THE DOOMSMAN (9)

By: Van Tassel Sutphen
May 15, 2024

AI-assisted illustration by HILOBROW

Set ninety years after the cataclysmic pandemic of 1925, Van Tassel Sutphen’s The Doomsman imagines a Kamandi-like future in which medievalized American tribes struggle with the marauding Doomsmen for control of the ruins of New York City… where a mad priest worships a powerful technology. HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize this 1905–1906 proto-sf novel for HILOBROW’s readers.

ALL INSTALLMENTS: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30.

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IX

THE KEYS OF POWER

The sun was high in the sky when Constans awoke. For a moment or two the unfamiliar environment puzzled him; then the keen edge of remembrance sheared through the mists of sleep and he sprang to his feet, alert and ready for whatever might befall. He walked over to the window facing the north and looked out.

For miles and miles the ruined city stretched away, a wilderness of brick and mortar. Here and there were areas of blackness and vacancy, where fire had worked its will, but these latter were confined for the most part to the region along the water-front and to the poorer residential portions. The business section, with its substantial shops and warehouses, and the central district, made up of the clubs, churches, theatres, and the handsomer private houses, remained intact, in outward appearance at least. Viewed under the rays of a glorious midsummer sun, the city seemed fair and proud as of yore, a stupendous monument to the industry and genius of the race.

And yet, withal, the spectacle was a singularly mournful and depressing one, for nowhere were there any signs of life. Not a plume of vapor waved against the azure sky, not even a dog ranged the grass-grown streets. The silence reigned infinite and profound, and Constans started in alarm as it was suddenly broken by the scream of an eagle out of the blue. Here was the picture of a desolation incomparably more complete than that of the untrodden desert upon which the life-giving spirit has never breathed. For in this place there had existed a very citadel of being, and behold! a night had passed and it was not.

Suddenly Constans bethought himself of that indefinite twinkle of fire, and he trained his broken binoculars on the spot where he had marked it down the night before. The glass disclosed the existence of a comparatively open space, doubtless one of the public squares of the ancient city. It was bordered by a number of handsome edifices, and one unusually large, cream-colored building, whose distinctive architectural feature was a tower of remarkably graceful proportions, attracted Constans’s attention; it should serve him for a landmark, and he took its bearings carefully.

Breakfast of brown bread and cold smoked beef was a simple and expeditious meal, and, with his appetite appeased, Constans descended to the street. He had his general direction in mind, and so was able to proceed at once upon his journey of exploration, keeping as closely as possible due north. He found the sidewalks and roadway encumbered by rubbish, and here and there almost entirely blocked by fallen masonry; but in spite of these obstructions he managed to maintain a fair average pace. Indeed, it was the strangeness of his surroundings rather than the material obstacles that caused his steps to loiter. The glimpses that he got through the windows of the deserted shops amazed him; a hundred times he would fain have halted to investigate some fresh marvel. But he withstood the temptation, telling himself that these things were but trifles, and that the real objects of his quest lay farther on.

An hour’s walk brought Constans to within three blocks of the building with the tower. He had purposely diverged from the direct line in approaching it, being shrewdly of the opinion that the stronghold of the Doomsmen was not far distant. He was convinced of the truth of this conjecture when he reached the next cross-street, which debouched into the public square already mentioned. He could see that the end of the street was filled by a barricade of paving-blocks and flag-stones torn up from the roadway; it looked as though the whole square were one vast and formidable fortress.

It was still early in the morning, and up to this time Constans had not seen sign of man. Now, as he continued his cautious examination of the barrier, he noticed two or three spirals of smoke rising behind the parapet and going straight up into the windless air. The hornets were stirring then, and it behooved him to keep well away from their nest.

After some consideration Constans decided that he would continue on towards the north, skirting this centre of danger at a safe distance until he should be some distance above it. He would then work cautiously back towards the citadel, finally seeking some elevated point, such as the roof of a tall building, from which to complete his observations.

After proceeding about a mile in an up-town direction, Constans turned and walked westward for a couple of blocks. It was a broad and handsome avenue on which he now found himself, and from the character of the buildings which lined it Constans concluded that here was where the wealth and fashion of the ancient world had had its chosen habitation. Once again he would gladly have lingered for a closer examination of the many things that interested him, but the spur of his purpose as often pricked him on. Yet finally he did stop, thrilling with the sense of a great discovery.

