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Lascelles Abercrombie: The End of the World, Act I



The End of the World

Act I


HUFF, the Farmer
SOLLERS, the Wainwright.
MERRICK, the Smith.
VINE, the Publician.
SHALE, the Labourer.
WARP, the Molecatcher
Men and Women of the Village


A public-house kitchen. HUFF the Farmer and SOLLERS the Wainwright talking; another man, a stranger, sitting silent.

Ay, you may think we’re well off –

Now for croaks
Old toad! who’s trodden on you now? – Go on;
But if you can, croak us a new tune.

You think you’re well off – and don’t grab my words
Before they’re spoken – but some folks, I’ve heard,
Pity us, living quiet in the valley.

Well, I suppose ’tis their affair.

Is it?
But what I mean to say, – if they think small
Of us that live in the valley, mayn’t it show
That we aren’t all so happy as we think?

[MERRICK the smith comes in.]

Quick, cider! I believe I’ve swallowd a coal.

Good evening. True, the heat’s a wonder tonight. [Smith draws himself cider.]

Haven’t you brought your flute? We’ve all got room
For music in our minds to-night, I’ll swear.
Working all day in the sun do seem to push
The thought out of your brain.

O, ’tis the sun
Had trodden on you? That’s what makes you croak?
Ay, whistle him somewhat: put a tune in his brain;
He’ll else croak us out of pleasure with drinking.

‘Tis quenching, I believe. – A tune? Too hot?
You want a fiddler.

Nay, I want your flute.
I like a piping sound, not scraping o’ guts.

This is no weather for a man to play
Flutes or music at all that asks him spend
His breath and spittle: you want both yourself
These oven days. Wait till a fiddler comes.

Who ever comes down here?

There’s someone come.
[Pointing with his pipe to the stranger.]

Good evening, mister. Are you a man for tunes?

And if I was I’ld give you none to-night.

Well, no offence: there’s no offence, I hope,
In taking a dummy for a tuneful man.
Is it for can’t or won’t you are?

You wouldn’t if you carried in your mind
What I’ve been carrying all day.

What’s that?

You wait; you’ll know about it soon; O yes,
Soon enough it will find you and and rouse you.

Now ain’t that just the way we go down here?
Here in the valley we’re like dogs in a yard,
Chained to our kennels and wall’d in all round,
And not a sound of the world jumps over our hills.
And when there comes a passenger among us,
One who has heard what’s stirring out beyond,
‘Tis a grutchy mumchance fellow in the dismals!

News, it it, you want? I could give you news! –
I wonder, did you ever hate to feel
The earth so fine and splendid?

Oh, you’re one
Has stood in the brunt of the world’s wickedness,
Like me? But listen, and I’ll give you a tale
Of wicked things done in this little valley,
Done against me, will surely make you think
The Devil here fetcht up his masterpiece.

Ah, but it’s hot enough without you talking
Your old hell fire about that pair of sinners.
Leave them alone and drink.

I’ll smell them grilling
One of these days.

But there’ll be nought to drink
When that begins! Best keep your skin full now.

What do I care for wickedness? Let those
Who’ve played with dirt, and thought the game was bold,
Make much of it while they can: there’s a big thing
Coming down to us, ay, well on its road,
Will make their ploys seem mighty piddling sport.

This is a fool; or else it’s what I think, –
The world now breeds such crowd that they’ve no crombie room
For well-grown sins: they hatch ’em small as flies.
But you stay here, out of the world awhile,
Here where a man’s mind, and a woman’s mind,
Can fling out large in wickedness: you’ll see
Something monstrous here, something dreadful.

I’ve seen enough of that. Though it was only
Fancying made me see it, it was enough;
I’ve seen the folk of the world yelling aghast,
Scurrying to hide themselves. I want nought else
Monstrous and dreadful. –

What had roused ’em so?
Some house fire?

A huzzy flogged to death
For her hard-faced adultery?

Stranger [too intent to hear them]
Oh to think of it!
Talk, do, chatter some nonsense, else I’ll think:
And then I’m feeling like a grub that crawls
All abroad in a dusty road; and high
Above me, and shaking the ground beneath me, come
Wheels of a thundering wain, right where I’m plodding.

