The Purple Cloud - M.P. Shiel - ebook

The Purple Cloud ebook

M. P. Shiel



The Purple Cloud”, „The Lord of the Sea” (both 1901), and „The Last Miracle” (1906) is a trilogy of science fiction; and at least the first two are considered early masterpieces in the genre. „The Purple Cloud” is widely hailed as a masterpiece of science fiction and one of the best „last man” novels ever written. A deadly purple vapor passes over the world and annihilates all living creatures except one man, Adam Jeffson. Adam adventures to the North Pole; on returning he realizes the entire population of the world has been destroyed by a cloud of cyanogen; he tours with world as master of all he sees, reveling and destroying as he will.

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WELL, the memory seems to be getting rather impaired now, rather weak. What, for instance, was the name of that parson who preached, just before the Boreal set out, about the wickedness of any further attempt to reach the North Pole? I have forgotten! Yet four years ago it was familiar to me as my own name.

Things which took place before the voyage seem to be getting a little cloudy in the memory now. I have sat here, in the loggia of this Cornish villa, to write down some sort of account of what has happened–God knows why, since no eye can ever read it–and at the very beginning I cannot remember the parson’s name.

He was a strange sort of man surely, a Scotchman from Ayrshire, big and gaunt, with tawny hair. He used to go about London streets in shough and rough-spun clothes, a plaid flung from one shoulder. Once I saw him in Holborn with his rather wild stalk, frowning and muttering to himself. He had no sooner come to London, and opened chapel (I think in Fetter Lane), than the little room began to be crowded; and when, some years afterwards, he moved to a big establishment in Kensington, all sorts of men, even from America and Australia, flocked to hear the thunderstorms that he talked, though certainly it was not an age apt to fly into enthusiasms over that species of pulpit prophets and prophecies. But this particular man undoubtedly did wake the strong dark feelings that sleep in the heart; his eyes were very singular and powerful; his voice from a whisper ran gathering, like snow-balls, and crashed, as I have heard the pack-ice in commotion far yonder in the North; while his gestures were as uncouth and gawky as some wild man’s of the primitive ages.

Well, this man–what was his name?–Macintosh? Mackay? I think–yes, that was it! Mackay. Mackay saw fit to take offence at the new attempt to reach the Pole in the Boreal; and for three Sundays, when the preparations were nearing completion, stormed against it at Kensington.

The excitement of the world with regard to the North Pole had at this date reached a pitch which can only be described as fevered, though that word hardly expresses the strange ecstasy and unrest which prevailed: for the abstract interest which mankind, in mere desire for knowledge, had always felt in this unknown region, was now, suddenly, a thousand and a thousand times intensified by a new, concrete interest–a tremendous money interest.

And the new zeal had ceased to be healthy in its tone as the old zeal was: for now the fierce demon Mammon was making his voice heard in this matter.

Within the ten years preceding the Boreal expedition, no less than twenty-seven expeditions had set out, and failed.

The secret of this new rage lay in the last will and testament of Mr. Charles P. Stickney of Chicago, that king of faddists, supposed to be the richest individual who ever lived: he, just ten years before the Boreal undertaking, had died, bequeathing 175 million dollars to the man, of whatever nationality, who first reached the Pole.

Such was the actual wording of the will–‘the man who first reached’: and from this loose method of designating the person intended had immediately burst forth a prolonged heat of controversy in Europe and America as to whether or no the testator meant the Chief of the first expedition which reached: but it was finally decided, on the highest legal authority, that, in any case, the actual wording of the document held good: and that it was the individual, whatever his station in the expedition, whose foot first reached the 90th degree of north latitude, who would have title to the fortune.

At all events, the public ferment had risen, as I say, to a pitch of positive fever; and as to the Boreal in particular, the daily progress of her preparations was minutely discussed in the newspapers, everyone was an authority on her fitting, and she was in every mouth a bet, a hope, a jest, or a sneer: for now, at last, it was felt that success was probable. So this Mackay had an acutely interested audience, if a somewhat startled, and a somewhat cynical, one.

A truly lion-hearted man this must have been, after all, to dare proclaim a point-of-view so at variance with the spirit of his age! One against four hundred millions, they bent one way, he the opposite, saying that they were wrong, all wrong! People used to call him ‘John the Baptist Redivivus’: and without doubt he did suggest something of that sort. I suppose that at the time when he had the face to denounce the Boreal there was not a sovereign on any throne in Europe who, but for shame, would have been glad of a subordinate post on board.

