The Purple Cloud Part 14

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'_Things being as they are in the matter of the death of Peter ..._'

And there it stopped dead, leaving me so sick, my G.o.d, so sick, that I could hardly s.n.a.t.c.h my robes about me to fly, fly, fly, soft-footed, murmuring in pain, down the steps, down like a sneaking thief, but quick, s.n.a.t.c.hing myself away, then wrestling with the cruel catch of the door which she would not let me open, feeling her all the time behind me, watching me. And when I did get out, I was away up the length of the street, trailing my long _jubbah_, glancing backward, panting, for I thought that she might dare to follow, with her daring evil will. And all that night I lay on a common bench in the wind-tossed and dismal Park.

The first thing which I did when the sun was up was to return to that place: and I returned with hard and masterful brow.

Approaching Peters' house I saw now, what the darkness had hidden from me, that on his balcony was someone--quite alone there. The balcony is a slight open-work wrought-iron structure, connected to a small roof by three slender voluted pillars, two at the ends, one in the middle: and at the middle one I saw someone, a woman--kneeling--her arms clasped tight about the pillar, and her face rather upward-looking. Never did I see aught more horrid: there were the gracious curves of the woman's bust and hips still well preserved in a clinging dress of red cloth, very faded now; and her reddish hair floated loose in a large flimsy cloud about her; but her face, in that exposed position, had been quite eaten away by the winds to a noseless skeleton, which grinned from ear to ear, with slightly-dropped under-jaw--most horrid in contrast with the body, and frame of hair. I meditated upon her a long time that morning from the opposite pavement. An oval locket at her throat contained, I knew, my likeness: for eight years previously I had given it her. It was Clodagh, the poisoner.

I thought that I would go into that house, and walk through it from top to bottom, and sit in it, and spit in it, and stamp in it, in spite of any one: for the sun was now high. I accordingly went in again, and up the stairs to the spot where I had been frightened, and had heard the words. And here a great rage took me, for I at once saw that I had been made the dupe of the malign wills that beset me, and the laughing-stock of Those for whom I care not a fig. From a little mahogany table there I had knocked sideways to the ground, in my stumble, a small phonograph with a great 25-inch j.a.panned-tin horn, which, the moment that I now noticed it, I took and flung with a great racket down the stairs: for that this it was which had addressed me I did not doubt; it being indeed evident that its clock-work mechanism had been stopped by the volcanic scoriae in the midst of the delivery of a record, but had been started into a few fresh oscillations by the shock of the fall, making it utter those thirteen words, and stop. I was sufficiently indignant at the moment, but have since been glad, for I was thereby put upon the notion of collecting a number of cylinders with records, and have been touched with indescribable sensations, sometimes thrilled, at hearing the silence of this Eternity broken by those singing and speaking voices, so life-like, yet most ghostly, of the old dead.

Well, the most of that same day I spent in a high chamber at Woolwich, dusting out, and sometimes oiling, time-fuses: a work in which I acquired such facility in some hours, that each finally occupied me no more than ninety to a hundred seconds, so that by evening I had, with the previous day's work, close on 600. The construction of these little things is very simple, and, I believe, effective, so that I should have no difficulty in making them myself in large numbers, if it were necessary. Most contain a tiny dry battery, which sends a current along a bell or copper wire at the running-down moment, the clocks being contrived to be set for so many days, hours, and minutes, while others ignite by striking. I arranged in rows in the covered van those which I had prepared, and pa.s.sed the night in an inn near the Barracks. I had brought candle-sticks from London in the morning, and arranged the furniture--a settee, chest-of-drawers, basin-stand, table, and a number of chairs--in three-quarter-circle round the bed, so getting a triple-row altar of lights, mixed with vases of the house containing small palms and evergreens; with this I mingled a smell of ambergris from the scattered contents of some Turkish sachets which I had; in the bed a bottle of sweet Chypre-wine, with _bonbons_, nuts, and Havannas.

