by Thea von Harbou
The man before the machine which was like Ganesha, the god with the elephant’s head, was no longer a human being. Merely a dripping piece of exhaustion, from the pores of which the last powers of volition were oozing out in large drops of sweat. Running eyes no longer saw the manometer. The hand did not hold the lever — it clawed it fast in the last hold which saved the mangled man-creature before it from falling into the crushing arms of the machine.
The Pater-noster works of the New Tower of Babel turned their buckets with an easy smoothness. The eye of the little machine smiled softly and maliciously at the man who stood before it and who was now no more than a babel.
“Father!” babbled the son of Joh Fredersen, “today, for the first time since Metropolis stood, you have forgotten to let your city and your great machines roar punctually for fresh food. Has Metropolis gone dumb, father? Look at us! Look at your machines! Your god-machines turn sick at the chewed-up cuds in their mouths — at the mangled food that we are. Why do you strangle its voice to death? Will ten hours never, never come to an end? Our Father, which art in Heaven!”
But in this moment, Joh Fredersen’s fingers were pressing the little blue metal plate and the voice of the great Metropolis.
“Thank you, father!” said the mangled soul before the machine, which was like Ganesha. He smiled. He tasted a salty taste on his lips and did not know if it was from blood, sweat, or tears. From out a red mist of long-flamed, drawn-out clouds, fresh men shuffled on towards him. His hand slipped from the lever, and he collapsed. Arms pulled him up and led him away. He turned his head aside to hide his face.
The eye of the little machine, the soft, malicious eye, twinkled at him from behind.
“Goodbye, friend,” said the little machine.
Freder’s head fell upon his breast. He felt himself dragged farther, heard the dull evenness of feet tramping onwards, felt himself tramping, a member of twelve members. The ground under his feet began to roll; it was drawn upwards, pulling him up with it.
Doors stood open, double doors. Towards him came a stream of men.
The great Metropolis was still roaring.
Suddenly she fell dumb, and in the silence Freder became aware of the breath of a man at his ear, and of a voice — merely a breath — which asked:
“She has called. Are you coming?”
He did not know what the question meant, but he nodded. He wanted to get to know the ways of those who walked, as he, in blue linen, in the black cap, in the hard shoes.
With tightly closed eyelids he groped on, shoulder to shoulder with an unknown man.
She has called, he thought, half-asleep. Who is that… she…?
He walked and walked in smouldering weariness. The way would never, never come to an end. He did not know where he was walking. He heard the tramp of those who were walking with him like the sound of perpetually falling water.
She has called! he thought. Who is that: she, whose voice is so powerful that these men, exhausted to death by utter weariness, voluntarily throw off sleep, which is the sweetest thing of all to the weary — to follow her when her voice calls?
It can’t be very much further to the center of the earth.
Still deeper — still deeper down?
No longer any light round about, only, here and there, twinkling pocket torches, in men’s hands.
At last, in the far distance, a dull shimmer.
Have we wandered so far to walk towards the sun, thought Freder, and does the sun dwell in the bowels of the earth?
The procession came to a standstill. Freder stopped, too. He staggered against the dry, cool stones.
Where are we, he thought. In a cave? If the sun dwells here, then she can’t be at home now… I am afraid we have come in vain. Let us turn back, brother… let us sleep…
He slid along the wall, fell on his knees, leaned his head against the stone; how smooth it was.
The murmur of human voices was around him, like the rustling of trees, moved by the wind.
He smiled peacefully. It’s wonderful to be tired.
Then a voice — a voice began to speak.
Oh, sweet voice, thought Freder dreamily. Tender beloved voice, your voice, Virgin-mother! I have fallen asleep. Yes, I am dreaming! I am dreaming of your voice, beloved!
But a slight pain at his temple made him think: I am leaning my head on stone… I am conscious of the coldness which comes out of the stone… I feel coldness under my knees… so I am not sleeping — I am only dreaming… suppose it is not a dream? Suppose it is reality?
With an exertion of will which brought a groan from him, he forced open his eyes and looked about him.
A vault, like the vault of a sepulchre, human heads so closely crowded together as to produce the effect of clods on a freshly ploughed field. All heads turned towards one point: to the source of a light, as mild as God.
