"Ne raillons pas les fous; leur folie dure plus longtemps que la
nôtre… . Voila toute la différence."
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 Labour
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 well 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 last 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 its
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
demolished 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 god-send 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
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
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 Dr. 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 all—oh, above all else—ambitious. 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 fireplace; the volume struck the
barred grate and fell open on the hearth in the firelight. 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 hang in the heavens; where the shadows of men's thoughts
lengthen in the afternoon, when the twin suns sink into the lake of
Hali; and my mind will bear for ever 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 truth—a 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 an infectious disease, from city to city, from
continent to continent, barred out 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 of 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 round 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 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 in at the doorway and saw Hawberk busy in his little
shop at the end of the hall. He looked up, 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 held 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 she was embroidering
from a coloured plate. Old Hawberk sat riveting the worn greaves of
some ancient suit of armour, and the ting! 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
jingle of chain armour. 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 armourer 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 coloured
plate from the Metropolitan Museum.
"Who is this for?" I asked.
Hawberk explained, that in addition to the treasures of armour
in the Metropolitan Museum of which he had been appointed armourer,
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?" I demanded.
"Of course," he replied coolly.
Then for the first time I took a personal interest in
"It was worth something to you," I ventured.
"No," he replied, laughing, "my pleasure in finding it was my
"Have you no ambition to be rich?" I asked, smiling.
"My one ambition is to be the best armourer in the world," he
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 manoeuvring 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 rouses certain feelings within me
which I do not care to explain. However, I answered him quietly: "I
think I shall drop in and see Mr. Wilde for a moment or two."
"Poor fellow," said Constance, with a shake of the 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 life to acquire."'
I continued a little impatiently: "He knows history as no 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
honour him enough."
"Nonsense," muttered Hawberk, searching on the floor for a
"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 armour commonly known as the 'Prince's
Emblazoned' can be found among a mass of rusty theatrical
properties, broken stoves and ragpicker's refuse in a garret in
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 Pell Street."
"Nonsense," he cried, but I noticed his hand trembling under his
"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
"About armour, for instance, and the 'Prince's Emblazoned,'" I
"Yes," he continued, slowly, "about armour also—may be—but 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 long 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.