As I lay me down, I could not but reflect, with a smile which I knew to be evil, upon that steady, strong, smouldering l.u.s.t within me which was urging me through all those pains at the a.r.s.enal, I who s.h.i.+rked every labour as unkingly. So, however, it was: and the next morning I was at it again after an early breakfast, my fingers at first quite stiff with cold, for it blew a keen and January gale. By nine I had 820 fuses; and judging those sufficient to commence with, got into the motor, and took it round to a place called the East Laboratory, a series of detached buildings, where I knew that I should find whatever I wanted: and I prepared my mind for a day's labour. In this place I found incredible stores: mountains of percussion-caps, more chambers of fuses, small-arm cartridges, sh.e.l.ls, and all those murderous explosive mixtures, a-making and made, with which modern savagery occupied its leisure in exterminating itself: or, at least, savagery civilised in its top-story only: for civilisation was apparently from the head downwards, and never once grew below the neck in all those centuries, those people being certainly much more mental than cordial, though I doubt if they were genuinely mental either--reminding one rather of that composite image of Nebuchadnezzar, head of gold, breast brazen, feet of clay--head man-like, heart cannibal, feet b.e.s.t.i.a.l--like aegipeds, and mermaids, and puzzling undeveloped births. However, it is of no importance: and perhaps I am not much better than the rest, for I, too, after all, am of them. At any rate, their lyddites, melanites, cordites, dynamites, powders, jellies, oils, marls, and civilised barbarisms and obiahs, came in very well for their own destruction: for by two o'clock I had so worked, that I had on the first cart the phalanx of fuses; on the second a goodly number of kegs, cartridge-cases and cartridge-boxes, full of powder, explosive cottons and gelatines, and liquid nitro-glycerine, and earthy dynamite, with some bombs, two reels of cordite, two pieces of tarred cloth, a small iron ladle, a shovel, and a crow-bar; the cab came next, containing a considerable quant.i.ty of loose coal; and lastly, in the private carriage lay four big cans of common oil. And first, in the Laboratory, I connected a fuse-conductor with a huge tun of blasting-gelatine, and I set the fuse on the ground, timed for the midnight of the twelfth day thence; and after that I visited the Main Factory, the Carriage Department, the Ordnance Store Department, the Royal Artillery Barracks, and the Powder Magazines in the Marshes, traversing, as it seemed to me, miles of building; and in some I laid heaps of oil-saturated coal with an explosive in suitable spots on the ground-floor near wood-work, and in some an explosive alone: and all I timed for ignition at midnight of the twelfth day. Hot now, and black as ink, I proceeded through the town, stopping with perfect system at every hundredth door: and I laid the f.a.ggots of a great burning: and timed them all for ignition at midnight of the twelfth day.

Whatever door I found closed against me I drove at it with a maniac malice.

Shall I commit the whole dark fact to paper?--that deep, deep secret of the human organism?

As I wrought, I waxed wicked as a demon! And with lowered neck, and forward curve of the lower spine, and the blasphemous strut of tragic play-actors, I went. For here was no harmless burning which I did--but the crime of arson; and a most fiendish, though vague, malevolence, and the rage to burn and raven and riot, was upon me like a dog-madness, and all the mood of Nero, and Nebuchadnezzar: and from my mouth proceeded all the obscenities of the slum and of the gutter, and I sent up such hisses and giggles of challenge to Heaven that day as never yet has man let out. But this way lies a spinning frenzy....

I have taken a dead girl with wild huggings to my bosom; and I have touched the corrupted lip, and spat upon her face, and tossed her down, and crushed her teeth with my heel, and jumped and jumped upon her breast, like the snake-stamping zebra, mad, mad...!

