The Works of Sydney Fowler Wright 1874 - 1965

S. Fowler Wright's Short Stories


The first evidence that can now be discovered of the gradually intensified feeling which resulted, ten years later, in what has since become known as the Mayday Massacre, is contained in an article on a quite different subject in the Traffic Times of October 22nd, 1962. This is no more than a passing allusion to 'the salutary effects of accelerated traffic' in reducing the number of the infirm and aged members of the community; but, casual though it may be, it is evidence, perhaps the stronger for that very quality, of the impatience of the younger generation at the burden which had been laid upon them by the careful prudence of their parents, and by the advances of preventive medicine and operative surgery.

        It was four years later - in 1966 - that the question was first raised in Parliament, and it was the following year that saw the passing of the Amended Penalties (Traffic and Roadways) Act, which provided a scale of fines for the fatal wounding or disabling of persons of not more than thirty years of an almost absurd severity, rising to a maximum of £63, but with a descending scale for persons above that age, until at sixty-five there was an absence of any legal penalty for such homicides, and for persons of sixty-eight years and over it was enacted that their estates or relatives should be responsible for any delay or expense occasioned to any motorist through their neglect or inability to get out of his way with the required celerity.

        The fact was that the country had blundered into a position which might have been foretold by any actuary with almost mathematical exactness, but which does not appear to have been anticipated, and against which no provision had been made.

        In the first place there had been a vogue of small families during the earlier part of the century. It is evident that the burden of supporting their elderly surviving parents must be more severely felt by a community in which they are as numerous as their children, than by one in which the proportion had been that of three or even four to one. It was evident also that the single child, having been brought up in an atmosphere of greater indulgence, and having had a more selfish example from its own parents, would be less disposed to sacrifice itself for their welfare than had been the child of an earlier generation, more hardily reared, and with ideals and examples of duty rather than pleasure having been set before it. It was therefore unreasonable to expect that the parents of these limited families would have the care, or be supported with the liberality, which their own parents had experienced.

        The position would, in any case, have approached the intolerable; but it was made additionally acute by the fact that the average longevity of the race had been increased by about fifteen years, so that the new generation found itself supporting a proportion of elderly people such as had never been experienced previously.

        By the year 1972, without any legislative changes beyond that already indicated, it appears to have been tacitly recognised that anyone who should be the means of shortening the life of one of these encumbrances would deserve well of his neighbours, but it does not appear, until the actual morning of the 3rd May (which was a Monday) that there had been any overt acts of resistance. The sudden violence of that and the succeeding day must have sprung from deeper roots than could have found their growth in any local incident, but the immediate suggestion has been shown, as the result of exhaustive inquiry, to have originated in certain events which took place in and about the village of Fenny-Watford in Warwickshire, on the preceding Sunday, May 2nd. These events may be briefly summarised as follows.

        Richard Bede was a man of forty years, of good character and repute, though of a somewhat morose disposition. He had married twice, his first wife having died at an early age, and he had four children by his second, who was still living. He had been allotted a twenty acre section under the Agricultural Regulations Act 1953, which had been farmed intensively with sufficient success during the first five years of his holding to have his tenure permanently confirmed for so long as he should remain in good health, and should not be convicted of any felony in the criminal courts.

        At that time most of the houses which had been built with such expensive industry during the ten years following the European war had been demolished, they having become uninhabitable through having been erected with unseasoned timber, and from other causes; and Richard Bede, in common with most of the scattered inhabitants of Fenny-Watford, had been supplied with the regulation number of colonite sections, which could be clamped together to form either two or three rooms, as he might prefer, for the accommodation of his wife and children.

