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- A Girl Among the Anarchists - 3/34 -
despise me for all the outward signs which proved that I was living on the results of "unearned increment" (_vide_ Karl Marx) and that I was a mere social parasite!
When at last the longed-for, yet dreaded moment came, I was surprised, relieved, and I must add somewhat disappointed, at seeing a young man looking much like any other gentleman, except that he wore a red tie, and that his clothes were of a looser and easier fit than is usual. "What a jolly place you have!" he exclaimed after my brother had introduced us and he had given a look round. I felt considerably relieved, as I had quite expected him to scowl disapproval, and my brother, after saying, "Yes, it is a nice old house; we are very fond of it," suggested that we should adjourn to supper.
During this repast I took an animated part in the conversation, which turned on recent books and plays. At last reference was made to a book, "The Ethics of Egoism," which had excited much attention. It was a work advocating the most rabid individualism, denying the Socialist standpoint of the right to live, and saying that the best safeguard for the development and amelioration of the race lay in that relentless law of nature which sent the mentally and morally weak to the wall. I had read the book with interest, and had even written a rather long criticism of it, of which I felt distinctly proud. In the course of the discussion to which this book gave rise among us, my brother mentioned that I had written something on it, and Hughes begged me to read my performance. Though I felt somewhat diffident, I acceded, after some persuasion, to his request, and was elated beyond measure at earning his good opinion of my effort.
"By George, that's about the best criticism I've read of the work. Where do you intend publishing it, Miss Meredith?"
"Oh, I had never thought of publishing it," I replied; "I have never published anything."
"But we cannot afford to lose such good stuff," he insisted. "Come, Raymond, now, don't you think your sister ought to get that into print?"
"I think you should publish it, Isabel, if you could," he replied.
"Could! Why any of our papers would be only too delighted to have it. Let me take it down to the _Democrat_," he said, mentioning the name of a paper which Raymond often brought home with him.
"Oh, if you really think it worth while, I shall be only too pleased," I replied.
Thus was effected my first introduction to the actual Socialist party. My article was printed and I was asked for others. I made the acquaintance of the editor, who, I must confess, spite of my enthusiasm, soon struck me as a rather weak-kneed and altogether unadmirable character. He thought it necessary to get himself up to look like an artist, though he had not the soul of a counter-jumper, and the result was long hair, a velvet coat, a red tie, bumptious bearing, and an altogether scatter-brained and fly-away manner. In figure he was long and willowy, and reminded me irresistibly of an unhealthy cellar-grown potato plant. My circle of acquaintances rapidly enlarged, and soon, instead of having too much time on my hands for reading and study, I had too little. At one of the Sunday evening lectures of the Democratic Club, at which I had become a regular attendant, I made the acquaintance of Nekrovitch, the famous Nihilist, and his wife. I took to him instinctively, drawn by the utter absence of sham or "side" which characterised the man. I had never understood why Socialism need imply the arraying of oneself in a green curtain or a terra-cotta rug, or the cultivation of flowing locks, blue shirts, and a peculiar cut of clothes: and the complete absence of all such outward "trade marks" pleased me in the Russian. He invited me to his house, and I soon became a constant visitor. In the little Chiswick house I met a class of people who stimulated me intellectually, and once more aroused my rather waning enthusiasm for the "Cause." The habit of taking nothing for granted, of boldly inquiring into the origin of all accepted precepts of morality, of intellectual speculation unbiassed by prejudice and untrammelled by all those petty personal and party questions and interests which I had seen occupy so much time and thought at the Democratic Club, permeated the intellectual atmosphere. Quite a new side of the problem--that of its moral bearings and abstract rights as opposed to the merely material right to daily bread which had first appealed to my sense of justice and humanity--now opened before me. The right to complete liberty of action, the conviction that morality is relative and personal and can never be imposed from without, that men are not responsible, or only very partially so, for their surroundings, by which their actions are determined, and that consequently no man has a right to judge his fellow; such and similar doctrines which I heard frequently upheld, impressed me deeply. I was morally convinced of their truth, and consequently more than half an Anarchist. The bold thought and lofty ideal which made of each man a law unto himself, answerable for his own actions only to his own conscience, acting righteously towards others as the result of his feeling of solidarity and not because of any external compulsion, captivated my mind.
The Anarchists who frequented Nekrovitch's house were men of bold and original thought, the intellectual part of the movement, and I was never tired of listening to their arguments. Meantime the more I saw of the Social Democrats the less I felt satisfied with them. A wider experience would have told me that all political parties, irrespective of opinion, are subject to much the same criticism, and that Socialist ideas are no protection against human weaknesses; but extreme youth is not compromising where its ideals are concerned, and I expected and insisted on a certain approach to perfection in my heroes. True, Nekrovitch made me hesitate some time before taking the final step. His attitude in such discussions was one of sound common sense, and he never ceased reminding his Anarchist friends, though all in vain, that we must live in our own times, and that it is no use trying to forestall human evolution by some thousand years.
