Ne raillons pas les fous; leur folie
plus longtemps que la nôrte ...
toute la differénce.
Toward the end of the year 1920
the Government of the United States had practically completed the programme,
adopted during the last months of President Winthrop's administration.
The country was apparently tranquil. Everybody knows how the Tariff and
Labor questions were settled. The war with Germany, incident on that country's
seizure of the Samoan Islands, had left no visible scars upon the republic,
and the temporary occupation of Norfolk by the invading army had been forgotten
in the joy over repeated naval victories and the subsequent ridiculous
plight of General Von Gartenlaube's forces in the State of New Jersey.
The Cuban and Hawaiian investments had paid one hundred per cent. and the
territory of Samoa was well worth its cost as a coaling station. The country
was in a superb state of defence. Every coast city had been supplied with
land fortifications; the army under the parental eye of the General Staff,
organized according to the Prussian system, had been increased to 300,000
men with a territorial reserve of a million; and six magnificent squadrons
of cruisers and battle-ships patrolled the six stations of the navigable
seas, leaving a steam reserve amply fitted to control home waters. The
gentlemen from the West had at least been constrained to acknowledge that
a college for the training of diplomats was as necessary as law schools
are for the training of barristers. Consequently we were no longer represented
abroad by incompetent patriots. The nation was prosperous. Chicago, for
a moment paralyzed after a second great fire, had risen from it ruins,
white and imperial, and more beautiful than the white city which had been
built for its plaything in 1893. Everywhere good architecture was replacing
bad and even in New York, a sudden craving for decency had swept away a
great portion of the existing horrors. Streets had been widened, properly
paved and lighted, trees had been planted, squares laid out, elevated structures
and underground roads built to replace them. The new government buildings
and barracks were fine bits of architecture, and the long system of stone
quays which completely surrounded the island had been turned into parks
which proved a godsend to the population. The subsidizing of the state
theatre and state opera brought its own reward. The United States National
Academy of Design was much like European institutions of the same kind.
Nobody envied the Secretary of Fine Arts, either his cabinet position or
his portfolio. The Secretary of Forestry and Game Preservation had a much
easier time, thanks to the new system of National Mounted Police. We had
profited well by the latest treaties with France and England; the exclusion
of foreign born Jews as a measure of nation self-preservation, the settlement
of the new independent negro state of Suanee, the checking of immigration,
the new laws concerning naturalization, and the gradual centralization
of power in the executive all contributed to national calm and prosperity.
When the Government solved the Indian problem and squadrons of Indian cavalry
scouts in native costume were substituted for the pitiable organizations
tacked on to the tail of skeletonized regiments by a former Secretary of
War, the nation drew a long sigh of relief. When, after the colossal Congress
of Religions, bigotry and intolerance were laid in their graves and kindness
and charity began to draw warring sects together, many thought the millennium
had arrived, at least in the new world, which after all is a world by itself.
But self-preservation is the first
law, and the United States had to look on in helpless sorrow as Germany,
Italy, Spain and Belgium writhed in the throes of Anarchy, while Russia,
watching from the Caucasus, stooped and bound them one by one.
In the city of New York the summer
of 1899 was signalized by the dismantling of the Elevated Railroads. The
summer of 1900 will live in the memories of New York people for many a
cycle; the Dodge Statue was removed in that year. In the following winter
began that agitation for the repeal of the laws prohibiting suicide which
bore its final fruit in the month of April, 1920, when the first Government
Lethal Chamber was opened on Washington Square.
I had walked down that day from
Dr. Archer's house on Madison Avenue, where I had been as a mere formality.
Ever since that fall from my horse, four years before, I had been troubled
at times with pains in the back of my head and neck, but now for months
they had been absent, and the doctor sent me away that day saying there
was nothing more to be cured in me. It was hardly worth his fee to be told
that; I knew it myself. Still I did not grudge him the money. What I minded
was the mistake which he made at first. When they picked me up from the
pavement where I lay unconscious, and somebody had mercifully sent a bullet
through my horse's head, I was carried to Doctor Archer, and he, pronouncing
my brain affected, placed me in his private asylum where I was obliged
to endure treatment for insanity. At last he decided that I was well, and
I, knowing that my mind had always been as sound as his, if not sounder,
"paid my tuition" as he jokingly called it, and left. I told him, smiling,
that I would get even with him for his mistake, and he laughed heartily,
and asked me to call once in a while. I did so, hoping for a chance to
even up accounts, but he gave me none, and I told him I would wait.
The fall from my horse had fortunately
left no evil results; on the contrary it had changed my whole character
for the better. From a lazy young man about town, I had become active,
energetic, temperate, and above alloh, above all elseambitious. There was
only one thing which troubled me, I laughed at my own uneasiness, and yet
it troubled me.