Queer thinking, that.

And here’s a queerer thing.
I have a sort of lust in me, pushing me still
Into that terrible way of thinking, like
Black men in India lie them down and long
To feel their holy wagon crack their spines.

Do you mean beetles? I’ve driven over scores,
They sprawling on their backs, or standing mazed.
I never knew they liked it.

He means frogs.
I know what’s in his mind. When I was young
My mother would catch us frogs and set them down,
Lapt in a screw of paper, in the ruts,
And carts going by would quash ’em; and I’ld laugh,
And yet be thinking, ‘ Suppose it was myself
Twisted stiff in huge paper, and wheels
Bit as the wall of a barn treading me flat! ‘

I know what’s in his mind: just madness it is.
He’s lookt too hard at his fellows in the world;
Sight of their monstrous hearts, like devils in cages,
Has jolted all the gearing of his wits.
It needs a tough brain, ay, a brain like mine,
To pore on ugly sin and not go mad.

Madness! You’re not far out. – I came up here
To be alone and quiet in my thoughts
Alone in my own dreadful mind. The path,
Of red sand trodden hard, went up between
High hedges overgrown of hawthorn blowing
White as clouds; ay, it seemed burrowed through
A white sweet-smelling cloud, – I walking there
Small as a hare that runs its tunnelled drove
Thro’ the close heather. And beside my feet
Blue greygles drifted gleaming over the grass;
And up I climbed to sunlight green in birches,
And the path turned to daisies among grass
With bonfires of the broom beside, like flame
Of burning straw; and I lookt into your valley.
I could scarce look.
Anger was smarting in my eyes like grit.
O the fine earth and fine all for nothing!
Mazed I walkt, seeing and smelling and hearing:
The meadow lands all shining fearfully gold, –
Cruel as fire the sight of them toucht my mind;
Breathing was all a honey taste of clover
And bean flowers: I would have rather had it
Carrion, or the stink of smouldering brimstone.
And larks aloft, the happy piping fools,
And squealing swifts that slid on hissing wings,
And yellowhammers playing spry in hedges:
I never noted them before; but now –
Yes, I was mad, and crying mad, to see
The earth so fine, fine all for nothing!

Sollers [spits]
Pst! yellowhammers! He talks gentry talk.
That’s worse than being mad.

I tell you, you’ll be feeling them to-morn
And hating them to be so wonderful.

Let’s have some sense. Where do you live?

I’m always travelling.

Why, what’s your trade?

A dowser.

You’re the man for me!

Not I.

Ho, this is better than a fiddler now!
One of those fellows who have nerves so clever
That they can feel the waters of underground
Tingling in their fingers?
You find me a spring in my high grazing-field,
I’ll give you what I save in trundling water.

I find you water now! – No, but I’ll find you
Fire and fear and unbelievable death.

[VINE the Publician comes in]

Are ye all served? Ay, seems so; what’s your score?

Two ciders.


And two for me.

Vine [to Dowser]
And you?

Naught. I was waiting on you.

Will you drink?

Ay! Drink! what else is left for a man to do
Who knows what I know?

Good. What is’t you know?
You tell it out and set my trade a-buzzing.

He’s queer. Give him his mug and ease his tongue.

I had to swill the pigs: else I’d been here;
But we’ve the old fashion in this house; you draw,
I keep the score. Well, what’s the worry on you?

Oh he’s in love.

You fleering grinning louts,
I’ll give it you now; now have it in your faces!

Crimini, he’s going to fight!

You try and fight with the thing that’s on my side!

A ranter!Abercrombie

A boozy one then.

Open yon door;
‘Tis dark enough by now. Open it, you.

Hold on. Have you got something fierce outside?

A Russian bear?

Dowsers can play strange games.

No tricks!

This is a trick to rouse the world.

[He opens the door.]

Look out! Between the elms! There’s my fierce thing.

He means the star with the tail like a feather of fire.

Comet, it’s called.

Do you mean the comet, mister?

What do you think of it?

Pretty enough.
But I saw a man loose off a rocket once;
It made more stir and flare of itself; though yon
Does better at steady burning.

