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       The Last Generation: A Story of the Future, p.1

           James Elroy Flecker
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The Last Generation: A Story of the Future


  Produced by Meredith Bach and the Online DistributedProofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net (This file wasproduced from images generously made available by TheInternet Archive/Canadian Libraries)

  THE LAST GENERATION

  _BY THE SAME AUTHOR_

  THE BRIDGE OF FIRE

  A BOOK OF POEMS CONTAINING THE BALLAD OF HAMPSTEAD HEATH AND THE TWIN SONNETS OF BATHROLAIRE

  Price 1s. net

  THE LAST GENERATION

  A STORY OF THE FUTURE

  BY JAMES ELROY FLECKER

  _El hombre es el rey de la creacion_; _vive_ (he lives) _en la tierra y cree_ (he believes) _en el cielo_

  DE ARTEAGA, _Spanish Grammar_

  THE NEW AGE PRESS 140 FLEET STREET, LONDON 1908

  Printed by BALLANTYNE, HANSON & CO. At the Ballantyne Press, Edinburgh

  TO

  FRANK SAVERY

  WHO TAUGHT, ENCOURAGED, AND REVEALED

  CONTENTS

  PAGE INTRODUCTION 9 I. AT BIRMINGHAM TOWN HALL 13 II. THE PROCLAMATION 17 III. THE MUTUAL EXTERMINATION CLUB 23 IV. THE EPISODE OF THE BABY 29 V. THE FLORENTINE LEAGUE 34 VI. OUTSIDE 43 VII. THE LAST MEN 54

  THE LAST GENERATION

  INTRODUCTION

  I had been awake for I know not how many hours that summer dawn whilethe sun came over the hills and coloured the beautiful roses in mymother's garden. As I lay drowsily gazing through the window, Ithought I had never known a morning so sultry, and yet so pleasant.Outside not a leaf stirred; yet the air was fresh, and the madrigalnotes of the birds came to me with a peculiar intensity and clearness.I listened intently to the curious sound of trilling, which drewnearer and nearer, until it seemed to merge into a whirring noise thatfilled the room and crowded at my ears. At first I could see nothing,and lay in deadly fear of the unknown; but soon I thought I saw rimsand sparks of spectral fire floating through the pane. Then I heardsome one say, "I am the Wind." But the voice was so like that of anold friend whom one sees again after many years that my terrordeparted, and I asked simply why the Wind had come.

  "I have come to you," he replied, "because you are the first man Ihave discovered who is after my own heart. You whom others call dreamyand capricious, volatile and headstrong, you whom some accuse ofweakness, others of unscrupulous abuse of power, you I know to be atrue son of AEolus, a fit inhabitant for those caves of boisteroussong."

  "Are you the North Wind or the East Wind?" said I. "Or do you blowfrom the Atlantic? Yet if those be your feathers that shine upon thepane like yellow and purple threads, and if it be through yourinfluence that the garden is so hot to-day, I should say you were thelazy South Wind, blowing from the countries that I love."

  "I blow from no quarter of the Earth," replied the voice. "I am not inthe compass. I am a little unknown Wind, and I cross not Space butTime. If you will come with me I will take you not over countries butover centuries, not directly, but waywardly, and you may travel whereyou will. You shall see Napoleon, Caesar, Pericles, if you command. Youmay be anywhere in the world at any period. I will show you some of myfriends, the poets...."

  "And may I drink red wine with Praxiteles, or with Catullus beside hislake?"

  "Certainly, if you know enough Latin and Greek, and can pronounce themintelligently."

  "And may I live with Thais or Rhodope, or some wild Assyrian queen?"

  "Unless they are otherwise employed, certainly."

  "Ah, Wind of Time," I continued with a sigh, "we men of this age arerotten with booklore, and with a yearning for the past. And wherever Iasked to go among those ancient days, I should soon get dissatisfied,and weary your bright wings. I will be no pillar of salt, a sterileportent in a sterile desert. Carry me forward, Wind of Time. What isthere going to be?"

