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Men are egotistical even in devotion. All our splendid projects were thickset with the first personal pronoun. We both could write, and all that we said in general terms was reflected in the particular in our minds; it was ourselves we saw, and no others, writing and speaking that moving word. We had already produced manuscript and passed the initiations of proof reading; I had been a frequent speaker in the Union, and Willersley was an active man on the School Board. Our feet were already on the lower rungs that led up and up. He was six and twenty, and I twenty-two. We intimated our individual careers in terms of bold expectation. I had prophetic glimpses of walls and hoardings clamorous with “Vote for Remington,” and Willersley no doubt saw himself chairman of this committee and that, saying a few slightly ironical words after the declaration of the poll, and then sitting friendly beside me on the government benches. There was nothing impossible in such dreams. Why not the Board of Education for him? My preference at that time wavered between the Local Government Board—I had great ideas about town-planning, about revisions of municipal areas and re-organised internal transit—and the War Office. I swayed strongly towards the latter as the journey progressed. My educational bias came later.
The swelling ambitions that have tramped over Alpine passes! How many of them, like mine, have come almost within sight of realisation before they failed?
There were times when we posed like young gods (of unassuming exterior), and times when we were full of the absurdest little solicitudes about our prospects. There were times when one surveyed the whole world of men as if it was a little thing at one's feet, and by way of contrast I remember once lying in bed—it must have been during this holiday, though I cannot for the life of me fix where—and speculating whether perhaps some day I might not be a K. C. B., Sir Richard Remington, K. C. B., M. P.
But the big style prevailed....
We could not tell from minute to minute whether we were planning for a world of solid reality, or telling ourselves fairy tales about this prospect of life. So much seemed possible, and everything we could think of so improbable. There were lapses when it seemed to me I could never be anything but just the entirely unimportant and undistinguished young man I was for ever and ever. I couldn't even think of myself as five and thirty.
Once I remember Willersley going over a list of failures, and why they had failed—but young men in the twenties do not know much about failures.
Willersley and I professed ourselves Socialists, but by this time I knew my Rodbertus as well as my Marx, and there was much in our socialism that would have shocked Chris Robinson as much as anything in life could have shocked him. Socialism as a simple democratic cry we had done with for ever. We were socialists because Individualism for us meant muddle, meant a crowd of separated, undisciplined little people all obstinately and ignorantly doing things jarringly, each one in his own way. “Each,” I said quoting words of my father's that rose apt in my memory, “snarling from his own little bit of property, like a dog tied to a cart's tail.”
“Essentially,” said Willersley, “essentially we're for conscription, in peace and war alike. The man who owns property is a public official and has to behave as such. That's the gist of socialism as I understand it.”
“Or be dismissed from his post,” I said, “and replaced by some better sort of official. A man's none the less an official because he's irresponsible. What he does with his property affects people just the same. Private! No one is really private but an outlaw....”
Order and devotion were the very essence of our socialism, and a splendid collective vigour and happiness its end. We projected an ideal state, an organised state as confident and powerful as modern science, as balanced and beautiful as a body, as beneficent as sunshine, the organised state that should end muddle for ever; it ruled all our ideals and gave form to all our ambitions.
Every man was to be definitely related to that, to have his predominant duty to that. Such was the England renewed we had in mind, and how to serve that end, to subdue undisciplined worker and undisciplined wealth to it, and make the Scientific Commonweal, King, was the continuing substance of our intercourse.
Every day the wine of the mountains was stronger in our blood, and the flush of our youth deeper. We would go in the morning sunlight along some narrow Alpine mule-path shouting large suggestions for national reorganisation, and weighing considerations as lightly as though the world was wax in our hands. “Great England,” we said in effect, over and over again, “and we will be among the makers! England renewed! The country has been warned; it has learnt its lesson. The disasters and anxieties of the war have sunk in. England has become serious.... Oh! there are big things before us to do; big enduring things!”
One evening we walked up to the loggia of a little pilgrimage church, I forget its name, that stands out on a conical hill at the head of a winding stair above the town of Locarno. Down below the houses clustered amidst a confusion of heat-bitten greenery. I had been sitting silently on the parapet, looking across to the purple mountain masses where Switzerland passes into Italy, and the drift of our talk seemed suddenly to gather to a head.
I broke into speech, giving form to the thoughts that had been accumulating. My words have long since passed out of my memory, the phrases of familiar expression have altered for me, but the substance remains as clear as ever. I said how we were in our measure emperors and kings, men undriven, free to do as we pleased with life; we classed among the happy ones, our bread and common necessities were given us for nothing, we had abilities,—it wasn't modesty but cowardice to behave as if we hadn't—and Fortune watched us to see what we might do with opportunity and the world.
“There are so many things to do, you see,” began Willersley, in his judicial lecturer's voice.
“So many things we may do,” I interrupted, “with all these years before us.... We're exceptional men. It's our place, our duty, to do things.”
“Here anyhow,” I said, answering the faint amusement of his face; “I've got no modesty. Everything conspires to set me up. Why should I run about like all those grubby little beasts down there, seeking nothing but mean little vanities and indulgencies—and then take credit for modesty? I KNOW I am capable. I KNOW I have imagination. Modesty! I know if I don't attempt the very biggest things in life I am a damned shirk. The very biggest! Somebody has to attempt them. I feel like a loaded gun that is only a little perplexed because it has to find out just where to aim itself....”