        Richard Bede was at this time also burdened with the care of the parents and a maiden aunt of his first wife, the mother of his second wife (whose father had died two years earlier), his own parents, and one grandparent, an old lady of ninety-seven who still retained three of her teeth, and a larger ratio of her original appetite. For these seven people he had received the State grant of sufficient colonite to enable him to erect one extra room, but no more. Beyond that he was without any assistance for their support, the various Pension and allied Acts of the earlier part of the century having been repealed at that date, after they had become so heavy a charge upon the community that they had been made the subject of a special poll-tax, which had become too unpopular to be continued when it represented so universal a burden that each man could reckon the amount he paid under this tax against the state grants that his aged dependants drew, and the disparity became too obvious an illustration of the disadvantage of having money withdrawn from his pocket to be returned when the 'expenses of administration' had reduced its quantity. Nor would a man who was sufficiently fortunate to have no more than two or three of these aged encumbrances, who were legally billeted either upon himself or his wife, be content to reckon that he was in a state of continual poverty because he was supporting three of the eight or nine who were the overcrowding occupants of his neighbour's house. This position would have been less apparent had it been complicated by the inequalities of income which had prevailed in the earlier half of the century, but the subsequent levelling of remuneration and the confiscations which had taken place under the name of death duties, had produced a position where the true effects of passing over the larger half of the national income to be spent by the bureaucracy had been exposed with disconcerting simplicity. . . . But we must avoid explanations of this kind, if we are to maintain the straightforward course of this narrative. . . . It was during the latter part of the Sunday afternoon that Richard Bede walked over the fields toward Oxshott House to see his neighbour, Reuben Turner, whom he found, as he had expected, busily hoeing potatoes, in spite of the fact that the day was still recognised as one of relaxation from the daily task of the remainder of the week.

        Rube Turner ceased working as he approached, straightened a stiff back, leaned for a long moment on his hoe, and then turned without a word as Richard reached his side, led the way to the hedge, and seated himself beneath it on the shadier side.

        "Dick," he said, "I want a talk."

        "I can't stop long, Rube. I just came over to fetch back the hoe. I thought you'd most like have finished with it by now."

        "Well, I haven't quite, though I ought. But, of course, it's yours to take back if you want." His eyes went to the iron ferrule and blade of the tool that now lay on the grass between them. He looked at them intently, and then at Richard, as though expecting him to notice something of moment, but Richard's glance was indifferent as he answered: "I can make do till tomorrow, if that'll help. You might send one of the uncles over with it, if you can get him to come. The weeds don't give us much rest, this time o' year. . . . Not with the rain we've had."

        "Dick, you were on the inquest on Gaffer Tukes. How did they say he died?"

        Richard looked at his friend in some wonder. "You know that as well as I. He was fetched out of Rounder's Pool. It was a case of 'Found drowned', and we couldn't have told any more if we'd sat there for a week."

        "Yes, I know that. But I mean what did they say among themselves? They must have guessed, more or less."

        "I don't think I ought rightly to tell what was said in the jury-room. . . . But I suppose there were those, on and off, who thought he wasn't overmuch loss, and what's in the heart comes to the tongue, more times than not. . . . He hadn't done a day's work for twenty year, near enough, and if there were those that said the care he'd had, an' the food in that time, might have reared a strong youth, instead of keeping an old dodderer with his mind all silly - well, it was the truth, as we all know."

        "Then they wouldn't have been that hard, if they'd known how it was?"

        "If we'd known, I reckon we should have said it straight; but we didn't want to know, may be, overmuch. There's some things that are best left to lie."

        Rube was silent after that for some time, looking down at the hoe. When he spoke again his words came quickly, as though they were blurted out on an impulse that he feared to lose by delay.

        "Dick, I've scragged the old bitch this afternoon. She's over there in the ditch."

        He did not raise his eyes, but kept them fixed on the hoe, which he turned over as he spoke.

        Richard Bede noticed for the first time that there was a dull stain upon the blade, extending some ten or twelve inches up the haft.

        "You mean you've killed Miss Sitwell?"

        "It's yes to that. I fetched her down with the hoe, and wrung her neck like a fowl. I've felt a better man ever since. . . . You won't give me away?"

        Richard Bede was not quick to reply. He said at last: "I wish you hadn't told me. Suppose I were on the inquest again. I'd not go against my oath. But I won't give you away. You can bank on that. . . . How did it come about?"

