* All quotes are from Smeddum: A Lewis Grassic Gibbon Anthology (2001) edited by Valentina Bold.
As detailed in a previous post, the short story “For Ten’s Sake” was J. Leslie Mitchell’s first commercially published piece of short fiction. It was the first piece of more than twenty published by Cornhill Magazine from 1929-1933. It can also be found in the published collection of stories The Calends of Cairo (1931) and the anthology Smeddum(2001).
Originally titled “The Ten Men of Sodom,” the short story alludes to the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 18. The story directly refers to the particular passage in the bible when God tells Abraham of his plan to destroy Sodom for its wickedness. Abraham challenges his Lord’s plan, asking if he would destroy the righteous with the wicked. God responds, ultimately, that for the sake of ten righteous men, he would spare the city. Most biblical scholars agree that the “wickedness” of the cities of the plains referred to the violence and rape practiced by the leading men of the cities, although some organizations have chosen to reinterpret the scripture as an attack on homosexuality. Mitchell’s interpretation of the “wickedness” of a fictional Sodom makes no such judgments. Rather, Mitchell’s story challenges the idea of wickedness in the first place, finding so-called righteousness in the very worst dens of a city of vice.
“For Ten’s Sake” appears to challenge the traditional interpretation of this story as evidence of God’s mercy. In fact, the climax of the story seems to pit the mercy of Christ against the wrath of an Old Testament God, and ultimately rejects God’s “righteousness” for a more radical humanism. Read in this light, we might understand why this well-crafted and cohesive story struggled to find publication. “For Ten’s Sake” was no mere fairytale spawned by Mitchell’s experience in the army; rather it is an early example of Mitchell’s radical, humanist challenge to the cruel God of the Old Testament. The short story was certainly a risky offering for a new author.
The story opens with biblical resonance:
It was Easter Day.
Under the feet of the watcher on the Hill of Burial the earth suddenly shook.
Given the clear biblical reference in the title, we link this enigmatic “watcher” to the angels sent by God to watch and report on the inhabitants of Sodom. Indeed, like God in Genesis and his angelic monitors, this watcher has declared the fictional town of Mevr deserving of God’s wrath. The watcher calls out to God, impatient for his wrath to bring down the hated city. His eyes “blazed with the hatred of the fanatic, the monomaniac.” The wrath that animated the figure of the biblical watcher fades, and the mythic enigmatic figure abruptly transforms into a very human, despairing father grieving over a dead son. “Oh, Dick, Dick! Mevr might have spared at least you . . . Janet it took, me it will take, but you– Oh, my son!” The first characters’ names mentioned in the story signal an abrupt shift in register. From the mythopoeic vagueness of the preceding paragraphs, the reader has been prepared for a biblical Romance, a story of grand proclamations and conventional moral judgments. However, the harsh staccato of these unassuming and common names immediately rips away the romantic veil that could obscure the real human condition behind allegory, fairy tale, and romance.
The scene moves to two graverobbers, Abdul and the Turk, who inform us that the watcher is actually an old, mad Englishman named Richard Southcote. As we learn more details about Southcote and about the various rough citizens of Mevr, the “theo-mythical” resonance of Mitchell’s earlier prose disappears and we are immediately dropped into the real “reeking” and corporeal world of a trade city. As the story continues, the characters emerge as complex, morally ambiguous humans engaged in the various “criminal” activities such environs and limited economic opportunity breed. Abdul and the Turk survive on the trifles and valuables they rob off the buried dead. Beggars steal from the blind among them. “Vile things which had once been women” flock to a new caravan to hustle business. A vicious man cracks a woman’s jaw, and the crowd laughs with merriment. The streets are filled with diseased bodies, beggars, and corpses. The city appears to be teeming with examples of the cruelty of unchecked human exploitation and vice. Yet, for Mitchell, these human cruelties are not the focus of conflict, nor do they justify God’s condemnation. Rather, they serve to emphasize the extremes of debasement required for survival in a capitalistic society. The “vile” and debased citizens of Mevr are merely acting out the basic human conditions for survival when faced with few choices. The true evil in Mitchell’s interpretation of the biblical cities of vice is not vice itself, or even violence, but rather the act of ignoring the needs of others.
Early in the story, Abdul the graverobber is bit by a green viper. His comrade asks Southcote, a former MD, for help, but he laughs and deliberately turns his back. Graverobber though he may be, the Turk risks death himself and attempts to suck the poison out of his friend. The reader is struck immediately by the contrast. The “righteous” man, calling down God’s vengeance on a city of thieves and murderers, turns his back on a man in need. The criminal, the grave robber who violates sacred burial sites for plunder, is the one to act mercifully, to show compassion at great danger to himself.
This inversion of assumed righteousness continues as Southcote makes his way through the city and down the Street of Ten–the most vile neighborhood of Mevr. Interpreting the small quake at the beginning of the story as the beginning of God’s promised punishment, Southcote returns to his home to check his seismological equipment. The device convinces him that a major quake is on its way and will destroy the city. He is about to depart the city, when he picks up his wife’s bible and it opens to the story in Genesis. Southcote is reminded of God’s promise to withhold his wrath if ten righteous men might be found. Angry at the possibility of mercy, Southcote hurls the bible to the ground and attempts again to flee the city before its destruction.
