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Lascelles Abercrombie: The End of the World, Act II


The End of the World

Act II

As before, a little while after. The room is empty when the curtain goes up. SOLLERS runs in and paces about, but stops short when he catches sight of a pot dog on the mantlepiece.

The pace it is coming down! – What to do now? –
My brain has stopt: it’s like a clock that’s fallen
Out of a window and broke all its cogs. –
Where’s that old cider, Vine would have us pay
Twopence a glass for? Let’s try how it smells:
Old Foxwhelp, and a humming stingo it is!
[To the pot dog]
Hullo, you! Whaty are you grinning at? –
I know!
There’ll be no score against me for this drink!
Of that score! I’ve drunk it down for a week
With every gulp of cider, and every gulp
Was half the beauty it should have been, the score
So scratcht my swallowing throat, like a wasp in the drink!
And I need never have heeded it! –
Old grinning dog! You’ve seen me happy here;
And now, all’s done! But do you know this too,
That I can break you now, and never called
To pay for you? [Throwing the dog on the floor.]
I shall be savage soon!
We’re leaving all this! – O, and it was so pleasant
Here, in here, of an evening. – Smash!

[He sweeps a lot of crockery on to the floor.]

It’s all no good! Let’s make a wreck of it all!

[Picking up a chair and swinging it.]

Damn me! Now I’m forgetting to drink, and soon
‘Twill be too late. Where’s there a mug not shivered?

[He goes to draw himself cider. MERRICK rushes in.]

You at the barrels, too? Out of the road!

[He pushes SOLLERS away and spills his mug.]

Go and kick out of door, you black donkey.

Let me come at the vessel, will you?

[They wrestle savagely.]

Keep off;
I’m the first here. Lap what you’ve spilt of mine.

You with your chiselling and screw-driving,
Your wooden work, you bidding me, the man
Who hammers a meaning into red hot iron?

[VINE comes in slowly. He is weeping; the two wrestlers stop and stare at him, as he sits down, and holds his head in his hands, sobbing.]

Vine  O this is a cruel affair!

Here’s Vine crying!

I’ve seen the moon.

The moon? ‘Tisn’t the moon
That’s tumbling on us, but yon raging star.
What notion now is clotted in your head?

I’ve seen the moon; it has nigh broke my heart.

Not the moon too jumping out of her ways?

No, no; – but going quietly and shining,
Pushing away a flimsy gentle cloud
That would drift smoky round her, fending it off
Wuth steady rounds of blue and yellow light.
It was not much to see. She was no more
Than a curved bit of silver rind. But I
Never before so noted her –

What he said,
The dowser!

Ay, about his yellowhammers.

And there’s a kind of stifle in the air

It seems to me, my breathing goes
All hot down my windpipe, but as cider
Mulled and steaming travels down my swallow.

And a queer racing through my ears of blood.

I wonder, is the star come closer still?

O, close, I know, and viciously heading down.

She was so silver! and the sun had left
A kind of tawny red, a dust of fine
Thin light upon the blue where she was lying, –
Just a curled paring of the moon, amid
The faint grey cloud that set the gleaming wheel
Around the tilted slip of shining silver.
O it did seem to me so safe and homely,
The moon quietly going about the earth;
It’s a rare place we have to live in, here;
And life is such a comfortable thing –
And what’s the sense of it all? Naught but to make
Cruel as may be the slaughtering of it.

It beats my mind!

[He begins to walk up and down desparately.]

‘Twas bound to come sometime,
Bound to come, I suppose. ‘Tis a poor thing
For us, to fall plumb in the chance of it;
But, now or another time, ’twas bound to be. –
I have been thinking back. When I was a lad
I was delighted with my life: there seemed
Naught but things to enjoy. Say we were bathing:
There’ld be the cool smell of the water, and cool
The splashing under the trees: but I did loathe
The sinking mud slithering round my feet,
And I did love to loathe it so! And then
We’ld troop to kill a wasp’s nest; and for sure
I would be stung; and if I liked the dusk
And singing and the game of it all, I loved
The smart of the stings, and fleeing the buzzing furies.
And sometimes I’ld be looking at myself
Making so much of everything; there’ld seem
A part of me speaking about myself:
‘ You know, this is much more than being happy.
‘Tis hunger of some power in you, that lives
On your heart’s welcome for all sorts of luck,
But always looks beyond you for its meaning. ‘
And that’s the way the world’s kept going on,
I believe now. Misery and delight
Have both had liking welcome from it, both
Have made the world keen to be glad and sorry.
For why? It felt the living power thrive
The more it made everything, good and bad,
Its own belonging, forged to its own affair, –
The living power that would do wonders some day.
I don’t know if you take me?