It was a large and architecturally impressive building that had attracted Constans’s attention, and a flash of intuition enabled him to pronounce upon its true character at first sight. He was now at the very heart of the city’s social and intellectual life; here, if anywhere, he might expect to find one of the magnificent libraries upon which the ancient municipality had prided itself. He must decide the question, and, after some further searching, he discovered a side door that yielded to his touch.

He was right, then; this was truly a library, and could he ever have imagined that there were so many books in the world! A cloud of dust rose under his feet as he went up to the cases and tried to read the tarnished titles of the volumes on the shelves. Again Chance led him aright, and his eye brightened as he discovered an unpretentious volume that proclaimed itself: The Official Visitors’ Guide to the City of New York for the Year 1905. He pulled out the book and opened it. Of course it contained what he wanted, a large folding map, and spreading the latter out upon a table Constans set himself to studying it earnestly; this was his enemy’s territory, and he must acquaint himself as thoroughly as possible with its points of weakness and its points of strength.

The task of identification proved easier than he had thought possible. Here was where he had landed the night before. Step by step he could trace his walk up-town, and the identity of the building in which he now stood was made certain by the ruins of the great white cathedral a few blocks farther north. And there, a dozen or more blocks to the south, there was the citadel, the living heart of the outlaw world, there was the stronghold in which one Quinton Edge sat secure and at his ease. A cold misgiving suddenly struck at Constans’s heart. How could he hope to make way alone against a host? How could he think to reach an enemy protected by these impregnable walls? For such a task he would need to wield the thunderbolts of the gods, and he had only his useless pistol and his long bow. He sighed and let his head droop for a moment, then felt ashamed of his weakness and straightened up again. The way was there; he would find it.

Mechanically, his eyes roved along the serried shelves of books, and a new light came into them. In these dusty tomes themselves were hidden the keys of power; he had but to seize them and the secrets of the mighty past would be revealed to him, to him alone. Armed with these potencies he might dare and accomplish anythingeverything.

Trembling with excitement, he went and stood before the cases, scanning the various titles. Again his lucky star guided him; on the row level with his eyes stood an encyclopædia of the applied arts and sciences. He carried the two bulky volumes to a convenient table and sat there absorbed.

Constans looked up in the sudden consciousness that he was observed, and met the half-defiant, half-terrified, and wholly curious gaze of a girl. Hardly more than a child she seemed, not over fourteen at the outside, and with a figure that was all flatness and unlovely angles. Certainly an exceedingly ugly duckling, yet there was promise of future swanship in the clean curves of her neck and in the firm poise of the small head. Moreover, her coloring was good, a clear brown through which a scarlet flush, born of the excitement of the moment, glowed intermittently, like the flashing of distant signal-flags. And in her eyes there was a curious red glint where the light fell slantingly upon the pupil. Constans found his feet awkwardly and stood gazing at her. She in turn scanned him with attention, and obviously grew at ease in noting his increasing disconcertment.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded, abruptly. “You are not of the children of the Doomsmen.”

“No,” he answered, and compressed his lips obstinately.

“You are very foolish,” she retorted, with a slow shake of her head. “If Master Quinton Edge catches you he will nick your ear, and then you will have to row in the galleys.”

Constans winced. Could she possibly have discovered his secret? But no; the hair fell in a thick wave upon his ears — it had been but a chance shot.

“I am not afraid,” he said, coldly.

The tawny eyes, with their heart of fire, rested upon him approvingly.

“I am Esmay,” she answered. “What is your name?”

“What does it matter? — well, then, Constans.” He spoke impatiently, being anxious to get back to his book. He glanced at it longingly, and she, who, as it afterwards appeared, had a part to play, took the cue.

“Such stupid-looking books!” She bent carelessly over the volume on the table. “Nothing but wheels and dotted lines and wheels again. It is a ridiculous book.”

“It is not,” said Constans, hotly.

The damsel smiled. “Oh, if you like that sort of thing, I know of a book over there.” She pointed airily to an alcove at the opposite end of the hall. “It has many more pictures and many more wheels in colors, too, red and yellow and blue.”

