THE DECORATIVE IMAGINATION

In the course of a few weeks Dyson became accustomed, to the constant
incursions of the ingenious Mr. Burton, who showed himself ready to drop
in at all hours, not averse to refreshment, and a profound guide in the
complicated questions of life. His visits at once terrified and
delighted Dyson, who could no longer seat himself at his bureau secure
from interruption while he embarked on literary undertakings, each one
of which was to be a masterpiece. On the other hand, it was a vivid
pleasure to be confronted with views so highly original; and if here and
there Mr. Burton’s reasonings seemed tinged with fallacy, yet Dyson
freely yielded to the joy of strangeness, and never failed to give his
visitor a frank and hearty welcome. Mr. Burton’s first inquiry was
always after the unprincipled Robbins, and he seemed to feel the stings
of disappointment when Dyson told him that he had failed to meet this
outrage on all morality, as Burton styled him, vowing that sooner or
later he would take vengeance on such a shameless betrayal of trust.

One evening they had sat together for some time discussing the
possibility of laying down for this present generation and our modern
and intensely complicated order of society, some rules of social
diplomacy, such as Lord Bacon gave to the courtiers of King James I. “It
is a book to make,” said Mr. Burton, “but who is there capable of making
it? I tell you people are longing for such a book; it would bring
fortune to its publisher. Bacon’s Essays are exquisite, but they have
now no practical application; the modern strategist can find but little
use in a treatise ‘De Re Militari,’ written by a Florentine in the
fifteenth century. Scarcely more dissimilar are the social conditions of
Bacon’s time and our own; the rules that he lays down so exquisitely for
the courtier and diplomatist of James the First’s age will avail us
little in the rough-and-tumble struggle of to-day. Life, I am afraid,
has deteriorated; it gives little play for fine strokes such as formerly
advanced men in the state. Except in such businesses as mine, where a
chance does occur now and then, it has all become, as I said, an affair
of rough and tumble; men still desire to attain, it is true, but what is
their _moyen de parvenir_? A mere imitation, and not a gracious one, of
the arts of the soap-vender and the proprietor of baking powder. When I
think of these things, my dear Dyson, I confess that I am tempted to
despair of my century.”

“You are too pessimistic, my dear fellow; you set up too high a
standard. Certainly, I agree with you that the times are decadent in
many ways. I admit a general appearance of squalor; it needs much
philosophy to extract the wonderful and the beautiful from the Cromwell
Road or the Nonconformist conscience. Australian wines of fine Burgundy
character, the novels alike of the old women and the new women, popular
journalism,–these things indeed make for depression. Yet we have our
advantages. Before us is unfolded the greatest spectacle the world has
ever seen,–the mystery of the innumerable unending streets, the strange
adventures that must infallibly arise from so complicated a press of
interests. Nay, I will say that he who has stood in the ways of a suburb
and has seen them stretch before him all shining, void, and desolate at
noonday, has not lived in vain. Such a sight is in reality more
wonderful than any perspective of Bagdad or Grand Cairo. And, to set on
one side the entertaining history of the gem which you told me, surely
you must have had many singular adventures in your own career?”

“Perhaps not so many as you would think; a good deal–the larger
part–of my business has been as commonplace as linen-drapery. But of
course things happen now and then. It is ten years since I have
established my agency, and I suppose that a house and estate agent who
had been in trade for an equal time could tell you some queer stories.
But I must give you a sample of my experiences some night.

“Why not to-night?” said Dyson. “This evening seems to me admirably
adapted for an odd chapter. Look out into the street; you can catch a
view of it, if you crane your neck from that chair of yours. Is it not
charming? The double row of lamps growing closer in the distance, the
hazy outline of the plane-tree in the square, and the lights of the
hansoms swimming to and fro, gliding and vanishing; and above, the sky
all clear and blue and shining. Come, let us have one of your _cent
nouvelles nouvelles_.”

“My dear Dyson, I am delighted to amuse you.” With these words Mr.
Burton prefaced the