Stir and flare!
You’ll soon forget your rocket.

Tell you what
I thought last night, now, going home. Says I,
‘Tis just like the look of a tadpole: if I saw
A tadpole silver as a dace that swam
Upside-down towards me through black water,
I’ld see the plain spit of that star and his tail.

And how does your thought go?

It’s what I know! –
A tadpole and a rocket! – My dear God,
And I can still laugh out! – What do you think
Your tadpole’s made of? What lets your rocket fling
Those streaming sparks across the half of night,
Splashing the burning spray of its haste among
The quiet business of the other stars?
Ay, that’s a fiery jet it leaves behind
In such enormous drift! What sort of fire
Is spouted so, spouted and never quenching? –
There is no name for that star’s fire: it is
The fire that was before the world was made,
The fire that all the things we live among
Remember being; and whitest fire we know
Is its poor copy in their dreaming trance!

That would be hell fire.

Ay, if you like, hell fire,
Hell fire flying through the night! ‘Twould be
A thing to blink about, a blast of it
Swept in your face, eh? and a thing to set
The whole stuff of the earth smoking rarely?
Which of you said ‘ the heat’s a wonder to-night’ ?
You have not done with marvelling. There’ll come
A night when all your clothes are a pickle of sweat,
And, for all that, the sweat on your salty skin
Shall dry and crack, in the breathing of wind
That’s like a draught come through an open’d furnace.
The leafage of the trees shall brown and faint,
All sappy growth turning to brittle rubbish
As the near heat of the star strokes the green earth;
And time shall brush the fields as visibly
As a rough hand brushes against the nap
Of gleaming cloth – killing the season’s colour,
Each hour charged with the wasting of a year;
And sailors panting on their warping ecks
Will watch the sea steam like broth about them.
You’ll know what I know then! – That towering star
Hangs like a fiery buzzard in the night
Intent over our earth – Ay, now his journey
Points straight as a plummet’s drop, down to us!

Why, that’s the end of the world!

You’ve said it now.

What, soon? In a day or two?

You can’t mean that!

End of the World! Well now, I never thought
To hear the news of that. If you’ve the truth
In what you say, likely this is an evening
That we’ll be talking over often and often.
‘How was it, Sollers?’ I’ll say; ‘ or you, Merrick,
Do you mind clearly how he lookt? ‘ – And then –
‘ ” End of the world ” he said, and drank – like that,
Solemn! ‘ – And right he was: he had it all
As sure as I have when my sow’s to farrow.

Are you making a joke of me? Keep your mind
For tippling while you can.

Was that a joke?
I’m always bad at seeing ’em, even my own.

A fool’s! ‘Twill cheer you when the earth blows up
Like as it were all gunpowder.

You mean
The star will butt his burning head against us?
‘Twill knock the world to flinders, I suppose?

Ay, or with that wild, monstrous tail of his
Smash down upon the air, and make it bounce
Like water under the flukes of a harpooned whale,
And thrash it to a poisonous fire; and we
And all the life of the world drowned in blazing!

‘Twill be a handsone sight. If my old wife
Were with me now! This would have suited her.
‘I do like things to happen!’ she would say;
Never shindy enough for her; and now
She’s gone, and can’t be seeing this!

You poor fool.
How will it be a sight to you, when your eyes
Are scorcht to little cinders in your head?

Whether or no, there must be folks outside
Willing to know of this. I’ll scatter your news.

[He goes. A short pause: then SOLLERS breaks out.]

No, no; it woudn’t do for me at all;
Nor for you neither, Merrick? End of the World?
Bogy! A parson’s tale or a bairn’s!

That’s it.
Your trade’s a gift, easy as playing tunes.
But Sollers here and I, we’ve had to drill
Sinew and muscle into their hard lesson,
Until they work in timber and flowing iron
As kindly as I pick up my pint: your work
Grows in your nature, like plain speech in a child,
But we have learnt to think in a foreign tongue;
And something must come out of all our skill!
We shan’t go sliding down as glib as you
Into notions of the End of the World.