At home I had become more and more my own mistress. I was now full eighteen years of age, and had always been accustomed to think and act for myself. Caroline, with whom I was on most affectionate terms, despite our frequent differences on politics, had accepted an engagement as _prima donna_ with a travelling opera company which was to visit the United States and the principal cities of South America; her engagement was to last two years, and she had left just three weeks before the opening of my first chapter.
Raymond slept at home, but as the date of his final examination drew near he was more and more occupied, and frequently whole weeks passed in which I only caught a glimpse of him. He knew and sympathised with my new line of thought; he had accompanied me more than once to the Nekrovitchs', whom he liked much, but he had no longer the time to devote much thought to such matters. Of money I always had a considerable command; ever since our father's death I had kept house, and now that Caroline was away I had full control of the household purse.
Turning over all these thoughts in my mind as I sat toasting my feet before the fire, I felt more and more inclined to throw in my lot with the Anarchists. At the same time I felt that if I did take this step it must be as a worker and in no half-hearted spirit. The small hours of the morning were rapidly slipping by as I turned at last into bed to dream of Anarchist meetings, melting into a confused jumble with the rights of cats and the claims of the proletariat.
A GATHERING IN CHISWICK
As my first actual acquaintance with Anarchists was effected in Nekrovitch's house, it will not be out of place for me to give a slight sketch of the gatherings held there and of my host himself.
An interminably dreary journey by tram and rail, omnibus and foot, the latter end of which lay along a monotonous suburban road, brought you to the humble dwelling of the famous Nihilist. Here from time to time on Sunday evenings it was my wont to put in an appearance towards ten or eleven, for the journey was deceptively long from Fitzroy Square, and Nekrovitch, like most Russians, was himself of so unpunctual and irregular a nature, that he seemed to foster the like habits in all his friends. The nominal hour for these social gatherings to commence was eight, but not till past nine did the guests begin to assemble, and till midnight and later they would come dribbling in. Only one conscientiously punctual German was ever known to arrive at the appointed hour, but the only reward of the Teuton's mistaken zeal was to wait for hours in solitary state in an unwarmed, unlighted room till his host and fellow-guests saw fit to assemble.
The meeting-room, or parlour, or drawing-room in Nekrovitch's house was by no means a palatial apartment. Small and even stuffy to the notions of a hygienic Englishman, and very bare, scanty in furniture, and yet poorer in decoration, this room bore evidence to its owners' contempt for such impedimenta, and their entire freedom from slavery to household gods. It was evidently the home of people used to pitching their tent often, and to whom a feeling of settled security was unknown. But its occupants usually made up for any deficiencies in their surroundings.
The company was always of a very mixed cosmopolitan character--Russian Nihilists and exiles, English Liberals who sympathised with the Russian constitutional movement, Socialists and Fabians, Anarchists of all nationalities, journalists and literary men whose political views were immaterial, the pseudo-Bohemian who professes interest in the "queer side of life," all manner of faddists, rising and impecunious musicians and artists--all were made welcome, and all were irresistibly attracted towards the great Russian Nihilist.
The most notable figure in this assembly, and he certainly would have been in most assemblies, was Nekrovitch himself. Nekrovitch was essentially a great man; one of those men whom to know was to admire and to love; a man of strong intellect, and of the strong personal magnetism which is so frequently an adjunct of genius. Physically he was a huge powerful man, so massive and striking in appearance that he suggested comparison rather with some fact of nature--a rock, a vigorous forest tree --than with another man. He was one of those rare men who, like mountains in a landscape, suffice in themselves to relieve their environments, whatever these may be, from all taint of meanness. He stood out from among his guests the centre of conversation, of feeling, and of interest. He was almost invariably engaged in eager conversation, pitched in a loud tone of voice, broken at intervals when he listened to the other disputants, while puffing the cigarettes which he was constantly rolling, and looking intently out of his deep-set penetrating eyes.
Nekrovitch's wife, a Russian like himself, had been a student of medicine at the Russian University until, along with her husband, she had been compelled to take flight from the attentions of the Russian police. She was a curly-headed brunette, with bright hazel eyes and a vivacious manner; a very intelligent and highly "simpatica" woman, as the Italians would put it.
Round Nekrovitch there always clustered an eager crowd of admirers and intimates, discussing, disputing, listening, arguing. They were mostly foreigners, of the shaggy though not unwashed persuasion, but two English faces especially attracted notice. One belonged to a young woman, still on the right side of thirty, dressed without exaggeration in the aesthetic
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