During my convalescence I had bought
and read for the first time, "The King in Yellow." I remember after finishing
the first act that it occurred to me that I had better stop. I started
up and flung the book into the fire-place; the volume struck the barred
grate and fell open on the hearth in the fire-light. If I had not caught
a glimpse of the opening words in the second act I should never have finished
it, but as I stooped to pick it up, my eyes became riveted to the open
page, and with a cry of terror, or perhaps it was of joy so poignant that
I suffered in every nerve, I snatched the thing out of the coals and crept
shaking to my bedroom, where I read it and reread it, and wept and laughed
and trembled with a horror which at times assails me yet. This is the thing
that troubles me, for I cannot forget Carcosa where black stars hand in
the heavens; where the shadows of men's thoughts lengthen in the afternoon,
where the twin suns sink into the Lake of Hali; and my mind will bear forever
the memory of the Pallid Mask. I pray God will curse the writer, as the
writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible
in its simplicity, irresistible in its trutha world which now trembles
before the King in Yellow. When the French Government seized the translated
copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager
to read it. It is well known how the book spread like infectious disease,
from city to city, from continent to continent, barred here, confiscated
there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced
of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those
wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could
not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged
that the supreme note of art had been struck in "The King in Yellow," all
felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in
which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence
of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful
It was, I remember, the 13th day
of April, 1920, that the first Government Lethal Chamber was established
on the south side of Washington Square, between Wooster Street and South
Fifth Avenue. The block which had formerly consisted of a lot of shabby
old buildings, used as cafés and restaurants for foreigners, had
been acquired by the Government in the winter to 1898. The French and Italian
cafés and restaurants were torn down; the whole block was enclosed
by a gilded iron railing, and converted into a lovely garden with lawns,
flowers and fountains. In the centre of the garden stood a small, white
building, severely classical in architecture, and surrounded by thickets
of flowers. Six Ionic columns supported the roof, and the single door was
of bronze. A splendid marble group of "The Fates" stood before the door,
the work of a young American sculptor, Boris Yvain, who had died in Paris
when only twenty-three years old.
The inauguration ceremonies were
in progress as I crossed University Place and entered the square. I threaded
my way through the silent throng of spectators, but was stopped at Fourth
Street by a cordon of police. A regiment of United States lancers were
drawn up in a hollow square around the Lethal Chamber. On a raised tribune
facing Washington Park stood the Governor of New York, and behind him were
grouped the Mayor of New York and Brooklyn, the Inspector-General of Police,
the Commandant of the state troops, Colonel Livingston, military aid to
the President of the United States, General Blount, commanding at Governor's
Island, Major-General Hamilton, commanding the garrison of New York and
Brooklyn, Admiral Buffby of the fleet in the North River, Surgeon General
Lanceford, the staff of the National Free Hospital, senators Wyse and Franklin
of New York, and the Commissioner of Public Works. The tribune was surrounded
by a squadron of hussars of the National Guard.
The Governor was finishing his reply
to the short speech of the Surgeon-General. I heard him say: "The laws
prohibiting suicide and providing punishment for any attempt at self-destruction
have been repealed. The Government has seen fit to acknowledge the right
of man to end an existence which may have become intolerable to him, through
physical suffering or mental despair. It is believed that the community
will be benefited by the removal of such people from their midst. Since
the passage of this law, the number of suicides in the United States has
not increased. Now that the Government has determined to establish a Lethal
Chamber in every city, town and village in the country, it remains to be
seen whether or not that class of human creatures from whose desponding
ranks new victims of self-destruction fall daily will accept the relief
thus provided." He paused, and turned to the white Lethal Chamber. The
silence in the street was absolute. "There a painless death awaits him
who can no longer bear the sorrows of this life. If death is welcome let
him seek it there." Then quickly turning to the military aid of the President's
household, he said, "I declare the Lethal Chamber open," and again facing
the vast crowd he cried in a clear voice: "Citizens of New York and of
the United States of America, through me the Government declares the Lethal
Chamber to be open."
The solemn hush was broken by a
sharp cry of command, the squadron of hussars filed after the Governor's
carriage, the lancers wheeled and formed along Fifth Avenue to wait for
the commandant of the garrison, and the mounted police followed them. I
left the crowd to gape and stare at the white marble Death Chamber, and,
crossing South Fifth Avenue, walked along the western side of that thoroughfare
to Bleecker Street. Then I turned to the right and stopped before a dingy
shop which bore the sign,
I glanced into the doorway and saw
Hawberk busy in his little shop at the end of the hall. He looked up at
the same moment, and catching sight of me cried in his deep, hearty voice,
"Come in, Mr. Castaigne!" Constance, his daughter, rose to meet me as I
crossed the threshold, and help out her pretty hand, but I saw the blush
of disappointment on her cheeks, and knew that it was another Castaigne
she had expected, my Cousin Louis. I smiled at her confusion and complimented
her on the banner which she was embroidering from a colored plate. Old
Hawberk sat riveting the worn greaves of some ancient suit of armor, and
the ting! ting! of his little hammer sounded pleasantly in the quaint shop.
Presently he dropped his hammer, and fussed about for a moment with a tiny
wrench. The soft clash of the mail sent a thrill of pleasure through me.
I loved to hear the music of steel brushing against steel, the mellow shock
of the mallet on thigh pieces, and the jungle of chain armor. That was
the only reason I went to see Hawberk. He had never interested me personally,
nor did Constance, except for the fact of her being in love with Louis.
