullet
pinged against the railings and whirred off on a ricochet. The leader checked suddenly, undecided.
Behind him there was an outbreak of curses and a scream or two. The crowd swayed back and forth as
though uncertain whether to run or to charge the gates. The decision was made for them by those in the
courtyard. I saw a youngish-looking man tuck something under his arm, and I dropped down, pulling
Josella with me, as the clatter of a submachine gun began.
It was obvious that the shooting was deliberately high; nevertheless, the rattle of it, and the whizz of
glancing bullets, was alarming. One short burst was enough to settle the matter. When we raised our
heads the crowd had lost entity and its components were groping their ways to safer parts in all three
possible directions. The leader paused only to shout something unintelligible, then he turned away too. He
made his way northward up Malet Street, doing his best to rally his following behind him.
I sat where we were and looked at Josella. She looked thoughtfully back at me and then down at the
ground before her. It was some minutes before either of us spoke.
"Well?" I asked at last.
She raised her head to look across the road, and then at the last stragglers from the crowd pathetically
fumbling their ways.
He was right," she said. "You know he was right, don't you?" I nodded.
Yes, he was right. And yet he was quite wrong too. You see, there is no 'they' to come to clear up this
mess- I'm quite sure of that now. It won't be cleared up. We could do as he says. We could show some,
though only some, of these people where there is food. We could do that for a few days, maybe for a
few weeks, but after that-what?"
"It seems so awful, so callous
"If we face it squarely, there's a simple choice," I said. "Either we can set out to save what can be saved
from the wreck-and that has to include ourselves-or we can devote ourselves to stretching the lives of
these people a little longer. That is the most objective view I can take.
But I can see, too, that the more obviously humane course is also, probably, the road to suicide. Should
we spend our time in prolonging misery when we believe that there is no chance of saving the people in
the end? Would that be the best use to make of ourselves?"
She nodded slowly.
"Put like that, there doesn't seem to be much choice, does there? And even if we could save a few,
which are we going to choose? And who are we to choose? And how long could we do it, anyway?"
"There's nothing easy about this," I said. "I've no idea Ac what proportion of semidisabled persons it
may be possible for us to support when we come to the end of easy supplies, but I don't imagine it could
be very high."
"You've made up your mind," she said, glancing at me.
There might or might not have been a tinge of disapproval her voice.
"My dear," I said, "I don't like this any more than you do. I've put the alternatives badly before you. Do
we help those who have survived the catastrophe to rebuild some kind of life? Or do we make a moral
gesture which, on the face of it, can scarcely be more than a gesture? The people across the road there
evidently intend to survive."
She dug her fingers into the earth and let the soil trickle out of her hand.
"I suppose you're right," she said. "But you're also right when you say I don't like it."
"Our likes and dislikes as decisive factors have now pretty well disappeared," I suggested.
"Maybe, but I can't help feeling that there must be something wrong about anything that starts with
He shot to miss-and it's very likely he saved fighting," I pointed out.
The crowd had all gone now. I climbed over the wall and helped Josella down on the other side. A man
at the gate opened it to let us in.
"How many of you?" he asked.
"Just the two of us. We saw your signal last night," I told him.
"Okay. Come along, and we'll find the Colonel," he said, leading us across the forecourt.
The man whom he called the Colonel had set himself up in a small room not far from the entrance and
intended, seemingly for the porters. He was a chubby man just turned fifty or thereabouts. His hair was
plentiful but well-trimmed, and gray. His mustache matched it and looked as if no single hair would dare
to break the ranks. His complexion was so pink, healthy, and fresh that it might have belonged to a much
younger man; his mind, I discovered later, had never ceased to do so. He was sitting behind a table with
quantities of paper arranged on it in mathematically exact blocks and an unsoiled sheet of pink blotting
paper placed squarely before him.
As we came in he turned upon us, one after the other, an intense, steady look, and held it a little longer
than was necessary. I recognized the technique. It is intended to convey that the user is a percipient judge
accustomed to taking summarily the measure of his man; the receiver should feel that be now faces a
reliable type with no nonsense about him-or, alternatively, that he has been seen through and had all his
weaknesses noted. The right form of response is to return it in kind and be considered a "useful fella." I
did. The Colonel picked up his pen.
"Your names, please?"
We gave them.