I was desolated, however, that first day of the f.a.ggot-laying, even in the midst of my sense of omnipotence, by one thing, which made me give some kicks to the motor: for it was only crawling, so that a good part of the way I was stalking by its side; and when I came to that hill near the Old Dover Road, the whole thing stopped, and refused to move, the weight of the train being too great for my horse-power traction. I did not know what to do, and stood there in angry impotence a full half-hour, for the notion of setting up an electric station, with or without automatic stoking-gear, presented so hideous a picture of labour to me, that I would not entertain it. After a time, however, I thought that I remembered that there was a comparatively new power station in St. Paneras driven by turbines: and at once, I uncoupled the motor, covered the drays with the tarpaulins, and went driving at singing speed, choosing the emptier by-streets, and not caring whom I crushed.

After some trouble I found, in fact, the station in an obscure by-street made of two long walls, and went in by a window, a rage upon me to have my will quickly accomplished. I ran up some stairs, across two rooms, into a gallery containing a switch-board, and in the room below saw the works, all very neat-looking, but, as I soon found, very dusty. I went down, and fixed upon a generating set--there were three--that would give a decent load, and then saw that the switch-gear belonging to this particular generator was in order. I then got some cloths and thoroughly cleaned the dust off the commutators; ran next--for I was in a strange fierce haste--and turned the water into the turbines, and away went the engine; I hurried to set the lubricators running on the bearings, and in a couple of minutes had adjusted the speed, and the brushes of the generators, and switched the current on to the line. By this time, however, I saw that it was getting dark, and feared that little could be done that day; still, I hurried out, the station still running, got into the car, and was off to look for a good electric one, of which there are hosts in the streets, in order at least to clean up and adjust the motor that night. I drove down three by-streets, till I turned into Euston Road: but I had no sooner reached it than I pulled up--with sudden jerk--with a shout of astonishment.

That cursed street was all lighted up and gay! and three s.h.i.+mmering electric globes, not far apart, illuminated every feature of a ghastly battle-field of dead.

And there was a thing there, the grinning impression of which I shall carry to my grave: a thing which spelled and spelled at me, and ceased, and began again, and ceased, and spelled at me. For, above a shop which faced me was a flag, a red flag with white letters, fluttering on the gale the words: 'Metcalfe's Stores'; and beneath the flag, stretched right across the house, was the thing which spelled, letter by letter, in letters of light: and it spelled two words, deliberately, coming to the end, and going back to recommence:

_Drink_ ROBORAL.

And that was the last word of civilised Man to me, Adam Jeffson--its final counsel--its ultimate gospel and message--to _me_, my good G.o.d!

_Drink Roboral!_

I was put into such a pa.s.sion of rage by this blatant ribaldry, which affected me like the laughter of a skeleton, that I rushed from the car, with the intention, I believe, of seeking stones to stone it: but no stones were there: and I had to stand impotently enduring that rape of my eyes, its victoriously-dogged iteration, its taunting leer, its Drink Roboral--D, R, I, N, K R, O, B, O, R, A, L.

It was one of those electrical spelling-advertis.e.m.e.nts, worked by a small motor commutator driven by a works-motor, and I had now set it going: for on some night before that Sabbath of doom the chemist must have set it to work, but finding the works abandoned, had not troubled to shut it down again. At any rate, this thing stopped my work for that day, for when I went to shut down the works it was night; and I drove to the place which I had made my home in sullen and weary mood: for I knew that Roboral would not cure the least of all my sores.