On the third Sunday night of his denunciation I was there in that Kensington chapel, and I heard him. And the wild talk he talked! He seemed like a man delirious with inspiration.

The people sat quite spell-bound, while Mackay’s prophesying voice ranged up and down through all the modulations of thunder, from the hurrying mutter to the reverberant shock and climax: and those who came to scoff remained to wonder.

Put simply, what he said was this: That there was undoubtedly some sort of Fate, or Doom, connected with the Poles of the earth in reference to the human race: that man’s continued failure, in spite of continual efforts, to reach them, abundantly and super-abundantly proved this; and that this failure constituted a lesson–and a warning–which the race disregarded at its peril.

The North Pole, he said, was not so very far away, and the difficulties in the way of reaching it were not, on the face of them, so very great: human ingenuity had achieved a thousand things a thousand times more difficult; yet in spite of over half-a-dozen well-planned efforts in the nineteenth century, and thirty-one in the twentieth, man had never reached: always he had been baulked, baulked, by some seeming chance–some restraining Hand: and herein lay the lesson–herein the warning. Wonderfully–really wonderfully–like the Tree of Knowledge in Eden, he said, was that Pole: all the rest of earth lying open and offered to man–but That persistently veiled and ‘forbidden.’ It was as when a father lays a hand upon his son, with: ‘Not here, my child; wheresoever you will–but not here.’

But human beings, he said, were free agents, with power to stop their ears, and turn a callous consciousness to the whispers and warning indications of Heaven; and he believed, he said, that the time was now come when man would find it absolutely in his power to stand on that 90th of latitude, and plant an impious right foot on the head of the earth–just as it had been given into the absolute power of Adam to stretch an impious right hand, and pluck of the Fruit of Knowledge; but, said he–his voice pealing now into one long proclamation of awful augury–just as the abuse of that power had been followed in the one case by catastrophe swift and universal, so, in the other, he warned the entire race to look out thenceforth for nothing from God but a lowering sky, and thundery weather.

The man’s frantic earnestness, authoritative voice, and savage gestures, could not but have their effect upon all; as for me, I declare, I sat as though a messenger from Heaven addressed me. But I believe that I had not yet reached home, when the whole impression of the discourse had passed from me like water from a duck’s back. The Prophet in the twentieth century was not a success. John Baptist himself, camel-skin and all, would, have met with only tolerant shrugs. I dismissed Mackay from my mind with the thought: ‘He is behind his age, I suppose.’

But haven’t I thought differently of Mackay since, my God...?

Three weeks–it was about that–before that Sunday night discourse, I was visited by Clark, the chief of the coming expedition–a mere visit of friendship. I had then been established about a year at No. II, Harley Street, and, though under twenty-five, had, I suppose, as élite a practice as any doctor in Europe.

Élite–but small. I was able to maintain my state, and move among the great: but now and again I would feel the secret pinch of moneylessness. Just about that time, in fact, I was only saved from considerable embarrassment by the success of my book, ‘Applications of Science to the Arts.’

In the course of conversation that afternoon, Clark said to me in his light hap-hazard way:

‘Do you know what I dreamed about you last night, Adam Jeffson? I dreamed that you were with us on the expedition.’

I think he must have seen my start: on the same night I had myself dreamed the same thing; but not a word said I about it now. There was a stammer in my tongue when I answered:

‘Who? I?–on the expedition?–I would not go, if I were asked.’

‘Oh, you would.’

‘I wouldn’t. You forget that I am about to be married.’

‘Well, we need not discuss the point, as Peters is not going to die,’ said he. ‘Still, if anything did happen to him, you know, it is you I should come straight to, Adam Jeffson.’

‘Clark, you jest,’ I said: ‘I know really very little of astronomy, or magnetic phenomena. Besides, I am about to be married...’

‘But what about your botany, my friend? There’s what we should be wanting from you: and as for nautical astronomy, poh, a man with your scientific habit would pick all that up in no time.’

‘You discuss the matter as gravely as though it were a possibility, Clark,’ I said, smiling. ‘Such a thought would never enter my head: there is, first of all, my fiancée––’

‘Ah, the all-important Countess, eh?–Well, but she, as far as I know the lady, would be the first to force you to go. The chance of stamping one’s foot on the North Pole does not occur to a man every day, my son.’

