THE PALACE OF POVERTY Edit
By L. H. Bickford Edit
Published in Short Stories 1892
This powerful and imaginative sketch, with its curious suggestion of a commercial use for hypnotism, and sombre illustrations of the never-dying thirst for gold, is the winner of prize No. 5 offered by Short Stories.
Gray and ragged, with its sun-browned snowbanks fast tinting to purple under the August glare, there stood a mountain.
It was a king of mountains, silent and sombre. The lesser peaks, with abrupt, sharp points, surrounded it like a bayoneted army, and from these mountain-princes sloped the plateaus and foothills, emerging finally into valleys.
On the gray peak was a goblin — faded, small, fantastic, yellow, and wicked. The pines rattled with anger when he leaped among their branches and threw down the cones. The rocks slid away defiantly from beneath his tiny feet when he scrambled over them. Only the west wind, carrying its salt breezes from the Pacific, lingered to hear him chatter, and bear his idle words on toward the east.
And one day, when the west wind rested on the gray peak, the goblin whispered one word. Itwas, "Gold."
"Gold," laughed the west wind as it turned to fly, "gold, gold, gold,"
The prince-peaks heard it, and muttered it within themselves.
The pine-trees swayed to the music of the words. The valley grasses rustled it in their dry language.
On went the west wind, into the east, pausing a moment on the village church or on the banking-houses of the city.
"Gold," it said.
Into the hot tenements it flew, brushing the faces of the men who lay, exhausted from work, gasping in their sleep.
"Gold," it whispered. And they turned and smiled.
"Gold," it breathed to the night prowler. His eyes glittered.
"Gold," it shrieked to the miser. He laughed.
And it hurried on.
When the days had passed, there came toward the gray peak from over the dry plains, irregular lines, toilingly, slowly, tediously, hundreds of men.
When they saw the mountains, their faces grew round with anticipation.
Thousands of men; how they hurried and fought!
Finally they scattered up the foothills and plateaus; then to the prince-peaks; then to the king. And those who touched the gray rocks were of men no more. " Why did they come ? " asked a crag eagle.
The yellow goblin chuckled.
"Gold," he said.
It was a wild thorn-grown portion of a forest in the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains. The timber here shows the marks of time. It is old and brown, and coming out of its second life. The young trees are awed in its presence, and do not grow. They hope, some day, it may die out entirely, and leave nothing but the skeletons to creak and rock with the snow wind. Then they, the young shoots, will thrive, and be of the proud race of trees that preceded them, and smiled with the summer and shrieked with the winter; but now they respect the old age; it cannot be for long ; they are content to wait.
We see here, late in the afternoon of an October day, a young man who has lost his way. His journey has been long. The cactus, which through the valleys pushes its green-wart up from the dry, red-dusted earth, concealing beneath its silk wealth of blossoms the thort^ that sting, has left its prickly stems upon even the rough leather of his topboots. The brittle pines liave scarred his smooth, healthy face. His coat of corduroy has jagged pieces absent, left on the out-crop rocks through which he scrambled. His hemlock stock, notched with the victories of mountain climbing, is dusty-white.
Through the stunted berry-bushes and damp, tall weeds he at last pushed his way into a clearing. A spring of water, up-shining through which was the chalcopyrite from the bottom, greeted him with its soft bubbling. A patch of sunlight silvered a little field of cactus and sunflowers and wilted bluebells.
The young man sank down to rest in the forest Eden. Leaning over the spring he fashioned with his hands a cup, dipped them into the mineral-charged water, and drank a satisfying draught. Uplifting his eyes he looked into other eyes — small, greenish ones, the pupils of which dilated and contracted, and seemed to dance and change like kaleidoscopic glass.
The eyes of a snake.
Strangely, too, eyes with a weird touch of pleading, as though they were human. j " Mio Dios — he will strike. "
So thought the young man, and much more. One has a vast number of thoughts in times like this. Of what does the murderer think when the French have bound him to the guillotine ? Of what thinks the Mexican when led to be shot ? What the criminal when the Americans have tied him to the fatal chair or placed him upon the gallows ?
