A Rocket of Iron.
It was one of those misty October nightfalls of the north, when the white fog creeps up from the river and winds itself like a corpse sheet around the black, ant-like mass of human insignificance, a cold menace from Nature to Man, till the foreboding of that irresistible fatality which will one day lay us all beneath the Ice Death sits upon your breast and stifles you, till you start up desperately crying
let me out, let me out!
For an hour I had been staring thru the window at that chill steam, thickening and blurring out the lines that zigzagged thru it indefinitely, pale drunken images of facts staggering against the invulnerable vapor that walled me in,—a sublimated grave marble! Were they all ghosts, those figures wandering across the white night, hardly distinguishable from the posts and pickets that wove in and out like half-dismembered bodies writhing in pain? My own fingers were curiously numb and inert; had I, too, become a shadow?
It grew unbearable at last, the pressure of the foreboding at my heart, the sense of that on-creeping of Universal Death. I ran out of doors, impelled by the vague impulse to assert my own being, to seek relief in struggle, even tho foredoomed futile,—to seek warmth, fellowship, somewhere, tho but with those ineffective pallors in the mist, that dissolved even while I looked at them.
Once in the street I ran on indifferently, glad to be jostled, glad of the snarling of dogs and the curses of laborers calling to one another. The penumbra of the mist, that menacing dim foreshadow, had not chilled these, then! On, on, thru the alleys where human flesh was close, and when one listened one could hear breathings and many feet,—drifting at last into the current that swept thru the main channel of the city, and presently, wirled round in an eddy, I found myself staring thru the open door of the great Iron Works. Perhaps it was the sensation of warmth that held me there first, some feeling of exhilaration and wakening defiance in the flash and swirl of the yellow [fl]ames,—this, mixed with an indistinct desire [to c]lutch at something, anything, that [???]ed stationary in the midst of all this [????] slipped and wavered and fell away. [???] I remember now: there was something [???]ore that; there was a sound,—a sound [??]at had stopped my feet in their going, and smote me with a long shudder,—a sound of hammers, beating, beating, beating a terrific hail, momentarily faster and louder, and in between a panting as of some great monster catching breath beneath the driving of that iron rain. Faster, faster,—clang! A long reverberant shriek! The giant had rolled and shivered in his pain. Involuntarily I was drawn into the Valley of Sound, words muttering themselves thru my lips as I passed:
Forging, forging, what are they forging there? Frankenstein makes his monster. How the iron screams! But I heard it no more now. I only saw!—saw the curling yellow flames, and the red, red iron that panted, and the masters of the hammers. How they moved there, like demons in the abyss,—their bodies swinging, their eyes tense and aglitter, their faces covered with the gloom of the torture chamber!
Only one face I saw, young and fair,—[[|]]young and very fair—whereon the gloom seemed not to settle; the skin of it was white and shining there in the midst of that black haze; over the wide forehead fell tumbling waves of thick brown hair, and two great dark eyes looked steadily into the red iron as if they saw therein something I could not see; only now and then they were lifted, and looked away upward, as if beyond the smoke-pall they beheld a vision. Once he turned so that the rose light cast forth his profile as a silhouette; and I shivered, it was so fine and hard! Hard with the hardness of beaten iron, and fine with the fineness of a keen chisel. Had the hammers been falling on that fair young face?
A comrade called, a sudden terrified cry. There was a wild rush, a mad stampede of feet, a horrible screech of hissing metal, and a rocket of iron shot upward toward the black roof, bursting and falling in a burning shower. Three figures lay writhing along the floor among the leaping, demoniac sparks.
The first to lift them was the Man with the white face. He had stood still in the storm, and ran forward when the others shrank back. Now he passed by me bearing his dying burden, and I saw no quiver upon brow or chin; only, when he laid it in the ambulance, I fancied I saw upon the delicate curved lips a line of purpose deepen, and the reflection of the iron-fire glow in the strange eyes, as if for one instant the door of a hidden furnace had been opened and smoldering coals had breathed the air. And even then he looked up!
It was all over in half an hour. There would be weeping in three little homes; and one was dead, and one would die, and one would crawl, a seared human stump, till the end of his weary days. The crowd that had gathered was gone; they would not know the stump when it begged from them with its maimed hands six months after, on the street corners.
The rocket of iron is already cold; dull, inert, fireless, the black fragments lie upon the floor whereon they lately rained their red revenge. Do with them what you will, you cannot undo their work. The men are clearing way. Only he with the white face does not go back to his place. Still set and silent he takes his coat,
I had forgotten! Upon that face, that young, fair face, so smooth and fine that even the black smoke would not rest upon it, there bloomed the roses of Early Death. Hot-house flowers!