  The Wind put his hand over my eyes.

  I

  AT BIRMINGHAM TOWN HALL

  "This is our first stopping place," said a voice from the points offlame.

  I opened my eyes expecting to see one of those extravagant scenes thatimaginative novelists love to depict. I was prepared to find the upperair busy with aeroplanes and the earth beneath given over to unbridleddebauch. Instead, I discovered myself seated on a tall electricstandard, watching a crowd assembled before what I took to beBirmingham Town Hall. I was disappointed in this so tame a sight,until it flashed across me that I had never seen an English crowdpreserve such an orderly and quiet demeanour; and a more carefulinspection assured me that although no man wore a uniform, every mancarried a rifle. They were obviously waiting for some one to come andaddress them from the balcony of the Town Hall, which was festoonedwith red flags. As the curtains were pulled aside I caught a momentaryglimpse of an old person whose face I shall never forget, butapparently it was not for him that the breathless crowd was waiting.The man who finally appeared on the balcony was an individual not morethan thirty years old, with a black beard and green eyes. At the soundof acclamation which greeted him he burst out into a loud laugh; thenwith a sudden seriousness he held up his hand and began to address hisfollowers:--

  "I have but few words for you, my army, a few bitter words. Need Iencourage men to fight who have staked their existence to gainmastery? We cannot draw back; never will the cries of the slaughteredthousands we yearned to rescue from a more protracted, more cruelmisery than war, make us forget the myriads who still await thesupreme mercy of our revenge.

  "For centuries and for centuries we endured the march of thatCivilisation which now, by the weapons of her own making, we have setforth to destroy. We, men of Birmingham, dwellers in this hideous townunvisited by sun or moon, long endured to be told that we were in thevan of progress, leading Humanity year by year along her gloriouspath. And, looking around them, the wise men saw the progress ofcivilisation, and what was it? What did it mean? Less country, fewersavages, deeper miseries, more millionaires, and more museums. Soto-day we march on London.

  "Let us commemorate, my friends, at this last hour, a great if allunwitting benefactor, the protomartyr of our cause. You remember thatlank follower of the Newest Art, who lectured to us once within thesevery walls? He it was who first expounded to us the beauty ofBirmingham, the artistic majesty of tall chimneys, the sombre glory offurnaces, the deep mystery of smoke, the sad picturesqueness ofscrap-heaps and of slag. Then we began to hate our lives in earnest;then we arose and struck. Even now I shudder when I think of thatlecturer's fate, and with a feeling of respect I commemorate his wordsto-day.

  "On, then! You need not doubt of my victory, nor of my power. Some ofyou will die, but you know that death is rest. You do not need to fearthe sombre fireworks of a mediaeval Hell, nor yet the drearydissipations of a Methodist Heaven. Come, friends, and march onLondon!"

  They heard him in deep silence; there was a gentle stir ofpreparation; they faded far below me.

  II

  THE PROCLAMATION

  At a point ten years farther along that dusky road the Wind set medown in a prodigious room. I had never before seen so large andsplendid a construction, so gracefully embellished, so justlyproportioned. The shape was elliptical, and it s
eemed as if thearchitect had drawn his inspiration from the Coliseum at Rome. ThisHall, however, was much larger, and had the additional distinction ofa roof, which, supported by a granite column, was only renderedvisible from beneath by means of great bosses of clear gold. Galleriesran round the walls, and there was even a corkscrew balustrade windingup round the central pillar. Every part of the building was crowdedwith people. There seemed to be no window in the place, so that Icould not tell whether or no it was night. The whole assembly wasilluminated by a thousand electric discs, and the ventilation wasalmost perfectly planned on a system to me entirely strange. There wasa raised throne at one end of the building on which sat a Kingdecently dressed in black. I recognised the green-eyed man, and learntthat his name was Harris, Joshua Harris. The entire body of the Hallwas filled by soldiers in mud-coloured tunics and waterproof boots.These were the men that had conquered the world.

