M.P. Shiel.

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visage all fierce and wild, the grime still streaked with sweat-furrows,
the candle in their rimless hats, and, outside, their own 'getting'
mattocks and boring-irons to besiege them. From the bottom of this gugg
I went along a very undulating twin-way, into which, every thirty yards
or so, opened one of those steep putt-ways which they called topples,
the twin-ways having plates of about 2-1/2 ft. gauge for the putts from
the headings, or workings, above to come down upon, full of coal and
shale: and all about here, in twin-way and topples, were ends and
corners, and not one had been left without its walling-in, and only one
was then intact, some, I fancied, having been broken open by their own
builders at the spur of suffocation, or hunger; and the one intact I
broke into with a mattock - it was only a thin cake of plaster, but
air-tight - and in a space not seven feet long behind it I found the very
ill-smelling corpse of a carting-boy, with guss and tugger at his feet,
and the pad which protected his head in pushing the putts, and a great
heap of loaves, sardines, and bottled beer against the walls, and five
or six mice that suddenly pitched screaming through the opening which I
made, greatly startling me, there being of dead mice an extraordinary
number in all this mine-region. I went back to the standing, and at one
point in the ground, where there was a windlass and chain, lowered
myself down a 'cut' - a small pit sunk perpendicularly to a lower
coal-stratum, and here, almost thinking I could hear the perpetual
rat-tat of notice once exchanged between the putt-boys below and the
windlass-boys above, I proceeded down a dipple to another place like a
standing, for in this mine there were six, or perhaps seven, veins: and
there immediately I came upon the acme of the horrible drama of this
Tartarus, for all here was not merely crowded, but, at some points, a
packed congestion of flesh, giving out a strong smell of the peach,
curiously mixed with the stale coal-odour of the pit, for here
ventilation must have been very limited; and a large number of these
masses had been shot down by only three hands, as I found: for through
three hermetical holes in a plaster-wall, built across a large gugg,
projected a little the muzzles of three rifles, which must have glutted
themselves with slaughter; and when, after a horror of disgust, having
swum as it were through a dead sea, I got to the wall, I peeped from a
small clear space before it through a hole, and made out a man, two
youths in their teens, two women, three girls, and piles of cartridges
and provisions; the hole had no doubt been broken from within at the
spur of suffocation, when the poison must have entered; and I
conjectured that here must be the mine-owner, director, manager, or
something of that sort, with his family. In another dipple-region, when
I had re-ascended to a higher level, I nearly fainted before I could
retire from the commencement of a region of after-damp, where there had
been an explosion, the bodies lying all hairless, devastated, and
grotesque. But I did not desist from searching every other quarter, no
momentary work, for not till near six did I go up by the pumping-shaft
rope-ladder.

* * * * *

One day, standing in that wild region of bare rock and sea, called
Cornwall Point, whence one can see the crags and postillion wild rocks
where Land's End dashes out into the sea, and all the wild blue sea
between, and not a house in sight, save the chimney of some little
mill-like place peeping between the rocks inland - on that day I finished
what I may call my official search.