Constans was all on fire in an instant. “Will you show it to me?” he asked.

“In there,” said the girl, and pointed to a recess between two tall cases.

Ten feet above his head ran a metal gallery that gave access to the upper tiers of shelves, but Constans did not look up, being intent upon the treasure. Where was it? He could not see.

The noose of a rope had tightened upon his arms before he was aware that it encircled them. He made one furious, ineffectual effort to free himself, and then stood motionless, waiting for the next move of the unseen enemy. Forthwith, a second noose dropped smoothly around his neck; it was at once drawn taut, and Constans was obliged to stretch himself to his full height to avoid being strangled. He heard Esmay clap her hands, and steps descending from the gallery; then his captor stood before him. He was a boy of Constans’s own age, but of shorter, sturdier build. A pleasant, ingenuous face it was, flushed now with the joy of triumph.

“Got him,” he announced, importantly, to the traitress Esmay, who had retreated towards the door. “Don’t be such a coward; he can’t get away,” he continued, examining his victim’s bonds with critical attention.

“Look, Esmay; if he moves he hangs himself. A fix, isn’t it?” and the boy laughed contentedly. It had been rare sport, this trapping of a man, worth half a dozen wolves or even a bear.

“Hollo! Esmay,” he called again, and the girl came up slowly. “You did it splendidly,” said the boy. “Here’s the bracelet I promised you,” and he held out a circlet of gold-filigree work studded with carbuncles. “They match your eyes,” he added, in awkward compliment, and then blushed for the incredible weakness of mind that had prompted his words. Was she going to laugh at him?

But the girl took, the bracelet without even a look at the donor. She snapped it on her wrist and walked defiantly, straight up to the prisoner, as though she would compel him to admire her treasure, to congratulate her upon it.

Constans held himself serenely imperturbable, not even turning his head. Her face burned. She threw the bauble on the floor; it lay there crushed and shapeless. Then she turned upon her accomplice in the successful treachery.

“I hate you! I hate you!” She walked away, imperially offended, and stood looking out of a window that faced the street.

“Whew!” whistled the boy, in dismay, that was half comic and half real. He addressed himself to Constans, naively confident of masculine sympathy. “Well, if that isn’t —” but the words failed him.

Constans, angry and humiliated as he was, could not help smiling.

“You know it wasn’t exactly fair,” he said.

The boy considered, then answered, honestly:

“It wasn’t, then, but what are we going to do about it? You are a Houseman, and you have come to spy out the secrets of Doom the Forbidden. Any of the men who saw you would kill you like a snake.”

“Perhaps so, but they would not wait until my back was turned or get a girl to help them.”

Constans suddenly realized that he stood free of his bonds. The boy had severed them with his clasp-knife, that being the quickest means of releasing his captive.

“We will fight for it, then,” he said, simply.

Constans nodded.

It was not at all an even match, for Constans was at least thirty pounds lighter than his adversary, and his slightly longer reach of arm was more than counter-balanced by the latter’s ability to take any amount of punishment.

Half a dozen ineffectual passes and they clinched. Constans was forced backward; he tripped and fell. The blows, short but savage, rained down upon his face. He tried to strike back, but his throat was gripped hard; he was suffocating. Consciousness was about to desert him, and he felt vaguely angry at this betrayal of his senses; then the light returned, and he sat up, his head swimming. A man stood between him and his late opponent. It was Quinton Edge, and the recognition was a mutual one.

“Oh, you!” drawled Quinton Edge, with that well-remembered, fine-gentleman inflection. “I am almost sorry that I interfered, but this young lady would have it so, and a woman’s will is always law. Eh, Ulick?”

But the boy Ulick scowled. “It was no business of yours,” he said, angrily.

“That depends. Besides, it stands to reason that no man likes to see his own property mishandled. You don’t realize, my good fellow, that you have a fist as rough as a shark-skin.”

“Your property!” echoed the boy, in disdain. “Prove it.”

“Easily,” smiled Quinton Edge, and drew aside the lock of hair that concealed the V-shaped nick in Constans’s left ear.