I do, fine;
I’ve felt the very thought go through my mind
When I was at my wains; though ’twas a thing
Of such a flight I could not read its colour. –
Why was I like a man sworn to a thing
Working to have my wains in every curve,
Ay, every teneon, right and as they should be?
Not for myself, not even for those wains:
But to keep in me living at its best
The skill that must go forward and shape the world,
Helping it on to make some masterpiece.

And never was there aught to come of it!
The world was always looking to use its life
In some great handsome way at last. And now –
We are just fooled. There never was any good
In the world going on or being at all.
The fine things life has plotted to do are worth
A rotten toadstool kickt to flying bits.
End of the World? Ay, and the end of a joke.

Well, Huff’s the man for this turn.

Ay, the good man!
He could but grunt when times were pleasant; now
There’s misery enough to make him trumpet.
And yet, by God, he shan’t come blowing his horn
Over my misery!
We are just fooled, did I say? – We fooled ourselves,
Looking for worth in what was still to come;
And now there’a a stop to our innings. Well, that’s fair:
I’ve been a living man, and might have been
Nothing at all! I’ve had the world about me,
And felt it as my own concern. What else
Should I be crying for? I’ve had my turn.
The world may be for the sake of naught at last,
But it has been for my sake: I’ve had that.

[He sits again, and broods.]

I can’t stay here. I must be where my sight
May silence with its business all my thinking –
Though it will be the star plunged down so close
It puffs its flaming vengeance in my face.

[He goes.]

I wish there were someone who had done me wrong,
Like Huff with his wife and Shale; I wish there were
Somebody I would like to see go crazed
With staring fright. I’ld have my pleasure then
Of living on into the End of the World.
But there is no one at all for me, no one
Now my poor wife is gone.

Why what did she
To harm you?

Didn’t she marry me? – It’s true
She made it come all right. She died at last.
Besides, it would be wasting wishes on her,
To be in hopes of her weeping at this.
She’ld have her hands on her hops and her tongue jumping
As nimble as a stoat, delighting round
The way the world’s to be terrible and tormented. –
Ay, but I’ll have a thing to tell her now
When she begins to ask the news! I’ll say
‘ You’ve misst such a show as never was nor will be,
A roaring great affair of death and ruin;
And I was there – the world smasht to sparkles! ‘
O, I can see her vext at that!

[MERRICK has been sunk in thought during this, but VINE seems to brighten at this notion, and speaks quite cheerfully to HUFF, who now comes in, looking mopish, and sits down]

We’ve all been envying you, Huff. You’re well off,
You with your goodness and your enemies
Showing you how to relish it with their terror.
When do you mean the gibing is to start?

There’s time enough.

O, do they still hold out?
If they should be for spiting you to the last!
You’ld best keep on at them: think out a list
Of frantic things for them to do, when air
Is scorching smother and the sin they did
Frightens their hearts. You’ll shout them into fear,
I undertake, if you find breath enough.

You have the breath. What’s all your pester for?
You leave me be.

Why, you’re to do for me
What I can’t do myself. – And yet it’s hard
To make out where Shale hurt you. What’s the sum
Of all he did to you? Got you quit of a marriage
Without the upset of a funeral.

Wyy need you blurt your rambling mind at me?
Let me bide quiet in my thought awhile,
And it’s a little while we have for thought.

I know your thought. Paddling round and around,
Like a squirrel working in a spinning cage
With his neck stretcht to have his chin poke up,
And silly feet busy and always going;
Paddling round the story of your good life,
Your small good life, and how the decent men
Have jeered at your wry antic.