In going away from that place, walking northward, I came upon a lonely
house by the sea, a very beautiful house, made, it was clear, by an
artist, of the bungalow type, with an exquisitely sea-side expression. I
went to it, and found its special feature a spacious loggia or verandah,
sheltered by the overhanging upper story. Up to the first floor, the
exterior is of stone in rough-hewn blocks with a distinct batter, while
extra protection from weather is afforded by green slating above. The
roofs, of low pitch, are also covered with green slates, and a feeling
of strength and repose is heightened by the very long horizontal lines.
At one end of the loggia is a hexagonal turret, opening upon the loggia,
containing a study or nook. In front, the garden slopes down to the
sea, surrounded by an architectural sea-wall; and in this place I lived
three weeks. It was the house of the poet Machen, whose name, when I saw
it, I remembered very well, and he had married a very beautiful young
girl of eighteen, obviously Spanish, who lay on the bed in the large
bright bedroom to the right of the loggia, on her left exposed breast
being a baby with an india-rubber comforter in its mouth, both mother
and child wonderfully preserved, she still quite lovely, white brow
under low curves of black hair. The poet, strange to say, had not died
with them, but sat in the sitting-room behind the bedroom in a long
loose silky-grey jacket, at his desk - actually writing a poem! writing,
I could see, furiously fast, the place all littered with the written
leaves - at three o'clock in the morning, when, as I knew, the cloud
overtook this end of Cornwall, and stopped him, and put his head to rest
on the desk; and the poor little wife must have got sleepy, waiting for
it to come, perhaps sleepless for many long nights before, and gone to
bed, he perhaps promising to follow in a minute to die with her, but
bent upon finishing that poem, and writing feverishly on, running a race
with the cloud, thinking, no doubt, 'just two couplets more,' till the
thing came, and put his head to rest on the desk, poor carle: and I do
not know that I ever encountered aught so complimentary to my race as
this dead poet Machen, and his race with the cloud: for it is clear now
that the better kind of those poet men did not write to please the vague
inferior tribes who might read them, but to deliver themselves of the
divine warmth that thronged in their bosom; and if all the readers were
dead, still they would have written; and for God to read they wrote. At
any rate, I was so pleased with these poor people, that I stayed with
them three weeks, sleeping under blankets on a couch in the
drawing-room, a place full of lovely pictures and faded flowers, like
all the house: for I would not touch the young mother to remove her. And
finding on Machen's desk a big note-book with soft covers, dappled red
and yellow, not yet written in, I took it, and a pencil, and in the
little turret-nook wrote day after day for hours this account of what
has happened, nearly as far as it has now gone. And I think that I may
continue to write it, for I find in it a strange consolation, and
companionship.

* * * * *

In the Severn Valley, somewhere in the plain between Gloucester and
Cheltenham, in a rather lonely spot, I at that time travelling on a
tricycle-motor, I spied a curious erection, and went to it. I found it
of considerable size, perhaps fifty feet square, and thirty high, made
of pressed bricks, the perfectly flat roof, too, of brick, and not one
window, and only one door: this door, which I found open, was rimmed all
round its slanting rims with india-rubber, and when closed must have
been perfectly air-tight. Just inside I came upon fifteen English people
of the dressed class, except two, who were evidently bricklayers: six
ladies, and nine men: and at the further end, two more, men, who had
their throats cut; along one wall, from end to end were provisions; and
I saw a chest full of mixed potassic chlorate and black oxide of
manganese, with an apparatus for heating it, and producing oxygen - a
foolish thing, for additional oxygen could not alter the quantity of
breathed carbonic anhydride, which is a direct narcotic poison. Whether
the two with cut throats had sacrificed themselves for the others when
breathing difficulties commenced, or been killed by the others, was not
clear. When they could bear it no longer, they must have finally opened
the door, hoping that by then, after the passage of many days perhaps,
the outer air would be harmless, and so met their death. I believe that
this erection must have been run up by their own hands under the
direction of the two bricklayers, for they could not, I suppose, have
got workmen, except on the condition of the workmen's admission: on
which condition they would naturally employ as few as possible.

In general, I remarked that the rich must have been more urgent and
earnest in seeking escape than the others: for the poor realised only
the near and visible, lived in to-day, and cherished the always-false
notion that to-morrow would be just like to-day. In an out-patients'
waiting-room, for instance, in the Gloucester infirmary, I chanced to
see an astonishing thing: five bodies of poor old women in shawls, come
to have their ailments seen-to on the day of doom; and these, I
concluded, had been unable to realise that anything would really happen
to the daily old earth which they knew, and had walked with assurance
on: for if everybody was to die, they must have thought, who would
preach in the Cathedral on Sunday evenings? - so they could not have
believed. In an adjoining room sat an old doctor at a table, the
stethoscope-tips still clinging in his ears: a woman with bared chest
before him; and I thought to myself: 'Well, this old man, too, died
doing his work....'

In this same infirmary there was one surgical ward - for in a listless
mood I went over it - where the patients had died, not of the poison, nor
of suffocation, but of hunger: for the doctors, or someone, had made the
long room air-tight, double-boarding the windows, felting the doors, and
then locking them outside; they themselves may have perished before
their precautions for the imprisoned patients were complete: for I found
a heap of maimed shapes, mere skeletons, crowded round the door within.
I knew very well that they had not died of the cloud-poison, for the
pestilence of the ward was unmixed with that odour of peach which did
not fail to have more or less embalming effects upon the bodies which it
saturated. I rushed stifling from that place; and thinking it a pity,
and a danger, that such a horror should be, I at once set to work to
gather combustibles to burn the building to the ground.