“Oh!” said Ulick, shortly. He had been quick to see and interpret the appeal in his prisoner’s eyes. “It makes not a particle of difference,” asserted Ulick, stubbornly. “He is my captive, taken in fair fight, and he belongs to me for all of his nicked ear. I sha’n’t give him up, and that’s my last word to you, Master Quinton Edge.”

Half a dozen men entered the hall hurriedly; the girl Esmay must have summoned them when she had disappeared a few minutes before. Sturdy varlets they were, clad in green jerkins and armed with ashen lances pointed with steel. As Constans came afterwards to know, they were of the personal body-guard of the old Dom Gillian, to whom the boy Ulick was both grandson and presumptive heir. Now Quinton Edge was not yet ready to measure swords with Dom Gillian. So he veiled his irritation and answered, equably:

“You know the law about harboring a House-dweller, and since you choose to violate it” — here he shrugged his shoulders detestably — “let Dom Gillian see to it. Yet, for the sake of peace, I will ask you once more to surrender this serf, who bears my mark and is legally proved my property. In the end it may save a mountain of trouble. What say you?”

“No!” thundered Ulick, roundly, for he was angered at the implied threat, and would have held his ground now out of pure stubbornness. Whereupon Quinton Edge smiled and sauntered out, adjusting the ruffles at his wrist and carrying himself as gallantly as though he had been the victor, not the vanquished, in this little contest of wills.

Constans went up to Ulick and held out his hand. “Thank you,” he said, awkwardly, and Ulick flushed in his turn.

The guardsmen were crowding about the two boys, looking curiously at Constans. But Ulick ordered them out imperiously, and they obeyed, being men of slow wit and not used to argue with their superiors. Ulick turned to Constans. “Well, that was fair enough, to make up for — for the other thing?”

Constans nodded a hearty assent; he hesitated, and then spoke, steadily: “But you must understand that I would rather fight again than wear the iron collar of a slave, or call any one master, even you. You will kill me, for you are the better man with the naked fist. But I should prefer it that way.”

“Will you leave this with me?” asked Ulick, nodding his head wisely, and Constans wondered and submitted.

They went out into the breathless noon of an August day. Two or three men were loitering about, and Ulick frowned as he saw them.

“I shall have to take you to my grandsire,” he whispered. “These are Quinton Edge’s men, and they are doubtless under orders to watch us. This way,” and Constans followed obediently.

Ulick stopped at a beautiful Gothic edifice, built about a small court-yard, in which a score of the green-jerkined guardsmen were lounging. In a corner stood a wooden cistern for the collection of rain-water from the roof-spouts. Ulick drew a pannikin of water and offered it to Constans that he might bathe his face, which was badly puffed and marked. How reviving, the touch of the cool, clean liquid! Constans arose, mightily refreshed; then, in response to his guide’s look, he followed him into the main hallway of the house and up the broad stairs.

The building, judging from its size and appointments, must have been the dwelling of one of the richest members of the ancient plutocracy, and the traces of a splendid luxury were to be seen on all sides. The colored marbles underfoot, the gilding overhead, the gorgeous, albeit torn and weather-stained tapestries that covered the walls — these things were eloquent of a pristine magnificence that could hardly have been equalled, even in this city of palaces. Constans kept looking about him with all his eyes, but Ulick strode along indifferently. Every son of the Doomsmen might possess a dwelling measurably as fine as this if he chose to look for it, but from a practical point of view the sole qualification for a man’s house was that it should be standing in plumb and tolerably weather-proof. Gold-leaf and silken hangings would not keep out the rain, and it was folly to spend time in making repairs. When a house became uninhabitable it was a simple matter to move into another.

The apartment into which they now entered was long and lofty. The thick curtains remained drawn before the windows, excluding so much of the light that Constans had great difficulty in finding his way about. Then, his eyes adjusting themselves to the obscurity, he saw before him a divan piled high with pillows. Propped up against them was the figure of an old man.

And such a man! In his prime he must have been a very colossus of strength and stature, and even now, in his senility, the muscles that had made terrible those great limbs could be plainly traced. For this was Dominus Gillian, whose name had been first a byword and then a terror, and even now was a power to conjure with; Dom Gillian, renegade and hero, gallows-bird and world-builder, but ever and in all things a man, as all other men will bear witness.