"In the present circumstances I fear they won't be very useful," I said. "But if you really feel you must
have them-" We gave them too.
He murmured something about system, organization, and relatives, and wrote them down. Age,
occupation, and all the rest of it followed. He bent his searching look upon us again, scribbled a note
upon each piece of paper and put them in a file.
"Need good men. Nasty business, this. Plenty to do here, though. Plenty. Mr. Beadley'll tell you what's
We came out into the ball again. Josella giggled.
"He forgot to ask for references in triplicate-but I gather we've got the job," she said.
Michael Beadley, when we discovered him, turned out to be in decided contrast. He was lean, tall,
broad-shouldered, and slightly stooping, with something the air of an athlete run to books. In repose his
face took on an expression of mild gloom from the darkness of his large eyes, but it was seldom that one
had a glimpse of it in repose. The occasional streaks of gray in his hair helped very little in judging his age.
He might have been anywhere between thirty-five and fifty. His obvious weariness just then made an
estimate still more difficult. By his looks, he must have been up all night; nevertheless he greeted us
cheerfully and waved an introductory hand toward a young woman, who took down our names again as
we gave them.
"Sandra Telmont," he explained. "Sandra is our professional remembrancer-continuity is her usual work,
so we 4 regard it as particularly thoughtful of Providence to contrive her presence here just now."
The young woman nodded to me and looked harder at Josella.
"We've met before," she said thoughtfully. She glanced down at the pad on her knee. Presently a faint
smile passed across her pleasant, though unexotic countenance,
"Oh yes, of course," she said in recollection.
"What did I tell you? The thing clings like a flypaper," Josella observed to me.
"What's this about?" inquired Michael Beadley.
I explained. He turned a more careful scrutiny on Josella.
"Please forget it," she suggested. "I'm a bit tired of living it down"
That appeared to surprise him agreeably.
"All right," he said, and dismissed the matter with a nod.
He turned back to the table. "Now to get on with things. You've seen Jaques?"
"If that is the Colonel who is playing at Civil Service, we have," I told him.
"Got to know how we stand. Can't get anywhere without
knowing your ration strength," he said, in a fair imitation of
the Colonel's manner. "But it's quite true, though," he went
on. "I'd better give you just a rough idea of how things stand.
Up to the present there are about thirty-five of us. All sorts.
We hope and expect that some more will come in during the
day. Out of those here now, twenty-eight can see. The others
are wives or husbands-and there are two or three children-
who cannot. At the moment the general idea is that we move
away from here sometime tomorrow if we can be ready in
time-to be on the safe side, you understand."
I nodded. "We'd decided to get away this evening for the
same reason, I told him.
"What have you for transport?"
I explained the present position of the station wagon. "We
were going to stock up today," I added. "So far we've practically nothing except a quantity of
He raised his eyebrows. The girl Sandra also looked at me
"That's a queer thing to make your first essential," he
I told them the reasons. Possibly I made a bad job of it,
for neither of them looked much impressed. He nodded casually and went on:
"Well, if you're coming in with us, here's what I suggest
B ring in your car, dump your stuff, then drive off and swap
it for a good big truck. Then Oh, does either of you know anything about doctoring?" he broke off to
We shook our heads.
He frowned a little. "That's a pity. So far we've got no one
who does. It'll surprise me if we're not needing a doctor be-
fore long-and, anyway, we ought all of us to have inoculations. . . Still, it's not much good sending
you two off on a medical supplies scrounge. What about food and general stores? Suit you?"
He flipped through some pages on a clip, detached one of them and handed it to me. It was headed
No. 15, and below was a typed list of canned goods, pots and pans, and some bedding.
"Not rigid," he said, "but keep reasonably close to it and we'll avoid too many duplications. Stick to
best quality. With the food, concentrate on value for bulk-I mean, even if corn flakes are your leading
passion in life, forget 'em. I suggest you keep to warehouses and big wholesalers." He took hack the list
and scribbled two or three addresses on it.
"Cans and packets are your food line-don't get led away by sacks of flour, for instance; there's another
part on that sort of stuff." He looked thoughtfully at Josella. Heavyish work, I'm afraid, but it's the most
useful job we can give you at present. Do as much as you can before dark. There'll be a general meeting
and discussion here about nine-thirty this evening."
As we turned to go:
"Got a pistol?" he asked.
"I didn't think of it," I admitted.
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