The past ? The future ? That eventful past. That future which may be so little or become so great. He thinks of both — of everything.
But at last the young man considered. It is pitiful to die. He quickly averted his eyes and sprang erect, seizing his stock.
The snake did not move.
He raised the stick to strike, and looked into the eyes again; they seemed to tell him something. It was: Do not kill; you see I am helpless; I am not here to harm.
He glanced along the body of the reptile, a body mottled with black and yellow that shimmered where the sun lighted it. Across the bulging neck a heavy load of stone, dislodged from a boulder near the spring, had fallen. It was one of the oddities of nature, perhaps, ^at this should occur in so freakish a way. The snake had struggled to free itself. It had attempted to turn. There was no escape. ' From out the cruel mouth the needle-tongue came quickly, and as quickly retreated.
So, for the time, the young man remained inactive.
"The body is unsightly; the head would seem wicked; the tongue inspires me with terror; but — the eyes, Mio Dios — ah, those eyes. They are human."
The priest with the black robe and the holy face ; he of the quaint chapel of mud at Chihuahua, once — so long ago now — what had he said ?
"Help thou the weak; help thou those who are in need and distress. In all thy ways, my son, keep thou this advice. "
But a reptile ?
Yet, why not ?
He pushed his stock under the heavy gray prison bar and sent it clumsily rolling sideways, down the mound.
For an instant the snake did not move; then it slowly, as with pain, raised its ugly head and looked at its rescuer. With a swift, wriggling motion, it ran around the spring and to an opening in the bushes, when it paused and turned to look back. The young man watched it, his staff once more raised to strike. The snake, turning, crawled to the watcher, lifted its head, and again returned to the bush opening.
"Follow," it seemed to urge.
The man stepped forward. The snake crept on like a live ribbon, raising its head at intervals to turn toward the rescuer, who followed now with an irresistible confidence in the leader.
"It will show me the road," thought the traveller. "At last I shall be out of the forest."
The path now was well defined, and with it the reptile was evidently familiar. There were curious turnings everywhere. Perhaps a half-hour passed ere the snake stopped. When it did so, the young man noticed that he was standing on a gray-rocked knoll. Below him were the woods, and, beyond, the sage-covered valley. Above, and on a flat-top hill of prominence, stretched a wide, narrow building. From its interior came the sounds of buzzing wheels and beltings, the clanging of bells, the steady swish of iron ropes. Outside, in narrow bins, brown-clothed men threw great lumps of crumbling, damp earth from one pile to another. Others, pushing wheelbarrows, or small cars, tramped out and in, traversing narrow planking and miniature tracks.
"A mine!" exclaimed the young man. "Then there are cabins near. Here I may rest until to-morrow."
By this time the snake had started to climb the hill, but waited, after a short distance, for the traveller to follow. Perceiving this, and with some surprise, for he had supposed the snake, having led him to a proper shelter or path from the woods, would immediately desert him ; the young man quickly stepped forward and was soon ascending a beaten but crooked path.
Half the distance covered, he suddenly stopped. He was conscious of a terrible weakness throughout his body. It was a result of horror. The sides of the pathway were lined with skeletons — the skeletons of human beings.
Wherever he would look, came from all sides the ghastly, absent-eyed shapes of heads — heads without flesh. There were fields of them. They covered the hillside as far as he could see.
And above hummed the machinery.
The snake crawled back to him and raised its bruised head. Again the little eyes sought his in their half-human way, and still seemed to insist that he continue. After a while, partly freeing himself from the ghastly spell, he slowly walked ahead ; closing his eyes at intervals to shut out the field of white death along the pathway.
They had reached the mine, and were in the midst of the human hive with its busy life. The great belts rolled and swished. The bells jarred out in the late afternoon quiet. Men were here — everywhere. They moved steadily and like puppets that had been wound up. They did not speak. They did not laugh. They simply moved.