The next morning I awoke in quite another frame of mind, disposed to idle, and let things go. After rising, dressing, was.h.i.+ng in cold diluted rose-water, and descending to the _salle-a-manger_, where I had laid my morning-meal the previous evening, I promenaded an hour the only one of these long sombrous tufted corridors in which there were not more than two dead, though behind the doors on either hand, all of which I had locked, I knew that they lay in plenty. When I was warmed, I again went down, looked into my motor, got three cylinders from one of a number of motors standing near, lit up, and drove away--to Woolwich, as I thought at first: but instead of crossing the river by Blackfriars, I went more eastward; and having pa.s.sed from Holborn into Cheapside, which was impa.s.sable, unless I crawled, was about to turn, when I noticed a phonograph-shop: into this I got by a side-door, suddenly seized by quite a curiosity to hear what I might hear. I took a good one with microphone diaphragm, and a number of record-cylinders in a bra.s.s-handled box, and I put them into the car, for there was still a very strong peach-odour in this closed shop, which displeased me. I then proceeded southward and westward through by-streets, seeking some probable house into which to go from the rough cold winds, when I saw the Parliament-house, and thither, turning river-ward by Westminster Hall to Palace Yard, I went, and with my two parcels, one weighting each arm, walked into this old place along a line of purple-dusted busts; I deposited my boxes on a table beside a ma.s.sive bra.s.s thing lying there, which, I suppose, must be what they called the Mace; and I sat to hear.

Unfortunately, the phonograph was a clock-work one, and when I wound it, it would not go: so that I got very angry at my absurdity in not bringing an electric mechanism, as I could with much less trouble have put in a chemical than cleaned the clock-work; and this thing put me into such a rage, that I nearly tore it to pieces, and was half for kicking it: but there was a man sitting in an old straight-backed chair quite near me, which they called the Speaker's Chair, who was in such a pose, that he had, every time I glanced suddenly at him, precisely the air of bending forward with interest to watch what I was doing, a Mohrgrabim kind of man, almost black, with Jewish nose, crinkled hair, keffie, and flowing robe, probably, I should say, an Abyssinian Galla; with him were only five or six people about the benches, mostly leaning forward with rested head, so that this place had quite a void sequestered mood. At all events, this Galla, or Bedouin, with his grotesque interest in my doings, restrained my hands: and, finally, by dint of peering, poking, dusting, and adjusting, in an hour's time I got the phonograph to go very well.

And all that morning, and far into late afternoon, forgetful of food, and of the cold which gradually possessed me, I sat there listening, musing--cylinder after cylinder: frivolous songs, orchestras, voices of famous men whom I had spoken with, and shaken their solid hands, speaking again to me, but thick-tongued, with hoa.r.s.e effort and gurgles, from out the vague void beyond the grave: most strange, most strange. And the third cylinder that I put on, ah, I knew, with a fearful start, that voice of thunder, I knew it well: it was the preacher, Mackay's; and many, many times over I heard those words of his that day, originally spoken, it seems, when the cloud had just pa.s.sed the longitude of Vienna; and in all that torrent of speech not one single word of 'I told you so': but he cries:

'...praise Him, O Earth, for He is He: and if He slay me, I will laugh raillery at His Sword, and banter Him to His face: for His Sword is sharp Mercy, and His poisons kill my death. Fear not, therefore, little flock of Man! but take my comfort to your heart to-night, and my sweets to your tongue: for though ye have sinned, and hardened yourselves as bra.s.s, and gone far, far astray in these latter wildernesses, yet He is infinitely greater than your sin, and will lead you back. Break not, break not, poor broken heart of Earth: for from Him I run herald to thee this night with the sweet and secret message, that of old He chose thee, and once mixed conjugally with thee in an ancient sleep, O Afflicted: and He is thou, and thou art He, flesh of His flesh, and bone of His bone; and if thou perish utterly, it is that He has perished utterly, too: for thou art He. Hope, therefore, most, and cheeriest smile, at the very apsis and black nadir of Despair: for He is nimble as a weasel, and He twists like Proteus, and His solstices and equinoxes, His tropics and turning-points and recurrences are innate in Being, and when He falls He falls like harlequin and shuttlec.o.c.ks, s.h.i.+vering plumb to His feet, and each third day, lo, He is risen again, and His defeats are but the stepping-stones and rough scaffolding from which He builds His Parthenons, and from the densest basalt gush His rills, and the last end of this Earth shall be no poison-cloud, I say to you, but Carnival and Harvest-home ... though ye have sinned, poor hearts ...'