  As soon as the populace were well assembled the King made a sign tohis Herald, who blew so sudden and terrific a blast with his trumpetthat the multitude stopped their chattering with a start. The Heraldproceeded to bawl a proclamation through his megaphone. I heard himdistinctly, but should never have been able to reproduce his exactwords had not the Wind very kindly handed to me one of the printedcopies for free distribution which it had wafted from a chair. Theproclamation ran thus:--

  "I, Joshua Harris, by right of conquest and in virtue of my intelligence, King of Britain, Emperor of the two Americas, and Lord High Suzerain of the World, to the Princes, Presidents, and Peoples of the said world,--Greeting. Ye know that in days past an old man now dead showed me how man's dolorous and fruitless sojourn on this globe might cease by his own act and wisdom; how pain and death and the black Power that made us might be frustrated of their accustomed prey. Then I swore an oath to fulfil that old man's scheme, and I gathered my followers, who were the miserable men, and the hungry men, and we have conquered all there is to conquer by our cannon and by our skill. Already last year I gave public notice, in the proclamation of Vienna, in the proclamation of Cairo, in the proclamation of Pekin, and in the proclamation of Rio Janeiro, that all bearing of children must cease, and that all women should be permanently sterilised according to the prescription of Doctor Smith. Therefore to-day, since there is no remote African plain, no island far away in the deep South Seas where our forces are not supreme and our agents not vigilant, I make my final proclamation to you, my army, and to you, Princes, Presidents, and Peoples of this world, that from this hour forth there be no child born of any woman, or, if born, that it be slain with its father and its mother (_a fainting woman had here to be carried out_), and to you, my terrestrial forces, I entrust the execution of my commands.

  "Joy then be with you, my people, for the granaries are full of corn and wine that I have laid up, sufficient for many years to come; joy be with you, since you are the last and noblest generation of mankind, and since Doctor Smith by his invention, and I by my wise prevision, have enabled you to live not only without payment and without work (_loud cheers from the galleries_), but also with luxury and splendour, and with all the delights, and none of the dangers, of universal love."

  I expected the proclamation to be followed by an outburst of applause;but instead the whole multitude sat calm and motionless. Looking roundI was struck by the hideous appearance of mankind. It was especiallyrevolting to look at the ears of the soldiers in front, who had theirbacks turned to me. These stuck out from the bullet-like heads, andmade the men look like two-handled teapots on stands. Yet here andthere appeared in the galleries some woman's countenance beautified bythe sorrows of our race, or some tall youth whose eyes expressed thedarkest determination. The silence seemed to gather in folds. I wasstudying drowsily the Asiatic dresses and the nude people fromMelanesia, when I heard a noise which I thought was that of the Wind.But I saw it was the King, who had begun to laugh. It was a verystrange noise indeed, and very strange laughter.

  III

  THE MUTUAL EXTERMINATION CLUB

  "You would perhaps like to stay here some time," said the Wind, "andlook around. You will then understand the significance of thisgeneration more clearly, and you may observe some interestingincidents."

  I was standing with one or two other people outside a pseudo-Chineseerection, which I at first took to be a cricket pavilion, and then sawto be the headquarters of a rifle club. I apprehended from theplacards that I was in Germany, and inquired in the language of thecountry, which I understand very well, what was the object of thisrifle practice, and whether there was any thought of war.

  The man to whom I addressed myself, an adipose person with iron-rimmedspectacles and a kindly, intelligent face, seemed surprised at myquestion.

  "You must be a stranger," he said. "This is our very notable_Vertilgungsverein_."

  I understood: it was a Club for Mutual Extermination.

  I then noticed that there were no ordinary targets, and that thecadets were pointing their rifles at a bearded man who stood with acovered pipe in his mouth, leaning against a tree some two hundredyards away.

  After the report the bearded man held up both hands.

  "That is to signify that he has been completely missed," said the fatgentleman. "One hand, wounded; two hands, missed. And that isreasonable (_vernuenftig_), because if he were dead he could not raiseeither."

  I approved the admirable logic of the rule, and supposed that the manwould now be allowed to go free.

