I cannot remember whether this tale is true or not. If I read it
through very carefully I have a suspicion that I should come to the
conclusion that it is not. But, unfortunately, I cannot read it through
very carefully because, you see, it is not written yet. The image and
idea of it clung to me through a great part of my boyhood; I may have
dreamt it before I could talk; or told it to myself before I could
read; or read it before I could remember. On the whole, however, I am
certain that I did not read it. For children have very clear memories
about things like that; and of the books of which I was really fond I
can still remember not only the shape and bulk and binding, but even
the position of the printed words on many of the pages. On the whole, I
incline to the opinion that it happened to me before I was born.
At any rate, let us tell the story now with all the advantages of
the atmosphere that has clung to it. You may suppose me, for the sake
of argument, sitting at lunch in one of those quick-lunch restaurants
in the City where men take their food so fast that it has none of the
quality of food, and take their half-hour's vacation so fast that it
has none of the qualities of leisure. To hurry through one's leisure is
the most unbusiness-like of actions. They all wore tall shiny hats as
if they could not lose an instant even to hang them on a peg, and they
all had one eye a little off, hypnotised by the huge eye of the clock.
In short, they were the slaves of the modern bondage, you could hear
their fetters clanking. Each was, in fact, bound by a chain; the
heaviest chain ever tied to a man—it is called a watch-chain.
Now, among these there entered and sat down opposite to me a man who
almost immediately opened an uninterrupted monologue. He was like all
the other men in dress, yet he was startlingly opposite to them all in
manner. He wore a high shiny hat and a long frock coat, but be wore
them as such solemn things were meant to be worn; he wore the silk hat
as if it were a mitre, and the frock coat as if it were the ephod of a
high priest. He not only hung his hat up on the peg, but he seemed
(such was his stateliness) almost to ask permission of the hat for
doing so, and to apologise to the peg for making use of it. When he had
sat down on a wooden chair with the air of one considering its feelings
and given a sort of slight stoop or bow to the wooden table itself, as
if it were an altar, I could not help some comment springing to my
lips. For the man was a big, sanguine-faced, prosperous-looking man,
and yet he treated everything with a care that almost amounted to
For the sake of saying something to express my interest I said,
“This furniture is fairly solid; but, of course, people do treat it
much too carelessly.”
As I looked up doubtfully my eye caught his, and was fixed as his
was fixed, in an apocalyptic stare. I had thought him ordinary as he
entered, save for his strange, cautious manner; but if the other people
had seen him they would have screamed and emptied the room. They did
not see him, and they went on making a clatter with their forks, and a
murmur with their conversation.
But the man's face was the face of a maniac.
“Did you mean anything particular by that remark?” he asked at last,
and the blood crawled back slowly into his face.
“Nothing whatever,” I answered. “One does not mean anything here; it
spoils people's digestion.”
He leaned back and wiped his broad forehead with a big handkerchief;
and yet there seemed to be a sort of regret in his relief. “I thought
perhaps,” he said in a low voice, “that another of them had gone
“If you mean another digestion gone wrong,” I said, “I never heard
of one here that went right.
This is the heart of the Empire, and the other organs are in an
equally bad way.”
“No, I mean another street gone wrong,” and he said heavily and
quietly, “but as I suppose that doesn't explain much to you, I think I
shall have to tell you the story. I do so with all the less
responsibility, because I know you won't believe it. For forty years of
my life I invariably left my office, which is in Leadenhall Street, at
half-past five in the afternoon, taking with me an umbrella in the
right hand and a bag in the left hand. For forty years two months and
four days I passed out of the side door, walked down the street on the
left-hand side, took the first turning to the left and the third to the
right, from where I bought an evening paper, followed the road on the
right-hand side round two obtuse angles, and came out just outside a
Metropolitan Station, where I took a train home. For forty years two
months and four days I fulfilled this course by accumulated habit: it
was not a long street that I traversed, and it took me about four and a
half minutes to do it. After forty years two months and four days, on
the fifth day I went out in the same manner, with my umbrella in the
right band and my bag in the left, and I began to notice that walking
along the familiar street tired me somewhat more than usual. At first I
thought I must be breathless and out of condition; though this, again,
seemed unnatural, as my habits had always been like clockwork. But
after a little while I became convinced that the road was distinctly on
a more steep incline than I had known previously; I was positively
Owing to this no doubt the corner of the street seemed farther off
than usual; and when I turned it I was convinced that I had turned down
the wrong one. For now the street shot up quite a steep slant, such as
one only sees in the hilly parts of London, and in this part there were
no hills at all.