This did occupy my attention, and sometimes even kept me awake at night.
But I knew in my heart that all would come right, and that I should arrange
their future as I expected to arrange that of my kind doctor, John Archer.
However, I should never have troubled myself about visiting them just then,
had it not been, as I say, that the music of the tinkling hammer had for
me this strong fascination. I would sit for hours, listening and listening,
and when a stray sunbeam struck the inlaid steel, the sensation it gave
me was almost too keen to endure. My eyes would become fixed, dilating
with a pleasure that stretched every nerve almost to breaking, until some
movement of the old armorer cut off the ray of sunlight, then, still thrilling
secretly, I leaned back and listened again to the sound of the polishing
rag, swish! swish! rubbing rust from the rivets.
Constance worked with the embroidery
over her knees, now and then pausing to examine more closely the pattern
in the colored plate from the Metropolitan Museum.
"Who is this for?" I asked.
Hawberk explained, that in addition
to the treasures of armor in the Metropolitan Museum of which he had been
appointed armorer, he also had charge of several collections belonging
to rich amateurs. This was the missing greave of a famous suit which a
client of his had traced to a little shop in Paris on the Quai d'Orsay.
He, Hawberk, had negotiated for and secured the greave, and now the suit
was complete. He laid down his hammer and read me the history of the suit,
traced since 1450 from owner to owner until it was acquired by Thomas Stainbridge.
When his superb collection was sold, this client of Hawberk's bought the
suit, and since then the search for the missing greave had been pushed
until it was, almost by accident, located in Paris.
"Did you continue the search so
persistently without any certainty of the greave being still in existence?"
"Of course," he replied coolly.
Then for the first time I took a
personal interest in Hawberk.
"It was worth something to you,"
"No," he replied, laughing, "my
pleasure in finding it was my reward."
"Have you no ambition to be rich?"
I asked smiling.
"My one ambition is to be the best
armorer in the world," he answered gravely.
Constance asked me if I had seen
the ceremonies at the Lethal Chamber. She herself had noticed cavalry passing
up Broadway that morning, and had wished to see the inauguration, but her
father wanted the banner finished, and she had stayed at his request.
"Did you see your cousin, Mr. Castaigne,
there?" she asked, with the slightest tremor of her soft eyelashes.
"No," I replied carelessly. "Louis'
regiment is manoeuvreing out in Westchester County." I rose and picked
up my hat and cane.
"Are you going upstairs to see the
lunatic again?" laughed old Hawberk. If Hawberk knew how I loathe that
word "lunatic," he would never use it in my presence. It roused certain
feelings within me which I do not care to explain. However, I answered
"I think I shall drop in and see
Mr. Wilde for a moment or two."
"Poor fellow," said Constance, with
a shake of her head, "it must be hard to live alone year after year, poor,
crippled and almost demented. It is very good of you, Mr. Castaigne, to
visit him as often as you do."
"I think he is vicious," observed
Hawberk, beginning again with his hammer. I listened to the golden tinkle
on the greave plates; when he had finished I replied:
"No, he is not vicious, nor is he
in the least demented. His mind is a wonder chamber, from which he can
extract treasures that you and I would give years of our lives to acquire."
I continued a little impatiently:
"He knows history as not one else could know it. Nothing, however trivial,
escapes his search, and his memory is so absolute, so precise in details,
that were it known in New York that such a man existed, the people could
not honor him enough."
"Nonsense," muttered Hawberk, searching
on the floor for a fallen rivet.
"Is it nonsense," I asked, managing
to suppress what I felt, "is it nonsense when he says that the tassets
and cuissards of the enamelled suit of armor commonly known as the 'Prince's
Emblazoned' can be found among the mass of rusty theatrical properties,
broken stoves and ragpicker's refuse in a garret in Pell Street?"
Hawberk's hammer fell to the ground,
but he picked it up and asked, with a great deal of calm, how I knew that
the tassets and left cuissard were missing from the "Prince's Emblazoned."
"I did not know until Mr. Wilde
mentioned it to me the other day. He said they were in the garret of 998
"Nonsense," he cried, but I noticed
his hand trembling under his leathern apron.
"Is this nonsense too?" I asked
pleasantly, "is it nonsense when Mr. Wilde continually speaks of you as
the Marquis of Avonshire and of Miss Constance"
I did not finish, for Constance
had started to her feet with terror written on every feature. Hawberk looked
at me and slowly smoothed his leathern apron. "That is impossible," he
observed, "Mr. Wilde may know a great many things"
"About armor, for instance, and
the 'Prince's Emblazoned,'" I interposed, smiling.
"Yes," he continued, slowly, "about
armor alsomay bebut he is wrong in regard to the Marquis of Avonshire,
who, as you know, killed his wife's traducer years ago, and went to Australia
where he did not survive his wife."
"Mr. Wilde is wrong," murmured Constance.
Her lips were blanched but her voice was sweet and calm.
"Let us agree, if you please, that
in this one circumstance Mr. Wilde is wrong," I said.
End of PART ONE..... GO TO PART