  "Oh yes, according to the rules," he answered, "he certainly isallowed to go free; but I do not think his sense of honour wouldpermit him so to do."

  "Is he then of very noble family?" I inquired.

  "Not at all; he is a scientist. We have a great many scientists in ourclub. They are all so disappointed at the way in which human progresshas been impeded, and at the impossibility of a continuous evolutionof knowledge-accumulation, that they find no more attraction in life.And he is dead this time," he continued, shading his eyes to look, assoon as a second report had flashed.

  "By the way," I asked, "I suppose you only exterminate--er--members ofthe club?"

  The fellow smiled with a little disdain. "Oh, it would be illegal forus to exterminate outsiders. But of course if you would like tojoin...."

  "Why, that's never a woman going over to the tree!" I cried.

  "Oh yes, we have quite a number of intellectual women and upper-classladies of advanced ideas in the club. But I do not think that lady isan intellectual; she is more probably a passion-wreck."

  She was indeed a very handsome woman in the prime of life, dressedwith a little too much ostentation and coquetry in a sleeveless,transparent white blouse and a skirt to match.

  My informant turned round to a skinny young student with hog's-bristlehair, and made some vulgar jest about its "being a pity to waste sucha good piece of flesh." He was a superman, and imagined, falsely Ibelieve, that an air of bluff cynicism, a Teutonic attempt atheartiness, was the true outward sign of inward superiority. The youngman fired, and the woman raised the arm that was not shattered by thebullet. He fired again, and she fell on her knees, this time with ascream.

  "I think you had better have a shot," said the sharpshooter to my man."I'm rather bad at this."

  Indeed his hand was shaking violently.

  My interlocutor bowed, and went over to take the rifle. The skinnystudent took his place by my side, and began talking to me as well."He's an infallible shot that Mueller there," he said, nodding at myformer companion.... "Didn't I tell you?"

  To my great relief the passion-wrecked lady fell dead. I was gettingwildly excited, rent between horror and curiosity.

  "You see that man in the plumed hat?" said the student. "He is cominground to say on whom the lot has fallen. Ah, he is coming this way,and making a sign at me. Good-day, sir," he said, taking off his hatwith a deep and jerky bow. "I am afraid we must conti
nue ourconversation another time."

  IV

  THE EPISODE OF THE BABY

  As soon as I turned away, rather horrified, from the merry proceedingsof the Mutual Extermination Club, I seemed to be in England, orperhaps in America. At all events I was walking along a dusty highwayin the midst of an inquisitive crowd. In front of me half-a-dozenmembers of the International Police Force (their tunics and boots gaveme to understand their quality) were dragging along a woman who held ababy in her arms. A horror-struck and interested multitude surgedbehind, and rested only when the woman was taken into a large anddisgusting edifice with iron gates. Aided by my distinguishedappearance and carriage, I succeeded after some difficulty inpersuading the Chief Gaoler to let me visit the cell where the motherwas lodged, previous to undergoing an execution which would doubtlessbe as unpleasant as prolonged. I found a robust, apple-cheeked woman,very clean and neat, despite her forlorn condition and the roughhandling the guards had used to her. She confessed to me with tearsthat she had been in her day a provincial courtesan, and that she hadbeen overcome by desire to have a child, "just to see what it waslike." She had therefore employed all imaginable shifts to avoid beinginjected with Smithia, and had fled with an old admirer to a lonelycave, where she had brought forth her child. "And a pretty boy too,"she added, wringing her hands, "and only fourteen months old."

  She was so heartbroken that I did not like to ask her any morequestions till she had recovered, for fear her answers should beunintelligible. Finally, as I desired to learn matters that were ofcommon knowledge to the rest of the world, and was not anxious toarouse suspicion, I represented myself as a cultured foreigner who hadjust been released from a _manicomio_, and was therefore naturally ina state of profound ignorance on all that appertained to ModernHistory. I felt indeed that I would never have a better chance ofgathering information than from conversation with this solitary woman.It would be her pleasure, not her duty, to instruct me.

 
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