So Mackay, with thick-tongued metallic effort. I found this brown room of the Commons-house, with its green benches, and grilled galleries, so agreeable to my mood, that I went again the next morning, and listened to more records, till they tired me: for what I had was a prurient itch to hear secret scandals, and revelations of the festering heart, but these cylinders, gathered from a shop, divulged nothing. I then went out to make for Woolwich, but in the car saw the poet's note-book in which I had written: and I took it, went back, and was writing an hour, till I was tired of that, too; and judging it too late for Woolwich that day, wandered about the dusty committee-rooms and recesses of this considerable place. In one room another foolishness suddenly seized upon me, shewing how my slightest whim has become more imperious within me than all the Jaws of the Medes and Persians: for in that room, Committee Room No. 15, I found an apparently young policeman lying flat on his back, who pleased me: his helmet tilted under his head, and near one white-gloved hand a blue official envelope; the air of that stagnant quiet room was still perceptibly peach-scented, and he gave not the slightest odour that I could detect, though he had been corporal and stalwart, his face now the colour of dark ashes, in each hollow cheek a ragged hole about the size of a sixpence, the flimsy vaulted eye-lids well embedded in their caverns, from under whose fringe of eye-lash seemed whispered the word: '_Eternity._' His hair seemed very long for a policeman, or perhaps it had grown since death; but what interested me about him, was the envelope at his hand: for 'what,' I asked myself, 'was this fellow doing here with an envelope at three o'clock on a Sunday afternoon?' This made me look closer, and then I saw by a mark at the left temple that he had been shot, or felled; whereupon I was thrown into quite a great rage, for I thought that this poor man was killed in the execution of his duty, when many of his kind perhaps, and many higher than he, had fled their post to pray or riot. So, after looking at him a long time, I said to him: 'Well, D. 47, you sleep very well: and you did well, dying so: I am pleased with you, and to mark my favour, I decree that you shall neither rot in the common air, nor burn in the common flames: for by my own hand shall you be distinguished with burial.' And this wind so possessed me, that I at once went out: with the crow-bar from the car I broke the window of a near iron-monger's in Parliament Street, got a spade, and went into Westminster Abbey. I soon prised up a grave-slab of some famous man in the north transept, and commenced to shovel: but, I do not know how, by the time I had digged a foot the whole impulse pa.s.sed from me: I left off the work, promising to resume it: but nothing was ever done, for the next day I was at Woolwich, and busy enough about other matters.

During the next nine days I worked with a fever on me, and a map of London before me.

There were places in that city!--secrets, vastnesses, horrors! In the wine-vaults at London Docks was a vat which must certainly have contained between twenty and thirty thousand gallons: and with dancing heart I laid a train there; the tobacco-warehouse must have covered eighty acres: and there I laid a fuse. In a house near Regent's Park, standing in a garden, and shut from the street by a high wall, I saw a thing...! and what shapes a great city hid I now first know.

I left no quarter unremembered, taking a train, no longer of four, but of eight, vehicles, drawn by an electric motor which I re-charged every morning, mostly from the turbine station in St. Pancras, once from a steam-station with very small engine and dynamo, found in the Palace Theatre, which gave little trouble, and once from a similar little station in a Strand hotel. With these I visited West Ham and Kew, Finchley and Clapham, Dalston and Marylebone; I exhausted London; I deposited piles in the Guildhall, in Holloway Gaol, in the new pillared Justice-hall of Newgate, in the Tower, in the Parliament-house, in St.

Giles' Workhouse, in the Crypt and under the organ of St. Paul's, in the South Kensington Museum, in the Royal Agricultural Society, in Whiteley's place, in the Trinity House, in Liverpool Street, in the Office of Works, in the secret recesses of the British Museum; in a hundred inflammable warehouses, in five hundred shops, in a thousand private dwellings. And I timed them all for ignition at midnight of the 23rd April.

By five in the afternoon of the 22nd, when I left my train in Maida Vale, and drove alone to the solitary house on high ground near Hampstead Heath which I had chosen, the work was well finished.