Ah, Holy Mother, what faces!
Drawn and yellow with toil; lines and wrinkles everywhere. Parchment flesh clinging to the bones of the cheeks, and scant hair outgrowing from under the miners' caps.
No soul. Only a dull look, as though the brain had ceased to work, while yet the body persisted in its labor.
The young man thought of the white field.
" From here — to there, " he said ; " but from where to here ? "
He paused to note these mechanical beings at their work. Men they appeared in stature and in flesh. He spoke to one or two ; there was no answer — no evidence that he had heard. His horror slowly overcome, curiosity arose. He plucked a man by the sleeve ; there was no response. He seized the flesh of the arm and quickly pressed it with his hands; it yielded, firm and naturally, as flesh will, but the person thus approached did not even turn to look at him who had made so bold. He seemed not to experience the touch. Again the snake crawled to the traveller's feet and raised its head ; then it disappeared through an open door leading into a room at an end of the big building. The young man quickly followed. A door closed suddenly behind him, and he stood wjthin a dim apartment, as dark and luxurious in arrangements as some old Mexican castle. He seemed to have stepped into the gorgeous chamber of a grandee of those old Spanish days — the days of peace, before Cerro Gordo and the cold butcheries of the North. Before him, seated at an ancient table, he saw an old man; odd in dress, a dark, thick robe hanging from the small shoulders — shrewd of eye, nervous in action, and wrinkled with age. Around his neck the cobra had curled itself and caressed his cheeks with its mottled head.
“Seiior is welcome,'' said the old man, and he addressed the newcomer in pure, soft Spanish. " And again welcome because you are of my own country. Is it not so^Mexico ? "
"Si, serior; from Morelos."
" Ah — the sugar plantations. It is long since I have seen them."
He asked, with an eagerness every intelligent Mexican possesses who has been absent from his country long, of affairs of the people, of politics, finances, and of the industries. It was not long ere he was enjoying delightful companionship with his young guest, over an admirable cup of the blackest of coffee. And how fascinating was this old man! You have seen those from whom you shrank on first meeting, only to admire and become vastly interested after you knew them — after the ice was broken, as the North Americans say.
Such a one was he.
And, in addition, mystifying. There is always a charm in mystery.
" You have done me a great service, " he said, when the coffee had been finished ; he patted the head of the cobra in an affectionate way as he spoke, and the reptile ran its forked tongue in and out, with a lazy delight. “ It was, I judge, a service that required a little courage on your part."
"I will acknowledge that I hesitated," replied the young man; "but humanity came to the rescue, even of a snake."
" You have saved to me my best friend — my only companion."
" Your only companion — surely, seflor "
" Ah, you refer to those — those outside. " For a moment he seemed to hesitate, as though weighing in his mind some problem. "Yet why not ?" he muttered; "to him — a countryman, and one, too, who has done me so great a favor. Those men, seftor, are not ray companions; they are my slaves. They dig for my silver and gold. Some day, when they have dug enough, I shall set them free and go away."
" Slaves, sefior, in the United States ? The government "
"Does not permit it ? Ah, que. Look, at their factories and their mills; are they not filled with slaves? Down in their mines ? Slaves. On their railways, in their printingoffices ? Slaves, slaves, slaves."
" But they receive "
" Money ? A little, perhaps. No pleasures with it. Nothing but added toil. I pay no money, yet my slaves are always happy — even at their work — for they know not that it is work. It is a pleasure."
The young man thought of the yellow faces, the gaunt forms, the dull eyes, and the mechanical movement of arms and legs.
"Pleasure," he murmured, with a shiver; "strange pleasure.
These North Americans," continued the old man, "they write of the labor problem; they tell of a Utopia; they clamor for the betterment of their toiling classes. I have solved it all."