My good life!
And what good has my goodness been to me?
You show me that! Somebody show me that!
A caterpillar munching a cabbage-heart,
Always drudging further and further from
The sounds and lights of the world, never abroad
Nor flying free in warmth and air sweet-smelling:
A crawling caterpillar, eating his life
In a deaf dark – that’s my gain of goodness!
And it’s too late to hatch out now! –
I can but fancy what I might have been;
I scarce know how to sin! – But I believe
A long while back I did come near to it.

Well done! – O but I should have guesst all this!

I was in Droitwich; and the sight of the place
Is where they cook the brine: a long dark shed,
Hot as an oven, full of a grey steam
And ruddy light that leaks out of the furnace;
And stirring the troughs, ladling the brine that boils
As thick as treacle, a double standing row,
Women – boldly talking in wicked jokes
All day long. I went to see ’em. It was
A wonderful rousing sight. Not one of them
Was really wearing clothes: half of a sack
Pinned in an apron was enough for most,
And here and there might be a petticoat;
But nothing in the way of bodices –
O, they knew words to shame a carter’s face!

This is the thought you would be quiet in!

Where else can I be quiet? Now there’s an end
Of daring, ’tis the one place my life has made
Where I may try to dare in thought. I mind,
When I stood in the midst of those bare women,
All at once, outburst with a rising buzz,
A mob of flying thoughts was wild in me:
Things I might do swarmed in my brain pell-mell,
Like a heap of flies kickt into humming cloud.
I beat them down; and now I cannot tell
For certain what they were. I can call up
Naught venturesome and darting like their style;
Very tame braveries now! – O Shale’s the man
To smile upon the End of the World; ’tis Shale
Has lived the bold stiff fashion, and filled himself
With thinking pride in what a man may do. –
I wish I had seen those women more than once!

Well, here’s an upside down! This is old Huff!
What have you been in your heart all these years?
The man you were or the new man you are?

Just a dead flesh!

Nay, Huff the good man at least
Was something alive, though snarling like trapt vermin.
But this? What’s this for the figure of a man?
‘Tis a boy’s smutty picture on a wall.

I was alive, was I? Like a blind bird
That flies and cannot see the flight it takes,
Feeling it with mere rowing of its wings.
But Shale – he’s had a stirring sense of what he is.

[Shouting outside. Then SOLLERS walks in again, very quiet and steady. He stands in the middle, looking down on the floor ]

What do they holla for there?

The earth.

The earth?

The earth’s afire.

The earth blazing already?

[Shouts again.]

O, not so soon as this?

What sort of fire?

The earth has caught the heat of the star, you fool.

I know: there’s come some dazzle in your eyes
From facing to the star; a lamp would do it.

It will be that. Your sight, being so strained,
Is flashing of itself.

Way what you like.
There’s a red flare out of the land beyond
Looking over the hills into our valley.
The thing’s begun, ’tis certain. Go and see.

I won’t see that. I will stay here.

Ay, creep
Into your oven. You’ll be cooler there. –
O my God, we’ll all be coals in an hour!

[Shouts again.]

And I have naught to stand in my heart upright,
And vow it made my living time worth more
Than if my time had been death in a grave!

[Several persons run in.]

The Crown
1. The river’s the place!
2. The only safe place now!
3. Best all charge down to the river!
4. For there’s a blaze,
A travelling blaze comes racing along the earth.

‘Tis true. The air’s red-hot above the hills.

The Crown
1. Ay, but he burning now crests the hill-tops
In quiver of yellow flame.
2. And a great smoke
Waving and tumbling upward.
3. The river now!
4. The only place we have, not be be roasted!

And what will make us water-rats or otters,
To keep our breath still living through a dive
That lasts until the earth’s burnt out? Or how
Would that trick serve, when we stand up to gasp,
And find the star waiting for our plunged heads
To knock them into pummy?

Scarce more dazed
I’ld be with that than now. I shall be bound,
When I’m to give my wife the tale of it all,
To be divising: more of this to-do
My mind won’t carry.

O ashamed I am,
Ashamed! – It needn’t have been downright fears,
Such as the braving men, the like of Shale,
Do easily, and smile, keeping them up.
If I could look back to one manful hour
Of romping in the face of all my goodness! –

[SHALE comes in, dragging Mrs HUFF by the hand.]