        "I can see now that it's been coming any time these last two years, but it was what Marie told me this morning that took the lid off for the last time. . . . You know how it is with us. . . . We couldn't speak or move without that old hag's leave. . . ."

        Bede knew that for the truth. Reuben Turner's trouble was of the same kind as his own, but with a difference. His aunt, Martha Sitwell, who now lay with a twisted neck in the ditch at the far side of the field, had been the owner of Oxshott House, an old solid-beamed Tudor structure which still resisted weather and wind while the ruins of a later time that had lost confidence in its own stability had fallen around it. She had given a mean and grudging hospitality to her nephew, with the various aged relatives that the State had billeted upon him and his wife, but she had done this on such terms that they were in a condition of virtual slavery. He and his wife must work in house and field not only in her service, but to supply the needs of six other more or less aged and incapacitated relatives. They had no help in this work, for domestic service was a thing of the past. The classes of the community from which it had been recruited had obeyed the admonitions of their superiors to cease the production of children, who were no longer to be regarded as of any national value, and the supply of domestic helpers had shrunk accordingly. Now the few that had been allowed to live were busy with the care of their own parents and aunts and uncles, and had they volunteered for domestic service of any kind it would have been on condition that they should bring anything from one to half a dozen of these encumbrances with them.

        Reuben's father was dead. His mother still lived. She had had, at one time, an ample income. She had refused to have other children, saying that it was only so that she could afford the education and opportunities which every boy had a right to have. He had been brought up in an atmosphere of luxury and self-indulgence, ill-fitted to face the bitter unforeseen conditions which were the logical outcome of the creed she preached and practiced.

        Martha, her unmarried sister, had scoffed at her that she had married at all; she had blamed her for the single child, as for a needless folly. Could not a women get all the best out of life without the bondage of marriage? Now that they were taught to avoid the hazard of children, was marriage to be regarded as the only alternative of an uncomfortable chastity? Not for those who moved with the times! The modern woman must have the same freedom as men (she said) had always claimed for themselves. So she had talked, and lived. Now her sister and her sister's child were in her house, and in the grip of the money that she had saved. Them she might have endured with a bitter tongue, but there was also Marie the son's wife, and her parents, and those other unmarried relatives who were billeted upon them.

        For these her nephew must toil, as must her niece also. If she allowed them a roof, was it not more than was due? Beyond that, they should have nothing from her, though she lived for another thirty years, as her doctor told her she might.

        But on one point she had been firm from the first. There should be no children born in a house of hers. Whether it was from the bitterness which the childless woman will often feel when it is too late for all but regret, or from her hatred of her nephew's wife, or simply that she saw with a single-minded selfishness that her comfort must suffer if these two young people, who already worked to the limit of time and strength for the support and service of herself and the six other inmates of the house, should have another burden upon them - from whatever cause, she was resolved that Marie should have no child. And this resolution had so obsessed her mind that she could not leave it in silence for a single day. It had been the constant subject of talk and warning as she had followed Marie about the house.

        . . . And this morning Marie had been unable to get up. And, being afraid, she had confessed to Reuben that she had concealed her pregnancy from him, being in terror of what it would mean when it were known. . . . But Miss Sitwell had guessed . . . she had threatened her into taking a certain course . . . and this morning she was not well.

        It was in the afternoon that Martha Sitwell had come out to observe the progress of the asparagus beds, and that . . . it does not matter what had been said. There had been words between Reuben and her. They both thought they had had the best of them. Then Reuben had tried argument of a cruder kind. There was no doubt of who had the best of that.

        Such was the tale to which Richard Bede had listened with a troubled mind. He hoped, if there were an inquest, he would not be called to serve.

        "I've been thinking," Rube went on, "for the last hour. It makes a man think when he's just done the like of that. . . . I wish they were all gone the same way. . . . If there were just Marie and me in the house when we waked up tomorrow - Mother'd have thought it hard enough when she was Marie's age if she hadn't had half a dozen to wait on her. But, if we'd only ourselves to wait on, it would be heaven for us - we wouldn't ask for more. . . . Just ourselves and some children to work for as the years passed, and to rear in a natural way. . . . Dick, I fetched down the weeds with that hoe, and I wished every one were something different from what it was. . . . Wouldn't you be glad to go back to find that there was no one there but Bess and the four youngsters, and room to move?"

