The enormous iron padlock on the doors of the wall cupboard
was the only object in the room on which the eye could rest
without becoming afflicted by the miserable unloveliness of forms
and the poverty of material. Unsaleable in the ordinary
course of business on account of its noble proportions, it had
been ceded to the Professor for a few pence by a marine dealer in
the east of London. The room was large, clean, respectable,
and poor with that poverty suggesting the starvation of every
human need except mere bread. There was nothing on the
walls but the paper, an expanse of arsenical green, soiled with
indelible smudges here and there, and with stains resembling
faded maps of uninhabited continents.
At a deal table near a window sat Comrade Ossipon, holding his
head between his fists. The Professor, dressed in his only
suit of shoddy tweeds, but flapping to and fro on the bare boards
a pair of incredibly dilapidated slippers, had thrust his hands
deep into the overstrained pockets of his jacket. He was
relating to his robust guest a visit he had lately been paying to
the Apostle Michaelis. The Perfect Anarchist had even been
unbending a little.
“The fellow didn’t know anything of Verloc’s
death. Of course! He never looks at the
newspapers. They make him too sad, he says. But never
mind. I walked into his cottage. Not a soul
anywhere. I had to shout half-a-dozen times before he
answered me. I thought he was fast asleep yet, in
bed. But not at all. He had been writing his book for
four hours already. He sat in that tiny cage in a litter of
manuscript. There was a half-eaten raw carrot on the table
near him. His breakfast. He lives on a diet of raw
carrots and a little milk now.”
“How does he look on it?” asked Comrade Ossipon
“Angelic. . . . I picked up a handful of his pages from
the floor. The poverty of reasoning is astonishing.
He has no logic. He can’t think consecutively.
But that’s nothing. He has divided his biography into
three parts, entitled—‘Faith, Hope,
Charity.’ He is elaborating now the idea of a world
planned out like an immense and nice hospital, with gardens and
flowers, in which the strong are to devote themselves to the
nursing of the weak.”
The Professor paused.
“Conceive you this folly, Ossipon? The weak!
The source of all evil on this earth!” he continued with
his grim assurance. “I told him that I dreamt of a
world like shambles, where the weak would be taken in hand for
“Do you understand, Ossipon? The source of all
evil! They are our sinister masters—the weak, the
flabby, the silly, the cowardly, the faint of heart, and the
slavish of mind. They have power. They are the
multitude. Theirs is the kingdom of the earth.
Exterminate, exterminate! That is the only way of
progress. It is! Follow me, Ossipon. First the
great multitude of the weak must go, then the only relatively
strong. You see? First the blind, then the deaf and
the dumb, then the halt and the lame—and so on. Every
taint, every vice, every prejudice, every convention must meet
“And what remains?” asked Ossipon in a stifled
“I remain—if I am strong enough,” asserted
the sallow little Professor, whose large ears, thin like
membranes, and standing far out from the sides of his frail
skull, took on suddenly a deep red tint.
“Haven’t I suffered enough from this oppression of
the weak?” he continued forcibly. Then tapping the
breast-pocket of his jacket: “And yet I am the
force,” he went on. “But the time! The
time! Give me time! Ah! that multitude, too stupid to
feel either pity or fear. Sometimes I think they have
everything on their side. Everything—even
death—my own weapon.”
“Come and drink some beer with me at the Silenus,”
said the robust Ossipon after an interval of silence pervaded by
the rapid flap, flap of the slippers on the feet of the Perfect
Anarchist. This last accepted. He was jovial that day
in his own peculiar way. He slapped Ossipon’s
“Beer! So be it! Let us drink and he merry,
for we are strong, and to-morrow we die.”
He busied himself with putting on his boots, and talked
meanwhile in his curt, resolute tones.
“What’s the matter with you, Ossipon? You
look glum and seek even my company. I hear that you are
seen constantly in places where men utter foolish things over
glasses of liquor. Why? Have you abandoned your
collection of women? They are the weak who feed the
He stamped one foot, and picked up his other laced boot,
heavy, thick-soled, unblacked, mended many times. He smiled
to himself grimly.
“Tell me, Ossipon, terrible man, has ever one of your
victims killed herself for you—or are your triumphs so far
incomplete—for blood alone puts a seal on greatness?
Blood. Death. Look at history.”
“You be damned,” said Ossipon, without turning his
“Why? Let that be the hope of the weak, whose
theology has invented hell for the strong. Ossipon, my
feeling for you is amicable contempt. You couldn’t
kill a fly.”
But rolling to the feast on the top of the omnibus the
Professor lost his high spirits. The contemplation of the
multitudes thronging the pavements extinguished his assurance
under a load of doubt and uneasiness which he could only shake
off after a period of seclusion in the room with the large
cupboard closed by an enormous padlock.