It was while I sat in an arm-chair in the street the next afternoon,
smoking, and watching the flames of this structure, that something was
suddenly born in me, something from the lowest Hell: and I smiled a
smile that never yet man smiled. And I said: 'I will burn, I will burn:
I will return to London....'

* * * * *

While I was on this Eastward journey, stopping for the night at the
town of Swindon, I had a dream: for I dreamed that a little brown bald
old man, with a bent back, whose beard ran in one thin streamlet of
silver from his chin to trail along the ground, said to me: 'You think
that you are alone on the earth, its sole Despot: well, have your fling:
but as sure as God lives, as God lives, as God lives' - he repeated it
six times - 'sooner or later, later or sooner, you will meet another....'

And I started from that frightful sleep with the brow of a corpse, wet
with sweat....

* * * * *

I returned to London on the 29th of March, arriving within a hundred
yards of the Northern Station one windy dark evening about eight, where
I alighted, and walked to Euston Road, then eastward along it, till I
came to a shop which I knew to be a jeweller's, though it was too dark
to see any painted words. The door, to my annoyance, was locked, like
nearly all the shop-doors in London: I therefore went looking near the
ground, and into a cart, for something heavy, very soon saw a labourer's
ponderous boots, cut one from the shrivelled foot, and set to beat at
the glass till it came raining; then knocked away the bottom splinters,
and entered.

No horrors now at that clatter of broken glass; no sick qualms; my
pulse steady; my head high; my step royal; my eye cold and calm.

* * * * *

Eight months previously, I had left London a poor burdened, cowering
wight. I could scream with laughter now at that folly! But it did not
last long. I returned to it - the Sultan.

* * * * *

No private palace being near, I was going to that great hotel in
Bloomsbury: but though I knew that numbers of candle-sticks would be
there, I was not sure that I should find sufficient: for I had acquired
the habit within the past few months of sleeping with at least sixty
lighted about me, and their form, pattern, style, age, and material was
of no small importance I selected ten from the broken shop, eight gold
and silver, and two of old ecclesiastical brass, and having made a
bundle, went out, found a bicycle at the Metropolitan Station, pumped
it, tied my bundle to the handle-bar, and set off riding. But since I
was too lazy to walk, I should certainly have procured some other means
of travelling, for I had not gone ten jolted and creaking yards, when
something went snap - it was a front fork - and I found myself half on
the ground, and half across the bare knees of a Highland soldier. I flew
with a shower of kicks upon the foolish thing: but that booted nothing;
and this was my last attempt in that way in London, the streets being in
an unsuitable condition.

All that dismal night it blew great guns: and during nearly three weeks,
till London was no more, there was a storm, with hardly a lull, that
seemed to behowl her destruction.

* * * * *

I slept in a room on the second-floor of a Bloomsbury hotel that night;
and waking the next day at ten, ate with accursed shiverings in the cold
banqueting-room; went out then, and under drear low skies walked a long
way to the West district, accompanied all the time by a sound of
flapping flags - fluttering robes and rags - and grotesquely grim glimpses
of decay. It was pretty cold, and though I was warmly clad, the base
_bizarrerie_ of the European clothes which I wore had become a perpetual
offence and mockery in my eyes: at the first moment, therefore, I set
out whither I knew that I should find such clothes as a man might wear:
to the Turkish Embassy in Bryanston Square.

I found it open, and all the house, like most other houses, almost
carpeted with dead forms. I had been acquainted with Redouza Pasha, and
cast an eye about for him amid that invasion of veiled hanums,
fierce-looking Caucasians in skins of beasts, a Sheik-ul-Islam in green
cloak, a khalifa, three emirs in cashmere turbans, two tziganes, their
gaudy brown mortality more glaringly abominable than even the Western's.
I could recognise no Redouza here: but the stair was fairly clear, and I
soon came to one of those boudoirs which sweetly recall the deep-buried
inner seclusion and dim sanctity of the Eastern home: a door encrusted
with mother-of-pearl, sculptured ceiling, candles clustered in tulips
and roses of opal, a brazen brasero, and, all in disarray, the silken
chemise, the long winter-cafetan doubled with furs, costly cabinets,
sachets of aromas, babooshes, stuffs of silk. When, after two hours, I
went from the house, I was bathed, anointed, combed, scented, and robed.