I think the most extraordinary event which I can recall took place about
five years ago. I was then still feeling my way; I had declared for
business, and attended regularly at my office, but I had not succeeded
in establishing a really profitable connection, and consequently I had a
good deal of leisure time on my hands. I have never thought fit to
trouble you with the details of my private life; they would be entirely
devoid of interest. I must briefly say, however, that I had a numerous
circle of acquaintance, and was never at a loss as to how to spend my
evenings. I was so fortunate as to have friends in most of the ranks of
the social order; there is nothing so unfortunate, to my mind, as a
specialized circle, wherein a certain round of ideas is continually
traversed and retraversed. I have always tried to find out new types and
persons whose brains contained something fresh to me; one may chance to
gain information even from the conversation of city men on an omnibus.
Amongst my acquaintance I knew a young doctor who lived in a far
outlying suburb, and I used often to brave the intolerably slow railway
journey, to have the pleasure of listening to his talk. One night we
conversed so eagerly together over our pipes and whiskey that the clock
passed unnoticed, and when I glanced up I realized with a shock that I
had just five minutes in which to catch the last tram. I made a dash for
my hat and stick, and jumped out of the house and down the steps, and
tore at full speed up the street. It was no good, however; there was a
shriek of the engine whistle, and I stood there at the station door and
saw far on the long dark line of the embankment a red light shine and
vanish, and a porter came down and shut the door with a bang.

“How far to London?” I asked him.

“A good nine miles to Waterloo Bridge;” and with that he went off.

Before me was the long suburban street, its dreary distance marked by
rows of twinkling lamps, and the air was poisoned by the faint sickly
smell of burning bricks; it was not a cheerful prospect by any means,
and I had to walk through nine miles of such streets, deserted as those
of Pompeii. I knew pretty well what direction to take; so I set out
wearily, looking at the stretch of lamps vanishing in perspective; and
as I walked, street after street branched off to right and left,–some
far reaching to distances that seemed endless, communicating with, other
systems of thoroughfare; and some mere protoplasmic streets, beginning
in orderly fashion with serried two-storied houses, and ending suddenly
in waste, and pits, and rubbish heaps, and fields whence the magic had
departed. I have spoken of systems of thoroughfare, and I assure you
that, walking alone through these silent places, I felt phantasy growing
on me, and some glamour of the infinite. There was here. I felt, an
immensity as in the outer void, of the universe. I passed from unknown
to unknown, my way marked by lamps like stars, and on either band was an
unknown world where myriads of men dwelt and slept, street leading into
street, as it seemed to world’s end. At first the road by which I was
travelling was lined with houses of unutterable monotony,–a wall of
gray brick pierced by two stories of windows, drawn close to the very
pavement. But by degrees I noticed an improvement: there were gardens,
and these grew larger. The suburban builder began to allow himself a
wider scope; and for a certain distance each flight of steps was guarded
by twin lions of plaster, and scents of flowers prevailed over the fume
of heated bricks. The road began to climb a hill, and, looking up a side
street, I saw the half moon rise over plane-trees, and there on the
other side was as if a white cloud had fallen, and the air around it was
sweetened as with incense; it was a may-tree in full bloom. I pressed on
stubbornly, listening for the wheels and the clatter of some belated
hansom; but into that land of men who go to the city in the morning and
return in the evening, the hansom rarely enters, and I had resigned
myself once more to the walk, when I suddenly became aware that some one
was advancing to meet me along the sidewalk. The man was strolling
rather aimlessly; and though the time and the place would have allowed
an unconventional style of dress, he was vested in the ordinary frock
coat, black tie, and silk hat of civilization. We met each other under
the lamp, and, as often happens in this great town, two casual
passengers brought face to face found, each in the other an
acquaintance.

“Mr. Mathias, I think?” I said.

“Quite so. And you are Frank Burton. You know you are a man with a
Christian name, so I won’t apologize for my familiarity. But may I ask
where you are going?”

I explained the situation to him, saying I had traversed a region as
unknown to me as the darkest recesses of Africa. “I think I have only
about five miles farther,” I concluded.

“Nonsense; you must come home with me. My house is close by; in fact, I
was just taking my evening walk when we met. Come along; I dare say you
will find a makeshift bed easier than a five-mile walk.”

I let him take my arm and lead me along, though I was a good deal
surprised at so much geniality from a man who was, after all, a mere
casual club acquaintance. I suppose I had not spoken to Mr. Mathias
half-a-dozen times; he was a man who would sit silent in an armchair
for hours, neither reading nor smoking, but now and again moistening his
lips with his tongue and smiling queerly to himself. I confess he had
never attracted me, and on the whole I should have preferred to continue
my walk. But he took my arm and led me up a side street, and stopped at
a door in a high wall. We passed through the still moonlit garden,
beneath the black shadow of an old cedar, and into an old red brick
house with many gables. I was tired enough, and I sighed with relief as
I let myself fall into a great leather armchair. You know the infernal
grit with which they strew the sidewalk in those suburban districts; it
makes walking a penance, and I felt my four-mile tramp had made me more
weary than ten miles on an honest country road. I looked about the room
with some curiosity. There was a shaded lamp which threw a circle of
brilliant light on a heap of papers lying on an old brass-bound
secretaire of the last century; but the room was all vague and shadowy,
and I could only see that it was long and low, and that it was filled
with indistinct objects which might be furniture. Mr. Mathias sat down
in a second armchair, and looked about him with that odd smile of his.
He was a queer-looking man, clean-shaven, and white to the lips. I
should think his age was something between fifty and sixty.