Candles burnt with sword-like flames. Slender, lustrous swords of light stood in a circle around the head of a girl, whose voice was as the Amen of God.
The voice spoke, but Freder did not hear the words. He heard nothing but a sound, the blessed melody of which was saturated with sweetness as is the air of a garden of blossoms with fragrance. And suddenly there sprang up above this melody the wild throb of a heartbeat. The air stormed with bells. The walls shook under the surf of an invisible organ. Weariness — exhaustion — faded out! He felt his body from head to foot to be one single instrument of blissfulness — all strings stretched to bursting point, yet tuned together into the purest, hottest, most radiant accord, in which his whole being hung, quivering.
He longed to stroke with his hands the stones on which he knelt. He longed to kiss with unbounded tenderness the stones on which he rested his head. God — God — God — beat the heart in his breast, and every throb was a thank-offering. He looked at the girl, and yet he did not see her. He saw only a shimmer; he knelt before it.
Gracious one, formed his mouth. Mine! Mine! My beloved! How could the world have existed before you were? How must God have smiled when he created you! You are speaking? What are you saying? My heart is shouting within me — I cannot catch your words. Be patient with me, gracious one, beloved!
Without his being aware of it, drawn by an invisible, unbreakable cord, he pushed himself forward on his knees, nearer and nearer to the shimmer which the girl’s face was to him. At last he was so near that he could have touched the hem of her dress with his outstretched hand.
“Look at me, Virgin!” implored his eyes. “Mother, look at me!”
But her gentle eyes looked out over him. Her lips said, “My brothers…” And stopped dumb, as though alarmed.
Freder raised his head. Nothing had happened — nothing to speak of, only that the air which passed through the room had suddenly become audible, like a raised breath, and that it was cool, as though coming in through open doors.
With a faint crackling sound, the swords of flame bowed themselves. Then they stood still again.
“Speak, my beloved!” said Freder’s heart.
Yes, now she spoke. This is what she said:
“Do you want to know how the building of the Tower of Babel began, and do you want to know how it ended? I see a man who comes from the Dawn of the World. He is as beautiful as the world, and has a burning heart. He loves to walk upon the mountains and to offer his breast unto the wind and to speak with the stars. He is strong and rules all creatures. He dreams of God and feels himself closely tied to him. His nights are filled with faces.
“One hallowed hour bursts his heart. The firmament is above him and his friends. ‘Oh, friends! Friends!’ he cries, pointing to the stars. ‘Great is the world and its Creator! Great is man! Come, let us build a tower, the top of which reaches the sky! And when we stand on its top, and hear the stars ringing above us, then let us write our creed in golden symbols on the top of the tower! Great is the world and its creator! And great is man!’
“And they set to, a handful of men, full of confidence, and they made bricks and dug up to the earth. Never have men worked more rapidly, for they all had one thought, one aim, and one dream. When they rested from work in the evening, each knew of what the other was thinking. They did not need speech to make themselves understood. But after some time they knew: The work was greater than their working hands. Then they enlisted new friends to their work. Then their work grew. It grew overwhelming. Then the builders sent their messengers to all four winds of the world and enlisted Hands, working Hands for their mighty work.
“The Hands came. The Hands worked for wages. The Hands did not even know what they were making. None of those building Southwards knew one of those digging toward the North. The Brain which conceived the construction of the Tower of Babel was unknown to those who built it. Brain and Hands were far apart and strangers. Brain and Hands became enemies. The pleasure of one became the other’s burden. The hymn of praise of one became the other’s curse.
“‘Babel!’ shouted one, meaning: Divinity, Coronation, Eternal, Triumph!
“‘Babel!’ shouted the other, meaning: Hell, Slavery, Eternal, Damnation!
“The same word was prayer and blasphemy. Speaking the same words, the men did not understand each other.
“That men no longer understood each other, that Brain and Hands no longer understood each other, was to blame that the Tower of Babel was given up to destruction, that never were the words of those who had conceived it written on its top in golden symbols: Great is the world and its Creator! And great is man!
“That Brain and Hands no longer understand each other will one day destroy the New Tower of Babel.
“Brain and Hands need a mediator. The Mediator between Brain and Hands must be the Heart.”
