THE DOOMSMAN (10)

By: Van Tassel Sutphen
May 22, 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.

***

X

THE MESSAGE

Three years had passed since that first memorable visit to Doom the Forbidden — years of work and of growth. The simple out-door life and the physical toil had been good discipline for Constans, and he was now a well-built young fellow of two-and-twenty, nearly six feet tall and with muscles like steel wire.

The nights, too, had afforded compensation for the labors of the day, for then he could read and study. The two big volumes of the scientific cyclopædia had been his school-masters, and he had striven faithfully to learn of them. What a wonderful lesson it had been, for while there was much in this teaching that he could not understand at all, there was much again that, with the aid of the illustrations and diagrams, he could make really his own. And so, little by little, he had been able to reconstruct, in imagination, at least, the lost civilization of the ancient world; how men had tamed the lightning and bade it speak their will and work their pleasure; how the same vapor that issued from the pot bubbling on Martina’s fire could be harnessed and made to draw a hundred wagons at once upon the old-time steel-railed highways; how a child’s hand on the crank of a machine-gun might hurl invisible death among a regiment of men and put even an army to flight. Steam and gunpowder and electricity, what wonderful ideas were connoted in the words! The very names thrilled him with a sense of infinite power.

A wonderfully fascinating study, and yet at times it left him unspeakably weary and depressed, for what did all this knowledge avail without the practical means to apply it? The great machines that the ancients had built, what were they now but masses of red rust, useless alike to the fool who laughed at them and to the visionary who could only dream of their magnificent potentialities.

A dream, for, in truth, a lion was in the way. So long as the Doomsmen held sway in the land, so long must the wheels of progress stay locked. Unable to use themselves the treasures of knowledge stored under their hands, they were unwilling that another should even touch them. What could he or any other one man do?

Once, indeed, during the three years, Constans had found brief opportunity to revisit the scenes of his old home in the valley of the Swiftwater. In this general district of the West Inch were to be found nearly all of the larger estates, a fitting cradling-place, it would seem, for the new liberty, the awakening era.

But time was not yet come, as Constans soon saw clearly. He had been hospitably enough received, for the country-side had not forgotten the story of the Greenwood Keep, and it was plain to see that this clear-eyed, well-set-up lad was of the true Stockader breed. One of his father’s bond-friends, Piers Major, of the River Barony, had even offered Constans a home under his roof-tree in exchange for sword-service. But this he declined, with becoming gratitude indeed, but none the less firmly. He had no fancy to spend the rest of his life in a trooper’s saddle riding down naked savages — an agreeable occupation, whose only variation was an afternoon at pig-sticking or a chance crack at some Doomsman’s head. Better to endure the drudgery of the tan-pits than to part with all purpose in life.

And so the crusade, which Constans had hoped to father, died at its birth. The kinsmen and friends of his family were sincere enough in their sympathy, but they could not be expected to risk their own skins in the furtherance of his private quarrels, and, so far as it was a question of political economy or of patriotism, these easy-going gentlemen troubled themselves not one whit. For the most part the Doomsmen kept their distance from a Stockader’s threshold, and laissez-faire was a good motto for both sides to adopt.

Constans returned to Croye and to Messer Hugolin’s attic neither overmuch surprised nor discouraged by the results of his mission. After all, his ultimate object was a personal one — his revenge — and only his own hand could discharge that debt in full. Did the time seem over-long, the way unendurably lonely and toilsome? He had only to close his eyes to remember — to remember. And so the years had passed.

*

It was the noon spell on a day in late October, and Constans sat on the river end of the long wooden pier at the tanyard eating his luncheon of bread and bacon scraps. The tide was running up slowly, as could be noted from the bubbles and drift-wood that circled past the piling of the wharf, and Constans, happening to glance down into the swirl, saw something that brought him to his feet. Nothing more remarkable than a bottle of thick, greenish glass, but bottles of any kind had become valuable now that the art of glass blowing was so little practised, and such flotsam was not to be despised.

Having strung a length of noosed cord to a light pole, Constans threw himself flat along the string-piece of the pier and began angling for the prize. A failure or two and then he had it snared securely; now it was in his hand.

The bottle was foul with slime and fungous growth, showing that it had been in the water for a long period. Possibly it had been out to sea and back many times before this particular flood-tide had brought it to Messer Hugolin’s tannery and under the eyes of one who would have the wit to distinguish it from a rotten stick. At all events it had found a port at last.

The bottle had been corked and then sealed with pitch, and Constans had to use some care in getting at its contents, a slender cylinder of tightly rolled paper. Finally he succeeded in drawing it out uninjured, and saw that it was superscribed to his uncle Hugolin.