Yet it was not the wrong street. The name written on it was the
same; the shuttered shops were the same; the lamp-posts and the whole
look of the perspective was the same; only it was tilted upwards like a
lid. Forgetting any trouble about breathlessness or fatigue I ran
furiously forward, and reached the second of my accustomed turnings,
which ought to bring me almost within sight of the station. And as I
turned that corner I nearly fell on the pavement. For now the street
went up straight in front of my face like a steep staircase or the side
of a pyramid. There was not for miles around that place so much as a
slope like that of Ludgate Hill. And this was a slope like that of the
Matterhorn. The whole street had lifted itself like a single wave, and
yet every speck and detail of it was the same, and I saw in the high
distance, as at the top of an Alpine pass, picked out in pink letters,
the name over my paper shop.
“I ran on and on blindly now, passing all the shops, and coming to a
part of the road where there was a long grey row of private houses. I
had, I know not why, an irrational feeling that I was on a long iron
bridge in empty space. An impulse seized me, and I pulled up the iron
trap of a coal-hole. Looking down through it I saw empty space and the
stars. When I looked up again a man was standing in his front garden,
having apparently come out of his house; he was leaning over the
railings and gazing at me. We were all alone on that nightmare road;
his face was in shadow; his dress was dark and ordinary; but when I saw
him standing so perfectly still I knew somehow that be was not of this
world. And the stars behind his head were larger and fiercer than ought
to be endured by the eyes of men.
“'If you are a kind angel,' I said, 'or a wise devil, or have
anything in common with mankind, tell me what is this street possessed
“After a long silence he said, 'What do you say it is?'
“'It is Bumpton Street, of course,' I snapped. 'It goes to Oldgate
“'Yes,' he admitted gravely, 'it goes there sometimes. Just now,
however, it is going to heaven.'
“'To heaven?' I said, 'Why?'
“'It is going to heaven for justice,' he replied. 'You must have
treated it badly. Remember always there is one thing that cannot be
endured by anybody or anything. That one unendurable thing is to be
overworked and also neglected. For instance, you can overwork women—
everybody does. But you can't neglect women—I defy you to. At the same
time, you can neglect tramps and gipsies and all the apparent refuse of
the State, so long as you do not overwork them.
But no beast of the field, no horse, no dog can endure long to be
asked to do more than his work and yet have less than his honour.
“'It is the same with streets. You have worked this street to death,
and yet you have never remembered its existence. If you had owned a
healthy democracy, even of pagans, they would have hung this street
with garlands and given it the name of a god. Then it would have gone
quietly. But at last the street has grown tired of your tireless
insolence; and it is bucking and rearing its head to heaven. Have you
never sat on a bucking horse?'
“I looked at the long grey street, and for a moment it seemed to me
to be exactly like the long grey neck of a horse flung up to heaven.
But in a moment my sanity returned, and I said, 'But this is all
nonsense. Streets go to the place they have to go to. A street must
always go to its end.'
“'Why do you think so of a street?' he asked, standing very still.
“'Because I have always seen it do the same thing,' I replied, in
reasonable anger. 'Day after day, year after year, it has always gone
to Oldgate Station; day after. . . .'
“I stopped, for he had flung up his head with the fury of the road
“'And you?' he cried terribly. 'What do you think the road thinks of
you? Does the road think you are alive? Are you alive? Day after day,
year after year, you have gone to Oldgate Station . . .' Since then I
have respected the things called inanimate!”
And bowing slightly to the mustard-pot, the man in the restaurant