“And so,” said over his shoulder Comrade Ossipon,
who sat on the seat behind. “And so Michaelis dreams
of a world like a beautiful and cheery hospital.”
“Just so. An immense charity for the healing of
the weak,” assented the Professor sardonically.
“That’s silly,” admitted Ossipon.
“You can’t heal weakness. But after all
Michaelis may not be so far wrong. In two hundred years
doctors will rule the world. Science reigns already.
It reigns in the shade maybe—but it reigns. And all
science must culminate at last in the science of
healing—not the weak, but the strong. Mankind wants
to live—to live.”
“Mankind,” asserted the Professor with a
self-confident glitter of his iron-rimmed spectacles, “does
not know what it wants.”
“But you do,” growled Ossipon. “Just
now you’ve been crying for time—time.
Well. The doctors will serve you out your time—if you
are good. You profess yourself to be one of the
strong—because you carry in your pocket enough stuff to
send yourself and, say, twenty other people into eternity.
But eternity is a damned hole. It’s time that you
need. You—if you met a man who could give you for
certain ten years of time, you would call him your
“My device is: No God! No Master,” said the
Professor sententiously as he rose to get off the ’bus.
Ossipon followed. “Wait till you are lying flat on
your back at the end of your time,” he retorted, jumping
off the footboard after the other. “Your scurvy,
shabby, mangy little bit of time,” he continued across the
street, and hopping on to the curbstone.
“Ossipon, I think that you are a humbug,” the
Professor said, opening masterfully the doors of the renowned
Silenus. And when they had established themselves at a
little table he developed further this gracious thought.
“You are not even a doctor. But you are funny.
Your notion of a humanity universally putting out the tongue and
taking the pill from pole to pole at the bidding of a few solemn
jokers is worthy of the prophet. Prophecy!
What’s the good of thinking of what will be!”
He raised his glass. “To the destruction of what
is,” he said calmly.
He drank and relapsed into his peculiarly close manner of
silence. The thought of a mankind as numerous as the sands
of the sea-shore, as indestructible, as difficult to handle,
oppressed him. The sound of exploding bombs was lost in
their immensity of passive grains without an echo. For
instance, this Verloc affair. Who thought of it now?
Ossipon, as if suddenly compelled by some mysterious force,
pulled a much-folded newspaper out of his pocket. The
Professor raised his head at the rustle.
“What’s that paper? Anything in it?”
Ossipon started like a scared somnambulist.
“Nothing. Nothing whatever. The
thing’s ten days old. I forgot it in my pocket, I
But he did not throw the old thing away. Before
returning it to his pocket he stole a glance at the last lines of
a paragraph. They ran thus: “An impenetrable
mystery seems destined to hang for ever over this act of madness
Such were the end words of an item of news headed:
“Suicide of Lady Passenger from a cross-Channel
Boat.” Comrade Ossipon was familiar with the beauties
of its journalistic style. “An impenetrable
mystery seems destined to hang for ever. . . . ”
He knew every word by heart. “An impenetrable
mystery. . . . ”
And the robust anarchist, hanging his head on his breast, fell
into a long reverie.
He was menaced by this thing in the very sources of his
existence. He could not issue forth to meet his various
conquests, those that he courted on benches in Kensington
Gardens, and those he met near area railings, without the dread
of beginning to talk to them of an impenetrable mystery destined.
. . . He was becoming scientifically afraid of insanity lying in
wait for him amongst these lines. “To hang for
ever over.” It was an obsession, a torture.
He had lately failed to keep several of these appointments, whose
note used to be an unbounded trustfulness in the language of
sentiment and manly tenderness. The confiding disposition
of various classes of women satisfied the needs of his self-love,
and put some material means into his hand. He needed it to
live. It was there. But if he could no longer make
use of it, he ran the risk of starving his ideals and his body .
. . “This act of madness or despair.”
“An impenetrable mystery” was sure “to hang
for ever” as far as all mankind was concerned. But
what of that if he alone of all men could never get rid of the
cursed knowledge? And Comrade Ossipon’s knowledge was
as precise as the newspaper man could make it—up to the
very threshold of the “mystery destined to hang for
ever. . . .”
Comrade Ossipon was well informed. He knew what the
gangway man of the steamer had seen: “A lady in a black
dress and a black veil, wandering at midnight alongside, on the
quay. ‘Are you going by the boat, ma’am,’
he had asked her encouragingly. ‘This
way.’ She seemed not to know what to do. He
helped her on board. She seemed weak.”
And he knew also what the stewardess had seen: A lady in black
with a white face standing in the middle of the empty
ladies’ cabin. The stewardess induced her to lie down
there. The lady seemed quite unwilling to speak, and as if
she were in some awful trouble. The next the stewardess
knew she was gone from the ladies’ cabin. The
stewardess then went on deck to look for her, and Comrade Ossipon
was informed that the good woman found the unhappy lady lying
down in one of the hooded seats. Her eyes were open, but
she would not answer anything that was said to her. She
seemed very ill. The stewardess fetched the chief steward,
and those two people stood by the side of the hooded seat
consulting over their extraordinary and tragic passenger.