On his way out through the Street of Ten, Southcote’s donkey nearly tramples a “naked brown child. Its mouth was open, its eyes pierced upwards in a surprised terror.” Ahmed, a scavenger who robs the drunk of their valuables in order to survive, curses him and whisks the child to safety. Southcote hears a voice count “One” in his head. Ahmed is the first of the righteous ten. Southcote then passes by a prostitute leading a “victim” to her house. It is the “vile thing that had once been a woman” and the man who had hit her. Yet now, the man reassures her in a “shamed” voice: “Courage, little sister, I will not leave you.” And the voice in Southcote’s head counts “Two”.
He passes by Abdul, supporting the Turk who is now dying from sucking the poison out of Abdul’s wound. Abdul tells Southcote “you would not come when he cried your help . . . Now he dies.” Here are more righteous men. Southcote’s conscience “clamoured in his brain”; he doubts the wickedness of these seemingly criminal inhabitants of Mevr. Just before he can articulate his doubt, thunder echoes and his donkey throws him to the ground. He wakes up paralyzed; the murderers, thieves, beggars, drunks, and prostitutes of the Street of Ten peer down at him. He is carried by two homeless men, a spy for caravan robbers and an unrepentant mercenary, into the small, dark brothel house of Miriam, the harlot. Now, vulnerable and helpless, Southcote is dependent upon the compassion of the very people whom he would see destroyed by God.
In the small room of the brothel, we discover ‘Mitri’ tending a sick woman. Earlier, he had been introduced to the reader as the murderer of Dick Southcote, a “debauched looking Greek in white ducks who . . . called himself a doctor, and had a reputation so unsavoury.” However, here in this “house of shame,” in Southcote’s hearing, we discover that Dick Southcote was perhaps not the angelic child his father believed him to be. In fact, Mitri had strangled him to avenge the honor of his friend’s daughter Anah, whom Dick had seduced. The daughter is dying, apparently as a consequence of the life of prostitution that she was forced to assume after Dick’s seduction. Miriam, the woman who invited the men to bring the injured Southcote in, is in fact Anah’s mother. As we learn of this history of conflict, Mitri is reframed as the avenger of the vulnerable rather than the murderer of the innocent. Miriam completes Southcote’s “blinding revelation” that the people of Mevr are still capable of righteousness, just as his son was capable of wickedness. She takes him in, knowing full well that Southcote is the father of the boy who ruined her daughter, and tells Mitri that “our hate helped nothing, friend. Anah dies, remembering only the dead lover whom she tried to save . . . You must help this old man. And God will judge.”
With the fatal earthquake fast approaching, completely at the mercy of those he had reviled, Southcote experiences doubt and epiphany:
Righteousness? Who were the righteous? Who, in the shadow-show of life, might lift him a light whereby to judge and condemn his fellows? Yet he, vengeful and hating, had done so, the while the harlot and the thief, the drunkard and the murderer, reached to unguessed heights of pity and forgiveness, heroism and shamed kindliness…
Righteousness? As a silver thread he saw it now, winding through the lusts and cruelties, the filth and crime of every life in Mevr. And of Hope and Faith and Charity was it woven. Before him he saw the scavenger, the two grave-robbers, the camelier, the murderer and the thief; ’Mitri’, Miriam, Anah–those in whom, unguessed of him, had lain the seed of righteousness.
Southcote’s experience of compassion and mercy at the hands of his enemies throws not only his own judgement into question, but also allows Mitchell to challenge the morality of God’s biblical wrath. When the watcher comes down from the hill and is at the total mercy of the city’s inhabitants, he discovers the righteous kindness and compassion in the hearts of Mevr’s most depraved. And in their company he glimpses the tenth righteous one: “between Ali the murderer and Selim the thief, he saw stand for a moment One whom he had never known. One with bleeding hands and feet and hidden face.” Had the angelic watchers in the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah truly humbled themselves and been at the total mercy of the inhabitants of the Cities of the Plain, might not they too have discovered the silver thread of righteousness winding through the cruelties of man? Had the God of Genesis, in his wrath, judged man too quickly? Had he failed to acknowledge the kindliness of human nature that survived, in the “least” or lowliest of humans, despite the evil necessities of circumstance? Had God lost faith, and hope, and charity?
“For Ten’s Sake” ends with a mass exodus. The city’s governor receives a call from a small brothel in the Street of Ten warning him of the impending earthquake that will doom the city. Unlike the biblical story of Sodom, mercy is not reserved for those previously ordained as “righteous”. And there is no Lot, no singular patriarch to transport to safety with his daughters in order to start a new race of righteous people. Instead, Southcote warns an entire city. For Mitchell, all who have suffered and, in turn, made others suffer still have the potential for righteousness. The saving of humanity is not dependent upon the mercy of a an all-powerful God but rather upon the stubborn streak of kindness and compassion that no suffering, no deprivation, can ever truly erase. With “For Ten’s Sake”, Mitchell asks us all to consider “the unguessed heroisms” of our own Streets of Ten.
By some new law other than that which had doomed the Cities of the Plain could righteousness indeed be reckoned?