        Yes, Dick allowed that he would. But what was the use of talking? So he asked, seeing no escape from the burden beneath which they groaned.

        Reuben took up the word. "Talk? No, there's no use in that. It isn't talk that'll change things from what they are. . . . But I think of what's lying over in that ditch and I've got a feeling that something's started that won't stop. . . . I know we can't settle our own folk . . . not unless they're such as she. . . . But . . . Dick," he said, with a sudden whispered intensity, "they're all having tea in the end room. Marie's upstairs in bed. There'd be no one would ever know how it was. Suppose you did it for me. . . . You'd find things different in your own house when you got back. You could trust me for that."

        Richard Bede gave no sign that he heard. He gazed sombrely on the ground. Reuben was left in doubt as to the effect of his words, but he had gone too far to draw back. He went on to speak the thoughts which had been seething in his mind for the last hour, as he had brought his hoe down on sorrel and dock between the rows of potatoes that they would have choked and blinded. It had been so soon done. So easy to do. It would have been more trouble to catch a fowl for the same end. It was so good to think that he would never hear that voice again. And she had thought to live for another thirty years! Thirty years!

        "Dick, whatever comes, it's their own fault. They tried to cheat, and they didn't see that it can't be done. Not as they thought, anyway. They only cheated themselves and us. Their own parents had worked for them, and if they'd done for their children in the same way we shouldn't all have been in this mess now. Of course, they live longer than they did. Twice as long after children have grown up; and that means there'd have been twice as many poor old people for their children to keep, or rich old people holding on to the best houses and the best things; but I think we'd have stood that well enough. But with all these old men and women who only had one child, which means four for those who are married to keep when they start house, and with all these old men and women who didn't marry at all on top of that . . . well, it's six, more or less, to be taken on for no one knows how long whenever a man starts a home, and what chance has a woman got for any kids of her own with them crowding the house, and wanting waiting on day and night, and no servants to be had for any money at all?

        "They talked rot about thinking first about us, and they wouldn't be heartless enough to bring children into the world who wouldn't go to the best schools. and every child needed a nurse for itself (if not more), and they wouldn't see that they were living in a world that had been built up in a different way, and that it was only that which had made it possible for them to go on as they did.

        "They wouldn't see that it was the men that made the wealth, not the wealth the men - that if there were only one man left in the world, all the wealth it holds wouldn't alter the fact that he'd have to pig it as best he could.

        "They wouldn't see that whether there were two parents or twenty to every child in the world, wouldn't alter the fact that every child couldn't be a boss when it grew up, because there's no top without something underneath.

        "They made a boast of the 'progress' that enabled them to crowd together in one country while their food was grown in another, and then made that crowding an excuse for having less than half the children that their parents reared. There wasn't much progress in that! . . . And so here we are, but here we're not going to stay for the next twenty years, if I have my way.

        "They'd always got money to build motors - look at the huge works that are lying in ruins now! - though they grudged bread for their children's mouths.

        "They thought cars were better than children for them, and they'd like us to think that old men are better than children for us - but who'll look after us when we're old is a thing that they haven't said."

        The stream of bitter words stayed, not from exhaustion, but from a crowding of contending thoughts, each obstructing the other's birth, and in the pause Richard spoke at last.

        "I think they understood well enough. They just wanted a good time for themselves, and beyond that they didn't care overmuch. And it wasn't easy for those who tried to live differently, so they say. . . . And they were right in a sense. You can't fill a child's belly with petrol; a million tons won't give it a day's meal. You can't find the means of life deep under ground, where it had better have been left. There's no life to be got from a dead thing. It 's the soil and the spade for the means of a live child. It's no use going below. . . . No, they couldn't have it both ways. . . . Though I've heard tell that there was enough waste of food in their kitchens for half a million to have fed fat. . . . But I don't see that you need to worry about us when we get old. Our children live hard enough. . . . They see us working for them. . . . They'll give us their help in their turn. . . . And it's no use grousing over what it's too late to help. . . . You'd better bury what's over there, and hope it won't be found. . . . I don't suppose anyone's going to look far."