Huff! Where’s Huff? – Huff, you must take her back!
You’ll take her back? She’s yours: I give her up.

Belike here’s something bold again.

Mrs Huff [to SHALE]
Once more,

I will not listen. There’s no time
For aught but giving you back where you belong;
And that’s with you, Huff. Take her.

Here is depth
I cannot see to. Is it your last fling? –
The dolt I am in these things! – What’s this way
You’ve found of living wickedly to the end?

Scorn as you please, but take her back, man, take her.

But she’s my wife! Take her back now? What for?

Mrs Huff
What for? Have you not known of thieves that throw
Their robbery down, soon as they hear a step
Sounding behind them on the road, and run
A long way off, and pull an honest face?
Ay, see Shale’s eyes practising baby-looks!
He never stole, not he!

Don’t hear her talk.

Mrs Huff
But he was a talker once! Love was the thing;
And love, he swore, would make the wrong go right,
And Huff was a kind of devil – and that’s true –

What? I’ve been devilish and never knew?

Mrs Huff
The devil in the world that hates all love.
But Shale said, he’d the love in him would hold
If the world’s frame and the fate of men were crackt.

What I said!
Whoever thought the world was going to crack?

Mrs Huff
And now he hears someone move behind him. –
They’ll say, perhaps, ‘ You stole this! ‘ – Down it goes,
Thrown to the ditry road – thrown to Huff!

Yes, to the owner.

Mrs Huff
It was not such brave thieving
You did not take me from my owner, Shale:
There’s an old robber will do that some day,
Not you.

Were you thinking of me then, missis?

Mrs Huff [still to SHALE]
You found me lost in the dirt: I was with Huff.
You lifted me from there; and there again,
Like a frightened urchin, you’re for throwing me.

Let it be that! I’m firm
Not to have you about me, when the thing,
Whatever it is, that’s standing now behind
The burning of the world, comes out on us.

The way men cheat! This windle-stalk was he
Would hold a show of spirit for the world
To study while it ruined! – Make what you please
Of your short wrangle here, but leave me out.
I have my thoughts – O far enough from this.

[Turning away.]

Shale [seizing him]
You shall not put me off. I tell you, Huff,
You are to take her back now.

Take her back!
And what has she to do with what I want?

Isn’t she yours? I must be quit of her;
I’ll not be in the risk of keeping her.
She’s yours!

And what’s the good of her now to me?
What’s the good of a woman whom I’ve married?

[During this, WARP the molecatcher has come in.]

Shale and Huff at their old pother again!

The molecather!

Warp, have you travelled far?
Is it through frenzy and ghastly crowds you’ve come?

Have you got dreadful things to tell us, Warp?

Why, no.
But seemingly you’ld have had news for me,
If I’d come later. Is Huff to murder Shale,
Or Shale for murdering Huff? One way or ‘tother,
‘Tis time ’twas settled surely. – Mrs Huff
They’re neither of them worth you: here’s your health.

[Draws and drinks.]

Where have you been? Are you not new from folk
That throng together in a pelting horror?

Do you think the whole land hearkens to the flurry
Of an old dog biting at a young dog’s throat?

No, no! Not their shrill yapping; you’ve not heard
The world’s near to be blasted?

No mutter of it.
I am from walking the whole ground I trap,
And there’s no likeness of it, but the moles
I’ve turned up dead and dried out of three counties.

Why, but the fire that’s eating the whole earth;
The breath of it is scarlet in the sky!
You must have seen that?

But what’s taken you?
You are like boys that go to hunt for ghosts,
And turn the scuttle of rats to a roused demon
Crawling to shut the door of the barn they search.
Fire? Yes, fire is playing a pretty game
Yonder, and has its golden fun to itself,

You don’t know what ’tis that burns?

Call me a mole and not a molecatcher
If I do not. It is a rick that burns;
And a strange thing I’ll count it if the rick
Be not old Huff’s.

That flare a fired stack?

Only one of my ricks alight? O Glory?
There may be chance for me yet.

Best take the train
To Droitwich, Huff.