He knew his favorite grandchild, and smiled as Ulick respectfully raised and kissed his hand, that hand in whose hollow had lain the world, now shrunken and nerveless, scarce able to crush an impertinent fly. Ulick spoke slowly and distinctly, explaining his action and seeking boldly to justify it.

This dog of the House People had dared, under veil of darkness, to creep into the Gray Wolf’s den. He, Ulick, had captured him alone and unaided; surely such an exploit deserved recognition, and Ulick desired to keep the prisoner as his own property. Could he do so, no matter what claim might be urged against his right?

The old man listened, and looked at Constans indifferently. Then he spoke in the inflectionless monotone of extreme old age:

“A House-dweller and a snake, my son — crush them when you can, for the woods are full of shadows, and a man cannot always see where to plant his foot. I have lived very long, and I know.”

“But, my father, if you will only let me ——”

“I am tired,” interrupted the even, expressionless tones. “Go away and leave me to sleep. To-morrow we will cut out this Houseman’s eyes and tongue, so that he may see nothing and tell nothing. Then you may have him for your plaything — it will be better so.”

The eyelids fell, and the old man slept placidly, his face serene as that of a babe. The two boys stole quietly away.

Down a narrow passage and a flight of stairs into a dark, cool room, underground, as Constans conjectured. Ulick left him there, counselling quiet and repose for the next few hours.

It was night when Ulick finally appeared and conducted his departing guest to the open air. The moon had not yet risen, and the danger of detection was practically past.

“You are sure that you can find your boat,” whispered Ulick, as they stood facing each other, curiously loath to part.

“Yes,” answered Constans, “for I shall follow the river straight down. It will take a little longer, but that matters not. Good-bye; I sha’n’t forget.”

A slender figure slipped out from the shadow of a doorway and confronted them. It was Esmay, and she spoke with serene gravity.

“Since you and Ulick are friends you ought to make it up with me also. But not unless you really want to,” she added, hastily.

Constans smiled with youthful cynicism.

“Of course,” he answered, magnificently condescending. “You are a woman, and knew no better.”

She snatched her hand away. “Yes, I am a woman, Master Constans, and some day you will know what that means.” She moved away, majestically as does a goddess, conscious of her power but magnanimously refraining from using it. Constans and Ulick laughed after the manner of men-kind who find it easy to disbelieve in what they do not understand. Then, with a long hand-grip, they parted.

The canoe was still in its hiding-place underneath the ruined pier, and Constans’s first care was to stow away in the stern-locker the two volumes of the scientific cyclopædia that he had been reading at the time of his capture. Ulick of his own volition had stolen the books from the library hall, and had put them into Constans’s hands at the moment of parting. They made a heavy load for him to carry, but what a precious burden it was and how gladly he assumed it! For these were the keys of power.

As Constans paddled out into the stream he heard the steady thumping of oars in rowlock. He shoved back into the shadow of the pier just as a great galley filled with men came foaming down the river. Constans could see that it was a war-vessel of the largest size, for there were full sixty oars on a side arranged in two banks. The figure-head was the representation of a black swan, and on the poop-deck stood the slight, graceful figure of a man wearing a plumed hat. Constans saw him remove the cigar from his lips as he turned to give an order. Instantly the port-oars held and backed, and the galley, swinging round on her heel, headed up-stream again, passing within fifty yards of Constans’s hiding-place. The boy’s bow was in his hand, but he had not attempted to fit an arrow to the string. “It will come — the time,” he said, under his breath.

Constans stared gravely after the Black Swan as she drove along. But for the best of good-fortune he might now be tugging at a heavy ashen oar, with the lash of the deck-master striping his back. Ulick, Esmay — yes, he had much to remember.

Two hours later he had scaled the wall of Croye, without being discovered by the sleepy sentinels, and was safe on his pallet of corn-husks in Messer Hugolin’s attic.

***

RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. More info here.

SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable | Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” | J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder | Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” | Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space” | A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” | Max Brand’s The Untamed | Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” | Clare Winger Harris’s “A Runaway World” | Francis Stevens’s “Thomas Dunbar” | George Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” | Robert W. Chambers’s “The Harbor-Master”.