“ Seftor will pardon me — I cannot believe it. Your slaves — are they men ? “
" Decidedly. As much as you are a man. Three hundred of flesh and blood and bone and muscle — and they are mine. Here you see no strikes, no threats, no labor meetings, no holidays, no nights; nothing but work. True, some of them will die; that cannot be provided against; I wish it could, for am I not myself aging ? But as for the labor — they call it a * problem, ' do they not, those North Americans ? I have solved it by science."
“ It is, then, a science that mystifies, seftor. “
" Mystifies you, perhaps. See."
He flung open the door. Through the roomy shaft-house tramped these beings with their barrows, sacks, and tools; a clock could not have been better regulated. " You observe they do not stop to gossip nor to rest. It is so with them at all times — night and day. I have a market; they supply it. The revenues are mine, not theirs, and yet they are happy." And he closed the door to his bee-hive.
" Seftor, your discourse is still mysterious."
" Your pardon. I will endeavor to come to the point of my story. I see that you believe these people are all suffering; this is not true. They are enjoying life at its best — a life of the imagination ; a life created for them. They take no note of time, but live, each one alone, in the pleasures they believe they are enjoying. An instance: One near the door, who passed with the wheelbarrow. Night and day, like a toy wound up, he walks backward and forward at his work ; there is no exhaustion ; he believes each barrowful of earth to be so much coined gold, which he hauls away to store. Some day, he thinks, he will use it. But is it not a greater pleasure to add to his wealth constantly, since it causes no fatigue and affords him such delight ? "
And so it is with all — the men who dig fancy they see great slabs of gold fall down beside them — their gold. Those who hoist the buckets, those who turn the wheels, those who sort and crush the ore — all fondle and caress what they believe to be precious; and thus they supply my market."
The young man arose from the table. His eyes were wide with horror. For a moment he could not speak.
" I understand you now, seftor," he said after a time. " It is " " Hypnotism ? " The old man laughed. “ Some would call it that. There is such a power, I am aware ; but as you understand it, it amounts to nothing. Yet, if you choose, you may call it that. My term is science, but it is a science I cannot explain to you. These people obey me. I say: * You may become rich ; go and mine gold, ' and so they do. I say, 'You have eaten,' or, *You have slept,* and they continue refreshed."
“ Surely, sefior, you do not deny them food and rest ? It would be preposterous not to; with nothing to feed their muscles and tissues, their lives would be worthless, even as slaves. "
"There is no necessity for sleep. If they believe they have slept, it is enough. As for food, I do not wholly deny it. They are afforded a feast each week. I work through their brains, and it is only necessary that proper material for brain should be furnished. A man*s physical suffering, unless he be injured, is wholly the result of imagination. Disease is cultivated for the most part. My people know nothing of disease. I do not permit them to. "
" But how, sefior, did these unfortunate beings become so situated — how do you exercise your power ? "
The old man's face darkened. " That, sefior, is my secret. I have explained all I choose to explain. In one of my apartments is a comfortable bed. Let me conduct you there, and you may rest until morning. I will then direct you toward the road to the valley."
The young man, eager to question, but fearing to overstep the bounds of a peculiar hospitality, followed his host slowly to the bedroom.
Waiting until the old man had closed the door, he threw himself on the bed, intending to rest a short time and then, secretly, endeavor to force his way out to the mine to find
What, after all, should he find ?
He thought of the half-explained problems presented by his mysterious host; of the toilers, working themselves down to death amid fantastic, hollow dreams of wealth, happiness, and health. He thought of the huge hill of skeletons, and imagined them glittering and shining in the whited moonlight.
And, so thinking and wondering, he drifted, unwillingly, \x^ -^ep sleep.
A sharp pain in the forehead. The young man stood once more beside the forest spring. At his feet a ball of green, yellow, and purple unwound itself and sped through the bushes.
It was the cobra.
The young man passed his hands over his eyes.
" Something has happened — something — perhaps I dreamed ; no, I have seen and heard something strange. But what ? "
He never remembered.