‘Do talk of something else!’ I said. ‘There is Peters...’

‘Well, of course, there is Peters. But believe me, the dream I had was so clear––’

‘Let me alone with your dreams, and your Poles!’ I laughed.

Yes, I remember: I pretended to laugh loud! But my secret heart knew, even then, that one of those crises was occurring in my life which, from my youth, has made it the most extraordinary which any creature of earth ever lived. And I knew that this was so, firstly, because of the two dreams, and secondly, because, when Clark was gone, and I was drawing on my gloves to go to see my fiancée, I heard distinctly the old two Voices talk within me: and One said: ‘Go not to see her now!’ and the Other: ‘Yes, go, go!’

The two Voices of my life! An ordinary person reading my words would undoubtedly imagine that I mean only two ordinary contradictory impulses–or else that I rave: for what modern man could comprehend how real-seeming were those voices, how loud, and how, ever and again, I heard them contend within me, with a nearness ‘nearer than breathing,’ as it says in the poem, and ‘closer than hands and feet.’

About the age of seven it happened first to me. I was playing one summer evening in a pine-wood of my father’s; half a mile away was a quarry-cliff; and as I played, it suddenly seemed as if someone said to me, inside of me: ‘Just take a walk toward the cliff’; and as if someone else said: ‘Don’t go that way at all’–mere whispers then, which gradually, as I grew up, seemed to swell into cries of wrathful contention! I did go toward the cliff: it was steep, thirty feet high, and I fell. Some weeks later, on recovering speech, I told my astonished mother that ‘someone had pushed me’ over the edge, and that someone else ‘had caught me’ at the bottom!

One night, soon after my eleventh birthday, lying in bed, the thought struck me that my life must be of great importance to some thing or things which I could not see; that two Powers, which hated each other, must be continually after me, one wishing for some reason to kill me, and the other for some reason to keep me alive, one wishing me to do so and so, and the other to do the opposite; that I was not a boy like other boys, but a creature separate, special, marked for–something. Already I had notions, touches of mood, passing instincts, as occult and primitive, I verily believe, as those of the first man that stepped; so that such Biblical expressions as ‘The Lord spake to So-and-so, saying’ have hardly ever suggested any question in my mind as to how the Voice was heard: I did not find it so very difficult to comprehend that originally man had more ears than two; nor should have been surprised to know that I, in these latter days, more or less resembled those primeval ones.

But not a creature, except perhaps my mother, has ever dreamed me what I here state that I was. I seemed the ordinary youth of my time, bow in my ‘Varsity eight, cramming for exams., dawdling in clubs. When I had to decide as to a profession, who could have suspected the conflict that transacted itself in my soul, while my brain was indifferent to the matter–that agony of strife with which the brawling voices shouted, the one: ‘Be a scientist–a doctor,’ and the other: ‘Be a lawyer, an engineer, an artist–be anything but a doctor!’

A doctor I became, and went to what had grown into the greatest of medical schools–Cambridge; and there it was that I came across a man, named Scotland, who had a rather odd view of the world. He had rooms, I remember, in the New Court at Trinity, and a set of us were generally there. He was always talking about certain ‘Black’ and ‘White Powers, till it became absurd, and the men used to call him ‘black-and-white-mystery-man,’ because, one day, when someone said something about ‘the black mystery of the universe,’ Scotland interrupted him with the words: ‘the black-and-white mystery.’

Quite well I remember Scotland now–the sweetest, gentle soul he was, with a passion for cats, and Sappho, and the Anthology, very short in stature, with a Roman nose, continually making the effort to keep his neck straight, and draw his paunch in. He used to say that the universe was being frantically contended for by two Powers: a White and a Black; that the White was the stronger, but did not find the conditions on our particular planet very favourable to his success; that he had got the best of it up to the Middle Ages in Europe, but since then had been slowly and stubbornly giving way before the Black; and that finally the Black would win–not everywhere perhaps, but here–and would carry off, if no other earth, at least this one, for his prize.

This was Scotland’s doctrine, which he never tired of repeating; and while others heard him with mere toleration, little could they divine with what agony of inward interest, I, cynically smiling there, drank in his words. Most profound, most profound, was the impression they made upon me.

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