Vine [at the door]
It would be like a stack,
But for the star.

Sollers [to WARP]
Yes, as you’re so clever,
You can talk down maybe yon brandishing star!

O, ’tis the star has flickt your brains? Indeed,
The tail swings long enough to-night for that.
Well, look your best at it; ’tis off again
To go its rounds, they tell me, from now on;
And the next time it swaggers in our sky,
The moles a long while will have tired themsleves
Of having their easy joke with me.

[A pause.]

You mean
The flight of the star is from us?

But the world,
The whole world reckons on it battering us!

Who told you that?

A dowser.

Where’s he gone?

A dowser! say a trampling conjurer.
You’ll believe aught, if you believe a dowser.

I had it in me to be doubting him.

The noise you made was like that! But I knew
You’ld laugh at me, so sure you were the world
Would shiver like a bursting grindlestone:
Else I’ld have said out loud, ’twas a fool’s whimsy.

Where are you now? What am I now to think?
Your minds run round in puzzles, like chased hares.
I cannot sight them.

Think of going to bed.

And dreaming prices for your pigs.

O Warp,
You should have seen Vine crying! The moon, he said,
The silver moon! Just like an onion ’twas
To stir the water in his eyes.

He’s left
A puddle of his tears where he was droopt
Over the table.

There’s to be no ruin? –
But what’s the word of a molecatcher, to crow
So ringing over a dowser’s word?

I’ll tell you.
These dowsers live on lies: my trade’s the truth.
I can read moles, and the way they’ve dug their journeys,
Where you’ld not see a wrinkle.

And he knows
The buried water.

There’s always buried water,
If you prod deep enough. A dowser finds
Because the whole earth’s floating, like a raft.
What does he know? A twitching in this thews;
A dog asleep knows that much. What I know
I’ve learnt, and if I’d learnt it wrong, I’ld starve.
And if I’m right about the grubbing moles,
Won’t I be right for news of walking men?

Of course you’re right. Let’s put the whole thing by,
And have a pleasant drink.

Shale [to Mrs HUFF]
You must be tired
With all this story. Shall we be off for home?

You brass! You don’t go now with her! She’s mine!
You gave her up.

And you made nothing of her.

[To Mrs Huff]
Come on.

Mrs Huff
Warp, will you do a thing for me?

A hundred things.

Mrs Huff
Then slap me these cur-dogs.

WarpF I N
I will. Where will I slap them, and which first?

Mrs Huff
Maybe ’twill do if you but laugh at them.

I’ll try for that; but they are not good jokes;
Though there’s a kind of monkey-look about them.

Mrs Huff
They thinking I’ld be near one or the other
After this night! Will I be made no more
Than clay that children puddle to their minds,
Moulding it what they fancy? – Shale was brave:
He made a bogy and defied it, till
He frightened of his work and ran away.
But Huff! – Huff was for modelling wickedly.

Who told you that?

Mrs Huff
I need no one’s telling.
I was your wife once. Don’t I know your goodness?
A stupid heart gone sour with jealousy,
To feel its blood too dull and thick for sinning. –
Yes, Huff would figure a wicked thought, but had
No notion how, and flung the clay aside. –
O they were gaudy colours both! But now
Fear has bleacht their swagger and left them blank,
Fear of a loon that cried, End of the World!

Shale, do you know what we’re to do?

I’ld like
To have the handling of that dowser-man.

Just that, my lad, just that!

And your fired rick?

Let it be blazes! Quick, Shale, after him!
I’ll tramp the nght out, but I’ll take the rogue.

Shale [to the others]
You wait, and see us haul him by the ears,
And swim the blatherer in Huff’s farm-yard pond.

[As HUFF and SHALE go out, they see the comet before them.]

The devil’s own star is tha!

And floats as calm
As a pike basking.

There shouldn’t be such stars!

Neither such dowsers,and we’ll learn him that.

[They go off together.]

Why the star’s dwindling now, surely.

O, small
And dull now to the glowing size it was.

But is it certain there’ll be nothing smasht?
Not even a house knockt roaring down in crumbles?
– And I did think, I’ld open my wife’s mouth
With envy of the dreadful things I’d seen!


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

 F I N

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