“Now I have got you here,” he began, “I must inflict my hobby on you.
You knew I was a collector? Oh, yes, I have devoted many years to
collecting curiosities, which I think are really curious. But we must
have a better light.”




He advanced into the middle of the room, and lit a lamp which hung from
the ceiling; and as the bright light flashed round the wick, from every
corner and space there seemed to start a horror. Great wooden frames
with complicated apparatus of ropes and pulleys stood against the wall;
a wheel of strange shape had a place beside a thing that looked like a
gigantic gridiron. Little tables glittered with bright steel instruments
carelessly put down as if ready for use; a screw and vice loomed out,
casting ugly shadows; and in another nook was a saw with cruel jagged
teeth.

“Yes,” said Mr. Mathias; “they are, as you suggest, instruments of
torture,–of torture and death. Some–many, I may say–have been used; a
few are reproductions after ancient examples. Those knives were used for
flaying; that frame is a rack, and a very fine specimen. Look at this;
it comes from Venice. You see that sort of collar, something like a big
horse-shoe? Well, the patient, let us call him, sat down quite
comfortably, and the horse-shoe was neatly fitted round his neck. Then
the two ends were joined with a silken band, and the executioner began
to turn a handle connected with the band. The horse-shoe contracted very
gradually as the band tightened, and the turning continued till the man
was strangled. It all took place quietly, in one of those queer garrets
under the leads. But these things are all European; the Orientals are,
of course, much more ingenious. These are the Chinese contrivances. You
have heard of the ‘heavy death’? It is my hobby, this sort of thing. Do
you know, I often sit here, hour after hour, and meditate over the
collection. I fancy I see the faces of the men who have suffered–faces
lean with agony and wet with sweats of death–growing distinct out of
the gloom, and I hear the echoes of their cries for mercy. But I must
show you my latest acquisition. Come into the next room.”

I followed Mr. Mathias out. The weariness of the walk, the late hour,
and the strangeness of it all, made me feel like a man in a dream;
nothing would have surprised me very much. The second room was as the
first, crowded with ghastly instruments; but beneath the lamp was a
wooden platform, and a figure stood on it. It was a large statue of a
naked woman, fashioned in green bronze; the arms were stretched out, and
there was a smile on the lips; it might well have been intended for a
Venus, and yet there was about the thing an evil and a deadly look.

Mr. Mathias looked at it complacently. “Quite a work of art, isn’t it?”
he said. “It’s made of bronze, as you see, but it has long had the name
of the Iron Maid. I got it from Germany, and it was only unpacked this
afternoon; indeed, I have not yet had time to open the letter of advice.
You see that very small knob between the breasts? Well, the victim was
bound to the Maid, the knob was pressed, and the arms slowly tightened
round the neck. You can imagine the result.”

As Mr. Mathias talked, he patted the figure affectionately. I had turned
away, for I sickened at the sight of the man and his loathsome treasure.
There was a slight click, of which I took no notice,–it was not much
louder than the tick of a clock; and then I heard a sudden whir, the
noise of machinery in motion, and I faced round. I have never forgotten
the hideous agony on Mathias’s face as those relentless arms tightened
about his neck; there was a wild struggle as of a beast in the toils,
and then a shriek that ended in a choking groan. The whirring noise had
suddenly changed into a heavy droning. I tore with all my might at the
bronze arms, and strove to wrench them apart, but I could do nothing.
The head had slowly bent down, and the green lips were on the lips of
Mathias.

Of course I had to attend at the inquest. The letter which had
accompanied the figure was found unopened on the study table. The German
firm of dealers cautioned their client to be most careful in touching
the Iron Maid, as the machinery had been put in thorough working order.

For many revolving weeks Mr. Burton delighted Dyson by his agreeable
conversation, diversified by anecdote, and interspersed with the
narration of singular adventures. Finally, however, he vanished as
suddenly as he had appeared, and on the occasion of his last visit he
contrived to loot a copy of his namesake’s Anatomy. Dyson, considering
this violent attack on the rights of property, and certain glaring
inconsistencies in the talk of his late friend, arrived at the
conclusion that his stories were fabulous, and that the Iron Maid only
existed in the sphere of a decorative imagination.