Give me a tree, you may say, and give me steel,
And I’ll put forth my shapely mind; I’ll make,
Out of my head like telling a well-known tale,
A wain that goes as comely on the roads
As a ship sailing, the lines of it true as gospel.
Have I learnt that all for nothing? – O no!
End of the World? It wouldn’t do at all.
No more making of wains, after I’ve spent
My time in getting the right skill in my hands?

Ay, you begin to feel it now, I think;
But you complain like boys for a game spoilt:
Shaping your carts, forging your iron! But Life,
Life, the mother who lets her children play
So seriously busy, trade and craft, –
Life with her skill of a million years’ perfection
To make her heart’s delighted glorying
Of sunlight, and of clouds about the moon,
Spring lighting her daffodils, and corn
Ripening gold to ruddy, and giant seas,
And mountains sitting in their purple clothes –
O life I am thinking of, life the wonder,
All blotcht out by a brutal thrust of fire
Like a midge that clumsy thumb squashes and smears.

Let me but see the show beginning, though!
You’ld mind me then! O I would like you all
To watch how I should figure, when the star
Brandishes over the whole air its flame
Of thundering fire; and naught but yellow rubbish
Parcht on the perishing ground, and there are tongues
Chapt with thirst, glad to lap stinking ponds,
And pale glaring faces spying about
On the earth withering, terror the only speech!
Look for me then, and see me stand alone
Easy and pleasant in the midst of it all.
Did you not make your merry scoff of me?
Was it your talk, that when you shameless pair
Threw their wantoning in my face like dirt,
I had no heart against them but to grumble?
You would be saying that, I know! But now,
Now I believe it’s time for you to see
My patient heart at last taking its wages.

Pull up, man! Screw the brake on your running tongue,
Else it will rattle you down the tumbling way
This fellow’s gone.

And one man’s enough
With brain quagged axle-deep in crazy mire.
We won’t have you beside him in his puddles,
And calling out with him on the End of the World
To heave you out with a vengeance.

What you want!
Have I not borne enough to make me know
I must be righted sometime? – And what else
Would break the hardy sin in them, which lets
Their souls parade so daring and so tall
Under God’s hate and mine? What else could pay
For all my wrong but a blow of blazing anger
Striking down to shiver the earth, and change
Their strutting wickedness to horror and crying?

Be quiet, Huff! If you mean to believe
This dowser’s stuff, and join in his bedlam,
By God, you’ll have to reckon with my fist.

[SHALE comes in. HUFF glares at him speechless, but with wrath evidently working.]

Where’s the joker? You, is it? Here’s hot news
You’ve brought us; all the valley’s hissing aloud,
And makes as much of you falling into it
As a pail of water would of a glowing coal.

Don’t you start burbling too, Shale.

That’s the word!
Burbling, simmering, ay, and bumpy-boiling :
All the women are mobbed together close
Under the witan-trees, and their full minds
Boil like so many pans slung on a fire.
Why starlings trooping in a copse in fall
Could make no scandal like it.

What is it, man?

End of the World! The flying star! End of the World!

They don’t believe it though?

What? the whole place
Has gone just randy over it!

Hold your noise!

I shall be daft if this goes on.

Ay, so?
The End of the World’s been here? You look as though
You’d startled lately. And there’s the virtuous man!
How would End of the World suit our good Huff,
Our old crab-verjuice Huff?

HUFF [seizing the DOWSER and bring him up in front of Shale]
Look at him there!
This is the man I told of when you
Were talking small of sin. You made it out,
Did you, a fool’s mere nasty game, like dogs
That snuggle in muck, and grin and roll themselves
With snorting pleasure? Ah, but you are wrong.
‘Tis something that goes thrusting dreadfully
Its wilful bravery of evil against
The worth and right of goodness in the world:
Ay, do you see how his face still brags at me?
And long it has been, the time he’s had to walk
Lording about me with his wickedness.
Do you know what he dared? I had a wife,
A flighty pretty linnet-headed girl,
But mine: he practised on her with his eyes;
He knew of luring glances, and she went
After his calling lust: and all since then
They’ve lived together, fleering in my face,
Pleased in sight of the windows of my house
With doing wrong, and making my disgrace.
O but wait here with me; wait till your news
Is not to be mistaken, for the way
The earth buckles and singes like hot boards:
You’ll surely see how dreadful sin can be
Then, when you mark these two running about,
With raging fear for what they did against me
Buzzing close to their souls, stinging their hearts,
And they like scampering beasts when clegs are fierce,
Or flinging themselves low as the ground to writhe,
Their arms hugging their desperate heads. And then
You’ll see what ’tis to be an upright man,
Who keeps a patient anger for his wrongs
Thinking of judgment coming – you will see that
When you mark how my looks hunt these wretches,
And smile upon their groans and posturing anguish.
O watch how calm I’ll be, when the blazing air
Judges their wickedness; you watch me then
Looking delighted, like a nobleman
Who sees his horse winning an easy race.