* * * * *

I have said to myself: 'I will ravage and riot in my Kingdoms. I will
rage like the Caesars, and be a withering blight where I pass like
Sennacherib, and wallow in soft delights like Sardanapalus. I will build
me a palace, vast as a city, in which to strut and parade my Monarchy
before the Heavens, with stones of pure molten gold, and rough
frontispiece of diamond, and cupola of amethyst, and pillars of pearl.
For there were many men to the eye: but there was One only, really: and
I was he. And always I knew it: - some faintest secret whisper which
whispered me: "_You_ are the Arch-one, the _motif_ of the world, Adam,
and the rest of men not much." And they are gone - all! all! - as no doubt
they deserved: and I, as was meet, remain. And there are wines, and
opiums, and haschish; and there are oils, and spices, fruits and
bivalves, and soft-breathing Cyclades, and scarlet luxurious Orients. I
will be restless and turbulent in my territories: and again, I will be
languishing and fond. I will say to my soul: "Be Full."'

* * * * *

I watch my mind, as in the old days I would watch a new precipitate in a
test-tube, to see into what sediment it would settle.

I am very averse to trouble of any sort, so that the necessity for the
simplest manual operations will rouse me to indignation: but if a thing
will contribute largely to my ever-growing voluptuousness, I will
undergo a considerable amount of labour to accomplish it, though
without steady effort, being liable to side-winds and whims, and
purposeless relaxations.

In the country I became very irritable at the need which confronted me
of occasionally cooking some green vegetable - the only item of food
which it was necessary to take some trouble over: for all meats, and
many fish, some quite delicious, I find already prepared in forms which
will remain good probably a century after my death, should I ever die.
In Gloucester, however, I found peas, asparagus, olives, and other
greens, already prepared to be eaten without base cares: and these, I
now see, exist everywhere in stores so vast comparatively to the needs
of a single man, that they may be called infinite. Everything, in fact,
is infinite compared with my needs. I take my meals, therefore, without
more trouble than a man who had to carve his joint, or chicken: though
even that little I sometimes find most irksome. There remains the
detestable degradation of lighting fires for warmth, which I have
occasionally to do: for the fire at the hotel invariably goes out while
I sleep. But that is an inconvenience of this vile northern island only,
to which I shall soon bid eternal glad farewells.

During the afternoon of my second day in London, I sought out a strong
petrol motor in Holborn, overhauled and oiled it a little, and set off
over Blackfriars Bridge, making for Woolwich through that other more
putrid London on the south river-side. One after the other, I connected,
as I came upon them, two drays, a cab, and a private carriage, to my
motor in line behind, having cut away the withered horses, and using the
reins, chain-harness, &c., as impromptu couplings. And with this novel
train, I rumbled eastward.

Half-way I happened to look at my old silver chronometer of
_Boreal_-days, which I have kept carefully wound - and how I can be still
thrown into these sudden frantic agitations by a nothing, a nothing, my
good God! I do not know. This time it was only the simple fact that the
hands chanced to point to 3.10 P.M., the precise moment at which all the
clocks of London had stopped - for each town has its thousand weird
fore-fingers, pointing, pointing still, to the moment of doom. In London
it was 3.10 on a Sunday afternoon. I first noticed it going up the river
on the face of the 'Big Ben' of the Parliament-house, and I now find
that they all, all, have this 3.10 mania, time-keepers still, but
keepers of the end of Time, fixedly noting for ever and ever that one
moment. The cloud-mass of fine penetrating _scoriae_ must have instantly
stopped their works, and they had fallen silent with man. But in their
insistence upon this particular minute I had found something so
hideously solemn, yet mock-solemn, personal, and as it were addressed to
_me_, that when my own watch dared to point to the same moment, I was
thrown into one of those sudden, paroxysmal, panting turmoils of mind,
half rage, half horror, which have hardly once visited me since I left
the _Boreal_. On the morrow, alas, another awaited me; and again on the
second morrow after.