The old man looked up with a frown as Constans presented himself at the door of the counting-room. The rest hour was over and Constans’s place was at the tan-pit. How was the work to get done if everybody shirked their part of the common task? A message in a bottle. What foolery was this? Nevertheless, Messer Hugolin extended his hand to receive the roll, and, removing the waxed string that bound it, knit his brows overthe enclosure — half a dozen sheets of writing. Constans was about to retire discreetly, but Messer Hugolin raised his hand.

“The writing is too fine for my eyes,” he grumbled. “Read it for me, nephew; but, harkee! you will keep your mouth shut whatever its import.” Then, in a sudden gust of passion: “A thousand plagues on that fool of an up-river factor who broke for me my reading-glass! Not another one to be had in Croye for good-will or gold, and I compelled to borrow another’s eyes, to live at the mercy of my meanest clerk. Come, boy, you must have the sense of it by this time!”

“Shall I read it aloud?” asked Constans, and then, in compliance with his uncle’s nod, he began:

“‘Dated at Doom, in the year 90 after the Great Change.

“‘It is a score of years my brother, since that moonless August night when the Doomsmen came to Croye and I went back with them, tied to Mad Scarlett’s saddle-bow. Twenty years of silence in the City of Silence, and I but a slim, brown-faced maid who might be found one day playing at polo and lamenting her lack of mustachios, and on the very next, mooning over a love charm. It was only through the look in my cousin Philip’s eyes, as he died under the weight of the Doomsmen battle-axes, that I knew myself a woman, that I finally entered upon my sex’s heritage of sorrow.

“‘Does this seem an old and hardly remembered tale to you, Anthony Hugolin, Councillor Primus of Croye, and a rich man, if one may judge from the yearly tax rate that stands opposite your name in Dom Gillian’s head list? Withal, you are still my brother, and you must listen to what I have now to say, the first and the last word from me to you.

“‘I must be just and acknowledge that he truly loved me, the man who plucked me like an apple from the bough; later on he made what amends he could by proclaiming me his wife under the Doomsman law. Yet it was a tiger-cat rather than a woman whom he had taken to his bosom, and I wonder now that I did not a thousand times overpass the limits of his forbearance. Assuredly, in that first agony, I tried my hardest to stretch his patience to the breaking-point, in the hope that a knife-thrust might open for me the doors of the prison-house. You see, I was very young, and I could not forget my cousin Philip’s eyes.

“‘A woman’s heart is like a cup; it holds but one fixed quantity of life’s essential liquor, be the latter sweet or bitter. An infinity of little sips or one deep draught, what does it matter? The vessel is empty in either case. Yet, as time went on, I grew to endure existence; afterwards, when my Esmay was born, I valued it again for her sake. Moreover, she was his daughter as well as mine, and so I came finally to endure and even to welcome the touch of my master’s hand. In all these years it had never been aught but gentle, for all that they called him Mad Scarlett, and the children were taught to believe that he always wore gloves, because he had a bloody palm whose stain no water would wash away. Yes, and I wept, as any wife and mother might do, on that gray November day when I knelt beside his bier.

“‘But this concerns only myself, and it is of Esmay, my daughter, that I would speak. In a year she will be seventeen, and before that time, if at all, the way must be opened for her to go to her mother’s people. I am helpless, except for this one opportunity of committing a message to the hands of Chance, one slender line dropped into the ocean of uncertainty. Yet nothing remains to me but to make the cast, for in six months’ time I shall be dead; I can count the downward steps of my disease as clearly as though they formed part of the actual stairway under my feet.

“‘And this also I know- — hat the message will reach you, my brother; so far, at least, my eyes are permitted to explore the advancing darkness. You will assuredly receive this letter, but with what disposition of heart? That, alas! I may not know. Nor can I give aught of service in either counsel or means; I must trust to your love and good-will for everything. I can only say that the girl is known to all in Doom as Mad Scarlett’s daughter. She has her father’s tawny hair and red-brown eyes, and her name, as I have already told you, is Esmay.

“‘To-morrow night I shall make my opportunity to reach the river edge unobserved. I shall then commit to the current the bottle containing this message, a precious freight, for it is my darling’s life and happiness.

“‘To you, my brother, the gift and the grace of God, according as you deal with me and mine.

ELENA.

“‘Watch him whom they call Quinton Edge.'”

*

“The date is a year ago, lacking a month,” added Constans, as he handed the roll to his uncle.