They talked in audible whispers (for she seemed past hearing) of
St Malo and the Consul there, of communicating with her people in
England. Then they went away to arrange for her removal
down below, for indeed by what they could see of her face she
seemed to them to be dying. But Comrade Ossipon knew that
behind that white mask of despair there was struggling against
terror and despair a vigour of vitality, a love of life that
could resist the furious anguish which drives to murder and the
fear, the blind, mad fear of the gallows. He knew.
But the stewardess and the chief steward knew nothing, except
that when they came back for her in less than five minutes the
lady in black was no longer in the hooded seat. She was
nowhere. She was gone. It was then five o’clock
in the morning, and it was no accident either. An hour
afterwards one of the steamer’s hands found a wedding ring
left lying on the seat. It had stuck to the wood in a bit
of wet, and its glitter caught the man’s eye. There
was a date, 24th June 1879, engraved inside. “An
impenetrable mystery is destined to hang for ever. . . .
And Comrade Ossipon raised his bowed head, beloved of various
humble women of these isles, Apollo-like in the sunniness of its
bush of hair.
The Professor had grown restless meantime. He rose.
“Stay,” said Ossipon hurriedly. “Here,
what do you know of madness and despair?”
The Professor passed the tip of his tongue on his dry, thin
lips, and said doctorally:
“There are no such things. All passion is lost
now. The world is mediocre, limp, without force. And
madness and despair are a force. And force is a crime in
the eyes of the fools, the weak and the silly who rule the
roost. You are mediocre. Verloc, whose affair the
police has managed to smother so nicely, was mediocre. And
the police murdered him. He was mediocre. Everybody
is mediocre. Madness and despair! Give me that for a
lever, and I’ll move the world. Ossipon, you have my
cordial scorn. You are incapable of conceiving even what
the fat-fed citizen would call a crime. You have no
force.” He paused, smiling sardonically under the
fierce glitter of his thick glasses.
“And let me tell you that this little legacy they say
you’ve come into has not improved your intelligence.
You sit at your beer like a dummy. Good-bye.”
“Will you have it?” said Ossipon, looking up with
an idiotic grin.
“The legacy. All of it.”
The incorruptible Professor only smiled. His clothes
were all but falling off him, his boots, shapeless with repairs,
heavy like lead, let water in at every step. He said:
“I will send you by-and-by a small bill for certain
chemicals which I shall order to-morrow. I need them
Ossipon lowered his head slowly. He was alone.
“An impenetrable mystery. . . . ” It
seemed to him that suspended in the air before him he saw his own
brain pulsating to the rhythm of an impenetrable mystery.
It was diseased clearly. . . . “This act of
madness or despair.”
The mechanical piano near the door played through a valse
cheekily, then fell silent all at once, as if gone grumpy.
Comrade Ossipon, nicknamed the Doctor, went out of the Silenus
beer-hall. At the door he hesitated, blinking at a not too
splendid sunlight—and the paper with the report of the
suicide of a lady was in his pocket. His heart was beating
against it. The suicide of a lady—this act of
madness or despair.
He walked along the street without looking where he put his
feet; and he walked in a direction which would not bring him to
the place of appointment with another lady (an elderly nursery
governess putting her trust in an Apollo-like ambrosial
head). He was walking away from it. He could face no
woman. It was ruin. He could neither think, work,
sleep, nor eat. But he was beginning to drink with
pleasure, with anticipation, with hope. It was ruin.
His revolutionary career, sustained by the sentiment and
trustfulness of many women, was menaced by an impenetrable
mystery—the mystery of a human brain pulsating wrongfully
to the rhythm of journalistic phrases. “ . . .
Will hang for ever over this act. . . . It was inclining
towards the gutter . . . of madness or despair.”
“I am seriously ill,” he muttered to himself with
scientific insight. Already his robust form, with an
Embassy’s secret-service money (inherited from Mr Verloc)
in his pockets, was marching in the gutter as if in training for
the task of an inevitable future. Already he bowed his
broad shoulders, his head of ambrosial locks, as if ready to
receive the leather yoke of the sandwich board. As on that
night, more than a week ago, Comrade Ossipon walked without
looking where he put his feet, feeling no fatigue, feeling
nothing, seeing nothing, hearing not a sound. “An
impenetrable mystery. . . .” He walked
disregarded. . . . “This act of madness or
And the incorruptible Professor walked too, averting his eyes
from the odious multitude of mankind. He had no
future. He disdained it. He was a force. His
thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He
walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible
in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the
regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He
passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full