* * * * *

My train was execrably slow, and not until after five did I arrive at
the entrance-gates of the Woolwich Royal Arsenal; and seeing that it was
too late to work, I uncoupled the motor, and leaving the others there,
turned back; but overtaken by lassitude, I procured candles, stopped at
the Greenwich Observatory, and in that old dark pile, remained for the
night, listening to a furious storm. But, a-stir by eight the next
morning, I got back by ten to the Arsenal, and proceeded to analyse that
vast and multiple entity. Many parts of it seemed to have been abandoned
in undisciplined haste, and in the Cap Factory, which I first entered, I
found tools by which to effect entry into any desired part. My first
search was for time-fuses of good type, of which I needed two or three
thousand, and after a wearily long time found a great number
symmetrically arranged in rows in a range of buildings called the
Ordnance Store Department. I then descended, walked back to the wharf,
brought up my train, and began to lower the fuses in bag-fulls by ropes
through a shoot, letting go each rope as the fuses reached the cart.
However, on winding one fuse, I found that the mechanism would not go,
choked with scoriae; and I had to resign myself to the task of opening
and dusting every one: a wretched labour in which I spent that day, like
a workman. But about four I threw them to the devil, having done two
hundred odd, and then hummed back in the motor to London.

* * * * *

That same evening at six I paid, for the first time, a visit to my old
self in Harley Street. It was getting dark, and a bleak storm that
hooted like whooping-cough swept the world. At once I saw that even _I_
had been invaded: for my door swung open, banging, a lowered catch
preventing it from slamming; in the passage the car-lamp shewed me a
young man who seemed a Jew, sitting as if in sleep with dropped head, a
back-tilted silk-hat pressed down upon his head to the ears; and lying
on face, or back, or side, six more, one a girl with Arlesienne
head-dress, one a negress, one a Deal lifeboat's-man, and three of
uncertain race; the first room - the waiting-room - is much more
numerously occupied, though there still, on the table, lies the volume
of _Punch_, the _Gentlewoman_, and the book of London views in
heliograph. Behind this, descending two steps, is the study and
consulting-room, and there, as ever, the revolving-cover oak
writing-desk: but on my little shabby-red sofa, a large lady much too
big for it, in shimmering brown silk, round her left wrist a _trousseau_
of massive gold trinkets, her head dropped right back, almost severed by
an infernal gash from the throat. Here were two old silver
candle-sticks, which I lit, and went upstairs: in the drawing-room sat
my old house-keeper, placidly dead in a rocking-chair, her left hand
pressing down a batch of the open piano-keys, among many strangers. But
she was very good: she had locked my bedroom against intrusion; and as
the door stands across a corner behind a green-baize curtain, it had not
been seen, or, at least, not forced. I did not know where the key might
be, but a few thumps with my back drove it open: and there lay my bed
intact, and everything tidy. This was a strange coming-back to it, Adam.

But what intensely interested me in that room was a big thing standing
at the maroon-and-gold wall between wardrobe and dressing-table - that
gilt frame - and that man painted within it there. It was myself in oils,
done by - I forget his name now: a towering celebrity he was, and rather
a close friend of mine at one time. In a studio in St. John's Wood, I
remember, he did it; and many people said that it was quite a great work
of art. I suppose I was standing before it quite thirty minutes that
night, holding up the bits of candle, lost in wonder, in amused contempt
at that thing there. It is I, certainly: that I must admit. There is the
high-curving brow - really a King's brow, after all, it strikes me
now - and that vacillating look about the eyes and mouth which used to
make my sister Ada say: 'Adam is weak and luxurious.' Yes, that is
wonderfully done, the eyes, that dear, vacillating look of mine; for
although it is rather a staring look, yet one can almost see the dark
pupils stir from side to side: very well done. And there is the longish
face; and the rather thin, stuck-out moustache, shewing both lips which
pout a bit; and there is the nearly black hair; and there is the rather
visible paunch; and there is, oh good Heaven, the neat pink cravat - ah,


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Online LibraryM.P. ShielThe Purple Cloud → online text (page 11 of 24)