She was silent. A breath like a sigh came up from the silent lips of the listeners.
Then one stood up slowly, resting his fists upon the shoulders of the man who crouched before him, and asked, raising his thin face with its fanatical eyes to the girl, “And where is our mediator, Maria?” The girl looked at him, and over her sweet face passed the gleam of a boundless confidence.
“Wait for him,” she said. “He is sure to come.” A murmur ran through the rows of men. Freder bowed his head to the girl’s feet. His whole soul said, “It shall be I.”
But she did not see him, and she did not hear him. “Be patient, my brothers!” she said. “The way which your mediator must take is long. There are many among you who cry, ‘Fight! Destroy!’ Do not fight, my brothers, for that makes you to sin. Believe me: One will come who will speak for you — who will be the mediator between you, the Hands, and the man whose Brain and Will are over you all. He will give you something which is more precious than anything which anybody could give you: To be free, without sinning.”
She stood up from the stone upon which she had been sitting. A movement ran through the heads turned towards her. A voice was raised. The speaker was not to be seen. It was as if they all spoke:
“We shall wait, Maria. But not much longer!”
The girl was silent. With her sad eyes she seemed to be seeking the speaker among the crowd.
A man who stood before her spoke up to her, “And if we fight — where will you be then?”
“With you!” said the girl, opening her hands with the gesture of one sacrificing. “Have you ever found me faithless?”
“Never!” said the men. “You are like gold to us. We shall do what you expect of us.”
“Thank you,” said the girl, closing her eyes. With bowed head she stood there, listening to the sound of retiring feet — feet which walked in hard shoes.
Only when all about her had become silent and when the last footfall had died away, she sighed and opened her eyes.
Then she saw a man, wearing the blue linen and the black cap and the hard shoes, kneeling at her feet.
She bent down. He raised his head. She looked at him.
And then she recognized him.
Behind them, in a vault that was shaped like a pointed devil’s-ear, one man’s hand seized another man’s arm.
“Hush! Keep quiet!” whispered the voice, which was soundless and yet which had the effect of laughter — like the laughter of spiteful mockery.
The girl’s face was as a crystal, filled with snow. She made a movement as if for flight. But her knees would not obey her. Reeds which stand in troubled water do not tremble more than her shoulders trembled.
“If you have come to betray us, son of Joh Fredersen, then you will have but little blessing from it,” she said softly, but in a clear voice.
He stood up and remained standing before her. “Is that all the faith you have in me?” he asked gravely.
She said nothing, but looked at him. Her eyes filled with tears.
“You…” said the man. “What shall I call you? I do not know your name. I have always called you just you all the bad days and worse nights, for I did not know if I should find you again, I always called you only, you… Will you tell me at last what your name is?”
“Maria,” answered the girl.
“Maria… That should be your name. You did not make it easy for me to find my way to you, Maria.”
“And why did you seek your way to me? And why do you wear the blue linen uniform? Those condemned to wear it all their life long, live in an underground city, which is accounted a wonder of the world in all the five continents. It is an architectural wonder — that is true. It is light and shining bright and a model of tidiness. It lacks nothing but the sun — and the rain — and the moon by night — nothing but the sky. That is why the children which are born there have their gnome-like faces. Do you want go down into this city under the earth in order the more to enjoy your dwelling which lies so high above the great Metropolis, in the light of the sky? Are you wearing the uniform, which you have on today, for fun?”
“No, Maria. I shall always wear it now.”
“As Joh Fredersen’s son?”
“He no longer has a son… unless — you, yourself, give him back his son.”
Behind them, in a vault that was shaped like a pointed devil’s-ear, one man’s hand was laid upon another man’s mouth.
“It is written,” whispered a laugh. “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his wife…”
“Won’t you understand me?” asked Freder. “Why do you look at me with such stern eyes? You wish me to be a mediator between Joh Fredersen and those whom you call your brothers. There can be no mediator between Heaven and Hell who never was in Heaven and Hell. I never knew Hell until yesterday. That is why I failed so deplorably, yesterday, when I spoke to my father for your brothers. Until you stood before me for the first time, Maria, I lived the life of a dearly loved son. I did not know what an unrealizable wish was. I knew no longing, for everything was mine. Young as I am, I have exhausted the pleasures of the earth down to the very bottom. I had an aim — a gamble with Death — a flight to the stars. And then you came and showed me my brothers. From that day on, I have sought you. I have so longed for you that I should gladly and unhesitatingly have died, had somebody told me that that was the way to you. But as it was, I had to live and seek another way.”