        He spoke slowly, as one thinking aloud. When he had finished, he made a motion to rise, as though he would leave something with which he did not wish to interfere further; but Reuben reached a hand to his arm, pulling him back. He spoke again with the same intensity as before, but in a voice which rose to the resolution which was forming within him.

        "No, Dick, you can't leave it like that. You'll get no hiding from me. I don't mean it to stop here. I want it known what I've done. It's all right for you to talk as you do. You'll maybe come out right at the last. You've got four. It's hard for you and them now, but it means hope in the end. But what about me, and thousands more in the same case? While that old bitch lived there were no children for us. And what time would Marie have had carrying a baby with those six to cook for and wash and clean? and they thinking they do their share if they can point to a plucked fowl, or a darned sock, or a dusted room?

        "Dick, I don't care what happens to me. No one could much after the life I've had, and Marie feels just the same. But I'm going to do what I can to make this a different world. I've shown the way, and if others will do the same there'll be a different summer from what we've known for the last twenty years. There'll be merry England again. . . . Dick, shouldn't you like to go back to a real house, with just your wife, and the youngsters, and perhaps Mary Higgs coming in to do the rough work instead of waiting on her grand-uncle, and her three aunts?"

        He rose up with the word: "Shan't you like it is what I should have said, for you'll find that when you get back. . . . And I'll trust you to do the same for me here. . . . They're all in the kitchen now, having tea. . . ."

        He went quickly, as though afraid that Dick would say something to refuse, even if he made no active obstruction, but Dick sat with his eyes still on the ground. He only looked up once, as he heard the click of the field gate. He saw that Rube was taking the path that led to his own home. He had the hoe still in his hand. Dick knew him well enough to understand that he would do as he said. He was one who was usually sparing of words, and who had a name for saying just what he meant.

        Richard Bede sat still, and looked on the ground. He thought: "If I sit here, he will kill Mr. and Mrs. Parrott and Miss Hebblethwaite. He will kill old Mother Montague. He will kill my parents, and the old gaffer. But there is time yet. I can hurry after him, and tell him that I will have no part in such wickedness. . . . My people have done nothing to him. Why should he interfere?"

        Then he thought of what the house would be with only Bessie and the four children in the space of the three rooms. Even if Mary Higgs didn't come in to help. It would be the peace of Heaven. And the leisure of . . . of . . . He had nothing to make comparison of that . . . of, yes, of the old days, when there were fewer old, and more young.

        Yet he did not mean this thing to be. It was a monstrous thought. He rose up to follow Rube. Yet he must first look in the ditch. He did not think why he did this. He did not consider that the fatal moments went by. He must see what this thing was. He must look it once in the face. And then . . .

        He was looking down in the ditch. Martha Sitwell lay on her back, her meagre body, in its disordered dress, sprawled in a limp, ungainly way. An ineffectual way. Anyone could see that she was dead, even apart from the evidence of the twisted neck, which hid her face in the mud.

        That was the end of Martha Sitwell, who had owned Oxshott House that morning, and all it held. Who had thought to own it for thirty years. Martha Sitwell. . . . Martha Hatchnought would have been a better name. Well, all the same, it must end here. . . . He would go after Rube.

        Over the silent Sunday fields there came the faint sound of a distant scream. . . . Richard Bede listened, and his face went white. He told himself that he had not realised that Rube had meant what he said. Not even as he looked down on that which lay in the ditch. Not till he heard that shriek.