Messer Hugolin tied up the document with a piece of tape, labelled it with the date of receipt, and laid it away in a pigeon-hole.

“Well?” said Constans, interrogatively.

“Do you want me to put myself within reach of the Gray Wolf’s paws?” retorted Messer Hugolin, shrewdly. “I was flayed badly enough the last time the Black Swan cast anchor before Croye, and I am not paying between rent-days.”

“The year is almost up,” urged Constans, insistently.

“I have lived my life,” returned the old man, with sombre fixity of resolve, “and these things do not interest me. I have other use for my hands than to keep them stretched out idly in the dark.”

“But that letter — a mother pleading for her child. You have but to give the word — there are men who will go, and gladly.”

“I doubt it not, for there are always drones a-plenty around a beehive. But why should I spend my good, red gold to make a beggar’s holiday?”

Constans felt his cheeks burn. “Their blood is redder than your gold,” he said. “And if they are not afraid to risk——”

“What has cost them nothing and for whose loss there is quick repair in a few square inches of sticking-plaster. Tush! boy, you speak of these things as one who dreams visions at noonday. While I — what I know, I know. There is but one thing precious in the world, and that is what a man holds safely in his strong-box. Why should I spend myself for naught?”

“The girl is your niece — your flesh and blood.”

“No more so than yourself, nephew. And tell me, have I ever beenover-tender with you on that account? Can you call to mind when and where I have spared you because you were of my kin? At least, I make a virtue of my honesty.”

Messer Hugolin smiled. He saw from Constans’s face that he need not plot out the thought in plainer words, and so they parted without further speaking, although the blood throbbed in Constans’s temples as he made obeisance and walked away. He was conscious that he must keep himself in hand; the stocks and the whipping-post were ever ready for the rebellious apprentice, and a single hasty act might imperil his whole future. But as he lay awake that night in his attic bedchamber he resolved that this should be his last week’s work in Messer Hugolin’s tan-pits. The time had come for him to make a second visit to Doom the Forbidden, and to remain there for an indefinite period — until his work had been accomplished.

It would have been impossible for Constans to have embarked upon this new adventure were it not for the two small gold coins that he had found and carried away from Doom on the occasion of his former visit. It was against the common law of the land for a bound apprentice to possess any money, even a handful of copper pence. He had to be careful, therefore, with whom he dealt, and he expected to be cheated in making his bargain for a boat and a supply of provisions. As it was, he was skilfully skinned by the rascal with whom he finally ventured to open negotiations, and Constans thought himself lucky to exchange it for a leaky, flat-bottomed tub and fifty pounds weight of absolute necessaries, chiefly sun-dried strips of beef and parched grain.

His personal belongings were not burdensome to transfer — the books, half a dozen in all, his revolver and field-glass, and a good ash bow with twelve dozen arrows, each bearing his private mark of a scarlet feather. These last he had been at work upon through many a long evening in the last two months, and he was sure that they would serve him well should need arise. Clothing and blankets he did not trouble about, even withthe cold weather close at hand, for he could reckon certainly on finding abundant supplies of this nature in the city itself.

On the fourth night after the finding of the bottle Constans swung lightly out of his garret window. He cast one farewell glance at the shuttered windows of Messer Hugolin’s office. Through a chink struggled a feeble beam of pale, yellow light, but his uncle was poring, doubtless, over his ledgers and had heard no sound. The wolf-hound Grip wagged his tail as Constans passed, and he patted his head, the one single creature in his uncle’s household who might regret his absence on the morrow. Now the way was clear; he stole off into the darkness, finding no difficulty in scaling the wall, and so was free.

The night was misty and starless and the tide on a strong ebb. The voyage down-stream was without incident, and by midnight he had landed within the city lines, but much farther up-town than upon the occasion of his first adventure. His plan was to seek some uninhabited house within convenient distance of the library building and make that his temporary headquarters. He found what he wanted in the block immediately to the westward of the library, and in three or four trips he had transported thither his stock of food and other impedimenta. The boat had leaked badly on the way down the river, and was plainly unseaworthy. There was no place in which to hide the craft, and to allow her to remain moored at the pier would be tantamount to announcing his arrival to the first sharp-eyed Doomsman who might chance to pass that way. So, pushing her out into the current with a vigorous shove from his foot, Constans watched the little hull disappear in the darkness. Henceforth he must depend entirely upon his own resources, inadequate as they were for the task before him. But upon this phase of the situation he would not allow himself to dwell. Such unprofitable meditation could breed naught but irresolution and be unnerving to both body and mind; if he were to play the coward now he but invited the fate he feared. Courage, then, and forward!

***

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”.