“To me, or to your brothers?”
“To you, Maria… I will not make myself out to you to be better than I am. I want to come to you, Maria — and I want you. I love mankind, not for its own sake, but for your sake — because you love it. I do not want to help mankind for its own sake, but for your sake — because you wish it. Yesterday I did good to two men; I helped one whom my father had dismissed. And I did the work of the man whose uniform I have on… That was my way to you. God bless you.”
His voice failed him. The girl stepped up to him. She took his hands in both her hands. She gently turned the palms upward and considered them, looked at them with her Madonna-eyes, and folded her hands tenderly around his, which she carefully laid together.
“Maria,” he said, without a sound.
She let his hands fall and raised hers to his head. She laid her fingertips on his cheeks. With her fingertips she stroked his eyebrows, his temples, twice, three times.
Then he snatched her to his heart, and they kissed each other.
He no longer felt the stones under his feet. A wave carried him, him and the girl whom he held clasped to him as though he wished to die of it — and the wave came from the bottom of the ocean, roaring as though the whole sea were an organ; and the wave was of fire and flung right up to the heavens.
Then sinking… sinking… endlessly gliding down — right down to the womb of the world, the source of the beginning. Thirst and quenching drink… hunger and satiation… pain and deliverance from it… death and rebirth…
“You…” said the man to the girl’s lips. “You are really the great mediatress. You are all that is most sacred on Earth. You are all goodness. You are all grace. To doubt you is to doubt God. Maria — Maria — you called me — here I am!”
Behind them, in a vault that was shaped like a pointed devil’s-ear, one man leaned towards another man’s ear.
“You wanted to have the Futura’s face from me… There you have your model.”
“Is that a commission?”
“Now you must go, Freder,” said the girl. Her Madonna eyes looked at him.
“Go — and leave you here?”
She turned grave and shook her head.
“Nothing will happen to me,” she said. “There is not one, among those who know this place, whom I cannot trust as though he were my blood-brother. But what is between us is nobody’s affair; it would vex me to have to explain–” And now she was smiling again. “–what is inexplicable. Do you see that?”
“Yes,” he said. “Forgive me.”
Behind them, in a vault that was shaped like a pointed devil’s-ear, a man took himself away from the wall.
“You know what you have to do,” he said in a low voice.
“Yes,” came the voice of the other, idly, sleepily, out of the darkness. “But wait a bit, friend. I must ask you something…”
“Have you forgotten your own creed?”
For one second, a lamp twinkled through the room, that was shaped like a pointed devil’s ear, impaling the face of the man, who had already turned to go, on the pointed needle of its brilliance.
“That sin and suffering are twin sisters… you will be sinning against two people, friend.”
“What has that to do with you?”
“Nothing… or — little. Freder is Hel’s son.”
“It is he whom I do not wish to lose.”
“Better to sin once more?”
“To suffer. Yes.”
“Very well, friend,” and in the voice was an inaudible laugh of mockery. “May it happen to you according to your creed!”
The girl walked through the passages that were so familiar to her. The bright little lamp in her hand roved over the roof of stone and over the stone walls where, in niches, the thousand-year-old dead slept.
The girl had never known fear of the dead; only reverence and gravity in face of their gravity. Today she saw neither wall nor dead. She walked on, smiling and not knowing she did it. She felt like singing. With an expression of happiness, which was still incredulous and yet complete, she said the name of her beloved over to herself.
Quite softly: “Freder…” And once more: “Freder…”
Then she raised her head, listening attentively, standing quite still.
It came back as a whisper: An echo? No.
Almost inaudibly a word was breathed:
She turned around, blissfully startled. Was it possible that he had come back?
“Freder!” she called. She listened.
But suddenly there came a cool draft of air which made the hair at her neck quiver, and a hand of snow ran down her back.
There came an agonized sigh — a sigh which would not come to an end.