        And now it was too late. . . . Well, he thought, with an abrupt hardening of his mind, if that were so, it shouldn't be his alone that should die that day. Perversely enough, he felt that he would be avenging his own if he should deal with Rube's in the same way, and this thought was curiously confused with a sense of obligation, that he must not fail his friend; that Rube must not come back to find that his own millstone was not unloosed from about his neck; and under all there was the thought of the coming bliss of a relief such as he had never hoped to know. The picture that Rube had raised of a home in which there would be only Bessie, and the four children that were his. . . . After all, they had sucked up the best years of his life as water is sucked up by sand. . . . He remembered that Rube had said that they would all be having tea together; and the room had only one door. . . . He was not thinking now of whether he should do this thing, but of how best it should be done. He was a neater man than Rube. He did not like the thought of the hoe, or of the twisted neck. . . . The hoe must have come down on the top of her head. . . . There would be many tools in the shed by the garden door. . . . There would be. . . . And they would all be together at tea. . . . At least, that was what Rube had said an hour ago, but it might be too late by now. He did not want to have to hunt them over the house, making he knew not what mess in the rooms, and frightening Marie half out of her life. . . . Still, old people will sit long over a meal. It might not be too late. . . .

        He turned towards the house with a quick step, and a vexed feeling of self-reproach for the wasted hour.

        It seems that Rube told Ben Thomas what he had done, as he came from Richard Bede's house, with the hoe still in his hand. Had he not met Ben, and had not Ben had a bitter quarrel with his grandfather half an hour earlier, it may be that the thing would not have spread as it did, even then.

        Ben was a weedy young man, with a damaged lung. The doctors had stopped the disease, but they could not put back that which was gone. He was no match for his grandfather, who was of a tough kind, though not large; and his granduncle was of the same breed. In fact, Ben had no part in the general grievance, for the old men were of active habits, and probably did their share of the world's work, and it may be more. The trouble was that they would have their own way, and would treat Ben, who was over thirty, as though he were a child still. Ben hated them, as the weak hate those who override and despise them. His wife, herself of a weak and slovenly sort, hated them more than he. Ben asked to borrow the hoe.

        With that weapon in his hand, and looking at the drying stains that it bore, he felt a courage of hate and anger which brought him face to face with his grandfather, and lifted his arms for a blow which the astonished ancient only partly dodged. But when the second blow was struck the hoe was in the old man's hands, and he was soon to be seen running down the High Street of Fenny-Watford, with his grandson in flight before him. Ben was saved by his legs.

        The old man, getting short of breath, must stop perforce in spite of the anger which urged him. He was in a state of cackling triumph and indignation, with half the inhabitants of the High Street looking on, having been brought out of their doors by the noise, when Rube came upon the scene, having followed Ben at a quieter pace.

        It was easy to see how matters had gone, and that it would be the end of what he had hoped to do, if he left it thus.

        He walked up behind old Ted Thomas, who was not more than half his size, and could have made little resistance, even had he not been taken absolutely by surprise. Rube put his left hand in his coat collar, lifting him off his feet. He took the hoe in his right hand, wrenching it from the old man's grasp. He brought it down once on his head. It seemed no more than a hard rap given in a matter-of-fact way, but it was enough. Rube loosed his collar, and the old man dropped on the road like an empty sack.

        Bill Thomas had pushed his way through the crowd, to see what the trouble was. He saw his brother knocked on the head, and burst into a high treble of protesting anger. Rube wasted no breath in words. He caught him up in the same way, knocked him on the head, and dropped him on the same spot. . . . Then he told the crowd what it meant.

        . . . Perhaps, even then, it might have gone no further if the old people in the crowd hadn't begun to run. . . .

*        *        *        *        *

        The official figures gave 787,634 as the number of those who were massacred during the next two days, including many who perished from exposure and privation as they cowered in ditch and thicket from the merciless search which aimed at their extermination. Yet even at the height of this two days' frenzy there were cases such as that of Charlotte Fordyce, who lost her life in a vain attempt to save her parents; and of John Attwood, who gave shelter to over two hundred aged people in the brass-foundry of which he was the proprietor, and defended it successfully with a fire-hose from the fury of the thwarted mob.

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