The great morning dawned, and I was early a-stir: for I had much to do that day.

I intended to make for the sea-sh.o.r.e the next morning, and had therefore to choose a good petrol motor, store it, and have it in a place of safety; I had also to drag another vehicle after me, stored with trunks of time-fuses, books, clothes, and other little things.

My first journey was to Woolwich, whence I took all that I might ever require in the way of mechanism; thence to the National Gallery, where I cut from their frames the 'Vision of St. Helena,' Murillo's 'Boy Drinking,' and 'Christ at the Column'; and thence to the Emba.s.sy to bathe, anoint myself, and dress.

As I had antic.i.p.ated, and hoped, a bl.u.s.tering spring gale was blowing from the north.

Even as I set out from Hampstead, about 9 A.M., I had been able to guess that some of my fuses had somehow antic.i.p.ated the appointed hour: for I saw three red hazes at various points in the air, and heard the far vague booming of an occasional explosion; and by 11 A.M. I felt sure that a large region of north-eastern London must be in flames. With the solemn feelings of bridegrooms and marriage-mornings--with a flinching, a flinching heart, G.o.d knows, yet a heart up-buoyed on thrilling joys--I went about making preparations for the Gargantuan orgy of the night.

The house at Hampstead, which no doubt still stands, is of rather pleasing design in quite a stone and rural style, with good breadths of wall-surface, two plain coped gables, mullioned windows, and oversailing slate verge roofs, but, rather spoiling it, a high square three-storied tower at the south-east angle, on the topmost floor of which I had slept the previous night. There I had provided myself with a jar of pale tobacco mixed with rose-leaves and opium, found in a foreign house in Seymour Street, also a genuine Saloniki hookah, together with the best wines, nuts, and so on, and a gold harp of the musician Krasinski, stamped with his name, taken from his house in Portland Street.

But so much did I find to do that day, and so many odd things turned up which I thought that I would take with me, that it was not till near six that I drove finally northward through Camden Town. And now an ineffable awe possessed my soul at the solemn noise which everywhere encompa.s.sed me, an ineffable awe, a blissful terror. Never, never could I have dreamed of aught so great and potent. All above my head there rushed southward with wide-spread wing of haste a sparkling smoke; and mixed with the immense roaring I heard mysterious hubbubs of tumblings and rumblings, which I could not at all comprehend, like the moving-about of furniture in the houses of t.i.tans; while pervading all the air was a most weird and tearful sound, as it were threnody, and a wild wail of pain, and dying swan-songs, and all lamentations and tribulations of the world. Yet I was aware that, at an hour so early, the flames must be far from general; in fact, they had not well commenced.

As I had left a good semicircular region of houses, with a radius of four hundred yards, without combustibles to the south of the isolated house which I was to occupy, and as the wind was so strongly from the north, I simply left my two vehicles at the door of the house, without fear of any injury: nor did any occur. I then went up to the top of the tower, lit the candles, and ate voraciously of the dinner which I had left ready, for since the morning I had taken nothing; and then, with hands and heart that quivered, I arranged the clothes of the low spring-bed upon which to throw my frame in the morning hours. Opposite the wall, where lay the bed, was a Gothic window, pretty large, with low sill, hung with poppy-figured muslin, and looking directly south, so that I could recline at ease in the red-velvet easy-chair, and see. It had evidently been a young lady's room: for on the toilette were cut-gla.s.s bottles, a plait of brown hair, powders, _rouge-aux-levres,_ one little bronze slipper, and knick-knacks, and I loved her and hated her, though I did not see her anywhere. About half-past eight I sat at the window to watch, all being arranged and ready at my right hand, the candles extinguished in the red room: for the theatre was opened, was opened: and the atmosphere of this earth seemed turned into h.e.l.l, and h.e.l.l was in my soul.

The Purple Cloud Part 14

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The Purple Cloud Part 14 summary

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