The girl stood still. The bright little lamp which she held in her hand let its gleam play tremblingly about her feet.
Now her voice, too, was only a whisper.
No answer. But, behind her, in the depths of the passage she would have to pass through, a gentle, gliding slink became perceptible: feet in soft shoes on rough stones.
That was… yes, that was strange. Nobody, apart from her, ever came this way. Nobody could be here. And, if somebody were here, then it was no friend.
Certainly nobody whom she wanted to meet.
Should she let him by, yes.
A second passage opened to her left. She did not know it well. But she would not follow it up. She would only wait in it until the man outside — the man behind her — had gone by.
She pressed herself against the wall of the strange passage, keeping still and waiting quite silently. She did not breathe. She had extinguished the lamp. She stood in utter darkness, immovable.
She listened: the gliding feet were approaching. They walked in darkness as she stood in darkness. Now they were here. Now they must… they must go past. But they did not go. They stood quite still. Before the opening to the passage in which she stood, the feet stopped still and seemed to wait.
For what? For her?
In the complete silence the girl suddenly heard her own heart. She heard her own heart, like pumpworks, beating more and more quickly, throbbing more and more loudly. These loud throbbing heartbeats must also be heard by the man who kept the opening to the passage. And suppose he did not stay there any longer? Suppose he came inside? She could not hear his coming, her heart throbbed so.
She groped, with fumbling hand, along the stone wall. Without breathing, she set her feet, one before the other, only to get away from the entrance, away from the place where the other was standing.
Was she wrong? Or were the feet really coming after her? Soft, slinking shoes on rough stones? Now the agonized, heavy breathing, heavier still, and nearer… cold breath on her neck. Then — nothing more. Silence. And waiting. And watching — keeping on the lookout.
Was it not as if a creature, such as the world had never seen — trunkless, nothing but arms, legs and head… but what a head! God — God in Heaven! — was crouching on the floor before her, knees drawn up to chin, the damp arms supported right and left, against the walls, near her hips, so that she stood defenceless, caught? Did she not see the passage lighted by a pale shimmer — and did not the shimmer come from the being’s jellyfish head?
Freder! she thought. She bit the name tightly between her jaws, yet heard the scream with which her heart screamed it.
She threw herself forwards and felt — she was free — she was still free — and ran and stumbled, and pulled herself up again and staggered from wall to wall, knocking herself bloody, suddenly clutched into space, stumbled, fell to the ground, felt… Something lay there… what? No, no, no!
The lamp had long since fallen from her hand. She raised herself to her knees and clapped her fists to her ears, in order not to hear the feet, the slinking feet coming nearer. She knew herself to be imprisoned in darkness, and yet opened her eyes because she could no longer bear the circles of fire, the wheels of flame behind her closed lids.
And saw her own shadow thrown, gigantic, on the wall before her, and behind her was light, and before her lay a man.
A man? That was not a man… That was the remains of a man, with his back half leaning against the wall, half slipped down, and on his skeleton feet, which almost touched the girl’s knees, were the slender shoes, pointed and purple-red…
With a shriek which tore her throat, the girl threw herself up, backwards — and then on and on, without looking round, pursued by the light which lashed her own shadow in springs before her feet — pursued by long, soft, feathery feet — by feet which walked in red shoes, by the icy breath which blew at her back.
She ran, screamed, and ran.
Her throat rattled, she fell.
There were some stairs… crumbling stairs. She pressed her bleeding hands, right and left, against the stone wall, by the stone steps. She dragged herself up. She staggered up, step by step… There was the top.
The stairs ended in a stone trapdoor.
The girl groaned, “Freder!”
She stretched both fists above her. She pushed head and shoulders against the trapdoor.
And one more groan: “Freder…”
The door rose and fell back with a crash.
Below — deep down — laughter…
The girl swung herself over the edge of the trapdoor. She ran hither and thither, with outstretched hands. She ran along walls, finding no door. She saw the luster which welled up from the depths. By this light she saw a door, which was latchless. It had neither bolt nor lock.
In the gloomy wood glowed, copper-red, the seal of Solomon, the pentagram.
The girl turned around.
She saw a man sitting on the edge of the trapdoor and saw his smile.
Then it was as though she were extinguished, and she plunged into nothing.