You fool, Huff, you believe it now!

You fool,
Merrick, how should I not believe a thing
That calls aloud on my mind and spirit, and they
Answer to it like starving conquering soldiers
Told to break out and loot?

You vile old wasp!

We’ve talkt enough: let’s all go home and sleep;
There might be a fiend in the air about us, one
Who pours his will into our minds to see
How we can frighten one another.
A fiend!
Shale will soon have the flapping wings of a fiend,
And flaming wings, beating about his head.
Ther’ll be no air for Shale, very soon now,
But the breathing of a fiend: the star’s coming!
The star that breathes a horrible fury of fire
Like glaring fog into the empty night;
And in the gust of its wrath the world will soon
Shrivel and spin like paper in a furnace.
I knew they both would have to pay me at last
With sight of their damned souls for all my wrong!

Somebody stop his gab.

Merrick [seizing the DOWSER and shaking him]
Is it the truth we’re in the way of the star?

A crowd of men and women burst in and shout confusedly.
1. Look out for the star!
2. ‘Tis moving, moving.
3. Grows as you stare at it.
4. Bigger than ever.
1. Down it comes with a diving pounce,
As though it had lookt for us and at last found us.
2. O so near and coming so quick!
3. And how the buring hairs of its tail
Do seem surely to quiver for speed.
4. We saw its great tail gwitch behind it.
‘Tis come so near, so gleaming near.
1. The tail is wagging!
2. Come out and see!
3. The star is wagging its tail and eyeing us –
4. Like a cat huncht to leap on a bird.

Out of my way and let me see for myself.

[They all begin to hustle out: HUFF speaks in midst of the turmoil.]

Ay, now begins the just man’s reward;
And hatred of the evil thing
Now is to be satisfied.
Wrong ventured out against me and braved:
And I’ll be glad to see all breathing pleasure
Burn as foolishly to naught
As a moth in candle flame,
If I but have my will to watch over those
Who injured me bawling hoarse heartless fear.

[They are all gone but HUFF, SHALE and the DOWSER.]

As for you, let you and the women make
Your howling scare of this; I’ll stand and laugh.
But if it truly were the End of the World,
I’ld be the man to face it out, not you:
I who have let life go delighted through me,
Not you, who’ve sulkt away your chance of life
In mumping about being paid for goodness.


Huff [after him]
You wait, you wait!

[He follows the rest. ]

Dowser [alone]
Naught but a plague of flies!
I cannot do with noises, and light fools
Terrified round me; I must go out and think
Where there is quiet and no one near. O, think!
Life that has done such wonders with its thinking,
And never daunted in imagining;
That has put on the sun and the shining night,
The flowering of the earth and tides of the sea,
And irresistible rage of fate itself,
All these as garments for its spirit’s journey –
O now this life, in the brute chance of things,
Murder’d, uselessly murder’d! And naught else
For ever but senseless rounds of hurrying motion
That cannot glory in itself. O no!
I will not think of that; I’ll blind my brain
With fancying the splendours of destruction;
When like a burr in the star’s fiery mane
The crackling earth is caught and rusht along,
The forests on the mountains blazing so,
That from the rocks of ore beneath them come
White-hot rivers of smelted metal pouring
Across the plains to roar into the sea. . . .

The curtain is lowered for a few moments only.

to be contued

Lascelles Abercrombie
(1881 – 1938)
The End of the World, Act I

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